Beyond the Series Part 2: A Joy-filled Christmas in 2020

Beyond the Series Part 2: A Joy-filled Christmas in 2020

“Our joy springs from the truth that our Savior was born. We shouldn’t let any outside circumstance or event steal that joy from us.” In this article, Pastor Paolo Punzalan shares how we can make this year’s Christmas celebration more meaningful.

 

What is one of your family’s favorite Christmas traditions? How has this tradition been affected by our current situation?

We have several Christmas traditions. Putting up the Christmas tree is one of the most important for us as a family not just because it signals the start of the celebration, but because it’s a memorable family event every year. It’s a walk down memory lane. The first thing we put on the tree is the first ornament Jen and I had as a married couple. The kids grew up knowing the story behind that ornament. Then each one that would follow has its own story. It reminds us of God’s faithfulness throughout the years. Another important tradition is reading the Advent story. When the children were young, we used a storybook, but now we use the passage from Luke. Then we take turns sharing our insights. This year, one of the insights shared was God’s very precise timing. If God can make sure that light from a star would travel years in advance so that people during Christ’s birth would see it at that exact moment, we can be sure that God can bring His perfect timing for everything in our lives. It’s so amazing to hear how God speaks to them through the story; it’s different every year.  It’s also our tradition to buy toys and goodies and make loot bags. We drive around the city to give them to street children. It’s our way of teaching our children that Christmas is about giving, not just receiving.

  

How are you making this year’s Christmas celebration exciting and meaningful for your children? How would you want them to remember Christmas 2020?

We aren’t really doing anything different this year. We may not have as many guests at home and have shifted our gatherings to online platforms, but it’s still the same. This year, we did not do the usual loot bags, but we gave to the relief operations for those affected by the recent typhoons. The method may have changed, but what we are doing and why we are doing them remains the same. We also did not do the usual advent where we would invite several people in our home, but we had it online. In fact, we just had one for our village. Circumstances around us may change which may result in changes in the manner we celebrate Christmas, but the spirit behind this celebration will never change.

In one of my Christmas gatherings this year, I asked everyone, “Given the choice, would you have rather had a different 2020?” Personally, my answer to my own question is yes and no. Yes, because we couldn’t have physical gatherings, people lost jobs, and went through so many challenges. This has been a faith-stretching year for everyone. But at the same time, this year brought unprecedented growth. The growth in terms of relationships in families, dependence on God, and faith to believe that even if you no longer know what to do, you are certain that God is right there with you and He will act on your behalf. In spite of everything that we lost this year, there was also a lot we gained. I would not want to lose all that.

 

With everything that has happened this year, how can we, as Christians, celebrate this season and at the same time make it meaningful to others who may be going through a difficult time?

It’s a fact that 2020 took a lot from us. But what it has given us is clarity. Crisis creates clarity, and what this year made clear to us are the most basic yet the most important things. Yes, Christmas this year has been stripped down to the smallest of gatherings, but it should not take away our joy. This year clarified the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is based on events, on things around us. On the other hand, joy runs deeper. Our joy springs from the truth that our Savior was born. We shouldn’t let any outside circumstance or event steal that joy from us. At the same time, we also acknowledge that all of us went through so many challenges and most of us are having a difficult time. I think celebrating this season with a joy that comes from a grateful heart—reflecting on all the little things we’ve taken for granted in the past years—would make this Christmas season more meaningful to us and to those around us.

 

Pastor Paolo serves as the senior pastor in Victory Fort and has been married to Jenn for 25 years. Together with their four children and growing family, they continue to serve not just in the church, but also in their community. 

Beyond the Series is a set of interviews on topics related to our sermon series.

A Change of Heart

A Change of Heart

We do not have to earn God’s love because He has already chosen to love us first. Here is a story of a man who became part of a church to pursue love, only to realize that Love Himself had been pursuing him. 

 

I grew up thinking that I had to earn the love of God. Being the eldest of seven children, I grew up with the pressure that I had to always do the right things and be responsible. Somehow, there’s a fear in my heart that if I fail to do what’s right, God will get angry and reject me. Knowing that I do not always do the right thing and that I’m not as patient and forgiving as I need to be only made me feel frustrated and alienated from God.

In 2007, I met a woman who attended Victory. Having the mindset that love is something I had to earn, I did things that I knew she would appreciate, considering that I had a different religion. I joined the same church and became part of a Victory group even though my heart was not really in it. I went to church only because my mind was set on pursuing someone, not knowing that I was there because God was set on pursuing me.

I started noticing something different from the people I met in church. I saw real joy and peace in their lives. I saw a group of people who were committed to obey God, and it did not seem like a heavy chore for them. They were obeying God not out of obligation or fear of being rejected and punished, but out of love. The testimonies I was hearing and everything I was learning in the Victory group made me curious to know the God they were talking about. When I heard the teaching about loving your enemies, praying for them, and blessing them, I was shocked. It was not only a new concept; it seemed unfair, unacceptable, and even unwise. It was then that I started seeing God’s heart.

I realized that God had already chosen to love me even if I had not done anything to deserve it. He loved me first, and He loves me unconditionally. I can stop trying to earn God’s love because He has freely given it to me. Knowing this truth released me from a very heavy burden. I wanted to know this loving God and experience Him in my life. In spite of the knowledge that my decision would not be taken lightly by my family, I turned away from the religion I had grown up in and surrendered my life to Jesus. I completely trusted Him for the strength to face everything that I knew I would go through.

As expected, it was very difficult, but I saw God’s hand move in my situation. I experienced the joy and peace that do not depend on circumstances but on a relationship with God. I enjoyed the blessings that come from belonging to a church community. The challenges I faced brought me and Luzebel, the woman I had initially pursued in church, closer. We got married six years after I became a Christian. Although I did not see my parents for some time because of my decision to follow Christ, they had a last-minute change of heart and attended our Christian wedding. Now, they welcome my weekly visits, and I am praying that they would also experience God’s great love.

My wife and I have now been serving God together for seven years. In all the challenges we have faced, we carry with us the assurance that the love that drew us near to God will also cause us to triumph. His love will never fail.

. . . and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts . . .

Romans 5:5

Mazhar is a high school teacher and serves as a volunteer in Victory Zamboanga. 

Let God’s Peace Reign

Let God’s Peace Reign

Will you allow a difficult situation to steal the peace in your heart? See how April, one of our campus missionaries, held on to God’s joy and peace in the midst of a trying situation. Read her story here.

 

In our family, I was the first one to become a Christian. I grew up in a broken home, and there was so much bitterness in my heart before I came to know Christ. When I accepted Him as my Lord and Savior, I realized how much I needed Him in my life; He accepted me and made me whole. I can always have peace in my heart because I have God’s joy, peace, and love.

In April this year, however, something unexpected happened in our family; my mother had a stroke. My stepfather had passed away just a few years back, so seeing my mother in that state took a heavy toll on me. Our situation threatened to take away the joy and peace in my heart.

But it failed.

Amid our family’s plight, God held my hand and reassured me that He is with me—no matter what. Though it was unexpected and I was the only one who could look after my mother who was in the ICU at that time, God never made me feel alone. He provided everything we needed and used people to help us overcome what happened. There was miraculous recovery. There was provision.

And there was peace.

God revealed to me that I could be still in the midst of a storm. More than the provision for my mother’s medical expenses and her fast recovery, it was God’s peace that really carried us through. It overflowed not just in my heart, but even in my mother’s, too.

While recovering, my mother would frequently join me in the worship services of Victory Santa Cruz. She would dance and praise God even if she could only move her left hand. She would always be filled with so much joy despite her condition and impaired speech; she never had self-pity. And though struggling, she would always make an effort to raise her hand during ministry time. Her heart was always overflowing with God’s grace and love.

Now, my mother is still on her way to recovery, but we are beyond blessed and grateful for God’s peace. Every waking day is a challenge, but His peace always sees us through.

When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul. Psalm 94:19

God is our lone source of peace. When pressed with life’s problems, we can seek God and allow His peace to reign over our situation—no matter how difficult it is. He leads our soul to a place of calm and rest. We can go through each day knowing that we have a God who is King over our lives.

Renewed with a Purpose

Renewed with a Purpose

When you find yourself plagued with anxious thoughts, will you keep them all to yourself and retreat to a dark, lonely pit? Or will you turn to God and ask Him to silence all your fears? In this article, Franz shares how he accepted Christ in his life and allowed Him to replace his negative thoughts with overflowing joy, peace, and a renewed purpose.

 

Before I met Christ, I thought I was living a good life. I was an average student, but I managed to land a good career. I had the means to go to different places and live a life of adventure. I should be happy—I should be okay, at the very least.

But I wasn’t.

For years, there had been a big hole in my heart. I tried to fill it with so many things, but each time I did, the hole just grew bigger. It engulfed me and brought me to a dark, lonely place.

Feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy kept creeping up inside me in spite of everything I had. It seemed as if something was terribly wrong with me. I kept comparing myself to others, feeling completely helpless over something even I could not understand. Before I realized it, I was already isolating myself and allowing the lies in my head to steal the remaining joy and peace in my heart.

After four months of constant battle and struggle, I consulted a psychiatrist who told me that I had clinical depression. I took several medicines that were supposed to make me feel better. But along the way, I just felt more sad. I could no longer sleep the way I used to, and more anxious thoughts filled my mind.

Just when I was about to lose hope and give up, my sister reached out to me. She, along with other relatives, encouraged me to step out of my isolation shell and helped me find another doctor who gave me the psychotherapy and medication I truly needed. After months of praying for and with me, she also convinced me to go to church with her and join a Victory group.

At first, I just listened to the preaching without taking everything to heart. I even raised my hand to acknowledge that I receive Christ as my Lord and Savior without meaning it at all. But as I continued to hear God’s Word, something different happened. I did not know that God was gently planting seeds in my heart. He was, bit by bit, taking away the clutter, removing the things that were blocking His light. Soon, I realized that I was not alone in that dark, lonely, chaotic pit. He was there all along, trying to reach my hand.

All my anxious thoughts were slowly replaced with His overflowing joy, peace, and love. Despite all my insecurities and self-doubt, God accepted me just the way I was. He had accepted me wholeheartedly even before I made a decision to receive Him in my life. There was nothing more humbling than that.

God’s love allowed me to see how precious I am in His eyes. It must have crushed His heart to see me give my negative thoughts the power to dictate my value and purpose. That was never His plan. His mercy and grace revealed to me that I am more than my fears and anxious thoughts. I am more than my insecurities. I am more than my depression. I am His.

With the help of continuous medication and psychotherapy, I am now close to full recovery. I am thankful to my family who helped me get the medical attention I needed, but I am more grateful that I got to know Christ. Now, I have a renewed passion to live—with a greater purpose—and serve my God.

I am currently serving in Victory Alabang as an usher. God’s grace has changed me from someone who spent days and nights wallowing in unhappy thoughts into someone who is ready to give out smiles to people. Every day, He continues to fill me with so much joy and peace.

There are days when I feel lonely and all the negative thoughts resurface, but God always silences my fears and assures me of His love—of my identity in Him. He also surrounded me with a church community that never fails to encourage me and point me to the Lord. He is my safe place and my true refuge.

I will say to the Lord, My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust. Psalm 91:2

Indeed, only God can fill the emptiness in our hearts. Only He can quiet our restless thoughts. Our purpose does not lie in how we feel or what we think about ourselves. Our purpose lies in how God sees us. We are His, and He values and loves us more than we or other people do.

Stepping into His Light

Stepping into His Light

The Lord calls out His children from darkness to light. He can transform a person’s life, no matter how hopeless, empty, and messy it may seem.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9, ESV)

*Joy, a college student who attends our church in Metro Manila, recounts how God brought light into her life.

 

Molestation and sexual violation are tragic events that I never thought would happen to me. I was molested by my stepfather, the person I thought would be my confidant and protector. When our family went through a difficult season, my stepfather became addicted to drugs and that drug brought us to the darkest times of my life.

At that point, I was devastated and angry. I also blamed myself for what happened. I thought, “If I did things differently in the past, I would never have experienced this.” My world turned black and no one ever understood what I went through. I was just waiting for my life to end because it felt like I was left with nothing.

Experiencing freedom in this painful battle of my life was hard, but not impossible. One of my friends invited me to a Victory group where I met Jesus. I survived the pain with the knowledge of God’s love toward me. I understood that no amount of tears or effort on my part could change what happened to me, but God can set me free and I can hold onto His promise of a good plan for my future.

Through my encounter with Jesus and the counsel of leaders in church, the darkness in my life turned into light. I also felt that a huge weight on me was lifted. From that time on, my perspective changed and I learned to appreciate my life even more. I became happy.

For those who also experienced what I went through, be strong and build your life on God’s truth. In Christ, we can do all things and overcome challenges. Don’t let your obstacles and past experiences limit you from experiencing joy. We have to deal with our past. It may be hard, but it’s worth a try. Jesus says in Matthew 5:44, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Prayer and the will to move forward are the keys to start a new path together with Christ our Lord. Jesus is our confidant and protector.

 

Joy now joyfully serves her family and our church. She decided to extend grace to the offender and forgive him. Before Joy came to know Christ, she was very distant toward her family. Now, she desires to bless them as she works while taking up a business course as a scholar. She dreams of managing a restaurant someday. As she continues to live her new life in God, she actively participates in a Victory group and volunteers in our campus ministry.

 

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the woman in this article. The featured photo is a royalty-free image and does not represent her.