Monday, March 19, 2018

To the many Elect who are going to be a part of the Body of Christ this Easter – welcome to the imperfect Church.

Each year on Easter Saturday night and on Easter Sunday itself, thousands all over the world become baptized Catholics after their journey in the RCIA process (Rite of Christian Initiation).  Every person has his or her own personal story of their journey into faith, and some have even taken to the social media to really put it ‘out there’, loud and proud, that they are so happy that they have taken that step to respond to the grace that called them to conversion and baptism. The primacy of Grace ensures that no one person really takes the first step to conversion, as it is always the Grace of God that starts the process of conversion.  Otherwise, it could give one the false notion that one’s own motivations and goodwill is sufficient for our ultimate union with God in heaven.   Baptism is a very special moment in any person’s life, because it is a public testimony that his or her life had reached a turning point, and they see a great necessity to declare Jesus as their savior and Lord. 

But something is also very commonly experienced in these Neophytes after their baptisms.  Like most marriages, there is the honeymoon phase where one wakes up after the wedding day to a lovely experience and it is so easy to be in love.  While on this blissful vacation period, life is good, largely predicated on the fact that things are done for you.  You don’t lift a finger and your room gets cleaned merely by hanging a “please make up room” when you leave it.  The air is delightful to breathe in and there is no need to work.  Things are going swimmingly well.  The fantasy that money creates seems to be working.

Then the honeymoon ends and reality lands with a thud.  To want the honeymoon all the time is not reality.  To expect that things are going to be this way as you live the challenges of a shared life with someone outside of yourself is a sure way to recoil in the shock that this may not be what you were married for.  The same sentiments can be equally applied to coming into the Church at baptism.

As much as one is baptized into the Body of Christ, one is also baptized into an imperfect and broken Church.  A healthy understanding of the term Body of Christ is essential to all Christians of all denominations, but of supreme importance particularly to the Catholic Church mainly because this term is layered, very nuanced and the appreciation of some of its deep implications often only emerge much later in one’s being a part of it. 

There is no such thing as a private baptism.  To be sure, films have often portrayed baptisms to be private affairs, where one single baby is brought to the font with the adoring eyes of the family members looking on wistfully.  But this actually runs contrary to the reality that this baby is baptized into a community, and that it really does take that proverbial village to raise a child.  The baptism of a group of babies or adults gives a much better sense of the reality that one is entering a community. 

The phrase “Body of Christ” is perhaps best known to be used as a synonym for the Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.  But this is only one of the many ways that this phrase is used by the Church, although supremely so for the Eucharist.  John’s gospel has a very interesting Greek word used and this is the word sarx.  Essentially, sarx is not a perfect, spotless and pristine body that doesn’t get decayed and sick.  There’s another word in Greek that refers to a body that is good and neutral, with nothing pejorative or negative.  That would be soma.

John’s understanding of Community was deep and rich, and the fact that he had Jesus use sarx to describe his body is clear that as long as the Church on earth is still on the way to their heavenly glory, it is always going to be one that isn’t perfect, gritty at times, filled with hypocrites and self-centered folk, with the ability to be injured and who can in turn injure others, make mistakes, have lots of sinners who struggle with holiness, and in a word, pretty messed up.

The RCIA process or journey may not show the church with its flaws and imperfections, though I have known some catechists who do prepare their catechumens to expect a less-than-perfect church.  As much as we are a redeemed Church, we are also a group of pilgrims bound for heaven with some running with the stamina of a Kenyan marathoner, and some dragging their feet and shuffling along. 

My great concern goes out to the Neophytes who will find this out the hard way – when the reality of a flawed church dawns on them, and they feel either hoodwinked, let down, and walk out. 

Remember -  the God who is incarnated is one who has repeatedly said that anyone who says that he or she loves an invisible God in heaven and is unable or unwilling to meet with, encounter and live in community with a visible brother or sister on earth is as good as a liar because no one can love a God who cannot be seen if he or she is unwilling to love a neighbor who can. 

Would that it be that each member of the Body of Christ is to the Body as the Eucharist is – giving wholeness, forgiving, nourishing, sanctifying and life-giving.  This is the quest for holiness that each person making up this Body should be striving for.  It’s probably not a matter of ‘if’ you, dear Neophyte, gets to see the Church and her flaws.  It’s a matter of ‘when’.  But to leave is going to be the worst thing that you can do for yourself because no one gets to heaven alone.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Have you ever heard yourself say “I don’t like the God of the Old Testament”? This blog is for you.

I was leading a Day of Recollection over the weekend and I opened up some time for questions and answers.  One of these questions was something which isn’t really a new issue, but one that quite a few people seem to struggle with.  It usually goes like this - “the God of the Old Testament seems to be a different deity from the one that is portrayed or revealed by Jesus in the New Testament.  Why is this so?  Are there two different Gods portrayed?”    

Variations of this are statements like “I like the God of the New Testament, but I don’t like the God of the Old” or “God in the Old Testament is hard and demanding but Jesus shows God as merciful and loving”.  I’ve even heard one which says that “God in the Old Testament seems to have a need to smite people, but he seems to have stopped that in the New Testament.  He is a changed God”.  I often smile at statements like that last one, because saying that God has changed simply denies one of the most fundamental attributes of God that he is immutable. 

I have issues with these statements, even if one uses the phrase “appears to be” as a caveat for such statements made about God, largely because the questioner only takes selective verses from the Bible to support what they are saying, and often fail to do what is so important – read Scripture from a birds’ eye view and see Scripture as a collection of many books, written by particular individuals who were inspired by God.  Each had a particular encounter with God and each encounter needs to be seen as God revealing himself slowly and progressively. 

Just as there are statements or verses in the Old Testament that do show God’s wrath, anger, jealousy and predilection for a good smiting of his recalcitrant people, there are also numerous Old Testament references that show otherwise.  Nehemiah 9:17 reminds us that God is one who forgives, and who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.  Turning to Psalm 36, 69 and 17 will show that God’s people also saw him as God who compassionate, taking us in the shelter of his wings and Isaiah also highlighting God’s hesed, which is Hebrew for lovingkidness. 

Moreover, with tender images of God being the caring shepherd who tends to his sheep, a potter giving shape to and moulding clay, or that he is the rock of their salvation and a mother nursing a child at her breast, how can one say that the Old Testament images of God are only ones that show a wrathful and petty God?

So, it really isn’t true at all that the God portrayed in the Old Testament is so unlike and so different from the God who Jesus reveals in the New Testament.  What we must not forget is that from the time before the New Testament existed in its written form, the early Christians already believed that their faith in Jesus was rooted, based and steeped in the writings of the Old Testament.  So Jesus himself read and prayed the Hebrew Bible and he was certainly not oblivious to the God who is portrayed there.  This was the same God who he continued to worship and love as his beloved Father.   

The idea that Scripture is a meandering and slow revelation of God

Just as God writes straight with crooked lines in our lives, so too does he reveal himself to human beings in scripture.  Each of the prophets and writers of the Old Testament books had different facets and dimensions of God’s attributes and reality, like the way a diamond from different angles refracts different shades of brilliance, colour and light. 

Waywardness has consequences

It is undeniable that many of the prophets’ roles in the Old Testament were to be messengers of punishment.  But this conveyed a reality that all our actions, particularly those that were blatant flouting of God’s directions and instructions, had consequences, with some being more dire than others.  As much as God is a God who is full of mercy, God is also a God who is also the fullness of justice.  That Jesus only preaches and reveals a God of love who is going to permit anything and everything reveals not only a very shallow reading of Scripture, but a very selective one as well.  Parables like the rich man and Lazarus, the ungrateful steward, and Matthew 25 are rich portrayals of a truth that there are serious consequences that await those who are not willing to love their neighbor deeply.  I’m afraid that the God whom Jesus reveals isn’t the divine pushover that so many make him out to be.

God gives his people chance after chance to repent

The role of the prophets wasn’t only to be prophets of doom.  They were also called to show the merciful and tender side of God as well.  The call to repentance of his sinful people need to be seen as a revelation of his love as well.  In the Genesis story, the fact that the writer shows God making clothes to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness is his way of showing that God doesn’t just eject them from Eden with nary a care or concern.  The image of God as a Divine Couturier is a very tender one indeed.   As much as disobedience has consequences, it doesn’t in any way make God uncaring and in any form of a snit.

The ‘problem’ could be more ours than it is God’s

There is a Latin phrase that goes ‘quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur’, and it translates into modern day parlance as “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver”.  Could the problem of seeing God only as vengeful and wrathful be because we who read the scriptures have a predilection to be such ourselves, projecting onto God these negative traits and magnifying them, and in that way, justifying our own shortcomings? 

In truth, there are no two different Gods in both testaments.  They are one and the same, and overemphasis on either his mercy or his justice, with one at the expense of the other, will end with either a fickle God, a pushover God, or one who is simply a control freak. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

The place that motivation has in our spiritual lives.

There is a plethora of motivation videos and talks available on the internet these days.  It used to be that one had to pay quite a princely sum to attend motivation talks by experts in the field.  Nowadays, with the advent of media like YouTube, talks on motivation can be accessed gratis, and there are a wide range of such talks, from the very engaging ones to those who could do with the help of some motivational gurus themselves. 

When one deliberately searches for such material, one often has to sift through a sea of what is available, and could be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.  Sometimes one stumbles on a gem without even trying, and when one is found, it makes the find all the more sublime and meaningful.  I had this happen to me this week when I was looking at some video interviews of chef David Chang, known in the foodie world as the owner of a noodle bar in New York called Momofuku, which has morphed into quite an empire with restaurants in other cities like Toronto, Washington DC, Las Vegas and Sydney.  My interest in him was piqued when I came across a series of food documentaries titled Ugly Delicious (the strange 'benefits' of post-operation convalescence time).  Apparently, he has two Michelin Stars to his name.  You may be asking what an American-born Asian chef have to do with a spiritual blog.  Well, in one of these interviews, a reporter asked him why he was on the search for chefs who feel the integrity of what they are doing.  His answer was so interesting because he shared that at some point in his life, he actually started caring, and wanted to do a good job at this (cooking), following this by saying “life is too short to be bad at something”.  If you watch the video, you can see David going deep into his inner self to put into words what he truly believed before giving that answer to the reporter.  It was something he truly believed in.

Seeing this was like seeing grace at work, and grace being responded to.  Even though what he was referring to can be considered banal, earthy and insignificant (cooking), we mustn’t limit grace to only things that are spiritual and eternal.  After all, we see in the person of Chef Chang someone who is not just a maker of a meal, but someone who is flourishing, someone at the top of his game, and someone extremely motivated, and someone certainly very engaged.  If he was lackadaisical, if he was just contented to passively place a cooked bowl of ramen haphazardly put together in front of a patron at his eatery, he wouldn’t be where he is now.  It was as if a light went on in his head/heart when he realized that life is too short to be bad at something.

More and more, as a carer of souls for the Church, I see the great urgency for my congregation to truly own their faith, to be invested and to be engaged.  However, the fruits at motivating them seem to be progressing at the speed of flowing molasses, but I have to respect the fact that conversion is primarily an act of grace, and not predicated on human action.  The conversion stories that I have come across are very often those where the life of the person became awakened, where there was a ground-shift, like as if a bulb suddenly lighted up, and they could, because of this ‘enlightenment’, see the folly of their former ways.  It’s as if scales suddenly fell from their eyes, not unlike Paul of Tarsus.  Addicts of various types began to see just how destructive their addictions made them to not only those who loved them, but to themselves.  Adulterers who had previously been unable to grasp how their affairs had broken their marriage vows could see they were somehow selfish in ways that they never did before.  Like David, grace allowed them to see that life is too short to be bad at something.

Perhaps part of the problem with many of us is that we take the reality that our lives have a ‘use-by’ date with a lot of levity.  After all, mortality rates are declining worldwide with the advance in medicine and science, giving many the mistaken notion that we can side-step and cheat death indefinitely.  But that is a lie we must never believe in, even as we do our best to live healthier lives.  Even if we live to be nonagenarians or centenarians, this would amount to just a flash compared to eternity that we have when we breathe our last.  Indeed, life is too short to be bad at anything, what more at life itself?  

Delaying our response to true conversion further and further away from us may be seen to be a good thing, especially if we have a strong belief that a converted and authentic, engaged and personally invested life is one that will see us not being happy and missing out on parties and fun, when in fact the opposite is true – that when the blinkers are lifted and we are responding to grace, our happiness becomes much more genuine and our love becomes purified, and we are able to see the folly and shallowness of the delights which the temporal world promises.  It’s not that parties are no longer fun, but we will see that our locus isn’t only fixed on our pleasure-centres.  The truly integrated person is able to discern the different levels of pleasure and delight, and can differentiate between shallow pleasure and deep and lasting joys.

Our prayer should always include the desire to be responsive to the grace of God that constantly invites us to cooperate with Him, to be motivated by Him, resulting in our entire lives not just existing passively, but truly engaged, giving us the ability to flourish and like Chef David, be at the top of our game.  Only difference being that it is not our game, but God’s.