Two Saturdays ago was a very special day for me. It marked 2 years since the very day of my stem cell transplant, which allowed me a second chance in life through a complete replacement of my cancer-ridden stem cells. It has been a slow recovery, but also a very remarkable one. The fact that I am back into regular parish life after the transplant and recovery ordeal speaks volumes about how grace had been at work, and still is very much at work in my life. Each day sees me being filled with gratitude to both God and my stem cell donor Peter Mui, for this re-boot in life and to see that life is pure gift, and nothing that we deserve on our own merit.
Up to this day, I get asked about how I felt when I was told that I had a serious cancer. These may not be cancer patients themselves, but I can see that their sense of curiosity comes not from a mere inquisitiveness, but also a certain longing to have some semblance of the strength that I was somehow endowed with to be so accepting and calm when I was told about my illness and threat to my life.
While I couldn’t and still cannot pin point what it was that allowed me the strength at that time, I know that I could only attribute it to my sustained relationship with God which went back many years before. It was certainly not something that suddenly came upon me in an instant. In my witnessing and sharing, what I often stress is the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with God through dedicated prayer and constant walk in faith. It is not something that comes overnight, and neither is it something that is easy and automatic by any means. If saints had struggled with this all through their lives, where does that leave us mere mortals who have so many other distractions that pull us away from leading a dedicated prayer life? I certainly cannot hope to have it easier than those many men and women who have had their struggles.
Today’s blog entry is not about how one should make inroads into building that strong prayer foundation. It would certainly be pompous for me to think that I can teach anyone how to begin having a meaningful relationship with God in just one blog entry, when this has been the hope of many a spiritual author and guru.
But what I intend to do is to perhaps clear away some of the misconceptions of what our spiritual lives does provide us, and address what I would call ‘wishful thinking’ in the life of anybody who wants to make that serious walk in faith with Christ.
There are many who have the notion that when a person has a strong relationship with Christ and are walking closely with God, that few things should happen in one’s life that could hint of a suffering, or disadvantage or anything that is similarly negative. Many do have the notion that when one’s prayer life is in order, when one is living in anything that resembles a state of grace, that one’s experiences of happiness, joys and health should be apposite experiences as well. The truth may be surprising, and even startling if we take Jesus’ own experiences as our model and guide. There is no stronger basis to start an in-depth discussion about this than to begin by looking at the very life of Jesus.
When Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, he was clearly assured by the Father that he was his beloved son, in whom he was well pleased. What greater sign of blessedness could one receive than to be affirmed and declared as ‘beloved’ by God himself? This must have given him a great assurance that God ‘had his back’ as the Americanism goes.
But it is when Jesus enters into the desert to experience his temptation in there, and opens not just his eyes but his entire life to the challenges that real life poses through the temptations which he encounters that he begins to understand what pedigree in the highest order actually imparts. It begins to dawn on him that pedigree is not so much about what advantages it gives or makes one entitled to, but how much strength a real and deep understanding of identity accords.
It was after his experience of spending 40 days in the desert that scripture tells us that Jesus was hungry. What was he hungry from? Certainly it meant more than just a physiological hunger. There was an inner emptiness that must have made him question if he was really, as the voice from heaven declared, a ‘beloved child of God in whom he was well pleased”. Connected to this questioning must have been the three temptations that were posed to Jesus at this vulnerable point in his life.
The first temptation was that of an advantaged pedigree and what it should provide – an experience of never having any needs unmet. The devil, in asking Jesus to turn stone to bread was in a roundabout way tempting Jesus to live out a life of entitlement and privilege. But Jesus’ answer showed that one can be blessed by God and loved by him, and still experience life’s emptiness in certain areas. It should not rock our world when we suffer.
The second temptation sees the devil tempting Jesus with what David Brooks would call the advantages of the Big Me, where one’s fame and inflated sense of self and the ego should make one feel glorified and not an unknown. In turning away from the second temptation, Jesus was saying at a deeper level that it is ok to be an unknown, and not have the ‘kingdoms of the world’ because one’s love of self and confidence cannot be due to one’s worship of anything short of God himself, and certainly not through the worship of the prince of lies.
The third and final temptation has a similar thrust and tenor. It actually reminds us to not put God to the test, as the devil quotes God as saying that his blessed one would not ‘dash his foot against a stone’.
When we think that just because we are in a right relationship with God, and as such, that our lives should have some divine privilege to not experience any lack, not have any discomforts, not be having sufferings and hardships, and perhaps linked with the third temptation, to be able to have some sort of VIP hotline and privileged special access elevator to God and his goodness, we have missed the point of our spiritual disciplines and dedicated orderings in life. Ronald Rolheiser put it so graphically when he said that in denying the challenges to throw himself off the top of the temple to prove his specialness, Jesus was in fact saying to the devil: “I’ll take the stairs down, just like everyone else!”
Yes we are blessed in life, and our baptism does bestow this blessedness in all of us. But our lives can and probably will also include many instances of seeming emptiness, bodily longings, hardly any experienced of life’s privileges. We are still truly the beloved of God. It is this fundamental knowledge that enables us to accept and go through life’s trials with our heads held high, rather than the opposite, where just because we are God’s beloved, that life should be void of such afflictions and adversities.
Upon reflection, I realise that this is perhaps what gave me the grace-filled ability to be so accepting of my prognosis and subsequent diagnosis of a life-threatening illness looming on my horizon. It is my hope that this same confidence be yours as you too become more steadfast and constant in your own walk with God in life.
It is also with God’s grace that this blog entry marks the 299th one in my blog’s almost six years of sustained existence. The next entry is my 300th. I sometimes do find myself running dry of what to write and ruminate on, and am seriously thinking of closing this blog after the next one. Can I please ask that you pray with me for some indications that I should press on and continue past the 300 mark? The reason I have been able to be so constant in my reflections has to be because I believed that I could minister through this media, but I am wondering if readership is shaping lives and attitudes toward God and life. I know it has mine, but I am also hoping that it has done something similar to yours, my regular reader. I am just a bit-player in cyberspace where our messages of what is truly life-giving compete with other things that attract with more enticing trimmings and thrilling delights. 300 just seems like a nice number to stop at. What are your thoughts, I wonder.
Your priest in cyber-space