Monday, December 5, 2016

Advent reminds us how much God is interested in our lives.

It always puzzles me to read about how one of the most common arguments that atheists have is that we Christians have created a God who is a control freak and is an ultimate moral police hovering over our every action.  Preaching about the contrary each time I ascend the Ambo at Mass to tell my congregation that this is a toxic and very erroneous view of God doesn’t quite reach the ears of those who need to hear the message, largely because if you are an angry atheist who believes in such a toxic narrative of God, the last place I would find you at is in a pew at Mass.  Sometimes, I must confess, it does seem like I am preaching to the choir.

This is when I remind myself that this blog has a larger purpose.  It not only has the potential to reach people outside of my congregation, but it also has the potential to reach atheists who happen to be relations or friends of regular readers of my blog. 

The very act of creation attests strongly to how much God is interested in us.  Why else would he create if he did not care?  Of course, we have some anthropomorphism going on here when we say this, but given the limitations that we human beings have, it is the best we can do.  When we humanly create, be it with our artistic talents or creative skills, we do it for a multitude of reasons.  Our ego could want our names to be immortalized, or it could just be that inherent need to see something of ours lasting beyond our own physical years.  But because God is love, he has no ego as such.  All he does stems from what and who he is.  In Thomistic philosophy, there is no distinction between what he is and the things he does, unlike us.  His essence is his act, and his act is his essence.  So, if he is love, then all that he does is predicated on this fact.  No ego needs, no hidden agendas.

But this God of ours who created us is not one whom many atheists make him out to be.  He is certainly not as some Deists see him – akin to a clock maker who winds up the clock and then distances himself from the very thing he created and lets everything happen without his personal involvement.  The Christian understanding of God is so amazing that this God who created everything out of nothing actually does get involved in its working, and the incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas attests to just how involved he is.  The Te Deum prayer puts it succinctly that he “took our nature to save mankind and did not shrink from birth in the Virgin’s womb.”

Advent always invites us to look both ways - with one eye looking back at the tremendous mystery of the incarnation each Advent is a reminder to each of us that our God has always been so interested and so involved in his creation, and the other eye looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s plan at Christ’s second coming.

At this time of the year, there are often numerous efforts made by various organizations to reach out in a special way to the poor and underprivileged.  In my own parish, something that began as an effort to help a cancer patient (who is not a Catholic, but lives within the parish boundaries) with very little means to meet the cost of his medical treatment has snowballed into a major makeover of his entire home when it was discovered that his home, in which his elderly parents live as well, is in a state of disrepair and neglect.  Various people stepped in and in a couple of weeks, these three people will go back to their completely renovated apartment newly fitted with fixtures that will enable both the elderly and those requiring palliative care to live more comfortably. 

I am so proud to see that the community has rallied round to be involved in the lives of people outside of themselves.  When understood correctly, the incarnation is God’s entering into the messiness of our lives and bringing the needed help humanity had been longing and aching for due to our fallen state.  Unable to help itself, it had waited patiently for God’s merciful intervention.  If we but realise that our stepping into the lives of others gives them the hope the first Christmas gave all of humanity, God will be made present and manifest.  Advent not only makes Christmas real, it also makes Christmas possible.

There is a common resistance to want to fast track the waiting that Advent puts us through.  The shopping malls and streets are already shouting Christmas in late October, and the radio stations are blaring Christmas songs so much so that by 25 Dec, we have head then ad nauseam.  It is sad to see so many rushing to tear down Christmas decorations on 26 Dec, when we are actually at the true beginning of Christmas joy.  We seem to be unaware that the ennui of Christmas in the air is directly caused by our own inability (or unwillingness) to wait until Christmas to truly celebrate appropriately.  I wonder just how much of our own sadness and frustrations in life are similarly caused by our inability to wait for what should be waited for without fast-tracking due to our own impatience.  Delayed gratification, unfortunately, hasn’t been humanity’s strongest suit. 

God has always shown that he isn’t in any hurry.  Spiritual masters worth their wisdom are always imparting the need to live in patience and calm. 

At the first Christmas, God did not suddenly appear in the form of a fully-grown human being.  Instead, he came as a helpless tiny infant and this attests strongly to the truth that there is godly virtue in going through the challenges of human development. 

He wanted to be that involved in our human struggles.  Doesn’t this give us all great Advent hope?

Monday, November 28, 2016

When our ground quivers and quakes, what is our reaction?

I have just returned from a 12-day hiatus where I took a trip to visit with a brother priest in New Zealand.  It was my first ever trip to the land of the Kiwis and many surprises awaited me.  Many of them were very pleasant and some even had the ability to raise my otherwise regular and placid heart rate.  No, I am not referring to anything close to whitewater rafting or the craziness of bungee jumping.  I refer rather to the jolt and startle of a 7.7 magnitude earthquake that struck unceremoniously around midnight on the day I was in the city of Wellington, New Zealand.

I only felt about 5 seconds of the quake though some felt a significantly longer shake.  In some places, it had enough power to cause the authorities to issue a Tsunami alert to those who lived along the south coast of the North Island to seek refuge on high ground.  I was in such a place, and doing as we were told, moved to a safer higher altitude at 1am and stayed there till dawn.

Looking back at the whole event, I cannot help but view it through the lens of spirituality and how God speaks to us in and through the circumstances of our lives.  The spiritual writer and muser in me has a constant prompting to delve deeper at the things that affect us at the surface, opening up to the underlying truths and movements of that part of us which oftentimes are hidden even from ourselves. 

After about ten minutes after the quake, Fr Marcus my friend came rapping on my door to ask if I was fine.  I was very conscious of the fact that I was not in a state of panic nor perturbed.   It was only later on, upon reflection, that I compared it with receiving the news about three years ago from my doctor that I had cancer and that I was a Leukemia patient facing my mortality. 

When I shared this with some of my friends back home, they showed surprise that I could be phlegmatic about something so alarming.  While I must say that those who were in the same house were just as nonplussed, it could well be that being New Zealanders themselves, experiencing such jolts is not something novel.  But it came to me later on that our spiritual lives are really about a call to be ready for events and news that can cause the ground beneath our feet to move, albeit sometimes in a literal sense.  While it is not possible to prevent these from happening in our lives, the fact that we have built our houses on rock will put us in good stead when they show up on the horizon of our lives.
What makes the best firmest of foundations that one can have in life?  The Christian answer has to be one that is steeped in the belief that God loves unconditionally.  What’s God’s love got to do with it? I can almost hear a silent collective response to what I just wrote.  It has everything to do with it.

A big part of most peoples’ struggle with God and spirituality comes when something terrible and anxious occurs in life.  All of a sudden, the fact of our Christian belief that God is love is abandoned and forgotten, and the doubts begin to loom large in the minds of many.  The unspoken (and erroneous) thinking is that if God is love, there should not be any anxieties and adversities in our lives.  But if we are clear about God being our paramount lover, it has to also mean that nothing can happen in life that will displace nor dilute this redoubtable truth.  Faith is, after all, the belief that nothing is beyond the ken of God.  Prayer isn’t giving God a report of what has happened in life (as if he had been clueless all along), and prayer certainly is not about telling God what needs to be done in and to our lives.  Faith is about handing our lives in confidence into the hands of God over and over again, and giving God our greatest deference – not because he needs it, but because we need to. 

It was largely because I had already consciously done this with my life way before the leukemia came along, that I was so at peace when my doctors told me I was facing possible death.  I am certain that it was also because of this right ordering that allowed me to experience the earthquake with such composure. 

The reason I am sharing this with my readers is not as a boast of my faith, but to encourage every one of you to place just as much emphasis and priority in God if you want a similar unshakeable foundation in life.  Sure, insurance companies also offer us security when our world is shaken, but those types of assurances are limited and limiting.  Because God is infinite, so are his assurances.  Both assurances have premiums, but in the latter case, the only premium we pay is to align and orientate our lives toward him and his love.  Redemption is the premium that had been paid by God himself on Calvary.  The converted lives making up our ‘premium’ may be considered too high because we are overly concerned with what we think will limit our loves, our freedom and our ego-needs. 

It was surely no coincidence that only a few days later in another town in New Zealand that I went to the restroom and facing me on a wall above the toilet was a poster that said “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor”.  Apparently, it is attributed to Franklin D Roosevelt.  As far as our faith life is concerned, neither does a life free of adversities and sufferings make us deep people of faith.  It is faith that allows us to welcome and live with the challenges of life. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

The closing of the Year of Mercy doesn't close our hearts to mercy.

The Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis will come to a close on 20 November this year.  In terms of publicity and awareness, there has been quite a lot of traction gained, and credit has to be given to the social media for bringing to all and sundry that one of the ways through which the Catholic Church wanted to her members to encounter the mercy and love of God was through the declaration of such a Jubilee year.

Has mercy been understood better by us Catholics as we lived out the Year of Mercy this year?  I’d very much hope so.  After all, if we really think about it, it is really God’s mercy that will finally give us the ability to experience the eternal joys of heaven at the end of our earthly lives.  None of us is ever going to be in heaven’s eternal embrace simply by our having lived spotless and faultless lives.  John Bradford, an English Evangelical preacher who lived in the mid 16th century is known to have written this pithy statement that has been somewhat immortalized – there I go but for the grace of God.  It sums up pretty well what all of us should always remember – that if not for God’s grace (and mercy), there is nothing that we can personally do to gain us entry into the halls of heaven’s eternity. 

Have there been ways that we may have misunderstood God’s mercy and thereby not having practiced mercy ourselves?  Perhaps.  There are many ways in which mercy and forgiveness is either used as a weapon against our adversaries, or when it is beheld in fear instead of awe and love.  Of course, much of it is done in ignorance, but they probably find their roots in the ways that we ourselves have been conditionally loved and accepted in our younger days, causing us to do the same when it came time for us to be the face of mercy and forgiveness when we are asked for it later in life.

Here are some of the ways in which we have perhaps wrongly understood mercy:

1) When we believe that the hurt has to stop before it is met with forgiveness.

When we are hurt or betrayed by anyone, it is almost intuitive that we find ourselves withholding any form of pardon or forgiveness until we are convinced and assured that we will not be hurt again.  While this kind of logic does seem sensible, it really isn’t gospel.  What is gospel after all, but the good news that Jesus came to forgive us our sins when we were still mired in them.  Jesus did not wait for us to be sorry for our sins or to be assured that we will not sin again before dying to save us.  By being mindful of this act of supreme grace by God, we then need to extend this to our brother and sisters who are hurting us.  When does an unfaithful spouse need to be forgiven?  Precisely when he or she is unfaithful.  Yet, many spouses withhold their forgiveness and mercy from their straying spouse until they stop their philandering ways.  But if they do stop their ways, wouldn't what caused the hurting actions in the first place also have stopped?  There wouldn’t be a need to forgive and show mercy then, would there?  By then they would have already undergone a conversion of heart.  It is precisely when the hurt is at its worst that the forgiveness will also be most needed.  Much like the way the salve goes on the wound when it is still raw and bleeding and only after a keloid has formed, and much like the life vest is needed when a victim is drowning and not when he is back on dry and, we need to see that wanting to forgive only when the hurt stops may be akin to a cancer patient telling the doctor that he or she will only go for the chemotherapy treatment after the tumor is no longer there. 

2)   Mercy given needs to be an extension of mercy received.  We can’t give what we haven’t got.

The goodness that we extend to others does not only come from the storehouse of goodness that we have in ourselves.  Our understanding of the primacy of grace means that the goodness that all the good that we can and should do is always only in response to the goodness that we have first received from God. 

The same principle applies to mercy given to others by us.  If we find ourselves being calculative, scrimpy and frugal in extending mercy when it is asked of us, it most likely is because we have failed to see just how lavish and utterly generous God has been with us.  If we truly appreciate just how mind-blowing the parable of the Prodigal Son/Father is of the revelation of the lavishness of God’s forgiveness and mercy, and have experienced it ourselves through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it has to result in us being similar channels of mercy to others.  This gives good reason for every one of us to constantly go back to the Scriptures to re-appreciate and encounter the depth and counter-logic of God’s mercy to be able to be witnesses of mercy ourselves.

3)   Be prepared to be hurt.  Again and again.

Much as we want to be protective of ourselves against repeated hurt and anguish in life, it simply is not possible.  This is because life is not something that is hermetically sealed and sterile, but organic and dynamic.  Human relatedness itself, being steeped in life, is always open to interpretations and perceptions, and as a result, wounding as well.  Mercy is never going to be a one-time affair on this side of eternity.  As our lives are ever evolving, so too are our being exposed, vulnerable to sin, misunderstandings and struggles in relationships. 

Faith allows us to see these not as stumbling blocks but stepping-stones – to further growth and knowledge of others and of ourselves.  Faith also enables us to appreciate our differences in community as means through which we become better people.  I like to give the analogy of the science of lapidary.  Lapidary, or the art of polishing of gems and stones, uses friction to achieve its aim.  One of the simplest and least expensive ways of doing this is through the use of a tumbler and abrasives.  Here, the unpolished gems in their raw and unattractive form are placed in a barrel of a tumbling machine with other stones and the barrel is tumbled for a long period.  The very action of each stone rubbing and causing friction against each other in a constant tumbling action is what causes the surface of each stone to be polished and smoothened, resulting in the gems worthy to be used as jewelry and fashion accessories, making them more precious, beautiful and appealing then when they were first found in nature.

Our spiritual lives are to be lived in such a way as to bring out the best in us and our fellow pilgrims in life, which is one of the ways we need to appreciate community life.  Mercy is a prerequisite if we want to shine in the eyes of God.  Community, when lived in love, is then our pathway to true holiness, and through our interaction with each other, we polish each other to shine in beauty in the eyes of God.

With the Year of Mercy coming to a close soon, it would be prudent to relook at the ways that we may have misunderstood mercy and used it to harm rather than to heal.  Seize the opportunity to be bathed anew in the grace of God that is being lavished on us through the Jubilee.  Some people have asked me what the Holy Father is going to declare the next year to be.  I don’t think it should matter much because if mercy is at the heart of God, it never should end even if it the jubilee does.  In the depth of winter, the frozen river may give the appearance that everything has stopped moving and living, but the flow of the river beneath the layer of ice still continues, with life still teeming under the hard and seeming lifeless surface.  So too must mercy be the flowing undercurrent of our Christian lives even though Pope Francis officially closes the Year of Mercy on November 20.  Mercy, and the call to be merciful simply must not have a use-by date, because God’s love and mercy is eternal.  We simply gave this dimension of God’s love added emphasis this year.

The closing of the doors of mercy all over the world should never close any of the doors of our hearts to those who need to see Christ and his unconditional love in us. 

Nota bene:  I will be away on a short break to gain some mindfulness and peace for the coming two weeks, giving this weekly blog a hiatus as well.  I pray that my time away will give me renewed dedication to my blogging endeavours as I am finding it much of a challenge to come up with meaningful topics for reflection week after week.  My next post should resume after I return, energised and refreshed on Monday, 28 November.  God bless you, and may you all live holy lives.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Our Christian belief in unmerited salvation can and should be our greatest foundation in life.

With the end of year academic examinations looming on the horizon for many of Singapore’s school-going children, there is a palpable tension and anxiety felt by many, often including the parents of the children as well.  It is a common joke/lament that it is not only the children who have the exam stress, but so do their parents. 

Exam anxiety and stress – whence is its origin?  By and large, it is an inevitable product of a society’s progress.  A country mired in the issues of mere survival and foundation-setting often have other pressing matters more directly related to physical survival.  Think of countries like Vietnam in the 70s when the most pressing matter was to find ways to escape the communists.  Studies?  We will deal with that once we have a life to live, and a country in which to live.  Current day equivalents are countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.  One wonders if children are educated at all in war-torn countries.

But when a society begins to progress and find some stability and peace, this is where education also begins to be one of the more fundamental ways in which to grow the people.  Singapore has come a long way since its quiet, fishing-village status to her meteoric rise to economic greatness now as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.  Along with such progress comes side or spin-off effects.  Especially in a country which prides itself in espousing meritocracy, where the adequately skilled with ability and talent earn or merit their right to succeed, the narrative in many minds would be that nothing less that the best scores and grades will be deemed acceptable.  The upside of this mentality is that those who have the necessary drive and determination, coupled with the smarts and natural born abilities get to become the so-called captains of industry.  But as is the case, there are many of the others who also ‘fall through the cracks’.  The truth is that not every person has the talents or skills to succeed in all that they do.  It is just not possible for everyone to be on top. 

Problems will arise when there is an unreasonably heavy emphasis on success, merit and achievement.  One’s worth and one’s dignity then easily become mired with the attainment of such goals, and when there is the experience of failure or defeat, perhaps even just due to the dynamics of the natural grading curve, one begins to see oneself either devalued or no longer with much worth.  It is thus not uncommon to read about how tragic it is that young children, as young as 10 or 11 have resorted to suicide as they cannot bear to face their parents with a red mark on their examination scores.  If for their entire lives, the affirmation and value that their parents had been giving them were largely based on the good grades that they had been bringing home, once these grades are not achieved, the child could well perceive that he or she has lost his or her reason for existence. 

The Christian teaching that every human being has a God-given value and dignity inherent in his very person shores one up against this toxic reasoning.  Revealed as Good News in the scriptures is that God has made us out of love, with love and for love, and that is the basis for believing that every human person, regardless of whether one is intelligent, beautiful, shapely and talented, or one is unintelligent, having physical features that are generally deemed unpleasant, humongous in size or lacking in skills, has just as much dignity and value as the next person.  Christians who are well taught from young that God has given them the very reason for their existence and hence their inherent dignity have a reasonable defense against the children that a success-obsessed culture that meritocracy can spawn. 

There is no meriting heaven for the Christian.  One cannot earn it, one cannot buy it, and one definitely cannot work for it.  It is pure gift and pure grace.  One only responds to it with love, at every moment of one’s life.  In a meritocratic society, Christianity’s good news is counter intuitive and perhaps even counter cultural.  While society tells us that there is no free lunch, Christianity says that there is an eternal banquet that is to be entered into that no one can earn or work for.  Meritocracy says that you only get what you deserve and achieve, Christianity says that the greatest goal in life (heaven/salvation) is given precisely because you don’t deserve it and cannot achieve it on your own, no matter how hard you try. 

Is there a downside to this?  Well, if one takes this gift for granted and doesn’t respond to it by a converted life and wanting to live in grace, one becomes a counter-witness to the beauty and truth of the Gospel.  But if one reflects on it regularly, delighting and relishing in the gift of not just life but a saved life despite oneself, one lives with a confidence that nothing should shake or rattle. 

We become holy and good not in order to attain God.  It is because God is holy and good that we become likewise.