Monday, August 3, 2015

What indeed is our great Christian advantage when we find life a challenge?

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

Fr Luke

Monday, July 27, 2015

The great Christian challenge to love even our enemies

There is a wide range of teachings and life dictums that each disciple of Christ is called to embrace and emulate, even if one finds great difficulty in doing so.  The call to be generous, charitable, forgiving, and loving are just some that easily come to mind. 

While many of these are found to be similar teachings in other religions, there are some which are particularly Christian in character, and can pose a great challenge to even the most seasoned and long-practicing Christian disciple.  One particularly exigent dictate of Jesus is that we love our enemies.

There is within each of us, almost as if it is in-built in our human existence, a tendency and predilection for retaliation and an almost antithesis to be charitable when we face some form of disagreement, opposition or strident opinion from interlocutors.  The stronger one feels about an issue, the greater the disquiet one will feel welling up in the pit of one’s very being when there is disagreement, conflict of opinions or worse, when one is ridiculed and scoffed at.

When this happens, tensions inevitably rise within us, and our defense mechanisms take over if we are running on ‘auto’.  Scientists who study human social behaviour have noted that in each of us, there is a ‘flight or fight’ response that each of us chooses in the face of attacks and threats, be these physical or just intellectual.  Perhaps it is something that we have inherited from our pre-evolved ancient ancestors that we still have this thing called the ‘reptilian brain’ that wants to attack back, fight to gain more ground, or to be taken seriously and respected.  However we may want to explain it, when we are faced with such ‘threats’ in our lives, it becomes a great strain to live out this teaching of Jesus, where we are called to love those who are deemed our ‘enemies’.  Our natural animal instinct is to have that last word in an argument, to put down our opponents, and to be defensive.

How did St Paul manage to bless when he was ridiculed, endure in the face of persecution, and respond with gentleness when slandered?  We just have to read 1 Cor. 4:12-13 to see this. 

Maybe the key has something to do with the ability to live outside of our petty selves.  Charity makes it clear that there is a need to enter into the world of the other, and love at its most pure and unsullied calls us to love for the sake of the other.  It is when we hold this foremost in our minds that we will be able to step out of ourselves to enter into the world of our dissenters that some headway can be made toward loving our enemies.

It becomes almost unnatural to want to step into the shoes and lives of the enemy when confronted by violence and negativity.  Yet, this is the counter-intuitive directive that Jesus requests of his followers.  Natural instinct does not want us to bless these people, and neither is there an in-born tendency to treat them with gentility.  It takes superhuman power to do this, and to do this with genuine intent. 

Indeed, it is superhuman power that we are given when we rely on the power of Christ and his Holy Spirit to live this way.  Relying purely on our own goodness and kindness, we know that our storehouse of such attributes have limited supply. 

I must admit that I struggle with this as much as the next person.  When my best intentions are doubted, when the genuineness of my actions are questioned, or worse, when I am falsely accused and critiqued with unfair bias, that reptilian brain of mine seems to go on auto-mode.  But one thing I have noticed is that when I am aware of being in a state of grace that I am able to attune myself to the person of Christ and turn myself over to him in love and rely on his mercies.  This becomes a far greater difficult thing to do when the state of grace is lost. 

This reptilian brain does not die just because one is living in Christ.  Would that it does.  But what can begin to happen is that we start to live with enlarged hearts that allow us to enter into the hearts of others, even those of our enemies.  It is when our hearts beat in tandem with theirs, no longer in frenetic syncopation but with calm and synchronicity, that we can begin to truly love our enemies because in them we will begin to see our own selves. 

Could this be what enabled Jesus to forgive not just his executioners on Calvary’s cross, but all sinners through all time?  His compassionate heart was so enlarged, so expanded that he saw goodness in all of broken humanity.    

Monday, July 20, 2015

Why pursuing the perfect is a stilted notion

I’m currently re-reading a book entitled ‘The Spirituality of Imperfection’, a work which was co-authored by two lay people, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.  It was one of those books I had stashed away in my collection of books, some which were given by well-meaning friends who either knew of my predilection for books with a particular spiritual bent, or who were sympathetic toward my perfectionistic flaws in life.

This one was given to me by a long-time priest friend of mine even before I entered the seminary.  I remember asking out loud why he thought I needed to read this book, but was only given a knowing smile as a reply.  I guess it took me almost 20 years of life’s experiences and challenges to not only see that my perfectionist streak in me was already somewhat visible back then, but also to see that the very notion of perfection is an imperfection itself – a paradox indeed.

What makes us human beings such strange rational animals to have such notions as perfection in life?  In the animal kingdom, the pursuit of perfection is hardly evidenced.  There seems to be an almost imperceptible acceptance of the way things are to these ‘lesser’ beings around us who walk on two legs and have rational minds.  The very beauty of nature seems to almost have to include imperfections so that beauty is seen in its splendid array.  Imagine how dull and uninteresting any landscape would be if every blade of grass, and every tree was symmetrical and straight.  Yet, it is precisely from such a varied array in nature’s existence that we see its beauty emerge.

Apparently, the way that the rational mind views life and how ideas or notions of perfection affects it has something to do with whether we have a Greek or a Hebrew mind.  The Greek mind has very clear definitions of what it means to be perfect.  It includes but isn’t limited to ideas of having no deficiencies and is devoid of flaws and faults.  One has in one’s mind the notion of an ideal to be reached, however unattainable, and it is applicable to all that is true and beautiful as well.  If one extends this to the moral world, then it would have to include a notion of being sinless or as free from sin as possible. 

But the Hebrew mind, apparently, has a very different understanding of perfection.  It has something to do with being able to walk with God, despite our having flaws.  It includes the notion of being present to Presence, and to accept to a certain extent, the reality that there is beauty, goodness and truth in things that are not quite perfect. 

This story, which follows, brings to light the apparent contradiction of the two minds:

The chief executive of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive.  But he suffered from one embarrassing weakness:  each time he entered the president’s office to make his weekly report, he would wet his pants!

The kindly president advised him to see a urologist, at the company’s expense.  But when he appeared before the president the following week, his pants were wet yet again!  “Didn’t you see the urologist as advised?” enquired the president.

“No, he was out.  I saw the psychiatrist instead, and I’m cured,”  said the executive.  “I no longer feel embarrassed about it!”

Clearly, the Hebrew mind was given scope and breadth to live in harmony with something as flawed as such a bad case of incontinence. 

At the priests’ annual retreat, which we came out of last week, one of the things that we were brought to appreciate is that there are stark differences between the presence of problems and the presence of mystery in life.  The Greek mind deals with problems with an almost German-like precision.  Problems require solutions, and issues need fixing.  The Greek mind does this, and does this with aplomb and sangfroid.  But the spiritual quest that the rational animal (read us human beings) is invited to cannot be seen as a problem that needs fixing.  We are not broken people that are in search of mending, and neither are we imperfect creatures seeking some sort of restoration and rectification.  In fact, it is the very fact that we ARE alive that decries our flawed existence and imperfections.  As human beings, we do not “have” limits; we ARE limited and this shows that we are alive.  It is when this reality of our shared limitation is denied and viewed with some repulse that we suffer in our spirituality.

There’s another difference between the minds and their dealings with what lies before them.  If the presence of problems require solutions that fix them, the presence of mystery cannot be answered with the same mind.  Gabriel Marcel, the noted French philosopher said that if problems require solutions, mystery requires not a solution, but rather invites a response.  To think that mystery requires a solution is a problem in itself.

Imperfections, like illness, like psychoses when treated only as problems can only give us relief to a certain extent.  But it is when its presence in life is seen as mystery and invites not so much a solution but an entering into a response with our lives and the whole of our being that gives us the ability to live with these imperfections and flaws on another level.  Solutions tend to make the issue go away, but responding to mystery with our entire lives allows us to live WITH them in harmony despite their imperfections.

When Jesus asks us to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, it is not perfection in the Greek sense.  It is the perfection of having that breadth of love of the Father who gives his love equally and without bias whatsoever so that his rain ‘falls on the just and unjust alike’.  It is the ability to walk with God, in the cool of the evening as at the beginnings of creation, without needing to hide from him at all, bearing, perhaps even with a tinge of honest pride, our flaws and imperfections. 

That would make things perfectly imperfect.  An oxymoron?  Go figure.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Where our spiritual pursuits are unlike the pursuits of endurance athletes.

When Ed Ceasar, an author of a recently released book entitled Two Hours contemplated the reasons why endurance athletes like marathon runners train so hard for something that is obviously torturous and perhaps even mundane and to a certain extent masochistic, he offered a few tenable and cogent reasons for such pursuits.  He proffers that this kind of training forces one to fight distractions, that one is in a sedentary position for too many in a day, that there are a plethora of entertainments available, that in some countries even the shopping comes delivered to the door, there are too many mechanized means of transportation which make us use our legs too infrequently, and that our churches are empty.

I found it rather amusing to think that if one were to play the familiar game of ‘one of these things are not like the other’ made famous by the creators of Sesame Street, that last reason would be most likely to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. 

But Caesar goes on to explain why he makes the connection with church attendance.  When one compares team sports with endurance sports, the differences are quite clear, and it can be evidenced in the language that is used.  In team sports, one speaks of winners and losers, of strategies, and even of campaigns.  In team sports, results are paramount.  However, Ceasar suggests that the drive and purpose of endurance sports have an unseen quieter and more spiritual register.  For instance, mountaineers speak of  “peaking” which is a blissful sensation that accompanies that arduous trek up to a summit.  He also speaks of how marathoners run in achievement of what he calls a ‘state of grace’.  Apparently, sports psychologists use this word to describe the state in which the runner performs with an unconscious ease.

Having been an avid long distance runner in my healthier days (read pre-cancer), I can fully understand what these psychologists are referring to.  Some have called it a runner’s ‘high’.  When Caesar spoke to Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan marathon king who clocked an amazing 2.03.02 in the 2011 Boston Marathon about his training regime, Mutai said that “the more you get the spirit, the more it gains on you”. 

The interesting thing about such endurance training or sports is that it answers the human being’s need to test ourselves and to see where our limits are.  Endurance athletes, Caesar says, are people who seek to address our identity through a narrative, which is acted out in feats of fortitude and courage.  Perhaps it is because most people have hardly been given the vocabulary that facilitates an insightful discussion of the state of our souls, that it becomes far easier to do this through the experience of this ‘state of grace’ and attaining it with the efforts that one puts in. 

As I read his article, which I chanced upon in a recent copy of the Financial Times, I couldn’t help but make the spiritual connection here.

Is the spiritual life and the quest for it something that is difficult and challenging?  Of course.  Does one have to be constant and consistent in its practice?  Most definitely.  Is it an arduous and grueling exercise at times?  As sure as the Pope is Catholic.  But spiritual masters have always cautioned that in one’s spiritual odyssey, one has to also undergo a shaping and an evolvement as far as one’s motivations are concerned.  The initial ‘grace’ that these endurance athletes seem to be constantly in search is apparently, the prime motivation for their continued pursuits.  Many are constantly going for the ‘runner’s high’.   But this is where the two pursuits differ.

Spiritual maturity and development may or may not begin with any taste of such a ‘high’, however it may be described.   If one simply goes from one spiritual retreat to another, or moves from one spiritual exercise to another in order to attain an experience that one was graced to have at some time in the past, one can well be far too concerned to get the experience of God instead of encountering the God of the experience. 

Endurance athletes are not in the training to relate to the one who gives them this ‘grace’ even though they may loosely use this spiritual term.  But I am wondering if one can ever be truly be indifferent to how this experience even originates or exists. 

The spiritual endurance athlete doggedly pursues his practices with dedication and constancy, not so much in order to gain any highs, but must have as his prime motivation the sustaining of a connection to God who he sees as the foundation of his very existence.  For the one who does this in the Christian tradition, that foundation is the endless and energizing love that flows out eternally from the persons of the Trinity. 

The clearer one is of this in one’s life, the more one will see that all other pursuits are but commentary.