Monday, October 16, 2017

When it comes to matters of faith, seeing may not be believing.

As a pastor of souls, I am very concerned about what influences and affects the minds and hearts of the people.  After all, each one of us has our opinions and thoughts often shaped and influenced by what we are exposed to, whether passively or in a deliberate way.  Sometimes, it is what is being shown to us in a passive way that sends subliminal messages to our sub-conscious, and this easily ends up being a huge influencer of our thoughts and beliefs.

This thought occurred to me at the strangest of times – from a few moments that I paid attention to a soccer match a couple of nights ago when Liverpool was playing Manchester United in the English Premier League.  It wasn’t the match per se, though the outcome was a goalless one and rather lackluster.  Rather, it was what I saw emblazoned across the front of the jerseys that were worn by the home team of Anfield stadium.  The words were “Seeing is believing”. 

When I saw that, my inner theologian became rather disturbed, and there was a legitimate reason for this.  It is no secret that millions of dollars are earned and spent by advertisers of products at such sporting events.  This is because the viewership is immense. Singapore is half the world away from the Anfield Stadium.  Yet, we got to watch what went on, ‘live’.  This also means that millions the world over get to set their eyes on the ongoings of the match, and this includes the many advertising images that flash on the moving billboards as well as what is printed on the soccer players’ football jerseys.  I believe that lives are influenced by what is presented, even in a subliminal way.  This message that “seeing is believing” is not new.  It is also something that many atheists have brandished in the face of religion.  However, this message has a toxicity that mitigates against true belief.

In our pursuit and practice of our faith, seeing is not believing.  In fact, just on the level of language and logic, seeing doesn’t invite nor elicit belief.  If you see something, it becomes a fact.  Facts do not need belief.  For instance, witnessing a chick emerge from an incubated egg does not require one to activate any degree of belief that chickens come from eggs. 

But when it comes to matters of faith, sight does not necessarily result in belief.  100 years ago, in Fatima, Portugal, a miracle happened in front of an estimated 100,000 people.  The sun reportedly ‘danced’ in the sky, something that was promised by Our Lady to the three shepherd children she appeared to.  However, even when seeing such a miracle take place, there were still people who did not become believers. 

If faith is dependent and contingent on seeing, doesn’t necessarily go deep.  It could stop one from another necessary aspect of faith, which is to instill wonder and being in awe.  It can also stop one from developing faith, fostering it to grow, simply because one is satisfied and no longer thirsty and longing.  Did not Jesus himself say to Thomas after the resurrection, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  This must be greatly encouraging for the great majority of us simply because we are people who have not seen.

I was wondering what product was sponsoring this “Seeing is believing” slogan that was being shown to the world for 90 minutes on the chest of those Liverpool players.  I thought it would be some corporate giant with a huge budget for advertising.  I was wrong.  It turned out to be Liverpool’s support of “World Sight Day”, which was observed just 4 days before the match.  “World Sight Day” apparently raises awareness for partial blindness, which affects around 285 million people worldwide.

While I must admit that the intention to alleviate the plight of preventable blindness is indeed noble, but as a theologian and priest, I also do hold the strong opinion that seeing cannot be equated to belief.  Case in point – remember how much controversy was stirred over the social media when a dress was shown and the question asked what colour it was?  Some saw it as gold and black, while others saw it as gold and white.  Did people see it?  Yes.  Did they agree to what they saw?  Obviously not.  Seeing itself may not lead to the reality.  Apparently, now the world is going to be set into another tizzy over the colour of a pair of shoes.  Wonders never cease.

When it comes to faith, which should be the ground of our being, seeing is not believing.  We need to be clear that belief is not seeing.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Selflessness and sacrifice is the only way gun laws in America has any chance of change. And that’s why things will most likely stay the same.

Last week in Las Vegas, the world was once more horrified by another mass shooting in America, where 58 people were murdered and more than 500 left wounded, making it the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

As expected, it opened once again the debate of gun laws, with those who are pro-guns defending their right to own guns, and citing the fact that it is not guns that kill people but people who own guns.  America does seem to be in a quandary that simply will not be settled because as much as there exists a sizeable number of Americans who are opposed to gun ownership, there will be large numbers of Americans citing the coveted Second Amendment, which establishes the right to keep and bear arms. 

I am not an American.  I am a Singaporean who lives halfway across the globe from America, and I am sure that like me, there are many who are non-Americans and who come from countries where there are very strict gun laws and who are unable to fathom how it is that even though mindless shootings occur with such alarming regularity, causing such mayhem and carnage, that the pro-gun populace just cannot seem to soften their stand on their right to bear arms.  While I do understand that a gun left in the drawer, a safe or in a locked cabinet will certainly not cause anyone death or injury, it is undeniable that it is the fact that there are firearms within reach in the first place that makes any shooting possible. 

As I reflected on the entire issue, it became clear to me that it is not just an arms issue.  At the heart of it, it is really an issue of rights.  As long as Americans are brandishing the ‘rights’ placard in the face of their fellow Americans, there will be no change in the gun situation.  Modern America has always prided itself as the nation of the free, where citizens are protected by their rights.  It does seem then that the only way this issue needs to be broached is to have individuals to be willing to give up their own rights, for the sake of the greater good.  This doesn’t change the constitution, but it changes the way citizens live with the constitution.

The skeptic in me (or the realist, depending on how one looks at it) knows that this is never going to happen, at least not in the next few generations.  When Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life, he is also saying that in him is the key to the peace that he brings.  What Jesus embraced is not rights nor any semblance of entitlement either.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians pithily states that he ‘assumed the condition of a slave, and became as men are”, and that “he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross”.  Herein is probably the only way this issue of gun ownership is going to be resolved.  It is in not clinging on to one’s rights, even though one has those rights.  In fact, it is in relinquishing one’s rights that this will find some resolution.  That Jesus “emptied himself”, and saving the world by this kenosis is key to understanding that we need to look at Jesus as our model and reason for a similar emptying of self, or rights, and to deny ourselves.  We won’t save the world when we do this, but we will definitely work towards the greater good, even if it is one gun at a time.

Selfishness is the seedbed of all that is sinful and evil, and the only antidote to selfishness has to be its antithesis, which is selflessness.  Our sinful and broken human nature will always cling tenaciously to what we want, how we want, when we want.  This is the unspoken narrative underlying the culture of rights and entitlements. 

Rules or punitive measures meted out on those who insist on their rights will not see a peaceful willingness to want the greater good for all peoples, which is a safe environment free of guns.  The only way for this to work is if there is a nation-wide freely accepted willingness to choose to not want to bear and own arms even if one has the right to.  And because this is so unfathomable, it is not a matter of whether a massacre similar to the Las Vegas one will take place.  It is only a matter of when.

The world doesn’t seem to be shocked by such stories of carnage any more.  And if you ask me, this in itself is shocking.

Monday, October 2, 2017

For God, being too normal is not dangerous.

Back in 1969, the British Royal Family allowed a film crew to record actual footage of life inside Windsor Castle, with the hope of giving the public some indication that the Queen and her family was not out-of-touch with the life that was going on outside of the castle walls, and that the Royals were like the commoners.  When aired, this documentary would show the world a side of the Queen and her family that was never seen before, giving a peak into their private world. 

Apparently, when the two-hour long documentary was aired on 21 June 1969, it garnered a whopping 37 million viewers.  The British population saw how the Royal Family ate meals, shared family memories and how they even did seemingly mundane things like watching television.  This was a huge public relations success as the public opinion of the family was very favourable.  However, the Royal Family ‘hated’ it.  The Queen and her advisors felt that being too normal was as dangerous as being too different.  The film was henceforth banned and never shown again, with unused footage stored in royal archives, safe from prying eyes.

The one amazing thing about the Christian faith is that this is not how God moves, lives, and is.  What was so inconceivable about Christianity is that for God, being human was not only ‘dangerous’, but also extremely necessary.  Up to the arrival of Christianity, religion was rule-based, guilt-based, fear-based and certainly far from being love-based.  The idea of God was that he was so unlike humanity and because of this, he was believed to rule, govern and lord over all ‘from a distance’, not unlike the way God is portrayed in the Bette Midler hit song of the same name.  While I will admit that it is a very listenable song, it does have a terrible and sad theology.  The God of Jesus Christ is not at all interested in loving us from a distance.

The incarnation turned everything man had perceived about God upside-down.  In the person and life of Jesus Christ, humanity was both lifted up and changed.  God was so clear that when he said that he loved the world, he meant it.  He meant it enough to want to enter into it and show us what it means to be truly human and this included the terrifying experience of truly suffering and truly dying.  The early Church struggled to not only explain but embrace this ‘scandal of the Cross’, and perhaps because it is such a game-changer, this scandal has persisted up to this day amongst many unbelievers, because like the Royal Family back in 1969, they too believe that being too normal is just as dangerous as being too different. 

There seems to be a resistance or inability to appreciate just how stunning the incarnation is, and what it reveals about God and his love.  The task of those of us who preach the Word is ultimately to convey this to believers over and over again, because it is only until we sinners truly grasp its significance, we will be extremely slow to change and resist undergoing metanoia out of love.  I believe we need to be able to do this by picking up on how society lives and what moulds and shapes minds and hearts of people, and point out just how different God works.

The Royal Family back in 1969 believed that being too human just did not sit well with their idea of Royalty.  If this was the way God acts and thinks, I am certain that there will be no such thing as the incarnation.  For God, being too human was never dangerous.  It was highly necessary. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

When Christians understand that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, being environmentally conscious should not be an option. It is an imperative.

John 3:16 is arguably one of the most well-known and oft-quoted scripture passages.  For those who are still unfamiliar with it, Jesus says here that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.”  I don’t believe that most Christians have any issues with the latter part of this verse, because eternal life is our shared ‘end-game’, to use a current colloquialism. 

It is the first or former part which I believe is often overlooked and largely under-highlighted and emphasized.  God loves the world.  The Greek word used for ‘world’ is where English gets the word ‘cosmos’.  God doesn't just love humanity and humankind.  God loves the world and all it contains.  God does not just love human beings and humanity.  To not see this is to fall into the danger of dualism, where there is a great emphasis on the contrast and distinction between opposites, for e.g. darkness and light, black and white, and matter and spirit.  Mani, a third-century Persian believed that there were two sources of creation, one good and the other evil.  Man’s spirit, he believed, came from God, and his body was from the devil.  Because of this belief, man’s spirit or the spiritual nature of man was not only given way more emphasis, it was done so at the expense and detriment of the body.  Mani’s teachings were called Manichaeism, and has in the development of Christianity, been seen to be rather problematic largely due to its extreme dualism.  If we understand John 3:16 in the way that is not dualistic, it has to open up our minds to the truth that not only is the body not to be negated, but that the world as we know it needs to be saved as much as our spirit. 

While I am not advocating any form of extreme tree-hugging as Christians, I am in today’s reflection asking that as Christians, to see the need to treat mother earth with more care than we have been in recent years.  After all, there is ample evidence that this planet we call home has been experiencing the terrible effects of climate change.  Temperatures have risen and the incidents of life-threatening hurricanes bringing untold turmoil and upheaval in the lives of millions are becoming far too common.  Mother nature has been revealing her less docile and gentle side lately, and it is not a stretch of the imagination to say that we are partly to blame. 

We only need to take a leaf from St Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes how not only we human beings, but the physical creation and our physical universe and order are ‘groaning’ as we all wait for the redemption by Christ.  It is by no means a stretch of the imagination to see that the physical world is as much a part of God’s plan for heaven as it is for us.

Knowing this serves to do a couple of things.  Firstly, it gives us great incentive to change from being users and consumers to being caretakers and stewards.  If this notion that every one of us who inhabits this planet is actually its caretaker and steward is offensive or deemed insulting in any way, it could indicate that we have nurtured a rather harmful and disquieting truth that we have developed within us a sense of unhealthy entitlement.  St Francis of Assisi’s well-known Canticle of the Sun, composed in the early 13th century saw him having such a great sense of love, reverence and respect for nature. 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly is this – knowing that we should respect the environment requires of us Christians to not only have a proper relationship with God, but relate to the physical world differently.  There is a morality to the way that we relate to this planet.  There is much talk about how much of a carbon footprint we are leaving behind as we live out our lives, and this carbon footprint is intoxicating the world and the atmosphere.  Dumping toxic wastes into the sea and mindlessly using plastic that takes about 1000 years to decompose in landfills is wrong on a moral level.  A recent documentary I came across told of how a study of fish, shellfish and molluscs in places like Canada, USA and Indonesia revealed the presence of plastic and fibres, raising concerns of their adverse effects on human health.  Clearly, what we are throwing and casting onto the oceans are affecting our health and very existence.  We may be poisoning ourselves without realizing it.

It takes a universal change of mindset to want to act with a renewed purpose.  It probably starts from small things – like taking your own shopping bag to the market or grocery store and recycling where possible.  Our spiritual life is never one that is sustained by huge acts of Christian mindfulness.  Rather, it is one where we take small steps and make little changes to our lives.  At the end of the day, it is our souls that we are hoping to see saved.  Apart from leaving a carbon footprint as we live, we also ought to consider the Jesus footprint that follows our paths. 

If we truly believe that Christ came to save the world, those small steps that we take to save our souls need to be just as diligently applied to saving the world.  Migration from one country to another is an option when we are unhappy with what our country offers us.  As we only have one planet, our moving away from it is not an option at all.