Monday, November 19, 2018

Knowing we are unconditionally loved gives us true liberation

People have often come up to me asking why I end my homilies and sermons with the phrase “God love you”.  For a start, it isn’t something that I came up with by myself.  I first encountered this when I came across the recorded teachings and preachings of the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.  An erudite and brilliant priest/philosopher/writer/theologian, he had a unique mix of preacher, aplomb, flamboyance and panache which was unmistakable and riveting.  I thought that he was someone I could set as my model in my priesthood when I was a seminarian, and I adopted this phrase of his which I thought was elegant and charming, with a certain old-school √©lan about it.

I never abandoned it, and I am glad I didn’t, and for good reason.  Although I’d admit that there was some vanity attached to it, its deep meaning and purpose grew on me, and it developed through the years of my priesthood.  

I have, since my diaconate till now, preached thousands of times and have told my listeners “God love you”, and I truly believe this.  As well, I truly believe that when a person has a deep understanding and experience that their being loved by God isn’t predicated on how good, how holy or how pure they are, and that they cannot make God love them any more than they are already loved, (which also means that they also cannot make God love them any lessif they sin), it becomes the game changer to end all game changers.

It’s easy to believe that God loves us when things are going well, when we are at the top of our game, and when friends surround us with their love, attention and approval. It is, as they say, a “no-brainer”. But when things start going south, when we meet with life’s challenges, when we are not top-dog but “bottom dweller”, and when afflictions and suffering make their untimely appearance in our lives, how do we believe that despite these dark circumstances, that God can be a loving God?  It seems to be natural for us to believe that God’s graces and love have also taken a hiatus.

This is where we Christians have such an advantage over those who have not had access to Jesus’ groundbreaking Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes.  His audience that were listening to him preaching that day were not just his disciples, but a motley crowd – a crowd of people from all walks of life, and in different states of life as well.  There were people of different social class, people in different kinds of relationships, people differing in their morality, people with different concerns, and with different things that pleased and troubled their hearts.  A whole mix of people forming a varied landscape before Jesus.  Not unlike the motley crowd that forms the congregation which a priest faces on a given Sunday at Mass.

Seated before me each Sunday are the devout and pious Catholics, those who are ‘forced’ to come to Mass despite not really wanting to, there are the babes in arms, and many who are in different states of moral rectitude as well.  In my years of preaching and celebrating Masses, I won’t be surprised that unbeknownst to me, there could have been present thieves, molesters, swindlers, cheats, and maybe even a rapist or a murderer.  Added to this, there is also the levels of belief in the crowd, with some deeply believing in God, and some with a catechetical knowledge of a preschooler, despite being octogenarian grandparents.

All these do not change on iota the fact that God loves each one individually and unconditionally, as if he or she was God’s only child.  On that day when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it as clear as day that those who were poor, those who were suffering, those who were meek, those who were spoken ill of, those who weep and had sadness, and those who were trampled on my society are makarioior blessed.  They were loved, and in a way that is supernatural.  They were not disadvantaged even if they thought they were.

As human beings, our lives gets automatically brighter when we are told we are loved, and when we experience being loved.  The day may be dreary and the horizon ahead bleak, but when we are assured that we are loved, or shown that we are loved, the loads that we have on our shoulders get lifted, and we become less negative.  If this is true when we are loved by a human person, what more when we are assured that we are divinely loved?  

I know that there could be a danger in being so effusive in telling people that they are unconditionally loved – and it is this – that those of us who are not living morally upright lives, those who are abusing others, that those who are hurting others with their sinful ways will take this love for granted and not respond with a desire to return this love with zeal and effort.  What if I was too lavish and generous in dishing out God’s unconditional love?  Would I be erring?

I take my cue from my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself.  On Calvary, what happened was that divine love was effusively poured out over the entire world regardless of whether those who received this love and mercy deserved it or not.  In fact, it was precisely because no one deserved it that makes this such a saving act of universal proportions.  Jesus didn’t wait until every single person changed and repented before he died.  Grace came first, and it freed us and gave us the ultimate liberation that we need. God took the greatest chance on Calvary, and we stand as the undeserved beneficiaries.  

If God was utterly lavish on Calvary, who am I to think that I should be parsimonious? And this is why I will continue to end my preachings, no longer with an element of vanity, but with deep sincerity, with the phrase “God love you”.  And may this love truly set you free.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The hierarchy of love

When Jesus was asked by a scribe which was the first of all the commandments of the Jewish laws, Jesus responded by saying that the first was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and all your soul. He also added that the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.  He wasn’t asked which was the second most important, but by adding that second one almost in the same breath, Jesus was revealing that there needs to be an order or hierarchy in the way that we love, and in some way, a necessary corollary.

There is always a benefit when there is a right ordering in life.  We human beings have a certain ordering in the way that we grow and develop, and in the ways that we strengthen and mature.  The ability to walk and move independently takes the development and stability of our legs and to learn coordination for about a year after being born.  No one has yet seen a baby born into the world and immediately walking in the labour room.  In the same way, our brains develop in a certain ordered and systematic way.  The only way anyone can handle the intricacies of calculus is when they started by learning to count.  

When it comes to love, there is also an order or structure that one needs to respect and adopt, and on that day in Palestine, the scribe’s question to Jesus saw him pointing out how this structure and hierarchy looks like.  

Jesus is revealing that love of God has to be our primary love or out first love.  It’s not that God needs this, but rather that weneed this ordering.  Loving God first – this is grounded on the fact that our very being is a product of God’s love for us.  Loving God and being grateful to him for all that we are (all our heart), for all that we can do (all our strength) lays the foundation of the ways that we later on correctly love the people who form our community.  And we can only love the community correctly if we first love God correctly.  

The family unit itself has an ordering of loves.  In the preparatory session that I give to parents and godparents of infants who are to be baptized, I often stress that there is a pressing need for them to maintain a right ordering or hierarchy of love as well.  There is a strong tendency for many married couples to start out in their marriage by loving each other in a fully invested way, as well they should.  But when the first child comes along, he or she often becomes the new focus of love for the couple, and they begin to turn their gaze away from each other, and make the child the object of their gaze.  Doing this has the potential to dilute and diminish the love of the parents for each other, especially when the love of the child is at the expense of the love of the spouses.  My encounters with spouses who have communication issues with each other have shown that this has often been the genesis of the weakening of the marriage bond, and this is often only revealed much later when the children have left the home, leaving the nest empty.

When a couple in a marriage do all that they can to ensure that their spousal love comes first before their love of their children, it is not that they will end up abandoning their children.  What is more likely to happen is that they will give their children a secure environment of love where they know that their parents love each other.  What sets a child to be insecure is when they are unsure if their parents’ love is solid and well founded, stable and unshakeable. A couple that understands what selfless and disinterested love is in a marriage cannot but have this love overflow into the ways that they love their children.  

When we have issues with addictions and insecurities ourselves, it is often a result of our notobserving what Jesus said to the Scribe.  This happens when we love ourselves first, and put all our heart, soul, mind and strength in pursuing our projects, our hobbies, our work and our skills and talents first, and find that we are only loving God when we find the time to do so, and not make the time to.  Finding time to love God is akin to giving God what is convenient and what is leftover, like the remnant scraps of our time.  But when we are fully invested in ordering our priorities right in life, we make time for what we know is crucial, and for what we know lays the correct foundations for all that we pour ourselves into.  

Jesus’ whole life was centered on the Kingdom of God, and we see the result of this in the ways that Jesus gave of himself through his teaching, preaching, living and dying. When we make efforts to also center our lives on God first, we too, are like that Scribe, not far from the Kingdom of God.  

Monday, November 5, 2018

Why we should pay attention to our attire when we go to Church.

It has often been lamented that the term ‘Sunday best’ has become somewhat of an oxymoron amongst the current generation of Church-going folk.  Be they adults or youth, Sunday is seen as a day to dress down rather than dress up, whether or not one is observing this day as the Lord’s day by going to Church. In fact, the term ‘Sunday worst’ may be more of a reality.

I have on several occasions addressed this to congregants on a one-to-one basis, making sure that I speak with them in hushed tones and requesting that in future they come to Mass not wearing shorts and slippers.  I wouldn’t say that I give them a dressing down, though some may take offence that I did speak to them about this.  Perhaps the great problem is that many people fail to see the great need in effort on our part in the relationship that we have with God, and that God should be ok with our minimal efforts.

I once was given this response - that Sunday, and the weekend in general, is a time to relax and ‘chill’ because they had to be attired in a stuffy (read formal) way from Monday to Friday, which is the work week.  For many, dressing for work is something that may seen to be tedious and even a pain in the neck, but for most people, this cannot be compromised because of the prevailing office rules regarding what is deemed proper attire.  However, when the weekend comes, it’s ‘no holds barred’ for anything.  It is seen as a personal time, a private time, and me-time.  But if we understand that at Mass we are offering God our worship and adoration, it really is not “about me” at all.  It is about God.

Perhaps it is the ‘it’s about me and my comfort’ that is the prevailing narrative in the hearts and minds of the congregation that comes to Church.  It explains the way many turn up in Church dressed in shorts and a pair of rubber slippers in the way that they would turn up at a beach party.  

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing shorts and slippers if we are going to a beach party or to the market.  In fact, that would be totally appropriate and acceptable.  If this is our attire at Mass, it could reveal a great disconnect between what we are doing in Church (making the effort of giving God the adoration and worship that is his due) and how this is expressed in our dressing.

The following are the arguments for appropriate dressing in Church:

1.  The argument from “form aiding substance”.

As much as we may say that what matters inside our hearts (substance) is far more important than what we don on the outside (form), there is a certain truth that our form does influence our substance.  Knowing that we have taken great effort to dress up for an event that is special, like for a relative’s wedding dinner, gives us reason to be on our best behavior.  It may be a small point, but I do believe that this has its value, especially in Church.  No one who prays to God asks for only a bit of his love and his grace.  We have a desire to know that God wants to give us his best.  In Jesus he has given us his very best.  Knowing this ought to cause us to reciprocate in the same way, giving of our best as well, and this includes the best that we have in our wardrobes, or at least, not the most convenient, most casual or most comfortable. 

2.   The argument from venue.

When we go to Church, our primary purpose is to worship God in his house, and to love him.  This is God who is the creator of all, and Jesus reveals that he has given us his all.  Our response to this reality needs to be met with great enthusiasm and respect, and this is evident in how we turn up for worship.  Apart from not being tardy and how we behave, it is revealed in how we are attired.  If we were to be invited to the grounds of the Istana or the Royal Palace for an event, we wouldn’t dare show up in anything less than a carefully planned outfit befitting the occasion.  And this is only for a meeting with a mere mortal, who has no more supernatural power than anybody that you and I encounter each day.  

But when we come to God’s house in Church, we are not meeting any mere mortal.  We are coming before the King of Kings, and are receiving the one who gave us eternal life in Holy Communion.  It is only befitting God’s divinity that we pay attention to how we show up.  In our Catholic tradition, this is expressed by our reverent genuflections toward the Altar or Tabernacle before we enter our pews, the mindful head bows, and the care that we put in what we wear.  It influences greatly our heart and our minds when we are at prayer and worship.

3.   The argument from the cause of distraction.

Singapore is near the equator, causing it to have its hot and humid weather all year round.  I am not sure if this is why women often turn up at Mass wearing spaghetti strap tops and some even tube tops.  But these outfits are also the cause of many a roving eye and distracted mind of one’s fellow worshipper.  While I am sure that no one comes to Church with the purpose of ogling at another’s body, what one wears can end up being such fodder for the eye, diverting one’s attention away from where it ought to be.  Rather than anyone’s body, it is the Body of Christ that is the reason for our gather at Mass.

I was at Mass recently in a parish church in Kuala Lumpur, and within this community were a group of African Catholics.  These Catholics stood out in a stunning way not because of the colour of their skin, but by the astounding way that they turned up for worship.  The men were all wearing long sleeved shirts, with ties, and some were even in suits.  The women looked regal with their head wraps.  I am certain that the kind of respect that these African brothers and sisters had a positive effect on the locals in the community, causing them to want to be as effortful as well in the way they turn up for Mass.  This effect works both ways – if we dress sloppily and extremely casually, those around us will naturally follow suit.  But if we show great love and great effort, it can serve to raise the standard around us – and this includes most importantly, the standards of our love for God and for one another.

In this reflection, I hesitated to give clear guidelines on what one ought to wear.  This is because the ‘best’ in one’s wardrobe is really subjective. If one is a homeless person, and has only a pair of slippers and the shirt on his back as his only possession, that is his best and this will delight God.  It will be just as noticed by Jesus as the two small coins given by the poor widow into the treasury.  But if one has an extensive wardrobe, wouldn’t it then be appropriate that one be a bit more discerning?  Everyone knows in his or her conscience what would glorify God in the most appropriate way. Parents dressing up young children for Mass influence this in a great way.  

Taking note of the ‘arguments’ listed above, I believe that they should help to form the guidelines of how one turns up at Mass.  

Monday, October 29, 2018

God wants our cooperation in our Christian living.

I often see men and women of good faith struggling very hard to become better Christians and this gives me a lot of hope.  There are quite many people who make the effort to go to weekly confessions and this edifies me as a priest, because guiding people to holiness is one of the reasons I have given my life over to be a priest of God.  If they have a thirst and a hunger for spiritual perfection and the attainment of their own sainthood, it means that as a priest, I must be doing something right.  A church that doesn’t have her parishioners striving for holiness may be an indication of the lack of holiness in her pastors.

What do these people struggle with?  The range is broad, but I have come to see that there really is a common issue that serves to address all sins and addictions.  I know many people pray for the ability and strength to stay on God’s beam, where they will make the right choices that make their lives something that glorifies God.  When a person says that he prays that he will stay away from sins of lust, for example, I often ask what it is that he is praying for exactly.  Is it a prayer that wants God to place him in some sort of spiritual shackle or restraint, preventing him from doing things that disrespects his dignity or viewing things that do not please God?  Does their prayer for this view of holiness disregard the value of this own part to play in the pursuit and quest for holiness?  It has come to light that this seems to be the mind that many some Christians have whenever they lament to me that they pray for the ability to overcome sinful inclinations, but have hardly made a dent in improving their lives.

Do we have this notion about how God should be working and are either miffed or disgruntled with God for not improving in our moral lives?  The issue really isn’t that God is at fault or slow in working, but that a very large part of this ‘puzzle’ is missing, and that part has a lot to do with us. 

Yes, God does want us to live better lives all the time – lives that not only glorify him, but lives that make us instruments and conduits of his love to the world that we live and work in.  But God doesn’t want to do this alone.  He could if he wanted to, but out of his generosity and humility, he chooses to do this with the cooperation of his beloved sons and daughters.  A holy life that is made holy outside of our desire and effort has very little value of love and holiness.  It is a bit like when a naughty or recalcitrant child who has done something he shouldn’t have is told and even forced to apologize for his actions. If there is no sincere contrition and sorrow for his actions, the apology is a mere mouthing of a few words that come only from his lips, but nothing in his heart.  What comes from the heart is a willingness and an effort to demonstrate that he knows that he has made the wrong choice, leading him to do a wrong action, ending up hurting himself and his fellowman.  

We need to apply the same principle with holiness.  Holiness will have very little value and cannot really be called holiness when our own part in cooperating with God’s grace is missing.  If our cooperation isn’t required when it comes to holiness, God isn’t God, but a control freak of supernatural proportions. Imagine a world where no one has the possibility to make a mistake, where every person cannot do wrong, simply because everyone has been programmed or forced to ‘fall in line’.  There will be discipline, there will be conformity, but one thing will be missing for certain, and this one thing is love.

Love in its fullest sense has always to embrace and include freedom – a freedom to either receive and cooperate with the love given, as well as the freedom to reject and spurn what is offered.  Only when it is given back with a free choice is the circuit of love complete.  

People who want to be restrained and stopped from sinning by a force outside of themselves often show themselves to be people who do not understand this very important dynamic of love, and this, in all likelihood, is the reason why their prayers to live a converted and holy life has failed to bear much fruit.  They haven’t realized that God desires very much that they give over their lives to him in love.  A person who is loving his addictions and sinful habits most of his waking hours simply isn’t going to make that conversion if he isn’t first going to want to love God and God’s ways and make that his central focus of love. 

Simply put, we can only truly sin less if we start by loving God more. It is this cooperation that God delights in.