Monday, January 31, 2011

The beatitudes - Jesus' Real Hard Truths

I received some requests after I preached this homily over the weekend, from some of my parishioners to have it posted on this blog. I rarely do accede to such requests, but I do hold the Beatitudes very closely to my heart as a Disciple of Jesus Christ. As an exception, here is what I preached, and I do hope that this will invite many to re-look at how we have been living out our Christian culture. God bless.

The Hard Truths of Jesus Christ
In most areas of our lives, when we enter into a new culture, a new school, a new workplace, a new social group, there is a need to orientate ourselves. Schools have orientation camps or programmes, and so do many companies. Offices have what is known as ‘office culture’ where one needs to learn the silent and often unwritten ways of doing things, and learn to adapt to the psychology of the place. And often, one does this so that one can adequately ‘fit in’.

Is there a Christian culture? Certainly. Christianity, from the onset of the arrival of the Kingdom of God in Christ, set to establish or rather re-establish a certain culture, a way of living, and a way of loving, which is markedly different from the ways that the world was used to. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us in a summarized form, the Christian Culture. But he knows that it will not be something easily accepted. But it is real hard truth.

Known also as the Sermon on the Mount, “beatitude” is from the Latin beatus meaning blessed. We Catholics have a great tradition to bless all sorts of things, from our rosaries and crucifixes to our homes, cars, to even our animals. Many see being blessed as being loved and favoured by God, and each blessing reminds us of that, and it is. But if we extend this to the beatitudes, we will face a huge problem, because none of the beatitudes seem to be anything like a blessing. At least on the surface.

The Greek for the word ‘blessed’ is makarioi, or makarios, which translates to either ‘congratulations’ or ‘lucky’. It’s a bit like our familiar Gong Xi in Mandarin or Gong Hei in Cantonese that we use freely during the New Year or when something good happens. Imagine the ire evoked if we greet anyone of our friends and relatives with the spirit of the beatitudes – may you have the luck of poverty, the ‘congrats’ for being mournful, ‘may you have the luck’ of being hungry, thirsty and experiencing persecution. Or ‘May you be abused on account of Jesus’. It will be highly unlikely that you will get a smile as a response.

So is there more than meets the eye here? Yes. It is problematic; and it’s hard to understand and almost repulsive to our ears! When we hear the Beatitudes proclaimed, do we feel unsettled or uncomfortable? Do we say to ourselves “this is insane”? That’s a likely response. But if we said “I don’t think I get it, but I’d like to see what Jesus really means”, we are on the cusp of allowing ourselves to understand God’s peculiar language.

First of all, let’s set the record straight. God does not want us to suffer and be miserable in life. If that’s your vision of God, banish it, because that God doesn’t exist. You have created that God, and it’s a false God. You could be guilty, I suppose, of worshipping a false god. But the beatitudes seem to imply that God is like this, and it may seem that God wants us to suffer and be hungry in order to be happy. It’s not that at all; it is far from being the truth. Jesus is really trying to give us the key to happiness that many seek, but simply cannot find because they are looking at the wrong places.

Secondly, what does being poor in spirit mean? It means that you are unsettled in your life, despite all that you have achieved and attained in your life. That’s a poverty of spirit. Let’s just say you have that dream job, attained that title, that double PhD, that fat pay cheque, that fully paid up landed property, and one day, you are looking at all this and are saying to yourself – why am I still not happy? Jesus is saying to you – if you feel that way in your life right now, you are blessed. And ‘lucky’ are you when you reach that point in life, because you will begin to realize that true happiness lies in things beyond the material, beyond the possessing and beyond the achieving, it’s found ironically, not in the obtaining of all that, but in the letting go of all that. You have come to the all important second half of life. That they are not yours to possess and hoard is something that the beatitudes are trying to teach us. And that is a hard truth.

Thirdly, ‘lucky’ are you also when you see the virtue in being lowly and small. The language of the world speaks totally against this. The name of the game in just about every field is to rule and be on top, to thumb others down, to shut out the voice of the opposition. That is not Hard Truth. In fact, it is hardly true. In fact, tomes are written about these ‘methods’, and those methods do not the test of time stand.

But Jesus is saying that these ways are not the ways to true blessedness, and in fact, the many generations of people who have been despots and political bullies have shown that they have been insecure and were constantly on the lookout for those who shook their dominance. And some even openly say that they need to demolish their opponents.

You want lasting happiness? You want happiness perdures; happiness that is secure? It’s not up there in the winners’ circle. And if you know this, you will be happy because you are in the humble state, the earthy state, the state of the humus, from where ‘humility’ gets its root. That is hard truth.

Lucky are you when you are pure in heart. Too many of us have only one definition of purity, and that is related to sexual purity. It is just one of the many forms of purity. But sexual purity seems to be the only kind that we can relate to because that’s the only category that many of us think in. But purity is also being unadulterated, unmixed, clear and with nothing hidden. If that is the case, then purity must go beyond just the sexual. You want happiness in you life? Then attain a purity, a state of being unmixed, and clear in all areas of your life. Be focused; be unsullied – in your business dealings, in your relationship with your children and your spouses, in your reasons for doing anything in life. If you are clear of your intentions, not bluffing yourselves or others, and refuse to be deceived by impure motivations, you will see God working clearly in your life. You have a point of reference that is clear and purposeful. And that is another hard truth.

Reflecting on the Beatitudes in this way gives us a point of entry into the mystery of God’s language. Try to do it for each of the other beatitudes. It’s not impossible, but I’d admit that it isn’t easy and it can be dangerous. It is dangerous because if we are serious about it, it will shake us from our complacency of our secure platforms that we have built in our lives.

It requires a certain willingness to see life from another side; another angle. But when you do, I think you would be doing what the prophet Zephaniah told the people to do – you will be seeking integrity, and seeking humility. You will be earthy people in touch with your true roots. And our true roots are in God. It doesn’t take a whole lot of intelligence to do this. In fact, too much of intelligence becomes a stumbling block to entering into the key. Even St Paul says it to the Corinthians – it’s not the influential, not the noble, and not those wise in the ordinary sense of the word that respond appropriately, but those who are willing to be weak.

But none of us are willing to be weak. It doesn’t feel good to be weak, but that’s the whole spirit of the beatitudes – a willingness on our part to not be slaves to our feelings and to not let our feelings determine our morality, our choices in life, and our paths towards happiness. That’s the spirit of the Beatitudes, possible only in the spirit of Jesus.

This then, is the corporate Christian culture that we need to appreciate over and over again. Some of us have never seen it this way. May our eyes be opened to usher in a new light. And that is a Hard Truth.

I hope people don't misunderstand me - I am not saying that it's wrong to read about other peoples’ definition of Hard Truths. But it would be a travesty of our Christian identity if we only read those, and can speak about life in those categories, and have never before read the words of Jesus, who is after all, the way, the (real hard) TRUTH, and the life.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Formation of the Faith of our flock

I was having a discussion with my Parish Priest just last week about some of the challenges that we face as priests in a parish of about 6000 parishioners. What brought that on was my sharing of how some couples seem to take levity with so many aspects of marriage and married life, ending up in a lot of problematic knots that need untying later on in life. And the lament that I made was that if couples were adequately prepared for married life as God looks at marriage, these things would not be happening. It made me wonder whether as church, we have been lacking in our formation of the faith of our flock, resulting in a generation of Catholics who are sorely lacking in the fundamentals of the faith, and the fundamentals of life itself.

It is a problem that seems to be circular, and I am left wondering if there is a solution in sight.

1. The general populations of Catholics seem to be inadequately formed in their faith, and there are large numbers who come to simply fulfill Mass obligations.
2. When we priests see a lack of depth in their faith, we try to offer formation sessions, talks, discussions, organize forums, write articles, blogs (like this one), to do what we can to address the problem.
3. The people who need to be formed or re-formed, which are our target audience, are not responding to this offer. Instead, it is often the formed Catholics, those who are not ‘obligation-fulfilling’ Catholics, who are attending the sessions and talks, and we do see quite often, the same faces at various talks and workshops. (This is not a complaint, though).
4. This leads us back to square one, where the ill-formed Catholics are seen at Mass attendance, where announcements are made ad nauseam for them to go to prayer meets, formation sessions, but with little take up.

Some of us do realize that the problem may go a bit further back, to the Catechism classes of our youth. The problem is that the fundamentals may be taught there, but it is the follow up of home formation from the parents that are lacking. Few parents are willing to spend time with their children to pray with them, share the faith with them, explain church teachings to them, and discuss struggles with the faith with them. But the irony is that parents will do all that they can to hire tutors for academic subjects, enrichment classes, and music and ballet classes.

Again, it is not that these are not good. But is there adequate proportion given to the spiritual as compared to the secular and academic? Many, I suspect, are leaving God-talk to the church catechists who do this for 90 minutes (at best) a week and feel that they have done their job as Catholic parents. This would be a travesty of Catholic upbringing.

Perhaps it is these very parents who need to be re-formed in their faith and the richness that it gives them. But when these sessions are offered to them, they are the ones who don’t turn up. And we end up in the circle again.

At one of our recent monthly Priests’ Recollections, it was bemoaned how society has changed so much. In the past, God (which includes things pertaining to Church and the spiritual life) was placed at the centre of one’s world, and everything else like work, family, leisure, recreation, and education revolved around it. They were like spokes radiating out from a properly balanced wheel. Now, God is simply one of the spokes (if at all), and it is not even clear what the centre of the wheel is. It is thus understandable why some people can even question the moral authority of the Church to recommend guiding rules for all to follow and to order our lives.

How do we make our people hunger for God? Mass preaching is only limited to at best 15 minutes a week, and we can only cover about 3 points with little depth. Besides, I lament with so many preachers that our flock often listens with glazed eyes and distanced visages during those 15 minutes, so that is another stumbling block.

Too many Catholics see God as a fireman – one whom we need to call when there is fire raging in our lives. How do we get them to see that God is on fire for love of them? Perhaps I may get some ideas and comments this week that will help.

Monday, January 17, 2011

When the ceremony can overshadow the reality

I encountered a rather disturbing episode this weekend when I was giving a session to prepare parents and godparents for the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism for infants in my parish. In my conversation with the parents and godparents, it was apparent how godparents may be chosen with little emphasis on their ability to pass on the faith.

The criterion for the choice of godparents seems to be based on rapport and friendship these days, rather than on the faith quality of the godparents. When the faith life of the godparents is not the chief criterion that the choice of godparent/s is based on, the role of godparenting becomes largely compromised, reducing it to being present at a ceremony and some photo-taking sessions, and perhaps a yearly visit to the godchild at festive occasions, making the ‘god’ prefix somewhat superfluous.

How do we ascertain the faith life of godparents, or anyone for that matter? A few simple questions usually can help to shed some light. It may not be foolproof, but it can be an indication. What is a sacrament? How many are there? Is baptism a sacrament? How many days of obligation are there in the Church calendar? Is a Catholic a Christian? Who are the four evangelists? Was St Paul one of the 12 apostles? Have you visited an adoration room before? Is Jesus really present in the Eucharist, or is it just symbolic? Is the Sacrament of Reconciliation something that you encounter on a regular basis?

Of course, one may have the perfect answers to these simple questions, and it may not mean that the faith life of the person is in good order, but it is some indication of some basics.

The Church has good reason for having godparents, because they assist the parents in forming the faith of the children. As the saying so rightly puts it, it takes a village to raise a child. The ‘village’ in this case is the represented by the godparent who should be chosen carefully from among those in the ‘village’ who are stalwarts of faith, courageous and steadfast believers of Christ, and shining examples of Christian living. The more a Catholic interacts with the community in a very involved way, the more he or she will know of the existence of such people in the community in which he or she lives in.

But there seems to be a great reluctance to be involved and active in the Catholic community by many Catholics. I do know that there is a lot of pressure and expectations of our working life, and to purposefully take one evening out a week to attend neighbourhood prayer meetings and get involved in the life of the community outside of Mass does entail a sacrifice. And here is the rub – if we keep citing work as a reason that we don’t know our community, then we will find it very difficult to identify faith heroes in our neighbourhoods who can become strong faith role models for our children to be godparents. And so, we will end up just asking our relatives or friends, either for the sake of nostalgia or because we don’t know anyone else. If their faith life were shining and sound, it would be wonderful. But if they cannot even answer simple and basic questions about the faith, we may end up compromising the faith development of our children.

When this happens, we will possibly end up reducing something deep and wonderful like a Sacrament of Baptism into merely a Kodak moment, and get all caught up in a rite, than the reality that it presents to us for life.

Monday, January 10, 2011

When wealth can blind

There is principally nothing wrong with money or wealth per se. It can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing. But it is actually neutral. Just like temper. It can make us realize our need to control our emotions and not let them get the better of us, or we can let it control us, where we can end up abusing those around us in various ways.

Is there a prosperity gospel? There could well be, but it certainly was not one that was preached by Jesus Christ, and it certainly was not written by any of the four evangelists. Jesus’ good news, or gospel, was one that in fact dared to broach the necessity of facing poverty in our lives in a way that makes no sense to our drive for ego-fulfilling ambition, success and accumulation. Jesus knew that the only way to die well was to do it without holding on to anything, so that we can fully hold on to the love and mercy of God. Anyone looking at the beatitudes of Christ would be hard pressed to find within those pithy statements a message of wealth and accumulated assets and success.

What can wealth blind us to? We only need to look at the story of the rich man (Dives, in the Latin Vulgate) and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31. Here we see an imagery of what riches can blind us to. In that story, Dives was blinded to the very presence and person of Lazarus who was languishing at the gate of his house. Yet, we are told that it was after he died that he saw Lazarus ‘far off’, in the bosom of Abraham. Apparently, there seems to be a sudden ability to see so well after death, the very things that were right in front of our eyes when we were alive. Dives couldn’t see Lazarus when he was alive, with him lying at his gate, but when death came, it seemed that his eyes were open enough to see him ‘far off’. It must mean that death, often called the great leveler, also gives us the ability to see not just others, but ourselves as we truly are, and as others truly are as well. In this life, we play all sorts of games where we often hide so much.

If wealth blinds, does this mean then that poverty gives one 6/6 (or 20/20) vision? Not necessarily. There are many people in dire poverty who are living just as unenlightened lives, who are just as blind or who are have ill intentions of skimming the plenty from those who have more than they in immoral and illegal ways, or who have revenge as their agenda in life. Much as it may not be right to preach a gospel of prosperity, it would be just as naïve to preach a gospel of living in abject poverty thinking that just by a physical and material relinquishing, we will automatically come closer to Christ.

The Social Teachings of our rich Catholic history, all the way from the Fathers of the Church to current times, have extolled the virtue of a preferential option for the poor. When we develop an option for the poor, it does what an angioplasty does for the arteries – it makes our blood flow better to our heart, bringing health and vitality to the weakened heart, and it makes compassion for Christ in the poor a compelling, and almost a besetting act. Somehow, the opposite happens when all our focus is honed in to amassing our personal wealth and hoarding our stash. That is indeed the crux of the problem – when our thirst for wealth makes us covetous. That border between the two (amassing personal wealth and being covetous) is so fine that it is often imperceptible, and it is often based on the fallacy that there is never enough, and more is always better.

Jesus preached against covetousness in Luke 12:13-21. Here, Jesus doesn’t condemn riches. What he does is denounce and berate the self-preserving and self-centeredness that is found in each one of us. Notice that verse 13 begins with a man asking Jesus to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. The response from Jesus could well have been very different if he had asked Jesus to get his brother to share the family inheritance with the poor.

If our wealth has blinded us from seeing the various Lazarus’s at our gates, perhaps what we need to do is to check often enough who may be lying there. And if we don’t see anyone there, we may in fact be lying to ourselves.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The difference between doing something, and doing it with love

One of the songs that I like to have played during the Marriage Encounter weekends is “Love Changes Everything” – not the 1987 version by Climie Fisher, but the one from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Aspects of Love. As the title suggests, so too do we believe as Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, that love does change everything. However, the huge problem comes about when we have such different definitions of love and what we think constitutes love. When it is subjective (and most of the time it is), it is our own interpretations of love (and what constitutes loving) that gets us, and our overtures of love, into all sorts of messes. I was singing the words of this tune in our kitchen last week and Jenny, our parish cook, a lovely non-Christian who has worked here for many years, looked at me with great suspicion and said, “I don’t believe you”. She added, “so many people have been hurt and injured by love”.

Actually, she cannot be blamed for being cynical about this statement. She can be included amongst the millions and millions who have either seen people hurting others by love, or perhaps have themselves been hurt by love. So how can we purport to believe that “love changes everything”? By looking at the truest and deepest definition of love.

Where do we find this? Where is the prototype of love? Who gives us the best example? Simply put – Jesus Christ himself.

“A new commandment I give to you – love one another as I have loved you” is the statement that makes Jesus THE definition of love, as he IS the giver of life and love. His is the Gold Standard of love. But we take this remarkable statement of Christ so lightly that it is hardly ever pondered over when we make our decisions and choice of actions in life. “Do this in memory of me” then makes very deep sense because we will love as Jesus loved, making him real and present to everyone we encounter.

There are many things that we do as Church. Our outreach to the poor, our works of mercy, our liturgical prayers and devotions, and the way that we share of what we have with those who have not. But at the heart of it, are we doing it with a conscious choice to love?

I am sure that a lot of us do give in various ways, but if at that very instance that we put our hands into our wallets or purses, consciously do become aware that this action needs to be done with a deliberate choice to love, I am sure that we will be more generous, less thinking of ourselves; less about what we will forgo and think more of the recipient as the receiver of love. If not, he or she will only be the recipient of money. And our giving action can be just a sign to them to leave us alone.

The same goes for the way that we worship as a community. Why do most of the faces that we see at Masses lack a conviction that we are indeed ‘glorifying’ God when we say “glory to God in the highest”? Perhaps it is because there is little love in our words. Simply put, we don’t love God.

Most of us fear him, and because we can only fear him, we will worship him because we are told to, and not because we show him that we are loving him by our worship. In many minds of Catholics, I won’t be surprised if God is some kind of ogre. It’s a very toxic image of God that we may have, and due to this, we worship in dread, we adore with a grudge, we drag our feet to Mass and we cannot find it in our hearts to love such a being.

I have close to 10 years of hearing confessions under my belt. But in these 10 years, I have yet to hear anyone admit with a humility “Father, I realize that I don’t love God. And because I don’t love God, I don’t love my neighbour as well, and I don’t love myself adequately”. I believe that when we can come to this realization, we would have come to what I’d call the cusp of a true encounter of our basal selfishness, which will very likely lead to a true encounter with God – the God of love.

And when we do, we will be convinced that love does change everything.