Monday, August 29, 2011

Are we Christian disciples or would Jesus call us Satan?

As I was reflecting on yesterday’s gospel passage, it was the fact that Jesus called Simon Peter ‘Satan’ that seemed become a point of prolonged contemplation. Jesus, we know, had a real soft spot for Simon Peter, but at the same time, when it was clear to Jesus that he really missed the point of what Jesus was all about, Jesus did not hesitate to say it as it was, even to the extent of calling him ‘Satan’. It’s not that Peter was satanic by a long shot, but it was precisely that he missed the point of Jesus’ very purpose, which was to usher in the kingdom of God.

Peter had his own take on what the kingdom of God was about. For him, it was something that could not, should not and must not entail suffering of any kind, let alone being killed in the most gruesome and cruel way.

But I think this was not just Peter’s problem alone. In fact, there are a lot of Peter’s in the world. We are Peters whenever we want a plain sailing Christian life, and have a notion that the Christian life is one in which suffering and pain and anything that reminds us of the cross should be vanquished from our lives the moment we become baptized.

When I was in Singapore ministering as a priest, I often encountered many converts to Catholicism from the Taoist or Ancestral Worship background, and often, it was clear to me that though they had gone through the RCIA journey and had received the sacraments of initiation and were sacramentally living the Catholic life, in hidden reality, their view of God was still rather Taoist or steeped in Ancestral Worship categories.

It is most convenient to have God at our beck and call, and to have him answer all of our human needs. Perhaps the background that some had come from gave the idea that God will always answer prayers, especially if one were to ‘jump the hoops’ or do whatever one was instructed to do to appease the gods. When insufficiently catechized, the convert to Catholicism may be totally unaware that they have brought those categories of how god operates, and as it were, simply changed the face of their former deity to now have a Jewish appearance of Jesus, albeit with some Palestinian facial images, as would be expected of someone coming from Jewish stock.

This then becomes problematic when as a convert, God does not seem to answer prayers as ‘powerfully’ as when one was in one’s former religious belief. And I can fully appreciate the confusion and perhaps even disappointment one can experience when in the throes of suffering and pain and seeming hopelessness, one looks at the heavens and with fists clenched in rage, shout out “you are not as powerful as I thought you were, Jesus!” Indeed, in some of the responses to last week’s blog, there were some rather disappointed and pained Catholic converts who came to that conclusion that being Catholic turned out to be a disappointment that they had never anticipated.

In the gospel text of yesterday’s liturgy, Simon Peter clearly didn’t get it. For many of us, the process of catechesis and formation tries to help us to get it, to fully embrace the reality that God’s kingdom is really a process that involves a necessary struggle and a training, as some spiritual masters have put it. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for coining the phrase ‘cheap grace’, when he reminds us that the grace of God requires a sort of a suffering on our part. This must be the cross that Jesus is speaking of. But we, unfortunately, want cheap grace.

In almost all areas of our lives, there is suffering and a carrying of some cross in some form. Think of the mother who sacrifices much for her family, or the artist who goes through blocks and blocks of marble to come to that block that finally enables him to carve out the perfect image in his mind; or the athlete who goes through months and months of rigorous training, enduring mind-numbing pain to be able to at the Olympics break a record and have that opportunity to stand at the top podium of the Gold Medalist; or the student who goes through the daily grind of study discipline and diligent work to finally make that breakthrough in understanding tough Theological arguments and concepts in order to make them real and relevant for the laity. These are sufferings, and it would be tempting to want to have them cheap.

I believe that many may want baptism to be the key to the magic door that makes everything smooth and easy, and all things to come our way. But when we think this way, unfortunately, Satan may be our hidden middle name.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Remembering Christ in the Caesarea Philipi’s of our lives

Invariably, our steadfastness in being true to our declaration that Jesus is the Christ becomes tested and tried not so much in times of plenty and joy, but rather, in times of trial and tribulations. This is a truism that cannot be easily denied. It is always easy to be true to our Christian values and demands when the going is smooth, the bank account is healthy, the larder is full, and our kids are on the straight path in life. After all, these are easy signs that God is indeed blessing us, and our natural response would be to continue walking on our path in Christ’s footsteps.

However, there will come a time when this path seems to veer into the side roads, where undergrowth becomes daunting to clear, and where our faith becomes tested and tried. I believe that these are the times when we have to make that deliberate choice to stay close to our Christian convictions and not ‘sell away’ our Christian identity too easily.

In yesterday’s gospel text, this was graphically put across to us by the seemingly innocent mention of the geographical area of Caesarea Philippi as the place where that conversation between Jesus and Peter took place. Scripture is rich with depth and meaning, and there are no wasted words in the Bible. Although it seems to be something merely mentioned in passing, there is really a deep theological and spiritual significance regarding Caesarea Philippi.Notice that they were not in Jerusalem, the great and beloved city when this conversation took place. Jerusalem was considered to be God’s chosen city. It was the place of high religious office, the place of the temple, and the city of light. But not Caesarea Philippi. This is a place up north called the Golan Heights. And it was also a place which was where the pagan god of Pan was especially honoured. Strange, you’d think, that Jesus would choose a place like this to ask Peter if his allegiance to Christ was going to be steadfast.

I think we all have our Caesarea Philippi moments in life. These are the times when we are somewhat far from where it is easy to be close to God’s temple, where the structures of faith and our familiar pillars of society are constantly reminding us to walk the walk of faith. I guess, in the Jerusalems of our lives, it is easy to declare Jesus as the Christ of our lives. At least, it would be far easier in comparison to when we are at our Caesarea Philippi’s of our lives where God seems to be somewhat distant, or at best, on vacation for whatever reason.
This is when compromise can easily be what we choose, and take the path ‘most’ travelled.I was leafing through the iPad version of the Straits Times from my home Singapore just this morning, and was dismayed to read that there are more and more couples who have headed abroad to places like Thailand, Belgium, Israel, and the United States to choose the gender of their baby through a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In short, this is really playing God in an extreme way, where not only is the embryo dabbled with humanly manipulated, it is also ‘engineered’ to ensure the chosen and preferred gender of the baby will be ‘made’. As if the IVF choice was not intrinsically evil in itself, this adds an even deeper layer of evil which is easily masked by the seeming ‘good’ that can come out of it, because after all, a ‘boy’ child would be for the good of the family line. Obviously, the fact that life is a gift from the true and unique giver of life is overlooked and ignored, making the couple’s choice and intentions far more important God’s.My compassionate side reminds me to try to see things from the couples’ viewpoint. Of course, being Chinese, a son would be wonderful, and I can empathise with couples who are barren and who would love to have children of their own. But barrenness can really be a hallmark of faithfulness if only couples could carry this as a mark of sacrificial or redemptive suffering for so many other reasons, the reparation of souls being a very good one. Sure, it could well be that none of these couples are Catholics and who have been well grounded in good Catholic moral education and formation, and that is why they choose this option of life selection. But this is a very clear example of being in a Caesarea Philippi region of life, where other ‘gods’ are worshipped and one is far from the heart of Jerusalem, the ‘true pole’ of the earth.

I can easily think of other forms of Caesarea Philipis – the temptation to stray from fidelity to one’s spouse; the lure of lucre through illicit means that are so easy and attractive; the walking out from responsibilities of family, society and even nation; or the giving up of life altogether.

What made Peter so remarkable in his response to Jesus was that he declared so pointedly that Jesus was the Christ – meaning the ‘saviour, the anointed one’ in that situation, and in the very next moment, which we will see next weekend, Peter gets it wrong and gets called Satan. Well, that’s us too.

But this is where we need to model ourselves after Peter, because in the end, it was the mercy of Christ that he clung on to that really made him the ‘rock’ that had firm foundations.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Worshipping Mary gives Catholicism a bad name

It’s inevitable – every time I encounter a Catholic who has moved to another Christian denominational church, or when a Catholic ‘basher’ meets a Catholic in a theological ‘chin-wag’, the topic of Mary and Marian devotion always seems to pop up, and the Catholic is often labeled as a Marian worshipper and someone who dabbles in idolatry. At least that has been the situation in Singapore, and now that I am in America, perhaps that might change – wait and see.

I have come to use a very ‘disarming’ way to dealing with such acrimony when it ensues, and it is to start by agreeing with them. For instance, when the conversation turns to “Catholics have got it all wrong – worshipping Mary when you should be worshipping Christ. It’s not in the bible, and God is not pleased with what you Catholics are doing.” Perhaps you have had chance encounters with such ‘enthusiastic’ proponents of Christianity, and it looked something like this. What I usually do is to start by agreeing with them.

Open up with “Yes, I totally agree with you! It’s terrible how these Catholics have got it all wrong. Mary should never be worshipped, and Mary doesn’t want to be worshipped. In fact, if she is worshipped, not only is God displeased, but so is Mary. You are so correct in pointing this out, and I think we should do our best to educate them.” I am sure you will see the tone change, and the when the storm has calmed down somewhat, that would be the best time to insert what real Catholicism is vis-à-vis Mary, Mariology and devotion to saints.

Lets get this straight from the outset. Devotion to Mary is not absolutely necessary and crucial as a child of God. No one has been sent to hell for not ever praying a Hail Mary or for dissing Mary and her place in Salvation History. True, we are and should all be Christo-centric as Christians. Devotions to saints help us very much because they serve as having encountered the human difficulties and challenges that you and I go through each day of our lives. In a manner of speaking, they have gone through the fire, and their scars and healed wounds have been their letter of reference of their love for God. Our lives here on earth are always made better when we get the help of others who can do things better than we. This applies in the office, in home life, and even in our social lives. What more in the realm of the spiritual life?

But far more than a mere practical standpoint, Jesus literally has ‘given’ Mary to us from his most crucial and pivotal moment of his humanity – on the Cross on Calvary. At a point when he was at his lowest and most abandoned, when every shred of his dignity was stripped from him and he had very little left, even that he chose to ‘give away’, which was Mary being his mother. He told John to behold his Mother. When Jesus gave us himself at the Eucharist at the Last Supper, it was mind boggling. But perhaps it would be audacious of me to suggest that he didn’t quite give his everything at that point yet. He held back two things – his mother, and his own spirit. And he left that to the very last.

It was right at that point of the crux of salvation of all of humanity that Jesus gave everything, and it was at Calvary on the Cross. When we honour what has been bequeathed to us as a legacy by someone at his point of death, we hold that person in a position of highest esteem. Anyone receiving a great gift at a benefactor’s death-bed will always cherish that gift, especially when it is one of enormous value and will make that person very rich and blessed. Jesus did that for us. He gave us his Mother to behold, and after that he gave his life to God the Father.

When we appropriate correctly our worship to Christ as our Saviour and Lord, we will know that it cannot put aside and ignore someone he most cherished and valued in life. We do ourselves a great injustice when we act as if Mary was no feature in the life of Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we should worship her. That is something that needs to be reserved for God and God alone. Catholics who worship Mary have indeed given Catholicism a bad name, and those of us who can, should do our best to re-educate them.

But this is what I have gained from my 10 years of experience as a priest, ministering to many uneducated and elderly Catholics who really have not read any books on spirituality or have found it just too difficult. They may appear to worship Mary, but deep in their hearts, they only mean to worship God. Holding a rosary in their hands is often their way of holding on to the hands of Christ in dire times.

Today, the Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary to heaven, body and soul. It is a universal reminder to all of us that we have a mother given by God himself to love us, to pray for us, and to guide us on our way to Christ who herself is with God in her complete personhood. I’ve always loved the one line in the reading for the Mass of the Assumption from the Book of Revelation that says “the woman herself fled to the desert where she had a place of safety prepared by God”. Indeed, any desert would be that last place one would find safety, but Mary’s faith allowed her to even venture into a desert to discover there a safe haven from dangers. If we find ourselves in the deserts of life, and dare to trust God as much as Mary did, we can always dare to hope that deserts can lead to desserts.

Mary did, and so must we.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Of words and actions

In my experience as a preacher for the past ten years, I have seen the impact and effect that words can have on people. The general congregation (at least those that I have had the opportunity to preach to each week) are basically a grateful group for having been shown respect by preachers who do their work and preparation before going up to the ambo on any given day at Mass. As I made preparations to leave my parish the past couple of weeks to begin life anew as a student once more, many kind notes and cards were given expressing thanks for the effort to bring some change in their lives through the words I have spoken. And if I have been such an instrument, I do thank the Lord for being such.

But do words really have such power? I guess they have the power to peak one’s interest, to catch the attention, and if the phrasing and choice of words are apt, they can even transport them to another place and time. But why then do most congregants find that even after years and years of hearing homily after homily, sermon after sermon (yes, there is a difference between the two of them) lives are still somewhat unchanged, and hearts generally untouched? I know that there is no scientific evidence available, but I am quite sure that the numbers of lives that really become transformed by mere preaching and having listened to a good homily are inversely proportioned to the numbers that turn up at Masses week after week.

Perhaps this is because the reality is that words can only do so much. What really transforms and what truly invites transformation is when the one speaking becomes a true channel of transformation himself. In other words, the congregation or audience have an unspoken need to see that the very life of the speaker or preacher or in this case, the priest, is living a life as close to the words that tumble out of his mouth as possible.

And this is not just something that we priests must be aware of. Parents who want to guide the hearts of their children must also know that their very lives and actions become the barometer of mummy’s or daddy’s words. What we human beings really search out for are role models in the various areas of our lives, and this is the far more difficult and challenging part of preaching and teaching.

At our level best as teachers of life, we can imitate John the Baptist and point out the way, but as far as real transformation, we make such little progress it can become a tad depressing or even discouraging. There really is far more admiration than transformation and changed living in the religious and priestly arenas and this is something that saddens.

When the disciples of Jesus went to him and complained that there were some demons that were stubborn and resisted exorcism, Jesus replied that ‘this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting’. Herein lies the true power of effective devil-battling and spiritual warfare which many of us don’t take seriously enough.

What Jesus alluded to is the need for true integration in our lives on all areas if we want our words to really be effective. There is a lot of disintegration in the world today, both in the secular as well as in the religious and spiritual platforms. Bankers are distrusted, politicians are paid scant respect when their skeletons are dragged out of the closet, and priests and religious drag the good name of God down many notches when scandals of various proportions hit the pages of newspapers.

How is it that great saints have had the real power to effect positive changes in people even though some of them were cloistered away, sequestered perhaps, in convents and monasteries? It must be the belief in the universal power of an upright and moral heart that transcends physical barriers and nation boundaries and knows no borders. I must believe that my yen for holiness even though half a world away has its effects on lives and hearts that are beyond my physical reach.

This conviction must sustain my wanting to continue to practice with love and conviction the daily disciplines of prayer and regular abstinence for a universal effect of transformed hearts and lives, and inspire others to do the same.

Only then can words really make a real difference.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cutting off arms and tearing out eyes

One of the most challenging things that a priest can do in his ministry is to help the enchained to be free and the lame to walk. No, I am not talking about any sort of radical liberation theology nor of any sort of miraculous healing. I am referring to the transformation that can happen when the grace of the sacrament of reconciliation invites and compels a penitent to want to walk that path of holiness after having strayed and made the wrong choices.

Why is this challenging? Simply because if the penitent is sincere about making those life changing decisions, it will be a very painful thing to do, especially so if the sin had been one that had been deeply engrained in the life of the penitent hitherto the confession. We are not talking about small change here (pun intended). What really rocks the boats of our lives is when one squarely looks into one’s life, and sees that for a long time, one has been making the wrong choices, getting one into the present fix that one is in, and the only way out is to make those radical decisions that require some root pulling.

To be sure, many of these changes are not going to come easy, especially if another person is involved, or when some attachment had already been long established. For instance, making that cut from an affair in an adulterous relationship is going to be heartbreaking for sure. I have even advised the owner of shares in a casino related business to sell off those shares as being a shareholder in such a business is tantamount to being a contributing partner in an enterprise that ruins the lives of many. Apparently, he sold his shares but nevertheless feels a certain regret each time he sees how much the share price has risen since then.

In scripture, Jesus gives us a very graphic image of what I had just elucidated. Mt 18:8-9 has him say, “If your hand or foot should cause you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”. And a little further, “if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into the hell of fire.”

What gives? Does Jesus want us all limping around like victim of minefield mishaps or looking like Cyclops? Certainly not. But what he alludes to is the reality that if we are serious about sin and its effects to our lives (entering into life), there are choices that we have to make, and oftentimes, these choices will hurt.
How does one deal with the pain? Perhaps this is where good spiritual direction comes in. Few spiritual journeyers make full use of spiritual directors to help one to truly enter into life, especially if one has been maimed due to radical cutting and plucking, and this is most unfortunate.

One of the best ways to work around the pain is to realize that all of us need to have a real loving and living relationship with Jesus, who is saviour and Lord. The word “Saviour” has connections with the word “salve” or healing balm, and also has links with the world ‘salvation’. If we cut off our reliance on the opiate of sin that had us sin-bound for many years of our lives, we would be in free-fall mode if there is no where or no one who we can “hold on to” once we have made that radical cut. Why Jesus is called our Saviour is because he has always been, and will always the one who we have to be rooted in to dare to stand apart from our attachment to sin.
It has been my sad observation that many a Catholic has yet to really form that deep abiding relationship with Jesus from the get go. And so, when the wave of life comes our way, we tend to get swept up in all that thrills and delights us, taking us to wherever we think is appropriate. Storm-tossed in the sea of life, if one has lost one’s sight of the saving beacon of Christ on the shore of life, one easily thinks that one can float fancy free in the open waters, until one realizes that one’s compass (moral or otherwise) has been spinning amok.

Does this then mean that establishing a relationship with Christ becomes just another opiate to occupy our minds in place of some other person or thing? It certainly could. But that should only be a start. Even saints had to purify their relationship with Christ, and most did not get it correct from the start.

I sincerely believe that when we truly establish Christ as the head of our lives, when he becomes the centre of our universe (which he truly is), it orientates our lives in the proper way that it should be. Our marriages become ‘set’ right when we love Christ first before our spouses. Our families become ‘set’ right when we truly make Christ the head of each household and orientate our lives towards his and his kingdom. It will also make our work, our recreation, our goals and every other aspect of our lives ‘fall into place’.

If Christ is not yet the centre of our lives, and if we only want to cut our relationship with the ‘arms’ or ‘eyes’ that have caused us to go astray in life, it will be akin to abandoning our pleasure yachts on the high seas of life, jumping into the shark infested waters with only a life raft or some floatation device, and trying to swim shore-ward without a guiding beacon.

But with Christ deeply rooted at the true centre of our lives, we can courageously make that necessary, albeit painful decision to cut off arms and tear out eyes.