Monday, December 31, 2012

When suffering causes us to ask God if he exists.

The world has seen a whole slew of terrible violence reported in the media lately.  The word ‘mindless’ had often been used in these reports, and one can understand why.  After all, there is no mind that can wrap itself around an act of entering an Elementary School with a semi-automatic assault rifle and spraying bullets randomly, killing innocent children and teachers.  There is no mind that can fathom how one can plan to ambush volunteer firemen by setting a house on fire and shooting the firemen down like some hapless animals when they arrive on the scene to give help.  And there is no way a mind can even consider how a young 23 year old woman can be so brutally raped and attacked by a group of men and left to die.  These stories are just some of the many of awful and insane violence that has taken place in the past month alone on this planet we call earth, where human beings call home.  It is strange to call us human beings when from what appears in these stories, there are beings that are scarcely human. 

But my vocation as priest always seems to ask a more fundamental question – a question, which I am sure many atheists out there have asked at some point of time in their lives.  Where was God when these acts occurred?  The atheists have long come to a conclusion that because God had not acted to intervene directly when these massacres occurred, it is proof that God doesn’t exist.  Their premise is that a benevolent being cannot but show up and stop anything that doesn’t fit at all into the plan of goodness and life – like a holy Superman or Ironman.  But I wonder if they have ever considered that this view of God is flawed because it means that this God does not give us the freedom of our wills in giving us our lives, even when our wills are willfully against his.  While atheists claim to not believe in God, the God that they may want to have is actually a control-freak despot who can easily be upset and outraged.

But then, you may question why I am questioning as well, and whether it is a fair question to ask.  My question is not one of ‘where were you, God?’ but more of a ‘what is this teaching us?’.  Mindless violence and attacks are common occurrences.  But if nothing is learnt from them, they will continue and may even increase in intensity and mindlessness.  What we need is a new grace to be able to look not outside at these happenings, but inside where each of us becomes aware that we have a possibility to make a change and to cooperate with the grace of God to respond adequately to each challenge and invitation to live a godly life.  In the wake of the death of the Indian girl, there have been calls for a similar violent treatment to all of her murderers, and some have been pretty violent and graphic, to say the least.  But won’t reacting this way merely perpetuate violence, and put us on the same level as these depraved men who seemed to love violence?  It was Mahatma Ghandi, the sage from their own land who was famously quoted “an eye for an eye makes the world blind”.  Violence will never end violence.  Besides, which of us in conjuring up these torturous responses of revenge can claim to be without sin ourselves?  While it is noble and true that many have empathized with the victim and called her ‘sister’ or ‘daughter’, and indeed she is, we cannot have double standards to say that the rapists are not our ‘brothers’ and our ‘sons’.  If we are really true to our Christian calling, they are.  This is really the heart of the true Christmas message that we may have missed that Jesus underwent the incarnation to make ALL of us (sinners and saints) his brothers and sisters.  He did not just come for the good.  Psalm 85:10 speaks of a time when righteousness and peace will kiss, and steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.  What does this mean but that there is a new kind of justice in Christ when he comes – a justice that no longer screams for blood in return for blood, and revenge for a hurt caused.  As long as we want revenge, suffering, torture, blood and lives in return for lives, the spiral of violence continues and we are not at all ready for Christ’s coming and Christmas was a mere day off work.

Another thing that comes out of these stories is that there is an inevitable willingness for our God to wait.  He is in no hurry, or at least he seems not to be.  The fact that he doesn’t move much out of his holy throne to augment and turn things around doesn’t even seem to bother him that this ‘lackadaisical’ approach can end up making more and more atheists.  Apparently, it was a Czech writer named Thomas Halik who said that an atheist is someone who is not patient enough with God.

Perhaps he was right ‘on the money’, as some would say.  People of faith are people who display a lot of patience with God though I am certain that most of us struggle too when it comes to sufferings of our own.  Even the best of us is not without our heartache and crushing experiences in life where we would rather have had God intervene swiftly to resolve anxiety, tension and pain.  Which of us would not prefer a God who rescues us from dangers, who is the stalwart upholder of justice and righteousness, and who doesn’t permit us to suffer, grow feeble and finally die?  The difference between the Atheist and believing Christians is that we are still committedly in the waiting 'game'. 

Yes, I know we are on the cusp of the New Year, and many will make these things called New Year resolutions.  It’s fashionable, I suppose.  In some ways, to have resolutions gives the impression that you are still interested in life, and that you are not giving up on goodness and hope, and that there is the possibility of change for the better. 

So this is my two-cents’ worth of anything that may connect a resolution with faith.  Make that resolution to stay waiting, and to do it with a deep sense of joy.  Things can turn worse, and they probably will.  It’s not a waiting game that God is playing.  If Jesus came down from the Cross at his crucifixion, it would have changed so much they way we see God now.  God did let Jesus die even though he was being challenged and taunted.  And that saved us!  We will be challenged and perhaps even taunted in our sufferings this year.  We need to stay in the waiting and have our minds turned toward the resurrection, and in our thoughts and actions, try to let steadfast love and faithfulness meet, and righteousness and peace kiss.

Blessed 2013, everyone.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The real power of Christmas

I am sure that there are many people who have reflected on the true meaning of Christmas.  I cannot be the only one.  But I do believe that as a regular blogger who tries to put his two-cents’ worth of spiritual reflection online once a week, it behooves me to write on this topic as Christmas falls on us this week. 

Is this a season for children?  Some have made this comment, and I do remember my own father making this remark in my younger days.  He was possibly influenced by the advertising industry that he was in, and saw how much commercialization there was during the lead up to this day.  After all, it cannot be argued against that there is this whole toy culture that surrounds Christmas, though in this day and age, it is not just children who hanker after toys.  But the seeming innocence of the Christmas story and the fact that it is a child who is born in very dire circumstances may lead one to think that Christmas is a time that is for the child than for the adults.

But is it really?  On the surface it may appear to be so.  But the entire theology and spirituality behind the incarnation is anything but infantile or facile.  The juxtaposition of the powerful being subsumed and overpowered by the powerless, the overturning of the values of the world by the entering of the one who created the world, the contrast between the earthly kings against the supreme power of the heavenly king are things that are beyond the grasp of the mind of the child, and how non-violence in God is the only answer to the violence of humankind.  It is after all, the celebration of the greatest intellectual mystery of all time, when God’s justice comes into the world in such a hitherto unseen way. 

But isn’t the real power of Christmas in actual fact the real and unfathomable power of God?  It is the forgiving mercy of God that comes to us in a way that we could never have planned or prepared for.  That is what Advent is essentially – to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord into our lives.  That is why we need to experience at this time the forgiveness of God through either penitential services or the individual Sacrament of Reconciliation.  It is one concrete way that allows us to make that room for God to enter where before, there was only room for our selfish and individualistic ways.  But there are many who do not feel the need to make that confession before Christmas.  Perhaps it is because they have not seen the reality of God’s great desire to make that breakthrough into the hardened hearts of ours. 

There is a great innocence that surrounds Christmas that needs to be recaptured and re-appreciated.  We cannot hope to grasp a glimpse of this innocence if we have not sought God’s re-establishment of our individual innocence through his divine forgiveness that is bestowed on us at Confession.  Some parishes have elaborate Christmas cribs that bespeak of this innocence, and these will have little worth if the parishioners can only admire the detail of this work of art, and have not looked with as much detail at their own hearts.  All iconography and Church art has to have the purpose of leading one to experience and encounter the divine. 

It was, after all, our own sin that had caused the incarnation to take place.  For this reason alone, we ought to show gratitude for the fact by admitting the need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

Whenever one truly meets God in his offering of forgiveness, the result is always the experience of a deep and abiding joy that comes to our hearts, principally because we are at our most vulnerable and least pretentious in the confession.  We present our truest, most raw self that God knows, and we seek God’s love in that state.  No one leaves the confession miserable and angry, resentful and bitter (at least no one should).  We come out with great hope for ourselves and for the world, and we come out with our faith restored and our souls touched and healed.  Christmas joy is very much connected to this. 

I wish each of my precious blog readers a most joyful Christmas that is filled with the real power of God’s healing love.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Naughty or nice?

It’s that time of the year when the incessant Christmas tunes are being played over the airwaves on the radio and in the stores.  You would find it a great challenge to go to any store or mall where you will not be hearing how “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” or songs about a crimsoned proboscis quadruped named Rudolf.  While they inevitably put some Christmas ‘spirit’ in the air, some of these seemingly harmless and saccharine-soaked songs can impart wrong messages and perhaps become the point where harmful theology surrounding the Christmas message can foment.  One particular song that most people know by heart comes to mind – “Santa Claus is coming to town”.

I am in no way suggesting that Santa Claus exists qua the image that most people have in their minds, although the person who he is supposed to take the moniker from did in fact exist in the person of St Nicholas, a third century Greek Bishop.  But when the image of Santa Claus becomes the most (at least commercially) recognized person of the Christmas season, and that message gets somehow interspersed with the fact that Christ came down to us to join us in our humanity on that first Christmas, what results could well become a mélange of mental images and ideas that are faulty, to say the least.  

When one gets inundated with a message that Santa Claus has a list, and is going to determine who gets a gift based on whether one had been naughty or nice, it is relatively harmless if it stays on that level – a simple song that at best, teaches that our actions have consequences.  However, the fact that this song is most heard around this time of the year, a time that celebrates the amazing goodness of God’s love for us, can give rise to a bad theology that will influence the way we live out our Christianity.  Let me explain.

One of the most insidious heresies that has affected Christianity from the moment it was identified is Pelagianism.  Pelagius was a British monk (some would debate on his country of origin) who lived in the 4th century, and one of the things that he taught was that the human will alone was sufficient to live a sinless life.  This meant that it was technically possible for one to attain heaven on one’s own merit, without any need for God’s grace and assistance.  The corollary of this would be that when one is good and lives rightly, it would be necessary for God to grant him or her heaven as a reward for a life well lived.  Pelagius and his theology was officially condemned at the Council of Carthage in the year 418, but sadly, vestiges of his poisonous theology continues in various forms right down to our time, often given the name semi-Pelagianism. 

Offshoots of this kind of erroneous theology result in the thought that one can earn God’s grace and mercy.  We see this in the mentality of the faithful who practice certain devotions so that they can earn or merit God’s grace in life.  Correct devotion will always steer clear of this heresy, but the Church has found it a very common human trait to either arm-twist or bargain with God in our acts of worship. 

When Catholic children at young impressionable ages are not taught the faith and its tenets well, and their minds are left to ‘figure’ things out themselves (or worse, to be left at the hands of hardly trained catechists) it is all too easy for them to enter into adulthood with a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian mind, carrying with them the erroneous belief that God himself has a list of who’s naughty and nice, and will only reward the ‘nice’ ones.  Having said this, it doesn’t mean that there will be no recompense required for transgressions committed on our part.

But the marvel and wonder of the incarnation is really an overturning of a quid-pro-quo or tit-for-tat idea, or anything close to it.  No one in humankind had been ‘nice’ to cause God to take on humanity in such a complete way.  In fact, it was just the opposite – because all of us had been ‘naughty’, that God came to save us all.  The result necessarily would be lifelong thanksgiving and praise for such an act of undeserved mercy shown by God who loves us, without our having to deserve it one bit. 

Perhaps it is in this light that we should really be thinking of giving Christmas presents to our enemies at this time of the year, and enter into the real meaning of Christmas.  In this way, we will be loving those who hate us, and those who make life a real challenge for us.  It is very easy to give Christmas to those whom we love and those who love us back, but let’s be honest – that was furthest from the true meaning of the first Christmas.    

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why does God speak in the deserts of our lives?

The Sacred text is replete with episodes that happen in the desert.  But I am sure that many would say that this would be expected since a large part of Palestine and the neighbouring areas have plenty of desert areas.  There is, however, much more to it than mere geography.  There’s something that a desert does to one who encounters it.  Many think that a desert is a lifeless place.  On one level, it is.  Yet, on many other levels, deserts do something to us when we enter into them with an openness and humility.

The message that was preached by John the Baptist was a heralding within the physical environs of a desert.  God was coming into the world and it was not going to be something proclaimed in the big ritzy cities where there was so much going on.  Instead, God wanted the proclamation of his entry into humanity to be made through a voice in the wilderness.  There seems to be no logic here.  What is the rationale for this absurd modus operandi?  It’s just not effective.  Or is it?

Deserts are more than mere physical places on the earth that are harsh and seemingly lifeless.  There are also deserts that we find ourselves in even though we may live hundreds of kilometers away from the piece of arid waste.  The situations that we find ourselves in life often have desert-like conditions.  Some would venture to say that the Church in some parts of the world are experiencing such conditions, where pews are empty, the faith of the believers are waning and these may have been precipitated by the scandals that have rocked the church.  Some would say that the Church is indeed in a desert time, and it is especially challenging when it is facing a wall of relativism that is influencing many. 

But this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself.  Sure, the scandals were horrible and there is no doubt that they were sinful.  In no way can they be exonerated.  But this period of mourning and desert silence may not necessarily be a bad thing for us.  Aren’t there many instances where there have been such experiences where it does seem that God has been somewhat absent in life, leaving us ‘abandoned’ and our souls somewhat parched?  It could be a crisis of some form, perhaps financial, or something that has impacted our physical health like a cancer diagnosis or some other ailment, or some natural calamity.  These can often leave us bereft of faith for sometime, or, as in many cases, be the way through which God is given a path that is cleared into our hearts.  The images from the prophet Isaiah speak of one preparing the way of the Lord, where paths are made straight, and valleys filled, with the leveling of mountains and rough ways made smooth. 

The desert is indeed a tough place to survive in, but it is also a place where one can truly begin to listen to oneself.  There are little distractions, hardly any bright lights and sounds that can unsettle and disconcert us, and if we are really going to survive, there has to be a determination to rely on the Grace of God, and to set our sights on the route out.  One hardly goes into a desert to remain there forever.  It usually is a necessary route one takes to get to another safe haven. 

The Advent journey, when seen along those lines, can help us to prepare ourselves to welcome the Lord – not the infant Jesus at Christmas, as he has already come.  Rather, it reminds us to also prepare, far more importantly, for the second coming of Christ at the end of time, or of our lives whichever comes first.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

The season for waiting has come

There are quite a few images that come to mind when the season of Advent comes upon us.  Of course, the time-honoured images have to do with the spiritual themes of peace, hope and love (charity), and they all have in common the underlying element of joy, which permeates the entire Christmas season to come. 

But what really is the season of Advent in its essence about?  What does the Church really want us to experience and learn from during these four weeks that lead up to the celebration of the birth of the Son of God?  Is there something that the Church knows that the human condition has a certain aversion towards that she believes strongly that we need to re-learn this every year, simply because we are creatures of habit who have an aversion toward something that seems so difficult to overcome?  As I look around me, not just in Singapore but even here in America, I have come to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with waiting.

We human beings seem to have such an inbuilt intolerance towards waiting of any kind.  The technology that we have surrounded ourselves with has not helped but rather exacerbated this allergy in us by making so many things faster in our lives.  In the areas of information and communication, on almost all platforms of our lives, the availability of quick and relatively affordable means of technology has made us as a people more and more impatient and unable to wait.  For anything. 

We are in a hurry to do so much that we find it hard to slow down.  I came across an advertisement in the media on the morning after Thanksgiving here (that’s the last Thursday in November, for non-Americans) and it declared that the Christmas season has officially begun.  “Says who?” I found myself asking internally as my mind tried to comprehend what seemed insane.  Within a week, stores began putting up their Christmas decorations and people were declaring that Christmas was ‘in the air’.  Let me say first of all, that I am neither a humbug nor a wet blanket.  I do love Christmas, but like everything else in life, it has its time and place, and there needs to be a healthy respect for a proper celebration of it.  The problem is that when we cut short the preparation that includes a spiritual and liturgical element, we cheapen the experience and the true meaning of Christmas.  We have become a people who are in a rush to celebrate Christmas when it is not Christmas.

Offices, neighbours and church groups are often known to have Christmas parties weeks before Christmas.  Presents are exchanged and folk greet one another with Christmas joy before it is Christmas.  The irony is that because we have been in such a hurry to enjoy Christmas before Christmas actually arrived, by the time it really does come and it is the true time to celebrate the arrival of the Son of God into our broken humanity to lift it from its sinful state, we have been all but Christmassed-out.  We don’t want to hear another Christmas carol, and we cannot even look at a another log cake or a fruitcake because our bellies have had their fill of them before Christmas came.  We find dust gathered on the Christmas decorations because they had been out for a month already, and many can’t wait to clear them away on 26 December.  Most of us don’t even think we should leave the Christmas decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord in January, when Christmastide is officially over.  All this is because we have not learnt to wait.

But all this impatience didn’t happen overnight, to be sure.  We have become a product of so much impatience on so many other different areas of our lives, that we unthinkingly apply it to Christmas.  But there are very strong elements of impatience in many other areas of our lives.

The fact that the incarnation came through a Virgin is a teaching point for all of us.  It’s not that sex is bad, and that is why God had to come to us via a Virgin.  Apart from the fact that it pointed to God being the only Father of the child Jesus, virginity is itself a statement of a willingness to wait.  The whole sexual revolution came about because of a resistance and an inability to wait.  Many married couples are not able to genuinely celebrate their marriage with a consummation because the 'we did' came long before the 'I do'.  Indeed, there is a general intolerance towards waiting for anything in so many other areas of our lives.  Ronald Rolheiser once said that “Chastity is about proper waiting, and waiting is about patience in carrying the tensions and frustrations we suffer as we live the unfinished symphonies of our lives.”

What needs to be re-appreciated on a deep level is the beauty and virtue of waiting, and waiting well, which trains us for the ability to carry tensions well in our lives.  Aren’t most sins caused because we had no intention of waiting for things to unfold, and we had to have things our way and in our time? 

So, let us really try to wait well this Advent.  Let us not be too quick to organize those Christmas parties till Christmas really comes.  Let us wish each other Merry Christmas only on December 25 and don’t stop till Christmastide is over.  Refrain from playing those Christmas carols at home or on the car CD until Christmas so that you will sustain the joy and hope that Jesus’ birth came to give beyond Christmas day.  And make this Advent a true preparation in spirit and in truth for the one who comes at Christmas to lead us to worship God in spirit and in truth.