Monday, October 28, 2013

Daring to ask 'why'?

Sometimes the things that we learn from academic studies and for those of us who had been in the seminary, the courses that we had learnt from spirituality and pastoral courses can somewhat put us in a disadvantage from truly getting in touch with the reality of suffering and the Cross.  I have to admit that personally, from the time I was diagnosed with Leukemia in February, I may have mistakenly rushed through the five stages of grief just because I had intellectually known about them and read about them, and through the encounters of others who have suffered, decided in a silent way to simply accept the situation and be strong about it.  God apparently, had his ways to show that the Cross and suffering is something that we can’t work at on our own.  I can’t pull myself up by my own bootstraps no matter how I may hope to do it.

I have realized that I also need to allow myself to ask that difficult but unanswered question of ‘why’?  I hadn’t allowed myself this very important but necessary question in my illness, perhaps because I knew that at the bottom of it all, there are very little meaningful answers that will satisfy and give that peace that so many people seek when facing the various kinds of pains and struggles that we meet in life. 

The thing about living with and dealing with a blood cancer is that there is a pain that isn’t often physical.  It’s a very long road to recovery as if one is running not just a marathon but an ironman race, with sometimes life-threatening ‘bombs’ that feature along the long journey – a bit like what happened in the Boston Marathon.  In the past two weeks, I happened to hit such a ‘bomb’ situation that reminded me that this entire recovery journey was not going to to be anything easy.  I was stricken with what is known as an idiopathic pneumonia, which for a blood cancer patient like me with fluctuating blood counts, can be something truly lethal.  For two weeks I was in hospital, terribly weakened and subject to constant doses of a powerful antibiotic till the pneumonia cleared.  I am very blessed to have come out of the woods, and I am sure it is thanks to the prayers of so many people from around the world, and the professionalism of the doctors who cared for me medically.

But it was in the dark and lonely days in the hospital this time that I really dared to ask that difficult question – ‘why’?  I found myself getting strangely emotional very often when this question was pondered.  It took me almost ten months to dare to ask that question and I realized that it is not only necessary but also spiritually healthy.  Scripture has always told us to look for the face of God in our suffering, and I know that many people who suffer in so many ways are always asking God to show his face to them.  They want answers to why their lives had been so interrupted from their dreams and plans because of a suffering that had been untimely introduced.  People have all sorts of wonderful plans and hopes for life, and a suffering that jams these plans cause all sorts of anguish and perhaps even confusion about God. 

I have only recently been open enough to myself to ask myself why at age 48 I have been afflicted with this debilitating illness.  I had plans for my theological future, and so had the diocese by sending me away to get that Licentiate to be useful to the Church in Singapore.  I was always advocating a healthy lifestyle as a priest and lived a very consistent lifestyle that included healthy diet and exercise.  But I have now come to see that we can plan, we can have hopes and we can have our lives somehow mapped out well by those in charge of us, but ultimately, we need to submit humbly to the Lord who has his ways. 

There is nothing that is really embarrassing or shameful in daring in asking that question ‘why’?  I will always recall that when I was first diagnosed with Leukemia, a good priest friend told me not to rush into being gung-ho about the suffering that I am to go through.  I could not understand at that time why he was being so forthright with me, seeing that I was about to enter a long road to Calvary.  Now I can see his wisdom. 

The pain of suffering became very real to me when I got discharged from the hospital this time round.  I physically fell twice in a night and was totally disoriented from my fall first in the bathroom and then in the bedroom where I found myself at the foot of the bed, not knowing how I landed there, with bruises all over by body.  The sleeping medication combined with the steroids that I have been administered to overcome my pneumonia proved to be something that weakened me in the night and just going to the bathroom to relieve myself was such a harrowing experience.  I had not encountered a physical pain in my illness so far, even with the many Chemotherapy and transplant experiences, and these falls brought home to me that there is a physical suffering that I have to undergo as part of the mystery of suffering. 

Do you find yourself asking that ‘why’ question about life’s suffering?  You may not (and usually you wont’) find the answers you are looking for.  But make no mistake about it – it is a necessary question that broadens our spiritual horizons to allow God to show us his face.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Old Testament and New Testament portrayal of God

Today’s blog entry is inspired by a recent audio reflection, which I came across from American Theologian and Professor of Systematics Theology Rev Robert Barron.  He spoke eloquently about how we should always read and understand the passages of Holy Scripture, especially parts of the Old Testament, which seem to portray the image of a rather violent God, YHWH, who seems to have no qualms about smiting the enemies of Israel, sometimes in rather cruel ways.

What do we do with such a picture of a seemingly violent God who seems to show little compassion by raining down fire and brimstone on an unrepentant people?  Oftentimes, we end up making the mistake and compare this portrayal of God with the God that is featured in the New Testament and in our hearts think erroneously that there are two Gods or at least a God who had some sort of split personality through the centuries, and we like to say that we prefer the God of the New Testament to the God of the Old Testament.  This is a very wrong reading of scripture as our God is not schizophrenic and is never meant to be portrayed as such.  What is the key then to a proper reading of scripture so as not to fall into such a common false and wrong thinking?  We must never think that there is more than one God portrayed in the Bible.  He is one and the same through the centuries and time.

Fr Barron reminded us that the key to a correct interpretation of such passages is something that requires us to always be mindful of the last book of the Bible, which is the Book of Revelation where in chapter 5, we see that it is finally the slaughtered lamb who is able to open the seven seals of the scroll because he alone is worthy to break its seals.  In other words, everything that came before Christ has to be interpreted in the light of Christ the wounded and worthy Lamb of God, and this includes understanding the writings and prophecies of the all that is contained in the Old Testament.  Read it outside of this context, and one is bound to enter into confusion and wrong interpretation of scripture. 

What does this mean practically then?  Does it mean that God didn’t mean to smite the Egyptians?  Did he make a mistake by sending brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah?  No, it doesn’t mean that.  We need to see that the slaughtered Lamb of God had no limits to doing God’s will and was not half hearted in his living out his deepest calling.  God doesn’t do things in half measures.  The God as portrayed in the Old Testament was totally serious about wanting his people to know that he alone was their God and there was no one else that came close to loving and looking after them.  Those seemingly strong violent scenes were really strong scenes of unremitting love portrayed in a way that folk in that time were able to comprehend instantly.  Taken out of context, we will end up with only an image of a blood thirsty and violent God.  We are a people of both Old and New Testament, and as such, we have to read scripture with both lights on.  Jesus will always give us the right lights to shine on places that seem dark because he is the light of life.

This was a revelation given by one of the great fathers of the Church, Origen, and we should always be aware of this key when things become problematic for us.  It is a reminder that in our Christian life too, we cannot live in half measures because our God has never been a God of half measures.

It also reminds us to ask ourselves daily how serious we are in our Christian living and discipleship?  Are we satisfied merely in being nominal Christians, fulfilling the mere basic obligations with a ‘dragging our feet’ attitude?  Are we satisfied with just telling ourselves that we are ok simply because we have not cheated, lied, stolen, murdered, lusted, been greedy and coveted others’ goods, and have not turned an eye to foreign gods?  Let’s be honest – yes, those are ‘big ticket’ items, but in reality, it’s the small things that really can add up if we are not aware of the ways in which we may have given in to them.

Fr Barron gives some vivid examples of being really serious about our Christian living.  He makes the connection with the way that the medical world works.  If a doctor finds a tumor and goes into the body to excise it out, is he or the patient happy that he only removed 60% of the tumor, leaving 40% still in there?  Or in my case, I have been back in the hospital for over a week now due to a pneumonia that had developed in my lungs.  The doctors will not be happy to release me if my chest x-rays show a complete clearing of the patches of cloudiness that should the infection 100%.  Not 80%, not 90%.  A complete clearing.  My intake of oxygen levels also need to be between 98% and 100% without aid for them to be confident that my infection is cleared.  So far, my lungs are still not strong enough, and I am still recovering and strengthening my lungs through a regiment of strong steroids, which have side effects.  But this shows how serious the doctors are in getting rid of the pneumonia 100%. 

If this is the kind of attitude, the kind of serious attitude that doctors have for their patients under their care, how much more should we as disciples of Christ be totally serious about getting rid of the little sins that add up to show that we are not really 100% serious about Christian discipleship and living as close a life to Christ’s as possible?  It’s not difficult with the grace of God because all things are possible with God’s grace.

Having said this, we also have the compassion of Christ to rely on, especially when we come across the wonderful passage in Matt. 13:24-30 about the wheat and the weeds.  Much as we would love in our desire to be totally dedicated to God in our quest for holiness, Jesus also does remind us that some stumbling blocks in our lives cannot be simply gotten rid of in an instant because they grow with the good in us.  If we are too gung-ho about instant sanctification, we may end up doing more bad that good to ourselves.  Our quest for holiness may require the grace of a holy patient waiting and an allowance for things to happen without too much of our own manipulation, which often is the result of our own egos at work.

It’s a bit like my condition.  The supply of oxygen to my lungs has to be very slowly lessened little by little so that my lungs do not get into shock and fail to strengthen on their own.  It’s a delicate procedure that has to be sensitively handled.  Rush it and it will fail.  The steroids that are being administered cannot be suddenly cut down but has to be slowly tapered down such that my body can strengthen itself from within. 

Patience is thus key to many things in life, and that includes our spiritual lives.  No one becomes a saint over night, much as we may want to be.  The trials that we are given in life are the rich and necessary training grounds that give us the experience that God wants us to meet him in his different ways of loving and sustaining our lives.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

The hallmark of true Christian discipleship - joy over happiness

In the secular world, most people chase happiness.  This is not something new or groundbreaking.  People in marketing and sales are constantly hawking things that will purportedly bring some degree of happiness if their product is purchased.  Happiness however, is always fleeting, and dependent heavily on the externals and one’s feelings.  Yes, it can be bought, and many don’t think much about how shallow a life based on the pursuit of plain happiness can be. 

But joy is something that is markedly different and something that is unique to spiritual persons.  A spiritually mature person will have trained himself or herself in the ways not of happiness but of joy – the joy that comes from the inner conviction that God is always present no matter how the feelings or emotions are.  In my case, I have ‘good’ days, and I have ‘not so good’ days.  It hasn’t been that ‘good’ lately, but it hasn’t changed my inner joy of being at peace with my God and the fact that I am doing his will. 

But is it that difficult to differentiate between joy and happiness?  Do only people who ponder about life and faith make that distinction, and refuse to confuse the two?  I am not surprised at all that many of us may be baptized, confirmed and been Catholics for years or even decades and only equate joy with happiness when things are going well.  It doesn’t take faith to be joyful when things are going well.  Even the pagans think this way.  But the disciple of Christ needs to constantly step out of that proverbial ‘comfort zone’, to still maintain some sort of inner joy despite the fact that the situation/s one is facing may not be pleasant nor comfortable.  After all, we do not live for this life only, and the Christian is called to a faith that believes that this life is merely a stepping-stone, a training ground for something eternal called heaven.  The ‘training’ that each of us receives comes in different forms.  Most of the time, this ‘training’ involves some kind of suffering, something that asks of us to ‘hang in there’ and to believe that we are not ever going to be abandoned by God. 

When does a Christian manage to come to that state of life when despite the odds facing him/her, there is that inner conviction of joy about life?  I am convinced that it is first of all a tremendous grace given by God.  It is very much connected with faith, and we as recipients of this grace, can only say that much.  To a person who only has one definition of joy (which is equated with simple, shallow happiness) our words and our sharings about that subtle or not-so-subtle difference end up just being that – words.  To them, illness cannot exist with joy.  Poverty cannot co-exist with joy.  Failure and joy cannot exist in the same sentence.  In short, everything has to be perfectly aligned in order for some semblance of joy to exist. 

Joy, a Christian virtue, should be something that we all truly seek in life, because it is closely connected with our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Was there joy on Calvary on that first Good Friday?  It certainly wasn’t any form of shallow happiness, but if we contemplate long enough on Jesus’ conviction of doing the Father’s will, there had to be a hidden joy – so deep that it didn’t matter what he went through for the love of the Father and his will.

Perhaps it is this inability for many to appreciate this difference that we see many a dour face when there are troubles and tests in our lives.  If the Christian is only waiting for things to turn around, to get better, to become ‘all good’ before one is truly convinced of God’s presence in one’s life, one may not be a Christian with a deep faith, but rather, a disguised pagan at best. 

On my ‘not-so-good’ days, I may hardly be able to force out a smile.  But it does not take away the inner joy that I have as a disciple of the Lord.  I can only pray that more and more Christians begin to contemplate on the grounds of their faith, and become aware that we are not in this life to merely be happy, but to live in a joy that surpasses all understanding.  That way, when we do receive ‘bad’ news, or have ‘not-so-good’ days we truly can say ‘it’s alright’.  Because God is always all right.