Monday, January 27, 2014

The power of The Word

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” goes an old saying which many of us have heard from our early years.  It had been used often to remind us not to be easily offended by words uttered by our adversaries in life, and to not be bothered by any kind of unkindness or name-calling by those who seek to taunt us.  In short, it was a simple statement which really taught us among other things, that we have the ability, power and freedom to allow (or not allow) the words of others to control us.

But strong is the person who really has that kind of control.  Isn’t it true that for so many of us, we have handed this power over to our adversaries and “those who hate us”?  We allow the mere power of either the spoken or written word to affect us (usually negatively) and we hold that person with such contempt for either having written or said something scathing about us and our character.  The result?  It can range from harbouring a long term grudge against that person, or a law-suit, depending on how deep our pockets are and how badly we want so-called “justice” done.  It also depends often on how much “offended” we are. 

In Singapore, within the span of about one week, a certain expatriate banker by the name of Aston Casey has become public enemy number one merely by posting a few lines on his now removed Facebook account a couple of very derogatory and insulting remarks about us Singaporeans and our public transport system.  These words of his became “viral” in more ways than one.  This virus spread so quickly and suddenly all of Singapore and even other parts of the world became aware of this person’s open disdain for the poor and “smelly” public transport user that vitriolic spewed from many Singaporeans’ keyboards so much so that the “offender” took on the defensive and has since fled the island republic to seek refuge in Perth, Australia with his Singaporean wife and young son.

There have since been several calls by various people to forgive the stupidity of Mr. Casey, and truly, at the bottom of this act is really his stupidity that caused him such a sudden fall from a lofty height.  Many would quote the unenlightened saying, “it is easy to forgive but we cannot forget”.  I call this unenlightened because there is hardly any reason to forgive a transgression if one is in fact lacking in memory or demented in any way.  True forgiveness is on grand display when one truly remembers and chooses to forgive, despite the pain, hurt and the memory of having being offended. 

Mere civility may ask that we as Singaporeans ‘put aside’ this incident and ‘move on’ in life, as there are much more important things in life other than harping on someone’s stupid, callous and careless remarks made of us.  But not everyone is a civil person.  There are many people who are bent on having their own sense of justice and as an old Cantonese saying goes, to want to “bite till the dead come to life again”, meaning that one just cannot ‘let go’. 

The Christian who lives in a new identity in Christ has a real weapon against being reactive.  This is our shared power in Christ who allows us to truly allow us to not have a hard heart even when we may be faced with an injustice unfold right in front of us.   When Christ was hanging on the Cross, that he was not vindictive, that he did not want to mete out revenge on his adversaries. That he looked up to the Father and not look down on his murderers is what we have as our new power to overcome the transgressions and oversights (and stupidity) of others.  When we only rely on our mere civil inclinations or civil mindedness, we will come to a limit where we let our emotions and egos take over.  On a good day, we may do that well on our own accord, but if we rely on our own goodness, we will fall short most of the time.  But when we do live “in Christ”, when we allow our baptismal dignities to come to the fore, where we will realise that we are not just ourselves.  This is when St Paul's words "I live now, not I, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20)" becomes our own.  We see things in the light of Christ, and we have a new vista from which we view the world – and it will be from the Cross of Calvary. 

When we live with a new largess, we can effectively become conduits of God's grace and bearers of God's Kingdom here on earth.  We become spreaders of the fragrance of Christ in a world that is "smelly" not from a world of poverty and bad hygiene, but one that is reeking with a bad odour of sin and evil.  The fragrance of the Holy Chrism that was used at our anointing at our baptism becomes a new perfume to bring healing, joy and delight to the world once again.

This blog entry is not just about forgiving Mr. Casey in a Christ-like way.  It is about seeing the transgressions of all the different Mr. Caseys in our lives in a new way – it could be your spouse, your neighbour, your fellow office worker, your children, or your employer.  It could even be your priest or your religious superior.  Finding your own energy to forgive a transgression or a stupid action is a tough act, but joining our anger, our hurt and our sense of ‘injustice’ to Christ hanging on the Cross becomes an easier act to follow because we do not do it alone.  Christ becomes for us the great conduit to truly allow for a letting go. 

Indeed, it will then be truly possible that ‘words will never hurt me’ because it is The Word Incarnate who is the one who gives me life.  Mere words will not have any power, because it is The Word of Life who is the real power giver. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Developing an appreciation for waiting

Patience, as many of us know, is a virtue.  “Good things are worth waiting for” is an adage that some of us have been told over and over again from our youngest days.  If we just pause to think about it, most of the good things in life do require some form of patience from us.  A good fruit from a tree doesn’t come overnight after planting its seed in the ground.  Great tasting food often comes after long hours of preparation and sometimes a long slow cooking process.  I’m not sure if Rome at certain junctures of its colourful history can be considered as a “good thing”, but even Rome was not built in a day.  But the hard truth is that many of us struggle with the development and practice of patience. 

One of the needful benefits of a developed spiritual life is indeed the ability to appreciate the slow unfolding of life.  Contemplation forces us to appreciate how to slow not just our lives down, but also to slowly re-look at so many ordinary things in extraordinary ways.  It helps one to enter into the realm of God’s speed, which is far from speedy as many of us will be able to attest. 

How many times have we found ourselves lamenting that God often takes such a circuitous route to answer our prayers?  And he is also often blamed for taking his own divine time to respond to our needs.  An article I came across on the Catholic Exchange website by writer Gary Zimak shared this view, but interestingly, also gave several sound and spiritual reasons why God takes his time to answer prayers.  The ‘reasons’ as he lists them can guide us to hone this skill of waiting for God to ‘work’.

But it is when we are ‘forced’ into a corner to wait patiently that we have little choice but to become patient and less anxious.  At the heart of impatience, I have come to see, is a certain fear.  A fear that we are not taken seriously by God, and that our concerns and difficulties and sufferings are not considered as important by a God who has called us his beloved.  But if we only focus on our needs in our prayer, and not on the relationship that God wants to build and develop with us, we will find ourselves stuck in a rut that sees us looking only at our needs, our wants and our demands rather than our relationship with God who knows each of our needs and wants.  Whether he wants to answer our needs in the way we want them is another matter altogether. 

One of the reasons that God makes us wait, as Zimak writes, is because we may not be spiritual ready to receive what we have asked for until a much later time.  I can fully understand this as I see it happening in my own experience with living with leukemia and this long journey I am given to live out. 

When patients like me come down with an infection like pneumonia, one of the aveunes for treatment is the administration of steroids.  Powerful drugs, when taken steadily and in large doses, it causes our adrenal glands to ‘shut down’ or to go to sleep.  Our bodies naturally produce steroids in the adrenal gland, and when it detects that there is a supply of steroids that the body is taking, it stops doing what it is supposed to do. 

Oral steroids have all sorts of side-effects even though they may help the patient to recover from an infection.  Just try googling “prednisolone” and its side effects.  The list of what a patient can experience whilst on this drug is rather startling – from anxiety, to irritability, visual impairment to sudden weight gain.  I have been on this medication to deal with my encounter with idiopathic pneumonia several months back, and am very tired with living with water retained feet and a swollen face.  I have asked the doctor to take me off the steroids as I have no more pneumonia symptoms, but her answer revealed something which I never knew.  She told me that the dosage of steroids cannot be suddenly cut to zero overnight as the body can go into prednisolone withdrawal – also known as cortisol deficiency.  This can lead to a whole lot of other problems like severe fatigue and low blood pressure.  The only way one can take steroids away from one’s daily dosage of medication is a little at a time, like bringing it down 5mg per week, till one reaches the point where one’s adrenal glands “wake up” and start its natural production of cortisol. 

The long and short of it is that the body is not able to handle the effect of cutting down the steroid intake with any immediacy.  I brought this to the spiritual life, and saw great similarities.  No one becomes a saint overnight.  Some of wish we could, but that would simply not be possible.  What is a saint but a person who has responded, little by little, to the generous outpouring of love and grace from God.  A baptism may take place in a couple of minutes, but living out of our sonship in Christ is a long, drawn-out affair called life.  There will be ‘hits and misses’ and we may find ourselves lamenting that it takes so long for us to become the Christ image that we are called to be.  We will not be able to handle spiritual growth with any degree of immediacy because of our weak human nature, just as our bodies will react badly if we cut off the steroid supply suddenly. 

Perhaps what we may fail to appreciate is the fact that God is willing to be patient with our conversion.  His love is so complete that he does not see the need to force anything on us without our wanting to do it ourselves.  Yet, he is not absent from our struggles, and accompanies us in our pain and sufferings.  What is happening is often a purification of our hearts and of our motives.  One of the most endearing images that we are given of this purification is found in Ps. 66:10, where we are told that God will refine us as silver is refined and purify us as gold is purified.  I came to understand that the purification of precious metals in ancient times required the great patience of the one who was doing the purification.  The process required the one working with the metal to sit very close to the flame and while holding a crucible containing the precious metal with its impurities, wait for the all of the dross to burn away leaving behind the purified molten.  But the only way this could be ascertained was when the purifier could see his own reflection on the surface of the now shiny liquefied metal.  The staring at this heated molten often caused a lot of discomfort and even pain to the metal worker.

What we should appreciate are the finer points in this scriptural analogy where we are, as it were, held in a crucible by God over the purification flames.  He holds us and wants to help all the dross and impurities of our lives to burn away, but by the fire of his love.  And he will only stop when he finally sees his own image when he sees us.  Does this purification ‘hurt’ God’s eyes?  In a way, it does, even though God is not mutable.  Yet he does not give up on us, and suffers with us.

No, God is in no hurry, but we are, and often for the wrong things.  There is a Latin saying “festina lente” which translates to “hurry slowly”.  Oxymoronic, it is actually a good reminder to all of us to hurry for the right things, but in a slow way.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

The art of Christian suffering

Everybody suffers.  This is a fact.  There is no one human being, not even the sinless Virgin Mary who was spared suffering in life.   Each person who reads this blog either has encountered suffering in his or her life, or could well be undergoing a suffering right now.  They come in many forms – bodily injuries, inabilities of some kind, heart-aches, failures of various kinds, illness and death of loved ones.  We may choose to hide our suffering or mute it in some way, or choose not to address it, causing us to enter the realm called ‘denial’ but the fact remains – we all suffer in one way or another.

What can we do to address this?  Apart from the escapist’s solution which is often a denial, we can face these sufferings with one of several purposes and intentions.  We can look at them with different eyes and end up very differently. 

One of the more common things sufferers do is to look with eyes of anger and resentment.  This is an understandable reaction especially when it appears that life should be free of any pain and suffering.  I say ‘appear’ because this is an illusion that many falsely believe in.  Quite often, these ‘complainers’ are also comparers.  Looking at the seeming pain-free life of their friends and companions only from one vista – that of their suffering-free life, these lamenters may fail to see that there are in fact layers beneath the fa├žade that may be hidden beneath.  These complainers and comparers thus cannot fathom why their lives are riddled with the pain and suffering while their friends seem to be bathing in bliss.  Being angry with life, with others and perhaps even with God is often a common resultant.

Connected with anger and resentment is self-pity, where one develops a ‘poor me’ attitude towards life.  A very common lament, this is equivalent to a ‘navel gazing’ where the sufferer sees himself or herself as a hapless victim, with a feeling that no one empathizes and feels his or her pain.  It is another dimension of self-centeredness where one gathers all of one’s energies to oneself, but with very negative and destructive consequences.  One can stay in this ‘comfortable’ state for a long time.  Family and friends who know of people in this state will readily attest to how difficult it is to communicate with these sufferers with any degree of success.  One seems to only listen to the voices running around in one’s head.

One could also choose to just shut out the world and refuse to talk about nor address this with anyone around.  Akin to denial, it is often fear that causes one to resort to this, as the sufferer just doesn’t know how to deal with what one is facing.  In my encounters with sufferers, I have met people who chose not to know what illness they are suffering from, and prefer to live in feigned ignorance and do not want the doctor to tell them his prognosis.

Then of course, there is the blame game.  Chief players of this game are people who have the need to pin the blame of one’s suffering on something or someone other than themselves.  Oftentimes, it is God who is blamed for having imposed or given the suffering.  After all, God seems to be the best scapegoat because he remains largely silent in the endless litany of complaints and lamentations.  The (weak) argument that there is no God can often come from sufferers who say that if God were to exist, that there should be no suffering in the world, and that everything should be grand, happy and picture perfect.  What is denied by these atheists is the fact that an all loving God would definitely want to bestow freedom to his beloved children so that we can freely choose between right and wrong, blessings and curses, and good and bad.  Only a weak, insecure despotic deity would create with an intent to control and manipulate, and the God of Jesus Christ is no such God.

I am no trained physician, and the four methods of dealing with suffering which I have shared in the first part of this blog are the result more of personal encounters with parishioners, than knowledge gained from case studies.  But I believe I am not that far from the mark as far as reactions to suffering is concerned.

What is the antidote to this?  Is there one?  Is there a Christian response to suffering that makes us believers stand out and live differently?  As believers and disciples of Christ who came to save us, we have an avenue of belief that is something that gives all sufferers a different way of handling and broaching the topic of suffering. 

In the beatitudes, one that particularly stands out as a response to suffering is “blessed are those who weep, they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).  This weeping is not a self-pity weeping that Jesus advocates.  Weeping here refers to our willingness to be compassionate and to weep with others who weep, as well as to mourn the state of our sinful and broken shared humanity that cannot save itself.  When weeping’s tears are not bitter and full of resentment, they become effective cleansers of the spirit.  But this is only possible when the suffering is offered for a higher purpose.  We may all suffer, but only the blessed do something transformative with their suffering in offering them up in an act of surrender.  This is the Christian response which is a great challenge to many.  When we offer up our sufferings to God, we are entering into the realm of humility.  We dare to acknowledge our brokenness, and this can be the genesis of our true inner transformation. 

How do we strive for a depth of soul and a largess of heart?  Spiritual masters have shared that what can aid in this development is some form of humiliation that cuts to the core of our very lives.  If we are truly honest about it, we will realise that the things or circumstances that have changed us, perhaps motivated us, or transformed us for the better have been instances in our lives when we were subjected to a situation where we were helpless and perhaps victims of some unfortunate circumstances.  Poverty could do this, and so could a failure, or something that left us with a numb vulnerability.  To the extent that we were humiliated, to that extent we can gain depth of soul.

But of course, there are two ways this can go.  We can become extremely bitter and want to exact revenge on anyone or anything that comes in our path from then on.  This is one of the reasons why there are many criminals, cheats and murderers who had such broken pasts.  They refused to allow their humiliation to change them and to shape their souls positively. 

But when we say in our praise and worship that “Jesus is the answer”, what we are saying is in fact that there is something that Jesus did that addresses these humiliations and failures and sufferings.  He held on to the humiliation and suffering which he underwent without the bitterness, resentment and anger which is the path the unenlightened often choose.  Instead, his heart was open – so open that it encompassed forgiveness, empathy for the enemy, and embraced a long suffering.  When Jesus is our pattern and model for suffering, he indeed becomes our savior from the way we have been trying to ineffectively save ourselves.

Does God have favourites?  St Peter didn’t think so when addressed Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles (10:34).  But he was referring to the misconception that only the Israelites were favoured by God.  A parent who has many children will know that it is very damaging to have a favourite child, especially when it is made known publicly.  I came across a very wise parent who was asked by one of his children who was his favourite, and he said “the one who is in front of me at the time”.  When I heard this, I immediately imaged God saying this as well, because in prayer, this is what we are doing.  We are standing in front of God, placing ourselves before him in humility and love.  We become his favourites and are thus comforted. 

How is it then that we are so slow on the uptake in submitting ourselves in contemplative prayer before God each day?  When we realise that we are so blessed and comforted when we pray this way, we will want to stand before the loving Father to surrender our suffering participate in his divine love and be his favourite. 

Doing this well is an art – the art of Christian suffering.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What are we looking at?

The Solemnity of the Epiphany which we just celebrated over the weekend has often been inadvertently seen as the feast of the three wise men or magoi.  Scripture does not even mention the fact that there were three such men, only that there were three gifts that were presented to the infant King of the Jews.  Of course, there is tradition which attributes one gift to each magi, and there has even been names given to each of them – Melchior, Kaspar and Balthazaar.  But at its heart, this feast has never really been a feast about these wise men or magoi.  Instead it is a celebration of what God did through and to these magoi and what truly makes them wise. 

The world has its own standards of intelligence and smartness.  It is often measureable in the ways that are empirical, and some of them entail the taking of intelligence tests, while others measure intelligence by the kind of job one does.  Careers that require a professional degree or qualification are a rather common indicator that the person is of a certain intelligence and capable of some degree of high-level thinking and evaluation.  But this is not always a good indicator, as there are people who are just good a memory work, and may find it a challenge to handle problems and issues in the real working world and in life.

This celebration of the Epiphany is a reminder to all of us that wisdom is something that is far deeper, more valued and in many ways, more important than mere intelligence.  Celebrated well, and contemplated in its deeper essence, this annual reminder of the manifestation of Christ to the world causes us to stop for a meaningful while to do what many of the people in the scripture were doing.  They were looking, but at different things and with different eyes.

In Luke’s infancy narrative (not read out in this Liturgical year), we are told that Emperor Augustus ordered for a census to be taken.  Whittled down to its basic purpose, a census of the Roman Empire was meant to give the emperor a more or less accurate overview of how powerful he was, how much land he amassed and how important he made himself out to be.  The emperor, and in subsequently, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, King Herod, were in effect looking intently at themselves, at the land that they ruled over, and were inflated in their egos. 

Juxtapose this with the wise men or magoi.  These men of wisdom who looked intently not at the land, what they owned, or what they possessed, but into the night skies.  They were outward looking and were not so much obsessed with being leaders but instead were keen on being led.  It is significant that they were led by a star.  How does one follow a star?  It does not really give one a very clear indication of where one ought to turn or how one should move.  It’s not a specific GPS, to use a modern-day comparison, but it gives one a general direction to follow, and as the men of wisdom showed, they had to stop to ask for directions. 

Don’t mix wisdom for intelligence.  Wise men stop to ask when they are unsure.  There are many with inflated intelligence who think it beneath them to ask questions unless the questions are intelligent questions that also show how intelligent they are.  Yet, we know that the real wise person is one who knows what he doesn’t know, and takes the humble effort to ask, risking the outcome of people wondering why they don’t know seemingly simple things.  The real wise person doesn’t get affected by what others say, but keep looking afar, into what really leads them in life.

The third group of people who did a fair share looking were the simple shepherds.  We are told in Luke’s gospel that these earthy men were ‘watching their flock by night’.  That was their task at hand, and they were intent on being true to their vocation.  Focused, alert and mindful, they kept watch, looking at their charges for the night. 

Why is this a timely reminder for us?  Only because each of us are constantly looking at so many different things in the course of a day.  There are things that fascinate us, that mesmerize us, that beguile and bewitch us, and take our breath away.  Yet not all that dazzles us moves us towards lives of wholeness and holiness.  Some pull us in all sorts of directions that give us more than a little moral challenge.  How we have been grounded in our walk with God in our spiritual trainings give us a certain general direction at which we should cast our gaze, much like the way a star thousands of light years away could give wise magois in their journey’s search for the Messiah.  The more we are in touch with God and his ways, the more we become sensitized to the ways that he divinely nudges our hearts to move toward him in love, humility, charity and compassion.  But if we, like Augustus and Herod are constantly looking down, at ourselves, at what we are materially worth, wanting more and more, we may be looking at the things that cause us to lose sight of what really should be leading and guiding us in life. 

In the final scene that should give us real reason to celebrate and imitate, we see the wise ones coming before Wisdom itself, where they arrived at the manger (or house in Matthew’s gospel) and knelt down and paid Jesus homage.  True wisdom is to know God and willingness to humble oneself before divinity and worship.  True wisdom knows where true greatness lies.  True wisdom is when we know who we should be adoring with our entire being.  Intelligence may give one the idea that God exists, but mere intelligence does not often lead one to the humble act of sincere worship.  Only with the grace of God can this take place.  We only need to respond to this grace.  Even the asking for this grace can be seen as an incipient act of openness to God and his love.

When we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives in the way that the magoi did, we can then empty ourselves of what we consider our treasures.  That’s when we order our lives rightly, and dare to surrender what we have been bringing along with us all our lives, and place them before God. True, the three gifts the magoi presented were heavily symbolic of the ways in which Jesus was to live out his being our Messiah, but for us, the gifts that we can lay before God may well be the ways that we have falsely lived self-secured lives, where our plans and agendas have spoken louder than God’s, determined by how we had been seeing with a certain MY-opia.

Today’s celebration asks that we readjust our seeking and fine-tune our seeing.  Has it changed our focal point in life? 

Post Script - Not being able to preach to a Sunday congregation, I thought I'd pen what I would have been preaching yesterday if I were not following doctor's orders to convalesce at home.