Monday, May 25, 2015

When circumstances limit and define the ways we pray, the spirit prays in us.

The Solemnity of Pentecost would be upon us in a week, and I had a few ideas warming up in my head through prayer and meditation.  Usually, a relatively ‘good’ homily would have such a nebulous foundation and a prompting in my heart would bring me to narrow them down to one or two focal points and I would launch into writing out my thoughts.  But something happened last week.  I hit a ‘speed bump’ health wise.  I caught a very bad case of Influenza A at the beginning of the week, and ended up having to be hospitalized simply because I was not any ordinary patient trying to overcome a simple bug.  I was an immunity suppressed transplant survivor who risked much in battling something which could potentially endanger my life. 

It was while I was in hospital and lying terribly enfeebled and oftentimes almost in a daze with body temperatures rising to an almost scorching 40 degrees Centigrade, that I shared once again a certain incapacity and powerlessness with countless others who may be in some similar state of impotence and helplessness.  I just could not pray.  Try as I might, I was weakened to the point of exhaustion at times, and with the naïve innocence of a child brought my mind to God and wondered if my fatigued and debilitated state itself could at all be a prayer that would be acceptable.  The peace that I received was a blessed assurance, and it brought to mind what St Paul said about the Spirit praying and interceding for us with inexpressible groanings (Rom 8). 

I am not often one who groans and moans much when ill.  I may feel uncomfortable and even racked with rigors from fevers, but I am more of a ‘silent sufferer’.  There is already way too much noise in this world, and I should not let my agony add to the existent cacophony.  But I do know that many other people come from the other side of this audible spectrum.  It was while I was in this incapacitated state of being early last week that I had an inner experience of what it meant to pray – not in words, but in groanings that were too deep for words, where the body’s prayer becomes one’s entire prayer offering in union with the Spirit.   

It would be mere naiveté and an over simplification to say that all groanings can become prayer.  If only it were so.  We need to be doing this in union with the Holy Spirit so that our prayer without words are directed toward God.  It may not have always to be in a deliberate act of love, because God will always love us where we are – we could be in a state of confoundedness, confusion, disappointment, exasperation or even just experiencing ennui.  When God is the object of these expressions of our being human, it can lift and transform our human being to encounter the divine.  After all, this is the promise of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit enables us to have a share in the divine life.

This must be that point where spirituality goes beyond literacy, and where the spirit of poverty so extolled by the Gospel rings true.  When one’s awareness of the total otherness of God in the sight of one’s own infinitesimal powerlessness, one knows with great intuition that God is unimpressed by numbers, success, degrees, symbols of status of any kind, and certainly not by one’s ordination.  It puts a completely fresh understanding of the Sermon on the Mount’s teaching of how happy are the poor. 

I recently came across a wonderful short yet endearing speech given by a genteel Benedictine monk and spiritual writer David Steindl-Rast on happiness, where he surmised so wisely that one is only truly happy when one is also truly grateful.  You can only be truly grateful when you have an experience of emptiness or poverty.  Being filled, being sated and being self-sufficient will hardly give one cause to be grateful or thankful, because the human heart is always pining for more, whether of something different, or more of the same.  Only in this light does it make sound spiritual sense to see not just the necessity but also the good in poverty, in suffering, and in some forms of tribulations in life. 

Being aware of one’s ineptitude (brought on with the virtue of humility) clears the ground, so to speak, for God to make his divine entry into our often-overfilled lives.  Sometimes, it is our afflicted state that precipitates this necessary emptying that allows the Spirit to effectively pray in and with us, as I was to experience it myself.  If that were truly the case, how can one not be grateful then, even for something like an illness?  For with deep faith, even utterances as incoherent as groanings can allow our whole selves to be presented to God as a prayer that he can take delight in.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Father, please bless me. And in doing so, help me to flower.

Priests get this as a request very often, and it comes from different people, at different places and for different reasons.  The first time we got approached by people for blessings would most likely be right after our Diaconate Ordination.  Most of them would either come up to us with sacramental images like holy cards and crucifixes or even themselves to obtain blessings.  It was a very concrete reminder to us that the sacrament of the ordination allowed us to become conduits of God’s love to people who were very hungry for a taste and a touch of that presence of God in their lives.  It was a tremendous privilege as well as a challenge.  Why a challenge?  Perhaps an elaboration is needed.

When one is not confident and adequately aware of one’s self worth and esteem, one can easily think, erroneously of course, that the ability to bestow a blessing somehow makes a person more important or more effective than his fellow human being.  Given the great gift to be able to bless or to set apart for godliness (that is technically what a blessing is) someone or something should never inflate one’s sense of self.  Rather, it should keep one grounded in humility and re-instill the need to remain earthy.  After all, the etymology of the word ‘humble’ finds its roots in the Latin ‘humus’, meaning earth or ground.  It cannot be forgotten that one is merely a channel or a conduit of God’s love and presence to the people one serves.

When a person presents himself or herself for a blessing, what in essence is asked for is a visible sign that one is requesting of not just a validation, but a divine validation and an acknowledgement that God does love this person.  Being told by one’s parent that mum or dad loves him is one thing.  It certainly will, as psychologists will readily tell you, give the child a confidence and an assurance that grounds him or her to live and grow and mature in steadiness.  What more then when one receives not just a human affirmation, but a divine one?  Who would not want this kind of assurance in life, especially when the world seems to say that one’s worth is often gauged by one’s talent, one’s popularity, one’s skills, one’s degrees, and one’s job title. 

But receiving a blessing is only half the story.  Most people stop there.  Herein lies the ‘challenging’ part of bestowing a blessing.  Blessings are meant to be carried on, much like the idea of ‘paying it forward’, and most people are blithely unaware of this.  The very reason Israel was chosen by God was so that they could in turn be the prototype of chosenness, allowing other nations to also experience God’s salvation through them.  But they failed.  Blessings are meant to do the same thing.

What essentially happens when people become and live out their blessing is that they bring out the best in them and the best in others.  They become great co-operators of the Holy Spirit working in and through them, and blessings paid forward become like blossoms that appear on a hitherto denuded tree.

Those of us who have been blessed with the opportunity of living in a temperate climate would have seen the breathtaking beauty of a cherry tree in full and resplendent blossom.  But if one were to walk under such trees in the cold of February, one would see just bare branches, something that would hardly be called beautiful.  It would even seem to be dead, to a certain extent.  But come March, or early April, and the transformation that it undergoes is nothing short of stunning and awesome (and I use this term deliberately here).  It causes one to stop in one’s tracks and ask “where did this beauty come from?”  Actually, it came from within. 

Doesn’t the beauty of holiness and godliness also emerge from within?  For many, it often lies somewhat dormant for long periods.  But the hope of the Church is that in time, with the proper nurturing and receiving of grace, one begins to blossom from within and respond to the Spirit’s prompting and live out the blessings one has received with a courage and an awareness that reflects one’s beauty. 

When a person after receiving a blessing simply basks in this bestowal of divine love and lives in a way that doesn’t impart this to the people one is surrounded by, one misses the point of what had happened.  Potential beauty lies dormant and perhaps even inactivated.  Just like baptism, which is a call to be further channels of God’s saving grace towards others, where there is an inherent call to ministry and witnessing, so too must blessings empower and commission us. 

It is common to see devotional Christians wanting to receive blessings in their lives – sometimes, the more the merrier.  But receiving blessings necessary also entails a corollary action, which is to BE blessings to others – by living lives that are more generous, forgiving and charitable.  In that way, one truly will begin to blossom in faith and in the ways of God.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tensions, sufferings and stress in life can fuel God's glory

In recent weeks, I had the immense privilege and honour to be introduced and welcomed by my benefactor and stem cell donor when I made that much needed trip out to Chicago.  Peter and his family were keen to introduce me to many of their friends and acquaintances, and I am very glad that I was not given only the ‘royal’ tour, where one often only sees what is good, healthy and beautiful.  In fact, I was even more pleased and touched when they wanted me to be introduced and included in their real world where their friends experience suffering and pain and loss.  Some were clearly in a state in their lives where God’s mercy was something which they craned their necks to see. 

Two of these deserve special mention.  One was a lovely and extremely articulate 6-year-old girl named Ava Lee.  A true delight and joy to encounter, she is one of three children of a pastor and his wife.  This is a young family, and Ava suffers from biphenotypic leukemia.  It was the first time I had ever met another patient with the same strain of rare leukemia as mine.  This is a very rare and aggressive strain of the illness.

In my regular visits to the blood cancer wards where transplants take place, I had been keenly looking out for patients with this particular strain.   I wanted to encourage them with a personal sharing of my own journey of getting my stem cell transplant, which saved me from death.  However, it was clear that this particular strain of leukemia is indeed very rare, with only less than a handful being diagnosed in any given year in Singapore.  I was therefore so surprised and perhaps even delighted to meet in this little dynamite of a person, Ava, another biphenotypic leukemia patient.  I seemed to have to travel half the world away to make this acquaintance.  The kind of shared suffering and anxieties this lovely and faith-filled family went and still goes through now is incredible, to say the least.  Yet, it was beautiful to see that there was a peace that pervaded through their home despite the cross that they all stood under.

I was also very thankful for the opportunity to be taken along by my hosts to a wake of their dear friend Janet who passed away from cancer during my stay in the Chicago area.  This young lady had left behind three young children and a grieving husband.  In a very dignified and solemn funeral home, the three of us stood at the open casket and joined the grieving family as they faced a seemingly dark horizon ahead of them without their mother and wife.  In such grim circumstances, it is often the physical presence of the community that serves as a strong reminder that we are really not alone, even when loved ones are no longer present.  In fact, it is the faith of the community that often becomes a real testimony of Christ's presence in a new way.

Both these encounters and introductions seemed to make my visit to see my stem cell donor something which reminded me that life seems to necessarily include this mystery of suffering, perhaps even more so when one is close to Jesus in faith.  To anyone who doesn’t have the gift of faith, these can be the reasons for one to stay away from any belief in the existence of God as one will naturally demand clear reasons for suffering in life, or for the complete eradication of any form of suffering and pain.  But for those who are given this precious gift of faith, suffering and even death has a meaning that goes beyond logic and beyond anything that is clearly and easily explained.  At these liminal moments, faith allows us to see that they can be the very things that magnify the Lord.

I am reminded of a beautiful book which I read while I was in DC before my own illness changed the landscape of my life.  It is considered a Catholic classic, written way back in 1944 by a mystical writer named Caryll Houselander. Caryll herself went through much suffering and anguish in her life, and was given the great gift of being able to see that God’s amazing plan almost requires one to make of one’s suffering something usable to God.  The book is entitled The Reed of God, and she posits in her reflections that like Mary, each of us can become vessels or instruments through which God plays the symphonic melody called life.  The author proposes that Mary was a reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd’s song, and essentially asks if we are reed pipes where we allow God to live lyrically through us.

She symbolically uses the reed to convey this truth beautifully. Woodwind instruments produce sound by focusing air into a mouthpiece which contain this small piece of planed reed to vibrate.  If we then image our lives as a reed, placed in God’s instrument and allowing God to blow his spirit in and through our very lives, we can then play a part in producing the beautiful tunes that make up God’s great divine symphony. 

All sufferings, especially innocent suffering, when lived out in faith drains us to some degree.  Ava’s parents are visibly drained by seeing their precious and lovely child go through her pains and rejections issues which I can fully empathise with.  But apart from draining us, redemptive suffering lived out in faith also does something else.  It makes one supple, and it makes us usable by God, like the way a thinned and seemingly piece of reed when placed correctly, can vibrate to produce beautiful sound.  In fact, even the violin can be seen as an analogue to the same effect.  It is the tensions that the strings undergo when stretched taut and pressed at strategic places on the neck of the instrument that enables the correct note to be sung when the bow is drawn across them.  Faith allows us to see that God is both the hand that holds the violin and the bow that is drawn across the tensed strings which we call “life”.

When I saw how faith-filled and loving folk like these I met strained and still ache to see God working through their pain, I was, and still am, encouraged and strengthened in my own journey through my own weaknesses and physical struggles in my recovery journey. 

Living life with its ups and downs and not despite them becomes then something that is possible simply because we are just bit parts in the huge production called the theo drama of God.  This becomes our shared task as disciples of the Lord.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

How we meet our saviour in this life can prepare us for the next

Most of my readers would know by now that I had spent the last two weeks in America for two different purposes.  The first was to close that unfinished chapter of my life in Washington DC because of my ill-timed leukemia ordeal some two years ago.  The second was for a much anticipated and happier purpose – when I finally met my stem cell donor who enabled me to undergo the much needed stem cell transplant in July 2013.  I would most likely to have been dead by now if I had not been given this second chance at life through the precious stem cell donation, which I received.  I have been made extremely welcome by my new family (that’s what Peter and Lily Mui consider me) in the short 6 days that I have stayed with them, and this blog this week is written in dedication to their generosity, love, care and great Christian charity for allowing me to have that reboot in life.

What does one feel when one meets in person someone who went out of his way to do all he could so that one’s debilitating illness had a chance of a remission?  What adjectives can one find to accurately convey the immense gratitude that pours out of one’s being?  Are words ever enough?  Despite great protestations of “I only did what anyone would do” by Peter, deep inside, I know that this was not what ‘anyone’ would do.  Many would think twice, if not thrice, about saving a total stranger, whether from a sinking ship or a from a grim cancer prognosis. 

It is, and always will be, a surrealistic experience for me.  It usually is not that great a challenge to find the appropriate words to convey my feelings.  One would think that seven years of consistent blogging would endow me with a reasonably large vocabulary arsenal.  But I have come to realise that this was not so much about finding the right words, as it is about identifying the welling up of a whole gamut of emotions when faced with something so close to one’s very life and death. 

Being welcomed so warmly by a new family half way across the world from Singapore because I now share someone else’s lifesaving cells in my body, and also share his DNA is nothing short of miraculous and a matter of God’s amazing grace.  I have always taught and preached about the necessity and reality of living in the Body of Christ, a term which is pregnant with meaning on so many levels.  That we are all connected with one another on this planet called Earth, and are called by Jesus to ‘love one another as he has loved us’ can become something that is loosely used and hardly even contemplated on.  Peter’s altruistic decision to save someone who he may never meet or know, let alone hear from, is a testimony of selflessness.  St Thomas Aquinas defines love as “willing the good of the other for the sake of the other”, and this stem cell donation pretty much ticks all of St Thomas’ boxes.  That there was nothing in it for Peter to gain from, nothing personal to attain and reap, makes the entire act such a powerful display of goodness in true Christ-like imitation. 

In the short time that I have spent being with and getting to know the one who saved my life from the brink of death, I have also met the Christian community of which he is a member, and have seen firsthand how this person’s faith plays such a central and pivotal role in his life and that of his family.  It is almost charming to a fault how though we are living lives half a world away from one another, that our shared Chinese heritage and roots have a familiar commonality about them. 

Undoubtedly, some of you would like to find out what it feels like to embrace the one who gave you that glimmer of hope in life.  It is akin to meeting your saviour which you had always wanted to, and to be immersed in the joy of a longed for reunion. 

But isn’t this our shared ultimate call as followers and disciples of our ultimate Saviour Jesus Christ?  Isn’t our whole life a longing for and an anticipation of that great reunion with Jesus at the end of our lives, when we finally will meet our Eternal Life’s Saviour in Him?  Not many people, I would think, have had the experience I had, in having that experience, albeit on a merely human level.  It was nothing short of miraculous, and something close to heaven. 

If that was great, and indeed it was, then picture what it would be for you, my dear reader, to experience this for your very selves when our earthly journey is over, and we are well prepared and readied for that moment of union with Christ.  My wonderful and undeserved encounter with Christ in meeting my donor is but a foretaste of what is to come.  It will shape and colour and add immense depth to the way that I live the rest of my earthly life, and I pray that this will give much hope, faith-filled anticipation and a joyful awaiting for each person that I meet, relate with and minister to so that they too will have a similar longing in their hearts for their reunion with their Lord and Saviour. 

Our lives are but a foretaste of the eternal joys that are to come when Christ is all in all.  This has to be our ultimate aim in life.  The rest, as they say, is all commentary.