Monday, October 26, 2015

Serving and loving God for nothing

In the last few pages of his very engaging and well-researched book Walking with God though Pain and Suffering, noted Presbyterian Pastor Timothy Keller said something very astute and at the same time easily misunderstood about Jesus.  Jesus, he posits, was the only one who truly managed “to serve God for nothing”. 

Taken out of context, this phrase that Jesus served God for nothing can even sound scandalous.  It is almost evocative of images of livid and fuming parents, seething with anger at their charges for having disappointed them with bad behaviour or misdemeanors, and one can imagine this phrase being spat out through clenched teeth: “I have given you so much for nothing”.  But this is far from what Keller meant, or alluded to.

Keller takes his reader through a wonderfully crafted weave of his writing, where he did a marvelous job in showing how in sometimes small and maybe even imperceptible ways God takes us to places that are hard and filled with afflictions so that we come out of it with a more mature faith.  We human beings struggle so much with this, and I was almost heartened to see that my encounters with my Catholic flock who struggle so often with pain, suffering and adversities a kindred experience of Keller in his ministry as well. This should come as no surprise as tribulations are common to all of us as human beings.  Our very existence is made up of interwoven connections, much as an elaborate piece of woven fabric is made up of the warp and weft of the tapestry called life. 

When Keller makes this surprising statement, he was drawing richly on the understanding that our ultimate goal in our spiritual lives has to be that we are able to love God above all else.  Doing this would place our dearest and nearest loves, which includes our parents, our children, our spouses at least one or several notches below that of our love for God.  Not that it bothers God that we don’t.  He is God and being immutable, nothing changes his love for us. 

Even if we don’t love him, he continues to love us with his entire being.  But if we do not re-order our loves in our lives to love him with our whole mind, our whole heart and our whole soul, it is we who ultimately stand to suffer when those things we love inordinately get taken away from us.  If you don’t believe this as truth, just imagine your life right now and make a list of the things or people that most affect you and give you security and meaning and joy in life.  Then imagine them either taken away from you or failing you.  People whose whole world crumbles and are henceforth inconsolable and disconsolate for the rest of their lives are most likely those who have not placed their love of God as their number one priority in life. 

But it is when we love God as our top priority in life that we get the most security.  This is because everything else in life will ultimately either die on us or fail us, or have their limitations.  But not God.  Ever.  To be able to order our priorities of our loves rightly thus is a very pressing spiritual task, but most of us hardly even think of this - till our world begins to fall apart at its seams. 

Keller also points out that most of the time, we love God with an agenda.  On many occasion, I have asked people if they pray, and how do they pray.  Quite often, their honest answer is that they pray when they have troubles and when things are not going right in their lives.  In other words, there is an agenda in their relationship (if at all there is one) with God.  Our efforts at trying to place our love of God as our highest priority has to boil down to our being able to love God, but for what he can do for us and help us to achieve in life.  It would be loving God with really no intention other than simply loving him.  Not for his display of majesty, not for his divine power where he can move mountains if he wanted to, or for granting us our heartfelt desires in life.  This would be loving God for nothing.

Jesus did this, and did this with a poise unmatched on the Cross of Calvary.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus saw that if he obeyed God fully, he’d be absolutely abandoned, to the point of being destroyed by evil.  He loved God without getting as much of a glimmer of God’s aid on the Cross, and in that truly salvific act, loved and served God “for nothing”.   

If we can say that we have tried to do this in our lives, I think we can also truly say that like Jesus, we too can say to the Father as we die “into your hands, I commit my spirit”.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our experiences in suffering can reveal a lack and a new learning curve

Ever since my slow recovery from my blood cancer experience and getting back into ministry for about 8 months now, I have had several instances where I found myself ministering to people who needed or requested for pastoral counsel.  I was quite aware when I was in the midst of my weakest and darkest moments of my treatment that what I was going through was a mixed blessing.  Though there were periods of time when I was very very weak and lifeless, I was also blessed to tell myself that these moments are very special gifts from God where I was given the opportunity to go through (as opposed to going around) my discomfort, pain and suffering and to experience God’s walking that path with me. 

There had been moments where being aware of this mixed blessing was truly advantageous to me in my ministry.  It allowed me easier access into the lives of people who took me into their confidence when they shared their pains, struggles, anger, confusion and anxieties.  Perhaps these well-meaning parishioners and fellow cancer patients saw in me a kindred soul.  It no longer made me feel uncomfortable to talk about the illness itself and the share notes on treatments of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  Before the gift of my own situation of infirmity, I was enervated by a sense of sympathy and a deliberate act of Christian charity.  But after the entire experience and allowing myself to be shaped and moulded within, my energy and strength to minister came more from being at one with the person who was not operating at the peak of health. 

But I have come to see also that one should never make the mistake to think that one’s special and unique experience gives one the impression that one has reached Mount Parnassus and feels that one has now all the right answers to different challenging and difficult situations.  While it is true that I may have a unique and even exclusive personal encounter with suffering and pain, it would be most presumptuous to think that I am now an expert and authority on the subject.  To be sure, every single person’s experience and feelings toward his or her confrontation with illness and the journey to a new normal is going to have their own uniqueness. 

I have also since learnt that it would be ineffective and also very foolish and unwise to minister to these brothers and sisters with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality.  The truth is that every affliction is unique and special, though there could be an underlying commonality in the aspect of suffering and even anxiety.  I am enlightened by what Biblical scholar Don Carson wrote about the way that Job’s well-meaning friends applied wrong ministering to one who was in a state of affliction. 

Carson says, “There is a way of using theology and theological arguments that wounds rather than heals.  This is not the fault of theology and theological arguments; it is the fault of the “miserable comforter” who fastens on an inappropriate fragment of truth, or whose timing is off, or whose attitude is condescending, or whose application is insensitive, or whose true theology is couched in such clich├ęs that they grate rather than comfort.”

There is so much truth in what Carson says.  In the same way that the road to perdition is paved with good intentions, many may go into cancer wards and hospices with a genuinely good intention in their hearts, but because of some or all of those reasons that Carson states, comes out as a truly ineffective counselor even though one may have had the grace to share in the experience suffering.  It is too easy to go in with a “plan of attack”, but at the same time, wisdom will tell us that one has to use both the head and the heart to gauge the sensitivities needed at each moment and to work while thinking on one’s feet.  The former is easier simply because one is armed with pre-thought out answers and has a false or empty confidence.  The latter is much harder because one would be remiss to not notice the unspoken fears, unnamed anger and the hidden unease that can be conveyed through unmade eye contact or a withdrawn presence. 

Do I fail sometimes in my ministry?  My most honest answer is to ask if the Pope is Catholic.  On several occasions I have made some terrible mistakes to either overthink for others, or given unhelpful “help”.  Sometimes people can end up being wounded by bad counsel that they go even deeper into themselves than before.   I am indeed hopeful that my purgatorial purification will help to atone for these transgressions.

But one thing that I have learnt that has put me in good stead is to allow others to dislike and even be confused in their sufferings.  How many times have we seen well-intentioned friends or relatives telling a mourner to “be strong”?  This is akin to telling them that it is wrong to display signs of emotional weaknesses.  But we know that it is often in truly being comfortable with our emotions that the painful yet necessary process of healing and closure can take place.  So it is with those who are suffering in their infirm conditions.  Sometimes just assuring the one suffering that “you don’t have to like what you are going through to let this be a positive experience for you” sets the person in a more emotional and psychological situation of comfort. 

I have also learnt that one doesn’t stop learning from one’s past experiences just because one seems to be recovering well.  It is way too easy for one to be complacent when one seems to be physically recovering from a bout of serious illness. 

What keeps one sensitive and real is when one doesn’t stop being thankful for the past, grateful for the present, and anticipatory of the ways that God will be revealing his love in the future.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Life imitates art, but oftentimes, life goes much deeper.

I don’t often get to watch movies in a theater but last week, I managed to catch one.  It was director Ridley Scott’s latest flick The Martian, and was about how a group of astronauts who had landed on the planet Mars had to suddenly leave the planet to return to Earth when they encountered a fierce storm.  In this seemingly unplanned evacuation, they presumed that one of their own, Mark Watney, was killed, and made the painful decision to leave him on the planet.  The group which now was one man less, then embarked on their very long journey back to earth, but unbeknownst to them, their fellow astronaut Mark was not dead but seriously wounded in the storm.  He regained consciousness on his own, and managed to nurse himself back to some semblance of health, enough to use his intelligence and acumen to survive on his own on the lifeless planet and its harsh terrain.  The rest of the film focuses on how he managed to re-connect with NASA on earth and how they struggled with this new piece of revelatory information.  As things would turn out, the crew on board the returning spacecraft were the last to find out that their crewmate was in fact still alive, and a plan was hatched to return to Mars to get him back safely, with the entire world cheering on this rescue operation of epic proportions just to bring back one fellow human being stranded so far away. 

I left the theater with a rather ambivalent feeling about the movie, perhaps even secretly critical about the final part of the way astronaut Watney managed to maneuver his way in space in his effort to get to safety by a (spoiler alert) punctured hole in his spacesuit.  Some people asked me what I thought about the story.  It had an interesting premise, but I found something too safe and clinically clean about it, but couldn't quite put my finger on it.  Only later, after some deliberate pondering, did something dawn on me.  

Both The Martian and our salvation history as revealed in the Judeo-Christian tradition are about a massive rescue operation.  Ridley Scott managed to move his audience by the way the story showed how people on earth as a united people cared about one lost man, and it didn’t seem to matter at what cost this rescue operation took. 

That God enters into our humanity to rescue us from damnation so that we can have a share in his eternal life mirrors this ‘rescue operation’ on a far more epic scale.  This much is clear as far as a similarity is concerned.  But it gets way better when one takes a closer look at the way salvation history has panned out.

In The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney was a good man.  I guess it takes a lot to be an astronaut, with more than the average smarts and physical fitness, and he was generally portrayed as a ‘nice’ guy that was lost in space.  It was justifiable to get him back to earth at all costs.  It made for the fact that not just his crewmates but the entire world rooted for him a bit more believable.  But what if the story had another turn?  What if it revealed that in his life, astronaut Watney was a man who had a very shady past, perhaps involved in some terrible scandal that had ruined the lives of others, committed some heinous and egregious crimes that were only uncovered while the rescue mission was underway, and how so many on earth were deeply divided in the decision to rescue this man who did not deserve to be rescued? 

Herein lies the supreme grace that salvation history culminating in Jesus Christ being our savior becomes the game changer for all of us.  Rom. 5:7-8 has Paul telling us that "rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us."  Luke chapter 15 tells of the story of the lost sheep and how the shepherd who has 100 sheep, losing one, leaves the 99 in the open country to look after that one lost one.  Elsewhere, the story of the prodigal son also tells of how the father is on the constant outgoing search for his lost sons to go back into his house to celebrate.  Yet, I think we often miss the point that none of the lost deserves to be found.  A troublesome sheep out of 100 good ones?  Forget about that one and cut the losses!  The angry and bitter older brother who stays out in the field bristling and seething?  Leave him alone!  He doesn’t even know how good he had it.  Yet, the prodigal father goes out in search – not so much for the good one, but the angry one, the recalcitrant one, and yes, the underserving one.

It is way easier to understand salvation history when it is a matter of grace given to the deserving and the righteous.  It squares very much better with our entitlement narrative that we hold on to in this life anyway – where we' earn' our own salvation because we were good enough.  But that is not the essence of the Christian faith.  The absolute wonder of Christianity, and how it is truly a 'game changer'  is that we were saved precisely because none of us deserves life, but due to sin, were instead deserving of death. 

The route that the rescue team took to get to Mars to rescue astronaut Watney was arduous and even treacherous.  But if we ponder about the depths of depraved humanity that God entered into to take us out of our mired earthly existence where we are stuck in sin and ourselves, the reality of God’s love has to bring us to new horizons of appreciation and gratitude each time we think about it.  Calvary was a tremendous journey for Christ to show the depth of God’s love for us.

The Martian may be entertaining as a movie, but in my opinion, our own story is way better.  Only thing, instead of being called The Martian, ours is should aptly be called The Sinner.

Monday, October 5, 2015

When mercy and justice embrace.

Pope Francis has been a ‘hot topic’ in the news lately, with his visit to the United States being reported extensively and followed on many different media platforms.  It was also reported that during his visit to Washington, he had met up with an old student of his back in the mid-sixties when he was teaching literature and psychology in Argentina.  It’s nothing unusual when old students and teachers meet up with each other after a long lapse.  Even I had a primary class reunion this year to mark our shared 50th birthday.  But what was interesting was that it was revealed that this former student brought along his same sex partner to meet his former teacher who is now the Bishop of Rome.

One would think that this kind of meeting would be something surreptitious, given the Church’s firm stand on marriage as something that is to be only between a man and a woman.  But the article was very clear to quote the Vatican spokesman saying that the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue. 

This kind of balance is something that is akin to wisdom that is forged through years of training.  One doesn’t achieve this kind of equanimity overnight, and I can attest to this by my own personal experience.  To be able to hold firm to the Church’s clear and unequivocal teachings of sexuality and marriage, and at the same time to display a keen sense of kindness and charity in loving and patient dialogue when encountering people with clearly strident beliefs is a skill only few master in life.  Too much of one will always lead to the closing out of the other.  It will always be way easier to fly one flag high and unfurled than to try to enter into dialogue with an opposing viewpoint. 

To balance things out, it was also reported that the Pope had also met with now-famed county clerk Kim Davis who was lambasted for being anti-gay in refusing to obey a federal court order that she was to issue marriage licenses to both same-sex and opposite sex couples.  Was the Pope, in meeting up with these two opposing personalities and beliefs playing a political game?  Did he have a hidden agenda? 

To say that the Pope had an agenda is to say that he had something to hide.  But I think what Pope Francis displayed was not hidden.  It was bold and loud, and it was the living out of something lifted from Scripture.  Psalm 85:10 is something that I think many of us struggle with.  That “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; and righteousness and peace will kiss each other” is something our often narrow minds cannot begin to wrap around.  It is the prophetic act of non-dualism.

Steadfast love and faithfulness – these seeming opposites are not easy to reconcile, let alone having them meet.  It does seem that if we are truly faithful to God’s love and his teaching, that there are going to be many things that either are taboo or outside of the OB markers of life as God would have it.  Yet, love that is steadfast seems to need to even go to those extremities. 

Did the Pope risk being misread and judged?  Certainly.  Did he open himself to the castigating finger-wagging from the conservatives?  Without a doubt.  Perhaps he went to places that opened him up to being read either way because I think he knew that if he was to be the true Vicar of Christ, someone who represented Christ to the best of his abilities, he also had to live the Scripture especially where it is hardest.  We don’t do this with enough courage most of the time.  At least, I don’t think I do.  Sometimes I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place when I see myself as a deputized guardian, caretaker and teacher of the Sacraments and at the same time a face that many want to see the compassion and charity of Christ in.  In most circumstances, only one aspect of this is asked of me, and it is rather easy to deliver, and to deliver it well.  But it is when things are flying at us fast and furious, and we as priests are forced to, as it were, think on our feet, that I sometimes find myself walking on eggshells and even breaking some of them in my well-intentioned endeavours.

I have come to see that we only do this well when we step outside of convention.  That the second person of the Trinity stepped outside of heaven and entered willingly into the chaos of humanity tells us that becoming the Good News to people sometimes entails of us a willingness to do the same – to enter into the messiness of life itself.  Pope Francis seems to have flair to do this, and does this with what I would call a “Christian classiness”.   He has a sense that there are right moments to teach and carry out moral formation, and there are times when it is not opportune nor prudent to do so.  In my almost 15 years of priesthood, I know I have lacked this wisdom to sense which cap I needed to wear at which appropriate moment.  His Holiness would have been a priest for 46 years this December.  Maybe it will take all of another 31 years of experience to be able to learn how to allow righteousness and peace to kiss through my own Calvary encounters.

But this is what I have learnt in ministry and through the mistakes I may have made when I was over enthusiastic to get things right (both in myself and with others) – and this is a quote from St Augustine who lived in the fifth century.  The Latin is “necesariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas”, and it translates into “Unity in necessary (things), liberty in doubtful (things) and charity in all things.”  Thomas Aquinas too has always been a champion of charity.  Yet, it is precisely when things are most difficult, when there is no calm and when one is lacking objectivity that charity is often the first thing out of the window.  But we all know that charity is often the very thing that brings love into a place that true healing can take place.

It reminds me of something that I came across recently, which I shared with some of my parishioners at the ambo on a weekday Mass, and with some dear friends in my correspondences.  It is a story told by a volunteer who works with terminally ill children.  That willingness to enter so closely into the pain and turmoil and to sit with them embodies incarnational theology in a life situation, and charity made so clear in action.

My idea was pretty simple at the beginning.  I started to volunteer in wards with terminally ill children or burn victims – just to go in there to cheer them up a little, (and to) spread around some giggles.  Gradually, it developed that I was going to come in as a clown.

First, somebody gave me a red rubber nose, and I put that to work.  Then I started doing some elementary makeup.  Then I got a yellow, red and green clown suit.  Finally, some tremendous and dandy wing-tip shoes, two and half feet long with green tips and heels, and white spats. 

It’s rather tricky coming in to see these kids.  Some kids are even fearful of clowns, thinking that the clown is going to eat them up.  And kids in hospitals and burn units are often shaky and traumatised.

Looking around, you see burnt skin and bald heads.  Not something that kids should be having.  But what can one do in these wards, other than to face them courageously?  When kids are really hurting so bad, they are so afraid, maybe even dying, and everybody’s heart seems to be breaking.  But we face it and see what happens after that, without a clear plan of what to do next.

Then I got the idea of traveling with popcorn.  When a kid is crying, I dab up the tears with the popcorn and pop it into my mouth or into his or hers.  We sit around together and eat the tears.  (Excerpt from Ernest and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, pg 226).

In Jesus' incarnation, God sits with us and eats our tears with us.  Many see the Pope as a rather full figure of a man.  I wonder if his rotund frame is a result of having eaten bagfuls of tear-soaked popcorn.