Monday, January 25, 2016

We start by getting it wrong, but God doesn't.

There is a commonality that we share in our humanity that reveals right from the start that we are born into a lack.  Much as it is true that we are born with nothing and that we return with nothing, this shows up in the way that everything about us that we have in life needs to be learnt, acquired, nurtured and grown.

In just about every dimension in life, we seem to begin by getting it wrong.  We stumble, we fumble, we stagger and often, make many mistakes and errors.  Why is it that we humans, who are made to take care of creation and be stewards over it begin to move first by rolling, then crawling backwards, then forwards.  Then we start by standing very unsteadily, falling many times over, and after about a year begin to finally walk on our two legs?  The animal kingdom, on the other hand, seem to be able to move on their own in a relatively short time after birth, and with much less of a struggle.  It does seem to be ironic. 

And of course, apart from movement, everything else about us begins with a struggle, and we do not always make the correct turns in life’s journey.  Learning something new at any age reveals a need for discipline, effort and training.  We are not (at least not the majority of us) gifted with such skills as to automatically do something well when we start.  I’m only now at age 50 taking up violin lessons, and I’m facing the reality that we begin anything serious by making mistake after mistake, by correcting acquired bad habits and by putting in the discipline of arduous practice.

As I grow in my vocation as a priest of God, counseling and guiding souls, this reality becomes evidently clear too in our spiritual lives.  We love God often by getting it wrong, and most of us do not have the grace to begin by getting it right.

Would that it was that we blast from the spiritual starting blocks by loving God correctly.  Actually our first parents did, but they botched it up soon after that perfect start.  Some would even venture to call that a false start.  And we have all paid the price for that with the need to satisfy the self in so many ways.  We also suffer in the way that our in-born human weaknesses (a.k.a. sin) often cause us to have a stilted notion of God, and many do begin by making him out to be some kind of divine fairy-godfather and wish-granter, or perhaps a protective shield against life’s trials and traumas. 

If our whole lives are a preparation for our final and eternal union with God, where heaven is our shared life’s goal, it necessarily means that we need to nurture a loving heart fit for the kingdom of God.  Any spiritual director of any credibility then has to have this as an aim for anyone coming to him or her for this important guidance in life.

To learn to love as God loves has to be this life-goal for us.  If the ways that we love are so strident when placed alongside God’s love, how could we ever even hope to have heaven, let alone truly be happy there?  For one whose definition of love is contrary to God’s love, heaven itself will be hell. 

John Piper, a Baptist theologian once asked very pointedly this question in one of his talks, and I think he struck gold with it.  He told his listeners to imagine that they were at the end of their lives, and after dying, find themselves in a place where they had every desire and wish fulfilled.  He asked them to imagine that they had the fit and healthy body that they always dreamed of, the intelligence of a Mensa member, the skill to play music instruments at a professional level, wealth and riches beyond imagination and are surrounded by all your loved ones and friends.  But Jesus is not there.  Would you still want to be there?

The answer to this can be terribly disturbing.  If we are honest about it and say that we will choose that place even though Jesus is not there, it may well reveal that in our spiritual quest, we have never really made it of prime importance to have that eternal relationship with God that will see us into everlasting happiness.  It may well reveal that we have gone after the things of God than knowing and loving the God of things.  It may also reveal that we have not even begun to love God at a deep and intrinsic level. 

But to be sure, I have also seen (yes, even in myself) that true growth in love of God is never linear.  Like learning anything, it happens with making mistakes, perhaps even repeating them ad nauseam, till we truly can say that we have made that ‘turn around’, and repented to live and love aright.  Indeed, we have, most of us, started by getting it wrong.  But it should never stop us from trying over and over to get it right. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

When children suffer.

In this blog of mine, I have reflected much about suffering and going through physical trials in life, but always from the vista of an adult.  Before my illness and subsequent therapy and transplant and the slow recovery, I had only an imagined concept of serious suffering brought on by illness, and could only empathize up to a certain point.  The gift of my cancer experience brought me into the realm of the patient, right into the depth of his condition, and allowed me a privileged access into the journey of a life-threatening illness.

Many have come up to me from time to time to express their gratitude for writing about the journey in a no-holds barred way, and to provide strength and hope for those whose lives had entered into a similar darkness.  While I am very happy to be able to give this darkness some light, I do feel rather handicapped in giving much relief to children who suffer in a debilitating way.  Adults (though not all of them) may be more equipped to handle suffering with a strength that comes from understanding the virtues of longsuffering and sacrifice.  Bringing people to see a higher purpose for their trials in life beyond themselves is always going to be a great challenge for any minister.  My aim and purpose in reaching out to those with such conditions is never primarily to ask for a direct and instant alleviation to their suffering, but always that the person begins to have a broader horizon of hope before them opening up.  And this horizon has to have the possibility of accepting the reality that life is not made worse by the presence of illness and darkness, but that these are seen now to be the hitherto unseen and unappreciated doorways through which God makes his presence, love and yes, even joy, known and real. 

This challenge is great for an adult and many are not ready to live in this large way.  And if adults find this to be a stumbling block towards an integral growth in faith, how more challenging is it to have children embrace suffering with a positive outlook, without their coming away from their brush with serious illness leaving them having a notion of God that dishes out suffering to innocent children?  Of course this would be a stilted notion of God, but doesn’t God bear a great amount of ‘risk’ when he allows little children to suffer this way? 

Children don’t easily have the experience in life to intuit that there is a virtue in bearing any form of crosses in life.  The natural instinct of parents is to make their childhood as stress-free and anxiety-free as possible, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Everyone wants the best for their children, but not every parent has the faith to believe that what is ‘best’ can also include what is hard to fathom as well.  In one’s formative years, going through a prolonged period of pain and suffering or having encountered vulnerability at a tender age that sets one apart from one’s peers and schoolmates can often shake one’s confidence later on in life.  At the same time, when I minister to such children, I do not want to be the one who brings false hope and ersatz happiness during a visit, just to have them re-enter into darkness and sadness after I leave the home or hospital. 

The real problem is not that children suffer, but that we (either as adults or ministers who tend to them) often think that we need to give them clear and direct answers.  These are the places of life that I often call ‘life’s border situations’, and answers to such questions never satisfy nor are ever enough.  What these situations give us are opportunities to demonstrate Christian compassion, either to the children or to their parents, to show them that through us, God sits with them in their darkness and pain. 

On Calvary, Jesus did just that.  No trite answers were given to, nor demanded by him from the Father.  Jesus hung there with a humanity filled with sin so that we would not have to despair despite our sinfulness.  We often resist being there with people at the level of their pain and confusion chiefly because we are very uncomfortable with merely giving presence to pain.  We are more ‘useful’ when we can give salve instead. 

I remember reading about a visit of Pope Francis’ to the Philippines early last year, where a young 12-year-old girl, weeping, asked the Pope why God allowed terrible things to happen to children.  The Pope said something rather profound when he replied that the nucleus of her question almost doesn’t have a reply.  He went on to say that it is only when we too can cry with her about the same things that we come close to answering the question.  Compassion is a great healer of wounds, and these situations of misfortune and unexplained suffering enable our hearts to soften and take on a Christ-like character. 

When I think of this, I become a lot more sensitive to the ways that I tell parents of suffering children that I will pray for them and their child.  I sit a little longer with them at the hospital bed, and when possible, hold their hands or heads a little more tenderly.  Words not only become cumbersome, but perhaps ineffective and get in the way. 

It brings to mind something that I read about and reflected on in a blog post a few months ago, where I wrote about a man who had intentions of bringing hope to those in a children’s section of a hospital.  He decided to go dressed as a clown, but realized that clowns can also frighten some children.  They had, after all, gone through so much that had caused them fear in their illness. 

So he decided to make his rounds bringing popcorn to them.  But he didn’t always give them the popcorn to eat.  When the children were in tears, he would take a popped corn, and mop up their tears and then, right away, toss this into his mouth. 

This may sound bizarre but I found this to be a demonstration of what compassion should do.  It may not stop the tears, it may not give answers, but it shows that someone is willing to absorb at least a little of the confusion, the wounds and the contusions of life.  Christ did this for us on Calvary.  He didn’t give answers from heaven.  His compassion and mercy gives reasons for us to do the same in ways big and small.

Monday, January 11, 2016

When we are loved correctly from the start, we are in a good place to die.

A lot of our neurosis and baggage in relationship problems that we find in life as we get older have a common starting point.  In my encounters with spiritual directees and counselees, I have noticed that if one had been properly loved and tenderly cared for during one’s formative years, there is a certain solid foundation from which one can blossom into without constantly trying later on to either reclaim what should have been given, or getting substitutes or replacements for what was missing.

I have not read the series of Harry Potter books, and must confess that I have not ventured into trying to appreciate the world of the Hogwarts.  But I was very delighted to discover something that author J. K. Rowling had woven into Harry’s life.  Apparently, Lily Potter, the mother of Harry, did something to Harry in his early childhood that prevented the evil Lord Voldemort from touching him.  It was when this villain tried to lay his hands on Harry, that he experienced agonizing pain, thwarting his plans of harming Harry.  It was later that when Harry asked Dumbledore for an explanation that something deep was revealed.  Apparently, Harry’s mother died trying to save him, showing that love that was as powerful as a mother’s love has an unexplained power that protected and surrounded him from evil.  In Harry, this was physically evidenced by the scar on his forehead.  But it was not just the physical scar that had power, but the love behind the scar which caused it.  Rowling, in my opinion, demonstrated an intuition of what in essence is true power, which is the power of sacrificial and selfless love. 

For us Christians who declare that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, this intuition is not a mere story or fable, and not something that is taught implicitly by any means.  It is forms the very backbone of our belief and the hope of our ever entering into eternal life.  But many of us don’t get to this truth in our Christian living on a serious level, and I believe that it is our task as priests and spiritual leaders to reveal this over and over to the flock that is given to us by God to tend and to feed.  I am truly confident of this – that when we understand and appreciate this truth of our salvation in Christ, and the lengths to which our loving God went to demonstrate and make this real, our sense of reality will shift on a seismic as well as a cosmic level.

All sin, and there is no exception to this, are lies and deceptions.  The basic underlining deception is that if we give in to the temptation before us, that we will find a happiness and a joy that we are missing.  The ways this scenario plays out are countless and so layered that it boggles the mind.  From a person disrespecting his superiors to a gambling addict feeding the monster of greed; from an adulterer keeping a lover on the side to a child telling his parents that he has no homework to do just so that he can play his computer games, they all stem from the belief that one has to pursue happiness without much regard given to respect, truth and honesty.  The apparent need to satisfy the self trumps any need or purpose outside of oneself.

But there is a further uncovering of something that is hidden beneath this drive, and it is love.  This pursuit of happiness is also a very unspoken search for one’s love of self and one’s self-worth, one’s dignity and one’s being validated on a very deep level.  When one knows that one is already deeply loved and affirmed one’s whole life becomes built on a solid foundation which Jesus refers to as being built on rock, and not on sand.  Our foundation shifts, and this is the seismic level of change that I referred to.

Rowling intuited this in having Dumbledore reveal this to Harry.  Sacrifice is almost always at the heart of real and moving love.  Those of us who have been blessed with having experiences of a parent, a leader, a teacher, a mentor or a friend who has sacrificed much for us will know that this is true.  The sacrifice was revelatory of a life-changing love so that we could move on, live and yes, even flourish in life. 

If this is true on a level of our physical lives, it is even truer on the level of our very being.  Christianity’s great revelation is not only that we are (and have always been) loved by the God who created us, but that in Jesus Christ, this same God has taken on flesh to demonstrate this in the most outlandish and unconventional way by dying for all of humanity, hence the cosmic level of salvation.

Harry’s mother died saving him as a child, and this love left its own indelible mark on him.  It was a mark far deeper than the superficial scar on his forehead, but one that went deep inside of him that evil knew it could never overcome.  Jesus’ death saved and continues to save us, and his love marks us out as deeply loved and in that way, protected as well.  We have the scar of Jesus’ cross in our hearts, and that too, is indelible.

The more we reflect on this, and appreciate its richness at its fathoms, the less sin and evil has any lasting power over us.  The greater this truth grasps our hearts, the less we will fall into the lure of sin, where the underlying temptation is to say that we are not really loved, and that we have to pursue a happiness in order to show us that we are loved or loveable – even if this ‘happiness’ or ‘lovability’ is only for a fleeting moment or a mere thrill that is evanescent. 

Author and theologian Tim Keller is right on the money when he says that the only way that Jesus could redeem us was to give his life as a ransom, and that much as he is God, he could not just say “let there be forgiveness”.  In creation, God could and did create and say, “let there be light, let there be vegetation, let there be sun, moon and stars”.  But this could not be the case for forgiveness, because forgiveness is at its deepest level an act of love, and love can never be created.  It is demonstrated. 

That is why I fully and firmly believe that if we truly understand and appreciate at a deep level that we are loved, we will be in good stead for death – death to sin and self, and finally, be in truly good stead for a good death at the end of our lives. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

When having a foretaste of seeing Christ face to face is a privilege beyond words.

I had the most exhilarating few days of my life right after Christmas (a week ago), when I welcomed the donor of my matching stem cells to Singapore.  Coming all the way from Chicago, Peter Mui came to visit me and my family together with his wife, Lily, and their two lovely children Ethan and Claire.

The many interviews that we had on national television, radio and the local press gave fresh reasons for me be struck with awe and gratitude just how amazingly God had orchestrated such a miracle, to bring me a new lease of life through another human being with a most generous heart.

The Press tried to convey the waves of gratitude coming from me, but I suppose publications like these are wary of coming across as overtly giving in to the spiritual life, especially in a multi-religious place like Singapore.

My transplant took place one and a half years ago.  But I can never forget nor put aside that the reboot that I was given in life came from an act of selflessness and graciousness.  And because this ‘new’ me has been sustaining me from within, each time I go into prayer, gratitude fills me. 

I had an insight recently in prayer when I was before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  I formulated a litany of how my life had changed because of Christ’s incredible saving act for a sinner and a broken person like myself.  And with Christ in mind, these phrases articulated my depth of gratitude for the gift of salvation. 

I could never have saved myself without your help.
You stepped forward when nobody was able to.
My life is forever changed because of your selfless act.
Each day of my existence is possible because of your life within me.
In my darkest hour of need, you were my saving hope.
The day I got you into my life was the day that I lived forever a changed person.
There is no way that I could have possibly deserved or merited what you have done in my life.
You will be always with me no matter what I do, until the end of my life.
If you never did what you did, my death would have been certain.
No amount of gratitude can fully express my heartfelt thanks for the way you have saved my life.
Knowing just how urgently I needed you in my life gives me reason to be filled with gratitude for what you have done to give me a newness in life.

It was after I had meditated on each of these statements of truth, that I realized one other thing – that each of these same statements can just as easily and accurately be applied to my stem cell donor, Peter Mui. 

I consider myself so privileged to be able to have this earthly experience of being at the mercy of someone’s selflessness because it gives me a very real perspective in appreciating Christ and his saving work in a very real and intimate way.  Without my illness, I would not have gone this deep and this expressive of my gratitude for Christ’s work of salvation for our souls.  This illness of mine was certainly a blessing, though I am sure that not very many would readily agree with me.

The raw, painful and tumultuous moments of our earthly life are often the cause of our complaints and rants to God in prayer.  But little do we realise that these are also the very raw material through which God enters into our lives as well.  These are the cracks in our darkened souls which let in that shard of precious light that lightens the darkness and gives us new reason to hope and believe anew. 

I do hope that my reflections on life and faith give my readers that necessary shot in the arm that all of us can do with from time to time, especially when the going isn’t all that smooth.  I probably will come back to read this from time to time, because this message has a very strong reminder that I will one day with great anticipation see my own eternal savior face to face. 

I am just one of the very few who have had the privilege and honour of seeing the earthly version of Christ and to be able to share this joy with the many people in my life.