Monday, April 18, 2016

Zacchaeus' short story goes a long way. It's our story too.

Whenever I am invited by my parishioners to bless their homes, I like to do several things.  I often take with me two things (apart from my trusty bottle of Holy Water) – a spiritual book written by Fr Ronald Rolheiser, and a Holy Bible.  I read from them one of Fr Rolheiser’s reflections on how a blessed home can be a blessing to the people who live in it.  It has lots of gems of truth that are gold.

The scripture reading that I often use comes from Luke’s account of Jesus encountering Zacchaeus the height-challenged tax collector.  Through the years, I have come to appreciate this passage with greater and greater clarity and depth.  It never fails to remind me that we are, all of us, variations of Zacchaeus in different times of our spiritual lives.

Zacchaeus, we are told, was diminutive in size.  Luke is graphic in telling us that he had to climb a sycamore tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus who was about to pass his way.  Grown men don’t climb trees.  But Zacchaeus was doubly challenged.  Not only was he short, but there was the presence of the crowd that made it even more wearisome a task.  He did not allow these to quell his need of seeing Jesus.

This applies so aptly to each one of us.  We all have obstacles in our lives from seeing God who passes our way each day.  Some obstacles are inherent (it’s called sin), and some are placed in our way and can come in many forms like people and circumstances.  Our own variegated past can easily hinder us from getting clear views of God’s working in our lives. 

Zacchaeus’ pluck is of essence here.  He overcomes his obstacles and climbs the tree.  Singapore, like many developed cities in the world, is becoming crowded at an alarming rate.  We are also so familiar with crowds.  But the kind of crowd that impinges on our search for truth and for God can also be in the ‘crowd mentality’, in the prevailing sentiments of atheists who decry God’s existence and presence in the world.  These voices can also crowd out one’s attempts at find out ‘who Jesus is’. 

Innovative and resourceful, Zacchaeus then climbs the famed sycamore tree.  This is where my reflection becomes a pointed asking of the new home owners to dare to become ‘trees’ for the many seekers of Jesus to allow others to use them and ‘climb’ on them so that these searchers can get that glimpse of Jesus through their own lives of faith. 

We don’t particularly like to be used and stepped upon.  Yet, we know in our hearts that oftentimes when we are open to being made usable by God, we are also asked to become resilient to the ways in which others experience kindness and charity through our very lives.  And if we stretch this over time, it can sometimes feel as if our goodness and kindness is being stepped on or abused.  But that only applies when we have lost our focus on being true disciples of the Lord.  One of the very palpable fruits of prayer is when we realise that our gifts and skills are not meant for us to flout and lord it over others, but to magnify God’s presence and grace in the world.  I understand it when I hear laments of people who feel that they are being used and taken for granted by loved ones and friends when they are Christ-like.  If we are reflective and honest, a deeper revelation often shows that feeling this way often comes about because of an inner security in ourselves and our worth in God’s eyes. 

Finally, Jesus, we are told, insisted on staying with Zacchaeus and makes that first move to want his company.  And the crowd (which may well include Jesus’ own disciples) grumbled and complained. 

At that point, the crowd became the ones who were small - small in heart, small in mind and small in charity.  When we cannot share and enter into the joy of others who are blessed, but gripe, compare and become derisive and dismissive of others, our participation in the kingdom of God diminishes.  And when we catch ourselves enjoying waves of secret happiness at the failings and shortcomings of others, it is our egos that are telling us that we are actually better than others, schadenfreude is our sin, where we literally bask in a ‘harm-joy’ as if it were sanctioned.

If the life of a dedicated Christian is challenging, difficult and arduous, the life of a searcher of the truth is doubly so.  A priest’s role has to be one that constantly encourages the faithful to rise to the challenge, overcome the perceived fears and to walk that route which is less travelled. 

Last week’s revelation of my condition resulted in so many of your readers telling me that my weekly words have been a positive influence in your faith life.  I can only thank God that his grace has allowed me to see the bright and positive side of things like afflictions and adversities, and pray that I can continue to be usable in his kingdom despite my limitations.  May this be your possibility as well.

I will be away on vacation and as such, there will not be any blog posts until 9 May.  Everybody can benefit from a recharge from time to time.  My time has come, and when I return from it, I pray that I will be usable by God in new and powerful ways for his people.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Who fights against God? Just about every one of us.

The Pharisee Gamaliel is featured in chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles.  He addresses the gathered Sanhedrin and offers them sound advice regarding the way that the apostles should be treated as the early Christian movement starts to gain momentum.  In closing, he says that if the movement is indeed from God, that they will find themselves not only unable to destroy them, but that they might find themselves fighting against God.  A rich meditation resulted from this passage which I thought might be fodder for this week’s blog entry.

If we think about it seriously, all our encounters with sin and how it results in our being torn and divided from within when we find our conscience bothered and unsettled is because we have been fighting with God.  We hardly fight the devil when it comes to sin.  In fact we work with and collaborate with him.  When mired in sin, it who we are actually fighting with is God, and this is nothing new.

Right from the start when our first parents sinned, they fought against God and his divine will.  From that point on, humankind (with the exception of Jesus, Mary and perhaps John the Baptist) has been in on this fight in large and small ways, and the more combative and ornery ones amongst us seem to have risen to WWF standards in this fight. 

I am of the opinion that the start of any spiritual awakening is when one is aware of this ‘fight’ that is going on in each of us, and we see the pointlessness of it.  True inroads to spiritual maturity are marked by the turning points in our lives where we make the conscious choices to want to live in grace and no longer find the lures of sin irresistible the way they were before.

The rich history of the Church’s saints and martyrs are redolent with true stories of how this fight was not only identified, but when it was arrested altogether.  They have chosen to fight not against God, but against evil and sin, and this has caused them to be marked as heroes of our faith.  What made them so resolute?  Those who are without religion would tend to say that they were brainwashed.  And some would say that the worst thing about religion is that people are driven to seek God out of fear and desperation. 

Truth be told, anything that is done out of a motive of fear usually never turns out with a good result.  Stories abound of marriages which have been entered into because of fear, causing all sorts of marital issues to surface later on.  Fear, the antithesis to love, will always be wary of freedom.  Love, on the other hand, is only true and godly when it is celebrated in freedom, and returned in freedom.

There are basically two ways in which one can cause another to run.  One can chase another and fill him with fear, and make him run away from something that poses a threat.  Which of us has not heard about those preachers from past generations who instilled the fear of hell into the hearts of the parishioners?  Their intentions were noble in that they truly wanted their flock to love God.  While the most charitable part of me chooses to believe that they had good motivations, I find it hard to believe that they truly worked.  One who is cowed into loving or doing loving acts will resent it at some point.

The other way that we can cause others to run is to give them a goal and a purpose to run toward.  What is sought after is always ahead and the future, when it is reached, is a sweet ending that one only gets a small taste of while on the way there.  The quality of one’s motivation and purpose then becomes much more positive on many levels, and the inspiration to go the distance comes from within.  Any effective leader has to nurture this in order to bring out the best from those under his charge, and this applies to schoolteachers, company department heads, parents as well as to priests and teachers of the faith. 

In our quest for spiritual greatness, much as we choose our battles, we also choose how we are running. 

Post Script – a latest health report

Over the weekend in my parish, some of you may have noticed that I was walking with the aid of a cane.  My quick (but harmless) reply to why I was using this was that it was stylish.  But if you truly know me, you would know that I do not do anything simply because of style. 

Lately, I experienced a nagging pain in my knees, especially after I returned from a run outdoors.  Following my doctor’s recommendation, I went for an MRI of my knee, and I must admit that I was not quite prepared for the result that ensued.  It reveals that I am now a sufferer of what is known as Osteonecrosis.  Caused by a marked reduced blood flow to the bones, necrotic bones start to die and can break down altogether.  The scan reveals that I have it in my knees and hips, and there is usually no reversal of this condition.  One lives in a different way when one lives with osteonecrosis.  Apparently this was caused by my high doses of steroids that I took when my encounter with Leukemia began, and it is not uncommon to find osteonecrosis in patients who have had my illness.

How is my life changed?  Quite significantly.  I can no longer run (something which I loved to do), I should not be kneeling and putting weight on my knees in any compromised position (a priest who doesn’t kneel?  Come on!), squatting and jumping are going to stress my joints and the most challenging one for me as a priest is that I should not be standing for periods longer than 30 mins at a time. 

These interdicts should be adhered to as closely as possible in order for me to prevent any collapse of my skeleton where the structure and integrity of the bones are compromised.  My mobility may be limited, but it doesn’t mean that I am paralyzed either.  Life continues, but in a different way, and I believe that new challenges need to be broached with new attitudes. 

It is interesting to see that it is at a time when it appears that progress is making headway that speed bumps appear on the horizon.  I choose to see these as God’s invitation to me to offer up more of myself for souls who are suffering.  He is constantly drawing us to take up our crosses to follow him.  I cannot be alone as one who has been given additional crosses in my journey as a disciple of the Lord.  My readers must have theirs as well, and if I am being used by God to be a source of inspiration to them, I will be most happy to. 

So, the next time you see me with a walking cane in my hand, and perhaps walking with a slight limp, do know that it’s ok.  I’m still hobbling my way slowly to the Kingdom of heaven.  And I believe we’ll all run like the wind there.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Easter always hearkens us to go to Galilee

It never fails.  In the first week or so of Easter, I always seem to see Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as his invitation to me.  In so many post resurrection encounters with his disciples, Jesus tells them to go to Galilee and they will see him there. 

I used to wonder what all the fuss was about Galilee.  When I made my (so far) one and only pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I still couldn’t quite see the big deal about the place.  It was a small region, and like so many rural places in Israel, not developed, often dusty, and parts of it were by the edge of the lake or Sea of Galilee.  Capernaum is within this region, and this was where Jesus began calling his disciples. 

Many spiritual writers have pondered about Jesus’ post-resurrection instructions to his disciples.  Surely if it was expedient to do so, Jesus could have just give them his instructions to spread the Good News and begin the task of proclaiming the kerygma when he appeared to them, in whatever ‘form’ he did this.   So just as important for them was a certain going back, a return if you will, to a time and a place in their hearts as well.  Ever the master of the experience and the encounter, Jesus’ unspoken instruction was for them to recall with relish and delight the hope that they all had when their journey with Jesus began. 

Certainly, the occurrences of Good Friday and the fact that their beloved Lord and Master was so cruelly tried, tortured and brutally executed as a criminal seemed to bring the curtains down on their hopes that the Messiah would bring to the land the much needed disenfranchisement that they yearned for.  With dreams dashed and hopes crushed, Jesus’ instruction goes deep.  In order to reinstate hope and restart broken dreams, it wasn’t enough just to say ‘let’s move on’.  The heart is a complex thing, and to be taken to a new place, especially when it is broken and wounded, it has to first be reminded about the time when hope was new and promise was like a budding flower that was about to burst out and fill the world with its hitherto unseen beauty and splendor.

That was what Galilee was.  It was a time and a place where nets were filled to bursting because experienced fishermen listened to the promptings of a carpenter, and the result was nothing short of astonishing.  It was a hearkening back to a time when discipleship dreams were nascent.  And when broken dreams are given a ‘shot in the arm’, the reality and absolute newness and freshness of the resurrection would be understood no longer with downcast eyes and downtrodden spirits, but lives that dared to dream again.

In fact, as most of you would know, this going back to Galilee is a pressing need for each one of us who have had dreams crushed and hopes dashed in our lives.  And no one is spared this experience.  Married couples who have lost the dream and live instead the daily nightmares of anger, resentment and just being snarky to one another; members of the faithful who have been hurt by either fellow Christians or worse, members of the clergy; or maybe just Christians who, because the faith wasn’t really deep and meaningfully imparted, slowly drifted to become nominal in every sense of the word; or folk who have suffered failure and disappointment over and over again until they began feeling thoroughly bedraggled.  If you think this describes your life, and if you can identify with such sentiments of acedia and ennui, that call to go back to Galilee is one that Jesus is making to your heart.

Easter and its great promise of hope and new life is something that is real for every heart.  In Luke’s account of the Road to Emmaus, there is a phrase that he has Cleopas and his friend use in trying to convey their deepest sentiments as they walked with their faces downcast.  “We had hoped …” 

This phrase evokes a sense of despondency and of broken dreams, especially when they were once dreams of grandeur and magnificence.  To say that one ‘had hopes’ conveys sadness and sorrow.  When people fall in love, it is always the hope that this person would be THE one who would stay by one’s side through all circumstances in life, but then the acrimonious breakup happens and one is left with only one’s shattered dreams.  People take up new posts in their careers with great verve and zeal, and after some setbacks, these same hearts become cynical, critical and exude anything but a reaching for greatness.  Indeed, many of us can identify with the ‘had hopes’ phrase that Cleopas and company lamented audibly.

But Easter’s empty tomb and folded linen cloths tell us that we need to go back to our Galilees no matter how far we may find ourselves from them in our lives.  Rekindle the dream, and fill your hearts once more with hope.  Put past hurts and unforgiveness behind you, and dare to start again.  When we do this, Easter becomes real, and we will realise that the Lord had been walking beside us all this while. 

Galilee awaits – for each of us.  We only need to turn around and make the effort to try again.