Monday, May 30, 2016

Praise - the secret weapon to non-violence.

The world, without doubt, is spiralling in a web of violence on so many levels.  From the blatant disregard for human freedom and rights ripped away by terrorists and despots, to the violence that exists so clearly in rage-filled drivers on our roads, violence is so insidious in the ways that it manifests itself in our lives.  None of us is spared of its tentacles and unless we are watchful of our every step, each of us is prone to wanting to return violence for violence.

In actual fact, there is a way out of violence that is found in the Holy Bible.  True, in the Old Testament, we see a plethora of stories which show violence even in God himself, wanting to smite those who have been unfaithful.  But we know that underlying those stories is the desire of God to show us that there are consequences to living outside of a love that requires limitations on oneself.  The incarnation, when understood well, is really God’s limitations placed on himself to show how imperative it is that love in its purest form has limits that one doesn’t arbitrarily breach. 

In the 16th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, St Paul is in prison with Silas, because they had created an uproar by exorcising a woman.  While in prison, with their hands and feet in chains, we are told something interesting – they were praying and singing hymns to God.  Following this, the earth quaked and they found themselves freed from their chains.  This episode ends with them being told to go in peace by the Magistrates.  It makes for a compelling reading, and I’d recommend that you, dear reader, turn to that chapter sometime this week to read this in full. 

Daniel chapter 3 tells of yet another story where something intriguing happens to three people undergoing an intense form of persecution and suffering.  Refusing to worship a golden statue in Babylon under orders of King Nebuchadnezzar, three Jews (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) are thrown into a fiery furnace, made seven times hotter than usual.  While in those white-hot flames, these three walked about, singing to God and blessing the Lord.  When they were reported to be unharmed, the King’s nobles said that there was a fourth who walked with them, someone looking like the son of God.  This story too, has a remarkable ending. 

It is something that is seen prevalent in these two distinctively different and seemingly unrelated episodes that I think reveals a key to non-violence, and it is in praise.

It is easy to praise God when things are going swimmingly well.  The term we use in our modern day terminology is that it is a ‘no-brainer’.  But it is when things are not going well, when our feet and hands are bound by forces or powers that are beyond our ken, and when we are thrown in fires that are sometimes made seven times hotter than usual, that we need to switch from being in a state of ‘no-brain’, to one where the brain and all our other senses are fully engaged to purposefully begin to ‘praise God’. 

Why praise and not petition?  Because it is counter-intuitive.  God knows our needs and he knows how much of a rut that we are in, often due to our own stupidity.  But praising God mindfully reminds us that ultimately God is in charge, and that his divine plan cannot be thwarted by evil.  It is the faith that often has been lying dormant in our hearts that we are calling up at that instant, and this enables us to not return violence for violence.  In fact, too much petition can make us short tempered (and short-sighted) because we expect God to act according to our very limited time frame.  So we get frustrated and impatient, and violence can often result, either in the ways that we relate to one another, or even in the ways that we relate to God.  Stories abound of people in times of adversity shaking their fists toward the heavens and getting angry at God.  Perhaps you, dear reader, have found yourselves doing this at some point in your life.

But when praise is coming forth from our lips when our backs are against the wall, and when things aren’t going our way at all, this is when the value of praise coming from the depths of our hearts is gold in God’s eyes.  This is because it also comes as a result of wanting to do the harder thing, the counter-intuitive thing, and the thing that comes as a decision to love, rather than a reaction to a good feeling or emotion. 

This resulted in the stocks of Paul and Silas, as well as the bound feet of those three men in the furnace being loosened.  That was when one like the son of Man was seen walking with them in the fiery furnace too.  But notice too that it did not give them the license to unleash violence on their perpetrators, but rather, become a conduit through which their adversaries saw the reality and the power of God anew, resulting in a conversion of hearts and minds.  Sometimes, we may need to ask God to walk with us in the midst of those scorching flames that we find ourselves surrounded by.

The paragon of non-violence for us is shown writ large by Christ on the Cross on Calvary, where he not only praised God by reciting the psalms, but also by asking the Father to forgive his executors for he truly believed that they did not know what they were doing. 

Violence will always beget violence, and a great truth came forth from the lips of Mahatma Ghandi when he said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.  I believe that many of us are limping around with one eye.  Let us use the remaining one wisely, and hopefully, this will restore some lost vision in the one that had been on the receiving end of violence. 

Praise be to God!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Baptised in Christ? We are already rich in ways beyond our imaginings.

St Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians (3:8) “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” 

Our modern day minds have trouble grasping the depth of what he was saying.  Can one truly hold the knowledge of Christ with such esteem that everything else can be considered garbage as compared to the treasure of knowing Christ?  If this is so, perhaps most of us have yet to appreciate Christ at any level close to that of St Paul.  We prize so much the joys, thrills and excitement of this world, and we love ourselves far more than we do God. 

Our faith tells us that Christ’s victory over sin and death is our greatest hope in life.  But I think that many of us may in fact be living each day without realizing the riches that we have inherited through the grace of our baptism in the Lord.  It may well be that we will only truly appreciate the absolute treasure of our salvation only when we finally take our last breath.

Meanwhile, as we live with the various challenges that we face here in this life, we find ourselves living in that state of ‘gia ma non ancora’, which is Italian for ‘already but not yet’.  This is a theological concept of understanding the Kingdom of God where though we know that the realm of God is seen in his sovereign right to rule, it will only be truly entered into fully in the future.  So, the kingdom of God is both a present and a future reality.

I don’t think we struggle with the future bit.  We all tend to have a natural tendency to want to look beyond the valleys that we are in, as we gaze toward the greener pastures that lie over the ranges that seem to limit our horizons in life.  After all, very few of us can say with confidence that we are already living in a state of being fully in the eternal joys that heaven promises.  But many, if not most, are mired somewhat in our daily toils and labours, or perhaps just barely coping to make it through each day without giving in to its variegated struggles and temptations.

How does one live in a state of being energized constantly by the great hope that our salvation in Christ accords us?  Is it at all possible to live on such ‘high octane’ Christianity that no setbacks, however large, are going to find us flagging in zeal?  Is that mere wishful thinking? 

St Paul, as scripture reveals, had such a dynamic encounter with the Lord on that road to Damascus.  Undoubtedly, it was pivotally germane to how convinced he was about the resurrection, redirecting his whole life after he saw again anew.  And therein perhaps, lies the key to what made Paul see as garbage the things that most of us hanker for in life.  He first had to fall (and not from a horse, as some paintings deem to portray).  Then blindness came upon him.  He had to undergo a restoration of his sight.  It was only then that he made a complete turn in the direction of his life, and preached the good news of the Risen Lord.

Most of us do not have such vivid encounters with God to shift the very ground of our lives anew.  Our compasses in life are seldom so dramatically recalibrated. 

So where does this leave us?  We know Paul’s conviction was so clear and that was what enabled him to be so driven, so passionate and so convinced about his mission.  People who I speak to, and who are readers of this blog effort of mine often tell me that I give them encouragement and hope in their struggles to live the Christian life.  But what if the person reading this only sees the darkness and has no powerful encounter to see her through to live in a renewed hope?  I know that I am truly blessed to have been given such faith to live out my dark days without letting them lead me to despair and anguish.  What of the many others who cannot seem to see any sliver linings beyond the edges of the grey clouds, simply because the edges are beyond one’s horizons? 

This is where our faith truly comes in.  Faith to believe that no matter how much adversity one faces in life, that the promise of the sovereignty of God ultimately will reign supreme.  This is after all, what our baptism in Christ gives us – a hope beyond what our eyes can see. 

When we are able to appreciate anew over and over again the true riches that lie in store for us, the troubles that we face become less insurmountable and less overwhelming.  Looking anew at what greatness our hope has in store for us is much like knowing that in fact, we do have a real treasure that is yet to be fully seen. 

Sometime in April 2014, in a house in Toulouse, France, a painting was found in the attic of a home, and the owners had no inkling that they had it in their possession until they went there to fix a leak in the ceiling.  This painting, it is believed, was by the great Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio and could be worth around 120 million Euros. 

I don’t know which part of the story is more intriguing – that such a masterpiece was actually preserved in someone’s attic without them even knowing of its existence, or that there are actually people who are clueless about the riches that they have.

The promise of our salvation in Christ makes us rich beyond words.  It is kept in the faith of our hearts, and some of us may have it stored so well in our attics that we don’t even realise the priceless treasure that we have.  And you can be sure that its beauty may well make an earthly masterpiece seem like garbage – even if it may be an authentic Caravaggio.

This is the Caravaggio that was reportedly found in the attic of the house in Toulouse, France

Monday, May 16, 2016

Pentecost - a celebration of God's housewarming of our hearts.

The Catholic Church celebrated Pentecost yesterday.  50 days after the Easter event, coinciding with the Jewish feast of weeks or Shavuot, 50 days after the Passover. 

For us Catholics, it is significant in many ways.  It is the end of our liturgical time known as Eastertide, after which we go back into Ordinary Time or Eventide.  It is also known as the birthday of the Church, where we celebrate the fact that it is with the Holy Spirit’s powerful outpouring on the gathered apostles in that locked room, a fearlessness that was hitherto unknown gave them the ability to start the Christian mission and speak the Word with a courage only God could give. 

I preached one homily yesterday, and because I only preach one sermon each Sunday, each time I step on the ambo to proclaim the Word and to preach it, I know that it is probably the only time I get to bring God’s word into the hearts of the people gathered in prayer.  Preachers of repeated sermons/homilies each Sunday can at least have their second or third takes and improve where they believed that they could have done better in their previous deliveries.

Those who heard me preach yesterday would have (hopefully) remembered that I spoke with scriptural references to the fact that at the heart of Pentecost is the celebration not just of the life of the Church, but also of an incredible revelation by Jesus himself – that God, the creator of the universe, has a plan to make a home in each one of us.  He wants to dwell in our hearts. 

And if we don’t take this plan of God seriously enough, we will also easily gloss over the fact that our response to holiness has to incorporate and facilitate this Holy and Divine guest.  He is not just a guest, he is a dweller, and perhaps we have great problems with this.  In our current day understanding, dwellers are hardly welcome, let alone given any chance to set up anything that is close to the borders of our homes. 

In my tiredness after an energized (or at least what I felt was one) celebration of the Sunday Eucharist, I had to take a rest.  I am only now just about emerging from my severe bout of jet lag, and perhaps it was a combination of that and a disturbed conscience that got me waking to a prompting that I could have made the homily that I gave a kicker at the very end.  I do not believe in coincidences, and this is by no means a coincidence.  What came up from my subconscious was a clear bringing up of something that I had used in my past preaching, maybe not about Pentecost, but definitely about our need to give God room in our hearts.  Why it never came up in my thoughts during the lengthy time that I devoted to craft my homily, I will never know.  But what I do know is that it was not of my doing that this memory came back.  I have no possibility of preaching this a second time, so I thought that I could use today’s blog to write the conclusion to what I had originally preached, making this a strange epilogue to something that was already publically concluded, but only accessible to a readership who wasn’t even there to listen to the first preaching. 

This epilogue is largely made up of a quote from a Sr. Magaret Halaska, a Franciscan nun, who wrote a very poignant poem entitled Covenant quite some time back.  I tried looking for more information about the author herself, but there seems to be very little about her.  Could her haunting and significant words of her poem, coming to me so clearly, be a silent prompting for me to pray for her?  I do not for one moment doubt its possibility.  And if it is, could my readers today also say a prayer for Sr Halaska as well?  From the looks of it, it does appear that she has since passed away.  Well, whether you are in the Church Militant (alive on this earth), the Church Suffering (undergoing purification in Purgatory) or Church Triumphant (already in a blessed and eternal existence in heaven), St Halaska, you will be prayed for. 

As a second ending to my homily at yesterday’s Mass, I would have read her short masterpiece.  May these words impact you in your preparations to give God a room in your hearts too.

Covenant – Margaret Halaska

God  knocks at my door
seeking a home for his son.

Rent is cheap, I say.

I don’t want to rent. I want to buy, says God.

I’m not sure I want to sell,
but you might come in to look around.

I think I will, says God

I might let you have a room or two.

I like it, says God. I’ll take the two.

You might decide to give me more some day.

I can wait, says God

I’d like to give you more,
but it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me.

I know, says God, but I’ll wait. I like what I see.

Hm, maybe I can let you have another room.
I really don’t need it that much.

Thanks, says God, I’ll take it. I like what I see.

I’d like to give you the whole house
but I’m not sure

Think on it, says God. I wouldn’t put you out.
Your house would be mine and my son would live in it.
You’d have more space than you’d ever had before.

I don’t understand at all.

I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.
You’ll have to discover it for yourself.
That can only happen if you let me have the whole house.

A bit risky, I say.
Yes, says God, but try me.

I’m not sure—

I’ll let you know.

I can wait, says God. I like what I see.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Jesus' yearning for unity has to be our shared yearning too.

In his Last Supper discourse in John’s gospel, he has Jesus give a very long and intimate discourse that stretches three chapters (15 through 17), culminating in an earnest and heartfelt prayer of Jesus for worldly unity.  It’s perhaps rather easily overlooked, but as with many other passages of Sacred Scripture, it is when we take time to mull over, ponder and thus enter into the depths of its marrow that we come away with its rich truth.

If the very heart of God is the unity that flows between the Father and the Son, (which is the Holy Spirit), then it becomes very clear that anything that splits, divides and separates is its very antithesis.  Any call to division becomes opposite and antipathetic to the very nature of the Holy Spirit.  Evil and sin will always have this as its agenda in our world and in our lives, and any call to separation and disconnection will have some roots and link to evil.  Goodness and the call to holiness is at the heart of community (read common-unity) that the vast majority of humanity seeks to attain and achieve, albeit with many obstacles and challenges. 

Much as we tend to long for unity in community, we also find ourselves strangely dissatisfied with what we have.  It is a common lament that even in church groups, social units like family and ethnic bonds and workplaces, there is a struggle to do this well, and the result is that many simply give up.

Perhaps the root of the problem is the fact that too many of us have perfectionist ideals, even when it comes to unity and community.  Perfection, after all, is often cited as the enemy of the good.  What we over idealize and set as goals for ourselves sometimes works against us in our journey and endeavors to make something meaningful work.  I wonder if it is precisely because we have false notions of what should be, that we cave in when they do not materialize.  But the unity that Christ makes references to isn’t a destination as much as it is a journey.  It is not an end point but a process as well.  And this requires addressing in our lives what is real, what is most essential and what is basic.  This doesn’t come easily, but isn’t that also true of any pursuit of unity and oneness that has gravitas and weightiness?  Marriages, family, church and friendship are prime examples of these and we want them to last.  We become lesser as human beings when we trivialize any of them.

Things that are superficial are instead fleeting, often because there isn’t an investment in what is essential and deep.  And so we settle for what momentarily thrills and excites, what purports to take away the trouble of getting into deep issues and what constitutes core values.  Perhaps this explains why the TV, People Magazine, the social media and chugging down intoxicants at watering holes are the preferred choices rather than deep-dialogue and bond-forging connections at the level of the heart, and the painful truth is that while there are hoards of people at singles bars all over the world, these very places ironically remain filled with loneliness and isolation at the end of the day.

True bonds and unity take time and require an investment.  So does love.  Alongside the call to love in the way that the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son is also the call to sacrifice, selflessness and generosity.  Connections need forging, and the more one cherishes these God-given connections in life, and honours the fact that connectedness is never deserved but a work of grace, the more one realizes that the sacrifice it takes to nurture, foster and maintain these bonds makes it worth the effort.

I have just returned to Singapore after being away for a couple of weeks where I spent time simply being with the family of my stem cell donor in a suburb of Chicago, nearly 15,000km away.  I not only bonded with them in a meaningful way, but was also privileged to enter into their community of their connectedness and unity in God.  While it may appear to be a vacation, in truth, it was far more than that.  It was a precious time of re-connection, of strengthening an already strong bond, and in the light of Jesus’ last supper discourse, it was also a time spent in forging a oneness given by God. 

Perhaps what we need from time to time is a reminder to appreciate anew the kinds of relationships that God has given us in this life.  I hear so many confessions that reveal that there is very little appreciation of the relationships that so many of us are given and this includes both family and the wider context of community.  These days leading up to the celebration of Pentecost should be a time to re-appreciate and hold these opportunities of godliness anew.  If Jesus was so clear in his ache for unity in his discourse before his death, should we not also have a similar hunger and yearning?