Monday, October 31, 2016

Our Christian belief in unmerited salvation can and should be our greatest foundation in life.

With the end of year academic examinations looming on the horizon for many of Singapore’s school-going children, there is a palpable tension and anxiety felt by many, often including the parents of the children as well.  It is a common joke/lament that it is not only the children who have the exam stress, but so do their parents. 

Exam anxiety and stress – whence is its origin?  By and large, it is an inevitable product of a society’s progress.  A country mired in the issues of mere survival and foundation-setting often have other pressing matters more directly related to physical survival.  Think of countries like Vietnam in the 70s when the most pressing matter was to find ways to escape the communists.  Studies?  We will deal with that once we have a life to live, and a country in which to live.  Current day equivalents are countries like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.  One wonders if children are educated at all in war-torn countries.

But when a society begins to progress and find some stability and peace, this is where education also begins to be one of the more fundamental ways in which to grow the people.  Singapore has come a long way since its quiet, fishing-village status to her meteoric rise to economic greatness now as one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in.  Along with such progress comes side or spin-off effects.  Especially in a country which prides itself in espousing meritocracy, where the adequately skilled with ability and talent earn or merit their right to succeed, the narrative in many minds would be that nothing less that the best scores and grades will be deemed acceptable.  The upside of this mentality is that those who have the necessary drive and determination, coupled with the smarts and natural born abilities get to become the so-called captains of industry.  But as is the case, there are many of the others who also ‘fall through the cracks’.  The truth is that not every person has the talents or skills to succeed in all that they do.  It is just not possible for everyone to be on top. 

Problems will arise when there is an unreasonably heavy emphasis on success, merit and achievement.  One’s worth and one’s dignity then easily become mired with the attainment of such goals, and when there is the experience of failure or defeat, perhaps even just due to the dynamics of the natural grading curve, one begins to see oneself either devalued or no longer with much worth.  It is thus not uncommon to read about how tragic it is that young children, as young as 10 or 11 have resorted to suicide as they cannot bear to face their parents with a red mark on their examination scores.  If for their entire lives, the affirmation and value that their parents had been giving them were largely based on the good grades that they had been bringing home, once these grades are not achieved, the child could well perceive that he or she has lost his or her reason for existence. 

The Christian teaching that every human being has a God-given value and dignity inherent in his very person shores one up against this toxic reasoning.  Revealed as Good News in the scriptures is that God has made us out of love, with love and for love, and that is the basis for believing that every human person, regardless of whether one is intelligent, beautiful, shapely and talented, or one is unintelligent, having physical features that are generally deemed unpleasant, humongous in size or lacking in skills, has just as much dignity and value as the next person.  Christians who are well taught from young that God has given them the very reason for their existence and hence their inherent dignity have a reasonable defense against the children that a success-obsessed culture that meritocracy can spawn. 

There is no meriting heaven for the Christian.  One cannot earn it, one cannot buy it, and one definitely cannot work for it.  It is pure gift and pure grace.  One only responds to it with love, at every moment of one’s life.  In a meritocratic society, Christianity’s good news is counter intuitive and perhaps even counter cultural.  While society tells us that there is no free lunch, Christianity says that there is an eternal banquet that is to be entered into that no one can earn or work for.  Meritocracy says that you only get what you deserve and achieve, Christianity says that the greatest goal in life (heaven/salvation) is given precisely because you don’t deserve it and cannot achieve it on your own, no matter how hard you try. 

Is there a downside to this?  Well, if one takes this gift for granted and doesn’t respond to it by a converted life and wanting to live in grace, one becomes a counter-witness to the beauty and truth of the Gospel.  But if one reflects on it regularly, delighting and relishing in the gift of not just life but a saved life despite oneself, one lives with a confidence that nothing should shake or rattle. 

We become holy and good not in order to attain God.  It is because God is holy and good that we become likewise.

Monday, October 24, 2016

When our freedom to choose becomes our absolute moral authority, it shouldn't surprise us that even virginity can be priced.

When one’s most fundamental and foundational stability comes from being financially stable, there is a dollar price that one can place on anything, even if it is something as seemingly un-priceable as one’s virginity.

CNN reported of how a young lady from Seattle, Washington, whose family had lost their family home to fire and who were uninsured, had decided to pack her bags and leave for Nevada to do something that is rather strange, to say the least.  She was planning to sell her virginity to the highest bidder in the only state in America where prostitution is legal. 

Apparently, this story is not new.  It had come out before, and it garnered some attention, one of them in the form of an on-line article by a Christian lady who had critiqued her for having no self-respect.  In her defense, this woman said that she values herself, and that she is doing this for love – of her family. 

I can imagine the many unarticulated responses going on in the minds of those who are reading this week’s reflection.  Before jumping to any conclusions even if they may be deemed logical and sensible, it would be in the best interest of Christian charity to step into the shoes of someone like her.  Perhaps understanding things from her point of view may help us to develop compassion where and when it is most needed. 

This lady had said that she has intentions of one day becoming a lawyer.  People don’t plan to practice law if they do not think they have the intellectual discipline that is required for the training and study for this profession.  Obviously, and as she has explained, it was her unfortunate circumstance of her family that has brought her to make this choice and to take this path.  She knows that there somehow is a ‘market’ out there for one’s virginity, and she wants to capitalize on this for her and her family’s benefit. 

I often tell my people about the great value that God has put on our lives, shown so unashamedly by the very life of his only begotten son who died for us on the Cross of Calvary.  It shouldn’t take much to join the dots and to make the connection that because God values us so much, that we too should value ourselves.  In this light, one cannot help but be stirred and affected to read of this lady’s decision. 

Her on-line interlocutor may have been rather stinging to say that she has no self-respect, no matter how well intentioned her remark may have been.  The report said that reading the Christian woman’s comment made her cry.  Obviously it showed that she had feelings, and deep inside, she knew that what she was doing was damaging to the very core of her being.

It’s not as if she was forced into prostitution.  Neither is she a victim of rape.  For this lady, it was a choice made willingly and deliberately.  The circumstances that caused her to resort to this are undeniably unfortunate, but was this the only resolution available to her?  Could it be because she had never been introduced to the God who loves her for who she is that has caused her to take this drastic option in life?  Would this happen if one really knows how deep God’s love for each one of us goes? 

When God doesn’t feature clearly in our approach to life, the only thing that makes any sense would be then to put the self as the centre and raison d’etre of life.  This forms the basis for much of the narrative or metanarrative that we have the right to choose what we want to do with our lives and our bodies.  Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ is the common battle-cry, and it is easy to see why.

When we make ourselves the highest authority in life, all morality and moral obligations outside of ourselves will have very loose foundations for their existence.  This then will easily explain other choices – like how a person can make the choice to terminate the life of a child in the womb through abortion because the mother’s life and freedom (to live without the burden of caring for a bringing up a child) is deemed more important than hers.  Quite often, it is also most likely the absolute freedom of personal choice that had caused the pregnancy in the first place. 

I had watched parts of the third debate between the candidates for the US Presidential Election and was rather alarmed that one of the candidates  was so determined to make sure that no government would have the power to stop a woman even in the 9th month of pregnancy from terminating her pregnancy if she deemed that her life would be threatened due to health issues if she carried on the pregnancy to full term, and that it would be the mother’s freedom of choice to do so.  While I can understand fully the emotional turmoil of a mother who faces such an unfortunate circumstance, we need to ask the necessary question about whether a right to life is equated to the right to murder.  If so, then in other extenuating circumstances, the government should also not step in if one would choose to kill an ailing parent or grandparent who is severely demented and is putting a strain on one’s family’s resources.  Personal freedom then has to trump all other reasons, justifying and making moral everything.  But are our lives truly about us?

Many of us who watch films of read books of a thriller nature loathe storylines that present us with easily spotted revelations and endings coming a mile away.  It should disturb us that in life, we see around us so much evidence of how things in life can go awry by the moral stand and choices that we make in life.  Their consequences are just as easily seen coming ‘a mile away’.  If we make it our stand that in life the most important thing for us is our personal freedom to make choices that best suit us and our convenience, where we love ourselves many levels above how we love and relate with others in community, and with God, we can end up making choices in life that justifies everything, even taking a life inside a womb, a life that is facing what we would term ‘without meaning’ (e.g. a Down Syndrome foetus or an elderly person bedridden with dementia), or selling a part of ourselves away to the ‘highest bidder’. 

One of the strong arguments for having any moral obligations in life is that of a person’s dignity and purpose.  A book I recently picked up and read with deep interest is Timothy Keller’s “Making Sense of God”.  In one of his chapters on dignity and moral obligations, Keller quotes Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre giving the graphic and rather effective analogy of ‘purpose’ using the pocket watch.  If we complain that the watch is “grossly inaccurate and irregular in time-keeping”, there is justification in such a complaint.  That is because the pocket watch was created to keep time.  But no one would say that a watch is bad if one uses it to throw it at a cat and it doesn’t hit its target.  It was simply not made for cat-hitting.  Apart from being an ineffective weapon for cat-abusers, it would be an obscenely expensive weapon especially if it was a timepiece that had cost a king’s ransom. 

I would recommend anyone reading this to extend this reasoning to their lives and their bodies.  Our lives and our bodies, especially for those of us who love God and are God-fearing in the most objective and mature way, is to glorify God.  But we misuse them and abuse them when we turn their purposes only to amuse, glorify or delight us.  It would be, as MacIntyre so graphically put it, akin to using a diamond-encrusted pocket-watch to hit cats. 

When we know the real value of something that is of infinite worth, no price can be put on it.  We need to treat life and sexuality with the same deference.  We may fight for our ‘right’ for our freedom of choice in life, but there are things that should never be priced with a dollar value, and unlike any of the items found on game shows like ‘The price is right’, there should never be a price high enough on them. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

When we are angry with God, we could well be guilty of worshipping a false God.

The first commandment clearly states that we shalt not have other gods before the Lord our God.  This commandment appears to be simple and straightforward, making it a sine qua non that we pay the divine honour to God and God alone, and not to any created thing or creature.  Yet, I have come to see that one of the greatest spiritual problems that we have as Christians is to truly live out this commandment at its core. 

This is seen quite evidently when we make God into a thing, and things become gods for us.  We worship all sorts of things and almost give them a divine status in the way that they rule and govern our lives.  Without them we find ourselves floundering and anxious, and if they are not within easy reach, we feel uneasy.  A simple test will show what we are controlled by in life.  Imagine our lives without these things or persons.  It could be our spouses, our work, or even something as seemingly frivolous as the Internet connection.  If our world becomes unmanageable and we have lost a sense of self, it could be a strong indication that we have made these persons or things into gods without realizing it. 

Spiritual teachers who are astute have always been telling us this in various ways.  While I am grateful for their counsel, I have also come to see that the ways these false gods insidiously make their ways into our lives also take a form that may not involve things or persons, but our notions of God that are unlike who God truly is.  Perhaps this needs some explication.

Spiritual sophisticates would be able to spot a mile away how material things and possessions can usurp God’s place in our lives.  It isn't all that hard to spot the 3 P's that often make up the false gods that many worship, the 3 being Power, Position and Pleasure.  I would think that the majority of my readers are reflective and give due consideration to what the heart is easily swayed by or given over to.  But what if the false god that we are exhorted to do away with are actually the images god that we have held true for the greater part of our lives? 

In the confessional, one of the things that I hear so often is that the penitents tell me that they are guilty of being angry with God.  When pressed further for details, it is usually the revelation that the had been angry with God for being slow on responding to prayer, or for not answering their heartfelt prayers and petitions.  It is in charity that I invite them to see that their ‘sin’ is not that of anger, but rather that it could be that they were guilty of sin against the first commandment – of not only worshipping another god, but of creating a false god.

We create false gods with far greater ease than we dare imagine.  This happens when our notion of God is predicated on the way that he ought to answer our cries for help, our demand for justice and our pleas for victories.  While it is certainly not wrong to pray for such things, an important part of prayer is that we ask too that God’s will be done.  This implies openness to not having our pleas met as we would want. 

When we have a fixated and spiritually rigid concept of God that we worship, what may shock us is to find out that in reality, he is really so different and dissimilar from our ingrained and entrenched God of our imaginings.  If we are then angry with that God for not fulfilling his divine role that we have given him, it would be anger directed at a god of our creation than God in truth. 

The erudite Mark Twain is remembered for having said this about his own father.  In recalling how his estimates of his parents had changed through the years, he said that at seventeen he could scarcely endure his father, saying that the old gentleman was so ignorant.  At twenty, he noticed that his father said sensible things occasionally.  At twenty-five he was astonished at improvement his father had made in the last eight years. 

Obviously, it wasn’t so much that Twain’s father had improved and gained insight into life, but rather than Twain himself had matured and appreciated his father for who he was.  When we are angry with God, perhaps it is a similar problem that we are battling with in our spiritual maturation process.  God, as we know and are taught, is immutable. 

How we view God, how we relate with him, and how much we allow him to truly be our God is what needs to grow and mature. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

When we truly live in the present, it helps us keep anxiety away.

In the embolism that follows the Lord’s Prayer at our Catholic Eucharistic celebration, we used to say ‘keep us free from all anxiety’.  The current translation doesn’t use the word ‘anxiety’, but does ask that the we be ‘safe from all distress’. 

It certainly is not difficult to see that much of our lives is lived with some form of anxiety or distress.  When people come up to me and lament that their lives are filled with anxiety, I often as them why this is so.  Quite often, it is revealed that they are worried and anxious about how things will turn out in the future, or how they have been stuck in the past.  It could be that a project that they are involved in would face some form of failure, or that a relationship will end, or that the doctor’s result has the potential to show up positive.  Parents can face anxieties about how the lives of their children will turn out.  As a result, many walk around life with faces downcast and have somehow lost their sparkle that was in the eye when they did not have such anxieties. 

A lot of our worries can be alleviated if we only take the sound advice to fully live in the present.  So much of our anxieties are there because of ‘what if’s’.  These may not even materialize.  Yet, we live so much in the future and load up these unnecessary worries and fears on ourselves, with the result that we stress ourselves to no end.  There is a lot of wisdom in the Zen practice of being present to life. 

But there are also a whole lot of us who are anxious because we are living in the past as well.  These, I fear, are more common than we imagine.  People who have unresolved hurts, broken relationships and past injuries afflicting the soul are somehow mired in the past.  An unwillingness to let go of these wounds causes one to lose that sparkle now.  I always remind the penitents who bring up past hurts that if these were already confessed, then their sins should no longer burden them and that if they are still harbouring fears of not having been forgiven by God, then it means that they are doubtful of God’s mercy given in the Sacrament.  A Sacrament is, after all, a sure and certain sign of a reality of God’s grace given to us.  Certainly, we may find it hard to forgive ourselves for some serious errors and sins of our past, but fully living in the present has to remind us that it is so necessary to forgive ourselves.  I find this to be true especially for those who have had abortions.  Just as no parent really ever gets over the death of their children, I believe that it is doubly hard to truly get over the lives of children lost due to abortions.  The sacrament of reconciliation, when correctly understood and meaningfully celebrated gives one the ability to live in the present no matter how injured or injurious one’s past had been.  This is the true beauty of the sacrament. 

Some friends of mine who had lived in Switzerland for quite many years had recently come back to Asia to live.  They were sharing with me about their experiences of living there.  I was surprised to learn that there are some Swiss who, though surrounded and immersed in the land of scenic beauty, clean air and financial abundance, are actually unhappy people.  One would think that living in such a place would make one happy most of the time.  But apparently, this is not so.  These friends of mine shared with me that the one reason this isn’t so is because these Swiss harbour the fear that all this will be taken away one day.  This just helped to further strengthen my belief that so much of our anxieties in life will be handled well if we fully live in the present. 

It’s an old adage that happiness is an inside job.  This is true to a very large extent, and it has very much to do with how much one learns to live fully in the present.  Discernment helps us to let go of what needs to be let go of, and what concerns of the future we ought to legitimately pray about.  If we begin to truly live in the present and appreciate what we have now, perhaps we can begin to find that sparkle in life and return that to our eyes once more.

In our Catholic tradition, we have always taught and believed that in the Blessed Sacrament, the Lord is truly present.  It is God’s true and real presence that we behold whenever we come before him in Adoration Rooms and Tabernacles throughout the world.  I also fully believe that Real Presence requires us to also be really present to God, and that Real Presence needs to meet our real presence as well.  To be really present also requires of us to not live too much in the future, nor too entombed in the past.