Monday, January 30, 2017

Seeing the Church as a family must somehow accommodate the reality of family dysfunction too.

The Chinese New Year is a widely celebrated holiday here in Singapore, largely because the majority race of the population is of Chinese origin.  The traditions that are observed have an unmistakable appreciation of life.  This is easily observed both in the arrival of the Spring season (more so back in China where the winter thaw gives way to the blossoming of cherry blossoms) as well as in the gathering of family at reunion meals where there is an continual partaking of feasts and gastronomical delights.  This is a time of making visits to friends and family, giving us the opportunity to meet kith and kin who we seldom see, reminding us of the largeness of our family tree, with its sometimes ‘hidden’ branches.

No one chooses the family one belongs to.  Each family, without exception, will have its members who are very visible, very active and do much to ‘hold it all together’.  There will also be members who do not come for such gatherings unless there is a very special reason to make an appearance, like at weddings or special birthdays, or when there is a funeral.  Some really understand the need for maintaining and contributing to familial bonds, whilst others could be so wrapped up in their own worlds and work that they think that taking part in all this ‘tradition’ is just making a fuss about nothing.  Some members of the family do not fancy or think it necessary to forge a relationship that is really committed and regular.  This is the reality of family life.

The Church has always taught that the body of believers needs to be seen as the Body of Christ.  As such, it is a family of people who are linked in and by the blood of Christ that courses through the veins formed by baptism.  Like a family of blood relations, we do not choose our fellow brothers and sisters in this body of Christ.  We are given these through our baptism, and as much as it can give us a real sense of belonging and support and love, it can also often reveal the very same flaws and dysfunction that prevail in blood familial bonds. 

I have come to see that the church as family has much in common with all that our earthly family experiences.  In the church, we see clearly that there are different levels of participation and belonging.  Indeed, there are those who see it as something that is of utmost importance, giving much of their time and energy selflessly.  They understand in a very deep way that their belonging to this family gives them a privilege and along with the privilege comes a duty and a responsibility out of love.  Like in an earthly family, these members do the often thankless task of arranging for meals, organizing gatherings, paying for the meals and do all that they can to keep the family together and uphold family ethos.  Then there are those who appear to take the family for granted as well – coming late for family gatherings, making the slightest excuses to be absent from them, being present only in body but hardly in spirit, or even wishing that they were not part of the family for all sorts of reasons – in short, being participants of the family on their own terms.

In my coming to 16 years of being a priest of the Church of God, I can see so many similarities and it bemuses me.  If I am unrealistic in my appreciation of the kinds of dysfunction that are present in earthly family ties, I would be similarly unrealistic of the dysfunctions that are present in the church that makes up the body of Christ.  Not everyone gets it.  Not everyone is passionate about God at the same time, and some may seem to be only in it for their own benefit and give nary a thought about those who have given their lives for it because of love. 

But just as God sees our earthly broken family and loves it, I strongly believe that he also, in the same way, looks upon the broken body of Christ that makes up the church and loves it all the same. 

I think we struggle with this very much, especially those of us who can readily identify with those family members who are consciously carrying more of the burden than others.   I know parents can, from time to time, feel their love and dedication to their families taken for granted.  They reveal this to me in counseling sessions.  I often like to remind them that what they do has to stem from love, otherwise it will always become a job or a task, performed out of an obligation and not one that is rooted and coming out of love.  When it is an action that has love as its rationale and foundation, there will be little room for bitterness and rancor to result. 

Priests who are at the service of the people of God who form the family of God need to know this and need to serve from the love of God.  It is constantly recharged and grown when we make prayer a non-negotiable as part of our vocation as priests.  When we stop praying, it becomes easy for us to look at the church narrowly, become overtly critical and run the church as an organization with tasks to perform rather than love the church as a family that has members who are capable of loving in very limited ways, for various reasons. 

Fr Ronald Rolheiser once said that the reasons why most people do not go to church do not also mortally sever our connections.  To a certain degree, I am inclined to agree with him.  A family member remains a family member no matter how wayward he lives his life.  Indeed, you do not cease being a “practicing member” of the family just because you are not home very much.  We who are in the ecclesial family, which is the church, need to be mindful of this.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Amazed and astonished we should be. But we aren't, and we suffer the consequences.

The one stupendous thing about Christianity is that it believes that not only is God’s word true and wonderful, but far more incredible is that God’s word became flesh.  Christmas primarily celebrates this fact, and we Christians see this phrase so often, rolling it off our tongues with such frequency that we hardly ever stop to think about what this implies, and how this even affects us as human beings.

There are indeed so many dimensions (both theological and spiritual) to appreciate God’s word becoming flesh.  The traditional Catholic view has taken this quite literally when we say that at each Eucharistic celebration the bread and wine are consecrated to become the body and blood of Christ.  Bread becomes body.  And because it is the body of Christ, it is worthy of worship and adoration.  It does take a leap of faith to believe that the small white round host of wheat actually becomes the body of Christ, but it is what it is because of what Jesus instituted at the Last Supper, where he became the New Covenant. 

It is easy to become rather blasé and nonplussed about something that we see and encounter on a regular basis.  Even the most alert and attentive of minds can experience ennui and be jaded about very spectacular things.  Just ask any person who on a daily basis due to work or just by virtue of their place of habitation, gets to go to places or see things that most people only get to experience once in their lifetimes or only on very special occasions.  Singaporeans who live in equatorial Singapore make long and arduous trips to Iceland just to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis and come back home feeling like they have managed to tick something big off their bucket lists, while to Icelanders, this must be just something that they constantly see above them each time winter comes around.  The Chinese have a saying that imparts this truth.  In phonetics, it reads shao jian duo guai, or translated roughly it means “things seldom encountered are largely regarded as strange”.  It takes purposeful effort on one’s part to keep oneself from being indifferent and phlegmatic to familiarity, especially when it can bring one to the border of contempt. 

How do we then as Catholics keep ourselves from any sense of nonchalance each time we find ourselves before the Eucharistic Lord?  As a celebrant and a presider at Masses, I do have the inestimable privilege to pray the words of transubstantiation and effect the change of substance of bread and wine into the essence of the Body and Blood of Christ.  I have an active role that always humbles and grounds me, keeping me from having any over inflated sense of self-importance. 
But to the layperson in the congregation, it does appear to be something that one has to consciously be in a state of awareness that what is happening in the sanctuary is heaven coming to earth. 

Sacraments are not magic.  What happens whenever sacraments are celebrated are beyond the senses of taste and touch, even though our encounter of them engages our senses.  Perhaps the truth is that this generation is so attuned to the spectacle made believable through the movies and special effects that we have become lazy to activate our will power to fan the dying embers of our belief into dancing tongues of fire.  In this way, I concur with theologian Timothy Keller that as a people, we have lost the ability to be astonished. 

In his book “Hidden Christmas”, he reflects with remarkable depth on the person and faith of Mary, our Blessed Mother.  It is not so much that it is because Keller is a Presbyterian Pastor and Theologian that makes this something remarkable.  It is his intuition and God-centeredness of his reflection that makes him a theologian in the true sense of the word – he is theo-logic.  The logic that Keller lives and breathes resonates in firmly centering God at the place of greatest importance. 

Mary, he reflects, was a person who saw the wisdom in pondering anew.  There is a note of amazement at the fact the she was chosen for this momentous and monumental honour of being the mother of God.  We as baptized Christians should likewise be just as amazed and awed that God would give us, together with all our flaws and imperfections, a gift as incredible as the promise of eternal life and a life of grace. 

The more we are truly and deeply touched by this adoption of us by God out of love, the less will sin and all that sin represents have power or influence on our lives.  How do we keep this constantly in our consciousness?  That would be the lifelong task of being rooted in prayer, and a willingness to live only within the narrow limits of what our own lives dictate and revolve around.  Amazement, astonishment and being delighted in God always require humility as a fundament in attitude.  God himself was humble to take on flesh and be incarnated for our sake.  It is truly a big deal. 

As the 45th President of the United States of America took to the floor to dance with his wife on the evening of his inaugural celebrations, the song that they danced to was Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”.  While Donald Trump may truly have done things his way and reached the highest office in the USA his way, having that rhetoric underpinning all that we do in life is most likely not going to help us in being aware of our salvation in Christ. 

Our salvation will never be attained simply because we did things ‘our way’. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

God is good. All the time. Really.

Back in 1998, Christian songwriter and recording artist Don Moen gave the world the song God is Good and it quickly became both a catchphrase and a song that gained popularity in the Christian world.  There are, to be sure, some songs that have made ‘cross-overs’ into the Catholic world as well, and in the more charismatic gatherings in our Catholic churches, this song had gained much traction.  Yes, even in a Catholic church, it would be hard to find anyone who isn’t able to complete the phrase “God is good” with “all the time”. 

One of the big gripes that many atheists have is that God must not be good if there is suffering in the world.  I have written and reflected at some level on this topic before in my blog, and I strongly believe that it is something which all of us need to do on a regular basis.  Whenever we look at the news reports of dispossessed people, disenfranchisement, ethnic cleansing, abuse, the sufferings of people who are affected by natural disasters and lives ravaged by illness and ending in death, it will often be the fodder for atheists to say that the existence of these in life simply goes to prove that the God of love and goodness that we adore and worship is a figment of our imagination, and that no God who is a God of love would ever allow these to happen.  While it is tempting to pray for an immediate end to these forms of suffering and adversities in life, and asking for God’s sovereignty to reign supreme, it oftentimes doesn’t work out that way.  So what happens when it is still dark, or when death seems to have its sway?

I have been praying these past few months for many people who have been facing difficulties and challenges in life, particularly for those who are battling debilitating illnesses.  One in particular was a lovely and tenacious 8-year-old girl, Ava Lee, whose life was visited by the same kind of Leukemia that I had.  In fact, she was the only other biphenotypic leukemia patient I had ever met since I was diagnosed with it myself.  One may think that having Leukemia is rare, but having the biphenotypic strain is even rarer.  Apparently statistics show that only 5% of leukemia patients are afflicted with this hybrid strain, and it is particularly challenging to treat and recover from.  I shared something rare with Ava.
Peter Mui and myself in this photo with the incredibly upbeat Ava Lee back in 2014, Chicago
When I made my first visit to my stem cell donor in Chicago two years ago, Peter introduced me to Ava and her family.  She was the eldest of three children of Peter’s former Pastor in their Chinese Christian Church in North Chicago.  At that time, Ava was 6.  She was a most endearing child, a delight to meet and chat with, and had a charming ability to engage adults in conversation.  What shined clearly was her faith, even as a tiny child.  I remember posting a picture of Ava taken with me on my blog when I wrote about meeting her. 

Whilst my own journey after my much-needed transplant went from strength to strength after getting Peter’s perfectly matching stem cells, Ava’s journey after transplant had been one that encountered much struggles, infections and speed bumps.  She was truly a strong fighter and even stronger in her faith in Jesus.  It was with much sadness that I read on her mother’s blog that their family rallied around Ava to see her breathing her last just one minute after midnight on New Year’s day this year.  Esther and Mike Lee, her faith-filled parents experienced what no parent should – the death of their child.

In such moments of darkness and anguish, it is always tempting to say that God is not good, or if he is good, well at least he isn’t good at that time.  It may appear that death had won, and that God doesn’t have the last say. 

I say ‘tempting’ because to do so is to fall into despair.  Despair is what the Christian life fights so much to overcome.  What our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord gives us is hope – no matter how dark the times or situations can be.  God the Father is no stranger to the experience of losing a child.  He tasted the bitterness of it on Good Friday when Jesus breathed his last on the Cross.  Despite this, God’s goodness never wavered, and he still loves us despite what sin had done to his son. 

When we say that God is good all the time, what we have to mean is that in his very essence, in his very being, God is always good.  That fact never changes, and it never changes especially when things are not going well for us.  His goodness is never predicated on how happy or sad we are.  His goodness is not only apparent when there are no dark clouds on our horizon in life. 

Readers of this blog, I ask that you pray for Mike and Esther Lee, the grieving parents of Ava in this time of great need.  They have two other children who also are grieving now as they grieve the death of their sibling Ava.  Hold them in your hearts, that even in the pain of their separation from their beloved Ava, they will not waver in their belief that God is good.  Because he is.  All the time. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Taking new directions in life is sine qua non in real Christian living.

The celebration of Epiphany comes a couple of weeks after Christmas in the Latin rite.  The story of how the wise men or Magoi take such an arduous journey from their homeland to pay homage to a tiny, helpless and vulnerable baby is indeed charming.  But the truth that this story imparts is far more than merely charming or delightful.  It has deep implications that many may miss if it is only taken as a story that scarcely has any connection to our Christian lives.

One of the things that ought to strike us is how the lives of these wise men were changed and impacted from just a singular visit to this infant king of the Jews.  It necessarily means that anyone who is serious in his or her search for truth in life has to allow change and conversion to take place if he or she is certain that Jesus is God.  There is what seems to be a throwaway line at the end of the whole Epiphany episode where we are told that ‘they went back in a different way’.  This phrase has layered meanings, and they go deep.

Every time a person reflects on the path that he has chosen to walk in life and sees it against the light of Christ’s life and makes the conscious choice to live differently in a positive way, one also, like the Magoi, goes back to life in a ‘different way.’  One sees the values of the world in a different way, one measures happiness in a different way, and one defines success in a different way.  But this only can happen if one is certain that Jesus is God.  If we are not clear and fully convinced about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, the changes that we make in our life and the direction that our lives are heading will only at best be ‘window dressing’ and superficial, where nothing much changes essentially.  One spiritual writer once put it this way – it will be only like shifting the furniture on the Titanic as it is sinking after striking the iceberg. 

Presbyterian theologian and writer Timothy Keller made the astute comparison of how Jesus the God-man impacts humanity “like a giant billiard ball.” Jesus indeed breaks up old patterns and sends people off in different directions, for better or for worse.  King Herod is a prime example of how the news of the incarnation was received badly.  And to be sure, there are and have been millions who have taken the news of Jesus the God-man so negatively.  The prevalence of so many angry atheists who are particularly vitriolic towards Christianity simply proves this as fact.

It is when we do truly get it that in Jesus God has spoken loudly and clearly about getting our lives in right order, that we will see not only wisdom but an undeniable moral imperative in redirecting our lives that we too, imitate the ways the Magoi responded to their visit to the infant king in that grotty manger. 

I can understand that this is a very great challenge for many, especially for lives that are mired in webs of sin, where souls can be calloused from being so used to living predominantly for the self.  This is when the Christian needs to pray not just for tenacity but a moral courage to live out his or her prophetic calling, and following his conscience.  It takes courage to want to let Jesus “take the wheel” as singer Carrie Underwood sang in her 2005 Country Christian hit of the same name.

Though we may believe that it is good to let Jesus take the wheel of our lives, we often end up being the vehicle commander and give Jesus the instructions of where the destination should be, where to turn, how much faster (or slower) he should go, where he should not be stopping and which side roads he should avoid.  But often, when Jesus is truly taking the wheel as he should in our lives, we will find him taking us to places where we would never go on our own, but realise (often in hindsight) that it is at these places where we find our lives truly transformed. 

Like the Magoi, if we really encountered the Son of God in Jesus, we will go back to our lives in a different way, and we will not fear where we will be taken.  For many of us, it is only when we are old and weather-beaten that we will be willing to be led, as Jesus told Peter in John 21:18. 

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Monday, January 2, 2017

Stopping going to church mainly because we are getting nothing out of it may indicate that we have missed the point of our faith.

In the course of my encounters with friends and parishioners in general, one of the very common laments I get is that some of them have friends or family members who have stopped going to church on a regular basis.  Some Catholic parents here in Singapore have had children who had gone overseas for their education, and after having spent a couple or more years overseas on their own, stopped going to Sunday Mass.  One of the more common reasons given is that the Masses there do not ‘do’ anything for them.  Apparently, the homilies given at some churches overseas are “simply not appealing”.

Let me begin by saying that I understand where this is coming from.  It is predicated on the way that the world works, where things are good and pursued in life based on the fundamental importance that it has to benefit me.  In the realm of the spiritual life, it’s like a person who says about meditation “ok, I’ll try it and I’ll see if there’s anything in it for me.”  Most, if not all people will take this approach in their choice of career or jobs.  There’s nothing pointedly wrong about this and I do believe that if there is drudgery in one’s job or activity, sooner or later, one will begin looking askance at why one is doing it at all.  The problem begins when one takes this dictum into the life of faith and the practice of religion.

Mass and worship is fundamentally not predicated on our preferences and ourselves.  When we go to church, we worship and we pray not for ourselves principally, but for God.  God and his sovereignty has to be the rationale for our worship simply because we believe that he has made all things possible, and continues to make all things possible.  To put it crudely, it matters not one bit if we get anything out of it.  We make a decision to worship and pray to God and that in and of itself makes the entire act valuable because it is a decision to love. 

Let me explain - There are many married couples in the world that have not had any good ‘feelings’ in their married life, and have stayed in the marriage out of a choice.  They base their fidelity to marriage on a choice that they make, on a decision to love, rather than on the good feelings and sentiments that are strong in courtship and the early period of marital life.  The promise to love “in good times AND in bad” is predicated on this decision to love.  Their decision to love despite the feelings and sentiments raises the value of their marital love to a level that is much higher than merely a response to something that benefits them individually.  A choice to love thus is value adding.  Now take this to our practice of religion and worship.  They share a similar reasoning and credo.

Too many of our life’s problems stem from an over emphasis on the demands made by the self.  They often stress on one’s personal rights and some form of self-promotion.  Whence do we find the panacea to this disease that plagues humanity right down to its core?  The Christian response to this question is the practice of dying to the self.

If we understand this in a healthy way, worshipping well does benefit us in the end.  Theologically, we say that God is perfect, and this means that nothing we can do adds to God’s perfection.  Our worshipping him does not ‘benefit’ him per se, but as the Eucharistic Preface IV states, “Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace” – meaning that all goodness that we give to God redounds back to us.  So, even if we think that “we get nothing out of Mass”, we are sadly mistaken.  Even in a passive way, it does benefit us tremendously.  But if we are fully aware and conscious of our acts in worship, the value becomes infinitely greater.

Undoubtedly, we get our direction and example par excellence of selflessness in Jesus Christ himself who lived a fully selfless and others-centered life.  It is when we really understand this that we will worship and pray with the right motivation and intention, no longer just for ourselves and what we are able to get out of it.  When worshipping for God’s sake becomes the main reason for our religious practices, we learn to tame the ego and slowly become less filled with a sense of self-importance. 

When the individual becomes convinced that selflessness is the seedbed of real harmony and peaceful living, it makes real the last line of the song “Let there be peace on earth” where it ends with “and let it begin with me”. 

Many resolutions would have been made as we crossed over into 2017.  Would worshipping well be on any of your lists? 

Have a blessed New Year!