Monday, September 25, 2017

When Christians understand that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, being environmentally conscious should not be an option. It is an imperative.

John 3:16 is arguably one of the most well-known and oft-quoted scripture passages.  For those who are still unfamiliar with it, Jesus says here that “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.”  I don’t believe that most Christians have any issues with the latter part of this verse, because eternal life is our shared ‘end-game’, to use a current colloquialism. 

It is the first or former part which I believe is often overlooked and largely under-highlighted and emphasized.  God loves the world.  The Greek word used for ‘world’ is where English gets the word ‘cosmos’.  God doesn't just love humanity and humankind.  God loves the world and all it contains.  God does not just love human beings and humanity.  To not see this is to fall into the danger of dualism, where there is a great emphasis on the contrast and distinction between opposites, for e.g. darkness and light, black and white, and matter and spirit.  Mani, a third-century Persian believed that there were two sources of creation, one good and the other evil.  Man’s spirit, he believed, came from God, and his body was from the devil.  Because of this belief, man’s spirit or the spiritual nature of man was not only given way more emphasis, it was done so at the expense and detriment of the body.  Mani’s teachings were called Manichaeism, and has in the development of Christianity, been seen to be rather problematic largely due to its extreme dualism.  If we understand John 3:16 in the way that is not dualistic, it has to open up our minds to the truth that not only is the body not to be negated, but that the world as we know it needs to be saved as much as our spirit. 

While I am not advocating any form of extreme tree-hugging as Christians, I am in today’s reflection asking that as Christians, to see the need to treat mother earth with more care than we have been in recent years.  After all, there is ample evidence that this planet we call home has been experiencing the terrible effects of climate change.  Temperatures have risen and the incidents of life-threatening hurricanes bringing untold turmoil and upheaval in the lives of millions are becoming far too common.  Mother nature has been revealing her less docile and gentle side lately, and it is not a stretch of the imagination to say that we are partly to blame. 

We only need to take a leaf from St Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes how not only we human beings, but the physical creation and our physical universe and order are ‘groaning’ as we all wait for the redemption by Christ.  It is by no means a stretch of the imagination to see that the physical world is as much a part of God’s plan for heaven as it is for us.

Knowing this serves to do a couple of things.  Firstly, it gives us great incentive to change from being users and consumers to being caretakers and stewards.  If this notion that every one of us who inhabits this planet is actually its caretaker and steward is offensive or deemed insulting in any way, it could indicate that we have nurtured a rather harmful and disquieting truth that we have developed within us a sense of unhealthy entitlement.  St Francis of Assisi’s well-known Canticle of the Sun, composed in the early 13th century saw him having such a great sense of love, reverence and respect for nature. 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly is this – knowing that we should respect the environment requires of us Christians to not only have a proper relationship with God, but relate to the physical world differently.  There is a morality to the way that we relate to this planet.  There is much talk about how much of a carbon footprint we are leaving behind as we live out our lives, and this carbon footprint is intoxicating the world and the atmosphere.  Dumping toxic wastes into the sea and mindlessly using plastic that takes about 1000 years to decompose in landfills is wrong on a moral level.  A recent documentary I came across told of how a study of fish, shellfish and molluscs in places like Canada, USA and Indonesia revealed the presence of plastic and fibres, raising concerns of their adverse effects on human health.  Clearly, what we are throwing and casting onto the oceans are affecting our health and very existence.  We may be poisoning ourselves without realizing it.

It takes a universal change of mindset to want to act with a renewed purpose.  It probably starts from small things – like taking your own shopping bag to the market or grocery store and recycling where possible.  Our spiritual life is never one that is sustained by huge acts of Christian mindfulness.  Rather, it is one where we take small steps and make little changes to our lives.  At the end of the day, it is our souls that we are hoping to see saved.  Apart from leaving a carbon footprint as we live, we also ought to consider the Jesus footprint that follows our paths. 

If we truly believe that Christ came to save the world, those small steps that we take to save our souls need to be just as diligently applied to saving the world.  Migration from one country to another is an option when we are unhappy with what our country offers us.  As we only have one planet, our moving away from it is not an option at all.    

Monday, September 18, 2017

The power of intercession and why we ought to always pray for others.

Most of us have at the heart of our prayer life our own personal needs.  There is nothing wrong in this, and when we were children, we were often taught (by well-meaning parents and catechists) to bring these personal needs to God in prayer.  It often resulted that we blurred the lines between seeing God as a loving Father and God as some sort of Santa Claus.  He was the ‘go-to’ person for anything that we needed, and the one who would help us if we found ourselves in any sort of trouble in life. 

While I am not suggesting that as we mature into adulthood that we stop seeing God as the provider of our needs in life, I am asking our older, more mature selves if our petitionary prayers knowingly include space for the needs of others - those who are outside of our selves and even those to whom we are not directly in contact with.  The Church has always taught that there is a need to include in our prayer-life the needs and concerns of others, which is a command that is summarized by the great instruction to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Mother Church has always asked that as members of the body of Christ, we see our neighbour and his needs, concerns and problems as an extension of ourselves.  This is the deeper meaning behind the command to love others as ourselves. 

Wherein lies the power of intercession?  Its power is in the power of love.  This is the force behind the many miraculous cures and even the bodily resuscitations in Sacred Scripture.  When the father of the possessed son goes up to Jesus to ask for him to heal his son, what was it that spurred him to do this?  When the centurion asked that his servant who was ill be seen by Jesus, what lay behind this petition?  When the friends of the paralytic broke the roof to lower him in front of Jesus, what was it that made them so brazen?  After Jesus cured Simon’s Mother-in-Law, Mark tells us that many brought to Jesus all who were ill or possessed by demons.  There is something, apart from faith, that threads through each of these, and it is love.  Love itself has a motivational force.

We don’t pause enough to think about this – that the centurion loved his servant, that the friends of that paralytic on that stretcher loved their friend.  The faith that was required by them was fueled by love.  Love brought them to act in those ways, and in some ways, rather unconventionally. 

I think we underestimate very often this dynamic power of love.  When we raise to God the needs of others, or mouth out our intercessions for them at the designated part of the liturgy at Sunday Mass, how much of our attention is given over to truly loving those for whom we are praying for?  If anything makes a difference, it has to be love. 

After all, when we tell someone that we are praying for them, what we are assuring them is that we love them – love them enough to want to also feel their pain, touch their anxieties, experience their uncertainties, fears and concerns.  And part of the power of intercessory prayers for others is precisely the unspoken power of love.  In doing this, we are also exercising compassion.  The root of this word ‘compassion’ is to ‘suffer with’.  We are suffering with them, even when it is not enunciated.  We are telling them that they are not alone.  In his classic ‘Inferno’, Dante’s image of hell was not one of a place of fire and eternal burnings, but rather a place of frozen isolation, where each soul was trapped in a frozen spot, unable and unwilling to touch another soul because each one was so self-absorbed, self-centered and too egotistic with his own concerns. 

I was listening to a podcast of a spiritual meditation given by a priest who wanted to inspire his listeners to persist in their intercessory prayers for others.  He shared that when he was in the University, he had a very holy and wise priest/lecturer who once shared that the sincere prayer of an 8 year-old child can lead to the conversion of the most hardened criminal behind bars, and this is because of the effectiveness of grace which can move mountains. 

When we pray for others, we are asking that God, through his grace, love the person whom we are praying for.  We are in effect asking that God’s love be the essential add-on to our love – our very limited love for others. 

In our Catholic tradition, we have always looked upon Mary as a tremendous intercessor.  It is not because she has some secret passkey that helps us to get to Jesus by queue-jumping, the way that some nightspots have bouncers outside the club monitoring who gets preferential treatment and who does not.  Rather, intercessions through Mary are efficacious precisely because her love for us and her love for Jesus are unsurpassed.  Our love for Jesus is so limited and so frail, fading off at the slightest hint of trial and turmoil.  But when Mary’s prayers and Mary’s faith are what our prayers are riding on, we are literally in good hands – the hands of a blessed Mother. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Our problem with prayer is often a problem with growing in spiritual maturity.

This scenario is not an uncommon one – you have very clear memories of the time when you prayed and it was so easy to feel the presence of God in your life.  Prayer was never a problem, and you could look all around you and the very sight of nature spoke volumes about God and his creative energy.  It was as if God was constantly speaking to you in many different ways, being present to you, and you wondered how anyone could say that there was no such thing as God.  And then, it somehow all went away. 

Now, you struggle to make it through 10 minutes of contemplation when before, you could bask in it for an hour without your mind drifting off to a million different places.  When before you were so full of confidence and faithful trust in God’s presence and love, now, you seem to be in some sort of a void, and it really seems as if God has decided to stop being present to you.  You now wonder what is wrong with you or your spiritual life.  If the desert is a dry place, your spirit is comparable to the Sahara.  Prayer is truly now a struggle for you.  “Is there anything wrong with me?” you ask.  “And if there is, what is wrong?” 

The simple answer is that there is nothing wrong, but even that is not the full truth.  There is, at the same time, something that IS wrong, and it has to do with your inability to conjure God and his presence and love in a more mature way. 

A person facing this dilemma is really showing signs that he or she is in a state of growth, and any young person will tell you that the phenomena of ‘growing pains’ is very real.  Any person who is sincere in wanting to develop a deep faith relationship with God and who wants to be a spiritually mature person will encounter this in life.  God, it is clear, is not a candy-giver.  While he may give what the spiritual writers call ‘consolations’ as we start out in our faith life, this is not what our faith life should consist of.  Just as a mother knows that giving treats once in a while to her young child can be a motivation or a reward, just thriving on treats alone ends up leaving the child undernourished, with a very unbalanced diet.  Any long-married couple will tell you that the honeymoon period of marriage is not sustainable, and that sooner or later, reality needs to set in and this is where the real hard task of loving with selflessness and generosity comes in.  A spouse in a marriage that constantly longs for that honeymoon experience to never end has not truly matured to live out what constitutes marital sacrifice and unconditional love.

In our initial movements toward God, it is only natural to feel easily motivated, with positive and affective images in prayer.  Neophytes in the faith journey will share this easily.  But when the desolation periods come, and they inevitably will, it doesn’t mean that God has taken a hiatus or turned his back on you.  In fact, it often means that God wants you to grow in the type and quality of your love for him. 

One thing that is undeniable is that one of the true hallmarks of a love that is pure is that it is unconditional.  It is, as the theological definition of love states, “the willing of the good of the other as other”.  In bringing us into the desert, God is really asking of us, his beloved, to purify our love for him and to love him unconditionally too.  Can we love him without asking, hoping and pining for that consolation, insight, and spiritual treat?  Our not experiencing those spiritual highs in our prayer needs to be seen as God’s trust in our love for him, where he has an interior knowing that we can love him unconditionally too. 

Franciscan Richard Rohr says that the way through is always much more difficult than the way around.  Cheap religion, he says, always takes us the way around, whilst true religion beckons us to go into and through the darkness rather than avoid it, or to find a way to explain it away.  Stepping into that darkness where feelings are no longer held out like bait dangled in front of us is stepping into mystery, and also stepping into love.  Only the truly spiritual mature will desire to step into mystery without an eye cast on what he left behind.

Jesus did say those who put their hand on the plough and look back are not fit for the kingdom of God.  Our ‘fitness’ for the kingdom of God requires a conscious and engaged willingness to look at God, and it may require that we image God and his love anew as well.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A truly ‘Christed’ person’s private and public self should not be in much conflict.

Is the Christian life only marked by activity and how ‘productive’ our lives as Christians have been?  The world does seem to hold productivity in high esteem and it gives a lot of credit and emphasis to being productive, as it rewards and recognizes it handsomely with remunerations and accolades.  We have, as a result, become rather addicted to the idea of accumulation, be it accumulating wealth, property, fame, or even ‘likes’ on the social media.  While there is nothing wrong with these in themselves, they somehow prevent us from seeing the positive side in passivity. 

But is there a case for passivity in life?  Is it to be dismissed so easily?  What about parts of our lives where we are not so actively conscious about our ‘doing’?  Will they be counted as anything if we are sometimes just passive and not completely conscious about the things that we do, carrying out our tasks in some sort of knee-jerk, mechanical or even unthinking way?  In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus in speaking about the end times and the final judgment gives us a rather unsettling indication that we will be judged in both our conscious acts of love and charity, as well as the acts of love and charity that were done in a sub-conscious or passive way.  In other words, each moment of our lives are the lens through which God sees our hearts.

Is this unsettling?  For many of us, I believe it is.  Most of us ‘behave’ our best when we are very conscious that we are being watched, or when the spotlight is directly over our heads.  It has very close connection with our very fragile and sensitive egos, as we want to be seen as ‘proper’, ‘dignified’ and ‘moral’ by all and sundry.  But what Jesus alludes to is that we will be judged just as fairly in our sub-conscious and unthinking actions in our closed, private moments in the same way that we are judged in our public and open moments.  In God, there are no ‘closed door’ actions or ‘private moments’ that do not impact or affect the larger body of Christ.  It is not that God is a divine control freak, or some Orwellian “big brother”. 

Rather, what many of us miss when we read this passage of Matthew’s gospel is the imperative of having our entire hearts being turned over to Christ in our efforts of living out our Christian discipleship.  The underlying message or teaching is that the true Christian disciple is one whose entire life is given over to Christ and whose identity becomes truly Christed.  This Christ-like character needs to influence every fiber of our being, such that even in our sub-conscious and unthinking level of existence, there is a call to live out the virtues of our divine filiation.  It permeates our very selves, leaving no part un-Christed. 

This, I believe, is the main struggle with most of our lives.  That we live somewhat compartmentalized lives, and there is a public Christian self that is so safe for all to see or Instagram, and there is the other part – that self that we hide and only a very select group see – it’s what we are ashamed of, what we are embarrassed to make public about, what we aren’t particularly proud of. 

To live in a way that we are not one bit afraid of judgment is to live in a way that there really is nothing to hide.  This is to die a truly happy death.  One spiritual writer once wrote that there is no private morality.  There is only morality.  And he challenged himself by reminding himself daily whether he is living in such a way that if there was a check done on his computer surfing history, his phone messages and chat groups, his locked drawers, will he stand up to scrutiny on all the histories that can be retrieved and searched on it?  In other words, he was alluding to the fact that he was going to be judged not just by his public side, but by his most private side as well. 

This won’t be much of a problem if we are truly and fully identified in Christ.  That’s what a baptism essentially is – a soaking.  When one is soaked in something, nothing is dry.  Hurricane Harvey which drenched the larger part of Houston, Texas last week left so many homes inundated with water.  In many of those homes, nothing was left dry.  Everything was soaked.  Admittedly, using a hurricane as a metaphor for a baptismal soaking has its limits and can raise eyebrows.  Here is where they are distinctively different. 

While a hurricane is a bringer of devastation, baptism is bringer of life.  Being baptized in Christ gives us a whole new identity and hence, a whole new way of living.  The character of Christ permeates our thinking, our attitudes and our behaviour.  Not in a robotic and controlling way, but where we want to cooperate in full freedom because it is good and necessary, showing that we want our baptisms to truly be a sign that we have a new and eternal identity.

Living any other way will mean that we are living compartmentalized lives, and because of this, we will definitely end up being conflicted or even somewhat duplicitous.