Monday, December 31, 2018

A humble New Year request of my readers

Writing this blog on a weekly basis is not something that comes easily for me.  I suppose, in all fairness, when I started out ten years ago, I had a whole plethora of topics before me – in a certain way, the world was my oyster.  2019 would mark the tenth year since I started this blog ago and have since managed to, with the grace of God, to be able to come up with something each week to help my readers’ faith to grow and mature, albeit slowly.  To date, I have archived 466 essays in this blog.  There have been hits and misses, and some topics that I reflect on seemed to garner much greater interest and readership than others, and strangely, some of these were things that I thought wouldn’t interest many people.  I continue to be surprised by my readers’ interests.

No one but God helps me in this effort – it really is largely a solo effort, and I have come to a point where I seem to have run rather dry on what to write about. I seem to be scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel.  I have written on many different issues -  prayer, forgiveness (which seems to be a big issue with many), what we can do with our pains and struggles in life, and today, I now am asking you, my reader/s, to help me to keep this blog going, if at all you think it benefits you.  I need ideas from you about the burning issues that you have as a church, what your personal struggles are with your faith which I may not see because of my own narrow vision, and unless I get some topics to ponder, this blog will in all likelihood cease to continue in the new year. 

Sure, I can venture to put out my homilies on this blog, but that would be far too easy and I think that would make me a lazy writer, simply putting out something that I have written for another purpose.  I am a firm believer that homilies are mean to be listened to attentively, and not to be read.  For that reason, I am not in favour at all of posting my weekly homilies online.  So, I kindly ask that you do not ask me to do this. 

Instead, my request is for you to sit for a while and dig deep into your own faith journey, and identify what topics or issues you would like to read reflections on. This would help greatly in sustaining this blog, which I hope does help your growth in faith.  I often do get people coming up to me in different circumstances telling me that they read my reflections, but I also do get a sense that it is much easier to read something and be passive about it, than making the effort to write something like a comment or post a question to keep the discussion going.  My humble request this new year is precisely this – to ask you what it is that makes your Catholic life such a great challenge and what is it about your faith that you need help in.  It may be asking you to put in a little more effort in your spiritual journey, but all effort in this endeavor of spiritual maturity counts as love.

One of my spiritual go-to guides is, as some of you may know, is Fr Ronald Rolheiser.  I am in great admiration of how this septuagenarian has the ability to churn out meaningful reflection after meaningful reflection week after week.  Some of his musings are truly brilliant and insightful, clearly something that had to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and I sometimes think to myself – how can he possibly top this one?  But he still does.  

Well, he is a notable scholar of great repute, and he is a syndicated writer as well – meaning that  he has a steady flow of income which he gets from his writings, and this must benefit the congregation of the OMI (Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate) greatly.  I guess, for many blog writers, it can be a good source of monetary income, but in all the ten years of my writing, not a cent has come my way.  I don’t ask much from my readers, (least of all anything financial) but this year, I am asking – not for money, not for more readership, but for your effort to put in writing (sent to my comments page of my blog) your suggestions on how this weekly blog can help to deepen your Christian life.  Please do not just put a ‘like’ on the FaceBook page that you found this blog post – these likes do absolutely nothing to aid my writing. I ask that you do a bit more than just ‘like’.  Bring to prayer my request, and perhaps this will help me overcome this long-coming writers’ block that I have encountered lately.

Having said this, I do wish each one of you a very blessed and holy 2019.  God love you.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Our outgoing God, and the treasure that finds the hunter.

In November 2015, a sunken ship was found off the coast of Colombia.  This was no ordinary sunken ship.  It was the remains of a Spanish galleon named the San Jose, and she was lost in a sea battle against the English back in 1708.  It was said to have been carrying a huge amount of precious metals like gold and silver, along with gems like Emeralds from Peru.  It was on its way to Europe to fund Spain’s war against the British when it was sunk in the waters off Cartagena, South America.  It had been lying in the depths of the sea for almost 300 years and its treasure is reportedly worth around $22 billion in today’s value.  

Many treasure hunters had been looking with much dedication and enthusiasm for the San Jose, with the hope of getting their hands on this treasure, but to no avail.  Treasure hunters do that.  It’s their job, and it is in their best interests to be always looking, always searching.

I mention this as a way of introduction to this week’s reflection, because I think many of us miss the point of our salvation, and by a large margin, if we do not begin to appreciate anew and with fresh minds that there is something so striking and so breathtaking about our faith.  

To be sure, there are many Christians who may be baptized in the faith, but who are not being seized by it. A first and very important step in appreciating the richness of our salvation is that we understand what repentance is.  True, it is not an elegant word by any stretch of the imagination.  Moreover, if repentance is seen mainly drawing up a list of sins and transgressions that we are sorry for in life, it is far too simplistic and one-dimensional.  Behavioral changes alone do not make on a Christian.  There are so many people in the world who are ethical and moral but do not have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Repentance, therefore, has to mean much more.

Repentance is when we recognize that our main sin, and the sin underlying the rest of our other sins, is our self-salvation project.  That we think that by living a good life, a moral life, a holy life that we earnour place in heaven, is intrinsically erroneous in itself.  We do not, and none of us does.  There are so many people who try to prove their worth through moral goodness or through achievement, or through their family or their career.  I have also seen that there are also people who are heavily involved in church and religion and still have a great need to repent because of the ways that they have put God and their brothers and sisters in their debt! By our attitudes, some of us have unknowingly lorded it over our fellow Catholics.

But when our repentance consists in seeing that all along we have been relying on our own hopes, our own significance, our own security and our own efforts to stabilize our lives, we would have struck gold.  

We call this folly of ours out when we appreciate anew just how God has made his presence known in our world and in our lives.  We may think that it is so great that we have taken that step to look for God in life, and that as adults, we may have made that turnaround in life and sought him out in the RCIA process (or some other conversion journey) and left our former ways of godless living.  But the truth is just the opposite.  It is not we who have found him.  Hehas found us.  And the scriptures tell us over and over again, in so many ways, and in such colourful stories, how this God of ours is in a relentless search for us.

The story of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth is a metaphor with this search that is compelling. With God at her very centre - in her womb, Mary goes out of her safe abode and comfort, into the hill country of Judah, to tend to her elderly and pregnant cousin Elizabeth.  She thinks nothing of her own safety and her personal needs. Just how does Mary do this?  Only when she is fully aware that God is doing something in her.  She decidedly put aside her own ego and intellect, but instead responded to a prompting that came from within her.  When the two women finally meet, Elizabeth attributes Mary’s greatness not to Mary, but to whom she was a container of - God himself.  When goodness meets goodness in the most holy and agenda-free way, it is God alone who gets the glory.  

Because God through Salvation history has shown that he is not an idle god, not a lackadaisical God, but an active and truly outgoing God; a searching God; then those who truly have him in their hearts cannot but be outgoing themselves, giving of themselves in many ways.  And this only happens when we see how God is our ultimate treasure.  

Herein lies the link with my introduction of this blog with the discovery of the sunken San Jose galleon.  Treasure hunters go out and seek treasure.  But the wonder and astonishing truth of Christianity is that the treasure goes out in search of the hunter.  No other religion has it this good and this amazing. 

Advent celebrates and reminds us of this, because at Christmas, we live out this truth in its splendor and glory. And when God truly finds us, when we realise this and repent of our many ego trips, we will realise how valued we are in God’s eyes.  That treasure that lies at the bottom of the Columbian coast in the sunken San Jose is reportedly worth $22 billion.  To God, each of us is worth an infinite number of San Jose Galleons.    A blessed Christmas to you, dear reader.

Monday, December 17, 2018

How to not waste our pain.

Whenever we think of resources, what come to mind are energy resources like water, natural gas, oil, electricity or the sun’s rays.  But in the spiritual life, there is a resource that is often overlooked, underestimated and therefore unappreciated.  All of us have it in various forms, but the majority of us want to numb it, and find ways to avoid it.  Many go to Novenas and petition God to take it away from them, without realizing that it can do amazing things both for them, and for others.  What is it?  It is pain.

Yes, pain is a resource, but not in the normal sense of the word.  Natural resources are generally not good in themselves, except for water, I suppose.  But when harnessed, purified and applied with great effort, it can do wonders.  The same goes for our pain in life.  This pain or suffering comes in so many different forms for different people.  It could be physical pain that comes from being infirm, having an illness that is serious and perhaps even debilitating and terminal.  It could be an injury caused by an accident.  Sometimes it isn’t even something that has happened to you personally, but to a loved one or a family member, and there is absolutely nothing you or anyone can do about it but to live with this condition for the rest of your lives.  There are other pains and suffering that isn’t physical but mental, causing anguish of another form.  A betrayal by a spouse, a breakdown in friendship, a broken promise, or even a death of someone well loved.  All these are pains in forms that are not uncommon.  What is uncommon is when one knows how to turn these into resources usable by God for His will and purposes.

How does that work?  What are the mechanics involved?  Is it even a thing?  For those of us without faith, it doesn’t work, and it is not a thing.  It could even be tossed away as pure rubbish. But for those of us with faith, even if the faith were the size of a mustard seed, it can do wonders.  We only need to offer it up for God’s will to be done and to want it to benefit others in need of God’s grace.  This means that we surrender it lovingly to God.  It’s not something that we do in frustration and anger, and demand that God take it away.  Doing it with that kind of attitude would be much like bringing something that we don’t use and don’t like to a Goodwill store or the Saint Vincent de Paul thrift shop and dumping it there because we have no use for it.  

It’s got to be done with great love, and great faith, and in surrendering it to God, we place it as if on a silver platter, and tell God that this is something that I am not quite  sure of what I can do with it, but because he is God, he can make it good, usable, and benefit some soul who is in great need of his grace.  And the souls that can best benefit from these acts of love will be souls in purgatory who cannot purify themselves on their own.  They are purifying their love for God, which was in all likelihood very impure, very sullied and adulterated when they were alive. Our doing this for them helps them because in doing this with faith, we are at the same time purifying our love for God and for our fellow man, regardless of whether we know them or not. 

I love to tell the true story of how, when a priest whose arm was in a cast due to some accident, met the then Pope John Paul II in a private audience and had asked the Holy Father to bless him. The Holy Father looked at him, blessed him, and then told him “Father, don’t waste your pain”.  Puzzled, the priest asked him to elaborate.  The Pope replied that this pain of his is a resource that can benefit souls.  

Just tolerating pain, complaining about it, being bitter about it, or only asking that God take it away is the common thing that people do.  The Pope was reminding the priest that it is our duty as children of the Father and brothers and sisters of one another to bear our crosses for one another.  We need that same reminder from time t time, because if we are only thinking of ourselves most of the time, our world is too small.  We need to realise that we are part of a larger world, and this includes the church in its three states - the church militant, the church suffering and the church triumphant.  If we do this well, the world will definitely be a better place because it will make us more compassionate people, and we will populate the world with stronger images of Christ, an image so desperately needed in the world right now.

So, if you are in any sort of pain, suffering or anxiety in you life, don’t waste it.  With great love and with great faith, offer it up to God. He is God, and surely, he can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse if he wills it.

Monday, December 10, 2018

God’s mercy and his justice are not mutually exclusive. His love justifies both.

To preach God’s mercy is always much easier than to preach of his justice.  Even on the part of the listener, to hear that God is merciful is something that sounds very much like good news, which it is.  There are so many passages from the Gospels, alone which attest to the fact that Jesus came to reveal this dimension of God.  That God is prodigious in the mercy that is shown to the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son appeals to us in our current time as much as it must have appealed to Jesus’ audience when it was first told.  The joy of the one straying sheep being brought back to the sheepfold at the risk of leaving the 99 who are safely grazing in the pasture is another dimension of this outgoing mercy of God.  So too is the joy of the woman who had found the one lost coin so palpable and relatable when we are told that she called all her neighbours to rejoice with her.

It is a given that we are sinners without exception and the fact that all of us stand in great need of God’s divine mercy at the end of our lives is fait accompli.   The preachers from the churches of our separated brethren reveal often that the mercy of God is the predominant theme of God’s providential love for his sons and daughters.  That he is a merciful God who has forgiven the sins of a sinful and sin-filled humanity often is their foundational preaching and narrative, and this is not at all wrong.  

But there is a downside when our preaching is limited to this alone, without being just as clear about the other aspect of God’s love, which is God’s justice.  God’s justice includes, amongst other things, that God doesn’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of our sinful actions and to the fact that our lives are often less than virtuous; that there is judgment that awaits us where we will be held accountable for all the ways in which we did not live in generous response to the high calling of our being given the dignity of being called God’s beloved children in Christ.  The Church’s teachings on indulgences (both partial and plenary) have been very misunderstood by both Catholics and the critics of Catholicism alike.  At the heart of these teachings is not so much that one gets ‘time off’ from the punishments (whether in this life or in purgatory) but that one truly begins to live a converted life and has weakened or completely removed one’s attachment to one’s ‘favourite’ sins.  It hardly will make a dent in one’s need for purgatorial purification if after having completed the requirements to obtain a plenary indulgence, one still harbours in one’s heart a great desire and attachment for one’s old and ingrained predilections and sinful inclinations.  

There exists a true story of how in the 1500s, when St Philip Neri preached to a jubilee indulgence crowd in a church, he had a revelation from the Lord saying that in the entire crowd, only two people actually received the plenary indulgence – an old charwoman (an antiquated term for a cleaning lady) and the saint himself. Perhaps this means that though there are many who have ‘performed’ the necessary acts to fulfill what it takes to gain a plenary indulgence, what was most necessary for it to be fulfilled or gained (which is a complete conversion of heart that loves God in as complete a way as possible) is still sadly lacking.  

This incident serves to show that what the Lord asks for most, and what pleases the Lord most is not so much the acts of penitence themselves, but along with it, a very contrite and humbled heart that is willing to truly put God in the centre of one’s life.  This is what must make for a heart that is truly ready to be received readily into heaven’s eternal embrace.

I am, together with many other spiritual writers, of the strong belief that purgatory is one of the greatest evidence of God’s mercy because it means that God is always going to want to give the sinner time for conversion, time for softening of one’s hardened heart, so that one can be truly mellow enough to appreciate God’s unbounded love which is heaven’s promise.  Our hearts are just so divided and our devotions so mixed while we live in this life, and our constant giving into sin is what makes purgatory so necessary and so wonderful at the same time.  

God’s mercy truly doesn’t cancel out God’s justice.  Rather, it necessitates and defends the need for it.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Does God give us crosses that are wider than our shoulders? I’m quite certain that he does, and for good reason.

I have come across spiritual musings and reflections from various sources that share a common opinion given to those who are experiencing burdens and afflictions in life, and it is this – that God won’t or doesn’t load us with crosses to bear that are too big for our shoulders.  As much as this sounds comforting and assuring, it also can become a cliché, or worse, something that prevents us from nurturing the virtue of humility that is so crucial for a soul to attain holiness and sanctification.

If our burdens and trials in life are just right for our shoulders to bear, then we will be able to do everything that we face in life, simply on our own efforts and our own wills.  The narrative of our times seems to support this idea as well – that if we want to do anything, we only need to apply ourselves to the fullest, and our goals will be attained or achieved.  There are so many commencement speeches at the graduation ceremonies of Universities or Colleges that one can view on YouTube, and they often feature a presentation by a person of some celebrity or corporation bigwig, and the common feature of so many of them is this – don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve anything you want.  The hidden message (and sometimes not so hidden) is that we need to make the world all about us.  And when we do, we can overcome any obstacles in our path to success and worldly glory.

While these speeches may set the fresh graduates running off into the world to conquer it, armed with their degrees with printing ink still wet, we need to realise that there could be a downside to all this “we-can-do-anything” narrative.  To be sure, it won’t be a long time before they realise that life doesn’t fit its challenges according to the width of our shoulders.  We only need to look further afield from our workplaces to see that there are other challenges and afflictions, and things that set our world in turmoil to see that there are many difficulties in life that are more than we can bear alone.

With the eyes of faith, we are called to see our challenges and afflictions as things that are placed in our lives not to make life difficult, but so that we can grow.  These include, but are not limited to things like failures, betrayals, serious illnesses and other losses.  But I have also, especially of late, come to see that God doesn’t give us challenges that merely fit our shoulders.  He gives us crosses much bigger than we can bear, but for good reason.  Chiefly, it is so that we will humble ourselves to ask for God’s grace, aid and ultimately mercy.  

I am quite certain that we will be so full of hubris if we were to be able to carry all our burdens and manage our pains merely on our own energies and our strong wills.  It would be akin to presenting St Peter a perfect and unblemished report card of our life on earth at the gates of heaven and having a sense of entitlement to a place in paradise.  Just like forgiveness from God, no one deserves heaven either.  It is truly all grace, and our call in life is to cooperate as fully as we can to God’s offer of grace at each moment in our lives.

St Catherine of Sienna is known to have had a locution, where she encountered the Lord saying to her “I created you without you, but I will not save you without you.”  In that short and pithy sentence lies an unfathomable depth of God’s immense grace and God’s incredible humility.  God truly wants our deepest cooperation, and until we understand just how crucial our self-giving is, we will, all of us, find ourselves holding back from giving our all to God.

So, if you find yourself puzzled as to why your cross in life is much bigger than your shoulders, know that it is so that you can call on God for his divine aid.  Pride comes in many forms, and one of them is the refusal to reveal our weaknesses.

Monday, November 26, 2018

If I call myself a Christian only because I acknowledge that God exists, it may not mean much.

The challenge of the Christian life is not merely to try to live the values of Christ.  It is to do it by living it deeply, and to truly want to do it at every moment of our lives.  Before Jesus took leave of his apostles prior to his ascension, he left not a request, not a wish, but something akin to his last will and testament.  It is a very heavy and demanding task – it was to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  

The tremendous task of doing this – and to do this to ‘all the world’ truly does seem like an onerous task, to say the least.  We may wonder why couldn’t Jesus himself do this and then ascend to heaven, but it does convey the fact that this is the Father’s will.  Wouldn’t it solve so much of the world’s problems with the existence of God?  It must say something, especially if all this while since the ascension, one of the big issues with faith seems to be centered on the existence of God.  Just glancing at the many vitriolic comments made by the many angry atheists online on YouTube posts regarding the spiritual life reveals that there seems to be a simplistic thought – that if God were to simply show himself to the world, then everybody would just, as it were, fall in line and there would be no argument, wrangling or disputes of his existence, and the world will find the peace that seems to be missing.

Would that it was that easy.  Miracles themselves do not cause one to believe in God and change from being atheist to believer.  In October 13, 1917, in Fatima, Portugal, an estimated 100,000 people witnessed the miracle of the sun and not all of them became believers.  Even if God were to manifest himself to all his people, it wouldn’t change hearts that have chosen to be hardened.  So if God were to show himself to the world, would this truly be the golden key to the golden question?  Does the answer lie simply in God’s existence?  Would all disharmony really be quashed just because God’s existence is irrefutable and undeniably clear?  We may be a bit naïve if we think that this is the solution.  

It really is much more than the mere existence of God that is at issue here.  As Jesus said, when the Son of Man comes, would he find any faith on earth? This is, and always will be, the kernel of the whole Jesus endeavor – to engender faith in humanity.  Let us be clear that faith isn’t just a tacit belief in the existence of God alone, but in devoting our lives to and loving this God who truly exists.  Just to acknowledge that God exists is ‘entry level’ to a life in God, but it doesn’t in any way reveal that this God whom I admit exists, is the one whom I give my ultimate obeisance to, and whom I make the centre of my universe.

And we will still merely be ‘entry level’ Christians if the existence of God is what makes me go to Mass each Sunday without fail, but in my heart, I know that I am not loving this God with, as Jesus said, my heart, my soul and my mind.  Loving God is what makes one a true disciple, whilst just believing that God exists makes me a mere theist.  Jesus did not just ask that his disciples make theists of all the nations. 

The liturgical year is coming to an end, and as I told my congregation over the weekend, the year end in the secular world sees many employees at this time evaluating their work that they did in the past twelve months.  They would have KPIs (Key Performance Indicator) that they ought to have met, and this would serve to gauge how they performed in their work.  

Certainly, our Christian life is not a mere performance, but we have a standard to gauge our Christian lives by. It would mean very little if we merely pegged our lives against the belief that God exists.  But it will make a whole lot of difference if we knew that this God that exists also loves us unconditionally, and that we as his sons and daughters, are to live in such a way that we are constantly returning this love to him by the kind of lives that we live and the love that we show one another. 

Another useful gauge is Matthew 25. Let it always serve as a sober reminder of the ultimate measure of a true Christian – one who does everything he does because he sees in the other the face of Christ.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

Knowing we are unconditionally loved gives us true liberation

People have often come up to me asking why I end my homilies and sermons with the phrase “God love you”.  For a start, it isn’t something that I came up with by myself.  I first encountered this when I came across the recorded teachings and preachings of the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.  An erudite and brilliant priest/philosopher/writer/theologian, he had a unique mix of preacher, aplomb, flamboyance and panache which was unmistakable and riveting.  I thought that he was someone I could set as my model in my priesthood when I was a seminarian, and I adopted this phrase of his which I thought was elegant and charming, with a certain old-school élan about it.

I never abandoned it, and I am glad I didn’t, and for good reason.  Although I’d admit that there was some vanity attached to it, its deep meaning and purpose grew on me, and it developed through the years of my priesthood.  

I have, since my diaconate till now, preached thousands of times and have told my listeners “God love you”, and I truly believe this.  As well, I truly believe that when a person has a deep understanding and experience that their being loved by God isn’t predicated on how good, how holy or how pure they are, and that they cannot make God love them any more than they are already loved, (which also means that they also cannot make God love them any lessif they sin), it becomes the game changer to end all game changers.

It’s easy to believe that God loves us when things are going well, when we are at the top of our game, and when friends surround us with their love, attention and approval. It is, as they say, a “no-brainer”. But when things start going south, when we meet with life’s challenges, when we are not top-dog but “bottom dweller”, and when afflictions and suffering make their untimely appearance in our lives, how do we believe that despite these dark circumstances, that God can be a loving God?  It seems to be natural for us to believe that God’s graces and love have also taken a hiatus.

This is where we Christians have such an advantage over those who have not had access to Jesus’ groundbreaking Sermon on the Mount, or the Beatitudes.  His audience that were listening to him preaching that day were not just his disciples, but a motley crowd – a crowd of people from all walks of life, and in different states of life as well.  There were people of different social class, people in different kinds of relationships, people differing in their morality, people with different concerns, and with different things that pleased and troubled their hearts.  A whole mix of people forming a varied landscape before Jesus.  Not unlike the motley crowd that forms the congregation which a priest faces on a given Sunday at Mass.

Seated before me each Sunday are the devout and pious Catholics, those who are ‘forced’ to come to Mass despite not really wanting to, there are the babes in arms, and many who are in different states of moral rectitude as well.  In my years of preaching and celebrating Masses, I won’t be surprised that unbeknownst to me, there could have been present thieves, molesters, swindlers, cheats, and maybe even a rapist or a murderer.  Added to this, there is also the levels of belief in the crowd, with some deeply believing in God, and some with a catechetical knowledge of a preschooler, despite being octogenarian grandparents.

All these do not change on iota the fact that God loves each one individually and unconditionally, as if he or she was God’s only child.  On that day when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it as clear as day that those who were poor, those who were suffering, those who were meek, those who were spoken ill of, those who weep and had sadness, and those who were trampled on my society are makarioior blessed.  They were loved, and in a way that is supernatural.  They were not disadvantaged even if they thought they were.

As human beings, our lives gets automatically brighter when we are told we are loved, and when we experience being loved.  The day may be dreary and the horizon ahead bleak, but when we are assured that we are loved, or shown that we are loved, the loads that we have on our shoulders get lifted, and we become less negative.  If this is true when we are loved by a human person, what more when we are assured that we are divinely loved?  

I know that there could be a danger in being so effusive in telling people that they are unconditionally loved – and it is this – that those of us who are not living morally upright lives, those who are abusing others, that those who are hurting others with their sinful ways will take this love for granted and not respond with a desire to return this love with zeal and effort.  What if I was too lavish and generous in dishing out God’s unconditional love?  Would I be erring?

I take my cue from my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself.  On Calvary, what happened was that divine love was effusively poured out over the entire world regardless of whether those who received this love and mercy deserved it or not.  In fact, it was precisely because no one deserved it that makes this such a saving act of universal proportions.  Jesus didn’t wait until every single person changed and repented before he died.  Grace came first, and it freed us and gave us the ultimate liberation that we need. God took the greatest chance on Calvary, and we stand as the undeserved beneficiaries.  

If God was utterly lavish on Calvary, who am I to think that I should be parsimonious? And this is why I will continue to end my preachings, no longer with an element of vanity, but with deep sincerity, with the phrase “God love you”.  And may this love truly set you free.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The hierarchy of love

When Jesus was asked by a scribe which was the first of all the commandments of the Jewish laws, Jesus responded by saying that the first was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your strength and all your soul. He also added that the second is to love your neighbor as yourself.  He wasn’t asked which was the second most important, but by adding that second one almost in the same breath, Jesus was revealing that there needs to be an order or hierarchy in the way that we love, and in some way, a necessary corollary.

There is always a benefit when there is a right ordering in life.  We human beings have a certain ordering in the way that we grow and develop, and in the ways that we strengthen and mature.  The ability to walk and move independently takes the development and stability of our legs and to learn coordination for about a year after being born.  No one has yet seen a baby born into the world and immediately walking in the labour room.  In the same way, our brains develop in a certain ordered and systematic way.  The only way anyone can handle the intricacies of calculus is when they started by learning to count.  

When it comes to love, there is also an order or structure that one needs to respect and adopt, and on that day in Palestine, the scribe’s question to Jesus saw him pointing out how this structure and hierarchy looks like.  

Jesus is revealing that love of God has to be our primary love or out first love.  It’s not that God needs this, but rather that weneed this ordering.  Loving God first – this is grounded on the fact that our very being is a product of God’s love for us.  Loving God and being grateful to him for all that we are (all our heart), for all that we can do (all our strength) lays the foundation of the ways that we later on correctly love the people who form our community.  And we can only love the community correctly if we first love God correctly.  

The family unit itself has an ordering of loves.  In the preparatory session that I give to parents and godparents of infants who are to be baptized, I often stress that there is a pressing need for them to maintain a right ordering or hierarchy of love as well.  There is a strong tendency for many married couples to start out in their marriage by loving each other in a fully invested way, as well they should.  But when the first child comes along, he or she often becomes the new focus of love for the couple, and they begin to turn their gaze away from each other, and make the child the object of their gaze.  Doing this has the potential to dilute and diminish the love of the parents for each other, especially when the love of the child is at the expense of the love of the spouses.  My encounters with spouses who have communication issues with each other have shown that this has often been the genesis of the weakening of the marriage bond, and this is often only revealed much later when the children have left the home, leaving the nest empty.

When a couple in a marriage do all that they can to ensure that their spousal love comes first before their love of their children, it is not that they will end up abandoning their children.  What is more likely to happen is that they will give their children a secure environment of love where they know that their parents love each other.  What sets a child to be insecure is when they are unsure if their parents’ love is solid and well founded, stable and unshakeable. A couple that understands what selfless and disinterested love is in a marriage cannot but have this love overflow into the ways that they love their children.  

When we have issues with addictions and insecurities ourselves, it is often a result of our notobserving what Jesus said to the Scribe.  This happens when we love ourselves first, and put all our heart, soul, mind and strength in pursuing our projects, our hobbies, our work and our skills and talents first, and find that we are only loving God when we find the time to do so, and not make the time to.  Finding time to love God is akin to giving God what is convenient and what is leftover, like the remnant scraps of our time.  But when we are fully invested in ordering our priorities right in life, we make time for what we know is crucial, and for what we know lays the correct foundations for all that we pour ourselves into.  

Jesus’ whole life was centered on the Kingdom of God, and we see the result of this in the ways that Jesus gave of himself through his teaching, preaching, living and dying. When we make efforts to also center our lives on God first, we too, are like that Scribe, not far from the Kingdom of God.  

Monday, November 5, 2018

Why we should pay attention to our attire when we go to Church.

It has often been lamented that the term ‘Sunday best’ has become somewhat of an oxymoron amongst the current generation of Church-going folk.  Be they adults or youth, Sunday is seen as a day to dress down rather than dress up, whether or not one is observing this day as the Lord’s day by going to Church. In fact, the term ‘Sunday worst’ may be more of a reality.

I have on several occasions addressed this to congregants on a one-to-one basis, making sure that I speak with them in hushed tones and requesting that in future they come to Mass not wearing shorts and slippers.  I wouldn’t say that I give them a dressing down, though some may take offence that I did speak to them about this.  Perhaps the great problem is that many people fail to see the great need in effort on our part in the relationship that we have with God, and that God should be ok with our minimal efforts.

I once was given this response - that Sunday, and the weekend in general, is a time to relax and ‘chill’ because they had to be attired in a stuffy (read formal) way from Monday to Friday, which is the work week.  For many, dressing for work is something that may seen to be tedious and even a pain in the neck, but for most people, this cannot be compromised because of the prevailing office rules regarding what is deemed proper attire.  However, when the weekend comes, it’s ‘no holds barred’ for anything.  It is seen as a personal time, a private time, and me-time.  But if we understand that at Mass we are offering God our worship and adoration, it really is not “about me” at all.  It is about God.

Perhaps it is the ‘it’s about me and my comfort’ that is the prevailing narrative in the hearts and minds of the congregation that comes to Church.  It explains the way many turn up in Church dressed in shorts and a pair of rubber slippers in the way that they would turn up at a beach party.  

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing shorts and slippers if we are going to a beach party or to the market.  In fact, that would be totally appropriate and acceptable.  If this is our attire at Mass, it could reveal a great disconnect between what we are doing in Church (making the effort of giving God the adoration and worship that is his due) and how this is expressed in our dressing.

The following are the arguments for appropriate dressing in Church:

1.  The argument from “form aiding substance”.

As much as we may say that what matters inside our hearts (substance) is far more important than what we don on the outside (form), there is a certain truth that our form does influence our substance.  Knowing that we have taken great effort to dress up for an event that is special, like for a relative’s wedding dinner, gives us reason to be on our best behavior.  It may be a small point, but I do believe that this has its value, especially in Church.  No one who prays to God asks for only a bit of his love and his grace.  We have a desire to know that God wants to give us his best.  In Jesus he has given us his very best.  Knowing this ought to cause us to reciprocate in the same way, giving of our best as well, and this includes the best that we have in our wardrobes, or at least, not the most convenient, most casual or most comfortable. 

2.   The argument from venue.

When we go to Church, our primary purpose is to worship God in his house, and to love him.  This is God who is the creator of all, and Jesus reveals that he has given us his all.  Our response to this reality needs to be met with great enthusiasm and respect, and this is evident in how we turn up for worship.  Apart from not being tardy and how we behave, it is revealed in how we are attired.  If we were to be invited to the grounds of the Istana or the Royal Palace for an event, we wouldn’t dare show up in anything less than a carefully planned outfit befitting the occasion.  And this is only for a meeting with a mere mortal, who has no more supernatural power than anybody that you and I encounter each day.  

But when we come to God’s house in Church, we are not meeting any mere mortal.  We are coming before the King of Kings, and are receiving the one who gave us eternal life in Holy Communion.  It is only befitting God’s divinity that we pay attention to how we show up.  In our Catholic tradition, this is expressed by our reverent genuflections toward the Altar or Tabernacle before we enter our pews, the mindful head bows, and the care that we put in what we wear.  It influences greatly our heart and our minds when we are at prayer and worship.

3.   The argument from the cause of distraction.

Singapore is near the equator, causing it to have its hot and humid weather all year round.  I am not sure if this is why women often turn up at Mass wearing spaghetti strap tops and some even tube tops.  But these outfits are also the cause of many a roving eye and distracted mind of one’s fellow worshipper.  While I am sure that no one comes to Church with the purpose of ogling at another’s body, what one wears can end up being such fodder for the eye, diverting one’s attention away from where it ought to be.  Rather than anyone’s body, it is the Body of Christ that is the reason for our gather at Mass.

I was at Mass recently in a parish church in Kuala Lumpur, and within this community were a group of African Catholics.  These Catholics stood out in a stunning way not because of the colour of their skin, but by the astounding way that they turned up for worship.  The men were all wearing long sleeved shirts, with ties, and some were even in suits.  The women looked regal with their head wraps.  I am certain that the kind of respect that these African brothers and sisters had a positive effect on the locals in the community, causing them to want to be as effortful as well in the way they turn up for Mass.  This effect works both ways – if we dress sloppily and extremely casually, those around us will naturally follow suit.  But if we show great love and great effort, it can serve to raise the standard around us – and this includes most importantly, the standards of our love for God and for one another.

In this reflection, I hesitated to give clear guidelines on what one ought to wear.  This is because the ‘best’ in one’s wardrobe is really subjective. If one is a homeless person, and has only a pair of slippers and the shirt on his back as his only possession, that is his best and this will delight God.  It will be just as noticed by Jesus as the two small coins given by the poor widow into the treasury.  But if one has an extensive wardrobe, wouldn’t it then be appropriate that one be a bit more discerning?  Everyone knows in his or her conscience what would glorify God in the most appropriate way. Parents dressing up young children for Mass influence this in a great way.  

Taking note of the ‘arguments’ listed above, I believe that they should help to form the guidelines of how one turns up at Mass.  

Monday, October 29, 2018

God wants our cooperation in our Christian living.

I often see men and women of good faith struggling very hard to become better Christians and this gives me a lot of hope.  There are quite many people who make the effort to go to weekly confessions and this edifies me as a priest, because guiding people to holiness is one of the reasons I have given my life over to be a priest of God.  If they have a thirst and a hunger for spiritual perfection and the attainment of their own sainthood, it means that as a priest, I must be doing something right.  A church that doesn’t have her parishioners striving for holiness may be an indication of the lack of holiness in her pastors.

What do these people struggle with?  The range is broad, but I have come to see that there really is a common issue that serves to address all sins and addictions.  I know many people pray for the ability and strength to stay on God’s beam, where they will make the right choices that make their lives something that glorifies God.  When a person says that he prays that he will stay away from sins of lust, for example, I often ask what it is that he is praying for exactly.  Is it a prayer that wants God to place him in some sort of spiritual shackle or restraint, preventing him from doing things that disrespects his dignity or viewing things that do not please God?  Does their prayer for this view of holiness disregard the value of this own part to play in the pursuit and quest for holiness?  It has come to light that this seems to be the mind that many some Christians have whenever they lament to me that they pray for the ability to overcome sinful inclinations, but have hardly made a dent in improving their lives.

Do we have this notion about how God should be working and are either miffed or disgruntled with God for not improving in our moral lives?  The issue really isn’t that God is at fault or slow in working, but that a very large part of this ‘puzzle’ is missing, and that part has a lot to do with us. 

Yes, God does want us to live better lives all the time – lives that not only glorify him, but lives that make us instruments and conduits of his love to the world that we live and work in.  But God doesn’t want to do this alone.  He could if he wanted to, but out of his generosity and humility, he chooses to do this with the cooperation of his beloved sons and daughters.  A holy life that is made holy outside of our desire and effort has very little value of love and holiness.  It is a bit like when a naughty or recalcitrant child who has done something he shouldn’t have is told and even forced to apologize for his actions. If there is no sincere contrition and sorrow for his actions, the apology is a mere mouthing of a few words that come only from his lips, but nothing in his heart.  What comes from the heart is a willingness and an effort to demonstrate that he knows that he has made the wrong choice, leading him to do a wrong action, ending up hurting himself and his fellowman.  

We need to apply the same principle with holiness.  Holiness will have very little value and cannot really be called holiness when our own part in cooperating with God’s grace is missing.  If our cooperation isn’t required when it comes to holiness, God isn’t God, but a control freak of supernatural proportions. Imagine a world where no one has the possibility to make a mistake, where every person cannot do wrong, simply because everyone has been programmed or forced to ‘fall in line’.  There will be discipline, there will be conformity, but one thing will be missing for certain, and this one thing is love.

Love in its fullest sense has always to embrace and include freedom – a freedom to either receive and cooperate with the love given, as well as the freedom to reject and spurn what is offered.  Only when it is given back with a free choice is the circuit of love complete.  

People who want to be restrained and stopped from sinning by a force outside of themselves often show themselves to be people who do not understand this very important dynamic of love, and this, in all likelihood, is the reason why their prayers to live a converted and holy life has failed to bear much fruit.  They haven’t realized that God desires very much that they give over their lives to him in love.  A person who is loving his addictions and sinful habits most of his waking hours simply isn’t going to make that conversion if he isn’t first going to want to love God and God’s ways and make that his central focus of love. 

Simply put, we can only truly sin less if we start by loving God more. It is this cooperation that God delights in. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Living out The Beatitudes gives us the greatest interior freedom in life.

Jesus’ sermon on the mount, also referred to as The Beatitudes, are short, pithy and very challenging to understand and accept for many Christians.  Tomes about them have been written, and rightly so, because they are key to unlocking the door to the Kingdom of God.  Even the phrase “Kingdom of God” holds in itself a mystery that is deep and profound.  Many tend to equate this with a similar sounding phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”, and they are not quite the same.  Certainly, those who are effortful in living out the values of the Kingdom of God are in good stead for the final embrace of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Kingdom of God has a certain ‘already but not yet’ quality to it.  Right now in this life, one can and should be living the Kingdom of God if one considers himself a true disciple of Christ.  The Kingdom of God isn’t so much a place outside of oneself, but a state within the heart of the disciple of Christ who brings certain qualities and attitudes to the world no matter where he or she may be.

It is when one understands this correctly that it becomes truly possible that joy can be found in whatever situation one is in, from being in concentration death camps run by despotic regimes, to living in marriages where one spouse is unfaithful and unloving and could be cheating on the other spouse.  In my earlier days, I often wondered how some saints could really find peace and beatitude within the walls of Auschwitz when they were so deprived of liberty and dignity in so many ways.  I later came to understand that these holy people didn’t predicate their joy on things external to them, but on their relationship of abiding love with God.  

This strength within is displayed so clearly by Jesus in a short sentence in John’s gospel. It is found in John 10:18, where we see Jesus saying “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  Jesus’ sense of equanimity and peace within was not based on, influenced and predicated by how he was treated externally.  His sense of freedom was not taken away one bit even though he was bound and nailed to a cross.  That his limbs were nailed to the wood of the Cross didn’t curtail his liberty.  How can we attain this kind of deep freedom? 

Jesus gives this very same power to us in his teaching of his Sermon on the Mount.  Each of the Beatitudes is really bringing us to one place but through different avenues and boulevards.  That one place is an interior freedom and joy.  While the world tells us that its versions of joys are premised and dependent on things like wealth, prosperity, strength, laughter, universal acceptance and approval, Jesus enters into our world and breaks this mindset with his set of Beatitudes.  He gives us new eyes to view what seems to plague and bother humanity that is tuning in only to a very narrow bandwidth of happiness.  

The truth is that unless one is able to appreciate the entire life and purpose of Jesus, these Beatitudes will hardly make much sense.  A simple test would be to bring up any of the beatitudes in office cooler conversations, and we will likely be viewed with raised eyebrows or dismissed as nutjobs.  But for one who is cognizant of the fact that Jesus is the universal savior of the world, desiring to try to live out any of the beatitudes becomes evident that one is keen to show true and active discipleship at a high level – akin to high-octane Christianity.

Just like the issue of forgiveness, living out the beatitudes is never intuitive and easy. I get the response “Father, it’s so hard” whenever I encourage penitents in the confessional to forgive those who have hurt them, particularly when spouses have been betrayed in marriage. If it is easy, everyone would be forgiving and merciful.  Yet, the truth is that most people want to give tit for tat when hurt.  It takes great effort and a willingness to want to give love to one who has taken love for granted, or has been parsimonious with love.   In the same way, Jesus put in a whole lot of effort to go willingly to the Cross to be the sacrificial Lamb of God.  To be sure, it was an effort that was backed by and fueled by great love for both God and for us.  This needs to be the power behind the effort that makes our forgiveness real and meaningful.  The same logic needs to be applied when living out each of the beatitudes.  

But when we do put in effort to strive for this level of Christian excellence, Jesus tells us that we will be experiencing a joy (which is what beatitude means).  Joy is significantly different from happiness, which is fleeting and based on a predetermined set of circumstances.  The joy that God gives in the beatitudes isn’t dependent on our getting things in life the way we would like.  The joy can be there despite harm done to us whether it is physical, psychological or medical.  

It is for this reason that those who endeavor to live out the beatitudes are truly the blessed ones.