Monday, January 29, 2018

Seeking God’s closeness is as easy and as difficult as loving our neighbour.

When Jesus was asked which of God’s many commandments in the Jewish laws was the most important, it opened up for him the opportunity to articulate that in all their observances and rituals, it was imperative that we not only love God, but that we do so by loving our neighbour.  All those 613 laws in the Talmud were fulfilled if one was sincere and ardent about these two things – loving God and loving one’s fellowman. 

The repercussions of this revelation are truly astounding and ground shifting, if we are serious in living them out.  What we often fail to understand in this teaching is that by loving neighbour, which is every man, woman and child, one is bringing God who often seems to be so far away, to be very real and very present into our world.  Yes, the Christmas event was the incarnation of God made man, but it remains only an event isolated about 2000 years ago if we do not act willingly to carry out the second most important commandment to love one another. 

It would have been so much easier if Jesus just left it at the first commandment of loving God, wouldn't it.  Most of us who try to practice our faith with some degree of regularity do this.  Some may just be going through the motions of dragging themselves to Church each Sunday and with motivations that are as varied as there are tastes in clothes and food.  If just being present at liturgical services was the minimum requirement, it might not be much of a challenge to be called a Christian.

But contained in the second commandment of Jesus to love our neighbour as we love our selves is always going to be the harder and more troublesome part of religion, and part of the reason is because the neighbour or the other person to whom we need to love is often going to be asking of us something that isn’t quite convenient, isn’t very comfortable, but also sacrificial in some way.  To stress this point, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  All of us, to a man, will find ourselves having much more in common with the priest and the Levite in that story than the Samaritan, but all of us who have a sound conscience will also realise that we would like to somehow become more like the Samaritan. 

In his teaching of this parable and in his exhortation to all of us that our love for God has to include the love of neighbour, Jesus is making sure that our prayer and worship life must never just stay at the celestial level, where we have lofty ideals about mystical union with the God of creation.  That love with the Divine Lover has to come to brass tacks.  This phrase “brass tacks” has an interesting etymology.  It refers to the studs or tacks that are hammered into furniture in order to hold down the leather to the frame, making sure that the leather doesn’t shift from their purpose and position.  Our active and often sacrificial love for those outside of our personal universe (a.k.a. our huge egos) ensures that our love of God too, doesn’t shift from its purpose and intent – to make God real and present to the world.

Just acting on and respond to a certain moral ‘voice’ within our hearts alone may get the job done, but it may result in a mere humanism.  Doing it in response to our faith in God does something more – it gives us a means of ‘checks and balance’ because we have a standard to measure our love by – the measure of Christ’s love, which is the gold standard. 

The end of Matthew’s gospel has a truth that is startling if we do not take Jesus’ instructions seriously, especially those of us who are his baptised brothers and sisters.  There is a judgment at the end of our lives that awaits us, and this judgment, as Jesus teaches, is not so much based on whether we believe in God’s existence or not, but whether we have loved one another, even in those whom we could not perceive Christ’s presence.  Those who were placed on the King’s left hand and were banished to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels were those who neglected to love those in need. 

The temptation to just love others without our regular response to communal rite and ritual will always be there, in the same way that the temptation to only love those who are our 'kind', and make life good for us.  That is because our self-centered and sin-disposed human nature does not automatically lend itself to activities that require discipline and effort easily.  The small numbers that are regular visitors to the gym to keep themselves fit, compared to the huge numbers of the human race will easily attest to this truth, and this is for something that benefits our physical bodies which is tangible.  What more for the Eucharist and church services, which many may say is ethereal and even unearthly?

In truth, it is in our regular coming together at communal prayer and worship, where we stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters in the faith that we are reminded of the need and the reality of Christ in the unchurched around us outside.  We need our communion in this way to lead to mission.  When we do this, God who is love, becomes real.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Getting out of our minds in prayer.

There is a very curious and rather perturbing verse in Mark’s gospel where the evangelist writes that Jesus’ relatives were convinced that he was ‘out of his mind’.  Other translations have it that Jesus was ‘beside himself’, or that he had ‘lost his senses’.  Note that these comments or thoughts were made not by the evangelist himself, but it was those who were close to Jesus, and some translations describe these as his ‘friends’ or ‘kin’.

Why did they say that about him?  Well, in the context of the gospel, this episode comes right after Jesus made his selection of his twelve apostles after having spent some time on the mountain top in prayer, and after he descended, we see the crowd appearing again, preventing them from even eating a meal. 

It was at this point that his friends or relations were intent of taking charge of him and made this comment about him.  They were quite certain that something about Jesus that was just not quite right. 

Perhaps it was very much connected to the fact that his choice of those whom he wanted to be his first missionaries – those 12 whom he appointed and chose were a motley group that just seemed too unconventional, too improbable and highly impractical, and definitely not safe in any sense of the word.  But we are told that this was a result of prayer, alluded to the fact that he was on the mountaintop before his choice.  He chose fishermen, unlettered and not Rabbinical in any way, and among these 12, there was even a Zealot!  And the cherry on the top of this ungainly bunch just had to be Judas Iscariot, the one who was to eventually betray him and lead him to his ignominious death on Calvary.  And this was a result of prayer?  No wonder he was labeled or thought of as being ‘out of his mind’. 

The spiritual life’s discipline and practice of meditation and habitual contemplation helps one to develop what is known as mindfulness or awareness.  Being mindful has nothing at all to do with being logical and pragmatic.  In fact, if you think about it, sitting in stillness and being aware of one’s state of one’s breath and posture and having one’s attention settling on the life force that is God is something that seems to have no bearing at all on the complexities of life.  The modern mind is just prone to looking at everything from a practical and pragmatic, and productive point of view.  We have been taught and trained from a very young age to get results, and to get them at a high level, so much so that anything which tells us to simply ‘be’ strikes us immediately as counter-intuitive and a waste of time, getting us nowhere and perhaps hint of escapism.

Yet, if we are honest enough, we have to admit that there is something inside of us that admires and appreciates people who are steady in crises and who have the spiritual and moral courage to act and not react, who manage to hold it together when things are falling apart, and who manage to have the moxie that allows them to live in such a way that they are forever giving their lives over to something else other than themselves.  One thing that helps anyone do this is when one is operating and acting apart from just one’s senses or mind, or as Mark the evangelist puts it, when one is ‘out of one’s mind’.

Jesus wasn’t thinking along linear lines of a sensible choice and worldly pragmatism when he chose those 12.  It was a moral decision that had repercussions that were dire for him, but necessary for the world.  I am quite certain that the courage to do this was steeped in his being in prayer the entire night.

Why are we called to be people of prayer and contemplation?  Why is there this need of nurturing this deep and real self of ours, to uncover as it were this ‘original face’ which we keep burying inside, covered by layers of what we think people accept and want to see?  Why is this so difficult that so many drop their attempts at it like a ton of bricks as soon as they begin it and cannot see the rationalistic point of it?  It has something to do with the fact that most of us in this life are simply too preoccupied with living for ourselves, and are reluctant to do the hard work of removing the masks that we wear.  To do this, the spiritual masters have always advocated and recommended that we get ‘out of our minds’ regularly. 

When this is done with intent and with regularity, it helps us - by giving us the courage to act for purposes outside of ourselves.  Many have the wrong idea that being contemplative and developing a good prayer life means just sitting in the adoration room and enjoying a ‘spiritual spa’ time.  While this is good, it certainly cannot be the aim of our spiritual lives.  We are meant to be as Jesus says, workers in God’s vineyard, not Adoration Room lizards.  There is an action that we are called to do, and we miss the point when we think that our Christian lives are not about service and action in the community.  Even contemplative nuns and monks are mission-oriented in their cloistered lives.  What more the majority of the laity who live outside of those walls of silence?  Perhaps saying that we ‘prefer’ to just pray in silence and not interact with others is our hidden pride at work, and our justification for our not wanting to be hurt and bruised by the natural conflicts that will surely result from living in a community of broken people.

Let us honestly ask ourselves this week – are we unable to make inroads in active ministry?  And if we are, perhaps we may be still living and working in the confines and safety of logic and cocooned safely in self-preservation.  It could be a sign that our prayer still hasn’t quite taken us ‘out of our minds’.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Fighting the need to build tents in our spiritual life.

In all three of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark, there is an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  There is an interesting and rather important part of the event which I believe is very relevant to anyone who is truly interested in developing and sustaining a healthy prayer life – it is when Peter makes a rather strange and seemingly random suggestion to put up three tents or shelters right there on this mountain top.

This suggestion of Peter needs to be unpacked for it to be something that we see ourselves doing in our own spiritual lives and prayer moments.  Peter had the overwhelming need to sustain and freeze in time something that was supernatural.   When Jesus was transfigured, his outer appearance was beyond what was naturally human.  The words that Scripture uses are indicative of this being more than natural – the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzlingly white.  This was the gospel writers’ way of saying that what was beheld, what was experienced, was more than natural, more than normal, more than usual, but in a good way.

What made Peter utter the phrase that he did?  What was he trying to imply and suggest?  More importantly, can we in our prayer life or religious experiences find ourselves having such thoughts and intentions?

Peter in his innocence and naivety was trying to do what so many of us do when we have a very good and pleasant experience in life.  He wanted to preserve and sustain this pleasure.  He didn’t want it to end, or at least have it prolonged in some way.  We find ourselves doing the same thing in different ways, partly because pitching of tents isn’t something that we moderns aren’t particularly adept at.  Our ways of pitching tents in the 21st century are a bit more sophisticated – we take selfies, we take videos, and we share them on the Internet.  As well, we buy keepsakes and mementoes just so that we can hold on to a great and significant moment, giving the phrase “been there, done that and bought the T-shirt and the mug” something that resonates with a dose of light hearted hilarity.

While doing all that isn’t wrong in themselves, these actions do have a side effect that is inevitable – they rob us of truly experiencing the moment and appreciating fully what the experience is offering us.  So many tourists who go to places of noted interest and fame return home and when they view their photos taken with such dedicated art direction and precision realise that they hadn’t really enjoyed or appreciated the moment while they were there.  It could be a concert, a wedding, a birthday or a meeting of friends.  Wanting this joy and bliss to be somehow preserved causes us to step out of the moment rather to be steeped in it. 

What was perhaps lost on Peter as he made that suggestion was that this experience was given to him for a purpose other than the moment itself.  Otherwise, that episode would have ended right there.  Instead, it continues with them coming down from that mountain the very next day.  Its implication is obvious – that event, which was definitely a moment of supernatural grace, was for the three of them (four, if Jesus is included) to continue on Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem, where he would be delivered into the hands of men.  The Transfiguration was, if you like, a charging station, a spiritual boost, to prepare them for the Passion, which was to come.

Those of us who have gone on retreats often speak about how peaceful and serene the retreat was, and I have personally heard of retreatants lamenting that the experience had to end.  In speaking like this, there is evidently something Peter-ish about this.  Those mountain top experiences, which in spiritual language are also called consolations, serve a purpose other than the moment itself.  They strengthen our faith and grounds our belief in a loving God for a time later, and these are more often than not our own “passion” moments.

I write this reflection as I am sequestered in my priest’s residence recuperating from my surgery to my necrotized hip.  People have asked if I was ok and how I keep myself buoyed during this time of incapacity where I need to use either my wheelchair or crutches.  The answer lies principally in the harnessing of those mountain top experiences in my own prayer life, where I was grounded in the truth of God’s never ceasing and ever abiding love.  This enables me to move and make strides in my journey of life even though I can hardly physically move at all. 

If God is giving you, by his grace, a mountain top experience in life, savour it for all it is worth, and be in the moment.  Hoping that it never ends, or worse, hoping that it will be repeated in a similar way could inadvertently be cramping God’s style.     

Monday, January 8, 2018

The real business of our Christian faith.

The real business and rationale for our Christian faith is not to be rich, successful or powerful in life.  There is a great misunderstanding of the purpose and rationale for our faith and belief in Jesus Christ, which I believe is often the root cause of well-meaning Christians who end up being angry with God.  Christianity’s uniqueness has never been that it gives believers the ability to sidestep challenges and turmoil in life.  Neither is it akin to some sort of ‘fast pass’ or exit ticket out of suffering and pains that are part and parcel of the journey of life.  If this is the way Christianity has been ‘sold’ to us, it was at best done so by misguided salesmen. Christianity was never meant to be a ‘feel good’ religion, but having said that, it is also not a pity-party and a gathering of pessimists who revel in each other’s dolefulness and despondency either.

More and more, I am wont to believe that a major part of what constitutes a healthy spiritual life is to see this reality about Christianity over and over again till we make a breakthrough and emerge as true believers.  Otherwise, we will only remain believers on a nominal and surface level, but cynics in varying degrees on the inside.

There is no special message or preaching that I or any other skilled theologian or spiritual guru can impart apart from the good news that is Jesus Christ, who is God’s greatest show and tell.  He came to show us that God loves us unconditionally, and also to show that this unconditional love is not predicated on being spared from the pains and sufferings that result from a world and humanity that is drenched in sin. 

The whole issue of salvation boils down to how God wants to make us truly adult in facing and dealing with life and all that life presents to us.  It is when we are only childish and infantile in our approach towards life that we fall into despair and end up blaming everybody and everything else for what we are facing in life. 

The world suffers from a very shallow understanding and definition of what it is to be adult.  Often, one’s physical age demarcates when one is adult, and when one has left childhood behind.  We see this most strangely and most clearly where vices are concerned.  To smoke and drink, one has to be ‘of age’.  The same applies entry into gambling halls and places where pornography are available for procurement.  I tend to chuckle internally whenever I come across terms like ‘adult entertainment’, when in truth, there is nothing adult in them at all, when in fact, it is truly childish and shallow titillation that is purveyed.  I wonder if changing the term to ‘childish entertainment’ would change the way the world views pornography, because it is truly false advertising.  There is nothing adult whatsoever in this insidious industry.

When we are truly child-like in our approach and attitude toward God and religion, we become ready to become truly adult as well, and this includes being adult in the way that we face all the ups and downs of life, and take everything in stride as just a part of our being born into a sinful world that needs to learn how to wait – wait for God to slowly reveal himself to us in the very paths our lives are taking.

Some of you may know already that I am going for a surgical procedure called Core Decompression for my other necrotized femur due to the heavy use of medical steroids taken 4 years ago to fight Leukemia.  Most likely, by the time you read this, I should be in hospital ready for the surgical intervention. 

I know that there are quite a number of you out there who look at my attitude with a mixture of incredulity and amazement, when I take these inconveniences as just part and parcel of life.  I am not one for any form of self-promotion, but if it helps to form the faith and lessen the fears of my readers, I am willing to be personal. 

From the moment I was diagnosed with Leukemia, which was truly life threatening, I thanked God for bringing me so close to him on the Cross.  It has since made the sacrifice of my priesthood tremendously real and raised my awareness of what it means to suffer redemptively.  I may not do this as well as I would like to, but it is still a two-steps-forward-one-step-back movement.  Having another human being who was a complete stranger wanting to save me from my impending death made so real how Jesus is my savior from my eternal death.  (Note to Peter Mui, you will ALWAYS have my heartfelt gratitude).  My hope in writing about this and putting this out in this public way is that it can somehow help anyone who is struggling to make sense of pain and suffering in life, and to see that the ability to face such challenges in life is the real ‘business’ of our Christian faith. 

God doesn’t delight in giving us any form of suffering for the sake of suffering.  That God doesn’t exist.  But the God who truly delights in this – having children who desire so much to imitate Jesus who suffered for a cause greater than his – this is the God who is real, and whom we need to approach with a faith that is truly adult in every sense of the word.