Monday, December 28, 2020

Developing a thick skin is key in being a true Catholic and to respond to our call to evangelize.

It’s a given that for many, if not for most, that answering the call to evangelize about our faith as Catholics to others is challenging, to say the least.


Many Catholics are even oblivious to the fact that their very baptism into Christ and into the universal Catholic church itself has conscripted them into the necessary task of bringing Christ to others who have not yet come to know the tremendous privilege of being the adopted children of God the Father in Christ.  Part of the reason this is so is because it is often the case that well grounded catechesis had not been a constant follow-up after the rite of Baptism, and even if it was constant, the response from the one receiving catechesis and formation in the faith was more passive than active.  Just like learning that is done in the academic field of life, one’s appreciation of the subject being taught is deeper and more focused when one is an active learner as compared to when one is just passively attentive to what is being imparted.  


In the matter of faith, especially when it comes to the task of evangelization, it is a given that knowledge of doctrine is of great import.  But even before one opens one’s mouth to speak about Jesus and the faith, what gets the important ‘foot in the door’ in another person’s life is the way that one lives and behaves.  No one is interested in our talk about Jesus if by our lives we are a blatant demonstration of living lives that are clearly contrary to the teachings of Christ.  Perhaps it is because many of us know that we are living somewhat ‘counter-Christian’ lives that we are reluctant and even hesitant to evangelize at any level.  Admitting that we are hypocrites is one thing.  Hearing others brandishing that description about us is far more painful and humiliating.


It is because of this realization that I came to see that developing a thick skin toward the negative responses to others is so very important if we are truly to do the work of evangelizing our faith to others.  A thick skin is needed to face many things that any true evangelist is very likely to face when introducing the person of Christ to others.  I share a few good reasons why this is not only necessary but also wise.


1.   A thick skin is needed to receive critiques and criticisms

There is a natural tendency to be defensive when the good that we intend to do is not well received. Sometimes this even gets personal. A thick skin is needed to take this in stride, and to not react.  A calm and collected demeanor in these moments could be the ‘deal breaker’ for those whom we are sharing Christ with, especially if they have hearts that are somewhat hardened.  


I recall reading about how Mother Theresa of Calcutta put this into practice when she was beginning her arduous task of getting food and supplies for the orphans in her care.  According to one account, she went to a bakery and asked the baker if he could spare some bread for the poor and starving children. The baker, with rage in him, spat into her outstretched palm.  Wiping the saliva gently away with the hem of her sari, Mother looked gently at the baker and said “Thank you for what you gave me.  Now, can you please give some bread to the poor children?” 


From that moment on, the baker’s heart changed, and as the story goes, he became a regular benefactor to Mother’s orphanage.  


2.   A thick skin is needed to accept no as an answer.

I think there are many of us who cannot take no for an answer, and this is problematic in the faith life. God often does answer our pleas and prayers with a no, and it is for our own good that he does.  If God’s answer to our petitions to him is always a yes, I think we have a very big problem on our hands.  So we struggle with God’s no.  


We also tend to struggle with a “no” when we invite others to come with us to some spiritual talk or meeting or some bible-study or prayer groups.  We want and expect a wholehearted and immediate “yes” from the people we are inviting to get to know Jesus, and because very often, the first response is a “no”, declining our invitation, we get discouraged and think we don’t have what it takes to evangelize well.  What it does prove is that we don’t have what it takes to be rejected.  


We need to almost expect that the first response, even the second or third response from those we are inviting to be a “no”.  There are two good things about having this expectation.  Firstly, it makes any “yes” a bonus and a true delight to receive, rather than something that we think is a response that we are entitled to.  We become grateful.  


Secondly, we prepare the grounds of their hearts when we go to them a second time (maybe in a few months’, or next year) to invite them again.  It may be that their hearts need a few rounds of asking, a few times of inviting and some show of loving persistence.  We need to bear in mind the gospel text of the parable of the persistent friend at night (Luke 11:5-8) that knocked at the door of a friend late into the night to ask for some bread for his visitors.  His persistence won for him food for his friend.  I think this parable can be renamed as the parable of the thick-skinned friend.

3.   We need a thick skin to offer the other cheek.

In Luke 6:29, Jesus gives a rather challenging instruction to his disciples when it comes to living out the Beatitudes.  It's framed within the call to love those who hate or curse us, and Jesus makes it clear that there is a need to offer the other cheek to those who strike us on one cheek.  Apart from a call to non-violence, to do this well requires of us to develop skin that is thick - thick enough to withstand the kind of negative response to our willingness to live out the call of intentional discipleship.  Having a thin skin in our discipleship will only show how sensitive we are to facing any kind of push back in our efforts at evangelisation, and we will be far more interested in preserving ourselves than in wanting Christ to be brought to others.


The work of evangelizing to others is always a work in process, quite like the way that our quest for spiritual maturity is also a work in process.  If we think it’s a point of arrival, we’ve really missed the point.  


It is always a point of departure.



Monday, December 21, 2020

“But it’s so hard, Father!” Yes, but so was the first Christmas.

 This is such a common response by people who show some interest in improving in their spiritual lives. It’s so common that if I don’t hear this lament from them, I wonder if they have really heard what it was I was asking them to do when it comes to putting in effort to live a converted life.  This is most common when I am trying to impart the importance of things like forgiveness, making effort to pray, making confession a regular feature in one’s life or doing all one should be doing to overcome a habitual sin in life.  But the very common and persistent one that is met with this response has to be forgiving those who have hurt them.

There seems to be a mistaken notion (and a very commonly held one) that the spiritual life should be easy or something close to a walk in the park.  No one said that it would be easy.  Even if Jesus did say that his yoke is easy and his burden light, it is still a yoke that needs to be borne, and a burden that needs to be carried. What he does promise is that he would be carrying it with us, but not for us


The truth is that nothing in life that is meaningful and has a great positive effect on our souls is easy. Easy things are never the deep and life-changing things.  Watching Netflix is never a challenge, but it also doesn’t do much to bring our souls closer to God.  An afternoon spent at a soccer stadium watching our favourite team playing against a rival team doesn’t require much effort on our part (at least not in the intellectual sense) but it also doesn’t impact the way that we mature to becoming better human beings.  In fact, sometimes it has a negative impact on our spiritual lives, when football turns into footbrawl.


So why does it surprise anyone then, that forgiving those who give us grief in life should be something that is very difficult?  That’s because being able to come to that point in our lives that we are putting a lot of effort and energy to show mercy and forgiveness to them shows that we are also willing to be Christ to them.  And more to it, it is imitating Christ at his most vulnerable and most powerful as well, which is the time when he gave himself up so humbly and willingly on the Cross of Calvary for sinners who were unrepentant.  This happens when we will ourselves to love those who do not love us back.


We need to remember that the entire mystery of the incarnation of Jesus becoming man, and entering into sinful humanity with love and effort, saving it by dying on the Cross WAS NOT EASY. Of course he is God, but he is also fully man, who also has human feelings and sentiments, who felt tired and hungry and thirsty like any normal human being.  The incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas is real acknowledgement that we are appreciative of just how much trouble God went through to become one of us so that we can become him (I’m paraphrasing St Ireneaus here).


I don’t think that wanting things easy is something that is only seen in entitled millennials.  This is something that lies deep inside every flawed and sinful human being.  Even Mary who was conceived without original sin had to go through so much hardship for her to be used so effectively by God in the whole plan of salvation for humankind. 


Here in Singapore, we have been able to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus to a large extent with many of us cooperating by practicing social distancing and wearing masks, and being responsible in enabling contact tracing.  This has also enabled Christmas Masses to be held, albeit in very limited numbers.  Those wanting to come for Christmas Masses are required to make online bookings for available spaces and when the time for booking came, all Mass bookings were filled and taken in a matter of mere minutes, leaving a large majority of Catholics disappointed, irate and frustrated.  


I could hear the chorus of “it’s so hard” coming from the ground up.  Yes, it was, but so was the first Christmas for Mary, Joseph and most of all, Jesus. The incarnation was something that truly changed everything for all of humanity, and it was also truly difficult. 


Let us not hope for things to be easy for us when it comes to matters of our souls getting shaped and readied for heaven.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The essential admission that every sincere Christian needs to make to pave the way for true conversion – deep inside, I am a selfish person.

I recall from a very young age, that whenever we would go out to have a meal at some open air eatery (in Singapore, we would call them ‘zhi char’ stalls), often at crowded coffee shops, whenever a waiter brought out a steaming hot dish, as he walked through the narrow pathway leading to the table which ordered the dish, the phrase ‘guan sui’ (boiling water in Cantonese) would be sharply and loudly yelled out in order to tell everyone to get out of the way, and to clear the path ahead.  It was a signal for everyone in the shop to not be too absorbed in whatever conversations they were engaged in to, at least for the moment, look up lest they be accidently scalded by hot food that could spill on them.  


“Get out of the way” is a very useful and clear metaphor all of us who are sincerely interested in true and mature spiritual growth need to bear in mind constantly.  While it is true that what gets in the way of our goal and aim of holiness in life is sin and all that sin stands for, there is still beneath that - something more elementary and germane, something more basic and basal that gives sin its necessary foundation to sink its claws into, and it is our very own egos and self-centeredness.  


Where do we get this notion that it is our egocentric drives that causes us to get into the kind of inner turmoil and conflict that we experience each time we allow sin to rule in our lives? We first see its emergence of course in the book of Genesis where our first parents get tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  It’s not that knowing what is good and what is evil is bad for us.  It is this going against what was told to them specifically by God that was at the heart of sin.  


Ever since that fall, every human heart (except for Mary, due to her being pre-saved by Christ in her immaculate conception) finds itself wanting what it wants more than wanting what God wants. Temptation to sin is the 1001 justifications that the former is good and delightful, and virtue and holiness is preferring the latter.  


We are always seeing this clearer after succumbing to temptation and fallen prey to the lies of the deceiver, a.k.a. Satan.  Whereas before the fall, our vision of clarity of what is good and beneficial for our souls is often cloudy and blurred, that same vision of clarity suddenly changes to 20/20 vision post sin.  What makes our vision cloudy is our ego and pride that blocks this clarity.  


Any spiritual retreat worth our time and retreat fee is measured by how clearly and articulately we allow the Holy Spirit to speak this truth to our hearts.  I don’t measure how good a retreat is by how ‘high’ one gets emotionally after a retreat.  That’s a very low bar to measure a good retreat by, as evidence has shown that things can just go back to normal in a matter of days after the retreat ends.


But a beneficial retreat is measured by how much inner conversion takes place by seeing with a greater degree of clarity how one’s ego needs and insecurities had been the source of wanting to give in to sin and selfishness in the various areas of life, and not wanting to put in the necessary effort to respond to God’s grace prompting and inviting one to do God’s will in each moment of life.  


I guess this is the main reason why there are ‘retreat addicts’ who run form one retreat to another, just to get the post retreat high, because many retreatants aren’t courageous and honest enough to do the hard work that is required to face one’s inner demons with a determination to slay them with the sword of the love of God.  


Yes, if we but instill in ourselves that it is necessary to daily ‘get out of the way’, we will be able to live out the call to have room in our hearts for Christ to enter in. Not just at Advent, but every day.  The painful reality is that the situation that Joseph and Mary faced in Bethlehem is the same one that Jesus faces each time he wants to enter into our hearts. There simply is no room for him at the inn.  


Maybe we need to hear a voice hollering “guan sui” into our ears and we will get out of the way.



Monday, December 7, 2020

Advent’s waiting isn’t just something that is experienced by us. God too is waiting.

Patience, as we all know, is a virtue.  Impatient people tend to display among other traits, short-temperedness and an unwillingness to suffer fools easily.  They want things to be done quickly, and to be done their way. Patient people are able to curtail these shortcomings and as a result, tend to have a personality that is genial, socially acceptable and are less hard to get along with than their impatient counterparts.


God, because he is God, doesn’t have flaws or shortcomings.  He is perfect love, perfect beauty and is truth itself, as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s masterwork in theological tome “The Glory of the Lord” takes pains to elaborate and illustrate.  


Now if God is perfect, and indeed he is, then together with God being the perfect lover and being truth itself, God is also perfect in the virtue of patience.  Of course, I am equating our human notion of virtue with the divine aspect of virtue, which may in itself be a little problematic, but we do need some anthropomorphism in order to flesh out what I am mooting in this reflection.


One of Advent’s perennial themes that always get airplay at this time of the year is the theme of patience or waiting.  As human beings, we struggle a lot with this.  Hardly anyone is naturally born with a healthy ability to wait well.  We see this intolerance with waiting evidenced even in newborn infants who just won’t stop bawling their tiny lungs out because they can’t wait to be fed or held close to the mother’s breast.  Somehow, hardwired into the human psyche (which is faulty through original sin) is that it wants the world to orbit around the self and the ego. Patience, though it is a virtue, is something that needs to be nurtured and learned, and like anything that requires growth, doesn’t happen overnight.  


So we are encouraged during the Advent season to develop a desire to want to cultivate patience.  Most of all, it is patience for God to present himself in our lives.  For sure, we do require patience for Christmas to come on December 25th, but more than just the celebration of the historic arrival of God-becoming man in the incarnation event, our spiritual lives require of us to acquire a heart that is willing to wait for God to manifest himself and his will in our lives.  It is when we are good ‘waiters’ that we can spot him when he appears, albeit in a hidden form, in our loved ones, in those who we consider our ‘enemies’, and in those who tend to make life challenging for us.  


But it isn’t only we who are waiting in our lives.  I think we very easily fail to realise that God too is waiting. He not only waits at Advent, but also has been waiting ever since Adam and Eve, his beloved creation whom he made out of love and for love, decided to willfully disobey and live for themselves, causing them to end up being cast out of Eden.  He had been waiting for them to be redeemed and to be restored once more to his embrace.  He had been waiting for humanity to realise that their greatest delight and fulfillment would be when they are fully in heaven.  


Our Advent waiting tells us that we are now living in between the two comings of Christ, where the first coming was at the incarnation and the second would be when he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.  God’s waiting also has a similar two dimension, where his first waiting was fulfilled at Mary’s yes at her annunciation.  In fact, all of humanity and all of heaven was waiting in great anticipation for her generous fiat, which paved the way for the incarnation to take place.  When those beautiful words of “let it be done to me according to your Word” was uttered by our blessed Mother, God’s first waiting was over.  His divine plan to enter into the world, in a hidden form of a helpless and tiny babe, located in some rural Roman occupied outpost in Bethlehem kicked into high gear.  


But God’s waiting isn’t over yet.  Even with the glorious ascension of Jesus to his Father’s right hand in heaven, God is now waiting.  Yes, right now, even as your eyes read these words on whatever device you are receiving this blog reflection on, God is waiting for your response to his reaching out to you in grace.  He is waiting for your wanting to live your life in a holy way that shows you are truly desirous of heaven and all that your baptism promises.  He is waiting for your ‘yes’ to being another Christ as you live out your day that could see you being asked to be more forgiving, more patient, more charitable in your deeds and thoughts, less critical of those who you deem to be lesser beings than yourself, and to find offensive the same things that God finds offensive, and find delightful in the things that give God the glory he deserves.  


Advent is indeed a time of waiting, but we don’t wait well.  God, however, has showed so much restraint in displaying his wrath when we are so deserving of recrimination for our numerous and repeated sins.  Thank God for his divine patience with us.