Monday, February 19, 2018

The right spirit of Lent and its challenges.

This year, the start of the season of Lent coincided in a very interesting and paradoxical way with Valentine’s Day.  While the former was observed largely by the Catholic community, the latter has become a worldwide event, and has been seen as a day to show with various degrees of overture, one’s appreciation of another with demonstrations of love, often having romantic undertones.  The liturgical season of Lent is often seen as a time of self-renunciation shown and demonstrated by taking on forms of mortification and discipline, so on the surface of things, many may think that nothing could be more contrasting than observing Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day simultaneously.

But in essence and in truth, it was actually quite provident that these two occasions met on the same day.  There is something that the two have in common in a rather hidden way, but on different levels – and it is love.

What many may find it difficult to perceive or appreciate is that underneath and undergirding the recommended observances of the traditional practices of Lent of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, is the purifying of our love – love for God and love for neighbour.  A prolonged season of doing this with some level of assiduousness (40 days) is asked of all of us principally because at the core of our human and sin-prone nature, we don’t do the two very well.  We often don’t love God as wholeheartedly and authentically as he ought to be loved, and neither are we as proficient in loving our neighbour as we should.  So Mother Church gathers us in and helps us through a 40-day guidance of a shared experience as a community – an experience of purified love.

“How does fasting purify love?” one may ask.  At the heart of the issue of not loving God and insufficiently loving neighbour is an issue of self-indulgence and an inordinate emphasis on the love of self.  This love of self takes on many forms, but they chiefly find their root in the sin of pride.  One way of overcoming or being aware of this is to resist how we often give in very easily to our comfort needs through our unwillingness to experience being hungry. 

A friend once shared with me that the one thing that tells him that he is no longer poor and is comfortable in life, is when he goes to a grocery store and he has the confidence that he can buy whatever he sees, without worrying about the cost.  There could be a host of factors that contributed his having this ‘marker’ in life, like perhaps having come from a materially challenged youth.  I think that not only this friend of mine, but all of us too, have an inner desire to never feel a lack or a discomfort.  We all like to keep hunger pangs at bay, and herein lays the rationale of fasting that a large majority of us miss.

When we willingly put ourselves in a state of fasting, we are reminding ourselves that we are not ruled or controlled by our physicality.  Our drives in life must not be purely instinctive and our bodies do not control us.  We are taking back full control of our natures, unlike animals without consciences.  Eating mindlessly all the time can make us a bit like the animals that constantly graze in fields.  We do this so that we don’t feel discomfort and hungry.   This has its parallels in the way we can often mindlessly take in other things in life as well – gossipy stories of others, biased opinions, trending newsfeeds and lifestyles, so much so that we end up loving ourselves and feeding ourselves in ways that leave us bloated and exhausted.  If periodic physical detoxing does our bodies good, what more spiritual detoxing?

Almsgiving does the same thing but on the level of money and how much it controls our lives.  Always a touchy issue, we know that we cannot live without it, but that it is also something that can easily master our lives if we allow it to.  Jesus himself warns us about this saying that where your treasure is, there is your heart also.  Ever since money was invented, there has been a prevalence of a fear of not having enough.  It has easily become a god unto its own, with a legion of worshippers at its feet.  Almsgiving helps us to counter its insidious allure and power over us when we willingly give this away, controlling it rather than letting it control us.  It also reminds us that our blessings are meant to be a blessing to others.

Prayer is the third area of life that Mother Church wants to give us special guidance at this time of grace.  She wants to remind us not only about prayer’s importance, but to draw us to the heart of prayer, which is ultimately love.  If our prayer is primarily that of asking God to listen to us, our prayer becomes an extended act of loving ourselves.  But if we move our motivations for prayer away from ourselves, wanting rather to love God more and purify our love for him, so too will our love for neighbour undergo purification as well.

Love then is truly at the heart of all our Lenten practices.  As a community, when we love God with a heart that slowly becomes more purified through mindfulness, the body of Christ takes on a form that becomes more visible and tangible in the world. 

Was there a clash of ideas and purposes when Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday met this year on February 14?  I guess the answer is yes only if we have been living distorted loves in our lives. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

The great gift of courage that Christ gives his beloved.

Courage is a virtue that is universally prized and admired.  It is a quality that is desired across the board – from leaders of nations to prospective spouses.  Parents across the world would like to see their progeny grow and become brave and courageous adults, being fearless when facing the many challenges that life can bring, as it often does.

God, who is our ultimate parent, is even more intent on wanting to see his children live and flourish with courage.  Many times in Jesus’ ministry to his disciples and the crowds that followed him on his walkabouts did he tell his listeners to have courage and to not be afraid.  Yet, if we are honest about it, we find ourselves limited and even paralyzed by the many fears that grip us in life.  As a result, we oftentimes fail to make much headway to reach the potential that we are capable of attaining. 

The kind of courage and the nature of the courage that Jesus wants to give us has a different depth and essence that is not on the same level as the courage that most of us think of when we refer to courage.  Our frame of reference is more often than not limited to the tests and trials of this life, which is understandable.  So, when we speak of having courage, the challenges that we have in mind are often the things that we can overcome by our own efforts, skills and talents.  Students study hard to face and overcome the challenges of tests and exams; friends who experience betrayal and hurts overcome and deal with them by exercising forgiveness and extending mercy, and people who have suffered losses in their business ventures and investments are courageous when they pick themselves off the ground and with tenacity forge on and do not let their failures cripple them.  These are very legitimate and evident displays of courage that can also often inspire other folk who suffer similar trials and setbacks in life to face them with a similar tenacity. 

But the courage that Jesus ultimately wants to give us isn’t so much resilience against what confronts us in this life but what is our final bastion that we all must face – the end of our lives.

St Paul understood this so well when he asked brazenly “death, where is your sting?”  No matter the kind of challenges we may meet in this life, they pale when put against the ultimate challenge that each one of us inevitably has to face when our time on this side of heaven ends.  The courage that Jesus comes to give us is the kind that enables us to be fearless beyond the precipice of death.  When Jesus said that he comes to give us life that we may have it to the full, he didn’t limit it to merely what this life here accords us.  The fullness that he wants us to have extends past the flat line of the ECG machine, and this is where the courage that this world and all it stands for meets its limit.

Each of the canonized saints of the Church who had died a martyr’s death is a vibrant testimony of a life that had this kind of courage in an extraordinary way.  It’s not that they didn’t value or love this life, but they knew without a doubt that what Christ came to give us all is much more than what this life can give and what this life can promise. 

I would err on the side of insensitivity if I dismiss the reality of the pain of separation that all deaths entail.  To not fear death does not mean that one’s loved ones and relations who remain should not experience the reality of the vacancy one leaves behind in their hearts and lives.  This ‘gap’ is real, causing sorrow and grief.  We too, will do well to handle this with the courage that Jesus gives us, making real what Shakespeare said of death’s parting being a ‘sweet sorrow’.

When we waver in our belief in the promise of Christ, it reveals itself in the ways that we are afraid of death, or the many forms of little deaths that life brings – some examples that come to mind are the dying of the ego; sudden and unexpected humiliations; and the ways that we may be asked to be generous with our possessions, time and skills, often at the most inconvenient of times.  The courage that Jesus wants us to have when facing our ultimate Death (with the capital D) extends to and includes the courage to face these little deaths that we meet each day as well.  If we don’t do the latter with ease, we will hardly do the former with much conviction either.

Praying for a happy death necessarily means that we are also ready to be happy with these small deaths as well. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

God hates divorce – even between theology and piety.

When I was reading theology at the graduate level, I noticed that I was struggling to bridge a gap that I saw looming before me.  It was that gap that seems to exist between theology and piety – something which I really hadn’t given much thought to before. My discomfort with this apparent yawning divide between the two in our life as Christians was becoming more and more defined.  The more I read, the more I saw the contrast - that what I was studying in the pages of those tomes and deeply reflected theological thoughts and intellectual calisthenics had little to do directly with the average person in the pew in church.  Its irony wasn’t lost on me at all as I walked each day to my classes, wondering if all this would make me a better priest and if this would really help me in my deep endeavour to serve the people I was sent to minister to when my studies were over.

Much as I did enjoy breathing in the theological air that I was immersed in, I kept reminding myself that ultimately, this was not what I went into the seminary for in the first place, some 20-over years ago.  Much as I looked on in wonder and admiration at my professors and fellow course-mates who seemed to be so passionate in their pursuit of theological excellence, there was a nagging part of me that back home, half the world away, in the church pew, sits some illiterate man or woman with a heart filled with a deep love for God and neighbour, and my wanting to soak up the intellectual offerings of the Institute would hardly make a difference to their world, and in all probability may not help them to love God more.  Yet, I had an acute sense that what I was doing was going to impact them in some inchoate way.

I couldn’t put my finger on the issue at hand at that time, but upon reflection in my convalescence in these past weeks, I have been led to realise this – that within me, and perhaps in a lot of us, lay the great temptation to cut and divide, and to segregate theology from piety, simply because it is always easier.  After all, it is rather prevalent where one is emphasized at the expense of the other, and oftentimes, this makes for the apparent chasm between theology and spirituality or piety.  A great pastor of souls has to endeavor to marry the two like the way a great artist marries the different paint pigments so as to bring the beauty that he has in his mind to materialize on his canvas.  And this is not always easy.

They are, admittedly, of two seemingly different worlds – theology and piety.  Yet, there is wisdom in striving to marry the two, challenging though it may be.  A theologian who hasn’t filtered down lofty theological concepts like the Trinity or the Incarnation or even God’s very Being (as if this is at all possible) isn’t going to make either God or himself very relatable.  A preacher who only preaches pious stories and Chicken-soup-for-the-soul-stories, solely promoting devotions and being persnickety about the minutiae of ritual stands in danger of turning spirituality into mere sentiment, romanticism and technical correctness. 

There is a very interesting and relevant quote from Malachi 2:16 which I believe applies as much to marriage as it does to theology and piety.  There, it is stated that God hates divorce.  Certainly, what God hates or detests is not divorcees but the terrible consequences that divorce inevitably has on his beloved people.  How this statement has been so misunderstood and used to bludgeon people who have suffered from failed marriages is fodder for another blog reflection.  But I believe that connected to this is how God sees beauty and necessity in marriage and union, and in oneness, and that it ought to apply as much to marriage as it should to how theology and piety need constantly be married and not be divided.

A good priest needs to have both these tools at hand, and minister with both of them open in front of him.  Doing this with a consciousness and a mindfulness will prevent us from being lazy and repetitive.  Being mindful of the need to be guided and formed by good theology will keep him sound in his view of God, in God’s very Being and that God is Love, and the being mindful of having a heart of tender love will remind him of the need to show this through his actions and words.  This will be my 17th year of being an ordained priest, and I must confess that it is a great challenge to do this well, having more misses than hits.

My time away from ministry in this 6-weeks of medically imposed period of Coventry by my doctor is meant to strengthen a weakened and dying part of my femur.  Hopefully it will at the same time strengthen a part of my ministry that is in a constant need for renewal and regeneration too.

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.