Sunday, July 15, 2018

Come Away and Rest Awhile

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to pray the Divine Office. Before you think of applauding my seemingly pious efforts or think that I’m attempting to elicit some positive appraisal from you, it would be good for you to know what I have to struggle with almost every day. First, I have to fight off the grogginess and sleepiness; being alert in the morning isn’t a strong point for me. Second, I have to fight off the temptation to check my emails, my messages and of course, my diary. Already, a whole bucket list (an endless one) of things-to-do is racing through my mind and anxiety begins to build up. Third, I know that if I put off praying in the morning, I would simply neglect it and forget all about it in the busyness of the day. I can resonate with the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland as he shouts, “I’m late! I’m late!” No time to be wasted. Sometimes I feel like telling God, “Lord, you’re wasting my precious time.”  For some people wasting time is a source of guilt (I would fall into the “heavy guilt” category), for others it’s a way of life. You know what I'm talking about.

But today, our Lord invites His apostles and all of us to simply waste time with Him. Time with the Lord is never wasted time. We can imagine the apostles tired and weary after a long day of preaching and ministering, coupled with the emotionally draining news of the death of St John the Baptist. They must have been overwhelmed by the mobs that thronged the place. The gospel tells us that they were so busy, the “apostles had no time even to eat.” How many of us relate to that? I know I do. Or, mothers know how it feels when your little ones don’t even give you two minutes of peace to use the bathroom. Or it could be the non-stop interruptions you have when you are trying to finish a project before the deadline.

The apostles had been busy ‘building’ the Kingdom of God, or at least, that was what they thought. In truth, they were building their own little kingdoms, behaving like mini-saviours, making themselves indispensable and now returning to the Lord to boast of their achievements (“all they had done and taught”), holding up their report cards whilst beaming from ear to ear, hoping to get some affirmation and approval from the Lord. But instead, the Lord seems to ignore all their efforts and cuts to the chase. What they need more than anything else is not a pat on the back or a certificate for a job well done, but away time, quality time with the Lord. In their busyness, in their incessant desire to perform and to please the Lord, they had forgotten that what is most crucial is their own spiritual well-being – their relationship with the Lord. They needed to empty themselves of their ego and pride in order to make space for the Lord.

Creating an empty space is one of the most daunting challenges we face. For most of us it takes both courage and discipline to do it. Wasting time with God goes against our nature. It doesn’t look so good either with other folks rushing around us! Just like the disciples in our gospel tale, we all want to impress. Our too busy lives leave us over-stimulated, sometimes anxious and often on edge.   We are always available when our cell phones are switched on and in our pockets.  We don’t have time to think, as we rush from one appointment to another.  When busyness isn’t our problem then often enough, entertainment is. There is a vast industry created to amuse and distract us; from mobile games to the internet.  I think many of us have experienced the near panic and meltdown when we lose our phone or when there is no internet coverage in our locality.    

That is why it is so essential to learn to waste time with the Lord. If we want to know how, let us take a closer look at the invitation of Christ. “Come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while!” “Come!”  His words almost shock us with its loving invitation and its powerful command. And we need to listen to Him. He will accept no excuses, no trying to get out of it!  The trouble is that so many of us do – we give all kinds of excuses for being too busy to pray, to spend time with Him. “No time” is a lame excuse. We always have time for what is important, for the things we value. When we say that we have no time for prayer, no time for God, it betrays His true value in our lives. “No time” equals “He’s not important!” All of us are busy, no doubt about it. Life isn’t slowing down, it’s speeding up. Yet that is precisely why we need to take time to pray.  Prayer is what keeps us going.

“Away!”  Our Lord even expands this concept and adds “to some lonely place.” I don’t think He meant for us to run away from our responsibilities and work. But there is always a need to create that sacred space away from the congestion, busyness of the world and all its demands. We priests have institutionalised the regiment of going away for days of recollections and retreats. The good news is that so may lay people have also caught on and the seriousness they give to these spiritual exercises would put us priests to shame. It is an excuse when we claim that our prayer is work. Ultimately when that happens, prayer is often neglected. Our lives are so cluttered that there is nothing left for God or even others. That is why we should “get away,” set aside time, prime time for prayer, for reading and reflecting on the Word of God, for spending time before the Blessed Sacrament. This “away” time for prayer and reflexion should interrupt our well-ordered and well-organised lives, to remind us of what is truly important and what is not. It should not just be occasional but habitual. A good disciplined habit of prayer is needed.

“Rest!”  The invitation is not to go out and do errands. It is a request to just rest. As simple as it sounds, it’s so much harder when you actually try to put it into practice. The guilt of wasted time often makes us feel like we need to scramble to make up for it. Or, we confuse rest and laziness. The Lord instituted the Sabbath rest precisely for the welfare of man. He understood that though work is good and sacred, there is a danger of running yourself to the ground if there are no pauses in your life. The Sabbath rest was intended to remind man that the fruits of our work ultimately proceed from God and though man ceases to work, God continues to work, the work of salvation never stops. At the end of the day, wasting time with the Lord reminds us that time is a gift, not an entitlement. And this helps us set our eyes on the things that matter.

“A While!” We all know that we cannot ignore our duties, especially to the ones we love. We are needed and we know what to do and what must be done.  So the invitation is only for a while, not permanent retirement.  Just enough time to regain our strength, our composure, our love and our compassion. Enough time to be rooted once again in the Lord who gives us the Water of Life, the Shepherd who leads us to green pastures and quiet waters, the Way who points us to Heaven. Then we can return, refreshed and ready to work and care again.

On the seventh day, God rested. When He got tired, Jesus took a nap on the back of the boat. When they were overwhelmed with crowds and the scope of their ministry, Jesus invited the disciples to come away to a quiet place, and rest for a while. Much as we try, we are not Superman or Wonder Woman. And God knows they needed rest too. We cannot do everything and we don’t have to do everything. Even Jesus took time apart from the crowds and His disciples -time to refresh and restore; time in solitude and silence; time to commune with God. Wasting time with the Lord is never wasted time. The beauty of wasting time with the Lord is that when we give Him our time, He gives us back so much more. We all need time apart to fill our cup and renew our spirits. May we take that needed time – time for solitude and prayer; and time with family, and with our spiritual family, the Church. May we emulate the God of rest, and remember the words of Jesus, who invited us to come away, and rest for a while.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Accommodation, Hostility or Counter-Cultural

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Malaysia often prides itself as being multi-cultural, a “melting pot” (or some would insist a “boiling cauldron”) of diverse ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious communities. Although everyone acknowledges that culture matters, often, most people have little inkling of what ‘culture’ really means. So what is culture? It’s really hard to give a single word or sentence answer because as most anthropologists would state - culture is invisible, and this is what makes it potentially ‘dangerous,’ because we seldom realise its hold on us. It’s the lenses by which we view the world. And if you are wearing your lenses, you would most likely not notice it until you take it off. Culture is the world in which we are born and the world that is born in us, which means we are talking about everything. So, culture cannot be reduced to any one thing, but instead, it is an entire way of life. It's our perspective on the world. It doesn’t simply give a context for our values, it shapes our values.

But it’s not that we are just born into a culture and we have no choice in the matter. Ultimately culture is self-created. Culture is something we invent, create and fashion. Either the culture of others shapes us or we shape it. That is why, though we live in the midst of a larger ‘mainstream’ culture, we can choose to live by different cultural standards or values. The vexing questions that are relevant to us: How should we Christians respond to the broader mainstream culture? In a culture increasingly hostile to religion, should Christians retreat or engage?

Let’s consider our different options.

The first way is accommodation. This is probably the largest threat and temptation for Christians today. In an effort to appeal to outsiders, in seeking to be “relevant”, in wanting to “fit in” and not be ostracised, some Christians simply copy culture. They become a Xerox of what they perceive as hip, in the hope that people will perceive them as “cool” and give them a chance. This ranges from the music we sing in the liturgy to moral accommodations of the latest fad in lifestyle. Unfortunately, this pursuit of staying relevant removes the Church from its necessary anchor to both Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Eventually, accommodating ultimately means compromising certain values. Something has to give (and it’s usually the Church’s traditional teachings)! This is a recipe for disaster. You see, Christians are not meant to fit. In fact, we should naturally feel out of place in any larger society. We were not made for this world. We were made to pass through it. Our future, of course, is going to depend on what we do now. This world is not irrelevant. It is the place where God wants us to work, out of our selfishness into generosity and self-sacrifice. If we do that, we have the promise of the eternal citizenship in heaven, which is what life is all about now.

The other end of the spectrum is hostility. This could work out in two different but related responses. The first is separatism –responding to the mainstream culture with condemnation and retreat. Removing ourselves far away from the corruption of culture with the hope that we will not be tainted. But Christians who remove themselves from the world in hopes of self-preservation fail to realise that true cultural separation is impossible. More importantly, separation ignores the duty we’ve been given, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The second would be to adopt an antagonistic position. Some Christians see little in the current culture worth redeeming and have decided to fight against almost everything culture promotes. Offended by the current cultural disposition, they want to flip over the tables of society, instead of negotiating the difficult terrain of working it out from within. They are great at pointing out the problems of society, but rarely offer good or practical solutions.

Finally, we are presented with the third option. Being countercultural. Christians are not called to be separatists, antagonists, or striving to be “relevant.” Yes, we were never meant to “fit in” but we are also called to shine as lights in the darkness and that cannot be possible if it is hidden beneath a basket or used to burn the world. Being lights, the world would often feel the discomfort of being around us, as lights tend to reveal the cobwebs and dusty corners that are in need of cleaning. Christians should see themselves as salt, preserving agents actively working for restoration in the middle of a decaying culture while availing of Christ’s redeeming power to work through them. We are called to be prophetic witnesses swimming against the current, denouncing deception and false prophets. We understand that by faithfully living out our Christian faith, we have to and must fight against the cultural norms and often flow counter to the cultural tide. This is where we belong – in the world but not of the world - right where God has placed us – fitting into God’s plans rather than that of man.

The readings today provide us with great examples of prophetic counter-culturalism. First, we have the example of the Prophet Amos, who hailed from the southern Kingdom of Judah, called by God to denounce the moral rot of the Kingdom of Israel in the North that had fallen into sin because of accommodating and assimilating the values of its pagan neighbours. Likewise, we see in the gospel, the Twelve being sent out on mission and called to live a prophetic life that would ultimately lead to their estrangement from society. Being Christ’s followers they would have to follow Him into the margins of society. Their lifestyle is going to be prophetically counter-cultural – a witness to Christ’s radical dependence on God. For to be truly counter-cultural, one truly needs to be Christ-like. We cannot convey anything related to the truth of Christ apart from reflecting Christ Himself. Jesus Christ flipped the world upside down; He was counter-cultural then and He still remains so today. He gave us a depth of understanding, a challenge to become fully human, and a way to exist by loving others with complete abandon. He told us if someone hits you, turn the other cheek. He said to love those who hate us. He told us to love the outcast, to give away all you have, to love beyond the way our culture “loves” others. He asks us to take up our cross and to be crucified in His name.

A commitment to being countercultural rather than being removed or “relevant” isn’t always easy. Living differently can be hard but it is possible with the grace of God. As the apostle Peter encourages, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:14-15) St Peter offers three simple principles in living counter-cultural lives in a world where we are “strangers”: courage, clarity, and civility. In other words, it’s not enough for us to have the courage to stand up for what we believe. We also must work hard, study, and understand what it is we are trying to communicate. What’s more, we should do it with gentleness and grace.

We are foreigners and exiles because we have been born anew into a new homeland. We are prophets who are tasked to provide a vision that goes beyond the horizon of this world. But being members of another kingdom makes us outsiders here on earth. We have become strangers because we have become strange. Our values, lifestyle, and priorities will always be radically different from the surrounding culture. Our faith makes us strangers in our own land. We do not fit in. We are not meant to. We are on the margins, just like the poor and the weak. But that will be our redemption because Christ awaits us in the margins too!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Familiarity breeds Contempt

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

“Familiarity breeds contempt.” It is a well-known maxim that goes all the way back to Publius the Syrian, who lived in 2 BC. The entire caption reads, “Familiarity breeds contempt … while rarity wins admiration.” Not to be upstaged, the ever witty Mark Twain once wrote, “familiarity breeds contempt … and children.”  

In the gospel we are told that our Lord’s reputation for attracting large crowds, His dynamic preaching, His astounding miracles had little effect on His own townspeople – they were not impressed. Rather, they began to mumble about the improbability of this since He was just an ordinary home boy, and He was certainly no better than anyone else in town. “This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too are they not here with us?” This led them to be contemptuous of His claims. To them, the Lord was a little more than an upstart. They had expected at least a rabbi, professionally trained for years in Scripture, to preach.  They hardly expected a sermon from a mere carpenter, who could have given them a lesson in woodwork, but certainly, not one qualified to speak to them about loftier subjects. So they closed their hearts to His message and to the possibility that God was indeed working in and through Him.  Yes, Jesus is truly and fully man. But He is also fully God. The Incarnation does not efface or render useless or outmoded the notion of the sacred.  On the contrary, the Incarnation makes the mundane sacred, holy and divine.

Such evidence of contemptuous familiarity is not just a thing of the past. It can also be found in this day and age.  Perhaps, we are witnessing a similar contempt of our Lord, in the lost of the sense of the sacred, especially in the liturgy. The cloud of incense is no longer an offering of worship to God but a cause of asphyxiation. Preaching becomes a chore when the Word of God becomes over familiar. The words of consecration become droning and uncomfortably lengthy. Hymns, sacred vessels, the bread and wine, vestments, every corner of the sanctuary, every word, every gesture of the divine liturgy becomes familiar, and a commonplace. Instead of mystery we see only cobwebs. Instead of order and beauty in the serving, we see only faults.  Indeed, nothing is sacred anymore in today’s modern climate. Eventually when the sense of the sacred is lost, we are left with a barren liturgy and a symbol-less Catholicism.

In the last few decades, we have witnessed a widespread decline in the “sense of the sacred” in many areas of culture and society, and even within the Church. There are many different causes for this loss. One of the main reasons is of course the growing contemptuous familiarity we have with the sacred.  This growing culture of contempt ranges from the subtle to the flagrant. There is nothing that cannot be turned into a parody, a point of mockery: the puns and jokes derived from scripture, the comical presentation of clerics and nuns or the mockery of piety and religious devotion, with a suggestion that these are symptoms of mental illness.

More flagrant is the manner in which our celebration of the sacred Liturgy has been transformed into something entertaining, marked by a greater casualness and carelessness that is diametrically opposed to the spirit of Liturgy. In spite of the insistence that there should be a proper decorum for church attire,  very few parishes have made some effort to move away from the banal music, instead “hymns” are chosen to placate the secular taste of various sectors of the parish. It’s no wonder the call to “dress properly” generally falls on deaf ears. If one can’t tell the difference between the music you hear at a party with that sung in church, can you blame anyone for not being able to make the distinction when it comes to dressing?

I believe that we have to assume the blame for this culture of contempt and for the loss of the sense of the sacred. We have spent so much time and effort trying to make the Church appealing to our people by making it feel like home, creating space where people feel welcomed and comfortable. This is a grave mistake. Just like the role of a prophet, the liturgy is not designed to make us “feel at home,” at least not in the sense that we feel comfortable behaving the way we do at home while at Church, that is, slippers off, pants down etc. The liturgy is meant to wake us up from our complacent stupour and shake us out of the lull of familiarity. It will naturally feel uncomfortable as the liturgy cuts us off from the intoxicating odour of the world.

But stepping into Church should open up our sense to a new experience, it should expand our vision beyond this world. We should be made to exhale with wonder as we step out from one world and enter another the moment we pass through those doors. It should bring us to quiet attention. It should bring us to our knees. Sacred music, instead of entertaining us, should lift our gaze to the heavens wondering where it could possibly be coming from. Shining threads woven into the priest's vestments should give us a glimpse of the magnificent beauty of the celestial court. Rays sifting through stained glass in varied hues illuminate the story of our faith. Bells that ring out and call us to be mindful that something sacred is happening here. Yes, churches are not meant to make us feel at home, at least not our homes here. Our Churches are meant to elevate our senses beyond this world, and give us eyes to see and ears to hear the things of eternal significance. Stepping into Church should inspire a sense of our heavenly home, not this earthly one.  Pope Francis reminds us that “the liturgy is to really enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery and to be in the mystery.”

The importance of having a sense of the sacred is simply this—if one does not appreciate holy things, one will eventually lose everything. Without reverence, the person will grow increasingly casual in attitude and lax in conduct. His feeling of accountability to God will diminish and then be entirely forgotten. Where God and His law are mocked and despised, it is only natural that morality too will be expelled from the public sphere. Where God is not loved and adored, there can be no surprise that nothing else is sacred. When God is blasphemed, as He is today, it should not be shocking that people mistreat others. Nothing will be safe. Nothing will be stable. Nothing will be sacred anymore.

There is a Latin maxim that addresses the centrality of worship in the life, identity and mission of the Church; “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi”. The phrase in Latin literally means the law of prayer ("the way we worship") shapes the law of belief ("what we believe") which ultimately influences the way (law) we live. How we worship not only reveals and guards what we believe but guides us in how we live our Christian faith and fulfill our Christian mission in the world. There is a reciprocity between worship and life. Worship is the heart of the Christian vocation.

This Sunday, as you sit in your familiar pew, singing songs and confessing creeds and praying prayers that are probably all very familiar to you, don’t rush.  Ease from running to jogging, to walking, to kneeling and then, soak in the loveliness of the words that fall from your lips.  And, instead of contempt, familiarity with the sacred should breed something quite different, something quite beautiful, a comprehension of a divine love for you that knows no bounds.