Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thursday in the 11th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Effective Christian Living

Readings: Sirach 48:1-14; Psalms 97:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7; Matthew 6:7-15
Picture: CC Michael Cowan

Quite some years ago, someone wrote a self-help book that became something of a classic. It spawned numerous conferences and seminars, and its popularity continues on even till today. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People made its author, Stephen Covey, world-famous. Recently Covey has written yet another book – The 8th Habit: from effectiveness to greatness. But what, we might wonder, does it mean to be effective? What does effectiveness look like? Whatever it might mean in the secular realm, our readings today invite us to contemplate what effectiveness looks like in the scriptures.

After having listened, over the past few days, to key episodes in the story of Elijah, our first reading today offers us a summary of the prophet’s life. It’s quite indisputable that what we find here is an effective life. But what makes it effective? What does effectiveness look like? At first glance, what may strike us is how busy Elijah was. His was clearly a life filled with activity. He shut up the heavens and proclaimed a famine. He called down rain. He raised the dead. He anointed prophets and kings. He was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. And, as if all this wasn’t enough, his prophetic activity continued even after he was dead! An image that comes to mind is that of a skater, artfully and acrobatically covering every inch of ice. Is such frenetic activity truly all that effectiveness means?

The gospel helps to deepen our reflection by presenting us with Jesus’ instruction regarding effective prayer. In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do. What makes prayer effective is not the use of many words. We don’t have to imitate an ice-skater and try to cover everything. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Instead, Jesus offers a prayer that is as striking in its simplicity as it is surprising in its depth. For what makes the Lord’s Prayer effective is its expression of the basic desires that move every human heart. In a world in which every manner of danger lurks, we are taught to pray for divine protection, especially from temptation. In a world plagued by conflict and division, we pray for reconciliation, with God and with one another. In a world where many are hungry, we pray for our daily bread.

Indeed, if we find ourselves merely mouthing the words of this prayer by rote, without being conscious of the deep desires that they express on our behalf, is it not because we have simply allowed the many things with which we fill our lives to numb us to our most profound yearnings? And what is the deepest of these desires, the most fundamental of these yearnings, if not the wish for our all-powerful and all-loving God to reign over all creation? Your kingdom come… This is what effective prayer looks like. Not so much a skater anxiously skimming over the surface of the ice, but a deep-sea diver plumbing the profound depths of the human heart, and resonating there with the will of God for all creation.

Might not the same be said of effective Christian living? Could it be that what made Elijah effective was not so much his busy-ness, but the fact that he was led by God to plumb the depths of his own longing, and lived out his life accordingly? Do we not recall, for example – in addition to his awe-inspiring deeds at Carmel and Gilgal – his profound experiences at the Wadi Cherith and Mount Horeb? Isn’t Elijah’s skill as a skater rooted in his experiences as a deep-sea diver?

A final image comes to mind as we bring our reflection to a close. It comes from the funeral of the late Pope John Paul II. In the vastness of the Square of St. Peter, surrounded respectfully by thousands, lies a lone cypress-wood coffin. And, placed above it, the pages of the Holy Scriptures, gently fluttering in the breeze. So startling in its simplicity, yet so subtly eloquent in its silence. Even in death his body prophesied…

How is the Lord helping us to live effective Christian lives today?

1 comment:

  1. Society often confuses efficiency with effectiveness, doing things 'right' as against doing the right thing. Some of us are even obsessed about doing things right at the expense of all else.

    The devotional among us vouch by their fervent recitation of set prayers. To them, this is effective prayer. I have a problem with set prayers because my mind wanders easily. To me, prayer is effective to the extent that God has communicated with us - and we have 'heard' Him. As Jesus says, even before we articulate our needs, our Father in heaven already knows them. And the more we attune ourselves to God 'speaking' to us, the sooner (and more enduring) the conversion.

    Finally, Christian effectiveness. The late Pope John Paul II's and Blessed Mother Teresa's impact on the world were mega-scale. They made full use of their God-given talents and opportunities to make God real in the world. Many of us are not called to witness as spectacularly, but nonetheless we all have our own talents, and it is up to us to exploit the opportunities to influence the small world around us.

    St Ignatius, pray for us.