Sunday, July 28, 2013

Between the Packaging and the Present

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Steve Baty

Sisters and brothers, do you ever receive gifts from others? What does it feel like? Every year, around Christmastime, my community receives gifts from very kind and generous people. Usually we get food hampers. Which we appreciate very much. Typically, the food is packed in the usual way. In a basket of some kind, wrapped in cellophane. But, some years ago, we received hampers that were packed differently. Not in the usual flimsy baskets. But in solid boxes. I still remember one hamper. It was packed in a square bright-red box that looked like a mini suitcase. Complete with a little handle. And two golden fasteners. One on each side. The bag looked so attractive, that I saved it. In fact I still have it today. I use it for storing things. But here’s the sad thing. I may still have the box. But I can no longer remember anything about the food that was inside it. Nor about the person who gave it to us.

What do you think about that, sisters and brothers? To pay so much attention to the packaging, but to forget all about the present itself? Imagine for a moment that you were the one who gave me that hamper. How would you feel? I’m not sure. Maybe you’d be happy that I at least found some use for the box. But what if I had saved only the box, and threw out all the food that came in it. How would you feel then? Probably not so good. Not so good, because I did not properly appreciate your present. And not just your present, but also you yourself. After all, isn’t that the reason why we call them presents? Because we somehow make ourselves present in the things we give to others? As the poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote: You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. If this is true, then to receive a gift well, it’s important not to confuse the packaging for the present. The box may be attractive. But the food is the real gift. And not just the food, but the giver, whom the food represents.

To receive a gift well, we must learn not to confuse the packaging for the present. And it’s important to keep this lesson in mind today, because it can help us to understand something that our Mass readings are trying to teach us. As you know, today’s readings are all about prayer. And not just any kind of prayer. But good prayer. Effective prayer. This is what the disciples are asking Jesus about in the gospel. Lord, teach us how to pray… And not just to pray in any ordinary way. But to pray as the Lord Himself prays. To pray so that God will listen to them. This then is the question, sisters and brothers, that we are being invited to ponder today: How can we pray well? Pray effectively?

The answer Jesus gives is surprisingly simple. Shockingly clear. Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you... In other words, if you want to pray well, if you wish to pray effectively, then don’t give up. Just keep on praying. Just keep on asking... searching... knocking... This is what Abraham does in the first reading. In his prayer–in his conversation with God–Abraham does not give up. He keeps on pestering God until he finally gets God to agree to give him what he wants. So this is the answer: Good prayer, effective prayer, is persistent prayer. As simple as that.

But is it really so simple? Is it really true that all I need to do to get what I want is to keep asking God for it? Is prayer really only about persistence? If that’s the case, then what do you think will happen if I keep praying for a BMW 7 series? And what if I made a 9-day novena for that intention? Or, better, what if I prayed for it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Do you think I will get it? Of course, I’m just trying to be funny. I don’t really need a BMW. But what if I were to pray for something more serious than that? Like a better job. Or a good spouse? Or a baby? Or better results in my studies? Or for the conversion of a child of mine who has gone astray? And what if I were to pray for days and months. Even for years. And still not get it? What then? Does it mean that our readings are wrong?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I think we find the answer in  something in our readings that we haven’t mentioned yet. Something important. Especially here in Luke’s gospel, although Jesus tells us to ask, to search, and to knock, he doesn’t really say that we will get exactly what we ask for. He doesn’t say that if I ask for a BMW, that is what I will get. What Jesus says, instead, is that the Father will give me the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is, of course, nothing less than God’s very Presence. This is what Jesus is promising us. This is the fruit of good prayer. If we keep praying, we will receive God’s Presence. This is the Gift that God is always eager to give to us. God wants to give us Himself. God wants to give us His Presence in the Holy Spirit. And not just in the Holy Spirit, but also through Christ Jesus our Lord. As the second reading reminds us, it is in the dying and rising of this same Jesus that God has forgiven us all our sins. In Christ, God has cancelled every record of the debt that we had to pay; he has done away with it by nailing it to the cross.

This is the precious Gift that God has given to us, and continues to give to us even today. Here and now, as we gather around the altar at this Mass. This is the priceless Present that God keeps offering us. A present that we learn to receive by praying without giving up. I may begin, for example, by praying persistently for a BMW. And, hopefully, as I continue to pray, God will help me to see that I don’t really need a BMW. Hopefully, God will help me to realise that what I need more is to feel secure in God’s love and care for me. What I need more is to experience God’s Presence, in and around me. And then to be moved to share that Presence with others. The BMW I may not get. (Probably won’t get.) But a deeper relationship with God I will. Simply by persisting in prayer. By spending quality time conversing with the Lord. Bringing to God what is in my heart. And listening to what God wishes to say to me.

But, even so, it’s not always easy to see this. Especially if I keep insisting on getting the BMW. If I keep focusing my attention on the things that I want. Instead of on the God who wants to be with me. The God who is always and already present to me. Caring for me. Protecting me. To do this is very much like what I was doing with the Christmas hamper. It is to confuse the packaging for the present. It is to fail to do what we were asking God to help us to do at the beginning of this Mass. You will remember that, in our opening prayer just now, we asked God to grant that we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that very often what we pray for are the things that pass? And that’s fine. That’s all right. We do need these things after all. Even if they do eventually pass. Even Jesus teaches us to pray to the Father for our daily bread. But could it be that all these things are only the packaging? Could it be that the true Present that God wants to give us, the actual Gift that God has already presented to us, is really God’s own Self? Through the Son, in the Spirit? This above all is the Gift that never passes away. This beyond all else is the Good that ever endures. And it is this that God is ever willing to bless us with always.

Sisters and brothers, how can we pray so as to accept more readily, to appreciate more deeply, this God, who continues to make of Himself a priceless Present to us today?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Between 4 & 5-Star Service

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Roving I

Sisters and brothers, when you visit a store, or a hotel, or a restaurant, what kind of service impresses you? What are the kinds of things the staff might do that might make you sit up and take notice? In a good way. What are the actions that might even make you consider writing a note of thanks and praise? What are the things that make the difference for you between 4-star and 5-star service?

For me, the difference lies in the distinction between what I call provision and reception. What do I mean? I may be wrong, but I suspect that many of us often think of service in terms only of provision. We speak, after all, of providing a service. And that is, in a way, accurate. Good service does mean providing something. And providing it well. If I go to a restaurant, for example, I expect the food to be tasty, and served in a timely fashion. I expect the wait staff to be polite and knowledgeable. I expect the premises to be clean. The ambience inviting. These are things I expect a good restaurant to provide. And I judge the quality of service according to how well such provisions are made.

But that’s what I might expect from any good restaurant. Those are things that any reasonable patron might expect. Usually. Ordinarily. But what’s the difference between a good restaurant like that and an even better one? What’s the difference between 4-star and 5-star service? Perhaps we may think that the difference lies in the provision of even more things. Like maybe offering lemonade instead of plain water when the customer walks in. But I’m not sure. I think the difference lies rather in how well the restaurant responds not just to the usual, but to the unusual. Not just to the ordinary, but to the out-of-the-ordinary. If I have a certain food allergy, for example. How able and willing is the staff to change the menu to cater to my need? For me, great service is not just about providing more and more things. But providing what truly meets the needs and desires of the one being served. Truly receiving the individual patron. Who may have very particular, even unusual needs. 4-star service may be only about provision. But 5-star service is really about reception.

I mention this because, as you probably have noticed, our Mass readings for today are all about service. In the first reading, when God appears in the form of three unknown travellers, Abraham welcomes them in these words: Do not pass your servant by. In the second reading, Paul speaks about how he became the servant of the church. And, in the gospel, we hear about how Martha was distracted with all the serving. What’s more, our readings are not only about service rendered to just anyone. Our readings invite us to reflect on service rendered to God. The divine Patron. Also, our readings are not just about ordinary service. Not just about good service. But better service. Greater service. 5-star service.

At first glance, it may seem that service of God is really only a matter of provision. And even more provision. The first reading, for example, gives us a very detailed description of the many things that Abraham provided for his three guests. He offered them bread and meat. Cream and milk. And then he stood by and waited upon them while they ate. In the second reading, Paul describes his service in terms of a responsibility. God made me responsible, he says, for delivering God’s message to you. For proclaiming to the people, providing them with, God’s good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s service.

And we could probably be forgiven for remaining with this impression–for thinking that service is only about providing–if not for the gospel. For here, the one who seems to be doing her very best to provide for her guest, is precisely the one whom Jesus gently reprimands for offering the less satisfactory service. Martha is doing all the work. And very important work. She is busying herself preparing everything necessary for feeding the Lord. Everything that Abraham does in the first reading. Without Martha’s work, Jesus would go hungry. And yet, the Lord says that it is Mary who has chosen the better part. It is Mary who has provided the greater service.

One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to look beyond the activities of provision to the attentiveness of reception. Let us consider again what exactly it is that makes Abraham’s service stand out in the first reading. Notice the unusual nature of the situation. Notice how God chooses to arrive during the hottest part of the day. A time when people in their right minds would be resting. As Abraham himself appears to have been doing. Sitting by the entrance to his tent. Instead of running around. Working up a sweat. Struggling to put a meal together. And yet, this is exactly what Abraham ends up doing when these unexpected visitors arrive. Abraham responds generously to the very particular needs of his very particular guests. He receives them even though they choose to arrive at a very inconvenient time. Reception and not just provision. This is what makes Abraham’s service greater.

But there’s something even more. Despite the already high level of  hospitality shown by Abraham and his wife Sarah, God calls them to an even greater receptivity. Notice how the reading ends with a promise. Not enough that Abraham should be willing to receive God in the heat of the noonday sun. He and his wife are called to go even further. They, who are long past the age of childbirth, are invited to receive into their hearts an incredible pledge. To receive into their lives an impossible gift. I shall visit you again next year without fail, Abraham is told, and your wife will then have a son. A post-menopausal woman bearing a child. This is an idea that not even Sarah is able to receive. At least not at first. Further on in the book of Genesis, we’re told that she laughed when she heard this. It was simply too incredible to be true. And yet, this was the hospitality that God required of her and her husband. This was the greater service she was being asked to provide. A service she could only perform by first being willing to receive God’s incredible gift.

And isn’t this also what sets Mary apart from Martha in the gospel? Even though it may seem that Mary does nothing useful, she really provides the Lord with the one thing that he needs. The one thing for which he hungers. For Jesus is no ordinary guest. He is God’s greatest gift to us. The gift that wants to be received. The Word-Made-Flesh who yearns, more than anything else, to be heard, and heeded, and lived. By allowing herself to be distracted with all the serving, by all the providing, Martha fails to give the Lord what he wants most of all. Even if she may have provided everything else that an ordinary guest might have required. And so her hospitality remains good. But no more. Mary’s is the better part. Mary’s the 5-star service.

And I suspect, sisters and brothers, that many of us find this difficult to accept. I know I do. Especially because we live here in Singapore. Where everything is about being active, and keeping ourselves ever more busy. Where, when we think of serving God, what often comes to mind are probably thoughts of adding more and more activities to our daily schedule. Or of joining more groups or ministries in the church. Never mind if that’s what God really wants of us. And yet, our readings today remind us that perhaps what we need is first to pay attention to what God might be offering us. First to receive God’s gift. First to listen to God’s call. And, in so doing, to choose the better part.

Sisters and brothers, how might we provide God with what God wants? How might we offer God the truly 5-star service today?