Sunday, May 28, 2017

From Security Blankets to the Upper Room

7th Sunday of Easter (A)

Pictures: cc Tom SimpsonCaren Pilgrim

My dear friends, do you know who Linus van Pelt is? Does the name ring a bell for you at all? Some of us may remember that Linus is a character from the comic strip Peanuts. He’s the kid who’s usually seen holding a blanket to his cheek, while sucking his thumb. Do you know why Linus does this? Why he relies so much on his blanket and on his thumb?

I’m not sure. But I imagine it’s probably the same reason why parents place pacifiers in their babies’ mouths. Or a pillow by their side. Or, these days, if the child is a little older, a smartphone in its hands. Parents do this usually when the child is crying for attention, and the parents are too busy to see to it immediately. The thumb and the blanket, the pacifier, the pillow, and the phone, are all handy substitutes for what the child really wants: parental attention and affection. Linus and his blanket gives us a convenient image of our usual approach to coping with absence. How do I usually react when something I want is missing? Well, I simply try to substitute it with something else.

But what happens if what I really want, what I’m actually looking for, what I absolutely cannot live without, is God? God’s attention and affection, God’s presence and action, in my life. And what if, for some reason, I cannot seem to find it?  Or do not know how? Perhaps I’m not aware of ever having experienced it before. Or, having experienced it before, I now seem to have lost it. What to do? How to react when God’s absence leaves a huge hole in my heart. A deep hunger and a burning thirst that cries out for satisfaction. How do I cope with God’s apparent absence in my life?

The usual reaction is, of course, that of Linus. I try to replace God with someone else. Or something else. Like a friend or a spouse. A car or a handbag. A career or even a ministry. I spend my life seeking wealth and success, luxury and comfort, popularity and affirmation… All of which, of course, doesn’t get me very far. For one thing, this kind of attempt at substitution also goes by another name. It’s called idolatry. The sin of worshipping false gods. And not only is idolatry a sin, we also believe that it is always doomed to fail. For, as St. Augustine puts it so well, you have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you…

So, if substitution doesn’t work, what else can I do? How else can I cope with the apparent absence of God in my life? When I’m feeling lonely and depressed, restless and confused, lost and abandoned. This, my dear friends, is the question that our prayers and readings help us to ponder, on this second last Sunday of the Easter Season. This is probably what the friends and family of Jesus, including Mary his mother, are grappling with in the first reading. For, at this point in the story, Jesus has just been taken up into heaven. He is no longer present to his disciples in the same way that he was before. So what do they do? How do they cope with his absence?

Rather than trying to replace the Lord with something or someone else. Instead of immediately rushing off to distract themselves with some other form of anxious activity. We’re told that they first engage in a particular process. They come together in the upper room, and they join in continuous prayer. Now we’re not told exactly how they pray. What words they utter. What songs they sing. But we can perhaps imagine what sentiments they must be expressing.

For isn’t it likely that their prayer is very similar to what we ourselves offered earlier in our Collect or opening prayer? We begged God to allow us to experience… until the end of the world, the Saviour’s abiding presence among us… Isn’t it likely that this was their prayer too? A prayer to experience the Lord’s abiding presence, even in the face of his apparent absence? A prayer offered not just to fulfil an empty obligation. But one that springs from the same deep hunger and burning thirst expressed so beautifully in the responsorial psalm. There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life…

And we know, of course, the result of this prayer in the first reading. It results in the feast we will celebrate next Sunday: Pentecost. The heartfelt prayer is answered. The Holy Spirit descends, like a mighty wind and a great ball of fire, upon those privileged people gathered in the upper room. Giving them all a renewed experience of God’s powerful presence.

And yet, my dear friends, I’m not sure about you, but there is something about that spectacular scene that sometimes makes me feel a little discouraged. For how often can I claim to experience God in such a dramatic, earth-shattering way? Thankfully, our other readings show us a broader view. In the second reading, we’re told that God’s presence is felt not just by those who experience spectacular success. But also by those who encounter painful failure. Especially by those who suffer for being a Christian. As our brothers and sisters of the Coptic Church in Egypt are currently suffering. For it is a blessing for you when they insult you–or throw bombs and spray bullets at you–for bearing the name of Christ, because it means that you have the Spirit of glory, the Spirit of God resting on you. You are experiencing the presence of God.

The same presence that Jesus talks about in his prayer to his Father in the gospel. The same glory that, in John’s gospel, is most clearly seen when Jesus hangs dead on the Cross. To be able to recognise God’s glorious presence even and especially in the sufferings that one may have to endure for being a Christian. To accept ridicule, for example, for refusing to run the rat race. Or for insisting on treating others kindly, even when we know they will take advantage of our kindness. For Jesus, this is nothing less than eternal life. To know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

This, my dear friends, is how we Christians are to respond when God seems absent. Instead of anxiously looking for substitutes, we are to immerse ourselves together in prayer. As we are doing here at this Mass. Prayer that leads eventually to recognition. A renewed sense of God’s powerful presence. This is the truly Christian way of responding to the trials of life.

My dear sisters and brothers, how are you being called to move from clinging anxiously to security blankets to praying together in the upper room today?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Games We Play

6th Sunday of Easter (A)

Picture: cc Lubomir Simek

My dear friends, do you play any games? What games do you play? Perhaps some of us may play sporting games, like soccer, or tennis, or golf. Some others may play computer games. Either on our own or with others. Online or off. Or how about games of chance? Like poker or blackjack. Bingo or mahjong? But then again, especially here in Singapore, I’m sure there are also many of us, myself included, who will say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?!

When we say this, we are, of course, thinking of games as nothing more than pastimes. Something we engage in only when we have nothing else better to do. And yet, isn’t it true that it is possible to play games not just as pastimes, but with great passion? Aren’t there games that can actually take over a person’s whole life? For better or for worse?

I’m reminded of that news report on BBC Travel a few days ago, which tells the story of Marottichal, a remote jungle village in northern Kerala state, in India. Where the game of chess has become hugely popular. Out of a population of 6,000, it is said that no less than 4,000 people in Marottichal play chess everyday. Indeed, the report paints a warm inviting picture of groups of people gathered all over town to play chess. Or to watch it being played. They gather in the teashop and at the bus stop. At home and in school. How exactly did this passion for chess begin?

Apparently, about 50 years ago, a man named Unnikrishnan introduced the game to the village. Where it spread, with very positive effects. For, before the arrival of chess, people were playing games of a different, much darker, sort. The village was rife with alcoholism and illicit gambling. Chess changed all that. The report says that miraculously the game’s popularity flourished while drinking and gambling declined. Asked to account for the game’s popularity, Unnikrishnan credits its close connection with life. Chess helps us overcome difficulties and sufferings, he says. On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life.

The experience of this Indian village of Marottichal is not unlike what we find in that unnamed Samaritan town in the first reading. Just as Unnikrishnan introduced a new game of chess, so too does Philip proclaim the new message of the gospel. And the Samaritans respond in much the same way that the villagers of Marottichal did. And with similar effects. We’re told that they united in welcoming the message Philip preached. As a result, miracles begin to happen. Darker, more sinister, games are given up. Their bad effects overcome. Unclean spirits are driven out. Paralytics and cripples find healing. This is what happens when a good game is adopted with wholehearted passion. When it is allowed to become more than just a pastime. When the gospel is generously received, it changes lives. Bringing with it great rejoicing.

Isn’t this also what the second reading encourages us to do? To view the message of the gospel not just as a meaningless pastime. An irritating distraction from the more serious business of daily life. Something we grudgingly engage in only one or two hours a week. Instead, we are told to reverence the Lord Christ in our hearts. To welcome the Crucified and Risen One, much  like how the villagers of Marottichal embraced the game of chess. With open heart and unrestrained passion. Allowing Christ to gradually take over every aspect of our lives. Filling even our sufferings with meaning. For if it is the will of God that you should suffer, it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong.

And, when we do this, when we generously receive the Lord with passion, we experience something truly miraculous. The same thing that Jesus promises his disciples in the gospel. The experience of the ongoing presence and power of Christ himself. And of his Spirit. A presence and a power that remains with us even and especially in times of darkness. When we may feel like how the disciples must have felt when Jesus was taken away from them. Like orphans. Abandoned and alone. Left to face life’s challenges on our own. But we are not alone. The presence and power of Christ, in the Spirit, remains. Assuring us that, even in our darkest moments, we continue to be held in the warmth of God’s gentle embrace.

But this experience is promised to those who do their best to remain in the love of the Lord. By wholeheartedly keeping his commandments. That is, by passionately playing the gracious game that Jesus came to teach us all. The same serious yet joyful game that we gather to play at every Mass. The powerful miracle-working game of the Lord’s Dying and Rising. We experience God’s presence in our lives when we play this game with at least the same passion with which those villagers of Marottichal play chess. When we allow its principles to rule our hearts. The same principles that the Lord embodied when he laid down his life so that we might live. We need to let these same principles, this same Lord, permeate our lives. Order our priorities. Enrich our relationships. Heal our hurts. So that we can reach out and share that same joyful healing, that same powerful presence, with others around us.

Of course, there will very likely be those of us who may be tempted to say, Aiyah, so busy! Where got time to play games?! And yet, isn’t it true that even those of us who may feel this way are actually playing games of a certain sort? Even if we may not think of them as games? All the different things that keep us so very busy at every moment of every day. Apparently serious things that supposedly have to do with real life. By busying ourselves in this way, aren’t we playing by the rules of certain unacknowledged games? Games that may have to do with buying and selling, for example. Or popularity and pride. Or insecurity and anxiety. Envy and greed. Games that may suck out of us the very joy of life. Leaving us feeling empty and broken. Without quite understanding why.

Could it be that it is especially for people like this that Christ died and rose again? Could it be that this is why we celebrate Easter? To allow ourselves to re-learn the game of Christ and of his Cross. To re-experience the great rejoicing that comes to those who play it with passion. To re-commit ourselves to sharing its powerful miraculous effects with those around us.

My dear friends, on this 6th Sunday of Easter, what games are you playing today?

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Between Registration & Recognition

4th Sunday of Easter (A) (Good Shepherd Sunday)

My dear friends, do you use email or social media? I expect that many of us do. And we know how easy it is to get an email or social media account. All you have to do is to register. Go to a website, or download an app, and submit some personal information. That’s all it takes. So simple! But isn’t it also true that, increasingly, something else is required of us? Do you know what it is?

Have you ever received an email claiming to be from someone you know, who’s facing a travel emergency, and needs you to send money overseas immediately? Or how about messages that appear to be from Google, or Facebook, or your bank, asking you to provide the password to your account? As you know, such messages are scams. Brazen attempts to steal our money, or personal information, or both.

Those of us who’ve ever received such messages, and even more so, those who’ve actually fallen victim to them, will know very well that using email and social media requires more than just a one-time registration. It also requires ongoing recognition. The ability to tell the difference between the true and the false. The authentic message and the cunning scam.

We find something like that in our faith as well. What does it take to become a Christian? In the first reading, Peter tells his listeners that they have to repent, to be baptised, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Of course, these days, people are asked to first go through the RCIA. But is that all it takes to become a Christian? Just to go through a kind of registration process? The answer, as you might expect, is no. As important as it is to be baptised, something more is required. Something that Jesus highlights in the gospel.

The Lord says that he is the shepherd of the flock, and that, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. And then he goes ahead of them. And the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognise the voice of strangers. For Jesus, the defining characteristic of his sheep is the ability to distinguish between the voice of the Shepherd and that of the stranger. To follow the one and to run away from the other.

So that, as with email or social media, to be a Christian involves more than just registration. More than just being baptised. It also requires recognition. For isn’t it true that, in our daily living, we are bombarded by many different voices, moving us to feel and to do many different things? Some of these voices come from outside us. They are the voices of our family, asking for care and concern… The voices of advertising, seducing us to spend our money… The voices of capitalist society, telling us we need to be more successful, to keep climbing the corporate ladder… The voices of the poor, the sick, the refugees, the polluted earth, crying to us to spare them a thought and a prayer, if not a dollar or two…

Some other voices come from within us. Perhaps as a reaction to what we hear from without. These interior voices also move us to feel and to do various things. They may tell us we are not good, or smart, or rich, or popular enough… Or they may remind us of how much we have been blessed, how grateful we ought to be… Or they may convict us of the wrongs we have committed, the ways in which we have hurt or neglected others, and even ourselves. Of how, in our frantic attention to practical things, we have forgotten to consider their deeper meaning. And so pay the price in boredom and anxiety, in restlessness and endless worry…

To be a Christian is to be aware of how these various voices affect us. How they move us. To be able to recognise, from among them all, the gentle yet insistent voice of the Shepherd, calling us out from the desert lands of selfishness to the green pastures of love. Where a banquet is prepared for us. The same banquet made present here in this Eucharist we celebrate. The banquet catered by the Cross of Christ. In which we are fed with his Body and Blood. Filled and enlightened by his Word. Moved to spend our lives in loving praise and worship and service of God and neighbour.

Here at this banquet we find the criteria by which to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Here we know the truth of what is written in the second reading. That, even though he was persecuted and crucified, Jesus did and spoke no wrong. Nor did he retaliate. Instead, he patiently placed his trust in God. Lovingly laying down his life for our healing. Mercifully gathering to himself all his scattered sheep. This is how we distinguish the Shepherd from the stranger. By his Love.

And it is when we pay close attention to this Love, and all its implications, that we then experience within ourselves the intimate interior promptings of the Shepherd’s call. We begin to recognise what the voice of the Shepherd really sounds like, when he speaks from deep within us. Which is what the people in the first reading experienced too. After hearing Peter’s homily, something happened to them interiorly. We’re told that they were cut to the heart. And not only does this experience move them to repent and to receive baptism, it also becomes for them a touchstone by which to recognise and to follow the Shepherd’s voice in their daily living.

All of which we do well to remember especially today, when we traditionally promote and pray for more vocations to the priestly and religious life. Typically, we promote vocations not unlike how others might market a product. By generating publicity. Distributing pamphlets and taking out advertisements in the Catholic News.  In this way, we hope to make our voice heard above the noise of the marketplace. But could it be that what we need to do even more is to help our young people to recognise the voice of the Shepherd, already speaking to them so persuasively from without and from within? To distinguish this voice from the many others that scream out at them from all sides? And could it be that we can only do this by first learning and practising it ourselves? Could it be that we promote vocations more effectively by first finding and living our own respective callings with ever greater generosity and authenticity? As the old Latin saying goes, nemo dat quod non habet. No one gives what one does not have.

My dear friends, strangely enough, like social media, the Christian life requires not just registration, but also recognition. What must we do to better recognise and follow Christ our Crucified and Risen Lord today?