Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mind Your Language

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Alwyn Ladell

My dear friends, do you remember the late, and much beloved, Fr Antoni Ponnudurai? Well, today happens to be the 3rd anniversary of his passing, and I’m reminded of a story he used to tell, from his time as a newly-arrived missionary in Indonesia. He was beginning Mass one day, with the intention of sprinkling the people with holy water. However, seeing that many of them were gathered at the back of the church, he asked them, in his beginners’ Bahasa Indonesia, to please move to the front, so that he could “throw water” on them. At which all the people burst out laughing. It was only later that he discovered the reason for their amusement. Apparently, the Indonesian words he had used to say “throw water” are actually an euphemism for “urinate”.

In addition to being quite funny, this story also illustrates the difficulties of communicating in a foreign tongue, a different language. Which is also something like what we find in our readings today. In the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon be delivered into the hands of men, who will put him to death and, three days later, he will rise again. However, even though the Lord speaks quite plainly, and this is already the second time that he is sharing this distressing news with his disciples, the reading tells us that they did not understand what he said. Why? Why do you think it is so difficult for the disciples to understand the Lord’s words?

I’m not sure. But could it be because Jesus and his disciples are, in a sense, speaking different languages? For the Lord’s decision to freely surrender himself to suffering and death on the cross can only really be understood in the language of loving and merciful self-sacrifice. But the disciples are used to communicating in another, quite different, tongue. Theirs is the language of anxious ambition, and of cut-throat competition. Of constantly having to fight with others, so as to secure one’s place in society. Isn’t this why, soon after learning that their Lord and Master will suffer a painful and shameful death, we find them arguing which of them was the greatest?

And isn’t this also why, the reading begins by telling us that Jesus did not want anyone to know where he and his disciples were, because he was instructing them. The Lord is not just sharing with them a piece of information that is difficult for them to accept. He is actually teaching the disciples to think and speak and act in a whole new way. To use a totally different language from the one with which they are familiar. The one used by the world.

Two different languages, reflecting opposing ways of thinking and speaking and acting. This is also what we find in the first reading. Which speaks to us about the way of the wicked versus the way of the virtuous. On the one hand, the wicked feel so threatened by the virtuous person that they decide to persecute him, to test him with cruelty and with torture, and even to condemn him to a shameful death. In contrast to this violence of the wicked, the virtuous person professes to act always with gentleness and endurance. Trusting that God will take his part and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies.

Deep insecurity leading to violence and conflict, versus trusting confidence producing patient endurance. This is also what we find in the second reading, which presents us with a contrast between the wisdom that comes down from above, as opposed to earthly wisdom from below. Whereas the wisdom from above is kindly and considerate, full of compassion and goodness, leading to peace and holiness. Earthly wisdom is jealous and ambitious, producing disharmony and wickedness, conflict and division.

The reading also goes on to trace this sharp difference in external expression to its inner source deep within the human heart. Speaking to those who use the language of earthly wisdom, the reading asks, Where do these wars and battles between yourselves first start? Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves? You want something and you haven’t got it; so you are prepared to kill. You have an ambition that you cannot satisfy; so you fight to get your way by force. In contrast to this violence and conflict born of anxiety, the reading tells us that peace and holiness come from hearts that trust in the Lord. Hearts secure in the hope that God will grant whatever we need, if only we pray properly. For, in the words of the psalm, the Lord upholds my life.

Profound anxiety and insecurity, leading to violent competition and conflict, versus deep confidence and trust, expressed in gentleness and compassion, and patient endurance even in the face of persecution. This is the stark contrast that our Mass readings propose to us for our prayerful reflection today. Two completely different languages. Two opposing ways of thinking and speaking and acting. And perhaps this contrast serves as a timely reminder for us, especially in light of the conversations that many people in Singapore have been engaged in recently. Conversations relating to a particular piece of criminal legislation, which some are fighting vigorously to repeal, and others just as vigorously to retain. 

I do not propose to consider which, if any, of these positions is the more Christian one. I believe the relevant authority has already provided helpful guidance on this question. But in addition to considering what may be the correct position for Christians to hold, isn’t it just as important, if not even more so, that we also carefully examine the language we use to engage others in conversation? When we speak about an issue as contentious as this, do we use the new heavenly language of gentleness and compassion, rooted in a deep trust in the loving mercy of God for all people? Or do we speak only in the earthly tongue of ambition and competition, born of a profound insecurity? The first way leads to peace and holiness. The other to violence and conflict.

Sisters and brothers, as Christians, we believe that we have been blessed by God in order that we, in our turn, may become a blessing to others. A blessing to society. But in order for us to fulfil this role, we need to take care that we always think and speak and act in the language of Christ. The language of loving self-sacrifice.

My dear friends, the late Fr Ponnudurai’s story teaches us that all it takes is an unfortunate choice of words, an inappropriate use of language, to turn a sprinkling of holy water into a shower of smelly urine. A blessing into a curse. How can we avoid doing the same to others today?

Sunday, September 16, 2018

When Who Determines Where...

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc cncphotos

My dear friends, please allow me first to apologise for the rather distasteful image that I’m about to call to your mind. But imagine for a moment, if you will, that you’ve just finished using the toilet, and as you stand up, a few coins fall out of your pocket, or your purse, and into the bowl. What do you do?… I’m not sure about you, but I’m quite certain that I’d just go ahead and flush the toilet. And maybe, just maybe, check the bowl after that, to see if the coins are still there.

But what if the object you drop is your brand new iPhone X, or your wedding ring? What then? Will you still flush the toilet immediately? Or would you not at least pause to consider the possibility of first sticking your hand into that bowl to fish the object out? Well it depends, doesn’t it? It depends on how valuable that object is to you. What an object means to me determines where I’m willing to go to retrieve it. And the same can be said about people. Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person.

Who often determines where. This, I believe, is also what we find in the gospel. When Jesus asks his disciples the question, who do you say I am?, he is not just asking them to attach the correct title after his name. Jesus, the Christ. What he is really asking them is, what do I mean to you? Who am I to you? And there's a reason why the Lord chooses to pose this question at this point in their relationship. The question who? is meant to prepare them for the question where?.

For the reading tells us that, after asking his disciples the question who?, the Lord goes on to tell them about the terrible things that will soon happen to him. And, although he doesn’t say it in so many words, isn’t Jesus asking his disciples another question? I, the one you acknowledge as the Christ, your Messiah, your Anointed One, I am heading for a very destructive and deadly destination. Far darker and more distasteful than any un-flushed toilet. Do I mean enough to you for you to follow me there? Where are you willing to go to search for me? To remain with me? It’s not difficult to see how the question who? leads into the question where?.

And that’s not all. There is also some irony in this conversation. Irony that we begin to appreciate when we ask ourselves another question. The question why?. Why does Jesus choose to go to the place of destruction and death? Indeed, why is he even walking this earth? Isn’t it because he himself is the hand that our loving and merciful God reaches into our selfish and sinful lives to search for us, to save us?

Although it may seem at first that it is the disciples who have to follow Jesus to a dark and distasteful place, it is actually the Lord who is reaching into their dark lives to save them. Reaching into my dark life to save me. For as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried… (Is 53:4). In Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, God shows me how much God loves me. Unworthy though I am. Giving me the courage and the strength to renounce my sinful egotistical self, to take up my cross for love, and to follow the Lord into the fullness of life.

Which is what makes Jesus the fulfilment of the hope expressed in both the first reading and the psalm. In the reading, the one who is speaking is able to face his trials courageously, because he is convinced that the lord is coming to his help. And the psalmist is able to persevere, even when surrounded by the snares of death, because he firmly believes that he will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living. In whom are these hopes fulfilled, if not in Christ?

Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person. Isn’t this also what we find in the second reading? Contrary to appearances, the distinction being drawn here is not between faith and works, but between living faith, which is shown in good works, and dead faith, which has no works to show. For to have faith is not just to profess belief in a set of abstract principles, but to remain in a loving relationship with the person of Christ. To allow the Lord to mean so much to me that I am willing to recognise and reach out to him in those who most need my help. Even if they may live in conditions as distasteful as an un-flushed toilet.

Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person. Who determines where. Isn’t this an important principle for us to remember especially today? When our church continues to reel from one devastating revelation of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up after another? And when it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that it often feels as though our church, which we dare to believe is the body of Christ, has fallen into an un-flushed toilet?

At a time as dark as this, isn’t it very tempting to give free rein to righteous anger, and to resort to pointing fingers of blame and recrimination? Caring little about whether one’s accusations are justified or not. And conveniently forgetting to consider one’s own part in all this. Isn’t it also tempting to simply walk away in disappointment and disillusionment. To leave this corrupt church where it has fallen? And, incredible though it may seem, isn’t it also tempting to remain oblivious to all that is happening? To carry on like it’s business as usual.

I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but aren’t such reactions no different from flushing the toilet after something of mine has fallen into it? If I can bring myself to do it, it’s only because what has fallen doesn’t mean much to me. For if it does mean something to me, wouldn’t I at least consider trying to retrieve it? Perhaps by bringing my emotional reactions to prayer. By pondering and discussing the relevant issues with others, in the light of God’s Word. By considering how I myself may have contributed, perhaps unknowingly, to the culture of clericalism that allows such unsavoury things to continue. And, eventually, to help initiate whatever steps may be needed to turn the situation around.

My dear sisters and brothers, if it is true that who determines where, then who is the church to you and me? And where do we need to go to help retrieve her from the dark and distasteful place into which she has fallen today?

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Salvation as Flow

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Mass @ FMM Chapel

Picture: cc Oran Viriyincy

My dear sisters, have you ever been stuck in traffic before? Do you know what it feels like? It can be quite frustrating. I may be in a hurry to get to my destination, but the traffic refuses to move. Often this is caused by some kind of obstruction on the road. Perhaps there’s been an accident, or a breakdown, or roadworks, or a fallen tree… What can be done to improve the situation? Well, it’s quite simple, right? Remove the obstruction, and the traffic will flow again. Restoring flow. This is what salvation looks like in a traffic jam.

And not just in a traffic jam, but also in an illness. As you know, in traditional Chinese medicine, good health is believed to come from the smooth flow of qi, or the life-force, in the body. And sickness results when the qi is somehow obstructed. So that treatments like acupuncture aim to remove the obstruction. To restore the smooth flow of qi. As in a traffic jam, so too with bodily illness. Salvation has to do with flow.

The restoration of flow. This is also what what we find in our Mass readings today. In the first reading, in a time of danger and distress, the prophet tells the people to take courage. To not be afraid. For God is coming to save them. And notice what this looks like. Notice how the prophet describes salvation in terms of healing and flow. The opening of blind eyes. The unsealing of deaf ears. The strengthening of lame limbs. The loosening of mute tongues. A renewed flow of live-giving water in dry desert places.

This promise, made in the first reading, finds its fulfilment in the life and ministry of Jesus in the gospel. Jesus, whose name means God saves! Notice how the Lord’s healing of the deaf man who had an impediment in his speech is described in terms of the removal of obstruction, and the restoration of flow. Ephphatha, the Lord says. Be opened! And his ears were opened. The ligament of his tongue was loosened. And the power of hearing and of speech again begins to flow.

All of which is fine and good. Very impressive. But what has it got to do with us, we may ask, with you and with me? Especially those of us who are blessed to be neither blind nor lame. Neither deaf nor dumb. We who live in a land where we can drink freely the water that flows so readily at a convenient turn of a tap. Why should we pay attention to the restoration of flow? Is this really the kind of salvation we need?

The second reading helps us to answer this important question. For it reminds us that there are obstructions that go beyond the physical. The reading speaks against the tendency of making distinctions according to classes of people. To judge others based on how well or how shabbily they are dressed. Can we not say that those who discriminate against people in this way, actually have an impediment in their sight? An obstruction that prevents them from looking at people with the same loving gaze with which God looks at us all? What do such people need, my dear sisters, if not to allow God to restore the flow of God’s love and mercy and hospitality in their lives? So that the same love and mercy and hospitality can then flow out through them to others.

The restoration of the powerful flow of God’s love and mercy and hospitality. I can’t say for sure, my dear sisters. But perhaps this has also been your experience over this past week on retreat. A time when you have pondered and prayed over the rich treasure that is your charism as Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. For what is a charism if not a channel through which God’s grace is meant to flow. Benefitting not just ourselves, but the whole of creation.

And yet, isn’t it true that just as a road might get obstructed from time to time, so too, in our lives as religious, do we sometimes allow the flow of God’s grace to be impeded. By negligence or overwork, perhaps. By disappointment or disillusionment. By petty grievances or deeper resentments… Of course, outwardly, we may appear to remain true to our vows. And yet, inwardly, if we are honest with ourselves, don’t we sometimes feel as though we are stuck in a traffic jam? Yearning to be rescued? To be saved? To once again experience the free flow of God’s love and mercy and hospitality in our own lives?

Again, I can’t say for sure, my dear sisters. But my guess is that, over these days of your retreat, each of you has had some experience of salvation as the removal of obstruction, and the restoration of flow. And, in the days ahead, it is important that you remain in touch with this precious experience. For it is something that is much needed in our world today. The removal of the prejudices and resentments, the anxiety and self-absorption, that so often obstructs the flow of God’s love and mercy and hospitality among us. Preventing us from looking at and listening to, from working for and warmly welcoming others. Especially those who seem so very different from ourselves. The removal of these obstructions, and the restoration of flow. Isn’t this the kind of salvation that we need? In our families and in our communities? In our church and in our society today?

My dear sisters, in a world that so often feels as though it is stuck in a huge traffic jam, how are we being called to deepen and to share our experience of the flow of God’s love and mercy and hospitality today?

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Following the Recipe

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Mass@FMM Chapel

Picture: cc dolanh

My dear sisters, do any of you have any special recipes? Instructions for cooking or baking that have been handed down to you from your mother or grandmother, a friend or even another sister in your community? If you do, what can you say about these recipes?

For example, do you ever see a recipe as a burden? Does it ever make you feel angry for having to follow it? Or resentful of your mother or grandmother for having passed it on to you? If I have to guess, I would say probably not, right? No, we don’t usually see recipes as a burden, but instead as a welcome gift. Something given to us for a good purpose. Meant for us to enjoy. And to share with others. But, of course, for that to happen, we need to make use of it. For, however good the recipe may be, it will do us no good, unless we actually use it to prepare and serve and enjoy the dish. Otherwise the recipe will be wasted.

But failing to cook with it is not the only way to waste a recipe. Can you think of another way? Isn’t it true that I can also waste a recipe by not following it closely enough? It’s true, of course, that many recipes are quite flexible. One ingredient can often be substituted for another, and the dish will still taste just as good. Perhaps even better. But there are limits to this flexibility. For example, brown sugar could possibly be replaced with white sugar, but probably not with salt. To try to do so would be to ruin the dish.

A gift… to be used… within limits. These three characteristics of a good recipe are also what we find in our readings today. In the first reading, as the people of Israel prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses encourages them to take notice of the laws and customs that God has handed on to them. Why? Because these laws and customs are God’s recipe for a happy life in the land. But to enjoy the full benefits of these laws, the people have to take care to observe them. To use the recipe. Adding nothing to them, and taking nothing away. For, like any good recipe, there is a limit to their flexibility. 

Which is probably why Jesus speaks so harshly to the Pharisees and scribes in the gospel. He calls them hypocrites. Why? Because, while they appear to follow God’s law, God’s recipe, they are actually substituting salt for sugar. They put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions. As a result, they end up ruining the dish that God intends for them to prepare. In their hands, what is meant to be a precious gift to be enjoyed, becomes a tiresome burden that they lay on the shoulders of others. Including Jesus himself.

A gift… to be used… within limits. We find these same three characteristics in the second reading. Which speaks not so much about the Law of Moses, as about the message of truth, the word that has been planted in human hearts. Which, for us Christians, is not just a legal code, but a living relationship with the person of Christ. Who laid down his life out of love for us. To set us free from our selfishness and sin.

The reading begins by telling us that it is all that is good… which is given to us from above… Implying that the word is not meant to be a tiresome burden, but a precious gift. But, to enjoy its benefits, we must do what the word tells us, and not just listen to it and deceive ourselves. Just as a good recipe needs to be used to produce delicious food, so too our relationship with the Lord should be translated into concrete actions. So that it can produce in us loving and merciful lives. And there are also limits to the flexibility of this recipe. The reading ends by identifying two ingredients that we cannot do without: showing mercy to those most in need, and guarding ourselves against all that is contrary to the teachings of Christ. Without these two ingredients, the recipe simply will not work.

A gift… to be used… within limits. If these three characteristics of a good recipe can be found both in the Law of Moses, as well as in our relationship with Christ, then perhaps they can also be found in something to which you, my dear sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, will be paying particular attention, as you begin your annual retreat today. Do you know what it is? Nothing else than your own charism. The special recipe for holiness that was first received by Blessed Mary of the Passion, and then handed on to each of you. For you to use to produce delicious lives. Not just for your own benefit, but also for the enjoyment of others. Especially those most in need.

Now I have no idea what your experience of living this charism has been like. But, if it is anything like my attempts to live my own Jesuit charism, it may be that sometimes there is a temptation not to follow the recipe. To go beyond its limits, as the Pharisees and scribes do in the gospel. To add something to it, or to take something away. And, as a result, without our realising it, to change the charism, from a precious gift to be enjoyed, to a painful burden for all to bear. Producing conflict instead of peace. Misery instead of joy.

If this is the case, then perhaps a time of retreat might provide a useful occasion to allow us to be reminded of what we find in our readings today. That a charism is meant, first of all, as a gift. A recipe for a delicious dish, the benefits of which we have ourselves enjoyed over the years of our consecrated life. To remember its taste. To take the time to relish it once more. The better then to return heartfelt thanks for all that God has done for us and in us, with us and through us. To remember, to relish, and to return thanks…

A gift… to be used… within limits. My dear sisters, what can we do to better enjoy God’s recipe for happiness and holiness today?