Saturday, March 26, 2011

"where the tide regularly ebbs and flows"

I was truly mesmerized by it!
After all it was my first experience to view such a large body of water. I’ve heard about it but I’ve never known what sea could look like! It was the biggest one; at least that was what my small mind thought it was. I was young and naïve; bred inland and never been to a coast and the sight I was beholding was such a beauty that I could not refrain from being drawn to it.

And I dared come closer to find out more about this sight that was totally new to me.

So there was I, standing on the fine sands of the shore, totally fascinated by the approaching waves of the sea, and I slowly gravitated into a playful mood and began to pretend I was being chased by the waves; knowing fully well that at a given distance they will return to the place whence they came.

When the waves would retreat, it was my cue to chase them back, also to a certain point. Then I’d wait until they come on again and I would turn around and once again pretend they’re chasing after me and the chasing game went on and on. I still cherish those memories and I miss that simple game between me and the sea. I didn’t know then, but now I know that what fascinated me was the process when “the tide regularly ebbs and flows.” The waters move back and forth; they come and they go; they were ebbing and flowing and it was indeed quite “regular” and very predictable.

That imagery of the tide regularly ebbing and flowing ran parallel with the sight I saw while standing on the bank of the still waters of Lake Ontario, one summer morning. Yes, the tide ebbed and flowed but in a rather mild manner almost evoking a peaceful lapping of a gentle wave to a calm shore.

This serene ebbing and flowing, however, runs in conflict with the images I saw when the media first shared the disturbing news of the raging waters in Japan. They were waves of destruction; waves that obliterated settlements; waves that wiped out communities and waves that ended lives. When the waters receded, all there was left were debris of large magnitude; sordid reminders of a horrible calamity that became an ugly memory too difficult to erase.

Three different images of bodies of water. One in a playful mood, eliciting excitement in the adventures of a young boy. Next was illustrative of calmness and serenity and the third was of anguish, when it became a tool of devastation and annihilation. It became a disturbing image of a cruel tide that ebbed and flowed and hopefully never to be seen again.

Our readings for this 3rd Sunday in Lent lend us further of images hovering around the theme of water. First, we have the imagery of water as an element so basic for sustenance. Our Old Testament Reading for today, taken from Exodus 17:1-7, tells us of what happened to the Hebrews when they were on their way to the Promised Land having been removed from the oppressive yoke of Pharaoh in Egypt. They ran out of water and complained about their alleged abandonment by Yahweh.

In this rather intriguing exchange of verbiage, once again God assured them of His abiding presence and used water as a conduit between Him and His Chosen People, thereby reaffirming that connectivity between them in their relationship, one which was never meant to be abandoned in the first place. In this Exodus story, water, gushing forth from the rock, is a powerful reminder of God’s saving grace that can be had even from the driest situation in life as typified by the rock in all its dryness and aridity.

Pursuing this imagery even further would allow us to look at how we ourselves have behaved during those times of alleged abandonment; those times when our “water” of sustenance seems to have evaporated and disappeared and we panicked with extreme anxiety that our travel in life will abruptly end. I am quite certain that for some, their behavior during those trying times is a true image of the one shown by the Hebrews of old. Its contemporary equivalent could be illustrated in a scenario like when someone’s assets have been drastically compromised and previous lifestyles equally downsized. “My water is gone!” “My water is running out!” Consequently, the blame game begins and at times, even God is drawn into it as when the Hebrews of old wondered whether Yahweh was among them or not.

Our first imagery of water, that of being part of a playful stance, could be a good one to employ in this regard. Somehow, because we know that the tide ebbs and flows in equally regularity we never imagine it as something that will be running out in a moment’s notice. We take it for granted. One wave comes and another goes. Indeed, the tide regularly ebbs and flows and then we forget that such course of action lies in the hands of God who, as in the case of the water that gushed forth from the rock, provides us with all that we have.

Water can indeed be essential to our sustenance and it is essential to living as well, as this second story tells us.

The second image hails from the gospel story from John (John 4:5-42). This rather long pericope, talks about the encounter of Jesus with a Samaritan woman who was drawing water from a public well called Jacob’s well.

Other than the unusual turn of events, as in a male Jew and a Rabbi talking with a woman and a Samaritan, the story presents another imagery about water; this time, as living water. Jesus made this allusion to himself as the source of living water in the following passage.  “Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (NRSV John 4:7)

In the course of his ministry, Jesus would issue forth certain claims about himself in what is known as the “I am” sayings; “I am the Bread of Life.” “I am the Light of the world.”  “I am the Gate”  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.” “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  “I am the true vine”.

While not directly claiming to be the Living Water, Jesus nonetheless assures those who believe and follow him, that He is the Source of that Living Water. God in Christ Jesus and through the Holy Spirit is the very “Source of our Well-Being”; we are alive; just as being fed by the living water, because He is the Giver of Life and all things come of Him. To be assured of this never-ending and life-giving water is God’s gift to His creation. And that Living Water could be both calm and serene, with equal regularity in its ebbing and flowing but it could also be devastating as in its imagery as a raging tool of destruction. Jesus himself has warned those who wish to follow him that they need to “pick up their cross” and may even go so far as forsake all others in His name. And yet the gift of God’s saving grace may be the sweetest taste that emanates from the gift of living water.

As we continue our observance of a holy Lent, we now have this wonderful opportunity of engaging in a reflection on the claim we make that we, at one time, got ourselves virtually wet by the waters of baptism; when we were bathed, so to speak, with the water of destruction unto sin and the water of calmness and serenity in our new birth in Christ Jesus.
And as we pursue our faith journey and travel the path we have chosen by virtue of our baptism, may we also find time to engage ourselves in mission and every so often, frolic in our engagement of chasing and be chased by the challenges on the shore of Christian living "where the tide regularly ebbs and flows”.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In whom do you put your trust?

     “In whom do you put your trust?” 

I have asked a good number of people this question in a variety of settings and on many occasions, this would be asked in the context of my conversations with folks whom I find to be veering off the path which a “believer” would likely take. This question gets thrown at them when, in the course of our conversations, I would notice that what looms ahead of them would indicate some precarious decisions that could possibly be rectified by an awareness that there is actually a greater power and a higher authority beyond what they might know by then.

Hence, should I notice that they blame their inability to advance their intention mainly on their human faculties, I would steer our conversations toward the issue of divine intervention and I would ask: “In whom do you put your trust?” In almost all cases, the reply is: “In God.” 

Have you been asked that question before? Have you asked it of others? If your answer is in the affirmative, chances are that the circumstances attending it are similar to the ones I have alluded to; and that’s when you get somewhat disillusioned by the way things and events are playing out in your lives.

There are times when life gets a little unpleasant; a little bit hollow and empty, when what you plan and where you invest your resources in give you unwanted results and in utter desperation you gradually slip into that state of bleakness and you end up blaming yourselves; or your spouse, or your parents or your doctor or your Boss and all others both near and far.

And unless your attention is redirected to the very “Source of your well being”, you would end up with a very negative view of life and might even destroy any interest to continue on living. But, when in conversation about your predicaments in life, you are asked where you put your trust, there’s a good chance that the “shutters” which have induced darkness in your life could be drawn up and brighten your day, thereby allowing you more opportunity to seek for the healing grace of the God of Love to resolve your issues in life.

We have a good model of this trusting stance in the person of Abram who was told by God "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.” (NRSV Genesis 14: 1)

If Abram, whose name would eventually be changed to Abraham, were to have followed the dictates of his mental faculties or even just common sense; and if he were to have valued his cultural expectations, then this “command” or this “invitation” to leave behind all that he had, would have induced him to view a bleak and uncertain future. To use a familiar slang, Abram could have easily said “No way, Jose.” No one in his right mind, in that context, would have ventured to leave and depart from an arrangement that has already insured the niceties in life.

Abram could have just taken a quick look at his wife Sarai, whose name would also be changed to Sarah, and would have felt the uneasiness that his frail wife would have to bear, if he were to consent to Yahweh’s command. Again, Abram could have easily said “No way, Yahweh.”

Yes, it would have been pointed out to him that the journey into an unchartered land would be treacherous; that the “I will show you” part looked dubious; that there will be a stockpiling of unknowns.  But then, I am most certain the question must have been asked of Abram “In whom do you put your trust?”  and Abram must have wholeheartedly replied “In God.”

Trusting in God is tantamount to letting go of that which we foolishly cling on to and letting God work His purpose out. There is this phrase, “Let go and let God”, almost a cliché by now as it has been so overly used. I too have used it so many times when I speak to folks who are amidst life uncertainties. I would ask them “In whom do you put your trust?” and if replied in the affirmative, I then would say “Let go and let God”. In other words, I challenge them to hand things over to God and be ready to meet great surprises in their life; as it did with Abram and Sarai who “let go” of their uncertainties and “let God” fulfill the promise of making Abram the Father of many nations.

As we continue our Lenten journey, perhaps, we could revisit those instances or times in our lives when we were tempted to use our “square pegs for the round holes” and then let the Great Architect of the Universe alter either our pegs or the holes and allow Him to transform things for His greater glory.

Yes, life is not always a “bed of roses” and if it is, it could be a thorny one! Life will not always be played out according to our rubrics or according to our script. There will be more villains that our leading man can handle and there will be unpleasant undertakings that’ll surely dampen our zest in life. But life has more to offer than what it had given in the past.

We need to move on.
We need to let go and we need to let God.

So, tell me, “In whom do you put your trust?”  

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What we can do with Lent

Most faith communities, and especially those like us who are very much wedded to liturgical observances and traditions, have just entered the season of Lent; a time meant to seriously ponder on our very nature as finite beings and on our intended relationship with God, the very Source of our well being. This great penitential season was ushered in by the very humbling service called Ash Wednesday which, with the solemn ritual of the Imposition of Ashes, reminded us of our mortality and the need to rectify or amend any and all deviations from a closer relationship with God.

We have been invited to an observance of a holy Lent. As we begin to respond to it, we now have time for serious questionings; time to ask questions like “Who am I? What am I, really? What does my God want from me? How should I view life? What is my ultimate destiny and purpose in life and what does true happiness really mean? These are some of the serious questions that readily come up each time we purposely spend time for a deeper quest about what lies beyond what our human faculties tell us.

We find an example of such intentional time in today’s gospel lesson. Matthew tells us that  “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (NRSV Matthew 4:1) It was the Holy Spirit that purposely led Jesus into a time and a place so he can have clarity on what he is all about and who he truly is. And the means chosen for this is temptation.

I know that we usually affix a negative connotation to temptation simply because it precedes the actual act of sinning. But I think temptation has its brighter side and it’s not altogether a bad thing.  In fact, akin to Jesus’ temptation, it can  also become for us an opportunity to find out more clearly who we are and who we’re not and to get clarity on what life is all about and what it’s not. Temptation does have a brighter side.

In our Gospel for today, we find Jesus  entering into a purposeful period to have some clarity; into a time of finding out what God the Father really wants him to be and what his true purpose as the Messiah is. And it all happened in the wilderness. In its historical context, the term "wilderness" refers to areas in the unpopulated wilds of Palestine which are often void of human distractions.

It is in such a place, away from distractions of humanity that some meaningful reflections often take place. We know fully well that when we search for resolutions to some of our overwhelming questions in life or when we ask for convincing explanations why our lives are not turning out the way we want them to be, that the first thing we want to do is to get rid of all the distractions in order to get clarity on the issues that seem to blur our faculty for sound judgment. Figuratively then, we enter into our virtual wilderness, away from all the distractions, so we can get the clarity we need.

Let us now listen to how the story about the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness starts to play out. Matthew says: “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’” (NRSV Matthew 4:3)

Our first impression is to regard this temptation as very basic, although, I think, there’s more to it than meets the eye. It seems quite basic yet it is very significant. And my reason for saying this is because I find Jesus’ first temptation of ‘turning stones into bread’ as running parallel to the temptation to regard material things as having more prominence in life rather than the will of God.

This first temptation is of the same genre, if you may, when we base our life on sensual pleasures and carnal desires of the body. Now, don’t be misled by this claim, though. The material things, the goods that satisfy the body and the sensual pleasures are not bad in themselves nor are they sinful by themselves. They are not. However, none of these goods is the Ultimate Good. God is! And so when our values in life are influenced mainly by the goods that satisfy the body then we are blinded from the truth of what God wants us to be and who we really are.

Jesus said: "It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (NRSV Matthew 4: 4)

In this temptation, Jesus makes it clear that our dependence ought not to be on worldly goods but on Him, the very Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. We ought to base our lives on the demands of Him whom we seek to follow rather than fashioning our lives according to the dictates of the passion and the flesh.

Consider now the second temptation. Matthew says: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"(NRSV Matthew 4:5)

Notice how Jesus’ temptation is beginning to be more complex. It has now advanced into a temptation to glory, fame and the inflation of the Human Ego. This, again, is quite significant especially in the light of what we know about the Temple. Recall that in the cultural context of the time, everything in the Jewish culture and Jewish religion revolved around the Temple. The Temple was so central in Jewish life. Hence, by putting the temptation at the pinnacle of the Temple, it was so symbolic of a temptation to supplant dependence on God with the ecstasy of grandeur.

Jesus said: “'Do not put the Lord your God to the test." (NRSV Matthew 4:7) Another moment of clarity. Indeed there was no need for Jesus to do it because he was clear about who he was, meaning, it was clear what his becoming man and his purpose was all about.   
Here now is the third temptation as Matthew tells it. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (NRSV Matthew 4:8-9­)

Notice that the movement flows from a low context temptation; the basic temptation of succumbing to the desires of the flesh into a higher one as Jesus is subjected to the temptation to grandeur and honor and now to an even higher one, with the temptation to power.

Temptation to power and access to it has been played up and down the annals of history. There’s quite an extensive list of prominent political leaders who succumbed to the temptation to power as they led their countries in a dictatorial fashion. Again, I’m not saying that power is bad because, in itself, power is not. In fact one of the characteristics we apply to God is that He is Omni-potent; Almighty, Powerful. Power can be a “nice” thing to have; as in making things happen when you want it and how you want it to happen,  It’s no wonder then that a great deal of those who have access to this kind of power have a hard time resisting this kind of temptation. However, power, especially in the worldly sense, is not the Ultimate Good.

Jesus had this to say: "'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (NRSV Matthew 4:10) Again, it was a time for clarity. Jesus was very clear about what God wanted from him. When he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit that came down like a dove affirming that he was God’s beloved Son, he had the clarity right in this temptation in the wilderness, in finding that he had no need to convince others of his divinity. As such, he had access to what real power is all about.

Our lives can indeed be a maze of things which we have no answers. At times, we avoid confronting them; we create diversions or distractions. Most of the times, however, we need to find the answers.

In order to have clarity on those seemingly unfathomable issues in our lives, we might find it helpful if we intentionally put ourselves in a virtual wilderness, in a place away from the distractions and then enter it.  As Jesus stayed in the wilderness and found clarity upon resisting all three temptations, so can we stay in our virtual wilderness and find our own clarity on things that matter most to us.  

Lent could be a time for us to confront those grand questions about God, about us and about this thing we call Life.  If we decide to do it, we will then find out that our life is more about doing the will of God and less of heeding the will of the flesh; not a life that is dominated by a misuse of whatever earthly power we have temporary access to. Our life could include a surrendering to the promptings of God in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

May you have a good observance of a holy Lent!   

Friday, March 4, 2011

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

There are times when we come across passages from the Holy Scriptures that seem to be contrary to human experience; verses that appear to be “running against the grain” of the collective wisdom we had received and would most likely pass on to. 
The Gospel Reading for the 8th Sunday after the Epiphany is a good example of that. Among the sayings attributed to Jesus, we read the following: No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap not gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor pin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you -- you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of it own. Today's trouble is enough for today." (NRSV 6:24-34)  
Not to worry? Did he really tell us not to worry about the future?  Is he for real?
For those who tend to be literal when reading biblical passages, the last verse would immediately pose major concerns. After all, who among us isn’t concerned with what the future holds?  What about  my career, my child’s college fund, my aging parents’ living situation, my future retirement, my health, my relationships, my children’s well-being and safety – am I expected not to try to plan for any of that?
Again, viewed with this lens of understanding, this verse would definitely trigger a disbelieving stance. Who among us doesn’t wonder what tomorrow will bring? Who among us doesn’t hope to shape our lives down the road by the choices we make today? 
Of course, we all do. A bright and promising future seems to be the most prominent incentive people have as they come of age.  Many of our responsibilities in life demand that we ought to be future oriented and strive to give surety that the days ahead be without problems. It seems evident that many things in life demand that we be concerned with tomorrow. 
To be told not to worry by the very “source of our well being” doesn’t seem to be consistent with whom we believe God to be.  If anything, it’s almost directly contrary to what our faith teaches us.
So what gives?  What is Jesus trying to tell us? I think the foundational issue here is Divine Providence! It alludes to the spiritual fountain from which “cometh forth” the manifold blessings and comfort we all enjoy. It is a reminder of the munificence and generosity that could only be issued by a mindful and caring God to everyone, undeserving at times.
And Jesus gives us a couple of beautiful examples to think about:  how the birds of the air have enough to eat although they don’t sow or reap, and how the lilies of the field need not work or spin and yet are more beautiful than Solomon in all his splendor. 
Jesus tells us “not to worry” as he reminds us that all of creation is in God’s careNothing is beyond the reach of the loving arms of our heavenly Father.  God is the ultimate provider, the perfect giver, the faithful lover. We are simply the grateful beneficiary of the innumerable blessings of a God who fully knows our need, what’s best for us and who knows how we all fit in the Grand Design.
Therefore, to heed the invitation “not to worry” means to cast all our cares on Him who cares deeply for all of us.  Consequently, to believe in God’s Providence means that we believe in a God who is intimately involved in His creation and not the God whom others believe as Deus ex machina, watching the world from afar. God is not a disinterested party. Rather, God is directly drawn to His creation in an amazing, loving and abiding way. 
Hence, responding positively to this invitation should be very liberating, for when we truly believe in a providential God, we no longer have to do things all by ourselves.  In fact we cannot do it by ourselves.  Every good thing that we experience, every worthwhile encounter, every time we experience love or are loved, they are all made possible because God has loved us first. Believing that truth deeply provides us with an opportunity to be filled with hope, the kind that is not transitory, but rather the kind that lasts. 
And so when we believe in Divine Providence, our plans for the future inevitably change. A remarkable paradigm shift begins to happen as we go from a “worrying mode” – persistently seeking ways of trying to store up and protect what we have, to a “reassuring mode” – care-less and care-free, ever ready to be sent forth in mission as Christ’s hands and feet to the very same world we may have neglected. That paradigm shift includes our plans ceasing from being tools of controlling the future to becoming sincere efforts of cooperating with God’s will.  They become ways of trying to manifest God’s love, mercy and generosity to a world in need of the same.
Not to worry, therefore, means not to literally stop worrying. I think God does not mind if we worry, provided we don’t succumb to the temptation of demanding for a reassured future at the expense of the Kingdom of God.  When we fall into this trap, the focus  becomes directed excessively inward.  Too often when we plan for the future we get so overly concerned with our own well-being, our own situation and our own particular wants. God, instead, calls us to so much more.  He invites us to strive to continually look outward, beyond ourselves, beyond our desire to build up our own little kingdom. 
And so Jesus says: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Believing in Divine Providence, in God’s undying love, care and concern for the world, may have a veiled danger though.  At times, it can be used as an excuse to shirk or evade our responsibilities, as a way of justifying our inactivity and indifference toward each other and the created world. A false argument may run like this. If everything is in God’s care, then why go to great lengths to help the poor, eradicate disease, eliminate famine, or protect the planet?  If we are not to worry and leave everything to God, then God will see to it that it all works out in the end.  And, after all, when people are with God in heaven they won’t care about their lot in this life. 
Should your line of reasoning run parallel to this, then I’m sorry to tell you that you're in a quite dangerous place to be in, spiritually.  We only have to look at the life of Jesus – a life we are called to imitate – to see the foolishness inherent in that kind of attitude. 
Indeed, God may ultimately be responsible for the world, but, whether we like it or not, God has chosen to share that responsibility with us – not as a burden, but as a gift, a way of allowing us to share in his very life and mission. 
So, let us heed the invitation. “Don’t worry” – not in the sense of running contrary to what God expects of us as faithful stewards of the Creation entrusted to us;  rather, “Be happy” – embracing the gift of God’s Providence and taking it upon ourselves to join in caring for and building a better world. 
"Don't Worry, Be Happy"