Sunday, June 26, 2011

"God will provide"

It’s not uncommon for many of us who had been privileged to exercise the demanding role of parenthood to view with admiration and delight those little new additions to our own families. As we cuddle and sing them lullabies, our minds often wonder how they will turn out when they grow up. Some even wondered which offspring might follow a similar career path.

As we watch our children grow up, we would usually envision them as teeming with success; as lavishing and enjoying the tokens of blessings which we, as parents, may not have had the chance to enjoy during our younger years. And quite often we would raise our heads, close our eyes and gently acknowledge the very source of our precious gifts. It would be in one of those poignant moments when our mind would be drawn to God and thank this great Giver of Life who has gifted us, again and again, with such wondrous company in life.

All of these scenarios have one common thread and that is that we value these precious gifts of life and we would never, ever wish them any harm, physical or otherwise. The parent in us would go to all extreme in order to protect them from any pain, peril or danger. We just could not imagine our children going through the difficulties in life, let alone intentionally putting them in harm’s way ourselves.

Having said that, I would not be surprised if some of you could hardly believe what you heard from our Old Testament Reading for today.

Our First Reading, taken from the Book of Genesis 22:1-14, talks about the test of Abraham’s faith involving the offering of his son Isaac as a burnt offering to God. It is mind boggling for us, especially when viewed from our modern regard of the value of life and in our sense of obedience to God as shown in our discipleship.

Earlier, I drew your attention to one scenario when we establish that connection with the God of Creation as we stare at our children and envision the future in store for them. Those visions were the best we could ever imagine and we’re not going to settle for anything less. We’d hoped for their best and would be totally discomforted if they don’t get we believe they deserve.

In a similar parental mode, we could relate to the “caving in” of Abraham’s “roof” when he was ordered to sacrifice his son by the very God who gave this very son as living proof of the fulfillment of His promise that Abraham’s descendants will be as unnumbered as the stars in the heavens.

We ourselves would wonder how our God can do this. How can the God we believe to be the Fountain of Life and the Very Source of our Well-being even think of this? How can we reconcile such a direct contradiction between the giving of the precious gift of life, on the one hand, with its willful taking away, on the other; more so if this spiteful demand is executed at your expense?

If these are the questions that crop up your mind, then you’re not alone in your repugnant stance on it.  You see, when viewed from the perspective of a time and age when human rights are high on the list of priorities for civilized countries, this story is an example of horrific child abuse; perhaps along the line of the much publicized case of Casey and Caylee Anthony.

In its original context, however, Abraham’s would-be sacrificial act does not come under the purview of rights and abuse. In that cultural ethos, child sacrifice was normative and this story of faith was not any different from other biblical stories involving the taking away of lives with divine permission.

Our present Christian understanding of sacrifice to God has gone a long way from the early beginnings of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It no longer entails the offering of lives in the literal sense. In fact, our idea of sacrifice is now tied up to Christ’s death on the cross, as the greatest and final sacrifice, offered by no less than the only begotten Son of God for the redemption of all mankind. Hence, we should look at Abraham’s Story from a different perspective, one which might help us establish its relevance to our current faith and practice.

With that in mind, it would be fair to claim that our text from Genesis today is not so much a graphic example of child abuse as an experience that points us to a spiritual process which can be applied to our own discipleship. 

In this regard, we now look at Abraham and Isaac’s Story as an illustration of what our relationship with God might entail, namely, the need to listen, to trust and obey and, on God’s part, His continued providence for our all our needs.

First, on our need to listen. When God calls, Abraham listens. “God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am.” (NRSV Gen. 22:1)   

Quite a number of times, we have trouble listening. We might be able to hear words and phrases that others say to us but if you have some hearing problem, you might, just like me, keep on saying “Huh?” “What did you say?”

We need the ability to listen, not just to hear, especially when we talk about our relationship with God. God might have initiated a holy conversation with us and yet we don’t act or respond, simply because we fail to realize this divine intrusion in the ordinariness of our lives. We need to be listening so we can carry on with I call “genuine attraction” with Him. We need to hone our skill of picking out “voices” the response to which would bring us much closer to God; voices that suggest, for example, relieving others of their distresses or soothing their afflictions or restoring peace to their troubled minds.

Just as Abraham lived his life in light of his relationship with God so we should be doing the same in light of our relationship with God which is what discipleship is all about.

In the faith journey that we and all of the baptized continue to pursue, we are confronted every so often with all sorts of “voices” which may even appear to be coming from God. Some appear appealing especially to our affections and passions. Faced with such predicament, what needs to happen is for us to learn to have temperance that will restrain us from an indulgence on those “voices” that seek to feed our appetites. What needs to happen is to listen very carefully so that we do not wallow on our overindulgence and for them not to turn into fatal attractions that will ultimately lead us further away from God.

The next thing we can learn from Abraham’s story is our need to trust and obey.
There is this hymn that is entitled, "Trust and Obey."  It may sound too Protestant but I’m glad that it’s listed in the Lift Every Voice and Sing (LEVAS 205).  I like particularly the second stanza which says: “Not a shadow can rise, Not a cloud in the skies, But His smile quickly drives it away; Not a doubt nor a fear, Not a sigh nor a tear, Can abide while we trust and obey”. And the refrain goes: “Trust and obey; for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

These are simple words that encourage us to trust and obey even when things appear to be making no sense like when Abraham heard the voice of God asking him to do something unthinkable: to give up his son.  It made no sense, absolutely; and yet Abraham obeyed. 

Similarly, somewhere in our respective journeys of discipleship, there will come before us “choices” which we have to make. At times, what is presented before us may not make any sense; it may even appear impossible. But these are conclusions prompted by our human standards.

God works in strange and mysterious ways. He provides what we need as we continue living our lives. God is the Great Provider. When the ram caught in the bushes had been offered to God, Abraham called the place "Jehovah-Jireh" which literally means, "The Lord will provide."

In the course of our interactions with those in our various circles of love, we find ourselves engaged in some questioning moments of needing to find concrete answers to what we are asking God for. These were the times when you are almost about to give up; when there seems to be no answer to your ever compounding problems. These are times when you’re on the verge of throwing the proverbial “white towel”, claiming defeat. But then that which you hope and pray for are answered, when, for some unexplainable reasons, something or someone appears before your troubled life and things begin to change for the better.

Often, we rightly acknowledge this shift to be coming from God. As illustrated in the story of Abraham and Isaac, God provided the ram that was caught in the thicket and He sends out more of them in our different stations in life and we somehow miss them.

But while we may fail to recognize them, sometimes what we seriously need to do is to listen carefully and find out where these “rams” are bleating. We need seriously to trust and obey the God who provides us with our respective “rams caught in the thicket”.

Take it from me, amidst our perceived abandonment, “Jehovah-Jireh”. God will provide.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

“Veni, Sancte, Spiritus”

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and I suppose many of you are already well acquainted with its beginnings. But for those who are not, I propose that we revisit its origins and hopefully broaden your understanding of what others refer to as a classic Christian Festival. And for those who think they already know its background, well, maybe you’ll pick up some things you thought you alreadyknew but actually don’t.

I suppose a good place to start is to be acquainted with the reason behind the need to revisit its beginnings.  The need, I think, comes out of the often erroneous understanding that when Christians celebrate events connected to their identity and their journey as a faith community, they also have that assumed certainty that what they do are particular to Christianity, meaning, the things they do and observe are truly intrinsic part of the faith and practice of the Church in general and of their church denomination in particular.

So for example, just because we have the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus as it relates to the Mystery of the Incarnation or that we have the Cross as the true icon for our understanding of the Salvation History or that we have Easter Lilies and Easter Eggs connected with our celebration of the Day of Resurrection, that we automatically claim them as our own stories and no one else’s. It is no wonder then that when we hear others tell similar stories but not about Jesus, we find them quite annoying, to say the least.

Another example is what we celebrate today. Today, Christians throughout the world are in concert with their celebration of the Day of Pentecost. Their ways may vary as in the kinds of hymns they sing or of other external reminders like our “red-ding” of the church.

The thread that binds all this is that we all think it’s our story alone. The Feast of Pentecost is one of the holy days observed by the entire Christian Church and we’re right in making that claim. What we often fail to acknowledge, however, is that it has its origins traceable to the Jewish part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Pentecost was not originally a Christian Festival. It was a Jewish Festival, a harvest festival, but it became an important holy day for us, Christians, because of what happened on that particular Pentecost.

It was when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples; in a manner best described by Luke, believed to be the author of the Book of Acts. In his account, we read about images of what happened on that particular Pentecost; images such as the rush of a violent wind and the tongues of fire; images which have now become identified with the Christian holy day of the Day of Pentecost. What transpired on that particular Pentecost, along with the other account of the giving of the same Holy Spirit by the Resurrected Christ on what is now referred to as Easter Day, have helped in the shaping of the celebration we now call Pentecost Sunday.

Of the several powerful imageries related to Pentecost, what often appeals to me most is the association of Fire with the Holy Spirit.

"Fire" and "Holy Spirit"; these, to me, are powerful images of destruction and rebirth. By its very nature, fire is destructive; it destroys and consumes everything it touches; reduces everything to a state of nothingness.

The devastation that fire creates is not totally unknown to many of us and some may have a more direct experience than others. Few days ago, fire claimed the lives of two San Francisco firefighters in their line of duty. Down south and east of us, the raging fire in the Arizona-New Mexico border has already claimed more than 430,000 acres and has crossed the state border and continues to burn.

There is no doubt that as illustrated by this and other similar stories, fire is destructive. And yet, the same act of destroying old and decaying trees also promises new, healthy and vigorous ones to grow in their stead, when time comes. Fire destroys but it also cleanses.

And so it is with the Holy Spirit, I think. The Holy Spirit is like a cleansing fire when we let it dwell in our lives. It will burn and destroy the old and rotten part in us and replenish it, in due time, with new life. It will devour, like fire, the rotting trees of selfishness within us; the dying and sickened trees of pride and envy that lurk deep in us; it will raze down the wild bushes of anger, doubt and mistrust that have become too thick in us.

They are images of destruction but not for long. In due time, by nature’s way of replenishing its terrain of new life, soon, there will be the symbols of new life sprouting from the ground. New and healthier plants will bud and bloom and the once seared ground will flourish with new reflections of the grand design of the Great Artificer of the Universe.

So will we be, my dear Friends in Christ, after we allow the raging and destroying fire of the Holy Spirit do their work.  Our new life will flourish with beautiful flowers of kindness and gratefulness; there will be the sweet smell of the fragrance from our tender plants of love, mercy and forgiveness and the growing trees of our fortified faith. Yes, this will be the new landscape supplanting the once sinful and dying terrain of our old self.

And we have proof of this transformation in the lives so many people. We know of so many saints whose new, productive and godly lives were the result of their willingness to let the raging fire of the Holy Spirit burn down their old sinful ways. They often claim that they have been “born again” by the power of the Holy Spirit and they are right in their claim.

The Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate, continues to come our way and sends out its sparks from its burning flints, hoping that our lives will catch it and we’ll be “set on fire”.  Quite often, though, we are just too quick to put this kind of fire out. We are just too scared to really get our lives reworked by the Spirit. Perhaps, we should be bold enough to let it do what it needs to do, that is, transforming us into a new being, reflecting the beautiful creation we are meant to be.

And so I hope that the next time we sing the hymn “Come, Holy Spirit”, that we should really mean it to come down upon us and that we are allowing the same Spirit to start “firing” us up. Let the “burning” begin in our lives so that we may rise into newness of life, bud and bloom as reflections of God’s splendor and become worthy children of God.

“Veni, Sancte, Spiritus”

Sunday, June 5, 2011

“... until then, dear Brother, until then, farewell.”

There’s a good chance that among the readership of this blog, there are a few who could readily relate the title of this post in its particular context. They are the Freemasons and, perhaps, their relatives, who would have recognized these words as the last words spoken by the Master at the conclusion of a Masonic Funeral Service. 

"... until then, dear Brother, until then, farewell".

These words are addressed to the departed Brother and it is his assurance that his separation from his brethren is temporary and that ultimately, they all shall be gathered to the “celestial lodge above, that house, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”.

This bidding to the departed Brother induces us to reflect on an often overlooked awareness that death is not the end of life; that while it marks the end of our earthly toil, it also is the occasion when we will be translated from this imperfect to that all perfect, glorious and eternal habitation and precisely for this reason, this form of leave taking ought not be a painful goodbye.

The reality, however, is that “goodbyes” often lead to an almost instantaneous collapse of whatever binds the two “persona” prior to the disconnect, hence, goodbyes are often painful.

Indeed, we do experience quite a number of painful goodbyes; ranging from an emotionally wrenching occasion such as the demise of our loved ones to a simple and uncomplicated ones like what a two-year old grandchild feels when she gets “separated” from her grandma after having been baby-sat by her.  And while she could not articulate yet what sadness is all about, the child hearing “Bye” changes her mood to a definitely sad one. 

Another example of the display of the relatively sad character of “goodbyes” happens between a mother and her son on the latter’s first day of school. Leaving home and only away a few yards, the child turns around and in teary eyes; gently says in an almost inaudible tone of voice: “”Bye”. And Mom does the same. “Go on, Honey. You’ll be all right. Mom will always be here. See you later.” Goodbyes could be painful.

I’m sure most of you have other similar leave-taking experiences in your different circles of love; of the many times when someone you love has to go away, or you have to go away. There are many times when, for whatever reason, someone has to move on, thereby irrevocably altering a relationship. In most cases, they were painful, leaving you feeling empty, and suddenly, your world seemed to have collapsed and it would seem that there’s no more reason to continue living after severing a relationship you’ve hoped will last.

Today is the 7th Sunday of Easter but the Propers we are using are those of Ascension Day.  The reason for the change in lessons is quite obvious. Our parish, The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, is named in honor of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ and it is but fitting that we celebrate that feast today, moving it from its original date, Thursday last.

A similar story of what could have been a painful separation forms the basis of what we are celebrating today and by that I mean something heart-warming suddenly turned out to be quite the opposite.

To put this in context, remember that the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke talks about what happened on “the first day of the week”, the Day of the Resurrection, when Jesus was raised from the dead. It also talks about the delight of the two disciples who were on their way to Emmaus when the Resurrected Christ showed himself again, very much alive. It was there that the Resurrected Christ broke bread with them. The story thus far is all full of mixed feeling of fear and disbelief and gladness, although the latter seems to overcome the former, especially that part when the two disciples returned to Jerusalem and broke the news to the other disciples that “The Lord has risen indeed”.

I would like to believe that what filled the disciples was utter gladness as in their having regained something back which they hoped would last and never lose again. But to their disbelief, just as when they were keeping their hopes high, the Resurrected Christ tells them something else.

Jesus says: ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (NRSV Luke 24:44-49)

Just hearing the words “so stay here”, you know already something’s coming up; something which most likely will not involve you or something you were not ready to hear. And indeed it happened.

Luke describes it this way. “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (NRSV Luke 24: 50-51)

The Resurrected Christ ascended to the Father up into heaven and he lifted up his hands, blessed them and vanished from their sight

With those imageries of separation alluded to earlier, I know that many of you would readily say:  “You know what? They were not as bad as I thought they’d be.” Most of you would agree that while goodbyes could be seriously painful, it isn’t the end of the story. After the extreme angst and the throbbing heartache of a painful goodbye have worn off, you experience your loved one’s absence in a different way.

These past days and on to the next, there’d be a proliferation of school graduations and today we celebrate our own graduates. I’m sure that in their respective Commencement Exercises, there’d be a lot of biddings of farewell. While some maybe “painful” as in their not seeing anymore their BFFs; and while that parting will leave others really feeling empty, after a while, well, they’ll discover that the world did not end after all.

And so it was with the disciples who were left by the Ascended Christ. I’m sure they felt lost and abandoned and we could see this in the account we read in the Book of Acts.

“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (NRSV Acts 1: 10-11)

I’m sure that their “gazing up towards heaven” also included gaping of jaws and their sad look of disbelief. But then we know that it didn’t last forever. They were in fact eagerly waiting for the Spirit that has been promised them. Yes, there were smiles on their cheeks as they waited for the descent of the Holy Spirit (referred to as “Holy Prodder” in my last blog).

The Feast of Ascension reminds us not only about the ascending of Jesus to the Father but more importantly about His having been set free in order to continue the work he has begun. This is where the joy and gladness come in, knowing that Christ’s ascension was not a total “leaving” but an assurance that indeed he will be with them, and with us and we all are to be witnesses “from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth”

The beauty of today’s celebration is the turning of the pain of goodbye into the assurance of a better tomorrow. It’s about the mystery of saying goodbye, when goodbye isn’t really goodbye at all, but only love’s way of taking on a different form so that it can be present in a way that’s much deeper and more lasting.

That too is the mystery of the Ascension. Yes, it is about Christ’s going away so that we all could fully receive the gift of the Spirit.  Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday and faith communities will be celebrating the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit.

In the meantime, be comforted that Christ’s ascension was not a total departure nor was it a mark of the end of our Lord’s ministry but a sign for us to carry it on since it has now been entrusted to our care by virtue of our baptism and our willful decision to follow him.

Having said this, I now say: “until then, my good friends, until my next post, farewell”.