Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sharing ‘Diakonia’ With Others

Aloha. I just came back from Hawaii where I represented the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council at the ordination of The Rev. Peter Wu; one of the newly ordained deacons of that diocese and the latest addition to the list of Asian Clergy in The Episcopal Church.

My presence as the EAM Council’s President was indeed greatly appreciated by his family and others who are part of the EAM Network, as it was deemed an affirmation of the support we continue to give in raising Asian leadership in the various ministries of the TEC. I also had the chance to renew acquaintances and forge new ones.

The Ordination Service was at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Honolulu and was part of the Diocesan Convention Eucharist. As expected, the attendance was exceptionally large; considering the size of the cathedral, the number of convention delegates and the invited guests of the four Ordinands. The cathedral was really packed with many of the invited guests wearing red and for a moment it seemed I was about to attend Pentecost Sunday. Or maybe it was just the Chinese red color for luck in a religious context.

Something unique about the service was the inclusion of hymns in Hawaiian; the chanting of the Psalm, also in Hawaiian language and the abundance of leis especially the ones given to the newly ordained deacons. They virtually lost their necks, if you know what I mean.

The words deacon and diaconal or diaconate find their root in the Greek word “diakonia” which is roughly translated as “service”. As those who had been ordained transitional or vocational deacons would attest, the readings and sermon during their ordination services usually allude to the “service character” of their order of ministry, a ministry of servanthood.

As in this case, the Bishop preached about what his deacons are to expect now that they were about to join the ranks of those whose ministry is about service and servanthood and not about honor and distinction.

As he went about cautioning them of what could lie ahead of them, I was reminded of my own ordination to the diaconate, back in ’73. What was so vivid then in mine as it was in theirs, was the warning that it is never about honor but conversely, it is about the mandate of providing service for others; something that at times prove hard to follow.

And this is where Matthew 23:1-12, our gospel lesson for this Sunday, seems to be a good reminder of it. Again, as in the previous gospel last Sunday, it’s not that explicit at first, but it’s there, buried somewhere. So, let me work on that . 

Matthew tells us that Jesus made some “unhealthy” remarks about the Scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus commented to his disciples that these supposedly “religious” leaders are in fact, a bit misleading. They’re not who and what they claim they are.

And here’s Jesus’ reasoning. First, he says, they love to sit on the seat of Moses, which is a seat of honor; a position of authority and one that demands respect. Logically then, whatever they say is worthy of emulation. Whatever they teach ought to be followed and obeyed.

And Jesus was willing to offer some concessions. He says you could follow what they say and teach you; they know what they’re talking about. After all, they’re the learned men of the Law. But, and here’s a big but, Jesus points out. But do not do what they do. Why? Because they do not practice what they preach; they do not “walk the talk”.
And to substantiate his claim, Jesus says: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”

These hard-to-swallow accusations have their contemporary parallels which could very well be the ones those in the ordained ministry, including the diaconate, might be tempted to indulge in.

And if I were to use an illustration, imagine someone in the ordained ministry who just loves to rub others with their title and position. “Excuse me. I’m the Rector, get it?” In other words, I’m the boss; it’s my way or the highway.”

And to juxtapose what Jesus said then with our contemporary scenario, in this case, Jesus would also have advised us that we could follow what that Rector says but not do what she does. We are not to emulate actions similar to the ones that Jesus warned his disciples about.

Jesus does not fancy unbridled lust for power. The reverse seems to be what he prefers. Listen once more to that verse that alludes to what Jesus claims the Scribes and the Pharisees do. “They, meaning the Scribes and Pharisees, they tie up burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.”

I think we can make some inference here as to what that ministry of service could look like. It could be that  “lifting of finger” when applied to the task of “unburdening” someone of that with which he or she is heavily laden.

Now let me put some meat in what I’ve just said. In our various circles of relationships, we every so often find ourselves “burdened” with all sorts of problems; ranging from a relationship gone sour to a perennial thinning of our financial makeup or to an unbalanced church budget. For others it could be some health or mental related issues or a highly unstable employment or, quite seriously, they could be faith related issues. These are some of the more tangible and observable “loads” that are laden on the shoulders of some of us. And on more than a few occasions we need someone who might be willing to “lift up” those burdens.

This is where that diaconal ministry of service comes in. I am not saying, however, that this is all what deacons are supposed to do. No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that the diaconal ministry of service should come into the center stage and be made available not just by deacons but practically by all of us.  

I believe that by virtue of our baptism, we share something in common with those who have been ordained deacons. It’s their ministry of service that we are also called to do as being the body of the baptized. Our ministry of service is the ministry of “lifting” up the burdens from the shoulders of people.

And it’s not an easy thing to do. In fact a serious question we ought to ask is: “How do we go about “lifting these burdens” from the shoulders of people?”

As we reflect on that question, a certain analogy might be of help. Many of you are familiar with instant replay in sports.  It figures most prominently in football.  It is a tool used to assist officials make the proper call by enabling them to see the play from different angles and viewpoints they were unable to see earlier. And it often is quite helpful, as those of you sports fans could attest, yes?

I think this example illustrates a way in which we can help others navigate some of the challenging waters in other people’s lives; things related to their common “burdens” that we also feel as we struggle to understand ourselves and matters of faith.

As you’ve heard me say a few times before, faith is really all about “seeing”.  It’s about looking at the world and one another in a particular way – through the lens of faith, through the person of Christ Jesus and his saving acts. 

So maybe one way of “lifting the burdens” from the shoulders of others is simply by helping them “see” their struggles and predicaments from the correct angle and in the proper light, just like what that instant replay gadget does.

In other words, if we know someone close to us feels heavily “burdened” by not having any idea where his life is heading or what God’s plan is for his family, perhaps we can do our ministry of service to others by helping him or them take baby steps in resolving the conflicts he is bound with.

Or if we know someone who feels “burdened” by not having answers to all of life’s questions, perhaps we can do our ministry of service by helping her see from another angle that asking the right questions is actually an evidence of faith and not a lack of.

There are still other examples of how we can participate with those who had been actually ordained deacons in their ministry of service. Suffice it to say that in this partnership with them our additional call is to support each other in the discharge of this ministry.

One quick caution for us all, though. Should we decide to do this ministry and fulfill its requirements, we could actually end up taking up other people’s burdens as our own and they could be as overwhelming to us as they had been with the others.

Let us remember, however, that many a times, all God is asking is that we shed a little light to someone and help him or her get a better view and different perspective of things. Our ministry of service does not have to mean “saving” them; that’s not our job. That’s God’s and we better let Him do his. Our job or better yet, our ministry is more about support, encouragement, care, comfort and shedding light to others.

Having said these, I now invite you to take another look at this thing called ministry of service. Enter into some discernment if you would be willing to share your “diakonia” and be partners with those who had actually been ordained as deacons. I invite you to “lift up” the burdens of others by your willingness to be witnesses of what you have professed when you became members of the baptized who follow Jesus , the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On finding the "Imago Dei" in us...

There’s always that longing of preserving one’s best experience and it’s so true with how I felt on my return here in Vallejo. How I wished that I could have stayed longer where I’ve been a couple of weeks ago. I was part of a group that gathered at the YMCA of the Rockies, in Estes Park, Colorado. 

Here’s how that played out.

Early that week, several groups under the Ethnic Missioners of The Episcopal Church met with their respective constituencies. The group I was a part of was the gathering of the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council (EAM Council) — their Executive Committee and Conveners and delegates to their Strategic Planning Conference.

For several years now, I have been the Co- Convener of the EAM Filipino Convocation and at the Council’s annual meeting the following day I was unanimously elected as the new EAM Council President. Well, I thought that was kind of an honorable thing to have but in reality, it’s another “hat” I’ll be wearing, at least for the ensuing year; one that would entail additional travels. The downside, of course, is that there’ll be more work-related absences from my parish but the good side is that it won’t have any financial impact either.

From that EAM meeting early in the week, the EAM contingent, as did the other ethnic groups, transitioned to the main gathering, which was called “Everyone Everywhere Mission Conference” and as the theme suggests, the participants were men and women of all shades and colors; people from everywhere; from different dioceses of The Episcopal Church, including representatives from partner churches in Asia and South America. It was, indeed, a departure from the church’s usual monolithic gathering.

It might have been the case that that gathering was among the exceptions! It was an Episcopal gathering that was truly diverse; living out its slogan as a “welcoming” church. It was good to see, for example, some of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” breaking bread with everyone gathered in the Lord’s Table and to see folks from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and Ghana and Haiti and the Philippines; well, you get the picture.

Something sad, however, began to unfold on the last day of the conference. It’s over and as I boarded the bus back to Denver, my leaving of that beautiful place with beautiful people made me long for a similar gathering in the future where “everyone from everywhere” could continue to find Jesus in their midst; seeing or better yet, wanting to see the “Imago Dei”, the Image of God, in the unlikely faces and places we find ourselves in.

And that wish, by the way, that wish of being able to see the Image of God in others need not remain to be just mine. Come to think of it, it should be our wish; all of us, and to make that a reality, we need to intentionally engage in the task of identifying and looking for the “Image of God” in us.

Our gospel for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 22:34-46) has something to say in that regard, although, it doesn’t appear as clear and simple as one would like to think. But let me work on that connection between our task of seeing the ‘Image of God’ and what today’s Gospel has to say on that regard.

Our gospel lesson tells us that a Pharisee, one of those religious leaders during the time of Jesus who were pretty well versed with the Priestly and Levitical laws, came to test Jesus, presumably in his knowledge on the subject.

He goes on to say: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  Jesus then replied: "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 

What or where, you might ask, does it say about “Imago Dei”? Well, as I earlier said, it does not “clearly” talk about the image of God. But here’s what I’ve found as I read and re-read the passage. Jesus tells the Pharisee that the greatest and first of all the commandments is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And then, the second great commandment is “to love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus is telling us that we should love our neighbor or the ones other than us, in a manner similar to how we regard ourselves.

And that brings us to the question of how do we regard ourselves. If you start telling me your answers, we won’t be on the same page, I’m sure. If you look more closely, there are two main camps and some in between.

On the one hand, there are those who have a rather low if not totally negative regard of themselves. They are the ones whose refrain in their song in life might go like “I’m not good enough” and this gets repeated again and again in their journeys in life.

They’re the ones who, when asked if they would be willing to volunteer at their child’s school community project would readily say: “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m good enough for that one. Go ask someone else.” Or when asked if they would consider being a Vestry member in their parish would say: “Me? Oh no. I don’t think I’m good enough.” And they end up not responding to the invitation mainly because they don’t have enough confidence in themselves.

It’s also the case that this low esteem could get contagious. For all you know, there’s a whole bunch of those “I’m not good enough” folks gathered right by your side; in the family circle, in the community circle and in your faith community.

Talking about faith community, we should know by now that Christianity has always wrestled with the issue that many in various faith communities see themselves as God’s creatures – and not just as God’s creatures, but as imperfect, flawed beings, who, at times, are quite capable of serious acts of disobedience and self-centeredness. It appears that quite a number of our Christian brothers and sisters choose to focus heavily on their unworthiness and sinfulness.  They argue that God, after all, is supremely good and we are nearly the opposite of that.  It’s no wonder many really emote with the words “wretch like me” when singing the hymn “Amazing Grace”.

And so, when an appeal comes to them to help out; whether in some local projects or some relief appeal for major natural calamities, their response is “My donation is not good enough; my $25 is not good enough. That’ll not go far.” And they end up not giving anything. Why? Because their would-be small contributions, they think, won’t make any difference; all because they think of themselves as “not good enough”!

Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said. But you won’t because you’re not good enough to yourself and you can’t give what you don’t have. Loving your neighbor as yourself, when “yourself” is filled with negativity and low esteem will not take off. That mandate to love one’s neighbor may be doable but not if you do not have that positive regard on you.

Then there’s the other camp; those who have the highest regard of themselves. They are the ones who are “full of it”; the ones who only care about what they can get; what they can receive and what they can have. They’re the ones who will give; if certain conditions are met; if they get publicly acknowledged; if their names will appear on the Honor Roll; if their gifts will mean their family’s great legacy for ages to come.

Whereas the former camp would re-echo their being “I’m not good enough for you”, the ones in this other group are thrilled to float around their mantra “You’re not good enough for me.”

Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said. You can’t possibly follow this second great commandment if “you’re full of it”. Simply put, loving our neighbors may be doable but only if your attitude to others is not based on pride and greed or on self-idolatry. To love your neighbor when you have the highest regard for your self and one which is self-serving will only mean not loving the other but loving your very own self.

There is, however, good news. There’s a third camp where you might want to align yourself. There is an alternate and quite scriptural understanding of who we are in relation to our God. At the heart of the Christian understanding of who we are is the idea about the “Imago Dei”, the “Image of God” which is confirmed upon us and embodied within us since Creation.  God may have made us “out of nothing”, ex nihilo, but the Great Creator didn’t create us to “reflect nothing”.  Rather, God created us in such a way that we, in ways we can’t readily fathom, are able to reflect God himself. In the image of God, Man was created to reflect that goodness of heart that made God say, you are my people for whom I will send my only begotten Son.

This means that each of us has a certain dignity, a certain value and worth that can never be diminished or taken away; no matter what we do or don’t do.  This dignity we each have is the foundation for much of what the Church teaches, particularly when it comes to issues relating to the value of human life. 

And this “Imago Dei” is more than just a “mark” upon us.  It also speaks of possibilities, which means that we have a tremendous capacity for good, a God-given ability to be channels of God’s grace in all that we say and do. In other words, aware of the “Imago Dei” deep within us, we should refrain from falling into the temptation of claiming, “I am not good enough for you” nor are we to boast, “You are not good enough for me.” Instead, we are to recognize that the other, the one we regard as our neighbor, is the same child of God as we are and that we all have that innate goodness in us and a tremendous capacity for good – not because of anything we have done, but because God loves us and wants to share his very life and goodness with us.

And therefore, when we are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are in a very real sense being asked to see that same divine spark in them, to see God’s image, and to see their inherent dignity and worth.  Granting that we allow God’s grace to flow in us and on to others, good works are almost a certain consequence.  However, if we fail to recognize our own dignity and the goodness that lies at the heart of who we are, we may not be able to share that same goodness with others and consequently, we will not be able to follow the second great commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I know that certain predicaments in life often lead us to get oblivious of the better side of things; even of life. In the same token, too much of self-assurance often make us go off tangent in matters of faith. We need not remain in those camps, previously cited. Instead, we need to relocate to that third alternative.  And when we do, each time we hear someone says, “ I am not good enough.” we could retort and say, “Yes, you are. We all are good enough!“  

All of us have the “Imago Dei” in us and we need to recognize that within us. Once that begins to happen, we will then be on our way not only on loving God with all our heart, mind and soul but also on loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So go and find that in you, if you haven't yet.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"God's Heavy Sigh"

How often do you hear people “sigh”? Rarely? That’s good news. How about you? How often do you sigh? Did I hear someone just say “a lot”? I’m not really interested in finding out the particulars behind people’s sighing; it’s just that when they do, you know they’re going through some frustrations, maybe lots of frustrations; hence, they sigh a lot.

Indeed, when someone goes through that motion of exhaling making it sound louder than the usual, you bet, there’s that uncontainable frustration boiling inside; one that may have lingered the longest.

The following could be typical examples. Your “sighing” could be the expression of your frustration about your beloved child whom you showered with the best of what you can offer but somehow ended up taking an entirely different path than you expected him to take. Hence, when asked of his whereabouts, you show your frustration with your great sigh.

Or it could be about your years of loyalty in your company to which you have entrusted your future with your retirement being looked after, only to have that company throw you away in the twilight of your employable years, all in the name of some euphemism called “down-sizing”.

Or it could be about lost love that has been severed and has led to separate ways. Or perhaps it is a tradition in your faith community that you have so well trusted but now appears to be cut off – all in the name of inclusivity and in keeping with modern understanding of things!  Or quite simply, when you get frustrated with your inconsiderate husband, you bellow that loud “Sigh”!

Everybody gets to make that exhaling sound louder than the usual, perhaps, including God. No? To think of God making that “divine sigh” might sound blasphemous but if you take a closer look at this Sunday’s lessons, you’d probably agree with such note about sighing.

Let’s first take a look at our Old Testament Lesson. Here’s how the prophet Isaiah puts its and imagine if you will, God saying the following.

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes”. (Isaiah 5:1-2)

And then he continues:

“And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Isaiah 5:3-4)

It’s in here where I could hear that loud “divine sigh”, of God’s seeming frustration of what has become of His “Chosen People”. In spite of Israel’s distinct privilege to have been chosen as the people through whom God’s revelation would be made manifest, Israel forsook Yahweh, time and again, and turned to other gods. In spite of the divine tender care given by God to His beloved Israel hoping for her to bear “good grapes”, Israel, by her repeated unfaithfulness, bore “bitter grapes”. Israel was the grapevine that was planted to yield award-winning vintages and yet produced instead only sour grapes, yielding a spoiled harvest. Israel’s unfaithful response, after all the tender love and care given by God, caused God, I think, to have his loud “sigh”.

Another illustration of this “divine sigh” is found in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. The first scene is almost an echo of the one pictured in Isaiah and in fact is. But there’s more to it than the unfruitful yielding of the vine. In Matthew’s account, the unfruitful response lies on the attitude of the tenants.

Here how the story is played out.

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, `They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.'  So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” (Matthew 21:33-39)

The tenants had a deal. The vineyard was just leased to them. The owner was to collect his fair share of the produce. What happened to all those “expected” results?  Quite the reverse actually. They beat one, killed another and stoned another. Rather than fulfill their end of the deal, they rebelled against him, even killing the master’s son. In this latter scene, perhaps it was not just a loud “sigh” but “tears” rolling down God’s cheeks.  

Isaiah’s story of the Frustrated Landowner and Matthew’s Parable of the Wicked Tenants are so evocative of the circumstances attending the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. The unfruitful response of the world to whom God sent His only begotten Son led to God’s salvific sacrifice of that very same Son.

To have yielded bad grapes and to have lost his son in the hands of the tenants had their corresponding results.

In the case of Isaiah’s story, here is what he says: “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

In the case of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, as suggested by the listeners, the landowner should have “put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  But that was not what Jesus told them would happen. He did not agree that the wicked tenants be readily put to miserable death. Instead, he would give the vineyard to others who would be able to take good care of it. In other words, God gives us a second chance. He indeed gives out a loud “sigh” at the failures that we incur especially when we think that “this land is my land”; when we think that we were never mere stewards to begin with. And while there might be some major rolling down of tears from a “frustrated” God, yet He never gives up.

And there is the twist. God never, ever gives up; never stops loving, never ceases to find a way to bring forth the best “wine” the world ever tasted, even if it costs God everything. In the end, God is intent on sharing that vintage with the whole Creation, raising the glass in celebration of our love for Him and to one another, because we finally offered it on our own free will and accord and quite passionately, as well; the way His love was first offered to us. 

Then and only then will we be able to let God stop from his “divine sigh” and cease from shedding tears of frustration.