Friday, April 20, 2018

Good Shepherds in Society

In ancient times in Palestine--around the time of Jesus--a man was supposed to be someone in control of emotions, someone who can influence others with words and deeds, and someone with force and courage in front of battles and violence. A man had to show qualities of leadership. 

In the gospel accounts we see the gospel authors picturing Jesus precisely as a leader with skills to pull out of adverse situations. Jesus was so persuasive he was followed by the excluded, the poor, the ill, etc. He was even considered a master--a "rabbi"--by some who chose to follow him closely. 

But then he was also crucified. He was publicly humiliated by those in power. In the account of Mark Jesus was abandoned by all and Jesus himself cried out a feeling of being abandoned by God. 
The 4th gospel gives a different picture. Jesus was viewed by his executioners as a bandit, a thief. For John the evangelist, Jesus was killed because he was a shepherd...a "good shepherd".
Shepherds, at the time of Jesus, were marginalized. They lived far from the social milieu. They were more in the company of beasts, animals. 

In the Old Testament, however, the picture of a king was that of a shepherd taking care of the people, his flock. Hence the kings who did not serve as shepherds were so negatively recorded by the historical authors in the Old Testament. Think of king Ahab, for example. 

The 4th gospel pictures Jesus as a shepherd--excluded from society but close to the ideal of kingly leadership. Unlike a king, however, Jesus did not rule over people. He was a leader in terms of witnessing to the path leading to God. 

Hence the crucified is leader, an ideal leader. The man on the cross had a command of his own emotions. He gave his life to others to a radical extreme, " I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own" (Jn1o/17-18). The good shepherd offers his own life while battling against the wolves that harm the flock. 

We know the story. Jesus said yes to his mission of the Father, and the Father said yes to what the Son did through the resurrection of the Son. With this Jesus was able to assure us of our own eternal life. Hence John tells us about the guarantee of Jesus himself, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand" (Jn10/28). 

We can pause a bit and ask how we can "lead" also not with the usual powers and wealth around us but with giving of self. In other words, maybe we can build a social life which is based less on the capacity to buy lots of things from the mall and the capacity to have powers over others....and based more on a more fraternal social life where we offer ourselves, daily, to others. 

Can we be good shepherds to each other? 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Mark, Constipation and Christianity

Remember that story when Jesus was criticized because his disciples were not following the same religious practice--fasting--like many others? Jesus replied with that expression: new wine and new wineskin. (See Mk2/18-22). Remember too the story about the day--the Sabbath day--when Jesus and his disciples were walking in the wheat-fields? The disciples started eating grain heads. They were heavily criticized for not doing what the religious practices required. (See Mk2/23-28). 
In the account of Mark we see that Jesus and his disciples were constantly spied on. They were doing things that were quite ordinary. But the Pharisees sought something wrong in the ordinary things that the disciples were doing. It was time to find reasons to accuse Jesus. In the gospel account of Mark Jesus was, at this point of the story, well-known among the people. Crowds followed him. His teaching was so simple and quite "relaxed" (compared to the traditional teachings.) Jesus announced God's forgiveness and he was close to the "little ones"--the publicans, the ill, the prostitutes. He was too “cool”, so to speak. But the Pharisees did not want the “cool” and “relaxed” type. The Pharisees were, to coin a term I once learned, “constipated”. 
The disciples of Jesus were equally cool. Hence the accusation: Jesus and his disciples were not religiously constipated enough. "“Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?” (Mk2/24). For the Pharisees, to live religiously meant following the practices and observing prohibitions. In other words they were so focused on what one should not do. For them religiosity meant strict observance of rules norms, precepts required by the Law and ancient tradition. 
It may be interesting to note that in the account of Mark, all this polemic against Jesus starts right at the very early chapters. If we try to understand this strategy of Mark, we might say that Mark was raising a question, namely: "What does God want from us, how does God want us to relate with God?" Does God want us to relate with a dictator or with a partner in the covenant? 
In the Old Testament we read, for example, texts about laws. But the authors always insisted that the institution of laws were meant for life and liberation from slavery and injustice. Hence the God offering the laws was a God of life and liberation. When the Laws were instituted as the people of Israel entered Canaan the aim was that they will live a social life of justice and fraternity. They were not to repeat what was being done in Egypt during their days of slavery. 
In the laws was the stipulation that God and the people of Israel agreed on a covenant--a partnership. God and people were partners. In fact, from the very start of Genesis we read  that for God the human was created as God's image and likeness, not as slaves.
Over time there emerged a rather strict observance of laws to the point of being fixated by the letters of the laws. The accusers of Jesus were precisely stuck in that mentality. Hence to bow before God was to be like a slave in front of a fearful master.
Jesus wanted to make it clear. The God he introduced was a different type, a God who was a partner of the covenant. God was a Father, Abba. Jesus did not deny the role of the Law. But he understood the Law as facilitating fraternity and justice. God was not a despot; God was a God of tenderness and pity. 
Was it not that the mission of Jesus was to "promote" the Kingdom wherein the love of God reigned? The desire of God was not exactly the strict literal observance of laws. The desire of God was to make the human stand up and pull out from things that prohibit the fullness of life. God did not seek to crush the human and have the human nailed to the cross and then have the Son serve as substitute. God's desire was to help the human make the effort to be fully and truly human. 
I love the word, "bloom". God wants us to bloom in life. To bloom, we place ourselves in front of God as Our Father and partner in the Covenant. To bloom, we stand in full confidence that God is Abba and we are God's children.
This, I think, is so central in the account of Mark. I am reminded constantly of what Claude Geffre wrote. Christianity is not exactly a religion. Oh, do not get me wrong. It is also a religion, but a "religion of the Gospel". Christianity is not a religion, period. it is not a religion obsessed with ceremonies and rituals and all sorts of practices and observances. Oh, these too are found in Christianity, as in other religions. But the central focus is not on these but on Jesus who points to the Father. Christianity is gospel based wherein we take the responsibility of being partners in the Covenant. The Gospel is not proclaimed to promote the constipation of people. It is about life and the fullness of life. Voila, my thoughts this morning. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Some thoughts on "the power of the resurrection"

Jesus is risen. This is in the heart of Christian proclamation. St. Paul himself said it. If the resurrection never happened then proclamation and faith will be empty: "if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith"  (1Cor15/14). The proclamation comes from an experience.

Remember what the Gospel accounts tell us. The death of Jesus made his disciples go nuts. Their hope went to the tomb with Jesus. We can read about this in the "road to Emmaus" story. Jesus then had to show up--appear--to his disciples. He made himself recognized to his disciples--that the same Jesus they met and lived with was the very same Jesus risen. This made the disciples open up to a new understanding of their hope and faith. The Jesus they saw die on the cross and put in the tomb...well, he was risen from death. St. Peter proclaimed the faith. "God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses" (Act2/32).

The experience of encountering Jesus risen changed the life of the disciples. From doubt they moved to faith. From despair to hope. From sadness to joy. What they had in mind before, such as the renewal of the nation, had to give way to a new insight. God had his plan and now, in the resurrection, it was fully revealed.

Henceforth, the disciples were encouraged and ready to proclaim even at the risk of losing their lives. Remember that they were excluded from the synagogue. Peter and Paul were killed. Etc.
Belief in the resurrection was not an academic topic. It was not just a simple affirmation. The resurrection became a power for them, a "force". It was a power to transform life, the life of the disciples. This is why St. Paul called the resurrection of Jesus a "power": "to know him and the power of his resurrection" (Ph3/10).

For St. Paul and the disciples the resurrection became a force of transformation. It became a force not just for the hope of life after death; it also became a force working in concrete daily life. Christian life, thus, is a life that leaves itself seized by the power of the resurrection; becoming a life that bears fruit.

This may sound too "ole ole, bruhaha", abstract and meant only for "churchy" people. But come to think of it, indeed, there is power in the resurrection. Many words can describe it, but one word that comes to mind is "healing". The resurrection is healing even in the here and now.

Just pause and think about it. Think of what St. Paul said:  without the resurrection we are empty. I am sure that at certain moments in life we are stuck in situations that are so tough...there is no "solution". We're stuck. As what Fritz Perls said (and this is my mantra, so to speak), "the only way out is through". In other words, there is no way out of the gutter, the hole, the mud, the tomb. We just have to "go through" the situation and see what might happen next. You know what I mean.

I am reminded of Camus' discussion on Sisyphus and Sartre's nausea. We're just rolling that rock uphill then downhill and there's no exit from it. But then there is the resurrection! This rut or tomb we might be in does not hold the final destiny. Just the thought--nay, the belief--in the resurrection, can transform life inside the rut. It can be healing even as the wound stays gaping wide. If the only way out is through, then go through it with, but this time with the power of the resurrection. In the 4th gospel we read: "I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world (Jn16/33)”.

Even in the small dark corners of a dreary life, some gestures can be that of the resurrection. St. Therese of Lisiex was a master on this.

Maybe just around us, next door maybe, or even those in our households...there may be persons stuck in their own ruts unable to step out. They sense that there is "no solution". Anyway, I have no monopoly of all ruts. There is a whole solidarity of rutfullness among us. We might just be a bunch of smelly Lazaruses stuck in the tomb with bandages covering us. Others may need a word, a gesture, a sign of acceptance, a smile, whatever.... They too might need to have a sense of the power of the resurrection. The tomb is empty. It will be empty for them and for each of us. This is Easter’s message for me today, and it is healing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Trying to live skillfully

Would it not be fantastic if we have a secretary beside us all the time checking and correcting every wrong word or act we do? Take for example anger. Sometimes we might explode in anger and feel sorry later. The secretary will be there to stop us immediately from exploding.

But in real life we do not have anybody else to check and correct us. We are in-charge of what we say and do. There are moments when we hurt others. There are moments when we make the wrong moves, the wrong actions. We are responsible. Some of what we say and do have lasting consequences.

I am an old man and many of the things I did before continue to hold influence over my life now. What I did when I was young have consequences even today. Of course I did good things too and I am happy for their influence in my life now. But there were the bad things. I look back and say that I wish I was more "skillful" in speaking and acting before. To give a very simple example, let me talk of health. I have some health issues today that need medical attention and medical expenses. Some of these issues are results of my neglect of my health when I was younger.

We cannot delete the past. We learn to be thankful for the good things that happened and we forgive the bad things that happened. We really cannot hope for a better past. 

But what about today, in the here-and-now. As we live now, how can be live a little bit more "skillfully"?

It would then be important to manage well our words and actions so that we can avoid hurting others and bring more peace and calm and joy to daily life.

There is a difference between a falling fruit from a tree and a bird flying from branch to branch. The falling fruit just falls straight down without guiding itself. The bird chooses the branches and decides on where it will go. In anger, sometimes, we can be like the falling fruit. We explode in anger and we cannot stop it from hurting others. If we can skillfully manage that anger and know what to do with it, guide it, we can be like that bird that decides on which branch to move to. The falling fruit gives us the idea of living unskillfully. The bird moving here and there tells us about living skillfully.

Here is one method that might help. If not, then put it aside. So what is this method? Let us call it the method of "silence in the zig zag". 

Remember that figure of a line going up and going down? That is the zig zag. For every zig, the line going up, thare will be, later, a zag, the downward line. Then, after a zag will be a zig. 
Oh we might say that there are times when there is neither zig nor zag; everything is just flat. Maybe. But even in that flat line we can see, upon closer inspection, some amount of zig zag. The ups and downs may not be wide; but they are there. 

Life is a cycle of zigs and zags. There are always the ups and the downs. Joy. Sadness. Bright. Dark. Good health. Illness. If you are in a zig, remember that it will later move to a zag. If you are in a zag, well, prepare for the next zig. 

So what do we do? We need to learn to pause regularly to check ourselves. Is this relationship zigging or zagging? Is this work zigging or zagging? We need to pause now and then to evaluate what is happening to us. We need a room of silence in our hearts that need not have to react at once for every zig or zag. In this room of silence we just watch. This is crucial. Look at some events in your life when you did not give yourself enough space for pause; when you acted upon impulse; when you were so filled with emotions that you had no room for thought and reflection.

Life is also a little bit like playing cards...just similar to playing cards. We read our cards; we check if our hand is strong or not; we check what cards have already been dealt, etc. Playing our cards will have to pass through a good amount of pause. Now, if a hand is weak, we drop the play and say, "No, I am not playing this deal". If our cards are weak and we still play, imagine the loss! Life is a bit like this; life needs a lot of pause; a room for silence. And as we move up and down the zig zag of life, we need to give ourselves sufficient pausing. Is this not like the bird selecting which branch to move in and out? 

The room of silence in our hearts has a "minimum" and a "maximum". The maximum is that it facilitates us to beam with joy and life; we can move in daily life bringing so much brightness around us. We bloom so much.

The "minimum" is that we avoid making situations dark and gloomy. We avoid adding dark matter to daily life. We may not be so jumping for joy and transforming beautifully the world around us, but at least we are not adding burden to life. That is the "minimum" that the room of silence can offer us.

Right now were are having fun and we are very fraternal to each other. It looks like we are in a zig, I am in a zig. Fine. But who knows, maybe next week we will be quarelling and misunderstanding each other, we will be zagging. In the room of silence we give time and space watch, to obeserve.

What do we watch and observe? 

First, we observe how we treat our experiences. In daily life we always interpret our experiences. We always have something to say about the things around us, the people around us, the things we do, the things we hear or see or taste. So we say many things. It is nice. It is not nice. It is cold. He is funny. She is smart. The work is hard. The walk is long. I like this. I do not like that. Etc. In every zig or zag we are always saying something. We are always interpreting.

In the room of silence we then watch the interpretations we make. Let us illustrate. Here comes a friend approaching me. Usually I just start talking and conversing. But I need a pause, a room of silence to watch how I interpret this friend and how I intepret our relationship. Note that maybe for me this person is a welcome presence; precisely a friend. But for someone else, this person is an irritant and not welcomed. That is another interpretation.

In daily life we put our experiences in boxes and we say, "I Iike this, I do not like that, this is ok, that is not, etc." Again, we interpret and very often we interpret according to what we like or dislike.

Without that room of silence we just face our experiences without noticing how we interpret them, without noticing how we like or dislike. We just move on carrying our baggage of interpretations. We typify people, situations, work, relationships; we have labels for them. We are not aware that we do that and we are not aware of the labels we make. So, now and then we need to pause. How do we look at things and people around us?

Then we watch our motivations. We speak or act in-order-to make something happen. We speak words so that, later, they will have an effect. A simple gesture like saying hello to someone already has a future sense to it. So I say hello to someone and I expect that this gesture will make that person say hello to me. That is my goal. Maybe I have more goals in mind. I say hello so that the other person will say hello to that the other person will be stimulated in lending me money. Ah! We can add to this. If the person lends me money then I can buy the thing I need. Ah! So my simple gesture of saying hello has the future goal of buying something in a store...and maybe I want to give it as a gift to someone dear to me. A simple gesture has many branches jutting out in the future--branches of plans and goals! We are not always aware of that.

We may not notice that in the unskillfull mode. This is why we need to keep some space of silence to watch where we want to bring our words and actions. We need to pause to check what influence we might want to bring in the future--near future or far future. 

Of course we do not have full control of the future but we can at least be more aware of our motivations. We can check and say, "Oh, I think I aim for something bad" or "I can see that I want a good result in my action now". We may not be in control of the consequences of our motivations; but we can be aware of our responsibilities. We can be more skillful in making more objective responsibilities. (This can be helpful in the notion of redemption. In the footsteps of Christ we need to check if we are promoting light or dark, life or death in our world.) 

We need a room of silence so that we can check our goals that motivate us to do or say things. We need to cultivate a good amount of pause, just watching while we cycle in the zig and the zag of life. Some people may have well cultivated their room of silence in their hearts they resemble more the bird freely selecting the branches to fly in and out. Hopefully we can be more skillful and free. A falling piece of weight has no skill nor freedom to decide where it will drop.

See if the method helps. The main thing to do is to have that sufficient silence that will allow us to avoid speaking and acting unskillfully in the zig and zag of life. With that silence we can watch what is happening to us, the interpretations and goals we make in the zig zag of daily life.

Of course, we do not remove the guidance that the Holy Spirit can offer us. This is why we pray, "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, en kindle in us the fire of your love".   

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Like God we Die

Now, my thoughts may look lugubre... because they are about death....but, no, they rather are about life.

First of all, our Christian faith tells us that our God died. Yes, God in Christ died on the cross. Then he rose on the third day, of course. The death of Jesus was evidence of how serious he was about life--our life. He preached about his Father's love--in the form of "kingdom"--and no rejection of that message was strong enough to make him withdraw from his mission. In front of the threat of the authorities of his time, he did not flee.

One striking teaching of Jesus was his invitation for us to be LIKE his Father, to be as "perfect" as his Father. "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt5/48).This word "perfect" can be so misunderstood to mean something like a perfect geometrical shape. Jesus explained what being "perfect as the Father" meant. It meant a kind of dying. We tend to select those we respect and perhaps love from those we'd rather have nothing to do with. Take the example of human dignity. It is accorded to those who resemble me. Same class? Same ethnic group? Same language? Same political color? Those outside the sphere of resemblance do not deserve the same "dignity". We have to die from that. I may tend to limit "dignity" to my social class or ethnic group but I am told to respect the "other" whoever the "other" is and from whatever background the "other" may be.
Now, the Father of Jesus, "makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Mt5/45). All have the same human dignity; all have the same dignity to be revered and respected.

This is not easy. This requires a certain death. I'd like to say, "death to being too full of myself". Look at the different passages in Matthew in chapter 5. Jesus speaks of death to anger, death to adultery, death to hatred, death to retaliation. But to die this way is to accept that the heavenly Father is my Father and I am a child of my Father. Hence Jesus says, "...that you may be children of your heavenly Father".

In Matthew we again find the same word "perfect" when Jesus talks about the poor. We read: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (Mt19/21).” Imagine working for social economic equality! It means a lot of dying involved. This time, "perfection" is evidence of discipleship with Jesus.
Notice then that it is a dying in order to promote life. I die to my egoistic ways in order to promote authentic human dignity. I die to my hoarding in order to share.

The Father did the first step to die! The first creation story tells us that "he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation" (Gen2/2-3). Sabbath is a way of dying. The Almighty and Powerful God takes "absence" from that might and power. The Lord God, in this story, allows the created world "to be". One striking evidence is in the creature called the human being. The human being is to be LIKE the Lord God. How?

First of all, there is the move from being male/female to becoming man/woman. The human is more than just a biological creature; the human is to be properly human. Secondly, the human is to have "domination" over the created world. This word is so misunderstood. Luckily today some prefer the term "stewardship". Some biblists translate the word to "mastery". It is a mastery OVER MASTERY. LIKE God the human is also to go sabbath--take hold of one's own might and power, guide these to revere AND NOT DISFIGURE the created world. As steward therefore the human must operate with a sabbath distance FROM ONE'S OWN TENDENCY TO DISFIGURE THE WORLD AND SOCIETY. Remember the human is now man/woman. So to "dominate" is to be like God and learn to die--die from egoism and ursurping power and might!

In the Creation story the Lord God is telling the human, "if I can do it (the sabbath distance), you too can do it because you are LIKE me". This, I think, is authentic dying. God has no issues with his own ego, trying to be "big timer" over us human creatures. Already from the start--creation--God "humbled himself". Later, in the New Testament, we read that God "empited himself" in Christ: "he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness" (Ph2/7). God became like us to reaffirm that we are in the likeness of God. Like God we die so that life be.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A pond “in the beginning”

The first verse of Genesis evokes faith in a God who offered creation with so much life in it. God then wanted to live in covenant with this life especially since God created a creature in God's likeness, humanity, so to speak.

Biblists say that creation itself is an act of covenant that continues over and over again. It perpetuates itself. God wishes to be in relationship with creation--with all creatures, big or small--and God wishes that creation participates in God's own life. This explains why many Church documents say that the real goal of our own life is communion with God. For the Christian this is a Triune God. God has designed our existence to be in communion with the Trinity.

Creation is an act that continues--just like a covenant that is constantly renewed. I remember a good friend, Fr. Joseph Larsen CICM who told me that conversion is a covenant we do each day, each week, each year. Hence the first phrase of Genesis, "in the beginning", makes sense. Each moment is creative, "covenantal"...a starting over again, always a beginning. Yves Becquart, my tough mentor in studies, explained that the notion of parousia--or the final coming of Christ--is about a future that is constantly available. There is always something to look forward to in life and God refuses to opt for end and death. This is why parousia also means presence. God never opts to be absent. In Christ God is always present. Hence parousia can also be in the now!

So creation, covenant and presence are three terms that intertwine. We are not stuck in a pond, dark and immobile. We can always flow out, engage in and with the presence of God who continually invites us to life. This is easier said than realized, and I am not perhaps really existentially sure of what this means. Still I am thankful for those who taught me this lesson. 

"In the beginning". It is a fascinating phrase. Sometimes one feels like really caught in that pond as if life has stopped moving. But, "the beginning" always available...and the pond is just a corner of the stream.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Grapes and the New Year Celebration

Ezekiel was a prophet on exile. He was among those deported to Babylon and he did his ministry in the foreign land.
Ezekiel was questioned by the Lord God, "What is the meaning of this proverb you recite in the land of Israel: Parents eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge?" (18/2). It was an expression indicating that the faults of parents pass on to the next generations. A parent eats grapes, the kids face the consequences, so to speak. People following the traditional thinking believed that their exile was a consequence of what their parents did. Ezekiel went against this tradition. No transmission is involved, he said. For him whoever was at fault must be the one to face the consequences. Remember that Ezekiel was a prophet on exile, so he had to assure the exiled people that their situation was not a consequence of the acts of their previous generations. Ezekiel had to bring the light of hope and not despair to the exiled population. It was a tough job because it involved re-forming a tradition.
So the prophet said, "As I live—oracle of the Lord GOD: I swear that none of you will ever repeat this proverb in Israel. Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father...." (18/3 & 20).
Jeremiah shared the same view. He too was doing his ministry around the exile period. He stated, "In those days they shall no longer say, “The parents ate unripe grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge, but all shall die because of their own iniquity: the teeth of anyone who eats unripe grapes shall be set on edge" (31/30). The verse has complicated twist and turns that biblists will like to decipher. For us the whole point is that Jeremiah was concerned with the restoration of the people of Judah with the hope of a new covenant, so he wanted to drop all that crap about making future generations answer the faults of their past generations. Start everything anew!
This New Year season may be an occasion to re-think things over and accept that there is hope. The past may be so crushing and exasperating...but can we start anew?