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Saturday, February 27, 2016

LOVE ME TENDER, TOUGH AND TRUE!

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[BREAKING THE BREAD OF GOD’S WORD]
3rd Sunday of Lent Year C
February 28, 2016

LOVE ME TENDER, TOUGH AND TRUE!



Elvis Presley was one popular singer whose fame was unequaled in his times – and beyond! One of the early recollections I had of him was his soulful rendition of LOVE ME TENDER. To quote verbatim, he crooned: “Love me tender, love me true, all my dreams fulfilled.”



I agree with Elvis. Real love must be tender. It must be palpably experienced, not just audibly proclaimed. It must be genuinely felt, by both lover and beloved. How’s this for a great example: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people … and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering.”



God is like a mother. He feels with His beloved children. He sits by us in our troubles and in our pains. He stands by us in our tribulations. He stands in for us in our loneliness. And He can do so because His love is tender, beyond mere words, beyond mere interior dispositions.



Elvis Presley got it right. Love which is real and palpable ought to follow his rules: love me tender, love me sweet, love me long and love me dear. But there was something that Elvis got wrong … something essential to love, too, was missing. And this missing element is what is clear in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. St. Paul tells his readers that love has to be tough too, and tough love does have its demands. “All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink … Yet God was not pleased with most of them.” He further writes: “Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death … Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”



Many parents today got it wrong. Many think that love is always giving in to their children’s demands. In Church on Sundays, to make them sit quiet and still, they bribe their kids either with food or with tablets, and I am not talking about ingestible tablets, but those set aside for entertainment. They are well-behaved at home, but wait until they get to a mall, and they raise hell to get what they want, put up a tantrum to get their toy, or their latest gadget. Love me sweet is not balanced by love me tough.



I remember a time as a child when I was shown this love me tough thingie, one occasion among many. I was no more than 7 years old. The neighborhood kids decided to go for a swim at the Pasig River. I was prevailed upon to go along. A concerned neighbor saw us and reported us to our parents. When I got home, I got the worst spanking I ever got. I remembered. For life. And for all the pain and the tears, I got the most important realization. Love me tender came in a package that also says, love me tough.



But the story of love is a multi-faceted one. Like a diamond, it has its hidden angles and occult glinting colors that can only be seen when put against the light. Such was the case of the burning bush … the light of the flames from the bush showed in a very palpable manner the tender, tough, and true love of a kind and merciful God. “Come no nearer … Remove the sandals from your feet … I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”



And here is where it gets pretty tender and true … “Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”



At 8 years old, I was run over by a car. It was an off white Beetle Volkswagen filled with lady passengers. As soon as they saw I was not quite dead yet, the driver sped away leaving me limping and bleeding on the road. I managed to limp my way home. I lied to my mother. I did not tell her I was run over by a car. Her initial reaction? Anger at me … but this did not last very long. The tough love soon made way to tender, caring love.



But notwithstanding the kindness and mercy of God, bad things do happen to good people. A terrible thing also happened to a group of Galileans who suffered a violent death when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Yes, love of God and our love for God do not guarantee that life is going to be a walk in the park. The mystery of human freedom and human choice, along with the mystery of evil, can wreak pain and suffering even to innocent people.



But sinner or saint, innocent or guilty, happy or not so happy, the same merciful God calls us and expects us to use our freedom and the capital that is His love, to go and bear fruit. And this is where the tender part and the tough part get together and become true. And it can only be true if it is vivifying, life-giving, and fructifying – fruit-bearing.



Love cannot be only tender and not much else. It is not enough that two people are in love for them to get married. That love, too, must be open to its life-giving nature. It must be fruitful. It must be fecund. I cannot get married to my dog, no matter how much I love my dog, for the simple reason that that love is never and will never by fructifying. Neither can I get married to my car, or to my computer. Love, for it to be real, ought to go beyond being tender. It also has to be true, a love born of a relationship that cannot but be open to bearing fruit, as in the case of a man and woman, open to giving birth to children.



The tender and loving God, whose love is tough and true, talks to us personally today in Jesus, His Son. He is like the landowner who planted the fig tree, and who, rightly expected some fruit from what he planted. Finding none, he wanted it cut down. But no, He did not. His mercy triumphed over all other considerations. He was willing to wait. For it was, after all, in the nature of fruit-trees to be giving fruit and bearing fruit in plenty.



In life, I have met so many people. I have known so many, who despite their many faults, are essentially very productive people. There are those who, despite their degrees and titles and opportunities given them, hardly do anything for others. There are lazy people, and very hardworking people. But God loves them all equally. And God reminds us now that love for Him, for ourselves and for other people, is meant to be tender, tough, and true – and fruit-giving!



Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness! True. But so, too, is the need for this love and mercy to bear fruit in plenty for the life of the world.

Friday, February 19, 2016

LOOK UP AND SEE!

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[BREAKING THE BREAD OF GOD’S WORD]
2nd Sunday of Lent Year C
February 21, 2016

LOOK UP AND SEE!



One of the many things I enjoyed in outdoor campings and climbs atop mountain peaks was stargazing during dark cloudless nights. I spent hours looking up at the sky, and gazing on the stars.



You see, for one, looking up at the sky is free. Second, everyone waxes poetic just gazing on stars. And should the muse of poetry not be present, there at least was the excitement waiting for occasional falling stars.



But I am not going to dwell on stars rising and stars falling tonight. I choose to dwell on what those stars represent, from whence they come – the heavenly firmament, which classic imagination would take to refer to God.



Yes … God … the same God who called Abram and told him to “look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can” …



Yes … God … the same God who has made it possible for us to be enlisted for “citizenship in heaven, from where we await a Savior.” ….



Yes … God … the same God who manifested and revealed His glory historically in Christ, if only for a few fleeting moments, in the presence of Peter, James and John. ….



And He did it by calling them up a high mountain. He did it by making them look up at the shining splendor of Christ’s transfigured being.



He still does it today, in our times. When I was younger, climbing heights and spending overnights outdoors and doing the stargazing thing was not difficult. When you are young and idealistic, the world is nothing but an oyster. Everything is hopeful; every problem solvable, and all challenges surmountable.



But then the moment of truth comes … not all peaks are reachable and not all stars are visible all the time. Storms and hurricanes and man-made pollution and destruction of the earth’s natural resources bring with it not only smoggy days and  smoke-clogged nights as to render it impossible to see stars and everything else that stars stand for.



There comes a time in one’s life when you realize that God may have really put off all the lights and turned off the mains of earthly happiness and earthly fulfillment. Problems do come by us and as the old song goes, “into everyone’s life some rain does fall.” Yes … and this by far is the most horrible darkness one can ever experience … bad things do happen to good people.



Bad news, you say? No, not if you ignore the good news hiding behind it!



And the good news is this … Just when you think God has put off the lights and turned off all the mains of the sources of your external joys, in days like this, you realize that God is a STAR that never wanes nor dies, and a light that never fades.



You realize at some deep inner portion of your believing heart that “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”



Peter, James and John was set up for a big revelation, like we are set up for a big realization … But even they, who were given a glimpse of heaven they could only look up longingly to, were also given a reality check and a wake-up call … “A cloud came and cast a shadow over them.”



Seeing God’s glory face to face was not a guarantee that things would get better and better all the time. Into everyone’s sunshine, some cloud must come; and into everyone’s life some rain must fall.



But that my dear friend, is not the end of  the story. Problems, trials and tribulations don’t make up life as God wills and willed it. The final chapter of our human and finite existence … the final course of the world as God willed it is what we all could only longingly look up at the sky for – in faith, in hope and in trust and in love of the God of promises and the God of fulfillment …



This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.



And looking up at the stars – and listening to His promises – do not lead to darkness, but to the light. “The Lord is my light and my salvation!” LOOK UP AND SEE.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

EXPECTING WRONGLY; AIMING RIGHTLY


[BREAKING THE BREAD OF GOD’S WORD]
First Sunday of Lent Year C
February 14, 2016

EXPECTING WRONGLY; AIMING RIGHTLY

Today is one of those days, like Christmas Day and Fiesta days in the Philippines, when it is so hard to preach. It is Valentine’s Day, and the highly commercialized and media-crazed world has managed to catapult Valentine’s Day to the equivalent of a “solemnity” in the Roman Catholic Church. Woe to me if I do not preach! Woe to me if I at least don’t make mention of the day of hearts.

And I am not talking yet about the monstrous traffic that will take place all over the cities all day and a good part of the night.

But I need to preach in season, and out of season. But whilst being fashionable and in season is a requirement for us worldly men and women, God’s love knows no times and seasons. God’s mercy knows no bounds, and God’s call is eternal. The first readings from Deuteronomy tells us this much …  God called Abraham. God called Moses and the Chosen People. When God loves, He does not withdraw such love. “When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed [them] [they] cried to the Lord, and He heard [their] cry.”

Such love and compassion, Scripture further tells us, were never limited to those whom He originally called. “No one who believes in Him will be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.”

We are, for all intents and purposes, a pampered people. And pampered people do have a sense of entitlement. We expect much. We expect highly. And we make demands, too, on God.

I believe that this, too, is among the side stories of the Gospel account of the three temptations of Christ. The story must be so important and so indicative of our nature as human beings that we hear the same story every year, on the first Sunday of Lent.

It is all too easy for us to treat it as the story of Christ being tempted by the devil, and our tendency is to see ourselves apart from it, like as if our lives did not have anything to do with the story of Christ’s temptation.

But Scripture, for it to be meaningful for us, is meant to be a message of God for each and everyone of us, here and now, and for all women and men, of all times and places.

Simply put, the story of the three temptations of Christ, is also the story of our own temptations right where we are, in these present times. They tell us about our own unrealistic, mistaken, and much too high expectations from God, in exactly the same way the devil expected wrongly from Christ.

We do have not only unrealistic, but downright mistaken expectations from God. Richard Viladesau speaks about three “misunderstandings” of Jesus’ mission that involve some kind of “ultrasupernaturalism,” which he defines as a desire for God to intervene in history in a “miraculous” way all the time.

Students do not do their scholastic duties, but at the end of the term, they expect God to help them pass the course …

Men drink themselves sick, and when sickness worsens, they expect God to “cure” them of their rotting livers and kidneys …

People vote for nincompoops, incompetent and corrupt leaders, but highly expect God to help them make their country a livable place to live in – with justice and equity for all …

We all contribute to the destruction of our only home – the earth – but when disaster strikes as they inevitably would due to wanton and careless use and abuse of the earth’s  resources, we beg the Lord for “good weather” and deliverance from calamities.

We beg the Lord to “deliver us from temptation,” but we bring ourselves literally lead ourselves to the occasions of sin …

We complain about  drug lords, but look who’s supplying jueteng lords with all the cash? One of them has boasted recently that his earnings total a minimum of 25 million a day!

Yes, dear friend. We expect bread and more – in exchange for stones! We expect highly and wrongly to wield power, in exchange of worshipping and kowtowing to whatever the leader of the cult says, or in exchange of favors and juicy positions in government or government controlled organizations and companies. (Did you ever ask why on earth SSS has so many Vice Presidents and Board Directors earning millions of pesos in emoluments and additional sums for attending meetings?)

And let me go on … we expect miracles! We expect God to do for us what we ought to be doing for ourselves. We avoid self-responsibility and demand that God does for us what we claim we cannot do. And so, we throw ourselves down from the parapet of self-responsibility and right choices, and then expect God to come to our rescue.

But I have good news for you today!

God does come to our rescue. He does give us bread – and more! He gives bread that leads to eternal life. He gives us power – the power of choice. He gives us the possibility, not simply to expect highly, but also to choose rightly. He gives us mercy and compassion – such that when we throw all caution to the winds and throw ourselves to sinfulness and selfishness, God comes down to forgive us, to heal us of the worst form of woundedness.

He is mercy. He is justice. He is compassion. He is love – beyond what the world can imagine!

Expect highly, yes … but aim rightly! Aim for God, not any other that is less than Him … stale bread … useless power … limited wealth.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

UNDESERVING, BUT CALLED AND SENT!


[BREAKING THE BREAD OF GOD’S WORD]
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
February 7, 2016

UNDESERVING, BUT CALLED AND SENT!

Isaiah was not just a great prophet. He, too, was a great man, if greatness begins with being honest – emotionally honest, first and foremost – and morally so, too. He had no lofty dreams for himself, no ambition. He just took things as they came … yes, including the experience of being privy to a divine manifestation of the “Lord, seated on a high and lofty throne.”

Isaiah was gifted with the vision of God’s holiness, His transcendence, His stark otherness. But he was gifted, too, with an honest view of who he was: “a man of unclean lips.”

But while greatness may begin with emotional and moral honesty, it is enriched and made complete with utter availability. Having heard God’s question: “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah responds forthwith: “Here I am. Send me.”

Honesty, modesty (humility) and availability are never mutually exclusive. Isaiah was honest enough to cry: “Woe is me. I am doomed!” St. Paul was accepting enough of the truth to proclaim: “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.”

But the truth of their unworthiness – even, rottenness – is complemented by the greater truth of their being graced, saved, redeemed by no less than the one who called them. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”

Dear friends, this, too, is my story, and your story.

Let me explain a bit. You see, I don’t deserve at all to have the privilege and honor of doing what I have been doing for several decades now as a priest. Like most Filipinos, I don’t come from a pedigreed family. Like most everyone else in this country, I come from the boonies. I have no birthright to anything … to education, to fame, to fortune.

But by the grace of God, I am what I am … This, by the way, is what I printed in my invitation to my first Mass many years ago. This is the honest truth. I lay no claim to anything that I possess and acquired, including my relatively good education, and everything else.

But I would like you to know today that there is something great and deep and noble that you and I are called to do. The Lord, the same Lord who has called us, undeserving though we all are, now tells us to probe deeper, to work harder, to go the extra mile … Put out into the deep.

He tells us, incapable, unworthy, and un-pedigreed though we may be, to lower our nets for a catch.

And after more than three decades of putting out into the deep … after so many years trying to do what He tells us to do … after mistakenly thinking so many times that the successes we may have had are due to our human capacities, the truth eventually stares us in the face, and puts us right back where we ought to belong … “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Yes, the truth remains and will forever remain … We are all unworthy and undeserving servants who are only called to do what He commands.

But the more than three decades of failures and successes only have taught me the wisdom that can only come from an honest acceptance of who and what we are … sinful, unworthy, and undeserving, but called and sent by Him who alone can do wonders in and through you and me …

Put out into the deep … and lower your nets for a catch!