Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Time God Spoke to Me Through the Transfiguration

I was 26, in my second year of volunteer life, and not feeling very secure about my life. I had just received a letter from a priest-relative telling me I should get back to normal life and settle down and stop living off other people (we fund-raise our own salaries) and give up adventure for reality. I was upset and shaken and started questioning everything. It didn’t help that team life was hard at that time, and our ministry seemed haphazard and not very obviously fruitful. In other words, we didn’t know what the heck we were doing.

“Perhaps I should go back to college and study some more? Maybe get a more ‘normal’ job? What am I doing? Does this life really make sense? Is this how everyone sees me? How do I really know what God wants?”

I happened to be a on a personal retreat when all this soul-searching was happening, but in spite of the appropriateness of the setting, I wasn’t really feeling like praying about it. But God had something to say, and He wanted to make sure I heard it, so He sent some... wait for it… religious sisters.

Yup, although I was technically on a two day personal silent retreat at a retreat center, some sisters who were also on retreat, and were staying in the room next to mine, came up to me the first night. “Mass is at 6 am. We’ll knock on your door at 5.45 am.”

“ Really Sisters? 5.45 am?!!! I didn’t ask you to! DO I have a choice about this? This is my personal retreat and if I want to sleep in, I’m going to sleep in!”

Er, no, that’s not what I said. What I said was, “Oh, okay, thank you so much. Sisters.” While gnashing my teeth of course. Talk about holy dispositions to retreats! (This was some years before my commitment to daily Mass began.)

Anyway so the next morning, they faithfully woke me up, and I walked with them to the Mass. It turned out to be the Feast of the Transfiguration. You know, when Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain, and then they got to see him shining in all his glory (like a laundry detergent commercial, only better), and Moses and Elijah appeared and then Peter is so freaked out that he just says the first thing that come in his head- “It’s so cool that we’re here! Let’s make some tents and hang out!” The cluelessness of the apostles is always such a relief to me. And then there’s a Trinity get-together and the Father gives Jesus a shout-out.

So as I was sleepily (and somewhat grumpily) reviewing the Transfiguration in my mind as Mass began, I was trying to remember the point of the story. You know, each event or story in the Bible has SOME applicable lesson or moral or point. But I just couldn’t remember.

Then the Bishop spoke, slowly and authoritatively. “As we all know, the Transfiguration is all about the Father confirming Jesus in the mission He had already given Him. All of us here have already received our mission. The Father is confirming us too in the task He has given us. We have to move forward in faithfulness to what He has already asked us to do.”

That was one of the clearest messages I have ever received from the Lord. I took it to heart, prayed about my priest-relative’s letter, and responded in detail with quotes from Church documents about the validity and need for the work I was doing. He responded accepting my answers and saying he would pray for me. I continued as a volunteer, and saw great fruit borne from that seemingly fruitless time.

Showing up for Mass, reading the bible, going on retreat – all these have often been ways the Lord has continued to speak to me in spite of my own bad attitude and bare minimum approach. Six years later I’m grateful I didn’t run away when I faced opposition or criticism, and that the Lord in His mercy spoke to me even when I was not super-interested in seeking His guidance.

God gives each one of us sufficient grace ever to know His holy will, and to do it fully. -St. Ignatius of Loyola

Saturday, 21 April 2018

The World Needs Saints

I am not the only person who wants to change the world. I know many, many people trying to change it in many different ways. Enough of us see that it is broken, and we want to fix it. Or at least use a Band-aid. Or do SOMETHING.

The institutional Catholic Church is the same. At the parish level, at the diocesan level, in every group, we are all trying to do SOMETHING. We start programmes, talk series, outreaches, pick a theme for each year, plan fundraisers, start schools and orphanages, have conferences and synods and meetings and conventions.

These are often good and necessary. They are methods we use, means to an end, channels of grace. 

But too often the programme becomes the end in itself. We have meetings after meetings, our year is filled with activities, our parish is known as active and lively, and still the world is not changing. People are still furious with each other, programmes collapse as resentment and bitterness reign, or the show goes on but relationships are strained, and those who were won over by an ideal find themselves disillusioned by the reality of ugly human sin in the most 'active' of Church members.

The organization I work with does not have ONE programme. People are often confused when they ask us what we do, and we say "Share Jesus and serve the poor." They want a silver bullet, a foolproof method that will give our service value or effectiveness. I used to feel the same temptation, to put my trust in a programme. A great programme, a useful, effective programme that would change lives.

But this is what our leaders tell us over and over. Be a saint. Deny Jesus nothing. Go love people. Build relationships. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you. Do what He tells you. Don't be afraid.

Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint”. 
Pope Francis, Gaudate et Exsultate

And now I've realized not enough people in the Church are saying that, or living that. We set our sights too low, we ask for too little, and then wonder why everything is the same.

Because finally programmes don't change people. The best programme cannot truly change hearts. 

Saints make saints. People who know and love God fully and walk with Him daily are the only ones who can effect true change. Because you can't give what you don't have. Programmes, retreats, conventions, outreaches, and even movements are not only insufficient, but even counter-productive, if they are not being run by saints and disciples. When we see programmes or parishes or communities run by people who gossip, who are cold to certain people, who are quick to judge and condemn, who are defensive or resistant to feedback, who are more caught up with righteous anger than love for those who are ignorant or lost or different, who are harsh or rude or just indifferent, the programme loses all its fire.

The reverse is true too- saints enliven anything that is done just by their presence. Suddenly the retreat works, the programme works, the lay community works... because of the saints who are bringing life to it.

Our witness matters. Only lives shining with the Christ-light can bring the true Light into the world, into the messiness and ugliness of human hearts and relationships, which is where we need it the most.

When I look back at my life, even more than books or theology or talks or retreats I attended, the biggest influences were certain PEOPLE, saints who loved with all their hearts. Saints are ultimately Lovers. 'In the end, it is Christ who loves in us, for “holiness is nothing other than charity lived to the full”.' Pope Benedict XVI

Is your group, community, parish or circle made up of people trying to be saints, or trying to achieve things, or push agendas, or focusing on ideas over people? What about you? 

Read: Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis'new exhortation on the call to holiness in today's world.

Friday, 16 March 2018

How to Love When I’d Rather Yell

“STOP pushing the desk, Khushi! How many times have I told you the SAME thing! Sit up straight and don’t lean against the table!” The plump, untidy little six year old gave me a shame-faced grin as she did every single time I corrected her which was probably every other minute of the thirty minutes I sat with her.

A couple of months ago I started teaching remedial reading to a few struggling students from different classes in the school we’ve partnered with before. Emmaus has two main focuses in what we do- sharing Jesus and serving the poor. As I ended three months of volunteer training in December, and was preparing for a new year, I felt the Lord calling me to live a little more closely to the poor, and serve them in a more practical and regular way. When we did a Story Club last year in the same school, we noticed that there were many, many children who struggled with even the most basic reading. I have a background of teaching, know something of phonics, and I LOVE reading, so it seemed like the right way to serve.

So four days a week, my team mate Sandra and I would head to the school and sit in the library with the kids. How exciting to give these children skills that could transform their school experience, their education, and probably their future careers! If you can’t even read English, what chance have you got? But if you can, how many more doors are opened, how much more confident you are likely to be!

We didn’t want to just teach them to read though. We wanted to show each of these children the love of Christ, to acknowledge their value and dignity as irreplaceable, unique, unrepeatable children of God. We wanted to be kind to them, to be a loving presence in their lives.

But then they came along, and they pushed the table into me every two minutes, rocked the bench until it fell over, interrupted and called out answers when it wasn’t their turn, pushed each other, complained about each other, lost their pencils, and erasers, and made the same mistakes again and again and again. And I would find my voice rising and sharpening as I corrected them again and again and again.

This is not who I wanted to be! I have had enough of sharp, irritated teachers, and I can’t stand it when I see teachers yelling at kids all the time. Angry and irritable teachers sure aren’t going to change the world, let alone show kids that they are loved.

But what was the solution?

I realized I needed to keep a stricter watch on myself. Just because I could get away with being impatient and angry, and using my sharp tongue as a weapon, didn’t mean it was okay for me to do so. But I had a new chance every day to be different. I didn’t beat myself up every time I spoke more sharply than I needed to, but stopped myself as soon as I noticed it, and tried to soften my voice and my attitude.

And instead of just trying to eradicate my own negative behaviour, I replaced it with something good. Instead of just trying to control their thoughtless or naughty behaviour, I started to affirm them every time they did something right.

When they finally sounded out a word correctly after struggling with it and doing it wrong many times, I spoke a delighted, “Good job!”and high-fived them. I gave them sweets at the end of class for good behaviour, and affirmed the ones who were participating or even trying. I learnt to stop acting as if they were ‘bad kids’, or in some way opponents, grudging every word of praise (which is strangely easy to do), and instead took every opportunity to encourage them. I read them story books occasionally, and found things to laugh at with them.

It’s only been two months with these particular kids, but I already love them. I see what God sees in them, as they give their shy little smiles, as I surprise a laugh out of them, as they pass the library when I’m with the older kids and give me a little wave from outside.

I’m pretty sure many of these kids have difficult home lives, either because of poverty or because of the common evils of alcoholic parents, broken marriages, harsh discipline methods, or just a lack of affection or consistent and kind discipline.

But when they come to reading class every day, they know they are loved, even when Susanna Miss sometimes loses her cool. And day by day, I hope the Lord is turning me into a slightly more accurate representative of HIS kind, patient, consistent love.

Here's a poem my mother wrote which she shares with teachers when she does teachers' training and formation sessions:

 A Teacher's Dream by Jackie D

Based on Matthew 25: 31-46 

I had a dream the other night,
(Or should I say, ‘nightmare’?)
There was a King upon his throne
With visage just and fair.

Above and all around him bowed
Angels, with wings unfurled;
And standing in a crowd with me,
The teachers of the world.

The King stepped down
And searched each one
With steady, measured gaze.
This one he sent to his right hand
That one, the other way.

And finally, when all had moved
Either to right or left,
He turned to those at his right hand
And said, ‘Welcome, you blessed!’

“For when I walked into your class
Ill-clad and shivering,
Your eyes were blind to faded shirt,
Your smile made me a king!

And, you, I never will forget,
For when I lost my notes,
You sat with me and patiently
Dictated while I wrote.

The day I failed to pass the test
And squirmed with fear and shame,
You hid my marks from curious eyes
And helped me try again.”

The King went on, his grateful eyes
Embraced each one with joy
Till, to my wond’ring eyes he seemed
Not man, but little boy!

When he was done, he turned
And walked to where the others stood.
His gaze grew stern, his voice grew hard
As he said, “Off with you!”

“Each time I failed to make the grade
You poked at me in fun,
And when you caught me copying,
You looked as if you’d won!

A hundred times you made me write,
‘I am a dirty cheat’ 
 You didn’t know, that with each line
The good within me ceased!

I know that you had work to do
And troubles, hard to bear,
I gave them so your heart would learn
To feel my children's’ care.

If you had only seen your sin
And put aside your pride,
I would have helped you; you’d be saved
 And many more beside!”

So, gathering the ‘Blessed ones’
He took them to himself
While all the rest, with blank despair
Stood gazing after them.

The scene was printed, sharp and clear,
Upon my waking mind.
One question loomed:
‘Was I with Him, …Or was I left behind?’

Monday, 23 October 2017

Building a Bridge of Trust

In her book ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’, Sherry Weddell wrote about the five stages of coming to know Jesus. The theory is that when people come to know Christ and commit their lives to Him, it is not usually something that happens in an instant, but involves a journey.

The journey begins with initial trust which is when a person is able to trust or has a positive association with Jesus, the Church, a Christian believer, or something identifiably Christian. A bridge of trust is needed. Initial trust can help a person move to the stage of spiritual curiosity, which can lead to spiritual openness, followed by spiritual seeking, and finally intentional discipleship.

In many ways, knowing this helps us feel free to walk with any person at the stage they are at, and allow the Holy Spirit to use us to help them move towards the next stage. God sends different people at different stages of a person’s journey. Sometimes we come in at the beginning, and sometimes at the end.

So the job of a Christian is never to proselytize, but lovingly be Christ to those of other faiths. However, we often fail at this very simple task.

Last year my team along with some local Catholic youth organized a two day summer club for students of a school. On the first day, halfway through the day, the father of one of the students came by the school to pick his daughter up. He was a Muslim. “I have to go to work, so I won’t be able to pick her up in the evening.” He seemed reluctant to take her away, and his daughter looked really woebegone at having to miss the rest of the day’s activities.

I was tired, and distracted by having to coordinate the summer club, and was half inclined to just say ‘Fine, take her and go.’ But something stopped me.

“Where do you live?” I asked him.

The place he named was further than any of the volunteers lived. I hesitated. But then the Holy Spirit gave me a little nudge, and I pushed my tiredness away. What were all my words about the love of Jesus worth if I wasn’t willing to go the extra mile (literally)?

I told him, “I can bring her home.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, his brow lightening perceptibly.

“Yes, I have a vehicle, I can bring her, no problem.”

His daughter took active part in all the activities for the rest of the day, and at the end of the day, after we cleared up, I dropped her home. The next day her dad came to pick her up in the evening at the end of the summer club. He shook my hand warmly and thanked me. He hung around, and then started talking to another one of our volunteers.

“This summer club is different from other programmes I’ve sent my daughter to,” he said. “Others don’t care about our children. Once they kept them standing in the sun all day, and didn’t even give them water. But you people are different. I can see that you actually care about the children. We don’t always trust our daughters to anyone. But I would send her to anything you organize."

He gave us his number and told us, “If you are ever in my area and need some help, please call me. I will be happy to help you in any way possible.” In a world where so much mistrust exists between the followers of different religions, there usually isn’t even a place to begin a relationship. But on that day, a bridge of trust was built.

What a Girl Wants

This is a story from my time in the Philippines in 2011.

Six years ago I was sitting in a parish hall in the Philippines on a hot, muggy morning. I had been there for a few months, having moved there as a Catholic volunteer. I was in a very bad mood. We had a bunch of girls living with us in our apartment for three weeks. Sleeping on the floor + over-friendly mouse in the house + random giant cockroaches + overheated bedroom + giggly girls who stayed up too late talking = 1 extremely grumpy Sue. Not to mention, the person who had told us to be there for the weekend conference hadn’t mentioned that it was to be completely in Visaya (the local language)... which still sounded like gibberish to us!

As I sat there feeling resentful and homesick, I began to sketch on a blank sheet of paper. I kept feeling irrationally guilty because I felt like I was back in school ignoring the teacher, and if I just focussed hard enough, I would somehow absorb the meaning of all the long speeches. This is the picture I drew that day.

All my homesickness rose to the surface. I wanted home, comfort, family, familiarity. I wanted MY little nieces, not the babies from other people’s families. I wanted to be there as my little goddaughter began to walk and talk and grow fond of people. I wanted the ease and rhythm of hanging out with my people—dancing with my cousin at our regular jive parties. I wanted someone to look after me and hug me and love me. I wanted to get OUT of my rut and do something crazy... stand on my head. And that day I desperately imagined a clean bed, not just a mattress or a thin mat, with fresh cool sheets, in a quiet room and most importantly with NO MICE OR COCKROACHES in the vicinity!

I wanted, wanted, wanted! I was past the honeymoon stage of my volunteer life, and I was NOT satisfied. I retreated to the dream world of my imagination, where everything was better, and I wouldn’t have to deal with the present moment.

The next morning I went to the Lord in prayer. I’m thankful that both the community I grew up with and the organization I was serving with insisted on daily personal prayer. I opened my bible to read the Mass readings of that day... and started laughing.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Very funny, Lord!

So what was he saying? I DID want. I wanted everything else but Him. C.S. Lewis once wrote “All that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—(is) the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

I think He was reminding me of the truth—He was enough. He wanted me to redirect my longing to Him, and He would satisfy me. My daydreams and imagination would never satisfy that hunger.

Sometime later I wrote in my journal, “I’ve wasted so much of my life living in illusions—books, movies, sleeping, dreaming, and fantasizing about weddings and babies. What was I doing with the precious present I had been given? Wasted it dreaming about the future. Here (in volunteer life) I am blessed because we have such a few escapes from reality—no TV, no movies, hardly any books, no Internet at home... ... Reality is the Lord. And reality is not hiding behind family or friends or books or movies or dreams. Reality is learning how to love. Reality is seeing the people around me through the eyes of God and loving them with His love. Reality is accepting suffering out of love, and not trying to avoid it. Reality is seeing all the ways the Lord is constantly trying to love me, and accepting them joyfully.”

If the Lord really is my Shepherd, I shall NOT want. It is only in the circumstances of the present moment that I can choose to meet Him, and be loved and satisfied by Him. But that means giving up the daydreams and embracing the reality of the ‘now’. Mother Teresa said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not yet here. We have only today. Let us begin.” 

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Story of God and a Neighborhood Cutie Competition

This is a story from my time in the Philippines in 2012.

The work of a Catholic volunteer is not the same as a social worker. We want to help people in not just temporary ways, but in ways that will last for eternity. We want to introduce them to the One who will stay even when we are gone. But is this God we believe in just a fantasy, an illusion? How can anyone know He is real?

Like the early Christians we pray, “Lord, grant to thy servants to speak your word with all boldness, while YOU stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4: 29) The burden of proof is on Him, not on us.

We tell people “If you seek God’s kingdom first, He will give you everything else you need. (Matt 6:33)” And the next thing you know... He does!

This is the story of a young man named Ramon from the Philippines. Ramon was a 20 year old who lived with his girlfriend Kring Kring, and their one year old son. They were expecting their second baby when they met a bunch of Catholic volunteers who invited them to join a bible study.

Ramon had never read a bible before. He had lived a wild youth, part of a dance group and local gangs, drinking too much, often involved in drug use and gang violence, and far from God. But with that bible study and the ones that followed every week, things began to change. In the course of the next six months, Ramon and Kring Kring decided to give God a chance. They experienced the overwhelming grace of God as they received the sacraments of Reconciliation and Matrimony (pic above).

Ramon and his family, like many in the Philippines, led a hand to mouth existence. With a two young children, trying to complete his education, and an unreliable job killing and roasting pigs for fiestas, finances were even tighter than usual.

One day they had no rice, no diapers and no milk for the babies. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” a worried Kring Kring said to Ramon. But Ramon had heard of a new way of responding to trials. “Have you no faith?” he asked her.

Then He turned to God. “God, You PROMISED You would provide for us. You are the Provider! I challenge you to provide us with rice for my family! If you can do this, THEN I will really believe You are all that they say You are!” It was a fleece Ramon was putting before God (as in Judges 6:36-40). Perhaps not the ideal way to relate to God, and yet God is patient with us, and meets us where we are.

The same day Ramon received a call from a friend. “Ramon, do you want to participate in the Barangay Gwapo compeitition?” (A barangay is the smallest unit of local government in the Philippines, similar to a neighbourhood. Gwapo means someone who is attractive or good-looking. So 'Neighbourhood Cutie'?) Apparently someone had dropped out suddenly from the competition, and they needed someone to fill in.

Ramon was astounded. “I don’t have any time to prepare. I don’t have any clothes to wear.” But he decided to do it. He borrowed clothes from Sammy, the only male volunteer on our team. His talent was dancing, but he had no music to dance to. He came to S, another volunteer, and she went through the music on her computer. The only music she could find that he could dance to was a song called ‘Used To Do It Too’ by Christian rap artist Lecrae, the lyrics saying 'I used to do it, used to do it, used to do it too/ But I'm changed, now I'm something different.' (Sounds staged, huh? God is the Master Playwright, after all.)

He got up on stage, said a prayer and gave it his best. Kring Kring said, “Before when Ramon used to dance, it was like he had a devil in him. Now when I saw him dance, he was totally different. He was smiling!” In the question round, Ramon told the judges that what set him apart from the other contestants was that he was a religious man and that he feared God. And yes... He WON! The judges commented on how humble he was, and said that that helped him to make their decision. His prize was 3000 pesos- enough to buy plenty of rice, milk and diapers, and even share with his extended family.

God was the One who proved to Ramon that His Word is true; that He really is a Father who cares about our daily needs; and that He longs for us to trust Him, and come to Him with childlike faith.

Ramon and his family are now full-time Catholic volunteers too, engaged in serving the poor and sharing with anyone and everyone about a real God who loves and cares for them.

Friday, 4 August 2017

My Heavenly Dad Shows Up at a Filipino Bus Station

I was just re-reading my old journal from 2012, and found this little story from my second year as a volunteer in the Philippines.

April 9, 2012

I was at the bus station at 4 pm to get my bus to Cagayan de Oro. Unfortunately, being Easter Monday, the buses were all full, and there were a bunch of people also waiting for the same bus.

Me still being pretty unassertive, and uncomfortable with the idea of pushing myself forward, I hung back as people pressed forward every time a bus stopped. I am also unsure about how Christian it is to get my way at the expense of others.

I stationed myself fairly close to where the bus would stop, but people don’t let a little thing like an Indian girl stop them from getting what they need. They stepped directly in front of me, to the point where they were practically standing on my feet, and I was leaning backward to avoid contact.

After waiting for 45 minutes, with pretty similar results every time, I was getting pretty desperate. I saw one man rushing around trying to get his family on to a bus (and getting in my way to do it). I am not used to having to fend for myself in these kind of situations, even though I have been a volunteer away from my family (in particular my dad and my brothers) for almost two years now.

So I said “Father, I need You to be my Dad who makes sure I get on the bus, and looks after me the way those women are being looked after. I am obviously out of control of this situation.”

It was getting later, every bus had standing place only, and many didn’t even have that. I was not looking forward to standing for the three hour bus ride.

Then a bus pulled in. I was desperate enough that I was willing to stand. I got in after a bunch of guys who of course rushed ahead of me. Chivalry doesn’t exist when people have a bus to catch. But as I stood at the front of the bus, all the guys filed out sadly. Obviously the conductor had told them there was no place.

As people pushed past me to get back out, I was like “Lord, please let me leave on this bus. And I know it is highly unlikely, but it would be awesome if You could get me a seat.”

I decided to ask if I could stand. I hate admitting that I can’t speak Visaya, so I try to use minimum words so people don’t realize I’m a foreigner and totally clueless. I try to read people’s actions and expressions to figure out what is going on and what they are saying. So I asked, and the conductor seemed uncertain.

But then he said something about a seat extension... the little seat that pulls out into the middle of the aisle. And there was one free! I don’t know why those guys didn’t get it. But I guess my Dad was looking out for me.

Re-reading this five years later is a good reminder for someone as forgetful as I am. Journaling has been such a great way to record the patterns and events and insights that have brought me to where I am today, and see the fingerprints of God all over my life. Do you journal?