REFLECTION….

Is God our genie?

As a school boy I often prayed to God prior and during my exam times. In my innocence, I hoped that God would guide me to do well in my exams and I would get good results. Now as I look back on this, I see that I was picturing God as my magical genie in the famous cartoon movie, Aladdin, who could fulfil all my wishes. I’m sure it was just me imagining God that way!!!

The readings this weekend point out that the imagination of God as our genie is often the case for human beings. The Israelites saw God as a mere material provider for their physical needs – food in this weekend’s first reading and prior to and after this, in the book of Exodus, God provided them water to drink in the wilderness.

The crowds that followed Jesus to Capernaum had similar mentality. They saw Jesus as a genie that could work miracles to feed the multitude with so little. They wanted his miraculous power but not himself. Jesus pointed them to go beyond the miracle, the physical and material satisfaction, to recognise the sign revealing who he was. He was the Word Incarnate, the Word becoming flesh, the flesh that can feed us so we may grow in our maturity and relationship with the reality bigger than ourselves – God.

God at times (or most of the times) works through physical and material signs, not for the sake of fulfilling our physical and material needs and desires, but for the sake of relationship with Him/Her.

So when I prayed for good results for my exams back in my school time, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The more I grew up, the lesser what I wanted in prayers has been satisfied. It is not because God doesn’t want to answer my prayers. God always answers our prayers, but not in the ways we might expect or hope for. But moreover, I have learnt that God is a lover who cannot be manipulated as a genie from the oil lamp, and I’m continuously called to learn to be in a loving relationship with God more than having all my desires and concerns solved and sorted miraculously. Relationship and shallow satisfaction are very different things.

Lots of people begin their faith journey by experiencing significant miracles that God gives them in their lives. But when these unbelievable miracles stop, their faith also starts to shake. That’s an indication that our faith basically relies on whether we are satisfied or not. And be sure, that’s not what faith is about, that’s not what God wants for us.

God wants to be our lover, a real lover, not our magical genie.

Br Khoi msc

REFLECTION….

Our Scarcity and God’s Abundance

I was born and grew up in the post-war time when Vietnam was recovering from many wars in previous decades. Economic system of the communist government imposed on the whole country was obviously not efficient and sufficient to boost the country out of poverty and the lives of many people were in desperation.

My family, fortunately, was not desperate but merely average. We, my siblings and I, were taught very strictly to save and not to spend, just in case something might happen unexpectedly. That “saving” mentality sticks with me and at times manifests itself in “scarcity” mentality – it might not be enough, I often think.

I think not only those who grow up in financially tough circumstances might have that scarcity mentality. I have spoken to many people who were born rich, more than sufficiently provided materially, but still have doubt that life is not enough.

I think the mentality of scarcity is common with human condition because we are limited but our desires can grow into impossible, selfish ambitions.

The readings this weekend challenge our normal thinking that life is not enough for us, everything is not going to be enough. In the first reading, Elisha’s servant asked: How can twenty barley loaves can be enough for a hundred men? But eventually they ate and even had some over.

Similarly, in the Gospel, Phillip and Andrew struggled with scarcity of food for the large crowd following Jesus. Two hundred denarii were not enough to give each a small piece. Two hundred denarii, back in that time, was like a whole year wage of a hard-working worker. Two fish and five loaves were as nothing to five thousand men (let alone probably ten thousand women that were not mentioned!). Eventually, Jesus fed them all and twelve harpers full of scraps left over from the five barley loaves were collected.

The point of the two readings is to remind us that our God is a God of abundance, an abundant provider who gives us enough and even overflowing. God is not a God of scarcity that we might have imagined ourselves.

On Wednesday evening, I was watching the news about the terrible bushfire happening in Greece which have caused more than eighty people’s deaths. This woman was being interviewed in the middle of the rubbles of her house; and she said to the interviewer that she was very grateful that she was still alive with her son. That was enough for her despite the loss of her house and everything she had.

How often do we feel that our life is enough, whatever we have and wherever we are? Only when we feel and experience the “enough-ness”, the fullness of the life God has graciously given us, we can really follow what St Paul says in the second reading: “Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience.”

Br Khoi msc

REFLECTION….

Being Shepherds Today

Fr Alo and I have just come back from the bi-annual live-in clergy conference of Archdiocese of Sydney. The conference focused much on ongoing formation for clergy – bishops, priests and deacons – who are called essentially to be shepherds to the people they serve. The conference was like a bit of time away from ministry and pastoral commitments to review, refresh and revive our pastoral zeal and life.

However, in all due respect to my own call to be a pastor and shepherd to the parish community, I believe that the call to be shepherd today needs to be shared among us all. We are all called to be shepherds in different ways, in different circumstances and circles of community.

When we were baptised, we are given the right to share in Christ’s servant leadership (to replace the notion of the kingship), and this is the call to be shepherds as God is our ultimate shepherd.

But let me first define who a shepherd is. A shepherd, simply put, is a caregiver, a leader and a servant. I chose these three words with clear purposes. A shepherd is obviously a person who gives care to their sheep. Shepherds are leaders because they are the ones who lead the sheep to find good, green pastures and water. A shepherd is a servant because shepherding is culturally not a highly respected job but a job of a slave or a lowly servant back in the time of Jesus, and probably today as well.

Pope Francis consistently calls the church’s leaders to be shepherds who are close to the sheep to the point of having their smell. I wonder how many of us, as pastors, would take it seriously. But I do know that there are many good shepherds out there smelling like the sheep they are caring. They are parents who are shepherding their children with unconditional and compassionate love. They are friends who are caring for each other with tender understanding and consoling presence. They are strangers who are taking compassion on those who are suffering for fleeing their home countries, for being stolen of their lands, cultures and lifestyles, for financial, physical and mental disadvantages, for being isolated and cut-off from the faith community, the list can go on.

In today’s complex and complicated context of our society, I trust that the Good News of Jesus calls us to be wise, but deeply compassionate and healing shepherds to those under our care.

Let me imitate what the Pope has many times urged, I do believe, with his whole heart. “I ask you: Be shepherds.”

Br Khoi msc

REFLECTION . . .

Being prophetic
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

When reflecting on John the Baptist today, I was reminded of this familiar prayer that we, religious and priests, pray every morning. The prayer is called the Benedictus. The prayer is beautiful and the part that is in bold talks particularly about John the Baptist – his mission to be a prophet, getting before the Lord, the Messiah, to prepare and to give knowledge of salvation by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins.

One of the great things about John’s prophetic mission is that he was courageous enough to dare breaking away from the traditional ritual of repentance in the temple where people offered animal sacrifices in order to be remitted for their sins, to a non-traditional and simple ceremony of cleansing with water in the river of Jordan, the ceremony which I learnt was a ceremony only for gentiles and foreigners. One thing we keep in mind is that John came from a priestly family – his father, Zechariah, was serving as a priest in the temple when he encountered the angel who heralded John’s conception in Elizabeth’s womb.

Being prophetic is being a person of God, proclaiming the message of God in our words, deeds or self-expression. What God wants to communicate with us through prophets are not always things we want to hear but may well be things we need to know. And what we need to know can be challenging to accept and digest.

I invite you this weekend to reflect on prophetic voices around us and even inside our hearts so that we may become prophetic voices of God to those in need. Being prophetic is a service of a servant, not merely an honorable thing of a teacher or master.

Br Khoi msc

REFLECTION . . .

FAMILY

The readings this weekend might help us reflect on the theme of family (our own families and our community as family).

The first creation family broke down in the first reading from the book of Genesis due to their desire to become more than what they were created. They were disobedient to God, meaning not listening to God’s will. Jesus came and proclaimed a new family which focuses on God’s will: “Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.”

We would be in a much brighter situation if only we let God be God, and let ourselves be who we really are. We would be living in a much easier and happier life if only we let God be the centre, the ultimate judge, and we the creatures of God, subjected to God’s boundless embrace of love. We, as judges, haven’t played the role very well. That’s why we experience and see endless wars, divisions, conflicts and violence.

Similarly, in family, if we put our egos in the centre, there would be fighting, separations, tensions, and possibly, violence. Ronald Rolheiser OMI says in one of his recent articles on marriage that one of the signs for a good marriage is spouses being like the body of Christ, being food for others. This can apply in family as well. A sign of a good family is everyone being able to give themselves up for others to be nurtured and nourished. This is the sign that we are listening, not to our egos, but to God’s will revealed through the person of Jesus.

In order to live a self-giving attitude in family life (and in any other life), I think one needs to contemplate on the image of the crucified Christ on Calvary, which we were reminded of on Friday, the feast day of the Sacred Heart:

“When they came to Jesus, they found he was already dead, and so instead of breaking his legs one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water.”

Are we willing to let our hearts be pierced like that so that whatever inside can be revealed? Are we able to let our egos be broken down so manifesting our real selves? Are we letting God’s power to grace us to do that?

Let us pray for one another so that we may be able to live it day by day, in our families and parish family.

Br Khoi msc

Imagine a world when love is the way

Yes, if you find this title of my reflection familiar, it means that you either watched the Royal Wedding last week or have followed the news. It’s the line which stuck in my mind after listening to Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the wedding. I am aware that there are various discussions (and criticisms) about the sermon – its delivery, appropriateness and relevance. But what I was captivated by was its message of love. I believe that our celebration of the Blessed Trinity this weekend is a feast of love.

Richard Rohr’s book on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, is an interesting read if you would like to dive into the abysmal mystery of the Trinity and consequential practical implications in our Christian life. In that he uses the fourth-century mystical metaphor of the Cappadocian Fathers of Eastern Turkey in endeavouring to portray the Trinity as a flow, a radical relatedness,
a perfect communion between the Three – a circle dance of love.

Rohr also quotes Carl McColman, a lay Cistercian teacher, and I think it’s good to read this quote slowly and take time to reflect on it.

“God is in us because we are in Christ. As members of the mystical body, Christians actually partake in the divine nature of the Trinity. We don’t merely watch the divine dance of the Three Persons in the Trinity, we dance the dance. We join hands with Christ, and the Spirit flows through us and between us, and our feet move always in the loving embrace of the Father.
In that we… can see the joyful love of the Father through the eyes of the Son. And with every breath, we breathe the Holy Spirit.”

Our call to partaking in this divine, flowing dance of love is clearly expressed in the letter to the Romans this weekend. The Spirit whom we receive from Christ draws us into the familial and loving relationship between the Father and the Son, so that we can cry out to God: Abba (‘Daddy’ is a better translation), as Jesus did. The matter here is not primarily about God’s gender but about relationship.

As we are immersed in this intimate, loving and joyful dance, we may be able, according to Jesus’ great commission to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, to go out, baptising – meaning immersing – other people in the name of the Trinitarian God, the unconditional, ever-flowing and ever-reaching out love. Imagine a world when people are immersed in this love of God.

Br Khoi msc

Ps. I am personally grateful for your support and encouragement on my book which was introduced to you last weekend. I pray and hope that it will be a helpful read to you.

REFLECTION….

Unity in Love

Unity is always a struggle in any type of community – family, friendship, parish, the Church, workplace, and even religious community. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is an example. The community didn’t know what to do with Saul who had been a vigorous persecutor to the followers of Jesus but now became a preacher of Christ.

The second reading and the Gospel also seem to focus on unity, but not unity on the outside but within. External unity has to come from unity within, our unity with God through the Word Incarnate: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty”. And according to the first letter of John, whoever keeps God’s commandments unites with God and God with them. God’s commandments are to believe in Jesus, God’s Son, and to love one another.

For us, Christians, to believe may be easier than to love. Perhaps, we all come from family situation, and know how challenging it is, at times, to love our own families, especially when they are so different to us, when they drive us nuts, when they hurt us in more than “seventy times seven” occasions. Unity seems to be a nice theory or ideology but far from reality.

When my dad was still alive (he passed away nearly four years ago) and struggling through the MND disease in the last three years of his life, he and I didn’t get along well from the outside. We argued a lot about what he could eat and drink, what he could and could not do for the day, how to make some sense of faith in such the situation he was in. Regardless of all that, one of the last moments of his earthly life, laying on the bed, he looked at me with glassy eyes as if he wanted to say that he loved me so much, but could not say it anymore.

Unity in reality can only be found, not in agreement, conformity or blind obedience to authority, but in love. Love, as someone rightly said, is a decision which is made by our whole being – heart, mind, soul, faith, hope and all else. It is, for me, like a commitment, meaning a journey, and the aim of this journey is union with those we have loved, moreover, with all creation and the Creator, our loving God.

Br Khoi msc

LEPERS IN OUR MIDST

The first reading and the Gospel are usually connected in theme. This weekend is no exception. Both talk about leprosy and those who are contracted with it.

According to HarperCollins Bible Dictionary and some scripture scholars I have come across, it is unclear what leprosy really is but it is certainly not modern leprosy (Hansen’s disease). This information can help us reread the readings this weekend in broader terms. Leprosy can be interpreted as any kind of physical disorder that makes people excluded or left out in many ways, not only physically but also socially. The person, as mentioned in the first reading from the book of Leviticus, who is leprous must be declared “unclean”. Uncleanliness in this context is not only about hygiene but also and moreover about ritual and social state: being outcasts in the community and society.

The only barrier between healing and the leper in the Gospel story is Jesus’ willingness. The only barrier between inclusivity and those who are left out, looked down, discriminated against in community and society is our willingness to make a change. We may not be able to “cure” diseases or disorders people have like Jesus was able according to the Gospel story, but we are capable of “healing” the social judgements and discriminations against those who are different from the majority. The outcasts are also human beings; but they are different to us, so different that we can’t accept them in our midst. Unless we can see that at times in our life we have been also outcasts, unless we can see that within ourselves we have some parts of us as strangers, we will never be able to have a genuine compassion for those who are strangers in our midst.

Br Khoi Nguyen msc