Friday, April 20, 2007

Imitating Job

The whole story of Job in the Old Testament parallels the history of the world. Satan gets the chance to sneak into a lovely picture of God’s making, does his thing with God’s express permit and finally gets what is due him by God’s power. Adam and Eve dealt directly with Satan when they gave in to the temptation. In so many ways, we all do, too. The sacrifice of Christ rendered all that Satan has done and is doing null and void. Now all that we await is His return and the Final Judgment.

Job was a righteous man. And he was very wealthy as well. Now if that’s not Paradise in this world, we don’t know what good is. Job knew and thanked God for it everyday of his life. Yes, he gave sacrifices for the sake of his ten precious children and knelt in their behalf that they might also walk the way he walked.

But Satan had to have his way with Job. Take away his health then his wealth and then his children and he will curse you. Job’s wife chorused with the Tempter: Curse and die! The test was beyond a test of patience. Or love. Or faith. Or perseverance. It was a test of the entire human spirit, all that it is and all that it can possibly sense and contain. Like those archeologists who use tiny brushes to brush off every inch of dust in the hope of recovering what many would see as useless dead bones, such a test scratches away the unimportant things that prevent us from seeing the sunshine.

The ultimate test of the human spirit aims at the essential thing that makes us what we truly are. In truth, we are nothing but spirit, the kind created from the same image as God is, not flesh or dust, not blood or guts, not intelligence or idea. Moreover, it aims at proving each and every one of us of the indestructibility of life. A terribly hard lesson for one person to learn that we all, in various ways and in a much lesser degree or perhaps greater at times, have been privileged to undergo.

Job’s story ends with his becoming wealthier and having children who are more beautiful. Not to mention the corresponding maturity of character from his experience. What the latter is, the story does not dwell with at length nor do many of us truly recognize. As such, many quote the Book of Job invariably using Job’s words while in the pangs of pain and frustration. How easy it is for us all to use commiserating words of those who have eloquently described their journeys through suffering. Even today, Christians continually highlight the so-called seven last words of Jesus to somehow glean wisdom or courage that may come in handy in times of trouble.

And so, the violent death of 33 people in a mad and murderous rampage at Virginia Tech feeds our need for solace, hope and understanding. Desperately, we clutch at dry straws of platitudes as we hang from the cliff of insecurity. Or we grab and hurl broken rocks of raw emotions with which to express our outrage and confusion. Yet, some would echo the dirges of those whose sufferings may have mirrored the pain others may go through now. All in the hope of gaining or providing the healing we all need as one suffering family.

Yes, Job went through so much and we quote him while he went through pain and grief. But Job, perhaps not unlike Adam and Eve, never knew what eternal motives moved God and Satan to showcase him as the great experiment on suffering and faithfulness. The mystery of suffering has remained but has somehow lost its darkness in the revelation of what God allows and eventually grants to those who – well, stick it out with Him: ultimate triumph of goodness over evil, spiritual salvation and eternal life.

Thus, Job remained a righteous man throughout his ordeal -- almost. His one and singular mistake was to presume that God, in creating and blessing Job and letting him be destroyed so, could not renew or revive him. For Job questioned God and wished to die in his agony (did we forget to say Satan knew how to hide from the scene as the crisis raged?). He spoke things he did not understand, in the same way that many of us do. But when Job heard God speak in the storm and saw Him (and also Satan perhaps?), he bowed down and said: Now, my eyes see You and I retract.

We see evil in one man and we trace that evil from his past, his family, his friends, his schools and, naturally, his country. But do we know where that evil came from? From traditions? From society? From our genes? Or from the evil that is already there, sown everywhere and growing where it wills?

Evil lurks in every place. Until we see it as it is, we are wretched fools talking like Job and pitying ourselves and claiming how absolutely good or right we are. Until we all see God, like Job eventually did, we are blind fools postulating and sermonizing to other blind fools.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Loss of Innocence

Children in their innocence illustrate the character of God’s kingdom. Jesus told the ancient Jews, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” That seems clear and obvious to many of us who read or hear the Bible almost daily. For we see children and admire their unaffected ways, their spontaneity and their unpretentiousness. Nevertheless, many fail to truly comprehend the value of what the Lord taught.

Is the purity of childhood such a non-renewable quality we adults find useless or difficult to attain? Take for instance their capacity to derive gleeful fun from things and situations that we adult already consider passé or wearisome. Compare the seriousness and fuss we put into big-boys’ games or toys such as basketball, racing and football. Kids, on the other hand, roll marbles on the dirt, ride their bikes on the grass and kick a ball around with abandon and without regard to the many strict rules and appurtenant rewards we put into “playing games”. The main difference being not the amount of thrill derived from “the moment itself” but the quest to land in the “hall of fame”. Hence, the highlights and statistics that sports networks flash onscreen record not the intrinsic worth of the game but the so-called “glory of triumph” and even the “agony of defeat”. And all that is supposedly done in the name and the excitement of business-as-usual competition.

Children do not think in terms of such high-valued -- or more precisely, high-priced – post-games intramurals. But mind you, many kids nowadays are no longer safely protected from the pernicious mentality that adults inevitably impose upon them. Computer games are what they are – violently sophisticated, ultra-realistic and mind-and-soul warping – because of what adults want kids to become. Or is it, because of what kids want from what they see adults do and what adults therefore end up giving the kids? The whole process seems to defy analysis but the shakers are way ahead in the money game, too. Use the kids to find out what sells to kids because their parents would want them to have it. In the meantime, parents are hard put to point a finger on why their children behave the way they do.

Will the time come then when the real gap between adults and children disappear? Or at least, diminished to a vanishing or negligible degree such that the world will have lost all vestiges of innocence? A terrifying thought, one that presages the disappearance of guilt as a social deterrent. That is, guilt as we still know it to be: the result of losing one’s innocence or the effect of violating the laws of life. Thus, in a guiltless-ridden society no law will apply; hence, a lawless society arises. Nervously, we sense that day coming upon us soon.

It used to be that bikini-clad dancers pranced and wiggled only inside dark, smoky bars. But now they shamelessly hump in front of TV cameras for tots and grandpas to watch. Innocence? What childhood innocence are we trying to preserve or protect as a Christian nation? On the contrary, we have allowed the unconverted and the perverted to rule over our society and altered the normal process of the human development. Do we think that the degradation of the ecology came without the corresponding decay in human character? The Apostles John wrote hundreds of years ago in the Book of Revelation about those who will suffer hell for “destroying the Earth”. Moral or spiritual decay naturally leads to total physical decay. Sin causes death, as obviously as children become adults.

How do adults become un-childlike then? What happens to them to make them lose their innocence? They, or should we say, their parents or guardians, often expect them to emulate adults who are unconverted. Simply said, the world’s standards – not the Lord’s -- become their own. Adam and Eve led the way to the loss of innocence. Since then, every generation has been given a chance to gain it back.

Children, in general, gain the basic moral and emotional foundations of life from elementary and high school. College merely adds more knowledge and a sense of sophistication. Hence, early on, we attain a more or less completed character or personality that is necessary for good or meaningful social behavior, ideally that is. What we were at around 12 years of age – give or take 5 to 7 years -- somehow defined what we are morally now in essence. A diligent person learned early to be so as a child. Conversely, a criminally-minded adult came to be so from teenage years. Many of our habits and even mannerisms we have had as children.

For most cultures, the traditional age range of 18 to 21 marks the point when a person starts to lose parental-control and gains self-independence. Young enough to be excusably childish at times, yet old enough to make responsible decisions. Interestingly, it also signals what many refer to as the age when one is allowed to lose one’s innocence. The fact that it now occurs at 14 or 15 bothers many people. How does one effectively admonish a pubescent kid to convert into a child in order to enter the kingdom? As a high school teacher, I did so in so many ways and on so many occasions. I know at least two instances when lack of self-control led to teenage pregnancies. A sudden and tragic way of losing one’s childhood and innocence at a time when life begins to beckon.

Perhaps, the ancients had it so right when they gave their daughters into marriage at 12 or 13, at an age when every person who has ever been young knows the impossibility of dousing the blinding fire of carnality. Ironically, today we have succeeded in teaching people to wait as long as they can until they are emotionally and financially capable to marry. Yes, marriage can wait but, sex? There are many ways of hiding in the guise of false innocence or of lessening the inescapable guilt from the loss of it. We are adults expected to be adults and not, as the good Lord said, children of the kingdom. Yet the Lord clearly said: no impure thing enters the kingdom. God doesn’t have to prevent us; our own guilt prevents us from entering. Claiming back our innocence is the key.

We live in a time of freedom, of experimentation, of cloning and of extreme experiences. The senses seek to taste the knowable as well as the unknowable. What we can have – money, pleasure and power – we must have. Why not indeed? What we cannot have – the infinite power to have and to create what we want – we may have. Who cares for such things anyway? Only adults do, not children.

(Photo above: Cotton clouds above dead pine tree and house in Baguio City.)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Passion and Jubilation

Holy Week to us when we were kids meant keeping silent the whole week. And especially when Good Friday -- the climax of the whole Catholic celebration -- came, a single peep was met with the admonition, “Silence! God is dead!”

Imagine how hard it was for kids with excess energy to be kept on a leash for almost a week inside the house; and that when school vacation had just begun. It must have been so stressful for us and our parents, especially my mother who was ready to maintain the solemnity of the feast with a belt.

Throughout the whole of Philippine society then, or at least in our small, gentle city of Dumaguete, the theme of Christ’s death was held with such respect and sobriety as to bring up the use of that common expression “you look like Good Friday” to describe someone with a sad face.

As part of the whole cultural phenomenon, Passion plays and biblical movies played in plazas and theaters as there was no TV yet. Twilight processions paraded the slain Savior in a glass casket in candle-lit streets crowded with people singing hymns. All of those to play up the sufferings that one man did go through so many years ago.

Holy Week was beyond any doubt, a repeated scene in my childhood that instilled not merely respect but also acceptance of the historical significance of the Gospel story. Yes, in spite of moments of atheistic spells in my adolescence. When the prodigal son finally came home, passion took on a different connotation.

Today, after having gone through several transformations in my spiritual belief, the passion of past Holy Weeks has turned into a less somber or death-shrouded period of meditation. Not because so many people nowadays spend the time more in gay outings or unabashed merriment, but because the missing part of the whole story – that of the resurrection – has taken a fixed hold of my mind and soul more than the death had ever done.

As a child, I acted like a child, Apostle Paul once said. I am glad I had those experiences and visual memories as a young boy for they led me to real faith in God. I only wished they had an equally effective way of removing all the pain and pathos they had inflicted on me when Easter Sunday came. Palm Sunday had seemed joyful enough; yet the thought of an empty victory parade into Jerusalem could not prevent the spirit from eventually going down the way to Via Dolorosa. After all, the irony of children singing Hosanna and people waving palm fronds at a man riding a donkey was heaven’s way of giving in to the powers that ruled the City of Peace which was also the City of the Prophets’ Tombs. Christ did not enter it to merely proclaim victory but to submit Himself to those who would bring to fulfillment His entire mission.

Yes, today, a lot of people make a big thing or a big show of the resurrection as a religious feast or as a historical-cultural phenomenon. Sunrise services and grandiose celebrations accompany its arrival. One day to erase and undo all the evil that Jesus bore for us all. But it fails to impress any person who suffers enough everyday and awaits the salvation promised to those who persevere in tribulations. Not the reality and the significance of the resurrection but the empty display of religiosity by so many who when confronted with the burdens of life once more live like there never was a death and a resurrection at all. Passion and jubilation as a mere cycle like the passing of the seasons and yet no real harvest of righteousness in surrendered lives.

The often repeated line in Paul’s letters to the early Christians glorying in the cross of Jesus (“I endeavored to know nothing among you except Christ crucified.”) has somehow led many believers to remain in the throes of the passion of Christ. It is not merely culturally acceptable and theologically accurate, it is also essentially appropriate for creatures bound to suffer and die. Humans that we are, we glory in the wounds of Christ for even the Apostles taught and lived that way. So it seemed.

However, in the context of Paul’s letters, we find that he was talking to unstable and struggling disciples for whom he suffered through his work. He had willfully borne the pain that Christ Himself bore so that those people might attain a maturity that would no longer require them to “glory in death” but to “glory in life”. Somehow, many disciples matured and we see this reflected in the succeeding letters of Paul and more so of John, whose vision of Christ surpassed all others in its sublimity and perfection. Not that suffering no longer held power to transform and discipline but that the level of transformation had reached a point where pain and suffering no longer held any direct challenge within the absorbing reality of eternal life in Christ.

Thus, Paul would write to the Colossians: “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Likewise, John would proclaim to us all “perfect love” where “there is no fear”. Within such concepts, death loses its sting and dreariness. And there is no less passion in it either but a greater compulsion to reach out for the completion of our spiritual journey.

Hence, the unproductive cycle of Passion and Jubilation engendered by ceremonial practices by denominations tends to keep us bound within easy and comfortable zones. Yet, at the price of depriving us of the liberating experience of what the gospel is all about.

It’s all about life and the absence of death, pain and suffering. The victory has been won and well secured. Why compel ourselves to dwell anymore in one minute of virtual crucifixion, of pretended pain or of unfounded fear as if to offer Jesus again on the cross? No need to relive history; only to proclaim it.

Jesus Christ rules in heaven. The more we look up to where He is, the better for us all. Then we can truly live each day as if death never existed. Hallelujah!

(Photo above: Children in their innocence picture the indestructibility of life. Of such is the kingdom of heaven.)