Distance, Detachment and Inner Freedom

Chris reflects on how important it is to hold on to our identity as children of God in the midst of a world of distractions.

Simon and his companions set out in search of him, and when they found him they said, ‘Everybody is looking for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came’ … (Excerpt from the Gospel of the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Mark 1:29-39)
“Everybody is looking for you.”
Hearing this verse at Mass the other day and pondering about it in prayer has allowed me to better introspect and in turn, gain a deeper awareness and appreciation of the importance of distance, detachment and inner freedom. To me, the implicit notion of this poignant phrase is one of expectation. Expectation not in the anticipatory Advent “Christmasy” manner but rather, other people’s expectations of Jesus.

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Reflections from the Genesee Diary

Chris reflects on how prayer and solitude helps us live as the unique individuals God created us to be.

For the past few nights, I have been really grateful for The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery by Henri Nouwen. This book has been a lovely reflection-companion for my daily night prayer. Nouwen’s writings (from my experience, that is) have always been so hearfelt and brutually honest, and it is precisely in his disarming honesty that one experiences the vulnerability and authenticity of his personality.

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September 11 Reflection – A Singaporean Viewpoint

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times” – Matthew 18:21 – 22.

I can still remember that fateful day: Waking up to go to school in the wee hours of the morning, everything seemed to be abuzz. Everyone seemed to be talking about one common thing and every television set seemed to be focused on one main image: the World Trade Centre Twin Towers in New York City. George Bush mentioned that it was “a day of infamy” and while I had little knowledge of what that meant or what was happening around me (cocooned in the comforts of childhood innocence, I was 11 years old), there seemed to be an undeniable atmosphere of immense sadness and ambivalence. Terrorism, hysteria and paranoia took centre stage. Yet at the same time, news of heroic emergency response teams and strangers supporting each other became evident as well. And all of these made me wonder: How can there ever be forgiveness and reconciliation in this scene of chaos and grief?

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Creating Space for God

Chris shares on the vital necessity of creating space for God in the midst of a busy world.

Lately, I’m noticing an invitation to actively create space and make myself available for God in my life. The availability that I actively consent to, the willingness to sit with my inner restlessness and resist the constant (and inordinate) desire to do something (for God, for the church, for ministry-related activities etc. in a knee-jerk and sporadic manner), better allows me to cooperate with God’s divine grace and trust in His perfect timing.

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Hope in an Imperfect Society

Greg reflects on Chris’ article about striving and wonders whether striving for a utopia on Earth is even achievable

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:4-5)

Chris wrote an article, reflecting on the notion of striving and working from the above Bible passage, about our own frustration when our striving bears no fruit (or fish in the above case) and about the discerning of the when for our striving versus simply striving for. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been starting to watch and catch up on the Supergirl series, something that has been way overdue. During the season 1 finale of Supergirl, (spoiler alert!) she helps the city overcome the mind control it has fallen under by broadcasting a message of hope to them. Thinking about it, the mind control wasn’t totally malicious. The main antagonist, Non, united the city through mind control in hopes of alleviating social problems such as poverty, global warming and the likes by controlling the city to work on these problems together as a whole. While he does do some pretty bad stuff while mind controlling these people (which in itself is already morally questionable), the main idea of unity and a betterment of society is quite a good one. In fact, this same theme has always been around in popular works of fiction, most notably in utopian/dystopian novels such as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-four, The Giver amidst many, many others. Even if in some of these novels, the means towards the ends may be morally unacceptable, the end result seems tantalizing. Who wouldn’t want to live in a utopia? Continue reading “Hope in an Imperfect Society”

Working All Night: A Fisherman’s Lessons

Chris reflects on what Our Lord has to teach us in seemingly trying and futile times.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:4-5)

In a season oft characterised by desolation, despondency and despair, Simon’s response to Jesus seems to encapsulate my current state of life. The words “We’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything” resonate deeply with me.  These words are filled with so much fatigue and exhaustion! Furthermore, these words also point to a visceral sense of fruitlessness – a climate of barrenness disproportionate to the “work” and effort that one has made. Reading Simon’s words out loud, one can almost feel his palpable desperation.

Does Simon’s response to Jesus also speak to the depths of your heart? Are you also experiencing an extended season of emptiness and dryness – one that comes from endless (and needless) toiling? More importantly, however, how can one possibly find comfort, refuge and solace from the Living Word through Luke 5:4-5? What can we learn from Simon’s response to Jesus?

Luke 5:4-5 speaks to me on various levels. Firstly, I find it exceptionally intriguing that Simon’s response to Jesus was “Master, we’ve worked hard all night …” This phrase, “all night” captivates me. I am captivated, not because fishermen work especially hard at night, (possibly because fishes are easier to catch at night), but because “all night” is an important metaphor and points to a larger theme: toiling in the dark. How many of us work hard “all night” when most of us are already asleep? (Think of the many women and men who work ungodly hours just to keep our nations safe – security personnel, maintenance workers etc.)  Indeed, who amongst us work behind the scenes continually and more often than not, without thanks and acknowledgement? How many of us work in silence, every single day? Haven’t we all considered throwing in the towel and raising our hands up in frustration and futility? I don’t know about you, but questions such as Why try so hard? Why strive so much? What’s the point? keep coming to me whenever I find myself in this desolated rut.

Perhaps, the key to this tangible sense of disappointment and futility stems from the second portion of Simon’s response to Jesus – “ … and haven’t caught anything.” Indeed, we live in a world of immediate gratifications; we are a quick-fix society. We are brought up to (falsely) assume that effort equates to results. We want to see (immediate) results because the results serve as a tangible affirmation for us; our end products seem to tell us that our processes are effective. That technique may have worked for us in schools and in our younger years, but in the working world, we come to realise that this mode of operation fails to deliver . There are times when effort just does not cut it; there are moments when sheer hard work does not produce results. Indeed, there are seasons in our lives where our toiling simply yields neither immediate nor long-lasting fruits.

To me, then, the larger lesson of Luke 5:4-5 seems to be the distinction between striving for and striving when. From a young age, I was conditioned to think that I had to strive – whether in school or at work – for Jesus. I underwent supposed hardships and pain for Him. My toil was for the Son of God. Such a mind-set, noble yet horrendously egoistic and erroneous as it may be, however, connotes a certain loss of freedom. Indeed, I was more a slave to Jesus than a child of God. Yet, John 15:15 clearly states, “No longer do I call you slaves … I have called you friends.” How, then, do we reconcile this supposed dissonance? My simple response: time. Indeed, it is very likely that Simon’s inability to catch any fish was because he was not yet called to do so. Timing is of the essence here. How many of us conduct our actions on impulse, on insecurities and on past hurts and wounds. How many of us fail to properly pray and discern before we act? Little wonder why we often feel like square pegs being forced into round holes. We bring unnecessary strain to ourselves simply because we have yet to (re)align our wills, our deepest hopes and desires with God’s.

Our God is a generous and loving God. I also have come to recognise that no experience of my life – both the good and especially the bad – has been wasted. In this pedagogy of life and in this ever invigorating (re)discovery of God’s will in prayer, silence and solitude, I have also come to the peaceful realisation that seasons of (needless) toiling and apparent fruitlessness can also be deeply formative for the self. Take Simon for an example. Even though there was no tangible “fish” that was caught during his labour of love, surely the very process of fishing would have yielded long-term benefits of discipline, rigour and grit – instrumental skills that prove to be especially helpful for a future Pope. Paradoxically, then, are we able to also see the hand of God amidst our daily toils and struggles and gradually come to the awareness that there is something larger at work here – that I am still in the midst of being formed, that my process of formation is far from complete? I find it most humbling to accept that God is not done with me.

Perhaps, it is only in this expansive perspective – this ownership of God’s love for all of us – that Simon could respond, “because you say so, I will let down my nets”. What amazing faith! What admirable obedience!

Indeed, because You say so, Lord, I am willing to try again, to pick myself up when I fall over and over again, and trudge further in this challenging journey of faith. Because You say so, Lord, I am willing to look stupid – in the eyes of the world, at least – and do exactly what I’ve done before in the past – actions that have seemingly yielded no apparent results. Indeed, because You say so, Lord, I will make the effort, one more time, to “let down the nets” because I know that You are with me and have called me to do so. I freely avail myself so that I may be used as Your instrument to spread the Good News to the world, regardless of the outcome, for Your greater glory.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok

Fishers of Men: Leaving Nets Behind

Garrett reflects on following the call of Jesus, and what it means to ‘leave the nets behind’ for him.

This is a response to Chris’ article, “What are my Nets?” where he reflects on the passage in Mark about the disciples leaving their nets behind in order to follow Jesus. It’s a poignant reflection, elaborating on the need for detachment in order to follow Jesus with a dedicated heart. What really struck me when reading this article was this image of the nets. It’s a striking image, and I wondered whether further reflection on this image would prove fruitful. So this article is an attempt to do just that, expanding on the imagery of nets as found in the Bible and an attempt to synthesize this with my own personal experience with the ‘nets’ of my life.

Chris mentions that nets can come to symbolize many things that are important to us – “Nets of affirmation and societal approval? Nets of security and material desires? Nets of past hurts? Nets of people? Safety nets?” I think in particular, nets had a special significance for the lives of Simon and Andrew as fishermen. In Chris’ words again, dropping their nets means “letting go of their job, their profession — indeed, letting go of everything that they have stood for and done in their lives”. Yes, nets can be things that we are proud of, things that we can take pride in, things that give our life meaning. This rings true for me in particular, as the ‘nets’ that I cling to the most at the time of this writing are my own abilities and what I have accomplished with them so far.

I consider myself to be a late bloomer in terms of recognizing the places and skills I excel at. When I take an honest look at myself, I find myself badly wanting to use my gifts in order to impact the world in some way, as much of a pipe dream as that seems to be. Deep down, I fear that my life will be meaningless, and I find myself unconsciously taking hold of my abilities a bit tighter than I should.

But the Bible shows us how unhealthy these kind of attitudes are. In the book of Habbakuk (How’s that for a book of the bible you don’t read every day!), the prophet laments “A people, these, who catch all on their hook, who drag them with their net, in their dragnet gather them, and so, triumphantly, rejoice. At this, they offer a sacrifice to their dragnet, for providing them with luxury and lavish food. Are they then to empty their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity?” (Hab 1:15-17). These ‘people’ that Habbakuk refers to the Chaldeans or Babylonians, whose growing power in the region threatened the prophet’s Kingdom of Judah, which they eventually conquered.

Habbakuk thus exposes the danger of trusting too much in one’s own gifts and talents. When we use our gifts in a self-serving manner, we often end up misusing them instead. When we are so confident in our own strengths and abilities, our pride can often lead us to do things that are… ill-advised, to say the least. True, I may have some talent in certain areas such as writing, research and literary analysis, but if I buy too much into the idea that I can use these things to glorify myself, I may very well end up hurting or alienating others. To pursue ‘greatness’, be it in the form of excess wealth, fame, or other things, to the exclusion of everything else, is to be like the Babylonians in Habbakuk’s time, ‘empty[ing] their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity”.

So rather than use our gifts in self-serving ways, what should we do with them instead? I think the answer lies within the call of Jesus to the apostles on the beach: “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

Fishers of men. What is the significance of this phrase, other than showing that Jesus was rather skilled at wordplay? For me, it shows that Jesus is not ignorant of our abilities, but rather, he values each of us for who we are. More than that, he teaches us and directs us to use these abilities for ends that perhaps we could not envision ourselves. He saw these rough fishermen tending the tools of their trade on the shore, and knew that they could apply the same effort and tenacity they employed in catching fish to gathering their fellow men into the Kingdom of God. He saw tax-collectors, men reviled as greedy and race-traitors, and knew that that same sharpness and business acumen could be applied towards matters of social well-being, as seen by how Zechariah repaid anyone who he had cheated four times over.

So for myself, in the coming weeks I will continue to reflect on the transformation between fishermen, and fishers of men. I will continue to try to offer up whatever gifts God has given me back to Him, to let go of the nets of my fears and comforts. In doing so, I trust that the adventure He sends me on will prove a fruitful one.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng