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

What are my Nets?

Chris reflects of the images of ‘nets’ in a certain Gospel passage.

One weekend, I was grateful that I had the time to attend two Masses, one on Saturday evening and one on Sunday morning in two very different parishes to hear the Word of God. This meant that I was able to witness, listen and reflect upon two homilies, both dealing with the same Gospel passage and both reiterating the main call to Discipleship. The Gospel spoke about Simon and Andrew “abandon[ing] their nets and follow[ing]” Jesus upon hearing His call (Mark 1:14-20).

Continue reading “What are my Nets?”

Gregory, I choose you!

If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon already, Pokemon Quest was just released on mobile a few months ago after its Nintendo Switch release! Prior to that, “Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!” was also released last November and Pokemon fans were going crazy because Pikachu SHOULD NOT have spoken English. Nope. Not at all. That slight rant aside, it is a loose retelling of the first season of the animated Pokemon series and a new movie is expected to come up this year as well! With all these exciting developments, (Wewew!) it’s gonna be another good year for Pokemon fans.

So, how does this link back to our faith? Well, read on fellow Pokemon trainers, and see how our journey towards being the very best that no one ever was, is similar to our journey together as one Body of Christ.

Continue reading “Gregory, I choose you!”

Take This Naan: Faith and Food

Good food is awesome.
Good food with amazing company and delightful conversations are times when I feel as though God allows me glimpses of Heaven. And there’s always this recurring joke whenever supper is eaten at a particular Indian eatery and the Naan arrives at the table:
Take this Naan, and eat of it.
And then, after a minute of laughter (or groaning depending on the person) at the pun, we proceed to break bread and sup.  In case, the hints weren’t clear enough, the allusion is to the source and summit of a Christian’s life: the Mass and more specifically, the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Bread and wine are central to a Catholic’s life. After all, in Mass, we believe that the bread and wine offered are transformed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. We, as Catholics, are then called to this Feast, this Communion to partake of the Body and the Blood of Christ. And most of us know that the bread must be unleavened and the wine, red and natural. Still, even fewer of us know that the bread must be made with only wheat. (Even I didn’t know this and in case you were wondering, Code of Canon Law, Canon 924).
Believe me when I say that NAAN (heh) of us had any grand delusions that we could actually transubstantiate the pieces of naan on our plates (or prata if you want actual unleavened bread) into the Body of Christ. However, one does wonder at times: why exactly bread and wine? I mean, looking at the context of the Last Supper, the wine seems to be an obvious choice seeing that it was the only drink present during the meal. But bread? Why not the bitter herbs or the charoset, a sweet paste eaten at the Passover? Even better yet, why not the lamb? That would make an awful lot of sense wouldn’t it?
As Archbishop Fulton Sheen brilliantly puts it:
“First of all, because no two substances in nature better symbolize unity than bread and wine. As bread is made from a multiplicity of grains of wheat, and wine is made from a multiplicity of grapes, so the many who believe are one in Christ.
Second, no two substances in nature have to suffer more to become what they are than bread and wine. Wheat has to pass through the rigors of winter, be ground beneath the Calvary of a mill, and then subjected to purging fire before it can become bread. Grapes in their turn must be subjected to the Gethsemane of a wine press and have their life crushed from them to become wine. Thus do they symbolize the Passion and Sufferings of Christ, and the condition of Salvation, for Our Lord said unless we die to ourselves we cannot live in Him.
A third reason is that there are no two substances in nature which have more traditionally nourished man than bread and wine. In bringing these elements to the altar, men are equivalently bringing themselves. When bread and wine are taken or consumed, they are changed into man’s body and blood. But when He took bread and wine, He changed them into Himself.”
First of all, unity. In CCC 1, it states that “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life… He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church” We are called to be united in Christ and not just called; we were made to share and be united in God’s life. The bread and wine were staples of that time and important parts in the diet of the Jewish people at that time. Unlike meat, which was a luxury and wasn’t eaten on a daily basis, bread was consumed as part of the daily meal and likewise for wine. By choosing food that was consumed by the majority of the Jewish people at that time and not simply the rich, He united the people, regardless of their status, into one Church, one Body of Christ. And it wasn’t just simply that. He united the covenant held by the Jewish people in the Old Testament into a new one in Him by taking two key aspects of the Passover meal, and then changed them into Himself. In short, Jesus came and united the rich and the poor, the educated and the non-educated, the elites and the plebeians into one Church, a Church that up till now stands united and universal in Christ.
The second point is beautifully made by Archbishop Sheen. Just to add on (not that it actually needs adding on since the words he wrote were just so incredibly Spirit-filled and beautiful), I think nowadays, we take it for granted that we can easily purchase the flour, milk and yeast to make bread or better yet, just buy the bread itself. However, at that time, bread was a daily affair and the wheat had to be harvested and milled by hand, a back-breaking and time-consuming task before it can be made into bread. Wine (even now) involves an equally laborous process of harvesting and crushing before it can be stored. I think going back to unity, it also unites the people with the sufferings of Jesus. Back then, a lot of effort was needed to make bread and wine and while it’s easy for us now to simply order sacaramental bread and wine, it doesn’t detract from the fact that to be in Communion is to be, like the grape and the wheat as well as the people of old, united in the sufferings of the world and of Christ and to die to ourselves that we may live in Him.
Lastly, it shows the unity of the bodily and spiritual aspect of man. CCC 355 says that God made us in His Image, including that “in His own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds”. Jesus as fully God and fully Human reinforces this through taking bread and wine, material objects, and changes it to His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity. Such as bread and wine nourished the Jewish people in their diets, so may the Body and Blood nourish the soul of humankind that we may awaken to ourselves, the full nature of our being, a being of spirit and body. As we receive Communion, may we remind ourselves that just as bread and wine nourish our bodies (or maybe Naan and Lassi heh), we allow Jesus to nourish our souls through the Eucharist.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan

Potest Qui Vult: Free Will and Responsibility

A while back, Greg wrote an article on this blog inspired by his secondary school motto – Ora et Labora. It’s a great article, a reflection on the need to ground our work in prayer. However, I too, have a pretentious secondary school Latin motto – Potest qui Vult, and not to be outdone, I present to you, dear reader, an article based on its English meaning: he who wills, can. Now, before I start, I should point out that the Latin here is not gender-specific; potest is simply the third person form of the word possum, which means ‘to be able to’. She who wills can, too. My school translated it that way because it was a typical Catholic boys’ school. For the sake of convenience however, I’m going to stick with the masculine translation I’m familiar with. So please keep in mind that if you happen to be a lady, I’m writing this article for you too!

The question I would like to ask and answer, then, is this: he who wills can… what?

The immediate answer may seem to be this: that he who wills can succeed. And indeed, from a secular viewpoint, it should seem an obvious conclusion to draw: whoever dreams big can then work hard and achieve those dreams. But yet, basic economics seems to disprove this. We live in a world of scarcity, and that means that in a dog-eat-dog competition, there are bound to be losers. Indeed, for some (but not all) of us in my secondary school days, the very fact that we were in this school meant that we failed to get into a different school. Perhaps because we did not Ora et Labora hard enough. Rather, we had to learn what it meant to get up after receiving a hard knock, and to this day some of my friends love our alma mater for imparting to us that very lesson.

From the viewpoint of faith, as well, this answer does not seem to hold water. I’m reminded of Mother Teresa’s famous saying: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” And indeed, doing and believing the right thing can sometimes result in being martyred for those very actions and beliefs. One needs to look no further than Jesus himself, who had to suffer so greatly on the Cross. Of course, as a Christian I believe Jesus does succeed in his goal of bringing salvation to man, but this requires me to believe in a truth that transcends my physical existence, to believe in the existence of the soul, and in salvation and damnation. For the Christian, ‘he who wills can succeed’ is true only if we are not referring to a worldly success, but rather, a heavenly one.

Perhaps then we can propose another answer: he who wills can endure. And indeed, endurance is an important aspect of faith, and perhaps even a positive quality to have in the secular world too. “The Sovereign Lord comes to my help,” says the writer of Isaiah, “so that I am untouched by the insults. So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.” (Is 50:7) And indeed, with God’s help we can overcome the trials of this life, come what may, in the hope of passing to our heavenly reward.

But to interpret it this way has its negative connotations too. After all, is life nothing but an endless stream of misery to be endured? True, life can be hard, but as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, traditionally Catholic countries like Spain, France and Italy have a well-deserved reputation of being merry and festive. This miserable view of life clashes with the idea of Christians as people of the Gospel – good news. Catholics are called to be joyful. As Hillaire Belloc wrote:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

There’s always laughter and fine red wine.

At least I’ve always found it so,

Benedicamus domino!

Perhaps then to come to a satisfying answer, we have to take a few steps back, and take the phrase as it is: he who wills, can. As Catholics, will in this context invokes the idea of free will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

CCC 1730: God created a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.

And furthermore:

CCC 1734: Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.

Free will is sometimes puzzling to me. I sometimes feel that people can be saintlier than angels, or more evil than devils. (Is that a quote from somewhere? It might be.) But perhaps that is a testament to God’s love for us that He allows us to be as good or bad as we possibly can. That is why we are responsible for the freedom given to us. That is another lesson that my alma mater imparted to me. It’s been almost ten years since I left my school. Some of my schoolmates have done extremely well for themselves, and some live exemplary Christian lives. On the other hand, as a good friend of mine stated to the more contemporary students there during his stint as a relief teacher: “Take a good look around you. Ten years from now some of you will be in jail.” Perhaps not the most tactful pearl of wisdom, but a true one nonetheless, from our experience.

So today, Potest Qui Vult to me signifies the wondrous and awful responsibility God has placed in my hands. The responsibility to live the life that He has given me well. To make the truth known to all mankind: that he (or she!) who wills can seek the face of God. Can bear the light of Christ even in places of the most hopeless darkness. Can love God, and be loved by Him in turn. And of course, can truly be with Him one day in Paradise.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

 

Praise and Worship Reflection: Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies)

Garrett reflects on how Chris Tomlin’s song “Whom Shall I Fear” shows us how God is with us always.

I still remember the first time I listened to “Whom Shall I Fear” by Chris Tomlin. It was my freshman year in NTU and I had, like a typical freshman, bitten off more than I could chew. It was one day in particular that I was buried under CCA commitments, on top of a whole slew of school assignments in a course I was extremely ill-suited for. Deciding to listen to some gospel music to settle myself, it was then that I noticed this song appearing in my YouTube feed. It looked interesting enough, and so I clicked on it hoping God would speak to me somehow through the singing, the lyrics, anything.

Boy, did He deliver.

The song begins by calling God our “morning song”, a reminder that God is with us from the very moment we awake, ready to meet the day with us. The following lines “Though darkness fills the night, it cannot hide the light” also reinforces God’s omnipresence, and the fact that He is with us through thick and thin, morning and night.

The next verse talks of God’s ability to aid us in the struggles of life. Chris Tomlin sings about how God “crush[es] the enemy underneath our feet”, a biblical reference to Genesis where God tells the serpent that Eve and her descendants shall crush him underfoot. God’s faithfulness is contrasted with Eve’s unfaithfulness, as this takes place after Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit and been cast out. Despite the choice of our first parents to rebel against God, He still looks out for them when he can. For Catholics, this line also has special significance as it refers to Our Blessed Mother’s role in conquering sin and death through her obedience to God as well, allowing herself to be an instrument in fulfilling God’s promises as the New Eve.

The next lines describe God as our “sword and shield”. This is reminiscent of many of the psalms which refer to God as someone who comes to our aid in very military terms. This kind of language appeals to me, mainly because I’m a massive dork who thinks such things are cool. But more importantly, it reminds us also of the reality of spiritual warfare, that our lives on earth are literally a battle to save our souls, no matter how we slice it. The next line is “though troubles linger still”. I love this line because it grounds the song back in reality, that it still expects trials despite God’s help. Ancient Greek plays employed a deus ex machina, a god out of the machine, to tie up their plays with a neat bow at the end. Our God, however, does not come from a machine, and He empowers man to face their challenges rather than simply handwave them away.

In between these two verses, the line “Whom shall I fear?” is repeated. This line is a challenge, a sign of confidence in God. It’s funny how in biblical terms, questions are often used as challenges. Think of the Archangel Michael’s very name – ‘Who is like God?’

This brings us to the chorus, which begins with “I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind.” The reason why these lines resonate with me is that it reminds me of the famous lines from the ancient Irish prayer, the Lorica of St. Patrick:

“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.”

I once read a blog post that said that this prayer is almost mathematical in its construction. It’s very measured and structured, and it’s a good prayer for meditation. It reminds us that there isn’t any facet of our life where Jesus doesn’t permeate or is absent from. And finally the crux of this song:

“The God of Angel armies,

is always by my side.”

Tomlin’s use of ‘Angel armies’ is a striking one, and one that has deep roots in scripture. In the Old Testament, the God of the Israelites is often called the “Lord of Hosts”, alluding to the angels he has under his command. But what does this mean for us, or what did it mean for Jesus back then?

A reading of the Gospels will show us that while Jesus trusts that his Father and the angels are watching over him, he never expects them to magically show up to pull him out of trouble. When facing the Temptations in the Desert, when Satan tempts him to cast himself down so that the angels will rescue him, Jesus declines, saying that one should not put the Lord to the test. A sterner test is asked of him in Matthew’s Gospel at the time of his arrest, when Jesus chooses to go quietly with his captors, remarking that his Father could send  “twelve legions of angels” to his rescue if he wished it.

I find Our Lord’s reaction fascinating – this sense of trusting so absolutely in God’s providence while at the same time accepting trials and tribulations with a peaceful heart. Jesus truly shows us by his example what it means to believe that God is always by our side, no matter what may happen. In my own situation, this song reminded me that my own trials were transient, and with some perspective, and perhaps time, I’d eventually be able to see the hand of God at work through these trials. Perhaps in the end, one of the only things I can be sure of is that “The God of Angel Armies, is always by my side.”

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Christian Castaways Part 2: Spiritual Survivors

Garrett reflects on a poem by Cardinal Newman, about trusting God in times of trial.

Last time around, we looked at the phenomenon of being ‘spiritually shipwrecked’ – moments where we realize that our pride and worldly desires have cut us off from God and left us spiritually desolate. I ended off that article with a quote by John Henry, Cardinal Newman, reflecting on how our struggles on Earth require us to change often in order to live an authentic Christian life.

As I reflected more on this idea however, I realized that Newman’s life and writings constitute a good reference on how to cling to God throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of life. With that in mind, I hope to provide a very brief introduction to this important Catholic thinker, as well as provide an analysis of his short poem, St. Paul at Melita, which describes the saint’s own shipwrecking and his response to that situation.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was an Anglican (and later Catholic) priest who distinguished himself as a thinker and academic at Oxford University. He was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, an intellectual movement that sought to re-introduce Catholic elements back into Anglican theology, a movement that resulted in the Anglo-Catholicism branch of the Anglican Communion. In 1845, Newman was received into the Catholic Church, an extremely controversial decision that alienated many, but at the same time, led to him and many of his followers to set up the Birmingham Oratory. Newman wrote multiple influential works defending Catholic thought and tradition, and was eventually made a Cardinal.

St. Paul at Melita was written in 1833, before Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, while he was touring Italy with a friend. This trip seemed to have been a productive time for him – many of his poems were written during this time, and also around this time he wrote his famous hymn, Lead, Kindly Light, about trusting God through darkness and fear. In many ways, it is easy to see this period as a foreshadowing of Newman’s later spiritual journey, one of trusting God through difficult times.

The poem is a reflection on the events of Acts 27:9-28:6, the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck on the island of Malta (Melita). Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Paul knows that the voyage is a bad idea. He attempts to warn the others, but they ‘took more notice of the captain and the ship’s owner than of what Paul was saying’ (Acts 27:12), leading to their shipwreck. Paul comforts the crew, and they eventually end up on the island of Malta. Newman in particular calls attention to Paul’s actions on the island – “Paul had collected a bundle of sticks and was putting them on the fire when a viper brought out by the heat attached itself to his hand” (Acts 28:3).

“SECURE in his prophetic strength,
The water peril o’er,
The many-gifted man at length
Stepp’d on the promised shore.”

Paul here is described as a figure of authority. He has ‘prophetic strength’, and is described as ‘many-gifted’. The impression he gives off is one of supreme confidence and trust in God. Despite the trials that he is undergoing – Paul at this point is heading to Rome as a prisoner to testify before Caesar – Paul surrenders everything to God, trusting in His will and His providence, something that Robinson Crusoe eventually learns to do as well.

“He trod the shore; but not to rest,
Nor wait till Angels came;
Lo! humblest pains the Saint attest,
The firebrands and the flame.”

Newman here draws attention to Paul’s actions on the island, namely his commitment to gathering sticks for the fire. Paul does not give in to despair or remain idle during his shipwreck. He does not even wait for divine help, but rather resolves to do his part. I think that last point is a poignant one, too often, I find the temptation to say that I will ‘leave something to God’ even though I know that there are more, possibly God-given opportunities for me to do something about the situation, and my holy language becomes a mask for my own resignation. No matter how little our actions can be, perhaps even just putting sticks to keep a fire going, if they bring warmth and cheer to those around us, they are surely pleasing to God.

But, when he felt the viper’s smart,
Then instant aid was given;
Christian! hence learn to do thy part,
And leave the rest to Heaven.

These last few lines are ones that I find especially piercing, as it really speaks to me and my experience of service in Christian ministries. People are people, and in ministry and community there will certainly come moments of pain and disappointment. To choose to continue to serve means to sometimes be reminded of such moments of pain, I find the thought of facing such ‘vipers’ unbearable. However, Newman here reminds us that God is still with us in our tribulations, ready to be with us in these moments of pain.

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng