Thursday, 12 December 2013

Talk on Service

John 13:34-35
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

To begin to discuss service, I thought it might be useful to look at some giants of Christian service so as to see the pattern or model of their service; what do they teach us in the way they served ?

Mother Teresa said: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

She also said “I am not sure exactly what Heaven will be like. But when we die and it comes the time for God to judge us, He will not ask, "How many good things have you done in your life?" Rather He will ask, "How much love did you put into what you did?"

When Mother Teresa began her work for the poor in Calcutta, she was alone. She left the comforts of her life as a teacher in a convent school and with only a change of clothes proceeded to the slums to live amongst the poor and suffering, one of the most wretched places on earth. Rejected by the local hospitals the sick destitute would just lie in the gutters waiting for death. Her first out-reach, was to an old woman who died in her arms as she brought her the love of God in her final moments. She accepted the unloved and uncared for and loved them, giving whatever she had at her disposal and by this means brought many to God.

Her service or self giving was driven, not by her own natural goodness, but by the grace of God. And the means of obtaining that is through prayer of the heart.

As she describes prayer :- “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”

In this manner the love of God flows into the human heart and fills it, only to reemerge in loving service of our neighbours.

A less recent example is St Serapion, one of the desert father’s of the 4th century AD who retreated to the Egyptian desert to make intercession for the world and do battle for souls in prayer.

Like other desert monks, he led a life of extreme austerity. Though he traveled into several countries, he always lived in the same poverty, mortification, and recollection.

Once in a town in Greece, recognizing the spiritual blindness of an actor, he sold himself as a slave to the man for a small sum. (in those days if one was in debt it was a last resort to sell oneself into slavery to repay it and thus live the rest of one’s life as a slave). His only sustenance in this servitude was bread and water. He accomplished every duty belonging to his station with the utmost diligence and fidelity, joining with his labor prayer for the man and his family. In time his example and holiness of life made a deep impression on his pagan master and the whole family was converted to Christianity. His master wanted to give him his freedom out of gratitude for bringing the family to salvation but he would not hear of it but simply returned the original sum he had sold himself for, buying back his own freedom, and went off and sold himself again and again for the rest of his life, to various people but always with the same end in mind to bring them to God no matter what the personal cost.

A seemingly bizarre ministry of service to our modern way of thinking but when we examine it, we can see just how much the love of God moved St Serapion, his compassion for the spiritually impoverished was so great that the measure of his service or sacrifice was without limit. And that’s another component of Christian service, it is sacrificial, love leads to service and service is sacrificial.

If we look at the source of this love which led to the extraordinary service of mother Teresa, and St Serapion which is of course their savior Jesus Christ.

As He says in (Mat 20 26-28), whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

There are many episodes in His earthly ministry which define service; but in keeping with those mentioned above I would refer to the story of Zacchaeus.
(Lk 19  1-10)
 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

I noticed that as with mother Teresa and St Serapion, the first thing Jesus did was something no one else did for Zaccheaus… he accepted him, and spoke to him. As the chief tax collector for the Romans he would have been hated by the people as a traitor to his country and also for being corrupt and living off the backs of his own people. But Jesus not only spoke to him and befriended him in spite of knowing all his wrong doings but stopped his journey and gave him his time. He knew the heart of the man, knew that in spite of his previous crimes that he was ready for change. And in that very moment he did change, promising to give half his wealth immediately to the poor (previously he had probably made a lot of people poor and cared nothing for them) and then going further he was willing to pay back all he had cheated or stolen as well. An outward expression of internal repentance, and a knowledge that Jesus had forgiven him and set him free, with the gift of salvation. He was free to become the man God always wanted him to be, a good man, a generous man, filed with Joy. Jesus had unlocked his heart with the key of kindness.

His whole life, he had, unknowingly, been moving towards this moment of encountering Jesus, a divine appointment. All the while he was plundering and grabbing as much money and power as he could to ‘save himself’ and now suddenly he gave it away, he acquired a true appreciation of its value as compared with the far greater treasure he had just discovered in Jesus. Now the only purpose for his wealth could be to bless others, the ones he had previously hurt. A true repentance. Interestingly the name Zaccheaus means ‘pure and righteous one’. Perhaps in due course he began to live up to his name.

I’ll give one last example of a somewhat lesser stature now, if I may, which highlights another aspect of service, particularly within a larger group or organization. I am referring to our ‘motive’ for serving or purity of intention.

More than 20 years ago, myself and a few friends started a small charity in the UK to help refugees in Bosnia during the war. We took aid convoys over from England, drove across Europe to the suffering people. The food was all donated by church congregations and individuals in Manchester, some vehicles were donated too, even a few ambulances which we later left behind at hospitals. Later large truck loads or containers were sent too in partnership with other groups around the country.

It was a massive undertaking, became much bigger than any of us could imagine and the group is still operating today in a small way in fundraising for various projects in different countries.

There were many volunteers over the years, hundreds, maybe thousands of givers and participants in one way or another rendering wonderful service although it must be said that there were also a variety of ‘motives’.

People are seldom single minded and generally our motives or intentions are at best mixed. Whilst everyone had a measure of love and compassion for the refugees some had other reasons too, some came forward who originated in the region and had a sense of patriotism for their countrymen, others a desire to be part of something – part of the group or community, others may have sought to be seen to be doing some good deed, perhaps for some even an element of self upliftment or the prospect of glory; danger and adventure may have motivated some. Other motives can include gratitude to God for all He has given and a desire to thank Him by giving a little back, for others even guilt can be a driving force too.

A mixed bag of intentions and motives. But the wonderful thing about giving one’s service; particularly in the beginning, is that service changes the person and ultimately the service given purifies the motive or intention. Where there was a little love, it becomes magnified and other lesser reasons or motives melt away over time.

Many of our team experienced this after our first visit to Bosnia, we arrived in one camp (an old school building) where the day before 400 people arrived who had fled the fighting, having just lost their homes, livelihoods and often family members. They were given 1 hour by the invading soldiers to pack and leave their town or burn with it. They had nothing to eat, and no visible hope or future before them. And there were many such incidents that brought home to us their dilemma much more than the pictures on TV that had inspired us to go in the first place. It became more personal, even though we would never meet them again.

On returning to England the zeal for the work was far greater than before. Our team became more single minded, focused and hard working. The service transformed or purified the intention or motive.

Some service becomes high profile like Mother Teresa’s, others are hidden from view entirely like St Serapion. Sometimes the service rendered is great, a special skill perhaps that no one else has or a lot of time commitment and at other times it may be very simple service or very quickly accomplished.

The medical missions conducted by this team are of great value to those served by them and a joy to those involved. On the one I was privileged to be a part of  I could see the joy and gratitude of the people for all that was given to them and I am sure there will be a lasting effect above and beyond the medical treatments, because your love and care for them was also communicated, however poor they may be , however difficult their lot in life is, there is the knowledge that they are not forgotten or alone, that they are loved, respected and cared for.
I know too that the Lord appreciates all the service rendered to his children on His behalf and in His name and it will be a means of our sanctification, a step on the road to holiness which we all must travel together.

As a final quote, (also one of Mother Teresa’s )

“There is a thing you can do but I can not and there is thing I can but you can not; so let us - together - make something beautiful for God.”

Monday, 2 September 2013

Is hell real ? .. a story from the gates...

  1. Is Hell Real...a story from the gates of Hell

    I gave my heart to the Lord April 22, 1933 at 7:40 p.m. in Texas. Earlier that evening, my heart had stopped beating and the spiritual man who lives in my body had departed. When death seized my body, my grandmother, my younger brother, and my mother were sitting in the room. I had time only to tell them "goodbye." Then the inner man rushed out of my body and left my body lying dead, with eyes set and flesh cold. I went down, down, down until the lights of the earth faded away. I don't mean I was unconscious - I have proof that I was actually dead.

    My eyes were set, my heart had stopped beating, and my pulse had ceased. The Scriptures tell us about the lost being cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30). The farther down I went, the blacker it became, until it was all blackness - I could not have seen my hand if it had been one inch in front of my eyes. And the farther down I went, the hotter and more stiffling it became.

    Finally, far below me, I could see lights flickering on the walls of the caverns of the damned. The lights were caused by the fires of Hell. The giant, white-crested orb of flame pulled me, drawing me as a magnet draws metal to itself. I did not want to go, but just as metal jumps to the magnet, my spirit was drawn to that place. I could not take my eyes off of it. The heat beat me in the face. Many years have gone by, yet I can see it just as clearly today as I saw it then. It is as fresh in my memory as if it just happened.

    I came to the entrance of Hell. People ask, "What does the entrance of Hell look like?" I cannot describe it, because if I tried, I would have to have something with which to compare it. Coming to the entrance, I paused momentarily, because I did not want to go in. I sensed that one more foot, one more step, one more yard, and I would be gone forever and would not come out of that horrible place! Upon reaching the bottom of the pit, I became conscious of some kind of spirit being by my side. I had not looked at him, because I could not take my gaze off of the fires of Hell. But when I paused, the creature laid his hand on my arm to escort me in. At that same moment, a voice spoke from far above the blackness, above the earth, and above the heavens. I don't know if it was the voice of God. I did not see him, and I do not know what he said, because he did not speak in English; he spoke in some other tongue. When he spoke, his words reverberated throughout the region of the damned, shaking it like a leaf in the wind, and causing the creature to take his hand off my arm. I did not turn around, but an unseen power, like suction, pulled me up, away from the fire, away from the heat, and back into the shadows of the absorbing darkness.

    I began to ascend until I came to the top of the pit and saw the lights of the earth. I saw my grandparents' home, went through the wall back into my bedroom, and it was just as real to me as it was any time I had entered through the door . I slipped back into my body as easily as a man slips into his trousers in the morning. It was the same way in which I had gone out - through my mouth. I began to talk to my grandmother. She said, "Son, I thought you were dead."

    "Granny," I said, "I am going again. I am dying. Where is Momma?" "Your mother is out on the porch," she replied. And about that time I heard my mother praying at the top of her voice as she walked up and down the porch. "Where is my brother?" I asked. "He ran next door to call the doctor," Granny answered. If you're not ready to go, you want somebody with you. You're afraid! I said, "Granny, don't leave me! Don't leave me! I'm afraid I'll go while you're gone! I want somebody with me! Don't leave me!" So she gathered me into her arms again. I said, "Tell Momma I said goodbye. Tell Momma I love her. Tell Momma I appreciate everything she has ever done for me and for all of us. And you tell Momma that I said if I've ever put a wrinkle in her face, or a grey hair in her head, I'm sorry, and I ask her to forgive me." I felt myself slipping. I said, "Granny, I'm going again. You were a second mother to me when Momma's health failed. I appreciate you. Now I'm going, and I won't be back this time.

    "I knew I was dying, unprepared to meet God. I kissed her on the cheek and said goodbye. My heart stopped beating for the second time. I leaped out of my body and began to descend: down, down, down. I began to descend again into the darkness Down below, the same experience occurred. The voice spoke from Heaven and again my spirit came up out of that place - back into my room and back into my body. The only difference this time was that I came up at the foot of the bed. I began to talk to Granny again. I said, "I will not be back this time, Granny." I asked, "Where is Grandpa? I want to tell Grandpa goodbye." I've never known what it means to have a daddy. He's been the nearest to a daddy I've known. Tell him I appreciate him. Tell him I love him. Tell Grandpa that I said goodbye." Then I left a word for my sister and two brothers, and my heart stopped for the third time and I leaped out of my body and began to descend.

    Until this time, I had thought, this is not happening to me. This is just a hallucination. It can't be real! But now I thought, this is the third time. I won't come back this time! Darkness encompassed me , darker than any night man has ever seen. I wish I had adequate words to describe the horrors of Hell. People go through this life so complacently, so unconcerned, as if they will not have to face Hell. But God's Word and my own personal experience tell me differently. I know what it is to be unconscious - it is black when you are unconscious - but there is no blackness to compare with outer darkness. As I began to descend in the darkness this third time, my spirit cried out, "God, I belong to the church! I've been baptized !" I waited for Him to answer, but no answer came - only the echo of my own voice as it came back to mock me. It will take more than church membership - it will take more than being baptized in water - to miss Hell and make Heaven.

    The second time I cried a little louder, "God! I belong to the church! I've been baptized in water!" Again I waited for an answer, but there was no answer. I came again to the bottom of that pit. Again I could feel the heat as it beat me in the face. Again I approached the entrance, the gates into Hell itself. That creature took me by the arm. Thank God that voice spoke. I don't know who it was - I didn't see anybody - I just heard the voice. I don't know what he said, but whatever he said, that place shook; it just trembled. And that creature took his hand off my arm. It was just as if there was a suction to my back parts. It pulled me back, away from the entrance to Hell. I began to pray �.. (he recovered and became a preacher..)

Monday, 19 August 2013

‘A band of brothers (and sisters)

Last night (August 15th) Cardinal Tagle visited our parish church of Our Lady of the Assumption for Mass and to bless the newly renovated church. 

The walls of a church, it has been suggested, store within themselves the prayers of the faithful; and in time I am sure that’s true. In the beginning though they are cemented together with toil, sweat, sacrifice and pain. I am referring of course to one of the major fundraising events, where the 1500 ‘volunteers’ in the inappropriately named ‘Fun Run’, gave their all.

In his homily the Cardinal warned against arrogance and lifting oneself up saying it is better to wait for God to lift you up. Similarly he spoke against competitiveness especially in the church. 

Perhaps more than a few of us took that to heart. Whilst the fun run probably was enjoyable for the youngsters, and the old ladies walking their dogs, for the men of a certain age it became a bit more serious. Whilst the glory of 1st place would certainly not be attained, the humiliation of last was to be avoided. Thus as the theme tune to Chariots of Fire rose to a crescendo (in my head), we were off. The wind was howling through thinning hair, as an overweight pack of ageing warriors pounded the tarmac to dust all the while being shadowed by a private ambulance hoping for a customer as blood pressures rose, arteries constricted and cartilage and bone grinded.

The outgoing Mayor of Manila, Fred Lim, presented the prizes at the event in May, the incoming Mayor, former President Joseph Estrada attended last night’s celebration Mass; the Laurel wreath of glory fades quickly for politicians as for our runners; as we too acquired (painfully) a sense of our own mortality.  But it was good to be part of it, the lesson learned; generations will worship there now, live and die under the new roof and sturdy walls.

It’s not so much about the building really, but community. It’s a poor parish, but everyone participated somehow in this massive project of rebuilding, even the Parish priest was offering to take in laundry to stress the need for participation and all responded, at least for this moment in time all stood together, a band of brothers and sisters.

Friday, 16 August 2013

‘Daily bread’

I heard a story recently that sparked an inspiration. It was about a man who was on his way home from shopping and he passed a young woman, a street dweller from her attire, who seemed in great distress. There’s a look in someone’s eyes that tells you that they are about to cave-in or give up hope. She had that look. All he had handy was a bunch of bananas and giving that seemed an inadequate response.

The rest of the short distance home he prayed for the woman, with more than a dash of self-pity for himself too. He would like to have been able to help but was unemployed and the roof over his own head was thanks to the good graces of another. If only God had given him a job and an income he could do a lot for others in need. His conscience seemed to answer him as he thought that the best thing would be to do what he could in the moment.

On arriving home he resolved to do just that; flung open the cupboards and set about preparing a few items. A tin of sardines, a sandwich box with a few slices of bread, a sachet of ketchup from a fast food outlet, a bottle of water, a clean t-shirt and a couple of the aforementioned bananas and then hurried back to the place he had seen the woman. She was still sat on the pavement, leaning against the wall of a building, a tormented and now slightly embarrassed look on her face as he dropped off the package with a few words. As he walked away her face brightened a little as she investigated the contents of the bag. A little light shone in the darkness of her situation; an immediate need met.

The story put me in mind of the part of the Our Father where we ask for our daily bread. For many it’s a matter of routine having already secured rather more than the daily bread, the weekly wage, the monthly salary, the annual pension or even state benefit ticks that box. For others it is a real plea from the heart, one which Our Father does answer, but he does need the cooperation of those he has already blessed in abundance.

Often people think they can do nothing to change the world, but the truth is that however short we may be or perceive ourselves to be, there is no one who can do nothing, we can all help our neighbor just by doing what we can in the moment as it’s presented to us. If the roles were reversed, what would we hope for or expect?