Living in gentleness and playfulness

By Bernard Teo, C.Ss.R. 

Fr. Bernard Teo C.Ss.RSingaporean Fr. Bernard Teo entered the Redemptorist Congregation in 1971. Prior to being ordained priest in 1979, he completed studies in philosophy and theology in India. Later, in Washington, DC, United States, he undertook graduate studies in moral theology from 1984-89. Specialising in fundamental moral theology and bioethics, Fr. Bernard has taught moral theology at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, Australia, since 1991, and also regularly teaches theology in Singapore and the Philippines. 

As I pen these reflections on what the Resurrection means for me, and its implications in life for my belief, I feel acutely the challenge of being a believer in God. It is hard indeed to be a believer in the current social mood. The voices of atheism are becoming loud and articulate. Within and among the Churches, and also outside them, belief in God is one of the sources of great pain, division, and even violence.

To profess my belief in Jesus would, in this current atmosphere, expose me to ridicule by intelligent atheists. Professor Richard Dawkins, one of the more eloquent and articulate contemporary atheists, and many others with him, would contemptuously pity me as delusional. The huge success of the just completed Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne, Australia, March 2-14, 2010, attests to the sustained articulate challenges being made to believers by serious and intelligent people.

On the other hand, to believe in God is no guarantee that I will become a peaceful and loving person. Serious believers of all kinds have waged wars and participated in killings and violence. They have committed evil in God’s name.

It is people’s unfettered seriousness that leads them to become intolerant, hateful, exclusive, and even violent

Within their communities, serious Christians are also divided among themselves. One such division has occasioned a large section of the Anglican Communion to seek reunion with the Catholic Church. Among Catholics too there has been plenty of division over recent decades, especially in the aftermath of the reforms called for by Vatican Council II (1962-65). Of course tensions have accompanied the Church since its beginnings.

From my point of view, it is people’s unfettered seriousness that leads them to become intolerant, hateful, exclusive, and even violent. Serious believers can be intolerant and hateful, not only towards non-believers, but also towards fellow believers.

At the Atheists convention in Melbourne, one journalist commented that if the key speakers and participants could have only laughed at themselves, they would certainly have won more adherents. That may be so. But the issue for any group, including those made up of atheists or believers, is this: in their efforts to highlight the intolerance and irrationality of the other, they can become intolerant and irrational themselves. And when atheists become intolerant of believers they run the risk of being little different to the intolerant believers they pity. Neither atheist nor believers have a monopoly on delusion, though both might practice it.

Jesus, we know, was executed by the Romans. But for their deed the occupying power found encouragement from serious believers who saw Jesus’ actions as violating the religious laws. Yes, religion for some people is serious business, even if they are less serious about its core tenets of compassion towards others and acceptance of them.

What is the point of being a Christian?

 Father Timothy Radcliffe, a former Master General of the Dominicans, writing recently on the divisions within the Catholic Church, asks this question that became the title of his book “What is the point of being a Christian?” We too can ask ourselves, Why believe at all? Will my belief in Jesus make a positive and joyful difference in my own life and in the lives of others?

I do not need to apologize for, nor do I need to make a defense for my belief. To be able to believe is a mysterious and loving gift of grace. Yet in the current atmosphere I feel confronted by the questions of whether the God I believe in is the true God, and whether I actually know God. It is possible for me to believe in a God of my own distorted wishes and thinking. Though religion is often involved in much pain, suffering and division, it is not so much religion itself that is the source of such upset, but rather the distortion of God’s identity. The disciples of Jesus, I realize now, took a lifetime to learn who God really was. Their path shows me that my road to understanding will be a long one too.

My questions above are pertinent Easter questions for in raising Jesus at Easter, God has revealed his true identity and nature – beyond human distortions. I would like to come to grips with that revelation, and I would like to eventually see its implications in my lifetime.

Good Friday was an extremely dark moment. During his lifetime Jesus had brought people a fresh experience of God’s presence and goodness. But on that first Good Friday everything he had worked and stood for came to a cruel, violent end. By taking-on very powerful religious and political interests with his message, Jesus became the innocent victim of those interests. They had every reason to get rid of him. Even his Father seemed to have abandoned him.

It was similar for his disciples and followers. They were scattered, confused, demoralized, and lost. All their hopes in Jesus died on Good Friday. The powers of darkness appeared to have truly triumphed.

The Resurrection is a very loud message from God

Our Easter story begins in the dark but close to daybreak. The disciples were totally unprepared for the surprise of Easter Morning. Mary Magdalene, when she saw Jesus near the tomb that morning, unable to recognize him, found it much easier to believe that some grave-robber had taken away his body. But then the Lord revealed himself to her, and when she and the other women told the disciples that they had seen Jesus, they too had difficulty in believing what the women had told them.

The Resurrection is a very loud message from God. The forces of darkness and hate may be formidable and impressive. But they will not have the last word. Goodness, beauty, truth, and love will have the last word, and the last laugh. For me, the Resurrection reveals God’s gentleness, and playfulness. God would rather take violence from us than to do violence to us. Yet nothing would stop God from continuing to love us and to be faithful.

To believe is an invitation from God to share in his gentleness and playfulness

The implications for believing in Jesus are tremendous. To believe is an invitation from God to share in his gentleness and playfulness amidst the busyness of living. We take life seriously, but not too seriously, because we can laugh at ourselves.

To believe in the Resurrection means that I am asked to face life and fully live it in its raw beauty, fragility and ugliness. It doesn’t make the hard questions of life any easier. It is an invitation to live in freedom, in gentleness, in playfulness, and with the assurance that God will be faithful and will never forget us. It is to believe that God’s heart is too big for our understanding, and that there is a place for everyone.

It is not for us to make premature decisions about who should be included and who should be excluded. That is God’s job. It is a point many great saints have understood and lived.

Could it be time for us to take the road to Emmaus?

My favourite Easter story is the story of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus. Here the gentleness and playfulness of God is revealed in this wonderful encounter between Jesus and the two travelers. The latter were disillusioned and discouraged. In fact, they were about to go back to their former ways of life. For on the Friday previous not only did their Jesus die, but also all those hopes and aspirations they had pinned on him. Yet their conversation with the risen Jesus, and also his gentleness and playfulness with them along the road, led them to believe again. And with new gusto! In many ways, their story could very well be our own. We too may be suffering from many disillusions, but God is closer to us than we can ever imagine. 

The raising of Jesus is God’s message of hope and encouragement to our world. We may have gone down many roads, perhaps cruised to everywhere and nowhere. Could it be time for us to take the road to Emmaus?  Could it be time to let God meet our hearts in personal conversation and to experience God’s gentle and playful side? Wouldn’t it be marvelous if our lives might reveal this side of God! If we could do that others would no doubt come to see what it means to live in true freedom.  Then they would likely want to participate in and share such freedom with us and us with them.