The Choice of Discipleship

One of the great gifts God has given us is free choice. God always invites, and never forces us to act one way or the other. While God has great hopes and desires for us, God always leaves it up to us what path we will choose. 

Both of today’s Mass readings reflect that reality. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, God through Moses, tells the people, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.” 

On its face, that doesn’t seem like such a hard choice. Who among us is going to jump up saying, “I choose death…I choose the curse”? Choosing life seems the obvious choice – love God and obey his commandments. Simple. 

In the Gospel, however, Jesus dispels any thought that this is simple for those of us who call ourselves Christian disciples. He sets out quite starkly the choice we are asked to make. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that “just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as a commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.” 

Christian discipleship is challenging. It means choosing to give up our attachment to honor, approval, and respect of others and to follow the path of Christ even where that requires us to be ignored, dishonored, or perhaps even persecuted.   

Lent offers us the opportunity to reflect on the choice Christ asks us to make and to deepen our commitment to staying wedded to him no matter the cost.

[Cross-posted to University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality Lenten Reflections]

A Time of Restoration and Renewed Direction

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period preceding the death and resurrection of Christ. Lent is a special time in the cycle of the Catholic Church. It is a time in which we are invited to focus in a special way on our life with God, to nurture our relationship with God and to deepen our appreciation for God’s enormous and unconditional love for us.

Joyce Rupp once wrote, “The church is wise in offering us the season of Lent because it can be the very time we need to find what is missing in our lives; it can be the season to deliberately seek what has been tossed away or misplaced or ignored, so that our lives can once again reflect the gospel which Jesus encouraged us to live. Lent can be a searching out and a restoration time and the means for renewed direction.”

The traditional Lenten observances are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. In the words of Father William Joensen, “Each of us is entrusted during Lent with the sacred task of going into the soil of ourselves, inviting the Spirit to help us venture into the inmost recesses of our being: by more persistent prayer, by means of fasting calibrated to the demands and discipline of our personal lives, and by sharing our material, human resources in an intentional, consistent manner.”

It is not that we do these practices at Lent and not at other times. All of them should be part of our lives as a normal matter. However, as the Rupp passage suggests, sometimes the busyness of our lives let us lose track, lose our focus on practices that are fundamental to who we are. So let today be our re-dedication of ourselves, a day on which re-commit ourselves to nurturing our relationship with our God and with each other.

Who Are My Mother and My Brothers?

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, word is sent to Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him. Jesus’ response is sometimes taken as a dis to Mary, for he replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then pointing to those around him, he says, “Here is my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

It sounds pretty harsh. But Jesus’ comment is not intended to disparage Mary. Rather, his words simply reveals that, in Jesus’ eyes, discipleship is more important than blood relationship. Mary has both, as in a very real way, she was the first disciple.

In his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Mary is present in Cana of Galilee as Mother of Jesus, and in a significant way she contributes to the ‘beginning of the signs’ which reveal the messianic power of her Son…At Cana, thanks to the intercession of Mary and the obedience of the servants, Jesus begins ‘his hour.” At Cana, Mary appears as believing in Jesus. Her faith evokes his first ‘sign’ and helps to kindle the faith of the disciples.”

In Mary’s case, being a disciples meant that she said yes to giving birth to Jesus, in spite of being unmarried, in spite of knowing the hardship this would entail and not knowing where it would lead. And we see in her words at Cana (“Do whatever he tells you”) that her discipleship meant believing in the reality of Jesus as God – and the reality that God could do anything – before there was any sign demonstrating that this would be the case. (This is in contrast with the other disciples, who began to believe in Jesus after his first miracle.)

Making the choice of discipleship is at the heart of Mary’s story. She, more than anyone, truly is “brother, and sister, and mother” of Jesus.

Conversion is Not a One-Shot Deal

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The first Mass reading from Acts is Paul’s address to the people describing his conversion.

When we look at Paul’s great conversion moment on the road to Damascus, we have a tendency to think conversion is a sudden or dramatic single event. I think we forget that although that was an important moment of transformation for Paul, a foundational religious experience for him, it was really the beginning and not the end of his conversion. So we would do well to hear today’s reading while keeping in mind something Paul wrote to the Philippians:

It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

Paul came to know Jesus, he had a deep experience of Jesus, but still he knew he hadn’t attained “perfect maturity,” he hadn’t reached “the goal.”

This is such an important message for us. It reminds us that wherever we are on our spiritual journey at any given time, there is still need for growth, still need both for the deepening of our relationship with God and the strengthening of the fidelity with which we live out the consequences of that deepened relationship.

Among other things, understanding conversion as process helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our spiritual journey. We have such a strong tendency to judge harshly what we in hindsight view as missteps along the way. It is so very easy for us to forget that everything we experience and learn from contributes to our growth process, is part of who we have become and how we relate to God and others, and is a potential source of grace.

A Sober Look at America’s Moral and Spiritual Progress

Today in the United States we observe Martin Luther King Day, a day on which we celebrate the life and legacy of this great leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We remember King for his commitment to work for the end of racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination through nonviolent means.

King was a powerful speaker and, on any number of occasions I have quoted from one speech of his or another, and I always encourage my students to watch or listen to his speeches rather than read them.

One speech of King’s is particularly salient to us today. I refer to his 1956 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us today:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

It is worth spending some time reflecting on whether the indictment in these words are true. If so (and I do think it is), some examination and reformation of our behavior is in order. We all need to ask ourselves: what is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself? Are there places I am called to take a stand? And what graces do I need from God to be able to fulfill that responsibility?

Three Blocks to Growth and Connection With Reality

One of my Christmas gifts from my husband was Pope Francis’ newest book, Let us Dream: The path to a Better Future.  I just started reading it, and since I started teaching two J-term courses this week, I haven’t gotten very far. Nonetheless, here’s a tidbit.

Early on in the book, Francis identifies what he terms “three disastrous ways of escaping reality that block growth and the connection with reality, and especially the action of the Holy Spirit.”  The three are narcissism, discouragement and pessimism, each of which is paralyzing.

Narcissism “takes you to the mirror to look at yourself, to center everything on you so that’s all you see.”  Everything is judged with reference to the self.  People are seen as objectively good if they are good to you; situations or events are bad if they don’t benefit you personally.  Rather than God being at the center, the self is.  It is not hard to see examples of painful narcissism in the public figures we read about every day, be they politicians, athletes or celebrities.  And perhaps we can see examples in those around us, or even occasionally in ourselves.

Discouragement “leads you to lament and complain about everything so that you no longer see what is around you nor what others offer you, only what you think you’ve lost.”  We certainly see that in people’s reaction to COVID and other hardships.  But when we only see what we’ve lost, we are blinded to all the gifts that are around us – even during the pandemic.

Pessimism “is like a door you shut on the future and the new things it can hold.”  Like discouragement, it focuses only on the negative and keeps us from hope.

Francis suggests that each of the three is “in the end about preferring the illusions that mask reality rather than discovering all we might be able to achieve.  They are siren voices that make you a stranger to yourself.”

How do we fight against such tendencies when they arise? – because, let’s face it, each of us is susceptible to the pull or one or another of them.  Francis says simply that “to act against them, you have to commit to the small, concrete, positive actions you can take, whether you’re sowing hope or working for justice.”

Let us do precisely that, asking ourselves what small, concrete, positive actions we can take in the name of hope and promoting justice.

They Did Not Understand – But We Do

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus’ disciples (having just witnessed Jesus feeding the multitudes) are in a boat “far out on the sea” when a windstorm comes upon them. They then notice Jesus walking on the water toward them, causing them to cry out “terrified,” fearing he was a ghost. Jesus tells them, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!”

How often those words are repeated by Jesus in the Gospels: Do not be afraid. Take courage. I am with you. Do not be afraid.

The disciples, we are told, were astounded, when he got into the boat with them and the wind died down because “[t]hey had not understood the incident of the loaves.”

Standing on this side of Christ’s resurrection, however, we do understand. We understand the body of Christ feeding the multitudes. We understand the body and blood of Christ poured out for us. And, more importantly, we understand that by His death, resurrection and ascension, Christ is always present with us.

We forget that sometimes. Fear arises, like the wind on the sea and our anxieties can sometimes overwhelm us, blinding us to the reality of Christ’s presence. The key is to open our eyes and our ears. To let ourselves hear Jesus say to us, I’m here…Do not be afraid. To be strengthened by Christ’s presence through everything we face in our lives.

The promise was never that things would be easy. The promise was that Christ would always be with us. We face nothing alone.

What Difference Does Trust in God Make?

Vinita Hampton Wright recently wrote a piece on the Ignatian Spirituality website that addresses this question. Actually, she suggests that answering the question of how trust in God affects our behavior depends on the answer to another question: What do I trust God to do or be?

If I trust that God will give me exactly everything I ask for or that God will beat up all my enemies, that will affect my behavior in one way – and not a particularly good one. She goes on to write

However, if I trust God to love me, forgive me, heal me, guide me, and be with me through everything, then I will act like a person who can enjoy life as a gift and who does not have to fight and grab for what she wants, because she is free to be content as circumstances shift and change. If I trust God to be God and remain with me and use a variety of situations to strengthen and teach me, then I don’t need to create enemies out of people who seem opposed to me. I can relax and accept any person as someone loved by God—and I can trust God to work in that person, starting with where he or she is now.

That trust removes fear and deepens our relationship with God and with others.

Wright ends her post with the hope her reader will have the “courage soon to ask yourself what you trust God to do and who you trust God to be.” A good question to sit with.

The Color of Compromise

I just finished reading The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, written by Jemar Tisby.  As its name suggests, the book provides a historical survey of the many ways in which the American church has been, at times actively supportive and at other times, complicit in racism over the last several centuries.

The book is a sobering read.  It is also a necessary one; in the words the author quotes of Martin Luther King, Jr., “[l]ike a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Tisby explores facts we are not accustomed to facing head on, such as:

  • The extent to which Christian churches in the eighteenth century did not oppose the enslavement of blacks, preferring instead to focus on evangelization of the slaves and some efforts to ameliorate the harshest punishment of slaves. 
  • At the onset of the Civil War, Christian denominations, especially in the South, aggressively defended slavery based on the Bible.  Many found slavery not only morally acceptable but praiseworthy as a way to introduce Africans to Christianity.
  • During the era of Jim Crow, white churches failed to unequivocally condemn lynchings and other acts of terror against freed blacks.  “[T]he majority stance of the American Church was avoidance, turning a blind eye to the practice.  It’s not that members of every white church participated in lynching, but the practice could not have endured without the relative silence, if not outright support, of one of the most significant institutions in America – the Christian church.”
  • In the post-World War II era, the American church cooperated with residential segregation of blacks, actively participating in the relocation of whites from cities, themselves relocating to the suburbs along with whites.  They also started segregated private schools to keep white children separate from black ones.  (Indeed, while many associate the rise of the “religious right” with abortion, racial integration in schools was a much more central impetus.)

The book continues its survey through the current day, including the elections of both Obama and Trump and the rise of Black Lives Matter.  It also discusses how certain cultural aspects of, particularly Evangelical, Christianity – including accountable individualism – perpetuate racial problems.

As with any survey, there is a certain amount of selectivity in what events, persons and stories an author chooses to include, but that does not diminish the value of reading the book and facing the history of Christian churches.

The book ends with a chapter of ways to both individually and communally try to address our country’s racism.  As with most difficult problems, they are both simple and difficult.  I highly recommend the book, including a consideration of what each of our individual roles is in addressing the racism that still plagues our country.

The One Who is Coming After Me

It is interesting that no Gospel begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry without telling the reader of John the Baptist.  Raymond Brown suggests that the Baptist’s preceding Jesus was “so irradicably fixed that in two of the three Gospels that begin their story before the public ministry with Jesus’ first appearance on earth, the Baptist is brought back to precede that appearance as well.”

In today’s Gospel reading from John, the priests and Levites ask John “Who are you.” John, after saying he was not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet, tells them he is “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'”, and further that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” 

And in those last words is what I find so compelling about John: John never thought it was about him; he always put the focus on Jesus and never thought he, John, should be the one taking center stage. John had a role – he was sent by God (in the words of the Evangelist John) to testify to the light – and he accepted and embraced that role.  He never sought to make himself more important than he was. 

When we are tempted to put the focus on ourselves, John should be our reminder that we too are messengers.  We point the way to others by our words and our deeds, and we need to ask ourselves: do we point the way to Jesus as did John?

We might also remind ourselves John’s message was very counter-cultural (as is so much of Christianity).  When John spoke of repentance and making straight the way of the Lord, he meant not simply remorse for sinfulness, regret for bad behavior.  What made his message so difficult was a call to a more active or affirmative sense of repentance in his admonition to prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Don’t just be sorry, change your ways, was John’s message.  “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” as the priest says when we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.  And believe in the Gospel means live it.