Choosing a Life of Crime
August 24, 2003
Do we follow Christ out of obligation or out of self-interest? It’s surprising to note that we follow Christ for both reasons. Christ is our Master and Lord, and so the things that he teaches us are things that we as disciples are obliged to obey. Yet, we would be seriously misled to imagine that the teachings of Christ are some arbitrary set of rules set out to measure our fidelity. Christ’s teachings are not some hurdle that we are meant to jump over or some obstacle that we are meant to get around. In fact, the very things that Christ asks us to do are the means to goodness and joy. Christ does not direct us to do one thing or another just to make our lives difficult, but rather so that we might become whole and healthy people. The teachings of Jesus are given to us for our own good.
When I was in the fifth grade my teacher was Sr. Philomena and she had a very strong interest in promoting the scapular. I don’t know if all of you know what a scapular is. It is a religious article that you wear like a medal, but it’s made out of cloth in order to mirror the habit of a religious brother or sister. There are different kinds of scapulars, but Sr. Philomena was particularly attached to the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She told us that Mary had promised St. Simon Stock that those who wore the scapular would never die without first having access to a priest who could hear their confession and forgive them of their sins.
So with this information, my good friend Henry Bockal and I came up with a plan. Very contrary to the intentions of Sr. Philomena, Henry and I decided, we would wear the scapular and live lives of crime! We figured that we could lie and cheat, we could be unkind and tease all the girls in our class, we could steal what we needed from the store, disobey our parents, and indulge our every desire. Yet because we wore the scapular we would know that before we died we could confess all our sins and go straight to heaven. It seemed like a very good plan at the time. But from my viewpoint today it was flawed on several levels. First of all it treated the scapular like some kind of magical token. Second, it certainly abused the whole notion of the sacrament of penance. But perhaps its most fundamental flaw was the presumption that living lives against the teachings of Jesus would somehow make us happy. We imagined that if we were criminals and selfish, indulging our every desire, we would have a fuller and better life. We thought that we were clever by finding a way to avoid those things that seemed so difficult, but we were totally ignorant of the fact that the very teachings which we sought to avoid were given to us precisely to lead us to happiness and joy.
This is the big insight of Peter in today’s gospel. When the other disciples left Jesus because they thought his teaching was too difficult and Jesus asked whether they should want to go also, Peter responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” What Peter was really saying was that there is no choice. You could find a way of living that asks less of you, but you could not find a way of living that offers more to you. The very things that Christ asks us to do are for our own benefit. Avoiding them does not in the long term make sense. It is not in our own self-interest.
This is something I think we should keep in mind as we live this week, as we make decisions in the future. Is it at times difficult to love others, to place their interest and good before our own, to be flexible and willing to compromise, to be generous with our time and resources? Of course it is difficult. But being unkind, being selfish, being ungenerous, is not going to bring us joy. The deepest joy in life is in knowing that we have loved and are being loved in return, that we are kind and generous persons. That is what will make us happy and that is why Christ commands it. Is it difficult to forgive, to put hurts behind us and move on with life? Of course it is. But refusing to forgive is not going to bring us freedom. It will only assure us slavery to our anger, to our hurt and resentment. Forgiving another is in our own self-interest and that is why Christ commands it. Is it difficult to be a person of integrity, to be true to our word, fair to others, responsible to those who belong to us? Of course it is. But one of the greatest satisfactions in life is to know that we have the respect of others and that we are a person of character. That is what brings us happiness and joy and that is why Christ commands us to be such a person.
What Christ commands us to do, he commands us to do for our own good. Ignoring the teachings of Jesus is not some clever way of avoiding an obligation. It is working against our own self-interest. There really is no other way. If we want happiness, if we want fullness of life and joy, there is no other path to choose. For we believe that Christ has the words of eternal life.
Responding or Deciding
August 27, 2006
John 6: 60 – 69
There are two ways to live life. One way is by responding the other is by deciding. And the path you adopt will influence everything. If you live by responding you adopt a passive attitude towards life. The ups and downs of life are in control, and your role is only to react to them. If you win the lottery everything is good. If you lose your job, there is only sadness and despair. On the other hand if you live your life by deciding, you exert some control over your future and who you will be. By claiming a say in your future, you can shape the ups and downs of life rather then having them shape you.
The power to decide is real. It can operate in even the most dire of circumstances. The Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl spent three years in a nazi concentration camp. In his memoirs, Man’s Search For Meaning, he asserts that he was able to survive those three years because he retained the freedom to choose. Now this is a remarkable claim because the freedom to choose is almost non-existent in a nazi concentration camp. You cannot choose what to wear, when you are going to sleep or work, what you are going to eat. You cannot choose when you might live or die. Yet Viktor Frankl claimed that he never gave up his freedom to choose how he would live the next moment. He said even though every other freedom was taken from him he was able to retain the most basic freedom—the freedom to determine what your attitude would be in any circumstance, the freedom to choose your own way.
Now what did Frankl mean? An example. There was always a shortage of food in the concentration camp – not enough food to keep everyone alive. But Viktor Frankl chose not to steal food from those that were weaker than he was. However much he wanted to, he chose not to pry bread out of the hands of children and the elderly and the sick simply because he had the strength to do so. He watched as many members of the camp did exactly that – stealing bread from the hungry and the weak so that they might live. He watched how they indeed did live for weeks and months longer whereas those from whom they stole the food quickly died. But he also watched how those same people who lived longer often lost the will to live. They knew that they had lost their humanity, becoming animals in feeding off each other. Frankl chose to starve rather than feed off the weakness of others. He chose to die rather than lose his humanity. He insists that this choice is what gave him the will to survive. Although every other freedom was taken from him, he was still able to retain the freedom to choose.
Now it is clear that today’s readings call us to live life not by responding but by choosing, by deciding. Joshua says in the first reading “As for me and my household we will serve the Lord”. Even though many of the other disciples abandon Jesus because of the difficulty of his teaching, Peter speaks for the twelve and says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”.
So the scriptures today say that a Christian is one who is willing to decide. To decide, that is, as long as we understand what deciding is and what it is not. Here is where we must make an important distinction. Deciding does not mean that we believe that our decisions will necessarily be effective. Deciding is not magic. God is the only one whose decisions always have effect. It is God alone who can say, “Let there be light,” and there is light. We do not have that kind of decision-making power. We cannot say, “I decide I will never contract cancer. I decide that that person will love me. I decide that my children will never become addicted to drugs.” There are many things in life over which we do not have control. Saying that we decide to accomplish them does not make it so.
Christian deciding, then, is not believing that we can control our lives. Christian deciding is choosing to believe. To believe that God is real and active in our lives and in our world and to choose to be open to that action and cooperate with it. A Christian who has cancer has the freedom to choose to live life each day rather than enduring life as a victim. A Christian who is rejected in love can choose to move on to a new relationship in which love is possible. Christians whose children become addicted to drugs have the freedom to choose still to be parents and still to be supportive, even if they are disappointed.
In every circumstance we have the freedom to choose, the freedom to believe that God is real and present. We can choose to remain open to that presence. In every circumstance we have the freedom to live with love, with justice with integrity. Although we cannot always control what we must face in life, we can choose how we will live life. The ups and downs of life are not in control. You are. So decide today to live in mercy and in justice. Decide today to live in love and integrity. Decide today to believe that God is active in this moment and that God is leading you to joy.
To Whom Shall We Go?
August 26, 2012
I believe it was Winston Churchill who said, “Democracy is a terrible form of government.” But then he added, “There is no other form that is better.” Sometimes our best choice is far from perfect. We end up choosing something really does not please us, but we do so precisely because no better options are available.
This seems to be the situation with Peter in today’s gospel. Many people are finding that Jesus’ teaching is difficult, hard to accept. So they are leaving. They are no longer traveling in his company. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you also want to leave?” and Peter says, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Now notice, Peter is not affirming Jesus’ teaching. He is not saying that he is happy with it. He understands why so many people are leaving, but he is going to stay. But he is not staying because he is excited about staying. He is going to stay because where else can he go. Even though Jesus’ teaching is difficult and troublesome, Peter knows that there is no better option available to him.
Now the good news about today’s gospel is that Jesus lets Peter stay. Even though Peter is unhappy, even though he finds the teaching difficult, Jesus is willing to accept Peter as a disciple on those terms. Peter can remain a disciple even though the only reason he is staying is because he does not have a better place to go.
Now, Jesus’ acceptance of Peter’s faith clarifies for us what discipleship and what faith are about. Sometimes we think that we believe in God because it is going to make us happy. Indeed, sometimes it does make us happy. But that is not why we believe. We believe in God because it is true, and the truth of that belief does not guarantee that life will be easy. Sometimes we think that we believe in God because it is going to answer all of our questions. Sometimes it does give us a good deal of insight. But that is not why we believe. We believe in God because God is real. But that faith does not give us all the answers and does not guarantee that we will be pleased with the answers we receive.
We can be disciples of Jesus even though we are discouraged, even though we have doubts, even though we are afraid. When troubles in our family continue to disrupt our lives, when our health deteriorates, when people whom we love make decisions that wound us, it does not mean that our faith is misplaced or that God is not God. It is a reminder to us that God’s ways are often unclear and frequently burdensome. The troubles and difficulties of our life tell us that faith is as much about persevering as it is about celebrating and much more about trusting than understanding.
Now, of course, all of us would prefer a life that is simple, clear and easy. But those are not gifts which discipleship guarantees. Sometimes we merely need to hold on because there is no better place to go. And Jesus, like he did with Peter, is more than willing to accept us and our faith on those terms.
When we understand what faith and discipleship are truly about, we are able to pray, “Lord Jesus, even though it is difficult, even though I am confused, even though it hurts, I still believe in you. But thank you for giving me the freedom to say I’m not happy about it—and if I had better option, I would take it.”
August 23, 2015
Joshua 24:1-2, 15-17, 18
There are high stakes in today’s first reading. Joshua has led the tribes of Israel out of the wilderness into the Promised Land, and he knows that his life is coming to an end. But he is not confident that Israel will continue to worship the Lord who led them out of the land of Egypt. In fact, Joshua is afraid that they will begin to worship other gods, the gods of the land in which they now reside. So Joshua calls the people together and he asks them to decide which god will they serve? And he adds, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Now at first impression, Joshua appears bold and dramatic in this reading. But he is actually humble and wise, because he offers us the most effective way of influencing others. There are two steps to Joshua’s method: freedom and example. Joshua deeply wants Israel to continue to follow the Lord, but he knows that Israel is free. Therefore he knows that the tribes of Israel must make their own choice of who to follow. So Joshua owns that freedom and asks the Israelites to decide. But, then he adds his own example: “As for me, I will follow the Lord.”
When we seek to influence people to do good, we should follow the method of Joshua. First, we must admit that we cannot make decisions for other people. They are free. But then we should offer the example of our own lives.
You might deeply wish that your children or grandchildren would become active members in a church community. But you cannot make such a decision for them. Therefore shaming or coercing them is not productive. All you can do is own their freedom and say, “You must decide how you are going to serve God in your life.” But then add your example, “As for me, I intend to continue to practice my Catholic faith.”
You might sincerely desire to stop somebody at work or at school from treating other people with unkindness and prejudice. But, you cannot force that person to be that way. All you can do is say, “You have the freedom to decide whether you are going to treat other people with honesty and fairness.” But then you should add, “As for me, I intend to treat people with respect.”
You might deeply desire to lift someone you care about out of depression or to move him or her beyond a grief over someone that they have lost. But doing that is not in your power. All you can do is to say, “Only you can decide whether you are going to put grief behind you and move forward.” But then you can add, “As for me, I believe that there is hope and that life can continue.”
We would all desire to move the people we care about towards something good. But our example has to be enough. It is important to say, “This is what I believe. This is where I stand.” Then we trust that God will use our example to move the hearts that we cannot move and to lead the people we love closer to life.
Will You Also Leave?
August 26, 2018
We learn an important thing about Jesus’ ministry in today’s gospel. Many of the disciples who started to follow him, in time decided to leave him. The text says, “Many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” When they heard what his teaching would demand of them, they could not accept it. They walked away. Jesus then asks Peter, “Do you also want to leave?” Peter says no, but he hardly gives Jesus an enthusiastic endorsement. He says, “To whom can we go?” Peter seems to be saying, “Being your disciple is not what I expected it to be. Your teaching is not what I prefer. But when I look at the other possibilities, you are still the best option. You are still the one with whom I will receive the most life.”
Now, this response of Peter should echo in our own lives because sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are flawed and compromised, and yet, when we look at the other possibilities, it may still seem better to remain in those situations than to walk away.
This can happen in marriages. The person you married seems different from the person who is your spouse today: more selfish, less sensitive, less willing to dialogue. You recognize that to make this marriage work will take a tremendous amount of effort and probably some counseling. You wonder, “Is it simpler to walk away?” But when you realize that there is still love between you, that there are children and grandchildren, that there is a shared history, you conclude that there would be more life to stay and make the marriage work than to leave it behind.
Some Catholics might be thinking similar questions in terms of their relationship to the Church. After the devastating revelations of priests abusing minors and bishops covering over the crimes, it would be understandable for a person to say, “I simply need to leave this church.” Even if—as we must insist—the bishops put in place stronger protections for children and a mechanism to hold bishops accountable when they do not follow those procedures, it is still reasonable for someone to say, “Why should I stay with a church which has so seriously failed to protect our children?” The only answer to that question is the answer of Peter, to ask, “Is there still something in the Church that is life-giving enough to make it worthy of our participation?” Let me suggest two things that are.
Being a part of a church gives us a platform from which we can speak for justice in our society. Because we are a church, we can speak together the gospel of Jesus in a way that it makes more impact upon our world. Also, being a part of a church provides a local church community such as our community here at St. Noel. It is in such local communities that we come together to pray, to learn, and to serve others in Jesus’ name. In these communities we can continue to grow with our children as part of a parish family. These are real blessings, blessings that are still present within our seriously flawed Church.
At various times, each one of us may have to decide, “Am I going to stay or am I going to leave?” I have decided to stay with the Church because of the life that I receive from this community as we come together to hear Christ’s word, to share his body and blood, to grow in our knowledge and our faith, and to serve others in need. That is why I will stay with the Church. Today I ask you to stay with me.