Fatherhood – Concluded

Authentic fatherhood is a sharing in God’s Fatherhood, a manifestation of it in the flesh. Loving fathers don’t seize power for themselves, but exercise their God-given authority for the sake of lifting others up, helping them to be secure and confident in their own identity as beloved children of their heavenly Father.

Whether we speak of dads or or priests or other spiritual fathers, we saw last time how damaging it is when earthly fathers are absent or severe or emotionally enmeshed with their children. All three deviant behaviors cause damage to the children’s identity. Those children become wounded in their capacity to receive and give love.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. He leads his sheep into a relationship with the Father. He does not abandon his sheep to the wolves, like a hireling (cf. fathers who are absent or who abdicate their authority). He does not steal like a thief or devour like a wolf (cf. a chummy father who uses the children to meet his own emotional needs). He does not beat or abuse the sheep in severity but – as we read in Luke 15 – tenderly places the lost sheep on his shoulders and brings it with joy into the feasting of the heavenly banquet.

We who are called to be fathers are called to imitate Jesus, to be loving shepherds.  To the extent we have authority, it is only for the good of the sheep, never for ourselves. It is ultimately a celebration of and with God the Father, who invites us all into the heavenly feast.

But how?

I am myself so weak and wounded. I am poor and needy. I am insecure and unconfident in my identity as a beloved child of God. How can I pour into others when I regularly feel like I have nothing to give?

Here is where we must look to Jesus, who he is and what he actually teaches. He is from the Father. His entire identity is in the Father. He is one who receives.

Jesus embraced poverty. He allowed himself to be totally and radically dependent upon his Father. In his human existence, Jesus reflected his eternal identity of being “from the Father.” He then invites us to receive from him, as branches on the vine, just as he himself has received all as gift from the Father.

I love the way Jacques Philippe connects fatherhood with the Beatitudes, especially the first Beatitude of poverty of spirit. The Beatitudes are all promises of Fatherly blessing, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If we acknowledge and embrace our poverty, if we open up in humble receptivity, the Father blesses us and confers a Kingdom upon us. If we grieve and mourn, we will be comforted (“paracleted”) by the Holy Spirit.

We men who are wounded in our identity can only be healthy and holy fathers if we are willing to grieve and mourn the ways that we ourselves have been wounded. I can only be a loving father to the extent that I am secure as a beloved son. Many of us were ourselves abandoned or abused or used (or possibly all three!). We spend much of our lives avoiding just how painful that was for us rather than grieving it and seeking healing and restoration. If we are willing to walk that path, we experience a dying and rising with Jesus. We discover his secret of relying totally on the Father. We meet God again for the first time, discovering him to be a Father who never abandons, is never harsh, and only desires to pour blessing into us. We become secure as beloved sons.

This spring, I had the joy of returning to the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee, assisting as chaplain on the “Holy Desires” retreat for priests and seminarians. There Bob Schuchts invited me, three days in a row, to play the part of God the Father in a “human sculpting” exercise. Another played God the Son, another the Holy Spirit, along with several human and angelic (and demonic) characters. We followed our intuitions and interacted with each other in a visual scene. We first depicted the sweet intimacy of the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus abiding in the love of the Father and the Holy Spirit. We then rearranged ourselves to sculpt a contrast: a scene of strained marriage and a wounded child. As God the Father, I felt such an ache for all three humans in the sculpt! The next day we sculpted the baptism of Jesus and the Father’s utter delight in him, followed by the baptism of someone else, who was struggling to be secure in his identity. The third day, there was a character struggling with the same sin over and over. Someone else, representing shame, began covering the person’s eyes so that he could not see my loving gaze as God the Father. Jesus and I were there, deeply desiring to love him, but he knew only shame. In my ache to love this child of God, I whispered into Jesus’ ear and asked if it would be okay for me to take the hands of shame and place them over his eyes. He willingly agreed, even though it would cost him. I moved the hands onto Jesus’ eyes, and immediately I sobbed and wept. I weep again just remembering it.

Something shifted in my heart at that moment. So often I have turned to the Father with my deep and intense longing to see his face and to receive his blessing. This time I experienced his longing for me, for you, and for all his beloved children. I know it was just a glimpse, a taste, a small measure – and my chest felt like it was going to explode. What an intense desire! It brings to mind the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est that God himself has “eros” – a passionate and intense longing as he seeks out his people in love.

When I return to that experience, I find myself having moments in which I can more fully surrender with peace into the Father’s hands. When my own call to fatherhood feels overwhelming or exhausting, when I feel powerless or feel like I am failing, I can enter the Father’s desire that is infinitely bigger than my own. I can be reminded that all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. God’s fullness will prevail.

The apostle Paul describes this fullness, and our security in the Father’s love, when he names all fatherhood as deriving from God’s Fatherhood. Let us conclude with those beautiful words of Scripture (Ephesians 3:14-21):

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Fatherhood

Fatherhood is under fire today. Even to talk about it can be taboo. I will take that risk. Authentic fatherhood cuts into the core of Christian faith, because Jesus reveals God as his Father. Read John’s Gospel. Read his three letters. You will hear again and again that Jesus is from the Father. He is in communion with his Father – not just as a human being now in time – but in an eternal communion of intimate love. The bond of love between them is so perfect that it IS a third person, the Holy Spirit. Jesus repeatedly expresses his desire that we come to share in this communion; he invites us to experience God as “Our Father,” to pray and relate to him in that way, both individually and communally.

This poses a problem in a world (and a Church) in which fatherhood has so often failed or harmed. Almost all of us have a distorted view of God the Father, because we are looking at him through the lens of our earthly experiences of fatherhood.

We tend to take the analogy backwards. We are thinking, “God is a Father sort of like these earthly fathers.” It is the other way around! Any authentic earthly fatherhood is rightly called fatherhood only to the extent that it is a sharing in and revelation of God’s Fatherhood.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns us against projecting our earthly views of fatherhood onto God:

…we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn “from this world.” Humility makes us recognize that “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” … The purification of our hearts has to do with paternal or maternal images, stemming from our personal and cultural history, and influencing our relationship with God. God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area “upon him” would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us (n. 2779).

These days you will find anti-patriarchy and pro-patriarchy camps in Christianity. The Catechism here offers sympathy and caution to both sides! Both are speaking certain truths that need to be heard. Both sides also have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the pro-patriarchy side, you will often find culture warriors who are defending, not God, but worldly structures. Those structures are much more about privilege and power than they are about a true sharing in God’s Fatherhood! God is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and if we find ourselves blindly defending oppressive fathers (whether dads or spiritual leaders), we may find ourselves far from God! But on the anti-patriarchy side, there is an over-reaction against these abuses. They are right to acknowledge that many men have victimized, dominated, intimidated, used, exploited, excluded, and silenced. Such acts belong not only to isolated individual men, but have often been embedded within structures that silence opposing voices and blame the victim: including governments, businesses, schools, families, and our own churches. But throwing out fatherhood altogether means cutting off our access to the true Fatherhood of God. We are created to receive his blessing, and will remain miserable without it.

Without God as a Father, Jesus himself would have no identity! He simply IS the Son – eternally begotten of the Father. He invites us to discover our own true identity by receiving fatherly blessing. We need fatherhood to remember our story and to know who we really are.

Any authentic expression of fatherhood is a true sharing in God’s Fatherhood. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named…” (Ephesians 3:14-15). More commonly, it is translated “every family,” but in Greek the wordplay is obvious: God is Father (pater) and all patria is from him. Without God’s Fatherhood, there is neither fatherhood nor any other sense of family belonging.

We begin our understanding of Fatherhood by connecting with and meditating on the Trinity. This weekend (eight weeks after Resurrection Sunday), many of our Christian liturgical traditions celebrate “Trinity Sunday.” Jesus is the Son. He is from the Father. He depends upon the Father, and draws his true identity from the Father. When Jesus is baptized, the Father claims him as his beloved Son, in whom he delights.

There are layers of truth here. The Father anoints the humanity of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and declares this human being to be truly his Son. But he is also speaking of their eternal relationship. He is eternally God’s Son – even had he never become one of us, even if he had never created human beings or a universe at all!

The Son is eternally from the Father, yet they are co-equal in dignity and majesty. There is no “greater than” or “less than” in the Trinity. If there were, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit would not truly be God! They would be somehow less than fully God.

Can you see the relevance for human versions of fatherhood or patriarchy? If our fatherhood truly reflects and draws its substance from God’s Fatherhood, then there will be no opposition between equality (on the one hand) and being a source of identity and blessing on the other. That means that we must renounce any counterfeit versions of fatherhood that want to exalt someone on a pedestal. Fatherhood is never about power or privilege. Properly understood, there is an authority there – but it is an authority that lifts others up. True fatherhood pours identity into others, helping them to discover in God the Father who they truly are.

This is true of husbands and dads, but it is also true (in a parallel way) of spiritual fathers: priests or bishops. Each in different ways are a sharing or participation in the Fatherhood of God; each causes grave harm when the God-breathed authority is usurped for the sake of power or privilege.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave such a stern caution, “Call no man on earth your father – you have only one Father, and he is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). In point of fact, we do call men our “fathers” – both biologically and spiritually. Paul referred to himself as a spiritual father (1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12); the Letter to the Hebrews exalts Abraham as our patriarch. Jesus is not condemning earthly fatherhood, but reminding us of its true source.

Dads are fathers. Priests are fathers. Others are father figures as well. Like it or not, we who are fatherly have a massive impact on how others form their view of God the Father. We can heal or harm their relationship with God, depending on how we embrace our calling.

To be continued…

Living Torches

The emperor Nero was a troubled soul. In A.D. 64, following the great fire that destroyed much of Rome, he cast the blame on the Christians and put many of them to death. The Roman historian Tacitus paints a disturbing picture: “Some of the Christians were crucified and set on fire at the end of the day, as torches to illumine the night. Nero kept his gardens for this spectacle, hiding among the crowd, dressed as a charioteer.”

Crucified and set on fire. One can only imagine the devil’s delight, just like that first Good Friday. But the devil cannot create. He can only twist or pervert the good things God makes, attempting to mock his Creator’s good designs. God can always untangle the devil’s knots, not only restoring things to their original goodness, but even bringing forth new and unimagined blessings.

As we approach Pentecost, those early Christian martyrs in Nero’s gardens can become a holy icon of our life in the Holy Spirit. If we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ, if we surrender our hearts to undergo that dying and rising with Him, we shall be set ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit. We shall become living torches who light up the night of this world, bringing comfort, joy, and peace to all around us.

Do not quench the fire of the Holy Spirit. That is Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians.  The Holy Spirit is to be a flame constantly ablaze within us, drawing in and consuming all the lesser flames of our disordered and unruly passions.

When we prepared for our Confirmation, many of us learned about the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The 7 Gifts are easily misunderstood. Well-meaning catechists tend to use gimmicks or clichés to attempt to make them interesting. The deeper truth is that those Gifts are perfective (seven being the biblical number of perfection). When they are activated in us, we are truly possessed by the Holy Spirit. He becomes the primary agent, and we are willing co-operators.

Without the gifts of the Holy Spirit taking over, even the best parts of ourselves will get in the way. There is that wonderful scene at the end of “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor. The main character, the self-satisfied Ruby Turpin, discovers she is not quite so Christian as she had thought. Furious at God and not wanting to take an honest look at herself, she screams out to Him, “Who do you think you are?” In response, she has a vision. The twilight cloud in the sky overlooking the field is set ablaze, almost like a fiery bridge into heaven. Leading the procession are many of the kinds of people she would least expect to find in the Kingdom. By contrast, her own kind, the rule-following and decent kind, are the last and the least. And “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Our self-regulated attempts at virtue and holiness, our managing and controlling, protecting and striving, tend to quench that fire of the Holy Spirit.

So does codependency. Christian churches are often full of do-gooders who will jump in to help others with their problems, but resist being vulnerable and receptive themselves. Remember the story of the five foolish virgins, who ran out of fuel for their lamps – in contrast to the wise virgins, who kept their lamps well-stocked, so that they could burn brightly at the coming of the bridegroom. If we do not learn how to receive vulnerably, if we do not abide in the Lord and depend daily upon him, the fire of divine love within us will burn out. Yes, we are called to give and share, but it is the Holy Spirit that is given and the Holy Spirit that is shared. The work does not depend on us. We need only cooperate and yield.

In God’s mercy, he will offer us many invitations to surrender. Most of the time, the invitation comes in that still small voice, gently inviting us into communion. Yes, occasionally the invitation may come à la Flannery O’Connor, in the form of a violent interruption or intrusion, something that splits open a crack in our otherwise impenetrable armor. Moments of crisis can become moments of great opportunity. There is also the very human factor that some of us have to hit rock bottom before we will even think about surrendering. God knows what we need and deeply desires us to be aided by the Holy Spirit.

In whatever fashion those graces come, there is no avoiding the Paschal mystery. We must be crucified with Christ in order to rise with him. That victory needs to be extended to every part of our heart. That death with Christ opens up a space for the new life of the Holy Spirit. It is only when we give all over to God and approach him with empty hands that he can truly fill us. That includes the shameful and feeble parts of our heart that we would rather keep hidden away. It includes our most noble and virtuous parts, which are not quite as amazing as we would like to think. It includes every part of us. Then the Holy Spirt can truly take over. We can burn brightly as God’s living torches.

In our humanity, we shrink back from any form of suffering or dying. Our instincts tell us we will be annihilated. But this pain and this death is different. The fire will not consume us. It heals, unites, and purifies us as it burns. We become like the burning bush that Moses saw. We will be perpetually ablaze, and nothing of value in us will be definitively lost.

As we approach Pentecost, like those disciples in the Cenacle, we join with the Virgin Mary in prayer and beg the Lord to set us ablaze with the Holy Spirit. May we all become his living torches, shining for the world to see.

Gradualness: Conclusion

It saddens me that there are some Church leaders who are appealing to “gradualness” and “accompaniment” in a confusing way, as a means of pushing their own agenda. They prefer to avoid difficult conversations about what is objectively true or good, particularly in areas such as marriage or sexuality or gender.

While I wholeheartedly agree that it is often unwise to broach such topics in the first or second (or even tenth) conversation, it is unjust and unloving to avoid them indefinitely. Christian life is all about conversion. Conversion is all about an ever-increasing surrender to the truth and goodness and beauty of God. If we hold back parts of our life in that process, our conversion will falter or fail.

Remember the example of Jesus in John’s Gospel. He always begins with encounter and dialogue. He first sees the people in front of him. He gazes upon them with understanding, empathy, and love. He awakens holy desires in their heart. And then he challenges them with the deeper truth.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a marvelous example. She feels truly noticed, understood, cared for, wanted, accepted, and loved in a way she has perhaps never felt before. As her heart awakens to love, she begins to ache with a deep and intense spiritual thirst. Jesus is accompanying her step-by-step through this awakening and growth. Then, when she shows a strong readiness to follow him, he broaches the difficult subject: “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). She admits the truth. The man she is with is not her husband, for she has had five husbands.

Had Jesus started the conversation there, the woman would likely have felt judged and shamed. She would have entrenched herself even more deeply in her misery, loneliness, and self-protection. But Jesus did not begin there. He began with seeing and loving the person in front of him. Indeed, it was precisely because he loved her so much that he also chose to discuss the difficult questions with her – when she was ready.

The apostle Paul, too, understood the fullness of conversion that must take place. His whole life was one relentless desire to belong freely and wholeheartedly to Christ. If anything was ever hindering his love, he desired to be rid of it. How could he truly claim to love Jesus otherwise? To love someone is to grow ever more intimate in the relationship, willing to overcome barriers and obstacles. The growth is gradual and not without much bumbling and stumbling. But when the commitment to growth is unflinching, the progress will continue steadily.

In Philippians 3, Paul warns against those who are “enemies of the Cross of Christ.” They do not want self-denial or suffering. By contrast, the Cross of Jesus is an invitation to pour out our love in free and wholehearted sacrifice.

I truthfully admit that I fear the Cross, that I struggle to trust God and surrender, and that I avoid dying to self on a daily basis. But when I search the depths of my heart, I also see that it is my deepest desire to lay down my life for others! It is my true calling and my true destiny.  I have come to learn that I cannot short-change the receiving of love from God and others. If I do not learn to be vulnerable and dependent and receptive, I will never be capable of sacrificing freely and fully.

God made us to love and be loved. Receiving love means trusting, lowering our defenses, becoming vulnerable, and learning to depend upon God and others. Giving love means sacrifice and (yes) the Cross. Every single disciple of Jesus is called, ultimately, to learn how to love and be loved in this way.

The enemies of the Cross of Christ want a Christianity that does not ask for heroic love. There is no such thing. We are all called, to borrow the image of Gregory the Great, to climb to the top of God’s mountain. It is a rugged and relentless climb, attained only by patience and gradualness. Although we all need to rest and relax, it is utterly unhelpful to settle on a permanent plateau and deny the need to climb any further. If we have sin in our life, we will ultimately need to repent of it. To refuse to repent is to refuse to love.

We in affluent nations are especially susceptible to avoidance of the Cross. We are often unaware of just how anesthetized we have become. We falsely believe that we are entitled to so many comforts and delights (luxuries which billions of others in the human race do not enjoy and never will enjoy). We live with the illusion that we shouldn’t have to suffer. We forget the fall, and the wages of sin, justly deserved. Jesus has paid our ransom and offers us a healing path, but not one that avoids the Way of the Cross. As Paul explains to the Philippians, those who are “mature” understand these things. “Mature” (teleoi) means that one is focused on the telos (the “goal” or the “summit”). No permanent plateaus. Further up and Further in.

It is a grave error to try to separate love and truth. Some focus so much on the truth that they forget to love the person in front of them unconditionally. Others, in the name of love, are willing to ignore or abandon the truth. In the words of Paul, “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

Gradualness is so important – NOT as a means of avoiding difficult truths, but as a means of training us, one step at a time, to embrace the truth in all its fullness.

Gradualness: Lessons from Paul

Wise preachers and teachers in every age understand that growth in faith happens gradually, one step at a time. Today we turn to the apostle Paul, the most successful Christian preacher of all time.

Paul’s life and message can be summed up in one word: conversion. He experienced a profound conversion to Jesus, not only once on the road to Damascus, but each and every day of his life.

Paul boldly proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ; I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20-21). For Paul, every day was a dying and rising with Jesus: Christ living in him and he living in Christ. Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He took on a new name and new identity, and his life would never be the same.

This new identity is not simply a “me-and-Jesus” existence. We become fellow members of the one Body of Christ. Notice what Jesus says to Saul on the road: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). He does not say “my followers” or “my friends”  but me. To be a disciple of Jesus is to co-exist in Christ as one whole person.

We exist organically as members of the one risen and ascended Body of Christ. Little by little, we become fully alive as members of that Body. It is a gradual and lifelong process. Paul understood that point. His primary task was always his own conversion: “It is not that I have received it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may receive it, since I have indeed been received by Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12).

The Letter to the Ephesians speaks often of the “fullness” of Christ. There is a gradual and dynamic growth into that fullness, until at last God’s plan of salvation comes to perfect completion. The entire human race (those willing anyway) and the whole cosmos will be brought into perfect unity under the headship of Christ. He will become all in all.

In the meantime, conversion is all about growing reception and receptivity. We earnestly strive to receive more and more from on high. We receive and give help from and to each other. And most importantly, we are received, taken up into this heavenly Body of Christ that is always beyond us, beckoning us daily to come further up and further in.

At any given moment, each of us receives and is received into this fullness as much as we can. But our capacity for reception depends upon our depth of desire, our freedom, and our willingness to cut out the things that are blocking our receptivity.

That means that we need different kinds of care and different moments. Paul explains the gentle nurturing that is so often needed in the early stages of conversion. While we are still spiritual infants, we need milk rather than solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2). And hopefully we remember the same when it is our turn to nurture the faith of others, whether our own children or the adult members of our churches who are only just beginning to relate to Jesus as a real person. Paul explains to the Corinthians that he guided them, not “with a stick,” but “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), for he is their father in Christ Jesus through his preaching of the Gospel to them.

But notice the next point. As Paul proceeds in a spirit of love and gentleness, he urges them to use a stick – figuratively anyway – by casting out from their midst the man who is living with his father’s wife. And he urges them not to associate with the sexually immoral, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. He concludes pointedly, “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).

This whole “gradualness” thing is complex! On the one hand, our shared membership in Christ constantly impels us to receive one another as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7),  and to be receptive to those who are weak (Romans 14:1, 15:1). Yet there are also moments when we have a duty to hold others accountable and impose consequences.

Remember the lessons learned from Gregory the Great regarding the evangelization of Kent: some attitudes and practices (idols, idolatrous prayers) must be cut off at once; others are to be tolerated patiently with a view to full maturity. Discernment is key.

Paul often draws a distinction. Some Christians are “mature” or “spiritual” while others are “immature” or “fleshly.” We need patient tolerance for those who are immature or still in the flesh – but we also need to keep nourishing and caring for them so that they do not get stuck there!

We can ask an obvious question: What distinguishes a “mature” from an “immature” Christian? For Paul, it is simple: the mature Christian has embraced Christ Crucified, and is willing to sacrifice himself with Jesus. Paul warns strenuously against those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).

Sadly, some of the approaches to gradualness by some Church leaders today have become the equivalent of avoiding the Cross.  Yes, patience and gradualness are important, but so is finishing the journey, fighting the fight, running the race to the end! We are wise to begin with gentleness, sweetness, and patience. But in due time, full conversion is the goal. We must never forget that! With Paul, may we all truly take on this attitude of constant conversion and inspire others to embrace the same: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

Burdens and Loads

In the first five verses of Galatians 6, the apostle Paul urges us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Then he abruptly offers the opposite observation: “each shall bear his own load.” Normally Paul puzzles us with his patented run-on sentences. Here, however, his words are brief, but baffling. They offer us a paradox, a seeming contradiction that conveys a deeper truth about discipleship.

What is that deeper truth? I think Paul’s teaching on burdens and loads is very similar to the teaching of Jesus regarding motes and beams: “Why do you notice the mote in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the beam in your own eye? … You hypocrite, remove the beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the mote from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

In both cases, the teaching is the same lesson that Saint Monica had to learn (if you recall last week’s post). It’s the same lesson the elder brother needed to learn as he rattled off to his father all the faults of his younger and prodigal brother (Luke 15:25-32). It’s the same lesson every codependent Christian needs to learn. It’s the exhortation to be receptive rather than restless and reactive, to recognize our own need of salvation before rushing off to save others. In the Beatitudes, Jesus challenges us to be poor in spirit, meek, vulnerable, and receptive before God. It’s so easy focus our energy and attention on helping or serving (or fixing) other people. It’s so hard to seek and receive the mercy and healing that we ourselves need.

There are many misguided Christians who have believed from a young age that being a good Christian means always putting others first. Sally hasn’t slept a full night for fifteen years, never exercises, and struggles to find time to pray. She can’t remember the last time she and her husband just went and did something fun together. She is just too busy caring for her children, volunteering at church, helping babysit the neighbor’s kids… She doesn’t want to be “selfish.” Fred fixes everyone’s cars and homes for them. This year alone he gave up five weekends and four weeknights to help people with various fix-it projects. He is particularly sensitive when his wife nags him about their own car problems, or the bathroom project that he started three years ago and still hasn’t finished. You get the idea. There are many among us who eagerly rush into other people’s problems, happily leaving behind our own mess – not just that of our home but that of our heart as well.

Remember the two greatest commandments: (1) Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength; (2) Love your neighbor as yourself.

Notice that Jesus does not say “more than yourself” but “as yourself.” There is a great medieval axiom nemo dat quod non habet which has a very technical translation: “A thing can’t give what it ain’t got.” Only if we are regularly receiving love and grace can we be capable of giving it.

“Always putting others first” is a lie against our human nature. It will suck us dry, leaving us empty, bitter, and resentful – much like the elder brother in Luke 15. We can try to hide our hurt, but it will keep oozing out.

But…But…aren’t we called to love and serve others? Of course. However, authentic love and service are an overflowing of God’s grace. They are the good fruit that emerges because we are abiding on the vine with Jesus (John 15:1-8). God fills. God blesses. God bears fruit. We receive. We cooperate. We trust and abide.

The saints have all learned this lesson. Consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She mightily served the poorest of the poor, helping them bear their burdens. Nevertheless, every single afternoon she and her fellow sisters dropped everything they were doing and went to the chapel to spend an hour with Jesus. Her congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, continue that practice today, trusting God to provide for others while they allow themselves to be filled spiritually.

Let’s return to Galatians 6. Paul urges the Galatians to have a “spirit of gentleness” when they seek to correct others or to help them bear their burdens. The Greek word for “gentleness” is also listed in the previous chapter as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not fruits we can produce on our own. They come forth when the Holy Spirit fills us and works through us.

“Gentleness” also means “meekness” – the same Greek word used by Jesus in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the vulnerable who are willing to let their own woundedness be touched. It is a fear of vulnerability, I think, that leads so many “do-gooders” to jump in and rescue the problems of others, even at great cost to themselves. It helps them forget their own misery. It feels less painful and scary than facing their own brokenness and receiving love.

Finally, if we study the Greek words for “burdens” and “loads,” it is worth noting that the word for “load” is the same one used by Jesus when he urges us to lay down our heavy burdens and take his yoke upon us (Matthew 11:29-30). His load is light. That is saying something, since his load is the Cross! But it’s not the Cross that crushes us. It’s all the other burdens we heap upon ourselves, all the lies of “I have to…or else…” that we agree to strap upon our shoulders. We can be unburdened of the crushing weights we have heaped upon ourselves. They are not ours to bear. We can allow Jesus to bless and heal us, and gently place his Cross upon our shoulders. His load is light.

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