March 25, 2012
Annunciation of our LadyThere are two kinds of Christians-- those who "pray their way in," and those who "pray their way out." Most of us, unfortunately, take our prayer lives most seriously when we are trying to "pray our way out."
--When you're rushing to get to an appointment that you're already late for and you don't notice the traffic cop's car until you've whizzed halfway past it -- Time to "pray your way out."
--When you walk into math class and suddenly realize the chapter test is today, not tomorrow -- Time to "pray your way out."
--When you get a letter with a return address from the Internal Revenue Service -- Time to "pray your way out."
--When your company announces it will begin “downsizing” "right-sizing" "upsizing" or whatever else they call it -- Time to "pray your way out."
--When your spouse confronts you with the possibility of divorce -- Time to "pray your way out."
As a child I would often wonder if I would have to experience the pain of the cross in the same way that Jesus did. I certainly wasn't looking for anything like that. None of us do. And although in time we all realize that we are not necessarily called to experience exactly what Jesus did, but we are called sometimes to be willing to suffer for the sake of the Christian faith. Christians are taught that Jesus died on the cross to redeem us from sin and death. And we are taught that Christ's death on the cross was a costly sacrifice to cancel the debt that we owe God on account of our sin.
This is true, but there is much more that is true. On the cross Jesus revealed God, not as a remote, exalted, glorified deity, absent from the agonies and sufferings of human life, but of the suffering servant. The glory of God is seen in the sufferings of Jesus Christ, the one who pours himself out for others. Because the Son offered himself really and lovingly for us, we now see God from the perspective of the cross.
The cross also has a vital message about human sufferings. Jesus Christ suffered and continues to suffer for the sake of humanity. Every time we minister in Christ name to others, we minister to him. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a present reality. Leo the great said that as long as we are in the body, Christ suffers still. But the cross of Christ means that humanity does not suffer alone. In Christ God has taken our sufferings upon himself and shared with us.
In the cross, the meaning of suffering grief has been forever changed. The crucified Christ bears our sorrows in our briefs. The Son experienced suffering and death; the Father experienced a loss of the Son, the Spirit shared in grief them both. In the cross, God made your sufferings his own.
Life hits a skid when situations arise that may cause pain or fear, anger or hardship. We are suddenly brought up short. Even those who might not consider themselves very pious or prayerful or even very religious, when faced with these kinds of clutch circumstances, hurl up "panic-button prayers." We pray to God for help in getting us out of the mess we've landed in.
One has to wonder whether God doesn't spend the better part of the day hearing attempts by people to "pray their way out" of situations. It must get very old. Praying one's-way-out prayers are not very creative or new. When we're trying to pray our way out, there simply isn't time to be eloquent. I know that Jesus listens to my panic-button prayers because Jesus himself got to a point in his life where he authored and offered one of the classic "greats" in this genre of praying: "Father, get me out of here." As he looked down the road toward Jerusalem, he cried out, "Father, save me from this hour."
Sometimes we try to dress up our panic-button prayers by gilding them with flowery promises. We promise we'll never speed, slack, cheat, lie or steal ever again if God will just get us out of this one. As if God hasn't heard that before.
But there is another kind of attitude Christians can take in prayer. Instead of flailing around for an escape hatch, instead of praying our way out, we can "pray our way in" to God's plan for our lives.
--Confronted with the need to make a midlife career change -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new possibility.
--Finding that the demands on your time are causing your blood pressure to rise, your head to pound and your nerves to snap -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a slower pace.
--Discarding another commodity of fun for a community of faith that can nurture your soul while prodding you forward -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new address.
--Worried about the strain on your budget and hating the pinched feeling you always have at the end of the month -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new examination of what is an authentic style of life and what is just "lifestyle."
--Grieving over the loss of a spouse -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a renewed love for family and friends.
In today's gospel reading, Jesus says: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Here Jesus speaks in absolute terms to emphasize a point. “Loves his life” means to delight in his life in this world more than in God. “Hates his life in this world” means to think so little of our own life and instead to think so much of God that we are willing to sacrifice it all for God. Following Christ entails self-sacrifice, shown supremely at the cross.
Earlier I said, “Confronted with the need to make a midlife career change -- trust God's plan and PRAY YOUR WAY IN to a new possibility.” I can certainly relate to this, as my own personal life goes through little bit of turmoil. I struggle with the knowledge that my career is going to change either with my approval or without. So most recently, I have started to try and pray my way in to a change of career or job so that I can stay here at St. Francis the pastor to those who call upon me. As we all know, St. Francis is not nearly in a position to support its pastor.
Much of life is beyond our control. We can't run the show. We might as well relax and enjoy the picture. Why don't we trust God's plan and pray our way in to a yielded life? We do not, because we fear the unknown. We don’t, because we want to be in control. We don’t because we do not want to let happen what our nightmares seem to tell us will happen if we do not take action into our own hands. Yes, as the saying goes, even a miracle needs a hand, but sometimes God simply wants us to let the miracle happen. He doesn’t need our help; but we need his!
Everyone must carry the cross, not a cross of wood, but the troubles of everyday life. Some people pretend they have no difficulties, but it is not true. Everyone has their troubles. And so I've come to learn that there is a cross for everyone, myself included. None of us is immune to suffering, pain, grief, tragedy, or sickness. We all have our crosses. But because of Jesus Christ, and our fellowship with him, we do not bear them alone.
A few years ago Henry Blackaby challenged the Christian community to rethink its approach to God. In his now classic discipleship resource Experiencing God, Blackaby pointed out that our approach to God most resembles a Christmas wish list -- a litany of blessing "gimmes" that itemizes what we want: "Lord, bless our church, bless my family, bless my ministry, bless my hopes, bless my dreams, bless my desires."
Blackaby proposed following Jesus' lead and learning to pray not for what we want but for what God wants for us. Instead of asking God to bless our lives, authentic discipleship is asking God to "Let my church, my family, my ministry, my hopes, my dreams, my desires be a part of what you are blessing." Mother Teresa talks about shifting our prayers from what we want to what God wants.
In today's gospel text, Jesus shifts the direction of our prayers even further than Blackaby and Mother Teresa have proposed. Instead of asking God to "save me from this problem," or "deliver me from this mess/stress/distress," Jesus teaches us to ask God to "glorify your name in this action."
When God's voice rang down out of heaven and promised that Jesus was being glorified, some heard angel voices, others heard thunder. When your life takes unexpected turns, crashes into a barren spot, or overwhelms you with responsibility, do you hear the din of thunder roaring in your ears? Or do you hear the voice of an angel offering you a chance to glorify God?
It is especially hard in this modern age to “Let go, and let God”, as the famous saying goes, but sometimes that is exactly what Christ is calling us to do. It's our choice. Either we can try to pray your way out of a thunderstorm. Or we can pray our way in to the glory of God.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.