Tag Archives: disciple

Self-sacrifice and Motherhood

8 May

If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps. (1 Peter 2:20B-25)

via flickr user VinothChandar

via flickr user VinothChandar

These lines from this coming Sunday’s second reading jumped out at me this week because this coming Sunday is also Mother’s Day. In the cultural imagination in the United States, this image of patient suffering for the good, of following in Christ’s footsteps of self-sacrifice, of giving of the self to the point of giving the self away for the sake of others is often equated with being a “good” mother. On a more personal level, these are also the images that I have held myself to over the past six years as I have parented my two sons; yet they are images with which I struggle mightily. On the one hand, it is hard to ignore the centrality of self-sacrificial love in the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Certainly patient suffering and giving the self away for the sake of others is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

On the other hand, I have begun to question the wisdom of holding up self-sacrifice as the quintessence of Christian love. This reflection has been spurred by the marked ambivalence I feel as I anticipate the addition of a third child to our family in a few months and the return to the intense care-giving that goes with having an infant. Certainly, I feel blessed that we will welcome a new person into our family, yet alongside this gratitude is no small amount of terror. As I have worked to understand this fear, I realize that a large part of it is related to the ideal of self-sacrifice to which I have held myself during my tenure as a part-time stay-at-home mother to my first two sons. Since I feel fortunate to be in a financial and career situation where I am able to be at home part-time, I keep quiet about how excruciatingly boring this has been at times and how isolated I feel, convincing myself that this is simply the price I have to pay for spending time with my children. Used to being “successful” in the professional realm, I project an image of a successful caretaker, not letting on to the constant questions about doing and being enough for my kids that plague me day in and day out. Another sacrifice for the greater good. Taken in by the idea that mothers are supposed to give everything of themselves to their children, I have ignored my own likes and dislikes and played chess with my three-year-old following the real rules and one-on-one football with my five-year-old, even though I despise these activities enough that I cannot make it through them unless I am accompanied by a pocket full of M & M’s (a sign of an eating disorder that I am just beginning to understand). At base, the trepidation associated with having a third child is grounded in a sense that if I keep sacrificing myself this way, I may completely lose myself and may never be able to get it back.

So how is a good Christian mother, who wants to walk in the footsteps of Jesus without losing herself, supposed to deal with the ideal of self-sacrifice? In her wonderful book Caretakers of Our Common House, Christian educator Carol Lakey Hess offers what I believe is an important proposal: change the ideal and put self-sacrifice in its proper place. Drawing on the work of theologians like Louis Janssens and Don Browning, she argues that rather than self-sacrifice being the essence of Christian love, “Mutuality and equal regard constitute both the essence of love and the ethical vision for community life” (p. 95). Equal regard includes regard for the self and regard for others. If we are called to treat others with respect because they are human beings, made in the image of God, then we are also called to extend the same respect to ourselves. The temptation of sin in a world where equal regard is the ideal is not only that we would operate with inordinate self-regard; it also is that we would operate with inordinate other-regard that risks sliding into unthinking giving that can harm ourselves. As Hess articulates, when mutuality and equal regard are the ideal, self-sacrifice still has a place; it becomes “the extra mile we must travel to help bring a situation of conflict and disharmony into mutuality again” (p. 95). Rather than being constitutive of a relationship, self-sacrifice can be a gracious catalyst for restoring relationships of mutuality, reciprocity, and respect. To bring it closer to home, self-sacrifice should not be the only way in which I relate to my children. More accurately, it is part of a larger vision of harmonious relationships in which all parties, including myself, are treated with respect.

We Are Only Human: An Odd Comfort

9 Apr

There are three scenes in this Sunday’s Gospel that give me an odd sort of comfort. The first scene takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus has gone to pray. We are not told this explicitly, but I get the sense that Jesus just needed to get away from it all at this moment, to be alone, to pray to God before facing what he was about to face. Jesus is honest with his disciplines, explaining to them that his “soul is sorrowful even to death.” Addressing God as Father, a term that was unusual for Jews to use during Jesus’ time, which indicates Jesus’ intimate relationship with God, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus first asks to be spared, but then in the next breath reaffirms his trust in God, indicating his willingness to follow God’s will and not his own.

via flickr user Solle

via flickr user Solle

This is a Jesus that I can relate to; this is a Jesus I know is there. At the times in my life when I have felt deep sorrow, the sort of sorrow that feels as if it will swallow you whole, I have felt the irresistible urge to be in contact with the ground. Prostrate on the floor, I have cried and prayed, prayed and cried, imagining that Jesus, too, once knelt on the ground in Gethsemane, in touch with the dust out of which human beings are formed and into which they will return. Of course, this does not take away the sorrow, but it helps somehow to know that Jesus felt something similar. It helps somehow to know that even for Jesus is was not always easy to follow God’s will. This Jesus gives me permission to ask God if things might be another way, all the while encouraging me to trust in God.

The second scene is a familiar one involving Peter, who is milling about in the courtyard outside the high priests’ chamber, waiting, we can suppose, for the results of Jesus’ trial with the Sanhedrin. Despite his testimony earlier in the evening that he would never deny Jesus, Peter vehemently argues that he does not know Jesus to not just one, but three different groups of people who ask him if he was been with Jesus the Nazarene. (Interestingly, the first two people to whom Peter makes his denial are a servant woman and a girl, who, because of their social and gender status, likely would not have been in a position to do him harm had he affirmed his relationship with Jesus.)

Unfortunately, this is a disciple that I can relate to all too well. Luckily, I live in a time and a place where I do not have to deny having a relationship with Jesus if I am ever asked about it point blank. And yet I wonder how often my actions speak louder than any words ever could a denial of my identity as a Christian. How often do I fail to extend charity to those who need it most? How hard it is for me to include in my busy schedule time to work for justice and peace in my community? There is an odd sort of comfort in knowing that Peter, someone who actually knew and gave his life to follow Jesus, was not always up to following the call. And Peter’s response when the cock crows offers me a clue as to what I need to do when I realize the ways in which I have not lived as a disciple lives: take time to mourn.

The third scene takes place on the cross. As people are gambling for his garments and taunting him to save himself, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Scripture scholars have spent much ink debating about this cry of Jesus on the cross. From my perspective, it is an authentic cry of anguish. Yes, we know that the end of the story is resurrection, but in that moment, Jesus felt abandoned, alone, angry. And in expressing those emotions, in yelling out to God, Jesus gives us permission to do the same. We are allowed to be angry with God, to yell at God when we do not understand. It is okay because God is God, and God can take it. And again, while this does not take away our anguish, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus can commiserate with us because he experienced these very same human emotions. This Jesus is not one who shies away from the hard emotions in life. This is a Jesus who walks with us through the valleys of death.

These three scenes could be seen as dark and depressing. Maybe they are dark and depressing for someone who has never felt deep sorrow, deep anguish, deep doubt, or deep fear. But I have felt all these things, and knowing that Jesus felt them and that some of his closest followers felt them makes me feel less alone on my journey of faith. And perhaps most importantly, these three scenes remind me that it is okay to be human because that is what we are. I do not have to be perfect, and I am not expected to happily and unquestioningly follow God’s will. The journey of faith does not only encompass mountain top moments but also valleys of despair and doubt. And Jesus is not only with us looking out at the amazing vistas; he is with us most especially when we cannot see our way forward.

Gospel Reflection for September 8, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

3 Sep

Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14.27

Crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful and shameful form of execution, reserved for Rome’s vilest criminals and insurrectionists, cruelly calculated to deter imitators.  Jesus’ teaching to carry the cross would have shocked and rocked his listeners.

Understanding that exaggeration and paradox are figures of speech diminishes the shock somewhat.  But to carry the cross, was not, as it has become, a familiar metaphor for enduring suffering.

Jesus is a servant, a suffering messiah, not a world-conquering one.  Sunday’s gospel is meant to sober us up, to remind us that, though we are invited to the joyful and wonderful messianic feast, the road there is not an easy one.

In what ways have you carried Jesus’ cross?

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The Cost of Discipleship: Mark 6.7-33

11 Jul

an excerpt from Mark’s Gospel: The Whole Story by Joan Mitchell, CSJMark's Gospel: The Whole Story

At this point in the story strand the narrative introduces another literary sandwich, another story within a story. The narrative delays the second sea crossing story and adds a literary sandwich focused on mission.  In the first slice of story Jesus sends his disciples out to do what he has been doing – preach, heal, cast out ungodly spirits. While the new missionaries are out, the narrative ominously tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist.

The Baptist’s beheading supplies time for the twelve to be out on mission. More importantly, John’s senseless death at the whimsy of a drunken king foreshadows the cost of prophetic ministry. What happens to John may happen to Jesus and those who follow him. Jesus’ disciples and those Mark’s gospel calls to faith have reason to fear for their lives. The disciples return and report to Jesus all they have done but cannot find rest even when they go away with Jesus in a boat to a deserted place. The Jesus movement keeps growing.

Gospel Reflection for January 15, 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

10 Jan
Two disciples were following Jesus so he questioned them, “What do you seek?”
They asked him, “Teacher, where do you stay?”
Jesus responded, “Come and see.”  They went and saw where he stayed and remained with him that day.  It was about four in the afternoon.

John 1:38-39

Andrew and an unnamed disciple go and see first hand where Jesus lives and stay with him for a couple of hours late one afternoon.  They leave transformed.  John’s gospel calls us today into the same transforming relationship with Jesus that Andrew experienced.  In this simple scene Jesus calls us to come, see, and stay with him.

What do you hear about Jesus that makes you want to learn more?

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