Sunday, January 27, 2008

Virtues of the Chosen

I've seen so much anxiety through the years about being good enough to be chosen.

I've been through my share. Will I make it through this ballet audition? Will I get into a good college? Sheesh, I'm at Harvard - did they make a mistake admitting me? Will I find a good husband? How can I get a med school to even look at me? Can I get a residency in that specialty? What if they decide I'm not good enough after all and cut me out of the program? Will they want my essay for their collection? Will my boss like my work? Does my group value my presence in it and want me to stay for partnership? Am I good enough to keep doing this? It goes on and on...

Today's Gospel reading told the story of how Jesus chose some of his disciples. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to his choices, on the surface. At our parish's family Mass - picture a sea of squirmy toddlers, restless pre-adolescents, and busy-looking parents all crammed into a subterranean liturgical space - our insightful deacon, during his reflection on the Gospel reading, highlighted four virtues that he saw as part of the "job requirement" for being a disciple of Christ.

What was great was the way he got the kids to consider these virtues. He asked for a show of hands of who practiced a martial art, then asked the kids which form they were studying (most, including my son, said karate).

Then he brought forth a mysterious black backpack, opened it, and asked the kids by what symbol they could tell if their teacher was a good martial artist. "His belt," answered one kid. Deacon P pulled out an array of belts of different colors from his backpack and, with a word of deference to the presiding priest, draped his belts over the altar so we could all see each color: white, yellow, orange, grey, and brown.

He reminded us that we couldn't expect to get from white to brown or black as martial artists, or as followers of Christ's teaching, without the following attributes:




-Humility, which Deacon P held up as perhaps the most important.

He gave examples of why each was important in the martial arts - patience because training always takes time; determination because the road can be hard, full of aches and pains and mistakes; courage, because competing in martial arts almost always means facing loss or rejection at least some of the time; and humility, because of the importance of recognizing that personal glory is fleeting and an inferior source of motivation, and that true excellence is a gift earned through hard work and can't guarantee that one will always be at one's best.

When I think back to my training as a physician, and the day-to-day slog of just getting through it all, I say a resounding Amen to the good deacon's insights. I was emotionally beaten down at times and have no idea how I managed to keep getting up, except by using my family's support as a handrail, and by showing up every day no matter how tired, defeated, hurt, or uncertain I felt.

The same is true, though less intensely so for me, with music. Kyoko came over to my house for a make-up lesson yesterday and we got totally stuck on my silly A flat key and E flat arpeggios, which I need for the Corelli concerto we're working on in chamber orchestra. My left pinky just won't do what I want it to, bend the way I want, press with the strength I want. If ever I needed patience with myself, and humility, it's now, with these oboe lessons - but patience has never been one of my virtues! So I try, and I squawk, then I hit a perfect note, get through a lovely passage, then squawk again, and so it goes.

The priest good-naturedly allowed Deacon P to keep the belts on the altar for the rest of Mass, but gathered to one side, and reminded us with a twinkle in his eye that underneath all his vestments was a black belt to hold up his pants.

I thought to myself, there are Catholics out there who would be aghast at this departure from the rubrics of the liturgy, and who might even consider the belts a desecration of the sanctity of the altar, even though they are the fruits of human work, which have since ancient times been considered altar-worthy. I thought they were a fitting adornment for the scriptural lessons of today.

I imagined what Jesus himself might say to those who would gasp at the relaxed approach at this Mass and point disapproving fingers. I think he would say what he said 2000 years ago to the folks who were nit-picking about his dietary habits and breaking of sabbath rules: "Get over yourself." (Actually, his exact words were, "You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel*," but the gist is the same.)

I find it comforting that a teacher looked upon by so many as the holiest of holy men chose ordinary, stumbling, bumbling people to receive his teachings and continue his work. He must have known that they and their spiritual descendants would screw up royally, countless times. But he held them up and called them to be their truest selves - not because they were talented, brilliant, famous, powerful, beautiful, or rich, but because they were "good" enough, not in the way our society says people are "good enough," but in a much more real, deeper way. He had faith that they would grow in the patience, determination, humility, and courage that could help create in the world the never-ending work-in-progress he called "the Kingdom of God." I don't know exactly what that is, or what God is, or whether our human reaching for the idea of God is even valid. But my faith tells me that the efforts to build that kingdom are not only valid but also imperative, and I hope I grow to be "good enough" too.
*Jesus' original tone is totally lost in layers of translation, but I like to think that even as he admonished the Pharisees, he had a sense of humor and wit: gnat is galmah in Aramaic, and camel is gamlah... :) Though perhaps the admonition was already a well-known idiom in Aramaic...and with the New Testament authored in Greek, we're, alas, once-removed from the sounds, nuances, and word-play of what he originally said...*sigh*...


Jeffrey said...

hi T. good to read.
but we'll never be good enough.
and that is the amazing part about Divine Grace.
we are "totally depraved" (Calvin), and plagued by sin. our own efforts will never mend this broken relationship with God but here's some comforting thoughts:

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."
Ephesians 2:8-9

"Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."
John 14:6

T. said...

I have a different interpretation of Christianity from that of Calvin. I think we CAN be totally depraved but are fundamentally good.

I've written before that I think the meaning of Jesus' life is the affirmation of that true nature, that goodness, our preciousness as human beings. So I disagree that "we'll never be good enough;" I actually think he lived and died BECAUSE he wanted to teach us that we ARE good, are creatures of love and peace, if we could just learn that about ourselves. I think he wanted to hold up a mirror to us and say, "Look at you: you are worth all the love in the world."

Jeffrey said...

yup, i direct you to Calvin's TULIP. the explanation is much better, lest i do injustice to Calvinism.

Jeffrey said...

Oops. this resource is much better. i'm learning heaps from it.

T. said...

Just looked at the last one, and it confirmed that my faith - and by that I mean my understanding of what people call "God" and of the New Testament and its place in the world - is not aligned with Calvinism.

What I find in Christ's mind, through Christ's word to people, is not, "You're depraved through and through," but rather (and I quote), "The Kingdom of God is within you," "You are the salt of the earth," "You are the light of the world."

Any time he tells people, "Boy, you really suck," there's a context - some instance of hypocrisy or arrogance - but his general messages about humanity are not that we suck, but rather, that we are loved and lovable, pearls beyond price. He does acknowledge our tendency to lapse into self interest but tells us time and again that that's not who we are, not who we're meant to be, as fully human people - "Nor do I condemn you - go, sin no more.

It's not just the "total depravity" idea I find erroneous; I also wonder, in light of the line in Hebrews that explains that Christ died "once for ALL, the just for the unjust," and in the scripture from I John ii:2 - "He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world," how Calvin came up with his concept of "limited atonement." I find most atonement theology in general problematic anyway and have found the Catholic concept, of a redemptive, perfect, inner work of love expressed outwardly by a fully- and freely-entered life and death, to be the most enlightening. Not that I'm a great Catholic, as I've written before, mind you...I'm just trying to keep growing in my understanding of these things.

I do appreciate the review/education about Calvin's ideas - thank you - but I cannot, in my current understanding of what the life of Jesus meant, reconcile them with the faith/spirituality I am working on right now.

Jeffrey said...

yeap, i agree. limited atonement is leaning toward hyper-calvinism.

but i think i would still like to assert that there is nothing we can do by ourselves to save ourselves.

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."
Ephesians 2:8-9

lest we should boast. we are saved because Christ loved us and is gracious. that is the amazing part about grace.

amazing grace (john newton) is a fantastic movie btw.

Anonymous said...

Kudos on another well-thought entry, T. Sorry to jump into the middle of your exchange with Jeffrey, but I suppose it's not the first time I've hopped into the middle of something on your blog...
I, like you, am a not-so-good Catholic -- made it through 13 years of Catholic school with much less theology than most of my Protestant friends. Most of the time, this is embarrassing, but at times like this I feel confident leaning on my own study and what I've learned at the feet of holy men and women in my life.

Jesus was a rule-breaker. He wasn't gratuitous in it, but deliberate and destructive in his own right. He chose to be with the unwanted: women, tax collectors, sinners of all varieties. He publicly rejected the religious rules of his day that were more about appeasing men than living in God's way. And, as you say, he didn't get stuck in the public's unworthiness, instead he challenged them (and us) to make hard choices to live in love.

With respect to our Calvinist friends (and admitting that my understanding of Calvinism is limited), I think it misses Jesus' message to stop at the acknowledgment that we are plagued by sin. God's understanding of us is greater than we can even imagine -- God sees the sin and the redemption in each of us. True, we need God's grace, but it comes to us in many ways. (that's another amazing part about grace.) On our best days, WE are God's grace to one another, challenging and reflecting and making the journey with one another (even in this blog).

Christ deliberately lived in community with others and pushed from within to create movement towards life in love. I can't agree with the idea that redemption is between "me and my Jesus." It's not that easy. We have to find our redemption, I believe, where Christ left it: in the messy world of communities and other people who are just muddling through, sometimes acting as agents of sin, other time as agents of grace. We, too, have to challenge the rules that are more about appeasing people and less about a life in God's love.

I feel I'm rambling, so I'll leave here. Thanks again for the forum.

T. said...

Spedu, you're not rambling at all. That last paragraph is especially brilliant and well-written - not a surprise, of course, coming from you!

Thank you for your valuable, well-articulated thoughts.