Sunday, October 02, 2016

Between Carrying a Stick & Releasing the Ego

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Stuart Dotson

My dear friends, how do you feel when people don’t listen to you? When they ignore what you’re telling them to do? When your children refuse to do their homework, for example. Or when your parents insist on scolding you for something you didn’t do. When your boss keeps loading you with more work than you can handle. Or when your teacher refuses to give you the grade you think you deserve. All this can be very frustrating, right? Don’t you sometimes wish you had the power to get others to listen to you? To obey your instructions? What do you do?

I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers, but whenever I feel that others are not listening to me my spontaneous reaction is to raise my voice. To speak more loudly. As though the reason why they’re not listening is because they can’t hear what I’m saying. But their reluctance to obey me may have nothing to do with the volume of my voice. It may be that they just don’t want to listen. Or simply don’t care. Which is why some of us may find the following piece of advice very appealing. How do you get others to listen to you? To obey your instructions? To care about what you’re saying? There is no need to shout. You can speak softly. Yes… speak softly… but carry a big stick.

Speak softly, but carry a big stick. That’s what some people do to get others to listen to them. I’m reminded of how, when I was in primary school, just the sight of the discipline master walking around with a cane in his hand was enough to get everyone on their best behaviour. No shouting needed. Just carry a big stick.

Speak softly, but carry a big stick. In order to get others to listen to you. Don’t we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that faith is like that too? In the gospel, for example, Jesus says that, if our faith were the size of a mustard seed, we could tell a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey us. Isn’t he saying that faith gives me the power to get others to listen to me? To even get a tree to obey me? To do what I tell it to do? No need to raise my voice. No need to shout or scream. Just speak out softly, and have faith.

And yet, understood in this way, faith looks like nothing more than a big stick that I carry around. Just to get others to obey me. To get situations to turn out the way I like. Even to get God to do what I want. Just speak softly in faith. And everything will work out in my favour. Isn’t this how some of us understand faith? Faith is the power to get God to give me what I want. So that when I hear of someone praying to be healed of a terminal illness. Or to get a better job. Or a more understanding spouse. And the person doesn’t get it. I’m tempted to think that the person’s faith is somehow lacking. As though, if only our faith were strong enough, we could always get exactly what we want in life. All of the time. Just speak softly, and carry a big stick.

But if faith were truly like a big stick, then what would that make God? Wouldn’t God be nothing more than my servant? Always at my beck and call. Eagerly waiting to follow my every instruction. Yet this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells us in the gospel. Immediately after speaking about the power of faith to uproot trees, Jesus goes on to emphasise the importance of having the attitude of a servant. When you have done all you have been told to do, say, “We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty,”

Doing what we have been told to do. Isn’t this what faith is really about? Faith is less about the ability to make everything turn out the way I want them to. But more about helping me to discover how God wants them to turn out. It is less about the power to make God listen to me. But more about helping me to listen to God. Which is not to say that I shouldn’t ask God for what I want. To have faith is indeed to express my deepest desires to God. And to do it continually. Except that I don’t do it the way a master speaks to a servant. Demandingly. Arrogantly. Impatiently. But the way a servant would address the master. Humbly, respectfully, trustingly. Laying bare what is in my heart of hearts. And then leaving God to decide how and when to respond.

Isn’t this what we find in the first reading? The prophet Habakkuk complains that God doesn’t seem to be listening to his prayer. How long, O Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen. And his prayer is by no means a frivolous and selfish request. The prophet is praying for justice and peace in the land. Surely these are things that God wants as well. How does God respond? By encouraging the prophet to keep on asking. And not to give up. Even if God seems slow to act. To keep persevering in prayer, even in the face of God’s apparent silence. To do this is not easy. It requires faith. The faith that a servant might have in the master’s goodness. This is what distinguishes the one with faith from the one without. See how he flags, he whose soul is not at rights, but the upright man will live by his faithfulness.

Faith helps us to keep praying for what is right. As we do whenever we say the Our Father: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And not just to keep praying. But also to keep doing the master’s work. God’s work. Isn’t this what St. Paul is asking Timothy to do in the second reading? To fan into a flame the gift of faith that Timothy received from God when Paul laid hands on him. To never be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord, but to bear the hardships for the sake of the Good News, relying on the strength of God. The strength that comes by faith.

This is what faith is for. Not so much for us to control our environment. To make everything turn out the way we want. Much less to control God. To have God at our beck and call. But rather, faith is for helping us to listen to God. To discern God’s will. And to pray and work tirelessly to fulfil that will in our lives and in our world. Isn’t this the call that the responsorial psalm addresses to us? O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ 

I’m reminded of the lives of two women saints. The first lived many centuries ago. The second was canonised only recently. The first is a model of perseverance in prayer. The second of fidelity in action. The first is St. Monica, who spent long years praying for the conversion of Augustine, her wayward son. The sinner, who eventually became a great bishop and saint in the church. The second is St. Mother Teresa, who worked tirelessly  in Calcutta, for the benefit of the poorest of the poor. I’m sure you can think of other saints. Canonised and uncanonised. Models of persevering prayer and of tireless action. Models of faith.

My dear friends, even if it is true that we can get others to listen to us by speaking softly and carrying a big stick. This is not what faith is all about. Faith is less about the power to make others listen to me than it is about me learning to listen to God. It is less about carrying a big stick than it is about letting go of my ego. My illusion of grandeur. My need to control everything. My tendency to think of myself as the master. And God as my servant.

Listening more than speaking. Letting go more than clinging on. This is what faith is about.

My dear sisters and brothers, what must we do to better receive this precious gift today?

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