In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius of Loyola asks us to imagine a charismatic leader whom we admire and whose life and mission have been an inspiration to us. Think for a moment of who this person might be for you. Whom do you admire? Who has inspired you?… You believe in this person’s values and priorities. You admire his/her integrity. You are convinced that the cause he/she represents is so true, so important, so worthy, that you are ready to offer your full support.
Imagine that one day you actually meet this person, and you are personally invited to join their cause. You are warned that the way will not be easy, that the challenges of this path will be great, that there will almost certainly be hardship and suffering if you choose this way. Joining this cause will involve sacrifice, and could even cost you your life. There is much at stake. And yet your heart thrills at the possibility of giving yourself to such a noble and important calling. You are ready to sacrifice, ready to endure hardship, ready to lay down your life, if need be, to put into practice the high ideals embodied in this leader.
Perhaps Jesus issued such a summons to the crowds that followed him. Perhaps he said to them, “I am inviting you today to join me in proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. I am asking you to be a laborer in God’s vineyard, a carrier of God’s message of love and repentance, a sign and witness to others of the coming reign of God. It will not be easy. You will be like sheep among wolves. You will have to travel lightly, carrying no purse, no bag, no sandals – always ready to move on. You will be completely dependent on the hospitality of others. You will eat the food that they offer you. You will accept the accommodations they give you. And you will proclaim to them the message that I have proclaimed to you, preaching good news to the poor, offering release to the captives and sight to the blind, proclaiming the Lord’s favor. Will you join me? Will you go out with me? Will you sacrifice all for the sake of the Kingdom of God, which is coming and is now here?”
How would you have responded to Jesus’ call? How have you responded to Jesus’ call?
Jesus chooses seventy from those who have responded to his invitation and sends them out, two by two, to the neighboring towns and villages. Pause for a moment to consider what he is doing: he is entrusting his mission and his message to them. He is sending them out to represent him in the world, to speak on his behalf, to be channels of God’s healing and forgiveness to others. Who were these people, and how could he entrust such an important mission and message to them? They could not have had much formal training. Even his chosen twelve didn’t have much training, and according to the gospels, they consistently misunderstood and misapplied his teachings. How then does he entrust his mission to this lot, who had had even less contact and interaction with him?
It’s remarkable, isn’t it, the way God so often chooses to work through weakness and inadequacy. St Paul reminds us that it is God’s way to choose the foolish to confound the wise, to lift up the lowly and humble the haughty. God’s ways are often not our ways.
Our founder, Father Benson, warned us that we would always be few in number, and that our resources would never seem to be enough for the opportunities and demands we faced. But he also told us that we should not despise our littleness, because God loves to use what is weak in the world to overcome what is strong. These are his words:
“No skill of [ours] can fashion any work,” he said, “so that God shall come and approve of it and finish it. [God] begins and [God] finishes the work; and so [God] begins every work in the greatest possible form of weakness. Therefore in all divine works, instead of being discouraged because things seem to be weak, we are to recognize this weakness as an almost necessary form of cooperation [with God]. God delights to begin a work when [our] weakness is specially manifest, in order that it may be perfectly manifest that all the work is [God’s]. God delights to show his favor just when [we] can do nothing else than feel [our] inadequacy” (The Religious Vocation, p. 89).
Father Benson encouraged us to see that our weaknesses, rather that disqualifying us from doing God’s work, were in fact the very thing that qualified us! When we are strong we are tempted to rely on our own cleverness, knowledge, and skill. But when we are weak and we are aware of our weakness, we realize how much we need to rely upon God to accomplish the task in and through us. We know we cannot do or be what God is asking of us in our own strength. When this is the case, Father Benson reminds us, the work is clearly God’s and not ours.
Perhaps this is what Naaman the Aramaen needed to learn. The prophet gives him a simple task: wash yourself seven times in the Jordan. But proud Naaman objects: “Can’t he even come out of his house to lay his hands on me and pray to God to heal me? Aren’t I important enough to merit some personal attention from him? Instead he sends his servant out to tell me to dip myself in the muddy waters of the Jordan! How insulting is that!” Fortunately his servants are able to convince him to take the humble steps the prophet has prescribed for him. When he humbles himself, he is healed.
We love to prove our worthiness by demonstrating our competence and ability. It is SUCH a temptation for us to do things that draw the attention of others to our abilities and our skill. The affirmation of others assures us of our worth and temporarily calms our fears that we do not measure up to others. Even these disciples, having returned from their mission, rejoice in what they have accomplished. “You should have seen us!” they boast, “even the demons fled at our command.”
“Don’t focus on those kinds of results,” Jesus warns them. “In the end they’re not nearly as important as the fact that God loves you and accepts you and has written your names in the Book of Life. If you want to rejoice, rejoice in the fact that you belong to God.”
We have a line in the final chapter of our Rule of Life that reads, “Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what God has done for us” (SSJE Rule, ch 49). And so it is. Power belongs to God.
The 19th century Quaker author, Hannah Whitall Smith, writes of a visit she made to a school for developmentally disabled children. There she saw a group of children being led through a series of exercises using weights. She noticed how difficult it was for most of the children to manage their movements, and saw that for the most part, they were out of step with the music and the teacher’s directions. “All was out of harmony,” she reported. “One little girl, however.…made perfect movements. Not a jar or a break disturbed the harmony of her exercises. And the reason was not that she had more strength than the others, but that she had no strength at all. She could not so much as close her hands on the dumbbells, nor lift her arms, and the master had to stand behind her, and do it all. She yielded up her members as instruments to him, and his ‘strength was made perfect’ in her weakness. He knew how to go through those exercises, for he himself had planned them; and therefore when he did it, it was done right. She did nothing but yield herself up utterly into his hands, and he did it all. The yielding was her part; the responsibility was all his. It was not her skill that was needed to make harmonious movements, but only his. The question was not of her capacity, but of his. Her utter weakness was her greatest strength.”
“To me,” she concludes, “this is a very striking picture of our Christian life, and it is no wonder therefore that Paul could say, ‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’” (The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, p.191).
Our weakness does not have to be a barrier or an obstacle to God; instead, it can be the very thing that allows God to work most effectively through us. The key is that we must recognize and accept our inadequacy to do the work of God in our own strength and by our own cleverness and power, and yield ourselves wholly to God, looking for God’s greater strength to do in us what we cannot do ourselves.
Know this: that God has also entrusted this mission and message to you. You are asked to join this great cause, to proclaim this message of forgiveness and love, to be an agent of God’s healing power in the lives of others, to help bring in the reign of God, which is a reign of justice and compassion. Never mind your weakness; it is the very thing that qualifies you. Never mind your feelings of inadequacy; it is God’s work, not yours. Simply make yourself available, and let go of any need to impress others, or prove yourself worthy, or achieve “success.” None of that matters. What matters is that God has chosen you, and that God claims you as God’s own. Your name is written in God’s Book of Life. Rejoice in that and do whatever he asks you to do. This is the way to freedom and life.
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