Just a few weeks into a new relationship with my chosen word for 2021, co·op·er·a·tion (which I wrote about in my last post here), I guess you could say we are still in the “honeymoon phase”, the two of us. More specifically, my connection with cooperation centers around the concept of working with Divine Grace to be transformed, instead of fighting it, which I’ve been known to do on the regular. After months of floating through some very unstructured days, frequently having the experience at midday of trying to recall if I had brushed my teeth yet, once cooperation entered into my life, it reintroduced me to some structure and discipline. Isn’t the hallmark of a healthy relationship bringing out the best in the beloved? So after feeding the very demanding and vocal, but deeply cherished beasts who swirl around my head beginning most mornings at 4:15 A.M., I brew some Dunkin’ hazelnut coffee and get comfy with my phone (with the Pray as You Go app opened), my journal, my pen, a book with spiritual reading and always, my humongous, insulated travel mug. The consistency with which I’ve been spending time with the Word of God and in contemplation of said Word has been a delight. I feel more like my old self and look forward to this quiet each day. Thank you, blessed cooperation.
On a recent morning, something that jumped out at me was in the Gospel of John when Jesus called His disciples. When Andrew brought his brother Simon to meet Jesus, this is what happened:
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).John 1:42, New American Bible, revised edition
Not sure why this never occurred to me before, but hold up, Jesus just gave Simon a new name. And more than that, the name He gave him revealed the core of who he was created to be, who he was called to become-Rock, upon whom Jesus would build His Church. WHAT!!?? So this got me thinking, who does Jesus say I am?
If I only knew, if He would only tell me this new name, wouldn’t I know what is mine to do? All of the suffering we are witnessing around us this past year in the pandemic has me experiencing an intense yearning to relieve it, but it is so complex and overwhelming, I am left feeling helpless. The more I wonder about where to begin and what is my part to play, the more I feel immobilized. On the worst of these days my life seems so ordinary, my means seem so limited, my power to make a dent seems so inconsequential.
On other days, glimpses of hope break through the shadows, such as when I am gently reminded of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who had a fierce desire to serve God as a missionary and longed to preach the gospel on all five continents, even to the remotest islands. Yet after entering the cloistered convent of the Carmelites in France at the age of 15, she never left and died at the young age of 24. She had hoped she would be useful to God, but at her death, it seemed to those who knew her that her life was quite unremarkable and had amounted to nothing. Eleven years later her autobiography, Story of a Soul, was published which she penned by order of the prioresses towards the end of her life. Very rapidly, it became a modern spiritual classic. To date it has been read by multiple generations, millions of people and translated into over fifty-five languages. It revealed that all along she cooperated with Divine Grace. Each and every step of her “Little Way” she chose Love, over and over again, trusting God would make up for anything that was lacking in her. This way of spirituality has served to revolutionize the understanding of the holiness that may be lived even in the most ordinary of lives. God fulfilled the desire He had placed in Thérèse’s heart to be a missionary, albeit in a different way than she could have imagined.
One of the Christian musicians I admire most from back in the day is the late, great Rich Mullins. Recently I’ve been immersing myself in some of his profoundly deep songs. (Side note: this one might just be the anthem of my soul at this point in life). Last Saturday I found myself going down the rabbit hole of old interviews of him before he passed at just 41 years of age in a fatal car accident. He was a quite ordinary and humble servant of God. He resisted the life of celebrity that could have been his in the Christian music scene of the 1980s. In one particular interview he gave the year before he died, he was asked about what was God’s direction for his life. His answer was quite simple and he implied it is an answer for all of us. He said, “Be holy. Be God’s person where you are.” Hearing this brought to mind the time when he came to my college campus to give a concert. One of my sorority sisters later gifted me a picture of Rich that he had signed, “To Lisa: Be God’s.”
This same message was echoed in a recent podcast from On Being called Living the Questions featuring author Parker Palmer. He described how listening too much to the news of what is happening in the larger world takes us so far away from where we are.
“It disempowers me. It’s not just brain chaos, it’s disempowerment, to have the world presented in a way that takes you so far beyond three feet or so that you just walk away thinking, “I think I’ll have a drink. There’s nothing I can do.”Parker Palmer
He then proceeded to relay a story told by one of his mentors, Rev. Dr. Gregory C. Ellison. At the age of six, Gregory asked his aunt, “How might I change the world?” She replied, “Baby I don’t know how you can change the world, but you can change the three feet around you.” In his adult life, Rev. Ellison does meaningful work through his non-for-profit organization, Fearless Dialogues. One of the foundational principles employed in his ministry is “The Three Foot Practice”. He describes this as living our faith commitment by being intentional and mindful of the people who we would touch if we held in our hand a three foot tape measure, stretched it out and turned around in a circle. Within this perimeter we can seek to live the Gospel by seeing and listening to the stories of those inside of it and by welcoming the stranger. We can ask ourselves, what in this space can I change for the better? Whose life? What situation? Whoa. This is so simple (and admittedly not quite as exciting as the concept of changing the world), and yet it is so profound.
The nagging question remains, who does Jesus say I am? If only I knew my God-given name, wouldn’t it make things so much easier? But then it occurs to me that when Simon was renamed, maybe he had absolutely NO idea what being called “Cephas” meant and what he was supposed to do with it. Maybe it wasn’t helpful and did not serve as the clarifying mission statement he needed to live out his days. I mean really, if we think about it, how does one become rock? What did Simon understand this to mean? Maybe it is a bit nebulous after all and to try and go about living what he thought that meant might just have been disastrous.
As I prepare to enter into the 40 days of Lent which are just on the horizon, I thank God for these prophetic voices, these guides on the journey, these brothers and sisters in faith who point The Way when I feel stuck or a bit lost. Collectively their stories reveal the truth I need to grasp as I approach this new threshold. Their voices call out to kindly remind me, it is not so important for me to know who Jesus says I am. What is important, I hear them say, is to know “whose” I am and how I respond to this magnificent truth in the “where” He has intentionally placed me, with the “what” I choose to do or not do in the spirit of love.
Armed with a brand new three foot tape measure in my pocket, I yield myself to be freed from this place of helplessness and move forward with a renewed commitment: Remain mindful to be God’s person; Be intentional to live faith with love in the ordinary places each and every step along the way; Stay focused within the three foot perimeter where I am, trusting that God will make up for anything that is lacking. Perhaps if I cooperate with these principles, when I arrive at my final destination, my eyes will be fully opened to see how He fulfilled the desire He placed in my heart to relieve the suffering in our world, albeit in a different way than I could have imagined. I will see that even a seemingly inconsequential life, when lived in cooperation with Love, can be made most consequential. And maybe, maybe just then, I will finally know who He says I am when He calls me by my new name.