Our sheepish ways
Deciding can be hard. Making the right decision harder. Choosing a path that is uncertain harder still. We cannot always know what lies ahead of us and often we first must decide about whom or what we trust. The early Christian community faced the same dilemma. Luke, in the second chapter of Acts, tells us of the possibility that acts of love can bring around us: wonders, signs, sharing our wealth and giving to the needy. Luke’s point is not so much about what we ought to do, but rather what we can do if we put our trust in God and act in love: the impossible becomes possible.
But the most important aspect of passage about the early Church, the ekklesia, who had freshly received the Holy Spirit, was that ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (v. 42). They could hear God more clearly through prayer and communion, they could hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Saint Peter in his first letter exhorts his readers to expect tribulations. Making the right choices, following Christ, can be hard, because we can endure suffering unjustly as a result. Like Christ, we do not suffer for the sake of suffering; suffering is never a requirement of loving, but acting in love can cause us to suffer: ‘if you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.’ (vv. 20-21). But ultimately, we are to trust God, despite suffering.
It is that trust in God the psalmist talks about: it is not saying that our lives will be a walk in the park. Rather, it is a declaration of faith in God: he will provide for my needs, show me favour, will protect me, bring me to places of safety and abundance, and be of comfort in challenging times. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.’ (v. 6).
Like the early Christian community, we are reminded that the work of the Holy Spirit calls us to devote ourselves to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. We are not sheepish in that we simply do what we are told, as if it was always easy to know what is right and what is wrong. In fact, we often live in uncertainty, making spiritual discernment an even more crucial part of our lives.
As a personal example, my time with the community of St Anselm in Lambeth Palace has taught me to reflect more deeply on the choices I face. I learned to take time to discern, to pray, and to be alone with God. I also learned to take time to be in communion with others in the community, and to support each other in our choices. I went on a few retreats to work through some spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. They helped be more aware of God and deal with what prevented me from praying. I was able to reconcile with my past, discern and respond to God’s calling. I was willing to reconcile with my past: an absentee father and a mother who suffered depression since my birth. These two facts are not necessarily mutually exclusively. I forgave my late father and welcomed him as a prodigal father, and I prayed to become more fully one of God’s sons. I also came to discern God’s calling to become a compassionate banker, helping the many disadvantaged. I have now taken steps to work in Impact Investing in Africa, and after an internship in the industry, I will leave for Oxford in September to pursue an MBA to gain the tools I need to do just that.
Ignatian spirituality affirms and confirms our human potential and is dedicated to the ongoing, day-in-day-out struggle between good and evil. We are not lambs to the slaughter because our acts of love by forgiving sins, healing the sick, giving hope to the poor, to those socially and economically outcast can truly bring about joy and bring about the Kingdom of God. Each one of us must ask himself or herself how he or she can make better decisions, what it means to trust God in times of uncertainty, and what it means to be part of the Body of Christ and take part in the communion of life and hope it embodies. When was the last time we paused to read the Bible or meditate in silence? When was the last time we went on a spiritual retreat? When was the last time we went for confession? When was the last time we took time to reconcile with a brother, a sister or a total stranger simply to say: “the peace of the Lord be with you”? When was the last time…?
More than wooly thoughts and sheepish participation, our daily decisions matter. We see this sharply in France today, and we will be making our own decisions in this country on June 8th. But our spiritual lives matter equally; or else we might never learn to recognize a wolf in sheep’s clothing and we might be left out of the green pastures promised to us. It is that voice that we learn to recognize and that leads us in our daily decisions; we know him and he knows us, calling each one of us by name. And only by following him that we enter his Church, in communion with him. Through prayer and reflection, we learn to discern between voices, and recognize those of strangers. The sheep, at least in the Gospel, are not stupid; they know when not to follow thieves and bandits and in whom to trust to be saved and find pasture. The Christian life is one lived daily, through praise, words and acts, seeking to follow divine will. It is one rooted in prayer and devotion, in study, in service to others, and in communion with them.
For us Christians, the invitation by Jesus to take up our crosses and follow him is not an easy undertaking. Just as Christ faced a world of cruelty, injustice, and the abuse of power and authority, so too we face as Christians a life of hardship and sacrifices. We must be willing to die to follow Christ, dying to self. It is a call to absolute surrender. As Jesus told us in Luke’s gospel: ‘for whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses it for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?’ (Luke 9: 24-25). Although the call is tough, the reward is great: Christian life is also one of true joy and deep sharing with one another. When we live the Christian life fully, then Christ becomes for us truly the good shepherd, and like those early images, carries us on his shoulders. Thanks be to God for our sheepish ways. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!