I only have a second before I need to dash out to another event as part of my WEEK OF EPIC SOCIALIZING, so I thought I’d let you do all the hard work today and give me the answer to a question that’s perplexed me for a while:
What is the different between being Christ-like and being a pushover?
Here’s why I ask:
I am an extremely nonconfrontational person. To a fault. I mean, if I walked out to my car and witnessed someone run a key down the paint, slash all the tires and break all the windows, I probably would just say, “Hey, what are you doing?” (Phrasing it as a question, since, you never know, he might have a good reason for his actions!) Even if he responded by saying that he was just destroying my car for fun, I would probably just nod, perhaps letting a vague look of mild disapproval cross my face. Heck, if I got on my phone to call a tow truck, I’d probably worry about seeming impolite.
Given this temperament, it’s easy for me to convince myself that I’m just a really saintly, other-cheek-turning kind of person on occasions when I let others’ transgressions go. “Just trying to imitate the Lord!” I assure myself…but in reality I’m just doing what’s easiest for me. For example, the other day I’d been waiting in a line for quite a while, and a woman cut right in front of me. It was pretty clear from her body language that this was intentional. It was one of the most blatantly unfair, infuriating actions I’ve witnessed in a long time. My temper flared, so I said, “Oh — heh-heh — um, hey, I, uhh…” and she promptly turned away from me and made a call on her cell phone. I never did say anything, and, sure enough, she got served after waiting only a couple of moments, whereas my wait was extended even further.
As I walked away from the situation, I assured myself that that was the Christian thing to do. I was a living testament to Matthew 5:39! Maybe this lady was stressed and in a hurry, and I made her day a little easier by letting her cut in front of me in line. But something didn’t feel right about that conclusion. Maybe some small part of my motive in giving her a pass was Christ-centered, but mostly it was Jen’s-fear-of-confrontation-centered. And while I do know that we Christians are supposed to love our enemies and not seek vengeance out of anger, surely there is some line that can be crossed where you’re just a pushover. Right?
I really don’t know. So I turn the question over to you:
Is there such a thing as being a Christian pushover, or should we always let it go when people wrong us? If there is a boundary between being Christ-like and being a wimp, where do you draw that line?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
So, umm, Father Corapi. Yeah. Wow.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the situation, here’s a summary. Long story short, the ministry of the great Fr. John Corapi as we know it has come to an end. He says he will continue to serve under the name “The Black Sheepdog” for now, and of course there’s always the possibility that he could one day return to his role as a priest in good standing with his religious society (as unlikely as that may seem at this point, nothing is impossible with God!) But I think it’s safe to say things won’t ever be the way they were again. The golden age of his priestly evangelization has likely passed.
It’s hard to overstate what an impact this has had on those of us who were heavily influenced by his preaching. When I think back on my initial conversion from atheism to Catholicism, Fr. Corapi is there at almost every turn. Shortly after I made the intellectual decision to become Catholic, I faced a serious medical diagnosis which I was told meant that I absolutely had to use artificial contraception. I was thrown into a battle I wasn’t prepared to fight, forced to stand up for principles I had only barely come to understand. I had to go to countless doctor appointments where I was looked at as crazy, backwards, or (worst of all) a religious fundamentalist nut — which was especially painful since my ego had been wrapped up in my identity as an atheist my whole life. And yet when I think back on that time, one of my strongest memories is a pleasant one: driving in my car, listening to the voice of Fr. John Corapi.
My appointments tended to coincide with Relevant Radio’s broadcast of his sermons, and I recall how my body would physically relax when I heard the first hopeful, soothing notes of the French horn piece that introduced his show. All my frantic worrying and confusion would fade away as I listened to his words, imminently reasonable, strong and unapologetic, as he explained each aspect of Catholic teaching. It was during one of those balmy summer mornings in the car, with Fr. Corapi’s words drifting out of the speaker, that I felt the overwhelming peace of knowing that I had found truth, and that my life was about change forever.
My husband and I entered the Church, the months went on, and, naturally, things were sometimes difficult. After an outpouring of great consolation after I first began to receive Communion, I faced my first spiritual dry spell. I was let down by fellow Catholics. I had the unsettling experience of spiritual attack. Through it all, Fr. Corapi was there. His face would be on my television, occasionally obscured by stacks of laundry or a gaggle of toddlers, or his voice on the radio, each time guiding me away from irrelevant distractions and toward the only thing that matters — the truth of Jesus Christ.
Much of what I know about Christianity I originally learned through Fr. Corapi. I’ve since expanded my knowledge from many other sources, but his way of distilling complicated, vague, and/or controversial ideas into crystal clear messages allowed me to quickly understand concepts that otherwise would have been daunting. And I know I’m not alone — countless people cite him as a key influence in their decisions to convert or “revert” to orthodox Catholicism. His body of work is priceless. If you were to create a pie chart of “modern speakers who explain the true Catholic faith in a clear and palatable way,” the portion with his name on it would take up a sizable chunk.
And so this turn of events is upsetting to the thousands of us who were led home, at least in part, by this particular shepherd. As I thought about it and followed the commentary all weekend, I felt distress at the news. But I also sensed something else, something surprising, something good:
The truth that Fr. Corapi led me and so many others to did not originate with him, or from any man. The Catholic Church isn’t a bunch of guys who sit around and come up with brilliant insights about Jesus; its doctrines don’t come from the pope, the bishops, the priests, Fr. Corapi, or anyone else – they come from God himself. The men who make up the Magisterium are simply the tools God uses to convey his message.
I don’t know if I had ever fully appreciated what a gift this system is until now. It’s ironic that the Church is sometimes accused of making its followers “go through people to get to God.” In fact, it’s the one religious institution that is entirely set up so that nobody is beholden to another human being to know God’s truths. When people have questions about the correct interpretation of something in the Bible, or want to know what the Christian answer is to a brand new ethical dilemma the world has never seen before — even if they’re illiterate and can’t read the Bible at all — they can find everything God has chosen to reveal to us in the body of wisdom of the Church that Jesus founded and continues to guide to this day. They don’t have to depend on anyone’s personal opinions; by looking at the Church’s Magisterial teaching, they can go straight to God.
As the news continues to break about the situation and the blog posts continue to pile up one after another, I feel free. Because the truths that Fr. Corapi led me to are separate from Fr. Corapi himself, I’m freed of the need to know whether the accusations against him are true or false. I’m freed of the need to speculate about all the how‘s and why‘s and what if‘s behind all the decisions that have been made by the various parties in this situation. I’m free simply to pray for him, for everyone else involved, and to leave it at that.
An analogy I keep thinking of is that of the great photographer Ansel Adams. On a much smaller scale, he was also a big influence in my life. His breathtaking black and white images of the Grand Tetons and other mountain ranges awakened me to the grandeur of nature, and stirred something within me that had never been there before. Though I wouldn’t have thought of it this way at the time, the moments I spent gazing at his photos were some of my first experiences of God. If Adams had ever been involved in a professional or personal situation I found unsettling, I would have been similarly free not to let it trouble me, other than out of concern for him as a person. Because while he had an incredible talent for conveying the majesty of the mountains, he did not create them. Though the way he captured them led me to a startling awakening to their beauty, it was not he who made them beautiful.
And so it is with Fr. Corapi. No matter what happens, I will always respect his talent for capturing the truth, and will eternally owe him a debt of gratitude for highlighting its beauty so well. I will think back fondly of those days when his voice guided me during those drives to my doctor appointments, when his televised image was a natural part of our family living room. My love of the doctrines of the Faith will remain unscathed, even if the one who originally conveyed them to me does not. And I pray that Fr. Corapi feels similarly liberated to take whatever time he needs to pray, pause, and seek the still, small voice of God, knowing that it is not his burden alone to pass on the Faith. God has given us the truth through a system that is outside of and above any one man. And because of that, we are all free.
A priest friend of a friend once commented, “I could be a saint if it weren’t for the people!” I feel that way all the time. I’m so easily annoyed; it’s probably my worst personality defect. I’m like a grouchy old lady waiting to happen: just give me a cane and a rocker, and I’ll happily sit out on my front porch all day and complain about celebrities and politicians while shaking my fist at merrymaking neighbors.
My irritation is almost never with people I know well; I usually transform into a person with the attitude of an overtired two-year-old and the demeanor of a wet cat based on brushes with people in parking lots or grocery stores (what is with these people who walk right in front of me and then slow down?), things I read online, or stories I hear about politicians or celebrities. (This is probably an introvert thing as well. God designed people like me to be kept far away from society, but by some bizarre twist of fate I ended up in the suburbs instead of in a remote desert cave.)
So what do I do about this? When I was an atheist my answer was, “Avoid stupid people!” But now that God has given me the grace to see that maybe, just maybe, the problem is not with other people as much as it is with me and my attitude — and, indeed, that I am often one of the “stupid people” — I’ve been looking for practical strategies to avoid being so irritable.
I’ve been praying about it for a while, and then, the other day, I got an interesting answer:
I felt drawn to ponder how incredibly unlikely it is that any two people should encounter one another; to consider the truth that God destined each one of us to live at a particular time in a particular place, and that we share that destiny with only a minuscule number of people.
Demographers estimate that the total number of humans that have ever lived is around 105 billion. There are about 6 billion people on earth right now, and each of us will only encounter a small handful of them.
When you consider the staggeringly slim odds that, out of all of human history and all of humanity’s future all over the globe, God would have you and another person both end up in the parking lot of the HEB Grocery on 41st Street in Austin, Texas in the United States on September 7 of the year 2010 A.D., it’s really pretty mindblowing — even if that other person did just steal your parking space.
When I feel annoyed with politicians or celebrities, I consider this idea that God placed me here and now for a reason. He didn’t have me live under Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty, as I would have if I’d been born in China in 1377. I live in the tiny sliver of history along with Britney Spears and the entire case of The Hills, unlike people who lived in Sumeria in 5,000 B.C. or Easter Island in 350 A.D.
I’ve come to think of it like if you were to be trekking through rural Mongolia, and saw a figure approaching on the horizon. You get a little closer, thinking it must be a local goat herder, only to realize with astonishment that it’s your next door neighbor. Even if the guy did get on your nerves, you’d be awestruck at the unlikeliness of it. There would be something sacred about his presence that would override any petty annoyances.
And so it is with all the people we encounter in our daily lives. Yesterday at the grocery store a woman was parked right in front of the milk section, laughing on her cell phone, oblivious to my gestures that I was trying to get something behind her (and clearly not recognizing the universal “I have four hungry little kids in this cart who are about to riot if I do not get moving” pleading look I gave her). I walked away annoyed. I trudged through the freezer section thinking all sorts of uncharitable things. But then I considered that if I could move freely across time and place, and see all the people who have ever lived, all across the globe, I’d feel a deep kinship with this rare soul who shared this unique moment in history with me. I would be lying if I said that that thought process instantly filled me with saint-like love for her, but it helped. When we passed in another aisle a few moments later, for a moment I forgot about whatever it was that had bugged me, and felt only awe at the sacred unlikeliness that our lives should intersect.
I went to confession tonight; well, I tried, anyway. It was one of those big pre-Easter sessions where there were hundreds of people and about a dozen priests. By the time I got in one of the lines there were at least 30 people in front of me, and after waiting a while I decided to go home and try again tomorrow.
But as I was waiting I looked around the building and noticed something interesting. Since it wasn’t a Mass and took place at the end of the day, most people were in their regular street clothes, which made the cultural and socio-economic differences between everyone much more striking than usual.
As people filed in and out of the building I saw pretty much every walk of life represented. I saw some of our parish’s new immigrant families, recently here from Africa and Mexico and the Philippines; I saw women with perfectly coiffed hair and two-carat diamond rings in the same lines with sunburned construction workers with callused hands; I saw young and fit people holding the heavy doors open for people with disabilities; I noticed uniforms of all types, from medical scrubs to fast food shirts to police uniforms. In one of the most amusing juxtapositions, I saw an older gentleman in a pressed white dress shirt and slacks standing next to a young hispanic teenager with baggy pants that included an airbrushed panorama of the life of Tupac down one leg.
Just as I was about to leave, I saw the door at the other end of the church open. A man walked in whom I’ve seen around a couple times before. He always has a kind smile though he looks quite disheveled and wears clothes that are in much need of repair; I think I heard someone say one time that he might be homeless.
As I saw him take a place in line next to woman in crisp business attire, I thought of how different things would seem if I ran into him outside the church. If I passed him on the street, I would certainly think of us as two very different people. I would definitely presume my circumstances to be much better than his. Would some hidden part of my mind slip in the thought that I am somehow better? I hope not; but the mind of a sinner does strange things sometimes. But tonight, here in the church, all of us in line for confession, the truth was clear. St. Francis put it best when he said:
Here is one of the best means to acquire humility; fix well in mind this maxim: One is as much as he is in the sight of God, and no more.
This quote rolled through my head all night. You are what you are in the eyes of God, and no more. Never is that truth more clear than in line for a confessional.
The group of us spanned the range of the socio-economic spectrum in our city, and if you saw us outside the church we would seem to be divided along lines like powerful and powerless, rich and poor, immigrant and native. By external indicators it would seem that the people with jewelry and expensive clothes were in a much better position than the folks in threadbare shirts and muddy workboots. But to look at us all in the warm glow of the church and remember why we were all there was to remember that our differences in terms of anything that really matters are very few, and that the differences that you can see by external appearances matter not at all. Every one of us would end up on our knees in humility before the Lord that night. We are all sinners; we have all fallen far short of the glory of God; we are all in desperate need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And, most importantly, as each of us would be reminded at the end of our confessions, we are all forgiven, and we are all dearly loved.
- Lies and confession: The case of the stolen pacifier
- Confessing my sins to a priest
- A first confession, Part I