The older I get, the more it makes sense — why angels say “Do not be afraid” when they show up on the scene (Luke 1:13, Luke 1:30, Luke 2:10), why Jesus said “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28:10) when he made his presence known following the Resurrection.
Change was on the horizon and change is always a little frightening. No matter much preparation has gone into — starting a new job or moving into a new house or embarking on a new adventure — the unexpected will undoubtedly become part of the experience. When God has made quite certain those involved know his hand is involved — well, no amount of preparation can enable them to maintain their equillibruim.
The only stability they have during those storms of change is trust. Trust that God is at work. Trust that he can (and will) rebuke the winds and the sea, bringing a great calm (Matt 8:23-26, Mark 4:35-40, Luke 8:22-25).
Unfortunately, at least in my experience, trust isn’t a coat you put on once and wear for the rest of your days. Rather, trust is a one-day-at-a-time choice in the face of life’s challenges.
For the past year, God has been turning my life upside down — not so much the circumstances (though there’s been a bit of that), but the way in which he is calling me to look at the circumstances of my life and the choices I’ve made. As I do this, I am being asked to trust that he is at work, even though I have no idea what re-envisioning my life story will accomplish.
The most recent catalyst was the gospel reading on Monday, Aug. 20 (Matt. 19:16-22). A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus first reminds him to obey the commandments and then says, “Go, sell what you have and give to the poor … then come, follow me.” As those who have read the gospel, or heard it proclaimed, know, “When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
My first question was: what does it mean to follow Jesus today? That was quickly pushed aside by a more provoking one: what does it mean to sell everything?
My first, glib response was: “I don’t have much.” However, in the days that followed, I recalled how difficult it was for me to decide what to do with my possessions which I considered entering religious life more than a decade ago. I don’t have much, but what I have is precious to me.
Growing up, I was told more than once that I wouldn’t amount to anything — and I didn’t. Not really. I don’t have a professional career or financial security or a spouse with whom to share my life. In many ways, I’m as vulnerable now as I was when I left home at 17, though I’m not quite as ignorant and naive as I was then, so my decisions are somewhat better.
Still, without any of the accoutrements of success, I have managed to put together a decent collection of original art (primarily by bartering my work for the work of my contemporaries) and I have the supplies necessary to pursue my hobbies (painting, knitting, scrapbooking, playing guitar). I also have a few pieces of furniture which have sentimental value and a fairly extensive library.
However, as I meditated on the question — what does it mean to sell everything? — I realized that in my case at least, material possessions were of secondary consideration, if they were of consideration at all. Rather, I was being asked to empty my life of all that prevented me from being open to God, which is a good deal harder.
At the Diocesan Women’s Retreat I attended last fall, I wrote in my journal, “Humility and obedience: Those are the lessons I need to learn at present. I spent my life wanting to impress people, but that kind of pride hurts me.” I knew with certainty that to grow in faith I needed to release from my worldview the pride and stubbornness with which I maintained my personal dignity in the face of life’s dissappointments.
Trusting that God was at work in this allowed me to accept a position at a convenience store when I would rather have been hired by another newspaper. But, in my heart of hearts, I maintained the image of myself as an award-winning journalist and an artist whose work was in museum collections. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve realized that in this hidden self-image, pride and stubbornness were masquerading as humility and obedience — and standing between me and what God is seeking to do in my life.
And so, these days I’m striving to embrace the life God has given me here, the life which he is using to shape me into his instrument in the world. I am striving to empty myself of the measure of my life that I have carried within me for a very long time. I am striving to give up all of those ideas about myself that have enriched the hours when poverty has been a burden that brought me to my knees.
I don’t know how to view this process beyond seeing it as necessary, as an honest response to God’s call. I do know it frightens me at times, which I suppose is to be expected. And I do know that in striving to empty myself of those dreams and ideas about life I cherished, I find myself feeling more than a little lost at times.
Still, I am hopeful that as I let go of worldly aspirations, I will be filled with the Spirit, and this storm of change will bring the sweet calm of a life surrendered without reservation to following Jesus — whatever that means, and I suspect it means something entirely different than I once believed. Time will tell.