Brief synopsis of the readings: In the first book of Kings, God instructed Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. But Elisha didn’t want that to happen until he bade farewell to his parents and Elijah told him not to. In Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus and his followers meeting a man who told Jesus that he would “follow you where ever you go.” Jesus told him that foxes and birds have places to go but the Son of Man has nowhere to la his head. Another said he wished to follow Jesus but wanted to say goodbye to his people at home. Jesus told him that once “the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I’ve often found myself fascinated with the Gospel quotation: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” I was raised to believe that the Gospels give us a good understanding of the lives of Jesus and his disciples, but this phrase has always puzzled me. Did they have homes and families? We know Jesus had Mary and Matthew tells us that Peter had a mother in law, but where did they live? We know that some of them fished for a living, but is that how Jesus made his living? For a group that needed to work for a living it seemed that they had a fair amount of spare time for traveling and teaching.
That brings to my mind an interesting question: How does our call to follow Christ affect our call to live our lives, make our livings, and care for our families? It’s a question that I don’t think we think about enough.
Let’s face it: today most of us live in a world where discipleship in Christ doesn’t cost us much in our daily lives. Americans live in a nation that constitutionally protects our beliefs. Most of us spend our days around people who either share or respect our beliefs. And I grew up in an area where “Christian” was a synonym for “good.”
But if we read Scripture we find again and again that following God’s call calls us to live a life that is both countercultural and difficult.
When I meet with my patients and families I meet them at a difficult time: someone lives with a terminal disease and all of them struggle to understand God’s will and purpose for them. I often talk about the three stages of the Lord’s Prayer line “thy will be done.” Stage one is “My will be done.” Stage two is “Thy will be done, but let me convince you that your will should be my will. Finally, stage three accepts Jesus’ intent that “thy will be done.”
However long it takes for us to come to an understanding of “thy will be done” we need to understand that the call to discipleship leads us on a path that doesn’t always give us a place to lay our head. Instead it calls us to trust that the road we are called to will work out for us in ways that we wouldn’t have chosen.
Twenty five years ago last month I was ordained a Catholic priest and I had every reason to believe that life would be good to me, and God would be generous. It wasn’t, God was. I was assigned to a parish that I believed would welcome me and my gifts, and they did, but the pastor didn’t. Within a few months I recognized that this wasn’t going to work out. At the same time I learned that my grandfather and namesake was dying and my three year old nephew was diagnosed with bilateral hip dysplasia that would need for him to have weeks of traction followed by at least two hip surgeries. Suddenly the concept of giving my life to serve the people of God didn’t seem as appealing as it once had. I wasn’t certain how “thy will be done” made much sense in the direction my life headed.
But in the midst of darkness I found light. I was able to fly to Massachusetts to spend quality time with my grandfather and say the goodbyes I needed to say, and two months later I flew back to celebrate his funeral mass. Then I flew to Virginia to spend time with my nephew. While I was there (literally in the hospital) I was able to make a call to ask for a transfer to another parish.
When I think back on my time as a priest I find no experience more rewarding than celebrating my grandfather’s funeral mass. It gave me the opportunity to not only celebrate his life, but also serve my family and all those my grandfather served. I still get chills when I think about that day.
But also I was able to transfer to a better assignment. And while I was there I met and fell in love with a woman who has enriched my life ever since.
I say this not to use the cliche line that “when God closes a door he opens a window.” We find (particularly in the media) lots of “disciples” who tell us that God will set up events to make us happy and we should rejoice in that. Some call it the “gospel of prosperity;” I call this “cotton candy theology.” Instead I think these readings call us to claim our calling even in tough times.
I don’t wish to brag about my journey, and God knows I’ve had my moments. But during my darkest days I recommitted my calling. I could have left my faith but I didn’t because in part I read these readings. I recognized that when “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” it wasn’t a surrender but a determination for all of us to find a place to lay our heads. And we are.
By the way, let me give you an update on my nephew: next spring we fly to South Carolina to celebrate the day he marries a wonderful woman. He, too, is following his call to love.