13 October 2019

Tenacious Christian Bulldog

Audio Link

28th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I grew up in rural Mississippi with more or less tradition-minded Baptist parents. My younger brother and I learned from Day One to say “yessir/no sir,” “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me.” Failure to express proper respect or gratitude earned a swift and terrible rebuke. I still use “Mr.” and “Ms” when addressing adults, and I cringe a little when people call me by my first name w/o asking, or shorten it to “Phil.” It's all very old-fashioned, I know, but there's something about the habits of good manners that makes life easier. In the case of the healed leper, his deeply felt sense of gratitude actually saves him! He discovers – probably to his great surprise – that giving God thanks for his healing is not only the polite thing to do but a way to salvation as well. For us, the baptized, giving God thanks for His blessings is way to persevere, a way to remain in Christ and thus end our earthly pilgrimage reigning with him in the Kingdom. Is it possible that the good manners many of us were taught as children is what remains of this spiritual insight? Saying “thank you,” especially to God, is a path to healing and salvation.

We hear Paul say to Timothy: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.” That persevering part is what most of us find difficult. Dying with him in the waters of baptism was easy. Living with him has its challenges, but we manage it with the sacraments. Persevering with him however is on another level entirely. Persevering here means staying close to Christ. Hanging on to him through the best and the worst. Living with him whether we “feel” his presence or not. Perseverance is the good habit of being tenacious in faith when every fiber of your being is screaming at you: “Compromise! Just fit in! Surrender! This is too hard!” Have you seen that video of a bull dog swinging himself around a tree, teeth clamped on the end of a rope? The rope will break, or the tree will fall before that dog lets go. That's tenacity. That's perseverance. Now, I wouldn't trust my teeth to hang on like a bull dog's. But I do trust that gratitude is the key to staying close to Christ. The leper proves this. Christ teaches this. And I can bear personal witness that giving God thanks for His blessings is essential in our long trek to holiness.
As a priest in an academic ministry, I don't have my own parish to run, so I spend a lot of time going out to parishes to hear confessions, give missions or talks, and basically just visiting with people over all the archdiocese. Every time I go out, I hear a lot of anxiety about the Church. I get confused questions about the faith. Angry comments about the news coming out of Rome. Questions and doubts about the future. Just generally an overwhelming sense that things aren't well with the Body of Christ. Something is wrong, something is upsetting the peace we've come to expect from following Christ. In response, I have to sharply suppress my professorial instincts and avoid giving a lecture on the history of the Church. No one wants to hear how good we have it compared to, say, the Church in communist China. Then I have to swallow the need to remind folks that the “peace of Christ” comes with a promise of persecution. What I usually end up saying is that difficult times require a bull dog's tenacity. It might be too much to say that we're being tested. But – we're being tested. Not tested in the sense that God is deliberately trying to scare us or trip us up. But tested in the sense that steel is tested under pressure to measure its purity and strength. Our test is measuring the purity and strength of our gratitude. If you will to endure with Christ, you will be grateful to God for His blessings.

You might ask here: why does God need our gratitude? The answer is: He doesn't. Giving God thanks does nothing for God b/c He needs nothing from us. Our desire to give Him thanks is itself a gift that benefits us alone. In other words, we are doing ourselves a favor by returning thanks for all that God gives us. Failing to give thanks breeds entitlement – I am owed. And entitlement is the rich soil of pride. If we nurture pride by failing in gratitude, we end up denying Christ – the ultimate gift from God. We end up being among the nine lepers who were healed but not saved. Ungrateful wretches living lives of resentment and anger b/c they believe that God owes them a debt. As followers of Christ, our best means of staying close to Christ is to be a tenacious Christian bull dog, refusing to let go of gratitude.

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1 comment:

  1. Beautiful lesson today, Father. The hardest is being grateful for the privilege of suffering a little while with Christ.