Monday, May 2, 2016

Obedience and Identity

I've been thinking a lot about obedience lately, especially in the context of my pending move to Jackson and all the joys and sorrows that brings with it. I go out of obedience to the will of God as spoken to me by my bishop, and I trust that in this obedience I will be blessed. Once in a while, as my move and my pastor's move draw closer, people have half-jokingly commented that, "The bishop never asked me if it was ok to move you, Father," and this set me thinking and praying. In my prayer, it's occurred to me that only in obedience can I expect to experience God's blessings. If we could picture a Church where priests chose their own assignments, I never would have left Cheyenne, because it was safe, comfortable, and would have required no risk. But by being obedient to God's will, I have experienced unbelievable blessings over the last two years in Sheridan, and it is only by being obedient to God's will that I can expect those blessings to continue.

Sheridan, WY: The location  of untold blessings for me
But through reading yesterday's gospel and praying over it, I realized there was something not quite right in my way of thinking. Yesterday we heard, "Jesus said to his disciples: 'Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.'" As I was reading about this passage, Msgr. Charles Pope pointed out that, "Love enables us to keep His Word, to live it and to love it." I realized that I had started to get things backwards, I had started to think that the first thing was my obedience, and from that, God's blessings followed, but my obedience is not the first thing. God's love is the first thing. First God loves me, and that enables me to obey his will in my life. But God's love is always primary.

By virtue of our baptism, God has taken up the central place in our heart. The second half of the gospel quote above, "[A]nd we will come to him and make our dwelling with him" points to this. God dwells within us, but we spend our whole lives searching for him. This was Augustine's realization in the Confessions when he wrote, "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you." While we seek God all over the world, he actually dwells within us.

And because he dwells within us, we have to make sure he is the central actor, the primary player in our life. I don't think that the best way to pray as a Christian is to pray, "Jesus, help me," but rather, "Jesus, take care of this for me." He is the source of all our strength, and so it's his strength and his power that get us through the day. He is the center of our existence, he's the only center that can hold. He is the source of our identity, the source of all that is true and reliable in the world.

Descartes: Brilliant mathematician, terrible philosopher
But our world doesn't like that. Our world has been striving for centuries to boot God out of the center of existence and replace it with the self. It started, largely, with Descartes's famous "Cogito, ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am," By this, Descartes was declaring the Self to be the source of existence, and therefore the center of existence, rather than God, and now Descartes is known as the father of modern philosophy. And if the Self is declared to be the center of existence, then the Self is the source of truth.

I think the latest manifestation of this way of thinking is the bathroom wars, which is of course just one symptom of gender ideology. It is a sad comment on society when the bathrooms of Target cause such controversy and vitriol. But it is the ultimate triumph of the Self when even such a thing as gender becomes a choice (or a felt and deeply believed thing, I acknowledge), and the real world, the world "out there," is expected to conform to this decision of the individual that has no bearing in the world as it actually exists.

The Self has truly replaced God as the center of existence. The only antidote or solution is to let God have his central spot in our identity. He is the source of everything, including our identity, so we want to receive even our identity from him. No matter how many titles we apply to ourselves-spouse, parent, child, doctor, lawyer, etc-we need to receive our fundamental identity from God. Before I am any of those things, I am God's beloved son, I am God's beloved daughter. First I must know myself as loved by God. This enables me to be obedient to his commands. This is the center that holds.

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