I begin this blog with a deep desire that my brother priests and I will experience authentic renewal. I desire that we will truly become brave shepherds after the heart of Jesus.
Jesus Christ is the brave Shepherd who goes before us. Consider the Collect Prayer of Good Shepherd Sunday:
Almighty ever-living God, lead us to a share in the joys of heaven, so that the humble flock may reach where the brave Shepherd has gone before.
What does it mean to say that Jesus is the brave Shepherd who goes before? What does it mean for me as a priest to become a brave shepherd who goes before?
Some of us have heard the words of the Rite of Ordination many times, including the final question and final promise:
Do you resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ the High Priest, who offered himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice, and with him to consecrate yourselves to God for the salvation of all?
Unlike each of the previous questions, to which we responded “I do!” to this final question our response was “I do, with the help of God!” Only with an abundance of God’s help can we make a free and joyful offering of a pure and undivided heart.
Twenty years ago, in my own “yes” to the call to priesthood, I intensely felt the desire to make an offering of myself. I knew that the Cross and Resurrection would be at the center of priestly identity. I was ready to suffer with and for Jesus. And I did suffer.
But I was in denial about just how shattered my heart was! Too often, my efforts to offer a “pure sacrifice” involved praying for God to make me strong enough – but strong enough for what? Strong enough that I no longer need him? Strong enough that I only have “presentable” pieces of my heart to offer?
It reminds me of those times in childhood in which our family hosted a holiday celebration. Amidst no small amount of screaming and swearing, we bustled about tidying our cluttered and messy little home, frantically striving to make it presentable. My siblings and I creatively found places to shove things, so that we could pretend that our house always looked this way – and not just for those two minutes before the arrival of the first guests.
My own heart has been every bit as cluttered and messy as my childhood home. My good Father has repeatedly shown me that he desires to go with me especially into the messy places – into the closets and junk drawers where I am hiding away pieces of me that I believe are unlovable.
But without those pieces, I cannot be pure. I cannot honor the promise that I made to consecrate my whole heart to God in sacrifice. As it turns out, those are precisely the pieces that God desires to shine through the most – as through a stained-glass window in which all the various fragments of glass are assembled together by divine hands, so that they can blaze with a light that is poured out from on high.
This is our human story from the beginning. In Genesis, the devil so hates and envies God’s gift of intimate communion that he sets out like a thief to steal and kill and destroy. Satan’s most intensified attacks are always an effort to mar what is most precious in us. He seduces us to rupture our relationship with God, to be divided from one another, and to be unruly and restless within. The devil tempts us, like Adam, to hide ourselves from God, to protect ourselves against one another, and to settle for scraps in a rugged life of self-reliance.
This means that where each of us is experiencing the most shame is precisely where we will find the most treasure! If we are ready to seek first the Kingdom of God, we will indeed discover riches buried in the field. And our greatest God-given glory will be found in the shadowy places we spend most of our life trying to avoid.
Such has been my experience – as I will share in my next post. Beginning in 2017, as I entered into therapy, group therapy, and healing retreats, I discovered (in the words of Captain Jack Sparrow) that “the problem is not the problem.” What I thought were my problems were problems, yes – but they were symptoms. In my shame and self-contempt, I was oblivious to the deeper roots. When I became desperate enough to seek help, I was terrified of what I would find there. I found heartache and loss, to be sure. I wept and sobbed with tears I thought would never end. AND… I found that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, that I bear God’s image, and that his glory shines in the places that I feel the most broken.
This is the marvel of the Incarnation. God’s own Son humbled himself. He became truly and fully human. He plunged into the depths of our human experience – not only into our dreams, desires, and achievements; but especially into our self-inflicted poverty and pain. We are the ones who made a mess of things – as stewards with real God-given authority. He always honors our freedom – even to the point of allowing innocent people to suffer in awful ways. He never coerces, nor even rescues. He allows us to stumble and falter. But he never abandons us, nor stands aloof. He always hears the cry of the poor. At Bethlehem, we see that God sends his own Son as Emmanuel – as one who is definitively “with us” in our emptiness, our darkness, and our mess.
This Christmas will be a special one. 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi presented the first Nativity creche to the townspeople of Greccio. With tender love and childlike joy Francis preached about the “babe of Bethlehem” – the all-powerful and abundantly rich God who willingly became poor for our sake. Mary and Joseph laid the baby Jesus in the feeding trough used by the farm animals.
In September 2024, we will commemorate the 800th anniversary of Francis receiving the stigmata, inflamed as he was with love of Christ Crucified. In October 2026, we will commemorate his transitus – his passing over into eternal life.
The Crib, the Cross, and the Crown – in each of these moments, Francis of Assisi beckons us to connect with the humanity of Christ in a childlike, authentic, and highly embodied way.
From Mary’s womb to his burial in the tomb, Jesus remained fully divine and always in communion with his Father. AND… he was always authentically human. He descended ever deeper into our human experience, including all the heartache wrought by our sins. He brought light and love and truth into all the darkest places, reclaiming all that had been lost. He invited us to take up our Cross and follow him. He is the brave shepherd who has gone before.
My bishop has asked me to lead an initiative called “Rebuild My Church.” He is hoping that we priests will plunge deeply into the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection. In doing so, we, too, will become brave shepherds who go before.
Whether you are a priest or a supporter of priestly ministry, may this blog be a blessing to you. May it be an open invitation to priests (starting with me!) to enter into the full depths of our humanity so that we can make a free and wholehearted gift of ourselves for the sake of the Kingdom.