For Sunday October 10, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
There’s a well-known prayer written by Thomas Merton that I have come to cherish. It goes like this:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
In part, I love this prayer for its honest articulation of lostness, ignorance, hope, and desire. I love that Merton names the plain truth: I don’t know myself. Which means that even in my earnestness, I miss the mark, wander off the path, make foolish choices, and wound God: “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.”
More, I love Merton’s trust in divine generosity. Even as he confesses his limitations, he leans into God’s tenderness (“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”), and trusts that God will guide his steps in ways he can’t fathom (“You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”)
What a beautiful way to live, held in the sure pleasure and protection of God.
I’ve been thinking about Merton’s prayer in connection to our Gospel reading this week, which also records a story of lostness, ignorance, hope, and desire. The Gospel of Mark describes a man who runs to Jesus, kneels at his feet, and asks an existential question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In the conversation that follows between Jesus and this seeker, I see the wisdom of Merton’s prayer illustrated so clearly. That is to say, I see the interplay between divine steadiness and human weakness. Between God’s love and our fear. Between a “good teacher” who cares enough to show us the truth about ourselves, and a well-meaning human being who can’t bear to gaze into the mirror God holds up for him.
I want to highlight a few key moments in the encounter to illustrate this rich interplay:
The man recognizes his need. We must give credit where credit is due; this man whom the other gospels describe as a wealthy young ruler “runs” to Jesus and falls at his feet because he recognizes that something is missing in his life. His possessions and pieties notwithstanding, he is consumed with a longing for more.
“All these I have kept,” he tells Jesus, when Jesus cites the commandments of Moses to him. As if to say, “Yes, I’ve done everything I’ve been taught to do. I’ve followed the religious dictates of my upbringing. I’ve honored the tradition, kept the rules, respected the laws, and practiced the rituals. And yet. And yet I’m hungry. Yet I’m unfulfilled. Yet the life I’ve cobbled together is insufficient, because something I can barely name is drawing me to you.”
Both this story and Merton’s prayer remind me that spiritual growth begins with the open acknowledgement of desire. What do we dream of? What do we seek? What are we hungry for? Especially for those of us who’ve grown up with Christianity, this brand of confession can be challenging. It’s painful and humbling to say, “God, I know so much about you, but I don’t know you. I know what “the Christian life” is supposed to look like, but eternal life? What is that? Something in me craves it, but beyond the craving, I’m lost. I pray, I read the Bible, I go to church, I tithe. And yet. And yet.”
Merton prays for ongoing spiritual desire. “I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” Think about this for a moment. He prays for discomfort. For dissatisfaction. For a longing that won’t ease up in his lifetime. Merton asks for the hunger that compels a rich young ruler to sprint to the source of life and kneel there in supplication. What a brave thing to pray for. Can we pray for it, too?
Jesus’s love provokes its recipient: Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “looks at the young man and loves him.” This is the tenderness Merton appreciates in his prayer, the loving gaze of a God who cherishes our earnestness, our fervor, our trying.
But notice that Jesus’s love doesn’t leave the young man where he is. In other words, Jesus’s love isn’t “nice.” It doesn’t prioritize the young man’s comfort over his salvation. Jesus’s love is provocative. It’s incisive. It’s sharp. Even as it offers unconditional welcome, it also offers mind-boggling challenge.
Imagine how easy it would be for Jesus to secure his new convert by mincing words and tamping down expectations: "What? You've already followed the commandments for years? Excellent! And you're already calling me ‘good’? Then you must know who I am, because only God is good! Wow! I'm so impressed! You're in!"
Or at the very least, Jesus could work in increments, easing his new convert into the values of God's kingdom: "How about you write a small check to charity this year? Nothing scary, nothing that will break the bank. Just a token?"
But no. For Jesus, love is surgical; it cuts in order to heal. Precisely because he loves the young man so much, Jesus tells him the truth. Not the half-truth, not the watered-down truth, but the whole truth: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
The challenge of Christianity is that the love that “leads us by the right road” does in fact lead us. It leads, it redirects, it corrects, it halts. It doesn’t let us do whatever we want and still call ourselves disciples. It doesn’t tell us the pleasing lie that we’re just fine as we are. God’s provocative love holds a mirror to our delusions, our disordered affections, our broken priorities, and our half-baked commitments. God’s love shows us what we really are, not to shame or defeat us, but to deliver us. Can we bear the loving gaze of this provocative God?
The seeker walks away, and love lets go. Mark’s Gospel tells us that the young man is “shocked” by Jesus’s invitation, and goes away grieving. What I find shocking is that Jesus lets him. Jesus doesn’t cajole. He doesn’t plead. He doesn’t manipulate. He doesn’t judge. He honors the man’s freedom — even his freedom to refuse eternal life — and allows him to walk away.
I can’t help but wonder what would grieve and shock me in such a catastrophic way, if Jesus asked me to surrender it for the sake of my spiritual growth and well-being. What do I hold so sacred? What do I consider so untouchable? What do I least consider a potential obstacle in my relationship with God? What is the “one thing” I lack, the one thing that might cause me to walk away if God points it out to me and says, “Let it go?"
We can speculate endlessly on why the rich ruler makes the decision he makes. I imagine he experiences shock because he considers his wealth a reward from God, not an obstacle standing between him and God. How terrible to be told that his best credential is in fact a liability and a burden. How frightening to discover that money is never a blessing if we feel a need to hoard it.
I imagine he grieves because he realizes that he doesn’t actually desire eternal life as much as he thinks he does. He’s hungry, yes. But not hungry enough. He recognizes that he doesn’t trust the promise of “treasure in heaven” enough to relinquish the treasures he has on earth. He doesn’t really want to follow Jesus; he wants to admire the “good teacher” from a comfortable distance, and go on living as he has always lived.
In the last section of his prayer, Merton chooses the hard road of discipleship because he trusts that God will accompany him on that road, guiding him through shadow, suffering, loss, and death. He relinquishes control because he cherishes the company and the friendship of the divine.
In walking away, the young man in Mark’s Gospel chooses a different path. Jesus answers his initial question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” with an offer of companionship. Of friendship. Of shared life. “Follow me,” Jesus says. But that’s not an answer the man can bear. Merton chooses courage (“I will not fear, for you are ever with me”). Merton chooses vulnerability (“I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death”). Merton chooses companionship (“For you are ever with me”). The young man isn’t ready; he opts instead for fear, control, and independence. And Jesus lets him.
He lets him because that is the terrible and beautiful requirement of love. Love lets go. Love bides its time. Love hopes in absence, in shadow, in interims of silence. But all the while, love dreams of return, because even when a situation appears impossible to us mortals, “for God, all things are possible.”
Lostness, ignorance, hope, and desire. God sees, knows, and names them all, and offers to accompany us as we navigate our way between them and through them. May we consent to be held in the pleasure and the protection of this God.
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org