There were 2 things on my heart prior to the retreat – Mother Teresa and John the Baptist.
First, God gave me a portrait of the Christian life through Mother Teresa as I had just finished reading the book, “Finding Calcutta” the weekend before the retreat. It’s a book that inspired me, but also disturbed me and gave me a fair bit of pause.
Here are some of the quotes which stayed with me.
“At night, I would lie awake and reflect on the various stories of miracles among the Missionaries… My old categories of coincidence and serendipity crumbled under the weight of new experiences and understandings. The Lord was resurrecting something that had long laid dormant in me, and I was beginning to come more alive.”
Reading about Mother Teresa through Dr. Poplin’s eyes caused me to feel like God wanted me to abandon my old categories of Christian life and God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and I longed for what Poplin described as a resurrection and renewal in her heart. And I began to pray asking God to show me what I was missing.
‘In the book of Matthew, Christ tells his disciples, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came to me.” The disciples ask when they ever saw Jesus in these conditions. Jesus answers, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” This is one of the primary Scriptures that informs the work of the Missionaries. Their faith in it causes them to see everyone as Christ… When people showed up at the door, Mother believed that whether they knew it or not, they were not really coming to encounter her, but Christ.’
The passage in Matthew is not one I have studied much. I used to gloss over because I considered it to be a passage that did not fit me or our church. Rather, it was a specialized calling for those like Mother Teresa who were reaching out to the poor. But upon this reading, I realized that this is a passage that ought to apply to all Christians regardless of our specific callings.
For Mother Teresa, Christian life was about becoming more like Christ, letting the light of Christ shine through her life as she faded into the background. And it was about seeing Christ in others. Loving others out of our love for God because in the act of loving someone, Christ receives it as an act of love unto himself. Love God and love others – with this passage, it is hard to draw the line between the two. Loving God and loving others is almost treated synonymously.
But the more I read, the more questions I had. How can I become more humble? How can I be more loving? How can I love God more? How can I become more loving toward others? How can I be baptized with the Holy Spirit? You know me. These are the kinds of question that regularly nag me. I want to serve God. I want to obey him. I want to be used by God, but with these types of unanswered questions, I often feel like something is missing.
“I would go into my office to prepare for class… There I would burst into tears without a preceding emotion. I could not understand this strange phenomenon… They were uncommon tears. I prayed for weeks that God would reveal their origin and purpose, but the answer was not forthcoming… Only recently did someone help me find Symeon, the New Theologian from the 10th C., who developed quite a theology about tears. He believed that such tears were a gift of the Holy Spirit and that part of their purpose was to soften a hardened heart and lead a person to repentance, purification and further contemplation.”
I was reading this book while going through 2 all nighters because of a server problem at work. And I don’t know if it was because of fatigue or frustration or God, but when I read this part, I, too, burst into tears. I have not reached an answer to the source of those tears. Is it because I feel like I am not living out my calling for my life? Is it because I feel like there is a huge gap between my confession about God and how important I say He is in my life and the reality of the daily grind which is my life? Is it a sense that many days faith in God seems more mechanical and dutiful and religious instead of Spirit-filled and joyful? Is it because I want my life with God to be more like soaring on wings like eagles instead of flapping of wings and crash landings.
In addition to this book, one passage that stuck with me was Luke 3 and John the Baptist saying that we need to prepare the way for Christ. Going into the retreat, I wanted to repent of all my sins so that Christ would have a straight shot to pierce my heart.
What I realized from the retreat was a simple yet profound truth. I am not preparing the way for a particular message from Christ to rock my world. I am not preparing the way for a message to clear away the fog. This preparation and anticipation of a “message” reveals just how much my faith has become more of an intellectual exercise than a love relationship. John the Baptist was urging us to prepare the way for Jesus himself to come and dwell in my heart, not just a cherished message about him.
P. Don asked us some basic questions – who knows better how to live the Christian life – you or Jesus? Who knows better how to combat sin – you or Jesus? It hit me that I was still on the throne of my life and trying on my efforts to live this Christian life. I repented and asked God to clear all the junk to make room for the king to dwell and reign.
It is liberating to know that I don’t have to figure out everything about the Christian life. I can simply follow Jesus as he leads me step by step. My main preparation is to repent or empty myself and surrender my life to him and give him complete control.
In addition, through P. Don’s final message, I was challenged to not wait around to have everything figured out before I obey God. I could easily waste years or even decades trying to get all my theology and spiritual practices and disciplines in order before I respond to the call of God to love those in need.
Looking back, many of my realizations about God and myself and even experiences where I felt the baptism of the Holy Spirit were times when I was evangelizing. I saw my limitations and God gave me the precise words to speak through the Holy Spirit to that individual. The Holy Spirit, for one, has become a foreign concept because I have stopped evangelizing. I may teach the Bible, but I have not reached out with prayer and compassion to get to know the real deep needs of the handful of people that God has brought into my life. Loving God and loving neighbor simultaneously with humble dependence and compassion.
In the past, I was too ministry focused. But in recent years, I feel like the pendulum has swung too much in the opposite direction and I have become an armchair Christian and relegated my spiritual life to the world of books and thoughts instead of prayer and obedience.
I’ll never get this balance right, but I can’t make excuses any longer and sit back for some great revelation. Through the book and the retreat, God has shown me enough to put my faith into action. I would love to tag along and explore some of the unreached groups that P. Don mentioned like Skid Row or N. Hollywood since I work there.
‘She (Mother Teresa) exclaimed with great urgency, “You fall more in love with Jesus every day!” Mother had no way of knowing that I was as professor, yet through the Holy Spirit, she perceived that my faith tends to stay in my mind. She was warning me to move it to my heart as well.’
Loving Jesus ought to be the barometer of my Christian life. Do I love Jesus more today than I did last year? If I cannot answer yes, then something is seriously wrong. I know I need to humble myself in prayer and enthrone Jesus and learn to walk with him and enjoy his presence. But if it stops there, it will just be a matter of time before my faith will become an intellectual exercise again. To keep my faith in Jesus alive and Spirit-filled, there has to be a constant outward focus.