Friday, February 8, 2019

City Notes '19 | Tattoos on the Heart: "We Are Not Called to Be Successful, but Faithful." + Mother Theresa

Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified – whichever came first. 

Father Gregory Boyle and the community of Dolores Mission Church and Homeboy Industries have proven worthy mentors of how faithfulness to Jesus and His way, truth, and life with others is embodied. In watching the G-Dog documentary and reading both Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, I continue to get a reality check from the man who said, "I was taught everything of value by gang members," as well as the gang members who were and are his mentors.

Father Greg likes to say of his homilies during mass, "I illustrate the gospel with three stories and usually tell another one just before communion." Today in this last post featuring excerpts from Tattoos on the Heart (here are links to Post 1 and Post 2), I want to share one more story from Chapter 7: Gladness and one more reflection from Chapter 8: SuccessIf you like what you read, please go ahead and purchase Tattoos on the Heart and/or Barking to the Choir as there are dozens more amazing stories and reflections and all proceeds go to Homeboy Industries.

| 1 | The task at hand is only about delighting – with joy at the center. 

My favorite homie-propism happened at the Dorothy Kirby Center, a locked-down placement for juvenile males and females. An African American sixteen-year-old boy arrives early at the tiny Kirby chapel and wants to practice his reading before Mass. It is the Responsorial Psalm, whose refrain is, "The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want." His voice fills the chapel, and he is positively stentorian. Olivier. It is great. He moves through the psalm with an absence of self-consciousness, reading the verses and then indicating (with a sweeping hand gesture) to the congregation, which isn't there yet, when they are to chime in with him: "The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want." Soon, both sides of the aisles fill, and Mass begins. Our man approaches to lead us in the responsorial psalm. There is something about him that makes me watch carefully. Nerves haven't kicked in  quite the opposite. He is cocky and acts as if he's requested the net to be removed. He seems to want to maximize eye contact. He figures he's practiced enough  got the thing memorized. And so he makes the exaggerated movement with his hand and leads our little congregation: "Our response to the psalm this evening is: "The Lord ... is nothing I shall want." The volunteers, in unison, cringe and scramble with their body language to find some way to push this toothpaste back into its container. Too late. The congregation belts back to our leader, "THE LORD IS NOTHING I SHALL WANT."

There is enough strained obligation in what we think God asks of us that our mantra might as well be "The Lord is nothing I shall want." But the task at hand is only about delighting  with joy at the center. At ease. We can all relax. John 3:16 is displayed on big signs at every televised sporting event. "Yes, God so loved the world ... " It's about alignment with God's own "yes."

| 2 | Twenty years of this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do.

People want me to tell them success stories. I understand this. They are the stories you want to tell, after all. So why does my scalp tighten whenever I am asked this? Surely, part of it comes from being utterly convinced I'm a fraud. I find Bill Cain's reflection on the Shroud of Turin very consoling. He says, "If the shroud is a fraud then it is this masterful work of art. If it's the real thing, it's just dirty laundry." 

Twenty years of this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. Are you, in the end, successful? Naturally, I find myself heartened by Mother Teresa's take: "We are not called to be successful, but faithful." This distinction is helpful for me as I barricade myself against the daily dread of setback. You need protection from the ebb and flow of three steps forward, five steps backward. You trip over disappointment and recalcitrance every day, and it all becomes a muddle. God intends it to be, I think. Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever's sitting in front of you. Embracing a strategy and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day. If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God's business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful.

Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified  whichever came first.

The American poet Jack Gilbert writes, "The pregnant heart is driven to hopes that are the wrong size for this world." The strategy and stance of Jesus was consistent in that it was always out of step with the world. Jesus defied all the categories upon which the world insisted. Jesus just stood with the outcast. The Left screamed: "Don't just stand there, do something." And the Right maintained: "Don't stand with those folks at all." Both sides, seeing Jesus as the wrong size for this world, came to their own reasons for wanting Him dead. Both sides were equally impressed as He unrolled the scroll and spoke of "good news to the poor" ... "sight to the blind" ... "liberty to captives." Yet only a handful of verses later, they want to throw Jesus over a cliff. 

Jesus asks, "Where are you standing?" And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, "Are you still standing there?" Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidenced-based outcomes) – that didn't end in the Cross  but he couldn't find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced.  

Next post: City Notes '19 | Drop the Stones: What Kind of God Pursues Inmates in the Maximum-Security Prison of Arecibo, Puerto Rico?

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

2017 | Gospel Fluency; Moving Towards Emmaus; Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalFaith Without Illusions

2018 | The Eternal CurrentLearning to Speak God

2019 | Tattoos on the Heart Part 1 of 2; Tattoos on the Heart Part 2 of 2

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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