Changing from “No” to “Yes”
September 29, 2002
A man came into a psychiatrist’s office wearing two strips of bacon, one attached to each ear, and two fried eggs, sunny-side-up, on the top of his head. He sat down and addressed the psychiatrist, “Doctor, I’m here to talk to you today about my sister.”
Why is it, that it is so much easier for us to see the flaws and peculiarities of other people and largely remain blind to shortcomings in ourselves? Why is it that we are so quick to point out ways in which other people need to change, but remain largely content about the people that we are, even when our habits hurt those we love?
It’s a kind of denial, you know, walking around with eggs on your head and pretending that everything is normal. But it’s a denial that is largely unnecessary. The truth is, that when we are able to admit our faults, when we can own the mistakes that we have made, we are not submitting to defeat and failure. We are, instead, taking the first step toward healing and success.
That is the message of today’s parable. An owner of a vineyard had two sons and neither one of them was perfect. The first son said “no” to his father, but then changed his mind and did what his father asked. The second son said “yes” to his father’s request but did nothing. A perfect son would have said “yes to his father and then done the father’s will. But few of us are perfect. That is why, for us, the hero of today’s parable is the first son, who originally said “no” but then changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. The good news of the parable is that with God’s help, we can change a “no” into a “yes.”
This movement from “no” to “yes” is a fundamental Christian pattern that is routinely present in the Scriptures. Peter denies Jesus, but later repents. Thomas refuses to accept Jesus’ resurrection, but then becomes a believer. Paul persecutes the early followers of Jesus, but then converts and becomes one of the great apostles of the church. In later generations, this same movement continues. Augustine lived his early life in debauchery, but then became one the great spiritual teachers of our history. Francis of Assisi began his life in privilege and self-indulgence but then changed to live a life of simplicity and service.
We need not be ashamed of moving from “no” to “yes.” Whenever we follow that pattern, we find ourselves in very good company. But if we are going to follow this basic Christian movement, we must start by admitting our denial. We must begin by owning that there are ways in which we say “no,” ways in which we are flawed, ways in which we need to change.
So what are the ways that you say “no” in your life? What are the ways you need to change? The gospel today calls us to own our shortcomings. Do you find yourself judging others, being impatient with those who think or act differently than you do? Are you prejudiced towards those of a different race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation? Do you find yourself so concerned about your own needs and desires that you ignore your responsibility to the people in your life: to your spouse, to your children or parents, to your friends? Do you find yourself abusing your body by excessive eating or the misuse of alcohol, tobacco or drugs? How often do we find ourselves refusing to admit that we are wrong, never saying we’re sorry or asking someone else for forgiveness? How often do we get so caught up in the details of life that we turn ungrateful, forgetting to thank the people who serve us and help us day after day?
Whatever flaws you find in your life, whatever mistakes you have made, they need not control you. Our past does not determine our future. Our history is not our destiny. A sin can be forgiven. A flaw can be mended. A life can be changed. Through our Baptism, we are part of a community where sinners become saints on a daily basis, where those who judge learn to understand, where those who think only of themselves become servants of others.
It is never too late. Mercy never runs out. With God’s help, our worst “no” can become a clear and glorious “yes.”
Changing Mistakes into Art
September 25, 2005
This August, I attended the National Conference of the Catholic Biblical Association, which this year was taking place in Collegeville, Minnesota. The Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of St. John’s in Collegeville were the hosts for the event. What was particularly interesting to the scholars who work in the area of the Bible was the historic project that the monks in Collegeville have undertaken. In the year 2000, to mark the millennium, they decided to do something which had not been done in over five hundred years. They commissioned a completely hand-transcribed copy of the Bible. They secured the services of Donald Jackson, who is the calligrapher to the Queen of England, to head the project. Mr. Jackson, together with about ten other scribes, have been working regularly since the year 2000, transcribing every word of the Bible, sentence by sentence, page by page. Presently, they are about three quarters finished. In the traditional style, they are not only transcribing the words of the Bible but also including artistic illustrations to illuminate the text. The monks intend this Bible to last. Each of the pages, which measures about one by two feet, is made out of sheepskin. A rare Indian ink is used for the calligraphy. The hope is that a thousand years from now, God willing, the St. John Bible will still survive and still be read.
Now, as you can imagine, the monks are very proud of this project. At our conference, they scheduled a special session to explain the Bible and to answer questions from the scholars gathered at Collegeville. The monk who led this session, first clarified why his community chose this particular project: “It was our desire to create a Bible with the human touch. The Word of God is central to our community. We wanted the artistic skill, patience, and commitment of an actual written Bible to convey the supreme value the scriptures hold in our lives.”
One of the scholars at the session asked, “What steps have you taken to make sure that in transcribing the words of the Bible, you are doing it accurately? We all know that in copying something it is easy to make mistakes.” The monk responded, “We are following the ancient tradition of copyists. After we finish a page, we count all the syllables on the page and then count all the syllables on the original page. If the number is the same, it is a strong confirmation that the copying has been correct.” Another scholar joined in, “Did you find any mistakes?” “Yes,” the monk said. “Perhaps the most notable one occurred in the Gospel of Mark. After we had copied the page that includes the parable of the sower, we discovered that we had left out an entire line.” The questioner continued, “It must have been difficult for you, after all of that work, to throw away that page and start over.” The monk responded, “We did not start over.” “What did you do?” the questioner asked. The monk took a deep breath, “What we did was write the missing line on the bottom of the page in a box and then drew a little string around the box placing its end in the beak of a small bird that was flying up the margin of the page and dragging that line back to the place where it should have been written.”
There was a gasp in the room and hands went up all around: “Why didn’t you copy the page over? Was it too expensive? Could you not have raised more money? Why did you not make the page right?” The monk held up his hands, “Friends,” he said, “you misunderstand the purpose of this project. We wanted to create a Bible with a human touch. Whenever something is human, it always includes mistakes. We wanted our Bible to reflect life. In life you are not given the chance to erase your mistakes. Your only choice is to admit the mistake and then move on. In our Bible we wanted to show that, even with the mistake, the page remains a work of art.”
This detail about the St. John’s Bible points to a fundamental truth. We do not have the opportunity to erase the mistakes of our lives. We cannot go back and live them over. Our only choice is to admit what is wrong and move on—not forgetting to appreciate the beauty that still surrounds us. This is what the first son does in today’s Gospel. When his father asks him to work in the vineyard, he says “no.” That was a mistake. Yet he does not allow his “no” to rule his future. His admits his fault and finally does the Father’s will. I am sure that the son would have preferred to take his “no” back. But what is said cannot be unsaid. His only choice was to live from that point forward as a faithful and obedient son.
The Gospel tells us that since we are human, we will make mistakes. Yet those mistakes do not need to control us. We may wish we could take back the hurtful things that we may have said in anger to our father or to our spouse. But those words are said and cannot be changed. Our only choice is to admit they were wrong and then live as better sons and daughters and spouses. We might wish that we never lied or cheated or let someone down who was depending on us. But we cannot go back and change the past. We can only admit our failure and then live in greater integrity and generosity. We might wish deeply that our marriage never ended in divorce. But we cannot go back and change it. We can only admit what we have done that is wrong and then move forward, choosing to love those who are willing to love us in return.
Today’s Gospel makes it clear that mistakes are final, but life is not. Our God continues to provide new opportunities, new chances, through which we can grow and live. The only way to take advantage of those opportunities is to admit our faults and then choose life.
A thousand years from now, if the dream of the monks is fulfilled, the St. John’s Bible will still exist. If it does, the mistake in the parable of the sower will exist as well. Yet I do not think that those who may read that Bible in the next millennium will think any less of it because the mistake is still on the page. Hopefully they will realize that such a flaw points to a truth which is centered on the gospel—God’s goodness is greater than our faults; God’s future can overcome our mistakes; and if we are willing to admit what we have done that is wrong, our failures need not destroy us. In fact, once they are acknowledged, our mistakes somehow become part of the complex work of art that God is creating out of the stuff of our lives.
Growing or Falling Behind
September 28, 2008
None of us stay the same. All of us are changing. Some of us are getting taller; others are getting shorter. Some people are losing weight; others are putting it on. Some of us are getting richer; most of us are getting poorer. Some of us are developing, increasing in our skills and abilities; others are finding their skills are diminishing. None of us stay the same. All of us are changing. And the same thing is true of our spiritual life, because our faith is not a set of concepts which we can memorize and then know forever. Our faith is a relationship, a living relationship with God. Therefore, that relationship is either growing or it is diminishing. It is increasing in strength or it is fading.
Now it’s possible to see the parable in today’s gospel in this light. The two sons in the gospel stand for the two directions of the spiritual life: one moving closer to God’s will, the other moving away from it. The first son starts poorly. He refuses to do what the father asks. But in time he comes around and does the father’s will. The other son begins well. He says that he will do what is asked. But he does not follow through and ends in failure.
Each one of us, at every moment of our life, is following the direction of one son or the other. We are either becoming more the person that God wants us to be, or we are moving away from that goal. There is a principle in the spiritual life which states, “Unless you are moving forward, you are falling backward.” It is impossible simply to maintain our faith. We just cannot hold on to it as it is today. Our relationship with God is either growing or it is falling backward.
Now of course all of us in our life have times when our faith falls backwards, when we fail, when we doubt, when we struggle in our relationship with God. But with God’s grace we can recover from such failures. We can get back on the right track. The big danger, however, is not in failing. The big danger is complacency, to think that we can simply hold on to the grace we have. We cannot presume that, because we have been blessed in the past, we can slip our spiritual life into neutral and simply cruise along. There is no cruising. Unless we are growing, we are falling backward.
And so, the faithful disciple always makes the choice to open our hearts to grace today. The follower of Jesus asks, “When was the last time that I have been thankful, thankful for the blessings in my life, thankful for my family, for my friends, for my health?” The gratitude I had last month will not help me live today. I need to be thankful now. When was the last time that I served another person? When did I reach out beyond my family and friends and help someone in need? My generosity in the Christmas project last year is a long way in the past. I need to act in service today. When was the last time that I sought to grow in my faith, that I read something about my faith, that I came to a religious formation program, that I had a discussion with people I trusted about what I believe and why? The things that I learned about God in grade school are ancient history. I need to deepen my understanding of God’s love for me now.
Unless we are growing, we are slipping back. What you do not use, you lose. There are not three sons. There is not a son who just stands still. There are only two sons, and each one of them is moving: one closer to God’s will and one away from it. We are always following one son or the other. So the wise person chooses to increase the momentum of growth. The faithful disciple chooses to be thankful, to serve, to deepen the understanding of God’s love today. Now is the time to act. Now is the day to build our relationship with God.
Affirming the Good
September 25, 2011
Matthew 21: 28-32
A mother was beginning to worry about her 14-year-old daughter. The girl was just becoming aware of her own femininity. She was spending almost all of her time on fashion Web sites and all of her allowance buying cosmetics and perfume. One day the girl came into the kitchen and the mother was overwhelmed by the smell of her perfume. “Honey,” she said, “I told you that you are using too much perfume. You just need a touch. I can smell you a mile away.”
The girl protested, “But mom I love this perfume. It’s called Beautiful, and whenever I wear it, I feel beautiful. I am beautiful.”
“Fine,” said the mother, “but I’d like you to buy some perfume called Obedience.”
Relationships are often difficult. Whether they are relationships in our family, with our friends, with our coworkers, sometimes people meet our expectations and sometimes they do not.
But what happens most often in our relationships is that people partially meet our expectations: They will show up for a meeting, but they will be late. They will clean their room, but not completely. They will finish an assignment in school or in the office, but miss some major parts. They will take out the garbage, but only after we have asked seven times. It is like the son in today’s Gospel. He did what his father asked, but only after telling him he would not.
So today’s parable asks us: How do we respond to incomplete service? What do we say when someone only partially meets our expectations? There are really only two options: Either we can affirm the good thing that the person does, or we can criticize the imperfection that comes with it.
Imagine how the father in the parable might have responded when he heard that his son, who said that he was not going to go to the vineyard, did in fact go. One of his options would be to affirm the boy. He could say, “Thank you. I know you didn’t want to work in the vineyard today, but you did. I’m proud of you. I love you for honoring me enough to do what I asked you to do.”
Or, he could say, “Was that so difficult? Why do you always have to make a scene about everything? Did it kill you to do what I asked you to do? So why don’t you just do it without giving me lip?”
In so many of the circumstances and relationships of our life, we have the choice to affirm what is good or to criticize what is not. Today’s parable encourages us to affirm. After all, Jesus points out that the son did go to the field, did do his father’s will, even though he did not do it perfectly. How much richer, how much happier our lives would be if we affirmed the good in people rather than criticizing their flaws. How much easier would our life be if the first thing that we said to a member of our family, to our parents, to our children, to our friends, to our co-workers was, “Here’s what I like about you,” rather than, “Why don’t you change? Why aren’t you different?”
Now, of course there are times where others need to change and we might need to tell them so. But, it would be so much more likely that others would find the will and the reason to change, if we started by affirming them rather than by criticizing them. This is, after all, what God does with us. God first gives us life, first saves us, and then asks us to grow. And if God’s first word to us is goodness and life, why can’t our first word to others be affirmation and love?