17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) - What to pray for when we don’t know what to do.
What do we do when we don’t know what to do? What do we do when we are before a situation that seems overwhelming and very much beyond our abilities? When there is no clear path forward? When there is no “plan”, directions, or design I have before me to follow? I often find myself in this position as a pastor. I’m sure most of us have felt this way in married life, raising children, and following a career path. What do we ask for from God at these times? What is our prayer like? We might have some mentors or good examples to follow and talk to for advice, but we know that every situation is not the same. What worked for him will not necessarily work for me. We can’t just cut and paste one solution to one problem onto another and think it will solve our problem. Life is complicated. There is not “one size fits all” or a “silver bullet” that will solve our problems. In fact, a “one size fits all” approach or reductionist thinking that “x” is the important metric for making all our decisions blinds us to other ways of looking at things and usually generates more problems and unintended consequences. And what do we do when our mentor dies or the person we counted on to give us the answer is no longer available? One of my friends who taught high school for many years, said that he noticed a recent phenomenon among his students. They became lost and totally stuck if they were not given options or not given the answer. He believes that this phenomenon is a byproduct of being raised on a computer or interfacing with the world primarily through a screen where all of your options are given to you in drop-down menus or can be found with a google search. That is the limit of their reality. If it is not given to them that way as an option, it is not considered. They are following formulas or programs to get an answer, but if they can’t apply a formula or a program to reality, or reality won’t fit into their program, they are stuck. They can’t think for themselves. You’ve heard the expression, if all you have is a hammer, then all of reality becomes a nail. And you end up doing a lot of damage. In a similar way, if a person in leadership or power has a one-track mind and a very limited took-kit, simply giving the person more power or money to pursue their end will just super-charge and multiply the damage. This is why the Lord praises Solomon, the young leader who humbly admits he doesn’t know how to act and asks for “an understanding heart to judge the people and to distinguish right from wrong.” He doesn’t ask for a long life nor riches nor the power over his enemies because those things will not solve his problem. They in fact become a bigger problem if he doesn’t have the wisdom or discernment for how to use them properly. How often in our prayer are we asking for “strength” to deal with our problems? “Lord, give me the solution - give me the answer - tell me what to do?” “If I won the lottery, that would fix all of my problems”. “If I just had more resources, I would be able to deal with this situation.” We are looking for a program or a formula to apply to our situation or more resources to empower ourselves to “fix” the problem, but perhaps what we need is a discerning heart to distinguish right from wrong. We might not even be able to see what the problem really is. Solomon is not asking for answers but a heart that sees as the Lord sees. With a clear vision - a wise and understanding heart, one can discover the right path, even when the situation is new or unique. The heart of God is a merciful heart that patiently walks with us until we discover the truth. The wise and understanding heart patiently walks with reality until reality reveals itself. All of our attempts to fix things with our own power or to arrive at an answer by our ingenuity are noble attempts but are always incomplete and fall short. But something surprising happens in the encounter with Christ: a new horizon opens up so that reality makes sense in a new way. What does Jesus say to the first disciples? “Come and you will see.” We move from our attempts at analysis to a surprising synthesis or unity in looking at reality with the heart of Christ. Christ is the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price that once found is worth more than all our worldly possessions. It is a joy to leave all the other measures behind to follow Christ and to embrace his measure. If God is the source of all reality, then reality begins to make sense when Christ is put at the center of our lives. When Christ is put at the center - when he is the lens through which we see, everything else in life lines up and can be seen clearly for what it is in relation to the ultimate good. Finding the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price and the action of the person that follows the discovery describes what happens when someone falls in love - they joyfully give up everything to be with the beloved. That person is filled with hope because of this encounter with the mystery - they’ve found their calling - their vocation. They begin to see things through the eyes of the other - their hearts become united. Paul describes the hope this way: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
I was at a presentation a few years ago given by Etsuro Sotoo the Japanese sculptor who began working in 1978 in the Basilica of the Holy Family - La Sagrada Familia - in Barcelona that was designed and begun by the Spanish artist Antoni Gaudí. In 2008 the plans and designs left by Gaudí for the completion of the basilica were lost in a fire. Construction came to a halt and Sotoo was stuck. He didn’t know what to do to finish the project. He had studied Gaudí for years. He was following the plans and designs left by Gaudí. But he realized that the sticking point was that he was looking at Gaudí. The path forward could only come by looking not at Gaudí, but by looking at what Gaudí looked at, i.e., at Christ. He was stuck if he just tried to mimic or imitate the style of the artist. When Sotoo began to look at Christ - grow in his faith and deepen his following of Christ, he could see what Gaudí saw and was set free to continue to work. It is not following Gaudí but following who Gaudí was following - looking at reality the way Gaudí looked at reality - through the eyes of faith - that allowed him to go forward in confidence when there were no plans. It is the same with faith. It is not an imitation of Christ - “what would Jesus do? I’ll do the same.” That’s just imitating his style. That’s applying a formula or following a rule, without Christ. Rather, following Christ is being conformed to his image and to his heart. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” as St. Paul says. We see the world through him who lives in me - who has shared his life with me.
So the next time we face an immense problem or undertaking and are unsure of what to do, let’s not pray for an answer or for strength but to see Christ with us. “Help me to see you, to find you, to seek you, to recognize you with me, Lord.” The answer is not more knowledge or information but having a heart united with that of Christ.