Sunday, September 3, 2017
Twenty years old and a sophomore in college, I decided to try out becoming a police officer. I abandoned my studies for a semester and joined the Atlanta Police Department. The challenging obstacle course at the academy remains a vivid memory. It was filled with hurdles, fences, walls, and ditches that had to be negotiated with a certain amount of skill and in a certain amount of time. Looking back, it perhaps was the obstacle course that ultimately convinced me to return to my schoolwork.
Life is filled with obstacles, problems, and obstructions that stand in the way of freedom, happiness, and growth. These may include financial and relationship difficulties, troubles at work or school, and illness. Most of the time, we think of these hindrances as barriers that simply block the attainment of our personal ambitions in life. In the gospel reading today, however, Jesus refers to Peter himself as an obstacle because he tries to talk Jesus out of his destiny. Peter rebukes Jesus for believing that he will be persecuted in Jerusalem by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. By essentially saying, “Come on, everything thing’s going to be okay, stay positive,” Peter denies the mission of Jesus and invalidates the truth of what he must face.
I have heard this same conversation many times when well-meaning people try to “cheer up” someone who is going through a difficult time. Adult children encourage their elderly parents who are seriously ill in the hospital by telling them they will soon be going home, when in fact they will not. Friends often downplay what someone is feeling with platitudinous phrases like, “it’ll get better,” “it could be worse,” or “you shouldn’t feel that way.” Priests, ministers, and counselors who try to draw the sting of a troubling situation with trite religiosity and blame shifting to the divine only rob the hurting individual of the nobility of his or her suffering. The patterns of rhetoric we choose when with all sincerity seeking to buoy another person going through a difficult time can unwittingly reinforce the erroneous notion that every unpleasant obstacle in life is a hurtle to be overcome as quickly as possible, so that we can return to our own goals and desires.
Jesus reminds his disciples in the gospel passage that “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Jesus’] sake will find it.” Sometimes, the greatest act of charity for a suffering individual is simple accompaniment without a lot of words. A quiet, supportive presence avoids false encouragement, does not deny the truth of the situation, and usually is all that is needed to comfort the person.
In those times when suffering is confronted authentically, when we deny ourselves for Christ and willingly take up our crosses because he did the same for us, the experience can be redemptive and edifying. Similarly, when we refuse to become an unintended obstacle to the difficult future faced by another person by using stale idioms and offering false hope, but rather are willing to accept what lies ahead alongside the one who must face it, then we and the suffering person will experience the truth of the resurrection after the dark night is over.
Father Roger Gustafson