An unstoppable force

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The pastor at my church told a story a few weeks ago that is seeping into my Lent, so with apologies to Father Pat Malone, I retell it here.

As a Peace Corps volunteer years ago, before becoming a priest, he lived with a family in a remote African village. He loved the family, but was slightly intimated by the older son, a soldier, and not too sorry to see him called away to serve in a military outpost in an even more remote area.

But when it was time for my future pastor to leave, he knew he would never see the family again, and he decided that among his good-byes should be a farewell to the soldier as well. So, against advice, he  and a friend hitchhiked, and finally arrived at the remote site where the son served.

Father Pat and his companion were nearing the encampment when they realized their folly. Here they were, two strangers, approaching an armed facility. Obviously, they could pose a threat. As they grew closer, guns were leveled at them. He spotted the soldier he knew, whose gun was also raised.

But then suddenly, that soldier recognized the Peace Corps volunteer. He put his gun down, began waving at the others to do the same, and ran from the encampment towards the two men hovering fearfully in the desert sand.

My pastor described the emotions of seeing the soldier rush toward him, the feeling of being saved from almost certain harm, of moving from near-terror one minute to a joyful reception the next.

The priest recounted this story on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. He described how John the Baptist might have felt much the same emotions when Jesus appeared, suddenly coming towards him through the desert. The Baptist’s heart was filled with the recognition of his own salvation approaching, striding towards him in the remote area near the Jordan River where John baptized.

Like many, when I envision the scene of the Baptism, I tend to focus on John’s words, words urging his followers to repent. As human beings, we often focus on our sin, our failings, our unworthiness, as John put it, to loosen the strap of Jesus’ sandals.

Essentially, that’s our human narcissism there. It’s all about me, and my lack of completeness, my lack of worthiness. The Baptism is about my need to be sorry.

I forget that the important focus in the story, as Father Pat pointed out, is the one rushing towards me to bring my salvation. “Unstoppable” was the word my pastor used to describe Jesus’ approach to John in the desert. Unstoppable.

That’s how I want to think of Jesus’ approach to me during Lent. Unstoppable. Willing to do anything, even unto death, to save me.

When we think of faith that way, it’s easier to understand why Pope Francis speaks constantly of joy. How can we not be full of joy when we focus on the salvation offered by the one who rushes towards us through the desert? At that moment, it’s hardly our folly we notice. We’re overwhelmed by the immense happiness and relief we feel as the one appears who will make the difference for us between life and death.

So, fast and pray during Lent. Perform the fasting that Isaiah tells us the Lord wants … sharing our bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless … (Isaiah 58:6-7). Do it all with great joy, constantly remembering how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of one who brings good news.

 

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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