Eleven years ago I was diagnosed with leukemia. After a successful bone marrow transplant, I left the intensive care isolation unit that had served as home for three life-saving and life-changing months. Twenty of us entered that unit. Only three walked back into the world beyond those protected walls. After that experience, I was convinced that life was too precious, too holy, ever to take it for granted again. One of the benefits of having a life-threatening disease is that you want to absorb all that is life-giving. With a grateful heart, I was eager to take in all the beautiful sights and sounds that waited to be discovered.
Eleven years later, I continue to let petty things get under my skin, to be hard on myself, to be competitive, to push away those I love, to be afraid of asking for forgiveness. I continue to try to win my way into heaven. Yet, blessedly, one difference that pierced me then has stayed with me. It has persevered when I battled rejection from the last transplant, when I buried a dear friend from AIDS and when I doubted my call to priesthood. Before, I wanted my faith to raise me above the squalor and bruises. I wanted a God who would carry me away from the loneliness, guilt and weariness.
But now the image that touches me is of a God who gets foolishly close. So close that our joys and sorrows, our grief and anguish are wrapped tightly with his. So close we forget his presence. This was the fundamental message and legacy of Christ’s life. The God/person named Jesus is remarkable in that he knew the violence, the nervousness that dwells within us. He also knew of the deeper truth waiting to be born. This broken, anxious world is oozing with God. To encounter this God can be as gentle as an awkward embrace, but it can be as wild as finally realizingand being gratefulthat our lives do not belong to us.
Faith is more than a magical formula to conquer the worry, regret, shame and resentments that cloud our visions and make us jaded and tired. Having faith does not remove every trace of self-absorption and doubt. Those things are part of the human condition. Faith is what brings us into the deepest truth of our lives. It is a buried truth that says we are in the image of an unlimited, unrestricted, unimaginable love. And when we forget that, as Jesus reminded the religious authorities of his day, then religion does become a shield, a crutch, a closed refuge instead of a way to boldly throw ourselves into a harsh world, knowing that is precisely where we discover a generous God.
Although I could not say so at the time, I was convinced I had leukemia because I let God down. This thinking sounds crazy, but it seems safer than believing in some arbitrary, indifferent force, and I wanted a God who would hear my cries. I wanted a God who knew I was scared. I wanted a God strong enough to push that experience away.
Instead, that experience pushed me into a beautiful but savage truth, one that carried me through the ordeal, and one that has stayed with me. It is this: There is only one action believers can perform and not be accused of arrogance, naïveté or delusion. Our only credible action as believers is to bless this world. We are to bless it as extravagantly, as wastefully, as passionately as God has blessed us. We bless it when we see that our less-than-stellar life is precisely how God breaks through. We bless it each time we somehow rise above our egos and see how frightening and unjust this world is. We bless it when we dedicate our lives to showing children how precious they are.
The most healing power on earth appears when imperfect people, dismissing all the signs to the contrary, know they have enormous power to bless this wounded world. It happens not when we have conquered our failures. It happens when we accept that those very human traits do not define us. What defines us is our answer to the question: In whose image and likeness do we see ourselves? It will always be a flawed, sometimes awkward, sometimes blundering image. These feeble images point us to a love that comes from beyond us, so it isn’t up to us how it breaks into this hungry and unfair world. When we recognize this, we recognize what sacrament is all about. It is letting a very beautiful but ordinary creation point us to the holy, the absolute in our lives.
Last year I discovered I have leukemia again. It reminded me of how scared I am, but it also reminded me of how much I want this human drama to continue to unfold. I want to continue to discover the realness that happens when we tryall of usto consecrate this world. I want to continue to struggle with strained relationships, continue to both love and be baffled by a fallible church, continue to let petty things upset me, continue to have embarrassments, continue to make mistakes. Most of all, I want to continue to find love in spontaneous, unexpected places. I want all this to continue, but if none of them happen, I know that Christ is a part of the journey.
Christ does not numb us to pain; he encounters it with us. He does not weaken our enemies; he asks that we pray for them. He does not fill us with valor in the face of torment or temptation; he lets us see the broken face of humanity through them. That is a God to whom I can turn to weep as well as to worship. That is a God to whom I can go on bended knee. That is a God to whom I can turn for healing. That is a God, I believe, who rejoices in the support that has so touchingly surrounded meand will continue to envelop me. His message is simple, peaceful, compelling: Relax. The kingdom of love is yours.
The awareness that has been most intense about this experience is not that my life may be shortened or diminished. Those realities are with us always. What has been most shattering is how surrounded I amwe all areby humans pointing to something unimaginably good and kind. How invited we are to believe in a bountiful, kind Godthrough the intervention of ordinary people. That is what I believe Jesus wanted desperately to tell a searching humanity. Let God interrupt us, terrify us, embrace our fragility, our misfortunes, our hunger to know our place in this blessed creation.
When we discover this, we know there are things that are done only for love. That is why we were created. We know we are always held, always invited to feel the healing closeness of Christ. It is hard to explain logically a religion where we have a God who gets absurdly close, so close that the categories between what is human and what is sacred become blurry. So incredibly close that we are forced to discover the face of God in all the mess of creation, no matter how upsetting or confusing or abrasive. It is a God to whom we can only give what has been so abundantly given to this beautiful creation: care, hope and blessing.