During the month of February, the Sunday scriptural readings emphasize three important themes for us to reflect on as we approach the beginning of Lent: our commission to preach the Gospel in word and action, our call to be a healing presence to those around us, and the importance of cultivating a habit of prayer in our lives.
We might wonder what, if anything, these scriptural lessons of mission, healing, and prayer have to do with us. I would answer: everything. Every one of us is called upon and capable of carrying out the mission of Jesus to bring grace and goodness into others’ lives. Every one of us is called upon and capable of being a healer of those sick with various diseases—and even, at times, capable of casting out the demons of self-doubt, despair, loneliness, and other forms of negativity. And surely every one of us is capable of prayer.
As we think about these lessons, we might want to more closely examine the life of Saint Paul, whose First Letter to the Corinthians forms the backbone of February’s readings. Paul is a very complex figure within the early church. At times he appears to be and sounds very conflicted, a man at odds with himself. He reminds me of a former client of mine who once lamented that “If it wasn’t for me, I could have been somebody!”
If Paul can be, for us, a vexing personality, he certainly was for his contemporaries. He was a man capable of great affection and love and tender compassion. He could also stir up a lot of anger and controversy among the early followers of Jesus. Sometimes he was simply a pain in the neck. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown describes a well-known argument (cf. Acts 15:1–19, Gal 2:11–14) between Paul and Peter at Antioch, after which Paul stalked off because he didn’t get his own way:
Paul’s mission to the Gentiles . . . was under the auspices of the Antioch church; and the objections of some ultra-conservative Jewish Christians to its success led to the Jerusalem meeting of AD 49 [sometimes referred to as the Council of Jerusalem]. After the agreement there that Gentiles could be received without circumcision, it was at Antioch that Paul, Peter, and men from James (the “brother of the Lord”) disagreed sharply over how Jewish food laws affected the table relationships of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul lost this battle and departed from Antioch . . . [while] Peter played a moderating role keeping the community together.
Obviously, it wasn’t always clear sailing for the early Christian churches (any more, I should add, than for contemporary ones).
Even with his moments of obstinacy, Paul consistently shows us how we can be missionaries and ministers of the Gospel to one another. Take this passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some (1 Cor 9:19–22)
It seems here like Paul is setting up, if not for himself, then certainly for others some impossible standards of conduct. How can anyone be “all things to all people”? I have frequently run into this—what I call the “caretaker syndrome”—in my work as a clinician. Too many people often take upon themselves projects and responsibilities that are beyond their physical and emotional abilities to manage effectively.
Caretaker syndrome can happen to women as well as men, but in my experience, it occurs more frequently in women. This is because, in a large part of our society, women have been acculturated to think that their primary role in life is to be a caregiver, the emotional center of family life, the healer of all conflicted relationships and the one responsible for making everyone else happy. To accept such a role without conflict or discrimination is a good way to go crazy. No one can be all things to all people without eventually experiencing some kind of emotional meltdown.
There is another way to look at the matter of being all things to all people, a way that can be a healing experience for both the giver and receiver of care. This, I believe, is the way of Jesus: it is to meet another person who happens to cross our path, stripped of all our facades and false personas, and approach them in the simple genuineness of our own unpretentious humanity. How refreshing, how healing an experience this can be, to run into such a person, particularly if we are hurting in some way or struggling with some difficulty!
Friendship, the saying goes, divides our sorrows and multiplies our joys. In some respects, this was the secret to the healing ministry of Jesus. He approached people in the sacred simplicity of his own humanity, with no pretentions or hidden agendas. He was thus enabled to connect with people where they were in their own life’s journey, and, in so doing, he was able to lift them out of the various forms of darkness from which they might have been suffering. “To be wished with, by a true friend, or by a few who are in touch with the depth of real feeling and wishing in the soul, and who help a man or woman to discover and contact his or her own soul, is a possession without price,” is how William F. Lynch has described such an experience. “Now there is real hope, no matter what happens outside such relationships.”
I don’t know if this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote about being all things to all people. But I suspect that it was the dynamic he had in mind in his comings and goings and contact with others he encountered on his journeys. After all, what drove Paul to missionary work was his intense love of Christ, who was always his model and mentor. As he concluded in his Letter to the Corinthians: I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I might share in its blessings. Each one of us is capable of being a missionary in a similar manner; each one of us has a healing power rooted in the sacredness, simplicity, and unpretentiousness of our own humanity.
All of which leads to the theme of the importance of prayer in our lives. One of the central purposes of prayer is to enable us to divest ourselves of false and unreal self-images. When we seek a greater knowledge of God in our prayer life, we are simultaneously seeking a humbler and truer knowledge of ourselves. Genuine growth in prayer always results in an increase of both kinds of knowledge; that is, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves, our true selves, the face that we already had before we were born, in Richard Rohr’s evocative phrase.
This is a long, slow process. It is a process that Jesus pursued throughout his life, until the time he confronted his own Passion and death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he was still praying to know God’s will for him and what was expected of him as God’s son. He did not wish to die, and so he prayed, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Only when it became clear to him that this cup of suffering was not to pass did he accept the full implications of his own mortal humanity: Father, thy will be done.
Each of us has the capability and vocation to be a person with a mission to bring the Good News of the Gospel to each other, to be healers to one another in the simplicity of our humanity, and to be a people of prayer who can approach God and each other with lives of truthfulness—with the kind of truth that will make us free. Genuine and sustained prayer divests us of all our pretentions. In doing so, it enables us to approach both God and neighbor with the healing grace of Christ’s humanity that has now become our own. ♦
Edward R. Burns is a licensed marital and family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut, where he maintains a private practice treating individuals, couples, and families. He is the author, most recently, of The Sacredness and Profound Depths of Being Human: Reflections on the Manifold Forms and Unexpected Epiphanies of the Incarnation, available here.