May 30, 2010
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
Archbishop Oscar Romero stood at a crossroads. He was paralyzed with indecision. It seemed impossible to go back, but what was the right path forward? Should he take the path of capitulation, choosing to work with a corrupt government that was sponsoring terrorist attacks against its own people? Should he stand up and speak out against the Salvadoran government, thus assuring his own assassination? The people, and especially the poor, were looking for him to do something, anything, to bring an end to the violence.1
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, El Salvador was torn by civil unrest. In many ways El Salvador was the mirror image of Nicaragua at the same time. Nicaragua had been taken over by communists, and had been a country that violently suppressed anyone who supported capitalism and democracy, especially the wealthy and moderately wealthy. In El Salvador, it was the poor who were violently suppressed, especially when they spoke up for more rights and a desire to be lifted out of poverty. Right-wing death squads were torturing and killing hundreds and thousands of innocents if they showed any sort of sympathy for leftists. Meanwhile, left-wing communist guerillas were convincing the poor to join them in their struggle to overthrow the government, and sometimes torturing and killing them when they weren’t willing to join them. The question was, how should Archbishop Oscar Romero respond, since he was the Catholic Church’s voice in El Salvador, a Catholic country? Romero never expected to be in this position.
He had been chosen archbishop of El Salvador precisely because he was an orthodox, bookish, studious bishop whom the other bishops believed would not make waves. He was expected to keep his nose out of these kinds of issues. Romero wanted the same thing. He had no interest in fomenting trouble in the country. He wanted to lead the people of El Salvador back to an orthodox Roman Catholic faith. But when he was confronted with the reality of the violence against innocents, he knew he had to do something. He knew he was called to lead the people back to God’s way, a way of love, compassion, forgiveness, and grace. But to do so might put his life in danger.
His dynamic transformation from a traditionalist, introverted, intellectual priest to a humble, activist archbishop approach came about after he toured El Salvador. He visited the sites where bodies of those executed by the death squads had been dumped. He visited men and women who had been beaten and tortured. He talked with officials from the government and with Marxist guerillas. He became fully aware that God was calling him to take a stand after an incident that revealed to him the evil afflicting El Salvador. He had negotiated the release of guerilla-held hostages after receiving promises from the Salvadoran army that they would not be mistreated. Despite these promises the guerillas (including a priest who had been supporting the guerillas), were immediately arrested. Romero also was arrested when he protested their treatment. In prison he heard the torture of the priest, and when he was released he was given the priest’s dead body.
Romero was torn. He supported neither the Marxist guerilla rebellion nor the government-sponsored violence. He felt called to lead the people to a way of peace, but how could he do it? He knew that the way of violence pursued by both sides would lead to the spiritual and material destruction of the whole country. How could he lead the people to God’s way—a way of love, justice, compassion, and unity?
Visiting the graves of victims of violence, Romero was stricken with grief. He stumbled forward along a road and then fell to his knees. He offered perhaps as profound a prayer as has ever been said: “I can’t… You must… I’m yours… Show me the way.” He was brought to the depths of humiliation by his experiences, but in those depths he found the power of humility.
Walking down the road into a poverty-stricken village nearby, he came across soldiers. They mocked him, stripped him of his clothing (sound familiar?). The poor rushed up to him and hugged his waist, embarrassed to see the partially naked archbishop being derided by the soldiers. Romero tried to quiet the people, telling them that everything was all right, and a woman replied, “But you are our voice. You speak for us.”
Romero hesitated for a moment, not knowing how to respond, and then in humility he responded in the way that Christ called him to respond: “Let us begin a celebration of the mass now. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Lord, you have created us for freedom [and the people responded “Lord, have mercy”]. Christ, you made us to live in dignity [“Christ, have mercy”]. Lord, you strengthen us in the struggle for justice [“Lord, have mercy].” Romero rooted his response in sacramental prayer.
From that moment on, Romero spoke out against the government and the guerillas. He offered the country a new way, the way of Christ, the way of peace. He refused to be silent, even though his life was threatened. He spoke out in radio addresses to the country. He preached about unity in the country and caring for everyone through his sermons. He was repeatedly warned to keep quiet, but he continued to speak. On March 23rd, 1980, he addressed the country, challenging the military to quit killing the poor and to bring justice to the country. The next day he was shot by a sniper while celebrating mass. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, he opened himself up to God at a radical level, and he received the Holy Spirit in a way that not only transformed him, but eventually the country of El Salvador. [To learn more about Oscar Romero, I encourage you to rent to film, Romero. It is a truly amazing film, and one of my favorites]
Now, I don’t want to imply that if you open up to the Holy Spirit, you’ll be shot. This is the extreme situation. What I do want to say clearly, though, is that Oscar Romero is a perfect example of how opening up to the Holy Spirit can transform our lives, and life all around us. The Spirit works in the Spirit’s ways, and the Holy Spirit of God can do amazing things, if we are willing to receive the Spirit. And Oscar Romero prayed the perfect prayer for receiving the Holy Spirit in our lives, saying, “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way.”
This is it,… this is all it takes to get the Holy Spirit to come alive in our lives. But as simple as this idea is, it is incredibly hard to do because we don’t usually want to give ourselves this much to God. As I mentioned last week, our problem is that we often say we want God in our lives, but what are we willing to give up to let God in at this level? If we are willing to work up the courage to let God in at this level, though, Oscar Romero gives us the model with these four phrases: “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way.” I want to spend the rest of this time just going over these four phrases to help you understand how to use them to bring the Spirit in more powerfully in your life.
Coming to God and saying, “I can’t,” is one of the most powerful ways to radically open up to God. It’s the first step because it’s the step of humility that goes against our whole nature, which is to say, “I can, and I’ll do it by myself.” Whether you know it or not, saying “I can’t” is also the 1st step of Alcoholics Anonymous, and every other addiction program. It’s the step that says, “My life is unmanageable, and I can’t do it by myself anymore.” What most people don’t know is that this first step of AA actually has Christian roots. Bill W., who founded AA, had learned the Christian belief about “metanoia,” which literally means conversion. The first step of metanoia is to realize that we cannot manage life by ourselves. The other two steps are recognizing that God seeks a better way for us, and then surrendering ourselves to God. Bill W. transferred this idea of metanoia to AA, yet it is very much a Christian idea, and one that Oscar Romero uttered as he kneeled and said, “I can’t.”
This first step of receiving the Holy Spirit is the hardest step because all of us spend our lives trying to be in control of our lives. It’s human and American nature. Why do we strive for control? Because of our egos, which lead us to say to God far too often, “I can do it myself.” Adrian van Kaam had a great way of pointing this out. He used to say that the word “ego” is an acronym meaning, “eking God out.” He’s right. This is also the step that distinguishes between people of faith and atheists. Atheists can’t say to God, “I can’t,” because they’ve eked God out. Many religious people also eke God out, but those of true faith know that the first step to receiving the Spirit was “I can’t.”
Saying “You must,” is the next step of metanoia. It simply requires that we recognize that God can do what we can’t. We recognize that God not only has the power to do things we can’t, but that in God’s love God wants to do what we can’t. God wants to make our lives better and more whole.
There is a problem when people think of this step. Often people make the mistake of thinking that saying to God “You must” means doing nothing—just sitting back and sipping piña coladas while God does everything else. That’s not what “You must” means. “You must” means that we do our part, and God does God’s part. We still do what we need to do, but we give the results to God. We do our work, and we let God’s Spirit come in and complete what we do. We do our part and give up control of the rest.
Basically, “I’m yours” means surrendering to God. This is the most important step of receiving the Spirit. When we surrender, we are saying to God that in good and bad, happiness and despair, we are your’s. Most people don’t want to give themselves this completely to God, and it’s this reluctance that also keeps the Spirit out of their lives. If you look back at my sermons from the past two weeks, you’ll see how crucial surrender is. In the one story I told of an artist who recovered his passion for painting by surrendering himself to the guidance of the Spirit. Last week I told a story of a man in despair who gave himself over to the voice of God, and afterwards it led him to discover God’s voice speaking to him moment-by-moment. Surrender opens our souls to God.
Show me the way
I want to share with you an experience I had back as young teen. As a child, I used to go to a camp in New Hampshire every summer for eight weeks. During those summers we did a lot of camping and hiking up mountains. When I was thirteen, we hiked along a trail through the Pemigewassett Wilderness for a four-day, three-night trip. The first night we climbed up and over a mountain named Mt. Carrigan, and then into a river valley to camp for the night. The next morning we set out to climb Mt. Bond. Now what you need to know is that the Pemigewassett Wilderness is a vast, 45,000 acre tract of land in the White mountains of New Hampshire with few people and lots of forest and wildlife. Also, that area has some of the most unpredictable weather in the country. It is not uncommon for major storms to blow in suddenly out of nowhere.
As we started our ascent of Mt. Bond, it was a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. Climbing higher, there were a few puffy clouds, but otherwise it was clear and warm. Approaching the summit, a fog suddenly surrounded us. It was the thickest fog I have ever seen. And it was dangerous. We could see no further than tree-feet in front of us. We were above the tree line, so there was nothing there but bare rock. There were also few trail markers—only cairns (piled rocks) set about fifty yards apart. To get to our next campsite, we had to cross the rocky summit and go down the other side. We could not go back the way we had come, because if we did, we would not make it to our pick-up point two days later. We had no choice but to go forward.
The problem was that the fog was so thick that we could barely see a person standing ten feet away. How do you take 12 boys and two counselors, across a bare summit, following markers fifty yards apart, to a campsite that no one could see, especially when we could barely see each other? The counselors called us together and told us that we were facing a very dangerous time. If we got separated from the group, we could be lost in the wilderness. So they pulled out the map and compass, and marked where we were. They then lined us up in a line and told us not to get further than an arm’s length away from the person in front of us. We would move as a group from one cairn to another. At each cairn, the counselors would stop us, set their mark, and set the direction using the map. Then we would move forward. If any of us strayed, we could be lost for good.
We were literally walking blind across the summit, trusting a counselor with a map and a compass, but little else to get our bearings. It was a nerve-wracking hike that took over two hours to walk a path that normally would have taken just forty-five minutes. As campers, we had no choice but to let others discern the way as we followed.
To me, this is very much like the way it is when we ask God to “Show me the way.” So often life is like a fog. We don’t always know what the right and wrong ways are. We don’t always know what God’s will is, but if we are willing to really pay attention in the fog, God will lead us. I believe this because I’ve experienced this. I’ve discovered that whenever I really let God guide me, amazing things happen.
Let me give you an example. I don’t know whether you were here on Easter morning, but I told a story about a gangster who went from being a collector and enforcer for the mob to becoming a pastor working with kids on the streets of Pittsburgh. I know that some people loved the story, and others wondered why I told it on Easter. Let me tell you how I came to choose the story.
I did not want to tell that story at all. In fact, my whole sermon was moving in another direction. But the Monday before Easter I had finished a book I was reading, and I went to my stack of books to pick the next one to read. As I grabbed it, the pile of books fell to the floor, and one book, Left for Dead, about the mobster, rested on my foot. It had been autographed and given to me by Joe Bellante, the mob guy who had become a pastor. He had given it to me four years ago, but I had never read it. I didn’t want to read it then, either, so I put it on another pile. Later in the day, I was sitting in my chair, and reached for my drink, and knocked the book into my lap. I chuckled to myself and wondered if God was trying to tell me something. I still didn’t feel like reading it, so I put it on another pile. Thirty minutes later I again knocked the book by accident into my lap. At this point I realized that this was God showing me the way. God wanted me to tell that story. I prayed over it and sensed that this was God’s calling.
I have to tell you that I didn’t really want to use the story because I figured it would become a lightning rod for criticism, but I’m much more committed to seeking and doing God’s will than I am in protecting myself, so I started to read. You’ve just been given an insight into how I try to do my sermons. I always submit my sermons to prayer as I’m preparing them, and I ask God what God is saying to me, what God wants me to say to you, and how God wants me to say it. And I’m amazed week-by-week how often I find stories and thoughts by sheer coincidence. It happens because I try to ask God to “Show me the way” in my sermons and in so much else in my life.
Do you want God to show you the way? If so, I have three things you need to learn: Slow down—open up—grab hold. We need to slow our lives down if we’re to let God show us the way. Do you know what the biggest problem of modern life is? We are all moving too fast. And the speed at which we live life keeps God out of our lives. We have to slow down and make time for God. We also have to open up to God through our surrender and saying that we can’t, you must. And once we sense we are hearing God’s voice, we have to be willing to grab it and follow with courage. This sounds so simple, but it is hard.
The point of all this is that God’s Spirit can act in amazing ways in our lives, but we have to be willing to do what’s necessary to let it work. We have to be willing to say, “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way.”
If you come next week and are willing to say, “I can’t,… you must,… I’m yours,… show me the way,” I’ll share with you how the Spirit can act in our lives.