For the past several weeks I’ve made a few feeble attempts at writing these regular Sunday reflections, and I haven’t gotten very far. I could call it writer’s block, but I did had some ideas and even got a few of them down on paper. I could call it laziness or procrastination, too. I could even call it disobedience, because at least one time God specifically called me to write, and I flat out refused.
Today’s passage from John’s epistle calls it what it is – lying. “Those who say, ‘I know Him,’ but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them.” That verse is probably one of the most convicting statements in all of scripture. All of us “good Christians” like to say we believe in God and that we have a relationship with Jesus, yet I don’t know a single one of us who keeps His commandments consistently, let alone perfectly. While I may be in good company, I still don’t like the truth of the matter – I lie. That is probably why I refused to write, left good starts unfinished, and spent a lot of the last few evenings sleeping or watching TV. I couldn’t write in good conscience, because some of my choices recently haven’t reflected my best self. Instead, I’ve found myself repeating some of the same old unhealthy yet comfortably familiar patterns that used to put distance between me and my God, and I was afraid you would see it. I’ve spent the past few weeks engaging in a classic strategy of denial – the “lie of omission.” In other words, hiding.
It’s very tempting to believe that once we repent of our sins and become a “born again, new creation in Christ,” we will no longer fall prey to the old sins that we engaged in. This is also a very subtle form of denial.
Someone clever once told me that “denial” is an acronym for Don’t Even kNow I Am Lying. St. Peter, who knew a thing or two about denial from personal experience, spoke about it in today’s selection from Acts of the Apostles. “You denied the Holy and Righteous One,” he said, continuing, “Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did.” These were the gracious and merciful words of Peter, addressing the people whose ignorance was responsible for the cruel and unjust death of his best friend. They, too, “didn’t even know they were lying,” yet Peter was able to call them “brothers.” It’s something to marvel at, especially when I am tempted to beat myself up for struggling to let go of some of the old behaviors that I’ve had my whole life.
That’s what my first draft of this reflection looked like. I was very tempted to beat myself up about how I’ve failed to live up to the standards I supposedly have chosen for myself as a Catholic Christian. Then I recalled what I taught to my third grade faith formation class this week. We were talking about the sacrament of Baptism, and I explained to them in the simplest of terms that the reason why we are baptized is so that we may get into Heaven. “You see,” I said, “Nothing imperfect is allowed into God’s Presence. And every one of us makes bad choices. All of us at some time in our lives commits sin – we might tell a lie, or take something that doesn’t belong to us, or talk back to our parents. Being baptized doesn’t mean that we won’t ever sin. It just means that God will forgive us and allow us in His presence even when we do sin.”
(Actually, in the interest of honesty, I wasn’t that eloquent. I do a lot better in writing than I do speaking, especially to 9 year olds.)
At one time in my life I became a slave to denial. It was an effective short-term strategy to avoid taking responsibility for my mistakes or feeling the shame that so often accompanied falling short. However, living that way was no easy task. The only way I knew to sustain that kind of existence was to un-know who “I AM” so that I didn’t feel the uneasy sensation I got when I was not being my best self. I had to deny myself, which is no different than denying God, because He made me. I had to deliberately lose myself – in work, in relationships, in daydreams, in analyzing the past or worrying about the future. As is the way of denial, I couldn’t keep up, and the pain brought me to a place where I was willing to surrender and get to know myself again. Even though I repented and made a decision to no longer live in denial, those habits of a lifetime haven’t disappeared completely yet. Despite experiencing God’s healing love and having some very real resurrection experiences in my life recently, I am still human.
It’s comforting to be reminded by today’s Gospel that Jesus was also still human even after the resurrection. He still had flesh and bone, and He still got hungry, ate and was satisfied. Of course, He was perfect before the crucifixion, and He was perfect after, but He was still human, just like me. The resurrection didn’t take away death, just its sting. Baptism doesn’t take away my sinfulness perpetually, it just restores my way home when – not if – I stray.
Today, denial has lost its power over me. I’ve had a taste of being the best version of myself, and being less than my best is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. It doesn’t feel good. I feel isolated from my God, even in the midst of being grateful to Him for providing me with an amazing new job and showering me with blessings. I feel distant from some of the people I care about, who’ve guided me on my way and have believed in me and loved me when I felt unlovable, and I really, really miss them.
On my own, I can’t fix it. God’s presence is the only thing that can take that yucky taste out of my mouth. I’m so profoundly grateful for the gift of the Eucharist, because like Jesus, I’m still human, and I’m hungry.