We are familiar with the metaphor “circling the wagons.” It derives from the westward expansion in the years following the end of the civil war, when families and communities in the coastal states ventured to the frontier with the promise of land and opportunity. Depending on your perspective, whether that of the migrating caravans or that of the native tribes that already inhabited those lands, to “circle the wagons” was either an act of defiance or an act of self-defense against hostile forces that would not welcome a new presence. In recent usage, it has referred to a lack of transparency or even outright arrogance. But we can appreciate how those who feel embattled might get into a huddle and reexamine their game plan. Extremist groups and political campaigns circle their wagons every so often, as do your favorite sports teams, as does the church.
So we’re in a huddle. Have you noticed? Being Christian is hard. But we are told that constantly. And many who call themselves Christian prove by their words and actions that they don’t actually know the meaning of the word. So first we have to establish a baseline. When I say I am a member of a certain group or organization, there will be certain characteristics or requirements that will identify me and distinguish me from all others who are not part of that group or organization.
I am a man, from the baby-boomer generation, an immigrant and naturalized American citizen, and I am 5½ feet tall, well, on a good day. Immediately, I fall into certain stereotypes that would include everyone who can make a similar claim as me, from high-functioning geniuses to low-life deplorables, and everyone in between. Those among you who cannot make the same claims I make, because you are a woman, a member of the greatest generation, gen X, Y, or a millennial, or you can trace your ancestry back several generations of native residents, or you are shorter or taller than me, you won’t identify personally with me on those distinguishing characteristics or requirements. But don’t feel bad, since none of us are members of these groups by choice. Nor can we alter the parameters that automatically place us in those groups.
Also I am a baptized Christian, a Boy Scout, a Roman Catholic priest, a user of Apple products, and a Jeep owner, but all by choice. I am confident I know what it means for me to make these claims. Some group memberships will demand voluntary adherence to a strict code of behavior. Some could care less how I behave, just as long as they have my credit card number on file. But every so often I find things that might question my voluntary membership in a particular group. This will cause me to pause and ponder, eventually forcing me to decide if my claim is reinforced or is in need of adjustment. Or I might choose to be a renegade and defy whatever stereotype people might have of me because I like the brand identification but not much else. Your head hurt yet? Some people enjoy my mental roller coasters. Some find me tedious and boring. Most of you have stuck with me for 13 years. And I know we’ve lost a few.
But the reason for all this mental calisthenics is the interesting responses of those Jesus calls to come join him. There were James and John, who were among his earliest followers. They didn’t hesitate to ask Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume the inhabitants of that Samaritan village that wouldn’t welcome him. Sons of thunder, Jesus nicknamed them in a parallel passage in the gospel of Mark. Hotheads with bruised egos. Jesus rebuked them, and just kept walking to the next village.
Then some random man yells out he would go wherever Jesus went. Another was willing but had unfinished business at home. Maybe later. Yet another just wanted to tell his family goodbye. Jesus makes it clear that following after him would require decisiveness, conviction, grit. And Christian discipleship is often framed as a choice and commitment to the person of Jesus Christ and his mission. Enter through the narrow gate. Build your house on solid rock. Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back.
Yes, there’s that. But St. Paul adds, “You were called for freedom. Do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. … But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” When we are constantly in a defensive mode, we miss the nuances of subtle encouragement and gentle persuasion. In the novel “The Great Santini,” Bull Meecham styles himself a great fighter pilot. This constant combativeness and take-no-prisoners attitude served him well in the military. But he can’t turn it off at home. And it wears on his wife and kids. Being in constant spiritual warfare mode might serve some of us well in theological debates with heretics. But how often does that happen? Instead, we need to circle the wagons. We need to employ subtle encouragement and gentle persuasion more because this constant biting and needling and devouring of one another is demoralizing and deflating. We are all painfully aware that fellow Catholics and our young people are leaving the church in droves. But instead of reaching out to welcome them and give them a place among us, instead of showing them the ropes and giving them room to grow, we are more inclined to whisper “good riddance” under our breath, or call out some juvenile insult for their lack of experience or sense of propriety.
Some people responsible for certain areas of our parish life here at St. John can get too comfortable. They like how they run things, but they also need new blood. But they’re not often willing to cast their nets wide. And when they get volunteers they can be too demanding or overly critical. I’ve said many times you have to approach people one-on-one and invite them personally. Parishwide announcements and bulletin inserts aren’t always as effective. And new parishioners will gravitate to where life is found. The sewing group is flourishing because they’re having fun. Youth group is flourishing because they feel listened to. The men’s group is flourishing because they nurture deep friendships and they eat well. I am always in need of new altar servers. I visit our young people in Christian Formation each fall, and I try to invite them personally. It’s hard work and sometimes you come up empty. But it’s the price we pay so we survive.
And we need your help if we are to survive. We don’t need any more biting and needling and criticizing and discouraging. We need to circle the wagons, and focus our efforts on nurturing our long-time members, our volunteers, and our seekers with heartfelt hospitality, genuine friendship, encouragement, graciousness, and gratitude. Harmon Killebrew was a professional baseball player with the Minnesota Twins, who died in 2011. His dad often played with him and his brother in the yard. Mother would come out and tell us, “You’re tearing up the grass.” Dad would reply, “We’re not raising grass. We’re raising boys.”
Rolo B Castillo © 2019
Galatians 5: 13, 15