Sunday, May 27, 2012

Speaking His Language

My grandmother's favorite saint was Peter. His foibles were endearing to her and also encouraging: even the first Pope had his shortcomings, yet look what God did through him.
     Being less wise and less humble, when I was a kid I used to think that the disciples were rather dense, particularly Peter, who was irritatingly brash into the bargain.
     Today's First Reading, from Acts, shows how right Grandma was. Here we see the disciples going out into the streets of Jerusalem, praising God in several languages. Then Peter gives an impromptu speech and converts 3,000 people on the spot. Is this the same fellow who denied Jesus and later spent a lot of time hiding out in the Upper Room?
     It's easy to scoff at the disciples for sitting around in that room for nine days after the Ascension, right after Jesus had commissioned them to go out into the whole world and make disciples of all nations. What a great way to start.
      We need to be fair though. After all, He did tell them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. If the Spirit decided to wait nine days, what could they do about it?
      And what about us? Finding fault with the disciples is like critiquing professional athletes—as if we could do so much better in their place. While the vast majority of us could never play professional sports, evangelization is a different story. That same commission—along with the Gospel—has been handed down to us: “Freely you have received, now freely give,” Jesus said. Too many Christians are unaware or unwilling to face the fact that each of us is also called to spread the Good News.
      Now we understand the disciples' dilemma: how do you start? What do you say? Are we supposed to go out into the streets and preach too?
      Usually not. But if we open ourselves to God's work and His call, He will use us. We just need to be ourselves, authentic followers of Christ.
      When I was first out of college, I worked as a secretary in a corporate office. I used to relieve the receptionist during her lunch hour, and was allowed to read when it was quiet. I had the idea of bringing a spiritual book I was reading entitled Abandon Yourselves Totally to Me, but I was too chicken at first. Then I did bring it, but quickly put it face down when any of my co-workers walked through the reception area. But recalling that Christ warned that if I was ashamed of Him, He'd be ashamed of me before the Father, I stopped hiding the title.
     That little act—reading a spiritual book in public—was all God needed. I didn't have to brandish it around or bring it up in conversation. I just had to sit there and read. Three of my co-workers separately asked me what I was reading, and it opened a door: each of them started sitting down in the waiting room and talking about spiritual things with me. Two of them were searching and asked a lot of questions. One time, to my amusement, while one was talking with me, the other happened to walk through, and the first quickly shut up, not knowing that the other had been talking God with me not long before.
     A much more dramatic instance happened in New York. The whole office was aware that a certain co-worker was a Christian, and quite a few gave him some grief about it. That changed the day a jet crashed into their building and exploded some floors below them. Their exit was cut off. There was no escape, only certain death. Many of them turned to the Christian who had been brave enough to be himself despite their ridicule. As he told his wife when he called to say good-bye, he was able to lead them in prayer, preparing them to meet their Maker.

Often the biggest obstacle is not knowing what to say. But Christ told us not worry about that but to rely on the Spirit to give us the words. 
     A college friend made a big impact on my spiritual life by an offhand remark that I actually found quite annoying at the time. But it made me think, and gradually changed my outlook completely. And she had no idea until I told her twenty years later. (I went to college at age five, by the way.)
     A priest once shared that after giving a talk at a men's retreat, four men came up to him to thank him for something he had said. In each case, he hadn't actually said what the man was so inspired by. Evidently, for each of them, something he'd said started a train of thought in which the Spirit was able to work. The priest was both humbled and encouraged by the fact that the Lord was working through himfor it was clearly the Lord, not he, who was having an effect.
     Whether we admire the disciples or look down on them, it's clear that we must imitate them. Not in their pre-Pentecost days; we don't need to sit around waiting for the Spirit. If we have been baptized into Christ and confirmed, the Spirit is already living within us. We just need to let Him act. As St. Philip Neri pointed out, whatever the Lord may call us to do, we may be sure He will give us the strength and whatever we need to carry it out. 
     If you're hiding out in the Upper Room, know that you're surrounded by unused gifts.