On Friday morning, listening to CBC radio, I heard a quote that stuck with me, and I would like to recite it to you now: “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
This is a quote from Thomas Merton, an American monk and theologian. But it was included in a January letter that Canadian Michael Kovrig penned from the Chinese prison cell where he has been unjustly kept now, for more than two years, along with Michael Spavor. The two men are caught in what is clearly a political battle between China, the United States, and Canada. On Friday, Michael Spavor was tried in secret, with Canadian diplomats unable even to serve as observers. On Monday, Michael Kovrig is expected to experience the same.
These are men who have lost their lives – at least temporarily – but under great uncertainty. And yet, on the CBC, Michael Kovrig’s wife read that quote from his letter and spoke of his enduring sense of will. He exists out of time, not knowing the ending. Yet, as his wife describes, he meditates and reads and tries to walk 700 steps a day in his small cell. He can only live in the moment. The moment is all he has.
In our gospel this morning, Jesus describes the grain of wheat that falls to the ground, and in its death as grain, becomes life again. He is speaking of his own death to come. But he is also extending that lesson to us, saying, “Those who love their life must lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
The gospel has more than once reminded us that we must lose our lives to follow Jesus. It is an uneasy notion. We are deeply attached to our lives. Certainly, we’d rather spend as little time as possible thinking about death.
The life we have is already so fragile, as we have learned this past year. It can already be lost in so many ways: suddenly, and abruptly, like the people who have died of COVID-19, their families left to grieve. And suddenly and abruptly, like the two Michaels, who saw their freedom stripped away.
But we may also lose our life slowly, in pieces sliced off by trauma, by judgment, and by discrimination. This week, I heard another story, told by a young Black woman, a professional in Ottawa. She described how she had entered her local drugstore with a knapsack, and standing in one of the aisles, realized she needed to make a phone call. But she was worried about reaching into her bag in the store, so she went up to the front, where the cashiers could see her to make her call. She was worried that she might be accused of shoplifting. Who among us who is not from a racialized community has thought for one minute about reaching into a bag for a phone? I bet you never have. And yet, those of us who are white, who are free from that anxiety, are the same group responsible for it. The very definition of a racialized community is that white society is acting as if race defines who they are.
I offer these two stories because we need to be honest with ourselves when we hear the words of Jesus. We need to look with eyes wide open at those who have lost their lives – suddenly and unfairly and terribly – like the two Michaels. And we need to look with open eyes at those who lose pieces of their lives in slices, unfairly and terribly.
We are human, so we make those messages from Jesus about us, about our lives. But that is not the point of what Jesus is saying. The grain of wheat he describes falls to the ground and dies, not for its own sake, but for the miracle and richness of life that results from it. In the same way, those of us, faced with the choice of losing our lives to the gospel do so for the sake others. It is, by definition, for the sake of others.
Jesus also talks about hating our lives; and this brought to mind a discussion we had this week, during our well-being session, about happiness. Is happiness the point of life? Afterwards, I tried to recall an example when the gospel elevated happiness as a life goal. I could not think of one. The search for happiness is a very modern journey. And searching for it, obsessing about it, is a journey for the most privileged among us. If you are imprisoned – unjustly and unfairly – you are trying to survive as best you can – to take solace in the moment, to keep the faith. If you are confined by how society has determined it will see you – as someone more likely to fake a phone call to steal a lipstick – then you are busy navigating that space, trying to stay safe.
To hate our lives we must say this: my life is not so precious I would keep it all costs. Rather, my life is so previous, I must lose it for others. Those of us in places of privilege – born lucky, born looking like the majority, born free and safe, have a greater responsibility to risk all of that, for the sake of other people. The gospel is for everyone. It speaks to all of us. But let us be honest: we do not equally share its heaviest responsibilities. That falls to those whose lucky lives are hardest to lose.
We cannot do much for the two Michaels, aside from holding them in our prayers, and keep telling their stories, so they do not vanish from our collective thoughts. We cannot easily fix the systemic racism that takes life from those who are victimized by it.
But we can choose. We can choose not to cling so tightly to our lives that we take from others. To challenge – to hate – our own privilege so that we might spread it more equally. We can do this by questioning our own biases. We can do this by reaching out with humility to understand the place of another person, by facing the possibilities and challenges of the present moment. We can speak up in our own circles. We can be servants of the gospel.
Perhaps the metaphor of the grain of wheat is insufficient. Jesus did not fall helplessly to the ground and wait for the seed to grow; he chose that path. It’s the same for us. The losing of our lives encompasses a much grander metaphor. We are the seed that falls where God throws us. But we can also be the gardener who plants the seed, and we can be the sun who makes that seed grow. This is what the gospel of Jesus keeps showing us in these past few weeks of Lent. A servant to the gospel is the wealthiest of people. By giving up one’s life for the good of others, we gain a better and richer one.