Friar Svanovski was the sort of priest who exemplified a seasoned pious stability that kept those around him safe and fastened. With serious demeanor he once declared with absolute certitude that all non-Roman Catholics are hell-bound. I was the only Protestant in our exclusive Catholic school. But then, I got ordained with the grace of proximity to his inner circle. I played the ropes well by leeching away from my predicted descent to Sheol. I constantly served as his knight of the altar. My religious wardrobe became a convenient ride to emphatic affections, albeit the steep price: I had to imbibe Pharisaical legalism. I was an impeccable saint, at least while within the synod’s radar.
One of the mandatory requirements was to maintain apt decorum whenever religious rituals ensued. This was most pronounced during one particular rite. It is believed that actual divine transcendence took place at the moment of its invocation. And so, participants were to stay in place with serious fidelity.
One humid day, all classes were led for such gathering. I was about to take a restroom break but expediency did not allow for it. The program extended beyond normal while I was experiencing the excruciation of holding back every fabric of expulsive muscle from imploding my bladder. Every part of my internal anatomy wanted to rush towards the exit but the subliminal memorandum of the holiness code was omnipotent. When the scent of smoke unleashed the signal of the apparent epiphany, I felt a sudden quiver–a simultaneous push of every dormant fluid: perspiration and bladder-flow gushed unashamedly unabated. Therein lies the vignette of one kneeling saint wetting his pants prostrate before the god of Niagara!
I literally knelt frozen, while everyone began to leave. One classmate noticed my immobility, asking if I was all right. Discovering my calamity, he ushered me out from the puddle. I wondered why the janitor never bothered to dry-clean the wet evidence. Perhaps, the custodian suspected a mirage.
Not a bad guess at all. I was merely a glorified liquid vessel, held by the ecclesiology of my own scheming.
With a growing confusion, I began asking myself what was it that really shackled me to my sacred pew?
What in the world washed my brain to think that I can lean in to stay for comfort other than the rest room?
A song of ascents.
They have greatly oppressed me from my youth–
let Israel say–
they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
but they have not gained the victory over me.
Plowmen have plowed my back
and made their furrows long.
But the LORD is righteous;
he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.
May all who hate Zion
Be turned back in shame.
May they be like grass on the roof,
which withers before it can grow.
with it the reaper cannot fill his hands,
nor the one who gathers fill his hands,
May those who pass by not say,
“The blessing of the LORD be upon you;
we bless you in the name of the LORD.”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. Mark 4:39 NIV
The tenth aspect in our pilgrim syllabus especially bears upon the unfavorable setting of our transient cultures. We are called to adopt a most difficult discipline: to stay.
In a world that is constantly subject to coercive schemes and calculated manipulations, we have somehow learned the art of ejecting ourselves from any discomfort whenever we feel like it. And so we transfer from place to place without much thought. This has become the norm for relationships, jobs, dwelling, faith, etc. Whenever there is some inconvenience, we have been conditioned to consider our multiple options and henceforth, move with haste.
There is likewise an inverse reality to this. There are those who have been so entrenched in deep tradition, albeit life-drenching, that are somehow stuck in between tight screws, paralyzed and disabled to move. There is a call to engage our current life stations with the proper application of God’s mandate for us to stay when needed, but move whenever absolutely necessary. In both scenarios, we are called to consider the firm invitation to stay within God’s purview.
The psalmist lays out the unrelenting nature of debilitating challenges: “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth …” This world has its way of enfeebling its participants. Since humanity’s fall, there has been a predominant atmosphere of cultural insurgency that seeks to harm God’s people. There has arisen a consensus that followers of Christ are dangerous elements in that they seek to subvert the existing social order. The distinction as God’s own is seen as misplaced arrogance: the establishment of a chosen race. Thus the oppression seems warranted. The psalmist experiences this unceasing assault but with a reasoned rigor, declares: “but they have not gained the victory over me.” The life of faith calls for a resolve to stay the course, through the unrelenting attacks. The word stay brings out the distinctiveness of persevering patience amidst the storms of life.
The person of faith who chooses to hold on to the anchor of God’s covenant loyalty will be granted divine rescue each time a need arises. God made a promise to defend us from all our enemies in order to safeguard the integrity of our faith in him. The protection plan is offered only to those who are willing to stay within God’s policy plan.
There is a curse that befalls those who oppress God’s people. They shall be put to shame. Their arrogant positions shall yield nothing but temporal weeds. Whatever they seek to accumulate will be assessed as leading to emptiness. No blessing follows their generation.
The wicked choose to stay bolted within their imagined prowess but the believer turns to the Lord’s strength for vindication. It is towards this divine grant that we are called to stay.
When we translate the principles of this psalm into the very tapestry of our lives, we find ourselves making commitments to stay in our God-ordained locus, knowing that his strong right hand shall keep us standing, no matter what.
As we choose to stay, our relationships are restored from their brokenness while being infused with increased energy to live another day, another year… another life.
Frank seemed to have it all. He owns an illustrious enterprise in Manhattan. The most gorgeous family adores him. His suburban home reflects the flair of an architectural digest. Life was good, until one curious look and an accompanying wrong turn blindsided his trek.
His wife flew in to Dallas to shut the doors forever. He was caught in broad daylight. There is no excuse for infidelity when your wife exudes exceeding pulchritude. Her brother told me about the impending divorce and was just asking if I had any spare time to comfort Frank who was rather fouled out of steam and despondent. I said “no divorce is final until it is signed.”
The following week, there was a gentle knock at the front door. He flew in from out of state, just to see me. I welcomed him and without ado, he went into serious business. His thick Italian accent flavored the heaviness of his travail. Going through the events leading to his tragedy, he screeched with a firm question: “Is there still some hope to save this marriage?”
My response was terse: “None.”
He then stood up, began to say goodbye, when I interrupted: “There is none, except for one.” “What is it then?” he curiously asked. “You have to die, first.” To this, he looked at me blankly, rather perplexed if I was a clown digging through his grave. I went on to explain the metaphor of dying to self in order to live anew. He saw the urgency of turning his life over to God. Upon surrender, I reminded him of his acquired nature: a person in Christ is a new one. The old Frank is dead and gone.
He flew back and true to his new conviction, he cut all peripheral cords that somehow entangled him. News of his conversion reached his wife. This led to escalated infuriation but somehow, granted her curiosity to visit with me. I shared the story, but it did not end with Frank. She too, needed to die, if their marriage was to live.
After about a month, a first class miracle took place. I was present during the awkward reunion. There were few words uttered. The first was preceded by Frank’s hand reaching out to hers asking, “May I hold your hand again?”
A year after their reconciliation, I visited the East Coast and was invited to stay overnight at their house. It was such a splendor to witness the sweet turnaround. Sleeping at the attic guest room, I was awakened by their son’s cry: “Daddy, daddy … where are you? Please take me to your bed!” The rushing footsteps of Frank followed instantaneously as I heard him whisper: “Son, it’s okay, Dad is here, I’ll take you to our room … come … “
I pondered if it were not for mercy the urgency of forgiveness would have been stunted. If it were not for the accompanying death-to-self on that ordinary day, there would have been no forthcoming footsteps or comforting words for the toddler.
If it were not for grace, we would have all been divorced. But God stayed, and thus we stay.