Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Making God Smile: Teresa of Avila

Do you remember back with WWJD was popular? It was on t-shirts and bracelets and bumper-stickers. It was everywhere. Well, right at the height of its popularity, right when it seemed as if all the real Christians were defined by WWJD and all the pretend Christians were looking at the real Christians’ t-shirts and feeling guilty about it, I heard a preacher decry the whole WWJD movement as anti-Christian. “It’s law, not grace,” he declared in the pulpit one Sunday. I was in college at the time, and it took me a few years of thinking and living to figure out what he meant, but I’ve since found that he was exactly right. Asking, “What would Jesus do?” is to pretend that we’re the messiah and that anything less would be rejected by God. In fact, God loves us even though most of the time we pretty much do the opposite of what Jesus would do. So to try to define the Christian life by would the Christ would do in whatever situation we find ourselves in is only a recipe for guilt-ridden disaster.

There have been lots of other bracelets and t-shirts since then. FROG stands for “fully rely on God.” PUSH reminds us to “pray until something happens.” But I’m looking to start a new movement, and I’m having 1000 t-shirts and bracelets printed that say “WWMJS?,” which stands for “what would make Jesus smile?”

That’s something I can live my life by. What would make Jesus smile? That doesn’t mean, “You’d better get it right or else Jesus will be mad at you,” because I think Jesus smiles a lot when we get things wrong—the way a loving mother might smile even when her son screws us pretty badly. What would make Jesus smile? In my mind, Jesus is the kind of person who liked to smile a lot, who was always looking for a good joke, and who could warm your heart just with a quick radiant smile.

Pretty often, people come to talk with me about the direction in which their life is headed. Usually, in those moments, things are unsettled, and they are looking for a new job or grieving the loss of a loved one or making their way through a divorce. It often seems as if they want some sort of new focus to help them define their lives by something other than the crisis at hand, and, when they ask me what they should do—what God would want them to do—I just shrug my shoulders and say, “What do you want to do?” Is it to take up golf? Is it to run a marathon? Is it to start a new business? Is it to go and spend a week on a silent retreat in the middle of nowhere? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to God. All he cares about is you.

The other day, in the middle of one such conversation, I thought of today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” What does it mean to be a light? What does it mean to let your light shine? That isn’t merely a message for apostles and evangelists. Jesus didn’t only mean that you should tell other people about the saving love of God. He also meant that you should play more golf if it makes you happy…that you should go run a marathon if it gives you fulfillment…that you should trek off into the woods if that’s really where you want to be. You have a light to shine. And letting it shine means taking whatever gifts and talents God has given you and using them in a way that brings you joy. The world wants to see you living like that, and Jesus does, too. I think that’s what makes him smile.

A long time ago, in the sixteenth century, a twenty-year-old woman named Teresa entered the Carmelite convent in Avila. During her first few years there, she became very ill and was even partially paralyzed for several years. While sick, her prayers were intense and focused, but she noticed that, once she regained her health, her relationship with God lost its intensity. Her sister nuns, although obedient to their vows, also seemed to have lost their focus. So Teresa set out to reform the order. Under her leadership, the nuns were no longer allowed to leave the convent and socialize with the community. They spent most of their waking hours praying and studying scripture. Teresa even had the nuns go barefoot—a spiritual discipline of humility and poverty that still defines the “Discalced” or “Barefoot Carmelites.” And with this newfound focus, Teresa discovered a deep relationship with God that brought her to new insights, which she wrote down and which have become favorites among many Christians: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours…”


Jesus smiles when we discover the purpose within us. Jesus smiles when we find the joy that is letting our light shine. Living the Christian life—whether as a cloistered nun or as a parish priest or as an interior decorator or as an amateur golfer—means getting in touch with the person God has made us to be and then giving our hearts to become that person more fully. In Christ, God has set us free from the pressure of guilt and disappointment. In Christ, God has declared that we are his beloved children. We are called by Christ to be the people we were made to be, and that is what makes him smile. 

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