Wheels of Misfortune

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, July 2010
– PDF version –

I often catch myself defining my life by my possessions. Sometimes I identify my success through labels of priesthood and the privileges that ministry offers me. I can measure my life and work by clerical perks. I can hide from others and myself by never paying taxes and not being responsible for another person or a family. I take my health insurance for granted in the present and my secure retirement in the future. The label of priesthood even offers me the ability to overindulge on food at our common table.

These external possessions do not provide the reasons for priesthood. If I live in this shallow clinging to benefits, then I miss my true self and my relationships with people. Ministering among people living with profound uncertainty changes how I relate to the external securities of my profession. I discover that other people’s struggles define my priesthood much more than my earthly possessions and privileges.

Each weekday people line up at our parish door asking for some basics of life, a toothbrush or underwear, a cup of coffee or a haircut. Recently a man in his early thirties came up to our front office window and asked a staff member for a backpack. She kindly offered him a small bag with wheels. He insisted on a backpack with growing frustration in his voice. The staff member assured him the bag with rollers could accommodate his belongings.

The exhausted man started to cry. He did not want to give into accepting the bag with wheels. He slowly explained that if he took the bag with wheels it would lead next to acquiring a shopping cart. If he possessed a wheeled cart, that would lead to pushing his belongings around the city. If he found himself piling his possessions on a metal cart, then he would have to admit to himself that he was homeless. He just did not want the label, the identity of being a homeless man.

Nearly every person struggles to find the appropriate relationship with what we think we own. The liturgical gospels from the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time until the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time prioritize our belongings. Jesus invites his disciples into an abundant life. The only scarcity is the number of laborers. He challenges his disciples to focus not on sacks and sandals but on the peace that will change people. He calls them to move around from house to house carrying little on their backs. Jesus assures them that the message of the Kingdom of God will be the real priority to share with everyone who pays attention.

Jesus shows us that we must be attentive to people on this journey. Focusing on too many earthly possessions keeps us from recognizing people in need who are directly in front of us. The wholehearted love that we are to offer God is the priority and it is to be lived out serving the needs of people. As I listened to the man who did not want a wheeled bag, I took my own personal inventory of what I consider my true possessions. I know well that my earthly stuff offers me an identity that often keeps me on the opposite side of the street from people who most need help.

Theses gospels reveal to us that our real possession is Christ himself. Our frustrations and concerns often stem from not being in relationship with Jesus in the first place. Martha and Mary battle for his attention with their activity and their contemplation. As I minister among people struggling for daily bread, I evaluate at sunup my relationship with God who first gives me the gifts to be attentive and active. I understand that if I am to be at the feet of Christ with my brothers and sisters in poverty, then I must change the way I see my life and all my resources.

Jesus warns us in these summer days not become greedy. He touches us with love so that we will believe that our lives are not based on what we own. We do not need bigger storage units and more closets, larger barns or plastic containers; we simply need a new priority to recognize what is enough in our lives. The man who did not want a wheeled cart unfortunately faced dire times and had recently become homeless. He was still learning to prioritize his needs in order to just survive. Jesus calls us again to look beyond the value of our possessions. This message is difficult to hear for many who do not possess the basic essentials of life.

Jesus tells us not be afraid. That request from our Savior is always difficult when we are faced with daily hunger, a lack of medication for depression, threats of nightly assaults and no money. He asks of us again to give away what little we have and to not be afraid of how we will live. The man at our window was so afraid to enter into the phase of his life in which he found himself, being homeless. He did accept the bag with the wheels. He just needed someone to listen to him. He needed someone to catch the meaning of his tears. I still learn lessons from our experience with him, to not be afraid to enter into the real issues of my life, the next phase of grace even when I am most afraid.

We cannot enter the narrow gate with all our possessions in hand, not even if we push them through the gate in a wheeled cart. Jesus continues to show us that the last will be first and the first will be last. If we realize that we do not create our identity from our many possessions, then we will rest humbly in God. We will discover that our real identity comes in knowing God and befriending our real selves.

No matter in which community we worship, God invites us to take a seat among the humble. As I reevaluate my attachment to my possessions, I see in our common prayer that I do not own these possessions anyway. All that we have in life is a gift from God. No matter how we live in the world, no matter how we store our supplies or find our identity in designer labels, God gifts us with all life. As the man left our parish center, our staff member assured him he was always welcome to park a wheeled cart at our door anytime in order to pray with us.

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