There are times in my life that the cloud of parenting, change, sickness, or loss has allowed me to wander into places that I do not belong. I have found myself speaking audibly to God, “Help me.” I felt waves of “how-the-heck-did-I-end-up-here” fall over me as I looked around at the clutter of “all the things” of my life. Because my girls were in the throes of childhood, my husband was overcoming changes at work, we were rapidly learning the role of parenting, or my doctors were tweaking my autoimmune crazy body, I felt like I was drowning in feelings of no time, place, nor energy to stop and actually notice that God might be present. I remember people telling me, “You should make time for prayer.” I remember likewise thinking, “What time? Have you seen my life?” I was living in complete and utter scarcity.
I felt like I was playing the most difficult game of chess while trying to navigate the course of my life. I had no idea where to begin. As I look back over my life at that time, I was pulling God along as I lived rather than allowing God to patiently open paths. Mentally and physically, I was spending so much time in places that I did not need to be that I had forgotten where I belonged. I was dragging God along in my life as an afterthought. As a result, I found myself in places that I did not belong.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs the Twelve, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 10:7).’ ” Though Jesus often speaks in parables, he is pretty clear who the Twelve are called to serve and who the Twelve are not called to serve. “Do not go to pagan territory.” Jesus says succinctly, but where is this territory in this modern day? Jesus says, “go to the lost sheep” as he affirms the mission of the Twelve. Who are these lost sheep in our modern day? This discernment is real and difficult.
Have you ever been lost in “pagan territory”? Without a doubt, I can promise you that I have spent more than my fair share of time tricked or willingly bamboozled by the bright lights and alluring voices of the “in-crowd,” who have either false care or no care for the Gospel. Often we present this sense of false care for the Gospel in which we reduce Gospel-living to some sort of club to belong to rather than an action in our lives. We check the box that says we are Christian, but struggle to, you know, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and reach out to the oppressed (Matthew 25: 31-46). I think, maybe, I have even been the care-taker of “pagan territory.” So many times I have found myself lost in a success or pride-induced daze of motherhood, friendship, or work in which I have lost all sight of WHOM I serve.
Surely none of us create a game plan to end up in “pagan territory.” No one says, “Let me go to a place where I will be malnourished and isolated.” These places seem alluring and right at the time. In some ways, they feed our fear or egos. Sometimes we will do whatever is necessary to play board games with the “Joneses” (or is it the Kardashians these days). I have bought phones or clothes or houses that I do not need. I lowered my standards, and each time, deceived God and myself in an effort to keep up with the Joneses.
St. Ignatius provides a meditation in the Spiritual Exercises called “The Two Standards.” As a knight, St. Ignatius rode under a standard, or a flag, that represented the lord of the land in which he served. He imagined two standards as a mediation about the place in which we belong—the Standard of Jesus and the Standard of the Evil One or, for our use here, the pagan way.
Likely, if you are reading this, you quickly responded, “I pick the Standard of Jesus!” Sure, wouldn’t we all, if given the option? Ignatius describes the Standard of Jesus as one that frees, helps, and heals. In contrast, the Evil One is a false source of light that isolates, enslaves, and encourages coveting and claiming as well as a strong sense of self as most important (Spiritual Exercises 136). The description alone brings me to pause.
- Have I, at times, ventured into this place of isolation?
- Have I been a slave to the way I look or what I own?
- Have I held tightly to things such as jobs, friendships, titles, and even my own children?
- Have I believed in my own self and gifts more than the Giver of gifts?
The short answer to all is, “Yes.” I have absolutely at times flown the flag of the Evil One. Yes, I have absolutely purposely walked into pagan territory. At times, I have even tended the soil of that wretched land. Where do I really belong, though? I belong with the lost sheep. The lost sheep are poor and powerless. The lost sheep are beautiful and simple. Sheep live with the Shepherd, creating a world for the Gospel, not alone making their own designer place. I belong with the lost sheep because I am a lost sheep in need of a Good Shepherd. Or, as I told a Confirmation group lately, “I am not God; I am Stephanie, and, for that, I am grateful.” The work of remaining under the Standard of Jesus is a difficult task. Everyday I choose Christ, and Jesus chooses me even when I wander.
- Spend some time considering Igantius’ “Meditation on the Two Standards.” Journal and think deeply, setting up a chart with one side labeled “The Standard of Jesus” and the other side “The Standard of the Evil One” and sift carefully through your life in prayer with God.
- Read more about “The Two Standards” here or here.
- Read about the Good Shepherd
Photo by Arthur Mazi on Unsplash