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Here at the beginning of all things

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, September 2, 2009

As a freshman at Notre Dame, blatantly ignoring the fact that my SAT verbals were triple my math scores, and that I hated the sight of blood, I enrolled as an Arts and Letters Preprofessional, focused on a career in medicine. Two weeks in, as I heard the marching band practicing for the home opener, I walked out of my chem lab – where the powder just wouldn’t turn &!*!# green! – and kept on walking.

Four years later, having settled into PLS and the resulting ageless wisdom it imparted, I bolted off to law school. I visited Duke Law School the day after the Blue Devils had stunned Kentucky on a last-second shot to go to the Final Four. Their whole quad was toilet-papered, and a huge black spot was signed into the quad where the Duke students had burned their dorm furniture in celebration. Coming off four great years of Top five Irish football (yes, I am that old), I knew I had found a home!

I lasted four weeks in law school… Beginnings are often deceiving times.

As a priest, I often have to preach about the story of the first disciples being called by Jesus. It’s not an easy story for me. Four disciples are fishing and mending there nets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walks by, says “Come follow me” and “they dropped their nets and followed him.” That ticks me off.

I had to suffer through impossibly futile Friday afternoon chem labs, and the most miserable month of my life at Duke and 15 other dead ends I could bore you with, before I finally came to understand how God was tugging at my heart. But these four disciples get a direct command from God – “Your life goes this way” – and off they go. These stories are often titled in our Bibles as “The Call of the First Disciples” but I sometimes feel they should be called “The Luck of the First Disciples: How Jesus Saved Them from the Pain of Discernment and Making Choices.”

It turns out the Gospels are full of stories of the disciples impulsively – and sometimes misguidedly – trying to follow where Jesus is leading. One day, Peter sees Jesus walking on water and impulsively demands to be allowed to join him. Save for some solid life-guarding skills on Jesus’ part, this did not go well for Peter. Later, Peter experiences Jesus’ divinity in the Transfiguration. He blurts out, “Let us build tents here so we can stay forever!” Jesus politely informs him this is the wrong answer – that they must descend the mountain to face hardship and suffering. James and John, disappointed at a city’s response to the preaching of the Kingdom, ask Jesus if they might call down fire and brimstone on the people there. I would love to have been inside Jesus’ brain as he heard that one.

In the Gospels, beginnings are exhilarating, but also uncertain times. For the disciples, beginnings are full of missteps – as they are for us. They are filled with sometimes laughable (in hindsight!) shots in the dark. Decisions we make with swelled chests and exuberant struts sometimes leave us, soon afterwards, scratching our heads – “What was I thinking?”

For me, part of the liberating power of the Gospels is how lovingly – even encouragingly – Jesus responds to the disciples’ frequent missteps. In fact, I imagine him secretly delighting in how exuberantly they take risks on behalf of his mission. “This is why I called them!” he must have assuredly mused, as Peter laid his first foot on the water’s surface, or James and John called down their ill-conceived hellfire. Jesus discerns in their enthusiasm the hints of dogged commitment when, ultimately, they come to understand his call. “With them, I can change the world!”

Jesus’ call – particularly at the beginning of new stages of our lives – is not a call to be unerring in our discernment, to make no mistakes, to take no risks. Instead, I might even guess that our hunger for risk in trying to hear and heed God’s call rather pleases our Lord – who, after all, took a number of them himself. Commitments to lives of discipleship – even if the specific commitments turn out to be a bit misguided – are a beautiful way to … begin.

This week’s Faith Point was written by Fr. Lou DelFra, Director of Campus Bible Studies and ACE Chaplain. He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.