IT’S ABOUT GOD, NOT THE GUIDE

Author: Fr. Mike Byron
July 22, 2018

When I was in high school I was turned on to a roving Christian evangelist named Bill Gothard, who was at the time traveling around the country with his multiple-day seminar called Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts.  The leader of the bible study group at my Catholic parish really encouraged us youth to attend, first at the old Metropolitan Sports Center in Bloomington and later at the old St. Paul Civic Center.  And many of us did.  And the arenas were packed with thousands of young people every evening to hear the wisdom of this charismatic preacher.  The manual for that experience was a thick vinyl three-ring binder, which we devoured like the bible itself.  It contained all the answers, as well as all the pre-determined questions, about God’s step-by-step protocol for confronting the perils of being a teenager in the 1970s.

Unlike the bible, however, Bill Gothard told us to keep the contents of the manual secret once the seminar had ended and he had left town.  The red flags should have been waving wildly at that point for me and my friends, but they weren’t.  We were convinced that we had found the truth in a binder, filtered through Gothard’s selective choosing and interpreting bible passages out of context.

Several years ago I read news stories about Bill Gothard having been forced out of his leadership role in his evangelistic organization because of allegations of scandal.  I hadn’t thought of him in decades, but let’s just say that #metoo is relevant to the accusations.  And it got me thinking again about that three-ring binder that I had long ago discarded.  It was the answer book for everything spiritual back then.  I wondered if I could find one, used. I went on ebay and was amazed that there were almost none of those manuals to be found, but I did find one, and I bought it.

It’s curious what 40 years of life and a decade of post graduate Catholic theological education will do to change your perspective about things, but in re-reading all that old stuff I was amazed not only by what fluff it all was but also how utterly non-Catholic it all was.  My parish youth minister clearly didn’t know what he was doing sending us teenagers off to be tutored by Mr. Gothard.  But we didn’t know that.  We were young and relatively unaware about the things of religion, and we knew we felt a longing in our hearts for something that would satisfy our spiritual quest—but we did not know exactly what that was.  We were willing to flock to anything and anybody who would provide us with the three-ring vinyl binder of truth.  The charts and graphs and sequential instructions in that volume promise results, and that’s what we all longed for; Results in the crusade to become perfect.  It would take some time for me and my friends to discover that what our hearts were seeking then—and now—was not so much a manual of answers and strategies, but rather a relationship.  And not a relationship with a preacher, but with God.  Yes, we need our preachers and teachers and theologians and ministers along the way of that holy quest, but none of them is the goal of what we are seeking.  That is God alone.  

Today’s gospel of Mark tells us of other vast crowds of people who were mesmerized by Jesus the teacher, Jesus the prophet, who was awakening in them something that they recognized in their deepest beings to be the very reason for their lives:  relationship with God.  They were willing to follow him anywhere and always, so desperate were they for someone whom they could trust to bring them into a relationship with the Holy.  We all still feel that longing, whether we are young or older, if we are honest.

And our challenge in all that is not to settle for something less than God as the object of our desire—not for a manual of information about religion, not for any mere human who represents him/herself as the fond of wisdom (especially, if it’s a secret font!)

It is significant in the gospel today that Jesus speaks of himself as shepherd to the sheep—sheep who seem for the moment to be lost, without steady leadership, but recognizing their plight and their poverty, and willing to entrust to a savior who stirs their hearts toward something ultimate and good and necessary for survival.  The relationship between a shepherd and his sheep is not a relationship of directives and instructions.  No shepherd calls the flock together in order to them, “Go over there now,” or “read this book,” or “do what I tell you.”

No, the relationship is one of presence, abiding, being-with, intimacy that no seminar and no homily and no Christian theology book can impart.  It’s personal, and it’s vital.  What it requires of us—as it did in Jesus’ time—is the willingness and the ability to distinguish what it is that our heart truly longs for as our life-source, as distinct from what merely pleases us for the moment or provides superficial answers to questions that do not matter very much.  Our quest is about “being with,” not “doing what.”  That’s what a true shepherd does: He is with us, as one who leads us to God.  May we never settle for anything less, or welcome anybody who claims to be something else.


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