“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” Mark 9:35
Four years ago, a dear friend and professor died on the lawn of my seminary while playing frisbee with students. Jannie was a tall man from South Africa and was nothing like our other professors. I admit to hating him at first because he assigned reading BEFORE class started and he even sent the email on Thanksgiving Day! Before then, we’d never had a professor assign work before class started and I thought, “Who does this Jannie guy think he is?”
I found myself equally challenged in Jannie’s class because he ran his class so democratically. Everybody’s voice mattered to him and he allowed people to talk and ask a lot of questions. I preferred a lecture-based class and I’d have to take a long walk before class every morning to mentally prepare for all the conversation. My friend John would often shout from his bike as he rode to class, “Hey, aren’t you headed in the wrong direction?”
But something about Jannie drew me to him and I found myself signing up to take another class he taught on new church development, something totally out of character for me since I’ve always been a fan of old church.
Jannie always opened his classes with a practice he called “Dwelling in the Word.” We listened to a short piece of Scripture for things that jumped out at us, then shared our thoughts with a partner, with the emphasis on listening, then sharing what we heard with the larger group.
The anniversary of his death was a few weeks ago, and I was grieving on social media with some of my seminary friends. We swapped stories, continuing to make sense of Jannie’s short time with us at the seminary. We talked about him being a Christ figure, how we felt like disciples left changed in his wake, but we also talked about how sharing stories was how the Church started and that by sharing our stories of Jannie we were really continuing that tradition.
Jannie gave me a glimpse of what this past Sunday’s Gospel reading means, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since. The disciples, the first leaders of the church, are instructed to put themselves last and to be servants to all. Is this even possible?! I know I’m terrible at it, and I have a small orbit. I’ll have days where I think I’m doing okay, only to fall flat on my face in a fit of selfishness.
As I think about the current crisis in the Catholic Church and in our country, I’m at a loss. Anything I say or do seems so small, so insignificant, and I’m tempted to sit and be paralyzed by sadness, anger, and everything in between. But then I have conversations with friends about a lost colleague and I’m reminded that our ordinary encounters CAN change things, and that the power of the Gospel shines through our stories of lives being changed by a listening ear or an encouraging word precisely because this is how Jesus worked.
Remembering these things give me the courage to try to keep believing, even though what I really want to do is give up out of hopelessness.
Each time we practiced “Dwelling in the Word,” Jannie would have us go and find a “reasonably friendly-looking stranger” to reflect on the passage with. That always made us laugh. Here we’d been in class together for several years, we almost knew what people were going to say before they even opened their mouths, but somehow it was fitting, and I always found myself surprised by what people said and heard. It was as if Scripture became alive in our midst.
During these challenging days in the Church and the world, all I can do is disarm myself and try to live with open ears–to see what God is up to in the world and how I can join with others to be part of Jesus’ upside-down vision, where the last come first.
Lord, may it be so. Amen.
Shana Hutchings lives in the Midwest with her family where she enjoys baking, reading, and going for long walks alone.