Columnists > Soul Food

An ordinary faith

Mother Teresa's life should prod us to go and do likewise

Issue: "Building a better boycott," Oct. 4, 1997

The other day I dreamed I was at the gates of heaven," Mother Teresa once told Prince Michael of Greece. "St. Peter said, 'Go back to Earth. There are no slums up here!'" Last month the gates of heaven finally welcomed Mother Teresa home. In a world longing for hope and meaning, Mother Teresa was to thousands of the destitute the gentle hands and smiling face of the God of love. The order she founded in 1950 now operates more than 500 missions caring for orphans, the homeless, those with AIDS, and the "unloved, unwanted, and uncared for" in over 100 countries. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1979 and the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1985, she became a worldwide symbol of selfless compassion. We do well to honor one who so completely abandoned herself to the service of others. But it is a reflection on our times and the diminished expectations of people that her life is viewed not so much as something to be emulated but as something to be held in awe. To say that Mother Teresa had a "special" calling, to imply that her journey of faith led through valleys too deep or over mountains too high for the rest of us -to suggest that she lived a life to which no ordinary man or woman should aspire-is to do her memory a disservice and make the God she loved seem untouchable. In fact, by biblical standards, Mother Teresa's faith was anything but extraordinary. Read through the Gospels and focus on the statements in which Jesus says, "If you are truly my disciple" or "if you truly love me, you will ..." or "I tell you the truth ... ," and you will see Mother Teresa's life described in full, rich detail. He said that "anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." She left home and comfort and family to comfort those living in the valley of the shadow of death. He said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." She died to herself on a daily basis, denying herself all but the necessities of life and viewing her attention and acclaim as "burdens" to be borne only if they helped her reach out to others. He said, "Inasmuch as you do anything for the least of these, you do it for me." She made the "least" the most important. These were the ordinary commands of the extraordinary teacher. And Mother Teresa saw him in every man, woman, and child she cared for. Fulfilling his commands was the stuff of her everyday life. Yet few Christians today seem willing to conform their lives to the call of that revolutionary carpenter from Nazareth. A quick glance through the shelves of America's Christian bookstores reveals the struggles of our modern faith. Are we co-dependent? How do we overcome low self-esteem? Can we really figure out a way to tithe as much as ten percent of our income? Is it really possible to know the call of Christ in our lives? Can I buy a BMW and still go to heaven when I die? It is not that these struggles are not substantive-or not real. But don't they reflect a certain softness of the soul? We wrestle less with the challenging commands of the Great I Am than with figuring out ways to make ourselves feel better. Little mention is made in evangelical circles, for instance, about the need to break down barriers of race and class. Service of the poor is not one of the "spiritual disciplines" receiving an extraordinary amount of attention. Focusing so much on ourselves leaves little room for anyone else. By convincing ourselves that she lived a life out of reach to us, we use Mother Teresa as an excuse to settle for second best. The proper lesson to draw from her life is that she lived as we all should. Mother Teresa's was an extraordinary life. But her faith wasn't extraordinary-it was ordinary. The problem today is that we have settled for a faith that seems "typical" because it is comfortable, not too out of line with the expectations of others, and not too different from that of every other guy. But it is woefully substandard when measured against the faith we are called to live out with the help of God. Mother Teresa's life reminds us that true fulfillment lies not in self-actualization, but in a transformational faith lived out in the service of others. This should not be daunting or awe-inspiring. It should instead encourage us in our every day lives to become more like that extraordinary woman with an ordinary faith. David Kuo is president of The American Compass.

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