Diane Wilson was a mother of five and the captain of a shrimp boat off the coast of Louisiana. Her life was no different than that of her neighbors. Then one day she read a newspaper article that listed her county as one of the most polluted in the country. She realized that the air her children breathed and the waters she trawled in were contaminated with harmful chemicals. When she thought about the damage it was doing to people and the environment she knew she could no longer stay silent. She began circulating petitions, organizing meetings and initiating lawsuits. In the end, she was able to force very powerful and influential chemical companies to stop discharging chemicals into the San Antonio and Lavaca bays.
And she did not stop there. With the network she had developed and skills she had learned, she went to other polluted areas of the country to educate the people about the damage done by pollution and to force companies to enact stricter emission controls.
In a recent interview she gave on public radio, she spoke about the toll her activism has taken on her personal life. Many of her neighbors and friends came to despise her. She received death threats on a regular basis. But, she said, in the process of fighting for what she believed in she came to overcome her fears. She was no longer afraid of being ostracized and no longer afraid of dying. That freedom from fear gave her the power to speak the truth and work for justice. Because she did not let fear muzzle her, she discovered her purpose in life. She found that she could make the world a better place.
How many of us are held down by fear? We know in our hearts what is right, but we so often fail to speak out because we do not want to be ridiculed or rejected. We would rather live a comfortable, sheltered life than let our voices be heard. In the process, we lose ourselves and fail to live up to the purpose for which we were created.
Fear most of all has a chilling effect on our life of faith. Jesus tells us upfront that if we are to follow him we must deny ourselves and pick up our cross daily. We can try to follow Jesus at a distance, coming to Mass on Sundays and meeting the obligations of faith without letting it change the way we live the rest of the week. But that is an empty way of living which ultimately leaves us unsatisfied. We remain a prisoner of our fears, unable to give voice to our beliefs because we are afraid of what others will think.
There is another way to live, however. It is the way that Jesus offers us. It is the life of faith. When we, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the "Christ of God" a new life opens up for us. We are given the light of truth and are no longer willing to accept the lies our society values. We are given hope to see that our destiny is an everlasting life. We are given strength to carry whatever crosses may come our way. And, most especially, we are given freedom - freedom from sin and freedom from fear. It is not easy, but it is possible and it is necessary. Once we acknowledge Jesus as Lord and give our lives over to him we will find ourselves doing things we could never have imagined possible. Jesus' words become true for us: "...whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."
Why have so many people throughout the centuries decided to give up everything to follow Jesus? Consider the apostles who left their families and their jobs. Consider the countless women and men who were tortured and killed rather than deny their faith in Jesus. Consider the many unknown people who sacrifice themselves daily without recognition to bring bread to the hungry and hope to the despairing. Why would they be willing to sacrifice so much? Why should we be willing to give up so much? Because of Jesus. The reward for denying ourselves and bearing our crosses daily is that we become friends of Jesus. When we love him truly above all other things, then we want nothing else than to be close to him. Once we taste the joy of intimacy with him, we will do whatever it takes to draw near to him. As Saint Paul puts it, we will consider everything else garbage in comparison to the love and knowledge of God we find in Christ Jesus. There is a cost to being a disciple. But what we gain in return - friendship with God - is so much more valuable than anything this world can offer us.
Jesus puts the question to us as he posed it to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" It is the most important question we could ever answer. None of us will ever discover who we are until we have decided who he is. Will we be like the crowds who follow from a distance and consider him to be merely a prophet? Or will we be like the disciples who acknowledge him as Lord and Savior and are rewarded with a close, personal relationship with him? Will we continue to allow our lives to be circumscribed by fear, or will we discover the freedom that comes from loving Jesus? Will we be confined to our safe, comfortable lives, or will we do great things for our Lord?
The choice is laid before each of us - faith or fear. How we decide will determine whether we find ourselves in him or lose ourselves in this world which is swiftly passing away.