Self-Righteous Indignation

As our Lenten journey comes to an end this week, we are nearing the completion of our bus ride between the gray town and the outskirts of heaven. Today we meet the Big Ghost, a passenger on the bus in C.S. Lewis’ fantasy, The Great Divorce. The Solid person sent to meet him from heaven is a former employee of his named Len. The Big Ghost is dismayed because Len, in his earthly life, had killed another employee, Jack. How is it that Len can be in heaven and he is not? Len explains that it was a deathbed conversion that gave him entry into heaven. He is deeply sorry for what he did on earth but stands now forgiven and whole in God’s eternal keeping. The Big Ghost’s indignation that a murderer could be forgiven and granted entrance into glory leads to an honest conversation. Len reminds his former boss that he had made life very difficult for his wife and kids because of his workaholism. Len paints a less-than-flattering picture of his employer’s earthly life: “I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack
wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at nights thinking what I’d do to you if ever I got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. I was the worst. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know.”

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The Big Ghost’s fatal flaw is that he is unable to forgive himself or others. He can’t accept grace and refuses to let go of his grudges. He asserts his right to enter heaven: “I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights.” In spite of Len’s pleading to let go of his claims, the Big Ghost refuses to go with him. He says he doesn’t want in to heaven if they stoop to the level of  welcoming murderers.                                The Big Ghost heads back to the bus in a huff of self-righteous indignation.
In his book, The Forgiveness Project, Dr.Michael Barry tells the story of Jayne Valseca. An American, Jayne and her husband, Eduardo, lived in a small town in Mexico with their children. They had opened an elementary school in their village and lived an idyllic life on a ranch. One day they dropped their children off at school and headed back toward home. A truckload of seven men overtook them, abducted her husband, and left her on the side of the road with a ransom note. This was the beginning of an unimaginable nightmare that was featured on Dateline NBC in 2010. The husband was held captive for 8 months in a space no bigger than a small closet. He was shot twice at close range, kept naked on a cold floor and forced to send messages to her and the children so that the ransom would be paid. Jayne didn’t have the money they imagined she did and entered into a living hell, trying to keep life going for her children while fixated on finding her husband. A cancer survivor, she knew that a crisis of this magnitude would impact
her body, possibly leading to a recurrence of the disease. Finally, when Eduardo was released, he had gone from 160 pounds to 90. He was elated to be free and embraced life with grateful vigor. But Jayne was filled with the hatred she had harbored for eight months. Even with Eduardo home, she could not move forward. Her cancer recurred two months later and she eventually met with Dr. Barry at one of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
She poured out her terrible story to him. She was accustomed to people weeping when they heard of her trials. She was surprised by the reaction from this treating physician: “Dr. Barry’s reaction was very different. It was nonjudgmental. The conversation was more about his wanting me to find peace again, which often requires learning to feel empathy toward the kidnappers. At one point, he even suggested that there might be some self-righteousness in what I was feeling. Well, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear about how right I was to feel the way I felt, how wrong and
despicable they were, and that sooner or later there would be some sort of divine justice.”
Jayne had come to Dr. Barry knowing she needed help to be able to forgive. Sometimes shaking uncontrollably, she kept her fury so bottled up within her that she hadn’t cried for months. Dr. Barry did not offer Jayne any pity. His suggestion that she find empathy for these monsters who were still at large terrorizing others was met, understandably, with angry dismay. He reminded her that he had made no promises that life is fair or forgiveness easy. His first task for her was to write a letter to the men to tell them how she felt. Her letter was five pages long and the writing of it was cathartic. But she still held onto her anger. So Dr. Barry asked her to work even harder at finding empathy, something that comes from the heart but not the head. Jayne got more creative this time. She decided to create a mental movie set, imagining each of the kidnapers as babies. With each of the seven men, she imagined what must have happened to them, beginning as innocent infants and children, to transform them into sadistic henchmen. After an hour and a half of emotional stretching to understand these men and their motives she writes, “I felt an enormous wave of relief, as if the weight of the world had just been lifted from my shoulders. It was amazing. I felt so much lighter.” I don’t know that I would suggest to someone who had suffered such injustice that she held on to a feeling of self-righteousness. I would probably be one of those who wept along with Jayne at her suffering. But Dr. Barry knew that she had to forgive these strangers in order to live. He knew that Eduardo’s captors had moved on with no thought of her or her family’s suffering so she only stood to ruin her own life. Dr. Barry is a seminary-trained Pastoral Counselor who asked Jayne to do the hard task of forgiving, The Spirit enabled her to connect with her husband’s captors and let go of her hatred.
In Mark 14, we read of a strange dinner date Jesus had just two evenings before His arrest. His host is known as Simon the Leper. No self-respecting Jew would come near a leper nor would anyone who wanted to ensure their own good health. Not only does Jesus visit him in his home; He eats food prepared in Simon’s kitchen. A woman enters who (uninvited) breaks open a jar of expensive perfume and pours it on His head! This is no ordinary dinner party! Jesus should not have had any contact with a woman, especially one who would be so brazen as to approach Him directly and interact with such intimacy. The nard she brought with her would have been what every family had on hand so that, when a loved one died, they could anoint the dead body with the perfume. Investing in this perfume was their version of funeral pre-planning! The value was over a year’s wages. We learn this from the disparaging comments made by the other guests. Notice the description of their reaction. It says that they were indignant. This unknown, unnamed woman had completely disrupted their party with celebrity Jesus!
Jesus sees it a different way. It turns out that their response was more like self-righteous indignation! Jesus commends her for the way she has sacrificed for Him. She honored Him through an act that was truly worshipful! Just two nights before His arrest and torturous death, Jesus announces that she has anointed Him for His death and will forever be remembered for it. And we are still talking about her today!
Healing and forgiveness are inextricably linked. Many years ago we had healing service for a man who was about 50. One side of the sanctuary was virtually filled with family and friends who stayed after the service to come up, one wave of supporters after another, to lay hands on him and pray. He had been diagnosed with melanoma and was waging a war that waylaid him from a demanding career and beloved roles as husband and father. The treatment took its toll on him. A couple of days before Thanksgiving we ran into each other at the grocery store, grabbling final food items for the big day. I asked him how he was doing. This is a man who was fighting for his life. “Things are good,” he assured me. “God is near! I am thankful!” I was astounded. This man could have been justifiably indignant that cancer would knock him off his life’s course at such a young age. But he wouldn’t let a disease have that power over him. He succumbed to the disease not long after that Thanksgiving. But he died on his terms. A church member told me, “I think he was healed in that service we held for him after worship.” If being healed means entering heaven with our sights fixed on Jesus and a levity in our hearts, this beloved father, husband and church member was well when he greeted his Maker!
Lillian Daniel is an author and ordained UCC pastor. At one of her early churches her husband, Lou, visited with two older gentlemen in their congregation on a regular basis. Both had dedicated their lives to civil rights battles and their minds were sharp even as their bodies failed them. During a Lenten speaking series, Lou spoke of the privilege he had in visiting these two men whom he dubbed “old lions.” While reaching out to them in Christian service, he found that he had been indescribably blessed by them. They transmitted the values of a deep Christian spirituality, embracing life and preparing to die well. Lou realized that his visitation was really his own search for healing, the
desire to have spiritual grandfathers who would inspire right living. They reminded him that any healing they prayed for had to encompass the full community. It could never be simply about themselves. Lou’s professional life was akin to that of these two men. Lillian writes, “It is not enough for only a few to live well. We all need to be made whole. A civic leader, a civil rights activist, a union organizer—these three men were not passively waiting for that healing, but believed that God calls us to be instruments of that healing. At different points in their lives, two retired and one at the beginning of his working life, they all still believed that the wholeness comes in the struggle….So while both of these elders suffered in their bodies, they spoke with Lou less about the healing of a body but prayed also for the larger healing, for that healing of the nations. Therefore it seems natural that conversations about the state of our recession-strapped city and the fate of the labor movement would take place in a tangle of IV tubes and heart monitors in a hospital room. In the practice of healing, we pray that the community will be healed and that we will all be whole.” (pg. 67-68)
The other dinner guests looked in on this shameless woman pouring out a year’s worth of income on Jesus head with indignation. They clung to certain expectations about social class, expected table decorum, and accepted roles between men and women. They looked down on the woman while elevating their own self-image. Jesus’ vision was not clouded by these barriers to unity. Jesus saw each person there, including Simon the Leper and the uninvited woman, as beloved children of God. He understood that her worship exalted Him and brought healing to her. The name of Simon the Leper has gone down in history not as an unworthy beggar but as an honored host to the Messiah of the world! As Jesus prepared to lay down His life for an unappreciative world, He offered forgiveness for all of us—all of us who often work against His kingdom.
If we stand with our hands on our hips in self-righteous indignation we will miss the gift of Christ’s forgiveness. We will lose out on the opportunity to extend that forgiveness to others. If we get stuck on justifying ourselves as being decent, law-abiding human beings all the while lording it over our subordinates, we will fail to see the glory of heaven that peeks out from the dark clouds not just on you and me—but on our broken world! Through the gift of Good Friday and the miracle of Easter, we understand at a deep level that there’s enough of Jesus to go around! And that good news brings healing.


Pity Meets Parade

Let’s look in on a parade that comes from the imagination of Christian author, C.S. Lewis. In The Great Divorce, he introduces us to characters who struggle to accept the joy of heaven even when its breathtaking beauty is before their very eyes.

We meet Sarah Smith who is at the center of an exultant procession of joyful children and adoring animals. In her earthly life every girl or boy who ever met Sarah felt like they belonged to her. Every animal experienced her tenderness. So, on the outskirts of heaven, Sarah arrives in a parade that travels with her wherever she goes. She has come to meet her husband, Frank, who traveled on the bus from the gray town. Sarah is described as almost oozing love and possessing a beauty that cannot be described in earthly terms. The appeal of her husband? Not so much!

He is part of a bizarre two-person team. You have to remember that this is a fantasy. What our narrator observes is a tall, gangly man wearing an actor’s black hat. He is attached by a chain to an unattractive dwarfish figure. The assumption at first is that the tall figure is in control of the smaller man who is described as being no bigger than an organ grinder’s monkey. But, upon closer examination, the narrator sees that the small man holds the chain which connects to a metal collar around the neck of the other. But it is the chained figure who addresses Sarah as she approaches, make grand gestures and using an actor’s voice. Her husband has spent his life manipulating others through pity. Beginning as a child, rather than apologize he would go up into the attic and sulk. He knew that one of his sisters would eventually come up to fetch him because they felt sorry for him sitting up in the attic alone. In his marriage to Sarah he used pity to exploit her kind-heartedness, trying to make her life as miserable as his own. The persona he developed to control his world was that of a seedy old actor. He was an exaggerated Tragedian who was inauthentically magnanimous toward others all the while trying to stir up their sympathy for him. In the gray town he lived as a conjoined twin, allowing his false self to take on greater life than his real self. Frank yanked on the chain to get the Tragedian to answer for him.

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The one question the true Frank has for Sarah is whether she has missed him. She tries to explain that there is only joy in heaven. The tragedian twists this into a message of rejection, trying to do what he did during their earthly marriage: siphon off her joy and replace it with his dim view of reality. She says that there are no miseries in heaven. Incredulously, and with dramatic flair, the gangly ghost asks, “Do you mean to say you’ve been happy?” “Don’t you want me to be?” she responds. Frank has never thought of her well-being and still can’t, even in the stunning beauty of her presence. She tries to explain the nature of love in heaven versus what we experience on earth:

“’…what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.’

‘And now!’ said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. ‘Now, you need me no more?’

‘But of course not!’ said the Lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy.

‘What needs could I have,’ she said, ‘now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now: we can begin to love truly.’”

Tragically Frank is unwilling to let go of his emotional blackmailing. Even though Sarah pleads with him to let go of the chain and enter into the joy of heaven, he will not unlearn his manipulative ways. The guide for the narrator points out that pity is meant to be an impetus to help others out of misery but it can be misused. He explains, “The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

So for poor Frank and his ghastly persona, it was a round trip back to the gray town.

Ever met someone who overused pity to gain favor? Have you encountered someone who moped so impressively when you broached a sensitive topic that you felt like you had to back peddle to placate them? Is there someone whose circumstances always seemed so difficult that you found yourself continually trying to improve things for them—only to discover that there would be no end to their troubles?

We resettled a refugee many years ago through our congregation. He had clearly lived through traumatic circumstances—as have all refugees. Unfortunately, he struggled with mental health issues. He could be gracious and charming. But he could change moods in a moment and go to a very dark place where we were accused of not adequately meeting his needs. We gladly collected furniture and home goods so that we could set him up in an apartment. He got a job and even got a driver’s license—one of our members probably still suffers from flashbacks from those terrifying driving lessons! We did all that was asked of us as a host congregation but it was never enough. He tried to yank our chain repeatedly and, because we knew his life had been so hard, we responded positively for a long while. It was difficult for us to put up boundaries when we began to realize that we would never be able to adequately meet his perceived needs. Even his sponsoring agency had to cut him off because of his masterfully manipulative ways. No one felt good about this completion to our commitment but it was necessary.

On the other hand, through him we met another refugee who had come to the United States earlier with four sons. A widow, there was a heavy responsibility on her to put together a life that would meet their needs. She never asked for help but we learned of her needs through conversation or observation. She accepted our assistance with gratitude. She established a not-for-profit aimed at helping the women still stuck in Sudan. She understood that she was blessed so that she could be a blessing to others. Helping her was a great joy. It felt like a privilege. She always thanked God for the help she received from us.

In Mark 5 we meet a woman who has every reason to yank the chains of her fellow villagers with her sob story. Suffering from an undiagnosed bleeding condition for twelve years, she has sought medical help from more doctors than she could remember. She spent all her money on co-pays and deductibles and still had no cure. For Jews of her day, bleeding made you ritually unclean which meant she was an outcast, forbidden to mingle with others lest she taint them.

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So it is no wonder that she surreptitiously crept up behind Jesus in the midst of a mob scene, wanting just the tiniest piece of him. She didn’t cry out for pity, as some did who sought Jesus’ healing touch. She didn’t drag her medical file with her to build a case for His mercy. Fully believing in His restorative power, she reached down just to touch the hem of Christ’s robe. It’s as if she tried to keep her spiritual cooties to herself rather than infect Jesus.

So when Jesus asks who touched Him, she is startled and confesses. She tells her story more to explain her actions than to yank on His heartstrings. Jesus sees her history of suffering and the purity of her heart. The response is beautiful: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” No doctor had delivered on their promises yet they had taken her money. No one else had seen her for anything besides her infirmity. Like a leper she was isolated. But Jesus calls her “daughter.” He not only heals her body—He nourishes her spirit with a loving benediction: “Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” This was such a moving experience for the crowd that witnessed the miracle that Matthew, Mark and Luke all include the story in their gospel.

We have to be careful how we dole out our mercy. That may seem antithetical to the Gospel but the reality of our earthly bodies is that we have limited energy and resources. If someone who craves attention and misuses pity siphons off all that we have to give, those with legitimate needs will continue to suffer. This is difficult for us because the very nature of our faith is to selflessly give for the sake of others. But when it goes in the direction of enabling someone with their unhealthy dependency, we have to draw the line. Otherwise we will give away all our gifts for someone who will never be happy. We will exhaust ourselves for someone who would happily drag us down to their own hellish existence if there is something more we could possibly give them.

Lewis teaches a lesson about healthy pity that jumps into helpful action. He does it in the voice of the guide who tries to give some understanding to the narrator in The Great Divorce. When asked about genuine pity, Lewis writes, “It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.”

As Christians we are called to carefully—prayerfully—navigate the many calls for assistance that come our way. We cannot meet all the needs around us nor should we. Jesus said that we would always have the poor in our midst. That is such a pity! But, until we turn in these earthly bodies for glorious ones, like Sarah Smith, we ask God to help us discern how we can best serve. While our response will never be perfect, if we serve in Jesus’ name, it will be enough!


Wild Oats in the Springtime

I awakened to sunshine and a warm breeze blowing through the open crack of my window. My spirit soared! Today would be the day to make that transition from cement workout room to the great outdoors. I felt a bit like the lover in Song of Solomon: “For lo, the winter is past…” As I walked down my long driveway I breathed in new, Spring air that smelled of the thawing earth. What a great morning for a jog!

At the base of my driveway I noticed an empty beer can. “I’ll have to pick that up when I come back.” Out on the country road near my home I kicked it into gear a bit. It seemed like nature was about ready to “pop” and I delighted to be out in it after a long winter. But as I ran I noticed human elements mixed in with the nature. Somehow as the piles of snow melt, winter trash surfaces. There were several crushed beer cartons tossed to the side of the road. I saw about five cigarette packages, emptied, strewn about. There were a couple of tiny bottles of alcohol, the kind you get on a plane to help you over your fear of flying. Rather than scanning the surroundings for signs of budding flowers I began to look for further evidence that many a joy ride used our country road for dumping the evidence. The most disturbing sign of too much Friday night flings was a pair of white cotton women’s underwear. I don’t even want to know, I was thinking! So much for the refreshing spring morning run!

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A disturbing rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” came to my mind: “On a lovely spring outing I happened to espy: 5 cigarette packs, 4 crushed beer cans, 3 emptied 12-packs, 2 flasks of liquor and a pair of women’s cotton underwear…” That ought never be put to music, I chastened myself.

The most obvious age group that came to my mind on this tantalizing tour was “youth”. Few of us can claim to have navigated our way through our teenage years flawlessly. They are classically the years of experimentation and defiance. We pray that our children will make it through their rebellious years with no long-term crises and with a wisdom gained from their exploits. The booze, cigarettes and cast-off clothing on my jog reminded me that every generation struggles to understand what matters—and what works!  If they can do this without giving in to any of the temptation, more power to them. But most people make some mistakes along the way, just like we did. It’s easy for older generations to harshly judge the younger ones but few of us would run for public office if we knew our opponents were going to dig too far back into our past for “dirt”!

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Rather than jumping at the chance to judge others we are called to reach out with compassion to those around us. Especially we need to direct our energies toward the younger generation who is counting on us noticing them and affirming their gifts. They’re looking to us to cast a vision of hope, which we have failed to do of late. Paul took young Timothy under his wing, seeing gifts that were initially underdeveloped. Timothy inconvenienced the more mature evangelists by needing to catch a bus home midway into a soul-saving tour. Barnabas told Paul they were wasting their resources on this immature young man. But Paul trusted his instincts and coaxed a tremendous faith life out of young Timothy. In the Church 2000 years later, we are in Paul’s debt because of the fine example Timothy became for newbies to the faith. So watch out how readily you cast a judgment on a younger generation. It could be that, once they sow their wild oats, they’ll be serving up your oatmeal with a smile at the nursing home, reminding you of just how much God loves you!


“May I kill it?”

We meet the most curious passenger on the bus today, walking around the outskirts of heaven. From chapter 11 of C.S. Lewis’ story, The Great Divorce, he is deciding whether to stay or return to the gray town. It is a man with a red lizard sitting on one of his shoulders, tail twitching nervously. The lizard seems to be whispering into the man’s ear continually, controlling him rather than the other way around. The man is heading back toward the bus when a dazzling, bright figure approaches him. “Off so soon?” the bright Angel asks the strange pair. The man explains that the creature is acting up and he’s embarrassed by it. The lizard had insisted on coming with him on the bus trip and promised to behave. But now the reptile was making too much noise. “Would you like me to make him quiet?” asks the flaming Angel? This sounded like a good offer, like someone offering to babysit your ill-behaved child during a piano recital. “Of course I would.” “Then I will kill him,” said the Angel as he moved toward the poor man. The man balks, understandably. He hadn’t thought the Angel would quiet the lizard down by killing it! The Angel insists that’s the only way to be done with the interfering creature. While the man agreed that he was tired of the lizard he worried that he would be hurt in the process. He gave numerous excuses, wanting to put it off, get a second opinion, and wait for a day when he himself was feeling better. The Angel kept asking the same question: “May I kill it.”

I saw these words tattooed on a woman at a Christian retreat. I thought it was an odd message to permanently ink onto your body: “May I kill it.” Months later in conversation she reminded me that it was a line from The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. This added new depth to her tattoo choice! We learn from the guide in the story that the lizard represents lust—in the broadest sense of the word. We lust for power, money, sexual gratification, fame, beauty and that lust begins to control us. It tells us we are worthless without it. We allow something that initially interested us to become a god, a voice that dictates our every move. So the man understandably keeps the Angel at bay, suggesting that the gradual process of getting rid of it would be preferable to killing it. The Angel states that a gradual process for something that has such a hold on him will not work. Killing it off quickly and completely is the only choice. The time is now. In spite of his fear that the procedure will kill him as well, he agrees that it would be better to die than live with this controlling creature. Crying out, “God help me,” the Angel moves in on the man and separates the lizard from the man in a brief but anguishing process.

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A Greek word that seems fitting for this poor man’s corrective surgery is kenosis. It means “self-emptying.” In the Christian faith we give thanks that Christ emptied Himself so that God’s will could be accomplished through Him. Jesus knew that it was in dying that He would rise to new life. We imitate His kenosis in the way we practice our own faith. The man on the bus trip had to make the sudden and final decision to give up the lust of controlling vices or addictions. It was excruciating but essential for him to be able to move forward in his life unencumbered. What happens after the brutal separation of the two from each other is a shocking surprise. The narrator notices that the man from the gray town begins to grow large and muscular. He becomes like the Solid People who have chosen heaven. Even more unexpected is that the lizard has not only survived the attack. It, too is now growing and being transfigured into a beautiful stallion. The sniveling lizard that spoke coercive messages non-stop into the man’s ear now stands next to him, strong and dignified. The man climbs onto his back and they ride together toward the mountains that stand at the edge of heaven. The narrator is astounded, transfixed on the pair as they effortlessly scale the mountain in the distance. He turns to his guide for understanding. He is told that the stallion is the man’s passion. Passion gone awry becomes lust. Passion detached from God and fueled by our ego, becomes lust. With God at the center of his being, passion could be harnessed for the richness and energy of desire. The man had to kill off the seductive forces that overshadowed his true self so that his God-given strength would enable him to surmount even the greatest obstacles.

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In John’s Gospel Jesus tries to prepare His disciples for His death with these words: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus surrendered His earthly life so that God’s power would be showcased in the resurrection. As His disciples, we are challenged to see the transformative pattern of death and rebirth. Whatever lizard is sucking the life’s blood out of us and feeding us lies, we invite Christ to kill it off. Then we can be liberated to serve Him out of our passion. One of Jesus’ favorite titles for Himself was Son of Man or Son of Humanity. He used that 79 times in the four gospels. A human like us, Christ modeled the way of holiness. Father Richard Rohr, in his book Everything Belongs, states that Christians have been worshiping Christ’s journey instead of doing it. Like Christ, we are called to surrender the fierce grip we hold on each moment. With His strength we face whatever suffering comes our way. We learn that God meets us in our brokenness. This is a hard lesson. Rohr points out that most spiritual teachers are in the second half of their lives when they have endured tough lessons and temptations. Spiritual gurus understand that God doesn’t wait for us to have all our merit badges neatly sewn on to our sash before gracing us with an appearance. God meets and embraces us when we finally ask for help separating ourselves from whatever choices and powers are slowly killing us.

Julian of Norwich is a 14th century mystic who echoes Rohr’s conviction. She wrote that first there is the fall and then there is the recovery from the fall but both are the mercy of God. It goes against our human instincts to see a difficult challenge as an expression of God’s mercy. But, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we recognize that our greatest spiritual growth happens during the tough times.  Julian said the surprising news is that we come to God not by doing everything right but by doing it wrong!

In a baptism ceremony I quote from Romans 6 where Paul reminds Christians that we are all baptized into Christ’s death—which always seems a bit morbid as we hold up a precious baby, full of life, before the congregation. Baptism is our welcome into the family of Jesus Christ. We affirm through our vows that we die to self so that Christ can rise within us. Whatever separates us from the holy life to which Jesus calls us, we put to death by God’s grace. Only then can we grow into the fullness of life that brings us joy and glorifies God!

Rohr writes about our need to find our center in God. This is a lifelong process with pitfalls along the way. Some folks, he writes, firm up their religious boundaries with a center that is more about themselves and their brand of Christianity than it is about a love for God. They focus on their identity within a Christian movement more than surrendering to God. The result can be a holier-than-thou brand of the faith. He asserts: “[They] will normally be the enemies of ecumenism, forgiveness, vulnerability, and basic human dialogue. Their identity is too insecure to allow any movement in or out and their ‘Christ’ tends to be very small, tribal, and ‘just like them.’ If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional ‘threat,’ you probably need to do some growing up and learning to love.” (pg. 22-23)

The bright Angel’s repeated question to the poor man with the controlling lizard on his shoulder is “May I kill it?” Surrendering to Christ and doing His journey requires death to the parts of our lives that lead us astray. It’s easy to try to put it off with excuses like the man from the gray town: Wait until I feel better. It will kill me so not now. Let’s do this gradually. Let me get a second opinion. But the Angel’s words cry out to us: the time is now. All future decisions hinge on this one! The call to discipleship challenges us to stretch beyond our narrow boundaries to which we nervously cling. The woman with the tattoo of the Angel’s question said that she reads The Great Divorce with new staffers each year as they prepare for a summer of Christian leadership. At the end of the book, she asks each person to write on a stone what it is that they need to give up. What sin clings so closely that they need to sever it from their life? On what false security to they rely? After a time of prayer the staffers toss those stones, marked up with words of confession, into the lake. They release their spiritual hurdles and commit to a new year of ministry.

In his letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul reminds the congregation that God has reconciled us through Christ to a holy way of life. Our response of gratitude is to become agents of reconciliation. When we make those hard sacrifices, some of which seem life-threatening, we become a new creation. We are not mere mortals. We are bearers of the Light. When we get rid of all that attempts to snuff out the flame of passion or twist it into unhealthy lust, we are freed for transformative ministry so remarkable that it will startle those around us. What Paul writes is a beautiful promise about what awaits us when we submit to Christ: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!”

silhouette of trees
Photo by Johannes Plenio on

In Lewis’ fantasy, those standing on the edge of heaven, facing hard decisions, notice that it is perpetually dawn. The sun seems stuck just below the horizon. What stands between these residents from the gray town–where the light is always dim and life is dull–is a faith choice: Will I surrender my favorite sins, vices, addictions, lusts so that Christ can live fully in me? If I don’t, I’m heading toward spiritual death. I’m choosing gray. For those of us in West Michigan, we are just emerging from the darkness of seemingly unending winter. Wee can appreciate what a terrible sentence that would be! On our local news report last Tuesday the upbeat meteorologist stated that we had enjoyed three days in a row of sunshine. Three cheers! She did some research and discovered that the last time we had seen three consecutive days of sunshine in our fair town was last  September! We understand gray far too well and find ourselves stretching toward the light and the lengthened days on the other side of the Vernal Equinox! When we give up our selfish ways—for Lent or any other time of the year—we are choosing Christ. He is the Light of the world. In Him, everything, EVERYTHING, is made new!