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.
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.
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!”
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!