Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Far, Far Better Thing

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”  Thus speaks Sydney Carton, unexpected hero of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities. The themes of redemption and self-sacrifice are what make this novel so beautiful, so real, so true. Though Carton has wasted most of his life in the grip of alcoholism, at the last he sees an opportunity to do one great, selfless deed. The irony of it all is that had he chosen sooner to bend the knee, to acknowledge before God his own powerlessness and need for salvation, he would have, no doubt, been able to achieve many great things. Sydney is not an evil person; far from it. What he is, like all of us, is broken. Until one day, wandering the streets of Paris in despair as the horrors of the French Revolution rage all about him, he recalls the words spoken at his father’s funeral: I am the Resurrection and the Life. In that moment, he sees the truth. Thereby strengthened, knowing that Heaven awaits, he is able to perform the act that will ensure the future happiness of Lucie, the only person he has ever truly loved.

Self-sacrifice is a difficult concept to teach to children. In our society today, kids are taught that “It’s all about ME!”  Indeed, it is our nature to be selfish and self-absorbed.  Years ago, my daughter received as a birthday gift from a well-meaning friend a cute little pink purse. Inscribed on the front of the purse were the very words, “IT’S ALL ABOUT ME!”  Later, while we were going through the thirty-odd birthday gifts Ally had gotten, she commented, “I don’t think I’ll take this anywhere; I’ll just use it at home. I don’t want anyone to think that I REALLY believe that.”  She was six at the time.  I was so glad that she understood that it isn’t “all about me”, and we talked for awhile about what “it” really is about-God, Jesus, and other people.  Not that my children can’t be mean and self-centered at times, but they do know that it isn’t right.  They, by and large, don’t have that sense of entitlement that many young people seem to have these days, but I can’t take credit for that. It was a God thing all the way.  They took their difficult life experiences and allowed them to transform into something beautiful.  All my husband and I did was to try to encourage and foster that sense of compassion and servanthood.

I know from personal experience that as soon as we let ourselves start sinking into that pit of despair brought on by focusing too much on our own problems, we lose that sense of being a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  It’s not that we won’t have times of doubt and sorrow, grief and uncertainty. We are human. Sometimes we go there, and it’s okay-for awhile.  Then the time comes to get up and lay it at the feet of the Master and get moving. It happened to some of the greatest people in the Bible. We should not think that we are immune to it. There are no perfect people with perfect lives.  I believe that true maturity begins to emerge when we realize that we are NOT the center of the universe, and are able to get out of ourselves in our darkest times and go be a blessing to someone else. It’s not about what we feel like doing. If that were the case, we would all be like those unfortunate folks in the movie Wall-E, floating around in our chairs and never doing anything worthwhile. What if Jesus had decided he didn’t happen to feel like going to the Cross on that beautiful, scandalous night? Where would we be?

This past weekend, the youth at our church participated in the 30-Hour Famine to raise money for world hunger.  I was impressed that these teens, ten of them, were willing to give up food for thirty hours in order to help others whom they will never even meet or see. According to their youth pastors, who weathered it with them at a two-day lock-in, there was not one complaint about being hungry our tired. Not one.  Along with the pledges they collected, they did two fundraisers in two days- a yard sale and a church lunch. They had to cook food while they themselves were fasting. No complaints. That’s amazing.  But they did it out of an understanding of agape love-love in action. In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, when a teenage girl makes the statement that she cannot possibly love a particular person, she is informed by a cherubim: “My dear, love isn’t something you feel. It’s something that you do.”   This is the crux of the whole matter, the heart and soul of Christianity, and a rather radical idea in our world today.  We need to remember that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. He told them very pointedly that they were to follow his example.  When did we lose that?

I have not become so cynical that I think most people are terrible, or purposely set out to do the wrong thing. In this imperfect world there are sociopaths and psychopaths and people who are mentally unbalanced. There are some who are a little bit mean and nasty.  There are those so broken that they have allowed bitterness to become their destruction.  But by and large, I think that most people want to do good. The problem comes in trying to do good without God. I myself know that I can’t love the unlovable in my own strength. It takes the power of the Holy Spirit working through me. In the movie The Grace Card, which I just watched last night, a minister learns firsthand that to love one’s enemies takes complete and total surrender to God.  It’s not just about tolerating our enemies, or ignoring them. It’s about actually loving them enough to pray for them and help them.  It is the greatest commandment, and it’s much harder to live by than a nice little set of rules.

By the time Sydney Carton went to the guillotine in the place of Charles Darnay, he had broken every one of the Ten Commandments.  That didn’t matter.  His place in God’s kingdom was secure the moment he accepted the unconditional love of Christ. It’s a love we cannot wrap our brains around. It’s a love that we sometimes reject, because we just can’t quite believe that it is real. We beat our heads against the wall in frustration because we want to do the right thing on our own. If we would simply say, like the prophet Isaiah, “Here I am, Lord,” we would be so much better off.  We would then begin to truly see the way we need to, and realize that to love the rejected, the ugly, the outcast, is to love Christ Himself.  To walk with Him every day is the greatest joy we can have, but it does involve some things that may be hard. It involves self-sacrifice, and sometimes keeping our mouths shut and not saying the words that leap into our heads (not that that has ever happened to ME-yeah, right), and being kind and compassionate when we really want to slap somebody. It’s a great and incredible adventure. A friend of mine describes it as “a dance, choreographed by God.” (Thanks, Yvonne). Storytellers and artists and musicians might describe it as a story by the master Storyteller, a painting by the master Designer, or an opus by the mightiest of musicians. However we look at it, it is the life we all secretly long for- a life that, while filled with toil and tears, is also staggeringly, wondrously beautiful. The scars that mark us only make us more lovely in His eyes.  I pray that all people, everywhere, will join the dance, the journey, the story in which all Creation has a part. I want everyone to know my friend Jesus, and have a more abundant life than they ever dreamed. This is my prayer.

“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” –Philippians 1:21

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