William Barclay once remarked that there are two important days in a person’s life. The day he is born and the day he discovers why he was born. In contrast to that, in Dale Wasserman’s musical adaptation of Don Quixote, Cervantes rebukes a critic who insists that poets are madmen who take people’s eyes of reality, life as it is, Cervantes says:
Life as it is: I’ve lived over 40 years and seen life as it is
Pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief. I’ve heard all
the voices of God’s noblest creatures. Moans from
bundles of filth in the streets. I’ve been a soldier and
a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die
more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them
at the last moment. They were men who saw life asit is.
Yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last
words. Only their eyes filled with confusion,
questioning why. I do not think they were asking
why they were dying, but why they ever lived.
All those who found and were found by the Lord Jesus have a destiny and mission (and sometimes they sense it). Called out of darkness to proclaim the praise of God. Called to be part of what Paul calls “Christ’s body” and then again, called to be Christ’s parts. (1 Corinthians 6:15; Colossians 1:18.) Jesus calls them the light of the world, the salt of the earth and Paul says they are the clay jars in which God has placed his treasure. (2 Corinthians 4:7) They proclaim Jesus’ death and its meaning, they are a priestly kingdom that offers up to God the fruit he bears through their proclamation and they are the community of witness to the resurrected and gloried Lord Jesus.
They haven’t been bribed to serve the Lord Jesus—he drew them and they were assured that they would need to count the cost if they wanted to engage with him in the saving of a world. The Church is the extension of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus and their mission is his and his is theirs and this often has and will continue to cost some of us dearly in this life. There was that in the life of Christ and his mission that led him to say, “Do not suppose that I am come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34.) And then there’s that poignant (and disputed) text that speaks the truth that Jesus often had to go his way alone and in truth, in a real sense he was always alone—he and his Father. “Then each went to his own home. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” (John 7:53—8:1.)
In his play Joan of Arc Bernard Shaw brings to us that profound sense of divine mission and what it could cost. Joan faces a tribunal that is bent on killing her and she knows it. The Archbishop tells her she mustn’t depend on her popularity and that she must remember, “You stand alone, absolutely alone…” Joan’s former friend, Dunois, would like her to go free but hasn’t it in him to make a complete and concerted effort—he chimes in with, “That is the truth, Joan, heed it.” Her response is this:
Where would you all have been now if I had heeded that sort of truth? There is no help, no counsel, in any of you. Yes: I am alone on earth: I have always been alone. My father told my brothers to drown me if I would not stay to mind his sheep while France was bleeding to death: France might perish if only our lambs were safe. I thought France would have friends at the court of the king of France; and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her poor torn body. I thought God would have friends everywhere, because He is the friend of everyone; and in my innocence I believed that you who now cast me out would be like strong towers to keep harm from me. But I am wiser now; and nobody is any the worse for being wiser. Do not think you can frighten me by telling me that I am alone. France is alone; and God is alone; and what is my loneliness before the loneliness of my country and my God? I see now that the loneliness of God is His strength: what would He be if He listened to your jealous little counsels? Well, my loneliness shall be my strength too; it is better to be alone with God; His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor His love. In His strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die. I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours. You will all be glad to see me burnt; but if I go through the fire I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever. And so, God be with me!
Whatever we make of Joan she acted because of an overwhelming sense of destiny and mission and such people are a sight to behold. These people don’t choose, they feel chosen, they don’t debate the matter within; they’re driven. We read that kind of thing in Jeremiah 20:9 when the young man, very upset with God who had given him a single message—a message of doom, a doom that never arrived. The prophet’s peeved and swears he won’t speak another word of the message; but as he passes little knots of people on the street corners and hears what they are saying his message nearly melts him and he has to speak.
Paul has something similar to say. (1 Corinthians 9:16-17 and 2 Corinthians 5:14.) He tells his Corinthian critics, “Don’t think that I choose to preach; I can’t help it. I’m compelled!” Later he will tell them that he has experienced the love of Christ and it has left him no choice but to go tell of it and that’s what drove him all over the Mediterranean world leaving pints of blood on the street of nearly every town he visited.
We’ve heard of men forced by governments, ship owners and brutal captains to go to sea, dragged off against their wills by press-gangs; but that’s only one face of power. We’ve been told too of sailors who had the profound challenge and privilege of sailing with someone like Sir Francis Drake. Back they’d come to their home and speak perhaps to the village butcher about their two-year sail during which they rarely saw land. The butcher would sniff, take come coins out of the till and say to the world traveler, “That’s what I have to show for my two years—hard cash. What do you have to show?”
He’d leave the unimpressed butcher and later we’d see gathered around him farm boys who’d listen to his stories. Not stories about balmy nights when the ship rocked gently in the soft breeze and easy swell, but about raging storms ripping sails to shreds, monster whales and scorching suns. He’d pull off his shirt and show purple scars he got near Madagascar or on some uncharted island where they got water and he fought for his life with a wild boar. Farm boys! Bare-footed farm boys dropped their ploughs and with wide eyes and eager looks would run off to sea, off to toil and pain and adventure.
Holy Father, will you not enter our hearts and drive us beautifully mad with the admiration of that wondrous Holy Son of yours that we—wherever we find our place in life at this time—will say goodbye to needless sameness and the dullness of our lives and career off into life in His name and find the adventure to which you’ve called us? Call us to it and enable us to respond gallantly, thrilled with the truth that He is ever with us. Do it Holy Father for us and your own glorious Name.
WHY CAN’T HE LEAVE US ALONE?
Jesus is to blame. The Christ of the cross is to blame. If it weren’t for him I might be able to find some peace but he and his cross disturb me and won’t let me be content with what I see when I look within and around me. If your loved one is quadriplegic you know that in many ways he or she isn’t physically able to help you care for them and in some sense you adjust to the situation—you expect nothing and in that respect you aren’t disappointed. If you truly believe there’s nothing better to be hoped for in this world I suppose you might rage in your hopelessness or eat, drink (or starve) and die tomorrow; but if hope were dead would there not be some kind of resignation, a reluctant, numbed acceptance of things as they are? Maybe, but would that not be better than vainly hoping? Is that not what the old Greek story means to say in the story of Pandora’s “box”—when she opened the forbidden box everything in it escaped except…hope. And it became the source of torment to all because they could never be content with things as they are.
In an early essay Bertrand Russell said that because we know the truth of human existence—that it’s a pointless accident—we must face it and build a future on “unyielding despair.” Well, it’s into this world, with all its pain, loss, disappointment, loneliness, cruelty, entrenched evils and invincible selfishness that Jesus came, making claims and promising much.
In the first century he offended the Romans and their view of power and empire. He offended the Greeks and their view of God and wisdom. He offended the Jews and their view of God’s faithfulness and their place in his purposes. And he continues to scandalize us all to this day.
The people who care nothing for him—and never did—aren’t affected by him. The crass hedonists think life’s a one way ticket so, to the degree that they can manage it, they party the nights away. Maybe towards the end they think of “fire insurance” (though even that’s not of great concern now). The world can’t be made better—certainly not in their lifetimes—so why worry about it? Get what you can as quick as you can, throw a handful of coins in the direction of the world’s needy during a big public musical concert and get back to the usual partying.
Ignore the tiny churches with their inner squabbles. Or, listen for a while to their squabbles and discover how pathetic they are in the face of the world’s great needs and wrongs, and then go back to the partying. Not a bad philosophy that; a happy life and an endless sleep at the end.
The Jesus of the cross disturbs me in three general areas. There’s the state of the world and the church and my own personal situation.
Jesus is too stubbornly real and I can’t get away from him. Not that I’m trying to, you understand. I neither try to nor want to get away from him but being in his presence and listening to his kingly promises that are written in blood I become impatient with the chaotic, oppressive, confused, rebellious and cruel world. Why hasn’t his sovereignty transformed the world already? As sad-spoken Matthew Arnold said, in the beginning, the tide of faith was fully in and covered the earth like a garment. But now—it would appear—all we hear is the faint sound of its “melancholy long withdrawing roar” as it retreats and leaves bare the naked shingled shores of the world. Sometimes I sorely want the present King of Kings to show himself more powerfully—more powerfully, that is, in the more common understanding of power. I’d like him to obliterate all the oppressive structures of the world—structures that we have neither the desire to destroy nor the strength to do it, supposing we had the desire. And why would we desire it, aren’t we the ones that build them? The state of the world is completely contrary to the Christian’s claim that Jesus is Lord of Lords.
And when I look at the church as a whole and consider how pathetic and weak it is, how self-serving, as it fine-tunes its theology and gorges on rich truth while a world of Lazaruses starves. Not content to draw lines of fellowship in places where the heart of the gospel is attacked, many church leaders insist on keeping us all in separate pens based on the flimsiest differences and call it “defending the faith.” We pay our ministers to “stand for the truth” if they’re willing to stand for the truth that we pay them to stand for.
It’s much easier to believe the too-rich-to-be-fully-grasped doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ in and as whom God revealed himself than it is to believe in the church as it church-shops its way from one assembly to another. And as we shop our first question is not, “What is your gospel here?” it’s, “What programs do you have to suit me here?” At one end of the spectrum we have these primetime hucksters that ceaselessly beg for money to fund their programs (or other hidden things) and on the other there are churches that are offended if there’s talk about sharing our wealth. Time and money is spent on leadership agendas that usually have to do with “making our church grow.” Then there’s the “preaching” [?] that is nothing but a series on sessions filled with secular suggestions on how to fine-tune your marriage or raise nice kids or cultivate nice friends. This kind of “preaching” is done by secularists, agnostics and atheists every bit as well as preachers. It changes nothing that preachers throw in some Bible verses for religious coloration. The Lord Jesus is ignored in the “preaching” for months of suggestions that might be of some use socially.
And then there’s the personal, bitter disappointment with oneself. There are times when you think you see real progress and then like a bolt of lightning and a thunderclap events expose your heart—it’s seems as shriveled as ever it was even after years of longing for better. Just when you think you’ve experienced significant growth you’re brought face to face with outrageous meanness or corruption or bitterness that pours out of you. Then you understand what Dorothy Sayers was getting at when she wrote:
I am battered and broken and weary and out of heart,
I will not listen to talk of heroic things,
But be content to play some simple part,
Freed from preposterous, wild imaginings…
Men were not made to walk as priests and kings.
Thou liest, Christ, Thou liest; take it hence,
That mirror of strange glories; I am I;
What wouldst Thou make of me? O cruel pretense,
Drive me not mad so with the mockery
Of that most lovely, unattainable lie!
And for a while—a day, a week, a month, a year—you sulk and snarl and prowl. Then you see him! He’s always been there; you just didn’t notice during that wretched period. You see him looking at you with those big eyes of his, calm and compelling, and as he moves away he looks back and motions with his head, “You comin’?”
Why can’t he leave us alone?
Why can’t we who have met him leave him alone?