Sunday, November 21, 2004

He Has Echoed to Us

I'm still reflecting on Rowan Williams' message. Today it is the following paragraph that leaps out at me;

Human beings are wrapped up in themselves. Because of that great primitive betrayal that we call the Fall of humanity, we are all afraid of God and the world and our real selves in some degree. We can't cope with the light. As John's gospel says, those who don't want to respond to God fear and run away from the light. But God acts to heal us, to bring us out of our isolation - which is as bizarre and self-destructive as that young man beating his head against the wall. And he does this in a way that is just like the therapist in the video. He does what we do; he is born, he grows up, he lives for many years a life that is ordinary and prosaic like ours - he works, he eats, he sleeps. Here is ultimate love, complete holiness, made real in a back street in a small town. And when he begins to do new and shocking things, to proclaim the Kingdom, to heal, to forgive, to die and rise again - well, we shouldn't panic and run away because we have learned that we can trust him. We know he speaks our language, he has responded to our actions and our words, he has echoed to us what we are like.
This is powerful, and true for many people. I've been thinking about another aspect of this echoing, however. Forgive me as I take this excellent message and run with it in a possibly completely tangential direction.

The Archbishop says, "...we are all afraid of God and the world and our real selves in some degree. We can't cope with the light." There is another segment of humanity, a segment I think Jesus knew quite well, who don't deny the light out of fear, but out of feelings of unworthiness. The mirror that has been held before them; the world that has surrounded them for most of their lives, is a dark, harsh one, in which the shutters are fastened tight to block out the light. These are the ones who since childhood have received the message, the echo, that they are not fit for the light. They are driven into the dark not by fear, but by shame.

There is a world that exists within the dark that many never glimpse. Fear is not a primary concern in this realm. Having nothing left to lose, there is little for which to be afraid. Raging against the dark is common, as is a nihilistic response, but not fear.

Probably the best example of the place I'm trying to describe can be found in Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat, by far her best work, imo. The first in this series, Interview with a Vampire, introduces us to Louis, who is a rather wimpy vampire, and is indeed driven by his fears. We get a constant monologue from him about how terrible it all is; avoiding sunlight, drinking blood, being immortal; it's so tough being one of the undead. Lestat, on the other hand, decides that if this is his fate, he will make the most out of it. And here is the amazing thing Rice does; through Lestat, she reveals that even on the dark side, even among those denied the light, there are ethical choices to be made, and those choices matter very much.

I met many young men in reform school and jail that had resigned themselves to a life lived on the dark side. I was one of them. The echo we heard from the significant adults in our lives was that we were "bad boys." And so we were. We grew up to be bad men. This was our place. This was our fate. We knew that there was something different, something missing in us, and we accepted this flaw. Some of us blamed God. Most of us simply assumed that we had been rejected by God, just as we had been rejected by society. We weren't hiding in the darkness; the dark places were all that we knew. And in that place, we created our own world that was indeed full of ethical choices that mattered. There was some goodness (although we wouldn't have called it such; honor or duty maybe), but those moments were tiny pinholes in the cocoon of darkness that enfolded us.

Let me move on before this becomes mistaken for yet another sob story. What I'm trying to point out is that we often think it is the norm for people to be conscious of their good qualities, and bury their bad ones. There are those among us in which the opposite is the reality; they know their own dark side, but are only vaguely aware of their positive attributes. For them, the darkness is the reality, and the light is a facade at best, and a cruel con job at worst.

A turning point in my life came shortly after I turned 18. I was in jail for trying to outrun the police in my car. It turns out that regardless of how much horsepower you have, you can't outrun the radio. I had been arrested numerous times as a juvenile, but this was my first experience of jail. I wasn't treated like a "bad boy" this time. I was an animal that needed to be put in a cage. I didn't like it.

One warm day, while sitting on my bunk, a breeze came floating through the window. I muttered aloud, "That feels so good!" I started rolling around that word, "good," over and over in my head. What is good? How do I know the difference between good and bad? It suddenly dawned on me that if I could identify something as "good" externally, there might just be some point of reference internally. Maybe I could be a "good" man. I thought of the brief examples, the echoes, of goodness I had known through my life; my grandparents, a teacher here and there, and many kind strangers. Maybe it was really that simple; to make a conscious choice to just keep doing "the next right thing."

That was 32 years ago. I haven't been put in a cage since the moment of making that simple realization (well, except for a couple of hours in North Carolina for driving without a license with out of state plates, but that's another story).

To step fully into the light took a spiritual transformation. That was a slow journey over the next ten years, and is also another story for another time. The first step was a conscious decision to seek the light, even if I didn't deserve it, and wasn't sure how to find it, and was still a bit skeptical as to if it even existed. The first step was made on faith; not faith in God, but faith in the living examples of goodness I had encountered in my life.

I've returned to the home of my youth a few times over the years. Most of my friends are gone. Three of my closest friends are dead. One is in a state hospital. Two were in the penitentiary last I heard. They never escaped that dark place. I suspect some of them never knew that leaving it was even an option.

In the Gospels, we see Jesus spending an awful lot of time with outcasts; those who society may have considered unredeemable. As I read about these encounters, I don't see a lot of judgmentalism. Instead, I see Jesus looking for the goodness within each one, and echoing that goodness, drawing it out, as he woos them into the light.

The last thing a person who is lost in the dark needs is for someone to stand in the light and yell, "Hey, you! You're lost in the dark!" Well, duh. They know that. And, even though it might not be a pleasant place, it is a familiar one that they have learned to accept as their destiny. What they need is someone who knows the darkness well, so well that he or she won't get lost in it, to enter that dark place, guided by the light of Christ, and woo those they find into stepping into the light by seeking the goodness within them and echoing it.

For those who have lived their lives in the light, maybe pointing out their sins might be an effective method to help them see their need for God. It is not effective for those lost in the dark. They know they're sinners, that they're "bad boys." Pointing it out simply echoes the messages that caused them to withdraw in the first place, and may even drive them deeper into the darkness. They know they are damaged goods. They know they are unworthy. They know they deserve to suffer, and even die. They need a reason to live; a reason to hope. They need the healing touch of God's unconditional love.

How do we start? By not writing anyone off. I cannot stand that cliche, "Except for the grace of God, there go I." No! When I see a homeless man, there I go! When I encounter an angry young man, he is part of who I am. When I visit someone in jail, I am looking into a mirror. My salvation is yoked to their salvation. The only way I can continue to overcome my darkness is to bring light into their world.

The light is the reality. The darkness is simply its absence. The way I stay firmly planted in the light, in reality, is to follow Jesus Christ, who has declared me worthy, in spite of my dark side. That acceptance, that unconditional love, is what I understand we who claim the title Christian are called to manifest. We are the bearers of the light of Christ in the world today.

May the light of Christ, enkindled within our hearts, shine forth in our lives.


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