The Road to Grace: Transparency

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace

Hoh rainforest
We’ve been discussing some of the core principles of how the Christian faith works — not by adhering to a new set of moral dictates or rules to follow, but by undergoing a transaction which begins with forgiveness and judicial innocence, empowered by a profound inner change, a new inner man which draws us toward the fulfillment of new purpose and direction, aligned with God’s will. This inner transformation creates conflict, as the habits and strongholds of a lifetime of self-will do not die easily. While our course is being realigned toward a new direction, our free will remains fully intact — and often quite committed to the comfortable and convenient paths which, while hoary and familiar, still prove destructive and counter-productive.

Some of these old patterns change quickly under the assault of grace and the insight and changed motives of our new life. But many are stubborn — fortified fortresses, hewn from heavy stones, built up over many years as survival skills for coping with the pain and emptiness which is the hallmark of the self-centered life. These challenges take many forms: bitter resentments; irrational fears; addictions in their many forms; compulsive deceitfulness; rage and anger; arrogance, condescension, manipulation, and many other manifestations of our self-centered, self-serving dispositions. Many Christians falter while assaulting these lofty walls, throwing themselves repeatedly against their bulwarks in futility and frustration, only to fail yet again.

But not all meet these insurmountable challenges with frustration and failure. Some — almost ironically, those most profoundly defeated by these very assaults — find another way — a way which turns their very defeats into powerful, yet humble, victories. They find in their brokenness, wholeness; in their hopelessness, hope; in their shattering, salvation and strength. It is a victory not achievable by force of determination or strength of will; its power lies in utter defeat, sanctified and empowered by the embrace of grace.

One of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith is this: those who are most profoundly defeated are best equipped to help others suffering these same defeats. No one helps an alcoholic like a recovering alcoholic; no one can touch and comfort one mired in depression like one who has experienced that dark hell themselves — and transcended it through grace. We are afflicted that others may be healed.

There is in today’s culture a toxic strain of Christianity, a bastard born of a great faith incestuously whored with the shallow nihilism of obscenely prosperous materialism, which teaches that we should all be wealthy, all be healed, all be delivered from every difficulty by a simple word of faith or healing prayer. But quick-fix Christianity is a Golden Calf, an empty shell of a faith made great not by wealth and comfort but by the suffering of its saints. We are delivered to deliver others; it is our pain which purchases true freedom.

There is no easy path on the road to grace; indeed, we will never choose willingly those roads which lead to deliverance. The signs will point downward when we wish to go up; they will lead to narrow ledges and steep cliffs when the easy roads seem broad and safe. It is perilous to travel these pathways alone: Christianity is a journey of companions. The path will never be the same for any of us — but those markers which guide us have been placed by many pilgrims who have gone before.

Christianity promises to be the triumph of light over darkness: “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” But beyond this compelling imagery, what exactly does this imply? The Christian often conceptualizes this luminance as transpiring in the realm of the intellectual: we have, as a result of our recreated life, a deeper understanding of right and wrong, a fresh appreciation for the things of God and the destructiveness of sin. We “see the light,” in the sense of insight, thought, and moral compass.

But the light which casts its brilliance upon us is not merely confined to the mind, for the mind is quick to rationalize and deceive, all too eager to accommodate and justify that which is both dark and destructive. The true power of the light of Christianity shines most brightly in a most frightening place — the place of transparency.

At the heart of our displacement from God, our existential angst, lives the dark angel which goes by the name of shame. While often confused and conflated with guilt, shame is not about behavior which violates a standard — the essence of guilt — but about an inner worthlessness, an empty and terrifying conviction that we are unclean, rejected, contemptible, and hopelessly flawed. To gaze upon this terrifying truth is to stand face to face with destruction, to suffer the catastrophic rejection of any and all who might glimpse our ghastly secret.

This terror drives us, a vicious and merciless master, energizing and engendering a host of fortifications which shroud the secret while simultaneously lending power to its dark dominance. The engine of shame drives before it an endless train of ragged, wretched slaves: condescension and arrogance; fears of every kind; manipulation and control; rage; lust; obsessive and compulsive behaviors conscripted to distract from the death within and kill its ungodly pain.

When these feeble defenses are finally stripped away, as their utility spectacularly fails in some life catastrophe, sundering our lives apart, we come at last to the point of grace: our shame becomes exposed, a gruesome corpse no longer hidden in its shallow grave, its decaying limbs uncovered by the torrential storms of life. The alcoholic hits bottom; the marriage ends abruptly and unexpectedly; a child dies; financial disaster strikes. Whatever the crisis, whatever the circumstances, we come to a point where there is nowhere to fall but into the arms of a graceful and gracious God.

It is at this moment we finally become honest with God, even while enraged at the injustice He has allowed to befall us. It is a severe mercy, a crucifixion not sought yet divinely ordained. Our rage at God is nothing if not honest — indeed, it may prove to be the first honest thing we have done in many a day.

Yet to be honest with God alone — whether in anger, or desperation, or fear, or faith — is to but glimpse the beginning of a transparency which transforms. If we are to seek out the fullness of grace, and find the redeeming and transforming power which grace alone can bring, we must do something else, something far more frightening: we must share our darkest inner lives with others.

Uncomfortable yet? You should be.

The recoil and horror you feel at this prospect is natural — it is the reflexive response of years of defending the darkness, pandering to its relentless demands as it strangles the lifeblood from us. It is the reluctance to have surgery though the cancer will kill you, the end of a deadly dance whose suffocating embrace is asphyxiating your soul.

Such work cannot be done alone. Transparency with God alone is not adequate to the strongholds which enslave us in ways both brutal and ruthless. We must expose our inner selves, our shame, our failings, our fealty to evil — and we must do so with another human being.

The Church exists for a reason: it is the body of Christ on earth. This is not merely a theoretical or theological construct, but a crucial fact: we are the hands, heart, eyes and ears of Christ on earth. Flawed, fallen, feckless, failing, to be sure — yet chosen by God to be very instrument whereby He brings healing and wholeness to its members. The Church is not merely choir members singing hymns, or liturgy, or sermons on Sunday; it is a hospice, a hospital, the tangible instrument whereby Christ, having touched our brokenness with healing grace, uses our very failings as the surgeon’s knife, the lenitive balm to restore and rescue others. Redemption — to be “purchased back” its core meaning — is not just about saving our selves, but salving the souls of others. In the upside-down, counter-intuitive paradox which is the kingdom of grace, our very diseases bring healing to others. The toxic illness which is self-will run riot is broken — and after it is hopelessly shattered and utterly worthless, only then is repurchased by God, at full price, and made into something of great wonder.

When we begin to open our souls to another, our agonized words find common ground in their experience, not only in the depths of our pain but in hope for our deliverance. Our secret shame finds not judgment, but understanding; not criticism but gentle correction; not rejection but relationship with another who has walked these same dark paths and found restoration and wholeness at their end.

Transparency: what you see on the outside is what resides on the inside.

It is, in its simplicity, terrifying yet profoundly liberating. It must be done with wisdom: it is not wise to cast our swine before pearls. Quite often, it will not be found in those who are most religiously righteous. If you look carefully, however, you will find those whose grace and humility bespeak the chrysalis of a new life arisen from brokenness.

Seek them out, and take a risk. You will never look back.

Getting to Grace

Fourth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace

 
mountain sunsetWe’ve spent some time recently on relatively heavy-duty topics — like justification, sanctification, and grace — as we’ve explored Christianity as a faith founded on grace and mercy rather than obligation and judgment. Most non-Christians — and far too many Christians, unfortunately — view the Christian faith as a set of rules to follow, a collection of obligations which must be met to “keep God happy.” But it’s not just laws and legalism, but rather a profound inner change of direction and orientation which radically changes the spirit — and leaves the mind and the will stumbling and fumbling behind as they struggle to do in their own power that which they are incapable of achieving.

How do we in practice, in the daily grind of sweat and swearing, facilitate the transformation of the whole being which is the ultimate goal in starting down this path?

For me, it comes down to a simple calculus: what makes me do what I do?

You see, if my goal is to have my thoughts and actions aligned with those of God — when they have spent life running hard in the opposite direction — then something quite essential has to change: my motivation. It has been my experience that the grit-your-teeth-and-just-do-it! approach just doesn’t cut it. Sure, I can muster up will power to bludgeon down the gates of heaven, trudging on for a while doing the “right thing,” but that gets very old and very cold before very long at all.

I’ve concluded that, in essence, I do things in life for one of two reasons: I do them because I have to, or I do them because I want to.

Now, all the shrinks and psychologists out there may be excused, before they start bringing up Oedipus complexes, anal retentiveness, the Id, and a host of other Freudian mechanisms which, frankly, hold little or no interest for me — not because they may not have some influence on me (they may well, but color me skeptical that human motivation is so primitive, brutal, and simplistic), but because they are of no practical value in the day-to-day decision-making that makes up the brunt of life.

So let’s keep it simple: if I’m doing something, I’m doing it because I want to, or because I have to. And sure, there’s a lot of overlap here — I often enjoy many of the things which I am obligated to do. And, this may surprise you: I find that doing things I like is always easier than doing things I must .

This is why, for me, a faith which is all about rules and obligations is so very hard to follow, and ultimately doomed to failure. My natural gravity is this: I like doing the things which are destructive for me and which separate me from God — they seem to be rather hard-wired within. On the other hand, I really don’t want to do “good things” — things which draw me closer to God — because I don’t believe they will make me happy, or benefit me, or they seem too difficult: they are a chore and a bore, best avoided. To my way of thinking, I will be quite happy when I get what I want — and when this doesn’t satisfy, well, then I simply need more of what I want.

And herein lies the miracle of grace: the inner transformation of forgiveness and new life have the power to make me want to do the things which draw me nearer to God — the things I previously had no interest whatsoever in doing. And once I find myself doing such things, motivated out of an inner desire to do them, rather than a crushing obligation of rules and law, I begin to experience the rewards of acting in concert with the purposes of God.

And my life begins to get better, and happier, and a whole lot more peaceful.

It’s the damnedest thing. Really. But it really works.

What is going on in this process is not a repudiation of free will, a blind robotic submission to some nebulous deity; it is rather a confluence of wills. I freely choose to do that which I know to be the right thing, despite my natural reluctance to do so — and find in the doing that the choice opens to me a new experience of God, a new pleasure and satisfaction in doing those things which, despite my innate reticence and selfish reluctance, actually bring about a deep sense of satisfaction, purpose, and joyfulness.

The process works, in my experience, through a series of steps:

♦ Insight & conviction: As I discussed previously, the inner transformation of grace occurs first in the spirit, then percolates up through mind and soul. There comes a rather sudden awareness that certain behaviors, thoughts, actions, and attitudes are no longer okay. Call this conviction, call it conscience, call it dis-ease, call it guilt if you will (a word widely ridiculed in a culture which glories in the shameful, decadent, and destructive). It is a sense of uncomfortableness which acts as as a warning sign, a guidepost which gently alerts you that you’re off course, and acts an inducement to change.

♦ Repentance: The dis-ease triggered by wandering off course triggers a desire to change, to correct the error and get back on track. The will kicks into action, determined to act, think, or speak differently.

♦ Confession and forgiveness: We acknowledge to God that we have wandered away, and offended Him — not because He is a jealous tyrant trying to spoil our fun, but because He is determined in love to draw us closer to Him, and our own actions have ultimate harmed us by separating us from His love and grace.

For many of our character flaws, this sequence brings significant change: the desire to pursue the destructive and hurtful behaviors intrinsic to our old way of life lessens, and often disappears altogether. It becomes easier and more natural to do those things which make our life more peaceful and purposeful, as the new way of living becomes normal and natural. Change comes from the inside out, and with it considerable joy and contentment.

Would that it were always this easy.

Before long we stumble upon the more difficult moral challenges in life, the strongholds which are deeply entrenched in our souls, the behaviors and failures which we seem unable to overcome, despite our growing awareness of how hurtful they are to ourselves and others, and how destructive to a deepening relationship with God. We run through the drill, repeatedly: failure, conviction, repentance, confession, recommitment. Wash, rinse, repeat — endlessly, with no apparent progress and increasing discouragement as the new life seems increasingly powerless and frustrating.

The power of Christianity, the new inner life which transforms, often seems incapable of overcoming such roadblocks. These strongholds may be many: excessive fears; inability to trust; anger and rage; greed and materialism; sexual addictions and compulsions; drug and alcohol abuse; compulsive eating, or gambling, or a host of other destructive habits and obsessions. Many of these arise from deep wounds sustained in life: abuse, abandonment, childhood or adult trauma; severe physical or mental disabilities. Some are even inborn or inherited, such as alcoholism or obesity. Their enslavement seems total, even insurmountable; the journey to wholeness which Christianity promises so often runs aground on their jagged rocks and shallow shoals.

Yet these, too, can be vanquished. These, too, can be not merely conquerable, but will become instruments in the hands of a gracious God to bring extraordinary change, not only within us, but for many others around us.

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This was spoken, not only of Christ, but of us: our greatest liabilities can become extraordinary assets in the hands of grace.

But be forewarned: the journey over these jagged crags is a terrifying one — but it is the only way out of the prison. Be prepared to lose all you treasure, and more.

And be prepared to gain vastly more than you bargained for. Getting to grace is a hazardous path — and the most exciting journey you’ll ever take.

The Sword of Grace

Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace

 
sword of graceWe struggled through some intimidating “God-words” — justification and sanctification — in my previous post, and in the process I lost both of my regular readers, leaving but a few wandering insomniacs whose Ambien prescription had just run short. For those now drifting back, whose eyes are just now unglazing, I touched on something of how Christianity works — or doesn’t, for many who have tread its well-worn path.

If nothing else, I hope for those who endured that irreverent review, that there arose at least a glimpse of the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Christianity is not merely another framework of moral codes by which to live. It is not comprised solely of the teachings of a charismatic leader, urging compliance to please or placate God or promulgating some hidden wisdom. It asserts at its very heart an outrageous claim: that those who relinquish their right to self-centered autonomy by submitting to God through the specific and exclusive portal of Christ will become judicially guiltless before their Creator. It further claims — perhaps even more outrageously — by this act to re-create the person so submitting, in a manner so thorough and profound that the individual can no longer be thought of as the same person who existed prior to that moment of choice and submission.

Yet if these claims are true, if this transformation be as radical and profound as its teachings and proponents assert, why then are those who lay hold of this conviction seemingly so little different from others who have not undergone this metamorphosis? If Christians are utterly transformed in the depth of their beings, why do they struggle and fail so often to be outwardly transformed as they should inevitably be by such a tectonic shift of the soul?

I was afraid you were going to ask that.

And I would be presumptuous and foolish to pretend that I have simple answers; I do not. What I do have is experience — the experience of many years of walking the Christian life, with stunning successes which proved all too fleeting, and disastrous failures which made a mockery of the high calling and lofty precepts of the convictions I hold dear. And I have shared this journey and experiences with many others, both past and present, whose path while wildly different in particulars is indistinguishable at its core.

What exactly is the nature of this transformation, this re-creation, which lays claim to a man in such mysterious manner? It is perhaps best described by what it is not.

It is not simply a change in thinking, a new perspective, a different set of opinions or a new worldview. If anything, the mind is the last bastion of resistance to its influence, and often the greatest enemy of the very change needed to transform the whole of one’s being.

It is not simply an emotional experience. Although emotions may be powerfully affected, emotions often serve to inhibit or distract from true progress, and are notoriously unreliable guides to its course.

It is not simply a change of the will, a setting of a new direction and discipline to achieve new goals and improve one’s life. The will, indeed, must be conquered, shackled, broken like a wild stallion to suit the purposes of this new Master. The will becomes but servant — rebellious, recalcitrant, resistant, remorseless, fighting its new overlord at every turn.

It is not simply a change of heart — although the heart lies closest to the seat of change, and senses its arrival before all else.

It is perhaps best described as a genesis; an arid fountainhead bursting forth with fresh spring water; an ancient stygian chamber shot through with dazzling shafts of light; a Phoenix arising from the ashes of the heart. There is a primordial recess in the soul of man, a silent sarcophagus unheralded and unseen, which springs to life like the burst of new flora at winter’s demise, when this dawn first breaks.

Thus is the experience of this new creation — but it is far more than mere renewal. It is as well — unexpectedly, surprisingly — a force of sedition with an unassailable foothold in a hostile land, seeking to undermine and overturn the tyranny of self with the sword of grace.

We are now at war. “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.”

Its effects are immediate, and often profound. There is a new vision, a grasp of things formerly hidden, a new light disclosing much which was cloaked in darkness, a profound and unbounded joy of discovery, and purpose, and optimism. We glory in the glint of sunlight reflecting off the helmets of our soldiers, marching in perfect unison, their colorful regalia stirring our hearts with visions of triumphant victory.

The reality is soon discovered to be starkly different. The cratered carnage of the battlefield, littered with the detritus of battles fought bravely but foolishly, sobers the spirit and saps the strength. The victory we hoped to be swift and painless now seems pyhrric if not pointless. Yet the failures are themselves at the point of the sword — they are, paradoxically, the means to triumph.

When a man becomes new in his spirit, he has engaged the very power of God in an irrevocable union whose outcome will be the full restoration of the purpose and relationship intended — by design — between the Creator and His creation. But the love which such a relationship demands must be utterly free, and hence the will and actions of man must be left unfettered and without coercion. This will, long subsumed to the service of self, must ultimately be turned to harmonious submission to the will of God, which desires, in freedom, the full integration of the new man into the wholeness and purpose of God’s design.

Though the inner change brought about by submission to God and our judicial pardon is profound, the mind and the will are steeped in a toxic brew of lifelong slavery to self. We have years of destructively pursuing that which seems right to us — of deceiving ourselves and others about our true thoughts and motives; of addictions and obsessions and hardened habits which have served to mitigate the pain and emptiness which our ego-enlargement have ultimately wrought. We lie to cover the shame; we react in anger, and resentment, and rage to cover the fears: fears of exposure and moral nakedness; fears of rejection; fears of failure; fears of existential insignificance. The sex, the booze, the pursuit of money and prestige, the materialism — all are exploited in search of integration and meaning, all leading only to more emptiness, more pain, more meaninglessness — and more of the same behaviors, over and over, endlessly.

Before our transformation, we are in a sense of one mind: this is the only life we know, the only tools we have at hand. Our inner and outer selves are on the same page, though the story is going nowhere and the final chapter looks bleak.

After our inner selves are transformed, however, the old contrivances no longer find consonance within; they find, instead, dis-ease. Our spirits are forging forward on a separate journey, and there is increasing tension between a mind and a will committed to failed, destructive solutions and an inner being seeking truth and wholeness.

We react to the inner discord our old life engenders with the tools we know best: we try, using knowledge, and effort, and will power, and discipline, to change the thoughts and actions we now know to be destructive. And we succeed — at first.

Sort of.

The behavior changes, but the thoughts and desires linger. The appearance improves, but the inner demons remain — if anything, they grow stronger, as each failure is a new victory for an old life. The struggle is draining and painful, disheartening and exhausting, as old habits persist and even prosper. With each failure, renewed commitment; with each relapse, new resolve. With each sortie, stalemate. Again. And again. And again.

And this, surprisingly, is exactly as it should be.

The mind and the will, unaided by grace, have no power to conquer the forces which bind them. They must be broken. There can be no resurrection of the dead until the dead be shown incapable of resurrection.

At some point in this long and fruitless journey, a juncture is reached. The wheels are coming off the car, and we’ve tired of pushing the pedal ever harder. It is a moment of choice: to resign ourselves to our old life, embrace our failure, and drown out the quiet pleadings of that inner voice; or submit, yet again, broken, falling headlong into the arms of grace, which alone can conquer that which is vastly larger than our feeble wills and darkened minds can overcome.

The sword of grace has slayed yet another stronghold of the old life. Another small parcel of the tyranny of self has been repurchased. We have been given what we could not gain by our own efforts, regardless how determined.

Cheer up. There are many more such battles ahead.

How then do we appropriate this liberating grace, this victory through surrender? There is no formula, for formulas are the haven of fools. But there are answers. The answers, I have found, are always simple — and never easy.

But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.

Back soon, God bless.

On Miracles: Jesus of the Pagans

Third part of an ongoing series on the problem of miracles, and evidence for the Resurrection:

  1. The Problem of Miracles
  2. On Miracles: The Historical Jesus

 
It has been said that Christianity is the only religion which traces its origins to the humiliation of its God. As followers of its crucified leader dispersed widely after its germinal events, traveling great distances from a remote corner of the Empire over dusty Roman roads, they indeed told a tale bizarre in every respect. How ludicrous the story of a God made man; who worked miracles among men; who suffered the most heinous execution the Romans could devise. A man who, if these fables be factual, arose from the dead, utterly transforming the lives of all who saw Him — these same men who audaciously claimed to be eyewitnesses to this mysterious manifestation.

The people of the ancient world were no strangers to quixotic stories, to endless tales of gods and goddesses, myths and magic. Rome in its pragmatic wisdom absorbed them all, with their blood rites and orgies, their asceticism and temple prostitutes. Such tolerance kept the Empire unified and the conquered content; no sense risking unrest and rebellion over senseless fantasies.

Such legends amused and titillated, and their rituals provided feeble comfort in a brutal world ruled by heartless Fate. Yet Christianity was not merely another imagined tale of jealous gods and devious deities, but carried in its implausible story a spark fully absent from pagan fables: the flicker of hope in hopeless darkness, of purpose in a world chained and weighted to emptiness and futility. This spark fell upon the dry straw of a desperate world, and started a conflagration which reshaped that world in ways unimaginable.
Continue reading “On Miracles: Jesus of the Pagans”

Deep Waters

The following essay was originally posted in June 2005. The story is a true one, although the names have been changed.

 
Lake ClarkThey say that hell is hot. Sometimes, though, it is very, very cold.

Jim loved Alaska–it had been his home since birth. God’s country: wild, unpredictable, spectacular in beauty–there was no place like it on earth. Cities were a necessary evil, with their services and surliness, but out in the wild was where life could be found. Out among the glaciers, the ragged mountains framing the endless blue sky like jagged, broken glass, out where grizzlies snatched salmon from raging rapids, shortening their march to death as they fought wild currents to reach their spawning grounds. Out where eagles graced the sky, soaring above green fir spires and spotless snow fields. Out where God lived, where a man could see His hand, and hear His voice.

Jim lived a simple life of simple faith. He loved his wife as he loved the land, and together they were blessed with six children–three older girls, the twin boys, and a baby son their most recent gift. Each was a treasure greater than the next. Their lives were story book: The lodge they owned nestled near the shores of Lake Clark, a large inland glacial sea, mirroring the snow-peaked mountains surrounding it. Summers were busy–hunting and fishing tours, visitors from afar seeking trophies and photographs, decked in newly-purchased gear from REI in the lower 48. Jim loved to fly–the float planes lifted gracefully from the lake, carrying their awestruck passengers over endless miles of breathtaking beauty to some far-away stream where tied flies touched water and fish broke airborne for their last meal.

Out in the bush, relationships were few in number but rich and deep. Church was more than a Sunday obligation–it was a place where life was shared, joys celebrated, suffering comforted–a place where faith begot works, where love put on snowshoes and helped stack the winter’s wood. Family life was alive, ripe with blueberries picked, hikes to the falls, and quiet nights beside campfires. Summers passed quickly at Bible camp, concentric ripples of cannonballs and giggles of joy rolling across the lake from the old dock. Dates with dad and high tea with mom found no competition from mindless cartoons, and bedtime prayers thanked Jesus for His goodness and God for His gifts.

Winter was time for quiet reflection, as the short days and deep snows kept sportsmen far away, and school and indoor chores made the time pass slowly but with purpose. The plane was their lifeline: what few roads there were became impassible in deep snow, and flights to Anchorage a necessity for supplies and health care. The girls came along often, although the younger boys stayed with friends and relatives for lack of space.

Jim had tens of thousands of hours of flying experience, a skill which paid rich dividends in the harsh, capricious winters of south Alaska–there was little in the way of flying conditions he had not challenged and mastered. So this flight to Anchorage in February was a pleasant surprise: the low gray skies broke open to display the rare winter glory of sunshine on pristine snowfields, the glorious tinted rim of Alaska Range peaks and deep seas of Cook Inlet. The supplies garnered and the girls’ dental care completed, they took off for the return flight to home and hearth.

The storm struck without warning, a white she-devil blown in from the Gulf, the Cessna buffeted by sharp, hard winds as visibility and ceiling dropped precipitously. The instruments held true, and countless hours of difficult flying forged Jim’s nerves steely and his focus intent. Mom held the girls’ hands, distracting them from natural fears with songs and stories and heads held to breast, her own pounding heart betraying her calm demeanor. “Will we be OK, mommy?” “Jesus will bring us home, honey.”

The GPS told Jim they were indeed near home–the lighthouse in space beaconing safety and rest. By reckoning they should be near the lake, just a few miles out from the landing strip. But Nature had not finished yet, her rage reserved for one final blow.

A whiteout in a small plane is dreadful beyond imagining. Suspended between earth and sky, with no point of reference, no sense of up or down, sensory deprivation in a aluminum rocket. Your training trusts your instruments, but instinct and eyes scream for visual confirmation. There! On the right! Through a brief window in the suffocating white blindfold, a dark line: the outline of the lake shore. Jim banked the plane toward this beacon of hope. “Are we home yet, daddy?” “Almost there, honey.”

But wild Nature held one last vengeance: an atypical winter thaw had opened a long dark crack in the ice, normally frozen solid in February. The line Jim saw was not the shore. The plane hit water at airspeed.

The prop and windshield exploded. The cabin filled instantly with icy water, as Jim craned his neck to reach the fast-retreating air, still restrained by his harness. Years of wilderness training sprung to life, as without a thought he grabbed his Bowie and cut free the webbing. He struggled with the girls’ restraints, hopelessly locked between seats crumpled by the impact. His wife was nowhere to be seen. Time was up–the air was gone. He broke from the cabin, gasping for air at the surface, hoping to dive and try again to free his treasures. It was not to be: the plane sank like a millstone, 600 feet to the bottom of the frozen fjord, entombing the family he worshiped.

In shock, he looked around. His wife, by some miracle, thrown from the plane at impact, had struggled to the surface and clung to a floating berg. Spared from a frigid tomb, they stood on a fragile shelf of thin and breaking ice. Over two miles from the shore, clothing soaked through in sub-zero temperatures, their survival was still a loser’s bet. Slowly they worked their way shoreward, breaking through the ice at times, body temperatures dropping despite their exhausting physical efforts. Guided by some hand unseen, they finally fell exhausted on shore, finding shelter in an empty lodge. Blinded by cold and head trauma sustained in the crash, Jim was led into the cabin by his wife, who cut off his frozen clothes and started a fire.

Friends awaiting their arrival grew anxious, and the Air National Guard was called. A Pavehawk helicopter–battling the same merciless weather–located the crash site, and ultimately reached them at the cabin. Even then, they could not be evacuated, as conditions grounded the rescue helicopter until morning. A friend flew a Piper cub–braving the same horrendous storm–to bring arctic sleeping bags and warm food. Bravery, love, and duty had spared their lives.

Months passed. Physical healing came quickly, but the rawness of heart wept like an open sore, gently salved by friends and faith, prayers and potlucks, tears and thankfulness. The boys were precious as never before, but the emptiness of heart left by a lost child cannot be filled. The rage at God passes–slowly–as strength flows from trust born of countless old decisions to set aside self and act in faith. But the memories remain–the laughter lost, the peace of a sleeping child, the love of a flower picked, the unexpected hug. There is no answer to “why?“–only time, and trust, and talk, and the tender whispering of a gentle Spirit. Yet one haunting regret refused to die: the vasectomy Jim had undergone after their last son–expeditious at the time, financially prudent–was now a self-imposed prison in a home filled with people, yet achingly empty.

And so they sat in my office, seeking my skills to restore what no man should be asked to provide–hope and happiness. And they told their story, my heart aching with each small detail disclosed. Jim was a man of enormous character and strength, his wife still bearing the unspeakable pain on her face–yet there was no shame in the tears that welled up in their eyes. As I gently probed deeper with almost unseemly curiosity, I was drawn in by the most remarkable revelation: these two would stand. Theirs was a strength not merely of hardiness, or training, or steely denial hiding a dying heart, but of power beyond the means of any mortal. They had faced the hell that men fear even to consider, and conquered it. There was glory in their weeping, victory in their agony. They would never be alone, and never be defeated. I, the proud expert, felt strangely insignificant in their presence.

The surgery went well, and early recovery smoothly. As I spoke with Jim before he left for home, he talked about the girls who had loved their daddy and whom he still loved so deeply. “You know, if I could fly to heaven and bring them back, they would not want to come. Their happiness is complete, ours still unfulfilled. Jesus has indeed brought them home.”

The Engine of Shame – Part I

This essay, the first of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
 

Steam locomotiveA wise friend–a man who helped me emerge from a period of considerable difficulty in my life–once taught me a simple lesson. In less than a minute, he handed me a gift which I have spent years only beginning to understand, integrating it into my life with agonizing slowness. It is a lesson which intellect cannot grasp or resolve, which faith only begins to illuminate–a simple principle which I believe lies close to the root of the human condition.

My friend taught me a simple distinction: the difference between guilt and shame.

While you no doubt think I am devolving into the linguistic morass of terminal psychobabble, I ask you to stick with me for a few moments. What you may discover is a key to understanding religion, terrorism, social ills such as crime and violence–and why the jerk in the next cubicle pushes your buttons so often.
Continue reading “The Engine of Shame – Part I”