On Gentleness

I had an ugly fight with my brother the other day.

Fueled by a desperation born of stubbornness and pain, the argument looked a lot like something terribly uncomfortable Jesus once said: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me” (Matthew 10:34-37).

Or bother or sister. Family members, my brother and I, cutting against each other…and what was the source of this ugliness? Jesus Himself.

Here’s how the fight looked: I relentlessly battered my brother with a gospel-mallet of what I thought was love, but looked a lot more like lunacy, and he repelled my onslaught with grenades of anger and doubt. It was a hotly contested spiritual battle, with no obvious “winner.” Quite the opposite, in fact; when he called me a phony, I retreated outside to the great dark sky, my safe place, and he stormed off to bed, both of us feeling wounded and raw, but neither one willing to come to the other’s “side.”

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Speaking of lunacy, C.S. Lewis once famously said this about Jesus: in evaluating what Jesus claimed He was, what He said about Himself, we are left with only three options we can decide Him to be –  lunatic, liar, or Lord.

The “Mad, Bad, or God” argument goes like this (I will not even attempt to paraphrase Lewis; his words are strong and clean and infinitely more convincing than mine could ever be):

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

My brother kept demanding “proof” that Jesus rose from the dead, and although there are over 500 eyewitness accounts of people who witnessed Him walking around after his brutal murder, I could not give my brother what he wanted. What I remember saying is that if we had Facebook posts or Snaps or some video evidence of Thomas poking his finger into the holes in Jesus’s wrecked wrists or of Jesus having fish on the beach as He lovingly restored the all-too-human Peter, then what would be the need for faith?

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I don’t believe Jesus is a poached egg, or even that He ever thought He was.

I don’t believe the Jesus who healed the leper and forgave the adulterer and supped with sinners is a demon. How could He be? His actions were not evil, but infinitely good.

And more than that, I take Him at His word when He commissions us to “Go into the entire world and preach my Good News to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

Poor Jesus. He was surely shaking His head as He listened to me buffet my brother with His “Good News.”

Guess what, Cheryl? I can hear Him suggesting. Yelling at someone is not the method I would recommend to win others over to Me. Have you tried gentleness?

Ouch, Jesus.

So you mean the Good News is so good, that if I choose love over judgement, kindness over condemnation, faith over fear, if I live my life in light of what You have done for me – in trust and quietness – instead of arguing over who You say You are…You mean fruit will grow from that? That it’s not even up to me, but Holy Spirit? Is that what faith looks like?

Yes. That is what I’m saying. Gentleness.

I was reminded in the aftermath of this awful fight that even John the Baptist had his doubts. Even though John baptized Jesus and saw Holy Spirit descend upon Him like a dove, even though, after that, he heard the booming voice of God declare, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), even though pre-birthed John actually leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when in utero Jesus entered the room – even though, even though – John still asked from Herod’s prison cell, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).

John the Baptist in prison Matthew 14:3
John the Baptist in prison Matthew 14:3

Looking for someone else, John? Hadn’t Jesus done enough, hadn’t being around Him been evidence enough, hadn’t you seen enough, heard enough, felt enough in your spirit that Jesus is the Christ?

John the Baptist! If even he could doubt, we are in good company, indeed.

So what did gentle Jesus answer, when John’s followers waited to take His answer back to John?

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy  are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus went on to praise John as if he had never doubted at all. To the gathering crowd, Jesus proclaimed:

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.  And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:11-15).

Whoever has ears. That’s pretty much, well, everybody. Except maybe those lepers over there. (But Jesus had just declared His intent to cleanse them, so, technically speaking, when Jesus said everybody, He meant everybody).

So Jesus is saying this: Of all of the millions of people born on this planet, John was the greatest. Even John’s doubt was seen by Jesus as a mark of faith (faith is nothing if not honest). But if we are willing to consider ourselves least in the kingdom of heaven, then we, WE are even greater than John himself. And if the kingdom of heaven – our place with Him, forever – is being subjected to violence, instead of reacting with more violence, more anger, more self-righteous bluster, our response instead needs to be….gentleness? Faith despite the doubt?

Whoever has ears.

 

 

 

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On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part Two, A Cautionary Tale

So I wrote a book.

It took five years, and the process was messy and magical, frustrating and joyous, arduous and effortless. It made me feel competent one day, helpless the next. It wracked me with guilt sometimes, blinking cursor mocking me from that blank screen; other days, I lost track of time bouncing between iPhoto, the reverse online dictionary, my journal, Google-searching synonyms for the word eerie, and http://www.funnycatpix.com

In fact, the writing process eerily (sorry – couldn’t find any good ones here on easysynonym.com) mirrored the journey about which I was writing: the 158 days Owen and I had spent hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I loved remembering those days. Back then, everything was, although remarkably uncomplicated, a study in contrasts. Trying to voice what it had been like was a labor of love.

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I’m learning that writing a book is the easy part. Getting published is a whole ‘nother…well…story.

Anyway, one day, Owen and I had hiked 22 miles in the rain. We were cold, wet and miserable when we reached the shelter where we were planning to spend the night. Inside, we discovered a group of camp counselors-in-training who had hiked five miles and had called it a day because their stuff was all wet. It was raining. DUH. The shelter was littered with their soggy gear, and they begrudgingly let us in, pointing us to a corner of the structure that was small and puddled and dark.

When we had arrived, the four of them had been arguing whether or not to brave the night. They were supposed to, for their training, but one of the girls lived close by and finally, after a long contentious debate, convinced the others that having her dad pick them all up was a better alternative. They were whiny and rude and completely clueless about shelter etiquette, so we were not disappointed when they decided to leave.

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Here’s an excerpt from that chapter….

In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous. -Aristotle

Chapter 12 – Two Days in Dixie

June – Maryland

Owen and I made ourselves small, voicing sympathetic noises as gear was grabbed from above our heads and out from under our feet; we were not worried about them taking anything of ours, of course, since we had not been afforded any space in which to unpack in the first place.

At last, ponchos on, they headed reluctantly out into the weather. Given the spectacle in front of us for last two hours, Owen and I had not taken any time to orient ourselves to the shelter’s surroundings – the location of the privy, for example – still, it was with surprise that we watched the camp counselors turn left out of the shelter, away from the AT and the approach trail we had come in on. Perhaps they knew an alternative route to their meeting place? Left sure looked like the way to the privy to me, but I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to impede their departure in any way by an uninformed comment. They disappeared, and Owen and I busied ourselves by unpacking into the cavernous space they had left behind.

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It was no surprise, therefore, when five minutes later in the dusky light, the sorry group came cursing back and marched silently past the shelter in the direction of the AT. By then, we had not only made ourselves cozy, but had discovered a few odd items they had left behind in the rush to bail out. Wordlessly, Owen held them out, relay-race baton-style, and each item was snatched out of his hand by the passing pilgrims without a backwards glance. It must have taken a lot of practice to become that helpless.

We waited until they were out of earshot to raise a cheer.

Settled comfortably into our down cocoons, Owen and I began listening to Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk by Thornton W. Burgess on my iPhone. On the nights when we were too tired to prop ourselves up and read, we were working our way through many of Burgess’s delightful animal adventures.   We were particularly enamored of this Audiobooks narrator. Headlamps off, rain pinging lightly on the roof, we snuggled close together, dry and content.

“Hey. Look, Mom,” Owen’s voice rose drowsily from the dark. “Over there.”

“Over where?” I said, leaning up on an elbow and straining to peer over his fluffy bulk to where he was pointing.

“Over there, down low,” he breathed. “On the other side of the shelter. Do you see it?”

“Well, I’ll be darned,” I whispered back. “Let’s turn off Jimmy and watch what happens.”

In the perfect blackness of the quiet night, a tiny life and death battle was being waged on the opposite wall of the shelter. How the spider’s web had remained intact through all of the earlier commotion I could not fathom, but there, entwined in its silken grip, was a lone firefly. Like a heartbeat, the orange glow of its tail pulsated rhythmically as it thrashed to break free. As Owen and I watched, the intervals between blinks began to grow longer as the firefly’s strength waned.

“I’m going to see where the spider is,” Owen said.

“Okay. Just don’t disturb it.”

He inchwormed his way across the floor of the shelter, sleeping bag still attached to his nether regions, flicking on his headlamp only as he neared the far wall.

“I see it, Mom!” he said in a stage whisper. “It’s down here, by the floor.”

“It’s probably waiting for the firefly to tire before closing in.”

“Poor firefly.”

“Everyone’s gotta eat.”

“But what a way to go. Do you think it knows it’s doomed?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s probably going to keep fighting till the bitter end. That’s what I would do.”

“Me too,” I said. “But why don’t you c’mon back over here and shut off your headlamp so you don’t interfere with the laws of God and nature.”

Obediently, he scooched his way back to me. We repositioned ourselves head-to-head, two exclamation points stretching out toward opposite ends of the page, so that we could both turn our faces toward the combatants.

Owen’s breathing gradually slowed until its cadence melted into the dying glimmer-beats of the firefly.

As he drifted off to sleep, I considered our four former sheltermates.

Perhaps that night they had dined on real plates, washed their grilled steak down with some iced drinks, brushed their teeth in tap water that did not need to be doused with chemicals or filtered through a pump. By now, they were probably showered and changed, lying clean-clothed in crisp sheets, alarms set to waken them in the shade-drawn darkness of their private rooms. No doubt they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune.

But what had they forfeited?

To begin with, the opportunity for competence. I pitied them their eagerness to take the easy way out, their inability to work through the uncomfortable, their lack of belief in themselves to stick with something despite the cost. But it was more than that. What of true value had they really lost when they had packed up and fled?

The genuine measure of a mile.

The sound of rain tickling the leaves.

The patient watchfulness of a spider.

The quiet wonder of a little boy’s heart.

This is what I knew: something pure and honorable and sacred had been sacrificed, and I would not have traded places with them for all the comfort in the world.

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