A strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things.
Late last night I sat down to begin sketching out an apology to some of the people who have hurt me. The times we are living in feel serious, and with real enemies stirring up trouble in America, I don’t want to be weighed down with childish disputes.
Of course, I don't know what's coming in the near future, but it wouldn't surprise me if life soon gets quite a bit more stern for all of us. I would like to move into whatever that is with old ledgers full of old offenses crumbled up and burned.
Listening to Les Mis has helped cast a vision for this desire. If you have only seen the musical or the movie, I think it’s worth a spare half hour to read the first few chapters. Here we find the back story of Bishop Myriel, the priest who “buys” the life of Jean ValJean with silver candlesticks.
I won't ruin your reading by describing too much here, but I will tell you that the second half of Myriel’s life begins with this beautiful line, “all that was known was, that when he returned from Italy he was a priest." I love the subtlety of this so much. Hugo doesn’t tell us what happened in Italy, but he does show us the life of a changed man who now lives with open hands, using whatever he owns to help those in need.
And oh, Myriel. He is absolutely contagious. I love him for his gentleness and humility, a man who walks in a sincerity that fills me with the desire to emulate him. Normally I listen to audio books at a high speed so that I can make it through more material quickly, but for Myriel, I am slowing the audio down and replaying paragraphs. I'm sitting before the open text and copying down words after listening to them twice or three times. I’m just so thirsty for a hero, I suppose, and in Myriel, I see a vision of “the good life” that J.A. Smith describes. He is a shining saint amid the savagery of our current political landscape.
If you are like me, the weight of the daily news sits in a sick pit in your stomach. As I watch videos of beautiful Syrian children being pulled from the rubble, as I listen to Russian leaders threatening to employ nuclear bombs during a time of peace, as I watch boisterous and serpentine leaders maneuver the public by fear and fury, my heart needs a reminder that Myriel’s life is always a choice before me. By leaning into the indwelling power of Jesus, I can always give. I can always tend. I can always have the courage and be kind.
But when I have been attacked in the past, I haven’t always made those good choices.
One of the worst things about being abused by others is that injustice can tempt us to respond poorly. It’s just so hard to stand still and wait for God when others are being unfair to us.
But when I have I exploded after injustice, lashed out, tore at my abusers while trying to expose them, I haven’t felt satisfied long term by my outburst. As time has passed, my regret for this heated response has grown, not because I have thought less of the harm done to me — I still believe the actions of my abusers were unfair and severe--but because in that moment of using my own strength to fight for myself, I forfeited an opportunity to trust God.
Do you remember when David was being pursued by King Saul and suddenly found himself with an opportunity to attack his attacker? Saul had gone crazy at this point, a madman driven by jealousy and insecurity. David had every right in the world to take him out of the game. And yet he didn’t.
Here's how it went down. The same Saul who has been trying to kill David suddenly walks into the cave where David’s men are hiding. (Of all things, Saul need to take a pee.) David’s men are sitting there in the dark, listening to the spatter of hot urine on cave rocks (was Saul humming?) -- and here they nudge each other in the sides. Here it is. The perfect opportunity to attack. They even suggest that this was a chance that God had provided to wrap this mess up.
But David only cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe to prove that he could have done more. And later, he feels guilty about even this.
“He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” With these words David sharply rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way.”
When David shows Saul the piece of the robe, he makes an appeal instead of an attack:
“I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.”
How beautiful to witness this forfeiture of justice into the hand of the Father.
This is what I have not done when I have been attacked, and as time has passed, I have seen the dangers of taking situations like this into my own hands. If the enemy can trick us into responding rashly to injustice, then he can trick us into making mistakes that leave a mark of shame upon us. Our failure compounds our rejection, and then we are left with a paralytic cycle of defensiveness and self-accusation.
In other words, our enemy is not satisfied with wounding us by others. He wants to maximize our pain and cause us to wound ourselves in the wake of our betrayal. It is a dirty trick, but a trick I’ve fallen for more than once.
This morning I was reading Genesis 43 because I wanted to look back over Joseph’s response to his brothers when they arrived in Egypt. These are the same brothers who stuffed him into a pit and then sold him to slave traders. But over time, God brought those same brothers into a position of dire need to face Joseph, who has now been elevated by God to a position of power.
Recognizing that such a drastic turn of events has come was difficult for Joseph, and he is overcome with emotion because of it.
“And he lifted up his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me? God be gracious to you, my son!” Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out. And controlling himself he said, “Serve the food.””
(Genesis 43: 29-31)
For someone with my personality, this scene is riveting because in these few simple words, flashbacks of my own trauma return. I know what it’s like to feel betrayed, stuffed in a pit, and left for dead. And I can imagine walking into a room where everyone who has hurt me is suddenly sitting in need of me. What emotions would pulse through my veins at that moment? What would I be tempted to think? Feel? Do?
This would be hard enough, but then to find the faces of those few sweet souls who were innocent and good intermixed with my betrayers... my Benjamins. I think this would break me. I don’t know if I could compose myself as well as Joseph did.
As I'm mulling over all of this today, I'm realizing that I don't know what it will take for someone like me to learn to turn over injustice to the hand of a living God. I’m a fighter by nature, an Eowyn. I walk hurt, disappointed, willing to slash at monsters.
But this is only the first half of Eowyn's story. Like Myriel, she changes.
Lately, I’ve been rereading that section of The Lord of the Rings over and over--the one where Eowyn learns to accept the love of Faramir. After fighting the Witch King, she finds herself rejected by Aragorn, disoriented, and unsure of what is to come next. Here Faramir meets her and wraps her round in love. In one of the most beautiful confessions I have seen, he tells her how his pity has grown to an honest understanding of who she is, and a devotion to her as a companion. And in the wake of this great tenderness, Eowyn is transformed.
“Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
'I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ she said; 'and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’”
It’s so good for me to see that someone so strong and hardened as Eowyn was transformed into a healer. Could the source of a soul’s joy really shift from the work of battle to the work of cultivating and creating?
Hope that this could be true makes me lean deep into the life of Bishop Myriel during these months of severity. I see that it is possible to give into a troubled world “like water on dry soil." I see the laying down of arms. I see the distribution of goods. I see him leaning into a light hold on the stuff of earth, and yielding to the Lord so that good might be done, even in such a time as his. Even as such a time as ours.
It's an odd take on life amid all this roaring and spewing. But how beautiful to have someone say of you, “he had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things. I suspect he got it from the Gospel." It's enough to make me want to learn to lay down my arms.