I am slowly coming to accept a very hard truth: I don’t know what part of my life experience may prove useful to another – or even to myself at any given point in time. So I have to accept it all and turn it all over to the sifting of God the Holy Spirit. I never know what She might choose to make an instrument of healing; often, it is the mistakes, the failings, the fumbling attempts to succeed that go nowhere that become the fuel enkindling the fire of God’s love.
We have tendency to want to offer only our best to God. We expect God to make use of our gifts, our strengths, our successes. We only allow people to see the parts of our lives that put us in the best possible light. But it is in the shadowy recesses of our soul that the seed of compassion often takes root. It is as we come to accept our failures that this seed is nurtured and begins to bloom, becoming a tree of life in whose shade others may find rest for their souls.
Like Peter in today’s Gospel lesson, we really don’t want to hear this. Peter doesn’t want to hear that Jesus will have to suffer and be rejected and be killed and then rise again. Peter is so shocked by this announcement that I doubt he even hears the part about rising again.
All he can hear is that Jesus is a failed Messiah. He isn’t measuring up and meeting expectations. Peter doesn’t trust that God will bring new life out of death. He doesn’t believe that Jesus’ failure will become the most powerful source of healing the world has ever known. Do we?
The answer to this question is a matter of experience. It hinges on our capacity to receive the brokenness of Jesus and of our own lives as a place where infinite compassion and forgiveness have come to dwell. God comes to us in Jesus as the source of grace whereby we can find freedom from the fear, guilt, and self-preoccupation that tend to block the flow of love in our lives. Our brokenness is not a barrier to life with God, but rather the crack in the ego’s armor through which God’s gracious presence can enter into our awareness.
Jesus doesn’t retreat into the safety of a life in which he can manage all the outcomes, control how others perceive him, and preserve his reputation. Life is not something to be saved. It is meant to be given away, to be recklessly spent in the service of love, risking everything for the sake of love – even failure. Even death.
The paradox is that the more we give our lives way, the more we save them, because what is gained in the process is an increase in the flow of love. Love never dies. It only increases our capacity to give ourselves away.
Perhaps the truly hard part is not this giving of our life to the work of love, but rather the necessity of sharing all of it – even the parts we’d rather hide or deny. The offering of our lives to God means sharing even the shameful parts – especially the shameful parts, so that they can be transformed by grace into the very means whereby we become transparent to God’s forgiving and healing love for others.
There is a saying in AA: “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”
I was reminded of this saying by a recent story in the Christian Science Monitor about Arno Michaels. Twenty-five years ago, Michaels was a racist skinhead. Although he grew up in a comfortable Milwaukee suburb, by the age of sixteen he was deep into the punk subculture and became radicalized as a member of two of the most notorious racist groups in the United States. As Michaels describes his experience, “We practiced hate and violence, and we became very, very good at it.”
Michaels was actively involved in the white supremacist movement for seven years until the mid-1990s, and continued to struggle with alcoholism until he began to get sober in 2004. He recalls being crazed with hatred of blacks, Jews, and queers, even fronting for a heavy metal hate band whose music continues to serve as an anthem for the white power movement. He burned down the homes of African-Americans and reveled in gay-bashing.
It took the birth of his daughter and the violent death or imprisonment of numerous friends to wake him up to the truth of his brokenness. He now works with a group of former gang members and white supremacists to produce a monthly online magazine dedicated to human goodness called Life After Hate (which also is the title of his memoir), and has developed an anti-bullying character development program called Kindness not Weakness. He credits the practice of meditation with opening himself up to the power of compassion and forgiveness.
Speaking to youth at hip-hop dance competition in Wisconsin recently, Michaels described how the murders of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager, in 1955 and of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in 1998 were fueled by the same raw material of fear and ignorance that drove his own violent past. The room fell quiet as Michaels confessed to brutally beating a gay man and then laughing about it nearly 20 years ago.
“I’ll never forget that night,” Michaels admitted. The past still haunts him. “But,” he added, “I have the power to transform that act of stupidity into something positive, and I can share that with you guys, to hope that you can learn from my mistakes.” Once the founder of one of the largest racist skinhead organizations in America, Michaels now credits Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Run-DMC as major influences.
Our failings may not be as dramatic as those of Arno Micheals, but as the Letter of James reminds us, “all of us make many mistakes.” It is from the stuff of our mistakes – failed marriages, lost jobs, struggles with addiction, everyday contempt, indifference, and selfishness, all the little deaths through which we must pass – that we are raised to new life. It is as we come to accept the truth of our failings with compassion, it is as we die to the false images of ourselves to which we cling, and instead come to see ourselves whole, that we become usable for God’s healing purposes.
Jesus bore the shame of the cross, condemned as a blasphemer and criminal, to demonstrate that nothing and no one is beyond the redeeming power of God’s love. We can share everything with God in trust that God will make use of even our most shameful experiences as a means of grace. When we are willing to accept God’s love and forgive ourselves, even our gravest failures can become a means of grace for others.
It is in losing our lives – the lives we think we should have, accepting instead our actual lives as we have lived them – that we save them. And maybe, just maybe, through the grace of Jesus Christ, those lost lives can become a means of saving others as well. Amen.