Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Shining

(from the book Finding Liberty)

I’ve always liked a good name. Names for people, names for places, names for things; and as someone who loves to read (and tries to write), names for stories.

My favorite book title of all time is Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. I like it not because it refers to something evil, but because through a thoughtful arrangement of five normal words, the title, all by itself, invokes a very deep (though ominous) feeling. Compare it as he wrote it to, say, “Here Comes Something Wicked”, which sounds more like the name of “a delightfully witty” Broadway musical.

Snore.

If book titles were paintings, to me, that particular one of Bradbury’s would be a Renoir.

Another of my favorite book names is “This Far, No Further”. The book was forgettable, but even after ten years, its title still lives with me. It just feels powerful, like something God would say (Author's Note: in fact, I found out later that God actually says something very close to that in the book of Job).

Back in the 80’s, Stephen King wrote a book called “The Shining”. Without regard to the subject matter of his novel, this is another title that I really like, simply because by taking an adjective and using it as if it were a noun instead, he created a whole different meaning. No longer are we using the word “shining” to describe something else, we’re treating it as if the description itself is the actual thing in question. Something that is not static, but in motion. Something that simply “is”, even if there is no good definition or rational explanation for it.

In the Bible, Joseph is a fascinating person. Genesis gives a lot of history and stories about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but if you go through the post-flood history starting with Abraham, Joseph is the first one who actually starts doing things that really have an effect on a very large number of people. It’s almost like God chose Abraham specifically because He needed him (as well as Isaac and Jacob) just so that He could finally get around to Joseph.

Joseph was different from his ancestors in a lot of ways, but the most interesting difference to me was that he seems to be the first person mentioned in the Bible that people could just look at and know he was a man of God.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were righteous men also and were treated as such, but they were also powerful men, and it could be argued that some of the reverence they received from others could have been influenced by that. Joseph, on the other hand, was a nobody, a slave. And yet, without hitting anyone over the head with a Bible or preaching the Gospels or shouting the name of Jesus Christ (and we know that he didn’t since none of those things would be around for quite some time) people simply knew he was with God.

In Genesis 39, both Potiphar (the captain of Pharoah’s bodyguard) and the chief jailer (who oversaw Joseph when he was imprisoned) knew that Joseph was with God. So trusting were they of Joseph that they let him run the whole show. Potiphar made him overseer of his house and “all that he owned he put in his charge.” The jailer “committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it.”

This is pretty amazing if you think about. Both of these guys worked for Pharoah, one as the captain of his bodyguard, and the other as the overseer of the jail reserved for the king’s prisoners. From what I know about Pharoahs, they didn’t have too much of a problem putting people to death if they felt like it (as the baker in Genesis 40 would attest to if he could). If either Potiphar or the jailer messed something up or displeased Pharoah – and they were both close enough to Pharoah for that to be possible – they probably could have expected a rather blunt and unceremonious end to their lives, and yet they both put Joseph, a Hebrew slave, in charge.

What did they see in this guy? How could they be so sure of this man’s integrity and godliness that they would (in all likelihood) put their own lives at risk by entrusting him with everything? We have the luxury of having the Bible to tell us that God was with Joseph, but how did they know?

I recently read a book called “The Irresistible Revolution”, by Shane Claiborne. (I personally think it would be a good idea for this book to be mandatory reading for every Christian, but the vast majority would hate it, because the author does not even try to validate the comfortable routine that mainstream Christianity has become.) Shane lives his life in Philadelphia in what you might call an “inner city mission” located in a very bad part of town. It’s a commune of sorts, though its focus is on Jesus Christ rather than “free love” & drugs.

One of the stories he told was about a trip to the grocery store he took with another member of their little mission. As they walked down the street they passed a disgustingly dirty woman in an alley, who, crutches and all, offered “her services”. They declined, hurried to the store, and then hurried back home, giving the woman little more than a nod on the way back. When they got home, however, they found out that the bread they had bought was bad; they would have to go back to the store, and they didn’t want to because they knew that they would have to walk past the woman again. (Is that the way God works in our lives or what? “Sorry pal, you’re not getting off that easy. Don’t ignore Me. Go back and do My will.” Just my thoughts anyway).

On the way back from the store the 2nd time, they finally stopped and started to talk to the woman, just to let her know that they cared about her. They invited her back to their house where she could warm up a little and have a snack.

Back at the house, the woman started weeping and said, more of a statement than a question, “You’re Christians, aren’t you?”

The author was surprised that she had asked this because they had not said anything about Jesus or God or anything else, and their house didn’t have any Christian paraphernalia (crucifixes, Bibles, plastic fish, etc.) laying around to tip her off.

She said, “I know you’re Christians because you shine. I used to be a Christian. I used to shine like that, but the world is cold and dark, and it’s beaten me down and taken my shine away.”

Several months later, the author answered a knock at the door and found a woman he didn’t recognize standing in front of him who obviously knew who he was. Before he could say anything she spoke first, “I know you don’t recognize who I am. It’s because I’m shining again.”

In 40 years I have never impacted someone’s life in that way. It must be an amazing feeling. They changed this woman’s life! And they did it without hitting her over the head with a Bible or preaching the Gospels or shouting the name of Jesus Christ.

They talked to her.
They let her sit in their house and get warm.
They gave her a snack.
They shined.

I think that’s the same kind of thing that Potiphar and the jailer saw in Joseph. I think he simply shined. Maybe not in a physical, “visible aura around the head” kind of way, but some kind of inherent light that came from within him that people could just sense. He might not have even realized he was doing it, but because he was in such a close relationship with God, I don’t think he could have turned it off even if he had wanted to. It was just “there”, and anyone who looked at him could see it.

When Catherine & I first got married, we attended a church in downtown Orlando for several years. The church building itself was made of stone, constructed sometime in the early 1900’s, and it gave off a little of that “majesty” that older structures with stained glass windows can impart. You felt a little humbled in that building – like you were really, truly in God’s house – and the pastor was just incredible to listen to.

The congregation, however – the real church – left a little something to be desired. Most of the congregation was made up of successful businessmen, doctors, and lawyers, and we never did feel a lot of warmth during our time there. In fact, I think that when our family showed up on Sunday mornings in our 10 year old Grand Marquis that looked like it was worth every nickel of the $1,500 that we'd paid for it, a collective sigh went through the more well-to-do crowd that drove up in their new BMW’s, Mercedes’, and Cadillacs (which was just about everybody else).

In the 5 or 6 years we went there, I can only remember 3 people who ever treated us like, well, people. One was a sweet older lady who worked at the church, another was the man who ran the Sunday Schools, and the other was a young lawyer about my age named Pete.

When I think back, I was always a little curious about Pete. At the time, I was just some schlep working for a company that made sewer equipment, but Pete, he was a lawyer. Like many other members of the church, he had money, he had a prestigious job, he was in a different class altogether. And yet, he would always say hello to me or even come up to me and start talking like we were best friends.

Sometimes, I used to even wonder if he was patronizing me; you know, like that one popular person at school who’s nice to the geek because they feel sorry for them. But at the same time, I could tell – I could just tell – that that wasn’t what he was doing at all. The older lady and the Sunday School superintendent and Pete were all for real, they were simply shining. This “Jesus stuff” wasn’t just words on a page to them; they believed it, they lived it, they walked it. I imagine that they would have been surprised that I was surprised, because to them, it had to seem like the most natural thing in the world. How could they not shine?

Three people out of a church of a couple hundred. I’m happy to say that the percentage is a little higher at the church I am a part of now, but it still makes me wonder; how come we all aren’t shining? If we’ve really accepted Jesus Christ as our Saviour, if we’ve really made a true commitment to attempt to walk in His footsteps, and if we really believe that the light of Christ is in each and every one of us, how come we’re not all shining? I realize that the world can be a cold, dark place, and we all go through trying times where it wouldn’t be surprising that our shine might dim or flicker or even go out completely, but why are there so many Christians who don’t shine at all? Ever?

Do they really believe all of the “Jesus stuff” that they profess, or are they just going through the motions of superficially “accepting” Christ as a logical business decision because they heard salvation was free anyway and Hell sounded kind of scary?

I know that we cannot “buy” our salvation; it is given to us as a gift. I know too that “our works” will not get us into Heaven. But I wonder sometimes if we don’t preach those things a little too much, because knowing that I don’t have to “do” anything as a Christian to get to Heaven (since my salvation is free) sure gives me a good excuse not to do anything. But while my works will not get me into Heaven, I have to believe that they might help someone else get there.

I wonder sometimes if we, as Christians, don’t tend to focus on the parts of scripture that we like to hear, and ignore the parts that we don’t. We do read the parts that we don’t like of course, and when we do we nod our heads and say things that we know God & everyone else will like to hear like “Yes, yes, oh absolutely, without a doubt!”, but then we promptly forget what we read and go back to the parts that make us feel all warm and fuzzy, or the parts that we think justify our actions.

Funny that we should gloss over and downplay the role “our works” have in the big scheme of things, because Jesus sure does talk about them a lot. In fact, He spent a lot more time telling us what we should be doing than He did about how we get into Heaven, and though we seem to treat “our works” as optional, I can’t find anywhere in Bible where Jesus gave us a loophole.

Which comes back to the original question: Do we really believe this Jesus stuff? We say the words, we sing the songs, we speak with much reverence, but do we really believe it? Because if we do, how could we not do the things that Jesus has instructed us to do? If we have truly accepted Him as our Saviour instead of just making a superficial statement to cover our butt from the damnation of Hell, doing the things that Jesus told us to do wouldn’t be annoying burdens that we were trying to avoid, they would be natural expressions of our love – of His love – that we couldn’t stop doing even if we wanted to. We’d be shining. Whether we liked it or not.

Since I seem to have so much to say about this, you may be wondering if I shine. To be honest, I’m not really sure.

The movie Schindler’s List was brought to my attention recently, and as it had been 10 years or so since I’d originally watched it, I decided to check it out from the library and watch it again. (If you haven’t seen Schindler’s List, please know that while it is an incredible film, it earns every single bit of it’s “R” rating; definitely not for the kiddies or faint of heart).

What impressed me was that Oskar Schindler was not trying to be a hero. He was an opportunist, looking to exploit the war – and the Jews – for his own personal gain. His plan was to make as much money as fast as he could and then leave Krakow with his suitcases loaded with cash, and his plan worked to perfection. But he never left with the money. Instead, something happened to this self-serving, gold-digging womanizer that made him do something that would make him the most unlikely of heroes. Over the years, something happened to him. Something happened inside of him. But it took time.

I do believe that some people are “born again” in an instant, that one day they are “who they are” and the next they are someone completely different, but I know too that there are other people who never experience that sudden “bolt of the Holy Spirit” striking their souls in a sudden flash of righteousness. For some people, like Oskar Schindler, it takes time. I fall into this latter category.

I’ve always been a Christian, but I haven’t always lived it, and because of that fact, I have to think that I haven’t always really believed it. About 4 years ago, I really started to openly question what I was doing with my life and how I was living it. There was no specific day or time that I can put my finger on, just an approximate period when things started changing. I started changing. All of those things, those little clues, that I had been ignoring my whole life finally started getting some traction. I started to think about them; to think about what I valued, what I was doing, and how I was doing it. Even so, I still stubbornly refused to let go.

In late 2005, my career had reached newfound heights, with room yet to grow. No longer a schlep working for a sewer equipment manufacturer, I was now a sales manager at a global software company. I had a six-figure job, a title, status, respect; all of that good stuff. I drove to work in a red Corvette, crossed marble floors to a mahogany covered elevator that took me to a 4th floor office with a view of a manicured private golf course. I ate in some of the most expensive restaurants, attended conferences in luxury Las Vegas hotels, and vacationed with my family at our own cabin in the Georgia mountains.

And then one morning, quite unexpectedly, I blurted out something that I’ll never forget, something that surprised me as much as it did my boss, because even after the words had left my mouth I still couldn’t believe I had actually said them: I don’t think I want to do this anymore.

And everything changed.

So here I am, a “struggling writer” (oh! I’ve always wanted to be a “struggling” something!) living in a little town in the middle of nowhere. No big job, no fat paycheck, no marble floors, no vacation cabin in the woods.

I eat at McDonald’s now, or maybe Shoney’s or Cracker Barrel if I’m really upscaling it. I drive a 6 year old Ford Focus, if I drive at all. (In fairness, I have to confess that I do still have the Corvette. It’s currently sitting in a barn at my mom’s house, an unwanted relic of a past life. Hey, what can I tell you? When you’re running a little fishing empire the size that mine was, it takes awhile to cast down all of your nets. I had a lot of nets, and though the main warehouse has been cleaned out, there are still some back rooms [and a barn at my mom’s] that I still need to purge).

I know some people here think I’m crazy for leaving “all of that” and coming here instead. I can see the look in their eyes, their longing to break free of the “shackles” of a small town, to experience the “excitement” and “opportunity” of a big city. I can tell that many of them think they’re missing something. They are missing something, but it’s not what they think, and they probably wouldn’t believe me if I told them.

I’m not crazy, I’m finally sane. I’ve never felt so free. I’ve never been so happy. I’ve changed a lot.

But do I shine?

Well, I like to think that I do, but I’m not sure. Hopefully I have at least a little glow about me (or at least a persistent flicker) but even if I am shining, I also know that there’s still plenty of room yet to jack up the wattage. As much as I like looking in the mirror at the man I have become today, I still yearn for the man who I will be tomorrow.

God will take me there. I’m doing a better job of following now.

I think a lot of goofy thoughts sometimes. For instance, since I started bouncing ideas around in my head about this particular topic, a silly thought kept coming back into my mind, over and over. I kept thinking how cool it would be if we turned on the evening news at night and saw that all of the major networks were following a story that nobody could explain.

A new story, something no one had ever seen before, something that had started fairly recently but was showing no signs of slowing down; in fact, seemed to be growing as more and more people were attracted to it like moths to a flame. A trend that had all of “the experts” baffled as they continued to witness hundreds of millions of Christians around the world all acting like the Christ they profess to believe in. A trend in which the sheer number of “insignificant” acts of Christian charity, love, and kindness going on in the world were causing supercomputers to melt down as they tried to keep track of them all.

A trend in which all of the people involved somehow looked – as incredible as it may sound – almost as if there was a light coming off of them.

Instead of seeing all of those tired, old headlines on the TV screen like “The War in Iraq” or “Decision ‘08”, each night the world was looking at a new headline regarding this worldwide phenomenon that, for lack of a better name, they simply referred to as “The Shining”.

I don’t know. Maybe I am crazy.

“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” - John 1:4

5 comments:

Another World is Possible said...

Hey if you're a fan of Shane Claiborne and his book, then you should really check out the Another World is Possible DVD series. It's a multimedia project by Shane Claiborne and Jamie Moffett (co-founders of the Simple Way) that emerged in response to their belief that things are not right in the world, and that they don't have to stay that way. There are three DVD's, one on war, one on poverty, and one on creation. You can find out more about them at www.awip.us.

Blaine Staat said...

I'll check them out. I like Shane; he's a little radical, but in a good way.
-Blaine

The Mom said...

"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven"

Just Me said...

I've read through a few of your posts now and I realize commenting many months later really may seem odd but this post in particular really, really touched me. I began to cry as I read this and had to pause a few moments to gather myself. I've always wanted to be a better Christian but I am not what I want to be. Your post made me not only want that - to shine - but it helped me see something so obvious and yet so not ignored by me, it gave me the key on how to shine something I will strive so hard to do from now on. It is so simple - just BE better instead of trying. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading Finding Liberty. Thank U for sharing your story. Thank u for web page. I enjoy it very much.