In the last article I concluded by switching metaphors. I replaced Ezekiel's picture of God transplanting our heart of stone with one of flesh. God was asking His followers to take off their shoes and socks... figuratively. I suggested that "barefooted" is how God would have us live out our days. For with uncovered feet we feel the landscape of life so much more acutely. We become sensitive to where we are, not just where we are going. We come to realize that "Holy Ground" is meant to be felt, not just walked over in steel-toed shoes. Of course, it's not easy to keep your shoes off. After a couple of toe stubbings or slivers, common sense screams for us to, at the very least, put our socks back on. Barefoot living goes against our very nature, doesn't it? It contradicts our basic inclination of self-protection. Swims upstream against our logic. To be consistently vulnerable through out a life, God knew we'd need more than arresting metaphors and humanitarian persuasions. He knew we'd need a role model. Someone who could both intersect and transcend time as a barefoot example of Himself.
Two thousand years of reflection has made the idea of the incarnation fairly acceptable. It is a well known, if not always well understood, concept. At the time it happened, however, it was pretty much a fringe idea that went almost completely unnoticed. This, I believe, was by design. High visibility and royal pomp would hardly get barefooted vulnerability across. What's more, it would likely play into some of our worst tendencies to applaud power and award privilege. So, God took His "shoes off" in the form of a baby. A very human baby. Every year at Christmas time a good many of us soften to this cooing wonder. But I suspect the full wallop of its significance hasn't been completely digested.
Next time you get a chance, take a good long stare at a human baby. You'll conclude, I think, it is a miracle any of us ever make it out of diapers. Let's look at some of the survival problems. Physical: Their flesh is dangerously soft and sensitive. A veritable mine field of rashes, bruises, and irritations even in the most sanitized home with the most careful parents. Coordination: In arms and legs virtually nonexistent... unable to do the simplest task on command, while (when backs are turned) liable to roll, fall, or crawl into harm's way. Verbal Articulation: For the first six months to a year one word..."whahhh!" This, and marginal variations on a theme, must explain an exhaustive number of primal deprivations. Hunger, loneliness, poo-filled diapers, fear, confusion..to name a few. In a word, a baby is utterly, dependent. He/she must cling to mother for the very sustenance of life. No child can last even a matter of hours in the elements and they're easy pickings for every manner of aggressive malevolence from diseases to desperadoes. Now realize that I just described God! Incredible isn't it?
And the marvel doesn't stop with God's beginnings as a human. The Gospels are rife with one life-threatening, demeaning, or side-tracking circumstance after another for Jesus. This was not some rich kid cruising around the poor side of town to see how the other half lived. He was one of us. In every way He was able to relate (from the inside out) to our curiously, wonder-filled, yet at times pathetic human dance.
Pry open your imagination and memory for a minute and think of some vivid moment as a child. (For the sake of simplicity and clarity let's stick to the unpleasant ones, though, of course, Jesus experienced the joys of our humanity too.) A hospital stay at three years old comes to mind for me...as does a bedridden bout with anemia at seven...or any number of classroom humiliations (so common to slow learners like me) ...Oh, and what about that volleyball game in sixth grade where the other team figured out that I couldn't return the serve. (The longest volleyball game in history!) What were YOUR points of pain as an emerging person? Whatever they were, can you imagine God going through something like them too? If you can't, the full breadth of the incarnation hasn't fully sunken in. We mustn't think just because He was Jesus it was somehow easier or less traumatic for Him. Remember, He is our role model. If it were somehow "easier" then the efficacy of His example would be greatly compromised. No, find your most vulnerable moment and be assured Jesus was there.
Can you see yourself at the high school dance? Clumsy, awkward, unsure, face broken out, deodorant failing, putting on an outward show of bravado while inwardly miserable. I sure can. Remember all the trips WE made to the water fountain and the bathroom to alleviate the self-consciousness of not dancing. Remember how there was someone WE wanted to dance with but were too shy to actually do it? Thought about it all night but whenever the courage was mustered someone else got there first. Could I possibly be describing Jesus in adolescence? Why not? To incarnate humanity is to feel our story from the inside out. How very different it is to live through something than to merely observe someone else living through it. Think of when your heart goes out to someone. Can't you usually unpack some personal history that has tenderized you to their heartache or sorrow? Why wouldn't it be the same for the Son of God born of woman? The issue is the wound recognize and remembered, not how He versus we dealt with the damage. Most of my wounds have been exacerbated by follow-up sins and rebellion. That Jesus did not choose to react in such a way does not invalidate the "inside-ness" of his empathy. He was there. Count on it. In the shadows, way up in the back part of the bleachers. And more likely than not He went home...UNDANCED!
Disappointment: There is not a human alive who hasn't known it. It is a familiar story. We tend to put too much store in others and when they let us down we relearn anew the loneliness rule of our existence: TRUSTING HUMANS IS AS INEVITABLE AS IT IS DOOMED.
A true story:
I know a woman, who as a little girl developed a tender friendship with an elderly gentleman who lived across the street from her. He was an irascible old curmudgeon who to many had earned the neighborhood title of local grouch. In truth he was just an old yankee who wasted few words and opened his heart very carefully and selectively. A box turtle, you might say, needing quietude and the sun's warmth before peeking his head out of the shell. Well, the "sun" took the form of this little girl (though she hardly brought quietude to his hermit-like existence). Most afternoons after school she'd come for a "visit" and talk and talk while he listened and listened (which as it turned out was something he was very good at). I guess it could be said her heart opened through the mouth and his through the ear. It was a near perfect match. Very slowly, carefully, a friendship developed and grew like a garden that flourishes when watered and weeded. For a Camelot of time their lives overlapped on the front and back curve of life's arch of days. Innocence chatted with experience. But as the song says, "A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys" (or little girls as the case may be). And so it happened that her life filled up with other things...other wonders...and well, just others! She visited less. He understood. Things change. In the dusk of their days (though neither knew that to be the case) a dinner was planned. He was, it turns out, a passable cook (by his own admission) and certainly knew how to prepare a lobster dinner for two (the yankee equivalent to food of the gods). Everything was set for a certain Friday night. On the day of the feast he hand-picked the crustacean, shucked the corn, baked some bread, and even broke into his private stock of jams for the last jar of gooseberry preserve. Everything had to be just right when the "turtle" had the "sun" for dinner. Why, he even put on his Sunday-go-to-meetin's. It would be a special celebration of their special relationship.
At a quater to the hour he boiled the water. She hadn't arrived yet but that was okay. Her tender, life-loving heart would probably wince at the Jacuzzi-death sacrifice of their main course. At five after the hour the shells were bright scarlet, the butter in pools by each plate, the nutcrackers and bibs ready for duty. But they were never called to active service that night. By three-quarters past the hour he dumped the lobsters in the trash and went to bed early.
At five thirty the next morning, she sat up in her sleeping bag, amidst the sea of snoring preadolescents that comprised last night's slumber party, and remembered, for the first time, her "date" with the old man. She had been dreaming of him and something he said jogged her memory. "Don't forget Friday night...lobster for two!" But she had forgotten. That's what humans do...they forget...and disappoint.
Jesus knew this, only too well. Witness Gethsemane. God should have know better than to entrust us with keeping watch and staying awake while He reviewed His work order. He should have known we'd doze off like over-tired, moonlighting watchmen working two shifts. Should have known we'd "blow Dodge" as soon as affiliation with Him became life threatening. God should have known we'd disappoint Him. Between you and me, He probably did! But that didn't stop Him from entrusting His life to us anyway. Didn't stop Him from feeling the deep disappointment of our betrayal. Didn't stop him from acutely experiencing the letdown of our broken promises. ("If all else leave, Lord, I will not. Not even unto death!" Matthew 26:33, paraphrased) Nice words spoken by the Peter in us all, but ultimately empty. And yet, to be one of us is to somehow crumble and yes even despair at all our vapid claims and hollow words. In the "Peanuts" view of things, to somehow trust "Lucy" to hold the football while we once again attempt to kick it. Even though we know she has
always pulled it away before and will likely do so again. Yes, there is room for Charlie Brown in our picture of Jesus.
And then, of course, death. Nothing is quite so human as dying. True, all living things die, but not the way humans do...collecting a life of beauty, remorse, meaning in a stare or a hand clasp or cry. Reluctantly saying goodbye while anxiously preparing in some capacity for hello. Once again alone. Going where no one else no matter how close can go. In an instant finally growing up while at the same moment returning to the out-of-control of infancy. This too, Jesus, God incarnate, did. Staring the hooded reaper straight in the face and letting him take his best shot. Bulls eye! One dead man/God lying limp and drained of His blood on the gibbet. Make no mistake. This dude died... "left the building" of His body...left the world as only the living can know it. Jesus was never so us as when we killed Him. Go look for Him in the scenes of war...any war. Go spot Him on the 10:00 news reporting the latest murder downtown. That body under the sheet, seeping its life into the sidewalk looks just like Jesus. No god in the history of deities ever subjected himself to such inhuman treatment. But we did what we did to Jesus not because He proved He was God, but because He proved He was one of us. The completion of the incarnation came about precisely at the moment Jesus said, "It is finished!" Not a second before.
Okay, so we have a role model, unto death, of how to live the vulnerable life: Jesus, the barefoot boy of God. Maybe that is God's ultimate design for how the saints should live. Certainly some of the most admired saints (from St. Francis to Mother Teresa) have lived lives of physical, spiritual, and emotional vulnerability. But how about ordinary folks like you and me? That kind of risk may be philosophically desirous, but is it really doable? I mean, Jesus' accessibility and fragility are astounding characteristics for God, but they're downright impractical for people ...right? Or is it? Well, if God is role modeling His incarnate Son that way, maybe we should look closer...presume He knows something we don't. Let's briefly look at vulnerable "barefoot" living as an option for human interchange.
The first thing we have to accept is that it is the opposite of the social norm. Nothing in present or past society encourages a "barefoot" lifestyle. Why even in many religious environments it's unattractive. Power: political, financial, psychological, and emotional is the rule of the day. Cover your back and lead with your strength. But what if you don't? What if you lead with your wounds and leave your true self open? What if you determine to let the chips fall where they may and honestly convey who you are and how you feel? What might happen then? Oh...I know, I know, people will walk all over you...take advantage of you and exploit your sincerity. Yes, yes, it's called the consequence of living in a fallen world. But that's what the world will do TO you as you leave yourself vulnerable. What can vulnerable living do FOR you? There are always two ways to look at things: in coming or out going. No question "barefoot" living will make you an easy mark, but it might also make you a peaceful, life-giving, life-loving, easy mark.
Have you ever been in the presence of something or someone doing the very thing they were made to do? Watch a thoroughbred stretch out in his stride on the final lap. Look at some old footage of Ted Williams hitting a ball. Turn on your public television station next time they feature the violinist Issak Perlman. It doesn't matter whether you like classical music or not. Just look on the face of that gifted gift from God. The mingling of delight, joy and peace is as restoring as the music he's playing. That's because he is doing exactly what he was created to do and the peace that oozes from such a reality is restorative. Not just to him, but to all who witness it. That's true of anytime you find a true groove. ("Groove" here is a musical term for everything locking in to perfect sync.) Peace just naturally seeps from it.
What if God gave us Jesus to model what a true groove in a life really looks and feels like. What if in Him we witness the kind of life and lifestyle humans were ultimately designed to live. I mean it follows doesn't it? We were made by God who is truth. So wouldn't it follow that we have some of that primal genetic disposition coursing through our basic make-up? It may be covered in fears, hurts, and disappointments that breed the exact opposite behavior of honesty, but that doesn't mean it's not underneath there. If that is true, we will never be at peace until we hitch our behavior to our basic nature. Connect honest, vulnerable, exposed living with the soul that was built for truth. Maybe truthful, honest, defenseless living isn't so much how we ought to live as how we need to live. Perhaps God incarnated His son Jesus to show us the most peaceful, contented, useful way to live...not the most difficult. It sure would change the way we look at things. And it would certainly change the way we look at following Jesus.
I remember playing tennis with a friend years ago. We were pretty equal in ability and stamina and for a while it was neck and neck. The only real difference between us in the sport was that he had been properly trained how to strike the ball and I had not. As the game went on, all his correct serves and returns took little or no toll on his arms, shoulders, and overall physical energy. While I, on the other hand, started to hurt all over. (A couple years earlier I wouldn't hurt till the next day. But just because youth can absorb more of the wrong thing without feeling it doesn't make it right.) In the end he clobbered me because he played with his body in alignment with his skeletal and muscular structure, not against it.
God would train us to live in harmony with how we were made, even if at first it seems like a high risk proposition. He would show us that the original design had a heart of flesh not of stone, went barefoot, not laced up in leather. He would show us we were built for truth...even when it hurts. And the result of each risk is unquenchable peace. What did that obedient "barefoot" boy say not long before he went back home?
"Peace I give you. My peace I leave you. Not as the world knows peace (with its rock hearts and combat boots), but as My Father originally intended it to be... from the inside out. Starting now and lasting through forever." (John 14:27, paraphrased.)