‘He who loves his life will lose it.’ (JN 12:25)
‘Because we are vulnerable we can be brave,’ says Joseph Pieper. CAN be brave. The truth is—most of us are cowards who seek first to preserve our lives from further wounding. Persons who demonstrate fortitude give up their lives to follow Jesus; they entrust to Him the diminishment they experience from others and somehow thrive on His nourishment, especially in suffering. When the battle gets harder, brave Christians get better. Through Jesus. For Jesus. Let me give you three examples of fortitude in action.
Sara married young to a fellow Asian, a Christian, who deserted her for another woman. She could not agree to dissolve the marriage as she made vows not just to a man but to the Man. For fifty years, she has stayed faithful to God and to the man she still considers her husband. Robert Gagnon is an Ivy League scholar who wrote the best book ever on ‘The Bible and Homosexual Practice’ (Abingdon Press). Over the course of his academic career, he has been reviled by peers while his work remains the gold standard. Sue entered into lesbianism after an abusive childhood in England. She sought spiritual answers and became a Buddhist nun. In Thailand she met Jesus, the Man of her dreams who equipped her to become a healing missionary. Surrounded by the heavenly host, a compromised church, and a gang of sinners who are becoming saints, she delights in partnering with Jesus to awaken hearts from the drowsy idolatry/immorality of Thailand.
Three factors mark each of their lives. First, they suffer because of what is right, not because of foolish daring. Sara believes she made a vow until death. She’s not dead yet and cannot in good conscience yield to the men who have wanted her. Robert stands on a profound understanding of God’s will for the sexual redemption of persons. Period. He cannot change that truth even if popular opinion does. Sue must be faithful to God’s call, however difficult that call is. The failure of others does not negate God faithfulness and call on her life.
Their diminishment in battle has not resulted in death—martyrdom—which is the highest honor accorded to persons possessed by fortitude. These three major on endurance, a second facet of fortitude; they sustain ‘little deaths’ as they endure shame for the joy set before them. No grim-faced sufferers these—each exercise what Pieper describes as ‘a vigorous grasping and clinging to the good’, namely holding fast to the little cross Jesus has asked of them as He steadies them with His Cross. Endurance for them is neither passive nor mournful but active, drawing water from an unseen but very real Source. And joyful! I have seen each of these three in serious hardship but never once succumb to self-pity, a third mark of fortitude. They refuse to be broken by grief; their losses and tears draw them closer to Jesus.
For us all, fortitude frees us to face our vulnerability in faith; we entrust ourselves to the One who does not promise freedom from injury and sorrow but freedom for Himself. He makes us alive in the fight for what is authentically good and true and beautiful. The battle prepares us for heaven.
Sara has a Bridegroom who awaits her; she is making herself ready for Him. Robert’s reward is thousands who through his work ‘run in the path of God’s commands’ (PS 119:32) and who teach others so. Sue is Jesus’ presence for a harassed people who under her care come clean from sin and demons. Fortitude frees her to prepare a tribe for heaven, for Jesus. Those who lose their lives find them, many times over.
‘To love a person means to see him as God created him to be.’ Dostoevsky
Kate led a home group where she befriended and cared for ‘Kevin’, a young adult actively involved in this large dynamic church. What Kate did not know was that ‘Kevin’ had been born Karen; for the last decade, Karen had assumed a masculine identity and was en route to ‘gender reassignment.’
Weeks before her final surgical effort to re-identify as male (her breasts already removed), Karen felt led by the Spirit to make her transition known to Kate, the spiritual leader whom she knew best and trusted most. No-one at the church had ever known Karen as anyone but Kevin. Karen asked Kate: ‘Is becoming ‘Kevin’ God’s best for me?’
Kate knew little about the complexity of persons who from the first few years of life nourish silently an alter ego of the opposite gender. But she was a woman of the Spirit and prayed intently for her pastoral charge. God simply gave her the words: ‘God did not make a mistake in creating Karen.’ Kate told ‘Kevin’ her counsel and pledged to support her in every way possible in that truth.
Karen came to us a few months later; we had just begun a Living Waters group in that church. It took an empowered, Spirit-filled and truthful village to help her make peace with her real self. She did, and became one of our best leaders.
Kate fulfilled what Joseph Pieper describes as the crucial link between wisdom and love as expressed in authentic friendship. Love always seeks the best for a friend based on wisdom. Pieper heralds the role of wise friends, who, operating out of divine love, counsel others according to ‘the truth of real things’ so that what is actual and good might become reality.
Nothing better defines how godly friendship operates. Remember how wisdom ‘forms right judgments concerning how one is to act in the here and now’ (Pieper)? No easy task, this getting of wisdom in an age of 50 plus gender ‘selves’! Operated wisely and in loving accord with ‘Kevin’s’ real self, Kate summoned the truth of Karen in that crucial juncture of her decision-making and counseled her to align herself with Reality. Godly friendship helped preserve Karen’s life.
Lent begins with hope. We start with Jesus, hope’s foundation. We can bear the mark, a little cross on the forehead, because He has gone before us and made a way for us to walk. His Cross blazes our trail and gives us hope to walk further and more fully into His best for our lives. May these days of Lent clarify that hope and quicken our step toward all that Jesus wills for us!
Hope is a virtue, one of seven I will be focusing on as we walk together this Lent. In the words of Josef Pieper, a virtue ‘is the most a man can be.’ (All my references here are contained in his sublime ‘On Hope’, Ignatius Press.) Becoming virtuous unites us with our true selves (human nature as God designed it) and prepares us for eternity with Him.
I say ‘becoming virtuous’ because we integrate these qualities over the course of a lifetime. Gird up people; this is one long ‘cross-walk’! Hope lights the way. Radiant Jesus grants us a well-lit trail but also goes before us and is never quite within our grasp. I love that! He keeps us reaching. Jesus longs to fulfill our hope. But that fulfillment comes only when we behold Him face-to-face. Then it disappears. Hope ceases to be when it is realized in full spousal union with Him.
In the meantime, we take seriously St. Paul’s words. ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I have not yet taken hold of it. One thing I do: forgetting what is behind, straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…’ (Phil. 3: 13, 14) That goal involves all that God has for us and wants to accomplish through us. Hope frees us to aspire to more! Alleluia!
Hope invites us to repent quickly of the heaviness that rests upon us like silt in a polluted world and tempts us to settle for the status quo. ‘No Lord! There must be more that I have yet to grasp about Your good and perfect will for my life!’ Hope stirs up a robust expectancy for the marvels our Father has in store for us.
And hope grants us the humility to recognize that we have not yet taken hold of all the marvels. Our vision is still impaired, our healing not yet complete, the gifts we are remain chipped masterpieces that cut others and can still collapse if we don’t stay fixed on Jesus. I love that most about Pieper. His understanding of hope guides us on the narrow way between presumption and despair.
This Lent, I am sobered by the hard truth that unless we stay on hope’s track, we can lose everything. We all know good men and women who have lost the Way and who are taking others with them. We have never faced such a powerful pull to craft our own identity and sexual fulfillment apart from Jesus. May I ask you to join me this Lent in praying for a godly fear based on the truth that we too could be lost to illusion? May the searchlight of hope reveal every little comfort that dulls our hope in Jesus. May this Lent grant us sacred space to ‘let go’ of sin so we might ‘take up’ more of Him and His glorious will for our lives.
Before speaking to a group of students at Florida’s Ave Maria University, I requested prayer and my host Scott and a kind priest interceded with me. We waited together before Jesus. ‘Ask Jesus what you want from Him tonight,’ requested the priest. After a few moments I responded: ‘Reveal Your sufficiency for persons dealing with identity confusion.’ We waited then I saw Jesus pouring out drafts of emerald green ointment upon a crowd. I had never seen ‘the green’ before so was mystified. ‘Green is hope,’ said the priest.
That night as I spoke, hope for transformation rang true, as it did the next day for the staff and particular students who needed counsel for their own lives and for those they love. Jesus made them green with hope. In every unique experience and vexing question, we agreed that He assumed our confusion at Calvary in order to raise us up with clarity as beloved sons and daughter of His Father.
Green with hope, I flew to Malibu California in order to join our Living Waters Training team for an intensive weeklong gathering. Our site, cradled between rocky hills, had been pelted with rain and was now verdant, as lush as I had ever seen it. Creek water rose, and underbrush could not hide new life bursting from the ground. Hope rose from dry and broken hearts. As the team sang and testified and prayed and taught, Jesus became apparent and summoned all to arise into the heights for which He descended into hell. Jesus redeems who He has made.
This group differed in its maturity. These were active spiritual ‘parents’ intent on turning the cultural tide with hope’s crosscurrent. Together we examined the defacing of God’s image. Instead of pouting, we were provoked to fight for countless faces we represent in church families throughout the country: Bethel, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Four Square, and a host of others. In spite of different traditions, Jesus’ love implored us to rediscover the hope of our salvation, to go low in prayer and so raise high the Cross for one Church and one goal for all her members—chastity, the gift of an undivided life.
Jesus made us green, free to actualize our hope. Hope apprehended ceases to be hope. So we left Malibu, ready to fight. Not hard. He gave all to gain us and we shall do the same for those we love: one prayer, one confession, one conversation, one transformation at a time.
The din surrounding Trump’s presidency invites me to sink into the Source, like a child escaping the surface noise by descending into a pool. There I hope to discover a hidden fount that liberates prayers for the man. Nothing else will do. Only the God who meets us in weakness, in silence, can help us now.
Last week I walked through two walls of protesters screaming ‘F**k Trump’ outside an airport. Amid the assault, I noticed one man holding a placard which displayed one of my favorite verses: ‘Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were once aliens in Egypt’ (EX 22:21). I thought of the Latin Americans I know who have helped revive the heart of Church and family in the north. For a flash, I wondered what kind of border best preserves the dignity of all persons, not only US citizens but also aliens in our midst whose gifts are greater than our fears. My thoughts dissolved in the barrage of vulgarities. Silence. Pray for the man.
I returned home to hear Madonna on the DC Mall muse on her plans to blow up the White House (she decided against it) while Ashley Judd coined her ‘Nasty Girl’ protest to protest nasty Trump. Another femme fatale lamented that she hadn’t machines guns in her vagina to aim straight at Trump. Hmmmm. More disturbing was the awareness that close Christian friends marched in smaller versions of ‘Women against Trump’ only to discover that they were unwittingly championing transgender and abortion rights. Since when does any man’s boorish persona justify a woman’s ‘freedom’ to annihilate her birthright or the child in her womb? Silence. Pray for the man.
Like you, I shudder at Trump’s self-congratulatory ways, how he apparently stays up all night to tweet back the stones hurled at him during the day. I pray that others might help him lose himself long enough to discover what best safeguards the dignity of all persons. His task is a crushing one. I love this country and honor the office of the presidency so I shall advocate for Trump’s best on my knees.
I am helpless on the water’s surface. Fox and CNN both confound me. Silence. I shall sink into the Source and pray.