The BEMA (βῆμα, בּימה ): Spiritual Life on the Big Island
By accepting our weakness and emptiness, and having Christ fill us, redeem us and live in us, we leave the island of self-captivity and cross over into a new island. We live, you might say, in a new spiritual place. We carry on an inner dialogue with Christ, silently praying for wisdom, insight and strength to do what we should, and most of all, asking Jesus to dwell in us in all of our situations. We ask to have Christ’s perspective, His mind and heart, and stop trying to work and strategize to please Him on our own, or by our own sense of rightness. Because we often get distracted, too busy and too caught up in what Francis Schaeffer called “the tyranny of the urgent”, we get pulled off course, lose perspective, and frankly get dried out by the everyday journey on this island. Sometimes we, thanks to God, catch ourselves wandering back towards the first island, and, if obedient, have to turn ourselves again to abiding in Christ. But we expect to get better at it, and to get more at ease with practising the presence of Jesus. Don’t we?
Not so fast, pilgrim. This can be a very dry and even tedious place to dwell. The second island may well be our dwelling place for a prolonged period of our life. Christ will, through prayer and the discipline of Christian fellowship (that is, honest interaction) bring us face to face with some of our persistent actions and attitudes which lead us into sub-Christian behaviour. We discover that being a follower of Jesus is more than avoiding certain deeds and habits – it is having our entire mind, our heart, our world view, our loves and our fears being transformed. Like brushing our teeth and getting exercise, it takes time and persistence to see results or maintain our health. Some of us have dramatic experiences and breakthroughs, while others seem to have to learn the same lesson over and over again, though often with the stakes being higher as life goes on.
That’s my experience. I find trusting Christ with situations I can’t change is getting more challenging as I live longer on this island. Prayers I used to see answers come for quickly and almost constantly today seem to take forever for God to answer. Sometimes the answer seems to be never coming, or perhaps may be denied. I picture myself like a relative at a bus station, waiting for a special reunion with a loved one when the next bus comes in. Sometimes it seems the buses come and go, and that special one is never on board. Jesus keeps asking me to trust Him. Often that is just hard. Hope is more and more a deliberate choice, in the face of feelings of disappointment. If it wasn’t for the encouragement of other often more experienced Christians telling me their time on the island has been like this I would doubt that I was making any spiritual progress. Jesus keeps saying, “Trust”. I ask, “How much longer?” He only smiles.
The mystics say at times like this, we should be dying for joy, for God is powerfully at work in ways totally hidden from us. When we feel most like failures, He is most able to get his invisible work done in us. When we feel that our attitude is mean and our life is a desert on this second island, can it be because we are becoming truly aware of just how much we need Him, and how much our own idea of what a Christian life should be is just a house of cardboard? Alison my artistic daughter makes a doll’s house out of glued-together cheap romance novels. She makes a point about what she feels women her age are expected to do with their lives (and a tribute to the famous play by Henrik Ibsen). I have to ask myself, have I made a house papered with my own little expectations of Christian life? Is it a child’s house? Is it any wonder that I am not happy in it when Jesus is spiritually pulling me to leave it and travel on with only Him as my shelter?
Let’s look at Paul. Not the Paul that most of us learn from, study and celebrate which some preachers and cheerleaders quote and dwell on. I mean, let’s read past the image of Paul the perfect and read the lesser known (and never preached on) Paul the loser. Paul, shall we say, the mourner of his own imperfections and weakness? Paul who discloses that sometimes he feels like a wretch, because he is just that – a wretch. We forget that Paul, unlike me and (it seems) unlike many public Christians, never pretends to be humble. He just is, because he never loses sight of the huge gap between Jesus and his glory and his own dry, self-centred, weak, contentious and often tedious self-righteousness. The only way out of ourselves, shows Paul, is pursuing Jesus. But don’t expect that to make us contented with ourselves, or feeling better about life. As Paul says, the present stuff can’t compare with the glory coming. We are not supposed to feel comfortable right now. We are not supposed to have an improving self-image of our discipleship. Instead, the more we compare ourselves with Jesus, and the more we want to quit – almost. Like Peter, another man not in touch, at first, with his limitations, we say, “depart from me, for I am a sinful man”. But we don’t stop there. We say, “But you have the words of eternal life”. And like Bartimaeus, when he received his sight, we follow Jesus down the road.
Feel better yet?
On this island, I have learned (with extreme reluctance and much whining about it), that when I want to feel holy, when I want to feel righteous, when I want to feel really spiritual with deep understanding and insight, pure and noble of heart, I am wanting to live in a cardboard house papered with lies. I want to believe that this is the real thing, but Jesus just won’t let me live there. He insists that I see myself as I really am, and the little Christian world I want to live in as the shack it really is, just so He then can give Himself more completely. And surprisingly, to me, I feel more solidly rooted in my faith and obedience the less I trust myself and the more I trust Him to get me through. The more I pray, “Have mercy”, and the less I try to earn it, the more I am certain Christ has placed it there for me.
And you know, I do feel better when I get to this point. Not because I have achieved any exalted state, but because I look around at the communion table, and see lots of people just like me, who are looking at Jesus with me. I am part of a group of travellers who are on this island with me, who I do not even want to try to fool about myself, about my sense of spiritual poverty, about my need for Jesus and His Presence.
At Communion, we all come out of our cardboard shacks and gather at the shining table, invisible yet so, so powerful, and with great thanks pledge to keep walking, following the Master. Week by week we walk across this island, having moments of blessedness and joy (my experience has shown that it is not ALL hard labour!) but also continually losing our grip on “being a good Christian” in order to live in the sometimes invisible light of Grace – God’s good favour towards us. I used to find it hard to believe that God could smile about me, much less that Jesus could smile at me, until I faced up to my absolute poverty before Him. Now I can hardly imagine Him doing anything else but smile at me, and into me.
When we admit we have less, we enjoy More. I hope I am not the only one having this experience on the Second Island, but even if I am, that is good enough for me.