I was rereading parts of Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground this past week. Dostoevsky – a 19th Century Russian writer – is among the pantheon of Great Authors whose works, though rooted deeply in time and place, transcend them. His massive sprawling novel The Brothers Karamazov stands as one of the uncontested masterpieces of world literature. It is in my top five favorite novels.
Notes from Underground is something else entirely. It’s the jumbled confession of a jaded twisted man, immersed in his own torment and misery. It amounts to one of the bleakest portraits ever rendered of man alone, man without friend, without God, without hope. “I am a sick man,” the confession begins. “I am a spiteful man.” Thus launches a misanthropic tirade of burning resentment, choking self-pity, and vicious self-loathing.
The book proved prophetic. Increasingly, the nameless anti-hero of the Notes resembles us, or we him: a people longing for the admiration of others without the burden of them, wanting applause without having to earn it, bearing grudges for the slightest slights. A people who throw off God, thinking it’s liberation, and who only end up impoverished and enslaved, captive to our own dark selves.
Dostoevsky was a Christ-follower – a troubled one, to be sure, but with a deep grasp of God’s extravagant grace. His later works – The Idiot, Crime & Punishment, The Brothers K – are breath-taking testaments to the transforming and liberating power of the Christ who meets even the least of us in the most unlikely places.
The relationship in The Brothers K between the simple saintly Alyosha and the brilliant embittered – and rabidly atheistic – Ivan is alone worth the price of that book and the effort of reading it. Ivan’s logic is hard to refute, but Alyosha’s life is hard to resist. We find the atheist semi convincing, but the saint entirely compelling. Alyosha’s soul draws us with its beauty. Ivan’s soul repels us with its ugliness.
It strikes me, leafing through the Notes, that Dostoevsky was sketching all this out, and with it issuing a warning: that among the many horrors of rejecting Christ, not least is a soul that grows ugly.
Thus I begin my confession: I am a forgiven man. I am a thankful man.
Bunk Mates in Heaven
A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”
I laughed, and then didn’t.
I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.
I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.
Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.
Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?
But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?
Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.
So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):
- Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
- Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
- Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
- Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.
There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?
When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.
How’s that going for you?
We're on a night train to Paris – a marathon journey that starts in Venice, the City of Bridges, stops at a handful of Italian centers – Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Milan – before heading into the Alps and ending, almost 14 hours later, in the heart of Paris, the City of Lights.
Our 12 days in Italy have been amazing – from the spectacular coastline of southern Italy, to the lush vineyards of Tuscany, to the magic of Venice's canals and gondoliers.
Best of all, Cheryl and I celebrated 27 years of marriage today. We began with breakfast on the Grand Canal of Venice and finished in a dining car somewhere between Padua and Milan. In between, we threaded through a maze of Venetian streets and wandered in and out of shops of handcrafted glassworks and Italian leather and silk.
I'm a blessed man, to walk with Cheryl by my side these past three decades – it's been that long if you count our courtship. Every year gets better – we get more playful, more thoughtful, less reactive. We value the other more deeply. I think we are more hopeful. We've been through a lot – glories and messes, breakthroughs and let downs, tragedies and windfalls. Such things either season you or shrivel you. Mostly, I'd say, it's seasoned us.
It's not that we don't have our episodes – crankiness, testiness, wondering when this person will finally fully get with the program. But those moments get further apart and shorter in duration. And what more and more rises to the surface is deep abiding thankfulness, to God and for each other.
I'm on a night train to Paris, and think I'm the luckiest man alive.
To the lady of my life, all my love, always.
My mother used to sing, in a scattershot way (she forgot entire lines and stitched the holes together by humming and mumbling), songs from Fiddler on the Roof. I grew up listening to her, in her low alto like a man’s baritone, declaiming, “If I were a rich man…,” arms akimbo, kick-stepping like she was leading a line dance at some bar mitzvah. And I can still see her moving about the house in sweeping motions, crooning, “match-maker, match maker make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch,” filling in with gibberish words she couldn’t recall.
But she would tear up when singing “Sunrise, Sunset.” Sometimes she’d stop mid-phrase, words catching in a thickness of emotion. I didn’t understand why. She said I would one day.
That day would be Wednesday.
Cheryl and I took our girls to Chemainus Theater’s excellent production of Fiddler on the Roof the night before I drove Sarah to the airport and kissed her goodbye. She’s off to university in Quebec. When Tevye, Fiddler’s bewildered father, began to sing at his eldest daughter’s wedding the opening line from that song – Is this the little girl I carried? – I lost it. I sat in my chair trying to hold myself in one piece. And then the chorus came and sent me over the edge:
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears
I know the sadness of sorrow is great. But the sadness of happiness is great, too: to have loved and been loved, deeply, and then to endure the inevitable separations and losses life brings. Love makes us vulnerable. Simply, in love we wound easily.
So forgive me if you notice me limping slightly, moving slower.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m thrilled with and for Sarah. She is a beautiful woman of faith and courage. She’s always had an appetite for adventure, and I knew that God gave her to us – as he does with all children – to shape her heart, not supress her personality. I sensed from early on that she would leave us sooner than later, chasing some big wild dream. So be it.
Still, there’s no preparing. I stood Thursday morning at the airport security gate, rummaging for something wise to say. Nothing came. Only, “I love you. I’ll miss you. I’m proud of you.”
Which, I guess, is wisdom enough.
And then, just like that, the little girl I once carried walked away. I returned to my car, feeling tremendously old. Feeling the sadness of happiness. Wishing for nothing to be otherwise, and yet, and yet….
O mother, now I understand.