February 13, 2008

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

The story of the young man with his many possessions has always haunted me. Matthew 19:16-22 is where you can find it. While this poignant gospel scene has popped up in many a stewardship (or better, church budget) sermon, I guess I have never really felt that the crux of this ephemeral conversation was really about money. It's more about saying goodbye, about breaking up. It is about leaving behind one relationship and choosing to foster (follow) another.

We all have our certain crutches, to greater or lesser degrees. Crutches: habits, ideas, fantasies, possessions to which we cling tightly because we believe, however erroneously, that they will get us through. We believe that they will be there for us when others will not. We suppose they will save us … from facing the truth, from coming to grips, from being alone. In that way, they feel like old friends to us. Companions. And like an old man with his literal crutch, we hobble along through life with these "friends" of ours. Each step is painful, but even pain can be comforting in its familiarity.

That's the problem for our young text-friend. He has a relationship with his stuff that is too entrenched, too familiar, too much an integral part of his life for him to imagine saying goodbye. Indeed, breaking up is hard to do. This is how I read the deep sadness of the twenty-second verse. He grieves what he knows he cannot, or will not do.

But what really haunts me, I suppose, is that at the end of this conversation about relationships and decisions, our Jesus lets him walk away.

Some part of me wishes that our Lord would in a dash go running after him, claiming our friend after all—Jesus giving up his stake in a kind of divine game of chicken. But he does not. Somehow, amid his inscrutable predestined grace, God still manages to guard enough freedom for us to walk away.

Like many a teenager, years ago I probably settled too often for friends of a lower quality—and here I mean the human kind—because, even though I knew in the end they would probably be no good for me, they were available. They were present in the moment. And sometimes in the harsh data of the moment, it is hard to trust that anything will get better in the future. So it was for the Hebrew children of old: Egypt may have been slavery and suffering, but at least it was predictable and well-known. Freedom is hard won when an unlikely future seems too far away. See Exodus 14:10-12 for more on such fears.

All I know is that we are mostly creatures of comfort. We are willing to entertain even the worst of habits and ideas and behaviors if it means stability, familiarity, consolation. And even when we know our old cronies are no good for us, even when we learn that we always get into trouble when we hang around together, the prospect of being alone in our newfound freedom is often too much to bear.

Again, this kingdom-exchange between our young friend and our young savior is not about money at all; not about things, either. It is about leaving old securities behind. It is about breaking up with one in order to be engaged to another. Religion he can do. Morality and decency he already practices. But the call of Christ hits him hardest when it asks him to leave behind his old friend-who-is-no-friend at all.

In these moments the calling of Jesus to new/free life can seem so crazy, so impossible. But I imagine that Christ is most alive in us, for us, precisely in those risky but righteous moments—those junctures of trust when we feel deep within us that frightening/wonderful call to leave behind the old and embrace the new. I do not imagine these calls come because our Lord relishes our sin suffering or delights in our raw difficulties. I imagine they come because, in the end, there can be no life abundant as long as there are competing claims. Our comforts are no longer holy when we worship them.

Our Comforter is a jealous God, not likening the competition we so regularly stack up against him. So the One who deserves our worship will likely ask us to give away our crutches until we are able to walk behind him unhindered in his Friday-Sunday way.

To walk away from Jesus in burdened-sadness; to walk toward him in trusting-fear. Those are the only options for most of us, on most days. The former is familiar and safe—granted. The latter, however, is surely abundant life.