Saturday, September 29, 2012

Too Much

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell.” (Mark 9.43)


I left college brimming with lofty ambitions and no earthly idea how to make them happen. I kept falling into low-paying positions—private high school English teacher, church music director, freelance movie critic, among others—that required taking odd jobs to stay afloat. After writing a Christmas pageant for my church, a gospel theater troupe engaged me to write a contemporary musical they could produce in Los Angeles and hopefully tour the country performing. They gave me the premise: three talented sisters get famous singing for their local congregation and must deal with tensions between faithfulness and worldly success. I thought it smacked a little too much of Dreamgirls. (The L.A. Times critic agreed in his unflattering review). But it was good money. So I threw myself into cranking out a script worth every cent I’d been paid. In my original version, every imaginable gospel stereotype turned up to, as the Bard put it, “strut his hour upon the stage.”

As we began assembling scenes we’d rehearsed separately, it was all too apparent I’d written too much by half. The first complete run-through timed out at nearly four hours. The producer and director sat down with me to discuss drastic cuts needed to trim the show’s length. They gently assured me they loved everything I’d written. Yet as good as it was, it wasn’t good enough to fasten an audience to its seats until midnight. “Folks will start walking out at 10:30 and by the time it’s over there won’t be a soul in the place,” the producer said, reminding me one or two nights of that would hasten the show’s untimely end. The problem was, I’d fallen in love with every character, every scene and song, every point I wanted the play to make. 

Once it became clear I would push back on the cuts they suggested, the director threw up his hands. “If you had a baby that with 10 arms and legs, would you force it live like a centipede? Or would you have its extra limbs removed so it could succeed?” he asked. Then he said, “These kids have worked really hard to get this play up on its feet. Are you ready to destroy that just so you can hang on to ideas you love so much?” I took out my red pen on the spot and hacked away, sadly—yet firmly—accepting losses that, not five minutes before, seemed too terrible to contemplate. Despite the Times’ reservations, The High Life was hit in L.A. and enjoyed a profitable East Coast tour that helped pay my rent for a couple of years.

Faith Suicide

Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 9.38-50) resounds with echoes of my backstage episode. The disciples come to Jesus in alarm. Someone outside Jesus’s tight-knit circle has been touched by the gospel flame and is now working wonders in His name. The disciples try to stop the impostor, no doubt believing Jesus will appreciate their efforts to control His message. But Jesus’s response surprises them. Rather than acknowledge their good intentions, He praises the outsider for reaching people He might never meet. “No one who does a deed of power in My name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me,” Jesus explains. “Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives a you cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” (Mark 9.39-41) In other words, this person the disciples are so eager to shut down is a true friend—a partner whose efforts advance Christ’s mission. Instead of taking offense at him, they should be grateful and support him!

The warning that arises from this situation is issued not to the outsider, but to the insiders. In attempting to control Christ’s message and discredit the witness of another, they put the outsider’s faith at risk. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in Me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea,” Jesus says. (v43) To ancient minds, the Sea is the most fearsome, deadly place there is. To die at sea is to be lost forever, completely erased from memory, unburied, leaving no proof you existed. Intentionally throwing oneself into the Sea is utter madness. Yet Jesus tells us it’s by far a saner alternative than what we do to ourselves when we contest another Christian's witness. Believers whose faith doesn’t fully square with our own are not against us. They’re for us. And when we try to censure and obstruct their belief, we end up committing a thing worse than faith suicide. Better we should vanish entirely than cause them to stumble, Jesus says. The question concealed in His statement asks us, Are we willing to destroy others just so we can hang on to ideas we love? It’s a big question we all have to answer.

The Trash Heap

As dramatic as this suicidal image is, Jesus isn’t content to stop there. He goes on to summon a series of shocking visuals that remind me of the director’s centipede analogy. When we answer Christ’s call and our faith begins to grow it assumes a life of its own. We easily become fond of certain characteristics, behaviors, and rituals that support the points we want to make with our lives. If we’re not keenly aware of the shape our faith takes, it can become grotesquely deformed and inept. Too much of a good thing is never good. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell,” Jesus advises in verse 43. He says the same of clumsy feet and shortsighted eyes that result in tripping over our good intentions. Better to be lame or blind than land in hell, Jesus says.

The mere mention of “hell” makes a lot of people uncomfortable—which is exactly what Jesus means to do. If we’re to fully appreciate what He’s saying, we have to account for His terminology. Jesus uses Jewish slang here, a metaphorical reference to Gehenna, a valley southwest of Jerusalem where residents burn their rubbish. It’s a foul, suffocating, constantly smoldering trash heap—the most oppressive of all places to live, and hence a common term first-century Jews used to imagine eternal punishment for evildoing. Like drowning, it is a fate worse than death. And we can’t escape Jesus’s implications of what comes of our determination to hang onto ideas and behaviors that cause harm to others and us. It’s not our deficits that send us to the trash heap. It’s our insistence on placing too much value on debilitating ideas and practices that turn us into centipedes stumbling over our faith and tripping up other sincere believers. We mean well, but it’s too much.

Sunday’s Gospel expects us to examine how we live out our faith, to recognize detriments we create by refusing to let go of notions that create divisions and undermine the “little ones” Jesus loves so dearly. It’s not our show. God, our Producer, and Jesus, our Director, warn us that assuming everything we hold dear is vital to their story is a deadly proposition. Our brothers and sisters will suffer. We will suffer. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to reach for our red pens, prayerfully evaluate how much is too much, and start hacking away—not for our sake, but to protect those who stand with us on the Lord’s side, whether we agree with them or not.

Stubbornly hanging on to personal beliefs and philosophies can turn us into faith centipedes. We easily wind up tripping over ourselves and, worse still, risk causing other believers to stumble.