Based on the Gospel lection for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday (photo credit: kirkinthehills.org)

Ash Wednesday (photo credit: kirkinthehills.org)

Here’s the question I want you to ponder upon today (or to return to throughout the Lenten season): Is pretending always a bad thing? Think about that for a moment and let that kind of remain in the background as we consider Jesus’ words this day. Is pretending always a bad thing?

Have you ever found yourself really wishing you could use a proverbial Family Feud ‘X’ whenever you see someone say something or do something with disguised motives? Perhaps you have a really good “Nonsense Radar” or something of the kind. You know what I would really like to do? I would like to have an endless supply of batteries and carry around with me one of those buzzers from the board game ‘Taboo!’ so that whenever I encountered someone being fake or pretending, I could push the button and say, “Quit that pretentious nonsense!”

But what I think would happen if I could use the Family Feud ‘X’ or the buzzer from ‘Taboo!’ would be that I would discover the joke is on me as much as it is on everyone else. Jesus would go on to say in this beloved sermon delivered on a mountain that we will be judged by the same standard which we use to judge others. If I’m brutally honest with myself I think I’d discover that the buzzer would be used as much on me as anyone else.

What is it about hypocrisy that sets Jesus off so badly? The same thing that makes us sick to our stomach when we encounter it (particularly in others or whenever we are the victim of it) – just how ‘fake’ it all is. Hypocrisy is counted among the top reasons that some people say they will never take part in a church – too many hypocrites! Too much “play-acting” and pretending to do the right thing while not really seeking to be transformed on the inside through the process. And that is the real difference. I think we would all agree, in theory, that the goal of following Christ is to grow in such a way that what we do on the outside matches who we are on the inside and that both inside and out, we are focused on the God who sees as much what we do when no one is looking as what we do when everyone is looking.

Jesus brings up three practices of piety – fasting, praying, alms-giving – and doesn’t really exhort us to do these things. Rather, he assumes that we will do these things. I’m convicted of this reality – that we are caught up in a livelihood of consumerism, busy-ness, and hoarding up treasures to such a degree that it is a challenge to actually even do the things that Jesus assumes we will do – fast, pray, and give. But Jesus’ message is less on the action, as that is a given, and more on the manner in which the action is done. That is, what matters is the motive. And that brings me back to the question asked at the beginning – Is pretending always a bad thing? Now our initial reaction may be to think, “Of course all pretention is bad! All pretending is really fake!” But to be a little bit contrary, I’d like to suggest, “Not necessarily!” Please don’t mistake this as a defense of hypocrisy, but do hear me saying that I believe that not all pretending is hypocritical. C. S. Lewis has a chapter in his classic work Mere Christianity devoted to this very idea, entitled ‘Let’s Pretend.’ Lewis wrote, “Even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is a bad kind, where the pretense is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretense leads up to the real thing.”

What matters, again, is the motive. Who is your audience? NOT IF, BUT WHEN you practice these disciplines – fasting, praying, giving – what end are you seeking? Theologian Douglas Hare says it this way: “The practitioner who pretends to be seeking to glorify God but in fact is intent only on seeking self-glory is a hypocrite.” What matters is motive!

But here is where the good form of pretending comes into play; when it, as Lewis put it, leads up to the real thing. He would go on and say, “When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.”

I think we would all agree that at times we find it difficult to obey the commandment of Jesus – “Love your neighbor” – particularly when our neighbor hasn’t been very lovable or we sense in them a great deal of false motives, or that hypocritical pretending that we find so repugnant. In those moments we have essentially three options – 1. We can acknowledge our own negative feelings toward them and ignore or display hurtful behavior toward them (if we take that course, the good thing is that the outer expressions and inner feelings match; that bad thing is that match will only lead to our own decay and destruction); 2. We can save face and pretend to love them by extending proverbial olive branches but be seething in anger and hatred on the inside and find other, more subversive ways to bring harm upon them by talking about them behind their backs or whatever (if we take that course, the bad thing is, to put it bluntly, we are being hypocrites – the outside doesn’t match the inside in any way whatsoever; nor is there a goal for them to ever match); or 3. We can admit in humble, private prayer, that we have a hard time loving that person but that we will open ourselves as a conduit through which God’s love will be poured out upon them through our very own actions. Let’s be honest…this is pretension. But, it is pretension of a different kind. It doesn’t secretly wish the demise of the one we find unlovable. It only wishes good upon them and transformation of ourselves. And herein we find the beauty of grace – that through good pretension we find ourselves transformed by this remarkable God who took on our flesh to transform it. If we take this course, we will discover that even if our inside and outside don’t match for the time being, one day they will, for we are allowing God’s grace to transform us.

In closing, it is what Lewis called our action of “dressing up as Christ.” He says about the Lord’s prayer, which begins with the phrase ‘Our Father’:

If you like, you are pretending. Because, of course, the moment you realize what the words mean, you realize that you are not a [child] of God. You are not a being like The Son of God, whose will and interests are at one with those of the Father: you are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit, all doomed to death. So that, in a way, this dressing up as Christ is a piece of outrageous cheek. But the odd thing is that He has ordered us to do it…

You see what is happening. The Christ Himself, the Son of God who is a man (just like you) and God (just like His Father) is actually at your side and is already at that moment beginning to turn your pretense into reality…you are trying to catch the good infection from a Person. It is more like painting a portrait than like obeying a set of rules…The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as Himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ His kind of life and thought, His Zoe, into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.

That “part that is still tin” is part of why we use these ashes. They are a reminder of our mortality; that we all live on the edge of our own demise; that an old natural self with all its death and destruction tries to rear its ugly head. We remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; but that Life, real Life, as we shall come to see at the end of this journey has an even more final word. But until then, let’s pretend, in the good way – let us dress up as Christ who set his face toward Jerusalem, the place of the cross.

Genesis tells us humans were created in the image of God. The rest of history shows that in essentially every culture throughout the world, humans have returned the favor, imaging the divine in the likeness of us (or at least, like ‘me’).

From the cover of my copy of _Till We Have Faces_; designed by Jason Gabbert

From the cover of my copy of _Till We Have Faces_; designed by Jason Gabbert

From the back cover:

Haunted by the myth of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life, C. S. Lewis wrote this, his last, extraordinary novel, to retell their story through the gaze of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Disfigured and embittered, Orual loves her younger sister to a fault and suffers deeply when she is sent away to Cupid, the God of the Mountain. Psyche is forbidden to look upon the god’s face, but is persuaded by her sister to do so; she is banished for her betrayal. Orual is left alone to grow in power but never in love, to wonder at the silence of the gods. Only at the end of her life, in visions of her lost beloved sister, will she hear an answer.

As far as synopses go, that’s a pretty good one in terms of identifying the flow of the narrative. It is Lewis’ most unique work (that I’ve read anyway) in that there is very little overtly ‘Christian’ about it, though in the book he certainly probed some theological depths that have implications upon various parts of what Socrates would call the ‘examined life’ that other of Lewis’ works don’t portray nearly as vividly as this one. In this masterpiece, Lewis seemed to be wrestling deeply with the ideas of innocence, identity, charisma and power as the main character (Orual) undergoes significant changes throughout her lifetime. Love is revealed, both in some of its purest forms as well as in some rather unflattering and distorted ways, such as jealousy. The nature of sacrifice and theodicy come into play and perhaps the most significant undercurrent is the theme of ugliness vs. beauty, which especially shows up in the ‘veiling’ of two characters—one that is human (Orual) and one divine (Cupid). But amidst it all, ultimately this book is about the relationship between the divine and mortal.

That’s why I began this post as I did with the statement about Genesis, humans and the image of God. This is very much on display throughout the book as nearly all the figures project their own concepts, ideologies and even faults upon the character and image of the gods. There is little, if any, room allowed by several of the people to wonder that perhaps the gods may have different qualities altogether than humans and aren’t just the sovereign possessors of everyone’s fate. For instance, in an encounter with Psyche after the offering, she reveals to her sister Orual the nature of her relationship with Cupid, that she is forbidden to look at him. This implies, to Orual at least, that the god’s face is something too ugly or terrible to be unveiled. The only type of figure who would not desire to be looked upon is someone who is ashamed of their appearance. This, however, likely reveals less about the nature of things and tells us more about Orual’s presumptions, who struggled with her own appearance and wore a veil over her face to cover her perceived ugliness, and those of all created beings who encounter hideous displays of ugliness and oppression. Orual’s action to veil her appearance would become a source of strength and was one way that aided her successful reign over Glome, her nation. Her veil ended up making her appearance carry different sorts of myths among the people as they surmised various reasons for why her face was covered. These myths established and built up her power and put her in conversation with the gods, which is typical of many monarchs throughout history.

But the fact remained, even after Psyche’s attempt to get Orual to see things from a different angle, that Orual only perceived that a god could only have ulterior motives to prevent Psyche from beholding him completely. A level of such trust or obedience that could be achieved between Cupid and Psyche, or even of the need to mask ultimate beauty (rather than ugliness) would be a potential reason for their seemingly odd behaviors—these never crossed Orual’s mind as reasonably possible. In that world, for Orual and others, the character of the gods (if they really existed) could be little if at all different than ugly, manipulative human beings like us. Granted, not even the more noble reasons were among those of why Cupid forbade Psyche to look upon him. But you’ll have to read the book for more on that. 😉

Still, I found myself reflecting on our tendency as humans in a broken world to do like Orual—to project upon the divine our own characteristics, experiences or ways of thinking. Take, for example, this common statement proclaimed by many theists: “God is (like a) Father.” In response to this, the immediate vision that enters the mind of many is that God must be like the father types we’ve known or (for those of us who are fathers) like we are ourselves. For many, this is an unfortunate association because some have only known an erratic, irresponsible, hateful or distant and apathetic figure that occupied the space known as “dad” or “father.” So a picture emerges of a cosmic anger-laden figure with his eyebrows furrowed ready to smite us with one single command all because of something stupid we’ve done, something we’ve done in ignorance, or just because he’s in a bad mood. An out-of-control god. They don’t need to hear “God has wrath” in order to believe it and operate under this as their primary way of viewing the divine reality.

But what is marvelous about Lewis’ framing of the book the way he does is that the whole tenor of the first, and overwhelmingly largest, part of it is couched as a complaint to the gods for the way things are. Like Job, Orual protests that something, someone was wrongfully taken from her and that neither she nor the victim did anything to deserve it. She engages what she knows of the gods, at times apparently committing blasphemy but her charge only reveals that she really could only see things a certain number of ways, none of which completely aligned with ultimate reality. This was because she could not see for herself until she was given the face with the eyes to perceive the mystery that lay behind it all.

There is so much more to share about this and perhaps I’ll write more about it again soon, but that’s all I’m going to say for now. If you have the means to get the book, get it and read it. There is great tragedy and even though there is a good deal of closure by the time the book comes to a close, there are still lots of unanswered questions, which is the nature of things “while we still see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” Yeah, I bet that has a lot to do with Lewis’ way of telling the story.

Happy reading!

“…Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us…” – from the prayer Jesus taught his disciples according to St. Luke’s account (11:4).  This statement, or something near it, is uttered by the lips of most Christians on a weekly, and for some, daily basis. We entreat the God who gives daily bread to forgive our wrongs. In Matthew’s rendering of Jesus’ teaching, that is the only part of the prayer that Jesus returns to immediately in order to exegete: “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (6:14).

One of my New Testament professors, Joel Green, wrote of this part of the most commonly uttered prayer (emphasis mine):

The ‘for’ [of Luke 11:4b] does not introduce a relationship of quid pro quo between divine and human forgiveness, as though God’s forgiveness were dependent upon human activity (6:35; 23:34!). Instead, Jesus grounds the disciples’ request for divine forgiveness in their own practices of extending forgiveness. As in previous texts (esp. 6:36), Jesus spins human behavior from the cloth of divine behavior; the embodiment of forgiveness in the practices of Jesus’ followers is a manifestation and imitation of God’s own character.

The image conveyed here is that of an open or closed hand. If you clinch your fists in holding a defiant grudge, they are not open to receive divine forgiveness either, for forgiveness can only flow through extended arms and open hands (viz. Christ on the cross).

Forgiveness is a significant word in the vocabulary of those of us who claim to have been recipients of Divine forgiveness. We who embrace the forgiveness offered by the crucified One who cried out to his God, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…” find that as we have been forgiven, we are expected to be forgivers when others offend us. Yet what I witness and even feel in many encounters and my own experience where a wrong or injustice has been done is that forgiveness is a term that though often used, is rarely understood or expressed in the delicate yet precarious way I perceive it to be offered by our Lord.

An Historical Case Study

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, in his book entitled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness recounted a time when he was randomly called to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. When Wiesenthal entered the room the patient begged for his forgiveness for atrocities he had committed in his life, particularly of an incident where he took part in the mass murder in a building housing about 300 Jews. This soldier and his comrades had set fire to the building and as Jews tried to escape the flames, they gunned the victims down. Being haunted by the tremendous guilt for participating in such a despicable act and knocking on death’s door himself, the fear of eternal punishment crept in upon this man who begged for “any Jew” to come and absolve him. Wiesenthal listened to his confession, but left the room (never to return) without saying a word.

Wiesenthal pondered and invited the reader to respond to the question of whether his silence was justified or if he should have offered words of judgment or forgiveness to the soldier. His plea for feedback regarding the predicament he faced garnered hundreds of deeply intriguing responses from people of various backgrounds all across the world. I highly recommend my readers to pick up a copy of the work and wrestle with the dilemma, because as the subtitle suggests, the situation raises not solely the question of whether he should have forgiven the soldier, but even challenges the presupposition that he could have done so. The (real or hypothetical) possibility or impossibility of absolving such a person varies according to the worldview of those who have responded and their replies will surprise you, I think.

Our World Today

Wiesenthal’s dilemma brings to the surface the significant differences of people’s approaches to forgiveness. If you think that Wiesenthal not only could have but should have said, “Yes, I forgive you” with ease and then gone on back to his imprisoned livelihood under evil’s grip, then I think you’re greatly underestimating the true costliness of forgiveness. Yet what I hear in the court of public opinion when someone has committed some terrible act or spewed some poisonous and hateful words and it appears in media outlets is that very idea. And forgiveness appears to be packaged that way not only by those advocating for the absolution of the offender but also by those who call for his or her head on a platter. Forgiving someone, in this seeming popular sense, means giving them a clean slate, a free pass, maybe even desiring to let them pick up where they left off before the offense was brought to light.

But forgiveness, as I see it, is not a mere free pass; else we could call it cheap grace. It’s not a blank slate, although to some degree we might call it a second chance. Forgiveness is rarely an instantaneous thing like a simple transaction and is not a merely static reality. Forgiveness, like giving birth or being born, takes time and requires the giving up of something valuable (by both the forgiver and the forgiven) in order to be fully experienced.

I remember being taught that the best way to define justification (a word commonly interchanged with forgiveness in theological circles) as “It is ‘just (as) if I’d‘ never sinned.” Now that’s a clever play on words and gets some of the concept, but ultimately this cliched slogan is insufficient, for it fails to truly wrestle with the reality and depth of the consequences of humanity’s proliferation of injustice, immoral behavior and evil. It also often fails in that it tends to see forgiveness as an end in itself rather than as a means to a more perfect goal: the real change that comes from the Divine life implanted within.

The Mechanics Of Forgiveness: East and West

Although this isn’t always true, it is generally the case that Eastern and Western cultures approach the agents and actions of forgiveness quite differently. A big difference lies in the expected answer to the question: Who takes the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation: the offended party or the victim(ized) party? In most Western paradigms, forgiveness is potential when the offending party approaches the victim(s), expresses sorrow and asks to be forgiven. Forgiveness is achieved if the request is granted. In many Eastern paradigms, I’ve been told that forgiveness is an offer given by the victim(s) in approaching the party who offended [them].

Now consider the paradigm at work in Christ’s ministry of forgiveness, reconciliation, and wholeness.

Forgiveness As Means To A Greater End

I love what C.S. Lewis said about forgiveness that my friend Matt O’Reilly recently pointed out in this post. Lewis said:

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the [person] who had done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.

And this is part of why I’m of a Wesleyan/Methodist brand of Christian. Because the grace that bears with it the forgiveness of sins is free, on the one hand, and costly, on the other, but never cheap nor quick. If forgiveness is all you want, I think you’re not asking for enough. Forgiveness itself isn’t the remedy, but the means to something greater. In forgiveness, Christ sees the mess we’ve made of our world and our lives, yet loves us enough to reconcile us to God’s self, help us see the evil we’ve perpetuated, repent from it, and cooperate with this God whose kingdom comes to end all death, evil and hostility. This opens that path to wholeness and reconciliation, which will bring the work of grace that began in forgiveness to its completion. So as we live and forgive, may we hear and continually speak to one another the good news that both allows us to feel the costliness of our own sin as well as the freedom that comes with declaration of absolution: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

And that, sisters and brothers, opens a window into the unique nature of this divine forgiveness in which we are called to participate. For in the holy mystery that these words accompany, we will discover that forgiveness is much more than an emotional feeling or expression but is a sacramental act that came and comes at such a terrible and great cost. Thanks be to God!