…before you light a fire, you should be a fire…

Today I will lean on a couple of excerpts from a book that I’m reading currently by Henri Nouwen. The book, “Letters to Marc About Jesus”, is a collection of letters that Nouwen wrote to his then nineteen year old nephew. His intentions were to offer a look at the inner life in an understandable way, and to ground and root the points in the person and work of Jesus.

In the second letter, Nouwen talks about freedom, specifically freedom in Christ. He refers to the passage in Luke where the resurrected Jesus takes up a walk with two of His followers. They didn’t recognize Him until later in the story, but something happened on that dusty road as they talked, something very internal. It later caused the men to explain it by saying that their “heart’s burned within” them. Nouwen speaks of what’s going on in this scene in terms that are expected of a Christian mystic like himself, but these terms are not unfamiliar with the rest of us:

Are you beginning to see what I’m getting at? Cleopas and his friend had become different people. Because they had experienced for themselves that the Jesus whom they had mourned for was alive and closer to them than ever, their hearts were born again, and their inner life was made radically new. That’s something quite different from coming to a new conviction or acquiring a new outlook on things or undergoing a change of opinion. Something much more profound than that had happened to these two. The Jesus they had seen had come not only into their home, but into their hearts as well, so that they were enabled to share in the new life he had won through his death…

It was a freedom that went much further and deeper than the freedom for which they had hoped and dreamed; a freedom that invaded their hearts to the very depths; a freedom that no earthly power, Roman or Jewish, could take from them. It was a freedom of the spirit: a freedom from any specific political, economic, or social expectations for the future, a freedom to follow the Lord now, anywhere, even if it should mean suffering.

– Henri Nouwen, “Letters to Marc About Jesus”

Nouwen beautifully draws the distinction between a “new outlook…or a change of opinion” and what Jesus actually did for these men. I read this several days ago and have been pondering this distinction since. I wonder, in a reflective way, just what the implications are for us, for me, if we begin to see redemption without beginning with the “new outlook” part of it. I fear that we have made Christianity so pragmatic in our Western, have-it-now culture that we may be unintentionally robbing the life of redemption of its deepest power. The truth of the matter is that Christianity, as the Bible defines it, does not begin with “doing” anything different, it always begins by literally “becoming” something different. Many movements, religions, schools of thought, and even clubs “do” things in particular ways; and often these “doings” make the paving for the individual to perhaps become something better. But Christianity stands alone in its claims that we “become” first and only then do we begin to see change.

The two men from Emmaus likely didn’t do much differently that night after Jesus disappeared. They were likely encouraged of course, and they did share their experience with the rest of the followers of Jesus, but they likely didn’t change profession, eat differently, attempt a new accent, or try to change their strong hand. So despite what could have looked, to the untrained eye, like inactivity and therefore indifference to the risen Jesus, that wasn’t the case at all. Something had happened, but you couldn’t see it unless you could get a peak into their soul. With Jesus’ abrupt departure these men were left sitting at a table, with bread half chewed in their mouths and wine cups sloshing in their hands, they were confused and shocked and maybe a little bewildered…but what’s more than that, inside their chests they were on fire. And as time went on that fire would eventually consume their hands, feet, tongue, and mind, but for that night it was enough to  sit back in awe of the conflagration that had begun in the depths of their being. 

Sometimes friends, we will stall in our attempts to change and become different for the simple reason that we’ve started trying to do what we’re supposed to before we know who we are. It would be the sanctifying act in the world for some of us to be still, turn off every electronic thing we own, pray that God would open our ears, and then just sit and listen to the crackle of the blaze in our souls. Then, and only then, we will get a sense of just what it is we are supposed to be doing.

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