Have you ever tried to pray when you felt really dirty? You want to go to God but you just can’t bear to have Him look at you because you’re sure He’ll be angry or, worse yet, turn away in disgust. Maybe it’d been a while since you prayed or maybe you had some things going on in your life that highlighted just how selfish and rotten you could be. Have you ever felt like that? Yeah, me neither….
When I start to feel this way, like I’m too dirty for God to even look at, I open the scripture and just start reading through some passage to see what happens. I did that this morning with the Second letter of Peter to the churches. It starts out this way…
Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ: May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.
The part that really caught me was “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Peter was writing to Christians who were being tossed about by questions of the legitimacy of the gospel, the trustworthiness of the scripture, and all sorts of other things, not to mention issues of personal morality. But, he says that they have obtained a faith of equal standing with his, the apostle who walked with Jesus every day, and was busy preaching the gospel and writing what would come to be known as “scripture.” These weak, doubting, morally questionable people had obtained a faith of equal standing with the apostle. But, how?
Peter makes that clear when he says, “…by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” A true faith that “stands” is grounded in the righteousness of Jesus, not in our own righteousness. Our God and Savior, Jesus Christ, did what we never could; He pleased God everywhere and always. So, what Jesus did (and all the stuff He didn’t do) is the reason I can stand in faith before God. And, to stand in faith before God is to be totally loved and radically accepted by Him.
As an old sage once said, “It’s much easier to hug a dirty kid than a stiff kid.” Jesus came to make dirty kids huggable. Crazy love.
It’s a haunting image of Philip Seymour Hoffman taken in black and white on crinkled paper that looks as if it had been wadded up, thrown away and then retrieved. It is one of the last images taken before his death. Why I am so struck by the picture is hard to say. His face emerges from the darkness, the disheveled dirty blond hair suggest a struggle; a thick face shrouded in days of whiskers reveal that the fight had been long. His eyes, heavy with sadness, suggest that the battle had already been lost, along with all hope.
Within two weeks of that picture being taken, the dragon of despair would claim yet another artist who sought, at all costs, to tell the truth.
I wasn’t always aware of Hoffman’s uncanny ability to incarnate the deep parts of the human soul with such disconcerting accuracy. Perhaps it was his unique humanizing of the narcissistic author in the self-titled film Capote that first captured my attention. I don’t remember much of him before that movie, except that he was Robin Williams’ tightly wound medical school roommate in Patch Adams, a character he delivered so well I was convinced that that was his true-to-life personality.
It was his role as Fr. Brendan Flynn in Doubt that caused me to look at him with a new degree of artistic reverence. Even as I watched his character try to spin perception and control circumstances to conceal his own darkness, I wondered how Hoffman understood so well the terror and turmoil, the anxiety and cunning of a whiskey priest on the run from his own soul.
Since that one cinematic experience, I’ve watched Hoffman’s character portrayals with an ominous sense knowing that I would see something of myself, which I would prefer to remain hidden.
Film critic David Edelstein offered the following observations:
"99% of actors fight to come off more, not less likable. That's their vanity. Hoffman's vanity was a kind of anti-vanity. He homed in on the grotesque: he thought you'd have more empathy for people who were reprehensible because down deep, he said, we all know how flawed we are.
My guess is he was pretty hard on himself. Perhaps that made him a good candidate for addiction -- and the dragon that would deliver oblivion. Perhaps. Now we curse that dragon, but give thanks that for so long Philip Seymour Hoffman used his demons to help us see with such incredible vividness our own."
There have been others who share Hoffman’s artistic courage as well as the crippling despair that often seems to accompany it. I wrote about a group known as The 27 Club on the occasion of Amy Winehouse’s premature and heartbreaking death a few years ago.
And, as at the passing of Winehouse and now with the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I am reminded that the courage to confront the killing darkness that lies half-hidden in our own lives comes from friendship with the One for whom the darkness as is noonday light. There has only ever been One who dove through the hell of darkness He didn’t deserve so that the same darkness that threatens our very souls would be rendered powerless.
“The Light (Jesus) shines into the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.” John 1:5[Read more about The 27 Club]
One of my favorite professors in seminary was a baldheaded, salty old sage who smoked a pipe and laughed all the time. In a place where almost everyone was serious, maybe too serious, he was always relaxed and happy. He was so comfortable in his own skin that you couldn’t help but feel comfortable around him. Somehow, his peace was stronger than your hell. And, all the students flocked to him. We used words like funny and cool, which were the best we could do to explain the attraction.
To hear his story and the road he had traveled to that point, it made no earthly sense that he ended up anywhere on the peaceful side of town. He grew up, the child of an alcoholic, in a home where he was constantly dodging terror or trying to disappear when he couldn’t get away from it. If there was a loving God, he sure never came around his house. He grew into a pleasure seeking agnostic and become a DJ at a popular rock and roll radio station in the seventies. But then Jesus happened to him - he was ambushed by a radical grace that changed everything. And, everything was new.
This loveable old sage taught me lots of things, more through his infectious happiness than by his words - but his words were good, too. Really, good. That’s what made him so powerful - his words and life were the same.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a phrase he used to describe his life and what he called his “Mission.” He said, “I’m a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.” If he’d said it once, he’d said it a thousand times. And I’ve thought about it a million times. “I’m a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread.”
When I heard him say it the first time, I exhaled like I had been holding my breath without realizing it for years. Regardless of how it looked from the outside and what I had accomplished in life, deep down, I knew I was a beggar. I knew that what I wanted most, what I needed, like the air, was the kind of life and love and peace and contentment that had to be given from above. Mine was not a story of a terrible childhood or a lack of opportunity or anything like that. Somehow I knew that what I wanted most didn’t come by DNA or wealth or hard work – it would have to come by grace.
The word beggar comes from the old French and means an impoverished person or one who prays. But, who wants to look needy? For my part, I had spent so much time constructing walls around the deep-down beggar in me that no one would ever guess how much I wanted bread, how much I needed it. I was highly proficient at projecting exactly the opposite of what I felt. What’s worse, if you “win” enough, you may even be able to forget about that lonely beggar…but only for so long.
It took a happy, vulnerable old sage with courage enough to speak his truth to break through those high walls that I had constructed and it felt like pure, clean air to me.
The bread that the old sage spoke of was Jesus, of course; the kind of bread that fills the hungering dark in me that nothing else can touch. Now I, too, on my good days, am a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread. And, though I still fall victim to the gospel of starvation more than I’d like to admit – that’s when I pursue the bread of accomplishment and achievement that turns to dust in my mouth – I’m happiest when I am at peace as a beggar, a pray-er, and Jesus feeds me with himself.