read Luke 16. In Masterpiece Theatre’s runaway hit Downton Abbey, Lady Mary makes a poor choice that goes horribly wrong (involving the exotic handsome Turk pictured above). In contemplating the fallout, she asks Carson, the butler, the following question:
Everything seems so golden one minute, then turns to ashes the next. Can I ask you a question, Carson? Have you ever felt your life was somehow…slipping away? And there was nothing you could do to stop it?
I think everyone feels that at one time or another.
It’s a touching moment of honesty between master and servant, the kind of upstairs downstairs intersection in which Downton Abbey specializes. The conversation ends with this exchange:
Thank you, Carson. You’ve always been so kind to me. Always. From when I was quite a little girl. Why is that?
Even a butler has his favourites, my lady.
After admitting her vulnerability, Lady Mary receives unconditional love. The vulnerability allows for Carson’s expression of affection. It’s a gospel moment. So what is the “life” that Lady Mary feels is “slipping away”? What is it that Carson agrees “everyone feels”? Is it just the recognition of time passing, of the reality of the aging process? Is it the inevitable result of grandiosity – that we all have ambitions too big for our britches, and as we fall back to earth, the atmosphere singes us along the way? Is it a sense of dreams deferred – drying up, as Langston Hughes once wrote, like raisins in the sun? Or is Lady Mary tapping into a more existential angst, one in which we all feel something slipping away? Is there something we desperately want, something that is even bigger than our delusions of eternal youth, our ambitions, and even our dreams, something we long for but on which we can’t quite put our finger?
Yes. To all of the above. There is a sense in which even as we live our life to its fullest in the height of a noonday sun, we feel the moonshadow of death. We die even as we live. If we live without God, that is a depressing notion. If we live with God, the sense of death enhances rather than diminishes life because we recognize that what will die is everything bad, and what will survive is everything good, rising up our of the ashes, Sphinx-like, refined by fire, shining and golden.
Here’s what I mean: God is love. God is more love than we can ever comprehend. We humans, like the cheating servant in Jesus’ first parable in Luke 16, are constantly calculating, constantly re-evaluating. We make mistakes. We get caught. We scramble. We try to re-position ourselves. We are admired – but not loved – for our shrewdness. We know ourselves – we are, like the cheating servant here, “too proud to beg.” We are also more like the rich man in the second parable than we care to admit. We are content to surround ourselves with as much luxury as we can muster. We have an uncanny ability to think we somehow have “deserved” whatever we have received or earned. We have a sense of entitlement – exhibited not just by the aristocracy in Downton Abbey, but also by the strict hierarchy enforced among the staff. Beggars lying at the gate move us far less than we care to admit. Or rather, they move us, but not necessarily to action.
A life lived for self is an empty hollow shallow life. And yet, without God’s supernatural transforming love inside of us, it is the life to which we are all doomed. No wonder we feel a sense of loss. No wonder we feel something slipping away. No wonder we “curse the space between” our fingers, as my friend Tara Leigh Cobble sings in her song about how everything “that’s good just slips away.”
The alternative to a calculating, shallow, hollow, slipping away life, is to live a life of the Spirit. The alternative is to let go of our selfish ambition, our prideful egos, our sense of entitlement, and instead surrender to God’s will, and His alone. Surrendering to God is a terrifying proposition – and yet it is an exciting exhilarating one, like the feeling of falling in love. So how do we do that? By begging.
Look at the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus does nothing but need. He does nothing but beg. He has no redeeming features. He does no good works. He just lies at the gate, covered in sores, “longing” – and yet when he dies, he is carried by Father Abraham himself up to heaven. Lazarus lies in stark contrast not just to the rich man, but to the deceitful manager in the first parable. The cheating manager says he is “too proud to beg.” Lazarus – the only one given a name in this entire chapter – does nothing but beg. He does nothing but lie on the ground and “long.” His begging gives him a real identity, one that can never slip away.
Begging feels to us prideful humans like the worst thing in the world. But it is the key to transformation. When we long for something more wonderful than we have, it is a good thing. We may think we are longing to be rich, famous, loved and successful – but in truth, we are longing for heaven itself. We are supposed to. God made us for a rich relationship with Him. Our shallow, empty, hollow hearts sense that they were made for more. We sense we are made for sacrificial love. Even as we bargain and negotiate our way through life, we can hear the echoes of the angels singing. We sense a heavenly chorus just beyond our hearing. We strain to hear. Sometimes we do hear. In a turn of phrase, a whisper of a soulful song, a deep grief we feel that stems from even deeper love, or the way the sunlight touches a ballooning mountain of white clouds, we sense the reality of the unseen. The invisible become visible. Upstairs meets downstairs. We know, deep in our spirits, that we are made for more than this – and that is when we start to beg. When our longing becomes intense enough, we find we’re not too proud to beg. We discover we, too, can lie at the gate, admitting we’re full of sores, and long. We ask for the impossible. We beg God to bend down and lift us up.
And God says – I already did. The two worlds of the unseen and seen have met in Jesus Christ, just as upstairs meets downstairs in vulnerability, just as master meets servant in honesty, just as Lazarus meets the rich man in thirst. Jesus Christ, as we are told in Colossians, is “the visible image of the invisible God.” Col. 1:15. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus says there is a great chasm between heaven and hell, which no one can bridge – and so Jesus bridged that chasm for us. Jesus went to hell, so we don’t have to. Jesus suffered the punishment we deserve for our shallowness on the cross, so that God can open the fullness of the heavens up to us. Jesus let his life slip away, so He could give us a real life.
We just have to get over ourselves. We have to die to self. Death feels like the worst thing – but it’s really the best. We die to emptiness, hollowness and shallowness – and instead of feeling our lives slip away – we feel our cups running over. God fills us to overflowing with His love – and our lives, in an instant, change from empty to full. As Jesus says in this chapter, God “knows” our hearts. Luke 16:15. When we begin to know them, too, we cry out for God.
And in begging, therefore, we receive. The clouds part, and all the glories of heaven shine down on us. Our life no longer slips away. Love touches us and transforms everything. The key is humility. Humility unlocks the door to love. Humility is the ability to ask for God’s help wherever we find ourselves. Perhaps that’s why Jesus tells us in this chapter to be trustworthy with the “little” that we have. It’s thinking we have a “lot” that makes us stumble. We are to live life to the fullest by asking for God’s help exactly where we are. We cannot love large – not without God’s transforming love inside us. That love is ours for the asking.
But we shouldn’t just ask for a drop of water, like the rich man in the Lazarus parable. We should beg God for an entire ocean. We should be ambitious and grandiose and thirsty and vulnerable for the things we really want – for unconditional transforming sacrificial love. We should stop pretending to ourselves that riches and worldly success are all we want. We should admit we all, like Lady Mary with Carson, want to be God’s “favorite.” Look at the rich man in hell. Abraham tells him “Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted.” Luke 16:25. Those are chilling words. Be careful, as Sir Frances Drake wrote in 1577, about dreaming “too little.” Be careful about wanting only things in the visible world. Be careful about wanting only things that you can find on earth. Be careful about asking for too little.
Isn’t it time to want more? Denying our need is the only impediment to its being fulfilled. Admitting our vulnerability opens up all the joy, peace, love and kindness of our Creator. The invisible becomes visible. Christ comes inside of us. God lives in us. And instead of slipping away, our lives open up into the infinite. Our lives open up into the very love for which we were made. We become joyful about our lives, knowing that God is weaving even the smallest details into a tapestry so beautiful it takes our breath away – and fills us instead with the breath of the eternal living loving God.
So when you feel your life is slipping away – let it go. And ask God for a better fuller one instead. The only thing holding you back is you.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on February 13, 2012