I’m sitting in someone’s living room. The home owner is there also sitting across from me, and lying beside her feet is a lion. He just sits there perfectly content as the woman assures me he is tame and harmless and won’t so much as sniff me. But then she gets up and leaves the room abruptly. I sit there for a moment, a little unsure about being there alone with the unusual pet, so I decide to slowly stand and leave. But it is too late. The lion rises, walks towards me and the next thing I know he leaps and knocks me down from behind, his mammoth teeth sinking into the back of my neck. I can feel blood dripping down, quite certain I am in my last moments of life. I lie curled on the carpet, playing dead, as the lion sort of half lays across my back, so close I can feel his coarse, wiry mane against me; his paws across the back of my arms.
Abandoning hope that I will ever escape from this, my prayer is peaceful, yet with the utmost urgency: “Jesus, in these moments, prepare me to come, help me through with trust that You have me and will guide me through this passage, and that all is well.” For several minutes I stay in this intense prayer, still feeling the blood, the beast, and waiting for the final blows to come. And then suddenly the lion rises and simply walks away. When I finally dare to open my eyes and look around, he is nowhere to be found. I realize I am alive and okay, and I get up and run out of the house, still feeling the blood drip off of the back of my neck.
Then I awoke.
I’ve had two more dreams since like this in recent months, one in which there was a remarkably bad decision made on my part which led to potentially disastrous consequences. The other had a human predator bearing down on me, poised to destroy. In both, some “unexplained force” intervenes and the threat is instantly removed. I am left wounded but not overtaken. In none of the three dreams did I ever see a conclusion, a sign of what happened next. In all three I had been knocked down and at the end of myself.
I share this not to get tangled up in a debate about dream interpretation, for whether a rhinoceros is symbolic of bad breath or any such thing is not of my concern.
But reflecting on these dreams has helped me see something greater I’ve been struggling with.
I have not gone through any traumatic, near-death experiences lately. I’ve gone through annoying, thoroughly superficial, whine-inducing American trials that have messed with my plans and have served to show me how untransformed I remain in attitude. I already didn’t like snow and winter before this particular one ever descended upon us, and as well as 90% of the rest of the northeast, I am tired of all of it. I am tired of how it wreaks havoc with the schedule, of how a storm can instantly force you into more “quality family time” that you could ever possibly desire to have in a three-week time span, of driving in paralyzing fear while freezing rain dances off the windshield, of the damage to one’s property and nuisance to one’s agenda that weighed-down, broken icy trees produce, and the arctic cold and required bundling up and incessant search for mittens that were just worn mere hours beforehand, repeated over and over and over again. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. (Incidentally, I have snow pile roughly the size of an iceberg on my front lawn.)
As I examine my attitudes and choices lately in regards to the stuff of life in both the deep and superficial alike, my heart is broken over how little it takes to reveal the dark residue of the sin nature that remains in me. But, seemingly, not broken enough. After all, wouldn’t I be zealously determined to change? And so another go-around of this cycle begins where I am disappointed in myself over not being disappointed in myself enough. It all has a very unhealthy feel to it, and yet it seems too scary to stop. I mean, if I stop feeling disappointment in myself when I miss the mark, who knows how far I will wander away?
When I stop and reflect, I realize I’ve been trapped in this cycle for a long, long, long time. On one hand, it has kept me on the narrow road. But I’ve been so bent over from the crushing weight of this self-disappointment that it’s a struggle to even notice the beauty surrounding the road at times; so caught up in my own wailing that I do not hear the winds of grace and truth whispering across the road. More and more and more and more and more I believe that this is just as much a tragedy in the Lord’s eyes as never finding the narrow road to begin with.
For some of us, dropping that load is extraordinarily risky. The heavy baggage of self-disappointment reminds us of all we have not become yet and we use that reminder to stop us from celebrating anything too prematurely, for fear that we might blindly dance right off the road and back into darkness and lose what we’ve gained. It’s hard to fit all the puzzle pieces together of grace and hope and mercy and working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling. I guess I think fear and trembling should feel heavy. Shouldn’t they?
But Jesus invites me to trust Him that He’s already carried these things, these failures and self-disappointments, though I may still feel their presence with me. He promises that the yoke is easy and the burden is light, and the more I grow in intimacy with the Savior, the greater I understand what it means to come to Him like a little child, with full wide-eyed belief that this One extending His hand to me is exactly who He says He is, just because He says so. There is only so much of the puzzle that I can envision and understand. Instead, I am drawn to believing in the goodness of the One who designed the puzzle. If He says the burden is light, why do I insist that it should feel otherwise?
Peter failed Jesus. He did everything he claimed he would never do. When the realization hit him as the rooster crowed, just imagine the flattening weight of his self-disappointment. If I were him, I wouldn’t be able to picture the rest of my life any other way than with constantly slogging that load around with me. I think I would be haunted by the deception that self-surety had lead me into. I’d be too afraid to ever let go of whatever I clung to that would anchor me to the narrow road.
But the truth is I have been Peter, and I most likely will be him again. And just as Jesus encounters Peter in John 21 to free him from the heaviness of failure and self-disappointment and to reclaim and redeem all of his moments for good, He does the same for me. However, I see more than simply an opportunity for a second chance; beyond extending hope and forgiveness, I believe Jesus is conveying to Peter that He is committed to seeing him through. Peter won’t be given up on. Jesus can work with and grow whatever little seed of love for Him is in there if we are open to Him. Not only can He, but will He. Not only will He, but joyfully so.
I think fear and trembling are heavy things. I think grace and hope and mercy are, too. Crushingly heavy. But only if carried alone. It is a narrow road, but not so narrow that there isn’t room for Another to walk alongside.
God often shows me His character in real life metaphors, and so I appreciate what He has used this winter to reveal. This week, while shoveling the sidewalks for approximately the 153rd time, I found myself smiling. Gratitude poured through me, and I beamed. I had arms and legs and hands that worked. I had the strength and ability to shovel. I could feel the weight of the snow in my shovel, but it did not keep me from basking in the sun and its light. And it was not crushing me. The lion and the predator did not devour me, and my failures and bad choices are being reclaimed and redeemed for good.