Five hundred years ago there was a group of Christians living in Europe known as Anabaptists. These are not to be confused with today’s Baptists, though the groups do share some points of common history. The name Anabaptist was not so much a description as it was a condemnation.
The Anabaptists were “anti-baptizers,” scorning infant baptism and a heap of other cherished church doctrines. Because of this, and their refusal to join their faith to the ruling civil powers, they were violently persecuted by governments, Catholics, and Protestants alike.
One such persecution broke out in Holland, and while there were some genuine fanatics in the Anabaptist tribe, the simple, compassionate, and the innocent were gobbled up as well (as is always the case). One such innocent was a man named Dirk Willems.
On a winter day a bailiff was sent to arrest Dirk on the charge that he had been holding secret religious meetings in his home and had allowed others to be re-baptized there (a capital offense at the time). Dirk ran for his life, with the bailiff right on his heels, throwing himself across a small ice-covered pond.
The frozen pond held Dirk’s weight and he crossed safely to the other side. The ice, however, did not hold for his pursuer, and the bailiff crashed into the freezing water. Dirk Willems instantly turned back and rescued the man from certain death. For this kindness, Dirk was arrested, tortured, and after refusing to renounce his faith, was burned at the stake on May 16, 1569, by the ruling Calvinists.
Here is the lingering question: “Why did Dirk Willems turn back?” Dr. Joseph Liechty answers, “It was not a rational choice…not an ethical decision. It was an intuitive response. No combination of mental calculations could have carried him back across the ice. The only force strong enough to take Dirk back across the ice was an extraordinary outpouring of love…the love taught and lived by Jesus.”
When Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you,” he was not issuing a commandment, easily followed like a driver heeding a traffic signal. He was calling his followers to go against the grain of human instinct, to embrace an alternative way of life, one infused with an automatic, “intuitive” compassion.
This is a spiritual formation to which to aspire: That when we encounter hate, suffering, injustice, frustration, or tribulation, to be able to respond with spontaneous, ferocious love. Where we don’t have to deliberate, ruminate, or cogitate about it. Our response – our compassion-shaped reflex – is goodness not hate, blessings not curses, and prayerfulness instead of vengeance.
Summarily, it is to be “compelled by the love of Christ.” That is the explanation for why Dirk Willems turned back, and it is a real solution for a real future, for “turning back” to the way of sacrificial love, is the only way forward.
Donald Eugene Lytle would have been 80 years old this month, but had lived too hard for too long to die as an old man. Addictions, bankruptcies, tangles with the IRS, a two-year prison sentence: Lylte burned out instead of faded away. The world knows him by his stage name – Johnny Paycheck – one of country music’s most legendary outlaws.
Of his biggest hits is an autobiographical tune that comes to my mind every Mother’s Day weekend. It’s entitled, “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised, ” a classic honky tonk number about a hard-working mom who loves Jesus and singing “Rock of Ages.” She does her best to keep her son on the narrow road, but try as she might, he turns to the devil’s ways and the boy’s life becomes a lamentable disaster.
As a parent, though, I wouldn’t mind rearing kids who turned out to be somewhat rebellious. I don’t want them living a life of crime, and certainly I prefer not to hang their mug shots on my refrigerator door; but neither I nor their mother want our children to lead boring, mundane, ordinary lives.
We hope they will do more than stick with the herd; that they will refuse to be pacified, numb managers of existing conditions. We don’t want them to just “go along to get along,” because this world needs people with true courage more than it needs corporate cogs. It needs individuals who will not shill for the status quo, but who will find the bravery to be risk-takers, trouble-makers, and hell-raisers.
Human beings, as we usually exist in this world, rarely live up to our Creator’s intention. We have been tamed, domesticated, and housebroken; taught to be well-behaved, well-heeled, well-mannered and well-managed citizens, instead of glowing, burning, firebrands ready to bring warmth and light to the world.
Audacious parents succeed in a two-fold, paradoxical task: They protect their children from the dangers of the world, and when the time is right, they push their children out into the very perils that were once held at a distance. These parents, with weeping and gnashing of teeth, will have instilled an inner strength that grounds the child, providing clarity and hopefully the nerve to do some righteous rabble rousing when the conditions dictate.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from the confines of a Nazi prison, counseled his young students, saying: “Learn to abandon the pursuit of position. Make a break with the cult of stardom. Be open and upward, connecting with true friends. Find satisfaction in your private life, and discover the courage to live.”
That is the challenge of parenthood: To produce more than another generation of humans, but people who are courageously alive. So mom, don’t worry if your kids kick up some dust along the way. I’ve never met or read about a saint yet without an arrest record. Those who will raise a little holy hell are the very ones we need.
When the final studio album by the Beatles was released this week in 1970, the band had already broken up. As fans know well, the years of grueling tours, their widening creative differences, and the suffering from their own successes, finally finished them off (I have no comment on Yoko). “Finally,” is a strong word, though, as none of the men were yet thirty years of age.
Critics responded to that final album by hurling rotten tomatoes, one writing, “It is the sound of a band falling apart. It is the sound of a band trying to hold it together. It is the sound of an era ending.” And so it was, but the title track has proven to be a lasting treasure: “Let It Be.”
Paul McCartney wrote the song after an epiphany. Completely lost, depressed, and lonely, he was longing for the comfort of his mother. Her name was Mary, and she had died when he was only fourteen. McCartney admits that he was wandering about in his mind, under the influence of God knows what, somewhere between insomnia and sleep, when his mother came to him in a dream.
“My mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Paul, let it be.’ She had visited me at this very difficult point in my life and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it will all work out.”
Waking up inspired, McCartney went straight to his piano and began writing the now classic song, ringing with the assurance, “There will be an answer, let it be…Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” It is a confession of surrender. Not apathy, indifference, or hopelessness, but a song of complete submission and trust.
To most of us, this sounds like losing, like quitting or giving up, but it is actually acceptance. It is accepting how the world really is; accepting the who, how, and why of others; and accepting who we really are – the marvelous, unique, beloved, children of God for sure – but creatures who can control exceedingly little within and around them.
So, let it be and let it go. Stop fighting and struggling. Put down the weight that is increasingly impossible to carry. Make peace with reality. Empty your heart and hands, allowing God to fill the space that is created. This relinquishment of control, this act of surrender, is a necessary and therapeutic way forward.
Yes, when it comes to things that you can do something about, you should do so, with zest. But when facing the questions to which you have no answers, the challenges that you cannot overcome, and the personal suffering that seems inescapable, the song given to Paul by his mother Mary is lasting wisdom. You can – yes, you can – learn to let it go and let it be, collapsing into a strength and Power greater than your own.