Bobby "Evel" Knievel, the 70s icon of daring-do, has died. At 69, he had spent most of his adult life defying death and avoiding the IRS, but in the end Knievel did not prevail ... at least, not with the Grim Reaper.
I didn't know Mr. Knievel, who was a complex figure even to those who knew him well. Last year he "found God" at Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, where the Rev. Schuller, Sr., baptized him after a profession of faith.
This much I do know: To suggest that we can "ride like the devil" for most of our lives with impunity, so long as we pay God a certain amount of lip service before the final credits roll, is a gamble even more foolhardy than Mr. Knievel's ill-fated leap across the Snake River.
Authentic faith gives us courage to walk the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way; step by step, we extricate ourselves by God's grace from the stubborn bits of self that keep us from experiencing the Fatherhood of God in a way that is ... well, childlike.
Many Christians go through life presuming on the mercy of God. This is the single most damnable flaw of "sola fidae": Those who think they have found a spiritual loophole in God's system of cosmic justice. They don't worry about the long-term effects of pride, or greed, or even lust; they can point to a place and time when they prayed the "Sinner's Prayer," they trust their name has been written in the Lamb's Book of Life in indelible ink. But Jesus warns ...
Read that again. Now, who in their right mind would prophesy and exorcise demons and even minister in the name of Christ, who did not also sincerely believed himself (or herself) to be a Christian? Does this sound like someone unfamiliar with the Scriptures? Like someone who has never responded to an altar call?
"Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I NEVER KNEW YOU: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matt 7:20-23)
God never intended any of us to be a spiritual Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, this tale of spiritual isolationism is found again and again in Church history -- both ancient and present day, up to and including church hoppers and shoppers. All of them "feel led" or believe "God told me" to put their own souls in spiritual jeopardy, never considering the possibility that the still, small voice to which they were listening might have malevolent intentions. For centuries men and women have twisted the Scriptures to fit their preconceived agendas; they "felt led" ... all the way to hell.
Which is why Jesus did not leave us with a book ... but with a body of believers who were entrusted to pass His message on to others. He knew a book could be misinterpreted and misconstrued (even with the very best of intentions), and that His Holy Spirit could keep the sheep safe only so long as they stayed in the fold. "I am the Good Shepherd..."
In his new encyclical, Spe Salvi, the Holy Father instructs the faithful on the hidden realities behind the sacrament of Baptism, the rite by which all believers are united in saving faith:
[Baptism] is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for hte one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child -- eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope. But then the question arises: do we really want this -- to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. Spe Salvi 10
Do the absolute claims of Christ and His Church make you uncomfortable? Do not put too much store in your own "feelings," or blame the tuggings of your own preconceived ideas of how God operates on the Holy Spirit. Jesus never said that the narrow way would be easy or well-lit. (Though He did promise respite for those weary of the struggle.) Instead He calls us to be soldiers, giving us weapons equal to the battle. He fortifies us with sacraments of initiation and healing, and sends us out to do battle -- first, within ourselves.
As we enter this Advent season, let us always keep in mind that the enemy's greatest trick is one of distraction. So long as our eyes are on the perceived "enemy," he is free to work all kinds of mischief in us. The subtle (or not so subtle) spiritual pride that causes us to look down on a brother or sister in Christ, the feelings of anger and offense at some perceived slight, the "busyness" that keeps us from choosing the work God most wants us to accomplish.
One of my spiritual mothers, Amy Carmichael, wrote a lovely hymn that expresses it so well (to the tune "Faith of Our Fathers":
From Prayer That Asks
From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fainting when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher.
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me!
From subtle love of softening things
From easy choices, weakenings
Not thus are spirits fortified
Not this way went Thy Crucified
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that would burn like fire!
Let me not sink to be a clod;
Make me Thy fuel, O Flame of God.