Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

Grace, Peace and a Flaccid Fleece (Jan-Apr 2000)

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by Jane Montgomery Gibson
January – April, 2000

Did you see Bruce Willis in “the Kid”? He plays an embittered, middle-aged image consultant who inexplicably encounters his younger self, a chubby little “loser” who both embarrasses and horrifies the sleek business shark his adult self has become. Willis’ character, Russ Duritz, doesn’t remember much of his childhood, except that it was awful and left him with a cold disdain for his aging dad. Neither he nor his little ghost from childhood past understands why or how they could possibly be thrown together into the same moment in time, but little Rusty is even more aghast than grownup Russ. He can’t quite believe that his adult self isn’t married, isn’t a pilot, doesn’t even have the wonderful dog Chester that he just knew he would have when he grew up. The man’s detached, barren and elegantly cynical lifestyle is almost too terrible for the kid to comprehend; he pronounces the wealthy jet setter a “loser” himself. The two seem stuck with each other in Russ’ home, a wonderful Los Angeles mansion both beautiful and disturbing in its post-modern composition of symmetrical style and subdued color; it serves as a metaphor for Russ himself. Gorgeous and grotesque, elegant and empty.

The movie works on several levels; children as well as adults in my party laughed at the smart lines and smarmy scenes – that is, until we really saw and understood the pain these two feel at discovering themselves so pitifully disappointing to their own expectations. I sat there suddenly tasting the bile of remembered shame, that terrible acid of ugly duckling awkwardness we all feel at some point in childhood or adolescence. I hated the older Russ for his cruelty to and lack of sympathy for young Rusty. It was only later that I realized how like him I can be when thinking of myself, whether the me of third grade or the me of last week.

And I felt for both of them. The little boy was miserable because his dreams of becoming a better self someday were not going to come true. The man was miserable because that same former self reminded him of who he had been and might always be, no matter how hard he had worked to get rid of the “pathetic dweeb” he judged himself to have been. What little peace of mind either had had, looking at self had demolished it.

But what does Bruce Willis have to do with fleece? Or grace or peace, for that matter? Well, in fact, a lot. The movie’s obvious message is that we must “embrace our Inner Child” and seek self-knowledge by remembering the past (which is all true; Christians just use different vocabulary for the same process and include words like “forgiveness” and “compassion”). But there are other tidbits of food for thought, moments when you can almost feel a gentle nudge from an unseen Friend sitting beside you. God can use some quite shameless ways to get our attention, especially in movie theatres. It’s nice and dark, we have to be quiet and still, and generally we pay attention – the way we used to do for sermons that long, remember?

The hint was in the word “peace.” We watch this handsome and sarcastic Russ Duritz slash and burn his way through a day, decimating the ego of everyone in his path with an almost admirable cleverness and ruthless disregard for who or how rich and important they might be. He’s a soul assassin who employs exactly the same method by which the Romans conquered Celtic Britain in 60 A.D., according to the historian Tacitus: “[T]hey make a desolation and call it peace.” He’s trying desperately to capture peace and insulated himself from his past. We do that, all of us to different degrees and in various situations. We medicate the pain, buy the self-esteem, while away the time, even slash and burn like Russ and the Romans, sometimes. It’s peace we seek, but we may not know that, may not even know what to call the longing that drives us to such extremes. It may look like ambition, as it does in the life of fictitious Russ. It may look like faithfulness to our talent, or even like devotion to God. It can drive us to compromise, lull us into complacency or create such a restless heart that we demand our inheritance and go off to a foreign land to squander it all. Peace is a big and very important word. We need to learn to recognize it for what it really is and understand how it does and doesn’t come to us.

Paul opens each of his letters with the greeting “grace to you, and peace,” to Timothy he adds the word “mercy.” Not only is Paul modifying Grecian and Hebrew typical greetings for the mixed populace that became the Church, he is also wishing them the essentials of Christian life, I believe. Like bread and water. Or bread and wine. And that, of course, is what Russ Duritz doesn’t understand. He doesn’t have a clue about the peace that comes from experiencing God’s grace. Too often, we don’t either.

And that’s why we resort to the fleece. I understand a person like Gideon all too well. He needs just one more sign that God is with him and that everything’s OK and that he’s in good and that he can do it and on and on; the insecurities never stop. It amazes me that God is so patient with Gideon, while he stands there almost asking the Sovereign Creator and Ruler of the Universe to heel and roll over and do fleece tricks. Make it wet, make it dry, do this, do that, prove to me that You’re there. Sound familiar? It does to me. Not that I’m that “wicked and perverse generation, always seeking a sign,” mind you. I just need to know that I’m all right and God’s really forgiven and forgiving me. We shouldn’t be too hard on Gideon; he’s about to march into battle. But so do I, every day.

Actually, there’s a character in the movie who tries to explain a little bit about grace and peace to Russ. She’s a fluffy bit of fleece played by actress Jean Smart, a news anchorwoman named Deirdre whom he has met at the first of the movie and helped, although grudgingly, with career advice. Deirdre is one of those rare people who, as the French would say, “feels good in her skin.” Aside from suggesting to Russ that little Rusty must be here to help him in some way, she tells him more than what the movie-makers probably intend for her to convey. It’s the same message that the English mystic Julian of Norwich gave to ancient Christians: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. She says that if Little Deirdre were suddenly standing before her, she would scoop her up in her arms and tell her, “Darling, don’t you worry. Everything’s going to turn out just fine.” After all, she reasons to Russ, how many of us really become the astronauts or prima ballerinas we envision as children? And it’s all right.

I thought of the strange way I was absolutely convinced, as a small child, that I was going to have a really good life, going to be a great success as a Christian – after all, nothing else really mattered. My parents gave me that idea. They exuded confidence in me; they seemed to enjoy me and like the things I said and did (before those rebellious years, of course). They seemed so sure that I would do well at whatever I tried. And if I didn’t, “Oh, well, you’ll do better next time!” My mother must have scooped me up a thousand times and said the same thing as kind-hearted Deirdre. That’s why, I realized as I watched the scene, that I love my friend Larry Hall’s vision of God standing at our side each morning, saying, “Ready! Get set! I proclaim you the winner! GO!” It resonates so perfectly with what I’d been made to feel as a dearly loved child. I’m convinced now that God truly wants us to feel that way. Or at least act it until we eventually come to believe it. Little Rusty needed to know that he would someday be a winner, that he was already a winner in God’s eyes. He needed peace. And Russ needed to remember what he had been through as a child and see it through adult eyes to understand that the bad wasn’t his fault. He needed peace as well. Grace, peace and flaccid fleece.

That’s it. Accept grace from God, extend it to ourselves and to others in forgiveness and compassion, and peace – true peace – comes naturally. We’re forgiven. Trust God to make us who we are meant to be and take us where he wants us to go, and we can face the future with that “peace that passes understanding.” We’re being guided. Believe that he’s really making all things work for our good, and we face the bad, looking for what good there is beyond it. We’re protected. God doesn’t really scold Gideon for needing stupid fleece tricks, but his having given us his Holy Spirit might put us in a different category, as far as expectations go. Jesus says that his Father will give us his Spirit if we ask; perhaps the more Spirit we have, the less fleece we need.

This “grace and peace” combination gives us power to obey, not only in following, but also in resting. I saw in Russ Duritz’s frantic pace a type of headlong rush away from himself, away from any uneasy solitude that might give him too much time to think deep thoughts. You just can’t keep a sabbath unless you’re truly at peace, accepting of grace, and aware of God’s delight in you. The Accuser won’t let you rest.

Sometimes the “grace and peace” living comes easy, when things are going well and I’m surrounded by loving friends and family, cheering me on. But then there are those moments when I know my sin is forgiven but I’m still suffering its consequences, or if I’m under attack when I thought I had been doing my best. We’re told to pursue peace with everyone. And that would certainly seem to include ourselves. I tend to let shame and guilt and grief at sin so overwhelm me that I “make a desolation” of my heart and then try to “call it peace.” I march across my own soul like a Roman legion and hack away at every part of myself that looks the least bit ugly that day, impatient and fearful that I’ll never grow, never be a better person. Like Russ Duritz making snide fat jokes about his pudgy little child self, I put myself on a diet of penitence and try to lose the deadweight of remembered failures. I need to learn more about what Christian peace really is, and how to keep accepting the grace that plants it in my heart. I need to keep noticing fleece that God puts out in the morning dew even before I’ve asked for it, whenever he knows I’ll need the sight of it that day. “The Kid” was just a movie; I don’t get fixed in one big “Holy Smokes!” epiphany and stay fixed for good the way Russ and Rusty do. My kid appears all too often, some days. But she comes back to me with a Friend standing beside her, holding her little hand in his and smiling at grownup me with gentle humor, with “grace to me, and peace.” He has healed all the old hurts, and the new ones before they happen. Now, there’s a happy ending.Wineskins Magazine

Jane Montgomery Gibson

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