When I listen to Luke in the Gospel Reading today my first reaction is to picture the authoritarian big brother God in the sky shaking his finger at us and saying, “Shape up or I’ll throw you into the unquenchable fire.” Don’t be chaff. Well I want to tell you about what it’s like to be Chaff because my faith story involves God entering the life of someone thoroughly chaff. Perhaps the meaning behind this allegorization of Gods salvific work is not as divisive and authoritarian as John B makes it sound like. In my experience it has not been.
My story begins on the fringes of an evangelical Christian youth group where I believe I earnestly sought God. I say I was on the Fringes because I could never really internalize the churches conception of salvation. I was open to the idea of salvation but that these evangelical Christians were the only lucky ones – the wheat – and the rest of humanity probably 99.9% of them were condemned to the unquenchable fire seemed unlikely to me. First of all, chaff grows on wheat – that is, both wheat and chaff constitute one grain not two, what’s more, per cubic millimetre there is a lot more wheat than chaff. The numbers were clearly off. For brevity sake let’s give them the benefit of the doubt of their wheat to chaff ratio and look at the first point. Is it possible that we are all both wheat and chaff that is like the actual plant we are constituted by aspects of character that turn us from Gods salvation and some that move us toward God?
At this time in my life this is exactly what I decided and the group of people that defined my life the most helped me to understand this: that is my circle of delinquent non-Christian friends. Yes, I did say delinquent. My friends were some of the most troubled youth coming from broken homes, poverty and refugee families who were escaping war like conditions. But these are the guys that none the less society doesn’t like – they were selling drugs, they were violent, etc. Yes, they are who we like to call Chaff. Behind these acts I very quickly saw a well of pain, neglect and injustice.
That is not all I saw. Our circle of friendship often revealed a creative, intelligent, often selflessly loving people all of which come from God and open one to Gods salvation – they abounded in wheat. I decided that people were both chaff and wheat. And that if salvation really was anything at all we were all probably in a grey area between being saved and its opposite; all of us facing God at different degrees of having turned away from him. What’s more the behaviour that we adopt that is morally abhorrent is sometimes caused by injustice which God must have compassion for.
In my late teens I had a profound encounter with God that I believe pushed me to not only seek God through my connection with friends but to turn inwards seeking God in my own heart. Just as I observed both the darkness and light in my friends and found that I loved them I now directed the same process of observation to myself. As commendable as this may sound, I believe I found myself spiritually dead in my early twenties. I remember being on a hike one day with my dad and a friend and being quite startled that I could not see the beauty of the natural environment surrounding me nor feel affection for the people I was with. This insensitivity to my surroundings was like a shell inside of which was a heart besieged by sorrow, disappointment and shame. This shell was a protective layer made up of hatred, self-deceit and avoidance where there was no room for beauty, love, or for the presence of God. This layer was like chaff surrounding a suffocated heart.
Ten years spent sorting through my inner brokenness was little more than a fruitless effort to find some way out of the darkness. However, I believe the spirit worked alongside me all those years strengthening me in order to come to a deeper understanding of my brokenness. Just, as in reality, the wheat chaff serves to protect the kernel of wheat, so destructive habits, internal and external serve to protect what felt broken and threatened. However, what served to protect me also cut me off from the reality of the divine and this cutting off occurred as deep as these protective habit’s motivational origins.
Not only did the spirit strengthen me to take an objective look at the places of hurt inside of me I believe the work of the spirit strengthened me to undergo the processes of healing and letting go of old habits no longer needed – what I have been calling Chaff. This act of letting go and healing I believe is what repentance is. And the more letting go or putting to rest those characteristics involved in my turning away from God the more God’s love, joy and peace enter my life. I believe the two greatest moments of healing and the discovery of deep repentance in my life happened during two events that allowed in just enough of God’s love to allow the healing to begin.
The first of these events occurred during the final year of what I have called my darkest decade. It was summer, and I was off term from university. After hearing a talk by one of the brothers from the ecumenical monastery called Taizé in France I felt a strong inclination to visit the monastery. I ended up staying there for a month and a half. Living the daily rhythm of the monastery, allowed me to deeply sink into God’s love in a way I had hitherto not known. Dwelling in this tangible unconditional love I would spontaneously enter moments of healing where I would feel deep emotional pain move through my body and dissipate followed by mental clarity surrounding both the events that originally caused the pain and also my learned reactions to it – the chaff. It is from this mental clarity and confidence by relying on God’s healing love which makes it possible for me to let go of characteristics like hatred, conceit, addiction to pleasures or whatever.
The second life changing event was meeting my wife Ana. When Ana and I began dating I quickly recognized that a love (and I mean alongside the sentimental love that I began feeling for Ana) was flowing into my life in a similar way that it did in Taizé. I not only found my self immersed in a relationship that has deep repose and support and that fosters dialogue of mutual challenge but the same qualities – repose, support and challenge in dialogue – here with the divine – simultaneously entered my solitary prayer life and meditation practice and at a new depth.
Both my experiences at Taizé and meeting Ana I believe brought me close to God’s love and peace in a way that allows me to have a safe space to work with the darker sides of life like those difficult parts of my own life that I became acquainted with during my twenties. Yes, that stuff that I referred to as chaff. What I have observed above is that those parts of myself that close me off to God are the very characteristics that I habitually turn to in order to feel safe and in control in what is sometimes an unreliable and precarious reality. Indeed, being chaff is about defense. Being chaff is sometimes about asserting ones dignity in a humiliating situation. Being chaff is sometimes about getting what’s yours in what seems to be an unfair society, like in the case of my friends. On the other hand as predicted by John the Baptist when I was thoroughly chaff in my twenties my life felt completely divided off from the joy, love and peace of God – I was burning in the unquenchable fire.
Perhaps there is some truth to the old dividing of the saved and the non-saved after all. However, in my experience the chaff/wheat divide rather than describing an in-group and an out-group or being a convenient biblical source for judging the marginalized of our society the division describes the possibility of deeply turning from God. What’s more that this turning away from God starts internally. For example, hatred turns us from God and hatred starts internally. This is consistent with John the Baptist telling people to repent. If hatred is let go of, then God’s grace will enter a person’s life and they will be fruitful for the wheat will shine forth. On this interpretation however, the whole picture changes. Both Chaff and Wheat are the characteristics that we all have a blend of. And repentance which is supposed to open us to God’s salvation actually mirrors the salvation process itself. In the parable Christ comes and divides off the chaff from the wheat. On this interpretation he divides off vice off those aspects of ourselves that separate us from him. Perhaps Christ’s salvific work transforms us by guiding us into the internal repentance of letting go of the characteristics that close us off to God and other people. Now I don’t pretend that my experience is definitive but in my story above I don’t believe that I first repented and then went to Taizé and found God. I think I opened to God’s love with a desire to have God in my life while God simultaneously prepared me to heal. We met each other. It was only after this initial encounter that I then went to Taizé where the process of healing and repentance began.