The late Episcopal priest John Claypool once told the story of a conversation he had with his friend Charlie during Charlie’s final days. John noticed that Charlie had an abiding sense of tranquility. The prospect of dying held no terror for him.
This was no grim determination. Instead, Charlie had a confident expectancy and a calm joy about him. John asked him about his experience of drawing near death, and Charlie said this. “I’ve learned that every exit is an entrance.”
He explained what he meant by looking back at his life.
When he was just a toddler, Charlie’s mother stayed at home with him. His back yard swing and sandbox were his world. When he learned that he would have to go to a place called Kindergarten, he was terrified. He didn’t want to leave these safe and familiar surroundings.
Elementary school turned out to be a wonderful place filled with new friends, new games, new knowledge, and new experiences that he could never have imagined while he was safe at home with his mother. His new world stretched him in ways that were sometimes uncomfortable, but that discomfort turned out to be growing pains of the emotional and spiritual sort.
Charlie had to leave behind the safe but smaller world of home for the new, risky, but larger world of elementary school. He learned the lesson again with each new transition.
As he left elementary school for middle school, middle school for high school, and then high school for college, he had to leave behind a comfortable, familiar life to enter into something unknown. Each time that unknown turned out to be a larger, richer life.
He could say that about getting married, having children, and sending adult children into the world to make their own way. A new life emerged as he left an old, familiar way of living.
Every exit is an entrance.
I think that Jesus is getting at something like this when he says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)
Following Jesus is like passing through a gate. When we pass through a gate we leave one setting behind as we pass into another one. Only when Jesus is the gate, we are not talking about changing from one location to another. Instead, through Christ we are changed. We leave one self, one life, one way of being with others behind as we enter into a whole new way of being, a whole new life.
He said the same thing in different ways in the succeeding days. To Mary and Martha gathered at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) And then, the night before his crucifixion, Thomas wanted to know where he was going and how they could follow him there. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
Following Jesus means to enter into a God-saturated life. The kind of life that Jesus gives. The kind of life that he is. A life of passages from life to greater life.
We don’t just copy Jesus’ virtuous example. In some mysterious way Jesus is imparting eternal life to us in both small and large ways every day.
Now that might sound a little confusing given how so many of us think about eternal life. So, I had better take a step back and say a few words about our common misconceptions about eternal life.
Many people get caught up in thinking about where they go after death.
Some are simply driven by fears of hell. Anyplace is better than the presumed site of eternal conscious torment. Others have in mind a place of perpetual leisure and comfort, a paradise where they will reunite with people (and maybe meet some people) who know how to have a jolly good time. Heaven is for them a sort of celestial resort.
When we think of Jesus as the gate from a starting point like this, we’re very likely to assume that he is portraying himself as the gate to the place called heaven. We may presume that he lets theologically correct and morally pure people in and turns away theological boneheads and moral slouches.
All of this misses the point, at least, misses Jesus’ point.
Jesus is not focused on where we go after we die. Instead, Jesus is pouring his whole life into who we are becoming for all of eternity.
Jesus is not the gatekeeper. Jesus is the gate. He is the Way, the passageway from narrower life to greater life. We do not pass through him to get to a better location. When he bonds with us we become more truly who we are.
Let’s look at one example: forgiveness.
Jesus spends a lot of time and energy talking about forgiveness. It’s not just that we are forgiven. Jesus wants us to become forgiving right down to our marrow. In other words, we’re in for some spiritual stretching.
We all know that devoting ourselves to pursuing grievances makes for a lousy, narrow life. To borrow a phrase from Anne Lamott, nurturing a grudge is like eating rat poison and expecting the other person to die. Very few of us carry out blood feuds like the Hatfields and the McCoys.
Most of us refuse to strike back in kind. And that’s a very good thing. But it really amounts to putting only a toe in the waters of forgiveness. Even when we abstain from retaliation, there is much work to be done when we are genuinely injured.
Finding understanding. Gradually restoring trust. Building a new relationship that acknowledges and moves beyond the previous relationship that betrayal or rejection or theft or deceit had shattered.
Forgiveness often begins when we learn to stick with someone else even when we have to lower our expectations of them. We understandably redraw our boundaries on the basis of what we’ve learned about a person’s character or motives or intentions or dysfunctions. And yet, we refuse to break relationship.
This is risky business, really. We are risking a new depth of vulnerability. A knowing vulnerability.
The old relationship rested upon a kind of naiveté. We imagined the person would never betray us. Never hurt us. Always be there for us.
But now they’ve let us down. They’ve shown their imperfection and wounded us. And now we make ourselves vulnerable again with a new awareness and a new intentionality and a new courage. The courage of a broken heart healed. A heart newly devoted to healing other broken hearts.
You have left the old relationship behind. A new relationship is emerging. This exit is becoming an entrance.
I’ve had some forgiving to do. And I have to admit that it’s been an uneven process. But I am finding even in my imperfect way that every exit is an entrance.
For instance, my father was in turn charming and intimidating, encouraging and belittling, affable and violent, generously attentive and utterly absent.
His erratic way of being my father led me to believe that I was not enough: enough to be worthy of respect and nurture and affection. So, I spent years chasing my father’s approval and affection with achievements in school and sports and career.
Eventually, I came to see what a fruitless strategy this was. He was who he was. That was never going to change.
So, I redrew my own boundaries. I stopped trying to please him and placate him and fend off his disapproval. This was not especially well received.
He died while I was still learning to keep my distance but hadn’t yet learned how to achieve a healthy connection. Nevertheless, I’m still redrawing my boundaries with him. And more than that, I’m reworking at least my side of our relationship in anticipation of our eventual reunion.
My faith is playing a central role in this, and so too is the reflective work I’m devoting to understanding my father as the same sort of wounded, fragile, imperfect person I am.
Christ’s love for me makes me enough. My father failed to embody that love in a convincing and nurturing way, but I have to admit that we all fall short on this score.
With the gift of time and the fruit of much reflection, I can see that my father struggled with his own mill town, depression-era origins, his brutal experiences as a WWII veteran, and a sense of inferiority whose source I still do not understand.
My childhood relationship with my father has ended. I have left it behind. Something new is emerging. In Christ, this exit is shaping up to be an entrance.
This sermon was preached at St. James Episcopal Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.