A 1986 movie entitled, “The Mission” tells a story of violence, tragedy, sin, penance, forgiveness, conversion and restoration. In one iconic scene the character, mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro must carry a large bag filled with weighted items wherever he went, to signify his sin and his punishment. The burden was excruciating, especially as they journeyed through the harsh rainforest and up the side of a slippery and ferocious waterfall. The climactic scene of the story is when Mendoza is released of his burdens and forgiven for his murderous behavior in view of his enemies by a Jesuit priest named Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons. The score, written by Ennio Morricone only helps capture the emotion of such a scene that captures the incredible Gospel message that we celebrate this month.
I, as many of us do, often look at my life as one long journey, and like so many journeys filled with adventure. I think about the trips I have taken that often act as a metaphor of real life…. they have involved every imaginable and unimaginable experiences. I have been lost and delayed; I have booked wrong flights, missed flights and have had cancelled flights. I have run out of gas; I have had flat tires, accidents and near misses. I have traveled alone, with a small group and with large crowds. I have traveled because I had too, and I have traveled because I wanted too. I have had short trips and long trips, and I have had sick trips. In essence I can say, like most of you, that I have had my fill of experiences in journeying through life. One aspect of any journey that takes some planning is the question we all ask and that is, “what will I take on my journey?” For example, if my journey is a simple errand to the grocery store, I will ask myself, “Do I have my car keys, wallet and my grocery list?” (shoes and a shirt are a good idea too, unless you live in Pompano). However, if I am traveling overseas, for an extended amount of time, my list will be much more comprehensive.
Have you ever taken too little or too much on a trip? I remember going on a two-week trip to the Dominican Republic with a group of young people. The trip was labeled a missions trip, meaning that it was focused on serving the community, living in sparse conditions, cold showers and very basic food. We were required to pack thoroughly, including bringing our own sheets and towels. I had asked Lisa, my beloved wife and former packer, to pack for me (you learn that lesson only once). Upon arrival and unpacking there were no sheets or towels. For two weeks I begged and borrowed sheets and towels from everyone… NEVER AGAIN. Now, sometimes I get obsessed when I pack and probably overpack a little… some of my many issues.
What has God required of me when I journey with Him? God makes many promises to us as we journey. He makes a big one by saying that He never leaves us… nor does He turn His back on us. Therefore, I never journey alone. He also commands us to stay on the path, follow Him and not be distracted by that which leads us off the path. I like the fact that the Bible helps me understand what I need to pack when I follow Jesus on a journey. Honestly, not much. He asks for a willing heart, obedience, a surrendered spirit. Frankly, we don’t even have to be prepared for the trip… He prepares us as we go. He warns us about what not to take, such as bad attitudes, jealousies, lust, anger, greed, selfishness, and the list goes on (most of it found in the 10 commandments).
However, I find that sometimes along the path there are all kinds of little things that catch my eye, my attention. I call these distractions “shiny rocks.” The shiny rocks beg you to pick them up and put them in your pocket. I do this for no apparent reason except that they are shiny, and I think they may be valuable… in the future. The problem is that as I walk and keep putting these shiny rocks into my pockets and backpack the weight gets heavier and heavier, and the journey becomes more and more difficult. My burden is getting too much. I begin to complain about the journey. I fall behind. I get winded. I get angry with God and ask him why are we even taking the journey, and I begin to entertain the idea that the journey is not worth it, or that I am not cut out for it. The reality is I am fine. I just have a pocket full of shiny rocks that He never asked me to pick up. I need to get rid of the shiny rocks and get back to what God asked me to take… again, very little.
Have you ever panned for rubies in North Carolina (can I say RIP OFF)? I once did this experience with my young daughter but went into the store, bought a bunch of fake rubies, hid them in the bucket of sand we just paid $20 for and then celebrated with her when she found a ruby… the one I placed there. By the way, this gig is a racket. Let me see… how can I get a pile of dirt, have people pay me to sift it into a pile of sand and stones and then sell the sifted sand and rocks to people and call it a family experience… brilliant? Sometimes life feels like that… a rip off.
Therefore, as Mendoza experienced in his journey, the burden was too heavy. He had created this with his bad behavior, poor decisions and stubborn heart. However, he increasingly realized that the burden was too difficult, and when he was released from this burden, he wept like a baby. The tears were cleansing tears. The years of a hard heart, a heavy heart and burdened heart were released by the understanding that he was able to take the journey of life and do it without carrying so many burdens. Do you understand that God has released you of these burdens? We celebrate this season, frankly our entire Christian lives, everyday recognizing that in our strength the shiny rocks look inviting and valuable only to bring us to ruin. What shiny rocks are in your pockets? What shiny rocks are you enticed to pick up right now? The process of letting go of the shiny rocks is not as complicated as it may appear, and you are not alone. Perhaps we start by acknowledging that we have them, and we need to be freed. Then it’s time to weep with joy.
Stephan N. Tchividjian is the president and founder of the National Christian Foundation South Florida. Visit southflorida.ncfgiving.com to learn more.