Earlier this year, on a flight to Boston, I had a peculiar reminder of Christ's suffering. Just as I settled into my seat, an elderly man pressed into the seat next to me. He wore an old serge suit and a blue rayon shirt. His hair was carefully combed straight back and he smelled like he hadn't showered that morning. He sank down with a sigh and said, "I've just come from the West Coast where I've been doing the Lord's work."
Okay, I thought, I'll bite. "What kind of work would that be?"
He told me his story. He had the gift of healing and was one of the few chosen people on earth to carry the Stigmata. He showed me the marks on his palms and told me how they continually pained him. Since 1991 he had been conducting services and many people had been healed by his touch. As I probed about his gift and theology, I am sure my questions proved my lack of faith.
Finally I asked what happened to people whose lives were touched by him, apart from getting healed. "Oh," he said, "they do a 360." I laughed and said, "That would pretty much put them back in the same direction they'd come from, wouldn't it?" He didn't get it.
He gave me his card, leaned toward me, and earnestly said if ever I needed anything I should simply touch his card and pray, "Jesus help me," and it would be done. I could also e-mail him, and if I touched the symbol of three crosses in his answer it would work the same way. Then, his energies expended, he sank back and slept the rest of the trip. Glancing upon him, I was disgusted by his representation of my Jesus. Was God really in the business of handing out miracles and signs to such people? It was like giving a Rembrandt to a shock jock. I was grateful to be nobody's fool.
Then I opened my book, read about the life of John Bradford (1510-1555), a martyred English Reformer, and received a full-body punch for my appalling self-righteousness. I realized it was I who owned undeserved treasure.
Bradford was appointed by King Edward VI to be one of the royal chaplains who traveled England teaching the doctrines of the Reformation. He was said to be a man of sweet temper who practiced such sorrowful repentance that men's souls were won to God wherever he went.
Bradford often listed his worst sins on paper and kept his eye on them during private prayer, to be reminded to offer up to God a contrite heart, to be thankful for salvation in Christ, and to pray for grace to serve God wholeheartedly.
It is to Bradford that we owe the saying, "But for the grace of God, there go I." This is what he always said upon learning of the execution of evil-doers.
The grace of God did keep him, even through burning at the stake where his final words of reassurance to the young man who burned with him were: "Be of good comfort, brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night."
I thought of trying Bradford's practice once. Just to see. To begin, I listed something I'd done years ago. I'd grabbed my 50-pound son by his little arm and yelled loudly in his face until he began to sob. Ten minutes later, which was how long it took me to reckon what I had done, I found him still sobbing in the garage. It was heinous because my reaction was so disproportionate to his infraction.
I thought of a lot of other things I had done. Some when I was a teenager. Things I am too ashamed to tell anyone. Things I'd prefer to forget. I began to say simply, "Thank you, Lord. Thank you for dying. You shouldn't have. But I know there was no other way. I am so sorry I had to be part of your death, but thank you. Thank you for forgiving me."
The next time I started to sneer at someone, thinking of him as I thought of the Stigmata man, I remembered my list. It was like an upper-cut from Mike Tyson.
This is the sorrow and joy of Good Friday: remembering Christ's suffering and getting a grip on who caused it. Me. Not them.