I stared at the screen in disbelief. I scrolled to the top of the page and read it all again, unable to process the information I was receiving. The words in front of me were not complicated, confusing, or requiring translation, it was simply that they were so laden with shock and menace that as I went back and read them again for a third time, a surge of adrenaline pushed my mind into a hyperactive search for an alternative explanation. But no other possible explanations could be found. It was true, a great man had fallen.
The uprooting of a tender sapling, whether wrenched from the ground by storm, or torn up by foraging beasts, is a sad thing to see. The seed has made its way from the parent, nestled into the ground, pushed its way up into the light, only for the flame of its potential to be snuffed out. The loss of a sapling is a silent thing, an unnoticed thing, as it is predominantly the loss of what might have been.
Not so when a great tree is ripped from the landscape. When the majesty of a widespread horse-chestnut, is humiliated by the roar of chainsaws, it dies a noisy death. Motors whine and smoke, the tree groans its death-roar and plunges earthward splitting, cracking, crying, and landing with a dull thurrump that crushes the saplings it has sown. When a great tree falls, it leaves a gap. A tree-line gains the black space of a broken tooth. There is light where light should not be, there is no shade where shade properly belongs - there is the sudden and unwelcome presence of emptiness, of visual loneliness, where imperious trunks and arching boughs held aloft ten-thousand leaves to filter-green the yellow sun.
Such loss is not the fear that what might be, will now not. No, this is the bereavement of unwelcome loss, of the ripping away of what is, from the place in which we are accustomed to finding it. No longer will people find our house if we say, "oh just turn left past the huge tree - you can't miss it." Because we do miss it, our great landmark, our point of reference has been so cruelly destroyed.
What makes this tragedy almost incomprehensible is that for so long, he gave the impression of stability, of permanence. Yet even as his lofty branches disturbed winds high above the earth, and he summoned saplings to strive to emulate him; he must have been planning his own collapse. How could he capitulate to gravity so easily after surviving so many storms? How could the veteran of great battles with hurricanes and planners, sell his birthright for the proverbial mess of pottage? How could the thing which seemed so solid, simply sell-up, walk-out, give in, fold? The strange thing about this implosion is the awful space left behind, the vacuum of meaning, the disappointment, and the damage done to those who once nestled in its shade.
Feeling drained, I drew back from the computer screen to let the words sink in. Sink-in they did, and as the words released their meaning, the meaning revealed its consequences and the tugging weight of dread and despair sunk into my stomach, where it remains. What had once been an inspiration to persevere is now the subject of a sorry battle in damage limitation.
My initial thought is shameful. Why not follow-suit? If we had followed him up, why not down? Why not go AWOL? Why not forget the inconveniences of being a disciple, and instead just follow desire? Why endure the quest for what is best, when the mediocre maps out a path of least resistance? Why calibrate the scales of conscience with the burdens of 'right' and 'wrong' when negotiating by the axes of 'fun' and 'not fun', might yield so much more..... fun. I feel like a trampled sapling, head bowed, earth-bound, robbed of the vision to tower, stripped of the will to look up and aim skyward.
Yet - the warm gracious sun shines still, and I find that however much I lack the courage to re-engage with the imperative for growth; it turns my weary head upward. I find that I cannot, not respond to its light, its energy, its warmth. Grace connects with something in my very structure that means that even when I am hungry for the comforts of capitulation, I cannot ultimately surrender to its allure. Almost against my will, the light draws me to itself, and reveals the allure of surrender as fake, smarmy, phony charm.
My next thought then is this. If I am to be called on from here and to grow; if the light calls me upwards, and grace lifts my head from despair. Might I be the next proud man to make much of standing firm, only to cause this damage to others if I was to fall? Might it be better to remain small, to serve as inostentatiously as possible, not to spread branches wide, in order that my potential for harm is restricted? I have seen a great man fall - and no doubt in the years before it happened he felt as confident as I do now that I would never do such a thing. Is my confidence realistic, or unfounded? Do I trust myself to remain pure in motive and action - or have I just lacked the opportunity for such delicious self-destruction, thus far? I have been told that I should not trust myself so much as trust in the facts of grace to mean that I will be kept from falling; from satisfying the worst parts of my nature. Yet this too troubles me as I have seen a great man fall, and restraining grace seemed absent. Now I know that it is true that restraining grace must at times be withheld in order that we foolish humans do not flatter ourselves with silly notions of our supposed perfection. Yet this too is a troubling thought. What if the wider good required that restraining grace was withheld from me for a season? To what depths might I sink? What scars could I inflict on the shoots of potential, who are pushing upwards around me?
Perhaps part of the security is to lack the false security of self-reliance. To imagine that we stand is almost a pre-requisite for the inevitable fall. The illusion of self-sufficiency is only a deadly foe if it is allowed to assume the appearance of reality. While the light of humility shines, such illusory impressions are clearly seen for what they are; it is only in the half-light that their outlines can be mistaken for solid reliable forms. But humility is itself a most slippery creature, that escapes as soon as it is presumed caught!
How then am I to prevent a repeat of the calamity I have witnessed - and which I know in my worst moments I am capable of? If restraining grace doesn't apply, if self-reliance is a delusion depending on humility - which I may not grasp, what can I do? I settle on four things:
The first is that I must never sink into the complacency that assumes that I am immune to calamitous sinful self-destruction. I must (without becoming excessively introverted and introspective) meditate upon my own character flaws, and expose the temptations to which I am most prone. In order to manage myself, I must know myself.
Secondly, I must pursue humility. This however is akin to chasing tomorrow, an impossible journey to a destination that consumes itself! The point is that striving for humility as an achievement is inherently self-contradictory. No - it must be achieved not by working within, but by looking outwards. Humility cannot be generated, earned or grasped. Rather, it can only be a reaction, a spontaneous response to the revelation of truth. It happens when we see ourselves, not in comparison with our equally flawed peers - but in the moment of revelation of ultimate purity. The writer to the Hebrews says "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith", and it is when we do this that we do not try to gain humility as a badge, but simply see its sheer overwhelming appropriateness.
Thirdly, I must take all warnings of great men who fall; as a constant warning against assuming that I have done the first two things adequately. If on this march, a body or two lies at the side of the road, it cannot make the whole column lay down in the misery of defeat - but it should make us alert, watchful and careful. I pray that the lesson my life will teach will be that of a faithful marcher, not that of a cadaver warning of the dangers of desertion.
Fourthly and finally, I must see that this struggle is not one I face alone. Far from it, in fact. While I have responsibility for my actions, the load is at the very least shared! I must remain confident that the grace which has brought me 'safe thus far' is the grace that will 'lead me home'. I must accept that He who began a good work in me will see it through to completion - even if I cannot explain cases where this appears not to have happened.
So I stared at the screen in disbelief, and for all my mental wrestling no other possible explanations could be found. It was true, a great man had fallen. And so I prayed for the great and fallen man. I prayed not in the self-promotion of presumed superiority, but with deep sorrow and I prayed for those who he brought down with him, in his self-destruction. Then I prayed for myself, and asked God in His mercy never to let me cause harm like that, to bless me with His restraining grace, and to help me keep my eyes on Him, and to lead me 'not into temptation'. And I once again entrusted my soul, my sinful, tired, flawed soul into his hands and dared to believe the words: "To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy - to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen."