When he was a child, the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s brother Nikolia convinced him and his siblings that he had discovered a secret that would make all people happy. Nikolia said he’d written the secret on a green stick and buried it in a ravine by the edge of the road on the family’s property. Tolstoy wrote “As I then believed that there was a little green stick whereon was written something which would destroy all evil in men and give them great blessings, so I now believe that such truth exists among people and will be revealed to them and will give them what it promises.” When he died as a very old man, Tolstoy wanted no part of a fancy funeral. His only request was that he be buried along the road by the ravine where Nikolia had said the stick was.
When he was fifty, Tolstoy’s Christian awakening inspired him to take the Sermon on the Mount as a personal creed and the practice of loving of one’s enemies as the central principal of his life. I don’t know whether I went to Seminary because of the Gospel of John or Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of Heaven Is Within You. Tolstoy has had this effect on thousands of people who wound up living in utopian communities, including Mahatma Gandhi, who in turn inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to practice non-violent resistance.
Meanwhile, back on his grand estate, Tolstoy was a negligent father to his thirteen children. His very ethical, vegetarian meals were all prepared by his staff and is wife Sophia noted in her diaries that Tolstoy’s ideals about Christian love made him critical and disapproving of people.
Tolstoy’s response to these and other allegations was this: “Condemn me if you choose, I do that myself, but condemn me, and not the path which I am following, and which I point out to those who ask me where, in my opinion, the path is.”
I snarled the first time I read this quote. Now it’s a consolation.
After more than a decade of preaching and pastoring I’ve found that my hypocrisy is like asthma that I picked up from constant, unprotected exposure to the New Testament. Days, even weeks go by and I think I’m cured, but then I have an attack. Having been entrusted by the church to offer God’s forgiveness to all, I pronounce absolution over my congregation on Sunday morning and by Sunday night I’m studying a slight someone inflicted upon me with a watch maker’s attention to detail. A generous listener to most any strangers, when I get home I want my family to fast forward through the boring details of their day and get to the point. Enthralled by monastic vows of poverty I daydream about what it would be like to take one and imagine how I will, someday, after the kids are grown. Meanwhile, I could do with a lot less of everything- money, food, stuff I haven’t seen in years stored in boxes but, not knowing where to begin with the renunciation of worldly possessions, I don’t.
Just like Papa Tolstoy, being Christian hasn’t made me good either. In ways it’s made me worse because I should know better. Instead, loving Jesus has given me a holy ache that, like my hypocrisy, is also chronic and incurable.
When walking down a crowded street I imagine what it would be like to have the same empathy for everyone as I did for my favorite aunt or for my own son. I have a developed tendency to walk towards places where people lock their car doors. After years of practice, I don’t flinch about walking into someone’s catastrophic loss because of my unwavering confidence that Jesus will show up in the middle of it. He always does, making joy out of despair and altars out of street corners.
A life of faith doesn’t mean you wind up being good. Instead, it means never being able to shake the sense that there’s holiness under everything. A life of faith is trusting the green stick, that isn’t a stick at all, but the One that loves you and is present in all that is seen and unseen.
Happy stick hunting.
Your sister in Christ,
Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm