On April 24, at 8:45 AM, I received a life-changing text. Well, I suppose it was an ordinary, everyday text that led to a life-changing phone conversation.
You will remember form my previous writing that in April I was still in the midst of my joyful crisis. As God would have it, I had been rejected from Oxford, I thought that one of my closest friendships had come to an end, and I was confused as to why the ministries I had been leading for years seemed to be massively waning. Yet, in the midst of it, the Lord’s felt presence produced a sense of great joy.
This was for me a time of pruning. I felt as though God was taking away anything, and anyone, in whom I was tempted to put my trust, my hope, my identity, my meaning…my life. I felt like God was peeling back the many onion layers of my soul (most of them rather rotten) – in an attempt to get to the core. And, with every layer that came off, it only revealed another one very much like it underneath.
I’m reminded of a scene from C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this story Eustace – a young boy – has decided to put his hope in earthly things. He has discovered a dragon’s lair with treasure, including a very alluring gold bracelet. Eustace found the bracelet too large for him, but he wanted to wear it anyway. So, he pulled it up his arm far enough to get it to stick. Then, he laid down for a nap only to awake to a deep throbbing. The bracelet that was originally too big was now far too small, and it was squeezing him, cutting into his body. When he finally sees his reflection in a nearby pool of water he discovers - to his horror - that the bracelet he’s been wearing has transformed him into a dragon!
Eustace is tormented by the pain in his arm (well – leg now, since he has turned into a dragon), until he has an encounter with Aslan near a well of water. Lewis tells the story from Eustace’s perspective:
“The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg, but the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.
I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are a snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.
Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.
Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know – if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there I was – as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”
In April and May, this is what the Lord was doing in my soul. He was stripping away the dragon-skin, one layer at a time. And this is important: He was doing it so that He could cause me to rely on, rest in, and find my identity infused with Him alone. He would allow no prestigious University, no dear friend, and no successful ministry to do as a surrogate for Himself. These were all gold charms, which at first offered to add to the wellbeing of my soul. But, in fact, embraced wrongly, they transformed my soul into something I was horrified to call “myself.” The golden bracelets of degrees, relationships, and ministries – in and of themselves innocuous - were clamping down on my soul. They’d turned me wrong, and so the Lord was prying my dragon clawed grip off of these things so that I could hold Him with the human hands He’d originally given to me.
And this was completely necessary – prerequisite really - for everything that He would do next. I’m often reminded that before Jesus comes, He sends John the Baptist; before the offer of salvation, the call to repentance; before the fire of the Spirit, the washing with water; before the first spring bud, the barest of weathered trees; before the emergence of a new stalk of wheat, the burial of a single kernel. The soul must enter into a cocoon of death in order to metamorphosize into new life. So it was at this time. April and May were my cocoon.
It was in the midst of this purgation that I received the text that would change the course of my life – at least for the present – and possibly for the distant future. It was in the midst of God removing everything that I thought mattered, and thereby restoring everything that truly mattered – that God sunk His claws into me more deeply than He had yet.
The text was simple: Aubrey Johnson, my father, wrote: “Please call me.”
Dad’s request when I called: “RIZPAH” (my mom’s non-profit) “would like to send you to Nairobi to check on the Saint Boys. We have some concerns about their wellbeing. Are you willing to go?”
-- Seth Johnson