The day starts out well—it’s a slow Saturday, and I’ve already spent some quiet time reading, then working out, then prepping for lunch with a bunch of my 10-year-old’s friends. My parents call while I’m in the middle of lunch prep—they want to stop by. I say, “Sure, come on over—after lunch.”
Meanwhile I hear my daughter Emma counting something in the other room—21, 22, 23, 24… Turns out, it’s the number of times the dog we’re watching for friends has peed on our carpet. We quickly call our friends’ house-sitter to come get the dog. She shows up in the middle of the chaos of our lunch prep, which I had to put on hold so I could clean up some of the pee. My parents, who must not have heard “after lunch,” show up right behind her. And then Emma comes to confess she’s spilled “a little” dirt when the plant in her room fell over. I shoot down the hall to see what “a little dirt” looks like—and, of course, it’s a lot of dirt, along with muddy water staining the floor. A few minutes later Emma comes again to tell me she’s knocked over her glass gumball machine, shattering it all over her room. Shards of glass are mixed into a muddy-water-and-dirt stew on her floor.
Meanwhile, my wife has left to take our dog for a walk before a thunderstorm hits. I tell her to take an umbrella. She doesn’t. Five minutes after she leaves the skies let loose a downpour worthy of Noah. I jump in my car to go find her, but realize I didn’t bring my phone. I drive all over, but return to the house to get my phone. Meanwhile she has dragged herself back home, soaking wet. So we throw the dog in our sink to give her a bath, and I notice the gutters must be clogged because they’re pouring water onto our porch. In the driving downpour I go up the ladder to clear the blockage. Back inside, the dog is finally clean—she shakes off the water, right into the latte that was my one comfort on a terrible day… Inside I have a rage looking for a feasible outlet—there is nothing more infuriating than the relentless loss of control in our life.
The poet Robert Burns said: “The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” Do they ever! And when they do, our addiction to control is exposed… This addiction is, literally, the mother of all our addictions…
The Path of St. Dismas
The man historians often call Dismas is one of two thieves crucified with Jesus on the killing field called Golgotha. Very little is known about Dismas, other than the biblical account of his interchange with Jesus on the cross: “One of the criminals hanging alongside cursed him: ‘Some Messiah you are! Save yourself! Save us!’ But the other one made him shut up: ‘Have you no fear of God? You’re getting the same as him. We deserve this, but not him—he did nothing to deserve this.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43, MSG).
Ancient historians St. John Chrysostom and Pope Saint Gregory the Great say that Dismas likely lived in the desert, robbing or murdering anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. He was suspected of killing even his own brother. As a thief, he’s a primary example of grasping for control in life versus living in an attitude of radical trust—thieves take what they can’t gain lawfully, rather than earn it. And, in the end, the Romans take from thieves the control they have stolen—crucifixion is an extreme example of the loss of control. When you’re crucified your days of controlling things are over…
Haven’t been crucified lately? Well, it doesn’t take much to expose our own addiction to control, as my “Saturday from hell” reminds me. In Matthew 21 Jesus describes Himself as “the Stone which the builders rejected” who has “become the chief cornerstone.” Here He is naming a truth—He is the Stone. But who are the builders, the people who see themselves as boss, as in charge of things? That would be us. We reject Him because we assume we are the builders, the ones who are really in control of things…
From the time of Adam and Eve until now, the headwaters of all our sin has been this lie: “You can be like God.” It’s a virus in our system that never goes away, just as people who get Chicken Pox as children can get shingles as adults, because the virus has stayed in their system. Control is at the root of all our sin, and it’s at war with our trust in God. As long as we hold onto our control, we can’t/won’t release it to God.
The Person of Paradise
To find our way out, we return to the story of St. Dismas the Bandit. On the cross, one thief gives up and gives in to abuse in the face of his loss of control. The other thief, instead, gives himself in complete trust to Jesus. And in response, Jesus promises that He will be with him in paradise that day. And “Paradise” is just another way of describing our opportunity to be intimately close to Jesus at all times, in all circumstances. To be with Jesus is to be in paradise. To know Him is eternal life. Paradise isn’t a place, it’s a person. And the things that expose and frustrate and steal our control make it possible for us to find the freedom of trust. And, in the end, Jesus is the good thief, because He takes from us what we’re sure we need to give to us what we have to have—Himself.
Like Dismas before us, the path to freedom from our captivity leads to our crucifixion—and on that cross, when control is exposed as a joke, we give over ourselves to an abandoned trust in Jesus. If you’ve never laid down your control and given yourself freely to Him, I invite you to take a little walk with Him to Golgotha, where you will find your life as you’re losing it.