Should you ever get invited on a grand vacation trip with my husband Fred and me, you may want to seriously reconsider the offer. That is, unless you like wearing the same set of clothes for days on end! Let’s just say that we’ve had several particularly challenging “lost luggage experiences.” It’s been this way since the beginning. On the night prior to our wedding, our car was robbed of our packed-for-our-honeymoon luggage while we were celebrating our rehearsal dinner inside a local restaurant. As a result, our first post-nuptial adventure was not to head off to a resort hotel, but to make a trip to the local Hutzler’s Department Store in Baltimore. (It just occurred to me that this could have been a wonderful excuse to start off each anniversary with a shopping spree! But I failed to make the connection until just now, more than 34 years into our life together. What a lost opportunity!)
Fast-forward to our fifteenth anniversary, when we were privileged to join friends on a Mediterranean Cruise. Terrible weather in Philadelphia, however, caused us to miss our connecting flight and arrive in Naples, Italy just minutes prior to the time the cruise ship was scheduled to launch. As the luggage carousel finally stopped turning at the baggage claim center, and our bags were AWOL, we both knew what it meant: “Here we go again!” While there was no time for a trip to a department store, fortunately, the passengers on this small sailing cruise were both generous and well-packed for their travels. So, each time we arrived on deck in the morning—or entered the dining room dressed up for dinner—Fred gave name recognition to the contributing parties: “Tie by Jack. Shirt from Ted. Pants by Joe.” It was quite entertaining.
One of the first nights of the voyage, while the ship was sailing through the Straits of Messina (a channel of water between the west coast of Italy and the shores of the island of Sicily), we were privileged to have a private dinner on the top deck with our two college friends who had organized the cruise. It was an amazing evening. We enjoyed a sumptuous banquet while dressed in our beautiful, borrowed clothes. All the while, we could hardly take in our surroundings. Under a starlit sky, on our one side we could see lava flowing from an erupting volcano in Pompeii. On the other side were the not-so-distant shores of Sicily where we would be touring for the next week. Reflecting on this memory today, I realized that this scene could be a metaphor for the Christian life.
First, we live in borrowed clothes. The nature of the gospel is that, if we are in Christ, we are clothed with his righteousness. We’ve lost our luggage—in the best sort of way—and instead of being clothed in our own meager rags we’re outfitted with the works of Christ: a perfect life lived on our behalf, a perfect death died on our behalf, and a perfect resurrection unto eternal life on our behalf!
Second, we are invited to a great banquet. Just as our generous friends invited us on this cruise, they also lavished us with an amazing meal provided via fabulous service in an unforgettable setting. And, so it is with the gospel. We are invited to a feast we did not pay for, by a God who is generous beyond our imagination and spreads before us foods of which we will never tire: his love, his grace, his mercy, his kindness, his goodness, his love, his justice, his greatness, and on and on!
Third, and perhaps less obviously, we too travel through the Straits of Messina in this life. Two very real rocky shorelines hem us in on both sides: Depravity on the one hand, and Divine Design on the other. To steer too far in either direction results in damage to the vessel. The one shoreline is the all-too-familiar sinful depravity of human beings. As recipients of the grace of Christ, we are fully aware of not only our own bent nature, but of that which afflicts the heart of every person. However, if we only focus on the spiritual brokenness of the human condition we will become prone to cynicism. Cynicism can be described as “distrusting or disparaging the motives of others.” In other words:
- “I knew she’d do (say) (act like) that.”
- “Oh, I know what he’s thinking!”
- “Oh, I know why they took that course of action! Don’t think for a minute that…”
Cynicism is insidious. It mistrusts the motives of another even when that person (or business owner, or teacher, or politician, or neighbor, or church leader, or friend, or family member) hasn’t typically behaved in ways that warrant deep suspicion. We breathe cynical air in our current American cultural climate. Beware of cynicism that all too quickly looks for dark motives in actions that may be genuinely—albeit imperfectly—sincere. Many a Christian relationship has been crashed on the rocks of cynicism. Many a Church has been split on the uncharitable assumptions of others. Depravity is real. It is total in the sense that it affects every aspect of our personhood—but it is not complete in the sense that it obliterates the image of God within.
On the other shoreline of the Straits of Messina is our Divine Design in the image of God. Visible remnants of God’s goodness, truth and beauty exist in every human being. This is a marvelous truth! If you do not look for it in every single relationship you possess I encourage you to start today! Looking through this lens will positively transform how you perceive others. At the same time, however, if we only focus on the ways in which we still reflect the image of our Creator, we will quickly find ourselves disillusioned or even shocked when things go badly:
- “I never thought he was capable doing something like that.”
- “A church treated you that way?”
- “How could that possibly be true? She seems like such a nice person!”
Navigating the Straits of Messina between Depravity on the one hand and Divine Design on the other is an important skill in the Christian life. We practice this discipline by remembering that we are wearing borrowed clothes even as we feast on a rich banquet that is spread before us. We should not be shocked by sin when we encounter it. We have only to look down at our own borrowed clothes—the righteousness of Christ—to remember that we too are capable of heinous sin. Beneath the righteous robes of Christ, however, the Christian is in the process of being transformed more and more into His likeness. In other words, the Christian is being changed more and more into the image of God, in Christ. Regarding the feast, in a very real sense, “you are what you eat.” The lavish banquet of God’s character fills us more and more as we die unto sin and live unto righteousness. As we revel in his good gifts we learn to look for them in others. While we, as Paul says, “put to death the old man” we will simultaneously be heaping out generous servings of God’s grace and God’s kindness to others who are struggling to overcome sin in their own lives.
Whether you choose to travel with the Hubach family or not, remember, if you are a disciple of Christ:
- You travel in borrowed clothes.
- You feast from a great, gifted banquet that nourishes you and changes you from the inside out.
- Navigate your relationships between the Straits of Messina—recognizing both Depravity and Divine Design in your relationships with others.
Steph served as Director of Mission to North America’s (MNA) Special Needs Ministries from 2007 to 2016. She currently works as a Research Fellow in Disability Ministry in partnership with Covenant Theological Seminary. She also serves on the Lancaster Christian Council on Disability (LCCD). Steph is the author of Same Lake, Different Boat: Coming Alongside People Touched by Disability and All Things Possible: Calling Your Church Leadership to Disability Ministry. She has been published in ByFaith magazine, Focus on the Family magazine, and Breakpoint online magazine and has produced a Christian Education DVD series based on Same Lake, Different Boat. Steph and her husband, Fred, have been married for 34 years. They have two deeply loved adult sons: Fred and Tim, the younger of whom has Down syndrome.