This last weekend I had the privilege of being part of the team that led our church in remembering the death of Jesus. I was asked to share a short sermon, so I based it on the ways that I usually have to get my head right as I approach the cross of the Christ.
If you’re interested, have a listen. It takes about 15 minutes.
When you’re done, check out this song by Bethel Music. We used it in the service, because it reflects so well the spirit of what we were trying to communicate.
A little girl’s body being found in a field east of the city? That is the last thing I want to write about. Instead, let me tell stories about redemption and hope. Hell, I’d settle for penning some cheesy script full of pat answers and hallmark blessings. For the love of Jesus, just let me focus on something that can be illustrated with fairy dust and unicorns and pink ribbons. Please God, rewind this sodding mess just a bit and give us a happy ending.
I don’t want to talk about law enforcement officers wading through long prairie grass in the pouring rain. Eyes shut tight, let me forget that I live in a city that held it’s breath for a week and then exhaled this morning in a desperate choking sob.
In our hearts and souls we negotiated with hell. Jesus pray for us, for we mourned the mother but offered her up as some kind of sick sacrifice. We thought maybe her passing would placate the dark powers, but it wasn’t enough and we don’t know why.
Anger rushes in like a flood. Someone is in custody. Someone will be held responsible. We see a picture on the news, and tension slips off of our shoulders because now we have a target for our hate. The rage will keep us warm, perhaps even with enough heat to dry one or two tears. We will curse God, to his face if we can, for not putting a fence around the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… Yes, that’s it… We will curse God and punish the murderer, whom He created with the sick ability to choose.
Denial seeps in. We are good people. This is still cowboy country, where men are supposed to tip their hats to the ladies. I know a pastor who still gives children candy, while fathers look on and smile. Except now we don’t smile. We’re in shock. Numb.
Like the cursed ground where she rested these past days, our souls are saturated with sadness. Exhausted, we lay down without answers and rise again to the sound of rain. God weeps, for we have abandoned him. “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these,” he whispers, “you did not do for me.” Who knows but that he sat there in the sopping ditch, cradling the child all week while we looked for her, and quietly left just as one broken-hearted hero drew near.
My children will not know why mommy and daddy are sad tonight. They will play with their puppy, and maybe have a Fudgsicle for dessert. Later, we will tuck them in a little tighter than normal. Our prayers with them will be the usual ones, but I will add a little something in the silence that children need not hear.
I will pray that my daughters grow old enough to have their hearts broken like this.
Holding hands is not a small thing. That one person would hold out a hand to another, and the other take it without a second thought: this seems to be a relational unicorn that disappears into the land of fairies as we grow up learning about fists and backhanded slaps. For the most part too lazy to become educated, we settle for being opinionated and use our hands to hold placards, shake fists, raise middle fingers and pull triggers.
I work with my hands, and they have scars. Bits of them are actually missing, and at the moment one fingernail is darker than the rest. In my profession we use our hands to measure the amount of respect due another man; the ritual of shaking hands is entered into with all of the force of the personalities hiding behind the callouses. To some degree I have little control over the appearance of my hands, but what I do possess is the ability to keep them open towards others.
An extended hand is a timely gift to a person who finds themselves on unsure footing. My daughters demonstrated this while crossing a river this afternoon. While both experienced a measure of pain as they waded through the waves with bare feet, the stronger helped the younger. They had no time to size each other up, enter into a dialogue about trust or even look into each other’s eyes. When things became cold and unstable, instinct reached for a steady hand.
My children, nurturing the world with reflexes of kindness. As a father I pray that their hearts won’t grow the callouses that so many of us carry. Oh, that a spirit of forgiveness would make them strong; gentle towards the weak and unafraid of their enemies.
For the rest of us, the temptation is to succumb to hopelessness and relational paralysis. The fear is that it is too late for us, especially in the valley of the shadow of death we found ourselves in this last week. We want the fist of justice, forgiveness be damned.
But listen to the words recorded in an ancient, holy book. The author prayed to God regarding seemingly insurmountable evil and then said,
“…Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.”
(Psalm 73, verses 23-26, NIV translation)
The power to maintain open hands rest in the Almighty, who first extends that same grace to us.
If I close my eyes tight you can’t see me. I know that it is an infantile belief, but in moments of panic it is also an ancient magic that introverted wizards conjure in crowded church foyers, manic Starbucks queues and any official function where we would rather take a bullet than another sterile smile.
If I close my eyes tight you can’t see me. In times marked by weariness the world will continue to spin, but the hope is that it will speed up just enough to eject this deep sadness into a shallow orbit. Pat answers will be caught off balance and trip on the tongue, while I remain locked safely behind my eyelids.
If I close my eyes tight you can’t see me. Jesus meets me here, his presence manifest in times of faith. Like a cold tomb holding its breath the day before the resurrection, this is a quiet place full of promises. I am reminded here that when things are as still as death, God is calmly putting the universe in order and I’m simply too small to see the scope of it.
There are times when you can’t see the deepest part of me. Please forgive what you perceive as indifference. It is in these moments that I’m most invested in you. You can’t see me, because I’ve entered a place where angels cease their singing when a son of the King comes to petition his father. I’m closing my eyes because I love you. I’m asking Him to close your eyes for a moment too, because the inside of things is beautiful.
What we perceive each day is not always seen clearly, for our eyes are only open as wide as our hearts. What is it in your life that increases your spiritual vision?
“…I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe…” Ephesians 1:16-19a ESV
Yesterday there was a dragon in the sky. Seriously. It was up there, right next to the fluffy white flying pig with the small bum. Just ask my daughters, they’ll tell you. We all saw it as we sat on a park bench munching potato chips and getting brain freeze from our Slurpees. We also spied a mermaid, two dancing insects and a replica of our little dog Jack.
You have to spend a little time if you want to see dragons, what with them being shy, secretive creatures. Pigs with tiny heinies are rarer still.
Lately I haven’t had room in my schedule for dragon hunting, but then neither have you, I suppose. The theory is that the same hours are given to each of us, daily. Given that truth, it would be more accurate to say that I haven’t spent much of my time looking up. Sometimes life dictates the direction of our attention. Recent events such as funerals, board meetings, friends’ health concerns and career changes have set my eyes more or less horizontally. Some details have absolutely demanded my involvement, and for the most part I’ve been glad to be included.
But horizontal vision too long held becomes short-sighted, and to find magical beasts you have to look to the distance, and up.
Some people would say that it wasn’t a dragon that I saw, but a simple cloud. Perhaps they are correct, but it’s a rare cloud that produces wonder and joy just by the seeing of it. As I sat there yesterday looking up, I was reminded that the cares that burden my soul and bend my shoulders are not worrisome to dragons or gods. They carry on regardless.
Gods, you say?
Well, says I, actually “God”, singular. I’m a monotheist, which means while my imagination can conjure scaly winged beasts, my worldview holds that there is one God who is over all. He is full of mystery, but not secretive. Transcendent, and closer than a heartbeat.
Seeing the dragon was nice. Reclaiming the perspective that God is not far off? That he is willing to share my burdens, and still has time to tame dragons? That was priceless.
Even as I write this I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted, but there are clouds in the sky and I may be able to carve out a moment to look heavenward. There’s no telling what I’ll see, if I’ve got the heart-eyes for it.
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the skvy above proclaims his handiwork.” Psalm 19:1 ESV
Before you’d gone there were a thousand goodbyes
Each it’s own colour, shape and size.
Most before the old worn chair,
In both clear loud voice and silent prayer.
Before you’d gone there were a hundred goodbyes
When I’d look into your kind blind eyes
And thank you for my parentage
And a Christian blue collar heritage.
Before you’d gone there were a few goodbyes
When the dark angel thought it yet unwise
To get too close to that walking cane,
Knowing with your firm grip it promised pain.
So as you go, here’s one thousand and one:
Let heaven welcome this stout Welsh son!
At one hand your Jesus, at the other your wife,
With straight back and bright eyes, run to new life!
I love you, Grandpa. See you soon, but not yet.
There is a safe space provided by friends and family who understand the pain and heartache of life in general, and the Way of the Cross in particular. I wrote this poem in thanks to God, for the benevolence showered on me by their presence in my life.
If you have ever allowed me to share in your angst, this is for you. I love you. Thank you for your vulnerability. When you need it, may you find peace and rest under the Healing Trees.
For those of you on mobile devices who find the picture too small, here is the text:
by Bill Scarrott
Heaven has hills where trees do grow
When desperate prayers are sown below.
Alas we rarely tarry there
In forests angels long to know.
There the Gardener takes a knee,
And one by one tends each small plea
With hands that still bear sacred scars,
Bringing to life a Healing Tree.
Covered there from the storms you fear,
Sheltered ‘neath leaves of answered prayer,
A sapling from your own pain grows
Near streams that flow with grace to spare.
Someday others will rest and hide
Under great branches tall and wide
Where the Gard’ner watered a seed
Shaped like that lonely tear you cried.
There are a couple men in my church who I respected greatly, right up until I overheard a conversation they had about the merits of buying a specific brand of footwear. Yes, they were talking about the infant stages of their shoe collections. Being an older Christian brother, I admonished them to turn in their man-cards right then and there.
Some of my surprise came from expecting believers to debate issues higher up the maturity spectrum, such as the merits of Christian radio, religion in politics, and coffee in the sanctuary. This banter is a perplexing phenomenon, because we all tend to think that mature people have a singular perspective – ours – rendering further discussion useless. We congregate in little communities where our opinions are considered fact and our biases are celebrated. We congratulate ourselves on being right. The primary ministry of Jesus was, after all, to save us from being wrong.
If you’ve been in church culture for any amount of time you know what I’m talking about, and you know the group you’re most comfortable in. Is it Conservative Evangelical? And that less mature group – Progressive Liberal? Or are they legalistic, and you are part of the Grace camp? We use different labels, but what we mean is mature and immature.
The labels themselves are useful, to a point. For example, consider Good Christians vs Honest Christians. For Good Christians, predetermined categories coupled with a discerning spirit provide a rough sketch of who they’re sitting down to coffee with, possible conversational parameters, and most importantly the level of grace they’ll be required to extend. Honest Christians, on the other hand, use labels in exactly the same setting to identify how much of an ass you are.
Like I said: useful, to a point.
Regardless of how we gauge and categorize the maturity of others, it boils down to the degree to which they are aligned with our threshold of enlightenment. The test of our own maturity is simply a silent conscience, squashed or at rest notwithstanding.
Biblically, spiritual maturity is not so easy to nail down. At different times and places, the scriptures point to love, joy, peace, sacrificial giving, diligent study, hospitality, a lack of anger and many other things as signs of a well cultivated spiritual life.
There is one part of growth, though, that in Western Christianity is glaring in it’s absence: Holy Discontent. The knowledge that we are incomplete, and the passion to move forward – this we have lost, if we ever had it in the first place. We have enshrined the exact opposite: our own completeness and the passion to point out where others fall short.
The Apostle Paul explained this attitude of maturity in his letter to the Philippian church:
“…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”
Philippians 3:7-16 English Standard Version (ESV)
Not perfect? Pressing on? Forgetting what is behind? Straining towards what is ahead? That sounds like someone who still has something to learn! And imagine an attitude of humility that lets others be less mature, simply encouraging them to live up to whatever standard of faith they currently possess.
Back to the shoe conversation, because those trendy, well-shod brothers are the ones who got me thinking about Christian maturity. In addition to passion, there was more grace and care and concern on the table of that debate than I’ve seen in many a theological discussion. I was truly impressed. Well done, hipsters. Now, about those man-cards…