This summer my wife and I decided that we wanted to make the most of each weekend, and for us, making the most of it was camping as much as we could. Yes, we voluntarily signed up for packing for 6, setting up camp, putting out fights and complaints from our kiddos, and sleeping on hard, stoney ground (which used to be easier when we were younger). Crazy, not really. It’s the Phoenix heat we’re escaping. We’ll do anything to get out of the heat come summer time. It’s been a great summer, and now our kids start school in a couple weeks and routine will soon set in.
One of the reasons we wanted to get out was to ditch the heat, but something that motivated us even more was to leave the frantic pace of the city, slow dow, and learn to listen and see and smell and taste things that we would normally look past in the every day life of the big city. I have thousands of stories I could share about our summer, but one very small moment this past weekend near Williams, AZ has stood out to me. We were camping off of a forest road near White Horse Lake. We decide to take a walk and explore the forest. I’d like to say it was a great walk, but the family was divided, some of the kids were bored and one child was angry with me and all the awkward family dynamics were in full swing.
We were determined to push through it though, so we kept walking. As we did, we passed a tree that at one point in it’s life had died, or was burned at the top, as you can see in the pic. My wife stopped us and drew our attention to the tree. She has a canny eye for seeing things behind what you see at first glance. Notice the trunk, and how it just stopped growing at some point. All the glory that it promised to display has ended. The thick trunk no longer growing. I’m not sure what was going on when this tree’s life took a turn, but if you continue looking at the photo, you will notice a few more things.
There are about 4-5 shoots that have sprouted off the side of the trunk, and are reaching for the sun, now taking the water that the main trunk originally gulped for itself in years past. Water is dispersed now to younger, smaller shoots keeping alive the once promising tree. And they’re healthy shoots, with green leaves, working hard to provide a canopy in the midst of an ocean of other trees. Something else that is beautiful about this photo is all the new trees that were given birth by this once promising tree that lost the glory it once sought after. Dozens of new trees, growing, seemingly thriving, contributing to the earth what they were meant to contribute: oxygen, life, beauty, commitment to struggle through the elements.
There’s so much to say regarding this photo, and I would love to hear what others see and experience as they look at it. Some things that stands out to me as I look at this and think of the message it was speaking to me on that slow day up in the woods are:
Death gives life. Moving out the way give others a chance to get in on the action. Luxuries must be sacrificed to some degree for others to have the chance to participate. Glory doesn’t always look pretty. Beauty is diverse and mysterious. Death isn’t the last word. Sacrifice will rob you of luxuries. Inclusion means we won’t have the whole pie to ourselves. Sharing sounds nice when we’re teaching our kids to share, until the cost of sharing means we lose what was once “promised” to us.
We live in a culture that gives lip service to kindness and sacrifice, but when the very cost of being kind and sacrificing is the cost of our own comfort, then we say, of course not orally with our words, “To hell with kindness and sacrifice.” We say this with our lives, our actions, by the way we treat others and neglect many evils right in front of our eyes. We protect our own privilege at the cost of others not having the same privilege, and we make up really great sounding ideas as to why we choose to live this way, vote that way, neglect those things, etc.
We love the Christian idea of God dying so we can live, but when the call to die comes to us directly, we say, “To hell with the Christian idea of dying.” Now again, we do not dare say that outrightly, because that would sound too harsh and make us feel like we’re bad people or we don’t believe in God or something. But our lives are lived harshly. We preach resurrection, but try to get the resurrected life before the cross. We keep broken people at arms length saying they’re not healthy for us to be around, and then turn around and say to the broken, dirty ones, “God bless you, be at peace” while the heavens weep!
We want the good life without the sacrifice. We want change, but not at the cost of our comforts and luxuries. We want glory that looks good to the eye, and loathe the brokenness that brought about glory to the Son. We want to be the large, glorious tree towering in the forest proving to be a work of beauty and strength, and look down upon those who don’t have it together like we do.
We want change. We need change. And for things to change, we must die to what we think is the good life, the glorious life. We must take responsibility for the injustices we’ve ignored or perpetuated (individually and corporately). We must allow the seeds of humility and death to be scattered all over the forest floor with new life, life that will take a portion of the pie away from us.
We’ll have to learn to share again. We’ll have to be willing to be re-ordered. We’ll have to allow the time and space and place for corrupt systems to be re-storied and re-constituted to include the ones that have been cut off in the past at the cost of the luxuries of the dominant culture. We’ll have to be willing to hear differing opinion without lashing out in anger. We’ll have to be confronted with our own privilege and not be so fragile. We’ll have to learn a new way to be human.
It will take a million deaths, but the life that will be re-born will be much more beautiful and intoxicating than anything we have seen in the past. This is what the life and death and resurrection of Jesus preaches and promises. This is the way forward. This is the life you’ve always wanted, but are still deciding if it’s worth it or not.
I’m writing this a day before my wife and I’s 17 year wedding anniversary. I have been reflecting about love, beauty, marriage, and commitment quite a bit this year. From year 16 to 17, it has been one of our more challenging years of marriage for many different reasons within and without of our family unit. Naturally, when times are tough and love and beauty have to be intensely fought for, it’s easy to think, love isn’t there, beauty is being lost in this relationship, and is it worth it to continue fighting this hard for something that seems that won’t always last on this side of heaven.
But I believe today, that it’s precisely these moments, the ones that no one is proud of, the moments we like to numb ourselves from and pretend they’re not as bad as they really are (thus the featured photo of Amy and I not looking perfect Christmas morning… with tired eyes and bedhead! She’s gonna kill me for posting this one!). It’s the moments that you want to ignore when you go to a 20 year high school reunion, as you and our spouse are putting on your best face, because the beauty of struggle wouldn’t be understood the way you now see it. The worth of the struggle in marriage, and sticking in it regardless of the resistance that brokenness has created in the midst of passion, love, and desire. This is true for any relationship, not just marriage.
Much has been written about love, marriage, beauty, and the power of belonging. This is what some of the best movies create their plots out of. The “little guy” being called into something greater than he deserves to be involved in. The outcast making the big difference as fate would exalt her. The unlikely hero, the odds stacked against the main character, only for him to succeed after a type of death has been faced and conquered. This is the beauty of the stories we all love.
When I think of this in lieu of marriage, I think of the commitment a thriving marriage must have to stay committed to the other person regardless of the situation. I think of the times one of the spouses is the underdog, the poor pitiful mess up who can’t get it right, the one who has failed time and time again, who has mud on their face and is full of shame, the one who can’t seem to shed their childish ways, etc. I think of the plots that don’t end up happy and no one wants to write about. These moments aren’t just happening at an external level for everyone to see. No, all these failures and mess up’s are mostly happening in the privacy of a marriage, in front of the person who once fell in love with you because they loved who you were and likely because of the way you (or they) wooed and pursued you.
And now you find yourself in the midst of a marriage screenplay and you may feel like the character with the odds stacked against you, except you don’t have the hope of a Hollywood screenplay ending. There’s no more pursuit, and you are in the midst of the tension… “Will I be loved if I continue to fail.” “Will she still want to “belong” together if I prove to not have what it takes in business?” What’s gonna happen if I’m honest with all the shit underneath the surface of my poor pitiful existence?” “What if he stops being attracted to me?”
It’s in the midst of these moments where we have an invitation to allow the layers of self-protection we’ve gathered around us over the years to either fall away a little bit more, or to accumulate a larger collection of self-protective clothing. Each one of us, at some point in our younger lives, encountered messages that said we weren’t enough, we needed to be different in order to be loved, we had something wrong with us, others aren’t trustworthy, pain is to be avoided, etc. And in those moments we tried on new ways of being ourselves so that we would be protected from these negatives messages/experiences.
Over the years, as children, these protective layers worked, but when we become adults, they interfere with intimacy and closeness and the challenges of a close relationship begin to create a vulnerability in you that either pisses you off or scares the hell out of you. The choice to continue the status quo of our childhood or to walk into the mysteriousness of vulnerability is now staring us down in the eyes, and we want to crawl in a hole and die, or wage war! But there is another way….
Usually, the deciding factor of which way one chooses to behave (internally or externally) is dependent upon on the nature of the marriage or relationship. Is the environment of the relationship one of love and trust, or is it one of performance and deceit? This can only be honestly answered by you alone. We know ourselves, we know our layers, and we know what we’ve anesthetized ourselves from because of brutalness of being honest about what’s really inside. And to be honest about this, will indeed take a great act of vulnerability.
Love and trust flourishes in the context of a vulnerable relationship. A relationship that has offered the grace to the screw up, the failure, the one who can’t always perform at a level of perfection. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to offer a secure place to be totally exposed, yet still told that they belong. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to communicate how significant the other person is, regardless of all the past years of messages that have said the other person isn’t significant. The beauty of marriage is created by the ability of each person in the committed relationship to grant forgiveness when the other person isn’t able to offer one of the two routes above.
The beauty of marriage is created ultimately by God, who always fought for the wife who was childless, the man who wasn’t capable of a great speech, the outcast arrogant brother, the lying son who labored for his father’s approval, the oppressed wife who wasn’t given the protection she deserved, the prostitute who was constantly told that she was only worth the money she was offered for a night, the corrupt businessman, and the social outcast and untouchable leper.
God married himself to such people, and offered beauty in place of their ashes. Instead of asking for these people to perform, God came to them, fought for them and offered a place to belong. God came to such poor people (you and I) in the form of Jesus, and not only did he model the beauty of love, but made the reality of our poverty and death to be something that would actually give us life.
His death for our failures; this produced the greatest return ever. In the dark tomb of our failures, sin, and shame, we get caught up into a womb once again. A second conception now begins, a new birth story happens. As Jean Vanier puts it, with Jesus, a tomb always becomes a womb. And after the resurrected life, Jesus asks us to take his hand in marriage, first to receive a new life in a relationship that offers love and trust, a place of security and significance; and second, to be able to offer this relationship to others. This is the beauty of marriage.
I am thankful this weekend for a wife who has displayed the beauty and worth of Jesus to me in the midst of my narrative that has found me out as the fool, the screw up, the hypocrite. When I was down and out, she didn’t try to rescue me in a way that would anesthetize us from what was really going on. No, she courageously allowed death to take place, no matter how scary it’s gotten, so that in the burial of the tomb, the womb would produce a deeper more intimate new life, a life of vulnerability that cuts out the pretense and celebrates weakness and poverty as something rich and fruitful.
May you experience the beauty of marriage, or the beauty of love, that allows the proper parts of us to die, so the true self could be resurrected and rescued from all the self-protective layers that have kept us from intimacy from God and others. It’s the commitment to the fight, the commitment to allow death to take it’s course, to stay up on the cross as Jesus did for us, the journey of vulnerability, and the offering of second chances and grace in the worst moments in life. Put this definition of the beauty of marriage to the test, and I promise you, you’re ending will be significantly better than a “Hollywood ending.”
Track four on the Legend of Chin album is entitled, “Edge of My Seat”. Are you sitting on the edge of yours? If not, sit down, get on the edge, and read on:
That there’s nothing more
That there’s nothing more
Nothing here’s the same, it’s all a dream
Life on the movie screen
And I’m sitting on the edge of my seat
I can’t tell what happens next,
Just what I’ve seen
I don’t know what it means
But I’m holding on the edge of my seat
‘Cause I can’t forget your name,
Forget your name
Yeah I can’t forget you now
I know I can’t forget you, girl
Sit back buckle in and hold on tight
A roller coaster ride
And I’m holding on the edge of my seat
And I can’t know for sure
‘Cause I just landed on your shore
But I think you got nothing but another thing coming
If you think there’s nothing more
That there’s nothing more
At first glance, this seems to be an aimless song about being in love with a girl, and being excited about what happens next. And indeed, it may be, but we have to read (and listen) to the song in the context it was written (Jon was 20ish and dropping out of first year of college or so…). In this stage of life, there’s always much excitement mixed with other intense feelings and questions about life.
In the ripe young age of 20, the idealistic life (for most Westerners) seems promising and exciting. The chance to make of yourself what you’ve always longed to be, whether it be totally opposite of the way you were raised. The chance to establish you’re own values, pursue your own dreams and not some other adults dreams. The adventure of figuring out what it’s like to love and live. It’s a season of living on the edge of your seat. What’s next? Will it be like “life on the movie screen”? Will it be better, or worse?
I take from this song, especially at the end of it when it says, “And I can’t know for sure, ‘Cause I just landed on your shore, But I think you got nothing but another thing coming, If you think there’s nothing more, That there’s nothing more”, that there’s a cry out to those who think, at a young age, that there’s nothing more; not much to live for. To me, it’s a plea for the young apathetic guy/gal to hang in there, to realize that no matter what their story has been up to this point, that they just arrived on the shore of life, and there’s much more to be found in life.
So I say to the one who’s giving up, or is on the verge of giving up, “Keep hope alive, don’t give up, I promise, there’s more to this life. Stay on the edge of your seat!”
Jesus is alive, therefore the church is alive! If Jesus is dead, then the church is dead. The Apostle Paul speaks to this in 1 Cor. 15:17, 19: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (literally, incapable of producing any useful results) and you are still in your sins… If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
But Christ has risen!
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:58)
Paul’s “therefore” comes on the heels of talking about the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the body, and the great mystery of our work here on earth not being in vain. If our work is not in vain, then it is actually accomplishing something for God’s kingdom.
When Jesus comes onto the scene at the beginning of Mark’s account of the gospel (MarK 1:14:15), He said “…the kingdom of God is at hand”, which basically means, “Good news, the King is here and so is peace!” Imagine for a moment with me, the reality of the Kingdom of God being at hand: shalom (peace with justice, new life, goodness, beauty, redemption, reconciliation, etc…). And then after this announcement, Jesus did justly among the poor and marginalize, he corrected the religious leader who thought they had the corner on doctrine, he healed and touched the untouchables and the dark horses, then he proceeded to move towards the cross to pay for (literally, to take on himself) our sins and the consequences we deserve for thinking we can play the role of God, so that God’s Kingdom could be realized (seen) in and through our lives.
But Jesus was not only satisfying the payment for sin… He was at that moment while dying on the cross, preparing and displaying for us a new way to be human. the weak become strong. The foolish confound the wise. The last become first. The powerless become powerful. And through the resurrection, Jesus began creating a new people who will be mediators of God’s redeeming power for other people, cultures, and creation itself. He’s building an army, not just laying out a plan of salvation.
“Atonement, redemption and salvation are what happen on the way (of God launching His kingdom, the cross) because engaging in this work demands that people themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world in order that they can in turn be rescuers.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 204.
Those who stop trusting in themselves and other futile things, and begin trusting in Jesus, they are being made into an army that fights not through force and persuasion, but through selflessness, death, weakness, and sacrifice.
We are redeemed not just to receive what God has for us (although we desire what He has for us), but so that others may as well be delivered from the clutches of Satan, sin and death. We, having been called into God’s kingdom, are now summoned to advance this public truth about God’s kingdom (Matt. 11:12), his good and gracious rule, and partake with Him in the gathering of His church (present and eternal).
So… therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:58).
God is using His army of redeemed people, not only to display His kingdom, but also to create and build the new heaven and new earth, through every righteous deed done in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, this is not our doing because we have died in Christ and live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus, through the Spirit, has been working on the new heaven for over 2000 years through redeemed lives here on earth (us!), sowing seeds of righteousness that will produce a thousandfold return!
Oh how this has the ability to change our view of the resurrection and Christian mission. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness, proclamation of truth in love, every act of justice done in the name of Jesus, is us partnering with God in storing up treasures in heaven that will never pass away and will be for all of the redeemed to enjoy! This is our mission in light of the resurrection!
But here’s the sad part of this story. Many people say with their lips that God is not dead, but then live most of their lives as if He is dead. This is not the kind of witnessing army that Jesus dies to give life. The life God gives through faith in Christ is life that moves in rhythm with God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, forgiveness, confession of sin, standing up for dark horses, sharing, trusting, loving. We are called to live as if God is not dead. May we be a people who live as if God’s alive before we dare proclaim it.
We are called to plant “kingdom-signposts”, to display the beauty and worth of Jesus, to walk in freedom, love, humility, shalom, and in the grace of God’s good and coming kingdom. Demonstrate it. Embody it. Then announce it. Include the poor & marginalized. Pray. Embrace suffering. Rejoice in weakness. Gather together in community. And remember, that God’s kingdom comes by the Spirit of God moving in response to prayer!
Nothing to hide. Nothing to fear. Nothing to prove. Nothing to lose.
I had lunch this afternoon with a business-man friend of mine who left a lucrative job over six years ago to serve men and women in the marketplace. He’s one of those people you meet with, and you know you’re going to leave the meeting stirred up and challenged. So, as a glutton for punishment, I knew I needed to have lunch with him.
As our time together unfolded over a lunchtime eggs Benedict at the Breakfast Club (downtown at City Scape; great food!), it was clear that my friend was not fooled by my attempt to explain why I am justified in being mad at how God has been ordering life. He’s no stranger to suffering and change.
He very graciously and lovingly leaned over the table, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Jeff, do you really want to be in a place where Jesus is following you, or you are following Jesus.” I paused, and gave him that look that said, “I’m supposed to say ‘No’ as a Christian, but right now it would feel pretty good for Jesus to follow my plan.” He went on to say, “Jeff, listen to me, there’s no better place to be in life than to be in a situation where if God doesn’t show up, you’re done.”
I have to admit, I hate hearing that, partly because I know it’s true, but also because I hate the unknown, not having clarity, or control. To be in that place, is to be okay with mystery and okay with not having control. My friend closed our time together by saying, “When you can sit with Jesus in the unknown without knowing details or having clarity about what’s next, then you are on your way of having nothing to hide, nothing to fear, nothing to prove, and nothing to lose”; and I would add, nothing to manage.
I am learning to release my weaknesses, inabilities, fears, and identity in this season of life, and it seems to create more anxiety at times… but in a weird way today, I feel relieved again that God is managing my life, and I really do not have control. I feel relieved that there’s much unknown in my (and my family’s) near future. I feel humbled that Jesus is meeting with me in a fresh new way, on His terms, not mine.