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.
Thursday: Power laid down. The master who has more power than any other human would know what to do with, shows us what it looks like to lead. Instead of using power to have others serve him, he wraps a towel around his waist and becomes lower than the lowest servant. He breaks bread with his betrayer, showing us what it looks like to observe communion. He sets a new standard for neighborliness and elevates love above all else. The greatest farewell speech ever is given in a small room with only a handful of attendees. Something is radically different about this Passover feast.
Friday: Betrayal. Abandonment. Confusion. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Resentment. Greed. It all took place throughout the tnight. Today, the earth goes dark, the way things are will continue to get terribly exposed, and we can’t deny that something with humanity is terribly wrong. Today, the ugly and brutal cross will serve as the means and the sign, of radical love, forgiveness, peace, and a path towards the renewal of humanity. All because of a God who gets us, who understands our frame, our hidden scars, who is passionate about us being with him as a reunited family, and was not afraid of our mess, absorbing it all into himself and offered us keys to remove the shackles that have kept us locked up, numb, vulnerable. Today we learn of the tension of the “good” Friday.
Saturday: If we’re truthful with ourselves, our longings, our desires, all the letdowns in life, today is the day of embracing the tension. The tension of what’s been lost, of what’s yet to come, or of what’s been promised but you haven’t seen it yet. It’s the tween time, it’s the time that’s hard to explain and it seems foolish to keep hoping. It’s the day many of us give up and give in. Let that emotion sink in today. Feel it, ponder it, share it with others, but know the story isn’t over. There’s green pastures coming, but it’s going to come in a way that’s totally unexpected, wait for it, ask for the eyes to see it today, in the midst of the tension. This is where beauty is born. Midnight is coming, and in the darkness, salvation will come.
Sunday: Early this morning, when it was still dark, in the quietness of the midnight, the world shook. A body that should’ve been decaying acted in such a way that is so utterly otherworldly. The most vile wickedness this world had to offer, the God-man absorbed, killing his body, setting in motion the first death among many, that would turn wickedness into goodness, ugliness into beauty, death into renaissance, a tomb into a womb. Angels were there to witness it, the women were the first to believe it, and the religious were the first to deny it. This is the day which has been forever debated, but regardless of the debate the celebration will always go on.
One of the gifts I’ve been given from the construction world is that I understand it takes time to create something beautiful. And that ‘time’ includes lots hard work, sweat, many mistakes, sometimes broken bones, blood, busted budgets, mental toughness to keep the vision in mind when all you see is a mess, and the willingness to keep at it, to do it the right when things get difficult, and not cut corners. I have many terrible stories of what cutting corners does in the construction world… just go out to a new housing suburb and ask a homeowner what issues they have with their “new” home. Good work, beautiful work, takes time and commitment to do things right.
With many jobs I work on, there is demolition that has to happen before we can start actually ‘building.’ Whether it’s digging the footer for a stem wall that is going to hold the bearing load of a building, jackhammering out old concrete and rebar to build something more functional or more aesthetically pleasing, or tearing out walls, ceiling or floors for a remodel. The homes or buildings where demo takes place becomes a dusty mess, full of hazards and is in need of strong labors to tear out and haul off all the junk that is no longer necessary.
It takes this…
To get to this…
To get this…
In life, this struggle is the same. We all want the beauty without the work. We want the resurrected life without the death. We want healing but not the pain. We want the finished product, but not the long journey of demolition and clean up to get to the point where you can actually start building again. We want to live in peace, and run from disorder. We want to ignore what’s broken. We want to cut corners. This is a human desire. I don’t know anyone, who in their right mind, loves pain and waiting a long time for things to become whole. But not loving these things does not mean we can dodge them and expect the beauty we long for.
You see, this work is hard because if forces us to deal with that which we are afraid of: exposure of our shame, ignored trauma and loss, an invitation to grieve, asking others to help us haul off the junk that’s been demolished… This work is hard because it invites us into the truth of the way things really are, and to ‘willingly’ move into our shame and grief seems like a death wish at worst, and stupid at best.
But it is precisely the digging into the shame and moving into the grief that is what creates the beauty. It’s the asking for help and recruiting strong laborers to help with the heavy lifting. But remember, it’s the ashes covered over the forest floor that brings about a plush forest in years to come. It’s the work of sitting in your pain long enough to die to the old ways that have kept you numb isolated, and without passion and intimacy for years. Death must be at work within us for beauty to ever surface in the purest sense.
So here’s to the hard work of creating beauty when there is no clear vision of what it will look like once we get there. Here’s to sitting in our pain (not completely on our own though) long enough to die, and in the tomb of grief, in time, it will turn into a womb. And once again, you will be invited into the pain as you will labor to give birth to the hidden beauty waiting to be revealed.
This is an invitation for the revolutionary, the visionary, the one who is not happy with the way things have been, for those who are not willing to cut corners, and move past the comments that are meant to keep you from feeling and dealing with what’s really going on under the slab. May this encourage you today to stay the course, and as Mumford and Sons puts it, to not succumb when the world is wrapping round your neck. Find your broad-shouldered beasts and invite them in to your shame and grief to share to weight and pain of this journey towards beauty.
My kids have grown up with the movie Toy Story that has the two lovable and imaginative characters, Buzz Lightyear and Woody. I have to admit, every time I watch one of the Toy Story movies and hear Buzz say, “To infinity… and beyond!”, I secretly hope that the movie creators would create a narrative that would take us up into a daydream with Buzz about what it’s like to actually go to “infinity and beyond.”
I think if we’re honest with ourselves and could break out of our hollow modern shells that has squashed the fairy tales, myths, and legends, we would all long to go to that place Buzz is talking about. To get away from the grind, to fly to a place far away, to be a hero in another realm, to slay the dragon, and take that adventure you’ve always wanted. We were made for more, and that’s where these longings could teach us something about God’s narrative.
In the biblical narrative, “infinity and beyond” came to us, invited us into that narrative, gave us a home called earth, and asked us to fill this place with purpose and meaning that is from “infinity and beyond.” You see, we live in an era that has honored science, reason, rational thinking, medicine, and the like, and the cost on our society has been a decapitation of the supernatural, and the Christian world has embraced it more than most people.
Sure there is Christian language about the supernatural and even a charismatic approach to prayer and the like, but the world to many Christians is still divided into the sacred and the profane, the material and the immaterial, the natural and the supernatural, and in many ways we do not have a context for merge both worlds, to give a fuller meaning to life as we know it. This is where Ash Wednesday comes to mind.
Ash Wednesday is a day for the many Christian denominations to ‘kick off’ if you will, the journey towards Easter. Originally, Ash Wednesday got its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year, and then placing them on the heads of participants, while an officiant recites something like this: “Turn from your sin, be faithful to the Gospel, and remember from dust were you made, and to dust you shall return.”
In the biblical narrative, the use of ashes were mostly used to show that someone is either grieving from a tragedy or showing remorse for sin, and it serve as an external sign of repentance (2 Samuel 13:19; Job 42:3-6; Jeremiah 6:26). Ash Wednesday is a day of remembrance, but it’s so much more to me. It’s a day to tangibly remember we broke trust with God. We ate a natural piece of forbidden fruit and brought upon natural and supernatural consequences, thus we need natural and supernatural help.
Ash Wednesday is reminding us that in humanity, we are stuck to the natural realm and do not have the ability to restore supernatural realities. In comes Jesus the Christ, and Ash Wednesday is definitely all about Jesus. It’s all about placing our sin in front of us, remember who were are and not placing the weight of salvation on ourselves, because we can’t restore the supernatural. It’s about preparing our hearts to see with both eyes wide open, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
In the very natural act of confessing and receiving ashes on our foreheads, we are re-enacting the garden narrative with Adam and Eve and accepting our fate of death and separating, but not without hope. We lament on Ash Wednesday and we fast over the 40 days (or so) of the Lenten season to prepare our bodies, minds, and hearts, to receive in a fresh new way every year, supernatural help that could only come from Jesus, the ultimate natural supernaturalist!
Jesus, the new Adam, invites his people into a new realm called righteousness in a world that will never be fully righteous. Even though Ash Wednesday is not an official sacrament of the church, it is very much an invitation into a supernatural world in a very natural kind of way. It is an invitation to go up to the mountain of mercy and receive something from God that no one or nothing in this natural world could ever offer to you.
Jesus, in the biblical narrative, was conceived supernaturally, but born of naturally to a virgin named Mary. He grew naturally in favor with man and supernaturally with God. He was sinless, offered a new way to be human, dismantled the religious life that missed God and therefore suffered under Pontius Pilate by the will of God, but the desire of the religious leaders. He was crucified, he died, and was buried naturally. On the third day, Jesus rose again supernaturally, showed himself to over 500 witnesses, then ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of power of God the Father. From there, he will one day return to restore natural order supernaturally, as he will lovingly judge the living and the dead and give to each man what they longed for.
Jesus offers a supernatural life now, in this very natural realm, and asks that those who have received this mercy and become family with him, live in such a way that brings greater purpose and meaning to what he has created. Ash Wednesday is a way to take Jesu by the hand, and follow him to a realm outside of time and space, and meet with him so that you are never the same naturally or supernaturally. We were created for more than what our eyes have seen and our brains can comprehend. We were created to live with both eyes open to the natural and the supernatural world and to see the beauty, the joy, the color, the smells, the tastes, the feelings, of what the supernatural world has breathed into the natural realm.
It ought not to remain a divide between the material and the immaterial realms. Jesus, the immaterial God became material, and restored what man broke in Eden. Jesus is the restoration of shalom, the Eucharistic life, the life of divine thankfulness invites freely all who would have eyes to see and ears to hear, the taste of a new kind of food that will restore what was lost in the garden through the forbidden fruit being carelessly eaten.
So this lenten season, may you ascend the hill, and through your fasting, your confession of what’s really true about you, your turning from sin, and believing that the natural and supernatural realms aren’t mutually exclusive, may you learn to live today in the natural realm with a natural supernatural savior. He is waiting for you to close the gap and believe that there is more to life than just rationale, reason, and boring parties. He’s longing for you so say like Buzz, “To Easter and beyond!” where the mysterious resurrection is a divine reality for all who believe, today!
The narratives of life are many and messy most of the time and they follow certain story lines. Two of the most dominant parts of any narrative are the deaths that take place and then the resurrections that happen thereafter. This is what we pay for when we go see movies, these plot lines that ultimately take us to the point of death or near death, and then we get to see the story turn and a type of resurrection happens. Deaths and resurrections.
From a Christian worldview (at least ‘Christian’ in the sense of those who actually follow Jesus) we know that this theme is birthed from within us, that is, we all have this longing to be resurrected from a death, a loss, from pain. And within this same worldview we know that this longing is actualized in what Christ Jesus did for all of us, when we were still his enemies. Jesus’ death and resurrection secure reconciliation for those who trust in Christ, but it also gives purpose and meaning to various forms a sufferings, deaths, as the ultimate purpose in life isn’t to dodge pain, but to be resurrected and reconciled to the truest source of life out of our pain, the life of life, Jesus.
But on this side of redemption, it seems that there too few resurrections and too many deaths. Yes, I can hear the cliche Christianese response say, “But death where is your victory, death where is your sting!” And to that I’d say, that phrase isn’t completely true until the final days when Christ returns and the final resurrection of the dead takes place. This Christianese response has pervaded Christian religious mumbo jumbo so much that we live in a culture that has numbed ourselves from truly dying (or feeling the sting of death, or at least giving acknowledgement to it) that our resurrections are weak and fabrcarted with emotions and words, false lights, void of power and transformation that comes from the life of life.
Today, I feel death all around me and I’m grateful for friends who know how to face the reality of death and grieve properly so when the resurrection actually comes, it’s real and tangible, and Jesus’ life and presence are more beautiful than they were before. Life sucks at times and brings you to the point of death, indeed it will even kill us in more ways that just physical death. But when the life of life shows up, the life that didn’t just shine light into our darkness, but the life that shined light out from the darkness our darkness. It’s then that we realized that Jesus sits with us in our pain and loss and deaths, and offers a life that life is really all about.
The life of life, shining the light of all lights out of dark backgrounds so that we can actually see him, because when fabricated lights are always around us, we lose the dark backdrop that allows us to see Jesus on this side of redemtpion. Deaths are many today, and resurrections are few and far between, but I live in the hope of the true resurrection that it will not always be that way. That good will win, evil will be destroyed forever, Satan and all those who prey on the weak will reap their pay in full, and that all that has been lost will be recovered through the resurrection. This narrative I so utterly believe in and long for when it’s complete.
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!