how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth


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submission

Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit
Luke 23:46

 

How does God die? It’s the cornerstone of our faith, and I cannot fully understand. When I think about it too long, my head hurts. But this I do know: it was not a charade that Christ was playing with the Father. It was a real death, and it was not taken, but given. It was a real submission. He gave up His spirit. He Himself spoke of this, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of Myself.” (John 10:18)

I lay it down of Myself. Of my own accord. We’re talking about His very life here. How could He save anybody if He was dead? How could this possibly be the way? Individualism, self-sufficiency, and worldly definitions of success are so entrenched in our cultural and religious milieu that we can hardly suffer submitting an afternoon to the Lord, much less a killed desire, a deferred hope, a lower bank account, a larger body. Much less our very lives themselves. Christ was perfectly submitted to the Father in every moment of His human life, making this final submission no less astounding, but also utterly consistent. There is no way to do this halfway, He tells us. Either God is God, and He is sovereign and good and worthy of all sacrifice, suffering, and praise…or He is not. We cannot shop God like a buffet. Christ’s submission is a full, utter, giving over to the extent of ceasing to live. Not merely a placing under, but a giving over, a relinquishment of His hold on and rights to His life.

And the words He chooses to communicate this? Again, he turns to the Psalms: the songbook of the full spectrum of human emotion. Again, He does not speak lightly or choose randomly. Again, His words point to the far more that He is truly saying. In this moment of final submission, Christ speaks David’s words from the midst of a psalm that is all about proclaiming the truth of the character of God, and how it is worthy of trust.

Today, on this strangely Good Friday, we are in need of trust. In the midst of an increasingly uncertain world, we are in need of trust. We are in need of turning to one another to remind that we serve a God who is a rock and fortress, our strength and our Redeemer. We are in need of hearing, and proclaiming to each other the words of this psalm, “Oh, how great is Your goodness, which You have laid up for those who fear You, which You have prepared for those who trust in You in the presence of the sons of men!” We are in need of submission of all that seems broken and backwards and impossible and un-Good, to the God who is the same today as He is on Sunday; the God who is always – always – working redemption.

Yes, Jesus the God knew the grand arch of salvation history, and had even spoken of His own resurrection. But Jesus the man had experienced none of it, and He still had to die, trusting in an impossible promise. Submitting to a silent Father. Let us not cheapen the weight of this example simply because we find it so difficult to emulate.

There is a point on this day where words end. When the questions and the achings and the anger and the lament grow silent in the picture of suffering that acknowledges their worth as well as their proper place. We cannot have resurrection without death, we cannot have freedom without submission. Christ’s words, and the depth of His trust in His Father, brought Him all the way to death. To drink the cup even though He had asked it to be taken away. To submit that not His will, but the Father’s be done. But He can do so, perfectly for our example, because He knows the heart of the One to whom He is submitting. He knows the promises, even if He has not yet lived through them on earth. And He loves the Father. He loves Him enough to believe that even when He cannot see, that these hands – these mysterious hands that created light from darkness, that draw life from death, that craft pathways of goodness through pain – the Father’s hands never fail, never let go, and are never able to be snatched from.

Into those hands, Father, we submit.
And we confess that we are terrified of that prayer.

May this Good Friday be not merely one of remembrance, but one of submission. Submission to the fortress and rock, the strength and Redeemer, the One who has laid up good things for His children, who calls us to wait and to hope. On this darkest of uncertain days, may we trust the God who is making all things new, even when so much of how remains an unseen mystery.

 

I see my faith before me
It’s always there before me
And I can no more own it
Than I can own the road that I am on
And I don’t know where it leads me
I don’t know where it leads me
Peace and resurrection
Suffering and dejection
I don’t know

My body’s tired from trying to bring you here
My brow is furrowed trying to see things clear
So I’ll turn my back to the black
And fall
And wait for the mystery
To rise up and meet me

Sara Groves, Mystery


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authority

It is finished!
John 19:30

Finished is a bit of a misleading word in English, perhaps. The Greek word means not merely to end, but to come to completion, to the fullness, once for all. Like Jesus’ very words about Himself and the law: “I did not come to abolish [the law], but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) Or like Paul’s echoes: “…that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:4)

The endless sacrifices, the bloody requirements of atonement, it is finished.
The separation of God and man, the need for human mediation, it is finished.
The salvific efforts of works, the requirements of the law, it is finished.

We didn’t live in that time before the cross, that time when the people needed a priest and pigeons and a goat being sent out of the city and an incredibly complex and bloody system to know that their sins had been forgiven. It is difficult for us to imagine the generational longing of an entire people and religion for the Messiah to whom all this pointed, who would come and redeem and free them from all their oppression and sacrifice. Their knowledge of their own unsettledness in life was so deep that the celebration of their most important supper of the year was rich with symbols of their transience; unleavened bread because it didn’t have time to rise, sandals on, staff in hand. Into all this longing, then, Christ spoke at this moment with the authority to fulfill everything towards which they were striving. JRR Tolkien called Christ the great eucatastrophe (literally good-catastrophe) of history. This moment was the sudden shift in the story when the fate of the characters, seeming until now to be certain destruction, is suddenly diverted from it.

I like this metaphor, because what it offers is the remembrance that we can be diverted from certain destruction, the climax of the story, and still have a difficult road ahead of us, an arduous journey home. We may not have lived in those days of the Jewish law before the cross, but in some of the most important ways we have something to learn from them, for the consistent experience of our lives is still incompleteness. Too often, however, we don’t live into the remembrance of this truth, we simply try to distract from it. Christ’s words, though, remind us that we are not home, yet the work in finished. We have been once for all time saved from utter destruction, but we still have a long and hard road ahead of us. The fascinating gift of even the tense in which Christ spoke this word is that it carries the connotation of the ongoing result of a completed action. Not “I have finished it” or “it is being finished,” but this weaving together of the two; the work is ongoing within the context of its completion. The emphasis is on this present nature of the finished work. How do these words, then, stand as not an echo in history, but its very bedrock? How does my life change when I understand its incomplete-feeling present always and only in light of its completed end? This is the heart of pilgrimage and the calling of our lives.

The stunning reality of the fact of these words coming from the cross is that it radically redefines our understanding of authority. Christ didn’t speak this from the Mount of Transformation or even from the empty tomb, He spoke it from the cross. And I don’t think He spoke in resignation, I think He spoke with the confidence that the words themselves carry. I think this was a proclamation of fact for all time to come, not a broken admittance of His life in this moment alone. It was a statement about His eternal purpose, not His temporary reality. I picture His head held high, His eyes clear, His tone weighty, but steady, knowing the ultimate authority He commands at that moment. That authority had nothing to do with calling legions of angels, coming down from the cross, bringing the Kingdom the world was looking for. Even today, that authority still has nothing to do with taking over the systems of the world, establishing a moral reign, and making life as outwardly, socially, politically, or physically comfortable as possible for those of us who follow Him as King. No, authority as Christ demonstrated it was not afraid to be broken for the will of the Father, mocked and misunderstood and proclaimed as a failure in every way. But the foolishness of God is wiser than man, for He has all of eternity in view. The authority of Christ, His ability to complete the work, was demonstrated in the moment of utter self-sacrifice and ultimate vulnerability, bringing about the possibility of ultimate flourishing for the children of God.

It would not be inappropriate, given the weight of their importance for our lives ongoing within their completed salvation, to echo these words in grateful remembrance as we do the proclamation of truth only a few days to come:

It is finished! It is finished indeed.


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pain

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is,
My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?
Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34

Oh this ineffable moment of Christ’s despair on which hangs the lifetimes of our hope! In the most broken of circumstances, the most desperate of cries, we have never known a moment over which God’s hand did not reign, over which His face was not turned to this world, etched with both patience and anger. We have never known a moment where the grace of redemption did not frame the story. We have perhaps uttered this cry, but we have never actually known it. And not only that but Christ, from eternity past, had never known a moment where He and the Father did not dwell in perfect intimacy and oneness. It is a union we think and study and talk a lot about, but we do not really know, not in the experiential definition of knowing. This moment of separation, then, is a rending which we are dependent on, but cannot fathom the terrifying darkness of. When the writer of Hebrews reminds us that Christ has in every way suffered as we do, this is yet another miraculous indication of that truth: Christ knows the full weight of human loneliness and abandonment, beyond even what we will ever know, facing the utter silence of God.

This darkest moment of all history, however, is not without hope. It’s absolutely woven through with it! Jesus was a Jew: He knew what He was quoting with these words. Even if the full psalm did not flow from his lips in the impossible exhaustion of that moment, Christ was proclaiming to Himself (and to us, for all eternity) truth, at the very moment it was most impossible to believe. He knew that it only takes David two verses before he exclaims what must be the second breath of all anguish: yet You, God, are holy. You are worthy to be trusted. You delight in me, and that is not contingent, as the voice of the mockers would try to proclaim, on delivery from the cross. So neither will my trust be contingent on that rescue. Neither will my unswerving proclamation of truth be moved by circumstances which seem opposed to it. Yet, the psalmist wrote. Not only “you are holy,” but YET you are. Yet, but, despite, in the midst of, however, nevertheless. The holiness of God is not always plainly evident in our circumstances, and the believing feel of it does not always come, no matter how we cry by day and by night. It is simply true, and it is enthroned in our praises. It is lifted high by remembrance, proclaimed by faith. And for even this, we have the example of Christ.

We do not discipline ourselves to learn truth to no end.
We do not preach truth to ourselves everyday as an empty rhythm.
We immerse ourselves in truth so that in the very moments our human hearts cannot believe it, when the deliverance has not come, when the dream is dying, when the abandonment feels absolute, the truth of who God is is the unconscious thought to our minds, the practiced word to our tongues. And we know it; somewhere deeper even than feeling, we know; by remembrance and by discipline and by experience. So the question of forsakenness is followed by the truth of holiness, and the response of trust.

The other gift of these words of Christ, however, is that they show us that even for One who knew all this perfectly, who proclaimed it perfectly, the knowing did not negate the ache, the cry, the truth of that feeling. God is holy, yes, but it also feels like we have been forsaken. The unfathomable piece of it all is that this feeling of God’s abandonment, which is still to us only a perception, even in our very darkest moments, to Christ was a reality only He could bear. Only He could bear it for us then, only He can bear it for us now. He was born to bear it for us, to save us then and to intercede for us now. Without the death of Christ, our darkest moments really are absolutely dark, precisely because God is holy. But holiness becomes a hope through the transforming faith and unmeasurable pain of the only One who could ever hold the knowledge of truth through actual forsakenness. By His wounds, we are healed.

These words of Christ have pierced me with pain, wonder and unspeakable thanks:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Precisely because even at that very moment, He was, is, and will always be – holy. And that is our only hope.


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need

I thirst!
John 19:28

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Jesus was dying.

It is easy to spiritualize, to theologize, to talk about the events of this history-defining afternoon only in language of redemption and prophecy and divinity. Somewhere in the pious-looking artistic renderings, theological wonderment and resurrection already known-ness, we lost sight of the necessity and physicality of His death.

It is easy to forget the man. It is easy to forget the human flesh that was suffering beyond our imagining and could no less feel the pain as we could.

I do not think these simple, aching words were merely the calculated production of an omniscient God fulfilling a prophecy, though of course they did. I think Christ, the man, was thirsty.

He was broken, aching, bleeding, dying,
Body screaming for relief,
Lacking the most basic of all human desire,
In desperate need, and they mocked Him.
Unable, by His willingness to endure the cup to its dregs, to meet such a simple need for Himself,
Willing to risk further humility in proclaiming it,
Unafraid for us to see that dying was not easy,
Longing for us to know that need is not an indication of God’s absence.
But instead, being broken has consequences,
Sacrifice means there are things we cannot do for ourselves,
Humility means we have to ask,
Sin means our need may be mocked.

If this is the example of our Savior
Do you see the utter insanity
Of expecting to complete our own sacrifice by the power of our will?
Of expecting to breeze through life utterly fulfilled?
Of thinking perhaps we may not have to die at all?
We cling desperately to the belief that perfection is possible,
If only we work hard enough to be enough,
We can go without need and without pain and without mocking,
And perpetuate the lie that weakness is to be avoided at all costs.

But weakness is the way of the cross
To need is to be dependent
And so to proclaim the glory of the One who is sufficient.
To need is to declare the reason for the cross in the first place,
To declare our common humanity,
To lean into its gifts:
When neither you nor I can live nor die in our own strength,
I am free to speak of my need, my brokenness, my weakness,
And you will pour me a tall, clear glass of the sweet water of the truth of the cross.

I think Christ, in that moment, was desperately, unrelentingly in need.
I think He was thirsty.


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provision

Woman, behold your son! …Behold your mother!
John 19:26-27

The disciple whom Jesus loved.

We read John’s self-chosen name without really taking in the reality of a relationship that could define itself as such. That John would have the confidence to proclaim those words is astonishing. Who are you? Oh, I’m the one the King of the World loves. But of course, while at some intellectual level perhaps John could grasp Jesus’ King-of-the-World-ness, mostly I think Jesus was his friend. And while Mary had been told long ago by the angel that Jesus would save the whole world, mostly I think He was her son. Mary and John were incredible, yes. But they were also ordinary. Just because He loved the whole world doesn’t mean Jesus was any less woven into the fabric of their lives through intimate relationship. Just because He died for the whole world doesn’t mean they felt any less the ripping strands as they stood and watched. In fact, they probably felt it the most, because of their relationships, and precisely because they stayed and watched. It is difficult to imagine what those heart-wrenching moments were like for these two, as their Savior and Son and Friend was torn from them.

Yet, it is also because they stayed that we are given these words of Christ. They opened themselves up to love Him enough that even though they knew profound pain could be the only inevitable end of this relationship, they also knew the joy of intimacy was worth it. And because they stayed, and because they loved, we see this beautiful glimpse of Jesus’ intimate provision for relationship, and of relationship itself.

It rubs something in us the wrong way to say that Jesus might have somehow loved a few people at some sort of level of greater intimacy, as if God could have favorites. But that’s because we calculate love in measures, as if it was a product given, taken, or exchanged. We talk about loving something more, which necessitates loving other things less, and in the limits of English particularly we are forced into the linguistic corner of having only one word to use for loving both oreos and a lifelong friend. God doesn’t love more or less, doesn’t measure or dole out. God IS love. Love means He gives Himself, in fullness to and beyond our capacity as He knows it at any given moment. There is not a human measure by which to judge what fullness looks like to one or another. We are simply all full, cups running over with His love. So while Christ, in Divinity, loved no one less, we do see that He clearly lived in intimate human relationship more closely with some than others. He loved the crowds, yes, but that differed from what the fullness of His love to His disciples looked like, and that differed from the fullness of His love to His three closest disciples, or to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary, his mother, and this disciple who is explicitly named as “the one whom Jesus loved.” So surely, in that reality, Jesus loved Mary and John in a beautiful, uniquely intimate way.

In that moment, then, dying on a cross to meet the ultimate needs of humanity for all eternity, His love also reached down to meet the most practical, relational needs of these two. In all that was happening internally and externally in that moment, a piece of Christ’s heart was concerned for provision. A piece of Christ’s heart knew that yes, the Spirit would come and His presence would dwell with them, but also, in an incredibly human way, He was leaving them, and that left a real, relational void that I am sure never stopped aching until the day they were reunited with Him for all eternity. Knowledge of the intimate presence of God in our lives does not fully erase human relational need. It does not fully ease human relational loneliness. It does not fully remove the ache of human relational loss. Culture says relational longing is fully met by the pursuit of pleasure, in whatever temporal means, as quickly as possible; usually sexually. The church, unfortunately, often says (though at times without speaking) that relational longing is fully met in marriage, doing unspeakable damage to the hearts of both singles and married alike by promising them something that cannot stand. To grieve and long and need is not solely to lack some particular definition of intimacy, nor is it to lack sufficient faith, it is simply to be human in this relationally broken world. Jesus was a man and He knew this. He knew He could not fully ease this pain for Mary, John, and so many others. He knew this, and yet also knew that He was the eternal provision even in that ache. He knew that He had lived with them in order to show them how to live with each other.

I wonder if He wept, asking John to fill the role the faithful son in Him desperately wanted to? But I imagine His heart also swelled with joy, knowing all that lay before these two and the richness life would hold as they continued in the provision of relationship He had opened to them. The eternal reality of the relationship of all who would believe in Him erases previous barriers and limits of intimacy. Mother, see? Through my love this is also your son. Son this is also your mother. I have given you an example; live into it. He was leaving, but the beauty of Christ-defined relationships was only beginning. These relationships, our relationships as believers, formed and centered on Him, are His provision for us to walk this weary life. They are not incidental, they are not disposable, they are above all not to be lightly tread. We are relational beings, shaped in the very Image of God, and relationships that dwell in the heart of God are the most profoundly practical and intimate gifts of His presence and provision. From the very moment of utter human brokenness on the cross, Christ speaks to the ones He loved to remind us of this truth.


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grace

“Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.”
Luke 23:43

Oh, the theological weight that has stood on these words! God’s economy is not even, measured, or fair by any worldly standards. No, instead the condemned sinner, literally in the very act of being deservedly punished for his crimes, appeals to a grace nothing in the history of the world or his life gives him context to understand. This wasn’t how it worked. Myth and religion and culture all said basically the same thing: life is all about reimbursement. Give to the gods, to the emperor, to the earth, respect or money or worship or performance, and if you’re lucky you will get back what you deserve. There was no happy ending, hardly even a best case scenario. As human, you do what you can to please powers so far beyond you, and hope to land on the side of better than most. Almost every culture had a story of the fall, but redemption had not entered the scene. Can you see it? Can you see the necessity of God’s first action, the irresistible drawing of grace? This man did not deserve to figure out the truth. A lifetime on the scales stacked against him; despised, no doubt, by the state which was killing him; probably unknown at all to the church, or, if he used to be known, even more hated for whatever this great failure he bore was. As unlikely a convert as Christ was a Savior.

It makes me wonder about his life. Had he heard of Jesus, finding himself drawn by something inexplicable to groups that were talking about Him in the market? Did he hunch in the back of the crowd on the shores of the sea, or the side of the mount, as Christ spoke His mysterious truth? Was he overwhelmed in those moments by a longing so strong it began to crack the edges of his hopelessness? Was he afraid to let go? Afraid to be disappointed again, and so he shook off the impossibility of hope with the brutal reason of reality? Have you seen my life? Perhaps he thought. There is nothing in it, or in this world, that whispers the possibility of a Savior. Have you seen what I’ve done?

It was a relatively small area, and I often wonder how far Jesus’ name had spread. But who knows? Maybe this man hadn’t been paying attention, too busy trying to survive to dream. Maybe this is the first he saw Jesus, the first he even heard of Him. Maybe Christ’s posture of humility was so different, so jarring, that even in the man’s despair it caught his attention. Maybe, as he watched the mockers, something tugged at his heart: What if it’s true? It can’t be…but what if it is? What if life is possible, even for me?

Whatever the story, however long it had been being written, hope had found its way in. Faith had found its way in, from the God to whom no doors are closed. Grace had found its way in, from the God to whom no soul is unreachable. And however much that man knew, the extent of his faith is not what merited Christ’s response. Hanging on that cross, completely without reason to believe, as the source of this hope hung dying next to him, he did the only thing any sinner needs to: he turned. He made the slightest, faltering step and grace exploded onto the scene: vast, unmeasured, boundless, and free.

Without a doubt, he did not fully understand the truth of who Christ was. Do any of us? But somehow, inexplicably, he had faith enough to believe that this man had a Kingdom. And he did understand the desperation of his own need, and from that appealed to the greatest hope he could imagine at that moment; Lord, remember me.

And knocking aside the scales of this man’s life, Christ spoke the only weight that matters: grace.

I think He said it immediately, and I think He said it with unmeasurable joy: Today, you will be with me in paradise.

Christ died first, Scripture tells us, while the soldiers had to break the legs of these other two. I wonder what the rest of those remaining hours were filled with for this thief on his own cross? Did his faith falter, seeing the One who promised silent and still? Did he begin to wonder, terrified as the earth grew dark and shook with quakes, who it really was that he had just appealed to? How did hope endure in those few moments before his inevitable death? I think it was the grace of Christ’s words that he clung to, the promise of eternity, offered the same to all who believe in His name. But this man – this man, in all his suffering – had a severe mercy very few get to cling to, for he knew how long he had to wait. Perhaps he whispered it to himself with every agonizing breath: Today. Christ said today. Today I will be with Him in paradise.

In Christ’s words to this man, whose name we do not even know, we see the unalterable truth that no matter who, no matter what, no matter how long has gone before or how long is left to wait for paradise; His grace is sufficient.


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compassion

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
Luke 23:34

I doubt these would have been my first words.

In fact, I know they would not have been. I know, because even now, in the midst of my comfortable, insulated, well-fed and well-loved life, where what often feel like sins against me are more likely just inconveniences; even now, these are not my first words. They are not often words that arise naturally at all, and especially when the injury is of any significance. Of course they knew what they were doing, my wounded heart cries! And even if not, the pain doesn’t lessen. How can forgiveness be His very first word after betrayal?

But of course forgiveness is not an absence of pain, an erasure of betrayal, or an act of the will. Forgiveness is a Divine act, a heaven touching earth moment, a choice of redemption in brokenness, the truth of eternal relationships within temporal ones. And forgiveness is only possible when our heart has sat at the foot of this Cross and known itself seen in the dying compassion of Christ.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus does not say “I forgive them, Father?” Instead, He appeals to the Father: please! Forgive them. Is this because Christ was somehow unable to do the forgiving Himself? Never. He is in the midst of proving by His very act of sacrifice the cost and extent of His forgiveness. But maybe in the humanity of Christ’s cry we see a glimpse of another truth: that forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called to do, for it asks for an act as well as a feeling. It starts with sacrifice, then demands compassion, and we are capable of neither without a pleading appeal to the Father.

Sacrifice. Sacrifice was the means to forgiveness in the history of God’s relationship with His people, ever since that moment when God killed to cover Adam and Eve’s shame. Christ knew His role, and these words are a prophetic appeal of compassion to the heart of God from the One who knows He is about to change everything about how humanity can reach it. Does the Father need reminded? No, but the ones nailing Christ’s wrists to the cross did. The ones mocking from the ground and from his side did. This cry came from One who knew fully His role as sacrificial Lamb, undoubtedly, but it also came from the relational, time-bound heart of a man, and it is perhaps that example that pierces me most deeply. In that moment of ultimate physical suffering and alone-ness, Christ did not turn inward, but looked out and saw those around Him. Father, even these! His compassion cries. They are blind to the meaning of this moment, to the truth of who I am. Oh Father, is it possible? Can this sacrifice be for even these? The aching compassion of the truest love this world has ever seen breaks my heart in its example of attentiveness. In His moment of deepest injury, of betrayal none of us will ever know, even then, Christ was pleading for others.

Every day, the Lamb sits on His throne and points to the eternality of that moment over and over and over again. Every day, for my soul, Christ turns to the Father, saying, “Father, forgive her. She knows not what she does.” And God looks at Christ, dying on that cross, and me lost in that shadow, and says to me, I do, beloved, I do.

May we never diminish Christ’s compassion by disbelieving our seen-ness; our belovedness. May we never be ashamed to everyday give evidence of our need for the cross. May we never forget that we dwell within the relational heart of Christ, with His strength beyond our own for all that it asks of us. And may we respond with willingness to the truth that mostly, what is asked of us in this Cross-shadowed life is the everyday dying of a thousand deaths: deaths to myself, and deaths to others. Sacrifice for the sake of relationship, compassion as the fruit of love.