how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth

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Last Words


A Good Friday Tenebrae service is my favorite of the church year. It’s an ancient tradition which has taken different shapes but consistently features the extinguishing of candles throughout the course of the service, usually ending in full darkness and silence. It’s not a tradition I grew up with, however, so I remember distinctly the first time I sat in a Tenebrae service, visiting a friend for Easter weekend. As both the lights and the mood disappeared further into darkness, and the noise of appointments and travel and roasts in the oven faded slowly in the lingering echo of the Scriptures, I did not merely remember that Good Friday historical moment, I felt it. I felt, for maybe the first time, the sorrow-weight and glory-weight of those hours on the cross. I felt that it was right to bear it tonight.

As I sat there, throats cleared and chairs squeaked until finally, after only an anxious minute or two, the first few people got up to leave, and a relieved multitude followed quickly. Within a few minutes more, there were only a handful of us left. I sat there wondering how long they would let me stay; let me sit in this silence that shut out all else that was less important in life, which of course was everything. I wanted to be with Christ in that moment just a little longer. I probably could’ve out-lingered the churches’ welcome and the insubordinate part of me smiled a little wondering what the altercation of asking someone to leave a time of reflecting on the passion of the Lord might look like. But of course that wasn’t the point, as the reality of our lives is that we must carry the passion of the Lord out, finding out what remembrance means in the noise, movement, brokenness, and joy of everyday life with everyday sinners and saints.

But for one night, it’s good to linger a bit. We don’t naturally do so, not merely because of the silence, but because in our tension-smoothing culture we are much more comfortable focusing on the morning of Easter. We are more comfortable with Christ triumphant, seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. It is good and right to rejoice that we live always in the sunrise of Easter, but we miss an unspeakable wonder when we rush through the night that allowed for that sunrise. It is also good and right to remember that Christ on the cross, broken and bleeding, was even in that very moment triumphant, completing the most intimate and ultimate intercession for us. And that of course is why we have Lent and Holy Week and Good Friday services; this season of confession and brokenness; so that we remember.

The modern Protestant adoption of Tenebrae services has usually shifted from reading the traditional Psalms of the Catholic hours to the reading of Scripture passages that specifically recount the passion of Christ. At times, even more specifically, the service focuses just on the seven statements of Christ from the cross that the Gospel writers give us. I don’t know all the history behind that shift, but I wonder if a part of it has to do with lingering. In the sweeping arch of Scripture, the crucifixion narratives are so relatively short, yet they are the story’s defining moment. How can these words of Christ draw us into further understanding of that moment? What do they show us about His heart?

These are the questions I have found myself lingering in during this Lenten season. Several weeks ago I first listened to a new song by Andrew Peterson called Last Words (Tenebrae). The song consists solely of these seven last statements of the cross, building on top of each other like a round, then slowly fading out again in the style of Tenebrae. It is simple and haunting and moved me to tears. There was something that caught me in all those words in one place, played on top of each other as if capturing one extended moment; something about the unfathomable relational depth of the heart of Christ. In a year when Advent struck me anew with the powerful humanity of the Incarnation, this seemed like an appropriate following meditation for Lent, though I did not seek it out. I found myself singing phrases of the song over and over again as I went about my day, lingering not only in their theological significance, but also in what they have to show us about the core of being human. For if greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends, Christ in those moments on the Cross demonstrated not only the perfection of Divine love, but also the fullness of human love, wedded in one as only He could do. I am a lover of words, and if everything Christ did and said was intentional, why these words? What do they say about His love? Why did they deserve his labored breath?

Out of these questions, then, came reflections. Not answers or treatises or complete statements of theological significance, but a few captured thoughts of how my heart is being shaped from lingering with each of these last words of Christ. Reflections that contain a little bit of my repentance and wonder and hope from glimpsing how these seven words show us the compassion, grace, provision, need, pain, authority, and submission of the relational heart of Christ in those last moments.

I’ll share these reflections one a day through this Holy Week, and pray that what may be few, faltering words will be used to draw us further in wonder and praise of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” (Heb 12:2-3)

For consider Him. Linger with me?

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One Sunday a few months ago I slipped in late to the back of church. Home just one day from five weeks in the woods, I felt like a stranger in this life, this city, these clothes. I didn’t even have the strength to sing for most of the service; just enough to stand and let the healing waves of the body wash over me like rain. To hear their voices lift high words that have been sung by the people of God for centuries…

Laudate omnes gentes, Laudate Dominum
Sing praises all ye people, sing praises to the Lord

In those words they proclaimed for me what I could not yet feel, reeling in communal loss: that this too was the body, and I must enter back into it again. But those voices also called me to responsibility, to remember why we gather. It was exactly in the grief of that moment, regardless of who knew or understood it, that I needed to be there, and I needed to stand with them, and I needed to praise.

It has been a season of a freshly stirred longing for eternity. And when that happens, most often I think it is because we’ve glimpsed it. It began for me in the mountains, in that intentional, short season of specific community, where we had to love our neighbor “because he is there,” as Chesterton said. In the midst of that loving, and teaching, and leading, I knew myself again. I glimpsed the shalom, the wholeness, of eternity, in that time the Lord had given me to join Him in redeeming. But it was always going to end, and in the pain of that ending, early that Sunday morning, I fled for comfort to the church. I fled for comfort not because my church is a place of rich known-ness: in fact, relationship building has been painfully slow. But because somewhere deep within I knew that what I was grieving in that moment was eternity glimpsed, and I needed to put myself in the space of remembrance. Remembering that while we’re here, we are not meant to do this alone. So we gather, as if to kneel in a posture of humility under that truth.

It’s an astounding thing, really, if you stop and think of it, that Christ called us first to oneness, in order that the world may believe. He called us to preaching and service, yes, to grace and to love, but also to oneness. And there are all sorts of other gifts that come from fellowship with believers, but none of them must overshadow the alter that sanctifies them – the God that gives them and says that even if none of them are true, even if I don’t know you and I feel as alone as I ever have, I’m called to stand beside you because it’s not about either of us. It’s about proclaiming the truth of eternity whether we feel it today or not, and praising the God who is the same today as He will ever be. It’s an act of defiant pilgrimage, responding to our culture’s idolatry of fulfillment through individual arrival to say that we’ve glimpsed a different end, and its hope is all-compelling. I’ve been chewing on that one for months now.

This Sunday, I slipped into church aching for eternity. I felt battered and weary by the contrast of reality with the promised redemption of all things. I felt beat down by brokenness, by the way we are capable of treating each other, by the battles of unfulfilled desire, by my own utter weakness. But I also came in immense hope, pleading for the church to be the community that it is meant to be. I came in my brokenness and desperation, but also, in the Lord’s grace, in the midst of a weekend of reminders that it is primarily in my need of others that I most often catch those glimpses of eternity. I glimpsed it on Friday night, as I sat with a friend and we spoke of the longing of not wasting time in the realness of conversation. I glimpsed it on Saturday, as I sat at a conference that challenged us to speak into unspoken spaces, for we’re not supposed to battle in them alone. And I glimpsed it that morning, as my pastor reminded us that in light of anything this week holds, we gather in the hope of a kingdom which cannot be shaken.

And then we came to the table, to that ultimate act of community and of remembrance. Remembrance not only of that which is past, but present and future, an eternity-glimpsing remembrance, a oneness-proclaiming gathering. Just as the people of Israel did, huddled together in their homes in the darkest night they had known, we eat together in the bold faith of a coming redemption.

We eat together because we need to be humbled, by kneeling side by side, to remember that we come to this table as equals.

We eat together because we need to be strengthened by the faith of others in the days we do not glimpse the promise which our eating proclaims.

And we eat together because the last prayer Christ prayed for us before dying for us was that we might be one, and in the striving for that oneness, we glimpse the way things have always been meant to be.

As my pastor ended his sermon yesterday, after whatever may come, this much will remain true: next Sunday morning we’ll gather once again in that space and around the world and praise Christ as Lord. We’ll call each other to remember that there is a feast coming that gives meaning to our lives, and that in that moment’s fullness, we will lack nothing. We’ll call each other to remember that until then, our brokenness pushes us to isolate, but we need each other. I needed to remember that this week. I needed to stand in the front of church, and place the bread in my mouth as we sang…

Every vow we’ve broken and betrayed
You are the faithful One
Starting from the garden to the grave
Bind us together, bring shalom…

So I stood there, and I cried.
For someday we will feast in the house of Zion.
And in the brokenness and the waiting and the ache, being with you helps me remember.