His Kindness: Patience, Presence & Peace

After everyone had their meal, Jesus instructed his disciples to get back into the boat and go on ahead of him and sail to the other side to Bethsaida. So he dispersed the crowd, said good-bye to his disciples, then slipped away to pray on the mountain. As night fell, the boat was in the middle of the lake and Jesus was alone on land. The wind was against the disciples and he could see that they were straining at the oars, trying to make headway. When it was almost morning, Jesus came to them, walking on the surface of the water, and he started to pass by them. When they all saw him walking on the waves, they thought he was a ghost and screamed out in terror. But he said to them at once, “Don’t yield to fear. Have courage. It’s really me—I Am!” Then he came closer and climbed into the boat with them, and immediately the stormy wind became still. They were completely and utterly overwhelmed with astonishment because they failed to learn the lesson of the miracle of the loaves, and their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson.

(Mark 6:45-52, The Passion Translation)

Our passage this week is a continuation of last week’s story. Immediately following the miracle meal of the loaves and fish, Jesus sends his disciples off in the boat. He dismisses the enormous crowd–probably not a quick or easy thing, considering that all of them had personal needs they might have wanted Jesus to address–and then climbs a mountain so he can pray. His disciples are struggling out at sea. Jesus sees them as they struggle. He comes to them several hours later, walking on the water. He starts to pass by them. They notice him and are terrified. He gets into the boat and comforts them. The wind subsides. The disciples are amazed and overwhelmed because they hadn’t understood the miracle of the meal.

There are so many things we could highlight in these seven short verses. I’m going to focus on the part that stands out the most to me. Before I do, though, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that, like the disciples before us, there is so much we don’t know. The same will be true for those who come after us. We can read every footnote and commentary there is, look up the etymology of every word, and still end up with zero solid answers to some of our questions. That’s why it is so crucial that we hang onto what we do know about Jesus regarding his love, his kindness, and–as Pastor John highlighted on Sunday–his patience.

The patience of Jesus plays a key role in this passage. And it is frustrating and difficult to understand, just as it often is when Jesus loves us with his patience in the middle of our personal stories. We like to emphasize the love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness of Jesus. These fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) show up a lot when we talk about what Jesus is like, and we’re pretty comfortable with them. But there are two other fruits less often associated with Jesus’ way of being in the world: patience & self-control. We can see both in this story.

Jesus sends his disciples out in a boat, sees the storm come up against them, sees them struggle… and then waits to go to them. This reminds me of when his dear friend Lazarus died and he waited four days to show up. Or when Jairus’ daughter was dying and he chose to stop to listen to the woman who touched him; he waited while she told her whole story–even as Jairus’ daughter died.

Why did he wait to go to where the disciples were? He could see their struggle, knew their fear. Why did he wait?

This question, while frustrating, is not the most disturbing question that rises up in me as I read this story. Verse 48 tells us that Jesus “started to pass by them.” Other translations read, “He intended to pass by them.” What?? I looked up the Greek word that was translated intended, started, or about to depending on the version, and was unnerved to find that the original word indeed means “intended, willed, resolved, desired, wished, delighted in.”  Jesus wished–and was delighted–to pass by them? What the actual heck?

I don’t have a framework in which this makes sense. This doesn’t fit with the person Jesus has revealed himself to be… He watches them struggle for hours and then when he finally goes to them, he is intentionally passing them by?

Unless…

Perhaps this “passing by” of Jesus is connected to another time when God passed by a man named Moses…

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. (Exodus 33:21-22, NIV)

Moses longed to see the glory of God. God granted his request, but with conditions. He couldn’t see the full glory of God revealed.

Jesus’ disciples couldn’t either.

Except, this time, it wasn’t God’s decision to hide the full revelation. They were the ones that didn’t have eyes to see and hearts that could understand. Jesus came as the full revelation of God. But the world wasn’t ready to see him–not even his closest friends. I don’t know what Jesus was praying about on the mountain. Maybe he was praying that the miracle of the loaves and fish would sink in, that at some point, his friends would stop straining and realize that even though he wasn’t in the boat, he was with them. Maybe his time in prayer was also his patience on display. Like a parent who longs to rescue their child from hard circumstances but knows that their child needs time to see what they couldn’t see before. Maybe he thought that if he waited, surely then they’d be ready to see the full revelation of who he really was. He didn’t have to cover them the way Moses had to be covered. His glory was now on display. Hadn’t they just seen that with the 5,000+ others who had witnessed it?

But they weren’t ready. They couldn’t yet see or understand. They were, instead, afraid. 

And Jesus… Sweet Jesus… What does he do? He doesn’t pass by, leaving them in fear. He doesn’t lose control of his words, lashing out at their unbelief and un-woke hearts. He sees them, as he’s seen them all along. He meets them where they are, in the way that they were accustomed to experiencing him, because they weren’t yet ready to experience him in a new way. And he loves them with his kindness that speaks peace into their fearful hearts, and also brings peace to the storm around them. The Passion Translation footnotes and commentary suggest that his miracles “hadn’t yet penetrated their hearts”, and notes that he was “quick to comfort” them in their terror.

His “passing by” could have been a revealing of his God-ness, a picture of his glory, that would have deepened the disciples faith as they realized they were always fully wrapped in the presence of God. But they weren’t ready. Similar to the few of them on the road to Emmaus, whose hearts burned within them as they spoke with Jesus, but didn’t know it was he, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. But they weren’t yet ready to acknowledge what that meant. They hadn’t been fully awakened to the truth of who he was.

How often is this story about us? We know that Jesus resides in and among us, that his kingdom is here, now. We know that he’s not on some far-off mountain, waiting to show up, because he is always with us. But when he doesn’t show up in the ways we’re accustomed to seeing him, when he passes by in a new way, with a new layer of his glory on display, how often do we miss him? How many times is he right here in front of our faces as we cry out for his presence? How many times does he see our inability to understand what he is trying to teach us, and chooses–in his kind, self-controlled patience–to meet us where we are with his peace, until we are ready to see a new revelation of who he is?

There is so much we don’t know.  So much we may never see. But we, gratefully, have a kind and patient Jesus who is faithfully present to us in our weakness. One who, like a mama or daddy who longs for their child to learn and grow, recognizes when us kids aren’t quite past the fears that keep us from taking that next step into further revelation. One who chooses not to drag us forward kicking and screaming, and not to protect us from the wilderness that can rage around and within us–but to meet us in those places with patience and presence that knows no limit.

The fruit of our Jesus includes patience and self-control, and these are further proof of his kindness toward us.

–Laura

Jesus can sometimes be incredibly difficult to understand, and like Laura highlighted above, the times in which he allows us to wait, wondering where he is or if he cares are hard times!

Let’s back up in scripture and remind ourselves that before Jesus had a crowd of people to take care of, he and his disciples were headed to a solitary location to spend time together. The disciples were going to have time to tell Jesus all about the miracles and things that happened when he sent them out two by two. They were going to rest, they were going to eat, they were going to have downtime with Jesus.  That plan was a bust. 5000+ people chased them, consumed their time and they were required to serve those people even though they were tired and their plans were interrupted.

I wasn’t there, and I’m not the disciples–but I know myself. I would have been impatient, maybe even a little grumpy. I would have assumed that as soon as all the people left I would have my downtime with Jesus, and I would have looked forward to it. So, if Jesus had sent me away without him–I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have been overjoyed.

Here are the very tired disciples, in their boat, leaving the shore without Jesus. It’s been a long day. It hasn’t gone according to their plan. And now they’ve been sent off. To top it off, while these tired men are on the lake in the dark, a storm comes up and they find themselves “straining at the oars, because the wind was against them” (v. 48).  They are not sleeping, they are not being refreshed, they are fighting the wind.

And Jesus…he had gone up on a mountainside to pray. Scripture tells us that Jesus could see the disciples struggling and like Laura asked above, why did he wait?

We certainly don’t understand the mind of God, we certainly don’t understand all of God’s ways, which is why it is so important to know God’s character.

I love Laura’s interpretation of Jesus almost passing by being like the Old Testament story of God’s glory passing by Moses. However, I’m going to throw out another possibility to consider, again stating that we don’t know the mind of God, so these are suppositions to ponder, and it’s always possible that it’s a both/and rather than an either/or.

I’m going to start at the end of our scripture passage because there we learn that the disciples “had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened”. (v. 52).  Hardened hearts. According to Strong’s concordance, the word “hardened” means “to cover with a thick skin, to harden by covering with a callus; to grow hard, callous, become dull, lose the power of understanding; blind.” 

In the King James Version, and in Young’s Literal Translation, and possibly other translations, that last line of this passage gives the group a singular heart… “their heart was hardened” (v. 52, KJV). The whole group together, the heart of the group was hardened. Had they been complaining, grumbling, murmuring, sharing their frustrations about the day with one another? Were they talking themselves into a collective funk? It’s certainly possible. Haven’t we all been in disgruntled groups talking ourselves into a collective hardened heart? It’s something to think about.

So, four to six hours after the heart-hardened disciples begin to struggle,  Jesus begins to walk out to them. They are fighting against the wind. Some of the disciples were professional fishermen before they became followers of Jesus. My assumption would be that they are the ones in charge at this moment. They are leaning on their own understanding as they battle against the wind, but the wind is fierce and they are tired. Are they yelling at each other in their frustration? I don’t know, but I imagine things weren’t calm and quiet in the boat. They were striving in their own strength–and Pastor John reminded us that sometimes in our own striving we can miss Jesus. Been there!

It’s also important to remember that Jesus doesn’t force himself upon us-he is always present, always available, yet he gives us opportunity to reach for him. Is it possible that he almost walked by because the disciples were so consumed by their own struggle that they didn’t see him, didn’t call for him?  Maybe they were even mad at him for sending them away and allowing them to be in the storm alone (even though Jesus had been watching them the whole time).

Someone eventually looks up from the struggle and sees something on the water. Fear ensues. They can’t even imagine that it could be Jesus. So Jesus, in his kindness, tells the disciples three things:

  1. Take courage.
  2. It is I.
  3. Don’t be afraid.

The root of courage comes from the Latin word “cor”, which means “heart”.  Jesus is saying “take heart”.  It is “I”–your Lord, your teacher, your friend, the great “I AM”; don’t be afraid…

In this instance, the word  “afraid” actually means: to cause one inward commotion, take away his calmness of mind, disturb his equanimity; to perplex the mind of one by suggesting scruples or doubts; to strike one’s spirit with fear and dread” (Strong’s).

Read those words again, and remember that collectively, as a group, their heart was hardened.

Jesus says to them, don’t be overcome by inward commotion, by doubts, by fear, by dread. Remember, Jesus hasn’t calmed the storm yet. He is saying these things while the storm is still raging–while they are still fighting against the wind.

Pastor John reminded us that sometimes we desire Jesus to take care of our crisis, but his focus is not our crisis, his focus is us.  We want him to sweep in and fix things for us so that we can have inner calm and peace based on peaceful surroundings, peaceful relationships, healthy bodies, healthy finances, cars that run like they should, etc. And Jesus, he is much more concerned about us in the midst of all of those things. Instead of saying “I’ve got this”, he says “I’ve got you”.  It reminds me of John 16:33 where Jesus says In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Is that enough for us? Is Jesus himself enough for us?

Natalie Grant sings a song whose chorus says:

Help me want the healer more than the healing
Help me want the savior more than the saving
Help me want the giver more than the giving
Oh help me want you Jesus more than anything

I think it’s hard to acknowledge that Jesus is enough, whether my crisis is ever taken care of, whether I get the answers to my prayers that I want, whether Jesus bows to my whims or not. I always have heart work to do in this area. Is he, alone, enough? Do I desire him above all else? Not always.

Then, after he has encouraged them with his words,  Jesus got into the boat, his presence calmed the wind, and they were amazed…for they had not understood about the loaves’ their heart was hardened.

Such an interesting way to end the account of this day. So much to ponder. Are you tired? are you frustrated? Do you need downtime with Jesus and can’t seem to get it? Do the needs of other people frustrate you? Does Jesus seem silent? Does Jesus seem distant? Does it seem like Jesus doesn’t care about your situation? Are you part of a group that is collectively disillusioned? What is the condition of the heart of the group? What is the condition of your heart?  Are you striving? Are you struggling? Are you leaning on your own understanding, your own expertise?

Jesus is near. Take heart. The great “I AM” is here. Don’t be afraid. Give him access, not only to your situation but to your being.  He will take our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. (Ez. 36:26). His presence is our peace. Do we trust the kindness of his heart?

–Luanne

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Over All: Jesus Said

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been writing about Jesus and the authority that he has over nature, over evil, over sickness, over death–truly over everything. We’ve looked at beautiful encounters in the gospel of Mark between Jesus and people and have focused on what he did. In this post, we are going to go back and focus on what he said.

In Mark 4  Jesus said to the storm “Hush, be still.” (NASB) and to the disciples “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (NASB)

In Mark 5 Jesus told the formerly demon-possessed, but now set free gentleman to  “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.”  (NASB)

He said to the courageous woman who secretly reached out and touched his garment in the hope of being healed: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.”

To Jairus whose daughter died while he was waiting on the sidelines for Jesus to finish giving attention to the woman–Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (NIV)

To the dead body of Jairus’ daughter who Jesus took by the hand, he said: “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”  (ESV) We learned last week that phrase can also mean “Little lamb”.  Either way, we see Jesus gentleness as he exercises great authority.

Pastor John encouraged us to look at these words of Jesus through two lenses–a theological lens, and a personal lens. Both are extremely important.

Theology is the intellectual study of God. Theology leads to many theories about God. There are scholars who believe they’ve got God all figured out. Personally, I don’t believe that’s possible–God is too great. However, I do believe that God has shown us himself and his character–and I believe he has done that most clearly in the incarnation of Jesus.

At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke 4, he opened the scroll in the synagogue and read the words of the prophet Isaiah which said:

“The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, Because He did anoint me; To proclaim good news to the poor, Sent me to heal the broken of heart, To proclaim to captives deliverance, And to blind receiving of sight, To send away the bruised with deliverance,  To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Young’s Literal Translation)

If we pay attention to the accounts in Mark, we see Jesus living out his anointing. If we pay attention to the words of Luke 4:18-19 we see the entire Trinity working together. The Spirit of Yahweh is on the person of Jesus who is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. The mission of the Trinity is to lift up, restore, heal, set free, give sight, deliver, accept–and it’s all about grace bathed in love. He is making all things new.

I don’t know what your theology is–I don’t know how you view God. What I do know is that in a lot of western theology, God the Father is the “mean one”, and Jesus the Christ is the “nice one”.   God is pictured over and over as ready to smite “sinners” with a lightning bolt, he apparently has a pretty out of control temper and Jesus is supposed to pacify that anger by stepping in between. I remember thinking this way myself. It made God distant, caused me to be afraid, and truthfully was not a healthy perspective.

God, in the garden at the beginning, sought out Adam and Eve when they had made a poor choice. He reinitiated a relationship that they thought was broken. Yes, he removed them from the garden, but he went with them. All throughout the Old Testament we see this pattern. He let people reap the consequences of their choices, but never abandoned them. His mercy, his loving-kindness, his everlasting love is spoken of even in the Old Testament. He didn’t “punish” them. Their own choices punished them, and he came to them over and over again, and then he came to all of us in the form of Jesus and left us with the gift of his presence through the Holy Spirit.

It is important to note that in the Old Testament only a few select people were given the Holy Spirit. They became the prophets. Since most people did not have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as we do now, the revelation of God was incomplete. In the absence of complete information, all of us fill in the blanks with our own thoughts and perceptions. During the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, when God was fairly silent, the religious leaders kept adding law upon law upon law–they were filling in the gaps of silence with attempts to reach God–who was there all along–and creating heavy, joyless weight for the people to bear.

And so Jesus comes to show us what God is like. When he is asked about the greatest commandment–the greatest law, he says: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Mt. 22: 37-40). Mic drop. All the man-made attempts to please God, to relate with God, to be acceptable to God come down to one thing–LOVE.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love(1st John 4:8) . God’s very nature and character is love–and Jesus is God. Jesus shows us who God is, how God is, the nature and character of God, the way that God relates with humanity, the way God desires that we relate with humanity–including everyone.

Jesus says:

“The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.” (John 12:45)

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”  (John 14:9)

“The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30)

Paul says:

“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,”  (Col. 1:15 NLT)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,  (Col. 1:19)

And the writer of Hebrews tells us:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb 1:3)

Jesus is the EXACT representation of God’s nature, God’s character, God’s heart, God’s being.  Jesus is God, Jesus is Yahweh, Jesus is the full expression of who God is.

In every encounter in Mark that we’ve looked at–God the Trinity was acting to calm the sea, to tell the disciples and Jairus not to be afraid, to set the demon-possessed man free and give him a life of purpose, to commend the woman for her faith and call her “daughter” indicating that she was cherished and belonged to him, to take a dead girl by the hand and speak to her–“little girl, little lamb, rise up”.

In the Trinity, there is no mean one and no nice one. The Trinity, the full expression of God, is love. His way of drawing us into a relationship with him is kindness. His desire is that we be like him, loving everyone and showing them what he is really like.

That’s the theological lens in a nutshell.

The personal lens we each get to wrestle with individually.  Each encounter with God recorded in Mark, each word spoken by God can be spoken to you. Maybe some of them have been.

What storm are you in? Where are you placing your faith in that storm? Jesus asks you (resist the urge to insert an angry tone) “why are you afraid…where is your faith?” He is with us in the storm, and he can calm that storm in a moment.

What is oppressing you? Jesus can/has set you free, and then sends you back to your people to tell them what he’s done for you, to tell them of his mercy, in the hopes that they will be drawn to him. People can debate scripture all day long; however, they can not dispute your personal encounter with God.

Have you lived through years of hardship and then courageously acted in faith? Jesus has time to listen to you tell your whole story, he cares about–and he is delighted with your faith. He calls you daughter (or son), and heals you.

Are you in an impossible situation? Jesus says to you “Don’t be afraid, just believe.”

Are there dead places in you? Jesus takes you by the hand and says to you, “Little lamb, rise up.”  The dead places come back to life, you find nourishment, and you rise up.

I have lived all of these. God has been so merciful and gracious to me over the years–in my grief, in my self-destruction, in my oppression, in storms that were out of my control, in my dead places that needed life breathed back into them, in my courageous “faith” moments–he has been there. He has taken me by the hand and said “rise up”. He has looked at me and called me daughter and said: “you are healed”. He has set me free from too much to go into in this blog post, and, I imagine that as long as I’m on planet earth we will continue the healing and freedom journey together. He has encouraged me to believe, to let go of my fear, and he has given me beautiful opportunity to share with others how merciful he’s been with me.  When fear rears its ugly head, which it does more often than I care to admit, he reminds me to ponder why I’m afraid, and to place myself again into his trustworthy hands. He is better than any of us can begin to fathom, kinder than we can comprehend, and beautiful in every way.

The God of love, the Trinity of love, invites us to enter in…

Luanne

As I read through what Luanne wrote, I am moved to tears over the kindness, the beauty of Jesus that she captured so well in her words. She wrapped up this series so comprehensively, I’m not sure what else I want to add… I think we’ll just linger where she left us, marveling at the wonder of the one who has authority to settle storms with a whisper, the one whose very presence causes evil to fall at his feet, but who is at the same time the most kind, the most tender, the most gentle expression of pure love that there is…

These stories that we’ve lingered in for a while, out of Mark, are some of my favorites because they present to us a picture of Jesus that seems nearly unbelievable–Is he really that powerful, that big, that kind, that near?--and at the same time, so familiar–I know he is, because he has come to me in the very same ways, with the very same kindness, the very same huge smallness.

My lenses have undergone radical adjustments, especially over the last five to ten years. Both the theological and personal lenses I was handed early in my life acted more like blindfolds to the truth of Jesus than anything that could help me see him more clearly. And yet, he was there, with me in my blindness, in my clawing around through what felt like darkness…

I thought about writing more about my experiences with these lenses–I have shared some about my childhood experiences here before–but what feels most important in this moment is to emphasize the with-ness of Jesus, to linger a little longer in the wonder of his perfect goodness.

As I typed those last two words, I felt my heart catch in my throat. Perfect goodness… How can I write that when it doesn’t always go the way it went in these stories we’ve been reading? How can I write that as a devastating hurricane ravages thousands of homes and lives with no end yet in sight? How can I talk about his perfect goodness when so many storms go un-stilled? When so many who are not in their right mind are not freed from the bondage of their suffering, and live their lives terrorizing those closest to them? How can I talk about the perfect goodness of Jesus when I lived with a woman who really believed that one touch from him would heal her, but her healing never came? When children suffer and die from cancer and stay dead, leaving their parents crying in agony, begging for a resurrection that doesn’t come? How can I say Jesus is perfectly good, kind, loving, real… when he doesn’t seem to show up like he did in these stories from long ago?

I hoped that by the time I reached the end of the last paragraph, I would have something profound to write, some encouragement that would resolve the dissonance in the often tragic soundtrack of our lives.

I don’t have anything profound to offer.

All I can offer is what I know to be true from my own experience…

When I was a tiny and vulnerable, and the hands that should have held me hurt me instead, there were other hands holding me, feeling the pain with me, never leaving me alone…

When fear visited and evil was all around, there were hands of comfort and peace that I couldn’t see, but I could feel the safety they offered, and they promised I wasn’t alone…

When I ran from all my pain and tried to find the love and safety I desired in the arms of those who would only further betray and use me, there was another set of arms waiting there to catch me, an embrace that held me with honor and grace, as I crashed over and over again…

In my deepest grief, my most paralyzing fear, my worst choices; in the midst of tragedy and despair, I have never faced any of it alone. There have been hands that have never left me, hands that have held me and rescued me, hands that offered affection that didn’t hurt, and hope in the midst of suffering. These hands are the same hands that endured the twin spikes of violence and pain, that absorbed the full weight of every hurt I’ve ever felt and every hurt I’ve ever caused. Sometimes these hands are a sensed presence–I can feel them even when my eyes can’t see. And sometimes these hands appear through the very real, tangible experience of another person. Arms that have held me tightly and securely until the sobbing subsided, hands that have tenderly held my face as memories of pain moved through my consciousness. Hands that have held mine in prayer, promising presence in the waiting, and arms that have literally held me upright as the crushing weight of loss and grief pressed down into me.

All of these experiences connect my lived reality to the stories we’ve been reading. Jesus, as he walked the earth, loved people through touch. His touch brought comfort, peace, presence, and often healing. His touch was an expression of his love, his with-ness. His touch–whether it comes supernaturally, or through the hands of another who’s willing to be his vessel–is a promise of his perfect goodness today, to us, also. He is perfectly good even when our circumstances are anything but. There’s no way to explain the why questions around who gets “healed” and who doesn’t. There’s no neat and tidy way for me to tell you that he really is all that I’m claiming he is, a way to prove that he is with you right now–no matter where you are–in the very same way.

All I can offer is my own experience with the one who’s never left me alone, the one whose hands are never far from my reach. All I can offer is what the disciples in the boat offered–my story of being saved in the midst of crashing waves; what the man in the tombs offered–my own story of mercy that freed me; what the woman who touched him offered–my story of hearing him call me “daughter” and make space for the story of my life; what the little girl offered–my story of being brought back to life, of finding freedom from the grave clothes that threatened to end me. I can’t prove the presence of Jesus to you–but I can tell you my story.

I hope you can share similar stories, stories of his with-ness during the seasons of your life. Maybe you don’t yet recognize his touch, his presence, but I promise you he’s there. He always has been and he always will be. What if you risked? What if you reached out and found that there’s a hand already reaching back, waiting to draw you into his kindness, his love, his perfect goodness? As Luanne wrote above, this perfect Love is inviting all of us to enter in–may we all have the courage to say yes to his invitation.

–Laura

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This I Know: Loving Well When Our Children Fail

Last week, we talked about a parent’s priority: to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God. Part of that conversation included acknowledging our own shortcomings as parents. Our parents made mistakes, and we make mistakes, too.

This week, Pastor John talked to us about what it looks like to love well when our children have made mistakes. It is a message that absolutely speaks to how we love our kids–but, beyond that, it is a message about how everyone needs to be loved.

Pastor John began by simply stating:

“Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

The self-emptying love of God is illustrated in many places throughout scripture. It is most clearly seen in Jesus’ death on the cross, as he proved there was no length he, the perfect image of our invisible God, wouldn’t go to in order to show his love for us. It is also captured beautifully in the story of the prodigal son. It is this story that Pastor John opened with on Sunday. I’m including the whole story, out of the J.B. Phillips translation:

Then he continued, “Once there was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the property that will come to me.’ So he divided up his property between the two of them. Before very long, the younger son collected all his belongings and went off to a foreign land, where he squandered his wealth in the wildest extravagance. And when he had run through all his money, a terrible famine arose in that country, and he began to feel the pinch. Then he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country who sent him out into the fields to feed the pigs. He got to the point of longing to stuff himself with the food the pigs were eating and not a soul gave him anything. Then he came to his senses and cried aloud, ‘Why, dozens of my father’s hired men have got more food than they can eat and here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go back to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more. Please take me on as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. But his son said, ‘Father, I have done wrong in the sight of Heaven and in your eyes. I don’t deserve to be called your son any more…’ ‘Hurry!’ called out his father to the servants, ‘fetch the best clothes and put them on him! Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and get that calf we’ve fattened and kill it, and we will have a feast and a celebration! For this is my son—I thought he was dead, and he’s alive again. I thought I had lost him, and he’s found!’ And they began to get the festivities going. “But his elder son was out in the fields, and as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants across to him and enquired what was the meaning of it all. ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has killed the calf we fattened because he has got him home again safe and sound,’ was the reply. But he was furious and refused to go inside the house. So his father came outside and called him. Then he burst out, ‘Look, how many years have I slaved for you and never disobeyed a single order of yours, and yet you have never given me so much as a young goat, so that I could give my friends a dinner? But when that son of yours arrives, who has spent all your money on prostitutes, for him you kill the calf we’ve fattened!’ But the father replied, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’” (Luke 15:11-32, emphasis mine)

There are so many layers within this restorative story. We won’t fully plumb its depths here, but let’s dig in and see what we find…

The first point worth noting is found in the opening line of the story:

Once there was a man who had two sons…

Often, this story is taught with an emphasis on the younger son, the prodigal. But the story is about both sons and their relationship with their father (and, I think, with one another, but I don’t have time to get into that part today…). The opening line of any story emphasizes who or what the story is about–this story is about two sons. Two sons, deeply loved by their father, who had a home with him, wherever he was.

When we read the part where the younger son asks for his inheritance, we tend to be so appalled by his audacity and disrespect that we miss a very important detail, one that keeps big brother in the center of the story:

So he divided up his property between the two of them

Little brother’s payday was a fraction of what big brother inherited that day. In ancient Jewish culture, the oldest heir was to receive double the inheritance of any other heir. Big brother may not have asked for it, but he received his father’s overwhelming generosity that day, too. This is highlighted later in the story, when the father says to his oldest son, ‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours.’ Indeed, everything the father had was his. He divided up everything he owned between his boys, living as though dead while he was still alive. When the younger son squandered his portion, everything else that had once belonged to the father, now belonged to his oldest son. Everything he had was his.

The self-emptying love of the father was displayed as he withheld nothing from his children. He gave all he had. He had nothing left, and as far as we can infer from the text, that part didn’t bother him one bit. But he also didn’t have his boys’ hearts. This is what grieved him. It’s all he wanted. Emptying himself of all of his material possessions wasn’t enough to win their affection, to woo them into relationship. I don’t think he was trying to earn their love at all–he was showing them that there was nothing he would withhold from them. He was willing to give them everything because of his great love for them. They didn’t reciprocate his love…

He gave them his material wealth, which included laying down a measure of his power and authority, though he still ran his estate. What did he have left to give?

He then laid down his dignity, his respectability…

So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still some distance off, his father saw him and his heart went out to him, and he ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.

He would have lost some respect within his community when he chose to give his possessions to his sons while he was still living. But this, to lift his cloak and run to his son–to move toward him and go to where he was–and then to embrace and kiss this boy who would have been “unclean” according to their laws and customs? This was a disgrace to the man’s dignity. This boy had slept with prostitutes, he had lived among and fed dirty pigs. What was the father doing?

He was, once again, modeling self-emptying love to his son. He couldn’t wait for his boy to get to him. He wasn’t hard at work, anger etched into his face, rehearsing the admonishment he would give him if he ever saw his face again. He didn’t “stand his ground.” No. He was watching for him, waiting with hope that, against all odds, his son would come home. Home… This young man had no expectation that the home he had known as a child would still be there waiting for him. In fact, he had a speech prepared to give his father, to ask him for a place as a servant on the property. But as he’s in the middle of his groveling, his father interrupts him. I love the way the Message phrases verse 22: “But the father wasn’t listening.” Instead, he called to the servants to bring a robe and the family ring, to kill the fattened calf and prepare a celebration feast in his son’s honor. No mention of the many offenses the son had committed. The boy had already endured the consequences of his choices–his father had no intention of further punishing his son. In fact, he doesn’t even make mention of any of it. He chooses instead to remind his son with his actions that he has a home. A secure home, a forever home. He acknowledges his presence and his place in the family, and doesn’t admonish him even once for all he had done. He emptied himself of the right to be right, displaying self-emptying love once again. 

What about our other main character, the older son?

The father went to him, too. While big brother hung around and displayed the “right” behavior, the father knew he didn’t have his heart, either. He gave to this son in the same ways he did to the younger, always sacrificing himself to love them both. When big brother refuses to come in and celebrate his little brother’s return, his father once again breaks custom to leave the party he is hosting so he can go to where his son is. And again, what we see is not admonishment. He says to him only,

‘My dear son, you have been with me all the time and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and show our joy. For this is your brother; I thought he was dead—and he’s alive. I thought he was lost—and he is found!’

He could have said so many things… Change your attitude. Get inside. What is wrong with you? Don’t you love your brother? Why do I still have to chase you down like a toddler and listen to your tantrums? You’re keeping me from our guests, I don’t have time for your whining! I’ve given you everything, and still it’s not enough for you! You’re selfish… Arrogant… Immature…

I’m sure there’s so much more he could have said. But he says none of these things.

When I picture this scene in my mind, I imagine the father speaking softly, tears glistening in his kind eyes, the tenderness in his voice imploring his son to turn around and look at him so he could see all the love he has for him. I imagine the son with his back to his father, arms crossed, years of entitlement, anger, and pride held in his stone-cold gaze over the property that all belongs to him. I imagine the father reaching his weathered hand out toward his son’s shoulder, but pulling it back, knowing that this boy’s heart was still not inclined to receive his love, but hoping one day that would change. I can see the hope flash bright in his glistening eyes, because he had never given up hope for his younger son, and today, his hope was rewarded with a homecoming so sweet, he’d remember the moment forever. With that moment fresh in his heart, I see dad straighten, stand a little taller, as he resolves to hold onto hope that this big brother will come home to him one day, too…

We don’t get to know how this particular story ends. What we do know is that the father loved both of his boys with the same, steadfast, self-emptying love. We know that home was wherever the father was, and that home was secure. No matter how long it took, he would be there waiting, hoping, actively moving toward his kids, acknowledging their presence, knowing there were chapters yet to be written in their stories.

We all might need this story for different reasons today. Some of us may need it to show us an example of how to love our children well in the day-to-day. Some of us may need to be reminded of how we can have hope for children who have wandered. Some of us only received admonishment as children, and never felt seen or acknowledged, and we need to find healing. Some of us just need to be reminded that we have a home in God, and he is always pursuing us, regardless of where we’ve wandered. Regardless of where it lands for each of us, I pray that we’ll all see that everyone needs to be loved like this. Everyone is aching for Shalom, for wholeness, for a stable home. Everyone needs to be pursued and sought out. Everyone longs to be acknowledged. We get to do that for our children, for each other, for the world around us. We have the opportunity to love like Jesus by drawing near to others, closing the gap, being present, listening. We get to go to all of them, see them, value them, love them exactly where they are. In the midst of their failures. And in the midst of our own…

–Laura

I want to reiterate what Laura reminded us of above–Pastor John began by simply stating: “Love them (our kids) as Jesus has loved us.”

Pastor John also said “How we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice our children made.”  I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. I have seen adults struggle with their self-worth because their parents tore them down rather than built them up.  Gratefully, that is not my story.  I am the daughter of a dad who loves me like Jesus loves.

I was an at-risk kid, and in a recent blog post we reiterated that children in pain don’t know how to articulate their pain, which was true of me. One September evening when I was 12 or 13, I was having a particularly tough time, and I unleashed my anger on my dad. I said hateful, mean things, and ended my tirade by telling him I no longer wanted to be part of our family; I wanted to live elsewhere and asked him to put me in the foster system.

My dad didn’t say a word while I screamed at him. When I was finished, I went downstairs and sat in front of the TV. My dad came down a few minutes later and asked me to get my sweater. Fear kicked in. I thought he really might be taking me to a foster home, but I wasn’t going to let on that I was afraid. I got my sweater and got in the car. We rode in silence. He took me to the miniature golf course and we played a round of golf. After golf,  he took me to Dairy Queen and let me get a Peanut Buster Parfait (it’s important to note that being one of seven children, we didn’t get treats like Peanut Buster Parfaits. If we went to Dairy Queen, we got a soft serve cone. My treat was extravagant and it was undeserved.)

I didn’t say a word the entire evening. My dad said very few words, and most of them came while we were at Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was having a hard time, that I was hurting deeply, and he told me that he loved me and would always love me. He did not address my behavior at all.

I’d love to say that I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him, but I didn’t. I still did not speak, and when we got back to the house I went straight to my room. Yet, the assurance that my dad loved me, even after I had been so horrible to him began to change me. So, when Pastor John says the way we respond to our children has a much longer lasting impact than the choice the children made–that can be a positive thing too.

For those of you with children who have wandered away like the prodigal son–I was that child. It was another ten years before my dad saw lasting fruit in my life. I’ve apologized to him multiple times for the pain that I caused him during those years, and he assures me that what’s important today is who I am now. My past is never thrown in my face. My dad showed me what grace in action looks like. I often say that grace is the most powerful force on earth. The reason I know is because I have been a recipient of extravagant grace, and over time, I have been transformed by grace. God’s grace offered to me through my dad–and through my Savior.

Just in case I’ve left the impression that I was never disciplined– I was. Discipline in my house involved a one on one conversation with my dad. He sat in one green chair, and whichever child was “in trouble” sat in the other green chair. He was not shy about telling us that we had disappointed him, and would let us know why, but there were no raised voices, no yelling–just conversation.  Sometimes I was grounded, sometimes I lost other privileges, but all discipline in my house was carried out through relationship. I hated that! It killed my heart to know I had disappointed my dad. Why? Because I knew he loved me, and I loved him. Relationship. Love. My dad loves us like Jesus loves.

I tried to love my children and raise them the way my dad raised me. I hope they know, that as imperfect as I am, they have always been loved and nothing could ever change that. My husband and I have decided more than once that we choose relationship over being “right”, and we’ve never once regretted that choice.

Bradley Jersak in his book “A More Christlike God” writes, Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith….He was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy…the repentance that he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds. 

So–the answer to how we parent when our children fail? We love them. We pursue them. We draw near to them. We build relationship. We maintain relationship. We hold on to hope. We try to love like Jesus. Jesus came to us–He didn’t tell us to “come here”.  He closed the gap. He died for us while we were still all kinds of messed up. (Romans 5:8) He is our model for what it looks like to love.

Therefore; love your children as if Jesus was loving them through you–because He is.

Jesus loves us–this I know.

—Luanne

Image result for father embracing prodigal son

 

 

This is Love: The Death of Jesus

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”  Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.  Mark 15:33-41

After typing the scripture above, I’ve found myself sitting quietly for a few minutes taking it all in. There is too much in this passage to do all of it justice in one blog post. As I think through the four signs that Pastor John highlighted from this passage (Eschatological, Christological, Revelational, and Redemptive), and the words in the passage itself, I keep coming back to “darkness covered the whole land”. What must that have been like–three hours of darkness in the middle of the day? For those at the crucifixion, and for those at home completely unaware that a significant execution was taking place, what was going through their minds? Was it like heavy cloud cover, or did if feel more supernatural in nature? Was it scary?

I recently finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark. There were a lot of things that I treasured in that book, but the point she made that I keep finding myself coming back to is the stark difference between what she calls “Solar Christians” and “Lunar Christians”. I’m going to be paraphrase here and interject my own interpretations of what she wrote, but she said Solar Christians are afraid of the dark. They try to avoid it at all costs, they interpret dark as “bad”, and try to either ignore it or explain it away using spiritual terms. Lunar Christians, on the other hand, embrace cycles in life, including the dark ones, realizing that just like the moon has cycles, so do our lives. Some seasons are bright, like the full moon, some dark, like the new moon, and others that happen in between those extremes. Taylor also pointed out, (and this blew my mind), that the new moon phase (when there is no moon in the sky) lasts for three nights, and then light begins to appear. She equated that to a constant cycle of death and resurrection. I had never heard that before. I looked it up and learned that depending upon one’s location in relationship to the horizon, sure enough, there are three moonless nights. Three nights when we can’t see the moon reflecting the sun’s light. Three–what a significant number. And on the fourth night light begins to appear. Death. Resurrection. Every month.

We don’t always know what to do with the dark. It doesn’t feel safe. But just as God is in the light, God is in the dark. God is never absent–including that dark day when Jesus hung on the cross.

There is an interpretation of these events, especially when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that teaches God abandoned Jesus in this moment of his deepest need. It goes something like this: God can’t look on our sin, so as Jesus bore our sin on the cross, God had to turn away. There are two problems with this interpretation. 1: Jesus is God. 2: It’s absolutely inconsistent with the character of God that we see throughout scripture.

What was God’s response when Adam sinned and hid from Him? God sought Adam out. When Cain killed his brother, God showed up and even put a mark on Cain to protect him from harm. In the New Testament, Jesus was in trouble with the religious leaders all the time because he hung out with “sinners”. The father of the prodigal son ran to his son, embraced him and threw a party. Romans 5:8 tells us that God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Amp). God is not distant from our stories, from our weaknesses, from our sin. He meets us in the middle of our mess and says “I love you.” His very nature and character is love. Always. 

So if God did not abandon Jesus on the cross, why did Jesus say that?

When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”,  Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22–a psalm which truly mirrors all that was happening as he hung on the cross. (I encourage you to read it in its entirety)  As with many of the Psalms, the Psalmist wrote what he was feeling, and then wrote what was true.  The Psalm begins with “My God…why have you forsaken me?”,  and goes on to express other feelings of being abandoned, forgotten, unheard. Then in verse 9 the little word “yet” appears and the Psalmist reminds himself of what is true:

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 
The Psalmist cycles back into what he is feeling and experiencing until verse 19, where the word “but” appears, and he again declares what is true:
But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me… 
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the LORD will praise him—may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 
for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. 
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. 
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (19, 22-31)
Jesus cried out the first line, but had no strength or breath left to finish the Psalm; he died shortly after he gasped out those words, but it was enough. It was enough for those in the crowd who knew the Hebrew scriptures to know what he was saying. Without a doubt the religious leaders who were present knew that Psalm. Could Jesus have once again been inviting them in?
Was the crucifixion dark? Absolutely. I can’t imagine what Jesus was experiencing, what  his followers were experiencing. The women who showed up, who loved Jesus dearly—what was going through their minds? The disciples who ran, hid, feared–what was going through their minds? They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming. All they knew in that moment was darkness–physical darkness, spiritual darkness, and emotional darkness.
Darkness. In the Genesis 1 creation account, darkness was present. God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
In Isaiah 45:3 we read:
I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.
In the Passover account recorded in the book of Exodus, God’s salvation happens during a dark, scary night. In Matthew 24 when Jesus talks about the end of time, he says that after the sun goes dark, then will appear the sign of the Son of Man (v. 30) . 
And on that day, that crucifixion day, while the sun was hidden for three hours, God’s love and presence were on full display in the dark.
I don’t love dark seasons, but in my darkest seasons, I’ve learned that God is present in a different way. In my solar seasons, I see him and his glory in everything around me, and it’s easy to be awestruck by him. In the dark, I don’t see as well, yet he is there. He shows up. He sits with me. He grieves with me. He hurts with me. He suffers with me. He loves me. He transforms me. There are treasures in the dark. There are riches in the dark. God is there, in the dark. And when the dark season ends, I know Him better than I did before. As I type these last words, the sky is just beginning to indicate that dawn is on the way…dark, light, death, resurrection, seasons, cycles– our forever loving God is with us in them all.
–Luanne
Darkness. 
What comes to your mind as you read that word?
My thoughts circle around what occurred in our home last night. One of my sons was up several times, scared with no solid explanation of why. This is not an unusual occurrence in our home. This boy of mine has always hated the dark. He used to have nightmares that would lead to him screaming in his sleep and waking up only partially, then not remembering the event at all when morning came. Over time, he has come to expect to be afraid at night. He tries to fall asleep before the rest of us, because if he is the last person awake in our home, fear overtakes him. He is most afraid of being alone. 
Last night was no different. The only part of his fear that he can put words to is the fear of being alone. I don’t know why this makes him afraid, but to him, it’s very real. In the middle of the night, to him, it is his truest reality. His stomach contorts in pain, his heart races. He has tools, things we’ve taught him to help him get through the overwhelming fear, but in the dark, he feels powerless to overcome what he is most afraid of. He has become accustomed to the presence of fear when darkness falls. And he has been, by the voice of his own fear, conditioned to believe lies about what darkness means.
So have we.
Luanne wrote:
“God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
They both have their place and their purpose. Both. Not one or the other. Both. We humans struggle with “both”. We live in an either/or, right/wrong, good/evil, dualistic culture. This makes faith more than a little difficult… Because faith, to qualify as faith, includes believing in what we can’t see. Yet, we’ve attempted (‘we’ being all of us, the whole of humanity, especially those who would identify as followers of Jesus) to explain the unexplainable, to define the mystery, to understand what is beyond our minds’ capacities, and to fit it all into a neat, tidy box. We’ve sealed the box so that nothing old can get out and nothing new can get in. The box is marked with words like “truth”, “right”, “perfect”, “inerrant” and it’s contents include rules and laws built upon the interpretation and understanding of those who constructed the box. One thing that made it into the box is light. One thing that didn’t is darkness.
Our theology of darkness is a lot like my son’s fear of it. We have been conditioned to believe certain things about it, what it represents, why we should fear it. We have learned to think of it as the opposite of light rather than the companion of light. A dance partner, if you will. Light’s perfect pairing. Instead of seeing the place and purpose of each, we’ve labeled one good and one bad. One safe and one dangerous. One represents God, and one represents evil.
Like my son, I was afraid of the dark as a child. In fact, I was afraid into even into early adulthood. As I grew in my understanding, though–and began to heal from childhood wounds–my fears dissipated. I am no longer afraid of the dark, and in fact rather enjoy sitting in the dark now, because it allows me to see differently than I do in the light.
I am afraid that our theology of darkness, as a whole, has not grown from our first, childish understanding. Our either/or, good/bad mindset kept darkness out of our box and launched us into what Luanne wrote about above–solar Christianity. We’ve lived “in the light”, and it has cost us.
In the gorgeous book Luanne referenced, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words:
“From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today…At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention…”
If we have never learned how to see in the dark, we will live inside our box of light and miss all that darkness has to offer. We can choose this–and be completely and totally loved and held by God, in our ignorance and unconsciousness. God doesn’t require that we make room within our theological boxes for darkness in order to accept us or love us fully. He doesn’t have a checklist through which we can earn his love. He just loves. Because he is love. We get to be exactly where we are and we can be fully guaranteed that the heart of God is full of love toward us.
But–what if there is so much more to God, to life, to our own journeys, than what can fit inside that box? What if there are vast expanses to explore, adventures beyond our wildest imaginations–if we would just get out of the box?
Outside the safety of our illuminated boxes, though, we will encounter the darkness. It’s why so many of us just can’t bear the thought of even lifting the lid, let alone climbing out. Everything we’ve learned, all that we’ve been conditioned to believe, things we regard as absolute truth–all of it comes into question when we step outside of our boxes. And rather than being excited or even curious about what we might find, our default response is almost always fear. Of the unknown, of being wrong, of being disappointed, of sliding down a slippery slope into oblivion… So rather than lift the lid, we often reinforce it instead. We lock it down and set guards around it so we can keep out anything that might challenge our belief about what’s inside. As long as we don’t actually encounter it, we can think what we choose to think, what we’ve learned to think. And that feels safe…
Until the darkness somehow gets in. Until it crashes in around us and we either have to face it, or run the other way. If we have the courage to face it, to stop seeing it as the enemy, but rather an opportunity to experience God anew, we’ll see things we’ve never seen before. Our right/wrong, us/them, either/or ways of seeing the world will begin to fall away, and the ability to see with a both/and perspective will begin to grow. We’ll begin to see the beauty of mystery and learn to be more at peace with our partial understanding. We’ll begin to see beyond the surface of things, beyond how they appear.
I’ve strayed a long way from the message we heard on Sunday… I didn’t know my words would walk me in this direction today. But I’m grateful I was led here. Because when I sat down to write, I had no idea where I was going. I read over my notes, studied multiple scriptures, looked up some Greek words. I read no less than six or seven different articles and commentaries related to this week’s passage. For three hours. I was up at 4:30 a.m. today, hoping to have this written and published by 6:00. Instead, I found myself drowning in opinions framed as certitudes, fear–and shame–based theology, and assumptions presented as facts. All were sure of their rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. It was a showcase of dualism. Not one of the authors I came across was willing to admit that there could be other correct interpretations, other ways of seeing. Not one admitted that sometimes there is no black and white explanation or that we can’t always understand the ways of God. All of their explanations fit nicely into the safe box.
I was exhausted and frustrated before I typed my first word. My morning had been full of prayers for direction, guidance about what to write. And I stopped again to pray–with a heavy sigh–for inspiration from the Spirit. It was at that point, three hours in, that I thought about my boy and his aversion to the dark. How he’s learning to navigate the rugged terrain of his own fear, and how his beliefs about the dark aren’t yet well-informed, but he’s getting there. Right now, he equates darkness with what scares him most. Eventually, I hope he’ll move from this understanding to one that allows him to befriend the dark, to find peace in the quiet of being alone with his thoughts. But that day is not today.
I can’t help but think about the darkness that Luanne wrote about, the darkness that crashed in around the cross during the crucifixion of Jesus. For whatever reason, I had always pictured the darkness happening as Jesus breathed his last. That as he died, the skies went dark and the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. But according to Matthew, Mark and Luke and their accounts, that’s not how it happened. Darkness fell while Jesus hung, alive, on the cross. In the middle of the day, darkness came and obscured what those present could see. I wonder how dark the darkness was? Could the women who were there still see Jesus in front of them? He was still with them physically, yet their ability to see him was diminished in the dark. I wonder if they felt alone in the dark, the way that my son does… Jesus was very much with them, but could they sense his presence in the dark?
Three hours later, the darkness broke. Light returned. The scene was illuminated once again in the light of day. And it’s here, in the light, that Jesus cried out and breathed his last. He died in the light. The eyes of all around him witnessed his last moments in broad daylight. Why did I always assume Jesus took his last breath as darkness fell? Because, I think, for as long as I can remember, I’ve associated darkness with death. And life with light. We know that faith is confidence in what we cannot see, yet we live according to what we can see.
They watched Jesus give up his life in the middle of the day. They saw that he was gone. Their light became as darkness to them because, as Luanne wrote, “They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming.” 
What we now know… What do we now know? Do we know that God’s presence never left Jesus–or anyone else–alone on that dark day? Do we know that his presence is with us now, on the other side of resurrection, on our darkest days the same as our brightest? Pastor John asked us a question on Sunday, one that we do have to answer, each of us for ourselves. He asked us, “Who do you believe Jesus is?” But after spending time here, reading Luanne’s words and writing my own, I think there is a second question we need to ask ourselves…
Where do you believe Jesus is?
Does your Jesus only exist in the light? Do you have a “darkness” closet where you store all that doesn’t align with “solar Christianity”? How do you see the death of Jesus? What do you believe about the presence of God in those final moments before Jesus breathed his last? How we see matters. As Luanne wrote last week, “How we see is how we love.”
–Laura
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