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****Needs lots of Work. But still wanted to share.*****
The stark contrast between the yellow prairie and the deep purples and blues of the oncoming storm set the horizon as a stage for the most dramatic narrative. It was as if God had juxtaposed the barrenness, and death with the oncoming violent redemption of things to come. The storm approached from the East. It always did. The result was not a masking of the sun, but an illumination.
No one in the southern plains of Colorado ever begrudged a coming storm. Life itself depended on such violent episodes. It was true, seldom did only a mild rain shower come upon those wide-open spaces. Instead, lightening, destructive wind, and loud claps of thunder always accompanied the tears from heaven, piercing the earth. Often such storms put those isolated at risk for great loss. Were the rain to come hard and fast enough, flash floods would sweep into the low places and demolish anything that stood in the way. Thus, violence and life came hand in hand.
Yet, there was an aroma that came before, and remained afterward. It was the aroma of life and it brought respite to all those who had brushed shoulders with death.
“It’s a good morning.”
“Think it’ll rain soon?”
“Boy, do I look like a damn weather man?” His voice was gruff. As a joke, his grandkids had actually selected “Gruffy” as his embarrassing grandfather name. John Putnam II was a proud resident of Cheyenne county Colorado as was his father and grandfather before him.
John Putnam had served as a private in the War and anyone needing explanation as for which war the War was did not, in his eyes, have any grasp as to what he and so many others had stood against nor did they value the freedom he received a purple heart in defense of. It wasn’t a major injury. But, a clean shot through the shoulder sure hurts like hell and continues to hurt like hell any time the weather changes.
“Gruffy, you always complain about your shoulder hurting. I just thought you’d be able to tell if it was gonna rain. Plus, grandma says the pastures need the rain. She says you can’t take another bad year.” John Putnam IV, or Four, has he had come to be called was a mere boy of nine with the wisdom of an old soul. However, he was clumsy in his wielding of it. You never give a long sword to a 9 year old. He undoubtedly hurts himself.
“Boy, if my shoulder was a-hurtin’ you think I’d be having this civilized conversation with you? Can’t say if it’ll rain and your grandma shouldn’t be talkin’ to you ‘bout such nonsense. It’s not for a boy to care about.”
“Gruffy, can we go to the fishin’ hole today?”
“No, boy, we can’t.”
“Why not. I love to fish.”
“It’s dried up. And you can’t sit still longer ‘an five seconds. You only like fishin’ because I like fishin’”
Gruffy was not the type of man to show emotion. He was stoic in the truest sense of the word. Yet, underneath his tan and parched skin that resembled the land he ranched, was a heart of immense feeling. He felt deeply and cared deeply for his grandson, and his wife of 49 years. He simply did not want them to know, and therefore share in, his weighted existence. John Putnam knew if another bad year came, he would have to sell the cattle first, and eventually the whole property. The only place he ever showed his heart, his true heart, would be snatched away from him in a cold business transaction. Devastation knew not an uglier face.
It was true that there had been scares in the past. John Putnam had nearly sold the ranch when his son had just been born. The rain fall, while not has poor as this year, had literally forced him to sell of two thirds of his herd while feeding the remaining third whatever cheap scraps of feed he could afford. Yet, until this year, this season, this drought, this affliction, John Putnam never thought he would ever actually have to give up entirely.
“Gruffy, you sure it ain’t gonna rain. The sky looks awful dark. Plus, it’s gettin’ colder.”
“Boy, I told ye. It ain’t gonna rain. I ain’t hurtin’ and I don’t wanna talk about the damn rain anymore. Go on. Run along and see if your grandma needs help in the kitchen.”
“Gruffy, sometimes I want to call you Grumpy instead of Gruffy. I don’t know why you gotta be so mean sometimes.“ This was the point where John Putnam IV’s little boy smile, missing his front two teeth of course, and generally sweet disposition cut tension and anxiety, leaving those unwanted emotions miniscule and forgotten. For a brief moment, John Putnam II forgot all that weighed on his soul, lost in the beauty of a child’s inability to grasp the reality of loss, brokenness and death. His grandson was unable to comprehend why their inability to go fishing was really an indicator of impending danger rather than a minor inconvenience to their late summer fun.
Before the younger of the two could run along to check on his grandma, she called from the kitchen for dinner. As they approached the table they could see nothing but a feast. Grandma Putnam had opened one of the last jars of preserves and used the last of the flour for biscuits. The last good roast had been thawed and prepared in a way that only a 76-year-old woman knew. It was the touch that came with age that ultimately transformed the meal from a typical Sunday dinner to a feast fit only for those called to dinner, meant only for those who had known better days and trusted more were on the way.
She bid the boys wash up and come to the table to say grace. Gruffy had grown accustom to his wife thanking that spiteful bitch in the clouds, hell bent on destroying what little joy he had left. Yet, something this night arrived on the wings of the breeze. It was the scent of hope and he felt compelled to pray, despite the oddity of the whole scenario.
“Father, we ain’t spoke in quite sometime. I do thank ya for my family, for my boys, for my grandsons. I thank ya for this ranch and the good times we’ve known. I ask ya to bring ‘em back … if you want. We’re hurtin’ for something good to happen round here.” He paused momentarily, debating on whether or not he was done addressing the Stranger. Stuttering, he continued, “And thank ya for this food and my wife who prepared it for us. A sweeter soul ain’t nobody known. Amen.”
Dinner conversation was sparse. When things aren’t good, it’s difficult to carry on the façade by the time dinner rolls around. Eventually, everyone grows weary of being hopeful and resigns themselves to enjoying the moment in whatever it might bring. The couple’s grandson fidgeted, waiting for the apple pie to reappear from wherever his grandmother had made it’d disappear to.
As the conversation lulled, a great blast hit the side of the house, rattling the walls and shaking the foundation of the home. Gusts of wind such as this one occurred relatively often. However, if more gusts followed the first, and if the frequency increased, it meant a storm was coming – a big one.
“I think I’ll go and shut up the windows.” Mrs. Putnam was a firm believer in fresh air and often thought the reason many in the city didn’t live vibrantly was because they’d simply passed the world through a mechanical filter of chrome, development and technology before they allowed themselves to really appreciate beauty. As she began to close up the windows, shutting out the destructive beauty to come, she realized that the sky had become much darker than she had remembered. It was not the darkness of a typical storm, if typical could be said of something so infrequent. Rather, an immense hue of foreboding brewed alongside the coming precipitation.
If one could freeze the entire scenario playing out in this inconsequential country setting, the onlooker would be able to see the face of waning hope and small faith. Mrs. Putnam was by no means a cynic nor was she an optimist. Instead, she lived in the somewhat awkward and uncomfortable space of little faith. She desired greatly to believe that things would work out, that they couldn’t lose the ranch. But at the same time, she knew wishful thinking never got anyone anything but disappointment. Thus, as she looked out the window, her face expressed the existence of one who still looked at the stark juxtaposition of the prairie and sky and dared to hope. It was a slight smile, a glimmer in her dimming eyes, and the way she stood up a little straighter and breathed a little deeper. Yet, none of this changed the reality that she hurt for her husband and was quite uncertain and uneasy about their future as a couple. Their world knew little of 401k’s, retirement plans, or future planning. They simply existed in the here and now, only contemplating tomorrow enough to know tomorrow could be a frightening place.
She called, “John. John, I think a big one’s comin’. This could be it.”
“I’ll believe it when it gets here. The damn thing’s just as likely to jump over us to the next county. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again.” John’s words simply echoed through the house and were answered by a sigh from his wife and a perplexed look from his grandson. What Four couldn’t quite grasp was how his incredibly strong grandfather could be so certain that things wouldn’t work out. Had he thought this way through his entire tour of duty? Even as a 9-year-old he knew that type of destructive certainty was no way to live. He’d at least thought to go and check the fishing hole before assuming it was dried up.
As John’s wife sighed, a few drops began to pelt the windows. They were the types of drops that guaranteed a storm; only a fool would still refuse to recognize the advent of that destructive force. Just the same John Putnam refused to admit he’d been wrong and that perhaps he ought to ready his home and family for what could be a rough night. Even as he flipped on the television, only to find static, he continued to reject the notion of impending doom and hope.
Had this occurred a few years prior, John Putnam would have gathered his wife and whatever guests were at his home in the living room, flashlight in hand, preparing for the worst. Apathy was all he could muster. Four grew concerned.
“Gruffy, I’m scared. What if the power goes out? What if a tornado hits? What if it rains so much it floods?”
“Boy, you let me worry about those things. Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen. Go see if your grandma needs help cleaning …” As John finished his empty consolation, a piece of hail the size of a golf ball broke through the window above the kitchen sink, pelting Mrs. Putnam on the forehead, rendering her dazed with a slight stream of blood flowing from her fragile, pierced skin. She simply gasped in wonder at what had actually occurred.
At the breaking of the glass, the breaking in of the fury, the breaking in of what was to come, John Putnam II rose from his chair and rushed to his wife who was now laying on the floor, more dazed than hurt. Shards of glass were littered about the countertop and in the sink. A few drops of rain were beginning to find their way through the hole in window. More hail was beginning to fall though it was not a noticeable amount. Four, still observing the whole scene in shock, thought it quite strange for a piece of hail to break that particular window, especially when it wasn’t hailing hard. It seemed, at least to Four, that someone had actually thrown that piece of hail straight through the window at his Grandma. He knew better than to say that to his grandfather who was already in a particularly noticeable bad mood.
Gruffy had begun to wipe some of the blood from his wife’s face while applying pressure with a damp kitchen towel to the split in her forehead. She simply lay there letting out a moan or indistinguishable request every now and then. John simply sat and loved his wife the only way he knew how in that particular moment, his heart hardening as he began to feel forgotten and unloved himself. These emotions did not emanate from his wife; he knew she loved him well. They fell from the sky with the rain and that damn piece of hail. John had seen a lot of freak accidents during the War and considered them all to be an act of spite from some force, indifferent to the general wellbeing of those affected.
As his heart hardened, thoughts of vengeance and questions of guilt rising, a clap of thunder arriving on the wings of a violent gust of wind pierced the sky and shook the foundation of the house. Four heard another window break in the back bedroom, though he could not tell if was due to hail or the strength of the wind or the deep clap of thunder. He’d seen a video of a singer breaking a wine glass by singing real loud and high; he wondered if the thunder could have done that to the window.
“Gruffy. I think it’s gonna rain bad.” Four’s voice faintly drifted from the living room into the kitchen where John Putnam and his wife were still positioned on the floor, despite the increasing amount of rain coming in through the window. Four knew his grandfather was not himself when no sarcastic retort followed his statement of the obvious. Instead, silence. At this Four became aware. He became aware of how dire the situation could actually be. He became aware of how the gully that ran in front of his house, the one he had deemed his Gruffy’s river, was filling at a tremendous rate. He became aware of how the cattle were vacating the pasture around the house in search of safety in some other place. He became aware that something terrible and great was about to happen. He knew the rain would save the ranch. But, if they all died, who would the ranch be saved for?
What happened next can only be described by violence and life coming hand in hand. The wind continued to pick up, the rain poured and the hail pelted the house. John Putnam held his wife and his grandson who had long since run to him crying. They huddled on the kitchen floor and John Putnam refused to pray again. They’d already spoken once and He had ignored his pleas for something good. In fact, God had just sent the opposite extreme. He’d set himself to ruin John Putnam.
The gully flooded and water seeped across the thresholds of the house, the wind ripped shingles from the roof and most of the windows in the house were shattered. The blues and purples mixed with a furious green as the storm brewed on and destruction ensued. Then, like storms do, it dissipated all at once. The storm surrendered as if someone had just walked out and sternly commanded it to settle down. The wind that brought destruction rushed the clouds off to their next victim. The stars came out. The moon shone.
John Putnam IV slowly picked himself up from the floor. Mrs. Putnam, now a little over an hour removed from the pelting, had regained her composure and was holding a damp washcloth to her forehead. Four sat consoling her simultaneously watching what Gruffy would do. For a moment, in the midst of the storm, Four had seen the Gruffy’s soft side; he saw his heart and it had overwhelmed him with comfort and security.
Gruffy walked to the front door, unlocked the deadbolt, opened the heavy door and pushed the screen door open, stepping out onto the front porch. Debris was everywhere and the patio furniture had been overturned; he was sure some of it was probably broken. He looked out on the ranch. The moon illumined the beauty of that place. The cattle had started coming back out of hiding. It was as if his land let out the kind of deep sigh that comes after drinking deeply from a fresh spring. He breathed deeply the wet air.
He looked out on his land, breathing deeply, he began to cry softly. Bowing his head, he felt moved to pray.
“I’ve been such a damned fool. It’s beautiful. Thank ya.”
Open Water Swims, Punches to the Face, and Jesus. Resolved: Daily will I open my eyes, breath deeply through my nose, listen intently, taste, and touch the grand creation so as to see God in his wonder and beauty, learning to believe that He is so good to me. I’m fully aware there is no way to talk of these things without sounding like I locked myself in a locker room and gave myself a pep talk. Which incidentally might have been very entertaining for others to watch. However, I was reminded yesterday of this resolution – I made a couple of years ago in the midst of a low place, in the midst of believing the great lie that God is not good to me. Swimming in the sorrow of others’ defeats, their hurts, their struggles and disbelief, it’s easy to convince myself I’m drowning. Really, it’s a bit like an open water swim for a triathlon. (You may take this moment and laugh at my thought to link these things together. Emotional and spiritual health has everything to do with swimming around some buoys in neoprene.) The thing about open water swims is that they’re violent. The only time I’ve ever been punched in the face is during an open water swim. The only time I’ve ever punched someone in the face was during an open water swim. Athletes swim on top of one another, elbows fly, there are kicks to the chin and a host of other mostly illegal physical assaults launched. It’s chaos. In the midst of the chaos it’s surprisingly easy to think you’re drowning. You forget you’ve been swimming 4 days a week for the last 4 months. There’s only one thought: “I can’t do this.” Or on a more ridiculous note: “I’m gonna die. This is it. My brothers get to take all my stuff now. Awesome.” Taking seriously the call to love my neighbor is a bit like an open water swim. It’s violent. At points, there’s only one thought: “I can’t do this. I’m gonna quit. Be a hermit. Stop caring about people.” Yea right. Like that’s possible. You get out into the middle of the relational lake and realize: turning back’s not an option, sometimes I feel like I’m dying, what do I do now? The answer is, you take a deep breath, open your eyes, ears, nose, you taste, you touch and realize that God is in fact good. He’s not just good in an ethereal, intelligent sense which I’m only able to intellectually acquiesce to. Rather, He’s good to me. He’s good in a tangible, palpable way. He’s good today. At some point you hit a stride in the open water swim, your breathing gets under control and you glide smoothly through the water. It doesn’t mean, however, that punches aren’t thrown and you haven’t gotten a elbow to the skull at some point. It doesn’t even mean that at some point you won’t fall out of your stride and go through the whole I’m-gonna-die-sequence again. The point is, amidst the chaos you really get to a point where you enjoy the whole thing. I make such resolutions to remember that it’s right to enjoy the chaos. It’s ok to continually affirm that God is good to me when I all I really want to do is wallow and talk about how hopeless and sad I am at the prospect of continuing to love people as if it were a burden to me and something I genuinely hate doing but only continue to do out of some sense of perverse duty. No, I make a resolution to remember that I love people. I love their messes. I love swimming through it with them – even if I get a punch to the face.
He had told her that he could start fires with what he felt for her. She was sure it was a line from a song. A song she had never heard. Either way it didn’t really matter. All she knew was that she thought she loved him. He seemed sure and nothing scared Sarah more than people who were sure. Of course she never told anyone this fear. That would have ruined everything they had told her.
“This isn’t fair. You should leave. Leave right now and never come back to me.”
At this particular point, she couldn’t even remember how she got where she was or why she was feeling what she was feeling. She just knew she hurt and he was dying inside watching her. Sarah never intended to utter those words to him, to Jacob the boy who loved her. He had come and swept her away from all that she had known and taken her to a place that she could have never imagined in her wildest dreams.
His response had been simple, “Why the hell you sayin’ things like that to me? You know as well as I do that you don’t mean it.”
Nothing could have been truer or more obvious. She had uttered those words locked in his arms, thinking of them as shields hiding her from whatever enemy had pursued her. She hated herself for saying those words. She hated that regardless of how close he held her Sarah couldn’t be protected from herself. How would he block stones hurled by her own hand, and destructive designs plotted in her heart against her own members? It was true. She didn’t mean it.
Sarah bit her lip, tears streaming down her face. She squeezed her eyes shut hoping when she opened them that she and Jacob would no longer be where they were. She wished for her story to be different for him to have never been left to grapple with her demons.
She opened her eyes. They were still there. Nothing had changed. As usual.
There had been a fire. Things were so dry. There had been no rain. A community that preaches self-sufficiency, and independence often forgets many benefits to the “current culture.” The barns and homes built entirely of timber burned like the chaff on their winnowing floors. The sparks and debris whirling in the wind illumined the night sky as if God had finally brought down the judgment she had heard about for so many years. The only difference being, God had burned the wrong place.
He had rushed from the truck as if he had known all along the place would burn. A prophet in his own right. It was like he knew precisely the blazes he would attack first. He spoke with authority. He was not like the Jacob from the Bible stories she had heard. Surely this man would never deceived one of his brothers. They never talked about that part of the story.
As he began to battle the blazes around the community, they made eye contact. He clearly saw behind her modest apparel and make-up less face. She wore no jewelry and boasted no hip or modern hairstyle. Yet, he looked in her eyes and knew her.
The fire would destroy almost everything the group of 1,000 or so faithful had built over the previous 30 years.
The gristmill had been built in the 1760’s. They had moved the building to their community; touting its benefit in conveying the deeper meaning of parables and boasting the great power of two, 1,000 pound stones grinding wheat by the power of a water wheel. What the miller didn’t notice that afternoon was that there wasn’t enough wheat in between the two stones. He’d forgotten the fable of keeping his nose to the grindstone. The great friction caused a spark which ignited their factory of spirituality. The winds had picked up as they do in the afternoon. The flames spread, testing the structures of the complex; they burned just as easily, if not more easily, than any other building constructed by human hands.
Flames whipped in and around themselves, consuming not only the images of their piety but their souls as well. What did this type of apocalypse mean?
Jacob’s team worked quickly and with great effort. Their movements were swift and demonstrated a knowledge of how the indiscriminative force would progress in its goal to envelope everything in an embrace, giving a kiss of death.. To the fire, there was no pious and impious, believer and non-believer, righteous and unrighteous. There simply was that which would be destroyed.
In the aftermath, in the smoldering ruins of her homestead, Sarah saw Jacob approach her. His face was smeared with the marks of battle, and his eyes were red and bloodshot from the 15 hours of fire fighting as well as wading through the haze of smoke that settled around them. Those who lived in the community had gathered at a gazebo that was a safe distance from the blaze. The firefighters began approaching them one by one. Sarah saw Jacob. He was headed straight for her.
“You oughta get out of this place. You oughta come with me. Leave this mess behind. There wasn’t anything here for you in the first place and now there’s really nothing left.” Jacob wasn’t quite sure what he saw. But he knew that she was trapped and needed out. He just knew that he knew. It had always been that way. It’s how he knew where to send his guys to most effectively fight the fire; it’s how he knew what rooms kids were hiding in. He just knew. His mother had always told him that he knew how to be in a place, to really be in a place, better than anyone she knew. That sort of being and closeness brought a type of knowing he couldn’t explain.
“I can’t… “ Sarah’s words were soft. She couldn’t only because she had been told her whole life that she couldn’t. In reality, the only thing keeping her there was herself and her fear.
“You can.” His words were not demanding or even manipulative. He simply stated the obvious. Yet, he stated the obvious in such a way that the most fearful actually opened their eyes to see what was right in front of them; he made reality known.
At that, Sarah pulled her hair out of the tight bun that held her hair and followed Jacob. She had no idea where she was going. She wasn’t sure he did either. Yet, she trusted him if for no other reason than the fact that he had showed her at least a piece of truth; she was free.
That was a little less than 12 months ago. The news had long forgotten about the Anabaptist settlement and the fire. The “community” had set their faces towards rebuilding and reconstructing a homestead for the godly. It was true that Sarah had not heard from her parents since she left save one conversation. They told her she had gone back on her solemn vows. They told her she had forsaken the faith. They told her she lacked “respect” for their way of life. They told her in no uncertain terms that she had ruined her life by following a false prophet.
Now, having realized the depths to which her innate fear of reality had sunk, Sarah found herself banishing the one who had actually thought to give her truth.
“It’s ruining you. Sometimes I think the first steps I took with you out of the fire, out of that awful place were the easiest ones I’ve ever had to take. But now, now, I just hurt.” Sarah was still trying to convince Jacob of why he needed to leave. The effect of her story on her future was that she was discovering that the fear of failure, of imperfection was not left or consumed in the fire so many weeks ago. Rather, she carried it with her. It haunted her heart and showed up, paralyzing her with every step forward she took, hoping to maintain its hold on her heart.
“Shut up, Sarah. Just stop talking. You know what you’re saying is ridiculous.”
“What if I’m still this way next month, next year, seven years from now? Huh? You going to keep showing up and putting out the fire?”
What Sarah hadn’t realized was that in a real friendship, which was something she had never actually had, there is a willing death. Jacob willing put himself to death every time she came face to face with her demons. Sure, it hurt. A lot of times it hurt like hell. Yet, true friendship requires a level of pain. Lest it be forgotten that it was through weeping together that Jonathan and David forged their friendship.
Fear had crept in and lied to Sarah. Fear told her that if she hurt Jacob, she’s failed. Fear told her that she was the source of all of his problems. Fear had told her that she should make him leave because that would be better than fighting.
“Sarah, when I show up at a fire you wanna know what I think to myself?”
“I think that if there’s any chance that someone might be left in the house or building, I’m going in after them. I’m think that I’m scared as hell. I think that I don’t want to die tonight. I think why couldn’t some idiot not pay closer attention to his cigarette butt? I think that it’s a shame that my friends get put at risk because of stupid mistakes, faulty equpment, and freak accidents. Then I remember you. I remember that fires don’t always destroy things. I remember that I found you in the fire.”
Tears had begun to run down Jacob’s face. He was sure that he wasn’t saying it well. What he meant was that sometimes fires are truly awful things. They destroy good and beautiful things. But sometimes they brought good things.
“You know what, Sarah? You haven’t really left that fire just yet. You’re standing around watching everything that you were so sure of for so long burn. Honestly, it’s awful to watch you do it. It’s like I’m watching you die. I want to rush in and put out the fire and make it safe. But I’m not gonna do that. That fire you’re in needs to just burn out on its own. Even if it takes 7 years, it’ll burn out eventually and I’ll still be here.”
At that, Sarah let out a sigh and began to weep, not because she was suddenly relieved of all her doubts and fears, skepticisms and sorrow, but because he had said he was there. He had said he wouldn’t leave. He had said she would never be alone in the dark. She saw a brief glimpse of how he burned brightly for her, on behalf of her.
She kissed him gently, tears running down her face landing softly on her chest, extinguishing the fire in her soul.
“I love you, Jacob.”
I recently read a book on the spirituality of worship in the Free Church Tradition. The author alludes to a concept he calls “heart worship.” Frankly, I have no idea what “heart worship” is. The author doesn’t define it. Apart from pointing out an offense against good writing, this incident, if you will, brought out in my head a predicament. We as Christians have this jargon – and it’s awful. In this particular case, the term “heart worship” is used to describe some sort of experiential, emotive, genuine and worthy form of worship meant to occur on Sunday morning - every Sunday morning. Under the guise of jargon, the expectation in worship has become elusive and the beauty of true worship has been minimized.
Reducing the work of the Spirit through the Word to mere catchphrases like “open your heart to God” or “heart worship” or “open yourself to feel the Spirit move” is a gross reduction of the power and mystery of God redeeming his people. This is no small project of God’s that can be reduced to tweet length phrases. These well-meant but gross reductions of spirituality and faith have become substitutions for courageously grappling with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought His people up out of Egypt, the God who whispered to Elijah in the midst of fear and loneliness, the God who became man, and the God who will come again. These substitutions espouse that lie that faith is singularly “giving it over to God” and feeling yourself do it.
The story is bigger than that. Much bigger.
This story is one of most epic proportions. This story is one that cannot be described and likened to phrases akin to praise for romance novels. This story is of a God who empties himself and bids me come and participate with him. This story is of an older brother who, for the benefit of his siblings, is humiliated, forgotten, rejected, tortured, killed and buried. This story is one of a conqueror, trampling death by death.
Do we talk about true worship, true spirituality, true religion? Absolutely. However, our words must center on, revolve around, and elevate the magnificence and intrigue of the story we’ve been caught up in. In this, my heart, my affections, my will, not merely my emotions, are unraveled and rewound to wonder, glory, embrace, love, and be satisfied with the worth, work, and value of the Crucified One.
Free. A blatant exacerbation and violent revealing of the sins of my heart often follows my inability to believe that Jesus and has fought for me and, consequently, I no longer need to fight for myself. I won’t say all, but many of my interactions with people, so I’m discovering, are born out of a desire to prove myself. The proving is not merely to demonstrate that I’m not a failure. Rather, I want others to perceive me as the best, as someone memorable, as someone needed, as someone respected, someone desired over against most other people. The reality is, I may not have actually failed, but if I don’t achieve this level of necessity, my eyes are only capable of seeing failure. My eyes cast a vision of standards to be met, expectations to be exceeded and impossibilities shown to be nothing more than child’s play. My vision locks in; all I see win or lose, pass or fail, valued or forgotten. The result is 15-hour workdays, measuring sleep in minutes rather than hours, emotional collapse, a body in revolt and slowly but surely slipping a spiritual noose around my own neck. The cycle starts with unbelief and creates deeper seeds of doubt. This sort of vision reduces the beauty of a Christ who has fought to nothing more than a fairytale useful for motivational speeches and pep talks but of no value in mending hearts, and healing the wrecked and broken. The result is an immense and tangible loneliness. In the dark, in the cold, something quite profound happens. The expectations fall away. The perfectionism dies a violent death. Just as Joshua must have shuddered at the thought of marching on Jericho, the one alone struggles to believe that entering back into the world, I mean really being with people, could ever be restful. Alone, grappling with the enormous task of leading a hard-nosed and stubborn people into a land filled with giants and fortified cities, Joshua sees Him. He shows up as a soldier. He assures Joshua he’s not in a fight that’s not already been won. So, if you’re standing in what feels like one of the most alone times of your life, look up and see perfectionism and expectations be slain at the hand of, not a Jesus meek and mild, but a Jesus who is the Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, who speaks with authority, who tramples death underfoot by death. Look up and see the Jesus who felt loneliness and darkness perfectly as he lay in the grave. The beauty of seeing this Jesus is that freedom follows. It isn’t freedom from loving people, from emptying yourself for them, from dying to yourself for them. It’s not freedom from people. It’s freedom to love them.
I’ve recently learned that I’m an extravert. Shocking. I know. It is something I’ve actually known about myself for quite some time. However, in this thing called life figuring out who you are and what makes you tick in a long process and every so often something catches your eye. So maybe a more appropriate phrase would be that I’ve recently relearned that I’m an extravert. I recently had a conversation with a good friend. We talked about how a lot of times we get so extremely excited for something. Cloud 9 is a euphemism. Highest of all highs. It could be about anything. It could be about seeing someone we’ve not seen in quite some time. Honestly, it could be about seeing someone we saw yesterday. The reality is, we’re excited people. Then something happens. We realize the other person is not nearly as excited as we are. Not even slightly. The feeling that follows feels a bit like all the most stereotypical embarrassing moments from high school. You know what I’m talking about. We feel really stupid. I feel really stupid. I had another conversation with a friend recently. She’s a lot like me. She told me, “Jerry, it took me a long to realize this, but God isn’t working against my personality.” You see, in the moment of feeling like the stupid one who has completely misinterpreted the situation and while simultaneously feeling things deeply, the question becomes – Is this just a big trick? Am I destined to live knowing that 9/10 times I’m going to feel really stupid for being excited, for feeling, for being? The truth is, God has made some of us with extremely flammable hearts. We quickly burn with passion and excitement for whatever it is we’re doing. We also sink deep with things are hard. Highest highs and lowest lows. That’s the roller coaster ride. Certainly, this is not to say that those who are different are somehow inferior. God’s not working against their personality just like he’s not working against mine. The beauty of redemption is that the two love each other in ways inexplicable. I’m not sure how to love the slower paced, the less flammable, and the level headed. I struggle to love the introvert, the quiet and the stoic. It’s something I pray for daily. What I do know is that the greatest desire of the flammable heart is to inspire the rest. We just don’t know how all the time. So, this is a humble plea, an asking for the rest to love the flammable hearts among you. Slow them down when they’re fast. Pick them up when they’re down. Cry with them when they’re sunk. Laugh with them when they’re up. Whatever you do, don’t stifle them.
Swords, Shields and Werewolves I’ve started to consider the fact that for as many “honest” conversations I have, I’m really quite petrified of being known. Seriously. It terrifies me. Think of the all the possible risks that come along with someone actually knowing about you. First and foremost, they could flat decide that they don’t like you. Or that you’re scary. Either way, it’s a pretty awful thought. I mean, the beauty of having “honest” conversations is that you’re actually able to say a whole mess of things about your hypothetical mess. It’s the mess that you invent for everyone to see but they never have to clean it up because that mess doesn’t really exist. That mess is a mere figment of my spiritual imagination. Thus, I’m left spending gobs of time with people, remaining a stranger, even though many of these people never quite realize it. To them, we’re best friends. Thus, in these conversations, I’m never really known and I never really know anyone else. I’m too protected. Thus, I enter into some god awful situation thinking I’ve got to charge in sword drawn, shield up, ready to fend off the monsters that could bite me and infect me with some incredibly contagious and quick spreading contagion. Or, I charge in shield up to protect the other from myself; I’m the werewolf that has to flee every time a full moon comes out. I’d never want to be accused of turning one of my friends into a werewolf. It’d be quite wearisome to have that on my conscience. To have a real conversation, I mean one without swords, werewolves and shields, to really enter into a mess, requires I believe something quite bold. What if I jumped into a mess guard down, left my sword at home, and started using my shield as a decorative basin? (It is decorative gourd season after all) How do I get to that? Somewhere along the way I’ve got to start believing that Jesus fought and is fighting for me. He walked into the mess and did battle. He won. I’m no longer expected to fight, to prove myself. Resurrection means victory. We’ve already won. So, leave your swords at home. Look at the mess around you and jump in, both feet. Know and be known. There’s no battle to win for Jesus, there’s not battle to win for your friends. There are no more enemies to be defeated. There is only the reality of One who has already won.
Look at all those Friends
I have this friend. He’s older, married and has 3 kids. His middle daughter Stella once made one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard. Upon arriving at a playground at Cameron Park, Stella, who is about 3 at this point, looks out at the playground and exclaims, “Look at all those friends!!!” Aristotle knew not a more formidable foe. For Stella did not see future business partners or kids that would make her laugh. She saw only a whole host of possible friends in the truest sense of the word; friends that would laugh with her, imagine with her, cry when she cried, and explore the deepest, darkest corners of the playground.
What am I praying for today? I’m praying for a love released from need. This love is the type of love that looks at the world and exclaims, “Look at all those friends!!!” This love is the type of love that never pursues relationship in hope of utilitarian gain or mere pleasurable experience. Rather, this type of love sees only an opportunity to embrace the broken and hurting (this includes those that will hurt not only those that currently hurt) and love them for their own sake. This type of love shrugs at the possibility of incurring shame in befriending “that guy” or the outcast and marginalized. This type of love never desires a pity party nor does it wallow in its own self-pity. Instead, this love counts brokenness as its closest friend and hurt as a helpmate in understanding and loving Him.
This type of love may seem elusive. It is elusive. Yet, there is one who knew shame in a way that I will never know. He knew a love that was released from need. For Jesus did not die because he needs me, He died and was resurrected because he loves me. He embraces my brokenness and hurting. He takes on my shame rather than royalty and honor as a covering. He calls me friend, though I love him poorly. He calls me friend, though I am a poor friend to him. A love released from need enables others to needlessly love others.
This Jesus, this Savior, this Mediator, this true friend, looked out from the cross and did not exclaim, “Look at all those enemies!” Rather, He looked out in love and exclaimed, “Look at all those friends.”
Rest I sit shivering in a theology class, wondering what the hell I’m doing here. The odd thing about preparation is that during the course of preparation, one seldom feels like he’s doing anything of value. More often than not, he feels cold and academic, at least in the case of seminary. Then again, air conditioning doesn’t help. In this moment, I sit sunk and contemplating the reality of the hurts I know of, the presence of the hurts I feel but details of which I do no know and the anticipation of more to come in both of those categories. When it comes down to splitting hairs or sitting with the broken, I know where I’d rather be. I’m beginning to understand that life is not about certainty. It’s been a violent realization. It’s hurt. I’ve become more uncertain of things in the last year than I have been in my entire life. The only certain thing is the reality that befuddled thoughts, confusion, anxiousness, and hurt will accompany the pilgrim wherever he finds himself. The one who doesn’t know he’s a pilgrim is in for an extra helping of all of those things. Speaking of pilgrimages, 100-mile runs tell me a lot about myself. It’s hard. Yet, there inevitably comes a time when the only question being asked is, “Why am I doing this?” Even though that that particular point in time is not a time to be asking that question, the mind always goes there. Always. The answers that come can be quite frightening. Sometimes you discover motives hidden in your heart that would make the most arrogant man blush. Sometimes you discover a profound insecurity that rattles your bones and shakes your soul. Sometimes you don’t get an answer. Sometimes you get an answer and wish you hadn’t gotten one. Sometimes you don’t get an answer and you swear to god that you’d kill for an answer at that point. It seems that at mile 53 of a run like that, the whole world hangs on a question that shouldn’t have even asked in the first place. It’s quite the precarious place to be. The pilgrim always sojourns towards something, someplace, someone he hopes will make him whole. I want to be whole. So do you. I can imagine my great, great grandparents travelling to Colony, Oklahoma in a covered wagon with a couple of horses following. It’s barren. There’s no one around. I can imagine they felt quite lonely even though they had each other. I’m sure they were certain that things would be better once they got there. They’d be wrong. There’d still be a drunk my great, great grandpa would shoot dead in his barber shop one day so the man wouldn’t shoot the 5 year old boy that sat in his chair. There would still be the gross injustices committed against the Indians. There would still be poverty. There would still be … people, life, brokenness, heartache, breakups, deaths, disease, sadness and rejection. The pilgrim always hopes that when he gets where he’s going he’ll be able to rest. There will be no more striving to fix. There will be no more feeling deeply hurts. There will be no more rejection, or brokenness, or heartache, or death, or sadness, or disease, or cancer, or suicide, or things that break, or Murphy’s Law, or shivering, or nervousness, or uncertainty. Strivings cease. I’m running headlong, exhausted, praying that rest really exists. For I’m weary, heavy-laden, and in great need of rest. “Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide: When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the Helpless, abide with me.”