Where have you been? Where are you going? And why?
Imagine walking into New York City’s Grand Central Station to catch a subway. You search for a color or number on a sign to direct you toward the train you need. You pay little attention to the loud speaker, which sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, wah-wa-wah-wa-wah. Then all of the sudden, the Isley Brothers overtake the loudspeaker with “Shout”. And then…
My wife still has not recovered from the power of the video below. She has shown it to me at least twenty times, and she continues to pass the link around. T-Mobile recently produced a commercial driven by the theme: “Life’s for Sharing.” 10,000 people auditioned to make the cut. The plan? 400 dancers dressed as commuters would descend on Liverpool Street Station from various directions. At the appointed time, music would overtake the subway station’s system, and the choreographed dance would commence. I watched the “making of” video, also below, and marveled as the director Michael Gracey shared his thoughts. The commercial’s success, he explains, revolves around the energy of the dancers heartening other subway travelers to take part. He shouts during an audition, “You’re so caught up in the dance that you’re not saying to someone, ‘Come on! Join in!’” That’s it, Jesus’ heart-cry behind his coming, Come on! Join in!
I loved two more aspects of the “making of” video. First from the span of 3:45 to 4:06, you see the directors watching the event unfold on small screens, the fruit of their sweat equity before them. They cheer, slap hands, and laugh as they watch bystanders join the likes of the Mashed Potato. Their delight is a snapshot of heaven now, in celebration over onlookers becoming partakers. And then there’s the response of the folks that tasted a crumb of the Kingdom. Here are two responses:
“I was in a bad mood when I came here. I’m in a good one now.”
“I felt a moment of love. It was connective, like, for five minutes there everyone was relaxed. It was nice.”
Jesus says in Matthew 10:7 (The Message), “Tell them that the Kingdom is here.” An invitation to participate.
Be sure to click HQ for higher quality video
Have you seen The Last of the Mohcians? The movie opens with three Native American men racing through the Appalachian Mountain woods hunting down an elk. The chase lasts a few minutes as the warriors jump over logs, splash through streams, and dodge limbs. They each move separately, yet their actions flow together in unified pursuit. I’ve seen this scene used as a portrayal of the Trinity. Three separate entities living and working together as one for a definite purpose. While I’ve also read objections to that representation, I find value in the idea of illustrating the Trinity working simultaneously and jointly toward an end.
God moves in concert to glorify himself. And Scripture speaks of God going about glorifying himself by filling us with the life of Jesus. From the perspective of looking at the entire history of God as story, which may not be the best word usage since “history” begets a beginning and an end, the “About the Author” page of the book really would read, “See entire story”. In theological discussion, that point seems so scholarly and detached, but to live in such a reality causes us to ask some hard questions about God. It also changes the way I pray.
I laid quietly in the early morning hours before my wife got up. Rather than turning over and forcing my way back to sleep, I decided to attempt something harder: prayer, specifically for my two unborn girls. Lord, I want to surrender these two precious lives before You. I pray over their footsteps, over the decisions they’ll make, over the people they’ll become. May they choose You at an early age. Most of all, Lord, I long for their lives to glorify You.
Pause. Do I really mean that last “most of all” part, that their lives would glorify God in the greatest possible way?
I know what that looks like for me. (Since neither have been named yet and I refuse to identify them like my brother-in-law, Hans and Franz, I’ll simply call them Ashley and Samantha) God’s answer to my prayer would start with Ashley asking Christ into her heart after dinner one night in her fifth year of life. She’d have listened to Shannon and I talk about how important her heart is to God, grasping of course this concept at such a young age because of being loved so well by her earthly father. She would immediately begin reading her (yes, a fluent reader) Jesus Storybook Bible and memorizing certain passages so that she could help Dad who forgets so easily. Her understanding of godly love and sacrifice would deepen as she matured in loving her sister and practiced similar patience with her stumbling parents. Middle school would be rough, but the opportunity to trust God through it would be more attractive than a paved path. By high school, she would have a strong grounding in her identity in Christ, wear a purity ring, and serve as president of FCA, simply a precursor before taking that position with Campus Crusade for Christ in college (at the University of Tennessee, of course) (or Harvard on full scholarship). After graduation, her commitment to missions would urge her to put off seminary for a couple years while she follows in Mother Theresa’s steps in the slums of Calcutta. Her very presence when she walked into a room would evoke an Edenic yearning for beauty and invite tenderness.
Surely that story would glorify God most. Right? Would my prayer remain if the answer is no?
What if Samantha’s hatred for God, something we all share, becomes visible at an early age and He allows tragedies to sneak in, giving her further ammunition against Him. Perhaps she grows like any normal child before being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Her days are spent sitting in a hospital bed in Nashville peering out the window at her sister playing on the jungle gym with other healthy, happy kids. Her heart begins to give God a chance when the doctor comes in three years later to announce a cure, which does in fact work. After spending a year at home recovering, her bitterness softens and we glimpse a glorious spirit still breathing in her soul. But into her freshmen year of high school, a youth leader surreptitiously rapes her without anyone knowing and the secret becomes buried. The messages she receives about love and identity become sadly tarnished with shame and her concept of beauty corrodes seemingly beyond repair. Her final years of high school are lived apathetically until she leaves for college where she quickly drops out without my knowing and supports herself through prostitution. Her life wastes away for five years before she finally follows the Prodigal’s pathway home. Her passion for God ignites, and she immediately throws her energy into writing and running a ministry serving recovering prostitutes. Her book becomes a New York Times bestseller and the next week she finds herself back in the hospital due to irreparable damage in her body. And then she dies at the age of twenty-eight, praising God for his goodness and marveling at how He’s used her brokenness to open the seared and thirsty souls of thousands of orphaned and abandoned girls.
I recall the Hosea narrative. I trust that God wrote the steps of Gomer as well as Hosea through a mysterious weaving of free will and sovereignty. The popularity of Francine River’s rendition attests for the power of such a soiled and redeeming chronicle. The pattern of God rescuing us from whoredom for His glory runs at the foundation of every believer’s testimony. As I lay awake praying over my girls, I come to grips with the truth that God could use their lives as a modern-day prophetic account that parallels Hosea’s book all too intimately.
Dare I pray?
Encore: A piece of music played at the end of a recital responding to the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to the performance, shown by continuous applause
Clang! The bench press rack rattled behind me. The eight televisions spread across the ceiling line flashed their different features. The exercise bikes, stair-steppers, and treadmills whirred about counting burned calories. Thankfully the space lacked the stench of locker room sweat that so often permeates a weight room. I’d arrived for forty-five minutes in between work and an “Exploring Your Story group” I co-facilitate. I beat my competitors to the elliptical machine and looked to my iPod for something to distract me from the burn of exercise. When it comes to working out, I dread the entrance and love the exit. As I circled through the listening choices, fear of the evening ahead unconsciously burdened me.
Scrolling through my listening choices, I debated between listening to a Larry Crabb audio book, a Dan Allender conference series, and Scripture. Both Larry and Dan are counselors I highly esteem, and I thought listening to them might fill me with some much needed tips prior to listening to someone’s story. The more I thought about it, the less it seemed logical. To really depend on that line of thinking might shift me into insanity. I could overstress to no end by attempting to provide myself with the right perspectives and responses. What if someone told their story with self-pity? How would Larry approach that? What if it’s clear someone has repressed anger into depression? Would Dan use this response or that one? And how do I know which chapter to listen to in Crabb? Perhaps the situation tonight will require a technique he illustrates in chapter 4. But what if I listen to that one, and I really needed something from chapter 9? If I can just memorize the right approach, I can avoid all sense of inadequacy.
Such big decisions in five seconds. By this point I had finished stretching and moved onto the elliptical to commence the dreaded twenty-five minutes of strain. Bypassing the audio books, I selected a soundtrack, Legends of the Fall. If you haven’t seen it, the movie follows the lives of three brothers in Montana in the early 1900s as they wrestle with fate and each other through war, love, and loss. The story weaves beauty and tragedy and betrayal and adventure in heartrending fashion. It is a memorable tale, if not also a desirable one. The story laces through the soundtrack with grandeur. The coalesced noise of the numerous workout machines compelled me to increase the volume. As I did, the symphony washed over me with such richness that my heart entered a bigger story.
There is a rhythm to life. Prior to the soundtrack, I was ready to manage the night with a clinical approach. Listening to techniques readied me like reading a book about white water rafting just before jumping in the Snake River. Tristan would have none of that. The night would not be about managing or controlling, but about entering into mystery and chaos while trusting that the Author still holds the pen. And that He’s written into my heart. There is a place for studying and theorizing, but to remain there leaves me a chess player rather than a bard.
Intellect, no matter how truthful, cannot fully prepare us to enter into God’s authoring in someone’s story. Only when we join the flow of a larger narrative can we keep up in the river of a life. Truth is the foundation of the rhythm, but not the current or the stream. Or perhaps I’ve boxed truth to take only the form of dogmatic doctrine and it really has more forms.
A study of doctrine will tell you that God created the world and proclaimed it “good”. The text mentions the word so many times that I lose its connotation, not to mention that we’ve diluted the word ever since. Things go south pretty quickly, if not literally, rhythmically. The fall ushers in the epitome of tragedy. And then God writes deliverance through what seems like plan B, but trusting His sovereignty, was always A. And now we wait for the final re-creation, when, to quote Lewis, “The door on which we’ve been knocking all our lives will open at last”.
Beauty. Tragedy. Fight. Restoration.
As I walked into group that night, I fought off the urge to diagnose and analyze. I stayed in the unwieldy river, though the banks looked safer and far more convenient. Rather, I yearned to foretaste the redemption and restoration God is writing now. Legends of the Fall played in the back of my mind as we began. But the more I sat and listened as a woman tearfully shared, the more her story crescendoed. A new thought arose.
Our lives are stories, severely severed from the interaction with God we once enjoyed in Eden, but stories apart of the meta-narrative nonetheless. If we have the courage to listen, really know one another and listen, perhaps each life plays a similar soundtrack. And the more we embrace our stories of dignity and shame, the louder that music will play. It will assemble as we tell our stories honestly, and the sound will elicit a groaning for the final Encore far better than Legends of the Fall.
Have you ever realized that the more familiar you become with something, the easier it is to take it for granted? Take your driving route to work. You pass by the same things, morning and afternoon, day after day. Sooner or later, buildings, street signs, and other road markers almost fade into oblivion. Too the extent that if you were to bring along a foreigner, they could point something out to you that you look at everyday, and you might actually see it for the first time. It’s as if you’ve seen it so much, that you don’t see it anymore.
I recently shared a story with some of my colleagues that brought it to the forefront of my mind. It’s an Academy Award nominated short film I’d seen a few years back. That was and wasn’t the first time I’d seen the story. I’d actually been hearing it since I was a toddler, just with different characters. Growing up in the community I did, the story was relayed in countless ways: foam sticker boards, smelly barn reenactments, cinema screens, and bed time tales. Heck, mentions of it even follow me to football games thanks to the banner-man in each end zone with his great big neon signs reading: JOHN 3:16.
Still, I realize that we can hear something so many times that we don’t hear it anymore, to quote Lloyd Shadrach. The truth I’m most in danger of overlooking is the truth in Scripture I’m exposed to the most. And the truth of that truth is that we’re lulled to spiritual sleep by our own familiarity with truth. That’s extremely terrifying.
All this leads me to pass along this movie. If you’re like me, you’ve heard John 3:16 so many times that your three year old could accidentally rip it out of your Bible, and you still wouldn’t miss a beat reading through John’s account of Jesus and Nicodemus. But there’s a reason John 3:16 has become the core of so many evangelistic pamphlets. It captures so much of God’s heart for a dying world, reminding us God’s offer is life to the fullest through shed blood. Problem is we’ve lost our eyes to see and our ears to hear because we “know” it so well. Viewing Most may invite you to see, really see, God’s heart for you in a new light. Check out Most:
The posh seats satisfied one-fifth of my senses, but that comfort didn’t make up for the disastrous clamor attacking my ears. Clamor would be an understatement. I sat 100 feet from a rehearsing symphony, except, they weren’t officially practicing yet. Thirty minutes would pass before that would commence. Instead, each individual member entered the stage to prepare his or her own instrument, all simultaneously. In addition to this, our group’s docent was attempting to inform us about the symphony hall. She could scarcely be heard over the instruments. The collection of noise was almost more than I could take.
Boredom etched its way into my mind. Daydreaming began. For some reason or other, I thought about God. More like wrestled. Someone had recently told me that pain exposes our theology. Questions surfaced. I believe God is sovereign and good. I believe He is the Author of this grand chronicle we all live in. I believe He is present in all the situations which cannot be remembered without weeping. But how does all the daily pain and hurt fit into a coherent story that will one day glorify Him? How does He look on as a child is molested or as a subway terminal full of commuters is obliterated and plan that all of it will one day glorify good? It is maddening.
Amidst my daydreaming, the conductor walked across the stage, shook a few performers’ hands, stepped up to the podium and raised his arms. Everyone’s attention narrowed on him. He willed his arms into motions I could not understand. And then…music. Not noise, but harmony. Magnificence. Beauty. A painting for the ears. The previous disordered noise could hardly be remembered. All the individual practicing once painful to my ears now had purpose. The culmination of it all created something so beautiful that only listening can describe. Only then, when all was blissful, did I understand why the conductor required the chaos before his entrance. Only then.
Peter became one of my favorite apostles this afternoon. Today I experienced the gospel by failing to share it.
My wife and I spent time photographing mountains in Grand Teton National Park. Nearby another man was also taking pictures. As is custom in front of something so memorable, we asked him to take our picture, which is actually quite a scary thing for my wife. Entrusting her camera over to foreign hands is dangerous. He snapped a great shot of us, shared small talk with us, and then went on his way. As I went back to the driver’s side of our vehicle, my peripheral vision caught site of the man coming around the backside of the car. I knew what was coming, for I had seen the hat he was wearing. “Have you ever heard of this book?” He extended his religious book to me. I told him I had. “As a welcoming present from the West, I want to give this to you.” “Thank you,” I said, and smiled.
I could almost hear a rooster crowing. “Thank you.” I couldn’t believe I said that. I wasn’t thankful; I was passive. Like Adam in the Garden, rather than offering who I am to the situation, I held back. I did not let the Holy Spirit speak through me.
Struggling with incredible guilt and shame minutes and hours later, something occurred to me. For the rest of my life, someone could approach me in like manner, and I could be silent, choosing not to share Christ in me, and I would still be covered by grace. If we have been set free, then we are free. In the aftermath of the situation, I tried to work out a system of redemption by deciding to write the man a letter, sharing what I would have spoken. Except that writing a letter was more about trying to make up for my sin than loving the man with truth. I was stuck. No amount of effort could pick up the pieces of my silence.
The only place to go was to the Cross. Grace is a difficult concept for me, but this time I saw clearly that it was my only hope. And thus, I experienced the gospel by failing to share it. I hope to develop more like Peter did, passive at first, and then bold enough to be crucified upside down later. Yet, hoping to become like Peter could easily become a means of making up for my sin. It cannot. Blood must be shed. And it was not my own. And I want to rest there.
Jesus. What images form in your head at the mention of his name? I was reading in John this morning, attempting to send my heart into Easter mode. I confess it doesn’t always get there. I wanted to enter into the defeat of what it must have been like to see Jesus slaughtered and buried. I came away in awe, not about the loss of hope, but instead about the man Jesus was. I don’t mean man as in God in human form, but the kind of man that would be bragged about sitting around a campfire or in a locker room. Stud. Warrior. Hero.
In chapter 18, John describes in detail the arrest in the garden.
Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” (John 18:4, ESV, italics mine)
I love those italicized words. Jesus is in complete control. He knows not only what’s going on, but is wholly intent on entering into the pain and chaos. He even initiates it all. “Whom do you seek?” I can only imagine the weakness in Judas’ voice as he replied. Upon Jesus’ answer, the Pharisees and soldiers collapse. Again Jesus speaks. “Whom do you seek?…I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” Within hours of death, Jesus offers no attempt to protect himself, only those behind him.
Compare this example to the first man in another garden. When the Enemy slithers in, Adam doesn’t know what’s going on. He is not in control. He is there, but without a hoe or shovel in hand. He makes no move to act or speak. He is silent. He is weak. He does not protect Eve, but lets her take the fall. He is the definition of self-protection. He shows no strength, and the chaos overwhelms him.
Now my heart is ready to celebrate. Adam is not the defining sculpt of a man. I meet, see, and am Adam everyday. My heart longs for Jesus. Oh to be in the care of such a King. Adam is ruled by chaos. Jesus rules over the chaos. Thank God. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Life is available because of a man, a stud, a warrior, a hero.
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22, ESV)
Knowing the cook can be an even greater pleasure than enjoying his food. -Larry Crabb, Finding God
Regardless of a person’s circumstances and physical well-being, this statement applies. Of course there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the food. But knowing and tasting God is the point. How quickly I forget. For the most part, God exists and becomes a help in solving problems. A resource to notify when pain needs to be taken away. Much like a doctor who prescribes medication.
Listen to your prayers throughout the day. Are they centered on “God, this situation is hard, help me clear it up and get through it,” or “God, I don’t know what to do and the pain is real. Help me to trust that you are good regardless of what the outcome is”? When in pain or struggle, I tend to approach someone older and wiser in an attempt to have my pain cured or problem solved. Just get me through this and stop the hurt. How many counselors make their living off situations like these?
We all desire Life. Jesus promises it (John 10:10). It just doesn’t happen the way we want it to. My God, how maddening. The chaos of life threatens our homes built on the sand. How sweet of a resting place it would be to experience the following story:
You and I walk into a 5-star restaurant. Before we can give the host our name and table preference, she welcomes us by name, tells us the chef has already notified her of our arrival, and she brings us to our seats. The menu given to us is personally tailored to each of our tastes. As we look over the choices, our mouths salivating and our stomachs growling, we suddenly realize the food is not why the restaurant was built. Setting the menus down, and skipping the wine, we head towards the kitchen, this time it’s our hearts that ache. Before we even reach the doors, they swing open and the cook is running our way.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! -Psalm 34:8