Saturday, March 30, 2013

the most beautiful butchering

If I'm honest, I've always liked Christmas better than Easter. Christmas made me feel good. Easter made me feel bad. Because before Easter always had to come Good Friday, when my family would watch the Jesus movie. For all its happy happy beginnings, the story comes to such a horrible climax as they beat, mock, and kill the Christ. What made it all the worse was that I knew he was enduring all this because of the bad things I had done. I couldn't blithely detach myself from the horrors of the crucifixion, because I knew it should have been me up there. It was suffering that directly involved me. I was filled, perplexingly, with both indignation and guilt, revulsion and pity. The unpleasantness of this solemn day never really lost its bitter taste, even on the flower-and-candy-filled Sunday.

This Good Friday, the Lord brought Friday's pain and Sunday's joy together for me, as they centered in himself. I was reading Psalm 18, which like many Old Testament passages seemed to come in some mysterious way from the mouth of the Christ. I came to this:

"The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight." Psalm 18:20-24 ESV

This is what the righteous Galilean had more right than David to say. And yet by the will of God it was turned into solemn irony: the Lord dealt with me according to his righteousness. And according to the dirtiness of my hands He rewarded him. Contemplating the cross, that horrid spectacle, that pinnacle of all that is unjust, gruesome, and ugly, I began to see no sulking victim of my sin, but an Agent--not just wounds, but power. The dying Lamb was not looking out on those for whom he died and saying, "Look what I've had to go through for you. You'd better feel bad," which, I guess, is sort of what I've usually felt on Good Friday. He was looking to his Father and pleading for our redemption. His sacrifice was no pity play. He didn't do it to impress us. We could never be impressed enough to make it worth it. He did it to save us.

This event that really ought to have compounded our guilt--our sin killed God in the flesh--is precisely what absolved it. Someone who could accomplish that, who could turn things so on their head, whose joy could not be quenched by death, whose love triumphed--this was someone glorious. Instead of fear, shame, and guilt at the embarrassing spectacle of Calvary, I knew the love of Jesus for me, in all its bloody tragedy. A love outside of myself, the love of someone real. The strongest, most humbling and terrifying love, sweeping me out of my self-centeredness and up into new life beyond guilt.

At the cross we do see ourselves, how bad our sin is. Let us contemplate the wickedness of sin, that it prompts such fearsome fury from our holy God. But let us remember that the point of Good Friday, even in its convicting capacity, is not to turn our eyes upon ourselves, but toward that just and holy God whose wrath is so terrible. I was prepared, uneasily, for my familiar narcissistic guilt this Good Friday--feeling bad to have imposed on Christ with the inconvenience of my mistakes. But now, as I saw Jesus in Scripture, I was tasting real, heart-broken, adoring grief. Because the point isn't us; it's God. It was his love and his holiness, not my guilt, that ultimately drove him to this extremity. He could have punished us, and we would have known how bad our sin was. But instead, in one terrible moment, he showed us both our badness and his greatness. In doing so he did not downplay the horribleness of my sin; he engulfed it in his majesty.

That the violent death of the Founder is at the center of our faith has sometimes unnerved me. Nothing can be carefree in a religion like this. All our joy is built on pain.

I guess, yesterday I saw that even deeper into the mystery of things than the pain is love--Love Himself. I had not realized that this is what love looked like. That it was quite this potent.

What a beautiful, beautiful Savior. Strong in his meekness. Unfathomable in his glories and sufferings--oh, the mystery of the Cross! Blessed, wounded head. How deep and heart-breaking his sorrows! How deep and heart-remaking his love! I shut my mouth. I contemplate my unworthiness, and then I forget myself to marvel--as we will marvel forever--at Him: he in whom love and pain are so mingled.

Saturday, March 2, 2013


When one is under divine tutelage, matter conspires.

To be a Christian is to be a tadpole, a creature undergoing constant metamorphosis. For me, this state of perpetual motion can be dizzying. The sheer motion of my surroundings sometimes leaves me exhausted. However, it is also energizing to be learning so much about sin and grace and goodness and temptation and love and resurrection and all that sort of thing, and I here recount one recently discernible development in my spiritual tadpole timeline.
      A peek into my spirit in late January or thereabouts would have revealed mainly fear. My weekly tutoring sessions terrified me. My neighborhood terrified me. The things I read in school terrified me. The future--and more keenly, the past--terrified me. Evil terrified me; goodness terrified me. Sin terrified me, and the terrible tongs of sanctification terrified me. I terrified myself. Of what were these fears concocted? Lies. Lies about God, and the world, and where joy comes from, and what really hurts. I'd fallen asleep on guard duty, and all sorts of false ways of thinking had slipped in unchallenged. Hence, I feared what was good for me (obedience to God, sacrifice, hard work) and craved what hurt me (avoidance of God's will, selfishness, wimpiness). I was convinced that these smokescreens of comfort were what I wanted, yet I was far from satisfied.
      Clearly this is a lifelong fight, but I'm hopeful that I've gained a few inches of battleground. It hit me like it hit the Prodigal Son: Here I am, miserable in a state of grasping paralysis, unwilling to let fall my shreds of safety into my Father's hands, while those who risk it all for him are happy amidst poverty and abnormality and adventure. What fruit am I getting from this stony reserve? Only death.
      There was another way, one marked Obedience. Instead of running from the cross-cultural friendship and ministry opportunity that is my weekly tutoring gig, I could submit myself to God's leading and embrace it. Instead of avoiding my siblings' demands on my attention, I could look them in the eye and not miss what God was sending me. Instead of whining and wimpiness, there could be hard work and real fruit and solid sleep. Instead of a constant gnawing in my insides that I tried to sate with coolness and beauty and people and books and other creatures, I could be full of the love of the matchless One.
     Thus presented to me by the Spirit of God--through reflection, and books like the ones on Islam and Christianity that a dear friend lent me, and J.I. Packer's panegyric to the Puritans called A Quest for Godliness, and a talk on Bonhoeffer and faithful obedience and courage and America and the future from Eric Metaxas, and a sermon on remaining faithful through tribulation from John Piper, and probably other things--the way that had looked like a doorway to prison was unmasked to be the tunnel out of prison. The thing with this scary full surrender to God is, you can either fear doing things, and so not do them, or you can do things, and so come not to fear them.

     "I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly," said the man who came to tell us what God gave him to say--the One who also said, "I am the life." The one who gave himself.
      We have Him. It's a truth so heavy and happy it's hard to get my hands around it. But my perspective on the work God was giving me to do, from school to evangelism to sisterhood, changed. I embraced the burden and the unknown, and fear gave way to sweetness.
      The other day in the untethered train of thought that comes while performing menial tasks, I pondered this solid peace of mind of mine. Is this what it is like, O God? Being yours? This rest, this Peace of God, this absence of fear, this presence of joy? Almost too good to be true. And of course this feeling is not constant, though the reality is. As my faith, my practice of setting my feet down to walk on the truth God has revealed, grows sturdy enough to weather these little squalls, my Teacher sends heavier rains to deepen it even more. As C.S. Lewis says, once we've mastered the current lesson and have come to rather enjoy it, it's time to move onto something harder, something again unfamiliar and unwelcome.
      But what can stick with me is this evidence that the one setting me the lessons knows what He's doing. His lesson plans are to prosper me and not to harm me. Next time I'm out of my depth, I pray I'll trust him sooner. He's good. How long will it take me to learn this?