tangible brokenness

You don’t want to see it.

Trust me on this one.

The gruesome image of my husband’s ankle split wide apart—bone exposed—taken by an audacious ER nurse who couldn’t believe his eyes is unsettling at best.

The incongruity can only be fully understood by knowing that my husband is a natural athlete. He throws a football 65 yards in the air from one knee, launches a golf ball 350 yards. Grown men just stand quietly and gawk.

The night he came down on another guy’s foot while playing volleyball, however, ended with a break, a gaping wound. It was hard to absorb, comprehend. Everything I knew of this strong, brave, powerful man was dramatically altered in that moment on the gym floor with a bone exposed. 

Again grown men stood silent and gawking.

This is not how life is supposed to go. This goes against the very design.

When JP talked last week in the ongoing series about the life of Jesus, he worked through Luke 7 when Jesus healed the centurion’s son and later brought the widow’s son back to life. 

He talked about death. It is a part of all our lives. Inescapable.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Romans 6:23. 

Ultimately the result of our rebellion against a good God, death is the final wage paid for our own disobedience.

So JP poses that question, why is death the consequence? Why is it the wages of sin?

He explains that God reveals what our lives would look like apart from Him. Feeble minds grasp, strain to comprehend the gravity of life away from Yaweh.

God gave us life. We were made to live and yet we chose death.

God literally is life so when we choose to go away from Him, we are choosing separation, a broken relationship that is the equivalent of death.

Our choice of sin over God is a turning of our backs on life. 

This is a fracture. This is a tangible brokenness—like a bone protruding. It is a no-doubt-kind of broken thing.

When sickness, brokenness, death enter in, there is a suffocating desperation for it is the literal cutting off from the source of life. It goes against the very design.

JP goes on talking about death and funerals and this reality we all will face. 

My own family is fresh off a funeral—that of my sweet father-in-law. We are still processing what life is like on the other side of that. Do you actually move past death? It is a raw and ugly learning of what death does to life. It shakes all those left living right down to the core. The closer you were to that one now dead, the more altered your ongoing life now is.

The ripple effects of that life lost rock all that is your world. 

So it had to have been for that widow in Nain. Her only a son, a young man that must have borne an abnormally larger weight without a father at home to help ease the burden of caring, supporting, providing. Her affections, her lifeline were severed with his loss. Already reeling from a husband lost, now this. 

This is not how life is supposed to go. This goes agains the very design.

The wages of sin is death because it is the ultimate separation from life and it is only grace that lets us see and grasp this.

We see that bone coming out through skin and know that this is not how things should be. Pain and suffering remind us we were not made for this.

We see a the body of our loved one in a coffin and know that this is not how things should be. Death is separating us from love, from life.

We see a mother with no prospects for life as her son is carried out for burial and know that this is not how things should be. 

A broken, fractured and sinful world lets us see fully the absence of communion, see the horror of sin and separation. 

That mother’s hurt must have been enormous, desperation palpable.

Only in these moments of magnificent deficit can we begin to understand the beauty of rescue.

The beauty of His life set against the barren backdrop of death is what reveals the glory of God.

We see best in the darkest moments by the light of His life.

The King of all creation gazed upon death, upon that mother and had compassion. 

Jesus saw her and her need. She saw the wages of sin. 

He could see her through the crowd and while grief consumed, he pursued her.

The wailing crowd encompassed this mother and her son laid out on a platform.

The bier held his body as he was carried outside of the city to his eventual burial spot. According to Jewish law, touching a dead body would make a person unclean—in fact it was considered a pollution of sorts. 

Death pollutes. It defiles the living. Impurity is imputed when the living is touched by death.

For a person to touch death meant a cleansing ritual was imperative if one was to rejoin the living, to go again to worship.

Jesus saw the depth of her ache and despair and the overwhelming death that isolated her and He walked right into it.

He offered comfort with words and then Life touched death. He reached into impurity, uncleanness, defilement, and brought back life.

“Young man, I say to you arise.”

Suddenly and without doubt, the contrast of separation from God and the reality of His presence brought fear and then worship.

Jesus would one day again walk right into death. 

He would willingly take it on and again triumph.

The disciples minds must have run wild, not unlike mine trying to find a way to get help for my broken husband, not unlike that widow wondering wildly what now? Their world was shaken.

This is not how life is supposed to go. This goes against the very design.

The giver of all life hanging on a a cross allowing death to rule was the turning point. 

That moment of surrender inevitably alters all that comes after. Life itself could not be ultimately overcome. 

The glory of God is revealed in that barren backdrop when Life fully conquers death and a tomb is left empty and we are no longer left alone and separated.

The wages are paid.

When they are paid we find that  

  • the rebellion that leads to death has been permanently staved.
  • the broken body, wide open and exposed is healed and covered.
  • the ripple effects of a life line severed are stilled despite the storm.
  • the ritually unclean is made permanently pure.

When we have looked the desperation fully in the face and recognized its depths, we can begin to comprehend the heights. 

It is grace that shows us that nothing else will satisfy, not for a moment, not for eternity.

It is grace calling us again, stripping away sin so that we are not deceived and so that we too will rise again.

This is how it is supposed to go. This is the very design and it is something you will want to see.

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Fresh cut

Three days before my father-in-law died, I visited a local florist seeking some cheer, for me, for all of us.

Stepping through oddly placed, automatic, glass sliding doors that had been an afterthought on an old house felt like stepping into open jaws ready to consume.

Willing to be eaten, I entered to find promises too high for their deflated follow through.

I waited alone and stared hard at outdated, patterned carpet and paneled walls for what seemed like far longer than needed.

The sweet smell of fresh cut flowers that first greeted me quickly turned sour, like an overly powerful perfume that makes the stomach turn. 

My mind bounced around trying to imagine the suffering he was experiencing in stage four pancreatic cancer and all of its quickly accumulating complications. 

Tomorrow would be he and his bride’s 58 year anniversary of “going steady.” A bold 17-year-old had persuaded this girl that going steady only made sense. After 53 years of marriage, two kids and eight grandchildren, his point had only been made over in a million little ways. Together they made sense.

The garish insides of this florist shop did not.

Outdated, undersized, overpriced teddy bears lined the shelves and weird displays betrayed the intent of the place. 

The initial sights and smells intended to invite celebration were really only a covering of the truth. 

That constant, droning of the large refrigerated displays were like the sound from the waking side of a dream that pulled you back to reality. Loud and annoying it was like they were giving away the end game: Everything you are looking at is already dead, we are just here trying to give the appearance of life.

I tried to push it away that sad day as I held out hope that he would make it to tomorrow to celebrate again with his bride, a milestone in relationship, a joyful moment in the slow march of coming sorrow and separation.

It is true for him. It is true for us all.

From the moment we are born, we are dying and all of the rest of this is an attempt to keep it at bay, to stay alive for one more moment of celebration, to make these lives worthwhile.

Not unlike the fresh cut flower, we are beautiful and fragrant that moment of birth, visibly bursting with life.

Yet like the flower on the vine, once we are cut away, the death and decay are in full pursuit.

Those refrigerators remind that their work is to keep beautiful its already dead inhabitants. 

Once cut, we give them water, oxygen and preservers but after a short time, that sweet smell begins to unintentionally reveal the stench it hoped to cover.

A hospital bed rolled into a living room is an intrusion into our lives we think. It is delivered and assembled awkwardly, trying to find a way to fit it with the decor and the life it is interrupting. 

Rolling it in only rolls back our covering and reveals the truth of life, we are all going to meet this moment. This intrusion is part of life for all of us as much as choosing that living room decor. 

The sound of an oxygen machine has the same awful mechanical rhythm of those refrigerators holding dead flowers. 

Without intervention, when life begins to ebb, there is only a thin thread holding us tied to life but not life eternal. We claw and strain and hold fast to the mechanical hum of machines. The oxygen is pumped from its tank to refresh a body succumbing. 

The sweet turns sour.

The pleasures turn painful.

Sin stains and sets back.

We hold tighter though all the while what we need is release, relief from this sinful, fading body of death.

We need resurrection, new life, a life line without the artificial tying us down.

There is but One.

When my father-in-law talks candidly about his own approaching death he tells me he knows that this is God’s will. He tells me that he is okay with it because though he doesn’t understand it, he knows that there is One who does. 

I sigh deeply, grateful in the acknowledgement.

The One who knows is the One whose own body was destroyed. 

It was a life yielded up to God’s will.

The flesh was destroyed, blood lost. He was fresh cut, but those fresh cuts ended with flesh restored through the very instrument of death.

Jesus became our lifeline in the end for His

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end was resurrection.

That One body was life restored, renewed, complete. 

The fragrance raised there was that of eternal life.

A few hours before his breath gave way and the pain and struggle subsided, he told me he was hoping it would be the night that Jesus would come to take him. 

So instead of holding fast to fading hope, labored breath, we are held fast by renewal and grace and an empty grave. 

who is to blame?

“For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, CHRIST DIED FOR US. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whole we have now received reconciliation.”
Romans 5:6-11
When my mother called to tell me a jumbled story through tears that my brother was dead, I was driving our minivan with my family on a hot August afternoon. 
It was the minivan I was reluctant to get in the first place, the same one that this same brother had told me was cool, that he liked it. That had made it easier for me to drive.
The back was full of my four kids eager to go see a movie. My husband in the passenger seat immediately knew that this normal Saturday was no longer that.
He pointed, as I talked loud and out of control, for me to pull over.
Nearly 11 years later I can’t drive past that spot without recalling the moment.
He got in the driver’s seat and I reeled as I processed what she’d told me.
I told him through irrational cries and screams that Jed had been killed in a wreck.
The rest of the way home left my children disappointed and confused in what was the closest I have come to an out-of-body experience.
Nothing made sense.
I screamed and cried and flailed my arms, scaring everyone in the van I’m sure.
I remember thinking what is wrong with me? Why am I out of control like this? This isn’t even how I cry.
It was unfair, illogical and I could barely understand how it was late in the afternoon and my mom heard from a brother three states away before we knew just down the road that my brother had died in the wee hours of that same morning.
My brother was dead.
All I could think now was that I had to get to my mom and dad. Someone could make this make sense but it was not me.
We would later all slowly assemble the pieces from people there.
A late night with buddies, outside of a bar, resulted in a joy ride in an empty parking lot in a God-forsaken Jeep.
The suspected high and intoxicated driver would walk away barely scratched asking the other passenger from the back seat to lie with him and blame the dying man for the wreck.
When the awful realization hit the driver that not only had he wrecked his car, but that one of his friends would not get up, fear and overwhelming guilt must have wracked his body and mind.
Let’s blame the guy that is dying. The frantic need for escape from consequences, from instant guilt. It was only fitting. He had to hide, to find a cover for this awful mess leading to death.
Suddenly like the Adam of old, in a garden far away, a finger pointed to someone else.
We have all been there.
That moment before sin is extraordinarily tasty and desirable—the excitement, the rush. Letting go of inhibitions for that wild moment of self-gratification. 
We don’t want to admit it, but it’s so pleasurable we go back again and again.
Let’s feel the air as we go little faster and take this speed bump.
Taste this juicy, dripping, ripe fruit with me.
Just one more shot.
Send that message to someone that doesn’t belong to you.
Tell that story that was to remain untold.
Watch those images of uncovered people, filling the mind with sin again.
The moment is so delectable.
That instant after, however, is unnerving like nothing else.
Pain, despair, guilt and fear is like hitting the pavement hard. 
When I let grieving subside for the moment and I want to point and blame I think of this modern day Adam and what he has done to my brother. He was seeking a story that would cover him and free of him of shame and certain death.
Adam of old pointed to Eve who pointed to a serpent cunningly wrapped around a tree.
That serpent began it all by pointing to, questioning God. 
A serpent on a tree blamed the Creator. 
The same Creator who would go on a tree and take the blame.
In sadness and desire to find peace, I want someone to blame. I point to Adam and guilt and sin and realize suddenly that I too am a guilty woman looking for covering and pointing to a dying man. 
When I am looking for someone to blame, I am just trying to cover my own shame.
I want hurt to subside, the kind caused by others, the kind caused by me.
I think of pieces of gravel from the hard ground in a lonely parking lot where lies are told.
It calls to mind a body torn by shards of gravel, rock glass embedded in a whip. A body that was beaten bare. It was the body of the only, truly innocent One and I was there pointing and blaming Him.
When my heart strays so far away and I think thoughts I shouldn’t think, I watch things I shouldn’t watch, I say things I shouldn’t say and do things I shouldn’t do, deep down I am aching in the aftermath for covering. 
So I point.
I make up stories.
I blame. 
I blame Him. 
The only one who doesn’t deserve the rotten end of a made up story still takes it.
He died on the tree for me while I was still a sinner.
He hung there struggling to breathe in a body He created using final breaths to say I forgive You.
As we approach Easter and I go back in my mind over JP’s sermons approaching the cross, I once again see this is all there is.
This is where forgiveness is given and received.
This is where we are exposed and at the same time covered.
This is where blame is given and taken. 
This is where death is swallowed up in victory.
Three guys in a Jeep and Jed was the only one who knew Jesus and the only one who would not survive. 
Someone finally made this make sense.
And yet, Jed did survive. He survived because his own guilt and shame were covered by the One who truly took the blame. 
Jesus took it and when He died, it died with Him. 
And because He rose again, we will also rise.

Bringing the far near

Grover from Sesame Street made me laugh out loud when he explained the difference between near and far.

There was a skit where he would stand close to the camera and tell the kids “this is near” and then run, huffing and puffing, far away, until he looked small and yell from a place nearly off screen “this is far.”

This went on more comically each time as he would make the trip back and forth, out of breath, clarifying for watchers the difference between the two.

Life operates oddly within these realms. Sometimes things seem far away and like they cannot affect me, in the here and now, in the closeness of near.

Death is one of those things. It seems so far removed, a future reality that’s out there somewhere though not affecting this moment. Until it does.

And the nearness can be nearly suffocating.

Then a week like last week happens. A beautiful high school senior named Grace dies on a winding Georgia road, a faithful servant named Ralph quietly crosses over from the arms of his beautiful bride to the very presence of Jesus and children in a school are brutally assaulted in a place where they should only be safe.

The far comes near.

The outward, physical reality succumbs to every worst inward fear.

Life is swallowed by death and what we want near seems oh-so-far.

These are the times that it looks like grace is gone and we are alienated, strangers in a hostile world.

It is a world that is hard and unbending and unwilling to dwell on grace and truth.

Social media, regular media, have only magnified the underlying ruin of sin that erodes communities, society, the world at large.

When the now becomes engulfed in the nearness of hostility, of death, it is easy to feel crushed and defeated.

We fight back and defend and know that something is missing. There has to be a solution, answers.

The natural inclination is to fix it.

Let’s find the problem and eliminate it by changing some things. We have this power, we think.

There must be some blame for a crash—the road is too dangerous, the speed limit too high.

A doctor can run some more tests, find a new treatment, prescribe a new medicine.

There must be some kind of law to put in place that will stop people from shooting kids, shooting each other. Take away guns, work on mental health issues.

There has to be something we can change that will keep hostility, even death, at bay, far away.

Even in the solution-seeking, we cannot escape the hostility because everyone has an answer. Laws and arguments are convoluted at best.

Solution-seeking devolves to conflict and we seem to thrive on the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.

People pick sides and not one another. We are desperate and we know our way is the way and the result is heavy, sad and not what anyone really longs for.

At the very core, we want life.

It has eluded us since we chose to live apart from the Creator of all life.

So when JP talks more about Ephesians 2 and reads: “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” hope wells again within.

I only have one sermon my brother says. It is always only Jesus, he says.

Not long before the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, Mary anointed him with nard, or spikenard. It was an expensive oil used traditionally to prepare someone for burial.

At the time Jesus was very much alive in this world and the disciples were indignant over the waste of something so valuable and the death of their leader seemed only a distant, far off notion.

They protested and insisted it would’ve been better spent on the poor somewhere far, not near and now, on this lowly king.

Spikenard is made from a flowering plant that grows in places like Nepal and Kumaon in the Himalayas. To extract the oil, the underground stems are crushed and made into the powerful, aromatic oil. It is expensive.

This King made man was also crushed so we no longer have to be.

I realize that Mary was giving away more than oil of significant value in John 12. She was worshipping by pouring out, giving away what was costly to her. Could she have known that He would be crushed and the sacrifice would be the one pleasing aroma to God?

Then I think this is what is required to heal hurt, bring strangers near, to even conquer death.

We must follow Mary’s lead which is Jesus’ lead and pour ourselves out for one another.

It is a costly venture, but we have the single most valuable gift to share that will help prepare others for burial.

Grace is not gone.

There is life still and it comes only when we’ve poured out the one true gift, revealed it through love for others to see, to understand.

At the end of a week full of earthly death, I was grocery shopping. Nothing enticing, not a what I’d call a good time. But that particular Friday, there was no school and two of my boys went along.

On the frozen aisle of Walmart, my 7-year-old stopped me to say that he asked Jesus to save him that morning.

We’d been discussing this gift of eternal life for the last several days over The Chronicles of Narnia and the approach of Easter.

Holding my hand with a wide smile, he stared up at me.

My brother has it right.

There is the only one sermon worth preaching, every day and with all of our lives.

It is the one sermon that will bring the far near without fear, without worry.

It is the sermon that brings all of us who were far near to the cross.

It is the one sermon that will kill hostility for it crushed a King and it doesn’t end with a burial but with a resurrection and reconciliation.

learning how to die

“That’s the whole spiritual life, learning how to die.”

~Eugene Peterson

People say they want to die to self.

We, however, have an innate natural fear of death and dying to self is no easier a feat than regular death. Really death of any kind is something we all would like to avoid.

I’ve decided people don’t really know what they are really saying.

This, like any difficulty I know about or encounter, is something I choose to run from and not to.

A spiritual life by death is daunting and I’m fully aware that I am not capable. I have demonstrated that I always choose self. Even when I think I’m not, the motives are frightening.

However, I have children.

As it turns out, that it is an excellent method for learning to die.

Having kids is the single hardest thing I have ever done.

Giving birth on its own is like a death of sorts. The physical pain and exhaustion and opening of your body in a way never thought possible feels like you may be dying.

Literally ripped apart, the body is broken and gives up to another life.

The pain, the fear, the sheer exhaustion of birth may have actually been the easy part.

When a child reaches maturity and you consider all you have poured in and that nothing is how you thought it would be, this too is a kind of death. The death of a desire or a dream.

Let me just give birth every day to not have to see, to feel, to endure these kinds of things now.

When the freshman in college says he doesn’t believe any more what he has professed to believe all his life.

When they slide up next to you to tell you they love you only to follow up with the story of how they are in dire trouble for foolish actions or what they would like you to buy them.

When they invite you to lunch with a friend and you realize it’s only because they need you to foot the bill.

When the embarrassment of “mom” being nearby is enough to make them take two steps away, pretend they don’t know you.

When it’s mother’s day and they hem and haw and shuffle feet anxiously waiting until they are free to go.

When you hold fast and they only pull away.

Motherhood does not look like this—at least not in the movies, not on television, not next door, not on Instagram or Pinterest.

This is where it feels broken, given up, swept under, less than.

To be at the middle of life and have nothing to show, no achievement to point to. There is no stellar career. This is not a neat and orderly home. There is not a beacon of spiritual leadership here.

There is the dry ache of eyes that have no tears remaining. Dryness all over, that sense that you’ve nothing left to pour out.

These people are just looking for a way out even though you have given up everything you had to bring them in. It is a hurt like none I’ve ever known.

I can’t figure out if I am dying to self or if they are killing me.

I look for any kind of evidence that there is love and only when I look up and away from me and the mess and disappointments do I find truth.

When I think that my kids are forcing my own spiritual death, I remember this is the calling. The Savior led me this way.

Looking up to him on that cross, enduring far beyond all I can imagine, I know as awful as it is to behold, it is life coming from death. His journey to the cross did not end with death.

It is in remembering this that we find life: And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. {Phillipians 2}

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. {John 12}

How must He feel when I say I don’t believe, when I always ask and never thank, when I am embarrassed to say I am with Him, when I try to escape our time alone.

We are called to this same death that brings life, but we have to remember in the midst that we are loved, not alone.

For Christmas last year my dad made a decorative guitar for me. He has taken up woodworking and cherishes the time and effort he puts into the work.

He searches barns and roadsides and specialty shops for unusual and unique pieces that he can transform into something beautiful. And he does.

The guitar he made has several different types woods and is pieced together in a glorious design. When he gave it to me, he included a wooden nameplate that he had burned with the name of the piece.

We hung it immediately I and I kept the label nearby on the windowsill.

I admire the work daily.

Somehow it is easy to miss the life in the midst of death. It is easy when the focus is on all that looks awry. The noise, the failures of life tend to draw our attention away from the finished work.

As awful as giving birth—the process—can be, the resulting life is like nothing else. The mere fact that life comes of that brokenness is astonishing.

When I had my fifth child, I was in the final throes of childbirth, baring down and pushing with all I had. My head was down and eyes closed focused only on the pain.

Then I realized the doctor was speaking to me, “Amy, look up.”

I opened my eyes and there, half out of me was my precious David screaming like, well, he was dying.

He was coming to life in this world and it was as if my broken pain was instantly gone. My focus changed and I was renewed by life.

While battling feelings of loneliness, I recently stared hard at my dad’s creation hanging on the wall. I know it is a symbol, a reflection of his love. I looked at it and yearned to know my cries are heard, difficulties understood.

I asked my Father to show me again.

I reached for the nameplate, picked it up and turned it over.

There I found something I’d not seen before. My dad had written on the back side of the wood. His signature was there, the artist signing his work. He had also written a note to me:

You are greatly loved by me Amy

-Dad

Undone, tears came again.

I am no longer dry when I fix my eyes on the finished work.