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I waited alone and stared hard at outdated, patterned carpet and paneled walls for what seemed like far longer than needed.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Outdated, undersized, overpriced teddy bears lined the shelves and weird displays betrayed the intent of the place.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. 

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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.