When the guy with the glasses and guitar stands at the front of the chapel, in the middle of Nowhere Country, and tells us all to stand, I’ve got no idea if I can.
I don’t know if legs can hold a heart this heavy.
I don’t know if anyone can stand straight in a fallen world and why don’t we all just fall on our skinned and bloodied knees?
When grief is deepest, words are fewest. The sanctuary quiet envelops. The guitar guy starts strumming. Rain’s drizzling down the chapel windows.
The plowed fields are snowless, bare.
The soggy gravel parking lot, pot-holed and pocked, it’s lined with all these dirty pick-up trucks. All of December’s muddied and messy and weeping.
Please, Lord — a whiter-than-snow hope to blanket all our filth?
The guitar’s chording slow, slow.
Could we sit in hushed silence, hold hands in this vigil, hang together in this suffering solidarity? What if we wordlessly groaned this prayer that Cain would stop killing Abel, that Rachel wouldn’t refuse comfort, Rachel in Ramah, weeping for her children here no more.
The Farmer looks down at me still sitting. He bends a bit, takes my hand, and sometimes the only way to stand is together.
There’s the song’s first words. The congregation begins it feeble:
And there’s Friday in Newtown, Connecticut and a classroom of 20 dazzling children – Ana and Charlotte and Benjamin and Noah — and my very first memory is the body of my bloodied sister and the lump in my throat’s stinging bad and how in the world do you sing?
“Our shame was deeper than the sea
Your grace is deeper still…”
Corrie Ten Boom, a voice heard here, echoing off our pot-holed mess right here: “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”
Deeper still. Still.
“You alone can rescue, You alone can save.”
There are chin’s trembling brave. Could mothers sing this in Newtown?
Can we all stand and sing that He alone rescues and 20 children have fallen in Newtown and 30,273 beautiful die today because their bellies are scorched through with fiery hunger, and another 30, 273 tomorrow, and is it okay to say these things outloud and some days my head knows what my heart’s too hurt to hold on to and when we’re all done with answers that pat our heads, what we want is a God Who holds our hemorrhaging hearts.
After a Friday in Connecticut, there’s got to be a thousand Jobs standing in million pews on the third Sunday of Advent with their countless questions that boil down to one:
And God looks down at us and He’s the God who comes before we cry and God, He bends a bit and takes our ache and sometimes the only way to understand is fall on your knees and say you don’t. God, He asks Job: “What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? … Does the rain have a father? Who fathers the drops of dew? From whose womb comes the ice?”
Sometimes God answers our questions with questions.
Because God knows sometimes there is suffering beyond our knowing.
When we want to know answers, God simply wants us to know Him.
When we loudly question God’s culpability, God quietly questions our humility.
When we can’t bottle our tears up anymore, God catches every one in His bottle. God’s catching every falling tear because He won’t let us fall apart.
And the guy with the guitar leads: “You came down to find us, led us out of death, To You alone belongs the highest praise…”
My voice catches. Got your bottle, Lord?
His Truth catches me falling: There is no darkness so deep, that God’s arms are not deeper still, that we cannot raise our arms in highest praise.
What if suffering isn’t a problem to solve, but a mystery to live?
What if even this December, it came, manna falling like snow?
Manna, that word that means, “what is it?” and we picked up what we didn’t understand, what made no sense to us, and we ate the manna, that which we can’t comprehend?
What if we ate the mystery of the manna?
Snow, it could fall like a mystery yet.
My voice wobbles unwavering: “You came down to find us, led us out of death, To You alone belongs the highest praise.” There’s stubborn comfort in the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednegos moments: my love doesn’t waver “even if He doesn’t.”
The sanctuary fills with the busted up hallelujah.
Bare-fanged evil may have – did — slither into that classroom in Newtown. But in the middle of defying worship, I remember it — how a missionary told of this snake— longer than a man—that slithered its way right through their front door and straight to the kitchen.
How she had flung outside screaming and a machete-wielding neighbor had calmly walked into her kitchen and he sliced off the head of the reptilian thing.
But a snake’s neurology and blood flow make it such that it slithers wild even after it’s been sliced headless.
For hours the missionary stood outside.
And the body of the snake rampaged on, thrashing hard against windows and walls, destroying chairs and table and all things good and home.
A snake can wreak havoc until it accepts it has no head — that it’s really dead.
The answer to our suffering is so incomprehensible that it has to be incarnated — the Word must come to us as flesh. The Truest Answer always comes in Story. And that Story that begins in Gen 3:15 with God’s promise to the snake: “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel,” it ends in Revelation with nothing less than Christmas:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.
His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.
And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.
She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne…” (Rev. 12:1-6)
And there’s your Christmas in the middle of the pitch black.
Even if the tail still rampages, the snake’s head is crushed.
You can go ahead and audaciously light your Advent candles because the reality is that the light is so bright that we are blinded by it, that reality is light and we’re really just broken bits of broken darkness surrounded by holy light and even the darkness is not dark to him — and Advent dares proclaim that there’s a way out of this trap – because Christ shockingly stepped right into Satan’s trap – and snapped off his sickening head.
That scaled thing stood before the woman to devour the child. But that babe birthed in the manger, He shattered the skull of that serpent, and He conquered and He was caught up to God and “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” 1 John 3:8
The only One Who could rescue, the only One Who could save, He came. Infinity births into our iniquity.
He came into our stench and sin and suffering and He came into our wounds and touched our wounds and took our wounds, and though Job’s tortured questions were answered only with questions — the mystery of suffering that isn’t ours to know — Job is satisfied because God came.
He came – and the God of life tasted death, and the God of reconciliation obliterated the alienation of man by hammering alienation straight into the very heart of God.
He came – because in all our pain, we don’t want some answers like we want a Someone.
He came – and He cups us in our aloneness and our agony, in our weeping and our wondering, in our howl, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken us?” – and He whispers, I am Emmanuel, God who is with you.
And when they pass the bread before the wine, and I tear from the pure white loaf. He knows heart tearing.
Us, like Kierkegaard said, “whose hearts [are] torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and cries escape from them, they sound like beautiful music.”
I think of that — When lips make it a habit to give thanks, they form so strangely that even in suffering their moaning is a haunting music.
Giving thanks is that: making the canyon of pain into a megaphone to proclaim the ultimate goodness of God when Satan and all the world would sneer at us to recant.
The children sing it downstairs on Sunday, Away in a Manger. They sing it clear, like a coming:
“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!”
“Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care…”
Can I just ask Him on a Sunday — Where were you, Lord, on Friday when those children… ?
And in the middle of Advent, Jesus who hung on a Tree on a Friday, He holds us heartbeat-close:
“Since the children have flesh and blood,
[I] too shared in their humanity —
so that by [my] death, [I] might break the power of him who holds the power of death—
that is, the devil—
and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
The congregation’s singing it like a loud victory now. “You alone can rescue, You alone can save….”
Never doubt it, wondering world: Even if the tail still rampages, the snake’s head is crushed.
To solely spend our attention on evil pays homage to Satan.
And the guy with the guitar, he says we’ll stay standing for the next hymn and I nod my brazen yes.
In the face – no, the tail – of evil, in spite of everything, there are bold songs still, still.
What to do with a Broken Heart this Christmas
My own story of giving thanks to God after my sister was killed (and here in video)
And the community making it a habit to give thanks, so that their lips form so strangely that even in suffering their moaning is a haunting music: