10 “They shall construct an ark of acacia wood two and a half cubits long, and one and a half cubits wide, and one and a half cubits high. 11 “You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and you shall make a gold molding around it. … 17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. 18 “You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 “Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim [of one piece] with the mercy seat at its two ends. 20 “The cherubim shall have [their] wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be [turned] toward the mercy seat. 21 “You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. 22 “There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel. – Exo 25:10-11, 17-22 NASB
I remember Christmas as a child so vividly. I especially loved the year I got the Major Matt Mason Moon Crawler kit! Wow! I wanted it so badly and it did not disappoint. But there were other presents. I had them all numbered and organized under the tree. I knew them by heart. Oh yes. And so when it finally came Christmas morning, there was no anticipation as great as the great day. There was magic in the air! And so I would eagerly and unceremoniously rip open that big package which I had dreamed about and lost sleep over. Oh my God it’s happening! And it was … oh no. Please no. It was clothes. I can still hear my mother’s voice: “Oh, that will look SO CUTE on you!” Mom, you’re killing me, honestly. Please. “Why don’t you try that on right now?” MOM. It’s CHRISTMAS. Please. Dad, step in and save me here. There is really nothing worse than having high hopes and having them crushed so mercilessly.
A Flower that Quickly Faded
I have recently stepped down from pastoring Bread and Wine Fellowship. It was my greatest ambition – to plant a church in which we would preach the unadorned gospel of grace in Christ. Christ and Him crucified. Let us just say, it did not go well. It was not exactly what I was expecting and in the end the whole thing blew up in my face. We had two – TWO – elder boards not only step down, but leave the church en masse. Pretty much the entire worship team left the church – twice. We had faithful members come so drunk and stoned that they could barely walk up to take communion. There was that time that a couple had sex in the bathroom during the service. We were burglarized in a major way once, and we had a steady stream of people constantly stealing from us. We had people try to kill themselves in our house (which is attached to the church sanctuary), and people try to kill each other. Since I was also working full time, it was always such fun to come home to see what disaster I was supposed to mediate. I finally had the revelation that this was not going well and that the pastorate is not for me. I really am not a good pastor at all. By the end I viewed everyone around me as a threat to my well-being. Visitors scared me. My wife’s friendliness and endless depth of hospitality towards people made me angry. I increasingly withdrew into a shell. It hasn’t really gotten better. Truly, I am not overcoming nor am I victorious. I am defeated.
The Bitter Argument
So I was out riding my bike, praying about my great depth of depression and disappointment, when I asked in prayer, “Why didn’t you help us? Why did this go so badly? Why was there so little support? Where were you in all this Lord?” And I could swear I heard Him answer, “I died for you.”
He died for me. You know what? It hit me like a rock falling on Wile E. Coyote. Dying isn’t what I needed. Dying is literally doing utterly nothing. The people who die in a war are the ones who lose. Dying is where even hope gets snuffed out. Dying is pathetic and useless. A dead corpse is the last thing I needed. It made me so angry!! I was spitting fire. I felt like it must have been how the Israelites felt about the Ark of the Covenant. All this pomp and gold and workmanship, and cherubs with wings and a fancy mercy seat. And at the middle of it all: nothing. That’s your God. Nothing. No one there. But I needed a visible God, a real golden calf. I needed a God who stays alive, who feeds the 5000 and calms the storm. A God who steps in at the last moment and does a big miracle and saves the day. I desperately wanted the prosperity gospel God. I don’t need a leader who is asleep in the stern when the great storm hits. I don’t need a crucified savior. I need a REAL savior, a man of action. Jack Bauer never died, he always lived! I need help. Money. Visitors. Leadership. These things were the show of mercy I wanted. A few relatively sane people. What kind of a show of love is death? What can a corpse do for you? I was finally able to admit, for all the rest of my meditation on this, I didn’t want it. This crucified God was not the God I wanted. I worship another God in my secret heart of hearts.
And so, this great loss of faith was crushing to me. I cried and cried and cried. No, really cried. We have all this theology we talk about, and I think theology is very important. But it wasn’t helping me at all. I need a real living God. My God My God why have you forsaken me? The great scandal of the cross is that it is a symbol of God failing us. He didn’t meet our expectations, not even close. Gradually I began to understand that this is it. This is how the cross of Christ crucifies us. Through the cross He crushes our idols. He destroys our expectations. He doesn’t do what we think He is beholden to do. He fails us miserably and somehow this is His big offering. We harbor secret notions that even we ourselves do not understand that we control Him with our virtue like a marionette on strings. We’re all somehow like Peter – when it finally dawns on us what is really going on, we say “God forbid it Lord.”
Where’s Your Resurrection Brother?
You will fairly scream at me by this time, “Yes, but He was resurrected! You have to see that He didn’t just die, He was raised from the dead. If you would only see this, it would solve your problems!” But you know what, that isn’t what scripture really emphasizes. Paul was determined to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). St. John says that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7), and that we find love in His death for us (1 John 4:10). At the end of days, it is His blood which earns Him such honor that He can open the scrolls (Revelation 5:9). It is not His resurrection which is celebrated as the great act of love (Romans 5:8). Resurrection is a mere miracle. His death was the great sacrificial show of God’s weakness, His great restraint, His big non-miracle. The big show was when God DIDN’T show His power. We are going to find God there, when He didn’t do the miracle. The symbol of the Christian faith is the cross for a reason.
And so I find that I am lost. My idols are smashed. My expectations are a vapor of the past. I am very lost. I am nothing and I no longer even know what to pray for. I try to think about or start some new venture and I have no strength to carry it through. Church planters and other pastors smirk at me. Surely I will not be invited to speak at conferences or be asked to head exciting ministries if I am writing posts like this one. I am far more miserable and sinful and insignificant than they know.
Mercy is Everything
Mercy. That nothing, that vaporous emptiness, that barely discernible Voice, speaks from the mercy seat. I find mercy to be very very important to me now that I have so grandly failed. If there is even the slightest whiff of mercy in all this I am going to watch over it like a gardener watching over her little seedlings. And finally I can descend into the rest in which I no longer create a God which I can serve. My expectations of God have been crucified. I no longer pretend to understand Him. I release my control over these things. The cross of Christ has killed me and if anything comes from this, it is no longer from me. It is in His hands. I enter my rest. I am no longer God’s god. I do not have the weight and responsibility of joy on me any more. I do not have the obligation to enjoy or even to comprehend His ways. Mercy is all that is left. There is no pretense left in this. I am paralyzed unless He will refashion these dead bones into living flesh. I think that if we are to grapple with the cross of Christ, we must come inevitably to this place where it destroys the idols in which we so desperately trust and find our identity. But you cannot do it by reading this. You must be abandoned, you must truly die. God must deeply disappoint you. If there is no death how can there be a resurrection?
9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 NASB