Last Sunday our E-100 text was Exodus 12, the story of the Passover. I used the opportunity this text afforded us to talk about how the Passover is the Biblical template for the work of redemption that God has undertaken in Jesus Christ on our behalf. I tried to connect the dots between the Old Testament promise and the New Testament fulfillment; how the New Testament finishes the story of salvation that the Old Testament begins. And as I preached this sermon on Sunday, I was thinking abut something that happened on Saturday.
A few weeks ago a call came to Northway from a South Dallas congregation of a different denomination. It was a call for help. Six months ago their pastor of more than 30 years died quite unexpectedly. They had no time to prepare themselves for this loss. He literally had a stroke on a Sunday morning standing in the pulpit preaching the morning message, and a few weeks later he was gone. In the aftermath of this loss, over the next few months that congregation suffered the death of ten more members. Since last September this little church has sustained the death of their pastor and then roughly 10% of its worshipping membership. Needless to say, they are reeling. And so they called Northway for some help because of our reputation on the grapevine of churches for having some competency in the area of grief ministry. They asked if there was someone here who could come and help them work on their grief, and so it was that last Saturday morning I found myself in South Dallas with the good people of this little community of faith talking about their grief and our Gospel.
Using the journey of faith that is Holy Week – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday – I talked with them about how our own journey of grief follows a similar trajectory – from the honest announcement that faith offers us no particular immunity from the experience of suffering and loss (Maundy Thursday), to the infliction of a deep wound through a crushing loss (Good Friday), to the experience of painful emotions as the reality of that loss begins to more fully settle in (Holy Saturday), to the renewal and return to a different kind of life than was being lived before the loss intruded in as an uninvited guest (Easter Sunday). They tracked with what I was saying, and together we concluded that they were in the “in-between” stretch of this trip that they had not signed up for — the “Holy Saturday” phase in their journey of grief.
Quoting something that I found in the blog of a funeral director who is also a trained theologian (Caleb Wilde – “Confessions of Funeral Director: Working at the Crossroads of This World and the Next”), I told my new friends that “Holy Saturday is the day when we embrace doubt and silence… it’s a day full of question… when fear, frustration, anger and depression must have been a hundred pound weight on the chest of the (first disciples” (http://www.calebwilde.com). We talked about how the painful emotions of this phase in the journey of grief can get channeled outward and find expression in outbursts of anger, criticism and complaint directed at others, and how it can get channeled inward and find expression in depression, darkness and doubt directed at one’s self.
When I finished my presentation, the members of this little church filled the next hour and a half with an honest acknowledgment of their painful emotions. Some of them were mad. Some of them were sad. Some of them were anxious. Some of them were angry. All of them were grieving. They were, and are, “in-between” Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And when they were emotionally spent by this sharing, the matriarch of that spiritual family, the widow of the pastor, the mother of his successor to the pulpit, called for prayer. She said, “There’s nothing more to say right now; so let’s pray — let’s pray right now, right now!” And with that this wounded little community of faith filled with such good-hearted but broken-hearted people circled up, joined hands and they prayed like nobody’s business. This was visceral prayer. It was not the measured or polished praying with which we are accustomed. They didn’t read some literary prayers from a book. They didn’t recite some well-worn phrases from memory. It was not the kind of praying that comes from the head in carefully crafted petitions. Instead it was the kind of praying that bursts forth from the heart in explosions of raw emotion.
In Acts 4 Luke described a prayer meeting in the Jerusalem church in a moment of real crisis. And he concluded – “When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken” (4:31). And so was this little church in South Dallas on Saturday. They cried out to God for a Redeemer. They didn’t try to conceal their need under the protocol of propriety or cloak their anguish with the strictures of appearance. They simply named their losses. They told God in no uncertain terms just how deeply they were hurt and just how frightened and confused they were in the depths of their souls. And then they called out to God to do something about it. They prayed like this because they trusted God; because they were taking Him at His word. Everything I said on Sunday in my sermon about how I believe that the Bible tells us a story about redemption – about God rescuing us from sin and death, from darkness and despair – a story that climaxes with the coming of Jesus Christ, all of this is what I saw being lived out right in front of my eyes and heart on Saturday at that little church in South Dallas. And the experience left me wondering.
After factoring in all of the differences between myself and them — all of the cultural, temperamental, experiential and denominational differences between us — I was still acutely aware of a significant gap between my own spiritual expression, and theirs. As often as I pray, never has the place where I’ve prayed been shaken quite like that little church I was with last Saturday was when they prayed, or like the church in Acts 4:31 was in Luke’s report. And as I’ve thought about why this is, it has occurred to me that it’s not a difference in doctrine that accounts for it, or even the depth with which those doctrines are believed. The sermon I preached on Sunday and the experience I had on Saturday were both cut from the very same bolt of cloth. I believe in the story of redemption that the Bible tells, and I know with both my head and heart that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer. No, the difference is not one of content, but of context.
In Luke 7 we are told the story of the unnamed woman who burst in on Jesus while He was banqueting at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and anointed Him with an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, washing His feet with her tears and drying them with her hair (vs. 37-38). And when Simon took offense because of this woman’s “reputation” (v. 38), Jesus asked Simon –
If two people owed money to a certain moneylender, one owing five hundred denarii, and the other fifty, and neither of them had the money to pay him back, and the moneylender forgave the debts of them both, which one of them will love him more? (vs. 41-42)
And when Simon answered, “I suppose the one he forgave more” (v. 43), Jesus concluded the teaching by saying –
I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little. (v. 47)
Here’s the difference — it’s “felt” need.
That woman in Simon’s house had no one else to turn to and nothing else to count on but Jesus Christ. Neither did those folks I was with on Saturday in South Dallas. They were “desperate,” and “desperation” just might be the key. As Pastor Stephen Olford put it –
It is my conviction that we are never going to have revival until God has brought the church of Jesus Christ to the point of desperation. As long as Christian people can trust religious organization, material wealth, popular preaching, shallow evangelistic crusades and promotion drives, there will never be revival. But when confidence in the flesh is smashed, and the church comes to the realization of her desperate wretchedness, blindness and nakedness before God, then and only then will God break in.
Clarence Jordan of the “Cottonpatch Gospels” fame observed that we prove that we are truly trusting God when we’ve got nothing left to put our trust in other than God! And the naked truth is that while I say that I trust God, and I think I really mean it, I’ve nevertheless got lots of degrees and credentials, investments and insurance policies, connections and contacts that prop up my life as well. These “securities” all cushion me, but they can also create in me a false sense of security if I let them. Do you remember the “rich fool” of Luke 12:13-21? After he built his bigger barns and laid up his goods for many years to come and made his plans to take his ease, to eat, drink and be merry, it was that very night that God required his soul of him. And sooner or later our souls are going to be required of us as well, and when that day comes, we are really down to it. Powerful and wealthy beyond all imagination, Steve Jobs nevertheless died last year. He was 56, and in his final hours, all of his wealth and all of his power didn’t help. This should cause us all to sit up and take notice. There is something on the horizon that is wild and unmanageable, and that’s coming for us all. We don’t stand a chance against it on our own. And in the desperation that its eventual arrival will foment, everything that we are being taught right now, Sunday in and Sunday out, from the Word and at the Table, will shift from something that we believe is true with our heads to something that we will know is real in our hearts. There is a Redeemer. We talked about it on Sunday, but that little church in South Dallas that I was with on Saturday, they experienced it. And I trust that when our day of desperation comes — and it will — that our experience of the Redeemer will be just as powerful and just as healing as theirs is proving to be. DBS+