Acknowledging our Shadows
Almost every parent experiences that lovely moment when small child says, “Mommy, Daddy, my shadow is following me. I remember my daughter Maggie, maybe two or three years old. Dancing around our driveway in the bright Florida sunshine watching her shadow dancing alongside her. But the shadow dance is not just the stuff of childhood.
Almost everyone (and every church or organization) that seeks to grow up faces that terrifying moment when we realize that our shadow never leaves us. We can ignore it, deny it, or repress it, but only for so long. To grow up, we must not turn from it but to it, to learn from it, grieve through it, and even claim its many treasures.
Carrying a Human-Sized Weight Around
In May 2018, in a Connecticut hospital, a group of twelve surgeons worked for five hours to remove a tumor from the abdomen of a thirty-eight-year-old woman. That may seem like a lot of doctors and a long time for a single tumor—until you learn that single tumor weighed 132 pounds! The patient reported that, prior to the surgery, the tumor had grown at a rate of ten pounds per week. That’s forty pounds a month! “Ovarian mucinous tumors tend to be big,” said Dr. Vaagn Andikyan, who was the lead surgeon on the team. “But tumors this big are exceedingly rare in the literature.
It may be in the top 10 or 20 tumors of this size removed worldwide.” The tumor was technically benign, but it was far from harmless. According to Dr. Andikyan, the patient couldn’t walk, she was malnourished because she’d been unable to eat, and she was at extreme danger for blood clots and other blood-vessel-related damage. Her very life was in jeopardy. “When I first walked into the examination room . . . I saw fear in the patient’s eyes,” Dr. Andikyan said. “She was so hopeless, because she had seen several other doctors, and they were unable to help her.”
Can you imagine trying to go about your day with a 132-pound weight dragging you down from the inside? Can you imagine the pressure that must have built up in and around that poor woman—the squeezing, maddening, crushing pressure? But then can you imagine what that patient must have felt like the day after the surgery? The week after? Can you imagine the change that must have taken place after a 132-pound burden was removed? “She’s back to a normal life, she’s back to work,” the doctor said. “And when I saw her in my office, I saw smiles, I saw hope, and I saw a happy woman who is back to her normal life and her family.” Wouldn’t you like to experience that kind of joy? That kind of freedom? I have. And believe me, it’s as wonderful as it sounds.
Climbing and Leaving the Right Words Behind
I am not a mountain climber, but a few years ago I had the idea that I might want to climb seriously, so I started to read and to train. I’ve climbed a few glacier-covered mountains in the northwestern United States with professionals. One of the things that you learn from professional climbers is the discipline of packing well.
Tools are helpful when you climb. Your sleeping bag provides warmth, your lantern provides light, and your gloves provide protection. Lose your footing and your ax can save your life. Every tool has a purpose, and almost any tool can be helpful. Every tool also has weight. Standing at sea level, an ax in your hand feels like a feather.
At twelve thousand feet, hours from the summit, an extra pound in your pack feels like an anvil. In the same way, words have value. The right words can right your balance. The right words can light your way. But words also have weight. In our life and work, we have to carry what is essential, and leave much of the rest behind.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, reporter Brian Hiatt asked Marcus Mumford whether he still considers himself a Christian. Mumford, a pastors son and a famous millennial (he is lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons), had this to say:
I don’t really like [the word Christian]. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was…. I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.
When those who fed a need to distance themselves from Christianity are asked why, Mumford and other millennial cite several reasons. At the top of the list is weariness over the association of right-wing politics with mainstream Christianity, The “culture of Christianity” that Mumford and others want no part of tends to trace directly back to this association. In the realm of politics, millennials have culture-war fatigue.
Dysfunctional Greeting Cards
I’m convinced some company today could make a killing if it had the guts to market dysfunctional greeting cards. Most birthday or holiday cards gush with flowery sentiments such as, “To the greatest father in the world,” or, “Mom, you are my best friend.” Yeah, well, what if they weren’t?
What if your dad was an angry jerk and your mother abused you? What if your brother backstabbed you and stole the inheritance? Where are the greeting cards for reality?
Just once I’d like to see a card that reads, “Mom, you blew it . . . but I love you anyway. Happy Mother’s Day.” It’ll never happen. Even if such cards existed, few people would have the cruelty to send them.
So instead we shop for cards that are blank inside and do our best to scrawl some positive words. There are no easy solutions. Only godly ones. After all, on some level we all deserve to open dysfunctional envelopes since we each contribute our own family defects.
The Face they Deserve
The author Oscar Wilde once remarked that by the age of forty everyone has the face they deserve. This is a truly profound, if painful, truth. But it really applies to the “within” expressed by the face—to the heart and also the soul, and not to the face merely as one surface area of the body. Otherwise it would not much matter.
Jesus the Irresistible One
In his seminal work, The Cross of Christ, British pastor and author John Stott describes the unique, upside-down kingdom instituted on the cross:
‘Irresistible’ is the very word an Iranian student used when telling me of his conversion to Christ. Brought up to read the Koran, say his prayers and lead a good life, he nevertheless knew that he was separated from God by his sins. When Christian friends brought him to church and encouraged him to read the Bible, he learnt that Jesus Christ had died for his forgiveness.
‘For me the offer was irresistible and heaven-sent,’ he said, and he cried to God to have mercy on him through Christ. Almost immediately ‘the burden of my past life was lifted. I felt as if a huge weight…had gone. With the relief and sense of lightness came incredible joy. At last it had happened.
I was free of my past. I knew that God had forgiven me, and I felt clean. I wanted to shout, and tell everybody.’ It was through the cross that the character of God came clearly into focus for him, and that he found Islam’s missing dimension, ‘the intimate fatherhood of God and the deep assurance of sins forgiven’.
The Little Things
One time, back when I was doing college ministry, I took a group of students camping. My wife came along with us. I had selected this really, really difficult hike. It was about ten miles long and almost straight up, which for me is the closest thing to heaven there is. My wife, however, whose permission I have to tell this story, was having a very different experience.
She was hot, she was tired, she wasn’t having any fun, and she was sharing her feelings with me. In fact, that day she and I had some very interesting conversations about courtesy, planning ahead, and how I was raised. Eventually one of the students said to her, “Here, let me take the heavy things out of your pack; that’ll make it easier for you to hike.” But when he opened up her pack his face fell, because there wasn’t anything heavy in it. There was some Kleenex, some toothpaste, and that was about it. But he still wanted to be polite, so he said, “Oh, I guess the problem is there are just so many little things.”
Scott Dudley, First Presbyterian Church, Bellevue
The Importance of Tattoo Removal
Father Greg Boyle, founder and director of Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles, has put together a team of physicians trained to remove the tattoos of ex-gang members. The Service is crucial for their success in making it outside the gang.
Gang-related tattoos prevent many former gang members from getting jobs or advancing in work. For others, the markings put them in serious danger on the streets. There is no fee or community Service required to receive the Service offered by Homeboy Industries; tattoo removal is strictly a gift. Currently, more than a thousand names are on the waiting list.
The seeming permanence of a gang tattoo fosters the attitude that the gang’s claim is also permanent. It is a mark of ownership as much as identity. The emotional consequence is that the tie seems a part of a person that can never be shaken.
I suspect some of us have felt like this with past sins whose mark we cannot shake off though we know we have been cleansed by Christ. Perhaps the imagery of tattoo removal can evoke a renewed sense of our blessed assurance. Like former gang members who have had the marks of a former life removed, so our sins are blotted out by the blood of Christ. They are remembered no longer.
The process of tattoo removal is extremely painful. Patients describe the laser procedure as feeling like hot grease has been poured on their skin. Yet the list grows, each name representing a life that longs to be free and is willing to endure the pain to seize freedom.
Jill Carattini, “A Slice of Infinity,” org (June 23, 2006).
“No Fishing Allowed”
He hurls our sins overboard. What a picture of the way God treats our sins. Corrie ten Boom, a dear saint of the last century, used to say, “And then God put up a sign saying, `No fishing allowed.”‘ Why would she say that?
Because she knew that we tend to drag up our old sins, that we tend to live under a vague sense of guilt. She knew that we are not nearly as vigorous in appropriating God’s forgiveness as He is in extending it. Consequently, instead of living in the sunshine of God’s forgiveness through Christ, we tend to live under an overcast sky of guilt most of the time.
Traveling the Highway
Now I could see in my dream that the High-way Christian was to travel on was protection on either side by a Wall, and the Wall was called Salvation. Burdened Christian began to run up the High-way, but not without great difficulty because of the load he was carrying on his back.
He ran this way until he came to a place on somewhat higher ground where there stood a Cross. A little way down from there was an open Grace. And I saw in my dream that just as Christian approached the Cross, his Burden came loose from his shoulders, fell from his back, and began to roll downward until it tumbled into the open Grave to be seen no more.