Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Freedom Beyond the Falls

The sight of a massive waterfall is both beautiful and terrifying, majestic and awe-inspiring at the same time. In The Shack, Mack's encounter with God following the tragic murder of his youngest daughter Missy nears its climax when he is permitted to see his children -- all of his children -- and Jesus playing in the middle of them. As he stands within an open cavern, all that separates him from Missy is a curtain of water falling directly in front of him -- a thin but, for now, an impenetrable veil separating him from eternity. In Pauls letter to the Philippians, the apostle, who is in prison and quite possibly facing execution, is standing where Mack is standing, on this side of the waterfall, on the brink between life and death, and from that unique vantage point he defines life and death in this way: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Mack, in Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, discovers why this is true, and so can we.

Paul’s example teaches us that how we live determines how we view death. We can’t understand Paul’s view of death without first looking at his view of life. On this side of the falls, Paul lived by faith: Writing from prison, Paul resolved that he was not only in chains because of his preaching (Philip. 1:16), but that he was “in chains...for Christ” (Philip. 1:13). Indeed, Paul’s message had spread throughout the Praetorium -- Caesar’s elite soldiers drafted off successively to guard him; literally chained to him. Yes, Paul lived by faith…for he goes on to say “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Philip. 1:19). Instead of focusing on the chains, he focused on the prayers of the saints and the help, or (more literally) the choreography of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. He lived by faith in the choreopraphy, the steps, leaps and turns of this life that Christ is overseeing; and the heartfelt prayers on his behalf which ascend to God's throne.

On this side of the falls, Paul lived to enlarge Jesus in his own body. His prayer is that Christ would "be exalted (the underlying Greek verb is megaluno, which means to enlarge or magnify) now as always in his body whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain" (Philip. 1:20-21). To enlarge, to magnify Christ in my life…now that’s a worthy goal. Paul’s greatest joy was seeing others fall in love with Jesus…and seeing his influence and impact increase.

On this side of the falls, Paul lived to engage in “fruitful labor” on behalf of others . “If I am to live in the flesh that means fruitful labor for me” says Paul. Therefore, “I am convinced…that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith" (vv. 22-25). The possibility that Paul could die in prison was very real…and yet he faced that possibility knowing that if he should die he would be with Christ; and if released it would mean more fruitful labor for the kingdom. None of us knows what tomorrow holds…but if we are given the grace to live another day…how will we live it? Paul was clear. If I ever get out of here…I’m going right back to serving Christ and others with all the resources God has given me! If you knew that you only had a week to live here on earth how would you spend your wealth? How would you invest your time and resources? Paul knew…and so should we.

Paul’s example teaches us that how we view death determines how we live. On the other side of the falls, Paul knew that he would be with Jesus, that death would be gain. Until he returned to The Shack, Mack thought of death and suffering as ultimate evils, but he’s assured that “This life is only the anteroom of a greater reality to come. No one reaches their potential in your world. It’s only preparation for what Papa had in mind all along” (The Shack, p. 169).

On the other side of the falls, Paul was confident that the investment he made for Christ in this world would have an eternal impact. In the Parable of the Talents Jesus speaks of the servants who are told to invest their master’s wealth while he is away. Upon his master’s return he hears him say to the wise servant, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been trustworthy with a few things; now you shall be put in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). Of course Jesus also warns us that we can be foolish, and bury our talents in the ground – that’s the sad situation of the “lazy servant” whom Jesus rebukes. Jesus wants to save us from wasting our gifts in this life; impressing upon us that what we do here is preparation for new responsibilities to come.
On the other side of the falls, Paul knew he would be free. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ" says Paul (employing a Greek word that is also used for un-mooring a ship, or breaking camp). At the same time, he sees the importance of remaining in the body since this means fruitful labor for the kingdom. One of the ways that we honor the veterans of faith who have died…is by carrying on Christ’s ministry -- by worshiping, growing in faith, building a Christ-centered community, reaching out with the gospel, and supporting his work with our gifts and abilities.

The grace to face life and death with hope comes to those who know that Jesus is alive and in the middle of both. The beautiful scene in the cavern comes to a climax when Missy signs the words, “I LOVE YOU” to her father and then makes a big embrace as though she were hugging him. Then a voice calls her…and she turns toward it after giving him a final kiss. “And now Mack could clearly see the voice that had called his Missy. It was Jesus, playing in the middle of his children….The voicing of their joy was a symphony to Mack’s ears, and as he watched, his tears flowed freely.” (The Shack, p. 170).

Mack sees Jesus playing in the middle of his children (both those who are alive on earth, and the one who has passed from this life into the next). Jesus is the link between both worlds…bringing purpose to this life and hope for the future. Friday night, I was not feeling well. I got whatever has been going around, swine flu, bird flu...who knows. It was no fun...but I've been a lot sicker. When I was about seven years old and my grandmother had just died, I got very sick with a high fever. My parents were about to take me to the hospital. Then, something very unusual happened. My mother went into their bedroom and smelled the distinct scent of my grandma’s perfume. Then, five minutes later my fever broke. She told me this story years later; and shared how it was a sign to her of her mother’s love, and God’s. To know that Christ is alive and in the middle of both life and death…brings incredible hope, for we know that He is near…and that if he is near, then those who have died in him cannot be far from us either. They are just beyond the falls…just beyond the veil that separates this world and God’s full world.

Paul said, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” There’s a saying that a Christian can be so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good. But I think it’s just the opposite as C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity: "If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Those who have truly known that in Christ…dying means more life abundant and eternal have risked everything to relieve the world's suffering: care for plague victims, defend the rights of children, guide slaves to freedom, breach war zones to feed the poor, make disciples of Jesus, and extend his kingdom on earth.

The lasting memory for me of The Shack is that of Jesus playing in the middle of Mack’s children…and Missy among them. For when Jesus is in the middle of this life, we know that we are loved and so are all those who have died in him. When Jesus is in the middle we understand that our purpose is to bring Jesus into the middle of every arena of life; and to pass on the message that he shared with the wordless sign of the cross: “I love you.” And so we pray...

Lord Jesus Christ, I long for you to be in the middle of my sorrows, in the middle of my triumphs, in the middle of my family, in the middle of my finances, in the middle of my workplace, my neighborhood, my team, my school -- but most of all, I want you to be in the middle of my life – not just today or tomorrow, but forever. For I know that if you are there, I have nothing to fear or dread. I know that I’ve said and done much that is ugly; that I’m a sinner that needs your forgiveness. So by faith, I ask for and receive the miracle of your healing touch; with humble gratitude for the example of your matchless life, for dying in my place on the cross, and for the power of the Spirit to turn from wrong toward all that is good. Lord, I ask you to take control of my life as I trust in you alone to save and redeem me. Please bring your death-conquering power, your compassionate love, and joy-filled presence right into the heart of my body and soul that I may serve you boldly, faithfully, and eternally. Amen!

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