Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
How do I die?
Jesus showed us in the garden of Gethsemane. Luke 22:41-44 is very clear:
"And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground."
My personal opinion is this moment in the garden was the real death, it says Jesus sweated drops of blood. The agony of dying to what I want, "My hopes, my dreams, my comfort and my identity" is the good death, the real death. And it is first step that must be taken before it leads me on to a life of faith. Submission is what kills my stubborn will, and then and only then the body will follow.
That is why I think the writer to Hebrews in 12:4 writes, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” It’s in the resisting where the dying occurs.
So when I want to prove myself and how great I am, God says “die!” When the beast inside me wants to look at things I shouldn’t look at, grabs things that are not mine to grab, holds tightly to things that God wants me to give away, God says, “die!” When someone offends me and I want to retaliate, or someone succeeds and envy prompts me to slander, God says, “Chris, come and die.”
So in prayer I say, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done!” This is the real death.
What I have come to realize is that the moment I die, it creates room in my soul for God’s Spirit to finally make himself at home in my life. And what starts happening is a new man is born. The old is gone, the new is birthed, I become a newly begotten child of God. We call this “being born again”
Dont you see, death is God's answer for life. It is the only way.
“Natural death, which is the separation of the soul from the body, is simple death. But to feel death, that is, the terror and fear of death - this indeed is real death...it is experiencing the very presence of death, to reach that point where the final intervention occurs, where one has ‘bottomed out.’”
On Being a Theologian of the Cross
Have you ever “bottomed out?”
Have you ever reached that mysterious and dark corner in your mind where all that you are - your abilities, talents, resources - and all that you hope to be - a hero, a leader, a success - are not enough to help or save you? When you look in the mirror and stare deep in your wide awake eyes you know, for absolute certain, that the real answers of life do not derive from me. I don't have what it takes. The future is not going to end well if I must create the solution by myself. I have not carved out a well of joy that can be filled by me.
The way you can tell when you have reached this point is when your hands fall limp at your side, all your energy and options are spent, and you quit trying because you have reached a dead end. There standing before you is a 50 foot high red brick wall closing in on you with no window blasted out to crawl through. You have arrived here not because you are depressed, it is not the result of an emotional breakdown; you are not feeling sorry for yourself, or because you are trying to get the attention and pity of others - -but simply because you know you have been wieghed, tried and found wanting.
Not only are you in your right mind, but you finally see life as it really is, and God is the only one who can come to your rescue.
Peter the Galilean fisherman reached this point when a sudden violent storm broke down upon him during a fishing excursion and he knew he was going to die. He wasn’t pouting, he was just calling it as it is, “Master, master, we are perishing.” Abraham too reached this point when he was told he must sacrifice his son, “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.” It is the end of all options and the only thing left is to face the reality of death.
It is reaching the mental certainty of finality with no escape. There is no need to try to hang on to my reputation any longer, no more grasping at straws, no more ropes to pull. It is over, it is final, and I give up. The world as it is wins and I admit defeat, game over.
Reaching this point in real life is humiliating, it is meant to crush you, bringing you back to dust and ash. It is terrible and horrible, it forces a person to admit his limits, take off all the masks he has been hiding under, and accept the inevitable. Holy Scripture calls this death. Luther calls this the “good death”, the “real death.” Physical death is nothing compared to this, because when I die the “good death” I still must live with the knowledge I am done. Job, Isaiah, and John the Apostle, even with their hearts still beating, all said, "Woe is me!" In that moment they died, and yet, they continued living.
Most of us, nay, all of us, daily try to present someone I am not to others. "Look at me, I am capable, I am smart, I am strong, I am funny, I am good looking, and I am morally good." But when I finally “bottom out” all of those personal “I ams” dissipate and leave me bereft and naked by myself were I am forced to admit "I am not." Jeremiah says it is good for a young man "to sit alone in silence, let him put his mouth in the dust - there may yet be hope." I am left with shedding the false personal "I am" needing the real eternal “I am” in order to survive.
According to Colossians 3:3, Christianity begins with the phrase, “For you have died…” That is “bottoming out”, admitting my absolute need, and letting my hands hang limp. Colossians 3:5 continues and says, “Put to death therefore…” Because I died I must put to death the “I ams” I once thought I was. Dying must be a constant reality.
The first time I ever died I will never forget it.
I was wearing a blue suit, a long black trench coat, and I parked near a frozen Lake Erie on a Tuesday afternoon around 2 in February. The wind was streaking cold across the frozen surface of an abandoned beach. No one was around, not a soul was stirring. I bent down to pick up a frozen rock, I wasn’t wearing gloves. I threw the single flat stone across the stiff ice, and watched it skip a while.
I stood silent. I had nothing to offer to the world, I felt alone. I looked up in the gray sky and said, “Help.” I felt dead, not like I wanted to end my life, but that in my smallness I was exposed. Who was I fooling? Death means I quit trying to prop up me. And I am ok with it.
Death frees you. When you no longer have to prove that “I am” you begin to wait on God to prove “He is the great ‘I am’”. Did you know resurrection only comes after a death occurs? Did you know unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone? Did you know your best life now is death?
Dying does not mean the end of living, your heart still beats, your feet still shuffle and stumble, your lungs breath in and out, but your soul “bottoms out.” You no longer have anything to prove. You no longer have to have things your way. You no longer need to be better than others. You are set free.
When you are dead other’s critical opinions no longer influence you. Joy rises up in you because God lives in you. Because you are dead, there is finally enough room for God to live! You are simply happy for being alive. Dead people don't need to be the boss, but when they become the boss they are best servants you ever met. Dead people realize everything in life is gravy, undeserved, tasty, overflowing gravy.
And the final thing about death, since you have already died you are ready to die. Have you died? Look in the mirror and ask yourself, "Do you have what it takes?" And if you say "Yes, of course" you haven't died.
Dying is never easy, but if you want to be risen with Christ his cross, the symbol of our execution, can not be ignored.
The number now is over 100.
Some in that number were popular, some were not. Some had boatloads of money, others were dirt poor. A few were murdered, a number were casualties of car accidents, while others simply slipped away in the quiet of a silent night.
Young, old, teens, tweens, parents, grandparents, lonely singles, happily married and a few babies. Now each one of the 100 is stone cold, buried under six feet of dirt.
One in that number was my dearest dad. One was my wife’s sweet mom. One was a good friend. One was a newly divorced man I was just getting to know. All of them...dead.
“Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
that he should live on forever
and never see the pit.
For he sees that even the wise die.”
I’ve helped bury Christians, Agnostics, criminals and Atheists. I once saw a man die who no longer knew his name so I am not even sure he knew what he believed. Everyone dies, irrespective of ideology, faith or obstinate stiff upper lip they think they can present to face off death's real onslaught. I say, “Good luck with that!"
I just read this quote today given to exhort preachers like me, "Preachers need to challenge the current worldview, in ways that force us to see that we humans are not in charge of the world we call our own, that we are in the midst of a crisis we do not fully comprehend. Arrogantly convinced that we live, we do not fully appreciate the consequence of having been captured by death, walking unwittingly under its control...we are the living dead."
So if that is true, then what? What is the answer for mankind? Dirt, decay, worms, dust and then nothing left but some forgotten fragments of bone? A random strand of hair?
Before you answer, ask yourself, what if Jesus never existed? Or what if Jesus was still dead and buried? What if you could no longer count on the hope everyone has stolen or expected from him? What then? No one knows. The brilliant minds are still baffled by the moment after you take that final breath. No matter how hard we try to fight it off, death still is able to sink it's teeth in the hardest and most stubborn ones of us.
You see, there is no one other than Jesus who died and came back to tell us about what lies beyond. He alone went through the inky black curtain of Sheol and came back to report. Besides him no one else offers any chance at hope, firm solid "bet your life on it" hope. People can only mutter faint whispers of childish wishes and a fool’s dream - but they have no good reason to believe these dreams other than " because I want them to be true". The Rolling Stones were right you know? "You can't always get what you want."
Atheists say we return to the dust from which we came. But they really don’t believe that, they can't believe that. Their passion for living betrays thier cold calculations on dying. Why do they fight for meaning if there is no meaning to be had? Because they live off the borrowed hope of Jesus.
That is why when a dear mother of the bitter stoic atheist dies they still long to hear their irrational wish spoken that "she is in a better place." But c'mon man! Their belief doesn't support that. The love they had was only a pipe dream, a mirage, a romantic tug on the heart. Nothing more, right? The love they had was only for a walking, talking piece of dirt. Our ultimate future is really what defines us after all.
Buddhists don’t believe in a real afterlife, for them it is dreams and illusions ... and yet they still pray to their ancestors long dead. They call on them by name, as if they really were and are real. Because they know that belief in nothing offers nothing. They too are stealing hope from Jesus. So too the Muslim jihadist, the Hindu monk, and the agnostic free-loader. All are being held up by the one possibility only Jesus procured.
It is here why I believe. Jesus alone will allow me to see my father again. Jesus will allow me to finally become my true self after I die. No one else can promise me that. Here is what Jesus promised, "I am the resurrection and the life, Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." Yet shall he live! Brian Blount says it like this, "For God to save us from death, God must invade. God's primary weapon is resurrection."
Resurrection is a weapon. God's weapon against death.
It sets everything that has gone wrong, right. It is the only thing that gives my struggle, your struggle meaning. It is the key that unlocks the Christian message. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 that if resurrection was not true everything would implode. Preaching would become the occupation of liars, church would be a congregation of the fooled, and Christ himself would no longer be champion of the dead. His future would have been sealed when he was buried, and for 2,000 years he has been left to rot. Hope would fade back to wish, solid faith into meaningless dreams. And where do you think that would leave us? As sinners still under the wrath of an angry God.
The reason I am a Christian is because I am banking on one thing and one thing only, I have thrown all my chips in, put all my eggs in one basket, "On the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). That is all I have. That is why I am a Christian.
If you don't have it, what else you got?
My sister drools, and she is almost 60 years old. She still wears diapers, she wrings her bony hands, and she sits all day in a wheelchair with greasy hair. Is she a sad excuse for a life or an important precious human being? It all depends on…
Who defines you?
I know a boy who is 4 foot 2. He will never make a sports team, he wears junior sizes while going to Senior High. Most girls in the hallway are taller and look down on only a cute but rather insignificant little boy. He will never be to them someone to adore and respect and look up to...will he? Is his life a tragedy or is there hope for him? It all depends on...
Who defines you?
I myself went to a top notch high school: I was offered best of teachers, a wide variety of classes to choose from, a diploma that was respected. I went to a private university, received a degree, and my course was charted for monetary success. Something strange happened on the road to wealth...I became a small town pastor. I now look at the friends I graduated with living in mansions, vacationing in Acapulco, and set for life. I still am a small town pastor. Did I waste my degree, am I on the losing end of the race to riches, or is serving God faithfully enough? It all depends on…
Who defines you?
Last consideration: What do we do with that pregnant woman, you know, the one who has been raped? Do we tell her that in order to forget the memory you need to eliminate the child? Does it matter that we are returning evil for evil, or that we are compounding the grief and shame that will more than likely be too much for any soul to bear? What do we think of that life in the womb? Is this the one exception, the one time, we can call a forming baby an unwanted and dirty tissue because it brings back too much pain? We can't let a bad memory live, have it walking around, can we? Even if we kill the life, we will never kill the pain. It will never go away by trying to forget, ignoring it, or calling a life non-life just to have some moments peace. And what do we say about those thousands of people who are living right now that are the product of rape? Are they not important? Are they not valuable? Are they merely shadows and dust? It all depends on…
Who defines you?
Should I let my children's friends define them? Should I let the bully be the one who lables my child forever? Stupid, dumb, and idiot?
Should I let legislators and lawyers define my life and my sister’s life? Should I let that one loud angry woman who hates all men tell other women how they must think? It is a fetus, an inconvenience, a horrid little thing.
Should I let interest rates and golf courses determine success? A cabin on the lake is well worth it on the road to hell.
Who defines us anyway?
You must answer this! Here is mine:
"For God made man in his own image.” Genesis 9:5
“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.” Psalm 139:14-16
(If you have love for all people check out the series ‘Conceived in Rape’ on Dr. James Dobson’s ‘Family Talk’)
"I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the pricks."
In a recent Rolling Stone interview with Bono, lead singer for the incomparable rock group U2, gave this insightful quote when speaking about the link between creativity and mortality, "Brendan Kennelly. I have known him for years; he is an unbelievable poet. And he said, 'Bono, if you want to get to the place where the writing lives, imagine you're dead.' There is no ego, there is no vanity, no worrying about who you will offend. "
So let's imagine I am dead. And then imagine on the other side of the grave I am asked, "Chris, why did you believe in Christ while you were alive? Why did you take the teachings of Christianity so serious?" Since I have nothing to lose, here is my answer, as plain and forthright as any dead man can answer:
The answer is simple: I was dreadfully hungry and thirsty!
Need drove me to Jesus. Or rather it was Jesus who drove me to see how badly I was in need of him. Like Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus, "Why do you kick against the pricks?" The Lord was pricking me, goading me to come to him. I had no other choice. The writer J. N. Darby descibes this idea well, "Wisdom and philosophy never found out God; He makes Himself known to us through our needs; necessity finds Him out. I doubt much if we have ever learned anything solidly except we have learnt it thus."
The point of God's prick is found in the sharp pain of our failure, the heaviness of sorrow, the shame of dissappointment, the gnawing lust of sinful addiction and despair of smashed dreams. Until we are truly hungry to get free from these things, we won't reach for the food. And Jesus is the bread of life.
"Why I am a Christian?" seems to be an awefully strange question for me to consider now because this question originates out of the present cultural worldview of arrogant self-confidence; it is often asked from a person that is full, thinking they are fine, not needing anything. But I have never been fine, full and completely satisfied. For me the real question is this, "Why aren't you a Christian?"
Where do people go to get their fill if it isn't Christ?
And I am not talking about the delusional junk foods of money, success or pleasure. Everyone knows the more the eye sees of these things the more it wants because delusions don't fill nor satisfy. And that is exactly what they are. When have you ever had your fill of enough money? You may succeed today, but if you don't keep it up, you will be nothing more than a failure.
But that is the point. I reached the end in my life where I was left hungry after chomping down on the delusional answers this world provides. I was so hungry because I filled my stomach with nothing but empty lies. It is like chomping on too many circus peanuts; they are nothing but air, sugar and orange fluff. All I was left with was God's pointed prick, waking me up to the reality that I needed real food. His food.
This moment of need and dissatisfaction in my life came to a point of decision. I was driving home from a sales meeting where the customer called me a liar to my face and told me to get out of his office. On my way home I was driving down Highway 44 in Mentor, Ohio thinking about this horrible meeting, wondering if financial success was worth the price of losing my soul?
I will never forget that day because I pulled my car over on the side of the highway, turned off the engine and had a heart to heart argument with God. I was yelling at him pounding on the steering wheel of my car...people driving by must have thought I was nuts.
My rant was filled with anger: I felt like a failure, I felt like God failed me, I hated my job, most of my dreams of a child were smashed, and I wanted to know from God why I was even created? It was then in the moment of expressing my anger I first really vented words of true faith. They were far more real and true than my years of reciting old dead responsorial readings during mass. My anger in that moment proved to me that I actually believed God existed, I knew he was alive, and I also knew he was the only one who could help me. He used his prick to bring me to a point of anger and wanting answers.
You can only truly get angry at someone if you know they can actually help you. I believed in him, the first stone of faith was laid.
Did you know God is alright when a person is angry with Him? That is, of course, if it is a genuine cry of faith. It was for me. I was throwing myself at him. I was desperately hungry for answers; answers I know only He could give.
So in that moment I knew that if he was going to hear my prayer, I must reciprocate by hearing his word. Communication goes both ways. Relationship requires a give and take. My parents taught me that. So I told him I would begin to learn of him, I would read his Word, and the space to give him a chance to answer my questions, and I would try to listen. But I also needed help!
I learned biblical listening means I must also follow. I was OK with that because I was tired of going my own way, I was crashing and burning at every turn. I figured it was time to let him lead. And lead he did. So in that car I repented. I confessed my sin and turned toward him, and I quit following my own way. I gave him my cracked and broken life, and trusted he could repair it. I was hungry, that is why I believed.
Over the years I have found that while he answered so many of my original questions, life happens and more questions arise. I also found that Christianity doesn't make me stronger but weaker. I am needier and hungrier than ever. And when I start going at it on my own he sends me a thorn. Paul says, "To keep me from becoming conceited because of these suprisingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me."
Pricks and thorns are given to prod, poke and humble us. Their purpose is evoke hunger and thirst. And Jesus promised, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled."
How hungry are you?