The sword hangs by a thread, suspended above the throne, pointing down. Threatening.
One strand of horsehair, fastened to the pommel, is strong enough. Barely. One breeze, one bit of weakening fiber, and death is certain.
And so, no matter how powerful the king becomes, no matter how many successes he has, the sword remains above him, ominous, looming, damning.
What’s the sword hanging over your head, threatening to snap loose and cleave? What’s the thing that’s unresolved and maybe even unresolvable? What’s the impending doom that’s imploding joy?
Is it the politics of your passport country or your host country? Visa issues or money problems? Social unrest and violence where you live or where you’re from?
Is it the well-being of your church or your children? Your health or your marriage? Is it an imminent deconstruction?
Do you drown in a deep awareness that one tiny thing could shift and it would all come crashing down?
We live in an ever-more connected age, which seems to be resulting in an ever-more frightened age. Things seem to get scarier and scarier, more and more unstable. Darker. A U.S. news site just ran this headline: It’s Hard To Not Be Anxious When Nowhere Feels Safe Anymore.
Governments fall, global alliances splinter, trusted institutions falter and misstep. Racism blooms like a mushroom cloud and injustice rains down unchecked.
It’s exhausting and terrifying and oftentimes paralyzing.
How should we then live? How should we then minister and love across cultures?
C.S. Lewis speaks to us, cautioning against a common (and paralyzing) error. Lewis writes, “[D]o not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation.”
He continues, speaking of his very atomic circumstances, the sword his generation lived under:
“Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors – anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.”
But somehow, it’s not depressing for Lewis; it doesn’t lead to numbness or retreat or despair. Instead, for Lewis, this awareness leads to LIVING. He goes on to encourage the fearful of his time, and us too:
“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
So may I encourage you, my dear reader: don’t forget to live. Plant yourself where you’re at, scratch your name into the land, and connect heart and sinew with the people of God and the people God loves. Live!
Chase the Light & Notice the Life
We need to know and remember, deep in our gut, that we can face this darkness and not die. It’s a hard sell, I know, but notice how Paul juxtapositions death AND life in the same verses. They’re both there, and they’re both weighty:
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the DEATH of Jesus so that the LIFE of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. Yes, we LIVE under constant danger of DEATH because we serve Jesus, so that the LIFE of Jesus will be evident in our DYING bodies. So we LIVE in the face of DEATH, but this has resulted in eternal LIFE for you.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12, NLT)
My best friend recently pondered this collision of life and death, musing about our desperate need to chase the light, especially when it’s dark. She wrote:
So what can we do when we’re confronted with all the darkness within, and all the darkness without? I mean, we know the end is good. We know the Bridegroom is coming back for us. But our eternal hope doesn’t always translate easily into our everyday moments and hours.
I think we need to chase the light. To DO something to help scatter the darkness. These days this is how you’ll find me chasing the light. . .
Singing a worship song.
Kissing my husband.
Chopping vegetables and preparing a meal for my family.
Reading a book to my kids.
Laughing at my husband’s jokes.
Going for a walk.
Drinking coffee with a friend.
These are the things that are saving my life right now. The small, menial acts that remind me that I’m still alive, that I’m not dead yet, and that the world hasn’t actually blown itself up yet.
No matter how sad I feel about everything on my first list, I can’t change any of them. But I can live my tiny little life with light and joy. With passion and hope. I can chase the light.
I chase the light, and I remember that this life is actually worth living, even with all the sadness in it. I chase the light, and I remember the Giver of these little joys, and I give thanks in return.
I refuse to let the griefs and evils of this world pull me all the way down into the pit. I will revolt against this despair. I will chase the light. I will grasp hold of the ephemeral joys of my itty bitty domestic life. And I will remember — always — the Source of this light.
~ Elizabeth Trotter
Living under the sword of Damocles is draining and terrifying. But even there, Christ is.
And because Christ is, we can dance in the light as much as we fight in the dark; we can laugh as much as we mourn. Our lips can crack into smiles as often as our hearts crack into pieces.
As long as this age endures, the sword will remain. And yet.
The lone strand of a horse’s hair, weakly holding back death, has been replaced by the strong mane of a Lion’s love. And we are saved.
So live, dear one.
Chase the light and remember the King.
*More on the Sword of Damocles
I’ve always thought like this.
I’ve always believed my life was going to be very short. Nearly every time I publish an article or preach a sermon, I think, “Well, I said it, I guess I can die now.”
I don’t have a desire to die, it’s just that I live with a gut-level realization that I could die. Any minute.
It’s not morbid. At least it doesn’t feel morbid. It feels realistic. And frankly, ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been amazed at how people can not live this way.
Thoughts of imminent death don’t fill me with dread or motivation. They don’t scare me into action or inaction. You know what they do fill me with? You know what they do generate in me? Gratefulness. God’s got this world, and it’s his job to run it, to save it. I show up as long as I can, obey as best I can, love every one I can, and then leave. Soon, I’ll exit stage right and the whole thing will keep going. The curtain won’t go down. Grace will keep going.
So how do we live with an awareness of our imminent mortality? How should that awareness impact our lives and ministries?
Well, what did Jesus do when he knew his time was short? He spent time with his friends, he washed feet. He said some things. He prayed.
He spent some very “unproductive” time at his favorite hillside garden retreat. He didn’t race the clock or yield to a flurry of last minute ministry activity. He walked. He prayed.
As cross-cultural Christian workers, we often allow the specter of death (ours or others’) to fling us into frenetic activity. But I love what C.S. Lewis wrote about living with an awareness of death. In his case, he was writing to those living under fear of death by atomic bomb, but his broader points apply here too.
“The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
Living and working cross-culturally is hard, and we often forget the joys of the little things. We need rhythms of rest and Sabbath to restore us, to remind us of how much we need the “sensible and human things.”
We’re one month into a four-month trip Stateside, and before we got here, Elizabeth and I made a purposeful decision to do the “human things”: we decided to set aside the first month to reconnect with family, to play together, to travel a bit for fun, and to rest. And I’m so glad we did.
This first month back has been precisely what we needed. I’m sleeping better. I’m seeing a counselor to debrief our last term in Cambodia. It’s wonderful. One of my kids noticed the change and said, “You’re different, dad. You are laughing more.” The kid was right.
The job is hard. The ministry is hard, and we all need to remember to slow down, to live.
We all need to work hard and we need to Sabbath hard.
Remember, regular times of rest are evidence of discipline, not laziness.
Regrouping, reconnecting, restoring, recreating, are godly endeavors, after all.
Well, I would talk more, but I’m busy. I’m busy laughing with my kids, playing in the grass, reconnecting with friends and family, and remembering that there is good in the world. Do you need to do that too?
After all, Christ is Risen!
Some call it pessimism. Unspiritual. A sickness best treated with peppy music and cliché-riddled Christianese. They caution and guard against sadness, considering it a rabbit hole (or a worm hole) leading nowhere good. Others call it holy. Jeremiah-ish. Defending it with the label of realism – open eyes that see things as they truly are.
It is Fundamental Sadness.
Do you know what it feels like, this fundamental sadness? The sadness that seems to be part of all things?
Sometimes the sadness is very personal; it’s the loss of a sister or a father or a good friend. Sometimes it’s the loss of a country or long-treasured plans.
Sometimes the sadness is more global. It’s the emotional darkness that comes after you hear about Las Vegas, Mogadishu, the Yazidis, Paris, the Rohingya, or Raqqa. Sometimes its triggered by hashtags like #MeToo or #BringBackOurGirls.
It is the blazing sunset that sears, not because of who’s present, but because of who’s absent.
It is the baby’s cry in a mother’s arms that taunts your empty ones.
It is the background sadness, fundamental, and seemingly underneath all things.
It’s the threat of miscarriage behind every pregnancy.
It’s the one who sees the beauty of the dawn, but feels deep in his gut that the dawn comes before the dusk – that sunrise precedes sunset.
It is the lover who knows, at the beginning of a beautiful kiss, that it will end.
“…of all conceivable things the most acutely dangerous thing is to be alive.”
— G.K. Chesterton
For me, this foundational sadness is not necessarily depressing, but it is always pressing: exerting force, demanding to be heard, demanding to be observed.
Do you know this feeling?
People get scared when I talk like this. I sort of do too. What will people think? This doesn’t sound right. Or mature. Or Holy.
And yet Jesus wept.
“And yet.” A powerful reminder, hinting at the deeper magic.
Jesus knew Jerusalem would destroy the prophets, and he knew Rome would destroy Jerusalem.
Though the sadness feels fundamental, the deeper magic is there, waiting, pulsing. It absorbs the sadness, bearing it, transforming it, then re-birthing it.
The Deeper Magic
“‘It means,’ said Aslan, ‘that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.'”
Witches never know the deeper magic. They know only winter and death, sorrow and pain. Half-truths all.
But the deeper magic persists, refusing to be overwhelmed. It is older than death and wiser than time. The deeper magic knows that there is more.
There is hope.
And when hope is born (or reborn), the thaw begins. Without the deeper magic of hope, we might stop our story at the table of sadness and end up with an eternal winter and a dead lion. And that truly is horrible.
But the deeper magic must be got at, not through escaping sadness or loss, but through fully embracing it. Through laying down. I don’t think we need less lament, I think we need more lament, more tears.
So I invite you to the paradox of life bittersweet. Life’s not EITHER bitter OR sweet. But it’s also not neither. It’s both.
I invite you to make room for the person who is totally happy and deeply clappy.
I invite you to make room for the person who is frozen in sadness and depressed.
And I invite you to make room for the person who feels all of those things at the same time.
Why do we forget?
I sometimes wonder why others don’t see it or feel it. Life is sad. People are hurting. Why aren’t more people sad? But sadness doesn’t sell well, and it doesn’t seem to preach well either. But it’s there. It’s there in our families and ministries. It’s there in our churches and friendships.
Truth be told, it’s much easier to be angry. And so instead of being sad, everyone is angry. All.The.Time. And anger does sell well. (It seems to preach well too.)
Maybe you don’t believe me, maybe you don’t think sadness is there. But do you think that anger is there? That it’s in our families and ministries? That it’s in our churches and our friendships?
As a pastoral counselor, I see a lot of anger. But anger’s just a fire alarm, alerting us to the real problem. People don’t have an anger problem. People have a pain problem. And that pain is most often unlabeled, unwelcomed, unprocessed sadness.
Of course, sadness by itself isn’t the solution. (That’d be depressing.) But insofar as sadness prepares us for Hope, it is the solution.
And although I do not like it and I wish it weren’t so, deep sadness is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.
When we’re unwilling to hold space for sadness, when we can’t handle the unwieldy truths of mystery and paradox, we block the very pathway that leads to hope. And hopeless people are dangerous people, willing to hurt themselves and others without measure or limit.
If we stop at sadness, without digging deeper, many terrible things become imminently rational. But the deeper magic shouts out and ushers in what only it can. Hope.
I know the Lord is always with me.
I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.
No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice.
My body rests in safety.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead
or allow your holy one to rot in the grave.
You will show me the way of life,
granting me the joy of your presence
and the pleasures of living with you forever.
The Shock of Magic
The beautiful and shocking deeper magic meant that, in the near future, “the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
Hope still means that.
The instrument of pain, the actual place of loss, which seems so strong and immovable, will move. It will be redeemed and transformed by the deeper magic; what has broken us will break, shattered by the love of the Lion.
There is Hope!
The altar will be cracked, and where blood and sadness once flowed, will soon be sunrise and Aslan’s roar.
May we never forget.