As a child, I was slightly obsessed with “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
I am pretty sure that my realistic life-goals had to do with driving around in a cool car all day long, wearing skin-tight Wranglers and finding items to jump with that said cool car. This wasn’t a fantasy; it was an option.
I also would proudly proclaim that I was a card-carrying member of the John Schneider fan club.
There was a tree outside of my childhood home that would serve as the perfect canvas to my world of fantasy. What made it ideal were the exposed tree roots that would form perfect grooves for my Matchbox General Lee car. My friend Chuck and I would chase each other’s cars around this tree for hours, kicking up dirt and alternating speeds with all of the sound effects of these non-muffled muscle cars. That tree would provide endless hours of entertainment and enjoyment.
I remember one day, however, when I took my collection of Matchbox cars outside and started running them over those well-worn tree roots, I noticed that something was different: it wasn’t enjoyable anymore. The magic of my childhood was gone. I gently placed my cars back into their cases and went inside. I never returned to it again.
In that moment, I learned an important life lesson: life is largely a lesson in loss. The loss of our childhood is simply a precursor to more devastating losses later–each one incrementally more painful than the one before.
There is the loss of our bodies’ physical vitality as the wear and tear of living takes its toll through aging. The aches and pains become more acute. Eventually, our bodies wear out. Death is, eventually, the ultimate and final loss.
We also will experience relational loss. Some of us will go through the pain of divorce; at some point, all of us will suffer a broken heart. At the very least, we will eventually experience relational loss through distance as the nature of our relationships change.
There is also the loss of something as morally neutral as time. The older we become, the more time seems cloaked in sadness; it inexorably slips away. It is this type of sadness that my Dad communicated to me just days before he died. He and Mom were going through old pictures and in doing so, he was reminded of the good times when my sister and I were children. He reminded me that those are times we will never get back. We live the pain of those words.
Then, there are the hurts, the betrayals and the disappointments that take from us in so many other ways.
Maybe what these losses point to is a loss of “wholeness.” This is the loss of who you were created to be: free and unencumbered by guilt, shame, insecurity; free from the raging fury of our ego fulfillment and our drive to be noticed; free–in our naked selves–to be fully known and fully loved. We feel this kind of loss in our souls.
It wasn’t always this way, of course.
The ancient writer of Genesis tells us of a very different world. It poetically describes to us a creation that was bursting with beauty. It was a scene that was so perfect and so unbroken that every day, we are told, God, the Creator–seeking friendship with his prized creations–would go into the garden in the cool of the day to be in relationship with them.
Loss was a foreign concept during this time; wholeness and perfection were the order of the day. However, love being what love is and not existing without a choice, the first humans were presented with a choice. Adam and Eve had free rein in the garden–except for one tree. They did what humans do: they made the wrong choice. The consequences of that tragic choice haunt humanity today. In a haunting curse God said to them, “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the earth, since from it you were taken; for dust you come and to dust you will return.”
This is our story. This is the brutal reality by which we live, function and reason. As the great Eugene Peterson once said, “this world is no friend to grace.” In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul referred to this reality as perishable–that which is passing away.
There is another reality that lurks just below the surface of this “seen” reality: It is the realm where love still wins, where forgiveness still frees, and where generosity and grace still lead to human flourishing. This reality is described in many ways. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it the “moral arc of the universe.” Others have called it a moral force. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. It is the place where God has authority.
We are told in our culture that the greatest quest in life is to find ourselves or to love ourselves or to succeed in our own personal quest for happiness. Our greatest quest in life, however, is aligning ourselves with the imperishable kingdom of Jesus. The Apostle Paul said it this way: “What is perishable must put on imperishability.”
Standing at the intersection of the imperishable versus the perishable is Jesus. The New Testament speaks of such a reality; it is nowhere as pronounced as in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John is different than the other accounts of the life of Jesus. This is because John gives us layers of meaning behind the events. In John, there is no Christmas story. There no lineage. Instead, there is poetry that helps the reader understand the reality of which Jesus was part of from the very beginning. It is the Gospel of John that tells us of the creation story in these terms:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” John 1:1-4
What was John trying to do? He wanted us to know that through the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus, God is remaking creation and is creating an alternate reality. He’s undoing the wrongs of the first humans. What is interesting is that John uses the term “Word of God,” which is the Greek word logos. Greek philosophers saw the logos of God as the power that made sense of the world and kept it going in perfect order. It was the thought and the wisdom of God that spoke forth creation, that brought order from disorder and creation from thought. It was now embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.
There are allusions of the creation story throughout the Gospel of John. Theologians throughout the centuries have typically referred to the “seven signs of Jesus,” or the “seven miracles of Jesus.” What was the first miracle? It was when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. This miracle corresponded with the first three days of creation when God spoke order into the dark, primordial soup and separated the waters from the expanse and called it “sky.” He then gathered the water in one place and called it “sea.”
After the crucifixion in John Chapter 20, we visit Mary Magdalene. She was standing outside of an empty tomb, crying, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to her. Jesus asked why she was crying. The Gospel of John then added this note: “Thinking he is the gardener….” Why was that detail there? Was it an echo of the Garden of Eden, of another gardener who got it wrong?
Even the Apostle Paul picked up on this imagery in the New Testament where he drew parallels between Adam and Jesus. For instance, in I Cor. 15:22, Paul stated that it was “through Adam all die…so in Christ all will be made alive.” Or in Romans 5, Paul stated that “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people because all of sinned.”
Do you see the pattern? Chaos, disorder, brokenness, loss: that is our story. Jesus, however, would step into the chaos and reconcile all things to Himself. He would bridge the gap between light and darkness, loss and renewal, death and resurrection. He would then invite us to partner with him in the work of renewal and reconciliation.
How do we join him? Paradoxically, we die. Jesus said it this way, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.”
What do we have to die to? We die to our ego world: to our false selves, to the invading and pervasive power of sin. We die to the sin that implores us to define ourselves as something outside the beautiful, true love of God. As Richard Rohr says, “our truest selves are hidden with Christ in God.”
We die to our addiction to be noticed and admired. Perhaps you need to die to your online identity and stop building personal online shrines. Do we need to die to our online presence and our obsession with how many likes or shares we get or who follows whom?
We die to our self-made salvation projects, where we convince ourselves we can’t be good enough, moral enough or “follow the rules” enough to earn God’s love and favor.
We die to the financial kingdoms that we create for ourselves. These kingdoms are where we define ourselves by how much money we have, by how many cars we have, by the quality of our vacations or by the collection of more “stuff.”
We die to climbing the ladder of success: doing everything in our power to make sure people see us in such a successful light. This is the same impulse that lead people to give bribes so that their children can attend the top schools in the country.
We die to our proclivity to define ourselves by the “rightness” of our groups, whatever your group may be. You as a white person or as a black person; as a gay person or a straight person; as an American or a non-American; as a Democrat or a Republican. I have said this before: It is partisanship and nationalism that seek to divide the Church and distract us from our mission of making God’s love known. People are entirely more committed to their political ideologies than they are to their faith. Worse yet, they see their faith through the lens of their favorite political parties or politicians.
Do you want to join Jesus in his work of sharing His love and renewal in a world of brokenness and sin? You have to die as well.
When we are willing to die, we open ourselves to the truest of true reality. We open ourselves, fully and completely, to the beautiful and pure love of God. We then begin to take on the character and the attitude of Christ.
What is the character of Christ? I think the book of Philippians sums it up well: Jesus being in the nature of God did not see equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. He, being found in the form of a man, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross. What is the character of Jesus? Humble, self-sacrificing, possessing generous love and grace for all of humanity.
I think of the story that Malcom Gladwell told in his book David and Goliath. For years, Gladwell had written insightful books on the social sciences, covering all sorts of topics. In 2014, he wrote a book that was about his return to faith. In the process of writing that book, he went to Winnipeg, Canada, to visit Wilma Derksen. In November of 1984, Candace Dirksen, the 13-year-old daughter of Cliff and Wilma Dirksen, went missing on her way home from school. For six weeks, the Dirksens didn’t know what had happened to their daughter. She had just vanished.
When they found her body, they entered into every parent’s worst nightmare. The details of what had happened to their daughter at the hands of a pedophile would haunt them the rest of their lives. What drew Malcom Gladwell to this story and what would stun the world in the days following the murder, however, was a statement that Wilma Dirksen made at a press conference. She expressed to the assembled press corps her intent to forgive her daughter’s murderer, of whom they did not know the identity of yet. She said, “We would like to know who the person or persons was who murdered Candace so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.
“I can’t say, at this point, that I forgive this person,” she added, with an emphasis on “at this point.”
For Wilma Dirksen, this statement would begin a long road on the path to forgiveness. For Gladwell, it was this story and stories like these that led him to ask the question: where do they find strength to say those things; where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?
For Dirksen, it was her Mennonite faith–her faith in Jesus–that gave her the inner resources she needed to walk that path. It was that example that led Gladwell back to the Mennonite faith of his childhood.
Who does those things? Who can forgive like that? Christians, those whose lives have been yoked with Jesus, do. Christians, who are fueled by the presence and the power of God, refined by hardship, nurtured in worship and grown in community.
In a broken, desperate, angry and divided world, we are–now more than ever– in need of a community of people who will inhabit the values and the character of Jesus and model something different: the values of the imperishable kingdom.
Yes, life is full of loss. We live within the often-cruel paradox of loss and renewal, death and resurrection, light and darkness. But we do so with the confidence that God, in Jesus, is renewing the world.
We also live within this paradox with a trust that God, in the words of the old hymn, “hides our souls in the cleft of the rock.” He holds us in a place where we are safe and secure in the hands of a God who loves us with an infinite and unending love.
THIS is what The Dukes of Hazzard has taught me.