my friends regularly give me a hard time for all of the family birthday parties we go to. every week, they joke. and they’re not far off. i suppose that’s just how it goes for those of us who live around family. particularly when your family numbers in the hundreds (only a slight exaggeration).
this past week, Holy Week, we celebrated my wife’s, my brother’s and my sister’s birthdays. with a dinner at my mom’s house. the night before Good Friday. the night before we celebrate Jesus’ death on the cross. using the words “celebrate” and “Jesus’ death” in the same sentence always feels weird. but that’s what we do, knowing the good that is to come from it.
when we arrived, my mom greeted us at the door with a smile and hugs, and she quickly returned to preparing dinner. my brother was there. my sister was not. i asked if she was going to make it, knowing there had been some trials in their relationship lately. which is when she explained what had happened that night.
the phone call
my sister’s dad was in town. not a dad we shared. and apparently my sister had taken off that night, leaving in my mom’s car, after they had a disagreement. and i use the word “disagreement” as a euphemism, here.
apologizing, while preparing dinner, my mom explained how she had called the police after my sister had left with her car. apparently she had also informed the police that she thought my sister would be with her dad. a man who was visiting from out of state, and who had multiple warrants out for his arrest. she knew where he was staying. a cheap, dive of a motel, in a small nearby town. a very dark place. she let the police know this is where they could likely find her car. and her daughter. she explained to us that she was expecting a phone call anytime with an update.
my mom works long hours. a single parent. she has to, when she can. which meant that night’s dinner would be a late one. by 8:00, we were just sitting down to dinner. finally. all of us very hungry, and excited for the meal set before us. which is when the phone rang. just as we sat down.
we all leaned in, from our seats around the room, to hear bits and pieces of my mom’s phone conversation. it was with the police. they had her car. she needed to come get it. she asked if someone could drive her, and it was assumed i would be the one driving. i didn’t want to. in fact, that was the last thing i wanted to do. so i asked my brother if he would. he agreed, said, “of course,” but my mom quickly said, “no.” apparently he had had a pretty serious dental appointment earlier that day, and he was still on medication. he didn’t seem to care, but my mom did. so that left me in the driver’s seat. and that left my dinner to wait.
a dark place
we drove away from the house that night, my mom and i. leaving the warm home, and the warm food, and turning instead to a long, dark road before us.
mom replayed for me the conversations and arguments that had led up to this point. i had had a pretty intense day before arriving at my mom’s house that night. a busy dat at work. a routine car check up that turned in to a paycheck’s worth of repairs. so each argument my mom explained, each painful conversation she laid on me, brought with it a magnified weight. and as she continued, i felt myself sink further and further into my seat. drowning beneath their struggles. beneath the weight of their torn relationship.
and my mind began to wander, at that moment. driving the dark curves of the country roads that night. i began to think of all the pain around us. all the messes we get ourselves in. all the painful lives we know of. and it seemed, at that point, that i was painfully aware of the depravity of our lives. and i say “our” to mean all of us. you. me. those you know. those you don’t know. the situation i found myself in that night may be an extreme, or it may not be, but i know of so may different lives that are in a painful, painful mess. and it just seemed so overwhelming that night.
we entered the highway that led into the town where my sister’s dad was staying. at that dark motel. and, as i knew what was coming, everything within me wanted to run the opposite way. i could feel my insides begin to crawl backwards, pushing against my seat, struggling to tear away from all that was before me. and i remember thinking to myself, “there is no way i can do this tonight.” going to this dark place. seeing my sister’s dad. being in-between my mom and my sister. to make sure everything was okay. i just didn’t have it in me.
and that’s when these words came to me. like a deep, dense fog, rolling through a valley, consuming everything in it’s path.
fear not, for I am with you
and, even though nothing had changed, we were still heading to the same dark place, to deal with the same dreadful situation, i was suddenly overcome with peace. and i can’t explain it any way other than to say, what had previously left me feeling overwhelmed, no longer did. and, for whatever reason, i was certain everything would be okay.
a clear picture
it was at that same point, driving the light-lined highway leading to this dark place, that i saw, clearly, a picture of Jesus the night before He was crucified. the same night of the week i now found myself.
it was a picture of a man who knew what was coming. the most painful road He, or anyone since, had ever traveled. a road filled with mockery. abandonment. loneliness. physical torture. separation from the Father He had spent eternity past with. a road that would ultimately lead to His death.
and, knowing the road before Him, He desperately sought a way out. praying to the Father. asking for a way out. and the complete exhaustion from His anguish brought sweat drops of blood.
He desperately wanted anything but the road before Him. but, knowing what was to come was the Father’s will, He accepted it. and we’re told, at that moment, that The Father strengthened Him. the Father provided for Jesus’ needs, without removing Him from the situation, because He knew the good that was to come from this dark place His Son would be going.
into the darkness
we pulled up to the motel that night, an older man and woman sharing a cigarette under the street light near the entrance, and we didn’t immediately see my mom’s car. for a moment, we both wondered what to do. i continued around the back of the motel, to the gravel parking lot, to find a sheriff’s patrol car, blocking in my mom’s car, with a passenger in his backseat. i wondered who it was. was it my sister? would they do that? or was it her dad? either way, i didn’t want to look. i didn’t want that face staring out at me from the backseat engrained in my memory. so i looked away.
we got out of the car, and my mom quickly recognized my sister’s dad in the backseat. relief spilling over me as she told me. the sheriff walked around his car and asked my mom her name. he explained what had happened. how he would be taking my sister’s dad to prison. how their story did not line up with my mom’s. and how my sister was still in the motel room. by herself. and, as i looked at the building, a wooden structure that seemed to permeate darkness, even as the streetlights shone against it, i cringed. at the thought of my seventeen year old sister alone. in that room. by herself. and i was overwhelmed by the pain she must have felt at that moment. all alone. while her father sat just outside her window in the backseat of a cop car.
the sheriff asked if he should stay to make sure everything went all right getting her. i assured him we’d be okay, and we approached the motel’s entrance as the patrol car swung around the front of the building, onto main street, away from us. we walked through the modest motel lobby, and i was thankful no one greeted us. we turned the corner and continued down the narrow hallway. it seemed to grow more and more constricting with every step we took. and my mom just kept saying how mad my sister was going to be. “she’s not going to be happy. she is not going to be happy with me.”
and so i stopped, there in the hallway, just feet from the room that held my sister, like a hostage. i suggested that maybe this would go better if i went alone. my mom agreed, and she returned to the car.
a hopeless evening
i don’t like funeral services. i think they’re exhausting, emotionally.
i was reminded of this recently following the death of a family member. i think i might plan ahead and request a party for mine, just for everyone else’s sake. maybe a dance party.
the thing that often happens, after the funeral service. after the crying. after the sad songs. is that people reminisce about the one who has passed. and that’s the part i don’t mind so much. sometimes they’re funny stories. sometimes they’re serious. i prefer the funny ones, personally. but i think we do this for a reason. i think we all do this because by sharing stories, it seems like we can still enjoy a part of that person.
and i have to think this was true for Jesus’ disciples, after He had been crucified. and then laid in a tomb. that night must have felt so hopeless. after following Him for three years, suddenly facing the reality of their crucified teacher. Jesus’ disciples must’ve felt completely helpless and hopeless. i can just picture them, sitting around together, hiding. fearful for their own lives. thinking quietly to themselves, “so this is it? after all that, this is how it ends?”
and, at some point, i can picture someone deciding to break the silence. probably peter. and he breaks the ice with a story, about their crucified Teacher. and from there they just start reminiscing about this Man they had gotten to know so closely.
“remember that time we were walking through the field and He stuck up for us when those pharisees got on to us for eating the grain on the sabbath?” heads turn toward peter as he talks. and smiles spread across the faces of those in the room as they recall that day.
and another one of His disciples speaks up, “remember when we were on the boat out in that storm. the waves were rocking the boat. crashing against us. water was everywhere. you could hardly hear yourself think the wind was so loud. and remember what He was doing while all that was going on? napping. He was actually taking a nap!” and laughter spills out across the room. the first laughs these men have had in days. like therapy, pouring over them.
and as the laughter dies down, and the smiles slowly drain out of their faces, another man speaks up. “remember at the passover meal this past week, when we were going through the motions, and He starts talking about the bread being His body. and the wine being His blood. and that we were to remember Him during those meals. that they were a sign of a new covenant. in His blood.”
and the laughter that filled the room only moments before now seems miles away, as those in the room are shaken back to the painful realization of the place they now find themselves, on that dark night. and they’re left to ponder their Teachers’ words. those things Jesus had shared with them just the night before. and they can’t help but wonder what that all means, now that their Teacher is dead. buried in a tomb. things must have seemed so very bleak. so desperately dark. so hopeless.
i approached the door to the room i was told my sister was staying, room number 108, to find the door slightly open. i could see a plastic garbage bag peaking out of the door, leaning against the wall, and i could hear my sister’s voice on the phone. i knocked, not feeling quite right about just walking in. seconds later my sister came to the door, faked a half-smile, and opened the door to let me in. i stepped around the garbage bag and walked into the center of the room. her dad’s belongings were left out, as if he were returning. her’s were packed, neatly, on the second bed.
“so are we going?” she asked. calmly, without any sense of pain or hurt, or even a hint of awareness of the degree of painfulness of that evening. and i knew, at that moment, that this girl’s childhood had made her calloused. so calloused that even in such a moment as this, she was able to remain perfectly calm. to put on a face. to act as though all was normal. my mom is right, she is just like me.
my mom calls me from time to time when she notices things my sister does that remind her of me. from faces she makes to things she’ll say. and it makes me smile every time. i love my sister so much. i am so proud of her. she is beautiful. she is so smart. and i still see her as this little, nine-year-old girl. who liked to climb. everything. i still picture her, dressed in her pajamas, climbing the door frame in our kitchen, then hanging from the peak of the door frame by her hands and feet. just like a sloth. smiling at all of us. i still picture her that way. and in that moment, i was not just like her. for i could not hide the pain of that evening. i suddenly burst into tears. the tears coming so quickly that they took me off guard. and, as i began to cry, i reached out to hold her. and she cried, too. suddenly, she was just like me, again.
and i just held her, in my tear-soaked arms. i told her i was sorry. i told her i wanted better for her. and i told her i loved her.
as i held her, my eyes took in the room, before finally falling on one of the light shades that hung from the wall. a brown stain darkening one of its sides. and the darkness of the room suddenly seemed too much to handle.
i told my sister i had good news, that mom had made lasagna, which is what she had asked for for her birthday dinner. her lips curled up at the edges, slightly. showing a hint of a smile. i grabbed her bags from her bed and said, “let’s go home.”
dinner with grandpa
just the night before, i had the chance to take my grandfather out for dinner. he treated, of course. as he always insists on doing.
my grandfather is an incredible man. as i’ve said here before, he’s a man i owe so much to. and i always enjoy getting together with him to catch up.
with easter weekend quickly approaching, we found ourselves talking about the coming weekend, and all the plans he had in store for the family get-together that sunday afternoon. he had asked me if i’d be willing to tell the story of easter to everyone this year, and i had agreed. i had passed the previous year when asked. and i felt bad for doing so afterward. talking to family about your faith can be difficult, particularly when everyone’s not on the same page. it’s probably easier to talk to strangers about such things, for whatever reason.
but i told my grandpa i’d be happy to this year. and he confessed to me there was still a lot of things about the faith that he just didn’t understand. even though he taught me The Lord’s prayer at a very young age, my grandfather and i have never talked much about Christianity. or God. and i was curious what kind of questions he struggled with.
“oh yeah,” i asked, in-between bites of my burger. “like what?”
“well,” he replied from across the table. “like earthquakes and hurricanes. why does all that happen? it causes so much pain. why doesn’t He do something about it?”
and his question revealed to me much about my grandfather’s faith. a man i know so much about. but this one area of his life is one i have not had the opportunity to see much of. so i was delighted to hear his honest question.
“i know some people like to say that’s His way of punishing sin,” i began, “but i don’t believe that.”
my grandfather shook his head in agreement. “i don’t believe that either.”
“there was one point in Jesus’ ministry where a tower fell and killed a bunch of people,” I said. “Jesus asked a group if they thought this was God’s punishment for their sin, and he reassured them it was not. there was another point where Jesus was with a group of His followers, and they came across a man who had been blind from birth. they asked Jesus if it was this man’s fault that he was born blind, or if it was his parents’ fault. Jesus told them it was neither, but that this man had been born blind so that God could get the glory in this man’s healing. and then Jesus healed him.”
my grandfather was listening intently, so i continued on.
“the thing about the Christian faith is, we know horrible things are going to happen. He said it’d be more difficult if we follow Him, not easier. but we’re also told that, through these painful circumstances, God is glorified. because others get to see Him at work. as he works through others, to be His hands and feet, so that He gets the glory.”
“so,” i continued, “even though He allows those horrible things to happen, He is still at work. to bring about good.”
my sister and i tucked into my car after leaving the motel that evening, and i remember being overwhelmed by its warmth. we got into the car. into the warmth. and we escaped. we drove away. away from the darkness of that motel. along the highway lit up like a christmas tree by the light posts.
and, as we drove away from the motel that evening, i had an overwhelming feeling that we were driving away from more than just a motel. more than just that town. that we were driving away from all the pain that came from that evening. that we were driving into the light. and that everything would be okay.
less than an hour before, my sister was sitting alone, in that horrible motel room. but now, we were speeding away. and the darkness of that night grew fainter with every stretch of that highway. and at that moment, i was reminded again of Christ’s walk to the cross. of how desperately He had wanted another option. but how He went, knowing the good that would come from going to that dark place. and how, ultimately, it would mean making things right. it would mean forgiveness of sins. it would mean broken lives made whole again.
it was late as we drove away that night, and i turned to my sister and asked if she was hungry.
“yeah,” she replied. with that smile on her face. the same smile that used to spread across her face while she looked at us while hanging upside down from the doorpost of our kitchen.
conversation with a friend
the next morning, the morning after all of this had taken place with my sister. the morning of Good Friday. i shared what had happened with a close friend. he had asked how the birthday party went, and i told him how there had been a slight change of plans. i told him about everything that happened that night.
and, after walking through the details of the evening, warm tears now making paths down my face, i told him i was actually thankful for everything that had taken place that evening.
“i feel like He allows us to go through all this crap, through these terribly painful experiences,” i said, “but then He reveals His glory to us through it.”
he sat there, quietly. beside me. just listening.
“and i am so thankful for it. because i feel like i now see Him more clearly. i feel like i now appreciate more than ever what that path to the cross looked like for Him. and how He went, even though that’s the last thing He wanted to do. and i am so thankful for it.”
and i was overwhelmed with joy, at that moment, at the thought of the good that He is still doing. even in such dark circumstances.
i knew everything was going to be okay. this evening had reminded me that He is still about bringing us from very dark places, and into the light. just as He had done that night.
out of the dark, into the light
as my sister and i drove home that evening, i had this picture of Jesus swimming deeper and deeper into the deep, blue darkness of the sea. like one of those deep sea divers who can hold their breath so long you wonder how their lungs don’t burst within them.
and i pictured Him kicking, propelling Himself further and further down. into the frigid cold of those dark waters. further and further from the warmth. further from the light. intentionally. looking for something. looking for us.
He comes down, and down, and down, deep into our pain and our sin, and our filth. and He finds us. and He grabs onto us. and as He grabs onto us, he pulls us from the cold, dark place where He finds us. only so that He can bring us up, and up, and up. and out of it. that is the Savior we are blessed to worship. that’s the Savior who loves us, and who we celebrate. even as He pulls us out of the darkness, and into the light.