but who do you say that I am? a devotional

i was recently asked to lead the staff of westside: a Jesus church, in portland, in a time of devotion. here are the reflections i gave on matthew 16:13-17, the story of peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ.

who do others say that I am?

Jesus begins this episode by asking His disciples who other people are saying the “Son of Man” is. and if you’re familiar with matthew’s gospel, you know Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favorite titles for Himself.

and so what we find here is Jesus asking what the crowds are saying about Him. “what’s the watercooler conversation about me been like,” Jesus is asking.

what all of the disciples’ responses have in common is that people are saying that Jesus is one of the prophets. perhaps, even, one of the greatest prophets.

and the interesting thing to notice here is that Jesus seems wholly uninterested in their response. He doesn’t even acknowledge it, as far as we can tell.

which begs several questions: why does Jesus even ask in the first place? does He not know what others are saying? is He going through some sort of existential crisis and is in search of validation?

and why doesn’t he acknowledge their response? if He disagrees, why doesn’t He say so?

instead of acknowledging their response as we might expect, Jesus asks another question.

but who do you say that I am?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks.

and the thing i wish scripture told us is how much time passed from Jesus’ question and peter’s response.

you can just imagine the disciples–sensing the weight of this question, and not wanting to get it wrong–doing all they can to avoid eye contact with Jesus. staring at the ground, kicking the dirt. whistling to themselves.

of course, it’s peter who finally breaks the silence.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” peter says.

and unlike before, Jesus not only acknowledges peter’s response, He praises it.

“blessed are you!” Jesus says, which is about as close as we get to Jesus giving an a-plus on one of His pop quizzes.

but He doesn’t stop there, which is the really interesting part.

in the same breath that He uses to praise this response, Jesus tells peter that he could not have answered this question rightly were it not for the Father giving peter the words.

“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my Father who is in heaven.”

isn’t that odd? why would Jesus ask the disciples a question that He knew they could not answer rightly without God’s help?

“but who do you say that I am,” Jesus asks the disciples. and this is, i would argue, one of the most important questions in the entire bible. which brings me to my third and final point for reflection.

not a one-off question

the more i think about this story, the more confident i am that this is not a one-off question that Jesus asks and then leaves alone. nor is it simply a question posed to peter.

instead, i think this is a question that scripture, as the living and active word of God, and Jesus, as the living, resurrected Lord, continues to ask each one of us anew each day. moment by moment, even.

this is a question that we can never get away from, never get ahead of.

it is a question we must answer in the seemingly mundane realities of life, as well as the incredible highs and the tragically low points of life.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, in your buying habits. in the television shows you watch. in your internet use.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you finally get that job offer that you’ve been waiting on for what has seemed like an eternity.

but who do you say that I am, Jesus asks, when you’ve been trying for years to get pregnant, while everyone you know is welcoming a new child into their family, and all your efforts have been met with nothing but closed door after closed door. or when the lab results come back, and it’s cancer.

who do you say Jesus is then? In those moments?

the full, painful reality of the world

i was listening to the radio the other day when i heard what was easily one of the grisliest, most tragic stories i’ve ever heard.

apparently someone opened up a locker in a public transit station in canada recently after noticing a terrible smell. to their horror, they found several newborn baby bodies stuffed into the locker.

the worst part is that these bodies had been there so long that the police couldn’t actually tell how many were there. maybe three, maybe four. they couldn’t make out where one baby’s body ended and the next began.

friends, who in the world do you say Jesus is when you hear those sorts of stories? because whoever we say Jesus is, however we respond to this relentless question, our answer must be able to hold the full, painful reality of the world in which we live.

listen to your life

frederick buechner is a presbyterian minister, novelist, and memoirist whose work i have clung to after being introduced to it a couple years back. he’s incredibly thoughtful, beautifully written, and exceptionally honest about the painful realities of the brokenness of this world.

and one of the repeated themes in buechner’s writing is that of our need to pay attention.

“pay attention,” buechner writes. “pay attention to your life.” to the monotonous, mundane bits just as much as the exciting or even tragic parts.

because if you listen really closely, buechner insists, you will see that your life itself is telling a story.

and that story, i believe, is the only answer we can offer to this question that Jesus asks each and every one of us over and over again: “but who do you say that I am?”

tears of hope: a christian perspective on death

two years ago, we said “goodbye” to my sister-in-law, hayley dawn. though it hardly feels right using the words “in-law.” she never used them when she introduced me as her brother.

this goodbye came after five of the most difficult days of our lives. days spent praying, crying and struggling to keep conversation. days that became blurred together, spent in the hospital that acted as our makeshift home for the week.

we prayed at her bedside. we prayed when we were walking alone in those cold, long hospital wings. we prayed in the middle of conversations, to ourselves. we tried to sleep. tried to eat. but it didn’t make sense. none of it did.

and then, on may 1, she was gone. just like that.

without a chance to catch our breath, we were forced to move forward, pushed along by the pressing current of passing seconds, minutes, hours and days. pushed along by weeks and months that had no sympathy for this loss. pressed by the forward movement of time that seemed to want to swallow up and fill in the void left by her absence.

and we were left dumbstruck by it all. i’ve never seen someone look so confused until that day i saw two parents lose their 19-year old daughter. i’ve never felt so confused myself until i felt those first moments in the absence of my sister’s life.

death doesn’t fit life

death is a funny thing. not funny “ha ha,” of course, but funny in a sesame street, “one of these things does not belong” kind of way.

death is funny, in a way, because it just doesn’t seem to fit with life. we squirm when we think or talk about death, even though it’s supposed to be this natural thing.

“it’s as natural as birth,” they tell us, but i’ve yet to meet someone who actually feels that way when it happens to those closest to them.

i realize death is common to us all. and i might even be willing to admit it’s a part of life (as we know it). but i’m not so sure i believe it’s natural. and i think, intuitively, we all know that.

when someone close to us has passed away, everything within us screams at this news. our very soul wants to shout,

“no!…

this isn’t right!

it’s unnatural!”

and it is.

i say death is unnatural because we were not created to die, we were created to live. and our souls know that.

our souls don’t get death. it leaves us scratching our heads, like the young boy who’s just been told his grandpa has “gone up to be with Jesus,” left to ask, “sooo… can i go see him?”

we are eternal beings forced into the temporal. like a fish snatched from its aquatic home; placed on the dry, dusty ground; and commanded to walk. like a fish flapping its body against the dirt, struggling to breathe, we simply do not know what to do when faced with the reality of death.

savored like a six-course meal

if our souls know death is unnatural, it seems our memories do, as well. when we lose someone close to us, our minds have a way of not letting them go.

memories of a lost loved one rush at us like hungry koi racing to the surface of our mind as we go about our day. we’re constantly reminded of the reality of their life as memories from times together are cast like a shadow on the back of our eyes.

sometimes they visit us when a particular experience triggers a memory. sometimes they seem to come by no invitation at all.

and no matter how painful they may seem at the time, we wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. when the aftertaste is all we have, we savor it like a six-course meal.

it’s funny the way memory works. i’ve lived in the uk for two years now, and i still can’t tell you my phone number. yet i have no trouble recalling conversations that took place years ago.

before i leave

the memory of hayley that i can’t shake lately is of our family sitting around the dining room table and talking, long after we had finished eating, as we often do.

in this particular memory, hayley is getting on to me about hurrying up and having a baby already. jen had wanted a baby for a long time, and everyone knew it. i was dragging my feet, and everyone knew that, too.

it was a bit of a touchy subject, though, since it was well known i was hoping to wait a bit before we started having children. because of that, people wouldn’t really bring it up to me.

but hayley would. hayley could. that’s just how things worked between us. and hayley wanted a niece or nephew nearly as much as jen wanted a baby.

hayley was considering moving away to hawaii for college at the time, and she wanted to make sure she was home when we finally decided to have our first child. she didn’t realize it at the time–she couldn’t have–but something she said that evening would stick with me for years to come. the words she spoke that night would prove to be a painful reminder of the depth of this loss long after she was gone.

after talking excitedly about how she couldn’t wait to be an aunt, hayley’s face became serious as she looked me in the eyes from her seat across the table and said, rather pointedly,

“you have to have one before i leave, ryan.”

hayley never made it to hawaii.

and now, two years later, and just a few months away from the arrival of our first child, this memory replays itself in my mind day after day in the still quietness of a library. i distract myself with sideways glances out the second-story window, but staring out into the pale blue sky, i can’t help but cringe at the thought that our little emma will grow up without her aunt hayley.

this is my first time having children, so i’m certainly not an expert on how this is supposed to go, but there’s nothing about this that feels natural to me.

dressing up death

some christians, when talking about death, will try to downplay its significance. they’ll dress it up and tell us it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. and they’re right, in some ways. but i think they’re terribly wrong in others.

when faced with the death of a close friend, Jesus cried tears of sorrow, even though He knew he would soon bring this friend back to life.

i’ve heard some christian writers say Jesus was crying because he was fed up with all the unbelief He experienced. they’ll say these people should’ve known Jesus could do anything, even bring this deceased friend back to life, and that Jesus had simply had it with their lack of faith.

but i don’t buy that. we see lots of examples of Jesus being frustrated by the shallow faith of His followers, but not once does He respond with tears. not except for here, in this one instance.

and i think that tells us that these were real, genuine tears of sorrow. i believe these were tears of anger, even. anger at the ugliness of death, and the hurt that comes with it. i think Jesus saw that. and felt it.

Jesus knew this isn’t the way things were supposed to work. He knew things had gone terribly wrong, and death was a painful reminder of that.

Jesus’ tears at the news of His friend’s death tells us death really isn’t a good thing. they remind us that we don’t have to dress up death as being beautiful or pretend like we’re all right, even when we all know, deep down, it’s ugly and painful. and that we’re not all right.

Jesus’ tears tell us its okay to grieve and acknowledge the ugliness of death with our own tears. even as christians. and even if we approach death in great hope of what is to come.

a different take

in a way, those who try to dress up death are right, i suppose. as christians, we do have a different take on death.

if we believed this was all there is–birth, life, death and then the cessation of our being–we would cry without hope. but we don’t. we do cry–my God, do we cry!–but we cry with hope.

as christians, we believe what happens on the other side of this life is infinitely more beautiful than this present darkness is dark. but we must be careful when it comes to talking about death.

if we’re not careful, we can make it seem like the loss of a loved one isn’t that big of a deal. it is. it always is. things are broken, and they’re broken in a way that hurts us deeply.

and if we’re not careful, we can also make it seem like grieving isn’t appropriate for christians, not in light of what we know. but the thing is, grieving is perfectly appropriate for christians, in light of how horrible death is.

Jesus felt it appropriate to weep in the face of death. so, too, do we.

death reminds us things are not the way they were meant to be, and we feel the pain of the world’s present brokenness just as much as anyone else.

we’re no longer fearful of death, we might say. and rightly so. because we have hope that on the other side of this life is the real life. life with Him. and so death is no longer a scary thing. but it’s also not a beautiful thing.

the reason for our tears over death is not that the next place is so scary, it’s that saying “goodbye” is so hard, even if it’s only for a time.

darkness into dawn

there’s this account in the book a severe mercy where a friend of c.s. lewis’s, an american by the name of sheldon vanauken who had met and befriended lewis while studying in oxford during the 1950’s, had lunch with lewis for the last time. the two friends would exchange letters with one another for many years to come, but this would be their final time meeting in-person, though neither men knew it at the time.

after sharing a meal together, the two men bid each other “farewell,” and lewis assured his friend they’d see one another again:

“i shan’t say good-bye. we’ll meet again.”

with that, lewis crossed the street, dodging traffic as he went. and it was when he had safely reached the other side of the road that he turned around and shouted back with a grin:

“…besides, christians never say goodbye!”

death is a funny thing. we’re told it’s natural, and yet we intuitively know it’s not. we know life is not supposed to end. and, we’re told–thank God–that it won’t. it won’t really.

we’re told, because of His sacrifice, there is hope. even when it seems like this news brings only darkness, we know, deep down, there is hope. because of what He has done.

and so, as trite as they may seem during our darkest moments, there is still great truth in the words clement of alexandria wrote many, many years ago:

“Christ has turned all of our sunsets into dawns.”

see you soon

and so we cry. we cry when we remember those words they once said. we cry when we remember that look on their face. we cry when we remember the sound of their laugh or the little things they did with their hands when they talked.

we cry because we know this isn’t how things are supposed to be. we cry because we know death is unnatural and because we want them back. we cry because we want them back so bad. we cry because it’s tough to say “goodbye.”

but we cry with tears of hope, because deep down we know our tears will not last forever. we know it’s not really “goodbye.” not really. it’s “goodbye for now.” it’s “see you soon.”

-for hayley dawn, and for those who cry with tears of hope-
you remain missed 

when i go: a tune you can’t help but hum

on a recent morning, i found myself working on a photo shoot for a client of ours. we were putting together a new brochure for a local funeral home, and we needed to update the limited photography of their locations that we had on-hand.

what could seem like a very morbid account is actually one of my favorites. the funeral home is family owned, as it has been for the past four generations, and it has a history of being incredibly involved in the lives of the local community. john, the current owner, has a great sense of humor. he is one of the funniest guys i’ve worked with, but his jokes quickly turn to a sense of concerned seriousness when he talks about caring for local families. he’s quick to point out that his job provides him the opportunity to serve families during their greatest time of need. it would be easy to call him one of my favorite clients.

sweeping lawns and blue balloons

i met our photographer for this particular shoot at one of john’s larger locations, a peaceful park-like setting set in the valley with the snow-capped mountains setting the landscape of the horizon. it’s a cemetery, to be sure, but it’s arranged with paved walking paths and sweeping lawns interspersed with beautiful, hundred year-old trees that reach far into the sky. on mornings like these, with blue skies and fresh, warm air, it’s not unusual to find locals walking the paths on their morning strolls, catching up with friends and taking in the views. it’s easy to forget they’re walking through a cemetery.

on this morning, the air smelled of freshly cut grass. the crows played hop-scotch through the grass clippings to the sound of gabe’s shutter clicking away as the early morning sun shone through the trees. it was beautiful.

i am usually pretty good about treating work as work, and looking at a photo shoot as nothing more than a photo shoot, but this morning was a little different.

we walked to the edge of the grounds to snap some photos of the mausoleum for the brochure and my eyes quickly caught a small, blue balloon on the end of a stick beside a headstone. the words “Happy Birthday” were stretched across the balloon, and i was immediately struck by the reality of our surroundings. struck by the fact that a family member had recently stood where i was standing, that they had come here, to this same location, to wish their lost loved one a happy birthday. and i was overcome with sorrow. it was unusual for me, for i had been here countless times before, but this time it all seemed so real. and i couldn’t shake it. as i turned to catch my thoughts and remind myself of the project before me, my eyes caught another balloon, tied to a name on the mausoleum’s exterior wall, and it read, “world’s greatest dad.” it was then that i nearly lost it.

i found it incredibly difficult to focus on the shoot that morning. as we stood on the sweeping lawns, trying to spot potential shots for the brochure, i couldn’t help but think about all of the names of the headstones, and all the lives that they represented. peach. moles. chambers. each one a different life. each one no longer here. all that’s left are memories. more and more, all i could think about was my own life, my own death, and what i want to leave behind.

about a car

i recently had the chance to check out an early draft (or the first three chapters of an early draft) of don miller‘s new book, a million miles in a thousand years. i really enjoy don’s writing. very funny. very heartfelt. personal in a way that makes it seem like you’re reading the thoughts of an old friend, even though you’ve never met.

the thing that stood out most from his initial draft, though, actually came in his introduction. it’s something that has stuck with me ever since. and it has had me thinking about the life that i want to live. here’s what he had to say:

“if you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a volvo and worked for years to get it, you probably wouldn’t cry at the end of the movie when he drove off the lot testing the windshield wipers. you wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on and sit in a chair to think about what you’d seen. the truth is you wouldn’t even remember that movie a week later, except to feel robbed and want your money back. nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who got a volvo.

but we spend years living those kinds of stories and expect life to feel meaningful. maybe that’s why we go to so many movies, because our real lives don’t feel meaningful anymore.”

i think the reason this author’s note had such an impact on me is that this is something i have dreamed about. this is something i’ve wanted for my own life. and why? to what end? a volvo? as an end in and of itself? that’s sad. it’s laughable, really.

to live our lives for such material, meaningless goals. goals that have such little significance in the long run. the results of which will be forgotten shortly after we’re gone. and the saddest part is that this has the potential to be my own sad story.

my story

i don’t want my story to be about a car. i don’t want my story to be about any sort of material goals. i want my story to be about changed lives. when my story ends, i want there to be a noticeable change, not just because i am gone, but because i was here. and not just because i was here, but because, when i was here, He was here. and He was working in the lives of those around me. working through my words. working through my hands and feet.

that’s what i want the end of my story to be. the beginning of so many other stories. stories of change. stories of life, and lives lived to the fullest.

i want to leave those who I had the honor to meet with a long list of fond memories and a good taste in their mouth. like your favorite song, and how it lingers even after it’s done, continually playing a tune you can’t help but hum. i want that tune to be a reminder to others of the things Christ did in my life, and, by knowing me, how He touched and changed their lives as well.

redemption: the God of muck and mire

i’ve had an inescapable image of God over the past few weeks, and i can’t help but think this image is there for a reason, to serve as a reminder of His redeeming love.

what once was white

this image is of me stuck, half conscious, in a pool of filth. call it feces. call it blood. call it muck and mire. the point is, it is filth, and it is choking the life out of me. and then i see Christ approaching me clothed in a robe of white linen, stepping down into the pool of muck and mire, as it were, reaching out for me. and as He draws near to me, His once white robe slowly becomes tainted. but it doesn’t stop Him. up and out of the muck and mire He pulls me, his robe now almost completely covered in the filth that once ensnared me, safely guiding me to safety and firm footing.

who else

how incredible it is that the holy, perfect, and spotless lamb, Jesus Christ, was (and still is) willing to come down into the muck and mire of my life to redeem me. time and time again. what an incredible blessing. it is a wonder anyone would not want to honor such a God with their life lived in full gratitude, adoration and devotion.

and i can’t help but ask, “what other religion worships a God who chooses to take on our filth, our pain, our suffering in order to bring us to Himself?”