Perhaps, during this Holy Week, you are in a tender time, aching for a soft place to land.
Maybe someone you love will be missing at your Easter Table. Or a person whom you considered a true friend has betrayed you. Or you are walking out an unending loneliness, or a staggering illness. Maybe you have been cast aside, or are being mocked for your faith in Jesus. You are bone-weary, discouraged, and sad.
I was reading in Jude last week, and noticed a gem in the second part of verse one:
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ…
There it is. The gospel, tucked within a greeting: Called, beloved, and kept.
As a little girl, my grandparents drove me, weeks before Easter, to Topsy-Turvey, a dress store not too far from Washington Street. At the time, I was the only granddaughter in a sea of grandsons, and once per year they decided a new flowery dress was in order.
One spring, I fell for a white dress, sprinkled with tiny rose buds of pink, purple, and lavender, with a sky-blue sash. It was a swirly-twirly type of dress; an Easter outfit completed by the purchase of a pair of white tights and navy Mary-Janes. Most of my first-grade friends had shiny white patent leather Easter shoes, but in our family line, white shoes were strictly forbidden until after Memorial Day.
It’s just not done, Kristin. Miss Manners had spoken, and that was that. I also longed for pigtails, but had received a fashionable Dorothy Hamill haircut instead, much to my dismay.
We joined my mother’s large extended family after church on Easter Sunday, gathering at a fine restaurant, my grandfather’s treat. It was a delicious feast that began with the establishment’s famous popovers: a light and fluffy delicacy that staved off our hunger as we waited for our full-course lunch to arrive. I’m famished, Grandpa smiled to the waitress, as he handed her the basket to refill.
I was allowed to order a Shirley Temple with my holiday meal, feeling quite grown up while peeking at the Maraschino cherries speared and held by a cocktail pick, floating upright in my red fizzy drink. That is, until I spilled some liquid on my dress. My mother dabbed water from her glass onto the starched white napkin, trying to remove it, but the stain was stubborn. I suddenly felt like a baby and my eyes filled, embarrassed at spilling, humiliated by the stain, and self-conscious of my navy shoes and short hair. I had eaten too many jelly beans and Peeps before church, and suddenly my small world was a dishonorable mess. I was grumpy on the inside, and remember, even now, the loneliness of that moment.
I have always held holiday gatherings dear: everyone seated at long tables with pretty place settings, iced lemon water sweating in goblets, vases of fresh-cut flowers, elbows bumping and plates passing as tired stories are embellished and urged back to life while the coffee pot drips and desserts abound. The voices, the togetherness, the familiarity and feeling of belonging to something grander than our own selves is powerful.
I have discovered that sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering is more powerful still.
There was a time, a handful of years ago, when our family experienced back-to-back sufferings, inflicted by the hands of others. Our pain and utter disbelief left us reeling. It was as though we had fallen headlong into a damp, dark cellar, believing that we had surely hit bottom, only to be hurled down another flight and yet another, landing with a hard thump.
I do not yet have any more words for that time, and perhaps never will. I wish I could say that I pulled myself together and soared above my heartache, and everything eventually returned to normal, but that would be to dishonor the nature of suffering. Things never return to business as normal when God takes us through agony; permitting pain that scalds. We exit those waters changed, and in my experience we step onto dry ground walking with a limp. Suffering forms us, and this too is the Lord’s doing. We become like our Cruciform King, bearing permanent scars.
The Mariana Trench is the deepest place on Earth, located in the South Pacific, descending nearly seven cavernous miles. The thought of those dark, frigid waters both frightens and fascinates me. There is ocean life at this abyss, and I marvel that God has created sea creatures for his good pleasure that can function in those pitch recesses. Creatures that we will neither see nor touch. But he fashioned it all, and knows precisely what lies beneath.
Likewise, Jesus knows the depths of our personal suffering. He endured immeasurable loss, betrayal, and an agonizing death at Golgotha, not to mention the loneliness of that dank burial tomb. After three days, he arose majestic, springing up from those depths, and in faith, we will too, after our lifetime of joys and hardships has been completed. God created each of us in secret, designing us with unique fingerprints and sufferings, shrouded in his good and holy purpose. Heaven will be stunning, and we will always belong, tethered to Christ, gifted as heirs with the riches of his Resurrection. A perpetual banquet feast of unbridled joy.
It took me years, but I can now say that I would not change those hard crevices of suffering within my life’s story, even if I could wield such powers. I see now that God knows me best, and my suffering is designed to burn off the dross of myself, forcing me to cling only to him.
My encouragement, suffering one, is to remember Jude’s salutation: as a believer, you are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.
At times we all feel like a child in stained Easter clothes, filled up with sweets that never satisfy, our hearts longing for more. Jesus came to rescue us, in all of our wretchedness and sin and brokenness, suffering in his descension from heaven to this tainted earth. That is the truest love. To pull ourselves up by our own strength is both futile and prideful, and misses the whole magnificence of our rescue by Christ. He sympathizes with our frailties and our sufferings, this Man of Sorrows who is now preparing a place for us, keeping his own forever.
He is fully alive.