Beyond The Frozen Past

I’ve a treasury of moments, frozen now, and stored. A freezer full of timesicles I’ve carefully preserved. I love the smell of happiness these memories still hold, and yet I know the beating life in them can never be restored. Each moment past is frozen fast, unchanging to eternity: a monument carved in the stone face of Time, a smile, laughter, a frown. The image of life with it’s breath removed, the death-mask of vibrant Now. As my timesicle collection grows, I understand more and more why the simple act of living a few decades seems to leave humanity looking over our shoulders in wide-eyed amazement at the pace of life. The shock of seeing so many living, breathing moments frozen behind us can’t be easily shaken off. The thought of today’s warmth joining them soon, followed closely by all our tomorrows, can draw the cold air right out of the freezer and encase our hearts in icy fear.

Don’t give in.

The cold fingers of Time may lock up the past, but that doesn’t mean we have to hand him the future early. The warm breath of living Now is here beside us, chest heaving with all the wonder of this moment. Yes, our time here is limited. Yes, our lives are framed like a painting by the hard lines of birth and death. Eventually the art we leave behind will be completed, for better or worse, to hang frozen and unchanging in the gallery of history.

Will anyone see it there?

Do our frozen lives even matter?

Yes. The builder of this gallery carefully selected the exact wall and space for your painting, chose the colours you would use, and the size of the canvas you would create on. Your life is one work in a massive collection that is the magnum opus of the original Artist, shaped together out of millions of parts to tell the story of the universe with every possible colour, shade, and dynamic included. Yes, the past is frozen. Frozen like a statue of a warrior in his moment of triumph, reminding the world of his victory over all the forces of evil. Frozen with the weight and shape of the glory of God, revealed through time and climaxing in the only death that could conquer the power of death forever. And someday, when history itself has run out of breath, the gallery will stand complete and God’s children will roam it’s halls, admire its intricate detail, and finally understand how their own framed and frozen brushstrokes fit in the master plan of the master Artist.

…and live on in the power of Jesus’ resurrection to spend eternity in living, breathing, creating Now.

The (Lost) Art Of Contentment

We’re not supposed to be content. We’re told that what we really should be is busy, productive, and eager to buy the next life-changing device offered half price on Black Friday. The busier the better as we keep pushing forward, improving our station in life, and not letting anybody stand in the way of our dreams. No room in all that for talk of contentment. We’re well entrenched in the habit of waiting for something else to happen before we can settle in and enjoy life – before we can let ourselves be content. Even after we cross the finish line for a big goal, it doesn’t take long to realise that we’re still not content. So we try again, looking for another finish line to aim for, pushing ourselves to the limit to achieve it, and then finding out that it doesn’t satisfy us, either. The cycle continues, and we’re not the only ones caught in it: even the massively successful rich and famous seem to live in the same spiral of goals, achievements, and discontent. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if we are successful or not, the underlying discontent with the reality of our lives is there either way. Failure is devastating. Success is empty. Is contentment even possible?

It is. But we won’t find it by looking over and over again in the same tired places. That’s okay, though, because it’s already been found. In a letter written roughly 2,000 years ago, a man named Paul gives us his treasure map with an “X” on contentment:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:12-13

Needs or not, poverty or plenty, Paul has learned a secret that lets him live in any situation with calm contentment. Doesn’t that sound amazing? To be able to look poverty in the eye – real, cold, hungry poverty (which Paul lived through multiple times) – and say: I know how to accept you and still be happy and secure. And then to be able to look at the jewels dripping off glittering prosperity and say confidently: your gold can’t change who I am. I can take it or leave it. I’m content. Paul said all of this in the face of prison, beatings, death threats – and also prosperity.

So what is this secret that can give us the ability to live so far above our circumstances that we can be content no matter what? Paul says: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

How does Paul face the ups and downs of life so calmly? He’s not living for this life. His main purpose in life is not to get the most he can out of life. If it was, than any downs he faced would be devastating because they would be defeating his main goal, and any ups he gained would never be enough because there would always be something greater he could get for himself. The evidence is all around us: there’s no level of human achievement that can actually satisfy us as humans. In the face of this, Paul’s secret is that he is not looking to get something in his life that will satisfy him. The ups and downs have lost their power to throw him, because no matter what, he’s already satisfied. He is content because he has a foundation to live from that is solid and steady in poverty, prosperity, good, bad, and even death itself.

Paul’s secret is that he is secure. He is confident that God has accepted him because Jesus paid for his sin and gave him the right to be brought into God’s family as his child. No amount of money or goodness could buy that confidence, and no loss of anything in this world can take it away. It’s there, firm enough for any hurricane of circumstance or windfall of fortune.

Contentment is not weakness or laziness, it is a solid security strong enough to look life in the eye without flinching. It’s a treasure, and we are poor in our lack of it.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain.”

Hannah’s Funeral

It’s taking too long. That’s how I know my world is crumbling. The midwife can’t find what she’s looking for. She keeps trying, but every new effort is the ringing of steeple bells tolling a funeral. Not a formal, prepared, eulogised, dressed-in-black funeral. No, this is an impromptu affair, with no time to think, and no black shoes to look at as I stare at the floor. But I can’t just stare at the floor, people are talking to me. I have to concentrate to keep looking at them. I have to focus. It’s not their fault. They’re trying to help. I need to be polite and listen. What about my wife? She must be feeling the same as me. No, she must be feeling worse. After all, Hannah is still inside her. Hannah who we weren’t even sure was a girl (but we knew). Hannah who was a world of new life and dreams. Hannah who we have the little dress waiting for at home in a room right across the hall so we can hear her if she cries…

Now my wife is crying. She is beside me, looking at the floor. She’s not wearing black shoes, either. I don’t think she’s even trying to listen to those nice people who never, ever stop talking about helpful things I can’t hear. I just want to go somewhere where no people are talking so I can look at the floor and let the whole world be as black as it should be. How can the sun not be ashamed? Why do people in the waiting room keep chatting and laughing as if the whole world hadn’t just fallen to pieces? Turn off the lights. Let all creation mourn.

The precious body is too small to bury. There will be no prepared funeral. Only this horrid, sunlit, incessant chatter and brown shoes. But the dress… The little dress is still in the room across the hall at home, waiting for the precious body that is too small to bury. If my wife sees it, she will cry. I have to put it away before that happens. I have to put it somewhere deep in a wardrobe, somewhere dark where there is no sunlight and all the clothes look as black as they should be. This is the funeral. The burial of my dreams. The flowery dress is the casket, as empty as my heart. The wardrobe is the grave, with darkened coats standing in for mourners. And when the door is closed, my world is forever changed.

And now I begin to understand. I understand why the sky turned black and the earth shook in heaving grief as you breathed one last ragged breath from your place on the cross. Except it wasn’t your place. You were innocent. Creation was right to mourn it, as I mourned for Hannah. The world is broken by sin, and death is the result. I know that. But it wasn’t Hannah’s sin, so why should it be her death? Neither was it your sin, so why should it be your death? She didn’t have a choice, but you gave up your life willingly. You did it because you knew that only your wrongful death could break the power of our sin once and for all, and begin to undo the horrible result of our sin – making death itself begin to work backwards for those who belong to you. So you died our death. And when you walked out of the grave, the world was forever changed.

Now I understand why Easter is the birthday of hope for humanity. Hope for precious bodies that are too small to bury. Hope for broken fathers and mothers. Hope for liars and thieves and sinners. Hope for good people who can never be good enough. The steeple bells are tolling again, but not a funeral: a resurrection!

Hope is alive because you are.

 

this article describes events that happened 13 years ago, and was originally published in 4you magazine

The Coals

If you want to take a picture of a big impressive fire

If you want to post it up online and likes are your desire

Be sure to take your photo when the fire’s just been lit

When flames are leaping up so high it’s sure to be a hit

But then, if warming up your hands or cooking are your goals

You’ll have to wait and let the fire burn down to its coals

For epic Insta-pictures and 1,000 Facebook likes

Won’t be enough to warm you up on dark and stormy nights

Sometimes the unimpressive things are better than the show

Sometimes the things you wait for are the best things you can know

Heaven Isn’t A Place On Earth

This week our family boarded a plane to head home to Ireland after some weeks in America. The airports along the way were full of holiday-makers going this way or that, some just setting out, others returning sporting deeper tans and new sunglasses. Eventually, whenever they all get to wherever it is they call home, they’ll be met by a welcome party of work, school, and responsibilities that have been patiently awaiting them. As the tan lines fade and sunglasses collect dust, the desktop background picture of big smiles in the sand may seem increasingly like a taunt. Or maybe like an impossible invitation: “If only I could live there all the time, I would always be that happy!” The invitation seems to be proven more and more with every holiday. But the invitation is a lie. The holiday-makers going both directions on our airplane are proof: if one side of the ocean was the perfection of bliss, why would they feel the need to take their holidays on the other? If we actually did follow the invitation and move ourselves permanently to the dreamiest beach on google images, what would we find there? More sunshine, more sand, and more people who are not so very different to the people we left behind. We would also find more bills and to-do lists, grocery shopping, schools, and government tax offices – all remarkably similar to the places we know, once you get behind the regional architecture. Now, I’m not saying that every place is exactly the same. There are significant differences between life in North Korea and life in Kansas. But good citizens of Kansas, with all their Wal-marts and BBQs, still feel the need to take holidays in the Caribbean. And people in the Caribbean still take their children to Disney World in Florida. And I know a former Disney Princess who took a holiday in China.

God himself was the first to take a holiday when he rested on the seventh day after creating the cosmos. In doing this, he set the pattern that those made in his image are not invented to be constantly running work machines. In the Bible, Hebrews 4 tells us that God also uses these days of rest to point us beyond this broken world to the ultimate rest won for God’s adopted children through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Until then, the kind of rest we’re longing for can only be found in tantalizing tasters. Belinda Carlisle may sing about how “heaven is a place on earth”, but good luck trying to find it. There is no secret corner of this world where life is always good, people are always kind, bugs never bite, and governments are always benevolent. We get just enough to dream of it, but never enough to be satisfied. The whole planet is broken. All the holidays in the calendar can’t change that. And yet, for those who put their trust in Christ, holidays can point our eyes forward to his promises: This life may be a work week full of frustration and pain, but Sunday is coming!

Of Death & Life

After attending the funeral of an extended family member this week, I was once again reminded of the short span of my own life. The funeral was more than a recognition of the reality of death, though, and more than a celebration of a life well lived: it was also a celebration of a sure hope beyond the grave. As the apostle Paul said: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”


I found a little graveyard

The grass grown up so high

On beds of now-forgotten folk

Whose names are scrubbed by Time

A few more days

A few more breaths

And I will join them here

And grass will grow

And time erase –

My name will disappear

But if your grandkids find me there

There’s no need for dismay

My Saviour broke the power of death

And I’ll be Home to stay

I Can’t Be Anything I Want To Be (And That’s Okay)

If you believe, you can achieve.

Evidently, if you believe hard enough and long enough, you can even fly – that’s what I heard on the radio. Metaphorically, this is encouraging. Practically, it’s still annoyingly impossible, no matter how strongly I imagine myself butterflying above the ground. The kind of advice that tells us we can be anything we want to be is meant to be inspiring, to encourage us to try difficult things, and help us push through to reach our goals even when it’s hard. The slogans sound so great and fit so well in songs and movies and books and memes and posters that it’s easy to overlook that one pesky little drawback of how none of them are true.

It’s really no secret: I can’t be anything I want to be. I will never be five again or win a beauty pageant. Never know what it feels like to be a dolphin. Never swing from webbing in New York like Spider-Man. There’s actually an astonishing number of things I can never be, when it comes right down to brass tacks (and including brass tacks). But that’s not the point, is it? These sayings were never meant to encourage us to become dolphins – they were meant to inspire achievement, to spur us on to greatness. And yet, I am fully aware that no matter how hard and long and deeply I believe, I will never have the voice of Frank Sinatra or handle a soccer ball like Messi. At the risk of being a cultural heretic, I say clearly: I have limitations. I know we’re not supposed to speak of such things. If we do, we’re meant to speak only of breaking them. But as humans, we have limitations that aren’t going away. Even Usain Bolt can’t run as fast as a common warthog. As for me, my eyes aren’t fit for a career as an astronaut, but I don’t feel the loss very often. My grasp of physics rules me out of making any discoveries like Einstein’s, but I’m not losing sleep over it. We’ll get along alright without another Messi or Sinatra, too, which is good news for people like me who are not on track for achieving the massive greatness we’re told to set our sights on.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing at all against massive greatness. There are a few people who really do great things that really deserve that level of recognition. There are times when a determination to break barriers has had wonderful results and changed the course of history for the better. But I reject the idea that aiming for impossible goals and achieving them anyway is the only path to a successful and fulfilling life. Some limitations can and should be broken, but as humans we will always have a long list under “can’t”. Is that really so bad? Even if our limitations keep us from recognised greatness, none of them can keep us from what is more important: loving God and others. I don’t have to be an astronaut to know the God who made the stars. I don’t have to be Einstein to love my neighbour as myself. I don’t have to be Messi to kick the soccer ball with my son, or Sinatra to sing show tunes with my daughter. I don’t have to be as fast as a warthog to visit someone in pain. My limitations might frame my life in a way that makes it seem quite small and ordinary, but remember: The greatest masterpiece in the world is a normal looking woman named Mona Lisa, half-smiling out of a surprisingly small frame. I’m not worried about how big or small the frame around my own life is: I’m much more interested in making sure I will live well inside it.