Anywhere but Here

In these disorienting days, I’ve taken up the daily practice of running to the local place of death, and I’m not alone.

The Piedmont Cemetery has come alive in recent weeks: people of all ages, walking and running, in search of some room to breathe; spring flowers, awash in blossoms of pink and red and purple, are waking up. The upside-down truth at the heart of Christianity, that God brings life from death, is suddenly visible here, latent in creation.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Psalm 23 and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). Reading the Beatitudes, I am reminded that Jesus speaks these blessings over places we’d rather avoid, over people we’d rather not be. No one wants to experience loss that brings mourning. We desire strength, power, and control, not meekness. Rarely do we intentionally go thirsty or hungry.

But this is where the blessings of Jesus are found. Isn’t that, in their own way, what the Gospel accounts are all trying to say? Christ himself is found in those places we sidestep: in the crags of life, on the margins, where we think, “There is no life here.”

Over pancakes on a recent Saturday morning, a pastor friend pointed out something I’d never noticed in Psalm 23: it’s in the valleys of life that the third-person God becomes a second-person God. This familiar psalm moves from “the Lord” who leads me beside still waters and restores my soul (vv. 2–3) to the “you” who is with me even—or perhaps especially—in the darkest seasons of life (v. 4). When the shadow of death draws near, the psalmist reminds us, we get to know the God of mercy in ways we can’t otherwise.

Still, we’d rather avoid the valleys of life as much as anyone else. Christians as much as our non-Christian neighbors would rather avoid living in the unexpected absence of a loved one; feeling the alienation of unemployment; or finding ourselves peering into barren cupboards. But with one voice Scripture reminds us: Here is your God. This is where we get to know the God who waits for us.

CHRIST HIMSELF IS FOUND IN
THOSE PLACES WE SIDESTEP.

“Where men and women lose hope,” the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes, “where they become powerless and can do nothing more, the lonely, assailed, and forsaken Christ waits for them and gives them a share in his passion.”1

A friend reminds me of the words Mary hears on Easter morning— “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5)— suggesting that this greeting is less a -reprimand and more of a reminder. Why look for the living among the dead? Because in a way we struggle to -comprehend, that’s where resurrection is found. This reminder changes our -posture when seasons of death and darkness inevitably surround us, from hopelessness to -expectancy: “Our disappointments, our loneliness and our defeats do not separate us from him; they draw us more deeply into communion with him.”2

So I return to this place of death, day after day. I learn to notice perfect strangers who go out of their way to share a smile; I pay attention to dogs grinning as they walk their owners; and my eyes are drawn, again and again, to nature waking up.

Creation itself is the reminder that God’s in-breaking kingdom starts in the dark.

Ryan Pemberton

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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