The following was written about an experience I had a couple of weeks before my brother passed away. It is still relevant now.
One misty morning, when even the air seems gray and heavy with tears, I visit my old church. I climb to the top of the hill, and there surrounded by 12 boulders, I sit before the tall wooden cross in the damp crab grass, hugging my knees to my chest.
Birds chirp in the stillness. I wear the fog like a blanket and let the drizzling rain soak my shirt, the peace of this place soak my soul. It’s like coming home.
For a while, I rest in the quiet, the solitude, the home-ness. But I grow restless.
In a hospital bed not far away, my brother, my baby brother, fights for his life, stricken with an illness no 32 year-old father should experience. Every day for weeks we’ve prayed, we’ve stood vigil by his bed, taking shifts, helping him eat, holding his hand, washing his face, hoping against hope for a miracle.
Where is God in this? Who is God in this? Do I even want to know? If I keep looking, will I recognize the One I find? Or will I find that He is what I’ve always feared – a liar, a fraud, a cold, heartless trickster who lures us in with promises of life and goodness and joy and peace, only to laugh as we choke on the toxic apple?
I utter prayers tinged with a bitterness He cannot miss: OK Lord, I’m sitting in the dirt, in the rain, in my pajamas. Why did you bring me here? God, speak to me.
Perhaps the most amazing thing isn’t that He answers, but that He answers me.
He carries me back to another time, nearly 20 years ago:
On an unusually sunny, warm advent retreat, I knelt on the very same hill, beneath the very same cross, pondering Christ’s crucifixion: What did it mean to me? What was my responsibility on that day, 2,000 years before I even took a breath? I was not there and yet, somehow, I nailed Him to that tree?
But Jesus, I love You. I would never have hurt You! How could I? How could I participate in such a thing?
And then, as if in a vision, I saw myself before the cross on Calvary. Jesus hanging high above me, sweat mingled with blood, dripping, soaking the ground beneath Him. “Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.”
Why? God, how can this be?
He answered by turning my eyes inward, toward my own heart, inviting me to see what He sees: that deep in the pit of my being, a kind of hatred boiled and roiled, a rage that longed to usurp the power of the Holy One so that I could be a god, my own god.
I glimpsed, for the first time, the depth of my sin, the terrifying evil that ruled my being, the brand of original sin, the deposit of Adam. I felt the gravity of my own wickedness.
I hated God. I hated Him. And at the very core of my sinful humanity, I wanted Him dead. So I could reign.
Words cannot adequately describe the shock, the dismay, of encountering such sin. I wept in despair for my soul, for the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet. I was undone.
And then another vision: In awe, I watched as Jesus stepped out from behind the cross – whole, alive and walking toward me, arms outstretched and smiling.
“I did this for you,” He said, “Because I love you. And I forgive you. Come to me. It’s okay now. I let you crucify me, because I love you.”
I’d won. He’d let me crucify Him. And yet…and yet…it’s what He’d planned all along. To let me have my way. And there I was, kneeling before Him, weeping. But He was the one smiling.
In losing, He’d won. Not a victory over me, but a victory for me. My fight, I thought, was with Him. His fight, He knew, was with sin and death itself. And in losing, in dying, He’d won.
For the doubt the serpent hissed into the garden, leeched into our souls before we ever bit the shiny apple. We were poisoned the moment we doubted Him, His goodness, His perfect care, His very God-ness, the moment we stood in judgment of Him, wondering “Did God really say…?” and then determined we might know more, we might know better. That moment. That’s when the poison entered our veins and darkened the eyes of our hearts.
Darkened eyes cannot perceive the darkness, and so the serpent hid in sight unseen, and the Light became our enemy. Against God we raged, we battled, we sought to be free, when all the while the serpent was our captor.
And yet God longed to cleanse us, to expel the poison so we could see Him once again as He truly is.
So He gave us what we wanted. And then waited – for some He still waits – for us to gaze upon our blood-stained hands and cry, “What have I done?!”
What better way to reveal what we’ve become, than to let us have our way, to give us the gun and not to run, but let us pull the trigger? What better way to reveal His true self, than to let his blood run out, to give everything and then wait until we grasp what we’ve done?
And as the red bleeds through our darkened vision, we see, as if for the first time, but perhaps what we always should have, could have, known: that He, the Rider Faithful and True, the Lover of Our Souls, the Sacrificial Lamb, is God and He is Good.
And so He’d won…and yet I’d won, too. Just not the victory I’d expected. Instead of standing in triumph, I fell trembling at His feet. Instead of becoming a god, I became God’s.
I’d won, not because I fought, nor because I was strong or wise or clever. I won because He gave everything to win me back from the dead. I’d been redeemed.
That was 20 years ago.
Today, in the misty morning gray, as I sit atop the crab-grassy hill, beneath the cross, I squint into that memory as I do the fog, wondering what that day so long ago has to do with today, now, here, as my brother fights for his life in a hospital just beyond the hills behind me.
Why did you bring this memory to my mind, God?
Barely a beat and He answers:
“Don’t crucify me again, Nichole.”
And just like that I know. I know I’m standing on a precipice, teetering on the edge of a cliff with a dark wind hissing in my ear. I can almost taste the poison in the air, waiting for me to open my mouth and rename, remake God in the image of my pain and doubt and fear and rage and heartache and disappointment. Waiting for me to stand in judgment of Him and call Him Liar, Abandoner, Faithless. Waiting to seep into my soul and blind me to the Truth again.
“Don’t crucify me again, Nichole. Don’t rename me. Don’t remake me in the image of your imaginations. Don’t call me what I’m not. We’ve come too far.”
It’s a warning. Not from an angry God but from a God who loves me.
“We’ve come too far, you and I. Don’t let us go backwards.”
By calling Him what He’s not, by renaming Him according to my fear or pain or anything other than the scriptures, I create an idol – a false God, one that wedges itself between Him and me, driving us apart, separating me from the One I need the most.
“Don’t give up on Me, Nichole.”
In His mercy and love, He lay bare the choice before me: I can trust that God is who He says He is or I can be lured away by the insidious words of the serpent. “Did God really say He’s good? Did He really say He loves you? Did He really promise to never forsake you? Did He really say He answers prayer?”
“You’re hurt. But I’m still who I say I Am. And in trying to hurt Me, you’ll just end up hurting yourself. You’ll end up hurting us.”
In His faithfulness and compassion, He exposes the trap: When God disappoints, it may seem safer to turn away, to think we know better, to isolate ourselves. When God allows us to hurt, it may even feel good, for a time, to hurt Him back, to call Him names, to shut Him out. Yet in the end we harm ourselves, because to be separated from Him is to be separated from Comfort, Peace, Love, Hope, Light, from all things good, from very Life itself.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have called you and you are mine.”
This is a pattern of mine. To rage against God in the painful places. To call Him what He’s not when I don’t like what He allows. But today, He’s inviting me to walk a new path, to try a new way, to sing a new song. He’s inviting me to go deeper. He’s inviting me to discover that He’s more than I think He is. He’s inviting me to love.