Nothing Stands Between Us

My boys smiled at me as I cried, and then proceeded to spin to the music while screaming at the top of their lungs. And, in that moment I tasted joy; joy unexplainable. A joy so deep and unexpected, it can only be explained as supernatural. I felt the presence of God in that very moment. God telling me, “Nothing Stands Between Us!”

One Saturday this winter, I was on dad duty watching my two little twin boys, August John and Abel James.

The Elliott men, when left alone, plundered the kitchen cabinets for treasure and ate our fill of string cheese, deli ham, and Biscoff cookies. I even snuck August and Abel some bites of ice cream (don’t tell their mom). I enjoyed a nice glass of wine, a Pinot Noir with notes of plum and pepper if you care to know, and the boys each had a glass of warm milk, with some nice earthy tones.

After dinner and dessert, I decided to stream some live music performances from Youtube on our television. Now I need you to know that whenever I put music on for the boys, whether on the TV, our Homepod, or my record player, I sing and dance. They love watching me, and I love seeing their faces smile in joy. Daddy dancing has been fully incorporated into the Elliott family liturgy. That night as soon as the music started so did my feet. My queue played and feet shuffled as sweat steadily dripped off my head.

I decided to take a break.

Sitting on the cold floor, I rested my back against the living room loveseat. I smiled watching my two boys ecstatically play, talking to each other with an unknown language while fighting over a bag of zip ties (you would have thought the zip ties were gold the way they were fighting over them).The boys kept playing, and I stayed seated, a content dad; happy to see the joy on my sons faces. While I was enjoying this moment, the song “Nothing Stands Between Us” started playing.

If you aren’t familiar with the song, it’s the last song on John Mark McMillan’s Mercury & Lightning album. The album is a musical journey through John Mark’s existential crisis of faith; a journey through his feelings of disconnection and distance from God. “Nothing Stands Between Us” is the culmination of the album, where John Mark finally exclaims that it’s not God who has been distant, but rather he was the one being distant. Through all life’s joys and sorrows, God has been there. He exclaims, “You always find me, in between the thunder and the lightning.” In the quiet calm between a mighty clap of thunder and the bright flash of lightning; in that calm God is there too.

Right then, it happened.

My son, Abel, walked over and gently placed his forehead directly on mine. He just stood there, forehead to forehead, smiling and looking at me. While Abel was doing this, his twin brother August ran over and placed his head on my shoulder.

Emotions overwhelmed my heart. Tears intermingled with the sweat streaming down my face.

It was as if in this one moment my whole life played itself before my eyes.

Memories of my dad came flooding into my mind. My dad coming home from work, putting his foot on my stomach and shaking me on the ground as I laughed hysterically. Crawling onto my parents water bed in the middle of the night. Watching the Patriots game with my dad on a tiny 20 inch tv. Falling asleep on my dads arm, with my brother next to me, as we make deliveries in North Boston at 5:00am on a Saturday morning.

I saw my dad waving goodbye to me one last time as I enter kid’s church. Seeing my dad in a casket, not understanding why everyone is watching him sleep. Seeing that casket lowered into the ground. A gray, granite tombstone marking my dad’s resting place.

Then I saw years of pain: no dad on Father’s day; no dad at my graduations, my engagement, wedding, the birth of my sons; anxiety attacks; panic attacks; thinking I’m dying of a heart attack, just like my dad. I saw deep sorrow tied to my existence, to my experience.

In that moment I tasted sorrow. Salty tears streamed into my mouth; sorrow quite literally coated my tastebuds. My soul was overcome with memories of hurt and pain.

The song, Nothing Stands Between Us, continues, “River of gladness, take control
There’s a cup of joy for every taste of sorrow.”

For every taste of sorrow there is a cup of joy.

My boys smiled at me as I cried, and then proceeded to spin to the music while screaming at the top of their lungs. And, in that moment I tasted joy. Joy unexplainable. A joy so deep and unexpected, it can only be explained as supernatural. I felt the presence of God in that very moment. God telling me, “Nothing Stands Between Us!”

The Apostle Paul writes about this truth in the book of Romans.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:36, 38-39 NET)

Gregory of Naziansus, a Turkish pastor in the 4th Century, wrote a poem called Desire for Death, in which he writes,

“For I am stuffed full of all that the present world offers, of wealth, poverty, joys, of things that bring no joy, honor, humiliation, enemies, and friends…If I am nothing, my Christ, why did you form me thus? If I am precious to you, how am I pressed by so many evils?”

This truth that Paul wrote two-thousand years ago, and Gregory expounds on in his poem, I finally understood in my heart. To be human is to suffer. No matter how often we try to explain this away. Humanity is broken, and we all experience sorrow, sadness, and evil. But, nothing in this life can separate us from the love of God, because Jesus, God in the Flesh, tasted the greatest sorrow for us. We have a God who assumed humanity and with it, tasted our suffering, so that we may taste of the very life of God and the joy he brings!

So although to be human means to taste sorrow and suffer, to be human is also to experience joy and love in Jesus Christ and God’s beautiful creation. It is a beautiful dance. The same way the darkness of the night leads to the light of day, or the cold of winter leads to the warmth of summer, so to suffering and pain lead to joy.

And, I think I’m finally okay with that truth!

Sometimes you experience moments where you feel God’s divine presence in the small things, in the ordinary. This was one of those moments. What started off as a night of singing and dancing with treats, turned into a night of contemplating God and enjoying his presence; and, I’m not complaining. Sometimes we just need to open our eyes to see God right in front of us, whether in a beautiful sunset, in the hand we’re holding, or in the face of our children.

Still Falls the Rain…

Today is New Years Eve. The year 2020 is about to become 2021, again reminding us that time does not stand still. Time continues to move on. Through pandemics, through economic crises, through natural disasters, time doesn’t stop. Humans keep growing older, and the universe keeps slowly dying. 2020, to most, has made this truth evermore clear. Our world is fickle; humans are frail; and suffering is ever present. And, even though suffering seems more present in 2020, I can assure you that as long as time keeps moving forward, so will human suffering.

Today is New Years Eve. The year 2020 is about to become 2021, again reminding us that time does not stand still. Time continues to move on. Through pandemics, through economic crises, through natural disasters, time doesn’t stop. Humans keep growing older, and the universe keeps slowly dying. 2020, to most, has made this truth evermore clear. Our world is fickle; humans are frail; and suffering is ever present. And, even though suffering seems more present in 2020, I can assure you that as long as time keeps moving forward, so will human suffering. 

These are the things that my mind thinks about, when I have the morning to myself. As I was thinking to myself, I sipped my warm, black coffee and watched the Pacific Northwest rain fall on the field across the street from my home. And, as I watched the winter rain softly drizzle down, I was reminded of a poem by Dame Edith Sitwell, “Still the Rain Falls.” 

Dame Edith Sitwell penned “Still the Rain Falls” during the Bombing of London in 1940, which was one of the darkest years of the 20th Century. The Second World War was raging and the German armies were conquering every town, city, province, and country their infantry, tanks, and artillery marched on. Economies were in crisis, and most Europeans feared for their lives daily. It was in this year of extreme darkness, Sitwell penned this beautiful poem.

Still falls the Rain—

Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—

Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails

Upon the Cross.

The poem starts with Stidwell exclaiming that the world is still dark as ever. Using the imagery that each year after Christ’s crucifixion is yet another nail in the cross, another year of suffering. We as humans keep suffering, we keep perpetuating evil and experiencing its effects. Her poem could easily be modified to say, “Blind as the two thousand and twenty nails, Upon the cross.” 

Two stanza after, we read:

Still falls the Rain—

Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:

He bears in His Heart all wounds,—those of the light that died,

The last faint spark

Now, Stidwell reflects on the Christian understanding of God and salvation. Christianity believes that God actually became man to save his creation. While all other religions talk of mankind ascending to God, in Christianity, God lovingly descends to humankind. God, who is eternal and outside of time itself, becomes a human being and is put to death for our sake. This death of Jesus Christ offers forgiveness and remedy for both the evils we commit and the evils we experience. Stidwell exclaims, “Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side;” she is making the point that humans are still evil and still suffering, so we still need the blood of Jesus. We still need God. 

Then, in the final stanza Stidwell writes from the perspective of Jesus saying:

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man

Was once a child who among beasts has lain—

“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”

 

It is Jesus who gives us hope by loving us. God born as a human baby, born in a manger surrounded by barn animals. God who was timeless entered time; God who was infinite became finite; God who spoke creation into existence cannot speak; God who sustains all things, cannot feed himself; God who knows all things cannot even think for himself. 

This is God’s story. 

God loved us so much that he became like us, was born like us, lived like us, suffered like us, and died like us. But, unlike the rest of humanity, Jesus Christ resurrected from the grave, scars and all, to prove that suffering will have an end one day. This is the beauty of Christianity. It assumes that humankind, no matter how hard we try, cannot conquer sin, suffering, and evil. But,it offers true hope, because we have a God who was willing to suffer with us and for us. So, because of Jesus, we can have hope and salvation from this simultaneously beautiful and miserable world. 

2020 showed us that suffering isn’t going anywhere. And, the only thing that gives me hope for this next year is that I have a God who became human and suffered with me. A God who suffered and died to give me real life; a life that is better than our current reality. If I hope in anything else, a better year, money, good relationships, popularity, perfect health, these will all fail me someday. So, even if I get cancer, experience financial ruin, lose a loved one, or experience the pain of death myself, I can proclaim with Dame Edith Stidwell, “Still falls the rain,” and still my Jesus loves me! 

A THRONE IN DARKNESS: remembering my Father’s death after celebrating Easter

I remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, celebrate Christ’s resurrection with joy on Easter, then immediately go back to experiencing sorrow and pain by remembering my Father’s death. It is like reaching a beautiful mountain top only to have a storm roll in and quickly rush you off, having you descend in darkness and experience fear.

I’m sure this is how much of the world feels now during this current pandemic. Much of the world together remembered Christ’s death and then celebrated his resurrection this Easter Sunday only to wake up Monday morning to the Covid-19 storm clouds rolling in.

Yesterday was the twenty-second anniversary of my Father, John Francis Elliott’s, death. About every three or four years, the anniversary of my father’s death comes directly after Easter. These are always the strangest years to remember my dad and contemplate his death’s impact, because I follow this strangely depressing pattern. I remember Christ’s death on Good Friday, celebrate Christ’s resurrection with joy on Easter, then immediately go back to experiencing sorrow and pain by remembering my Father’s death. It is like reaching a beautiful mountain top only to have a storm roll in and quickly rush you off, having you descend in darkness and experience fear. 

I’m sure this is how much of the world feels now during this current pandemic. Much of the world together remembered Christ’s death and then celebrated his resurrection this Easter Sunday only to wake up Monday morning to the Covid-19 storm clouds rolling in. Cases are resurging in China and South Korea. The Stock Market is still volatile. United States unemployment is at an all time high since the Great Depression. The disease is still spreading with the death toll still rising.


Christ has risen but we are still isolated, anxious, and scared of the unknown. Those who do not believe in God, and even those who do believe in God are both asking the same questions: “where is Christ in this time of death and darkness?” 

The answer is that Christ is in the darkness with humanity. Christ is with us. 

The good news of the gospel is not that we have a God that draws near in our joy but remains distant in our suffering. No, the good news of the gospel is that we have a God that became completely human and drew near to us in our suffering, so much so that he died and entered the darkness with us. 

Where is Christ in this time of darkness? He is in the darkness. 

Peter Liethart wrote about this very truth in his essay, A Throne in the Grave. Leithart explains that in the sacrificial system of the Jewish people, the ark of the covenant symbolized the presence of God. The ark was covered in gold inside and out, and had two beautiful angels sitting on the top of it, and it was considered the throne of God. The ark resided in the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple, a room decorated beautifully, yet a room that no one could enter except for the high priest once a year. God’s presence lived with the people enthroned at the center of a beautiful temple. God’s throne was in glory. 

But, in Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection the great inversion happens. God’s presence resides in a man, and that man dies. So, God’s presence resides in a tomb, in a grave, in darkness. When Jesus resurrects from the dead, two angels sit in his tomb, mirroring the ark of the covenant, symbolizing that the grave is now Christ’s throne. Our God is not a God that stays enthroned in beautiful glory, no, our God descends to make his throne in the darkness of humanity. God’s throne is the grave. Leithart writes, “Where in hell is the evidence of Easter? This is exactly the right question, and it answers itself. Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.” 

The beauty of the gospel is that Christ experienced ugliness. The power of the gospel is that Christ experienced weakness. The joy of the gospel is that Christ experienced sadness. The life of the gospel is that Christ experienced death. The light of the gospel is that Christ experienced darkness. So, where is Christ in this time of darkness? Where is God in this time of pain? He is sitting enthroned on the grave, he is sitting as a light in the darkness. For what good is a god to humanity if he stays enthroned in the heavens? Our God brings his light into our darkness. 

So, now, whenever I experience a year like this, when the anniversary of my father’s death is after Easter, I remember that the risen Christ is with me in the darkness. The victorious Christ does not stay enthroned in the heavens, he does not stay in the gold temple, he does not stay on the top of the mountain. No, the victorious Christ is with me in the pit of sadness. He is with me in darkness. He is with me in the storm. This is the good news of the gospel, this is the good news that we celebrate in Easter. 

And, Christ can be with you in this time of pandemic, in this time of crisis, and any time of crisis. Simply call to him in your sadness, call to him your pain, call to him in your anxiety, call to him in your darkness. For, the God of the universe who controls the sun, the stars, and the moon is sitting enthroned in your darkness. Draw close to Christ, for he is the eternal light of the world. 

*If you feel like you are looking for light in these dark times, or you want to know more about my dad’s death and how it affected me, or how Christ gives me practical and tangible hope, you can email me at peter@resurrectionchurch.com or comment below. I’d love to talk with you!

As the Ruin Falls: Pain & Beauty; Destruction & Resurrection

Photo Credit: Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

Saturday morning my wife, Stephanie, and I with our friends and family celebrated the new life and coming birth of our twin sons, Abel James and August John Elliott. Gray clouds covered the sky, and a steady rain fell on the ground, a typical spring day in the South Puget Sound. I awoke early to bake four country loafs and slice apples for our charcuterie boards. After packing our car with food and supplies, we drove to pick up our morning coffee and then headed to the baby shower. The morning continued and we helped my wife’s family setup the event room with flowers and other decorations. People trickled in little by little: immediate family, extended family, old friends, new friends, loving pastors, and my beautiful wife, carrying my two twin boys surrounded me. Everyone was smiling and laughing. The happiness was palpable, and the party was the exact opposite of the dreary, depressing weather outside. During the baby shower, happiness overcame me, and, in that moment, my heart was overfilled with contentment and joy, similar to reaching the peak of a mountain or watching the sunset at the beach. It was a moment where one is thankful just to exist, to see and experience beauty, to love, and to be loved. It is in these moments that God’s presence feels so close, that mankind is able to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”[1]

But, what does man do with the evil that befalls him? What happens when we taste the bitterness of this world rather than the goodness of God? Where is God in these moments? For even in our happiness, mankind cannot escape the cold grasp of death. Even in celebrating the new life of my beautiful twin boys, I am unable evade the business of the grave. Today is the twenty-first anniversary of my father’s death. And, his death makes bitter even the joy of new life.

People say that time heals all wounds, but my father’s death seems to become more painful every year. The more joy I experience in my life, the more pain I feel from his death. The more goodness I experience in my life, such as graduation, marriage, and now children, the more I long for my Father to be alive to experience it with me. It is so painful to have children and to know they will never meet their grandfather. My twin boys, Abel and August, will never get to sit on Grandpa John’s lap; my twin boys will never feel my father’s strong hands hold them ever so gently; my twin boys will never see their grandpa pray by their bedside begging God to guide them in his ways; my twins will never know the love my father had for God, my mom, my siblings, and me. Even more so having children reminds me that I will never experience handing my son to my dad to hold; I will never feel the loving and firm embrace of my dad; I will never experience my dad telling me how proud he is of me as a father, a husband and a man. But, I surmise that the pain I feel is simply a product of the beauty I experienced in being my father’s son. Memories of my father’s laugh, of my father’s love, and my father’s faith are still with me to this day. The pain I feel is simply the absence of my father in my life.

It is strangely poetic that the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire today. The 856-year-old cathedral, captivated millions of admirers and pilgrims who walked through its doors in awe of its beauty. In Notre Dame, we saw a physical embodiment of beauty. And to lose that pains us. The pain of its destruction is so deeply felt exactly because the world knew its beauty and wonder. So, is the death of a human soul! To know and love someone only to see their body deteriorate over time or suddenly collapse, causes humans deep pain. Yet, we are powerless to stop this destruction.

Jesus Christ, our Savior, saw his beautiful creation dying and deteriorating. But, unlike mankind, he was not powerless to stop its destruction. So, he in fellowship with the Holy Trinity descended into humanity and assumed our nature. Christ Jesus was goodness, justice, love, and beauty encapsulated in a human. He was fully God and fully man, and we rejected him. He was the most beautiful thing that this world has ever experienced, and we killed him. ­And, mankind watched his body crumble in weakness. Jesus’ body was broken and soul crushed for humanity, like Notre Dame burning, the human embodiment of beauty was destroyed.

So, why did the triune God allow Jesus’ humanity to taste this bitterness? Why did Jesus experience this immense pain? Why was the beauty of Jesus allowed to be extinguished? Why was man permitted to eradicate the goodness of Jesus? Doesn’t this seem counter-productive to saving mankind?

Death became intertwined into the fabric of humanity after the fall of Adam and Eve. Death in a way represents our destroyed beauty, our fall from grace. Death is like the flame that just consumed Notre Dame, it is a sweltering fire that consumes beauty. And, Jesus, as God, assumed all of humanity, which means he assumed even the experience of pain and death. Jesus willingly allowed himself to experience the ugly reality of pain and death, because He wished to restore mankind’s beauty. He experienced death to bring new life. He experienced sickness to bring a remedy. He experienced sorrow to bring joy. He experienced pain to bring relief. And, that is what the resurrection shows. The true beauty of Jesus Christ is that he did not stay broken, dead in the ground. No, our Savior rose triumphant. Like a phoenix from the ashes, like the sun from the darkness of night, like a bright diamond from the darkness of the ground, our Savior was raised anew. Jesus was the firstborn of the dead, and He is a sign of the great things to come. For, Jesus is going to return and remake this world. Jesus resurrected not for his salvation alone, but for the salvation of the world. Jesus wants to heal the world; he wants to make the world beautiful again.

Many of the great moments in our lives are connected to parties. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, and baby showers are often moments of sheer happiness and beauty. In these moments, surrounded by friends and family, we love and feel loved. Our Savior, Christ Jesus, is going to throw a beautiful celebration for the world when he returns. At this party Jesus will restore all of our brokenness. All of our physical ailments will disappear, death will be no more, and all tears of sadness will be wiped away.[2] The brief momentary joy I felt at my sons’ baby shower was just that, momentary. But, that great and beautiful party when Jesus returns shall be eternal. For, when Christ returns all things will be made beautiful and indestructible, and mankind will once again be in perfect fellowship with God, who is beauty itself.

I have now come to terms that the pain of my Father’s death will never be resolved this side of eternity. Our Savior thinks it fitting that we should experience pain to grow our dependence on him. As C.S. Lewis once wrote in a poem, “For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains you give me are more precious than all other gains.”[3] When our life shatters and we experience deep pain and brokenness, it is those who seek Jesus in humility that will experience true life. For it is in Jesus that all temporal things will find their eternity. And, this is the hope that I will teach my sons: Pain is a reality of human life, but the beauty of Jesus Christ is greater than this pain.

[1] Psalm 34:8.

[2] Revelation 21.

[3] http://www.pford.stjohnsem.edu/ford/cslewis/documents/notes/Wordsworth%20SBJ%20As%20the%20ruin%20.pdf.

 

20 Years

John Francis Elliot, my father, died twenty years ago on this day:

 

Where were you at my soccer games?

Where were you at my high school graduation?

Where were you when I graduated college with honors?

Where were you when I joined my soul with my wife in marriage?

Where were you?

 

Where are you for mom?

Where are you when the Patriots game is on?

Where are you to offer me advice on my marriage?

Where are you when I have my anxiety attacks, because I think I’ll die young?

Where are you?

 

Where will you be when I call mom to tell her Stephanie is pregnant?

Where will you be when I hold my firstborn child lovingly in my arms?

Where will you be when my children ask, “Why is there no Grandpa Elliott?”

Where will you be when I have questions on how to be a disciplined yet gracious parent?

Where will you be?

 

These questions haunt me,

my soul cannot find rest

These questions go unanswered

though my mind knows the truth

These questions keep me up at night

my body is tired

 

God where are you?

Where were you to comfort a confused toddler?

Where are you to quench my anxious heart?

Where will you be in the hour of my death?

 

I hear a voice

It questions me

 

Where were you when I created the earth out of nothing?

Where were you when I breathed divine life into humanity?

Where were you when my Son experienced the pain of death at your hand?

Where were you?

 

Where are you when the earth quakes?

Where are you when the waters rage?

Where are you when the winds terrorize?

Where are you when kings and politicians war?

Where are you?

 

Where will you be when I come to judge the world?

Where will you be when I destroy sin, death, and the devil forever?

Where will you be when I melt the elements and rebuild the earth anew?

Where will you be?

 

Triune God, I know that no man can thwart your will

I know that life and death are in your hands

I know that you are present with me now.

 

Father, I know that you direct all the ways of man

Eternal Son, I know you will judge the living and the dead

Holy Spirit, I know that you are the seal of the resurrection and eternal life in God

 

Triune God, I knew you with my intellect

but now my heart knows your presence

Cause my soul to love your Word

Cause my heart to walk in daily repentance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Folding the Laundry: A Meditation on my Wife’s Birthday

Today is my beautiful wife’s, Stephanie Augusta Elliott’s, birthday. The more I think about her and all of her amazing qualities and virtues, I realize that I value her birthday infinitely more than mine. For, birthdays are a celebration of an individual’s life, and I would much rather celebrate my wife’s life than my own. For, God (and my family & friends for that matter) knows who I would be without her.

Stephanie is such an amazing wife, as she loves me despite my insecurities and downfalls, my lack of empathy, my occasional lapses in judgement, and even my hatred of folding laundry. She does not simply “suffer” through my problems, she calls them out and urges me to live in the grace of God. I manage my money better with her; I am more disciplined with her; I even wax the car now because of her. She has challenged me to “grow up” in so many ways. But, alas, folding the laundry still evades me, in all honesty, I don’t want to grow up in that area.

Continuing on, Stephanie is such a diligent worker. This year alone she finished her accelerated post-baccalaureate nursing program and graduated with her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, passed her NCLEX, and accepted a nursing job. She even did side cleaning jobs to make extra money to pay for our move across the country. Stephanie empathizes so effortlessly and is extremely caring. Steph and I were youth group leaders at our church this past year, and she constantly talked with her small group girls whenever and wherever she saw them. She had them over for spa nights, movie nights, cookie party nights. Stephanie legitimately invests in those with whom she is connected. Seeing her be this person, challenges me to equally be as diligent and empathetic. And, while Steph has her faults, as all humans do, no human has intimately shown me God’s grace more than her.

St. Clement of Alexandria once stated, “For with perfect propriety Scripture has said that woman is given by God as “an help” to man. It is evident, then, in my opinion, that she will charge herself with remedying, by good sense and persuasion, each of the annoyances that originate with her husband in domestic economy.” Perhaps it is just the editing and translating of Philip Schaff and Alexander Roberts, but I love that St. Clement uses the term annoyances. In marriage, men are given wives to refine our rough edges or as St. Clement puts it “annoyances.” Woman make men who they are. Women are the sanctifying tool of God for the life of mankind. Not only do they physically and literally give life to all of mankind, women metaphorically give life to mankind as they educate, develop, and refine mankind through marriage and motherhood. This is the true beauty of marriage as an institution; this is the beauty in which the triune God created man in his image, as specifically man & woman. Man is not truly man without woman.

All this to say, I am not fully who I am without you, Stephanie Augusta. Your Christ-centered love and righteous jealousy do not merely make me a better human, but rather they are the very dispensation of the triune God’s grace for my sanctification. I look forward to the many years ahead, to the children we will raise in God’s grace, and to the hope that one day I will enjoy folding the laundry.


“The marriage, then, that is consummated according to the word, is sanctified, if the union be under subjection to God, and be conducted “with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, having hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and the body washed with pure water, and holding the confession of hope; for He is faithful that promised.” And the happiness of marriage ought never to be estimated either by wealth or beauty, but by virtue.

St. Clement of Alexandria – Chapter XX: A Good Wife

Medicine for an Anxious Heart: a Christian Meditation on Death and Fear

Court-of-death

 

Peter Lawler stated in a recent article, “Philosophy is learning how to die, to get over obsessing about your personal significance. Being (existence) itself is not in our hands.” Lawler aligns himself with great thinkers such as Plato, Cicero, and Montaigne in believing that Philosophy has the purpose of preparing oneself to die. Shakespeare even incorporates this thinking into his many plays. But, I am convinced that philosophy can only do so much to sooth man’s soul, and I would like to assert that one should replace Philosophy with Christianity. And, I am fully convinced of this: Christianity is learning how to die.


This past year has been quite a year. I graduated from college debt free. My brother was married. I became an uncle. I was offered a job that I wasn’t qualified for. And most importantly, this year, I married my beautiful wife, Stephanie. God has been gracious and kind to me.


But, although this year has been filled with joy and happiness, I found myself deeply saddened. April 15th, 2016 marked the 18th year anniversary of my father, John Francis Elliott’s, death. It can easily be deduced that my father was not at my graduation, at my niece’s birth, at my brother’s wedding, or at my wedding. His death still has a real affect on my life, even though it was 18 years ago. So much so that in April of last year, I had an anxiety attack that landed me in the emergency room of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. Having too much caffeine from coffee and to much stress from school, work, and wedding planning resulted in the anxiety attack, but I am convinced the root cause was my deeply rooted fear of death. Let me explain.


Because of my father’s early death, I have always feared a premature death, myself. My dad died of a heart attack when he was forty-one, and I was so scared that my anxiety attack was a heart attack that I literally tricked my body into thinking it was going to die. The doctor told me that I had experienced a hypochondriac reaction. I had convinced myself I was dying, and my response consisted of being frantic, afraid, and scared.


But, this brings me back to my original point. Christianity is learning how to die, at least a large part of it. Death is the great equalizer of humanity. Every one experiences death. Naked we enter this world, and naked we leave. From dust we are formed, and to dust we return. No matter who you are, you will die. Death is scary, and the fear of death has many tangible reactions. Anxiety, denial, and ignorance are just a few.


I am afraid of death. I am afraid of being separated from my family. I am afraid of the pain I might face in my final hours. I am afraid of not being there for my children. And, every year I remember my dad’s death, and what he has missed, it incarnates that fear even more into my life. Fear is not something that mankind merely experiences, it is a part of our nature. Although a concept, fear incarnates itself into our reality in a concrete way. How does mankind conquer fear and its many consequences? The Apostle John with such sublime and simple words tells us that, “Perfect love casts out fear.”


But, how does love cast out fear? Often the answer to this question places the action on man to love and not act out of fear. Preachers often tell us, “You, human, in your own capacity, do not fear. You, human, in your own capacity, love other.” But this is the wrong way of understanding this concept. Fear has incarnated itself as a part of our human nature. The only thing that can overcome the human incarnation of fear is a divine incarnation of love.


The question one should ask is not “how do I with love cast out fear?” but rather, “how does perfect love, the Triune God, cast out fear?” The Father gives us His Son, Jesus Christ, through His Spirit. And, the presence of Jesus Christ in our souls casts out human fear. Christ casts fear out, because He is perfect love. And, as Christ casts out demons who controlled the men and women they indwelled, so Christ cast out fear from his church’s body. The God who calmed the raging waters of the Galilee Sea, can assuredly calm the fear in his children’s heart.


Therefore, the answer to fear is Christ himself. Christ went through death for humanity. God experienced death. As Peter Leithart eloquently explains in his article Lord over Death, “He (Jesus) is not only Lord over the safe confines of heaven…Not only Lord over galaxies, but Lord in the world of hunger and thirst. Not only the Lord over nations, but the Lord in suffering, injustice, and pain. Not only the Lord over life, but also the Lord and tamer in death.” Christ did this as our brother, a partaker in humanity. Adam sinned and brought death, destruction, and fear upon all mankind. But, through Christ, the God-man, mankind has life, redemption, and love. As Leithart states in another article, “The Lord of life becomes Lord of death. God’s throne is a tomb… Any old god could put up a throne in a temple. The true God must reign also in the midst of hell, among the ruins, or he doesn’t reign at all. He is no living God if he isn’t the living One among the dead.” Our God not only became man, He experienced the dirty, messy, humiliating act of death.


Modern society views death as man’s weakest point, that great adversary of mankind. Death is the point of human existence in which human will and ability can do nothing to stop the impending destruction of life. Death is in its nature a humiliating moment. Perhaps this is why euthanasia is becoming so appealing to many; human will can exercise its power one last time. Human will desires to be lord of its own peaceful death. But, that subject can be tackled at a later time.


In Christian thought, death receives a new nature and purpose. Death is man’s act of victory; man’s final experience of pain and sorrow, becomes its moment of victory. Death is still humbling in Christianity’s understanding, but it is humbling because we submit ourselves to God in humility with faith that he will raise us up incorruptible. Christian’s go to the grave not fearing death, for in death’s humiliation we are exalted to the heavens into the throne room of God. God made his throne the grave, so that man’s grave could become his throne. This is why a large portion of Christianity is learning how to die. For, Christianity teaches that in death we have life if we place our faith in the power of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We literally preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in our very death. Man is sinful and weak and deserving of the punishment of death, but through faith in Jesus Christ man is restored to a divine life that is incorruptible. This is the message of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.


So, when fear attempts to reincarnate itself into the hearts and minds of men, man is to think of Christ. Think on that perfect love, who incarnated himself on this earth and in your heart. Think on Christ, who descended into the grave and rose victorious. And, pray. Pray for Christ to give you His Spirit. For through His Spirit, we receive the power, presence, and love of Christ, the Eternal Son. Our God, came to this earth as one of us, and conquered not as a powerful King, but as a dying servant. And, through this we have peace. Our anxieties and fears can be calmed, for God has accomplished the work of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. And, with this peace, man can truly live. Understanding the true nature of death leads to true life. Anxiety, stress, and despair slowly fade.


My fear of death still exists, and my heart is still anxious. Every year when I remember my father’s premature death, my heart will become heavy with fear and anxiety. But when my heart is heavy, I think of the word’s of Christ, “Come to me all who labor and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Christ speaks to my heart through his Word, through His Church, through His Communion, and through Prayer. He tells me to have no fear, for he has conquered the grave. And, slowly, very slowly, I am learning how to die.


Title Painting: The Court of Death by Rembrandt Peale. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012645626/

The Glory of the Gods

What if I told you I was a Greek god? What if I told you that people offered sacrifices of food and libations to me? Well, it is true. Let me explain.


In Greek mythology, gods were built temples in which human subjects would bring offerings of food, drink, and incense. Greek citizens would try and bribe the god into favoring them. Sailors and seamen would offer sacrifices to Poseidon for a safe voyage across the stormy Aegean. Infertile women would offer a sacrifice to Demeter or Aphrodite in the hopes of bringing the fruit of life to their barren wombs. Kings and generals alike would offer many sacrifices to Athena and Ares to have the arrows of their artillery and the swords of their hoplites guided into the hearts of their enemies. In ancient Greece, if one wished to succeed in what he did, he would sacrifice to the gods. The gods were thus utilized for success.


Greek deities were not good. They were and still are symbols of the fall. They were worshipped in fear and utility. They were ruled by their emotions and used their powers to serve and glorify themselves. Greek gods symbolize the misuse of creation. So, while it may have seemed narcissistic that I called myself a Greek god, it actually was my confession of pride, arrogance, and sinful nature.


Has anyone ever said to you, “I need your help,” or, “Without you I would have failed?”


Well, fellow students in my bachelor’s degree constantly told me this when I helped them in their academic endeavors. I though that they needed me, like the Greeks needed their gods. I was like Coeus, the titan god of intelligence. I dressed myself in knowledge, facts, and academics. I was a book reader, a contemplator, and a theologian. I researched in the library, reading Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. I taught, tutored, and edited the works of many students.  Friends, acquaintances, and students I had never met, would ask me for help. I was offered sacrifices of food and drink. I was frequently given meals and coffee for my help. People told me, “I need you. I need your help. I will fail if you do not help me.” Oh! How I loved those words. Oh! How I my heart was pleased to hear those words and to receive those gifts. I built for myself a temple of knowledge, a temple in which I allowed my heart to commit adultery against its very Creator.


Have you ever experienced this?


Perhaps you are like Apollo, god of music, theatre, and poetry. You dress yourself in the arts. You parade around mastering musical instruments. Maybe you are a poet, a writer, or a lyricist. Are you a lover of the theatre? Do you sit under a favorite tree or in a favorite coffee shop and read Browning, Byron, Shelley, and Shakespeare? Whatever aspect of the arts with which you dress yourself, you are defined as an artist. Are you one to allow your passion to exude through your performances? Do you thrive on the crowds cheering? Do you long for people to tell you how good you are; how wonderful your performance was? Do you perform poetry, sing songs, act in plays to receive adoration, even if for a brief moment? But, Oh! How you cherish that moment; Oh! How you desire that moment of pleasure again and again. Maybe you have built a temple for yourself, where others come to praise you. Perhaps you are Apollo.


Perhaps you are like Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, and eternal youth. You dress yourself with make-up, designer clothes, trending fashion, rich perfumes, and anything that could make you attractive, that could make you beautiful. Maybe you have a size zero waist, a beautiful smile, or even the hair of Aphrodite herself. Are you a lover of aesthetics? Do you sit at home fantasizing about wearing Burberry, Dolce & Gabanna, Versace, and Louis Vuitton? Or do you long for love? Do you long to be loved? Are you someone who dresses with garments of beauty in order to be loved? Do you long to hear people tell you how pretty, gorgeous, or stunning you are? When you hear these words, do you feel loved? Oh! How loved you feel, when someone adores your beauty. Oh! How divine you feel, when your beauty is desired. Maybe you have built a temple for yourself, where others come to adore your aesthetic beauty. Perhaps you are Aphrodite.


Perhaps you are like Ares, god of physical strength and war. You dress yourself with workout regiments, dietary restrictions, and muscle. Maybe you are at maximal physical strength. You are the best at sports, a born leader on the field; your teammates follow you as the Greeks followed Odysseus into battle against the Trojans. Are you a lover of physical physique? Do you always need to be stronger? Do you long for the cheers of others when you reach a new level of strength or when you excel in sports? When you hear those words, do you feel accomplished, strong, and powerful? Oh! How mighty you feel when others look to you as a strong man. Maybe you have built a temple for yourself, where others come to praise your strength, agility, and skill. Perhaps you are Ares.


Mankind imitates so many other Greek deities. Hades, the god of the underworld and wealth, was known to seek and accumulate riches. Hermes, the god of travel, commerce, and trade, mastered his occupation and helped others in their economic endeavors. Hera, the god of marriage, blessed new marriages and united spouses. All of these idolatrous deities represent specific idols in our life. Idols are created objects which mankind uses in self-gratification and self-glorification as a means to bring himself control over his life. Mankind’s sinful nature wants freedom from God, and wants to become itself a god. We desire to glorify ourselves, and in our self-glorification we deny any possibility to love and glorify our Creator.


Being a Greek deity is quite exciting, but that which is exciting is not always right. I realized that my deification of self came from the pride I found in my knowledge. Humanity is prone to this. Man seeks life in creation and not in the Creator. Man seeks fame, fortune, popularity through knowledge, athletics, business, artistry, and much more. This is the great temptation in life: to take that which God gives us to steward (creation) and use it for personal gain and self-gratification. It is to deny true deity, God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God cannot be glorified by one who loves and seeks creation as its own end, but sadly all humans are prone to do this. It is the temptation of the forbidden fruit. Take creation and use it to attain deity. It is quite ironic, though, for in using creation to attain deity, we forfeit any chance of becoming one with God. It is ironic because, in my pursuit of knowledge, I lost the true knowledge of God. Knowledge of God (theology) became an object to me. I saw it as a means to the end of glory, fame, and popularity. I became as the vain preachers in Philippians 1:15-16, who preached the knowledge of the gospel, “from envy and strife…from selfish ambition and not sincerely.”


I would like to clarify that music, the arts, fashion, exercise, beauty, strength, knowledge, money, and the many other created objects, which I stated were a means of self-glorification, are not inherently evil. Again, idols would not exist apart from humanity’s fall. And, if idols are objects, which God created and called good, then it is humanity’s fallen nature that is inherently evil. Man in his sin takes creation, that which God created good, and uses it to its own advantage and glorification. When God created the world it was good. Creation in itself is not evil; man uses it for evil. But, man can also use it for good. Creation is at our disposal, and, through the power of the Spirit, man is once again given the ability to use the objects that once enslaved him as channels of adoration to his Creator. Man seeks and serves God with creation through the love of God mediated in the work of Christ by the power of the Spirit.


And, this is the lesson I come back to time after time. Loving God is the cornerstone of all right action. The only thing that separates us from the natural tendency to love and worship ourselves as divine deities is God’s love for us. God has given us his word, his table, and his church as created objects which draw us into his love, through his love, and by his love. Thirst for these! Hunger for these! Be as a deer panting for water. Pray for God to be your sustenance. Do not be as the Greek deities, who take from creation for power and life; Scripture tells us to love the Creator and in his Son find power and life. Jesus is the very image of God to humanity, fully God and fully man, mediator of true life and our new nature. Jesus is not an idol, but God himself. He destroyed sin, death, all idols, and even the devil. Idols no longer control us, and our selfish desires have no power over us as long as mankind loves and seeks the Creator God through the Savior, Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Love God; seek Christ.

The Paradox of Death

A child of five years I was

Sitting, waiting, confused.

People whispering in hushed tones;

People crying with sorrowful mourns.


“Where’s mommy?” I asked.

No response.

No one wanted to answer. 

No one did answer.


A child of five I was;

Lifted up, looking at, and wondering why

Everyone was watching daddy sleep.


“Why is daddy sleeping?” I asked.

No response.

I touched his face;

I kissed his cheek.

He was cold.


“Why is daddy cold?” I asked.

Finally, a response:

My mother’s eyes flowing with tears,

“Daddy’s not sleeping, Peter.”


I didn’t understand;

I couldn’t understand

What was happening.


A man of twenty-two years I am

Sitting, thinking, contemplating.

I think to myself;

I cry.


“Where’s God?” I ask.

No response.


A man of twenty-two years I am;

Looking up, crying out, and wondering why

Good men die young,

Why evil men live long.


“Why is my dad dead?” I ask.

No response.

I see his face;

I hear his voice,

But he is gone.


“Why is my father, a good man, dead?” I cry.

Finally, a response:

God’s hand wiping my tears away,

“Your dad’s not dead, Peter.

He’s only sleeping.”


I understand what has happened,

It is the paradox of death:

They are not sleeping; they are dead.

They are not dead; they are sleeping.


In loving memory of John Francis Elliott, beloved husband, father, and brother. I miss you Dad.