This Battleground: A Holy Week Reflection

On recent Sunday mornings we’ve been singing “Never Once” by Matt Redman. Take a minute to review the lyrics…

Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step You were with us

Kneeling on this battleground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us

Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

Now pause and look back at the two lines that are bold. How many of you could easily make two columns and file your life experiences under either the header “Mountaintop” or “Battleground?”  Both are common metaphors we use to speak about our spiritual journey.

The mountaintop is a prevalent faith metaphor for those sublime times in which we acknowledge that life with God is good. A mountaintop vista means we can clearly see what we have climbed over. Here we can fill our lungs to tingling, release clenched fists and to stand tall. The end of an uphill trudge is certainly to be celebrated!

The slowly-fading pain of the battleground is perhaps less euphoric than a mountaintop, but no less significant to our faith. Whether or not they are outwardly visible, many of us bear scars which remind us of earthly wars we wish we could have avoided — abuse, betrayal, deceit, broken relationships, [fill in the blank]. It’s fitting that Redman used the word kneeling with the battleground image. Truly victorious people are often weak-kneed with the knowledge that they were a hairs-breadth from death. Gratitude makes us kneel as we acknowledge that something (or someone) beyond our individual (or our battalion’s) capabilities stood in the infinitesimal gap between our necks and the edge of the sword.

Why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with Holy Week? This week is an opportune time to reflect on these metaphors, perhaps in a new way.

The longer I sit at the feet of Jesus, the more uncomfortable I grow with the dichotomy we draw between the mountaintop and battleground. Too often I’ve heard fellow believers judge the faith of another who is in the midst of a battle.

She’s always saying how hard her life is. Why has it been so long since she’s been happy like me? What is wrong with her? Where is her faith?

It’s as though the mountaintop is the only trustworthy thermometer of a vital spiritual life. But what if we learned to see the mountaintop and the battleground not as contrasting but interchangeable spiritual planes?

What would happen in our spirits if we understood the battleground as the mountaintop?

Jesus has a lot to say about spiritual warfare. As a Holy Week spiritual discipline, I encourage you to read John 15:18-16:33 each day. Listen deeply to Jesus teaching in the days and hours before his arrest. Notice how frankly he speaks to his disciples about the battles ahead. Grief, suffering, shunning, ridicule, hatred, persecution, death – these are the coming realities for his followers. (Just as they were for Jesus himself.) Jesus is not harsh or indelicate; he pulls away the film of naïveté from his disciples’ vision so they could understand that a God-honoring life is lived on the treacherous planes of a spiritual battlefield.

Despite these chilling facts, Jesus is still the good news bearer we met in earlier chapters. He didn’t leave his followers low in depression or despair. Hear both his motivation and encouragement in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”  

This is not a trite response given to trembling followers. “Have overcome” is literally “conquered” or “carried off the victory”. Jesus is using battle imagery! He’s foreshadowing events that will come soon, events that will culminate in the ultimate spiritual battle – the fight for the redemption of humanity and all creation. Where was this battle fought? On a cross – a place of humiliation and torture.

A torture device as a battlefield? Yes.

Suffering and death as a battle strategy? Yes.

And this leads to a victory? Yes!

Through his sacrificial death and his miraculous resurrection, Jesus defeated the power of sin and death. His actions may not have been logical, but they were victorious. This is why we should see our battles as mountaintop experiences – because God can accomplish the greatest victories even when we are at our weakest. Tribulations can be times of praise because victory is owned by the power of God.

Jesus told his followers to rejoice and be glad when they are persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). It’s a crazy request…unless you understand that the battleground is the mountaintop. We can rejoice despite the battle because Jesus did not leave his disciples defenseless. He armed us with supernatural weaponry –

·         Jesus’ continual presence through the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15)

·         Protection by the power of God’s name (17:11)

·         Jesus’ joy (17:13)

·         God’s word (17:14)

·         God’s glory which enables unity (17:22-23)

The first point is the battle cry of the Christian life. God sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Advocate” on the battlefields of life (16:7). The title Advocate is a legal term. It describes one who pleads a case before a judge, acting as an intercessor for the accused. (Forgive the shift in metaphor, but the battlefield and the courtroom do complement each other.)

Our lives will have tribulation.We will often feel like defendants being falsely accused by people we once thought friends. Rather than feel defeated, fearful or inadequate by a spiritual battle, we can see our trouble as a sign of spiritual vitality. Our confidence is in the Holy Spirit, in whom we have the best legal counsel possible. The Spirit defends the truth of our testimony and, like the savviest lawyer, turns the tables on our accusers. Our Advocate has the power to get our charges thrown out, saving us from both sure conviction and the death penalty!

Think about the many spiritual metaphors we use to describe the spiritual life – the battlefield, the storm, desert wanderings, and famine. Each of these experiences is also a mountaintop because we are infused with the presence and almighty power of Holy Spirit. This is the hope we cling to in shadow of the cross.

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge

Death and Dawning – Holy Saturday

It’s late in the evening of Holy Saturday, 2012.  I’ve been a follower of Jesus for most of my life, so this day, though holy, is often just a blip between the utter desolation of Jesus’ death and ecstatic joy of his resurrection.  I surely miss out on this significant day because I know what’s coming.  I’ve already celebrated the end of the Easter story and danced in the redemption of the coming days.  But my dear friend and fellow blogger Stacey Gleddiesmith, as she reflects on the wisdom of Joan Chittister, reminds me that Holy Saturday is important because it is the day when all our dreams have died, but a day when we can grow in hope.  (Read her fabulous post at  Challenged by Stacey and Joan, I let my imagination unfurl into a different time and place…

It’s year 33 and I am a young disciple of the newest Messiah figure, this one called Jesus, who is just a few years into what looks like a campaign for king.  I have been wandering around the hot desert for months with a carpenter-turned-rabbi who, though he speaks with an authority I had never heard in the synagogue, makes some wildly outrageous (and provocative) claims about the kingdom of God.  A kingdom he could almost literally conjure before my eyes through his riveting stories.  (It’s like he’s actually been to this wondrous places before.  I can almost smell the feast he describes floating on the back of the Galilean wind.)  Jesus’ teaching stirs parts of my soul that have laid as fallow as my father’s field during the sabbath year.  I left my family, my village, my security, to follow this man on a path toward an elusive hope, the hope that life might actually be more than the drudgery I’ve lived.  When I left, my friends called me a fool, my mother wept and my father roughly turned his back.

As I followed Jesus, I discovered a man with a passionate spirit who both perplexes and comforts me with his daily teaching on a kingdom that has no end.  A gentle radical who constructs images of a Godly kingdom (and I’ve lived the opposite) where children are praised for their faith and women are welcomed into the master’s circle.  A kingdom where I can lay down the burden of my shame (and believe me, my soul’s more spotted than the cheapest bird you could by in the Temple courts) and instead take up a yoke so different from this law that I can never fulfill.  Jesus tells me not to worry, because he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, and when he says this, something in me…releases.  My new master tells me that I will know the truth and it will free me.  God, how I’ve hungered for truth, for freedom!

Throughout the months I was with him, Jesus talked a lot about his father, one so different from my own, a king who rushes to embrace the returning children who abandoned him to chase their own pleasures.  Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world, the bread of life, the way, the truth, the resurrection and the life.  Even though I didn’t understand everything he said – his stories, his power to heal, his vision for a new kingdom of peace and love and justice, his shalom-filled welcome of the outcasts among us – these things slowly unwound the tight knots of pain and fear in my gut.

Something new was born in me as I followed my dusty rabbi.  It’s hard to describe, but deep in me, where I used to feel shame burning holes in my soul, there was a mending.  A burgeoning courage to live a new way.  And the closest I’ve ever come assurance.  By the end I was a believer in this new kingdom, a devotee of its good, loving king, and an avid disciple of Jesus, this prince among men.

But then Jesus was arrested.  Convicted.  Whipped.  Crucified.  Stripped.  Punctured.  Ridiculed.  Abandoned.

I did that.  Well, not all of it, just the last part.  I abandoned Jesus, but to me that single crime is just as bad as all the rest put together.  I didn’t stay to see the end, or even much of the middle.  (What I know about Jesus’ death, I learned from passersby.)  For all my new hope, the courage that was beginning to shine within me, the wisdom I’d learned at Jesus’ feet, I ran away shortly after I saw blood.  And now I lay here in the dirt, in the exact spot where I collapsed last night, exhausted after my flight from Golgotha.  I’m so endlessly tired from crying.  Wrecked from the confusion about what happened.  This crater of loss sucks me inside out.  What kind of disciple was I to run away when things got hot?

But what kind of rabbi – what kind of prince – what kind of Messiah dies like that?

I lay under a withered fig tree along the side of a road that leads nowhere.  This mouth that Jesus once filled with bread and fish and cool water is now gritty and putrified with dirt and shame.  Jesus made me feel such hope.  Following him made me feel so…vital, like I was living for the first time.  Now I lay here an empty shell.  This is worse than all those years of drudgery back home.  This is nothingness.

I laid in the dirt for hours.  Silent.  Sullen.  Hollow.  Despondent.  Fearful.  It was so dark but I didn’t care if the sun never rose again.  But then somewhere, deep in that pit that held me captive, I heard a whisper.

“I am the light of the world.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Between each whisper I feel the thump of my heart, tacky and faint, but there.  I’m still alive.  I want to live, I realize.  I want to live the life that Jesus sketched in the sand of my country.  He said he was the resurrection.  I never understood that.  But, what if?  Slowly, I push myself up on my elbows.  With my hands gripping clumps of dirt, I look toward the horizon.  I wait, wondering.

Where is the light of the world?

Where is the resurrection and the life?

As light slowly hems the eastern hills, a morsel of warmth dawns within me and begins to spread.  Curious, I push to my feet.  The sun is rising and I have this uncanny feeling that today will bring…I don’t know quite what.  But something, something more than this roadside grave I’ve made for myself.  Hoping he is who he said he is, I turn back to Jerusalem, and begin to run.