Glory and Cross - At the Blue Hole by Jack Reese
Written by Jack Reese - Excerpt from "At the Blue Hole," Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 2021. Reprinted with permission. Contextual note: Reese refers to a man looking for lost keys under a lamppost because the light was good - and yet they were lost in the dark park.
When we are pretty sure we know the answers, it’s natural to feel confident. Knowing the answers can be a heady thing.
You understand what that feels like. You’re a student, say, studying for the big test. You have the material down cold. There is no question you are not prepared for. The teacher puts the test on your desk. You look it over and smile. When you finish it and turn it in, all is well in the universe. You nailed it. You knew the answers. It’s a great feeling.
If only faith were like that. Being smart. Knowing the answers to all the questions. Maintaining the GPA. But it isn’t like that. It isn’t at all. One of Martin Luther’s complaints about the church of his day was that it believed it had the answers. It lived, in Luther’s words, by a theology of glory. His reference is to Moses’s encounter with God at Mt. Horeb. Moses said to God, I want to see your kabod—your face, your glory. God said to Moses, I will cause my goodness to pass in front of you. I will show mercy. I will show compassion. But you cannot see my face. No one may see my face. No one may see my glory and live. Luther was reflecting on a church that believed it had seen God’s glory. Everyone knew what God was like, what the church was for, what to believe, what to do. They thought they had the answers. It’s like they had constructed a tall tower, built on the certainty of their knowledge of God’s ways, God’s word, God’s nature, God’s laws, until they reached the heavens where God dwelt and peeled open the sky so they could see God face to face. They believed they had done so. They believed they had seen God’s glory. They believed they had studied hard for the test and had aced it. But that’s not the world God has made. That’s not God’s nature or the nature of God’s church. Scripture reveals a certain hiddenness about God. God has created a universe in which God’s very presence cannot be irrefutably known, in which disagreements about God’s ways are not just possible but inevitable. Tall towers into the heavens have never worked out very well. God isn’t known in that way. God reveals himself in surprising ways, hidden ways. Luther refers to this God of hiddenness as a theology of the cross. The message of the cross seems like foolishness, Paul told the Corinthians. But God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Be careful when you think you know God. Believing in God requires a measure of humility because hiddenness is in God’s nature. The immortal God entered the world not in grandeur but in poverty. God’s power was at its greatest when the divine child was lying as a baby in an animal trough. God’s hands were most able to save when they were nailed to a tree. It is in God’s hiddenness, in God’s upside-down wisdom, that God’s heart and power are most visible. In a time of spiritual drought, when a church is facing conflict or failure, we can be renewed. We can find fresh water at the fountainhead. We can find answers there, beneath the spring where hidden resources lie. But that’s not to say that everything will be clear. It won’t. Within the waters of the Blue Hole the wisdom of God flows. But God’s wisdom can be murky, sometimes bitter, always costly. And at the heart of God’s wisdom is a death. The answers we seek will require a cross, both Christ’s and our own. There’s no other way. The empty tomb is a central image in the New Testament story. But it means nothing if it is detached from wounds and thorns. Christ’s victory makes sense only in the face of his humiliating condemnation and public execution. Christ was disgraced before he was glorified. He was broken before he was raised. At the cross, in the ultimate display of Christ’s humanness, we discover the crucial connection between his shame and ours, the merciful link that unleashes his divine power—not just in general but for each of us and in a way that addresses our particular brokenness and shame. All of which means that before we can engage in resurrection living we better come to grips with our weaknesses—both our church’s and our own. And it means that we find contentment not by having conquered our weaknesses but right smack in the middle of them. But there is a measure of good news in this because, Paul asserts, when we are weak then we are strong. We’ve all heard this truth, of course. I’ve preached it a hundred times. But preaching the whole self-emptying thing is not the same as living it. That’s a lot tougher. This gift is not found under the nearby lamppost where the light is good. Self-emptying is a cross-shaped move, so it’s difficult. And painful. And never fully realized in this life. But I’m learning to say with Paul that God’s grace is good enough, because I’m not. I surely can’t do it. Nor can the church. Christians simply are not good enough. They are not right enough, strong enough, visionary enough, faithful enough, or obedient enough. None of us. And no church, even one in the Restoration Movement, is restored enough. Most of us are willing to admit that Christians are weak and sinful, that we are all in some way inadequate, shortsighted, imperfect, and, at least every now and then, mistaken. But somehow some of us have arrived at the conclusion, or we simply inherited the notion passed down from the generations before us, that God’s vision of church has been faithfully and fully restored in our own time, in our own understanding of church. We have come to believe that our particular churches have deduced accurately and completely God’s template for what a church should look like, now and forevermore. Here is the adaptive challenge that churches must confront head-on before anything else can matter. If you think you can fix your church, it will never be fixed. If you think God will judge your church by whether you measure up to standards you arrived at, your church will never measure up. If being a Christian means getting it right, you will never be right. You can’t. Whoever you are, whatever the history of your congregation, whoever your preacher is, however great your worship is, however confident you may be of your conclusions, your church has not gotten all of it right. To believe you have is to undermine the gospel itself because salvation depends on God, not our ability to get everything right. My grace is enough for you, God said, because power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, when I am weak, then I am strong. Only then. If a church is ever going to be strong enough to withstand the challenges it is facing—from rapid cultural shifts, the rise of uncivil speech and behavior, and the radical polarization in the nation and world, to declining congregational membership, generational conflicts, and our growing diversity—if a congregation will ever be spiritually healthy, it will have to begin by confessing it is weak, by admitting up front that it might be wrong. It will have to admit that it is broken, inadequate, incomplete. Before an alcoholic can be healed, he has to admit he’s an alcoholic. Before a church can be whole, its people will have to admit that they have not gotten everything right. They will need to take up a cross, together. We will have to admit we may be wrong. We have been hurtful. We misunderstood. We looked to our own interests before someone else’s. We have gone in wrong directions. We haven’t lived rightly. And we can’t. We are sinners. We are human. We are weak. We are broken. Our churches are broken—our people, our heritage, our past, our future. That’s what the cross reveals. That’s why we need Jesus. That’s why we need the resurrection. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. That’s why we need each other. Churches are broken. That should go without saying, though church leaders seem to constantly be surprised by it. Churches are broken. Having said that, I feel no urge to pass judgment on them. Frankly, I have always belonged to such churches, which is to say troubled churches, difficult churches. Yet, in spite of their weaknesses, I have also been transformed by them. Through them, even amidst their brokenness, and certainly my own, I have found new insights and new courage. The challenge is to look for a healthy way forward, to find the key to our best future. But to be clear, it is not under the streetlight, where it is safe, where the light is good, where we are comfortable. We will have to look in places we have not gone before, in hidden places, unfamiliar places. We will have to tell the truth about ourselves. We will have to look at our past for clues about how we got here. And before all is said and done, we will have to face death—our Savior’s, our church’s, and our own. Perhaps that’s the best place to begin... in a season of hope.
Jack Reese serves as Executive Minister at Northside Church of Christ in San Antonio, TX. Jack has ministered in a variety of settings for more than fifty years. He has served as a professor of preaching, worship, and ministry at three universities and has served as a ministry consultant with churches on five continents. Before moving to San Antonio, Jack headed the Foundation for Community Empowerment in Dallas, addressing issues of poverty and racism and providing opportunities for personal advancement through education. He has composed numerous hymns and is the author of several books about church and ministry. Jack is married to Lesa, who is a speech pathologist and educator. They love cooking together, singing, traveling to new places, reading geeky social science books, hosting friends in their home, working with San Antonio interfaith leaders, mentoring young Christians, and spending time with six adorable grandchildren.