This is my manuscript for the Baccalaureate service I was honored to speak at for Roanoke Bible College this May. Thanks to the folks at the college for allowing me the chance.
The Unseen World
5.9.08 For the students of Roanoke Bible College, Class of 2008
There are things about me that you can see: a thirty-something guy with a weak beard and floppy fingers. A conspicuous lack of neck tie because I gave them all to the Salvation Army the week I graduated from Bible college. I also ditched all forms of pant-wear but jeans and shorts, though in my old age I have been known to occasionally wear cargo pants on special occasions. For the sake of graduating, I abided by my Bible college’s dress code in heroic silence, bearing the coat and tie and slacks the same way Jacob bore up under Laban’s workload for the sake of Rachel’s hand. Here I am, tie-less, and hopefully not offending anyone.
Last year I was invited to play at the White House for members of President Bush’s staff who attended the weekly Christian Fellowship. I was honored, to say the least. And then I realized the awful truth that this was a situation in which I would have to wear a tie. The day before I left I walked to my neighbor’s house to borrow one, then I realized that I didn’t have a coat either. Then I realized that I didn’t own slacks, or a single belt. “Ooh, do you by chance have a pair of nice shoes I can borrow too?” I said. On my way out the door I realized that I also needed a pair of black socks. No kidding, everything I wore at the White House the next day was borrowed (well, almost everything), and I had cause to reflect that all my college dreams had come true. If you work hard, you too can have a career that doesn’t require slacks or a tie.
Thank you for having me. Goodnight.
But seriously. When I walked up to the podium you saw me, and began to fill in the blanks. On the outside I’m not very complex. Not much to look at, unless you ask my wife. But I believe that it’s my responsibility to tell you about what you can’t see. It would be easy for me to hide behind the suit coat and floppy fingers and talk about something that has very little to do with the constant play of light and shadow in my heart–and the heart is the thing that matters here.
There’s a story in 2 Kings about the invisible world:
The king of Aram sent a strong force of men to capture Elisha in the city of Dothan. When Elisha’s servant saw the Arameans he shook in his boots and asked Elisha what they would do. “Don’t worry,” Elisha said. “Those who are with us are greater than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes to see the unseen. When the servant looked he saw the hills covered with horses and chariots of fire.
An army of angels surrounded them, which also probably means there was another, sinister force gathered in the unseen world. Did you notice what he said? “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” So there was something else there besides the angel armies, which is enough to creep me out. But the point is, all around us things are happening that we can’t see. There are things happening inside of me even now that would shock you.
But it’s not just the spiritual world that is unseen. It’s the world of our personal stories. I stepped up to the podium with a long history of disobedience and shame, and victory and forgiveness. Have you ever disliked someone until you heard a bit of their background? Once you know them in the context of their greater story, you find the capacity to forgive. Maybe it’s because you remember the seasons in your own life when you weren’t so fun to be around. Maybe it’s because your heart now breaks for them and the burden they carry. Whatever it was that bothered you about that person becomes a thing to love and to forgive them for—all because they have allowed you access to their story.
So the unseen, you see, is very important.
When I came here my insides were whirling with a whole universe of emotions and history and pain and excitement, and my impulse is to strive to cover it over and pretend like I’m comfortable when I’m not. I want you to like me. I want to be talked about positively after I leave the room. Or negatively. I don’t care as long as I’m not forgotten. But I do care. I’m desperate for friendship and companionship and validation and love. Telling you this makes me uncomfortable. It makes you uncomfortable too, I’d bet.
Are you squirming in your seat? Because I’m only getting started. I’m a sinner, of course. Sometimes I’m short with my kids. Sometimes I’m short with my wife. Sometimes I joke in ways I shouldn’t, and sometimes I stare too long at the pretty woman on the airplane. Sometimes I wish I was rich. Sometimes I make strong judgments about people across the room based on nothing more than their hair. Sometimes that room I’m looking across is the auditorium where my church meets. Sometimes I gossip. Sometimes I get mad at people in traffic. This paragraph has gone on long enough, I think.
But wait—sometimes your motives are impure. Sometimes you do truly good things for people, while in the back of your mind you’re wondering what you’re going to get out of it. Sometimes you lie, too. Sometimes you confess only a part of the truth because you’re hoping to save at least a little face. Sometimes you fake smile. Sometimes you fake laugh. Sometimes you’re jealous of people who are better looking than you, better dressed than you. Sometimes you resent wealthy people because you’ve never been wealthy and they don’t know how good they have it. Sometimes you think about the kids in junior high who had the best BMX bikes and skateboards and shoes and you realize that you hated them when you were young. You realize that you may not hate them anymore, but you still have a hard time liking them.
Everything that is hidden will be made known.
I don’t necessarily think that it’s the job of the preacher to always bare the sordid details of the darkness in their own lives, but it is the job of the preacher—of the Christian—to tell the truth. If you stand before your congregation or your co-workers or neighbors and hide your heart from them then they will be interacting with only half of you, and you will be loving them with only half of you. This doesn’t mean that every conversation with every person you meet should be a soul-baring confession session; it means that Christ gives you the freedom—his love gives you the freedom—to wear the pain on your sleeve just as much as the healing. The two depend upon one another. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
Frederick Buechner said that the story of one of us is the story of us all. I have found in my music career that if I am willing to plumb the depths of my heart, willing to dredge to the surface those things that terrify me the most, and fashion them into a song, then it is those songs that proclaim God’s mercy the loudest. It is those songs that I get the most emails and comments about. Why? Because that deepest, darkest part of us is the part that is the most common. If you don’t think your heart has shadows in it, then you haven’t been walking in the light.
Christ, you see, illumines the cellar and its hidden passageways and begins the slow work of cleaning it out. Becoming a Christian means that you have been forgiven, that you will continue to be forgiven, and that you have the Holy Spirit inside you to comfort and to guide. But it is not the end of the journey, it is the beginning. The dark cities you have built on the wasteland of your inner life must still be leveled, cleaned out, the weeds pulled up and the seeds planted and tended to. Your walk with Christ is a long journey. And it’s going to hurt when the roots of sturdy trees tunnel deep and branch out and give new life to places long dead.
Don’t be afraid to pay attention to what is happening inside of you. Be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to have his way with you. Then when you stand before your congregation, or your school, or your neighbor, bear witness to the painful changes that help you to be who you are, and who you’re going to be.
Paul cried out with such passion, such familiar heartache, “I don’t understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” I have wept this very lament, lying face down in my driveway in the dark of night. I have have groaned it in my car, hunkered over the steering wheel with my heart heavy as stone, unable to drive for the tears in my eyes. “I don’t understand what I do. I don’t understand what I do. I don’t understand.”
Then Paul remembers the gospel: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And just a few sentences later comes that glorious declaration: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation, though my heart is weak with shame. Though I hate myself. I hate my sin. Why, oh why do I continue to lust, why do I continue to worry, to loathe myself when I look in the mirror? Why am I always so afraid? Why, why, why? Why, if I’m now in Christ, do I still feel so tired, so sinful? Why am I so prone to wander, prone to leave the God I love?
“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We have been set free. Do you feel that relief?
That breath of clean air after all the smoke? That sprig of hope pushing up through the wasted soil?
Resurrection surrounds us. It is the heart of the story God is telling us.
But there can be no resurrection without there first being death. There can be no towering oak but that the seed falls to the earth and dies. There would be no forgiveness but that we broke the law. The two together are part of one story. And that story has the power, by God, to heal.
And yet we walk through our lives, through our ministries, with the focus on attendance numbers and programs and yearly budgets (all necessary evils), paying little or no attention to the unseen world. The world of our private sorrow. The world of the human heart. The world of harrowing battles that rage around us, even when we’re sitting in Starbucks or standing in line at the post office, or on the stage in front of the audience.
There is a dark power in silence, in secrets. We carry them like a disease, and like a disease they fester.
“Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord…there is no condemnation.” Again, that sigh of relief. Again, the strength to smile. Again, the feeling of waking to birdsong in April. The darkness of the unseen world is great, but God’s love is greater, and it is in that love that our brokenness is fashioned into a song that can heal. And that is something only Jesus could do.
I have heard too many sermons that left me feeling lonelier instead of less alone. I have heard boisterous admonitions from the mouths of well-meaning preachers who were masters of exegesis but who were unwilling to quietly confess to their fear, unwilling to admit that they doubt, that there have been moments in their lives when they wondered if this wasn’t all a game. And that confession is what I long to hear. That quiet, humble admission of guilt is what I yearn for, because I sit in the pew a broken, confused, lonely man, even though my wife and children sit on either side of me.
I’m not saying that I’m always depressed and whiny, or that we the church should be so. But I have found that when I reflect on the nature of my soul, I sense a discontentment. Even though I’m a Christian, I get the feeling that something in me is not right. And that is true. Then I become aware with a surge of joy that Jesus of Nazareth is there in the brokenness, wading through the battle, crushing the enemy with the Word of the Father: “There is no condemnation for this one,” he says. “He belongs to me.”
Do you remember that we’re all in the same boat, and it’s taking on water faster than we can dish it out? The best of us is capable of terrible things. I remember hearing a pastor at his son’s ordination service tell him, “If you have sin in your life, your ministry will be ineffective.” I nearly fell out of the pew. I stand before you, living proof of the falsehood of that statement. I’m not saying that it’s okay to sin. I hope that much is obvious. But the closer you grow to Christ, the more you know the great, loving, mystery of the mind of God, the more aware you become of your desperate need of him. You learn that there is more about God to worship and exult in, and you learn that there is more about you that needs fixing. Hopefully, you will find yourself less and less prone to certain sins because God is helping you to grow—but with each step deeper into his glory, more that is broken in you will be revealed.
My wife and I took a spontaneous trip to the Grand Canyon in her parents’ car when we were in college. We didn’t see a thing wrong with taking that trip, and there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with it, I guess. But it didn’t cross our minds to ask her parents if they minded that we put an extra 5000 miles on their car. They didn’t let on that there was the least problem, then years later I realized that the car had been a lease. When the lease was up Jamie’s parents had to pay a ridiculous amount of money for the over-mileage, and they never told us about it. They absorbed it and didn’t complain because they loved us. Now that I have grown up a bit and have learned more about the ways of the world, I blush for the thoughtlessness of that trip. What I did was wrong and I didn’t even know it. So it is with God. The more I come to know him the more I see my need for him. There are probably things that we’re all quite ignorantly doing right now that will fill us with regret later on.
Some close friends of ours attended a church that recently split. The reason for the split? A contingent of members believed that they no longer sinned. That’s right. Some of them claimed that it had been three or four years since they had last committed a sin. It is my belief that these people are fools. Their understanding of the nature of sin is much, much too small. The very claim that they are not sinful is itself a sin. The sin of pride, for starters. This belief that the Church of Christ is a place where we come to be perfect with a bunch of other perfect people leads to a congregation of people who sit in the pews with nice dresses and suits, all smiles for the camera, afraid to admit to themselves that it’s all a lie.
I know of a pastor who houses filing cabinets full of visual filth in his basement. Now, how could something so vile take root in his life? Because he has ignored the unseen world. Because he has hidden parts of himself from his elders and his congregation. And for their part? They are only willing to look on the surface of things too.
The unseen world is the important one. Pull pack the trap door and let the light shine in on those dusty places. Watch the insects scatter. Walk into those places with Christ at your side. Let him hold you. Let his righteous anger and burning love change you. Then tell about it. Tell that story.
And when you tell it, watch the faces of the broken and exhausted. Watch the faces of the confused and bitter. Watch the faces of the lost. They will soften. The defiant, clenched jaw will slacken. The creases in their foreheads will smooth out. Their eyes will tear up. They will hear the mighty Word of God in a way that they haven’t before. They will wet the feet of Christ with their tears. They will long to hear the gospel again, and again. Because to them, it is truly good news.
In the writing of my book, I learned something about God. I learned that there is no story without conflict. If I want Janner Igiby, my main character, to grow, and to learn, and to become who I see him becoming at the end of the story, then he’s going to suffer. He’s going to find himself in terrible situations, beset on every side. One author said that when you write a story you chase your main character up a tree, then you throw rocks at him.
You are in the middle of your own story, and the Author is leading you somewhere. There will be much to be afraid of in your future. You will find yourself angry at times, shaking your fist at the sky. You will find yourself weary and worn thin. Remember that the writer of your story is leading you to a good land. He is making you into something unimaginably beautiful, a shining immortal, a prince or princess in his eternal Kingdom. There will be journeys in the seen world, and there will be journeys in the unseen one.
Praise be to God that he is Lord of them both. His footsteps rattle the ground of the unseen world, his voice thunders in the seen one. They are both his domain. Like it or not, if you are in Christ he will redeem them both.
Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to be known. I pray that as you begin this next step in the journey, like Elisha’s servant your eyes will be opened and you will see that a shining host stands at the ready to lay waste to all that you fear. In the world beyond the veil a great battle is being fought, and the way to enter that battle is to descend into the fray of your own heart with the Spirit of God before you, asking only that you trust, and believe, and obey.
May he give you eyes to see.
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”