Publication Information: McMillion, C. P. (2014, Mar. / Apr.). Crossing Over. Christian Woman Magazine, 30(2), 12-13.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
- Isaiah 43:1
I remember Ira’s long legs swinging back and forth as he sat waiting outside the principal’s office, his big brown eyes roving the hallway with his usual quiet interest. He was leaving early that day; his auntie was on her way to pick him up, and we had helped him gather his things. “Just wait here,” his teacher had told him, “She won’t be long,” and Ira had nodded happily. He was seven years old. Seeing him there, I wanted to stop time, to freeze that moment and never let it pass. I did not want this gentle little boy to hear the news that we had gotten only moments before: his mother had just been killed in a car crash and the family was gathering.
Ira was about to cross that dividing line between innocence and knowing, Before the Terrible Thing happens and just After. Nothing would ever be the same again.
We all know about that line, the great division between Life and Death. It is the moment just before the doctor’s report and the moment after. Before the policeman’s knock and the moment after. Before you hurl the hateful words and after. Before he walks out the door and the moment after. Before your daughter tells you she is pregnant and the moment after. It is that moment when you know that nothing will ever be the same. One second you have a sister, the next she is gone. One day your mother is doing fine, the next she has a massive stroke. What starts out as an ordinary day changes forever when you hear your brother’s voice on the line. Before. After. The Terrible Thing changes it all.
If only we could rewind that instant and make it go a different way. If only, if only. We can drive ourselves mad asking questions for which there will never be answers.
We watch Bill Murray in the old Groundhog Day movie. He is given chance after chance to relive a particular day until he finally gets it right, and we desperately wish we could do the same. We replay the scenario over and over in our minds: What if she had left five minutes earlier? What if he had not taken that wrong turn? What if she had landed differently when she fell? What if Dad had not skipped his physical last year?
But there is no going back. There is no mistake. The Terrible Thing has happened. There are no do-overs. The parent is gone, the relationship shattered, the diagnosis terminal, the grandchild paralyzed. It is the new reality.
There is another great dividing line, a very different one, and we encounter it as well. It is not the division between Life and Death; this time it is the great division between Death and Life.
We know that we have no hope. We know the evil in our own souls and the messes we have created in the lives of others. We confess our brokenness and surrender our willful hearts to God. We cross over the dividing line into Life and are made new again.
How is it then, that even before our baptismal garments are dry, we begin to question God’s love for us? We forget so very quickly that everything has forever changed. We cannot believe that the Wonderful Thing has really happened.
We rewind and rewind, unsure of God’s approval, trying again to get it right all on our own, trying to make sure everything turns out ok, trying to deserve what has been gifted. But this time, our default setting has betrayed us. This time there is no need for rewinding and questioning. It is done. It is over. The Wonderful Thing has happened. Why would we insist on going back? Why would we not accept God’s grace with joy and gratitude?
A funeral I attended stands out in my mind. We were gathered quietly in the cemetery as the preacher made his remarks, remarks that included statements such as “Nothing I say today will change the final destiny of the dearly departed. That is up to God and his judgment.” There were other observations as well, but there was no mistaking the grim implication: We can hope this person is with God now, but we cannot be sure.
It is true that nothing we could say would determine the final destiny of the one whose body was being committed to the ground, but there is a reason for that: It was never up to us. It is God who has spoken, and everything is forever different. The Wonderful Thing has happened. God has already rendered his judgment: “Forgiven” is stamped across our souls. Forgiven. There is no need to doubt it. Had the dearly departed done enough? Did she have more points on the good side of the scale than on the bad side? Had she always done everything God expected of her? Was she the kind of person of whom it could be said, “If Ava doesn’t get into heaven, nobody will”?
Is sainthood what it takes to be accepted by God? Does God demand perfection before he embraces us?
Some versions of the Bible refer to Christians as God’s “holy people.” Other translations use the word “saint.” Either way, the meaning is the same. The Wonderful Thing has happened to us. We have indeed crossed over.
God’s message is good news. It is grace and it is forgiveness and it is love.
But I’m not good enough, you protest. That is true. You are not, and neither am I. We aren’t good enough, and we will never be able to do enough good things. That’s why we have Jesus. And once he forgives us, we don’t step in and out of grace. We are in, and there is no need to doubt it. There is no need to be afraid anymore, no need to wonder what would happen were we to die tonight.
Can we turn our backs on God and forfeit that grace? Of course we can. We can break his heart. We are allowed that choice. We can walk away from our life in Christ, treat the Father’s sacrifice as worthless, and trample on his offer of forgiveness. That can happen, certainly, but often the issue is far different. We are not in rebellion. We are committed to God and want to walk faithfully with him, but we are haunted by the notion of a capricious, mean-spirited Heavenly Tyrant who is out to get us if we are less than perfect.
Sometimes that picture of God is a carry-over from childhood, based on the condemnation we felt from an adult who mattered to us then. Sometimes it comes from the severe, unyielding standards we impose on ourselves. Sometimes it is picked up from one who is struggling with his own self-worth and misunderstandings. However we acquire such a concept, we may never have recognized it for the falsehood it is. We may never have discarded it.
This tyrant of our imagination is not who God is. He does not to lie in wait for us to fail. The God we serve is full of mercy.
It is Satan, the Accuser, who tells us that we are not good enough, that it is all up to us. He is the Father of Lies. When we choose to believe him, we forfeit our confidence and our joy. We stand at the grave with others who have no hope.
In James 4:7, the writer says, Resist the devil and he will flee from you, and from I Peter 5:8: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
He seeks to destroy us, but we can refuse to believe the lies, refuse to allow him to drag us back across that line. When the Accuser assaults us, we can resist him by the power of Christ.
We can boldly declare to him that we are covered by the perfect sacrifice of Christ, that we have been set free. It isn’t arrogance that tells us that we are right with God. It isn’t our feelings that justify or condemn us. It is God who looks at each of us and says, “Precious child, you are mine.”
But what of those good things we are supposed to do? Isn’t God keeping a record of those? Won’t he condemn us if we don’t meet every need we encounter in the world?
Dear one, we can never earn divine favor, no matter how much we accomplish or how many mission trips we participate in. We do good to others in response to God’s forgiveness and steadfast love toward us. Those acts are expressions of gratitude and relationship. We love because he first loved us, the apostle John once said. Just as flowers turn their faces toward the sun, so we turn toward our Father. The warmth of his love motivates and energizes us.
We sometimes think it is evidence of humility to say, “I hope I make it to heaven.” But biblical hope is more than wishful thinking. It is assurance. We no longer have to live in the Before. We live firmly in the After. We have crossed the line.
It is faith, not pride or presumption, to believe in God’s continual forgiveness and steadfast love rather than in Satan’s relentless accusations and lies. Feelings are not facts. Where our heads persist in affirming the truth, our hearts will eventually follow.
It is interesting how faith is described in Hebrews 11:1, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. Verse 6 continues: Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
In Romans 4:3, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Confidence. Assurance. Trust. Our Father loves us extravagantly. He tells us that our inheritance is guaranteed. He tells us that we can trust him with both our lives and our deaths.
We began by talking about little Ira and the Terrible Thing that changed his life forever. In our walk in this world, we will experience such deaths over and over again. Grief, loss, heartache, disappointment, injury, despair, worry, disease, and dashed hopes are part of everyone’s reality. There is no escaping them.
But there is good news. The story ends well after all.
The Wonderful Thing has happened. We are forgiven. We are loved. We have crossed over from Death to Life, and we never have to go back to the darkness again. He has engraved us on the palms of his hands, and nobody can take that away from us. Nobody.
The choice is ours. Death or Life. Will we choose to live in the Before or in the After?
Will we rely on how carefully, how perfectly, how flawlessly, we can perform? Or will we cast our lot with the wild, reckless love of a Father who forgives and forgives and forgives? Are we intent on saving ourselves by our own goodness, or are we willing to count on the promises of God? Will we insist on dwelling in the guilt and shame of our own inadequacies, or will our lives be grateful responses to God’s indescribable gift of grace?
Dear one, lay down the burden of guilt and fear and let your Father embrace you. Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)
Long ago, a man with a well-intentioned but dreadful past confessed himself to be the worst of sinners, but that same man, the apostle Paul, had something far more important to say in the end. It is something we can say it along with him, right here and right now:
I know whom I have believed.