To get caught up on the story so far, visit our Instagram. I had originally meant to split this up into three posts but just couldn’t swing it.
My flight touched down and I flipped airplane mode off. I sent a text to my mother that I landed safely, then opened Instagram to post a picture I had taken on the plane. (Don’t raise a boy in a Facebook world and expect him not to think he’s interesting). I had a dozen notifications in my DMs and more were coming in. I clicked the message icon and saw the profile picture of a dear friend who was home visiting family. I knew instantly what was going on and started praying every Psalm I knew as the flight attendants urged me off the sparsely occupied plane.
A few days later, I’m sitting on a different friend’s couch talking about his friend preparing to come out as gay. “I will never forget the fear on your face,” he says to me, recalling a night a decade or so ago I was doubled over on a sidewalk in Denver crying harder than I had in years. I had just come out to him and I knew that nothing I could ever do would shove those words back in my throat. I was no longer on a precipice; I was freefalling off the cliff and waiting to discover if I would fracture or be caught. “Throughout my life, I had never felt like I could lose everything just for being who I was,” he said. It was a perfect summation of what that night was like for me all those years ago.
Everything you know, everything you’ve built, all your little houses of cards could crash down in one moment of honest, simple, truth telling.
My Instagram friend was standing on the cliff about to jump. For years, this person has been trying to tell their parents a very simple truth. This trip, it was happening and they were asking for advice. Their native language doesn’t have a word for “gay” so on top of the fear, there was a tangible logistical obstacle. We spent the night making plans, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
You don’t have to be gay to wrestle with the fear of lost relationships. About a week after the couch, I saw a new friend as she was getting coffee. I had a mask on and was completely out of context out in public. We catch eyes and greet each other. As she goes to introduce me to her friend, she pauses right before she says my name and panic floods her eyes. We chat and say goodbye. She instantly texts me and says she swears she knows my name; she just had a brain fart. I completely understood and assuaged her of her guilt. “Oh thank god,” she texts back instantly. “I was so worried I ruined our blossoming friendship.”
The threat of broken connections is everywhere, all the time. For me on the sidewalk, my couch friend wrestling with how to come out, my Instagram friend fumbling for a series of words that convey his feelings, my friend in a coffee shop forgetting my name: we were all terrified of losing relationships. Why? What’s so great about them?
In the second Genesis creation myth, God tells The Earthling, “It is not good for man to be alone,” a verse and philosophy I’ll wrestle though in our next series. For today, though, I want us to think about the table, a symbol of Maundy Thursday. Jesus is terrified of death and in his final days, it’s the comfort of his friends he not only looks for, but eagerly seeks. Relationships matter because when we’re in our final days, we seek the comfort of the people who know us. And sometimes, the people we love prove our fear of loss justified.
In his book, The God of the Garden, Andrew Peterson writes about a time in his life he’s angry with, and feeling disconnected from, God. On a whim, and desperate for connection with the Holy, he heads to a silent retreat where he is greeted by a cold shoulder of an already silent God. On the last day, when he has already given up on breakthrough in his empty, broken relationship with God, he walks to the car with his bags when he’s stopped by a literal signpost beckoning him to explore some statues deep in the forest of this abbey. There, he finds a depiction of Christ on Good Friday that he describes like this:
Dead in the center, frozen in the gray light, was the statue of a man in deep desperation. This was no classical, pietistic display of a barely human Christ. No, this was different. He looked to have stumbled to his knees. His back was arched, his head was thrown back. His hands covered his face so that his elbows were splayed out. His friends were asleep, and all the dormant trees were sleeping, too. Not even his own creation kept watch with him that morning, as he knelt in the terrible silence of that lonesome forest.The God of the Garden, Andrew Peterson, page 154
For Jesus, the table was a symbol of the deep love and bond of friendship. But in the garden, his friends fail him. When he asks them to simply stay up with him, to pray on his behalf for comfort in the face of death, they fall asleep. This passage from Peterson was so convicting to me, tangibly feeling the failing of relationships, the pain of facing painful fear completely alone. I see so much of myself in that fear and disappointment, in the anguish of sorrow alone. In a few more moments, one of his best friends will betray him for a bag of coins, not just ignoring his fear of death but leading him to the cross directly. Have you been betrayed? Backstabbed? Mistaken an enemy for a friend?
Another of his best friends will deny he knows Jesus thrice. Have you felt forgotten or neglected by friends? Have they chosen politics or religion over you? Jesus’ relationships fail. The cross then makes any chance of reconciliation impossible. His relationships faltered, then failed, then died with no hope of revival.
The Harrowing of Hell is a controversial doctrine that suggests that, while he was dead, Jesus preached the good news to the dead in Sheol. Some theologians argue that he just liberated Old Testament figures like Moses and Rahab. There are even some who depict this event as Jesus running through hell specifically looking for Judas, his friend and betrayer. I don’t know where I fall on any of this in terms of truth but truth is not the thing that always matters. If we believe in the truth and extremity of Jesus’ death on Good Friday, I really can’t think of a better depiction than the human Christ running through the chaos of hell to hold the hand of his betraying friend in an unimaginable display of grace and mercy. Mercy even here.
Sometimes, when you’re standing on a cliff about to come out, you do and you fall and you hit the cement floor at 50 miles an hour. Your friend leads you to your executioner and robs you of reconciliation. Is there any hope that you can wipe yourself off the cement and climb the mountain and learn how to love someone again? Is there any hope you can run through the pits of hell just to embrace your enemy?
Easter Sunday is the biggest celebration in the Christian liturgy because it is the end of all our doubts, the crushing of every fear. It is the hope that rivals every ounce of hopelessness. The answer is yes. He makes dead things live again. He makes dead people rise and repairs broken relationships to fullness. His friends are mourning, gathered together to grieve the loss of their leader and closest friend when suddenly Jesus appears. The relationship is repaired and the disciples are overcome with joy.
On Ash Wednesday, I challenged us to reframe sin as a collective problem in addition to the individual problem. On Easter Sunday, I want us to think not just the death of our sins and our restoration with God. I want us to also think of the restoration of relationships with those we have wronged and those who have wronged us, but the work of reconciling our collective sins. I believe he makes dead things live again. This Easter, I want you to think about a relationship that has broken or is fracturing that you’d like to have restored. God ultimately gives and takes away, but I believe that if we do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation and perspective-taking, if we partner in vertical relationships with God, restoration is possible. If we don’t get it this side of heaven, I believe we might walk out of the process more merciful, more loving, and more patient.
And that kind of love and hard work is never wasted.
Bryce Van Vleet is the #1 selling author of Tired Pages and Before We All Die Let’s Have One Last Chat by the Fireside. He also hosts the podcast Death in Dakota and sells poetry art here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page).
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