I feel like one of you needs to see beauty come from a hard place today.
You need to be reminded that God has a long résumé of making unattractive places fertile and unlikely people fruitful. You need to know He still releases prisoners from darkness, brings beauty from ashes, and causes palm trees to grow in sewers.
That last one’s a bit regional. Hang with me.
Recently while out running errands I glimpsed the green fronds of a palm tree striving toward the sun through the bars of a sewer grate. I swung a U-turn, parked on a side street and walked over to investigate the urban curiosity. Out of the most putrid of petri dishes there it was: A Mexican fan palm tree growing in a basin of drainage water and microbes and trash. With no regard for its disadvantaged start, there was life. Pressing into its potential.
You guys, that is the life we’re meant for.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
There’s nothing remarkable about peering down into our past – or our present – to discover we’re calf-deep in squalor and debris. Nor is there anything remarkable about looking up and thinking it would be a good idea to strain toward the light.
What is truly remarkable? Smashing the lie that we’ll never push through the bars.
We see this unrestrained freedom in nature. Why can’t we envision it for ourselves? Cocoons don’t keep caterpillars trapped within their casings. Brilliant flowers and fruit burst from prickly desert cacti in spite of searing summer heat. Sidewalks crack and crumble as they yield to the force of tree roots forging up and into and through the concrete.
If nature outsmarts and persists and grows in harsh or unhealthy or confining surroundings, why don’t we?
Some of us believe we deserve our prison bars. Shame and self-loathing stop us from believing that God could ever place His affections on us. So, while scripture says we are precious and honored to Him, we can’t imagine that He really takes all comers.
Some of us see the prison bars and curse those who laid them. Someone hit us or hurt us or took something that wasn’t theirs to take. Yet rather than surrender to the vulnerable, beautiful process of letting Christ make us whole, we drop the filter of past pain over the entirety of our lives.
Some of us settle into the view from behind the bars. It’s easier in there. There’s less responsibility in there. We get to keep our excuses in there. We get a lot of attention in there.
And some of us are terrified of life beyond the bars. We imagine the taste of freedom. We long for it. But we are frightened of how untamed life might be on the other side of the guard stand.
Our reasons for staying are entirely different, but at the end of the day, prison is still prison.
There is a courageous choice ahead. We can trust God to make good on His promise to make all things new. We can trust that He will turn mourning into gladness. We can press through the bars, push out into the sunlight, and do what we were made to do: Orient our lives relentlessly toward the God who gives us life and breath and freedom.
Or we can sit. Stuck. Scapegoating or half-living or self-loathing. We can settle for a low-octane life with three squares, a pillow, and prison yard recreation instead of living a life ignited by the gospel to its fullest potential.
I had a phone conversation not too long ago with a young woman across the country who I positively adore. She has suffered not only under physical abuse but now further suffers under her abuser’s scapegoating and justifications. It is vile and identity-cracking and it stirs my heart to anger on her behalf.
“I want to lay all my pain down,” she said, her voice faltering.
“What holds you back?” I nudged.
Her answer was as immediate as it was profound. “If I do, I’m afraid I won’t have excuses anymore.”
This young lady is going to land on her feet. She’s seeking counseling. She’s seeking the Counselor. Even her self-analysis reveals her desire to live a life free of excuses. A life that pushes through the bars. Oh, and by the way, she hit the how-to on the head.
We don’t have to do the heavy lifting. We just have to do the heavy laying.
Lay down your burden. Lay down your grudge. Lay down your right to retaliate. Lay down your need to control. Lay down your victim status. Lay down the weight of your sin. Approach the foot of the cross and just …
There. Feel lighter?
God doesn’t call us to wear sackcloth and sit in prison. Even an ugly little sprout of a palm tree on Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona, tells us that. We’ll grow better if we live freer. And we’ll live freer if we lay down the things we keep trying to die for – as well as the things we keep trying to kill everyone else for. Jesus never asked us to die for our sins. He took that one unassisted.
I look at my mediocre snapshot of that mediocre palm tree and I can’t help but think of another time when palm fronds were waving as the Savior of the world rode into town. Crowds waved tree branches and praised Him as King and Lord.
“Rebuke your disciples,” said the religious elites.
“If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out,” Jesus replied. It was a mic drop claim to deity. Sometimes I also wonder about the delivery. Was it a “Duh, they can’t help it” tone with a half-smile and “who-me?” kind of shrug?
I’m probably stretching it. And I’m certain there’s no Greek word that gives us “duh” in the English. But I am also certain about this: I don’t want a rock to worship louder than me. I don’t want a palm tree in a sewer to stretch higher than me. And I don’t ever want to look at prison bars and think anything other than jailbreak.
II Corinthians 3:17
Prickly Pear/ pink flowers image courtesy Shawna Yarbrough at Studio Seven Photography
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