In downtown Milwaukee, there’s a Starbucks attached to an ice rink where every winter, you can drive past and see families, singles, couples, and kids of all ages gliding in graceful rotation over an artificial frozen pond. The sight evokes the kind of Americana sentimentality one might feel upon seeing a Norman Rockwell painting or a 1980’s Speilberg film. It just looks like the thing to do – the thing you ‘ought’ (read Law) to do in the winter, in the Midwest, with your wife and kids…especially during the holidays. It seems so inviting to sit with a cup of hot coco or coffee, relax near the fireplace while you watch skaters laughing, bumping into each other, creating memories that will be etched permanently into their recollections of Christmas in Wisconsin for years to come… stories they’ll retell with the loved ones with whom they shared the moment…remembrances they will rehearse again and again at holiday gatherings and pass on to future generations.
It seems even more inviting to actually get on the ice and create your own mini-legacy, to narrate your own living photo album. And so we attempted to do so. We had been to a funeral earlier in the day and so taking the kids ice skating seemed like a viable way to distract ourselves from our grief and enjoy the remaining hours of 2016. But was it the idealistic Hallmark-esque experience the law promised it would be? I think you know the answer…
The apostle Paul writes in Romans 7:7-11 that the optimism the law gave ‘him’ (assuming he’s speaking autobiographically here…topic for another post) eventually led to death. The seduction of the law always promises life, promises sustained joy, promises vitality and blessing…but in the end it stings, disappoints, creates confusion, and kills.
I recall a sermon I heard about a year ago where the pastor recounted a trip he took to visit and scale the Great Wall of China. He noted how the sight looked so easily climbable from a distance, but once you begin the trek, you discover the journey’s demanding and impossible rigors in a very firsthand manner. He likened this to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ iteration and commentary on the Law given at Mt Sinai by Moses (see Exodus 19 & 20).
The Sermon recorded in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 as well as The Golden Rule (Luke 6:31) appear easily doable upon first look/listen, but once real life actually touches us, we quickly realize our ineptitude and in an excruciatingly humiliating manner, we experience the irreconcilable dissonance between what life should be and what it actually is. Or in this case, the difference between what ice skating with the family during the holidays should represent, should deliver, should in essence become versus what it actually is… or in this case was.
So, went the Thompson family New Years Eve Ice-capade: the line to rent skates was ridiculously long/endless; our youngest child refused to stop squirming while we waited; when we finally got our skates, there was virtually no place to sit down to put them on; the process of putting skates on the youngest was so tedious, it took me 15 minutes (and a lot of cursing under my breath) to lace up one skate…; my son kept whining and complaining; the youngest one kept wandering off; when we finally hobbled over to the rink, my daughter, who had initially championed going skating panicked, desperately clung to the circumference-railing, and repeatedly shrieked through streaming tears, “I don’t wanna ice skate!”. The youngest one (bless her heart) kept struggling so badly on the ice, I eventually despaired, and said, “Okay, she’s not gonna get this!” So, I yanked her off the rink… and she, my wife, and her big sister all sat out.
So, in the final analysis, there remained on the ice only I and my boy – my boy and I. On the ice, making rounds, stumbling, and struggling to keep balance and to keep him from skating counter the direction of all the other skaters. As he fell repeatedly (and I was shocked he wasn’t too discouraged to keep trying – he usually is), my initial thought was to draw a parallel between our that moment and how God relates to us, His children. I kept reassuring my son that he was okay because I was near. And I thought about how God being near us allays our fears (or at least in theory should… though it often doesn’t… but it should).
There is a kernel of truth to the reality that God is always near His sons and daughters, faithfully walking with us, behind us – even going before us as the Good Shepherd Jesus reminds in John 10. Our Father IS an ever present help and He DOES delight over us as we falter in our attempts to take steps in our day-to-day journey with Him. And we are free to fall, to stumble, to fail. Or are we ? Is that a thoroughly accurate depiction of how God relates to and deals with us?
Surely, there is comfort in knowing that our Dad maintains close proximity and will never let us utterly fall. And there is in fact comfort even when we collapse and remain unsteady in our walk. As we were skating and the boy was falling, I kept thinking, ‘if he falls, all he has to do is get back up again’. After all, it’s not about how often you fall down, but about how often and how well you get back up. Now that sounds really good. I can feel my Cliff Huxtable-grade parental pride swelling at the mere thought of that adage… but that’s not the implication of the gospel or of grace.
We are apt to assume that ‘getting back up’ is virtuous in itself. That resilient Christian performance in spite of the odds set us against us forms the basis of our righteousness. Songs like ‘We Fall Down’ (McClurkin, not Tomlin) and poems like ‘Footprints in the Sand’ have helped fuel the notion pervading mainstream American Christian culture that we are in fact justified because we get back up. But is a saint really a sinner who fell down, but got back up?
The reality is that JESUS and His sinless, blameless record of perfect law-keeping constitute the sole antithesis to our failings and stumbling. God relates to us, stays near us, and patiently walks with us not because it’s okay that we fall down. It’s not okay when we fall. But we who fall are okay (justified) because Jesus never fell… and we are safely hidden in Him by God’s grace. We were hiding from God In (the first) Adam, but we are now hidden in God because of the Last Adam! God skates surely and patiently with us because Jesus skated with precision and grace for us.
Hebrews 2:6-8 (the verses that came to mind while we skated) indicts humanity as being infinitely less than we ought to be – quoting Psalm 8, the writer indicates that God’s holiness is as attainable by human hands as are the stars of the heavens (cf. Psalm 19). Sadly, a lot of preaching has attempted to use these descriptions of the archetypal man to give us pointers for better living. We tend to hear such law/gospel confusion as ‘Adam had a relationship with God first, then a job… and then he found a wife…note the order, men!’ We are tempted to use this passage along with Genesis 1:26-28 to validate that we do in fact have some value and merit before God simply on the basis of our having been made in his image. While there may be some weight to this to an extent, I contend that the writer of Hebrews (and the New Testament) intends something better.
In Hebrews 2:8-9, we read that ‘We do not yet see all things [put under man in subjection], But we see JESUS…’ Jesus alone fills the righteousness void, fills the job description, successfully removes Excalibur from the stone, satisfies the negative space and profile of godliness, literally IS the man. Our righteousness is based on his perfect track record and His having risen from the grave. Yes, we fell and continue to fall down… but HE got up! His resurrection supersedes our resiliency (or the assumption thereof on our part).
It would not have been okay for Jesus to fail even once… not for one moment. Jesus’ walk with God was not established by God being lenient or grading on the basis of how well Jesus ‘got back up again’. Jesus literally had to earn His righteousness before God (Heb 1:3-4) by taking every step perfectly. And I’m speaking from the standpoint of holiness and righteousness according to the Law–not in terms of soiling his diapers or learning to crawl as a baby… hey, my daughter was worried that Jesus might have sinned in doing that! Jesus had to skate perfectly and God skated alongside while holding Jesus to the condition of performing perfect figure eights.
Yet Jesus did fall. He fell into the ground, into the grave. And He did get back up again because God raised Him from the dead. This is why God can skate alongside us and guide and comfort us as we slip and fall on the ice.
I remember a Cosby Show episode where Theo references an instance in which he had placed a watch in the dishwasher because the commercial indicated it could withstand such a battering and still function. Sorry, but God is not impressed by Timex Christianity. He is pleased with the Christ who brought us into the grave with Him – ‘except a grain of wheat falls into the ground, it remains alone… count it all joy when you fall into various trials’. That same Christ with whom we remained buried for 3 days. And, yes that unchanging Jesus in whom we too got up one Sunday morning 2000 years ago!
The skates were placing a strain on my nearly frozen feet and I was slightly frustrated by the painstakingly slow pace I had to keep in order to remain in sync with my son… but what took place for about 20 minutes was a very simple, uneventful, yet deeply significant time of bonding between father and son. All my expectations of a holiday on ice had been dashed, yet in their place stood a grace-given relational interaction (see Samuel Son‘s recent post on how meaningful parent-child moments are purely grace-given). I genuinely enjoyed that very mundane moment with him as I continuously asked him if he was okay to which he kept replying, “I keep falling down, Dad”. We made three gradual, very imperfect rounds on the ice. The whole magic of the evening was just the being with one another – not too much dialog, no deep words of wisdom from Dad, no imparting of a technical skill or even teaching him ‘how to’ skate (I have not one single athletic gene). Just falling and slipping on ice… getting messy… and loving every second of it.
He’s an eccentric, unpredictable kid and finding ways to connect with him is not always easy. He was very disinterested in Tae Kwon Do… he complained nearly every week of Swim lessons. He hates losing at air hockey or any game with his sister. But…struggling across ice… that we can do together. That we can enjoy being ‘not good at’ together. Because we… or at least I know that Jesus lived a perfectly successful life for us, was rejected as a failure on our behalf, and rose again to give us His successful life as though it were our own. Plus, it was December day in Wisconsin that was not below zero. That nearly half hour on the ice, saying little, falling often, enjoying each other’s presence consisted of the best New Years Eve I’ve ever had.
It was only fitting that after a voice on the intercom summoned all skaters off the rink, that we sat down to catch our breaths on a bench just outside the Starbucks where Mom and the girls were warming up and removing skates. All evening, the sound system blared the likes of James Brown, Beatles, Gloria Gaynor, etc. As Josh and I sat there next to each other, ‘Under Pressure’ (Bowie) came on. When a father and son genuinely bond, there is no pressure. Or at least, there shouldn’t be (incidentally father-son dynamics surface in two films I saw this week – Fences and Sing!… but more on that later). No pressure to get it right. Only freedom to just be – and Jesus’ perfect performance purchased and secured this freedom for us. I can remember my own father once taking me to roller skate practice (my mom usually took me) and noticing me falling frequently. His solution was to remove me from the class for the day and take me comic book shopping. But on the last night of 2016, some 30 years later… I decided falling down, getting snow all over my pants, and not knowing what I’m doing WITH my son was the preferable option.