Half a year and most of a lifetime ago our world turned inside-out. With the passing of months, the thought of it still awakens a creeping paralysis in my gut, a dark void that yawns threateningly after us. I have to take hold of myself and shake myself free every time.
Mike is gone. We failed.
Last Fall, a couple of months after Mike’s death, my 17-year-old son and I had words. It was over school. He was in over his head and I was frazzled, misunderstanding his paralysis. We don’t often have words like that. I don’t even need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of times in his life it’s happened, and nothing is further from his normal bearing with me. He threw a chair and slammed a door and he was gone. I fumed for an hour, pacing back and forth, livid, muttering about his irresponsibility, caged by circumstance.
My pacing gradually changed as terror slithered ominously closer, the only thing that could touch my anger. It was growing dark. He was not in his right mind. Finally I couldn’t stand the confines of the house any longer. I had no idea where he was, but I knew where I had to check.
I walked quickly, sometimes a half-run, covering the half-mile to the park at what seemed a maddening crawl, my feet carrying me gradually faster, drawn inexorably by a force that was born in my womb. Anger and terror continued to claw against reason, my focus desperately tunneled to the center of my vision to keep all three at bay, eyes straining for shadows I didn’t want to see. I rounded the block wall and peered breathlessly through the fence.
The playground was empty. The moon outlined the lonely scene. I still couldn’t breathe; I had to be sure. I circled the structure, stumbling in the grass, catching myself with my hands, looking up to face the east side. Nothing.
Relief washed over me so suddenly it pulled grief with it. Sobs ripped out of me, angry and desperate and somehow still empty. I wailed one deep, tortured cry and threw myself against the stairs going up beside where Mike had hung. I drove my feet into the heavy metal mesh steps, willing every bit of my energy to destroy them, to rattle their indifferent sturdiness. I turned in the play enclosure above, grasped the railing where he’d tied his torn shirt, and shook myself against the bars with everything I had, willing them to yield, to relent, to give him back. Tears flew off my cheeks as I shook and shook and shook myself against those hateful, immovable metal bars.
“Stupid, stupid boy!” I screamed through clenched jaws, finally releasing it aloud, watching as my fury did nothing. Nothing.
I stomped back down the stairs, tiring, hopeless to move them but still flailing my feet against them angrily, and picked up a handful of the wood chips from the ground and threw them with the rest of my strength against the structure. Even the air mocked me, catching and feathering them to the ground. I yelled in frustration, beating my fists at the air, and slowly collapsed onto the grass. The sobs came again as I lay spent, staring at the black sky while tears streamed down into my ears, silencing the night while I lay bound to a cold earth.
A few times in my life I think I have understood Moses, when “the presence of God withdrew from (him), that his glory was not upon (him); and (he) was left to himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth.” I think I have occasionally understood what Moses meant when he said, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.”
A few times I have known terror that could be called “the bitterness of hell.”
A friend recently commented tiredly that she wasn’t called to a specific office; she was called to struggle. I’ve been pondering that for some time. My thoughts last night were on Job, sitting on a rubbish heap outside of his community, scraping his dying flesh with a broken piece of pottery while his friends preached the gospel of justification to him. My thoughts were on the voice that came from the whirlwind, silencing his one deep, tortured cry with eternal perspective and a pronouncement of true power. Like Job, and my friend, my experiences have often left me tired, quiet, and empty of any confidence in my ability to control circumstance, either by effort or obedience. Like Job, I’ve often finally agreed to “lay my hand across my mouth.” Called to struggle. Called to fail. Called to fall.
Today I’m thinking about some of the Lord’s last words to Job.
Breakings. Sounds very much like throwing oneself against a welded metal structure and shaking until one is utterly and completely shaken. There’s a peculiar kind of exhaustion in that sort of experience, an emptiness one finds in no other way. Our illusions of control wrung out of us, we’re breathing, but broken.
I’ve come to believe that this is the kind of broken we’re invited to be, our hearts laid open, drained of presumption, expectation, and human hubris. It is this kind of heart, swept clean, that Christ can inhabit. It’s not a painless housecleaning. And no one seeks this kind of broken-heartedness in that Sunday School answer kind of “sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit” way. This is the kind of brokenness that comes to us unbidden, as it did for Job. It wrings through us like contractions that bring the birth on a timetable we can’t touch.
Having one’s heart turned inside-out really is like a birth. Housecleaning is too narrow an analogy to circumscribe the change we go through. Like our first birth, second birth squeezes us through something too small for us, pressing the water out of our lungs and closing valves in our hearts intended to make life in the next stage of our development possible. We must be changed by the process to be born again, saved by grace “after all we can do.”
In Believing Christ, Stephen Robinson comments on this, possibly one of the most misunderstood scriptures in the canon, stating:
I understand the preposition “after” in 2 Nephi 25:23 to be a preposition of separation rather than a preposition of time. It denotes a logical separateness rather than a temporal sequence. We are saved by grace “apart from all we can do,” or “all we can do withstanding,” or even “regardless of all we can do.” Another acceptable paraphrase of the sense of the verse might read, “We are still saved by grace, after all is said and done.” (p. 91)
Somehow, though, we can’t fully grasp that until we’ve expended every possible effort to earn salvation on our own. Until we’ve truly fallen, failed, we can’t move on. Like Job, we live our lives as perfectly as we possibly can, hoping it will be enough, willing to accept grace but without a clue how to do it until we are physically, mortally, once-and-for-all proven wholly insufficient on our own, sitting on a rubbish heap scraping wounds that refuse to heal with a shard of pottery. Until that day comes when we are lying tied to the earth by our weakness as Moses, we haven’t fully learned by our own experience, as much as we’ve tried. Job had tried too. The story of Job continues the story of Eden, bringing a full awareness of why we need the story of Gethsemane.
But suffering, impotence, and insufficiency is not enough.
The English sacrifice, as in “the sacrifice of a broken heart,” is derived from the Latin sacer (sacred) and facere (to make), combined to render to make sacred. While we will have to suffer for those things for which we’ve not repented, that suffering doesn’t guarantee us entrance into the presence of God, make us any purer, or move us toward the character of God (so that we would feel comfortable in the presence of God).
That after-the-fact suffering does not make us sacred, so it is not a true sacrifice.
True sacrifice is the willing consecration of something mortal that represents the best earthy effort (like a lamb without blemish) but that in and of itself is just a thing: a lamb, an attempt on our part. On the altar, in the hands of the High Priest, this earthy effort is transformed to remit sins in the life of the supplicant. The gift, willingly given, of our effort and love and faith is nothing until it is offered on the altar as a sacrifice; until it is, it’s just like a spotless lamb walking around bleating. Our efforts, our gifts, fitly sacrificed, are divided, applied by law, and consumed by fire under the view of our High Priest. Nothing remains but the remission.
The only way we engage in true sacrifice is when we allow our suffering to make us holy while we’re in it, by being a supplicant who chose to bring the sacrifice to the High Priest. When we allow the water to flow out and the valves in our heart to close during the birth, when we allow ourselves to be changed while the trial presses against us, when we come to understand our call to fail (or fall) and embrace it, and expect our efforts to be consumed in the process of remission, we are made a bit more holy, a bit more fit to see the face of God and want to be there.
I think this is the reason that the first knowledge given to Adam and Eve after they left the Garden was the Law of Sacrifice. It was the first step back to the presence of God: the gift of consecrating their earthly experience, making those fig leaves holy, the earthy bound into eternal powers of the priesthood and atonement.
Moses found this holiness by reaching through his suffering and paralysis to call upon God. “This one God only will I worship, which is the God of glory.”
Jesus found this holiness by embracing us through his suffering, willing to sacrifice his will to do the Father’s, sweating great drops of blood without turning from the agony that produced them.
Nephi found this holiness by tempering his relentless forward march through life with “a perfect brightness of hope and a love of God and of all men.”
Job found this holiness by searching wisdom, whose principles had been preached all throughout time as parts of the gospel (the words of his friends) but were still insufficient to explain the great mystery of godliness without a true, personal testimony from God that He’s handling things, and He’s handling them not through our personal effort but through the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Pres. David O. McKay commented that he had always thought that “the purpose of the book of Job was to emphasize the fact that the testimony of the…Gospel is beyond the power of Satan’s temptation or any physical influence.”
Job was transformed as he partook of the fruit of that tree that brought experience, and which bequeathed the wisdom Eve so valued, and then laid it back on the altar in a sacrifice that invited further light and knowledge, his sacrifice consumed in Christ’s sacrifice.
He was still, and let God be God, while he was powerless to change anything except his mind, and God consecrated it, and he was reborn into a life with doubled possibilities. Job is the model for how to navigate our way through mortality, the natural continuation of the story of Adam and Eve in the lone and dreary world. It is the story of the conditions of the Fall and the key to understand our experience and overcome it by surrendering it. The story teaches us that to Fall is to Fail. If we remember the faith of Eve, we can say, all through our struggling: it is better for us to experience sorrow because the fruit is desirable to make us wise.
The call to fail, to fall, was ultimately a call to be reborn. After all, the fruit Eve valued so highly was never meant to save us, but to open our eyes to the fruit that would. If we knew how to be still, how to know that He is God, it would be easier to find our way to the tree of life. But we do not yet because for this reason we’ve come to Earth to learn to converse with the Lord, as Job finally did.
By reason of breakings, we are purified, the testimony gained residing safely beyond Satan’s power or any earthy influence.
I don’t know that I’m a holy person, but the grass on the east side of the play structure in the park not far from my home has become a holy place. My life, with all its dramas, is accumulating holy places, where I’ve laid my insufficiency on an altar and watched as it was consumed on the mercy seat. If the jaws of hell gape open after you, it may be your private temple moment as well. May you hear his voice in your shaken-ness, and be forever after, in that thing, unshakable.