By Steve Wyatt
Years ago I attended a retreat where every attendee had to tell his story. Not our success stories; we had to talk about our underbellies.
Few people enjoy talking in public; fewer like to expose their soft spots when they do. So as we walked to the podium, we were handed a small item with these instructions: “If you need something to hold onto, maybe you’ll find strength in this.” I looked into my hand to see I was holding a cross.
Coach Wooden chose a similar tack as he coached the UCLA Bruins to 10 national titles. Unlike most coaches, Coach didn’t pace the sidelines, waving his arms, shouting and cursing to blue blazes. Instead, he’d sit stoically on the bench, twisting his trademark game program in his hands.
But it wasn’t just a program he carried. He also kept a tiny aluminum cross in his wallet. Whenever he was tempted to lose his cool, he’d hold that cross in the palm of his hand. Wooden said of his cross, “It kept me from jumping up and yelling at the referees or swearing at the boys. I held this cross to remind me . . . there’s something more important than playing basketball. “
I hear there’s a church in Connecticut that boasts a 10-foot-tall cross made of raw, untreated lumber sunk deeply and bolted firmly into the concrete floor of its sanctuary platform. But here’s the thing: It stands not more than three feet directly in front of where the minister delivers his message.
Architecturally speaking, it’s a nightmare. The preacher has to preach through it, the congregation has to look around it—but oh, what a powerful statement!
Because in that church, whenever someone preaches, he speaks only as he also looks out from behind the cross—a raw, rough, splintery cross. An obstructive, in-the-way, out-of-sync-with-culture cross.
Then again, maybe looking out from behind the cross is how it should be in every church.
When I first read about the obstructive cross, I was emerging from a very painful season. I was in so much pain I had stepped away from my calling. But God stepped in and healed me and reassembled my shattered life. Since then, I have never preached without first picturing the cross standing right in front of me. At first, it was a quasi-protective move, an invisible wall I could hide behind—as though I was still driven by the fear of my greatest shame.
But now, I’ve put all that behind me. All but the cross, that is. Today I still speak while looking out from behind the cross. But it’s not shame or fear that keep me in that sacred shadow. It’s because I finally get the liberating glory of God’s grace.
The Sacred Shadow
Perhaps you’ve made a mess of things too. You may feel like I felt—like a slimy glob of unworthiness. No shape, no sense to your story. No beauty, no meaning that defines it. So you keep searching for a delete button. Or trying to buy a mulligan so you can get a second chance to make a better shot.
That’s what every person wishes for, isn’t it? A chance to return to the neighborhood ball field and reverse the irreversible. To erase the pencil marks you unwittingly wrote with a Sharpie. To retract the words you spoke that are forever burned into someone’s heart. To take back the juicy gossip that ripped someone to shreds.
Whatever the details, the narrative is ugly. Yet, no matter how you try, you simply can’t erase it. But here’s what you can do—and it’s the only thing I recommend you do. Travel back to the cross and take another look. Just make sure not to place that ugly hunk of wood between you and me, or between you and your story, but keep it strategically placed between you and your sin.
Jesus went to the cross so you wouldn’t have to keep going there. The cross shouts to a hurting, desperate world that Jesus would rather go to Hell for you than to be in Heaven without you.
Grace isn’t about ignoring the landscape of your life. It’s about standing in the shadow of the cross where every heartache is hidden, every sin is covered, and every brokenness is healed.
Our Only Options
Grace says you have three options when it comes to the truth of your story.
You can try to stick the blame on somebody else: “It’s not my fault this stuff happened!”
Here’s the problem: This option is the oldest, slimiest trick in the book. It goes all the way back to Eden, when Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. But blame doesn’t change anything about your epic fail.
You can pretend you don’t need help. Your life story has its blips, but you’d like to think you can still be your own Superman, more than able (on your own) to leap over tall failures and fly faster than your most humiliating defeat.
Former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali was in the first class section of an airliner awaiting takeoff. The flight attendant asked him to buckle his seat belt, but Ali looked at her sternly and said, “Superman don’t need a seat belt.”
Just as sternly, she replied, “Superman don’t need an airplane, either. Buckle up!”
You may presume to run from your failures, but you cannot hide them. You may try to fly so high that you soar far above your weaknesses, but there’s no atmosphere high enough that can separate you from your sin.
This option means living life in a tailspin as you constantly cycle between shame and depression, fear and regret.
You can join me as together we look out from behind the cross of Christ. It’s the most wonderful story we’ve never embraced. Jesus picked up the tab for all of us when he went to the cross. And he did it so we wouldn’t have to keep playing hide-and-seek with the truth.
As Jesus looked down from the cross, he saw more than the mess we humans have made. He saw you:
• trapped in the vortex of your own self-induced heartache, swirling helplessly in a world gone mad;
• broken by a world that can be so very cruel;
• alone and afraid;
• slopping around in the pit of your own foolish choices.
He saw you, but he refused to let you stay there. So he marched right into Hell itself so you wouldn’t have to.
And then, having conquered death, he extended grace, full and free, to failures like me.
But not even grace is a gift without strings. There is one thing you must do to get it: you’ve got to admit that you need it. As long as you insist on that completely unobstructed view of your life, the view that is not hindered by an ugly, bloodstained, splintery cross, you lose.
Rocks on the Table
Some real estate developers were discussing a possible joint venture. Everyone at the table had an impressive résumé. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, the leader began describing in excruciating detail one of his most embarrassing failures. He talked about how his eagerness to make money had caused him to overlook important details and said, “I am much more careful now to get all the facts before moving ahead with some new idea.”
The person beside him, with some embarrassment, admitted that he hadn’t always been a genius, either. In fact, he once purchased a huge parcel of land for development that was sitting on solid bedrock.
The youngest member of the group was reluctant when it came time to share his mistake. He fumbled around and said, “Well, everybody knows I’ve had a lot of success.”
But then the leader said, “Come on, Charlie. Put your rock on the table. Because if you haven’t experienced failure, you can’t be a part of this group.”
That’s Jesus’ message too. But the only way you can qualify to stand in the shadow of the cross is to put your rock on the table and admit that you need the covering of its shadow.
That’s what I’m doing with my story. I’m living the balance of my life in the shadow of the cross— peeking out from behind every now and again just so God can use my greatest humiliation as a trophy to his amazing grace.
I invite you to join me. Just put your rock on the table and come stand with me in the shadow.
Steve Wyatt is a minister and freelance writer in Anthem, Arizona.
A Dinner Party for the Defeated
Practice showing your weakness in order to humble yourself and glorify God. Invite some close friends over for dinner. You don’t even have to tell them it’s a special dinner.
Once everyone’s comfortable and eating, swallow your pride and courageously open the floor by talking about a time when you totally messed up. Share what you learned and how you’ve grown, but mostly share the gut-wrenching helplessness and humility of the moment.
Invite others to share similar stories. Depending on your knowledge of the people in the group, you can draw others out or ask individuals specifically; but likely good conversation will flow from just your story and a general invitation.
At the end of the evening, pray together and thank God that he works even though we fall short.