Were You There?

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“When is the last time you cried?” An odd question often used as an icebreaker can sometimes reveal more than we’d anticipate. Perhaps you answer by telling of the time you lost a loved one, thus crying due to death. There is also the possibility that your mind jumps to the contrary. Maybe you last cried at the birth of a newborn. Tally one up for tears spent due to life. Our tears may be numerous. However, what if the question was slightly altered? What if we asked ourselves, “When is the last time we trembled?”

Johnny Cash lived a life characterized by music. Utilizing his deep, resonant voice, Cash attained fame via chart-toppers such as “I Walked the Line” and “Ring of Fire.” His empire great and growing, Cash found himself on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at the young age of 24. Cash seemed to have it all. However, as he reflected in his cover “Hurt,” this empire was one of dirt. A star so glorified was realizing that the riches of this world do truly fade. Cash had many hits. Over the years, I have listened to many of Cash’s works. However, the recording of his that stood out to me was his cover of “Were you There.”

It would be unjust, however, to attribute this song to Cash for he was only a signpost. The origin of the song lies in the narrative of enslaved blacks living in America. The lyrics of this song were clung to then and we would be wise to cling to them now. The repetition of the question, “Were you there?” draws us into the scene that we see illustrated in the four gospels. It acknowledges the presence of eye-witnesses at the time of Jesus’ death and begs the question to those singing: were you there? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when the stone was rolled away? How do we answer when we were not there?

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi gives us some clues. In the second chapter of Philippians, he makes his plea to the saints, overseers and deacons in Christ Jesus to make his joy complete by being like-minded. “Consider each other better than yourselves”, Paul exhorts. Who does he use as the ultimate example of this? Jesus. However, this humility Paul speaks of is no ordinary humility. It is definitely not the humility we know today.

In a modern context, humility is seen as something valiant and brave. Often times our attempts to be humble well up from a place of pride. Often times our humility is not humility at all but rather a vain attempt to act lowly. Even in our humility, we are often proud. Jesus puts this into perspective. He humbled himself, yes, but he also became obedient to death. Connecting humility to obedience is not often something we probably want to think about. Humility, at least in its most superficial definition, seems to be easier to swallow than obedience. However, the type of humility Paul is speaking of accompanies and is rooted in obedience. What role does obedience play? It causes us to admit and submit. It calls every knee to bow and every tongue confess. Obedience seems to mean loyalty to a king and loyalty is not easy.

Paul follows up this plea in telling those he writes to, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Alas, we return to the question we opened this post with. Fear and trembling. Why is this how we are called to work out our salvation (or rather, for God to work out our salvation in us)?

This is why I posed my question at the beginning and that is why I restate it now. When was the last time you trembled? When we speak of trembling, it is implied that fear is involved. We do not tremble in times of comfort and disobedience.  We tremble when we have developed such an intimacy with our Lord and Savior that when we think of His blood poured out in the sake of love, we tremble. We tremble when we can picture ourselves there, in the presence of Jesus, just as He is about to be crucified and nailed to the cross. We tremble at the knowledge of the loss of our Messiah. But, we also tremble when we think of that morning. We tremble when we imagine the stone being rolled away, – and Jesus’ grave being found empty. We tremble, just as the disciples did. We tremble just as Mary did. We tremble when we can say, “We were there.”

Often times our humility is not humility at all but rather a vain attempt to act lowly. Even in our humility, we are often proud.

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Andrew DiNardo

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