By Shannon Vowell –
Spring pushing white and lavender and pink into dazzling prominence as the gray and brown disappear. Easter joy writ large on the landscape.
Alongside the greening, something new in my neighborhood, a winter-is-over ritual: Regiments of middle-school boys – hoodie-clad, bicycle-mounted, wielding iPhones and skateboards – are climbing up onto roofs.
Several were on the roof of the elementary school last week. Others have scaled fences to perch on backyard sheds. The online bulletin board is abuzz with worries and irritations about these boys and their exploits; the adult population not sure how to put a stop to these antics which are as fleeting and hard to anticipate as they are dangerous.
I have a soft spot for boys at the age and stage of these roof climbers. Look past the foul-mouthed bravura and there is something exquisitely poignant about their gangly, coltish limbs and downy cheeks. Boys on the brink of physical manhood are desperate to prove themselves brave and big and strong – and when big and strong are still out of reach, brave becomes the ultimate badge of honor.
Hence, roof climbing.
On a cloud-streaked afternoon, one of the boys managed to scale the gazebo in the park – a structure with multiple metal levels, whose top eaves are easily 25 feet high. He stood on the highest part of that roof – and then jumped! As high as he could! Skinny arms stretching into the somber sky!
I watched from my kitchen window with my heart in my mouth as his flimsy form silhouetted for a moment against late afternoon sunlight. For a split second, he was flying – Peter Pan or Icarus – all his boy-energy and aspiration physicalized in wild, ferocious defiance of gravity. It was piercingly beautiful, ballerina-grace and cheetah-speed compressed into a scruffy package and hurled into space.
Of course, it was also incredibly stupid and potentially fatal. But that roof-climber was safely down and escaping on his bike before I or any of the other adult witnesses could tell him so (or get his mom’s number to tattle on him).
I was profoundly relieved that he hadn’t fallen and broken himself on the concrete. I was also profoundly affected by the picture he had made, flung into thin air like that, daring the laws of physics to crack him like an egg. That gauntlet is thrown at death spotlighted life – in all its recklessness and risk and glory. It made me wonder: when was the last time I felt completely alive?
For me, like for so many across the world, the last year has felt like an extended, immersive study of “life in survival mode.”
The pandemic has recast basic questions of everyday. Minimizing risk has taken precedence over things like preference or pleasure. Contact-free procurement of groceries. Being compliant with mask-wearing, physical distancing, and frequent sanitization of hands and surfaces. Avoiding crowds; staying “within your bubble.”
Such preoccupations are laudable from the perspective of doing one’s part to help contain a deadly virus. They (hopefully) minimize risk to self and family; they (hopefully) protect others from one’s own germs.
But somewhere along the way, in setting aside preference and pleasure for the greater good, I seem to have set aside purpose, too. Why is it we are all being so careful / trying so hard to stay alive? What is it we are sacrificing so much to preserve? I need reminding…
The plain fact of it is that making “safety” the whole point of living obscures something fundamental: avoiding death is not really living.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus told his disciples. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
Jesus is in no way advocating carelessness with one’s health or with the health of one’s neighbor (see the parable of the Good)
Samaritan for details on just how seriously we are supposed to take our neighbor’s health and safety)! But Jesus is insisting that we see the goal – the purpose – the meaning of life as following Him. Any other goal, even gaining the whole world, falls short.
Jesus could have been talking about Covid 19 when he described the intent of the evil one: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” Consider what the virus has stolen from the world in terms of joy, freedom, productivity, connection – the list goes on. Consider the toll of the killing: several million lives worldwide. And destruction? Who can measure the cost of what has been destroyed in terms of livelihoods and semesters of school and rites of passage, gone forever?
But the contrast between that evil intent and Jesus’s purpose is stark: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Instead of stealing, killing, and destroying – Jesus gives abundant life.
Clearly, by “life” Jesus is talking about something more than just continuing to take in oxygen and occupy space on the planet. Jesus points to “life” as his life purpose while remaining clear that “staying alive” is not key to experiencing this life. Paul sums it up nicely: “To live is Christ; to die is gain” Philippians 1:21).
Statements Jesus makes elsewhere in Scripture give us a framework for understanding just how abundant the abundance he offers, is:
• “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty,” Jesus said to the woman at the well. “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).
• “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
• “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
The “eternal life” Jesus offers is life that includes abundance in the here and now as well as fellowship with the Father forever after. So life in Christ, according to Jesus, is a both / and proposition – peace and purpose in the world; peace and purpose beyond the world. And that Life has already conquered death – which means to live into it is to be unafraid.
The roof climbers in my neighborhood have blessed me by reminding me – forcefully! – that there is more to life than avoiding death. While I am too old and heavy (and hopefully too wise) to launch myself from the top tier of the gazebo, perhaps I am wise enough to take the lesson to heart. Living into my own life with the unselfconscious abandon and exuberance of the roof climbers, even now, is the only logical response to the life I’ve been offered in Christ.
“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8- 9).
Life abundant = indescribable and glorious joy + salvation. Let’s shout it from the rooftops!
Shannon Vowell writes and teaches about making disciples of Jesus Christ. She blogs at shannonvowell.com.