Last Wednesday morning I sat down to begin the process of preparing for my weekend sermon: collecting my notes from here and there, opening my laptop, launching my Bible library and outline app. But then, for some reason, I went over to my guitar case, opened it and took out my little Martin, a treasure from a friend.

Guitar strapped on and tuned up, I sat behind my desk, grabbed my tablet and opened a chart called “At The Foot of the Cross,” by Kathryn Scott. The app I use has a little feature that allows me to play the original recording, and this I did. The gentle introduction gave way to Kathryn’s familiar voice:

“At the foot of the cross, where grace and suffering meet…”

I’ve listened to this song a couple hundred times in the past, at least. Following our family’s move to the mission field in 2008, it became a favorite of mine, my wife’s, and our kids too. Sure, there were sunny days when our family soundtrack—closely monitored, I should say, by our three teenage daughters—was a little more upbeat—Audio Adrenaline pounding out “I’m Alive,” Skillet’s “Oh! Gravity,” or Julieta Venega “Limon y Sal,” among others.

But the Kathryn Scott tune became a staple, a sort of family anthem that glued us together through our difficult first year on the field.

On Wednesday, after listening to it once, I strummed the intro on my guitar, then took a few minutes to repair a few minor goofs in the chord chart. That naturally required another listen—to make sure I had gotten it right. One listen became two; two became three; and before long, I had played the song four times, and I found myself hearing those words—really hearing them—as if the song were being played for the first time.

The words, which I’d listened to so many times already, were like clean, new-fallen snow:

“And you’ve won my heart,
Yes you’ve won my heart,
Now I can trade these ashes in for beauty
And wear forgiveness like a crown,
Coming to kiss the feet of Mercy,
I lay every burden down
At the foot of the Cross.”

By the fifth or sixth time through, I was fully immersed, chord chart forgotten along with my sermon, the guitar, and everything else. Sitting there, I became aware of the gentle presence of the Holy Spirit,  and the thought came to me: Although God is powerful to an infinite degree, He cared enough about me to actually allow himself to be tortured and killed on a cross, and not just that, but to actually wait for me through every day from the beginning of my life, let alone the genesis of time, right through my sixtieth year, to be with me in this place. All of this, to “win my heart.”

“And you’ve won my heart…”

The song played again, and the words continued to sink home. My reverie continued: The cross is home to the tenderest of balances, and the sharpest of contrasts. It is the intersection of heaven and hell, of pain and joy, wonder and apathy, of justice and mercy. Or in the words of the song, the place “where grace and suffering meet.” Jesus endured unimaginable pain there, and so did the Father Who looked on. We’d like to not think about that. Yet to consider the beauty of grace absent a single thought of what it cost is to miss it all, I think.

And here was the starkest contrast of all: To have “won my heart,” implies desire on the part of the winner. I mean if you don’t care about getting something, then getting it isn’t a “win” at all, right? Yet that is countered by the knowledge that without his sacrifice, I would have died in my sin. Pitiful, poor, blind and naked, as Jesus himself put it (Revelation 3:17).

The cross of Calvary is the only place where this frail balance exists—between feeling worthy and feeling worthless—we are deeply sinful, yet to God we are of great value. And that’s why cross is the only place where a person can truly rest; the only place where every burden can, truly and at last, be laid down. The place where the tenderest of mercies can finally get through the thickest of skulls, the hardest of hearts.

Undone by these thoughts, tears came, and stayed awhile. The song played several times more. Each time it did, I was struck by a new glimmer of understanding, and with each a new bit of awe at the love of God. This was God.

Religious behavior, like religion itself, quickly becomes a burden. An example that comes to mind is Bible study. Combing through the verses and stories of our “letter from God” is a noble pursuit, but it can never be more than that, absent a relationship between the student and the Author. That’s why Bible study is a very dry exercise for some. And that’s why it’s possible to “think about” the cross of Calvary without really “going there.” There is a difference, like maybe the difference between watching a video about skydiving versus actually jumping out of a plane. (I’ve never done it myself, but I hear there is a difference!)

But to ponder the meaning of the cross of Jesus is to be ushered into His presence, and to experience the removal of all burdens. As the Psalmist said, real joy, and lasting pleasure are found in the presence of God (Psalms 16:11).

Maybe that’s why Jesus issued the command, “Now remain in my love.” (John 15:9) Only his love can water and feed—and rest—our soul.

To study the cross is to “kiss the feet of mercy,” and I submit that a person can’t do that, really do that, without being sort of unwound. Like me, when it really engulfs you, that vision of the cross, chances are you will forget everything else. Sooner or later, whatever other ‘business’ you came there to do will fade, like the light of a closing day, into nothing.

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