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Death, Life, and Crash-Helmets by Jill Ver Steeg

Annie Dillard in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk writes: Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.

Today is one of those crash helmet-wearing days because this explosive text should hit us over the heads with some pretty powerful force.  Listen: But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -by grace you have been saved-,and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4-6).  Our story is this: we were dead.  Dead in our sins. But God. But God.  May I confess something?  I love the buts of the Bible. “But God” is the hinge upon which our desperate condition is changed at the gracious initiative of a loving God.  Some of my favorite buts: But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20); But to those who are the called, Christ the power of God (1 Cor. 1:24); …but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7); [my personal favorite] But on the first day of the week… (Luke 24:1).  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:4-5).

We were dead, and dead people do not rise, but God made us alive with Christ.  We were powerless but God has raised us with Christ, in a position of power and honor.   God has taken action to reverse our sin condition. The Heidelberg Catechism question and answer #37 helps us understand this great reversal.  Q: How are we to understand Christ’s suffering?  A: That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.

By grace you have been saved.  The story of the Bible is not the story of our seeking after God.  It is the story of God seeking after us. Where are you?  God’s first words Adam heard after the entire creation had plunged into sin and death.  The work of redemption is God’s and God’s alone. What are we to make of Christ’s suffering?  ‘Til on that cross as Jesus died, we sing, The wrath of God was satisfied, For ev’ry sin on Him was laid, Here in the death of Christ I live.  This is the mirifica commutati, the great exchange -writes John Calvin- which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.xvii.2)

But God. This is the story in which all our stories are remade.  We could do nothing for ourselves, because the iron grip of sin and death separated us from God…but, in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those under the law, so that we might be adopted as children.

I visited Margaret on Christmas Eve morning.  The snow fell gently as I pulled into the nursing home at Legacy Point.  Margaret had suffered a stroke five years earlier, and after that she never regained her mind.  My visits with Margaret shared the same rhythm: we would talk about the birds outside her window…sometimes finches, other times a cardinal or two. I would read scripture to Margaret and then we would sing a verse of Great is thy Faithfulness.  After that we would then share communion together.  The effects of the stroke were such that Margaret’s words were hard to understand.  At best, the tone and inflection of her voice clued me in to what she was trying so hard to say.

On this particular day, as I was praying the Communion Prayer, when I got to the part where we proclaim the mystery of our faith…something happened.  I prayed, Christ has died! Christ has risen! And before I could get to Christ will come again, Margaret let go of my hand and as clear as anyone could articulate she exclaimed, “Jesus with me! Me with Jesus!” Five years of being in a semi-vegetative state most of the time is too long by any standards.  But, I believe that the Master with whom Margaret walked all of her life is the Lord of life and not of death and that on this Christmas Eve morning, Margaret bore witness to the good news of the gospel…But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses made us alive together with Christ.

Crash helmets, I tell you.

Jill Ver Steeg

Jill Ver Steeg is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving as the Chief Ministry Officer for the RCA. In this role, Jill leads the ministry staff who steward "Transformed and Transforming," the RCA's 15-year goal. She is curious about adaptive leadership in the workplace and ministry innovation and collaboration. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband Shane and their four sons.


  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Wonderful words, Jill!

  • Gloria Stronks says:

    I have always loved Annie Dillard’s “crash helmets”. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece.

  • Kent Prescott says:

    THIS is why I read The Twelve, tediously enduring the countless hand-wringing political rants and untoward name-calling, for THIS: life-giving eternal truths that encourage and build up the body of believers. Thank you, Ms. Ver Steeg. Thank you. I’m off to purchase a crash helmet.

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