“But it was love, after all, that made the cross salvific, not the sheer torture of it.” – Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart
This year at Calvary, as we remember Holy Week, we are reflecting on the words of Mark’s gospel. It was Mark who recorded that the crucifixion of Jesus began at the third hour (Mark 15:25) and, as a side note, we also know from Matthew’s account that it lasted until the ninth hour (Matthew 27:46). Six hours is a long time to do anything: imagine being invited to attend the screening of a six-hour movie or enjoy a six-hour buffet; think about babysitting a three-year old for six hours or waiting for news from the ER staff for six hours. These feats of endurance are nothing compared to what Jesus endured on the cross.
Crucifixion was a particularly ghastly method of capital punishment. As was the case with Jesus, the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden beam and left to hang until eventual death from exhaustion and asphyxiation. Eventually the victim would slump due to muscular fatigue and the diaphragm would compress the lungs, depriving the vital organs of oxygen. This macabre ‘dance’ – lifting the body with the arms and legs to breathe until they could no longer support the weight and collapse again – went on for hours, and sometimes, to speed up the process, the ones responsible for guarding the condemned would break their legs.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
To paraphrase the words of apostle Paul: God, in Christ, showed us the extent of his love through his death. The fact is that thousands of people were humiliated and horribly executed by means of a cross, and none of those deaths, in and of themselves, save us from our sin. The cross is what we call the instrument of death, but it is not its cause. The cause of Jesus’ death was love, willful, active and limitless love. He chose to endure the dehumanization and shameful humiliation of crucifixion (after all, he could have been executed at any time and in any age of human history) to fulfill the will of the Father, to serve as a sacrificial substitute for our sin, and in so doing expressed his love.
I would like to say that there are a few things lasting six hours that I would do for a loved one. I would like to say that I would wait in the wind and rain, dig a mile-long trench or drive through a blizzard. I would like to say that, but I am not sure I would do that. I cannot imagine the great love required to endure the cross for six hours, let alone six minutes. I cannot fully comprehend how much Jesus loves a sinner like me. But I can appreciate it. In my mind, I can picture myself at the foot of the cross, staring up at my suffering savior; I ask him, “How much do you love me?” and with arms outstretched, he replies, “This much!”
Remember to remember Him this Good Friday.
Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season, exactly five months after winning the World Series, concluding their best statistical season in franchise history. Throughout the season, they led the league in wins (108), RBIs (829) and team batting average (.286). To top it all off, their star player, Mookie Betts, was named the AL MVP. By all means of measuring success, the Red Sox had a historic season. The city was blessed to enjoy a rolling rally throughout the streets and the sporting goods stores in the area sold a bunch of merchandise celebrating the team’s victory over every foe.
Last weekend the Red Sox began their new season and, as of this posting, proceeded to lose more games than they had won. The good news in anticipating the current season is that most of the key elements in prior success is still in place for the present campaign. The bad news in anticipating the current season is that past performance is no guarantee of success in the present. The slate has been wiped clean and the wins of the past season no longer matter. Every team, both winners like the Red Sox and non-winners like the Baltimore Orioles (who amassed a mere 47 wins last season), starts on Opening Day in the same place.
As I think about the Red Sox, I also think about myself. I remember all the victories I won last season: I battled temptation and won more times than I lost. I faced discouragement, home and away, and won the season series; I went into the stadium of sexual purity and came away with a win; I stood in ‘the box’ against the enemy’s strongest arms (hurlers with names like lying, cheating and stealing) and bested them with base hits and deep bombs. There were days that I did not have my best stuff, but over the course of the entire season I ended up with many more wins than losses.
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
But, like baseball, that was last season and while I have many of the same tools and much of the same training, I still must engage the enemy. And, like baseball, past performance is no guarantee of success in the present. This season, along with the regular adversaries, the measure of victory I have enjoyed has made me vulnerable to other forms of attack from things like personal pride and common complacency. I am going to take it one day at a time, one ‘at-bat’ at a time: I will have to enjoy the success of victory only for a moment, accept the sting of loss only for an instant, and fight the good fight each and every day.
There is no spiritual World Series and the faithfully obedient will not receive a trophy at end of each season. Still, the one who resists and remains after going nine innings with temptation is not without reward. There is, for that one, a crown – of life, of righteousness, of glory – that will never be taken away.
Have a great season!
During Sunday School last Sunday, we looked at the parable of the prodigal son. It may be the most well-known story in the scriptures: a young man asks his father for his share of his estate, which the father grants; upon receiving this windfall, the young man travels to a distant country and wastes the money on wine, women and song; after finding himself broke and alone, a famine struck the place where he was; in order to survive, the young man takes an awful, despicable job feeding pigs; after a while, the young man realizes how much better life was at home and determines to return hope, even if it is only as a servant; while he is travelling the road home, his father sees him far off in the distance and runs to him; the young man is fully restored and his return is celebrated. It is a wonderful story, a reminder that every one of us (the young man) can be welcomed back by God (the father) if we come to our senses and turn back to him.
But what if that is not really the point of the parable? What if the story is not about the young man? In context, this story is the third part of a trilogy of stories: the first part is about the extreme measures a shepherd will take to find one lost sheep and the second part is about the extreme measures a widow will take to find a lost coin; in context, the story is about the extreme measures a father will take to find a lost son. The actions of the sheep are unspectacular, the actions of the coin are immaterial, and (by extension) the actions of the young man are incidental. What if the parable of the prodigal son is really about the loving father?
What if the parable is not really about coming to your senses so that you can be restored? One of the details of the story that is often overlooked relates to a conversation between the father and the older son who remained with him:
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’ Luke 15:31
In the story, the father doesn’t forgive and forget; the young man doesn’t get a second chance or another share of the father’s estate. His birth-right was gone and it was not being given back – it was all remaining with the older son. One thing we could learn from this parable is that there are consequences to bad behavior: sin has ripple effects that could capsize relationships, ship-wreck careers and jettison treasures. What if the parable of the prodigal son is really about the gracious reconciliation afforded by the father?
What if the most well-known story Jesus ever told was not about us, not about me? What if it was about God, who lovingly allows us to make choices, lovingly allows us to go where we want, and watches the road so that He can be the first to welcome us home? What if it about a father wanting to celebrate finding what was truly lost and truly found? What if it was simply about the depths of a father’s love?
Now that would be some story, indeed!
Occasionally, I wrestle with a topic to write about in this weekly blog; this was one of those weeks. As a number of themes turned in my mind, I prayed that God would help me in my efforts to formulate a concise and meaningful reflection worthy of posting. Ironically, my attentions were drawn over and over again to prayer: as I discussed with other pastors a biography we read on J. Hudson Taylor, the conversation was about prayer; as I led the Lenten study on Matthew 26, the scriptures addressed prayer; when I put a 2006 Veggie Tales DVD into the player for the kids I watched as their moms attended the Women’s Bible Study, “Gideon: Tuba Warrior”, we unexpectedly watched a vignette about George Mueller (who was a champion of prayer).
Hudson Taylor was the founder of China Inland Mission, which brought the gospel to the Chinese, through ‘faith missions’ (the sending of missionaries with no promises of temporal support, but instead a reliance ‘through prayer to move [people] by God’), serving eastern Asia from 1854 – 1905. He utterly relied on prayer for his provision and direction throughout his life. As we discussed the life and faith of this great follower of Christ, a few of us were transparent enough to voice our regret that our prayer lives were, in comparison, woefully lacking in fervor and faithfulness. Hudson’s contemporary George Mueller built and directed numerous orphanages in Bristol, England while never making a single request for financial support; he remained debt-free as he relied solely on concerted prayer for God’s provision.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:37-38
The above-mentioned verses report part of what took place in the garden of Gethsemane hours before Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had just concluded their commemoration of the Passover and had gone to this place just outside the city to pray. Unlike other times, when Jesus went to a solitary place, on this occasion he asks his three closest friends to stay and keep watch – to pray – with him. At the time of deepest sorrow, our Lord prayed with others. Our savior’s last act of human volition was to conduct a prayer meeting with his companions. I cannot help but ask myself if I would do the same thing.
It all makes me wonder: do we pray better when we pray together? Are we all a bit more like Moses than we care to admit, that we simply cannot keep our hands raised in prayer and intercession without the help of others (see Exodus 17:8-16)? Are we willing to learn from Jesus the lesson that we are better able to accomplish God’s will when we ‘keep watch’ together? I am not, in my own strength alone, able to pray as I should. Perhaps we could get together, say on a Wednesday night, and hold up one another in prayer.
After last Sunday’s sermon I had a conversation with my wife about its delivery. It was based on Acts 16:11-24, when, among other things, Paul commands a spirit of divination to come out from a servant girl. This was done because Paul, according to verse 18, became troubled by her incessant shouting; the word choice by Luke is one of annoyance, that she got on his nerves much more than she got to his heart. In my message I said that this part of a ministry of compassion, service based upon sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, but I was wrong: while the servant girl was shown sympathy or concern, Paul was seemingly only intent of keeping her quiet.
Not so with the subject of another conversation I had later last week among a group of colleagues. My friend Bob shared some thoughts on Mephibosheth as recorded in 2 Samuel 9. This man with the unusual name (meaning “the one who shatters shame’) was disabled – dropped by a nurse as a child causing him to be lame in both legs – and disgraced, the grandson of the conquered king. He was living a quiet and desperate life in a place called Lo-debar (“no pasture”). At the same time, King David (his dearly-departed father’s best friend and his casualty-of-battle grandfather’s mortal enemy) was wondering if there was anyone in Mo’s family to which he could show God’s kindness. What David does is truly compassionate.
David asks the sympathetic question: “Where is he?” There is no regard for why it happened, or how it happened, or when it happened. There is no concern over the investment or the objective. There is only a question of how quickly he could help.
David shows a sympathetic spirit: he offers for Mo to dine at the king’s table for the remainder of his life. The king was not inviting him as a servant but as a son, with no expectations of repayment or reward. There is only an offer of grace.
Imagine Sabbath-day dinner at the palace: Amnon, the oldest boy, strong and witty; Absalom, the good looking one; Tamar, the princess; Solomon, always talking about something he read; and let’s not forget that Mephibosheth, legs at two different angles, humble and quiet, sits in the midst of it all. That is the picture of compassion, that kindness that originates in the heart for the sake of alleviating the suffering of another.
And Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, because he always ate at the king’s table; he was lame in both feet. 2 Samuel 9:13
We all know that expression of compassion, for we are all Mephibosheth. God the king made a promise before we were born to care for us. He searched us out while we hid in fear in a barren land. And He blessed us with all things, allowing us to dine and recline with Him at His table. Broken as we are, crippled as we are, humble as we are, we were given more than we deserve. We ought to remember that the next time we come across someone who demands our pity and concern. In that moment, may we all act compassionately from the heart, not simply appropriately so as to settle our nerves.
I recently lost my debit card; I am pretty sure I used an ATM and forgot to retrieve it at the end of the transaction. I discovered the loss when I went to use it the next day and realized it was not in my wallet (thankfully, I was with my wife and she was willing to pay for our lunch). I immediately called the bank, requesting that the card be cancelled and another one issued, which they were more than happy to do…in as little as three to five business days. True to that representative’s word, 5 business days later, the new card arrived, and all was right with the world again. Sort of.
Those intervening nine days without a debit card showed me two things about myself: 1) I have a bunch of automatic payments linked to my bank card, many of which already emailed me and requested updated information; and 2) I rarely use or carry cash, having become fully reliant upon that little chip on a sheet of plastic for almost every purchase I make. I had to think ahead, considering each day what needed to be paid and what resources did I need to pay it. How will I pay for the groceries? Will Netflix© continue to stream through our devices? These are the kinds of thoughts that were fresh in my mind. But then, with the arrival of a plain envelope with a return address of an unknown post office box, everything was back to normal.
How did this happen? How did I become so dependent on things (as this experience has revealed that I have difficulty when I am without the ‘necessity’ of my debit card, but also extends to things like my eye glasses and my cell phone)? Each morning, I get up and make sure I have these items with me before I engage with the world. All this has gotten me wrestling with another related question: Do I give God as much consideration, as I begin my day, that I give my ‘necessities’?
In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly. Psalm 5:3
What benefit is there in an ability to pay if one’s purchases are worthless? What benefit is there in having clear vision if what one sees is not edifying? What benefit is there in instant access to everyone and everything if the portal is used to entertain one’s prurient interests? What good is there in engaging with the world if one has not first had an engagement with God?
All these questions have distilled into one thought: the first (and perhaps only) thing I need to be a productive and effective member of society is God. I am able to live without a debit card or a cell phone. I am able to exist without eye glasses or a vehicle. I cannot (and must not) survive without God going with me. To neglect a few moments each morning with Him, to refuse to wait expectantly for His direction, would be as foolish as walking away from an ATM as it dings to remind you that your card is still in the machine. And who would ever do that?
Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I missed the small pink boxes of tiny hearts that used to be made by Necco. The good news is that, although the Revere institution filed for bankruptcy and shuttered the factory last year, Spangler Candy Co. (the company that took over the rights to Necco’s iconic brands) confirmed Conversation Hearts would return in 2020. While I am not a great fan of the product (they tasted like chalk and were always lagging behind the cultural vernacular), they were a good and inexpensive gift to hand to the kids. Because these confections are a rarely-consumed tradition in my home (like that bowl of mixed nuts at Thanksgiving or those ‘stocking oranges’ at Christmas) I did buy some second-tier Brach’s© Hearts yesterday.
These little hearts that say “BE MINE” or “TEXT ME” or “PUPPY LOVE” or “DREAM BIG”, which may have little or no taste, are not tasteless. They are simple expressions of affection, comfort and encouragement. In a world of incessant honking in the streets and ubiquitous trolling on the internet, a tiny piece of pressed sugar with the words “I (HEART) YOU” might be just what the doctor ordered. We all have times when we need that short and sweet interaction with someone who cares; at those crucial moments we do not want a poem or a lecture – we want a hug, a call or a smile.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
Imagine if God produced a box of “Conversation Hearts” for you. Perhaps you would read “BE STRONG”, “BE COURAGEOUS”, “NO FEAR”, “I’LL GO WITH U”, “NEVER LEAVE U” and “NEVER FORSAKE U” (and those are from just one verse from one book in the Bible). Imagine you could place the hundreds of promises contained in the Scriptures, condensed to a dozen or so characters, in a pocket-sized box. Imagine taking one out in those discouraging moments and digesting it – chewing on it, enjoying its sweetness and reflecting on all the sentiment includes – and savoring the moment.
Whatever the date on the calendar, you have someone who loves you more than can be imagined: the God of the universe, as demonstrated in the death of Jesus Christ. It would take a lifetime to apprehend the incomprehensible fullness of this love, but it all begins with a sentiment that can be contained on one of those little hearts. “I (HEART) U”. This expression is something like the emotions contained in those crayon and construction paper cards that mothers keep in a special place. It is not simply what is said but what said by what is said.
It might be a good idea to swing by the grocery store and pick up a bag of discounted hearts, to open them up and read them as if written by God, and to act on them as if certain they are true. Then, literally or figuratively, hug, text and encourage the body of Christ…and wait for next year to get a pink box of chalky affection.
My daughter is currently spending a semester abroad at American College of Thessaloniki in Greece. In addition to taking a full slate of classes, she will (as part of the abroad program) be travelling through Greece to experience its unique culture and (because of proximity) be travelling throughout the Schengen Area of Europe to see the world. Already, her mother and I have seen pictures and heard anecdotes of all the beautiful places and the delicious foods our daughter has enjoyed. We are genuinely happy for her for this incredible opportunity and cannot wait until April to live vicariously through her.
While my wife and I have never been to Europe (we do not even have passports), we have the next best things. We have access to maps which can inform us of all the geography, roads and boundaries of Europe: we can know where everything is. We have access to episodes of “Rick Steves’ Europe” on PBS and “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” on Travel Channel, both of which have done multiple programs on Greece: we know can everywhere to go. We have access to literature like Eleni Gage’s “North of Ithaka” and Nikos Kazantzakis’ “Zorba the Greek”: we can know everything to expect. But that would only give us knowledge, and no matter how much knowledge we might gain, it would not be the same as living in Greece.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. John 10:10
As a parallel, there are plenty of people who know a great deal about living in Christ – through studying the Bible, attending worship services and reading biographies – but are not experiencing life in Christ. There is a great deal of difference between reading about God’s grace and experiencing His blessings or between singing of His mercy and experiencing His forgiveness. Simply because someone can quote Scriptures does not guarantee that they are living them out, just as knowing what is on the menu at Top of the Hub doesn’t mean you’ve eaten there. Knowledge of the culture of Christ’s kingdom is not the same as being absorbed by that culture, any more than reading about Greece is the same as being there.
So, I challenge all those who are reading this to experience what you know. Knowledge is important – even essential – in the navigation of life, whether we are referring to life which is physical or spiritual. But “book learning” is not sufficient. We need to apply that knowledge experientially, to immerse ourselves (intelligently) in the culture of Christ. We need to experience the fruit of the Spirit, the virtues of grace and mercy, and the love of God expressed in a billion little ways. Live out the life of Christ in all its glorious splendor.
The culture of Christ, like every culture, is experienced through community. If you, or someone you know, are looking for a community with which to experience abundant life in Christ, consider visiting us at Calvary.
Am I the only one who wishes that life would be easier? Am I alone in longing for simplicity in the workplace – there is a job to do, a way to do it and an absence of obstacles to its completion? Am I the only one who desires that life was a whole lot less messy?
These thoughts, no matter how comforting, are not based in reality: all of us, and all we work with and for, are – to some degree – messy. We all have unrealistic expectations, unresolved insecurities, and inexplicable weaknesses. We all have times when we think we are worthless and our situation is hopeless. That is the time when we need someone to come alongside. Thankfully, we have someone: the one about whom Isaiah prophesied and the one who fulfilled this prophecy: Jesus. Recorded in the Old and New Testament is a picture representing the heart of God for ministry.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Isaiah 42:3a
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…. Matthew 12:20a
In the days of Isaiah, reeds and bulrushes were literally a dime a dozen. They were everywhere and, as such, easily cultivated for a variety of menial tasks. Therefore, only perfect specimens were used and the bruised (bent, blemished or broken) reeds were discarded. Ancient reeds were of the same value of a Dixie© cup: I take medication twice daily with the aid of those 3-ounce wax-coated paper cups and (to the consternation of my loving wife) I reuse just one for days upon days. Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as replaceable and disposable.
At the same time, fire was essential for existence. Fire was the only source of heat (for comfort and cooking) and light (through hearth and lantern). Tending to the home fires was a constant chore. If one were to neglect the flames or use live or wet wood, it would be easiest to sweep the firebox and start over. If you have ever camped before, you know the work maintaining a fire demands, especially if one does not have a lighter (invented in 1823) or friction matches (invented in 1826); it would be wiser simply to rebuild and relight dry wood. Christian ministry, according to Jesus, values the people around us that the world sees as difficult and demanding.
The good news is that God has established the Church to ministry to the bruised reeds and the smoldering wicks. All around the world this weekend, those who might consider themselves nameless and voiceless cogs in the mechanism of life will gather together to remind one another that they are irreplaceable and valuable. All across the globe, people who the world would label as difficult and unworthy of the effort will come together and worship the One who equips His people with limitless compassion and patience.
Life is not easy. Life is not simple. Life is messy. But, thank God, we have the Church, the people of God committed to accomplishing His will. Therefore, there is always a place for disposable cups and dying embers like you and me.
More often than I care to admit or recognize, the disparate portions of scripture that read relating to different parts of my life that (whether it be through sermon preparation, prayer, or devotional readings) intersect to illuminate a truth that my thick skull would not have comprehended had it not been bombarded from diverse angles. This week, a verse from Proverbs (from a devotional), a verse from Psalms (through our church’s participation in “21 Days of Prayer”) and a verse from Acts (from last week’s sermon) have gotten me thinking. They all were used by the Holy Spirit to connect some dots, producing a picture of life that includes discernment, disappointment, and direction.
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance…. Proverbs 1:5 (ESV)
I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:2 (ESV)
[Herod] had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. Acts 12:2 (NIV)
Initially, God directed me to the above passage in Proverbs and to a devotional where Tim Keller examined the difference between knowledge and discernment as they relate to the pursuit of wisdom. We must be ever increasing in our learning, gaining factual and practical knowledge from a variety of healthy sources. We must also seek understanding of this knowledge. We need to know what the truth is, as well as what the truth means in practice.
Next, God directed me to the passage in the Psalms, which states the truth that God fulfills His purposes for us. But what does that mean in practice? In context, David recited this plea as he was running for his life from Saul. It means that God uses all our experiences (times of joy and times of sorrow) as a means of fulfilling His purposes for us. Whether we comprehend God’s rationale for our situation, we must live with the understanding that He has a plan.
This leads to the final passage, which recorded the martyrdom of one the first disciples at the hands of Herod. Unlike His deliverance of Peter a few verses later, this passage appears to reflect that God did nothing to spare James’ life. That is what knowledge of the truth would tell me, anyways. But understanding of the passage tells me more: first, that Jesus secured James’ life after his physical death, delivering him from harm and granting him passage into His presence; and second, His purpose (whatever that may be) for James and the people James know was fulfilled.
Ultimately, the life of faith is found in the confluence of these verses (as well as thousands more). Whether it is budget meetings or bond hearings, weddings or funerals, winning the lottery or losing a job, God has a purpose for you. We can get a glimpse of this purpose through studying His word and seeking His guidance. But, whether we “get” what God is doing or not, we can trust that He will give us all we need to trust Him in the darker hours. We need only remember that God all things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose. But that is a verse for another day.