The Dark Night

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence
~ Paul Simon

There is a place in the life of everyone who follows the Man from Galilee that is dark and desolate. A place of confusion. A place of unanswered prayers. A place of sorrow and despair. It goes by many names: crisis of belief, spiritual depression, desolation, wilderness wanderings, the wall, and dark night of the soul.

It can be a place of catastrophic destruction due to a self-inflicted wound like a moral failure. Or you are the victim of someone else’s selfish and sinful choice. It can be a health scare. It can be a hidden addiction that has wormed its way to the surface of your life and no longer stays hidden. It can be professional or relational failure. It can be a growing disillusionment that the life you have built is not fulfilling the deepest longings of your soul.

Sometimes, through no fault of your own, life just kicks you in the teeth and darkness becomes your boon companion.

No one is exempt from this midnight at high noon. No one. Moses went through this place, Elijah did, so did King David. Jeremiah lived in the desert of desolation all his life. John the Baptizer knows this dark place and so did his cousin from Nazareth when he found himself in a garden called Gethsemane.

In reading through Eugene Peterson’s book Tell it Slant, I found a way to be as we travel through our own places of abandonment and desolation. I owe much of this material to Mr. Peterson. We want to escape our spiritual darkness, we want pain relief, but often that doesn’t come. Rather than hitting the escape button or jumping back into the white-water rapids of busyness, I wonder if we would do well to do what Jesus did when faced with his dark night of the soul. I will frequently refer to this place of desolation as “the wall.”

Follow me through the prayers of Jesus when his soul despaired even unto death.

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Matthew 26:39

Jesus prays his way into and through his wall—death on the cross. In the praying, death acquires an unguessed dimension: no longer a dead end but passageway to resurrection, no longer a terminus, but a beginning.

When we pray, we willingly participate in what God is doing, without knowing precisely what God is doing, how God is doing it, or when we will know what is going on—if ever.

Like Jesus, this is a time to pray what we want, not what we ought to want.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34

Walls cut us off from our moorings. Other than death, walls are the ultimate incomprehensibility. I no longer belong. I no longer fit. And I am not given an explanation.

Jesus’ way of dealing with is wall is to walk into the midst of it an let the wall do its deeper work on his soul.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us in chapter 5:8, Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

It is not easy. Nobody said it would be easy. It wasn’t for Jesus.

Praying this fragment prayer reveals the worst that comes to us in a life of belief in God: the experience of absolute abandonment by God.

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

Often, when we go through our wall, those around us will be just as confused at the darkness and uncertainty as we are. Some will want us to snap out of it and be happy. Others will try to fix us with encouraging words and platitudes. Or by giving us unsolicited advice.

Here a posture of grace and mercy is needed. Hessed, lovingkindness, will be needed in large doses. For “Job’s friends” can be relentlessly brutal.

“I thirst.” John 19:28

This is a one-word prayer in Greek: dipso. Think about what Jesus prayed on the cross—sense the abandonment, forgiveness, and relinquishment. And now—pain: the body shutting down, lungs failing, heart failing, kidney’s failing. In Jesus’ wall this leave-taking of his body was experienced as excruciating thirst.

We can never underestimate the impact of the wall or dark night of the soul on our physical state. Pay attention to what your body is saying to you.

It is not unreasonable to ask God for relief from the pain we go through as we pass through our wall.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46

This is a prayer of trust. When we pray this prayer, we don’t know what might happen next, but we are releasing ourselves into the care and control of the one who calls us “beloved”.

Jesus prayed this trusting prayer in circumstances that were anything but secure and safe. When you pray this prayer through your wall, picture being in the company of Jesus as he utters it from the cross.

Remember: Jesus was not giving up; he was entering in—entering into the work of salvation. And when we pray this prayer as we go through our wall; we are entering into the work—deep work—of what the wall can accomplish in our souls.

What we can’t know in the midst of the darkness of our soul is that there is life on the other side that is unspeakable and full of glory. There is resurrection morn. There is exaltation, if not in this life, in the life to come.

It is our outcome, it is our destination, it is our birthright as the beloved of God. In the meantime, pray and trust God to remember you.

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The Art of Giving

Our greatest fulfillment lies in giving ourselves to others. Although it often seems that people give only to receive, I believe that, beyond all our desires to be appreciated, rewarded and acknowledged, there lies a simple and pure desire to give.

– Henri Nouwen

Most of us believe that to mark this world, we need to do something big. We need to pastor a large church, get published, or establish an orphanage in a third world country. We are so grandiose in our sense of what counts as significant. That is not the Jesus way.

But faithful givers have a way of marking our lives. I’ve had more than a few saints you will never meet that have impacted my life because of their giving lifestyle.

Let me tell you about my deacon.

When I moved out of my parent’s house into my first apartment, I was assigned to his deacon family. He took that seriously. He was a strange and wonderful man. The term “geek” was not used back in the mid-seventies, but if it had it would been how I would have described my deacon. He had a pock-marked face and a bulbous nose. He was a large a portly man with narrow and sloping shoulders. When he smiled, which he did a lot, he had a gap between his front teeth.

In those days, I was in my rebellion. The only reason I attended church was because my mother said I could come to the house for Sunday dinner if I came to church. And every week it seemed she made a pot roast, rolls, and peach cobbler.

My deacon knew I was troubled. (Dad was my pastor and he and the deacons probably prayed for me in deacon’s meetings.) My deacon would write me notes and tell me he prayed for me. He would seek me out when I came to church. He found out that I loved sports, so he took me to Denver Nuggets and Denver Broncos games—many times. That cost him time and money to do that.

All the while I lived a prodigal life. I was living in complete defiance of Jesus. But my deacon didn’t give up on me. He kept praying and showing up in my life in any way he could think of.

Finally, in 1978 I rededicated my life to Jesus. Back in those days, that was a big deal. My dad always offered an altar call in the church he pastored and so I walked forward to make my decision public. The first person to grab me and hug me that Sunday was my deacon.

You will never meet him. I don’t even know if he is still alive. But that goofy, geeky, awkward deacon marked my life.

My deacon’s name was Clint Spearman. We named our second son Clint.

Our culture, country, and town will be changed not through legislation, rules, and winning the culture wars. Up there will not come down here by returning to the values and lifestyles of the 40’s and 50’s. The Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven when we follow Jesus in his incarnation lifestyle.

The late author and speaker Brennan Manning tells an amazing story about how he got the name “Brennan.”

While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, went to school together and so forth. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on a live grenade.

It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared.

When Brennan became a priest, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So, he took on the name Brennan. Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?”

Mrs. Brennan got up off of the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “Jesus Christ—what more could he have done for you?!”

Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? and Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “Jesus Christ—what more could he have done for you?”

The cross of Jesus is God’s way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder, Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me?

And Jesus’ mother responds, “What more could he have done for you?”

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16

We are never more like God than when we give.

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My Oldest Friend’s Voice

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship. – C.S. Lewis

My oldest friend called me on my birthday a few months ago. Here is how he greeted me, “Hey, what are you doing?” I am blown away that I knew who it was when he said “Hey.”

When I heard his voice, I was filled with joy and delight. His voice brought back waves of wonderful coming-of-age memories. Memories of fort-building, cowboy and Indian wars, climbing mountains and a rock formation called “Split Rock,” basketball victories, and Junior High prayer meetings.  

I don’t know if we will ever fulfill the vow we made at age thirteen to take our future wives to the grassy ledge on the upper part of Split Rock. I don’t think we could make the climb. We are both grandparents now. Don’t know if we will ever go back to the caves, we found on a mountain we called “Old Baldy” with the bats hanging upside down. We even named the caves: TAP and JOC. (Those are our initials: Timothy Allen Peggram and Joseph Oren Chambers.) I always liked his initials better. Sounded cool, “TAP.” Saying mine out loud made me blush at age twelve, “JOC.”

Here is the truth: Tim’s voice is carved deeply into my memory. I may not hear that voice very often, but it is so important to me that there is instant recognition, immediate affection and joy.

Knowing a friend over time arouses deep affection.

The older I get the more important two things have become: Old friends and poetry. Here is a selection from John O’Donohue that I like a lot:

A Friendship Blessing

May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where
there is great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold in you.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship, and affinity of belonging.
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them;
may they bring you all the blessing, challenges, truth,
and light that you need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your anam ċara.

Here’s hoping you find a friend that blesses you like my old friend blesses me.

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Those People

When God saw…how (those people) turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind… Jonah 3:10

In the early years as a pastor in Oklahoma, kids would go to church camp and return to our little church and give testimony’s about what God did in their lives and I will never forget one kid describing his experience by saying, “The preacher gave a powerful sermon on sin and it was terribly convicting and I went forward, confessed my sin and cried like a baby.  Repentance is hard, I hope I never have to do that again.”

Repent, and Ye shall be saved.  Repentance is hard.

Culturally we tend to moth-ball the world “repent” and we assume that the word means in essence, “You should feel really bad about something.”

Well, I want to redeem the word. Because the original intent of the word was not connected to immoral behavior. In fact, the word was not originally a religious word at all. It was used in the Monday-through-Saturday world of ancient times. It is a word that simply meant “change directions.”

To repent is to become aware of God’s invitation into the kingdom, recoil with awareness of your sin and brokenness, and rethink your strategy for living, now that the option of the kingdom is at hand.~~Dallas Willard

Repentance is the fundamental way that we respond to what God has done to rescue us and His creation in Jesus.

A funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse, the Ninevites believed God.

Why use Jonah? God could have written that eight-word message in the sky. God could have gone all Shrek on them and had a donkey walk through preaching that message. I mean, we’ve already seen he is not opposed to using animals to do his work.

The Word of the Lord came to Jonah two times, he’s beaten up by a storm, almost drowns, is swallowed by a great fish, then unceremoniously vomited out onto the shores so that Jonah finally is at a place where he is ready to say, “Okay! I’ll go to Nineveh. In fact, I’ll go to Denver, Las Vegas, Nineveh, or even Hartsel—just don’t put me back inside Shamu!”

He is not very impressive as he walks into Nineveh. Jonah smells bad, his face is blotchy, his clothes are half-eaten away from stomach bile in the belly of the fish, he has kelp hanging from his ear and a wild crazed look on his face and all he is saying is, “Repent! The end of the world is at hand!” Come to think of it, I might repent if I saw that coming at me.

He doesn’t explain who God is or preach a sweet soft message of love and grace. There is no reflective music at the end of his sermon, no tear-jerking story, no poem, no dim lights. And it is an eight-word sermon. He doesn’t even tell them what they can do to avoid the judgment. He just says, “Forty days and you are toast.” And yet God uses it mightily and the people turn towards God.

God changed his mind and did not destroy the Ninevites. Was God playing a game? Was He faking it? No. There is a lot of mystery here, but the vital thing for us to see is that God turns towards these broken people in mercy, grace, and love. God has set His grace with a hair-trigger and has it pointed at this sorry, dark world and says, “Give me a reason!”

All we have to do is flinch.

The Ninevites have turned towards God and God has turned towards the Ninevites, now Jonah needs to turn towards them. Through clenched teeth, Jonah says, “I knew it! God, you are a sucker for sackcloth and ashes every time. All they have to do is sniffle, pray and tear their clothes and you are ready to forgive and love them.”

While the Ninevites practiced genocide as a part of their scorched earth strategy in war, Jonah was perfectly willing to pay for his ticket buy some popcorn and Dr. Pepper, and watch God wipe them off the face of the earth. What’s the difference? God refuses to settle for the violence in Nineveh or the poisonous violence in Jonah’s own religious heart.

Angry Crowd

We do this with external behaviors all the time. There is me and then there are “those people.” Political conservatives look down on liberals as weak. Liberals look down on conservatives as stupid. Country music lovers look down on jazz lovers as arrogant and snotty. And Jazz lovers don’t even think about country music lovers at all.

But the gospel of the Kingdom of God says both you and “those people” are equally broken and equally loved by God. The Gospel of the Kingdom turns us towards God in humility and turns us towards “those people” and helps us to see them as people who are beloved of God.

So, dear friends, repent and ye shall be saved.

At least that is an option for us now that the Kingdom of God is at hand—in the Jesus Way.

There is a scene in the film The Mission that to me personally, is one the greatest moments in all cinema. Robert DeNiro plays a slave trader in colonial Latin America. He had dedicated himself to capturing Indians and selling them as slaves. Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit missionary who helped convert the Indians, and who defended them.

When DeNiro is thrown in prison for murder, Irons shows him mercy and ransoms him to come to serve in the jungle mission. DeNiro is so overwhelmed by this act of grace that he insists on making the long journey to the mountain mission dragging his armor in a bundle behind him. He drags the weight of his sin and his filth to the top — where he meets the same people, now Christians, whose families he had been pressing into slavery. And where, if they killed him, justice would have been served.

As DeNiro is on his knees in the mud with the burden of his past tied to his back, the chief gives an order. Someone picks up a knife and runs to DeNiro and pulls his head upward with his face pointing to the very people he had hunted down like animals. The knife flashes and glints in the sunlight as the chief gives another order and the knife cuts the rope to the burden on DeNiro’s back. It tumbles down over a waterfall hundreds of feet; the same waterfall he had just climbed.

047_robert_de_niro_theredlistHe is confused. He looks into the faces of his former enemies for understanding. And one by one they begin to laugh. Not the laughter of contempt, the laughter of forgiveness and delight. And suddenly the face etched in pain and agony for all the guilt of his selfish life begins to melt away to first a smile, then a grin, and finally an open-mouth laugh of joy.

He spent the rest of his life loving those for which he had such contempt.

He turned.

And the Kingdom advanced one soul further towards bringing Up There, Down Here.

And so brothers and sisters, “Repent and Ye shall be saved.”

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Desperate for God

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.

When I was three or four years old, we had a dog named Peppy. It was part little dog and part another little dog, but I loved that dust-colored dog. My father was the pastor of First Baptist Church of Las Animas, Colorado and a lady from that Church came over to visit my mother, who was a stay-at-home mom of three young children. The lady’s name was Mrs. Hightower. There are only three things I remember about Mrs. Hightower. One, she was a very sweet and kind woman. Second, this story I am going to tell you. And third, she was as large as a mountain.

She came in and sat down on our couch. I remember my mom trying to shoo me and my brother away so they could talk. But I stood my ground in front of Mrs. Hightower. My mother kept shooing. I kept standing. Finally, my mom said what is wrong, Joe? I said, “I can’t find Peppy.” My mother said, “Go look in the laundry room.” I did. And I looked on the back porch. The bedrooms, upstairs, kitchen—everywhere. I came back and stood vigil in front of Mrs. Hightower.

Finally, Mrs. Hightower looked at me and said, “What’s the matter, darlin?”

And as serious as a lawyer I said, “You are sitting on my dog.”

Her face blanched, she set her cup of coffee down and struggled to get up and sure enough, there was Peppy between the cushions with a look of desperate despair on his face. Mrs. Hightower apologized profusely saying that she thought poor Peppy was a throw pillow.

Poor Peppy

Joe, Robbie, Peppy, and Jay

Peppy was never the same. Peppy sat out on the porch and stared into the distance and eventually had a nervous breakdown.

Wouldn’t you?

Ever feel as if the world has sat on you and you are all alone?

In the old flannelgraph story of Jonah, imagine a conversation God might have had with the great fish.

 

God: Hey, fish…

Fish: Yes, Lord?

God: “Go pick up Jonah. Directions will be given on a need-to-know basis and I’ll tell you where to drop him off.”

Fish: “Yes, Lord.”

God: “And Fish? This is an important detail.”

Fish: “Yes, Lord?”

God: “Swallow, don’t chew.”

Fish: “Yes, Lord.”

Guess what Jonah does in the fish? He prays. From the guts of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. And in the belly of that slimy, smelly, moist gastronomical mess, Jonah found God was already there waiting on him.

“I called to the Lord out of my distress,  and he answered me… Jonah 2:2

When you are in over your head, trust God to remember you and you pray.

Don’t forget to pray.

There is a Jonah I knew named Don his wife of 25 years left him and he was a bachelor for about 10 years. He and I would talk and he would ask about remarriage after divorce and what the bible had to say about it. I walked him through those teachings. He just couldn’t make himself date again. He took Jesus’ words very seriously and literally and he didn’t want to marry again if God forbade it.

We finally came to a position on the teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage he could live with and stay faithful to the Bible.

In time, he met a beautiful woman named Connie. They were perfect together. They dated for almost two years as mid-fifty-year-olds. Just trying to make sure they had made the correct choice. I married them. She made the most wonderful pecan pies and when she found I loved pecan pies, she would look for any excuse to make her pastor a pie.

Then one day Don called me and said that the test came back positive and that Connie had a brain tumor. She went through all of the horrible treatments to save her life. It kept getting worse and worse. We had a service at our church we called a “Body Life” service and we invited anyone who wanted prayer for healing to come and request it. We would anoint them with oil and pray. Never promised anyone they would be healed. We simply asked God to heal our friends.

I had begun to study Richard Foster, a famous Quaker author, and one of the things he taught was that we should pray for God to reveal His will to us before we pray for another person because the Bible teaches that if we pray anything that is according to God’s will he will grant our requests. I began to do that.

That Sunday evening, Connie and Don stepped out of the pew and began to come down the center aisle. She had a scarf wrapped tightly around her bald head. Don held her arm and walked slowly down the aisle with her. It took her a while to make it down to the front. That gave me time to pray for God to reveal to me his will for Connie and Don.

So I prayed.

And God said she would be healed—in heaven.

When they stood before me at the front of that church for prayer healing, in almost the same spot the day I married them, I knew she was going to die, but in keeping with their request, I anointed her with oil and prayed for her and asked God to come close to her and Don and reveal his glory in their relationship and in their life.

Connie died four months later. They had been married less than a year.

I went to sit with Don in his grief and said, “Don, I am so sorry. I don’t know what to say.”

He said, “God is with me, pastor. I feel him in this pain. He knew this was coming and He let me marry her. I hurt like I have never hurt in my life, but she belongs to the Lord, and I will see her again one day.”

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me…

That’s the story of Jonah. You may feel as if the world has sat on you and that you are all alone, but you would be mistaken.

Trust God to remember you.

Don’t forget to pray.

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Running From God

But Jonah ran away from the Lord…

Nineveh is a couple hundred miles north of where Jonah is standing when he heard the command to go preach and he books passage to Spain, which is where Tarshish is located.  It would be like God telling me to go to Boulder and I book passage on a train headed for San Diego.

But this isn’t really about geographical space so much as it is about relational space.  The story tells us on numerous occasions that Jonah is fleeing the presence of God.  And when it says “presence of the Lord” it literally says in Hebrew that Jonah was running from “the face of the Lord.”

When I was a child I got a Daisy BB gun. My parents gave strict rules about what I could shoot with it and what I was forbidden to shoot with it. I couldn’t shoot the windows, chickens, the dog, the cat (maybe the cat), or my little sister. Want to know which of those I shot with my shiny new bb gun? Want to know which one told on me?  And when she started crying like a little girl, I ran as far away from the house as my little legs could carry me.  The last thing I wanted was to see the face of my parents. I wanted relational distance.

Jonah wanted relational space from his heavenly Father as well. He ran from the relationship that ought to have been at his center.

And that journey away from the presence of God inevitably leads to anti-social and anti-God behaviors that only leave damaged souls in our wake.

Recently I re-read Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick. There is a fascinating passage in this story that gets to this fundamental issue of sin. Ishmael is wandering the streets of the whaling village of New Bedford, Massachusetts searching for a ship to take him on a great whaling adventure.  One Sunday he decides to go to church and the preacher is a former whaling harpooner named, Father Mapple:

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

See, in order for our lives to have meaning, it requires disobeying ourselves. And that is hard. So, we run in the opposite direction, for we can’t stay in God’s presence and obey ourselves.

I don’t think of myself as exceptionally “sinful.” I tend to think of myself as faithful, religious, and only need a little tweaking here and there.  But Jonah fled the eyes of the Father and at the same time was a successful prophet of God who no doubt knew more about the bible than I do. When it came to morality, he would beat everyone I know (except my grandchildren and my wife) in a moral inventory.

And yet there was an area of his life that he would not hand over to God. There was a group of people he would prefer going into eternity without grace than him risking his comfortable and predictable lifestyle. If rule-keeping were all there was to be right with God then Jonah was already doing that. If cleaning up your act was all that needed to be done, then Jonah had already done that.

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Jonah needed a conversion, he needed a transformation at the soul level, and he needed a deep experience of grace.  And that is what I need and maybe you do as well.

But how does God do that when Jonah is running as fast as he can away from the Father?  God catches up with Jonah somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea and hurls a storm at him. And when God hurls something, He never misses.

Jonah is thrown into the storm and the very thing he thought would kill him, saves him. Jonah thought that underneath those angry waves was death, but it turns out that underneath those waves was love.

How can you and I be sure that when we are drowning in the storms that we know that God intends for those storms to bring about love?

We have something Jonah did not have. For you see, the story of Jonah points to one greater than Jonah. Hundreds of years after this story was written, Jesus would one day say that this story was a sign of what He came into the world to do.

In Jesus, God would throw himself into the storms of our darkness, dysfunction, and death. And no one would save Jesus, he would go all the way down to death; for you and for me. He did that so we could know, in the moments of our storms—when we feel like we are drowning—that underneath all of those waves is a firm foundation called love.

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A Lament For Two Fathers

And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Malachi 4:6

O Lord, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.
Two fathers have permanently scarred their sons.
Why didn’t you protect those little men from evil?
Lord, the boys are men now—come close and re-form their souls.

Two fathers have permanently scarred their sons.
How do I heal the damage I’ve done?
Lord, the boys are men now—come close and re-form their souls.
One father weeps, and one is still angry.

How do I heal the damage I’ve done?
Why didn’t you protect those little men from evil?
One father weeps and one is still angry.
O Lord, we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.

 

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Lent and Ash Wednesday

Repentance leads to life.

What is Lent? The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word “lengten,” which simply means “spring” — when the days lengthen and new life springs forth. It is a time in which we anticipate the victory of the light and life of Christ over the darkness of sin and death. It is, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, a season of a kind of “happiness and wonder that makes you serious.”

Ash Wednesday is a Christian holiday (holy day) that is not a biblical requirement (just like Christmas and Easter, which are not commanded in Scripture). Nevertheless, it has been honored by Christians for well over ten centuries, falling at the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of preparation for Easter.

In the earliest centuries, Christians who had been stuck in persistent sin had ashes sprinkled on their bodies as a sign of repentance, even as Job repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Around the tenth century, all believers began to signify their need for repentance by having ashes placed on their foreheads in the shape of a cross.

Notice: even this sign of sinfulness hinted at the good news yet to come through its shape. Ash Wednesday is not some dour, depressing holy day because it symbolically anticipates Good Friday and Easter.

How Do We Observe Ash Wednesday?

Today, celebrations of Ash Wednesday vary among churches that recognize this holiday. More and more Protestant and even evangelical churches hold some sort of Ash Wednesday services.

Ashes are placed on the foreheads of worshipers as a reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. The person who imposes the ashes quotes something like what God once said to Adam after he had sinned: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). This is the bad news of our sinfulness that prepares us to receive the good news of forgiveness in Christ.

Why Should We Observe Ash Wednesday?

There is no biblical commandment that requires us to observe Ash Wednesday. Thus, I believe this one of those practices that Christians are free to observe or not to observe. The theological core of Ash Wednesday is, however, shaped by a biblical theology of creation, sin, mortality, death, grace, and salvation.

It also enacts biblical command to “weep with those who weep” and to “confess your sins to one another.”

What I value most about Ash Wednesday is the chance for us all to openly acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness. In a world that often expects us to be perfect, Ash Wednesday gives us an opportunity to freely confess our imperfections.

We can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are. We all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We all stand guilty before a holy God. We all are mortal and will someday experience bodily death. Thus we all need a Savior.

In Genesis 3:14-19 we read,

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

When we come to Genesis 3, we encounter a God who curses! He responds to Adam and Eve’s disobedience and the serpent’s treachery decisively. With the pronouncement of each curse and judgment, there is an undoing or reversal of God’s gracious creative works. Adam, who was created from the dust, is now destined to return back to it. Eve, who was created out of Adam, has now become dominated by him. The serpent, who was more crafty than any of the wild animals, is now humiliated, groveling on its belly, eating dust.

In this chapter, we see that sin has affected all of creation.

This text speaks to our desire to overlook our sins. God does not respond lightly to sin. Death entered the world with sin, and all manner of sorrow, suffering, and despair. But the worst of the curse would fall upon a different man many millennia later as Paul said in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Jesus would take upon himself a curse in order to redeem humanity’s status.

Prayer

Dear Father, I know you cannot take lightly the sins that I commit because you are a God of holiness who loves justice and does not allow evil to go unpunished. But I thank you for your wisdom and mercy in devising a plan that would allow the curse that was rightfully mine to fall upon your Son. In Christ’s Name, Amen.

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Oh, Be Joyful!

…We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Romans 5:11

We who have a covenant relationship with Jesus are organically and spiritually connected to the most joyful being in the universe. That certainly is what a spiritual mentor of mine believed.

Central to the understanding and proclamation of the Christian gospel today, as in Jesus’ day, is a re-visioning of what God’s own life is like and how the physical cosmos fits into it. . . . We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe. – Dallas Willard

We might not usually think of it this way, but I think it’s safe to say Jesus was the life of the party. He was so often in the midst of a celebration that he got in trouble with the religious authorities. They thought he and his disciples did too much feasting and not enough fasting (Luke 5:33–35; 7:34).

Why did people love to be with Jesus? If joy is the experience of being in the presence of someone who is glad to be with us, and if we like being around people who fill us with joy, then people loved being around Jesus because he brought them joy. Jesus was glad to be in the presence of all kinds of people: the sick, the poor, the rejected, and the outcast. And they responded with joy.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three parables about the joy of heaven that flowed through him—the joy of finding the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. This joy of heaven flowed through Jesus to all who had lost hope of being accepted, welcomed or delighted in. When people come into the presence of Jesus—the presence of his joy—they are transformed by it.

Indeed, a main motivator for Jesus was to place his joy in us (John 15:11), a joy that will never be taken away (John 16:22). The joy Jesus gives is the knowledge that God delights in us and longs for us to dwell in his presence.

As theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “If we really think about it, we arrive at a surprising conclusion: Christianity is a unique religion of joy. Faith is living in the Christian feasts,” just as Jesus and his disciples feasted and celebrated.

And yet, Moltmann continues, “the universal symbol of Christianity is the cross, a symbol of pain, suffering, and cruel death. How do these things go together?”

How is the cross connected to joy? Let’s answer this by asking again, Why did Jesus have to die?

Certainly, there is a myriad of reasons.

  • To forgive us.
  • To take our penalty.
  • To free us from death.
  • To defeat the powers and principalities.

All these ways of explaining Jesus’ death begin with overcoming the consequences of sin.

But what if we started with Jesus’ joy? What if we started with God’s joy and delight in us? That God is for us because God longs to be with us.

What if Jesus longed to extend to us the delight and joy he experiences eternally as the Son in the presence of the Father through the Spirit? What if Jesus’ joy was to bring us into the joy he knew in his baptism, when the Spirit rested on him and the Father’s words of delight and approval washed over him?

Offering this joy was the “joy set before him.” Offering this joy to us was the reason Jesus “endured the cross,” bringing us into the joyful presence of the Father through the Spirit.

The apostle Paul declared this very thing:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4–6)

It is our joy to call out to the Father through the Spirit of the Son. And it is the Father’s joy to say over all who live in the Son, “You are my Child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

The celebration of heaven that Jesus told parables about (Luke 15) comes down to earth because of Jesus’ death, because through his body, through his death, we all…rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

As biblical scholar, N. T. Wright says, in Jesus, there has “come about a new union between heaven and earth, with the celebrations of one spilling over necessarily into the celebration of the other.”

This celebration between heaven and earth offers us joy here and now. This joy is no mere happiness receding into the past or pining for the future. It is a joy that remains in the present as we rest in the presence of the one who delights in us, even in the midst of sorrows, pain, and suffering.

Sometimes that joy reveals itself in the melody of a song, the words of a poem, or the laughter of a child. Sometimes it is the simple silence of a quiet moment with a Bible open on your lap. But no matter how it comes, it certainly comes.

As the psalmist says, Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

And so, dear friend, may you always remember that the safest and most joyful place to be is in the nail-scarred hands of the one the Heavenly voiced called Beloved.

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Who’s Laughing Now?

I wrote this blog and posted it on another blog on November 5, 2008, but I wanted to share it here to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.

I was living in Eastland, Texas the first year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in full force.  At that time Texas was not the most integrated State in the land.  I remember specific sections of town being designated “Colored Town.” (That is what polite people called it.)  Sometimes we would drive over the railroad tracks and pass through that part of town and I remembered the houses on stilts with no skirting and lacking paint.  Here and there a car up on blocks with the wheels removed.

For the most part, yards were neat and tidy with bright, colorful clothes hung on the line in the back yards. Old men sat on the front porch—some smoking corn cob pipes, others just sitting in straight back chairs with dazzling white T-shirts, wearing fedora hats. And in my young mind, I felt as if this were not a good thing—this separated place for these people. I couldn’t say it then, for I did not have the language, but it felt oppressive.  It felt unfair.  Like they had done something wrong and living separated was their punishment.

My best friend that year in school was a girl named Victoria. Her desk was right next to mine in Mrs. Smith’s first-grade class.  We had nothing in common. I was a boy and she a girl. (girls were covered in germs back then) She was very good at school. I was an average student. She never got in trouble.  I got in trouble all the time.  I wore plain clothes. She wore bright colors. I was quiet in class. She was outspoken. I desperately wanted to fit in and play with the cool kids at recess. She was content to sit alone and read or jump rope by herself.

The one thing we had in common however was our sense of humor. I remember I could make her laugh. She had an easy and infectious laugh. That was one of the reasons I got in trouble because she would laugh at my silliness. And she was just as funny. We couldn’t play together at recess because boys didn’t play with girls in first grade without some major teasing by the cool kids. But in class—when Mrs. Smith had her back to us—we had a blast. Victoria was a great gal.

On parent /teacher night my mom wanted to meet this Victoria that I chattered so much about. I told her that it would be easy to meet her because she sat next to me. I was hopeful that she would be there that night at the same time we were there. My hopes came true. As my mom and I went into the classroom I took her over to show her my desk and there was Victoria with her mom too!

I turned to my mom and said, “This is Victoria.”

My mom paused.

Then she smiled and bragged to Victoria and her mom about how much I talked about Victoria when I came home from school every day. It’s “Victoria this and Victoria that.  Victoria said this and Victoria said that. Joe just goes on and on about Victoria.”

I remembered Victoria smiling and looking down at her shoes in a bit of awkward shyness. My mom and her mom exchanged some pleasantries. I just smiled at Victoria and she smiled back. But her smile eclipsed mine with her white teeth contrasted against her jet-black skin.

My first-grade class school picture.

Years later my mom reminded me of that night. She said the thing that she was so proud of about that first-grade friendship was the fact that I never mentioned Victoria’s skin color. And that told her that she and my father were doing a good job of raising color blind children in a segregated south.

(I am the one with the ears…back row third from the left. I suppose you can guess which one is Victoria.)

On November 4, 2008, our country elected its first black president. When Barak Obama wowed us with his victory speech I remembered “Colored Town.”  I remembered unpainted and un-skirted houses. I remembered news reports of National Guard troops being sent into volatile places in the south. I remember George Wallace blocking a doorway somewhere. I remember my mom crying when a white man killed Marin Luther King, Jr. I remember the news reporting race riots all over the country.

And now my president is a black man!

When President-elect Obama’s wife came on the stage with their two little girls——I also remembered Victoria.

Now some 43 years later I don’t know where Victoria is…. but I bet she is laughing.

I am laughing too, for change has indeed come. I am proud of our country.

Heavenly Father, please protect our new president and his family. Give him compassion for the unborn and voiceless of this world. Give him the strength to protect the innocent. Close his ears to evil. Give him discernment to be a good steward of the trust and treasury of our great land.  Give him grace and your blessings. Let no evil or harm befall him. Keep him humble and dependent upon You. May you be glorified through our new president.  Amen.

P.S.  I voted for McCain.

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