Saturday, April 4, 2009

Revisiting Landmarks

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

                        John 12.1

Going Back to Move Ahead

Bethany is the final place Jesus visits prior to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Situated on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, it sits just a mile-and-a-half outside the capitol. Travelers often pause there to freshen up, water their animals, and take a deep breath before heading into Jerusalem’s big-city hubbub. Jesus has more in mind than sprucing up, though; His decision to stop at the village comes not by coincidence. He’s altogether aware that once He passes through Jerusalem’s gates, there’s no turning back. He’s always been welcomed and appreciated in Bethany. His dear friends, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, live there. He performed one of His greatest miracles there by restoring Lazarus to life. So Bethany holds many fond memories for Jesus, and in the manner of many facing certain arrest, conviction, and execution, He makes a point of calling on His beloved friends and supporters one last time before walking into destiny. He’s going back to move ahead. Ironically, what happens during His layover there cements His fate.

Open Arms

Obviously, the good people of Bethany haven’t the slightest inkling this is Jesus’s farewell visit. What He’ll soon experience is beyond their imagination. Unlike Nazareth—where He was run out of town after chiding His childhood neighbors and relatives for looking for His wonders rather than listening to His words—any time Jesus comes to Bethany, He’s received with open arms. (This explains why He works miracles there that Nazareth never sees.) Bethany loves Jesus for Who He is, not what He does, and they treat His arrival on this Saturday before Passover as a homecoming event. After sundown brings Sabbath’s end, they give a dinner in His honor. Martha waits table. Lazarus sidles up near Jesus, eager to spend time with the Friend Who gave Him life.

Taking some license with John, it’s easy to envision Mary seated at distance, overcome with emotion while watching the brother she’d lost dining with Jesus. An uncontrollable urge seizes her. She rushes off and returns with her prize possession, a jar of costly perfume. Boldly, as convention frowns on women interrupting male conversation, she pours the fragrance on Christ’s feet and towels them with her hair. Her gesture stuns everyone, none more than Judas, who’s appalled by her excess. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” he asks. Jesus silences Judas’s protest with a rebuke indicating Mary’s lavish gratitude for a past resurrection signals another to come. “Leave her alone,” He says. “She was saving this to anoint My body after death.” Two extraordinary, inextricably linked things coincide in that moment. Judas’s outraged disapproval turns him against Jesus and Jesus predicts His corpse won’t remain lifeless long enough to require preservation. By this time next week, both men will be dead. Only one will rise.

Choosing the Route

So often when facing unfavorable inevitabilities, we withdraw under the impression what’s coming is ours to face alone. We walk in solitude, staring at trials looming ahead, hanging on to every moment before the unavoidable will wait no longer. But here Christ teaches us the importance of choosing the route we take to confront our problems. Before we plunge into ordeals, we should follow His example and take time to return—if not physically, then mentally—to people who love us for who we are and places where we knew God’s power in very real, life-affirming ways. Revisiting landmarks provides invaluable assurance and solace while hazarding our way through future unpredictability and anxiety. Past accomplishments and feats of kindness become touchstones that keep us steady when failure seems likely and cruelty engulfs us. I can’t help but think Jesus looked at Lazarus and saw Himself leaving His own tomb. Possibly even on the cross, staring down as His life’s blood pooled at its base, Lazarus came to mind. In those final moments, confidence in His resurrection held firm if for no other reason than He’d recently reunited with a friend who experienced resurrection.

But revisiting landmarks also achieves two other benefits. The acceptance and gratitude we rediscover there bring clarity to what we will find as we move on. Mary based her offering on the past, yet Christ received it as a promise for the future. And finally, returning to sites of indubitable strength provides contrast we need to separate hangers-on and bad influences from legitimate friends. John says Judas objected to Mary’s generosity “not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief.” Surrounded by genuine love for Jesus, Judas revealed his true colors. Though he stuck with the other disciples until the Passover, his actions in Bethany already belied his loyalty to Christ. In times of trial, the last things we need are so-called friends covertly opposing us. Pausing to reflect on people who prove their faithfulness and devotion again and again often awakens us to reality of those traveling with us. In the end, what began as a homecoming banquet became a going-away celebration. It’s always that way with revisiting landmarks. We go back so we can move ahead.

Lazarus was living proof of Christ’s resurrecting power. (Giotto di Bondone: Raising of Lazarus; circa 1320)

(Tomorrow: In the Name of the Lord)

Postscript: Speaking of Landmarks…

You all heard the news, I’m sure. After supposedly progressive states like California and Arizona expressly vote against Constitutional equality for all, Iowa sneaks up and reaffirms it. I’m happy to leave political opinions to the pundits, religious opinions to the preachers, and personal opinions to the people. But as an American and Midwesterner, I couldn’t possibly let the moment pass without paying tribute to the state next door and its Supreme Court’s commitment to liberty and justice for all. In the words of The Music Man’s author and composer, Meredith Willson, “You really ought to give Iowa a try!”

“Iowa Stubborn” from The Music Man (1962).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Try Me

Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.

                        Psalm 26.2-3 

The Ultimate Test

On the brink of Holy Week, we who’ve struggled with Lenten fasts may be tempted to think of it as the home stretch, the last few days of sacrifice to endure. We see the wilderness’s edge and can’t wait to cross it. But here is where our attention turns from Jesus’s elective desert trek of self-denial to His surrender to God’s will. Right about now, He starts to realize rejection, injustice, and brutality He’s anticipated all along are imminently unavoidable. Jesus fixes His thoughts and discipline on gathering strength and courage to withstand what awaits Him: feckless praise; disloyalty among His closest friends; political and religious maneuvers; unlawful arrest; a roundelay from court to court; public scorn and outcry for His execution; inhumane torture and mockery; sadistic murder; anonymous burial in a borrowed tomb; and, worst of all, repeated blows of feeling He’s misplaced trust in a Father Who doesn’t care and isn’t there.

Yes, Jesus knows 10 days from now He’ll rise in eternal triumph over sin and death. He’s even shared this knowledge with His disciples, telling them in Luke 9.22: “[I] must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Being God, He knows He will come through this final wilderness, as He did with the first one. He will overcome its physical and mental torments and climactic temptations to abandon His mission and save Himself. What the divine Jesus sees, however, surely terrifies the mortal One. Unlike the rest of us, who are blessed to enter trials unaware of their specifics and extremes, Jesus is cursed with vividly explicit foreknowledge of coming events. He’s facing the ultimate test, the moment He’ll prove all He asks us to do—returning love for hatred, acquitting false accusers, and laying down our lives—can humanly be done.

Out of Earshot

The first part of the week proceeds with business as usual. Jesus enters Jerusalem with tremendous ovation and teaches in the synagogue. Meanwhile, background conspiracies take shape. By Thursday’s Passover dinner, it’s obvious His fate is sealed. He takes the disciples to the Mount of Olives to pray, but after they settle on a spot, Jesus leaves them—“about a stone’s throw beyond them,” Luke 22.41 reports—to kneel out of earshot. He confesses reluctance to be tested, yet He releases His desires in submission to God’s will. The answer comes by way of an angel administering strength to Jesus. The test will be taken. In verse 44, Luke says, “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Sopping wet with anxiety, Jesus leaves His knees and rises to the occasion, fully reconciled to face the coming ordeal.

Trial by Request

What often gets lost in our admiration of Christ’s obedience to God’s plan is how it inherently redefines the abuses He subsequently suffers. Telling His Father to do with Him as He wills strips Jesus’s adversaries of their menace and authority; it turns their conspiracy into His trial by request. He asks God to try Him: “Not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42) Clearly, this isn’t easy, given His emotional and physical reaction. What’s more, Jesus’s decision to pray out of His disciples’ hearing suggests concern about how the conversation might go; as a human, like all of us, He possesses the right to refuse. Reaching a place He can deliberately ask to prove Himself, though, alters the test. It transforms His enemies from overpowering haters working their agenda into unknowing allies of God’s will, bit players in an epic drama they start but can’t control or comprehend.

Among the many lessons Lent’s voluntary self-denial teaches, perhaps its most important comes at this pivotal moment on the Mount. Lent is ultimately a trial by request. We mount a symbolic fast to grasp the power and assurance won by asking to be tested. “Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth,” David prays in Psalm 26. “Try me” puts trials in an entirely different perspective. People intent on our defeat become unwitting aides in our success. Weaknesses they hope to exploit are answered by strengths we prove. 

The thought of asking for tests makes us break out in cold sweats. But, like Jesus, if we pray this earnestly, we’ll rise to the occasion, strengthened for what’s coming and alert to what enduring trials truly means. Tests we request have nothing to do with those who give them. They examine what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "the content of our character," the faith and values housed in our hearts and minds. When we enter trials with the mindset that, in and of themselves, they're answers to prayer, they always end with proof God’s love stays before us when we walk continually in His truth.

By submitting to God’s will, Jesus asks to be tested. This changes the terms and conditions of the test.

(Tomorrow: Revisiting Landmarks)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gentle, Obviously

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.

                        Philippians 4.5

A Gentle Giant

I’m not a “born” pastor’s kid. I entered the world the son of a machinist and nurse, both devout Christians in Birmingham, Alabama. Soon after, a strike closed my father’s workplace. It dragged on for months, and out of concern about providing for my mother and me, Dad moved us to Chicago. We settled in a Southside neighborhood called “Canaryville,” a common landing spot for Southern émigrés. It quickly became clear Canaryville and Birmingham were worlds apart. Problems discretely dealt with down South—substance and spousal abuse, runaway children, teen pregnancy, and so on—were public matters. At first, my folks joined an established Pentecostal church a half-hour away. But as they learned of their neighbors’ troubles, they became convinced the neighborhood needed a lighthouse, a haven within reach of the battered souls around them. They prayed for guidance. It took a few years before the call finally came.

Actually, the call came before I was born. As a teenager, my mom heard God beckoning her to ministry. Fear of rejection as a woman preacher caused her to bury her gifts, however. Now, over 10 years later, a second call came—this time with such force she couldn’t escape it. Yet her obedience teetered on Dad’s accepting the call also. He didn’t blink. While Mom devoted her days and nights to study, prayer, and outreach into neglected communities, Dad supported her emotionally, prayerfully, and also financially by keeping his full-time job. Together, they built a congregation of families and young people distressed by poverty, drug addiction, abusive parents, educational challenges, gang life, mental instability, and spiritual hunger. Our house became a hiding place for dozens on dozens seeking shelter from inner city turmoil. (My brother and I once started a list of everyone who lived with us at some point. We quit at 50.) And though Mom took the dynamic lead, Dad’s quiet tenderness and care always reassured those they helped that our church, our home, and our hearts were safe and trustworthy places. He was—and is—in every respect a gentle giant.


This lengthy personal background comes after recently opening Philippians to read, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” My father has exemplified this to me all of my life. By nature, he’s an easy-going guy with the patience of a saint. But ask anyone about his Christian witness, and gentleness is the first to get mentioned. Whether you’ve just met him or known him for decades, it’s evident. There’s no mistaking it for a lesser quality like politeness, or a weakness like passivity. Evident gentleness brings with it pronounced compassion and strength. It displays God’s love and faithfulness in a decidedly human fashion that no one can dismiss and everyone can appreciate. Who in his right mind prefers unprovoked hostility to unsolicited gentleness? Who doesn’t recognize a gentle response is by far a riskier, more demanding gesture than blunt indifference or harsh frankness? Gentleness is a powerful trait. Its subtlety conveys innumerable other virtues—such as respect, concern, and acceptance—that sometimes appear disingenuous when explicitly expressed.

Gentle People

True believers are gentle people. In Galatians 5.22, Paul lists gentleness as a fruit of the Spirit. We produce it. It grows out of God’s presence in us and ripens in open view. Many of us demur from using it, though. Cultural conditioning trains us to regard gentle people dimly, as non-ambitious and unimaginative—harmless, but useless. Because they don’t jump at the chance to show off or stand their ground, we write them off as too weak-kneed to succeed in our overly competitive world. That’s a mistake. But we also make another mistake, one that affects us more directly, when applying this logic to matters of faith.

When challenged—by non-believers and fellow Christians—about our confidence in God’s acceptance and right to believe, competitive instincts are the first to rise. Walking with Christ is the most treasured aspect of our lives. We’re naturally compelled to defend and protect it. These are the most crucial times to hear Paul: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” They provide us wonderful chances to prove our faith by action rather than word. I love Paul’s advice about handling faith skirmishes. “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments,” he writes in 2 Timothy 2.23-26, “because they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” In all we do, we must be gentle, obviously.

Telling the Philippians this, Paul attaches a coda—“The Lord is near,” a not-so-subtle reminder the hour of His coming is unknown. We don’t know how long we have. Nothing is assured. Whether we die an hour from now or live many years to come, if the Second Coming occurs next Monday or millennia from now, we’ve no time for squandering opportunities to make our gentleness evident to all.

My mom, the dynamo, and my dad, the gentle giant who supports her.

(Tomorrow: Try Me)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.

                        Genesis 6.9

Sin City

We imagine Noah as the Old Testament’s Disney hero, a sweet old guy who built a floating menagerie that saved all God’s creatures to live happily ever after. Sunday-school cartoons and movies like The Bible feed this fairy tale by depicting Noah’s world as a pastoral place—if not Eden, fairly close to it. In these laundered versions, he’s an eccentric whose neighbors get their kicks watching him construct the ark. But nothing in Scripture suggests Noah inhabited a sunny, G-rated world; everything places him in a filthy, faithless Sin City.

According to Genesis 6.11, “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.” A few verses above, it says wickedness was so widespread and God’s pain so intense He regretted creating us. Jesus describes Noah’s era as one of debauchery, when people grew so indifferent toward how their self-gratification angered God “they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” (Matthew 24.39) 2 Peter 2.6 lumps them with the exiled angels—Lucifer’s crowd—and Sodom and Gomorrah’s would-be rapists. So if we’re at all interested in understanding Noah, we should erase our image of him as a lovable kook to see him as the Bible does: a tough-minded individual untainted by corruption and unmoved by popular mindsets—a righteous man.

Blinded by Knowledge

One might think a flood sparing only eight survivors (Mr. and Ms. Noah, their three sons, and their wives) would sober humanity forever. Suppose we even concede to scientific and secular literalism, granting The Flood never happened and Noah’s story is a fable. Still, it’s a cautionary fable born of very real need to deliver an urgent message. Its prominence—in the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic accounts of Noah, as well as similar tales in polytheist writings and legends—informs us the warning is universal. The narratives differ, but the moral remains the same: a society’s obliviousness to spiritual principles inevitably ends in its complete oblivion. Given this deeply imbedded awareness in the collective unconscious, questioning The Flood’s factuality becomes ridiculously obtuse. The bigger question is when will we learn?

Better still, can we learn? Apparently not. After Noah, we’ve seen countless cultures wiped out by corruption and violence, always paying the ultimate price for their greed—more land, more wealth, more pleasure, more status, more, more, more. Not for nothing did Paul write, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6.10) Yet it seems one bite from the forbidden tree left us forever blinded by knowledge. We look at Noah and other stories of social destruction, and instead of seeing their wisdom, we envision ourselves as smarter, further advanced than the reckless sods who drowned in seas of self-indulgence. We ignore why Noah’s character and obedience lifted him above The Flood, thinking we know how to stave off consequences of our greed. Rather than conform to our Maker’s standards, we fabricate levees of ethical rules and regulations to withstand devastation unleashed by our insatiable cravings. We never learn the levees always break. Like Noah’s neighbors, blindness to what’s coming results in getting swept away by a deluge we brought on ourselves.

Rise with the Tide

You don’t have to be a global leader or socioeconomic genius to realize our levees are failing once again. They’re riddled with cracks and groaning with pressures we can’t alleviate. While politicians and experts at London’s G20 meeting sweat out an intervention strategy, the truly smart thing to do is to remember Noah. Genesis 6.9 sums him up in two phrases. He was blameless among the people and walked with God. The Bible offers no better definition of righteousness, the sole survival criterion when and if the levees give. At this stage, no one person or group possesses enough wisdom to contain the ever-widening sweep headed our way. Yet we each hold the key to rising above it. As Proverbs 11.23 says, “The desire of the righteous ends only in good, but the hope of the wicked only in wrath.”

Answers won’t surface at the G20. Solutions to terrorism, financial ruin, and social decay won’t land on negotiating tables, spreadsheets, or city streets. All we’re scrambling after exists in God’s Word if we’ll stop thinking and start believing. Here’s what Hebrews 11.7 says about Noah: “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” We make righteousness our primary business. Blameless behavior is essential. Walking with God is vital. Enraged by the corruption and violence in Noah’s time, He declared, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever.” (Genesis 6.3) Have we reached a similar point of pushing too hard, straying too far? If so, a flood is surely coming and only the righteous will rise with the tide.

Will we—can we—ever learn greed-spawned corruption and violence always unleash floods of destruction? And when they come, only the righteous rise above them.

(Tomorrow: Gentle, Obviously)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In Mouth and Heart

The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.

                        Romans 10.8

Repeat and Rinse

“The word” Paul proclaims to the Romans is the word of faith, which he defines in the next verse: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Like millions of Fundamentalist youngsters, Romans 10.9 was drilled into my head as the single-scripture synopsis of God’s “plan of salvation.” Being a kid, it sounded fairly straightforward—a two-step protocol requiring little thought or effort. Confess and believe, and you’re good to go. With age, however, I’m convinced salvation is a process, less a one-time implementation of confess-and-believe than a recurring cycle of rinse-and-repeat—or, more accurately, repeat-and-rinse.

What do I mean? Repeated confession of Christ’s Lordship reinforces our faith and spiritual security. Knowing Jesus is Lord of all—that, as John 1.3 teaches, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”—isn’t enough. It’s vital we speak this truth, particularly when life offers no alternative to trusting His grace and power. (Of course, since trust in Christ is always the best option, we’re wise to consider it our only option.) Repeatedly confessing He’s Lord in less taxing moments is crucial because it rehearses us to voice our faith when trials come. We keep the word of faith in our mouths.

Still, confession absent genuine faith can't save us. Jesus alerts us to this in Matthew 7.21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” And Hebrews 11.6 reminds us “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.” Here’s where “rinse” comes in. Human logic, natural law, and tempting ideas flood us with reasonable doubts. For starters, neither science nor history offers any proof of the resurrection; believing God raised Jesus to life is—frankly—irrational. Yet a dead Jesus is a defeated Lord, which makes confessing and following Him twice as nonsensical. So we rinse our minds of reasoning to open our hearts to God’s power. We pray with David in Psalm 51.10: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” We keep the word of faith in our hearts.


Openly declaring Christ’s Lordship and dismissing all evidence against His resurrection demands outrageous audacity. Our carnal side urges us to resist these requirements in fear we’ll be ridiculed as fanatical idiots. And make no mistake: we're surrounded by “smart” people who can’t imagine how and why we allow such crazy notions to govern our lives. They surrounded Roman believers too, which is why Paul dispels their worries about humiliation in verse 11 by quoting Isaiah: “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Instead of resisting salvation’s process, we build up resistance to non-believers' condemnation and shame. Let the scoffers scoff. Let the doubters doubt. The word is in our mouths and hearts. It’s eternally true and when we confess and trust it, we have no cause for embarrassment. Indeed, proclaiming Christ’s Lordship and believing He lives gives us—especially those bruised by religious and social bigotry—every reason to hold our heads high.

Lord of All

Paul closes his paragraph on the plan of salvation with added stress on Isaiah’s use of “anyone.” In verses 12-13 he writes, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for”—and here he quotes the prophet Joel—“’Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Jesus is Lord of all. He’s your Lord. He’s my Lord. He saves everyone who calls on Him. If only we could let the totality of what this means sink into the marrow of our beings, we’d confess His Lordship night and day, believe in His resurrection without a shadow of doubt, and pity anyone foolish enough to ridicule us. The word of faith is true and final. It can’t be revised, refuted, or rescinded. It’s near us—in our mouths and hearts. We must speak it. We must believe it.


(Tomorrow: Noah)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Daily Denial

Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

                        Luke 9.23

A Moment of Decision

Jesus and the disciples pull away from His public following to pray. During their private time together, Jesus asks, “Who do the crowds say I am?” The disciples report various things they’ve heard. Some people confuse Him for John the Baptist. Others think He’s Elijah, the Old Testament hero transported directly to Heaven without dying. He’s also rumored to be the reincarnation of one of several ancient prophets. When Jesus poses His next question—“What about you? Who do you say I am?”—only Peter speaks up. “You’re the Christ,” he says. Jesus warns them not to repeat Peter’s confession; publicizing His Messianic claim will trigger outrage and trouble from the religious authorities. He suggests His true identity will eventually surface anyway, predicting He’ll “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law,” which will lead to His execution and resurrection.

Jesus pauses for the disciples to absorb what He’s said. Until now, they’ve seen Him as one of several itinerant prophets and healers in Palestine. And they’ve viewed themselves as His handpicked entourage, an honor and privilege to be sure, but basically no more or less than any other disciple band trailing a preacher. Learning Who Jesus really is and what’s in store for Him changes everything. Aware they’re too stunned to consider the implications this information holds for them, Jesus spells things out. The truth of the moment segues into a moment of decision. “If you stay with Me, daily you’ll have to deny yourself and take personal ownership for choosing to follow Me.”


Speaking to His disciples today, Christ might say, “The popularity and excitement we’ve enjoyed so far are about to end. We’re headed for tough times, as crowds turn on us and critics marshal forces against us. Either you’re all-in or you’re out. If you can’t forget what you want to shoulder responsibility for sticking with Me day in and day out, there’s no use hanging around.” As modern believers, we need to hear Jesus loud and clear, because Who He truly is and what His death and resurrection truly mean are no less problematic or upsetting to the masses and authorities in 2009 than when He walked the Earth.

Churches are packed with people eager to be seen with Christ, many of them hoping to benefit from His presence in some shape or form. Yet while they clamor for His mercy, healing, protection, and so on, their belief in His Lordship is so shaky they abandon Him the instant His principles prove too inconvenient or unpopular to practice. They kowtow to influential leaders, including religious figures, whose bondage to legal and cultural tradition straps their capacity to embrace Jesus as Christ—God Incarnate, Who loves and accepts all, died and rose for all, and holds exclusive title as Judge of all. Consequently, following Jesus remains for us an all-in or out proposition based on daily denying the comfort of what pleases us to take up the cross of what pleases Him.

Obedience, Not Sacrifice

Always, and especially during the Lenten season, it’s essential to remember self-denial is an act of obedience, not sacrifice. By definition, sacrifice is voluntarily exchanging a valuable we possess for a valuable we need, the classic example being animal offerings given to receive forgiveness of sin in return. Self-denial, on the other hand, is submission to Christ’s authority—the “higher power” so many claim to believe in, yet so few actually obey. We make a daily habit of setting aside attitudes, actions, and desires contrary to Christ’s example and teaching because of Who He is. And we assume personal responsibility for reflecting His identity to the world.

Romans 8.29 says after calling us to fulfill His purpose, God “predestined [us] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” You and I are whom Jesus referred to by saying, “If anyone would come after me.” We’re among the many brothers and sisters that follow Him, an unbroken succession of Christian facsimiles lining the corridor of time. Each of us comes into the world perfectly created in God’s image for His purpose. How well we retain His likeness and realize His intention, however, are left to us. If we genuinely desire to stand in the line of Christ’s true followers, daily denial of traits and tendencies that distort His image is the cross we must bear.

Self-denial maintains our reflection of Christ’s image and secures our place in the long line of His followers.

(Tomorrow: In Mouth and Heart)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mysterious Ways

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

                        Isaiah 40.28 


In 1779, the British psalmist William Cowper published an anthology of poems that included “Light Shining Out of Darkness.” The first stanza reads: “God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) was well acquainted with life’s turbulence. Chronic bouts of depression shuttled him in and out of insane asylums, which were little more than holding tanks for people incapacitated by mental disorders. Mystery shrouded their conditions and what caused them, leaving their attempted cures rooted in superstition rather than science. Physicians in Cowper’s day diagnosed depression as “melancholia,” a symptom of bile-polluted “black blood” typically treated with bleedings. At best, the therapy temporarily calmed patients’ anxieties by making them too weak to worry. But as their physical strength returned, their darkness accompanied it.

Cowper managed his depression by embracing God’s will—a mystery far greater and more impenetrable than his disease. Bereft of reasons for his suffering or means to eliminate it, he summoned faith to explain and ease it. His poem drew on God’s declaration in Isaiah 55.9: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” When dark storms buffeted him, Cowper anchored himself by knowing he couldn’t know why God allowed his troubles. Yet concession to God’s elusive purpose built the poet’s confidence in His inescapable presence in his depths of depression and His incomparable power to carry him safely through each storm. Although Cowper couldn’t explain this any better than his struggles, faith and experience taught him difficulties we can’t control or comprehend are the mysterious ways God works wonders we can’t imagine.

Don’t You Know?

Only fools expect to sail through life on tranquil seas. Without warning, we get swept into violent currents with dangerous undertows threatening to drag us under. At other times, we spot dreadful tumults on the horizon. We may try to avoid them by stalling in hopes they’ll dissipate. When they don’t, we steady our nerves, steel our faith, and steer through them. Like Cowper, we counter natural impulse to ask, “Why? Why? Why?” with unnatural trust in God’s mysterious ways of performing marvelous wonders. We can stare at looming trouble and rely on human instinct to navigate it, or we can dare to look into God’s Word, where answers we can’t see on our own are plainly visible in black and white.

“Don’t you know?” Isaiah challenges us. “Haven’t you heard? God is everlasting.” He survives. He’s the Creator of the ends of the earth, Isaiah says. Nothing in the world—no problem, power, or person—is beyond His reach and outside His jurisdiction. After His transformation from mortal human to resurrected Christ, Jesus tells His followers “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and leaves them with this promise: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28.18, 20) When He enters trouble with us, any doubt we’ll come out alive is moot. We stop trembling in panic at the storm and rest in confidence as we watch Him work.

Tireless and Unfathomable

Some storms seem too relentless to end. They batter us past the point of exhaustion. Left to us, their ferocity would carry us off to be lost at sea or drowned beneath. But our storms are God’s media for miracles, and according to Isaiah, He’s as tireless in His methods as His mind is unfathomable. He doesn’t give up until He finishes what He intended by creating storms to guide us through. His reasoning is too deep to delve, yet we invariably survive storms with more knowledge, experience, and faith than we possessed before we faced them. We always come out awestruck by what God does for us—and through us—during the storm.

Cowper’s storms produced dozens of timeless hymns that strengthen believers to this day. It’s highly unlikely he imagined the far-reaching impact his poems would have as he put pen to paper. Quite possibly, he left this life never knowing the full extent of why he suffered. Centuries later, however, we clearly recognize God’s purpose. All Cowper knew was God moves in mysterious ways, and rather than allow man’s solution for his depression to bleed him dry, he dealt with it by moving as God moves. We’ll never completely know why trouble comes or all of what will come out of it. But when God moves mysteriously, moving with Him is the safest, sanest option we have.

After opening yesterday’s post with a Beatles reference, I’m reluctant to finish today’s with U2’s “Mysterious Ways” video. Yet it speaks directly to embracing the mystery of God’s ways by encouraging a guy named Johnny to follow his sister’s example of moving as His Spirit moves.

(Tomorrow: Daily Denial)