Saturday, April 11, 2009

Surely

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

                        Isaiah 53.4-5

 

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.

                        Isaiah 26.3

Gone

Last week a friend and I discussed how our thoughts kept drifting to Natasha Richardson’s accidental death. It seemed oddly haunting, we said, since neither of us was an ardent fan. We admired her, but our feelings were less about the premature loss of a talented actress than the tragically abrupt absence of a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and niece. “How devastated all the amazing people in her family must be,” my friend said. Days later, learning I’d lost a good friend and reader to suicide, it was déjà vu all over again—except this time I belonged to his online family. We joined hands across the ether, encircling the huge hole he left in the world. We understood why; his emotional and physical pain had become insufferable. Still, we struggled to accept Lee was gone.

Encountering two recent departures—one from an objective remove, the other up close and personal—repeatedly steers my thoughts about The Passion to the disciples. They’re together as usual for Thursday’s Passover feast. Yes, ominous tension crackles in the air and it ends with Judas rushing off to betray Christ. Yet even that can’t prepare them for how swiftly and irrevocably their lives change. Jesus is arrested after dinner. Peter, in a dumb show of loyalty, attacks an officer; hours later, he denies he knows Christ. Jesus endures a night of savage torture and humiliation. Friday morning flies by in a blur of legal wrangling, as Jesus shuttles through three pro forma hearings. Pilate sends Him to Herod, Herod sends Him back; with neither taking responsibility for His fate, He’s sentenced to death by popular verdict. By three o’clock, it’s over. One imagines His followers gathered at sundown for Sabbath seder, staring in shock at the huge hole in their world. They understand why Jesus was killed. Still, they can’t accept He’s gone.

Sudden Grief and Immediate Fear

It’s instructive to remember Jesus’s followers are laypeople, many no doubt illiterate and none notably agile to connect the past 24 hours’ events with written prophecy. Scripture was Jesus’s expertise. Their job was to listen and believe. Answers to questions and balm for sorrow exist, much of it in Isaiah. Without Jesus’s guidance, though, they remain hidden. On top of this, consider the disciples’ state of mind. They have no idea if Jesus’s murder appeases the authorities and masses, or if their lives are also endangered. The combination of sudden grief and immediate fear is paralyzing. Peace eludes them completely.

Had they looked to Isaiah, they would have found much-needed strength to penetrate their sorrows and anxieties with faith. Reading chapter 53, they’d realize everything, down to the tiniest detail, adheres to a divine plan revealed eight centuries earlier. “Surely,” Isaiah wrote, “He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Witnessing the crucifixion in person—intimately knowing and loving the brutally disfigured Savior in life—surely stamps its horrors forever in the disciples’ memories. Yet just as surely, Isaiah explains God designed His plan expressly to alleviate their anxieties, relieve their sorrows, remedy their sins, and heal their suffering. Then, turning back to chapter 26, they’d discover peace they sorely need comes by rejecting fear and learning to trust. “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you,” it says.

A Monument of Mercy

Knowing what’s coming makes Holy Week’s Saturday a lost day, a sort of idle intermission between main events. But suppose we put ourselves in the disciples’ shoes, imagining how stricken and terrified they must have been. Let’s think of how their day was riddled with traumatically vivid flashbacks between blind stretches of panic. Now, let’s open Isaiah. The picture totally changes. The cross’s splendor rises out of its hideousness. It becomes a monument of mercy, where we exchange our worst for Christ’s best. He takes our weaknesses and gives us courage. He carries our sorrows and clothes us in comfort. Our sinfulness pierces Him; He shields us with His forgiveness. He trades peace beyond our means for punishment we rightfully deserve. Healing flows out of His injuries. All of these blessings are there for the taking, if we can reject fear and learn to trust. In John 14.27, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do no let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” A steadfast mind brings perfect peace. Surely, that’s Calvary’s legacy to us. Surely, we can accept and believe it.

Calvary's splendor can only be seen through faith found in God's Word.

(Tomorrow: Teacher!)

Friday, April 10, 2009

At Just the Right Time

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.

                        Romans 5.6

Look, the Lamb of God!

When Jesus leaves home to commence His ministry, He goes to be baptized by His cousin, John, who baptizes followers as an induction rite into his Messianic sect. From all appearances, it seems Jesus intends to be baptized as John’s disciple as well. But the Baptist sees Him approaching and announces, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29) He tells his followers, “This is Who I’ve been telling you about, the One I promised would come.” The moment John's waited for his entire adult life arrives at last.

The day following Christ’s baptism—during which God the Father and Holy Spirit confirm His divinity—John meets Jesus while walking with two disciples. Again, he says, “Look, the Lamb of God!” John’s followers change their course without hesitation to follow the Lord. They invite themselves to spend the day with Him. Late in the afternoon, one of them, Andrew, interrupts the visit to find his brother, Simon Peter. “We have found the Messiah,” he tells Peter and brings him to Jesus. Things fall into place rapidly; in a matter of days, Jesus assembles a core group of disciples who instantly abandon their livelihoods and homes to go with Him. There’s no planned itinerary. No religious organization or charity subsidizes Jesus’s work. The disciples sign on without completely knowing what His mission's about, what it will demand, and where it will lead. They have no idea in three years they’ll stand beneath a cross, helpless, horrified, and grief-stricken, as their Master, the Lamb of God, dies to take away the sin of the world.

Hard to Conceive

Living in civilization’s most free, advanced, and prosperous period (to date), it's hard to conceive how readily the disciples—with Mary Magdalene as well as perhaps another two to three dozen unnamed men and women—abruptly leave families, quit jobs, and forget personal ambitions to follow Jesus in blind faith. On the other hand, in this era of pervasive evil, gross inhumanity, and global communication, it’s equally hard to conceive why God chose first-century Palestine as the optimal time and place to enter, and forever alter, our story. Yet placing both of these impressions in perspective gets us to the answer.

Jesus appears when, for the first time in history, one empire occupies and rules the entire Western world. Caesar’s legions have conquered every nation on the map, and no group feels more impotent and oppressed by Rome than the Jews. Hardscrabble life under pagan dictatorship holds little promise. Hope for the promised Deliverer runs high. Leaving everything to follow Christ asks an enormous price but takes minimal thought. It also invites great risk. In this smaller, slower world, a band of devotees rousing public interest in a new King draws ongoing attention on a scale unimaginable in our culture of information overload and short attention spans. In 1 A.D. Palestine, however, everything He does and threats He poses to the Roman and religious regimes are major news.

Powerless

These factors are part of what Paul means when writing, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Jesus’s entrance couldn’t have been more timely, nor His death more perfectly planned to reach an angst-ridden generation and irrevocably shake the world's foundations. From first to last, He described His purpose by linking its profound implications for each believer with its global impact. “I came,” He basically tells Nicodemus in John 3.16, “to redeem the world one-by-one.” In John 16.33, He explains we all will experience personal problems. “But take heart,” He says, “I have overcome the world.” And just prior to His ascension, He tells the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) But Calvary's inheritance, its personal relevance and worldwide reach, transcend fixed dates and sites. In Paul's view, "the right time" is also the moment each individual recognizes his/her powerlessness and claims Christ's gift of grace. In 2 Corinthians 6.2, after citing a Messianic prophecy of acceptance in Isaiah, he's very insistent about this: "I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." It's always just the right time.

Today, as we reflect on The Passion in all its brutality and majesty, let’s move the cross from its ancient setting to our personal past. Whether decades ago or yesterday, each of us has gone to Calvary. Like the disciples, we stood helpless, horrified, and grief-stricken, as we beheld the Lamb of God surrendering His life for our salvation. We came to the cross because we were powerless, oppressed by unwelcome influences in a world without hope. We bowed in shameful sorrow, trusting in Christ’s forgiveness and acceptance. We believed His promise in John 6.37 with our entire beings: “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” 

Roman and religious conspirators executed the historical Jesus nearly 2000 years ago. But Christ the Redeemer defies time and space. Calvary exists for the ages, calling any and everyone away from weakness and despair. The cross stands, will always stand, as love's pinnacle, where the powerless receive life-changing strength and the oppressed find world-changing hope. Day after day, minute after minute, souls in need come to Calvary and discover neither its power nor beauty even slightly diminished by centuries of human history. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us.

The cross stands, will always stand, as love's pinnacle for the powerless and oppressed.

(Tomorrow: Surely)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Broken

When he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

                        1 Corinthians 11.24

Born to Break

The King James Version of 1 Corinthians 11.24 slightly alters Christ’s statement. But it’s a rich enhancement. There, He says, “This is my body, which is broken for you,” stressing a one-to-one correlation: as bread is broken, so the body of Christ is broken. The double emphasis adds profound nuance to why God elected to dwell with us in flesh. Surely He had other means. He could have pronounced His New Order via a phenomenon like the burning bush. He could have revealed it by prophetic edict. Using the physical body as His redemptive medium suggests He intended to be broken—the Christ Child was born to break. Of course, we say; He laid on the cross’s altar as the final sacrifice for sin. But equating sacrifice with breaking mixes metaphors and misses the beauty of the bread. If Jesus were speaking of sacrifice, wouldn’t He have cited the Paschal lamb, the Passover meat offering? He’s specifically talking about His body as bread. The reference is more than a precursor to His death. It points to our life. “This is my body, which is for you,” He says.

Hungry No More

In John 6.35, Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.” Unbroken bread appeals to our senses. It looks and smells lovely and feels warm and substantial in our hands. But without breaking, bread’s value is fleeting. It must be ruined—torn open, pulled to pieces, and consumed—to experience its true benefits. The broken body of Christ is no different. It enables us to enjoy and experience the life He gives. His blood brings our atonement. This is why Jesus tells the disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22.20) Hebrews 9.22 confirms this: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” The new promise of God’s mercy is in Christ’s blood. But His body is broken to grant us life.

“If you come to me,” Jesus says, “you’ll be hungry no more.”  The breaking of the Bread of Life nourishes us twice—in this existence and the next. In John 10.10, Jesus defines His mission very succinctly, saying, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” And every Sunday school student can quote His definition of God’s plan: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3.16) The sacramental bread we eat—the broken body of Christ—endows us to live fully now and assures us we’ll live again. We take the bread in remembrance of Jesus’s willingness to be broken. Yet we also cherish its reminder that Christ’s breaking fully ourhunger for life, now and forever.

In the Body

Paul writes in Galatians 2.20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Being crucified with Christ means being broken with Him. We set aside concerns about appearances and appeal to give Him free access to our minds, hearts, and spirits. We allow ourselves to be ruined—torn open, pulled to pieces, and consumed—by His Spirit. The life we live, we live by faith. We look beyond what we see. We believe what we can’t prove. While unbroken minds crave definitive knowledge and evidence, we trust in Christ, who loved us and gave Himself to be broken for us. While they wrestle with “the meaning of life,” we live. We live confidently now because we have absolute confidence Jesus suffered and died so we can live forever.

On this Maundy Thursday, Christians everywhere will commemorate the Lord’s Supper in services expressly focused on the sacramental elements. Sadly, the vast majority will gloss over the nuances differentiating the bread from the wine, reducing them to: bread = body; wine = blood. They’ll quickly combine them to equal sacrifice. And, basically, they’re correct. The breaking of His body and shedding of His blood both contributed to His death. Yet each element also carries unique meaning we shouldn’t overlook. His shed blood brings our full, eternal forgiveness of sin. His broken body provides our full, eternal life. “This cup is for you. This bread is for you,” He says. We are forgiven. We have life.

Only after bread is broken can we experience its benefits.

(Tomorrow: At Just the Right Time)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Stooping to Greatness

No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

                        John 13.16

A Motley Crew

Sometimes when reading the Gospels and straining for a realistic picture of their scenes and players, I have to chuckle, if only because the disciples were a genuinely motley crew—a mismatched assortment of rejects and rebels pretty much up for anything. They’re made up of a couple fishermen, a few with unrecorded occupations, a tax collector, and two activists. Although their backgrounds vary, they don’t seem too worried with where they sleep, what they eat, where they’ve been, or where they’re going. We know cash is a rare commodity, because at one point they’re too broke to pay the temple tax. (Matthew 17.24-27) One assumes their wardrobes are limited to what’s on their backs and take quite a beating from non-stop travel. They’re also not the most mannerly of men. Peter is hot-tempered and impulsive. James and John are so rowdy Jesus nicknames them “Sons of Thunder.” (Mark 3.17) And in Matthew 15, the scribes and Pharisees are appalled they don’t clean up before dinner, a breach of religious custom no doubt made twice as alarming by their bathing only when facilities became available. It’s fair to think the haloed, holy apostles of Christian iconography bear little resemblance the grungy guys in Jesus’s “posse.” Beautiful and brilliant though Leonardo's Last Supper is, the diners at his table look a lot cleaner and better dressed than the unkempt, shaggy crowd that very likely assembled for Jesus's final Passover celebration.

A Lowly Task

As the Passover meal is served, Jesus does something rather surprising. He strips down and washes each disciple’s feet. Foot washing is a common practice on entering a home, a basic essential to keeping out the dust and grime off the streets. But it’s also a lowly task left to servants or hostesses. Men don’t wash other men’s feet. Yet here’s Christ, on His knees, tending to His disciples’ filthy, calloused, sweaty feet. When Jesus gets to Peter, he balks. “Are you going to wash my feet?” he asks. The idea of his Master lowering Himself to that level shocks and disturbs Peter. Jesus tells him he doesn’t understand it now, but he’ll get it later. That’s not good enough for Peter. He absolutely refuses. “You’ll never wash my feet!” He tries Jesus’s patience. “Unless I wash you,” He answers, “you’ll have no part of me.” (John 13.18) That makes all the difference. Peter replies, “Don’t stop with my feet, then. Wash my hands and my head, too—clean me up top to bottom!”

Setting an Example

Jesus finishes with everyone, including Judas, a fact we shouldn’t overlook. He redresses and asks if they understand what He’s just done. Allowing how utterly unusual it is—bizarre, really, since His washing their feet shatters several deeply ingrained taboos—it’s a good guess the disciples are too aghast to think about what it means. “You call me your Teacher and Lord, and I’ve humbled Myself to wash your feet. Now that I’ve done it, you should do wash each other’s feet. I’m setting an example.” The motley crew glances down the line, probably thinking, “Him, yes; him, maybe; him, not a chance. And that one? Are you kidding?” The very idea must freak them out. Men don’t wash other men’s feet! Like many times before, Jesus’s example falls so far beyond the pale He’s obliged to connect the dots. “A servant is no greater than his master,” He explains, “and a messenger no higher than who sent him.” In essence, He says, “I’ve lowered myself as low as any man can for another as a precedent. From here on, no act of service or kindness is beneath you.” He ends the lesson with this: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13.17)

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” There’s wisdom in that. Submitting to degradation of any sort for any reason not only dishonors us; it dishonors our Creator. Numerous times, Jesus instructs not to give credence to insults or hostility. Paul writes in Romans 14.16: “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” The example Christ sets here doesn’t suggest we grovel at our critics’ feet. It’s about acting, not reacting. And, like every other principle Jesus taught, it’s a classic reversal—the inversion of natural logic to obey unnatural ideals. We don’t seek occasions for rising to prominence. We search out opportunities for stooping to greatness.

Nothing and no one is beneath us. We attend to the person others write off as a waste of time. We wrap our arms around those no one else will touch. We ignore social etiquette, cultural taboos, and other “boundaries” intended to isolate undesirables and unfit members from the community. Our Master did it; doing less exposes a dangerously over-inflated opinion of ourselves. As His messengers, we’re no better than He Who sends us. In His after-dinner conversation with the disciples, Jesus says, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things.” (John 14.12) If we intend to do greater things, we must stoop lower. Stooping is how we rise.

By lowering Himself to wash His disciples feet, Jesus set a precedent for humility. Nothing and no one is beneath us.

(Tomorrow: Broken)

Postscript: A Blessing in Disguise

I'm grateful to all who left comments and sent emails responding to yesterday’s post about Lee Davenport’s passing. His departure left us who knew him in an unanticipated state of despair. Yet very quickly after posting my reflections on his life and troubles, a blessing in disguise arrived in a comment and email from Lisa Fox of My Manner of Life. Though it’s hard to believe, our paths never crossed before now. But in this very—very—short time, we’ve become friends and fellow travelers on Christ’s path. Lisa describes herself thusly:

I'm a progressive Episcopalian raised in the South and now (thanks to a job change) living in the conservative Midwest. I worship at Grace Episcopal Church in Jefferson City. I love the Episcopal Church, which rescued me from a life of wandering meaningless and gave me a way to explore my faith and belief in God.

Lisa’s passion for her church is only equaled by her devotion to her Savior. Even for those of us outside the Anglican tradition, her posts concerning Episcopalians ring true with the love and knowledge of Christ. The humanity and conviction in her general posts likewise attest to her witness. I enthusiastically recommend My Manner of Life to anyone not familiar with it. It’s another place, and a vital one, where God’s Spirit is gathering so many who once felt unloved and unwelcome.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Taking Care of Business

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.

                        Matthew 25.1 

A Leadership Seminar

Jesus spends His last few days of freedom in preparation for the hour when He’ll no longer be able to speak at length with His followers. On balance, the Gospels record more public sermons and private conversations during these crucial moments than all of His previous messages combined. One might expect the bulk of His talks to center on explaining what’s about to happen, why, and how the disciples and others should respond. And His discussions do indeed feature some of this. Yet far and away the majority of what He says has a much broader, longer focus. Jesus uses these closing, precious hours to secure His followers’ commitment to continue His ministry after He's gone and their grasp of what His teaching truly means.

To this point, His messages have been fairly perfunctory—a back-to-basics evangelism designed to clear away centuries of needlessly complicated, self-defeating legalism and restore our awareness of God’s unconditional love for humanity. The Holy Week topics, however, are markedly more complex and advanced. These final days find Jesus convening a leadership seminar in graduate theology, eschatology, and ministerial ethics. He recognizes the momentary confusion created by end-of-the-week events will abate with His resurrection. He’ll return for a limited time to explain everything in greater detail. Of greater urgency to Him is instilling the whys and wherefores of His mission while He’s physically present. He’s laying a vital foundation to ground His followers’ thoughts not only for the approaching days, but years to come.

Ten Brides-to-Be

Matthew 24 transcribes a lengthy prophecy in which Jesus itemizes signs predicting the world’s end—global warfare, moral dissolution, natural catastrophes, and so on. He describes their culmination as the mysterious, sudden salvation of the Faithful from these mounting miseries. “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (Matthew 24.40-41) Since the precise moment of His return to gather true believers won’t be disclosed, he adds in verse 44: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus builds on this prophecy in the next chapter with a parable about 10 brides-to-be. They’re each given a lamp to prepare for their groom’s nocturnal arrival. With no confirmed date, it’s important their lamps are filled and ready to meet the groom at any time. Five virgins take this to heart. The others grow lax, occupying their time with more trivial concerns. Without warning, news breaks the groom’s on his way. The prepared virgins light their lamps to greet him. The indifferent ones panic. Their dry lamps don’t stay lighted. They beg the wiser ones for oil, but they’re told, “There may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” (Matthew 25.9) While the foolish virgins dash to the store, the groom escorts his prepared brides to the wedding banquet, closing the door behind him. When the unprepared virgins finally get their lamps in shape, they bang on the door and plead to get in. The groom goes to the door. “I don’t know you,” he says and sends them away.

Passing the Baton

Jesus follows this parable with two additional ones, both case studies of believers who slough off their responsibilities. In the second, a man entrusts money to three servants. Only two invest it profitably. The third—who holds on to it, but fails to increase its value—is dismissed. The last story describes the Final Judgment, where believers who served others without prejudice are welcomed into Heaven while those who limited their kindness to people they classified as “worthy” of it are rejected. Independently, each of these parables contains unique messages and merits. Taken together in light of when Jesus delivers them, however, also uncovers a binding truth to bring His ministry full circle.

Let’s think back Christ's very first mention of His mission at age 12. He and His family have come to Jerusalem for Passover and they leave the city unaware He’s stayed behind, astounding the temple leaders with His grasp of the Law. When Mary and Joseph finally locate Him, they scold Him for upsetting them so. Jesus replies, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2.49; NKJV) When we consider the three parables as a whole—and when they’re told—an overarching message takes shape. Jesus is passing the baton to us.

Taking care of business is now our job. It’s our responsibility to keep our lamps filled with oil (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) to usher Christ’s presence into the world. It’s our task to take what He’s given us, spend it wisely, and return a profit by touching lives and fostering good. It’s our duty to love and care for everyone without partiality or condition, to serve “the least” among us and in so doing serve Christ. Titus 2.14 says Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” That Jesus spends much of His final week on the importance of continuing His work confirms He thinks of His imminent death and resurrection beyond their personal impact on our lives. The cross’s redemption realizes only half its purpose. Taking care of business—doing the work—is the other half. Without that, Christ’s supreme accomplishment on Calvary means nothing.

As different as each of us is, we share a common responsibility as believers to continue Christ’s work in the world. Failure to do so strips the cross of its meaning.

(Tomorrow: Stooping to Greatness)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Personal Postscript: Calling All Angels

Lee McKinley Davenport
April 13, 1968-March 29, 2009 

He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.

                        Psalm 91.11

Having posted today’s devotion, I set out to catch up with the blogs—mostly by readers here—I’ve not had time to visit due to work and other commitments. I opened FranIAm, first queued in my reader since her latest post was the most recent. After a weak stab at a clever response to her clip of “Hosanna” from Jesus Christ Superstar, I scrolled down to a post informing her readers Lee Davenport, a Straight-Friendly reader whom I came to know and care for via email, ended his life last week.

The whole world flipped upside down.

I first met Lee at John Shuck’s place through comments we traded following his post challenging those who classify same-sex orientation as “unnatural.” In it, John quoted a bit from a similar post here and I initially intended to reply with a brief “thank-you” for the honor. But as I scanned the responses, primarily back and forth between Lee and another reader, I wound up diving in head-first. Lee’s remarks clearly identified him as a casualty of religious and family intolerance. I encouraged him to hold fast to hope that those who judged and rejected him so cruelly would eventually realize the truth of God’s love and acceptance for everyone. Wary of hijacking John’s blog after a couple of lengthy exchanges, I suggested we continue our conversation by email. I heard from him within hours.

“Thank you for your comforting words,” he wrote. “I hope I’m one day soon able to be something other than hurt or angry. I’m not able to be something else right now.” He explained why, describing a phone call three days prior from a relative—a profoundly misguided Christian—who expressed anger about Lee’s sexuality so viciously it shook me to tears and nauseated me at the same time. Suffice to say she wished he’d died before being born.

His last few lines broke my heart as it clenched in righteous indignation: “I feel shame for being something so awful that she would resort to such hateful words. So I’ve got a little ways to go before I can hold onto hope. I’ve got to hold on to my sanity first.”

We spent the next few days in a flurry of emails. I prayed over every word I typed in answer to the long, incredibly trusting notes Lee sent explaining his story in fine detail. Rather than spend time trying to condense it, I’ll quote the summary Lisa posted in her tribute to Lee on My Manner of Life:

Lee was dealing with more trials and tribulations than anyone should have to endure all at once. Lost his satisfying journalism job. Got a cancer diagnosis and had to endure hugely expensive chemo treatment without benefit of health insurance … and suffering the government bureaucracy to get disability benefits. Coping with huge financial concerns, lacking a “real job.” The dissolution of his marriage, coming out (first to himself), and dealing with his parents’ Bible-thumping condemnation. Searching – sometimes desperately, it seemed to me – for a lover and partner. It seems like life on every front was fraught with pain and felt hopeless to Lee. And he finally took the ultimate step on Sunday to be delivered from that pain.

There’s more to Lee’s story—traumatic childhood events and shocking blows of adult betrayal—that Lisa tactfully omits. But added to what she includes, the sum comes to a life dogged by repeated abuse and distress. No matter where he stood, it seemed Lee couldn’t escape being targeted by one shattering hardship after another.

Lee’s last email came a few days before he took his life. It was a forwarded collection of silly (and chaste) animal cartoons, which I mistook to indicate his darkness was lifting. One minute earlier, he forwarded video of a sand artist creating a series of tableaux depicting God’s concern and protection for us. In the subject line, Lee wrote, “This is stunningly beautiful 'UNBELIEVABLE'". The piece was called “You’ve Got a Friend”.

His final personal email also contained rising glimmers of hope. He was in the early stages of a potentially loving relationship. Of his new interest, Lee wrote, “He wants to do nothing to destroy what we’re building, and I’m trying to be very patient with him. I know in my heart it will be worth it, as he has so much to give. We both want to give in to what we’re feeling, but we also want desperately not to be hurt. Considering the storms we’ve both weathered, it would be nearly unbearable for both of us.”

Lee talked at length about their plans to introduce one another to their respective best friends and his friend’s trepidation about meeting Lee’s children for the first time. He added:

He's agreed to go to church with us as well, although he has great reservations about it. For one thing, many people at church are aware that I'm seeing someone and that my someone is a man. [He] thinks that means he'll be rejected outright, as rejection has been his only experience with organized religion. (He grew up in the United Methodist Church, and a very conservative faction of it.)

 

Still, he's willing to go. He wants to know the God I know - the God of love and acceptance and understanding. But he's not sure yet that such a God exists. I'm trying to show him that yes, that God surely does exist and that he's accepted and loved by that God, the same God he's always known.

Learning of the abject miseries Lee endured naturally raised questions in my mind about why God willed it so. But my heart always silenced them with reminders He created Lee and put him where he was for a unique purpose. A plan was in place, which we’d understand in the end. And now, the end brings more questions. I don’t know what triggered Lee’s suicide, whether it was a specific disappointment that plummeted him into despair or surrender to the physical and emotional exhaustion from years of bearing such a heavy load. Dan, who knew Lee longer and better than I, in his tribute on Toujours Dan, suspects Lee’s troubles may have been magnified by inadequately treated depression.

Only God knows. He knew all along. In departing so inexplicably and suddenly, though, Lee leaves a sobering last will and testament. He etches the value of life in our minds and scars our hearts with awareness we’re surrounded by wounded souls whose pain is greater than any one person can survive alone. Is this why Lee suffered? To help us see this in such a vividly stark, unforgettable way? It seems like such a paltry return for such relentless sorrow. Yet if we truly allow the meaning of his loss to grip our hearts, we may come to realize God's plan for Lee included reaching all of us. Right now, that's the only sensible reason I can find.

We are one another’s keepers. We must bear each other’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ. We are called with the angels to guard one another in all our ways.

Lee rests in God’s hands. Meanwhile, countless others like him are left in our care. Those assigned to Lee’s safety and wellbeing—particularly the professing Christians—will one day account for failing him so horribly.

We must not fail.

We mourn Lee and pray God’s grace for him, healing for his children and all who loved him, and mercy for those who wronged him. Amen.


video

Ilana Yahav: You’ve Got a Friend (2009)

Trees and Mountains

If you have faith and do no doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and it will be done.

                        Matthew 21.21

Back for More

Palm Sunday starts spectacularly but ends in the same-old, same-old. Jesus dismounts the donkey for the temple, where He immediately clears out the profiteers exploiting the faithful and heals the sick. The authorities don’t like it one bit, particularly since enthusiasm for Christ has taken Jerusalem by storm. When they hear children shout “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they’ve had enough. They confront Jesus, asking, “Do you hear what these kids are saying?” To their ears, it’s blasphemy, this proclaiming Jesus the Messiah, and they want it stopped. Jesus isn’t fazed by the unprecedented adulation. He answers by quoting Psalm 8.2: “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise.” Still, it’s been a long day. Wherever He goes, the city buzzes with His praises and rumbles with disapproval. Weary in body and spirit, Jesus retreats to Bethany. After a restful night among friends, we might reconsider returning to a city where political opposition outweighs public favor and move on. Not Jesus. He goes back for more.

We can’t be intimidated into running or hiding from disapproval. Who God created and called us to be can’t be denied. While we never defend ourselves, like Jesus, we stand in obedience on God’s Word. Yet, like He, we’re judicious in how we engage those against us. We gain nothing from arguments. We win by repaying hatred with love. This demands presence of mind and energy. We follow Jesus’s example and temporarily disengage from hostile environments to find comfort with accepting, caring friends. What we never do is completely withdraw. Vanishing shirks our duty to achieve God’s purpose. We’re sent to our opponents as witnesses of His love. So, after we rest, we go back. We’ll likely find the same mindsets, fears, and prejudices waiting to greet us. That’s not our concern. Our job is being present to reflect God’s presence. We must go back.

Faith Exemplified

Jesus starts for Jerusalem before breakfast. He’s hungry and spots a fig tree. When He reaches it, it’s barren—no fruit, just leaves. His reaction is impeccably human, no different than us opening cupboards to find condiments and fixings, but no ready food to fill our hunger. (Maybe that doesn’t happen at your place; around here, it’s inexcusably common.) Jesus curses the tree: “May you never bear fruit again!” It shrivels up. “Wow!” the disciples exclaim. “How did that happen?” Perhaps a cannier framing of their response is, “Why’d you do that?” Killing the tree feels extreme and incongruous with Christ’s character. But He tells them if they have faith and resist doubt, they’ll not only destroy unfruitful aspects of their lives. They’ll also speak to insurmountable obstacles. “You can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.” What first looks like weakness personified is actually faith exemplified.

Nutrition and Progress

Walking with Christ depends on two factors: nutrition and progress. If we consistently turn to sources offering no nourishment for our spiritual hunger, we flag and lose all drive to follow to Him. Fig trees line the roadside, many that appear promising from a distance. On closer inspection, they’re lush with leaves and lacking fruit. It makes no sense to park in their shade, hoping they’ll blossom. The longer we wait, the less progress we make. By faith, we curse barren trees, removing them from our lives. This applies to people and situations. In Matthew 7.20, Jesus tells us to inspect the lives around us carefully: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” An individual who produces bad habits and attitudes—or nothing at all—provides us no sustenance. We look for healthier trees.

Nutrition keeps us going, but it doesn’t address steep mountains that thwart our progress. On our own, we’ve no choice but rely on natural logic and experience to climb these peaks. If we go this route, at best we slow ourselves down. At worst, the air thins out, the weather turns ugly, and we get stuck. Jesus says there’s a better way. Instead of gathering wits, we summon faith to speak mountains out of our way. They still exist, tall and intact as ever. But if we believe without doubt they can be moved, they’ll be buried at sea—not merely jogged aside for us to go forward smoothly and quickly, but totally erased from the landscape, out of sight and unable to overshadow our path.

How fascinating that trees and mountains are top of mind for Jesus as He returns to Jerusalem for more ridicule and abuse. Nutrition and progress assume great significance in days ahead. He recasts Passover’s memorial of deliverance from Egypt into a remembrance of His sacrificial death, feeding His disciples bread and wine to represent His flesh and blood. The meal also ends with a withering, as Jesus commands Judas to finish what he’s started—actions resulting in the traitor’s suicide. And mountains loom ahead, two of them: the Mount of Olives, where Jesus wrestles with God’s will and is taken captive, and Calvary, where He hangs in undeserved shame. Faith to conquer trees and mountains has never been so crucial for Christ. Yet conquer them He does. By faith, we can too.

Not every fig tree that looks healthy at a distance is fruitful, nor is any mountain that looks insurmountable ever unmovable.

(Tomorrow: Taking Care of Business)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Name of the Lord

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!”

                        Matthew 21.9

On Loan

It’s not by accident that five of the six definitive episodes in Jesus’s life—His birth, triumphal entry, the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection (the sixth being His baptism)—involve borrowing. He’s born in a borrowed stable. He rides into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. He celebrates His last Passover with the disciples at a borrowed table. He dies on a cross borrowed from us; for it is we who earned and deserve it. He rises from a borrowed grave. There are several reasons why key events in Jesus’s story entail items on loan.

The most obvious, of course, is teaching actions, not possessions, define us. A second lesson, which we tend to overlook, also comes of this, instructing us not to gauge anyone by what or how much he/she owns. Jesus borrowed out of circumstantial necessity more so than actual need. The stable, for example, is lent because Joseph and Mary are away from home. The same holds for the tomb. Had Jesus been born and died in Nazareth, neither loan would be necessary. From this we learn expediency and humility. Waiting to acquire what’s essential to do all we’re given to do is foolish if we can shelve our pride and ask kindness of others. Jesus’s borrowing reveals the power mundane things obtain by serving Christ. The stable, donkey, table, cross, and tomb are significant only because Jesus uses them. It’s the same with us. When Jesus says, “I want to use you,” our ordinary lives and talents become extraordinary by how He employs them.

Coronation Day

There’s also a very specific reason why Jesus borrows a donkey, though. He could enter Jerusalem on foot like His previous trips to the city, except today is different. It’s His moment to confirm His true identity publicly. While He’s habitually deflected intimations He’s the Messiah—a policy He maintains when questioned at trial—knowing His days are numbered, He takes the opportunity to fulfill Zechariah 9.9: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” He rides into Jerusalem to leave no doubt He is, in fact, the King, the Redeemer and Deliverer sent from God.

The masses intuitively get what’s going on. They turn Jesus’s entrance into a coronation day procession. They precede Him, paving His way with their coats and palm fronds pulled off nearby trees. They follow Him, too, swallowing Him in a sea of raucous praise reserved only for the Messiah. “Hosanna!” they shout, an acclamation meaning “Save us!”—an honor unworthy of anyone other than God’s appointed Savior. They attach two qualifiers to make their intentions clear. They call Jesus “the Son of David,” the Messiah’s chief prophetic requirement, and they cry, “Hosanna in the highest,” ascribing their shouts for salvation to the One above all others. But most telling of all is “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Power by Proxy

Praying regularly in the name of the Lord—or the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—dilutes our appreciation of what it signifies. The name of the Lord invokes divine right. When the crowd announces Jesus as “He Who comes in the name of the Lord,” it vests Him with supreme rule over everything on Earth. No one governing by any other name—whether Caesar or Herod or, in the case of the temple priests and lawyers, Aaron or Levi—supersedes Christ’s authority. This is absolutely correct of them, of course, but it’s also dangerously volatile to say the least. It pours gas on an already raging fire of institutional hatred for Christ. And, later in the week, when the crowd sees how far local rulers intend to go in putting a stop to Jesus, its heralds of salvation turn into cries for murder.

The crowd turns on Jesus and loses all privileges in His name. But we turn to Christ and receive its full entitlement and benefits. In 1 Corinthians 6.11, Paul reminds us that we once belonged to “the crowd”—we also buckled to pressures and disavowed Christ. “But you were washed,” he says, “you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” The name of the Lord gives us power by proxy. We borrow it out of necessity the same way Jesus borrowed what He needed to realize God’s purpose for Him. Colossians 3.17 tells us: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” On this Palm Sunday, I encourage us to look past the praise to see the proclamation. And every day, I pray we’ll follow Christ by doing everything and going everywhere in the name of the Lord.

The palms are props. The name of the Lord is what we proclaim.

(Tomorrow: Trees and Mountains)