Experiencing Jesus’ Journey to the Cross

Jesus with Water shutterstock_254984161Now more than ever, we benefit greatly by stepping back from the day’s urgent demands to get God’s perspective on life and on our own experience.

Contemplation is not a luxury. In his book, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, Parker J. Palmer writes, “Contemplation… is a way of changing consciousness that may have more impact on the world than strategic actions can have… [because] the function of contemplation in all its forms is to penetrate illusion and help us to touch reality.” Reflection strips away illusion.

This blog will help us touch the reality of Jesus’ journey—and the disciples’ journey—to the cross. I will explain the significance of each day in Holy Week and offer a question for prayerful reflection. You may want to print this and keep it with your Bible and journal to consider for a few minutes every day.

Holy Week was developed in the fourth century by Christians in Jerusalem. “The aim of Holy Week is to make the life of Christ real for the worshiper. Enacting Jesus’ last days and entering into His experience was a way of offering worship to Him” (Robert Webber, Worship Old and New).

Palm Sunday (also known as Passion Sunday) celebrates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for Israel’s Passover celebration. As Jesus rode down the steep road from the Mount of Olives, a large crowd cut down branches and spread their cloaks on the road, making the equivalent of a “red carpet” (such as celebrities and dignitaries walk). They shouted, “Hosanna (which means, ‘Lord, save us’) to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:6-9).

They did not realize Jesus’ throne would be a cross, nor that the enemy to be defeated was not Rome, but the powers of darkness. Nor did they anticipate the victory would be over sin and death.

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, how have I preferred my own agenda and missed your message for me?

Holy Monday – While returning to Jerusalem the next day, Jesus noticed a fig tree that had many leaves, but no fruit. He cursed the tree, and it withered. This is a powerful image of God’s goal for our salvation.

It’s likely Jesus had this fig tree in mind when, in the Upper Room, moments before his betrayal, he said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, where am I all leaves, and no fruit? Hear my confession.

Holy Tuesday – Church tradition focuses this day on the religious leaders’ conspiracies to trap Jesus. They formed a very unusual three-party collaboration of the theologically conservative Pharisees who opposed Rome, with the theologically progressive (liberal) Sadducees who accommodated and benefited from Roman rule, and with the Herodians, who had little religious interest but supported Herod.

Jesus warned the crowds and disciples about hypocrisy and unbelief, pronouncing seven condemnations (“Woes”) against the false religion that is abhorrent to God (Matthew 23:13-33).

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, how have I held fast to my “politics” at the expense of your claim on my life?

Holy Wednesday focuses on Judas Iscariot’s offer to betray Jesus to the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious council. There are many possible explanations for Judas’ betrayal—it’s complicated! (Read Luke 22:3-6 and John 12:4-8) Ultimately, self-love overpowered devotion.

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, where am I vulnerable to letting my desires eclipse my 100% devotion to you?

Maundy Thursday includes three major events:

Washing the Disciples’ feet: Note the spelling is ‘Maundy,’ not ‘Maunday.’ The name comes from the Latin word maundatum, which means ‘commandment.’ Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34 NIV). Maundy Thursday commemorates Jesus’ experience with his disciples in the Upper Room, washing their feet and celebrating ‘the Last Supper,’ which is the basis for our celebrations of what we call ‘The Lord’s Supper,’ ‘Communion,’ and ‘Eucharist’ (meaning Thanksgiving).

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, how am I loving others in such a way that they see Jesus in me?

Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: Following supper Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and surrender fully to God’s will. His hour had come. Do not dismiss or diminish the reality of Jesus’ struggle.

“Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18 NIV).

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, how can I daily surrender my short-sighted desires to accept Your blessed and, ultimately, fruitful will?

Being put on trial: Jesus, having been betrayed by Judas, was arrested in the garden and went on to endure multiple sham trials before the chief priests, Pontius Pilate, and Herod (Luke 22:54–23:25). But perhaps Jesus’ greatest heartaches were Peter’s denial and the other disciples’ desertion.

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, when have fear and others’ opinions overwhelmed my faith and witness?

Good Friday – Then came Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified. Why is it called ‘good’? The original designation was “God’s Friday.” Like the phrase “Good-bye,” which originally was “God be with ye,” the pronunciation was contracted over time, with ‘Good’ being substituted for ‘God.’ Traditionally, this is a day of fasting and reflection for Jesus’ followers.

The disciple Peter explained the cross,

“For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. He paid for you with the precious lifeblood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God” (1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT).

Prayerful Reflection: Lord, how have I surrendered to a culture that substitutes a generic ‘Good’ in place of You, the unique and glorious God who gave his only beloved Son?

Holy Saturday – On Saturday of Passion week, we remember the time Jesus spent in the tomb. Theologically, Jesus, the Son of God, experienced death, the full penalty for sin, so those who believe could receive eternal life.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to our own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6 NIV).

Prayerful Reflection: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all,” says the hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. Lord, how do you want me to live each day differently because I believe Jesus died for me?

Then comes Easter—but more about that in my next blog.

Resilience Requires Double Vision

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“How are we ever gonna’ get through this?”

I hear (and ask!) this question frequently, especially as nearly everyone is being told to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus 2019).

And then there are those who cannot stay home because they provide essential services. They have a very different endurance challenge as they ask, “How are we gonna’ get through this while we’re caring for others?”

I am learning anew a very old lesson. It was taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

“Set your heart on the kingdom and God’s goodness, and all these things will come to you as a matter of course. Don’t worry at all then about tomorrow. Tomorrow can take care of itself! One day’s trouble is enough for one day.” (Matthew 6:33-34 J. B. Phillips paraphrase).

These verses teach us not only about God’s promises and our priorities, but also about managing our perspective. I am calling this “spiritual double vision.”

Spiritual Double Vision

Jesus teaches us to concentrate on two focal points to develop and sustain our resilience:

First: Focus on the goal (“God’s Kingdom”).

Second: Be in the present moment (“one day’s trouble”).

I see an analogy with what ophthalmologists call monovision with contact lenses. Sounds like a contradiction to double vision, but keep reading! One website describes it this way, “Monovision involves wearing a contact lens on the non-dominant eye to correct near vision, and a contact lens on the dominant eye (if needed) to correct distance vision. Monovision works because the brain is tricked into thinking that the contact lens is actually a part of the natural eye.” (Source: https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-monovision-3421638)

In my analogy, one focal point for distance—for the goal. The other focal point for the near—for the present moment.

A Lesson from Cancer Surgery Recovery

More than seven years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. That was a jolt. Double vision helped me get through my treatment and recovery.

People assured me I would be fine, that the Lord would get me through. I appreciated their reassurance. But there was no shortcut to recovery! I would go through a major surgery with significant physical “disruption” at the very core of my body.

Resilience came from disciplined focus. I got too discouraged when I thought about the weeks and months of recovery and the years of testing for recurrence. I drew strength by focusing on what I could do each day. I rested, walked, ate wisely, and paced my responsibilities. I practiced accepting what I could do and releasing what I couldn’t do.

We are all, in fact, stuck in the present moment. There’s no Fast-Forward to get through the sad, scary parts of life. There’s no Pause button to freeze the precious times. And there’s no Rewind for the “If only’s” and “What if’s” that can flood us with regret.

So how do we handle the future?

Looking Ahead Is Like Swimming Underwater

As a child I loved to swim underwater. We had contests to see who could stay under the longest and who could swim the farthest underwater. One thing was for sure: you can stay under, holding your breath, for only so long. Then you must return to the surface to breathe.

Looking into the future is underwater time (perhaps in more ways than one!). I have learned that, in a time like this, I can’t get too far ahead in anticipation without increasing anxiety. I can go there briefly—out of necessity for personal preparation and as a leader—but I must soon come back to the present moment. I just can’t stay under too long.

Be in the Present Moment

It’s the lesson of manna. When the Israelites had escaped Egypt and were traveling through the wilderness, God sustained them with manna. Manna was a miraculous food substance provided daily, with a double-portion given before the sabbath (Exodus 16). Manna, God’s daily provision, is the reference behind Jesus’ prayer for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:11).

We exercise faith, choosing to trust the Lord for today’s provision. Yes, it’s quite literally an exercise in discipline to say, “Lord, I trust you to provide what I, my family, my loved ones need today.” I’ve often said I would prefer to own a “bakery” so I would be assured of bread for years to come. God’s promise, however, is for today’s needs. By faith I know that’s better than my bakery!

Learn to Cope With A Fuzzy Future

One of the resources from Alcoholic Anonymous, Day By Day (published by Hazelden), begins January 1 with this wise insight:

“It is not always easy to do what is necessary today, but it is impossible to change yesterday or to guarantee what tomorrow will bring. Our year will unfold better by living each day as it comes than it will by regretting the past or anticipating the future.”

Real double vision makes everything look out of focus. With spiritual double vision, we have to learn to cope with a “fuzzy future.” But the good news is that we will have far more clarity, peace and strength for the present moment.

COVID-19 Restrictions and Spiritual Practices

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You’ve heard the saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” For me, every cloud has a spiritual lining.

I used to think the “silver lining” saying was based on the metaphor of a coat or jacket that had an inner lining. If it was a wool jacket, for example, the lining would keep it from irritating your skin. My interpretation didn’t make much sense, but I got the idea there can be some good in the midst of not-so-good. But now I believe this saying is based on the image of the sun behind the dark cloud. It shines in such a way that the cloud is outlined (thus lining) the cloud.

Shift this image to one of a spiritual lining: We can look for a spiritual outline framing every aspect and circumstance. We need eyes to see and ears to hear.

Novel COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease) has disrupted life globally unlike any other catastrophe. Hurricanes, tsunamis, even wars are all devastating – but are limited to a geographic area, even if that area is huge. This is global, leaving no area and no person unaffected. We are being asked to self-quarantine, practice social distancing, and cancel all regular activities that involve gathering. Though we are not under Marshall Law, it’s like everyone is on house arrest.

So where is the spiritual lining? Where is the spiritual outline that gives us a frame of reference for these trying times?

It’s interesting that all this is happening during Lent, the season of the Christian year leading up to our Easter celebration. Lent (whose name comes from the lengthening of days in spring) is a time when we often give up certain things in symbolic fasting both to identify with Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-14) and to express our repentance and spiritual readiness to follow the Lord.

We are all giving up a lot these days. I’m suggesting the spiritual lining is to frame our new circumstances in light of spiritual practices or disciplines. Let me highlight four:

Fasting

The overarching discipline these days is fasting. Fasting is abstaining from things that are good in order to give greater attention to spiritual concerns. It is one of the most frequently illustrated spiritual exercises in Scripture, occurring in a great variety of situations. Fasting feeds the soul. Some have said fasting is praying with the body.

We are now being “forced” to fast from nearly all our normal away-from-home activities. This loss of control is one of the most debilitating experiences for the soul. When we lose control over how we work, what we do, over our use of time and money, we lose our sense of self-affirmation and confidence. The discipline of fasting is about control, or more properly, about what controls us. In spiritual formation, fasting has an immediate impact on a person, revealing what controls them.

Following his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1-14). He fasted for forty days and nights. He identified with Israel hungering in the wilderness, both spiritually and physically. But when temptation came, another issue came to the fore: what would control Jesus and his mission? He was tempted to put other things before God’s will, including his own comfort and desires. Jesus won the battle through the power of the Spirit and the Word of God.

This “stay at home” crisis brings the opportunity for clarity, providing the opportunity to reevaluate what controls us. Approach this as a spiritual exercise so that your attitude shifts from resentment and fear to a framework for gratitude and understanding. Journaling is very helpful in this process. Check my index of topics for previous blogs on journaling.

I’ll be briefer on the other three disciplines.

Solitude

Working from home and cancelling group activities puts many in a place of solitude. I realize parents with children at home may feel there is anything but solitude!! Hang in there! But do find some time to be alone.

Solitude does not come naturally to us, with up to an estimated 70% of people being extroverts.

Solitude helps free us from the magnetic attractions of the world: attractions of materialism, of popular acclaim, of busyness and often-senseless activity. It puts us in a place where we can see more clearly what the world has been doing to us.

Sometimes it’s only by getting away from people that we can truly give ourselves to them. Those who are always available, soon have nothing to give. Time away in solitude can prepare us to serve God and others in more effective ways.

Sabbath

The change of pace will likely provide some additional time for rest. This can relate to the discipline of Sabbath. Think of Sabbath in terms of pacing your Work-Life balance to include one full day of rest weekly and parts of each day with intentional refreshment.

I have written several blogs on Sabbath and rest (check my index of topics), so I will just add the thought that we can use this time to learn to “work smarter,” developing a more sustainable, gracious, humane pace for our lives.

Simplicity

For many, the most stressful aspect of this crisis, beyond health, is economic. We are realizing how vulnerable we are. In no way will I minimize the great challenge we have to get through this. We are facing stress now and the stress of a long recovery.

The spiritual lining, however, is in clarifying our priorities and values so we live differently on the other side of this crisis.

The discipline of simplicity speaks to the stewardship of resources. Simplicity re-frames the discipline of poverty practiced by many monastic orders. Jesus never taught that all his followers were called to poverty. (Where would we get the resources to provide creative, expansive ministry if every Christian was impoverished?) We are called, however, to provide for ourselves and our families (1 Timothy 5:8) in ways that allow us to also “be rich in good deeds” (1 Timothy 6:17). A time like this strips away our wants from our needs. We focus on essentials and generosity for others in need.

This is a season of dark clouds, indeed. May the Lord give us hearts and minds to see the spiritual lining.

 

Containing the Fear Virus

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We are living in anxious times.

The global spread of COVID-19 (the Coronavirus Disease–2019) is affecting every area of life everywhere, generating a crisis unlike anything most have seen in our lifetimes.

Fear is in the air. And it’s more contagious than any virus. Fear is a greater virus than any virus we fear.

Let me share three thoughts that can help contain the fear virus.

First, Find Your Horizon Point.

Coping with uncertain, tumultuous times is like dealing with motion sickness. Ever wonder why the driver of a car rarely gets sick, though that same person may be overcome by nausea if riding in the back seat?

I came across a study that concluded the nausea of motion sickness comes from “slippage of the eyes.” Our equilibrium is closely associated with our optic sense. When we are moving, especially at a high rate of speed and/ or with continual twisting and turning (like the mountain road pictured above), our eyes may have difficulty adjusting. They slip from focal points, and that upsets our equilibrium. The remedy? Look to the far horizon–to that which is not moving and shifting. The driver of a car usually does not suffer motion sickness because she continually looks ahead.

I see a spiritual principle here. When our equilibrium is shaken by life, a “slippage of our spiritual sight” occurs. We fail to maintain our focus on the Lord. Fear gains a foothold, and faith fades in strength. The only hope is to lift our eyes to the far horizon of faith.

When we’re overwhelmed with the unknown, we need to cling to the known.

Psalm 91, a psalm for dangerous times, rivets our focus on the Most High God as the unwavering focal point for our lives. (It would help to read it before continuing).

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High

    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

    my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1-2)

Our eyes of faith are fixed on a loving God in whom there is no darkness. While we are not immune from trouble in this fallen and failing world (see my blog “Trust Only in God,”), we are protected by the God who sent his Son to die for us and who brought him back from the grave!

Second, Diagnose the Fear Viruses That Threaten

Fear, properly understood and managed, can lead to insight, faith and freedom. That begins with naming our fears. Naming empowers us to process our fears directly instead of being controlled by them indirectly.

Psalm 91 mentions a number of fears. Commentator Derek Kidner wrote, “Most of these dangers are of a kind which strike unseen, against which the strong are as helpless as the weak.”

The psalmist refers to the schemes that others plot against us (like those trapping birds in nets), the threats of war and physical harm, the anxieties that plague our minds, and the threats of illness that attack our bodies. He even speaks of the threat of beasts, which may be literal creatures but often represent human and demonic evil.

Fears are meant to be alarms, awakening us to action. The fear response was not intended to bind us in anxious paralysis. For the psalmist, fear awakens faith:

You will tread on the lion and the cobra;

    you will trample the great lion and the serpent (Psalm 95:13).

We are not simply survivors who escape; we are victors who trample these deadly enemies underfoot.

Fear awakens faith when we use it as a mirror of our souls. Our fears reflect our inner state of being. We ask ourselves, “Fear, why are you here?”

What fears do you wrestle with? These fears are alerting us to genuine issues that need our attention.

When we feel the nausea of fear rising within, we know our vision is fixed too low. We need to look up from the jostling situation to the horizon of hope. Our horizon is the Word of God.

Fear is an alarm to awaken us, not a chain to bind us.

Third, Exercise the Choice to Trust God at All Times

Fear may initially be a reaction, but it becomes a decision.

That’s why I began with the statement that “Fear is a virus greater than any virus we fear.” Fear, left unchecked, can overwhelm our spiritual immune system and “infect” those around us.

The Bible tells us to expect the worst from the world. This is not pessimism. This is biblical realism that gives stability. Realistic expectations keep us from false security and self-reliance. In God we trust.

Hours before his crucifixion, Jesus described the trials his followers would suffer. “I have told you these things,” Jesus said, “so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

It’s as if Jesus were saying, “When problems come, you’re going to think I’ve left you. But I tell you that when problems come, it’s the sign that I’m with you. Learn to use your trials as triggers to faith.”

We are tempted to take trouble as a sign God has forsaken us, but Jesus teaches us to take trouble as a sign God has prepared us.

Fear may never leave us in this life, but it need not rob us of joy and confidence. In Jesus Christ, we become courageous people.

When fear threatens and the nausea rises, we train ourselves to look to the horizon of God’s sovereign rule and care.

Tap the energy of fear as a motive for trust in our Faithful God.

[NOTE: To hear the full sermon from which I developed this post, click on the link to my sermons at Trinity and and find “Containing the Fear Virus” on March 15, 2020]

 

Trust Only in God

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Who do writers read? Who inspires the teacher? Where do you turn for encouragement?

Over the years I have accumulated a treasure trove of quotes, stories and illustrations that nourish my heart and mind. Some I use only once, but others I review so frequently I’ve nearly memorized them. Here’s one of those precious gems from Charles Spurgeon.**

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) preached in The Metropolitan Tabernacle in London to over 5,000 people several times a week during his ministry. He was a preacher’s preacher and a teacher of preachers. It’s no small matter to have the respect of your peers.

In this passage, he addresses the discouragement so common to this calling. I realize the vast majority reading this are not preachers. Still, this speaks to all of us in our need for perspective and for continual growth in trusting God as we witness and serve our Lord. (I have slightly altered this quote so that it better applies to all followers of Jesus, not just preachers).

Spurgeon begins immediately with the positive outcomes of struggle. Like gold refined by fire (1 Peter 1:7), our lives are matured by trials.

By all the castings down of his servants, God is glorified, for they are led to magnify him when again he sets them on their feet, and even while prostrate in the dust their faith yields him praise. They speak all the more sweetly of God’s faithfulness and are the more firmly established in his love. Such mature [saints] as some elderly [believers] are, could scarcely have been produced if they had not been emptied from vessel to vessel, and made to see their own emptiness and the vanity of all things round about them. Glory be to God for the furnace, the hammer, and the file. Heaven shall be all the fuller of bliss because we have been filled with anguish here below, and earth shall be better tilled because of our training in the school of adversity.

Based on the fruit that comes from trails, Spurgeon instructs us to dismiss the idea that we should be immune from “soul-trouble.” He warns against the false expectation that we should always be walking in sunshine and soft breezes if God truly loves us. That is far from the experience of God’s people in all ages and all times.

The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary…experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise and overthrow him.

Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saints. Live by the day—aye, by the hour. Put not trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement.

Trust in God alone and lean not on the reeds of human help. Be not surprised when friends fail you: it is a failing world. Never count upon immutability in [people]: inconstancy you may reckon upon without fear of disappointment. The disciples of Jesus forsook him; be not amazed if your adherents wander away to other teachers: as they were not your all when with you, all is not gone from you with their departure.

This reminds me of the counsel and promise of the 1 Peter 5:9, “Resist [the devil], standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

Spurgeon then exhorts us to press on, trusting God with the results.

Serve God with all your might while the candle is burning, and then when it goes out for a season, you will have the less to regret. Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord. Set small store by present rewards; be grateful for earnests [small rewards] by the way but look for the recompensing joy hereafter. Continue with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you.

Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light: faith’s rare wisdom enables us to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy, since she places her hand in that of her great Guide. Between this and heaven there may be rougher weather yet, but it is all provided for by our covenant Head. In nothing let us be turned aside from the path which the divine call has urged us to pursue.

Life is not all sunshine and soft breezes. Trust God and keep going.

**[Charles H. Spurgeon, quoted in John Doberstein, Minister’s Prayer Book, Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986, p.226-227]

The Problem of Good

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I’m going to take a bit deeper dive today—because deep questions deserve deeper reflection.

I face questions about the problem of evil and suffering day in and day out—in my own life as well in my interactions with others. But there’s another problem we don’t discuss: What about the “Problem of Good”?

This occurred to me one day when I was visiting in the hospital. I heard myself praying, “… And Lord, while we pray for your healing, we also thank you that so many things actually work in our bodies—including the healing powers within that you’ve given us.” I wasn’t minimizing the illness. I was also recognizing the resources God provides to overcome it.

The thought was so clear– and contrary to what I often think in the midst of a hospital visit. While many things go wrong, we also need to be aware that so many things, for the most part, go well. This fact flips our normal perspective on its head. Instead of asking only, “Why is there suffering?” we also need to ask, “Why is there good? Why do many things work?”

I remember being intrigued by an essay entitled, “The Problem of Pleasure,” by Philip Yancey. He wrote:

Why is eating fun? Plants and the lower animals manage to obtain their quota of nutrients without the luxury of taste buds. Why can’t we? Why are there colors in the world? Some people get along fine without the ability to detect color. Why complicate vision for all the rest of us?

Those who argue that life is random, the product of impersonal forces, have a challenge to explain goodness and pleasure. Something more than utility and necessity are at work in this world, continually bringing pleasure, energy, healing and hope.

Here’s the issue: in a world that “runs down,” and where many things go wrong, how do we explain all that goes right? Physicists explain that systems move toward disorder and disorganization unless energy is supplied to disrupt that process. Bodies decay. Flowers die. Coasting bicycles come to a stop. Your coffee and tea cool to room temperature. And that clean, organized space you created quickly moves to disorder in a matter of days. (They explain these as evidence of the second law of thermodynamics and entropy– but there’s no time to develop these concepts now.)

If running down, decay and disorder are “normal,” how do we explain the continual supply of life necessities and countless enhancements to our experience? Music and art that inspire, ideas that empower, friendships that encourage and challenge– why are these and so many other positive aspects part of our everyday life?

In his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson addresses this theme when he points out that problems and negative responses are actually the easiest issues to explain. The real challenge comes from explaining the source of goodness and virtue. He writes,

“Vice is easy. Failure is easy, too … Success: that’s the mystery. Virtue: that’s what’s inexplicable … Violence, after all, is no mystery. It’s peace that’s the mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: Learned, inculcated, earned… Why do people suffer from anxiety? That’s not a mystery. How is it that people can ever be calm? There’s the mystery” (pages 80, 82 and 125).

In a world of suffering and evil, success, virtue, peace and calmness are examples of the Good that gives us hope.

What is the source of this Good? In theology, we call this Good God’s “common grace.” “Special grace” is the forgiveness, reconciliation and new life God gives us through faith in Jesus Christ. “Common grace,” on the other hand, refers to God’s provision for all creation, as described by Jesus in Matthew 5:44-45,

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

So, amid all the truly hard situations that disrupt your life, give thanks that many things do go right. This is not about denial. It’s the way to faith, hope and perspective.

God is great, and God is good. And we thank God.

Life’s Hard Classroom

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Adult life is filled with illusions that die hard.

As a younger person, I somehow got the idea adults had it all together. I assumed that by a certain age, (probably 40 or so) you knew what to do, had what you needed, and had life all figured out.

If a wry smile comes to your face because of my naivete, I don’t blame you.

It’s likely I was shielded (or simply oblivious) to the sufferings and trials experienced by my parents and other adults around me. And that’s probably God’s mercy.

But then came the time (the first of many!) when I realized it’s not like that at all. Life is hard, a puzzle, an adventure, a roller coaster, a disaster (at times) and all together uncertain and unpredictable.

There are many amazing blessings in life, to be sure. But if we expect to figure life out and get everything “all settled,” we’re in for huge letdown. If we tie our hopes and security to this thing called “earthly existence,” we are in for devastating shocks and crushing disappointments.

One of the most constructive responses to a hard time is to learn from it. We can ask questions like: What is this teaching about myself in terms of my expectations, inner strength, and readiness? About others? About life in this broken world? About God?

There are some situations, however, where we will never find the answers in this life. Especially to the question, “Why?” But there is a way to find strength to press on.

During one tough season I confessed to the Lord that I was tired of “learning lessons.” Enough already! And as I was journaling, it was like the Lord said to me, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me as your Master Teacher to tutor and train you step by step by step.”

That led me to search the Scriptures for passages with the word “instruct.” Here are a few that encourage me greatly.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” (Psalm 32:8 NIV).

God is a compassionate instructor. “With my loving eye on you” reassures us that the Lord does not scorn us for our lack of understanding. Instead, the Lord renews our minds and directs our steps (Proverbs 3:5-6), often in the very moment.

“I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7 NIV).

God meets us in our sleepless nights. When we can’t sleep, we can pray. And we can learn to listen. Don’t dismiss those encouraging thoughts that come, those insights, those memories and scriptures. I often get out of bed for a moment to write them down. I then consider them more carefully in the light of day.

“Good and upright is the Lord; therefore, he instructs sinners in his ways” (Psalm 25:8 NIV)

God does not require we be perfect in order to receive his teaching. He teaches us in the midst of our sin and brokenness, leading us to life.

When we live as disciples (a word meaning “students”) of the Lord in all that life brings, we discover a growing resilience, a deepening wisdom, a more realistic set of expectations, and, above all, the peace and power of God within that pass all understanding.

“So do not fear, for I am with you;

    do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

Consider this again, as if the Lord is speaking to you, “Life in this fallen and failing world is the Hard Classroom. That will never change until I return. But be thankful you have me, the Lord your God, as your Master Teacher. I will tutor and train you step by step by step.”

May it be so, Lord, may it be so.

Death Magnified: A Reflection on Lives Cut Short

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Life cut short magnifies death.

The sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant (age 41), his daughter Gianna (age 13), and seven others (ages 13-56) in a helicopter crash in Southern California on January 26th has shaken many people to the core. The impact is similar to the global shock and grief in response to the deaths Princess Diana (age 36), Dodi Fayed, and their driver, Henri Paul in August 1997.

Statistically, about 151,000 people die daily around the globe. About two-thirds of those die from age-related issues. But it’s the deaths of younger celebrities that seem to have the most impact. Consider the so-called “27 Club” of rock stars who died at the age of 27 like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison (who all died between 1969 and 1971), Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

In a celebrity death, we see death magnified. We experience deeply, viscerally, in ways words fail to express, the tragedy of lost potential, of earthly blessings vaporized in an instant.

For some reason, the death of a public figure brings home the vivid reality of loss that is the strongest mark of death. Everything takes on a new perspective. Time stops. People crave being together. There’s an inner drive, an instinct, to honor the person and to share memories cherished and grieve dreams lost.

Celtic spirituality (not to be confused with the Boston Celtics professional NBA basketball team!) had an insightful name for this experience. Celtic Christians (based generally in the British Isles in the 4th-6th centuries) had a concept of “thin time.” This is a moment or period when we experience that “haunting” of something much more beyond the daily world of our senses and material existence.

We live with a thick curtain between ourselves and “spiritual, eternal” realities. We are absorbed in the world we know. We hardly ever think there’s something more. Then a disruptive event, especially death, pulls back the curtain. It’s like there’s a sheer drape through which we see shadows, sense movement, and perceive a very different “reality.” This is what Christians define as The Real World. 

Death poses the ultimate problem and challenge of life. Followers of Jesus grieve, the Apostle Paul said, “but not as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

The Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563 in Germany during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, presents one of the most reassuring statements of hope in the face of all life’s difficulties, including death, in all theology. Framed as a catechism (a question-answer format used to teach students through memorization), it begins with the most important question we all ask:

Lord’s Day 1 Question 1

Question 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

The living Lord Jesus comforts us so we can comfort others.

A life cut short magnifies death. But the resurrected Lord Jesus magnifies Life and gives us an unshakable hope.

My Most Empowering Prayer

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Many people limit prayer to their understanding of what is “spiritually important.” They don’t want to bother God, or they don’t think God is really interested in everyday matters.

What, then, do we make of Jesus’ words, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7).

Here’s my working principle: If it matters to me, it matters to God.

So how do we apply this to our daily responsibilities?

What burden(s) do you feel as you live for the Lord in daily life?

One significant aspect of my vocation is communicating God’s Word through preaching, teaching and writing. The burden of this responsibility has grown as I’ve seen how powerless I am to change human hearts and minds. I may be interesting or even inspiring for a moment, but that falls far short of “taking every thought captive to obey Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

My work as a pastor is like many other careers. There is, however, a unique dynamic to ministry that affects us all, whether we serve as “volunteers” or as our vocational calling. It’s expressed well by P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921), a Scottish theologian.

The work of ministry labors under one heavy disadvantage when we regard it as a profession and compare it with other professions. In these [other professions], experience brings facility, a sense of mastery in the subject, self-satisfaction, self-confidence; but in our subject [of ministry], the more we pursue it, the more we enter into it, so much more are we cast down with the overwhelming sense not only of our insufficiency, but of our unworthiness.

No wonder Paul asked, “Who is sufficient (competent) for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

I have found hope in Jesus’ words to his disciples, “When they drag you into their meeting places, or into police courts and before judges, don’t worry about defending yourselves—what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there. The Holy Spirit will give you the right words when the time comes” (Luke 12:11-12, The Message).

Based on this promise, I have developed a prayer that has energized my preparation and presentations for many years. “Lord, give me what you want to give me for your people.” And before I speak, I pray, “Lord, give us what you want to give us in this time.” (I mentioned this briefly in my blog “Pray with Open Hands,” September 23, 2019).

It’s a joy hearing people comment, “That message (blog, teaching) was just what I needed. I felt like you were speaking right to me.”

Recently, I spoke at a men’s gathering at our church we call Man Night. The next day I received this email:

Doug thanks for last night. After a very long day yesterday, while getting the kids off to the High School group and my wife off to her Bible study, I told her I was fried and would probably skip Man Night. I was worn out and just not feeling it for some reason.  Then God tapped me on the shoulder, telling me I ought to go.

Then this man, whom I’ll call James, described how he remembered my talk was on staying motivated as Jesus’ disciples—and that he really needed motivation. In my talk, I presented Jesus’ strategy of invitation, not condemnation. I departed from my notes and made some applications to parenting. I shared how it’s easy for parents to become anxious and pressure our children. We condemn them instead of discovering how to invite them into God’s better way. “James” continued his email:

I feel like we’re continually condemning our high schoolers, which just causes more of arguments. So, the power and confidence to back off on the condemnation and instead model Jesus, guiding more through grace, like the examples you gave, was powerful medicine. Thanks be to God.

So, I came for one message, but was moved by another that I wasn’t thinking about, but I really needed help with.  Sounds just about the way God works.  Sometimes the most important thing is just showing up.

I had not planned to speak on parenting, but that was what the Holy Spirit gave me to give these men, especially James.

Prayer can empower us to fulfill the most significant responsibilities of our lives.

The Lord is ready to give his blessings to others through us. The big question is: Are we ready to receive them and pass them on?

“Lord, give us what you want to give others through us. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen!”

Wreck-reation or Re-Creation?

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There are two kinds of people in the world (how often have you heard that??): Those who work to play and those who work.

If you read my blog consistently, you will notice my struggle with work and play, with work and rest.

I’ve come to believe we all have several themes that characterize our lives. These are areas of persistent challenge and growth. We “spiral” around these themes. They can often be framed in terms of competing values. By that I mean certain preferences we naturally pursue compete with values we think we should pursue. For example: a task-oriented person wrestles with their need to put more value on relationships. A perfectionist becomes aware of their need to “lighten up” for themselves and others. A relaxed person feels pressure to be more ambitious. Can you identify some of your life themes?

So back to my theme of work and rest. I have great energy spread over many interests. Combine that with a strong sense of responsibility, a desire to make meaningful contributions to others’ lives, and a commitment to being a faithful steward, and you have one of the recipes for a workaholic.

This is a significant spiritual problem because over-work (work addiction) can easily lead to problems such as self-reliance, neglecting relationships, ignoring self-care, and eventually to spiritual numbness and burnout.

So how do we gain God’s rhythm and balance for our lives?

For me, it began by seeing the essential value of rest, beginning with the Sabbath principle in Genesis 2: 2-3.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

One of my problems was that I had a wrong concept about rest and recreation. Writing in my journal in 1980 was the first time I wrote the pun “wreck-reation.” I don’t remember having seen or heard that pun anywhere else. I wrote it because it captured my problem with the common idea about recreation.  Much of what people called “recreation” was just “wreck-reation”—it left them exhausted and stressed. They were not refreshed and renewed. They needed a vacation from their vacation.

As I reflected on God’s command to rest, however, I saw the inherent message in the word “recreation” as “re-creation.” Lights went on. Re-creation is a biblical mandate—and a blessing. The amazing news of Genesis 2 and the 10 Commandments and all of scripture is that God blesses us with rest (see Matthew 11:28-30 for Jesus’ definitive invitation).

My natural tendency is the attitude described by Tim Hansel in his book title, When I Relax, I Feel Guilty. But now I remind myself, “When I relax, I am honoring the Lord and loving myself.”

In Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon gave some great advice to young ministers that applies to all of us. Writing before the days of mechanized farm equipment, the mower is harvesting grain in the fields by hand using only a scythe:

Look at the mower in the summer’s day. With so much to cut down before the sun sets, he pauses in his labor. Is he a sluggard? He looks for a stone and begins to draw it up and down his scythe, rink-a-tink, rink-a-tink, rink-a-tink. He’s sharpening his blade. Is that idle music? Is he wasting precious moments? How much he might have mown while he was ringing out those notes on his blade. But he is sharpening his tool. And he will do far more, when once again he gives his strength to those long sweeps which lay the grass prostrate in rows before him.

Even thus a little pause prepares the mind for greater service in a good cause. Fishermen must mend their nets and we must, every now and then, repair our mental states and set our machinery in order for future service. It is wisdom to take occasional furloughs. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less.

There’s a God-given need and God-given invitation to stop, to rest, to tend ourselves.

Using a dull ax requires great strength, so sharpen the blade (Ecclesiastes 10:10 NLT).

Re-creation is God’s plan to renew us and to restore us so we can live with joy and energy for God’s glory.