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.

The Clean Slate Club

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One of the common phrases we hear around New Year’s Eve and Day is the opportunity many take to “start with a clean slate.” The reference is to the slate students used (like a mini-blackboard – or now we have whiteboards!) before paper was readily available. They’d do their arithmetic sums on a piece of slate (like shale) then wipe it off to do more. Mistakes were easily erased, so they could start again—with a clean slate.

As I was musing on the clean slate, I thought about “the clean plate club” many parents use to try to motivate their children to eat all the food (especially vegetables!) they’ve been served. My dad used to promote this concept with me, and also with our children, his grandchildren. A clean plate meant we were grateful for our blessings, especially considering the needs of starving children around the world. (Pretty heavy stuff for a four or five-year-old…).

Clean plate and clean slate sound similar, but they have very different emphases.

The clean plate club is well-meaning, but misdirected. It imposes guilt and pressure.

The “Clean Slate Club” I’m suggesting does just the opposite. The clean slate club removes guilt and pressure.

Many of us live so continually with a burden of guilt (see my recent “Thriver’s Guilt” blogs) that we hardly know what it’s like not to feel guilty. Jesus gave his life so we could break from bondage to sin and guilt.

By faith, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ erases the slate of charges against us.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2 NIV).

And there’s these reassuring verses from Psalm 103:

…[The Lord] does not treat us as our sins deserve

    or repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

    so great is his love for those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:10-12).

Corrie ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place (about her’s family’s courage in hiding Jews from the Nazis) said it this way:  “Bury your sins in the deepest part of the ocean and hang a sign there that says, ‘No Fishing.’”

But a clean slate is not just a New Year’s thing.

A clean slate is not even a new-morning thing, even though I heartily celebrate Lamentations 3:22-23

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

A clean slate is moment-by-moment thing.

In spiritual direction, I find one of the greatest barriers to experiencing God’s presence is focusing on our failures and shortcomings. Because our minds naturally focus on just one item at a time, focusing on our sins (both of omission and commission) takes our attention from God’s grace and goodness.

I continually remind myself of the practical wisdom of Brother Lawrence (whose given name was Nicholas Herman and is also known as Lawrence of the Resurrection). Following his death in 1691, the abbot of his monastic community compiled his letters and notes in a booklet treasured by many, The Practice of the Presence of God. Abbe Joseph de Beaufort recalled of Brother Lawrence:

[That] when an occasion of practicing some virtue offered, he addressed himself to God, saying, “Lord, I cannot do this unless thou enablest me;” and that then he received strength more than sufficient.

[That] when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to God, “I shall never do otherwise if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.”  That after this he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

So, I invite you to join the Clean Slate Club. By faith in Jesus Christ, live in the freedom and joy of God’s holy eraser.

It’s Who You Know

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(Not my bookshelf!) Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Early in my ministry I was sitting in my study one morning. I was particularly discouraged by the stacks of unread books and magazines that continued to grow as my time for reading contracted.

“Lord,” I cried out in prayer, “how can I ever know enough to serve you properly? I’ll never get caught up!”

Then a stillness came over me, and it was as if the Lord said, “Doug, look at your library.” At that time I had one bookcase with six five-foot shelves.

“Can you hold all those books?” the Lord continued. “If you stacked the books, one on top of the other, how many could you carry?“

I realized I couldn’t carry even one-third of one shelf.

“Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

Refreshment and relief swept over my spirit.

One of the joys and challenges of ministry is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in almost any and every field imaginable. Our medieval ancestors called Theology the “Queen of the Sciences” (a title sadly discarded by most today). That designation points to the fact that all knowledge finds its roots in God. We are stewards of this world in every aspect, including mining the treasures of knowledge and understanding.

So there’s hardly a subject I find irrelevant. This has led to a love for—and a significant accumulation of—books. After seminary and over 40 years in pastoral ministry, I have nearly 20 times the number of books than when the Lord first communicated, “Don’t hold your books. Hold on to me.”

I am committed to pursuing Biblical knowledge and theological understanding. It’s part of our obedience to the greatest commandment.

“The most important [commandment],” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29-30).

I believe fervently in apologetics (the logical explanation and defense of the faith—as represented by Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ). I have a satisfied mind and continue to love God with all my mind, as well as with my heart, soul and strength.

Problems arise, however, when knowledge about God replaces continuing fellowship with God.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… 8 Love never fails… where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. (1 Corinthians 13:1-10 selected verses).

If I never read another book or developed another concept, God would love me no less.

It’s not how much we know about God— it’s knowing God that matters most.

Authority is the Force of Presence

Authority is much more about our person than our position.

 

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Photo by Benjamin Child at Unsplash.com

Those not in official or formal leadership positions tend to think that the power is in the position. That’s true only to a limited extent. It is true in the sense that a person “in power” can exercise certain rights and authority and claim the perquisites (“perks”) of privileges and benefits that come with that position. But there’s another dimension of leadership that is more significant to the health and well-being of the organization and the individuals leading it: integrity. I mean integrity in the fullest sense of the term: being integrated (inwardly unified) in values and behavior. Living a life congruent and consistent with your vision and calling.  That’s why I say authority is the force of presence not the presence of force.

I’ve noticed that a person’s credentials (their resume of degrees, positions and accomplishments) have a shelf-life of, perhaps, 60 seconds. I’ve been privileged to meet many people in leadership positions in government, in community life and in Christian ministry. They held what I thought were enviable positions of influence. Before meeting each one, I had formed an impression of them by reputation and exposure through books or other media and contacts. After my personal encounter with them, however, I had a strong sense of the difference between those who had true authority and those who just knew how to “work the system.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in just working the system. I want to be “the real deal” (with all my flaws and shortcomings) so that people value me and appreciate me for me.

In my book SoulShaping (Tyndale House Publishers) I wrote, “Our authority grows out of our integrity. Without integrity, we are never more than placeholders; with integrity, we can be life-shapers” (page 358). What I’m really talking about is character. It’s about the old-fashioned concept of virtue. And it’s about the credibility of having faced the real trials and tests of leadership in particular contexts. For instance, in sales, there is a credibility that comes only from years of perseverance in the face of rejection as well as with the demonstration of having made some “big deals.” Both are necessary for a leader. People are more ready to follow a person who demonstrates both genuine empathy for the difficulties we face as well as the vision, competencies and determination to triumph over them. That’s how leaders win hearts and minds.

We can force compliance—but that’s not our goal as leaders. We want to win commitment. Honest heartfelt commitment, not just grudging compliance, is our aim. And that means connecting at the level of personhood, not operating out of position.

Jesus was, indeed, the ultimate demonstration of the authority of presence. He shows us that God is not detached from the human situation. In Christ, God plunged into the human circumstance in a way that gives a credibility that is beyond question. The Book of Hebrews in the Bible says this so clearly:

14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death… 17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. Hebrews 2:14-18 (New Living Translation)

What’s the basis for your authority? Instead of relying on outward position and achievement, consider the development of “presence,” of your inner person. And think about those in which you see this reality.

Cool Guy?

How do you share your faith when it’s just not cool?

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Photo by Aaron Burden from Unsplash.com

I don’t think I’ve ever been thought of as a “cool guy”—you know, the nonchalant, everybody-probably-wishes-they-were-me kind of guy. If you remember the TV show, Happy Days, I was never, ever like “The Fonz” (Henry Winkler). I’ve always been more like Richie (Ron Howard). In fact, when my senior class in high school was voting on senior class personalities—you know, “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Greatest Hair,” “Most Popular”—I was voted “Most Responsible.” I didn’t even know they had such a category. And believe me, it didn’t feel cool.

Danny was cool. Effortlessly cool. Like he didn’t need anybody, but was surrounded by people who wanted to be with him. Yeah—I found myself wondering what it would be like to be like Danny.

One evening a friend and I went to see Danny because he wasn’t coming to youth group and church activities any longer. Danny invited us in and took us to his back patio. Then he lit up a cigarette, took a deep draw on it, blew out the smoke and asked, “So what’s on your minds?”

It’s cool to be direct—not threatened by anything.

“Well, we’ve missed you at church and just wanted to reconnect.”

“That’s cool, but I’m not into church stuff anymore. It’s just not where I’m at. Too many hypocrites.” He knocked the ashes off his cigarette onto the knee of his jeans and rubbed them into the fabric. (I obviously would never make the shift from most responsible to cool if I had to act like Danny).

“You’re right,” I responded.

His eyebrows rose above his round, wire-rim glasses. “I am?” he said with surprise.

“Yeah, the church is all messed up. Too many people go just to be seen, or to try to be sure they are on God’s good side. That’s garbage. But what about Jesus? What do you think about Jesus?”

“Jesus….” Long, long pause, “Jesus. I guess he’s cool.”

That opened the door to a couple of hours of conversation. Danny smoked more than a few cigarettes as we discussed the Bible, science and evolution, Jesus’ humanity and divinity, death and resurrection, and I can’t remember what else. We covered a lot of ground. And it was not because we pushed, but because he kept asking.

“Hey, Danny, we should be going. Thanks for giving us this time. Before we go, do you want to pray with us?”

Up went the eyebrows!

“Pray with you?? Nah… I’m not into that.”

“Well, after all we’ve talked about, we just wondered if you wanted to take the next step and commit or recommit your life to Christ…”

He just shook his head, “Don’t take this wrong, guys, but I’m not ready for anything like that.”

“No problem. We really enjoyed getting connected again. See you sometime.”

When we got in the car, I couldn’t help myself, “I doubt if we’ll ever see Danny in church again.”

Fast forward 5 years. I had been married for over a year and was just getting ready to leave for seminary. Sarah and I were at my home church in the worship service. When we stood to sing, this guy I didn’t recognize glanced back our way. He did it several times during the service. Like he knew Sarah or me. After the service, he came directly up to us and looked right at me through his wire-rim glasses.

“Are you Doug Rumford?”

“Yes,” but I couldn’t place this clean-cut, suit-wearing guy.

“I’m Danny. Man, I’ve been praying I would see you!”

“Wait. What? You’re DANNY?? Smoking-on-your-porch, rubbing-cigarette-ashes-into-your-jeans Danny?”

He laughed, “Yeah—so you remember me? I gave you quite a hard time that day.”

“It’s a day I’ll never forget.”

“Me neither. That’s why I’ve been praying to see you. Six months ago I prayed to receive Jesus Christ into my life as Lord and Savior. After that prayer, the man who was sharing with me asked, ‘Danny, how many people helped you get to this place of commitment? Who was the first person you remember sharing with you?’ I told him it was you, Doug. He said, ‘Then start praying you can see Doug and tell him—and everyone else who shared with you, too. It will be a great encouragement and joy to them.’ So I’ve been praying—and here you are. Thank you!”

He gave me a huge hug. Tears were rolling down both our cheeks.

“I’m sorry I was such a jerk. That wasn’t cool,” Danny said. “But Doug, you were so cool to reach out to me.”

I was cool. I was cool?… So that’s what it really means! Now I get it!

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7 New International Version NIV).