Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! And then what?

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

And then what?

That is my burning question this holiday season, erupting into flames against the backdrop of my life. How does that the hopeful expectation of Christmas fizzle and sputter so quickly at the approach of New Year’s? How does quiet faith of something, no, Someone, better and new entering time to fix our brokenness become a recitation of what went wrong this last year and all of the things necessary to make 2017 live up to unrealistic expectations?

Maybe this year will be different. Maybe this year I’ll figure it all out: a self-empowerment mantra that only leaves me more disillusioned at the end of the next year when I fail once again to control the uncontrollable. I’ve read of people focusing on a word for the new year as a call to action. But I need more than a word. I need a thousand, ten thousand.

I need the Word, a continual immersion in truth, to keep me grounded and stable.

The Christmas season still feels a bit like a mandatory census with its need to finish up normal life while still fitting in all sorts of extras, but still make it home – wherever that may be – in time for Christmas. And home is not quite the same as we left it for many of us: loss of dearest ones, a move, a disaster, or simply age and time. Yet, we still make that pilgrimage towards where we came from – even if it’s in our own minds.

For me, this year has been a different sort of homecoming and a rough one at that. I spent the last two months selling or packing all of my possessions, driving them halfway across the country, closing out my current career, and saying the hardest of goodbyes to the best of friends. On December 23rd, my sister and I started the drive from Orlando to South Dakota, hoping to make it in time for Christmas Eve celebration with the rest of the family.

I imagine the very pregnant and travel weary Mary had some of the same emotions. Please. Just get us there. Let the travel stop. I want to sleep in one place for more than a night. I want to have a home again. And like Mary, I arrived in the midst of chaos and other people’s homecomings and a house bursting at the seams. The journey completed, the displacement and change had just begun.

While I can’t commiserate fully with the wholly overwhelming experience of a newborn, every life change is fraught with disproportionate feelings. Our worst fears seem magnified and shouted on endless repeat in the back of our minds. What if I fail? I cannot control this. This isn’t enough. This is too much.

I grow weary of my ceremonies and rituals to make it all better, to make me better. In Isaiah, God grows tired of Israel’s vain offerings, as well. He tells them, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)

I can’t on my own. I’m reminded of a child in one of my favorite books who finds himself as a dragon, lonely and in pain, because of his own selfishness and sin. He longs to be human again, to be made right as we all do, but can only remove so many layers of the dragon scales on his own before finally submitting to the claw of Aslan to finish the job.

Submit. Maybe that’s my word for the year, for my life. It’s something I struggle with every single day. How do I submit to the moment, to the process, to the journey, to the unknown and uncontrollable? Even Isaiah hints that a process is necessary and failures are certain by stating that we must learn to do good. And what is learning but the forging of new pathways by repeated trial and error? We must seek justice but cannot guarantee that we will find it in our lifetimes.

All of these things take time, something I suddenly have much more of at my disposal. But I’m not quite sure what I am supposed to be doing with it. My normal responses of action and busyness are stilled in the face of recreating a life in a place I left behind fifteen years ago.

So, I sit and work to submit. I lean into such words as “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” (Isaiah 1:18-19) He, who is faithful, has done it, is doing it, will do it. He has washed me clean and has made a way – how much more will he lead me in it.

Faith and hope in the quiet of winter. May I learn to linger in these long twilights under cold skies. This new year I make no resolutions, only rest. For, “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.” (Psalm 36:5)

And that is enough.

How to Talk to God

How to talk to God. Catchy title. Engaging. Relevant. But how do you sum this up in a blog post? Or even a four-week message series? The impossibility of such an answer leaves me somewhere between frozen and grateful.

If talking to God looked the same for everyone, every time then I would most certainly treat it as another box to check on my to-do list and it would, in no way, change my circumstances nor my heart. If it were a generic, one-size-fits-all prescription I would flounder and drown in boredom, routine, and disappointment. The fact that Bible spends so much more time simply admonishing us to pray rather than giving us step-by-steps on what that looks like, frees me from societal interpretations unrealistic, unattainable expectations for prayer. But at the same time, such freedom in mode can lead me to less action and counterfeit commitment.

But in his sovereignty, God left us with a framework and a starting point for prayer. “…Hallowed by thy name.” (Matt 6:9) Ultimately, and above all, God’s glory should get our highest priority. And even in glorifying him, we need his help. He alone powers our prayers. Answers to prayer do not hinge on our faith, nor our obedience, nor even our fervency and desperation. They rest only with God. Praying does not make me Christian.

I pray to communicate with God while acknowledging that He is the only means by which it all transpires.

If there is one thing that I feel like I’m good at in the whole Christianity thing, it’s arguing with God. My problems with God often come right where faith and logic fail to meet. And I’m at a particular juncture in my life where I need to make immensely consequential decisions – at least it feels that way in my limited, finite view of things. In fact, I feel my next move is something that I have been arguing with God about for years.

I pride myself on my reasoning abilities. I lay my “but God’s” out before him in order. Emotions only serve to impassion my fact-based arguments before him. All the reasons why I can’t or the things I think he should do to/in my circumstances stand in formation, ready for battle.

But faith comes after the arguing and ultimately deciding to trust God’s way, regardless that trusting God seems to make the least amount of logical sense.

I’ve felt him leading in an ever tightening circle to this new adventure in my life for a long, long time. Most days I spend more like Jonah with my fingers in my ears shouting, Lalalala, I can’t hear you! than I do like David, praying for a humble and contrite heart and for God’s glory to shine in my circumstances. But God is merciful and patient and still works through my repeated failures and slow learning and half-hearted prayer.

So many times I have cried out to God to show me what’s next, but now I have also begun to ask him to help me learn contentment in my current situation. My heart burns and my soul pants. Nothing else can satisfy, but God. I’ve tried so many other ways. But like David, I am learning to pray hear me, answer me, save me, transform me. Meet my needs in the here and now, but transform my heart so that it is undivided.

Every time I have wrestled and travailed with God, I have come away changed. Even when I have been stripped bare and raw and broken by these arguments, I have found peace in the authenticity that struggle brings.

Pleading and stating my case uncovers my vulnerabilities and my motives.

God is big enough to handle my doubt and strong enough to love me through my lashing out.

My railings show the depth of his unending and unchanging mercy. And he brings about the circumstances that he deems best but simultaneously brings me to a place where I can meet them like a reed bending in the wind, full of life, still reaching ever upwards.

But more than just calling out in my desperation, the Word lead us to appeal to God from his attributes. I stop and ponder what he has done in the past because remembrance of his steadfastness fuels my anxious prayers. Answer, because of your faithfulness. Hear me, because of your goodness. Save me, because of your grace.

And so I continue to pray, because it doesn’t end when God finally leads me to one decision. Each day doubt starts fresh so I must run and bow again to Him whose ways are higher than mine and who has his glory and my good in mind. That means not giving up and not giving in – even when the hard part stretches on endlessly ahead of me.

Constant prayer is a posturing, a complete reliance on something other than myself, a reaching out in supplication to the Creator of all things, and an absolute and utter necessity. Rejoice. Lean in. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all things. “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thes 5:24)

The Solid Rock

To be entirely honest, I wanted to give up on blogging this week just because I feel busy and I haven’t been consistent with anything this whole summer. However, I can’t get this week’s message out of my mind. I felt the need to sit down and do the hard work I want to avoid: hear and do. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matt 7:24)

Sometimes “doing” is preaching the gospel to myself. Sometimes it is sitting down and reading a passage in the Word again and again and again until it sinks into my bones and flows through my veins with its cooling peace. Sometimes it’s gritting my teeth and looking for the positive in the stressful situation and consciously focusing on doing it all unto God – not just writing that phrase onto a cliché meme or hash tagging it on social media.

The storm falls on me this week in sheets of disappointment and crashes in with waves of unexpected and extra tasks. Then it circles around with physical exhaustion and subtle suggestions that I’m alone and overwhelmed and nothing will change.

It’s always the lie that we are alone, isn’t it? That no one else could possibly know what we face or carry? We feel ourselves on the outside looking in at the carefully mortared house walls that others construct for social media and surface conversation. We apologize to unexpected visitors at the state of our lived in home – as if no one else dirties dishes and towels and kitchen floors.

And how many false prophets preaching good things also scream for my attention? How easily I get carried away by their assurances of salvation by works! Relationships, body image, career success, social status, extracurricular memberships, hopes and dreams, a healthy lifestyle, future goals all demand my focus. If it’s good I must say yes and fit it in. But what fruit grows out of my investment in them? What are my motives? Of what does my foundation consist? How thick and unshakable does it reach down to keep me from blowing away on the fickle winds of today’s priorities?

I tend to get so caught up in building and busy with good things of life that I don’t make time for the hard work of abiding. I rush ahead in worry and haste. I start comparing myself with those around me and grab and slop together and ache for where I think the next phase in life should lead me. I take others’ goals and standards of measure and try to achieve them as my own.

I’m ever tempted to build my stuff higher and reach out wider to do more to keep up with some impossible and shifting standard. It’s easier for me to grab another stone and check off another box than it is for me to sit here and let the lesson of grace harden and cure.

But what do I sacrifice in depth and lasting fruit just to place a hundred stones above the surface for others to see? “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matt 7:20) “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Gal 5:22-23) My focus must be Christ instead of growth or even others. The foundation must be first and all-consuming.

The foundation is the Gospel.

The Gospel is grace.

Grace is Christ meeting the impossible standard of perfection in my place. The foundation is living there. In grace. Sinking down into words of life and arms of forgiveness. Focusing on Christ. Only then rising to reach out with hands empowered by the Spirit.

The hard work of doing starts in the heart, mind, and soul. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace with be with you.” (Phil 4:4-9)

How to be a neighbor in a world filled with hate and ap...

After ruminating on the parable of the Good Samaritan this week, I realized that I often find myself like the lawyer who precipitates it – standing up, interrupting God, and asking fundamentally flawed questions. “Yeah, but what do I have to do to inherit eternal life and punch my ticket to heaven?” as if I can do anything to inherit. Inheritance yields itself as a gift – not a recompense to earn.

Jesus, in his typical, motive piercing style, turns the question back on the expert who challenged him, but then accepts the pat, canned answer he receives in return. Yes. Right. Love God with everything in you and love your neighbor well. Do this and you will live. Even rehearsed and rote, this Sunday School statement cannot be wrung and distilled of its intrinsic and fundamental truth.

But this doesn’t satisfy the challenger, similar to how it often doesn’t placate me. I, too, skirt and dance around the heart issues, seeking out endless loopholes to justify not only my strivings, but my also avoidances. Who is my neighbor? How far do I really have to go with this? How much of my life can remain untouched and deemed acceptable because of the good I’ve already done in this world? Where is the line that allows me to stop the painful work of introspection and sacrifice and self-denial? When have I done enough?

In response, Jesus paints a picture of what love and sacrifice really look like. Envision a man from any despised minority group (whether race, religion, social class, etc.) stopping to care for an injured man of the segregated hating group after others have already gone on by. The Samaritan risked his own life by staunching the grave wounds of the other man and then also carrying him into a hostile town and paying in advance for his care. Can you feel the cold, steely stares dripping with suspicion as he makes his way through town?

In using such a metaphor, Jesus goes beyond the touted rules and regulations. He pushes their understanding of obedience from following the law, to following a God of grace and mercy and compassion. He transcends race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, age and every other polarizing difference that we focus on instead of on our shared state of humanity and sin.

No matter what scenario I present, Jesus alone is the Good Samaritan.

He saves me from my sin that hungers to destroy me and leaves me beaten and bloody along the path of life. He brings me from death to life. He rescues me and pays my debts. Final judgement must not find me holding my good deeds, but must find me in Christ. I can’t ever outwork my sin. His blood and sacrifice on my behalf are the only things that credit me with righteousness. Christ alone saves.

The question that remains then isn’t how to define my neighbor, but how to discern my heart motives and intentions and how to see everyone around me as God has also created them in his image. And this, welling up from the grace that God has bestowed on me. His ultimate surrender, sacrifice, and example leave me no option to stop at simply doing no harm. Everyone is my neighbor, no matter how inconvenient or counter cultural. Nor can I stop at social justice. What is mercy, but Christ taking our place? The man who proved to be the neighbor was the one who showed mercy. “…You go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)

 

Based on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Check out the message at http://discovergrace.com/messages/

A Long Way Off

Oh, the prodigal son. This one always hits so close to home. I have spent years as each of the sons. For most of my life, I identified with the older brother; angry and indignant at the undeserved affection and unwarranted reception that the prodigal receives upon coming home. I toiled diligently and abstained from many pleasures in order to stay “righteous” and do the good works. And for a time, I centered my heart on God.

But in my earnestness and eventual self-righteousness, I sought God’s approval on my deeds and my lifestyle. I felt like his blessings were rewards for my behavior – not grace upon grace. I fell into the ugly trap of deserving. I deserved what I had. My hard work deserved recompense. I labored to swing the scales of justice in my favor. How could those who had done nothing receive the same merit as I did?

But resentment reveals itself just as bitter and virulent as envy and hate and unrepentance. It kept me from seeing the magnitude of my own sin and the overwhelming grace of the cross that covers it.

Unfortunately, I also spent several years as the prodigal son. I got to the point where I was tired of waiting for the good things I thought I deserved. I wanted that feast in my honor. I wanted what I thought was good and best along my own timeframe. So, I demanded my inheritance and literally, took off across the country in pursuit of my desires. I squandered five years of my life in reckless living. And squandered is the perfect word for it. I have nothing to show for those years. Nothing, but sour memories; no investments of my time that reached beyond myself. I spent five years completely self-absorbed in a mirrored bubble of myself.

Somehow, I thought my selfish choices wouldn’t affect anyone else. I imagined that I would just kind of disappear from my family – I even wrote such foolishness in my journal at the beginning of that time. I couldn’t imagine the gaping wounds I inflicted on my sisters, mother, father, nieces, nephews, and old friends. I didn’t expect them to see and feel them trying to heal from my arrogant, abrupt departure and stubborn unrepentance.

I experienced my own famine for a long, desperate time before God opened my eyes again. I had starved myself of love and real human connection. My heart waned dry and empty. The tears wouldn’t stop flowing and I hurt without really even understanding why or where. My daily circumstances left me feeling listless and hopeless. I looked outside myself and knew that my situation was not ultimate, nor ideal. Nothing about it brought me peace or hope – only a wishing for something better and more fulfilling than the nothingness that consumed me.

But even then, I could not change my circumstances. I could not will them away or strive myself out of it. I fell and kept falling and falling until I landed back into God’s arms. While still a long way off, I heard him calling out to me and joyfully summoning me back. When I couldn’t make it through a church service without breaking down into tears I felt him pulling me and starting the celebration at my return – even though it was all his doing.

And as the prodigal returning home, I began to realize what I never could in my stilted stubbornness as the elder brother: all that is His, he has already given freely to us.

All that is His, was mine, is mine.

It culminated on the cross and has never stopped. Every blessing, every sunrise, every feast, every celebration, every joy – they were not mine because I had earned them. They belonged to the Father and he has always longed for me to share with him in them.

He eagerly entreats us to accept his lavish gifts and what more can I ever dream of than life eternal with Him? What is true of the prodigal son rings true for us in Christ: “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:32) From death to life. From lost to found.

I began to see that we are all prodigals coming home.

 

Based on the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15:11-33 from Grace Church’s The Parables series. Check it out here: http://discovergrace.com/messages/

When Hope Is All You Have

The Apostle’s Creed pounds home God’s divine nature and his plan for the redemption of man point by point, and then culminates in this ethereal, sweeping gaze to the future. I think the authors intended it that way to remind us never to be so caught up in the past or here and now that we forget what lies ahead.

The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. I can look forward to these things only after grounding myself in the Gospel and reminding myself of truth upon truth; after examining where I put my hope and scrutinizing my construct of God and his church. Who I am in Christ ignites my hope for the future.

How many years did I long for a “story” of conversion, wishing for my salvation to become real and true and deep? I tell you what gives you a story: living. Live long enough and everyone has a beautiful tragedy to tell.

And now it feels like I share a little piece of my story every single week by processing and writing through each message. But that’s really the essence of this gospel-centered life: take each blow and every triumph and paint them over again with God’s grace, through Christ. Forget what lies behind and lean in towards what waits ahead.

Not the kind of forgetting that never calls it to mind again. I fervently wish that for some memories and choices I have made. But instead, this remembering counts it all under the blood of Christ so that dark shadows of shame and worry can no longer dominate my thoughts or haunt my dreams with angst and regret.

And not the kind of striving forward that I often labor for in pursuit. That relying on my own competence and willpower to make myself better and worthy leaves me so disillusioned and broken down. The impossibility overwhelms me. But this true striving is one of radiant hope and ever-present peace and joy.

As Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own… I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:12,14) The upward call; citizenship in heaven.

How easily I fall prey to the cares of this moment and the next! How much effort and worry I spend on things that bloom and loom today but wither or blow over in an instant!

But hope gives proper perspective.

Right now, my car is broken. Looks like my lawn irrigation leak is back. Job stress is through the roof, and one of my best friends is struggling with an anxiety I know all too well. But I can’t fixate on my lack of control. I continue to move forward, looking upward. God help me. Is this what faith feels like? I wouldn’t really call it resignation or acquiescence, but a shifting of focus; resetting, resolving. I need to lay down the things I can’t carry anyway.

Hope. Rejoice. Why? The Lord is at hand. Pray. Give thanks. The most important work has already been done; the redemption of our souls. I can rest secure in this regardless of the buffeting storms. I can’t let unfulfilled expectations and daily disappointments blossom into bitterness in my heart.

He is still good even when I don’t understand. The peace of God transcends my understanding. That doesn’t make it any less real. I pray because Jesus prayed. And I ask his will to be done, not my own. Sometimes it feels like the worst thing in the world because I can’t see how it can ever be good or make sense to my limited viewpoint. Those awful, hard times break my heart, but they are good because he is good. He is the only thing I can hope in; not jobs, not answered prayers, not people. Just his sovereignty and goodness.

Hope – that translucent, resilient thing – springs from roots in Christ alone, pointing to a future of resurrection and life eternal with the creator, sustainer, and lover of our souls.

One Body

We believe. . . in the Holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins. . .

The holy catholic church; the church universal; all the believers that ever lived in all of time. I never associated that phrase with other time periods before, but it makes sense. Our learning and understanding branches from what our forbearers laid out for us in history, giving context to our current cultural debates. I think that adage holds truth – if we don’t learn from the past we are doomed to repeat it.

The communion of saints; us, right now, the local church. I love how 1 Corinthians refers to the church as a body – an illustration that everyone can relate to. It doesn’t change culturally. It’s meaning hasn’t shifted or morphed over the centuries. Body. Corporate. One, but many completely disparate entities; the perfect metaphor.

God is one, but triune. He existed always and forever in perfect community. History debunks an exclusively “personal” Christian experience. It is not good for man to be alone so he created man and then woman – similar, but not the same – before calling it good and commanding them to be fruitful and multiply. God didn’t just save Noah from the flood, but his whole family. He promised Abram a nation as an inheritance instead of just a son. God calls a whole race his chosen people. He pours out judgement on entire kingdoms. Christ died one for all.

Why the communion of saints? The easy, Sunday School answer is to glorify God. But truly, God is so much more than a person. At first glance, that seems like a treasonous, heretical statement. I’m not talking animism or paganism or that every rock and stick is a chunk of divinity. But I grossly misconstrue the image of God if I make Him out to be like me instead of groveling in remembrance that we all are made out of His likeness.

Still, He is so much more than I can even dream! My Western individualism hinders me from soaking in the fullness of such a concept much like a fingernail can hardly delight in a masterpiece painted by the artist possessing it. Our culture has crowned individualism king and that only breeds selfishness and reinforces my inflated sense of status. I imagine myself important and complete, forgetting that a spark does not give much heat on its own.

I usually fall squarely into two conflicting camps. On the one hand, I flagrantly elevate my individualism to the point where everything in the universe is all about me and my drama. Conversely and simultaneously, I cry woe is me, comparing myself to everyone around me and always finding myself lacking.

But each body part is necessary. Yes, some are more revered than others. And without some, we learn to adapt and compensate and even forget, but that is not the design or intention or purpose. The body is less and incomplete without them. We are intrinsically wired for corporate life. We are designed to function in tandem and response to each other. We are intended to give and take, exchange and reciprocate – like breathing in and then out again. We cannot do one without the other and still survive.

I’ll be the first to say it. People are hard. Community is hard. They require things of me that are usually difficult and almost always inconvenient. But each person has a unique shade and hue and vital piece in this giant tapestry of life. I often only see the contrasts that others bring as taking away my significance and then cower and pout inside my own tiny dimension.

But, to love others well is what brings God glory.

When I step from my selfish hubris and into the messy, imperfect body of Christ, the gospel becomes visible. “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) And though we are all at least a little bit broken, he painstakingly places each of our shards into the stunning mosaic that reflects back his glory and effulgence – a flawless portrait of the forgiveness of sins.

Come, Lord Jesus

Judgement is one of those terms that instantly creates largely diverse connotations. Even in myself, I vacillate between desperately wishing for it and frantically doing all I can to hide from it. I tend to see the world as very black and white. At a young age, I struggled to understand why people broke the rules or, stranger yet, couldn’t even agree on them! I saw right and wrong and couldn’t comprehend anything other version than what I was taught.

My overwhelming sense of justice made it difficult for me to lie and even more problematic for me to hide what I deemed my more serious wrongdoings from my parents or other authority figures. My “big transgressions” would eat away at me until I could think of nothing else and would confess them to the powers that be in hopes of receiving a penance to assuage the guilt I felt. I understood that misbehaving had a penalty and came to view penalty as the necessary vehicle that brought my justification.

That thought pattern bled into my view of Christianity and of God. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). That I grasped. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).  Seemed fair to my simplistic world view. But after this, my theology started to fall apart. “… but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:23). I had (and still have) a hard time understanding the gift part.

I desperately want to believe that Jesus took my place and paid the ultimate price for my sins when he died on the cross after a sinless life. It’s breathtakingly and painfully poignant. The hues of redemption bleed deeper than I can even begin to discern. But then I get to thinking that it must be too good to be true.

The trouble with human reasoning is that it is limited by our humanity. It’s as if we are trying to paint a three dimensional picture when we live in a two dimensional world and know nothing but bedtime stories of anything else. So, while I believe the Gospel truth that Christ died for me and his blood pays the penalty for my sins, my flawed circular reasoning whispers that I need to add something, too. I need to pay a part of the price to show my acceptance of it. Wrong.

And how much more then, do I extrapolate this misguided sense of ultimate justice on to everyone else? Even though I don’t want to pay the price, I think I deserve it. How much more strongly do I want those who have wronged me and feel no remorse to pay for their actions!

Because of the exaggerated cause and effect, transactionary paradigm I held, I struggled to look at the final judgement of Christ with anything other than doom and dread. Surely, that’s when my portion of the bill would come due. But the whole of scripture never once alludes to a responsibility of payment for those who are in Christ. If I don’t understand this judgement, I don’t understand the cross. If there was no penalty for sin or alternately, if I still owe some unpaid portion of my own – then the cross was for nothing and all is lost.

But God, in his richness of mercy, accepts the blood of the perfect Son’s sacrifice as the atonement for my sins. Nothing else in all of the history of the universe compares in beauty and profundity.

A grasping of the true picture of Christ’s judgement causes me long for and eagerly await that day when I can finally stand with empty hands, my strivings like dust in the wind, and rest utterly and wholly on the work of Him whose love is so perfect and complete that it made a way to cover my sins – not in part, but in full. The final settling of scores for eternity satisfies my innate desire for justice.

This understanding also shifts the lenses through which I see the world. If God forgives my all because of Christ, how can I not forgive the little done to me? How can I stingily hoard that which wasn’t ever mine? Because of Christ, I will stand before his judgement seat and he will only see what he has covered over and I shall finally delight in my created purpose – to hear him say “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” As C.S. Lewis eloquently puts it, “And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please.” (The Weight of Glory) So, come, Lord Jesus. Come again to judge the living and the dead that I may be found in you.

Newness of Life

He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again from the dead.

What does it mean that Christ “died for our sins?” He lived a sinless life; blameless, without spot or blemish. He offered himself up sacrificially to cover over our sins and present us righteous before the Father. In a primal way, that horrifies my modern sensitivities: God required blood to pay the penalty for sin. The more societies and cultures ‘progress’, the more we gloss over the seriousness of sin and how its vulgarity and offensiveness separate us from God. And the more I understand the basics of my hopeless depravity without him, the brighter the hope of the gospel shines.

Death. Jesus died an actual physical death. But He didn’t go to hell. That theory sells short the completion of his work on the cross. Our understanding of the word hell has warped and shifted over the centuries so that now it only denotes the place where unbelievers experience final retribution, not the place of the dead. He paid the ultimate price as the perfect sacrifice and He finished our atonement when he gave up his spirit. After Jesus died on the cross he descended to the departed.

And he had to actually die. Death is a very human thing and again shows the fullness of his humanity and humility. Death marked the final separation from God as a result of our sins. Jesus submitted his body and his spirit to the ultimate will of the Father. He fulfilled his role as the Son. While every sacrificial animal in the old testament suffered death for the temporary reprieve of God’s judgement, Christ’s death gained absolution once for all.

But it doesn’t end in death as all other stories do. Jesus came back from the dead; this the crux of Gospel. Resurrection. Raised back to life. No magic tricks or myths. Without the resurrection, Christianity is a dead and worthless pipe dream. Its putting faith in another hero that couldn’t even save himself.

Even the fairy tales teach us that good should ultimately win out. Death shouldn’t ferry the hero away and leave us stranded here without them. We shouldn’t have to celebrate victory by mourning their deaths. That eternity is written on our hearts. That hope is etched deeply onto our souls.

The redemption story culminates in the resurrection. It vividly indicates that the sacrifice of Jesus’s life has ultimate power over death. Death – separation from God – was a direct result of man’s selfish choice. Death could not hold Jesus because Jesus had not sinned.  The resurrection fulfilled prophecy. It revealed Christ’s divinity. It simply made everything come true.

How can such a fact and ending ever bore me!? How can I just skim over it and recite it dully each week as a part of a creed!? As I drove to work this morning the dramatic sunrise overwhelmed me, indescribably beautiful and intense. The eastern sky glowed a fiery coral where the lightning and storm clouds terminated. I kept exclaiming over and over again on its brilliant, breathtaking opulence. And the very one who created each second and hue of that exact sunrise came to earth, died in my place, and then rose from the dead! The dead!!

And the story of his triumphal return from the dead first spread from the unlikeliest of sources – a bunch of grieving, emotional women. Following his precedent in life, Jesus appeared to the lowliest and least respected in that era’s society. The testimony of these women would have never made it to a legal proceeding. Yet, for two thousand years countless documents and writings, both in the church and outside, herald this fact.

His ragtag band of cronies, who went back to their old jobs after he died, abruptly became highly influential social and religious forces once they encountered the resurrected Christ. His own brother, James, overcame a lifetime of doubt after witnessing the resurrection. Saul, who vehemently and viciously chased down followers of The Way with the intent of wiping them out, slammed headfirst into this Christ in the middle of the road, radically transforming him until those he once agreed with murdered him. These men didn’t just vocalize their new convictions. They lived and breathed them and died violently for them.

Only an encounter with the One and Only, the true Messiah and Savior could irrevocably shift and shape the world as such one person at a time. In these moments, I look deeply, critically, and prayerfully at my own life for evidence of such a transformation. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:4) May I too, live a resurrected life in Christ.

 

In response to the We Believe message series at Grace Church. Check it out at: http://discovergrace.com/we-believe-current-message-series-and-service-times/

Through the Darkness

Suffered under Pontius Pilot. Was crucified. Died. And was buried.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ because of its centrality to the Christian faith, but I can’t honestly say that I have spent a lot of time pondering those few hours and moments immediately preceding his death. I consider the sham of a trial with the shocking injustice of its speed and the long walk up Golgotha. He was violently arrested from the garden of Gethsemane late one night and then by 9 AM the next day both Jewish and Roman rule condemned him to die, beat him to a bloody pulp, shamefully paraded him up a hill amid the voyeurs and rubberneckers, and hammered him onto an instrument of torture and death. And while I have read the verses chronicling his last moments countless times, so many of the details and symbolism didn’t ever sink in.

The darkness. Recitation of facts sometimes dulls their significance in my mind but on second thought, the eerie unnaturalness of it sends a chill down my spine. Here, the Roman centurion stood unflinching in his duty amid the swirling chaos of the unfolding tragedy. How many times had he enacted a scene of death? Hundreds? Thousands? How many died by his own trained hand? But I imagine his blood ran cold as this foreboding darkness swept in.

The sky fell dark at noon. Bad things happen in the dark. Nightmares lurk in the inky shadows. The centurion saw Jesus plunged into it. Every child understands the power of the light as soon as it is extinguished. As adults, we fool ourselves into thinking we can control evil and sorrow and even judgement by delaying the darkness and keeping it at bay with the feeble blue lights of our constant electronic companions.

The weighty, incomprehensible work of the cross all took place in darkness. Here, Jesus bore the totality of evil and the completeness of suffering that our sins buy us: physical torture, emotional betrayal by friends, political injustice, public mockery, and so on. But far and beyond it all, there comes a time –  the first and last and only time – that the Son cannot call on God as his Father.

His whole life he identified as the Son, leaving the Gospels full of these references. Even on the cross he begged his Father to forgive us for we know not what we do. But as the darkness swallows him whole he cries out, “…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) The ultimate suffering and separation is complete.

Still, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

And the Son, in the midst of the darkness, declares, “…It is finished…” (John 19:30) even before it lifts. And the centurion hears Jesus call out again, but this time as a Son to his Father, and with finality he commits his spirit into his Father’s hands.

Simultaneously, the temple veil rips in two from top to bottom leaving no human explanation in its wake. It must have sounded like the very rending of heaven as the only begotten Son’s death exposed the holiest of holy place to the lowliest of mankind. The perfect sacrifice of the sinless, beloved Son opened the way for us to reach the Father.

How fascinating and counterintuitive then that a Roman centurion entered in the as the very first person to grasp the truth! And he, not even a general, but a simple, hardened, battle-worn, calloused, career, enlisted soldier. When the sun gave no light he faced the Son and saw. When the war raged in every dimension he stilled himself and heard. And then he professed such a profoundly simple statement with the most freeing, yet, treasonous thoughts he could ever speak aloud as he switched allegiances from the emperor “god” to the true one. “…Truly this man was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39)

In that moment he stepped into belief and committed his own spirit into the hands of the Father. It isn’t that Jesus died, it’s that he had to die. He lived the life we should have and died the death we deserve so we don’t have to. In his death and suffering we have life and everlasting peace.

The Light always shines through the darkness. The darkness cannot win.

 

In response to the We Believe message series at Grace Church. Check it out at: http://discovergrace.com/we-believe-current-message-series-and-service-times/