Saturday, March 1, 2014

Encouraging the Inconceivable (Am I a Stumbling Block?)

While some people are blessed to find God early in life, others like Saul of Tarsus, can take many years consisting of twists and turns that no man could possibly conceive.

We know how the story ended with Saul (mostly known as Paul after his conversion).  So, it is easy for us to not be shocked by the complete transformation of the man who personally oversaw the murder of Christ followers.  In modern terms, prior to becoming an apostle, he was a terrorist that was involved in a horrendous genocide.  But, we now recognize him primarily for his zeal for Jesus Christ.

Apparently, the prayer of the apostle Stephen was heard by God when he prayed for the forgiveness of his attackers while he was being beaten to death.  That prayer was answered by God's deliverance of the gang's ringleader, Paul who wrote most of the New Testament books.  No man could write Pauls's story - nor could any man foresee his deliverance from an evil past.  In fact, when Paul was converted, Jesus' disciples were still initially afraid of Paul and skeptical of whether he had truly been changed.

At a minimum, this wildly radical story of deliverance should cause Christ followers to pause when attempting to determine another person's station in life.  Today, a person's journey to Jesus Christ can no more be determined by man than could Saul's path be comprehended nearly 2000 years ago.  The question is whether we can finally stand before God as one who provided encouragement, or conversely, a stumbling block toward their final destination.

A homeless man once told me that this story of Stephen's stoning has resonated with him his entire life.  Stephen's unearthly reaction to his execution has been an encouragement to a man that has no earthly hope.  I have no doubt that, when reflecting on that horrible day, Paul somehow found encouragement in Stephen as well.  Maybe this homeless man finds his way to finally have hope in Christ partly due to the God given grace of Stephen - or maybe he will simply be encouraged by a believer that is a source of love and care.  As a follower of Jesus Christ, I pray that I am able to be a source of encouragement, not to serve as a stumbling block, to those unknown pilgrims around me.  Like Paul's journey, the path they are on is sometimes impossible for me to see or even comprehend.    

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Don't Blend In (Jesus meant what he said)

When I was a kid, I thought that being a follower of Christ meant that you were in the mainstream of society.  Christians were people who would dress nicely, smile a lot, and knew a few special words and phrases.  Certainly, their behavior was completely acceptable because they pretty much just blended in with everyone else.  They weren't really that different than non-believers.  They just didn't swear, drink much, or cuss.  That was the image that I had of a "typical" Christian.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus would have been a lot more difficult to classify as mainstream.  He combated the traditions of the religious elite, told his followers to lose their lives in order to follow him, and dined with people with whom most of us would be embarrassed to be seen.  Downtrodden people were honored by him and the most honored people walked away with their heads hanging.  Jesus took man-made religious convention and stomped it into the sand like a scorpion.  The Jesus that I have come to know and love was a counter-culture radical that turned the values of the world on its head.  He continues to do that today. 

What if Jesus actually meant what he said and did?  For example, Jesus kept company with some pretty rough characters; he seemed to prefer the company of the least desirable.  How might we treat someone (like Levi) who collected taxes for a hostile occupying foreign government and profited from these activities by skimming money from the top?  Would we be embarrassed if a prostitute barged into the room to wash our feet while we dined with the local pastor or priest?  Would we try so hard to be first if we really believed him when he said that "the last will be first, and the first will be last"?  Do we really believe that we are feeding Christ when we are feeding the lost and forgotten?  Questions like these make me wonder how accepting Christians actually are of the one we profess to follow.

This message of Jesus' is as radical today as it was then: the values of this world have no place in a person's heart.  We are simply called to be different.  In his book "The Cost of Discipleship", Dietrich Bonhoeffer disposes of the myth that Jesus' messages (like that pesky Sermon on the Mount) were merely an ideal and not practical to live by.  Executed in a martyr's death in Nazi Germany because of his faith, Bonhoeffer explained that Jesus meant what he said and that we shouldn't skip past the hard stuff - especially when that means we won't blend in so much.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Brave Enough, Dependent Enough, Weak Enough

Almost universally, followers of Christ admit that they experienced the most spiritual growth during times of difficulty.  I know that this is certainly true in my own journey.  The times when we are having to bear the most burden is frequently when we are most willing to rely on God to support us (the saying that "God won't give you more than you can handle" is not in the Bible!).  There seems to be a point in time  during trials that we quite literally "take our hands off the wheel" and ask God to take over.

In my own experience, that inflection point is almost like a revelation, or a reminder from God, that I was never intended to bear the weight of this world. When I am open to the idea of letting him navigate, I always experience a spiritual pat on the back that serves to reinforce what ends up being a very liberating and beneficial move on my part.  As we see the spirit of God help us work through times of trouble, our faith in him grows exponentially.

To get to the inflection point where I grow closer to God, I have to finally admit and embrace my own weakness.  That, my friends, has never been an easy task for me.  My personal history, maleness, and our western culture have always reinforced my natural desire to be extremely self-reliant (being self-reliant is different than being self-responsible which is merely being a good steward of God's gifts and using them within the framework of his will for us - more on that later).  So, I have to finally admit my inability to fully bear a burden asking God to share my yoke which he promises to do.  It is important to note that to share the yoke of God means, not only that he will bear the weight of the burden, but that I have to also be willing to go where He steers me: to learn from the situation, to allow the spiritual growth that occurs, to be dependent upon him.

There is bravery associated with admitting weakness isn't there?  It is a scary thing to say that you don't fully possess the capacity to bear the weight of a trial.  To relinquish control and allow life to be directed by anyone other than ourselves is downright frightening.  But, as frightening as relinquishing control is, the bravery that it takes to initiate the quest for spiritual growth can feel sort of like jumping off of a cliff.  When life seems to be running rather smoothly, to ask God to cause us to grow, while knowing that this growth may cause pain, seems more than a little counter-intuitive.  We have to be willing to accept the fact that it could could hurt a lot.

Frankly, this asking may cause a complete disruption in our lives that may feel like loss.  And by the way, it is.  It is loss because we are assured that there will be a cost to follow Christ.  Things that we have become dependent upon could be ripped away from us.  These could be our job, relationships, money, material possessions - basically, anything that is an idol and taking the place of God in our lives.

Christians are NOT promised the Best Life Now (that reference was intentional) nor are we assured a life in this broken world without hardship.  In fact, we are told that sacrifice is required, pain inevitable and persecution promised.  We are told that there is a cost to discipleship.  Jesus Christ was quite specific about this when he said "whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it".  If the faith of removing our hands from the wheel, sharing a yoke, jumping off of a cliff, and taking up the cross isn't bravery, I'm not sure what is.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Grace - Undeserved Favor

For as long as i can remember, the word grace has stirred my soul.  During my younger days, I didn't really understand the full magnitude behind the meaning of the word.  I certainly didn't know how it applied to my relationship with God.  But, to merely hear the word grace had a tendency to soften me.  Philip Yancey wrote the book "What's So Amazing About Grace" that was devoted to the topic.  Within the book, he explained how the word grace was one of the few uncorrupted words in the english language.  He spoke about how grace resonates with other-worldliness.  He explains that, while justice seems right, grace has a supreme, other-world quality.  Grace is so big that it is troubling to think that I am to possess it.  Not only possess it but, I am to freely dispense it to others.

God is perfect.  God's justice is also perfect - he is the perfect judge.  As the creator and ruler of the universe, we would want him no other way.  A universe ruled by an imperfectly just God?  No thanks.  Within his perfectly just system, he placed grace.  Grace - that wonderful means for us to receive righteousness through Christ.  God's grace was the means through which the sacrifice of his son was accomplished.  Perfect justice will be achieved but, God's grace enables us to bear it!

So, where does my responsibility lay when it comes to grace?  I believe that it starts with me realizing that I am not God (yeah, a universe ruled by me would not be a pretty sight...I have a hard time picking a tie in the morning).  Since I am imperfect, I should not consider myself more capable than God in determining who should receive grace.  In other words, since God willingly displayed his grace on the cross, who am I to withhold grace from anyone?  Yancey also stated that God's grace is like water - it flows to the lowest part.  There is no one that is beyond God's redemption.  How can I rightly receive grace from a perfectly just God if I am not willing to freely dispense it to others...especially when I, an imperfect judge, don't believe that they deserve it?  

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Will Bender and the Prayers

Prayer has a designed tendency to merge our will to that of our perfect and all-knowing God.  Because the act of praying helps to keep us in a spirit of consolidation with God, our earthly worries (those that are not of God) begin to overtake us when we drift away from him - when we are less intentional about our prayer life.

Communion with God is seemingly a simple matter of pushing the world aside and dedicating our attention onto the Creator of our universe.  Especially when we are weighed down by troubles or misfortune, our prayers often begin with a purging of all our concerns followed by our requests for God to fix all that ails us.  Both long-time followers of Christ and those that have been newly found have a tendency to pray in this manner.  We do this all the while knowing that God is omniscient - or all knowing; he already knows all that troubles us.

If we are patient enough, we may enter a more solemn time of communion with God during our prayer.  Perhaps we start thanking God for the many blessings he has already bestowed upon us or praising him for who he is (wouldn't it be nice if we always started with this one?).  Maybe we enter into a state of confession and repentance.  At times, we merely listen...sitting quietly while contemplating the presence of the Holy One - listening.  As we continue in earnest loving prayer, our will begins to bend toward him.

Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) in a fashion that may seem somewhat familiar to us.  The Father had revealed what laid ahead in Jesus' crucifixion.  He showed him that, in those moments of agony and death, Jesus would be made into sin and would bear the weight of the entire world.  Jesus would experience separation from his Father.  The mere thought of this happening troubled Jesus to the point of death. At first, he asked to be spared of the torment that he was facing.  After reaching out for his disciples three consecutive times, he still returned to pray.  Each time he prayed, his prayer turn to the will of the Father.

Jesus ended his prayer by expressing his sole desire: that the Father's will be done.  He desired this regardless of the torment that was about to occur.  Jesus' complete unity with the Father is seen in this prayer.  The Father and Son were united in their will to see that Jesus' crucifixion (and resurrection) would be carried out as was destined from the beginning of time.  As in Jesus' prayer, the Father wants our will to be adjoined to his.

I used to envision God looking at his watch while waiting for me to finish my list of complaints, worries, and requests.  Now I understand that my prayers turn when I remember the pattern of Jesus' prayer in the garden.  Our prayer continues in this same manner if we enter the exchange with a patient, listening, and faith-filled heart.  A heart that is willing to receive its direction from a faithful Holy Spirit.  The bible says that God wants us to come to him with our concerns and so we should.  We also understand that this is just the beginning to a completely fulfilled unity that exists in a heart that is willing to bend.  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

My Pilgrimage to Israel (2013) - Part Eight

The Western or Wailing Wall - note the prayers written on paper that are
placed in the cracks in the wall (click to enlarge)

Our time on the Mount of Olives was followed by our initial entry into ancient Jerusalem and to Mount Moriah.  The Israelites considered Jerusalem the center of the world because the temple of God, erected by King Solomon, was contained within its walls.  In fact, the entire ancient city is contained within walls which currently stand perhaps seventy-five feet high.  Within the ancient holy temple was the Holy of Holies where the Arc of the Covenant (which contained the Ten Commandments) were once stored.  The Temple Mount is on Mount Moriah where God gathered dust to create Adam and Abraham took his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God (see Part Seven).  God rested here when his presence filled the holy temple (Isaiah 8:18).

The Dome on the Rock
The location of the temple is now contained within the Muslim quarter and is known as the Dome on the Rock.  Only Muslim are able to worship in that location.  But, the original temple foundation still remains around the Temple Mount and those in the Jewish faith worship where these remnants of Solomon's temple remain.  The famously revered Western or Wailing Wall is the closest to the location of the Holy of Holies that they can worship.

Within the walls of the ancient city, Jesus was tried and beaten.  He was made to drag his heavy cross through the public city streets as a form of humiliation.   We walked along this pathway (the Via Dolorosa or Way of Suffering) through the markets that probably aren't much different than when he suffered here.

While walking along the Via Dolorosa, we stopped in Bethesda.  Next to Bethesda's "healing pool", described in the Gospel of John, Jesus healed a man that was unable to walk.  Outside of John's description, the details of this pool were not known until it was excavated in the 19th century.  The pool is just as described in the bible.

Saint Anne's in Bethesda (note the Mourning Dove on the cross)
Street along the Via Dolorosa

Adjacent to Bethesda is Saint Anne's Church which is near the location of where Jesus was beaten prior to being crucified.  Our group assembled inside to sing a hymn that was interrupted by the shadow of a Mourning Dove's wings flapping above the alter as the bird was attempting to land on a light.

The shadow, appearing not unlike that of an angel's wings, was cast across the entire 25 foot wall above the alter while flapping...then, as we continued singing, the dove flew just over our head's in an arc returning to the alter where it landed on the cross.  Because of the important role that doves play in the bible, I knew this was intentional and was put into play by God for our small congregation.  I think of instances where God used doves in the bible like when the Spirit of God descended from heaven "like a dove" when Jesus was baptized or the dove that landed on the ark after the great flood.  I'm not entirely sure of the meaning of "our dove".  But, I believe that it was a sign of the very rest we find in Christ.  This was a beautiful way to begin our walk along the Via Dolorosa that leads to where he was crucified.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Russian Orthodox Pilgrims at Anointing
Stone - Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Along the Way of Suffering, we would hear various stories about the day that God gave his only son...for He so loved the world.  In a strange mix of somberness and gratitude, we walked along the road and heard what occurred at each of the Stations of the Cross.  Finally, we wound our way outside of the original city walls to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Within the area, now enclosed by the walls of this building, Jesus was crucified, entombed and resurrected.  This site is considered by many as the most important pilgrimage destination for Christians since it was built in the 4th century.

In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you can kneel to touch the rock on which Jesus' cross was raised.  "Just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him." (John 3:14-15).  This is the location where God in flesh gave up his spirit.

The idea that one is standing on this rock is overwhelming for any follower of Christ.  But, because of the pace of our trip, I felt somewhat rushed and unable to fully absorb the magnitude of where I was.  Fortunately, the following day, I was able to return to this 1600 year old building to worship.  It was a quiet morning and I was able to spend a lot of time alone with God on Calvary.  I read John's gospel account of that day as I prayed silently...occasionally kneeling to touch the rock.  

"But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing...(John 20).  Amen.

Pilgrims from our group waiting to touch the rock of Calvary - Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Pilgrimage to Israel (2013) - Part Seven

Our group overlooking Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (picture by James Stewart - again)

If Galilee is steeped in New Testament history, Jerusalem is where the Old Testament and New Testament converge.  The ancient Hebrew nation centered life and worship in the location (Mount Moriah) that Abraham warily took his son Issac with the intent of sacrificing him.  That act was merely foreshadowing the act of God sacrificing his own son.  Abraham told Isaac: "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (Genesis 22:8).  Abraham's lamb represented the Lamb of God that would be sacrificed thousands of years later.  We would retrace that Lamb's steps as he inched his way from the Mount of the Golgotha or Calvary.

Bethphage Church (photo by James Stewart) - click to enlarge

Bethphage sits on the Mount of Olives and was an ancient village overlooking Jerusalem.  Jesus mounted the colt of a donkey and rode into Jerusalem on what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday.  It was to Bethphage that Jesus sent his disciples to find the donkey.  While standing here, you can almost imagine the crowds in the city awaiting his arrival while they celebrated Passover "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!".  Even though Jesus told them, little did anyone know that his triumphal entry included scourging and crucifixion.  Again, he confounded man's earthly intellect with a story that could only be written by God.
David Hayes and me from where Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem

We left Bethphage's Franciscan church by descending an ancient route quite undoubtedly used during Jesus' entry into the city.  This was a quiet and sunny Sunday morning perfect for this memorable part of our journey.  After a short time, we descended to a point where we could overlook the city of Jerusalem.  As Jesus descended into the city, he paused to mourn over Jerusalem and foretold the fall of the temple.  

Dominus Flevit Church commemorates where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (note the reflection of Jerusalem - photo by James Stewart)

Garden of Gethsemane
One of the most spiritually moving parts of our trip was our Sunday morning worship service in the Garden of Gethsemane.  So, we are walking along the trail of Jesus' descent and stopped in the garden where he prayed on the night of his arrest...incredible.  I could hardly believe that we were here.  But, to spend the Lord's day morning in worship here was absolutely amazing.  Jesus prayed here while James, John, and Peter slept (even though he kept asking them to stay awake).  He first prayed that the father would protect him from what was about to occur.  Jesus was afraid and wanted to be spared.  But, as his prayer continued, he understood and accepted the father's will.  I am deeply encouraged by a God who knows how it feels to be fearful and discouraged - who is comforted by the company of others during times of trial.  I am also encouraged that he forgave those slumbering disciples.    

Crown of Thorns Tree - Dominus Flevit

Our accompanying pastors led the worship service.  David offered a most appreciated opportunity for each of us to worship in quiet solitude.  As mentioned in an earlier blog post, our regular Sunday worship meetings include lengthy segments of silent prayer.  I have grown to greatly appreciate and rely upon this manner of worship.  So, I was heartened when David asked us to retreat into the garden for silent reflection.  We were to return to the group when we heard singing.  But, I decided to stay quietly next to that old olive tree and pray in silent thanksgiving.

Next stop:  Jerusalem