F.E.A.R.

Faithless
Expectation of
Armies and
Rain
…when the general loves you and you’ve got an umbrella.

Getting
Ready to
Eat your
Emptiness for
Dinner
…when your father is a billionaire and your mom’s making steak.

Languishing
Under
Slavery to self and
Tyranny over persons
…when there’s fresh air outside and we’re all in one family.

Painstakingly
Rationalizing your
Inoperative
Disease-infested
Ego
…when the organ isn’t necessary and the surgeon is in.

Father’s fidelity to
Outlandishly show off his
Redemption and to
Gently display the
Irrationality of our
Vices
Even as we
Naive young fools
Expect to
Somehow
Settle a deal
…though the debt’s all been paid and our bank account is brimming.

Good Friday: the cross is an intersection

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts

The shape of the cross is the universal symbol of the Christian faith. Geometrically, a cross is two perpendicular lines intersecting. One vertical, the other horizontal.

When Jesus Christ died on his cross nearly two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem, paradoxes were proclaimed and unlike realities intersected with each other in a way that they never had before or will again.

God + humanity
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the God-man, fully human and fully divine, yet one person with one nature. Simple enough to say, impossible to comprehend. Yet what that means is that when Christ died on his cross, the world of heaven – the vertical beam, if you will – cut into the world of earth – the horizontal beam. Jesus hung there, suspended between the two worlds, bridging the impasse between them. You could say that the cross was the ladder down which God climbed to make peace with humanity, to reach us. Therefore, to reach God, all a person needs is to come to the cross.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:20

wrath + grace
Sin provokes the Holy One to ferocious, irrepressible anger. God’s own love provokes him pardon sinners. At the cross, these two elemental aspects of God’s character met and embraced. The wrath of God against human sin inflicted itself on Jesus’ shoulders, back, neck, hands, feet, body, soul, mind and spirit; totally, comprehensively, exhaustively. He took every ounce, for my sin and yours. He absorbed the blow, stepping in as the scapegoat, the sacrifice, the substitute. All that is left over for us, the ones standing in Jesus’ shadow, are the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness, the love.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6

decimation of our pride + affirmation of our worth
The cross gives us a revolutionized way to look at ourselves, one that is painful and profoundly sweet at the same time. I’m using the strong word “decimation” here to mean “totally cancel and destroy.” The cross certainly decimates our pride, or our self-esteem, depending on your vocabulary. It asserts without apology that our self-imposed predicament of sin, death, hell, and alienation from God is so severe that nothing less than the Son of God’s torture and death could hope to address it. An extreme problem – the human condition – called for an extreme solution. No one but Jesus will cut down your pride and self-justification so thoroughly, because no one but Jesus loves you so deeply.

While decimating our attempts at self-worth, the cross affirms with abandon our value to God. It asserts, likewise without apology, that the depths of God’s grace towards us are so unfathomable that he found it worthwhile sacrifice the Son for the rabble outside, in order to turn the rabble into sons! Therefore, you count. You are not a waste. You are worthy. God says so.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Galatians 6:14

suffering + glory
The Bible is chock full of paradoxes, as we should expect from a book claiming to contain divine truth. One of the most essential paradoxes in Christian thought – in my mind, it’s the key to the whole thing – is the one that Jesus expressed a few hours before his arrest:

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.” John 13:31-32

Now is the Son of Man glorified. Now, as he is arrested, falsely accused, beaten, scourged, stripped, mocked, crucified, murdered. On the cross, glory intersected with suffering. Honor with shame, life with death. I do not understand it, but the brutally disfigured, naked body of Jesus on the cross brought glory to God. It blazed through and through with the glory of God. The Son of Man’s suffering screamed glory! glory! hallelujah!

That is the Christian paradigm. In our lives, that means that suffering and glory are intertwined, and death always comes before a resurrection.

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning

I do not know if waking up and feeling absolutely no desire to get out of bed and begin the day is a universal experience. I do know that it is a common one. If it is a feeling you are familiar with, here are some things you can do:

Receive grace. I hesitate to call this something you “do.” Receiving is inherently passive; but there is a sense in which the gift must be recognized and remembered by the receiver. Similarly, “free grace” or “the gift of grace” are redundant expressions. Grace is, by definition, free. By definition, it’s a gift. It is never something other than something you receive.

Sometimes this is what “receiving grace” looks like for me:

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Jesus | My Lord and my God. My King and Master. My Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep and calls me by name. The One by whom and for whom all things were created. The One not ashamed to be called my brother.  The One to whom I am united in spirit. My Husband. My Friend.

loves | Is committed to. Is patient with. Desires the ultimate good of. Feels compassion for. Gives strength to. Withholds nothing good from. Sacrificed for (once for all).

me, | A complete screw-up whose greatest spiritual strength is begging for mercy.

this I know, | This I believe. This I have experienced. This reality I cling to, sometimes barely, but always somehow, by faith.

for the Bible tells me so. | The Bible, the majestic and sufficient Word of God, tells me of this Jesus, and of this love, from start to finish.

[Jesus said:] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. John 15:9

Pray. There are a few components of prayer which I see present in nearly all biblical prayers.

One, which is perhaps the most fundamental and essential of all, is addressing God personally. Sometimes it looks like “God of heaven, maker of all that is”; sometimes “God of Jacob, our Redeemer”; sometimes just “Father.” Honestly, at times this is as far as I can get in prayer; but then, sometimes it is all I need to say.

Another is giving thanks. Like never before, lately, I am utterly convinced of the power and importance of intentional thanksgiving. If I express only one thought to God today, if I do only one pure thing in twenty-four hours – let it be that I give thanks.

Another is confessing sin and asking for forgiveness. If thanksgiving is hard to do on feeling-less mornings, this is harder; but if there are any two things a Christian must be convinced of, it is their sin, and God’s forgiveness. To return to confession and forgiveness-claiming, over and over, is not like a dog returning to its vomit, but like a child returning to its father. Over and over.

Finally, prayer includes asking for help. Prayer comes, at the elemental level, from the profound, yet plainly demonstrable idea that we need God. Asking for help recognizes that fact in the simplest way possible. “God, help me”; “Lord, she needs you, they need you, help them”; “Father, help us.” It is childlike, and therefore sweetly appropriate.

Feed his sheep. John 21, the last chapter of John’s Gospel, is, to me, one of the most poetic and tender chapters in the New Testament. Three times, on Galilee’s beach, Jesus asks Peter, that remarkably devoted and remarkably flawed disciple of his, “Simon, do you love me?” Simon was his old name.

“Do you love me?” Jesus knows what Peter will say. He asks him the question three times, echoing Peter’s three denials of knowing Jesus just a few chapters earlier. The repetition grieves Peter, but it is not a guilt trip. It is a truly extraordinary display of forgiveness, a forgiveness so comprehensive that Jesus applies it specifically to each of Peter’s denials.

Jesus’ replies to Peter each time Peter affirms his love – “feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep” – speak of something greater than merely “apology accepted.” Jesus’ message is: “I am not only pardoning you, but I am giving you a mission. Here you are, fishing again, going back to your old life, your old name, your old self as if you are not good enough for what I have called you to. But I am not done with you yet, Peter. I promised to turn you from a fisherman to a fisher of men and I will do it, even now, just you wait. Go. Feed my sheep.”

That is how total Jesus’ forgiveness is. It gives us a purpose. A reason to get out of bed in the morning. Help his people. Feed his lambs. Tend his sheep.

Now, Christianity is not the same as cognitive therapy: change how you think in order to change how you feel/behave. That is part of it. More than that, though, Christianity is an objective statement of reality – a hope. A status – child of God in Christ. These realities have many biblical labels, but intrinsic to their definitions is that they do not change, even when we do not feel we can get out of bed in the morning. They are stable, which is another way of saying God is stable.

For that, let us praise him.

The saying is trustworthy, for:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Remind them of these things… 2 Timothy 2:11-14

thanksgiving for beggars

Can you hear what’s been said?
Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.
Beggars by Thrice

To me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday. Christmas and Easter commemorate more important events – the most important events of all – but they have been almost completely secularized and commercialized in this culture. Celebrating them in honest and faithful ways can be difficult. Thanksgiving is, perhaps, in this sense, the “purest” holy-day. It is simple and the idea behind it is beautiful: a day set aside expressly for purpose of counting one’s blessings and expressing gratitude (to God) for life and the good things in it.

In the Christian understanding of the universe, life, breath, and everything exist only because God continues to will it so. Jesus is, now, upholding all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). We, as creatures, create and sustain nothing. Whatever we have, we have received. The truth of our humble state is total and absolute dependence on the creation and sustenance of God – whether we acknowledge this or not. “We are beggars all.”

A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. John 3:27

Christians understand this, and it is for expressly this reason that they understand sin as being so heinous. The more one has received, the more wicked one’s ingratitude and wastefulness becomes.

We are prone to live out of a deeply felt sense of entitlement, not gratitude – and none more so than my generation of American young people. We grew up, practically speaking, wealthier than any other generation that has ever lived, with an almost incredible level of affluence and ease of living that has been handed to us by the sweat of our grandparents and parents. We are more educated and more childish than every generation preceding us. We feel fervently entitled to happiness. Ridiculously so.

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. Gratitude looks at the gifts of God in awe and humility and praise. Entitlement feels constantly deprived and resents every perceived lack, meanwhile ignoring the grace in every undeserved gift. Which one do you live by more often?

Thanksgiving for the Christian is truly sweet. We are privileged in that we know exactly who it is we are thanking (how does an atheist celebrate this holiday?). We personally know the Father of lights from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17). We alone can say, “Thank you, Father – Abba – Papa – Daddy.”

The privilege of our relationship with God and our status in his eyes, mediated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, which removes our sin as far as east is from west and brings us as close to the Father as the Son is to him, is of course the greatest grace of all. It is absurd that entitlement-minded sinners can call a holy God “Daddy.” Yet, it is so, because Jesus suffered the cross and tore the curtain in two. The thing for us to do, therefore, is pray, write songs and poems, make spontaneous art, lift our voices, and thank God.

G. K. Chesterton wrote of St. Francis that Francis saw the world upside down. Heavy palaces and cathedrals, usually thought of as being more firmly rooted on the earth and more permanent than anything else, are instead most in danger of falling off completely, precisely because of their weight. The mere fact that God continues to hold the thread by which our world dangles moved Francis to a profound sense of gratitude and dependence which lasted his entire life.

Thanksgiving really is a way of life,  a way to see the world. It is a habit of prayer. To always pray “with thanksgiving,” following Paul’s commands in Philippians 4:6 and Colossians 4:2, changes how you process life. It reverses entitlement and transforms it into grateful humility, which is in every way a more joyful place to be. To stay thankful when loss threatens saves the soul from total despair because to stay thankful is to remain steadily at rest in the immeasurable grace of God. And – thankfully – thanksgiving keeps you on speaking terms with God, no matter what.

Jesus told his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8 NIV). The logical successor of gratitude is generosity, since whatever you have, you too have received as a gift. Beggars become givers in God’s kingdom.

To close I’ll share with you all I poem I love that repeatedly stirs me to gratitude towards God, even in the face of humanity’s violence and destruction.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877, discovered here.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Jesus, friend of sinners

[Jesus said,] “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”

One of the Pharisees asked to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with her ointment…

[Jesus said to them all,] “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:34-38, 47-50

Can you imagine this scene? It is almost difficult to imagine a more embarrassing, shocking event, in that culture and in ours too.

In Hebrew, the word messiah – “christ” in Greek – means “anointed one.” Jesus the Christ is Israel’s Messiah, and this is the anointing he received: a woman with a reputation for sin burst in on a Pharisee’s dinner party and soaked his feet, and his host’s floor, with a strong-smelling mixture of perfume and her own tears. Had it been up to you, is that the kind of anointing ceremony you would have designed for God’s Messiah? Not me.

According to Luke 7:34, despite his flawless observance of Judaism’s complex religious law, Jesus himself had a reputation for sin, not because he sinned, but because he spent his time with lowlifes. He befriended them, identified himself with them, and pronounced blessings on them. Simply put, he loved them. Unabashedly, without pretense or suppressed disgust.

And they loved him, too. They flocked to him. They hung on his words. Consider the extent of this woman’s love for Jesus: she publicly displayed a level of affection for him considered by her culture to be appropriate only in the bedroom,  in front of a room full of  men who probably held the power to stone her as a prostitute. But what did the woman care about the stares or the threats? Jesus welcomed her, he forgave and blessed her, he spoke peace to her. What else mattered?

Grace is offensive. It really is. It turns the world upside-down. It looks around at a room full of upstanding citizens, then down at the disheveled, promiscuous woman weeping on the floor, and declares to the room, “You guys are the ones with the problem. She’s mine.”

The Pharisees at that dinner party two thousand years ago understood very little about themselves, the woman on the floor, or the promised Messiah they thought they would recognize. They imagined a massive gulf to be fixed between the woman and themselves. They looked for a Messiah who would vindicate the law-keepers, the hard workers, the pure bloods. They never imagined a Messiah who would associate with “tax collectors and sinners.”

Grace teaches that the best place those Pharisees could have been in that moment was not generously granting the controversial teacher a place at their table, as they supposed it, but with the sinful woman on the floor, abandoning themselves to the Lord’s love for them.

I ask myself, as a fellow receiver along with that woman of the Lord’s love, how would I have reacted at that dinner party? Would I have blushed? Apologized to the guests for the disturbance, frantically looked for someone to get her out of my house, lowered my opinion of Jesus because he actually let her touch him?

How do I treat “sinners” now? How do you treat them? What about our churches? Do marginalized, immoral people love our churches the way they loved Jesus in his day? In practice, for whom do we really exist: the well or the sick (Luke 5:31-32)?

Mocking him, accusing him, the Bible-thumping community leaders of Jesus’ day said, “He is a friend of sinners – like them.” With an ache, and an edge of hope, in her voice, the desperate woman said, “He is a friend of sinners – like me.” See the difference?

Jesus! what a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Savior, makes me whole.

Hallelujah! what a Savior!
Hallelujah! what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.

Jesus! I do now receive Him,
More than all in Him I find.
He hath granted me forgiveness,
I am His, and He is mine.

Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners by John Chapman

thirsty souls and the God who satisfies

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. Isaiah 55:1-3

Isaiah 55 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. God is a stunningly beautiful poet.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Salvation and relationship to the living God are completely free. No one can pay in willpower, good attitude, or busyness. Likewise, no one who comes is ever disqualified, for “though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). Grace cannot be earned. It cannot be earned, it cannot be earned, it cannot be earned. The invitation is to simply surrender.

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” How many people do I know who are doing everything they can, using everything in themselves, to find some kind of happiness and peace in this world; young people looking for something to live for, old people looking for some reason to keep going. How many people do I know who want nothing more in life but to be loved by somebody, anybody; who commit crimes and destroy relationships in futile attempts to choke out love from their parents or friends; who hide behind false personalities, desperately hoping for someone to break in, inwardly crippled by the overwhelming fear that no one ever will; who exert every ounce of their willpower trying to live up to human-imposed religion, terrified they will never please God, empty inside because of broken promises. How many people do I know? How many people do you know? Are you one of them?

I lived like that completely, not long ago. Four years ago, Jesus broke through to me. For four years I have thanked God for the difference between that life and this one. For four years I have grown each year and each day in love for and satisfaction in the God who broke into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. I promise you, there is a different way to live than the life of desperation and emptiness. There is a life of satisfaction and joy and peace, because there is a God who offers himself to you, freely. That God says, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.”

While on this earth, Jesus called himself “living water” (John 4:10) and “the bread of life” (John 6:35). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” he said (John 6:53-54). Graphic, isn’t it? He intended it to be. He wants your attention.

Jesus is the “food” for our hungry souls of which Isaiah spoke. He is what every empty, loveless life is missing. He is the promised son and Lord of David, the Messiah, the hope of nations, the Savior of screwed up people. He wants nothing to do with fakers who pretend they are all right or hypocrites who condemn others without feeling their own shame. No, he wants broken people who put their “money” away and drink the “water” of his grace, grace which he purchased once and for all with the precious payment of his own life, sacrificed on his cross.

God ends the Bible, and I will end this post, with a final plea for you to consider Jesus and the life to which he invites you. “The Spirit” – of God – “and the Bride” – that is, the universal, invisibly united church – “say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

grace

The Christian life is often a back and forth between despair and pride, self-loathing and self-righteousness. God’s answer to both is simply: grace.

Sometimes people feel that they need to “clean themselves up” before they can come before God in prayer, church, communion, or whatever else. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they search for fig leaves with which to cover their nakedness and shame. If they feel that they can cover themselves up well enough or if they convince themselves they are not bare at all, then come pride and self-satisfaction: “God will be satisfied with my performance/listen to my prayer/not be mad at me because of all these things I did this week…”

If, on the other hand, no “fig leaves” feel big enough to cover their shame, then come despair and guilt. Feeling exposed, alone, disappointed in themselves, and intensely guilty, people will often withdraw from God altogether, or only come to him in a further attempt to placate their guilty consciences. They don’t truly come to prayer or church for God or true forgiveness, because they don’t believe themselves worthy of either. Enough time spent in the darkness of despair and bitterness at God may even result. As in James 1, they will claim that God is “tempting” them beyond what they can bear, or that his standard is simply too impossibly high for them. For others, maybe not. But it is certainly too high for them.

Both sides of the spectrum may feel holy. The self-righteous person feels just that – righteous. And the guilty person feels holy too, because they know God hates sin and therefore their self-loathing must somehow be right as well.

God, in his most wonderful way, completely does away with fig leaves altogether.

To the proud, self-satisfied heart he says, “You think you can have access to me because you managed to scrape out an offering this week? Nonsense – all your ‘righteous acts’ are like filthy rags before me. I owe you nothing and you owe me everything. You can come to me simply because I love you, I made you, and I have given grace to you, and for no other reason.”

To the despairing, withdrawing heart he says, “Is my arm too short to save you? Are you beyond my reach? Do you not know that I died for the very purpose of bringing sinners to myself? You have full access to me simply because of what I have done for you. My grace is sufficient for you. Come.”

God rejects our makeshift coverings of shame and instead clothes us with the very covering of Jesus’ blood, and Jesus’ righteousness. We are forgiven past, present, and future sins in his eyes because Jesus died to forgive us. We are declared pure and worthy in his eyes because Jesus lived perfectly in order to cover us. We do not get access to God or gain his approval through our performance and we do not lose it through our failures: fig leaves have nothing on grace.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:19-23

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves…
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Genesis 3:7, 21