Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Our Present and Future

Doesn't seem like our annual remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection made any impact in the world, does it? After all, terrorists blew themselves up at an Easter celebration in Pakistan, and they are breathing out more threats of violence and destruction. The presidential campaigns seem to be going straight into the gutter on the Republican side and to the FBI on the Democratic. Gun violence continues in the cities. It can get downright overwhelming and depressing.

But wait a minute, Jesus' death and resurrection really did change our world and our lives -- radically. No, it didn't remove evil, pain, suffering and death from the world or our lives -- at least not yet. Jesus will bring that when He returns on the Last Day. But for Christian men, women and children around the world, Jesus' resurrection has changed the whole equation of our lives. Apart from Him, it's just this life alone. If you can't get what you want in this life, you never will. But now a new and unending life stretches before us. It's an eternal life we will share in the presence of our God, in a perfect body, in the company of His redeemed.

In a sense, we are now free to live recklessly: free of fear, doubt and reservation. After all, what's the worse that people can do to us? To be sure, the suicide bombers darkened an Easter celebration, but scores of our Christian brothers and sisters began a never-ending Easter feast, gazing in wonder and joy at the hands, side and feet of their glorious, resurrected Lord. Many will mourn the loss of those who were murdered, and it goes without saying how cowardly, ignorant and vile such an act of violence is. But still the truth remains: because of Jesus' victory over death and sin, we can boldly share our faith and sing songs of thanksgiving, even when the world threatens us, even when the sword is at our throat.

Jesus' resurrection, and the new life it guarantees, have changed our life perspective completely. While we may be disheartened for a time, we don't need to perpetually grieve our children who are born with mental, emotional or physical disabilities -- or even the Zika virus -- because Jesus will completely restore and perfect their bodies and minds when He returns. After this brief life of suffering, there stretches before us an eternity of health, freedom and vitality.

When Paul wrote about the resurrection, he hinted that our new resurrection bodies will be pretty incredible. "What you sow (in the grave) is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as He has chosen" (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-38). Sounds like our new body won't just be this body reanimated to what it was when we were at our peak, but something far surpassing that. Paul says comparing our current body to our new body is like comparing a shriveled-up seed of corn to a fully mature plant standing in the fields.

Yes, we have an incredible future because of what Jesus has accomplished. But we have a pretty outstanding present too. Wherever we are, no matter how high or low we feel, no matter how good or bad our situation, we serve a glorious, wonderful Lord and are surrounded by people who need to know, need to hear what Jesus has done for them. They need to know Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia.

Another Easter has come and gone -- or has it? Christ's resurrection from the dead is proof that Easter is here and now, eternally in the present.

How was your Easter this year? Did you take time to consider the cost Jesus paid for your sins, my sins, the world's sins?

Anything you would like to share? If so, you can click here and comment.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Reliving Good Friday

Have you ever spent a Good Friday walking through the events that unfolded the day of Jesus' death? After all, His story is our story. Not everyone can take the whole day thinking of nothing else, but at least we can all pause at certain times and hours to consider what was going on in that day of Jesus' life. (Only three of these times are certain: 9 a.m., 12 noon, and 3 p.m. The rest are close approximations.)

6 a.m. - Peter is vehemently denying Jesus when the rooster crows. He turns and sees Jesus, then rushes out weeping. The Jewish high court reconvenes. Jesus confesses He is God's Son, and they condemn Him to death. The Jewish officials rush Jesus off to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (see Luke 22:59-62).

6:30 a.m. - Pilate hears evidence against Jesus, questions Him, and then declares there is no basis for the charges brought against Him. When he learns that Jesus is a Galilean, he hands the case over to Herod, governor of Galilee (see Luke 23:1-7).

7 a.m. - Jesus is brought before Herod Antipas. Apparently, Herod has an opening for a court magician because he keeps nagging Jesus to perform a miracle. Jesus stands silently. The Jewish officials pile on the charges against Him, but Herod isn't interested, and Jesus remains silent. Herod mocks Jesus, then sends Him back to Pilate (see Luke 23:8-12).

7:30 a.m. - Jesus appears for a second time before Pilate. Pilate tries a variety of tricks to force the Jews to accept Jesus' release, but each one backfires. He offers to release either Jesus or Barabbas; the priests convince the crowd to call for Barabbas. Pilate decides to have Jesus flogged. Then maybe the Jews will be satisfied (see John 18:38-19:1).

8 a.m. - Jesus is stripped for flogging. I deserve this brutal physical suffering for my disobedience and selfishness. Afterward, the soldiers crown Him with thorns and mock His kingship. How often do I make a mockery of His kingship in my life? (See John 19:2-3.)

8:20 a.m. - Pilate presents Jesus to the crowds with the crown of thorns and bloody robe. They demand His crucifixion and while washing his hands, Pilate surrenders Jesus over to their will (see Matthew 27:24-26).

8:30 a.m. - The crucifixion detail makes its procession through the streets of Jerusalem. When Jesus grows too weak to carry the cross, the soldiers force Simon of Cyrene to carry it for Him (see Matthew 27:32).

9 a.m. - Jesus is crucified. (In case you thought Jesus was only on the cross three hours, check out Mark 15:25, 33-34; it was six hours.) He prays "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (see Luke 23:34).

10 a.m. - Jesus is surrounded with mocking and railing from the chief priests, Roman soldiers, and even the criminals, at first. But then one criminal changes his mind and speaks up in Jesus' defense. Then he pleads, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." Jesus assures him, "Truly, truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise" (see Luke 23:40-43).

11 a.m. - Jesus sees His mother Mary standing nearby with His disciple John. He commends Mary into John's keeping (see John 19:25-27).

12 noon - Three hours of supernatural darkness begin. Jesus is forsaken and silently suffers the torments of hell that I deserve (see Matthew 27:45). This three-hour interval is our eternal damnation condensed to three intense hours. It must have seemed like an eternity to Him.

3 p.m. - The end has come. Jesus makes four statements in rapid succession:

"My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (See Matthew 27:46.) Quoting the first verse of Psalm 22, He summarizes the whole psalm which speaks both of His suffering and His victorious resurrection.

"I'm thirsty" (see John 19:28-29). Jesus wets His mouth so He can proclaim His victory in the next saying.

"It is finished" (see John 19:30). Jesus uses a Greek accounting term that means paid in full. Not a single sin remains against us; each one has been paid in full.

"Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit" (see Luke 23:46).

Jesus dies and a number of miracles take place: a massive earthquake splits rocks and opens tombs; the temple curtain is torn in two. This is probably during the evening sacrifice when a priest is offering incense before it (see Matthew 27:51-53).

The Roman centurion declares, "Certainly, this man was innocent!" (See Luke 23:47). "Truly, this was the Son of God!" (See Matthew 27:54.)

The guilt-stricken crowds are convinced something terribly wrong was done here (see Luke 23:48).

4 p.m. - The Jewish leaders ask Pilate to have the criminals' legs broken to finish them off, so they can be taken down from their crosses before the Sabbath. The soldiers break the legs of the two criminals with Jesus, but find Him already dead. To be sure He is dead they pierce His heart with a spear (see John 19:31-37).

5 p.m. - Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for permission to bury Jesus' body. He meets with Nicodemus, removes Jesus' body from the cross, wraps it in spices and strips of linen, and buries it in his own new tomb. The women follow and note where Jesus is laid. They prepare spices and ointments to properly finish the burial early Sunday morning, after the Sabbath has concluded (see John 19:38-42; Luke 23:55-56).

And we know what happened after that. Triumphant and full of glory Jesus rose from the grave on Easter morning, bringing with Him the gift of life eternal to all who receive Him in faith.

He did it for you and me. Our sins are dead and gone. Now it's time to give thanks to God, and gather with our brothers and sisters Sunday morning for a joyous celebration at the empty tomb.

This is a week unlike any other. As we turn our eyes to the fateful circumstances of Jesus' last few hours on this earth, we are reminded that His entire mission, His entire life on earth was spent for us.

Any thoughts in particular concerning the coming Easter holiday? If so, you can tell us by clicking here .

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Whatever Happened to Palm Sunday?

Back when I was a kid in the 60s, our church always celebrated the Sunday before Easter as "Palm Sunday." Somewhere between then and now it changed to "Passion Sunday." Yes, I get why this change was made. I know it's because the vast majority of members skip the weeknight and weekday services, and go straight from Jesus' triumphal entry one Sunday to His resurrection the next, without ever hearing the account of His suffering and death on the cross to save us from our sins.

I'm happy that in many churches the triumphal entry is not completely overlooked; it gets put at the front of the service. But still that kind of bums me out. When you try to squeeze in all the monumental events of Holy Week into a single hour of worship, everything gets diminished.

For me there is something to walking along with Jesus and participating in the events of Holy Week on the day those events occurred. On Palm Sunday I will think of Jesus entering Jerusalem to the praises of the people. The palm branches waving, the cloaks being laid on the roads to give Jesus that red carpet welcome into His capital city. I note the tears rolling down Jesus' cheeks because, just like us, He knows the rest of the story.

On Monday I will think of the barren fig tree that withered at Jesus' words: a powerful reminder that I'm here to bear fruit for God and the growth of His kingdom, not just for my own personal interests.

On Tuesday I will think of Jesus' powerful teachings in the temple courts, the challenges and questions He faced, and His final warning to the crowds as His days drew short. I'll remember the time is brief for each of us too, and I need to listen to Jesus and share His words with others before their time -- or mine -- runs out.

On Wednesday I will think of the silent day Jesus spent alone with His disciples. There are times when I need to spend time alone with my loved ones, celebrating our lives together, cherishing those fleeting moments.

On Thursday I'll think of Peter and John making preparations for that Last Supper, and then that evening -- in church -- I'll sit in that upper room with Jesus and receive His precious memorial: His body and blood given in, with, and under the bread and wine. Then I'll go with Him to the Garden of Gethsemane and watch as He pours out His heart in anguished prayer.

On Friday I'll witness the trial before Pilate; I'll follow the procession to Calvary and stand at the foot of the cross, watching my Savior reconciling all of us to our Heavenly Father as He dies in our place.

On Saturday I'll stand looking on the tomb that holds my Savior's lifeless body -- as it awaits the resurrection on the morrow. I'll sit with the Roman soldiers who come to seal the tomb and stand guard over it.

No, one hour is not enough for me to celebrate my Lord's passion. To really be able to celebrate Easter right, I'm going to need every day of Holy Week.

How do you celebrate the coming Holy Week? Do you have any special traditions to add to a week already full of reverential events? You can let us know by clicking here and sharing our thoughts.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Spring Break

This week is spring break at my son's college. He's spending it down in Florida. So I thought it was a strange and somewhat eerie coincidence that one of the readings in church last Sunday was Jesus' "Parable of the Prodigal Son" (Luke 15:11-32). After asking for his share of his father's inheritance, he gathered up all he had and went to a distant country. And, as you may remember, while there, away from his dad's supervision, the prying eyes of neighbors, and the moral influence of his society, he went crazy. Sounds kind of like spring break to me.

As for me, I never did the spring break thing, but from everything I've heard it's a bit scary to me as the father of a college-aged son. When you couple youthful desires, freedom from moral constraints, and our youthful tendency to live for the thrill of the moment, with no thought for future consequences --well -- that's a dangerous combination. I'm not overly worried about my son getting into trouble; he's on a choir tour. In fact, if he stays in choir through his college years, he'll be spending every spring break on a choir tour. (It's not that problems don't come up on choir tours, but when they do, there's at least some faculty supervision for him and his friends.)

That makes me think about the rules my wife and I set for our son. He was never the type to push the boundaries, but what if he was? Did his mom and I sit down in calm times and explain to him that we set these boundaries to protect him, rather than to coerce behavior from him?

When I taught Catechism class I made a big deal of the Fourth Commandment, "Honor your father and your mother." We discussed the kinds of rules parents make -- and why they drive us crazy. Curfews, driving and dating are just a few of the areas parents try to control. Seems like they just don't trust us at all, and the only thing they're trying to shield us from is fun. I'm sure that's how the prodigal son thought about his father.

Then I grew up and watched a number of my friends and acquaintances cast those boundaries aside. I watched them dash off through minefields, which sometimes sadly exploded in their faces.

I've known a girl or two who partied a little too hard on spring break, and a few weeks later found out she had an unplanned pregnancy and joint custody with a total stranger. God brought repentance and many blessings to these mothers and children, but the moms paid a pretty steep price for their week of freedom and fun, and their children began life without the stability God wanted them to know: a mother and father living together in marriage.

So I ask myself, what would I do if I was the prodigal's father? What if my son landed himself in deep trouble over spring break? Would I be able to cast aside my pride and embrace him? Would I let him know and experience a father's unconditional love and grace?

He should. Because that's the love, grace, forgiveness and acceptance I continually receive when I come back in repentance to my Heavenly Father.

The prodigal son, the wayward daughter, how we must all admit to this designation when it comes to our rebellion against the One who made us, preserves us, and keeps us steadfast until the day of His return.

Raising kids is no easy task. May God give us strength to ... patiently and lovingly ... speak the words we need to, when we need to, and how we need to.

Got any life-changing spring break experiences to pass along -- good, bad or otherwise? If so, you can share your thoughts by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Feeling Lonely?

Loneliness is a big problem for many people. Perhaps you struggle with it too. When I was growing up and trying to understand what it was to be a man, I looked to my father who was very stoic and guarded about his feelings. To my young, impressionable mind, that was what it was like to be a man. When kids at school made fun of me, mom reminded me to say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."

When I first heard the Simon and Garfunkel song "I Am a Rock," it really resonated with me. I think I can safely say it shaped the way I looked at other people for decades to come. Whenever I was hurting because of what someone did to me or said to me, I would put on that record, slip on my headphones, and sing -- almost shout,

"I've built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It's laughter and it's loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island! ... Hiding in my room, safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island."

That is one kind of loneliness -- being hurt to the core by some people. It's being so afraid of re-experiencing that kind of pain that we shut everyone out to make sure we never have to go through it again.

That's what I did.

But then Lent came around, year after year. Each time I saw Jesus acting differently than I was acting. He knew the unbearable emotional pain that was coming: the mocking from Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders, the abandonment of His chosen disciples, Peter's vehement denial, and Judas' cold-hearted betrayal. Putting myself in Jesus' shoes -- and knowing what He knew -- I know I would have locked my heart against them.

But year after year I was confronted with the fact that this isn't what Jesus did. He didn't hide from the pain or cut Himself off from the people who would cause Him such agony. Instead, He embraced them and poured out His great, compassionate love. It didn't matter to Him whether they recognized His love or responded to it. Like His Father, He would love them so deeply that He would sacrifice it all and endure everything to do what was necessary to win their salvation. Then after His death, resurrection and ascension, He sent His followers to these same enemies to share the salvation and eternal life He had won for them.

When God made Adam and placed him in the Garden among all the animals, He countermanded Simon and Garfunkel's song. He said, "It is not good for man to be alone" (see Genesis 2:18); it is not good to be a rock or an island. One of my favorite Old Testament promises is found in Ezekiel 36:26, "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh."

We can go through life fearing heartbreak and doing everything in our power to shield ourselves from emotional pain. But that's not really living. Instead, we can let Jesus' love transform us. Then we can live daring lives with hearts wide open to love and embrace all the people around us. We can be confident that Jesus will always be present; His Spirit will comfort us in our sorrows, and when we reach the end of our road, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (see Revelation 7:17).

Many are the things that can shut us down inside: a hurtful and jilting relationship, a sharp critique from someone we respect, the bitter chastisement of a loved one. Experience one or two of these and it's easy to retreat where no one can find us. But at the end of the day, the old cliché rings true: "This too shall pass." Hanging on to that truth, however, can be very difficult sometimes.

Been stung but good sometime during your brief sojourn here? Care to talk about it or, better still, relay how you got through it? You can share your thoughts by clicking here and commenting.