Easter: The End Becomes the Beginning

heisrisenA few summer’s ago, we were eating yogurt at a local shop and my youngest son’s kindergarten teacher comes strolling in the door. We all had to do a double-take. This sweet teacher of kindergarteners was wearing leather chaps and carrying a motorcycle helmet. She and her husband were out enjoying a ride in the beautiful weather. For my son, it was just too much to absorb. He couldn’t believe it. It was a bizarre thing to see his teacher out of the context of her classroom. Throw in the motorcycle wearing gear and it was a lot for him to take in on that day. She was out of his element.

Mary and Mary and Salome go to the tomb to anoint the body of a dead Jesus. What they got was a Jesus out of context. He was out of place. He supposed to be dead. Imagine showing up at a funeral and the director of the funeral home meets you outside and says, “You are not going to believe this but he isn’t dead. He got up this morning and wanted me to tell you to meet him down the street.” Talk about showing up expecting one thing and getting something else. How do you react to such news? How do you respond? We can’t be too hard on the ladies for being afraid. After all, they went expecting a dead Jesus. A Jesus sealed behind a rock. They were going to anoint his dead, decaying body with oil and spices. Their biggest concern was who was going to roll back the stone. Who was going to get that big rock out of their way so they could get into the tomb? Instead the stone has been rolled away. Jesus is risen. Jesus is out of context.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8)

A mysterious young man greets the women at the tomb. They are told to go tell Jesus’ other followers that Jesus is not dead. He is not in the tomb. He is risen. The women leave. If you are on a death journey and what you find is life, you might be a little out of sorts as well. You show up at the funeral home hoping that the flower shop got the flowers correct and delivered on time and the funeral director greets you saying, “You can take your flowers and go home because he isn’t here. He has already made his way back home.” I got to admit I’d be a little afraid as well.

The context has changed. Death no longer has the last word. The enemy has been destroyed. God has come to redeem. God is going to take what looks like bad endings and turn them into new beginnings. God is going to take what looks like failures and giving them back as opportunities. When Jesus is risen the context changes. The end becomes the beginning. Life, not death, has the final word.

Happy Easter. He is Risen!

We Have a Friend in Jesus (Good Friday Meditation)

good friday 2A few years ago a volunteer at a hospital told of meeting a little girl who was suffering from a life-threatening disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother, who had somehow survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness.

The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. He hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, “Yes, I’ll do it if it will save her.”

As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I start to die right away?”

Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her.

When it comes to family most of us would do what it took to save a life. There is no barrier that we would not cross to ensure the safety of those we love. There is no mountain we would not climb for those we care about. What is true of family can also be the case for friends.

Jesus understood this. He says, “Greater love has no one than this; that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). True friendship is life-giving. It is life-sacrificing. True friendship is willing to be wounded for the sake of the other.

Jesus was a friend of sinners. Jesus loves even when he is not loved back. He is a savior that chases after us even as we run away. A friend who ask nothing in return and yet, is willing to give all for our love. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because of whom he chose to call friend (Matt. 11:19). When Judas, the betrayer, shows up with a legion of Roman soldiers to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he responds, “My friend, go ahead and do what you have come for” (Matt. 26:50). The one who betrays, Jesus calls friend.

Jesus lays down his life for his friends. He bears the sins of his friends. Toward the end of his life, he says to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants . . . Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15). The cross is his claim that he has not given up on his friends. It is on the cross that Jesus befriends humanity. On the cross, we have been shown the heart of God, so that our hearts can be won. On the cross, Jesus dies a friend of sinners, so that we may become a friend of God. On the cross, God battles for those he longs to call friend.

If you are lonely and dejected, you have a friend in Jesus. If you are battered and beaten, you have a friend in Jesus. If you are rejected and ashamed, you have a friend in Jesus. If you are suffering and in pain, you have a friend in Jesus. On this day, the day we call good, we discover we have a friend in Jesus.

Palm Sunday: Beyond Our Expectations

Palm Sunday 2I once knew a guy. A guy who always made excuses for not coming to worship. His biggest excuse was that it interfered with his fishing. So, I decided to start praying for him. I prayed, “Lord, make his fishing trips horrible. If he catches anything, let it be so small that there is no way possible for him to brag. Lord, put a crack in his johnboat. Not a big crack where it sinks, just one small enough where he notices. Lord, make it rain on the lake but just on the lake because it is hard to get anyone to church when it rains. In Jesus name, Amen.” One day about a month after I started my prayers I ran into him. I asked him about his fishing. He said, “Preacher, you won’t believe it. I have caught some of the biggest fish of my life and have had some of the most beautiful mornings out on the lake. My fishing has never been better.” On my way out I just gave the Lord the look. ”He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45).

On Palm Sunday they wanted to make him king but by Friday they were ready to kill him. His teaching of peace and turning the other cheek was more than they could handle. His talk of forgiving ones enemies made them want to puke. His talk of grace and forgiveness was just too much to handle. They wanted a destroyer. They got a redeemer. They wanted a warrior. They got a savior.

God just doesn’t do things like we do. Jesus disappoints. We want a hero and we get a suffering servant. We want a warrior to swoop down and destroy all our enemies and Jesus teaches us how to love our enemies. We want Jesus to be supportive of our middle class morality and he says stuff like “blessed are the weak and the poor for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” He simply refuses to be forced into our mold. He does not allow us to use him to support our own way of thinking of what we need in a savior. Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

It is the Sunday before Easter, the Son of God is to be handed over, betrayed, abused, and murdered. As he rides toward Jerusalem, the host of heaven hold their breath to see how this turns out. The angels watch with anticipation as the start of Holy Week begins. The disciples are confused. The crowd gives a shallow praise. This is the calm before the storm. Jesus rides up to the gate of the city. Once he enters there is no turning back. There is no back tracking. This is the moment. If you pay attention, if you look closely, you will notice his eyes are on you. His hand is extended towards you. He is inviting you to enter this final week with him. Will you go? Will you let go of your expectations and walk with him the way of salvation? Before you say, “Yes,” take a deep breath, hold on to the hope of resurrection, and let go of all your expectations. Let Jesus show you the way toward a resurrection beyond your wildest expectations.

(Mark 11: 1 – 11)

My Father Owns the Mountain

God providesI heard a story of two teens who arrived at summer camp at the same time. They were forced to share bunks. One girl was a brat who introduced herself by saying, “Hey, there. I come here every summer because my daddy owns part of this property. Do you see that speedboat on the lake? My daddy owns that boat. Do you see that mansion on the side of the mountain? My daddy stays there when he comes to visit me.”

Looking at the other camper, she asks in a condescending tone, “So, who’s your daddy?”

She smiled and lifted her dejected head. With a twinkle in her eye, she replied, “Do you see that large lake that your daddy’s boat is in? My Father created that lake. And you know that mountain your daddy’s cabin is on? My Father owns that mountain.”

By focusing on the provision, we can become like the bratty girl and forget the One who provides. We can come to love the provision more than the provider. The safety becomes more important than the obedience. The comfort sounds better than the responsibility.

Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, was led to a ravine after foretelling a drought that would devastate the land. At the ravine, God promised to provide for the prophet. In the morning and in the evening, ravens would bring him meat and bread. The small ravine would provide him with water. One day, the ravine dried up. No more water.

If we find ourselves in life where it seems all is dried up, it is easy to feel resentful, abandoned, or no longer loved. This is especially true if our focus has been on the provision and not the Provider.  It is in those dry places that we must be “persuaded that God has power to do what God has promised” (Romans 4:21). It is worth remembering that sometimes God guides by what God does not provide. It does not mean that God is not taking care of us. It just means the creek has dried up and it is time to move on. In those seasons of our life, we must trust in Jesus who promises “If you are thirsty, come to me and drink! Have faith in me, and you will have life-giving water flowing from deep inside you” (John 7:37-38). 

The Making of Beautiful Things (Ash Wednesday)

ash wednesday picWhen I was a kid my grandmother’s house was struck by lighting. It went up in flames. It was completely destroyed. Clothes, furniture, and memories left in ashes. I remember standing in the front yard watching as the last embers faded and the adults savaged through the rubble digging for anything worth saving. Every time I get a scent of a fire my mind rushes back to that moment. The moment when it looked that all was lost.

Ashes are what are left after destruction. After chaos or catastrophe, ashes are what remain. When the character Job of the Old Testament loses everything – his home, his family – he sits among the ashes. When the psalmist is being overtaken by his enemies, he declares, “I eat ashes like bread, and mingle my tears with my drink” (Psalm 102:9). The prophet Jeremiah tells the people to “roll in ashes” because the destroyer is on their doorstep (Jeremiah 6:26). Ashes are what are left when all is gone.

Everyone has ashes. Everyone has something that has fallen apart. Cars breakdown. Paint flakes off. Skin wrinkles. Hearts fail. We all have something that has turned or is turning into ashes. Hopes and dreams left in rubble. Jobs are lost. Homes are foreclosed. Relationships are broken apart. There it all lays – our sins, our failures, our disappointments – in a pile of ashes. What does your pile look like today?

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lent Season. This is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which is a season of preparation for Easter celebration. Early on it had become the custom of ancient Christians to have a season of spiritual readiness before the Easter celebration. It was during this season that converts to the faith were prepared for baptism. It was also a time for those who had wandered away from the faith to be received back into the community through repentance and forgiveness. The season of Lent invites us to renew our faith and live in the mercy and forgiveness that is found in Jesus Christ. We look forward to resurrection. It is a time of year that prepares us for new life.

Ashes are seen by many as the end. But in the church we see them as the beginning. They begin a season that moves us through reflection and repentance into joy and resurrection. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent where we are being invited to turn back to God, to be reconciled with one another, and to live in peace. We are invited to see the ashes as the beginning of new life. We believe beautiful things can truly come out of the ashes.

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed in the good news of God’s arrival, “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:3). It is through the ashes that we will be called, “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory” (Isaiah 61:3).

The Apostle Paul tells that in Christ, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17)! The whole world is being made new by the cross and resurrection. Because of what God is doing through Christ Jesus, there is the possibility of reconciliation with all that is broken. Because of new creation, we are made to be agents of reconciliation. We are called to speak hope to the hopeless, joy to the brokenhearted, and life into death. The cross on the forehead reminds us that we have been reconciled unto God through Christ. The mark of the cross sets us a part as ambassadors of reconciliation.

Where in the midst of ashes is God calling you to speak a word of life? Where in the midst of destruction is God calling you to be an agent of change? Where among the ashes of sin, brokenness, and death is God calling you to announce, “Now is the time to lay down your weapons of hatred, hurt, and anger. Now is the time to turn back to God. Today is your salvation day!”

Today we may begin our Lent journey toward new life by sitting among ashes but when we trust in God we can be assured that even in this place resurrection can happen. God really can make beautiful things out of the ashes.

Epic Story Epic Author: The Torah

Epic Story Epic Author“In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” Exodus 13:14-16

My children enjoy watching old video recordings of when they were younger. They like to take those trips down memory lane. So, we pop some popcorn and gather around the television to re-live the past. We watch summer vacations, holidays, and birthday events. It is peculiar how fast we change and grow. It is even funnier how some things you remember and others you forget.

All of us have selective memories. Selective memory is the act of remembering certain things based on our feelings. Our selective memory remembers things and forgets things based on either positive or negative emotions. Some of us have a selective memory that remembers only good things and forgets bad things. Your selective memory blocks out all the negative stuff. The things that you find that are to painful or to shameful are blocked out of your memory.

On the other hand, some of us have selective memory by forgetting the good things and remembering only the bad. We choose to live in negativity and never see anything to be grateful for. We use our selective memory to dwell only on the painful, the shattered dreams, and broken hopes.

What memories do you recall this past year? Are they all negative? Or do you remember moments of God’s redemption? What do you remember? Do you remember the hand of God at work in your life?

As the Jewish people set out for their journey towards the Promised Land, they are told to remember. Remember this day, God tells the people. Remember it is on this day that I called you out. When you are in the land of the free and enjoy the flowing of milk and honey, remember this day. When you are establishing your homes, raising your children, making your money, remember this day. When you are in the desert and you don’t think you will survive, remember this day. When the task before you seems impossible, remember this day. Remember this is the day that I came to your rescue, says the Lord. Remember this is the day I brought you out of slavery. Remember this is the day that seemed like the last day but I turned it around and made it the day of new beginnings. Remember this day, the day I called you out, says the Lord. Remember this day.

When in the future your children ask what all this means, you tell them this is about the day that God came to our rescue. The God of the heavens emerged as the one who intervened on behalf of the nobodies. We were slaves in Egypt and we are alive because God came to our rescue. We remember this day because without this day there would be no other days.

Throughout the first five books of the Scripture the word “remember” carries significance. As the Hebrews move closer to the Promised Land they are told to remember where God brought them from. When they transition from being traveling people to people of the land, they are told not to forget who they were. When they celebrate their holidays and reenact the Exodus, they are to tell the children their story. Although God does not change, circumstances around us change all the time. For that reason, God encourages the people to remember.

Change is easier when we remember who we once were and who it is calling us to change. It is easier to adapt to new circumstances when we remember who it is calling us out to change. Remembering where we came from is a great motivator to change. It is when we choose not to remember that we get stuck in our ways and become people who complain of the changes around us.

In a changing world everyone needs to be able to retell who they are in confidence. In Deuteronomy 31 God tells Moses, “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people – men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns – so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess” (31: 11-13). The Torah, the first five books of the bible, is Israel’s refusal to live in disorder.  In the Torah children learn the truth of who they are, where they came from, and with that information, where they are headed. As Walter Brueggemann says, “The Torah is a line drawn in the sand against darkness and disorder. It is a line drawn against chaos and death. The story of Israel found in the Torah is told by adults who are confident in its truth.” In an ever-changing world, the Torah stands as the stable influence.

The Torah teaches that when we speak of God it must always be contextual. We might talk about how this God created the heavens and the earth as some cosmic reality. But we can’t leave this God up in the heavens. In the cool of the evening, God came to walk among His creation. God’s relationship is dynamic. It is ever-changing as the people move through history. This one we call God is relational. He is always revealing, loves surprises, and keeps initiating relationships. The working out of God’s purpose is discovered in these pages. The ultimate meaning of life is found in this historical experience of God naming, calling out, and promising to be with these people. These stories are necessary because in retelling them we remember. We remember the graciousness of God. We remember that life is truly a gift.

The reading of the Torah and all of scripture is a reminder that God continues to remember. He remembered his people and at the right time sent Jesus to be the hope of their salvation. God came in Jesus Christ and through his cross, His suffering and death, paid the price for our sin, so that we can go ahead and remember it, we can confess it, we can lay it before him.


Epic Story Epic Author: Storybook of Our Lives

Epic Story Epic AuthorMy great-grandmother was a natural story-teller. Her heritage was mix of Native American and Appalachia blood. As a farmer in the hills of Georgia, she was baptized in red clay. Grandma Sally could weave a story like no other. As kids, we would sit on the hardwood floors of her makeshift house and listen to her tell tales. The stories seemed to even hold the attention of the chickens that pranced through the house. Everyone around loved a good grandma Sally story.

Who doesn’t like a good story? A fine story can grab our attention and make claims on our lives before we know why or how. We may be reading an article online or listening to a podcast when suddenly, without warning, some tale of heroism or tragedy grabs our attention and leaves us forever changed. We had no intention of being hijacked by the story but now that we have we must react to the world differently.

Our lives are shaped by the stories we tell. We use stories to give meaning to our lives. Stories hold us together. Stories can tear us apart. We tell stories in order to live.

Storytelling is an act of hope. Stories transport us to times and places we do not know. Through the power of the narrative, we have the ability to transcend ourselves and our world. Stories have the power to invite us to enter into unknown worlds. In the unfamiliar and distant landscape the story of our lives can be re-shaped and re-told with meaning and purpose. By connecting our life narrative to a grand-story, we come to the realization that life is larger than any story we can create ourselves. In a world that destroys itself on individualization and selfishness, story-telling has the power of conversion.

If for no other reason, this is why we hear again and retell the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. As adopted children of Abraham, these stories are as much our stories as the stories our grandmothers and grandfathers tell. They tell who we are as a people formed by God. Recent graduates going off to college need to be able to recall the story of Joshua and how as he stood at the crossroads of his life God said, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Our sons who are being bullied need to be able to recall the story of David and Goliath. Our daughters who feel threatened by the world need to remember that Esther is their ancestor and just like her “they were raised up for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). So many are trying to convince our children that they have another story to live. We need to re-tell the stories of scripture so that when someone comes along and tries to convince our children they can have another story they will say, “I already have the greatest story ever told.”

The stories we tell ourselves is what gives meaning to our lives. They serve as the interpretative tool for understanding ourselves. By wrapping the stories of scripture with our own stories, we have the ability to live as part of a grander story than we could ever imagine. Weaving our stories with the story of God we are able to understand our own stories with more clarity and with new possibility.

The Hebrew Scriptures, (commonly known as the Old Testament), was written over a thousand year period. This is compared to the New Testament that was compiled over eighty years. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew except in a few places in some of the later books that were written in Aramaic. The Christian bible has thirty-nine books in the Old Testament. The books are divided up in three sections. The Torah contains the first five books. These books contain the story of the beginning of a people. When the Hebrew community tells its story this is what it tells. The second section is the Prophets. In this section we have the major and minor prophets but also some books that we would consider history. For example, the book of Joshua is found in this section. The reason is because more than telling the history of God’s people, they trace the development of God’s word among God’s people. They tell the rise of the prophets among a people trying to live the reality of what is at hand compared to what is promised. The third section is the Writings. This section is sometimes referred to as the Wisdom Literature. These writings explain order and meaning to life.

Jesus is a reader of Israel’s scripture. When he was arrested in the garden and led away to be crucified, Jesus says, “The scriptures must be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49). He believed his life was a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. He was convinced that he was the embodiment of God’s word to God’s people. His actions were part of the continuation of God acting in the world. He was living out Israel’s story.

From its beginning, the Christian movement located its story in the continuity of Israel’s scriptures. The Hebrew scripture was integral to the formation of the identity and teaching of the community of Jesus followers. When the New Testament writers refer to scriptures, they are speaking of the Old Testament books. When Jesus says, “Have you never read in the scriptures,” (Matt. 21:42) or when the apostle Paul says, “For what does the scripture say” (Romans 4:3) or when Peter declares, “It stands in scripture,” (I Peter 2:6), they are referring to the Old Testament. The early church understood that their story did not make sense outside of the story of Israel. We know throughout the New Testament that the writers quoted directly from the Old Testament, but what is fascinating is how the stories of the Old Testament shaped the telling of the stories of the early Church. Even without giving a direct quote the reader would know that the story was formed as a result of the writer being emerged in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The story of Jesus and the early church, and thereby, our story is connected to the stories of the Hebrew Scripture. The God of the Hebrew bible is the same God we worship. We read scripture to be reminded where it is we have come from and where it is we are going, and what our part within it ought to be. The people of Israel understood this and that is why there was such an emphasis on retelling the story.

The identity of Israel was wrapped up in the stories they told. They could not tell their story without the telling of what God had done among them. The main act in their story is the Exodus. Everything they tell about themselves is interpreted through the lens of God rescuing the people out of bondage in Egypt and into freedom through the Promise Land. Deuteronomy 6:4 and following is what the Jewish people call the Shema. It is to be recited twice a day. “Shema” means “hear” which in Hebrew means obey or live out. Moses is giving the people of Israel their divinely sanctioned charter. This is what they are to live by in the Promised Land. They are to never forget the gracious God who called them out of slavery and gave them freedom. Yahweh is the God of their history. Twice a day they are to proclaim, “Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.” The author does not deny that other gods may exist or that people may worship other so-called God but for the people of Israel Yahweh is the one for them. The success or failure of Israel’s future depends on their ability to keep the promises of God. They can’t keep the promises if they don’t know the promises. So, they retell the stories of God’s initiating love among them. The stories become absorbed into their daily lives. On the opposite side of the Jordan they may have different stories to tell but once they walk through the waters they have one story and it is the story of how God has rescued them and gave them a new beginning. This will forever be their story.

The same is true of each of us as followers of Jesus. When we come up from the waters of baptism, we forever have a new story to tell. Our life before may be filled with stories of defeat, darkness, and death but after baptism we have a new story to tell; a story of redemption and hope and new light. Through the waters of baptism we have been soaked in the story of God. We become a part of a magnificent narrative. It is a story that is connected to Abraham’s promise and Moses’ deliverance and David’s reign. It is a story of Rebecca’s struggle and Ruth’s commitment and Rahab’s boldness. The act of baptism is our own Exodus story. It is God calling us out of slavery and into freedom. It is our crossing over into God’s Promise Land. It can be said there is something in the water that changes our stories of death into stories of redemption. The something in the water is the grace of God. For this reason, we need to take opportunities to remember our baptism.

Through the waters of baptism we are brought into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty act of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. By reaffirming our faith we renew the promise declared at our baptism, acknowledge our part in God’s story, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church. As we begin a New Year take time to remember your baptism. Let’s remind ourselves that we are part of God’s story. If you are looking for a new story to define yourself by this year, let this be it. It is the greatest story ever told and you are invited to be a part of it. There is something in the water that allows us to redefine our story for all eternity.