Monday, March 31, 2008

Camp Lee

From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be
praised (Psalm 113:3).

I made the same promise every summer, usually in August. I broke it every fall, usually by late September.

My church youth group made a pilgrimage every year to a holy site just outside of Anniston, Alabama: Camp Lee. Surrounded by the thick pine forests of central Alabama, we were allowed, actually ordered, to find a secluded place each morning for our “quiet time.” This was a no-talking, no-radio, no-friends-around time with God. It was always in the a.m. and it was always outdoors. Since the dew had not quite relinquished its claim on the grounds, the time spent with God was matched by time spent finding a dry place to sit. Nevertheless, every day was to begin with quiet time and a little dampness on your rear wouldn’t get in the way of that.

Those daily quiet times were one of the best parts of our week at Camp Lee. By Friday of the week I was ready to make a commitment to go home and continue those quiet times. I made that promise more than once. I would get home and have a quiet time every day. And then school started. What’s that old saying about good intentions?

My last summer at Camp Lee was more than twenty-five years ago and I’m still learning to keep the promises I made there. I don’t use the phrase “quiet time” much any more. But I still practice the discipline, even if erratically. I learned to value that kind of time with God and I can’t imagine a life not anchored by that kind of spiritual practice.

But I learned something else at Camp Lee as well. Without being aware of it, my “quiet time” taught me that time with God ended when the camp bell rang and called us all back together for some kind of noisy talkative activity. No one taught me to see God in every hour, every activity, every interaction. No one explained to me that there was really no difference between morning “quiet time” and afternoon “free time.” I never thought much about God’s presence in softball games and time spent hanging out. My life of faith was carved up with spiritual slivers here and there: church on Sunday, a little God-time in the a.m. and then on to the business of, well, busy-ness. The 95%.

The Psalmist said that the name of the Lord was to be praised from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. That’s surely a statement that lays claim to the entire earth, all the acreage from one tip of the globe to the other. But perhaps it’s also a statement that claims time – all the hours of the day, from sun up to sun down, from rising to sleeping again and every moment in between. That’s the focus of “my95.” The life of faith is not lived adequately by having quiet times and going to church. The life of faith involves everything about your life – from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. Nothing is left out.

If you’re reading this you’ve taken some time for a daily “devotional.” That’s a good thing – but God wants the rest of your day as well. Think through the day, from the rising of the sun to its setting. Ask God to meet you in every meeting, every errand, every class and practice and conference call. Look for God in the 95% and remember that all of time can be “quiet time.”

Your name, O Lord, is to be praised everywhere and all the time; from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets. In these moments I give you praise and thanks for the gift of this day. Help me to continue my worship beyond these “devotional” moments. Teach me how to join you in what you are doing all around me. Help me to notice your presence in all things, from sun up to sun down. Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2008

How He Died: A Good Friday Meditation

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” (Mark 15:39)

Yesterday was the last day of school this week for my children. Since I’m typically the first one up every morning and generally responsible for rousting the sleepy ones out of bed, I thought the “last school day” announcement might work in my favor. You know the strategy: face what you have to do today by focusing on what you don’t have to do tomorrow. Sometimes it works. Yesterday it didn’t.

I’m not all that surprised that my kids offered their standard resistance to getting out of bed. What surprised me was their stated reason for not wanting to go to school.

“Stations of the cross,” they groaned.

“What?” I asked, wanting to be sure I had heard them correctly.

“Stations of the Cross” they repeated, this time a little louder.

Thursday is chapel day at their school and this week the chapel service focused on the Stations of the Cross. For those of you (like me) who might be liturgically challenged, the Stations of the Cross are a depiction of Christ’s passion told in fourteen pictures or episodes. There are variations on the practice, but generally the Stations of the Cross involve walking from station to station, picture to picture, praying through the week of the passion. It is, simply put, the story of how Jesus died.

Frankly, I’m delighted that my kids are exposed to this in their school. I’m not sure how they “walk” through the Stations of the Cross, but I’m sure it doesn’t involve the orderly movement of hundreds of elementary aged children. My guess is that the story is read. That’s fine with me.

What isn’t fine with me is their reaction to the experience. Some of this is certainly typical for a fourth and third grader. I didn’t even have chapel in my elementary school and Sunday pew sitting was merely a tolerated fact of life. I can accept their lack of enthusiasm in that regard.

But my fear has to do with the story itself and its power in their young lives. I don’t want the power of that story to be blunted through too much church. The story of how Jesus died changes lives. That’s what I want my children to know. More than know, I want them to experience it.

The centurion who stood in front of the cross came to a powerful realization about who Jesus was. “Surely this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). I’ve heard this before and I’ve always thought that this confession was spoken because of the darkened skies and the earthquake. That’s not it according to Mark. The centurion’s words are spoken because he saw how Jesus died. That’s what I want my children to see. That’s what we want the world to see.

The death of Jesus shows us how to live: sacrificially and obediently, not grasping at position but taking the form of a servant (Philippians 2).

The resurrection life of Jesus shows us how to die: with peace and the hope of eternity because Jesus defeated death.

For Today:
On this Good Friday, take time to read and reflect and remember how Jesus died. As you observe how he died, what impact does the story have on your living?

We stand at your cross today Lord Jesus. We see your death, your refusal to vindicate yourself with the forces of heaven, your willingness to humble yourself in obedience to the Father’s will. We see your death – and we want to be like you. But we are afraid: Afraid of suffering and not being in charge of life. Teach us to open our hands today, even as you opened your own. On this Good Friday, help us to live as you died and to face death confident of your eternal life. Amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Guest Room: A Maundy Thursday Meditation

So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go in to the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ (Mark 14:13-14).

“The teacher asks: Where is my guest room . . .” That’s a good question.

We have a guest room in our home. From time to time it has actually been used to accommodate a guest. Most of the time, however, our guest room serves as a multi-purpose-stick-it-in-here room. The guest room is a hodge- podge of this and that, a holding cell for all manner of household detritus. But then someone comes for a genuine overnight visit. And we prepare the guest room, make it homey, clear the clutter.

Walking down the hall today one of my co-workers asked me, “Are you ready for Easter?” It was a conversation in motion, so I don’t think my friend wanted a lengthy discourse in response to her question. I simply replied, “I’m trying to get ready.” I’m sure her question was aimed at the preparations for Sunday church activities: worship, worship, and then worship a few more times. There’s plenty to get ready for. But my answer was more about my own readiness. I didn’t explain all that. Maybe she knew. But that’s where I’m at right now. I’m trying to get ready.

On the day we know as Maundy Thursday, Jesus shared a last supper with his disciples. Most of us know about the supper. We never give a second thought to the preparations. Those sacred moments – “My body broken for you, my blood shed for you” – those moments of being in the company of Jesus didn’t drop out of thin air. Preparations were made. Some disciples were charged with the task, aided by an obscure homeowner and a random guy carrying a water jar.

The key question: “Where is my guest room?” That’s what Jesus wanted to know. That’s what Jesus wants to know now. He asks that very thing of you and me.

We often come to Easter with cluttered lives: some rushing to get back in town after a spring break trip, some planning a big lunch or worried about being on time for those reservations and getting cute pictures of the children in those new clothes with their Easter baskets full of various chocolates and fake grass that drops all over the house. Yes, we can work hard at getting ready for Easter . . . only to find out that what we got ready for wasn’t truly Easter.

Perhaps today – Maundy Thursday – can be a day of making preparation. The kind of preparation that matters. Jesus wants to be present with us this weekend. Jesus loves to show up at worship services and lunches and family gatherings and even egg hunts.

We simply need to make room. What kind of space will you prepare for the living Christ this Easter? The teacher is asking: “where is my guestroom?”

For Today:
What will you do today to prepare yourself for Easter? How will you make room in your life for the living Christ?

We ask you, Lord Jesus, for the help of your Spirit as we prepare for Easter. Help us to make room for you within ourselves, as well as within our schedules and plans. We want to know your living presence among us in these days. Help us to be a people who share in your sufferings for the world and rejoice in the hope of your resurrection. Amen

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Former, Not Forgotten: Holy Week Wednesday

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head (Mark 14:3).

He was known as Simon the Leper.

Mark tells us nothing more about the host of this dinner gathering during the final days of Jesus’ life. Anything beyond “Simon the Leper” is pure speculation and guesswork. But the guessing stirs the imagination. Chances are good that Simon is not actually a leper – inviting guests to his home, dipping his chips in the salsa bowl, touching food, pouring the wine. A leper couldn’t do that, and if he tried it would be a very small and quiet party. No, we’re simply told that he was known as Simon the Leper.

The disease had been healed. The name had stuck.

The name spoke to who he used to be, to the life he used to have and the condition of life to which he had likely resigned himself. Sick, ugly and peeling, smelling of death, avoided by people, grieving the loss of the comforts of home. That was Simon’s life until Jesus came along and changed it.

Now Simon is back home, throwing parties, reclining at table with his friend Jesus and reaching for the salsa bowl with a hand that looks smooth and greets with a firm grip. Why was this man known as Simon the Leper? We can’t say for sure, but everyone at the dinner party probably knew exactly why.

There are plenty of people working hard to escape their former self. The “known as” part of their identity is their shame, or so they think. A few days ago I received a message on Facebook from someone who went to college with me more than 20 years ago. “You may not remember me,” the message said. They used the term “wild child” to describe who they used to be back in the day. This person apparently suspected that those unruly days were lingering in my memory. They wanted to shed that “known as” self.

It wasn’t that way for Simon. “Leper” was hardly a designation to boast in, but every time someone spoke of Simon the Leper they spoke of what Jesus and his grace had done. Simon never wanted to forget that part of his story, never wanted to get over how Jesus had changed him. Leper was a former self; former, but not forgotten.

The death of Jesus on the cross means that life can change. You are not saddled with labels that forever define who you are: addicted, divorced, depressed. The “known as” self speaks to the former you. And the former you speaks to the depth of God’s grace and goodness. Don’t ever forget that.

For Today:
What is your “known as” self? Is there a part of your life story that no longer speaks to your shame but to God’s goodness?

In you, Lord Jesus, we can be made new. Old things pass away and the new comes. We give you thanks for the cross and the price you paid to redeem and renew us. In this Holy Week make us mindful of who we once were, and remind us again of who we are in you. Amen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Authority Issues: Holy Week Tuesday

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking again in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you the authority to do this?” (Mark 11:27-33)

When tables loaded with coins are turned over there will be noise. Jarring, unsettling noise. This kind of thing gets noticed, and so it was with Jesus’ temple cleansing broo-hah and short sermon. The episode had drawn the attention of the power brokers who typically hung out in the temple precincts: chief priests, law teachers, elders. They’d had a while to convene and consternate over the audacity of the young rabbi. When he returned to the temple the following day they were probably shocked at his nerve, but plenty glad for the chance to confront him.

And the confrontation was all about authority: “Who gave you authority . . . by what authority do you do these things?” They wanted to see his credentials. Jesus answered their questions with a few questions of his own, and in the end he simply refused to tell them what they wanted to know.

For the priests and teachers and elders, validation came from things like position and education and rank and title. This is how they knew who mattered, who counted, who the real players were. Jesus had none of those things. Jesus simply knew himself as dearly loved by the Father.

And this was enough.

We spend a fair amount of energy trying to tell the world around us that we matter. We want others to know that we count, that we’re players to be reckoned with in whatever sphere of life we inhabit. We’ll open a vein to achieve the things that validate us: the prime positions in the organization, the right degrees behind our name, the most fruitful contacts. This is how we tell the world we matter. Sometimes it’s how we tell ourselves that we matter.

Holy week forces us to consider a different answer: Jesus died for you. God loved you enough to give his son on the cross. That’s how you know you matter. That’s all you need to know to go into the world and change it. You are loved by the Father.

And that’s enough.

For Today:
What would change about your day if you truly knew that God’s love for you in Jesus was the defining center of your life? Is that truly enough for you?

Lord Jesus, Help me to discern the difference between doing my best with what you’ve given me, and trying to prove myself in order to get something from others. Teach me how to rest in your love for me, knowing that your love defines my life. Today, loving God, I belong to you – and that is enough. Amen

Monday, March 17, 2008

Access Granted: Holy Week Monday

Therefore since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus. . . let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:19-22).

For a number of schools in the area this is spring break week. Not for my kids. We did that a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have a clue as to the thinking process that guides school administrators as they schedule spring break. I simply put it on my calendar and wait for the plan. This year it was Washington, D.C.

Thanks to the generous efforts of a friend, we were able to get an appointment for a White House tour. This was a first for me. I hate to admit it, but I did a summer internship in D.C. back in my college days and somehow never made it to the White House. I don’t understand the thinking process that went into that either. But that youthful oversight was remedied on spring break. On Tuesday of the week at 10:00 a.m. we were waiting at the southeast gate ready to go.

And suddenly I was in seventh grade again. As a seventh grader I was in awe of the United States Secret Service. I had every intention of joining their ranks someday. I had seen President Gerald Ford on one occasion and the excitement of seeing the President didn’t come close to seeing the secret service in action. Very serious, almost edgy. Every move deliberate, alive to every detail of their surroundings, all business.

And they were all over the White House. Many in uniform, some not. There’s so much to see in the White House, but for all there is to see one thing is very clear. There’s much that you cannot see, plenty of places you cannot go. A labyrinth of velvet roping and well placed stanchions guide your walk through the White House. Our guide pointed to the foot of a staircase that led up to the President’s residence. The Secret Service had two people posted there. Again, very serious. The message was clear. Don’t even think about approaching these stairs. Access denied.

On Monday of the last week of his life, Jesus went into the temple and overturned the tables of money changers (Mark 11:12-19). The provoking issue: access to the holy place and the Holy One. Pilgrims from everywhere made their way to Jerusalem and to the temple. The temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations, a place to meet with God. The money changers were making access difficult, expensive. In both word and deed that day Jesus made a bold statement about God. Access granted.

And when he died on Friday of the week, the same message was conveyed as the temple veil, the barrier that marked the Holy of Holies, was torn in two from top to bottom. Access granted. In the White House I saw brave people who would die to keep me out.
This week we see a man who dies to bring us in. Access granted.

For Today:
Do you come to God with confidence, knowing that God expects you, knowing that you are welcomed into God’s presence? How does this access shape your prayers?

Thank you Jesus for opening the way to the Father. Thank you for removing the barriers that distance us from our creator: our own sense of unworthiness, our misguided notions of God’s character. Teach us to live in the confidence that comes from being free to boldly enter the most holy place at any time by the presence of your Spirit with us. Amen.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Troubled Conscience?

How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14).

Most of us know what it feels like. And most of us are good at masking it, ignoring it, numbing it with our rational faculties or with busy-ness. John Piper explains how the cross of Jesus is the answer to the accusations we level at ourselves when our conscience is troubled.

Some things never change. The problem of a dirty conscience is as old as Adam and Eve. As soon as they sinned their conscience was defiled. Their sense of guilt was ruinous. It ruined their relationship with God – they hid from him. It ruined their relationship with each other – they blamed. . . So here we are in the modern age – the age of science, internet, organ transplants, instant messaging, cell phones – and our problem is fundamentally the same as always: Our conscience condemns us. We don’t feel good enough to come to God . . . We can cut ourselves, or throw our children in the sacred river, or give a million dollars to the United Way, or serve in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving, or perform a hundred forms of penance and self-injury, and the result will be the same. The stain remains and death terrifies.

The only answer in these modern times, as in all other times, is the blood of Christ. When our conscience rises up and condemns us where will we turn? We turn to Christ. We turn to the suffering and death of Christ – the blood of Christ. This is the only cleansing agent in the universe that can give the conscience relief in life and peace in death. (John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die, 50-51)

There might have been a time when Piper’s words were widely understood and generally accepted. There was a day when the place to begin in bringing people to faith in Jesus was with their troubled conscience. It was a fairly safe bet that they had one and that they’d eagerly hear a message about how it could be assuaged.

I’m not sure that time is now.

Last night I attended a fund-raising banquet and found myself at the table with a man who’s been a court-appointed social worker for more than thirty years. I asked him about his work and he made what I regard as a confession. For most of his career he’s done his work believing that there’s good in everyone. Now, he said, he’s not so sure. He’s seen too much, come face to face with too much intractable meanness. He’s reluctantly beginning to think that some people are just evil. Evil at the core.

This makes me think that there are some who simply don’t have a conscience that troubles them. And I’m not talking about sociopaths and hardened criminals. There’s something in our culture that has slowly filed the edge off of our conscience. These days, if you’re conscience troubles you it isn’t because you’ve violated anything that’s inherently right or wrong. It’s your own way of thinking. Something or someone has made you feel guilty, and that’s one of the worst things someone or something can do. Maturity means validating yourself, your own beliefs, overcoming whatever that something or someone might be in your life.

Does the conscience still rise up and condemn?

Like most everyone else in the nation, I’ve been watching the sad story of New York’s governor and the way he’s made a mockery of the vows he took at inauguration, not to mention the vows he made to his wife. Does his conscience trouble him? I can't answer that. Only the Spirit can see this, cut through spin and carefully crafted statements for the media. But here’s the thing: modern understandings of maturity aside, most people would say his conscience should bother him.

We still know there’s a conscience and even if it’s been numbed, there are moments when it ought to writhe with that old affliction we know as guilt. Guilt isn’t a psychological shackle that someone else imposed on us. Guilt is God’s gift because it has a way of prodding us, nudging us to the cross of Jesus.

“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Oh! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
( Robert Lowry, “Nothing But the Blood,” pub. 1876)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Grandiose Self

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).

I was there first with my blinker on. I’m certain of it.

At the ballpark where my son was playing baseball there is a small parking lot right behind the outfield fence. The thrill of actually finding a parking spot in that lot is like winning the lottery. So when I saw the red taillights of the SUV and realized that it would be vacating a place that was perfectly suited for my mini-van, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I pulled up close enough to make my intentions clear and put my blinker on signaling that I would be occupying the prized piece of real estate.

Another vehicle rolled slowly from the other direction, having explored the lot and missed the opportunity which I was about to seize. As it happened the departing SUV positioned itself in such a way that for a moment my access to the parking space was blocked. That moment was all it took for the other driver to pounce like a beast on its prey. The car quickly shot behind the SUV and slipped into the place I had been waiting on.

I was stunned. Did that really just happen? The driver got out of his car and walked toward the ball field without as much as a glance my way. Disbelief quickly turned to a mix of anger and humiliation. And then came the fantasies: I chase him down, get in his face, and shame him into contrition as he slinks back to his car apologetically. Fat chance.

I then mused on the satisfaction of parking there anyway - ramming my own worn-out vehicle repeatedly into the crowded space until the chrome emblem marking his expensive car lay like crumpled foil on the ground. That felt great, but was not financially viable. Time to move on. Searching for another place to park, I nursed my wounded pride and stewed in my righteous indignation.

There came a point in Jesus’ ministry when he began to speak plainly about how things would end for him, where it was all headed. As Mark tells it in his gospel, Jesus spoke plainly about suffering and rejection and rising again. He made it clear that to follow him meant taking up a cross. As if that weren’t hard enough, Jesus coupled taking up a cross with something else: “Deny yourself.”

When Jesus tells us to deny ourselves he’s telling us to do more than pass on the Oreos and hold off on that big purchase. To refrain from indulgence is not the same as denying the self. What Jesus has in mind is more like saying “get over yourself.” This is a kind of death and we resist it.

The self can be healthy and whole. It can also be huge, grandiose. The grandiose self has a never-quite-satisfied appetite for approval, recognition, respect, acknowledgment, compliance from others. This self loves to be affirmed by having other selves defer to it. It likes to win, to get its way. And to take up a cross, to follow the Jesus way, means that this self must be put to death.

The grandiose self manages to hide, or we manage to hide it, until someone takes our parking place. Typically, it’s the smallest offenses that stoke the monster. At the most negligible slight we’ll drop our crosses and assert our selves. Letting it go, overlooking the dismissive remark, forgetting the insult, ignoring the disregard – it feels like death. Maybe that’s because it is.

For Today:
The healthy self lives by serving and loving others. The grandiose self lives by getting from others. How has your grandiose self been wounded lately? What will it mean to follow Jesus in that situation?

Without a word, Lord Jesus, you went like a lamb to slaughter. We are reluctant to follow you there. Among our great fears are being taken advantage of, embarrassed, treated like a doormat, shown as weak. Help us to learn how to deny self in the practical details of every day. Give us the courage to take up our cross as we walk into this day. Amen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Who Wins?

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35).

Let’s be honest. Crucifixion in every detail looks like a massive defeat. We need to pause before we quickly endow the cross with nobility and glory. The one on the cross is stripped naked and exposed. The crucified are jeered and taunted. Finally, they’re dead. That’s about as defeated as defeated can get. And yet, this loss is somehow God’s victory. Today we listen to C. S. Lewis and Leslie Newbigin to try and make sense of that claim.

At last she drew near. She stood by Aslan’s head. Her face was working and twitching with passion, but his looked up at the sky, still quiet, neither angry nor afraid, but a little sad. Then just before she gave the blow, she stooped down and said in a quivering voice. “And now who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? . . . Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In this knowledge, despair and die.” (From C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

If the cross is the end, then there is no future. But it is not [the end]. The resurrection is the revelation to chosen witnesses of the fact that Jesus who died on the cross is indeed King – conqueror of death and sin, Lord and savior of all. The resurrection is not the reversal of a defeat but the proclamation of a victory. The King reigns from the tree. The reign of God has indeed come upon us, and its sign is not a golden throne but a wooden cross (Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 127).

Who wins? Jesus does. We do. His beating heart and breathing lungs were not the only things that stopped on the cross. In his death every shameful memory we have, every whisper of guilt that we still hear, every lousy choice we’ve ever made, every destructive behavior we’ve ever embraced – all of that was put to death once and for all. Who wins? Well . . . you do.

For Today:
Have you ever experienced a defeat or loss or disappointment that turned out for your good?

Remind us today, O Lord, that you often disguise your best work with the appearance of loss and hopelessness. Help us not to despair as we look at our ravaged world and encounter broken people all around us. Today we look boldly at what seems to be defeat, and we invite you to bring forth new life. Make us confident and expectant as we go through this day. Amen.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cross Prayers

They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left (Mark 15:27).

When read together, the gospels render seven utterances of Jesus from the cross. These “seven last words” have been the focus of much study and reflection. They have been expounded from pulpits and lecterns; sung from choir lofts and concert halls. Much of what Jesus speaks from the cross is prayer. He asks God to forgive his executioners. He also cries out in his dark moments of God forsaken-ness. Merciful prayers, anguished prayers, and some in between.

But Jesus isn’t the only one praying. Jesus was crucified with two criminals. They too speak from the cross, and if we listen to their words we hear prayer laced throughout. Both criminals address Jesus directly; both make requests of him. But these two convicts pray very different prayers.

One of those prayers is demanding and angry. Spoken from the place of threat and trouble, this prayer seeks escape and little more. The one praying is not interested in God as much as getting results, getting rescued, getting out, getting away. The caustic words of the petition reflect the words of the surrounding crowd, the prevailing culture. Let Jesus prove himself. The essence of the prayer is simple: “Get me out of this mess.”

The other prayer comes from a different place, from a different man. This prayer comes from a man who recognizes the truth about himself. What’s more, he recognizes the truth about Jesus. Jesus’ innocence exposes the criminal’s guilt. This prayer isn’t seeking to escape. Rather, it seeks to enter into the reality over which Jesus is King. The essence of this prayer is also simple: “Remember me.”

On any given day we pray from both sides of the cross.

There are days – usually hard days - when we want to say that if God were truly good and truly powerful, then our circumstances would change. God could fix the problem and bring order to the mess of our lives if only he would. We sometimes pray through clenched teeth. Do something God! Make it right!

And sometimes we pray from a far more humble place. We gather the courage to face what is rather than insisting on what we want. We know the truth about our lives and we own what’s worthy as well as what is shameful. And we ask for grace because we know that in the end only grace can save us.

For today: From which side of the cross are you praying today?

Once again we ask you, Lord Jesus, teach us to pray. Our prayers flip-flop, moving from one side of your cross to the other. We make demands; we humbly ask for mercy. Help us to pray from the foot of your cross, covered by your grace, placing our concerns and our lives into your hands. Amen.

Monday, March 10, 2008


As they led him away they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus (Luke 23:26).

Rev. David Smith, professor of theology in Magee College, Londonderry, first published The Days of His Flesh in 1905. The book is a retelling of the life of Jesus that blends narrative elements from all four gospels. Smith’s work is scholarly, but he’s never reluctant to throw in a piece of vivid detail that has grown up around the gospel texts. Such is the case in this passage describing how Simon of Cyrene was ordered to step in and bear the cross of Jesus to the site of crucifixion.

Looking around for one whom they might impress, the soldiers spied a man who had been about to enter the city as the procession poured through the gateway. He was a Hellenistic Jew named Simon from Cyrene, a North African city where a large Jewish colony resided; and he had come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. He has his lodging outside the walls of the city, and he was on his way to the temple to join in the morning prayer. All unexpectedly and sorely against his will he was called to a holier service (David Smith, The Days of His Flesh, 492-93).

As Smith tells it, all Simon wanted to do was make the morning prayer service at the temple. I picture him hurrying, wanting to be on time – much the same way many of us make our way to the place of worship each week. His objectives are worthy. He is a devout man attending to the practices of his religion.

And then he gets stuck in traffic. A throng of spectators are following Jesus to the place outside the city known as Golgotha. Somehow Simon attracts the attention of the Roman guards and he is conscripted; he takes the cross to his own shoulders. He’ll not make the prayer service.

The cross is indeed an interruption. Many of us are content to make our way to the weekly services. We faithfully attend and do what we believe our faith requires of us. This is a good thing and most days we feel satisfied with that. And then we encounter the cross.

The cross won’t allow us to settle for the weekly scramble to the place of worship. It calls us to a “holier service,” as Smith puts it. The cross demands that we trade religious duties for a walk with Jesus. That walk can take us to places we didn’t plan to go. It can bring discomforts we didn’t ask for; it can disturb our routines. For people content with religion, the cross is terribly inconvenient.

For Today:
Look ahead to the day you’ve been given. The cross means your plans may be interrupted. Where might you be asked to walk a hard path with Jesus today?

In all I have planned for this day, Lord Jesus, I want to walk with you. Make me ready to take up a cross. Prepare my mind and spirit so that I will not resent the interruptions you bring my way. Use me for a holier service according to your will. Amen.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

More than Metaphor

. . . one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side bringing a sudden flow of blood and water (John 19:34).

The name Thomas Steagald won’t be found in the indices of textbooks on Christian History. His fine volume Praying for Dear Life, while helpful and beautifully written, isn’t regarded as a devotional classic. Steagald is a Methodist pastor in Stanley, North Carolina where he lives out the vocation of a garden-variety pastor, and then writes about it with eloquence. In addition to pastoral duties, Steagald has at times in his ministry served as the church’s choir director. Reflecting on the singing of hymns in the congregation, Steagald writes

The scattered congregation sang some of the great hymns when their pastor asked for their favorites: “The Old Rugged Cross,” which Frederick Buechner says he learned to sing at bedtime and before he knew what a hymn was or what a cross was or why it was something to sing about at night. We sang “There is a Fountain filled with Blood.” My wife and daughter really do not like that song, though it is one of my favorites. I keep telling them it is a metaphor, a metaphor – but to no avail. We sang “It is Well with My Soul,” and I pledged that though “Satan should buffet and trials should come” to “let this blessed assurance control: That Christ has regarded my humble estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul.” That is not a metaphor (Steagald, Praying for Dear Life, 192).

Sometimes we allow meaning to evaporate from the cross under the heat of our words and thoughts about it. The way we seek to understand the cross with our minds, the way we speak of the cross with our words, the way we wear the cross around our necks or place it in our churches – all these conspire to make the cross a symbol, and little more than that. A symbol.

The language of metaphor – words that help us to see and understand by means of an implied comparison – this language surrounds the cross. But the cross is not a metaphor.

The “Fountain filled with blood” is poetry. We may not think it very good poetry, but is poetry nonetheless. The fountain of blood washes away “all our guilty stains.” It is an image that helps us get our minds around what happened on the cross.

But there is a reality that goes beyond imagery. Jesus “shed his own blood for my soul.” Simple straightforward language. This is not an image; this isn’t poetry. As Steagald says, “this is not a metaphor.”

For Today:
It is one thing to say what the cross represents. It is something else to say what the cross actually does. How would you state the difference?

Gracious God, help us to see the cross as more than a symbol. Help our words to convey more than imagery and metaphor. Remind us that the cross is your way of changing lives and changing the world. Help us to know that change personally and directly, and empower us to tell the story of the cross so that others are changed too. Amen.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Our Secrets

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a series of lectures that were later placed in manuscript form by one of his students and eventually published. The result was the little book Spiritual Care – a study of Christian caregiving. In the following excerpt, Bonhoeffer reflects on how the cross makes it possible for people to speak the truth about their lives; it also makes it possible to hear that truth with grace.

At the cross of Christ we learn to see ourselves and others as sinners. What sin can be greater than the godlessness which took Christ to the cross? We show an impoverished understanding of the cross of Christ if we are “shocked” by a great sin which we learn about, for example, in confession. At the cross of Christ we learn to look such things in the eye and in the process become aware of our nearness to others. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Spiritual Care, 38).

Somehow people of faith are portrayed as frequently shocked and offended. They are always scandalized by something: by dancing or lewd behavior or short skirts or salty language. Shocked and offended – that’s standard posture of people who take Jesus seriously. But that’s a misrepresentation. It’s a caricature, and it’s wrong.

Bonhoeffer grasped that people who truly understand the cross will not be “shocked” by the things they learn about other people, especially their secrets, their failures, their sin. This means that the cross is what makes genuine Christian community possible. The cross puts an end to our impression management, our need to appear all put together. Christians are people who can hear someone else’s secret and not be scandalized. What’s more, Christians are able to admit the truth about their own lives. The cross tells us that we all have secrets. The cross also takes our shame.

For Today:
Someone around you may need to confide in another person today. Perhaps that person will be you. As you listen with grace, the work of the cross becomes real. Maybe you need to confide in someone today. To whom are you able to speak the truth about your life?

We give you thanks, O God, that you did not send Jesus to die for righteous people or for good, but for sinners. Help us to acknowledge this truth: that we are all sinners, people with secrets that keep us distant from you and from one another. By your spirit help us to be people who can extend your grace to others. Help us also to receive it, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Jesus Suffered

A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master (Matthew 10:24)

Irenaeus lived during the second century and was one of the most significant thinkers and leaders of the early church. He was a student of the great bishop Polycarp who was said to be a student of the apostle John. The significance of the student– teacher relationship can be heard in this brief excerpt from Against Heresies (c. 180 AD)

If he did not really suffer there was no grace . . . and when we begin to endure real suffering he will clearly be leading us astray in exhorting us to endure scourging and to turn the other cheek, if he did not first endure the same treatment in reality; . . . in that case we should be ‘above our master’ . . . but as he, our Lord, is our only true master, so he is truly the good and suffering Son of God, the Word of God the Father made the Son of Man (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, cited in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, 107).

In Irenaeus’ day there were some sincere, very intelligent Christians who simply could not accept the fact that the Son of God died the excruciating and ignoble death of crucifixion. Jesus’ death on the cross presented them with an uncomfortable theological problem. They dealt with the problem by maintaining that the “human” Jesus was crucified while the “divine” part of Jesus was taken to God before things got really nasty.

Irenaeus would have none of it. Jesus is the suffering Son of God. He didn’t escape the cross by leaving the husk of his body on the tree while spiritually whisking away to the heavens. Jesus was there in his fullness. All of him: feeling every lash of the whip, every nail, the tongue cracking thirst. Jesus suffered.

And this matters precisely because we too suffer. Jesus never asks us to endure what he himself has not endured. And when we try to avoid or deny suffering, we elevate ourselves above our master, student seeking to surpass teacher.

For Today:
What does suffering look like in your life today? Does the reality of Jesus’ suffering change what you are experiencing? What would it mean for you to enter into the suffering of others?

Lord Jesus, we’re thankful that you entered fully into the experience of suffering; we’re thankful that you understand fully the sufferings we experience. Help us to find you in the midst of our own anguish. And when our days are bright and blessed, teach us to follow your example as we enter into the suffering of those around us. Amen.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

An Empty Cross

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power (1 Corinthians 1:17)

The testimony of faith is that no matter how things look in this fallen world, all God’s acts are wrought in perfect wisdom . . . The atonement too was accomplished with the same flawless skill that marks all God’s acts. However little we understand it all, we know that Christ’s expiatory work perfectly reconciled God and men and opened the Kingdom of heaven to all believers. Our concern is not to explain, but to proclaim. Indeed I wonder whether God could make us understand all that happened on the cross. According to the apostle Peter not even angels know, however eagerly they may desire to look into these things. (A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, 68)

We celebrate an empty cross. Jesus absent, no longer hanging there. Protestant churches rarely display a crucifix. Hard to find are images in which the dead or dying Jesus remains suspended in the shame and humiliation of the cross. No, we celebrate an empty cross. The empty cross silently proclaims resurrection. With a touch of boasting we say, “Our cross is empty because Jesus is alive.” True enough.

But sometimes our delight in the empty cross leaves us with an “emptied” cross. Like those friends of Jesus who hurried to remove his body before sunset ushered in the Sabbath, we too hurry to take his body down, wrap it up, place it in the tomb. We do this by our reluctance to linger at the site of execution. Something is rushing us to the tomb, to Easter.

And we do this with our explanations. A. W. Tozer wisely reminds us of two things that shape our praying today. First, the event of the cross was God’s wisdom. It wasn’t error or things gone wrong. As Paul stated it, the wisdom of God is foolishness to us. Second, our task is not to explain it. When we seek to understand the cross by use of our own wisdom, we end up with an emptied cross – drained of power, a mere symbol. It doesn’t actually do anything.

For Today:
Tozer says our concern is not explanation, but proclamation. How would you explain the cross if a friend asked you about it? In the course of a typical day, what does it mean for us to “proclaim” the cross?

Gracious God, your wisdom is beyond our explaining. So let us live this day in such way that the cross is proclaimed. Let our lives say clearly that forgiveness is more powerful than vengeance, that your grace matters more than our good intentions and best efforts to please you, that even in suffering you are present. May we proclaim the cross clearly and not empty it of power. Amen

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Meant for You

Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures . . . (1 Corinthians 15:3).

In his book Letters to a Young Evangelical, Tony Campolo tells the story of being in a communion service with his parents when he was very young. Seated in the pew in front of them was a woman visibly distressed. Her quiet sobbing, the shaking of her shoulders, continued through the service, right up until the time communion was served.

The minister had just finished preaching on the text from 1 Corinthians 11:27. “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” As the elements were passed to this woman she waved them away and lowered her head under the weight of whatever churning inside of her that morning.

Campolo recalls that is was at this very moment that his father leaned forward and in his choppy Sicilian English spoke over her shoulder: ”Take it girl! It was meant for you . . . do you hear me?”[1]

The cross was where it happened. It was on the cross that Christ’s body was broken and his blood shed. And that violent drawn-out death was for you. This is an amazing claim. The cross is not merely something that we as Christians affirm historically. The cross is an event that we enter into personally. Somehow, in ways beyond our understanding, the death of Jesus bears directly on you and me. It was meant for us. Our tradition and scripture make this tight assertion: Jesus died for our sins. You’re included. It was meant for you.

In the weeks ahead as we approach Easter we’ll be reflecting on the cross. Keying to the sermon series that will anchor weekly worship at PPC, we’ll daily explore why the cross mattered.

The content of these daily reflections will be largely gleaned from the works of others. So many gifted thinkers, writers and teachers have meditated on and wrestled with the meaning of the cross. On most days you’ll be given a brief excerpt along with a comment or question to help you think about what you’ve read.

And here’s an invitation: some of you may have read something about the cross that has been meaningful to you. If you know of compelling quote that you’d like to share during the course of this series, please share it in the comments section of this blog or send it to Please be sure to include your source since some of your submissions may be used in this devotional series.

These days ahead may be an Emmaus Road (Luke 24). The living Christ meets you every morning and walks with you – and along the way Jesus may help you understand more about why he suffered and died. By the time we reach Easter you’ll know it’s true: “It was meant for you.”

Lord Jesus, it isn’t hard for us to affirm that you died on the cross. The hard part is in understanding that you did so for us; that your death truly matters and makes a difference for people today. Guide our thinking and praying in the days ahead that we might better understand the cross. Empower us by your Spirit to live each day in gratitude for what you did on our behalf. Amen.

[1] As cited in the Winter 2008 issue of Leadership Journal, page 60.