If you are looking for my blog titled, The Contemplative Catholic Convert, you are at the right spot.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

All or Nothing Faith

On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. . . . And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?" After looking around at them all, He said to him, "Stretch out your hand!" And he did so; and his hand was restored. But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus (Luke 6:6-11).

Each time I read this passage, I am bewildered by the Pharisees’ cold-heartedness. Why could it be wrong to heal someone – even on the Sabbath?

Throughout the Old Testament, religious scholars such as the Pharisees and scribes were appointed by God Himself to protect the integrity of Jewish faith. And next to circumcision, obedience to the Sabbath Day commandment was a central requirement to the proper performance of Jewish faith. Little wonder, then, that Jesus angered so many of the Jewish teachers and doctrinal specialists when – according to their understanding of Scripture – he broke the Sabbath by healing people.

As I contemplated this vignette in Luke’s gospel, I focused on that phrase – according to their understanding of Scripture. And then another vignette in St. Luke’s gospel flashed into my memory. In this one (chapter 9), the apostle John said to Jesus, We saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us (verse 49).

It seems the Pharisees and other Doctors of the Law were not alone in the practice of their religion within the strict confines of their understanding of Scripture.

Jesus’ disciples practiced the same kind of – what I call – “all or nothing” faith.

“All or nothing” faith. It’s what I also practiced for decades. Unless people worshiped Christ like I worshiped Him, or interpreted Scripture as I did, or attended the same denominational church as I – their Christian faith was suspect.

I should have paid more attention to the Lord’s response to St. John in that next verse: Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you (Luke 9:50).

All or nothing faith. It’s hard to achieve the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed, when we accept from others nothing less than the “Gospel According to Me” (see St. John 17:20-23).

Perhaps that’s why the Lord Jesus said to the Doctors of the Law: Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24). Or St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sharing the Tragedy

"In the twenty-fifth year of our exile . . . " (Ezekiel 40:1)

I don't know how many times I've read the prophet Ezekiel. Forty? Fifty? Yet this time, I noticed an important message nearly hidden in this verse, something I'd never before recognized nor contemplated.

God's prophet was not exempt from the devastation that brought Judah to its knees and into captivity. He shared in their tragedy.

Though I know better, I’ve always liked to believe God’s children will escape the judgment He sends to the ungodly. But Scripture – and human experience – teach differently. Wars take the lives of believers and non-believers alike. Natural disasters destroy churches as well as strip-clubs. Tragedy usually doesn't discriminate between sinners and saints.

Ezekiel went into exile with his godly and ungodly neighbors. But his pain was not without purpose. During those twenty-five years, the prophet lived his life of faith before others. And in so doing could also speak comfort and hope to his neighbors who desperately needed a word of comfort and hope.

But isn’t that what God calls you and me to do – especially when we suffer tragedies alongside our neighbors? After all, it’s easier to share hope with those with whom we share heartache, than it is to offer solace while we remain untouched by life’s pain.

It is as St. Paul wrote to the people in the church at Corinth:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dirty Barns and Feeding Troughs

I wrote this twelve years ago. The message, though, is the same.
---------------

I will never forget Christmas 1997.

A week before Christmas we were on our way from Texas to San Diego – orders of the US Navy. Nancy and I, along with our three teens, crammed into the minivan and made our way westward, sandwiched among luggage, bags of dirty laundry and an assortment of on-the-road lunches. The rhythmic thump-thump-thump of tires slapping across asphalt, and the monotonous engine hum, stretched six hours a day into what seemed a dozen. We thought the journey would never end until, with frayed nerves, we pulled into San Diego.

Under different circumstances, San Diego is a nice place to pull into. However, two days before Christmas, a city of more than a million strangers was not my idea of a great place to spend the holiday. It’s a good thing none of us knew things were about to take a turn for the worse.

I awakened the next morning with a deep, wall-rattling cough. By noon my temperature hit 101. It hovered at 103 on Christmas day. Bundled under blankets, alternately shivering and perspiring, I did not at all feel “joyful, joyful.” Instead, I felt guilty for not acting “spiritual” and thanking God for all things -- even the flu. But I was too sore and too tired to mumble much more than a woeful, “why me, Lord?”

As I lay in bed, lamenting my fate and listening to Nancy read St. Luke’s account of the Christmas story, I noticed a similarity between my Christmas and the one of two thousand years ago.

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been difficult enough under the best of conditions. First century travelers didn’t enjoy asphalt highways, restaurants every few exits and cell phones in their donkeys’ saddlebags. And for Joseph and Mary, that trip undoubtedly was not at the top of their list of fun things to do.

Their baby was due anytime and, like most parents, they expected to give birth surrounded by friends and family. But a governmental order changed everyone’s plans. Joseph and Mary had little choice but to load the donkey with luggage and food for the trip.

Under different circumstances, Bethlehem might have been a nice town to ride into. At this time, however, it was swollen with thousands of strangers. All the four star motels were full. Even the one-stars overflowed with visitors.

And, to make a bad situation worse, Mary went into labor.

Some Christmas cards picture Joseph and Mary sitting on clean straw in a scrubbed barn, gazing serenely at their baby lying in a manger.

I doubt that’s how it happened. They were both bone-tired from the grueling journey. They longed to find a place to bathe away their grime and sweat, and they longed for a warm bed on which they could let their weariness give way to refreshing sleep.

Instead, they arrived in a city of strangers and Joseph searched in vain from motel to motel, not finding so much as a cot for his wife to sleep on. And so, alone, they settled for the night in a darkened corner of a barn, to the smell of manure and rotting straw.

Despite their deep disappointments, I don't think Joseph and Mary looked toward heaven and lamented: “Why me, Lord?” I like to think they instead rehearsed Scripture’s many promises of God’s unfailing presence – such as this one from the prophet Isaiah: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). Or this one later in Isaiah: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are Mine! (Isaiah 43:1).

“Immanuel” – the Hebrew means “God is with us” – surely they sensed “God with us” embrace them as they bedded down in the stable. Surely they knew God knew their names, and that He loved them . . . even as they snuggled their first-born into an animal feeding trough.

As my wife continued to read, the Holy Spirit reminded me again of God’s unchangeable nature. As He was with Joseph and Mary when they loaded their donkey for the journey, so too He was with us as we set out across country. As He was with them when they settled onto straw, so too He was with us as we collapsed onto our motel beds. And as He was with them while Mary labored in childbirth, so too He was with us when I awoke Christmas morning shivering with a 103 fever.

Christmas 1997 reminded me once again, God is with us even when there aren’t any friends and family nearby, brightly colored lights, or good smells from the kitchen. His entrance into our world through a dirty stable proves He is near -- not only during good times, but also in the midst of disappointments, illnesses, loneliness, heartache.

And as He met the needs of new parents in a dirty barn two thousand years ago, He will also meet our needs today, wherever we might find ourselves -- in a hospital, a house, a prison, or a motel room.

End

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Difference Between Today and Tomorrow

([Jesus] appointed the twelve:) Simon, whom he named Peter; James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder . . . (St. Mark 3:17).

I contemplated this passage for some time, mulling over the idea that Jesus chose such unlikely characters to become His disciples -- like John and James, the "sons of thunder."

And sons of thunder they were. For example, in St. Luke, chapter 9, Jesus and the Twelve were on their way to Jerusalem, so He sent His disciples ahead to prepare overnight lodging in Samaria, which was on the way. But the Samaritans refused them because Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem. Samaritans and Jews shared a long history of mutual distrust and enmity.

James and John were incensed that the Samaritans had rebuffed their Lord, so they said to Jesus, "Do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

Nice guys, huh?

But I think one of the reasons the Lord Jesus selected His disciples was not because of what they were, but because of what they could be. And so, years later the same John who was known as Thunder became known as the disciple of Love. In his first epistle, John uses the word "love" more than 30 times. Here is one such verse: "If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20).

And here is another: For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another (1 John 3:11).

But what does this all mean for you or me? I think it is this: Who you and I are now are not the same people Jesus knows we can be tomorrow.


And how does that happen? How does one change from what we don't want to be to what we should be? The disciple John kept close to the Lord's side, day by day, year after year, throughout the rest of his life. And in so doing became like Him.

Likewise it will be for us if we do the same.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tired of Forgetting

Every now and then I catch a glimpse of how little I understand God’s unconditional love. Like the other day. During my morning time with God, as I prayed the “Our Father,” I stopped at the phrase, “forgive us our sins.” Suddenly, my mind fast-reversed to the oh-so-many things I’d recently done, said and thought – things for which I am ashamed.

I don’t know how other Christians deal with repetitive sin in their lives, but I sure get tired of committing the same ones again and again. And I admit, sometimes I’m tempted to just give up. At my spiritual age in Christ, I should know where the fissures lie in the road, and be well adept at avoiding them.

As I replayed my recent falls, another text dropped into my mind: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

That's a concept worthy of a book-length discussion.

Do I look to disown my children when the offend me? Of course not. As angry or hurt as I might be, I would in a heartbeat die for them if necessary.

But what of God? Does our heavenly Father look to disown His children, even when they anger or offend Him? Of course not.

And Jesus did, in fact, die for us to prove that point.

Why did Jesus endure the cross? To demonstrate – forever demonstrate – the Father's ongoing, unconditional love for sinners who continue to fall into the same fissures.

Time after time.

Sinners like me – and you. Regardless of the number of times we stumble, His love never changes. Not one iota. And His promise remains ever true: If we confess our sins, even seventy times seven times, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (see 1 John 1:9).

Someday I'll not forget that.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Merry Myth-mas

I wrote this several years ago. Unfortunately, little has changed.
--------------------

At first, I didn't notice the difference. But that's not unusual. I miss a lot of
things right under my nose. Like the Christmas poinsettia my wife set in the
middle of our dining room table. It took two days before it finally caught my
eye.

So, when Nancy said, "have you noticed how rarely you see the words, "Merry Christmas" any more?" I shrugged and went back to my newspaper. I'd been too busy juggling responsibilities at work, at home and with my aging out-of-state parents to pay much attention to anything else. Even Christmas.

Two days later, a commentator on National Public Radio (NPR) voiced a similar observation; Then I read an essay by columnist Don Feder.

"Christmas," Feder observed, "is being rapidly replaced with a generic holiday that, by coincidence, comes around December 25. "Merry Christmas" has been generally discarded in favor of "happy holiday." Stores have holiday sales. Schools have a winter recess . . . The "C" word is conspicuous by its absence.

But it wasn't until an email dropped into my inbox from a cyberspace acquaintance that I began to stir. We belong to the same email community and she wanted us to know her son had come up with a great label for Christmas.

"Mythmas." Then she added, "I love it."

I might be slow to notice poinsettias on the dining room table, but I can recognize a spotlight when I see it. Why has the "C" word has fallen on hard times? Why do some people label December 25th as "winter-holiday" and prefer "Mythmas" to "Christmas"?

Perhaps it's the roots of Christmas.

Christmas is rooted in the miraculous. Six hundred years before Jesus' birth, the Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son" (Isaiah 7:14). Two chapters later he added, "and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). For those who don't believe in miracles and God-inspired prophecy, the virgin birth of Jesus is simply a
fairy tale.

Christmas is rooted in the record of Deity living among us and, through the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist, has remained uniquely with us ever since. When we lie down, He is there. When we stand, He is beside us. When we are lonely or troubled -- God is with us. For people who scoff at the idea that God became Man, Christmas must seem like nonsense. Maybe even blasphemy.

Christmas is rooted in God's inexplicable love for us. His Christmas gift, wrapped in strips of cloth in a Bethlehem stable, offered us eternal forgiveness because the Babe in the manger would, as an adult, take the punishment God required for our sins. And in so doing, God assured complete pardon for everyone who repents and calls on Christ as their savior. For people accustomed to earning love from a parent or spouse, belief that God loves them, despite their sins, is probably more like a child's fantasy than an adult reality.

Christmas is rooted in God's immeasurable grace. Many of us might not admit it out loud, but we think we deserve a pat on the back from God. We're good to our neighbors. We support charities, take care of the earth, protect whales, coyotes and other animals. And, if front-page headlines are any indication, we're a lot better than most people.

But God tells us we're not good enough. Nor could we ever be. He set the bar at absolute holiness, and we will never reach His standard on our own. Christmas reminds us God personally intervened in human affairs to bridge the unbridgeable gap between our weakness and His strength, our sins and His holiness. Those who believe they don't need help to gain God's favor might think Christmas is a story for the weak.

Long before the first Christmas, God said, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8,9).

Christmas will remain a myth, a day to call by any other name, for those who reject the Bethlehem story of God who became Man, of God who loves the unlovely, rescues the lost and walks with the penitent. But for those whose hearts look toward God, trusting Him for forgiveness and rescue from sin's penalty, Christmas is more than historical fact. It is nothing less than miraculous.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whose Kingdom?

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?. . . “Jesus replied, ‘I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?’ (Matthew 21:23-24)

The Lord always seems to ask the hard questions. Like this one.

"From heaven, or from men?"

And every now and again the same kind of question disquiets me. Even after all these years I still sometimes bristle against the tension that pulls me from what I want to do, when I know it’s not what He wants me to do.

You’ll never hear me say the Scriptures are simply good moral teachings and philosophies of men. No, for I am more than convinced they are the very word of God written by men moved by the Holy Spirit.

Every word.

Yet why do I sometimes live as if those words are human-contrived suggestions and not heaven-born commandments? Why, when it suits me -- regardless of its infrequency -- do I call my shadows, light, and rationalize my disobedience with an appeal to the slippery excuse of "I'm only human"?

Probably for the same reason the religious leaders in this text struggled with their response to Jesus – they wanted their kingdom, not God’s. Their will, not God’s. Their opinions. Not God’s.

Oh Lord, help me to practice it, as often as I pray it: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.”

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Merry Chris . . .uh . . excuse me. "Happy Holiday"

Over the years I've published several Christmas articles in a variety of magazines. Since we are now in the Christmas season, I thought I would post them from time to time during the next few weeks. Here's the first:
--------------------

My wife placed the salad bowl on the table, sat down and looked at me.

“I’m starting a one-person campaign to revive Christmas.”

I paused for a moment and then reached for the rolls. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m tired of surrendering to the culture that’s changed Merry Christmas to ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Good Spirit.’ If it wasn’t for Jesus, no one would be saying anything.”

Except perhaps, ‘Bah Humbug’ I thought.

“From now on,” she continued, “I’m wishing people a Merry Christmas.”

I took a bite of the roll, but had already lost some of my appetite. That always happens when I feel guilty about something. Her words reminded me how often I succumb to political correctness and rarely use the “C” word. It’s easier to just say, “Happy Holiday” -- or say nothing at all.

Humbug.

She continued. “Today, when the UPS guy dropped off the package, I said, Merry Christmas as he walked back to his truck.” She stopped a moment, her eyes alive with excitement, and added, “He turned around and smiled and wished me a Merry Christmas, too. He seemed surprised someone said that to him. I think he really enjoyed hearing me say it.”

Nancy then told me of two other people to whom she’d said those two words -- words that raise PC hackles and cause ACLU lawyers to rush to their casebooks. "They also were glad I said it."

Merry Christmas. Why would the best story the world has ever known raise the blood pressure of so many people? Why would the eternally gracious and sacrificial gift of God make so many people Christmas-phobic?

I think it’s because God insists forgiveness of sins is wrapped neatly in His gift package marked: Only For Those Who Love My Son, Jesus.

A lot of people think that’s too restrictive.

Well, they're right. It is.

Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” He also warned, “Unless you believe I am He, you will die in your sins.”

And then there’s the Scripture, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow. . . and every tongue confess, that Jesus is Lord.” And again, “There is no name (but Jesus) under heaven” through which we can be saved.

Those who are familiar with the Bible can cite dozens of other passages that support the point that God established only one way to Him, exclusive of all other paths.

I suppose if I didn’t like being told what to accept and how to behave to gain eternal life, I’d hate Christmas, too. I’d hate being reminded of God's narrow doorway every December. I’d be a raving Christmas-phobe.

Maybe also a Christian-phobe.

My wife is on the right track. Without John 3:16 there wouldn't be a Christmas. Without Christmas there would be no hope – for you, me, our families, our neighbors. No one.

But there IS a Christmas. And I thank God for the holiday – the Holy Day. Each year Christmas reminds us just how much the Father paid for our gift of forgiveness and eternal life.

“Happy Holiday” is a humbug.

“Merry Christmas” is the beginning of an intimate relationship with Him.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Must It Be Like?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39).

What would it be like
to be so convinced
that nothing --
nothing --
can separate us
from God’s love in Christ?

What must it be like
to know
that you know
that He holds you
in the palm of His hands?
That He will never leave
or turn you away?

When storms thrash,
and our world falls apart,
how would our lives be
transformed
by the assurance
that God embraces us
in the midst of it all?

Satan whispers
we believe myths.
Our confidence is
misplaced.
There is no help for us in God.

God simply says, "Trust Me."

Who will we believe?

The right answer
reminds us --

the right answer
strengthens us --

to rest
in God's promise
that nothing --

neither death, nor life,
angels, or principalities,
present things, or future things,
powers, or height, or depth,
nothing
will separate us
from God's love
in Christ.

Nothing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rest

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ . . . who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood . . . (1 Peter 1:1-2).

I think many think
God is
quick tempered,
impatient,
and intolerant
of failure.

I think they think
God stands with clenched fists
ready to strike those who turn aside
to the right
or to the left.


But what is the mission
and the message
of the most sacred heart of Jesus
if not to

demonstrate

the timeless promise

that God is
so slow
to anger;

that He overflows
with mercy –

and stands
with open hands,
ready to sprinkle
cleansing
and restorative
blood

from Christ’s wounds

on every prodigal who returns
from the right
or the left?

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Only One Endures

Now these are the kings who reigned . . . Then Bela died . . . Then Jobab died . . . Then Husham died . . . Then Hadad died . . . Then Samlah died . . . Then Shaul died . . . Then Baalhanan [died]
(Genesis 36:31-38).


Seven times in seven verses
the litany of death
cycles through the names of kings.

Rulers, all.

Mighty, all.

Great, all.


Who spoke
and people

followed.

Who judged
and people

feared.


But the staccato-like rhythm of death
serves to remind
of the grave’s
certainty.

In its presence, political power is

meaningless.

Popularity
hollow.

Beauty
vain.

Wealth
empty.


When our eyes close,
only
what was done for Christ
endures.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

It is Sufficient

The Lord said to Moses, "Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not (Numbers 11:23).


Is God’s power limited? That’s the easy question.

Creation.
The Red Sea.
The Virgin Birth.
The Five Thousand.
The Resurrection
The Ascension . . . .

No, nothing
is too difficult
for God.

But the more problematic question is – Where is He?

Where is He
in tragedy,
in loss,
in suffering,
in death . . .

The answer depends
on the answer
to something
more fundamental:
Is God good
all the time
and in
all circumstances?

If no,
then we have reason to believe
God is absent
in our heartache.


If yes,
then faith in His
goodness
and love
and mercy . . .
will be
for us
sufficient.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Another Nail

How then can I do this wicked thing, and I sin against my God?
(Genesis 39:9)


By God’s grace,
Joseph prospered
above every other slave
in Potipher’s house.

He alone enjoyed access
to all his master owned.
The best food,
drink,
clothing,
comfort –

access to everything
except
Potipher’s wife.


But she wanted Joseph.


For days,
perhaps months,
he resisted her
bold
invitations
to her bed.

When at last
she cornered him
he fled,

leaving
only his cloak
in her fist.

Joseph said to her,
“How then can I do this wicked thing,
and sin against my God?”
And his question still probes
the essence
of life’s meaning.

Joseph recognized
what I must never
forget.
When I sin,
I do not sin
only against others.

I sin against

God.


Oh, Holy Spirit,
open my eyes to see Christ
recoil from the whip
that slices His back
with my every transgression.

I do not want to drive another nail,
or draw another drop
of His sacred blood.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

As Dust

God . . . breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).


By the time God formed Adam from dust,
He had already created a world
flourishing with life.

Yet only for the man
did He bend close
and breathe life
into his lungs.

That’s something
we sometimes
overlook,
and always overlook
to our loss.

Are not five sparrows sold for
two cents?
Yet not one of them
is forgotten
before God.

Then Jesus added,

The hairs of your head
are all numbered.
Do not fear;
you are more valuable
than many sparrows
*

That's something
we also sometimes
overlook,
and always overlook
to our loss.

God knows our name.
He knows our tears
in the darkness,
our sighs
in the shadows,
our loneliness
in the crowds.

And He asks only
that we trust Him
to breathe life
into what seems to us
as dust.




*(Luke 12:6-7).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Little Ways

And let us not grow weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart (Galatians 6:9).

It happened in early 1973. I parked my car at the edge of the pier and stared through the windshield. A storm loomed on the horizon. Waves churned and smashed against the breakers.

And a spiritual storm churned inside me as well.

I’d only recently turned my life over to Christ, but things were not turning out as I had expected -- although if anyone had asked me what I expected, I don't think I would have known.

I stepped out of the car and carried my Bible toward the end of the pier. The temptation to throw it – and my new faith – into the swirling waters rose like a two headed beast.

I stood there, wrestling with my thoughts.

That’s when the other vehicle approached. As it pulled alongside my car I recognized the elderly man behind the wheel. He and his wife were members of the church I’d recently begun attending.

I don't remember his name. I don't even remember what we talked about, except that he told me he spotted me on the pier and thought he’d stop and chat with me. But what I clearly remember is after our chat I returned to my car and placed my Bible on the seat beside me.

Thirty-seven years later, I have no doubt that the man’s simple act of taking time to talk with me broke the heat of my moment and helped me re-group to continue my walk of faith.

Through the intervening years I have learned many important spiritual truths. But the one lesson I find myself most frequently in need of reminder is this: Sometimes I spend so much time searching for the big and flashy ways to serve Christ that I miss the hundreds of little -- and probably more important -- opportunities all around me to serve Him.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Whose Report?

We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong . . . and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight (Numbers 13:27-33).

It’s not like God didn’t know the enemy's strength
when He told His people to conquer the land
He’d given to Abraham centuries earlier;
a land into which God had promised
to walk with them.

A land flowing with milk and honey.

But except for two faithful men,
the fearful declared the enemy too strong
to risk the attempt.

So Israel wandered the wilderness instead.

It’s not like God doesn’t know our adversary's strength
when He tells us to conquer the valleys of
disappointment, loneliness, heartbreak . . .
valleys through which He has promised to walk with us.

Valleys flowing with a peace beyond our understanding.

But except for a few voices of faith,
the fearful say the adversary is too strong
to risk the attempt.

So we wander our wilderness instead.

And God still asks:
whose report
will we believe?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mourning to Joy

[Jacob] . . . exclaimed: "My son's tunic! A wild beast has devoured him! Joseph has been torn to pieces!" Then Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned his son many days. Though his sons and daughters tried to console him, he refused all consolation, saying, "No, I will go down mourning to my son in the nether world . . . " (Genesis 37:33-35).

It would be more than twenty years
before Jacob learned Joseph
was alive.

During those decades
Jacob lived
with the wrenching memory
of a blood-stained tunic,
and the belief that his son
was dead.

I hate death.
I mourn the grave that robbed me
of my beloved.

My father-in-law.
My step-dad.
My brother-in-law.

I thank God
I have not had to mourn
my children.
Seeing one in a coffin
would tear my heart
the rest of my life.
I won't permit that image
to even linger in my imagination.

Death. Mourning.

And then I think
of God.

What grief is like His
when we choose
another path
and die outside His arms?
What anguish is like His
when so many of us
turn away?

But what joy is like His
when even one repents
and reunites
through the blood
of Golgotha's cross?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Trusting in Ourselves

They journeyed from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. They journeyed from Dophkah and camped at Alush. They journeyed from Alush and camped at Rephidim; now it was there that the people had no water to drink (Numbers 33:12-14).

So, this morning I’m reading (scanning, actually) this section of Numbers. Starting at verse one, it’s quite a tedious list of the places Israel visited on their journey through the wilderness.

My eye glossed over verse 14 on its way to 15. And then it went back to 14: They . . . camped at Rephidim; now it was there that the people had no water to drink.

As I reread the verse I remembered how God led them through the wilderness -- with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the cloud lifted from the camp, the Israelites followed. When it settled, they pitched their tents. So when I read here in Numbers that the people landed at a desperate place in the wilderness, it is clear that their arrival was not an accident.

God Himself had led them there.

That, for me, was a significant point. Why would their Protector, Redeemer, Savior . . . why would God lead them to a place like that?

As if to answer the question, my thoughts jumped to Psalm 23 and 2 Corinthians 1.

Sometimes the paths of righteousness lead us straight into a dark place (Psalm 23:3-4). Sometimes “we have the sentence of death in ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). And though the idea disturbs my preconceptions, God does, at times, lead us to places without water, or light. Places of confusion, despair, and even heartache.

Why?

Maybe to remind us He is in the valley with us. Maybe to remind us that as He brought water to Israel from -- of all things -- a rock (Exodus 17:1-7), so He will quench our thirst in the midst of our own valley -- perhaps also from the most unlikely of sources.

And maybe also to teach us not to trust so much in ourselves, but rather in Him who raises even the dead.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What Are We Thinking?

“ . . . and you grumbled in your tents and said, 'Because the LORD hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us” (Deuteronomy 1:27).


The Israelites witnessed God’s power as He delivered them from generations of slavery. The Nile turned to blood. Frogs, gnats, boils, hail, and other disasters swarmed across Egypt.

As they fled Pharaoh’s army, God parted the Red Sea so Israel could safely pass – and He closed the sea on the chariots and horsemen as they chased after them.

Yet hardly had the mist dried from their clothes that they grumbled against God, as if He rescued them from slavery for the sole purpose of killing them in the wilderness.

What were they thinking?

Perhaps they were thinking like we sometimes think.

How often has God, through the death of His Son, rescued us from sin’s sting and ruin? How often has He comforted us, guided us, called us by name? How often has He brought us safely to the other side of our trials and taken us into His arms?

And yet, hardly does He hold us and we grumble when life’s inevitable storms surge again around us. And we look toward heaven and accuse Him of being deaf to our cries and callous to our wounds.

Oh! What are we thinking?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Choices

If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).

Sometimes choices can complicate life. Eating out is a case in point. When I lived overseas, the choices were easy. Walk into a restaurant (one of three from which to choose) and the waitress hands you a menu. One page. Nothing on the back. Options included chicken, fish, and hamburger. Thirsty? Select cola, ice tea or coffee. Like some dessert? Try frozen yogurt or a fruit dish.

It never took long to decide what to have.

That all changed when I moved back to America. Walk into a restaurant (one of a hundred from which to choose) and the waitress hands you a menu. Dessert choices alone fill a page -- front and back. Dinner offerings fold out to three pages. A year after returning home I still felt paralyzed by all the choices. To keep my sanity, I often simply ordered a burger and fries.

But if you think three pages of menu choices can complicate life, consider that Jesus offers us only two choices -- follow Him or reject Him. You’d think it wouldn’t take long to decide.

And for some, it doesn’t.

But many men and women, even after years of staring at the menu, remain undecided. They're still studying the choices, front and back, looking for a better deal.

There isn’t any better deal. That’s why God repeatedly warns us to choose -- today -- whom we will serve. Choose -- today -- to follow Christ.

And Scripture makes it very clear, one day the restaurant will close its doors. When that happens, the chance to choose will disappear.

Forever.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Evidence of His Mercy

Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I will drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. . . . Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine (Leviticus 20:23-26).

Why do I work so hard
to convince myself
I can consort with my culture
and remain faithful to God?

Why do I rationalize
the Holy One's commandment
to separate myself
from the customs
and lifestyles
of those who live as though
He does not exist,
or who pay Him lip service
instead of homage?

Is it because judgment does not quickly fall
when I turn from Him?
Do I presume He allows for circumstances
that tempt me to sin,
or that I can talk Him into a compromise?

I know better than that.

Those who befriend their culture
make themselves enemies
of God,*
and His patience
is not evidence

of His compromise,
allowance,
or indecision . . . .

It is evidence of His mercy
mercy that should lead me
to repentance.**

Surely, it is a fearful thing
to fall into the hands
of the living God.***

* James 4:4
** Romans 2:4
*** Hebrews 10:31

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Engraved Memorial

[The craftsmen made for the priest's breastplate]
. . . memorial stones for the sons of Israel,
just as the Lord had commanded Moses . . .
each with its name for the twelve tribes
(Exodus 39:6, 14).

God scripted memorial stones into the very fabric
of Israel’s worship.

Each time the high priest drew near to God,
he carried the names of the twelve tribes
on his garment
as a memorial
of the people God covenanted to love,
protect,
and make His own.

Some might think God set the stones
to remind Him of His people.

But God set the stones
to remind His people
He remembers
them.
And even so,
what more than the Cross
could God set in place
to remind you and me
He remembers
us?

I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.
(Isaiah 49:16)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jesus, Please.

Having bought a linen cloth, [Joseph of Arimathea] took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb (Mark 15:46).

My imagination took me this morning to the tomb. I sat against a tree and looked at the massive stone covering the cave's entrance. Several yards in front of me four guards sat around a fire. They joked. Told stories. Passed the time as they waited for the sunrise, and with it another squad of soldiers who would take over the watch so they could get some sleep.

I glanced at the sky. Lots of stars. I pulled a blanket tighter around my shoulders and looked back at the stone.

Then -- all at once, like an explosion -- light burst from around the edges of the boulder and shattered the darkness. The guards scrambled to their feet. One quickly grabbed his sword and held it at the ready. The others grabbed theirs.

And then, with my mind's eye, I watched the stone slowly roll to the right. I felt the ground groan and shudder under its weight. And I stood up, in anticipation.

But as quickly as the light appeared, it vanished. And a man dressed in a robe -- its glow fading even as I watched --the man walked from within the cave and stood a few feet beyond the opening. He looked at the guards, and they fell back in terror. They tossed their weapons away and fled toward the trees.

When they were gone, Jesus looked at me. His expression hadn't changed. I could see His face. Still Calm. Gentle. His eyes soft. I wondered why the guards fled.

I watched myself hesitate, and then walk toward Him. As I drew near, I bowed on my knees. It was then I saw His feet beneath the robe. And the scars. I sat on the dirt and stared at them.

And that was when I realized the Lord was bending toward me. In a moment He sat in the dirt in front of me. He took me into His arms, and held me.

And He held me.

And He held me.

Squeezing me into His chest, He held me.

I rested my head on His shoulder, and looked down His back. I could see the scars from the whip that sliced His skin at the whipping post. They covered His neck, shoulders and back as far as I could see down His robe.

Scars that should have been mine.

And I whispered, Jesus, please. Help me love You always.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Different Kind of Death

This is adapted from an essay appearing in my second book, Lessons Along the Journey.
-------------

Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).


From time to time I see an elderly man who attends the same 10:00 Mass as I. I’ve never spoken with him. He sits on the other side of the sanctuary and is usually making his way toward the exit during the final song.

The first time I saw him, I thought I’d seen my wife’s stepfather returned from the dead. The man resembles Cy so closely. And because of the remarkable resemblance, my thoughts went back last Sunday to one of the last times Cy and I were together.

Cyril James Farrell died peacefully in bed on April 29, 2005, five months before his 90th birthday.

It could have been a different kind of death.

Throughout his working career, Cyril was a fiercely competitive salesman with little time for family, and even less time for God.

Quick-tempered, opinionated and a no-nonsense kind of guy, Cy told you what he thought, even if it wasn't polite or kind – and it often wasn’t. He found fault with strangers, circumstances, and family. I didn’t like being around him when he got into one of his moods.

Many of us know the passage of years often solidifies a person’s bad patterns. But for some people, life-events can have the opposite effect. That's what happened to Cy.

In his mid-seventies, his legs began to hurt so badly he couldn’t walk more than a few yards without stopping to rest. Following two fruitless surgeries, the once determined and vigorous man was forced into a wheelchair. In his last months, he couldn’t get out of bed without help.

Although baptized as a child and he attended Mass with his parents, by the time he joined the army, he’d left his childhood faith behind. It was not until he was 85 and sick did he recognize, as if for the first time, why Jesus died.

Jesus died for him.

And with that recognition, Cy surrendered his life completely to the Lord Jesus.

Imperceptibly to those who saw him every day, Cy began to change. And those who'd known him as long as I, knew the change was extraordinary. Despite his loss of health and strength, I never heard him complain or find fault, except to say about his legs, "Isn't that the craziest thing? They don't work anymore like they used to."

Judging from the remarks of those who attended his funeral, no one else heard him grumble, either. They simply remembered him as a man who always met others with a patient spirit, a ready smile, and a kind word.

More than 300 white-haired friends showed up at the church to commemorate his life. Many more wanted to come, but lived too far away, or were too frail to travel. I believe they loved the man in the coffin because Cyril James Farrell left a legacy worthy of a Christian – a legacy that attests to the grace, mercy and patience of our heavenly Father who stays with us, year after year, waiting for His prodigals to come home.

I know why Cyril James Farrell died in peace. It was because he died in the arms of his Savior.

It could have been a different kind of death.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Restoring from Captivity

Your prophets have seen for you false and foolish visions; And they have not exposed your iniquity so as to restore you from captivity . . . (Lamentations 2:14).

As I meditated on my memory verse for the week my thoughts took me to the historical setting of Jeremiah's lament. Jerusalem, once the vibrant and prosperous capital of ancient Israel, lay in ashes. Its leaders murdered. Its population sent into ruthless exile.

It didn't have to happen that way. God had sent His prophets again and again to warn the nation of impending judgment for their sins. But the people preferred the gentle and soothing message of false prophets and priests to the harsh words of God's emissaries who warned against listening to falsehood.

And so, judgment fell -- swift, sweeping and deadly.

And then my thoughts returned me to the present, and to the messages I have heard from pulpits and Christian TV and radio programs which offer gentle and soothing promises, but never speak of God's justice, holiness and judgment.

I've heard the flock of God encouraged to become better people by learning about their "personality traits" as defined through psychological tests -- but rarely have I heard the flock encouraged to diligently, passionately, fervently seek God on their knees and in the words of the prophets, apostles and Church teaching.

I have heard "touchy-feelly" messages in which people are promised by their pastors health, wealth and happiness, but never have I heard them talk of Scripture's message of persecution, suffering and deprivation for God's elect -- or of how even Jesus "learned obedience from the things He suffered" (Hebrews 5:8).

God's prophets have always -- always -- been enjoined to speak the truth as a fire and as a hammer that shatters a rock (Jeremiah 23:29). God has always sent His emissaries to expose iniquity among those who should know better, that they might be spared judgment, which is inevitable to the unrepentant.

"Go into all the world," the Lord commanded the Church, and teach God's truth --the full truth -- even if it is disquieting and unwelcomed. For only in so doing can we participate in the work of God to restore people from their captivity.

There is no greater call or mission a child of God can have.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Happiness and Obedience

Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He, I am the first, I am also the last (Isaiah 48:12)

Four times in chapter 48, God calls to His people to “Listen!”

I can almost hear Him sigh with remorse: If only you obeyed my commandments, your peace would have been like a river . . . (verse 18).

You’d think the Israelites would have known better. From the early days of the Judges, to the time of Isaiah’s ministry, Israel’s history ebbed and flowed with periods of peace, followed by rebellion, warning, judgment and, finally repentance.

And the cycle began again.

Do you know people today in the Church, people who should know better, and yet follow in the path of ancient Israel, moving through cycles of peace to rebellion, to judgment and – only then -- repentance?

Yet, all the while, God calls us to listen and obey.

And for good reason.

There is simply no other way to be at peace with God, with ourselves, or with others, than to listen to – and obey -- God. That is what He called Israel to do through the prophets. And that is what He calls to us to do through the words of Holy Scripture and Church teaching.

If only we would listen.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Bloody Faith


“If his holocaust offering is from the flock that is, a sheep or a goat, [the priest] must bring a male without blemish. This he shall slaughter before the Lord at the north side of the altar. Then Aaron’s sons, the priest, shall splash its blood on the sides of the altar”
(Leviticus 1:10-11).


Some believe the Old Testament religion was a bloody one.

They are right.

The blood of bulls and goats
flowed from the Hebrew altar day after day

after day

to atone for sins.


Some think the New Testament religion is less bloody.

They are wrong.

The blood bath of animals
was only a shadow

of the substance

to unfold
two thousand years later

on Calvary.

There

the blood of God
dripped from His face,
His arms,
His side,

to cleanse our sins.


And

within the seamless folds of eternity

it still flows
each time
we reject

His commandments.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Even So, Sometimes I Do Have to Ask

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God . . . (1 Corinthians 6:19).

As I reflected again on the Lord's intervention in what should have been my flogging -- I wrote about it (click here) a few days ago -- this verse dropped into my thoughts. And it dovetailed with the imagery in my imagination as Jesus pressed Himself against me to shield my back from the Roman whip.

I memorized this text in 1 Corinthians years ago. Probably decades. I've written about it in published articles, referred to it during Bible studies I've taught, and cross-referenced it many times with other texts as I studied through the Scriptures.

But this morning the term Holy Spirit captured my attention. I suppose it's because I have, for a long time, referred to Him as the Holyspirit. The two words usually run together as if there is no distinction or real separation between them.

But there is a separation and distinction. And unless I clearly recognize it, the passage at the top of this post cannot impact my life as it ought.

Holy.

Some synonyms could be hallowed, sacred, immaculate, perfect, or pure. Yet, as St. Paul moaned, "In my flesh there is no good thing."

So how can it be that the Holy Spirit -- God Himself as the third Person of the trinity -- how can it be -- no, the better question is -- why would it be that the Holy, Sacred, Pure, Perfect, and Immaculate Spirit not only would come to me, but literally live inside me?

That was the question lingering in my mind as the eyes of my imagination fixated on that image of Jesus -- God in the second Person of the trinity -- as He pressed Himself against me to shield me from the whip in my earlier meditation.

And that was the question the Lord answered again when He looked into my eyes and said,

"Do you have to ask?"

Oh, but even so . . . knowing myself as well as I do, sometimes I do have to ask . . . why would God love me that much?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Whom the Son Sets Free . . .

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners . . . . Giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting (Isaiah 61:1-2).

One reason I enjoy memorizing Scripture is that once I know the text, it breathes its life into my spirit and I can more deeply reflect on its message than I would if I simply read it through.

This passage in Isaiah held my attention this morning as I related it to my recent experiences in hospitals where I've worked as a registered nurse. Most of the time nearly half (or more) of the patients on our unit are repeat admissions. They come to us several times a year with a variety of serious self-induced illnesses such as alcoholics with terminal liver disease, nicotine addicts with lung or throat cancers, diabetics who ignore their prescribed dietary, exercise and medication routines, drug addicts with skin infections, heart problems, kidney diseases or psychological changes such as paranoia and dementias.

As I thought about my experiences in light of the passage in Isaiah, I realized I usually viewed those patients as unfortunates who chose the wrong road on their journey through life. I'd not very often recognize them also as prisoners of Satan --bound with chains stronger than iron.

And that image of Satan's prisoners burdened me. Where, I wondered, where are the Archbishop Fulton Sheens of yesterday, the John Vianneys, the Catherines of Siena who each challenged and changed their culture, and in so doing set prisoners free? Where are the new Billy Grahams? The James Dobsons? The Archbishop Chaputs? The Father Corapis?

And where also are the ordinary men and women of God, men and women of the marketplace, the schools, the businesses, the university classrooms and lunchrooms who refuse to water down the "good news" for the afflicted? Men and women who will not kowtow to the culture, to speak political and social "correctness" and so lose their ability -- their God-given mandate -- to proclaim God's uncompromising truth which alone can bind up the broken hearted, give liberty to captives and freedom to Satan's prisoners?

I know where they are. They are reading these words.

You would not be a regular reader of this blog if you also did not have the same mind of Christ, the same compassion for the lost, the same heartache for those who repeat their poor choices as if they had no other choice.

This is the privilege God gives you and me . . . to set prisoners free. And we should never underestimate the importance of that privilege -- to bind up the brokenhearted, to give them hope for new life, a new journey in which old things are forgotten and wonderful new things lay ahead.

Oh, God, help us focus on that mission..

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Booby-Trapped

Abraham said to his servant . . . “[Y]ou shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but you will go to my . . . relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac. The servant said to him, “Suppose the woman is not willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came?" Then Abraham said to him, "Beware that you do not take my son back there! (Genesis 24:2-6).


I understand Abraham’s fear for his son to return to his former land. Abraham knew Isaac’s relationship with God could be irreparably damaged if he returned to the place from which God had called them.

“Beware,” he warned his servant, “that you do not take my son back there.”

Have you ever noticed how, without warning, the lure of our old life can beckon us to return? Sometimes the attraction openly woos us with soft caresses and seductive whispers. More often, though – at least in my experience – it arrives gift-wrapped in subtle nuances, cradled in the arms of a disappointment with God, a loss, or a sadness.

Yet in whatever form it arrives, it is always booby-trapped.

And we invite disaster when we so much as toy with the wrapping.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Do You Have to Ask?

If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:17-19)

Sometimes when I meditate on the crucifix suspended on the wall opposite my chair, my mind transports me to the place and time of my Lord's last hours.

It happened again this morning as I fingered a Rosary bead and thought about what Catholics call a "mystery of the Rosary" -- the flogging of Jesus.

As I let the image form in my mind of Christ standing at the whipping post, His hands tied above His head, I suddenly found myself standing at that very post. Only now it was my hands tied above my head. It was my back laid bare. It was my life that was about to end.

I turned my head and saw the Roman soldier standing a few feet away -- although I knew in the depths of my spirit it was Satan in the form of the soldier. He held a Roman whip -- strands of leather tied at the handle, each studded with chips of bone and rock. And he was readying himself to strike my back, to tear at me without mercy for the many deep and dark sins I committed in my life.

I turned away and winced in anticipation of the blow.

But it never came.

Instead, I sensed a presence move between me and the whip. The lash tore into flesh. A visceral groan spread into the dust-filled air.

And then Satan growled, "Get away from him. His sins have made him my property. He belongs to me!"

The voice behind me said quietly, but with palpable authority, "No, he doesn't. He belongs to me. I purchase him with my blood."

"Get away," the soldier hissed. A moment later the lash fell again, striking with a fury that terrified me. But the Presence moved closer, so close I felt the warmth of his body. He wrapped his arms around me, to protect me even more from the whip that fell again and again.

And again.

I heard each fall. I felt his body shudder with each blow. His blood splattered across the back of my neck. Some dripped from his shoulder onto mine.

Still tied to the post, I turned to see who it was protecting me. And when I saw Him, I could do nothing else but ask, "Lord, why are you doing this for me?"

He looked into my eyes and whispered, "Do you have to ask?"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Right Place and the Right Reason

I came across this passage in my reading through Exodus:

Fifty loops were made along the edge of the end sheet in one set, and fifty loops along the edge of the corresponding sheet in the other set. Fifty bronze clasps were made with which the tent was joined so that it formed one whole . . . . Boards of acacia wood were made as walls for the Dwelling [Tabernacle]. The length of each board was ten cubits, and the width one and a half cubits. Each board had two arms, fastening them in line . . . (Exodus 36:17-23).

It doesn’t take long for my eyes to glaze over when I read sections of Scripture like this. Does anyone really care how many clasps, loops, boards, and sheets were used to construct the Tabernacle of God in the wilderness? Does anyone care if each board was ten by one and a half cubits?

And what’s a cubit, anyway?

It would be easy to forever skip chapters like this, believing they have little to teach the 21st century reader. But we would be wrong.

Exodus chapters 36-40 are only a few of many sections in the Books of Moses that describe in wearyingly exhaustive detail the construction of the Tabernacle, the place God’s Spirit would reside. Each board had its place, each ring a role, each thread a value, each cubit a purpose. To the minutest detail, God left nothing out of order.

And that is exciting.

The New Testament Scriptures tell us God is building His followers into a Holy Dwelling called the Church. “Do you not know,” wrote St. Paul to the Christians at Corinth, “you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

As God orchestrated the construction of his desert Dwelling with such meticulous precision, so too, He orchestrates with equal precision today the construction of His Dwelling – the Body of Christ. Just as each board and clasp and loop held an important place, each member of Christ’s universal Church holds a necessary role and function. Leader and laity, blue-collar and white, professionals and paraprofessionals, rich and poor, healthy and not-so-healthy, across cultures and backgrounds . . . the Master Carpenter knows who we are, where we fit in His Dwelling --and he sets us there with meticulous precision in the right place . . .

And for the right reason.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An "In-Your-Face" Kinda Guy

So I'm reading through Galatians and I get to this section in which St. Paul details how God sent him to preach the gospel. To illustrate the point, he refers to the well-known "pillars" of the early Church -- Saints Peter and James:

But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality). . . (Galatians 2:6).

I don't know. Maybe I'm reading more into this passage than is really there. But as I reflected on what I know of St. Paul, I caught a glimpse of what seems to be the apostle's attitude problem.

An attitude which is, for me, understandable.

After all, before his Damascus Road experience, Paul was a Pharisee. And not just a run-of-the-proverbial-mill Pharisee, but a Pharisee of Pharisees. He tells us earlier in Galatians that he was advancing in his Judaism way beyond his colleagues.

And to the Philippians he wrote: If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless (Philippians 3:4-7).

And then there was that attitude-related incident in Acts in which Paul got so angry with Barnabas over St. Mark, that the two separated and went in opposite directions. You can read about it in Acts 15:36-39.

I might be wrong, but I think St. Paul -- at least in the early years after his conversion -- was an "in-your-face" kinda guy. He probably never heard the expression that I've used for years (especially growing up in a Jewish neighborhood) -- Two Jews, Three Opinions -- but I suspect the apostle to the Gentiles had a mind of his own, and he didn't hesitate to speak his mind.

Of course, Paul's letter to the Galatians is one of his earliest (written around 47 A.D.). And by the time he wrote what was likely his last (during Nero's reign), he seems to have mellowed -- maybe even had a transformation of his personality. Here is what he says to Timothy about St. Mark: Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service (2 Timothy 4:11).

So, he now considers Mark useful -- which was quite different from Paul's earlier position.

I tried to read again where I left off in Galatians, but couldn't get very far because something about Paul and his transformation encouraged me.

In some ways the apostle seems to me like the caricature of a New York Jew -- opinionated, no-nonsense, and quick-tempered. And some who know me might say that caricature sounds a lot like me.

It's clear in the Book of Acts that God used Paul in wonderful ways for His kingdom -- despite the apostle's "in-your-face" personality -- which (if what they say about me is true -- and it probably is) is a lot like mine. And because of my sometimes-aggressive personality, I sometimes wonder why God still bothers to hang out with me.

That He does hang out with me is not to say He doesn't care if I'm in other peoples' faces. He does care. And I'm sure He's not fond of the way I sometimes speak my mind. Yes, I believe He wants me to be firm, but He also wants me to be gentle; to stand for truth, yet do so with humility.

But Scriptures like the ones I've mentioned here also teach me -- and encourage me -- that God is not reluctant to use in-your-face "Paul's."

I wonder if sometimes that's all He has to use.

Yet the more I think about the apostle and God's relationship with him during his ministry years, the more I realize the reason God still hangs out with me is because -- well, it's because of what He calls His grace.

And patience.

And love.

For which I am so very grateful.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More Than Words at Mass

This is how you are to pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:9-10).

I was five when my dad deserted us. I remember that day in 1955 as if it happened last week.

When I was eighteen I began to entertain thoughts of a long forgotten hope. Perhaps Mom’s explanations for why Dad abandoned us were a collage of faulty memories discolored by years. Perhaps Al really didn't want to leave me.

I convinced myself I needed to know the truth. So I asked Mom to arrange a meeting at my paternal grandparent's house.

My hands felt like ice as I shook the hand of the man I hadn't seen for more than a decade. I studied him. He was shorter than I expected. Heavier, too. He no longer wore a beard, and his dark brown hair receded toward the middle of his head. We chatted a few minutes about nothing. And then, after what seemed an appropriate time, I asked him, "Why did you leave me?"

I still remember how his expression changed before the last syllable left my lips. He thought only a moment before answering: "Because I wanted to."

Time froze as I stared at him, trying to absorb what I'd just heard. And when it had finished burning itself into my consciousness, I turned to Mom. It was time to leave. I'd heard enough to last a lifetime, and as best I could, I buried Al -- and his searing words -- in the recesses of my mind.

Four years later, I met an acquaintance who intrigued me when he called God his heavenly Father. And for some reason, hope suddenly surged to my conscious mind. I ached to know if God could also be my father, if God would also love me. After weeks of self-debate and doubt, I cast myself into what can only be described as "faith." I bowed my knees in prayer and asked God to make me His child.

I didn't feel any different when I stood up. But I plunged into my new faith with the fervor of a thirsty straggler coming upon an oasis. I devoured Scripture, reading the entire Bible twice the first year. Regular Sunday worship and Bible classes fueled my spiritual growth. I fasted, spent hours in prayer, and as my faith grew, I slowly grasped the wonderful truth that, unlike my earthly father, my heavenly Father will never leave me. His love will never falter.

Yesterday my wife and I stood in a classroom of 6th grade Faith Formation students (the Catholic equivalent to Sunday school). We opened the class by asking if anyone had prayer requests. One of the young girls asked for prayer for her uncle who'd recently been "abandoned" (that was her word) by his wife.

Within moments, tears welled in her eyes and traced down her cheeks. She wept periodically through the rest of the class.

Divorce and unfaithfulness is all around us -- so much so that it is likely you know of someone who understands the emptiness that echoes through the caverns of the heart after a divorce.

"Our Father who art in heaven."

Years ago I learned -- and I can only pray that our young student will learn -- "Our Father" is infinitely more than simple words prayed during Mass. They provide for us an intimate doorway to a relationship with One who will never, ever leave us.

We need only to open the door and walk in.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Better Way to Live

Asa's story (see the last post) taught me something else as I read through 2 Chronicles 16.

If you remember, the king of Israel besieged Judah, and instead of seeking God's help, Asa sent a note -- and lots of money -- to a Syrian king to help him out of the jam. Within a short time, the king of Israel left Asa alone and the Judean king thought all was right again with his world.

He was wrong. God sent a prophet to confront Asa with his sin. But instead of repenting, Asa threw the prophet into prison. And once more, Asa's attitude and actions, are instructive.

Scripture tells us of many of God's people who first walked with God, then turned from Him, and eventually killed or imprisoned those who challenged them to repentance. Saul, the first king of Israel is an example. We find his tragic story recorded in 1 Samuel chapters 9-31. In bulletized format, here's what happened:
  • God chose Saul to be king over Israel.
  • Saul became prideful.
  • Saul disobeyed God.
  • Saul tried to kill David, whom he knew would one day succeed to the throne.
  • Saul had God's priests murdered.
  • Saul sought guidance from a witch.
  • Saul committed suicide.

Joash, another king of Judah, is further example. When his grandmother set out to murder all her children and grandchildren so she could ascend the throne as queen, the priest Jehoida saved Joash's life. The young king lived for years in the safety of the priest's family. But despite the godly influence of Jehoida on Joash, the king turned his back on God and eventually murdered the Jehoida's son.

Then, of course, there is Judas in the New Testament. He walked with Christ for three years. He listened to Him teach, saw His miracles, watched His life. But Judas' heart grew cold. And we know the rest of that story.

When the Holy Spirit calls us to repentance we run serious risk of hardening our hearts against Him -- and eventually doing something terrible to God's people -- if we refuse to make confession and follow up with a change in our direction. It seems like that's a rock-solid spiritual principle.

But there is another spiritual principle we ought not overlook: "He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper," Solomon wrote. "But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion (Proverbs 28:13).

Asa, Saul, Joash and Judas teach us what NOT to do. Solomon is one of many witnesses in Scripture who tell us what to do, instead.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Whom Will We Rely?

So I'm reading through 2 Chronicles and I come to this verse in chapter 16: In the thirty-sixth year of Asa's reign Baasha king of Israel came up against Judah . . . . (verse 1).

What happens next is (for me, anyway) confusing -- and instructive.

But first -- some back story. In chapter 14, Asa ascended the throne of David in Judah. Ten years later a million-man army from Ethiopia attacked Judah. When Asa prayed for help (verse 11), [T]he Lord routed the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled.

Think of it. The entire Ethiopian army -- chariots, horsemen, soldiers -- the whole million-man army fled before Asa's army which was half the size.

But twenty-five years later, we are at chapter 16. This time Asa is besieged by another army, but instead of relying on God, he paid a foreign king to come to his aid.

I put the Bible down for a moment and wondered what happened in the intervening 25 years between the million-soldier rout and chapter 16. The Scripture is silent, so I can only make an assumption based on human nature -- and I know human nature pretty well. I've lived with myself for nearly 60 years.

I can guarantee Asa forgot Whose he was, and to Whom he belonged. Some time during those 25 years Asa stopped praying, stopped worshiping, stopped reading God's word. And his slow drift bore fruit when he faced a situation he could not handle alone.

His turn from God didn't happen overnight. It occurred by degrees, over the years. I can guarantee it happened that way because in my 37 years with Christ I've known many Christians who slowly lost touch with God. They stopped, by degrees, attending Church. They left their Bibles closed for a week. And then three. Then a few months which turned into years. Their prayer life slowed to a halt, and they exchanged Christian friends for non-believers. And, to no one's surprise, when difficult situations fell across their path they relied on anything else but God.

I can guarantee it happened that way because -- bound by human nature myself -- I remember the many times the spiritual desert loomed around me, and I nearly forgot Whose I am and to Whom I belong. The temptation to leave my Bible closed, or toss a quick and nearly mindless prayer toward heaven, or to sleep in on Sunday began to whisper its seductive arguments at me.

Yes, all of us are at risk to follow in Asa's footsteps.

And all of us can learn from his error.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Better Option

Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit (Proverbs 25:28).

Anyone who says it's easy to live the Christian life hasn't lived the Christian life very long. As Thomas a Kempis recognized, "No one undergoes a stronger struggle than the man who tries to subdue himself."

My experience at a traffic light some time ago illustrates my continuing struggle to subdue myself to Christ. When I delayed longer than the driver behind me thought necessary, he tapped his horn to catch my attention.

Well, he caught it. I still don't know why I did what I did, but in a heartbeat my blood pressure exploded through the sunroof of my Chevy. I glared into the rearview mirror, flailed my arms and growled a string of epithets I was later glad he didn't hear.

So much for reflecting Christ's life and controlling my spirit.

Any difficult task – like subduing myself, or holding my tongue, turning the other cheek or going the extra mile – requires practice before the doing becomes easier. But the alternative is to give others good reason to turn from Christ, scorn the Church and reject the message of reconciliation to God.

Practice is the much better option.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Where His Treasure Is . . .

Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be (Matthew 6:21).

Nothing affects our relationship with Christ more than what we consider our treasures. The more we seek them, the less time and energy (or desire) we have for anything else. A modern paraphrase might be, “Tell me where you spend your time and money, and I’ll tell you what you love.”

But nestled within that description of our relationship with God is a subtle nugget describing God’s relationship with us.

Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God said, Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine (Isa. 43:1). And St. Peter reminds us: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of [God's] own possession (1 Peter 2:9).

Some imagine God is an aloof Creator who enters history from time to time. But Scripture describes Him very differently.

He is our Father. And He is intimately and emotionally involved in our lives. O Lord, You have searched me and known me, King David wrote. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar . . . and are intimately acquainted with all my ways (Psalm 139:1-3).

We are God's treasure . . . and where His treasure is, there also is His heart.

So what power can separate God from His heart? St. Paul shouted the answer: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

And that loves traces its way back to a hill called Golgotha. It was there that God gave His Son to suffer and die so we would not have to.

There was simply no better way God could show us what He loves -- and where is His heart.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Too-Familiar Jesus

And [Jesus] could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he wondered at their unbelief (Mark 6:5-6).

Of all places, Nazareth should have been the town where people flocked around Jesus. After all, it was the place He'd grown up -- the place His mother and family still lived. Yet, the Lord couldn't perform miracles there because His former neighbors thought they knew Him too well. Jesus is simply a carpenter, the son of Mary who lives down the street.

Like Jesus' neighbors and childhood friends, perhaps a reason we rarely see God's power in our lives is because the Jesus we grew up with is too familiar. Many of us have known about Him ever since we were in the cradle. We know the stories and the things He taught. We know about His mother and father. We know about His friends and disciples.

So our knowledge of Jesus lulls us into familiarity. Familiarity dulls us into complacency. And complacency hardens us against His ability to miraculously live out His life within us.

Perhaps that is why Jesus said, The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it (Matthew 13:45-46). The familiarity-complacency cycle can only be broken when we decide to seek the Pearl as if He is unreservedly the most important thing in our life.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Holier than Thou

Every now and again, I have a dream that greatly disturbs me because I am a willing participant in some sin. I wake up feeling dirty and ashamed, and usually have difficulty settling into my normal pattern of morning prayer.

I do not believe God holds me accountable for my dreams, but they do serve to remind me that lurking somewhere below my conscious mind is a person I do not like. And during those times of recognition, I so well understand St. Paul's cry:

For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate . . . For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For . . . I practice the very evil that I do not want . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:15-24).

It was in this context, the morning after one of my despicable dreams, that I read a portion of St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians: Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me--to keep me from exalting myself! (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Paul then tells us he asked the Lord three times to remove his thorn. And three times the Lord responded, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.

I'd always believed Paul's thorn was his poor eyesight, dating back to his Damascus road experience (Acts 9:8-9). His comment to the Galatians seems to also imply vision problems.

But now, after remembering my dreams, I think St. Paul's thorn was not an Acts 9 disability, but a Romans 7 problem. Because of the "surpassing greatness" of Paul's revelations of Christ, God permitted Satan to buffet the apostle with the memory, and the recognition, of the man lurking just below the surface of his consciousness -- to keep Paul from exalting himself, to prevent him from adopting a "holier-than-thou" attitude toward others.

I could be wrong, of course, about Paul's thorn. But of this, I am sure --my own "wretched man that I am" experiences help me place my so-called "maturity in Christ" in better perspective.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Child is Alive!

But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, "Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Mark 10:14).

I really did not expect it to end this way. May God forgive my lack of confidence in His mercy.

Despite the prayers of hundreds of Christians from all denominations across the world, despite the godly counsel the Mom and Dad had received, and even despite the many offers to adopt their child and pay their pregnancy-related medical bills -- I expected them to kill their baby today, instead -- and that I would have to let everyone know the parents had written their child's name in the same blood as the three thousand other babies who will die today in American abortion chambers.

And to the three thousand babies who will die tomorrow.

And the three thousand the next day.

Nearly 1.5 million innocents in the next twelve months in America.

But God . . . Oh, but God answered our prayers. The couple opted for adoption instead of abortion. And one more child was rescued from the dragon's mouth.

A friend from Canada wrote me shortly after he received my email with the good news. He said, "I’m amazed that I can still be amazed by God!" His words reminded me of something C. K. Chesterton once wrote: "The most astonishing thing about miracles is that they happen."

This couple still needs our prayers and whatever other support we can offer. We are not ignorant of Satan's trickery, and the battle surely is not over until the birth of the child. But we so much thank You, our Lord and our God, for Your mercy extended to this little one today.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Weapons -- To What Purpose?

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God . . . and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:12-14).

Last week, as I struggled to memorize this passage in Romans, I glanced at the column in my Bible where the editors inserted an alternate Greek reading for the word instruments. It's the word also used for weapons.

That word -- weapons -- opened the text for me.

When I present (i.e. offer myself as to a king for service) -- when I present myself to Sin, I give it weapons to use against people who know me, weapons it can use to destroy the work God is doing, or has already done, in their lives.

Scripture often warns us against that. For example, May those who wait for You not be ashamed through me, O Lord of hosts. May those who seek You not be dishonored through me, O God of Israel (Psalm 69:6); or, You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you (Romans 2:23-24).

On the other hand, when I present myself to God as my king, I give righteousness weapons to tear down Sin's kingdom, to deliver captives from its grasp, to transform darkness to light, failure to hope, depression to peace.

Perhaps that is a reason St. Paul, who knew very well the pull of Sin and the pull of God in his own life, encouraged his readers to present their bodies to God, writing: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1, 2).

I do not think it a coincidence that I contemplated these ideas on the heels of yesterday's thoughts about gazing at the Lord, and by so doing, be transformed into His image. Nor am I unmindful of the idea that God might be trying to get my attention, to refocus how I spend my time -- waste my time, is probably a better phrase.

Once again He reminds me, there is no shortcut to becoming more like Christ. And practicing the presentation of myself to God, and my members as weapons of righteousness for His use, is integral to that transformation.

No one knows when it will be too late to do what we should have been doing all along.



Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fixed Eyes or Restless Hearts

To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. . . . All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:15-18).

I don't know why I need to be reminded so often that it is possible to read God's word every day, even to memorize it and teach it . . . and yet not internalize it so my heart changes.

I'm sure I'm not the first Christian with that problem. I suspect some of the Corinthians also suffered a similar issue -- which might be why the apostle focused attention on the remedy: Gazing . . . on the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.

There is no shortcut to becoming more like Christ. Imitating Him requires nothing less than to gaze -- to set -- my attention on Him. The writer to the Hebrews said it as clearly as I suppose it can be said: Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2). St. Peter added, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:12-14).

And that is way harder to do than it is to write about.

My human nature and inclination toward sin has demonstrated for me many times a spiritual law: What I gaze at -- what attracts and holds my attention -- is what I tend to become like. And if I am not careful, I know I can become what I never want to be again.

As long as I seek, even in the smallest measure, what can never satisfy, a veil will obscure my ability to clearly see God. That veil, St. Paul reminds me, is removed only as I turn my gaze -- with ever more frequency -- to the Lord.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Seen and the Unseen

(Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. . . . A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, "Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury." (Mark 12:41-43)

No one knows much about the widow in this text. But she's easy to imagine. I’ve met her many times.

She’s the one others walk by without noticing. She's the one who lives among other invisibles on the fringes of humanity. They perform menial jobs, honest and necessary work, but disdained by most in our culture. They’re itinerant farm-help, moving from field to field. They’re janitors in department stores, dishwashers in restaurants. They empty trash at food courts and clean toilets in office buildings. They do what they can to scrape together enough to pay rent and buy food.

I imagine the impoverished widow lived like that – working where she could to make tattered ends meet. Yet, despite her poverty, she loved God. Despite her deprivation, she felt privileged to honor Him above herself. That’s why she wove her way to the collection box through that unseeing crowd.

And that’s why the Lord Jesus noticed her.

We shouldn’t glide past this Bible text too quickly. When others receive bigger, better and more, Jesus knows our name. When others receive applause from the crowds, Jesus sees us in the shadows. He notices our loneliness, our poverty and sacrifices. He knows us when others don’t. He hears us when others turn an unhearing ear.

The widow left the Treasury unaware that the Lord had read her heart. And two thousand years later, millions of men and women still learn how to live from her example.

No one among the unseeing that day understood how great a legacy a poor widow would have. And even today, how many understand what God will do with our lives if only we are faithful?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Deceptively Subtle Difference

I always smile to myself when I read this passage from St. Matthew: But the centurion said, "Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it." Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. (8:8-10)

The Lord's response to the centurion has to be one of the most astonishing statements in the New Testament. Israel had the sacred history, liturgy, prayers, and sacrifices. To them belonged the covenants and the promises. To them God gave the distinction, "My Chosen One."

Yet, it was a non-Jew who had the greater faith.

Perhaps after 1500 years of form and rituals, Israel had confused religious practice with spiritual relationship. And that is why the Lord's praise for the centurion carries a great lesson for me.

As a member of the Church, I also enjoy a rich sacred history. Like Israel, I have the prayers, the liturgy, the rituals -- and especially the Sacraments. But I worry I might somehow get it backwards, that I might confuse religious practice with God-centered faith -- faith in His love, forgiveness, and His sacrifice on Calvary that freed me -- us -- from sin and eternal death.

The centurion demonstrated two characteristics which can help anyone avoid getting it backwards. First, he was desperate. Sometimes the best prayers are not long-winded, but three-worded: "Lord, help me."

And, he was humble. The centurion -- a leader of a hundred soldiers -- could have ordered Jesus to heal his servant, "or else . . . " But instead, he bowed his heart to Christ: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof."

Prayers, rituals and forms can nurture a rich relationship with Christ, or they can become a hollow substitute. The difference can be deceptively subtle.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Spikes Did Not Hold Him

I often reflect on the crucifixion during my time each day with the Lord. A couple of days ago an image played in my mind, an image that has stayed very close to me since then.

From a distance, perhaps a football field away, I saw the Lord hanging by His hands and feet. His breathing was labored. He groaned each time He pushed against His feet and adjusted His position for what measure of comfort He could find as He hung there.

As I watched the scene unfold in my mind, I remembered the Lord's statement to Peter, after Peter drew his sword in the Gethsemane Garden: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53).

A Roman legion comprised of 6,000 soldiers. Jesus said to Peter, "I have, right now at my disposal, 72,000 heavily armed angelic soldiers who are within moments of swooping into this garden to save me."

As I watched the Lord suffer on the cross, I suddenly saw those legions. They appeared from nowhere and surrounded Golgotha. Each angelic warrior held a glistening sword at the ready. Their muscular bodies leaned forward in anxious anticipation, waiting for their Lord and King to simply look in their direction, nod His head -- and they would have overrun the jeering onlookers in an instant.

An instant.

But Jesus didn't look at the angels. Instead, I saw Him -- even though He was so far away in my mind's eye -- I saw Him as clearly as I see my own face in a mirror -- I saw Him looking at me.

Somehow, just as Satan could show Jesus, through a portal in eternity, all the kingdoms of the world "in a moment of time," in some way Jesus saw my face as he suffered on that cross.

And He saw your face.

In that moment, a truth I have always known became a little clearer to me. Those spikes did not hold Jesus to that wood. Seeing my face, seeing your face, kept Him there.

Seeing through the fabric of eternity our need for His embrace, seeing our hurts, our emptiness -- Jesus saw me and you as only He could see us.

That is what kept Him on that cross. Our faces -- the faces of His children whom He loves so very dearly . . . children He longs, even now, as I write this and you read this, even now He longs to embrace us to His chest and whisper into our ear, "I love you."

No. Spikes did not hold our king.

Seeing our faces held Him there.