Good Friday for Parents

When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” John 19:26 NKJV

 In her book, Operating Instructions, Ann Lamott said that parenting leaves you with a wound.  “Before I got pregnant with Sam, I felt there wasn’t anything that could destroy me.   Terminal cancer would certainly be a setback, but I actually thought I could get through it…but now I am fucked unto the Lord. Now there is something that could happen that I could not survive: I could lose Sam.”  This wound is the root of all frustration, all tempers lost, all misguided attempts to control their futures.  We just can’t bear the thought of losing them, or even seeing them suffer the consequences of their actions. 

The weird thing for me this Lent was to notice how parallel the Old Testament is to Parenting.  If God is the Father, the Israelites are the child that learns every lesson the hard way.

It starts blissfully in the garden, creation abounding with the glee of newborn innocence.  In Adam and Eve’s ignorance they were incapable of sin.  They rest like babies on a mother’s chest, breathing in sync. I bet they even had that sweet untainted breath, and the delicious newborn smell radiating from their foreheads.

As time passes, curiosity trumps obedience. With curiosity comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes pride.  They bit into the apple, and suddenly there were consequences and an independence they weren’t ready for. God could have been angrier, He had warned them it meant death.  He could have chosen to smite them on the spot and start over, Adam 2.0, but He loved them.  What parent doesn’t choose mercy the first time their child  rebels?  He set the consequences, but He also promised them they would get through it., that someday He would reconcile it all and everything would be restored.

But the bliss of newborn innocence was forever lost, and as it is with toddlers, lawlessness began to reign supreme. He may be God, omnipotent and loving, but being nice is hard.  Too hard.  I am thankful that in actual parenting, the flooding of the world and fire-bombing of cities is hardly metaphoric, that less drastic actions are enough to set safe boundaries.  In their sin His anger raged, but far above it all his love remained.  A Rainbow was given in assurance; a sign of that he would never give up on them completely. And more promises were made. Promises that outnumbered the stars in the sky.

Finally the day came when they were ready for elementary education.  Many knew the law already in their heart, that obeying God was right, and ignoring Him was wrong. But they were ready to have it written in stone, elaborated on, something to study.  Some days they listened perfectly, and sang beautiful songs of praise. Walls fell down and battles were won.  A beautiful king, a man after God’s own heart,  led the people to a golden age of trust and obedience.  Later a temple was built, unparalleled in grandeur and beauty.  Wisdom was not only given, but also received.  People came from foreign lands to bare witness to this beautiful relationship- the bounty of blessing between a creator and His chosen people.

If only all the days of this stage were that beautiful, for elementary age children will only be ruled for so long before they want to test their knew knowledge.  As they grow, the crimes become bigger, the consequences more serious.  The lectures last longer and the punishments grow more severe.   No matter what’s said, their hearts are increasingly their own, and they are no longer easily swayed.  And so it was with the Israelites, they broke the law as soon as it was written. With their increasing knowledge of the world, they clung more and more to other people’s ways, to Baal and other idols.  They didn’t always want to be set apart, because sometimes it was hard. Even if it was the truth, even if it meant blessing and joy.  Sometimes they just wanted to be normal; to eat, drink and be merry like their more ordinary neighbors.  

After so many prophets and repeated warnings with zero repentance, it was time to for a larger consequence.  No more would God protect them from their insolence, and the nation was exiled.  Like a grounded a teenager, their city was emptied of  treasure and privilege.  We understand His anger.  How could they be so ungrateful? After everything God had done for them, how could they be so careless with His blessing? How could they still not know who He was, and how much He loved them?? Surely if they knew, they would not continue to behave this way.

It took 70 years, but after the time apart God was willing to rebuild the trust again, surely they learned their lesson this time.  He wasn’t expecting them to be perfect, but maybe more faithful.  The nation, now in its young adulthood, was also ready. It was time to rebuild and say it was sorry.  At first, things were glorious.  They started rebuilding the temple, sweet psalms of praise on their lips again. But after a while it was clear this nation was not a penitential child anymore.  Something was different now, more self-righteous.  They assumed they knew it all, so God stopped telling them otherwise.  He was done showing them his anger, letting them feel the wrath of his displeasure about their choices.  They had always been stiff-necked and no matter how many times he punished them for it, part of them always would be.  His hope to reach them now was by unleashing the fullness of His love. He would crush their enslavement to sin with sacrificial love, and those willing would truly be reunited. But the time was not yet right.  He would love them from a distance while they aged, vigilant for the moment to offer them mercy and forgiveness. But, oh! How He loved them, more than any parent could.  

It went this way for 400 years when the time had finally come.  He knew His truth would largely be rejected; that most people’s hearts would still be too hardened to understand.  But he also knew all the hairs on Israel’s head, and he knew that among them were enough pure hearts to carry out his plan.  Just one crazy guy to announce it, someone who wandered the wilderness eating bugs. Also a humble virgin, not yet wed, but betrothed to an heir of the great King David and 12 uneducated followers that mostly smelled like fish.  He would need others to support the twelve in their moment of desperation, maybe a woman, a harlot. Someone who would be redeemed from so much evil, and therefore able to accept the moment of truth when the others had lost all hope. They were lowly people, sinners, uneducated, and from nasty parts of town.  But God knew they were ready.

Our Father foresaw every detail, but His plan was brutal.   In order to save one child he would have to sacrifice another, the one that was the Word, that was there in the beginning.  ‘All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’ (John 1:2-5)

* * *

It is hard to fathom as a parent.  The story is so understandable up to this point.  The anger that stems from rejection, the pain and frustration, the difficulty remaining patient with people who are incapable of accepting the truth.  Parenting is a vulnerable endeavor, and that’s terrifying.  We try not to live in fear, but their futures are so uncertain.  The time will come when they’re young adults too, and our feelings and consequences will no longer sway their heart. They will make a decision to follow God or the world, or maybe they’ll try to do both.  There is wisdom, that if you train them in the way they should go they will not depart, but there are no guarantees. If God refused to control the hearts of the Israelites, would we even really want that control over our own offspring?

God asks all of us to trust him with our children and with their stories, that he will at some point reveal himself to them on their path. Even if that path leads them to some very dark and dangerous places.  Most days it feels like too much. How could God ask that of parents? 

As Jesus hung on the cross, almost all of his followers had fallen away, but of course His mother was still there.  A mother wouldn’t be scared by the sacrifice of her home, the loss of her dreams, the denial of the crowd, or the hatred of the entire world.  I’m sure she sat there sobbing, how could God do this to her? How could He reward her obedience with so much pain? How could He call Himself merciful? When you kneel next to her at the cross, you seethe with these questions too.  This wasn’t how things were supposed to be, her family or yours. We were supposed to have happy endings.

As Jesus hung from the cross, looking down at Mary, He knew the pain behind those tears.

“Woman. Behold your son.”

He knew. It’s an unparalleled experience for a weeping father, in the form of a son, to be looking down on the son’s grieving mother. What can He say to her other than behold?

Behold.
If that was the end of the story, that would still be more heartbreak than any human parent could endure, but the pain of His story continues throughout the history of humanity.  Of people who feel His love, who see His works, acknowledge His presence and continue to walk away.  It continues with you and me, knowing His salvation, but choosing something less.  It is no wonder that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner returns, than for the 99 who have never gone astray.  Because after that much painful heartbreak, who wouldn’t ditch all self respect to display their jubilation over a prodigal son?

Parents, God knows your fear and He knows your heartbreak, too. But today He says it is Good. It’s a Good Friday because He loves us that much. Because He loves being your father still, even after all the times you messed this parenting thing up.  Because He loves your children, no matter how they’ve disrespected you or Him, or even themselves.  As He looks down at the cross, He says to behold. Because every ounce of fear, frustration and pain was worth it for you, and it was worth it for me. 

Advertisements

Maundy Thursday: In the Face of Hatred

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. John 15:19

It’s not in our nature to endure hatred. Every particle of our soul burns for acceptance, for love.  It was the very thing that led us to Jesus in the first place, the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8:38-39) The world offered us many things, and they were good, though sometimes fickle gifts: admiration, acceptance, respect, belonging, even family, but not that.  Not the unshakable love of God. DSC_1341But it’s in His nature to be hated.

“This happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law,” He says. “‘They hated Me without a cause.’”  John 15:25 

And when we realize that, everything in our being tries to flee.  We’ll break the promises we just made, three times over. We’ll keep silent because we love the praise of man more than the praise of God. We’ll testify falsely because we can’t handle the fear. 

It’s not always that we don’t believe or that we don’t love him that keeps us from following.  It’s sometimes that we can’t bare to be hated. We’re terrified of what the mob will do to us, so we hang back in the safe spaces. We whisper about the injustice to other friends, but only to those who we know will agree.  We hide our testimony, because we’re terrified they will make space for our cross too.  When He catches our eye from a distance we’re suddenly humiliated by our weakness. We hang our heads and sob, but still, we don’t dare step out of the shadows.  

He warns us. He wakes us to pray. He knows we will not endure the condescending looks and snide comments. He knows that standing without him we’ll begin to doubt. Was any of it true? Did we just hear and see what we wanted to? Was he ever really the savior we thought he was?

DSC_0789But he promised that night not to leave us orphaned in our pain.

“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.  John 14:16‭-‬17 NKJV

Something that would save us from this shame. That would push us out from our hiding places and out of our sanctuaries, able to fight their hatred with the truth.

The Spirit of truth…

His word in our hearts like a burning fire

Shut up in our bones.

We would weary of holding it back,

And we would not. (Jeremiah 20:9 NKJV)

But for now, as the hour of temptation is at hand, we break the bread and drink the cup, remembering our weakness before the cross, when everything we hoped for seems to be ending.  We try to remember his promises, his traditions, his mercy.  Tonight we rest in the protection of the prayers he says on our behalf, that we should be kept from evil, sanctified, continue his work, and be united (John 17:15-21).  Because of this we know, despite the anger and burning resentment in the world around us, despite how awful the predicament seems, we are still loved.

DSC_1343

 

Holy week part 3: Fighting Denial

There’s a story in this picture that only I can see. It’s evident in the calmness of the sea and the clarity of the sky.  It’s in the peace shown in the child’s steady gaze.  This was a story that almost wasn’t, and one of which the child is almost wholly unaware.  Many deny the power the power of how this story came to be, but I’ll never deny its truth. 

The ocean in this picture could have been choppy.  The home the boy lives in began in turbulence.  Crashing waves of alcohol and drugs relentlessly churned up mud and silt, so that most often the atmosphere felt murky and brown.

The sky could have been full of storm clouds, for the boy’s parent’s sins were generational. Growing up in a home with such turbulence would have put him at high risk for the same behaviors: anger, depression, and a wealth of poor judgement.  Even if he could somehow make it out of the house free from addiction, he would still always be followed by the cloud of emotional pain.

The look on his face could have been one of uncertainty and anger.  He could have woke every day wondering, what kind of mom would meet in the morning? The one who makes pancakes, with exaggerated cheer, like everything was better than normal? Or the one who’s still a bit drunk, but mostly hungover? The one with a pillow over her head, letting him know he needs to pour his own cereal and peel his own banana. On those days he would fume and wonder, why was this his lot? What did he do to be born to such broken parents?

DSC_1072

This was how the boys story was almost written.  In the years before his existence, his mom was in the worst kind of denial.  The kind that had given up on dreams, joy, and the possibility of God.  His dad was covered in a cloud of depression, and would do anything he could to escape its existence, only it followed too closely to ever be free for long.  Somehow, in their pain they found each other, and made their own home, a shelter from those who had hurt and disappointed them.  Their own safe place, just the two of them, together.  But a shelter is not secure when there’s a door open to drugs.  One day meth walked in and quickly chipped away at the little hope they had left.

In a last attempt at peace, they went to her aunt’s house for Christmas.  The mom missed her relatives, but more than that she missed the hope and joy their house was always full of.  She wanted to be near those things, but she was worried they would see through her charade. There might be lectures about behavior and the choices she had made. They would maybe break out gospel tracts and embarrass her with the offer of salvation, but they did no such thing.  In fact, nothing happened at all and if she hadn’t been seeking peace, it may have even seemed boring.

When they came home, the dad said it was the happiest he had ever been. She was shocked. Which part made him happy? The sitting around for hours playing board games? Or the women chatting endlessly about their kids and other people he didn’t know? It was so typical to her, the fact that it amazed him was probably the most depressing thing she ever heard.

That was the happiest you’ve ever been?” she asked aloud, filled with doubt.  After all the epic parties and surreal, all-night adventures, that was it?

“Yes.” He said. “That. And also that time I was young and went to church.”

Suddenly she was felt dismay.  She knew what he was aksing, and was also desperate for joy, but didn’t he know that church was what she had been running from all along? Despite the rage, and the fighting and the drama, she loved him still. If that was what it would take to make them happy again, she would do it.  It was the only one of the 12 sober steps she actually knew, and she knew that’s what they needed. She knew church well and for their sake, she could fake it. At the very least, she thought it might be better than the awfulness that they’d been stuck in lately.  She even kind of missed having friends weren’t all slowly dying. She agreed, and they googled ‘church,’ and went to the first one on the list.

As they rode their bikes up the hill that first Sunday, she expected stability, a new community, some new hope, maybe.  But she didn’t expect Jesus.  She didn’t expect that she’d be sitting there, crying in the pew, letting go of pain.  She didn’t to expect to meet any misfits like her, or people who loved Jesus more than anything, or anyone who would pray for her in the hallways or be willing to talk about God even after the sermon was over.  Sitting there in a pew, paging through the bible, she was disappointed to realize that she had read it for years without ever really listening to what was said.  Truth came blasting through.  Every page she flipped to spoke directly to her soul.  She could feel something entirely new being formed in her. She expected stability, but she didn’t expect Jesus.

The people sang about new mornings, life and mercy, but she had no idea that it would be literal. Suddenly everything was new.  New friends, jobs, passions and tastes. There were baptisms, a wedding, a baby, a new home and then more 3 more babies.  Before she could stop and fully marvel, they were a family of 6 living miles away on a literal rock atop a quiet mountain. 

DSC_0742In His last week on earth,  surrounded by people, Jesus yelled up at the sky. “Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Then the voice came from heaven saying, “I have both glorified it and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27-28)

Her trouble is that someday she’ll have to explain this story to the boy.  It would be nicer to tell him that she was always as responsible as she is trying to train him to be. He adores and respects her now, but like all children, someday he will have to understand and forgive her weakness and imperfections.  What will she say? That it would have been better to been spared seeing the bottom in all of its ugliness? But then she would not be able to talk about all the things she’d seen.  The evil things working together for good.  The tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword being powerless against the bond His love.

What scares me is that even after people heard the voice, and testified that it sounded like thunder, or that maybe an angel has spoken to him…Even after that they still denied.  “… although he had done so many signs before them, they did not believe Him.” (John 12:37)

It’s the most disturbing part of Holy Week.  That even after everything that’s happened- after all the the signs, all the miracles, and even a voice from heaven, they still can walk away.  How could He be the Son of Man? He doesn’t fit the expectation, so they make excuses. He’s just a prophet. He’s a man possessed. Even after hearing her testimony, and knowing God’s hand in their story, will her children do the same? Will they think it was by her own might strength? That rock bottom will push people up regardless of the power pulling from above?

Some people may, but I will not deny.  I witnessed a man lifted from the abyss of crystal meth to become a loving husband and dad.  I witnessed a woman bound by alcohol walk away from her endless party without a second thought.  For one purpose we survived, to testify. I will not look at this picture and deny the voice that came from heaven, and the authority with which it spoke.   

After a decade of constant growth and change, the people who meet me no longer sense that booze once flowed freely through my veins, or that my husband would stay awake for weeks at a time.  Now we look like ordinary people, with stable, ordinary stories. Raiding a child looking out at a calm ocean, ignorant of the fact that it used to be choppy. Standing under a blue sky, unaware of the storm that has been calmed. With peace, and a hope, and a future radiating from his face.  The power of our testimony demands that His name be glorified.  We cry out for Him to do so, and He shouts back to us that it has been, and that it will be again.

 

wp-1476385283663.jpg

Holy Week Part 2: Citizenship

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:20

My boys are 2, 5, 7 and 9, which means the days here are filled with a lot of whining and bickering. Even when they’re playing well together, because of their ages and maturity, it’s a fact that at some point people will end up in time out.  It’s one of the most difficult things for me to tolerate as a mother, I used to think Jesus was incredibly harsh when he said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”(Matthew 17:17), but when all four of them are fighting over something as common as a single Lego piece, I totally get it.

It’s weird how the concept of time as a child is both fleeting and eternal. If I ask them to share a toy for 5 minutes they’ll pout and cry because it’s too long. It’s as if in 5 minutes, the whole world will have ended and their chance to play with it will be gone forever. But they also feel like they’ll be kids forever; they can’t imagine a day when they’ll be grown and fully responsible for themselves.  When the squabbling gets to the the point of parental intervention I try to explain to them how their perspective is too narrow; that in 10 years that Lego will be in the trash but their brother will still be here, so share…value the lasting relationship over the trash. They hear what I’m saying, and I think they even recognize it as truth, but their understanding of time won’t allow them to fully believe this wisdom.

20170411_144858

When I look at the kids, I see that they’re actually lucky to be fighting over something as unimportant as toys; I wish my conflicts were as petty as pee on the toilet seat or laundry on the floor.  As an adult,  I’m more capable to fulfill my desires, and far more severe to people who would stand in my way.  I can even make it look admirable, like if I’m fighting for something for my kids, or more time to pursue my dreams, or a fun vacation I worked hard for.  Armed with a good argument, I dare you to get in my way.

The constant debate throughout the whole country proves that no one is immune.  Between the political battles and the incessant media coverage, even the most peaceful people let somebody else piss them off last year.  Many people had excellent points, and were fighting for good things- high moral standards, peace, prosperity, justice, etc. Don’t we all desire these things? What sane person wouldn’t fight to make that happen? But through all the angry carnage, only stronger division was accomplished.

 

Today in the gospel reading (John 12:20-26) Jesus makes one of his harshest statements of all, but apparently of the greatest importance since he repeats it several times and all four gospel authors made note of it.  “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25) It’s verses like this that made a lot of people throughout history think Jesus was crazy.  It’s no wonder that by the time He got to the cross He was all alone.

DSC_1053

It has become so ingrained in our culture to love life, to seek the pleasure that it offers, that it’s become cliche- “live life to the fullest,” “seize the day,” “stop and smell the roses,” “live for the moment!”  It’s not that we should stop doing these things necessarily, I still believe time on earth shouldn’t be wasted. But maybe if we really understood how this world is not our citizenship, if we understood that we have an obligation to servant-hood and a life eternal, maybe we could rise above the petty conflict.

Like my kids, I know heaven is what the future promises, but I don’t understand it, nor can I fully imagine the promise that it brings.  When I deal with conflicts, I see them here and now, and if they don’t get solved I feel like I will surely die a miserable and unhappy death. Maybe even in the next 5 minutes.  And yet, at the same time, I also feel like I will be here on this earth forever and therefore ensuring my prosperity in it must be top priority.

People tell you all the time how fast parenting goes, and it’s true. When I look back to the beginning, I’m stunned that I’ve been at this for almost a whole decade. But the actual day in and day out feels like an eternity. Like they’re never going to grow up and be responsible and move out. Even though I’ve moved a lot, I still always have the feeling like these friends, these relatives, and this place will always be my home.  It’s this very human perspective of time that makes us cling so hard to the bits of joy when we find them and make us so ferocious toward anyone and anything that would try to rob us of it.  It’s hard to remember that there is joy eternal when your neighbor’s dog is barking outside your bedroom window all night long. Or that someday the dog will die, and there will just be you, not getting along with the person you were commanded to love.

DSC_2822

On this second day of Holy Week, remember your citizenship is in heaven, because too many people have lost their way to the cross by being caught in a petty argument over their citizenship here.   We’re following something eternal, and in ten years, or twenty, or once you’ve truly died and are hanging out with Jesus, will you still be glad that you fought so hard to get  your way? Maybe, in the light of what’s coming, it will be more important to be loving than to be right.  Maybe today it will be okay to lose out on the piece of this earth you’ve been clinging to, because He promised, whoever hates these things gets to keep following.

Holy Week part 1: Learning to Follow

Eight years ago my family left DC. Not because we wanted to necessarily, but because we’d outgrown it. I moved into the city as a girl, but now that I was woman, wife and  mom I needed what the city couldn’t offer anymore. We had space in our apartment and it was quite affordable, but it was in a basement. And even though it was a decent part of town, there were rats. There were playgrounds we could walk to, but there was no yard to dig holes in, or safe places nearby to ride bikes.  No porch or patio to sit out and enjoy long summer nights.

We wanted a home, and with our income, that meant moving about an hour out of town. When we found a house we felt pure elation to have a space all our own. No more waking up to the sound of stomping of boots overhead. No one else’s shouting wafting through the cracks in the walls.  It didn’t matter that it was tiny, or on a busy road, or that the view was of a taco truck and a run down shopping center.  It was ours, and it was home.

DSC_1398

But four months after we had signed the lease, my husband lost his job.  The contract that brought in the money to pay for his position ended without a new one to take its place. Suddenly everything was in jeopardy- our lease, our newly established credit, our untarnished rental history. Then there would be no more dreams of barbeques in the backyard, or flower gardens, or watching Fourth of July fireworks from the back porch.

I also happened to be about four months pregnant at the time, but I wasn’t too worried about the baby, or how we would buy food, or gas, or our general survival.  I knew God would be faithful to help us find ways to provide for those things.  I was worried about the house, and that if we lost the house and our good rental history, it would be too long of a time before we would be able to move our new family into its own place again.

I prayed endlessly about it, “Please God, don’t take our house. Don’t make us leave.” The bible study I was in at the time was reading through the book of Matthew, and through that  study God led me to this answer. “ Then a certain scribe came to Him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:19-20) I didn’t like this answer, why did the scribe have to give up the idea of home to follow Jesus? I was tired of the gypsy life. By that time I had already had 15 different addresses in 8 different cities, and that’s not even including the four years of college where everyone moves every year anyways. I was tired of packing up; I wanted to stay.

DSC_0612

I’m completely jealous of Jesus’ ability to speak so directly to the point.  When I correct my kids, or try to use a parable, I am so wordy. Usually when I finish and ask them what they’ve learned, they look at me like they didn’t even realize I was speaking.  Jesus is so precise with His words that He can pinpoint the problem and minister to the depths of the heart in a single sentence.  In the exact moment I read that, I knew beyond doubt that no dream, no vision of perfection or happiness could ever compare to following Him.  Even if it may seem impossible, how could I have the knowledge of his excellence and choose any other thing? It was hard to accept it, but that one single verse set me free from a huge amount of worry.

In the end we didn’t have to break our lease. Friends, family and strangers chipped in to help us cover the rent when we were short, and Adam was able to find a new job soon after.  I was relieved the lesson turned out not to be literal, but I was also glad to have faced the possibility and become resolved to it. I can sing, “I surrender all” on Sunday morning, but it only has meaning if I can see the things that bring my dreams security and then know that I don’t need them.

It’s a lesson that has come back around for a second time this lent, as home ownership becomes closer than ever.  As I think over the decision, I begin to imagine the barbeques, the gardens, and the memories to be made with the kids again. Or maybe even buying the dream place, an old farmhouse, with a few acres for chickens and goats, or whatever else we fancy. A place that we will never outgrow or have to leave again.  Since that first house we have moved three more times, and I’m so tired of packing. The thought of owning our own place is more attractive than ever.

DSC_0354

But over all of that I hear God whispering this verse again.  And expanding on it through Paul, “ But what things were gain to me (my security, a home, my visions of perfection), these I have counted loss for Christ… indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection… forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:7-14)

Holy week is a journey to the cross, that starts out with big crowds and parades, but by the end even the most devout followers are denying association.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t try to warn them, he said repeatedly the cost of following would be great.  Nobody wants to give up the things that seem important, the house, the job, the vacation, the position of power and respect. There may be literal sacrifices as we journey toward the cross this week, and there may not. But if you’re willing to follow, be willing to consider what it might be like, and how life would go on without them. That if He asked you to sacrifice these things it would be for good purpose. Because along the way we will see that there is excellence, power, and a magnificent prize far beyond our understanding or imagination. And when you see it from that perspective, the nest or the den is really the last place you’ll want to be stuck.

DSC_0419

 

Easter is for Cubs Fans: An Explanation and Defense of Lent

I Love tradition. As a teenager I used to get into fights with my parents about things like buying a fake Christmas tree, or going out to eat for thanksgiving. I especially love church traditions, partly because I grew up with them, but mostly because they have deepened my understanding of God. Lent is one of these traditions; it starts on Ash Wednesday (February 14th) and continues through Holy week to Easter. What saddens me is the way Lent is misunderstood and forgotten in the church today. While some non-traditional churches may still celebrate Advent, Lent is mostly forgotten. It’s Advent’s less adorable cousin- similar in purpose, but moody and morbid. The beautiful candles and wreaths are replaced with oily ashes and uncomfortable sacrifice. Instead of ending with a cute baby we end in a cold, dark tomb.

Why do we need a season like this? It’s important because it prepares us for Easter- the holiday that defines us as Christians. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV). In fact, Easter is so important people regularly compare it to the Super Bowl. Just as the NFL and network spend lots of time and money to create an extravagant celebration to reach millions, so do Church leaders. The analogy weakens however, if you take it any deeper. Most people who tune in for the Super Bowl aren’t even watching. Many aren’t even football fans at all, they just like the party that comes with it and the commercials. And although it’s the most watched sporting event on television, it doesn’t convert many of those casual observers into regular season football fans. I don’t think this is what we want to be saying about Easter.
If we have to use a sports analogy (and apparently in church now, we do,) Easter is more like the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. After 108 long and horrible years, the Curse of the Billy Goat was finally broken. People who knew nothing about baseball watched that game with complete focus, because they knew history was in the making, and because the plight of the underdog is universal. In the end, even Cleveland Indian fans were secretly rooting for Chicago.

But the elation felt was not just from the Cubs winning the last game, it was from hope fulfilled. 108 years of waiting, almosts, and disappointment were over. It was also a celebration of their endurance to win their division after 6 months of regular season games, about their focus and drive during the post season, and about the nail biting drama of the seven game championship. If you only saw the very last game you missed the depth of their final victory. You weren’t one of those people throwing things at the TV when they almost blew it in the 8th, or screaming loud enough to wake the kids when they finally won. That passion came from preparation: from having spent time following the team and knowing the players, their stats, and their history. This is why we need Lent, to cast off the feeling that we’re cursed to our insufficiency and to prepared ourselves for the victory.

dsc_1358

Ordinary Time

To begin with, the regular season of baseball is far more like Christian life than football because it’s played all week long. Players toil day after day, going through streaks and slumps, working against a handful of pitchers who know their every weakness. Last year the Cubs had a great regular season; with a stellar line-up and bull-pen, they were exciting to watch. Everyone on the team proved their worth, and they finished with the best record in baseball, 103-58. But even in their awesomeness, that means they still lost a third of their games. It’s impossible for a team to always play at 100 percent of their potential day in and day out for six months straight. That much work and stress takes a physical and an emotional toll on the players.  Baseball is the worst sport to bet on because you can never predict what will happen in any individual game. It’s one of the things that makes baseball so lovable to its fans, because our lives are like that too.

According to the church calendar, the seasons between the big holidays are called Ordinary Time, our regular season. We struggle through embarrassing slumps, and shine when we’re having a hot streak. Temptation is like a pitcher that hurls relentless curve balls, and even when we’re doing our best we fall victim to its tricks 3 times out of ten. While we may feel like we have a winning record, subtle sins creep in and weaken our relationship with God. We develop bad habits and accidentally hurt people we care about. We start turning to things besides God to numb our worry and pain. Our daily tendency to sin makes it impossible for us to consistently act out our devotion.

dsc_1360

Lent 

Last fall, all baseball fans feared the Cubs. Our attention focused on the teams that would make it to post-season, analyzing all of their stats, trying to guess who might be able to beat Chicago in their bid for the World Series. In the regular season, teams focus on their division standing; but in fall ball, every game matters. A single win or a loss could mean the chance for a wild card. Three or four bad games in a row will kill a team’s hope for the championship title. When the Cubs made it to the post-season, they had to be smart. The staff began strategizing on how they could keep their star players rested, healthy, and playing strong. They adjusted their pitching rotation to optimize everyone’s performance. They looked at their regular season losses to find weaknesses, and made plans to avoid them. It’s important to note again that these things were happening daily.

This is Lent. It’s 40 days (plus Sundays, which are like the rest days) for self-examination and repentance.  It lets God rid us of the ordinary sin that settles in our lives during the year. It’s not about giving up something to prove our devotion, or about doubling up efforts to follow all the rules. The fasting of things dear to us means the only place we have left to turn for comfort is to him, but we’re so bad at giving these things up.  Even our weak will reminds us we need God’s mercy every hour. If we’re like the team, then God is like the manager, molding us into something stronger, getting us back into our best possible shape.

The season of Lent is not a biblical commandment, but a ritual based on biblical principles and examples of repentance, prayer and fasting, primarily the time Jesus spent in the wilderness before his ministry, but there are other examples too. My favorite is in Daniel, when the 70 prophesied years of Jewish exile was ending. Daniel wants God to redeem the Jews, but he knows the importance of confessing how awful they’ve been, and how they don’t deserve it. In Daniel 9:3-4 it says, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord God and confessed… ” The prayer that follows (9:4-19), admits the shame and the destruction the Jews brought on themselves because of their sin. He laments the choices they have made, and recognizes how desperately they need God’s salvation. Yet the prayer is still laced with worship, proclaiming that God’s awesome power is in his ability to love above all else. He ends the prayer with the attitude we should all have during lent, saying, “We do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies.” (v.18)

DSC_1366.jpg
Holy Week

By the end of October, the Cubs had won the pennant, and there was massive excitement because it was the first time they’d even had a chance at the World Series since 1945. The odds were that they would easily win, so who could have expected the heartbreak fans felt midweek when defeat seemed inevitable? Only five teams before them, in a history of 112 World Series, had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit before. Defying all odds, the team continued to hang on in the series until it all came down to the seventh and final game.  In that last chance,  the Cubs scored in the first inning, and hope began to resurface. When we got through the seventh and they were still ahead it seemed certain that this hope might actually fulfill. But in bottom of the eighth, when game was almost over, the Indians scored three runs. Suddenly the game was tied, and stayed that way through the ninth. The Cubs were now facing extra innings, and announcers were rattling off numerous statistics about how many times the team had lost in extra innings, and how many times over the last century they had buckled under pressure. Their bull-pen was spent,  morale was as low as could be.

Little did we know, God is a Cubs fan too, and the miraculous timing of a 20-minute rain delay saved the game. In the locker room Jason Heyward looked around and saw  despair on his teammates’ faces. He pulled the team together in the weight room behind the dugout and told them, “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.” (WORLD SERIES-It Happened) Then other players began to chime in until everyone was shouting, “We won’t quit.” When the team retook the field in the tenth, people started hitting again. They averted disaster with brilliant base running. Ryan Zobrist batted in the winning run and Miguel Montero another after that. To everyone’s relief Cleveland had no response, and in an instant 100 years of baseball fans were finally vindicated. All of Chicago ran out into the streets celebrating; their joy and excitement so contagious, they made Cub fans of us all.

While it was probably the best week of baseball in the history of the entire world, Holy Week is even more grand and grueling a journey. In this last week of Lent, scripture takes us with Jesus through Jerusalem- reliving His triumphal entry, last supper, death and resurrection. Each event is marked by a holy day on the calendar.

Palm Sunday starts the week with the triumphal parade into the Holy City. People cheer, and throw their coats and palm branches in the street for a King they think is so holy, not even his donkey’s feet should tread the dirt. There is finally hope in the dull roar of the Passover festival- after 7,000 years of promises, there’s finally a Messiah. But this King and the celebration of him infuriates the establishment. They grumble in the shadows, plotting how they can be rid of him.

On Maundy Thursday, the gracious Savior knows what’s coming and tries to warn his followers. He washes their feet, breaks bread and pours wine as a metaphor, but they just can’t fathom what He’s saying. After dinner they drift off to sleep in the garden while prays so hard His sweat becomes like blood. He offers up a desperate plea for mercy, but the cup is His to drink. When they come to arrest Him, He submits peacefully (much to his friends’ dismay) even though the soldiers come ready for war.  The people in power who he has publicly shamed and humiliated get there chance for revenge. They gather false witnesses, they hold a charade of a trial, but its working. The public opinion that was so full of adoration at the beginning of the passover is starting to sway. By midnight even his most loyal follower denies association.

The high and mighty continue to flaunt their power over him on Good Friday, battering Hope, ridiculing it, and strapping it to a cross to die; a public warning displayed for anyone who might try to rekindle its flame.

On Holy Saturday we mourn while the King we thought would save us wades through the depths of hell on our behalf. The only people who haven’t abandoned the hope of Sunday’s parade entirely hide themselves away, confused and terrified.

Just when everyone thinks the story is completely over, at Easter Sunrise on the third day, a miracle occurs. It’s more extravagant than anyone dreamed- the man who had the power to raise the dead has actually raised himself. Finally, the cryptic prophecies begin to make sense to His weary followers, who emerge from their despair with only a vague understanding of the implications. The victory is so outrageous that when they try to repeat what happened, even their best friends don’t believe it.

dsc_1355

The story is world altering. It changes the way we tell time. It reforms our laws and morals. Hearts should be prepared to receive every part of it. I hope that regardless of what your church chooses to do, you and your family will observe Lent. Being able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond is a long, rigorous, daily journey that takes resolve.  The season of reflection and repentance serves to strengthen our love and faith in Him. People who just show up for the last game of the season don’t care much who wins or loses. If you are going to be as passionate about Easter as a Cubs fan was last fall, then be prepared.  Fully accept your own redemption, and the magnitude of the victory.