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 a savior. 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 kept warning us, waking us to pray. He knew we would not be able to endure the condescending looks and snide comments. Or the scorn slammed in our face daily. He knew we couldn’t bare their anger, or the burning of our humiliation, all if we merely mention His name.

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 in the light of his sacrificial love.  We huddle, sleepily in the garden, and realize how weak we are without Him, without the Holy Spirit he promises will help us.

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For tonight, our only protection is the prayers he says on our behalf.

“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world,

But that You should keep them from the evil one.

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.

As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.

And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.”

John 17:15-19

 

Celebrating Easter Like a Cubs Fan: 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 (March 1st) and continues through Holy week to Easter. What saddens me is the way Lent is misunderstood and forgotten in the church today. While some modern churches may still celebrate Advent, Lent isn’t very popular. It’s sort of like Advent’s less adorable cousin- similar in purpose, but moody and morbid. The beautiful candles and wreaths are replaced with grubby ashes and uncomfortable sacrifice. Instead of ending with a cute baby we end up with a cold, dark tomb.

So 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, Easter is more like the Cubs winning the World Series. After 108 long and horrible years, the Curse of the Billy Goat was finally broken. People watched that game with complete focus, because they knew baseball history was in the making. And in the end, who wasn’t rooting for Chicago?

But the elation we felt was not just from the Cubs winning the last game. It was 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, so we’re prepared to appreciate the victory.

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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. It’s one of the things that makes baseball so relatable and lovable to its fans, because our lives are like that too.

According to the church calendar, the seasons between big holidays are called Ordinary Time, and it’s our regular season. We struggle through embarrassing slumps, and shine when we’re having a hot streak. Temptation is like a pitcher that throws at us relentlessly, and even when we’re doing our best we’ll still only beat it 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 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.

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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 thought how they could 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-analysis and repentance, and 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 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 actual season of Lent is not a biblical commandment, but a ritual based on biblical principles and examples of repentance, prayer and fasting. My favorite example 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)

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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 gone to 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 our hope began to surface. When we got through the seventh and they were still ahead there was excitement that this hope might actually survive. 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, and 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. Jason Heyward saw the despair on his teammates’ faces, so he pulled the team together in the weight room behind the dugout.  He 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 and the theme was, “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, the Cleveland bats 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 ever, 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 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 and 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 are ready for war.

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 depth of hell on our behalf. The only people who haven’t walked away from 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 barely understanding the implications. The victory is so outrageous that when they try to repeat what happened, even their best friends don’t believe it.

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The story is world altering. It changes the way we tell time. It reforms our laws and morals. We shouldn’t miss out on even one 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 discipline and resolve. But focusing our attention on it strengthens 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, so you can fully appreciate the magnitude of the victory.

The Royal Oak pt.2: Living in Strength

Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him; I will surely defend my ways to His face.
Job 13:15 NIV

It was 1940 when my grandmother decided to follow Jesus at a tent revival.  She was 11 years old and had no real idea what would change in her life, and at first nothing did.  Sundays she went, as usual, with her family to church; Monday through Saturday she was always kind. She held the feeling of salvation in her heart for seven years, until she suddenly found herself surrounded by a group of passionate believers.  They pushed her to spread God’s message beyond the church walls and into the war weary navy town around them. In that fertile ground a seed was planted; her faith and purpose began to grow anew.

Over 70 years the seed grew from an acorn into a royal oak- a faith steadfast enough to hold a King the world wants dead.  She’s dug her roots deep into the ground, absorbing the love and wisdom needed to extended her branches over those in her care. Her labor reaped more blessing than she ever imagined she would harvest, and now looking out at the four oaks that grow beside her brings her such joy.

The two closest, tall and strong, are her sons. They are as different now as they were when they were young, though they have both inherited her desire to shepherd the weary and bring home the lost. Each has weathered their own trials and yet still they’ve spread their branches to places she hadn’t even thought of dreaming. Though they tend to her now, as she once tended to them, she will never stop praying over and ministering to them. A mother’s work, in that regard, is never done.
Behind them stands the tree that changed the landscape of an island. A church, born not of a seed, but grafted so painfully from one of her own limbs.  Its branches have now grown wide and strong, offering sanctuary to both the lost and hopeless- but when she knew it best it was just a mere sapling. Does God, too, think it ironic that the endeavor which robbed her of so much, now brings back her fondest memories? How could she have had the audacity to follow the call of ministry across the country with next to nothing? When she closes her eyes she can still see people’s faces changing as they began to understand the gospel. It was as if the book of Acts was happening in real time.


The last tree is the smallest, a bible study only 16 years old, scrappy and unpredictable in its ways. She’s amazed she has been able to tend it for that long. It has been hard to find a way to bind so many ages and backgrounds together, but she knows the need for wisdom is universal.  While the other oaks grow so independently now, this one still requires constant nurturing.  She looks at it gratefully, for the way it has filled her retirement with mission.

Time has been harsh to her, as it so often is, and the scars that maim the trunk bring me to tears.  The deep gash, where a marriage failed. The nubbed branches where the shame of her mistakes was pruned away. The damage termites left as they slowly invaded with crippling pain.  Worst of all the lightning burn, that stole away her husband and her second chance at love- a grief so deep it deafened her to everything except the book of Psalms.


In a funk where my own life feels more like a rock, eroded by water day after day, I desire her Paul-like determination to keep laboring as she presses on toward the prize. The middle of life brings the great temptation of weariness and in the midst so many frivolous battles laying down hope can almost seem like a reasonable choice. How does one continue to grow and thrive against the force of dreams lost and expectations unmet? As I listen to her stories, I scour the evidence of her life for some sort of spiritual secret, something that mocks this ravaging power of time…
 

But what I realize as I listen is that I already know the answers I seek. Live in community (exodus 17:12, matthew 26:38)

Know God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Cast off the things that hold you back (Philippians 3:14)

 

What kind of a remedy is that, though, when all the things that make you stronger also require a spiritual strength of their own? What ministers to me through the slow recounting of her stories, though, is truth.  Truth of the life she’s lived and the truth of what continues to lead her forward.

 That if we labor at the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing (Galatians 6:9)

That God is good, and what he does is good (Psalm 119:68a)

That the one who promised us hope is always faithful (Hebrews 10:23)

And that it’s all worth it because of His love. A deep, unwavering, holy love. (1 John 4:16)


As I close my eyes and let these scriptures mingle in my mind I dwell on this collection of oaks. I feel my own hope growing from the possibility of strength, that the knowledge of His truth will keep pushing my roots ever deeper into His love, words and presence. Stronger yet will I be. Strong enough to weather the abuse that time would hurtle my way.  Strong enough to seek and trust Him continually.  Strong enough, still, to share His love wherever my reach extends.

Special thanks to Grandma Norma Jean McDermet…for letting me tell her story, and for continuing to inspire after 87 years.

The Royal Oak pt. 1: Finding Courage

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God…. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:1‭-‬2‭, ‬5 NIV

The story of the Royal Oak:

In 1651, England was a grim place for Prince Charles II. His father had been executed by parliament just a few years earlier and now the masses were coming for him.  Oliver Cromwell had just decimated the royal army in the Battle of Worcester, and the only hope the royalists had was that the future King had survived.  He escaped to the house of William Carlisse, one of his last remaining loyal officers, praying that there would be somewhere on the estate to hide.  It wasn’t a brilliant plan, since it was obvious to his enemies that it was the only safe place for him to go, but at least this way he could lose his head among friends.  

Soon after, the night came when the house was no longer safe. Carlisse suggested they climb the large oak to the side of the house, and hide among the branches. It was preposterous, for surely the soldiers would look there first.  And what about his dignity?  After some debate, safety won out over pride, they packed cheese and wine and hurried up the tree.

 The men held their breath as they watched enemy soldiers walk directly under their feet. The Prince laughed silently at the absurdity of it all.  But below the laughter hope was forming, and from that hope he remembered his birth right, and from his promised destiny he found the strength to make a better plan.  And then he fell asleep.

We also hold something in our branches that the world wants to destroy.  And like the prince, we remain safe, nestled with our saving grace in the pews.  We come weary, and in search of rest. We know that at this altar we are safe from the judgement, evil, shame and stress that will try to trap us as soon as we walk away.  Here we are safe from the people who seem increasingly vindictive and a culture that’s beginning to resent our presence.

I wish I was present to see the moment the all clear was given, and it was tine for the Prince to shimmy back down the tree.  Although there is no written account of what he was thinking, I can’t imagine the courage it took. Was it a trap? Would he escape the country with his life or suffer the fate of his father? Even if he did escape, would anyone still follow a king who had so little dignity, that he would hide in a tree? There were no guarantees of safety, or happy endings to give him hope.  Only the purpose into which he was born, ruling and caring for England.

In the end, the future king Charles II found a way out and escaped to France. He was finally able to return to England 10 years later during the restoration, victorious, with a crown and a throne.

Just like the king, we can’t rest in the branches forever, ignoring the world beyond.  Too often people fall asleep in the safety of the sanctuary, forgetting their comission. While we are here we rest in security, but with the purpose of building our courage for the tasks ahead. We prepare our hearts to go out and do his will: to love others as he loves us, to help the needy and guide the lost. There are not promises of comfort or safety, but we are strong because we know that victory is our birth right, that it was won by the power of His sacrificial love.

Boast in hope, and let it strengthen you for the trials ahead.

Daughter of the original Royal Oak, Boscobel England