Easter is No Accident

           As we go through the Easter season, my heart is open to the significance of things that normally escape my notice. Unable to assemble with our church family, we gather online. We took our computer outdoors and sang “Hosanna” on our patio. The palm trees around us waved in the breeze, visual aids for the message of Jesus entering Jerusalem amid followers waving branches and calling out “Hosanna!” I felt a connection to history.

           Hosanna, an expression of adoration, praise, or joy, is for me a stubborn rebuke to fear. In this season of danger, the Lord’s people will not be overcome. We grieve for those who have succumbed to Covid-19 and pray for their families. We ask God to protect those on the frontline of this battle. For the moment, happiness is gone—but not joy, which doesn’t depend on agreeable circumstances.

            As Resurrection Sunday approaches, we find substitutes for our traditional celebrations. Some of us will watch “The Passion of the Christ” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or another Easter re-enactment film. I’m grateful those productions exist to bring the scriptures to life, but I cannot bear to see them. The best way to explain why I will never watch those movies is to tell you about my sister.

            Beautiful, blue-eyed, funny, compassionate Elizabeth died of sudden impact in a traffic accident at 19 years old. The truck driver didn’t intend to kill her, and I’m grateful I didn’t have to struggle with forgiveness. The highway patrolmen who worked the accident knew my mother well through the workplace, and at their insistence my husband identified Elizabeth’s body so Mother wouldn’t have to. I don’t think she would have survived it; for over three decades she grieved every anniversary of Beth’s death and died four years ago on the same day Elizabeth had died.

            I don’t know what Beth’s injuries were. I’ve been assured she didn’t suffer. I purposely avoided the opportunity to see the car she died in. Her loss was hard enough to bear. The only way I could have felt worse is if I’d been driving the truck.

            In the same way, I don’t need to see the movie to imagine the suffering of Jesus—I read the book. And when I think of him betrayed, whipped, mocked, and nailed to a cross, I know I helped put him there. I was “driving that truck.” I couldn’t feel any worse. I also couldn’t feel more loved because I know it was no accident. Jesus intentionally sacrificed himself, and my response is both grief and gratitude. It’s what causes me to try every day to bring my life more in line with his will.

            There is a day coming about which no one will need to make a movie. The final act of human existence will begin with the return of Jesus to earth. I don’t know exactly what it will look like, but it will feature a cast of angels and the glory of God, and He’s promised no one will miss the event. We will witness the fulfillment of our joy and His. It will beat any scene ever portrayed on screen.

            Again, I hope it doesn’t sound like I think there’s anything wrong with films that bring the Word to life with accuracy. On the contrary, I’m excited that believers are putting their talent and money to work for the kingdom. My hope is that, after watching the historical account of the Gospel on screen, those who have never read the Bible will be compelled to do so, and believers will never again read the Bible with complacency. The pivotal days of Holy Week and the victory of Easter Sunday are the most crucial chapter to date of the greatest—true—story ever told. They are why our joy will never die. Pray without ceasing and guard your joy, looking forward to that day!

Watch and Pray

Just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus went to pray at one of his favorite places, a grove on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, called Gethsemane, which means “oil press.”

     We all use olive oil, and some of us prefer cold pressed virgin olive oil, the first press from the olives that renders the smoothest taste. After that, the olives are heated and pressed again, to squeeze out every bit of oil, leaving little more than the skin of the fruit. Today, as we adjust to the danger and pressures of living with the threat of Covid-19, some of us may feel like olives in a press, our optimism and even our faith being squeezed as daily reports of newly infected citizens and resulting actions worsens.

     So how do we handle it? We look to our example. As he contemplated his agony on the cross, Jesus told his three closest friends, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” I love that scripture includes this very human reaction. It tells me that Jesus understands what we feel because he’s felt it! Jesus asked them to keep watch and pray with him, but they were weary and fell asleep. He warned Peter, whom Satan had singled out personally (Luke 22:31), to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

      As we think about our immediate futures, it’s difficult not to fall into the temptation to be fearful, critical, selfish, and angry. Jesus understood how frail even the strongest among us could be. He told Peter—arguably the most single-minded and tenacious among the apostles—“The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Fear would drive Peter to react with violence at Gethsemane and later deny he even knew Jesus. That wasn’t God’s will for him, and it isn’t God’s will for us to host fear in our hearts. In 2 Timothy 1:7, we are reminded that “God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

      As we are repeatedly pressed by the Covid-19 pandemic, let us face it as Jesus faced the cross, knowing that what looks like the worst possible fate will bring glory to God. How is that possible? One obvious way is that many who have never contemplated their mortality may be willing to hear the truth that causes us to smile at strangers as we maintain social distance; make or celebrate the amazing sacrifices being offered by so many instead of dwelling on the mounting numbers of sick; carry out our new responsibilities without complaining; and discipline ourselves to stay in the Word, which transforms our minds and protects our hearts.

     What an example Jesus gave us of how to face whatever threatens to overwhelm our souls. We do not have immunity to Covid-19 (named for the year it appeared), but as Christ followers we are vaccinated against hopelessness by what Jesus did on the cross in circa AD30-36. No earthly event has ever been or ever will be a match for the miracle of the cross.

     Watch and pray for the strength to do God’s will without fear. Guard your joy!

Not a Spectator Sport

Even in difficult economic times, NASCAR often has a higher weekly attendance than other major sporting events. But its beginnings had nothing to do with attracting fans.

In Neal Thompson’s book Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and the Birth of NASCAR, he describes the forerunners of the sport as “a bunch of motherless, dirt-poor Southern teens driving with the devil in jacked-up Fords full of corn whiskey.” Those first drivers had a clear purpose: to outrun the authorities. It wasn’t a spectator sport.

Neither is the Christian life. While our works do not save us—only God’s grace does that—James reminds us that faith without action is “dead” and “useless.” (James 2:17-20) When the apostle Paul was literally knocked down by the Truth, Jesus told him to get up and “go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.” (Acts 22:10) The apostle Peter cautions us against being “ineffective and unproductive.” (2 Peter 1:5-8)

 So, what are we to produce? According to Jesus himself, disciples: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19,20a)

Today in America, Christianity often looks more like a spectator activity. Once or twice a week, members go to be entertained by lovely music, receive personal inspiration, and visit with congregational families, as if that were the entire purpose of being a Christian. Not only are we not supposed to be spectators, Matthew sharply warns us not to turn our faith into performance for spectators. “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) What is the purpose of your faith?

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”  Ephesians 2:10

Would You Do This Job?

Would You Do This Job?

    Imagine you’re the wife of the leader of an organization. Your husband not only puts in his time at the office, he’s on call 24/7. Every other person in the organization is at liberty to call him at any time—not just about the organization, but to help them handle personal crises, arguments, medical emergencies, etc. It won’t matter that your children have a ballgame or a recital, or that it’s your wedding anniversary. He’ll be expected to respond, and you may need to go with him, even if you’re both exhausted.

     Of course, there will be fun events, too. You’ll be invited to weddings, baby showers, birthday celebrations, and other parties given by the people in the organization, even if your only contact with them is at official organizational meetings. It can be awkward to refuse and expensive to attend, so you’ll need to be both a diplomat and a financial genius.

     You’ll also be expected to supplement your husband’s job skills, and you’ll probably be asked to fill in for others in the organization when they’re sick, on vacation, or just tired of doing their jobs.  In fact, you might be asked to do jobs that the organization never managed to get anyone else to do. It’s no wonder very few unmarried men are hired for your husband’s position!

     Unfortunately, you will not be receiving a paycheck for this work. Yet, in spite of your volunteer status, you’ll be evaluated along with your husband. You’ll be judged, not just on your work for the organization, but on your manner of dress, your attitude, the way you spend money, cook, and keep house. Oh, and you’ll be expected to raise children who are more obedient than the children of the other parents in the organization.

     And, if you manage to do all that, you must remain humble in spite of your superhuman accomplishments.

    You’d have to be crazy to take a job like that. Or you’d have to be a pastor’s wife.


Charity Begins at Home

I know a wonderful young minister who is ashamed of his family. At least that’s how they perceive his advice to them to “get their act together.” Even as he leads a growing congregation with grace and kindness, his lack of compassion toward his parents and siblings threatens to permanently alienate them. Only God knows how much of his admonition is motivated by sincere concern for his loved ones or to what extent personal pride is the driving force. Either way, a close look at the pastor’s family reveals some cracks in the foundation. That doesn’t fit with the common supposition that those behind the pulpit come from a tradition of faith.

There is certainly pressure to “look the part.” Just as the angel of death favored faithful Jews in Egypt, most people expect financial, marital, and mental woes to pass over the homes of Christians today. And surely a pastor receives some special dispensation of spiritual power greater than what ordinary laypeople are granted. We want the preacher to be better than us. It’s hard enough to be told things we don’t want to hear when it comes from one granted moral authority through decades of obedience, one whose proven legacy of faith stands solidly behind him.

But those notions are based on the false premise that we can somehow deserve to rank anywhere among God’s people, or that, once justified by Christ’s sacrifice, we are miraculously freed from the consequences of our less-than-ideal upbringing, immature decisions, and traumatic life experiences—all influenced by an adversary who shames us into hiding the fallout for fear of being judged unworthy.

The enemy has more reason to destroy families of those in ministry than to bother with those who aren’t opposing him. The truth is we are all unworthy, each subject to the same failures as everyone else. Pretending it’s not so is foolish and dangerous, feeding faulty expectations that ultimately result in loud cries of “hypocrite” from anyone looking for a reason to debunk the Christian faith.

Scripture contains multiple examples of family failure across successive generations, even among those chosen to carry out God’s covenant promises. Abraham gave in to his wife’s insecurities to produce an heir through a surrogate, whom he cruelly exiled after his wife gave birth to Isaac. Isaac and his wife each favored a different child; the resulting rivalry nearly ended with one brother killing the other. Isaac’s son Jacob then favored one wife and her children over the other wife and her children. Through the same favoritism Jacob nearly cost his son Joseph his life. Dysfunction Junction!

If being reared in or parenting an ideal family is the standard for serving in ministry, then King David, a man “after God’s own heart,” didn’t qualify. David’s oldest son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and later tried to snatch the throne from his father. It didn’t make David less deserving of his station as Israel’s king and spiritual guide because it wasn’t dependent on David’s family having it all together.

Want a modern-day example? Billy Graham was arguably the most effective evangelist of all time, but he was absent from his family for months at a time and surrounded by staff, even at home. That led to a lack of intimacy and abandonment issues, especially for his daughter Ruth. Four marriages later, she learned to understand and forgive her father. God blessed Billy Graham with a worldwide ministry, and in her own ministry Ruth speaks personally and compassionately to people in need of the same grace on which she and her father relied.

Whether you’re on the inside looking out or the outside looking in, charity (love, grace, understanding) begins at home.

Must Enter to Win

            Coming off a win in the Nationwide Series race, Kyle Busch was headed for a weekend sweep at Phoenix International Raceway. His was the fastest car on the track. Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR’s champion for the four previous years, had another strong start on the 2010 season. His Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin each hoped to add to the team’s six consecutive wins at Phoenix. Any of these drivers seemed a good bet to make.

            When the checkered flag dropped, however, Ryan Newman – a driver who led only two laps that day and hadn’t won a cup race in two years – pulled in to Victory Lane. Nothing that transpired during the race to move Newman to the front would have mattered if he hadn’t cranked up the 39 car that day.

            A similar thing happened when the prophet Samuel was sent to find King Saul’s successor from among Jesse’s sons. He thought sure he was looking at the new king when he met the tall, good-looking eldest son, Eliab. But God told him not to consider appearances, saying, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks on.” (1 Samuel 16:7a) Jesse paraded seven fine sons before Samuel, but God approved none of them. Then Samuel asked Jesse if there were any others. “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered, “but he is tending the sheep.” That day, at Samuel’s insistence, the most unlikely candidate among Jesse’s sons was presented to the priest to be King Saul’s successor. Despite his low standing, David was anointed king of Israel.

            To accomplish anything you are called by God to do, you must first be available. If you don’t enter the race, you’ll miss your chance when your appointed time comes. So, ladies and gentlemen: Start. Your. Engiiiiines!

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant, or favor to the learned: but time and chance happen to them all.”  Ecclesiastes 9:11