Category Archives: Lent

The Seder and The Savior

A few years ago, when my children were three and two years old, I had the brilliant idea of teaching them the deeper significance of the Passover. I studied the Seder meal, went shopping, printed coloring sheets. The whole shebang. My incredulous husband wondered if this was really age-appropriate, but I pressed on.

We sat down and strapped our children into their baby chairs, lit candles and began our walk through the Jewish traditions. It was a total disaster. They spit out the herbs, gagged on the horseradish and chugged the sparking grape juice. I have not yet regained the courage to attempt another Seder in the Joseph household.

Funny story aside, today I imagined what it must have been like for Jesus to sit down with disciples for the Seder meal. I imagined the familiar scents and flavors which Jesus would have known from years of celebrating the Passover with His family, suddenly becoming ominous as He realized they all pointed to His punishment on the Cross as the second and eternal Exodus of both Jew and Gentile alike.

Thinking of the Savior eating the Seder meal that spelled out His certain death moved my soul to a deeper appreciation for his last Passover in that Upper Room.

lidye-petit-300570-unsplash.jpg

The Seder & The Savior

The Upper Room is ready,
The table carefully set,
The disciples eager to celebrate;
They don’t understand as yet.

The Seder plate stares up at me,
Invading all of my senses,
Sights and smells arrest me,
Alluding my human defenses.

The bitter herbs, they bite me.
Meant to point back to captivity,
Yet they press me to tomorrow
When I’ll be nailed to the tree.

The roasted meat, the Zeroa,
Features the bone of a lamb.
They think of sacrifices past,
Yet I know that I am the ram.

The Beitzah points to desire,
The cries of people to be saved.
The path to their deep desire
Through my death is paved.

Karpas, the parsley-reminder
Of slavery’s back-breaking load,
Smells of relief to them, but to me
Does the darkest day bode.

Charoset paste of apples and wine,
Reminds of the mortar and brick,
To release them from their burden,
I the way of the Cross must pick.

Looking up from the plate, my portion,
I see the familiar faces of my friends.
For them, these sin-sick brothers,
I will drink God’s wrath to the end.

Oh, Father, pass over your people,
Let the punishment fall on me.
Through my ultimate slavery,
Finally set your children free.

The Resurrection Means Rest

If I am honest, as we are approaching the high point of the liturgical year, I am feeling quite low. Even after a week away with my family surrounded by God’s beauty, my heart feels depleted and cumbersome. A year of church planting, long, slow writing projects with little feedback, and keeping up with three teenaged boys has me running on fumes, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Even as we are buying the eggs for the church egg hunt and preparing the liturgy for Good Friday, I feel like a fraud. My heart isn’t skipping, even though I know the resurrection is coming. My soul isn’t soaring even though I know (at least cerebrally) how loved I am by the One who shed his blood for me. Even though we are planning a service to help our people look at and behold their king, I am struggling to look up.

But, as I journaled and wrestled with tears in my eyes this morning, the Lord reminded me that this is why he went to the cross. He went to the Cross so I would know that He looks at me with gentle love even when I struggle to look up to Him. He emptied himself on the Cross so I can rest from the need to perform or fill myself when my soul is spent and empty.

When I can’t make my spirit rise, His Resurrection is still a reality. I don’t have to dig deeper to get it right because nails were dug into his very human hands for me. I don’t have to pluck up and keep carrying my load alone because my yoke-fellow already carried the full weight to Calvary.

None of the callousness of my heart shocks him. In fact, such realities shoved him toward the Cross. The endless chasm of needs, which are still news to me, is not new to him. He suffered so he could greet me with gentleness and understanding right in the middle of my needs.

Today, I am learning that it is okay if celebrating the Resurrection might not look like leaping and rejoicing this year. He is gently showing me that celebrating the Resurrection can also look limping and resting. Christ’s Resurrection assures me that one day, we will leap rather than limp.

For those who have been limping through Lent, may you find rest in the reality of Christ’s resurrection. May you feel the freedom to let Christ nestle you down for a nap in the place where his body once lay.

In returning and rest you will be saved; in quietness and trust is your strength (Isaiah 30:15)

Resting in Resurrection

It’s okay if I collapse;
My Savior – He arose. 
It’s okay if no one sees;
My Savior fully knows. 

I don’t need to prove myself;
His Cross pleads proven love. 
When all within condemns me,
He gently bids me look above. 

When I’m spent with naught to offer,
His spent blood offers peace. 
When I’m trapped by circumstance,
His Resurrection is my release. 

He nestles me down for a nap
Where His body once was laid. 
My Risen Savior pleads for me,
All my debts are fully paid. 

So, then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:9-10).

Resurrection (The Happiest Handkerchief)

As we approach Easter amidst war in Ukraine, it does not take much imagination for us to join the 11 disciples and the throngs of faithful women in their heaviness, powerlessness, confusion, and fear at the death of Christ.

As we read John’s account of the Resurrection this morning, the grave clothes stood out to me. The joy of Jesus unfurling the linens that had been wrapped about his mangled body by the hands of weeping loved ones captured my imagination. He knew they would never weep the same kind of hopeless tears again. While they would weep and grieve, as he had promised they would, they would do so under the light of the living hope that rose with him.

Because His body which was literally crushed on the cross for our sin took conquering steps out of the tomb, death cannot crush us, not even in a pandemic. We dry our tears in  the linens he left in the tomb!

Now we can say in our grief and confusion with the Apostle Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

We are not destroyed by death because Jesus destroyed death in His rising, infusing grief with a surpassing glory.

This morning I discovered a short poem by George Herbert which I have somehow missed in my reading before. What a timely gift from God to me! A special little Easter surprise that lifted my soul, as I hope it does yours.

jeremy-wong-1iP2NFMaMHU-unsplash

From The Dawning, by George Herbert

Awake sad heart, whom sorrow ever drowns;
    Take up thine eyes, which feed on earth; 
Unfold thy forehead gather’d into frowns;
    Thy Savior comes, and with him mirth:
                  Awake, awake;….

                 Arise, arise; 
And with his burial linen dry thine eyes:
     Christ left his graveclothes, that we might, when grief
     Draws tears, or blood, not want an handkerchief.

That we can now dry our tears with God’s loosed grave clothes is such good news. It is the news that every human heart hungers to hear always, but especially in a season when death is dealing heavy blows globally.

In the Resurrection of Christ we have been given gospel hope and the happiest handkerchief. He is risen, indeed! Dry your eyes with his linens this morning! Death has not won; life in God has the last word!

Though we still live in the already / not yet of the kingdom of God, though we still live in the valley of tears, Christ’s resurrection provides the hope and the handkerchief we need to live until the days when tears will be no more.

Charcoal Fires and Forgiveness

The Apostle John was a master storyteller. As with any excellent fiction writer, he painted such detailed pictures of the disciples’ interactions with Jesus that we can almost step into the scenes of his gospels. John’s gospel, likely the last gospel written and the first gospel to attempt contextualization to another culture, approaches Jesus’s life differently than the synoptic gospels.

While John moves swiftly through the first half of the his gospel, often called the book of signs, he slows down in the last half of his gospel account. Suddenly, we move from high-flying overviews with an occasional drop down into detail into a more detailed account of the last week of Jesus’s life.

After the long discourse recorded in John 14-16 and the long prayer recorded in John 17, John leads us back into action in John 18.

Jesus, crossing the brook Kidron, moves into action, having set his face toward the coming Cross. He is in full command throughout the entire chapter, showing the other-worldly nature of his kingdom, which he declares to Pilate in verse 36: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

One seemingly small detail jumps out to the observant reader: a charcoal fire.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

As Jesus is brought before the High Priest, having boldly, calmly giving himself up to those who sought him in the dark with torches and weapons (v.4-5), the Apostle John gives us a vivid picture of Peter warming himself around a charcoal fire (v. 18, 25).

John juxtaposes Jesus’s care and concern for everyone else in the moment of his greatest need with Peter’s selfishly warming himself at the fire. John has set the stage for Peter’s three-fold denial around a charcoal fire. The reader can almost imagine the light and dark shadows, the watery eyes from the smoke, the smell lingering on the clothes long after the fire is out.

Later, after Peter’s persistent failure given three chances to identify himself with Jesus, we find another poignant scene taking place around a charcoal fire.

Jesus, having risen from the dead and appeared first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples who were hiding in a locked upper room, surprises his disciples who were fishing just as the day was breaking (John 21:1-4).

Jesus first recreates the scene of his original calling of the first disciples, helping them recognize him as the Risen Lord (Luke 5; John 21). In line with his impetuous nature, Peter jumps into the water to swim toward Jesus, forgetting for a moment the wall of awkwardness that still stood between them.

He walks up the beach to a charcoal fire where Jesus is cooking a meal for Peter and the disciples. Peter gave away his chances to align himself with the Lord, but the Lord continues to give himself to Peter in sacrificial, costly love.

Jesus, in line with his nature, does not shy away from the hard subject. Rather, he gently leads Peter there in healing conversation, forcing him to relive his failures by asking him three questions around a charcoal fire. Eyes filled with tears, the smell of charcoal smoke, the interplay of light and darkness. Same scene. Different ending.

Peter is graciously reinstated around the same kind of fire where he radically failed. What a merciful and masterful Jesus we serve.

Charcoal Fires 

Charcoal fires would never be the same,
Their smell would invoke his shame:

Threefold denial of Jesus’s perfect name. 

Days later, at another fire he was fed
Fish with Christ fresh from the dead.
By coals’ warmth to forgiveness he was led. 

Around charcoal fires, Peter spoke of grace,
Sharing good news with God’s chosen race,
Showing them in Jesus God’s own face. 

Now in glory, warmed by Christ alone,
Peter both fully loved and fully known
Sees the Lamb of God upon the throne. 

What are the charcoal fires of your life? What scenes of failure might Jesus be inviting you to revisit with his grace?

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you might be feared…O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (Psalm 130:3, 7-8).

Ashen yet Adored

Having grown up in the Catholic Church, I grew accustomed to getting ashes smudged on my forehead to signify the beginning of Lent (which is to the Passion Week what Advent is to Christmas). In those early years, Lent meant a chance to get out of classes more so we can attend more masses. It also meant that as we walked in our matching plaid skirts to mass, we all talked about what we were going to “give up” for Lent. There were always the humorous “I’m going to give up homework” and “I’m giving up chores;” however, the more sincere vowed to give up sugar, soda, or television shows.

Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor perfectly captures how I feel about my Lenten experiences in a letter of reflection to a friend.

“What one has a born catholic is something given and accepted before it is experienced. I am only slowly coming to experience things that I have all along accepted.”

For me, Lent was given and accepted long before it was understood or truly experienced. While I am no longer attending the Catholic Church, I am thankful for the liturgical foundation it laid in my life.

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

Ashen

Historically, Lent is celebrated during the 40 days before Easter, mirroring Jesus’s 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4). Celebration is a strong word, as the purpose of the feast is to prepare our hearts for the coming Passion Week of Christ. Lent is about remembering God’s holiness and our sinfulness; it is about seeing our weakness and needing God’s strength. It is about making space to see to our need for God – the very need for which Christ set his face to Jerusalem.

Lent is typically kicked off by Ash Wednesday. As I have been reflecting on why Ash Wednesday, the Lord has had me thinking about the purpose of ashes in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, sack clothes, shaved heads, and/ or donning ashes were to be outward signs of an inward repentance or grief (Genesis 37:34; Job 16:15; Lamentations 2:10; Nehemiah 9:1).

While our church won’t be smudging actual ashes on foreheads tomorrow evening, we will be sharing about our need to see our sin and to repent.

Throughout the Scriptures, those who see or encounter God automatically both see and despise their sin.

In Isaiah 6, we see the prophet encounter the living God and reflexively say, “Woe ie me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5).

In a similar moment in the New Testament, when Peter begins to realize who Christ may be, he responds in a similarly reflexive way.

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

After God gave Job the “Come to Jesus” conversation of a lifetime filled with powerful rhetorical questions, Job responds much like Isaiah and Peter.

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you; therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:2, 5-6).

In some ways Lent is an attempt to reverse engineer this reflexive response to seeing Jesus. We create time and space to see and identify our sin, donning proverbial ashes and sack cloth. We do so, not to be ascetic, but to help us see our need for the Savior whose death and resurrection we are preparing to celebrate.

Adored

What Isaiah, Job, and Peter did not know in the instances above is that we are ashen, yet we are adored.

Because Christ climbed the hill of Calvary, we are lifted up from our hill of ashes. Because Christ was stripped of his clothes, we are clothed in his robes of perfect righteousness.

In Lent, we make space for the ashes and the sack cloth so we can more fully recognize and rejoice in the salvation that Jesus secured for us through his life, death, and resurrection.

Isaiah prophesied of this reality when he proclaimed, “For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:3).

Friends, whether or not you don ashes on your forehead, may you be freshly reminded that you are ashen, yet adored.

Harboring Pilate: A Lenten Devotional

It’s easy to want to wash our hands of the one who washed his hands of Jesus. It is much harder to admit that a potential Pilate lives within each of us.

Pilate’s People-Pleasing

As fifth governor of the province of the Roman province of Judaea, Pontius Pilate lived in the tensions of appeasing very disparate crowds. He was given rule over what Rome considered to be the unruly Jewish people. Some were scrupulous, refusing to bow the knee to the Emperor. Some were zealous in the vein of Judas Maccabees who had led a revolt under the Seleucid Empire. Some assimilated into the Roman culture, wanting comfort and peace. What a mixed bag Pilate had been apportioned. His job was to appease the Jewish people enough to keep the Pax Romana while not also pleasing the powers that had propped up his precarious power.

It’s no wonder he was a people-pleaser who vacillated with the whims of the crowd and pandered to the people. In the gospel accounts, we find glimpses of goodness and see flickers of faith in him. He sensed the innocence of Jesus and tried to push the uncomfortable decision regarding his fate back into the Jewish court systems (John 18: 28-32). He had a private conversation with the accused in his headquarters, away from the rumbling of the crowds. A master of posturing, he shuffled around answering the questions that prodded his conscience (John 18:33-38).

However, when push came to shove, he went against his conscience and sided with the sentiments of the people to protect his power, position, and platform. Declaring with words the guiltlessness of Jesus three times and seeking to find a way to release him, his actions betrayed him nonetheless (John 18:39-40; John 19:4-6; John 19:12).

Our People-Pleasing

Before we wash our hands of the one who washed his hands of the innocent blood of Jesus, we should take the time to inspect our own idol-ridden hearts (Matthew 27:24-26).

Have we not waffled between two different crowds, shading the sentiments of our consciences like chameleons? Have we not relied on crowd-sourcing and peer approval rather than the source of all life and the approval of the One who approved us at so great a cost? Have we not pandered to people, fearing their censure more than the censure of the One who created all people? Have we not made other men and current standards our measuring rods rather than the standards of the Scripture?

Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when t hey measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).

It is far too easy to trade the invisible audience of One for the audible, tangible audiences before we which we find ourselves judged daily. When we shuffle around the loud, dominant opinions and ideological landmines all around us, we follow Pilate’s delicate dance of people-pleasing. When we care more that we appear judicial than that we obey the commands of the Lord, we show our inner Pilates.

The Perfect God-Pleaser

There is but One who never collapsed under the pressure of the opinions of man (John 2:23-25). There is but One who withstood the pressure of the Enemy to trade eternal approval for earthly approval (Mark 4: 1-11). The One who deserved the loud approval of the Father was deafened by the excruciating silence of God as He endured the cross. The One of whom Pilate washed his hands offers His precious blood to wash us of our people-pleasing.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18).

May Pilate’s failure invite us into the pleasure of the Father secured for us by Christ.

Harboring the Mob: A Lenten Devotional

“Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats our own table…”

-W. H. Auden from “Herman Melville”

This Lent, I am fighting my innate tendency to identify myself with the “good guys” of Holy Week while vilifying the obvious “bad guys.” It is all-too-easy to read the gospels through a moralistic lens; however, if I understand the gospel correctly, every believer has a bit of the “bad guys” in them in some seed-like form. I want and need to do the hard work of searching my own heart for latent kernels of hidden and habitual sin. To have a truly biblical view of self is to admit that, given the right soils and circumstances, such kernels could grow into full-grown sin if not seen and laid before the light.

The gospel tells me that my heart harbors both hatred and hope. My hope, therefore, is not what is true about me, but what is true about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. As such, I am free to admit the ugly and to run to the Beautiful One.

Crowds. Some people love them. Other people hate them. But all of us are affected by them. We are influenced and shaped by the opinions of those around us. Whether adapting or pushing back upon the opinions of the crowds around us, we react to the opinions of others.

I did not realize how contagious crowd-think could be until the pandemic hit. While I am typically a fairly steady person, I felt like a chameleon when the coronavirus hit. My opinions shifted daily, sometimes hourly, depending on what articles I had recently read and who I was around. I found myself wanting to fit in and be accepted into whatever circles of strong opinions surrounded me at the moment.

Crowds play a significant part in the events of Holy Week. The week begins with Palm Sunday, where we remember the crowds who enthusiastically cheered Jesus’s approach to Jerusalem. These crowds gladly laid their cloaks down in homage to Jesus, the Messiah, the Sent One, who came into town riding on a donkey (the well-known symbol of a peaceful king). They chanted and cheered “Hosanna!” (which means God save us!) and rode high on the hopes that Jesus would fulfill their expectations (Matt. 21:6–11).

Thankfully, Christ was familiar with crowds. From very early on his public ministry, crowds gathered as news of his healing and miracles spread. Rather than inflate with the approval of gathering crowds, Jesus showed a healthy disinterest in them. His identity and confidence did not fluctuate with the fickle waxing and waning of crowd approval.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man (John 2:23–25).

He knew what was in the heart of man. He knew man’s fair-weather friendship and faithfulness. He did not live for the approval or in fear of the censure of crowds, for he lived under gaze of his Good Father.

Such knowledge and practice served him well, as the same crowds that cheered him, in the span of a few short days, would jeer him. They would soon gather before the Roman governor demanding the release of Barabbas, a dangerous criminal, rather than the Messiah they’d championed days earlier. Stirred up by their leaders and caught up in fear, disappointment, and the mob mentality, they would chant, “Let him be crucified!” (Matt. 27:15–23).

It is easy to shake our heads and point our fingers in judgement at such a fickle crowd. It is much harder to see ourselves in that same mocking mob. Yet, when I dig into the subsoil of my heart, I find a similar desire to fit in with the crowd and uncover fickle faithfulness with an uncanny resemblance to theirs.

In a time where public pressure and the mob mentality rule the roost, whose voices are we listening to and whose approval are we seeking? Do we hear our own voices shifting from praises to punishment when God does not do what we expected on the timeline we anticipated? Are we willing to lay our cloaks before him one minute but watch his cloak be stripped from him the next?

We can fight against crowd-think with a better version of it. For, as we seek to listen to God through His Word and to speak forth the truth even when it is wildly unpopular (or even, for some, illegal), we are cheered on by the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and finished their race.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb.12:1–2).

Harboring Hatred and Hope: A Lenten Journey

We are officially in the Lenten season, a forty-day period in the liturgical calendar that is intended for reflection and preparation for the celebration of Easter. Some people seek to give things up for Lent as a way to wean themselves from sins of commission (the wrong things we do or the lesser things we make ultimate). In past years, I have given up lesser comforts (like sugar or Starbucks runs) to make space for Christ who is our eternal comfort. Some people take things up like various forms of service or sacrifice to lean into the sins of omission (the good things we leave undone). Having done both, and finding Lent here before I really had time to prepare for the season of preparation, the Lord laid something different on my heart this year.

Lent will lead our hearts to the familiar events of Holy Week. Palm Sunday: when God’s people welcomed their peaceful king who rode on the back of a colt with shouts of “Hosanna.” The Last Supper: when Jesus ate one last deeply significant and deeply symbolic meal with his disciples before his impending death. The Passion: when the Light of the World allowed himself to be extinguished as the sun hid its lesser light in grief. The burial in a borrowed tomb: when the One who owned all things was buried in a borrowed tomb; when the Rock of Ages had a large rock covering his death place. The Resurrection: when death was silenced by a life that could not be held.

As we read the familiar events and stories, it is easy to read the stories with a moralistic lens, dividing the characters into good guys and bad guys, our team and their team. We quickly, almost innately vilify Pilate, the High Priests, Peter, the crowds, and Judas. Their erring judgement and ugliness of heart seem so obvious to us as we look back.

This year, rather than vilifying those who played such sinister parts in the events of the Passion week, I am asking them to guide me more deeply into my own sin. Surely their actions and attitudes were wrong, but I want to ask the hard questions about the seeds of similar sin habits in my own heart. While their sins and failures are obvious when full grown, their deeds were nurtured by the soils of their souls.

When I look more deeply at them, they compel me to ask uncomfortable questions. What nascent tendencies are lying hidden and latent in my own heart? Am I harboring seed-sized versions of their obvious sins in my own heart? If so, what am I doing about them? Am I in denial of the potential of sin’s destructiveness in my own heart and life? Am I hiding them from the light, thinking I can manage and control them? Am I willing to take the militant actions of repentance and mortification that continually uproot their insidious spread in my heart?

In the coming weeks, I want to explore what I am harboring in my own heart. I want to invite you to join me. To be a believer is to harbor both hatred and hope in one’s heart, to be simultaneously sinner and saint. We will only treasure our Savior to the degree that we understand the sin-sickness from which He saved us and continues to sanctify us.

We each harbor a fickle, fair-weather mob within us. We each harbor a people-pleasing Pilate within us. We each harbor a headstrong, self-assured Peter within us. We each harbor a power-protecting, image-controlling high priest within us. We each harbor a disappointed and despairing Judas within us.

Only to the degree that admit the hatred we harbor in our hearts will we begin to value the hope that we have in Christ. Thanks to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, those who trust in Him also harbor hope, righteousness, and holiness.

I pray this journey into the hated and hope we harbor will lead to a deeper worship of our Christ!