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Cross Road

As followers of Jesus, we need to embrace Good Friday, which is a little bit like saying we need to embrace torture.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!"
Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
Matthew 16: 21 - 25

Good Friday is the day when we remember the crucifixion of Jesus, but there’s more to it than remembering: Jesus calls us to the cross, too. The famous sermon says, "it's Friday, but Sunday's coming!" More properly the point of the story is that Friday is the road to Sunday. There's no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. There is no resurrection without the Cross; there's a Good Friday for all of us.

The very idea of Good Friday causes us concern. The problem is that both his power and wisdom led him to the Cross, a brutal denial of everything he had done before. Those who had seen his power wondered why he seemed powerless at his greatest need. Those who saw his intelligence wondered how someone so smart could miscalculate so badly. Both sides missed what Jesus and his Father were saying: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies, it produces many.” (John 12:24) Not just his words: his very life is a parable.

It wasn’t just the people of Jesus’ day who had a problem with the Cross. Even today religious-minded people want miracles and power. In our day intellectually minded people want wisdom and truth. What God offers us all is first the Cross. The earliest believers called the Cross “the wisdom of God and power of God.” (I Corinthians 1: 23 - 24) This is a stumbling block for us to consider today: that both his power and wisdom led him to the Cross. People prefer not to dwell on such things. After all, who respects suffering?

You want to tell a story worth telling? Try this one: things are always darkest just before they go pitch black. And then, in the blackness of the truth--the truth that our own power or smarts are never enough we discover that we need to rely solely on the promise of the Father.

Once you’ve been to the Cross, everything changes: stumbling blocks and foolishness turn into power and wisdom. The Cross changes everything. If something’s pursuing you, then perhaps the event that will change everything for you is the Cross. If nothing is changing, maybe you haven’t been to the Cross.

Easter is indeed about the empty tomb. But first it’s about the Cross. Why are we in such a hurry to rush Jesus up to heaven? Is it because the Cross doesn’t fit into our picture of how things ought to be? It didn’t fit into anyone’s picture back then, either. But Friday is the road to Sunday. It was the road for Jesus. It's the road for us.

Step Into the Fire

It happened to me years ago—an experience so vivid not even the passing of decades can steal its power. I only saw it for a few seconds, but I was never the same. I sat in a prayer circle with some friends as we prayed for anything other than God’s presence among us, and there I saw an image of a burning bush. I can’t say it was the burning bush of Exodus 3, but it was a bush, and it was burning.

I looked into the translucent flames and saw what Moses might have seen: the bush was not consumed in the fire. Stalk, limbs and leaves, the bush looked more alive than if it was not burning. Yet I saw there was something consumed in the fire.

That “something” was everything that was not the bush.

I saw insects buzzing about the bush, incinerated. Somehow, in this picture, I saw the very mites who crawled on the underside of the leaves consumed even as the leaves themselves flourished in flame. I saw the creeping, parasitic vines (so strong as to choke the very life out of the bush) cremated in the fire of God.

And I heard the word “Holy.”

Even as a young man I knew some of the Biblical language of holiness and fire:

I knew that three Hebrew boys met God in a furnace at Babylon, where they were set free of their bonds and met the Son of God.

I had read the Psalm, “Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages.”

And I knew there was somewhere a kingdom that would never be shaken, underscored with the words, “Our God is a consuming fire.”

In that instant, on a summer day in the far away world of the 1970’s, my view of holiness was formed. In the decades since, I have carried the image of a holiness ignited and sustained by God, the kind of holiness that depends not at all upon me, except for the courage to embrace the fire.

I learned God reveals himself in a burning bush, and I still hear from the flame a constant invitation to come, barefoot, and step into the fire.

In one sense my walk with God has been the process of welcoming this God who is consuming fire because he burns not me, but everything that is not really me. I have recognized my on-going fear is that I will be consumed, because I so easily believe the lie tells me that the parasites and I are one.

It is no easier today than then, because the voice of self warns me to stay away from the burning. But I have learned—and am learning still—to gaze into the flame to see what is consumed and what is set free.

Discover Your Personal Canon (Retro post from May, 2011) 

There are sixty-six books in the Bible and that’s too many for me.

We are tempted to think it is only one book--when in fact we carry in one hand an entire library. iPhone apps distill the collected wisdom of centuries into a tap-and-touch guided tour. Sixty-six books, forty-plus authors, three continents and at least 1,500 years: how many gigabytes do you need for that?

The reason this collection is too big is not because of some flaw in how the Bible has been safeguarded and delivered to us today. The problem is me. I cannot take in the bedazzling array of God’s creativity in the written word. Let me flash my orthodox credentials for a moment: of course, the Spirit of God inspires all sixty-six books. I trust the inspired judgment of the church fathers in setting the canon with these very books and not some others.

I am aware of through-the-Bible-in-a-year reading plans, but I find myself hanging out again and again in the same neighborhoods of the scripture. How about you? Again and again I return to the epic life stories in Genesis, but wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out with those wild-west Judges just a few books over. The Psalms moves my heart but I feel scolded by the Proverbs. I could read the gospels every day but when I read Paul I find myself asking, “Who made you the boss of me?” And don’t get me started on Revelation--I read it late one night and didn’t sleep for a week.

There was a time when I would feel guilty about playing favorites in the Bible. But perhaps my heart is predisposed to receive certain input more easily that others.

Let me be clear: it’s all the word of God. We should do our best to receive it all. We should not gainsay the books that do not yield their fruit as easily. We should desire to drink from every fountain he provides; yet we should not feel guilty if our hearts come again and again to a familiar spring.

Quite the opposite: we should ask the Spirit to reveal what this tells us about ourselves. Here are some questions to help us hear his voice in the Bible:

  • What books of the Bible speak to me most clearly?
  • What does this say about me--how am I postured to receive his instruction?
  • Has the Bible changed for me over the years? Those words that spoke to me in my youth—are they the same ones that speak to me now?
  • Are there treasures undiscovered in the books I read again and again?
  • Are there treasures undiscovered in the books I rarely read?

These questions (and others like them) will lead us into discovery of his written word--and ourselves.

Google Maps Faith

In my college days I delivered pizza to the hungry people of Arlington Heights, Illinois. It was a high calling: affluent over-fed suburbanites needed greasy junk food in 30 minutes or less, and I was just the guy to get it to them. Near the back door of the pizza shop was a huge map of the town. Whenever the delivery order displayed an unfamiliar address I went straight to the map. It was authoritative. It was clear. And I can’t remember a single time when the map was wrong. Today I imagine Google Maps, with its robo-voice, directing pizza-drivers to their destination. But the job is still the same: get there.

Perhaps my pizza experience shaped my faith, because for many years I was all about the destinations. For a while I thought Christianity was mainly about going to heaven—a destination. Later, I thought it was all about putting Christians into political office—also a destination. As a typical North American I became very comfortable with a results-oriented view of the faith. What’s the goal? How do we get there? Let’s get moving.

It turns out I was only half right. The destination is important: you’ve got to pick the right one; but the journey will shape you in ways you never imagined. Here’s a flaw in results-only thinking: the destination is a decision, and decisions are comfortable things because after I’ve made up my mind, there’s no reason to think any more.

Just one example: when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan he was answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The sub-text of his story includes two religiously minded people who were focused more on the destination than the journey. What if God had instructed those two passers-by to go to Jericho because God knew what they would find along the way?

We use the phrase “following Jesus,” but many of us would like it better if he just texted us the address and we used Google Maps to find our own way. Too often, we use the Bible like a Google Maps: our heads down, looking at the screen, ignoring the living guide, Who says, “Look up! Do you see what’s happening on the side of the road?”

There’s nothing wrong with destinations or maps. Both are important. We must choose wisely and consult the right tools. But the map is not the territory, nor is the destination always the point of the journey. We like maps and destinations because they are comfortable and clear.

It’s easy to reduce our walk with Jesus to a destination, and it’s easier still to trust a map instead of a Living Guide. Yet, Jesus said he would not leave us alone. He promised a Comforter—or if you will, a “Spirit guide.” Day-by-day we are tempted to treat the Bible as a map even though the Lord said the Spirit will lead us into all truth (see John 16, especially verse 13). Look closely: we should hear the truth, because a Person speaks it. I trust the Bible, and receive it as a precious gift from God. But I trust the Holy Spirit even more, because he wrote the book; He is alive to the nuance of every step in every journey.

A map will get you where you need to go. A guide will show you things you’ve never seen before.

Set Our Hearts Free: Escape the Clock

It’s a prominent feature in nearly every church, if you’re facing the wrong way. When the worship leader looks beyond the congregation, or when the pastor lifts his gaze beyond his listeners, each of them sees a ghastly, inhuman face: the face of a clock.

North Americans are a scheduled, punctual people. Work starts on time, our trains run on time, and regularly scheduled television shows toll the evening hours. Sunday morning is no exception. Church starts—and ends—on time.  Greeting, 2 minutes. Music, 18 minutes. Announcements, 3, Special Music, 5 Offering, 3, Sermon, 27, and the Altar call (where eternal destinies hang in the balance) is 3 minutes. When a church has three Sunday morning services, 8:30, 10: 00, and 11:30, the clock is part of the planning. Maybe it's the master. Nor does it matter if our liturgy is one hour, or 75 minutes, or 90. When the speaker runs overtime, the congregation will signal their impatience with the mighty rustling of closed Bibles or the gathering of belongings.

I want to tell you why we should break the Sunday service clock, and why this idea will almost certainly fail.

THROW AWAY THE CLOCK:

The Puritans of old listened to three-hour sermons, broke for lunch, and then listened some more. Modern Chinese house churches gather for music, meals, and all-day teaching. Latin American Pentecostals sing for hours (usually with the sound system blaring into the street).

But we are efficient: the mystery of Christ explained in a thirty-minute sermon, or the majesty of the Eucharist delivered and received within a reliable timeframe. It’s true: the Holy Spirit can change lives in flash of a lightning bolt—but the work of God is as difficult to schedule as a lightning strike.

Dream with me:

  • What if we served Sunday breakfast at church? Let’s put grandma to work in the service of God’s kingdom.
  • What if we took the time to listen to one another, pray for one another, or even helped repair each other’s cars in the parking lot?
  • What if we—all of us—took the children outside to play and sing under God’s good sun?
  • What if we finished church up by noon—and stayed together to watch football? (We could provide easy chairs so Dad could fall asleep)
  • What if we were the family of God?

WHY IT WILL FAIL:

It will fail because the clock is inside all of us. It will fail because any attempt at external change in the Sunday schedule without addressing the internal change in our hearts misses the point. Changing the schedule without changing our hearts is doomed to failure.

Any outer change to the North American Sunday schedule is an attempt to put a Band-Aid on a clogged artery. Band-Aids are fine for surface issues, but they cannot heal the heart. We need open-heart surgery—but what will open our hearts?

To crack our chests we must ask questions like these:

  • What is the meaning of Sabbath?
  • Why do we gather once a week?
  • When does Jesus get what he wants out of church?
  • Is “family” a metaphor or a reality?
  • What would make church meetings so compelling people would never want to leave?

Nor can any of these questions be addressed on the blogosphere, Twitter, or even in the halls of our seminaries. These are questions first for our individual hearts, and then for the family of God to gather and share. Perhaps we could all (individually and corporately) start with, how and why have we let the world press us into its mold?