DEEPER HOPE

Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings

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Observing Ash Wednesday

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

These words from Mark 2:17 demonstrate for us again the genius of Jesus and serve as an introduction to Ash Wednesday, a somewhat mysterious date on the Christian calendar which marks the beginning of Lent. It evokes the past, encourages us to focus on the present, and points us toward an inspiring future.

In some parts of the country you could go about your business all day and never encounter a reminder that this is Ash Wednesday. Or you could look up from your work to find someone near you wearing ashes on her forehead in a mark that looks something like a cross.

Ash Wednesday is about preparation, and the beginning of preparation at that. All of the Lenten season is focused upon preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is about how we can begin those preparations. It is “to make a right beginning of repentance,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. We are reminded of “the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

Ash Wednesday is the day when the journey toward Easter begins. I would like to suggest that Ash Wednesday helps us begin our preparation for Easter in three ways: by teaching us to mourn the past, to examine the present, and to look forward toward an inspiring future.

Mourning the past
The ashes of Ash Wednesday come from the palm leaves that were burned after last year’s Palm Sunday. Throughout the Scripture, ashes speak of mourning and regret. To mark his sadness, Job covered himself in ashes.

Jesus reminds us that repentance (true regret) can include sackcloth and ashes. The ashes from last year’s palms remind us that although we may have received Christ enthusiastically at the beginning of our Christian walk, we have perhaps lost our first love.

What better call to return to our first love than to be marked with the ashes of our past enthusiasm? These ashes also remind us that the original celebration of Palm Sunday gave way to the crucifixion less than a week later. Psalm 51 is an excellent reading for Ash Wednesday. It is a Scriptural guide to repentance.

Examining our present
When Jesus challenged His listeners to consider the truth that those who are healthy do not need a doctor, He was asking each one of them to examine themselves. Only those who agree they are sick will submit to a doctor, and only when we acknowledge our sin can we receive His forgiveness.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to examine our need afresh and to affirm that we will always need a Savior.

Do we agree with Jesus that we are still in need, or having received Him as Lord and Savior at one point in time, have we forgotten that our need is daily? Colossians 2:6 reminds us “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him.” Or as one pastor said, “The way in is the way on.”

Looking to the future
As Ash Wednesday begins our voyage through Lent, we are also aware that our final destination is Easter Sunday. And Easter Sunday is more than a commemoration of the past. It is also about hope for the future. We have all seen what commemoration looks like when it has lost its spirit.

Some people celebrate Holy days (holidays) without ever encountering the meaning: Thanksgiving Day without the giving of thanks, Christmas day without a living Savior, and Easter Sunday without a risen Lord.

But the glorious message of Easter is that He is risen! We can prepare for Easter by reflecting on the promise of resurrection. I Corinthians 15: 20 reveals, “Christ has indeed risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

This wonderful verse assures us not only of Christ’s resurrection but also our ultimate destiny: that we too will be resurrected, and our loved ones in Christ. His resurrection is the promise of ours, complete with an eternal future of joy.

There are riches waiting in Ash Wednesday, especially for many of us who are unaccustomed to a formal church calendar. No matter how we mark the day, whether with ashes on our forehead or with reflection on the meaning of Easter, Jesus invites us journey on to Easter Sunday with Him.

 

(I wrote this post ten years ago for the Billy Graham organization. It originally appeared here.)

Grace: A Symphony in Three Movements

Set aside the question of Heaven or Hell when we reach the afterlife: what about Heaven or Hell while we live? It’s only by God’s grace that we reach Heaven, but the good news is better than we know: by God’s grace Heaven can reach us. The scripture teaches we are saved by grace. Grace begins the work of salvation in here-and-now and completes whatever is left undone in the there-and-then. Both flow from the indispensable grace of God. The world needs grace. We need grace. I need grace. Not for my last breath but for every breath.

The fabric of everyday life is alive with the grace of God. Grace forgives, but it also guides. Consider these amazing words from Titus 2:11-12: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age . . .” In these words we can hear the full symphony of God’s grace in three movements:

Grace for Salvation: This is the gospel we know. God’s grace reaches everyone, because no one can reach God by his or her own efforts. The melody of God’s grace sings in every language, for all peoples, at all times. God loves the world. He always has and always will. By his grace we are saved because in Jesus God paid every debt: past, present, and future. But grace goes beyond the song we first learned.

Grace to Deny Ungodliness: By grace we are not defenseless against sin’s call. The same grace that saves can also teach, instructing us how to say “no” to worldly desires. True, there will be times when we stumble and fall into sin, but we are more than sinners in need of grace, we are saints lifted out of sin’s power. If we wait until we’ve sinned to call upon the grace of God, we’ve squandered the greater part of grace. Grace restores, but it also leads us on.

Grace to Live Godly: Not only does God’s grace instruct us to deny ungodly ways: it teaches us the how-to of life: how to live sensible, upright, and godly lives in this present age. God’s grace is about more than repair; it is also about preparation. The scripture describes the Christian life as a journey from glory to glory. We are called to be conformed to the image of God's Son. We need grace not because our sin is so great but also because our destiny is so grand. We are called children of God—and that is what we are!

How will the watching world see a demonstration of the grace of God? This is how the Kingdom of God comes to earth: through the lives of grace-filled believers. The Kingdom glides in on wings of grace. The Kingdom brings righteousness, peace, and joy—and best of all the gracious Holy Spirit leads us to experience (and share) these three in everyday life. How will we receive the grace of the Kingdom today?

Time and again the apostle Paul urged his friends to lift their vision higher. There's grace for salvation; there's also grace for transformation. Grace helps us discover the source of all growth in Jesus, and the foundations of life with Christ. God’s grace is the wellspring of spiritual formation, but too often we have shortened “Grace” to mean only forgiveness. Grace can bring more than forgiveness; it can bring change. Disciples use grace as the fuel for transformation.

We need a greater grace. Grace reminds us again of the wealth of Heaven available to every student of Jesus.

5 Ways Jesus Handled Grief, And Still Managed to Minister To Others

John the Baptist was a great man. So great, Jesus said, that up until his day, no one born of a woman was greater than John. Yet in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 14) we read of his death: a death so random, unfortunate and petty we could be excused for looking up from the pages to ask, “Father, how could you let this happen?” I wonder if Jesus had the same question. 

In the verses that follow the news of John’s death we are given a window into how Jesus dealt with bad news. There are at least five meditations on how to process the senseless sadness we sometimes encounter:
1. Jesus had the experience of receiving unexpected bad news. (v13) We are not alone in our surprise and grief: our Lord himself lived through events unforeseen and had to deal with shock and sadness. When we are overcome with senseless suffering we will find Jesus there with us.
2. Jesus needed space and time to process: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (v13). This was his way. Time and again the gospels share one of the primary sources of the Lord’s strength–he took measures to be alone with the Father. The solitary place need not be the place grief, it can also be the place of comfort.
3. Sometimes events overtake our personal needs: “Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (vs 13-14). Most people knew nothing or cared little for Jesus’ sadness. They had their own sadness, and they looked to him for relief. Amazingly, Jesus didn’t hang “Do Not Disturb” on the doorknob. He was filled with compassion for them and took action. Setting aside his own need, he modeled for us again that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve others.
4. Jesus taught the disciples to follow his example: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (v16). At least two of Jesus’ disciples had been with John the Baptist previously. The Lord wanted them to focus on the needs of others as those needs presented themselves. Five thousand people were fed, even as Jesus and his disciples wrestled with their own pain. It’s a parable: when we are weak, he is strong. Miraculously strong on behalf of others.
5. Still, Jesus needed time alone: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone” (v23). Events had overtaken Jesus’ original plan. The narrative starts with him slipping away in a boat for some down time. He remembered his initial purpose and took the opportunity to see it through. Jesus demonstrates the balance between his own need and the needs of others.
Even while he displayed compassion he did not lose sight of his deep need to process with the Father. Eventually he got there. With some intentionality we can, too.
These five meditations are ours for the taking. The life Jesus lived was a life just like ours. He modeled the way of peace, both for himself and others.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

I did not grow up a church-boy. After becoming a Christian I wandered through backyard Bible studies, late night prayer meetings in odd places, and lived my Christian life among strange, semi-cultic fellowships of networked home churches. I was baptized by a college kid, who dunked me into a suburban swimming pool just after midnight. One of the people who got baptized that night shouted, “Hold me under a long time--I’ve got a lot to die for!”

I must have been 25 years old before I ever saw a proper church baptism. When I did, I was fascinated with the phrase repeated over and over again, “Arise to walk in newness of life.” The words rang with freshness and truth. They also sounded vaguely familiar, so I used my New American Standard Bible and tracked down the words to Romans, chapter 6: “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

It’s an amazing assertion: that the born-again experience produced an entirely new creation, a new order of being. My amazement, though, gave way to an observation: these words were too good to be true. Most of us gently changed the meaning to something easier to grasp. “I’ve been clean-up by God,” or, “My sins have been washed away,” or, ”My past has been forgiven.” All these things are true, but they are something very different from a new creation. Eventually I began to wonder, what good is it to have your past forgiven, if you are essentially the same person? When someone is only forgiven--merely forgiven--the recidivism rate for sin is sure to be 100%. We will do it again.

But imagine a new creature, something--someone--born from another realm, with different desires, different needs. Someone who feeds on different food, breathes different air, and drinks from an entirely different fountain. Imagine that the change is wrought inside-out, so that the outer appearance is unchanged, but the spiritual body chemistry is other-worldly. What if we could be redeemed versions of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

It’s worth meditation: what if newness of life actually meant a life of another kind? But that would be too weird, right?

I Like To Hide

Let me share with you the deepest and most beautiful problem I have ever faced. Approaching this challenge has filled me with vulnerability and risk. Working through this wonderful problem has yielded life and peace.

I like to hide. You won’t hear what I’m thinking right away. Some thoughts you will never hear. I craft the image I want you to see, and live in fear you will see through the hologram I offer. Hidden in my deepest space is the driving fear, if you really knew me, you wouldn’t like what you see. You may tell me you admire transparency, but I know the truth: you will be repulsed if I let you in all the way. And yet, this is not the problem.

The problem is: the one who knows me best loves me the most. God. God is the problem; all my defenses are useless before him. And it fills me with terror.

Enough about me. Other people have had this problem. David, the forgotten-shepherd-boy-turned-king, had the same fears:

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain. (Psalm 139:1-6)

It is no surprise to me that David wants to run: in verse seven he asks the same question I would ask:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?

By the end of the Psalm David presents the fruit of his struggle. He surrenders. God wins, and David opens the secret places to the One who has already been there all along:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

David invites the Creator into the violent places hidden deep within his heart. In these places God will discover David’s longings, lusts, and insecurities as well. Am I willing to make the same invitation?

And this is only half the problem. Because the Great Invader of my most secret places—the very God who is holy, holy, holy—loves me despite the tempest raging in my secret place. Not only has God not been fooled by the hologram I have perfected, he loves the confused mess that is the reality of my heart. And I hate this. His love, too, causes me to want to run.

In my pride I resent that there is someone so great, so kind, so condescending as to look beyond my faults. In my shame I writhe under the pain caused by the fact his love for me is greater than my self-love—not only greater, but deeper, more pure, and altogether clean. My insecurities tempt me to reduce the Heavenly Father’s eternal love to just another human love that will disappoint in the end.

You’re asking, “What could be so wrong with being loved?” Yet this is precisely where the challenge lives. Do I dare believe such love exists, and that I am the focus of such love? To make peace with this invasive love means the end of my pride, my self-love, my shame and my insecurities. It means (as I said at the beginning) risk and vulnerability because it means absolute surrender to the Other.

If you’ve never tried to work through the implications of being loved perfectly, you have a journey yet to take. Anyone can accept a gift—even eternal life—without receiving perfect love. The discovery of the Father’s boundless love is an invitation to strip away every other crutch we use to prop up our self worth. Submitting to perfect love means we lose ourselves in him. Are you ready for that kind of loss? Our pride, the shame to which we cling, and our insecurities all whisper, “Take Care! You can never return if you start down this road.”

And they are right.