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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Good Friday Reflections

Easter is glorious! But before we rush to Sunday let's stop and reflect on Friday. As followers of Jesus, we need to embrace Good Friday, which is like saying we need to embrace torture. Let’s look at what Jesus said in Matthew 16:21-25:

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.

1. Friday is the road to Sunday.

Good Friday is the day we remember the crucifixion of Jesus, but there’s more to it than remembering; it is our calling.

We want to embrace the resurrection, but 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.

2. Everyone has a problem with the cross.

The very idea of Good Friday causes us concern. The problem is that both his power and wisdom led Jesus to the Cross, a brutal denial of everything we had seen him do 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.

The people we speak to week after week have a problem with the Cross. Religious-minded people want miracles and power. 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? When is the last time you spoke to your people about 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.

3. Friday means the beginning of change.

Good Friday provides the opportunity to proclaim, “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. Friday is the road to Sunday.

It was the road for Jesus; it is the road for us.

4. Jesus demonstrated faith over circumstances.

Can we be honest? Although we might say, “God promises never to forsake you,” it doesn’t always feel that way, right?

Here are two of the phrases Jesus uttered on the Cross: “Why have you forsaken me?” and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

How can those two go together? Even at his death, Jesus showed us how to trust the Father beyond the circumstances.

Jesus predicted his death and resurrection. It’s one thing to predict the future. It’s quite another to go to the Cross willingly.

At least three times, Jesus shared his destiny with the disciples. They didn’t understand. More challenging still is the fact that Jesus embraced this destiny by faith. He knew the Father’s promise of resurrection, but death still lay ahead of him.

And death was still death, even for Jesus. It was his trust in the Father’s promise that caused him to wager everything he had, his very life. On Good Friday Jesus modeled how to trust the Father.

The Thirty-Fold Life

Plain, but subtle: Jesus told an unadorned story filled with great wisdom, a story so important he asked, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” Every Sunday school child knows this story by heart. Van Gogh painted it three different ways. Churches have invested untold fortunes to preserve the tale in stained glass. Jesus even took time to explain the story, so we think we get it. But hearing one answer is not the same as living all the answers.

When Jesus taught in parables, he led with the Parable of the Sower. Whether you read in Mathew (13), Mark (4), or Luke (8), Jesus put this story first. His disciples asked for an explanation, but I think the Lord gave us only the broadest brush strokes of his meaning. I think he invited us to meditate on his simple sketch and discover layer upon layer, meaning upon meaning. Perhaps he wanted us to fill in the details.  What if his story is the rough draft and our lives are the finished work? Woe to us if we think of this parable (or any parable) as a story with only one meaning. One sower, four soils, and countless seeds yield ten thousand permutations.

Consider the possibilities. Who is the sower? Why did Jesus use the metaphor of a seed? And why is the sower so careless with the seed? (Or is he?) How should the soil be prepared? Who should do it? How can it be done? The best teacher is not the one who answers a few questions, but one who suggests questions capable of changing your life. Each question gives way to an hour of meditation. Each meditation is a chance for the Spirit to speak.

For example, I began to ask questions of this parable. Why does Jesus describe the harvest from good soil as 30, 60, or 100-fold? What does God expect of me? How can I know whether I’m growing into my full potential as a disciple of Jesus? In short, what is the meaning of a fruitful life?

I began to see that my faith took root in the soil of the North American church, which (like all churches) is a mix of influences both godly and worldly. We are a people who prize action and effort. We judge results quarterly, monthly, and sometimes daily. Our cell phones can give us “market updates” refreshed by the minute. We are not farmers; we are capitalists. Results matter, and they matter now. You either produce results or the boss will get someone who will. Whether you earn minimum wage or Wall Street rewards, you’re only as good as the profit you’ve produced at the end of the day. But God is no capitalist; he is the wise steward of creation. He is the Sower of an imperishable seed.

I was challenged to understand what the sower expected, and when he wanted it; I was challenged to ask what fruit I had grown; and I was challenged to consider when the harvest comes. From my meditation I found great peace in this one idea: my life could (by his grace) produce 30-fold fruitfulness. What if—across the years of my lifetime—I could impact 30 other people with the word of the Kingdom? As I asked these questions pressures of North American life began to fade away. The marketplace pace of modern “ministry” gave way to the unforced rhythms of grace.

I began to see that in a lifetime of 80 years I could “afford” to invest deeply and patiently in the lives of others, without demanding an immediate return. I began to see the wisdom of God in the beauty of the seed and its slow decay. I began to welcome the good news that I did not need to abide alone but that by dying to self there was much fruit ahead. And most warmly, I began to welcome the harvest of my life: my spouse, my children and grandchildren, my neighbors and community. I found contentment that his parable could well be a promise, the promise of a 30-fold life, at the very least.

What The Years Bring

My friend read Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he was an 18 year-old high school senior. Over the decades he has returned to the story every ten years: at 28, 38, 48, and yes, now at 58. He reports to me that the play is radically different with each reading. The words have not changed, the reader has.

If this fresh experience is true for one who reads, I began to wonder about the one who writes. What we write in our youth may bear no relation to what we think and write in our old age. Which brings me to David, who wrote so many of the Psalms. David, the shepherd boy who became the prophesied hope of Israel, who was then chased by a madman king, then himself became the great king of God’s people. As David aged he became the husband of several wives, the father of many children, and finally an old king—a man with scores to settle. David was, in effect, more than one man: his years and experiences shaped him even as God’s favor and anointing pushed him forward.

When I read David’s psalms I’m left to decide which David wrote what Psalm. Sometimes the introduction of a Psalm tells us plainly, as in Psalm 18 (he was running for his life). But most often we are simply given the words, “A Psalm of David.” We are left to imagine when each Psalm was written and under what circumstances.

Here is an exercise in spiritual imagination: take David’s most famous Psalm—number 23—and imagine it from the mouth of young David, the shepherd boy.

Then read it again, this time hearing the words of a young man on the run for his life against the murderous rage of the insane King Saul.

Or yet again as the newly crowned king of all Israel.

Or (finally) yet again as the dying king who has witnessed the death of his own children and the infighting among those who want to succeed him to the throne. 

Or, in a darker vein, take any of the Psalms where David cries out for God’s justice and rescue, or even for God to take vengeance on David’s enemies: the kind of Psalms C.S. Lewis says could only be written by “ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric men.” (As just one example take a quick look at Psalm 28). As I read these Psalms I imagine a very young David, someone unaware of the events he will face in the decades to come. In the passing years David will discover he himself is capable of lust, adultery, intrigue, murder, and pride. It's a cautionary tale of self-righteousness. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is a comforting notion that even someone “after God’s own heart” can feel and think such thoughts. Or more simply still, that David was human, no different from you or me. We do not know what the years will bring, or what the events of life will surface in our own feelings and actions.

This exercise can lead us to greater insight, and what’s more, it can lead us to greater humility. The kind of grace which could seal our lips when we are tempted to criticize others because we are so convinced of the rightness of our cause, never realizing that even when we are on the “right side” of an issue, God looks at our hearts and actions far more than our opinions.

Will we be like young David, who rails and demands divine action (or worse, human action) or will we become the kind of person who enters each day with humility, recognizing the fact that our future holds experiences—and attitudes—for which we are not yet prepared?

Incognito: When Jesus Hung Out With Us For A Few Months

One day a couple of years ago I hung with Jesus in a dingy hospital room in Columbia, Kentucky. His diabetes was acting up again, which was no surprise because dumpster-divers don’t have the best diet even on a good day. He had already lost a few toes here or there in previous years but this time he was facing the possible loss of his foot. (Don’t worry: I prayed for him, his condition improved, and he ambled away from the hospital on both feet a few days later.)

I’d actually been hanging out with Jesus for a couple of months, but I’m a little slow to recognize old friends.

It started when a guy named Bill came to church. You couldn’t miss him: Bill was a rumple of a man well over six-foot tall, with shaggy, wrinkled clothes. He topped his look off by a snow-white beard and white hair, neither of which had seen a comb in weeks. Everything about him screamed homeless. On his very first visit to church he headed straight toward our coffee bar. Bill’s big frame ambled slowly through our café as the result of his missing toes. The only thing more worrisome than whether he would make it to the coffee bar without falling was the possibly that he would make it to the coffee bar and then try to walk away holding the hot coffee in unsteady hands.

Bill and his coffee made it safely to a table, so I introduced myself. I did so more out of a concern for other’s safety than to make him feel welcome. (When you see people like Bill your first thoughts are about the possibilities of what could go wrong.) I wanted to check him out first-hand. Everything about Bill was confusing.

Where are you from? I used to drive a truck in the Northeast.

How’d you hear about our church? I drove by the other day.

Tell me about your family: I think they’re in Indiana, at least, they were the last time I talked to them.

When the service started Bill worshipped the same way most of us did, except he was taller, shabbier, and scarier than the rest of us. He raised his hands and tilted his head upward. He was content to be in the presence of God and God’s people—even if they were a bit nervous about being in Bill’s presence.

He became a regular each Sunday, and it turned out Bill had an entourage. He took care of Roberta, 60-plus years old, short, loud, and extremely off-putting. She was pretty ugly. One week Bill pulled me aside and apologized for her behavior and explained that her family had thrown her out on the street. He said he was her only protection. They lived together in an abandoned mobile home out in the county. There didn’t seem to be anything awkward about the arrangement because Roberta definitely needed protection, mostly from herself. A few weeks later Bill brought Doug and Maria, a thirty-something couple. They were both embarrassingly overweight. Doug seemed pretty normal but Maria was almost certainly mentally handicapped. Bill told me they were down on their luck and needed a place to stay until they got up on their feet. Bill’s squatter mobile home didn’t have heat or electricity but it was safe and dry, so he opened his home to them.

Bill came to church early and loved to greet people. If they asked what he did for a living he smiled and said simply, “I’m a dumpster-diver.” Which was true: that’s how Bill cared for Roberta and provided shelter for Doug and Maria (although he once complained to me privately that Doug ate too much—especially the fresh produce he regularly scored at the dumpster behind Kroger). The brave people who asked how Bill came into that line of work heard his story about a stroke he suffered while behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler in downtown New York City. It seems Bill lost consciousness and drove the truck into the entrance of a Manhattan office building. That’s when he switched careers.

One day Roberta came to church alone. She told me Bill was in the hospital. Small-town Kentucky hospitals can be pretty depressing places, but when I walked into his room Bill looked up and gave me a smile from his bed. The smile was his big mistake; that’s when I saw through his disguise and figured out I was actually hanging out with Jesus. I tried to play it cool and not let on. Bill asked about my family. He asked how the church was getting along. He put me completely at ease. There in his hospital room he was a gracious host, I was the guest.

I had come to pray for his foot. His circulation had failed. The foot was turning colors and he was likely to lose it above the ankle. He needed healing, but it was difficult praying over his ankle because after all, I was ministering to the Lord of Glory. When we finished praying I asked him if he felt any better. He said, “I’m not worried. It’ll all work out.” And it did. The circulation returned. He was discharged and came back to church just a few more times before he moved on to Indiana. He said he wanted to see his family.

A few months later I received a hand-written letter, blue ink on a notebook page. The ragged little pieces from where the page was torn out of the spiral notebook tickled the fingers of my left hand. Doug and Maria had found public-assisted housing. Roberta was ill and perhaps sick unto death, and Bill was finding riches in the dumpsters of southern Indiana.

He thanked me for the welcome he had received in Kentucky. I sat holding the letter, but I couldn’t recall if I had ever thanked him hanging out with us.

The Womb of Heaven Has Been Opened

Through the new birth we possess our heavenly citizenship—not a citizenship that comes in handy when we die, but a citizenship that can change the way we think and act now. Jesus is not only our Lord and savior; he is the firstborn of a new race. “Firstborn” means the pattern has been set. It means others will follow. Those who are born from above receive heaven’s DNA here and now.

The New Testament refers to Jesus as the “firstborn” in at least five contexts: as Mary’s firstborn child (Luke 2: 7 & 23), as the “first born among many brothers” (Romans 8:29), as the “firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1: 15), the “firstborn of the dead” (Colossians 1: 18 and Revelation 1:5), and finally as God’s firstborn son (Hebrews 1: 6). In the first century the concept of firstborn was well known, both in the natural sense and in a spiritual sense as well. You can find these references to Jesus as the firstborn in the gospels, the letters of Paul, the preaching of Hebrews and the book of Revelation. Rarely do we find one repeated idea spanning so many New Testament genres.

Let’s do some deep study: when Jesus was born to Mary he entered the world with a specific Jewish identity—that of a firstborn son. Throughout the Bible narrative the firstborn son was special. The firstborn was set apart to the Lord Himself (Exodus 13:2). The firstborn was the one who “opened” the womb: after one child was born, there was an expectation that more would follow. This idea that more children will follow the firstborn is also the sense of Paul’s passage in Romans. “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29) God intended that after Jesus many more of his brothers and sisters would follow. In Colossians “firstborn” means more than birth order, it means the highest place: Jesus is the “firstborn over all creation,” that is, nothing in the created realm can equal him. Paul then explores another image immediately by recognizing that just as Jesus conquered death, so could his followers: “And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” (Colossians 1: 15&18) The resurrected body of Jesus is beautiful and glorious beyond telling. We, too, will receive this glorious resurrected body. Finally, the writer of Hebrews states plainly that Jesus is not only the firstborn of Mary, but born of God himself.

Put all these statements together: The Father desired to have many children, but his firstborn Son would occupy the highest place by virtue of birth order and by virtue of his supremacy. Jesus is unique, he has the highest place, but he also makes possible a new creation, a group of people called the children of God. This is you and me! Jesus is the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45); Paul calls everyone who follows Jesus a “new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We are the new creation, those born from above, in the image of the Great Firstborn Jesus. Do you see the wonder of your new birth—that you were “born from above”?

John’s gospel is famous for the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (chapter three). Evangelicalism has drawn the phrase “born again” from this chapter, which details a discussion between a teacher in Israel and the Lord himself. Jesus told Nicodemus the born again experience was necessary to see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). A more literal rendering of the phrase “born again” is actually born from above. The Holy Spirit chose his words carefully: while affirming the need for a spiritual rebirth, the words “born from above” point to the source of that birth—it comes from above. It comes from heaven. This was true of Jesus, who came from heaven to earth, and it is true of those who follow him. The source of the new birth is from above.

Jesus the firstborn has opened the womb of heaven. In following, everyone who is born from above has the resources of heaven available. The nature and the power of the resurrection dwell in each new child of God. This is no mere formality: because the womb of heaven has been opened by Jesus, the firstborn, each of us has the potential to live heavenly lives now, on earth. Why settle for an identity as earth-bound people who wait for a ticket off this planet? Let’s live into the possibilities that, through Jesus, Heaven is born in us even now. Where will you start?