When It’s Hard to See Jesus

Almost 3,000 feet away and almost due east from my house stands the Christ of the Ozarks Statue. Some of my neighbors call it “Gumby.” I like to call it “Big Concrete Jesus.”

I have no real idea how the Good Lord feels about it, since He seemed to be rather inclined against any kind of idolatry or appearance of it in older scripture. Whether He approves or not, there it is. My neighbor, BCJ. So I have determined that I will love my neighbor as myself.

Truth is, BCJ is a good reminder.

img_0666The last couple of days have been alternating soupy-foggy and stormy-drenchy and even at mid-day or at mid-night with the spotlights of the Great Passion Play campus shining on him, or early in the morning while I was walking Roadie before the sun didn’t seem to rise and shine,  BCJ has been hard to see.

Just as in my life — and I’m guessing, yours — Jesus is sometimes hard to see.

We look at the mess our world is in and we wonder why He’s so hard to see.

Fifteen years ago, 9/11 happened and we all wanted to know: “Where is Jesus in all this?”

Before that, it might have been the Kennedy assassination, or a World War, or the Civil War, or the Revolutionary War, and people were asking the same question.

Generations before and since, people in ours and other nations have been wondering the same thing when sin and evil and hatred and death haunted their loved ones — have been asking where He is.

And, just like BCJ on my morning walks, Jesus was where He has been all along.

Jesus is right where we left Him in the story of scripture, since He physically left this world the last time.

At the Father’s right hand. In heaven. In charge.

Doesn’t He see what’s happening down here? Doesn’t He hear our cries and prayers? Doesn’t He know we’re hurting, starving, fighting, dying?

Sure He knows.

He was here, remember? Lived here. Taught here. Healed here. Loved here. Lost loved ones here.

Died here.

Lived again, here, in this world; only to rise to a better one to make a better place for us.

If He’s hard to see, it’s not because He’s moved.

It may be because we have. Or the clouds that obscure Him have. Or the lights have failed and the darkness has, for a time, won out.

And He’s still there.

I moved 800 miles recently — not so much to be closer to BCJ, but to my kids — and I doubt that I’ll be moving any closer to the statue on East Mountain.

But I hope I never lose sight of Jesus, or stop moving closer to Him, or give up and stop trying to see Him — whether He seems obscured or seems as clear as on a crispy, sunshine-drenched autumn day. Even if I do, though …

He’s still there.

Still there, rejoicing with those who rejoice.

Still there, mourning with those who mourn.

Still there, interceding for those who pray.

Still there, providing and remaining and answering the door for those who ask, seek and knock.

I know I need to remember that. Maybe you do, too.

Well, that’s the way I see things from Eureka Springs, Arkansas — where the fog creeps in on little cat’s feet and beats a retreat when a storm is the norm.

And where BCJ says hey.

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One Month

Wednesday I posted on Facebook:

If I were to blame/be angry at God over the death of my beloved wife, then I must also blame/be angry with Him over the death of His Son.

If I were to credit God with the resurrection of His beloved Son, then I must also credit Him with the resurrection of my dear wife.

Did God bring sin and death into this world or love and life? Which was His desire for us, His children?

Would the two pairings have meaning at all if not opposed to each other? Or if the other did not exist?

Eden was never intended to remain paradise, then; nor was it a mere crucible or test tube. Eden was meant to be the first battlefield.

And so what was within God’s will — sin and death — was not itself God’s will — love and life — but necessary for His will to have meaning to us; to enable us to choose love and life over sin and death.

To choose His will for us and not what gratifies self and kills the soul.

I can’t put this in simpler words. This is the only rational response I can pose to the great gaping WHY that challenges us all.

God is not to blame.

It is simply the way things MUST be, for anything to have meaning or purpose or significance.

It is not bigger than God.

It is the way He chose to make it fair for us to choose.

And we must choose.

Now it’s Saturday, and the day is done.

I — we, my family, all those who love her — lost Angi one month ago today.

What will we choose?

What will I choose?

Will I choose to continue believing, go on trusting?

A friend who has experienced the loss of his wife as well as a dear child (in a way that I feel certain would have broken me) commented on this blog recently that after such an experience, it was possible for him to keep his faith for a while. He said that for him, it was about two months.

I keep putting on the brave face. I keep writing to encourage myself, and sometimes it seems to encourage others. I keep busy, putting off having to deal with the loss fully. There are so many other things that require my attention. I have plenty of excuses to procrastinate.

But the cracks in the courage still show up. I can weep. I can patch them up. I can cover them over with a smile and brave words.

Still I know the measure of joy I knew is gone. It  will always be gone, as long as I live and breathe.

And I find there are things that I still can’t do.

I can’t seem to find time, make time, put myself to the time to continue posting submissions at New Wineskins. I have commitments to people. I have proposed to myself extending the current edition about “Lament” to a second month, into which we have gone an entire week and a day now. I just can’t seem to do what needs to be done.

Yes, I believe the e-zine still blesses people. The blessings I receive by e-mail and Facebook message from folks who’ve been blessed by it still outnumber the railings and the condemnings by quite a good margin.

Yes, I believe Angi would want me to continue working at it, keeping it up to date and fresh.

Yes, I still want to do it.

I just can’t seem to now. Not yet. It hurts to try. It hurts to think about it.

One month.

And I wonder — though my friend’s comment was in no way a challenge, dare, or warning; simply a personal observation — how long will my faith persist before the cracks start to show?

Two months? Three? A year?

I don’t know.

It would be so much more than a shame, a pity or even a tragedy to be fighting and running for the prize in an arena of witnesses, then let the accuser cut in … give up the fight and quit the race; not finish the course.

Not keep the faith.

Running in vain.

How long can I keep faith flying on wings like eagles before my pace slows to a run that grows weary and then a walk that ends in a faint?

If I were truly alone, it would not take long at all.

But I’m not.

There may be people who can go it alone, and walk and run and fly solo on a wing and a prayer and a book of scriptural verses.

I’m not one of them.

Like the author of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, I need Christ before me in the pages of the Word, yes.

I need Christ behind me in the witness of His saints, yes.

I need Christ above me, bearing my prayers to His Father, absolutely.

But also …

I need Christ within me through His Holy Spirit.

I need Christ about me in the surround of His church.

Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

If you don’t need that, I suppose that’s fine for you. But I know what I need. What I’ve always needed. What I need now more than ever before. What I always will need, in increasing measure and greater grace and wider fellowship and deeper love and endless trust.

Until the day I breathe my last.

And it’s only been a month.

Look At Him

Jesus the Bread of LifeSometimes random thoughts occur to me, and I’m never quite sure where they come from.

This morning when I awakened, the thought was:

“Jesus didn’t say what I’d say if I were hanging on a cross.”

In particular, I realized that probably what I’d be saying over and over again, to those few friends and kinfolk clustered at the foot of my cross would be: “Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me. Don’t, please, don’t look. Don’t remember me this way.”

I wouldn’t want them — especially my mother — to see me naked and shamed and beaten and tortured and condemned.

But I’m not Jesus. As we traditionally order His seven short sayings from the cross, the third one is quite the opposite: “Woman, look at your Son.” And then to John: “Look after your mother.”

He was naked, to be sure, but though He carried all sin to the cross, none of it was His. There was nothing about being naked before all that was shaming to Him. He’d lived His whole life as transparently as humanly possible before everyone around Him.

He was beaten and tortured and condemned, but had done nothing to deserve it:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
~ Isaiah 53:5

In so few words, He revealed so much:

  1. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). He was the sinless sacrifice for sin.
  2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). He was the embodiment of the righteous Judge.
  3. Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (John 19:26-27). He wanted to be looked upon. He loved and cared for family and friends. His last thoughts were for others.
  4. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). He fulfilled prophecy, and called His purpose to our attention by asking.
  5. I thirst (John 19:28). He was fully human. His pain and suffering and dehydration were all real.
  6. It is finished (John 19:30). He had accomplished His mission.
  7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46). His Spirit was His own to keep or surrender or take back or give away as He pleased.

I believe He wants us to look upon Him as He hangs on the cross. I don’t necessarily believe that is the only way He wants us to remember Him, whether or not we’re gathered at His table, but I do believe He does not want us to forget this pivotal moment in His life, our lives, and all of creation.

Look upon Him there, and see what sin does. Your sin. My sin. All sin.

Avert your eyes if you must, but look upon Him again. This time when you open them, see what else He meant for you to see:

This is what grace means.

Jesus Hung Out With Hookers?

Maybe. Maybe not. But as far as scripture revealing that as established fact — I don’t think so. I haven’t found any scripture that specifically puts Him in the vicinity of one.

It’s just that we’ve heard this phrase so much that we’ve tended to accept it as fact, and it might not be. (People tend to do that with things they’ve heard over and over.)

In Matthew 25:6-13 and in Mark 14:1-11, Jesus is dining at the home of Simon the Leper (presumably cured, but there is no record of it) at his invitation when a woman anoints Him with expensive perfume. No slur is made on her character sexually; the charge against her is that she wasted the perfume, which Jesus refutes. In a similar record in Luke 7:36-50 (where the host is identified as a Pharisee, also named Simon), and all that he says to himself is “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner” (v.39). Jesus agrees that her sins are many, but that “her many sins have been forgiven” (v. 47b). Nothing is said about the nature of these sins. John 11:8 identifies her as Mary, one of the sisters of Lazarus; and chapter 12 relates the story with no comment on her character or sins.

The Samaritan woman He meets near Sychar at Jacob’s well in John 4 has been married five times and is living with someone she is not married to (vs. 17-18). Jesus, who has intuited this, says nothing about her asking for or receiving money for sexual services. It’s possible, but He seems to be very discreet in the way He phrases this revelation. (Almost as if He is not judging her, one might conclude.)

A woman who touches His garment in Luke 8:40-48 has a bleeding disease that undoubtedly troubles her reproductive system, but no inference can be drawn about its nature or source — certainly nothing that requires it to have resulted from illicit sexual activity.

The woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter is simply described as foreign in Mark 7:24-30.

Finally, in the disputed passage beginning John 8, a woman about to be stoned or spared at Jesus’ word is described simply as “caught in the act of adultery.” Again, no exchange of currency for service is mentioned or implied.

If there are other instances of contact between Jesus and women of tarnished reputation, I’d still need to be convinced that the label “hooker” is deserved. If they didn’t sell themselves, they weren’t prostitutes. If we’re going to be pejorative, then the accurate term would be “sluts.” Is there really a need to be pejorative? We don’t pick on other sins like this one and say “Jesus hung out with pimps” or “Jesus hung out with child molesters” or “Jesus hung out with tax cheats” or “Jesus hung out with slanderers” in the absence of any scriptural evidence for it.

We know Jesus hung out with a tax collector/collaborator, a member of a revolutionary sect, a boatful of fishermen, and a traitor who became an accomplice to His murder. He dined at the homes of Pharisees as well as tax collector/collaborators and ate out with thousands at a time, even providing the food. He went to a wedding once where way too much wine was served, and He was the reason for it.

People of all sorts sought company with Jesus. They were all sinners. That was the big accusation of the Pharisees and teachers of the law in Luke 15:2: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (As if they weren’t sinners themselves … just as we are.) And they were right. However, there’s rarely any indication that Jesus actively sought these contacts — or that He shied away from them, judged, or failed to engage them as people loved by God. Point is, He was Jesus. He didn’t have to. They came looking for Him.

So I’d advise caution about repeating the phrase in the title or anything substantially similar to it as historical fact. It’s not strictly biblical. While it may convey Jesus’ loving nature and willingness to reach out to (and associate with) all of us who sin, it’s really not accurate to infer from scripture or imply to others that Jesus frequented dens of iniquity while His sandaled feet traveled Israel, Galilee, Samaria and the environs.

Would Jesus hang out with hookers — or any other kind of sinner one might care to single out — then or now? Without a doubt!

In fact, He does so almost all the time. His Holy Spirit within the lives of His servants reaches out in ministries to the homeless, the hungry, the incarcerated, the addicted, the poor, the rich, the self-righteous and the self-doubting. He is in His servants and they are in Him, doing the work God has prepared for them to do.

Jesus began it. We are to continue it. That’s what matters.

The Math

Let’s do the math.

Jesus surrounded Himself with twelve called-out disciples for special training and ministry; we call them apostles. He trained them and sent them out over a period of, as nearly as we can tell, about three years.

One of the eleven turned on his Master and turned Him in. That left eleven.

What would have happened if each of those eleven, after that three-year period culminating in His death and resurrection, had done the same? Selected twelve people and trained them for three years?

And what if only two out of those twelve had remained followers who would do the same? And at the end of each three-year training period, there were no deaths or losses due to persecution?

Well, in the first three years, you would have 22 new mentors in addition to the original eleven; a total of 33.

At the end of six years, you’d have 99. Nine years? 297. Twelve years: 891. Okay, it’s a slow start compared to Pentecost and 3,000 in one day — but special circumstances intervened there.

What about 18 years? 2,673. And you’re almost up to that 3,000.

Twenty-one years: 8,019. Remember, these are not just baptized believers worshiping and sharing together, but discipling.

Twenty-four years: 24,057. Twenty-seven: 72,171. Thirty: 216,513. Thirty-three: 649,539. Thirty-six: 1,948,617.

That’s a long time, but we’re nearly up to two million in the lifetime of a fairly long-lived adult person.

So let’s drop out the original trainers from now on, and just double the number of believers every three years.

By the thirty-ninth year, there would be 3,897,234 mentors ready for the next generation of 7,794,468 disciples ready to train others after 42 years. With the success rate holding steady, by the forty-fifth year, 15,588,936 mentors.

More than 30 million in 48 years. Sixty-two million in 51 years. One hundred twenty-four million in 54 years. Almost a quarter of a billion in 57 years. A half-billion in 60 years. A billion in 63.

Keep going, and in 72 years, the equivalent of the entire current population of earth could have been reached and discipled.

And in less than a hundred years, the number would be larger than all the souls who are estimated to have ever lived.

Oh, yes; I understand that there are factors that would affect that outcome: travel limitations, disease, war, overlapping of available potential disciples (but the 2-out-of-12 odds might also have improved with more than one witness to each group of twelve, had they seen dedicated mentors persisting year after year with Christ-like lives and will to teach).

Not every mentor would have 24/7 available to do nothing but travel and teach disciples; there are jobs to do and income to earn.

Obviously, things didn’t turn out that way. This is just a math exercise. And math was never my strong suit.

But what if we tried Jesus’ way of doing things?

Just for a generation.

Why Jesus Came (In His Own Words)

Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” ~ Mark 1:38

“Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” ~ Matthew 20:26-28 (also Mark 10:45)

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” ~ Luke 19:10

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” ~ John 12:27

“‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’” ~ John 18:37

The incarnation of the Son of God is miraculous and wonderful in so many ways … but if the Story ends at the manger, or even in Egypt, then it is only a partial telling of the miracle and wonder; it only hints at the purpose.

For His purpose as stated is much the same as ours:

  • To preach good news
  • To be a servant; to give up our lives in service
  • To seek and save the lost
  • To face the hour of sacrifice with courage
  • To testify to the truth

Long ago the Preacher opined, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

Jesus knew His time and His purpose. We who believe should, too.

Our time is now.

Our purpose is His.

The Nativity Story from John 1

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook asked a group of mostly preachers what they would be preaching about on Sunday, December 25, Christmas morning.

I answered, “I don’t preach, but if I did, I’d preach on the Nativity Story from John 1. Yup, John 1. It’s short, but cosmic.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. ~ John 1:1-5, 14, 17-18

I love the baby-Jesus-in-a-manger version of the story as dearly as anyone. But this version has incredible power in its brevity.

The very Son of God, the Word, who was with God and was God from the beginning, took our form to live with us. The glory of which angels sang was now visible in Him. You could see grace. You could see truth. In Jesus, you could see God.

Want another tiny sample of this part of the Nativity Story?

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” ~ John 8:58

They wanted to kill Him right there in the temple by throwing rocks at Him, they were so incensed to hear this. He claimed to be God. But truth is a defense against blasphemy as well as libel … and He walked away, unharmed. I have to wonder if their hands were stayed by doubt in their conviction that He was only a man; that a man could not also be God.

Another glimpse?

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” ~ John 14:8-10

God with Us. Immanuel.

Jesus knew who He was. He knew what Isaiah had prophesied in 7:14, and He knew that “Immanuel” meant “God With Us.” He had to have known what His mother had treasured in her heart for all those years.

And in telling Philip and the other apostles once again Who He was, He was promising to give them the very Holy Spirit within Himself so that God could do His work through them as well.

One more glimpse, this time from someone other than John:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:5-11

God became a single cell; a nothing; a thing invisible except through a microscope. God became a baby. A young man. A servant.

A sacrifice.

God intended all of this to happen, and that was why it was as good as done as soon as Jesus was born, and the angels could sing praise at His birth for what He would yet do as a man, and a servant, and a sacrifice.

Jesus showed us that God could be in and among man, so that God could continue His work in us and among us and through us by His own Holy Spirit.

Jesus showed us that we could be born anew; become something very different, something still like a human being on the outside, but full of grace and truth and God within.

Jesus showed us that the true glory of God is to serve, to give, to be given and spent out and used up in love to others.

He gave up a throne in heaven to wash dirty feet.

He gave up being in the Presence of God in order to be the Presence of God.

He surrendered His life there to surrender it again here, and to give it abundantly and without measure to anyone who hears and believes and asks.