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Mark C McCann

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Mark C McCann last won the day on January 8 2016

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About Mark C McCann

  • Birthday 04/28/1961

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  1. Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service has ended, that her guilt is expiated, That she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2) For as long as I can remember, Advent has been for me a time of great personal loneliness and deep spiritual restoration. I think the reason is because I have learned to view Advent through the lens of my own restless heart. I freely admit that finding contentment and satisfaction has always been a struggle for me. I further admit that my personal human condition has caused a great deal of distress in the lives of my family and friends. Transformation is a painful process that leaves many casualties in its wake; but it is certainly a necessary part of what it means to belong to Christ. Advent is a deep reminder of how God has spoken into our lives through the incarnation. If we are to gain any meaning from the Season of Advent, we must come to terms with the fact that we are restless sojourners, traveling a singular path that each person must walk in his or her own way. We need to embrace our aloneness in order to take hold of the powerful message of Advent: that God has come to our world as one of us to bring comfort, forgiveness, and peace; that the poverty of the Nativity leads to the nakedness of the cross; and that the Savior who faced separation from the Father longs to manifest His presence in our solitude. Only then can we experience the joy of restoration that Advent brings. Double Punishment, Singular Joy The beautiful words from Isaiah were spoken to a people made weary by their sin, wayward children who were to be transformed in the fires of suffering and captivity in order to experience the incomprehensible joy of rebirth. It seems odd that comfort should be linked with punishment; yet this is the message of the prophecy. There is more joy in the ending of hostilities rather than there is bitterness for the years spent under the heavy hand of the Lord. The time of penance has past. The voice of God has turned from judge to tender Father. The days of trial are over. The Messiah has entered the world and salvation is at hand! God uses the time of Advent to remind us that our lives are an ongoing journey of transformation – from sin to salvation and from tribulation to triumph. Our sufferings, our struggles, and our lonely searching for peace find their answer in the ever-unfolding work that is the coming of Christ. Jesus arrived on the earth as a helpless baby so that He could share His life with ours. He walked the same roads, suffered the same temptations, and experienced the same joys as all humanity so that He could overcome it all and rescue us from the slavery of sin. Our suffering finds meaning in the cross He endured for our sake. As we work through our sufferings we are renewed in our character and driven into the arms of Hope: Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5) The Wonder of Discovery Advent is a time of self-discovery, where our journey moves from faith to faith, through trials to the victory, and from sorrow to the joy that is ours in Christ’s coming into our hearts at Christmas and in our daily lives. The rest of the reading from Isaiah goes on to talk about the voice calling, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!" (Isaiah 40:3) The rough road shall be smoothed over and the burden made easy and light. The glory of God will be revealed and our fragile lives will be forever transformed. We are like the flowers that fade, like the grass that is here today and tomorrow is burned in the fire. And yet, in Jesus, we are given eternal life. Our meaningless, dead, sin-filled existence is transformed by the cross and given new birth in Christ. As we wait for Christmas, we are comforted by the hope that the baby brings by his humble entry into the world. As we look forward to His Second Coming, where every tear shall be wiped away, where every knee will bow before the throne of heaven, we become bathed in the light of hope that shines so clearly upon our lives. As we meditate on the story of the Bible through the lens of Advent, we see that every page points to the coming of the Messiah and the victory that He brings. In the End, Peace… Though the time of waiting in the dark days can be painful and lonely, the message of Advent brings us joy and peace. All our restless wandering through this life gives way to a purposeful walk centered on the Word made flesh who left the realms of heaven to pitch His tent among us. I know that I can continue to travel the road to heaven because my Lord and Savior travels with me. Therefore I embrace this time and take in its wonderful lessons. My solitude becomes the empty womb ready to receive the new life that is mine by the miracle of Christmas. My sorrow becomes the power that breaks the shell of my hardened heart, so that I may surrender to One who entered this world to take away my sin. My restless heart beats with the anticipation of the days of Christmas to come and I ache within for the coming of the Lord on that final day when together we will experience the perpetual rebirth of the resurrection. That is peace indeed! No matter where you are on this Advent journey, through the incarnation of Christ God offers us comfort, restoration, and new life. Our time of turning back brings us to the place where we may receive the blessings that Christmas brings. Rejoice in that hope as you meditate on the story of the birth of Jesus today! Meditate on the generosity of Christ and how His perfect, complete, and total surrender to His Father has gained for us the comfort and peace of eternal life. Let that truth penetrate your mind and heart as you wait for Christmas to come!
  2. And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-3, RSV) When I was young, I remember many times feeling very much like an old man. I was a sensitive, scared, and somber little boy, growing up without a father for most of my early life. Because I was intelligent and creative, I often retreated within myself to a place of inner protection, where I could fashion ideas about faith and friendship that rewrote who I was, where I was going, and how I would get there. As I grew up past the awkward teenage years, moving out on my own, making mistakes and learning I didn’t have to break because of them, something began to change. The anger of my youth began to give way to humor and a solemn appreciation for the transforming power of love. My rigid childhood faith with its rules that kept my world in order gave way to the messiness of mysticism and the freedom of poetry and passionate praise. In my adult encounters with the Almighty, I began to experience a resurgence of the childhood I never knew. It put me in touch with the deepest parts of who I was, opening the door to the healing I found in Christ. The Child Forgotten, The Child Remembered As people age there is often a deep sense of regret about the time that has gone by. We lament over the youth that was wasted or stolen from us, or miss the better days when life wasn’t so complicated. We weep over our failing frames, regret the missed opportunities in love or life, and faint with fear as we come face to face with the naked truth of our fallen world. But as a believer, one who now sees how the Lord has wired me for emptiness and empathy, I am discovering a beauty so deep and a joy so unending that I am left without words. In my surrender to the will of the Ageless One I hear a wondrous message of renewal and peace from the holy Word speaking directly into my heart: Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31, RSV) To the weak and the wounded, the lonely and the lost, there is the God who lends his eternal strength to his people like a whisper of his gentle love. As a tender Father, he allows his children to crawl, then walk, and finally run into the kingdom. He takes our sins and our sorrows, our failures and our falls, then lifts us up and teaches us to dance, to leap, and to fly. And it all comes when we at last surrender to his perfect will. In the moments when experience has opened our eyes, when we face our greatest losses and our deepest fears, we see heaven open before us, renewing the vigor of our youth and setting our feet on a lofty place of rest. But Seek First His Kingdom In my youth I was not always a kingdom seeker. Though I knew to whom I belonged, I was not yet fully able to grasp that the God who loved and accepted me as no earthly father ever could was the same God who lovingly allowed struggle and tragedy into my life as a holy discipline to fashion me into the shape of a saint. As I matured, God began to set me on the right track. I started seeking his kingdom and living out his call through works of mercy and love. I was indeed changing – my black and white theology being painted with the colors of the human condition. At that time, I was working with teens, learning to listen and love as I took the pain of my younger days and applied its lessons to their lives. And then, I met the love of my life, the one to banish the doubts about what it meant to belong. We were married and moved away to start a new life. We faced those first years together with bravery and joy as we came to understand what love was all about. But still, I was not fully seeking the kingdom. I was praying and serving and doing my best to please God; yet, I was not fully engaged in the work of surrender to the kingdom’s true call. I remained a restless wanderer, still fearfully tied to the old man who had ruled my world since my youth. Slowly God began to do his work, and the old man began to transform into the child I longed to become. Be Still and Know that I Am God The world rages around us and we tremble as those mountains we have moved to get where we are crumble before our feet. We face tragedy along with triumph, death along with life, sorrow along with joy. And yet, still we keep building castles out of sand that melt away as the tide of time and the wind of God’s will level them to the ground. We will give our time, talent, and treasure to the cause of Christ, stay the moral course, and become dutiful and obedient sons and daughters – so long as we can keep from offering ourselves on the altar of sacrifice where we fear the essence of who we are will be burned away. Oh, that we would heed the words of the psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10, RSV) If only we would remove ourselves from the thrones of our lives and learn that true humility means standing before the infinite, eternal, all-powerful God of the universe and not melting away. If only we would accept that the love that led the Son of God to die on that cross holds us in a place so precious that all our fears and misperceptions and sorrows vanish like smoke before the fires of mercy and grace. That is the place where age gives way to agelessness. Unless we become as Children… Why do we resist the call to become as children? Perhaps it’s because we confuse being childish with being childlike. We have been told all our lives to “grow up” and we have worked so hard to get to the point where we become masters of our worlds. When we arrive at this position of power and control, we have no desire to give it up for the sake of some sort of “holy playdate” with the divine. And yet, deep down within our empty hearts, there is a longing to be filled with the joy that only an innocent child can know. It is possible to be a grownup who still remembers what it’s like to be a child. In truth, resisting the will of God for our illusion of control is more childish than we know. We are capable of being sober and sensible people, while giving up our power in favor of the freedom that comes when we let go and let God. Accepting the kingdom as a child means facing our responsibilities with resolve. It means transforming our arrogance into determination and our fear into faith, all because we allow the Almighty to work his wonderful will in our lives as we surrender our heavy burdens, take up the easy yoke, and walk the narrow way together. Casting our Cares, Handing Over Our Hearts My life has been far from easy. There have been many struggles along the way. My days are often filled with tasks and trials that sometimes overwhelm me. I seek to love my wife in the same way Christ loves his Church. I hold on tightly to our children even as I open my hand to let them go. I pour out words onto the page and hope someone will find some sense of meaning as they read them. And I continue to become the man I have been called to be, one stumbling step at a time. But I have noticed that I’ve begun to take time to play when no one is looking, cry when I feel like crying, laugh when the absurdity of life presents itself, and pray with joyful surrender like a child jumping from a high place into his father’s arms. I may not fully understand or enjoy when troubles come my way, but I am learning to see my Savior standing by me as we walk the road to heaven together. In yielding to the will of God, I find myself to be a child once more, growing in grace, trusting in my Father’s plan, and taking in the wonder and the beauty of the life that is mine. Lean Not on Your Own Understanding I’ll leave you with this one example. When my children were little, I loved getting down on the floor and playing with them: building towers and spaceships out of blocks, hosting parades of dinosaurs and cars across the family room floor, and making museums and grocery stores on the couches in our living room. I cherished the times when we sat together in the big recliner as I read chapter books in the evenings before bed. And I cried when we faced the tough questions over the death of tropical fish, dealt with bullies at school, or said goodbye when we had to be apart. Through it all, I was learning what it means to love my children the way my Father loves me. And through it all I learned to rediscover the ageless child within me. I still find myself visiting those inner places of solitude and solemnity, retreating to where I can seek solace from the One who is remaking my life one day at a time. It is there I hear the Savior calling me to come play amid the memories and dreams that have shaped me into who I am and who I am becoming. It is there also that I find the wisdom and the words that bring healing to my soul and continue to teach me what it means to find eternity in the surrender of a little child.
  3. There is a certain mysterious and mystical quality to the unfolding of the events of life when seen through the eyes of one who lives in the shadow of the cross. It is a humbling experience, one that draws attention to the fragile nature of our mortal lives, while pulling back the veil on the heavenly realms to reveal a love so pure and so perfect that we are left with an unspeakable joy. There have been a number of changes in my life that have taken place of late, some seemingly small, and others quite monumental. All of them have affected me in profound ways and have caused me to ponder just how incredible and overwhelming the death and resurrection of Jesus truly is. Throughout the season of Lent, I had grown somewhat complacent in my devotion to Christ, thinking my walk with him this year had been deep and meaningful. But as I have experienced a number of new deaths, I have called into question just how devoted I really am to the One who died in my place. A Sick Pet and a Broken Relationship Recently, my daughter’s hamster, Luna, began breathing erratically and became sluggish and withdrawn. She stopped eating and drinking and remained in her house for most of the day. Now, some might not think much of a sick hamster, but to watch the suffering of this beautiful little animal, a source of joy in my daughter’s life, has been very sorrowful indeed. I know what it will mean for my daughter and for all of us when she dies, and yet, that is the nature of having a pet. Still, her sudden illness has made me keenly aware of just how much impact the smallest and most insignificant life can have on us all. During this time, I had to face the harsh reality of broken relationships within my extended family and among my friends. Such news hit hard, causing me to wonder if anything in this world lasts anymore. Oh, there were signs of what was to come but we all ignored them. And now, we are all going through the stages of grief, each in our own way. For my part, I have tried to offer the hope of the Gospel to hurting friends and family members. In sharing my faith, I have taken a closer look at my own marriage and family, so that I can be aware of any signs of struggle I have missed. The Sorrow that Gives Way to Joy As believers, we are told to live sober lives of service and surrender to the cause of Christ. We are also promised that we will have trials and sorrows in this life, but can experience joy because Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33). As I reflect on the sorrow of losing a pet or witnessing a broken family relationship, I am left with nowhere to turn but the cross. I know none of these events have escaped the loving concern or the sovereign grace of the One who gave his only begotten Son for the world. The Savior who became like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 2:17) still grieves with us and offers us the comfort of his Holy Spirit. Each time I confront the sadness of these and other daily deaths, I know I must take them before the cross and look up to see my Lord crucified for my sin. I cannot look away from the man of sorrows; nor can I ignore the anguish or the utter abandonment he faced in order to open up the way to heaven. However, I know that, along with the cross, there is the empty tomb. The grave could not hold our King. Friday brought the night, but Sunday brought the dawn. Springtime and a Couple Dead Trees In our backyard, there were two dead trees that had to come down. I found it somewhat sad that, in the beginning of the spring I had to remove these two grand trees that had been part of the landscape for longer than our family has lived here. The look of our yard is forever changed, the shade these trees provided will be missed, and their deaths are once more a reminder that nothing in this world is permanent. But such divinely appointed lessons are not only necessary, but life-changing. I take joy in the fact that Easter takes place in the springtime, when the frozen soil of winter receives the warmth of the sun and begins to come to life once more. It is a beautiful reminder that death will never have the last word, that sorrow gives way to joy, and that the resurrection is a living reality that is ever transforming us from glory to glory. I know that, even though these trees are gone, the wood they have left behind will become a part of our joyful memories as we sit by the fireplace for a number of winters to come. Such joy moves me to split the wood with a sense of hope that, in the end, cannot be shaken. Weariness and Wonder The daily deaths I experience can and often wear me down. I take them into my being and accept that they can overwhelm me and drive me to my knees. But that is the beauty of the resurrection that lies beyond these realities. I know that, though my outer man is wasting away, I am being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16) by the One who faced the grave and came out on the other side – for me! I will miss Luna when she is gone. And I will continue to support my family members who are facing the tough times ahead. I can only do this because of the resurrection power that lives and moves in me through the Holy Spirit. It is a wonderful truth that keeps me going from faith to faith. I am grateful that God loves me enough to allow the deaths I face to shape me into the man I am becoming in him. Though I hate to face change and death, I know it is a part of life, a part of this broken world that is being transformed and someday will be made new. I have joy that I am a part of the Bride of Christ, being made more beautiful through the trials we face. The knowledge of what is to come, made manifest in the resurrection of our Lord, continues to turn my daily deaths into new dawns of hope. May the joy of the resurrection we celebrate during the season of Easter help you to face the daily deaths you experience and change you from glory to glory into the one our God is shaping you to become. God bless!
  4. What does it mean to love? It seems like a simple question. In a very real sense, for a believer in Jesus Christ, it is simple. It is as simple as breathing. Yet in this fallen world, in this our present state of affairs, love seems harder to define. With all the confusion about what people claim love is and is not, many of us are left believing that love is a fleeting thing, something we can never fully grasp. But what truly is love? Love. Is it feeling? An emotion? What does it mean to experience love? Love seems to mean many different things: affection, devotion, passion, addiction. We throw the word around so easily: “I love my family.” “I love my dog.” “I love ice cream.” “I love my favorite pair of shoes!” But is this love? There have been many books written about love, many stories, many songs, and many plays. Lovers struggle to find the meaning in their embrace, only to experience disappointment as the objects of their love – each other – fall short of an ideal born in fickle and faithless hearts. Families or friends often fail us in the frailty of their human condition. Possessions, prominence, power, and prestige – all the things upon which we hang our hearts – will fade away to dust. In the end, none of these can provide the love we need. We hear phrases like, “Love conquers all!” and “All you need is love!” But what does that really mean? To some, love is a fearful dream, a phantom mocking in the darkness, that promises deliverance but delivers only death. For others, love is a power we use to manipulate or hold others too closely – or too far away. Love is a risk, a chance, a game to play…or so it is said – at least in the world that is passing away. Too many people have been let down by love. They see it as a fairy tale that cannot come true, no matter how hard they try to believe. But that is the world’s brand of love. The love we feel for objects is as fleeting as the wind. Our love for others is so often incomplete because its source is a selfish heart. But here is a secret that is meant to be shared, to be shouted from the rooftops and whispered in the hidden places. So many miss it because it is so simple and yet so profound. If we take hold of this secret it can change our lives… Love…IS A VERB! Love isn’t something you “feel” – although real love touches your feelings in the deepest part of your soul. Love is something you do, sometimes at the cost of all you have or all you are. Real love gives until it hurts, until it drains us of all we are, until we surrender to the One outside ourselves. But as we give, we receive. And when we spend ourselves in love for another or for the world, we may not see a return for our investment – at least in human terms. But as we lose our lives for love we discover a treasure in a place where corrosion cannot enter and moth cannot destroy. There is a love that we are offered that goes beyond the words, beyond the poetry and passion and all the many misunderstandings we ascribe to the word. When we experience this love – this real love – it becomes a part of us and it comes as naturally as breathing. It enters our hearts and flows from within like each breath we take. It is as pure, as simple, and as real as it gets – this love that gives. Love too is a need, a need deep down in our souls, an emptiness that cannot be fully filled except by the One who emptied himself for us all…in love. While we try to nail love down, he nailed it up – up on a wooden cross. There is a love so powerful and so complete that it led the Father to give up his Only Son so that we could be touched by that love. There is a love so passionate, so pure, and so perfect, that it led the Son to live among us as a man. It gave him eyes to see right into the depths of our pain. It gave him hands to touch and to heal our every hurt. It gave him feet to walk the rocky roads of life with his beloved brothers and sisters. And it gave him the joy to endure the cross, scorning its shame, all for love – all for love. In his holy book, every chapter, every verse, every stroke of the pen is a letter of love to you and me. The love of God existed from eternity past and will continue to Kingdom Come without end. Every moment of salvation’s story led up to the cross, and continues to lead us to the day when only love will remain. When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Is the face you find of someone loveable? Or is it someone who is full of flaws, missing in action, beyond healing and hope? Look again, for there is One who sees you with different eyes, the eyes of unspoiled, sacrificial love. Look up at the stars and count them if you can. Look at the heights of the mountains, the vastness of the ocean depths. Look at the incredible complexity of all creation and be struck with the wonder and awe at it all. Love painted the colors of the sky. Love set the stars in the heavens. Love separated land from sea and filled the world with beauty, order, and purpose. But as amazing as all that is, the most amazing thing of all is that the same God who created the universe, created you and me – because of love. You could have a well-trained tongue to speak the words of angels, eyes to see the future or understand the mysteries of life, power and faith and gifts to share, or a life surrendered in service to the world… …but without love – it is NOTHING! Love is patient, love is kind, emptied of envy, broken of boastfulness, humble, forbearing, hungry for the truth. Power and prophecy, tongues and treasures, they will all cease – but love endures. Now we know in part, but one day we shall know love’s fullness – even as we are fully known. We are called to leave our childish ways behind and embrace the greatest of all the virtues, to come to the place where love was laid down, only to be taken up again. In Jesus, we can bring our faults and our failings, our sins and our short-sightedness, all that we are, all that we have done or failed to do, and all our dreams of love and leave them at the cross. In Jesus, we can let go of all we thought love was or hoped it would be, and embrace what it truly is! If you are still unsure of love’s meaning, let this be the moment when you finally see! Let go and come to the cross. Fall down in your brokenness and look up to see the One who was broken for you! Rise up in the fullness of his love. Jesus loves you, just as you are; and he loves you for all you will be in him. His love does conquer all! His love is all you need! Love is forgiveness for failure. Love is the power to persevere. Love is the grace to start again. Love is the passion to live out the potential of all you were made to be. May we come to our Love, to the One who loves us wonderfully, perfectly, and eternally, the One who gave up his life completely, so that we could know the love that will remain. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16, RSV)
  5. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. (1 Peter 5:10 RSV) I am notorious for making New Year’s resolutions that never quite get off the ground, but which somehow manage by the grace of God to leave their mark on my body, mind, and soul. What I mean by this is that, while I neglect to carry out a disciplined, biblically-based, Church-sanctioned program of New Year’s life renewal, God, in his infinite goodness and perfect timing, allows my resolutions to unfold nonetheless over the course of the year and find their fruition through trial and painful transformation until I become a little more the man I was meant to be. This year, however, God elected to make a preemptive strike in my life by turning a little Christmas overindulgence into a full-blown medical emergency, literally knocking me off my feet and causing me to step back and reevaluate both my life choices and the attitudes that had inspired them. While I thought that my little ordeal would excuse me from my regular writing obligations, I became convicted that God was making me painfully aware of the necessity of letting his divine discipline lead to a thorough and open confession of my greatest needs and his greatest love. Light and Momentary? My Christmas started off with a wonderful Italian dinner with my wife’s family at our home. Following the appetizers, we feasted on antipasto, chicken parmigiana, stuffed shells, and desserts galore. There were quite a few trips to the glass Christmas tree filled with candy as we opened presents and shared good times. After my family left we had some friends over to play games by the fire. I remember thinking – as I always do at this time of year – that this minor bit of intemperance was only for a time, and once the New Year was upon me, I would gradually get back to the business of watching my weight, spending more time with God, and growing as a godly man. It was then that I noticed I was not feeling too well. After a night of intense abdominal pain, and a day spent going from the walk-in clinic to the Emergency Room, I found myself admitted to the hospital with an acutely inflamed gallbladder that needed to come out. I must confess that one verse that did not come to mind during my festival of unrestrained bodily agony was this beautiful passage from 2 Corinthians: So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 RSV) While I tried to maintain my composure throughout the entire tribulation, I freely admit that at the time I saw my extreme discomfort as neither light nor momentary, though I was keenly aware that my outer nature was no longer what it used to be. But as I accepted the inevitability of my fate and sank under the influence of the anesthesia, I slowly began to view this divinely-enacted respite from a more eternal perspective, surrendering my control to the One who holds all things in his loving hands. Suffering, Endurance, Character, and Hope While it may seem that most of the passages in the Bible that speak of suffering relate more to persecution for the faith than to personal trials like physical distress, financial hardship, or spiritual sickness, there is a transformative nature to our pain that leads to a greater awareness of our fallen nature without Christ, our need for God’s care, and the true heavenly goal we should be seeking. Look at these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5RSV) Being knocked on one’s backside by a medical emergency is certainly not akin to the persecution that so many Christians suffer for their faith, but it does force us to fix our eyes upon the only One who can see us through our trials to our eternal end. This little temporary ordeal allowed God to refine me in the fires of pain and harsh realities, burning off my casual selfishness and my petty schemes, my self-important pride and my self-pitying attitude. I became keenly aware that life was not to be taken lightly, and that even the simple and silly lies I so often told myself were giving way to a disciplined and persevering faith that would build my character and open the doorway to hope revealed. A Message of Glory from Memories Gone By That first night home, I remember not wanting to take the prescription pain pills the doctors had given me, but was in quite a bit of discomfort and desperately needed sleep. But as I expected, within a half-hour of taking the medication, I could feel its effects on my mood. I drifted off into a very long night of strange visions, intense images, and disheartening dreams. At one point I saw my long-dead mother walking through our old house in her bathrobe, smiling at me. I ran up to her, somehow knowing she had died and wanting to spend time with her. I remember her saying to me, “You need to go out and play; don’t stay in here with me!” and I desperately tried to explain to her how life goes by all too quickly and then it is gone. I woke up with tears in my eyes, but understood the message I had received. As I meditated on the meaning of my restless sleep, my changed physical condition, and the future considerations it would demand, I thought about how fleeting is the nature of this life and the trivial temporary resolutions we make in comparison to the glory that awaits those who believe in Jesus. I thought about this verse from 1 Peter: In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7RSV) I came to realize that the “slight momentary” troubles we experience here on earth are meant to remind us of the glory that we experience now by faith and will experience fully when Christ is revealed. Yes, our lives are fleeting. Children all too soon grow up and the shape of our families changes as the years go by. But we are called to go right on playing – to enjoy life, to endure our trials, and to live and laugh and love will all our might as these wonderful realities point us to the greater glory that will be ours in the end. You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down There is a calm that comes after a storm such as this, offering a moment of clarity so profound that time seems to stand still. In my weakness, propped up in my recliner with a cup of tea and my family around me, I gladly yielded to my helplessness and my need for recovery. And when I think about it, that is really what making resolutions is all about. Life throws so much at us, and we who are faithful must push through the days of joy and pain and seek that holy place of recovery where we allow the renewing power of the Savior to pour itself into our lives once more. New years come and go and we continue the cycle of spiritual transformation from sinner to saint, from the fires of suffering to the glory of the vision that shapes our souls. As I step into the days to come, I rejoice that God is loving enough to allow the afflictions we experience to cause the love and life of Christ to manifest itself in our words and deeds as we continually offer our lives to him. Consider this thought from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 RSV) What a joy it is to know that, through my suffering, the life of Jesus is being displayed in this fallible, fallen man who has been redeemed by grace. It turns my yesterdays into treasures, my tomorrows into hopeful dreams, and my present into an experience of eternal satisfaction and immeasurable joy. I think that is worth a little bit of belly pain, after all. It is overwhelming to think that the One who has overcome the world is working out that same song of salvation in my battered body and the soul that is being transformed from glory to glory, day by precious day. Resolutions and Real Resolve I spent New Year’s Eve alone this year. My son and older daughter went to be with some young adult friends and my wife and younger daughter spent time with a few families, laughing and sharing some happy memories. But I wasn’t lonely at all. As I sat watching a movie and listening to the rain fall softly outside my window, I thought about the great gifts and eternal blessings I had been given. Their power is what has fueled my unspoken resolutions with true divine resolve and allowed them to unfold over the course of my life. I have a wife who has walked this journey of ups and downs right alongside me and is still there to share the road of trials and triumphs with a glad heart. I am father to three incredible children who still love to spend time with each other being silly and carrying on family traditions that remind us of who we are. I have my health and heart and sense of humor and all those little giftings and idiosyncrasies that make me who I am. Most of all, I have the grace that Jesus has given me that has rescued me from sin and the worst of myself. I have a relationship with the God who is wise enough to guide me, strong enough to move me, and loving enough to drive me to my knees and occasionally my back in order to teach me the wonder of conversion. As you travel the narrow path this new year, may the spiritual surgery that the divine surgeon performs in your life empower you to demonstrate the joy of salvation and the power of transforming love to all you meet. May we surrender our less-than-careful prayers to the One who delights to make all things new as each year rolls around to carry us home!
  6. There is a beauty and blessing to Christmas music that enters anew into my soul each year as soon as the season of Advent begins. It summons within me a joyful longing that calls out to the Savior to pitch his tent within my heart once more. It announces itself softly in the holy words and moving melodies, building slowly to an unrestrained expectation of the joy to come. Like an evening snowfall that calls us to fireside reflection around the Christmas tree, the music of Christmas sends me inside my heart to contemplate the great mystery of our redemption: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father. (John 1:14. RSV) Christmas is the time when heaven joins with earth, when the vertical and the horizontal natures of our faith come together in the little baby of Bethlehem. It unites my earthly past to my glorious future. The incarnation is the greatest sign, the purest sacrament, its grace falling down upon us and spreading out into our world as hope renewed. Such is the awe and wonder of Christmas I find in poetry and song. Like the passage in John, I am moved beyond the words to see the power and presence of Christ. The Poetry of Christmas Nothing stirs my soul quite like the music of Christmas, the traditional hymns and joyful songs the sons and daughters of God have composed over the many years since the birth of our Lord. They do for me what no theological text could ever do. The words that pour forth from the pens of these inspired poets raise me up out of time and seat me in that sacred space where my soul is truly satisfied with the message and meaning of the incarnation. There, my ordinary life gives way to unimaginable possibilities. I see myself through the eyes of the One who looked out upon the plains of Bethlehem and cried tears so deep that heaven itself bent down to gaze in astonishment. Like the shepherds and the wisemen, I am called to witness the holy child before me: sleeping in a manger, nursing at the breast of his young mother, warmed by the breath of the animals on that cold and quiet first Christmas night. In the Christ child I see heaven’s perfect love flowing freely upon the earth: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:2, RSV) The Sign of the Cross As I listen to the music of Christmas, the majesty of heaven descends from the throne room and walks upon the weary road of this world. The light of truth bursts forth like the dawn upon the darkness of sin and despair. I no longer look at the manger scene, the sacred Word or the bread and cup and see something ordinary and sentimental. Instead, I see the Son of Maninvading our world, giving Himself to us to consume, and sacrificing Himself on the cross where heaven finds satisfaction and earth is redeemed. The tiny shoot of Jesse becomes the righteous branch that spreads out to all the earth as the fullness of the Godhead comes to dwell among men. To Bethlehem, the House of Bread, comes the Bread of Life, the One who will give His life for the whole of humanity. Jesus becomes the Savior who fills the height and depth, the length and breadth, of creation with His perfect, sacrificial love. In Him, the promise of the Sabbath’s rest becomes a daily reality that fills my heart with unspeakable joy. He is God with us: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el. (Isaiah 7:10, RSV) A Covenant of Coalescence As I sit by my fire during this blessed time, listening to songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus, I am transformed by the salvation of Christ that came in the fullness of time. I can gaze upward to the heavenly realms, and yet look to the east and west to see a world still longing for what only Jesus can bring. In Him, heaven and earth are joined together at the cross, and I see my place in His marvelous plan. The Wonderful Counselor reveals His truth to my heart and makes me wise. The Mighty God speaks His power into my actions and calls me to serve. My Forever Father shows me the heart that bled upon that cross and I surrender to my sin. The Prince of Peace fills me with contentment and sends me forth to bring harmony to my world. Through the poetry of God’s Word, I see what my senses fail to grasp. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6, RSV) Prophecy and Profound Fulfillment The Bible is the Word of God. It is a divine love letter, a song of hope sung into our hearts from beginning to end. We hear the prophets calling out through time to the One who will fulfill all their hopes and dreams of redemption. We hear it in the words of Mary as she rejoices in God’s favor. We see Jesus, the Word, the Suffering Servant, speaking and moving through this world with his profound purpose that ends with His death on the cross. And we experience in the writings of the New Testament the hope that is ours to the end. I would like to end this brief sharing with some poetry of my own, written in love to the Savior who has spoken into my heart and helped me to see the power of the incarnation that has linked heaven and earth in the person of Jesus. These new “hymns” speak of the promises of old fulfilled in Christ, and the response of heaven and earth to His coming to our world as the little baby of Bethlehem. May God bless you as you take time to listen to the music of Christmas and experience the joy of heaven and earth coming together in redemption through the Christ child this Christmas. Unto Us Unto Us a Son is given, To our Race a Child is born, In Him all our sins forgiven, Love fulfilled on Christmas morn. Bethlehem of Judah’s numbers Not among the least you be, In you now your ruler slumbers, Israel’s Shepherd God is He. Chorus… In the wilderness preparing, Way made straight and hill brought low, Broken reed His life repairing, Seed now planted, soon to grow… Our Messiah, King and brother, Sinless Savior, One so mild, Holy God alone, no other, Born to us as lowly child. Days are coming, branch increasing, King from David’s royal line. Righteous Judgment, never ceasing, Sacred ever-living sign. Holy Scepter rightly reigning, Kingdom rule without an end. Promised Land forever gaining, Broken staff His law will mend. . Chorus… Lo the Virgin, hour nearing, Calls His name Emmanuel, King of kings in flesh appearing, Saves us from the pow’r of hell. Chorus… Unto Us a Son is given, To our Race a Child is born, In Him all our sins forgiven, Love fulfilled on Christmas morn. Hymn for the Holy Child In the fullness of the ages, Word of God in flesh was born, God from God, the light of Heaven, Came to earth on Christmas morn. Hope for man, our sinless Savior, Infant child at mother's breast, Sleeping still in straw-filled manger, Holy Lord and Sabbath's rest. Shepherds in the wasteland watching, First to hear the angel's call, Hasten now to lowly stable, To their knees in reverence fall. Host of Heaven now united, Mighty chorus, hymn of praise, Yahweh’s presence shining brightly, Blessings ‘till the End of Days. Star shines brightly, Sacred Godhead, Fills the sky with radiant light, Perfect peace and Holy Power, Bringing day to darkest night. Wisemen seeking, search the heavens, Follow star to House of Bread, Bowing low to new King rising, At his feet their gifts they spread. Men rejoice for your salvation, As our God breaks into time, Fall before the child in worship, Pure transcendent truth sublime. Sing with joyful hearts surrendered, Praise the babe on manger throne, All creation in submission, He is God and God alone!
  7. Every year, my family and I must make one of the toughest choices ever: where to eat Thanksgiving dinner—with my siblings or with my wife’s parents. I seldom see my brothers and sisters, so it is always nice to have a McCann family mini-reunion. However, the Davinos sure know how to put together a food-filled traditional Italian Thanksgiving feast! It is a difficult pick—decisions, decisions, decisions! Thanksgiving always reminds me of my need to look upward and offer my praise and blessing to the One who provides those great family times that fuel my growing faith. My life is a journey through triumphs and trials, steps of faith that build on the traditions and the ever-unfolding graces that come my way. As we all move along the narrow road to heaven, let us not forget to be thankful for what we have been given. Family Traditions We Follow We have a number of traditions we follow at Thanksgiving. For my family, we meet at my brother Tim’s, sample from a big buffet of foods my siblings bring and grab a seat around the house for beautiful recollections late into the evening. My wife’s family gathers around the extended family table to eat until we drop and laugh until we settle into a place of peace so wonderful we know we are home. There is a realm that exists in the heavenlies where God inhabits the praise of His people, where joy fills our hearts and joins us to the grace that flows from the celestial city. When we enter those places of peace that have grown out of our traditions, we discover just how solid our faith really is. The struggles of life are no less real in those moments, but they are given a better perspective from the vantage point of the rock of refuge upon which we stand. Being with family is as real as it gets, and I know that not all family interactions are so wonderful. There are past hurts that may remain or personal struggles that are ongoing. There is the pain of loved ones lost or family members not present. Tomorrow’s tasks will still be there for us to face. Yet, in this precious moment of solidarity and love, we find the strength—the grace—that comes from the One who has knitted our family together and ever holds us in His heart. Feasting and Memories God has given us all stories to share and paths to follow. As we sit with our loved ones around the banquet table and remember the past, we join our hearts to the greater story of our salvation. We recognize that we are all on a continuing journey toward our heavenly home. Our memories bring to mind the struggles we have overcome and the blessings we have been given in one another. In our laughter, we see our humanity. In our tears, we witness the divine. As we remember, we connect those who have come before and those who will come after us, for we all share the same journey. The Thanksgiving feast is a place where the pain of our past can find revision and restoration as we heal our memories by the grace of the love we now share. It transforms us by opening our eyes to the miracles that have come our way. We look at one another and realize that our family is a great gift we have received from Jesus. Our stories help us to see the depth of the divine love that has held us together and continues to lead us forward day by day. Being together with my family in this way helps me to hold each person in my heart. I bask in the warmth of the love we have shared in good times and bad. I discover ever-deepening understandings of just who these family members are and how much they mean to me. Our memories tie us all together and reveal the Savior who has given us purpose in our common bond. Our journeys are intimately connected because of the past we share and the future for which we all hope. God Moments and Goodness Given My greatest joys at Thanksgiving, however, come in the new stories we share with one another. Hearing that my niece’s new daughter is beginning to walk recalls those similar moments with my own children. Learning about the achievements of my family members—everything from violin recitals to new jobs to home projects completed—brings me contentment. Even sharing our current struggles brings us closer as we lend our strength to one another and offer hopeful prayers and healing words. I see God’s presence in each word we speak and experience we share. His goodness lies in the reality that we are one in Him as we walk the journey together. We may not see clearly the road ahead, but we know we will make it because we have one another and we share a common faith that cannot be broken by trial or snuffed out by the world. Like taking photographs at Thanksgiving, I know I must store up within my heart each conversation, every tender exchange and all the laughter that takes place. These are the God moments we must never miss or ever forget, the gifts of grace that pass all too quickly but become a part of who we are and what we are to one another in Christ. Thanksgiving Gratitude and Grace In the end, no matter where we choose to spend Thanksgiving, our family remains a vital link to the God who has made us to live and love in His name. The family is the great sign of our Savior’s love for the world and a reminder of the way in which He relates to His people of faith. This yearly celebration helps to ground me in the joyful reality of what family love is all about. I am grateful for my family members, their caring support, their wonderful spirits, and even their many flaws and failings. To me, they are a conduit of the grace that is ours because of the God who created us for gratitude. Each year, as you celebrate Thanksgiving with your family, take time to remember the past and find healing and hope in the future, to share memories and new happenings, and to bask in the joy of what it means to be grateful of heart. Give thanks to God who has placed you together on the road that leads to a wonderful heavenly home. Strive to overcome the hurts and seek the blessings that are the grace-filled inheritance of being part of a family under the care of our heavenly Father. Enjoy the feast and find peace and God’s presence in the prayers of thanksgiving you share. God bless!
  8. When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4, RSV-CE) In 2005, the movie “Cinderella Man” (Universal Pictures) hit the big screen. It told the story of a former boxer named James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) and his experience during the Great Depression. He struggled to keep his family fed, working shifts on the docks unloading cargo until his former manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamattie) offered him one last fight against a young, up-and-coming contender for the heavyweight title. Braddock won a stunning upset over the younger boxer and returned to the ring full-time, against the wishes of his wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), who feared for her husband’s safety. Braddock, however, was able to overcome all the odds and win the Heavyweight title by defeating world champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko). His determination and courage also won the hearts of every struggling American, who saw his victory as a sign of hope in a time of great uncertainty. Pentecost was the Church’s “Cinderella Man” story – the hour when ordinary believers on the brink of defeat turned their lives around and brought hope to a weary world by stepping into the arena of human events and taking on the champions of the day. Through the Holy Spirit, these men and women found their purpose and place in the Body of Christ and discovered the timeless power of salvation’s story. Seeing Pentecost with Eternal Eyes Pentecost is not just a one-time heavyweight event; it is the ongoing story of salvation that daily breaks in upon our lives and offers us the hope of heaven. It evokes deep spiritual questions that resonate in our hearts, hearts broken by the drama of the cross and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our souls moment by moment. These questions challenge us to view our salvation through the lens of eternity. How are we, as followers of Christ, to understand our place in the Kingdom and our connection to the power that turned death to life and united humanity under a banner of perfect love? How do we live out our calling to bring the hope of the Gospel to a hurting world? How are we to balance our surrender to the sovereignty of the Almighty (Deuteronomy 4:39) with our grace-enabled will to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? (Philippians 2:12-13) Waiting with Eyes Fixed on Heaven The first believers were certainly living out an eternal Cinderella story, struggling to understand their place in the drama of salvation and looking to the immensity of the faithful fight that lay ahead. They experienced the doubts and misunderstanding of their own Jewish family who refused to see the bigger picture unfolding before them. But like the hero of the movie, these believers accepted the dangers of the battle and were prepared to go all the way to win the prize God had in store for them in Christ. (Philippians 3:14) How do we know this? The Word gives us a few clues. The believers had chosen to come together in obedience to the prior command of Christ (Acts 1:4). They, together with Mary, the women, and the brethren of Jesus, were devoting themselves to constant prayer (Acts 1:14). They also recognized the need to choose a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:15-26) in order to prepare for the future ahead. These were brothers and sisters held together by their love for the One who had died to free them from sin. They saw with heaven’s eyes the hope that was ready to rush in upon their lives. They took their fear and transformed it into faith, trusting that their Savior would carry them through the battle to the end. The Spirit Comes, The Church is Born Pentecost took fallen human beings and turned them into faithful followers of Christ. The Holy Spirit burst forth upon humanity in a display of Shekinah glory that united past and future into an eternal present. Once more, heaven opened and the Spirit of God spilled forth in power, penetrating deeply into the hearts of the believers and awakening them to eternal life in the Mystical Body of Christ. (Acts 2:1-4) Like champions driven to overcome all odds for the sake of a higher calling, these men and women rushed into the streets, speaking words of praise and prophecy in the languages of the people and calling all present to believe and be baptized. The great and awesome Day of the Lord was upon them and the people were cut to the heart; yet, they were moved to approach heaven’s throne and find new life in forgiveness and restoration. The strength of the first believers who championed the cause of Christ gave hope to all those seeking a better way. (Acts 2:5-41) Salvation: A Journey of Past, Present, and Future Many have claimed that Pentecost was a reversal of the Tower of Babel, as the children of God were brought back together in unity of purpose. In reality, however, what happened was a restoration of the original calling of God to take the light of truth to the ends of the earth. The people of God had been humbled, but now we’re being led as holy exiles into the world to fill it with the message of salvation. Pentecost connected the will of God from eternity past to eternity present, setting forth a wondrous plan of salvation to be lived out day by day in faith. We continue to experience the power of Pentecost in our Baptism and Confirmation, and in the weekly celebration of the Eucharist. When we participate in the great signs of our initiation we are brought into the Body of Christ, joining with saints past, present, and yet to come. We receive the promises of salvation and the grace that transforms us and moves us forward in our common journey of faith. Each time we come to the table we are transported back to the once-for-all sacrifice of the cross and overwhelmed with thanksgiving as we experience the perfect, transformative love of Christ. Fighting the Good Fight, Winning the Prize There is an awesome truth that some Christians may overlook when considering the Pentecost story, and that is how Christ, through grace, equips us to join Him in bringing about the salvation of the world. Those who have been set free in Baptism have been called to belong to the Body of Christ. We are gifted specifically for our part as subjects of the Kingdom. As we live out this calling in the present, we are intimately connected to the eternal and ever-unfolding plan of salvation that will find its ultimate fulfillment when Jesus comes again. God challenges us to climb into the ring, take on the enemies of the cross, and pour ourselves into the fight until the victory is won. These daily battles allow the Church to shape us, even as we help to shape the Church to which we belong. Our salvation is an event that begins at Baptism, continues through our Christian living, and culminates when we are united once more with Christ at the resurrection. If we see Pentecost through this eternal perspective, we will choose to yield our lives more and more to the One who has graced us to see the battle through to the end. Second Chances, Heavenly Rewards Just like James J. Braddock was given a second chance on life, we have been given a fresh start through the power of Pentecost. As the Church was born through the coming of the Holy Spirit, so too are we born anew day by precious day, as we take the grace we have been given and pour it out upon the world with courage, determination, and faithfulness. Let us remember what it means to live out our salvation by looking to the first believers: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, RSV-CE) Having an eternal perspective on Pentecost is about surrendering in reverence to the Almighty. It calls us to work wonders of love and transformation in His name and share our goods and our lives with others. It allows us to celebrate the Eucharist with joy and join in fellowship as together we witness the growth of our family of faith day by day. It transforms us into instruments of perfect praise as we walk the road of salvation with our brothers and sisters. And it means never giving up fighting the good fight of faith until the battle is won!
  9. Ever since my wife and I moved into our current home I’ve had an ongoing battle with the shrubbery. There are times when honestly I don’t know who’s winning the battle – the vegetation or me; but it’s all part of having a nice home and I take pride in the way our yard looks to the outside world. At one point, the task of keeping up with our property became a living parable of the character of sin my life. I confess there was a time when I was more satisfied with the condition of my garden than the condition of my soul. I’ve been grateful to the Lord for teaching me an important lesson along the way. Pruning Away a False Front On one section of our property, there was a collection of wild grape vines that had choked out just about everything that was growing there. From a distance, things looked lush and green, but up close it was plain to see that the vines had all but destroyed the bushes underneath. I ended up having to use a chain saw to remove many of the bushes in order to get rid of the thick vines that had taken over. One of the most tedious parts of that project was removing the vines from around the branches of a young mulberry tree. Pulling them off the tree was no use. I had to go to the roots and cut them with a pruning saw and then clip the different sections around each branch and carefully remove them one by one. I found that in order to save the tree, I had to cut off several of its branches where the vines had coiled themselves around the wood. The more of the vines I removed, the more I realized just how far gone the tree really was. At the end of the whole endeavor, I found that there was very little foliage remaining and I was left doubting whether the tree would even recover from its ordeal. Through this experience I was reminded how the sin in my life was like those vines. It started off quietly attaching itself to my life. At first I didn’t notice what had happened; and when I did, I ignored the problem. “I’ll get rid of it later; it’s nothing to worry about right now!” I told myself. But slowly, like the vines around the bushes and trees, the sin began to wrap itself around my soul, intertwining with my daily actions and becoming a part of who I was. Like the tree, it was difficult to tell the difference between the sin and the green full life God had given me. They looked almost the same – at least from my disinterested distance. The Divine Gardener I began to see that the sin was taking over, choking out the light and drying me up inside. Things looked healthy on the surface; but I knew I was in need of a good pruning. I remembered reading the words of Jesus in John15: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-5) I knew I needed to let the Divine Vinedresser cut away all that was in me that was dead. My sin had become a thin veneer over a parched soul that was starved for the nourishment of new life from the True Vine. I didn’t want to be taken over by the choking, twisted growth of sin until the shell of my life was toppled to the ground, used up, and worthless. I trusted the heavenly Gardener to be as gentle as possible in the process. I knew there would be pain and even some loss; but I was prepared to accept what was needed to make me into a fruitful believer once more, trusting that it wasn’t too late to save me as I opening my heart to His healing. I discovered that my roots in Christ were strong, and the life surging through me came from the One who was my sure foundation. The Gardener knew what to do. Through the pruning power of confession and the nourishment of the Word and Lord’s Table, I began to heal. At first, I didn’t like what I saw. I had let my spiritual life go but now I was painfully aware of just how deep the sin in my life had gone. I was ready to begin again. A Question of Discipline In the story, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, there was a young prince who was a faithful gardener on a tiny planet where seeds would blow in with the wind. Some were innocent and became beautiful roses, but others were dangerous and grew into giant baobabs. The prince knew that when a baobab first appeared, it would look as harmless as a rose, but if neglected for too long, it could grow so large that it would engulf and tear apart his tiny planet with its huge roots. “A baobab,” he said, “is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces.” In the words of the Little Prince, it was all a “question of discipline.” And so it was with my sin. I needed to remember to dig out those roots of sin as soon as they could be distinguishable from the fruit of the Spirit in my soul. My yard has been looking better with each passing year. That young tree is flourishing and our bushes have come back to life. With each new spring, I see more and more growth and new beauty where there once was only the appearance of healthy greenery. There has been a similar kind of growth in the garden of my soul as well. I’ve learned the sobering lesson of the baobabs and the meticulous methods of the Gardener. I’ve come to see that it’s our connection to the True Vine that helps us to find an abundant life and a fruitful harvest. It’s there for me as I remain in Him and tend to my soul-garden with disciplined hands. But I must be willing to pay the price for cutting sin out of my life and ready to cultivate the seeds of new growth that the Gardener will plant within me through each and every new season of change.
  10. There is nothing so invigorating as a good bike ride. Recently, I’ve gotten much more serious about it, going four to six times a week from late spring to early fall for an 18-23 mile trek through our town. I was always a biking enthusiast; however, my problem is that no one remembered to tell my aging body this important news. Actually, I started riding again because I love the wind in my hair and the exhilaration of my heart pumping as I race along. Let me assure you; the fact that I had gained a few pounds had absolutely nothing to do with it. But, the more I got back into it, the longer I found I was riding. More riding meant more time to think and so I decided I’d pen a few of the more sober and spiritual thoughts that have occurred to me during these rides. I was thinking about something a young girl once asked me. She wanted to know how I speak to God, or more precisely, how I listen to what God wants to tell me. I kept thinking about it for some time after that and so, each day when I took my ride, I decided to stay open to whatever God might want to tell me during that particular ride. And as I asked, so did I receive. These daily excursions taught me a lot about what journeying with God is all about. I began my reintroduction to biking by traveling on the streets I knew. We often do that – start off on the journey by keeping to the familiar paths. Our fear of unknown – which really amounts to a fear of failure and fear of pain – tends to keep us on the path that feels safe. But, as I ventured onto new streets, it reminded me that being Christian means talking the risk to go to new places where God is leading us. We can’t really be effective in our walk until we get beyond the feeling that our journey is supposed to be a safe one. I remember one morning, probably the second day I resumed riding, when I came to a steep hill. Rather than braving it in the lowest gear possible or getting off and walking the bike up the incline – which no real “biking enthusiast” would ever do – I decided to turn down a street just before the hill began to climb. I admit I felt a bit guilty for being so out of shape, and I was left wondering whether I would have made it had I tried. There have been times in my life when I was afraid to take on the steep challenges that were before me. Sometimes it was because I simply wasn’t ready and God wanted me to go a different route to reach the same destination; other times I think I was just too full of pride to slow down and go back to walking. These experiences taught me the importance of spiritual preparation and daily training in the faith as an essential part of going the distance. It was a hard lesson to learn, but the sad reality is this – any time I gave in to the easy way, I knew I had to surrender to a challenge that was never met. As I chose to go down new streets, there were times when I would approach a dead end road. Often I would see the signs from far off but still feel compelled to continue on the road. Sometimes there would be another road that would allow me to continue my journey before I reached the dead end and other times I was forced to turn around. You know, I never felt awkward about taking a wrong turn; I knew there was always a way out and a new direction to go. It brought to mind the times I had wandered into sin or followed a direction that would lead me to a dead end in my walk of faith. And each time I saw the same loving God right there beside me, never condemning me for my mistakes, but always, always offering a new way to take me out of my dead end choices. Now an interesting thing happened one day. I was riding along and peddled past a yard with a lawn sprinkler moving lazily back and forth between the house and the road. As I went past it, the water was shooting out onto the street. Even though I was hot, I swerved around the water and kept on going. Immediately I thought about how God often provides cool refreshment in the midst of life’s scorching desert days, and how we often miss His refreshment because we are focused on the road ahead or too proud to accept His kindnesses. I can assure you that after that experience, I made sure to zip through any cool spots that came up in the road ahead as a refreshing reminder of that incredible truth. As I rode around each day, I would inevitably come to a place where I had to make a decision to turn left or right. One day, I looked up at the road sign on my right, which read, “Mountain Road.” Hmm. Not good, I thought. Still, I decided this time to take the challenge and went up the hill to the right. Surprisingly enough, the road turned out to be more of a slight incline than anything else. At one point I was even able to turn down a street on my left and coast for a while. Now coasting is always fun, because gravity does all the work and I get the thrill of a little speed instead of a slow steady ride. The twists and turns of life, the uphill battles, the times we can coast – it is all a matter of making a decision and then riding out the road wherever it takes us. Sometimes I have no idea if I should choose one direction for my life over another. I worry that I’ll make the wrong choice and miss an opportunity that God has to offer me. It can be paralyzing to think that making a wrong choice might lead to dire consequences. But that isn’t how our Lord works. Just as I find a new adventure and a new insight no matter which direction I choose on my ride, so too will God work all things out to the good for the ones who have chosen Him. In the end, I know that ultimately God is in control and will take care of me on my journey. I take comfort in the fact that if I’ve spent time in preparation, by staying in His Word, praying with an open spirit and listening to Him speak all around me, I know I’ll have all the wisdom I need to make the right choice and to courage to take the steps to get from here to there. Now another time on my ride, I came to a main road and wanted to cross over it to the other side, but found that the traffic was too heavy. Just when it would clear up on the left side, there would be cars zooming up on the right. At first, I was upset at having to wait for such a long time, but then I realized that waiting gave me a chance to get a drink and to rest my leg muscles. And when there was a break in the traffic, I had the energy to take off and get right back into the journey. So many times I’ve seen the obstacles of my life as hindrances to progress, when all the while, God was slowing me down and giving me time to rest, refresh and consider my next steps. It was only at the end of each time of resting, when the obstacles were removed – or I found a new way to deal with them – that I was able to see the reasons for God allowing them in the first place. There did end up being a killer hill – one that left me no choice but to get off the bike and walk up in total humiliation and shame. Three quarters of the way up the hill, I saw a sign for “Brookview Road.” I decided that a ride alongside a brook might be nice and made a right turn. Well, there was no brook in sight and all this road did was to lead me down some more streets that seemed to take me nowhere. While I thought I was going to have an enjoyable experience, I simply rode in a huge circle and ended up just a little further down the road from where I would have been had I not turned. It did, however, keep me from having to cross over a busier intersection where cars turn onto and off of the highway. And since the purpose of the bike ride was for exercise…excuse me – to feel the wind in my hair – it didn’t really matter that I had to go the long way around. It helped to reinforce the idea that God is consistent and sovereign and knows how to take our self-centered choices and redirect them for his purpose and direction, often sparing us from dangers we might not even have comprehended along the way. One of the most interesting things I did on my ride was to pick up objects discarded along the road. I was asked to substitute for the pastor of my church and wanted to prepare a sermon illustration. I decided to stop whenever the Spirit moved me to pick up a certain object. I picked up an old pair of broken glasses, some rubber tubing, a crushed soda can, and many other “useless” items. When I got home, I took those pieces of trash and turned them into a sculpture. I admit it wasn’t anything that would allow me to retire in comfort, but when it was finished, my creation was a perfect illustration of what God does for all of us. Each of us who believe has been like a discarded piece of garbage that was found by a loving God who has been able to shape us into something brand new! While the world may look at each of us as useless or unworthy, God sees just exactly how we fit into His vast eternal plan! Day after day, in order to keep biking trips interesting, I would seek out a new way to go: through the center of town one day, out to the airport the next; sometimes just taking a leisurely ride along the nearby bike path on those lazy days. I figured that after a couple weeks, I would run out of places to go and start to get bored, but I was wrong. When I went out boldly, seeking to go wherever a new path took me, I found that the little town I live in had an awful lot of journeys packed into it. No matter how many days I went out, the journey was always new and interesting. It left me wanting to take that approach to my daily walk with the Lord – seeing each new day as another small journey, full of opportunities for excitement and learning, with no day like any other and none ever worth throwing away. A truly blessed part of these rides was when things finally started to look familiar again and I found I had completed the bulk of the journey. It always felt good to be heading home. It wasn’t without its temptations, however, as many times I passed a local diner serving a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich or the ice cream place near the airport where I swear I could hear a double-dip chocolate peanut butter cone calling my name. Now I know that to stop and indulge myself would defeat the purpose of going on a bike ride in the first place – but OH – was it so tempting! I’m proud to say that I pressed on and soon found I had made it past the place of forbidden food and was on my way back on the road to my destination, my goal – my home! I knew I had a prize waiting for me there – my beautiful wife and my beautiful children, and their smiles were food enough for me! Okay, I admit it – I would end up having a big bowl of fiber or something equally healthy to take care of the other hunger inside me, but I saw it as temptation properly redirected and satisfied. Like physical hunger, there are also spiritual temptations along the road of life. Satan tries his best to get us to stray from the path by offering us things that appeal to our senses and our needs, but ultimately they don’t satisfy. Only one thing truly does – living out our lives in the love of the God and pressing ever onward to win the prize that He has in store for all His children. And though it often seems that we can only see the worth of our journeys when we reach the end of them, it has been a joy to come to know the pleasure in the journey itself as well. These days, my schedule has changed somewhat, but I still try to keep up with my riding when the weather is nice. I admit the discipline is good for my body and my soul, even though the sight of me afterwards is not always so good for my family. But there is so much God has to say to me in those quiet times out on the open road. I’m so grateful for that simple question from that young girl. I don’t know if I would have been so focused had she not given me something to think about. There are just too many things we take for granted on our life journeys and once the journey is past, we can never go back and claim what was lost. I’ve learned that every moment of our existence has been ordained and blessed by our heavenly Father. While events in our lives may seem random and without purpose, we need to realize that it’s all in the Father’s hands, and in the end, we’ll understand what the journey has been all about. I pray that your journeys and mine will be full of joy and purpose, and that we will press ever onward to the end of all our journeys in eternity!
  11. Holy Week: Monday…No Turning Back! And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation.” And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people sought to destroy him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people hung upon his words. (Luke 19:41-48 RSV2-CE) What a beautiful picture of the purity of Jesus, both human and divine. What a profound illustration of His great love. To see the Son weep over the city of His Father, and to watch Him drive out those who were violating the Holy Temple brings me to tears and distress as well. Jesus knew what was about to happen. He knew there was no turning back. It was all part of His Father’s plan for salvation, but still He wept over the city He loved and cried out against those who had turned His Father’s house into a den of thieves. Most of the time in my life, my “no turning back” moments have brought me sorrow. I can be an impulsive person and my cries of anger have often been from selfishness instead of righteous indignation. And even though I have committed my life to Christ, there have been times when I have wondered if I am truly all in for Christ. Sometimes my Christian walk has felt like some holy poker game: I have put all my chips on the table, but inside my hand was a little weak. What if God asked me to lay down my life for Him? I would die to protect my family, but when I am fearful about speaking to a coworker about my faith, how can I be sure I am ready to go all in for Jesus? Thanks be to God that HE provides the strength I need to accomplish my goals for Him. Each day, as I move closer toward heaven, I can take comfort in the fact that it is God who has sovereign control over my life. My “job” is to tune my heart to Him more and more so I can learn to listen to what He is calling me to do. I need to tune my heart to hear those things that should raise righteous anger or holy sorrow. Only then can I pray about how I can respond to what I experience. Is there a cause worth winning? Is there a lonely soul in need of comfort? Are there poor or sick or prisoners who could use my finances? Are there brothers and sisters who could use my time, talent, or treasure? And what about the gifts God has given me – in my case, words: am I using them for Him, not just in writing, but in my daily interactions with others? All of these become the challenge that today’s reading raises for me. When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51 RSV2-CE) Jesus never shrank from His purpose. Though He was tempted in the wilderness, at every encounter with His enemies, in the Garden, and even on the cross, He never gave in and He never gave up! Until He cried from the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), Jesus continued His lifework and completed the task He had come here to accomplish. He accepted pain, humiliation rejection and the agony of taking upon Himself all of humanity’s sins as He fulfilled perfectly what was required. No one else could have accomplished our salvation except the perfect Son of God! When I am feeling inadequate over my calling as a Christian, when I feel alone or misunderstood, outmatched, overwhelmed, or totally lost, I can look to the cross and see the One who satisfied of the debt I owed and opened the way for me to spend eternity in heaven. It is there that all those doubts will be swallowed up in that perfect victory, that perfect resolution of spirit, that perfect love! Father, this will be a time of no turning back. To contemplate just what your Son did for the world means I must examine who I am. I know that I fall so short, but I also know that Jesus has won the victory I could never win. In that I find comfort, strength and joy! As I continue the journey to the cross this week, may I honor you with my thoughts, my prayers, my deeds and my life. I offer them all, in Jesus’ name, Amen! Holy Week: Tuesday…Curing a Fig Tree, Lamenting a People In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside he went to it, and found nothing on it but leaves only. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21:18-19 RSV2-CE) “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Matthew 23:37-39 RSV2-CE) Some years back, I wrote a novel called, Jacob’s Dream, about a man who helped prepare the earth for the return of Christ. Throughout of the story, Jacob lamented over those who would be lost when Jesus returned and all was said and done. It was an intense struggle for him, to know that, in the end, there would be many who would reject the Lord and be condemned to the everlasting fires of hell. He had to let go and move forward in obedience to the One who had saved him from a sentence of death. I found it to be one of the hardest parts of the story to write because it was something I too was reluctant to face as a believer. I understood it in my mind because God’s Word said so, but this made it no easier to write that kind of resolve into the main character. But I knew that it was exactly what I needed to do. Some will accept Jesus’ message and others will reject it. Those who receive the Good News will find heaven. Those who reject the Good News will end up in hell. It is as simple as that. Jesus understood this all too well, He wept openly for His people, but it did not prevent Him from walking into the Holy City and all the way to the cross as He completed the task His Father had given Him to do. After the cleansing of the temple, the stage was set for the crucifixion. Jesus’ enemies began to seek a way to capture Him and condemn Him to death. The hour of darkness was approaching and what was Jesus doing? He was in the temple teaching the people He loved! But His teaching had a strong message of condemnation for those who would reject His message. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told a series of parables, all meant to convey the same message to those who believed they held the power. They had challenged Jesus’ authority in an attempt to shut Him down and trap Him, but Jesus saw into their hearts and He delivered a scathing sermon of denunciation to those who were supposed to be the guardians of the People of God. The first story was The Parable of the Two Sons. A father asked one son to work in the vineyard. He answered, “I will not!” but later had a change of heart and went. The father asked the second who said, “Yes Sir!” but never went. The teachers had said “Yes!” to God but had refused to follow His direction. The prostitutes and tax collectors and other sinners had said, “No!” but had a change of heart in the presence of the One who offered them hope. It was they who would enter the Kingdom, rather than the teachers of the law. The second story was The Parable of the Tenants. A landowner had leased out a vineyard to tenants and it was time to collect His share of the Harvest. He sent servants, but the tenants abused and killed them. He sent his son but the tenants said, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” They took him outside the vineyard and killed him. Jesus certainly knew what the leaders were planning to do to Him; and they certainly understood that He was accusing them of rejecting the Father’s messengers and ultimately, rejecting Him. The next story of was The Parable of the Wedding Feast. A king threw a wedding banquet for his son and invited all the right people; yet they rejected the offer and never came, and even abused and killed his servants. So the king invited the people on the highways and byways and they entered the feast, though even then, some were still not properly dressed for the occasion. Jesus was making it clear that the Kingdom was being taken from those who rejected His message and given to those with hearts open to receive it, even the sinners. Jesus had come looking for a harvest among His people and they were unwilling to yield to his message. So, like the fig tree, they were cursed, never to yield any fruit in the world. Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus condemned the Scribes and Pharisees with a series of “woes” (Matthew 23). His condemnation was so clear and complete that there was no room for doubt what was to come. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, the city He loved so much. He had longed to spread His love over them, but they rejected His message again and again. Their house would be left desolate, and the people would be condemned, though one day they would cry, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” whether they wanted to or not! This was a difficult but necessary part of the journey to the cross for our Lord. He continued to teach the people, knowing it would lead to His own death at the hands of the Jewish leaders. He did this because of His great love for us, a love so powerful that it led Him to speak the prophetic words of condemnation at the same time He spoke the eternal words of hope. As you continue the journey to the cross with Jesus, take time to let this truth sink in. Jesus’ death meant heaven for some, and hell for others. It was part of the pain He faced. May it spur us on to reach out to others with that same love while today is still today, before “too late” comes! Father, I know that there were those who rejected you then and there will continue to be those who reject you right up until you come again. May I ponder in my heart the great love you had in walking the journey all the way, facing the pain of rejection and the knowledge that many would be lost. Help me to reach out to as many as I can with the message of the Gospel while it is still called today. May I learn the lesson of the fig tree and may my own life yield the fruit of the Spirit in all I say and do! Thank you for your Son and for His atoning death on the cross. I offer you my life this day, in Jesus’ name, Amen! Holy Week: Wednesday…The Silent Day Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”… …Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Laz'arus, come out.” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:21-27, 39-44 RSV2-CE) Many commentators call Wednesday of Holy Week “The Silent Day.” They speculate that Jesus, after two exhausting days of ministry, spent time in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. I wanted to look at the story of the raising of Lazarus from a different perspective. This is a story that speaks with subtle silences against the silence of the grave. When the messenger came to Jesus to tell Him that Lazarus was sick, He responded by saying, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” (John 11:4 RSV2-CE) But then He delayed two more days – no explanations, just silence. When He said it was time to go to Judea, His disciples reminded Him about the Jews and their attempt to stone Him, but Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:9-10 RSV2-CE) Most likely this was not quite the answer the disciples had expected. One can imagine that the trip to Bethany was filled with silence as well. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, He was confronted by Martha and Mary. His response to the two sisters appeared incomplete, but what Jesus did not say spoke volumes. He intended to raise their brother, but He wanted to impart to them the mystery and majesty of the Resurrection; and that mystery was that He, Jesus, was the Resurrection and the Life. Then came the time before the silent tomb. Jesus filled the silence with tears and prayers to His Father, and then He brought life back to Lazarus! The brother of Martha and Mary stood up and walked out of the grave, still bound in the wrappings, most likely silent and standing still, in awe of what the Lord had done for him. The story ended with Jesus commanding that Lazarus be unbound. After that, it was the authorities who were doing all the talking. They plotted to kill Jesus, and later, plotted to kill Lazarus as well. But the very next scene in the Gospel is what completes the story. Jesus friends held a dinner and Mary anointed the feet and head of Jesus with expensive perfume. There was an angry voice in the crowd, Judas, who complained about the cost of the perfume and waste it was to use it all up on Jesus. Jesus, however, silenced him by saying, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:7-8 RSV2-CE) The silent actions of Mary spoke truth that Judas could never see. She understood what was coming and was preparing her Lord for the day of His burial. It was so profound, everyone was silenced by it. After all this, it is not so hard to believe that Jesus spent time with His friends in Bethany and I find it quite wonderful that the Gospel writers choose to keep silent about it. It expresses truths that give me hope. I like to believe that Jesus found supreme comfort in spending these precious hours with His friends and seeing their surrender to His impending death. I can imagine that much of their fellowship was spent in silence, the kind of silence where words were not needed and love was shared through looks and touch and the beauty of being present to each other. I imagine they talked of their love and concerns, said their goodbyes, and prayed about what was to come. And in the end, whatever was unclear to the three friends was pondered in silence until the time when Jesus rose and it all began to make sense. There are only traditions about what happened to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus after Jesus ascended to heaven. The Bible is silent on that. And I think that is a good thing. It leaves me to ponder their lives and their love for the Lord in the silence of my heart. It also leads me to think about my commitment to Jesus and what that means. I challenge you to take time in the silence of your own hearts to contemplate what the death and resurrection of Jesus means to you. Father, there are many silences in the Bible, many times when we must look in faith to what the stories of Jesus’ journey to the cross means for us. In taking time to think about those who encountered Jesus, I am challenged to think about my own relationship to my Savior as well. Thank you for this day of silence where I may do that. And thank you for sending your Son, who went silently to the cross for me! I offer my thoughts, my prayers and my life to you today, in Jesus’ name, Amen! Holy Week: Thursday…The Last Supper Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.” When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.. (John 13:1-15 RSV2-CE) Every year, I read through the Passion stories and hear them at church. When it comes to the Last Supper, I love reading about how Jesus offered the bread and wine as His Body and Blood, just as I love receiving the Eucharist today. It takes me back to the Upper Room and to the cross where He made the ultimate sacrifice for me. But it is John’s account of the washing of the Disciple’s feet that brings me to my knees in awe. For whatever reason, John chose not to focus on the bread and the wine. Maybe it was because it had all been said in the other Gospels. I like to believe that this story moved John so deeply that he chose to include it in his Passion story. It speaks so powerfully to the love and purpose of Jesus. Imagine the Son of God, the Creator of the universe, the Second Person of the Trinity, stooping like a slave to wash the dirty feet of His friends! It was His example of perfect service that found its greatest fulfillment in the cross! The Church has a foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday as part of the worship service. There have some Christians who say that, just as Communion is a Sacrament, foot washing should be a Sacrament as well. While I do not agree, I do believe Jesus commanded that we serve others, even to the point of washing their feet! Over the years, I have worked in hospitals and group homes with physically and mentally handicapped individuals. I must confess that there were times when I found myself put off at having to wash and clean up after them. I have since come to understand that this is a powerful way of sharing in the love of Jesus, who humbled Himself to care for me, especially when I was dirty from all my sin! I would not to want to leave out the institution of the Eucharist. Our Lord took the bread and wine of the Passover and offered it to His Disciples saying, “This is my Body…This is my Blood! Do this in memory of me!” I know there are different beliefs about what Communion is. Some believe Christ is present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the elements of bread and wine, while others see a spiritual presence, and still others see it as a symbolic act to commemorate the event and celebrate the death of Jesus until He comes again. I find it hard understand how anyone after reading John chapter 6 could not see Communion as a Sacrament – a sacred sign of Jesus. Eucharist is a way to experience Christ in an incarnational way. Some see that as superstitious or silly. But when I think about how the Son of God took flesh and came to “pitch His tent among us” I find it quite reasonable. Jesus came to gaze into our eyes with His, to walk the dusty roads of life with His feet, and to touch the sick and the crippled, the blind and the deaf, with His sacred hands. I find the things that others call symbols to be places where I can connect physically to the One who became a physical being for me. The Last Supper is made complete in the wonderful words of Jesus that John has recorded in chapters 13 through 17 of his Gospel. Jesus was going to His death and He wanted to leave His disciples with words of comfort, strength and peace. It was His final testimony to them before He walked the final road to the cross. I used to wonder what it would be like to be there and hear these words in person, but as I think about it, I realize that these are living words. All I need to do to travel back to the Upper Room is to read the passages once more with an open heart. These words are forever, spoken in both time and eternity. I will list what to me is the most moving of those sacred words: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another. (John 15:9-17 RSV2-CE) What else could anyone say that could fully express the deep meaning and the perfect love expressed in those words? What better response can we give to the great love of Jesus Christ than to love one another as He has loved us? Ponder that today and seek ways to live it out every day of your lives! Father, I marvel at the love of your Son, the Word incarnate, who stooped to wash the dirty feet of His disciples. It was the ultimate expression of submission and servanthood! I thank you for the Great Sign Jesus left us in the Eucharist, a way to taste and touch Him and carry ourselves back to that Upper Room as we remember – we relive – the great sacrifice He made for us all! Help me to take His perfect love into my heart and let it spill out into love for others, wherever you may send me this day and every day. Thank you for the Resurrection. Thank you for Jesus. It is in His name I pray, Amen! Holy Week: Friday…Words from the Cross I invite you to celebrate Good Friday in your church with other believers and to take time to read the Passion and meditate on its message. I would like to offer some brief commentary and prayer on the final words of our Blessed Savior from the cross… And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 RSV2-CE) Forgiveness for enemies, from the cross – the cruel cross! Such love from the Savior is unfathomable and overwhelming! He could have spoken condemnation and rebuke, words of righteous anger and indignation to the foolish people who were putting to death their Savior. But instead, He offered forgiveness and love. How the rulers failed to put a stop to the whole thing then and there is astounding! Yet they were blind to the great Son of God, pouring out His love and lifeblood before them. Forgive me Lord, for the sins of my life that placed you on that cross. I hear my mocking voice among the crowd yelling “Crucify! Crucify!” and I am put to shame. Thank you for forgiving me and saving me… And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43 RSV2-CE) The two men who had been crucified with Jesus had been mocking Him; when suddenly, one of them came to his senses and rebuked the other man. He knew that they were getting a just punishment for their deeds, but Jesus had done no wrong. With the exception of the Tax Collector in Jesus’ parable (“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!), there has probably never been a more concise plea for salvation. The “Good Thief” asked that Jesus remember him when He came into His kingdom. Jesus assured the man that “this day” he would be with him forever in paradise. At that moment, Jesus was both comforted and comforter! At the moment of His death He found joy in the repentance of one more sinner. Lord, the grace and love that you extended to this man is incredible; and yet I think it would be too easy to overlook just how profound it really was. Thank you for hearing my pleas for forgiveness and for welcoming me into your kingdom as well… When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26-27 RSV2-CE) Two strong souls stood at the cross, unafraid of the Romans and the Jewish authorities, held there by their great love for Jesus. Even in His agony, He still took a moment to see to His mother’s care. And, He raised her up in honor before His beloved disciple. This was His mother and the disciple He loved so dearly. Now, in Him, they were together as family as well. Lord, may I honor your mother and the great gift she gave in giving birth to you and suffering the sword that pieced her heart when she watched you die for the sins of all humanity. And thank you for my brother John who cared for your mother and who gave us His Gospel, that great love letter from you to us all… And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, la'ma sabach'-tha'ni?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 RSV2-CE) Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, and in quoting the first verse, He was calling the whole of the psalm to mind. The leaders failed to understand and thought He was calling out in Hebrew to Elijah instead of submitting to His Father. But Jesus was showing that He was the Great Suffering Servant, the One who was despised and mocked, whose bones were out of joint and whose heart was poured out like wax. But perhaps the most profound thought in all this is that, at that moment, the Father turned His face away from Jesus because the weight of all the world’s sin was upon Him. Jesus became sin so that He could free us from all our sin. Lord, I weep at the thought of your Father turning His face away from you. I cannot comprehend the agony you suffered for me. I recall the words of the 22nd Psalm in its entirety and I weep for the rejection you experienced at the hands of men. Yet, you endured all this so that we could experience salvation in you…. After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” (John 19:28 RSV2-CE) Jesus had lost so much blood and he was dehydrated. But how much more so, did Jesus thirst in His soul and long to fulfill His purpose on earth, to complete the task His Father had given Him to do. It was almost complete. It was almost at hand. Lord, you thirsted for my salvation; you longed for my redemption from sin. All your lifeblood was drained away. You had given your all for humanity! I am in awe. I weep for you and rejoice in the great gift of your life given for mine… When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished… (John 19:30a RSV2-CE) The Greek word for finished (or completed), “tetelestai,” which means “paid in full.” Jesus was saying that the great debt of humanity that had been posted upon the wooden cross was now cancelled and ink had been wiped away. The purpose for which Jesus had come had found its fulfillment in this moment, this holy and profound moment! Lord, thank you for cancelling my debt, a debt too immense for me to pay. You took that debt and paid it yourself with your very life. It is only in this that I am set free. No work, no prayer, no words and no deeds could have secured for me my salvation; but your great sacrifice on the cross paid it all… Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46 RSV2-CE) To the very end, Jesus placed His life into the hands of His heavenly Father. He did not despair on the cross but surrendered everything to the will of His Father. With a loud cry of triumph, in victory and joy, He laid down His life on that cross for us all! Lord, you died – you gave up your life – for me! You submitted yourself to your Father’s will perfectly and completely – never once deviating from the divine plan! Thank you for dying for me, so that I can be with you forever in heaven! I love you and I thank you – AMEN! Have a blessed Good Friday! Holy Week: Saturday…Sealed in the Tomb, Free from the Pit I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face, I was dismayed. To you, O LORD, I cried; and to the LORD I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!” You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my soul j may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you for ever. (Psalm 30 RSV2-CE) The Lord had been laid to rest in the tomb, wrapped in a cloth and left in silence. The stone had been rolled in front of the entrance, a seal had been set, and guards had been posted. Even in His death, Jesus caused the rulers to fear. They worried someone would steal His body. Or was it that they worried that the prophecies might just be true? The Sabbath had come and all had to depart. When the Holy Day had passed there would be time to anoint the body with spices. But not today. The beauty of Christianity over any other religion is that our Savior actually rose from the grave. No other religious system can say that about its founder. No other faith has their god coming to earth to pay the price for our sins. Only Christianity has the Creator of the universe leaving His throne to enter this life in poverty in order to be with His people and love them in His humanity as well as His divinity. No tomb could hold this Savior. Every other religious leader is either in the grave or someday will be. Jesus is the only One who could not be held in the tomb. What happened between Good Friday and Easter? 1 Peter gives us a clue: For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22 RSV2-CE) It is said Christ went into Hades or Sheol or Hell to preach to the souls there. Some say His preaching was to invite them to repent. Others say it was to pronounce judgment. Still others say this was all symbolic. The Apostles Creed – the one we use today – says that Jesus “descended into hell.” Whatever happened during this silent time, I know one thing for sure. It did not last. The grave could not hold Jesus. The Father would not abandon His Son. Jesus conquered sin and death and on the Third Day rose in victory! How can you honor the Savior on this silent day when Jesus was in the grave? One way is to meditate on things that Jesus said and did when He walked the earth, or to contemplate how the psalms and the holy prophets speak of Christ and His purpose for coming into this world. Perhaps you can pray for those lost souls who need the Savior’s tender touch and commit to living your life more and more for the Lord. Maybe you can visit a graveyard and think about the difference between dying in sin and dying in relationship with Him. And is there someone today with whom you may share the Good News of salvation? Remember, there may be lonely lost souls coming to church on Easter who need a gentle voice welcoming them into the family of faith this day. The Feast of the Resurrection is coming. Have a blessed day and prepare your heart for all that it means! Father, as I think of your Son in the grave, I find its silence stirring my soul to deeper contemplation about salvation and all that Jesus did for me. In His time in the tomb, He conquered death itself and became the just judge of the universe. Thank you, Jesus, for saving me. Thank you for your great love, the love that spoke from eternity into time, the love that went through hell and back so that I could have the victory in Christ. Thank you for the Resurrection. I offer you my love and my life, in Jesus’ name, Amen! Easter Sunday As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:36-49 RSV2-CE) The ground had shaken and the angel had rolled back the stone. His appearance was such that the men guarding the grave fell down as though dead. The women had gone to the tomb and found the body gone. They saw a vision of angels telling them not to seek the living among the dead, but to go to Jesus’ disciples and tell them the wonderful news of His resurrection! Peter and John had looked into the tomb and saw nothing but the burial cloths folded and left in the place where the body had been. Jesus had appeared to Mary in the Garden and to the two believers on the road to Emmaus. Hearts were burning and minds were racing. No one completely understood. How could they? The Spirit had not yet been given. It is in this context that we enter into the reading above. This was no ghost they were seeing. This was a real man with flesh and bones, breathing, eating, touching and speaking. Jesus was resurrected. His body had no more limitations. He could enter the room through the locked doors. He had no more pain or distress. He had conquered the grave and come back to open the minds and hearts of those He loved. The dark night was over and the new day had dawned. Nothing would ever be the same again. There are so many readings we could look at: sayings from our brother Paul on life in Christ and the power of the cross and resurrection; prophecies and types from the Old Testament that have been fulfilled in Christ. We could recall with great joy the parables and healings and miracles that led to this day of days! But I would rather sit in the Upper Room with the Disciples and marvel at my Savior suddenly appearing, smiling with love, breathing on me and calling me to receive the Holy Spirit. I would rather listen to Him calling me to be a witness and to wait for the power from on High to descend on me in days to come. Jesus is risen. Halleluiah! What more can we say? This journey has been a lonely one, a lovely one, a deep one, and lasting one; for we have walked that rugged road to Calvary with our beloved Savior. We have seen the old, old story fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our lives are forever changed for God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). And while we may think the story has ended, in truth it has only just begun. With the Disciples, we can remember the purpose for which Jesus came and hear our calling to go into all the world for Him… Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20 RSV2-CE) Father, thank you for this journey of Holy Week with your Son. Thank you for loving us so perfectly, so completely, that you sent Jesus to die in our place, to overcome our pride, our selfishness, our foolishness, and our sinfulness. May your Holy Spirit guide us and gift us to go into the world to make disciples, to love our brothers and sisters, and to reshape the world for the love of Jesus. May this Day of days be a new beginning for us, for the rest of this year and the rest of our lives. We offer you our thanksgiving, our praise, our love, and our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen!
  12. Note: If you would like to listen to the audio drama, see the link below at the end of the blog! “It is finished!” (John 19:30) – Three of the most wonderful words in all of Scripture. Though we read them and rejoice, I sometimes wonder if we truly grasp the awesome significance they have for us. There is high theology in those words, and yet their message is as simple as the faith of a child. They speak to every Catholic Christian, to the Church, and to the lost world looking for salvation. They speak of the love and power of the Son of God, and of the divine truth that divides the souls and the minds of men. How can we come to terms with the meaning of those words spoken on that First Good Friday? The answer lies in the depths of the deeper story of salvation, told through the witness of history and the people who lived out that story. Back when I worked in Christian radio, I produced an audio Passion Play for our local audience called, “The Witnesses: Through the Eyes of Faith.” It was presented like a documentary on the death of Jesus as told through the voices of those who were there. The imaginative testimonies of these men and women based on the words of Scripture described the awesome and immutable power that led the Son of God to the suffering and shame of the cross – the same power that moved these witnesses to find truth and meaning as well. The whole purpose of the play was to drive home the point that Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection was the high point of human history, the fulfillment of the divine drama of salvation. Christ’s words, “It is finished!” were the culmination of God’s great plan for mankind. Sharing in the Salvation Story Redemption was always in the mind of God. From the first breath poured into the soul of Adam to the last breath spilled out from the lips of the Son of Man, all of history has been about the Love that spoke the Word of Life into this world to rescue us from our sin and draw us back into the arms of the Father. We are called to be witnesses of this marvelous gift. When we share the salvation story, there are only two responses: surrender or rejection. Either our eyes are opened and we fall at the throne of mercy or they are blinded and we spit in the face of the Savior. In writing “The Witnesses,” the words I placed into the mouths of the characters allowed me to take different facets of the Passion story and show how they were brought to bear upon humanity. And alongside each spoken revelation of truth, there was another voice raging against the reality of the cross. Silent Servants, Raging Rulers, Righteousness Revealed… One such character was Malchus, the servant of the High Priest. His was an inner testimony, the witness of garden screams and reluctant obedience. He stood in contrast to his master, who tore his garments in the presence of Jesus, effectively abdicating his priestly position by making himself an unfit representative before the people. This man who lost his ear to Peter’s impulsive sword-wielding moment was healed by the Savior who was bathed in the light of an angel. His mind was moved enough by that healing to let Peter and John into the High Priest’s courtyard to stand watch as Jesus was maltreated by the mob. He stood for those outside the kingdom who are obedient to worldly masters, yet come to recognize that the rage of proud men against the Savior is sheer madness. Those who experience the healing touch of the true Master find release from the pain and pride of sin’s cruel bondage. Throughout the trial there was Nicodemus, the Pharisee who had come to Jesus at night to speak with Him and share his heart. Here was one who arrived at the meeting under the cover of darkness but was called to put his trust in the Light. The words Jesus spoke to him about the love of God, about being born from above, and about the wind blowing wherever it will, pointed Nicodemus to realities outside his learning and earthly knowledge. The more he came into the Light, the more he opened his mind to the reality of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. As Jesus was dying on the cross, I had Nicodemus recall the words of Isaiah 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant. Those verses stood in contrast to those in the world who allow the darkness to blind them to the truth, who see the cross as folly and absurdity. Nicodemus was a man who saw the Light cancelling out the darkness as Jesus fulfilled His mission of love. Faithful Followers, Tears of Release… John, the Disciple, who in the play was the first to speak and the last to respond to the message of Christ’s sacrificial love, brought the innocence of faith to bear against the cynicism of unbelief. His great love carried the story along, giving a gentle and sobering context to the harsh events of the crucifixion. Likewise Peter, the Rock, the man who showed both folly and faith, brought his weakness and strength into the narrative, as he moved from confusion and pride to repentance and submission. His steadfast loyalty to the Savior, broken for a short while by a moment of weakness, was a reminder that the journey to the cross is a human journey of stumbling and standing, failing and finding our way. His mistakes came up against the love and forgiveness of his Master and he was turned from an impulsive loudmouth to a rock-solid leader, never to be the same again. Then there were the two beautiful women of the story: Mary of Magdela and Mary the mother of the Lord. Their gentle devotion and steadfast love was a soothing balm against the horrific pain of the events of the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene, from whom 7 demons had been cast, spoke of the tears of surrender, rather than the tears of despair. Mary, the mother of Jesus, spoke of her mother’s heart that was breaking for her Son, even as His was broken for the world. Their gracious testimonies showed the kind of strength that recognizes the higher purpose of salvation. They shared how gentle, submissive love allows one to see the events of the Passion as the end of a long road to salvation and peace. Seeking Hearts, Witnesses to Worldliness… The Centurion and Simon of Cyrene represented those who come to the cross from outside the faith with an open attitude and a seeking heart. While the world refused to see what was happening as anything more than the harsh reality of another day in the Roman Empire, these men chose to look into the eyes of the Savior and see not a man condemned, but a Man of Sorrows fulfilling a holy purpose. It was a purpose that they could not fully grasp but somehow could sense in their open hearts. They came to see the duties and services they performed as a necessary part of the unfolding, intentional will of God. Their view of the convicted criminal on the cross transformed until all they could see was the Righteous Son of God! Claudia, the wife of Pilate, watched as her husband faced the mob enraged and the silent Savior who spoke of Divine Truth. She saw, perhaps most completely, the ultimate contrast between human authority and heavenly power. Jesus, the bloodied and beaten prisoner, stood as the noble Messiah before the impotent Roman official who slowly watched as his authoritative voice was slowly drowned out by the cries for crucifixion. Claudia’s testimony revealed the extreme differences between the Kingdoms of men and the Kingdom of Heaven, and her troubling night vision testified to the fact that, in order for Christ’s Kingdom to enter upon the world, all earthly Empires must eventually fall. Salvation’s authority would soon crush the weak and ineffectual power of mankind. Seeking Hearts, Witnesses to Worldliness… Throughout the Passion Play, the words and deeds of the Lord were presented for all to hear. Those with open hearts could receive the Gospel message of Love fulfilled in the Savior’s suffering on the cross. The Scriptures were laid bare before the listeners, and the testimonies were meant to speak to the inner turmoil of humanity in each seeking soul. It left the audience with a question and a challenge. The question: Is this man, witnessed to by so many, the eternal Son of God? The challenge: To accept or reject the witness – to let it speak to one’s heart and bring surrender or to refuse to listen and reject the message of the Gospel. There were no other options. As Resurrection Sunday approaches each year, the Church re-presents the story of the Passion to the believing and unbelieving world. Because we are witnesses of God’s salvation in Jesus, we are called to testify to the world that the death and resurrection of Christ is the fulfillment of the eternal salvation story. Let us remember that our witness to the resurrection stands in stark contrast to the rejection of Christ by the lost, and our saving stories serve to share the hope of heaven with a desperate and weary world. Through our witness, we share how the words, “It is finished!” are the crowning moment of the journey of mankind toward heaven and eternal hope. God bless. If you would like to listen to this audio drama, click the link below and look for "The Witnesses," Parts I and II, and click on the audio files. http://www.wordsnvisions.com/audiovideo/
  13. A couple years ago I decided to up my writing game by expanding my Internet presence, signing up on a few writers’ sites and posting some of my work for public consumption. I thought it would be a good way for me to network, point others to my website and build a greater following for my writing. I looked forward to getting feedback and interacting with the other writers, but what I didn’t expect to encounter was a whole sub-culture of teen self-expression that dove deeply into the dark regions of depression and self-harm. As I became more involved in the writing sites, the youth minister in me kicked in and I found myself drawn to reach out to those young people with the love of Christ. And so what started out as a way to build my brand turned out to be a winding journey into the thick of this mysterious and intense world of words. It was a true testing of my faith and ministry skills, and I learned a great deal about how the current social media culture has shaped the way teens view and express their identity, their fears and their pain. The Emotional World of Online Teen Writing… One of the first things I discovered on these sites was that, along with all the vampire stories and fan fiction and teen romance novels, there was a large percentage of poetry on depression, cutting and emotional brokenness. Here, many teens commiserated with one another over the harshness of their lives. These tender, hurting souls were posting brutally honest commentary about their circumstances, beautiful and often dark poetry describing their pain and despair, and rants that raged against the cruel world around them. I found much of it very difficult to read, not so much because of the pain it described but because of the hopelessness behind that pain. For sure, some of what I was reading was an expression of the emotional drama that all teens experience, the kind that can become overstated for effect. But in truth, much of it spoke to the sad reality that our culture has, in many ways, created a climate of loneliness, abuse, and abandonment in the hearts of young people. For the most part, there was very little hope in the words I was reading, but plenty of validation and camaraderie among these tortured teens. However, this virtual sharing of votes and comments in some sense served to perpetuate the whole cycle despondency as sympathetic replies from kindred souls prompted the teen authors to turn out additional chapters, leading to more comments, leading to further writing – and on and on it went – a catharsis with no real resolution. Sadder too, was the fact that so many of these teens were writing about their struggles with identity – and especially their sexual identity. I noticed that many of the culturally and politically correct terms had found their way into their posts: bi-sexual, bi-curious, pansexual, gender fluid, gender blind, transgender, and so on. Most of what I read expressed confusion or a call for validation of a particular choice made. There were those who wrote long rants about the intolerance of the rest of the world for the LGBT community, expressed in such a way as to leave any discussion on the subject closed, lest anyone with a different opinion be labeled as a bigot. In the comments on these pages, people applauded the person’s choice without ever addressing the confusion expressed in the words. I thought about how heart-rending it was that the larger issue of the identity of people’s souls was completely ignored. Trust, not Tracks… In crafting my evangelistic approach, I determined to employ a gentler touch: building trust rather than passing out tracts, so to speak. Instead of launching into some sort of calculated discourse on biblical principles and Christian virtues, I decided to read through the writing and pray to draw out the deeper meaning behind the words. I looked for the needs behind the anger and the longings behind the tears. I used as my model the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4:1-42. This woman, ostracized by her village and forced to draw water in the heat of the day, was an individual full of suffering and sorrow. Rather than chastise this adulterous woman, Jesus, the all-knowing, all-loving Savior, chose to engage her in conversation. He offered her living water, though initially, she didn’t fully comprehend the deeper meaning behind His words. But slowly, the One without a bucket or dipper was able to draw up the pain and need from the well of this daughter’s aching heart. Her dialogue went from guarded irritation to awareness of her need; and in the end, she became open to being filled by the Messiah. As I prayed over the poetry and prose I was reading, I asked for the wisdom to see each person in the same way Christ saw this woman. Through the words, I began to understand what these hearts truly needed. In the pain of rejection, I saw the need for affirmation. In the despair of abuse and bullying I saw the need for the safety of sacrificial love. Self-loathing spoke to the desire for something to fill the emptiness inside. Self-harm served as a desperate cry for the soothing touch of a trusted hand. Each tear and tragic story tugged at my heartstrings, calling me to spill words of healing onto the reply pages of their posts. A vote was not an endorsement of their ideology, but rather a knock at the door of a wounded heart. Each reply was fashioned to speak to individuals where they were. I pointed to the cleverness of their wordplay, the relevance of each metaphor and the unique stylistic choices they had made. But in those replies I also offered a word or two of wisdom, a sliver of humor and hope, and an overture of friendship without judgment. And as each door opened, I bid the Savior to enter with me into each heart I encountered. A Listening Ear, a Healing Word… Building trust was a slow process of acknowledging that I understood the pain I witnessed in the words and recognized the beauty deep down in those broken hearts. As I shared with them, first as a writer and then as someone with a gift for healing, I offered words that served as a spiritual balm to sooth the wounds that cut deeper than any razor ever could. I gave understanding rather than approval for behaviors. I never accepted beliefs contrary to my own, but spent time listening to the other person’s thoughts before expressing my own opinions in a gentle and loving way. Each day, when new writing came out, I commented in the same manner as before, but with a little more familiarity from earlier online conversations. This gentle method led to further conversation and openness. In my ministry work with teen girls I was very familiar with the tragic realities of suicidal depression, cutting, and eating disorders. From years spent with Christian teens I had come to a deeper understanding of the dynamic behind these self-harming behaviors. But here in this asylum of words I gained new insights into the minds of those who struggled in these ways. These young women saw their bodies as detestable canvases upon which to write the sorrowful story of their lives, and they reflected that despair in their writing. Each cut was like a horrid brush stroke on a dark painting, meant to be hidden from misunderstanding eyes. But at the same time, through the poetry, the hidden cuts were displayed in the relative safety of virtual reality. They wrote about their struggles with eating as a slow, sorrowful walk on a path towards a life wasting away with no one to notice or care. As they posted daily of their trials they clung to the words they wrote, hoping their hypnotic power might hold their lives in place for one more day, but at the same time, they saw themselves inching deliberately toward the edge of the abyss. A Message of Hope and Healing… My message became simple: You are worthy. You are unique. You are loveable. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. I continued to post daily comments on new writings that came out, and spoke with gentleness and caring in short chats about nothing and everything. Eventually I decided to post my own “dark” poetry, poetry that related to the hurt I saw but presented the love of the Savior as well. I considered that, in order for people to find hope, I needed to move beyond the small circle of trust built around my life and walk with them up the hill of the Skull to the cross. Through my poetic words, I began to introduce these new writing friends to the One who could take the pain and sorrow to Calvary’s tree and free them from their bonds. One such poem that grew out of these interactions and insights was called, “Child of Sorrow.” It spoke of the One who was “cut” for them, upon whose flesh had been written all the sins of the world. Here was the God-Man, who willingly took each bloody stripe of the whip, whose head was crowned with thorns, whose very lifeblood was completely drained in payment for every sin. If anyone could relate to their pain and their struggle, it was this Man of Sorrows. In the poem, a young girl, just like them, took the depths of her despair to the cross: Child of sorrow, fair of form, Traveling through the fiercest storm, Sees within the mirror, image dulled with deepest rage. Sun will rise, another day, Wears her mask, her part to play, Walks the path of death, entrapped within a cruel cage. No one hears her silent cry, Now resolved to daily die, Writes upon her battered flesh the bitter words of hate, Used, abused, misunderstood, Underneath a Gothic hood, Sinks within her demon dream and feels her phantom fate. Can there be no one who sees, Or no ears to hear her pleas? Must she now forever live in silent solitude? Feels her racing heart retreat, Waiting for its final beat, Draws the blade her life of empty aching to conclude. Wand'ring streets in stinging rain, Searching now to end the pain, Falls upon a heavy oaken door and enters in. Moving past the blessed bath, Sacred pews and angel's wrath, Now before the altar table draped in sick'ning sin. Raises firsts to heaven's throne, Bringing out her heart of stone, Rages now before the God who mocks her from above. Gazes now at tortured King, On his brow a thorny ring, Body beaten, sacred stripes to testify of love. Sees the writing on His skin, All of our forgiven sin, Blood poured out in full to set now free our dying race. Can there be a love so pure, Or a payment so secure, That His life should so completely take the sinner's place. Drops the blade upon the floor, Her young flesh to cut no more, For the Savior King's cruel death now fills her weary soul. Rises now a newborn child, No longer to be reviled, Weight of sin now lifted, body, mind and spirit whole. Looks again upon the cross, Contemplates Messiah's loss, All so she could gain a place at heaven's open door. Tears of joy now freely flow, To her knees and bending low, Grateful broken heart now free, her blood to flow no more. Seeking out the sacred page, For her mind now to engage, Deep inside the words of hope, a purpose now to find. Leaves the sanctuary filled, Voices silenced, pain now stilled, Now refreshed, renewed, reborn in body, soul and mind. Child of sorrow, fair of form, Having now survived the storm, Sees within the mirror now the face of love restored. Sun has risen, new day calls Moves outside her broken walls, To a world of hurting souls who need her gentle Lord. Hope Rewritten… Eventually I began to see subtle changes in the way people responded. They knew someone was listening who understood, who didn’t judge, who didn’t want to run away. Even if they didn’t quite get it, they knew they knew I was praying for them and offering something other than hollow affirmation. Their poetry began to take on a note of hope, especially in the advice they began offering their followers, reminding them to keep on trying and not to give up. They began to write less of their pain and to speak into the lives of others going through the same struggles. In their words I saw reflections of the Savior’s love, slowly piercing through the veil of their pain. They were coming to see that if another person could take the time to walk with them on their journeys, then perhaps this God he believed in might be worth a second look after all. I realized that instead of trying to be a counselor, an advisor, a fixer or a sympathizer, all I really needed to be was a channel for the grace of God. I had entered as a stranger, but without judgment or criticism. I had spoken life into their cutting words and allowed the grace of God to work in heaven’s timing rather than my own. Now I would be remiss if I left you without saying that as I continue to minister through my writing, I’m not alone in my mission. I have seen other believers on these same sites, sharing the same hope with these hurting souls. Some I would say are better able to break through the barriers because they too are teens, and because they’ve gone through some of the same struggles but have come out on the other side in the arms of their Savior. They too have posted writings of hope and strength for others to read, and have talked and prayed and shared with these struggling teens, offering perhaps more than I ever could. It has been a joy to see how much the grace of God can shine when His children use their gifts and venture out into new worlds, even the virtual kind. I can only hope that more and more Christians with a gift for words will choose to share their writings with those who are calling out with their broken words for something more. In this age where it’s so easy to connect online, I hope there are more empathetic souls willing to bring the light of Christ’s love into the dark online worlds of these young people and spread the Gospel message of healing and redemption to those who are lost and looking for a refuge of hope!
  14. In the beginning, from ageless eternity, Almighty God looked down upon the formless void and willed creation into being. Where there was nothingness, there would be life. Where there was disorder, there would be order. The perfect, infinite love of God hovered above the shapeless sea of emptiness that was the cosmic chaos and spoke His life and light into being. God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. He simply spoke and the light came to be. He breathed His laughter and love into the void and the perfect, pure light of His grace and goodness burst forth upon the nothingness and brought life. Like a beautiful scroll, the story of His love was opened and stretched out upon the universe, revealing awesome truth and seamless harmony. The light stood in contrast to the darkness; and everything that would come into being would be touched with the light of the Creator’s presence. God’s perfect thought breathed the universe into existence and brought wholeness where there once was formlessness, the sound of coherence where all was separation and obscurity. The light gave a voice to the forces of the universe as they took their place in the celestial order of creation. The earth would form and be suspended in space. There would be distinction between the seas and the land, the waters above and the waters below, the darkness and the light. Day was born and began the dance of the hours with the night. In speaking the light into being, order and grace filled creation and set in motion the story of God’s eternal, joyful song. The first day of creation describes what is essentially indescribable. It is only in the poetry of the words that we gain a sense of the beauty and perfection of God’s creative power in speaking everything into being. The inspired author takes us back to the beginning to teach us the awesome truth of who God is. In attempting to define what cannot be fully comprehended, he shows us a God who is first and foremost, all-powerful. In the creation stories of the ancient world, the earth came into being through the violence of the gods, through conflict and battle, death and destruction, as one god defeated another and out of the ruin brought the order of the universe. This is a distortion of the true manner in which God brought forth His creation. He stood alone, with no one to challenge Him. He existed in eternity, in timeless perfection, and spoke all of creation into being with the breath of His word. There was no effort, no struggle to conjure up the cosmos. God simply kissed it into being with a puff of His Spirit, His “ruah” – His breath. Like a holy sigh of love, God made all that was and is. Creation begins with light. Genesis was written with the fall of humanity in mind. In a universe cursed by the darkness of sin, God stands as the light. Light overcomes darkness. Darkness represents incomprehension, confusion, and veiled thinking. Light represents the brilliance of perfection, order, and clarity of all thought and being. The day and the night were separated to present a contrast between God’s perfect light of love and the destructive influence of hatred and sin. Because sin would eventually come into the world, God set up the light and separated it from the darkness as a great sign of His divine purposes for the universe. Genesis stands as one bookend with Revelation, with all of Scripture in between, punctuating the truth that the perpetual light of the resurrection will one day eliminate the darkness, and there will no longer be a need for sun and moon, day and night, for all will be light once more. The passage speaks of God hovering above the “waters” of the deep. Water has a powerful meaning in the Word. It represents the swirling chaos out of which new life emerges. Noah and his family were shut in the ark and taken through the overwhelming waters of the flood, when all the wrath of heaven and earth burst forth in judgment upon the earth. They were brought through the dark storm to the dawning of a new day, where light and life would be renewed. Moses and the Israelites passed from the darkness of Egypt to the light of the Promised Land through the waters of the Red Sea. In faith, they made the passage through the mighty wall of water to come out of the place of slavery and subjugation to the place of freedom and provision. Jesus was dipped into the Jordan and rose to face the dark forces living in the desert, armed with the light of the Word of God! He brought His light to bear upon the Prince of the Air, and through His life, death and resurrection, opened the way for humanity to come out of the darkness into the dawn of a new creation in Him. The early Christians plunged men and women into the waters of Baptism where they were buried to the old sinful ways and raised to new life, cleansed and healed. In this new life, they were graced with the illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit, which enabled them to live as children of love. It is the light of God’s Spirit that brings life and order from the watery chaos. At the end of the first day, God calls the light “good,” and evening gives way to morning. His creative act is not for some selfish end, but for His glory and our good. The weight of His presence overwhelms us and brings us the light of salvation, freedom, safety and peace; for that is what glory really is – the overshadowing power of God’s love being brought to bear against the frailty of our own existence. It is only in the light that we find salvation. As God installs creation at the beginning, forming everything out of nothing, so too, does He restore us from the emptiness of sin through His Son. In Jesus, the Light of the World, we are once more made “good.” The power of the first day of creation finds fulfillment and understanding in the opening verses of John’s Gospel. Like God’s light that overwhelms the chaos of the deep, so too does the light of Jesus overcome the darkness of sin and lead us to a new paradise, as we become new men and women in Him. Like the powerful breath of God that spoke creation into being, God’s love has spoken His final Word into the world. Jesus is that Word and Light. He has come to overwhelm the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend the perfection of love that manifested itself in the person of Jesus. John continues this wonderful theme throughout his Gospel, as the images of Word, Light, Water, and Love spill out onto the pages through the wonderful stories he narrates. John’s Gospel is the expression of the new creation we experience in Christ! We who know Jesus are called to live out those sacred signs of water and rebirth. Like Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, we must be born from above, born of water and Spirit. Though we cannot enter our mothers’ wombs a second time to be born again, we can be healed by the creative Word of the Gospel, buried with Christ in Baptism and breathed with the new life of the Holy Spirit as we live out our lives day to day in His name. As we put aside the old ways, drowning them in the watery chaos of our submission to God’s powerful breath of life, we are made new and given a new path to walk, with the light of God’s grace guiding us evermore on the path to heaven. The signs of God are all around us. We cannot see the wind that blows, but we feel its influence. We did not witness the first moment of creation, yet we see its beauty and witness the working out of the order of the universe around us. Every stream, every river, every lake, and every ocean are reminders of the depth of God’s love for us. Though water can be a powerful force to flood the land and swallow ships at sea, we know that to God, all the waters of the earth are a drop in the vast ocean of His perfect love. Each day, as the dawn greets us once more, we are reminded of the hope we have that in God’s perfect time there will come a perpetual day, where darkness will be banished forever, where our sins will be thrown as far as the east from the west, and where we will live in everlasting joy in the light of God’s eternal presence. From the first moment of creation, God had all of this in mind. In His perfect plan, He spoke creation into existence, knowing that we would all come together in the perfection of his creation when the purposes of His great love would find their fulfillment in Christ. One day, there will be a new heavens and a new earth. The old order of things will pass away. Creation, which has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth from the sinful fall of humanity, will be reborn in a baptism of fire, in a powerful cleansing that will remake all of creation once more into the perfect reflection of the Creator. Until then, we have been blessed with the beauty of all that is around us. The sun and moon are signs that God is in control of creation and is bringing His plan to completion as the cosmos ticks on like a divinely wound clock. The waters of the earth that are held at bay by the mighty arm of God are signs of the refreshing and sustaining power of rebirth that is ours in Christ. The Word that ever speaks into the world the Good News of the One who came as Light in the darkness, is our guide and our power for daily living and purposeful outreach to a lost world. As you experience God’s light this day, let it draw you closer into His presence and bring you His joy, His peace, and His love!
  15. Happy Birthday...Shalom...Peace...and happy writing! (){:O)

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