On a Cross Beside Jesus (Luke 24:32-43)

I’m thankful every minute of my life that Jesus died for me on that cross.  I know that if God had chosen, he could have punished me for my sins instead of punishing Jesus.  But Christ’s atoning death satisfied my sin debt, and the debt of everyone else in the world who believes in Him.  Because Jesus chose to do it, I don’t have to take my place on a cross.

Nevertheless, someone like me was on a cross, that very day, at “the place of the skull.”  In fact, someone like each and every one of us was there. You may think I’m referring to Jesus himself — he took on human flesh and form, was tempted as we are, and suffered as a man.  But I’m not.  No, as Luke the physician points out in his Gospel, there were two others on the hill that day.  Two criminals, condemned to die, hanging on crosses to Jesus’ left and right.

Am I calling each of us a criminal?  Not per se, in that most of us have done nothing to warrant punishment under man’s law, especially a death sentence.  Still, we each share something with one, or the other, of the criminals who like Jesus drew their last breaths on that hill.  But what?  I’ll answer that question with another question: What is your approach to Jesus?  Or, as Jesus asked Peter, who do you say he is?

One of the criminals (I’ll call him the “first criminal”) joined the crowd and the soldiers, mocking Jesus and calling on Him to save Himself, if He was indeed the Christ.  The second criminal recognized that Jesus had done nothing wrong and didn’t deserve to die.  And in recognition of his Kingship, that criminal asked the creator of the universe simply to remember him when Jesus came into His kingdom.  He was not disappointed with Jesus’ answer.

You see, there’s just no middle ground with Jesus.  Either you join the second criminal in proclaiming Him to be who He said He was, or you will join the first criminal in questioning and doubting Him.  Riding the fence is just not possible — Jesus said so Himself.

Here’s the amazing thing:  Yes, Christ could have easily taken Himself off that cross and chosen to save Himself, just as the first criminal suggested. But, by staying on that cross, He chose to save…you.  And me.  And the rest of us.

Yes, it may indeed have been a Friday on Golgotha…..but Sunday’s coming.

May I Have This Dance

Has the weight of just a thought ever taken your breath away?

Happened to me just this morning.

Maybe it’s the fact that my daughter’s wedding is now less than two months away, and she was in town this past weekend for her first bridal shower. Maybe it’s this fact that this afternoon, my wife and I are attending a funeral for a long-time family friend who lost her battle with cancer. Her two kids are the same age as my middle two kids.

No matter the reason, here’s the thought that left me struggling to breathe:

A husband and wife, in their 80s, dancing cheek-to-cheek in their kitchen.

It’s so easy to say, “Aren’t they cute? They still love each other, after all these years.” But have you thought about what that dance really represents?

  • Millions of miles together in the same car.
  • Tens of thousands of nights together in the same bed.
  • Depending on how many kids they had, thousands, or tens of thousands, of diaper changes.
  • Countless ER visits, late nights with sick kids, and broken hearts.
  • Graduations, weddings, births, and then round two of graduations, weddings, and births.
  • Deaths of their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, and occasionally, their children and even grandchildren.
  • Several major health scares, surgeries, and treatments.

Those of you who have lived it know that this list isn’t even close to exhaustive. And to top it all off, society has changed so extensively, and so rapidly, that the elderly couple can be left wondering if they’re even still relevant.

As my thoughts sunk in, a physical weight rested on my chest. The sheer magnitude of two lifetimes, lived together and for each other, was more than I could bear.

Anyone looking for miracles in the modern age need look no farther than the couple celebrating an anniversary of 50 years or more.  God’s design for marriage, and God himself, for those who choose Him, make it possible to complete the journey.

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. – Isaiah 46.4

And for another post: What the elderly still have to give to their families and communities. Here’s a hint: They’re not only still relevant, they’re the missing link to sustaining our society.

I’ll never look at an elderly couple dancing the same way again.

The Day After Christmas

Twas the day after Christmas

And all through my brain

I can’t help but wonder

What happened yesterday?


Perhaps it’s the excess

Of food in my belly

That’s turned all my thoughts

Into bowls full of jelly.


Or maybe the fact

That just a moment ago

The floor was covered with presents –

Where did they all go?


 But my biggest concern –

Did Christ receive glory?

Was His father pleased?

Did we remember His story?


 And now, a day later

Are we different than before?

Do we praise ourselves less?

Do we love others more?


 So, my prayer for all of us

This late Christmas season –

We’ll use His birth as a springboard

His life as the reason


To take Him to the world

Like the drummer boy drumming

Be the light we’re called to be —

 ‘Cause it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.


Perspective, Promise and Presence

There are just two things I want to know when I start hiking a trail.

Where does it go?

And how hard will it be?

For me, the trail is a metaphor for life. For the passage of time. For choices made and not made.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that inverting just two letters in the word “trail” creates a word that is completely different and yet so closely related.

You see, it’s always during the times of trial in my life that the trail of my life is the most obscure. You know, those times when life throws a curve. In my case, it was the birth of a son with Down syndrome. Then, the loss of a career job. And later, a traumatic brain injury to my youngest daughter. For others, it’s a catastrophic illness, or the disintegration of a family.

Perspective

The Bible teaches that God’s perspective on trials is 180 degrees from the world’s view.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. — James 1:2-4

How can James possibly expect us to rejoice in our trials? During times of trial, even the next single step is uncertain.

Promise

I’ve always loved the quote from Michelango when he said, as he was staring at a plain rectangular block of marble:

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.

The same is true for each life’s trail, when faced with the apparently impassable jungle of a trial. The trail is already there; it’s been there since the beginning of time. No, it isn’t marked, at least not that you can see; but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been set out for you by God.

Presence

It’s during the times of trial that God allows us to participate in finding the trail where none appears to exist.  So even though you don’t have a paper map, and the GPS on your phone doesn’t have what it takes, lean on and lean into God. He, through his Word, is your map.

I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. – Psalm 119:104-105

Working Out

Though God in his threefold revelation has provided answers to our questions concerning Him, the answers by no means lie on the surface. They must be sought by prayer, by long meditation on the written Word, and by earnest and well-disciplined labor. However brightly the light may shine, it can be seen only by those who are spiritually prepared to receive it.

A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy

This is not just another rant on how people should slow down, simplify their lives, etc. Those things are probably true, at least for most people. But my message on this Sunday morning is for the church.

Attending Sunday morning worship is imperative. It’s specifically mentioned in Scripture, it’s transformative, and it keeps you connected as a member of the Body of Christ.

But if you leave the church feeling empty, or if the rest of your week isn’t filled with joy, don’t blame the preacher, elders, deacons, worship team, the guy running the videos, or your teen’s youth pastor.

It’s not their fault.

When A.W. Tozer wrote these words toward the end of his life more than 50 years ago, he wasn’t saying anything new. Paul called it “working out your salvation” (Philipians 2:12), which is ironic in 2016 given our society’s obsession with personal fitness. (I wonder if there’s an Aramaic or Latin translation for “working out?”)

Here’s another 2016 metaphor for the same thing: Investing. People invest in things they believe in, things they care about. Jesus even told parables about servants investing their masters’ money (Matthew 25:14 and following is a great example).

Tozer’s point? God has given each of us a priceless gift, the gift of time on this Earth. If you’re reading these words today, you are a recipient of that gift, as I am. But if your desire is to know God in this lifetime, and not just in the next, then give that gift of time back to God, invest it, in study of His Word, in community with fellow Christians, in worship, and in service to others.

C’mon, man, time to work out.

Close Calls

Ordinarily, we want our children to obey authority, right? Well, there was one time when it almost didn’t work out so well….

During a family trip to Washington DC one Spring Break many moons ago, we came to a stop on the Metro near the Smithsonian Museums, and our entire 8-person group started the processional of filing out the train, with my son with Down syndrome bringing up the rear. That was usually not a problem, except just as the person in front of him stepped off the train, a very authoritative female voice came over the PA system and said, “Step back! Doors are closing.” Stephen, ever the dutiful oldest child, stopped in his tracks, took a step back, and waited.

“Stephen, come on!” We all yelled the same words, almost like a chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, aware that if he didn’t get off that train now, we might have to pick him up in Baltimore.  Still totally confused, Stephen still didn’t move. The doors started to close.

That’s when the “Dad instincts” kicked in.

With a shout of “NO!” I sprinted the 30 feet back to the train, pried the almost-closed doors back open, and pulled Stephen off the train. To hear my kids tell this story (and they do), I exerted Hercluean effort to open those doors. In reality, as soon as the automatic doors sensed my resistance, they reopened with no effort from me at all.

After a few minutes to catch our breath (first, I was really out of shape, and second, we were all scared to death) after that close call, we realized that we had been given a highly teachable moment.  There was absolutely no way we could be angry with Stephen. He simply followed what, in most cases, were reliable directions from a trustworthy source. The more important lesson for Stephen, and for the other three kids as well, was to pick wisely which authoritative voice you obey. Is it the automated voice on the train? Or is it Mom and Dad yelling, “Get off the train!”?

The Word of God warns us many times of false teachers and messages the world will ask us to believe. In fact, a 2013 article on Bible.org by Stephen Cole (find it here) states that warning against false teachings is emphasized more than anything else in the New Testament. So, what this near-catastrophe allowed us to share with our kids is what Paul shared with the early Church in Romans 16:19: “For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.” In other words, knowing which voice teaches good and which voice teaches evil requires wisdom, and wisdom comes from God.

Today, almost 10 years later, I think that lesson sunk in. Praise God.

Together, With a Capital “T”

While we’re on the theme of grandparents…..

What does a seven-year-old like better then a ride around town with Grandpa in his pickup truck on a Saturday afternoon? Not much, especially when that drive includes a stop at Dairy Queen for ice cream or McDonald’s for some fries. So it was for me on a chilly, overcast day in the fall of 1969. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic in that small southern Illinois town that day, but just at the intersection of Sloan St. and Webster St., we passed a man walking on the sidewalk who was about my grandpa’s age at the time (mid-60s). At just that moment, Grandpa made several funny gestures with his left hand. And, to my seven-year-old amazement, the man on the sidewalk did exactly the same thing with his left hand!

I was scared to death to ask my grandpa what had just happened, so I waited until my Mom  (his daughter) was with us. Turns out that Grandpa and the gentleman were both members of the local chapter of a national fraternal organization. Those secret hand signs helped members feel the bond of belonging to a common group.

The need to belong is universal to mankind. “Belonging” leads to feeling accepted, valued and loved. The times of the greatest unhappiness in my life, whether in a job, with my family, or in any circumstance, came when I’ve felt like I’m on the outside.

My son Stephen is the undisputed family leader when it comes to bringing others into our lives. Anytime we’re planning an event or activity, regardless of what it is, Stephen suggests that we invite our friends to join us. To him, it’s not about what we’re doing. Chances are he’s been to that restaurant, movie theater, baseball game, etc. countless times before. No, it’s about enjoying the experience with them. Stephen longs for the experience of togetherness.

As is often the case, Stephen has it right.

God’s design for the Church is the we do life together. But that’s “Together,” with a capital “T.” You see, the Bible tells us that it’s not God’s will that anyone should perish, but that all should repent and be saved through Jesus Christ. John 3:16, that famous passage, says that God so loved the world that he gave his Son, that whoever believes in him would not die but have everlasting life. It doesn’t say that God so loved only part of the world, or that he loved only those who loved him back. Christ’s Great Commission? Go to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations.

Satan would like nothing better than for Christians to treat their faith like an exclusive club. Keep it to yourself, he says. Speak only in terms that other Christians understand.

Because I know Jesus and want to show him my love by obeying His commands, I can’t keep His story to myself. But how do I share Him? For starters, wouldn’t it be great for those who follow Jesus Christ not to speak only in “Christianese” and have secret handshakes? Shouldn’t I bring the message of Jesus’ love and redemption for our sins to those who haven’t heard of Him using terms and cultural context that they understand? Shouldn’t I want to help others see how Jesus is meaningful to them in their lives, right where they are, not just how he is meaningful to me in mine?

It might take more time to share Jesus this way. I might have to listen more to learn about the lives of those who don’t yet know Him. But like Stephen, I long to experience the love and redemptive power of Jesus Christ with them.

Not Just in the Rearview Mirror

Oh, the things you see (and hear) on vacation….

Leaving our hotel in Goodland, Kansas late last week as we started our summer vacation to Colorado, we noticed two young hikers walking along the main road off the interstate, clearly having a very animated conversation. They both appeared to have been living outside for some time, and carried everything they owned on their backs. We couldn’t hear exactly what they were talking about, but finally the shorter one with long blond hair exclaimed to the taller, bearded one in a baseball cap, “Why did you bring me here?!” They continued walking for a hundred yards, and then stopped to ask passersby for money at the entrance to the Walmart parking lot.

I don’t know their circumstances. There could be a lot of different, very valid reasons why these two young men were hiking through Goodland, Kansas on this particular Friday. Still, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the blond hiker’s question.  How many times have I asked God that question? And how many times did a meaningless, worthless distraction reveal itself to be God’s leading in my life?

Maybe Goodland is where a kind farmer offers the hiker a job on his farm.  And maybe Goodland is where the newly-employed hiker meets that nice waitress at a local coffee shop who later becomes his wife.  And if the hiker doesn’t already know Jesus, maybe Goodland is where Jesus finally gets this young man’s attention, and he chooses to join God’s family by accepting the free gift of salvation Jesus offers at the cross.

Humans often contract a serious case of spiritual nearsightedness when faced with adversity. It’s so difficult to see what God’s doing in our lives when there is so much trouble right in front of us. Faith in God’s grace can allow believers to see their circumstances through His eyes while they are happening, and not just in the rearview mirror.

Just last night, as we ended our Colorado vacation at the glorious Ft. Collins fireworks show (I’ve never seen anything like it), a young couple walked past me on the sidewalk. At just that moment the young man asked his girlfriend this question: “Just whose idea was it for us to come here?”

Precisely.

Lessons From a Broken Gas Gauge

In the early 1980s, summers in Kansas City were wonderful. More fountains than Paris, beautiful flowers and foliage, and at the time, pretty good baseball too (we had this guy on the Royals named George Brett — you might want to look him up). One of the oldest and largest parks in Kansas City, Swope Park, housed a beautiful outdoor theater known as Starlight Theater. On a glorious Saturday night in July 1984, my fiance and I decided to take in a show there. I don’t know what we saw, but I can guarantee it was excellent.

I was just 21, about to graduate from college, and engaged to my high school sweetheart. At the time, I drove a school-bus yellow Oldsmobile Omega, and even though the car was only three years old, it already had a broken gas gauge. At any given time, I really didn’t have any idea how much gas I had in the tank. So we dressed up, me in a nice suit and my fiance in a dress, and we took off in the Omega for Starlight. I chose not to put gas in the car that night, believing I had enough to make it to the park and get her home.

I was very wrong.

When the car finally ran out of gas, it was on a street in a relatively safe area of Kansas City Missouri, and thankfully just a couple of blocks from a gas station. Knowing my issues with the gas gauge, at least I had the forethought to keep an empty gas can in the car. So, my fiance and I walked to the gas station, filled the can, and began the three-block walk back to the car.

About a block away from the car, a older man pulled up alongside us as we walked on the sidewalk. He drove the car slowly beside us, matching the pace of our walk, watching us intently the entire time. I looked over at him once, but I didn’t acknowledge his stare.  I told my fiance to just keep walking. After about 20 seconds of tracking us step for step, he pulled away.

I don’t know what his intentions were. I’m hoping that he just wanted to help, but, seeing that I was carrying a gas can and walking away from the station, he assumed we were fine. Still, the very real possibility exists that his thoughts were far from honorable.

As I write this on Mother’s Day almost 32 years after that night, I am so thankful that God didn’t allow the consequences of my poor choices to have tragic effects. Because of his mercy toward us, my then fiance (now my wife) can celebrate this Mother’s Day as the mom of four grown children, the mother-in-law of one (so far), and the daughter of one of the finest mothers on the planet.

We will make bad choices. We’re human, there’s no way around it. And while Jesus chose to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven of our bad choices (sin) and not have to endure eternal consequences, the fact remains that our bad choices have consequences here on earth that can’t always be avoided.

My real problem on that Saturday in July 1984 was that I allowed one bad choice to be followed by another.  First, I had chosen not to have the gas gauge repaired.  I followed the first bad choice with a second one, choosing not to top off the gas tank before we left. Those choices, compounded together, could have led my life, and the life of my fiance, to places we definitely didn’t want to go.

There is a way to avoid compounding bad choices.  First, take advantage of the free gift of forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ offers.  Then, learn from Him how to see where choices made today will lead in the future. It takes only a small correction to get back on the right path after just one bad choice. But after several unwise choices in a row, well, it’s a much longer and more difficult road.

It was a hot, humid, muggy Kansas City Monday morning in July 1984, as I was driving my yellow Omega to the service department at our local Oldsmobile dealer…..

Overcoming What Overcomes Us

Just a few thoughts while I’m waiting to go help take care of the toddlers at church this morning.  It’s our week, but my wife was called in to work at the last minute, so it’s just me.  Great training to be a grandparent…but I hope they have some reinforcements should the natives become too restless!

We live in a society that’s prone to addiction.  Not necessarily to illegal things, just to allowing things to take roles in our lives that are larger than what is good for us.  The Apostle Peter, that brash, strong-willed leader of the disciples who followed Jesus, had a stern warning regarding this: “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (2 Peter 2:19b ESV)

Most people who are addicted deny that they have been “overcome” by an addiction. Anybody who looks at my waistline and my checkbook can see what I am addicted to.  And yet I lived for years — decades, in fact — where I believed it wasn’t that bad.  I certainly didn’t feel like I was enslaved to food (and to Diet Coke).  And yet, I was.

But as I read Peter’s warning this week in preparation for our Life Group study, I was moved by Peter’s use of the word “enslaved” (consistent across translations). That is such an emotionally loaded word, as I’m sure it was back then.  Peter’s use of that word, to me, indicates just how dire an addiction situation really is.  No one wants to be a slave to anything.  We’re willing to be a servant for something we believe in, but a slave?  So many bad connotations.

So what’s the takeaway from Peter’s thoughts?  To take a realistic look at the problem areas in our lives.  We all know what they are, and everyone has them.  And we don’t even have to ask if we are a “slave” to anything. It’s as simple as this:  Am I overcome by anything?  What would cause major disruptions in my life if I had to give it up? Do I believe enough in that thing to be a servant to it? If the answer to that last question is “no,” am I willing to make the next choice to start moving away from it?

The best news?  We don’t have to make that choice alone, or in our own power.  I’ve seen lots of articles lately asking whether following Jesus Christ is too restrictive.  They are all asking the wrong question.  The real question is this:  Where is true freedom found?  The kind of freedom that leads to health, happiness, a spirit at peace, and strong families, things that everybody wants?  It’s found in the One who came so that we could have life, and have it abundantly. Not just later. Right now.

Make that next good choice. And feel the chains begin to lift.