At the cross--Embracing Helplessness


It's Good Friday, and once again I contemplate the scene at the cross.  My focus this year, though, is a bit different.  While usually my eyes are on Jesus as he hangs on the cross for my salvation, this year my attention is drawn to those surrounding him.

We know there were soldiers and the Centurion in charge, and two thieves, as well as the Chief Priests and members of the Sanhedrin.  Some, like the "good" thief and the Centurion, were changed by what they witnessed.  Others, in their arrogance, continued to mock and ridicule and reject Jesus to the very end.  Some, like Peter, had run away to hide in fear.

But there were a few who stood by Jesus to the end.  A number of women are mentioned, some by name, along with John whose presence is implied by his gospel.  These are those to whom my mind is drawn this year.

Why are they here?  What are they thinking?  What did it cost them to be here? What am I to learn from them?

The answer to why is simple.  They stayed out of love and loyalty.  They would not abandon their friend and son, no matter what the cost.  But how could they?  By loving another more than their own comfort, by loving until it hurt.  By dying to self so another would not suffer alone.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, had spent most of her life being prepared for this moment.  She had conceived him under the suffering of shame and reproach.  She had been warned by Simeon, at an event that was solemn and celebratory, that a sword would pierce her heart.  Later she had fled to Egypt with her husband and son to protect his life, leaving behind all that was familiar to live in a culture very different from her own.  Suffering was no stranger to the mother of Jesus, but I don't think anything could have prepared her mother's heart to hear her son cry out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"


Another Mary, the mother of James and John is also named as being present at the crucifixion.  Just a few days before she had asked Jesus to give her sons a privileged position in his kingdom.  All he had promised was that they would drink from the same cup from which he would drink.  As she stood watching Jesus die in agony, was she horrified as she came to the realization of what she had really requested her sons would receive--suffering and death because of the kingdom?

And Mary Magdalene, who had been saved from demons herself, looked on as the work of these same demons claimed the life of the one who had freed her.  Surely he could free himself if he wanted to.  Did she wonder why he didn't do something?  Did she feel guilt knowing that her sin and her salvation had brought him to this point?

Lastly we look at John.  Why was he, among the twelve, the only one who stood by Jesus until the end?  Did he feel anger and betrayal by the others?  Did he feel abandoned by his brethren?  All we know is that he was there, until the end.  Among those there this day, he was the only one given a role to play by Jesus, the responsibility of caring for his mother.  Did his presence there bring Jesus comfort and peace?

I think what all of these had in common was the experience of helplessness in the face of unbearable suffering.  The willingness to forsake their own comfort to be present to another.  Surrendering their self-protection to assure another knows they are not alone.

How often are we willing to do this?  So often (too often) I hear, "I could never do what you do. I'm just too soft-hearted."

While my flesh wants to sarcastically respond something like, "Yes, I'm so lucky I don't feel anything!" in my heart I hurt for those who say this.  Somehow they are trying to protect themselves from the pain of leaning into the pain of others.   They lull themselves into believing that if they don't see it,  they won't feel it.  And it's true.  They won't.  A starving child will be no more to them than a picture on the television.  The abandoned and forgotten will not even register on their radar.  And their heart, rather than being protected, will become calloused by their self-protection.

It is only when I am willing to embrace the helplessness of being present to one who suffers that my heart will grow to learn what true compassion is.  Only when I stand with those who are enduring the unspeakable will I learn to speak words of comfort, often in silence.  Only when I identify with those who suffer at the hands of another will I begin to overcome my own numbness to the evil which is all around me.

Like Peter, I can run and hide and deny that this suffering has anything to do with me.  And I will become less human.   Jesus tells me what I do, or do not do, for the least of these, I do or do not do for him.  So, when I refuse to stand with those who suffer, I am refusing to stand at the cross with Jesus.  I deny him in ignoring the suffering of my brothers and sisters every bit as much as Peter denied him that Thursday night.

So, where do I want to be as my Lord suffers in his people?  Am I willing to follow the example of my Savior as he embraced helplessness to suffer and die for me?  (Remember, he could have done something to save him self, but he chose not to.)  Am I willing to stand with those courageous women to share in the suffering of Jesus as he continues to suffer in his people?

I pray I will find myself with the women at the foot of the cross, helpless but present.  Facing suffering head on, and by my presence creating a space where hope and life and resurrection can begin.  I invite you to join me




Short Changed


When we are Christ-followers, by our decision and our religion, but we are not fully sold out to God, we are short changing ourselves.

Christ promises abundant life to those who follow Him.  Are you experiencing this life?  Is your cup overflowing with peace and joy?  Are you longing for more, because you can't get enough of Jesus?

If not, you're short changing yourself.  Go to Him.  Ask Him to show you what you are still holding onto, what you still want to control, what you are still not ready to surrender completely to Him.  He will show you.  And it will hurt.  Trust me, it might feel like a kick in the stomach, because you may not even realize you have been hold this thing back from Him.  But, as with the rich young man who went away sad because he would not surrender his riches to follow Jesus, we will never experience the fullness of joy He offers if we hold anything back.  If we let anything be more important in our lives than Him.  If we hold on to our idols.


We seem to think of idols only in terms of ancient pagan religion.  I have learned much about idolatry, living in a country where the pagan gods of the Mayans are still worshipped, sometimes right along side of Jesus Christ.   There are many definitions of idol, but my functional one is that an idol is anything which claims our loyalty and takes our devotion away from Jesus.  It might be my work, my family, my finances, or even my ministry.  For each of us it will be different, but each of us has idols in our lives.

How can you recognize them?  It's not always easy, but I find that when God tells me I need to do something (and He does) and I say to myself or others, "I would do this, but. . ." whatever comes after the but is my idol.

(Please note.  I am talking about what GOD tells me to do, not my emotions, not my desires, not my pastor or some author, but God Himself.  We often imagine doing great things God has not yet called us to do.  This desire to serve Him impressively can be an idol.)

Does it cost to surrender my idols?  You bet.


Recently God showed me that my love of sleep has been an idol, if you can imagine that.  I was using the excuse that I couldn't get up early to spend more time with Him because then I didn't have energy for the afternoon.  Quickly I realized that by watching less Netflix and going to sleep earlier I could easily solve this resistance and still care for my body.  But, oh, it stung.  I realize, though, that it's all about choices and we choose what we value most.

So today I urge you, stop short changing yourself by holding out on God.  You can trust Him to give you more than you can ask or imagine, but you have to trust first that His heart toward you is good.  Let's learn from the rich young man that we do not need to go away sad, but can embrace the fullness of joy through our obedience and surrender to God alone.


Revival


In preparation for celebrating the Resurrection this year (the 40 days of Lent), I asked God what He would have me do to prepare my heart to better know Him.  What I needed to “give up.”

I believe He told me to write.  What?  So what was I to “give up”?  I was to surrender my resistance to writing, my fear that I have nothing to say, and my unwillingness to share what I write with others (mostly out of fear of disapproval).

So, I have been writing almost daily, and sharing what I write when He prompts me to.  Today is one of those days to share, as I consider “revival.”

As I was studying Ps. 119 verse 25 (My soul cleaves to the dust; Revive me according to Your word.), I was struck by the word “revive.”  Wasn’t that why I wanted to know God better, so I would have more life and vitality in my walk with Him?

I thought about how often, when I am in a church gathering whether here in Guatemala or in the US, I hear the call for revival.  We will never have revival if we don’t want it, don’t see the need for it.  Revival can only come when we ask for it.

I realized that I have listened to the call to revival as a call to the whole church.  Today, I realized that revival comes only when we, as individual Christ-followers want to be revived.  When we recognize just how “lifeless” (cleaving to the dust) at least some parts of our walk with God have become.  When we desperately want more of Him. Revival will only come when we admit our personal need for it.

I fear that I have given the whole responsibility for revival to the Holy Spirit.  I ask Him to come into our midst, to overcome us with His presence. But, do I really want this? Revival will only come when I am willing to pay the price to be personally revived.

Verse 26 of this Psalm revealed to me the cost for revival to occur in my life: “I have told you my ways and You answered me.” (NASB) That didn’t seem too hard until I started looking at other translations to see what it would mean to truly “tell Him my ways.”

 

The Passion Translation says, “I have poured out my life before you.”  The Good News Translation is even more pointed: I have confessed all I have done.”  If I really want revival, personally and corporately in the Church, I need to examine my walk, and let the Holy Spirit reveal to me every way in which my life is pleasing to Him, but also, and more importantly, every part of me which falls short of being who He created me to be. Revival starts when I stop looking at others and willingly reveal my whole heart and life to God.

From this verse I realized that true desire for revival is marked by a personal awareness of my sin, a sense of urgency to confess it before God (and possibly to another), and a desire to repent—to change what I have been doing which is not pleasing to God.  Can I do this in my own power?  Of course not; I have to depend on the grace of God through His Holy Spirit to do this. But first, I have to desire it, now just superficially but desperately enough to cooperate with Him. Revival happens when I stop singing about surrender and start laying down all I am before God.


Am I willing to honestly and openly lay bare my heart before God? Am I truly willing to surrender whatever He asks?  Am I willing to let go of who I am to become who He wants me to be?  Revival starts when I stop only praying and start willingly participating in being revived.

As I write this there are 28 days remaining until Resurrection Sunday.  My goal for these 28 days is to "pour out my life" before the Holy Spirit, a little at a time, each day.  Will you join me?


The Way of the Arrogant


Today as I was studying Ps. 119, God brought my attention to the attributes of the arrogant.  And I felt convicted.

The traits I identified were the following: 

·            They do whatever they need to do to prosper, even at the expense of others who are more vulnerable.  They defy God’s law if it benefits them.
·            They seek to satisfy their flesh, looking to feed their own appetites and satisfy their greed, even if it means ignoring the needs of others.
·            They are a law unto themselves.  They don’t see the need for God, or respect Him or His commands.


In short, they feel comfortable in the world, at home with its values.  They have a million justifications for why they live as they do, especially when they ignore God’s direction.

I immediately saw parallels to the (claiming to be) Christian church in America.  But God quickly brought be up short.  “Take the plank out of your own eye.”  I realized I needed to examine my own heart before looking at anyone else.  And if and when I address the Church, it needs to be out of recognition of my own sinfulness, not out of arrogance and anger.

It may seem strange that I, a missionary could be guilty of arrogance, but I think it is an ever present danger in our “profession.” So many people tell us how wonderful we are on a regular basis that we risk starting to believe our own publicity.  I am not amazing.  God is. And if anything is amazing, it’s that He choses to let me be a part of what He is doing. 

It is a constant temptation, too, to do what I think needs to be done.  To follow the needs rather than God’s direction.  How can meeting needs be against God’s will?  It easily can.  Oswald Chambers tells us, “The need is not the call.”  We can try to convince ourselves it is, but the enemy can use needs to distract us from what God calls us to do. When I am need-driven rather than God led, I become a law unto myself.


I constantly need to check to see if in facing a need, I am responding with what God would have me do, or trying to ease my own discomfort in the situation (my appetites).  I have to examine my motives to see if I am acting out of obedience, or from wanting more adventure and excitement in my life.  The mission field can easily turn one into an “adrenaline junkie” because we do get to experience so many actual miracles, but that’s not why we’re here. We are here to do God’s will; no more, no less.

I may even convince myself that, of course God would want me to do a certain thing, because it is a need.  But God may be calling someone else to meet that need and when I jump in and do something I am not called to do, I cheat the person who is called.  I give them an excuse not to respond to God’s call on their lives.

One way I am tempted to do this is, when there seems to be a short-fall of money, immediately jumping in with my small retirement savings to fill in the gap.  My Board is challenging me to let people know there is a need, while not pressuring or expecting them to do anything more than pray with me that the need will be met. God may want me to meet the need through my personal funds, but He needs to show me that (after all, why would I ask others to contribute to something I am not willing to support financially myself?). But I may be robbing someone who is led to meet the shortfall, by not even making the need known.  Ah, but I can do it myself.  (I have no need for God; I am self-sufficient.)

I confess my own arrogance. I confess my arrogance when I think I, because I am educated and from the US, know better how to address a situation than a Guatemalan national would.  I confess my arrogance when I feel the need to immediately rescue someone from their struggles, rather than looking for what God might be doing in the midst of their situation.

I confess my temptations to share stories which expose the lives of those I serve without their permission and without regard for their privacy.

I confess the temptation to share a story because it will “bring in donations” rather than to help others see what God can is is doing in our midst.

I confess my arrogance when I wish God had called me to a ministry that was more exciting and attractive, because that would make fund-raising so much easier if there were more “emotional appeal” to what I am doing. (Seeing prosperity)

I repent of my self-sufficiency, of my desire for security, and the temptation to make a name for myself when all I should desire is to make His Name known to men. 

Please pray for me, and I give you permission to hold me accountable in these areas.

Sidenote:

Many of you may not know, but MY first plan to come to the mission field was to wait until I reached full retirement age, get my retirement and Social Security, and come to Guatemala as a completelyindependent missionary.  Not having to rely on God or anyone else to be able to do what God called me to do. 

You can see how that worked out.  God has provided in so many impossible ways to meet all our needs, and I would have cheated our donors out of the opportunity to be obedient in their giving.  I also would have cheated myself out of the opportunity to see that God willdo more than I can ask or imagine if I obey Him. By the way, I would just now, this year, be coming to the mission field if God had not asked me to surrender my plan to His.



West Center Street bridge over the Elkhorn River.
One of the main routes linking Omaha and
smaller communities to the west.

My heart hurts. I look at the picture of the destroyed bridge over the Elkhorn River, which for three years I crossed twice daily getting to and from work, and I can’t get my head around the destruction taking place in my home town.  It seems other-worldly, impossible.  Yet, I lived in rural Nebraska long enough to know the destruction of spring flooding, though never, never anything even close to this.

And I ask, “Where is God in this?”  Not, “Why did God let this happen?” but “Where is He in the midst of this crisis?”  He is always in the middle of any tragedy. I saw this first-hand, saw Him move powerfully and continue to move in the wake of the volcano eruption.  I know He will do no less in Omaha.

Dodge Street just wests of the Elkhorn River
Transportation to the communities to the west
will be impacted for a long time.

If it breaks my heart to see the destruction brought on by nature, how much more must it break His? He, who knows how wonderful this world was meant to be must be broken-hearted to see the suffering.  He knows that the havoc of nature is the cumulative effect of what generations of sin have done to the perfect world He created.  He knows that we, as mankind, decided and continue to decide that we have a better plan for the world than He did. And we reap the results of OUR plan for creation, and have the audacity to blame Him for it.

If you are not a Christ-follower, this will make no sense.  Only those who recognize their own sinfulness and have recognized the consequences of personal sin in their own lives can begin to understand that death, destruction, pain and suffering come when we think we have a better idea than God.  And if I receive the consequences of the sin I have personally chosen (God forgives my sin, but does not rescue me from the effects of my choices), how much more must the collective sin of mankind progressively impact the world he created?

So, I ask you, please, if you want to blame someone for this suffering, blame the one who started it all, who deceived Eve, and continues to deceive mankind into believing that God does not want our best, but somehow has a secret plan to hold out on us.  The one who Jesus told us will come to “steal, kill and destroy;” the true enemy of my happiness and joy.

To those who would ask why God would let something like this happen, I believe the Biblical answer is simple if unpopular.  Mankind decided they knew better than God how we should live, and we are experiencing the logical and natural consequences of that decision.  Just as any good parent might forgive the offense of their child, they ought not rescue them from the consequences of their actions.  It is through these consequences the child learns to make better decisions.  So it is with God.  He uses these natural disasters to remind us just how far mankind has deviated from His original plan for us.

Where is God in this? In the middle of it.  Trying to use this to show individual hearts how desperately they need Him.  We see him in the peace and joy of those who have lost everything, but can rejoice because they know there is more than the life we see before us now. (Yes, there are those people.  I can’t name them personally in Nebraska, but I know they are there because I have seen them here in Guatemala, in the aftermath of our volcano disaster.)

Where is God in this? He wants to be in the midst of it through those who claim to follow Him.  To reach out as “Jesus with skin on” to those who are suffering, to bring not just prayer and encouragement but physical, tangible help to those who need it. He wants us, as Christ-followers, to do on earth what we can to point those to the reality of who He is and what He has for us.  

As Christ-followers it is not enough to pray, though that is first and most critical. 

Here are some specific prayer points suggested by Cindy Borden who leads the King's Garden ministry in King Lake, one of the communities completely destroyed by the flood:

  • Pray against fear, discouragement and loss of hope.
  • Pray for immediate needs to be met.
  • Pray for tangible expressions of love and encouragement--now and well into the future.
  • Pray for compassionate relationships and many hands to help.


Pray about what God would have you DO.  Then do it.  If you feel a tug to do something, that is probably the Holy Spirit trying to move you, and I encourage you to obey.  Serving is never a mistake, and as James points out:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.~~James 2: 14-17                      

Let the church rise up and be the church in this situation.  THAT more than our words will show the world “where God is in this.”

Note: Many churches in Omaha are coming together with The Gathering Place (which meets in Valley, one of the communities hardest hit by the floods) which will be coordinating ministry and relief efforts.  For more information and to keep up with what they are doing go to their Facebook page.  You can donate online to support these efforts.  It is a great blessing to me to see the church in Omaha come together in unity.

You can check out the video of the community worship that took place this afternoon here.  If you can't watch the whole thing, watch 39:51 to 41:50--it's pretty incredible.