Category Archives: holidays

Thankful for Suffering

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What would you have tomorrow, if you only had what you thanked God for today? Would you have health? A roof over your head? What about clean drinking water, breathable air, and the ability to read? Would you have freedom to worship and express your opinions?

The Bible tells us to give thanks “always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20). Yet we take so many of God’s blessings for granted.

Luke 17:11-17 tells the story of a leper who was thankful for being healed by Jesus. Ten lepers were healed but only one turned back and thanked him. What would have shocked the original hearers most was the fact that he, the hero of the story, was a Samaritan, not a Jew. It’s a lesson about racism as much as gratitude.

It’s wonderful to thank God for healing, but what about those who aren’t healed? Almost 50 years ago Christian author and radio host Joni Eareckson Tada was paralyzed in a diving accident that left her in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. She begged God for healing but no healing came. Here’s what she wrote in Charisma Magazine about that experience:

God’s “no” answer to my physical healing more than 40 years ago was a “yes” to a deeper healing—a better one. His answer bound me to other believers and taught me so much about myself. It has purged sin from my life, it has strengthened my commitment to Him, forced me to depend on His grace. His wiser, deeper answer has stretched my hope, refined my faith, and helped me to know Him better.

It isn’t easy, but many people have learned the wisdom of being thankful not only in suffering but for suffering. I haven’t mastered this art. Not by a longshot. My natural reaction when God allows hardship into my life is to wallow in self-pity and ask, Why me? What I have I done to deserve this? That approach reveals a misunderstanding of God’s will. God wants what’s best for us, not what’s easiest.

People who haven’t suffered are insufferable. People who endure hardship and suffering have an opportunity to become better people, but it doesn’t work automatically. Suffering can make us better or it can make us bitter. The choice is ours. We must make up our minds how we will choose, because suffering is universal. Eventually everyone suffers in this life. It’s as inescapable as death and taxes.

There’s much good that can come out of suffering. For starters, suffering humbles us. It’s difficult to remain proud, when pain and hardship has laid you low. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest churches in the world. It sits over the cave where ancient tradition tells us Jesus was born. To enter and see the place where Jesus was born, you have to go through a small door called the Door of Humility. It may have been built small to keep people from entering the church on horseback. It has an important effect on those who walk in. The tiny door forces visitors to bow as they enter. By bending down as they approach the holy site, they symbolically check their pride and egos at the door. Suffering is the real door of humility.

Not only does suffering promote humility, it changes lives for the better. History is full of stories of people powerfully transformed and made better by suffering. Our lives can be changed by suffering too, if we offer our suffering to God and allow God to use it for our good.

The greatest example of God using suffering for a greater good is the passion of Christ. The suffering of Jesus brought about the salvation of the world. It provided a channel of mercy through which the healing streams flow from God to man. Because he suffered on the cross in this life, we don’t have to suffer separation from God in the next. That’s Good News worth believing and sharing.

But there’s another benefit of suffering that most have never heard of. God invites us to participate in Christ’s saving death not only by believing but also by joining our suffering to the suffering of Christ for the good of others (Colossians 1:24). Don’t ask me how that works. I don’t know. But I believe it because it’s in Scripture.

Mother Teresa dedicated her whole life to serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India. Here’s what she said about suffering: “Suffering is nothing by itself. But suffering shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift, the most beautiful, a token of love.”

As we count our blessings this Thanksgiving for all the good gifts God’s given us, let’s not forget to thank God for one of his greatest gifts: the gift of suffering.

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Docility

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Africa, March 27, 2016

We often associate docility with weakness and assertiveness with strength, but the opposite is true when it comes to living the Christian life and responding to the Holy Spirit. Too often we are like a toddler fighting against a parent who is trying to lead it by the hand. We pull away. We protest. We pout. We make ourselves miserable, resisting God’s will for our lives.

When the Navy told me I would be mobilized and deployed to Djibouti, Africa for a year, I didn’t want to go. Djibouti is hot, miserably hot, and a year is a long time to be away from my family. I prayed that God would give me the grace to accept his will in this matter, even if it’s not what I want. Guess what! He did. This deployment has turned out to be a blessing, not a curse as I had feared. It has taught me a lot about God.

Docile submission to God’s will is a key to spiritual growth. This is a lesson I am still learning. I spent weeks planning an Easter trip to Mogadishu, Somalia with the goal of leading worship for a handful of American and European troops stationed there. The logistics were complicated since there are currently no commercial flights to Somalia due to safety concerns. The commanding general allowed me to borrow his plane – a Beechcraft C-12 twin turboprop aircraft. We took off on Friday, March 25, only to turn around after 45 minutes and return to base due to mechanical problems. After that my trip was canceled. I spent Easter weekend at my home base: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

Instead of grumbling and complaining, I accepted the change as part of God’s plan and asked him to show me opportunities for service. I wasn’t on the preaching schedule, so I attended all of the Holy Week services both Protestant and Catholic. On Saturday, much to my surprise, I was asked to preach the Easter Sunrise service and assist with the main Protestant service. Because my plans changed, I had some unexpected and meaningful opportunities.

As I continue to learn the importance of docile submission to God’s will, Proverbs 3:5-6 come to mind: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” My hope and prayer is that we will all grow in this grace.

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Mary Christmas

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David Dances Before the Ark, Francesco Salviati, 1552-1554

Mary Christmas! It’s not a typo. No Mary, No Christmas. Know Mary, know Christmas. When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive the “Son of the Most High” in her virginal womb, her “yes” – her “Fiat” (let it be) echoed God’s “Fiat Lux” (let there be light). Mary’s consent allowed for an even greater creation than the first. The original creation brought forth the sun, which sustains earthly life, but Mary brought forth the Son God, who gives eternal life.

Mary is the new Eve. Just as we are all children of Adam’s spouse, we are also all children of Mary. Through Eve’s disobedience sin entered the world and passed unto every one of us. Through Mary’s obedience, the remedy for sin entered the world: Jesus Christ, the Savior.

Mary is not only the new Eve, she’s also the new Ark. As in the Ark of the Covenant, which most people know from the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Ark was the most sacred object in ancient Israel – a wooden box overlaid with gold whose lid, the Mercy Seat, had two golden angels with wings unfurled. It was both a container for holy objects and a piece of furniture fashioned after God’s directions and placed in a room called the Holy of Holies, first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Philistines captured the Ark in battle but returned it after God sent a plague on them. When it was returned, “the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:2). Second Samuel chapter six narrates the happy occasion when King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. The parallels between this passage and the story of the Visitation in Luke 1:39-45 are striking.

The recovery of the Ark and the Visitation both take place in the hill country of Judea. In both stories there’s a similar response to a new arrival: “King David [was] leaping and dancing before the Lord” (2 Sam. 6:16), and “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). David and Elizabeth ask similar questions. David says, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” (2 Sam. 6:9). Elizabeth says, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43).

Finally, the contents of the Ark and Mary are similar. The Ark contained the original tablets upon which God wrote the Ten Commandments, the “covenant” from which it derived its name. It also held a pot of manna and the rod of Aaron, which miraculously budded. Three objects: God’s Word, God’s bread, and the God-given symbol of High Priestly authority. Similarly, the expectant Mary contained the One who is God’s Word (John 1:1, 14), the Bread of Life who like manna came down from heaven (John 6:31-25), and our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14).

As we await the celebration of Christ’s birth, let’s remember that because of Mary’s “yes,” allowing herself to become a vessel for God himself, it’s both a Merry Christmas and a Mary Christmas.

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Hospitality

Welcome

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day and I’m tempted to say all the many things I’m thankful for. Instead, I want to share something that God’s been teaching me lately. We all know about the benefits of prayer, Bible study, and worship for growing in the Christian life. These are all important. But one of the most important spiritual practices in the New Testament is often ignored: hospitality.

Have you ever noticed how often the Gospels tell us that Jesus was eating a meal with people when he taught them? Learning and teaching during mealtime was a practice embedded in Jewish culture. To this day the Passover celebration takes place during a meal – called the Seder. In this meal the story is retold and questions are asked and answered about God’s miraculous deliverance of his chosen people from Egypt. The Passover Meal is the background for the Lord’s Supper in which Jesus identified the bread and wine with his body and blood. The early Christians celebrated this meal daily in their homes (Acts 2:42, 46).

Jews extended hospitality not only because it was part of their culture, but they did it to be obedient to God and his Word. The book of Proverbs even says hospitality should be extended to one’s enemies: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21-22).

Jesus used the language of hospitality to describe the Kingdom of God. It’s like a great banquet to which many are invited he explained on one occasion (Matt. 22:1-14). On another he told a parable about a host going next door to borrow food from a reluctant neighbor as an illustration for persevering in prayer (Luke 11:5-13).

In his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus even ties hospitality to salvation: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:34-35). What is Hospitality? It’s giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. It’s inviting strangers in. It’s treating people as if they were Jesus Christ himself, because in a sense that’s who they really are.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “Martin the Cobbler” found in his book What Men Live By that illustrates this point. It concerns a man who was told, through prayer, that Christ was going to visit him on a certain day. He went about his business as usual; he was a shoemaker. His first customer was a prostitute; the second, a mother with a sick child; and the third was an alcoholic. He hurried around trying to be hospitable to these people, offering them a kind word and something to eat, as well as fixing their shoes. When evening came he was rather disappointed, for it was time to lock up—and Christ still hadn’t come. He was very unhappy until he heard a voice saying, “But I had come, in the person of each of the people to whom you offered hospitality today.” (Doherty, Poustinia, p. 84) If Christ were to visit us today in the form of a homeless person or a Syrian refugee, how would we receive him? Would we show him hospitality? Ignore him? Or worse, treat him with contempt?

Hospitality is reciprocal. It’s both giving and receiving. When Jesus sent out the 12 Apostles to preach he told them not to bring any provisions so they’d be forced to rely on the hospitality of others (Matt. 10:9). That requires both faith and humility.

But Jesus wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done himself. Although Jesus was God from all eternity with all the riches of heaven at his disposal, for our sake he humbled himself in the miracle of the Incarnation by becoming human. He didn’t arrive in this world as a full grown man capable of providing for himself, but as a helpless baby who had to be fed and burped and changed.

It’s just as important to accept the hospitality of others as it is to give hospitality. To do this, we have to be humble, flexible, and open. It also means that we can’t always be in a hurry, ready to rush off to the next task.

Hospitality isn’t just a matter of good manners. It’s a way of life and an attitude of the heart. If we consistently practice hospitality, we’ll be walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

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Hail Mary

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Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation (ca. 1472-1475)

Christmas is the one time of the year that it’s okay for us Protestants to talk about Mary. The Protestant movement of the sixteenth century was a reaction to perceived abuses in the Catholic Church. Anything considered idolatrous or unbiblical was rejected. The reformers saw popular devotion to the Virgin Mary with all of the statues and images and prayers to her as superstitious at best and idolatrous at worst, so they said it had to go. That’s why Protestants have a kind of spiritual amnesia when it comes to Mary. She appears in nativity scenes, Christmas pageants, and old familiar carols. But after Christmas Mary gets wrapped in bubble wrap and put away for another year, and then she’s forgotten.

But we shouldn’t forget about Mary. She’s the mother of our Lord. Instead of forgetting about her, we can learn from her example. Mary was the first and greatest disciple. When the angel Gabriel told her she would conceive by the Holy Spirit, she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Her immediate reaction was humble submission. She didn’t protest or bargain with God. She didn’t complain that a miraculous conception might get in the way of her plans to marry Joseph. She simply said yes to God’s will, even though God was calling her to do something that would cause both great joy and great suffering.

Mary’s obedience can be seen throughout her life. At Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle turning water into wine, Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).  That’s good advice for us all.

When Jesus was being crucified, and his disciples had fled, Mary remained, watching her son suffer. From the cross, Jesus entrusted John, the beloved disciple, to his mother’s care, saying to Mary, “Behold thy son!” and to John, “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27).  There’s a sense in which Mary became not only a surrogate mother to John but to the whole church. Without Jesus there would be no church. Without Mary there would be no Jesus. Mary was also present in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, praying with the other disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And even though we Protestants don’t pray to Mary the way Catholics do, I believe Mary prays for us in heaven because spiritually we are all her children.

Just as we are all children of Eve, we are also all children of Mary. Through Eve’s disobedience sin entered the world and passed unto every one of us. Through Mary’s obedience, the remedy for sin entered the world: Jesus Christ, the Savior. Mary is the new Eve.

The miracle of the incarnation is the greatest miracle and it required Mary’s cooperation. The word “incarnation” means God took on real human flesh and blood. Jesus wasn’t half God and half man. Jesus was no demigod. He was fully God and fully man. As the Nicene Creed puts it, Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

The baby Mary carried in her womb and nursed at her breast was none other than the God of the universe. That’s why she’s called the Mother of God. Not because she came before God or caused God to exist, but because her baby Jesus is truly God. The churches in the East call Mary theotokos, which is Greek for God-bearer, or as Jaroslav Pelikan translated it, “the one who gives birth to the one who is God.” The greatness of Mary depends on the greatness of Christ.

When she gazed into her infant’s eyes, did she see the galaxies he made? When she nursed him at her breasts, did she realize that he was the bread of life, sent from heaven? As she fled to Egypt with Joseph to save Jesus from Herod, did she realize that she was saving the Savior of the world?  When she watched her beloved Son die, did she realize he was dying so that others might live?

These are some questions for us to ponder when we get out the bubble wrap and put Mary away for another year.

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Myth or Miracle?

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Fra Angelico, Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb (1440-1442)

Is the resurrection of Jesus a myth or a miracle? Did Jesus really die and then come back to life never to die again? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became fashionable in certain theological circles to talk about the resurrection of Jesus as an example Christian mythology – a fiction created by believing disciples to celebrate their fallen hero.

Myths about dying-and-rising gods were a dime a dozen in the ancient world. They calmed both the fear of dying and the fear of crop failure, which are really the same fear, because crops failure leads to hunger, famine, and death.

Tammuz, the Babylonian god of vegetation and harvest, was wildly popular in the ancient world. He had the misfortune of falling in love with Ishtar, the fickle goddess of love and fertility. And just as sure as crops die every year, their relationship led to his death. Tammuz descended to the underworld. Devastated, Ishtar mourned him pitifully. The worshipers of Tammuz followed Ishtar’s example and took part in a mourning ritual each fall after the harvest ended. Ishtar managed to go to the underworld and secure his release on the condition that he return to the dark abode six months of every year. For the Babylonians this myth was comforting. It explained the cycle of seasons, giving them assurance that spring would come every year. The Bible even mentions Tammuz in the book of Ezekiel (8:14-15).

Tammuz wasn’t the only dying-and-rising god. There was the Egyptian god Osiris, the Roman god Adonis, and the Canaanite god Baal, who makes frequent appearances in the Old Testament. These are just a few of many dying-and-rising gods in the ancient world.

But the story of Jesus’s resurrection is different. For one thing, there’s no story of the resurrection anywhere in the New Testament. The canonical Gospels give details of Jesus’s trial, execution, and death. Sometimes the details are so vivid they make us uncomfortable. After Jesus was buried there are stories of the empty tomb and Jesus’s postmortem appearances to the disciples and to others. But what transpired inside the tomb remains a mystery. There’s no account anywhere in the Bible about what happened inside the tomb. There is no story of the resurrection event itself. If it’s mythology, it’s mythology without a myth! The New Testament doesn’t present the resurrection of Jesus as a story to be told and retold, but as a fact to be believed.

Before his death Jesus predicted his resurrection. He said, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2:18-21). On another occasion Jesus said, “Just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jesus used these metaphors to teach a literal truth about his resurrection. Skeptical theologians turn the literal truth of the resurrection into a metaphor.

St. Paul believed in the resurrection. In fact, he said Christianity is bunk without it: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).

Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is the main tenant of our faith, the lynchpin of all we believe. Read through the book of Acts and you’ll find that it’s the central theme of all the apostles’ teaching. It’s what roughly a billion people on the planet believe. It’s what the church has believed for two thousand years. It’s what Christian martyrs believed and gave their lives for. It’s what I believe. The resurrection of Jesus is a miracle, not a myth.

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Thankful for Fleas

HookeFlea01What are you grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day? Family? Health? Faith? How about … fleas?

In The Hiding Place, author Corrie ten Boom tells the story of her survival in a Nazi concentration camp with her sister Betsie after they were caught hiding Jews.  They lived in miserable, overcrowded, flea-infested barracks. A Bible smuggled into the prison encouraged the two Christian sisters to be thankful for everything, even their enemies, so they thanked God for their captors. But when Betsie thanked God for the fleas, her sister Corrie objected, “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”

Despite tight security, the sisters began holding worship services. Corrie later recalled, “They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28.” A growing circle of women gathered at the back of the dormitory as one of the ten Booms read from the Bible illuminated by a tiny light bulb. They were amazed that the vigilant guards never broke up their meetings or ever entered the room. Later they learned why. “It was the fleas!” Betsie declared to her sister in triumph. The fleas were guardian angels who kept the guards away.

This Thanksgiving give thanks for both the good things God sends your way and the bad, because even a flea can be a blessing in disguise.

“In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

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