ALMOST CHRISTIAN: A Lenten Guide to Altogether Faith (Lenten Devotional 2017)
INTRODUCTION From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have held with great reverence the 40 days of Lent. It is an annual invitation to a time of reflection; it is a time for self-examination and for penitence. It is a season of honest evaluation as we confess who we are and who we are yet to be. These 40 days ask us to go on a journey; they invite us to travel through the darkness of Calvary’s pain that we might celebrate the joy and love of Easter morning in new light and in new life. To do this though, we must prepare ourselves. Lent is a time for prayer and fasting. It is a time for silence and for the studying of God’s holy word. It is truly a time when we are to take seriously the call of the spiritual disciplines. More though, it is a time for us to be mindful and a time for us to be honest about what keeps us from the life of Jesus Christ. In truth, when it comes to our spiritual lives, too many of us settle for “almost.” We settle for “almost faithful,” “almost surrendered,” and “almost sold-out.” We settle for the “almost close enough” of the “Almost Disciple.” In an age of the “Almost Christian,” Christ calls us to be more. He calls us to be, as John Wesley called it, an “Altogether Christian” – one whose life is lived in faithful obedience to the Jesus of the cross, one whose words ring true, and whose actions of love and service point others to God. As always, our purpose is simple: to elicit a response. It is for us to be inspired, to be challenged, and to be changed. Our purpose and hope is that all our hearts will be “strangely warmed” by the love and grace of God…and that we will respond in trust and in faithful surrender.
Dr. John McKellar Dr. Todd Renner 2017
WEEK ONE: Almost Lent “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain-offering and a drink-offering for the Lord, your God?” – Joel 2: 12-14
Every year, the great temptation is for us to go on a haphazard journey through these weeks leading up to Easter. It is for us to get in such a rush to get to the powerful and joyous news of resurrection that we miss the lessons that crucifixion has to teach us. We “almost” experience its glory, but miss it. We almost experience its Passion, but we fail to soak in the vulnerability and honesty to which Lent calls us.
Day One // March 1 // Reflection “Seldom do we think about how seldom we think.” ― David C. Alves These days of Lent call us to a deep and fearful journey – one of honest selfexamination and self-reflection. It is a journey not to be undertaken by the timid or faint of heart. It is not to be undertaken by those who sate themselves on “almost” faith. No, it is one for the bold and courageous, for the brave saints who will themselves to be more like the Savior who beckons us onward. For the strange, interior lands of this voyage are filled with the darkest and most fearsome of creatures – monsters of our own making: greed, jealousy, hypocrisy, and shame. This season asks us to look deep. It dares us to see beyond the thinly disguised facades that we so often put on for the world’s consumption and to see ourselves as God sees us – broken, needy, empty. It is an exercise that confronts us with who we are, with who we have allowed ourselves to become, and with who we have failed to let ourselves be. More than that though, these days ask us to stare intently upon that mirror of our soul and to ask, “Why?” Why do we do the things we do? Why do we want the things we want? Why are we the people that we are? Lent begs us to consider our own considerations and to think about the ways we think. Left there, looking at ourselves and lost in our wonderings, it would be easy to get bogged down in the hopelessness of the darkness within. It would be easy to let the guilt and the shame win. But, these days provide a powerful reminder that we are not the goal of this journey. We are not its destination - we are not this journey’s end. Our existence is but a willow-lined street upon which we walk to get to where we are going. If all we see during these days are the gloomy vistas of defeat and sin, then we will have missed the point. Instead, we are invited beyond all of these earthbound distractions, beyond all of our selfentangled ugliness, to begin to see the hazy silhouette of Christ staring back at us from within us. This is the heroic journey of Lent – one that dares us to see with new eyes: ourselves, our world, and our Savior with a more perfect vision that empowers us to escape the blindness of this world and ourselves.
Day Two // March 2 // Prayer “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” ― Mother Teresa The most basic Lenten practice is prayer. These days call us to intentionally put ourselves in the hands of God. We are called to follow the example of Jesus and to make space in our lives for quiet times with God. Universally, we believe in prayer; at the same time, most of us feel like we don’t do it right, that we don’t do it enough, or that we are missing something that Jesus knew. Our task is not to believe in prayer, but to pray. We start where we are. Prayer is rooted in relationship. It is about learning to be honest about the yearning of our hearts and about developing the ability to be still so that we might listen to God. To God, there is no bad prayer. It is a child talking to a parent. When we honestly pour out our hearts to God, that intimacy and connection will grow. The goal of prayer is not to have our wish lists granted, but to deepen our awareness of God’s great love for us. It needs to be said too, that prayer should never be confined to the formal times of worship. All of life should be prayer. As we travel, work, and play, we need to keep a constant conversation going with God. Particularly, prayers in nature remind us of God’s transcendence. Notice how Jesus loved to get outside: in a garden, in the wilderness, by the seashore, and in the mountains. Jesus knew the power of alone time with God. Unfortunately, sometimes we think that we are too busy to pray. We must come to realize that prayer is to the spiritual life what exercise is to the body: when we make time for it, the rest of our time will be more productive. In a crazy, fastpaced world, prayer is essential to help us stay focused on the main things of life. As Bill Hybels put it, “We are too busy not to pray.” “Oh, what peace we often forfeit. Oh, what needless pain we bear,” the old hymn writer said, “All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!” This Lent, may we not almost discover the power of prayer; may we not just get close to intimacy and honesty with God. Instead, may we throw ourselves into it – making, finding, and growing time for prayer to become an essential part of our faith journeys! 4
Day Three // March 3 // Study “Bible study without Bible experience is pointless. Knowing Psalm 23 is different from knowing the Shepherd.” ― Kingsley Opuwari Manuel Spending time reading Scripture and other works of spiritual truth is important for our growth. More than important, it is critical. Our job is not simply to memorize facts but to meditate and to apply these truths to our lives. Our Bible study should not be about information but about transformation; not about finding a verse here or there to back up what we already think, but to be challenged to stretch and grow. It is about being shaped by the Holy Spirit. For us, some of the most profound moments come when we are challenged by difficult verses that we don’t understand. Faced with the spiritual unknown, we need to meditate, pray, and struggle with these passages. We should not simply dismiss them or try to explain them away; for it is in the struggle that real growth comes. Richard Rohr asked, “What if the Bible is authoritative and alive and transformative, but not full of simple thoughts that are easy to categorize?” Essentially, he is asking if the Bible has the authority to control us, or if we have the authority as we try to control it. People who study American Christianity have made some searing indictments against the Church: they accuse us, “Almost Christians,” of revering the Bible while not knowing what the Bible is all about. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that churchgoers ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’ teachings. “Americans revere the Bible; but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli, pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that modern Christians accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus. These findings should trouble us. As men and women of faith, we need to spend a lifetime reading and re-reading the Gospels. We need to be immersed in the life and teachings of Jesus. We need to find a Bible study where we can gather with fellow journeyers to encounter and be encountered by God’s holy word. We don’t need to just believe in the Bible; we need to so know the Bible that it convicts us and calls us to follow Jesus more nearly! 5
Day Four // March 4 // Fasting “If physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.” ― Mahatma Gandhi From the earliest days of the Church, fasting has been one of her most taxing spiritual disciplines. To go without food, to deny oneself, to join in the suffering of the poor and needy, to share in the pain of the cross – unfortunately, these critical elements of the faith have now fallen into the bygone ways of saints and mystics for lack of use. We, “Almost Christians,” have forgotten the power and the necessity of going without, for fear of missing out. We fear the hunger. We fear the pain. We fear what might happen if we discover that life is better, simpler with less. It is certainly a hard prospect for us as lovers of things. We love our food. We love our technology. We love our chocolate. We love our coffee and our cigarettes and our alcohol (and let’s be honest about that). We love our negativity and our excuses. We love our gossip and our lies, and we love the way that we have neatly packaged all of it into these lives we, “Almost Christians,” are almost living. We have let our appetites for the delicacies of this life consume us. We have let all our nibbling on the world’s fortunes ruin our appetite for God. Gluttons in a world of beggars, we have feasted at the tables of want and greed and power and have forgotten the whispered invitation to Christ’s table – a table set, not with the gilded chargers of royalty, but with the meager plates of the poor. It is a common meal for common folks, for it is our Host that makes the table so special. And if we are honest, we must admit that we are starving – starving for what the world is incapable of feeding us. It is Lent that calls us to sit and to dine on fasting. Enigmatic to be sure, this is a season when we discover that less is oftentimes more. We discover that mental and spiritual sacrifice is just as important as material sacrifice – if not more so. It is during these days that we discover that our true hunger is not one of the belly, but one of the soul.
WEEK TWO: Almost God “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name for ever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness.” They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” – Psalm 145:1-9
To enter into a life of faith, we must own that the mystery and transcendence of God will always elude our understanding. The “Almost God” danger is to cut God down into our formulations and theologies, into bite-sized nuggets that capture aspects of God’s nature but miss the whole. To approach God is to take off our shoes and know that we are standing on holy ground.
Day Five // March 6 // Wrathful “I fear God; and next to God, I mostly fear them that fear him not.” – Saadi For too many of us, God is One only to be feared. God is One only to be approached with caution and perpetual hesitancy. We can almost smell the fire and the brimstone and the burning sulfur that surround his throne. Too many of us can imagine his eyes ablaze with wrath and his fists full of fury. We can almost feel his judgment and anger. For too many of us, this is the image that our formative religious experiences taught us about God: that He is One to be run from, not One to be run to. It is true that the Bible instructs us to fear the Almighty, that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This fear, though, is not what we think. It is not the quaking fright that keeps a child in his bed when the shadows lurk in the still, dead of night. No, the fear that the Bible commends is better understood as reverence and awe. The fear we are prodded on toward is the acknowledgement that ours is the God who created the heavens and the earth, the universe and our place in it; it is a fear that is meant to keep us connected to God rather than running from God. It is intended to keep us in a right and proper relationship with him: a fear of being without God – without his peace and joy and grace and love. Far from the maniacal and vengeful image that “Almost Christianity” breeds, God’s love for us is maybe best seen during this season, during these days when we walk with his Son toward the cross that looms on Calvary’s hill. For it is during these days that we experience and savor anew the profound love that God has for us, as we remember the lengths that He went to (and still goes to) to reach us – a love that demands a response. And while fear may keep us obedient to God’s holy will for dread of his punishment, a true understanding of God will make us want to obey simply because we want to please him. It will make us want to surrender because we know we can trust the One before whom we bow – a simple reflection of the love that first claimed us.
Day Six // March 7 // Indulgent “God is not a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things done.” – Harry Emerson Fosdick There is richness in the Jewish understanding of God. God is so transcendent that language cannot capture His true nature. Any of our understandings should be approached with an acute awareness of the limits of our wisdom. As Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” One of the great dangers always encountered by people of faith is to take a verse of scripture out of context and to build a belief system around it. The early church fathers and mothers were always on guard for these heresies that misrepresented a portion of God’s nature, for false teachings could lead many astray. And one of the great heresies that refuses to go away is to the temptation to see God as a Santa Claus figure, which will give us whatever we want. This ideology comes in many names: as the “Name It and Claim It” gospel, the “Health and Wealth” gospel, the “Word of Faith” movement, the “Gospel of Success,” the “Prosperity Gospel,” and “Positive Confession Theology.” Each of these understandings is a misapplication of an essential truth about God. Jesus taught us that God is a loving Father who desires to give good things to his children. These good things do not always come in the forms we expect. Blessings are not always material, and true wealth is not measured on a balance sheet. God has not promised us earthly success, but to be with us in every circumstance in life – in the valleys, as well as on the mountaintops. When we seek God, we must do so with a humility that transcends our desires. We must constantly pray the prayer that Jesus taught us: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”...for it is a prayer that never fails.
Day Seven // March 8 // Distant “From a distance, There is harmony. And it echoes through the land. It’s the voice of hope. It’s the voice of peace. It’s the voice of every man. God is watching us. God is watching us. God is watching us, From a distance.” – Bette Midler There was an idea of God in the ancient world that is still around: the notion that God is a stoic, distant Being that serves as a sort of impartial referee to the affairs of the earth. Nothing could be further from the truth about the God that Jesus shows us. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and his followers come across a funeral procession and a terrible moment of palpable grief. A widow had lost her only son, and she was in a desperate state. Luke 7:13 paints this picture: “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” We worship a God who has compassion on us; one who intervenes in our lives. In this case, Jesus raised this widow’s son from the dead. Many times, His compassion does not lead to a miraculous and dramatic healing. Oftentimes, this compassion leads us to a newer, deeper understanding of God: we are surrounded by love, and we learn that God never lets go of us in the storms of life. Many times, God’s compassion will lead us into a ministry that we never would’ve considered before, as we become agents of His compassion for those around us. An image that might help us grasp God’s nature is to consider a quilter. A quilter takes scraps of cloth – ratty, tattered, some looking like they need to be thrown away. He carefully, gently stitches together all of those pieces into a beautiful mosaic blanket. If you look at the quilt from underneath, you see the thread and the plain side of the scraps. The pattern makes no sense; in fact, it can seem to be utter chaos defying any plan whatsoever. However, if you look at the quilt from the top, you see the beautiful pattern that has been stitched 10
together into a beautiful whole. This is a parable of life. We see life from underneath the quilt. It does not always make sense; in fact, at times our world can seem to be ugly and in disarray. But in these times, we can trust that God sees what we cannot. From above, the beauty of his plan is unfolding. In due time, we will see the whole plan, and we will know that at all times God was there working his good from the messes of our lives!
Day Eight // March 9 // Small “Like art, like music, like so many other disciplines, prayer can only be appreciated when you actually spend time in it. Spending time with the Master will elevate your thinking. The more you pray, the more will be revealed. You will appreciate not only the greatness of prayer, but the greatness of God.” – Joni Eareckson Tada Another heresy about God that refuses to die is the idea that God is a creating life force, an energy force field that does not involve Him in human affairs. This ideology believes that God created the universe, established its natural laws, "wound it up" and then disassociated Himself from creation. As such, God becomes small – incapable or unwilling to act on our behalf, incapable or unwilling to help. Jesus’ teaching about God is exactly the opposite. In John 3:16 Jesus declares, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” God so loves the world that He intervenes. God became flesh and dwelt among us, so that we could know Him in a personal and intimate way. A few years ago, a young mother took her children to a restaurant. Before the meal, her six-year-old son asked if he could say grace. They bowed their heads, and he prayed in a voice so loud that people at other tables could hear. He prayed, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. And God, I would thank you even more if my mom would get us ice cream for dessert, and liberty and justice for all, Amen!” People at tables sitting around them started to laugh when they heard the prayer. But there was also another lady sitting close who remarked, “That’s what is wrong with this country today; asking God for ice cream, why I never!” The little boy overheard the lady and he burst into tears. He asked his mother, “Did I do it wrong? Is God mad at me?” His mother assured him he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him. As she was talking, an elderly man walked over to the table and winked at the little boy and said, “I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer.” “Really?” the boy said. The man said, “Absolutely!” That man reinforced to the little boy the true nature of God. There is no prayer too small or insignificant. God cares about the intimate details of our lives. We need to invite God into every part of our lives...even when we ask for ice cream! 12
Day Nine // March 10 // Doting “God never ends anything on a negative; God always ends on a positive.” – Edwin Louis Cole
There is an interesting new trend in families these days. Long gone are the days of the “helicopter parent.” Today, the new phenomena are called “bulldozer parents” – moms and dads who clear the path for their child. It’s not enough now for a parent to hover and brood and wait; today, researchers are finding that parents are actively pushing all obstacles aside to ensure that their kid is the best...but to what end? What do our sons and daughters learn when the world is laid at their feet without requiring anything of them? It is an answer that God already knows: they learn to be entitled. We learn to be entitled. We learn that our opinions are best and that we are right, no matter what others may think. We learn that the world revolves around us and that it should give itself over to us without asking anything from us. We learn that we are never at fault and that our calamities are always the cause of another. What a miserable existence to endure, what empty and meaningless toil! Our God does not dote. He does not guarantee a painless, struggle-free life. Faith is no shield from woe. In fact, many have lost their faith because they swallowed the poison of this lie – gulping it down because the sweetness of its taste. No, if this season teaches us anything, it is that the true life of faith is one of sacrifice and pain and drudgery. It is a life marked by the ostracism of holiness and the ridicule of grace – always seen from the bottom and never from the top. Faith is a life lived for others and never for oneself. It is a life lived for God and never the other way around. God is neither a helicopter nor a bulldozer. If anything, our God is a tiller: turning up the fertile soil of our souls that the seed of his Gospel might grow the wholesome fruit of good and selfless works in us.
Day Ten // March 11 // Idolatry “Revenge, lust, ambition, pride, and self-will are too often exalted as the gods of man's idolatry; while holiness, peace, contentment, and humility are viewed as unworthy of a serious thought.” – Charles Spurgeon Idolatry. It is an ugly word – one that, for all its prevalence, we’ve stopped using. In fact, we’ve almost forgotten what it means, for no longer do we gather around golden statues; no longer do we bow before images made of sticks and rocks and clay. No, today idolatry is much more insidious; it is a secret cult that many fall into without even knowing, for it is the “almost god” to which “Almost Christians” bow. It is any unhealthy preoccupation with some god that is not God. So what is a god? It is anything that we sacrifice to or anything that we sacrifice for. What is it that we wake up thinking about; what do we go to sleep hoping for, and what is it that fills our souls and our imaginations all the time in between? This is our god. So often what happens is that we take something good, something noble, and we deify it. It can be a hobby, a job, or a dream. It can be a child or a spouse. It can be practically anything. And the more it starts to consume us, the more it becomes our god. The more energy, the more money, and the more attention we give to it, the more it becomes our god. And of all the “almost gods” we encounter daily, none is more seductive than the idol of the self. Truthfully, it is no accident that the first full syllable of idolatry is I. I am all-important. I am all-sufficient. I am good and brilliant and able; I am right, and you are wrong. I am the master of my world. Now, we’ve been taught not to say it. We’ve been taught not to even think it. But how often do we live it? So sneakily, the lie comes into our lives to distract us from living for the God who is truly God, that we don’t even recognize it. All we know is that our emptiness grows as our certainty fades, and we feel a desperate gap widening between heaven and earth. And for the idolater in all of us, all that is necessary for us is to turn: to turn from the barren promises of self-centeredness to return to the loving embrace of the true God who calls us home.
WEEK THREE: Almost Jesus “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” – Matthew 16:15-16
It is a tragic thing to almost know Jesus: to almost know his tenderness and compassion and love. It is a heartbreaking thing to know only about Him and not to truly, fully, personally know Him – for it is there, on that holy ground where we meet and fall in love with the Savior, that the Gospel of his life and love forever changes us.
Day 11 // March 13 // Buddy Jesus (Too Human) “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” – Brennan Manning He was equal parts God and man. Fully human. Fully divine. This is one of the primary, historical teachings of the church. Far from some easy equation at which to arrive, it took the early Church centuries to develop this thought. Through heresies, storms, and struggles, the Church held to its teaching knowing that in order for the cross to mean anything, Jesus had to represent both the brokenness of earth and the hope of heaven. These days though, we think of such weighty matters with tragic rarity. We amble along our lives of faith with barely a passing glance toward the deeper matters of doctrine or dogma. We live such unexamined spiritual lives as we allow our relationship with the Savior to subsist on some unchecked, unthought-about spiritual autopilot. But who is Jesus? Really. Who has He been for us? Who do we need Him to be? For far too many of us, we count our Lord as just another of our friends – yes, a little wiser, a little more powerful - but still a friend, a pal with whom we share common interests...and, hopefully, common values. And while it is true that Jesus calls us into that close, intimate, personal relationship, He is so much more. In fact, I will never forget something that one of my seminary professors once said in class. “Yes,” she stated, “Jesus is your Friend; yes, He is your brother, but He is definitely not your buddy.” See, our faith calls us to something deeper than mere “Buddy Jesus Theology.” It calls us beyond accepting the Savior as One who thinks like we think, as One who wants as we want. Jesus is not One to be taken so lightly as to believe that He condones all that we do. He does not laugh off our sins nor wink at our indiscretions. For as fully human as Christ 16
has to be, He is holy too. He is God incarnate. Jesus is not like our other friends; He is not like those with whom weâ€™ll share a joke over a pint of ale. He does not and cannot simply approve of all that think and do and say. He does not and cannot accept our low-minded attitude toward righteousness. He does not and cannot approve of our squishy moral compass. He must stand for something. The cross must mean something. In faith, ours is a relationship that begs us to change. It wants to elevate our thinking and our living. It wants to shape our doing and our being. It asks us to pursue nothing less than holiness: to love and to serve and to forgive. It asks us to pick up our cross and to follow, to give and to sacrifice, to endure the pain of our own crucifixions â€“ knowing that we suffer it with One who is closer than a friend, closer than a brother...knowing that we suffer it with the One who bore the weight of our corrupted flesh in his own sacred body.
Day 12 // March 14 // Distant Jesus (Too Divine) “God may thunder His commands from Mount Sinai and men may fear, yet remain at heart exactly as they were before. But let a man once see his God down in the arena as a Man – suffering, tempted, sweating, and agonized, finally dying a criminal's death – and he is a hard man indeed who is untouched.” – J.B. Phillips Christians have always claimed that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Human minds struggle with what that means; and if it is tempting to focus too intently upon Jesus’ humanity, it becomes equally tempting to focus on Christ’s divinity. In fact, there are some who take this “almost” image of Jesus and add a good dose of Paul’s writing to have a picture emerge of Jesus as a sort of Super Man who passed through this life exuding power. This notion, however, does not match the biblical record. The Scriptures teach us that Jesus was fully human. He laughed, cried, hurt, got tired, and bled. He suffered and endured. We must all come to grips with the truth of Jesus’ nature to discover our own response of faith. If Jesus were only divine, we could let ourselves off the hook. We could say about the challenging Scriptures, “Jesus doesn’t really expect for me to follow this; I am not fully God like He was.” But, if Jesus knew every moment of pain and suffering that we endure, his way models for us how to live. There is no place we can go, no struggle that we can face that He has not been through. He lived his life in poverty. He taught without academic credentials or standing. He had no political connections to pave the way. He didn’t wait until the conditions were favorable; rather, he conducted his ministry without the resources or power we assume a leader must have. His example shows us how the faith must be lived. Right now - with all our shortcomings and limitations, with all of our flawed humanity. Remember the legend of the Fisher King. When the Fisher King was a boy, he was sent out to spend the night alone in the forest as a test of his courage to be king. During the night, he had a vision of the Holy Grail (the cup used by our Lord at the Last Supper), surrounded by great flames of fire. Immediately, he became excited by the prospect of the wealth and glory that would be his by 18
possessing such a great prize. Greedily, he reached into the flames to grab the Grail, but the flames were too much, and he was severely wounded. As the years went by, the Fisher King became more despondent and alone, and his wound grew deeper. One day the Fisher King, feeling sad and depressed and in pain, went for a walk in the forest. He came upon a court jester. “Are you all right?” the jester asked. “Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all?” “Well, I am very thirsty,” the Fisher King replied. The jester took an old dilapidated cup from bag, filled it with water from a nearby stream, and gave it to the Fisher King. As the Fisher King drank, he suddenly felt his wound healing for the first time. And incredibly, the old cup he was drinking from had turned into the Holy Grail. “What wonderful magic do you possess?” the Fisher King asked the jester. The jester just shrugged and said, “I know no magic. All I did was get a drink for a thirsty soul.” When we do our best to follow, with all of our flawed humanity, Jesus will inhabit those moments of our straining faith. Our job is not to let ourselves off the hook, but to enter the frays of life right now with Jesus!
Day 13 // March 15 // Taskmaster Jesus “I thought I had to be good to walk with God. And God said, ‘My grace is what you need to walk with me, then you will be good.’” ― Lailah Gifty Akita Years ago, I overheard a conversation that made me wince. A niece had an imaginary friend that she was constantly talking about. One year at Christmas, she made the comment that her imaginary friend wanted a disco dancing Barbie doll. Instantly her mother responded to her: “You better quit playing with that friend. Jesus doesn’t like little girls who disco dance.” Subtly, she was planting a dangerous seed: the notion that Jesus is a stern taskmaster that measures out his love. Tragically, this belief has been asserted for as long as there have been Christians. Some have instinctively replaced an old system of legalism with a new system of legalism – one that is required to earn Jesus’ love. And nothing could be further than the Biblical witness that shows that sinners and tax collectors, those despised by society as immoral, flocked to Jesus. And when they experienced his grace, they had parties; they invited their friends to meet this One who accepted them and loved them unconditionally. There was something about the grace of Jesus that welcomed those that religion shunned. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”(Matthew 11:28-30). Following Jesus should never be a burden that makes us give up in disappointment; it should be a joy that urges us to become more and more like Him. The old hymn writer captured this truth in a beautiful way: “Other refuge have I none, Hangs my helpless soul on Thee; Leave, oh, leave me not alone, Still support and comfort me. All my trust on Thee is stayed, All my help from Thee I bring; Cover my defenseless head With the shadow of Thy wing.”
Day 14 // March 16 // Jesus As An Abstraction “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say...You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” ― C.S. Lewis It has become the mantra of a generation: “I am spiritual but not religious.” And I know what they mean when they say it: “I believe in God but not in organized religion.” And when I hear it, I always twist an old Will Rogers quip to respond: “Oh, I am not a member of an organized religion. I am a Methodist.” It is sad, to be sure, that there are so many who have just a passing curiosity with our Lord. It is sad that there are so many – even sitting in the pews of Christian churches – who believe only in theory, who accept...but only to a certain degree. Don’t take this Jesus-stuff too seriously or people will think that you’re weird. Don’t get too involved or you might get hurt. It’s better to have a chilly, “almost” relationship with Jesus than to have none at all, right? It seems that the Gospels would disagree. To those who knew Jesus best, it was impossible to have a relationship like that. It was unthinkable that we would settle for having anything less than a living, thriving, growing, ever-deepening relationship with our Lord. He was more than just a good man. He was more than just some sage guru with all the answers. Jesus did not come to teach the way or to show the way. Jesus was and is the Way. And in an age that wants to make everything easy, in a time that craves userfriendliness and simplicity, faith stands as an outlier. It was never intended to be easy. It was never intended to make sense. It was meant to challenge us and to stretch us. It is meant to commandeer every cell of our being. More than mere intellectual assent, for the believer, faith is the passionate, lifelong, allconsuming pursuit of Christlikeness – a journey that scoffs at our offer of “almost” to demand our everything.
Day 15 // March 17 // Our Lord Without Savior “The Lord ate from a common bowl, and asked the disciples to sit on the grass. He washed their feet, with a towel wrapped around His waist - He, who is the Lord of the universe!” – Clement of Alexandria One of the “almost Jesus” mistakes we can make is to get so busy following and doing, that we forget that our salvation is never up to us. If faith is reduced to endless efforts to do good without replenishing our souls with the power of Jesus, it will grow weary, and we will slowly drift away. Striking the balance between works and faith has constantly been the challenge in living a vital faith for a lifetime. A mother was about to take a business trip that would take her away from home for a couple days. The night before she left, as she was in her two boys' room to hear their prayers, she told them she was going to go away and asked if in their prayers, they would like to ask God to protect her on her journey. Her fouryear-old son thought that was a great idea. He prayed: "Dear God, if buffaloes or bears or other mean animals come near Mommy, can You handle it? If You can't, just call on Jesus." I think that is the key to a life of faith. We must work; we must serve; we must try to bear good fruit for the kingdom. But in every step of the way, we must call on Jesus. We don’t have the power or the strength to do much for long. We call on Jesus, and His power equips us for the work that we are to do. I love the way Larnelle Harris conveys this truth in his beautiful song: “Were it not for grace, I can tell you where I’d be: Wandering down some pointless road to nowhere, With my salvation up to me. I know how that would go, The battles I would face: Forever running but losing this race Were it not for grace.”
Day 16 // March 18 // Our Savior Without Lord “Never think that Jesus commanded a trifle, nor dare to trifle with anything He has commanded.” – Dwight L. Moody The wind swept past, blowing the dust into a choking swirl. Mingled with the smoky air, the night hung heavy. He can still remember the words: “Though all may desert You, I will never leave.” But there he stood; in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace, Peter saw his Lord, his friend mocked and tried and condemned. “Never will I leave him,” he reminded himself. But we know how this scene ends. Once. Then again. And even once more: “I don’t know him,” Peter would scream as the night’s stillness was shattered by the rooster’s condemning crow. For all of his big talk, for all his swaggering bravado, Peter forsook the One he had sworn to serve, the One he had sworn to love. And we can look at Peter’s denial and wag our disapproving finger. We can look back and say that we would have acted differently...but do we? For it is maybe the most pervasive denial of Christ around: to accept Him as Savior, but to deny him as Lord. Yes, we happily proclaim Jesus as our eternal Savior. We gladly accept Him as the Lover of our souls. But Master? Owner? Lord? It is a strange thing to think, but we pace through that priest’s courtyard every day. We sit by that fire and we smell that stale, dusty air. Daily, we are presented with opportunities to stand firm or to deny, to stick, or to run. Daily, we are called upon by faith to surrender to the way of Jesus Christ, to accept him fully as Lord or to deny him – even partially – as liar. For salvation is not a one-way street. And while grace is free, it costs us everything. It costs us the ways we think and the ways we act; it comes at the price of the ways we believe and the ways we behave. There is no “almost” when it comes to surrender. There is no “almost” when it comes to Jesus. He wants, demands, and expects our all and our best...for that is exactly what He gave for us.
WEEK FOUR: Almost the Spirit “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” – Acts 2:38
The Holy Spirit is a gift – a gift that teaches us, empowers us to follow, and allows us to bear the fruit of faith. The “almost” experience of the Spirit is to enter into rancorous debates about Spiritual gifts, judgment about salvation, and division in the Body of Christ. This week, we will explore how the Holy Spirit can lead us into a deeper and more meaningful walk of “Altogether Faith.”
Day 17 // March 20 // Inspiration “The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer Probably the most misunderstood figure of the Trinity is the person of the Holy Spirit. For ages debated, the early Church argued and fussed over how to describe the movement and activity of this powerful manifestation of God. In fact, the fight became so squalid and fierce that in the mid-11th century, the Church split over the teaching. And if they, the great theologians and scholars, the closest heirs of the faith, could not arrive at a consensus, how are we to? But maybe that was exactly their issue: maybe their theology and scholasticism got in the way. Maybe they thought too much and experienced too little. Like many aspects of the life of faith, in order to understand a thing, sometimes we must simply stand under it. Sometimes we must experience that Thing that we most want to know, that Thing that we most need to know. Such can be said of the Holy Spirit. Like a soft breeze, we do not see the Spirit; but we know its presence by the gentle tickle of its fingers across our face. And as we know the rushing of the invisible wind by the tree’s shiver of the leaves, we know the reality of God’s presence with us by what it is that we can see, by what we can sense and feel and perceive. God is all around us – revealing Himself inasmuch as we allow ourselves to look, inspiring us inasmuch as we allow ourselves to hope. For Inspiration is not just in the beauty of the sunset or in the lightening of the storm. God is not just in the gently opening rose or in the hawk’s high, circling arc. God is all around us – giving life and hope and breath. Literally, it is that breath-giving act (inspiration) that renews us, that gives us the will and courage and fortitude to face each new day. It is that breath-giving act that gives us the faith to believe and the wisdom to receive. “And God breathed into [him] the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). This was not just a one-time occurrence. This was not just a singular act of divine generosity. This 25
was not just Adamâ€™s story. This is our story. For, in faith, the Spirit is our Comforter and our Convicter, our Portion and Hope and Guide. In faith, the Spirit is our Advocate and our Healer â€“ the air we breathe and our Source of life.
Day 18 // March 21 // Wisdom “The wizard of Oz says look inside yourself and find yourself. God says look inside yourself and find the Holy Spirit. The first will get you to Kansas. The latter will get you to heaven. Take your pick.” – Max Lucado One of the most powerful gifts of the Holy Spirit is wisdom: that ability to know what is right. Wisdom cannot be taught in a book or mastered from a class. It comes from living and failing, from striving and missing the mark. But always, if we invite God into all of life and not just into “almost all” of it, the Spirit will teach us and help us to process what is happening to us and in us. God uses many ways to teach. It might be knowledge from a good book or an insight from a Bible study. More often than not though, God puts wise people in our paths to give us good counsel. Wisdom is surrounding ourselves with the right teachers and adjusting our course when they tell us what we don’t want to hear. James Angell was a Presbyterian minister who experienced tragedy: his 21-yearold daughter was killed in a car accident as she was on her way home from college. The event plunged him into deep grief. Years later, he wrote a book about those dark days entitled O Susan. He said that in grief there is a long period when the loss is almost more than you can bear; it is like you are at the end of your rope, and you have to tie a knot on the end to hold on. Then he said something happens. He warns it happens in different ways and at different times to different people. But for him it happened this way: the Holy Spirit sent a dear and trusted friend into his study to speak wisdom to him. He said that he had just been stuck, unable to function, floundering in the darkness of his grief. The friend said, “Jim, you’ve got to face this: for the rest of your life, this is a fact that you have to live with. You can do two things about it: you can use it, use your fresh depth of feeling to make life finer; or you can let it crush you, and you go through the rest of your life whining.” Angell goes on to write that those words from his friend reminded him of the words of the hymn: “Shun not the struggle, face it. ‘Tis God’s gift.” Not the accident: that was not God’s gift; not the tragedy, not the sorrow: those were not God’s gifts...”but the grace, the power to use those events to make life deeper and richer, that is the gift.” When he realized that his friend was bringing wisdom from the Holy Spirit, he let his daughter go into God’s hands and started living his life again.
All around us, God is trying to teach us. The Holy Spirit is guiding us into the abundant life we are called to live. Wisdom is an openness to be taught and to change our direction. Are we teachable? Are we aware of those teachers who come in many different ways and times? And are we fully present enough to let them make a difference?
Day 19 // March 22 // Discernment “Let discernment be your trustee, and mistakes your teacher.” – T.F. Hodge Each day that we live, our brains are crowded with an onslaught of thoughts, ideas, and plans. An age-old question is: how many of these come from me, and how many are God-planted? The ability to discern what God is saying is a primary gift of the Holy Spirit. Hours before the cross, Jesus made his followers an astounding promise. He said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you”(John 14:26). So, how do we practice discernment? We need to... •
Line Up Our Thoughts with Scripture. We need to ask, “Is this consistent with the message that Jesus gave us? Is this idea about helping me or about helping others? Does this help us love in a more sacrificial way? Is the kingdom of God enhanced with this idea?” Talk to Trusted Advisers. Other people may see things we cannot, and they may point out new or better ideas that can enhance our vision. They can ask the tough questions and join us in praying for God’s wisdom and will. Surrounding ourselves with people who will be honest with us is a key ingredient in discernment. Trust Our Inner Spirit. God has given all of us a conscience and the ability to reason. Sometimes a thought just doesn’t feel right. Learn to trust that inner voice – even when it tells us what we don’t want to hear...especially when it tells us what we don’t want to hear. Ask, “Does This Idea Scare Me?” Too often we want to play it safe. We want to have assured victories. God has a way of stretching us and giving us dreams that seem impossible. He wants us to rely on Him – not merely on our own strengths – trusting the wisdom of Proverbs 16:9: “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.”
Day 20 // March 23 // Miracles “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” – Saint Augustine It would be easy to believe that we live in a world devoid of the miraculous. It has been centuries since anyone walked on water. It’s been ages since the dead have been called back to life or the sun stood still in the sky. It would be simple to believe that those acts belonged to a different time, easy to dismiss all of the Bible’s talk of the phenomenal – all because we have not seen it with our own two eyes. To do so though, would be to cut the legs from underneath our faith. It would be to tie our hands behind our back before entering the ring against a heavyweight. Miracles are real. Miracles exist. They happen everyday. They are all around us. Yes, in the breeze, in the setting of the sun. Yes, in the tender cooing of an infant and in the raucous laughter of a child. Miracles are all around us, they remain only for us to see...and maybe that’s the biggest miracle of them all: that we would stop and take the time necessary to recognize and thank God for the ordinary miracles that permeate his creation. But let’s cut through all that because that’s what we expect to hear. That’s what preachers are supposed to say. But the reality is that so many of us have prayed and prayed and prayed. We’ve struggled and pleaded with the Spirit. We’ve asked and searched and knocked on heaven’s door until our knuckles are bloodied. We have waited for our miracle but it seems that all those words, that all those prayers, have gone unheard…or at least unanswered. Just as an example, the Church is filled with individuals and families fighting against this evil thing called cancer. They have prayed and prayed for healing, but it just doesn’t come…or it never came and now it’s too late for those prayers to be answered. And it’d be easy for us to think that cancer was bigger than God. Maybe the anger and fear is that God just didn’t care enough to answer – like C.S. Lewis said, “We may never get to the place where we don’t believe in God, but we run the risk of getting to that place where we start to think horrible things about God: that He’s cruel or distant or uncaring or unable to help.”
There, stuck with the weak prejudice of low expectations, we are prone to forget that in faith we proclaim that our loved ones’ deliverance into glory, that deliverance into a place with no pain and no worry and no tears, into a place in the presence of the Almighty is ultimate healing. Yes, it leaves an open wound here on this side of the miracle of death and rebirth. We’re the ones who are hurt; we’re the ones who grieve; we’re the ones who wonder about our prayers’ effects. Our loved ones and our friends, though, have never been more themselves. They’ve never been so filled with joy and peace; their prayers have never been answered in a more powerful way than to see with their own eyes that which we only strain to see with the hope of ours…and that is the biggest miracle of all.
Day 21 // March 24 // Leading “It was Lord who put into my mind the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies. All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvelous inspiration from the Holy Scriptures.” – Christopher Columbus Jesus listened. We, too, need to listen. We need to learn to listen for the sounds of the Almighty, for the gentle rumblings of his silence, and for the gentle stirrings of his Holy Spirit. The Spirit will guide us, but we have to learn to be still and attentive. As Scriptures teach us: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, as on the day of testing in the wilderness’” (Hebrews 3:7-8). Yes, we need to learn to listen, but listening is only the beginning. For it leads us into the wonder-filled journey of faith – of following, of yielding, of growing more and more aware of the dictates of the Spirit and the holy will of God. Dr. Charles Stanley, the long-time pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, told how he learned this lesson. He said, “I remember how powerfully the Lord communicated with me one night on my knees when I was in graduate school. I was about halfway through the three-year program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and I was beginning to think about my future. I wasn’t certain yet what I would do and deeply wanted advice. It was one of those nights when I longed to pick up the phone and call the father I never knew (he passed away when I was nine months old) and tell him what I was thinking. Little did I know how God would use that void in my heart for a father over and over again to draw me to Himself. That night as I knelt to pray, I had a very strong sense of the Lord’s presence. I did not hear His voice audibly, but His message to me could not have been clearer. He said, ‘Whatever you accomplish in life will not depend upon your education, your talent, or your skill. I have a plan for you, but you will only accomplish it on your knees in complete surrender to Me.’” For Dr. Stanley, as it is for us, it was about being completely surrendered – not “almost” surrendered. I think the old hymn writer put it best, though: “Have Thine own way Lord; Have Thine own way. Thou art the Potter, I am the clay. 32
Mold me and make me after Thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still.â€?
Day 22 // March 25 // Prophecy “The ultimate function of prophecy is not to tell the future, but to make it.” – Joel A. Barker Isn’t it interesting how preoccupied we are with the future? All our greatest hopes and most of our greatest fears exist in that land beyond the sunrise. We plan for it. We save for it. We try to do all that we can today to make the most of our entire coming tomorrows. And if we could know the future, I think that most of us would be tempted to peer into that crystal ball. Or as one fortune cookie was noted as saying, “You will be hungry again in one hour.” For better or for worse, the future lays out before us like blank pages in an unwritten book. It is not for us to know; it is for us to create. It is not for us to fear, but ours to follow the leading and conviction of the Spirit as we write the epic story of these lives that God created us to live. But far from playing the mystical role of some crystal-gazing carnival barker, the biblical role of the prophet was not to tell the future, it was to tell the truth. Their job was to speak truth to power - to powerful people in powerful positions. Their job was to tell the truth to men and women that didn’t want to hear what needed to be said, to confront them with God’s word and his expectations. And today, the Holy Spirit still inspires the modern-day prophets amongst us. Unbeholden to the systems and structures that would keep them quiet (systems and structures that too often keep us quiet), they boldly proclaim peace in a world of violence, love amidst hate, compassion and charity amidst fear and rampant greed. “The truth shall set you free,” John’s Gospel tells us. Today, we must realize that there is no “almost” variety of truth – it does not come in shades or degrees or hues. There is truth, and there is falsehood. There is right, and there is wrong, and there is the Holy Spirit of God that we can trust to lead us into knowing and living and being the difference.
WEEK FIVE: Almost Human “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” – Genesis 1:27
Though we live and breathe and amble about, too many of us are only “Almost Human.” We exist. We survive. But we don’t truly live; we merely tolerate our near humanity. Then what keeps us from being fully human? What keeps us from living those lives that God created to enjoy?
Day 23 // March 27 // Pride “There are two kinds of pride, both good and bad. 'Good pride' represents our dignity and self-respect. 'Bad pride' is the deadly sin of superiority that reeks of conceit and arrogance.” – John C. Maxwell There is a haunting moment in Scripture that speaks to human nature. Jesus is on his way to the cross. He has “set his face toward Jerusalem.” His mind was focused on the dramatic showdown and intense encounter ahead. He had prepared his disciples for what was ahead, but they didn't understand. At that moment, the mother of James and John comes to Christ and makes an ambitious, audacious request. And just so we don’t blame the mother, let’s remember that James and John were standing right there – they were all in on this together. Her request stuns us: she asks that her sons get the top two spots in the new Kingdom that Jesus is about to establish. Jesus had to have looked at them and thought, “You just don’t get it.” He knew what they were thinking. They were just like us. Their minds were on power, position, and prestige. All the while, He was thinking about sacrificial, suffering, and service. So Jesus just shakes his head and says, “You have no idea what you are asking.” Their question encapsulates our struggle with prideful arrogance. They are saying, “We’re going to get ahead no matter who we have to step on or push aside. If we have to elbow other people out of the way, then so be it!” That kind of arrogant pride always seemed to catch Jesus’ attention. In fact, He once told a parable about a Pharisee who was praying a pompous, arrogant prayer while a humble government official was over in the corner offering a prayer of contrite modesty. There is a contemporary takeoff of this parable that we’d be wise to heed: “Two men went to church to pray. One was a man named Hornblower. The other was a teacher. The man named Hornblower stood and looked heavenward saying: ‘God, I thank you that I am so much better than other people. I thank you, O Lord, that I am not like the rest of humankind. And especially, I thank you that I am not like this poor teacher here who feeds off the public payroll. It’s my money that pays this teacher’s salary. It’s my money that keeps his school and this community going. So, I thank you, Lord, that I am the great man I am and not like this poor, pitiful school man here.’ Hearing this, the school teacher humbly bowed his head and said: “Lord, have mercy for I was that man’s teacher!’” 36
The critical question that will define our lives is how do we measure success? Is life about me and about my achievements? Or can we learn from Jesus that true greatness comes from serving God and others. William Barclay put it like this: “The world may assess a person’s greatness by the number of people they control and who are at their beck and call; or by their intellectual standing and their academic eminence; or by the number of committees of which they are a member; or by the size of their bank balance and the material possessions which they have amassed; but in the assessment of Jesus Christ, these things are irrelevant. Christ’s assessment of greatness is quite simply, ‘How many people has the person helped?’”
Day 24 // March 28 // Self-Loathing “I've got a bad case of the 3 a.m. guilts - you know, when you lie in bed awake and replay all those things you didn't do right? Because, as we all know, nothing solves insomnia like a nice warm glass of regret, depression and self-loathing.” ― D.D. Barant The Biblical narrative begins with an amazing insight: we were created in the image of God. Genesis 1:26 declares, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” To be fully human means to own who we are in God’s eyes. And yet we live in a world that puts us down, reminds us of our shortcomings, and makes us feel “almost” human. Tragically, too often we do that to ourselves, too. Through the self-image that we nurse and the ways that we talk to ourselves and about ourselves, we can easily become our own worst enemy. People with low self-esteem, according to Eckhart Tolle are "stuck with hostile, life-denying, continuously critical and attacking entities that they carry in their heads and they believe." No matter how outwardly well things may be going, there are internal conversations in our heads: diatribes of criticism, doubt, and guilt. So how do we battle this tendency toward self-loathing? How do we forestall Satan’s tool of shame? How do we see ourselves as God sees us? • Find A Place of Renewal. Jesus constantly had to get away to pray. We need a place outside, in a corner with a book, or in a good hot bath where we can get away from the world. We need a place that feeds our souls, a place where we can feel inspired, serene, and utterly unselfconscious. When we find ourselves beating ourselves up, even thinking of this place can calm us. • Adopt Ourselves. Too often, we carry scars and ingrained ways of thinking from childhood. Sometimes we need to imagine our younger selves and to be gentle with them. It is okay to protect ourselves from certain situations and moments that are triggers to the past. It is also important to focus on our strengths and not our weaknesses. Remember who God made us to be and give thanks for that!
Find a Community of Love. We need to be surrounded by fellow believers who give us love, encouragement, and support. We need to take seriously Paul’s injunction: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:9-13).
Day 25 // March 29 // Self-Centeredness “These illustrations suggest four general maxims: The first is: Remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself. The second is: Don't over-estimate your own merits. The third is: Don't expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself. And the fourth is: Don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you.” ― Bertrand Russell To be fully human in its best sense is to embrace Jesus’ teaching: to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. When our focus is outward rather than inward, we will live healthier, happier lives. Too often, though, our focus shifts to ourselves and to people who think or act like us. As such, our worldview can become jaded quite easily. Some years ago, when William Howard Taft was president of the United States, he found himself in an interesting dilemma. A woman who was a friend of the Taft family kept pestering President Taft to appoint her husband to the post of Secretary of Commerce. Now, the woman’s husband had no political experience at all, no training for the job at all, and no real expertise or qualifications to bring to the position. In fact, he was a house painter! But, the woman wanted her husband to be named by the president to this key cabinet position: the Secretary of Commerce. Now, of course, President Taft knew that he could not do that. He could not accommodate the woman’s request. That was obvious. So President Taft, kind man that he was, tried to cushion his refusal by explaining to the woman that so important a post required a person who had been prepared by long training to meet the demands of that significant job. It required, he said, a “Big Person.” That explanation didn’t phase the woman one bit. That would take care of itself, she said. If the president would just appoint her husband to the position, then he would be a “Big Person!” That’s what self-centeredness does: it blinds us to the life around us. We think we deserve more than we do, and we put others down who don’t agree with us. We see ourselves as the “Big Person” and the others around us as bit players in the drama of our lives. It builds walls to protect our turf, rather than bridges that invite and include others. It keeps us from fully embracing others, and it keeps
us from fully embracing God. As such, it keeps us from fully embracing the full humanity too many of us almost live.
Day 26 // March 30 // Appearances “The beggar is the only person in the universe not obliged to study appearance.” – Don Herold Every morning, we wake up and we play our little games. We brush our teeth, comb our hair, and put on a fresh face to get through the day. Like warriors preparing for battle, we arm ourselves with charm and wit. We let others in – but only in so far. They almost get to know us. They almost get to care. We keep them at arm’s length because we don’t want them to get too close. We don’t want them to see the person behind the mask, behind the façade, behind the perfectly crafted persona. Underneath that entire manufactured pretense, though, who are we? What lurks within us that scares us into playing our hopeless games of make-believe? What keeps us superficial and distant and fake? It is a tragic reality for many of us that we’ve forgotten: we’ve forgotten who we really are. We’ve forgotten the pure joy of simply, plainly being us. We’ve played the game for so long that it almost seems real. We almost seem real. Deep down in our souls though, in those places that we don’t like to think about, we know the truth. We know that we have allowed the appearance of success to substitute for real substance. We’ve allowed tepid hospitality take the place of true kindness. We’ve let contacts replace real friends and dogooder moralism serve in lieu of actual faith. And let us not be fooled, Lent too can fall prey to the trap of appearances. We can go through the motions; we can fast and study and serve. We can kneel in prayer only to rise unchanged. We can do everything that is right; but if we do it only to be seen doing it, we will have missed the point. We will have allowed our spiritual lives to be victimized by the same calloused mediocrity that plagues the rest of our lives. Be sure: God is no respecter of persons. And where others look upon the outside appearance of us, God looks upon our hearts. He knows our hopes and our joys, our greatest fears and our worst struggles; and He loves us regardless. He knows our intents, our thoughts, and our dreams. He knows what we look like – what we truly look like: the beauty that resides in each of us as we were created in his image. And more than anything, He wants for us to know that 42
beauty, too. He wants us to find the freedom to be who He created us to be â€“ a freedom we only find through Jesus Christ.
Day 27 // March 31 // Loneliness “Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.” – May Sarton Every great saint has endured the mute pains of loneliness. In deserts and in forests alike, they found themselves faced with their greatest foe: the enemy that lay within, the whispered voice that told them that no one cared. We have all been there. We have all experienced it: the vicious emptiness of being alone, the sterile, unmoving cold reserved for the solitary soul. Even when surrounded by people, we can still feel a million miles away. Even when they are sitting right beside us, we can still feel disconnected from others – in fact, that particular ilk of emptiness can sometimes be the most wincing because it makes no sense. And like a hard freeze offering no hope for a thaw, we can resign ourselves to that barren landscape; or we can choose to approach loneliness with a more weathered perspective. We can choose hope over despair and light over the creeping dark. We can use the silence that once deafened us to pursue God. We can use it to pursue ourselves – discovering untapped measures of strength and resilience. We can turn our pangs of loneliness into seasons of solitude. And like all seasons, we must take comfort in knowing that they will pass. The cold of winter will soon give way to the triumphant buds of spring. The loneliness of today will soon be swept away by the companionship of tomorrow. “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” the Psalmist reminds us. Through it all though, let us remember that we are never alone. Let us remember that God – whether bidden or unbidden – is always with us. This is more than a naïve cliché clung to by hopeless fools; it is one of the greatest promises of faith. Let us learn then, the lessons that only solitude can teach. Let us find our souls embraced in the strong arms of God, and let us rejoice at the promise of tomorrow – knowing it is almost here.
Day 28 // April 1 // Aimlessness “Any purpose will be entirely purposeless unless it completely exceeds my ability to achieve it – for only then is there room for God; and without God, purpose of even the most magnificent sort remains utterly and abjectly purposeless.” – Craig D. Lounsbrough In that thin space between sleeping and waking is the wispy gray of twilight. Not quite alert, not quite awake, we are just a shell of who we will later be. With our showers and toast and morning cups of coffee comes a new person: driven, aware, ready. For too many of us though, twilight lingers. Yes, we are up. Yes, we are dressed. Yes, we are ready for the day, but we’re not quite sure why. We go through the motions. We know what’s expected, but it all seems so pointless: another meeting, another project, another party, and another call. Like an unending circus train, we watch our lives speed past us; and we feel powerless to do anything about it. So we survive another day only to repeat it tomorrow. But survival isn’t living - it’s “almost” living. But what if life didn’t have to be like that? What if we could live with passion and with transcendent purpose every day? What if even the most menial of tasks could take on eternal significance? Such is the life for which we were created. Such is the life to which we’re called. Such is the life whose purpose is found in Christ. It is a life of being fully human, of being fully used. It is a life lived in mission and service to others. No longer is the bottom line or report card the measure of our worth, for it is found in the cross of Christ. No longer does the latest fad or fastest gizmo consume us, for it is now God that fills us up. What, then, is required of us, and what’s the point? The prophet Micah tells us: “To work justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). So, wake up. Stir from your slumber, you who sleepwalk through life. Rise and greet the day...and make it the mission field God has always intended it to be.
WEEK SIX: Almost Church “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” – Ephesians 4:4-6
We live in a day of individualistic Christianity. Denominations are out of style. The Church seems like an outdated idea. The “Almost Church” mindset yearns to belong to a group of like-minded folk who are told exactly what to believe. The Church described in Scripture is not that. It is an ekklesia, a gathering of diverse people with diverse thoughts figuring out how to follow Christ together. The Church at its best is messy and challenging. The Church at its best also helps us grow more and more into the image of Christ.
Day 29 // April 3 // Apathy “I don't like these cold, precise, perfect people, who, in order not to speak wrong, never speak at all, and in order not to do wrong, never do anything.” – Henry Ward Beecher In the early Church, to follow Jesus meant to risk one’s life. It meant alienation from society and often, from one’s family. These Christians were passionately committed to the faith because every day they were aware of the cost. We live in a day of comfortable Christianity, of “Almost Christianity.” It is respectable to belong to a church. We can sit on the sidelines and observe; we can soak up the benefits without ever really taking risks to follow Jesus. Apathy is the modern scourge that can keep us from being a disciple. The word apathy is interesting; it comes from the Greek apatheia, which means “without feeling.” It means we live (and believe) without feeling, with no passion, without fervent spirit. The simple meaning is well expressed by our modern vernacular: "Who cares?" It means that we are mere bystanders to the work of God, that we never really invest ourselves in the church. A fascinating piece of satire challenges us: “Have you heard about The Church of Apathy? If you don't want to identify with any specific religion or take on any life commitment, yet you are not comfortable with atheism or agnosticism, you may find your place in The Church of Apathy. You would be called an Apathist. The founders of this church thought about it for several years before actually doing anything. They looked for a location, but decided it was too much trouble, so embraced the concept of not meeting. The next step was to find a minister, but nobody really wanted to look for one. Besides, they were having trouble finding somebody who cared about not caring. Finally, they decided to adopt a creed: Who knows? Who cares? We certainly don't; we're Apathists!” A tongue in cheek thought, admittedly; but our response should be “Heaven forbid!” In fact, the third chapter of Revelation reminds us that no sin so displeases Jesus as apathy. Out of apathy flow ingratitude, inaction, indifference, and silence. We are called to be passionate followers of Christ who give our best to the Church! Notice how the evil one would derail our mission today, "Satan is such a wily sage. He doesn't come up to folks and invite them into the slime pits of 47
sin; he just lulls them into indifference...little by little, he encroaches upon our faithfulness."
Day 30 // April 4 // Divisiveness “When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.” – Winston S. Churchill We have all been wounded. We have all been hurt. We’ve all been betrayed and lied to and lied about; and we carry the scars of this world around with us. And what we need most is a safe place in which to heal. We are looking for a sanctuary for our minds and souls, a place to find peace and rest. At her best, the Church is that refuge. At her best, the Church is that strong bulwark that never fails. She is that place where worn-out hopes and tattered dreams find new life, that place where the beaten, defeated, and scarred find new possibilities and new strength. For it is there, in the place where the faithful meet, that the peace and promise of our Lord is proclaimed. But it’s not the brick or mortar or steel that holds the Church together. She is no building or space or room. The Church is the living, breathing family of God; she is the vast connection of his faithful followers – saints and sinners bound together under a common banner: the love of the Savior. Mortar crumbles. Steel bends, and bricks turn to dust. And just as easily, the Church too can unravel. Under a scourge of backbiting and rancor, we can forget our purpose. Divided into factions and groups and cliques, we can stray. And far from being that safe port in the storms of this life, for too many, the Church can become just another squall – just another wave that threatens our sinking raft. And it ought not be that way. The cross of Jesus Christ was meant to call all to repentance; it was intended to beckon all to faith. Crowned with a sign etched in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, it proclaimed to all – Jew and Greek, insider and outsider – that He was King. It demolished every barricade and tore down every wall. Why, then, is the Church so intent upon building them back up? Why can she not, does she not, build bridges instead of barriers? In a world divided into parties and groups, into winners and losers, left and right, haves and have-nots, the Church must be that place where all can come together to hear the Good News. It must be a place where we are reminded that the anger and divisiveness of this world do not get to win. Here, we come together to be about a purpose bigger and nobler than any one group or idea. 49
The Church must be a people of healing and hope, a people who may not agree on anything else, but who can agree on this one thing: that Jesus is Lord of all.
Day 31 // April 5 // Entitlement “You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.” ― Abraham Lincoln It’s not about you. It’s a hard thing to hear (and it’s a hard thing to write). The Church is not about you, and it’s not about me. The Church is about Jesus Christ and the God to whom He was always trying to point us. It’s not about our agendas. It’s not about our ease. The Church is not about our comfort or preferences or schemes. The Church is about God, about the Gospel of his great love for us. It is about stretching us beyond what’s comfortable and upsetting our ease. And we don’t like to hear that. Unlike everything else in these worlds that we have manufactured for ourselves, the Church is not about us. It does not revolve around our likes and dislikes. It does not exist to make us feel better about ourselves. It exists to make us do better for the Kingdom and to be better for the Lord. It is not about us. So maybe it is, then, that we struggle to find what we’re looking for in a church because we’ve been looking for the wrong thing. Maybe we’re not taking away what we think we want to take because we’ve been unwilling to give what we need to give. If we approach faith with a “what’s in it for me” sort of attitude, then we will always be disappointed. We will always miss the point. If we come with an attitude to be served rather than to serve, with a bib instead of an apron, then we will always leave empty-handed. Like trying to withdraw a tidy sum out of an empty bank account, we get only in measure to what we give. And this is not just a principle for financial generosity. No, it’s about the time and love and encouragement that we’re willing to lend. It’s about the friendship and support and curiosity that we’re willing and ready to share. It is such a sad thing to almost be the Church. It is such an opportunity wasted, such a treasure missed. But to fully be the Body of Christ, it will require all of us doing our part. It will require all of us to “do our own growing.” It will require that all of us agree that it’s not about us...but about the One who calls us into faithful sacrifice for the sake and souls of others.
Day 32 // April 6 // Jealousy “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on.” ― William Shakespeare We would like to think that followers of Christ become inoculated against the green-eyed monster. Unfortunately, Christians become its greatest targets. In doing well and in working together, we are constantly tempted to measure our results against those around us. A pastor recently wrote of a searing moment of insight that deeply troubled her. She was comparing herself to friends and colleagues who were in different stages of ministry. She wrote: “As the years passed, doors began to swing open. Soon I found myself dealing with a new set of unfamiliar, unpleasant feelings: ‘How come she's moving along faster than I am, Lord? Why did they honor her instead of me?’ I wasn't jealous, of course. Merely...uh...competitive. The awful truth revealed itself one gray morning when I received an announcement from a colleague who'd been blessed with an opportunity I was convinced should have been mine. I tossed the letter across the room in an angry huff, whining, ‘It's not fair, Lord!’ He chose that moment to get my attention. ‘Was the cross of Calvary fair, Liz? Have I called you to succeed—or surrender?’ I was undone. Jealousy, envy, and strife were alive and well in my jade-green heart.” The green-eyed monster comes to Christians in subtle ways. We are jealous that someone has the gift that we really want. Someone’s ministry prospers in a public way, while we toil away in the shadows. Others are recognized when we are not. Always the focus is on us. The root of jealousy is our insecurity. We think we are missing something, that what we have is not enough. We forget that the Church, at its best, is filled with servants of the Lord who do their best together. The Scriptures admonish us: “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:7-8).
Day 33 // April 7 // Spiritual Laziness “The time will come when winter will ask you what you were doing all summer.” – Henry Clay The late pastor Gerald Mann, founder of Riverbend Church in Austin, often prayed a challenging prayer to end his sermon. He would pray, “Lord, what kind of church would this be if everyone in it were just like me?” That prayer reminds us that a church is like a sports team: every member has a role to play, a job to do. The more people invest in participating, the more successful the team will become. Unfortunately, human nature lets us slide into becoming sideline spectators. We watch; we critique; we see things that bother us and we say, “Why doesn’t somebody, somewhere, do something about that?” The struggle to stick and to stay the course has always been an issue in the church. Remember how the writer of Hebrews challenged his hearers in the sixth chapter: “God doesn’t miss anything. He knows perfectly well all the love you’ve shown him by helping needy Christians, and that you keep at it. And now I want each of you to extend that same intensity toward a full-bodied hope, and keep at it till the finish. Don’t drag your feet. Be like those who stay the course with committed faith and then get everything promised to them.” The question becomes: How do I stick? How do I live this faith with a fullbodied intensity until I finish the race? We need to remember that not everybody gets to be the quarterback. Just because my role is not center stage does not mean it doesn’t matter. In fact, the Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, gives us a beautiful picture of the whole body working together – small members mattering as much as large. We tend to focus on the big, out-front jobs; and we think we don’t really matter. J. Wallace Hamilton spoke about this some years ago: “We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.” Or, as Carl Sandburg once put it, “we all want to play Hamlet.” Alfred Adler, one of the founders of modern psychiatry, names it the “dominant impulse in human nature:” this desire for recognition. That’s not the way the church works. Most of us have those smaller jobs that get little recognition. We think, “Who really knows or cares what I do?” But Christ 53
says to us: â€œI care. I notice. And, yes, you matter.â€? For it is a truth that, when we all find our places to serve and pour our hearts into them, we bless the whole; for our job is to keep running this race before us with the same intensity until we cross the finish line!
Day 34 // April 8 // Meanness “People speak sometimes about the ‘bestial’ cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts; no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky It is shameful how mean we, “Almost Christians,” can be. For a family saved only by the grace of Another, for a tribe made special only out of the love of Someone else, we can be awful and stingy and cruel. Called to be a people of love, we have become a people of spite – at least, to many who know us only by reputation...and how it must bring a tear to the eyes of heaven! Hope. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Forbearance. Love. These should be our witness. These should be our cause. These lofty ideals should distinguish us and guide us and make us known. But ask most strangers about the faith, and we would be dismayed; for our testimony has been marred by decades (if not centuries) of violence and hate – and all in the name of a noble cause. And maybe worse than the overt meanness of the Church is the covert cruelty of her people: the cold shoulder and the indifferent snub. They are the words not spoken that resound the loudest – the muffled laughter and the whispered stab. It is the meanness of being disinterested, the meanness of not caring. It is the sterile apathy of a people too busy or too driven to be concerned. But do we realize that the way we live our lives reflects the God whom we worship? Do we understand that the way we treat others is simply an echo of what we believe? It is our loudest, most prominent statement of faith. And for those whose God-image is one of merciless judgment and retributive justice, Christian cruelty makes sense. If it’s good enough for the Divine, then it’s good enough for us. But, if ours is a God of grace and love and compassion, if ours is a God who restores and redeems, then cruelty and spite have no place. Hate and venom have no place. We echo whom we worship; so what do our lives speak for God?
WEEK SEVEN: Almost Faith “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” – Ephesians 2:8
“Almost Christians” cling to an “Almost Faith.” It is forgiveness without repentance, words without actions, salvation without discipleship, resurrection without crucifixion. “Almost Faith” claims the power of Christ but lacks the conviction of the Spirit; it claims the promises of the Bible but lacks the determination of the Word. During these somber days of Holy Week, may the Truth of the Altogether Gospel move you and stir you; may it wake you to the reality that Christ endured this for us...and may you find yourself altogether changed by the love Calvary proclaims.
Day 35 // April 10 // No Skin in the Game “You are either a player or a spectator! Players influence the game while spectators watch them do it. Such is life!” ― Israelmore Ayivor Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of adulation. Even as He entered, the sinister voices of the Pharisees were working, asking, “Who is creating such turmoil?” Their minds were on the status quo and maintaining their shaky alliance with Rome. Their minds were on their own survival. And after the drama of the day, Jesus returned to Bethany to spend the night. The next morning, he re-entered the city to visit the Temple. The 30-minute journey from Bethany provided Jesus time to reflect on how the city had changed. In the past two years, some had forgotten whose house the Temple was. Commercialism and greed had altered the character of the holy site. Temple currency, used to purchase sacrifices, was subject to extortion and the faithful, subjected to fear. He had to remember the Jerusalem of his youth - the times He spent there discussing and dreaming of God’s reign. He remembered the faithful teachers: their probing questions and their amazement at his insight as a 12 year old. He was reflecting on Isaiah’s vision of the Temple as a gathering place for all people to be drawn to God: “These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). He had to wonder what went wrong? Why did those entrusted with leading people to worship lose sight of God? Why were people excluded by economics or illness or a system of religious elitism? What went wrong? With these thoughts racing through his mind, He entered the Temple; and in righteous indignation, He overturned the moneychanger’s tables – accusing them of blaspheming God’s holy house by turning it into a den of thieves. The outer court erupted in chaos as the religious leaders looked on in shock.
Fascinatingly, those excluded – the blind, the lame, those in greatest needs – flocked to Jesus, and He healed them. This story troubles us. And it should. In this day of comfortable “Almost Christianity,” have we become so content with the status quo and with maintaining our traditions that our hearts no longer break for those in great need? Do we have a passion for the Church to be a place of prayer for all people, particularly for those who are on the margins of life? Do we care more for order than for joyous celebrations that draw people to God? Does Jesus look at the Church in our day and wonder, what went wrong?
Day 36 // April 11 // No Spiritual Awareness “Sometimes people get the mistaken notion that spirituality is a separate department of life, the penthouse of existence. But rightly understood, it is a vital awareness that pervades all realms of our being.” – David Steindl-Rast On Tuesday, Jesus returned to Jerusalem where He was confronted by the Temple leadership for what he had done the day before. They questioned his authority, challenged him with trick questions, and did everything they could to turn the crowd against him. He used this time to share some of his greatest parables about the Kingdom of God and the urgency of time. One of the underlying themes Jesus hammered repeatedly was the message that people should be tuned in to God, that we have to be spiritually aware. Recall how He spoke: "The time is fulfilled." "The time is now." "The Kingdom is at hand." There was urgency about it. "Don't put it off!" "Now is the time!" Remember how poignantly the poet Edgar Guest puts it in his poem called “Tomorrow”: “He was going to be all that a mortal should be – Tomorrow. No one should be kinder or braver than he – Tomorrow. A friend who was troubled and weary he knew, Who'd be glad of a lift and who needed it, too; On him he would call and see what he could do – Tomorrow. Each morning he stacked up the letters he'd write – Tomorrow. And thought of the folks he would fill with delight – Tomorrow. It was too bad, indeed, he was busy today, And hadn't a minute to stop on his way; More time he would have to give others, he'd say – Tomorrow. The greatest of workers this man would have been – Tomorrow. The world would have known him, had he ever seen – 59
Tomorrow. But the fact is he died and he faded from view, And all that he left here when living was through Was a mountain of things he intended to do – Tomorrow.” When Jesus finished teaching, the Scriptures say the crowd was astounded. We can understand why. We live as if this life before us is all that there is. Jesus jolts our “almost faith” and bids us wake up and see!
Day 37 // April 12 // Shortsightedness “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” – Helen Keller We can almost see it. The cross looms just hours away. The pressure was growing. The crowds kept swelling. We can almost feel the tension. We can almost hear their angry cries. But there was still work to do. The Passover needed planning. The table needed tending. The meal needed its supplies. There still was so much to do, so much left still undone. And with all that is pure and holy about this week, there is still so much that can distract us, so much that can call our attention away from what is really important, from what’s really necessary. And maybe we want to be distracted. Maybe we don’t want to see. Maybe we don’t want to remember the pain and the agony. Maybe we don’t want to look upon the brutal ugliness of mankind. Maybe we don’t want to hear their shout, and we don’t want to join them. So we will busy ourselves with the preparations. We will press the tablecloth and polish the silver. We will cast our eyes upon the immediate and try to forget the imperative. Oh, how distracted we can be! How distracted we can allow ourselves to be, how distracted we can make ourselves become. We see, but only limitedly. We see, but only what we want to see. We squint and strain only to make out the faintest silhouette of the price Love paid. And it’s not just about our faith. Our shortsightedness creeps into our families and into our work, into our homes and offices and schools. Focused only on the here-and-now, we too easily forget the eternity that beckons us. Focused on the problems of today, we forget the promise of tomorrow. With angst, it tiptoes in to blind us to all that is required of us. Satisfied with “good enough,” it blinds us to all that might be better, to all that could be truly good and noble and holy. It keeps us shackled to our momentary fears and regrets and blinds us to potential of all that could be – to the joy and peace that we mostly miss when we “almost see.”
Day 38 // April 13 // Low Expectations (Maundy Thursday) “That was the thing about the world: it wasn't that things were harder than you thought they were going to be; it was that they were hard in ways that you didn't expect.” ― Lev Grossman After the roller coaster of events, they reached the destination of their journey: the Passover meal. Too much had happened too quickly: the crowds, the teaching that plumbed the depths of the Kingdom, Lazarus being raised from the dead, and the temple moneychangers being rebuked. To say it was like drinking water from a fire hose would be an understatement. And now they were here. And they still had no idea that they were living in the most significant hours of their lives. In fact, it is fascinating to study and ponder Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper. If you look at the disciples, you see people who are clueless. They are wondering, “Why did he wash our feet?” “What is all this talk of one of us betraying him?” You even can imagine some saying, “Now where are we going next? What are we going to have for supper tomorrow?” Their expectations were so low; they couldn’t see that all of history was hanging in the balance. They couldn’t see that they were experiencing firsthand the foundation of the new Church they would soon found. Matthew recorded this moment so eloquently: “While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom’” (Matthew 26: 26-29). How often are we clueless? We worship with no expectation that the Spirit will change our lives. The Holy Sacrament becomes routine, without an experience of the most extraordinary love. We get consumed with the mundane, ordinary details of life, that we do not savor the precious nature of the hour before us.
We sleep while Jesus prays. And still He loves us so much He would give his life for us. Again.
Day 39 // April 14 // When It All Goes So Wrong So Right (Good Friday) “Hearts united in pain and sorrow will not be separated by joy and happiness. Bonds that are woven in sadness are stronger than the ties of joy and pleasure. Love that is washed by tears will remain eternally pure and faithful.” ― Kahlil Gibran In a garden of gnarled branches, the Savior surrendered to sinners. Love bowed down to hate; Peace to fear and pain. Willingly, He gave Himself up for you and for me. There was no other way. He had begged for it. He had cried for it, but there was no other way. Betrayed. Denied. Beaten and bruised. Heckled. Scorned and mocked. The sentence was passed, and justice undone; Grace was led away to die. How the darkness must have relished that moment. How the demons thought they’d won. How they must’ve danced as the Son of God stumbled under the weight of our cross; how they must’ve rejoiced as its splinters pierced his holy skin. With glee, they saw thorns crown Perfection and cruel, steel spikes stab Glory enrobed in flesh. Suspended there, raised halfway between the earth He was dying to save and the heavens to which He’d soon return, Jesus bore the sins of the world. He took on Himself all of its guilt and all of its shame; He took on himself all its faults and failings and fears. There was no “almost” on Calvary. Jesus paid it all. Jesus covered it all. Jesus loved us all. And with a cry, it was finished. The rocks split; the curtain tore; the sun turned inky black. All creation rebelled and mourned, but foolish humanity did not understand. They did not know what they had done. We did not know what we had done – that we had just killed Hope. Love was dead. Light was gone. Goodness was no more.
But this is not just some story told by frauds and believed by fools. This is our story. This is our Savior. They were our sins that placed him on Calvaryâ€™s tree, our darkness that snuffed out His light. Jesus died to save us from our brokenness, from our wantonness, from our addictions and anger and anxiety. Jesus died that we might find grace. He died that we might find hope. He died that we might find a new and fuller way to live!
Day 40 // April 15 // Doubt (Holy Saturday) “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” – Paul Tillich Almost. We return to that word – to that taunting, teasing word: almost. He had almost succeeded. Christ had almost won. The streets were abuzz with what had happened. The crowds murmured and whispered and sighed. There, the blind who saw clearly. There, the leper made clean. There, the woman pardoned. There, the son redeemed. There was the lame now lifted, the hungry full. There, the deaf now listening, the possessed made whole. Surely, it hadn’t been a delusion. Surely, it hadn’t been a joke. Surely, there was something more...but all that remained were stories and silence. All that remained were lives that had been touched and changed and healed. All that remained were the stories of His teachings. Stories. And silence. It was a strange silence, too – a deafening silence. No longer would we get to hear His words of grace and tender compassion. No longer would we get to hear Him speak of his Father’s great love. No longer would we get to find hope in His promises or joy in His laughter. It was a strange, timeless silence where we missed the words that He never got to say, a vacuum of unspoken, unlived memories. And the grief and despair were almost too much to bear. The emptiness and loneliness and doubt were almost too much to stand. Who can endure such Hopeless desperation? With no Jesus, who can survive such sorrow? Left with only stories and silence, we can only think of what might have been: how He would have taught us and challenged us and stirred us, how He would’ve inspired us to be the men and women that we never thought we could be. Left with only stories and silence, we can only imagine what could’ve been...who we could’ve been. But it was all over now… Almost. 66