Ashes

Ashes graphic found via GoogleIt’s been quite a few years since I’ve been to an Ash Wednesday service. I’m glad I went yesterday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Being there helped me discover something to give up for Lent this year.

One of the songs we sang was “Ashes to Ashes,” a relatively new one composed by Daniel L. Schutte (perhaps most well known for “Here I Am, Lord”). Here’s the chorus:

Ashes to ashes, from dust unto dust.
The cross on our forehead, your promise, O God.
Ready to follow the way of your Son,
to rise from these ashes, redeemed in the fire of your love.

The verses are adapted from Joel 3. Here are two of them:

Rend your hearts, not your garments;
return to the Lord
who delights when we offer
a truly humble heart.

Let us fast from unkindness
and turn from our greed,
giving bread to the hungry
and lifting up the poor.

What better things to give up for Lent than unkindness and greed? Quitting those might afford me more time to consider the needs of others, particularly the hungry and the poor – the kind of people Jesus regularly showed interest in.

I have to admit I’m quickly intimidated and overwhelmed by wondering how I can respond to the needs of the poor. Thankfully I don’t have to figure this out on my own. The final verse of the song assures me of the help of God Himself!

Though his nature is holy
yet Christ became sin,
so that we might inherit
the holiness of God.


(Chris Brunelle’s cover of “Ashes to Ashes” is here.)

Encounter at a well

In John’s Gospel you find a story about Jesus discussing theology near a well with a Samaritan woman. This is shocking on a number of levels: 1. The Jews of Jesus’ day despised Samaritans and did everything they could to avoid them. 2. Jewish men in that culture did not address women in public. 3. Women in that culture were not deemed fit to learn theology. Despite all this, Woman at the Well by Wayne ForteJesus, a Jewish male, has a deep theological conversation with a Samaritan woman – in fact, it’s the longest section of dialogue in John’s Gospel.

Things get even more scandalous: It turns out that the woman’s marital history is unusual at best: She has been married five times and seems to currently be living common-law with a sixth man. Traditionally scholars assumed she has been living in adultery, thoughtlessly jumping from one marriage to another. But other research suggests that she may have been the victim of a combination of husbands passing away and/or husbands issuing her a certificate of divorce if they were dissatisfied with her (perhaps she is unable to bear children). We don’t know for sure, but, whatever her past, she seems to currently be in a sad, less-than-ideal situation.

We’re told Jesus knows all this ahead of time. Maybe a local had been chatting with Jesus when they both saw the woman approach and he warned Jesus not to become the woman’s sixth husband! I personally think Jesus in His divinity simply recognizes this woman as she approaches the well.

Regardless, Jesus knows this woman’s sad story of multiple marriages and non-ideal circumstances. I see grace in how Jesus still offers her the gift of living water despite her background and dubious past. As Prof. Darrell W. Johnson pointed out in the course I took last spring at Regent College on the Gospel of John, this story proves how my problems are neither a surprise nor an obstacle for Jesus. He invites me to own up to them and find healing in Him.

Jesus speaks of people worshiping in the Spirit and truth. I can be truthful with myself and with Jesus about what’s wrong and what’s hurting in my life. There’s no point in hiding it – He already knows. The amazing thing is that He also cares and is powerful enough to address my problems. His living water – the gift of His Holy Spirit – is still for me.

It makes me want to worship Him.

Light in the darkness

There’s this guy walking down the street who suddenly falls into a deep hole he did not see coming. It’s dark in the hole and the walls are steep.

Graphic found via Google

A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me out here?” The doctor writes a prescription for Prozac and throws it down the hole.

A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down the hole.

Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says. “Now we’re both stuck!”

“Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

::– –::– –::

I love the way this story (retold here by Scott Hoezee) describes my life. Sometimes things feel very dark, like I’m in a deep hole. I’ve felt this way when someone has died, when I’ve been stressed out, when the future looks uncertain. And that says nothing about the darkness in my life caused by sin – my own stupid mistakes as well as all the brokenness in the world that impacts my life. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in a dark hole.

Even more, I love the way this story expresses the power in relationships. Things are never quite so sad, so strained, or so scary when there’s someone with me. And when things are going well for me, this story reminds me to be the friend for someone else who feels stuck somewhere. My love and care may very well help this person make his or her way back into the light.

Mostly though I love this story because it reminds me of how Jesus is the best Friend who has come down to where I’m stuck. No matter what dark hole I find myself in, he knows what I’m experiencing and offers me a peace that passes understanding. More than that, he’s strong enough to fight the power of sin in my life. In fact, he’s been in the darkest, scariest hole ever: the grave. And he even knows the way out of there!

Much of the time I feel like I need to figure out a way to get up to God. Like I need to get his attention or impress him before he’ll notice me. The fact is God came down to me in the person of his Son, Jesus. And now his Holy Spirit moves in my life, often long before I even realize it.

Jesus is the light of the world and of my life, bringing hope to the dark places. His is the light that shows the way and illuminates God’s love for me even when my love for him is shaky and unimpressive. And he is the friend who takes away my loneliness, forgives my sin, and even promises me eternal life.

You can’t find a better friend that that.

This is my latest contribution to the faith column in The Rock Valley Bee. It was published this past week. Here’s another one from a couple months ago.

Unpacking John 3:16

Tomorrow at Trinity CRC, I speak on John 3, which includes the most famous verse in the whole Bible:

“For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him
shall not perish but have eternal life.”

In his commentary on John, Frederick Dale Bruner shares how he once saw John 3:16 laid out. It helped me read this well-known verse afresh again!

John 3.16

While Children Watched Their Flocks by Night

If you use Google to look up pictures of “shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks,” you find a lot of bearded fellows with long staffs. Some look like they could be grandparents.

Christmas carol graphic found at SermonCentral

To this day, you will still find shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem and historians believe that not much has changed in the shepherding profession in the past 2,000 years. Something I heard Ray Vander Laan once say about these shepherds (and I understand he repeats it here) fascinates me: Many of them are children, often young girls.

That means some? most? all? of the people who receive the angel’s message that first Christmas are children. So then it’s children who make their way to the manger to find the newborn Messiah. And it’s children who “spread the word” about the Christ child and go about “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”

I’ve known for a long time that the Holy Spirit is no respecter of age: He can use and work through anyone regardless of how old they are. So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the first evangelists telling others about Jesus are very likely young girls and maybe some boys, too.

This is a great time of year for children. Monica and I are looking forward to watching our children open their presents this evening after we enjoy a fun meal together. But children need not only be recipients of Christmas joy: They can join their adult sisters and brothers in Christ in spreading the Good News of Jesus’ arrival and the difference He makes in our lives and in our world.

No one is too young, immature, or inexperienced to be blessed by and to bless others with the joy of the season this Christmas. Not even you regardless of your age!

O Sordid Town of Bethlehem

Until recently, if you’d have asked me what I imagined the town of Bethlehem to have been like in Bible times, I would have described a pleasant hillside village on a cool evening surrounded by peace and quiet. I assumed the Christmas story takes place in a sort of wholesome US Midwest small farming town, where people are generally friendly and values matter.

Christmas carol graphic found at SermonCentral

It turns out that the Bible paints a startlingly different picture of Bethlehem. The place is first mentioned in Genesis in connection with Rachel, the favorite wife of the patriarch Jacob. She dies in childbirth, naming her son BenOni, which means Son of My Sorrow. Jacob buries Rachel in Bethlehem and sets up a pillar over her tomb as a visible reminder of the sadness associated with this location.

After Genesis, the next two stories with references to Bethlehem come in the book of Judges which records a very dark time in Israel’s history. The first story concerns a citizen in Ephraim who crafts an idol made of silver and then hires a Levite from Bethlehem to be the priest for his false god. It’s a good gig for the Levite until warriors from Dan come and steal the idol. But it all works out because the warriors end up bribing the Levite from Bethlehem to become their priest instead. The second story from Judges concerns another Levite who has a concubine (think: mistress) from Bethlehem. The two are on a journey and overnight in Gibeah. The locals demand to have sex with the traveler, but he offers them his concubine instead. The concubine is gang raped and ends up dying after the ordeal. So what does the Levite do with his deceased concubine from Bethlehem? He takes a knife and cuts up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sends them into all the areas of Israel which then plunges the country into civil war.

After the book of Judges comes the story of Ruth. It begins with a famine in Bethlehem (ironically, the name Bethlehem means House of Bread) that drives Naomi’s family to Moab. Naomi later returns to Bethlehem as a childless, bitter widow.

We learn in 1 Samuel that the great king David is from Bethlehem. But we’re first introduced to him as the youngest son of Jesse who doesn’t bother inviting his boy to the feast when the prophet Samuel asks to meet all of Jesse’s sons. The town is again part of a story in 2 Samuel, but the lines on the map have been redrawn: Israel has lost Bethlehem and it is under the control of the Israelite’s enemies, the Philistines, at this point in history.

We read about Bethlehem once more in the New Testament soon after Jesus’ birth in that town when King Herod goes on a murderous rampage in an effort to destroy “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” The despot kills all children in Bethlehem 2-years-old and younger.

To summarize: Stories in the Bible connected with Bethlehem are filled A Not-So-Silent Night by Verlyn D Verbruggewith grief, idolatry, sexual immorality, war, depression, family dysfunction, military weakness, and infanticide. As Verlyn D. Verbrugge puts it, Bethlehem’s history “is connected with either extreme sadness, unfaithfulness, and seedy or despicable behavior.”

Yet despite its sketchy history, God chooses Bethlehem as the birthplace for His Son! I see in God’s choice of Bethlehem a picture of God’s redemptive purposes – His tendency to rescue the most hopeless of situations.

I head into Christmas fully aware that I do not have the perfect family that people might be inclined to think we have based solely on the smiling faces on our Christmas photo card. Our home is not always a haven but sometimes a place filled with stress and short tempers. There always seem to be temptations vying for my attention and opportunities for me to mess up and hurt others.

Yet I need not despair: If God can bring something (Someone!) good out of Bethlehem (of all places, it turns out!), then God can use me and whatever mess I find myself in. The Good News is that God specializes in redeeming bad places, relationships, and situations.

Which, of course, is why Jesus came to Bethlehem in the first place.

Unity

When I come across a list of names in the Bible, it’s easy for me to just skip over it and get to the more exciting story that follows. Sometimes, however, there’s a message even in a seemingly boring list of names. Take Acts 13, for example. The people listed there are from different ethnicities – some Jewish, some Roman, and possibly even an African. Each person has a different history – one likely grew up in a palace like in the fairy tales, another murderously pursued people with beliefs different than his own. On top of that, the people listed there serve the early church in different roles – some are pastors and some are prophets.

Yet despite these differences, these people are united in Christ. They serve the one church together, blessing one another with their different backgrounds and perspectives, interests and gifts.

Multicultural graphic found via Google

I love how the church of Jesus is made up of so many different people, people who maybe would otherwise have nothing to do with each other, but in Christ they (we!) are united in a bond of love. The Good News of Jesus is that He reconciles us to God, but He also reconciles us to one another; one ought to lead to the other is how I see it.

I pray that the Holy Spirit reveals God’s grace to me so that I in turn may share it with others, no matter how similar or how different they may be from myself.