Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
Small essays about faith and life to lift your spirit and give you hope.
The Lenten Journey:
A compelling news image caught my eye yesterday: a woman, hugging a young girl after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. At first, you only see the pathos, but as the TV camera zooms into the image, a cross-shaped smudge of ash on the woman’s forehead becomes visible, applied at an Ash Wednesday service only hours before.
The fear in that picture seems like it’s been snatched out of the very air we breathe and distilled into a single image. There is so much darkness these days, even apart from events like this latest school tragedy. Our nation acts more and more like two sharply polarized, verbally armed camps than one country with myriad experiences, outlooks and aspirations but a single heart.
The hope of Easter seems so far away.
Ash Wednesday was born in the early church at a time of great hope. Jesus, the long-awaited Christ and Savior of the Jews, was about to enter Jerusalem. The waiting crowd was buoyed by expectations of a triumphant, conquering King, a hope that would soon fade into hopelessness, like the smudge of ash that stays on the forehead until it, too, fades away.
All can seem dark and desperate as Lent stretches out in the distance and we grapple with the fearful, unfinished parts of our lives that never seem to get resolved -- no matter how much we worry over them. Too often, we close off or compartmentalize these hurts, hold them away from God. We fool ourselves into thinking that he either doesn't care about us (and our issues) or can't see through our heart’s locked doors. But here comes Lent, a season of humility and self-sacrifice when we are asked to open ourselves to the Lord, make room at our table for hope and present him with an inestimable gift: nothing less than ourselves -- whole, complete, unfinished and unconditional. Dreams, warts and all. Our gift is leavening from which Holy Bread is made. And the light glimmering in the far distance is Easter.
One intriguing way of traveling the Lenten road that a friend suggested several years ago involves writing all the things that make you weep in the night on a scrap of paper and then burning them. Are you haunted by lost love or dashed opportunity? By an illness that digs deeper instead of getting better? Does loneliness consume you? Do you mourn the death of a loved one, like those lost so tragically yesterday? Write them down, light a match and watch the smoke take your worries toward heaven. You will not be lifting your concerns to God thinking they will vanish overnight. You are placing them on Christ’s shoulders … just as he asks … to carry along with him as he undertakes his journey to the cross, where hope first will be dashed and then be reborn when Easter’s glorious light at last spills into the morning and warms our hearts.
In the meantime, please pray for the families who are hurting today in Florida and for people experiencing the sudden loss of loved ones all over the world.
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Mt. 11: 28-30
Since writing the essay about Jacob wresting with God early last month, I have thought a great deal about whether trials are merely troubles with another name or treasures in disguise. Personal disappointments are neither unusual nor unexpected in this life because the world does not exist to meet our every expectation. And neither does God exist to meet them, no matter how much we may want to believe otherwise. So, how do I place my next discouraging experience in context? Will it be just another trial or a treasure to be pondered and valued?
I suggest both, each tangled up with the other.
In the days before his arrest, Jesus counseled his disciples to expect a time of trial and compared coming difficulties to the travail of a woman in labor. Their Lord, who claimed nothing less than equality with the Father, seemed to be saying that they would be sorrowful and “weep and lament” after he left them. They were glad he no longer spoke to them in confusing parables yet seemed more confused than ever given Christ’s chilling statements about what was to come. But we know what they didn’t: that the dawn of Easter was waiting on the far horizon.
Last month, I quoted Charles H. Spurgeon, who said in his New Year’s message of 1884 that “If we will believe our God as he deserves to be believed … we shall be prepared for trials, and shall even welcome them as black ships laden with bright treasures.” When black ships come in the night, their looming threat can batter our faith against the rocks as we toss and turn in the wee hours. But morning comes at last, spilling its bright treasures over the horizon and banishing the night – even the stars. We awaken, and hope is reborn.
I can draw this picture in my mind, even write of it. It’s another thing to live it. Awakening at 3 am with some worry terrorizing your heart can shake even the most ardent believer’s confidence. To be sure, Jesus promised his faithful (but all-too-human) followers that they would see trouble – shortly to be personified in Christ’s cruel death on the cross, but he also promised the disciples that he would see them again and that their hearts would “rejoice.”
Incredible hope is expressed in the first half of John 16! Its promise is revolutionary, that in fairly short, order the disciples would be able to petition the Father directly -- in Jesus’ name. As theologian R. C. Sproul observes*, “His atoning sacrifice is about to open a ‘new and living way’ by which believers may approach God’s holy presence ...”
The mechanism for this is revealed in the chapter’s opening verses with introduction of the Helper, who Jesus says “will guide you into all truth … will tell you things to come … (and) will glorify me.” Thus, Christ introduces an advocate who will come into the world as Spirit to help direct the disciples in God’s way following the crucifixion and ascension.
This Advocate, this Holy Spirit, is with us yet, although his presence can seem so amorphous we forget he is there. But, as Sproul points out, the Holy Spirit is not an “it” … a thing … but a living embodiment of God the Father and God the Son, just as water, ice and fog are one in one another. (The ice-water-fog analogy works pretty well for me, the only difference being, short of some arcane quantum explanation, that the three entities can’t be made up of the same molecules at the same time).
I know I'm not alone in feeling so at sea sometimes, despite Isaiah’s counsel that God’s perfect peace will guard my heart, even (or perhaps especially) if I keep my mind on him rather than whatever situation happens to be dogging me at that moment. Spurgeon speaks of “halting-places, where we may rest and take refreshment, and then go on our way singing” … where “we shall have strength enough, but none to spare; and that strength will come when it is needed, and not before … When we come to the place for shouldering the burden,” he says, “we shall reach the place for receiving the strength (because there is) a bridge across every river of trial which crosses our way … (and) we shall never have a need for which our gracious Father has furnished no supply.”
These promises may be the “bright treasures” of which Spurgeon spoke in that New Year’s sermon 134 years ago, gifts from God that we can hold close when the dark ships come in the night.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells his disciples at the end of John 16, “that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
* The Reformation Study Bible, New King James Version; R. C. Sproul, General Editor (John 16)