Friday, April 23, 2021

Jesus' Suffering = Ours. How So?

We have been talking about how life in the Promised Land is fraught with battles.  Yes, the Land is ours through the blood of Jesus and our consequent forgiveness.  We "then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Heb. 4:16).

But Paul has an interesting way of standing with Jesus in the Promised Land:  

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:10-14)

Wow.  In order to know Jesus--to really know Him deeply, intimately and fully--Paul sees this path taking him into Jesus' sufferings.   Yes, the path is filled with the Power that raised Jesus from the dead, that is, the Spirit of God:

The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you. (Rom. 8:11)

But as we enter into the sufferings of Jesus, this is where we truly get to know Him.  

So, it's just not suffering with an eye to the resurrection; it is an eye on getting to know Jesus better in this life.  So, why suffering?  Because that is the path Jesus walked.  We shy away from this thought, because we don't want to suffer. I remember a passage from Corrie Ten Boom's autobiography, The Hiding Place.  She is talking to her father about fear and how will she face what is coming?  Her father asks her when he gives her the train ticket.  She says when she gets on the train.  So, too, says her father, that God gives us His grace when we are in the need at the moment, and not a moment before.  

In other words, sitting where you are and thinking about suffering is scary--Satan will increase your worries with all sorts of horrible imaginings about what the suffering will be... But don't let him carry you away.  When you face suffering, it is at that precise moment that God will step in, and hand you the ticket of grace, as it were.  

Think of it another way.  Remember the show, Undercover Boss?  It had a great premise:  Have the boss dress up like just another worker, and hang out with the workers.  Experience what they experience, hear their concerns and ask what they really think of the boss.  Wow.  It was quite a revelation for the boss, for he or she just didn't hear about life at the lower levels, but actually engaged with the people enough to really understand them.  The boss could go back to being a boss later on; unlike the workers, who had to remain behind.  But the boss was never the same.  How could he or she be?  The boss went from head knowledge to hopefully some real empathy, and that changes a person.

Hearing about poverty and then driving through a poor, blighted neighborhood: That changes you.

Hearing about a Third World country and going there, staying with the people you are seeking to help and understand, and not staying in a four-star hotel:  That changes you.

Being employed, and then getting fired, and having to wait with others in an unemployment line: That changes you.  

Having your teenager spiral out of control and now joining the ranks of parents of troubled teens: That changes you.  

Having your health suddenly deteriorate, and the doctors are utterly flummoxed by your symptoms: That changes you.

Why?  Because now you stand where others are standing.  You have left your rather seemingly uncomplicated life to enter one of hurt, pain, being misunderstood by others, and questioning God.  

Then the battle of not becoming bitter kicks in hard.  But the Word warns us where that battle can lead without leaning heavily on Jesus and learning to see His grace at work.  Phillips does an amazing job on this verse from Hebrews 12:15:  

Let it be your ambition to live at peace with all men and to achieve holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord”. Be careful that none of you fails to respond to the grace which God gives, for if he does there can very easily spring up in him a bitter spirit which is not only bad in itself but can also poison the lives of many others.

Beautiful.  Notice that bitterness can spring up, or other translations put it, a "root of bitterness"  can appear, as we fail to see (or do not want to see) how God, despite the pain and suffering we are going through, is still at work.  This bitterness, is, at first, unseen by others, and can be ignored by you.  When it is small, we nurse it, secretly thinking we are alone in our sufferings, no one else has gone through something like this, and even if others see our suffering, they just don't get it.  That root grows, and if you have ever battled weeds (not wimpy ones, but the weeds that have giant taproots, ugly seeds and an attitude of  "You want a piece of me?  Fine.  Take it, but I will be back!") you know what I mean.

Have you spent time with a bitter person?  Need I say more?

But if our suffering matches that of Jesus', then we are entering into knowing Him better.  Jesus was the ultimate Undercover Boss.  He left the courts of Heaven, put on the working uniform of human flesh and walked among the lowly, the poor, the misunderstood, the hurting and the dying.  He didn't hobnob with the rich, the princely or the exalted, which would have been His due.  No.  He went way down into the muck and mire of human experience.  

He returned to Heaven a changed Man.  He gets us.  He really gets us.

So, if we follow Him, we enter into that same domain He was in while here: We go among the lowly, the poor, the misunderstood, the hurting and the dying.  We go deeper into the muck and mire of human experience.  Our path is through suffering, but He gives us grace when and where and how we will need it and not a minute before.  You don't psych yourself up to face suffering; He gives you the grace the moment you get on the train:

The moment you are given the diagnosis.

The moment you are told you husband has had a heart attack and stroke.  (That was me, seven years ago.)

The moment your teenager yells, "I hate you!" (Been there.)

The moment your husband's affair is revealed to you.

The moment your wife says, "I don't love you anymore."

Now, this all presents a small problem.  Jesus suffered on this earth.  We follow Him and as we suffer, we gain a deeper knowledge of Him.  But I can hear you say, 

Jesus is God, but I am not. He had the home-court advantage.

Jesus didn't lose a son/daughter/spouse to drugs/alcohol/suicide.

Jesus wasn't raped.

Jesus didn't suffer from a chronic illness.

So, how can I get to know Jesus better when He didn't go through what I am going through?

Good question.  So, here is another way to think about this:

Do I have to go to war, undergo PTSD to minister to a vet?  

Do I have to lose a child to minister to a grieving parent?

Do I have to be divorced to gently listen to a person recently divorced?

If we predicated our ministry solely on having gone through exactly what the other person has gone through, we would minster to very few people, and we would turn away a huge number who reached out to us.  But, if we are suffering with Jesus, He gives us the deeper understanding, discernment and heart to walk with someone in moccasins so foreign to our experience. 

He knew deeply the human heart, in a way that only God can.  So, He could understand an event in the life of someone, even if He didn't personally go through it.

For example, Jesus did not contract leprosy while He was here.  But He was all too familiar with rejection and being marginalized.  

So, He could gently enter into the life of a leper, and deeply feel the hurt and rejection that leper experienced.  He knew how pain and suffering cause us to question God's benevolence, and just how pervasively sin destroyed the beauty of His Father's creation.

So, I am going to go through the Gospels with you, and search out exactly how, why and when, Jesus suffered--to unpack the idea of what "participation in His sufferings" looks like.  We will go undercover with the Boss and as we see Him confront a lot of the evil, ugliness and pain this world has to offer, my prayer is that it will give us hope and a comfort from the Lord Himself as we face our suffering. 


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Covid Musings

I try to post every week, but on Monday, I received my second Covid shot.  Whew.  I felt like I fell off a turnip truck, only to have it back over me.  I was down and out for one and a half days.  So, alas, my blog had to be put on hold.  

I must say that if a measured, second dose (presumably I now had antibodies ready this time) made me feel this way, I cannot even imagine how an unmeasured, first time encounter with Covid would be like.  I don't want to sound melodramatic, but I do understand why people die from this--it is utterly overwhelming--and I had a very mild encounter with it.  But I am thankful for the vaccine.  

While I was in bed, I read about small pox, the flu epidemic of 1918-19, and polio.  Morbid?  No, perspective:  I realized that our fight against such overwhelming enemies has always been fraught with fear, suspicion, accusation and division.  Sad how we humans don't really change when it comes to facing our mortality.  Death is scary, yes, but not understanding how and why it comes is even scarier.  Such uncertainty makes us turn on each other, God and those in medical and governmental authority.  Why?  Because suddenly the universe feels random. 

Civilization is one vast push back against the vicissitudes of existence.  Following the grazing herds is all fine and dandy, as long as they migrate in a discernible pattern and you can bring down enough to feed your people.  But if you can't, starvation comes a-knocking.  So, grow your own:  control the food supply.  But feast or famine are only a harvest away:  Either you bring in abundance to your barns or you weep at the pathetic crop that now spells disaster.

Harness a water supply.  Build along rivers, dig cisterns, pray for rain. Without water, life screeches to a halt and all your efforts at living become focused on surviving, if you don't die of thirst on the way.

Then, there are your enemies. You build a wall around your city, to protect your homes, gardens, markets, temples and peace of mind.  Now you don't have to wait for the fury of your enemies to come and undo all your security.  You need only to shut the gates.  You wait.  You fight back from a high vantage point and wait for your enemies to bugger off out of frustration.  They go looking for easier pastures and you settle down once again, with hearth and home safe and secure.  Dire outcomes from random attacks seems somewhat moderated. 

Life has lost its hunter-gatherer unpredictability.  Springtime, harvest, gathering in and waiting again for spring seem to secure the future.  You were here this year, your family was fed, your city withstood attack and your barns are filled.  You are secure in this ordered pattern--randomness, like the wild dogs that howl at your city gates, is kept at bay.

But invisible enemies stalk the land.  No amount of abundant harvest, potable water, vanquished foes and secure gates seem to keep these enemies out.  A cough, a sniffle, a rash, a fever, a loose stool, or utter fatigue means that randomness has just made its appearance.  The afflicted will either recover or die.  The invisible enemy will slip away.  

Until the next time.

Throughout human history, there was always a next time.

Civilization, although effective in helping one generation pass the torch to the next generation, was never able to keep such incursions away until the 19th century made significant inroads into what caused disease and what could be done to fight it.   

I grew up in the 60s.  My mother was a daughter of a prominent cardiologist.  Her stepmother was a nurse.  So, you can imagine just how clean my house was: washing hands, bathing every day, clean surfaces and the smell of Lysol were how things were done.  My mom couldn't get us to the school gym fast enough for our polio vaccine.  We were given every vaccination available.  The risk of actually getting any number of childhood diseases far outweighed any concerns my mother had about the vaccines.  

All of the childhood diseases were conquered, as it were, with a shot to the arm.  

But we were still bundled tight to keep ways chills.  We stayed home from school if we had a sniffle.  Even a mild cold brought out the nurse in my mom: Vicks Vapo-Rub, a thermometer, 7Up and saltine crackers were deployed to relieve the misery.  Bactine for cuts and this nasty red liquid antiseptic, Micurochrome, were always at the ready to stave off my mom's fear of infection.  Listerine, named after the man who conquered sepsis in the operating theater, was a godsend. 

Infection could be controlled and modern 50s medicine, with its emphasis on antiseptic procedures,  gave my mom some assurance we would not get mortally ill from a little cut.  Yes, antibiotics were available, but a positive outcome from an infection was not a given. 

One day, I stepped over the line and committed a sin so grievous that my mom went ballistic.  I never understood why until much, much later.  My neighbor's kids had dug a hole in the backyard as a makeshift swimming pool.  I loved to swim and in I went, splashing around and loving every minute.  For some reason, my brother ran home and tattled, and when I came home, wet, muddy and happy, my mom was furious.  She hosed me down out in the garage with no mercy, screaming at me the whole time.  I then had to take a bath and get really clean.  

She never said the word, "Polio."  

Many, many years later I listened to an NPR series on polio, with people talking about how every summer, the silent specter of polio haunted every swimming hole, every pool and no one knew whose life would be forever altered by its touch.

I never connected why my mom was so angry until that moment.  Yes, I had been vaccinated, but I am sure that somewhere in the back of her mind, the possibility of contracting polio still haunted my mom.

When I had my two children, they received the usual battery of vaccines:  DPT, MMR and others whose names I do not remember.  I was a little afraid, but the idea of not getting my children vaccinated never occurred to me.  I grew up in a time where doctors and scientists had put up city walls against diseases that carried children away, and I was not going back to the 19th century when a sniffle or a cough could mean death.

My daughter caught chicken pox and her infant brother did so as well.  Her cousins did so as well, and one of them had pox inside her throat and in her lady parts and was in excruciating pain.  But I didn't think any of them would die.  I had "vaccination civilization" on my side.  Then my daughter caught hand, foot and mouth disease and was so weak that she couldn't climb into bed.  I still didn't consider death an outcome.  In the 80s, we were even more modern in medical advancement than when I was a child.  I had my kids dress warmly, but I wasn't so terrified of a chill that I insisted they dress like Eskimos. Every fever was not a cause for panic.

Now, we face Covid.  My grandchildren are facing what my mother faced:  The very real possibility of a disease that could carry them off.  We had no magic vaccine when it hit. Millions have died. Masks. Isolation.  Quarantine ( a holdover from the Black Death when you had to stay locked up for 40 days) and all sorts of conflicting information have made people cynical, scared and willing to engage in recrimination:  Faith over fear.  We won't be told by the government what to do.  I think it's a hoax.  I think it's overblown.  Wait 'til after Trump is reelected--the numbers will go down.  Choose hope.  No mandatory mask-wearing: that's the first step towards dictatorship.  No one is shutting us down. We will meet. 

We humans do not react well when the walls of civilization are breached and randomness reappears in the form of an invisible menace. When we face a possible early death--ours, or the ones we love--and uncertainty about the future, we start asking questions:  Is this the beginning of the end?  Is this another epidemic of Black Death proportions, or like the flu of 1918-1919?  When will Covid go away, or will it?  Why aren't the vaccines doing their job, 100% of the time?  Will I still get sick?  Will I die? Aren't viruses only suppose to carry away the very young and the very old? (This callous attitude of Hey, this disease is scary only if you are in a particular group, reminds me of the AIDS epidemic and the hardening of the public's heart at that time).

I have faith.  

You have fear.  

Lines have been drawn in the faith community sands.  We stand staring at each other, as our hearts harden.  Our attitude of I will prevail because of my faith makes us feel superior over those who are struggling to comply with health regulations.  

We look at the "Covid Jobs" and offer all sorts of explanations like Job's friends did, while desperately trying to keep our own fear--that could be me next!--at bay.

But the rain falls on the just and the unjust.  Good people get swept away in epidemics.  Our fallen world with its invisible enemies are no respecter of persons.  Instead of uniting and trying to work together to patch up this breach in our walls with love and neighborly concern, we have made it about us.  

Me. Me. Me.

We are not unique in how we've reacted.  The Jewish people, conjunction of planets, bad air, filth, malevolent spirits and the dead not staying dead have been replaced with Big Pharma, Democrats, the media, those who hate Trump, it's a hoax or it's overblown as THE explanations for this epidemic.   

We have modernized our scapegoats, but we still have scapegoats.

We have modernized our fears, but we still have fears.

In our effort to wrest control back from the random nature of disease, we default right back to our father Adam: We blame each other.  

It has been said that truth is the first casualty in war. 

Sadly, I say that fear is the deadliest symptom in an epidemic.



Monday, April 5, 2021

He Understands. No, Really.

I have sat through many an Easter sermon.  I have watched many movies depicting Jesus' death, burial and resurrection.  Easter is one of the most amazing days to have ever happened, and Easter services are always joyous.  

Jesus is alive.

Death, where is your sting?

The graveyards are no longer permanent residences.

Loss is only temporary.  

But as I have walked with Jesus for many years now, I see Easter has many nuances, and one is especially  poignant to me.

This verse in Hebrews 4:15, which we read last week, is one of the most important verses in the Scriptures to me.  I have several versions here: 

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. (NLT)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (NIV)

For we do not have a High Priest Who is unable to understand and sympathize and have a shared feeling with our weaknesses and infirmities and liability to the assaults of temptation, but One Who has been tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sinning. (AMPC)

Where did Jesus gain His capacity to sympathize with us?  Surely, God is love, compassion, mercy and goodness...does that mean that He didn't understand us?  

But Psalm 103 gives us a beautiful picture of how He sees us and how He provides for us:  

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. (

I highlighted the last part.  It speaks to our question:  God is as a father to us.  He made our first parent, Adam, and knows intimately what we are made of and what we are capable of, both good and evil.

But Jesus understands us in a different way, I propose.  He understands us as human beings, for He left the courts of heaven and wrapped Himself in our flesh.  The flesh imposed on Him had limitations:  hunger, thirst, loneliness, longing, fatigue, consternation, sadness and fear.  

Let me draw you an analogy.  As I sit in my office with the window open, I hear the chirping of the wee birds at the feeders that hang outside.  I enjoy their songs and their antics.  I refill the feeders regularly so they will not go hungry, and I love to see the variety of birds that show up.  I love my little friends, but I am really not one of them.  I see the bigger picture:  I place the feeders so they will be safe, to make sure that the raptors don't exploit this location for their lunch.  I use quality birdseed.  I know their lives are short, but that doesn't mean their lives must be unnecessarily hard.  I live in a high desert where water is scarce, so I also have installed a small bird bath.

I have tried to think of everything.  But I am still not a bird.  I can use my imagination and wonder what being a bird is like, and try to sympathize with their world, but I am not a bird.

But, if I were able, I would like to become one.  Then I would have a deeper understanding of what challenges they face, their fears and how it must feel to fly in fear and in joy.

Jesus became us.  His Father lovingly provides for us, remembers we are dust, and sees the bigger picture, with the concept of eternity thrown in.  But when Jesus wrapped Himself in our flesh, walked in our dirt, ate our food, slept under the stars, and grew tired, weary and sometimes had a good laugh, He really understood us in a more intimate way.  

He was tempted by this life, by His flesh.  He was tried by this life, by His flesh.  In the Greek, "temptation" and "tested" are the same word.  What at first draws us in by capturing our attention, what then makes us discontented, angry or incurs fear, causes us to either give in or find a way out, tests who we are, in our heart and in our character.  It is difficult in this flesh.  James traces the trajectory:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (1:13-15)

What then is the purpose of testing/temptation?  James shares:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (1:2-4) 

Growth.  Refinement.  A deeper commitment to God and His ways, eschewing our own, and standing with Him, confident that He who began a good work in us will complete it. Our flesh, with its sin nature, needs God's refining fires to pull out the dross and make us into the gold He wants us to be.

Jesus didn't pull an Adam:  He never ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil--the fruit that says we can do it our own way.  No, He ate the fruit from the tree of life--His Father's life.  The Life that gives life and maintains His Father's supremacy at the center of all thoughts, of all actions.  Jesus didn't rebel against His Father, His ways nor His wisdom.  

Unlike us, He didn't allow the flesh to send Him into a rebellious, self-centered response to the world's and the flesh's enticements.  In other words, He did not sin--which at its heart, is an act of rebellion.

So, even though Jesus chose time and time again to respond obediently, that doesn't mean the temptations/testings didn't hit Him hard.  Frequently.  Intensely.   Repeatedly.

So, our seminal verse in Hebrews about our High Priest is utterly essential to standing on the knowledge that He gets it. 

Really and truly gets it.

But wait a minute.  You may be saying, "How can His story be my story?  How can He understand what I have been through?"

I have taken this excerpt from my book, Stronghold Starters:  How Satan Gets Into Our Lives.  I pray it will speak to your heart and make you realize that with Jesus, tempted /tested in every way possible, you never walk alone.  I imagined Him saying:

I was accused of being many things, even in my childhood.  I was seen as an illegitimate child, a mere carpenter’s son, a man from an ignorant village, a man with no schooling, a nobody.  

Later on, I was accused of being a blasphemer, a drunk, demon-possessed, a friend of sinners, a sinner myself, a lawbreaker, inappropriate with women, a fake, a deceptive leader.   I was rejected by my hometown, misunderstood by my family, denied by one friend and betrayed by another friend.

One day, I was handed over to my enemies, of which I had many.  They mocked me, severely beat me, and tortured me with whips and fists.  I then had to carry the very thing that would kill me.  Through the streets I went, with screams, angry words and wailing accompanying every painful step I took. 

I grew terribly thirsty and slammed to the ground, carrying the weight of the world upon my shoulders.

Then came the soul-shattering, mind-numbing, excruciating bolts of lightning pain, with no mercy, no respite, and no peace.

More hateful mocking words drifted up as the gates of Hell swung wide open, and the accuser stalked me again. 

And again.  

And again.  

Then my burden grew beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Ugly, black, biting, writhing, searing sin engulfed me. 

My heart seized at the utter hopelessness of it all.

I saw your rape. 

I saw your rapist. 

I saw your abuse.

I saw your abuser. 

I saw your child die. 

Your cancer. 

Your mental anguish. 

Your suffering. 

Your suicide.  

Your murder.  

I drank deeply from the cup of your sin, your pain, your life.

Then, as if humanity’s sin had gathered into raging bitter storm clouds, burning rain poured upon me, relentless, cold and black.

I saw every victim that ever walked the face of the earth.  I saw every person who had perpetrated hatred, violence, murder and torture upon others. I saw kings, leaders, mere men worshiped as gods and ignoring my Father.  I saw those who did unspeakable things in my Father’s name.

The rain of sin kept pouring down.  

I saw the face of every person plunged into a mass grave. 

I saw the sin that lured people into bondage and death. 

Every baby’s cry pierced my ears. 

Every woman’s scream seized my heart. 

Every man’s terror burned my soul. 

Every child’s tears wounded me again.  

And again.  

And again. 

At this moment, when sin’s blinding black rain darkened every corner of creation, and washed over me in a pitiless surge, I could no longer see my Father.

All hope was gone.  I was a captive. I now felt what every human being feels without my Father:  drowning in the black rain of sin, with no hope, no light, and no comfort. 

Alone.  Lost.   Dying. 

I cried, ‘My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’

This very moment is why I came.  I came to experience your world without my Father.  Your sin separated you from Him and now I felt that in all of its bitter loneliness.   

I cried, ‘It is finished.’

This very moment is why I came.  I shed my own blood to pay your sin’s debt and to reunite you with my Father.  I came to bring your dead self to new life: My life.  I will live my life in you and through you.  

The tomb could not hold me.  Death could not hold me.

That Sunday, as I emerged from tomb, triumphant and whole, the enemy’s laughter stopped.

I now sit with my Father in heavenly places.  Join us. Please don’t turn away.

Please don’t return to the darkness. 

Come to the Light.  

Come to Me, for although you are burdened with a heavy load, what I give you is Light for I give you Me.



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