Cemeteries are interesting places. While I don’t particularly savor attending funerals for someone I have loved, there are aspects of cemeteries that are quite compelling.
Have you, when visiting a city or town with lots of history ever spent time in a cemetery because you knew there would be many things there that might shed some light on history? There is an amazing cemetery on Tremont Street in Boston. It dates back to 1660 and folks like Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere are buried there.
Then there are other cemeteries, like Arlington, that are so poignant, it can be hard to do anything but walk around in silence. And cemeteries like our own Hidden Valley Cemetery in Snowmass Village is a magnificent place to reflect, pray, and give thanks for those who have been part of our lives.
But it might surprise you to hear that I’ve had quite a few chuckles at cemeteries as well. Perhaps because I’ve officiated hundreds of funerals, for years, I have spent time reading epitaphs on headstones. You can even find lists of epitaphs that have been verified that are a bit off the wall.
For example, there is this epitaph on a gravestone. It reads, “Tried milking a cow that was really a bull. Milk can is empty but the grave is full.” Or this one. “Here lies the shell. The nut is gone.” Or this one at the grave of an auctioneer from 1876. “Going, going, going. Gone.” Then there is this from a gravesite in New Mexico. “Here lies Johnny Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.” And finally. “Ma loves Pa. Pa loves wimmin. Ma caught Pa with 2 in swimmin. Here lies Pa.”
I guess cemeteries came to mind these last few weeks for me because on Easter we talk about a tomb. Granted, not an ordinary tomb, but a tomb nevertheless. And the tomb I’d like to talk about does not have an epitaph. It does not need one as the person who was buried there is not there.
I believe if we spend enough time thinking about Easter and the fact that the tomb was empty and Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and if we can get to the place of trusting that the tomb was empty, even though we can’t see over the wall of death, Jesus’ resurrection tells us we have nothing to worry about and we can let go of any concerns anytime we come alongside of death.
Jesus’ resurrection, in fact, gives us much more than just a peek about what is ahead and on the other side. Jesus’ resurrection offers us tremendous hope, can affect how we live each day now, and offers us some solid things to hold onto about where we are headed in the future.
I love what one person says about Easter referring to Jesus’ empty tomb. This person writes, “The world often offers promises full of emptiness. Easter offers emptiness full of promise.” Indeed, the empty tomb is full of promises for each of us.
To help us explore what I mean about these things, let’s first for a moment take a look at the story of that first Easter morning and the days just before. On Friday, Jesus was nailed to a cross and died and by three that afternoon he took his last breath. A man named Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate, who governed the land of Judah on behalf of the Roman emperor, if he could have Jesus’ body and take it for proper burial. Pilate agreed and Joseph along with another took Jesus’ body and placed it into a tomb. After they laid Jesus’ body in the tomb, the tomb was sealed.
Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night passed. Then early the next morning, around sunrise, or just before, some women got up early and went to the tomb. They hoped that some folks would roll away the stone of the tomb so they could go inside and anoint Jesus’ body to prepare it for the long process of decay. But when they arrived, they discovered the stone had already been rolled away.
If you read the four Gospel accounts of Easter morning in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, you will quickly notice that some of the details of that morning differ. Clearly different people who were witnesses focused on different aspects of that Easter morning.
But what is intriguing is that the four Gospel accounts all share the basic facts that Jesus’ body was not present that Easter morning. There is also a consensus that the women were told that Jesus had risen from the dead. And indeed he had. That they were told not to be afraid as they would soon see Jesus so to run and tell the others, namely the disciples, what had happened.
We also know from early eye witness accounts that Jesus did indeed appear to his disciples and to others in Galilee, Jerusalem, and on a road to a place called Emmaus. We are also told that Jesus appeared, on a variety of occasions, to well over 500 people after his resurrection. While Jesus was bodily raised from the dead as those early eyewitnesses attested to, what we don’t know is exactly what Jesus’ resurrected body looked like. That said, we do know that his resurrected body was such that people recognized him.
As one writer says, “The resurrection is not some legend. It is not a symbolic event. It is not something that represents some spiritual higher truth. When Jesus shows up he says, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is me. A ghost does not have flesh and bones. Do you have something to eat?’
In saying these things to those who saw him, Jesus in essence is saying, ‘I am not a symbol. I am really here. I am not just an impression in your mind. I am not just a kind of spiritual presence. I am here. Flesh, and bone. Touch me.’ Why are these details recorded. Because it happened.”
I love what another writer has to say about this. Here are some slightly adapted excerpts from Tim Keller. “Jesus’ resurrection tells us with certainty there is a future for us beyond death. It also tells us that the future we have beyond death is personal. We all want to be loved. We all want to be with those we love. The one thing we do not want is to lose those we love. Remember that Jesus shows up in resurrected form and says, ‘It is me. Look at me. It is me.’ So the future we have after death is personal and those we love are part of it.”
He goes onto write, “But the future is not only personal but certain. Why do we know this, because of Jesus’ resurrection. Our certain and personal future is love without parting, surrounded by love in which you and others are together. And the future is not only personal and certain but wonderful, unimaginably wonderful. The resurrection means we are going to miss nothing. This world, sunsets, symphonies, rock concerts, mountain beauty, friends, love, are but whispers, a prologue to a grander story.”
Here is what the theologian JJ Packer wrote, “On earth, people say I don’t want this to end but it does. In heaven people say I want this to go on forever, and it does.”
Easter and Jesus’ resurrection tell us all that we can trust and count on the fact that there is a future when we die, that such a future is personal and relational, that it is astonishingly wonderful, and that we can be certain of all of this. What great news. Christ is Risen!!
But as I mentioned earlier, the news of Easter is not just about the future, but also all about how we live now, day in and day out, with a sense of purpose, joy, and confidence.
A number of years ago there was a study done at UC San Diego. Here are some excerpts from an article published by the University about the study.
“Many of us go to extraordinary lengths to avoid learning the endings of stories we have yet to read or see, plugging our ears, for example, and loudly repeating ‘la-la-la-la,’ when discussion threatens to reveal the outcome. But we are wrong and wasting our time, suggests a new study done at the University. Spoilers don’t spoil stories.
Contrary to popular wisdom, spoilers actually seem to enhance enjoyment. Subjects in the research study significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories and mysteries. This was shown in three different experiments. One researcher said, ‘Once you know how a story turns out, it is cognitively easier, you are more comfortable processing information, and can focus on the deeper understanding of the story.’”
I love that last line, “Once you know how a story turns out, you can focus on the deeper understanding of the story.” So maybe Jesus’ resurrection is not just about what happens next, but perhaps God, in part, gave us the resurrection as a spoiler alert so we can not only focus on the deeper understanding of why we are alive to begin with, but so that we can get to work transforming the world right now, knowing we need not worry about the future.
Said another way, “If I know I am going to be ok in the long run, I can get to work much harder today with all my strength, because tomorrow is taken care of.” As NT Wright once said, “God wants us to work to overcome all the wrongs there are in the world knowing what is ahead.”
Because of the resurrection, we can be filled with hope, not only for the future, but for what we can do today. The resurrection tells us once and for all that despite how things might seem at a given moment, God has been in charge, continues to be in charge, and will always be in charge. So we can trust God and get to work on God’s behalf.
Remember earlier I mentioned several epitaphs from a variety of gravestones. There are some great ones at the graves of some celebrities. On Rodney Dangerfield’s headstone it reads, “There goes the neighborhood.” On Mel Blanc’s headstone, the man who had the great voice for so many Disney cartoons, it says, “That’s all folks.” But there is one I really like. It is on the headstone of Frank Sinatra. It simply reads, “The Best is Yet to Come.”
What a great epitaph because it reminds us all that beyond this life there is an amazing, wondrous, and beautiful future for us all. And with this in mind, we can live each day making a big difference in the lives of those around us, by loving God and loving people by what we do, with boundless hope and without fear. Happy Easter!!!
For years I was puzzled about why a day in which so much horror happened would be called good. A day in which religious leaders completely distanced themselves from God through their actions. A day in which evil seemed to prevail over what is right. A day in which hatred appeared to consume love.
But it is through the blood shed on that day, the torment experienced, the suffering endured, that God said, “Enough. Enough of forgiveness being an open ended question. Enough of humankind thinking that God is about vengeance and wrath more than love. Enough of humanity believing that forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that can change lives is not possible. Enough of thinking that death is the ending instead of an astonishing beginning. Enough of people everywhere thinking the point of life is all about self.”
Yes, Good Friday was and remains good because Jesus’ death on the cross put an end to the question of forgiveness. We are forgiven. Period. Now it is our choice to make the decision to accept that forgiveness and spend our lives in response to it, or not. But we are forgiven and this is what Good Friday is all about.
I’d like now to briefly get into something that is uncomfortable. Something likely to make us each ask some deep questions. And to help us get into this, I turn to the world of psychology and a couple of experiments done decades ago that could never be repeated. Some of you may be familiar with them.
The first was the well-known Stanford University Prison study. In 1971 a pseudo prison was set up in Palo Alto. Students were recruited for the study. Participants were told they would be taking part in a 2 week long prison simulation. 24 males were selected from those who applied.
A prison was constructed in the psychology building at Stanford. Cells with cots were constructed. So was living space for guards. 12 students were assigned the role of prisoner. 12 that of a guard. When the study began, those who were to be prisoners were arrested, with the help of the police, booked, and put into the prison.
Within 36 hours of the start of the experiment, conditions went downhill. Sanitary conditions were awful. Guards became cruel. Some even acted sadistically. After six days, the experiment was called off.
The bottom line. Take 12 healthy, psychologically balanced people and put them into a situation, and the situation influences behavior and conduct more than any internal gauge. Said another way, situations have a massive impact on the actions we take.
Years earlier, at Yale, another experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram. Men from the community were recruited to participate in a study supposedly about memory. Each participant was theoretically assigned to one of three roles. An experimenter, a teacher, and a learner.
The role of the experimenter was to tell the teacher what to do. The role of the teacher was to do what the experimenter instructed. The role of the learner was to accurately complete memory tests as instructed by the teacher. What participants did not know, however, is that the learner was not a volunteer, but actually worked for the psychologists conducting the study.
In the study, the experimenter and teacher sat in one room. In an adjacent room sat the learner. Before going into separate rooms, however, the teacher and experimenter were shown the room where the learner would sit. There they saw the learner was to sit in what looked like an electric chair and would be strapped in. In the room where the teacher and experimenter sat, there was a desk with a shock box with wires that appeared to go into the adjacent room where the learner sat.
In the experiment, the teacher was given a list of word pairs and was to teach the learner the pairs. Then the teacher would read the first word of a pair and four possible answers to see if the learner could remember what words were associated in the pairs. I am leaving out some details of how this was all put together but what is interesting is how the memory test proceeded.
After the teacher quizzed the learner about which word was the right match, if the learner got it wrong, the teacher was told by the experimenter to administer an electric shock to the learner. Each time the learner was wrong, the shock was increased.
While the teacher and the experimenter did not know it, obviously no shock was delivered. That said, each time a shock was supposedly delivered, the learner moaned in pain. As the shocks increased, the learner would yell, scream, and pound on the wall faking pain.
While there are many other details to the experiment, the results stunned everyone. 65 percent of the study’s participants were willing to administer the highest level of shock to the learner. 450 volts. While I am not an engineer by any means and a standard electrical socket, I believe, is 120 volts, I can’t imagine a 450 volt shock would be a very good thing.
Here are some excerpts from what Milgram wrote about the study.
“I set up a simple experiment at Yale to test how much pain an ordinary citizen could inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to do so. Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the learners, authority won more often than not. Ordinary people can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
Neither the prison study or the MIlgram study could happen today because of the ethics involved. Such studies would never be approved by human subjects committees at universities. That said, I find the results of the study to be potent and they cause me to pause and reflect.
Would I be capable of being cruel to another person? Could I deliver a 450 volt shock to someone else? And what does it mean that the results of the studies I shared suggest that the answer to my questions is yes. They suggest in the right circumstance I could be cruel. I could shock another.
I raise this not to make us feel guilty, like terrible people, morally deficient, or bad. Rather I have shared these studies on Good Friday for some very specific reasons.
Jesus’ death on the cross means we are forgiven. And we are all forgiven because no one is perfect. And if there is no one who does everything right, then perhaps God invites us to live each day with humility, empathy toward others, a spirit of forgiveness, and to not put ourselves in the position of judge and jury when it comes to other people. It is why Jesus one day said, “Let the person who has never done anything wrong be the first person to cast a stone.” And by dying on the cross Jesus in essence said the days of stone throwing need to be over.
Imagine what our culture would be like if in general, people walked around in a spirit of humility, forgiving others, empathizing with the plight and circumstances of others, and avoiding engaging in hostile judgement. Imagine what it would be like if the daily crucifixions we all witness, not on a cross but with words, came to an end. Imagine if we understood that we along with others sometimes do what we do because of the circumstances we are in.
And imagine if we all understood and embraced the fact that through Jesus we are forgiven and acted like it. Things, I believe, would look quite different.
I think the two studies I shared are a good reminder of that old saying, “but there for the grace of God go I.” And again, the purpose is not to make us feel bad or terrible, but rather to help get us in touch with the fact that we all need God’s forgiveness, we have been given that forgiveness through the cross, and that despite our continued fallibility, God loves us anyway. Loves all of us anyway.
All of us here right now are cherished, loved, and adored by God beyond conception. And we are forgiven. Good Friday is an invitation for each of us to continue to live out each moment in response to God’s love and forgiveness.
And for me personally, Good Friday reminds me that I too may have simply stood by when Jesus was nailed to the cross and it was raised. Just as I may have been one of those participants in Stanley Milgram’s study that delivered a 450 volt shock.
But as I think about this, I sense Jesus saying to us all, “I forgave and forgive you. It is a done deal.” And it is this forgiveness, this no matter what forgiveness, that makes this Friday Good, very Good indeed.
Last week I shared some thoughts about forgiveness. As it is such an important topic I thought I’d offer a few more reflections this week. In addition, I plan on developing a series for discussion on forgiveness this summer as well as continuing to preach on the subject. If we want to change our lives, the lives of others, and the course of humankind, forgiveness must become part of the essence of who we are, despite the immense and enormous challenges in doing so.
As this is a vast topic, what follows are just a few thoughts.
There is a professor at Yale named Miroslav Volf. He writes, “At the sight of our sin, God did not give way to uncontrolled rages and measureless vengeance: neither did God insist on just retribution. Instead, God bore our sin and condemned it in Christ Jesus. But God did so not out of impotence or cowardice, but in order to free us from sin’s guilt and power…this is the Gospel in its simplicity.”
In other words, as human beings we all fall short, sometimes do the wrong things or don’t do the right things, and we at times live putting ourselves first ahead of God. God’s response. God’s stance toward us. God’s reaction. We are forgiven. I am forgiven. You are forgiven. Period. Now others may not forgive us for something. We may struggle with forgiving ourselves, but when it comes to God, it’s a done deal.
The slate is clean like a brand new white board that has never been written upon. When we accept that we are forgiven, we begin to see ourselves and others quite differently. We give ourselves and others a lot more slack. We don’t seek perfection. We know we all fall short at times. We embrace humility and become more empathic. And when we accept and take in God’s forgiveness, we feel free. We feel free precisely because God’s forgiveness jettisons guilt, and shame, and despair if we really accept it.
Jesus one day told this great story. In paraphrased form he said, “One day a King had a man brought to him who owed him a ton of money. The King told the man that he was going to sell him and everything he had to pay off the debt. In response, the man pleaded with the King not to destroy him. The King felt empathy and decided to wipe out the debt and let the man go.
Sometime later, that same man happened to be owed some money himself from another person. He went out to find the man. When he found him, he told the man who owed him he better pay it off or bad things would happen. The man even began to choke the fellow who owed him.
The King heard about this event. He was amazed that the fellow whose debt he had wiped clean was unforgiving to others. The King was furious. So he sought out the man he had forgiven, and tossed the guy into prison.” After telling this story, Jesus said, “Remember, God will forgive you unless you fail to forgive others in your heart.”
One day Jesus also said this, “Whenever you pray, pray this way. ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive those who trespass against us.’”
These two stories underpin why one day Martin Luther wrote, “Forgiveness is the primary and foremost duty of Christians, second only to faith and the reception of God’s forgiveness.”
So given that we are compelled to forgive because we have been forgiven, let’s take a look, for a moment, at what is at the core forgiving. Earlier I mentioned a man from Yale named Miroslav Volf. He has explored forgiveness extensively. I’d like to share some of his thoughts in slightly adapted form.
He writes, “God forgives. We should forgive. And we should forgive as God forgives. But it is very difficult to forgive. A keen sense of equity guards our dignity in a potentially hostile world.”
He goes on to write, “Remember, Christ is not just outside of us, modeling forgiveness and urging us to forgive. Christ lives in us…from Christ we receive the power and the willingness to forgive. Christ forgives through us and that is why we can forgive. As Paul wrote, ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ Therefore it is not I who forgive, but Christ who forgives through me. When we understand that it is Christ who lives in us, we gain a desire to practice being like Christ and we will have a sense that is it not so much we who are acting ourselves, but it is Christ who is acting through us.”
Volf also writes, “For Christians, forgiving, like living in general, always takes place in a triangle, involving the wrongdoer, the wronged person, and God. Take God away, and the foundations of forgiveness become unsteady and may even crumble.”
As I think about all of this it seems that the basis or foundation of forgiveness is two-fold. First and foremost, the very presence of God is within us. The power and strength to do anything in life, therefore, does not come from us alone, but rather from God who is within. God’s power is within. God’s love is within. God’s healing is within. God’s forgiveness is within. So whatever we do in life, we do so with God at the foundation. We can do because God can. We can forgive, because God in us can.
Sometimes, perhaps we just need to say something like, “God I can’t forgive. It seems impossible to me. But I know you are in me, your very presence. Please help me with this and show me the way toward forgiveness. While I may not be able to forgive on my own, I know you through me can.”
The second foundation of forgiveness, is to totally get, understand, embrace, and accept that God loves us without bounds. Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, 7:36-50 (please read these verses) says, in essence, when you are loved much, you can forgive much, or when you have been forgiven much, you love just as much. When we receive and take in God’s love, that puts us in a position to live with a forgiving heart because forgiveness comes from the love of God.
So, the basis of forgiveness is to accept, embrace and take in the truth that God is in us, around us, ahead of us, behind us, all over us, and that God who made us loves us without bounds. This foundation is the place from where forgiveness starts, both for others and ourselves.
To put all of this another way. God is in me. God loves me. God forgives me. God is in you. God loves you. God forgives you. Knowing and believing and accepting these things changes how we live and respond to others and ourselves and they make forgiveness possible over the course of time.
Here is a sampling of words used in headlines at cnn.com. “Accused, broke rules, complained, take down, misused.” From headlines at fox.com. “Dropped, rule of law, resign, affair, turbulence.” From msnbc.com. “Lying. Watchdog. Defied. Buckling. Cross-examined.”
Each of these major news organization have differing political and philosophical positions, yet they share something in common. On none of these sites was I able to find words like forgiveness, forgiven, or forgiving among headlines. I believe these words are lacking on the sites because these organizations reflect the zeitgeist of our culture and perhaps humankind more broadly.
It is human nature to do what we should not do and not do what we should do throughout our lives. This truth elicits a need for forgiveness, both to forgive and accept forgiveness.
Professor Robert Enright once said, “Unless we begin to embrace forgiveness in our own hearts and communities, humanity’s existence on this planet is at risk.” Central to the stories in scripture from Genesis through the end of the New Testament is the monumental struggle human beings have with forgiving others and ourselves. While this challenge with forgiveness is nothing new, lack of forgiveness is often at the root of why relationships fail, nations collapse, and why progress in sciences, medicine, peace, economics, and other dimensions of culture are often impeded.
Over the years there has been a dearth of interest in the subject, although this trend is changing. There has even been discussion of transforming existing churches into forgiving communities, in which giving and receiving forgiveness becomes the norm. As Enright states, “In the close interpersonal relationships required in true community, one will encounter interpersonal injustices of one sort of another…the local church can cause pain.”
Said another way, every existing community of faith is imperfect, flawed, and will require people in such communities to tackle issues of forgiveness. When we fail to do so, I believe, we falter in our walk with Jesus and lose sight of the centrality of the cross.
As I have thought about this, I have decided to spend more time on the subject of forgiveness. In the months ahead, look for sermons, articles, and adult education opportunities. It is my prayer that we can be a community, not only in which we love God and love people, but that forgiveness will be inherent in all of our relationships. That we will have the courage and chutzpah to confront issues of forgiveness, and that we will come to understand that whenever two or three are gathered, whether in a home, church, place of employment, or country, forgiveness is requisite to relational, psychological, physical, and spiritual health.
One take away from this week’s e-letter is that forgiveness is not only a process that takes time and arduous work, but ultimately is all about a choice or decision we make. As many people studying forgiveness have come to understand, forgiveness can only happen when we choose to forgive despite whether or not the one who hurt us in involved or not. And perhaps of equal importance, is grasping the truth that until we each fully know how much we need to be forgiven, it will be difficult or impossible to offer forgiveness to the other.
Look for much more on this topic in the weeks ahead.
Some of my favorite verses in scripture comes from Mark’s Gospel. In Mark chapter 8 we find, “34 Then Jesus called the crowd to Him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.’”
In this e-letter, I’d like to specifically focus on verse 35 in which Jesus speaks about losing life for His sake. I find it interesting to point out that the word lose is actually closer to the word loose. Jesus in essence is saying if you want to find life, real life, full life, you have to “loose” it, or be willing to let go of a lot of things.
I heard a story of a family that went rafting on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. I am not sure where they were, but they got into some tricky white water. Before they left shore that day, their guide told the family something life saving that folks who raft a lot know inside and out.
The guide said something like, “If the raft flips, do not hold onto others and pull them down. Remember to let go and you will be fine.”
Later that day on the river the raft did flip. The mother on the raft grabbed hold of her young son’s arms and they went down under the surface.
The guide’s words came into the mother’s mind. She wanted to hang onto her son but she knew they would both drown if she did. So she let go, even though doing so was completely counter intuitive and against every motherly grain in her body.
She “loosed”, if you will. Immediately, mother and son popped up above the surface and they survived.
It is human nature to want to hold on, to direct, to take charge, to grab a hold of. Like the Goodyear Blimp when it is on the ground, many of us are tethered to things, places, events, people, and histories. Many of us are tied down in ways that keep us from more fully following Christ.
But Jesus makes it crystal clear, if we want to follow Him, we have to be willing to “loose” or to let go of things that bind us. We need to be careful about our dependencies and what or who it is that makes us secure. All of us have things God wants us to “loose” in order to follow Him and to find life.
What might be God asking you to “loose” today that is impeding your ability to follow Christ or to make a difference in a situation that is right in front of you?
Throughout Jesus’ days of teaching, healing, and challenging, Jesus made it clear that when it comes to God, we need to expect the unexpected, unlike those that are most set in their ways in their relationship with God. God does new things all the time. God breaks the mold. God surprises.
When we are willing to “loose” parts of our lives, it is then we become more open to God and make the most room for God to do something new or unanticipated. In the midst of all of life’s challenges, God wants our lives to be blessed, joyful and purposeful. The more we “loose”, the more we are open to whatever it is God has in mind, the more likely we will encounter the life God envisions for each of us.
Last week, the six week season of Lent began. It is a time of year when over the centuries people have taken time to hit the pause button and spend time to think about Jesus, turn their lives back to Him, and to invest energy in confronting those things that get in the way of a relationship with God.
It is the time of year to focus on where we would be without a Savior, and our shared need for forgiveness for things we have done and for things we did not do but perhaps should have. It is a time of year to explore feelings of guilt we may have and how to work through them. It is a time of year to seek reconciliation when possible if such reconciliation would neither be toxic nor destructive. And it is the time of year to think about our own mortality and what death would mean without Easter.
But it is also the season to take a very tough subject seriously. A season to get into something that makes most of us feel uncomfortable, to say the least. That topic, evil. It is important to point out that every year, the readings for the first Sunday in Lent are about Jesus’ temptation in the desert.
If we don’t take evil seriously, our very lives and our future in just about every domain is threatened. Like not cleaning out a wound even though it hurts to do so, ignoring evil can lead to some pretty bad stuff and consequences that make an infected wound look like a cake walk.
CS Lewis once said something like, “There are two opposite but equally dangerous mistakes people make. Some people perseverate on evil and focus on it so much that they can’t stop thinking about it or attributing everything bad that happens to it. Other people do something equally damaging. They ignore evil or simply don’t want to deal with it.”
I know first hand, in my own life, that some of what has befallen me and those I love comes directly from evil. On the other hand, some of what we have endured is simply due to the frailties of life or the consequences of free will.
While I can’t possibly say everything there is to say about evil in a short article, I’d like to point out some ways in which evil messes with us and some things to keep in mind when dealing with it.
The story of Jesus’ temptation tells us that regardless of how good we are. No matter how much our lives are about love of other people and of God. Despite integrity, morality, ethics, and a long list of good works. Even if we are extremely active in church and pray and read the Bible.
Just as the devil went after Jesus who had all these qualities and many more, the devil will go after us. Goodness and wholeness by itself doesn’t mean evil doesn’t want to get us. In fact, just the opposite.
I have shared with our board and our staff over the years that the more we get it right, the more we move toward Jesus, the more effective we become in reaching people, the more evil itself will go after us to try and get us, derail us, and destroy what God is doing through us.
And the closer any of us gets to Jesus and the more faithful we become, the more we become a target for the Wiley one. Evil’s intention is to get each of us off track with God, to lead us away from God, and ultimately to move us to a place where we conclude there is no God.
Secondly, the story of Jesus’ temptation tells us that evil tends to go after our most vulnerable spots.
In the midst of our strengths, and gifts, and strong points, every one of us has weak spots. Every one of us have places where needs aren’t or haven’t been met. Every one of us carries a sense of emptiness, or hurt, or lack of fulfillment when it comes to certain things or areas in our lives. Every one of us is made out of flesh and blood with physical and emotional needs. All of us have issues of some sort.
And it is precisely to such places that evil likes to reside and hang around, waiting for the right opportunity to put a thought in our minds or a craving into our bodies. Frequently evil does so in ways that are profoundly subtle.
C.S. Lewis writes, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Third the story of the temptation of Jesus tell us that while evil goes after our vulnerable spots, evil can also pursue us when we are feeling strong, all together, or like we have it made.
Jesus was led into temptation in the midst of one of the most amazing experiences of His life, His baptism. It was a pinnacle peak moment when it became clear who Jesus really was. And I believe it is clear that we can be vulnerable to evil at our peak and pinnacle moments as well.
Fourth, the story of Jesus’ temptation illustrates how evil causes people of faith to use scripture in a way that ends up serving evil, not God.
How many churches used to use scripture to justify the evil institution of slavery? How many women have suffered abuse at the hands of a husband who quotes scripture and says, “Wives be subject to your husbands?”
How many children are beaten in the name of God based on the taken out of context spare the rod verse. How many small groups of people have come together and said, “When two or three are gathered, God is among us, so what we are doing is holy and righteous and right?”
How often on the news do we hear Christians quoting scripture with red faces and messages of hate? How often do we hear some Christian leaders proclaim on behalf of God who is going to hell and who is not?
The scary truth is that evil sometimes uses the word of God itself to get people and to lead people away from God who is love.
I have just shared some of the ways in which evils attempts to pull us into darkness. Evil goes after us when we are getting it right and getting closer to Jesus. Evil pursues us in our weak spots and places in our lives in which we are vulnerable. Evil seeks us out when we are strong and successful or experiencing a peak or pinnacle in life. And Evil twists and distorts our use of scripture.
While all of this is unsettling and there are in fact lots of other strategies evil uses, there are some basic things we can do to be on guard and to keep in mind. I’d like to close by briefly mentioning just a few.
First be careful with who or what you are following. For each of us there is something we follow the most. The list of choices is limitless and may include God, money, a relationship, a job, a place, a way of living, a belief system, a pattern of thinking, or even old wounds. The key is to be clear on what or whom we are following and to be intentional about it. Evil wants us to follow evil and there are lots of paths to do just that.
Secondly, be attentive to what or whose voice you listen and pay attention to. Each of us is bombarded by voices. Some come from outside of ourselves. Some come from within. God’s voice is consistent with love. God is love so therefore we should be very wary about paying attention to non-loving voices. God’s voice is also in alignment with scripture, with what is known as the fruit of the Spirit which are things like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
Third, realize that anger, while human and sometimes justified, and ok, is a real danger zone and provides for fertile ground for evil. A great example of this is in the Book of Genesis and the story of when Cain kills his brother Abel. It is Cain’s anger that causes him to murder his brother.
In fact right before Cain does the killing, God warns Cain by saying in essence, “Cain, when you are filled with so much anger, a demon is crouching at your door to get you and your anger is something that will open up the door to that demon.”
Forth, being part of Christian community, going to church, and spending time with believers who are grounded is not only essential to our faith and walk with God, but a critical defense against evil subtly entering into our lives.
Fifth and perhaps obvious, is that if we want to defend ourselves against evil we need to pray and pray and pray and to know scripture. The more we know the story, the clearer we become on how evil works and how to defend against it in our lives. Ask God for protection from evil, just as Jesus taught us to do in the Lord’s prayer.
And finally, remember earlier I said that in the end God, not evil wins. Don’t shudder or live in fear or angst. Instead trust God and trust that God is in control always.
It is my prayer that each of us will take this tough subject sincerely. That we will remain vigilant in our own lives and work on cleaning out the evil that sometimes infects us all. Pay attention to evil. Be attentive. Take it seriously. And take comfort in knowing that through Jesus’ cross and resurrection, God dealt with evil.
If you attend the Chapel’s service in person or online this coming Sunday, you may notice some funny handshakes. Why are they shaking with their left hand you might ask? February 4 is Scout Sunday; during the service the younger members of the Chapel will be involved in the service, and scouts will take an active role in reading, greeting, and delivering the children’s message while celebrating the fact that religion, spirituality, and worship of God is an integral part of scouting.
You may not be aware, but about six years ago Robert and some friends started a Cub Scout pack at the Chapel to instill scouting values in the four initial pack members. The pack grew quickly, and years later those first boys transitioned from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts of Troop 201 in Aspen.
Scouting’s left-handed handshake is the formal way scouts of both genders greet one another. The handshake is made with the hand closest to the heart and is offered as a sign of friendship. Though seemingly strange to those unfamiliar with the practice, the symbolism reflects much of what both scouting and the Chapel are about.
Different sources offer three widely accepted explanations for the origin of the handshake 1) to being an ancient sign of respect and bravery, 2) to the founder of scouting’s post-battle experience with warriors, or 3) to the works of Ernest Thompson Seton. Lord Baden-Powell, the father of scouting, was said to have encountered African fighters who offered their left hand. In one account, Colonel Baden-Powell saluted the Ashanti warriors with his right hand, but an Ashanti chief offered his left hand and said, “In our land only the bravest of the brave shake hands with the left hand.” These warriors used their left hands to hold shields, so to lower their shield and shake the left hand of another showed they trusted each other.
As in many churches, at the start of the service we greet one another as a sign of peace and love. Whether you embrace, shake hands, offer a smile, or speak friendly words, these expressions of love flow from God and come from the heart. At the Chapel, we talk about love being what it is all about. Love God – Love people is often heard. Reaching out to others to show we care about them is one way God works through us. As the scouts shake hands this Sunday, let us all be reminded of the treasure of friendship and of the importance of conveying God’s love to those around us.
Written by Star Scout Peter de Wetter’s mom, Regina
We learn in the Book of Acts that Jesus’ followers were first called Christians in a city named Antioch, which today sits on the border of Turkey and Syria. The word Christian means belonging to Christ.
The word belong comes from root words which mean “to go along with, or to be the property of, or to be a member of…”
As I think about these definitions, I feel compelled to ask myself, “Do I belong to Christ? Do I go along with Christ? Am I the property of Christ?” These are important questions for each of us to ponder, I believe. Not only important, but fundamental, central, and key.
Richard Stearns, the CEO of World Vision, wrote an amazing book entitled, “The Hole in our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?” Here are some excerpts from his words and from words he quotes from others within the book.
“When we commit ourselves to following Christ, we also commit to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character, His love, justice and mercy, through our words, acts and behavior.
And finally quoting Mother Teresa, he writes, “I am a little pencil in the hand of God who is sending a love letter to the world.” She had it right. We are not the authors, any of us. We are just the pencils.”
And so again I ask myself, “Do I belong to Christ? Do I really belong to Christ and do I see myself as God’s writing instrument as God sends a love letter to the world?”
From where I sit, so much seems amiss in this valley, in our culture, and in our world. If we open our eyes, we each know this to be true. That said, in saying this, I don’t feel like I am being particularly negative because as you have heard me speak about over and over and over there is also so much good happening everywhere all the time in the middle of what is bad.
The world has always faced significant and sometimes horrific problems and this was certainly the case for the first Christians. Early Christians, despite everything, regardless of the problems of culture, in the midst of what was terribly wrong, were called Christians who followed the Way. I believe in the midst of these challenging times of 2018, in which there is much good and much which is so far off base, we too, as Christians, are called to be intentional about following the Way.
So what is the Way, what might it look like, and why it is important?
Jesus in John’s Gospel said something. Jesus said, “I am the Way.” In other words, the way is Jesus. The more we follow Jesus, the more we invite Jesus to take over our lives, the more we allow ourselves to be Jesus’ property in the sense of belonging to Him, the more we accept becoming more and more like Him. the more we are willing to be different, to act differently, and to stand out from how others are acting, the more we are following the Way.
And I believe we begin to move away from the Way, move away from Jesus, whenever the practical, the political, the social, the cultural, and other such claims on our lives compete, replace, or too greatly inform who or what we are willing to be about out in the world.
Being a Christian and being people of the Way is a complete and total call upon all aspects of our lives. That said, however, I need to be clear. No one can follow the way perfectly. It is why we need a Savior.
Despite our best efforts to follow the way fully, completely, and wholly, we will be imperfect, flawed and sometimes very off track in doing so, hence the importance and centrality of humility. When we follow the way, humility and forgiveness must be part of the core of who we are way down deep. We are invited not to take ourselves too seriously because we take Jesus very seriously and his love, his forgiveness, and his way of treating people.
So what is the Way in a world in which so much seems amiss? The answer is Jesus and to become his totally devoted followers in such a way that we are his presence wherever we find ourselves.
This last week I began a sermon series at the Chapel. In it, I shared a song released two years ago written by Lori McKenna.
Here are just a few excerpts from the lyrics. “Visit grandpa every chance that you can…It won’t be wasted time…Hold the door, say please, say thank you…Don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie…Don’t hold a chip on your shoulder…Bitterness keeps you from flying…I love you ain’t no pick up line…Don’t take life for granted…Always stay humble and kind…”
Always be humble and kind. Those two things alone are enough to change much of what is wrong out in the world. Those two things are often enough to change what is amiss in our hearts. And those two things alone, will greatly help us follow the Way, follow Jesus, to which we are all called.
Tune in next week for more…
For as long as I can remember, I have loved birds. When I was growing up, the grandmother of my best friend had a Myna bird. While I can’t remember his name, we were delighted to hear him talk as he freely roamed the house. I also was blessed to have a pet canary and later a paraquet. If we pay attention, birds of all kinds continually surround us whatever ecological zone we happen to find ourselves within.
Years ago while living alongside a lake in Upstate New York, I encountered the Loon for the first time. It is a spectacular bird, not only because of its behavior, but particularly due to its call. I don’t know whether to say the call of the Loon is melancholy, mysterious, mystic or haunting, but it does capture one’s full attention and I find its call to be magnificent. I miss hearing the call of the Loon here in the Rocky Mountains.
While living back east, one day I walked into a store and displayed on the wall was a clock. I immediately bought it because every hour on the hour, recorded sounds of a variety of Loon calls are played. Just hearing the clock sound brings back a flood of memories of gazing across calm lakes watching Loons dive for their prey.
A few days ago I noticed something seemed different as I sat at my desk. It took me a while to figure it out, but I soon realized I no longer heard the sound of Loons coming from the clock. I had forgotten to change the battery and it had stopped.
As I took out the old battery and put in the new, I was reminded of an important truth. If we want something to be an active, enriching part of our lives, we have to not only pay attention, but to be attentive. The Loon clock only keeps sounding on the hour if I care for it. The same, of course, is true of our relationships with others.
People are the source of what it most important in life. And so I have spent some time thinking not about what battery I need to replace in a clock, but what relationships that make me who I am may need a charge and some attention. I invite you to join me in pondering whose voices you miss hearing in life. Give them a call and recharge what has been.
Walking alongside of people in the midst of joys and horrendous tragedies are markers of what it means to be a pastor. In the midst of such experiences, over the years, a variety of events stand out for me as transforming and life changing. The memory of one has come flooding back into my mind the last few days, along with tears and a hurting heart.
In my last parish and Diocese, I along with others came to know a seven year old girl named Flor and her mother Rosa. We got to know them through mission work. Due to profound poverty and oppression, Flor’s case of Rickets was one of the worst US physicians had ever witnessed. Through hard work, fundraising, governmental paperwork, and prayer, Rosa and her mother were brought to the US to the community of which I was a part.
Surgeons and medical care providers along with a major medical center donated services and completed rounds of excruciatingly painful corrective surgery to treat Flor’s deformities. It was agonizing not only for Flor, but for her mother and those of us who cared for them. But through God’s grace and amazing human beings, Flor was healed.
After a year or so, Rosa asked if I would baptize Flor. In one of the most moving and Spirit filled services, I had the astonishing privilege of baptizing Flor by the side of a gorgeous lake. It was at that moment I was reminded that we are all children of God, are bearers of the Holy, and that love is the only standard by which we should conduct ourselves whenever we are in the presence of another human being. Flor and Rosa taught me what love means and that what God cares most about is love as God is love (1 John 4).
A variety of Central and South American theologians and clergy have understood this truth. Here is what a few of them have said.
The eternal destiny of human beings will be measured by how much or how little solidarity we have displayed with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the oppressed. In the end we will be judged in terms of love. Leonardo Boff (Brazil).
Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Gustavo Gutierrez. (Peru).
A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that? Oscar Romero (El Salvador)
It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor,of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel,of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, “You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.” It is to say exactly the opposite, “You are valuable.” Oscar Romero (El Salvador)
And so, to Flor and her mother Rosa along with all others from stricken El Salvador, I say, “You are valuable to me and you have taught me much about love and what it means to follow Jesus.”