If we pay attention, it is fairly straightforward to see whose lives have been changed by “it” and those who seemingly embrace a take it or leave it attitude toward “it.”
When a person chooses to have “it” in his or her life, “it” is something the person carries with them all the time. Such a person will respond to “it” at a moments notice, even if doing so requires an interruption of the current focus, conversation, or task. When a person has “it,” more often than not, the person feels anxious, upset, or discombobulated imagining life without “it.”
Frequently, when a person’s life is built around “it,” the person goes through each day knowing that needs will be met through “it.” “It” often leaves a person feeling empowered because turning to “it” fosters the ability to do many things at once.
“It” offers direction, answer questions, creates a sense of connection, and gives a person the sense of being in touch. Go out into a public setting, and it is fairly easy to see who has “it” and who does not. Whoever has made a choice to live with “it” has been profoundly changed by “it.”
Decisions, ways of thinking, how one relates to and engages with others along with word choices all are dramatically impacted by “it.” How life is approached and hurdles overcome are affected by “it.” For many, “it” has become the lens through which life is lived day in and day out.
If you re-read the paragraphs above, “it” could be replaced with the word God. But there is another noun that can be inserted instead. The word, “iPhone.” I invite you to re-read the paragraphs once through using one word and then the other.
I have an iPhone and use it throughout the course of each day, but if truth be told, without intentional effort, I can slip into a life that looks much like the one described above. iPhones are an extremely valuable tool and are an enhancement to life in many ways.
That said, an iPhone can become consuming. How often have we walked into a restaurant and seen people not engaging with one another, but rather with the screen in front of them?
While technology is a God given blessing, too often I experience people talking with one another as if texting and I frequently see folks unable to sit still for a few minutes in order to have a conversation without repeatedly checking their iPhones.
It strikes me that if person’s life can revolve around an iPhone, the same can certainly be said of God. While I know first hand that intentionally infusing each day with God consciousness can be challenging, it is not only doable, but a life changing option for us all. And the good news is that God does not need to be recharged.
Originally published for The Chapel Mountaineer, April 14, 2016
A traditional reading during the Easter season is the story of the road to Emmaus found in Luke’s Gospel. This magnificent reading is found in Luke 24:13-49. It is about two people who had put their hopes, dreams, and aspirations into Jesus.
We don’t know exactly what their relationship with Jesus had been, but whatever it was, it’s evident that they felt as if they had lost it all after Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
For a moment, let’s dissect this story just a bit. It was Easter morning and two companions were walking down a road away from Jerusalem toward a town called Emmaus. Scripture says that the two were downtrodden, their faces were downcast, they looked sad, or they were gloomy, depending upon which version of the Bible you read. It’s clear they were having a tough emotional time as they walked.
As they journey toward Emmaus, Jesus comes up and asks them what is going on. Although it is Jesus, they do not recognize him. Why they don’t recognize him is a bit of a mystery. Whatever the reason, they did not know it was him.
As they walk along they tell the stranger, who is actually Jesus, about Jesus. After the two companions stop talking, Jesus teaches them about the scriptures and tells them that the ancient prophets predicted all that had recently happened. Later, when they get near Emmaus, Jesus acts as if he is going to leave the two companions behind and continue on down the road. But the two insist that Jesus stay with them as darkness is approaching. Jesus agrees and it is during the course of a meal, that they suddenly recognize their guest. Jesus then vanishes.
Even though it is late, the two quickly get up and head back to Jerusalem to share their encounter with the risen Lord with the remaining apostles. Upon arriving in the city, they tell the apostles what happened, and as they do so, Jesus appears among them. Despite the fact that Jesus is standing right there, the apostles are filled with fear and doubt.
Jesus then teaches them about the scriptures and even eats some food, a bit of leftover fish. It is here that he tells them to stay put until the Holy Spirit comes upon them. At this point, Jesus once again disappears and the Gospel of Luke nears its end.
This story from Luke’s Gospel is about many things and it is rich with layers of meaning. On the surface, the story is simply about the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead and that he appeared to his followers and the two companions on the road to Emmaus. It, like the other post resurrection appearances to hundreds and hundreds of people, was recorded and written down so that we too might trust the events of Easter through eye witness testimony.
The story of the walk to Emmaus, however, is also about the fact that God does things in surprising ways and how our expectations can affect our ability to see God acting in our lives. What we expect of God often influences how we see God. But aside from a description of eyewitness testimony. Aside from the fact that the story illustrates how expectations influence what we can see. The story of the walk to Emmaus also has to do with something else.
The story sheds light on what happens whenever we are on our own road to Emmaus. Whenever our hopes and expectations seem for naught. Whenever we are struggling with confusion or pondering questions that don’t seem to have an answer.
And what happens when we are on such a journey is that Jesus shows up.
Just like he showed up on the road to Emmaus as the two dejected companions walked. Jesus shows up whenever we travel a similar road. The good news is that when Jesus showed up on the road to Emmaus, his presence was not dependent on the expectations of the two companions. His presence was not dependent on what they were feeling. What they were thinking. What they believed.
Jesus’ presence that day did not depend on the nature of what was going on, the level of faith held by the two, or even on the choices they had made.
And it is the same for you and for me today.
Jesus shows up no matter what and his presence has nothing to do with where we are in our journey in faith or what is in our head. In fact, Jesus shows up even if we could care less about his presence. Even if we believe his presence doesn’t make a difference. Even when we can’t see that he is right there with us.
And finally there is one more thing, I believe, the story invites us to think about.
For those of us who may be in a place of waning faith, of struggling with believing, of wondering, of having lots of questions, I believe the story of the two on the road to Emmaus invites us to ask some questions.
Questions like, “What if it is really so? What if Jesus really did rise from the dead? What if because of that there is an amazing life beyond this one beyond our comprehension that exceeds what we could hope for? What if we can trust the story? What if we can really trust Jesus? What if it is really so?” And if it is so, how might that impact my life today in the face of my current challenges?
Think of what is causing you fear today, ask yourself, what if it is really so that Jesus rose from the dead? What might that have to say to me about my fear? As you look at what is causing you stress at this moment, ask, what if God really has that much power to raise someone from the dead? What does such power have to say to me about what is making me feel out of sorts? As you think about those you have lost in life, ask, what if there really is something amazing beyond this life? What might eternal life have to say to me in my grief? As you think about a big transition you are facing, again ask, what if it really is so. What might Jesus’ resurrection say to me about the transition I am faced with?
The point, if it is so, Jesus’ resurrection has a lot to say to us not just about what happens after this life, but about what is happening to us right now in our daily lives. And the Great news of the Gospel is not, if it is so, but rather, it is so.
It is so! Jesus Christ rose from the dead and because Jesus Christ is Risen we too shall one day rise as He did. And that, my friends, makes all the difference in how we live this short journey we call life right now.
If you were with us last week at Snowmass Chapel you know that we had a special performance immediately after the worship service. One of our young parishioners, Emily Garcia, is home for a brief visit from the school she attends for students with special needs, and she shared a message with us using sign language and set to the incredible song, “This is Me.”* The song’s lyrics are a powerful reminder that every single one of us is EXACTLY who we are meant to be. If you could have all seen Emily up on that chancel last week – oh my stars you’d have been proud. Like, weepy-smiley-jump-to-your-feet proud. When Emily finished, the congregation erupted in a standing ovation. YOU ALL STOOD UP for one of our own like nobody’s business and made me so proud. Love God, love people – it’s what we do.
Never one for much nuance this girl cut right to the chase in her introduction: “In the past I’ve been bullied before for who I am, and this song brings me a lot of joy.” No wonder. Talk about powerful lyrics:
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.
Truer words don’t exist my friends. We have all been subjected to sharp, cutting words that are meant to hurt us. But we cannot be defined by that. Don’t you think for one SECOND that someone else has the power to define who you are with ugliness.
In our schools around this country, one in four students report being bullied. Students with disabilities – like Emily who has high functioning autism and epilepsy – are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers. Just to be clear in case you missed the point: those who need our support and compassion THE MOST are the ones being teased, tormented and bullied. What in the world has gotten into us?
Emily says the problem is with compassion. “To the students with no disabilities, I would say, you need to know that people with autism, ADHD, or mental health issues have a struggle with social skills and with life. Show some empathy. Ask them questions like, ‘Are you ok? What’s happening that is upsetting you?’ Stick up for them,” Emily calmly suggests. And most importantly, she offers this age-old wisdom: “Put yourself in their shoes.”
Emily admits she is not perfect. Because of her diagnosis and learning style, she had to learn many of these lessons the hard way but adds that her school (a private residential program out of state) taught her “how to make friends in a polite, appropriate manner, and I learned boundaries.” In other words, she is learning how to stick up for herself as well as others. Emily thinks these are things ALL schools should spend more time teaching. Amen to that, sister!
Emily, serious and focused throughout the song as she performed on Sunday, finally relaxed at the very end, threw in a little dance hop for good measure, and literally beamed at the crowd. Just: be still my heart.
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.
I had the chance to catch up with Emily this week and this feisty, articulate young lady (who, by the way, gives AMAZING HUGS), is the definition of grace and love. I’d be honored if you scroll down and read her beautiful words shared with me during our conversation. Then do yourself a favor and watch the moment the cast and crew of The Greatest Showman knew their anthem song, “This is Me,” was destined to be something special.
Excerpts from Emily:
I first met Emily when she and her mom, Cecilia, attended a Mother-Daughter retreat hosted by Snowmass Chapel in 2012. Her smile is huge and her heart even bigger. I found her honesty and directness refreshing, though it’s easy to see how some peers might have been overwhelmed by her at times. People with autism don’t have all the social cues all of the time, let’s just say.
Eventually, Emily’s mom made the gut-wrenching decision to enroll Emily in a residential school 8 hours away so she could have the education she needed – in addition to academics, Emily also receives instruction in life skills, behavior therapy, and social skills. She and I caught up after church last week on a rare visit home, and our conversation was just too rich not to share. Here are some excerpts of wise words from our Emily:
On bullying and school culture:
“Bullying is a real issue for kids with special needs. Some kids cope with bullying through self-harm. The bullying causes anxiety and depression and then can lead to more serious things like cutting.”
“Most bullies just want to get a reaction. Don’t give it to them. Ignore them. And if ignoring doesn’t work, then learn to step away from the person and say, “Stop it. You are really hurting my feelings.” If someone is bullying you, be firm and respectful and ask them to stop. If that doesn’t work then go find a staff member or teacher.”
“But teachers (in most schools) need to help students more. They need to help students process their emotions, not just ignore kids who are upset or hurting. Teachers dismiss things by saying, “She didn’t mean that,” or “Go sit somewhere else.” Teachers should be compassionate and consider students’ negative feelings (validate their feelings). I think all kids on IEP (Individual Education Plan) should have a life skills class to help them socialize better and integrate into the school population better.”
“I had to learn a lot of things like how to make friends in a polite, appropriate manner. I also learned boundaries like sexual, emotional, physical, verbal and rigid (too strict). I learned how to have boundaries and how to respect others boundaries.”
“There is no such thing as ‘normal.’”
On helping teens accept each other:
“OK. For kids with special needs: Be who you are.”
“For kids who don’t have special needs just know that everyone with a disorder has different ways of expressing themselves. Kids with mental illness such as bipolar or schizophrenia don’t read cues as well, like body language and other things, so they might have outbursts and get angry. My advice is don’t fight back. They just get angry because they can’t always see what is really happening.”
“People need to know that kids with special needs have a struggle with social skills and with life. They take things personally and get anxious or have outbursts. You can help by showing empathy. Ask questions like “Are you ok? What is happening that is upsetting you?” instead of just teasing them or not wanting to be near them. Stick up for them. Put yourself in their shoes.”
“The same is true for people who are transgender (or LGBTQ). They are just expressing themselves. Put yourself in their shoes: if you were trying to express yourself by the way you dress or wear your hair and people put you down, how would that feel?”
On faith and religion:
“I will get my diploma in a year, and it will come from school AND from God. Because God helps me move forward. God helps me do things I don’t think I can.”
“I want to be a spiritual counselor for other people who are struggling. You can talk to God about anything.”
*This is Me Songwriters: Justin Paul / Benj Pasek, performed by Keala Settle
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.
As we stood in line for customs in the Port-au-Prince airport it was fairly obvious we weren’t the only Americans who’d come to Haiti with some sort of volunteer group. In a country that is 95% African American, I was peering into a sea of white faces waiting to have passports stamped. Most groups were clad in matching t-shirts emblazoned with things like “Hope for Haiti” or “Make disciples of all nations” or “I Heart Haiti.” Clearly we missed the memo; our precious group wore matching elephant pants.
There are so many organizations doing great work in Haiti but after just two days in country I began to ask myself, “why?” As I looked around I saw a nation of people who are among the most resilient, resourceful, joy-filled I have seen. It’s true their poverty level boggles the mind, but to say they are in despair is a gross overstatement and not at all the impression I took away. Haitians are hard-working, hustlers, creative, persistent, enterprising, and I gotta be completely honest here, very easy on the eyes (I mean, I may have been the “chaperone” but I’m not blind, people!).
The Aspen for Haiti club, which started at Aspen High School four years ago and is sponsored by Snowmass Chapel, exists to learn more about the Haitian culture and its history and people. To the extent we can help by bringing down school supplies, books in French or Creole, and fund projects like solar powered lights, we do. But our lead host, longtime valley resident Tim Myers, is adamant that the Haiti I observed – the resilient, clever, hard-working Haiti — is real, and its people are entirely capable of handling the work that needs to be done. Our job, he told us, is to gain a new perspective and just maybe a deeper appreciation of the world’s diversity. Done.
Hailing from a country such as ours, where we often hustle past people head down, talking on the phone, bumping shoulders with strangers without so much as a nod, I am struck by the sense of community among the Haitians. There is a genuine joy when they greet one another, and an immediate, no-questions-asked attitude of helpfulness toward all. Haiti defies our western every-man-for-himself mentality. How many times did we see a truck stalled on a Haitian roadway, or a moto-bike in need of repair, in which no fewer than four people stopped everything to help. At every restaurant or shop we visited employees worked in groups, never alone. In the small remote villages school children grabbed our hands and danced with us and sat on our laps – not because they were desperate for our help as my ego previously assumed, but simply because grabbing a hand, sharing a dance and sitting on laps is who they are and how they live. And what a joyful way of living it is!
Haitians are deserving of our friendship, our tourism, our understanding and compassion, and yes, at times, our help. There are, indeed, opportunities for the US and others to serve, especially since Haiti lacks basic infrastructure, a military, and a government that gives a damn. I can tell you that after spending time with the Haitian people, I would be there in a heartbeat if they needed me. Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt they would drop everything and do the same for me. Loving your neighbor isn’t something they bother to print on a t-shirt. It’s a way of life.
Now. Who wants to dance?
It’s hard to sum up in so few words the impact of this trip. I expect you’ll read more from me…. I have Haiti on my mind. <3
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.