Years ago I wanted to get into shape. I said to family and friends, “I am going to get in shape. Being in shape is important to me. My health matters for many reasons.” Days passed. So did weeks. Even several months. My mantra was the same, “I am going to get in shape.” I soon realized that despite my words, I was not serious about my physical health, had I been, I would have exercised. Clearly being in shape did not mean much to me as my words and actions did not match.
This is a trivial metaphor of something tragic about America. We say we care for children, we say we love our children, we say children are important, but reality does not match what we say out loud. Millions of children are hungry. Millions do not receive adequate medical care. Millions do not have access to mental health care. Millions are in deficient academic environments. Millions suffer from abuse and neglect. And what is completely shocking is that every child in America could be killed any day in any neighborhood while sitting in a classroom. Twenty-two shootings have occured this year alone in America’s schools.
A February, 2018 NY Times article states, “Since a gunman killed 20 first graders and six adults with an assault rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide.”
Frankly, I am grieving not only the horrendous loss of life, but I am not proud that our nation does not care about children. If we did, the facts would be different. Elementary school children would not be slaughtered.
Caring for children will only happen when we and those in leadership positions are willing to be apolitical and put all and every option on the table for how to be a nation that cares about kids. Are there people that care? Yes. Are there great parents? Yes. Are there great ideas and programs out there based on those ideas happening? Yes. But as a nation, we have failed and are failing every child as long as there is hunger, as long as schools are danger zones, and as long as all the issues harming our children continue.
I am shattered when I talk to kids and drills for active shooters are part of their vocabulary. I am embarrassed to be part of a nation that is so incredibly uncaring and instead so agenda and partisan driven. I am horrified by the fact that my children have to worry about being shot every day they go to a campus.
As a religious leader I believe we need a national time of repentance. A time of listening and being honest. The facts speak for themselves. I am sick to my stomach over the state of children in America for the reasons I have outlined.
I am praying diligently about all of this and asking the Holy Spirit to guide and lead me to do something, somehow about caring for kids. And frankly I feel convicted that to date, I have not been part of the solution. Please join me in prayer. Pray that God will intervene and that each of us will be willing to put everything on the table and to shed our divisive partisan views with regard to our kids.
We overcame the evils of the Axis powers as a nation in the 1940’s and we did so because all Americans had the same goal in mind. We need such a shared vision and passion if we are going to say we care for children with any sincerity.
Do people change? And perhaps more importantly, can people change? I think these are important questions because as I look around our world right now and listen to the news, I sure hope and pray transformation is possible for all human beings.
When I hear stories about parents hurting their own kids, or company executives squandering their employees’ pensions, or see people making a villain out of someone with whom they disagree, my prayer indeed is that people can change. When I see how ugly partisanship has become, or how opioids are taking over neighborhoods, or how some people treat others based on nationality, skin color, or religious orientation, I hope people can change. When I see scenes from the streets of Damascus, or hungry people on the Gaza strip, or scared looking faces in towns across the Golan Heights, I ponder whether things will ever be different.
Frankly, I not only hope that circumstances and people can change, but I pray I can too. As long as I have lived I have understood that change and transformation is not only what I seek, but what I pray for in various areas of life. But I know I am not alone in this. Most of us, if honest with ourselves, I believe have at least some dimensions, aspects, or ways of being we’d like to change or morph into something different.
And I think many of us would like to trust the words of scripture on this whole topic of transformation and change. Words like, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Or, “Behold, God is doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” For sure, scripture is full of verses and stories of people changing and becoming something new.
As I am out and about, I often hear people express a lack of optimism that people can change or that things can be different in a meaningful way. And when we are hurt by others or endure tough things in life, sometimes our scars make new beginnings difficult at best.
A week ago today was Ascension Day. The Bible tells us that Jesus was crucified and that He died. His body was then taken to a tomb. On the third day, His followers discovered that Jesus had been bodily raised from the dead. 40 days later Jesus ascended into heaven.
However Ascension Day looked or however it was experienced by those there, what it means is that after Jesus was raised from the dead, and after appearing, teaching, and speaking to over 500 people on various occasions for 40 days, the visible Jesus went to be with God. Ten days after Jesus’ Ascension, the day of Pentecost occurred. Pentecost was the time that Jesus sent His Holy Spirit among human beings that would change the course of the early church and it is that same Holy Spirit that continues to transform our lives right now.
And it is immediately before His ascension that Jesus says something important that is recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 1.
Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. It is important to point out that the Greek word for power that is used in the Book of Acts in this verse is the word dynamis. Dynamis means power.
There are a variety of meanings of the word dynamis or power. As several people note, “dynamis means to be able to do something, to will, to have great ability, and possibility. It means having the power that leads to healing and to have the spirit of love and self-control. It conveys having the strength of God.”
Also note that our word dynamite comes from the word dynamis. While dynamite is strong and destructive, it pales in comparison to the power and healing of dynamis, or the power of God. The power that Jesus says lies within you and within me right now. Dynamis is in you and me. And I think that is Dynamite.
On Ascension Day, Jesus did not say to his followers, “Depend on yourself. Do it on your own. Live life through your own power.”
Instead Jesus said, “When you are muddling your way through life, remember that I am plugged into you. My power is within you. My dynamis surrounds you. And it is my power, the Holy Spirit, that will enable you to overcome, to move beyond, to heal, and surmount any difficulty you encounter.” Jesus also made it clear to his first followers that day that it would be his power, his dynamis that would empower them to go out into the world and spread the news of God’s unbounded healing love for all people.
In essence, on Ascension Day, Jesus said to His followers and I believe says to each of us now, “Never say never. Never say I will never recover. Never say I will never get it. Never say I will never learn. Never say I can never change. Never say my life can’t be different. Never say transformation, a new path, a new beginning, a new way of living in being is not possible in this life.” Jesus wants us to remember to plug into His power.
I love what one person writes about Ascension Day. She writes, “When Jesus spoke that day what he was saying was, ‘Believe in my goodness more than in your own badness. Have more faith in my power to make things new than in your own power to mess things up.’”
God never created us to function without being plugged into Him and His power. I pray that none of us will give up hope and that we will remember that change, transformation and new beginnings happen through the power of Christ that is within you and me.
There is a powerful image I first heard in the Alpha program that has stuck with me for years. It is an image that represents well what is happening at the Chapel. The image is told in the following short story that I’ve adapted a bit.
There once was a woman who felt that life was meaningless. She struggled finding purpose in her days and the faith that she once had felt empty. In her mind she believed in God but her heart was just not there. When she was faced with challenges, she tried to pray, but it often felt as if there was no one listening. One cold winter day she went to her pastor and described what was going on. He was glad to see her as she had not been seen for many months.
It just so happened when she met with her pastor that they met in a room with a roaring fireplace. As she began to share what was going on in her life, the pastor took some fireplace tongs and removed a red hot glowing ember from the fire and set it on the hearth. Over the minutes that followed as she continued talking, she noticed that the ember turned black as it cooled. Sometime later when she had finished telling her story, the pastor took the cool black ember and returned it to the fire. When he did so, the ember immediately heated up, turned red, and flamed back to life.
At that moment, the woman realized that she had been like the ember. She had taken herself away from the warmth, love, heat, and fire of Christian community and as a result her faith and trust in God had cooled. She now understood that to have a strong resilient faith that she had to get back into and be a part of her community.
As I think about this story, I think about the community that Snowmass Chapel is, a place for people from all lots of life. From the visitor, to the second homeowner, to the local who has been here 30 years, this is an amazing community and one in which people are being reignited with faith, trust in God, and a great care and love for each other. If you or someone you care about is in a place of being like a cool black ember, remember the fire of the Chapel. A fire that is here 24/7 waiting to warm and sustain you, whatever has been happening in life. And through it all, remember that the source of the fire is the unbounded love of God in Christ Jesus, a love we are all called to share with those who need it the most.
Have you ever heard a voice in your head that is hard to ignore and lets you know that something is up. The voice that says something is missing in your life or that things could be better? Well if you have, it means not only that you are part of the human race, but serves as a reminder that something is up and going on within.
Such a voice can mean a variety of things. It can mean that God is trying to get our attention. That we are not using our gifts to their potential or that our lives are out of balance in some way. That we need to get healthy through what we eat and how we exercise. That we need to work on communicating with other people more effectively or constructively. That we need to spend more time with our children or aging parents. That we have some unresolved stuff going on inside. It might even mean we would benefit from some therapy to work through some painful issue or struggle.
But when we hear that voice in our head that tells us that something is missing, we had better pay careful attention and be very cautious before taking action, because acting on such a feeling without checking it out can get us into a heap of trouble. You see, sometimes when we feel that something is missing, there really is nothing missing at all. Sometimes we feel this way because we have caught a very nasty bug. And this bug will lead us astray and mess us up if we are not attentive. This bug has a name. Perfectionism.
A quick caveat before continuing. Having goals, seeking higher standards, going after success, striving for financial security, desiring to be more healthy, wanting more of something in some area of life are obviously not necessarily bad things and may not reflect perfectionism. Such things may simply reflect we are motivated and reflect our knowledge we need to work on something to bring about a positive change. And I hope we each are motivated in various areas of our daily lives. But motivation and positive change is not what I am talking about.
With this caveat in mind, however, I do believe that some of the times when we think that something is missing in life it is because we are consumed by perfectionism in some area of our life. We think we are not making enough money. We feel like our current partner is not the right one. We live in a bad climate and are certain that life in a warmer one would be naturally better. We begin to blame others or ourselves and then we act.
We switch jobs to make more money, change partners to obtain greater bliss, or move to the warmer place expecting that 15 degrees will make all the difference. But often when we are in the new job, infatuated with the new partner, or basking in the sun, we discover that the nagging feeling that something is missing is still with us. And the perfection seeking cycle repeats itself again and again.
As a result, take classes, read books, and chat with friends in the exercise class looking for ways to fix what seems out of whack, and our search continues. And I believe that when we think something is missing, it may very well be the call to not change a thing, but rather to give others and ourselves a break and simply accept who and what we are. Sometimes when we believe we are falling short in some way, it really means we need to lighten up. Brennan Manning in his book the “Ragamuffin Gospel,” says, “The trouble with our ideals is that if we live up to all of them, we become impossible to live with.”
Then there is another person who wrote, “We are not perfect, but neither is there anyone out there more perfect than we are. What a pleasure this realization is. We are not more and no less than wonderfully ordinary, imperfect mortals. So why not give [others] and ourselves a break? Why not celebrate our blemishes, our imperfections, as the very qualities that make us human?…We all have a fault line, and usually one with many branches…Instead of apologizing, we can choose to enjoy ourselves just as we are, no upgrades necessary.”
But there is another problem with perfectionism with other troubling consequences. When we seek perfection, we not only diminish others, and ourselves, but we end up closing the door in God’s face. When we go for perfection, we stop looking for God, because who needs God when we believe that ultimate power and perfection is to be found within.
When we seek our own perfection, we become blinded to what God can do in our lives, and cease entertaining the idea that God at times does amazingly new and creative things in unpredictable new ways.
I love what Brennan Manning writes. He said, ““When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer. To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, ‘A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.’”
He goes onto write, “While there is much we may have earned–our degree and our salary, our home and garden, a Miller Lite and a good night’s sleep–all this is possible only because we have been given so much: life itself, eyes to see and hands to touch, a mind to shape ideas, and a heart to beat with love. We have been given God in our souls and Christ in our flesh. We have the power to believe where others deny, to hope where others despair, to love where others hurt. This and so much more is sheer gift.”
One person who came to understand all of this was St. Paul. Paul was born into a Jewish family. He was sent to a famous rabbinical school in Jerusalem. He was immersed in the deep study of scripture. By the year 35, Paul was a self-righteous Pharisee and he was rabidly anti-Christian. Paul’s mission in life was to eliminate and punish his fellow Jews who were followers of Jesus. But one day Paul met the Risen Jesus and everything changed.
Paul then knew first hand that life is not about our perfection, but about God’s. He was clear that faith has less to do with getting it right and everything to do with God’s grace. Paul also understood that when people strive for perfection, it inhibits them from accepting their own weaknesses and their need for a power greater than themselves. Self-prescribed perfect people don’t understand the need for a savior.
And what often upset people about Paul, was when he told the people that if they would stop taking themselves so seriously, they might just start taking God more seriously.
Growing up in the desert Southwest, I was exposed to lots of Native American literature, art, and rugs. The Navajos are fascinating people and one of the most interesting characteristics of Navajos is that they frequently did not complete things, whether it was a basket, a blanket, a song, or a story. It is not because they were lazy, it was because they never wanted anything to be too perfect.
If something was too close ended or perfect, they believed it cramped the spirit of the creator and sapped the energy of life away. When Navajos created anything, they often would leave little gaps or imperfections in their work. To them, perfection was suffocation.
It is amazing what Navajos did when they made beautiful blankets. When creating them, they frequently left a slight imperfection in the weaving. Often this took the form of a single thread that originated from the center of the blanket and extended all the way to the edge. The Navajos called this imperfection in their blankets a spirit thread or spirit outlet. They believed such a thread gives the creator room to breathe and to create and serves as a reminder that only God is perfect.
Perhaps that is how God designed us. Beautiful, yet imperfect. And maybe God made us this way so that we would have room for Him. Room for Him to act in our lives. Room to create, to transform, to guide, to lead, and to heal. Room not so much for predictability, but surprise.
Maybe He created us as beautiful, yet imperfect beings so that we would hopefully come to the place that we realize that we need a savior. And maybe He created us as beautiful, yet imperfect so that we would learn to give other people a break and to lighten up with our expectations.
As I wrap up today, I’d like to invite us each to do something. And that is anytime we hear a voice in our head telling us that something is missing, perhaps we can pause for a moment and think about the fact that you and I both are like a Navajo blanket. Beautiful, yet imperfect, just as God made us.
Like those blankets, we too have a spirit thread coming from the center of who we are. A thread that reminds us not only of who we are, but who it is that put us together. I pray that that that thread, our imperfections, help us remember that Jesus Christ is not finished with us yet, nor anyone else who annoys us with their imperfections.
And let us all remember as Brennan Manning wrote, “Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.”
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.
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.