Category Archives: The Gospel

Breaking News: The Resurrection Is Continuing

open tombRecent headlines sure seem dark and hopeless. The bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The explosion of the fertilizer plant that essentially destroyed West, Texas. A new ruling by a California legislative committee removes all gender distinctions from bathrooms and locker rooms in all public schools. The horrific details emerging about the murder of dozens of full-term babies in a Philadelphia abortion clinic by Kermit Gosnell—a crime which has, until this week, been utterly ignored by the national media. Add to that local stories of government corruption or drive-by-shootings or just plain meanness or the ordinary troubles that break the hearts of so many people.

            It’s enough to dull the smile of the most optimistic person. It can weigh us down with despair. It can begin to feel like, as an old friend of mine used to say, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and I can’t find a way to scramble out. It can make it hard to face another day.

            What can we do? How do we handle living, working, loving, and raising our kids in such a world?

            The answer is Easter.

            Remember? We celebrated that wonderful day just a few weeks ago, marking the day that Jesus rose from the dead, victorious over sin, hell, death, and all the mess of a broken world that make our headlines scream and our hearts ache. 

            But the best part about Easter is that it never ends.  It’s not just one day with glad songs and worship, new clothes, egg hunts and chocolate.

            Easter is the breaking in of a new sort of life, the new reality of heaven’s King, His forever life and eternal Kingdom.

            Easter is meant to change everything.

            And those of us who have a relationship with Christ are His Easter people. We can live out this new life and its implications in every aspect of our ordinary lives. But here’s the thing: our resurrection lives are simply not ordinary human lives. We have been set free to live, really live, empowered by the truth and promises of the resurrection.

            The apostle writes: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead.” (Eph. 1:18-20, NIV)

            Does that stun you? The power we have for everyday life is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.  So, what difference might it make to live your life as if Jesus’ resurrection power is at work in and around you?

            If you have Jesus’ resurrection power (and you do), there must be some difference in how you

                       …think about the broken mess we’re in (this is not all there is!)

                       …deal with that nagging problem at work;

                       …love people who are unlike you or difficult to love;

                       …battle that anxiety, temptation, addiction or besetting sin;

                       …approach current challenges with your marriage or family;

                       …persevere in health or financial difficulties;

                        …express emotions like anger, joy or uncertainty;

                       …grieve when losses mount (not as those who have no hope)

                       …pray and feed the faith you have for change;

                       …make decisions and plan the steps of your life journey.

                       …interact with people who don’t know Jesus;

                        …get out of bed in the morning and enjoy life!

            The disciple’s life is always a resurrection life.

 

            So here’s the news:

             No matter how dark, you live in the glow of resurrection’s daybreak..

             No matter how dead, His life always wins.

             No matter the date, it is always Easter.

 

            We disciples are Easter people.

            Let’s live like it, starting today!

 

Are You a Slave Who Works or a Child Who Plays?

         les mis 2There has been quite a bit of chatter recently about the film adaptation of the staged Broadway musical of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of revolutionary politics and love in 19th century France.  It is a wonderful story full of loyalty and betrayal, intrigue and chivalry, love and loss, scandal and virtue.

            But mostly, it’s a story of the redemption of one life. An embittered convict and thief named Jean Valjean is shown mercy by a kind priest, who insists that his act of grace has bought Valjean’s soul for God. Indeed, that one act brands Valjean with an unwavering sense of right, and an unshakeable commitment to mercy towards others—especially the vulnerable.

            The conflict in Les Miserables arises from constant interplay between the unbending, ever-pursuing, bent-to-punish law of police detective Javert and the unrelenting, ever-freeing, willing-to-sacrifice grace of Valjean. Like a pebble tossed in a still lake, wherever Valjean goes, grace and mercy follow, overflowing and transforming the lives of all who encounter him – even when they don’t always recognize it.

            Now it’s possible for Christians to push the law & grace story-line too far, and turn Les Miserables into an explicit gospel morality tale, like a Billy Graham film–which it is not. But there are echoes of the true gospel that we can hear and see and feel in Hugo’s grand tale.

            One of the most poignant scenes is not in the musical or the film, but plays a key part in the novel.  Valjean has promised the dying waif Fantine that he will retrieve her eight-year-old daughter Cosette from the shady innkeeper Thenardier with whom she has been staying, and make provision for her future.  Valjean goes, and when he arrives, he first encounters Cosette fetching a pail of water from a stream in the woods in the dark of winter, wearing only a threadbare cotton dress. It is obvious that her “care” has degenerated into little more than slave labor for the innkeeper and his family.

            He silently took hold of the bucket’s handle and said, “My child, that’s very heavy for you, what you’re carrying there.”

            Cosette raised her head and answered, “Yes, it is, monsieur.”

            “Give it to me,” the man continued. “I’ll carry it for you.”

            Cosette let go of the bucket. The man walked along with her….

            The man walked very fast. Cosette followed him without difficulty. She was no longer tired. From time to time, she looked up at this man with a sort of calm and inexpressible confidence. She had never been taught to turn to Providence and pray. However, she felt in her heart something resembling hope and joy, which rose toward heaven…

            The man spoke, “is there a servant  at Madame Thenardier’s….are you alone?”

            “Yes, monsieur.” After a pause, Cosette raised her voice, “I mean, there are two little girls….Madame Thenardier’s daughters.”

            ‘What do they do?”

            ‘Oh, they have beautiful dolls….they play, they have fun.”

            “All day long?”

            “Yes, monsieur”

            “And you?”

            “Me? I work.”

            “All day long?”

            The child raised her large eyes, whose tears could not be seen in the darkness, and answered softly, “Yes, monsieur.”

            When they drew near to the Thenardier’s inn, Cosette took the bucket back, for fear of being beaten if she were not carrying it. In the light of the fire of the common room, Valjean looked more closely at Cosette.

            “…Everything about this child, her walk, her attitude, the sound of her voice, the pauses between one word and another, her look, her silences, her slightest gesture, expressed and portrayed a single idea: fear. Fear was spread all over her; she was, so to speak, covered with it…”

            The Thenardier’s little girls came in, chattering and playing. Cosette looked up from time to time, but mostly kept her head down, working on knitting some stockings for the other girls. Without leaving his chair, Valjean, who was a stranger to everyone else, smiled and asked “Madame, why not let her play?” When the innkeeper’s wife stalled, he asked how much the stockings were worth, and offered her five times as much – which she greedily took.

            Then he turned towards Cosette, “Now your work belongs to me. Play, my child.”  The innkeeper’s wife said, “You see, monsieur, I am very willing for the child to play. I am not opposed to it; it is good for once, because you are generous.  But you see, she’s poor. She has to work.”

            Since Cosette did not have a doll herself, she began to play with something that she had fashioned into a doll.  But when the innkeeper’s daughters became distracted by a kitten and the adults were in conversation, she quietly grabbed one of their older d dolls and held it close. When the girls noticed, the innkeepers and their daughters yelled that she had dared touch the doll with her “dirty…awful…beggar’s hands”. And Cosette wept.

            In this moment, Valjean “walked straight to the street door, opened it and went out….The door opened again, and the man reappeared, holding the fabulous doll… which had been the admiration of all the youngsters in the village since morning; he stood it up before Cosette, saying, “here you are; this is for you.”

             Cosette was so stunned that she went and knelt in a corner of the room. The innkeepers and their daughters “were so many statues. Even the drinkers stopped. A solemn silence descended over the whole bar-room.”  In time, Cosette was coaxed to come and take the doll to herself.

            It was an odd moment when Cosette’s rags met and pressed against the ribbons and fresh pink muslin of the doll.  Not long after this, Cosette left hand in hand with Valjean. From that moment, he was her father and she was his child.

 

            Here is the question: in your relationship with God, do you see yourself as a poor slave who must work or a loved child invited to play? 

            Your answer makes all the difference in the life you live. 

            Your answer will tell you whether you’re enduring a religion of a frowning God, or enjoying a relationship with your heavenly Father.

            Your answer will tell you whether or not you have encountered the gospel of Jesus.

 

            You see, our sin – the choice to live life apart from God, pursuing a world where self rules for self’s pleasure- makes us slaves.  Jesus said, “anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (Jn.8:34) We are bound to it and by it.  Once aware of our sin, we sense our distance from God. We feel the lash of guilt on our souls when we blow it yet again and the weight of His disapproving gaze.

            Feeling our poverty of soul, we turn to work. It’s all we know to do. We work to make things better with God, to turn His disappointment, to deflect His anger, to keep Him happy. We do our best for God, pursuing our religious duty by busying ourselves with church or trying to make what we think He would like of our home or work or school. We carry about a leaden bucketful of good intentions, spiritual thoughts, religious impulses and moral actions that we want to dump before Him at the end of every day.

            We work harder, better, and longer, frantically doing more for God, all while hoping maybe He’ll toss a scrap of blessing our way.

            And deep down, we know it’s still not enough. So we live covered in fear. Fear that God remains disappointed, that we will miss it — again, that everybody will figure out we’re a fraud, that the bar of performance will keep rising, that we’ll miss blessing – or even heaven.

            We live with tired souls –worn-out, burnt-over, bedraggled and often seething with anger.

            So, so many people who claim to know God and who are active in evangelical churches live their days like this.  Their entire faith is built on “do more, do better”,  a sick waltz of guilt, fear and weariness.

            It’s slavery.

            But it’s not Christianity.

 

            Jesus comes into the dark night of our religious slave labor, when we are burdened by our sins, overcome by our inability to perform or to carry the expectations we feel one step further.

          “My child, that’s very heavy for you, what you’re carrying there…Give it to me. I’ll carry it for you.”  

            Actually, what He said was, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt.11:28)

 

            Jesus comes to us, and He notices that our religious slave work seems futile and meaningless and joyless and lifeless. He pays an exorbitant price to free us.

                         “Now your work belongs to me…”

            Actually on the cross, and with His blood, Jesus paid more than we ever dreamed our pitiful souls could warrant. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)

            In one instant, Jesus brought more and gave better than all our religious and moral labors could ever produce. “When the goodness and lovingkindness of our God appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4-5)

            Jesus took the work we feel we need to do, because he intended to fully do the work we most desperately need. Among his last words from that cross were these: “It is finished”  (Jn.19:30)

 

            Jesus comes to us, and His heart is that we have His resources for life — now and forever. That fear might be banished, and that His joy and delight might be our life.        

                               ”…Play, my child…”  

            Actually, what Jesus said was, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you…these things I have spoken that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9.11)

            And it is all a gift. “here you are; this is for you”

             Or to put it another way: “God, being rich in mercy, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved—and raised us up together with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages, he might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. ” (Eph.2:5-9)

 

            It is indeed an odd moment when the rags of our orphaned and sinful souls are touched  by the radiant beauty of the Savior’s nail-scarred hands.  But remember, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn.8:36)

                                                            In Christ, you are

            no longer a weary and worthless slave,

                        but a rested and dearly loved child;

            no longer tolerated by a taskmaster,

                        but delighted in by a Redeemer;

            mo longer working for approval from a demanding God,

                        but gladly playing under the grace-full gaze of your heavenly Father.

 

            “Play, my child”

                         This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

            If you are that child…

                        play.

                       

              

                       

 

 

  

(Quotes from Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, translated by L. Fahnestock & N. MacAfee; Signet Classics, New York, 1987; pp. 395-409)

Dead Children, the Deep Sadness & Humanity

newtownNot again.

We gasp when the news comes,

            punched in the gut with the sheer

                        senseless

                        madness of it..

We moan instinctively,

                        horrified

                        terrified.

            But mostly because words simply fail us.

 

What word can we possibly find

                        in any dictionary, of any language

                        for the slaughter of the innocents

                        in an elementary school in Connecticut?

 

Reporters, who traffic in words,

                        stuttered,

                                    wept openly

                                                and fought to steady their voices.

One managed to say “It is an unimaginable horror that is beyond description”.

 

            When police arrived after the shooting occurred, the surviving children were led out of Sandy Hook School.  They were told to keep their eyes closed and hold hands as they were guided out of the school and to the firehouse. They were placed in one room and showed movies.

            Parents were contacted through emergency channels and told to come to the firehouse.  One by one over the course of a few hours, children were brought in to their parents. Welcomed with joyful embraces, tears and kisses, they then headed home with their parents. 

            The crowd of parents drew smaller. Finally, a moment came when the officials came in and said, “There will be no more reunions today.”             

            One person said the wails of anguish at that moment pierced the soul.

            Unimaginable horror.

            Devastating.

            Evil.

                       

            The world gets smaller in moments like this.  

             Our hearts break and ache with the Connecticut parents.

                                    To paraphrase the poet,

                                                ‘No [one] is an island

                                                Entire of itself….

                                                Each [child’s] death diminishes me,

                                                For I am involved in mankind.’

                                     To quote the President,

                                     ‘These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods;

                                                These children are our children.’

           

            In other words, we’re connected to the dead and surviving:

                        not primarily as Americans,

                        but as human beings..

            And it is as human beings that this hurts.

                        Tears flow.

                        Hearts ache.

                        Fears rise.

                        Grief weighs.

                        Anger boils

                        Questions are whispered – or screamed-

                                    at government,

                                                at policies

                                                            at lobbyists

                                                                        ….and at God.

                       

            We want answers.

            We want it fixed.

            We want to grab control.

            We want to press meaning.

            We want to make sure this never happens again.

            And….

                        so far…

                                    ,,,nothing.

 

            In the scramble to understand or repair,

                        we simply must not look away

                                    or

                        lean away from the ache.

            We need to feel this horror in deep, painful ways.

            Why? Because it has happened so often –

                                    Columbine

                                    Paducah

                                    Jonesboro

                                    Wedgwood Baptist in Ft.Worth

                                    Amish schoolhouse

                                    Virginia Tech

                                    Ft. Hood

                                    Phoenix

                                    Oak Creek

                                    Aurora

                                    Clackamas

                                    and now Newtown /Sandy Hook

            that I fear we are in danger of growing numb

                        to the fact that a man walked into a school with a gun            

                                    and murdered 5-year olds and school teachers.

            These are not statistics,

                              nor pawns for policies

                                                but precious, God-created persons

                                                               who died sudden &  brutal deaths.

 

            No, we must to feel this pain deeply, because to the degree that we lose the sense of the value of even one precious life,

                              our society is morally confused,

                                                                 calloused,

                                                                  diminished,

                                                                   lost.

 

            We must feel this pain deeply

                  because it’s part of facing the reality of our common brokenness

            This is not normal.

            This is not the way things are supposed to be..

            Our wordless groaning joins “the whole creation that has been groaning right up to the present time…we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.” (Rom.8:22-23).

            Our groaning is a cry of pain

                                        a longing for change

                                       a prayer of hope.

 

            We must feel this pain deeply

                        so we realize that the ultimate solution is beyond us

                                                                                             our smarts,

                                                                                              our policies,

                                                                                              our controls

                                                                               our increased vigilance

                                                                                and our determination.

            Such evil and violence arise from mangled hearts and twisted minds.

                        We simply can’t get that deep.  

                        Only Jesus can.

                        Jesus, the One whose coming we mark in this season:

                                                Prince of Peace,

                                                Healer of broken hearts,

                                                Liberator of captive minds,

                                                Rescuer of wandering souls,

                                                Lover of the children,

                           and Restorer of this sad, tarnished and broken world.

 

            So, mourn the loss and feel the grief.

            Weep the tears and scream your lament.

            Run to Jesus and stay there.

               It’s the only way to be fully human in the midst of stark inhumanity.              

Changing Miss Jackie

They said she was the meanest lady in Florissant, Missouri. 

            Eighty-something years old and tiny, she lives in a small frame house across the street from City Hall in Florissant,  a community in north St. Louis County.  Miss Jackie moved there 30 years ago. Not long after that, her husband died. They had no children, and no family near. 

            And so began a lonely life.  Maybe because of her fiery Irish temperament, or maybe because of fear, or maybe because it seemed safer for a woman to be aggressive than to be taken advantage of, or maybe because it felt like she was battling the world on her own, Jackie consistently lashed out at people.  She cursed readily, yelled mostly and developed a reputation as someone to avoid if at all possible. Miss Jackie pulled the curtain around her and sank into an unhealthy solitude.

            Over time, her little house deteriorated badly. The yard grew unruly, the paint faded, window frames rotted and storm damage to the roof remained covered with a blue tarp. The lovely city of Florissant (founded almost 200 years ago by French settlers) has very stringent codes for how property is to be maintained.  The problems would have to be fixed. But Miss Jackie is poor, on a fixed income and could not possibly take care of all that needed to be done.  It was very possible that in time,her property would be condemned and she would be homeless.

            Miss Jackie needed somebody to help.

            Enter I Heart North County, a community service organization formed by three churches including Passage Community Church and Pastor Joe Costephens.  In cooperation with the city of Florissant and using government grants, I Heart North County organizes people who will volunteer to do the labor on houses like Miss Jackie’s Those volunteers are Christians, like the Mission St. Louis team from Highland Baptist. 

            We partnered with I Heart North County for Miss Jackie’s good and because the love of Jesus compels us to serve “the least of these” and to spread His love in concrete ways to the real-life needs of people. Because He has loved us so completely, we met needs and shared Christ and His gospel with Miss Jackie.  Scrubbing brushes, scrapers, a power washer and a few gallons of paint helped us express Jesus’ love to her – and gave an opening to share the gospel.

            Another group had come before and cleaned her yard. Miss Jackie hung their picture on her wall.  Ours will join it soon.  She simply could not believe that people would travel from Kentucky to help her—for free.  The students lined up to hug her—and Miss Jackie fought tears. 

            Miss Jackie is a woman overwhelmed by a concrete example of God’s grace to her in Jesus. And if one conversation we shared is any clue, she is near to stepping across to faith in Jesus.  Miss Jackie is not the meanest lady in Florissant anymore.  She is being transformed by the application of the gospel –in word and deed—to her heart. She is being changed by Jesus.

            You know, Miss Jackie doesn’t just live in St. Louis. She lives in Shelbyville, and Louisville and Frankfort, too. Precious souls like her matter to God, and are too important to leave alone in their pain and lostness.  They won’t come to us.

            Jesus’ people must break out of our church buildings and discover ways to love the people in our community with all the fullness of Jesus’ gospel. Through us, He changes the world, one life at a time.

 

Is there a Miss Jackie in your world?

How can you serve her (or him) this week?

A Better Promise Than Paris

            They call it the “Paris Syndrome”.  It is an odd malady that can cause shortness of breath, racing heartbeats and nausea, often requiring a hospital stay. It can progress into emotional disorientation, unpredictable delusions and a lifetime of anti-anxiety medications or psychiatric counseling. 

            These terrifying things all result from simply traveling overseas, and can occur from just one trip. So, is this caused by a virus? A parasite swimming in unfiltered water?  The aftereffects of an improperly cooked piece of shellfish?

            No, Paris Syndrome arises from profound disappointment.

            Researchers have discovered that some people—mostly Japanese tourists — who travel to Paris, France for vacation are so disappointed at what they find that it literally makes them sick and borderline crazy. Apparently, Japanese culture has for years presented a highly romanticized view of all things Paris.  The Paris that captures the Japanese imagination is sparklingly clean and aglow with wonder.  All the people there are smiling, kind, welcoming and in on the conspiracy to help every person discover the love of their life. Couples wile away hours in open-air French cafes sipping wine or coffee, before they slip away to walk along the Seine in the moonlight. 

            These tourists save for years to experience the Paris of their dreams. But the reality they find is drastically different. Paris is an international mega-city, marked by freeways and smog, and bustling millions of residents.  The postcard picture scenes are shadowed by urban sprawl and neighborhoods that never glow.. It is frighteningly expensive and Parisians are, as a rule, aggressively rude to tourists, especially those who do not speak French.   Nobody seems particularly concerned with romance.

            The discord between the tourists’ expectations of Paris and its reality is stark. Thus the disappointment, and the disturbing physical and emotional symptoms.

            We don’t live in Japan, but we are surrounded every day by people looking for their Paris dream.  It may look like romance or a relationship or an accomplishment or a possession or an experience or a job. In their mind, they think, “If I just had ________________, everything would be beautiful, and my heart would be satisfied.” But when they finally acquire it or have it for a while, it’s just not nearly as satisfying as they expected it to be.

            So, what can Jesus’ people like you and me offer people who are often disappointed with life, disoriented and struggling to find their way?  We have the gospel of Jesus. Not just a list of beliefs, but the fullness of the life and promises in Christ.  Jesus cuts to the core of every person’s longings.  He promises “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (Jn. 6:35). He assured that those burdened would “find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29), those beset by Satan’s life-draining wiles would instead have “abundant life” (Jn. 10:10), and all who trust Him would “pass from death to life” (Jn. 5:24)

            It gets even better. The Lord promises,“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9) And  “not one word of all the good promises the Lord has made….has failed.” (Josh 21:45) Jesus is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). He is utterly dependable and has, for millennia, proven faithful to all who have trusted Him.

            In other words, Jesus never disappoints.  When we stand in His grace, we “exult in hope of the glory of God…and hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts.” (Rom. 5:5) The realities of Jesus always match and exceed the expectations or trust we place in Him. 

            Everything in this life will ultimately disappoint us.  Jesus never will.  He is better than Paris and every other enticing promise we’re drawn to believe. Jesus satisfies utterly, deeply, sufficiently and joyfully. 

                Jesus is simply better.  Jesus is always enough.  You need that good news for your journey today—and so does somebody you know. Invite them to join you on the Way with Jesus.