Marked

I thought it was morbidly weird- ashen crosses on foreheads. My thought process was something like: Must we? That is what makes the world think the Christian religion is a bit freaky; so many outwards signs, symbols and rituals. And this… it’s just so sad looking.

We all wear scars, marks if you will. Some are visible, some invisible.

Maybe it’s a scar from a surgery or the marks from birthing children. Perhaps our mark is an intentional one like a tattoo with meaning behind it. Or the scar could have a darker purpose, like an attempted suicide or cutting.

Whatever the case, these are reminders, either for good or bad.

Likewise, the ashen cross marks us, reminds us, prepares us. The symbol of the cross reminds us that we are in need of saving and Someone has already done that. It reminds us that we are still carrying that mark invisibly in our souls everyday because we belong to Another. It prepares us for one of the greatest events in human history- the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The 40 days of going without serve a somber purpose, but with the happiest of all endings- the reason we rejoice in our present salvation and have a future hope.

The cross is the beginning, but the empty grave is the end!

As we embark on the journey of Lent, it is with purpose and deliberation; a time of reflection and ardent pursuit of the greatest love ever given.

I am a soul forever marked.

Undaunted

 

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I was dizzy. Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me back from the edge.

“Becky,” they called, “You cannot jump. Who knows what dangers are down there at the bottom? It isn’t safe.”

So I heeded their voices. I strove to fit inside their tidy boundaries for me. Don’t do this. Do this. And for the love of all that is sane and reasonable, do not take risks. People pleasing had always been an art of mine and so I crafted a careful life, safe from all the unknowns. I was afraid of heights anyways.

Somewhere in my late twenties, married, with 2 kids (and one on the way), I began to seek a precipice. For all the years of obedience had left me wondering: “Could there be more than this flat land existence? Is there a place where I can be me, not always bowing to the confines of someone else?” I longed for it, for freedom from the suffocating rules pressing against me. There had to be a way that I could step off of the ledge and not die.

The longing grew stronger, yet inside me there were always voices, warning me, cajoling me not to want it. In the next decade, I started to see the beauty of grace, the treasure of the cross, my salvation full and free, without regard to any rule following on my part. Those things chaffed against the neat list of expectations I had made for myself: the submissive wife, the godly mother, the dutiful daughter. Conversely, I knew the façade of safety was just that. All the flat land existence was eating me up inside. Gloomy clouds of depression suffocated me.

For the first time ever, I slowly taught myself to stop heeding the voices telling me to not seek the cliff. I began shedding those like layers of skin, each one more painful than before. The better I understood the simple message of the gospel, to believe and be free, to live for Jesus because He died for me, to embrace HIS expectations for my life knowing they come without strings attached, the closer I inched to the edge.

When the clouds of gloom were lifted, I saw that my feet were closer than ever to the rim of the canyon and I looked down into the vastness, its beauty captivating. I stopped reading the “how to” books. I stopped making my husband my god, instead putting purposeful and deliberate distance so that I could be me and he could be himself, all the while loving him deeper than ever.

There was one final rock I was about to stumble on; a rock of momentous proportions on which I would not just stumble, but fall entirely: parenting an adult child who chose a path of life I never could have imagined. Only then did I realize that the very thing I hated, all the man made parameters that had constantly kept ME away from the edge, I had built those very things around my kids to a lesser degree. Deconstructing them took time but as I did, the view became clearer and the canyon beckoned me to come.

Unshackled, I ambled to the edge. There was no fear. I was finally ready, confident,  my arms outstretched and breath bated out of sheer thrill of what was to come. I felt dizzy, light, unencumbered and yet, I felt wrapped in a security I could never contrive myself. This was the arms of my Savior that held me, close to His heart, warmly, gently, and safely. I was enveloped in His love and this assured me of a landing without harm.

I could feel the breeze blowing up from below and I began to totter. Before I could acquiesce to any shred of doubt, my feet left the edge. Air that I had never breathed before filled my lungs and I was in a freefall, sure this was not the last time I would fly.

The Day Between

My heart wrenches with a sadness so heavy, it is difficult to breathe. Yesterday, I had to witness the death of my firstborn Son at the hands of evil men; something a mother should never have to endure. His was no ordinary death. This was murder- execution by crucifixion.

Thirty-three years ago, my divine journey began. Engaged to be married to a wonderful man, I looked forward to my future with delighted anticipation. Then just before it unfolded according to plan, my life was transformed forever. An angel appeared to me. He called me, “you who are highly favored” and told me that I, an insignificant Jewish girl, had found favor with God. His words still ring in my ears, especially today as grief overtakes me. I was to bear a Son, while still a virgin, and He would be the Messiah- the One the Jews had waited for so many, many years. As strange and impossible as it sounded, my faith was made stronger to accept this God-sent message with humble honor.

Normally, this is the day of the week I look forward to most- the Sabbath- our day of worshipful rest, a solace from the work and toil of other days. Today is different though. Physically, I am resting but inside my heart and soul, I am in a state of great unrest. The events that took place yesterday replay over and over again in my mind. My tear stained, dusty cheeks remain unwashed. My hands still emanate the fragrance of the burial spices I’d prepared. What seemed to be an incredulous event so many years ago- the birth of my firstborn- had ended in the most violent, cruel death. I could never have imagined this intense grief would be mine to bear.

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As I stood at a distance with the other women, I could scarcely look up at the cross. My son hung there so seemingly helpless. He, who had always obeyed, always helped, always loved, was exposed, naked. Bloody, beaten and mocked He was. I can still hear them shouting jeers at Him: “So you call yourself the King of the Jews! He can save others, but He can’t save Himself! Come down off the cross if you are who you say you are!”

Jesus had told us this day was coming. In my heart, I knew He was right. I understood from the Old Testament teachings that just as a Messiah would come, He would also suffer and die. But this Messiah was also my Son and nothing prepared me for this motherly pain. My heart felt near the point of breaking. I wept in anguish.

John and I stood together, his arm draped around my waist for support. Jesus looked down on us with compassion. In His own suffering, He saw mine. “Dear woman,” He said, “here is your son.” Then he said likewise to John, giving him the responsibility to care for me as his own mother.

Dying a very human death, writhing in agony for each breath drawn, he was thirsty. Even this request was fulfilled with hatred and mockery. Instead of a refreshing drink of water, sour vinegar was offered to Him and he received the gall. When His body could stand no more, “It is finished,” were His final words.

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So, I wait grieved. Rest eludes my soul today. Although I feel a sense of anticipation, I cannot go to the place they have laid His body. Tomorrow, I will awaken before the first rays of sunlight and see if what He said will come to pass. I believe, yet my heart is weak, for I am not like my Son. I am a just a mother who has tasted the bitterness of her child’s death.

This Sabbath day will be forever in my memory as I reflect on the life Jesus lived; first as a baby at my breast and finally as a Man rejected, condemned to the death any common criminal might die. My hope is not quelled by my sadness though, for I hang onto the words He spoke about His resurrection on the third day. My heart wants so badly to believe that I will see my Son alive again! Had Jesus ever given me reason to doubt His words?

As evening draws to a close, John and I eat supper together along with a few others. The silence is deafening. Our grief hangs heavy in the air. Yet, each of us hold fast to eager expectation. Tomorrow will bring fulfillment to those prophetic words spoken ages ago. He will rise again and in doing so, complete the work of redemption, not only for my people but for the whole world. My Son, Jesus, and my Savior will do what He said.

Not-So-Manic Monday #1

Today I started a book whose subject matter I’ve been preaching to myself for over two decades. Yet, every once in awhile I need a refresher course- a reminder to embrace a principle that was imperative and central, but seems to have gotten lost or set aside in the shuffle of life.

The book is called, “One Way Love” with the subtitle of, ‘Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World’. Try as I might, I often find myself on the performance treadmill, striving with all my might to get it right, get it done, “be all things to all men (women and children)”, or at the very least earn favor with someone (namely God). Then I am acutely aware of how stupid, self-deprecating, exhausting, and pointless this is.

If you are at all like me, I hope this quote will renew your mind to carry on in God’s lavish GRACE: 

“Grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives. And from our vantage point, it always gives to the wrong person. We see this over and over again in the Gospels: Jesus is always giving to the wrong people- prostitutes, tax collectors, half-breeds. The most extravagant sinners of Jesus’s day receive his most compassionate welcome. Grace is divine vulgarity that stands caution on its head. It refuses to play it safe and lay it up. Grace is recklessly generous, uncomfortably promiscuous.”

~ Tullian  Tchividijan

Help for the Journey

We recently heard a message about what it means to know and follow Jesus by daily cross-bearing. Then this past week, our challenge was to take a hard look at things, people or pastimes, that we bow down to instead of God.

Double whammy! Makes me squirm in my seat just thinking about it… Nothing like a healthy dose of “wake up and rearrange your thinking”.

I have, for many months been thinking, rethinking, and analyzing many things- (parenting tops my list right now), but particularly how I LIVE OUT my faith in light of life’s circumstances. Now, I just cannot get this image out of my mind:

Daily I have to die to self, take up whatever cross God gives me and follow the Master, Jesus.

A cinch? NO. Not for me. Not for anyone. Oh sure, we will follow Jesus if He takes us along a pleasant, air-conditioned, dust free, path. And at moments, life can feel that way; all the planets align and our world resembles the chocolate river scene from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”: deliciously easy, delightful to the eyes and overwhelming the senses with pleasantries.

But follow Him AND cross bear? At the same time? Even when the path I have to tread is full of jagged rocks, all uphill, the weather is humid and every ounce of my strength is gone? Could this really be what God wants from us? Yes and yes.

We can do it because Jesus did it before us and that after He had been beaten with a razor sharp whip, spat upon, goaded, slapped, mocked, ridiculed.

But here is the beautiful part. Ready?

Jesus, in His human state of physical, emotional and mental weakness, had help. The 30-40 pound wooden beam proved to be more than He could bear. A man named Simon came and finished carrying it to the place of crucifixion. Even Jesus did not bear His own cross without help.

We don’t have to either. There is a plethora of assistance right near us. In fact, it is also right INSIDE of us. Yes. The power of the living God, creator and upholder of the universe and every person, dwells IN US: the Holy Spirit! Then there is the word of God at our fingertips: the Bible. Not only that, we have the ability to commune with Him on a personal, gut wrenching, heart rending level through prayer.

He will never shrink away from us, disgusted by our stench. He will never blow us off, preoccupied with bigger, better things. He will never balk against us asking for help, thinking our weakling state beneath Him.

And here is the more beautiful part: we may here bear a cross, but one day it will be replaced by a crown!

The Great Dichotomy

I’ve been plagued this week. Burdened. Weighed down- with this thought:

Why do we, who already have the victor’s crown sitting atop our heads get defeated, bogged down and live as if we are losing the race???

This is the great {seeming} dichotomy of the Christian life- something our previous pastor liked to refer to as “the already and the not yet”.

We already have victory over sin in Christ because at the cross, He paid the FULL AND COMPLETE redemption of our souls. He did not cry out from the cross, “I am done here.” He cried out, “It is finished.” This meant it was done, consummate, having fully satisfied God’s demands, wholly assuaging His wrath against sin.

In Christ, we have that same fullness and encompassing finished work given to us. We are wearing the victor’s wreath though instead of the crown of thorns. Ours is the sweet rest and relief of a triumph- and here’s the amazing part- that WE DID NOT HAVE TO EARN OR WORK FOR.  Imagine getting to the end of a 26.2 miler without a drop of sweat, twinge of sore muscles, or one ounce of fatigue. Impossible with man. Not just possible but our REALITY with Christ’s cross work! How amazing is that?

Yet, the “not yet” of our humanity is that we grovel in the dust of defeat, wallowing around in the entanglement of sin or trying circumstances. For many sweet Christians I know (and myself included), we have spent many seasons of time on the ground, in the dirt with the paralysis of a side stitch or Charlie horse. Perhaps it is depression, debilitating physical pain, anxiety attacks, prodigal children, a rocky marriage, or financial despair. It could even be an outright denial of God’s truths that we once had clung to unswervingly.

We find ourselves temporarily unable to go on, press forward or run through the discomfort. We have allowed Satan to convince us that we have already lost this race. Suddenly, we look around and see the other runners passing us, our goal time or hopes vanish. We succumb to the subjugation of sin and self- unable or not willing to remember the victory.

But remember it WE MUST! For when those seasons of life fall upon us (and they will in some form or another), this is our only HOPE, our SOLACE, our POWER to carry on.

In the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian on his journey of faith carried a burden. It was a heavy load- pressing hard against his back, making walking almost impossible, causing strain and toil that felt to him unbearable. When he came to the cross and looked upon it, he considered the magnitude of what had been done there. In that beautiful yet agonizing moment, his burden came off and rolled into a nearby cave. He never saw nor felt it again.

So you see, my dear readers, this is really no dichotomy at all. We ARE victors in Christ. It is finished. Let’s start reveling in it! Savor the prize! Delight in the Savior! Rest in VICTORY!

Come Grovel With Me

I’ve had a bit of a “week” shall we say. So while this may sound like a bit of a rant… well frankly, it is.

 People disappoint me. I disappoint myself.

 I fail. Others fail me.

Sometimes, I want to blurt out the F word- but I don’t.

For awhile now, I get the idea that Christians expect other Christians to just suck it up, pray to Jesus and move on. While I don’t advocate sitting around whining, pining, griping, grumbling, complaining, ranting, etc., I do believe in being real- honest with those around us- transparent, and most of all leveling with God. If we were, I think there would be a lot less guilt-based issues within the realm of Christianity.

What if, next Sunday at church when someone says: “Hi. How are you?” to me, I tell them just how my week has REALLY gone (in a churchy nutshell kind of fashion). What if I gave them a little glimpse into the major disappointments I had to deal with over my teen’s decisions or tell them how I’ve been struggling with discontentment. They would likely look at me aghast. Many people are afraid to hear the rawness of emotion or the blatancy of honest struggles. Instead they probably want to get this answer: “Fine”.

Thankfully, God isn’t afraid of us being raw with Him. In fact, HE IS THE FIRST ONE WE SHOULD RUN TO WITH OUR EMOTIONS/BURDENS ANYWAYS. He is not afraid of my anger. He will not back down when I question Him. He is not crushed (like I am with my kids) when I rebel against His word. He is never miffed when I have a season in which my heart wanes and grows rather affection-less.

Ever read the Psalms? David again and again expresses frustration from seeming lack of help.  He laments over an emotional and spiritual chasm. He even shakes a proverbial fist at feeling disregarded or abandoned by God. He feels forgotten about, afflicted, crushed.

Even so, he always brings it back to praising the worth of God.  He recollects all the very wonderful things that God has done- all the miracles large and small. He remembers the never ending kindness, love, forgiveness, compassion, grace, mercy. David never riles against the LORD and then just leaves it there.

Neither should we. When the hard moments or season of moments overwhelm us we must restore our soul with recounting the goodness of the Savior, basking in the loveliness of His forgiveness, the mercy of His grace and His sometimes strange providential workings. He wants us to adore Him. He wants our faithful affection. He wants repentance.

If only we could approach each other with the same honesty and candidness within the church. Why must we hide behind a guise of: “It’s all hunky dory all the time at MY spirit filled house?”

I believe: it’s ok to grovel from time to time and what better encouragement than to be able to sit there on the ground with someone who shares your faith, someone who loves you, despite the dust on your clothes. A friend that will extend the hands of compassion and grace, just like Christ does, is worth a hundred who “just can’t relate” or doesn’t want to get too messy.

Trading Chains

When you hear the word “slave” what images or words do you conjure up?

For me they are: subservient, servant, labor, shackles, mistreatment, beatings, harsh, plantations, black, negro spirituals, master, cruelty, dehumanization.

I often try to imagine what it must have been like for the slaves whose emancipation finally became a reality. How surreal. They could walk away, no longer be forced to work in the sun, back bent, answering to a man called “master”.  But as free men and women they inherited a new set of worries- integrating back into society with the label “freed slave”.  They were marked so to speak, probably for life.

For much of my early Christian life, this is how I lived out my faith- like a freed slave. In my mind, I knew that grace saved me and that I was free in Christ, but in practice I was bound by legalism, rules, expectations. Being like a dumb sheep, I gave in to listening to the confines of men. This appealed to me. I followed what they taught almost without question, mastered by what could easily be called pseudo-biblical principles, relying heavily on the interpretation of men rather than God Himself.

No wonder I became such a rebel. I hated all the stipulations because what I craved was true freedom. Instead, I had simply traded one set of chains for another.

But over a period of years and a thorough embracing of the gospel of Jesus, the freedom came. The rules stopped being my god. God became my Master and I embraced Him willingly (although sometimes with suspicious resistance as I wondered if I could fully trust Him). This was not forced labor, under the service of a harsh, cruel taskmaster. This servitude was one that I entered into by my own free will, through the grace of God. Now my burden was easy and the load to bear was light.

What irony- to go from being a slave to sin, to the bondage of legalism, to a willing servant of Christ! I think of it as liberating servitude- not oppression or lack of freedom- but a loyal heart free to follow after the best, kindest Master ever.  He knows my needs and cares for them tenderly. He loves me in an unrelenting fashion. He forgives me when I have strayed or rebelled. He lavishes me with abundance, meeting all my needs and more.

Now the labor I exert and the rules I live by are simply a beautiful expression of thanksgiving to my gracious Master, who died for me. I am pleased to serve Him, happy to submit to Him, striving hard to keep my former evil master at bay; mindful also of never going back to the bondage of legalism because now I am a servant without chains.

Here it is in the words of the book of Romans, chapter 6 (The Message):

15-18 So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. Offer yourselves to sin, for instance, and it’s your last free act. But offer yourselves to the ways of God and the freedom never quits. All your lives you’ve let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!

19 I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?

20-21 As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.

22-23 But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.

Have Your Cliche and Eat It Too

So here’s the deal, christian clichés really bug me.

In the last week, two (well meaning) people have admonished me to “be Jesus” to someone else. Excuse moi, that just sounds wrong to my ears. Yes, I get the concept. I know we are told to be imitators of Christ (key word: imitators), but me? BEING GOD INCARNATE? I don’t think so. I am never able to measure up and be a sinless human because sin inhabits every little crevice and nook and cranny of my mind and heart- continuously. The Bible tells me so. Ask my husband and kids.

Another one, and forgive me ’cause I know this is so last decade, but the whole WWJD? thing bugged big time. Again, I get the concept behind the acronym. (What Would Jesus Do? in case you were living in a cave or something.) To ask that question is a good thought provoking consideration- not a bad place to start. But were we to be able to honestly answer what the Savior of the world would do given a situation, would be to fully grasp the thoughts and motivations of a sinless Man. The first Adam wrought into the fibers of our nature and being deep down depravity. The second Adam, Jesus, calls us to put off that nature and take up His righteousness, which we can only do by His graceful help. I am afraid that WWJD? sets us up for moralistic failure because if we use that as a literal behavioral barometer, we would still fall miserably short of the mark.

So, here’s what I like to do instead of subsist on “sounds good in theory” clichés-

Revel in the gospel every day! Think about Jesus’s cross work FOR ME. Ponder how MUCH I’ve been forgiven. Refresh myself in the grace of God that is poured out like living water to a weary soul. Consider the magnitude of my expunged verdict– His death for mine. Remember the victory I have already won against my sin! Talk about this awesome undeserved gift to those around me. Look forward to my final destiny- heaven.

A Better Brother

Brother/sister relationships are all over the board. Some are endearing and tender. Others are strained at best or even non-existant. Most often a healthy brother/sister relationship will look something like a protector/defender and a nurturer/maternal figure.

I have an older brother and let’s just say {nicely} that he is the black sheep of my family. Our relationship would fall into the “non-existant” category. I will leave it at that.

But I have another brother. He is not of this world. No, I am not talking about an alien. I am talking about Jesus, my spiritual brother.

Hebrews, one of my favorite books of the Bible, is rich with imagery, full of Old Testament imagery fulfilled in the Person and work of Christ. The latter part of Hebrews is chock full of encouraging admonitions for the Christian.

This week as I was reading through Hebrews, I was struck by this awe-inspiring beautiful truth: Jesus is my brother. Here it is in the words of the writer himself:

Hebrews 2:11-18 “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.”

  Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I am so encouraged that my Brother, Jesus, understands my humanity- my weaknesses, my propensities- and most of all my needs. Also, because of His cross work, I no longer fear death or am in bondage to it. My Brother is a good, merciful one. He is my Savior, Protector, Mediator. I am loved perfectly by Him.

Is He your brother too?