As I am reading through the gospels with my children during this Lenten season, I am struck once more by how often we read about Jesus making time to get away and talk with God.
Mark records Jesus getting up in the morning, while it was still dark, to find a solitary place where he prayed. Matthew records Jesus dismissing his disciples and heading up to a mountainside where he could be alone with God. Luke writes how Jesus spent the entire night praying, calling out to God.
Luke records Jesus crying out to God in prayer on the eve of his crucifixion. And when Jesus did that, Luke writes that an angel from heaven “appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22: 43). While Jesus was crying out to God in the garden, his disciples were nearby. Although he’d asked them to pray, they were sleeping.
As I closed the book for the night, tucked in my boys and headed off to my own bed, I began to wonder… how often, at the end of the day, I choose sleep over prayer. I sleep as a way to escape the problems of the day rather than cry out to God, as a way to gain strength to face those same problems.
In the Garden, on the night Jesus was betrayed, we see God once again offering something Jesus desperately needs. As a response to Jesus’ prayer, as a loving response to Jesus’ cry for help, God, gives Jesus strength.
Oftentimes, when faced with what seems like an impossible task, I find myself doing one of two things—either running around frantic, trying to control the outcome, or shutting down—sleeping—in order to avoid it.
But Jesus’ approach is different. On that particular night, He must have been physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and spiritually stretched. He knew what was coming. The task must have seemed impossible. But instead of running around or sleeping off the stress, He goes directly to His Father. He cries out to God. And God, in his mercy, gives him strength.
Many years before that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, David, God’s anointed King, spent a lot of time crying out to God. When he found himself in an impossible situation, this man of God, this man after God’s own heart, held nothing back as he expressed his distress to God. Psalm 13 is particularly telling of his need to cry out to God. Read the contrast from David’s first few lines to his last few lines.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?…
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
David cries out to God. He lets fly his frustration. But by the end of the Psalm, David changes his tune. His attitude is reworked. Somehow, as the words pour out, God pours strength in. By the end of the Psalm, David writes, BUT I TRUST YOU.
The night Jesus prayed in the garden, I can only imagine how much he might have wanted to just close his eyes and sleep, hoping that when he woke, it would all be over. Sometimes the problems of this world bring us to that point too, where we wish we could just make it all go away.
But God has a different way. He shows us that when we cry out to him, he responds. He responds with exactly what we need to accomplish what he has set for us to do. In his mercy, God gives us what we need. All He asks, is that we cry out to him.
Then Christ, with the understanding of someone who’s gone through a time of weakness, turns around and offers the same strength to us.
Dear Lord, we thank you for this time before Easter—time to reflect on the story of your great sacrifice for us, of the pain you must have felt leading up to the crucifixion, and of the humanity of Christ, for it is through his humanity that we see how to come to you, how to cry out to you, and how to pray. Thank you for always responding to our prayers with exactly what you know we need. Help us to remember that your grace is sufficient for us and that through our weakness, your strength shines through. In gratefulness, we give you praise. Amen.
One of my practices during Lent is to read through a book called “The King Nobody Wanted,” an old book of my mother’s that she saved from her childhood—a book that she read to my brothers and me each Lenten season when we were growing up. It tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion and resurrection. While deeply rooted in Scripture, it reads more like a novel, and is responsible for much of my understanding of who Jesus is, what he did here on earth, and why he had to die so that I might be able to live.
While I certainly didn’t understand it at the time, I believe my Mom was reading this story each year as a way to help us prepare our hearts and minds for Easter. And now that I’m the Mom, I do the same. As life swirls around so quickly, readying our hearts and minds is both gratifying and necessary.
Jesus walked with his disciples for years, teaching and training them to understand the impact of His work on earth. And when the time came for Him to say goodbye, He took the opportunity to gather with them one last time, in the upper room, to celebrate the Passover feast and to remind them once again, how deeply He cared for them.
The Passover feast was celebrated each year at the same time. It was an especially holy event for the Jewish people in that it observed the time when God spared them from the plague of physical death and brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Jesus took the opportunity to celebrate the symbols associated with Passover and infused them with fresh meaning as a way to remember the sacrifice He was about to make, a sacrifice that would save us from death and slavery as well—a spiritual death and a spiritual slavery. While his disciples may not have known it at the time, Jesus was preparing their hearts too.
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22: 17-20)
Jesus would offer his body so that we could be passed over by the wages of sin that plague our daily lives and instead, be restored to a right relationship with God the Father. He poured out his blood so that we could be spared from the iniquity that causes not only a spiritual death, but leaves us separated from God. He offered himself up for each of us as a once-and-for-all, everlasting and Holy sacrifice, so that we could have an eternal connection with the One who is sovereign, who is mercy, who is always with us.
The days preceding Easter are a wonderful time to prepare our hearts. Your tradition may call for observing Lent, attending services, or giving something up to recognize the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. Perhaps you read through the gospels or watch a Passion drama. Regardless of what you choose, recognize that Jesus took time to prepare the hearts of his followers for what was to come. He knew how painful it would be for those who loved him to see him suffer and die on a cross. But He also knew to let them know that this would not be the end, but only the beginning of a fuller life lived in relationship with him.
And as He prepared to leave those he loved, Jesus reminded them that because of His sacrifice, this life is not all there is. And until that time when they would see Him face to face, He would always be with them, just as He is always with us.
And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
Father, thank you for what you did on the cross for us. Help us to prepare our hearts and minds the same way that you prepared the hearts and minds of your disciples, so that we can understand the true depth of your love for us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
My son came home from school one day and grabbed the dust pan and broom. I had wondered if this boy who rarely jumps into chores without my prompting had suddenly become responsible and independent during the course of the school day. As I was getting ready to sit down and congratulate myself for training him right, I heard him say, “Got it!” With that declaration, he grabbed a Ziploc bag from his pocket and carefully poured in the dust bunnies he had collected from under our couch.
By the expression on my face, he could see that I was quite confused. “It’s for science,” he said. “We are studying what kind of stuff makes up dust. We’re dissecting it!”
I didn’t know if I should be proud or offended that he knew just where to find these suspicious little dust-globs. I thought that I’d been successful at keeping those little buggers hidden. When it was time to host a party or even just a friend or two, I would take great pains to go through the house collecting and eliminating these pesky little reminders that people actually live in my home. I much prefer creating the impression that my family so squeaky clean and happy that even the dust bunnies don’t gather here.
But my son knew better. He knew just where to find the shady characters. And now, he was going to dissect the very dirt that can expose me for what I am… a hider, a fake, a person who needed help. By literally sweeping the dust under the rug, my house appeared clean and free from people who might want to dissect it.
Dust is not something we want on display. It’s not something we proudly hold up as a prize to be earned. Rather, dust is unwanted, something to hide. Dust is, well… dirty.
Sometimes I clean up my life the same way I clean up my house. I polish, sweep, and scrub away anything that might give the impression that I am somehow less than. I sweep some things under the rug like failures, mistakes, and shame. My “dust” could be the argument I had with my brother, the anger that sometimes takes over, or the regret that still plagues me from my childhood. Polish up. Sweep away. Buff and shine. Yes, I clean up quite well.
But on Ash Wednesday, we enter into that sanctuary buffed and shined only to kneel before the altar and receive the sign of the cross with the dust of the earth. We allow ourselves, our whole selves, to be seen. We put it all out there. We walk back down that aisle exposed for who we really are. And we see the dust on others too.
In that dusty cross placed on our foreheads, we are reminded where we came from. We are reminded that we were once just dust, but in the hands of our creator, we became something beautiful. We became sons and daughters. And even in our dirty, broken state, we are still deeply loved. And because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, we are clean.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in
Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)
Dust is a public testimony to who we really are—broken people in need of a Savior. The dust removes the façade that Christians are somehow cleaner or brighter or better than others. Rather, the ash on our foreheads reminds us that from dust we first came and to dust we will return. There is a richness in that dirt… a transparency to our condition. The dust levels the playing field and points instead to Christ.
So this Lenten season, consider gathering those dust bunnies in a Ziploc bag, not to dissect but to acknowledge that even dust can be beautiful when touched by the hand of God who loves us.
*Lent begins this Wednesday, February 14th
Our culture applauds what we can produce, what we can show, and what we can upload to social media. But God notices us even when we are tucked away in hidden places. I loved talking with author Sara Hagerty about how sometimes being hidden is a good thing and that God still enjoys us, even if we’re living what the world might consider an unproductive life.
Click HERE for a podcast of my radio conversation with Sara Hagerty.
Some time ago, I attended track-and-field day for my young son, Sam. As a volunteer at the long jump station, I filled out a name tag and took my post. For some reason, I simply wrote “Sam’s Mom.” Child after child would pass through and they would immediately know that I belonged with that snappy little 3rd grade boy named Sam. We had a connection. Even after the event was through, children would run up to me and say, “Sam’s Mom—look at all the ribbons I won!” or “Sam’s Mom—can you watch me run?”
Knowing who I belonged to somehow made the kids feel like they knew me. We were buds. My name was not important in that particular context. But my relation to their friend was significant. Furthermore, as Sam’s Mom, I saw myself not as a teacher or writer or radio host, but as someone who was there to serve the 3rd graders during their special day.
It reminds me of the gospel writer, John.
In his gospel account, he writes about the unmatched and unparalleled love of God. John has often been described as the beloved disciple. This title is not given as a status symbol—Jesus did not play favorites. Jesus himself does not use this title for John or any other disciple. But rather, the beloved disciple was how John described himself in the gospel that bears his name.
On several occasions, John refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Listen in as he describes himself in the following verses…
One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him (Jesus). John 13:23
Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom Jesus loved standing nearby, and he said to her, “Woman, here is your son.” John 19:26a
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around and jumped into the water. John 21:20
Perhaps this was John’s way of exhibiting remarkable humility. Or, maybe his experience of being loved by Jesus was more precious to him than even his own name. John is said to have had a greater understanding of God’s loving nature because he experienced God’s love in a distinct way. He knew and experienced this love of God in a way that trumped everything else that he thought about himself. He was no longer just John. He was no longer just a fisherman, a sinner, a disciple-in-training or a flawed human being. His identity no longer came from what he did or didn’t do, but came from the One who knew all of these things about him, and yet loved him fully anyway. John’s based on his identity in relation to Christ. He simply saw himself as the one whom Jesus loved.
Imagine how our life might look different if we started from this assumption. I am the one whom Jesus loves. And as such, our worthiness would already be established. Our status would already be decided. We might pray differently or act differently toward our neighbors. We might love others with the same love he bestows on us.
He knows me.
He sees me.
And He still loves me.
I am the one whom Jesus loves.
When we think of ourselves this way, we begin to read Scripture differently. It is no longer for those people of that time. Each verse is written with us in mind. Imagine this paraphrase of John 3:16:
For God so loved [Jo] that He gave His only son, that since [Jo] believes in Him, [Jo] shall not perish but [Jo] shall have eternal life.
The Bible is personal. It’s God’s love letter to us. We are the ones whom Jesus loves.
How about putting that on your next nametag?
My heart was beating wildly as I watched my son stand at the edge of a small cliff off the coast of southern Greece. The beautiful turquoise waters beckoned him to jump, but his feet said “no.” While I had watched seven older cousins make the leap, I wondered if giving permission to my youngest to jump off a cliff might have not been my best parenting decision.
Fear was gripping his little mind. There was the fear of physical harm if the jump didn’t go well, and the fear of humiliation if he decided to crawl back down the cliff. After all, his brother and cousins had already made the leap.
I tried to yell up words of encouragement when I remembered years ago, trying to get him to jump off the diving board at our local pool. If I remained on the side of the pool, he would jump off the board sideways, narrowly missing the edge of the pool. But when I swam out beyond the diving board, then he would jump out safely and swim right to me.
I immediately left the side of the cliff where I was safely watching from afar and swam out to where he would ideally land. I said, “Just jump out to me and swim my way, just like we used to do at the pool. Don’t look down, just look at me. I’ll be right here.”
What happened next was a combination of sheer terror and sheer delight (mine and his) as I watched my son leap from the edge of the cliff and into the water in front of me. Within seconds, he emerged from the brilliant blue, wide eyed and smiling. He swam right to me and screamed, “I did it!” He may have doubted the water, but he trusted me at my word, that I’d be there when he came up.
In his gospel, Matthew tells a story about the disciple Peter, who also towed the line between fear and trust.
Amidst the wonderful smells of turkeys basting, gravy simmering, and pies baking, I smelled something foul this past weekend. I caught a whiff of it on the way to Grandma’s house, passing homes basking in the glow of twinkling lights and plastic nativity scenes. I stole a sniff of it when I noticed the peppermint creamer served alongside the caramel macchiato and pumpkin spice varieties. I couldn’t ignore the disgusting odor settling into our conversation around the Thanksgiving table as well-meaning aunts and uncles asked my kiddos what they were hoping might show up under the tree next month. The scent is not easy to ignore. It’s the sneaky stench of Christmas panic.
This panic likes to boil up like a pressure cooker. It starts sometime in November and increases in strengths and potency as we move into December. I don’t really know if this sense of panic is only reserved for mothers. I can’t imagine this impending dread is gender specific. I just know that it’s real, that it’s palpable, and that it is already threatening to overtake that sweet, lingering aroma of Thanksgiving thankfulness—a time that we are supposed to give only gratitude. No gifts. Just thanks.
I have decided that this year, I’m going to be intentional about keep the air around me fresh from the stench. I made a choice to at least preserve the month of November as stench-free. This is not easy as my stack of Christmas cards sit unlabeled on the dining room table. The smell is difficult to ignore as I open up the paper stuffed with shopping ads and coupons. The aroma of greediness and busyness threaten to overpower my sweet smell of peace. But I am trying. This year, I am trying to ignore the sneaky stench of Christmas.
In talking through the Easter story this week with my young son, he asked an interesting question.
“Why didn’t people like Jesus? He helped people. He made their diseases go away. He even raised that little girl from the dead. Why would people want to kill him?”
He asks a compelling question. What could this man have possibly done to cause the people who celebrated Him and revered Him as Messiah, to do an about face—to turn on him and cheer for his death?
I always figured that if God had a job to do and needed someone to act on his behalf here on earth that he’d choose someone who was perfectly qualified to get the job done.
I try, have tried, and am trying to be that person whom God might want to entrust with one of his jobs. Frankly, it’s exhausting. Toiling away at striving, perfecting, and keeping up appearances that I am, indeed, worthy of the task is a never-ending job. Worse yet, I continually fall short of making myself the perfect candidate. Every. Single. Time.
That’s why I love the story of Rahab. She’s far from the model citizen. But she believes who God is and what He can do. She wants in. And when faith collides with willingness, we get to see God’s power at work.