no more drippy sentimentality

God, God . . . my God!
Why did you dump me
miles from nowhere?
Doubled up with pain, I call to God
all the day long. No answer. Nothing.
I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.

Psalm 22:1-2; MSG

On a human level I like the Bible because it’s real, not flinching from life as it is, not providing some way of escape or denial. But facing it, and being honest and truthful about it.

So much of pop culture, even Christian popular culture, and specifically the evangelical tradition of it which I lived in many years is full of sentimentality. By sentimental, what I mean is feeling good, close, warm, and that everything is alright or will work out. Maybe we can add the power of positive thinking into the mix.

We do need faith in the midst of all the trouble and trauma of life. And that’s exactly what we see, even in the opening lines of Psalm 22 as rendered by Eugene Peterson. The psalmist echoed by Jesus on the cross did not hide their pain or true thoughts. And actually, when you think about it, this was a part of their faith.

We need to read the entire psalm to see that there is indeed a good ending. That God lifts up the one in pain, those in pain as well, all who look to him, all who put their hope in God indeed right in the midst of their pain and trouble.

Honesty before God first, and before others where appropriate is important. We do no one any favors by sugarcoating what is bitter. Scripture doesn’t do that. Jesus didn’t. We who are his followers should not, either. We’re in this together in Jesus, but in real life, not just the good, presentable part, but all of it. In and through Jesus.

Thoughts inspired by Tim Gombis’s helpful podcast: Faith Improvised: Sovereignty, Suffering, Sports, Etc.

preparing for martyrdom

“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:

These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Revelation 2:8-11

1 Peter 4 and 5 is also a good passage when considering this subject. We live in especially evil times in the United States. If you disagree politically, or especially with a political figure, you can be considered an enemy, an enemy of the state. Death threats and fear tactics are common now. And Christians are complicit in this. It’s an evil day.

As Peter tells us, we’re to arm ourselves with Christ’s attitude, which seems to be acceptance and even embrace of sufferings as taking away our desire for the unhelpful and even sinful dainties of life. Instead we determine by God’s grace to go the way of the cross, the way of following Christ to the end, the way of suffering.

I actually thought of this yesterday when considering this post. So instead of complaining about the nature of what I have to do, which frankly can be more than difficult, I decided to consider it training for martyrdom.

None of us wants to go there. But I also wonder just how many Christians nowadays would be able to. I ask myself that, too. Does our teaching and practice prepare us for that? Perhaps a good question as to how well we’re prepared for it is how well we’re responding to the difficulties at hand. Maybe we need to learn to embrace them, not in our own strength, but in the grace and strength of God, resolutely facing such in prayer, with the goal of finding God’s help to not only get us through, but make us a testimony and light.

This is easier said than done, and words by themselves are cheap. We need corresponding actions. And this involves a process. We’ll have to work through fears. But God is present to help us. As we seek to follow in the way of Jesus. Seeking to be faithful to God’s call on our lives. Leaving what is not of that behind. In and through Jesus.

addendum to preparation for martyrdom: a hopefully balancing word I added.

in the way of Christ is healing

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:21-25

Someone recently told me that only as our wounds are exposed, brought out into the open, can they be healed. I’m referring to inner wounds. I think there’s truth in that. After all, we can’t deal with what hurts us by ignoring it, or just holding it in. Sooner or later that will come out in ways that often are not helpful for others, even for ourselves.

Yes, we need to get everything out in the open before God. See the Psalms for example after example of that. And found in other places throughout Scripture, as well.

Peter’s words by the Holy Spirit actually point us in another direction for our healing. We’re told that we’re to follow Christ’s example in accepting suffering. This was actually written directly to Christian slaves (hit above link). Slavery then was different than what we think of now, in our American context. Yet still certainly an institution brought on by sin, destined not to last, certainly at least not in God’s economy, and God has the last word.

We’re told to do this and then told that we’re healed by Christ’s wounds. Not sure precisely what this means, except that it has to do with our sin problem and the impact that makes on our lives, and on the lives of others.

It is amazing, the impact of sin on us. We’re better off to persevere past whatever sin or fallout from past sin is plaguing us. And we surely do that in part by following what we’re being told here. We have to trust that God is healing us because of Jesus’s suffering, as we walk in the way of that suffering. In and through Jesus.

 

Jesus: our example of faithful endurance

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

This Holy Week we think of Jesus having set his face like a flint to go to Jerusalem knowing full well what was awaiting him there, just as he had told his disciples three times, doing so either for the joy set before him, or instead of. The Greek word, ἀντὶ (transliterated, anti) can mean “instead of,” or “for.” Either way Jesus endured, scorning the shame of the cross. That was the worst form of Roman execution, reserved for non citizens. And whoever was hung on a tree was said to be under God’s curse in Jewish Scripture, yes indeed, in God’s word.

Instead of the joy set before him might mean something like the idea that Jesus was ready to undergo the Father’s will, even when it went against his own will, evident from his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. I probably prefer the other way it can be translated, for the joy set before him, with the idea of doing something in exchange for something else (see BAGD Greek Lexicon). There surely is mystery in Christ’s sufferings for us. But the intent of this passage is to strengthen us in our suffering. So that we can endure because we know the good that awaits us at the end of what’s set before us. Or persevere against our own wishes. Following the pioneer and perfecter of faith, Jesus. In and through him.

truth is stranger than fiction

For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

Psalm 22

Experiencing what we’re going through right now in the United States and the world does bring to my mind the accounts in Scripture, and especially in the Revelation (symbolic though much of it is), and helps me see just how the world can be shut down, and how vulnerable the world economy, the economy of all the nations actually is. Covid-19 is not something to be blinked at; it is indeed dangerous. But one can at least imagine worse viruses, and scientists have been warning us that these things will happen, so that we need to try to be better prepared for them.

Psalm 22 speaks of great suffering, but then a great ending. Bible students will easily recognize scenes from Christ’s suffering here. But then the vision goes to God’s blessing. It seems to make little sense.

But when we factor in the reality that the gospel is about life coming from death, specifically new life, that of the new creation in Christ, then we can start putting two and two together. And somehow Christ’s sufferings, though once for all accomplishing salvation and the beginning of this new life, go on in us, those who are “in Christ” in this existence.

Going over this psalm recently, I was struck how it seems to me that truth is often stranger than fiction. The truth we find in Scripture may often seem strange to us, and of course I call it truth because I’ve accepted it as such by faith. And by faith have come into the “blessed assurance” that it brings. But we will find that it rings true and exposes all that is a fraud, all that’s false. But to see that requires faith and time.

Thanks be to God (I would say, thank God, and mean it, but too often that comes across to me as too much like, “Oh God”) for what he accomplished and will accomplish in and through Jesus.

our suffering for Christ, part of God’s good work?

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”[a]

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

1 Peter 4:12-19

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews 5:7-10

I was noting I think for the first time the strange (to me) connection Peter makes between Christian suffering and God’s judgment. Seems like there’s a connection there. And we could possibly tie that to Christ’s own suffering as mentioned in the book of Hebrews, how he actually somehow “learned obedience” in such. Once made perfect might refer to his accomplishment of our salvation by his death.

We need to stare the hard sayings of Scripture directly in the face and remain there. This is not at all diminishing God’s love, not in the least. It is pointing to what we actually need as those who are being restored into what God meant for us in the first place, now through the new creation in Jesus.

On the other hand, the passage from 1 Peter quoted above might simply mean that the judgment from God is to separate those who suffer for doing ill from those who suffer for doing good and because of their witness for Christ. That well could be the meaning.

I find it interesting to see some possible link between what God is doing and what God did with Jesus, if we understand either very well. Either way, we can be sure that God is at work in our lives to help us be ready for whatever persecution we may have to endure. In and through Jesus.

 

suffering for righteousness

…it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”[a]

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,”[b] but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:19-25

I think we can gather from this passage that our suffering in this world for righteousness can be redemptive. Christ’s suffering as stated here, certainly was. Ours can be only as a witness to Christ’s suffering for the redemption of the world. But it must be suffering in the way of Christ, as Christ suffered.

Too often our suffering is something we brought on ourselves through some fault of our own. Instead we need to hold firm and seek to live in the way of Christ, and be ready to suffer. This book, 1 Peter talks about this quite a bit. Evidently the ones to whom Peter was writing were suffering quite a lot, likely at the hands of their own people. So Peter as a pastor was seeking to encourage and strengthen them.

This passage ends on a note we should end on here. It’s not about us and our suffering, as important in its place as that is. It’s about what Christ has suffered for us, certainly as an example, but also for our sins and for the good of our souls, our lives in this life and the next. So we suffer like Christ did from that salvation if we have the honor. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’s crucifixion and death

On this Good Friday we remember our Lord’s crucifixion and death. We bow at the mystery while accepting the truth from Scripture that by his death he broke the power of death. That he died for us in our place taking on himself our just condemnation. That the worst evil we heap on God and others he then received to bring us into God’s best for us: participation in God’s life and love. That God was reconciling the world to himself in the death of his Son, that all might receive forgiveness of sins and new life in Jesus.

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the Jews.

They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Mark 15:21-41

 

weeping willows and violins

I’m fond of violins, maybe not so much fond of weeping willow trees, though they have their own unique beauty. I’m not sure why there’s either an ambivalence or even abhorrence toward sorrow. It seems as if you can’t be a Christian and be down at any time.

Violins are one of the most beautiful of in fact many wonderful instruments. Jews and Russians are especially known for violin playing. It seems that those from backgrounds or ethnicities that have experienced profound suffering are especially proficient at the violin.

I can’t understand why Christians shouldn’t enter into the suffering of the world. I’m not at all saying that our traditions say we shouldn’t; it’s just that too often our Christianity is more attuned to the sound of celebration rather than lament. But scripture includes both. Certainly praise of God, but sorrow as well. Certainly over our own sin, and over the brokenness we experience. But also over the plight of others. In fact we ought to be present when others suffer, so that somehow we can empathize and enter into their suffering, and be a support for them. And in seeking to be a “faithful presence,” Christ can be present.

God’s grace helps us to be always rejoicing, even when sorrowful. But it also helps us to grieve over the loss of others, over the problems, indeed crises of the world. It is certainly true that we can only bear so much. That we have to cast our cares on God. But it’s not like we are then removed from the sorrow around us, or our own.

We look forward to the day when there will be no more sorrow, suffering and pain, when God wipes away every tear from our eyes. But now by grace we want to remain in the pain of the world, sharing in its suffering, knowing that through Christ’s suffering even now great help can come. To love others and find God’s comfort in our own sorrows, that in turn we might comfort others in their sorrow in and through Jesus.

following the suffering Messiah

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

We have to take the full Jesus as given to us in scripture, or else we risk having no Jesus at all. The Jesus given to us in scripture is no less than the suffering Messiah. What the Messiah was expected to do was triumph unscathed, definitely not suffer, as Peter makes clear. I think not only Peter’s concept of Messiah was threatened, but that probably Peter himself felt threatened, likely enveloped in fear.

God had given Peter the revelation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. But then Jesus pointedly tells what the lot of the Messiah, his lot, is to be. One of rejection, suffering, and death, before rising from the dead. Jesus kept his Messiahship under wraps because people expected a conquering Messiah in the way of the world, likely with the sword. But instead it would be the way of the cross. Something unfathomable to everyone, no less to Jesus’s followers.

Peter took Jesus aside, and rebuked him, but then Jesus roundly rebuked Peter. And used the occasion to teach that their lives must be marked by what is to mark his life if they are indeed to be his followers, his disciples. And that it’s either or. You can’t have the world and Christ. You either lose your life for Christ and the gospel only to find your true life, or you end up gaining the world, but losing your life.

The issue is a question of identity. What defines us? What informs and out of that, forms our lives? For the Christian, it’s to be Christ. And not just any Christ or maybe something of the world’s, or even our own imagination. But the one revealed in scripture. And revealed to us by the Spirit. Peter knew by God’s revelation that Jesus was the Messiah. He had yet to understand the mission of the Messiah, how the Son of Man, a term for the Messiah, would fulfill scripture.

To follow Christ is to follow the way of the cross, as Paul says, to become like him in his death (Philippians 3:10). Something we’re to aspire to as Christians, given to us in and through Jesus.