Lent

Feet and Ashes

John 13:5-9
After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

I didn’t grow up observing Lent, or Ash Wednesday, or any of the traditional liturgical calendar really. But our church home of the past six years does observe these “holidays.” And each year, I’ve attended the self-guided contemplative service that is offered on Ash Wednesday. But I have always bypassed the actual ashes. On the surface, that is because it feels to me like one of those rote rituals that loses its meaning in repetition.

But as I’ve reflected on it more this past week or so, I’ve realized there is more to my abstention than that. First, there’s a bit of my own rebellious spirit. I tend to buck the system, oppose authority, and dig my heels in at every chance. I like to think of myself as a rebel for God’s cause, but sometimes it’s just me being contentious. And Proverbs 13:10 warns that contention is born of pride, and as we all know, pride goes before destruction.

Pride also opposes humility, and I’ve come to realize that this too is lacking in me as I decline to receive the ashes. At a safe distance, I can hide my flaws. Someone may not notice if my bangs are full of cowlicks, or if my forehead is greasy, or if my breath smells. But up close, that’s another story. Every part of me that’s out of place or imperfect is magnified and on display. But to hold back and keep my distance on account of these imperfections exposes a pride deep down, doesn’t it?

I can think of someone else who was likewise prideful: Peter. Now, don’t get me wrong—feet are definitely gross. And you wouldn’t catch me giving or receiving a pedicure…yuck. But as Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He was setting an example of humility and servanthood, and one the disciples needed to see if they were to humbly serve others. But for Peter, it wasn’t enough to learn to serve others. He first needed to humble himself to receive his Lord’s service.

Even after Peter gave in and allowed Jesus to wash his feet, I expect he was uncomfortable. Humility doesn’t come easily. And I can tell you that tonight, as I approach the altar to receive the ashes, I will be uncomfortable. My heart will be pounding, my palms will be sweaty, I may even start hyperventilating. But I will choose to receive, as a discipline of humility.

Maybe you’ve thought about attending an Ash Wednesday service this year, but have resisted. Maybe you’re hesitating because you feel too unworthy, or too worthy, or too busy, or too hurt. Whatever your reasons for holding back, would you consider letting those go, humbling yourself before the Lord, and joining me in approaching the altar on this Ash Wednesday?

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Wicked Cool Scars

Romans 5:8

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

I always tell people that our son Tijge is curious, adventurous, and fearless—and therefore dangerous. So we were sure that he would be the first one to visit the urgent care office for an injury. But alas, it was his little firecracker of a sister who first graced them with her presence. And thus, the hashtag #WickedCoolScars was born. Because, let’s face it—scars are cool. The only thing that would make her scar cooler is if she had an awesome story to go with it. That is, some story other than the “Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” plot line that actually transpired on the evening in question. After all, who wants a permanent reminder of that time when you didn’t listen to your mom, or your dad, or your brother, or the fictional doctor who kept telling Momma, “NO MORE monkeys jumping on the bed!”?

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Tomorrow, we’ll remember the infliction of several scars that Christ endured on our behalf. Unlike one Laredo Jade, His scars came through no fault of his own. Instead, he bore my sin, shame, and punishment—and yours. But you know what I believe? If someone were to ask Jesus about those scars on His wrists and His side, He would reflect not on the pain or ridicule He experienced, not on the sense of abandonment that He felt, but instead on the reward He obtained for His sacrifice.

I believe that He thinks about you and me, and everyone else whose eternity was altered through His suffering, and I think He breathes a sigh of peace and relief. Every cut, bruise, and hateful remark—all of it—was worth it. You were worth it. I was worth it. And I have no doubt that He would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Praise the Lord, though, He will never have to, for it is finished. And that gives us cause for joy, gratitude, relief, comfort, peace, and purpose.

Now, if you ask me, those are some wicked cool scars.

Strength to Submit

Last year around this time, I became convinced that our son, Tijge, had lymphoma. Okay, not entirely convinced, but well aware of that possibility. You have to understand—I’m the kind of person who has not only contingency plans, but contingency plans for contingency plans, almost contingency flowcharts. My mind operates kind of like a “choose your own adventure” plot map. I know it sounds like a tedious exercise to some, but for me, it’s a way to prepare myself to always accept and submit to God’s will, whatever that may entail.
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But somehow, this felt different. Even though I could see countless good things—Kingdom things—coming from any outcome, it seemed wrong for me to accept those outcomes on behalf of a 3-year old boy who couldn’t begin to understand the why behindany of it. I thought about the Bible and about the many examples that Scripture gives of people who were given strength to submit to God’s will. For example, in Genesis22:9, we’re told that Abraham “bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” Most of us picture a young boy in this story, but scholars estimate that Isaac was at least a teenager, and possibly as old as 25. Surely, he was capable of overtaking his aging father, if he had chosen to do so. But he chose to submit instead (thankfully, God intervened just in time to prevent his sacrifice).

And then in Luke 22:41-43, we read that, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus “knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done’” and that “an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” Of course, in this case, Jesus knew the reason for his suffering, but still pleaded that there might be any other way to redeem the world. As we know, there was not, and He obeyed.

I could recount example after example from Scripture of believers given supernatural strength to submit to God’s will, even when it seems like too much to ask and too much to bear (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace; Daniel in the lions’ den,; and David and Goliath, to name a few). But one thing struck me about all of these examples—consent. These individuals all made a cognitive decision to submit to God. So what about when we’re asked to, in essence, choose submission on someone else’s behalf? Where is our precedent for that?

Well, having pondered it for weeks leading up to Tijge’s diagnosis, I came up with the answer. WE are the precedent. We are God’s children, and He sometimes chooses hardship for us in the interest of the greater good. Sometimes the only thing in our control is our response to our circumstances. And just as in the Garden, where an angel appeared to strengthen Jesus, God will grant us strength to submit to his will.

Ultimately, I chose to believe that a God who could help me to see past pain and suffering to His greater glory could surely also strengthen a little boy to do the same. In this case, it didn’t come to that. But the deeper faith that came through this time of wrestling will surely strengthen me when God’s plans for me call for submission.

The Hearts of ALL Men

Luke 23:42-43
“And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom!’
And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.’”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 is one of my favorite verses because it declares that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. It gives me comfort to know that my own longing for heaven and for home is a God-given desire, and one that need never be stifled for the sake of fitting in or smoothing over. But, as we spend this season reflecting on the significance of Easter and of Christ’s suffering on our behalf, I’m more moved to focus not on the fact that God has set eternity in my heart personally, but on the fact that He has set that same sense of the eternal within the hearts of ALL men—all humankind.

Luke 23:42-43 illustrates this perfectly. It’s the account of the thief on the cross who confesses to Jesus and places his trust in Him. A hardened criminal, if you will, and his last thoughts were of heaven. I can’t imagine he’d spent much of his life considering his eternal condition. And yet, at the one moment that counted most, that was the only thing on his mind. You know what I love even more? That Jesus honored this man’s dying request. God didn’t set eternity in our hearts to be stingy with it, or to snatch it away. He longs that each of us would accept His gift of eternal life. 2 Peter 3:9 (NASB) assures us, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

I have to confess that sometimes I do feel like God has been slow to keep His promise to me. Like Moses, I long to see His Glory face to face, pleading, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.” But, if I shift my focus off of myself and on to all men, I’m led to pray instead for His continued patience and dedication to widespread repentance: “Give them one more day, Father, and forgive them—for they know not what they do.”

Like Jesus Does

“All the crazy in my dreams,
Both my broken wings,
Every single piece of everything I am,
Yeah, she knows the man I ain’t,
She forgives me when I can’t,
The Devil, man, no, he don’t stand a chance,
‘Cause she loves me like Jesus does.”
(Eric Church)

There’s a country song that came out awhile back and has been popular ever since, called, “Like Jesus Does.”  I remember a time last summer when I was playing this song, and I took the kids out onto the deck at their grandma and grandpa’s house. They took turns dancing with me and would throw their heads back and laugh, full of joy. At that moment, feeling showered with undeserved blessings, the words of the song and the deeper meaning of the lyrics hit me in a way they hadn’t before.

This is how Jesus loves me. He knows my every dream and my every failure. He knows every sorrow and every sin. And even though the Devil would love to use every bit of my past (and my continued struggles) against me, he doesn’t stand a chance, because Jesus loves me like He does.

No doubt, you’ve heard the saying that “there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any more than He does. And there’s nothing you can do to make Him love you any less.” And truer words have hardly been spoken. God is love. He is grace. He is mercy. He is forgiveness.

What could we possibly do to deserve this? Nothing. All we can do is love Him in return, and love others “like Jesus does.”

And what better time to reflect on these simple truths and powerful convictions than in the weeks leading up to Easter, when God—through His son Jesus—declared this unfailing love for us, once and for all.

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Seasons of Lent

Lenten Blossoms
The word Lent actually means springtime—a time when all things are being reborn and made new. And yet, you’ve probably observed how many believers have traditionally equated this season with sacrifice, and sometimes even pious asceticism. If you know me well (or at all), you know that I don’t share this view. Of course, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). But the idea that those times and seasons must follow a liturgical calendar seems to put God in a box—and one that is frankly MUCH too small.

In all seasons, I try to embrace the freedom that I have in Christ, but God-ordained circumstances have at times interfered with that goal. Two seasons in particular come to mind. The first came when our son was about two months old. We discovered that he had a severe sensitivity to both dairy and soy products and learned that for me to continue feeding him, I had to eliminate both from my diet. Finding foods that met those requirements was extremely difficult. However, for me, making the commitment to do so was not difficult at all. And so, for the better part of a year—well, let’s just say I ate really healthfully.

That season of sacrifice ended just in time for another round of morning sickness to begin. And during pregnancy, you expect to spend a period of time eating nothing but SpaghettiOs and breakfast cereal, so I was okay with that. But when our daughter was born, she also suffered from digestive issues. This time, though, the identification process was less straightforward. There were long nights, eating experiments, and specialist visits, but no answers. At one point, we decided that her difficulties must be related to some allergy, the question was which one. So I spent about a month on an elimination diet—think “Whole 30” on steroids. I eliminated not just dairy and soy, but also eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, shellfish, caffeine, and artificial colors and flavors. By now you’re asking, “What’s left?” And the answer is, “Not much.”

But you know what? God used those two seasons powerfully in my life. He showed me the depth of love that an imperfect parent can have for a child, and the depth of sacrifice that such a parent would willingly (and joyfully) endure for that beloved child. And that gave me a new lens to peer through as I read Matthew 7:11:

“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him!”

How much more, indeed.

During these seasons of sacrifice, something inside of me was reborn and made new—something I wouldn’t trade for the world. So I guess, technically, you could call them seasons of Lent. And whether yours comes now or at some unexpected moment in the future, I pray that you will embrace all of the good gifts that your Heavenly Father longs to give you during that time.

Weddings and Wine

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John 2:1-11 recounts the events at the wedding in Cana, where Jesus performed His first of many miracles—turning the water into wine. What I have always loved about this story is the near insignificance of this miracle. If you think about it, in the grand scheme of things, running out of wine at a wedding is not all that “important.” But I imagine that it was of great importance to the bride and groom. And how special and significant they must have felt to be on the receiving end of Jesus’s first miracle.

I don’t think it’s any accident that God chose John to share this account. He was, after all, the “disciple that Jesus loved.” And while the Gospel of John is most known for highlighting Jesus’s deity, I also see a distinct focus on how relational Christ was and still is. We can approach Him with our concerns, no matter how big or small they may be. Our prayer requests may seem silly or petty to us, but they aren’t to God. He keeps track of every hair on our heads, every thought on our minds, and every desire in our hearts.

Therefore, let us boldly approach the throne. He hears, He cares, and He answers. Praise God.

A New Look at Lent

“What are you giving up for Lent?” This seems to be a common greeting among believers during this season. It’s assumed that we will be observing a sustained period of sacrifice, in observance and remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made so long ago on our behalf. But on the cross, as Jesus breathed His last, He declared with all of heaven’s authority, “It is finished!” As I rest in the completed work of Christ on the cross, a season of sacrifice seems out of place. Instead, this should be a season of joy and gratitude (“celebrated as a festival to the Lord” (Exodus 12:14)), and one in which we embrace our roles as co-heirs with Christ in the kingdom of heaven.

In this spirit, it occurs to me that God may not necessarily be calling all of us to “give something up” for Lent. What if, instead, He’s calling us into a deeper fellowship with Him? What might that look like? A few ideas come to mind:

  • You could commit to beginning each day with a time of praise and worship—thanking God for His love and faithfulness.
  • You could make a point of interceding on behalf of someone whose need resonates strongly with you.
  • You could learn something about some of the foreign lands that may not have the freedom to worship as we do. Then you can pray for the specific struggles, challenges, and needs of the people living in those far-away places.
  • You could begin to mend a broken or strained relationship in your life, through either seeking or offering forgiveness.
  • You could send notes of encouragement to the people that God has divinely placed in your life and in your path.

In short, rather than giving something up, why not try something new? In so doing, you will surely allow God to begin a new work in and through you.