AT THE CROSS

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:7-8 (NLT)]

Mt. Rigi crossWhen driving on I-70 near Effingham, Illinois, you can’t miss seeing the 198-feet tall, 180-ton cross erected near the highway. Once America’s largest cross, its builders call it “a beacon of hope” to the over 50,000 travelers who pass by it each day. In 2018, Effingham’s cross was outdone when a 218-feet high cross was erected in Walnut Shade, Missouri. Near Branson and visible from Highway 65, because of its height, the FAA requires beacons on it. These two crosses, however, are small when compared to the world’s largest cross—the 500-feet tall Holy Cross from the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos) in Spain or the 300-feet high Shrine of Valor in the Philippines.

Crucifixion was an extremely cruel form of execution that forced the condemned to suffer a prolonged agonizing death; it was such a horrible way to die that the Romans rarely used it on their own citizens. The disgrace and shame of crucifixion was used primarily for slaves and the worst kind of criminals and yet God allowed His only Son to endure the unbearable agony and horror of dying that way! Jesus’ torture began even before the cross when He was beaten with a flagrum (a short whip with pieces of bone and metal woven into its thongs), taunted by soldiers, had a crown of thorns driven into his head, beaten again and then dragged to his feet and made to carry the cross to the Golgotha. So battered, bloodied, and broken that He was unable to do so, Simon of Cyrene was called into duty. Once there, our Lord was stripped of his clothes and nailed to the cross. Before long, Jesus would have been unable to support himself with his legs. As his body’s weight was transferred to his arms, his shoulders would have been pulled from their sockets and breathing would have become extremely difficult. Without a doubt, it was a horrific and brutal way to die.

You’d never expect to see an electric chair, guillotine, or gallows erected as a monument and I question why we identify ourselves with something as grotesque as this ancient instrument of torture. Nevertheless, we wear crosses around our necks, place them on our walls, hang them in churches, set them on steeples, etch them into headstones, put them up as roadside memorials, and erect giant crosses that can been seen for miles. How did a symbol of disgrace, defeat, and suffering become a beacon of hope, triumph, and salvation?

I suppose the facetious answer to “Why the cross?” is that it’s too difficult to depict the empty tomb, a symbol which certainly would better represent the resurrected Christ! Yet, when we focus only on the resurrection and empty tomb, it’s easy to forget the suffering that preceded it. The cross of Jesus Christ is as essential to our faith as the empty tomb. Throughout his ministry, Jesus knew exactly what He was doing and the pain He would endure but it never deterred Him from His mission. He willingly suffered for all of us and it was His suffering and death on the cross that frees us from the penalty of sin. The cross represents the pardon for which a condemned criminal awaits, the forgiveness that none of us deserve, and the sacrifice of a perfect man for an imperfect people.

Until the 4th century, Christianity was illegal. Because of its close association with Jesus, Christ’s followers were scared to use the cross as a symbol because it exposed them to contempt, danger, and persecution. Oddly, it was Emperor Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky that led to his conversion to Christianity in 312 AD. After seeing it, he vowed to worship no other god than the one the vision represented and he sought out church leaders to explain its meaning. The bishops explained that Jesus was the Son of God and the cross in Constantine’s vision symbolized Christ’s victory over death. In 313, Christianity was legalized and crucifixion was abolished. After that, rather than being a symbol of unspeakable horror, the cross became a symbol of victory.

I usually wear a small cross; when I place it around my neck, it reminds me that God sacrificed His only son for me and of the enormous price Jesus paid for my salvation. My life was purchased at a great cost to Him and the cross reminds me to whom it is I belong. It’s a daily reminder take up my cross and follow Him.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. [Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)]

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GETTING OUT OF THE PIT

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. … God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:2-4,12 (NLT)]

donkeyThe story is told of a donkey who fell into a deep pit. Unable to get out, the animal brayed loudly until the farmer came to investigate. Seeing no way to get his donkey out of the pit, the farmer decided the only thing he could do was to put the poor animal out of its misery. Since the pit needed to be filled anyway, he got a spade and started to shovel dirt into it. When the donkey felt those first clods of dirt on his back, he lost all hope of rescue and brayed even louder. As he shook the dirt off his back, however, he discovered a growing mound of dirt beneath his feet. Seeing a possible solution, the donkey grew silent as he continued to shake dirt off his back and started tamping it down with his hooves. As the dirt piled up beneath his feet, the donkey got higher and higher in the pit. Paying no attention to the now silent animal, the farmer kept shoveling until he finally stopped for a rest. When he turned around, the man was shocked to see the donkey step out of the pit and trot away. The animal could have chosen to wallow in his misery—simply hung his head and let that dirt cover him up—but he didn’t. Instead, he took steps to change his situation.

Giving up is often our first response when we get buried in our troubles. Deciding the marriage can’t be saved, the situation is hopeless, we’ll never beat the addiction, we’re worthless sinners, we failed, no one understands, or that the pain will never end, we don’t even try to find a fix! That, however, means we’ve ceded control of our lives to something or someone other than God. By giving up, we’ve stopped living God’s will because we’re not letting Him shape and mold us in our circumstances. God’s not done with us until He says so!

When I look back at some of my worst experiences, heaviest trials, and most heartbreaking times, I see my greatest emotional and spiritual development. Growth seems to occur in the valleys (or pits) rather than on the hilltops. Perhaps that’s because we want to maintain the status quo in the good times; when all is going smoothly, we certainly don’t want to rock the boat with any change. Bad times, however, make us as uncomfortable as that trapped animal. Like the donkey, when we are buried in trouble, we have a choice: wallow in misery or make a change.

Instead of letting the dirt bury him, the donkey turned it into a gift. We can see our troubles as penalties or gifts, endings or beginnings, impediments or opportunities. The choice is ours. Life is always going to try to weigh us down; the trick is in deciding to get out of the pit. The donkey did it by shaking off the dirt. As people of hope who know that Jesus can do within us that which we can’t do for ourselves; let us do the same!

We are always on the anvil; by trials God is shaping us for higher things. [Henry Ward Beecher]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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THE RAINBOW’S END

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

rainbowDays bled into weeks, weeks into months, and every day seemed the same for much of the last eighteen months. Life became a series of postponements, rebookings, cancelations, setbacks, inconveniences, letdowns, and disappointments. Visiting Grandma meant waving at her through a window, final farewells were FaceTime calls on a nurse’s cell phone, and we mourned from a distance while attending celebrations of life virtually. Weddings were postponed, family reunions put on hold, shut-downs and travel restrictions kept loved ones apart, theaters and concert halls went dark, vacations were delayed, businesses closed, jobs were lost, and junior year abroad became junior year on Zoom.

Many of us had something specific to which we looked forward in the COVID-free future. It was anticipation of that reward that helped sustain us through the dreary months. When vaccines rolled out and numbers dropped, we began to think the end was in sight and we finally saw the end of the rainbow! Plans resumed for family reunions, the delayed semester abroad, or the cruise of a lifetime. Vacations were scheduled, wedding venues rebooked, businesses set dates for returning to the office, and nursing homes and hospitals again allowed visitors. With the surge in cases and the return of restrictions, however, many of those plans have been pushed back yet again or cancelled altogether. We’re frustrated and disappointed because the future we hoped for isn’t the one we got!

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape strategizes with his nephew Wormwood on methods of capturing a young man’s soul. The senior demon suggests using time as a weapon. Screwtape explains that the “enemy” (God) wants man to focus on only two times: eternity (which means attending to God) or the present in meditation, obedience, service, receiving grace, or giving thanks. Having found tempting someone to live in the past to be of “limited value,” Screwtape advises a far better approach is to tempt the man to attend to the future. God, he says, “does not want men to give the future their hearts, to place their treasure in it,” but the demons definitely do! He adds that, “We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end.” Rather than being faithful, kind, happy, or thankful in the present, the demons want people to miss the gifts of the present day while looking for them in the future. “Gratitude,” says Screwtape, “looks to the past and love to the present,” but, the demon adds, it is things like fear, desire, greed, materialism, and ambition that look to the future.

As Christians, we can’t let our disappointment in the future we’d anticipated dominate our life or cause us to lose hope. Keeping our eyes on the real hope found in eternity with God, let’s not allow our disappointment in tomorrow steal today’s joy. As followers of Jesus, we live with a hope that isn’t dependent on pandemics, positivity rates, restrictions, weather, or finances because we know how the story ends. Yes, we’re disappointed now but, ultimately, we won’t be disappointed by what God has waiting for us.

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.  [Mother Teresa]

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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DRY BONES

Taos NMThen he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” [Ezekiel 37:4-6 (NLT)]

The Jewish people were in despair. Jerusalem was in ruins and the Temple destroyed. Exiled to Babylon, they were without a king, homeland, or hope. God’s promise of Israel’s restoration is depicted in Ezekiel 37 when the prophet is transported in a vision to a valley filled with desiccated bones. The Lord instructs Ezekiel to speak a prophecy over the dry bones that the Lord will bring them back to life. As the prophet begins to speak God’s words, the bones start rattling and coming together as skeletons. The prophet watches as muscles, tendons, and skin cover the bones until they became fully formed bodies. Although the bodies look alive, they are no more than unbreathing corpses until the Lord instructs Ezekiel to tell the four winds to breathe life into the lifeless beings. As the prophet speaks God’s words, he witnesses the once dead bodies come alive, stand erect, and become a great army. The initial meaning is pretty obvious: the bones coming back together illustrate Israel’s restoration and the wind or breath entering the dead bodies illustrate spiritual renewal or rebirth.

Be that as it may, as a Sunday schooler who didn’t understand the story behind Ezekiel’s somewhat eerie vision, picturing those dry bones rattling and rising up gave me the creeps. Perhaps it was because of the children’s song Dem Dry Bones. Even though we sang it in Sunday school, the song was associated more with Halloween (and its ghosts and goblins) than Biblical prophecy. Sometimes, a second verse was added in which Ezekiel, after connecting those bones, disconnected them—not a pleasant visual for any child! Perhaps I’d simply seen too many Saturday matinees with zombies, mummies, or other creatures of the night. Not understanding the context behind Ezekiel’s prophecy, the whole vision seemed as macabre as does the Body Worlds exhibit that features real skinless corpses preserved in plastic.

Yesterday’s devotion mentioned how I enjoy listening to worship music on my frequent trips to and from my doctor’s appointments. When I first heard Elevation Worship’s Rattle, with its words, “And the bones began to rattle, rattle, rattle, rattle…This is the sound of dry bones rattling,” I initially thought of Ezekiel’s vision. The thought of hearing dry bones rattling immediately brought up the old ghoulish images from childhood. But, as I listened to the rest of their words, those bones weren’t the dry ones in Ezekiel’s vision. As they sang, “Saturday was silent, Surely it was through. … Friday’s disappointment is Sunday’s empty tomb,” I understood they were singing about Jesus rising from the grave and the renewal of life for those who are restored by His power.

Today, I returned to Ezekiel 37 and saw his vision as more than a simple prophecy of the people’s return from their exile in Babylon, the reconstitution of the modern state of Israel, and/or the end times and the second coming of Christ. I saw it as a beautiful story of hope and rebirth. Although the prophecy was for Israel, I see Ezekiel’s vision as an illustration of what God can do for and with us right now—the life-giving power of His word to put back together the pieces of our broken lives and the power of the Spirit’s breath to bring us back to spiritual life! No longer will I cringe at the thought of dry bones rattling and rising. They tell me that no one ever is beyond restoration—no one is ever so spiritually dead that he or she can’t come alive again. The rattle of dry bones will remind me that, without the resurrection power of Jesus and the breath of the Spirit, we are little more than dry bones in a valley.

No difficulties in your case can baffle him, no dwarfing of your growth in years that are past, no apparent dryness of your inward springs of life, no crookedness or deformity in any of your past development, can in the least mar the perfect work that he will accomplish, if you will only put yourselves absolutely into his hands and let him have his own way with you. [ Hannah Whitall Smith]

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26 (NLT)]

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IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)]

Writing about pesky mosquitoes yesterday reminded me of a story told by Corrie ten Boom in her book The Hiding Place. As part of the Dutch resistance during World War II, Corrie’s family harbored Jews and others hunted by the Gestapo in their home. After being betrayed by a Dutch informant, the ten Boom family was arrested and imprisoned. Corrie and her sister Betsie ended up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. That first night, as they shared a bed in the crowded barracks, Corrie discovered their bedding was infested with fleas. Betsie reminded her sister of the Scripture passage they’d read that morning from 1 Thessalonians: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” As they began praying, Betsie listed the things for which they could give thanks, such as their remaining together and having smuggled a Bible into the barracks. But, when she mentioned the fleas, Corrie’s response was, “There’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.” Betsie explained that the verse said all circumstances and not just the pleasant ones, so Corrie reluctantly joined her in a prayer of thanksgiving that even included the fleas.

With their hidden Bible, the ten Boom sisters offered strength, comfort, and clandestine Bible studies in their barracks. Such gatherings were strictly forbidden and the women feared their meetings and secret Bible would be discovered. For some unknown reason, however, the German guards never entered the women’s sleeping room or searched their belongings and Corrie often wondered why. She later discovered that the guards kept their distance because they were terrified of getting fleas from the prisoners’ mattresses or clothing! Upon learning this, Corrie truly was thankful for the fleas in their beds!

As difficult as it is to thank God for the nuisances of life like mosquitoes and fleas, it is even harder to be thankful in the midst of the injury, pain, discomfort, loss, and trials that comes with our fallen world. From our viewpoint, we see our challenges as afflictions that must be borne. Perhaps we should consider looking at them through God’s eyes and seeing them simply as well-disguised blessings given out of love. Unlike Corrie, while we’re on this side of the grass, we may never discover the blessing in the fleas and other afflictions but, someday, we will meet the Lord face to face and finally understand.

Happiness isn’t something that depends on our surroundings. It’s something we make inside ourselves. [Corrie ten Boom]

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV)]

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PRESENCE OR PRESENTS?

“I’m telling you the solemn truth,” he said. “You aren’t looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate as much bread as you could. You shouldn’t be working for perishable food, but for food that will last to the life of God’s coming age – the food which the son of man will give you, the person whom God the father has stamped with the seal of his approval.” [John 6:26-27 (NTE)]

white peacock butterfly

As a result of Jesus miraculously providing food for a multitude with a boy’s lunch, the people wanted to make Him king. Rather than Caesar, they desired a ruler who would provide them with food and security. Realizing this, Jesus slipped away from the crowd. He and the disciples crossed over to the lake to Capernaum but the crowds followed Him there. Selfishly, they were looking to Jesus as if He were some sort of miracle-working vending machine—just pop in a material need and out would come a healing, feast, or wine enough for a week! Since they were seeking perishable bread rather than the enduring bread of everlasting life, Jesus confronted the crowd about their motivation. Like them, do we ever find ourselves seeking God’s hand rather than His face?

Most of the invitations we receive are for celebrations of retirement, landmark birthdays, or special anniversaries. They usually include something like, “Your presence would be the best present you could give us,” or “Your presence is present enough.” I wonder, are we are as willing to invite God into our lives with the same kind of wording? Or, like small children who greedily tear into all of their birthday gifts, are His presents more important than His presence?

Sometimes, when looking at my prayer list, I wonder if, like those people who followed Jesus looking for gifts, I might be more interested in Jesus satisfying my earthly wants rather than His filling my spiritual needs. Rather than abiding in meditative prayer, delighting in His presence, and getting to know Him, I often rush through a laundry list of requests. Rather than praying that He align my prayers with His will, I want Him to match His will with my desires. I often seem more interested in what He can give me than how I can best serve Him. I seem to forget that, when I invited Jesus to my party, it wasn’t for His presents; it was for Him!

In spite of those words requesting no presents on party invitations, there usually is a table laden with a variety of gifts and cards because people naturally want to give presents to the ones they love. God, like our friends, will also bring presents along with His presence when we invite Him into our lives. Because He loves us, He will lavish us with both His presence and the best presents possible: peace, love, forgiveness, guidance, faith, joy, wisdom, hope, and salvation.

God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. [2 Peter 1:3 (NTE)]

Don’t worry about anything. Rather, in every area of life let God know what you want, as you pray and make requests, and give thanks as well. And God’s peace, which is greater than we can ever understand, will keep guard over your hearts and minds in King Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NTE)]

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