Sweating Blood

Being in Holy Week has made me think more on Jesus moments in the garden during prayer. I could not even begin to work through the theological debates surrounding Jesus prayer in the garden, and that is not my goal in this post. In these moments we see a beautiful moment in Jesus where he is legitimately facing the weight of the burden he is beginning to carry.

The pressure is enormous. This is a powerful moment. This has been the moment on my mind this past week. It has not stuck out to me for its theological conundrums of Jesus asking for the cup to pass him. It is not even primarily from the fact that he willingly chooses to follow God’s will. It is the humanity to it all the has captivated me.

In this moment I am struck with the reality of it being ok to recognize that hardship exists. Scripture says Jesus was sweating great drops of blood. This is what the world would call weakness. Some would even say fearful. Can Jesus even be afraid? Is that really a thing? Those questions have been running through my head. What really is fear though? We treat it in a negative context because it is often something that controls our actions and behavior. This is an obvious problem, but should that deny us the right to acknowledge when things are difficult?

I have felt surrounded at times over the past few weeks to be encouraged to ignore how difficult things are. Don’t pay attention to the burning building because God is watching out for you. Here is the thing, it is true God is watching out for me. I have no reason to believe He will abandon me. However, it doesn’t change that I might be in a point in life where things are just difficult, maybe even unfair.

Jesus in the garden reminds us that it is ok to recognize when hardship is entering your life. Jesus felt the pain of what he was going to experience. He knew it would be unimaginable to anyone else. Yet he persevered. Anyone can walk into a burning building that they are forced to believe is not coming down. It is the one who runs into the inferno as the roof is collapsing that is showing true grit. Maybe you are reading this through a time of difficulty. Perhaps the world is telling you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and move along. Maybe the ones saying that are even the people causing you difficulty. I would suggest a different piece of advice. Go into the garden and be transparent. Sweat drops of blood. Call out this period of life for what it is. Name it as a hardship. Once you do that you can look up and give it over to God. I think that is what Jesus has been teaching me through this moment in His life throughout this week. I can only give something up to God when I willingly acknowledge how painful it really is.

Remember the Goodness of the Lord

When God interacts with Moses he says that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Moses questions whether Israel will believe, He has sent him, God tells Moses to tell them “I AM has sent you.” What follows is a story that echoes for generations within Israel about remembering who God is and what He has done in the context of their present circumstances.

With each new circumstances Israel seems to suddenly forget God’s goodness. They get caught at the red sea, and suddenly forget all his miracles in Egypt. They get hungry in the desert while forgetting His constant provision. They freak out when Moses is gone for a little while, and decide to give a golden calf they made with their own hands credit for their salvation. The list goes on, and with each new big event God regularly call a timeout to say, “Hey, this thing I am doing. Pay attention. Build a monument about it. Pile up some rocks. Tell your children and children’s children what I did here. Remember me.”

That’s always easier said than done. We just struggle with it. Sometimes we can’t even bring ourselves to sing those songs of praise on a Sunday morning when doubt and uncertainty creep into our minds.  Why is it so difficult to remember the goodness of the Lord? Time and time again we are placed in a difficult or disappointing situation, and forget all the other times just like it where God came through. Sometimes we didn’t even recognize his faithfulness at the time. That is how hardship works there. We often don’t recognize his faithfulness in the moment when we don’t get that opportunity we were hoping for.

Let’s tale the crossing the Red Sea as an example. God deliberately guides Israel into what appears to be a trap. They are stuck with a body of water on one side, and Pharaoh’s army on the other. They see know way out of this. Why would God do this? wouldn’t it have just been better to leave them in Egypt? What a cruel trick. God’s just says, “Wait for it.” He separates the waters, and lets them walk across dry land while crushing Pharaoh’s army. Here is the thing though, it was impossible for Israel to understand the reason for the whole event at the time. They were in a panic. God saw the bigger picture though. He saw a few mean years later from Israel enter a city called Jericho. A city that looked formidable on the outside, but who were trembling with fear because they heard about the nation of Israel and their God who defies the very laws of nature for them in battle. It took 40 years of wandering around in the wilderness to be made aware of that fact.

I don’t always understand when I am in a difficult situation. On many occasions, it has taken time for the meaning of hardships to reveal itself. In those moments, I am reminded of the goodness of the Lord. So why would I once again worry when a new trial faces me? Is it simply in our human nature to forget? I suppose that’s possible. It would explain why God was so determined to constantly have Israel reminds itself of their goodness. Adam and Eve in a moment of weakness forgot God’s goodness doubting His words just like enough to take a bite of fruit. The truth is that I don’t entirely know why it is so easy for us to forget the goodness of the Lord. All I know is we do. This means we must be forever vigilant. Constantly on guard. We must constantly be preaching to our soul. We must always tell the core of our being to have courage. We must tell ourselves to continue to do good. To keep the faith. The reaping will come if we do not lose heart.

So, I sit here on a Sunday morning with not much left to say except if there is anyone else out there who struggles with remembrance, know that you are not alone as you are joined in company by a forgetful young man. That is why I write this though. Perhaps remembrance is more than just telling yourself what god is doing. Perhaps it is telling each other. Corporately reminding each other of the goodness of the Lord. So today I will go to church, and when my heart grows faint and struggles to raise its voice, I will be surrounded by a community who will raise their voice for me. Then my heart can finds its voice again, and I will remember the God who parts the seas.

Abusing Prayer

I can often forget the weight of prayer. It is a aspect of the Christian life taken for granted. It is a tool incorrectly use by many. “Oh I will be praying for your situation.” This is a statement we can often run the risk of using to make sure an individual believes we were listening to their plight with sympathy. We might be lucky if we just pass off a brief one sentence prayer about the situation to check off the list.

“I gave this decision a lot of prayer before reaching my conclusion.” A statement often made to lessen the blow of an unfavorable decision, or something to defend a decision against criticism. I prayed about it therefore this is God ordained. How can you argue with God?

Prayer is a two way street. We can forget that. Psalms is filled with songs and prayers of individuals crying out to God. We can easily forget that God is often responding in those prayers. There are moments where a psalmist cries out to God that he feels distant. He is lost and feels alone. He changes his attitude and proclaims his trust in the Lord. What happened in that moment? Why the sudden change? Maybe the psalmist is reciting a prayer he had at one point. A prayer where God responded. Maybe he was reminded that it may feel in the moment that God is distant, but he is still faithful. The story isn’t over yet.

We let the word “prayer” do our dirty work. It is a way to protect us against any unpleasantness. We diminish the power involved in the process. Stop and think for a moment. We can come to God through prayer based off the intercessory work of Christ. Christ is our mediator, and has managed to create the only religion that is based on relationship. Yet we often use prayer as a name dropping moment. It becomes no different than an angry customer who mentions he had lunch with some executive of the company last week. It is resorted to either a bullying tactic, or a way to end a conversation we are done having.

I have been haunted lately by a question I have asked myself. If I stopped praying, would it make a difference? Is my prayer life so limited and based more off of talking about the act rather than performing it that the impact would really even change if I stopped?

I had a common phrase when being a student in a classroom. There was always someone who needed to talk about how intelligent they were. How smart they were in a subject. I would often respond by saying that if you need to spend time telling me how smart you are, then you probably are not all that smart. If I need to tell people how much I am praying, then I am probably not praying very well, or at least not even doing much praying at all.

People won’t know how much you are praying because you tell them. They will know when your soul is a deep well of grace and mercy filled with compassion that only comes from an intimate relationship with the Savior. They will know when those around you who are hurting receive comfort after they have expressed their burdens to you for you to take to the throne room of the King. They will know how much you listen through your prayer by the wisdom you express when life comes barreling down with a difficult circumstance. They will know how passionately you pray when you face the fears of the world that demand you to move, and your response is one of a child with access to his father as you boldly proclaim, “Here I stand.”

Focused Prayer

My oldest child is almost four years old. He is a fairly stereotypical child in his personality. He is full of energy, and keeps me running constantly. Lately he has been trying to learn how to maintain eye contact when asking for something. The other day he was asking for a game. Like any parent I wanted to ensure he was asking politely and clearly. We had to repeat the process multiple times because every time he got the first word of the question out he would instinctively move his eyes to the game instead of looking at me. “Look at me.” He would jerk his head up, and begin the whole process over and over again.

My son was so focused on keeping his eye on the object of his request rather than the person he was requesting it from. It may seem like a simple or trivial thing, but it was important to me that he maintained eye contact with me specifically to make the request. It was incredibly difficult for him, but he finally did it.

At the end of the ordeal I was hit with a realization like a ton of bricks. I do this in my prayer life all the time. I find myself focusing on the object of my prayers rather than on the one I am bringing my pleas to. It’s a real problem. People always talk about how prayer often becomes a wish list. People groan about how prayer is a chore. Countless people have written countless books on the secrets to a revolutionary prayer life.

Prayer is a worship filled act designed to focus on the creator rather than creation. It seems to me like the beginning to a healthy prayer life can at least be summarized in this statement. If I have left a period of prayer without seeing Christ then I have done something wrong. When I focus on the object of what I am praying for I am robbing myself of an opportunity to be filled up by merely experiencing the presence of God as he listens to me.

I shake my head at myself when I think of all the times I have come to God in prayer intently focused on the prayer itself all the while my father is simply saying “Would you please look at me?” I could stop there, but I don’t think that’s enough. Why is it so important to look at God in prayer? If all we did was go into prayer and look at the object of our prayer we would at best walk away with what we asked.

God focused prayer provides so much more. It provides nourishment. It gives us a richness in our relationship with him. It instills a connection that carries through the day. If we look at God in prayer we may not be surprised to find that our original purpose to coming to Him ends up feeling insignificant next to the power, majesty, and holiness of a God who cares for us. This is a God who works all things for good. He is the creator who is reaching out to his creation in order for them to experience His prescence.

What’s in a Name?

A couple of months ago I was working my way through the book of Ruth. It’s an interesting book. It is strategically placed after the book of Judges. It takes the gloom and despair of the end of Judges, and points to a solution to all the ugliness that Israel is facing.

It is a book of names. Names tell stories. They can tell an audience something about the person. The book of Ruth is full of names. The names themselves tell a story. This time I was drawn to Naomi. I went into the books remembering her story. This was a woman so discouraged by the way her story was turning out that she demanded her name be changed. “Call me Mara.” The name alone tells a story. This woman is bitter. Everything she cares about has been taken. She believes her story is coming to an end. The only details left are just more death, more depression, and more bitterness. The reader almost begins to wonder if the end we experienced in Judges is only destined to continue on a downward spiral.

If you have read the book of Ruth you will likely already remember everything up to this point. There was a detail I could not remember that pushed me to look at things from a different lens. Naomi requests to be call Mara in verse 20 of the first chapter. Two verses later she is referenced again by the narrator. He does not call her Mara. He still calls her Naomi.

That moment hit me. As I read through the book I realized that she is never again referenced as Mara. She is never referenced for the bitterness she experienced. It’s almost as if God was unwilling to acknowledge her change. This is His story, and He wasn’t finished yet. It may seem hard now, but God’s not done. It may seem like there is a wasteland, but it does not go on forever.

I have never tried to change my name. I have never demanded that I be called bitter, hate, anger, fear, depression, loneliness, or anxiety. There have been moments where I feel my story is defined by those words. We may not change our names, but we often do the same thing Naomi tried to do in those moments. We try and redefine our life. We try and determine our identity off of one part of our story rather than waiting to see what the next act brings.

I try and live my life differently. The world is bound to bring up opportunities to be bring us down. It can determined to convince us that we cannot focus on the beauty it brings. The ugly moments can so easily crowd out anything that is good and worthy of this world. I know this is a reality my kids will face to. This is how I want to live my life, and this is how I wish to raise them. I want them to understand that there is a key element to the moments we most desire to change our names. There is often a new act coming up where God reminds us why we have the name we do. Naomi called herself Mara for the bitterness she experienced. By the end God reminded her why her name was always meant to be Naomi. It was always meant to be what is lovely.

Teach Them Everything

I have been thinking back on the Great Commission lately. It is one of those passages where you hear it so often that everything just sort of bleeds together. Every now and then there is something that peaks your interest. A word that was always there, but you never really bothered to recognize before. Jesus tells his followers to go make disciples. He also tells them to teach these new believers. We are called to teach all that Jesus commanded. Everything. Leave nothing out. That little word “all” seems to get lost in the shuffle for me, and I genuinely believe this is a common occurrence for most people.

We see it most clearly in the love vs, truth debate. Jesus tells us to love sinners. Some focus so heavily on this aspect that they only use their own definition of love. Love in these situations apparently means we should never risk offending, changing, and preaching to the person.

Then you have the truth side to the argument. Some can fall so far on this side of the spectrum that they become like Paul writes about love. If we preach but have no love we are a clanging symbol. It is just noise. Noise without soul. Noise without purpose. It is just words without any effect on the person.

Christ says to follow all of it. It is this strange balance that Christ always represented in his ministry. A clear example is of the adulterous woman. To the Biblical scholars in the room, please hang in there with me despite the questions of whether or not this story was written in the original text. Too often we use that argument to try and take away the love focused crowds favorite passage when there is clearly no real reason to. All that needs to be done is point out that they stop the story short. We fail to see the big picture.

We have all heard the story. There is a woman caught in adultery. The men gathered around tell Jesus it is time to stone her. Jesus gives the famous line. “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” Everyone except Jesus leaves. He is left standing there in front of this woman. What a powerful message of love and tolerance some will say. What beauty to not condemn the woman in her vulnerability. Jesus then says these words after pointing out to the woman that her executioners are gone “Go and sin no more.” Truth. Jesus spoke truth in those moments.

This begs the question, why tell her to stop sinning? Jesus also taught about judgment. We see this tenderness, patience, and mercy in his ministry, but he acknowledges that there will come a point where judgment takes place. Take hold of the mercy provided to you now, and use it to follow me. Deny yourself. Deny your sin. Deny everything that is holding you back from being what I have created you to be, and follow me completely.

The problem with the accusers in the story is not that they acknowledged the woman was sinful. The problem was that they were prepared to cast out the sentencing on their own terms. Jesus says wait. Show love. Show compassion. Use this as an opportunity to change her life. She doesn’t have to live in adultery anymore. Yes, judgment will come. The tie is limited, but I pick and choose the time.

Here is the neat thing about love the way Jesus teaches it. It calls out to people to change their lives. It demands action. That is why it is so hard for some people to take. They know when they are experiencing genuine love from God’s people that it shows what is missing in their own life. Love taught by Christ will inherently demand there is truth spoken as well. It will require pointing out that there is sin out there. There are people who are rebelling against God, but it is not for the purpose to call out judgment. The purpose is to avoid receiving that judgment.

We rob ourselves and others of only teaching specific elements of what Christ taught. It is all well and good to love someone for who they are, but imagine how much more impactful you can be if you love them in a way that points them to the opportunity for change. God tends to use passionate people. He uses people who have been broken by their own sin. He uses people who are damaged. He uses people who have a past. This is because those passionate for themselves can be equally as passionate for him when they change. The broken can relate to the broken. Those with a past can be a testimony to God’s grace.

We teach them everything. All of it. We don’t leave any of it out. This isn’t a choose your own adventure. It is a packaged deal. It is all or nothing.

My Hill or His Mountain?

“And he said to all ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’” (Luke 9:23-24)

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Jesus disciples during the days leading up to the crucifixion, and the reaction of fear and terror that surrounded them. I’ve also been thinking a great deal on my personal commitment to Christ in every aspect. On top of all that I have begun to wonder how so many groups on various opposing sides can seem so willing to use the teachings of Christ that defend their view, but can also seem so blind to opposing opinions on other topics where Jesus also has a great deal to say. In other words, why do I and everyone else seem to cherry pick what we want out of Scripture?

I should preface that I write all of this about myself first and foremost. Some of the things I say may make people upset. It’s not my intention. I know it might bother some people. It bothered me as well. The truth can do that though. The truth can be uncomfortable.

Deny everything you are. That is the overall message here. We often look at this in the negative. Deny worldly pleasure, deny your sinful ways, and deny the things that would make you a “bad person.” This is definitely a primary view of what Jesus is saying. He is talking about dying to the old self. However, where things get complicated is the parts of our old self that still seem to be very good. There are parts of our old self that genuinely seem to mean well, and yet can still miss the big picture.

Everyone has that hill they are willing to die on. Many of these are good hills. Equality amongst sexes/races, the fight against poverty, love and tolerance towards opposing views, the safety of unborn children, freedom of religion, and a host of many others. Some might even have two or three hills they are willing to die on. Many of these hills can be supported through Scripture. We can have proclaiming Christians all standing on these different hills, and some willing to fight each other to protect their individual hill. This is how we get people so worked up over injustice through racism, and yet defend a woman’s right to abort her unborn child. This is why we can get people so willing to fight for the life of that unborn child, but hesitate to do anything for a young child living in incredibly poor circumstances. There are plenty of examples beyond this.

This problem does not encompass every single person of course. However, it has easily been true of me at times, and my guess is there are others who would be surprised to find it describes themselves as well. We mean well. The hills we are fighting on are a good hill to be a part of. They become a part of our identity. I am a Christian that fights for “fill in the blank.”

Jesus gives us a description. “You are my follower.” That’s it. I often say while defending my hill that I am a follower of Christ in those moments, but when I look around me I realize that I am not fighting on Christ’s hill. I am fighting on my own hill. My own little kingdom is what I am defending. Christ tells us to forget our own little hills. Instead we are called to come fight on His mountain. This mountain happens to include a lot of these hills we are fighting on. The problem is it also might include some hills that we are fighting against in favor of our own hill.

It is tempting to read verses like this while thinking of those other hills. It is easy to think Jesus is talking about those other people who have missed the things I fight for. When I do that I have missed the point. In this moment while reading these verses the only person Christ is speaking to is me. WHen I read these verses he is not calling those that come to my mind to deny themselves. He is calling me out. He is telling me to pick up my cross. He is telling me to die deny myself. He is telling me to die so that I can live.

He doesn’t want part of me. He wants everything. He doesn’t want my voice to speak out against one form of instance. He wants me to speak out against all injustice. He doesn’t want my hands to perform my work. He wants my hands to perform His work. He doesn’t want my feet to take my message. He wants my feet to take His Gospel.

When I fight on my own hill I fail to see the big picture. I fail to see the other problems in the world that Christ still cares about. I fail to be a follow of Christ. I fail to deny my own agenda in favor of His work. It doesn’t include everyone. Many do deny themselves to follow Him, but it does describe some. It described Peter in the past. A man so willing to speak out and die on his own hill only to run away while forgetting Jesus teaching when it seemed everything was lost. It has certainly described me at times. I’m going to hop off my hill. It’s time to go climb a mountain.