CROSSROADS, Part 2

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Exploring Romans 2

Having chosen to step into the good path is only the beginning. The crossroads is not the finish line. The road less traveled by of Romans chapter One is not the journey’s end. Nor is it an easy path, a moving sidewalk of precast and predetermined progress. Stepping into this path does not guarantee we will never diverge from it again.

The early religious community to whom God’s tutoring was primarily directed had made that mistake at times. God had clearly communicated that He was pleased with people whose hearts, souls and minds were wholly set on Him; their hands and feet would then follow that inner lead. Somehow, though, they had gotten it backwards. They had chosen to make the external signs of their creed more important than the internal ones. The practice of circumcision, rather than reminding them of their high calling to live lives reflective of their inner purity, became a badge of deceptive pride to them. It was their membership card into the Old Boys’ Club of religiosity. Exclusivity was only a step away from smug self-righteousness.

We are not much different. There is something in each of us that tempts us to return to the self-confident swagger of badge-wearing externalism. Old habits die hard, and this one is particularly persistent.

The temptation to divorce external acts from their internal meanings is a real danger. We don’t approve of it in others – we call it hypocrisy – yet we may ignore it in ourselves. In his letter to the Corinthian believers written about the same time as the letter to the Romans, Paul gives an example that Greeks could understand. They were mostly non-Jews, so the circumcision example would not be relevant. But they must have been a vibrant and charismatic group whose pattern of expressing their faith was extraordinary. They spoke flamboyantly, they discoursed theologically, and they were willing to sacrifice their wealth for the cause; but even they were on the precipice of divorcing the true driving force of their actions from the actions themselves.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,” suggests Paul, “I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Whether it is the symbolic badge of traditional spirituality that the Jews were prone to rely upon, or the charisma of knowledge and humanitarian effort that the Greeks practiced, the path Christ calls people to follow is first, last and always founded on God’s love.

Each day, almost every moment of each day, we come to a crossroads of decision regarding God’s love. We must choose to accept God’s indwelling Spirit of love and follow His direction in expressing that love, or choose to ignore that call. Behaving as we choose and then labeling it ‘love’ won’t work. Leaving the straight and narrow road and renaming the diverging path by some euphemism will not change its ultimate destination.

Yes, we are to express external signs of our commitment to Christ. Those signs, though, must represent a vibrant, living relationship with the Spirit of God who is in the process of transforming us from the inside out. Every step we take with our hearts attuned to His still soft voice is a crossroads, calling us to be genuine. A heart on the right path is a life on the right path.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Bob Embleton)

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CROSSROADS, Part 1

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Exploring Romans 1

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” begins Robert Frost in his famous poem, The Road Not Taken, “And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth; / Then took the other…”

He is describing a crossroads of sorts. It’s a place in his life where he must choose one of two ways to go. To be ‘one traveler’, one unsplittable person, means that he cannot choose both of the two diverging paths, though each look inviting. Both call to him with possibilities.

He ends the poem by reflecting, “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” The crossroads was, indeed, a significant place for him. His life took a completely different track and course because of that choice.

Crossroads and diverging paths are like that. Every decision, small or large, moves us inexorably away from where we are, into new territory, into a future than would not be reality for us had we chosen otherwise. It can be daunting to think of that, but it’s true.

The ancient writer and apostle Paul describes the same phenomenon in the introduction of his letter to a ragtag group of people living in the hub of the Roman Empire mid first century A.D. These people had made a dangerous choice in that era. They had committed themselves to believe that a man they’d never met, who had been executed by the Roman Empire some twenty-five years earlier, was their best hope in life. They were entrusting themselves to this Jesus Christ, believing that He was no ordinary man, but actually the Son of God, now risen from death and living by His Spirit within them.

It was a crossroads for them, because they would now be hunted down by the Roman regime. Family and friends, coworkers and compatriots would begin to turn against them. The Emperor of Rome himself would, within a decade, use them as a scapegoat to take blame for starting the great fire of Rome, and literally feed them to lions to appease the angry Roman citizens. It was important for this tiny group of believers to understand just what this crossroads comprised.

The common path of humanity, explains Paul, diverges at the historical point of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Here, at a place he calls the gospel, “a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” This is one road.

The only other road is described in negative terms as “those who knew God (but) neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him”. Paul describes the future outcome of this path. He says it leads to futile thinking and darkened hearts, where the honouring of the glory of the immortal God is exchanged for man and animal worship. Unfortunately, that route leads to ultimate self-destruction, says Paul. It is the literal dead end for humanity – but darkened hearts can’t easily see that.

These are the only two alternatives we have. This is where two roads diverge for every one of us. We either humble ourselves to accept that God designed our ideal destiny to be accessed by faith in His Son Jesus, or, we end up chasing an elusive and dying pipedream of self-worship, earth-worship, or some other philosophy of worship.

Entrusting ourselves to God’s provision of Jesus is the road less traveled by that will make all the difference for us. It looks weak on the outside but it opens up for us a future of God-endorsed adventure and fulfillment.

So today, if we want to choose to follow that road less traveled by, we can begin by giving glory to God. We can thank Him for Jesus and His work of forgiveness, and we can move into His path for us by following in the direction of Jesus. Today’s crossroads holds great hope for those who are willing to walk the faith path. Are you on it?

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Carsten Tolkmit)

BEYOND ORDINARY (Mark 12:41-44)

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Cheap. That’s how the poor widow looked putting her paltry halfpennies into the collection box. In contrast to her, the rich patrons appeared extravagantly generous as they threw in their surplus coinage.

Jesus had been watching it all, there in the temple courts of Jerusalem. He had deliberately sat himself down “opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.” He had at least two purposes in mind by sitting there in that front row seat for what had become The Collection Show: He wanted to observe a behaviour common in that community, and He wanted to teach His disciples to observe.

Everyone was putting money into the temple treasury box that day. That was the ordinary thing to do. Some put in a little, some threw in a lot; everyone, it seems, contributed. In that culture it was the routine, the status quo. It was the ordinary, commonplace, usual thing to do. But Jesus observed something about that ordinary occupation. He saw a split and distinction that no one else had noticed.

“This poor widow,” observed Jesus, speaking to His disciples, “has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”

Is that true? Is there really more significance to some acts than others? Can a lesser act embody greater significance than its richer counterpart? Can ordinary actually be extraordinary?

C.S. Lewis introduces an idea he calls Transposition to describe a phenomenon into which I think Jesus’ teaching fits. Lewis says, “Transposition occurs whenever the higher reproduces itself in the lower.” For instance, a variety of emotions can be experienced by the one sensation of an adrenaline rush. The same kick and flutter of the diaphragm accompanies a moment of joy and a moment of horror, an exciting sport and an unexpected piece of news. The one sensation must communicate the diverse possibilities that stimulated its release. The limited physical sensation must express a much larger set of emotional situations. While the adrenaline rush always the feels the same, it must communicate one of many ideas as the situation warrants.

If, says Lewis, we approach the Transposition from below, we might assume there could only be one meaning to the ordinary actions of life. But if we approach it from above, as we do with the emotion-sensation experience, we understand the full significance of what is happening.

Jesus is showing us that in the spiritual realm, in the great vast higher reality in which God’s character of virtue is made available to those who will submit to Him, the extraordinary is transposed into the ordinary. The greater infuses the lesser with significance. Equally, vices like selfishness and pride, while hidden in ordinary acts, infuse those acts with a corruption that both heaven and hell see clearly.

The poor woman expressed her undying faith in God by giving Him her last fraction of a penny. The others expressed their trust in the value of public opinion by giving a fraction of their all. On the surface they all appear ordinary, but there is more, much more than the ordinary eye can see.

When we use ordinary opportunities to express our faith, God transposes great value and significance into them and they go beyond ordinary. So take heart. Your ordinary life and mine can embody the extraordinary significance that pleases God and gives meaning to our lives. Acts of faith take us beyond ordinary.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Adriana Hidalgo Zamora)

THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 4

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Unique Life

It was forty hours since Jesus’ excruciating death and hurried burial late that Friday afternoon. The Sabbath day had begun that evening, preventing anyone from visiting His tomb all the next day. Now it was Sunday, the dawning of the first day of a new week.

We’re told it was women who first came to the tomb that morning—two Marys and a Salome, followed by some others. There had not been time to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial on the Friday, but two of His friends had done their best. A man named Joseph had purchased a linen wrap and Nicodemus had brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, fragrant spices meant to camouflage the odour of a decaying body. It seems the women wanted to do more for Jesus’ body, though, and were coming to anoint it. They weren’t sure how they could perform this final act of service, because a large stone blocked the tomb’s entrance and Roman guards stood on patrol ensuring no one got in or out.

As they approached the tomb site, the women felt the ground beneath their feet give a violent heave and shudder. Looking up they saw the tomb’s entrance opening as the weighty, tomb-sealing boulder was shifted aside by a shining figure. With a muffled clatter the guards fell to the ground in a terrified faint leaving the women alone to face this otherworldly vision.

“Do not be afraid,” the messenger reassured the women, “for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here;” Seeing their confusion, he added, “he is risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” Peering obediently into the tomb lit by two other shining beings, the women saw the empty burial wrappings lying on the rocky mantel – but no body. “Go quickly and tell his disciples: He has risen from the dead.”

And with that, an ever-widening body of witnesses has come to recognize the occurrence of the world’s most significant event. Jesus is alive. His death was more real than you or I will ever be able to comprehend, but it didn’t finish Him. Just as His death was unique – the author of life submits Himself to His own righteous condemnation in order to proffer life for us – His life is unique too. He cannot be held down. No grave is deep enough to restrict His victorious and powerful life beyond what He allows.

“After the suffering of his soul,” foretold the prophet Isaiah, “he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”

Nothing less than providing complete exoneration for rebellious humanity and eternal existence for those who will accept the gift would satisfy Jesus. His life is unique, His love is unique, and His offer is unique.

Today, Easter Sunday, is the anniversary of the greatest event planet earth could ever celebrate. Today, the unique life of Jesus, Son of God, gives us our one and only opportunity to live the way He designed us to live. We can be like the Roman sentries and turn away in fear, in disbelief, in the deception of rejecting Jesus’ resurrection life; or we can be like those first women and thousands of others who rejoice that He is risen. His eternal life gives us eternal life, forever. This is Easter!

(Photo Credit: >The Athenaeum<Thomas Cole>. Licensed under Public Domain via <a href=”//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/”>Wikimedia Commons</a>.)

THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 3

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Unique Death (Isaiah 53)

Crucifixion completed Jesus’ earthly life in apparent humiliation. No human body could withstand its life-sapping horrors without a miracle, but no miracle came then for Jesus. He, the Lifegiver, gave up His spirit with the final words, “It is finished.”

Eight centuries earlier, Isaiah had written that this Man would be a “man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering”. That, “by oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.”

It’s pretty clear that the crucifixion was no surprise to Jesus. He knew the plan for Easter long before His crucifiers or their ancestors were born. He’d had an eternity prior to His earthly life to think about the “oppression”, “crush(ing)” and “suffer(ing)” He would be enduring as part of the plan for Easter.

Imagine that for a moment. Why would anyone do it? Why would God bother with the effort of rescuing a race gone awry, especially when it would cause Him such personal sacrifice in the rescuing?

There is only one answer: Love.

God, the personification of the deepest and truest of love, cares about you and me. He designed each of us for so much more than any of us have experienced yet, and He hated to stand by and watch us self-destruct. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Not that He was the only person ever crucified. It is estimated that many thousands of people have died by crucifixion. In the year 70 A.D. alone, five hundred people daily met their slow, excruciating deaths by that inhumane method of execution.

But He alone did it out of perfect love for a world of people who didn’t even realize their own hopeless condition.

Not only is His love totally inclusive toward every person ever conceived, it is also completely effective. It has the power to restore each of us to the relationship with Him we were designed to have—if we will accept it. Included in that, relationship with God means accessing His version of life which is unending; it means escaping our own unnatural mortality, and finding our life becoming eternal.

Imagine being loved by One who knows all our secrets, all our weaknesses and foibles, all our insecurities and stumblings, yet His love not diminishing one bit.

Imagine being loved by One who experienced the horror of death on our behalf, in order that death could become for us a passage from the shadow lands into the great expansive eternal existence with Him.

Doesn’t that change our perspective on Easter? Doesn’t that give us a clue as to why the day we commemorate as Jesus’ death is called ‘Good Friday’?

The love of God for you and me, expressed in the willing death of Jesus, is no more explicitly seen than in the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life. It’s not morose to think about it. It’s true and right and proper considering its great significance. What is unseemly and even shameful is when we ignore the essence and magnitude of what Easter really is. We do a disservice to ourselves and to God’s love when we fail to think deeply about what He did for us that first Easter.

Don’t despair. It’s not all death and darkness. That is only the first part of Easter. There is more to His plan. There is even more to His love. Are you ready to hear about it?

(Photo Credit: “Fred Holland Day- Last Seven Words” by F. Holland Day – Frizot: Neue Geschichte der Fotografie, Köln 1998, S.302. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fred_Holland_Day-_Last_Seven_Words.jpg#/media/File:Fred_Holland_Day-_Last_Seven_Words.jpg)