By the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Romans had perfected this type of execution to a kind of bizarre and sadistic, art form. A model of efficiency. Nails were places between the wrist bones of the victim which added the bonus of pressing against the median nerve, adding another layer of pain. The feet were pinned through the heels, and to conserve steel they designed a way to do it with only one nail. It was effective. No one came off a cross alive.
But let’s make no mistake. The square, iron spikes were not the thing that kept Jesus on the cross. It was something much more powerful.
George Matheson was a Scottish minister in the mid-1800’s. A brilliant young man, he graduated from the University of Glasgow at age 19. All the more remarkable since just a few years before, the doctors told him he was going blind.
Matheson was completely sightless when he finished seminary. Upon his completion, his fiancée returned his engagement ring with a note: “I cannot see my way clear to go through life bound by the chains of marriage to a blind man.”
He eventually adapted to his sightless world, but he never married and never got over his broken heart. His ministry was powerful, and Matheson was a brilliant, poetic and influential minister.
Occasionally the pain of his broken heart would flare up in inconsolable pain, as it did at his sister’s wedding. In response to this heartache, he turned to the unending love of God for his comfort. On June 6, 1882, he wrote these words:
O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow, may richer, fuller be.
The nails of Rome pinned Jesus to the cross at Calvary. But the chains of God’s unending love held Him there. It would not let Him go.
And He will not let you go.
“Take up your cross, and follow Me.” This was the challenge issued by Jesus to those who would follow the road to the cross with Him. It is truly a road less traveled and by no means an easy one.
But this is a confusing thought for some. Many come to Jesus looking for “their best life” now… for the prize of a way to be successful… to become better people… and on and on the list can go.
Jesus calls us to die. To everything… as we follow Him to the cross. Our cross, of course, cannot redeem others or ourselves. The full purpose of the cross of Christ was to redeem others. The purpose of our cross is to die to ourself.
The most influential book I have ever encountered outside of the Bible itself is a book by German theologian (and martyr) Dietrich Bonhoeffer titled, “The Cost of Discipleship.” Among many memorable thoughts in his book is one that has been quoted by many, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
This flies in the face of so much of what passes for preaching today. Jesus is not the key to a “better life now.” He is the pathway to the death of self… the crucifixion of the flesh.
When we follow Jesus, we embark on the road to the cross. Every day is a new crucifixion to something… some part of our flesh that needs to be continually killed.
It is not a journey completed in this life. Only our final death can accomplish this. But in the meantime, as Jesus calls us, we take up our cross DAILY, and follow Him.
With this blog, I’m going to “veer off” the road to Easter to allow us to reflect on the life and influence of Dr. Billy Graham.
“Billy,” as everyone knew him went home to be with Jesus and his beloved Ruth on Wednesday, ending a 99-year life and an epic impact and testimony for the Gospel. None will ever leave as deep of tracks in the sand as this man.
Graham was unwavering in his preaching, and in his private and personal lifestyle. I had the privilege of hearing him the first time in person at my seminary graduation in 1990. I was proud to walk across the platform and receive my doctorate with none other than THE Billy Graham watching!
I heard him later at two other, evangelistic crusades, but none felt as personal as that moment on my graduation day. I don’t remember making a pledge to make him proud or promise to be just like him, but I wish I had.
While Billy’s voice has been silenced by age for a long time now, his voice still rings into our hearts through recorded crusades. And while his preaching was amazing, the thing that lives longest in memory for me about him is his character: his love for wife and family, and his determination to live and not bring shame to the Gospel and the Lord he loved, and the care he took to guard his character.
How we are desperate for his example today… a man with moral steel in his spine and a sober stare on his face. A preacher with a God-given burden for the lost. A man who could come alive in front of thousands, but do so because he smoldered within in his private devotion when no one saw, and no cameras recorded.
I grow weary with the showmen and personalities who model themselves after Billy and yet show nothing of his inner fire and integrity. God bring us another Billy Graham who does not back down, and who can sit with presidents, queens, celebrities or the masses… and see them all the same.
Billy deserves all the accolades we can speak about him. He needs to be emulated, studied, written about and reproduced. He has more than earned his rest. But with everything that can be written and said to celebrate this man, remember:
Nobody gives crowns like Heaven.
The road to Calvary began, not at Pilate’s courtyard, but at a silent, holy place called Gethsemane. In Hebrew, the word itself means “olive press.” Gethsemane, as you would visit today in the Holy Land, is still an olive grove. Gnarled trees outline the area where Jesus went in His final hours before the cross to pray.
In His hour of greatest need, He prayed. “My soul is exceedingly troubled…” the Master said. So He took it to the Father in prayer. We must learn to do the same. When we are “pressed out of measure,” when we feel the stress and strain of everyday life, when we face the “dark night of the soul,” when we are in times of confusion… we pray.
A beloved song the church sang for decades was, “I come to the garden to pray… while the dew is still on the roses.” It paints an almost ethereal, pastoral scene with fragrant scents and dewdrop-kissed, flower pedals.
Hardly the picture painted by the Gospel witnesses, who describe a darker place… a place visited by our Savior in solitude because no companion could enter His suffering in that moment. No one knew how to pray for Jesus. There was no comfort in companionship.
There were drops, not of dew, but of blood on the ground because the struggle of Jesus’ soul against the enemy was so real… so violent, that He sweat “great drops of blood….;” a medical condition called hematidrosis.
He did not stroll casually through the dark garden sniffing the roses as He walked. He fell face first to the ground, as He wrestled with what each of us must one day deal with; the death of our flesh… our will and our final submission to the Father.
So as we mark the Easter journey of Jesus to the place of our redemption, remember it began at Gethsemane. In a garden.
And three days later, the journey would also end in a garden.
“Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours be done.”
We are reeling as a nation again from one of the worst, mass murders in our history. Sadly, it seems like we are making that statement every, other week. The sorrow and pain of families to our south in Parkland, Florida, is beyond comprehension or explanation.
It is… and I’ve heard the term frequently in reference to this… senseless. From our view, it is. It makes no sense that computes for us. It is a sorrow and horror that defies our sensibilities and sense.
Pain often comes packaged the same way. We can’t explain it. We don’t understand it. This morning, I stood with a family in our own church trying to grasp the news of a young, adult man killed in a car accident.
It dares us… it defies us… sometimes it mocks us as we try to “get it.” Usually the effort is futile. Much of the pain we experience in life is “out of our pay grade” to explain or understand.
What we know is that God understands that which cannot be understood or explained. We try in vain to place blame: “It was the devil.” “It was an act of God.” (Just for the record-a mass shooting is not an act of God).
And while pain is just a part of living life in a broken, fallen world… it is not something that God is immune from. We have to understand that, from the ground up… everyone on Golgotha’s Hill on Passover Friday in AD 33, saw a senseless, inexplicable, violent act perpetrated against the only totally, innocent person who ever lived.
At the time at least, it had no explanation that we could see. The Man, who was also God, cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”
I don’t know all that was packed into that question. I do know that, even in midst of doing the will of God, bad things… pain, pressure, suffering… may accompany us.
This doesn’t mean God is not in control. He is. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t understand. He does.
But in the meantime, until WE can understand… we wait, and we trust.
And as we do, we know we cling to the One who will right all injustice, erase all tears, end all suffering.
And more than that… He clings to us. Amen.
I was crucified once. Not literally, but in a Passion Play. I was sixteen. The play was put on by a church that a young lady I had fancied was attending. She brought me to Bible study the night they were handling out parts for the play. Since I had long hair and looked a little older than sixteen, they decided I would make a GREAT thief on the cross: the “bad” one.
So, wanting to impress the girl, I said yes. And so began my first real encounter with Easter. Though I had been typecast, I took my role to heart. We had to make it “look” realistic with fake blood, and I was asked if I was ok to wear a loincloth. Not knowing what that was, I consented.
The play was a big draw in our town… happening in a public amphitheater on an April morning. Hundreds came. It was a big deal. And I was one of the guests of honor, with my face and chest smeared with some kind of red goo that passed for blood.
Now, back to the loincloth. What they HADN’T done since cell phones weren’t yet invented, was check the weather forecast for the day. It was to be in the low 30’s with a slight breeze. Wind chill hadn’t been invented either, so all we knew was it felt a lot colder than 32. Especially in the moment that I had to get “into” costume and character… and was lifted into place by a couple of guys from the high school football team. That was just before it started SNOWING!!
Well, I played my part… couldn’t wait to die and get back to my coat and the fire that was burning in a barrel behind the stage. But what struck me that day was not the incongruity of the passion being performed on a snowy hillside early that Easter morning.
It was my line…”If You are the Christ….” Asking the question out loud set something in motion in my heart… something that wouldn’t bear fruit for another four years.
I left with my girlfriend that morning, and she has since drifted far into the past. But the striking moment of speaking that question is still fresh, and I think about it every Easter season.
But now… I know He is indeed.
They had seen it all before, this bloodthirsty crowd. The sweating, panting bodies. The blood-soaked clothing. The bruising and lacerations of whip marks crisscrossing the prisoners. It was, sadly, another day under occupied Rome.
But this one was different. This One. He, too, was blood, sweat and spit soaked, panting in the Palestinian heat. Bruised and cut open by the Roman scourge; soldiers proud of their “handiwork.”
But he, He was different. A crown of sharp, dry thorns pierced deeply into the sensitive skin of His forehead, forming a mocking crown for a “king.”
A King they said? “He said He was King of the Jews,” didn’t He?
This crowd offered no solace. No comfort. No simple drink to sooth His parched lips. No assistance to lift His heavy burden, though it had been said He lifted the burdens of others.
They watched as He passed by… this macabre trio of condemned and pitiful humanity… yet hearing not words of comfort but mocking and cursing. For what? They didn’t know. They simply added their voices to the mob.
“Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” No mercy. No quarter. No stopping.
The Son of God was on the road to the cross. God’s redemption plan was underway.
And yet, the Bible said, “For the joy set before Him….” JOY? This was JOYFUL? No, that’s not what it said. It said “For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame.”
So the cross… something to be endured. Something that caused shame. Something that brought pain. Death to the flesh. But still… joy? Where is joy to be found on the road to the cross… in His crucifixion or in ours?
The joy that Jesus endured the cross for may have come in part from the prospect of redeeming some of the screaming mob of humanity cursing Him as He passed by… and then there’s me and you also in that number.
But the greater joy, I believe, came in the knowledge that in bearing His cross… in enduring the shame… He was walking in the middle of His Father’s will. In fact, never more so than in that moment.
It is that which brought Him joy. It is that which brought God glory. And knowing our Father’s will… even when it leads to a cross… is where our greatest joy awaits as well.
…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2 ESV
Today marks the sixth month since Pam’s death. Though time has stood still in a sense to me and our family, it has also sped by in ways that I would never have imagined. Many things have begun to return to some semblance of “normal.”
I have known academically and now, by daily experience, that grief is a mysterious and often unpredictable journey. It is not “linear,” meaning it is not a clean, step-by-step predictable process. And just about the time you think you have passed into an easier season, something happens to pull you back.
It is an experience to endure… to walk through patiently day-by-day. You learn early on that there is no point in asking “how long” it will last. It will last until the day that Jesus calls you home. The degree to which it lasts, however, does vary.
There are things that I have changed in our home… which now seems more a house… items I have given to family or friends or donated. But there are areas of the house that seem, for lack of a better word, too “sacred.” I can’t touch those yet… can’t even think about it. I’m sure in time I will be able to… but not yet.
I have attempted to go back to work full-time, and the church has been gracious to give me some months away on sabbatical to heal and to write. Since coming back in early November, I have performed eight funerals… some for people I knew and some I did not. Oddly, I can get through those ok. But weddings… weddings I cannot do yet.
My memory is crystal clear when thinking about our journey since April, and about our lives and journey together. But in spite of an iPhone, iPad and Libby Gillean, my very capable and efficient ministry assistant, I am still forgetful. My counselor tells me that is to be expected.
The grief still “ambushes” me; a song in a store… a fragrance… a moment when someone in public looks like Pam at a glance… a picture that always hangs in the house but for some reason on some days has the power to reduce me to tears. That is the journey. I am told and believe it gets better… and each day I believe God is making it so.
In the meantime, I am “grieving nicely.” My sister-in-law Beth who, along with my brother Mark, have given me refuge time after time through this experience, acquainted me with this phrase. It seems to capture how I truly feel when someone asks me how I’m doing and the day may have been hard. “Grieving nicely” expresses where I seem to be.
I am grateful not to be alone on the journey. My children and their spouses, my granddaughter, a loving family and friends along with an amazing church make the days not only bearable… but even at times joyful.
Your faithful prayers for me have helped make that a possibility.
I have a simple but profound promise that I claim and cling to often. Jesus said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
And for me, that promise will always be enough!
In this final post on our Overcoming Worry series, let me re-emphasize a couple of things. First, let’s remember that the purpose of this section of Scripture in Philippians 4 has to do with finding peace. We read in verse 5 that “the peace of God” will stand guard over our hearts as we bring our requests to Him with thanksgiving. In verse 9, Paul said, “if you will do these things the God of peace will be with you.” So we see the promise of peace bracketing the thoughts we are looking at.
Second, remember that “inspiration does not equal transformation.” We cannot just know what the Bible says… we have to do something about it. We can know all there is to know about a piano or guitar, but at some point we have to sit down and attempt to play! In the same way, knowing the places in the Bible that point to God’s promises of peace is an important thing, but not enough to make a change in us unless we PRACTICE what we know!
Third, remember that it is essential that we go beyond simply reading and even studying the Scriptures, and do what the Bible says about it: We must meditate on God’s truth, or it remains simply an academic exercise.
As we read the Bible, we learn there are four things we should learn to meditate on constantly. We should meditate on:
- The WONDERS of God. This is God’s character and nature and Person. We know God personally as we allow the wonder of who He is soak into our souls.
- The WORKS of God. The works of God are the works of His hands… His creation. But more, it is also remembering the works of God in salvation and redemption. This is where we reflect and meditate on the grace of God and His offer of eternal life through Jesus.
- The WORD of God. The Word of God is what God has said… what He has spoken through His Word. We meditate on His laws, His precepts, and His promises as we do this. We fill our mind with His thoughts, as Paul outlines in Philippians 4:9… Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable… if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about these things.
- The WAYS of God. This is where we think about the ways in which God deals with us… often mysterious and unexpected… but always with His glory and our good in mind. We reflect on the ways of God which are “higher than our ways.”
When we meditate on these things, we will begin to be transformed as our minds are renewed by His truth and as our hearts are surrounded by His peace! And there will be little room for the roots of anxiety to grow in our hearts.
- Pick one of the four areas above to meditate on for the next seven days. Let God lead you to the places in the Bible that reinforce and deepen your awareness of Him in your life.
- Look for ways to integrate meditation into your daily routine; your drive to work… your walk or jog in the evening… as you are laying down at night.
- Expectantly wait for the “GOD OF PEACE” to be with you as your meditate on His presence more and more continuously. Our lives will be changed by His truth and His presence as we do!
As we approach the end of this series of blogs on worry, I want to repeat something that I’ve said several times already: “Insight does not equal transformation.” We can learn a number of things about overcoming anxiety, but until we do them knowing them will do nothing to change us.
One of the things we must DO to integrate this truth into our daily lives and routine is we must practice meditation. Now meditation doesn’t mean we must learn to sit in the lotus position, humming a mantra and eating sunflower seeds and tofu. That, sadly, is what we associate with the word “meditate.”
But in reality, meditation is a simple procedure that we do every day. It has at its root the concept of chewing. Did you know that chewing gum came to America in 1869? The Mexican General Santa Anna (of the infamous Alamo victory) was living in exile in, of all places, New Jersey. He had a ton of chicle brought to him when he came to America, and persuaded Thomas Adams to buy it from him. Adams thought it could be used as a rubber substitute, but noticed that Santa Anna enjoyed chewing the stuff. So he boiled some and tried it, added licorice flavoring and voila! The first chewing gum was invented, called Black Jack.
In a book entitled, “The Psycho-Dynamics of Chewing” (yes there is such a book), the researchers found that chewing relaxed people, made it easier to focus, reduced muscular tension and made them more productive at their jobs. Chewing gum made its way into the food kits put together by the military during World War 1 and World War 2 since it had also been proven to keep those who chewed it alert and awake.
At the root of the word “meditate” used in Scripture is the word for “chew.”
“Do not let this word of the law depart from your mouth, meditate (chew) on it day and night…” (Joshua 1:8)
“I will meditate on your precepts.” (Psalm 119:78)
“I will meditate on your wonders.” (Psalm 119:27)
“I will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works.” (Psalm 145:5)
It’s interesting that, instead of emptying our minds, as much eastern mysticism teaches regarding meditation, the Bible says FILL your mind with the truth of God’s Word and CHEW on it… over and over… until its truth becomes part of you and begins to transform your thinking… and your life.
The purpose of the Bible is not to see how widely we can study, or how much material we can learn. It is to allow the precepts, the teaching, the Laws, the truths of the Bible to penetrate our thought life and our hearts and to change our lives.
And that’s a LOT to chew on!