Killing it: How overwork leads to underperformance

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Have you ever been really tired? As in, barely drag yourself out of bed, wonder how you’ll make it through the day, dog-tired?

Have you ever been discouraged, depressed, or anxious?

Are you any of those right now?

Jesus lets us in on a spiritual practice that research says increases work performance, reduces anxiety & depression, increases energy levels and happiness, and will even help you live longer.

What is this great catalyst for human thriving?

It is Sabbath. That’s right – a simple practice taken for granted for 3500 years.

We don’t sabbath much these days. We go, go, go. 24/7. We brag about the number of hours we work. If we do “take” a day (Did you notice we use the language of theft?) it is to shop, do home projects, plan the week, or acquiesce to the tyranny of Sunday children’s sports. That isn’sabbath! The Hebrew word for sabbath means “cease.” Sabbath is about ceasing – about rest!

Easier said than done

I had breakfast with a friend last week. As we left he asked if I was on my way to the office. I told him, “No, it’s my day off.” He asked what my plans were. I replied, “Writing a talk on sabbath taking.” I am so bad at taking a day off that I used my day off to write a sermon on taking a day off!

If you were born before 1965 you have, in the recesses of your memory, Sunday go to meetin’ clothes, dinner with cousins, sitting on the porch, naps, ball in the yard, reading with your family…and being bored because all the stores were closed. The sabbath was a day to “cease.”

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In Mark 2:23-3:6 Mark records Jesus being followed and grilled by religious leaders for improper sabbathing. Jesus was well-acquainted with the sabbath. Keeping sabbath is the fourth of the 10 commandments. The exhortation to “remember the sabbath” is repeated 150 times, more than the other 9 commandments combined. One example illustrates the sabbath’s place in the biblical narrative: When Moses is about to leave the mountain from God’s presence, tablets in hand, to take the commandments to the people (Exodus 31:12-18), God’s parting words are, “Above all, remember the sabbath.

What’s the big deal?

Sabbath is God’s primary mode of spiritual formation. It is the marinade of the spiritual life – a secret sauce that, when it soaks into us, flavors our lives. Which means that getting rid of the sabbath is a great way to insure spiritual blandness. Joseph Stalin actually tried this. The Soviet Union went to a 5-day week in 1930. It was a trick to get rid of religion by eliminating the sabbath.

What happened when folk worked hard and didn’t balance work with rest, community, and worship? Productivity plummeted. When the Nazi’s invaded Russia in 1940, the Soviets immediately went back to the 7-day week. All work and no play doesn’t just make Jack a dull boy, it makes Jack an unproductive one.

How does overwork lower productivity?

When we go 24/7 it raises the stress hormone, cortisol, that our bodies make for short term fight or flight. According to Psychology Today, elevated cortisols are public health enemy number one. When cortisol levels remain high it interferes with learning and memory, lowers immune function and bone density, and causes increases in weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. High cortisol is also linked to depression, anxiety, diabetes, and heart disease. In other words, skipping the sabbath is bad for both your physical and emotional health.

In 2005 National Geographic did a cover story on the five places on the planet with an abundance of people living past 100 years of age. One is in the U.S. – Loma Linda, California. Loma Linda is unique for a high percentage of Seventh Day Adventists, a group whose defining characteristic is…wait for it…keeping the sabbath. Keeping the sabbath is associated with lengthened life expectancy.

Over our lifetime, a regular sabbath adds up to a decade with God. Imagine, where would you be if you took a decade away from your education? Working through the sabbath means we will end our lives a decade less wise than our forbearers.

Let’s summarize: Skipping the sabbath lowers work performance, is harmful to our physical and emotional health, shortens our life expectancy, and exacts a high price on the truest, deepest part of us – our spiritual life. Conclusion: We really ought to sabbath.

How does one sabbath?

Keeping the sabbath is as simple as trading 24/7 for 24/6. Whatever is “work” for you, “cease” it one day a week.

Sabbath suggestions

  • Stay off the phone. Email, text and Facebook can wait.
  • Do something fun.
  • Keep a gratitude journal.
  • Do less. Scratch activities from Sundays to create margin-like those kid’s sports leagues.
  • Be with family and friends.
  • Worship God.

In Mark 2:23 the religious leaders hassled Jesus about the disciples noshing on grain as they walked through a farm field. We think of that as petty theft. Snacking wasn’t stealing, though, it was expressly permitted by the law…unless they pocketed food (Deuteronomy 23:23-24). By Jesus’ day, however, the importance of the sabbath had led religious leaders to make a bunch of strange rules to prevent work. One such rule was against walking more than 2/3 of a mile on the sabbath. 2/3 a mile broke their arbitrary “work” threshold. To get around the rules folk would build tiny little 1’x1’ houses 2/3 a mile from home, then they could walk twice as far.

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The religious leaders were hassling Jesus because picking grain was “work.” Notice that they wanted the disciples to violate the 8th commandment against stealing in order to keep a made-up rule to avoid work. Jesus gently corrected their made-up rule with scripture, then irritated them by calling himself the “Lord of the sabbath.” Then Jesus walks right into a synagogue and demonstrates his lordship over that sabbath by healing a guy. Jesus wasn’t disrespecting the sabbath, he was placing it into perspective. “The sabbath is made for you!”

How is the sabbath for you? 

The sabbath isn’t just a mechanism of rest, it is a tool of identity. We were created in God’s image and given vocations. God shares his dazzling vision for the future in order to use you and me to bring it about. That vision soaks into us as we participate in the weekly rhythm of sabbath. So, take that day each week. Rest. Worship. Study. See if you don’t begin to view you, your work, and God’s world through new eyes.

The original American dream of the freedom to pursue happiness has been written down like a bad debt. Our culture’s new mantra is that we work to live: get as much money possible, as fast as possible, with the least effort possible, in order to get off work to go do something else.

Frankly, it’s a lame way to live.

We were, all of us, whether artist or barista, therapist or teacher, oil exec or equity guy, spiritual beings. We were made for God’s presence to seep into, to awaken us to the God-saturated world where you can work and rest and play as designed, both for your benefit and to the honor of the One who speaks his purpose over and into you.

That is why Jesus sabbathed, by the way; to keep his connection with his Father deep, strong, alive. Sabbath empowered Jesus’ work. “Sabbath was made for man,” not for you to be fresh for an 0500 Monday wake-up, but to connect us to the one true source of life, God himself. Our NEED for rest is a constant reminder of our NEED for a Savior. Without Christ, we will work without purpose, without wholeness, and without a break.

In Jesus, God welcomes us to rest, marinating us in the wise, joyful presence of our heavenly Father. God made us with spiritual ears to hear His still small voice whispering to our hearts. But we only hear that voice when we pause to listen…when we sabbath.

So go ahead, keep killing it at work. But kill it 24/6.

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Narrative and Metanarrative: John 3:16, your story, and your place in the cosmos

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We experience life as story.

This seems hardwired; the way we assemble our discrete experiences as plot devices in a coherent narrative. And we continue to do this even when our stories ultimately leave us wondering, “Is this all there is to life?”

And it isn’t just story on a micro level, we look for story on the macro as well: interpreting the world through metanarratives; grand, overarching, shared stories. Our current metanarrative is postmodernism. Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Our previous shared story was modernity – the belief in human progress. Lyotard pointed out that the shared belief in human progress failed. We did not “make the world safe for democracy.” Dr. King’s, “arc of the universe” did not bend towards justice.” Progress did not solve the world’s problems. We may have “boldly gone where no man has gone before,” but we have a sense we were going the wrong way. Modernism just didn’t pan out. In response, postmodernism posits the death of the metanarrative.

And yet…we cannot stop seeking meaning personally, and we cannot stop seeking context to our place and role in this massive world. Whether it works or not, we continue to instinctively assemble narratives for ourselves and search for metanarrative to explain our place in the cosmos. We are convinced we are both part of something larger and also, paradoxically, free to write our own story…even in light of the evidence that neither is working.

John 3, Nicodemus, and the Narrative and Metanarrative of God

In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus did the same thing. Nicodemus came to Jesus attempting to figure out how Jesus fit in his culture’s metanarrative and to understand Jesus’ place in his personal story. Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem for the religious festival. Perhaps they were camped in their favorite olive garden enjoying the spring breezes along the ridges of the Kidron valley. Nicodemus, a respected teacher with a lot to lose if he were found to be talking to a rabbi disrupting the status quo worldview, came at night.

Nicodemus greeted Jesus with pleasantries: “Teacher, we know anyone doing the things you do must be from God.” Jesus swept the compliments aside. Sympathetic interest was a waste; “A new birth is what you need.” Nicodemus approached Jesus as a teacher. Jesus teaches: “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The expression has two meanings. Born “from above” and “again.” Both are implied. Jesus is offering Nicodemus’ a new master narrative – the Kingdom of God. Assume for a moment this metanarrative actually does come from the creator and redeemer of the cosmos. If that is true, by definition, it is different from every other worldview in its’ objective truth. And like hunger points to the existence of food, our human desire to understand the big picture points to a true metanarrative. (Have you ever wondered about how unhelpful it is on an evolutionary level for humans to sit around contemplating our place in the universe while saber tooth tigers awoke from hibernation looking for lunch?)

But although our hearts point us to a true metanarrative, Jesus says that neither Nicodemus, nor you and I, are free to find the metanarrative of the Kingdom on our own. It comes from above. We cannot accomplish it ourselves. In fact, Jesus says (John 3:3) we can’t even “see” it on our own.

Nicodemus, cannot make heads or tails of this. (John 3:4) “Can you return to your mother’s womb?” 

Now that Jesus has broached the topic of seeing new birth, he pushes past seeing, (John 3:5) “I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is not meant to be viewed from a safe distance. It is to be entered personally. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” One can imagine the evening wind rustling the olive branches. “Spirit” in both original biblical languages, suggests breath or wind. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus said. Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, commenting on this passage, said, “Don’t wait until you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you. Or wait until you know its destination before you spread sail to it…Trust yourself to it.”

Jesus places his coming in the context of the scriptural metanarrative (3:13-14). He refers to the last of the prophets, Daniel, with his vision of the messiah as the “Son of Man,” then connects his story even further back, to God’s ancient Law. In Numbers 21 Israel was in the wilderness, grumbling and snake-bit. The children of Israel were told to look upon a bronze serpent lifted up to live. Jesus, who elsewhere said the entire Old Testament referred to him, gives this as a small taste, “so must the son of man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” With a single reference Jesus points both backwards and forwards in history by equating this with his impending passion.

Now comes the central declaration of the Christian faith: John 3:16. The heart of God’s metanarrative, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” “God is love” is a precious truth, but God being loving necessitates no divine participation. “God so loved that he gave,” declares God is active, invested…getting his hand’s dirty for his creation.

And what object is sufficiently large for God’s self-giving love? Christianity is more than another world religions offering individual salvation. Oh, it contains that, but Jesus tells us, God’s scope is much more expansive. God’s object is the world itself. God himself redeemed the entire cosmos as Jesus was lifted up. The salvation offered by Jesus Christ has a vast, grand sweep. John 3:16 tells us that God’s love is:

  • Active: “God so loved…he gave.”
  • Personal: “his only begotten son”
  • Available: to “whoever believes”
  • Specific: Centered “in him
  • Purposeful: giving “eternal life.

In Jesus Christ, we see and enter God’s grand Kingdom metanarrative. We discover our narrative as well – that our purpose is bound up in God’s purposes.

St. Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord; And our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.”

The stories we believe matter.

Only one metanarrative explains human history. Only one fulfills scriptural prophecy. Only one makes sense of our universal experience of destiny. It is the story of God; who, in Jesus Christ, is activepersonalavailable… specific…and gives purpose to our lives.

What Jesus was effectively saying to Nicodemus is this: “What you think about me is only as helpful as it is accurate. You think I’m from God. That’s nice – but nice won’t get you new birth. Release yourself to the moving of God’s Spirit. Allow yourself to be refreshed by, to spread your sail to, God’s Spirit. Allow yourself reborn by the explainer of history, the fulfiller of prophecy, and the one who makes sense of our stories. Don’t entrust your life to narratives that don’t satisfy. Don’t surrender your life to a metanarrative that will end up on the dustbin of history…

God has told us his overarching story. He designed you and I for a place in that story as we are born from above and anew. He can do this because of who He is and what he has done, defeating death on Calvary. More than “a teacher sent from God”, Jesus is God himself, offering a new birth from above to all who believe, rewriting our stories in his, and allowing us to see, and enter the grand story of eternity.

 

Easter: The Story that Shapes all Stories

 

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Holy Week for Newbies

A few years back an international student from China named Peter spent his senior year of high school living with us. Growing up in an atheist country, Peter had no spiritual upbringing except to think that religion was something for silly people. After about six months of living with us (and attending church out of respect), we took a road trip to California. Peter was staring at the passing desert when he turned and blurted, “I think every hero movie is really just a metaphor for Jesus!”

I thought about Peter’s insight and realized that whether we are talking Lord of the Rings, Raiders, or Narnia; MIB, or the Matrix, an end of the world series streaming on Netflix or every Western ever, our epics are all variations on a theme. You can hear the deep voiced announcer on the trailer, “Dark forces hold the world in its’ grip. One man can deliver us. One solitary, misunderstood man.” And, just when all seems lost, a miraculous turn of events in the climactic showdown carries the day…and all is saved. And while this may have happened long, long ago, it was certainly not in a galaxy far, far away. The epics that captivate our imaginations all channel the same day: The day when God’s deliverer overcame the marshaled forces of evil, defeated the dark overlord, kicked down the gates of a prison called hell, and set a captive cosmos free.

Like a great movie, the timeline of the narrative can get complex …Time melds together: The victory may have been won, long, long ago, but it is a victory that transcends time, culture, and distance. It is a victory that is here. Now. Today.

But how does the resurrection of Jesus save us? Jesus making things right is called “atonement,” literally, “at-one-ment.” All Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves humanity by making us “at one” with God. But how those actions save has been the subject of centuries of study and contemplation. It is a complicated thing for an infinite God to communicate an infinite rescue to finite humans. To do that takes analogy. And finite analogies, by definition, all fall short somewhere.

I live in Texas these days. Texans, as good Bible-belters, generally see the cross and empty tomb in terms of the substitution analogy. You know this analogy: God sends his son to take our punishment to satisfy the legal debt of sin to God. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that’s wrong. I am simply saying that it is an analogy, and like all analogies, incomplete. The analogy of Jesus’ death satisfying a debt was first explored by Anselm in the 11th century, and developed in the Reformation. It is biblical, occurring most clearly in Paul, Hebrews, and places like 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This analogy works for us; Jesus satisfying the law resonates with people under the rule of law. And with today’s student loan balances, I suspect the idea of debt forgiveness isn’t going away anytime soon either.

But a penalty paid for laws broken is not the only way to understand the atonement. The analogy with a profound place in the early church was the Passover (from Exodus 12). You hear echoes of this in the ancient Communion prayers when they quote 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” You see this in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil from the 4th century, “He is the true paschal lamb…” (“pascha” being Greek for Passover).

It is interesting that the Jewish calendar had a day dedicated to forgiving sins through sacrifice, the Day of Atonement. One might expect that Jesus would have chosen The Day of Atonement to lay down his life…but he didn’t. God set Jesus’ redeeming work in motion at the Passover.  The Passover.

Same lamb. Different purpose.

Both Jewish feasts involve sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, the lamb’s death substituted for the sinner’s death. In Passover, a lamb also dies, but the lamb’s blood isn’t applied to the doorposts to cover sin, but rather to mark relationship. The blood notified the death angel to “pass over” as that family belonged to God. The Passover sacrifice had another ritual attached: The children of Israel ate the Passover lamb, a meal of belonging and communion. Then God used Moses to deliver His people from bondage and slavery through the Red Sea, from death to life.

The problem being solved at Passover was not of a lawless people, but a captive one. How Israel came to be in bondage was not addressed. God says to the captors, “Let my people go.” 

The New Testament describes Jesus as the New Moses who delivers God’s people. The people of God, are in bondage to sin and death, so Jesus intervenes. He forgives our sins and sets humanity free. At the last supper, Jesus becomes our New (wait for it) Passover meal, our meal of belonging and communion.

Unlike the Day of Atonement, the imagery in Passover is not legal. Sin is more than a legal infraction demanding God’s justice. Sin is primarily a heart condition: a life lived out of communion with God, the giver of life. We are not sinners because we do sinful stuff, we do sinful stuff because we seek life apart from God. Life apart from the source of life is death (Rom. 6:23 “the wages of sin”). Sin is deeper than a legal consequence (like getting a ticket for going too fast); sin is a natural consequence (like skidding off the road for going too fast).

In the Passover analogy…

God’s Son enters death, not to do our time, but to destroy our jail!

Jesus entered death itself to rescue us. In the resurrection, Christ defeats death, the last bondage. In the New Passover, God Himself becomes our sacrifice. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not only called the lamb of God, but to make his point, John actually moves the date of the Last Supper so that Jesus is killed on Passover…literally becoming our Passover lamb, slain for God to proclaim, “Mine” over you and me.

So when Jesus burst from the tomb, leaving an angel to tell the women “go find the disciples and Peter,” (Mark 16:7) the message may have been mystifying, but it was unmistakable: Death is destroyed. The evil forces defeated.

Because of the resurrection, we can live in God’s presence as designed. We can assume the vocations we were created for in the garden; image bearers of the creator, Gospel proclaimers, kings and priests, representing God to the creation, and representing the creation to God. All of this makes Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” a great movie for Easter, because the Passover helps us understand what all our hero movies point to: the amazing news of Easter.

Peter understood that our great stories are but variations on a theme – riffs on the one great story, the life-changing story of stories. And you and I are not only invited to the premier, we hold complementary tickets for our family, friends and colleagues.

Living as stewards of the story

How do we live as the freed captives God declares us to be? (And as those with pockets full of tickets?)

 

First, Love God. Love God by rediscovering worship. Real worship. In worship we represent the creation to God.

Second, Love people: Love them by serving them. In service we represent God to the creation.

Prisoner, the hero has done his part. You have been released. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a proof of concept, or the trump card in the argument for God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a proclamation: We are delivered from the evil forces. The gates are open. The chains released. That is why when we hear, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” We cannot help but reply, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

Chrystostom’s Paschal Sermon

Gangsta Easter

The In Between Day

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Today is the quiet day.

In the church historic, the art for today portrays the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus making proclamation to the “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-22), trampling the devil, destroying the gates of Hades, and leading Adam and the dead patriarchs from the tomb.

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Unfortunately, life is not lived from eternity backwards. We aren’t with Jesus as he, as the Apostle’s Creed says, descends “to the dead.”  We experience life from the perspective of those living between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Years ago, before being president of Eastern Seminary, Tony Campolo was a comedian. He had a memorable bit about the brilliance of Black preaching. He said something to the effect that while white pastors waxed eloquent for thousands of unmemorable words, Black preachers might build a sermon around a single sentence, but it would pack a spiritual punch. Campolo’s example was, “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s a comin’.” It may have been comedy, but it was terrific preaching. (a link of Campolo reprising bits of it 25 years later.) Unfortunately, we do not spend most of our lives in Good Friday, where the wheels come off our hopes and dreams. And we do not, most of us, spend the lion’s share of our life rejoicing in the power of God on Easter Sunday. We spend most of our days in between, in the day with no name, Saturday.

Good Friday is “good” because of Easter. But it gets hard to remember and difficult to believe a dawn is coming stuck in Saturday.

Years ago I read a book by Philip Yancey, an author I knew from excellent devotions he had written in a youth Bible. In the book he relayed a story of a friend’s grandmother who was buried in an Episcopal church yard under an ancient oak tree. She had a single word engraved on her tombstone: “Waiting”.

For God alone my soul in silence waits.” -Ps. 62:5

*If you are a fan of the preaching of the early church, click the photo below for a fantastic sermon attributed to Ephipanius…

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Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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Holy Week for Newbies

Have you ever wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday?

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well. The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth is the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

The cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates.

I was a leader for 25 years with Young Life, a ministry that focusses on explaining Jesus to unchurched high school kids. Every semester leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe more than a million high school kids will hang on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that night. When the message was finished kids sat in stunned silence. Except for a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran up to my face and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life. I have NEVER heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?”

Without thinking I said, “Maybe the church is so busy telling kids what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was, it turns out, a pretty good answer. But Josh missed my accidental brilliance. “I don’t know about that,” He turned toward the door, “I’m going Starbucks.” He pulls open my friend’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open. I have to tell someone what Jesus did for them!” The door slammed and Josh was gone.

Knowing what Jesus did on the cross in detail, Josh connected the dots to what he did know, that Jesus went to the cross to satisfy a debt that only God could pay. That night Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do, why he would go to the cross. In John 19:30 Jesus tells us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. All of the wandering, brokenness, and idolatry, taken in one awful fell swoop. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha on a cross between two thieves. And the universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said,  “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” That as well, finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” Finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what, that, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet Satan stood in hell and clapped. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh, uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Why is an execution a “Good” Friday? Because, since that Friday, regardless of what you see or hear or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won, won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

*How does one commemorate Good Friday? Generally there are two ways: The Good Friday liturgy and by walking the Stations of the Cross. At St. John the Divine, Houston we have the Good Friday liturgy at noon, and stations at 7am, 1 and 6pm. We also have a very powerful 7-7:45 pm service called “The Service of Shadows” that is an adaptation of a medieval service that tells the story of Jesus’ suffering at the cross through Old Testament prophecy, chant, shared responses, and growing darkness.

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Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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Holy Week for Newbies

Have you ever wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday?

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well. The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth is the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

The cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates.

I was a leader for 25 years with Young Life, a ministry that focusses on explaining Jesus to unchurched high school kids. Every semester leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe more than a million high school kids will hang on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that night. When the message was finished kids sat in stunned silence. Except for a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran up to my face and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life. I have NEVER heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?”

Without thinking I said, “Maybe the church is so busy telling kids what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was, it turns out, a pretty good answer. But Josh missed my accidental brilliance. “I don’t know about that,” He turned toward the door, “I’m going Starbucks.” He pulls open my friend’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open. I have to tell someone what Jesus did for them!” The door slammed and Josh was gone.

Knowing what Jesus did on the cross in detail, Josh connected the dots to what he did know, that Jesus went to the cross to satisfy a debt that only God could pay. That night Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do, why he would go to the cross. In John 19:30 Jesus tells us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. All of the wandering, brokenness, and idolatry, taken in one awful fell swoop. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha on a cross between two thieves. And the universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said,  “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” That as well, finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” Finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what, that, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet Satan stood in hell and clapped. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh, uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Why is an execution a “Good” Friday? Because, since that Friday, regardless of what you see or hear or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won, won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

*How does one commemorate Good Friday? Generally there are two ways: The Good Friday liturgy and by walking the Stations of the Cross. At St. John the Divine, Houston we have the Good Friday liturgy at noon, and stations at 7am, 1 and 6pm. We also have a very powerful 7-7:45 pm service called “The Service of Shadows” that is an adaptation of a medieval service that tells the story of Jesus’ suffering at the cross through Old Testament prophecy, chant, shared responses, and growing darkness.

 

Why are y’all calling Thursday “Monday” and going to church?

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Holy Week for Newbies

Several friends have asked this. I think they suspect Christians of being so out of touch with reality that we are intentionally self-trolling. “Maundy,” however, is the English-ification of “mandatum” (as in “mandate”). Latin for “command,” it comes from John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.”

Christians head to church on Maundy Thursday for services commemorating the events of Jesus’ final night on earth – the “Last Supper.” It was essentially a going away party in which Jesus hosted a passover dinner for his disciples and altered and reinterpreted the traditional Jewish seder by saying that the bread is his body, the wine is his blood, and that his followers should continue sharing that meal until he returns. No one present came anywhere close to understanding what he was talking about. (The event is recorded in great detail in John’s gospel, chapters 13-17, five chapters worth of text!)

Two events happen at Maundy Thursday services: A foot washing (Jesus washed the disciples feet in John 13:1-20), and after the Lord’s Supper (communion), the altar area is stripped of all ornamentation, greenery, books, symbols, and linen. The lights are then extinguished and the congregation exits in quietly. The uglification of the church in silence is a stark reminder of Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death was portrayed by each New Testament writer as a self-sacrificial act explained using a variety of analogies, among them; a substitution (not unlike that of Arnaud Beltrame this week), a great moral example, a ransom paid to redeem humans, and the victorious king over death and the grave. The scriptures use each of these analogies. Together they seem to me to be the many facets of a gemstone; take one away and the brilliance ceases, add them all together and beauty shines forth.

The question my non-church friends usually ask at this point is: “So, how are you guys doing with that new commandment Jesus gave you to love one another? It is a fair question. Are we washing one another’s feet?

And are we allowing God to strip bare the altars of our lives of all of the idolatrous stuff, inclinations, and ideas that we fill our hearts with?

Mommy Bloggers, Simplicity, and the Power of the Cross

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I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal. At least I thought I was.

And not just because, like Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy, I have many leatherbound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany. I had my moment of self-absorption when someone pointed out that my blog had more hits than other Episcopal clergy. I was so very impressed with myself…until it dawned on me that Episcopal clergy blogs are small potatoes. A mommy blogger got as many hits on a post about overcoming postpartum with a well-timed Lilly Pulitzer dress purchase as I had in 3 years of posting. I’m not mocking mommy blogs. Once the great writing was found in political commentary and pulpits. Today, much of the great writing is on mommy blogs. Mommy bloggers highlight the beauty and make simple the complexity of our lives in 500 words. I’m going to do my best to do that with Jesus and the cross…

Three short verses.

John 19:28-30: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they soaked a sponge and put it on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Three small words. 

“It is finished.” They are Jesus’ last words. His final message; His last impression. What does Jesus want to make sure we never forget? “It is finished.”

Three small words. Except they aren’t 3 words at all. In the original Greek there is but a single word: Tetelestai. It means “complete” or “finished.”  Jesus, having lived a sinless and sacrificial life, having said, “I lay down my life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45), having surrendered to a cross as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), uttered his last word: “Tetelestai.” “It is finished.” It might be the single most important word in all of Scripture: Tetelestai. “It is finished.” “Complete.” It was the word printed on a bill when payment had been received. We write, “Paid in full.” They wrote, “Tetelestai.” The word occurs in the New Testament in this form in this one place, surely John’s original readers would have noticed the implication: The bill for all human brokenness and rebellion has “paid in full” stamped across it.

Paul spends Romans 5 discussing how Jesus’ death defeated the effects of Adam’s sin, completely. Paul spends Romans 8 discussing one result that payment rendered, neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The Grammar of Faith

No one likes grammar, but here grammar is our friend. “Tetelestai” is in the perfect tense, used to indicate a completed action with ongoing effects extending into the future. Jesus could have used the tense of simple action, etelesthay, “The work is done.” But this action was anything but simple.  Because Jesus fully and perfectly completed his task, the ongoing effects are that you and I are offered union with God forever. And, as bearers of that union, you and I carry the potential to live lives brimming over with meaning and purpose – we bear the Good News of the completion Jesus purchased for a lost and sin-sick world. It is finished; Tetelestai. The gospel in a single word; Tetelestai. Sin need never stand between humanity and God again; Tetelestai.

How do we experience life “paid in full”?

That receipt is given by grace. Received through faith. Cemented by baptism. And fed by word and sacrament. It was bought by God himself for “all who receive him,” (Jn 1:12) Tetelestai is an astounding mystery. “Paid.” Complete. Finished. Brought to perfection. Forever.

This Sunday of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the king of glory wills to enter the gates of your life. Receive your king. He has bought us, paid our debt, and sends us into the world on holy mission, destined to never have an ordinary moment again. Tetelestai.

Neither Ron Burgundy, nor you or I is that big a deal.  Jesus Christ is a big deal. The big deal. He has bought us, paid our debt, and sends us into the world on holy mission, destined to never have an ordinary moment again. Tetelestai.

 

Image credit: Graham Sutherland “Study for Crucifixion,” 1947. Downloaded from smp.org

 

Come Out of Hiding

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Photo courtesy of Diocese of Phoenix, retrieved from dphx.org

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(Guest post by my friend, the Rev. Louise Samuelson)

I remember listening to Jesus’s words against public displays of prayer and fasting while waiting for the priest to smear a very noticeable swath of black ash onto my forehead. Isn’t this inviting the very hypocrisy Jesus seems to be condemning?

But what if the practice of putting on ashes is not hypocrisy at all but rather irony? The people of Jesus’s day would make a great show of their humility by covering themselves with ashes. We on the other hand are masters of cleaning up. We spend a great deal of time and money to look good. We practice slapping a smile on our faces and letting the world know we are fine. We hide behind façades we create, knowing too well that to often our outsides do not match our insides.

Maybe this practice of smearing our foreheads with ashes gives us an opportunity to reveal our hidden truth. Maybe this liturgy we participate in on Ash Wednesday stage manages us into public exposure: we are not what we seem.

These burned up particles of carbon remind us that we are made of the stuff of the earth. To be human, to be humble, and to be humus or earth, all come from the same root word for “ground.” The ashes we spread on our foreheads “ground” us in the reality of who we are: human beings, created by God, and connected to every other created thing.

These ashes also remind us that we are not what we seem, but sinners living hidden lives. The ashes remind us to be real and vulnerable. To show the world what is true about me. I’m not perfect. I’m a bit of a mess.

We are invited on this day by the prophet Joel to come out of our hiding places and return to the Lord. The great irony is that we are called to return in vulnerability to the God who knows in secret and sees in secret. The God who spoke carbon particles into existence and created us in his image, this is who we return to. This is the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The God who sees our secrets is the God whose property is always to have mercy.

The grace of God is the setting in which we return. God’s natural inclination is mercy. As we come out of hiding and acknowledge that this God of mercy sees us, we are ready to begin a Holy Lent, to practice disciplines that will lead us to integration. We can begin to become people whose insides match our outsides.

How does this transformation to integrity come about? Jesus mentions three practices used for millenniums to become who God intended: Giving to the needy, fasting, and prayer. It is through generosity, dying to ourselves, and meeting intimately with God that we become the people God designed us to be.

I love the definition of intimacy as “in to me see.” As we practice the disciplines of generosity, fasting and prayer in secret, where our loving Father sees us, we allow God to see into us…and intimacy is developed.

Many people like to give up or take on something during Lent. The three disciplines that Jesus mentions could be could be divided into things that we take on that help others, things that we give up that keep us from being who God intends us to be, and things we take on that help us grow in intimacy with God.

I remember a time in my life that I was painfully aware that my insides did not match my outsides. I looked like a good Christian mother, leading bible studies, and homeschooling my children. But I had doubts about God and felt far from him. I also felt if I shared that with anyone in my circle I would be rejected. I also had some unhealthy habits that seemed to have total control over me.

The first step I had to take was to come out of hiding to a couple of trusted friends. I needed to allow them to see into me. Fortunately in the midst of my doubts I had a trust in God’s Grace and mercy.

I’ll never forget that first Lent when I was a part of this particular group of safe friends. I decided that I would fast from all food every Wednesday. I wanted to look at the hold that excess food had over me. I also took on an extra time of prayer Wednesday nights. My sweet husband would take our three children out to dinner. I would light a candle, get out my bible and journal and spend the evening with the God who sees me and loves me in secret.

Giving up food for a day, and taking on a special date with God changed my faith. I became a more integrated person free to be honest about my struggles and free to be available for others. It all started with a loving place where I could be real and a simple trust in God’s never ending love for me.

As you enter this Lenten season, let these ashes be a moment of honesty for you. Allow yourself to be seen as a bit of a mess. Then allow yourself to go inside and meet in secret with the God who loves you. Let him show you what you might take on or what you might give up. Then find a small group of people you can be real with, allow them to be that safe space for you to be seen.

I hope that each of us we will experience a deeper more intimate relationship with God this Lent. God will reward you with more of himself and with a life of integrity, where your insides and outside will reveal the beautiful person you are in Christ.

 

Dissing Christmas: The Church Fathers Pile On

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Starbucks. Target. City halls refusing to put up nativities. This relentless attack on Christmas must stop! Who is going to do battle with our cherished celebration next? The early church fathers? Say what? Listen to a “Justice League” of early fathers ruin Christmas by pointing out that, outside of the holy family, pretty much everything in your nativity crèche is based in fiction rather than biblical reality.

Assumptions v. Reality: The Church Fathers straighten us out on Christmas Night

Let’s contrast our modern version of the Christmas story with the perspective of the early Fathers who stood far closer, both chronologically and culturally, to Jesus’ birth than we do.Justice League Christmas Dis.002

  1. Not Announced by a star

We assume a star over the manger announced the King’s arrival. Like many of our beliefs about the Christmas story, we get that idea from Christmas carols. “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay…” Reality: The star came later (See assumption 3). The heralds were angels, who, as Cyril of Alexandria said in the 5th century, “never oppose the will of the one whose message they bear.”[1] God’s personal messenger service brought the news. For God, when it comes to salvation, it’s personal.

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  1. No Wise Men

Regardless of the school nativity play or the crèche on your mantel, the wise men were not even present at the birth. They arrived a year or so later. (Which explains Herod putting a hit on anyone under two years of age[2] and why the church celebrates the coming of the wise men as Epiphany on Jan 6.) In reality Shepherds were the first non-family to greet Jesus at his birthIn the 200’s Origen wrote, “the host of heaven brought the message of humanities’ good shepherd.” Bonus: There is also no indication from the text that it was the shepherd’s status on the peasant rung of the working-class ladder that amazed the public. What amazed was the message: “peace on earth.” From the divine perspective, “peace on earth” is only possible if there is peace with God – the enmity brought between humanity and God by sin removed. When the ones raising lambs for the temple system were sent to find a baby swaddled the way they swaddled their lambs to keep them spotless for the atonement sacrifices, everyone heard an implication: This baby would be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[3]

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  1. Not an Inn

In the pop culture version Mary and Joseph were rejected, turned away from a packed Inn In the Greek New Testament, the word for “Inn” is pandocheion, a place travelers paid for a common kitchen and dormitory, like a hostel. But that word isn’t in this text. Joseph and Mary instead went to a kataluma, “the spare or upper room in a private house…no payment was expected.”[4] A kataluma is where the disciples ate the Last Supper, not an “inn,” an “upper room.”[5] Joseph, seems to have done what Middle Easterners do to this day: showed up at a relative’s so that family could extend hospitality. Presumably, coming from a distance with a pregnant wife, other family perhaps already have the guest room for the census. Although despised and rejected by men[6] as an adult, Jesus was welcomed on his arrival. In the 3rd century Chrysostem wrote, he was “not in some small room but in the home before numerous people.”[7]

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  1. No Stable

Regardless of what your mom said, you probably weren’t born in a barn and Jesus probably wasn’t either, since animals were not kept in barns in 1st Century Palestine. They were kept in the lower level of the main house. The manger is on the main level so that the animals could put their faces in and eat.[8] Jesus was born in the main room and, as Gregory of Nazianzus said, “bound in swaddling bands at the manger to release humanity from the swaddling bands of the grave at the resurrection.”[9] No wonder his mother named him, Jesus, meaning, “God saves.”

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  1. Not on Christmas.

Jesus’ had a Christmas birthday, right? Wrong. Because the shepherds were in the field, scholars conclude Jesus’ birth was in Spring or Fall. How did we get Dec. 25? A common theory is that we co-opted the Roman feast of the Unconquerable Sun. However, the church, long before it gave a rip about the holidays of Rome’s pantheon of gods, believed Jesus was both conceived and crucified on March 25. They counted forward 9 months from conception, giving us, viola, Dec. 25. In reality, it is the era rather than the day of Jesus’ birth that is important. Jesus was born during the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, allowing the news of him to spread. 7th century historian Bede wrote, “Jesus was born at the time of utmost worldly peace to lead the world back to heavenly peace.”[10]

Conclusion: When Jesus arrived and God dwelt among us[11] he didn’t just, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased, “move into the neighborhood,”[12] he moved into the front room. As Athanasius wrote in the 3rd century, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.”[13] That is the point of Jesus entering what pagan philosopher Celsus called, the ragtag and bobtail of humanity.[14]

What do we learn of Christmas from the Fathers? It would be good to learn our Bibles and our story and defend our faith against shallow thinking and ministers who lack the training to teach the scriptures rather than simply critiquing the culture. The truth of Christmas we learn from the scriptures is that angelic messengers let us know that, for God, “it’s personal.” He may have been a helpless baby, but more than a helpless baby, Jesus would be the spotless lamb of God to be sacrificed, shattering the separation of sin. Jesus was at home in the world he had made,[15] in the midst of the stuff of life. His name means “God saves” and his birth is an invitation to that salvation: God joined us “in the fullness of time” to bring peace to the world, that we might be united to him eternally.[16]

Your crèche might be bogus, but the incarnation most certainly is not. Christian, reclaim Christmas by worshipping the manger-born King, walking with God rather than expecting non-believers to, learning our scriptures in the context of historic teaching, and bear witness to the power of that babe to bring “peace on earth, goodwill to those in whom he is well-pleased.”  

*And yes, I do know Perpetua isn’t a “Father,” but someone had to be Gal Gadot.

[1] Commentary on Luke, Homily 2

[2] Matt 2:16

[3] John 1:29

[4] ISBE, 2004

[5] Luke 22:12

[6] Isaiah 53:3

[7] Against the Anomoeans, 7.49

[8] There are a plethora of references on this one. Google it.

[9] Oration 29.19

[10] Homilies on the Gospels, 1.6

[11] John 1:14

[12] The Message,

[13] On the Incarnation

[14] Contra Celsus,

[15] John 1:1

[16] Galatians 4:4