Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 – The Beauty in Brokenness

The Almighty God, the Lord, speaks;
    he calls to the whole earth from east to west.
God shines from Zion,
    the city perfect in its beauty.

Our God is coming, but not in silence;
    a raging fire is in front of him,
    a furious storm around him.
He calls heaven and earth as witnesses
    to see him judge his people.
He says, “Gather my faithful people to me,
    those who made a covenant with me by offering a sacrifice.”
The heavens proclaim that God is righteous,
    that he himself is judge.

“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
    I will testify against you, Israel.
    I am God, your God.
I do not reprimand you because of your sacrifices
    and the burnt offerings you always bring me….

“Listen to this, you that ignore me,
    or I will destroy you,
    and there will be no one to save you.
Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honors me,
    and I will surely save all who obey me.” (Good News Translation)

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

Ever since, the Lord has been on a mission, bending down, carefully looking for the broken shards, finding them, and picking them up. From east to west, God has been gathering together everyone on earth – the broken yet divinely lighted humans.

A major theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture is that God is reaching all kinds of people all over the world. Indeed, the Bible is a long unfolding drama of redemption in which the Lord does whatever it takes to restore a fundamentally broken world.

“Kintsugi” (literally, in English, “golden joinery”) is a centuries-old Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery with gold. Instead of rejoining broken ceramic pieces with a clear camouflaged adhesive, the kintsugi technique uses a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold. After restoration, beautiful seams of gold glint in the obvious cracks of the ceramic vessel. This also means that every restored ceramic piece has a unique appearance; no two of them are the same.

The Lord is presently in the divine workshop, putting broken shards of humanity together. And God isn’t trying to hide or disguise the cracks and flaws; it’s just the opposite: God celebrates the artifact by emphasizing it’s fractures and breaks. As it turns out, the restoration which the Lord employs brings the vessel to even greater beauty than it originally enjoyed. It’s the transformation of a new existence from the old.

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

Amidst the human pain all around us, and within us, we can observe the sacred light, and turn in the direction of beauty. We can hear the call of God to respond with gratitude and thanksgiving, instead of relying upon some physical or monetary sacrifice to suffice our spiritual obligations.

We are here to participate with God in redeeming that which is broken. The sacrificial activity that honors the Lord, and gathers the strewn shards, is a grateful heart with lips that speak thankfulness. Humanity can only see the power of God to save and restore, whenever us jars of clay practice gratitude and obedience to the Lord.

The world’s observation of a perfect vessel is not what draws anyone to faith. Rather, it is seeing an imperfect vessel, put together with a divine glue of gold, the cracks visible and showing for all to notice. Perfectionism is repellent to most folk; it smacks of others attempting to appear something they are not; it’s disingenuous and insincere.

Imperfection, however, speaks of being genuine and real; it brings solidarity with others; it relates and seeks to connect. Observing broken pieces put back together through God’s kintsugi communicates that suffering can be changed into beauty.

Today’s psalm is a reminder for us to stay optimistic when things fall apart and to celebrate the flaws and missteps of life. It teaches us that, when God breaks and destroys, this is not necessarily a mark of judgment. It lets us know that we can be calm when all falls apart. It reminds us that the fragility of humanity is not ugly but beautiful. It reminds us that amidst so much complexity, there is simple beauty all around us, if we will but seek and see.

In a world that has a hard time accepting all the breaks, scars, and imperfections of life, there is a God who is undisturbed by it all. The Lord gently, patiently, and skillfully puts us back together again so that a beautiful transformation of heart and life results.

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

Grant us, O God, not to be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly and, even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Acts 5:12-16 – Healing For All

The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 

As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed. (New International Version)

Healing is a universal longing.

To long for healing, of course, presupposes that something or someone is broken.

Those with bodily ills and infirmities; the ones carrying diseased and disordered minds; those with deep emotional wounds; and tortured souls with broken hearts and damaged spirits are all intimately familiar with pain – not to mention their friends and loved ones who observe their suffering day after day.

How will the healing ever come? When will it ever be realized? Dare I hope for a miracle?

There is a reason the ancient apostles were able to be agents of healing. There was something happening privately which worked itself out in miraculous public healing. Within the believing community, earnest prayers were being offered:

Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:30, NIV)

Just as all were healed when brought to Jesus, so the same happened with his followers.

The natural world, along with the most modern medical practices and interventions, has its limitations. Yet, the supernatural realm is unlimited in its power and scope to bring thorough and complete healing.

Prayer discerns and understands that humanity is limited in its abilities to transform and heal. There is no magical incantation to access such power. There isn’t any specific formula to achieve results. There is only the simple prayers and faithful ministry of believing persons who know that healing can come in many forms and in various ways.

In many cases, I have witnessed my hospital patients improve without any specific medical interventions – decades of intestinal issues gone; heart and brain function restored (which, biologically, doesn’t return when lost); and even the paralyzed walking again.

A miracle isn’t finding an open spot in a busy parking lot. Miracles don’t occur by sending in $19.95 to a “faith healer” who will pray and rid you of your gout.

Bona fide miracles have no natural, medical, or biological explanation. They aren’t tied to money. They only have divine explanations.

Prayers offered daily, and for years, are still effective prayers. That’s because the miraculous occurs irrespective of time.

There shall be healing. It just might not be today. We may have to wait.

Whenever God heals, there is complete healing. The physical trauma of an accident or disease isn’t confined to the body. It also traumatizes the person mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. This is why faithful believers who come out of a major surgery may feel estranged from God. It’s not that God is absent, or that the individual did something wrong. The spirit just needs to heal along with the body.

The Lord wants to heal the whole person. Whenever a person has been emotionally abused, that abuse is experienced throughout the entirety of personhood. It is common for such persons to have a bevy of physical health issues in their lives. As the individual is healed from their damaged emotions, the body follows.

In this era of religious, church, and clergy abuse, the broken spirits left in its wake need healing. Victims may find themselves with chronic depression, anxiety, or other mental and emotional disorders. The spiritual healing which the Lord carefully provides will also effect the mind and the feelings.

The deepest need of healing is holistic – to impact the breadth and depth of a person’s life. The myriad diseases, disorders, and depressions of humanity are devastating enough, in and of themselves. Yet, they also create social separation, economic challenges, emotional distress, spiritual wondering, relational disconnection, terrible grief, and grinding loneliness.

God seeks to restore a life, and not just a malady.

Restoration to a family, a community, a workplace, a position of respect and responsibility, and to God is the Lord’s goal for all humanity.

The Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. (Deuteronomy 30:3-4, NIV)

Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens,
    you who have done great things.
    Who is like you, God?
Though you have made me see troubles,
    many and bitter,
    you will restore my life again;
from the depths of the earth
    you will again bring me up.
You will increase my honor
    and comfort me once more. (Psalm 71:19-21, NIV)

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 5:10-11, NRSV)

Our simple prayers focused on the restorative healing of a person, are what God has chosen to use to mend the broken. Prayer is not a last resort; it is always the believer’s first order of business.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 12:1-11 – Monday of Holy Week

Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, the man he had raised from death. They prepared a dinner for him there, which Martha helped serve; Lazarus was one of those who were sitting at the table with Jesus. Then Mary took a whole pint of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard, poured it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house. One of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot—the one who was going to betray him—said, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would help himself from it.

But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! Let her keep what she has for the day of my burial. You will always have poor people with you, but you will not always have me.”

A large number of people heard that Jesus was in Bethany, so they went there, not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from death.So, the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus too, because on his account many Jews were rejecting them and believing in Jesus. (Good News Translation)

Jesus entered Jerusalem, the day before, on Sunday, with the people waving and lying down palm branches, along with shouts of “hosanna!” Although Jesus had been speaking about his death, weeks before his triumphal entry, most folks were clueless as to what was about to happen.

But Mary Magdalene did. She truly listened to the Master. Her spiritual ears and eyes were fully opened to the significance of this week. Mary was completely aware.

A woman with a sordid background, Mary Magdalene had her life thoroughly transformed through meeting Jesus. She became a follower, in every sense of the word. As an attentive disciple, Mary knew her Lord. She observed every little thing about Jesus, hung on every word, knew each voice inflection and every gesture.

Now, near the end of Christ’s earthly life, and only days from being arrested, tried, tortured, and killed, Mary sensed what was happening. She saw the pained affect on her Lord’s face that no one else noticed. She was cognizant of what was happening, while the others seemed clueless.

Mary’s own brokenness cracked open to her the true reality of life, the real meaning of the unfolding days, and the deep gravity of this week.

The surface event itself is a touching and tender moment in history. This woman, whom everyone knew as a damaged person, took a high-end perfume, and broke the entire thing open.

Mary then proceeded to anoint Christ’s feet with it. You can imagine the aroma filling the house with an expensive perfume for all to smell. Giving what she had to Jesus, Mary demonstrated the path of true discipleship.

Mary’s act of faith in anointing Jesus was deeply symbolic:

  • The broken jar of perfume shows us the brokenness of Mary and our need to be broken. (Matthew 5:3-4)
  • Mary used an extraordinary amount of perfume, picturing her overflowing love for Jesus. (John 20:1-18)
  • Mary applied the perfume to Jesus with her hair (hair is a cultural symbol of submission and respect). (1 Corinthians 11:14)
  • The perfume directs us to the death of Jesus. (John 19:38-42)
  • The perfume highlights for us the aroma of Christ to the world. (2 Corinthians 2:15-17)
  • There is more to Judas than his words about perfume; he is not actually concerned for the poor. (Matthew 26:15)
  • Judas and Mary serve as spiritual contrasts: Mary opens herself to the sweet aroma of Christ; Judas just plain stinks.
  • The perfume presents a powerful picture of the upcoming death of Christ, for those with eyes to see; he was broken and poured out for our salvation. (Luke 23:26-27:12)

Christianity was never meant to be a surface religion which merely runs skin deep. The follower of Christ is meant for deep personal transformation, inside and out, so that there is genuine healing, spiritual health, and authentic concern for the poor and needy. 

Keeping up appearances is what the Judas’s of this world do. But the Mary’s among us dramatically point others to Jesus with their tears, humility, vulnerability, openness, and love.

In our contemporary social and cultural landscape of fragmented human ecology, our first step toward wholeness and integrity begins with a posture of giving everything we have – body, soul, and spirit – to the Lord Jesus.

Sometimes it takes a woman to show us the way.

On this Monday of Holy Week, a tangible act may help us to express and deepen our faith. Take a bottle of unopened perfume or cologne, pour it completely out into a used tin can, and set the can in a central place in your home, just for the day* The aroma will likely linger into the next few days, as well. Let the smell be a continual reminder of both the sadness of death and the joy of salvation.

Loving Lord Jesus, my Savior, and my friend, you have gone before us and pioneered deliverance from an empty way of life and into a life of grace and gratitude. May I and all your followers emulate the path of Mary and realize the true freedom which comes from emptying oneself out for you. Amen.

*When you are ready, it is appropriate to dispose of the perfume by pouring it down the drain. Even this can be a ritual in which you visualize discarding your old life in order to take up a new one on Easter Sunday.

Life by Death

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A lot of people don’t like change. That is likely an understatement. Change means adjusting to a different reality and adjusting is not something we prefer doing. Many folks would much rather keep things the way they are. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes—these are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives.

Even good change is difficult, if for no other reason than what it takes to get there. Becoming debt-free, getting in shape, or starting a new job are all good changes to make, but to making them can take a lot of determination and effort on our part. In many cases, to change something about ourselves, we must be willing to admit what we are doing is not working and try something different.

God’s love in Jesus Christ changes everything. The kind of change Jesus talked about and died for was not making a few alterations to our lives or re-arranging some of our schedule. For Jesus, change is neither about exerting more effort nor adding things to an already full to-do list.

The change Jesus embraces is a complete transformation from the inside-out. For that to happen, to have a new life, the old life must die. What’s more, Jesus does not want us half dead because then we are only spiritual zombies, not really living the life God intended for us. No, if there is to be a resurrection and new life, there must be a death (John 12:20-33). There are three ways people need to die to live the life that God desires….

1.We need to die to our plans.

Jesus had a crowd of people following him wherever he went. He was interesting and compelling, even magnetic. Christ taught like no other person before him and healed all kinds of people. In the first century, Jesus became the latest fad.  With his fame, there were people who looked to Jesus to further their own agenda and their plans about how things should go.

Earlier in chapter twelve of John’s Gospel, the Apostle recorded a contrast between two people: Mary and Judas. Mary is a picture of dying to her own plans of how things should go. Mary took some expensive perfume, the kind that could have set her up for some needed financial security and poured it all on Jesus’ feet. Then, she humbly wiped it on him with her hair. It is a picture of giving herself completely and wholly to Jesus, no matter the cost, with no strings attached and no other agenda other than total devotion.

Judas, on the other hand, piously objected to Mary’s act of worship. We might hear him rationally pushback on what Mary was doing, saying to his fellow disciple, “My friends, this is a lot of money – money that could be used for the poor instead of needlessly wasting it. A little perfume is fine, but to use the whole bottle is over the top – it isn’t fiscally responsible!” Judas had a secret agenda. He was not thinking of giving himself completely to Jesus, but of how he could use the cash for himself and his own purposes. 

Judas is the picture of a spiritual zombie – half dead, walking around saying all kinds of spiritual things, but only devoted to Jesus and God’s kingdom when it agreed with him. Judas had his own ideas of how the kingdom operation ought to go. When he became convinced Jesus was not going to operate according to his agenda and plans, Judas betrayed him.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

galatians 2:20, niv

In John 12:20-22, we have some Greeks (Gentiles) who want to see Jesus. They are interested in him. Unlike Judas and Mary, we are not told why they wanted to meet with him. But the fact that Jesus does not jump on the chance to interact with them probably says something about their motives. 

It is the nature of many people to want to observe whatever big thing is going on. They want to be in the know and talk about the latest happenings. Whenever we see “the crowd” in the Gospels, it is typically a negative connotation, a statement of by-standers, just looking on. 

Much of Christ’s ministry was to teach, heal, cajole, and do whatever he could to press the crowd, the by-standers, into not just following him as a novelty. Jesus wanted them to really follow him by dying to themselves and adopting a new life in the kingdom of God.

When I was a senior in high school the Pope came to Iowa, of all places! Never had that happened. 350,000 people came to see him. It was on a Friday, and we got two days off from school, mainly because trying to get around those two days was nearly impossible. Literally, everything shut down for the event. There were so many people that John Paul II got dropped in on one of Jimmy Carter’s presidential helicopters. 

I lived exactly thirteen miles from where the Pope spoke and had mass with the Catholic faithful. Protestants and Jews flocked to see him, as well. No car was allowed within a five-mile radius of the Pope. People had to park miles away and get shuttled-in. I knew several people from my small town that walked the thirteen miles one way just to see John Paul II. It was exciting and incredible, and is still talked about today in Iowa, forty years later.

Not everyone there that day in Iowa was a faithful Christ follower. Most people do not remember much about what John Paul II said, other than affirming the work of farmers as a needed vocation. Jesus was not at all interested in being a king in the conventional sense. He did not seek popularity or work to consolidate power through sheer force of will or personality. Instead, he died. And he calls us to die, as well – to die to our plans and to our perceived need to be in the know and hob-nob with a celebrity.

2. We must die to self.

This was the message of Jesus. There is no wiggle room to it. There are no walking dead zombies. Jesus responded to the request of the Greeks to see him by not even dealing with it but going on about what people really need to do: die to self.

To make his message clear and understandable, Jesus used the illustration of a seed that must die before it bears fruit.  Seeds wait to germinate until three needs are met: proper amounts of water, warm temperature, and good soil. During its early stages of growth, the seedling relies upon the food supplies stored within the seed until it is large enough for its own leaves to begin making food through photosynthesis. The seedling’s roots push down into the soil to anchor the new plant and to absorb water and minerals from the soil. And its stem with new leaves pushes up toward the light.

This is exactly the kind of process Jesus said needs to happen with people in the kingdom of God. People must never settle for remaining as seeds because that is not what we are designed for. Jesus wants us to be transformed, to experience new life, and to bear righteous fruit. To follow Jesus means to die being a seed and growing into a fruit bearing plant with more seeds to have the whole process occur again.

Jesus said that the person who “hates” their life will gain eternal life. That is, the person who is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus will find true life in Christ. The one who serves Jesus will follow him. Hate is simply a biblical term that means we make the choice to avoid one path in favor of another.

When living in West Michigan, my family enjoyed summers on the beaches of Lake Michigan. My girls loved being there on hot summer days. The beaches are actual sand, not with any gravel or dirt. I would tell my girls to follow me and walk in my footprints. I told them that not only because it would be easier for them to walk, but so they would not stray from me.

Lent is a season designed for us to remember Jesus, to remember we belong to God, and to repent of anything that keeps us away from the Lord.  This brings us to the third way we need to die….

3. We are to die to the world.

Now is the time for judgment on the world. The prince of this world is driven out. The death of Jesus means we can now die to the world. “World” is not the people of this world, in the sense of John 3:16 that God loves the world. This is “world” as the unjust systems that operate within it. Christ achieved victory over this world. He died so that we no longer need to be locked into the oppressive ways of bondage and evil.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.

1 John 2:15-17, NLT

Jesus lived in a vastly different manner than people expected. He was quite counter-cultural. Christ rarely submitted to the usual way of doing things. Jesus did not operate like a worldly king. He did not teach like a worldly instructor. He died not only to redeem individuals but also to redeem entire systems and transform them into instruments of godliness. 

God cares about systemic evil, about ways of operating which keep people in bondage. Jesus cares about politics, economics, and social structures. He cares about governments and municipalities. The Lord cares about school systems and family systems and, yes, even church systems. Jesus died so that we can die to the world’s broken systems. God desires all our institutional ways of operation come under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

It will not do to only focus on private spirituality because Jesus wants to redeem the entire planet, systems included. Jesus is the Judge, and he is currently about the business by means of the Holy Spirit of making all things new. Eventually, the new creation will completely take over when Jesus returns. Now, in the present time, we have this crazy mixture of good and evil everywhere we go. Christians are to follow Jesus personally and privately, as well as corporately and publicly.

For example, the “factory system” is an actual phrase. The factory system is designed to mass produce products with the greatest efficiency possible. And it works. However, in the process, people become extensions of the machines they operate. With efficiency and production as the highest priorities, people can be replaced like cogs in the machine. 

Walk into many American factories and you will see sagging morale and deep animosities between workers and management because the system itself is inherently flawed. Simply implementing some safety protocols and giving a few raises are merely zombie tactics. The system still needs redemption.

When we take seriously the call to follow Christ, we see that the world and its systems are fundamentally broken and in need of redemption. Jesus has deposed the ruler of this world, Satan, through crucifixion and resurrection. We need to die to this world and to systemic evil.

Conclusion

We all become frustrated and discouraged at times, either with ourselves and/or with the world’s evil that exists around us, making our lives hard and even unbearable. Jesus knows how you feel. His soul was troubled with all the sin of the world. And he faced agony beyond anything we will ever know by allowing himself to die. The kind of death Jesus died was awful. It was that way because that is how horrible sin and sinful systems are.

Today Jesus is calling us to die – die to our plans of how we think things should go; die to ourselves by following in his footsteps; and die to participating in the sinful structures and systems of this evil world. We are to live differently. We are to live new lives – which means not simply tweaking some things but completely re-orienting our lives to serve the Lord.

Jesus is drawing us to himself. He is making himself known. Let us not treat Jesus as a novelty, but as the rightful Ruler of the universe by dying to our plans, ourselves, and the world.