A Drama of Redemption

Tiger Woods

There was a time in my life (a long time ago!) when I played at least 9 holes of golf every day.  While married and raising kids, I did a lot less of it.  Yet, some of my best “visits” with parishioners were on the golf course.  In 2005, that all changed when I was in a car accident.  My back has never been the same.  I’ve never been able to twist and torque my body to swing a golf club.  It’s possible that I could try and reinvent my swing.  However, it hasn’t been a priority for me with all of life’s responsibilities.

So, I have mostly taken to the occasional weekend watching golf on TV.  I enjoy both the competition and skill of the professionals, and the stunning beauty of the courses they play.  This weekend was the Masters, which is probably the greatest and the best of the four major golf tournaments played each year.  Yesterday was an amazing final day of the tournament.  Tiger Woods, who hadn’t won a major tournament in over ten years, and had not won the Masters since 2005, came out of the pack to win.

I found myself unusually glued to the TV watching him.  As the holes progressed, I became more and more vested into Tiger’s performance.  By the time the final three holes were played, I was hanging on every stroke.  And when he putted on the 18th green, I went nuts.  Seeing him hug his kids and everyone congratulating him brought a well of tears to my eyes.  So, I am now asking, why did I have such an emotional reaction?

Because I know the story of Tiger Woods.  He was a golf prodigy at a young age.  He won his first of his five Masters tournaments at age 21.  It looked as though he was going to completely shatter every golf record in the books.  Then, his life began to unravel.  He was arrested for drunken driving; multiple affairs were discovered as many women came forward; divorce from his wife; years of competitive golf ravaged his body with several knee and back surgeries.  Tiger didn’t even play one round of golf in a nearly two-year stretch.  Indeed, it appeared he was done with golf.

Yesterday’s victory was more than winning a golf tournament.  Tiger’s victory was an incredible comeback story.  That, however, was not really what brought me to tears.  It was what I observed from him as he walked and played the course yesterday.  This was clearly a different Tiger Woods.  The younger Tiger approached golf with a must-win attitude.  I heard him, quite often, swear at himself before the censors could catch it on televised tournaments.  He moved about with a steeled compulsion as if he must win; must be better; must be on top; must be the best.  It resulted in more victories; more prestige; more money; more women; more everything.  It was an almost demoniacal obsession to play flawless and victorious golf.  Even when he was the golf’s world number one, Tiger set about reinventing his swing in the attempt to be an even better golfer.

Then, Tiger experienced a hard fall from grace; which was inevitable when the compulsive and neurotic self is in the driver’s seat.  However, yesterday I saw a much more relaxed Tiger.  He was incredibly composed and extremely patient in how he approached his round of golf.  He had a very different look in his eye.  Yes, he wanted to win. Yet, he didn’t seem to be obsessed; as if just being on the course and in the mix of competition again was enough for him.  Tiger’s creativity around the course seemed spontaneous and free, as opposed to his earlier years where his imagination could only seem to picture conquering the golf course.

This was a story of redemption played-out in front of us all while we watched the Masters.  So, when Tiger Woods won, without the neurotic need to do so, the tears came.  Truth be told, I relate to the neurotic self.  I resonate with the younger years of driving to be the best preacher in the world and the compulsion to read, study, and learn everything I could to be on the very top of my game as a minister of the gospel.  I never experienced a fall to the degree of Tiger, yet I know the feeling of being toppled through years of ministry wear and tear; of wondering if my body and soul would be able to do pastoral work again.

I am curious as to how Tiger Woods changed.  I suspect through all his inner crap and outer conflict that he eventually discovered the real Tiger underneath all the compulsion and drive.  Yesterday was his greatest triumph, in more ways than winning a golf tournament.  He was unusually calm.  He had determination, yet it did not seem to dominate his actions.  I saw a person enjoying the experience.  In the post-victory interviews, Tiger indeed acknowledged his profound gratitude for the ability to play and to play at a high level.

USP PGA: MASTERS TOURNAMENT - FINAL ROUND S GLF USA GA

I don’t know if Tiger will win again.  I don’t know how much golf he has in him.  At 43-years-old with his body ramshackled together through so many surgical interventions, it is quite possible that retirement is near.  Yet, whatever happens, I feel privileged to have watched not only a phenomenal golfer; I have observed a real transformation of a person.

I suppose I see a lot of myself in Tiger Woods.  There are, certainly, many ways we are dissimilar.  There are also ways we are similar.  I relate to being on a journey of self-transformation.  I can look back in hindsight and see myself driven to perform, as if some other person were at the wheel of my life; obsessed with being a successful and competent pastor (whatever the heck that really looks like); and, living with a compulsion for more knowledge, more insight, more skill.  Conversely, I now find myself moving about the hospitals I serve with a bit of what I saw in Tiger yesterday – a patient and calm demeanor of being present to patients, and, with greater challenge, present to my own emotions and self.

So, today, and every day, I hope to be present.  I don’t want to force myself to do ministry in that old compulsive sort of way, as if sheer willpower and dogged determination could bring about accomplishment of goals.  No, I want to feel the freedom of spontaneous compassion and allow the Spirit to send me to patient rooms; to be relaxed and fully attentive to the person in front of me without thinking about lunch, the next visit, or anything else.  I want to go home and be fully present to my wife, even to the ridiculous pester pup dog in front of me.  I want to be present to my girls and my grandsons without them seeing that look on my face that tells them I’m still at work, or off somewhere deep in my brain conniving ideas and forming thoughts for some future project or deadline.  I want to be present to the God who is ever-present with me; who is always and fully attentive to the entire scope of my life – who joins me on the two-steps-backward-three-steps-forward herky-jerky personal walk – always exhibiting grace, patience, and demonstrating a calming presence with me.

I saw a glimpse of the divine in Tiger yesterday, which is perhaps why so many people later in the day commented that they responded with tears welling-up in their eyes, too.  For we together saw connection, not compulsion; and, relationship, not self-retribution.  Maybe that’s why I see so many patient tears.  Maybe they see with me some of that divine presence.  If so, I thank God for it.

Holy Week

There is a reason that a redemption story compels us and brings us to tears.  We have a Redeemer who has displayed for us the ultimate drama of redemption.  In this Christian Holy Week, believers in Jesus across the world remember that the King of all creation, the One to whom all things hold together, was humiliated, berated, tortured, and killed.  He was laid in a tomb.  His followers were beside themselves with grief, loneliness, and wondering what was going on and what was going to happen.  Yet, death did not have the last word.  Love conquered the grave.  Suffering led to glory.  The care of the One led to the care of the many.

As we journey together through this Holy Week, may we pay attention to the story of Jesus.  May we be present in how our own individual stories fit into God’s grand narrative in the world.  May we know the grace of redemption and of the Redeemer who makes it possible.

Holy Saturday

tomb of jesus

“Christ suffered here on earth. Now you must be ready to suffer as he did, because suffering shows that you have stopped sinning. It means you have turned from your own desires and want to obey God for the rest of your life. You have already lived long enough like people who don’t know God. You were immoral and followed your evil desires. You went around drinking and partying and carrying on. In fact, you even worshiped disgusting idols. Now your former friends wonder why you have stopped running around with them, and they curse you for it. But they will have to answer to God, who judges the living and the dead. The good news has even been preached to the dead, so that after they have been judged for what they have done in this life, their spirits will live with God.  Everything will soon come to an end. So be serious and be sensible enough to pray.  Most important of all, you must sincerely love each other, because love wipes away many sins.” (1 Peter 4:1-8, Contemporary English Version)

I haven’t been Christian my entire life.  I can relate to Peter’s exhortation.  I know what it feels like to carry on without any thought to God, Jesus, or anything other than myself.  The thing about partying and immorality is that it’s a life filled with constant movement.  Slowing down only makes you come face-to-face with what is truly inside your soul.  And if you have an empty vacuous soul, or a damaged spirit, or a broken heart, then drinking or working away your inner pain makes sense when you have no regard for God.  The last thing I ever wanted to do was suffer, yet in my pre-Christian state it seemed I could never outrun the hurt no matter how hard I tried, even with all the constant locomotion.

It is Holy Saturday – the quiet place sandwiched between the ignominy of the cross and the celebration of resurrection – the day of solitude, silence, and stillness.  Today isn’t a particularly popular day.  People don’t rave about Holy Saturday, in fact, many Christians haven’t had a thought that this day could have any significance.  Yet, this very day has its place in the scheme of the Christian life.

There cannot be resurrection and new life without a death and dying to self.  There must be suffering before there can be glory.  Whenever Christians quickly jump to triumphal language about victory and speak little to nothing about suffering, then we are left with nothing but cheap grace which has been purchased with the counterfeit currency of velocity.

Today is a day to get our heads and our hearts wrapped around the important reality that our Lord Jesus Christ was in the grave.  It was real suffering on Good Friday, and today it is a real death.  There is no movement.  All is silent and still.  Jesus is in the solitude of a dark tomb.  There is no getting around it.  If we want a Resurrection Day with all its celebration and glory, then we cannot circumvent Holy Saturday.

To put it in the Apostle Peter’s words: Are you ready to follow Jesus and suffer as he did?  Are you willing to stop your ridiculous striving, manifested through your crazy calendar of constant movement and embrace the Holy Saturday of solitude, silence, stillness with its contemplation and embrace of suffering?  Will you have sense enough to pray?  Will you practice a Christian counter-cultural shift and face the ridicule of your friends so that you can take some much-needed time to be with your Lord Jesus in the tomb?  Or, are you so antsy and anxious that you just want to leap into Easter with no solidarity with your Lord in the grave?

Perhaps you think I’m being a bit too hard or harsh or cold…. It’s because Jesus is cold.  He has a bonified cold dead body.  It’s no fake death.  There’s no “swoon theory” here, as if Christ only passed-out and did a weird divine fainting spell.  Nope.  He’s dead.  And if you and I want to live with Jesus, we must die with Jesus.

Anyone who tries to promise you a new life apart from journeying with Jesus into the grave is a spiritual charlatan.  Only through death can there be life.

Today, on this Holy Saturday, purposely slow down, do less, give yourself a large chunk of unstructured time, and put a lot of space between things you must do on this day.  Fill the time with unfettered access to God in Christ.  Slowly read the Gospel accounts of Christ’s death and burial.  Read the book of 1 Peter.  Allow prayers to arise from the careful and thoughtful reading of Scripture.  Feel the solidarity with Jesus, journey with him along the way from life to death… so that there might be a truly glorious resurrection filled with abundant life and flourishing – a life that doesn’t need constant partying, working, and schedule-filling to feel significant and happy.

May you die well so that you might live well.

Maundy Thursday

jesus washing feet 2

Love.  We need it.  Without love, there is nothing to live for; relationships devolve into silent standoffs and destructive triangles; and, the world ceases to spin on its axis.  With love, however, all things are beautiful; personal relations have meaning and joy; and, all seems right and just in the world.

Yet, love comes with a cost.  Because we live in a broken world full of pride and hubris, greed and avarice, hate and envy, we are victims of loveless systems and unjust actions.  We need love to rescue us, to redeem us from the sheer muck of existence.  It’s as if we are constantly walking knee deep through sludge so thick we can barely get anywhere.  We need saving.  We need Jesus.

Christians everywhere around the world are journeying through Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year for followers of Christ.  When we think about Holy Week, we are familiar with Good Friday and certainly Easter; but Maundy Thursday?

On this day the church remembers the last evening that Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room before his arrest and crucifixion.  The experiences in the upper room were highly significant because this was the last teaching, modeling, and instruction Jesus gave before facing the cross.  Jesus was careful and deliberate to communicate exactly what was important to him: to love one another.

Maundy Thursday marks three important events in Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples:

  • The washing of the disciples’ feet (the action of loving service)
  • The instituting of the Lord’s Supper (the remembrance of loving sacrifice)
  • The giving of a “new” commandment to love one another (the mandate of a loving lifestyle).

Let’s briefly unpack these words and actions from Jesus.

For Jesus, his last night with his disciples was all about love, God’s love.  On that fateful night, having loved his disciples for the past three years, Jesus showed them the full extent of his love by taking the posture of a servant and washing each and every one of the disciples’ feet, including Judas.  After demonstrating for them a totally humble service, Jesus said,

“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15, NIV). 

This was an incredible act of love.  We need to rightly observe that Jesus Christ loves me just as I am, and not as I should be.  He loves me even with my dirty stinky feet, my herky-jerky commitment to him, and my pre-meditated sin.

Not only did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet, but he lifted the cup of wine and boldly asserted:

“Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  And he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:17-20, NIV). 

Because of these words of Jesus, the church everywhere throughout the world, for two millennia, have practiced this communion, this supper so that we might have the redemptive events of Jesus pressed firmly into both our minds and our hearts by means of the visceral and common elements of bread and wine.  We are to not just know about Jesus, but are to experience being united with him.

Having washed the disciples’ feet, and proclaimed to them the meaning of his impending death, Jesus gave them a clear commandment:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, NIV)

Love one another, insisted Jesus, by imitating his humble service.  We represent Christ on this earth when we carefully, diligently, and persistently practice love.  Although love was by no means a new concept for the disciples, in the form and teaching of Jesus love was shown with four distinctions:

  1. Jesus is the new model of love
  2. A new motive of love, that Christ first loved me
  3. A new motivator to help us love, the Holy Spirit
  4. A new mission, the evangelization of the world using the power of Christ’s love to accomplish it

So, you see, Maundy Thursday is a highly significant day on the Church Calendar – one which deserves to be observed, and an opportunity to remember the important words and actions of Jesus on our behalf.  Through Jesus Christ we are to live always in love, modeling our life and church ministry after him.

In Christ we are to allow love to characterize our life together as we proclaim God’s love in words and deeds.  A watching world will only take notice and desire to be a part of our fellowship if we are deeply and profoundly centered in the love of God in Christ.  This is the reality that Maundy Thursday brings to us.

“Holy, Holy Week, Batman!”

batman and robin

“Robin, there is something seriously sinister afoot.  It seems the people of Gotham have lost their sense of the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.”

“Holy Holy Week, Batman!  It must be the work of that arch-villain the Joker who has turned the narrative of Jesus into a by-gone joke… or maybe the Riddler who has made the redemptive events of Jesus into a complicated riddle that no one can solve… or maybe that fiend, Cat Woman, has finally found the purr-fect way to foil attention to the Lord Jesus.”

“I fear, Boy Wonder, that you have stumbled upon who is behind the loss of Holy Week… they are all conspiring together not just to create a spin on the life and death of Jesus, but to form a new narrative that doesn’t even include Christ at all.”

“Those dastardly demons of disaster!  Let’s go get them, Batman!  How could they have done such an ugly underhanded umbrage as that!?”

“Let’s use the Bat computer to analyze the evidence found at the crime scene churches…. Look, Robin, it seems a feculent film of gross gas has rendered the believers prone to the noxious notion that the Christian observance of Holy Week is optional, as if the journey with Jesus to the cross doesn’t need special attention.  They are attempting to rewrite it all so that Christians will pass through this week without even a thought about Jesus… until it’s too late.  Then they will sweep in and make all of Christianity into something that’s merely an accessory to life, like a petty plastic purse.”

“Holy evisceration, Batman!  They’re trying to do away with the Christian life and the story of Jesus altogether and replace it with their fiendish focus on the foul festering faith of fecund followers!”

“That’s right, Robin.  It’s our job to stop them from following through with their platitudinous plot before it’s too late.”

“But how, Batman?  Their vile villainy has already voiced a vacuous votum of veneered viciousness to any observance of the last week of Christ’s life on this earth.”

“Yes, Robin, but you are forgetting the one “v” word which has already spelled doom for our culprits of crime… “victory.”

“Holy resurrection, Batman!  You’re right!  All we need to do is voice the victory of Jesus and those bungling bandits of belief will get another “v” word: “vanquished!”

“Holy Week and all the major Christian seasons of the Church Year are meant to help us remember Jesus and follow Christ in our daily life.  When strayed souls begin berating believers for observing obedience to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy (or Black) Saturday, and Easter Sunday then you can bet, Boy Wonder, that the gangsters’ gross gas of gullibility has fumigated their faith.”

“So, you’re saying, Batman, that the forgetting of faith festivals can be reversed through setting our sites on the contempt of the cross and the resplendence of the resurrection?”

“The cross is the mid-point of history, Robin, the very center of faithful followers.  From it flows the flowering of all faith.”

“Holy forgiveness, Batman.  I see it now.  The sin issue has been taken care of once-for-all through the death of Jesus Christ.  And his rising again has enabled us ignorant idiots of ignominy to live a new life of love through the words and ways of Christ.”

“And, don’t forget, Boy Wonder, that we get our faith focused through walking into those ways and words by highlighting holidays as eminently important to our crowded calendars.”

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth; and, Jesus Christ his only Son, our Savior; who, with the Holy Spirit lives and reigns forever and ever!”

“Amen, Boy Wonder.  Amen.”

Isaiah 52:13-52:12


             “He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him.”  As I was reflecting on this phrase this morning and contemplating the life and death of Jesus on this most holy of days, Good Friday, I began to think about Abraham Lincoln, of all people.  You see, in his ascendancy to the presidency and in his time in office Lincoln was routinely caricatured in political cartoons as an ape or baboon.  Memoirs of people who had seen the president often commented on how extremely normal and homely he appeared.  In fact, Lincoln was quite gangly; he was tall with very long arms and legs.  Indeed, he did look something like an oddity.  Yet, when Lincoln spoke, people listened and were amazed at his intelligence, ability to connect with people, and his grasp of political philosophy.
             Sometimes I wonder if our Lord was actually physically here on earth today if most people would even remotely recognize him.  Perhaps Jesus would be ridiculed and despised, just like he was all those centuries ago.  I think it is safe to say that he would not make it to the cover of GQ, or make commercials selling underwear.  Instead, Jesus came as a humble servant.  He suffered throughout his life, endured a horrible death by torture, and secured for us deliverance from the power of sin.  God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
             Most people have forgotten that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday in 1865.  Just as the press did not miss a beat to castigate Lincoln while he was alive, they quickly recognized the parallels between him and Christ in their respective deaths.  But while Lincoln was clearly identified with the American people in their baptism of blood with the Civil War, his was not a salvific death.  Only Jesus, in his singular suffering, died as a substitute for us.  Perhaps Jesus had no outward beauty, but his inward beauty has not only drawn me to him, but saved me from an empty life of sin.  Praise be to God!
             Lord Jesus, you were the suffering servant who has pioneered salvation for me.  Thank you for your sacrifice, and I give eternal praise and gratitude for your willingness to endure the cross.  My heart and life is yours; use it as you see fit.  Amen.

Holy Week

  

 

 
            Each year at this time I go through a bit of lamenting about the timing of the Christian observance of Holy Week, that eight day stretch from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in which we especially remember the significance of Christ’s redemptive events.  In my locale, Spring Break always occurs during Holy Week which means that a chunk of families are typically gone.  What is more, March Madness is happening in which an even bigger slice of people are glued to their televisions watching or their smartphones live-streaming the games.  As a pastor, sometimes I feel a bit like a voice crying out in the wilderness wondering if anyone can hear me.
 
            Yet, the reality is that remembering the person and work of Jesus, observing his teachings, and seeking to follow him in all things is an uphill climb throughout the entire year when faced with the rest of the culture’s manner of keeping time and observing life-habits.  For most people, it is not the popular thing to do to be on fire for Jesus; it is not the easy to do to radically observe Jesus in everything.  But maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, after all.  Maybe all of this helps us to be quite intentional about living for Jesus and remembering him.  Perhaps it is a unique opportunity to follow Christ each day equipped with a plan and a prayer to seek God through our work, our families, and even our churches.
 
            Observing Holy Week is certainly not commanded in Scripture.  Yet it is a wonderful opportunity to swim against the current of cultural values and fully embrace the biblical values of journeying with Jesus through life.  Just as birthday and anniversary celebrations allows us a different rhythm for a time, or as holidays provide us with certain family traditions, so Holy Week can be for us an expected time of contemplation and reflection resulting in a great celebratory feast and joy.  As we journey with Jesus, consider these special days:
 
Palm Sunday is a focus on the entry of Christ into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
 
Maundy Thursday marks three significant events in Christ’s last week:  his washing of the disciples’ feet; his institution of the Lord’s Supper; and, his new commandment to love one another.
 
Good Friday marks the death of Jesus Christ.  It is “good” because his death means redemption for the world.  We especially remember why the cross is so very important, that it is the once for all sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  There is now eternal forgiveness.
 
Easter Sunday is the culmination of all the expectations of God’s people, and the fulfillment of all God’s promises to them in Christ.  We rejoice, celebrate, and renew our love and commitment to God for raising Jesus from death.  His resurrection means new life for us.
 
            Observing Holy Week can take the form of attending special church services; the opportunity to read through one of the Gospels over the course of the week with other believers; or focus on the passion narratives in each Gospel.  For the Christian, these are the fundamentals of our faith, the base upon which our lives are constructed.  We return to these again and again so that for the entirety of the year we can live in careful devotion to the Savior who has brought us salvation from sin and offers new life.
 

 

            Holy Week is an opportunity for the church to remember and give thanks with both quiet gratitude and loud shouts of praise, with solemn reflection and expressive response.  There is no time like it in the year.

Hebrews 9:11-15

            Imagine being an ancient worshiper and going to the temple, bringing an animal for a sacrifice, and having its blood sprinkled on the altar by the priest.  Imagine doing it again… and again… and again… and again.  Somewhere along the line you might think, “Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t need to keep offering animals again and again for a sacrifice?  Wouldn’t it be great if there could be one sacrifice that would end all sacrifices?”  This is, in fact, what was inherently designed into the sacrificial system.  These sacrifices, repeated over and over, were to point to a lasting and permanent sacrifice. 
 
            Enter Jesus.  He came “once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing eternal redemption.”  Once for all – what a beautiful statement!  No longer is there any need to keep offering sacrifices.  No longer is there a reason to try and somehow clear my conscience through a ritual act.  No longer do I need to wonder if I have brought enough sacrifices to cover my sin.  It is finished.  It is done.  Christ has secured deliverance from sin, death, and hell through the singular sacrifice of himself.
 
            In this Holy Week we journey with Jesus, remembering his once for all redemptive event of deliverance on our behalf.  If there ever was a time for contemplation, now is it.  Allow the phrase “once for all” to seep ever more into your soul.  Let it bring healing and rest to all of our frivolous striving toward earning deliverance on our own.  Let it slide comfort into your spiritual bones.  Let it settle contentment and confidence to a life filled with insecurity and dissatisfaction.  Let the death of Christ do its intended work.
 

Precious Lord Jesus, I believe that you are the hope of my life and of the whole world.  Your once for all sacrifice has decisively taken care of the sin issue.  I am now forgiven and purified in your holy name.  Praise God!  Amen.