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Experiences on Golgatha – Mary the Mother of Jesus

The Bible

What is the good life? A life filled with peace and prosperity? A life filled with the “blessings” that others envy? A life marked by certainty? A life without suffering?

Her life was one of interruption. If she had dreams of the good life they were shattered in early adulthood. Perhaps she imagined a quiet life, a stable home with a certain future. Her life was anything but quiet; her home anything but stable; her future anything but certain.

She was a young teenage girl when the interruptions began. “Greetings O Favored One. The Lord is with you.” said the angel Gabriel. “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” The angel went on to explain that she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit and that she would have a child named Jesus who would be called the Son of the Most High. God’s Son, the Savior of the world, the King who will reign for all eternity would grow hands and feet in her womb. Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God would turn and kick in her belly. It was unbelievable. It was magnificent. And so she responded as recorded in Luke 1 saying:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

    and holy is his name.

50 And his mercy is for those who fear him

    from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones

    and exalted those of humble estate;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and the rich he has sent away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

    in remembrance of his mercy,

55 as he spoke to our fathers,

    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Even from the beginning there were hints that the story would unfold in a way she would never choose for herself or for her little baby boy. For when the prophet Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed nfor the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign othat is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Now she stood on the hill called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death. The tears streamed down her dusty face as she took in the gruesome site before her. Her firstborn son, the promised one, the King of Glory looked barely human, his face swollen and bloodied the crown of thorns ripping into his forehead, the blood, thick and red pooling on his cheeks, the cheeks she had caressed. She could only look for a moment before the horror overwhelmed her intense desire to look into his eyes, to whisper her love.

When she gathered herself enough to look again she saw the hands that once took their form in the security of her womb, now impaled with iron spikes, fingers twisted in agony. The arms which once embraced her, now torn to ribbons, muscle and bone exposed, stretched out in the pose of death. Beneath his feet his enemies mocked him, spat on him, haggled for his clothes.

In the throes of excruciating pain his eyes locked with hers. Those eyes that first opened in her arms; those eyes that had seen into heaven. And for a moment the noise faded, her terror subsided as she looked into the face of perfect love. It wasn’t as she imagined it would be but then again nothing in her life ever was.

Simeon’s words came flooding into her conscious thought, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Her heart broken, her soul crushed she stood there at the foot of her baby and her Lord. For Mary, the cross was a deeply personal paradox – a mother’s most unimaginable nightmare and a servant of God’s most profound hope.

Experiences on Golgatha – Mary Magdalene

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Her life was marked by pain, suffering and sorrow. She lived on the edge of society where purity and holiness were popular. She was filled with evil. She was rejected. She was one of “those people” condemned to a life tormented by powers of the physical and the spiritual worlds.

Then one day her life was interrupted. This man they called Jesus saw her. But he didn’t just see the the obvious. He saw the reality of her condition. He saw the very real evil that she wrestled with each day. He saw the beings that no one else could, that not even she could. And without raising his voice he spoke with an authority she had never heard before or had since. Immediately this heavy curtain of shame and dread and guilt flew from her like a kite lifted into the sky. For the first time in years she felt a lighthearted joy and a peace she never knew possible.

Who was this man? She wasn’t sure, but she knew that whatever plans she had were completely irrelevant. She would follow Jesus, even though she had no idea where this commitment would take her.

Nauseous and terrified she sat in the rocky dusty place beneath his feet. For the last three years she sat at his feet so many times. For her this had been a place of rest, acceptance and joy. At his feet nothing else mattered – not her past, not her future. But this time was different. This time the feet hung above her, the dark red blood dripping off of his toes. The ghastly wound where the iron spike protruded in the place where his sandals would have buckled. Here at his feet she wondered if the journey was over. She wondered whether she had misunderstood him. Wasn’t he the King? Wasn’t he going to save his people? Now he seemed powerless, even to save himself. And even though this place at his feet brought waves of sickness and desperation she couldn’t move. So she stayed and she cried and she remembered that he had rescued her, driving the demons from her soul, loving her with a love she never imagined possible. And now as she stared into the face of perfect love she felt confused.

The King’s Dinner

jesus-washing-the-feet-of-his-disciples

The rebellion was total. All that could go wrong had. It was a cataclysmic revolt of epic proportions. Destruction and chaos ordered the day as each man, woman and child did what was right in their own eyes. They rejected the King, his rule, his love and his future. The future was theirs and nothing would stop them.

Nothing except death of course. They spent their lives in pursuit of their pleasures, comforts and ambitions. And they succeeded, at least for a while. But the rot set in. Each day their bodies, minds and even the world around them decayed just a little more. Sickness, famine, war and pain defined their lives. They were absolutely without hope in the world. And the worst part was that they didn’t even realize it.

In desperation they tried to use their minds to devise a way out. They tried to make peace, to eliminate disease, to comfort themselves, but no matter how great the effort they always failed. Their efforts stood small and useless next to the gargantuan beast of death the rebellion required.

But the King was good. And the King had a plan.

He would go behind enemy lines. He would invade the world He made. He would gather a people to defy the rebellion. They would call him Father and He would call them Sons and Daughters. For years and years He sent messengers ahead of the invasion to warn the people. Mostly they didn’t listen. Mostly they kept going their own way. They kept dying. A few kept waiting.

Then in the cover of night the invader King came. They didn’t recognize Him even though He walked among them. He didn’t seem like a King. He was poor. He wasn’t handsome. He didn’t seem powerful. He didn’t seem relevant.

But then he began doing strange things – not things a King would do, but things that gave hope. He took away some of the sickness and even some of the death. He feared nothing. He loved his friends fiercely. He defied what they understood about the way the world works – walking on the water, calming a raging storm, turning water into wine. They either hated him or loved him. The way he lived made them decide one way or the other. He made outrageous statements that no one really understood like “I am the Creator God.” and “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Those that hated him – the people of rebellion – wanted to kill him and he knew it. Those who loved him waited for him to make a move, to take power, to act like the King.

The story of the King, the rebellion, the rescue comes to a climax at a place we least expect it – over dinner. The King Jesus calls his friends to celebrate the Passover meal, a meal that calls those loyal to the King to remember his promise – that he had saved his people from death once before and that he would do it again, this time forever.

As his friends recline at the table and prepare to eat the air is tense. This is the moment he will announce his rule. This is the moment he will take power. This is the moment they have all been waiting for. The King will rule and they, the faithful friends will be at the center of power. They will be respected. They will matter in the world.

“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

The friends around the table were confused. Gentile women, those who mattered the least, those with the least amount of power, those furthest from the King washed feet. But here was the King stripped down to a towel, kneeling on the floor, scrubbing the dirt from the bottom of his friends’ feet. One of the friends, Peter, the loudest and most leader-like among them responded, first with a question, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” and then with a statement, “You will never wash my feet.” He simply could not accept the reality of a King who acted like a slave. This did not fit into his understanding of the way the King would take power. This did not meet his expectations for a future where he was powerful and important.

Jesus answers Peter saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And in this statement the King Jesus reveals the plan to save the world, the plan to save his friends, the plan to save us. Unless he washes us we have no share with him. Unless we lay down our right to live by our own set of rules, to do what is right in our own eyes then we have no future. Unless we let the King serve us we will die. Unless we let the King cleanse us we have no hope, no future, no life.

Here is the offer before us tonight: the King has invaded. The King has spoken. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” What will you do with these words? How will you respond. Will you politely nod and go on about your way? Will you reject this reality completely? Or will you remove your pride, stretch out your feet and let the King of Glory wash you? And if He has washed you are you prepared to go and do likewise?

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Leadership Takes Time

time photoTime is a precious gift. We all have the same amount of it each day. Some of us have more days than others. All of our days are numbered. There is nothing that any of us can do to acquire more time. You can’t work harder to earn more hours or more days. You don’t get more because you are American or white or rich. Time is your most precious commodity.

You will spend your time on what is truly important to you. The way that you fill up your calendar will inevitably reflect what you believe is valuable. Leaders ought to value people because leadership is the art of providing purpose, direction and motivation to human beings.

The very best leaders understand this value proposition and consequently spend time on the people they lead. Sometimes we like to say, “I will make time for this person or activity”. In reality you cannot make time, you can only spend it. We should say, “I choose to spend time on this person or this activity”. And when you choose to spend time on the people you lead you choose to lead well.

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Broken

The layers of blue swirl out in front of me. Rippling, foaming seawater dances in the morning light. It moves, rhythmically like a living work of art, catching the eye, drawing me in. For a moment my thoughts are prisoner to this sublime portrait; my mind unable to process lesser notions. Beyond the pulsating expanse, sky begins. Misty grey clouds hang over the horizon like a Herculean curtain, concealing the edge of the world. Grey gives way to never-ending blue. My neck arches back and again I am lost in the magnitude and splendor of this art in which I dwell.

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The peace lasts only for a moment. My senses, unable to focus, my neck burning with the strain, and conscious thought gives way to the chaotic chattering in my head. I am broken.

This is joy interrupted. An invitation to delight stolen by anxieties and despair. A moment of peace and serenity ripped away by the madness of guilt that consumes and desecrates the soul. I am broken.

My hope is this: that the brevity of this experience will one day give way to the brevity of this life. What I now see dimly, then will I know in full splendor. Life never-ending, beauty unmatched. Brokenness will give way to wholeness, chaos to peace, guilt to forgiveness. In this hope I am healed.

Community Requires Character

Two years ago I boarded a flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg with my wife of 13 years and my then 5 year old daughter. Nearly all of our earthly possessions were loaded into the cargo hold in 7 jam packed, well worn suitcases. That day our little family began the adventure of a lifetime. Sure moving 10,000 miles from home was an adventure, but the real thrill was the mission we felt compelled to give this chunk of our lives to. We were going to start a community.

There are lots of different kinds of communities. Ours is a group of Jesus followers who give our lives to developing others to lead families, churches, organizations and businesses in the way of Christ. Like most people, we had been part of different communities before – churches, the Army, families, colleagues, teams – you get the picture. But we envisioned that this would be a community like nothing we had experienced before. This would be a community that really loved people. This would be a community that resisted the natural drift to devolve into mere institution. This would be a community that would require a different sort of leadership. 

Leading a true community is an enormous challenge. The significant obstacle for me was the lack of genuine examples or experiences either living in or leading communities. I had led teams, organizations, platoons, groups but in each of these cases the focus of my efforts primarily centered on the survival of the institution or the accomplishment of the mission. Never had I led in a context where I could truly say that the people in the community were the true objects of my efforts, thoughts, motivations and outcomes.

Fast forward two years and we are living out this dream of living in and leading a community. We haven’t “figured it out” yet and I’m not sure that we ever will. We are learning and growing both in our understanding of what community really is and what it personally costs to really live life alongside others.

The Army taught me that there are three areas where leaders must be competent: Be, Know and Do. Put another way leaders must have character, possess knowledge and also actually be capable of getting things done. In the last two years I learned the supreme importance of character. In my context I live my life in a very transparent environment. The people I shepherd are regularly in my home sharing meals, and countless conversations. They know my family and I know theirs. We work together, play together, worship together and serve together. In this sort of environment there is nowhere to hide. There is no opportunity for a double life. I think if you asked them my friends in our community could and would tell you my strengths, weaknesses, joys and sorrows. When I am unkind, unloving, impatient or unforgiving they know it and they very often help get me back on the right path. I do the same for them. When I succeed and do things well they smile and encourage me. When you lead in community you can’t pretend. You can’t hide. Who you are is who you are and everyone knows it.

I am both blessed and challenged in this reality. And I’m grateful for a place in leadership where I am really known and loved anyway. I’m praying that I’ll be known in even more depth in 2014 and that my ability to lead well will be a reflection of becoming more like the King I follow – my Lord Jesus, the Creator who put on flesh and came to live among us so that we might know him fully even as we are fully known.

Want Joy? Try Risk.

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The table was full of half eaten Italian food. We bantered back and forth, the small talk masking a torrent of anxious thought. She smiled and fidgeted with her silverware. I pulled on my bow-tie, shaking it side to side while downing copious amounts of lemon infused water. The small velvety box pressing against my side from it’s hiding place in my jacket sent waves of nervous energy quaking through my young body. Beads of sweat collected on my brow as I contemplated “the question” that pulsated in my thoughts.

The story is a beautiful memory for me, because on that night I took a big risk and asked Janet to marry me. The risk really wasn’t that she would say no. We had been ring shopping and talking marriage for some time, as people young and in love have a way of doing. I suppose that something could have gone wrong, but the truth is she knew I was going to ask and I knew that she would say yes.

No, the real risk was a choice to make this union the defining human relationship of our lives. It was a magnificent leap into the unknown years ahead, with a person I was really only beginning to know. The risk was to choose this companion for this greatest of journeys, one in which we would know ecstasy, joy, happiness, sorrow, pain, misery, uncertainty and ultimately death. It was either a youthful blunder into a terrible trap or the most fortuitous discovery and subsequent decision we ever made.

As I think about that night and that decision to leap into life together, I am overcome with gratitude. I’m grateful that I saw, and not because of my excellent vision mind you, the opportunity before me. It was a risk for sure, but even more so it was a chance to bet it all on the hope of future joy.

I meet so many people who are looking for joy but are unwilling or unable to take risks. These are people who suffer from the “What If” disease. “What if it doesn’t work out?”, “What if something better comes along?” “What if I lose control?”. The anxiousness of their thoughts so clouds their ability to see opportunity for joy when it’s lying right in front of them.

A few days ago I was reading the Bible where Jesus is trying to explain what life is like when God is the most important relationship you have. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his friends this:

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Jesus is saying that something magical and mysterious happens when you see the reality of the kingdom of heaven. When you see what is really happening in the world for the first time, when you first suspect that the world is a place made by a good God and that this God is in charge of everything, your priorities begin to shift. When you first realize that this God, who sees you for who you are, is in fact speaking to you saying , “Stop trying to live for yourself by your own rules. Lay down your life, your preferences, your ideas about how things should go and follow me instead.” what is important in life gets turned upside down. When you understand and absorb and take into the core of your being that this God wants to give you life, not just for a few years but forever, you will never be the same. Jesus says when a person suddenly realizes all of this truth about himself, the world and God, everything changes. He says discovering it is like finding a hidden treasure. The man who truly finds the great treasure of life, which is life in through and with Jesus, will abandon every other pursuit to recklessly bet it all on this one relationship.

What strikes me about this story that Jesus tells is that the man who sees the treasure must take a great risk to keep the treasure. He must make that treasure, that truth about God and the world the most central reality of his life. He is defined by the fact that he found that treasure.

But my favorite part of Jesus’ line is “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has”. You see this man who sees the unbelievable treasure of life with God realizes that real joy requires real risk.

My life has been so rich because I took a huge risk and asked Janet to marry me. She is an amazing partner on this journey and I am blessed by our life together. But there is a joy bigger than marriage. It is a joy that comes when you risk everything and put your hope in Jesus. It will cost you everything and you will gain more than you can ever comprehend.

Here’s to a life of risk and joy.

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The Missio Wrestling Match

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One of the toughest things I have wrestled with in the last couple of years is the question, “What does it mean to be a missionary?” This is an interesting question to wrestle with, particularly if you are a missionary as I am.

I struggle with the idea that I am a missionary for lots of reasons but the one that resonates most deeply is that I strongly dislike the idea of setting aside some Christians in a special category.

The term missionary literally means “a person sent out on a mission”; mission being “an important assignment carried out for political, religious or commercial purposes”.  What is my important assignment? Jesus makes it clear. My assignment, and the assignment of every other Christ Follower on the planet is the same, “Go and make disciples.”

Therefore, God equips and assigns every Christian  as a missionary.

What I mean to say is that every Christian ought to consider their particular assignment to “Go and make disciples” as the central organizing activity of their life.  The trouble is that the influences of society and our own frail disposition lull us  into the more “sensible” idea that we don’t need to make our Christian duty the central organizing activity but merely one activity among many others. Somehow we believe the lie that mission is something you go on or give to but not something you actually live out in the regular world.

We have been duped into believing that it’s simply acceptable to make the major decisions of life (where to live, what house to live in, what employment option to take, what car to drive, how to spend our money, who to spend time with), with our personal preference as the domineering criterion. We are accustomed and even encouraged to make these defining lifestyle decisions without any regard for the impact they have on our ability to properly carry out our assignment to “Go and make disciples.”

When I read the Gospels I hear a clarion call of the Creator to jump into the deep end of the pool, dying to my ideas about how life should go, in order to obediently join Him in the greatest mission ever undertaken in the history of the world. This invitation to go “all in” with God means that we are all supposed to live as people on a mission. Put another way, we are all missionaries.

The thing that scares me is that it is easy to wear the label “missionary” as an ex-patriot living in South Africa while continuing to live for myself. The decision to be a missionary is a decision that all of us must make each day. Live for Jesus or live for self.  It’s that simple.

Today I pray that Jesus will give me the courage and the fortitude to live for him, to orient my life according to how I can best serve His purposes. I pray that for my friends in the States too. May we all, regardless of our vocation or address, make the real decisions of life according to the great call to “Go and make disciples.”

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He is a River

 

Reggie-the-River

There is a river

His name is Jesus

He is the life

The flood

The blood

That carries me

Winding

Twisting

Turning

Flailing

Fighting

Fumbling

Raging in the flood

There is a river

His name is Jesus

He is the life

The flood

The blood

That carries me

Winding

Twisting

Turning

Sinking

Choking

Gasping

Going to my death

There is a river

His name is Jesus

He is the life

The flood

The blood

That carries me

Winding

Twisting

Turning

Rescued

Floating

Breathing

Now giving in

There is a river

His name is Jesus

He is the life

The flood

The blood

That carries me

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The Flickering Heart

The stickers were cold as the nurse pressed them onto my chest. There were twelve in all, each one tethered to the computer screen by a plastic grey wire. She flipped a switch, the monitor flickered to life and I saw the undulations of my heart beating. I felt a sudden nervousness as my mortality and physicality literally flashed before my eyes. In that moment I sensed the fragility of my humanity. For a moment I considered that the lines shooting up and down on the screen were awfully small and that perhaps their pattern wasn’t quite normal. In a panic I thought “What if the doctor finds something?” 

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When the stress test was over I walked to the other side of the small medical clinic to meet with the doctor and receive my results. On the way I passed an elderly gentleman, shuffling to his appointment, his skin wrinkled and his gait impaired by a wearing of the years. As he passed, a clear and sobering thought entered my thoughts. “One day you will receive the news that your body is failing. Maybe not today or this year but one day it will happen.” The emotion that came next surprised me. I felt a strange calmness wash over me as I sat down in the waiting room chair. “One day” I thought. 

Why the calmness? I think that the Prayer of Moses recorded in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures provides an answer. 

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!”

For a thousand years in your sight

are but as yesterday when it is past,

or as a watch in the night.

– Psalm 90:1-4 (ESV)

This part of the prayer provides a perspective on all of life. The Creator of all things has always been. Before the first wave crashed on the first beach or the first bird flapped his wing or before one beat of my heart flickered to life, the Lord God, Maker of Heaven and Earth existed and was life. He didn’t just create life, he was and is life. Nothing about Him has changed. He is our “dwelling place” because he is the source of life of protection and of certainty.

The contrast between His reality and mine is shocking. The one who always was and who will always be, returns “man to dust”. Dust. Dirt. Inanimate brown soil.

A thousand years, ten life-times for the fortunate person, are “as a watch in the night”. My life is so brief.

Why does this perspective bring a euphoric calmness ? The second half of the Psalm answers.

“So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O LORD! How long?

Have pity on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,

that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

-Psalm 90:13-14 (ESV)

I think that I felt calm for two reasons. First, because it is right and good to “number our days”. As I saw the fragility of my life and recognized its brevity I also saw truth. My life is short in the scheme of things. When we number our days we see our life before God with a correct perspective. He is big and we are small. In this realization I can make decisions appropriately given my place. When I see myself as small I am more apt to see the largeness of God and to be at peace with whatever he sends in my direction. When I feel small and sense the brevity of existence I am in a position to more easily see others as fragile creatures who, like me, fall short of perfection.

Second, I felt peace because the story doesn’t end with me. The Psalmist says “Return, O LORD!” The story of life is God’s story not mine. My days are part of something bigger than myself. The story is that there is a King who will “satisfy us in the morning with [his] steadfast love.” He is the King who made everything who will one day return to rule his people and to live among us. He is a good King, full of love, full of pity for his servants.

When I see the flickering of my heart beat I see a fragile creation. I feel appropriately small in the moment I pass the old man and realize that soon I too will shuffle down the hallway, wrinkled and broken. I also feel peace because there is a story bigger than me and a Savior ushering me into a life beyond the beating of my heart.

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