Theological Thursday: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

I struggle a bit with the Beatitudes.  Usually I find Jesus to be either very direct, or the master storyteller — giving analogies that are deceivingly simple, profoundly deep, and almost universally applicable.  But the Beatitudes are not stories, and yet they are not very direct.  I’ve read them over and over again, and I still get this nagging feeling like I’m missing the big picture.  I mean, clearly, they are not prescriptive.  Jesus is not recommending we “go mourn, so we can be blessed,” or “be poor in spirit, so the kingdom of heaven will be ours.”

So what is it that correlates mourning and blessing?  I pondered this question this afternoon as I sat at a memorial service for an admirable young man who was being mourned by his wife, his mother, his siblings and friends.  The service was bilingual – the Spanish speakers were translated into English and the English to Spanish.  The translation gave me extra time to really ponder what was being said.  The pain of loss is obviously the result of love.  And this young bride was clearly crazy about her husband.  But is that why she is blessed?  Is she is blessed as a response to love, as a reward for risking the pain of loss?

I don’t think so.  Instead I believe that those who mourn are blessed because Jesus identifies with them.  In his earthly life, He mourned and suffered.  In fact, since He loved so deeply, He knew tremendous heartache. (John 11).  Thankfully the Bible acknowledges the heavy-hearted, outlining as part of Jesus’ mission to bind up the brokenhearted.  (Luke 4).  I’m so grateful that, as followers of Christ, we are not expected to take our burdens to some impersonal universal force or a heartless yet mighty creator.  Instead, we are given the privilege of sharing our deepest hurts with a Savior who knows all about heartache, and who loves each of us with an unbounded love.

Will  you pray for this beautiful young woman who lost her husband?  Will you pray that she trusts God’s plan for her life, even though she may never understand it?  Will you also pray that Jesus is a great comfort to her in the long days to come and that she will cling to the promise that this isn’t all there is?

Heaven will provide eternal comfort and protection from all mourning.  Yet as followers of Jesus Christ, we should transmit a hint of the kingdom now.  The sweet and inviting fragrance of faith, hope, love, peace and joy should mark our lives.  In fact, the way we live should illustrate the truth of the beatitudes.  So that leaves us with a very important question — one we can ask ourselves daily.  How can I bless and comfort those who mourn?

Jackson 5 Friday: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

The birth of Jesus Christ is ample cause for celebration.  Jesus came to save us — to redeem our lives here on our earth and to complete that redemption by taking us, when we die, to spend eternity with Him.  And unlike the merit-based Santa system, Jesus loves each and every person, no matter how bad or good.

But for many followers of Christ, Christmas 2010 may not be the most wonderful time of the year.  I know a family at church with a recent cancer diagnosis.  This lovely family has three children roughly the same ages as mine, and now their daddy is facing advanced disease.  A former babysitter of mine, who is now twenty-six, was tragically widowed this week.  This godly young woman is one of the sweetest, most beautiful girls I have ever known.  She and her equally impressive sister have babysat for me untold times since little Will was about a year old.  Then yesterday, I heard about some family friends in Michigan.  This young couple entered the hospital to deliver their baby girl, yet a fatal blood clot means this anguished daddy will leave the hospital with his baby but not his wife.

Solomon wrote, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” (Proverbs 25:20)

So this Christmas may we remember those who are hurting, may we acknowledge their sorrow and not pour vinegar on their broken hearts.  May we pray that when they see the Baby in the manger, they will know that He suffered, that He is full of compassion, that His love knows no bounds.  May we be ambassadors of His love and His peace.  And may we know that the promise is for all of us — those expecting tonight and tomorrow to be full of joy and laughter, and those who are gripped by grief or facing serious illness.  The promise is that this isn’t all there is. Justice and mercy met on the cross, and therefore we are offered a tearless, fearless, blissful eternity in a place that knows no darkness or pain of any kind.

One of my favorite Christmas books, that I read with my boys many times every year, is a sweet little book about the animals in the stable.  It is called, Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Jason Cockcroft.  Cockcroft’s treatment of light is beautiful.  The book closes with these words, and my prayer is that YOU believe them and cling to them in a literal, life-transforming way:

“That cold winter’s night, beneath the star’s light a Little One came for the world.”

Theological Thursday: End-of-Year Giving

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus covers many bases from marriage to giving, murder to prayer, revenge to fasting, judging others to worrying and yet there is an overarching message as well.  The Sermon outlines how we are to live a life that glorifies Him.  Since we are just two days away from celebrating His birth, and a mere eight days away from the end of the year, it seems like an ideal time to talk about giving.  And Jesus’ instruction from Matthew 6 is the perfect place to start.

Jesus warned: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

My much beloved niece, Caitlin, is a twentysomething and I am blessed to know many of her friends.  They are such an philanthropic group.  Service is just a part of who they are.  Two of her closest friends are sacrificing so much to show others the love of Christ.  They live in Kolkata, caring for girls rescued from forced prostitution.  But I would think keeping a pure and humble heart would be a tremendous challenge  — such a temptation to feel prideful over their acts of righteousness.  Because for me personally even the puniest sacrifice can lead to a prideful puffing up.  Yet as Jesus describes in Matthew 6, embracing the honor or approval of others, or touting the sacrifice, means that our reward will be limited to earthly accolades.  And that’s certainly not what we want.

Instead Jesus says that “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4)  It paints quite a picture, doesn’t it?  We need to be about giving for the sake of giving, not for the praise we may receive, or the tax deduction we can take.

The standards Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount are high.   Like some others this one seems impossible: giving without knowing, sacrificing without acknowledging.  But we need to remember that this is a heart issue.  Jesus is always focused on the heart, and He is ever-willing to purify us from all unrighteousness.  (1 John 1:9).

So as we give gifts in the next few days and as we contribute to churches and missions in the next week, let us pray that we will have pure, generous, worshipful hearts — hearts that please our Savior and earn eternal rewards.

Jackson 5 Friday: Narnia Mania

When I was a little girl I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The magical escapism of it drew me in, along with the adventure, the beauty, and the enviable cohesion of the siblings!  In fact, I looked for magical wardrobes and closets for years.  I mean what child who fell in love with Lewis didn’t, right?  I know Cassie, my best friend and cousin, felt exactly the same as me about it.  Unfortunately, I was so supremely wedded to Lucy and the wardrobe, that when I tried to next read The Magician’s Nephew, I found neither Lucy nor the wardrobe, and gave up on Narnia in defeat and disappointment.  Of course, I should’ve stuck with it!  I really missed out.

Instead, I waited until my mid-twenties to fall madly for Lewis’s apologetics.  The influence this one man has had on my life, both as a child and an adult, is quite astonishing.  Now, there is simply no one I would rather read.  I am encouraged and moved by both his fiction and nonfiction.  Even a simple Lewis quote can give a hopeful boost to my day.  A number of Christmases ago my husband gave me a copy of The Quotable Lewis and I not only adore this book, but I am constantly using it.  Lewis’s knack of explaining difficult concepts is uncanny.  You may think some theological principal is nearly impossible to grasp, until you read Lewis and then you walk away first thinking, “wow, brilliant” and then, the more you ponder it, “well, of course!”

So you can imagine how rewarding it is for me to witness my sons’ budding love for Lewis.  A few years back I read them the first two books in the Narnia series and Will has continued on.  On Monday afternoon he finished The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, our prerequisite for seeing the movie.  We went that night and it was the first time that just he and I have gone to a movie.  He was just giddy to be out without his brothers and every time I looked over at him he had a smile on his face.  I guess maybe I need to be more intentional about spending time with just him!

But the sweetest thing was on the way home.  It was a downright frigid night and so I let him ride up front for the very brief trip.  Half shivering, he said, “You know,  I think Lewis didn’t want to call Aslan’s country ‘heaven’ because he wanted to keep it holy.”  Is that insightful, or what?

I’m so glad he knows that Heaven is more than an allegory.  It is more than a longing.  It is more than a fanciful, psychological crutch.  It is real place, where real people go, and it is indeed holy.  Yet we are not entitled to go there.  We cannot earn our way there.  We cannot hope to be good enough, because holy is the standard, not good.  Holiness demands a blameless perfection that is simply unattainable.  Yet that blameless perfection is why the Baby is in the manger.  His perfection is ours for the taking.  He paid the price for every sin ever committed.

I hope when you see Jesus this Christmas, and thankfully he’s pretty hard to miss, you can say you’ve accepted His free and perfect gift.  May His peace and joy be yours this week and always.

Theological Thursday: Where to Keep Treasures

I’m having writer’s withdrawal.  The symptoms include grumpiness and a nagging feeling that I’m not doing what I should.  Like dirty dishes in the sink, my computer calls to me.  And I feel like a different person when I write — cognitively things feel tidied up and organized.  Writing is how I process and a well-constructed sentence conveying just the right thought gives me a high like runners describe.  But it does take time and that’s what I’ve had very little of the last two weeks.

But that said, I’m glad to get back to studying and writing about the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus warns against materialism.  He says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  This is a time of year where treasures are asked for, sought, pondered, purchased, hoarded, given, and sometimes re-given.  Yet is also the time of year in which followers of Christ celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world, and we sing songs about great joy and a remarkably humble yet holy night.  But it is easy to get caught up in things, isn’t it?  We are bombarded by materialism — advertisements aim to make us feel a discontentment and malls stoke the fire of desire.

But two simple truths are grounding: (1) things pass away; and (2) people do not.  As C.S. Lewis quipped none of us has ever met a mere mortal.  Think about that.  That person who stole your parking spot — immortal.  Your boss who appears heartless — immortal.  The obnoxious kid with the pungent smell at the party last weekend — immortal.   May we experience the love of Christ in the weeks to come, acknowledge that each person is immortal and made in the image of God, and may we share the undying, unfathomable love of Christ with others.

After all, loving others has present and eternal rewards!

Testimony Tuesday: Joe Gibbs

I have some great testimonies on tap in the coming weeks, but for now, in the busyness of mid-December please enjoy this I Am Second video.

Joe Gibbs is a big deal in my house for three distinct reasons: (1) he loves Jesus; (2) he led the Redskins to three Superbowl victories; and (3) he has a NASCAR racing team.  Yet as this video shows Joe Gibbs is a humble man, describing himself as an “average” guy without huge aspirations.  A great reminder that God uses all kinds and is never formulaic.

Click here to watch.

Testimony Tuesday: Lon Solomon and Todd Phillips

It’s a busy time of year, isn’t it?  In fact, December may not be the most ideal time to be asking my friends to be writing up their testimonies for my blog — not if I want them to keep calling me a friend anyway.

Fortunately, there are some incredible testimonies available on the Internet.  The links  below are for two of the pastors at Mclean Bible Church, where Will and I’ve attended since 1998.  Both Lon and Todd have incredible stories of redemption and transformation.  Lon was raised Jewish and was heavily involved in drugs until he met Jesus through a street preacher.  While Todd says that money was his god, and he pursued this god through many business ventures, including plans to finance a strip club.  His story of coming to Christ is truly remarkable and entertaining — you’ll just have to listen.  I have only met Lon a handful of times in all these years, because it’s a very large church, and I’ve never had a conversation with Todd Phillips.  Although I’ve described Todd as a fit Kevin James because he’s really quite funny.  Plus, he has this Kevin James expression every once in while that’s downright uncanny.

These are not 3-minute, 700-word testimonies, but I hope you’ll take the time to listen to them.  I know you will be blessed and greatly encouraged if you do.

Click here for Lon’s story.  Then click on the listen now link right under the title: The Story of a Changed Life.

Click here for Todd’s.  You will need to scroll to the bottom of the page to the sermon entitled, Through the Lens of Unbelief.  They are listed by date and it was given on 11/7/2004.  Then I would recommend starting to listen at the 6:35 mark.  The first six minutes are introductory remarks about our church so you’ll miss nothing of Todd’s testimony if you skip it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about their stories!

Jackson 5 Friday: Praying They’ll Be Caught

A number of years ago, when Will and Nate were just little guys, I first heard the following wisdom: pray specifically that your children will get caught for the bad things they do.  When your children are three and one this is not a big  deal.  I mean, there’s just not that much you don’t already know about.  But at nine and seven years old, having this prayer answered can be jarring.  I know because my son was caught, much like I’ve prayed he would be, just last week.  And I have to tell you that I was very surprised.  Not because it was the worst, most evil thing in the world, but because I just wouldn’t have thought he was capable of this particular offense.  But obviously he is.  He made no denial or excuse.

I prayed this prayer for a specific reason.  I prayed it because I wanted to be able to guide the boys, and help them make course corrections when they should be made — right away.  I thought it was about learning from mistakes and not developing bad habits.  As a parent I want to be about cultivating character, not just engendering conforming behavior.  That’s why I wanted the opportunity to talk through the how and the why of wrongdoing.  My aim is to approach everything through a biblical worldview, looking at the Bible to inform and guide our rationales and actions.

What amazes me now is how much this getting caught thing was really about me and my parental naivete.  I needed this little guy to get caught because I needed to parent all of my boys with a realistic view.  As my friend Michelle said, “We should never be shocked by the sins of our children.”

My prayer is that I won’t be shocked and that I’ll love them unconditionally — no matter what they get caught for.  I’m committed to modeling godly character, teaching them right from wrong, and seeking to make things right when mistakes are made.  I’m actually just incredibly thankful for this situation from last week — because getting caught is the epitome of the teachable moment.  For parent and child.

Theological Thursday: Light of the World

Although it’s quite possible that no one noticed, I haven’t posted on Theological Thursday for the last two weeks. Our Internet was out two weeks ago, I was speaking at chapel that morning, and just didn’t have time to go to Starbucks or anywhere else with Wi-Fi. And then last week was Thanksgiving and that day was all about family, of course. So I am excited to be diving back into the the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve been trying to read it everyday for the last few weeks, and have honestly failed quite miserably. I’ve missed quite a few days and have just found it difficult to process when I have read it — it feels almost like too big of a bite. This leaves me feeling rather sad and inadequate, because I believe Jesus gave this message in its entirety for a reason. It is not merely a collection of sayings, and yet I am having a hard time getting the big picture of the Sermon.

I’m not giving up, but I am going to change methodology. I’m going to try to read it in smaller chunks each day, meditating on and contemplating five or six verses at a time, and then read all three chapters from Matthew once a week. So I anticipate blogging on this foundational sermon for quite a few weeks, maybe months because it is quite convicting that I have so little insight about this passage.  Some theologians believe the beatitudes don’t apply to our lives in a prescriptive way at all, but merely demonstrate how ridiculously short we fall of God’s standards, and further that the blessings described are not for today but are only descriptive of Heaven itself. (See Scofield Study Bible).  But I think this view oversimplifies the message that Jesus intended.  If there is one overarching theme of the Sermon on the Mount it is that the Kingdom is now!  Not the kingdom in its fullness that is promised in Heaven, but snippets of the kingdom, hints of the beauty that God has in store for us.  And it is my belief that the beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon describe “the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus.” The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard  (New York: Harper One, 1997) p.106.

One manifestation of this kingdom NOW-ness is that we as believers are the light of the world.  What a privilege, yet what a responsibility!  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16 ESV)

This Christmas may all the beautiful lights remind us of two important truths: (1) first of all, we need to recognize and be cognizant that God is light (1 John 1:7); and (2) as believers, we are to let our light shine before others, giving a hint and a fragrance of the kingdom.  Just a few weeks ago, Holly Leachman (my much beloved Bible study leader) spoke about of this issue.  She pointed out that “when you are resisting God on any level, darkness will come.”  May that not be true for us.  Instead, may we submit ourselves fully to God, acknowledging Him as the source of all light, and reflect Him unmistakably — like a city on a hill — throughout this beautiful season!