A Holy Week

On Palm Sunday I preached the good news about God’s unexpected salvation – salvation from sin, salvation for all, and salvation from circumstances. I said this –

If God’s power can conquer sin and death, then he can certainly free us from everything that enslaves us. He can remove every roadblock and work miracles through our limitations. But often God doesn’t intercede the way we expect…

Friends, too often we make ourselves prisoners of hope, looking for salvation from circumstances to come in a particular package or follow a particular pattern. As greatly as God loves you, he wants to set you free! But are you coming to God with clenched fists, holding tightly to your expected outcomes? What if God knows that there is something better, something you need more than what you are asking for?

My last blog post was a raw expulsion of feeling. I compared myself to an unraveling sweater. I had reached a breaking point emotionally, spiritually and physically. I could not think of another month of job searching without crying.

What a difference a week makes.

Within days of writing Unraveling Sweater, good news rolled into my life like a 4th of July parade. My father, who was laid off a year ago, received a wonderful job offer. Beginning May 1st he will raise money for a non-profit that serves some of the poorest children in Phoenix. God heard our prayers and came to save.

A few days later I received a job offer of my own. From June thru December I will be serving as a chaplain at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii. I will lead chapels for students from Kindergarten through 5th grade and offer pastoral care and counseling to students and their families. Though I love spending time with children and prize my role as aunt as much as I do my role as pastor, I’ve never imagined myself working with kids. Clearly God had other ideas. He heard my cries and he came to save.

After 4 years relentlessly pursuing a full-time job, this new opportunity feels like a Jubilee, a real trumpet-blast of liberation. I will have a new challenge to feed my brain and an island getaway free from job-searching to feed my soul. I’m embracing my own lesson. God has given me unexpected salvation, a gift in an unusual package, but I’m welcoming it with joy and anticipation.

The desert has been a significant metaphor for my inner life and experiences the past four years that I’ve lived in Phoenix. It’s not lost on me that I’m moving from the desert to what many people consider paradise on earth. Most people only dream of places like Hawaii and only a privileged few vacation there. I will soon live and work there. I will leave behind the dry, dusty, marrow-sucking heat of the desert for the lush greens, fragrant blooms and warm breezes of a tropical island. I can’t find adequate words to describe my sense of gratitude to God and the renewal of hope that is happening in my spirit.

And in the middle of all of this good news, pain and loss continue to shade my life. A friend is experiencing the miscarriage of her first baby. Another is newly devastated by infidelity. Two others have said their final goodbyes, one to a mother, the other to a sister. A homebound widow begs for a visit and prayers – her roommate returned to a life of addiction and is now hospitalized after attempting suicide. People I love are hurting and so even as I rejoice, I shout – Hosanna! Save, now! Save, I pray!

This has been a holy week. A week of contrasts inhabiting the same moment. I rejoice in my circumstances even as I weep with others. Hope sprouts with new dreams for my future while circumstances crush the spirit of those around me. Joy mixes with sorrow and makes its own kind of liturgy.

As a Christian, Holy Week is the strangest week we live. We do our best to step into time with Jesus, to participate in the iconic moments of his last days. On Sunday we celebrate his arrival as king. He’s come to do his most sacred work, to redeem God’s people and take the throne. We dazzle and sometimes disturb visitors to our churches with waving palm branches, cute children’s plays and shouts of hosanna. By Friday everything has changed. We have lost our joy. We are full of confusion, pain and fear. We turn down the volume and the lights and soak in the fact that our savior has been betrayed, arrested, tortured, humiliated and nailed to a cross. On Saturday we weep. Some give up and walk away. In all of us there is an inner stillness; we’re waiting for something, but we don’t know what. And then it’s Sunday again and we experience the deepest possible joy as Jesus appears before us alive and victorious!

It’s a week full of contrasts that inhabit the same moment. Light and darkness. Life and death. Waiting, seeking and finding. Unprecedented despair followed by unparalleled rejoicing. Holy Week is the pattern of life, at least for now. And it’s only the knowledge that painful things lead to unexpectedly good things, that keeps me living.

A New Year’s Walk

Today we begin another year, 2014. I started my day with a walk in the January sunshine, still reflecting on the Advent and Christmas realities — they have captivated me anew. Things are in bloom here in Arizona, just as there are spaces opening within me, ready to be filled with new life and wonder. The sky is a brilliant blue. The sun is warm. A soft breeze brushes my skin and fills my nose with fragrances of spring. There is too much beauty and bloom here to capture with my amateur photography skills, but every corner seems to have something to proclaim, so I went back for my camera. As I uploaded the images I caught, I read through the Gospel of Luke again and read the story in the vibrant blooming life all around me. Would you take this walk with me?

Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.



Zechariah’s wife became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”



Greetings you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you…The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.



Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.



Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear…Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.



His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation. He has filled the hungry with good things…



Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and redeemed his people…to show mercy…to rescue us…to enable us to serve him without fear.



Because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.



Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people…This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.



There was also a prophetess Anna…She was very old…eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to Mary and Joseph, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.



And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him.



May the Lord bless you with the faith to see his story living in and around you each day. Happy New Year!

This Battleground: A Holy Week Reflection

On recent Sunday mornings we’ve been singing “Never Once” by Matt Redman. Take a minute to review the lyrics…

Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step You were with us

Kneeling on this battleground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us

Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful

Now pause and look back at the two lines that are bold. How many of you could easily make two columns and file your life experiences under either the header “Mountaintop” or “Battleground?”  Both are common metaphors we use to speak about our spiritual journey.

The mountaintop is a prevalent faith metaphor for those sublime times in which we acknowledge that life with God is good. A mountaintop vista means we can clearly see what we have climbed over. Here we can fill our lungs to tingling, release clenched fists and to stand tall. The end of an uphill trudge is certainly to be celebrated!

The slowly-fading pain of the battleground is perhaps less euphoric than a mountaintop, but no less significant to our faith. Whether or not they are outwardly visible, many of us bear scars which remind us of earthly wars we wish we could have avoided — abuse, betrayal, deceit, broken relationships, [fill in the blank]. It’s fitting that Redman used the word kneeling with the battleground image. Truly victorious people are often weak-kneed with the knowledge that they were a hairs-breadth from death. Gratitude makes us kneel as we acknowledge that something (or someone) beyond our individual (or our battalion’s) capabilities stood in the infinitesimal gap between our necks and the edge of the sword.

Why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with Holy Week? This week is an opportune time to reflect on these metaphors, perhaps in a new way.

The longer I sit at the feet of Jesus, the more uncomfortable I grow with the dichotomy we draw between the mountaintop and battleground. Too often I’ve heard fellow believers judge the faith of another who is in the midst of a battle.

She’s always saying how hard her life is. Why has it been so long since she’s been happy like me? What is wrong with her? Where is her faith?

It’s as though the mountaintop is the only trustworthy thermometer of a vital spiritual life. But what if we learned to see the mountaintop and the battleground not as contrasting but interchangeable spiritual planes?

What would happen in our spirits if we understood the battleground as the mountaintop?

Jesus has a lot to say about spiritual warfare. As a Holy Week spiritual discipline, I encourage you to read John 15:18-16:33 each day. Listen deeply to Jesus teaching in the days and hours before his arrest. Notice how frankly he speaks to his disciples about the battles ahead. Grief, suffering, shunning, ridicule, hatred, persecution, death – these are the coming realities for his followers. (Just as they were for Jesus himself.) Jesus is not harsh or indelicate; he pulls away the film of naïveté from his disciples’ vision so they could understand that a God-honoring life is lived on the treacherous planes of a spiritual battlefield.

Despite these chilling facts, Jesus is still the good news bearer we met in earlier chapters. He didn’t leave his followers low in depression or despair. Hear both his motivation and encouragement in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”  

This is not a trite response given to trembling followers. “Have overcome” is literally “conquered” or “carried off the victory”. Jesus is using battle imagery! He’s foreshadowing events that will come soon, events that will culminate in the ultimate spiritual battle – the fight for the redemption of humanity and all creation. Where was this battle fought? On a cross – a place of humiliation and torture.

A torture device as a battlefield? Yes.

Suffering and death as a battle strategy? Yes.

And this leads to a victory? Yes!

Through his sacrificial death and his miraculous resurrection, Jesus defeated the power of sin and death. His actions may not have been logical, but they were victorious. This is why we should see our battles as mountaintop experiences – because God can accomplish the greatest victories even when we are at our weakest. Tribulations can be times of praise because victory is owned by the power of God.

Jesus told his followers to rejoice and be glad when they are persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). It’s a crazy request…unless you understand that the battleground is the mountaintop. We can rejoice despite the battle because Jesus did not leave his disciples defenseless. He armed us with supernatural weaponry –

·         Jesus’ continual presence through the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15)

·         Protection by the power of God’s name (17:11)

·         Jesus’ joy (17:13)

·         God’s word (17:14)

·         God’s glory which enables unity (17:22-23)

The first point is the battle cry of the Christian life. God sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Advocate” on the battlefields of life (16:7). The title Advocate is a legal term. It describes one who pleads a case before a judge, acting as an intercessor for the accused. (Forgive the shift in metaphor, but the battlefield and the courtroom do complement each other.)

Our lives will have tribulation.We will often feel like defendants being falsely accused by people we once thought friends. Rather than feel defeated, fearful or inadequate by a spiritual battle, we can see our trouble as a sign of spiritual vitality. Our confidence is in the Holy Spirit, in whom we have the best legal counsel possible. The Spirit defends the truth of our testimony and, like the savviest lawyer, turns the tables on our accusers. Our Advocate has the power to get our charges thrown out, saving us from both sure conviction and the death penalty!

Think about the many spiritual metaphors we use to describe the spiritual life – the battlefield, the storm, desert wanderings, and famine. Each of these experiences is also a mountaintop because we are infused with the presence and almighty power of Holy Spirit. This is the hope we cling to in shadow of the cross.

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge

Head of Christ by Nikolai Ge