The Sharp Edges of Christ

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We all prefer the softer side of Christ.
The Jesus who blessed the children rather than the Jesus who bade us pick up our cross.
Christ Cross
We often desire to blur the sharp edges of Jesus, to make Him a more comfortable sort of person.
A softer Jesus is easier to live with, easier to fold into our busy lives.
Yet we are called to be God’s image bearers to and for our world and Christ shows us that in a world that is broken and full of violence, “the shape of such image-bearing will be cruciform”. (James A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom)
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Jesus comes as the new Adam, the God-man who perfectly bears God’s image not by a “triumphant conquering of the world but submissive suffering for the world”. (Smith)
Following Jesus means following the crucified Messiah.
Rembrandt The Three Crosses
(We) are summoned to follow a leader whose eventual goal is indeed a world of blessing beyond bounds, but whose immediate goal, the only possible route to that eventual one, is a horrible and shameful death. N.T. Wright
The reality is that Jesus demands all of us. Not pieces of us, not most of us, but all of us.
And what does He want with our selves? He doesn’t only want to trim off the bad bits, He wants to kill the entire self. He wants us to die to ourselves completely.
Jesus doesn’t say that we must deny and cut out those pieces of us that are sinful. He said, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself.”
Even the good pieces. Often it is the parts that are right and good from the world’s viewpoint that are the hardest to surrender. Yet it is that very good that stands in the way of God’s best.
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And while it is true that God, in return, gives us Himself, places His own self into us and makes us into the self we were created to be, the surrender must be for the sake of Christ, not for our own benefit.
Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Many love Jesus while they are satisfied with life or as long as they receive comfort from Him in the middle of hardship, yet when Jesus hides Himself for a time, they (and, let me be transparent, I) begin to complain or even to turn their face from Him.
Would that we could love Jesus for His own sake rather than for what comfort He can give us! We would, I think, find power in that kind of love, a love that can praise Him in anguish of heart as well as in the satisfaction of abundance.
The ability to love Christ for the holy, beautiful, God of love that He is would contain within it the power to die to our natural selves. The power to take up our cross and follow Jesus and, in return, be allowed to share in His triumphal resurrection.
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If you willingly carry the cross, it will carry you. It will take you to where suffering comes to an end, a place other than here. Thomas à Kempis
The whole life of Jesus was a cross, and what in this world filled with crosses gave us the idea that we could escape what God Himself took on?
Realize that to know Christ you must lead a dying life. The more you die to yourself, the more you will live unto God. Thomas à Kempis
We cannot be a person who has the capacity to enjoy heavenly things unless we have surrendered to God and allowed Him to kill off our natural self completely, giving us a new self in its place, a self that looks strangely like Jesus Himself.
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You will never enjoy heavenly things unless you are ready to suffer hardship for Christ. Nothing is more acceptable to God, nothing more helpful for you on this earth. When there is a choice to be made, take the narrow way. This alone will make you more like Christ. Thomas à Kempis
May God give us the courage to take the narrow way and to be made more like Christ.

Art credits: photographs of Christ statues by asta kr; The Three Crosses sketch by Rembrandt

Emmanuel on the Cross

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

The beauty of Lent is the demonstration of God’s presence in all circumstances.
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The beauty of the cross is the proof that God is with us.
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Wherever you are, whatever your cross is today, God is with you.
Emmanuel. God with us.
From Advent to Lent, God stepped into His world and submitted to the same rules we must follow.
Whatever the reason we all suffer, whatever the purpose, we cannot say that God did not play fair by asking us to be subject to something He was not willing to experience.
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Are you broken? Jesus is broken with you.
Are you lonely? Jesus was despised and rejected by men.
Are you betrayed by your closest loved ones? Jesus, too, was betrayed by those He loved.
Does grief seem your closest and most constant companion? Jesus grieved and wept over those who would not accept Him.
In the words of Corrie ten Boom from the hell of a Nazi concentration camp: No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.
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When it feels as though life is beating you into the ground, when the weight of your burden does not allow you to rise from your bed in the morning, when you cannot carry your cross for one more step, you can know that He is here with you, carrying your cross with you, taking your burden on Himself.
Every tear we shed becomes His tear. He may not yet wipe them away, but He makes them His. Would we rather have our own dry eyes, or His tear-filled ones?
He came to us. He is here with us. We can be certain of Emmanuel in all circumstances.
If He does not heal all our broken bones and loves and lives now, He comes into them and is broken, like bread, and we are nourished.
Emmanuel
Be nourished by the bread of life and know that He is with you.
Peace to you.

Final two quotes and many of the thoughts in this post are by Peter Kreeft in Bread and Wine

All photographs are copyrighted by Made Sacred, 2017.

The Joy of Lent

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

Our hearts are deceitful.
We are often able to convince ourselves that while we may have a bit of clutter here, a messy corner there, we are mostly company-ready.
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The truth is that we are homes in need of a total overhaul.
It is good now and then to take time to look deeply and ask God what He sees when He looks at our hearts.
This is Lent.
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Lent has the bad reputation of being the time of year we put on our most mournful faces and give up something we love.
Quite the opposite, rather. Lent should be a time of excitement, a time when we leave shallow desires behind for our deepest longing of all, unity with Jesus.
It is meant to be the church’s springtime, a time when, out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. ~ Bread and Wine
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During this season of Lent, we are marked by ashes of penitence, marked by the sign of the cross. We are asked to boldly confront the horror of our sin, which crucified Christ.
It is, after all, only when we have seen our sin for the monstrosity it is that we are able to die with Christ and thus share in His resurrection and triumph.
Use the opportunity that is Lent to confront that feeling of lingering guilt, that nagging sensation that you are missing something. No more making excuses, no more hanging on to the remaining shreds of goodness you think you have; rather ask God to show you what you truly look like.
We must face up to the reality that it was our sin that sent Jesus to the tortures of the cross.
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The joy of Lent comes when we truly see our sin and turn from it into Christ’s open arms. It comes when we understand that the very cross on which we hung Jesus is the same cross that cleanses us from our sin.
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Once we have looked full on our sin, we must turn away from ourselves and look full in the face of Christ. Let His resurrection propel you into the abundant life He promised. The life that is the beginning of making God’s kingdom a reality here on earth.
Let us use Lent as a time of repentence and fasting so that at the end of this season we are able to step boldly out of the winter of our sin. It is spring, and we have the power of the risen Christ in us.
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He has risen!
He has risen, indeed!

He Is Saying Your Name

To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

 

 

I have lived deep in pain.
When I wanted a baby and God said not yet.
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When my brother called and said of his pregnant wife, it’s cancer.
cancer
When my Papa died the day my baby was born.
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I have lost friends and family, I have been disappointed and lonely.
As have most of you.
You, too, have received the doctor’s call, heard the rejecting words, felt the crippling fear and doubt.
When you are in the middle of deep, dark pain, you are blinded. Your body curls in on itself, your eyes darken with tears. You look for Jesus, desperately searching for Him, but you cannot see Him.
In the deepest pain, He is closest.
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Mary stood at the tomb, searching for Him. In the middle of her deepest pain, she searched for His dead body but was blinded by her grief. Angels spoke to her and she could not see. Jesus, the One she searched for, stood behind her and she thought He was the gardener.
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And then.
Mary.
He is right here. As close as your very breath. And He is saying your name.
Look up. Wipe your tears away for just a moment and listen.
He is saying your name.
He has not left you. He is there, speaking to you. Can you hear Him?
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He died and is alive and because of that resurrection, there is new closeness with Him.
I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.
There is resurrection and now there is intimacy that was not possible before.
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In the middle of your deepest pain, do not wonder anymore where Jesus is.
Turn around. He is right there behind you. Closer than He’s ever been.
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And He is saying your name.

The Day God is Dead

Holy Saturday.
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The day God is dead.
The day we lose God Himself.
Don’t miss this.  Don’t rush through it.  On the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, God is dead.
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One part of the Trinity, yes, but God nonetheless.
The Word of God is gone.  We can no longer hear Him.
Linger in this day.  Does the earth feel different?  Somehow vacant?
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There is, for this day, no possible way to reach God.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
No Most Holy Place where the high priest could meet with God.
It is finished.
He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.
No Word of God in whom we can see the Father.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
Garden Tomb Side
Remain in this day as long as you can.  I don’t understand how, but somehow this day exists on which we are completely isolated from God.
Breathe in the horror of this day.  God is dead.  He is, for this day, unattainable.  Can you catch even a glimpse?
The disciples did.  They lived it for what must have felt like an eternity.
We’d rather skip past this day, this Saturday that contains Christ’s body in the tomb.  Yet we must linger if we are to grasp the power of Easter Sunday.  We must dwell here awhile if we are to be allowed to hold the joy of Easter Sunday.
When the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of Him or attain Him.  And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible. ~ Hans Urs Von Balthasar (theologian and author)
Can you feel the terror of it?  Do you sense the incomprehensible void that stretches before us on this day?  What does it even mean?
Do not rush too quickly past this Holy Saturday on your way to the miracle.  You may miss the deepest part of the gratitude and joy that are to come.
Garden Tomb
The deepest gratitude and joy that come only when you understand what was absent, and understand that it was only for a day.

 

Art credits: Preparation of Christ’s Tomb by Vittore Carpaccio; Tomb of knight Philip Keerman in Flanders, Belgium; 1912 photograph of Jerusalem Garden Tomb by Dwight Lathrop Elmendorf; Side view of Garden Tomb by Deror Avi; Jerusalem Garden Tomb by Berthold Werner

I Cannot

I hate admitting that I cannot do something.  I have experienced quite a few tragedies that occurred because I was unable to swallow that thing inside of me that rises up and prevents me from asking for help.
clenched fist
The one notable exception is raising children.  I am all about seeking out advice when it comes to my children (which is its own problem because too much advice leads to indecision which invariably leads to paralysis).  This is not by any particular virtue of my own, rather it is because I am completely terrified of irreversibly messing up another human being.
Messing up my own life, however, is fine, because whatever the thing is, I can do it.
Even if I cannot.
This causes a definite problem, however, when it comes to my faith.  I want to be able to be good enough, to make myself righteous enough, to climb up the ladder and reach God all on my own.
Tower of Babel
I would have done well in Babel.
I want to do it myself so that I can then take credit.  I want to be proud of my own accomplishments.  I want, in short, to seek and worship myself.
Worshiping Self
God, however, is quite clear.  We can never rise up to Him, so He, in His infinite mercy, came down to us.  
Coming Down
This is folly and this is scandal.  It cannot be understood by our own reason and intelligence.  This is offensive.  It offends our pride to know that there is nothing for us to do.
God is too high and holy and our sin is too deep and depraved for us to be able to reach God.
Our souls become crippled and cramped by trying to rise to the highest height.  The end is despair, or a self-righteousness that leaves room neither for love of God nor for love of others. ~ Emil Brunner
It hurts as a crucifixion always does, but I must crucify myself and admit that I cannot reach God.  I cannot be good enough and I cannot make myself righteous.
So God descends to us at Christmas and finishes His descent on Good Friday.  What is His goal and where does He end His descent?  He ends where we belong.  In Hell.  Our rightful place is separation from God, which is hell, and God descends down to hell.
Fires
Jesus experiences our separation from God and despairs of loneliness from God so that we can be free of it.  He descends all the way down so that He can lift us out and reconcile us to God.  It is the only way.
Reconciliation
If the only way to receive God’s Spirit and nevermore to be separate from Him is to admit that I cannot do it, I will crucify my pride every single day and bow my head to the ground in worship and thanksgiving.
I will confess: I cannot.

Art Credits: Construction of the Tower of Babel painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger; The Three Crosses by Rembrandt

The Dangerous Grace of Lent

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I am only beginning to explore this journey that is Lent.  This season was not a part of my faith tradition growing up, but it seems to be growing more popular among evangelicals these days.
Lent
This long season of Lent is not a frivolous sort of giving up as it appeared to a fairly oblivious teenage self (fasting from M&M’s anyone?) but a giving up for the purpose of giving away.  It is a period of self-denial in order to become more unified with the Spirit of Christ.
It is a difficult thing to be unified with Jesus.  Gazing into the eyes of Christ for too long has frightening consequences.  When you stare at the cross, you find yourself looking at your own death, at your sin and its just consequence.  You come face to face with all of the spiritual deformities that are in your own soul and find yourself tempted to turn away from the harsh reflection.
Crucified with Christ
When you gaze at Christ crucified for these forty days that are Lent, you are pulled close to the grace and forgiveness of your death finished for you.  But it is a dangerous grace.  This grace is one that does not leave you unfinished.  It is a grace that purges and renews.
The purpose of Lent is to awaken in you a sense of your own sin, your guilt for your sin, and your sorrow over your sin.  The purpose of Lent is to awaken “the sense of gratitude for the forgiveness of sins.  To (awaken) or to motivate the works of love and the work for justice that one does out of the gratitude for the forgiveness of one’s sins.” (Edna Hong in Bread and Wine) 
Awakening
This grace can only be approached at the end of Lent.  It is a long journey, these forty days.  It is a necessary journey, one that fights the apathy and smugness of this world in which we often find it easy to spot deformities in the souls of others and find it also easy to turn away from the crippled places of our own souls.
Yet we do not travel this path of Lent alone.  God’s Spirit Himself travels with us, maneuvering us down this steep path that ends at the foot of the cross.  As we stand at the foot of the cross, stripped of our illusions about ourselves, we gaze at the battered and broken body of the One who came to rescue us.  This body of Jesus that is our grace.  This grace that brings fire.  This fire that purges and cleanses and does not consume but instead resurrects us into a new self.
Gaze at the Cross
It is beautiful, this amazing and dangerous grace.
Dangerous Grace
When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie
My grace all sufficient shall be your supply.
The flame shall not hurt you, my only design
Your dross to consume and your gold to refine.
~ How Firm a Foundation

Credit to Edna Hong and Walter Wangerin in Bread and Wine for many of the ideas in this post.

Today

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Today, our world seems darker.
Today, my heart is heavy and grieving.
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Today, I acknowledge my guilt and wrap myself around my shame.
Today, I try to fully take in the magnitude of this beautiful, amazing Love.

 

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 On this day, creation mourned and the sun hid itself in grief.
On this day, Jesus chose to stay nailed down, for His heart was full of love.
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On this day, Jesus took my guilt into His own body and gave up, for a time, His perfect closeness with God the Father.
On this day, God once for all proved His love for us.
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On this day, He proved His Word, that He truly meant it when He said
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the LORD, who has compassion on you.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
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He loves me. He came to rescue me and to make me perfect and holy. He came to conquer death and to make me alive.
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On this day, God proved through Jesus that He means to accomplish all of these things.
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And yet.
Is He able?
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Today, I do not yet know.
I suppose I’ll have to wait until Sunday to find out.
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art credit: Sketch by Rembrandt, The Three Crosses

Deepest Need

I desperately wanted Kristina to be healed.
Kristina
I long for the lost wisdom of my Papa.
Analise, Natalie and Papa
I dream of a normal life for my friend, Stephanie.
steph
There are so many stories that I, in my limited vision, would change if I had my way. What story would you change?
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I am forced to look deeply at myself, however, when I read the story of friends who lowered the paralyzed down to Jesus through a hole. I hear Jesus’ first words.
Your sins are forgiven
I imagine myself as a friend.
Yes, yes. Forgiveness is good. But we cut away that barrier to You for healing. We want you to fix this. We want him to walk!
But this is Jesus. He is answering the deepest need first, and the deepest need is not to be able to walk.
Lent Candles
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It sometimes feels as though my deepest need is to be relieved of my burden.
Cancer is a heavy burden.
Rejection is a heavy burden.
Death is a heavy burden.
Yet over and over again, God’s best work happens when I am carrying my heaviest burden.
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I can see this truth at work in the art that I love.
It is interesting to note how many artists have had physical problems to overcome, deformities, lameness, terrible loneliness. Could Beethoven have written that glorious paean of praise in the Ninth Symphony if he had not had to endure the dark closing in of deafness? As I look through his work chronologically, there’s no denying that it deepens and strengthens along with the deafness. Could Milton have seen all that he sees in Paradise Lost if he had not been blind? It is chastening to realize that those who have no physical flaw, who move through life in step with their peers, who are bright and beautiful, seldom become artists. The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain…Pain is not always creative; received wrongly, it can lead to alcoholism and madness and suicide. Nevertheless, without it we do not grow. ~ Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water
In the midst of these hard things, Jesus wants to be certain that I am still able to rest in Him. He wants me to know that He has overcome all of these burdens so that even while I am underneath my burden I can have peace.
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.
The knowledge that I will have trouble is a hard truth. One that I don’t like most of the time.
A large part of me wants to clutch tightly those I love best and protect them. Yet a tiny part of me knows what is truly important.
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God’s way of forgiveness and transformation is more important than relief from my heavy burden. I try to trust and let that smaller part of me grow.
I long to be who God intended for me to be. I want to grow. It seems that transformation requires hard things.
Paul, the one who was beaten and imprisoned and shipwrecked and stoned and rejected by many, calls these hard things “light and momentary troubles“.
I can’t do that yet. I cannot open my arms and embrace these burdens.
I can, however, accept them and choose to voice words of gratitude and praise to God for them, even if I don’t truly feel grateful. I can choose to allow these burdens, this pain, to help me grow rather than to drag me down into depression.
I am tempted to try to avoid not only my own suffering but also that of those around me, the suffering of the world.
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Instead, I will continue to allow suffering to inspire my art, to trust that God will make all things beautiful.
Instead, I will allow pain to deepen and strengthen my life rather than to destroy it.
Instead, I will pray this grace for those around me as well.

 

Art credits: my thanks to Eddie Lowen, Pastor at West Side Christian Church in Springfield, Illinois, for his thoughts on this subject; The Palsied Man Let Down through the Roof by James Tissot; Illustration for Milton’s Paradise Lost by Gustave Dore

The Last Temptation

This, the Friday before Easter, is a hard day.

I’d much rather jump straight into Easter, to the joy of the earth singing as it once again feels the touch of Jesus’ feet.

Yet you cannot get to the empty tomb without going through the suffering of the cross.

I’ve written a lot about suffering and pain in these pages. I am often tempted to do almost anything to avoid feeling pain.

It recently struck me that perhaps that is what temptation really is: Satan doing everything he can to help you avoid suffering here on earth.

We don’t know about very many of Jesus’ temptations, but God gives us enough glimpse to know that He, like me, desired to avoid pain.

That is what Jesus’ wilderness temptings were: Satan trying to convince Jesus to believe in him and take the easy, pain-free way of becoming king rather than believing God and obeying His pain-filled, cross way of becoming king.

The way that would also rescue His people.

Too often, I believe Satan instead of God.

Yet Satan did not end his tempting of Jesus in the wilderness.

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Him until an opportune time. ~ Luke 4

That opportune time?

The Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ last temptation.

The temptation to once again take the comfortable way instead of the suffering way. The temptation to believe in Satan’s hazy seductions rather than in God’s rock-solid promises.

Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will but Yours be done. ~ Luke 22

I bow my head in shame, knowing how often I choose to believe Satan.

Yes, He was God, yet He still struggled as much as we do with this same temptation.

And being in anguish, He prayed more earnestly, and His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. ~ Luke 22

And so we come full circle.

That which began in a garden now ends in a garden because this time the man obeyed.

Jesus obeyed. He chose to believe in God’s promise while knowing the immediate consequences of pain.

My heart wants to weep because I know why He did this.

But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ~ Romans 5

Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil. ~ Hebrews 2

Because He loves us and He wants to rescue us, to rescue you, from the power of pain and death.

This. This is why we linger long on this hard day instead of leaping ahead to Sunday. To remind us to believe in God’s promises of the end of death and pain even while knowing of the fleeting death and pain we might face in obedience.

May I end with something I wrote and a video I made with a friend? (if you are viewing this via email/in a reader, click here to view this video)

Pause for a moment and dwell on the hard things so that on Sunday your heart can resonate even more fully with Easter’s joy.

Temptation.
It swirls around me like a hurricane
sending my intentions spinning into the blackened sky.
I hear the voice of God
I hear Him tell me what is good
Why can I not obey?
My consistency is that I fail to listen
My constant is that I continue to fall.
The ugly truth?
I don’t believe God.
I don’t believe Him when He tells me what is best.
If I believed, I would obey.
If I trusted in God’s goodness, His love, I would always do what He asks.
I would choose love instead of anger.
I would choose compassion rather than bitterness.
I would forgive instead of clinging to my grudge.
I would assume the best rather than enjoying my irritation.
I would think of others and forget about myself.
How can I obey,
how can I root out this ugliness that is deep inside my heart?
I cannot listen when I will not trust.
And yet I remember.
God is mercy and God is grace.
He changes hearts and He captures our gaze.
He is faithful if we ask;
His wisdom He delights to give.
Christ stayed in the wilderness
He faced down our sin
He trusted in God
Trusted God’s love and goodness
Christ conquered to make me a conqueror.
Grace.
It captures my heart and teaches me to trust
changing my nature so that I am now able to believe what God says
And obey.

 

(special thanks to Kati Pessin for putting together the video and to our Pastor for his thoughts on Christ’s temptations)

art credit for the video: music is “Window” by Album Leaf