Happy Ash Wednesday! I didn’t have time to attend a service today, but a lot of my students came in from parochial school with marks on their foreheads.
At the Methodist church where I served 14 years the pastor used to have everyone solemnly contemplate and write their sins on pieces of paper. After a quiet time of prayer, confessing my sins to the Lord, when I was ready, I joined others in line and took my turn nailing my sins to the rough cross laid on the altar steps. The weight of the hammer in my hand and the thudding blows on the nail drove the message home to my heart. Lord Jesus, thank You for taking all my sins on the cross. Thank You for suffering for me.
The old rugged cross was covered with white squares of paper, pierced with nails. All my habitual, deliberate, and even unacknowledged sins were paid for on that cross. To signify the forgiveness Jesus purchased by His death, Pastor John would rip the papers from the nails and burn them all together in a brazier. The fire flared, smoke ascended, and then the ashes were ready. You are forgiven, he whispered, as he drew the sign of the cross with ashes on each forehead.
I miss that service. Yes, I can and do confess my sins to the Lord privately every day. But there is something powerful and poignant about confession at church, confession among brothers and sisters. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
But I have an incredible painting that reminds me daily of my need for the Lord. It was painted by my cousin Lisa Ober who has a gallery in St. Louis. It hangs in the entry hall of my house–of a barren tree reaching skyward. The dry, twisted branches against a cold sky remind me of the futility of life without the Lord, the deadly results of my sins, and the hopelessness of reaching heaven by my own efforts.
Jesus transformed the cross, a tree of death, into a tree of life. Indeed, He became sin, who knew no sin, for each of us.
The wages of sin are indeed death, but the gift of God is life eternal through Jesus Christ our Lord.
There is nothing magic about nailing papers to a cross or mystical about ashes on the forehead. But the Deep Magic, as C. S. Lewis would say, is that, at the Cross of Calvary, death worked backward. Out of the ashes we rise, thank You, Lord Jesus.
I woke up early, determined to start my day with Scripture reading and prayer. So I reread some journal entries from a special retreat last summer with Soul Shepherding ministry leader Dr. Bill Gaultierre–the retreat where I heard this word from the Lord: “Be Christ to your husband.”
Since that retreat, I had surgery to remove a possibly cancerous tumor from my left leg (but it was not cancer, thank You, Lord), then hospitalization for cellulitis in that leg, an allergic reaction to antibiotics that sent me to the ER, and numerous doctor visits to try to close a deep hole from the incision. Meanwhile, my husband suffered increasing disability from spinal compression, was in the hospital nearly a month after spine surgery, my dad fell and broke his hip, and my sister discovered her Stage IV cancer. We also celebrated in subdued fashion Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
How did I deal with all this? By the Lord’s grace, I relied on Him for a good measure of strength and patience, but not all. I also turned back to Egypt, to food for comfort, and gained a good deal of weight. I spent mindless time sitting around in front of the TV or the computer. Now I have to get back in a program. But I need more than a program. I need more than a miraculous healing of the hole in my leg or the holes in my heart.
I need You, Lord.
How often I have read these words with amazement: “He was in the world, and the world was created through Him, yet the world did not recognize Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” John 1:10-11
But, truth be told, I too, His own, do not always recognize Him or thank Him for His Presence, for His creating, saving work in my life. I do not always receive Him. Instead, I suck in the world and try to fill myself with its emptiness. Yet I am Your child, Father, and You are always with me.
Heavenly Father, cleanse me anew today. Fill me with Your Spirit, with Your grace and truth, Lord Jesus. Make me a fit residence for my King. Let me receive You in a new way in this new year, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We continue the Journey Through John. For previous meditations on John chapter 1, scroll down to earlier articles.
Read JOHN 1:43-51
Once in a while we hear that some infamous person has “found God.” We rejoice, for it is true–God can save anyone, just as He saved us from our depravity. But later, we may hear that the penitent has returned to his old ways. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.” (Proverbs 26:11) Perhaps the end of that person is worse than the beginning. (Matthew 12:43-45)
Not so for those who are truly repentant, called of God, chosen before the foundation of the world! “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) However much we may despair over our own repetitive sins, we know the Lord is at work in our lives. We did not find God without His leading or choose Him without His invitation, but He found and chose us. Now it is our responsibility to respond and follow Him, as an obedient child. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you, both to will and to act for His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12b-13)
Jesus found His disciples in the middle of their ordinary lives, fishing, collecting taxes, sitting under fig trees. But He had already prepared their hearts to recognize Him. So when Andrew found his brother Simon, he exclaimed, “We have found the Messiah!” Then Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law . . . Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth!” (John 1:40-45)
We can almost hear Nathanael’s scoff. The Messiah was supposed to come from Bethlehem! (Micah 5:2) “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael exclaimed. But at Philip’s urging, he got up to find out.
“Then Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him and said about him, ‘Here is a true Israelite; no deceit is in him.'” (vs.47)
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. (vs.48)
“Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” Jesus replied.
Astonished that Jesus could see him from afar, Nathanael replied, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (vs. 49)
What a wonderful story this is! The Lord sees us where we are, while we are unaware, in our sins and disbelief, and chooses us. We may think we are doing good works, we may be zealous for our beliefs, we may be religious. We go about our business like Saul of Tarsus, until the Lord stops us in our tracks. (Acts 9) He calls us to repent and follow Him.
I have spent so much time sitting under the “fig trees” or circumstances of life, sitting in shadows, lingering in disbelief. But Lord, You see me, just like Nathanael the doubter or Jonah the pouter under his plant.
Heavenly Father, thank You for always seeing me, from the moment of conception to my last breath on earth. You see all I am, think, and do. You see me in my disbelief and discontent– and You still love me! Give me the faith to recognize You at work in my life, for You are the Living God, the One who sees me. Be King of my heart and mind, and help me follow You in joyful obedience and contentment. Thank You for seeing me and my needs today. In Jesus’ gracious name I pray, Amen.
I hated P. E. (Physical Education) in high school. I hated the baggy shorts and the goose-pimples on my cold, blue legs. I ran with leaden feet, broad-jumped as if I were glued to the ground, and ducked when balls flew my way.
Finally a senior, I signed up for some non-competitive, no-sweat P.E. classes: Golf and Bowling.
But in Golf, I swung and missed, swung and missed. When I finally made contact, the ball fluttered skyward, only to drop like a dead bird.
The instructor frowned and said, “You need to follow through.”
In Bowling, I probably set a record for consecutive gutter balls, but no one checked with Guinness.
The instructor grimaced and said, “You need to follow through.”
Unfortunately, I had never been taught to follow through. I didn’t know how to get from A to Z in most things. When I saw kids doing things I longed to do, I simply felt inadequate and left-out. No one was there to encourage and cheer me on, so failure meant instant retreat.
In my life, things just seemed to happen–sad things, unpredictable, and frightening. The only constant in my life was my fledgling faith in God. At age eight, I opened my heart to the Lord. I did my best to follow through–getting baptized (though I was afraid of drowning), praying, reading my Bible, going to youth group, and singing in the choir.
My self-image and situation did not improve, but somehow I knew that God my Father was taking care of me. Even when my Nana died or my favorite uncle broke my heart with verbal abuse, I cried to the Lord and trusted Him to take care of me..
As an adult with that kind of history, I have had to work hard to follow through, figure things out, stay organized, and keep my promises. Breast cancer, the Big C, reduced my multi-tasking to nil. I had nothing more to prove; I just concentrated on getting through another day of chemo, another day of radiation, and another sleepless night. Chemo brain set in also, a fog of forgetfulness. Difficulty concentrating, difficulty staying organized, and trouble following through made life complicated and sometimes chaotic.
Now, five years down the road of remission, I am so much better. But life still comes in and out of focus, depending on my anxiety level. This past year or so was very stressful. My husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and had to retire from a ministry we loved. It was one of those “one thing after another” kind of years. I wish I could forget it, but then I would also forget the Lord’s merciful and gracious answers to our prayers. To sum it up, just as we were sliding over the edge, He caught us!
In all this, I hoped to follow through with a promise I made to my friends on line–to Journey through John, to send out some encouraging words from meditations on the Gospel. But I let myself get discouraged and overwhelmed. My worship was riddled with worry, and my brain was shorted-out with stress. I stopped writing and composing. I went into survival mode once again.
The Lord, however, has a gentle way of nudging with comments and emails from family and friends, along with strangers who ask permission to produce Pilgrim’s Progress in their Christian schools. My husband, in particular, told me I should start writing again, even if only one person is encouraged. So despite the Big C and PD, I am not closing up shop.
After all we have been through, and in all that may come, let’s thank the Lord and encourage one another toward the finish line.
“You will have suffering in this world,” Jesus said, “but take courage. I have conquered the world.” John 16:33b
“Wait for the Lord; be courageous and let your heart be strong. Wait for the Lord.” Psalm 27:14
Thank You, Lord, for being Faithful and True. Unlike me, You always follow through. You haven’t given up on Your children. You began a good work in us, and You promised to complete it. Thank You, Lord. Your will be done in me. Amen.
The Anza-Borrego Desert Wilderness
This year’s late November Thanksgiving plummeted us into the season of Advent, looking ahead to Christmas, perhaps before we were ready to celebrate it. Now the New Year advances upon us. Maybe if we had celebrated Advent as a season of reflection, maybe if we had rested in the promises of Christ’s coming, maybe if we had not gotten tangled in Christmas preparations, just maybe we might feel ready for a new year. But are we ready? Am I ready to see Emmanuel and follow Him?
Read John 1:29-42.
John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Lord, to turn hearts in repentance toward the coming Messiah. He himself did not know Who this might be, although he and Jesus surely met as boys at Passover in Jerusalem. Two serious young men, devoted to the Scriptures, strong in the Lord, might well have looked forward to their annual reunions. Did they ever discuss the stories related by Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Zechariah, tales of miraculous births, mysterious prophecies, and angelic proclamations of their very names and destinies?
Perhaps, but there in the wilderness, baptizing at the Jordan River, John was not at all sure Who was coming. Crowds surged to hear his message of repentance and be baptized; Pharisees questioned his identity and authority. He was sure of his calling as forerunner and herald. Yet, like all of us, John needed the Spirit of God to open his eyes.
Then Jesus came to be baptized, and, suddenly, John saw Him, saw his cousin for Who He really was–the One who never sinned, the Son of God, the prophsied Messiah. He protested, “I need to be baptized by You, and yet You come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) Jesus insisted; He wanted to identify Himself with sinners, a first step in obedience to God’s plan of salvation. And so He was baptized. The heavens opened up, the Spirit of God descended on Him, and the Father proclaimed, “This is My beloved Son. I delight in Him!” (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34)
“Look! The Lamb of God!” John exclaimed. “Here is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world! This is the One I told you about.” So enthusiastic was his witness that some of his own disciples left to follow Jesus. That was all right with John. He was totally prepared to be eclipsed by the Messiah. He was filled with joy and kept on baptizing, telling everyone that the Son indeed had come. (John 3:22-36)
Lord, once I walked in darkness, no, cowered in darkness. Darkness consumed me until You came into my life. Then I saw You, Lamb of God, Savior, Lover of my soul! What a relief, what a joy to turn my eyes to You, and walk in Your light! Help me see You at work this year in my life and all around me. Give me that holy enthusiasm of John to point others to You, even in my present circumstances and season of life! For You are with me, Emmanuel, ever present, Faithful and True.
Thank You, Lord, for Your words of assurance from Scripture, even as You faced the cross: “Your heart must not be troubled. I go to prepare a place for you. The world does not see me, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:1,2b, 19 paraphrase)
Look! The Lamb of God!