Evangelism at the cross

One thief crucified with Jesus found mercy because he was paying attention in the midst of his own misery. Insults and vengeful retaliations by Jesus’ adversaries were not the fruit of humble hearts. Jesus was the one modeling that pattern even as he was nailed to his cross. It got one thief’s attention.

It makes for a curious lesson in evangelism. Jesus never said a word to either of the thieves by his sides while they just echoed the crowd and reviled him. It would be understandable if Jesus had been absorbed completely with his own pain. But John reported the instructions Jesus gave him about taking care of his mother. Jesus had time to think about others and to speak about them even from his cross.

But there were two lost, dying souls right next to him. Jesus, who had come to save the world, apparently never said a word to them, never invited them to repent while they still had a few moments of breath before dying. It seems a perfect moment and audience for evangelism. Jesus didn’t speak to it.

This may be the clearest demonstration of all that God intended to honor the gift of free will that He had given to mankind. At the high and privileged end of the social spectrum, King Herod had heard the gossip about Jesus. We could assume that poor, street-level thieves had also heard such stories swirling through Jerusalem. And here he was, now in earshot.

But at first both men just joined the hectoring mob filling the air with scorn for Jesus. Jesus didn’t respond to any of it. One thief finally noticed.

If he knew nothing else at all about Jesus that day, he had heard the derision from the crowd mocking the idea that Jesus was anyone special. And there was that strange sign Pilate had written to be posted over Jesus, specifying the charges that explained why Jesus was being executed.

The thief became the first follower to accept and believe the simple words written about Jesus. He spoke to Jesus in terms that accepted what those words said about him. Only then did Jesus finally speak to the man directly. He had waited until the Holy Spirit brought the thief to the right moment. He then made the man a promise.

And Jesus counted up one more follower before the ordeal of Good Friday had ended.

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Tongues and marigolds

I’m thinking about what to do when we’re afraid to think about whatever it is before us or we just don’t want to. It involves story telling. Let me start with one.

All of a sudden, in the last few days, I’ve been reading up on the great alternative computer operating system that competes with Windows and Apple called Linux.

I’ve never been curious about Apple or Mac computers and never used one. I had my first serious introductions to PC’s in the early 1990’s, the days of Windows 3.0 and 3.1, with some limited exposure to DOS 6. I stayed on the Windows wagon for Windows 95 and, finally, XP. In my church work I eventually got moved along to Windows 7 (and wasn’t completely happy about it).

At home, I kept my computer running XP even after Microsoft announced they were abandoning support for the system in 2014. And I began holding my breath against the day some hardware failure on my home system would force me (crying and screaming) to finally pay for an upgrade.

My body failed me before XP has. A stroke in the fall of 2014 made it nearly impossible for me to scrabble around with floor cables and connectors under my desk as I had happily done in years past. The stroke left me with double vision. I was grateful I could still see the monitor at all, or read from it. My retirement from work had come early. I fretted about the cost of newer Windows versions. I fretted silently about trying to read instructions for the learning curve waiting for me in what seemed like the major changes in the way Microsoft techs were “improving” their product every year.

I don’t know what prompted me to go searching for how-to videos about Linux on You Tube. But I found a lot of them. I have been seeing demos of the various Linux desktops and discovering the burgeoning list of Windows-alternatives that Linux will run for writing, for graphics creation, for video editing. Programs that Microsoft and others sell to do those things don’t work on Linux. But Linux alternatives are mostly available for free.

So is the basic Linux OS software itself. And it apparently works just fine on computers that started life with Windows on them. Except Linux is faster, even on older machines. The growing Linux family of fans enjoys helping others discover what they have.

I haven’t jumped yet. XP isn’t broken for me, yet. But I know I should jump before I am forced to. I’m looking carefully, holding my breath again.

You hold your breath, too, because it will look like I’m about to completely change the subject. I’m not.

Last week I stumbled on a short video review of Steven Spielberg’s early blockbuster movie, Jaws. In his comments, the reviewer voiced the same thought that crossed my mind when I first saw the movie in 1975. I realized Spielberg had grasped the same techniques that Alfred Hitchcock had mastered in his career of suspense-filled thrillers.

On this video review, the narrator included a clip from an interview with Hitchcock where he discussed the principle. Imagine a table in a restaurant with a group having dinner, Hitchcock said. For five minutes, as they enjoy the meal, they all talk about baseball.

Suddenly, a bomb under the table explodes. Hitchcock predicted the audience reaction. “They have ten seconds of shock and surprise.”

Then he did a rewind. “Now, lets say you start the scene by showing the audience that there is a bomb under the table that will go off in five minutes. The scene proceeds as before. The people are eating and laughing, talking about baseball. But now the audience is on the edge of their seats. They’ll be wanting to shout, ‘Forget about baseball! There’s a bomb under the table!’ ” 

That is the difference between surprise and suspense. And Hitchcock had one more thing he had learned the hard way. [Spoiler alert] In his 1936 film Sabotage, a young boy is given a package to deliver. The package contains a bomb. He takes it on a bus and soon the bomb explodes, killing the boy.

The scene drew angry criticism at the time. “You must never let the bomb go off,” Hitchcock concluded. It forces people think about things they don’t want to think about.

Spielberg made a similar mistake in Jaws. There is a scene where another small boy is swimming in the ocean… well, Steven admitted later he was stupid for doing the scene! But it is a masterpiece of suspense, because you know something scary is going to happen soon. And it was still awhile before Steven learned the lesson.

I always thought Spielberg repeated the error in the final scenes of his film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss has followed an inexplicable urge to go to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where scientists have gathered to greet aliens arriving in a space ship. The aliens pick Dreyfuss out of the crowd, inviting him to come aboard and fly back to their home with them.

When this movie first came out in 1977, it showed Dreyfuss walking up the gangplank into the spacecraft, but did not follow him inside. It was a bit frustrating. But the film was so successful Spielberg was allowed to shoot some additional scenes for a re-release in 1980. One scene he added showed Dreyfuss looking around inside the spaceship at the end.

What did we get to see then? That it was big. But what could we have expected to see? What could Spielberg show us that would be satisfactory?? No bomb going off would be big enough. There was no way to satisfy us successfully no matter what we were shown.

(By the time he made Jurassic Park in 1993, Spielberg had learned to avoid the problem. In this movie, young children are chased by giant dinosaurs, but they get away safely!)

When I watched the reviewer’s video, Melanie and I had just seen the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), and the sequel, Second Best Marigold Hotel. (I do love the sequel’s title!) The movies are about a group of elderly British retirees who seek out a retirement center in India, because it is much less expensive for them on their pensions than staying in England.

There are several amusing moments when the eager young Indian manager awkwardly admits there is an “elephant in the room,” (an apt metaphor in these films) the fact that his guests have come to live there until they die.

“This elevator takes you up, until the time for you … to go up.” Everyone tries to ignore the gauche moments, with British good manners. It’s funny, but I became aware that the subject created an unresolved melancholy that hung over both films.

The second film ends with a close up of Maggie Smith, sitting in a stone fence, staring at the others riding off together down a busy city street on Vespa scooters. She is facing the only trip left for her, alone. The camera lingers on her expressionless face. The the screen goes black. The film makers have nothing more to show, nothing more they can say. Yet there will be something more, obviously. The world just can’t stand to think about it.

And we Christians have difficulty knowing what to say about it that can possibly relieve the pain.

All of a sudden, I realized why one of the first gifts offered to us by the Holy Spirit is the gift of tongues. God invites us to speak to Him, and when we don’t know what to say, The Counselor and Guide helps us. God wants to hear our voice even if our human understanding is too limited to give shape to any worthwhile words. God has made it possible to pray to Him even when we don’t know what to say.

In the same way, the Lord guides and enables me to go forward a day at a time, even when I am uncertain what that day will hold. Whether it’s a day for the learning curve of a new computer program, instructions to be read through blurry eyes, or prayers offered for those suffering with pain and loss. My mouth can still offer words of praise and intercession, whether I understand them at the moment or not.

I don’t have to know ahead of time exactly what will happen next, or even what is happening now. God knows. I’m not in charge. So I don’t have to be.

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Love gives autonomy to others.

When autonomy is received and given back, the bond of relationship begins.

The value of that relationship is greater than the autonomy.

I was going to put that on a poster. But the more I thought about it, the longer it got.

An example of this principle: Marriage. The individuals give up their autonomy and freedom to each other, willingly. What they get in that deal is the relationship, a bond that grows stronger as the mutual submission continues and is extended each day. Where that gift of autonomy is withheld the bond, the relationship, the marriage weakens and breaks.

In a society, a license to drive an automobile on streets through cities and neighborhoods filled with people is offered to the citizens. They can sit in the car alone and go where they want if they will agree not to drive on the sidewalks or run red lights. Where the ability to drive is interpreted as autonomy and freedom to drive anywhere, any time, more blinking red lights show up.

In a representative republic, people choose certain people who then meet to decide how much driver’s licenses will cost and how high taxes will be. And where the resulting pile of money will be spent. If the representatives misuse their power, steal the money, and ignore the citizens, the citizens withdraw the gift of autonomy that was given to them. And if the citizens refuse to submit willingly to the decisions being made for them — well, that eventually sells a lot of firecrackers.

God had a family meeting. Everyone at the meeting had given, surrendered, and respected the autonomy of the others. They were bonded in a relationship of love. And an idea was presented one day as the order of business.

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)

That “image” was the bond of love, the relationship shared in the Trinity. Man was given freedom to decide what to do with the gift of autonomy that was provided to him out of God’s love. Man could keep it to himself, by himself. But that would not reflect the “image” that God intended to create in him. That “image” only came into view when the autonomy was willingly returned to the Giver.

When the gift was returned, something of greater value came into view: a relationship that was, itself, the very Image of God.

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A Parable Mystery Quiz

Location: a Sunday Morning church service.

If you’ve been to church much, you’ve probably heard, from time to time, from somewhere in the crowd, the sound of a crying baby. Here’s your chance to be an  armchair detective! With no more clues or data than that, take the Multiple Choice Mystery Quiz! [Note: this not really about crying babies in church, so relax. This is a parable!]

What’s happening with the baby?

__  The baby is in pain.

__ The baby is unhappy.

What’s happening with the parents?

__ The parents are ignoring the child.

__ The parents love the child but must continue to do whatever they are doing.

__ The parents are doing something the child doesn’t understand.

__ The baby is unable to receive any explanation that will satisfy him at this moment.

What’s happening with the other people near by?

__ They sympathize with the parents and are offering to help.

__ They sympathize with the parents’ dilemma but can do nothing to help.

__ They sympathize with the baby and are sorry it has such awful, indifferent parents.

__ They are less annoyed than the baby.

__ They are more annoyed than the baby.

__ They blame the baby for distracting them.

__ They blame the parents for letting the baby distract them.

What is God doing about it?

__ God cares that the baby is in pain.

__ God is doing nothing to stop the pain in order to teach the baby the consequences of whatever it did to cause itself the pain.

__ God cares that the baby is unhappy.

__ God is doing nothing to stop the baby’s unhappiness because something else is more important than the baby’s (or the parents’) unhappiness just now.

__ God is letting the parents handle it because He doesn’t really care or notice.

__ God is letting the parents handle it in order to see if they care as much for the baby as He does.

__ God is watching to see if the parents will still believe He loves them and their baby, even though He is “doing nothing about it.”

__ God is watching how everyone else around them treats them, to see if they care as much for that family as He does, and will be as patient with them as He has been.


__ There may be something going on that not everyone (or anyone) can see.

__ What is happening right now is more important than what happens next. This why people walk out of movies, or church services, before they’re over.

__ What happens next is as important as what happens now. This why people plant seeds in gardens and then water them. And wait.

__ If I don’t know everything that’s going on when I want to know, I am allowed to have a fit.

__ If I don’t know everything that’s going on when I want to know, I am allowed to cry.

__ If I am angry at God for not explaining things better, He better shape up.

__ If I am crying because God is not explaining Himself to me better, I better grow up.

__ God is already in pretty good shape. I am not.

__ For some reason, Jesus still loves me.

__ It’s a mystery.

UPDATE: One day after posting this I read Jill Carattini’s thoughts about “Faithful Inconvenience” that God doesn’t hesitate to introduce into our lives.

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The gay fig tree

There is a popular argument against criticizing certain choices that were condemned in previous generations.

The basic premise asserted is God made me this way. The premise seeks to force critics into the position of claiming God has made a mistake, an untenable conclusion for one who believes God exists and doesn’t make mistakes. The only apparent alternative is that it is the critic who has made the mistake. Or past generations (mom and dad) made a mistake.

I have never felt satisfied by any response I could think of to that argument. The argument assumes the truth of the premise and it would seem awkward to deny it, given the opening declarations of the Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things….

It requires some discernment and subtlety of mind to raise the question, Why would God want anything He made to change if He made it perfectly and good to begin with? And to ask that question forces one to ponder why Jesus went around telling people to “repent,” that is, to change? Are there some things that are not now the way God made them or intended them to be?

This old argument came back to mind as I was reading Matthew’s brief mention of a curious episode in Jesus’ final return visit to Jerusalem.

Matthew 21:18. Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.

19. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!”

Immediately the tree withered.

I considered that scene and heard those old questions echoing in my mind. Didn’t God make that fig tree? How could the fig tree be at fault if God made it that way? Was Jesus bringing an unjust expectation to the fig tree?

Surely that last question is also untenable. The tree was “advertising” with its leaves that it had fruit. It was misrepresenting itself as a normal, fruit-bearing tree with a right to grow right where it was, just like any other fig tree. But no tree like this one would have ever been cultivated in the first place. It was, in parable terms, just a weed or thorn bush. It raised false hopes for the hungry travelers going by (like Jesus).

The incident stuck in the memory of the disciples because this happened the same day that Jesus cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem. Similar questions could be raised about the Temple. Didn’t God make that, too? He had given detailed instructions on how it was to be built and how the ceremonial liturgies were to be conducted there. How could anything be wrong?

Yet Jesus upended tables and disrupted all the business going on there that day, saying, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Get out!” And he told the disciples not one stone of the Temple would remain standing. He called it his Father’s House and said it was all coming down. How could that be if God had wanted it built in the first place?

Is it possible that the choices people made with the free will granted to them by their Creator resulted in outcomes that had no resemblance to God’s original plans and intentions? Is it fair or logical to credit (or blame) God for such results when they deviate so far from what He intended?

The fig tree ended up dead. Did Jesus make a mistake? Did he not have a right to his expectations of that tree?

Or of me?

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Simeon, Ananias, and Mma Grace Makutsi

Recently Melanie and I discovered a delightful TV series that we missed when it came out ten years ago. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is based on the series by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. He was born in Africa and writes with an affectionate sympathy for the contemporary social plight of African women in a modernizing land. The TV series was adapted with wonderful performances from Jill Scott as Mma Precious Ramotswe, who sells her late father’s herd of cattle in order to open shop as the Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana’s capital city of Gaborone. Her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, is played by Anika Noni Rose (who went on to voice the Princess in the Disney cartoon The Princess and the Frog).

I am beginning to suspect that McCall Smith is a Christian. There are moments in the stories that remind me of serious Christian themes and morals (And in fact Botswana’s Anglican Bishop played a small part in one episode).

One underplayed scene that grabbed me was part of a story with Grace, the eager secretary who wants to be a detective herself. She has run interference for a shy local girl who has entered a beauty pageant. Grace makes sure the shady promoter of the pageant gives this girl a fair chance. The girl has a dream of entering Botswana’s Secretarial College, the very one Grace attended (she is proud that she graduated first in her class with a grade of 97%!). When the young girl wins the pageant, Grace proudly tells her that “someone” has prepaid the girl’s tuition to enter the college. But now that she has won the pageant, the girl blithely tells Grace that she has set her sites even higher.

We are given just a moment to see Grace’s reaction. There are no words. Just a flicker of mixed feelings that flash across her face.

I remembered a blog I wrote several years ago about sitting on the shoulders of giants. At the time, I was being thankful for the privilege and advantage we enjoyed from the sacrifices of those who went before us. This scene with Mma Grace turned my attention to what those sacrificing forerunners must think as they watch us take their lead and go farther.

I thought about Simeon’s visit to the Temple the day he saw a baby in a young mother’s arms. Simeon spoke out to God. “Dismiss your servant in peace!” (Luke 2:29) All he had seen was a baby. There would be much more to see. But this moment was enough for Simeon.

A few years later in Damascus, Ananias emerged from obscurity long enough to lay hands on blinded Saul and bless him. (Acts 9:10ff) We never hear from him again. But the Roman Empire and world history were upturned by the intense Jewish convert he prayed for.

When I stop to think about it, Jesus knows what it is like. He prophesied, “Anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12) This from one who raised the dead on at least three different times that we’re told about. His measure of “greater things” must be spectacular.

Jesus doesn’t seem one bit worried for his reputation, or that someone else may better his record somehow. As in every other way, he has left us the pattern to follow. Particularly when it includes helping others to pass ahead of wherever we are.

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John’s father

I have been working on a book of Gospel commentaries. I’m expanding on material I wrote for the daily devotional The Journey. The project has me slowly rereading and thinking more deeply about the texts. I am looking at the familiar single stories I’m used to hearing in isolated lectionary readings. But I’m seeing them in a wider context, in sequences that turn on fresh light for me.

I’ve heard the story from St. Luke about John the Baptist’s father. I’ve tut-tutted Zechariah’s question to Gabriel, asking what sign can reassure him the promise of a child in old age is true. Gabriel, God’s right-hand angel, is surprised Zechariah doesn’t believe him. He declares the old priest will be unable to say another word until John is born.

When he and Elizabeth bring the baby to the temple to be circumcised eight days after he’s born, Zechariah faithfully names his son as Gabriel has instructed. The attending neighbors are all surprised that the baby is not being given the name of someone in Zechariah’s family as was the custom. I’ve always read the incident as a demonstration Zechariah had learned his lesson during those nine speechless months.

But as I wrote about the moment now, another factor sank in on me for the first time.

Luke has reported that Mary, her own annunciation meeting with Gabriel still vivid in her memory, has been visiting in the home of her cousin Elizabeth and her husband for three months. Three long months in which speechless Zachariah could only sit and listen to the two women discuss in wonderment what was happening in their lives. The pious and obedient priest probably heard Mary recite many times the words she had spoken to the angel.

I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said. (Luke 1:38)

What must have gone through Zechariah’s mind and heart hearing those words from that young girl? As a devout priest he would have been well aware of the penalties for sexual misconduct in Holy Scriptures. Yet here was an innocent young girl willingly trusting the God of Israel, effectively placing her life in danger and risking the loss of her fiance, trusting an angel’s promise. Mary’s example had to weigh heavily in Zechariah’s thoughts as he pondered that.

I am thinking it had an effect in solidifying his resolve that day in the Temple when he was asked about the decision over naming the baby, in the face of custom and the expectation of the people. The dedicated priest was done with questions about what or who he could trust.

His name is John.

Then, his voice once more restored, filled with the same Holy Spirit that would guide his son’s ministry to the nation, the old priest delivered the last prophetic message to be given to God’s people by anyone serving in the line of priests that started with Aaron. As was fitting, he began with a shout of praise and thanksgiving to the faithful God Who had not forgotten His people.

One of the early Church Fathers, Origen, said it was John the Baptist’s father that Jesus spoke of when recalling Zechariah “whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”   (Matthew 23:35) The Eastern Church says his death came as King Herod was ordering the slaughter of every male child under two years old.

Zechariah refused to speak or say where his own son was to be found. No doubt he knew that Joseph and Mary had already fled the country for safety. This time, Zechariah’s silence was a sign of his own resolve to be a trusting servant of the Lord.

After all, his name meant “remember God.”

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