What didn’t happen

Matthew 28:2 Behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from the sky, and came and rolled away the stone from the door, and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him, the guards shook, and became like dead men.

Matthew’s description of resurrection morning is quite brief. But it is worth noting what he does not say happened. None of the other Gospels say anything about it either.

In order to appreciate how extraordinary this particular gap is, recall what Herod did when the wise men told him a baby had apparently been born whose destiny it was to be made King of the nation. Herod ordered the wholesale slaughter of male children in Bethlehem to defend his own reign. (Matthew 2:16)

Then notice what Almighty God Himself did not do when His own son came to earth and was put to death after a shabby farcical trial. There is a vivid description in Matthew’s brief summary here. He describes an angel — Matthew only mentions one — with an appearance like lightning who rolls away the stone over the entrance to the tomb of Jesus. As the angel makes his appearance there is another earthquake. The Roman soldiers guarding the tomb fall into a dead faint from fear of him. And what doesn’t happen?

The angel doesn’t kill them. God lets the soldiers live.

Jesus had said a legion of these warrior angels would come if he asked his Father for a rescue from the hands of the people three days earlier. (Matthew 26:53) Now one angel showed up to do a favor for the women who wanted to finish honoring Christ’s body. The angel rolled away the stone so the women could see that would not be necessary. Jesus, who shortly was walking through walls and past locked doors (John 20:19) to greet the disciples, clearly would not have needed the stone rolled away to let him out of his tomb. Instead of responding in wrath, God was doing favors for His worshippers.

The only person who died as a result of Jesus’ execution that weekend took his own life. God showed restraint and mercy as His Son was being abused and crucified. The One Who had the right to be revenged on His enemies held back judgement.

Jesus also had a different agenda. He was calling his followers to meet him in Galilee for instructions on what to do next.

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Temperature reading

The morning of Good Friday was like an examination of a critical patient.

The story we hear is about Jesus being arrested and crucified. But the events that day were one final revelation, if one was still needed, that mankind was also in bad shape.

It was like a Doctor was taking a patient’s temperature one more time to see how bad he was before going ahead with the operation. The Doctor took that temperature three times to be sure.

The priests of Israel had the responsibility of directing attention and worship to Almighty God. Instead, they had insisted on attention and obedience to themselves. Anyone disagreeing with them or competing for attention — like Jesus — was to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible, by any method that worked. The trial they conducted broke all the Jewish rules for judicial practice. But it got things back to normal, as the priests wanted it.

Pilate was a representative of the civil authorities charged with keeping good order in the societies of mankind in this world. It was a job to be carried out with justice and fairness. But Pilate made his decisions that day driven by a fear of the crowd shouting around him. He was afraid of being criticized and losing his comfortable place of honor and privilege, as insignificant as it was in this distant, despised outpost of the Roman Empire. Even his wife pleaded with him to rethink. He could have washed his hands of the frustrating dilemma by resigning his job. He tried to compromise with a symbolic gesture to signal his unhappiness.

Finally, Jesus was turned over to the soldiers who were charged with carrying out the death sentence. They were representatives of all of us who carry out the daily nitty-gritty tasks of life on Earth. They had no right to add to the sentence given Jesus. But no one was going to stop them and hold them accountable. Their superiors had not treated this prisoner fairly. There was no standard to live up to. So the soldiers indulged in mockery and torture, adding to the sufferings Jesus had already endured without complaint. And, finally, they got down to work, doing what they were told to do. Because that was the job, wasn’t it?

In all three readings the thermometer was off the scale.

It was as if the fig tree showed no signs of the fruit it was expected to bear. There were no signs of the life that was intended. It was time to cut the tree down. But before that happened, God would let His Son be hung on it.

Then it would be time to start over.

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Jesus and Judas

Matthew 26:25  Then Judas, who was betraying Him, answered and said, “Rabbi, is it I?” He said to him, “You have said it.”  (RSV)

This has always been to me what Jack Hayford called a “bump verse.” I’ll be reading along smoothly and then hit something like this. It’s not enough to stop me or make me close the book. But I’ll momentarily be jarred.

“What…?” I’ll say. “Where? I don’t remember seeing that. Is this some weird local language idiom that doesn’t translate well into English? Or did Matthew just not bother to write it down when Judas said it the way Jesus says he did??”

Today it finally dawned on me. As would become clear to everyone a few hours later in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas was indeed the traitor. And Matthew had reported the moment when Judas made his verbal commitment in the matter, probably earlier that very day.

Matthew 26:14.  Then one of the Twelve–the one called Judas Iscariot–went to the chief priests  15. and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty silver coins.

Obviously the conversation would have been longer than Matthew’s summary. It’s easy to imagine that the priests would have questioned Judas closely before striking the deal and handing over any money to him.

“Will you really betray your Master?? Can we trust you to do it??”

Jesus was simply stating a fact when Judas tried to bluff at the Passover meal that evening.

For me, it is a reminder to be careful about narrowing my focus too much and assuming I am seeing all that’s important when looking at a single verse. No wonder his disciples, too, sometimes found themselves befuddled listening to Jesus.

Been there. Done that.

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“Vamos arando” on Palm Sunday

“Vamos arando,” dijo la mosca…

That was the first line of a Spanish joke my father taught me when I was a boy. The whole joke goes like this:

“We’re plowing!” said the fly as it rode on the ear of the ox.

A similar joke is known in India. They tell about a flea riding on the back of an elephant. The flea looks back and says, “We sure shook that bridge!”

G. K. Chesterton applied the joke to the events of Palm Sunday, producing a sympathetic and tender reflection on the ugly, awkward young donkey taken to Jesus that day. The lines show compassion to all of us who plod on each day, unnoticed and unappreciated, heart-sick at our lot in life.

Mark records the astonishment of Jesus, exasperated with his disciples after they’ve seen him miraculously feed a multitude of hungry followers twice.

“Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” (Mark 8:18)

Unfortunately, the answer for them that day, and all too often still for us today is yes. We see in part and understand only a little. There is commotion in the air. Sometimes we think it’s because of us. But it’s only because Jesus is sharing the moment with us.

And perhaps he pats us on the head and scratches our ear, so we’ll know he loves us, in spite of how we are acting.

THE DONKEY
by G. K. Chesterton

When fishes flew and forests walked
  And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
  Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
  And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
  On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
  Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
  I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
  One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
  And palms before my feet.

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Butterflies and woven threads

Chaos theory developed in recent years as a way to come to terms with unexpected complexities in the natural order. That order seemed random and unpredictable the farther into it and the closer looks scientists were able to take observing how this world held together.

Even so, bit by bit certain patterns were recognized after all, some so strange as to seem almost magical. One such pattern, named by Edward Lorenz, came to be known as the Butterfly Effect. He observed that minute differences in an initial condition would lead to dramatically different outcomes. The principle was illustrated by saying that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world could set in motion ripples in the air that could culminate later in a hurricane somewhere else. It was a domino effect that grew larger as it proceeded. But the initial movement, the flapping of the butterfly’s wings, could be so small they were easy to miss, sometimes impossible to trace or measure.

The Lord recently gave me a glimpse of one butterfly effect that I had triggered in my life.

A lay eucharistic visitor who takes Holy Communion to sick and housebound folks mentioned the name of a new person he had gone to see a couple of weeks ago. I recognized the name as that of an old friend (also named Rick). My LEV friend asked if I wanted to go with him on his next visit. He was willing to push me in a wheelchair through the long halls of the facility where my old friend Rick lay dying. I decided to make the effort in spite of my stroke-shriveled condition. The next week I went ahead and put on my shirt and ministerial collar for the first time in several weeks and my LEV friend came by our house to pick me up.

My old friend Rick was asleep when we got to his room.

A young man, one of his grandsons, was at the bedside. He said Rick’s wife had stepped away and would soon return. So we waited quietly. I rolled my chair farther into the room so I wouldn’t block the doorway. After about ten minutes, I murmured to my LEV friend that we should just pray a blessing and go. Back when I was mobile and made such visits myself the rule was to not disturb anyone we found sleeping since that is hard to do in such interruption-laden environments! I quietly began a prayer for peace and comfort for Rick.

When I again opened my eyes I saw Rick’s wife standing in the doorway. And Rick himself had now opened his eyes. The LEV gathered us by Rick’s bed and led us through the Holy Communion liturgy.

Afterwards, Rick’s wife talked with us. She reminded me of some minor details of our history from over three decades ago that I had forgotten. What I remembered was that Rick and his family had been involved at the Episcopal church where I later became a deacon. Rick’s wife told me I was the one who had suggested they check out the parish way back before I went to it myself. She recalled butterfly wings waving. Here is the story.

In 1978, Melanie and I came to Lakeland, Florida. I had been hired as program director for a Christian radio station operated by the First Assembly of God church in town. Part of my job was to carry out public relations for the radio station with other churches in the area. I was a member of this local A/G church but was being paid to attend services at other churches on Sundays! This itself was an interesting answer to a question I had been pondering for many years in my heart. I was raised in the Assemblies (so was my wife) but I had begun to wonder how other church groups that claimed to be Christian could do so while “doing church” so differently from what I was used to. Now I would be paid to find out! Each week I visited a new church across the theological spectrum. I began to identify the things we had in common: Jesus Christ as Savior, the Bible, many familiar hymns.

One day, a charismatic Episcopal priest-evangelist came to visit me in my radio station office (located inside the Assembly of God church building). Fr. Phil was interested in doing a radio program. (I ended up being his announcer, helping tape the program for several years.) He invited me to visit the healing liturgy he conducted each week in St. Mary’s chapel at the Episcopal church just down the street where he was an associate to the rector. I soon did so. It was the first time I saw “the way Episcopalians do it” (by the Book… of Common Prayer!).

Sometime after I met Fr. Phil, as I continued visiting churches, I dropped by a small Presbyterian church on a Sunday morning. In the church bulletin I noticed there was a small home prayer group that met during the week. I decided my public relations assignment from the radio station would justify a visit there, too. My wife and I began attending.

We met Rick and his wife there at this home prayer group. I learned that Rick and Frank, in whose home the prayer group met, had begun getting together between Sunday morning services at their Presbyterian church, to pray for the services and the pastor. I decided to stop by and join them briefly any time I was on my way to visit churches nearby.

I soon learned one reason they were meeting for prayer like that.

In my church visiting, I had come to realize that even churches that had Bibles in the pews sometimes had a preacher in the pulpit who was skeptical or disinterested in it. The pastor of this small Presbyterian church was like that. It bothered Rick and Frank.

Soon Rick brought it up as a prayer request to the home group. He and his wife were ready to find another church home for their family, where orthodox Christian faith was upheld.

Rick and his wife were charismatic Christians. We prayed for healings in the home group gathering and saw them. Of course, the Assemblies of God was known for expecting such miracles for believers today. And I was in the biggest A/G church in town, a church growing every year because of such Spirit-filled testimonies.

But I suspected Rick would be looking for something a bit quieter than the exuberant services at my church. And I remembered my new encounter with Fr. Phil, the charismatic Episcopal priest.

“Why not check them out?” I suggested.

They did. They liked it and stayed. And when Frank took a new job in Connecticut and moved his family away, the home prayer group moved to Rick’s home. Soon I was meeting other people from the Episcopal church who had also begun attending it.

The time came when Melanie and I also left town, for a new job building a Christian radio station in Illinois. Our contact with Rick and his wife back here in Lakeland became mostly one of annual Christmas cards. We did not return to Florida until the late 1980’s.

Melanie and I had been stirred by our visits over the years to other churches. To our own surprise, we had both felt drawn to the holy reverence of liturgical worship in Catholic and Episcopal churches. We began seriously visiting the beautiful Episcopal church where Fr. Phil had once served. The rector he had served under had also moved on.

The new rector, Fr. Al, welcomed us whenever we showed up and never pressured us. But Fr. Al did find occasion to eventually suggest that I volunteer to be a chalice bearer at the altar. When he suggested I stand for the vestry it came out that I had not been formally confirmed in the Episcopal church. So Melanie and I  joined the next class. We attended it with the daughter of a new associate rector Fr. Al had brought on, the one who eventually succeeded Fr. Al after his retirement as the longest serving rector of the 130-year old parish. And I eventually became a deacon, Fr. Al’s last one at the parish.

But I must go back to those butterfly wings I mentioned. In the nursing care room where Rick lay dying, his wife mentioned a detail I had not known. I had heard that the senior Episcopal rector way back then, at the time I had first suggested the church to Rick, had been required to leave finally after some misbehavior. And I knew that after Rick and his family had attended for several years he had been elected to the vestry and been named Junior Warden for the parish. From that place of responsibility he had learned of the rector’s wrongdoing and forced the issue so it could not be ignored. The rector left. That opened the way for Fr. Al to be called, with all the fruitful years of ministry that followed in the next quarter century. All I did one day was suggest that Rick visit and see if they liked the church. I didn’t even attend myself at the time. But I have seen a hurricane of blessings that God had to pour out once the dominoes moved.

One more gust of wind to report. Rick and his family had, over the years, moved on to other parishes where they continued participating and serving in the life of local churches. When Rick got sick, his wife called on their old parish home, since we were near Rick’s nursing home, asking for someone to bring Holy Communion. No one in the church office recognized their name. The new rector, of course, had never heard of them. But my LEV friend asked for permission to respond and the rector consented. And I heard about it.

The visit became the first time I had ever shared in Holy Communion with Rick and his wife. It will also be the last for awhile. Rick died two days later.

Over the weekend, I suddenly realized something about Rick’s grandson, the one I had seen standing by Rick’s bed. This young man’s grandmother had been in Sunday school classes I taught in the Episcopal church I had sent Rick to. Rick’s daughter had met and married her husband at that church years ago. The breeze from those butterfly wings keeps blowing. The young man had no idea he was there partly because of something I did years ago. Just as the new rector had no idea that when that call for communion came it was from someone who played a distant part in him being where he was now.

The day after my visit to Rick, the day before he died, the weekly prayer group that Melanie and I host met in our home.

Laurel brought along a kneeling cushion that she has been stitching for the church altar for two years. There are hundreds and hundreds of small woven threads, carefully and tediously sewed over hundreds of hours. I asked Laurel if she had sewed her initials into the cushion, so we could know who to thank. Laurel still knows how to blush. There was no need for that, she told me, embarrassed that I would even ask.

So the cushion will lay on the steps before the altar of the Lord anonymously, for years to come. Each small thread will make its contribution. Because each one was carefully placed in order, none will draw any attention to itself, away from the whole, distracting away from the purpose for which it was called: to enable and support the prayers and praises to the Lord Jesus Christ being offered to glorify his name.

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The plaque

I can imagine the conversation when the customer came back to pick up the plaque he had ordered.

What is this??

It’s the plaque you ordered the other day. Like it?

This isn’t what I ordered.

What? Did we get the wrong finish on the wooden base?

This isn’t what I asked for.

But I remember you picking out this model from the samples. I filled out your order myself.

This isn’t what I asked for.

Did we misspell a word…? I have the written order form right here. I wrote down exactly what you said.

That’s what I said but that’s not what I asked for.

But this is exactly what you said. I remember writing your words down carefully so there would be no mistake. You agree this is what you said?

I said the words but this is not what I meant.

You said it but you didn’t mean it?? How is this our problem if you didn’t mean what you said? That’s why we ask and write down what a customer says, so there won’t be any room for mistakes. We try to be very careful because we don’t want unhappy customers.

I thought you understood what I was saying. I was speaking your language.

And I put down EXACTLY what you said! You’ve told me so! Where’s the problem? We ask. We listen. We put your words down. We don’t make them up. What else can we do?

You did exactly the opposite of what I asked.

But you just told me this is exactly what you said when I asked what you wanted on the plaque!

I didn’t want anything on the plaque.

But that makes no sense! Why would you want a plaque with nothing on it? That’s not what anyone asks for. That makes no sense.

I didn’t realize I had to explain why I wanted what I wanted. I thought all I was supposed to do was say what I wanted you to do and you would do it. Am I supposed to go ahead and pay you for doing what you wanted to do with my plaque? That’s not what I came here for.

But this is what you said to do when I asked you what you wanted!!

It’s what I said. But you didn’t do what I wanted.

How can you blame me for doing what you said you wanted?? This is frustrating me! You are making it all too difficult. If you’re unhappy with what we did, it’s your own fault.

* * * * *

And on and on. It must have been like this the day Jesus asked his disciples, “How long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19 CSB) Or the day when crowds of his followers said,  “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60 ESV) People were hearing the words but not the meaning.

A friend of mine who teaches Sunday School talks about “truncated” interpretations. We go in for a sermon, or Bible study, assuming God must mean what makes sense to us and only that. It’s not that God speaks nonsense to us. We just fail to hear not the words He is saying but what He is saying. We end up with nonsense that pleases neither one of us in the conversation. And we find it easy to conclude it is God’s fault.

I am thinking we should all put this plaque next to our Bibles, to remind us we need to listen carefully, to make sure we hear more than the words. If we don’t do this seriously, the unsatisfactory results are our fault.

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How to glorify God

There’s a command, an order, a specific task given to us on Earth that is repeated several times in the Bible.

An example in the Old Testament:

Psalm 29:2  Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name.

In the New Testament an angel states it universally to the entire world.

Revelation 14:7  Fear God and give glory to Him….

Paul wrote one of the new churches and told them it didn’t much matter what else they did if they failed to do this.

I Corinthians 10:31  Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

“Whatever you do…” Okay. How?

Before his death on the cross, at the meal with his disciples, Jesus offered an insight.

John 15:8  By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit….

Melanie has been in excruciating back pain for four months. She has barely been able to take care of her stroke-crippled husband. Her loving, costly efforts surely qualify as the fruits of a devoted heart. She did it for me. Jesus says he thinks she did it for him. (Matthew 25:40)

Last week a friend drove her to a back-pain doctor recommended by another friend from church. Three days ago, yet another friend drove her to a clinic for an MRI. And this morning the pain doctor said she’d reviewed the report with our regular doctor. They both wanted Melanie to report to ER right away. They thought there was a lesion or infection that needed further testing. (As I write this paragraph the music I have on plays a modern version of an aria from Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye, My people….” I am crying anyway.)

We have scrambled to try to get nutritional drinks for my midday meal out where I can reach them while she is gone. We know any ER visit must factor in several hours of waiting for your number to come up. At the moment, we think she may be able to return home by evening. The other possibility is several days in the hospital for treatment. That will be more complicated.

Yesterday (just in time?) I had come across some verses and made a note in case I wanted to blog something about them.

Psalm 50:15  Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me… 23 Whoever offers praise glorifies Me….

So, trying to calm myself as yet another friend drove Melanie away for God knows how long, I croaked out a song that was coming to mind.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.

And I have looked up other verses from this old hymn.

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Jesus, I can recognize this as a day of trouble. Your Word promises that everything works out for good for those you call. So I’m trying — choosing — to offer you praise while I wait for you to deliver my precious wife and me.

The music I have on has moved on and Steve Green is now singing in his full-throated, electrifying way,

I KNOW that My Redeemer lives!

And another Psalm flares into my brain.

Psalm 103:1. Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
2. Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits:
3. Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases,
4. Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
5. Who satisfies your mouth with good things, So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

8. The Lord is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.

11. For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13. As a father pities his children, So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
14. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.
15. As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, And its place remembers it no more.
17. But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting On those who fear Him.

And that is surely enough reason to give Him glory, no matter what.

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