Running into the Darkness

People run OUT of burning buildings. That’s simple human self-preservation, to get as far away from danger as possible. Yet we know there are those who run INTO burning buildings. We call them firefighters. We also call them heroes.

Normal human reaction is to get away from gunfire, especially if you’re unarmed. But soldiers and law enforcement officers routinely run TOWARDS gunfire, especially when a buddy is in trouble. And medics will do this, even though they are unarmed, to save a life. Heroes in action.

These are examples of physical courage in the face of danger. But there is another kind of courage, just as rare, and just as worthy of celebrating. It is the kind of moral courage that runs into the darkness where another person is trapped.

As humans, we were meant to live in relationship with others – family members, co-workers, neighbors. We were meant to live in community, to provide mutual support and encouragement. But relationships are messy. If we want to enjoy truly mutual relationships with others, that requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. It also requires that we allow others to be vulnerable to us.

And there’s the problem: most of us want to keep our emotional distance. Oh, we’re fine with relationships as long as they’re on the surface, or as long as it doesn’t require too much of a commitment from us. But when a neighbor or a co-worker needs someone who is willing to listen, to “weep with those who weep,” as the scripture says, to be willing to just make an investment of time – are we willing to be that person?

So I come back to our opening thoughts. We admire the courage, the loyalty, the selflessness of a firefighter who would charge into a burning building, or a medic who races into a combat situation, to save a life. Are we willing to do the same thing for someone who needs a friend?

The world is desperate to see the love of God. The world is aching to see Christians who will live out what they say they believe. Are you willing to be that person? Am I?

Are you willing to be the one who goes to the old man who lives down the street, and has no one to talk to? Would you spend an hour a week, just sitting with him and listening?

Or how about that single mom at work? Will you be the one who reaches out to her and offers to babysit for a little while, just so she can go buy groceries without the kids? Or maybe even, let her go get her hair done, without having to worry about the little ones?

When Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not “prevail” against it, what did He mean? That hell would attack the church, but that the church would never fall to those attacks? Well, that’s certainly true, but I think that interpretation misses the point.

I mean, think about it. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? No, gates are for DEFENSE! When Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stop us, He is telling us that we need to break down those hellish gates and seek for those who are trapped inside, in their own private, spiritual hell. Storm the gates! Rescue the prisoners! Find those who sit in darkness and bring them out. As Isaiah 61:1-3 says,

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion. (emphasis added)

Somebody cared enough about you and me to go get us; now we need to go get someone else. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Each one matters. Each one is important. And no one gets left behind.

Be a friend to the friendless. Be a neighbor to the lonely. Be a brother or a sister to the one needing a family. Be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to care for the least of these.

“God Helps”

I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

For the Birds

As some of you may know, my dad passed away in 2018. Before he died, though, he took up a hobby that some might have considered very unusual for such a toughened, hard-working auto mechanic, a veteran of the Korean War era, a hunter and fisherman, a true outdoorsman and role-model to four boys about what a God-fearing, Christian man ought to be.

He became a birdwatcher.

My brothers and I were raised on forty acres in Southeast Texas – Orange County, to be precise. The whole time we were growing up, daddy always kept 20 or 30 head of cattle, some to produce beef for our family, and some, just because he liked being outside and taking care of the animals. As he got older, his mind stayed sharp, but his body betrayed him, and he became confined to a wheelchair for most of the last eight years of his life. But he got to where he enjoyed sitting on his back porch and watching the birds that came to visit and eat at the feeders he put out for them. Even with his diminished eyesight, he could still see the birds’ bright colors, and he could always hear their musical calls.

I’m discovering some of those same joys for myself. Our back porch is my favorite part of the house, I think, and I love sitting there, trying to identify as many different types and species of birds as possible. I’ve seen brilliant red male cardinals, along with the reddish-brown females, gorgeous blue jays, and the mockingbirds. I’ve identified everything from a red-headed finch to a tufted titmouse (and yes, that is really what it’s called!).

A bright red male cardinal and a reddish-brown female eating at one of my backyard feeders.

There are plenty of dove, of course, and red-winged blackbirds. An occasional robin or two, and once in a while, a red-tailed hawk might show up, high in the trees above. And lots and lots of sparrows all around.

We also see a lot of black grackles. I’m not a big fan of those critters – they tend to waste more bird seed than they eat, and they chase off other birds, but even on them, the iridescent purple, blue, and green feathers around their necks are pretty.  (There’s a lesson in there about learning to appreciate the best in others, even people who irritate you, but I digress…)

Watching the birds as they dive and soar, dart back and forth and chase each other around, and hearing all their varied calls and sounds always makes me happy. And it makes me appreciate the Heavenly Father Who created and cares for them.

Looking at the different types of sparrows reminds of Psalm 84:3, where the writer talks about the sparrows who live in the temple courtyard, expressing his envy that they get to be so close to the temple: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”

I also recall the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:29-31 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” It’s comforting to watch those sparrows and to reflect on the idea that the same God Who watches over them, is watching over and caring for you and me. As Jesus also said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)

When I see all the different sizes, shapes and colors of the birds, it reminds me of how much God loves diversity. Think about it – just with sparrows, in North America alone, there are over 30 different species of those little birds! All the various types of animals, fish, and birds, all can teach us about the creativity, the power, and the provision of the Creator. As Job says, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.” (Job 12:7-8)

So, I will continue with my bird watching, even if some might think it’s a little silly. It reminds me of my dad, and I like it. I will keep putting out feed for them and thinking about the Heavenly Father that cares for all of us.

And I will enjoy their bright colors, and I will hear their musical calls.

Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous.

It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my trip to Israel that I made a few years ago. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the tradition Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that the tomb is empty!