Tag Archives: Resurrection

The Doorway of Defeat

…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
Romans 11:29 (NIV)

I reached out to shake his hand as I was introduced. The lights in the room were dimmed but the darkness couldn’t hide the look of defeat. Shoulders slumped, eyes down cast, and the smile that was clearly being conjured by sheer will. I could feel the discouragement. I sensed the fear that God just might be done with him. I also instantly felt an affinity for him. Something clicked deep inside, and I knew that somehow Holy Spirit had connected us for a reason.

I have seen the look of defeat on the faces of some of the most amazing people. I’ve seen defeat come in a myriad of ways. Sometimes it’s moral failure, a personal failure, a relational failure, or a combination of all. Sometimes it’s a life tragedy and the inequities of circumstance. At times it might be some kind of physical or chemical issue wreaking havoc on a person’s spirit. Then there are times when the source of the funk is spiritual, and a rational explanation is elusive.

When defeat descends on a person life gets very small. Vision is reduced as focus turns inward. Interaction is avoided which only tends to extend and exacerbate the symptoms. A person wraps him or herself in layers of self-protection that, ironically, not only serves to deflect further injury, but also prevents any kind balm from reaching the spirit wound. When the individual experiencing defeat is a believer, the person also feels a spiritual impotence that can be so pervasive as to prompt an unshakable belief that this is all permanent.

But, it’s not.

Defeat is never a permanent destination. Defeat is a doorway to deeper understanding. It is through the doorway of defeat that I discover humility’s sweet gifts and where I experience grace’s sufficiency. On the other side of defeat comes the understanding that Spirit power is perfected in weakness.

Resurrection must, by definition, be preceded by death. Redemption’s prerequisite is always some kind of damnifying defeat. This was the grand spiritual paradigm that Jesus ultimately exemplified, yet I always want to dismiss the fact that if I choose to follow He said I have to follow in His foot steps down that same path.

I saw my defeated acquaintance the other day. It’s been a few years since we were introduced. We’re now friends. His shoulders were squared, there was a sparkle in his eye, and the smile on his face was no longer conjured by will. His smile was clearly the effect of an inner joy that radiated off of him. I had the privilege of helping him through the doorway, and watching him discover, over time, what was on the other side.

So good.

Creation and Re-Creation

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)

I got my first tattoo in the fall of 2005. It was an incredibly tumultuous time in my journey. It was the most tumultuous stretch of the journey I’ve yet experienced, in fact. I was recently divorced, a reality I’d never imagined for myself, with two teenage daughters trying to make sense of their own shattered realities. Wendy had also entered my life. This was another unexpected and unlooked for reality that I knew in my heart was of God’s doing, but it made the whole picture a hot mess.

So, why not get a tattoo?

The tat is a celtic cross on my back. In the circle at the crux of the cross is a reference to Revelation 21:5:

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Wendy also got a tat that day. A butterfly with the same reference. It was a permanent reminder amidst temporary circumstances of the hope we had in Jesus. Wendy and I both knew by the faith that Paul writes about in today’s chapter that Jesus, the Creator, was in the process of picking up the shattered pieces of life and the mess that had been wrought by our respective human flaws and failings, and together was making something new out of it.

It was months later that I went to a weekend retreat for teens that our daughter Taylor was attending. She was going to speak to her peers and I had been invited to listen. It was hard. She spoke about her own pain amidst the divorce and remarriage and the tumultuous changes in her own experience and realities. “One of my dad’s favorite verses is Revelation 21:5,” she said before adding, “I don’t like that verse.” Ugh.

Our human failings create so much pain for the ones we love most.

Mea culpa.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve learned that God expresses themselves over and over and over again through the theme of creation and re-creation. It’s an integral theme in the divine dance. Old things pass, new things come. On the macro level consider the first chapter, Genesis 1, in which God creates the heavens and the earth. In the final two chapters of Revelation God creates a new heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). On the cosmic level it happens at the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus refers to this creation and re-creation theme over and over again. “Unless a kernel dies and is buried in the ground,” He said, “It can’t spring to new life.”

I’ve also observed that many of my fellow followers of Jesus like to gloss over this theme with broad religious brush strokes of propriety. They like “old things pass away and new things come” to look pretty and proper with an emotionally moving musical score underneath. It’s so much easier to swallow when it’s neat and easy.

Maybe it is that way for some. I haven’t found it to be that way. Resurrection is proceeded by crucifixion. Crucifixion is a raw, naked, shameful, bloody mess. Just like my life back in 2005 when I got my first tat.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded that when Jesus called followers, He made it clear that things would change. Old things would pass away. New things would come. And, not necessarily in comfortable ways.

What’s More Important than Love?

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:12 (NIV)

Every author and storyteller knows that you leave the best for last. The “climax” of a story is where you carefully lead your readers. Paul’s letter to the believers of Corinth was not a story or a novel, but there was definitely structure to the message he crafted. After highlighting all of the fighting, disagreements, and behavioral issues within the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers Paul leads his reader to a climactic chapter about love; Arguably the most beautiful treatise on the word that has ever been penned.

But, I still count a few chapters left in the letter. What is so important that it comes after Paul’s climactic and beautiful admonishment to love?

If love is Paul’s behavioral climactic admonishment, then the resurrection is his  climactic admonishment of belief. His point is clear: if I don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then all of my faith, religion, and altruistic behavior (including love) is in vain.

Resurrection was a hot topic in the days of Jesus and Paul. Even Jesus encountered it. Within the Jewish community there were different schools of thought on the subject of resurrection and life after death. One of the more powerful scholarly groups, the Sadducees, did not believe that there was a resurrection and even confronted Jesus on the subject (Mark 12:18). The Greeks and their philosophy had no concept of life after death. They were focused on meaning in this life.

It’s also important to remember that at the time of Paul’s letter it is likely that none of the four Gospels (the biographical accounts of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) had even been written. It’s likely that many of Jesus’ followers in Corinth had been attracted by the radically different world-view out of which the early believers acted as they broke down walls of social separation between gender, race, and socio-economic status. Believing that someone could die and come back to life, well that was a different story. Like many throughout the centuries, some Corinthian believers were taking the “I like the teachings of Jesus and I’ll try to follow them, but I’m not sure I can swallow the whole ‘risen from the dead’ bit.”

Paul leaves the final climactic ending of his letter to address that which he believed was most important: Jesus died and then came back to life. Paul claims that the resurrection is real and it is the critical cornerstone belief of our faith. He started his discourse on love by saying “If you do all these religious things but don’t have love then your religious deeds are hollow and bankrupt.” Now he’s using the same approach, saying “If you do all these things to follow Jesus but deny the resurrection, then all you’ve done is in vain.”

To that end, Paul offers into evidence the eyewitness testimony of Cephas (whom the Corinthians knew), the twelve, up to five hundred  others who saw the resurrected Jesus. Finally, Paul offers his own eyewitness testimony, having encountered the resurrected Jesus on a trip to Damascus. Paul also applies logic (death and resurrection are the natural order of creation) and reasoning (why would I torture myself and perpetually submit myself to death and persecution if I wasn’t convinced there was more than this earthly journey?).

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about our current season of Lent. The annual celebration of Easter is coming up in a few weeks. The resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the traditional church calendar year just as it is the climax of Paul’s letter. The resurrection of Jesus remains an audacious claim that requires faith. It remains the transformative cornerstone belief of those who would claim to be followers of Jesus.

I’m also reminded this morning of John’s eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus’ words to his follower named Thomas. Doubtful of the truth of the resurrection, the resurrected Jesus invited Tom to examine the nail holes in His wrists and place his fingers in the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Tom was convinced and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

You believe because of what you’ve seen,” Jesus said, then added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.”

To the latter group you can add this doubting Thomas.

Time to Wake Up

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NIV)

One of my all-time favorite memories took place during the visitation of my Grandma Golly’s funeral. It had been a long evening of meeting family and friends at the funeral home. Grandma’s lifeless body lay in the open casket in the large room. The crowd had thinned out some, but there was still the din of hushed conversation throughout the room.

Suddenly I caught a blur out of the corner of my eye as my four-year-old nephew, Solomon, came tearing around the perimeter of the room. He came to an abrupt stop right in front of the casket. In a sweeping gesture he looked at the toy watch on his wrist.

Okay, everybody!” Solomon shouted at the top of his lungs, “It’s time for grandma to WAKE UP!”

My nephew Solomon

Many years ago I spent five years employed in pastoral ministry. I happened to serve in a rural area of Iowa where the demographic tilted towards the older side of the spectrum. For this reason, I officiated a lot of funerals. I got to know the local funeral directors so well that they began calling me whenever they had a family of the deceased with no ties to a local church. This meant that I officiated even more funerals. (My experiences with the mixture of rural Iowa, family relationships, and death became the inspiration for my play Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

Officiating so many funerals allowed me to witness a broad range of families in their grieving. I saw families in total chaos, families in conflict, and families whose genuine love and affection for their deceased loved one and one another were obvious. I watched family members conniving for their share of the estate, family members actively avoiding one another, as well as family members enjoying the opportunity to be reunited with loved ones after long years apart. It is fascinating to observe.

Perhaps its because of my experience with so many funerals that death doesn’t phase me like I observe it does for many others. Yes, the emotions and stages of grief associated with the loss of a loved one are common to all. Even Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus before He called him back to life. Nevertheless, if I truly believe what I profess to believe, then it should ultimately impact the way I think and feel about death. Jesus’ story is essentially about life through death. Death is a part of the eternal equation Jesus presented. As a follower of Jesus I believe I’m called to embrace death as a passage to Life rather than mourn it as some kind of dead end.

Jesus said… I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26 (NIV) [emphasis added]

Yes, I do. Which is another reason why I have always loved young Solomon for his innocent outburst before Grandma Golly’s casket. Thanks for the laugh, little man. My faith in Jesus tells me that Grandma is more awake than you or I can possibly imagine. The person who needs to be continually reminded to “wake up” to that fact is me.

Eucatastrophe and Resurrection in a Thin Place

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 1 Corinthians 15:54

I am a geek at heart. Exhibit A is my life-long love for the works of Tolkien. I recently finished listening to the entire audiobook version of The Lord of the Rings and am now reading The Silmarillion again. They call me back again and again, an my appreciation only deepens each time I pick up the adventures.

Tolkien himself coined the phrase eucatastrophe to describe the moment when the tide turns and victory is gained amidst in the moment when defeat seems a sure thing. Eucatastrophe would be a theme that he used again and again:

  • Most famously, the arrival of the eagles both at the Battle of Five Armies in The Hobbit, and at the Battle of the Black Gate in The Return of the King.
  • Gollum’s final treachery that is the salvation of Frodo
  • When Gandalf arrives with Erkenbrand at the battle of Helm’s Deep
  • When the Ents and Huorns rise up unexpectedly against Isengard
  • The arrival of Aragorn upon the Corsairs of Umbar

Tolkien loved the dramatic moment when the light of hope springs unexpectedly in the deepest darkness. In his personal letters (which I have also read; behold Exhibit B of my geekiness), Tolkien explains that the model of eucatastrophe, and its greatest example, is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and His resurrection.

In today’s chapter, Paul argues for the resurrection of the dead against those in the city of Corinth who were teaching that there is no life after death. Paul, who had a life-changing encounter with the resurrected Jesus (read Acts 9), now explains that if there is no life after death then the whole of Christian belief is null and void. If there is no life after death, then his life-changing encounter was nothing more than a hallucination; His work to share the message of Jesus to the world a huge waste of time and energy.

It is Paul’s description of resurrection in today’s chapter that brings Tolkien’s eucatastrophe to mind:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

This morning I sit with my cup of coffee at the lake and watch the warm sun coming up over the back of the cove, where bald eagles often roost. Staring back at the treeline I, from time-to-time, get to shout “The eagles are coming!” This is, for me, a thin place; An earthly location where the impermeable veil between the mortal and immortal becomes sheer. Eucatastrophes of various shapes and sizes are experienced here. In this place my faith in resurrection takes shape and mass. 

“I Will Bring You Home”

“At that time I will bring you home….”
Zephaniah 3:20 (NRSV)

Here in the heartland of America, in the great state of Iowa, we have been experiencing an early spring. It’s March Madness, which is usually a time when we receive the final blast of winter’s fury. The state high school girl’s basketball tournament is mythically synonymous with “blizzard.” But not this year.

The temperatures have been unseasonably warm. The tulips are already shooting up from the earth. We’ve already used the grill on the patio multiple times. The sounds of Cubs baseball is becoming daily ambient audio here at Vander Well Manor, even if it is just spring training.

There is something exciting about spring. The death of winter gives way to new life in spring. We celebrate the journey from gave to empty tomb. Shivering in the cold yields to basking in the sun’s warmth. Resurrection, hope, and joy are kindled in our souls, reminding us that old things pass away and new things are coming.

How apt, I thought, that in this morning’s chapter we find Zephaniah’s predictions of doom and gloom giving way to hope and salvation. And, amidst the hopeful promises God gives through the ancient prophet is the simple phrase “I will bring you home.” That phrase has so much meaning for me in so many layers:

  • As I care for aging parents and grieve the “home” that I once knew.
  • As I watch our girls spread their wings and scatter to their respective paths and realize the “home” that I have so recently known and loved has suddenly gone the way of winter in an early spring.
  • As I come home from three long days working with clients to find Wendy waiting at the door for me with a cold beer, hot meatloaf, and a warm kiss; realizing in that moment the home that I am so blessed to experience each day, right now.
  • As I wax poetic in my annual giddiness for baseball season and ponder anew the game in which the goal is to arrive safely home.

I will bring you home,” God says through Zephaniah.

[sigh]

 

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featured image from joewcampbell via Flickr

To Believe, or Not to Believe

Jesus said to [Thomas], “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
John 20:29 (NRSV)

It is the most startling claim of all of the startling claims that were made about Jesus. The One who cured lepers, cast out demons, made the lame walk and the blind to see. The One who raised a little girl from her deathbed and called Lazarus out of his tomb. This Jesus, whose beaten, tortured, and crucified body had lain dead and lifeless in the grave since Friday afternoon, is resurrected on Sunday morning and appears numerous times to different followers, including a sudden appearance behind locked doors to show his wounds as proof to a doubting Thomas.

There are many over the centuries who appreciate Jesus’ teachings and example, but fall short of believing the miraculous claims about Him. Yet it was the surety of the resurrected Jesus that led His followers to burst out from their hiding behind locked doors to boldly proclaim the most audacious claim of all. Each one of Jesus’ inner circle who saw Jesus present Himself to a doubting Thomas behind those locked doors would later prove willing to travel to the ends of the known world, to suffer terribly at the hands of unbelievers, and to die horrific deaths in proclaiming that which they had heard with their own ears, seen with their own eyes, and touched with their own hands.

It is one thing to nod acknowledgement and appreciation toward Jesus’ Pinterest worthy sayings. It is another thing to truly believe that Jesus is who He claimed to be and who His closest followers proclaimed Him to be though it cost them their own lives. If you believe the audacious claim, then it requires something of you. It requires everything of you.

For the record, I believe.