When Glory is Inglorious

You probably know the story of Simon and his fishless fishing trip. After repeatedly, fruitlessly casting his nets into the waters of Lake Gennesaret, the weary fisherman is about to call it quits. Then, as Simon cleans his nets near the water’s edge, he meets the Christ. When Jesus asks him to sail into deeper waters to fish, Simon replies:

 “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5, NIV).

Simon’s discouragement is an apt illustration of what I felt like in the winter months of 2013, when The Glow 5K, a fundraiser for the pregnancy center I work with, was nothing more than a castle in the sky – grand, but with no viable foundation.  Often, I offered up Simon’s words as my own in prayer: “Jesus, we have worked hard all night and caught nothing.” Those were the easiest to get out – the admission of failure, weariness, and frustration. The next words, not so much. The call to obey, to let down the nets yet again – but let me explain:

My husband (Co-Race Director) and I spent the better part of January sponsorship hunting for the newly minted The Glow 5k, the 1st run/walk fundraiser of its kind in our small community. It was an exciting time. The event would raise awareness of our ministry, which assists local mothers in need of pre-natal counseling, nurture a community mindset, promote fitness, and help in the center’s ever-present need for cash. The work the center does is incredibly worthy – no mother or father is turned away, and counselors are often able to build long-term relationships with clients. Our volunteers focus first on providing material and educational help (cooking classes, diapers, formula, etc.), knowing that alleviating practical needs allows clients to begin contemplating moral and spiritual realms.

So, our dream race began to take shape. We had recently acquired a fresh website and, miraculously, a prime race location at The National D-Day Memorial.

What we didn’t have was money.

Hopeful, armed with sponsor letters and thick coats, my husband and I drove the cold streets of our small town only to hear:

“It’s a bad year for us.”

“We have a pregnancy center?”

“Why can’t these women help themselves?”

Essentially, the word on the streets was a resounding, “No.”

Honestly, it was a bit like a scene from “A Christmas Carol,” but in 2013 Central Virginia rather than 1801 Victorian London.

We drove back home thousands short of our goal, dreading the next trip out.

If I could label the experience with one word?  Humbling.

Allow me a second. Inglorious.

I knew Christ was present in this particular creative act, but there were times when I felt taken in. Duped. My adolescent teachings were filled with the glory of the Christian – David slaying Goliath, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s heroic resistance during the Third Reich’s terrorization, Elisabeth Elliot’s mission to reach the Auca tribe after they murdered her husband. These gloriously valiant acts imprinted themselves across my mind, and for good reason. These people are stars in the heavens of our faith, for they looked into the oppressive eyes of evil and persevered through Christ. But fundraising? Begging for money? Surely, this wasn’t glory. This task was monotonous, ordinary. Furthermore, the search for funds was beginning to feel quite removed from the center’s main goal: saving babies and empowering women. And, if you’ll forgive me a moment of blushing transparency, I really didn’t want to sink other people’s money into an event that nobody would show up for. Public humiliation is nothing if not a wonderful motivator.  

And so, after this particular day, I sought the Lord’s face for reassurance (or, more honestly, permission to quit). What I received was conviction – the story of Simon and his tired compliance to someone greater than he was. His words rose from the pages of scripture and into my uneasy heart: “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” Obedience. This is what Jesus Christ wanted. And wants.

So, we aimed our boat toward deeper waters.

Race Day – April 27th, 2013:

A few numbers for you:

·         136 – the number of runners  that showed up to run for life. We had (quite daringly, we thought) prayed for 100. We would have been elated with 75.

·         5,000 – the number of dollars that went into the center’s bank account to help the women and babies of our county. We had hoped merely to break even with the money we had raised through sponsors, enough to establish the race for future years, but not enough to “pay the center” much.

·         12+ – the number of volunteers who gave up their Saturday morning to serve others.

·         53 – the number of fresh pizzas and donuts that were donated that morning by local businesses to feed racers and  volunteers.

Are there pro-life races with much larger dollar amounts and staggering participation? Yes. But for our tiny community, it was an unbelievable day. For me, it was an exercise in faith.

And there are many stories to tell. Stories of anonymous checks and surprise discounts, of the elderly struggling for 3.1 miles because they believe in life, of the young running to win and discovering a worthier reason to race, of a German officer who heard about The Glow, sent in his race fee, and ran alone through the streets of his neighborhood in Heinsberg – beautiful stories, all.

“When they had [let down the nets], they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. . . When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!’” (Luke 5: 6,8, NIV).

Like the end of Simon’s fishing story, Jesus burst our nets. His glory was on display in our small community and we were in awe of His radiance. We caught nothing ourselves; He did everything for Himself. However, let me be clear: the nets would have been burst even if none of the above numbers had happened. For you see, the glory was in the obedience, not in the success. The glory was in embracing the fact that He is worthy simply because He is I AM, whether He chooses to bless us or not.

For me, that April day was the piped icing on a beautiful cake, the elaborate flourish of an expert calligrapher. But those weeks in January, those days in the mines, were where I beheld my Father’s face and learned the glory of ingloriousness, the beauty of the mundane at my Savior’s knee. 

How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part three

There’s another problem, though. In order to get us all “in line” and following all of His rules exactly, God would have had to speak almost exclusively about rules all the time, but if He did this, we would be in danger of thinking that following the rules was all it took to please Him. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.

scc_heavenintherealworldI think that teaching at a Christian school really helped me understand the book of Leviticus, because I was in a position of having to represent the rule-makers to the rule-followers. That is not an easy position to be in. For example, we had a rule that said students were not allowed to wear band shirts to school, and the students thought it was stupid. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I’m seriously getting in trouble for wearing this Stephen Curtis Chapman shirt?! Stephen Curtis Chapman is seriously like the most Christian musician there is!”

Ok… I take that back. I never heard that… But I could have. And I did hear similar things…

“It’s not like I’m wearing a Marilyn Manson shirt.”

“What do my clothes have to do with my Christianity?”

“Are you saying that my shirt is a sin?”

Let’s think about goals and difficulties for a minute, remembering that God faced the same kind of thing, and we will continue to face the same kind of thing every time we pair religion with rules.

The point of the rule was to keep kids from wearing shirts that were genuinely offensive. The administration also wanted to set a standard of modesty, so they established a somewhat arbitrary length for girls’ skirts.

One of the reasons that rules have to be specific is that, had we said that students needed to avoid offensive and immodest clothing, there is no possible way discipline could have been enforced. Students would have had to change clothes between every class, because even the teachers could not agree on what counted as modest or immodest.

So God wants people to release their slaves based on the fact that they have realized that slaves are human beings. This is much better than releasing them because God said they had to or He would kill them. But there remains the problem of treatment of slaves, and we have to take into account that the master isn’t the only one that matters – the slave matters to God too. If God made no rules protecting slaves from severe mistreatment, surely slaves would be prone to think that they didn’t matter to God.

So He decides to take a different road, protecting the slaves while giving the masters a chance to realize that slaves are people too. He makes a law requiring masters to treat their slaves well.

But unless those laws are specific, they are meaningless. What is to stop a slave master from saying that as long as the slave is alive he hasn’t been mistreated? How do you enforce a law that says you’re supposed to “be kind”?

The other side of the problem at our Christian school, and this was really the bigger problem, was that some students started thinking that as long as they didn’t wear band shirts and their skirts were the right length, then they were on good terms with God. This was the problem the Pharisees had. They didn’t spit on any rocks on Saturday, in fact they even counted their steps to make sure they didn’t walk too far, but they missed the whole point of the day. The day was a day of rest and worship, but they were so busy worrying about whether or not they were desecrating it with their spit and their steps that they didn’t have time to think about what really matters to God.

The rules do matter, because God needs to tell us what a person who follows Him looks like.

And they matter because sometimes people need to be restrained. It is important to, like God, allow for the development of character over time so that obedience is not only outward. But that doesn’t mean that we keep letting people murder each other in hopes that one day they will have a change of heart and decide to stop.

They also matter because they tell us about our God.

And when I look at the laws through this lens, I see something pretty incredible.

God always raises the standard.

At any period of history, you can look at external records and find that the Bible is ahead of its time in terms of the ethical norms of society. In the Old Testament world, a man could divorce or kill his wife whenever he wanted. God required him to give her a certificate stating why he was sending her away. He raised the standard and, in so doing, challenged men to look past what they saw around them and lift themselves above the status quo.

When certificates of divorce became the status quo and men began using them as an excuse to get out of their marriages, Jesus reminded them that it was only because of the hardness of their hearts that the Old Testament allowed them to divorce with conditions. Their hearts had gotten a bit softer and a bit closer to God’s intention, but they needed softening still. They needed to remember Genesis 1:27 and the story of the creation of Eve.

In all of this, God never compromises His absolute moral standard. He never stops telling us that we are to be perfect as He is perfect. He never stops telling us that His own character is the standard. And He never stops telling us what the next step is in getting to where He wants us to be.

A good teacher teaches both the ultimate goal and the next step in the process.

God is a good teacher.

And He never takes shortcuts in getting us aligned with His ultimate standard.

Because the standard is not just outward obedience.

The standard is obedience based upon love of God, honor toward one another, and understanding of our own place within the world He has created.

He will never compromise, and He is still softening our hearts.

Because we’re not home yet…

How Teaching at a Christian School Helped Me Understand the Book of Leviticus, part two

Cultural and historical context are also important when we start thinking about how the Old Testament laws were to be enforced, and about what God ultimately wanted to happen as a result of giving them.

A few years ago, I was volunteering with Justice for All at the campus of the University of Northern Colorado, and at the end of my conversation with one of the students that had seen the display, he asked me about the group’s goals: “What do you guys ultimately want out of this?”

I told him that our goal was for abortion to be outlawed, but I realized later that I had lied, at least about what I wanted personally. I don’t really care all that much about the laws. What I care about are the babies. And no matter what happens with the laws, my real goal is that abortion clinics have to close because of lack of demand. In the end, the result would be the same – abortion would end. But the way we get there would be totally different, and the way we get there is incredibly important.

Modern missionaries have faced a unique dilemma in ministering to polygamous tribes. Let’s say missionary Harry goes to Papua New Guinea and, through chronological Bible storytelling, a certain tribe begins to accept the gospel and live as believers. As they begin to pursue Biblical ethics for their tribe, they realize that God’s intention for polygamy_evilmarriage is that each man have only one wife, and vice versa. What does Harry do with the man who already has 6 wives? In order to follow the letter of the command, he must either divorce or kill 5 of his wives, but is that really what we want? The solution to this is, of course, complex and must be dealt with uniquely in each situation, but I use it to illustrate the fact that the world in which these laws were given was not a blank slate. It was a very chaotic, morally confused world in which men married, divorced, and killed their wives, children, and slaves based on whim and mood, human sacrifice was commonplace, and feuds between families and between nations continued until one side or the other was completely obliterated from the face of the earth. To get people to start treating each other with respect in a world like this is quite a task.

But God’s goal is not just obedience. His goal is obedience that results from a changed heart, which is one of the primary messages of the sermon on the Mount. It’s important to note that Jesus never changed God’s rules, in fact He followed the Old Testament closely. His rebellion (I’ve heard it called this, but I think teaching people that Jesus was a rebel probably does more harm than good) was against the kind of laws that teach people that as long as they behave the right way, their hearts do not matter. What Jesus was attacking was a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Law was all about. This is why Jesus spit in the dirt to heal a man on the Sabbath. For those who don’t know, the Pharissees had a law that said it was legal to spit on a rock, but not on the dirt, on the Sabbath. The only possible justification I can think of for this is that, should there happen to be a seed in the ground where I spit and it grows as a result of the moisture I have placed upon it, then I have farmed on Saturday and deserve to be cast into the Lake of Fire. By spitting on this law (sorry…), Jesus points out the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of such a situation. He has just healed a blind man, but the really important blind_Healingthing is where He spit… This is sort of like telling a rape convict who wants to get saved that he’s going to have to get rid of his earrings and pull his pants up. It may be that at some point he does both of those things, maybe even because he loves Jesus, but the timing is a little off.

And timing is actually pretty important. If you watch the progression of God’s revelation throughout history, it’s not all that difficult to see that He is continually calling people to a higher standard, taking the long road of character change in order to reveal what He really wanted from the beginning. This, I think, is one of the most incredible and beautiful things about God. He never compromises on the absolute standards, but He also meets us where we are at in order to bring us, by our own choice and the development of our own character, to where He wants us.

Let’s take the example of slavery. From the beginning, it was very clear that God created all men (and women) equal. Genesis 1:27 says that man and woman were both created in the image of God, and the early laws make no distinction between one man and another by way of race, ability, age, etc. God’s desire is that all human beings, as His image-bearers, be seen and treated as equally valuable. But by the time we get to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, sin is firmly in place, human nature is corrupted, and slavery is commonplace. What is God to do now? How does He rid the world of slavery?

Let me pause and remind you that God’s goal is not to rid the world of slavery. His goal is to fill the earth with men and women who will not tolerate slavery because they have learned to honor the intrinsic and inalienable value of every human life.

God could have gotten rid of slavery by sending a lightning bolt to kill everyone who owned slaves, or even by making slave-owning punishable by death. But what would have been the result? He would have achieved half His goal. Granted, people would not own slaves, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not nearly as good as people not wanting to own slaves because they respect each other. He would also have had to keep doing this, every generation, until the end of time, because people’s actual morality would never change. Effectiveness in the short term does not equal effectiveness in the long term. And God seems an awfully patient fellow when it comes to things that are really important, like the morality of the human race.

The Parable of the Lost Dog…er, Sheep

DSC03084I love my dogs. Yes, I’ll admit it. I’m one of those weird people (you know the ones) who talk to their pets in squeaky baby voices, buy them pretty collars and soft beds, cry on their fur after a bad day. I call them my “fur-babies.” I haven’t yet started buying them Halloween costumes, but if I don’t have human babies soon, its only a matter of time.

We adopted both our dogs from the same shelter. Amos, our first pet, is a wrinkly, cuddly, stinky mess of a beagle pug mix, otherwise known as a puggle. He deserves his old man/biblical prophet name, as his face perpetually looks mournful due to his sagging facial skin. We call him “spot jacker” because no matter how asleep he may seem, he always takes the warm place you were just sitting in if you get up to go to the bathroom or get more popcorn during a movie. He goes crazy whenever he smells chocolate. He sleeps with his head on a pillow like a human. He snores louder than my husband with a cold. All day.

We adopted Lucy last summer when we decided that Amos needed a buddy, mostly to remind him that he is, in fact, a canine. We thought a seven pound chihuahua mix would be a perfect addition to the house–a sweet little girl, submissive and barely noticeable, just a tiny little thing to distract Amos so he wouldn’t be so needy — like I said before, he’s a cuddler. Lucy fit this description…for a few hours. But a big personality came in a tiny package. She uses Amos’s face skin as a tug-of-war toy, she pulls off my socks and attacks my toes if she’s bored, she growls at pit bulls ten times her size. She wakes me up in the morning when she’s hungry by perching on my chest, fixing me with an unblinking stare, and furiously wagging her little stub of a tail. Her nickname, if you can guess, is “little beasty.” Or occasionally, simply “monster.” Oh, and if she gets excited she pees all over herself.DSC03072

So why all this talk about my dogs?

Well, first because I love them. And because living with them has taught me a few things about God.

For all of you non-dog people now rolling your eyes, let me digress into telling a story. Sorry, it’s still about animals, but this time we’re talking sheep. Sheep don’t jump on you or try to lick your face, so try to give them a chance.

Once upon a time, a man had a hundred sheep. He knew each of them by sight, and one day when he looked out over the herd, he noticed that a particular sheep was missing. Trusting the rest of the herd to stay together where they happily chomped away at a lush patch of grass, the man headed into the rocky hills where he figured the lone sheep had wandered.

Thorns tore at his clothes. He narrowly missed placing his hand on a rattlesnake sunning itself on a ledge. He kept his ears tuned to any hint of a lion, which would eat him just as readily as the lone sheep, if he didn’t find it in time. The sharp rocks cut his hands despite his calluses, leaving a crimson trail behind him in the hot sand.

Finally, after hours of sweaty searching, the man heard a faint bleating. The echoing, panicked cry led him to a rocky pit. At the bottom, there was his sheep. Using the last reserves of his strength, the man climbed down the crumbling wall of the hole, hoisted the frantically bleating sheep over his shoulders, and struggled back out into the sun. After applying soothing oil to the animal’s scratches and bruises, he took the beast on his shoulders once again and made his way back to the pleasant valley and the rest of the flock.

If you recognize this story, that’s probably because its’s one of a series of parables that Jesus relates to a large crowd, as recorded in Luke 15. Luke tells us that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners and tax collectors,” and that the religious authorities of the day, the Pharisees, are scandalized by the sort of company he chooses to keep. Jesus offers this story as an explanation.

Now back to my dogs.

Amos ran away once. It was in the middle of a pouring deluge, a sudden and terrific summer thunderstorm, and his extra neck skin made it easy for him to pull out of a wet collar. He’s not particularly afraid of thunder; I suppose he thought he could do better on his own, find a place safe and dry and warm if he wasn’t forced to obey the person holding the leash. In any case, we and a collection of friends and neighbors ran around in the dark and the rain for what seemed an eternity, calling and calling and calling Amos’s name between cracks of thunder.

As it turned out, he was circling the block as we were chasing him, too scared to stop, but just smart enough to know the general location of his home. He ran in the same direction we were chasing, round and round the same path. Someone sitting on their porch told us they had seen him pass several times, so we switched directions and caught him. All he would have had to do is stop, and we would have found him earlier and brought him in out of the rain. Or better, he could have just not run away in the first place.

SONY DSCBut Amos is dumb. I love him, but he just is. He doesn’t know what’s best for him. If he didn’t have my husband and me, if he didn’t have a master, he would die.  If he did whatever he wanted, he would run into traffic, he would get lost, he would pick fights with mean dogs, he would eat that half box of tacos somebody left on the sidewalk.  He would do whatever seemed best to him, and that would kill him.

As I carried him back into the warm apartment after we found him that night, I was so angry and so happy to see him that I just cried and squeezed him till he stopped shaking. Stupid dog. Stupid, precious dog I love so much.

I don’t know about all of you, but when I do stupid things I feel like God hates me. I feel like He’s looking down on me, disappointed and angry, giving me a silent look that says, “You got yourself into this mess. Now you’re going to have to get yourself out of it.” And in the times that I’ve run away, I feel like God will never be able to love me again, even if He condescends to accept me crawling back.

That makes me a Pharisee.

But Jesus, talking and laughing with a rough crowd, corrects that perspective.  He tells a story about a man, just like any good shepherd, who goes after a lost sheep. His story doesn’t talk about how stupid the sheep is, how the sheep deserved to be eaten by a lion. He focuses on the shepherd and how he without question goes after that one sheep.

Jesus implies that if a shepherd, as a part of his job, is willing to risk injury and death to find one stupid sheep, one of a hundred, then how much more do you think God is willing to do for just one human being? A human being that He made? A human being that He loves?

Most often we talk about this passage to remind church people to break down their walls and care about those God cares about, the “sinners” that a lot of religious people would rather avoid. But I think we sometimes forget: we are all those sinners. Even if we’ve already accepted God’s mercy through Christ to receive righteousness, aren’t there times that most of us have “run away”? Made mistakes? Decided we’re going to head out on our own? Just been plain stupid?

I know I have. And I feel like if I were God, I wouldn’t take me back.

But as I’m cleaning up taco-filled dog barf, standing in the alley in -15 degree windchill as they find that perfect place to pee, buy expensive food with real meat in it, brush dog hair off my favorite sweater, find holes in my new socks, urine on my floor, and Amos drool on my pillow, I realize I do these things because I love these stupid dogs. And if I do these things willingly, voluntarily, because I, in my limited way, love these dumb animals, then…could God, just maybe, love me even more?

So when I’ve run away again and I don’t want to come back or call out to God for help, I think about my dogs, and that story Jesus told about the sheep. I picture Amos in the rain, and that sheep in the hills, and I know that if I can understand love that much, then perhaps I can believe in God’s love. I see Him running through a thunderstorm, calling my name. I see Him hot and sweaty, worry and relief in His eyes, as He climbs down the side of the pit to carry me out. I see him suffering, humiliated, bleeding quietly, dying on a cross.

Heroes and Lions

Think back to your favorite stories. You might not have to think back terribly far at all, actually; our favorite stories have a way of sticking with us, of imprinting both our minds and hearts at the same time. Your favorite story might be one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. It might be a more contemporary series, such as The Hunger Games or even Star Wars. And let us not forget the ensemble of heroes that make up the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth! The world of fantasy would hardly be the same without Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Aragorn and the rest of the members of the Fellowship of the Ring. If you’re like many of my friends at Colorado Christian University, your favorite story revolves around some “Doctor” who travels around space and time in a contraption called a “Tardis” saving the world from evil or some such shenanigans. I don’t really know what it’s about.  I just know that it’s British television and somehow it’s awesome. But I digress.

I still remember the first time I saw Luke Skywalker dueling Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. I’m not ashamed to admit, from that point on, no stick, pole or other pointy object was simply an object anymore. No, from that point on, they were all lightsabers! Whichever one of my brothers was around was instantly Darth Vader, regardless of their previous allegiances. And I, obviously, was Luke Skywalker. After all, every little kid wants to be the hero.

Think back to your favorite stories…the ones that really mattered. What’s one of the key elements to every fantasy story?

Every good story has a hero. But what makes a hero…heroic?

A hero doesn’t shy away from a fight, but he also doesn’t cause unnecessary bloodshed. He is strong, but in control of his strength. Strength without mercy is brutality, subjugation, and ultimately results in tyranny. As Gandalf states in the new Hobbit movie, “True courage is not knowing when to take a life, but when to spare it.” When he fights, a hero fights well. If he falls, he gets back up. He doesn’t give up after failing. He only gets stronger.

A hero also protects those who are important to him at any cost. Laying down his life for them is part of the job description. He does not shrink away from harm. This one is particularly biblical. There truly is no greater love that a man who gives himself up for those whom he loves. Back on 9/11, some amazingly brave men and women lost their loves striving to save innocent civilians from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. The brave men and women of New York City’s police and fire departments are remembered as heroes, and rightly so.  One of the most powerful moments of the entire Harry Potter series is actually before the main events take place. It is when Harry’s mother dies to save her young son. She is a hero in that moment and forever more.

I have to be honest. One of my favorite heroes of legend is Link. Who is Link, you may ask? Link is the main protagonist of The Legend of Zelda video game series. Most people have never even heard his name before; they often assume he is Zelda, but Zelda is actually the princess that Link spends the entire series attempting to rescue! I relate so well to Link because he is, at the onset of any given Zelda game, very normal. However, Link is destined to be a hero, and he eventually steps into this role after training and being made aware of his destiny. Link is a wonderful hero because he doesn’t ever speak, and doesn’t seek his own glory.

Link is a hero because he is selfless. He gives his life over and over for those that he loves.

But here, we’re really talking about human heroes and invented characters.

Don’t we all want to be heroes?

I’m not so different now than when I was a boy. Sometimes I still pretend things are lightsabers. Sometimes I dream of rescuing princesses from castles and traversing miles and misunderstandings to rescue my princess. And more often than not, when I read books and watch movies, I want nothing more than to be the hero of my own story.

But I’m not.

Really, though. I’m not.

Truth be told, I’m terrible at fighting for people. My main enemy is myself. Whether I’m letting my insecurities cloud my judgment or if I’m simply not looking out for others’ interests first, I am simply bad at fighting. I am my own worst enemy, and I hurt those I should protect and fight for. I’m not a very good hero.

Truth be told, neither are you. None of us are.

We can’t be the hero of our own story, because we really are the damsel-in-distress. We are the slaves behind bars. We are the broken who need to be healed. We try and try and try, but ultimately, we can’t rescue anyone, ourselves included.

We aren’t very good heroes. But luckily, we don’t have to be.

When Jesus came, He personified what it meant to be a hero. Link, Frodo, Katniss, Peter, Edmund…they may be heroes, but they are only echoes of the one true Hero.

Think about it…what keeps you on your toes while journeying through Narnia? What are the parts of those books that really make them worth reading?

Simple…it’s when Aslan shows up. Because He is the Hero. He is the Lion. The funny thing about when Aslan shows up is that, typically, those who haven’t seen Him before are rendered speechless, utterly in awe of this Lion that is striding among them. But those who know Him approach Him differently. They run to Him and bury themselves in His golden mane. Whenever Aslan speaks, you hang on His every word, and you search those words, desiring to know all their meanings. As a result of His words and presence, traitors like Edmund are made into kings. The lost are welcomed home as princes just like Cor. Obnoxious little Eustaces finally shed their dragon scales. And men like Peter finally learn what it means to protect those they love.

Aslan is the hero of Narnia. He is the rightful King.

We aren’t very good heroes. But luckily, we don’t have to be. Just as Aslan is the true hero of the Chronicles of Narnia, Jesus is the hero of our story.

Our pride drives us to act in self-interest, as if what happens to us were the chief element of our story. We’ve swallowed the lie that it’s all about having things our own way. If we are happy, if we are rich and famous, if we are known- then we will be living a good story. After all, we’re heroes, right?

Wrong. Our stories have never been about us.

It’s not our kingdom any more than Narnia was Peter’s. He may have been High King, but there was a King even higher than Peter, and Peter willingly bowed down to Him.

But not only is God the true King…He is also the best hero we could ask for. Our place is to admit our faults, admit our need to be rescued…and finally to let Him do it! We don’t get very far when we try to be our own rulers. We hurt those we love. We return like dogs to our own bile, our sin. We love so, so poorly.

But God is not us. He loves perfectly. In 1 John 4:8, we are told that God is love. 1 Corinthians likewise explains to us all the virtues that make up love. Following the logical connection between the verses, one might easily say, rather than “Love is patient, love is kind” that “God is patient, God is kind.” Let’s take another look at that passage (italics are added to show change):

 God is patient, God is kind. God keeps no record of wrongs.

God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 

God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

God never fails.

Sounds like a pretty good hero to me. I really like thinking of God in a similar vein as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings…He is never late, nor is He early. He arrives precisely when He means to. Which brings us to the final element of a hero:

He saves the day just in time.

We cannot see the whole story. God is not simply the Hero; He is also the Author and Perfector. His timing is perfect, because His plot is perfect, and He will reveal Himself in the perfect plan. We are at His mercy…but that is no bad thing, for He may not be tame, but He is very, very good, and mercy covers His throne. We must trust that He will come through with the perfect resolution at the absolutely perfect time! And He will! He is unable to fail!

Friends, let us not try to be our own heroes and solve problems in our own time and by our own methods. We are not meant to rescue ourselves. We are meant to be rescued, and He has already done it! On the cross our ransom was paid, our rescue finalized, our adoption secured. Jesus is the perfect hero because He won the ultimate victory and that can never be reversed or taken away. He is eternally victorious.

And because of that, so are we.

Let God be the hero of your story. Let Him rescue you at the perfect time. It takes humility…but that is Christianity: humility before God, and humility before others. Let’s face it…we’re really bad heroes. We need to be rescued.

Let us come face to face with the Lion who is also the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

Let us celebrate the one true Hero…and, after knowing Him and being made like Him, find a way to become little lions- little heroes- ourselves.

Walking with Jesus Through Holy Week

This past Saturday I visited the zoo with my husband and another couple. I know, right? Cute. As we were walking along looking at the monkeys and birds, a rabbit hopped by on the path in front of us. A tiny little blonde girl with pigtails walking near us looked up at her parents and excitedly exclaimed, “maybe it’s the Easter bunny!”

I can’t remember if I ever actually believed in the Easter bunny, but I do remember that Easter has never been my favorite holiday, and actually, if I’m honest, holidays in general really don’t do that much for me. I like my normal life a lot, so why disrupt it? I’ve felt that Easter, like any other holiday, is a passing remembrance of history and is really just a day like any other. I was raised in a culture where we might take a holiday off work, but then spend it checking overdue items off our to-do list or taking an extra long nap. Really reflecting on the symbolism of holiday, sacrificing our time, letting it interrupt our life, is not something we are used to.

The meaning of holidays, a day to be holy, special, different, is almost foreign to the space-minded person like me, to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells. Unlike me, the Bible senses the diversified character of time; it teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year (see Rabbi Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man). Easter is a monumental journey along the path of the Christian year. I’m catching a vision from friends and teachers at my church that are telling me, “hey, this matters.” There are days that are supposed to interrupt our lives. While God is with us all the time, there are times that cause us to pause, recognize significance, and give thanks.

In order to understand the significance of Easter in the Christian year, we must understand the Jewish liturgical year as well. The celebration of Passover took place just before the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the two holidays have been intertwined ever since. The word Pasch, originally meaning Passover, came to mean Easter as well. On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sat down with his disciples and had “the last supper,” a Passover meal. The Passover meal is a time to celebrate and remember God’s rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery. While in bondage in Egypt, the people were instructed to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on their doorposts, so that they could be saved from impending death. How appropriate that the day after that meal, Jesus would shed his blood so that all could be free.

Yesterday while at the gym, I saw a “Happy Passover” commercial that ended with the words declared at the beginning of the Haggadah (Passover seder), All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy come and celebrate Passover. What Jesus did that weekend made it possible for all to come and celebrate.

We thus live in the mystery of Holy Week, that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24).

Jesus’ dying, resurrection, and ascension become our dying and rising, our death to new life. Our Lord teaches us that life comes from death, that we can find meaning in suffering, that there is light in darkness. Death, indeed, does not have the last word.

*Note – I borrowed many of these ideas from the Rev. Dr. Timothy Smith, who wrote a lenten devotional called “Blessed – Daily Retreats With Jesus for the Season of Lent 2013.” It is available from http://www.waterfromrock.org

“All God’s children have their troubles”: Why “Downton Abbey” Moves My Soul

DowntonAbbeyI don’t usually watch TV shows, but after a friend of mine recommended the Emmy-award winning TV series Downton Abbey, I decided to give it a try.

And I’m hooked.

This British period drama created and written by Julian Fellowes (Academy-award winning writer of Gosford Park) centers on the aristocratic Crawley family and their cadre of servants. The story begins the day after the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912. Upon learning that the male heirs of the estate died on the “unsinkable” ship, the Crawley family must appoint (quite reluctantly) an unknown distant cousin as the new heir of Downton. The show then follows the interrelated lives of the upstairs aristocrats and downstairs servants as they face various conflicts (both profound and petty) amidst the radically changing world of the early twentieth century: World War I, women’s suffrage, Fenianism, and the looming Great Depression.

Sure, the show has its melodramatic moments (some critics go as far as labeling it a “soap opera”), but what makes Downton so appealing to me is its unique blend of romanticism and realism. The idyllic, English countryside and the extravagant décor of the Crawley estate (the Highclere Castle in Hampshire); the fashions and manners of high society; the aesthetically sophisticated musical score; and the poetic quality of the dialogue certainly appeal to my romantic sensibilities. At the same time, the show’s historicity; the grimy conditions of the downstairs world of the workers; the brutalities of war; financial uncertainty; miscarriage; heartbreak; family tragedy; and the cruel disappointments of life provide a healthy dose of reality. Indeed, life at Downton, like real life, is both beautiful and ugly.

Fellowes’s writing is beautiful, smart, and humorous, and he brilliantly creates both endearing and despicable characters. Beyond its archetypal ingredients (Byronic heroes, scheming shape shifters, underdogs, and damsels in distress) and compelling conflicts (sibling rivalry, teenage rebellion, love triangles, deceit, and betrayal) that make for any great story, Downton beautifully portrays and celebrates Christian virtues, something quite rare for prime time TV. I’m moved and inspired by the kindness of Lord Grantham; the forbearance of Lady Grantham; the wisdom (and wit) of the Dowager Countess; the sincerity of Matthew Crawley; the integrity of Mr. Bates; the loyalty of Anna; the devotion of Mr. Carson; the humility of Mr. Molesley; the selfless sacrifices of Lady Sybil; the generosity of Cousin Isobel; and the astonishing human solidarity between the privileged aristocrats and their lowly servants. These characters certainly have their flaws, but their acts of compassion are truly inspiring.

While the apparent differences between the upstairs and downstairs worlds make for interesting dynamics, what I find more fascinating is their striking similarities. Despite socioeconomic class or status, both the Crawley family and their servants face the same demands and challenges of everyday life, the pressures and anxieties brought by the societal expectations of their time. In other words, they each confront the realities of what we call the “human condition.”

When a kitchen maid unexpectedly finds herself sympathizing with the sorrowful Lady Edith (spoiler alert: Edith’s just been jilted at the altar), another maid reminds her, “All God’s creatures have their troubles.” Regardless of status, wealth, or power, no person is immune to suffering. The comforts and pleasures of the Crawleys’ privileged life at Downton do not protect them from trial or tragedy.

The show’s theme of human solidarity reminds me of an important motif in Ecclesiastes, that whether men are rich or poor, foolish or wise, the “same event happens to all of them.” That death and difficulties are inevitable in this earthly life particularly rings true for Christians as Jesus and the New Testament writers repeatedly reminded the church of the persecution and hardships it would face. For Christians, suffering is not an exception to the rule. It is the rule. We’re not invincible. Life is fragile. And as the honorable and beautifully flawed inhabitants of Downton remind us, regardless of class or creed we’re all in need of grace.

If you’re looking for a beautifully written, filmed, and acted TV series, I highly recommend Downton Abbey.

Here’s a link to a preview.