Goin’ to the Chapel

Since moving to Durham, I have adopted the habit of making a weekly trip to Duke Chapel.  If you’ve been there, you know that it is an awesome structure.  A massive, cross-shaped room rises dizzyingly into the air, walls of grey interrupted by the bright colors of stained glass.  As you enter, you can’t help but look up, and the place evokes a sacred feeling that demands silence or at most whispers if speaking is a must.  Most weekdays between 12:30 and 1:30pm the sounds of the organ can be heard reverberating off the walls.  Majestic sound teams with majestic sight to create a majestic effect.  The Chapel has become for me a place of centering and calm, a place of reflection and rest.  It has become a place of prayer.

As I reflect on my experience at Duke Chapel, it strikes me that such places can be of help in our spiritual journeys.  They serve as centering forces in our lives that draw our attention to God and call us to reflection and prayer.  At this point in my own life, a majestic chapel fills this role, but a grand place of worship is not a necessity.  In fact, we can find many such places if we seek them intentionally.  A front porch swing can become a chapel in the warm months of the year.  A recliner close to the coffee pot can become a chapel in the early hours of the morning.  A walk in the community garden or park can become a chapel experience for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.  Even jogging, an activity that is by-and-large unknown to me, can become a chapel experience to the initiated.  The point is not the place or activity so much as it is the intention that we bring to these things; an intention to unplug for a few moments and to become present to God and his creation in a different way.  In these moments, we allow ourselves to be reminded of God and of ourselves.  In these moments, we allow ourselves to gain perspective and to see things with fresh eyes.

Of course, things don’t always play out so neatly.  At times, these “chapels” can feel void and leave us frustrated.  At times, we wonder why we make the time.  But there are also moments when God speaks, sometimes powerfully and sometimes in a still, small voice, and these moments keep us coming back.  And when we think about it, maybe those “void” moments aren’t so bad.  In those moments we learn what it is to wait on the Lord.  In those moments we learn that God is free and is not at our beck and call.  And in those moments we find that intentional chapel times form a rhythm of life that God uses to shape us.  After all, we’re in this for the long haul of regular life and not just for “mountaintop experiences.”  In all of this, our chapels, whatever and whenever they may be, serve to remind us of a great God and ground us in his call.

I wonder if you’ve found a chapel in your own experience.  If so, have you been there lately?

Let us all wait on the Lord who transforms us.

An Easter Meditation

The daytime sky is dark.  It has been for the past three hours.  The untimely darkness covers much, but it can’t hide the sounds of pain.  In the shadows stand three crosses, each bearing a contorted body that was once strong and fit.  Two are rebels.  One is the King of Glory.  All three will soon be dead.

The King is anything but glorious in this dark moment.  Hours earlier, soldiers spat upon him and placed a crown of thorns on his head.  His arms and feet are nailed to hard, unrelenting beams.  He hangs there in the darkness, lifted high above the earth, sweat and soldiers’ spit covering his naked body.  Trails of blood flow from his wounds, pooling beneath his feet.

He has been the object of insults and abuse.  He has been abandoned by his followers.  He hangs now between two criminals, and even they mock the King.  Glory has fled.

And now in the darkness, the powers of the present age gather in anticipation.  The King is fading.  He bows beneath their weight, and he will surely break.

He does.  In a God-forsaken moment, Jesus cries out in agony and breathes his last.  The King is dead, and hope lies forgotten in the bloody earth.

But hope will not be silenced.

In the darkness of a tomb, all is still.  Quiet lies heavy like a cloak except for the occasional rustle of soldiers who guard the entrance.  The body of the King lies dead.  Until the touch.  It is the touch of God the Father.  It is the touch of life.  The King who was dead is again alive.  Behold the resurrection!  Glory has returned.

Forgotten hope begins to sing.  She lifts her voice loud and true.  It is the song of newness.  It is the song of sunrise.  It is the song of a dawning age.  The powers that gathered will not hold sway.  Death has not triumphed.  No, God will have the last say, and he speaks words of life.  The powers are defeated, and a new age has dawned.  Jesus has won.  He has ascended.  He sits at the right hand of the Father.

The King stands victorious.  Hope sings her song.  He is our hope.  He is our glory.  He is our peace.  He is our victory.  And we now await his return.  We wait for his kingdom to be made manifest.  We wait for what was begun to be brought to completion.  We wait for a new heaven and a new earth where chaos, mourning, crying, pain, and death will have no place.  We wait for glory to be revealed in us.  We wait to see clearly face to face.  We await the King.

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Journey With Jesus: Good Friday and Easter

Join us at Immanuel Baptist Church for public readings of our last two Journey With Jesus passages.  On Good Friday, April 6, at 6pm, we will contemplate the crucifixion together.  On Easter Sunday, April 8, at 11am we will celebrate the resurrection!  Saturday stands as a day for reflection.  We hope to see you at both of these important steps in the journey!

Journey With Jesus, Day 12: Devotion

Mark 14:1-11

In today’s reading, we have a story of extravagant devotion surrounded by stories of treachery.  The scheming of the chief priests and elders is teamed with the betrayal of Judas, and against this background, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with perfume shines all the more brightly.  Commentators point to different reasons for the anointing.  One reading is that anointing the heads of guests was a common courtesy in this culture.  If this is the case, the woman is “extending to [Jesus] customary courtesy with uncustomary extravagance.” (David Garland, The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 516).  Another understanding points to the anointing of kings.  David Garland points to the irony of this understanding in saying, “A woman, not a priest or an authorized prophet anoints Jesus in the home of a leper.” (Garland, 516)  The king is being anointed by the wrong person in the wrong place!  And yet this could well be a fitting kingly anointing for the Messiah that Jesus is proving to be.  Ultimately, Jesus gives a different explanation of the woman’s action: it is for his burial.  The death of Jesus looms large in the scheming and betrayal of Judas and the powers that be.  It also looms large here in a beautiful act of devotion.  Jesus has set his face toward the cross.

As the woman anoints Jesus extravagantly with an entire jar of “very expensive perfume” (14:3, NIV), she is criticized by those also present.  Couldn’t something so costly have been used more wisely?  It could have gone to support the poor!  At this point, the same Jesus who instructed the rich young man to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor defends the woman’s gift.  She has done a “beautiful thing” (14:6), and Jesus will not stand for her rebuke.  Instead, he promises that she will be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed.

It is important to note that Jesus does not in this moment pit devotion to himself against caring for the poor, as if the two are mutually exclusive, and his statement about the poor being always with you is not an excuse for ignoring their plight.  Earlier in the gospel, Jesus takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me…” (9:37)  Garland points out that children in this society “had now power, no status, and few rights.” (Garland, 367)  In identifying himself with children, Jesus identifies himself with the least, and care for the least also stands as care for Jesus!  A similar argument can be made in regard to Matthew 25:31-46.  In this light, caring for the poor and more widely the least can itself be understood as an expression of devotion to Jesus.

The story of the woman puts extravagant devotion on display and challenges us to consider our own.  Is Jesus worth such an extravagant gift in our own eyes?  Or would we find ourselves among the scoffers?

Journey With Jesus, Day 11: Watch!

Mark 13:1-37

Today we face a difficult passage with many points ripe for conversation.  The passage can be divided into two sections.  First, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple (13:1-23).  Second, he predicts his own second coming (13:24-37).  In a future Wednesday night Bible study (we are currently walking passage by passage through the Gospel of Mark on Wednesday nights at Immanuel Baptist Church), we will focus on this passage in detail, so I will leave much of the heavier discussion for that time.  Here, I would simply like to comment on Christian fascination with the end times.

In one sense, we should be fascinated by God’s having the last say in history.  Revelation 21 speaks of a new heaven and new earth that will have no place for death, mourning, crying, or pain.  This should capture our imagination and be the object of our hope.  God will speak the last word!  At the same time, we sometimes see a deeper fascination as Christians of different quarters seek to outline the timetable of the end and even sometimes predict the date of Jesus’ return.  While timetables are interesting for speculation, I’m not sure how helpful they really are.  The thrust of today’s passage is to be ready for the second coming rather than knowing how events will unfold.  And seeking to predict times and dates stands as a blatant disregard for the words of Jesus himself, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.” (13:32-33, NIV)  Here we see Jesus saying quite clearly that even he does not know the time or date, and neither do we.  Once again, the directive is to be ready; “Be on guard!  Be alert!”

In the past few years, a couple of songs have come out that talk about living as if we were dying (think Kris Allen and Tim McGraw), the idea being that we would live differently if we lived in light of our mortality.  This isn’t far from what Jesus is saying in today’s passage, but Christians have a different emphasis.  Instead of living in view of death, we live in view of the return of Jesus.  As with the songs already mentioned, the point is not to know exact times or dates.  Instead, it is to take into account a coming reality and to live accordingly.  The second coming is our coming reality, and to live accordingly is to live faithfully, ready for the coming of Christ.

Once again, we don’t want to forget grace that meets us when we fail, but we also don’t want to discount Jesus’ directive for readiness, which I will close with now:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert. You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (13:35-37, NIV)

Journey With Jesus, Day 10: Not Far From the Kingdom

Mark 12:13-44

In today’s reading, we once again see various groups seeking to trap Jesus in questions.  The Pharisees and Herodians ask about taxes.  The Saducees ask about marriage in the resurrection, a question that is so complex that it reminds me of math classes in high school.  I can almost see the Saducees moving next to ask Jesus where Train A will meet Train B in light of their different speeds!  As has always been the case, Jesus proves a worthy opponent and evades the traps by turning the questions back on the questioners.

Then we hear an honest question from a sympathetic listener: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (12:28, NIV)  To this Jesus replies with a two-fold answer: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.” (12:29-31)  Love God, love neighbor.  This answer seems simple, and yet it demands so much.  Loving God is not just a matter of Sundays.  No, Jesus calls that we love God with “all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  This is an all consuming love that touches all aspects of our lives.

And we may also ask what it means to love neighbor in an ever more connected world.  I have personally been struggling with this question since hearing stories about the poor working conditions in overseas factories where many of our favorite technical gadgets are made.  What does it mean to love neighbor in a world in which I am connected to people whom I will never meet because we have handled the same tech devices (they made them, I bought and use them)?  And then we can also bring the question closer to home by thinking of the people we do know.  Are we loving them as ourselves?

The teacher of the law who asks the question agrees with and approves of Jesus’ answer.  In response, Jesus tells him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” (12:34)  It seems that agreeing with Jesus is a first step in the right direction.  Obeying him will be the second.  Yet obedience can seem so difficult in light of such an all-encompassing commandment!  Here we must remember grace.  Grace strengthens us for the journey and picks us up when we fall.  Just as Jesus did not abandon his first disciples in their faults, he will also not abandon us.  The key is that we choose to follow, living up to what we have already attained and ready to receive more.  And also ready to accept grace when we fail; a grace that helps us get back on our feet and begin following again.

Let us, then, set our hearts on following this Jesus.  Let us seek to love God and neighbor as he said.  In doing so, we may find that, like the teacher of the law, we are not far from the kingdom.

Journey With Jesus, Day 9: What Kind of King?

Mark 11:1-12:12

You may have noticed over the past week that Jesus often seeks to keep his identity secret.  We see this especially in the healing and exorcism stories when he tells the recipients of his ministry to “go and tell no one.”  Of course, people often ignore this command, but it is nonetheless given.  Scholars call this the “Messianic Secret” because Jesus seeks to conceal his messianic identity.  One strain of thought, with which I agree, is that Jesus acts in such a way in order to reserve the right to define “Messiah” on his own terms.  Many people are looking for the glorious warrior king.  As we saw in yesterday’s reading, though, Jesus has different expectations that include suffering and service.  In calling for secrecy, he resists being defined by popular expectation and reserves the right to define himself according to a very different rubric: that of the kingdom of God.

In today’s reading, Jesus casts secrecy to the wind as he enters Jerusalem riding on a colt.  David Garland notes that this action calls to mind Genesis 49:10-11 and Zechariah 9:9, both of which speak of a kingly figure riding a colt and were “interpreted messianically.” (David Garland, Mark: The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 427)  I’ll leave it to you to follow the links above to read the passages mentioned.  Needless to say, Jesus is making a statement in entering Jerusalem in this manner.  Secrecy has been thrown aside, and the Messiah is on his way!

And yet Jesus defies expectations.  In light of such a “triumphal entry,” we might expect Jesus to make some kind of grand gesture when he reaches the temple.  Peter Brooks Duff has shown that this scene also mirrors a Greco-Roman procession in which a king or conqueror claims a city.  (Duff, Peter Brooks, “The March of the Divine Warrior and the Advent of the Greco-Roman King: Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem,” Journal of Biblical Literature [March, 1992])  Such processions could end in a sacrifice at the temple of the conquered city, and this sacrifice would stand as the act of appropriation.  In this light, Jesus’ action in the temple is doubly puzzling.  Instead of triumphantly staking his claim by offering a sacrifice, he looks around briefly and leaves the city.  What must the crowd have thought at this point?  They have welcomed a Messiah who fails capitalize on his big moment!  What kind of King is this?

What is more, Jesus returns the next day to do something unexpected; he condemns the temple!  Here we see yet another “Markan Sandwich” as the story of the cursing of the fig tree is interrupted by Jesus overturning tables at the temple.  Because these two stories should be interpreted in light of one another, Jesus’ actions in the temple take on an ominous tone.  Rather than a cleansing, could this be a cursing instead?  Could the fig tree stand as a parable-in-action that comments on the temple?  Like the fig tree, the temple has not produced the fruit that Jesus seeks (he quotes Isaiah 56:7 to say that the temple should be a house of prayer for all nations).  Jesus then quotes Jeremiah 7:11 to call the temple “a den of robbers.”  Garland points out, “The den is the place where robbers retreat after having committed their crimes.  It is their hideout, a place of security and refuge.  Calling the temple a robbers’ den is therefore not a cry of outrage against any dishonest business practices in the temple.  Jesus indirectly attacks them for allowing the temple to degenerate into a safe hiding place where people think they can find forgiveness and fellowship with God no matter how they act on the outside.” (Garland, 439)  This is a strong word of challenge that should catch our eyes today.  When the crowd greets Jesus, they expect the warrior king and welcome him with accolades and applause.  But Jesus comes as judge, and he speaks to the very heart of the religious system.

Would we, like the crowd, be surprised to meet Jesus today?  Might we expect him to rally to our causes only to be surprised by a word of judgment?  Are our own church communities producing the fruit God is calling for?  We might read here especially justice, mercy, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23-24).  Or might we be called a “den of robbers” for our lack of care for what stirs God’s heart?  Here we see the challenge of Jesus in stark relief.  What will we do with this kind of King?