Show me Your Hands

By Leonard Sweet
(European Nazarene College, January 18, 2011)

I was reading Psalm 51:10 to my mother when she died: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a right spirit within me.”

Now the key to the holiness movement is a clean heart.  So give me an image for a clean heart.  What does a clean heart go with? Now the holiest person that has ever lived is named Jesus.  Pure holiness.

And what happens here with Jesus is that God comes down to earth.  How far down? How far down does the Incarnation go? Well, from the very beginning how far down does it go?  Where was Jesus born? In a royal palace? In a bassinet? How far down does the Incarnation go? Where does the Incarnation happen? It happens in a smelly stable, where the first thing Jesus experiences as an infant is what? Straw ticks. Little lice that live in straw. They bite your flesh.  And the smell of dung and animals.

But Jesus in the Incarnation went further than that because it not only went down to the very lowest of the human, but Jesus did something that no other Rabbi in history had done or allowed to happen.  In fact, it really bothered the disciples that he did this.  How far down did the Incarnation go? Jesus was the first Rabbi in history to do what? Wash his disciples feet.  That’s how far Jesus went.  All the way down.

And let me tell you, sisters and brothers, you don’t wash anybody’s feet without getting your hands dirty and wet.

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This is holiness!  You want an image of holiness? You have a clean heart? OK, here’s what goes with a clean heart – dirty hands.  You say you have a clean heart? I say, “What? Show me your hands.”

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Leonard Sweet

You are keeping your hands clean? “Oh, I wouldn’t want to get dirty.  We are supposed to be in the world and not of it…” What?! So your hands are too clean to get in the dirt? Oh, we need cleansing rituals all the time to clean us up.  But the whole purpose of cleaning us up is so that we can get dirty…

…Matthew 25 tells us what the question at judgment day will be.  “In as much as you did it to the least of these…”  In other words, here is the question at judgment day – Show me your hands.  You got clean hands? Go someplace else.  Because a clean heart means dirty hands.  Now this is an image of holiness.

How I Knew God Was with Me in My Parents’ Divorce

By Scott Armstrong

September 1993.  I was 15 years old.  My dad and mom call a family meeting after supper.  My brother and I came down from our rooms, wondering what’s going on.  We usually had the famous “family meetings” once a year when some new rule was being enforced or when a vacation needed to be planned or discussed.

This time was different.  There was an eerie vibe to the room.  My dad exhaled audibly while my mom fidgeted with her hands.  Then—BOOM!—my world changed forever.  They were getting a divorce.  They just couldn’t work things out.  They had too many differences.  Blah, blah, blah.  Although it doesn’t make sense, part of me was hearing every word perfectly even while another part instantly tuned out the drone of their voices.

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Then it was my turn.  “What do you mean, you can’t work out your differences? Are you some sort of teenage fling that is on today, off tomorrow? Did those vows you made years ago mean anything?” I was furious.  I was sad. I was numb.

That is reality #1.  That actually happened.  And I will never be the same again because of it.

So here is reality #2.  God with us.  “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you…the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:5,9).  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).  We hear a lot about this second reality around Christmas time, don’t we? The “Incarnation.”  God with us.  It kind of makes us feel warm inside, especially when things are going particularly well in life.

But what happens when Reality #1 and Reality #2 collide? As a teenager, I knew Reality #2 was true—I had heard about it every Christmas since I had been born. And I certainly knew Reality #1 was true—I was experiencing it like tumbleweed experiences a tornado.  And let me be honest: it was pretty tough to see how the reality of “God with us” could be right when the reality of the divorce was in my face every day.  The shouting. Mom moving out.  First time I had two Thanksgiving dinners, two Christmas trees, two houses where I did not feel at home in either.  Where was God in all this?

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 I have no easy answer.  I knew in my head that God was with me, but my heart and my life told me different. People at church with good intentions but little tact would come up to me and assure me, “You know, God is always with us, no matter what.  You will get through this.”  That’s what I really needed—a mini-sermon to make me feel better!  I already knew from Scripture that God was somewhere to be found in this whole muddle of loneliness and anger, but where?

I can look back now and see some indicators of God’s presence in that whole mess.  First, I learned that God “incarnates himself” in and through other people.  He is with us because other Christians give of their time and their tears to be with us too.  We always say that we are “the body of Christ” and that we need to be Christ’s “hands and feet” in the world, so why are we surprised when it actually happens? Through the love and compassion of my youth pastor and other teens and adults, I sensed God’s presence.

That does not mean people knew what to say; a lot of times they said some pretty stupid things.  It also does not mean I was not upset, frustrated, or even depressed at various points.  Yet, while some in my situation choose to hibernate and never talk to fellow churchgoers again, I had to get to church services every week.  That was where I sensed God’s presence—through music and preaching, of course, but also through God’s people that surrounded me with love on Sundays and throughout the week.

Second, I knew God was with me through my personal times with him. Before my parents’ divorce, I have to be truthful: I was a good Christian boy who did all of the right things.  Still, I did not have a deep relationship with Christ.  Well, all that changed when I found myself hopeless and with no one to talk to.  Normally in tough circumstances I would confide in my parents.  That wasn’t going to happen now; they did not exactly possess an objective perspective of the divorce!  I was able to talk to my youth pastor, but he did not really know what I was going through because his parents were still happily married.  So who could I turn to?

My only answer was God.  I started approaching my devotional times not as something to check off my list, but as the one time I could truly be myself.  I wept before God.  I yelled at him.  I began to wrestle with the words that I was reading in his Scripture.  Sometimes what I read made me mad; other times it comforted me.  I did not always hear a response.  I never heard voices from heaven nor did I receive some other tangible proof of his existence.  But in my quiet times, I began to trust him more.  In the toughest moments of my life, he became my closest friend, and he remains so to this day.

God with us.  It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? Especially when you are experiencing the reality of a life filled with brokenness and emptiness.  But that is what makes the second reality even stronger—God specializes in being with us not only in the good times when we “feel” him, but in the dark times filled with fear and loneliness. Let God speak his reality into your reality today.  God. With.  Us.

Joan Chittister: Reflections on the Importance of the Christian calendar

anillos-del-árbolWe begin the Christian calendar with Advent.  From my perspective, no one expresses the meaning of this reality better perhaps than Joan Chittister en her book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life.

Every year is a distinct growth point in life, the shedding of another shell of life.  Each year brings something unique to us and calls for something different from us…

The church year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, which normally begins in late November…The liturgical year is an adventure in bringing the Christian life to fullness, the heart to alert, the soul to focus.

The civic new year as we know it is a purely solar event, a chart of the planet’s journey around the sun.  But it is not, except in the most private and personal of ways, the story of the rest of us, the narrative of our spiritual lives.  That story begins and ends and begins again annually with the journey of the soul through the liturgical year, the year that marks the major moments in Christian spirituality and so points our own lives in the same direction.

The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ.  It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are – followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God.  The liturgical year is an adventure in human growth, an exercise in spiritual ripening.

I know now that it is possible to grow physically older by the day but, at the same time, stay spiritually juvenile, if our lives are not directed by a schema far beyond the march of our planet around the sun.  Like the rings on a tree, the cycles of Christian feasts are meant to mark the levels of our spiritual growth from one stage to another in the process of human growth.

If we are open and alert to the Christian calendar, it will lead us higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe.

Still Celebrating Easter

Scott Armstrong

Ready for a quiz? What period of the Christian calendar are we in right now?

If you answered, “Easter” or “Eastertide,” congratulations!  I admit that I have written quite a bit about Advent and Lent, and both of those are very important periods in our spiritual walk.  But Eastertide is just as important, even if it goes overlooked by many of us this time of year.

Rich Villodas, lead pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York, recently wrote about why the season of Eastertide is important for the Church.

“For centuries, many in the Church have recognized that Easter is not a one day event that we anticipate, and then just like that, vanishes.  The Church has affirmed that the power of the resurrection is more than a transient moment, but deserves sustained reflection.”

While Lent is 40 days long and is a time of fasting, Eastertide is 50 days long and leads us to a life of feasting!

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Villodas highlights three ways we can focus our attention during this sustained period of Easter.

  1. Eastertide reminds us that through the resurrection Jesus is victorious over the powers of death.

As I have written before, when Jesus rose from the tomb, he proved his sweeping, effective dominion over the powers of sin, death, and the grave.  However, Easter is not just something nice and important that happened to Jesus.  We are invited into that cosmic re-ordering.  The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is also available to all those who choose to follow him!

“It’s very possible to sing about Jesus conquering the grave,” Villodas reminds us, “and the next day be complicit in systems, structures and habits that bring glory to the powers of death.”  This season assures that we live in the “reverberation of resurrection” still ongoing today.

  1. Eastertide reminds us that God’s future life is available to us to enjoy and express to the world.

Just as Mary Magdalene was told to not hold on to Jesus, but rather to go and tell the good news instead (John 20:17), so we are able to offer a hope to those that desperately needs it.  Easter is not Easter if its message is not proclaimed to the world.

Pastor Villodas states it this way, “There’s probably no better time to pray for the healing of the sick because the resurrection is a reminder that one day there will be no sick.  There’s probably no better time to work for peace, because the resurrection is a reminder that one day there will be no war.  There’s probably no better time to celebrate and feast, because the resurrection is a reminder that we are headed to a banquet.  Christians, like our Lord, are to live from the future. Our communities and individual lives point to what’s coming.”

  1. Eastertide calls us to life that cultivates joy.

I am still amazed at the fact that the women present at the empty tomb that first Easter morning “hurried away…afraid yet filled with joy” (Mt. 28:8).  If we have been Christians for many years, we may have sadly lost any wonderment about Easter, let alone awe or even fear.  The tragedy is that the resurrection has become commonplace for many of us.  And if that is the case, the next thing to be lost is joy.  Many of us carry the self-denial and somber attitude of Lent through Eastertide and every other part of the year, for that matter.

But Easter is a time of celebration!  He is risen!  In the days after his resurrection, we find Jesus repeatedly eating, feasting, and rejoicing (Lk. 24:40-42; Jn. 21:9-13).  As always, but especially in this season of Easter, we have the privilege of doing the same!

Villodas wonders if at the end of history, the question God asks us will not be whether we abstained from sin.  What if the question is “Did you enter into the joy that was available to you?”

That’s the invitation offered us during Eastertide.  Jesus is alive! So let us eat, drink, and indeed be merry!

 

Choosing to Live in Easter

Scott Armstrong

Lent and Holy Week have been pretty important in my life and my spiritual walk through the years.  And there is nothing better than when the fasting and solemnity they bring finally culminates in the massive outburst of joy at Easter.  Christ is risen! There is no better celebration than Easter!

Or at least there should be.

In many cultures, churches see a bump in attendance at Easter and everyone dresses up. The music is lively and high-quality. There are years that even the sun seems to shine brighter on Easter!

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This past Easter did not exactly look like that in the church my wife and I pastor. We serve as missionaries in Dominican Republic and are volunteering as pastors of a small church plant in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo.  We had been talking up our Holy Week services for many weeks, especially Easter.  We had prepped our leadership team for the important day, and the celebration was ready!

Or so we thought.

We arrived early and I had forgotten the keys to the little, concrete building. Normally that’s not a problem. But today the other two laypeople who always get there early to clean and set up were not there.  After a few phone calls and our 15-year old running a couple blocks to get the key, we found ourselves sweeping and wiping off chairs five minutes before the start of service.

Not that there were a bunch of people awkwardly waiting to get in.  Holy Week is vacation week in much of Latin America and half of our congregation was out of town.  When you are a church of 45, that gets noticed easily.  By the time the service started, we were mostly kids and a few sleepy adults.  Jesus is alive! But are we?!

The leader we are training to be the future pastor preached well, but it had more to do with Father’s Day than Easter.  Father’s Day is in two months.

Maybe you are better than me.  Maybe you don’t let any of this stuff get to you. But I found it distracting and disheartening.  What a downer!  This is supposed to be Easter, people!

To be honest, I was in a slumber, and it was of my own doing.  I needed a Resurrection as much as anybody.

We began to read from the passage in Luke.

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb…”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here; he is risen!”

With each familiar phrase, my eyes started to open in wonder to all God was doing in our midst.

The sixth-grade girl I was sharing my Bible with was following along in silent interest. She had not even wanted to read anythingwhen we met her in Sunday School two years ago.

The university student leading worship was doing a tremendous job.  He truly believes what he’s saying and singing!

Hey, that’s the fourth time in a row that José has come; God must really be doing something in his life.

The evidence of life was all around me.  Low attendance? Fidgety little kids? Off-topic message? Who cares?!  Christ busted out of the tomb and that changes everything!

Next week I can guarantee you that there are going to be lots of things that go wrong before, during, and after our services.  But I will choose to live in the reality of Easter.  All that stuff is inconsequential compared to our risen Lord triumphing over death, hell, and the grave!

Will you join me this week? Lent and Holy Week have come and gone.  But Easter remains.  Why would you keep looking for the living among the dead?

Mary Magdalene

By Frederick Buechner

It’s at the end that she comes into focus most clearly. She was one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified—she had more guts than most of them had—and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him in the tomb. But the time that you see her best is on that first Sunday morning after his death.

John is the one who gives the greatest detail, and according to him it was still dark when she went to the tomb to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and that, inside, it was empty. She ran back to wherever the disciples were hiding out to tell them, and Peter and one of the others returned with her to check out her story. They found out that it was true and that there was nothing there except some pieces of cloth the body had been wrapped in. They left then, but Mary stayed on outside the tomb someplace and started to cry. Two angels came and asked her what she was crying about, and she said, “Because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). She wasn’t thinking in terms of anything miraculous, in other words; she was thinking simply that even in death they wouldn’t let him be and somebody had stolen his body.

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Then another person came up to her and asked the same questions. Why was she crying? What was she doing there? She decided it must be somebody in charge, like the gardener maybe, and she said if he was the one who had moved the body somewhere else, would he please tell her where it was so she could go there.

Instead of answering her, he spoke her name—Mary—and then she recognized who he was, and though from that instant forward the whole course of human history was changed in so many profound and complex ways that it’s impossible to imagine how it would have been different otherwise, for Mary Magdalene the only thing that had changed was that, for reasons she was in no state to consider, her old friend and teacher and strong right arm was alive again. “Rabboni!” she shouted and was about to throw her arms around him for sheer joy and astonishment when he stopped her.

Noli me tangere,” he said. “Touch me not. Don’t hold on to me” (John 20:17),thus making her not only the first person in the world to have her heart stop beating for a second to find him alive again when she’d thought he was dead as a doornail, but the first person also to have her heart break a little to realize that he couldn’t be touched anymore, wasn’t there anymore as a hand to hold on to when the going got tough, a shoulder to weep on, because the life in him was no longer a life she could know by touching it, with her here and him there, but a life she could know only by living it: with her here—old tart and retread, old broken-heart and last, best friend—and with him here too, alive inside her life, to raise her up also out of the wreckage of all that was wrecked in her and dead.

In the meanwhile, he had much to do and far to go, he said, and so did she, and the first thing she did was go back to the disciples to report. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, and whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist.

*Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words.

The Cross is Still There

By Scott Armstrong

Along with the rest of the world I watched yesterday as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France went up in flames.  The unspeakable tragedy became clear as its famous spire tumbled to the ground below. Millions of people correctly lamented such a horrendous loss and attempts to raise funds in order to refurbish the cathedral are thankfully bearing fruit, although the overall cost of renovation will be astronomical.

Amidst the wreckage, photos began to show the impact of the fire.  One in particular, by Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer, hit home with many of us.  It shows the altar inside Notre Dame, with smoke still rising from its ruins.  But, as many pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the viewer’s eyes are not drawn at first to the orange-red embers of the ashes. The preeminent symbol rising from the wreckage is a golden cross.  After all the devastation and loss, the cross is still there.

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I am not the first one to write about this symbolism and I will assuredly not be the last. But the fact that this occurs during Holy Week is not lost on many of us.  In a world that proclaims in Europe and elsewhere that Christianity is outdated and nothing more than a fond relic, followers of Christ proclaim this week and always that Jesus’ death on the cross is still effective to change lives. In fact, we proclaim that God is still at work in a burning world.

Or do we?

Every year I call our people to reflect on our Lord’s journey to the cross during Lent. And every year I receive criticism from different leaders and church members.  “Lent is Catholic, not Evangelical!” “We celebrate a risen Lord; stop promoting empty traditions!” I know some of this is cultural according to the countries where I minister, and I don’t want to diminish that.  But I refuse to allow myself or my family to gloss over Good Friday in order to get to Easter.

Thus, especially during Lent, I have preached many times on the subject of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice.  On some occasions, I have had Christians come up to me afterwards and say, “Why do you preach on the cross? The cross is no more; what matters is the empty tomb.” Now I am clearly a proponent of preaching and living the reality of the Resurrection! However, there is no empty tomb without the cross.  There is no crown of glory without first a crown of thorns.

Although focusing on a symbol of ancient capital punishment makes us uncomfortable, the truth remains.  The cross is still there, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul said that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In the midst of rubble, this representation of death declares life to us.  In the midst of destruction, this symbol of scorn and ridicule brings hope.

This week, as we join Jesus in his journey through Gethsemane and Golgotha and then, yes, the Easter garden, perhaps an image from a smoldering Notre Dame could assist us.

Though some say it’s obsolete,

Though others feel awkward talking about it,

The cross is still there.