A Tale of Two Leather Jackets

A Tale of Two Leather Jackets

Several years ago, my wife purchased an authentic black leather biker jacket for me – from a biker leather store in Daytona Beach, no less.  It’s as authentic a “biker” jacket, as any biker jacket can be!  I love it, and I love wearing it!

When I wear it, I feel tougher, and more intimidating.  When I wear it, I feel like a “legitimate” biker.  When I wear it, I feel a little “bad,” in the “good” kind of way.

But, I have another black leather jacket, that makes me feel something completely different.

About five years ago, shortly after buying my bike, I didn’t own a black leather jacket, and desperately wanted one.  If you own a bike, you just have to own one!  But, at that point, I couldn’t afford it.

One day, I stopped at a large garage sale.  It was quickly apparent that a group of adult children were helping their elderly mother “down-size,” by selling loads of the house’s contents.  Among the items for sale, I noticed several racks of men’s clothing, which I immediately assumed might have belonged to a deceased husband/father.  Hanging on the end of the rack was a black leather jacket.  It wasn’t a biker jacket.  But, at that point, I wasn’t picky.

As I tried it on, I noticed an elderly woman, whom I presumed to be the mother/widow, watching me.  I was pretty sure I was trying on her husband’s jacket, and worried that she might not be too happy about it.

But, it fit!  And, they only wanted $20!  I couldn’t not buy it!

As I was paying for the jacket, the woman – the widow of the jacket’s former owner – looked me in the eye, and said, “That jacket was worn by a good man!”  She really emphasized the “good man” part!

I can’t begin to describe the feeling I had in that moment.  I still feel it now.  I wondered, “Am I worthy to wear this jacket?  Am I good enough?”  I didn’t even know this woman, or her deceased husband, but I felt like buying the jacket – AND WEARING IT! – carried an obligation, a duty, a commitment to treat his jacket with the very utmost and highest respect!

No, it was more than that.  Though I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, and that his grieving widow might have been a little biased, in that moment, staring deeply into my eyes, she convinced me that her husband was a saint! “That jacket was worn by a good man!”  Somehow, I knew, and I know, that he really was a good man, and that wearing his jacket carries the expectation I’ll strive to be a good man too.

Though it may sound silly, I feel an obligation to be worthy of that jacket!

To this day, I can’t wear it without seeing that woman’s eyes, and hearing her voice – “That jacket was worn by a good man!” – and knowing that I’ve made a commitment to wear it as well as I can.  Though I never met the man, and I’ll likely never see his widow again (in fact, I doubt she even remembers the moment I’ve described), he’s set a standard of charactwer for me to strive for.  When I wear his jacket, I want to be a good man too.

Someday, when I’m gone, when the jacket passes on to someone else, I hope someone can still say,“That jacket was worn by a good man!”

But, my other black leather biker jacket?  Not so much.  It’s just cool.

Unpredictable paths…

Unpredictable paths…

“History unfolds itself by strange and unpredictable paths. We have little control over the future; and none at all over the past.”  Winston Churchill

This week, I’m visiting Quetzaltenango (commonly known as Xela), Guatemala, speaking to English-speaking Middle and High School students at the Inter-American School’s Spiritual Emphasis Week.  The Inter-American School is a private, Christian-based, English-speaking school.  But, the students (mostly Guatemalan) come from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds.  This week, I get to tell them about Jesus!

The reason I’m this year’s Spiritual Emphasis Week speaker is, my daughter, Malinda (Miss Rains, to her students), is the IAS art teacher.  And, I’ve never been good at saying “no” to my daughter!  Actually, I wouldn’t have said “no,” anyway!

As I was about to speak to the students, this morning, a thought crossed my mind…

“How the heck did I end up here???”

How did a 50-year-old gringo end up telling a bunch of Guatemalan kids about Jesus?

To many who know me, the answer might seem obvious…

  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala.
  • My daughter works and lives in Guatemala, because she went on a mission trip to Guatemala, with her mother and me, when she was in high school.
  • We were on a mission trip to Guatemala, because I’ve been leading mission teams to Guatemala for years.
  • I’ve led mission trips to Guatemala, because I met a missionary, working in Guatemala, in 2007.
  • I met a missionary in Guatemala, because I was a campus minister at Florida State University, looking for a place for my students to serve internationally.
  • I was looking for a place for my students to serve, because I was impacted by a mission trip to Mira Flores, Mexico, when I was 22-years-old.
  • I went on a mission trip to Mexico, because I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, and the trip was already planned.
  • I was (unexpectedly) the new Youth Director, because I had just (VERY UNEXPECTEDLY!) felt like God might be calling me to become a pastor, and the Youth Director position became (unexpectedly) vacant at the same time.
  • Before that, I had recently begun attending FUMC Orlando, AND LOVING IT.  Before that, I had recently graduated from college.  Before that… well, lots of things happened!

Looking backward, of course I ended up here, this week, doing this.  But, if you told me, when I was in school, that some day I’d be visiting my adult daughter, in Guatemala,  telling Guatemalan kids about Jesus, I’d have laughed.  I didn’t know much about Jesus, and I couldn’t have found Guatemala on a map!  My family didn’t go to church, nor did we travel internationally.  I studied German in High School, because I couldn’t imagine ever needing to speak Spanish (even if I never came to Guatemala, living in Florida, Spanish would have been a LOT more useful than German!)

How, on earth, did I end up here, now?

The truth is, even if you’re never invited to speak to kids in Guatemala about Jesus, most of us end up in different places, doing different things than we ever would have imagined.  We set goals.  We make plans.  We have dreams.  But, life usually has unexpected twists and turns, altering the course of our paths in surprising ways.

“We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.”  (Proverbs 16:9)

“The Lord directs the steps of the godly.  He delights in every detail of their lives.  Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the Lord holds them by the hand.”  (Psalm 37:23-24)

“This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is good for you and leads you along the paths you should follow.'”  (Isaiah 48:17)

How did I get here?  It’s God’s fault… or blessing!  I choose to believe the latter.  And, I speaking of choice, I believe our choices also have a lot to do with where we end up.  In fact, I increasingly believe that every choice we make – every step we choose on our journeys (including choices ignorantly chosen) – have a lot to do with what steps will follow.

So, that’s how I ended up, sitting in my daughter’s classroom, this morning, and I’m so thankful!  I never would’ve predicted it, but I’m so thankful for it!  And, I can’t help but wonder what this moment of my journey will lead to next!

So, where are you this morning, what are you doing, and how did you get there?

And, I wonder, what’s next for you?

 

I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

Bikini Bike Washes

Bikini Bike Washes

An attractive young woman, wearing a minimal bikini, is washing motorcycles, while the (male, and not so young) bikes’ owners sit back and stare.  Actually, the oglers outnumber the bikes being washed.  And, I don’t think they are ogling the bikes.

I’m having my motorcycle serviced today, at a dealership, and waiting while the work is done.  It’s a Saturday, and the dealership is as much a biker hangout as a place of business.  A band is playing.  Burgers and beers are free.  There are as many “hanging out,” as there are shopping.  But, I suspect shopping is the hope of the dealership, and the motivation for its generosity.

And, in the midst of the action, a young woman in a bikini is washing dirty old mens’ motorcycles, while they sit back and watch her work.

As a pastor, I know I live in a bubble.  This isn’t my normal world.  There aren’t many bikinis in my world.

And, I’m an advocate for treating women with the dignity and respect they deserve, not as objects to satisfy men’s desires.  Many men aren’t.

But, in light of the recent “Me too,” movement, I’m surprised and saddened.

You might be thinking.  “She chose to do this.  She’s getting paid, and probably tipped!”  I’m sure she did, and I’m sure she is.  I don’t know why she took the job.  But, I doubt it’s because she enjoys washing bikes or being ogled by old men!  I doubt this is the fulfillment of her career-goals.

Maybe she needs the money.  Maybe she doesn’t have many other employment opportunities.  Maybe she believes her beauty is her only asset.  Maybe it’s the only reality she knows.

Part of me wants to offer her a beach towel to cover up, and to tell her, “Yes, you are beautiful.  But, you’re so much more than your physical beauty.  You have a heart.  You have a soul.  You have talents, and abilities.  You have potential.  You have value – and your true value is not your ability to turn men on.  You are a beloved child of God, and you deserve better than this.”

Part of me wants to apologize.

I won’t.  I don’t know her, and I might sound like I’m judging her for her choice.  She doesn’t need that, any more than the ogling.  Maybe that’s cowardly.  I don’t know.  But, I won’t.

So, while I won’t be talking to her, I’m writing this for all of the women and men who might read this.  If you think this is worth sharing, I hope you will.

Ladies – you have inestimable worth, beyond your physical attractiveness.  Men may, or may not, find you physically beautiful.  Men may, or may not, find you sexually desirable.  Men may, or may not, pressure you to comply to their desires, or demands.  Regardless, your body, your beauty, and your sexuality is your own, and you have a right to decide how you use it.  If you want to wear skimpy bikinis and wash men’s motorcycles, fine.  It’s your choice.  But, I doubt you really do.

Your body and your beauty is certainly not all you are.  You deserve to be treated with utmost respect.  You deserve to know your value.

Men – just because there are women who are willing to wash motorcycles in bikinis, or present themselves in other overtly sexual ways, doesn’t mean they want to or enjoy it.  Yes, beauty is appealing and enticing.  Yes, lust is a difficult drive to master.  But, that young woman you’re staring at, is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, and maybe someone’s mother.  She has a heart and a soul.  She has a story.  She has dreams.

And, brothers, we degrade both women and ourselves when we objectify them.  You are more than your lust.  You are more than your animal instincts.  A large part of being a man is the way we view and treat women, and how we practice self-control.

Men, let’s be good men.

Please remember, she’s more than an object.  She’s more than your object.  She a person, just like you.  Treat her with the same respect you would want for mother, sister, wife, daughter, or yourself.  Treat her with respect, even if she doesn’t ask you to.  Treat her with respect, even if she doesn’t know to respect herself.  Treat her with respect, because she deserves it.

 

 

Post-Easter Pondering

Post-Easter Pondering

For the second year, I’ve written daily blog posts for Lent.

I don’t presume to believe I have that much to say, worth sharing publicly.  I could have just journaled daily for Lent.  But, there’s something about the discipline of writing a complete thought, that others might read, and the accountability of public posting, that’s particularly helpful to me.

Like I said, I haven’t presumed anyone would read anything I write.  But, for those who do, I am grateful.  I hope it’s been worth your time and attention.

On this Monday after Easter, I thought it might be useful to reflect on what this Lent has meant to me; specifically, what I’ve learned from the discipline of daily blogging.

Reflection 1:  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Shooting

When I wrote my first post, Two Essential Elements, on Ash Wednesday, I never could have imagined how the events of that day would unfold.  By nightfall, seventeen were dead, seventeen were injured, Nikolas Cruz was in custody, and our entire community was in a state of shock.

We scrambled to change our evening Ash Wednesday service, to provide comfort, care, and prayer in the immediate aftermath, as we have with much of our ministry every since.

Personally, I had no idea how this tragedy would affect me emotionally, spiritually, and theologically, leading to some significant wrestling with God and a difficult search for Truth.  It’s been a difficult journey, as has been evident in some of my blogs.  Though I still have questions, and am still uncomfortable with some of the answers, I’ve been forced to dig deeper than I would have otherwise.

Reflection 2:  Closer Observation and Deeper Reflection

Daily blogging requires a fresh idea, worth putting into words, daily.  Knowing I needed something to write required me to be more observant, and more reflective.  I had to pay closer attention to the details of life, of conversations, of what I was thinking and feeling, and what I was reading and learning.

I can’t help but wonder how much of life I normally miss, simply because I’m not paying attention.

Reflection 3:  A Complete Thought

Reflecting is often open-ended, as were many of my blogs.  But, offering a blog for public viewing requires a higher degree of “completion.”  A particular blog may have started with a question, or a partial thought, or an observation.  But, before I could hit “publish,” I was compelled to complete my thoughts, to the best of my ability.  Though I often end posts with questions, I tried to never leave a reader wondering what I was attempting to say.

Reflection 4:  Everything is Spiritual

Yes, I’m a pastor.  Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about God.  Yes, I spend a lot of time reading spiritual material.  But, beyond that, looking for daily inspiration for blog posts has opened my eyes to spiritual truths in unexpected places.

God is everywhere, in everything.  All we have to do is look.

Reflection 4:  Views, Likes, Comments, and Shares

I’ll confess, I’m a bit obsessed with how people react to my writing.  I’m always curious about what posts attract readers’ attention, and which ones don’t.  I wonder what will create controversy.  I wonder what will be helpful.  I wonder about how much of my self to reveal.

I’m embarrassed to admit, I check my stats a lot.

Vanity.

Some days are more humbling than others.  My least viewed post, Remember Your Baptism?, was only read 29 times.  But, that anyone – even 29 anyones – chooses to ready these posts honors me.

On the other hand, What Broke Him, was read over 3600 times, and shared on Facebook 961 times!

I also realize blogging daily may be overkill.  I don’t read the same writers everyday.  Why would anyone else?  I can’t help but wonder if less is more.

Reflection 5:  Am I Passive Aggressive?

As I’ve been learning about the enneagram (I’m a 9 and The Journey toward greater health and wholeness), I’m learning that 9s (my type), have a tendency towards passive aggression.  The last thing I want to be is passive aggressive.  But, I do, admittedly, avoid conflict, often swallowing and suppressing my hurt and anger.  Perhaps that anger slips out in unconscious ways.

Undeniably, I’ve felt the freedom to be “snarky” in a number of my posts.  Would I be as open and honest in public, or face-to-face?  Honestly, probably not.  Have I use my blogs to be passive aggressive?  Maybe.

This is, very likely, one of my growth areas.

Reflection 6:  TV and Social Media

For several years, I’ve given up TV and Social Media for Lent.  Though my blogs automatically post to Facebook and Twitter, I’ve been “logged out” since Ash Wednesday.  Normally, I give up TV and Social Media, simply to create more space for quiet, reflection, reading, and writing.  And, after Lent, I’m never in a hurry to turn the TV back on, and I’m usually slow to reengage on Social Media.

But, this year, with all of the negative news, especially surrounding the Parkland Tragedy, I was glad to be shielded.  I suspect, in my own inner-turmoil, watching the news or reading ugly posts would not have been good for me.

Reflection 7:  Post-Easter 2018

My personal belief is, whatever we do, or stop doing, for Lent, ought to have some impact on your life when Lent is over.

For example, in 1992, I gave up meat for Lent.  I’m still a vegetarian, 26 years later.

What about this year?

Some have asked if I will continue blogging.  I certainly won’t be blogging daily!  Last year, I blogged sporadically; mostly after major events, or if something was on my mind.  This year, I am going to attempt to write a weekly post, every Monday, and then when I feel led to write anything else.

I also have a stack of books to read – as always.  But, these were books I planned to read for Lent.  The Parkland tragedy, and my inner-turmoil, forced me into some books I hadn’t planned to read.  So, my Lent stack is still mostly unread, now becoming my Easter reading, instead.

Reflection 8:  Grateful and Curious

If you are reading this, or any of my previous posts, “thank you.”  I’m honored and grateful you take the time to read what I write.  I’m grateful when you respond.  I’m grateful when you share my writings with others.

And, I’m curious.  Is there anything you would like for me to write about in the future?  Any topic?  Any issue?  Any ideas?

I’m very open to your input, questions, suggestions and requests.

Thank you again for reading my posts.  Have a blessed 50 days of Easter!

 

Hypocrisy and mourning

Hypocrisy and mourning

The Bible doesn’t say much about the Saturday between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Luke 23:56 says, “But (Jesus’ followers) rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

John and Mark don’t mention anything about Saturday, at all.

But, Matthew 27:62-66 says, The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.  ‘Sir,’ they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’  So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.  ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’  So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

Notice the difference?

On the Sabbath day, between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the followers of Jesus rested – as is the intent of the Sabbath – while the priests and Pharisees were hard at work, sealing the tomb of a dead man.

Work on the Sabbath, violates the Fourth Commandment.

Obviously, Jesus’ followers were exhausted, brokenhearted, mourning, and possibly afraid to be seen in public.  Their Sabbath, wasn’t a joyful one.  But, the contrast between the two groups is stark.  In spite of successfully defeating Jesus (or, so they thought), the priests and Pharisees were still “working” against him on the Sabbath.

“But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'” (Isaiah 57:20-21)

Which makes me wonder.  When Jesus and the disciples observed the Passover, the night before the crucifixion, did the priests and Pharisees?  Or, were they too busy for the Passover, plotting, planning and preparing for Jesus’ arrest?  Even if they took the time to eat the Passover meal, were they paying attention to the story?  Or, did they gobble it down in haste, mumbling the prayers, and then on to carrying out their evil mission?

Not observing the Passover, violates one of Israel’s most holy days.

No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.

The literal definition of a hypocrite is someone who lives behind a mask.  They present an appearance that does not match the true intention.  Thus Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed” tombs – clean on the outside, but full of death.

The experts in the Law, broke the Law.  But, the ones considered law breakers, by following Jesus, were actually much closer to the heart and spirit of the Law, even in their grief.

Then, on Easter morning, when the tomb was miraculously opened, “When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’  So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”  (Matthew 28:12-15)

Lies, and more lies.  Isn’t there a commandment about that, too?

But, in spite of their lying, and bribing, and scheming; in spite of their very best efforts to supress the Truth; in spite of having an innocent man put to death; even sacrificing their own Laws and customs as they did it; there was nothing the priests and Pharisees could do to thwart Jesus’ mission.

They killed him.  That was Jesus’ plan.

They violated the Passover.  Jesus was the Passover.

They lied.  Jesus is the Truth.

They tried to seal a dead body in a tomb.  The grave couldn’t hold him down.

They worked on the Sabbath.  So did God, defeating death and raising the son.

They thought they’d won.  The victory belongs to Jesus.

And, while all of this was happening – the Pharisees scurrying and Jesus’ followers mourning – Jesus lay in his grave.  Dead.  Wrapped in strips of linen, laid on a cold, hard slab of rock.  Hidden, in the dark, behind a large stone.  Even in his death, the Pharisees felt threatened.

Imagine – just imagine – if any of them knew what was about to happen.

 

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”  When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.  But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.  (Luke 23:44-49)

Jesus died in the dark.  In the middle of day, when the sun was supposed to shine, from noon to three, a deep darkness shrouded the whole land.  The sun wouldn’t shine.

Just as, “In the beginning,” when the earth was a dark, formless, chaotic mass, before God said, “Let there be light,” as Jesus hung on the cross, the earth was plunged, once again, into chaotic darkness.  Which is strange, because Jesus came to be a light in the darkness.  At Christmas, we read…

  • The people walking in darknesshave seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)
  • The light shines in the darkness,and the darkness has not overcome” (John 1:5)

Yet, that Friday, it seemed darkness had overcome the light, overwhelmed the light, snuffed out the light.  The light of the world – the innocent, sinless, Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world – was crucified by evil men.

They’d conspired.  They’d told lies.  They’d taken advantage of the weakness and greed of one of Jesus’ own trusted inner circle.  And, now, the miracle worker and so called, “King of the Jews,” was defeated.  Darkness won, or so it appeared.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            We often, rightly, associate darkness with evil.  Evil deeds are done under the cover of darkness.  But the darkness on Good Friday was NOT the darkness of evil.  Though dark deeds were done, this darkness was something else.

What was this darkness?  This was the darkness of the Father’s grief, watching his beloved son suffer and die.  This was the darkness piercing the heart of God, as the Holy Trinity experienced the separation and death of the Son.  This was creation reacting to the evil done to its creator.  The sun, itself, refused to shine on this dark day.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            Lent, and especially Holy Week, is a darker season of the Christian year.  During Lent, reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, and his sacrificial death for our sins.  Lent is for repentance, confession, self-denial, and self-examination.   Compared to Christmas and Easter, Lent is meant to be darker.

But, this particular Lent, here in Coral Springs and Parkland, has been much, much darker than usual.  Some have referred to the February 14 tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School as the “Valentine’s Day” tragedy.  It was also Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent.  Some will always associate the Stoneman Douglas tragedy with future Valentine’s Days.  Not me.  I’ll always remember it on Ash Wednesdays.  For me, Ash Wednesdays will never be the same.

That Ash Wednesday night, as we gathered in the immediate aftermath, we marked our foreheads with ashes, in the form of a cross, as a reminder of our sin, mortality, and absolute dependence on God.  “From ashes you have come.  To ashes you will return.”  But, that night, as the dead were still lying where they’d fallen, as the injured were being treated, and many parents were still separated from their children, and as the names of some of the dead had not yet been announced, the cross-shaped ashes we wore also represented our terrible grief and lament.

For the families and friends of the seventeen who died, for the families and friends of the seventeen who were injured, and for our whole community, these forty days of Lent have been undeniably dark.  Darkness has covered the land, here, too.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining… Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            As Jesus hung on the cross, in the darkness, he was bearing on his shoulders the darkness of sin, and the brokenness and evil of the entire history of this world.  In some way, defying comprehension, Jesus’ death, even includes the darkness of our own recent and the dark and difficult days that have followed, here, for us.

If Scripture teaches us anything, it’s that God is with us when darkness crashes over us.

Martin Luther King preached, “We must also remember that God does not forget his children who are victims of evil forces…  When the lamp of hope flickers and candle of faith runs low, he restoreth our souls, giving us renewed vigor to carry on.  He is with us not only in the noontime of fulfillment but also in the midnight of despair.”

And, in his final moments Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last. 

            At last, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, his ordeal was over.  The Son of God was dead.  For the moment, darkness defeated the light.

There is a phrase used at many funeral and memorial services, that says something like, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant…” adopted from the final words on Jesus’ lips.  I didn’t attend the funerals of the seventeen who died, but I’m certain some version of that phrase was said – pastors, priests, and rabbis committing the souls of the innocent to our heavenly Father, just as Jesus offered his.

            “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Undeniably, Jesus’ ordeal was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long, sleepless night– full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; the abuse and mockery of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds shouting, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, nearly killing him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders already flayed by the soldier’s whip.  All before he was nailed to the cross.

When he came to Golgotha, long nails were driven through his hands and feet, affixing him to the cross.  And, then his cross was raised, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he suffered unspeakable agony, as life slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung on his cross, his disciples abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As darkness covered the land, he may have wondered if God abandoned him too.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to be at peace.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            As Jesus died, he was in control.  The casualty of terrible human cruelty, yet Jesus was no victim.  Dying in the darkness, yet nothing could extinguish his light.  Dying because he chose to give his life for us, sacrificially.  Satisfied, that he accomplished what he came to do.

John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

            And, Jesus said these words in a “loud voice” – not an embarrassed whisper, or pathetic whimper, or mumbled in weakness.  He wasn’t a scared child, calling out in the dark.  In his strongest voice, Jesus proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; spoken in strength and confidence in the one who would receive his Spirit.  Even as his physical strength faded, his faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, HE KNEW he could entrust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, into the faithful hands of his Heavenly Father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Most images of Jesus on the cross, depict him with head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the majority of the time Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold up his head.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him, as he hung in the darkness.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

In the darkness of Good Friday, his eyes were focused and clear.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            I wonder when the sun shined again.  Did the sun return that day, after Jesus was taken down from his cross, or did the darkness remain, as afternoon passed into the night?  Was it dark, when they laid Jesus in his tomb?  Did the sun rise with the dawn on Saturday morning, or did dark clouds linger that day too?  Whether the sun literally shined, or not, until the empty tomb was discovered on Easter morning, while Jesus lay dead in his grave, the world was dark a place.

But, Easter morning, the darkness lifted.

Dr. Martin Luther King also said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Great Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

For a dark moment in history, darkness appeared to win.  And, undeniably, for some, the darkness of this year’s Ash Wednesday will never pass, not in this life.  The darkness of grief will always be with them, in this life.  And, that is tragic.  This life, this world, as we know, can be filled with terrible darkness.

But, light has overcome the dark.  Death was confronted in the darkness, and was defeated.  We may endure too many dark Good Fridays, in this life.  But, the dawn of Easter is coming.