I’m Not Used to the Cycle of Death and Resurrection Yet

garden pic

Today I’m digging out 40 bulbs of garlic from our garden, a grape vine, and a blackberry bush. The latter two were birthday gifts for my wife 4 years ago.

We’ve been renting this home that we’re preparing to leave, and our landlord changed his mind about the raised bed garden and surrounding plants that I put in. He wants it all removed and reseeded with grass.

I took the phone call about the garden in a crowded café last Saturday, and I nearly broke down in tears at my table. I can’t tell you what that garden has meant for me, what it has done for my life and for my family, and what it symbolizes to me. I want to try to put it all into words someday, but for now I’m just feeling the ache of that loss.

If we want to move on to the next season of our life together as a family, we need to literally dig up the old stuff and leave this place as if we had never been here.

We’ve moved quite a bit since marrying back in 2002 and moving to Philadelphia. In 2005 we moved to Vermont. In 2009 we moved to Connecticut. In 2011 we moved to Ohio. In 2016 we will move to western Kentucky.

We’ve dug up so many things, packed so many boxes, and left so many people behind from each place. Each time I’ve clung to a promise from God that we were doing this living by faith thing, moving on to a place that we knew we needed to go. We trusted that new life could spring up in each new place we settled.

And so today we’re digging up the life we planted at our home in Ohio so that we can move on to the next thing. I’ve had plenty of chances to get used to this process of planting, uprooting, and moving on, the cycle of death that must precede resurrection and new life.

Among the Bible verses that I wish didn’t exist, there’s this one:

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24 NIV

There’s this cycle of life, death, and resurrection that spins on and on in our lives, and each time something comes to an end, I can’t help holding my breath and worrying about the next thing that follows. Will life come out of this loss? What will come next?

Today I’m looking backward at the past provision of God and all of the times that I didn’t think we would make it. As we stepped out in obedience into the great unknown, leaving behind what we knew for certain, we didn’t always find what we were looking for or wanted, but we learned that God was holding us. Isn’t that funny how we want God to hand over what we want, but then we find that God has only wanted us all along? I have pouted and fumed that God’s hands were empty when I reached out to him. Why didn’t God give me what I wanted when I wanted it?

Little did I know that God’s empty hands are there to hold us and to draw us near. When I asked God for the desires of my heart, he showed me that I’m the desire of his heart.

 

Jesus Isn’t Convenient

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Some days I can’t imagine what a pain Jesus must have seemed for his disciples.

Here’s Peter and his co-workers after fishing all night with no return. They’re sorting out their nets and just want to get home.

The sun is starting to blaze in the sky, adding to the misery of having to tell their wives and children that they wouldn’t have a catch of fish to sell. In the midst of this disappointment and hard labor walks Jesus.

He’d like to teach a crowd of people who have been crowding along the shoreline. This is the shoreline where Peter and his co-workers are trying to get their nets sorted out. Commercial fishing doesn’t work great as a spectator sport, but Jesus doesn’t just bring along a growing crowd. Jesus asks a favor of Peter.

Jesus wants to teach the people from Peter’s boat.

We could hardly blame Peter for saying, “Nope, the shop’s closed. Can you give us a little room here to wrap things up?”

While we can’t imagine a reason why Peter would say no because we’re used to Peter playing along in this story, anyone who has worked at demanding physical labor all day can hopefully imagine that lending his boat as a preaching platform was hardly a sure bet. Of course with his boat sitting in the shallows as Jesus teaches, Peter sticks around to hear Jesus teach.

Who knows what Peter’s family is thinking about at this point. Why is he taking so long? Is he safe?

At the end of the talk, Jesus has yet ANOTHER request for Peter. We may imagine Peter trying to pull his boat onto the shore so he can get home.

No so fast.

Jesus wants Peter and his crew to take the boat out AGAIN. They had to haul the boats back out in the light of day, a bad time to fish, after failing so spectacularly just a few hours before.

Let’s not forget that they had just cleaned up and repaired their nets. They would have to do that all over again. We may well imagine Peter’s co-workers nearly staging a mutiny or at the very least grumbling among themselves.

Who does this Jesus guy think he is, anyway?

By the time their nets were filled with fish, they realized that they certainly didn’t know who they were dealing with.

Peter knew enough to tell Jesus to leave. He wasn’t a holy man. He saw his sins stacked up, making a case against him.

Of course all of those sins were of no consequence to Jesus. He wasn’t looking for a perfect group of followers. Peter had the one thing that Jesus needed in a follower.

Peter allowed Jesus to interrupt his life. He made himself available, setting aside his plans and goals. He took a small risk and allowed Jesus to change his plans for the morning.

Jesus had a bigger interruption planned for Peter: a whole new career where he would interrupt others as he too had been interrupted.

On his last day as a fisherman, Peter learned that presence trumps perfection.

Franklin Graham Does Not Understand Holiness

Franklin Graham and his holiness fail.
Image of Franklin Graham from The Christian Post.

In a recent speech, Franklin Graham demanded that pastors in his audience speak out boldly on several moral issues, lest they fall under God’s wrath for being cowards. He said:

“The definition of a coward: a coward will not confront an issue that needs to be confronted due to fear. That is a coward,” said Graham.

“God hates cowards. And the cowards that the Lord is referring to are the men and women who know the truth but refuse to speak it.”

Graham essentially used the fear of God to prompt his audience to overcome their fears of speaking out.

There are many different aspects of Graham’s talk we could challenge, but I’d like to call into question the role of a wrathful God who hates people in prompting people to change their behavior, such as speaking out on specific moral issues. Graham’s right wing agenda aside, is God really in heaven with his finger on the “hell” button, waiting for us to screw up? I know that I’ve lived this way, fearing that one day’s failure had finally cut me off from God.

Most importantly, how does this approach to God’s wrath and holiness compare to the message of Jesus and the New Testament writers about holiness?

A misconception of holiness is at the heart of Graham’s statement. According to Graham, God demands a particular lifestyle, one of moral crusading in American culture, and those unwilling to conform to God’s program receive God’s hatred and an eternity of suffering.

I’ve stated that crassly, but I believe it’s accurate because I also thought that way for most of my life. It’s pretty much what you’ll hear today if you listen to most Christian radio shows.

The only way to avoid God’s wrath in Graham’s system is to change your actions out of fear for self-preservation.

Did Jesus relate to people through fear and the threat of his hatred?

 

How Did Jesus Interact with Sinners?

Jesus said he didn’t come to judge the world. Isn’t that nice to know? Perhaps he knew that his followers would do enough of that in the future.

In fact, Jesus adopted the role of doctor, comparing the “notorious sinners” of his day with the sick. They were still told to leave their lives of sin, but he didn’t walk around telling people to clean up their acts or God would hate them.

In fact, Jesus sat down to share meals with tax collectors and women with unsavory reputations. When Jesus saw someone living in sin, whether that was cowardice, sexual immorality, cheating, or violence, he had… wait for it… compassion.

Rather than Jesus pounding his fist on the table and shouting that his followers needed to shape up, he slapped his palm to his head when they failed to understand the gift of the Spirit that would empower them to serve others rather than rule as kings.

Far from sitting with his finger on the hell button, Jesus rolled up his sleeves and entered into real life with people. He humbled himself, even taking the form of a servant to help us find the way of redemption.

He called his disciples “friends” rather than threatening them with an eternity of suffering.

Before facing the cross, he promised that the Spirit would come to empower us, fill us wisdom, and guide us into all truth. Yes, there are consequences for rejecting the message of Christ. But he related to others through mercy and grace, imparting his Spirit to imperfect people who desperately needed God’s presence in order to pursue holiness.

 

How Do We Live Holy Lives?

Whatever you’re trying to do for the sake of Christ, the most important lesson from the Gospels and epistles is the centrality of the Holy Spirit. You won’t last long by simply trying harder.

Living in fear of an angry God will grow old.

When fear of God gives way to loving God as a father, holiness becomes a natural response.

Graham wants the pastors in his audience to fear God, and he’s hoping that this fear of God will trickle down into their congregations. He wants them to try harder as culture warriors in order to win God’s favor.

Sadly, Graham has adopted a kind of works-based righteousness for the sake of a political agenda.

Graham doesn’t realize that God’s favor already belongs to us. All who are thirsty are called to come and drink. God so loved the world after all…

Before the cross, God had an intense, undying love for us.

In the epistle to the Romans, Paul had God’s mercy rather than his wrath in mind. He also called his readers to be renewed in their minds rather than trying harder:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:1-2, NIV via BibleGateway)

I rarely call out specific Christians in my writing, but Franklin Graham’s approach to holiness is contrary to the message of Jesus. It grieves me to think that pastors who look up to him are receiving a message that fails to consider the mercy of God, the healing Jesus brings, and the power we receive from the Spirit to live in holiness.

Paul wrote that the Spirit of God does not give us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7, BibleGateway). We have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters. God demands holiness. It’s not a free for all, but God’s ways under the Spirit are not rooted in fear and wrath.

God relates to us as a caring and compassionate parent who desires to restore us—end of story.