Easy

Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy?

That’s what it said on the back of the cereal box. It said some other things too, but my eyes stopped right there.

Wouldn’t it be great? Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy?

I used my pocket knife to cut around the words, and then, to save the coupon printed on the inside of the box, I peeled it. Or at least I tried to until someone with fingers more dexterous than mine took it from me and stripped it like a piece of tape. The irony was not lost on me. It was hard just cutting those simple words out.

So maybe the real lesson was something more like this: sometimes the things most worth doing are the hard things.

That seems like something my father would say. Succinctly and tossed out light as a fishing line to reel in years later. It sounds like something my heavenly Father would say, too. “Those hard things, pay attention. They are teaching you something.”

Like forgiveness being born out of hard relationships. Like humility being born from hard struggles. Like perseverance being born out of fear.

Think about it: When we have choices and no clear answer we learn patience. When we have too much to do and not enough time we learn acceptance. When we have to say good-bye we learn to keep going. When we are at the end of ourselves, we are most likely to look out and see God.

I think of Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt. (Hard.) Or Moses, trembling before Pharoah. (Hard.) Or Jonah, sent in no uncertain terms back to Ninevah. (Hard.) How about Noah building an ark, or Abraham walking away from his home, or Ruth following her mother-in-law into an uncertain future? (Hard, hard, hard.)

What do you think about Jesus’ disciples? Do you think they had it easy? Have you ever really thought about what it would be like to follow the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head? Amazing, yes. Easy? Doubtful.

And isn’t that the path we are also called to? Oh, we are in a different time and a different place to be sure. But God is calling each one of us to be remade in the image of Christ. That doesn’t sound easy to me. It sounds like there are a whole lot of hard things I need to learn. And relearn. And relearn again.

Maybe the reality is like that song I heard while driving home the other day: the trials of this life may in fact be God’s blessings in disguise. Jesus said that His yoke is easy and his burden is light, but He also said the way is hard that leads to life. The truly easy path may in fact be the one that looks the most challenging right now. After all, Noah got to his rainbow only after going through the storm.

Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy? Yes. But sometimes what we want and what we need are two very different things.

Sometimes we get to the easy only by going through the hard.

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few… Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 7:13, 11:29-30).

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Some Doubted

I was reading the other day from Matthew 28, after Jesus’ resurrection:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

Some doubted.

I love how bluntly that is stated. One might think that having been an eye witness to Jesus’ resurrection would be enough to dispel doubt. Here are Jesus’ closest friends. They travelled with Him for three years. They witnessed His miracles. They performed miracles themselves under His direction. At the end, they saw Him captured and put to death; some of them saw where His body was laid in the tomb. And now they were physically in the presence of His living, post-resurrection being. They could see him. But some still doubted.

Even in the very presence of the newly resurrected Jesus, some doubted. If that is true for some of Jesus’ closest friends, then how do we stand against doubt?

We might think, God if you could just…. then that would be enough. But I see Jesus shaking His head the same way I see Him shaking his head at Philip who said, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough for us” (John 14:8). Evidence can support faith, but it cannot eliminate doubt. And that, my friends, is where this gets interesting. Read carefully:

When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:7).

If I knew Greek I’d do a word study on this line, but even across several English translations the same picture emerges: The eleven disciples climbed the hill. They saw Jesus, and they worshiped Him.

It doesn’t say that some of them worshiped and some of them doubted. It says “they worshiped him.” Only then does it add that some doubted.

Doubt did not preclude worship.

Think about that. We can worship, even when we doubt.

The passage continues with Jesus coming and speaking to them. Not to “some of them.” Not to the ones who did not doubt, but to “them.” Inclusive.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” He instructed them.

All of them. Even those who doubted.

Satan would love for us to think that doubt is a stumbling block. He wants doubt to reduce our worship, sever our Christian relationships, and prevent us from telling others about God. But I do not see doubt as a stumbling block when I read God’s word. Instead, I see Jesus, coming to me, His follower who doubts. And He is saying: Come, worship me. Then go, tell others about me.

This is what I find so amazing about these simple lines:

Yes, some doubted.

So what?

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-19).

There Are No Losers Here

I have a tragic flaw.

Okay, so I have more than one, but this is the one I’m going to tell you about today. I love sports, but sports do not love me.

(Sigh.)

I’ve tried softball, but I tend to duck and cover when the ball comes my way. I’ve tried flag football, but I cannot catch a football to save my life. In middle school, I played basketball.  I loved basketball. Sometimes I even did something amazing, like make a basket. But in three years of playing, my team never won a single game. Not one.

I was thinking of this a few weeks ago as I was running past the tennis courts. (In case you’re curious, I took tennis lessons for two summers and still can’t hit the ball.) As I jogged past watching the players, I had the audacity to think: maybe running is my sport!

Keep in mind that even as I had this thought, I was wheezing and gasping near the back of the pack. Hope does not disappoint, Paul says (Romans 5:5).

And here’s the hopeful thing about running.  Running is the only sport where every person at the starting line could win. I don’t just mean everyone has the potential to win.  I mean everyone can actually win.  Simultaneously.

I realize only one person crosses the finish line first. And when the summer Olympics roll around there will only be one gold and one silver and one bronze. But the very heart and soul of running is not about besting the other guy; it’s about besting yourself. Running is about stretching, growing, pushing, improving. It’s about hitting that next personal record. Every other sport has a winner and a loser.  In other sports, even in the friendliest just-for-fun matches, one team can win only if the other team loses.

Not so with running.

One of the unexpected things I love about running with a group is the opportunity to cheer each other on. We each have different goals, but every week we all start out, and every week we all cross the finish line. It doesn’t matter who crosses first or second or last. Every week we are improving . We laugh in amazement, “I remember when I couldn’t even…”

There are no losers here.

Perhaps Paul knew what he was doing when he compared faith to running a race. After all, Jesus Christ came so that whoever believes in Him  – not just the ones who believe first or strongest or best, but whoever believes! – might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

 God wants all of us to win the faith race. This does not mean it is easy. Paul even says, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it (1 Corinthians 9:24). In other words, every one of us should train as though we are going for the gold, even though our true goal is far more valuable than that. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (1 Corinthians 9:25).

In this race we are running, we all have obstacles to overcome. Each of our races may be different, but the Bible tells us how we are to face them.  We are to run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1).  We are to run looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). And just like with my running group, we are to consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another… (Hebrews 10:24-25).

In this competitive world, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking someone else must lose in order for us to win. If we stop to think about it, we will suddenly realize we are actually all on the same team. The route ahead may look hard, but with Jesus as our Coach and God’s Word as our training manual, we can run our race knowing that every one of us will make it across that finish line.

High fives all around, my friends. And let’s keep running.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Today’s Quote

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” ~Edward Abbey

Who among us would choose difficult over easy?  And yet sometimes, isn’t that the point?

And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance;  and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint… (Romans 5:3-5)

An Epilogue to the Soup Story

Later that night, after the great soup escapade, I was sharing my story with a friend. “You know how my church has these Lenten suppers,” I began.

“Uh-huh.”

“And each week two people volunteer to bring soup.”

“Oh no,” she interjected. “You didn’t volunteer to take soup did you?” (Ah, she knows me so well.)

“Well… I really thought it was going to work this year.”

“Please tell me you followed a recipe,” she said.

Silence.

“Why?” She cried. “Why do you keep doing this to these nice people? I thought you liked these people.”

“I do!” I said.

“Then stop subjecting them to your cooking! Just stop volunteering. Believe me, they will understand.”

“But I want to volunteer,” I said. “I’m determined that one of these times I’m going to make something good.”

“Then follow a recipe! That’s what recipes are for!”

“Yeah,” I said, not convincingly.

“Or at least try making it ahead of time so you know it actually works.”

“Yeah,” I repeated. Meaning: not likely.

“Look,” she said. “That’s three good options for you. Stop volunteering, follow a recipe, or make it ahead of time.”

“I’m trying to figure out what to do with the leftovers,” I said, changing the subject.

“Really. You’re wondering what to do with the leftovers?”

“I’m not going to throw it out! I’ll doctor it up somehow to get it edible.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said. Meaning: just so long as you don’t feed it to me.

The next day I had a soup recipe in my inbox. Of course, I haven’t actually looked at it yet. But I may. I am determined that next year I will get it right. Last year my soup was flavorless, but soup-like. This year my soup actually had flavor, it just happened to be the consistency of slime. So if I can just combine this year’s flavor with last year’s texture…

Of course, the alternative is that I could wind up with the negative combination of flavorless slime, but we won’t talk about that.

Maybe I should look at a recipe.

Stay tuned for next year’s blog post on how I redeemed myself with the most delicious soup ever. Or else on the foolishness of stubbornly trying to redeem oneself in one’s own way. We know, after all, that we are saved not by the works of our own hands, but by faith in the One who redeems us. We, like sheep (or stubborn recipe-less cooks) have gone astray. Fortunately for me, even when I stubbornly fail and fail again, God patiently gives grace not only to me, but to those who endure my cooking as well.

For now, I’m just glad that someone else is bringing the soup tonight.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

I Love Winter

No, I’m not being facetious.

After this winter, I won’t be sorry to see spring come (although I’m beginning to suspect that spring this year means small flocks of robins chirping happily in the midst of a light snow shower. I’ve never heard birdsong in the midst of a snow storm before this morning, have you?)

But let’s face it, for anyone who loves winter, this was a year to remember. And I am one of those rare (crazy?) individuals who love it.  I love walking outside into air that makes my face hurt. I love when little vapor clouds completely shroud my vision. Some days I even love the quiet that comes with early darkness, trudging along next to the glow of my dog’s red-lighted collar. (I do not love spending 30 minutes chipping ridiculously hard frost off my windshield every morning, but really, that is a small price to pay.)

Of course, if it’s going to be cold, I want snow. And this year we had plenty of that too. Our first major snow storm hit in December and I didn’t see bare ground again until March – very unusual for this part of the country.  It was so cold one week that snow I tracked into my car stayed there, unmelted, for 4 days, even though I was driving with the heat on.

That’s just cool.

There was one very important observation I made this year, however. And it’s this:

Clothing matters.

Now this may seem like an obvious observation, but in practice, it’s not so easy.  It’s very tempting to run the garbage out with just a hastily thrown on coat.  Or to take a quick walk with the dog without taking the time to put on a complete second layer. But on those really cold days, it didn’t matter if it was just a short jaunt outside, I needed boots, ski pants, jacket, hat (and hood if the wind was really whipping), scarf, gloves… in other words, I needed to be prepared for what I was getting into.  And when I prepared properly, I could spend hours in the snow outside – even the coldest temperatures felt like any other day.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we’ve been told before about the importance of dressing properly.  “Put on the full armor of God,” Paul admonished “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…” (Ephesians 6:13)

It’s not enough to run out the door just as we are. We need to put forth the time and the effort to prepare for whatever storm outside – physical or spiritual – awaits us. It may be tempting to run out quickly, but just as severe winter storms can be deadly for the unprepared, so too can life’s storms sweep over us unexpectedly.

Do not wait until you are in life’s gale to reach for your armor.  Take the time now – everyday – to sharpen your sword in God’s word, to strengthen the shield of your faith, and to envelope yourself in the protection of God’s truth, righteousness, peace, and salvation. Yes, it takes time to layer on those winter clothes, and yes, it takes time to develop your spiritual armor. But when we are properly attired, even the worst storms will leave us still standing safe and secure.

Stand firm, then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:14-17).

Lenten Winter

 

Lenten Winter Spring

Yes, I know.  We did get a few more inches of snow last night. But it’s a spring snow.  It’s light and fluffy – not your typical slushy spring snow, I’ll admit – but it’s quiet as cotton to walk on. Gone is the winter crunch I love so much.  I don’t expect to hear it again this year.

Already long stretches of pavement are exposed where the snow has melted off.  I can touch my dog’s collar bare-handed and my fingers don’t stick to the metal buckle.  The snow still catches against her muzzle when she shoves it, snorting happily, into the drifts.  But frost no longer coats her eyelashes.  Her breath no longer spouts a smoky halo as she runs.  Icicles no longer drip from in her whiskers.

My face still flushes with cold.  I still wear a windbreaker and a heavy fleece and my winter boots.  The wind is strong and from the north, but the sting is gone.  Winter may deliver another cold snap, but deep down I know, even as I walk through freshly fallen snow, that winter is over.

Victory belongs to spring.

It doesn’t matter, now, what else winter tries.  Time is on spring’s side.  The days are getting longer.  Yesterday I saw robins in the bushes and tree buds pregnant with expectancy. New life is there, even today, sitting quietly in the snow. It will come.  It always does. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay (Habakkuk 2:3).

We enter this week into the season of Lent.  Much like winter, Lent is a season of preparation and remembrance.  We anticipate the new life – our new life – that is celebrated on Easter Sunday. But first, we need to prepare.

Liturgically, Christmas and Easter are only separated by a few months.  But historically, these two events were separated by several decades.  Lent reminds us that Jesus grew up human, like us.  He felt anger (John 2:13-17). He felt sadness (John 11:35). He felt compassion (Mark 6:34).  He was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11).  He was afraid (Luke 22:41-44).  You might say that Jesus went through a winter unlike anything you or I will ever have to experience.

Lent also offers us an opportunity to reflect on our own winter struggles. Who among us has never walked in some fashion through our own valley of the shadow of death? Lent allows us to stare darkness in the face and say, “Time is on our side!”  It doesn’t matter, now, what else the darkness throws our way.  The days are getting longer. The victory has already been won.

Once and for all, Jesus nailed sin to the tree.  He took it with Him to the grave, and He left it there when He came back. Jesus carried our sins as far away from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). This doesn’t mean we never sin; we live in a world still choked with sin.  It also doesn’t mean we never feel pain, or sorrow, or fear. Even Jesus himself felt those things. What it does mean is that none of those things will matter in the end. Or perhaps more accurately, those things are what make the ending matter even more.

Sometimes life is a bit like tromping through spring snow.  It’s cold, it’s dark, and the wind is hard and from the north. But do not let appearances deceive you.  Deep down, we can know that victory belongs not to darkness, but to light; not to winter, but to spring.

Lent reminds us that even the darkest winter will not last forever.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “Oh death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).