Ashes

Last night I went to church and had ashes painted on my hand.

It’s tradition in some churches on Ash Wednesday to have ashes placed on the forehead or back of the hand. It’s a sign of repentance hearkening back to the sackcloth and ashes described in the Old Testament. And it’s a symbolic start to the Lenten season of personal reflection.

In the past I have had ashes placed on my forehead. Less humble, perhaps, but – I quickly realized – also less messy. As careful as I tried to be with my marked hand, it was not long before ashes made their way to the sleeve of my shirt, my jacket, my pants, the grocery store aisle, my dog’s head, my own head, my shoes… And even when it came time to wash my hands, the ashes bled and smudged and stained. Still today there is a faint cross-shaped shadow on the back of my hand.

Every time I look at that smudge, I am reminded. I am reminded of the less-physical but equally dark stains in my life. I am reminded how sin spreads so easily and so quickly, like ashes trailing from my hand. Some days it seems everything I touch turns dark. Some days nothing I say is right. Some days everything seems to be falling apart – flaking into smaller and smaller dark smudges.

But I am also reminded of another hand. A hand that is stained not with ashes, but with blood. And how this hand, too, leaves traces. Not of darkness. Not of ashes. But of life-giving blood.

For all the ashes I leave in my wake, there is Someone who comes along and deposits something else. Peace. Hope. Love. The blood of Jesus cleanses in a way that water on my physical ashes never could. The red hand of Jesus covers the black hand of me. And in His wounds, I am healed.

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

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Debt Free

I recently paid off my student loans. With submission of that last payment, I was – for the first time in (too many) years – debt free. You might think this would result in feelings of relief, elation, excitement, happiness…

You’d be wrong.

Instead I was plagued by sporadic moments of irrational panic. The moments were brought on by thoughts like these:

What if it’s not really paid off? What if I made the final check out for the wrong amount? What if, when I consolidated 8 years ago, they missed one of my loans and that loan has been sitting out there accruing interest for all these years? What if there is some other debt I forgot about?

These thoughts were quickly followed by others.

What if I suddenly have a major medical expense that plunges me into debt again? What if something catastrophic happens that forces me into a loan I can never repay? What if, just when I reach this major milestone, something happens and I am never debt free again?

And then it dawned on me.

In this life we have debts we can never repay. They may be financial. They may be physical or emotional. They may be spiritual. I am in debt to friends. I am in debt to strangers. I am debt to the gentleman who stepped out of his way last week to hold the door for me.

But most of all, I am in debt to God.

God has loaned me this life. All of it. The good, the bad, the everything in between. He has rained down blessings. He has walked with me through struggles. He has pushed me to grow. My life is a loan I can never repay. At some point, because I have no choice, this loan will run out. I cannot buy it. I cannot extend it. I cannot even ask to have the terms and conditions adjusted. When the loan is up, I will leave this life behind.

That’s a pretty big debt. But it’s not even the biggest one. Because in addition to this loan, God also has offered me a gift. He has invited me, when I leave this life behind, to go instead and stay with Him. He has offered to pay off the debts of this life. The emotional debts, the physical debts, and most of all, the spiritual debts.

If we compiled all the money in the world, it would not be enough to purchase passage for even one person into God’s house. Or, if we all worked our entire lives, trying to pay off such a debt, it would still not be enough. And yet, God has invited each one of us to join Him, free of charge. It is not a loan. It is a gift.

God sent His Son Jesus to show us our way home. God sent His Son Jesus to remove the great burden of debt under which each one of us would otherwise live. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Romans 3:23-25).

I thank God for the reminders in this life of what it means to carry a debt. I pray that He guides me toward good stewardship of all that He has given me. And then I thank God that even when I am under the burdens of this world, it is through His gift that I come to understand what it truly means to be living debt free.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).

Shepherds

Some of the most interesting questions are raised during Bible study. Like this one, that came about while reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth: And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them… And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11).

“Why,” the question was raised, “did the angels visit shepherds?”

Why not kings? Why not the village watchmen? Why not dispatch angels to every corner of the earth with this astounding news?

Isn’t it interesting that apart from angelic visits to Jesus’ earthly parents, the only recorded angelic herald surrounding Jesus’ birth was to shepherds?

Think about that.

The first recorded use of sheep as a sacrificial offering dates all the way back to Cain and Abel. Abel was a keeper of sheep…and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering (Genesis 4:2,4). Sheep were also likely part of Noah’s offering after the flood (Genesis 8:20), and when God tested Abraham during the binding of Isaac, it was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, that God gave to Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son (Genesis 22:13).

Generations later, God’s law dictated the use of sheep as burnt offerings (Leviticus 1:10-13), peace offerings (Leviticus 3:6-11), sin offerings (Leviticus 4:27-35; 5:1-6), and guilt offerings (Leviticus 5:14-19; 6-1-7). And it was lamb that served as the first Passover feast on the night the Israelites fled from Egypt. Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire…you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt…The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you… (Exodus 12:6-13).

It was the commemoration of this very Passover feast that Jesus celebrated with His disciples on the night before He was crucified. During that meal, Jesus set before all people a new covenant. No more would continual sacrifices be necessary to abide by God’s law; all of God’s law was being fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

The next day, Jesus would sacrifice Himself on a cross and then rise again three days later, defeating once and for all the sin, death, and devil that plague this world.

So why, on the night of Jesus’ birth, was His entry into the world heralded to shepherds? Perhaps it was to let them know that some of their services would no longer be needed. And to introduce them to a Lamb more perfect than any they would ever find within an earthly flock.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29). For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Clean T-Shirt

There are some who do not understand the appeal of camping.  “How is that a vacation?”  They want to know.  Cooking in primitive conditions, swatting mosquitos, trudging through the elements… “Doesn’t sound like a vacation to me,” they say.

Their logic is hard to argue, but I just can’t help it.  I love to camp.  I love everything about it.  I love walking someplace to lug back drinking water.  I love the first rays of sun after a cold and rainy night.  I love wielding an axe to split wood, and cooking over a fire, and… well, I don’t exactly love washing dishes, but somehow even that seems more fun when I’m doing it under a giant pine tree.

Most of all, I love how camping causes me to appreciate things I normally take for granted.  Like clean, dry clothes.  Or, as the week wears on, moderately clean and only slightly damp clothes.  On that fateful day when I reach into my duffel bag and extract my very last clean t-shirt, I experience something akin to euphoria.  If you are not a camper, it may be hard to appreciate the joy of holding something in your hand that actually smells like soap.  No other day of the year do I appreciate clean clothes as much as in that moment.

But that is just the beginning.  Days later, when dirty clothes have started evolving into their own ecosystem, an even greater miracle occurs.  The Laundromat.

The Bible tells us that God’s mercies are new every day (Lamentations 3:22-23).  Anyone who ever doubts this needs only to witness the miracle of week old hiking socks emerging fresh and warm from a laundromat dryer.   The sight is enough to renew both my soul and my soles.  Indeed, nothing puts a spring back into my tattered hiking boots like a pair of fuzzy clean socks.  The joys of camping are so… simple.

Unfortunately, most of my days are not as simple as the ones I enjoy while camping in the mountains.  Back amongst the “real world” I quickly forget the miracle of a clean t-shirt and fuzzy socks.  The “dirty laundry” I accumulate is even more harrowing than a sack full of dirty socks.  I get tired and grouchy.  I fail to stay in touch with friends.  I speak carelessly; I act selfishly.  I try, and fail miserably, to follow Christ’s example.

This is why I camp.  Because I need those reminders.  I need just one clean t-shirt in a bag of increasingly dirty clothes.  I need the rejuvenation of my well-worn hiking socks.  I need the reminder that God’s simple, everyday mercies should not be taken for granted.  And most of all, I need the reminder that no matter how busy and messy and downright stinky my days may be, God’s mercies will be new in the morning.

God is more powerful than any laundry detergent; He can refresh far more than just my dirty laundry.  He sent His Son so that even my sins may be washed away.  “Purge me with hyssop,” the psalmist cried, “and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).

This, truly, is the greatest mercy which God offers to us anew every morning: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Every day, even amidst the crazy, stress-filled ones, God gives us the opportunity to return to Him.  To be washed by Him.  To be renewed by Him.  To be strengthened by Him.  It is an open invitation He extends to every one of us, new every morning.  A fresh, clean, new life… starting now.

And here I thought a clean t-shirt was cool.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-24).

Do It

I am a total Harry Potter fan.  I have read every book (multiple times) and frequently find myself pondering one brilliantly penned scene or another.  Recently, I found myself contemplating the complexity of a scene at the end of book three.  A swarm of dementors are descending upon Harry and his friends, ready to deliver the “dementor’s kiss” – an act where the dementors suck the very soul out of their victim.  Suddenly, a lone figure from across the lake fires his wand and scatters the dementors.  In the glow of the firing wand, Harry sees the face of their rescuer, and thinks it is his dead father.  As impossible as he knows that is, he cannot shake what he saw.  It looked like his dad.

The story progresses in that wonderful J. K. Rowling manner, and a couple of chapters later we find Harry travelled back in time and watching these same events unfold from the other side of the lake.  He is now only steps away from where their rescuer had appeared, and he still cannot shake the thought that it was his dad.  Despite the dangers of being seen in his back-in-time state, he creeps forward to look.  He watches from his hiding spot as the dementors swarm upon his earlier self across the lake.  Any second their rescuer will appear.  He knows it will happen because it has already happened.  But where is he?

Harry watches as the light across the lake flickers and fades.  Still, no one appears to rescue them.  The dementors are leaning in, Harry and his friends have completely succumbed, they are seconds away from receiving the dementor’s kiss…

And suddenly Harry realizes: it was him that rescued their earlier selves!  It was him he saw from across the lake and thought it was his father.  And leaping to his feet, he draws his wand and shoots the powerful rays that scatter the dementors.  All along he had been waiting, but it was him that had to do it.

Have you ever watched as something needing to be done sat untended?  Or waited for someone who never showed?  Did it ever occur to you that it was you who was being called to act?

Maybe we don’t have to fend off dementors, but there are certainly times when it feels like it.  There are times when we would really like someone else to come along and rescue us. But we can learn something from this fantasy tale.  Even at the point when the dementors were descending, Harry was also standing safe across the lake.  Even as he saw the light flicker, he knew their rescuer would come to save them, because their rescuer already had. 

So, too, are we already saved.    Maybe we can’t travel back in time to save ourselves, but there is Someone else who can.  And already has. Our God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross and thus pay in full the debt of our sin.  Because of Jesus, we can be assured of our safety.  Even when we are crushed under the weight of the world, we know that in the end we will be saved.  Our job in the meantime is to get through it.  Our job is to do the task at hand.

The Bible tells us that God has prepared in advance good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).  Sometimes this is carefree acts of every day life.  Sometimes this is lonely acts of desperation.  We may not always know what work is at hand, but God does.  And he will place us in the exact right place at the exact right time, ready for us to act.  Jesus has already done the saving, but when it is time for the wand to be fired, you will be there, assured of your safety, wand in hand.  You just need to recognize, when there is no one else showing up, that it is up to you to do it.

 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might… (Ecclesiastes 9:10)