One year at summer camp, the theme was “take up your cross and follow me.” Cabins full of boys took turns carrying around a heavy, 10-foot cross wherever they went. Lugging it around was a challenge and it was fun.
As an adult looking back, the concept itself and the fun we had doing it makes me cringe. But what does Jesus really mean when he said “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?” Should we strap giant crucifixes to our backs?
A friend recently sent me a prayer written by a student at St. Peter’s Seminary in Ankawa, northern Iraq, where Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) provides English teachers. The student is among the Christians who fled from Karamlesh, in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, as the Islamic State group advanced.
“As you carried your cross, O Lord, we carried it too.
We lost everything except the cross hanging around our necks and in our cars.
We looked at this cross when we were forced to leave our houses.
It is the cross of the pain and the hope,
the cross of the sadness and the hope,
the cross of the resistance and the steadiness
of those who endure injustice but respond to it in love,
even when we feel that the injustice is increasing.
We carried this cross from our lands in Nineveh to other lands
and we still hang on to it.
In spite of all this, you can see the smiles on our faces;
you feel the goodness of our neighbors.
We are full of hope and trust in you O Lord.”
Here is a person whose life has been turned upside-down, yet still finds something to hold on to. But when our lives are comfortable, what cross do we bear? Maybe taking up our cross means a daily choice to remember those whose lives are upended by conflict, to love those who are hard to love, to serve others over ourselves, and to seek justice in an unjust world.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
“The law brings wrath.” It’s seems so harsh that Paul would say these words about commandments that Christians today carry as good and Godly things:
1) I am the Lord thy God.
2) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4) Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
5) Honor thy Father and Mother.
6) Thou shalt not murder.
7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8) Thou shalt not steal.
9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
10) Thou shalt not covet.
Really? If I try and do all these things, it will bring wrath upon me?
Listen. These things are Godly, and they are good; however, not one person can live them out perfectly. Not one! And the only way to reconcile to God is through perfection!
This is what Jesus was talking about when he went up on the mountain to preach: “Not only should you not murder, if you’re angry with someone, you’re breaking that commandment! Also, if you even look at someone lustfully, you’re committing adultery!” Jesus understood that no human can live up to the standards of the law (Matthew 5).
Listen. So many people try to earn God’s favor, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Many Christians read the bible, go to church, pray, etc. but inwardly they’re still looking to the next thing to “rid themselves of.” “I just need to stop viewing pornography,” or, “I just need to start telling people about Jesus,” or, “I just need tell my wife I love her more.” These are things we think that will help “improve our Christian walk.”
Please! People! Stop! It’s not making your burden lighter! Remember. Jesus’ burden is light (Matthew 11:30).
Paul wraps up this passage in a very profound way: he brings it back to Abraham. This was the first man that God counted as righteous. Why? Because he had faith in God. Not because he didn’t sin. Abraham trusted God. When God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham agreed to do it, and was counted as righteous for it! Now that’s faith!
Some Christians preach: “If you stop doing these things… then you’ll have a better Christian life.” However, God simply says that if you start believing and trusting him, then his grace will save you because of Jesus Christ’s death. See!? Jesus lived a perfect life under the law, so that we don’t have to. We are now perfect, because we’re a part of Jesus’ perfection! This is living by faith.
Stop making rules!
Instead, recognize your perfection in Christ! Recognize that though your flesh is sinful and doomed for death, you are now living in the spirit—a child of God. Now that God is your heavenly father who loves you, all you have to do is love him right back! Isn’t that relieving? Rather than get in a daily routine, simply find ways to show your love for God, and he will be responsive, just like a loving Father would help his child in any way he possibly can.
Praise be to God!
The moment I would pinpoint as the most challenging of my entire life would be my first day as a camp counselor. It had been a very hot day with my group of nine 4th-6th graders, which included complaints, constant fighting for attention, and a quickly spreading epidemic of homesickness. Making one difficult decision after another left me exhausted. My friends, whom I had grown to rely on during orientation, were preoccupied with their cabins, all of which seemed to have relatively few issues. By the time “lights out” finally came, I curled up on my bunk and the pressure of my insecurity and doubts as a leader filled my chest.
It seemed like I had barely fallen asleep when a deep, building-shaking boom of thunder woke me up. Before I knew it, every girl was crying and yelling my name. I’m not sure how I figured out what to do or what I ended up saying, but after a few minutes the storm had passed and everyone calmly fell asleep. God heard my prayers and was there to give me the strength I needed to comfort my cabin. From that day on, I had a renewed confidence in my decisions and my abilities through the awesome power of God, making me successful and grateful as I continued to learn and lead throughout the summer.
Even when we are in difficult situations and feeling “upside down and inside out”, God is there to give us strength we don’t know we have. The fulfillment and joy as a result of these experiences are wonderful reminders of God’s presence. Praise be to God.
Human beings often have to check for themselves to see if something is true instead of taking someone’s word at face value. I remember standing outside the classroom door in high school many times waiting for the teacher to arrive. To make sure we weren’t standing outside the room for no reason, I would ask if the door was locked. Even if someone said it was, I would check the knob to be sure it was, in fact, locked. I didn’t trust their word.
Unlike those locked classroom doors, Abram has no way of double-checking to see if God’s word is true. He just has to wait and trust that he will be fruitful. It is easy to see why Abram is astonished, both he and Sarai are both nonagenarians and it would be a miracle for them to conceive a child of their own. Even so, Abram must trust that God will come through and that Sarai will be able to bear an heir.
Although Abram is not actually able to “check if the door is locked” like in my simple high school example, he still has to trust God’s promise. God gives a sign that validates God’s proposition. God changes Abram’s name (meaning ancestor) to Abraham (ancestor of many or a multitude). Sarai’s name is also changed to Sarah. Having a name change is significant because a name is something an individual carries with her or him everywhere on a daily basis. What reminders can we implement to remind us to trust in God everywhere and at all times?
God’s promise to the 100-year-old Abraham, to make him exceedingly fruitful, came as a surprise—even more so since his 90-year-old wife was to be his partner in fruitfulness.
A promise for fruitfulness can sound equally implausible in Northern Indiana at the end of February. Just when you’ve had it with snow gusts and sub-zero windchill, the Lenten season arrives—and you face another six weeks of winter, accompanied by a call to renunciation.
Yet somewhere under all that snow, the seeds of summer wildflowers are preparing with a deep chill to bloom in the spring. And somewhere, in another climate zone, oranges are ripening. A chosen Lenten practice can create space for listening to God’s presence in our lives—if we can only trust the promise enough to pause in our daily routine to connect with God’s abundance.
The other night I was driving through snow, hearing the wind whistling around my car, to pick up pizza for the editorial board of Red Cents, the literary arts magazine published by the English Department. I was thinking about the paradox of fruitfulness in winter. And then I discovered it in the situation itself. My students were giving freely of their dinner time to harvest the abundance of student creativity. When I arrived at Newcomer Center—a long, cold walk away from their cozy dorm rooms—with the warm pizza, the students were gathered in a circle, each reading a selection of other students’ writing, giving it their full attention.
Each of the writers had paused in their daily lives to channel a creative impulse. Each of the readers had paused to connect with the writing that impulse produced. If we pause to experience the presence of God in our lives, we can connect with the source of fruitfulness in any season.
Last Saturday morning I filled my husband’s weekly pill dispenser with the 15 different kinds of medicine he needs to take because of his heart transplant in 2011. A stab of panic struck when I found only two pills left in one of his two most important medicines. He must take this medicine every day for the rest of his life to stave off rejection of the transplanted heart.
Because the prescription had no refills left, we had requested a new one two weeks ago, but I now realized that we hadn’t received the pills in the mail as expected. What went wrong? It was a weekend. Could we really get more medicine by Monday?
You would think that after four years of exercising my “trust muscle” while dealing with my husband’s rare heart ailment, trust in God would come easily to me. But too often my first impulse in a crisis is still panic rather than trust.
Psalm 25 begins with the very words I needed: “To you, O LORD I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” These are the words we all need as we begin each day.
God is worthy of our trust because “all the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness.” Steadfast love and faithfulness are the hallmarks of the character of God, and God cultivates those virtues in us as we seek God’s paths.
With five phone calls last Saturday morning, the medicine we needed was waiting at our local pharmacy. And my “trust muscle” grew a little stronger.
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Floods, snowstorms, earthquakes and other natural disasters are no respecter of persons, flora or fauna. The innocent and guilty, young and old, saint and sinner, wild boar and pet dog, all and without distinction, get swept up in the floods of life. And yet, we all know that almost always there are the “lucky ones” who escape with life and limb. For the survivors, life begins anew.
The Bible’s flood story invites us to consider both sides of natural disasters, or, as they are sometimes called, “acts of God.” What does it mean when we happen to be among those protected in the ark? Or among those who, indiscriminately, perish? The biblical writer, at first, argues that the flood was due to the fact that “the wickedness of humans was great on the earth and the inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Later, the writer, using identical language, argues that the survivors after the flood were, in the end, just as corrupt as those annihilated by the flood (8:21). In an upside down and inside out sort of way, the survivor most changed by the flood seems to be God. In a beautiful spirit of divine contrition, God promises never to resort to such an all-consuming act of punishment ever again (9:11). God decides to make a new covenant with Noah and his family, with all creatures great and small, and with all future generations, too (9:12). Thousands of generations later, St. Peter suggests that God remained consistent with God’s forgiving, expansive, all-encompassing covenant with Noah and all creatures of the earth by offering an even more sweeping covenant through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Pet. 3:18-22).
The rainbow rising from the flood, then or now, sky-writes a sign of permanent warning that to blame victims of natural disasters as somehow deserving of their fate slanders “the everlasting covenant” made by God with “every living creature of all flesh” to never again make that judgment, ever. The rainbow rising from Lenten floods also proclaims that God, whose love is revealed in Christ, notices every wild sparrow that falls, grieves the loss of every family pet, abides with us through every heartache and defeat, and promises an Easter morning at the end of every rainbow.
Welcome to Goshen College’s online devotionals for the 2015 Lent season! Our theme this year, taken from the Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada worship resources found in Leader magazine, is “Upside Down and Inside Out.” Every Monday an author will introduce the sub-theme, and on the following weekdays authors will reflect on a specific Scripture passage. The theme for this week, Lent 1, is “You are the God of my salvation.”
In the early centuries, Lent was primarily a time for Christian converts to make their final, intensive preparation for baptism. It is still a season of renewal through reflection on the life of Jesus, and then especially during Holy Week on his suffering and sacrifice. The 40 days of Lent remind us of Jesus’s time in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke indicate that Jesus was “led” by the Spirit, whereas Mark uses the dramatic verb “drove.” Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was “famished” after not eating anything during that time; Mark is silent about this. All three Gospels indicate that the devil or Satan tempted Jesus.
I do not know what it is like to fast from food for 40 days. A mentor of mine engaged in a series of 14 to 30-plus day fasts over a period of years in response to God’s healing in his life. The best that I did was several three to five day fasts. Though the hunger pangs subsided and I was a bit “light-headed” at times, I was not “famished.” I have, however, been “emotionally wiped out,” and recognize when I am more prone to temptation or falling short of my ideals. I wonder what it was like for Jesus to be hungry, alone in the wilderness (except for the wild beasts), and then face temptation? How would I have responded in that situation?
But one part of this story that I find most interesting is that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Mark says it more forcefully that the Spirit drove Jesus there! Somehow I missed the whole “being driven into the wilderness” as one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul addresses in Galatians. I wonder what that was all about. Nevertheless, am I able to confess that God is my salvation when I find myself in those famished moments? When I have been led where I otherwise would not want to be? As I set out on these forty days of Lent, may I be reminded every day that God indeed is my salvation, even when I feel upside down and inside out.
God of my salvation, guide me in the paths of what you require, granting me mercy and patience when I feel famished from life’s realities. Amen.
It’s again the time of the year that Goshen College offers an online resource to help believers make time and space in their hearts and minds to reflect during the season of Lent.
Beginning Feb. 18 (Ash Wednesday) and culminating on April 5 (Easter), Goshen College students, faculty and staff will provide weekday reflections based on the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary Scripture passages, available online at www.goshen.edu/devotions, by daily email or via an RSS feed. Many writers will reflect on the theme: “Upside Down and Inside Out,” taken from Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada worship resources.
The devotions will reflect honestly on the Scriptures and offer words of assurances of faith. The spiritual offerings will include poetry, personal stories, reflections and prayers, all intended to more closely examine the call to change and follow Christ.
Since 2001, Goshen College annually celebrates special seasons of the church calendar, particularly Advent and Lent, with online devotions.