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First Thoughts Blog

Author: Gerrit Dawson, Senior Pastor

The Joy of Rhythms

“Summer’s here, I’m for that, got my rubber sandals, got my straw hat.” Remember that old song by James Taylor? Even as the heat moves in, we feel the excitement of a change in rhythm. School’s out. Traffic’s better (“better” being a relative word!), vacations await. We had a wonderfully intense Lent, followed by a season of celebrating confirmations, baptisms, graduations, memorials and weddings. Now most of the church slows down. But children’s ministry ramps up with Vacation Bible School. Youth ministry accelerates with camp opportunities. Members take off on mission trips as well as holidays.
Meanwhile, we still meet Sunday after Sunday. That’s a crucial part of rhythm too. Continuity in worshiping our triune God, studying his Word and encouraging each other. We’re here, every week, as anchor for your life. Stay tethered through our livestream while you travel. Come create the party of worship as often as you can. And know that your leaders are thinking deeply and creatively about our future.
The elders, especially the strategic planning team, are busy building off the great data we got through the congregational survey. We hope to unveil our five year strategic plan for you this fall. Keep us in prayer!
Meanwhile, we are moving forward with a north Baton Rouge church plant. You can hear pastor Ron Hicks preach on July 14! We also celebrate the mission outreach we can underwrite through the gifts from our endowments. The session recently funded a young EPC church planter in the Atlanta area, and contributed to the church plant training our denomination has undertaken. We funded three seminary students, and contributed to a major evangelism program with our sister church in Cairo. Life rhythms have changed, but the ministry and mission of your church pulses forward this summer. As ever, please know how much I love being your pastor.

Church Planting, Staff Changes and Celebrations

May is the time we joyfully witness about 25 6th graders make their public profession of faith. We also send off our high school seniors with blessing prayers. And we get ready to say goodbye to several long-time, faithful staff members.
One of the hallmarks of a healthy church is the tenure of the professionals who work there. Longevity signals loyalty, effectiveness, spiritual vitality and harmonious personality. In the coming year three key retirements are scheduled.
Carol Pruitt will retire as bookkeeper at the end of July. Carol has grown with our church finances. She handles all the financial gifts and expenditures, keeps up with staff medical and retirement benefits, and works cheerfully and confidentially. 
Barry Phillips has been my right hand man in his capacity as ministry executive for 18 years. “Papa Barry” develops the budgeting process, oversees employee relations and supervises care of building and grounds. His anchoring work has freed me to focus on preaching, teaching and vision. Though he will serve in a consulting capacity through year’s end, Barry’s retirement as a full-time staffer occurs August 15.
Our longest tenured pastor, Whitney Alexander will retire January 31 after 26 years on our team. Whitney led our youth ministry for years, then seamlessly transitioned to overseeing city and global ministry. He has connected us to Christ’s work throughout Baton Rouge and around the world. Somehow, he always shows up just where we need him most. 
That’s a lot of change! But your leaders have been planning strategically. Church member Courtney Hilton takes over as bookkeeper this summer after a brief period of overlap with Carol. Courtney brings years of corporate accounting experience along with her deep faith, consistent commitment to church and winsome personality. We will be in good hands.
Meanwhile, we’ve realized that the scope of ministry executive has grown beyond what one person will do. Kelly Wood will step into the role of ministry executive. Her experience as an Exxon project manager has given her the skills to turn vision into action. (We saw that during the Stewarding God’s Grace campaign which she oversaw last fall). Her focus will be on executing the plan of the session through the work of the staff and committees. She’ll be sure everything we do aligns with the overall vision and strategic plan. Long-time elder and trustee DJ Davis will take a part-time role as administrative executive. His purview will be personnel, finances and facilities. Thanks be to God, we will be in good hands.
That leaves us some time to consider how we will continue pressing forward in mission and best utilize that associate pastor position. Stay tuned, and please stay prayerful!
The Sanctuary
We’ve been hinting at it for months, but our session made it official: God is calling us to plant a church in North Baton Rouge. The pastors of the church will be Ron Hicks, Daryl Waters and George Gillam. Former Angola inmates, these men have a passion for reaching at-risk youth, difficult communities and others formerly incarcerated. We’ve heard George preach twice from our pulpit. We’ll get to hear Ron this summer. The new church will be called The Sanctuary and it will be overseen by a team of six elders, and underwritten by the church planting fund we established some years ago. For the rest of this year, they will be building a core leadership team, scoping out a physical site and gathering potential members. We envision an official launch next winter. More details to come. And once again, please offer your prayers for this endeavor. It’s an exciting time to be your pastor, and to be in ministry with you.

Ready for a Third Century?

This time three years from now, we will celebrate our 200th anniversary as a church! We’re already thinking about it! Most importantly, your leadership seeks to discern the leading of the Triune God as we round into our bicentennial. 
Part of that discernment is undertaking a new long term vision process. This will lead to preparing a strategic plan to guide the next five years. We’ve partnered with Mesh, a local creative marketing firm who has delivered great results with other local Christian organizations, such as Gardere Community Christian School and the Dunham School. They specialize in helping groups clarify vision, then turn vision into strategy.
This is the fun part: we all get to play a role! More than 80 of us will be engaged in focus groups, including the staff, the elders and a representative at-large group. All of us will be invited to participate in a congregational survey. You’ll receive an invitation by email. The link will take you to the brief but important survey about our priorities. You can expect this email from the church by the end of the month. We really want to hear from you! My hope is that everyone will take the survey within a week of receiving the link.
The session and Mesh will collate and review the responses from the focus groups and the survey. These provide the voice of the congregation as we prayerfully craft a strategic plan. A stellar planning committee will lead the writing effort. David Kozan, Cheryl Broadnax, Barry Phillips, Kelly Wood and Will Adams will be working with me to bring the session a document to consider for the vision and strategy that will begin our third century. The elders will then present to you the final document that the whole congregation has helped to shape.
We’re working specifically in the areas of mission fidelity, preparing for next generation members and leaders, pastoral and staff support, facilities upgrades, fiscal sustainability and ministry/mission expansion. 
It’s a great delight and a great responsibility to stand on the shoulders of two centuries of faithfulness. As you join me in participating in the survey, please know that I love being your pastor and I rejoice to look toward our future,

Day 42

I Love the LORD
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 116:1-9
I love the LORD, because he has heard
   my voice and my pleas for mercy.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
   therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
   the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
   I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the LORD:
   “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”
Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
   our God is merciful.
The LORD preserves the simple;
   when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest;
   for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
   my eyes from tears,
   my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the LORD
   in the land of the living.
What Is This Psalm About?
This is an intimate, joyful song of thanks for deliverance from a deadly circumstance. By writing this prayer for worship, the psalmist fulfills his vow to give public thanks to the LORD for saving him from certain death. It contains his story of being snared in an evil trap and then crying out in raw desperation, “Deliver my soul!” God in his great love and mercy saved the psalmist. So this song extols the LORD for his goodness. The psalmist renders to God the pledge of a lifetime of thanks and devotion.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Today we’re preparing for our Easter worship tomorrow. Back on Days 27 and 28, we explored how Jesus in Sheol on Holy Saturday might have prayed the lament of Psalm 88. Now we have followed the prayers of Jesus through the Psalms all the way from his childhood to his enthronement in heaven. So we take this day to sum up his earthly lifetime of devoted prayer to his Father.
Can you visualize Jesus standing with arms outstretched and head turned upwards? Can you hear him say in front of his disciples, “I love my Father because he has heard my voice.” The simple, ardent declaration fills me with joy. The Son prays; the Father responds. Love passes between them. Their love sources the whole universe. Father and Son ever reach and reply to one another. We live in the magnetic field of their eternal attraction. In the midst of our hurting, broken world, the incarnate Son lifts his heart to say, “I love the LORD!” 
John’s gospel records an event in which Jesus actually prays with words very similar to those in Psalm 116. This instance gives us a preview of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter and ours in the future. His friend Lazarus has been dead for four days. Jesus goes to the village where Lazarus lived. Seeing the mourners, Jesus himself weeps for the death of his friend. Then he goes to the tomb and shockingly demands that the stone be rolled away. Though reluctant to let out the stench of decay, at Jesus’ command the people open the grave. 
Before the gaping dark, Jesus prays. John writes, “And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me’” (John 11:41-42). Just as the psalmist rejoices in Psalm 116 that the LORD has heard his voice, so Jesus thanks his Father for always hearing his requests. And this is a big ask! Jesus prays before the crowd so that after the miracle they will truly trust that he is his Father’s Son.
Then he calls the dead man to come forth. The revived Lazarus comes back into the light of day, and the people strip away his grave clothes. I wonder if he prays verse 9 from our psalm: “I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” I wonder if at dinner a few days later (John 12:2) Lazarus and Jesus laughed to quote this psalm: “For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” God had asked Lazarus to go through a terrible trial in all its seeming defeat and finality. Perhaps one of the reasons Jesus’ friend went first is to give Jesus the gift of entering Holy Week with very tangible proof that Psalm 116 holds true no 
matter what. 
I imagine that from the first time he learned Psalm 116, Jesus rejoiced to pray the words, “I love the LORD!” Through his ministry and his sufferings, Jesus would learn at ever deeper levels what it means that his Father inclines his ear to him and delivers him from death. I can hear him saying, even now at the Father’s right hand surrounded by angels and archangels, “I love you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, and I will give thanks to you in the 
Spirit forever.”
On Easter Sunday, we step into the victory of Jesus. As we sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” we believe that this event of resurrection belongs to us. We have experienced spiritual resurrection already. The joy of being a new creation in Christ lights our days, even the dark ones. And one day, our participation in Christ’s resurrection will be complete. Yes, we will have to pass through death as did Lazarus and Jesus, but that will be but a brief pause in our journey. Soon we will walk before the LORD in the eternal land of the living. And we will have eternity to declare in ever-interesting, beautiful, creative ways, “I love the LORD I AM. I love the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God has dealt bountifully with me!”
Tomorrow morning we get to go to the great assembly and lift our hearts and voices to declare the love we share with Jesus for the goodness of the triune God of grace.
Praying with Jesus
I love you, Lord Jesus,
That you heard my cries
Of the pain of all this dying, all this loss.
You passed through death
So now that darkness is light.
I love you, gracious Father
That you heard my cries,
The groaning of a lost humanity.
You spared not our own Son
But lost him to find us.
I love you, Holy Spirit
That you heard my cries
Of being dead in sin
And you came into my heart
To awaken me to life in God.
I know that even now, Jesus, 
You praise your Father in the Spirit
From your eternal humanity,
Joining the great congregation
To extol the glory of a redeeming triune God. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 41

The Joy of His Return
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 96:1-6, 10-13
Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
   sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
   tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
   his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
   he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
   but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
   strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. . . .
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
   Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;
   he will judge the peoples with equity.”
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
   before the LORD, for he comes,
   for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
   and the peoples in his faithfulness.
What Is This Psalm About?   
Psalm 96 joyfully exalts the LORD I AM as King not only of Israel but the entire world. It calls upon all people and even all nature to acknowledge his reign. This present worship of the one true God comes filled with hope. One great day, the LORD shall come directly to his earth. He will arrive for the purpose of judgment. And judgment is for the purpose of setting all things in order. What is crooked will be set right. God will subdue rebellion and turn it into worship. Fairness will triumph over favoritism. Righteousness will prevail over oppression. Justice will roll down like water. With this future in view, Psalm 96 calls us to offer our lives to the LORD as worship.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
What a song for this horrible day that we have to call Good Friday! The juxtaposition between the psalm’s exaltation and Jesus’ crucifixion jars us. It seems an impossible joy to proclaim. Consider these brief comments on some of  these verses: 
Oh sing to the LORD a new song: Even while the same old powers keep their power as religious authorities and Roman officials discard Jesus to Golgotha. 
Declare his glory among the nations: News that the glory of God is become the foolish scandal of the cross.
Great is the LORD . . . above all gods: But our God is nailed hand and foot to the killing beam!
Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary: But on Calvary mangling, strangling ugliness screams that beauty has fled the earth where God turns his back.
The world is established; it shall never be moved: Though the earth cracked, the rocks split and the tombs opened as Jesus gave up his spirit.
Let the trees sing for joy: Though it was their rough wood that held the Savior above the ground until he expired. 
How can we sing such a psalm on this of all days? And yet. And yet. Psalm 96 reveals the deeper truth of this event: paradoxes abound for a wonderful reversal occurred. The cross has been called a “magnificent defeat.” When the sinless one takes a criminal’s condemnation, he carries away all our sin. In dying, Jesus defeats death. In utter humiliation, Jesus is exalted as the name above all names. In his vision, Isaiah saw the LORD seated on his throne, high and lifted up. Yes, says the church. But that throne is made of the wood of the cross. His exaltation to the highest heaven occurs as Jesus is lifted up just a few feet from the bloody ground.
And so we can follow Psalm 96 where it leads—to the return of Jesus. Departing earth through a tortured death, he would return in resurrection. Departing earth again in exultant ascension, Jesus has not left us alone. He will return to set all things right. The story is not over.
Throughout his life, this psalm would have uplifted Jesus in praise to his Father. In time, he would understand how it pointed toward his return in glory. He would have drawn hope from this future even on this day. For in Psalm 96, Jesus knows that the way things are right now is not the way things will always be.
Isaiah the prophet declares, “I see the Lord, seated on his throne.” In the 12th c. mosaic of San Clemente, Isaiah points to Jesus on the cross! The rough wood of the cross is the glorious throne of Jesus!
Praying with Jesus
With Paul, I say Lord Jesus that
I have loved your appearing.
I love that you left heaven
To take up life with us in the bleak world.
I love that you showed us the heart of the Father.
I love that you revealed that
Greater love has no man than this,
That he should lay down his life for others.
And I love that you showed yourself alive
To your disciples. 
You revealed that love is stronger than death.
And I eagerly await your appearing.
I cry out on this Good Friday,
Come, Lord Jesus!
Make all things new.
Set all things right.
Judge the world in justice and truth.
Come in glory on your great Day.
Until then, I keep watch with you,
I declare your glory and marvelous works.
I sing the joy that ran deeper than death
On the victorious day of your defeat
And will flood the world at your return. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 40

O Great High Priest
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 110:1-4 
The LORD says to my Lord:
   “Sit at my right hand,
   until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The LORD sends forth from Zion
   your mighty scepter.
   Rule in the midst of your enemies!
Your people will offer themselves freely
   on the day of your power,
   in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
   the dew of your youth will be yours.
The LORD has sworn
   and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
   after the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord is at your right hand;
   he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgment among the nations,
   filling them with corpses;
he will shatter chiefs
   over the wide earth.
He will drink from the brook by the way;
   therefore he will lift up his head.
What Is This Psalm About?   
Are you ready for strange? This is the psalm most often quoted in the New Testament! Technically it is a royal psalm, extolling the divine favor upon the king. However, there is much more going on. It’s worth the hard work to unpack it. 
First, we have to recall the difference between “LORD” and “Lord.” The all-capital letters of LORD render the four Hebrew letters that we translate as YHWH, pronounced “Yahweh.” This is the sacred name of the one true God, revealed to Moses in Exodus 3. This is a holy and specific name. “Lord” renders the Hebrew word we transliterate as Adonai, a title of respect that can range in meaning from “sir,” to an owner, to the God who rules and reigns over all. Out of respect for the sacred name, the Hebrews might see the letters YHWH yet read aloud Adonai. The two words can be interchangeable. But not in Psalm 110!
Psalm 110 begins by using both terms as if two distinct persons were having a conversation: “The LORD (Yahweh) says to my Lord (Adonai).” This flips the circuit breakers in my mind! Wait. Who’s speaking? David is the author of this psalm, so David records a conversation he heard. The eternal God was speaking to someone whom David called his Lord? But David was the king! No human being was higher than David. So who could be King David’s Lord? Perhaps some future king in David’s line through whom the LORD I AM would exercise full and flourishing reign over not just Israel but the whole earth. And yet, how could the LORD be speaking to this future king if he had not yet come to be?  
How God’s people must have puzzled over this psalm before Jesus came! For it seems that the LORD speaks to another divine being, one who is alive now but will in the future come to reign next to the LORD and see all his enemies subdued.
And there is still more mystery to come. The LORD next swears a promise to this Lord. He is not only a king, but he is also a priest. A priest connects human beings with God. He speaks to people on behalf of God, and speaks to God on behalf of the people. But this Lord in Psalm 110 is not be a usual priest of Israel, someone descended through Aaron the first priest and his son Levi. No, this lordly priest, already alive in heaven, “is after the order of Melchizedek.”  
Genesis 14:18 tells us that Melchizedek was both a priest of God and the king of Salem in Abraham’s time. Abraham gave tithes of the victory spoils to Melchizedek, as if he were making an offering to the LORD himself. And Melchizedek gave Abraham bread and wine, entering personal communion with him. He blessed Abraham in the name of God Most High, and blessed God for subduing Abraham’s enemies. 
Let’s put all that together. Psalm 110 directs us to a mighty king who brings peace, a priest who offers bread and wine and blessing. He already exists and yet is coming. He will share rule with the I AM himself. Remind you of anyone?
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Three gospels record Jesus himself teaching from Psalm 110! Matthew tells it this way:
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 
‘The Lord said to my Lord, 
“Sit at my right hand,
   until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 
If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:41-45) 
Through his years of reading the Psalms in his prayers to the LORD whom he knew intimately as Father, Jesus realizes how Psalm 110 had been written for him! This prophetic song of David gives Jesus insight into his unique identity as a man born of Mary and the Son of God conceived by the Holy Spirit. He follows the Scriptural logic to know that only one person could be both the son and the Lord of David. Only one man could rule over Israel from the heavenly position of the Father’s right hand—Jesus himself.
Moreover, Hebrews quotes Psalm 110:2 three times to connect Jesus with the Melchizedek priest. The true connector between God and humanity had to be the eternal Son of God who took flesh as Jesus. He is our faithful high priest not by virtue of Levite descent, “But by the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). In rising, Jesus becomes like no other priest in that he is able to intercede for us forever. For Jesus himself will become the atonement in which we are reconciled to the Father. 
Praying with Jesus
What was it like to read a conversation
Between your Father and the saving King and Priest,
Only to realize that you were there?
To have it dawn in your mind
That the promised mighty righteous king
And the longed-for effective high priest
Are not only the same person, but you!
Jesus, you are the key that unlocks
The secrets of the Scriptures,
You are the realized hope that fulfills
The ancient yearning of your people.
You are the gentle shepherd
Who is the triumphant warrior,
Scattering the powers of evil
And freeing your people from death and hell.
You, Jesus, my familiar friend,
My brother in the flesh,
You are the Mighty One
Who tenderly lifts me up,
You are the abundant one who nourishes
My hungry heart and fills my empty soul.
Blessed, most glorious are you!


Posted in: Lent

Day 39

O Kings, Be Wise! King of Kings
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 2
?Why do the nations rage
   and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
   and the rulers take counsel together,
   against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
   and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
   the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
   and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
   on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
   The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
   today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
   and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
   and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
   be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
   and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
   lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
   for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
What Is This Psalm About?   
Sung at coronation ceremonies for Israel’s king, Psalm 2 would remind the people of the LORD’s everlasting covenant with King David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16). Through this unconditional promise, the monarch of God’s people would ever be considered a special son of God. Each king would be anointed with oil at his enthronement, marking him as set apart to reign as the LORD’s representative. The king, then, was both a son of God and a messiah (which means “anointed one”). So Israel’s monarchy always rested on God’s ancient promise to David and always pointed forward to the time when the eternal Son of God would come himself as king and messiah. Arriving one day in flesh and blood, the true and everlasting king would redeem his people from sin and enemies and re-order the whole world in justice and righteousness. 
This inauguration psalm opens with the new king having to deal with threats from the rebellious rulers surrounding the LORD’s people. In many ways, these rival kings represent all of humanity. For from the beginning we have, each and all, wanted to burst free from God’s revealed will, throwing off any restrictions on our desires. We do not want the LORD to reign over us. 
In reply to these threats, the LORD himself issues a decree concerning this new ruler. He speaks directly to his anointed king, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Normally we think of the word “begotten” in regard to conceiving children. But here it relates to installing this man in a new position of life. He is no longer a private individual but a king, charged with representing God in his rule and responsible for shepherding the LORD’s people. So God declares him on this inauguration day to be Son and anointed King. He is given authority to rule in the LORD’s name, and God promises that ultimately all nations will recognize his reign because Israel’s purpose was from the beginning to be a light to the world, the first of God’s redeeming works for people of all nations. The psalm closes with a warning to the rulers of the world to “kiss the Son,” that is, to pay homage to the designated lord of God’s people on earth.
Ross writes that Psalm 2 “applies first to any Davidic king who came to the throne, but ultimately to the King of kings” (1: 213). So the deepest meaning of Psalm 2 comes into focus with the arrival of the eternal Son in our midst, the only man who can truly and forever be called the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
The New Testament applies Psalm 2 several times to Jesus. Paul quotes it as he tells the story of Jesus in Antioch. By the resurrection, the Father declared of Jesus, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Acts 13:33). Paul writes to the Romans that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). It’s one thing to make a bold statement. It’s quite another to back up the words by bringing a dead man back to life! This is a new phase of existence. 
Paul understands that in his rising Jesus was exalted above every name that is named (Philippians 2:9). Jesus himself declared before his ascension, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). He who had been made low was raised above ever other name. Revelation describes the ascended Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of earth” (Revelation 1:5). Indeed he holds the keys, the authority, of death and Hades in his hands (Revelation 1:18). He is the one by whom all will be judged.
As Jesus prays Psalm 2, I imagine he gains a deeper sense of his place in the Father’s eternal plans. He could draw authority from the royal decree to be able to tell parables such as the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) in which he anticipates being the Son before whom all must appear. His stern warnings to the Pharisees and his fearlessness before the Roman governor Pilate would flow from the LORD’s promise that all nations will be his 
Son’s heritage. 
We declare in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus even now sits at the Father’s right hand and will come to judge the living and the dead. This is fair warning to us and to the rebellious world to be wise. There is no future apart from this King.
Praying with Jesus
I have often lived as if I am getting away with it.
You are so patient. You give me so much room.
I can deceive myself that you will not hold me to account.
I know the defiant religious leaders
Thought they could dismiss you.
Pilate thought he could dispense with you.
But you, King Jesus, cannot be avoided.
There is no island I can go to live apart from you.
The world, the cosmos, are yours.
I will be before you.
I will bow the knee and confess your reign.
I would do that now, 
Not when I break against your rule
Like a ship against the rocks,
But in this moment when I can rejoice
To have my life re-ordered
To life and health and peace
By your good and eternal rule. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 38

Lift Up Your Heads!
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 24
The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
   the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas
   and established it upon the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
   And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
   and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the LORD
   and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
   who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah
Lift up your heads, O gates!
   And be lifted up, O ancient doors,
   that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
   The LORD, strong and mighty,
   the LORD, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates!
   And lift them up, O ancient doors,
   that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
   The LORD of hosts,
   he is the King of glory! Selah
What Is This Psalm About?   
This joyful psalm depicts a worship parade. The people remembered the glorious day when young King David had recovered the sacred Ark of the Covenant from the dreaded Philistines (2 Samuel 6). The Ark contained the Ten Commandments, and its top was the mercy seat where atoning blood was offered. In short, the Ark signified the saving presence of the LORD. Through a great victory, the Ark was going back to its holy place in the sanctuary. Symbolically, God was coming home. 
This historical moment was so sacred that it was re-enacted year after year. Psalm 24 describes a dialogue between the throng of people and the gatekeepers of the temple. The crowd cries out, “Open up, you gates, that the King of glory may come in!” The gatekeepers reply, “Who is the King of glory?” The question deliberately raises the excitement. The gatekeepers demand the throng exalt their King as worthy.
The people reply, “The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle. He is the King of glory! So let us in to worship the one true God who redeems and saves. Open up!” 
I can imagine this exchange going back and forth for a while until the trumpets blow and cymbals clash and the people’s voices thunder, “Who’s our King? The LORD, the LORD, the LORD, that’s who!” So the gates open, and the people dance to the house of the LORD and enthrone him as King all over again. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
As early as the second century, the church fathers connected Psalm 24 to the ascension of Jesus. The King had left his home in heaven to come to earth to battle and conquer the enemies of humankind. He faithfully followed all of the law and commandments. He atoned for sin. He conquered death. After his resurrection, his redeeming journey was complete except for one final accomplishment. He had to return home bearing the prize he came to win for his Father.
What was that prize? The prize was humanity restored and man made new by the new Adam. It was the human will bent back from rebellion to obedience by the one perfectly faithful man, Jesus. For he is the firstborn of a new creation (Colossians 1:15, 18; Romans 8:29), the one man who fully and completely loves God with all his heart, mind, body and soul. And he does so not only for himself alone but for all of us who trust in him. He makes it possible for us to participate in his all-encompassing love for his Father.
In ascending, the Son of God returns to heaven. But he does not go up in the same way he came down. For Jesus does not shed his humanity. He does not step out of his body! He goes back to the Father still incarnate, still joined to our flesh and blood. Yes, his resurrection body had been outfitted for everlasting life, but it is still a body. He never lets go of the humanity he loves and has redeemed. 
As the ancient writers contemplated this mystery, they imagined the surprise of the angelic beings who surround the throne of heaven (Revelation 4). Who is this man with marks on his hands and a hole in his side, who comes here as if he owns the place? The victory procession of Psalm 24 points symbolically to Jesus’ ascent into heaven. Jesus arrives as a man as well as the Son of God. Therefore these luminous spiritual beings do not recognize their Lord. The baffled angels ask, “Who is this King of glory?” How can flesh enter the spiritual realm? How could a man enter God’s holy place? As the church fathers imagined it, the Spirit of God himself answered them: “This man, this Jesus, is the King of glory coming home and bringing his humanity with him!” Justin Martyr, an important Greek philosopher-apologist in the early church, writes about this in The Dialogue with Trypho.
What a thrill it would have been for Jesus to pray this psalm in the days before he ascended. What anticipation of reunion! In the same prayers, he well might have rejoiced with Psalm 47:5-6: “God has gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises!”
Praying with Jesus
Reigning Lord Jesus,
Did you anticipate the victory parade
In your return to heaven?
Did you sing this psalm during the forty days
From resurrection to ascension?
Did you laugh at the surprise
That now a man would sit on heaven’s throne?
I can imagine your mirth 
As you made ready to go up with a mighty shout.
“I’m coming home, Father, 
And bringing a multitude with me!”
I hope so because this psalm daunts me.
I have neither clean hands nor a pure heart.
I cannot in myself ever ascend the holy hill.
I can only go up joined to you, the one man
Who could knock on heaven’s gate
And be admitted with songs of welcome.
You are the King of glory,
The mighty Redeemer,
Who has stayed my brother
That I might ever be where you are.
So in faith, I join the festive throng,
“Open up, you gates!
The Son returns to his Father
And I am with him!”


Posted in: Lent

Day 37

Blessed to Be a Blessing
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 67
May God be gracious to us and bless us
   and make his face to shine upon us, Selah
that your way may be known on earth,
   your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
  let all the peoples praise you!
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
   for you judge the peoples with equity
   and guide the nations upon earth. Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you!
The earth has yielded its increase;
   God, our God, shall bless us.
God shall bless us;
   let all the ends of the earth fear him!
What Is This Psalm About?   
Ross succinctly summarizes the heart of Psalm 67 when he writes, “God blesses his people in order that the people of the world will come to faith in him . . . their prayer had as its purpose that people in the world would learn of God’s saving way, come to acknowledge him for his sovereignty, and rejoice in their worship of him” (1: 454).
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
As Jesus gets ready to ascend, he gives his disciples a mission. Mark records Jesus’ words, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Jesus will soon return to heaven, but first he sends his disciples into their world to lead others to commit their lives to him. Jesus has universal authority as Lord of the cosmos. He directs his followers to consider the entire world as their mission field. With this rather daunting directive, Jesus offers the blessing of an assurance, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). By his Spirit whom he will pour out on believers, Jesus will go with them to the ends of the earth as they proclaim the gospel. 
Jesus also gives his disciples a blessing that will echo down through the years. Luke tells us a bit more about Jesus’ departure when he writes, “And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53). 
The focus here is on the blessing. As our true high priest, Jesus lifts his hands to give the ancient benediction. However, now he is not a mere Aaron. He is the LORD himself in the flesh who blesses. Jesus has guarded his disciples and prayed that his Father, who delights to answer the prayers of his Son, would keep them (John 17:11-12). Immanuel, God with us, shines his face (a face they can see!) upon his people. He is the Son of God, crucified, risen and coming again who pours out the grace of his atonement. In him, under his blessing hands, we have the peace that passes understanding: “For he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14).  
We can imagine Jesus before his departure praying Psalm 67 and preparing this blessing. Or perhaps he even used this psalm in the blessing. We see that his shining presence and his radiant mission go together. Jesus prays for them, for us, a blessing with a purpose. May God be gracious to us so that his “way may be known on earth” and his “saving power among all nations.” A crucial reason for Christ’s people to experience his favor tangibly and richly is so that we can bear personal, experiential witness to the reality of Jesus. He favors his church so that the church has something the world craves. He shapes and forms and makes holy his church so that the nations of the world can see that their deepest dreams are not mere fantasies. The suffering and the oppressed can know that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. There is a God who reigns and who is just. Justice is not a fantasy, but the intent of God. God made the world for more, and he has a plan to renew all things. He will turn the world back to his plan and purpose. 
We pray Psalm 67 with Jesus as we gather faithfully for robust worship that announces the past, present and future of Jesus’ mission. Every Sunday, we study the Scriptures to learn of the triune God’s huge, overarching plan for his people. We consider how we fit right now into this ancient and eternal story. So every communion we say together, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We share deeply with each other in prayer and fellowship to create a community where the lonely and lost can find a home. Then we go forth into our portion of the world to care demonstrably for others, especially the least and the lost, so that the vision of Christ’s future has integrity. Blessing and mission sing inseparably together. So we pray Psalm 67 with Jesus as the very fuel of the church. 
Revelation describes the ultimate fulfillment of this blessing that extends to the nations: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people. . . . He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’. . . And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:1-5).
Praying with Jesus
Jesus, Renewer, Restorer, Re-creator,
Shine through your people,
Tune our voices to harmony,
Lift our hearts in worship,
Consecrate our spirits to your Spirit,
That the world might see
What a gracious and glorious Lord you are.
You have blessed us with yourself.
Continue to bless us 
With intimacy, energy, vision and power,
So that our praise might flow out to the nations
Like a mighty river of joy.
Come Lord Jesus and set all things right,
Make straight our crooked ways,
Bring justice to the swindled and discarded,
Let truth overwhelm deceit
And fairness create abundance
That all might see
Our God loves his world.
Send your church to make disciples
Next door and around the globe
For your glory and our salvation.


Posted in: Lent

Day 36


Christopher Powers. Hebrews 9:14. 2022.
Jesus’ mission did not end on Easter Sunday. After rising, he had yet to return to heaven to be seated in authority at the Father’s right hand. The ascension marks the completion of his earthly ministry but not the end of Jesus’ activity for us. He is our advocate at the throne. He prays for us even now! And he pours out his Spirit upon his disciples to empower us for our mission as his witnesses.
What’s more, Jesus did not shed our humanity in his return to heaven. He keeps it. Forever. He has taken humanity where we had never been, could never go—into the very presence of God. Jesus the man is our surety. He is our pledge that one day we too will join him in resurrected bodies, rejoicing in communion with the triune God.
Commenting on his vivid rendering presented here, Christopher Powers explains, “I tried to show Jesus’ death as simultaneously historical and eternal. . . . I’ve depicted Jesus Christ in the act of offering Himself to the Father. The banner of history begins and ends with His nail-pierced hands as a way of showing that the eternally slain and risen Jesus is the beginning and end, the first and the last, the all-defining principle of created reality. And, to emphasize that not only His death but also His resurrection exist eternally through the Spirit, I’ve depicted the open mouth of the tomb behind Jesus’ head, also ‘outside’ of time.”
The King's Desire
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 2:7
I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
   today I have begotten you.
Psalm 21:1-7  
? O LORD, in your strength the king rejoices,
   and in your salvation how greatly he exults!
You have given him his heart’s desire
   and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah
For you meet him with rich blessings;
   you set a crown of fine gold upon his head.
He asked life of you; you gave it to him,
   length of days forever and ever.
His glory is great through your salvation;
   splendor and majesty you bestow on him.
For you make him most blessed forever;
   you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD,
   and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.
What Is This Psalm About? 
On this day the church hails the entry of the King into Jerusalem his holy city. So it’s fitting that we pray one of the royal psalms. These songs celebrate the gift that the LORD gave to his people—a king on the throne to bless the nation by ruling in faithfulness, order and justice. In this psalm, the people pray God’s favor on the ruler, extolling the king who leads the people in relying wholly on the LORD. Beginning with David, the king was especially considered to be God’s son. This theme in the royal psalms sets them up to preview our true King, the unique Son of God, Jesus. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
During the forty days from Easter to his ascension, Jesus appears frequently to his disciples. Luke tells us that “he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” including “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:27, 44). He enjoys fellowship with them (Acts 1:4), savoring these brief days after his trials and before their mission begins.
We can learn how Jesus explained how the Scriptures connected to him by looking at what his disciples have written. They get their teaching from him! Psalm 2 appears in Paul’s message in Antioch:
“And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, 
‘You are my Son, 
today I have begotten you.’ 
And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, 
‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’” (Acts 13:32-34)
I can well imagine Jesus praying these royal psalms. He sings Psalm 21 with joy that his kingship has been established. Paul writes of Jesus as “descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:3-4). The resurrection was a death-shattering event powered by God the Holy Spirit. Paul is also saying that the resurrection was a declarative event in that the Father vindicated his unjustly condemned Son. Jesus the carpenter’s son can now be proclaimed as the Lord of death and life, the name above all names. The long-awaited heir of David now begins to rule over heaven and earth.
I can hear Jesus rejoicing as the King, “You have given him his heart’s desire.” In the first place, he means, of course, being restored to fellowship with his Father because his death included the dreadful God-forsakenness: “He asked for life, and you gave it to him, length of days forever and ever.” 
But what else might be included in his heart’s desire? At the last supper, Jesus told his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. . . . I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:1-2). Later that night, in his mighty prayer for his disciples, we see that Jesus truly wants them with him in eternity: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). Jesus’ great passion is that he can bring together his Father and his disciples. He yearns for all those who belong to him to be taken into the love he has shared with his Father from all eternity. He came precisely to gather us. The glory of his triumph is the sharing of intimate fellowship. His resurrection has established the grounds of union with us. In the future, that communion will be fully realized in his Kingdom. 
No wonder Scripture speaks about what’s coming as a wedding: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). The King’s desire is for his bride to be with him at last!
Praying with the Father and the Spirit
King Jesus, the resurrection secured your throne.
You defeated death, sin and the devil.
Your cross of shame has become
Your scepter of everlasting rule!
Your Father has granted your desire,
And I rejoice along with you.
For as you reign, we all flourish.
As I bow the knee of my heart
To your will, life re-centers.
I see what matters.
You desire that your people be one.
One in faith, consecration and service.
You call your bride, the church, to fidelity.
You bring us with you to the Father,
Presenting us dressed in your holiness,
For you adorn us with a gown
Washed thoroughly in your blood 
Until it shines in unstained purity.
I admire and adore you O risen King,
And I will boast of you to others,
For I am proud of you, humble Sovereign.
You have done great things.
You took your thorns and wear them as a crown,
You display your wounds for all to see,
The magnificent defeat that wins the day.
I rejoice in your desire to share your glory
With us, sweeping us into the love of 
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 35

You Will Not Abandon Me
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 16
Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
   I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord;
   I have no good apart from you.”
As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones,
   in whom is all my delight.
The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
   their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
   or take their names on my lips.
The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
   you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
   indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
   in the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the LORD always before me;
   because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
   my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
   or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life;
   in your presence there is fullness of joy;
   at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
What Is This Psalm About?   
During Easter week, we focus on psalms of deliverance. When we have close calls, or get rescued from dire straits, thanksgiving overflows our otherwise dull hearts. We want to tell the story and give credit to the LORD who intervened when we were in serious trouble. In Psalm 16, David steps back from gratefulness for an individual incident to give thanks for the overall pattern of God’s continuing faithfulness to him. So great is the LORD’s steadfast love that David, for all his wars, failures and trials, can understand his life as a good one. He knows the secret to fulfillment in every circumstance: awareness of the presence of God. The LORD’s continual deliverance in this life points David to hope that he will not cease to exist when his body dies. Though understanding of the afterlife was very rudimentary in his day, David trusts that Sheol is not his final fate. He can be at peace. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Luke tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus opens the Scriptures for his disciples in such a way that they can see how he is the key that unlocks God’s Word. This specifically includes Jesus’ explanation of things “written about me . . . in the psalms” (Luke 24:44). He is getting the apostles ready for their mission of telling his story to the world.
Forty days after rising, Jesus returns to heaven in his resurrection body (Acts 1:9). Ten days later, as Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples in great power. A crowd rushes to the place where they hear a mighty wind. Hearing the disciples speaking praises in all the languages of the nations, the people wonder what this could mean. So Peter gives the first public message after Easter. He tells the story of Jesus, and the linchpin of his sermon is Psalm 16! Let’s listen in:
[T]his Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him. . . . (Acts 2:23-25)
Peter knows that David wrote and prayed Psalm 16 to describe the LORD’s faithfulness in his own life. He also knows that David wrote beyond himself, not in the sense of some mechanical prophecy, but in the realization that the patterns he saw ran higher and further than a mere man could experience. He knows that although the LORD has saved him from many scrapes with death, one day he certainly will die and his body will decay. 
Yet beyond the expectations of people in those days, David saw hope for life to come. This victory over the grave would have to be accomplished by David’s distant heir. So the voice speaking in the psalm more deeply than David belongs to Jesus (Reardon 30). As Ross puts it, “The language of Psalm 16 was excessive for the author’s understanding but became literally true for Jesus Christ” (1: 411). The Father did not leave Jesus’ soul in Sheol while his body rotted in the cave. He raised him. With this in mind, we can imagine Jesus praying Psalm 16 as he looks back with his Father on what has happened over the three years of his ministry on earth: 
The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup. Father, I chose you when the cup before me tasted deadly. That bitterness was my destiny. I drank our wrath against sin, drained the foaming cup. You turned into the overflowing cup of goodness
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Indeed, I have a beautiful heritage. It seemed that my territory was going to be only darkness. Sheol has no landmarks! No sweet habitations! I thought the reward for my life was going to be utter futility. But you shone into my midnight. You flooded black death with shimmering light. Now wherever this news goes, you make the desert bloom. You make death lead to more life than people have ever imagined. I would not wish my journey on anyone. Yet I can truly say what I received from your hand, all of it taken together, is glorious. 
O Father, in the trackless wasteland you made known to me the path of life. Sweeter now even than it had been in all eternity is our fellowship. In your presence, there is fullness of joy. Now, with you in the Spirit, I crave only the pleasure of seeing all these little ones grafted into our eternal fellowship.
Praying with Jesus
Oh Jesus, I see now how often
I wandered far down roads away from you,
Looking for life in dead places.
I scampered as a child who is heedless
Of the perils down the path, unaware
Of parents’ watchful care.
I know now that you, you alone
Are my Lord, my Savior, my God.
I have no good apart from you.
With you, I am, even in suffering
One to whom all good has come.
So today I thank you for taking the worst roads,
The hardest path, the darkest way,
So that I do not.
I rejoice with you that you were not abandoned
In Sheol, nor consigned to decay and corruption.
The shame you endured became joy.
Now at the Father’s right hand,
You have the pleasure of redemption
Which you so freely share.
May I receive and multiply your joy
As I share with hands and words
Your redeeming journey.


Posted in: Lent

Day 34

Praising in the Great Congregation
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 22:20-31 
Deliver my soul from the sword,
   my precious life from the power of the dog!
   Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of your name to my brothers;
   in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
   All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
   and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
   the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
   but has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
   my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
   those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
   May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember
   and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
   shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the LORD,
   and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
   even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
   it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
   that he has done it.
What Is This Psalm About?   
As we considered Jesus’ crucifixion, on Days 22 and 23, we read the first half of Psalm 22. We saw how this song gave Jesus lyrics for the horrible experience of spiritual forsakenness and bodily crucifixion. Ross describes how a psalm written hundreds of years before Jesus might be both true for its writer and speak beyond itself. He writes, “[T]o Christians the psalm finds its divinely intended meaning in Jesus Christ. How this worked was that the Spirit of God inspired the psalmist in the writing of this psalm so that he used many vivid and at times hyperbolic expressions to describe his own suffering that would ultimately be true in a greater way of David’s greater son, the Messiah” (1: 548).
Remarkably, this bleak psalm abruptly turns to the joy of being rescued.  Beginning with urgent pleas for deliverance, the psalmist employs vivid  metaphors for the enemy: “Save me from the thrusting sword, the snarling dog and the ravenous lion!” Then, abruptly, in the middle of a verse, without explanation, the psalmist declares himself rescued. The verb tenses shift from imperative (as in, “Do this!”) to the present perfect (“It has been done”). David’s despair of life itself suddenly becomes a passion to make known the LORD’s saving power among the people. Today, we’ll see how this second part of Psalm 22 has also been attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
In Psalm 22, David’s enemies seem to be mocking and torturing him to death, but the LORD hears and answers his plea before it’s too late. Jesus prays the forsakenness of verse 1 from the cross, but his Father does not spare him from death. This is the agonizing part of the agonizing plan. Jesus will die for the sake of the world he came to save. His deliverance will occur, but not until the third day. Then the Father declares that it is not too late. He sends forth the Spirit to raise the Son, reclothing him in a resurrection body. Our redemption is accomplished. 
Hebrews describes this transition from Jesus’ passion to triumph: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). The Father heard Jesus all along. He indeed saved his Son from death, but not until Jesus had passed through death, tasting it for all of us. 
The sudden change described in Psalm 22:21 occurs for Jesus between Good Friday and Easter. Jesus dies in this world. His voice sounds no more. Then it does. Jesus departs into the silence of death on Friday and then blinks awake in new life on Easter. How soon, alive in that cave, does he finish the psalm he started on the cross? Perhaps he wonders, “What do I do now?” Then he prays in his joy, “I will tell of your name to my brothers!”
John’s account helps us make this link. After appearing to Mary, Jesus instructs her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). He has healed the breach between God and humanity. Jesus creates in himself one new man (Ephesians 2:15). He stays fully human, still our brother in the flesh. He has now opened the way for us to participate in a new intimacy with his Father.
Jesus prays Psalm 22 even now, “In the midst of the congregation, I will praise you.” Jesus is present to us now by his Holy Spirit who resides in the heart of every believer. He is present by his Spirit whenever two or three (or three thousand) gather in his name (Matthew 18:20). So at every worship service, the real leader of praise is Jesus! He created our access to the Father. He receives worship as the eternal Son of God. He offers worship as the continuing son of humanity. Jesus even now raises a joyful voice, a lamenting voice, an interceding voice with us. Poet Malcolm Guite describes this mystery of making prayer in and through Jesus, “I sing my psalm in Christ who sings in me” (40). 
Praying with Jesus
Jesus, with David you prayed the glorious reality
Of being saved from death, through death, into life.
You pray even now the joy
That your passage through dark to light,
Through forsakenness to communion,
Will be told to every generation.
I rejoice with you to declare of the LORD,
“That he has done it.”
What no one could do, the triune God has done.
When I was lost beyond finding,
You sought me in the ruins.
He has done it!
When I was yet your enemy,
You died to make us friends.
He has done it!
When I was in bondage to death,
You rose to shatter its gates.
He has done it!
When this world looks so bleak,
You promise to return to set it right.
So I can say even of this future,
He has done it!
For you, Jesus, will surely do
All you have promised, 
And I praise your Father
With you in the Spirit today.


Posted in: Lent

Day 33

I Shall Not Die, But Live!
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 118:1, 12-21
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
   for his steadfast love endures forever!
They surrounded me like bees;
   they went out like a fire among thorns;
   in the name of the LORD I cut them off!
I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
   but the LORD helped me.
The LORD is my strength and my song;
   he has become my salvation.
Glad songs of salvation
   are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the LORD does valiantly,
   the right hand of the LORD exalts,
   the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!”
I shall not die, but I shall live,
   and recount the deeds of the LORD.
The LORD has disciplined me severely,
   but he has not given me over to death.
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
   that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
   the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation.
What Is This Psalm About?   
On Day 15, we looked at a later part of Psalm 118 and its connection to Palm Sunday. Today we recall that this was the last of the Hallel (praise) psalms prayed at every Passover. When Mark 14:26 tells us “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives,” we can be confident that Jesus and his disciples were singing Psalm 118. Today’s section would have given Jesus words of encouragement just before he entered the agony of Gethsemane. The Psalmist thanks the LORD for a mighty deliverance from near-fatal suffering. His words match the prayer of Jonah 2, “Out of my distress I called on the LORD” (Psalm 118:5, Jonah 2:2), quickly linking us to Jesus and his identification with Jonah (Day 31). 
Moreover, rejoicing over an individual deliverance leads to a communal celebration of the LORD’s mighty deeds. The one who was saved from death sees his redemption as the inauguration of a greater work of God for all the people. So he invites the congregation to join him in praise. Hence, we can see the psalm working in the past, future and present. It points backward to the first Exodus and forward to the “exodus” of Jesus from Sheol. It also gives present hope for the LORD’s people for the psalm points to the deliverance from death those united to Christ can expect. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Today, let’s lift out one verse, verse 14, and see where else this sentence occurs in Scripture. When we see the connection to the big story of God’s redeeming plan, we’ll gain an understanding of what it means for the risen Jesus to raise this song. Trust me now as I lead you down a windy path to find a lovely treasure. 
The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.
We’ve noted that our Bibles present the word LORD in all caps to translate the sacred name of God which is YHWH or Yahweh in Hebrew. What’s fascinating is that in this verse, the psalmist has written a shortened version of God’s name: Yah. Of the more than 6800 times God’s name is written in the Old Testament, only 48 times do we get this shortened form, mostly in the Psalms. Why? The one-syllable form of the name may well help in poetic meter. But more, it implies an intimacy that arises from faithful prayer in the same way that shortening the formal name of a loved one evokes a sense of familiarity and personal history, of connection and closeness.
The first use of Yah occurs right after the Exodus, within the Song of Moses, as Yah’s people rejoice that “he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). Moses sings, “Yah is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2). So we realize that Psalm 118:14 has directly quoted Moses’ song including the daringly intimate use of Yah. The psalmist links his personal deliverance to the mighty act on behalf of all the LORD’s people in the Exodus. Little wonder Psalm 118 made a perfect closing psalm for the annual celebration of Passover!
But there’s another significant connection. Isaiah 12 also quotes these same words not, however, in the context of looking back in thanks for a past deliverance, but looking forward in expectation of the future when the LORD would bring back a remnant of his people from exile:
You will say in that day:
“I will give thanks to you, O LORD, 
   for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
   that you might comfort me.
“Behold, God is my salvation;
   I will trust and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD [Yahweh Yah] is my strength and my song,
   and he has become my salvation.” (Isaiah 12:1-2)
Isaiah knew that the intimately close yet all-powerful LORD I AM not only saved in the past. He will redeem his people from desperate trouble in times to come. And a celebration equaling Passover joy will ensue. Whenever Isaiah wrote of the return from exile in Babylon, his words also pointed to a more distant future. For the state of human exile cannot be healed simply by a restoration of political freedom or a geographic homecoming. We need our deep alienation from God to be healed. Our inconsolable longing can only be assuaged when communion is restored. And that requires a great savior who will both suffer and conquer for us.
So now let’s think again about what it means for Jesus to exult on Easter, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of Yah.” When Jesus affirms that Yah, his Father, is his strength and song, he gathers together the whole story of redemption—past, present and future. This journey of his is the heart of bringing humanity home to dwell in the Father, Son and Spirit. In Yah
Praying with Jesus
How can it be, that I should call the Almighty
By such tender names?
Yah! My great God who is the song 
That sings through all the days of my life.
Yah! The strength that undergirds every trial,
So mighty, yet your touch accounts for my frailty.
Abba! Father!
As you taught me to pray, Lord Jesus.
Your Father and now mine,
Picks me up with ease
And holds me gently
With the strength of mountains.
Yah! You are my strength and song.
You have brought me home from exile,
You have made me human again,
You have returned me to the living
So I may declare to all those powers and people
That sought my downfall,
I shall not die, but live!
And proclaim the mighty deeds of Jesus
Who died and rose and lives
That I might cry with arms lifted up!
Yah! My God!


Posted in: Lent

Day 32

He Shatters the Doors of Bronze
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 107:1-3, 10-16 
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
   for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
   whom he has redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
   from the east and from the west,
   from the north and from the south. . . .
Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   prisoners in affliction and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
   and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor;
   they fell down, with none to help.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
   and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
   and burst their bonds apart.
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
   for his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he shatters the doors of bronze
   and cuts in two the bars of iron.
What Is This Psalm About?   
Psalm 107 begins with four vignettes about the LORD’s rescuing replies to people’s urgent pleas for help. Each time we hear “he delivered them from their distress.” So each time we’re called to worship: “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man.” In the episode before us today, the ones crying out were prisoners. Criminals justly punished for rebelling against the laws of God, lived without light behind bars, shackled in irons, exhausted from forced labor. Though they had no merit, no good deeds from which to launch an appeal, they cried out anyway. Miraculously, the LORD in his enduring love heard them and set them free. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
We widen our lens from viewing how Psalm 107 might have expressed Jesus’ personal joy at his resurrection to considering how his rising liberated multitudes of prisoners from sin and death. Early church theologians identified the interval between the cross and resurrection as the “Harrowing of Hell.” Although not depicted in the Bible, the concept developed that Jesus descended into the realm of the dead and freed the souls of the righteous who had died before his redemptive sacrifice. Through the centuries, this episode accrued some fanciful mythic elements, but at its core, it speaks to the profound and pressing questions of early believers: What about those awaiting a savior who died before Jesus? Does his atoning death and victorious rising apply to them? Does Christ work backward as well as forward? 
In Revelation, we hear Jesus say, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I [became] dead, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). On Friday, Christ went down to the house of death, seemingly its captive. But on Easter, he came back with its keys! In between, Jesus took ownership of death. Could it be that before his resurrection in this world, Jesus announced his victory to the dead who had faith in his coming?
In the second century, Melito of Sardis, an early bishop and theologian, adopted the first-person voice of Christ when he preached, “I am the one that destroyed death and triumphed over the enemy and trod down Hades and bound the strong one and carried off mortals to the heights of heaven.” Melito of Sardis, On the Pascha, section 102. Jesus’ sojourn in the realm of the dead could thus be understood as a liberation march. He set free the spirits of those who awaited him, allowing them to leave Sheol/Hades and be with him in the heavenly realm. That is just the future we hope for after death while we await resurrection bodies (Philippians 1:23; 3:21). 
Imagine Jesus reciting this portion of Psalm 107 knowing his death and resurrection have set free the captives who had longed for him: “He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart . . . and cuts in two the bars of iron.” The resurrection has cosmic significance! This singular moment, when the dead Jesus arose, ripples backward in time to those who came before and forwards to all who come before his return. Its power presses on us right now: “For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Of course, we don’t need to entirely agree with the idea of the “Harrowing of Hell” to sing Psalm 107 along with the risen Jesus. Believers paroled from sin’s incarceration testify to the liberating power of the Lord Jesus. So do those who have found Christ’s higher power to free them from the shackles of addictions. So do those who have broken free from the iron control of dominators, denigrators, even enslavers. So do those who have seen, beyond hope, tempers tamed, roadblocks dissolved, debts forgiven. Our experiences of such freedom rarely come in quick bursts but rather over months, even years, of daily trust and drawing upon Jesus. Yet, as we look back, we can pray Psalm 107 with the joy of Jesus who in so many ways commutes death sentences, gathers the discarded back into community, and brings beauty out of ashes.  
All the human race has been imprisoned in sin. We who were created for eternal life have been under the curse of mortality. We find ourselves unable to do the good we wish to do and constantly doing, saying and feeling what we do not wish to. We live in chains until the blessed Holy Spirit takes the journey of Jesus, descends into our dark hearts, shines light, and brings us to faith and so to life. 
Praying with Jesus
Today we pray with Jesus through the ancient Easter prayers of the Orthodox tradition.
When you descended to death, O Life Immortal, 
You slayed hell with the splendor of Your Godhead! 
And when from the depths You raised the dead, 
All the powers of heaven cried out: 
O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to You!
On this day You rose from the tomb, O Merciful One, 
Leading us from the gates of death.
On this day Adam exults as Eve rejoices; 
With the prophets and patriarchs 
They unceasingly praise the divine majesty of Your power!
You descended into death, O my Savior, 
Shattering its gates as almighty; 
Resurrecting the dead as Creator, and 
Destroying the sting of death. 
You delivered Adam from the curse, 
O Lover of Man, and we all cry to You: O Lord save us!
St. John Chrysostom, Divine Liturgy According to St. John Chrysostom (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1967), 150-1, 153


Posted in: Lent

Day 31

You Brought Up My Life
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Jonah 2:1-9
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, 
“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
   and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
   and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
   into the heart of the seas,
   and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
   passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
   from your sight;
Yet I shall again look
   upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
   the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
   at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
   whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
   O LORD my God.
When my life was fainting away,
   I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
   into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
   forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
   will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
   Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
What Is This Psalm About?   
Although it’s not officially part of the Psalter, Jonah 2 is a psalm. It is a song of grateful witness to the LORD who rescued the prophet from certain death. When the LORD called Jonah to preach repentance to the bloodthirsty city of Nineveh, Jonah ran away. He boarded a ship heading in the opposite direction. God, however, hurled a mighty wind, tossing the waves and threatening the ship. Jonah knew he had no choice, so, to save the ship, he asked the mariners to toss him into the sea. Even as Jonah hit the water, the winds stopped. Then the LORD sent a great fish to swallow up Jonah. For three days and nights, he cried out to be delivered from death under the sea. After he returned to the daylight world, Jonah composed a beautiful poem of thanksgiving, a psalm that overflows with the relief of salvation.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Matthew recounts how some of the skeptical Pharisees demand a sign from Jesus to authenticate his daring teaching and the rumors of his dramatic healings. Jesus gives them only a riddle: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:38-40).
As we’ve noted, Jesus knows he will eventually be put to death. He also knows he will rise. He draws on Jonah as a type, a preview illustration of his own fate. We can juxtapose these two prophets. The LORD called Jonah to a mission; Jonah fled. The Father anointed Jesus as the savior; Jesus consecrated himself in ministry from his baptism through the cross. 
When a tempest at sea threatened the ship, Jonah had enough experiential faith to realize the LORD caused the storm because of him. He knew he could not fight “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). So rather than crying out in repentance or asking the ship to take him back, Jonah let the sailors toss him into the waves.
In his ministry, Jesus created a tempest of resistance not to his Father, but to the rebellious world. Though he knew the storm would eventually kill him, Jesus carried on resolutely. Indeed his whole life was an enacting of Jonah’s words. Not from flight or fear, but from faithful obedience, Jesus pressed toward the defeat that he knew would be a victory for us! 
The sea raged because Jonah was on the run from the LORD and his commission. Jesus, by contrast, was the faithful man who set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem and the death to which he was called (Luke 9:51). He, the innocent prophet, let us unjustly throw him into a sea of blood and death that we, the guilty, might be spared the tempest of God’s wrath. Jesus made Jonah’s fearful words into a bold personal mission statement. It’s as if he said to the world which he came to save, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you” (Jonah 1:12). 
Though very opposite in heart and obedience, both men endured a transforming, hellish three-day journey. As he plummeted under the waves, Jonah felt tons of water pressing on him. But that load was light compared to the weight of sin piling on the savior’s soul in Sheol. Jesus the Son of God felt the horror: “I am driven from your sight.” The great fish that swallowed Jonah saved him from drowning but would soon have killed him. The sea monster of death that consumed Jesus meant to keep him forever. They both went to states from which no one returns.
Then both experienced miraculous rescue. They were saved from the great abyss of the ocean of death as well as the monster that inhabits it. Jonah emerged on shore from the mouth of the fish. Jesus emerged from the burial cave, coming out of the darkness into the light of resurrection. So both could declare joyfully, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!” With this understanding, we can read Jonah’s prayer as Jesus’ own. We can hear it as the recalling of a harrowing passage that astoundingly ended in triumph. The dire events of the song get recited almost joyfully because of the tremendous turn 
toward joy.
Praying with Jesus
Risen Jesus, rippling with life,
I love to recall the early writers of your story,
Who imagined Death as a great beast,
Devouring the choice cut of your holiness,
Consuming you as if to absorb you forever,
For no man ever escaped from Death’s belly.
But you, the Lord of life, 
Could not be digested by puny Death!
By the third day, Death groaned in agony.
Upheaval rocked the nether realm
Until Death ejected you back into the world,
Spat you like Jonah’s fish into the light.
Your preacher, John the Golden-Mouthed, prayed,
“Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome
By what it did not see.
“O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
“Christ is Risen, and you, 
O Death are annihilated.
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!”
John Chrysostom, “Easter Sermon”
“Christ in Hades” in Scenes from the Life of Christ. Spanish, 13th Century, The Cloisters, New York City. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 30

Mourning into Dancing
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 30
I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up
   and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
   and you have healed me.
O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
   you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints,
   and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
   and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
   “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O LORD,
   you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
   I was dismayed.
To you, O LORD, I cry,
   and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
   if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
   Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me!
   O LORD, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
   you have loosed my sackcloth
   and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
   O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
What Is This Psalm About?   
Several times in his life, David nearly died at the hands of enemies, and Psalm 30 is a joyful psalm of his personal deliverance. However, this psalm also came to hold collective significance especially as it relates to the temple. Through the centuries, God’s people knew the joys of the temple, and since about 165 BC this psalm had become a communal praise at Hanukkah (“dedication”). They also experienced sorrow at the temple’s desecration or destruction as when in 175 BC a Syrian ruler profaned it with idolatrous statues in a decade of oppression. However, when Judas Maccabaeus led the Jewish revolt, he cleansed the temple and re-dedicated it to the LORD I AM. Thus, Psalm 30 reflects the national joy that God has “not let my foes rejoice over me.” Early on, then, the church sang it in celebration that the new, true Temple, Jesus, had passed through desecration and death into resurrection. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Songs allow us to exaggerate, to colorfully say more in order not to say less of what an experience means. The psalmist’s situation was so dire, so deathly, that he praised God in terms of being lifted out of Sheol, the dark realm of the dead. However, what was evocative hyperbole for David becomes literal experience for Jesus. These poetically overstated words give accurate lyrics for the unique journey of Jesus. So Psalm 30 serves Jesus perhaps in preparation for his passion, giving him hope that joy will follow the shame. Certainly Psalm 30 is a magnificent song to raise as Jesus gets up in resurrection transformation. Let’s walk through it.
Remembering the taunts that reached his ears through pain, Jesus now sings about how his Father has “not let my foes rejoice over me.” He recalls the wrenching cry of dereliction, even his last inarticulate shout (Mark 15:37), and now, with life once again flowing through him, perhaps shaking his head because it seems almost too good to be true, he says, “I cried to you for help . . . and you brought up my soul from Sheol!”
Jesus accepted the wrath of his Father against our sin. It crushed him in disgrace and shame knowing, just two days earlier, “You hid your face; I was dismayed.” But on the other side, on Easter Sunday, he laughs with relief: “Weeping may tarry for a night [even the darkest night confined in Sheol] but joy comes with the morning.”
Let’s imagine how Jesus might have prayed:
O Father, I knew what was coming. But I had never experienced a disconnection from you. Every moment of my life had been in the prosperity of your presence. I could not know what hell would be until I entered it. Although I was a son, I could only learn the depth of obedience through what I suffered (Hebrews 5:8). 
Father, it got so hard. I asked you out of my agony, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit?” Indeed, the devil tempted me to despair that the last three years now meant nothing. To fear that these disciples could not get along without me. That your worship on earth would cease if my voice went silent. Ha! What profit in my death? Ho! Only this, that by this single offering of myself, salvation has been accomplished! All our loved ones will be forgiven and made new, offered to you in me!
Blessed Spirit, you are my helper, called alongside me in my flesh to enable me to make that offering when all hope was gone. Blessed Father, you are my helper, the one by whose command sin was placed on me, and I became the guilty one. And you are my helper, the only one whose voice could overturn my death sentence. You cleared my name forever. You sent the Spirit to raise me. As we planned, so it has been done!
My God, my God, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing.” You have stripped off the sackcloth of tattered flesh and clothed me in the gladness of a resurrection body.
You have given me glory. And my glory will resound in your praise throughout heaven and earth. And these beloved whom you have given me will be with us always. And I will always be one of them, joined to this humanity we love. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Praying with Jesus
Jesus, did you dance in that cave,
When all the pain was gone,
And health like you had never felt
In a body coursed through you?
Did it feel like waking from a bad dream?
Was it like what our writers have told?
Did you dance like Scrooge on Christmas morning, 
When he found he wasn’t cursed and dead,
But alive and free to love,
To give and rejoice and bless?
Were you like Sam when he woke,
Rescued from Mount Doom, to ask,
After the Ring had been destroyed
‘Is this when everything sad comes untrue?’
Was it like Aslan the great lion,
After he gave himself to save Edmund,
Shorn, bound and slain on the stone table,
Then suddenly, by the deeper magic
From before the dawn of time,
Made alive again?
‘Oh children, I think I need to roar!’
Is this the same joy I tasted
On the day you helped me die to self,
The moment you remade me,
Birthed me anew,
Gave me a presence that never leaves,
A forgiveness that ever cleanses,
A love that endures sorrow,
A hope for life that never ends?
With you I sing, I skip, I dance,
Weeping may tarry for the night
But joy comes with the morning.


Posted in: Lent

Day 29


Gaudenzio Ferrari. Christ Rising from the Tomb. 1530-1546, National Gallery, London.
Last week was grueling! Staying focused on the Savior’s suffering takes a toll on us, especially as we pray with him. The week ended in the darkness of the bleakest prayer in the Bible, Psalm 88. But this week, we get the joyful turn!
We will spend time imagining those first moments in the tomb when Jesus realized he was alive in the world again. While he looked at his fingers moving, felt his heart beat, breathed in the relief of pain’s departure, what might he have prayed? You may be surprised how many psalms suit the occasion of resurrection.
To prepare for this week, I have included a painting that fairly pops off the wall in the great first room of London’s National Gallery. It is a triumphant representation of Jesus emerging from the sepulcher. The artist depicts the sepulcher more as a European underground grave than an aboveground Middle Eastern tomb. This allows Ferrari to show Jesus as the conquering hero. He steps on the edge of the tomb in the way a victor in a great contest steps on his defeated foe. He raises his hand, greeting us in the dawn of a new day for all creation. Jesus takes the world stage as victorious Lord.
When I Awake
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 139:17-18, 23-24
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
   I awake, and I am still with you.
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
   Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting!
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
We looked at Psalm 139 on Day 1. Today we return to it as a prayer of Jesus on another first day, the beginning of a new creation. As we have been doing with the other events of Jesus’ history, let us consider the transformation of descent into rising through Jesus’ praying of the Psalms. It’s not much of a stretch of holy imagination to place the psalms that the church has always associated with resurrection on Jesus’ lips that early morning. 
Could we imagine some moments of prayer in the tomb when the crucified savior sat up? Working his way out of the linen shroud (Luke 23:53), brushing off the spice mix of myrrh and aloes in which he had been covered (John 19:39-40), and folding up the linen face cloth (John 20:7), perhaps prayers long stored in memory also arose. With wonder, even mirth, Jesus might have sung to his Father:
   If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:8b-12)
How true is that! The place of utter forsakenness turns out to be a place into which his Father could yet send the Spirit. Under the pathless sea of Sheol, the Father’s hand has always been leading him. As the sad Sabbath gives way to the first day of a new week, resurrection occurs. The inky, desperate darkness of Hades lights up like a summer noon. The Father turns it all around. He answers the questions we heard raised in Psalm 88: “Do I work wonders for the dead? Absolutely! Is my steadfast love declared in the grave? Oh, yes indeed! In the land of forgetfulness do I remember my beloved? Do I remind him of my wonderful righteousness? Just get up and see!”
The song of Psalm 139 continues with ancient lyrics perfectly fitting this moment for Jesus. Feeling the life surge through him, Jesus becomes aware of the vigor in his refashioned body. Perhaps now hearing the strong beat of his heart once speared, gazing at the fingers of his nail-spiked hand now moving freely without pain, or feeling the spring again in his once pinioned feet, Jesus sings:
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
     my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
  intricately woven in the depths of the earth. (Psalm 139:14-15)
David’s psalm marvels at how his life came from his mother’s womb. Jesus sings as one borne from a blacker darkness, gestated through the silent Sabbath for a rebirth as the firstborn of a new creation (Colossians 1:15).
David’s song wonders at the mystery of returning from sleep, from the daily journey into unconsciousness where one has no control and finding that the LORD has been watching over him the whole time. He rejoices that while he was adrift on the sea of sleep, the LORD yet upheld him with thoughts ever turned his way. Jesus rejoices, however, that through that deeper sleep of death, he had not, as he feared, been forgotten: 
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
I awake, and I am still with you. (Psalm 139:17-18)
In Hebrew, Greek and Latin, as well as English, “arising” carries the meaning of both waking up and getting up. So for centuries, a prayer at the beginning of the Latin liturgy for Easter morning has employed Psalm 139 with the emphasis, “I arise, and I am still with you.” Pope Benedict XVI, The Faith, p. 80. Jesus in resurrection awakens to the discovery that he had never been truly sundered from his Father. Although his experience exceeds any pain the rest of us could ever have undergone, the rupture occurred only in his vision and awareness. In reality, the forsaking Father and the forsaken Son remained united by the everlasting bond of the Spirit between them. This had all been part of the plan. 
At the resurrection, the Father vindicated the innocence of his Son, overturning humanity’s unjust verdict that he was worthy of death. How do we imagine this occurring? Did the voice of the Father’s declaration thunder throughout the realm of the dead with a concussive “Not Guilty!”? Or did his Spirit rush towards the Son like the father in the parable hitching up his robes and running down the road to welcome home the prodigal? Did a raucous, heavenly party ensue? 
Or, as Raniero Cantalamessa suggests, did the Father send his Spirit softly, as one wakes a sleeping? Raniero Cantalamessa, Life in Christ, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 75. In this case, the return to life was a gentle rousing, full of tenderness as the Son arises in an Easter dawn that is the shining countenance of his Father’s love. He speaks these sweet words from Psalm 139 as he lingers a moment with his Father before he leaves the cave to encounter us: “Oh Father, I awake and I am still with you.”
Praying with the Father and the Spirit
Wake up now, little one.
Hey, it’s time, time to get up.
The night is passed
And the day lies before us.
Come back to me, dear heart.
Look, I’m here. Always have been.
You’re ok. You’re ok.
It’s all over. And you’re fine.
More than fine.
Open your eyes, my lad.
See the sun shining 
As if for the first time.
Hear the birds.
Come out of the tomb
And breathe deep 
Sweet spring air.
You’ve got it all started.
All things being made new.
Take a moment,
Don’t hurry.
Just be here with me, alive.
I’m so proud of you.
This is my beloved Son!
In you I am well pleased.
Didn’t I tell them that all along?
Well done, little one.
Now, when you’re ready,
Go find your friends.
Let’s get this party started.
This my son was lost and is found,
He was dead and is alive.
Wake up!


Posted in: Lent

Day 28

Darkness Is My Only Companion
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 88:10-18 
Do you work wonders for the dead?
   Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
   or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
   or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O LORD, cry to you;
   in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
  Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
   I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
   your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
   they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
   my companions have become darkness.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
We linger, uncomfortably, for another day with this bleakest of psalms. We stay in that day between Good Friday and Easter. For the disciples, all is lost. The dream has shattered. Hope evaporates. And for Jesus? He has gone where we cannot follow. He is beyond our reach and so outside our 
definite knowledge.
However, Psalm 88, as a prayer of Jesus preparing for Holy Saturday or even one offered from the realm of the dead, opens up what that experience may have been like. The beginning of this section asks whether God’s wonders, love and faithfulness are acknowledged in “the land of forgetfulness.”  These four questions are, of course, rhetorical and express a sense of total loss and abandonment. When the psalmist asks, “Do you work wonders for the dead?” we confirm his desolation. Our minds cry out, “No! Not a chance. God leaves you in darkness. You’ll never get out. You’re a prisoner of death forever.” At this point, we’re all in with the hopelessness.
Although I’m happily a Presbyterian, I do explore insights from other traditions and find that we have much in common with evangelical Catholics. Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, mined great treasures from his studies of Jesus. Concerning Jesus’ sojourn among the dead, he writes:
Holy Saturday is . . . a unique and unrepeatable interval in the history of humanity and the universe in which God, in Jesus Christ, not only shared our dying but also our remaining in death—the most radical solidarity.
God, having made himself man, reached the point of entering man’s most extreme and absolute solitude, where not a ray of love enters, where total abandonment reigns without any word of comfort: “hell.” Jesus Christ, by remaining in death, passed beyond the door of this ultimate solitude to lead us too to cross it with Him. . . .
Even in the extreme darkness of the most absolute human loneliness, we may hear a voice that calls us and find a hand that takes ours and leads us out. Human beings live because they are loved and can love; and if love penetrated even the realm of death, then life also even reached there. In the hour of supreme solitude we shall never be alone. Pope Benedict XVI, The Faith, ed. Paul Thigpen (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2013), pp. 84-85.
Jesus’ descent to the realm of the dead on Holy Saturday assures us that he stays with us through the darkest passages of life and death. This event offers hope to those who have felt “darkness is my only companion.” Depression, grief, disassociation, paranoia and anxiety can all isolate us in hopelessness. That Jesus prays Psalm 88 as one of us, with us and for us, is like someone taking our hand in the dark to lead us gently back to light.
Rhetorical questions are not meant to be answered, much less contradicted. The narrator of Psalm 88 ends, like Jesus, in the realm of the dead, shunned by everyone. Jesus has fully experienced in his soul what happened at his arrest: “And they all left him and fled” (Mark 14:50). Only thick despair stays near him. But what if, beyond hope, God himself answered the four despairing questions of Psalm 88 with a resounding “Yes!”? That will be our focus next week.
Praying with Jesus
I watch a car with loved ones
Back out of the driveway, then
Roll away down the street.
Waving, I stay and watch until
I can no longer see the taillights.
They’re gone.
Will I ever see them again?
Anything could happen.
They’re going so far away.
Your shattered followers
Took you down as gently as they could
From the killing cross, wrapped you well,
Placed you tenderly on the shelf in the cave.
They slid the stone into place,
Their last sight of you was the darkness
Where your body would lay until it was just bones.
Will we ever see him again?
Anything could happen.
He’s going so far away.
They pressed their hands against the stone
Willing their hearts to follow you.
But it was cold, impenetrable.
Where are you? Do you know I love you?
I am standing out here crying.
But God has closed his ears to you and to me.
Now we’re all just stumbling in a fog.
Will I ever see you again?
Anything could happen.
You’re going so far away. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 27

You Put Me in the Depths
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 88:1-9  
?O LORD, God of my salvation,
   I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
   incline your ear to my cry!
For my soul is full of troubles,
   and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
   I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
   like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
   for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
   in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
   and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
You have caused my companions to shun me;
   you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
   my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O LORD;
   I spread out my hands to you.
What Is This Psalm About?   
This is the only lament that does not include some expression of rescue. In this psalm, there is no hope of future deliverance, no praise for expected salvation. It expresses the utmost desolation. And ends in despair. For centuries, this psalm was just waiting to express Jesus’ experience on Holy Saturday.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Jesus knew early on that he would be executed (Mark 8:31). As he read and prayed the Psalms, perhaps Psalm 88 prepared him for what lay ahead. In the song, death draws so near that the singers explore what comes after life on the earth. A grim image appears: a body sloughed into a grave, of no further use to the living. But worse, the psalm imagines that in the underworld realm of Sheol, the dead are forgotten not only by people but by God himself. The dead are cut off. Only the awareness of God’s wrath against sin remains. They feel the weight of God’s disfavor having reached the grim destination to which all sin leads—death. A man drawing near to such a fate gets the stench of death about him. He becomes a very horror to his companions. Hopeless, he sees little else but this dim, lonely fate. 
Praying such a psalm, Jesus realizes what lies ahead for a man who will die under condemnation and curse. He gets fair warning of the tortuous road ahead. Perhaps knowing that took some of the surprise out of his passion so he could begin to master the fear that would come. With the Psalms as his prayerbook, Jesus goes fully aware to the cross.
Upon death, Jesus experiences what all human beings experience. The unity of body and soul breaks, and the spirit leaves the body and enters the realm of the dead. The Bible’s descriptions of Sheol are poetic, describing in graphic metaphors what is beyond knowing right now. It’s not clear how much consciousness Jesus has about Sheol on that black Sabbath of Holy Saturday. Can he pray? Or is he just suspended, waiting with or without hope? Psalm 143 grimly states, “The enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead.” We can’t know for sure what occurred in Sheol, but I believe it’s important that we not move too quickly to Easter joy. This interval between the cross and resurrection occurs for a reason.
German theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar imagines, with fear and trembling, Jesus’ dereliction:
What you suffer is a shapeless fear. It is a sea of fear without shores, fear-in-itself. The fear which is the core of sin. The fear of God and his inescapable judgment. The fear of hell. The fear of never again seeing the face of the Father for all eternity. The fear that love itself and every creature with it have dropped you irretrievably into the abyss. You fall into the bottomless; you are lost. Not the faintest shimmer of hope delimits this fear. For in what could you still have hope? That the Father might still pardon you? He will not, cannot, does not want to do it. Only for the price of your sacrifice does he intend to pardon the world, not you. . . .
“Father,” you cry out, “if it is possible. . . .” But now it is not even possible. Every fragment and shred of possibility has disappeared. You cry into the void: “Father!” And the echo resounds. The Father has heard nothing. You have sunk too low into the depths. . . . The Father has gone over to your enemies. . . . Are you sure that he still really exists? Is there a God? Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Heart of the World, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1980), 109-110.
The events of the cross and sojourn in Sheol are not just religious business transactions. The faith required of Jesus to commit himself to his Father at the last is not born of some easy sense that the end of the play was already a given. He is not merely acting out a character whose role did not touch his real being. His faith rises through the excruciating pain of true flesh and the shattered soul of a real man.
Praying with Jesus
Jesus, you went to the silent place,
To the dark abyss where no light comes.
You went and waited.
Did you expect release?
Or did you feel only defeat?
Any moment in that realm
Would feel like an eternity.
So lonely for you!
So cold, so suffocating,
So deafening a silence,
So far from anything.
Did you remember life?
Could you express trust?
There is so much I don’t know.
But I speculate in order not to miss
Feeling a bit of what you felt,
Drawing near to you there,
To realize with a shudder
What I do not have to face alone.
I do not go into the night of death
Without a light.
For you took midnight
And gave me dawn.


Posted in: Lent

Day 26

Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 31:1-5, 12-16, 22
?In you, O LORD, do I take refuge;
   let me never be put to shame;
   in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
   rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
   a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
   and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
   for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
   you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God. . . .
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
   I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
   terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
   as they plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O LORD;
   I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
   rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
Make your face shine on your servant;
   save me in your steadfast love!
I had said in my alarm,
   “I am cut off from your sight.”
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
   when I cried to you for help.
What Is This Psalm About?   
These selections from Psalm 31 reflect once more a soul in distress who cries out to the LORD. The psalmist expresses both urgent present need and gratitude that the help has come, and the heart of the song is his clear affirmation of trust. Among the strongest examples anywhere in Scripture, the faith of the psalmist involves fullout surrender and reliance on the LORD. So by the end of this psalm, he can bear witness to God’s faithfulness and exhort everyone to find courage as they love our saving God. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
The Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death in consistent yet slightly varied ways. It’s not clear which words of Jesus are actually his last. Traditionally, Jesus’ adaptation of Psalm 31:5 is presented as his final words. Luke records, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). 
For some, this prayer indicates that Jesus experiences a restoration of his fellowship with his Father. He realizes at the end that the offering of his life as atonement has been accepted. He can die in peace because he feels again the shining pleasure of his Father’s face. 
That may well be. Yet I think there’s great spiritual encouragement from considering that Jesus remains under dereliction all the way through his death. Jesus’ praying of Psalm 31 could be an act of sheer faithfulness which he flings against the wall of the Father’s resolutely turned back. This would mean that facing utter nothingness, with no trace of his Father to be found, Jesus still surrenders himself in fidelity and trust.
In the narrative flow of this psalm, the poet puts himself into God’s hands while he is still seeking a full deliverance. His trust is based on past experience, but he offers that faith before these present difficulties have been resolved. Further on in verses 13-15, Jesus finds words he can ride through despair into trust even if he has little hope of rescue. Right now, on the cross, there is “terror on every side. . . . But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’” It may feel to Jesus as if the Father has disowned him as a son. Yet Jesus resolutely will not give up on his Father. No matter what, the LORD belongs to him as his Father and God. 
Thomas Torrance sees staggering importance in Jesus’ praying Psalm 31 at death. Nothing less than the fate of humanity is at stake! If Jesus fails at the last, we are lost forever. Torrance sees Jesus in that moment finishing his work of bending back the fallen, rebellious human will to the faithfulness originally intended for us. He writes that Jesus, “answered for us to God . . . in his terrible descent into our God-forsakenness . . . he plumbed the deepest depths of our estrangement and antagonism . . . [H]e reconstructed and altered the existence of man, by yielding himself in perfect love and trust to the Father.” Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), p. 124. So whereas our first parents sinned in the paradise of Eden, Jesus obeys from the hell of Golgotha. In this way, he fulfilled his mission to be the last Adam, the very remaking of humanity.
Another great theologian, C. S. Lewis, sheds light on this episode for us in his classic The Screwtape Letters. The book imagines an older demon instructing a younger demon about how to ruin human faith. In Letter VIII, Screwtape raises alarm about the power when humans are faithful despite feeling forsaken:
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. The Screwtape Letters (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1942), Letter VIII.
Indeed, evil’s cause is lost as Jesus commits his spirit to a God he cannot feel but trusts by sheer will of faith. In his faith he proclaims the unexpected hope in Psalm 49:15, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
Praying with Jesus
I doubt at the least resistance.
In truth, I doubt when there is no resistance!
Amid every blessing from you,
I go seeking my own way.
I take my life out of your hands
And run with it.
So my weak and rebel heart
Gazes in awe at your fidelity, Lord Jesus.
Every kind of agony fell on you.
We coined the word “excruciating”
For the bodily torture of a cross.
We use the word “desolation”
For the empty despair you felt
At being left by the Father
When you needed him most.
You had every reason to curse God and die.
Die you did, but not in anger.
Blind to the everlasting arms underneath
You leapt in faith into hands
That seemed absolutely absent.
And so you did what no human had done.
Gate to gate in fidelity, 
You lived the truly human life. 
You would not let God go,
Even if it felt like he left you.
Shall I not, today,
Entrust myself to such a faithful savior?
Shall I not step boldly into a future I do not know,
Except that it cannot be as dark as your way,
Except that you have traversed all voids,
Weathered every desert, plumbed every abyss
That I might walk companioned,
Oh my Lord and my God!


Posted in: Lent

Day 25

I Thirst
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 69:1-3, 16-21    
Save me, O God!
   For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
   where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
   and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
   my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
   with waiting for my God.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
   according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Hide not your face from your servant,
   for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.
Draw near to my soul, redeem me;
   ransom me because of my enemies!
You know my reproach,
   and my shame and my dishonor;
   my foes are all known to you.
Reproaches have broken my heart,
   so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none,
   and for comforters, but I found none.
They gave me poison for food,
   and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
The long hours on the cross drag towards their inevitable conclusion as Jesus’ strength wanes. Still, he prays desperately amidst the devastation of his soul and the urgent demands of his body for relief. Psalm 69 expresses his continuing sense that the Father hides his face from his beloved Son. This divine absence, along with the human malice hurled against him, makes Jesus lament, “Reproaches have broken my heart. . . . I looked for pity, but there was none.” Blood and sweat run down into his eyes, though the direst impairment of vision is his heart’s futile scanning for signs of God. Mournful, utter defeat pulls him under like a rising flood. This song of David fits the paradox of Jesus’ predicament. He feels like he’s drowning in deep waters even as his parched throat burns from dehydration, gasping for breath, and croaking out his need: “I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched.” This echoes what we read yesterday in Psalm 22, “my tongue sticks to my jaws.”
Near this point, John reports that “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst’” (John 19:28). Which Scripture fulfills a declaration of severe thirst? Perhaps this verse from our psalm is about his burning dry throat. Perhaps it is the verse we read from Psalm 22:15, “My tongue sticks to my jaws.” We cannot overlook the tragic irony. At the Feast of Booths, Jesus cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37). To the woman at the well, he promised, “The water that I give . . . will become. . . a spring of water welling up to eternal life”(John 4:14). How he longs now for just a drop of that water he once promised.
One of the onlookers at the cross takes Jesus’ “I thirst” as a request. John tells us, “A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth” (John 19:29). This is, perhaps, soldiers’ cheap wine. Although like vinegar it makes the lips pucker, this wine also soothes the dry throat enough to strengthen the voice. The connection to “and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” in our psalm is unmistakable.
What could be the significance of Jesus’ receiving this sour wine? One possibility relates to the Passover from the previous evening. Traditionally, four cups of wine were shared. We noted on Day 17 that during the Last Supper Jesus offered the wine of the third cup, the cup of blessing and redemption, as his own blood. The fourth cup would normally be shared as the joyful conclusion of the meal. According to Matthew, Jesus does not drink the fourth cup. Mark records, “Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Could it be that the fourth cup is this sour wine on the cross? 
This idea links to what John describes next: “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). In Latin, Jesus’ final words in John are consummatum est. One of the names for the fourth cup in the traditional Passover is “The Cup of Consummation.” This sip from a sponge triggers the last moment. Jesus dies. This is the finish, the conclusion, where it has all been leading. Jesus has drunk the fourth cup.
The four cups of wine in the Passover have their origin in the fourfold promise the LORD made to captive Israel in Exodus 6:6-7. We looked at the third promise on Day 17. So what is promised as the fourth cup is raised? In Exodus 6:7 we read: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out of from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” The Cup of Consummation celebrates God’s fulfilling the essential covenant promise of “I will be your God.” He takes the people out of slavery into the Promised Land, fulfilling his intimate relationship with his people.
Hebrews makes this connection, declaring that Jesus came so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Jesus becomes one of us, claiming back his people through a death that both atones for sin and liberates us from slavery to death. The deepest meaning of the Passover finds fulfillment as Jesus drinks the sour wine and declares with dying triumph, “It is finished.”    
Praying with Jesus
You are the Word of life, Lord Jesus.
I wince to think that the Voice
Which called the worlds into being, 
Can barely whisper from strain.
I listen aghast as that Voice
Which bubbled as the fountain of life,
Which cast out demons and
Summoned the dead from graves
Now withers in burning dryness. 
I hear you croak, “I thirst.”
Urgently I would bring you cool water.
But someone holds up the sour wine
On a stick. Such an insult!
Yet you receive it as the festive cup
Of your Passover fulfillment.
Your blood will be on my heart’s door,
Saving me from eternal guilt.
You undertake the passage of
The Red Sea of death,
That I might be one of your people
And you become my beloved God


Posted in: Lent

Day 24

Poured Out Like Water
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 22:7-21a
All who see me mock me;
   they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him;
   let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
   you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
On you was I cast from my birth,
   and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Be not far from me,
   for trouble is near,
   and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me;
   strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
   like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
   it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
   and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
   you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me; 
   a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
   they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
   and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, do not be far off!
   O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
   my precious life from the power of the dog!
   Save me from the mouth of the lion!
What Is This Psalm About? 
Written centuries before the Romans perfected the practice of crucifixion, the next section of Psalm 22 eerily describes suffering commensurate with being hung on a cross to die. Morbidly drawn to suffering, gawkers gesture and mock, diminishing the victim’s struggle for life. The pain multiples. Nailed hand and foot to the wood. Dislocation of joints as the killing beam slams into place. Stripped naked and stretched so heaving ribs show. Severe dehydration from the preparatory flogging and further blood loss from being pierced. Dry tongue sticking to the mouth’s roof. Heart racing to pump blood no longer there. “Melting” down in hypovolemic shock. Exhaustion from pulling oneself up just to breathe. The evaporation of courage as the hope of survival dies. 
Whatever David experienced that birthed his words, surely the Spirit inspired him for this future meaning. When the gospel writers recalled the events of the cross, they made particular reference to the links in Psalm 22. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Only what resides deep inside a person can come to mind under extreme stress. Jesus learned, discussed, prayed, sang and internalized Scripture all his life. We cannot know specifically how the rest of the words of Psalm 22 come to Jesus during crucifixion. But the gospel writers certainly bring this psalm to bear in their description of the event. Perhaps Jesus meditated upon Psalm 22 in quiet hours before the passion. Or perhaps as the horror unfolds, he simply has the sense that these forms of suffering are not a surprise as if he thinks, “This is what I read about. This is how it must be.” Either way, let’s imagine what this section might mean to Jesus on the cross. Notice the phrases from Psalm 22 that reverberate in the Gospel accounts:  
All who see me mock me . . . they wag their heads. Notice the phrases from Psalm 22 that we can highlight in Matthew’s account: “And those passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying 
. . . ‘If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him’” (Matthew 27:39-43). 
The people enjoy the spectacle of someone carrying the rage we all feel, experiencing even more helplessness than the rest of us. The priests, so often threatened by Jesus, knowingly use Scripture to taunt this would-be teacher of Israel. Shaming is in full swing. 
From my mother’s womb. David in his distress recalls the comfort of maternal love. Feeling such scorn, I imagine Jesus thinks of Mary, the one whose love is most reliable in all the world. He sees her, and, despite his pain, considers her future. He also sees John, the beloved disciple. So he makes a request: “Woman, behold, your son!” And to John he says, “Behold, your mother!” So we read “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:25-27).
They divide my garments. John 19:24 quotes this verse from Psalm 22 occurring at the crucifixion. The Romans stripped a criminal naked for crucifixion in part to shame him but also because, being as good as dead, he would have no further need for his clothing. The soldiers gamble to see who gets Jesus’ valuable seamless garment. Seeing this sick game played out underneath him, Jesus knows he is truly a lost cause. 
I am poured out like water. . . . My heart is melted within my breast. Psalm 22 depicts physical suffering eerily applicable to crucifixion. The psalm fills in the sparely written gospel accounts with gruesome bodily details.
You lay me in the dust. Scholar Allen Ross notes that verse 15 “expresses the most troubling part of the lamentation, that God seems not only to have abandoned him, but is involved in his destruction. . . . [I]t was God who was putting him in the grave. The nuance of the imperfect tense stresses that God is now doing this” (1: 539). In recalling or praying Psalm 22, Jesus sees the torture inflicted on him by people as being the action of his Father who seems to have left him.
Praying with Jesus
When it all goes wrong,
I have recalled my mother’s love.
She always saw beyond
Whatever crushed me in the moment
To a future for me she believed.
I know not everyone has such a rock,
And that is a grievous loss.
But I’m sure you felt it, Jesus.
Your mother welcomed you
Into this world with holy words,
“Let it be to me according to your will.”
She accepted the sword that would one day
Pierce her own soul as it did yours.
I’m glad she stood by you when others fled.
I’m glad you reached out to your Father,
Amidst that forsakenness,
Through recalling Mary’s love and faith.
My heart stirs to know you thought of her
As your heart raced towards its end.
You gave John and Mary to each other.
And somehow that is a way in for me
To reach toward you in your agony.
May I realize this day when I have a chance
To link my name with yours,
My life to the mystery of your death.
May I care for those you have commended to me
As a way of comforting you. 
May my heart keep a channel open
To the pain described in this psalm,
That I might draw love from you. 



Posted in: Lent

Day 23

Why Have You Forsaken Me?
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 22:1-8
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
   and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
   enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
   they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
   in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
   scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
What Is This Psalm About?  
This searing lament pours out from someone undergoing severe torment from enemies. Death appears imminent. He cries to God for deliverance but, at first, perceives no reply. David feels absolutely abandoned. The language is so extreme that it seems like poetic hyperbole. Who could come back from such torture to write this beautifully? Yet from earliest days, Jesus’ disciples see that what may have been extreme poetic language for David becomes horrifyingly descriptive of what Jesus undergoes on the cross.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
How can we grasp Jesus’ despair? We can inch towards remembering small abandonments. Like when texts repeatedly don’t get answered. Then your number gets blocked. Then no one will answer the door. Suddenly, sickeningly, comes the realization you are no longer wanted. Or bigger abandonments. The night the loved one, the needed one, departs without explanation. Disappears forever, leaving you with the lonely embarrassment. And the enduring shame that you must have done something to deserve this, though you know not what. 
On the cross Jesus feels the dismay of feeling abandoned without cause. All his life, he has felt the Father’s presence and pleasure. He has rejoiced because he is the beloved Son. Untainted by the obscuring effects of sin, Jesus has continually experienced God’s favor. The way we feel the sun’s warmth, Jesus has felt the Father’s shining upon him. The Father’s enveloping love is the atmosphere of Jesus’ life.
Until now. Hung on the cross in physical agony, Jesus reaches with his soul towards his Father. But he can’t find him. God seems gone. At high noon, darkness falls across the land (Matthew 27:45). To the people on the ground, the sun has stopped shining. For Jesus, it is worse. His Father’s face no longer shines on him in blessing. Rather, a place inside Jesus that has always been filled to overflowing has emptied utterly. Where is the Father? As we have seen, when stress presses in on Jesus, Scripture flows from his lips. Now he cries, in his desperation, words he has learned but never before experienced: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 
Theologians call this the “moment of dereliction.” A derelict building is an abandoned building which, no longer fit for human occupancy, will be demolished. A derelict person no longer seems fit for society. Disengaged from usual interaction and all the responsibilities that make life feel valuable, a derelict appears bound for the pit. To enter dereliction is to be discarded, to become dumpster material, thrown in the barrel and forgotten, abandoned without regret.
So in this moment of extreme abandonment and rejection, Jesus cries out, “Why?” The second part of Psalm 22:1 amplifies the first part: “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” Ross translates this as “the words of my roaring” (A Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, p. 531). The Lion of Judah bellows the pain of God-forsakenness. On the cross, God feels abandoned by God and yells out, “This can’t be right! Father, come back to me!” 
If we follow the psalm beyond the verse Jesus speaks, we gain further insight into Christ’s unique pain. The psalmist recalls how the Israelites, the people of the LORD, had always cried out to God in their suffering, and in time, the LORD had always delivered them. The heart of Israel’s worship is praise because the heart of Israel’s experience is that the LORD is a faithful and mighty deliverer: “In you they trusted and were not put to shame.” God never abandons his people. Thus, the ancient covenant promise “I will be your God and you will be my people” always gave hope (Exodus 6:7, Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:28). In times of trouble, the people have continuously drawn upon what the LORD has done in the past to fulfill his eternal promises. 
But now Jesus feels as if in his case the LORD has voided his sacred oath. Jesus experiences eviction from the covenant community, indeed from common humanity: “But I am a worm, not a man.” Jesus cannot expect divine intervention because right now he seems no more a unique image bearer of God than a worm squashed by a plow. The mocking of the crowd confirms his exile to this nonhuman category. Jesus is the scapegoat. He carries the sin, shame, venom and vitriol of everyone else. 
All our experiences of abandonment pour into his dereliction. He takes as his own our most nauseating moments of being discarded. The humiliation when others walked away, the shattered trust of being tossed aside when we yearned for embrace, the shame of being dropped like a lump of burning coal, all of this flows through Jesus’ cry, “My God, my Father, why have you forsaken me?”
When we tap into our own deep, discomforting memories and they begin to flow, we can direct that tearful stream to Jesus on the cross. We can experience empathy for him. In his direst isolation, we can offer him communion. We go to the cross to give our experience to Jesus as a tiny bit of understanding of his forsakenness. We can, in prayer, be discarded with him. We can taste in a new way what Paul means when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ.” And if we brave such an offering, we just may receive an entrée into this mystery for “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Praying with Jesus
Danger! Keep out!
Signs on derelict buildings warn us
To stay away.
Jesus, it’s as if police tape
Made of adamantine
Surrounds your suffering.
Do not cross!
You are alone.
I want to draw near.
Not as much as I want to stay away.
I fear the shaming crowd.
I fear the power of guards.
But most of all I fear the horror
That rises like bile from my stomach
To see one abandoned by God.
The look on your face,
The shock of being discarded,
Dispensed with, spurned,
Guilty of every charge.
You look as if you just realized
Your Father himself
Declared you an enemy,
Even plotted your ruin.
I want to despise you,
To be sure I am not associated
With one so accursed.
Oh, open my eyes to see
That as surely as you are nailed to the beams
You are nailed to the weeping Father’s arms
Which embrace you even though he cannot
Let you feel his fierce love right now.
Receive my pain from when I have been left
As a drop of sympathy from me to you,
A faint kinship in forsakenness
By which I would say, “I’m here”
As you go into that dark hell.


Posted in: Lent

Day 22


James Tissot. What Our Lord Saw from the Cross. 1890, Brooklyn Museum.

In stress, what’s deepest inside us is what comes out. Under immense spiritual pressure and in extreme physical agony, what emerges from the mouth of Christ are prayers from the Psalms. Squeeze Jesus and out come psalms. This week we linger at the cross. We will enter the rending passion of these horrible six hours. We’ll linger over the meaning of the psalms he quoted. We’ll contemplate where his spirit went on Good Friday and how the psalms of deepest lament might have prepared him.
This week’s painting by James Tissot gives us a unique perspective of the crucifixion in that it presents the scene from the viewpoint of Jesus on the cross. In effect, then, we are looking out through Jesus’ eyes down on the people who stand below him: the faithful lamenting women who loved him, the sneering religious officials, the bored but potent guards, and the mob who came for entertainment. The whole human panoply watches the Savior give his life for us. As we prepare to pray as Jesus prayed from the cross, take a moment to look and see what Jesus saw from his rough perch. 
Father Forgive Them
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 51:1-4a, 9-15
Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
   and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
   and done what is evil in your sight. . . .
Hide your face from my sins,
   and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
   and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
   O God of my salvation,
   and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
What Is This Psalm About?  
This is a prayer of raw confession followed by an earnest plea for forgiveness. The superscription identifies Psalm 51 as composed by David following his confrontation with the prophet Nathan. “You are the man!” declared Nathan as he exposed David’s affair with Bathsheba, the subsequent murder of her husband, and the weeks of cover-up. David, still the man after God’s own heart despite his grievous acts, broke wide open: “I have sinned against the LORD.” His psalm expresses the breach in our relationship with God which every sin, great or small, creates. He articulates just how much we have lost. He cries out for the restoration every heart craves. Accordingly, this song has been cherished across the centuries and cultures.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Following the sham trial, the authorities take Jesus to Pilate the Roman governor. Though Pilate wants to release Jesus, the religious authorities whip the crowd into a frenzy of shouting, “Crucify!” The governor relents and sentences Jesus to crucifixion. 
The first of Jesus’ seven last sayings on the cross were recorded by Luke: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:33-34).
Jesus does not deserve in any way to be there. He has committed no sin in thought or deed. But he does not rail against his torturers. He does not protest his innocence in bitterness and indignation. Rather, Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who unjustly execute him. This in itself is remarkable. Who could be so other-focused in the midst of such suffering?
But there is more going on here from both the side of man and the side of God. On the human side of the crucifixion, the wrath of humanity which rebels against God has nailed Jesus to the killing tree. The Jewish and Roman officials have given expression to the rage in every heart. For the cross reveals the truth about us. We are by nature haters of God (Romans 1:30). Our default position is to be “lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). 
However, on the divine side, Jesus is on the cross by the eternal plan of the triune God. Now, by his own design, he also receives the wrath of God against all the distortion, crushing, consuming and twisting within humanity’s evil. There is a great, awe-inspiring mystery occurring. Paul describes this marvel in a succinct, powerful sentence: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It’s just that clear. Paul employs a straightforward word used more than 570 times in the New Testament. Poieo means to do or make. God did something. He made Jesus into sin. Jesus the sinless one became the essence of sin so that we the sinners might become the very righteousness of God. 
This is the one who prays, “Father, forgive them.” In this moment Jesus is not being forgiven for sins he did not commit. Rather, he takes our sins as his own, accepting our guilt, and prays for our release from the burden of them. From the beginning, we have seen how Jesus identifies with sinful humanity. He stands with us—he stands in for us—supremely on the cross.
Just here, we can imagine Jesus, the sinless one, praying Psalm 51 on behalf of all sinners. That’s how much he identifies with us. More passionately than even the convicted and grievously guilty David, Jesus our spotless Lamb confesses sin and prays for forgiveness as one of us. 
Take a minute now to read back through our excerpts from Psalm 51. Imagine Jesus on the cross, bearing our sin and confessing our sin as his own. Say the words aloud if you can, praying with Jesus as he prays for us.
Praying with Jesus
Jesus, you lead our worship
As our brother in the flesh.
I know that, but I tremble
To realize you confess sin
With me, for me, as me on the cross.
Have mercy on me a sinner!
You plead in my place
With an authentic contrition,
A perfect repentance,
And a pure desire to be restored
To the joy of salvation.
Cleanse me from my sin!
You pray even as you cleanse
The very sins of mine you confess
In the blood you shed on the tree.
Take not your Holy Spirit from me!
You pray as you give up your Spirit
So that passing through lonely death
You will be able to share your Spirit
With me when you are restored.
Oh, Lord Jesus, all this, all this
As you take the nails and the spite
And say, “Father forgive.”


Posted in: Lent

Day 21

Before the Authorities
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 35:1, 7, 11-12, 15-19, 21, 24, 25b
Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me;
   fight against those who fight against me!
For without cause they hid their net for me;
   without cause they dug a pit for my life.
Malicious witnesses rise up;
   they ask me of things that I do not know.
They repay me evil for good;
   my soul is bereft.
But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered;
   they gathered together against me;
wretches whom I did not know
   tore at me without ceasing;
like profane mockers at a feast,
   they gnash at me with their teeth.
How long, O Lord, will you look on?
   Rescue me from their destruction,
   my precious life from the lions!
I will thank you in the great congregation;
   in the mighty throng I will praise you.
Let not those rejoice over me
   who are wrongfully my foes,
and let not those wink the eye
   who hate me without cause.
They open wide their mouths against me;
   they say, “Aha, Aha!
   Our eyes have seen it!”
Vindicate me, O LORD, my God,
   according to your righteousness,
   and let them not rejoice over me!
Let them not say, “We have swallowed him up.”
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
After Jesus finishes his prayer struggle in Gethsemane, he rouses his sleeping disciples. He is resolved to complete his passion. Now it all unfolds as if according to a script he knows well: “The hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand” (Mark 14:41-42). Judas identifies Jesus to the authorities by kissing Christ in the manner of a friendly greeting. The guards grab Jesus who calmly asks if they think he is a robber who must be subdued by force. He exposes their cowardice as he points out how every day he has been teaching publicly, but they seize him now in secret at night. As we know, Jesus could have stopped them. Instead, as if he were in total control of the situation, he submits to arrest saying, “But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” This is how the drama is meant to be played out. 
I wonder if Jesus draws strength from Psalm 35 as he endures the charade of a trial before the council. The Gospels tell us that “many bore false witness against him” (Mark 14:57; Matthew 26:60). Though these testimonies do not even agree, Jesus hurts to hear his love maligned as dangerous. He winces as the authorities sneer, snarl and snap at him: “Like profane mockers . . . they gnash at me with their teeth.” He has offered healing, forgiveness, hope and words of life. Does he now, as they slander him, pray to his Father? Even though he expects this treatment, perhaps his wounded heart reaches upwards crying, “They open wide their mouths against me; they say, ‘Aha, Aha! Our eyes have seen it!’ Vindicate me, my Father! Let them not rejoice over me.”
With the peace he gained in the Garden, Jesus holds his peace before the authorities. Mark tells us, “But he remained silent and made no answer.” So they work themselves up into an ever frothier lather of malice. The high priest asks pointedly, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus breaks his silence. He answers by combining Psalm 110:2 and Daniel 7:13 as words about himself: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). The room erupts. The high priest tears his sacred clothes as a sign of horrified offense. 
Jesus, of course, has only told the truth. Earlier, he quoted Psalm 35 to his disciples when he said, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause’” (John 15:23-25).
The high priest’s tearing of his clothes actually breaks the law. The beautiful blue ephod or over-garment of the high priest was specially woven so that it would never tear (Exodus 28:32). And though other Hebrews might tear their garments in grief, Moses had told Aaron, “[D]o not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation” (Leviticus 10:6). Yet Caiaphas tears his garments. This act symbolizes that the Levitical priesthood is coming to an end as the priesthood of Christ reaches fulfillment (which we will explore on Day 41). The old order is crumbling. In their rage, the authorities condemn Jesus to death. Our true high priest will offer himself as the true atoning sacrifice. 
How does Jesus stay calm under this barrage? Perhaps by leaning heavily on Psalm 35, he gives the struggle to his Father: “Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me. . . . Let them not say, “We have swallowed 
him up.”
Praying with Jesus
They dedicated their lives to the Scriptures.
Yet when you came, the Word in flesh,
They felt only menace, heard only blasphemy.
They had more to lose than many you healed.
They had always been on the right side.
So you had to be wrong.
How hard it must have been 
To hear your words twisted,
To be labeled a danger,
An existential threat to the nation.
To be told you deserved death
When you came to give life.
You were repaid evil for good, Jesus.
O Spirit, strengthen me to take my stand
With our maligned Lord,
To share his shame if needed,
To let his words crush my pride
So my pride does not bruise his heart,
To let his narrow path guide me
So I don’t forsake him down an easy road.


Posted in: Lent

Day 20

Gethsemane: In God I Trust
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 56
Once more, as you read, kneel beside Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Join your heart to his voice as he prays this psalm. Let your emotions follow the range of Jesus’ feelings. Rejoice in the resolution he reaches. Give thanks for the trust he achieves. 
Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me;
   all day long an attacker oppresses me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
   for many attack me proudly.
When I am afraid,
   I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
   in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
   What can flesh do to me?
All day long they injure my cause;
   all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk;
   they watch my steps,
   as they have waited for my life.
For their crime will they escape?
   In wrath cast down the peoples, O God!
You have kept count of my tossings;
   put my tears in your bottle.
   Are they not in your book?
Then my enemies will turn back
   in the day when I call.
   This I know, that God is for me.
In God, whose word I praise,
   in the LORD, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
   What can man do to me?
I must perform my vows to you, O God;
   I will render thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
       yes, my feet from falling, 
that I may walk before God
   in the light of life.
What Is This Psalm About?   
This lament about the oppression of enemies yields to trust as the psalmist recalls the compassionate character of the LORD. A strong resolution of faith creates a joyful conclusion. Patrick Reardon comments on the last line, “In this psalm’s act of trust, the future itself becomes a sort of narrative past” (110). Fear gives way to confidence. Worry becomes hope.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
We hardly dare listen in on Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane. His agony before his Father is so intimate that I feel like an eavesdropper. This is the raw soul of the Savior, heaving between emotions, pulling away, drawing near, recoiling and recovering, crying and consecrating. The Gospels recount these hours in very measured language. The Psalms, however, can help us fill in the content of his struggle. They enable us to keep watch, in fear and trembling, with our Lord’s struggle to consecrate his will even as his heart was breaking.
We miss the point entirely if we think the outcome—Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion—was guaranteed. Jesus later asks those who arrest him, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). At any moment, Jesus could be delivered from his enemies. He could walk away just as he passed untouched through the mob in Nazareth (Luke 4:30). He could overwhelm soldiers with a word, as he soon will when they come to arrest him (John 18:6). He could save himself any time. But he knows that in doing so we would be lost. 
Hebrews 5:7-9 tells us, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.” We can’t help but think of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus profoundly resists the coming hours. He cries out his desire to be spared the cross. Hebrews takes us further: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Even though he has loved and served his Father for thirty-three years, he has more to learn this night.
For the enemy is not flesh and blood. Not Romans or Pharisees. The enemy is the cosmic choice against God, the “My way, not your way” that gets reenacted in every human and demonic heart. And the contest has never been for external control of this little world. The prize has always been the human will. Can our choicemaking be restored? Will one human being stay faithful to the Father from the first heartbeat to the last breath? Such a person would be the beginning of a new human race. That person would have to confront the deep taproot of human rebellion and dig it out. If someone could say yes to the Father at the very moment everything in him and around him screamed no, then we could all be set free. So concludes our Hebrews passage: “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). 
We can scarcely comprehend the strength of resolve Jesus exercised in Gethsemane. The agony of temptation to quit his task raged through him. The slime of human sin sticking to him disgusts his holy soul. The receding of the perception of his Father’s loving favor crushes him. How tragically fitting that he prays by an olive press near the great stone that crushes out their oil. Yet into that darkest night of the soul ever experienced, Jesus flared the light of faith: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Nevertheless. Yet not. Not me and what screams through me now as my desire. But you. What you want. What we agreed on all along.
In that consecration, Jesus finds the resolution of Psalm 56. He prays the words, as David did, in the perfect tense. That signals that an action has already been completed, as if the deliverance to come is so certain, that it has already happened: “For you have delivered my soul from death . . . that I may walk before God in the light of life.” This victory over the ultimate temptation has required Jesus to submit his will to his Father for what lies ahead. But from now on, he enters his suffering in peace. Excruciating it will be, but his will is resolute: “In God I trust.”
Praying with Jesus
You prayed your agony with loud cries.
Did it comfort you to envision
Your Father catching those tears
In his little bottle of love
That can hold an ocean of sorrow?
Did you draw hope from the picture
Of your Father caring so much
That he made note of every pain,
Writing it in a book of remembrance
That will be an everlasting celebration
Of every act of hope amidst hopelessness?
You were working without a net, Jesus.
Only the abyss would catch you
If you fell while tight-roping in the dark
Against a stiff wind and harsh taunts.
You chose by faith not feel,
By remembered worship
Not present presence.
You gave yourself once more to the Father
For us. For me. So a light would shine
Down every dark road I must tread.
So I could believe its worth, 
When it doesn’t feel like it, to say,
“In God I trust, what can man do to me?
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”


Posted in: Lent

Day 19

Gethsemane: My Soul Is in Anguish
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 6, Psalm 7:1-6, 8-9
As you read, kneel beside Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Join your heart to his voice as he prays these psalms. Let your emotions follow the wide range of Jesus’ feelings; enter the debate he engages, both within himself and with his Father. Cry out on his behalf.
O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
   nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
   heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
   But you, O LORD—how long?
Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
   save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
   in Sheol who will give you praise?
I am weary with my moaning;
   every night I flood my bed with tears;
   I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
   it grows weak because of all my foes.
Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
   for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my plea;
   the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
   they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.
?O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
   save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
lest like a lion they tear my soul apart,
   rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.
O LORD my God, if I have done this,
   if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
   or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
   and let him trample my life to the ground
   and lay my glory in the dust. Selah
Arise, O LORD, in your anger;
   lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
   awake for me; you have appointed a judgment. . . .
The LORD judges the peoples;
   judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
   and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
   and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
   O righteous God!
What Are These Psalms About?
In Psalm 6, David laments his suffering. The pain has gone on for a long time, and he feels that he draws near to death. He senses his enemies may pounce on his weakness. Worse, this anguish seems to be the result of the LORD’s chastening for unspecified sin. He cries out for deliverance based not on his righteousness, but on God’s steadfast love. By the end, he rejoices that he has been answered.
In Psalm 7, David experiences trouble again. Only this time he protests his innocence. His prayer for deliverance is a cry for vindication. He asks the LORD to direct judgment against his enemies. By the end of the psalm, David has returned to praise, confident in God’s justice.
What Might These Psalms Have Meant to Jesus?
In Gethsemane, Jesus begins to engage his passion in prayer before he is bodily arrested, tried and crucified. He knows what is coming. He has always known. But he has never experienced what occurs now. This feels wrong. Jesus feels wrong. Tainted. Blocked. Falling. Where is the joy of his Father’s favor?
As we read yesterday in Psalm 41, “A deadly thing is poured out on him.” He knows himself to be the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). But now the Lord of life begins to taste his impending death (Hebrews 2:9). Through the Spirit’s inspiration, David wrote Psalm 6 not only to express in poetic exaggeration his own acute suffering but to provide words adequate to the deathly experience Jesus undergoes. 
This song identifies the abyss that yawns before Jesus’ soul: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” To praise his Father is life. Sheol, the place of the dead, is a condition of being unable to worship and thus cut off from the Source. This disturbs Jesus so profoundly that he prays, “I am languishing . . . my bones are troubled.” Jesus feels his soul’s agony in his body’s bones. He hurts. For the horror of being the sin-bearer has begun.  
The guilt of humanity begins to pile upon him. The shame disorients him for it feels like his own. He prays Psalm 7 to keep some emotional distance from the condemnation, “O Father, if I have done this, if there is wrong in my hands, . . . let [the enemy] trample my life to the ground.” But he knows he has done no wrong. He begs his Father to take up his cause: “Save me. . . . Arise. Lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies.”
In Gethsemane, Jesus no longer effortlessly feels his Father’s pleasure. He recoils from this foreign experience of his Father’s coming wrath. The overflowing cup of favor in Psalm 23 has become the cup of God’s revulsion against evil: “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup . . . and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Psalm 75:8). It sickens Jesus to be identified as the wicked. He tries to refuse: “Abba, Father . . . remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36).
Psalms 6 and 7 give Jesus more words through which to express that raw cry for deliverance. I hear him adapting phrases as his own: “My soul also is greatly troubled. O Father, how long? Turn back to me. Deliver my life. You are steadfast love, save me! Look, now is the time. Get up! Wake up. Stop the fury of my enemies. Be my protecting, saving Father against the unjust. Let this cup pass!” 
So Jesus, in the dreadful hour of prayer in Gethsemane, gathers every lament ever prayed by wounded, languishing, captive humanity: “How long, O God my Father, how long?”
Praying with Jesus
I understand how your closest friends fell asleep.
The air was so thick with sorrow.
The weight on your shoulders and soul
Pressed down all hearts and eyelids.
How could they eavesdrop on your 
Pitiful pleas that seemed to go unheard?
Jesus, you fell down, got up, cried out,
Walked back, walked away, knelt,
Shouted, whispered, pleaded,
Hurled Scripture to your Father’s deaf ears,
Begged for vindication, and deliverance
From enemies and evil all that breaks the world, 
Asked like a child if there couldn’t be another way.
It’s too much to hear this.
I am too helpless to be of any use. 
But oh my heart reaches in love to you.
This is your weakest moment,
But I have never been prouder of you.
Cry out, Jesus, in the dark night,
For all of us.


Posted in: Lent

Day 18

The Last Supper: Even My Closest Friend
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 41:5-9
My enemies say of me in malice,
   “When will he die, and his name perish?”
And when one comes to see me, he utters empty words,
   while his heart gathers iniquity;
   when he goes out, he tells it abroad.
All who hate me whisper together about me;
   they imagine the worst for me.
They say, “A deadly thing is poured out on him;
   he will not rise again from where he lies.”
Even my close friend in whom I trusted,
   who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.
Psalm 55:12-14, 20-21
For it is not an enemy who taunts me—
   then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
   then I could hide from him.
But it is you, a man, my equal,
   my companion, my familiar friend.
We used to take sweet counsel together;
   within God’s house we walked in the throng. . . .
My companion stretched out his hand against his friends;
   he violated his covenant.
His speech was smooth as butter,
   yet war was in his heart;
his words were softer than oil,
   yet they were drawn swords.
What Are These Psalms About?
With ruling comes turmoil. Monarchs know the tumult of envy’s schemes, the backstabbing of ambition and the sheer hostility of rivals. Many of David’s troubles followed his own disastrous decisions. However, others rose from the power-seeking surges of others. In Psalms 41 and 55, David presents lyrics for the distress of such conflict. He names the feelings and then offers them to the LORD. He cries out for rescue, healing and protection. He calls on the LORD for justice and the defeat of the enemies of God’s purposes.  
Most poignantly, these psalms express the sadly too-common human experience of betrayal by those close to us. A breach of trust saddens and sickens us. When someone lies to our face—someone who has shared food at the table, worked with us side by side for a common goal, or even shared the marriage bed—we feel unmade. We cry out to a God who understands. We confess our part in the breach. We pray longingly for the world to be set right.
What Might These Psalms Have Meant to Jesus?
Too easily we might consider the betrayal of Judas to be merely a necessary plot device. We figure Jesus knows it’s coming, so he’s not surprised and therefore not troubled. For that reason, we might miss the emotional distress Jesus feels as one of his inner circle turns on him. In John we read that in the closeness of the Upper Room, Jesus grows “troubled in his spirit.” That Judas will lethally turn against his master agitates Jesus. He has Psalm 41 on his mind as fitting the situation for Jesus quotes, “But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’” (John 13:18). The other gospels make clear that Judas departs to fetch the authorities right after he has received from Jesus’ own hand the Passover bread that is now mystically Christ’s body.
Today’s excerpts from Psalms 41 and 55 pierce us. Our Lord takes them up as expressions of his own heart pain that an intimate has rejected him: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted. . . . For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it. . . . But it is you, a man . . . my companion, my familiar friend.”
Betrayal shocks. Because trust includes the letting down of our guard, when such trust is snapped, we feel sucker punched. Violated. And that is what Jesus is now experiencing. For three years, Jesus has been safe around Judas and the other disciples. Now their fellowship unravels from the inside out. Yes, Jesus anticipated it. But experiencing the false kiss still shreds him. Knowing it was coming meant Jesus has already done what we usually do after betrayal: sadly recall the close times. These psalms companion Jesus and open a track along which his remembrances can run: “We used to take sweet counsel together . . . as we walked in the throng.” I hear him say:
Oh Judas! You saw me exhausted after a day of healing. I let you see the pain on my face when others rejected my message. You smelled the heat of anger on me when the self-righteous bound up the little ones in laws. You sat with us as we weighed decisions about where to go next. You heard me pray to the Father. When, when and why, did you quietly close an inner chamber to love for me?
Oh Judas! Bread multiplied in your very hands as you passed out the miraculous loaves and fishes. You thrilled to the words, “I am the bread of life.” We were so close I could dip your bread for you. I gave you all of me as we shared bread on the last night.
Oh Judas! Yet when Mary anointed my head with that extravagant oil, you snapped. You moralized that its value could have been given to the poor, but your soul was jealous. You felt envy. The decision was finalized. I can hear your heart speaking to me, “It’s over. I don’t know you anymore. We’re done. There is another to whom I will go. This is not what I signed up for.”
Oh Judas! You did not come to me with your conflict. You didn’t cry out against the devil’s temptation. You played your part willingly and invited him in. You looked me in the face and pretended you were with us right up to the end. You even made me command you, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27).
Praying with Jesus
I’m so sorry, Jesus, that you had to feel 
The worst of what we do to each other.
I hurt to know you had to hear the terrible clang
Of heart-doors closing against you.
To be stunned as if a death struck the family circle
And then to realize “You are dead to me”
Is what Judas, what we, said to you 
As we handed you over to enemies.
You, Jesus, who had ever been true.
I’m so sorry that in Judas, I turned on you.
“You never really knew me,”
I said to the one who touched and tended my wounds.
“You’re not who I thought you were,”
I said to one whose steadfast love endures forever.
“I’d rather have another,”
I said to the only one whose loyalty is unto death.
I am here now, trying to keep watch with you,
Fearful of my own recurring faithlessness.
I know something of what you felt
And I am sorry I caused it.


Posted in: Lent

Day 17

A Song in the Upper Room
Ahuva Klein. The Four Languages of Redemption.
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 116:12-19
What shall I render to the LORD
   for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
   and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD
   in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the LORD
   is the death of his saints.
O LORD, I am your servant;
   I am your servant, the son of your maidservant.
   You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
   and call on the name of the LORD.
I will pay my vows to the LORD
   in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the LORD,
   in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the LORD!
What Is This Psalm About?   
The joyful thanks for deliverance in Psalm 116 befits its place in the Hallel psalms, the six songs recited at all the major Jewish festivals. The first half of this prayer gives thanks to the LORD for deliverance from a deadly circumstance. We’ll consider it more deeply on our last day as a fitting summary of our Lenten prayers. 
Today, we turn to the second half in which the psalmist makes a return of commitment to the LORD in praising gratitude. In particular, we focus on what it meant that Jesus and his disciples prayed aloud, “I will lift up the cup of salvation” just minutes before or after Jesus turned that Passover into his Supper, the first Holy Communion. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Every faithful Jew knew the Hallel psalms, and so Jesus has Psalm 116 in his heart and on his lips as he enters Passover week. From the beginning of his mission, he has known that opposition from the authorities would lead to his death, and Jesus anticipates that he will be crucified this week. He will be the true Passover Lamb whose blood covers sins. He will become the Passover for his people as he passes through death to life, taking all who are joined to him on the same journey. 
Psalm 116 helps him prepare for the intensity of anguish, both spiritual and physical, that the cross will bring. It gives him lyrics for the sorrow of his rejection and the hope of coming out alive on the other side. Jesus also finds language for the commitment required of him as he obeys the Father unto death. His sacrifice will be in the context of gratitude for the LORD’s faithfulness in the past and in the joy of trusting fully in the deliverance to come. 
On Thursday night, as he keeps the Passover with his disciples, Jesus shares with them the traditional four cups of wine. The third cup follows the actual meal. This is the cup with two names: 1) the cup of blessing to God offered in gratitude for the supper as well as the history it celebrates and 2) the cup of redemption, based on the third of four promises in Exodus 6:6, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” At this point, Jesus interrupts the ancient liturgy and re-interprets the moment saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
The cup of Jesus’ suffering is the cup of salvation for us. The wrath he drinks in the cup of judgment becomes the goblet of the wine of our new life. A great exchange is occurring. Jesus drinks judgment as if he were no better than an Egyptian enslaver centuries before. Then he offers us redeeming freedom from deserved judgment and into a renewed covenant life as his Father’s people. 
How poignant and perfect for Jesus to pray these words in that very hour to the LORD I AM whom he knows intimately as Father! He resolves to go forward from this brief fellowship to the horrible Golgotha in the same spirit of the psalmist’s words: “I will pay my vows to [my Father] in the presence of all [the] people. Precious in the sight of [my Father] is the death of his saints. O [my Father], I am your servant. . . . I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving. . . .” 
When we hear Jesus lead the praying of this psalm in this of all moments, we glean how thanks and sorrow, resolve and hope, determined obedience and loving trust all go together. For all the reasons Psalm 116 was first written through its application to countless lives through the centuries, this hour is the deepest, truest reason the Spirit inspired such words. Here is the heart of the mystery of our faith in the quiet of the Upper Room. The historic Passover becomes the first Eucharist. Jesus pulls hard on the promised deliverance even as he offers himself utterly in commitment to the devastating day that awaits. 
We join with Jesus in this Passover prayer and enter the wonder of his sacrifice. Paul describes this as the essence of life in Christ, declaring, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end, Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Romans 14:7- 9).
Praying with Jesus
I go in mind and heart to the Upper Room with you.
In the face of the beautiful mystery of your love,
I pray the words of your servant Paul,
“The cup of blessing which we bless,
Is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?”
I answer his question, “It is!” I don’t know how,
But I see you lift the cup of salvation
And offer it freely.
You are offering yourself, and I pine
To take a drink from that goblet. To cry,
It is! It is a communion in your blood!
As I drink, I know that I must render thanks
For so great a gift through the offering of my life.
One blood with you, I pray this psalm after you,
I will call on the name of the LORD,
Your blessed name Lord Jesus Christ,
Proclaiming your great deliverance 
In worship, in conversation, in witness.
Precious is the death of the LORD’s faithful one,
Precious is the blood you shed in pain
Which comes to me as the wine of forgiveness.


Posted in: Lent

Day 16

The Temple Clearing: Zeal for Your House
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 69:6-13 
Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me,
    O Lord GOD of hosts;
let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me,
   O God of Israel.
For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
   that dishonor has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my brothers,
   an alien to my mother’s sons.
For zeal for your house has consumed me,
   and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.
When I wept and humbled my soul with fasting,
   it became my reproach.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
   I became a byword to them.
I am the talk of those who sit in the gate,
   and the drunkards make songs about me.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.
   At an acceptable time, O God,
   in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me
   in your saving faithfulness.
What Is This Psalm About? 
Faced with overwhelming circumstances, David, the poet of Psalm 69, grows weary, fearful that he might fail in his faithfulness. He is stung by the hatred others fling at him, reproaching him with false accusations. More than for personal deliverance, the psalmist prays that he would not bring dishonor to the LORD nor harm the faith of others. The glory of God, the honor of the goodness of the LORD, fuels his passion. He aches for the evil ones to be undone so that God’s little ones might be protected. Righteous anger flows from his lips, for in maligning him, the wicked reproach the God whom David serves. He bears disgrace on behalf of the LORD who has always been faithful to him. Despite his suffering, he will not swerve from his trust in God’s steadfast love.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
As Luke tells the story, after Jesus’ celebrated arrival in Jerusalem, he looks over the holy city. With the hosannas of the crowd still reverberating in his ears, Jesus weeps. He does not trust their momentary adoration. His heart breaks over the vast unbelief, and he grieves over the stubborn hearts of the LORD’s people: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). Pride and lack of nerve in faith make us blind to what God reveals. We choose our own ways and invite destruction.
Jesus continues, “For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you . . . and tear you down to the ground . . . because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:43-44). The people seek a political messiah as a solution to Roman oppression, but in a few decades, as Jesus predicted, their violent rebellion will lead to a leveling of their city and sacred temple.
Filled with passion, angry with grief, eager to show his people the way, Jesus enters the temple, his Father’s house. The Passover trade in animals and currency exchange bustles everywhere. What’s lacking is any sense of holiness. The business of religion thrives while noisy pilgrims forget the Father above. Jesus, with terrifying personal authority, single-handedly drives the merchants from the temple courts declaring, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it [this house that I love, this place where my Father welcomes all who seek him] a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:46). 
John’s gospel shows how the disciples connected Psalm 69 to this dramatic event: “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (John 2:17). Jealousy for his Father’s worship burns in Jesus. He does not care about the anger of the money changers and merchants over money lost, transactions interrupted or traditions broken. Their stubborn hearts set against the face of their God shame him as a human. He wants to take his Father’s side. He yearns to carry the reproaches against God that thankless self-centeredness always produces. Jesus assumes the role of wrath-bearer, bearing it from both sides. He longs to bear God’s anguished wrath against our sin as well as our petulant rage against a God who holds us accountable for his laws. 
In the passion of his mission, Jesus prays that no one seeking God would be brought to dishonor through him (Psalm 69:6). He can’t bear to fail those he came to save, yet he knows that he must bear shame. He identifies with the psalmist’s lament: “I have become a stranger to my brothers” (Psalm 69:8). Jesus experiences the isolation that comes from being different from and misunderstood by family members, neighbors, mentors and the masses. Even on Palm Sunday, this seemingly great day, Jesus is aware of the sad reality. He is the Son of God who holds out his healing hands to a lost world, but all along, and later this very week, his love is met with mockery. As the psalmist puts it, even “drunkards make songs about me” (Psalm 69:12).
As we pray with Jesus, we feel his conflict. The pain of people not willing to receive the salvation he brings clashes with the zeal he has to uphold his Father’s plan. So Paul quotes Psalm 69 as being about Jesus: “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (Romans 15:3). Not only does Jesus embrace this tension, he even intensifies the conflict as Holy Week moves towards its inevitable conclusion. We will see how in just a few days Psalm 69 becomes a poignant prayer for Jesus again.
Praying with Jesus
Will I, Lord Jesus, bear reproach for you?
I always take criticism so personally.
I figure it must be my fault, 
For all I do is tainted with weakness and self-interest.
I hate the shame, so I avoid giving any cause for it.
But am I in my self-protection
Just flinching from the hatred of God
That those who resist you must feel?
Am I holding back my praise
Of your wondrous salvation,
Dampening my zeal for your glory,
Just to avoid the mixed emotions
Which follow others being angry with me?
O help me, Jesus, to get clear in my soul,
To live as you did, 
From a completely devoted heart,
All in with your worship and mission.
Give me greater passion,
Not wilting, retreating fear
So that should I face rejection for your name,
I can know that I bear reproach with you,
In deepened intimacy, heart to heart 
With my savior and God.


Posted in: Lent

Day 15


Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ. 1602, National Gallery of Ireland.

More than a third of each gospel concentrates on the last week of Jesus’ life. His faithful yet uncompromising ministry leads to his final clashes with the religious and political authorities. At the beginning of the week, a multitude hails Jesus as a king when he rides on a donkey into Jerusalem. But immediately and literally, he upends the business of the temple again. He continues to confront hypocrisy until the leaders take action against him. Day by day, the pressure mounts against Jesus to turn aside from his mission. He knows the suffering that is coming, but he pushes forward in obedience to his Father. 
We will see this week how some of the psalms would have given Jesus lyrics for the emotions he felt amid betrayal, denial and rejection. The psalms which press from trial to victory would have offered him the narrative of God’s faithfulness to see him through. And as he prepared his disciples for his departure, a psalm would give him words for turning the Passover into the Eucharist.
In Caravaggio’s vivid painting of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, we feel the sorrowful resignation of our Lord. Psalms 41 and 55 seem lived out on Jesus’ face. His own familiar friend, a man he had trusted for three years, now brought the soldiers to arrest him. Jesus clasps his hands together, offering no resistance, only prayer for the companion who has sold him out. Only such psalms of sorrow for could give solace to Christ in the sick, lonely feeling of betrayal. 
Palm Sunday: Blessed Is He Who Comes
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 118:19-29
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
   that I may enter through them
   and give thanks to the LORD.
This is the gate of the LORD;
   the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us [Hosanna] we pray, O LORD!
   O LORD, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
   We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God,
   and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
   up to the horns of the altar!
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
   you are my God; I will extol you.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
   for his steadfast love endures forever!
What Is This Psalm About?   
This hearty song celebrates the LORD’s deliverance of his people from their enemies. With God’s mighty help, the king and his people have prevailed in battle, so the worship leader calls the people to come to the temple to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Since the specific historical event that inspired this psalm is not given, it is useful for many commemorative situations. However, one instigating incident might have taken place in the days of King Jehosophat after a miraculous victory over an overwhelming invader. The warriors returned with the king at their head “to Jerusalem with joy. . . . 
They came to Jerusalem with harps and lyres and trumpets to the house of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 20:27-28). 
Another historical prompt could have been the celebration when, following the Israelite’s seventy years of exile in Babylon, the temple reconstruction was complete. We read, “And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.” The words recorded for the praises, accompanied by trumpets and cymbals, are the same as the opening of this psalm: “And they sang . . . giving thanks to the LORD, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel’” (Ezra 3:10-11). 
As the Psalter took its more permanent form, Psalms 113-118 became known as the Hallel or Praise Psalms, and they were sung at all the great national festivals in Jerusalem. Thus, the section of Psalm 118 we pray with Jesus today was always in the hearts and on the lips of the people.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
A great crowd gathers as Jesus enters Jerusalem on the first day of Passover week. Although he rides on a young donkey, the people hail him as they would a king. They wave palms as a symbol of both victory and peace (John 12:13). They throw their cloaks on the road the way we would roll out a red carpet for a celebrity (Mark 11:8). All four gospels record the people shouting out lines from Psalm 118, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! 
Mark clues his readers into how the people understood this acclamation, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:10). The people were waiting for an heir of David to take the throne. This Messiah would, according to God’s eternal promise, drive away oppressors and restore Israel to glory. This direct rule of the LORD on earth would usher in a great day of salvation. On Palm Sunday, the people hail Jesus as the Christ. Jesus does not reject their praises. He even tells the Pharisees, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). This is a significant moment. The King returns to his city and makes his way to the temple of the High King to offer a sacrifice 
of thanksgiving. 
Later in the week, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118 as he directs a convicting parable toward the chief priests and Pharisees. He asks, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42). Jesus understands himself to be the foundation of a new Israel, indeed a new humanity. He also knows that the religious leaders cannot tolerate him. Fossilized by their rigid adherence to religious traditions and interpretations, they refuse to see that the LORD has delivered his salvation in an unexpected way. But Jesus never retreats from being who he is, the Son of God incarnate. He is the marvelous thing God is doing in their midst. 
In just a few months, Peter will use this same verse to preach the meaning of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:11, 12). 
Palm Sunday is the brief moment when the people acclaim their true Messiah. We know that all too soon they will turn “Hosanna!” into “Crucify!” Jesus knows that too. So he finds in Psalm 118 a piece of the sacred script for his final week. He must be hailed. And he must be rejected. It’s all part of a plan wherein the king himself becomes the sacrifice taken to the altar of the LORD so that the new humanity in Christ might arise.
Praying with Jesus
What a day you have made! 
A day of rejoicing and rejecting,
A day of offering and return,
A day of deliverance and judgment.
I want to be part of the festive parade.
Lord Jesus, I want to hail you as the king,
To build my life on your foundation.
I want to see you do marvelous things
In the world, in the people I know, in me.
I long to go with you through the gates of righteousness,
Permitted to pass only because I am with you, in you,
All the way to the presence of the Father,
To the communion and bounty of his house.
I pray for you as you ride into Jerusalem,
To be hailed, and then to be crucified.
I send my love, my cheers, my hopes
That you can stay steady
And see this through to the end.
What a day you have made!
What a day you will make when you return.


Posted in: Lent

Day 14

Ever-Present Enemies
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 27:1-3, 11-14
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
   whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
   of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me
   to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
   it is they who stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me,
   my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
   yet I will be confident. . . . 
Teach me your way, O LORD,
   and lead me on a level path 
   because of my enemies.
Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
   for false witnesses have risen against me,
   and they breathe out violence.
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD
   in the land of the living!
Wait for the LORD;
   be strong, and let your heart take courage;
   wait for the LORD!
What Is This Psalm About? 
We looked at part of Psalm 27 on Day 2. We noted how David, pressed on all sides by vigorous enemies, sought refuge in the LORD’s strength. The conflicts he faced drove him to focus on what matters most—to seek the deepest source of peace, the LORD’s steadfast presence. Giving voice to the reality of fierce opposition and the fear it creates led David to the strength of trust in God’s ultimate plan and control. Today we will look more closely at how David’s prayer as he faces his adversaries might have been a vital encouragement to Jesus.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Jesus brings splendid light into our human darkness. Sadly, as we saw yesterday, many prefer to stay in the dark. As Jesus continues in his ministry, he encounters even stiffer resistance. People become downright hostile. Undoubtedly Jesus finds comfort in David’s prayers concerning enemies and feels companionship with one who endured false accusations and threats of violence as he faces similar antagonism.
Mark situates the hostility early in Jesus’ ministry and presents a series of several contentious encounters beginning in Mark 2 when Jesus heals the paralytic man who is dropped by his friends through a hole in the ceiling into Jesus’ presence. Before Jesus heals the man, he declares, “Your sins are forgiven.” This provokes the Scripture scribes to exclaim, “He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7).  
Similar confrontations follow in quick succession. The Pharisees question his eating with Levi and his fellow sinners (Mark 2:16). They accuse him of breaking the fourth commandment when the disciples pluck and eat grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:24). Later, they watch him carefully as he enters the synagogue to see if he restores a man’s withered hand. After merciful Jesus does indeed heal the afflicted man, Mark recounts, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). From that moment, they continually seek to trap Jesus with questions that have no clear answers. They look for ways to disgrace him before the people. They gather “evidence” to seize him. 
Even Jesus’ family, in love and concern, sets up against him. When he returns home after calling his disciples and great crowds gather, we read, “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). 
Throughout his three years of ministry, antagonism assails Jesus. His path runs along a knife edge. If he receives the acclaim of the people too openly, they will thrust him into a political role. If he relies on their praise, which is always fickle, he can fall into the trap of egoism. If he withdraws too often, he fails in his mission to bring the Father’s love to the lost sheep. He must also manage his anger against the religious leaders’ failure to see what God is doing. Mark writes, “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). With just a few more sharp words or a slight display of power, Jesus could easily move from countering his opposers to destroying them.
Jesus knows that these people are not the real enemy. In the wilderness, Jesus has already faced down the one he calls “the ruler of this world” (John 14:30). He knows what Paul would one day express, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Yet the evil one works through real people to do real harm, and increasingly people are taking take up the Great Accuser’s cause of opposing Jesus.
In the face of all this antagonism and pressure, Psalm 27 offers Jesus steady compassion and empathy because David puts into words the feeling of distress that comes from knowing that others want to consume you with malice. For even though Jesus is sure of his mission and its outcome, he still feels the hurt and burden of knowing that every minute someone plots his demise. 
The psalm also gives voice to Jesus’ concern that he doesn’t step to the left or the right as he forges through the days of ministry. Jesus prays with David, “Lead me on a level path because of my enemies.” We hear how this psalm resonates in the words Jesus teaches all his disciples to pray continually, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  
Yet, Jesus finds the courage to wait upon his Father, trusting that he will be able to continue his ministry until the dire hour planned from the beginning. As he prepares to face the fury of his final week, how comforting would be the hope David penned, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.”
Praying with Jesus
I have offered such little resistance to temptation,
I have turned such a blind eye to the strategies of evil,
I have floated in such a bubble of just going along,
That I scarcely realize what you went through, Jesus.
I don’t like even one person to be mad at me.
You faced virulent opposition 
From those with God’s authority,
Who wielded Scripture against you
And called your mercy a menace.
How did you take it? 
What courage and trust and endurance!
Oh Jesus, my champion,
My savior who blazed a path of faithfulness
Through the tangle of temptations
And thorny, tripping branches of evil,
I pray this psalm with you now.
Only with you, sheltering in you,
Can I be confident when war rises against me
In any of its many forms of conflict.
Only with you, can I keep from falling,
To walk in faith and hope and love
Through this world to the land of the living.


Posted in: Lent

Day 13

Do Not Harden Your Hearts
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 95 
Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
   let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
   let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
   and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
   the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
   and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
   let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
   and we are the people of his pasture,
   and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
   do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
   as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
   and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
   and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
   and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
   “They shall not enter my rest.”
What Is This Psalm About?   
Psalm 95 is one of several great high praises we encounter in psalms numbered in the nineties. These hymns are ideal for the festival worship of a full congregation with many instruments. This psalm calls for a “joyful noise” with hearty songs of thanks to the LORD our God because he is worthy! He is not a little god of one feature of creation like the sun or the river or the harvest. The LORD is the King above all so-called gods. In fact, the Creator is so huge that even the heights and depths of the wide earth fit in his palm. His hands cup around the very ocean and keep the land safe from the waters of chaos. What’s more, the great God is our God. We are his particular people to whom he has bound himself in everlasting covenant love. So we come to worship, to kneel, to bow down, to acknowledge with full and joyful hearts our reply of trust and loyalty.
Like a good worship service, however, Psalm 95 takes a turn from a call to praise to a warning that our faithful response is not optional. The psalm warns us not to harden our hearts. For the LORD’s people have a history of turning faith to doubt, thanksgiving to complaint, and obedience to indifference or even outright rebellion. The psalm recalls that after being freed from slavery, the people doubted the LORD’s provision in the wilderness, and so that entire generation was prevented from ever entering the Promised Land.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
I love the child-like tone of praise of his Father when Jesus assures his sheep, his disciples, that they can never be snatched away from him: “My Father, who has given them, is greater than all” (John 10:29). Jesus loves to speak well of his Father. I hear him joyfully singing in the synagogue or alone in the hills, “The LORD (my Father!) is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” As the first and only truly faithful human being, Jesus never finds it restricting or grating to kneel before his Father. Rather, he delights to express with his body, his gestures and his voice his full-hearted worship. Such praise empowers his ministry. 
The dark turn in this psalm also matches Jesus’ experience. As he glorifies his Father before the rest of us, I know it hurts him to be met with resistance. Human rebellion is, at its core, a mystery. Why do we close ourselves off to the source of joy? Why do we look the Son of God right in the face and say, in so many different ways, “No thanks!”? 
So Psalm 95 gives Jesus historical justification for his yearning to warn people that turning away from him has dire consequences—not because Jesus is so ego-centric that like a tyrant king he punishes those who ignore him. No, it is because he has come to give abundant life (John 10:10). To refuse Jesus is to choose to stay in spiritual death, unforgiveness, disconnection from God, brokenness in relationships, daily bitterness and constant agitation. He warns sharply so that some might be shaken awake and not miss this opportunity for salvation.
The time to respond is now: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” So Jesus presents a parable about the different types of soil which represented different ways of response to the Word of God he brings (Matthew 13:1-23 Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15). Jesus tells his listeners that some seed fell on the hard path. It could never germinate and the birds took it away. This is the hardness of unbelief. Jesus confirms with his parable the words of the prophet Isaiah, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their eyes can barely see” (Isaiah 6:10 quoted in Matthew 13:15).  
Jesus throughout his ministry has to reckon with how many simply do not respond to him in faith. Yet, patiently, he keeps risking our rejection to make his offer, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). From stern warning to gentle invitation, Jesus expresses God’s desire in Psalm 95. Today, in this present moment, if you hear his voice, don’t take it for granted. Don’t fail to enter the rest of believing submission. You may not get another chance. 
Praying with Jesus
Ah, Lord Jesus, like your people of old, 
I have built such a house
At the place called Massah which means testing.
For I have tried your patience with my willful doubt.
I have a getaway cottage at Meribah, which means quarreling. 
For I have carped at your blessings,
Ever wanting more.
I have quibbled with your mercies,
Failing, failing in thanks.
My heart is hard.
Oh let it not be too late.
Let it still be today when I can hear your voice.
Open your arms one more time,
And I will come.
Put your hands round my face
And lift my eyes to heaven,
That I might sing at last, 
The LORD is my God,
And I am one of his people,
A sheep of his pasture,
A lamb of his flock,
And a sinner of his redeeming.
Show me the paths of life,
That I might find rest for my soul
In joining my voice 
To your eternal praise of the Father.


Posted in: Lent

Day 12

The Good Shepherd
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 23 
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
   He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
   He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
   for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
   I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD 
What Is This Psalm About?   
As the youngest son of Jesse, David tended sheep near Bethlehem. He spent many hours alone on the hillsides with much time to think, pray and sing. Surprising to all, the LORD directed Samuel the prophet to anoint David as the next king. God declared, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). When he was at his best as a ruler, David understood himself to be a servant of the High King of heaven. He was an undershepherd to the LORD who alone could lead and care for his people.
Sometime in his maturity, David wrote this most beloved of psalms. His song reflects a deep intimacy with the LORD. Most strikingly and mysteriously, David’s psalm opens readers to that same intimacy. Across languages, cultures and centuries, the Twenty-Third Psalm draws people close to God. It has seen people through battlefields and childbirth, through bereavement and hostilities. People ask for this poem as they near death and find it a reassuring gateway to the life eternal. Psalm 23 takes us to the heart of a shepherding, hosting God.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Endued with such spiritual sensitivity to his Father, Jesus no doubt loved this psalm. I am sure that these words, inspired by the Holy Spirit to bless so many millions of us, particularly delighted our brother Jesus. We have no record of his quoting Psalm 23 directly, but we can easily see how David’s greatest song informed Jesus’ profound grasp of his role and sacrificial mission and the comfort, provision and protection the Father bestows on him. 
John records Jesus’ saying, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). Easily then, I can hear Jesus pray, “My Father is my shepherd.” He knows who guides and cares for him. At the same time, Jesus the descendant of David the Shepherd King receives from his Father the mantle of Israel’s shepherd. So he tells us, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:11, 14). Tenderly he cares for his flock. 
In Week Four, we will look at several key psalms that would have sustained Jesus in his passion, but today we just note the potency of verse 4. These two sentences uphold Jesus through many threatening conflicts with demons, Romans, and religious authorities. This verse serves as a preview to Jesus of the suffering ahead and offers the way through the suffering even as it predicts it.  
We can see the connection with “For you are with me” when, on the night of his arrest, Jesus declares, “Yet, I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32). This is the basis of his assurance to his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). The Father was ever with Jesus. Jesus is Emmanuel, which means God with us, so he will promise us at his ascension, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). In any valley of darkness, we are companioned.
Oil soothed and cleansed, refreshed and scented. A gracious host provided oil for the hair and beard as it was a sign of a glad and generous welcome. The week of his crucifixion, Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ head with costly nard (John 12:1-8). Jesus receives the gift as a preparation for his burial which will occur within a week. Did he, while she massaged in the fragrant ointment, pray in thanks to his Father, “You anoint my head with oil”?
Jesus’ life overflows with the Father’s love, with the echo of the voice at his baptism: “This is my beloved Son.” Remarkably, we are invited into this divine fellowship. At his bountiful table, our hosting God gives us nothing less than himself as our portion. “The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup,” proclaims David in Psalm 16:5. The blood that Jesus sheds in sacrifice overflows in atoning power. There is more love in God than sin in us. When Jesus is what fills our cup, even when we are amid enemies and failings, bountiful love overflows our lives. So could this line in some way have been the inspiration for Jesus’ presentation of the Eucharist? 
The Hebrew verb used here means “to pursue or chase.” This is an extraordinary image of the Almighty LORD running down his beloved with steadfast, loyal love. Is this not what the coming of Jesus demonstrates above all? God sends his Son to seek and to save the lost. He searches for us to rescue us. In his humility, Jesus lays aside his glory so that he may approach us as one of us. The eternal speaks to mortals gently so as not to frighten us away. This idea of God in his goodness and mercy running after us may well be the inspiration for Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the prodigal son. At first sight of his long-lost son, the father throws dignity to the wind, hitches up his robes and runs to welcome home the disgraced (Luke 15:20).
Praying with Jesus 
Jesus, I know you drew deep from Psalm 23.
You experienced the Father’s daily shepherding,
Leading you through the perils of ministry,
Refreshing you in Scripture and prayer,
Anointing you freshly with his Spirit,
Walking with you through the dark valleys,
Filling your cup with joy in his love,
Sustaining you in the presence of enemies,
Receiving you into his eternal House
So you can prepare a place for us.
Jesus, shepherd me this way every moment!
And open my eyes to those of your beloved flock
Whom you have called me to care for and tend. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 11

Your Sins Are Forgiven!
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 32:1-5     
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
   whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
   and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
   through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
   my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you,
   and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
   and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
What Is This Psalm About?   
Psalm 32 opens as a wisdom psalm that describes the blessed or fulfilled life as one that experiences the forgiveness of God. David goes on to relate his personal experience with this universal wisdom. He recalls when he kept silent about his sin. Perhaps David remembers how, after having an affair with Bathsheba, he did not repent but went deeper into destruction and arranged for the death of Bathsheba’s husband. The guilt ate away at him, and the unconfessed sin sapped his energy. 
Finally, after hearing the convicting words of Nathan the prophet, David broke down and confessed, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13). The relief of forgiveness followed. Consequences still followed; in fact, their effects would ripple for years. But David’s connection to his God returned. His drained, heavy soul was released to be “glad in the LORD” and once more to “shout for joy” as such restoration. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Throughout his life, reflecting on the psalms that contain words of wisdom gives Jesus continuing insight into the human condition, even about the one part of humanness Jesus did not share—personal sin. Yesterday we saw how Psalm 14 showed Jesus the raw sinfulness of the human condition. Today we see that Psalm 32 teaches Jesus that the one real barrier between us and forgiveness is the refusal to admit our sin. 
The people Jesus encounters in his ministry languish under the weight of unconfessed sin. Perhaps Jesus wonders why the people do not ask his Father for forgiveness. He notices that people simply rationalize what they do or say as not sinful. They create endless stories of self-justification. Sometimes they use the very fact that God is forgiving as a reason not to worry about their particular sins. Others are just in so deep they can’t stop specific forms of sins and have stopped trying. To compensate, they numb themselves with work, drink or amusements.
But Jesus also encounters those who are crushed under guilt. To these people, their offenses seem more egregious than ordinary sins. These sinners bear such a weight of shame that their lives are bound up in this identity. Jesus feels especially drawn to them. 
Psalm 32 gives Jesus the wisdom to understand something he has never had to experience: the relief of confession and forgiveness. The weight of sin burdens people. They spend huge amounts of energy defending themselves. They keep an extensive record of wrongs committed against them. They angrily blame shift. Their capacity for love shrinks. Life diminishes. But when people truly agree with God about their sin and ask for forgiveness, their burden is lifted. They rejoice. They grow kinder. They extend forgiveness. They worship heartily.
As Jesus goes forth in his ministry, he calls notorious sinners to himself. Levi the tax collector experiences the relief of forgiveness and joyfully hosts a great feast for Jesus. When the Pharisees question how Jesus could summon such a sinner, Jesus replies, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).  
Soon after at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus encounters a woman so identified with her transgressions that she is presented not with a name but as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (Luke 7:37). As the woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and anoints them with perfume, the Pharisee mentally questions whether Jesus recognizes her sinfulness revealing the timeless truth that virtue-signalers love to identify the morally defective and condemn association with sinners. To the chagrin of the Pharisee, Jesus declares in front of all, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).   
In a well-known parable, Jesus tells of another sinner, a tax collector, at the temple “who standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:13-14). 
Jesus knows from reading and praying Psalm 32 that a world burdened by innate sin and its persistent, destructive expression could only find relief through daring confession. He offers a loving presence before which sinners can come clean. His passion for sinners elicits in others what Malcolm Guite has called “the relief of honesty” (Guite, pg. 32). 
How could Jesus pray the plea of Psalm 51: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”? (Psalm 51:2). He had no personal sin to be confessed. Yet true intercession for others involves empathy, standing in their place in prayer, taking their part. Jesus had already done that in taking a sinner’s baptism, and he would do this more completely in taking a criminal’s death. He so identifies with sinners that he can, holding each one of us up to his Father, pray, “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” He prays this for us, yearning for us to pray these words with him, to make them our own as we pray after the one who has made our sins his own. His compassionate way with sinners gives us confidence that we can dare to own our sin. He stands by us as we do and rejoices with us as we find the freedom of forgiveness.
Praying with Jesus
My sin—the damage done, the cover-up,
The pretending, the justifying, the projecting—
Takes so much energy to keep as my own. 
Shame whispers that if I come clean,
I will be rejected, by you, by others.
I will be outed as a pretender
Exposed for the needy child I am,
In the end only out for myself,
Worthy only to be banished from fit company.
So I banish myself from your company.
Going prayerless, going it alone.
But shame is not the only voice,
For your Spirit is within me. 
You have made me for yourself
And you will not let me go. 
I’m more exhausted than any atheist!
For I know the sweetness of the God I’m avoiding.
I’m miserable.
What is this news that reaches me?
That you, Jesus, stand before your Father 
Interceding for me. 
You speak the devastating truth about me
As if it were your own.
“Against you, you only have I sinned”
You say for me, you say as me,
For we are one and I am in you forever.
Oh Lord Jesus, you break my heart!
Stop, stop taking my sin.
I confess it. I will give to you freely.
Forgive me. 


Posted in: Lent

Why Do We Keep Time?

I had a wonderful time visiting with Caroline Breard’s third grade class at Dunham. She asked me to come talk about what Lent means. So I asked the children how long before their birthdays they actually started thinking about their birthdays. Some said a month, some said all year! I asked the same about Christmas. We agreed that anticipating a celebration makes it all the better.  
Every spring, Christ’s people celebrate his resurrection. But for centuries and centuries, we’ve been making plans to think more about Jesus before Easter. We get ready to celebrate by taking more time to think about his life and death.  
We also talked about football games (how can you not in Baton Rouge???). They agreed that a great game is not a 72-0 blow out against a junior college. A great game is a close struggle. The greatest games include come backs, when it looked like all was lost. That’s why we think about Jesus’ death before we celebrate his resurrection. It was the greatest struggle of all time. And it looked like the game was over when Jesus died. But then in the most wonderful surprise, the Father raised Jesus. The more we think about his ministry and his dying, the more joy we have at Easter.
These are sharp kids. They got it. We get it too. We keep time with Jesus during Lent so that we can join our story to his story. So his victory over death can be our victory.
I’m so proud of you when I think how you are pressing in close to Jesus this Lent. Connecting psalms with events in Jesus’ life, and praying alongside him takes energy, imagination and discipline. But you’re doing it! As an early Easter arrives at the end of this month, keep preparing, dear church. We’re going to have quite a celebration.
You’ll want to plan now for the fun of Palm Sunday, March 24, the deep passion of the Service of Shadows on March 28, and the release of Easter joy on March 31. I love being your pastor, especially at this time of year.

Day 10

Not Even One!
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 14
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
   there is none who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man,
   to see if there are any who understand, 
   who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
   there is none who does good, 
   not even one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
   who eat up my people as they eat bread
   and do not call upon the LORD?
There they are in great terror,
    for God is with the generation of the righteous.
You would shame the plans of the poor,
   but the LORD is his refuge.
Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
   When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
   let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.
What Is This Psalm About?   
This is primarily a wisdom psalm. Rather than a direct prayer, Psalm 14 mainly describes the truth of the human situation before God. It starkly reveals the foolishness of not accounting for the reality of God. Its grim assessment of our innate sinfulness leads to the one line of prayer in the song, a heartfelt plea for the LORD to save us. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
It’s difficult to understand how someone could be truly human and yet not be predisposed to sin. How could one be tempted, yet not feel an immediate propensity to yield? How could one feel completely oriented toward the Father even as everyone around seemed focused on self? Jesus lives this freedom. He lives this loneliness. He lives this joy. He lives being odd. 
I wonder if it startled him as a child to see other children be cruel just to be cruel. I suspect it hurt him to see a pack of kids mock a child for being slow, having a malformed hand, or speaking to the animals. He would have felt the sting of comments that his beloved father Joseph was not really his father. He would have been sadly baffled that others found his love of worship and reading Scripture to be weird, when, as Jews, they all said that loving the LORD with all their heart was their primary duty.
As he grew into adulthood, Jesus would have seen that people do not grow out of cruelty, indifference or the tendency to do what is wrong and self-centered. They just learn to hide it and to live with hypocrisy. The man cheating customers in the marketplace still sings the psalms at synagogue. The woman gossiping poisonously about her neighbor still acts like they are the best of friends when they are together. The pious Pharisees, striving hard to preserve the faith amidst Roman rule, so often make serving the LORD seem like joyless, compulsive bondage. Good believers, under the crush of life’s pressures, might question the very existence of their heavenly Father.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has to reckon with the fact that everyone is prone to break the commandments. Each and all betray God and one another. Psalm 14 helps Jesus make sense of this reality. He is not just being judgmental or overly pious in noting the sad truth. In fact, his heart breaks knowing where these self-focused decisions and actions always lead. Ruptured relationships, revenge, further distortions, despair and even hatred toward God inevitably follow.
The psalm helps Jesus accept how different from others he feels: “There is none who does good, not even one.” He realizes, though, that some know the truth about themselves. They own the ruin in their lives and long to be freed from it. He feels so drawn to show them his Father’s love. Others, though, insist that they are good in themselves. They’re sure Psalm 14 is about someone else. They’re insulted at even the suggestion that they are among the foolish and the corrupt. Jesus knows that to save them he must starkly tell them the truth.
So he says, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). 
He presents a parable of a man who thought he had accumulated enough wealth to have no need of God or others and ends the teaching with this frightening admonition: “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God ” (Luke 12:20-21). 
And he shockingly warns even the spiritual among us that “[n]ot everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
In praying Psalm 14, Jesus receives the wisdom to understand the sinful human nature he has come to confront, and he finds words to lament the lost state of the world: “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion.” Zion symbolizes the place where God dwells with his people. Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God with us, knows that in his ministry, his Father has sent forth salvation from Zion. Jesus goes forth to forgive those who own their sin. 
Praying with Jesus
I remember the sickening surprises
Of first learning how people do wrong.
The stealing of my coins startled me;
Being lied to by a relative shocked me.
A fist in my face for no provocation
Taught me that evil 
Does not have to make sense.
Yet it is there, unpredictable and ever-destructive.
Sinful hearts surrounded your pure one, Jesus.
I feel lonely for you.
What we do to each other, 
Too often to those who love us most,
Surely pierced you.
How did you stand the grating noise 
Of our cruel, coarse words?
How did you endure the isolation
Of being the only one who desired
In earnest sincerity, the goodness of God?
How justly you could have condemned,
And left us to judgment we deserve.
But instead, you went forth out of Zion,
Out of the love of Father, Son and Spirit
To seek and to save the lost.
I’m so glad you spoke the truth of us.
I’m only offended if I’m too proud 
Or frightened to own up to what I already know.
I need a savior, one who accounts for the very worst of me
And resolves the conflict, atones for the harm and makes me new.
Posted in: Lent

Day 9

Let Your Face Shine!

Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 80:3-7, 14-19
Restore us, O God;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved!
O LORD God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears
   and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us an object of contention for our neighbors,
   and our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved. . . . 
Turn again, O God of hosts!
   Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
   the stock that your right hand planted,
   and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
   may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
But let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
   the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
Then we shall not turn back from you;
   give us life, and we will call upon your name!
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts!
  Let your face shine, that we may be saved!
What Is This Psalm About?
Psalm 80 expresses the dismay of God’s people during a time of national disaster. The psalm does not specify the exact event, but it could refer to the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. Or perhaps the psalm recounts the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC when the Babylonians  
burned the sacred temple and deported the Israelites to Babylon for seventy years of indentured service. 
The people understood these calamities as acts of judgment by the LORD against the unbelief, idolatry and injustice among his people. The prophets had warned Israel for years to repent. Now, when destruction and oppression have overtaken everyone, the people cry out for the LORD to turn back to his chosen. They plead for God to relent in his just anger and stretch forth a saving hand of mercy. 
The refrain of this song echoes Aaron’s famous blessing from Numbers 6:24-26:
“Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
The people longed for the days when they basked in the shining pleasure of the God who was a father to his son, his nation, his chosen, Israel. They longed to be again the fruitful vine the LORD once planted and protected. 
So they cried out, “Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” They turned back to the LORD and begged him to turn back to them. Such mercy, they promised, would keep them from turning away again.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
The people of the LORD in Jesus’ day languished under foreign oppression similar to when this psalm was written. Roman soldiers patrolled their streets. Faithful Hebrews hung for days from crosses for crimes against the state, reminding people who ruled the world. Taxes impoverished hard-working tradesmen. Romans ridiculed the worship of Yahweh as a delusional allegiance to a weak god. Once enslaved in Egypt, once exiled to Babylon, the Jews in their own land now again feel in bondage. Had God forgotten them? Might he shine the favor of his presence upon his chosen once again?
I envision Jesus hearing this psalm sung out in a Sabbath worship. His heart stirs along with the hearts of his people. He feels the weight of their lives. He laments those who suffered at the hands of the Romans. Jesus grows restless with them for the arrival of the Messiah to restore them. He sings loudly with the congregation, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” His soul joins the worshippers in longing, “See us. Hear us! Give us life!” He is the true vine (John 15:1), fruitful and faithful as Israel was meant to be. He wants to graft the weary and the barren onto himself.
I know Jesus delights in the deeper significance of the prayer: “But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself.” The LORD had called Israel his “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). He had also designated David and the kings who followed him to be his sons (2 Samuel 7:14). But the Spirit had also revealed to the prophet Daniel the vision of “one like a son of man” to whom the LORD gave an everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14).
Jesus knows as he raises this song that he is its truest meaning. Jesus is the eternal Son of God who came to us as the Son of Man. He is the LORD’s face shining in love upon his people. He will regard the people in their plight, truly seeing them. Then he will act with compassion like the sun breaking through clouds bringing relief and hope. 
Paul writes, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Jesus is the glory of God shining through a human face. He is God looking upon us in favor. In answer to the very psalm Jesus prays with his people, Jesus turns to us in steadfast love. He restores us. As his mother prayed shortly after his conception, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy” (Luke 1:54). For Jesus fully embodies his role as “the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself.” He gives us life, just as he has prayed alongside a languishing nation. Jesus himself is Aaron’s blessing incarnate!
Praying with Jesus
I cast my gaze earthward.
The weight of life pushes it down.
I don’t want to look up and see the mess
Of my life’s pain or the world’s agony.
Too much confusion,
Too much suffering in the world.
But then I feel your gentle strong hand
Under my chin, lifting my face.
“Look up! Look at me!”
I see you smiling.
Not naively.
You know all.
But you have accounted for all,
Paid for it and forgiven it.
Your face radiates
Acceptance. Calling. Mission.
You shine upon me 
Until I glow with your favor.
Now I go forth to see,
To shine, to bless
That all may know,
You have not forsaken us.
You have seen and saved. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 8


Melani Pyke. Jesus Carrying Lost Sheep Home. Contemporary.

This week we imagine particular psalms that Jesus might have prayed during his ministry. We will consider how almost immediately Jesus had a profound effect on people. For the Light of the World made a direct assault on the darkness in the human heart, and the path of salvation Jesus offered ran through repentance from pride and self-sufficiency. Some people were offended and reacted with defiance. Many of those in positions of prestige labeled Jesus scandalous. At the same time, those who knew themselves to be weak, ill, lost, or broken joyfully received him. We will see both kinds of responses this week and discover how the Psalms would have helped Jesus make sense of the opposition even as they kept his heart flowing toward those who needed him desperately. 
Those who welcomed Jesus were especially drawn to his self-identification as the Good Shepherd. The nature of this metaphorical role still compels believers today. This contemporary painting by Melani Pyke touches us with the tenderness of the Lord who became our shepherd. 
On a Cliff's Edge in Nazareth
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 71:1-7, 10-12
In you, O LORD, do I take refuge;
   let me never be put to shame!
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
   incline your ear to me, and save me!
Be to me a rock of refuge,
   to which I may continually come;
you have given the command to save me,
   for you are my rock and my fortress.
Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,
   from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man.
For you, O Lord, are my hope,
   my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth;
   you are he who took me from my mother’s womb.
My praise is continually of you.
I have been as a portent to many,
   but you are my strong refuge. . . . 
For my enemies speak concerning me;
   those who watch for my life consult together
and say, “God has forsaken him;
   pursue and seize him,
   for there is none to deliver him.”
O God, be not far from me;
   O my God, make haste to help me!
What Is This Psalm About?   
This is a psalm of lament. That is, it is a song of sorrow for suffering and a crying out to God. The poet thirsts for the comfort of the LORD’s sustaining mercy. He makes his plea in trust that God will ultimately deliver him.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
This week we consider psalms that connect to various episodes in the ministry of Jesus. After his testing in the wilderness, Jesus returns to the region of Galilee. Luke tells us that Jesus is full of “the power of the Spirit.” As he teaches in the synagogues, all the people praise him—until he returns to his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:14-15). 
The Sabbath service in Nazareth begins auspiciously with Jesus reading from Isaiah 61 about the encouraging promise of a messiah. Luke narrates that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4:20). When Jesus declares that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled,” the people marvel with delight. Their own local boy seems to be announcing the Christ’s arrival at last!
But then Jesus begins to teach about Israel’s great drought during the prophet Elijah’s time. Jesus tells his listeners how the LORD sent Elijah to care for a widow of Sidon who was not a Jew, but a pagan. Next, Jesus reminds the assembly how God used the prophet Elisha to heal the leprosy not of an Israelite, but of a hated Syrian. 
The congregation gets the point. Jesus does not show preferential regard for his neighbors, and he summons his own kinsmen to repentance. He declines to perform miracles among them because they cannot see that the boy who grew up in Joseph’s home is the Son of the Father. The insult evokes fury in the people because they feel that Jesus, speaking as if he stands in God’s place, has blasphemed the unique holiness of the LORD. The gathering becomes an angry mob as they drive Jesus out of town and up to the top of a hill. They plan to throw him down and then finish the job with stoning if needed. But Jesus, “passing through their midst,” leaves Nazareth never 
to return.
Jesus emerges physically unharmed. However, while he speaks the message the Spirit gives him, undoubtedly this denunciation wounds him. We know how rejection stings. Disappointing others saddens us but provoking them to wrath and utter repudiation shames us. It feels like bridges have been burned. Life as we know it is over. There is no going back. The way forward is lonely.
We can imagine, then, Jesus praying Psalm 71 that evening as he reflects on the tumult his teaching caused. Lament, a song of sadness and a cry for help, rises in him: “In you, O LORD, my Father, do I take refuge. . . . Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come. . . . For my enemies speak concerning me. . . . O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me!” 
Perhaps in seeking solace in the face of such harsh rejection, Jesus does what we do. He thinks of his story, of those who loved him, of the ways God had been with him. Maybe he recalls being taught the account of his miraculous conception and precarious birth, how he had a unique calling from the beginning. So these words from Psalm 71 would have been anchoring: “Upon you I have leaned from before my birth. You are he who took me from my mother’s womb.”
We readily feel how well Psalm 71 would have described Jesus’ experience, given voice to his pain in rejection and offered words pleading for his Father’s protection and comfort. This psalm might well have carried the weight of the day for Jesus.
Praying with Jesus
I have seldom realized, dear Jesus,
How the stings of rejection
Have given me a bond with you.
I always thought you were so confident
That the wrath and rage never touched you.
But now I see how angering your first teachers
Could make you feel that 
You must have done something wrong.
Your words embarrassed your own family,
Scandalizing their life in your town.
Did you feel shame that you had let them down?
When all that hatred drove against you,
Perhaps you wondered if you should have spoken differently.
I know you felt the loneliness that 
You could never go home again.
When I have felt like this, I usually deserved it.
You did not.
But now I know that you felt the sorrow nonetheless.
You cried out to your Father for solace.
So you know how it is with me.
But more, preciously more, 
I know something of how it was with you,
The pain you paid to tell us the truth,
The sorrow you bore and the solitary path you walked.
Now I would not trade my experience of rejection
For it bonds me to you.
It awakes love that wants to soothe you.
I want you to know that I am here,
Wishing I could be with you then,
Dear companion along the way.


Posted in: Lent

Day 7

The Son Does What He Sees His Father Doing

Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 103:6-14, 17-18
The LORD works righteousness
   and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
   his acts to the people of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
   nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
   so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
   so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
   he remembers that we are dust. . . .
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting 
   to everlasting on those who fear him,
   and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
   and remember to do his commandments.
The LORD has established his throne in the heavens,
   and his kingdom rules over all.
What Is This Psalm About?   
Each day we’ve been praying the first five verses of Psalm 103. Both for ourselves and with Jesus, we’ve been offering these essential praises to God for his character and gracious acts. Today we take up the main section of this psalm. David extols the LORD for his faithfulness to his people through the centuries. The history of God’s saving mercy witnesses to his eternal character of mercy and steadfast love. David notes in particular God’s compassion towards us in both our mortal frailty and our native sinfulness.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Verse 7 harks back to the early days of God’s people when the LORD “made known his ways to Moses.” God had revealed his sacred name to Moses (Exodus 3:14) and had given his commandments to (Exodus 20) and established his covenant with the people he freed from slavery (Exodus 24:8). However, in Exodus 33:18, Moses asked for even more! He wanted to see for himself the glory of the LORD. God agreed to show Moses his glorious goodness but only indirectly as he passed by. In that awesome moment, the LORD self-declared, “The LORD, the LORD, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” words that would be echoed in Israel’s prayers through the centuries (Exodus 34:6). 
As Jesus prays this psalm, he affirms and articulates these fundamental characteristics of the LORD. Yet, while the great Moses was only granted a “back” view of God’s glory, Jesus would declare that he knew God so intimately, he saw him. 
To Jesus, these praises of the LORD I AM are apt descriptions of the God he knows intimately as his heavenly Father. As Jesus grows in knowledge of the Scriptures, in prayer and worship and in the doing of the LORD’s will, Jesus becomes more and more aware of his unique relationship to the God of Israel. In John’s gospel, we see how closely connected are Jesus’ words and actions to what he perceives of his Father when he says, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (John 5:19-20).
The Son imitates his Father, so Psalm 103’s descriptions of the LORD also depict Jesus’ essential personality and reveal his motivation and mission. Jesus internalizes his Father’s heart and then expresses it in the world. In so doing, Jesus understands and willingly receives his marching orders for ministry. He who delights to do his Father’s will demonstrates in our physical world what he uniquely perceives in the heavenly realm. Jesus enacts his Father’s heart to be “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” and mercy.
Having a true human body himself, he shows tender regard for our mortal frames. As a father has compassion for his children, Jesus too shows compassion to us in all our brokenness and infirmity. In the Gospels, the Greek word translated as “compassion” is only used to describe Jesus himself or by Jesus in talking about his Father. Jesus ever acts from this emotional, empathetic, heart-reaching love. This is a God-like quality. 
Throughout his ministry, Jesus takes up his Father’s place in forgiving sins. He declares such mercy throughout his ministry. Then, through his love of obedience, even unto death on the cross, Jesus atones for sin. He removes our sins “as far as the east is from the west”—an infinite distance!
Praying with Jesus
Bless the LORD O my soul!
I rejoice with you, Jesus, to declare with you
That your Father’s love is from everlasting to everlasting.
His steadfast love endures forever.
Great is such faithfulness.
And you, Lord Jesus, are the spitting image of your Father.
You came to speak his love in a unique, precious tone of voice.
You came to stretch forth his healing hand, 
You came to display the strength of his mighty arm
In subduing evil and liberating the captive, the possessed and afflicted.
As a father shows compassion, so you showed the compassion
Of your heavenly Father to me!
All in the power of the Spirit with which he anointed you.
Praising your Father with you, the Son, 
So moved by the Holy Spirit,
In this moment I know myself lifted up by the Trinity
Into the Trinity.
I am enfolded in triune love 
And given a voice to bless you before heaven and earth.
Posted in: Lent

Day 6

Tempted in the Desert
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 73:1-5, 13-19, 21-26
?Truly God is good to Israel,
   to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
   my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
   when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pangs until death;
   their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
   they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. . . .
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
   and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
   and rebuked every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
   I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
   it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
   then I discerned their end.
Truly you set them in slippery places;
   you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
   swept away utterly by terrors!
When my soul was embittered,
   when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
   I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
   you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
   and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
What Is This Psalm About?   
The poet sees how the proud seem to have no troubles. They give the appearance of complete sufficiency and ease. Knowing his own troubles, the psalmist feels envy rise inside. His struggles to live righteously seem futile. Why work so hard to be good if just doing what you want is so much easier? This psalm names the temptation to consider faith in the LORD to be a waste of effort. If the outcomes are worse for the faithful, why not be one of the wicked who live in ease?
Yet when the writer leaves his self-absorbed contemplation and returns to the community of those praising and praying, his vision clears. In the sanctuary, with a more eternal perspective, he recalls the lonely, fearful and sudden end of those who deny God. Then the psalmist turns to consider the relief and joy of always being near God. Troubles will come and frail human flesh will fail: “But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
After his baptism, with all its affirmation of Jesus’ identity and mission, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). During Jesus’ forty days of fasting, the devil tempts him. He seeks to ruin Christ’s ministry before it begins. Why not shortcut the growling hunger all humans feel when fasting by doing what no one else can do? Just turn stones into bread! Why not become the ruler of the world by sheer power rather than follow this plan of loving the world back to God from the inside out?  
In these agonizing hours, Jesus may have been tempted to envy. Could he not be like a Roman centurion who just issues commands? Wouldn’t he get farther if he had the respected position of a Pharisee? Jesus faces the temptation to envy those who have the power to accomplish what he longs to do but by a much easier path.
I imagine Jesus in the desert working his way through Psalm 73. The psalmist provided words for Jesus’ own temptations to envy, his own impulse to jumpstart the work of ministry with superhuman displays. There in the wilderness, Jesus cannot go to the great temple for perspective. He has to enter the sanctuary in his mind. This is the place formed by all the Scriptures he has learned, the temple this carpenter fashioned within his heart through many hours of prayer. As he resists the devil’s suggestions, Jesus enters that spiritual house, and, like the psalmist, his vision clears.
Once more he feels his Father’s presence perhaps recalling: “Nevertheless I am continually with you!” He shudders at what a close call he has had as if to say, “I could have betrayed the generation of your children!” He reaffirms the very truth of his soul: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth I desire besides you.” There it is. The depth of him. Other desires have been held out to him with all the allure of the forbidden fruit. But he has resisted. He has passed the test. 
In Psalm 73, Jesus would also find precious words to prepare him for where his life of faithfulness would lead. On the cross, his flesh would fail. He inhabited a body that could die, and the Roman process of crucifixion would cruelly ensure that it would. His actual physical heart would fail under the stress of such torture and then it would be pierced by a lance. Moreover, there would come a moment when even the ability to will, to choose, would pass. He would entrust himself into his Father’s hands at the last (Day 25, Psalm 31:5). And then he could do no more, neither choose for or against his God. Then, the glorious truth of the words of this psalm would be clear. Flesh and heart, outer man and inner man, not only may but will fail. But then Jesus will find, as we do, when strength ebbs and nerve is lost, Someone supports him from underneath. God the Father is the strength of his heart, even if it stops beating. 
Praying with Jesus 
Was this season of temptation in the desert
Actually the rich soil for your teaching?
As the evil one enticed you towards an easier path,
Did you realize, “What does it profit a man 
To gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
Was this when you felt the tug of the prodigal’s elder brother,
Tempted to envy, lured to despise his own faithfulness,
But then hearing the loving pleas of his father,
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). 
Your words to me were never witty platitudes 
That cost nothing but the minor effort of cleverness. 
They arose from your praying the Scriptures 
While in the grip of compelling temptation.
How grateful I am that you discovered,
By considering alluring alternatives,
Through the agony of faithful resistance,
That there is nothing on earth you desire 
But your Father and his pleasure.
He is all you had.
Your Father is all I have
In heaven or earth worth living for. 
Truly, Jesus, I pray with you, 
“But for me, it is good to be near God.”


Posted in: Lent

Day 5

Baptism: Your God Has Anointed You
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 45:1-9
My heart overflows with a pleasing theme;
   I address my verses to the king;
   my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
You are the most handsome of the sons of men;
   grace is poured upon your lips;
   therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
   in your splendor and majesty!
In your majesty ride out victoriously
   for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness;
   let your right hand teach you awesome deeds!
Your arrows are sharp
   in the heart of the king’s enemies;
   the peoples fall under you.
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
   The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;
   you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
   with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
   your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
   daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
   at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
What Is This Psalm About?   
This is a song for a royal wedding. Authors of several psalms, the sons of Korah extol the majesty of the king as he prepares to wed. The whole nation rejoiced when a good and righteous king, representing the LORD’s reign of blessing over his people, married a worthy bride. A king who ruled in righteousness created justice throughout the land, and as he rode forth to subdue enemies, the people dwelled in peace. The monarch of Israel had been anointed king by a priest. Therefore, on his wedding day, the very favor of the LORD I AM falls like the finest oil over this king. He is blessed by God himself in whose name he reigns. The beautiful bride portends royal offspring and the hope that the royal line endures. 
Though we do not know to which king specifically this psalm was addressed, we do know it is in line with the unconditional promise of the LORD that there would always be an heir of David on the throne of Israel (2 Samuel 7:16). In this way, Psalm 45, even on the first day it was sung, looked forward to the day of the final Messiah when God himself would take his throne to rule on the earth setting all things right. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Once more the book of Hebrews confirms the deepest meaning of a psalm to be about Jesus. In fact, Hebrews places the praise of the king on the lips of God the Father! 
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
     the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
     with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” (Hebrews 1:8)
When would Jesus have experienced such anointing from his heavenly Father? We return to the event of his baptism. Matthew describes: 
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:6-17)
As John pours water on Jesus, the Father anoints our King with the Spirit. This “oil of gladness” will sustain him in joy through all his trials. Then the Father introduces Jesus publicly as his beloved Son. He summons the world to acknowledge the rule of the Lord. Imagine Jesus reciting this psalm as he contemplates what had happened to him in the Jordan. All these words to the king of Israel were for him! 
In the psalm, the singers praise the king for being “the most handsome of the sons of men.” Jesus may have laughed at this since this carpenter’s son from Nazareth was not known for his attractive appearance. In fact, he would also have known Isaiah 53:3 which declared that the suffering servant had “no beauty that that we should desire him.” Jesus may not have been comely according to external norms, but what beauty of love and holiness flowed from within him. What integrity, energy, passion, tenderness and faithfulness he displayed as he sought and saved the lost. How beautiful he looked to those who answered his call! 
At his baptism, Jesus accepts his mission. He leaves the waters ready to go forth and reclaim those whose lives had been usurped by the evil one. Steeped in the Word of God, he wields that sword like a holy warrior to liberate his people. 
By Jesus’ command, demons will flee, sickness will yield to health, chains of shame will fall away. Sinners will be absolved, the wayward brought home, and multitudes called out of darkness into light.
Jesus is all love. Love refuses to let the loved ones languish under slavery. Jesus rides out from his baptism to engage in a war of salvation, a fight against the principalities and powers of evil in order to redeem the world. His right hand will stretch forth in power to heal. His words, explaining and applying the Scriptures, will convict, piercing right into the heart of the most stubborn refusal.
Singing Psalm 45 after he rises from baptism, Jesus knows himself to be the king, the king of love, who hates the wickedness that ruins his people. He marches forward into ministry to marry his bride, his church, in 
redeeming power.
Praying with Jesus
Blessed are those who are invited 
To the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
Mighty King Jesus, how can it be
That you have betrothed yourself to me?
I look upon my hand and see the most dazzling ring:
Your Holy Spirit, the promise of all that is to come.
You have bought for me my wedding dress,
Dazzling pure garments of your own holiness.
My rags washed now in your precious blood.
My impure heart made new.
Every day I prepare for an eternity of reconciled faithfulness.
Grace is poured upon your lips
As you say the sweetest things to me:
“Your sins are forgiven.”
“Fear not, I have called you by name, you are mine.”
“I will come again and take you to myself,
That where I am, you may be also.”
Most glorious King and Husband,
Jesus lover of my soul,
Fan your Spirit in me into flame
That I might make choices today
To adorn our marriage on that Great Day.


Posted in: Lent

Day 4

Baptism: I Delight to Do Your Will
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 40:4-10, 16 
Blessed is the man who makes
   the LORD his trust,
who does not turn to the proud,
   to those who go astray after a lie!
You have multiplied, O LORD my God,
   your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
   none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
   yet they are more than can be told.
In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
   but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
   you have not required.
Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
   in the scroll of the book it is written of me:
I delight to do your will, O my God;
   your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance
   in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
   as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
   I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
   from the great congregation. . . .
But may all who seek you
   rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
   say continually, “Great is the LORD!”
What Is This Psalm About?
The Hebrew Scriptures abound in requirements for offerings and sacrifices. Blood represented life; the shed blood of an animal substituted for the persons who had sinned. The presentation of a firstborn animal or the first fruits of the harvest symbolized the offering of the worshiper’s whole life. People gave back a portion of what the LORD had given them in rich harvests and multiplying herds.
But these same Scriptures reveal that the actual sacrifices were not in themselves the endgame. They merely represented the giving of our very lives in joyful obedience to the Giver of Life. Rituals in themselves could become meaningless, begrudged, and so of no avail. What God has always wanted is the human heart enacting obedience from a free will inspired by love. Through the years, the LORD has saved his people from slavery, wilderness wanderings, food scarcity, enemies, sinfulness and all its consequences. In return, God desires our thanks and praise for the deepest purpose of humanity is grateful communion with the triune God.  
In Psalm 40, David gives thanks for the deliverances of the LORD. He desires to give himself to the One who has given him so much. In his prayer of joyful offering, he realizes the deeper truth in every external act of worship: “Sacrifice and offering you have not desired.” If only understood at face value, that prayer seems not to be true! God surely commanded particular offerings. But there was a deeper meaning: “I desire to do your will, O my God.” The yielded thankful heart would lead to a life of worship and service. David, as we know, could only aspire to such total devotion. It would remain for another to fulfill the true and total requirements of the law. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Hebrews 10 places this psalm directly on Jesus’ lips! The setting is “when Christ came into the world” (vs. 5). Overall, this refers to the incarnation. This doing of his Father’s will is the whole journey of the Son of God as the man Jesus. He came as the second Adam, the beginning of a new human race. He came to live from the heart a perfect obedience expressed in giving away his life in love, all the way to his death.
In terms of a particular moment, I love to think of Jesus’ praying Psalm 40 as his cousin John baptizes him in the Jordan River. This is the hour of Christ’s public debut into his mission and ministry.
In the waters of the Jordan, Jesus submits to a sinners’ baptism, even though personally he has no sin. But as John pours water upon him, Jesus repents on our behalf. In baptism, he makes our sins his own and gives us the first look at what his ministry will be about. He will go about taking to himself and healing our diseases and brokenness, our afflictions and oppressions. Then at the last, he will bear the sins of the world upon the cross, being baptized in blood (Mark 10:39).
The ESV translates Psalm 40:6 as “you have given me an open ear,” meaning a receptivity to listening to the will and guidance of his Father. When Hebrews quotes this psalm, however, it uses the Greek translation of the Old Testament as “a body you have prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5). That gives us a greater sense of how Jesus lived his whole flesh and blood life as a moment-by-moment sacrifice of obedience on our behalf. He joyfully affirms, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). 
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan inaugurates the great promise of the new covenant made in Jeremiah 31:33. The LORD declares, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Jesus is the only man who could truly say and live out, “I desire to do your will, O my God.” He reversed our first parents’ choice to do their own will. Jesus was fearfully and wonderfully made as the new Adam who offers himself completely in faithful love to his Father. 
So he could proclaim the “glad news of deliverance to the great congregation” he would gather. His first words recorded in Mark’s gospel declare, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Praying with Jesus
Lord Jesus, you came all the way down to us!
You left the harmony of heaven
For the cacophony of my rebel heart. 
You went under the waters 
Like a filthy sinner needing to be cleansed.
You consecrated yourself to your Father’s mission.
You offered yourself completely.
You lived as the first and only human
Who desired your Father’s will 
From the depths of your heart.
You are the new covenant
In which desire to live for God
Is written in the very heart of a new humanity.
You brought this news to the great congregation
Of men, women and children everywhere. 
Your joy in seeking your Father wholeheartedly
Overflows to us.
I love your salvation.
This day, I join my voice to yours, as forever
You say, with us and for us,
Great is the LORD!


Posted in: Lent

Day 3

The Joy of Jesus
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 104:1-2, 19-24; 27-31
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
   O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
   covering yourself with light as with a garment,
   stretching out the heavens like a tent. . . . 
He made the moon to mark the seasons;
   the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
   when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
The young lions roar for their prey,
   seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they steal away
   and lie down in their dens.
Man goes out to his work
   and to his labor until the evening.
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
   In wisdom have you made them all;
   the earth is full of your creatures. . . .
These all look to you,
   to give them their food in due season. . . .
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
   when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
   when you take away their breath, they die
   and return to their dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,
   and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works.
What Is This Psalm About?   
Psalm 104 blesses the LORD I AM for the very rhythms of life on the earth. The psalmist rejoices that, as Calvin would comment centuries later, “[T]he whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power” (Commentary on Psalm 104). Similarly, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would write, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (“God’s Grandeur”). When we look at creation against the backdrop of the Creator’s goodness, order and plan, even the mundane thrills us. So the prophet declares, “He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name” (Amos 5:8).
God ordered the cosmos with reliable laws, and faith understands that God’s steadfast love undergirds this constancy. Consequently, what seems routine sparkles as extraordinary. Wonder is everywhere: Days and seasons. Earth and sky. Birth and death. Growth and decay. Work and rest. Animals nocturnal and diurnal. Evergreens and leaf-droppers. Rainy seasons and dry. Cold and heat. The very dance of electrons to the slow inexorable glacier flow sing forth the beauty of the Creator. Thomas Chisholm’s beloved hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” encapsulates this lovely theme of Psalm 104: “Summer and winter and seedtime and harvest, / Suns, moons and stars in their courses above / Join with all nature in manifold witness / to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.” 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Paul writes of the Son of God that “by him all things were created in heaven and on earth . . . all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:6-17). Paul also tells us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Galatians 4:4), and “he emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). The eternal Son took up a real humanity. As Jesus, he made his way as we do. He had to develop, study, ask questions, reason, work, eat, wash, rest, deepen and explore. Jesus as a human had to become aware of what he had known from eternity as the Son of God—he is his Father’s unique Son.
As a child, Jesus encountered the world as children do—just receiving what is as it is. Spilled milk is not first a mess, but something wet and cool to put a hand in. A dog slurp is first something that makes you laugh, only later something that makes you sticky. He experienced and loved all the ordinary moments of regular days. 
In his ministry, Jesus would have to undertake the grim business of engaging evil. He would have to fight against illness, arrogance, oppression, and every manner of brokenness. But I don’t believe he ever lost the joy of life that he experienced as a child. 
As we consider his teaching, we see Jesus’ awareness and appreciation of daily life. There is abundant evidence in his illustrations that Jesus had been shaped by Psalm 104 in his prayers:  
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (Matthew 6:28b-29)
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. (Matthew 10:29)The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. (Mark 4:26-27)
When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ (Matthew 16:2-3)
Jesus loves the beautiful adornment of flowers and the birds on the wing. He knows his Father has his eye on the sparrow. He acknowledges the mystery of how seeds sprout and plants grow. He watches the signs of weather and lives close to the change of seasons and the daily sunrise and nightfall. 
As Jesus prays Psalm 104, we can imagine his deep contemplation. The song turns from lyrically naming aspects of creation to exploring the very mystery of living and dying. The Hebrew word for “breath,” “wind” and “spirit” is the same. Thus, animals live by the breath, or Spirit, of God. The breath of God gives the breath of life. When that Spirit is withdrawn, creatures perish. We, like the animals, made of dust, rise from the earth and return to it in due time, under the sovereignty of God.
Jesus discerns the hope that follows the psalm’s lines about death. Seemingly out of order, we read how God sends forth his Spirit, his divine breath, to quicken these creatures who have perished. But the Hebrew word can mean “revive” as well as “create.” This gives a sense of resurrection. “[A]nd you renew the face of the earth.” As the years go by and Jesus considers the cross that will be before him, how precious would the joyful hope of this psalm be to him!
Praying with Jesus
You encountered the world from within a real human life.
I love to think of your joy in being alive,
In seeing order, rhythm, design everywhere.
Mary and Joseph told you of the Creator.
So you received everything as a gift from his hand. 
As a child, you felt 
The vastness of the world,
The power of the waves,
The depths of the waters
And the height of the hills.
You saw animals born and die.
You saw the harvest joy
And the heartbreak of crops that failed.
You anticipated the routine of daily meals,
And regular prayers,
Sabbath rest and hours when toil demanded.
You knew cool nights and hot days.
Always you grew in knowing your Father
As the source and goal, the originator and finisher.
All of this revealed his beauty to you.
With you, Jesus, 
I will sing to your Father as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God and your God,
For the beauty of the earth,
With you, Jesus, I rejoice in the LORD,
Your Father and mine. 


Posted in: Lent

Day 2

At the Temple: One Thing I Have Asked
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 27:4-10
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
   that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
   all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
   and to inquire in his temple.
For he will hide me in his shelter
   in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
   he will lift me high upon a rock.
And now my head shall be lifted up
   above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
   sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud;
   be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
   “Your face, LORD, do I seek.”
   Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
   O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
   O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
   but the LORD will take me in.
What Is This Psalm About?
In Psalm 27, virulent enemies press David so hard that he feels like they want “to eat up my flesh” (27:2). He counters his anxiety by praising the LORD, describing in prayer a cascade of God’s qualities. The LORD is his light, his salvation, his rock and his refuge. In times of trouble, the LORD both conceals David from his enemies and lifts him high above them. The reality of God reduces the threat of any foe.
David also understands that when we are restless with worry, it is hard to rest in God. When we thrash about with anxiety over others’ hostility, we struggle to release ourselves into God’s peaceful protection. David knows he needs to go to a place where others who trust in the LORD lift up praises and make their needs known. He seeks a “thin place” where the distance between heaven and earth shrinks. God who is everywhere chose to make himself especially known in his “house,” the place of worship where the Ark of the Covenant resided, where sacrifices of atonement and thanks could be made, where songs of faith rose entwined with cries of need. 
So David realizes that the deepest desire of his heart is to experience the presence of the LORD who had called him as his son and servant. The Holy Spirit placed in David an impulse to seek the face, the experiential presence, of God. He knows this is the quest of his life. The road of that journey is paved with praise. Such worship puts all of life in perspective. When enemies pursue, or even the closest relatives disappoint, the LORD sustains with steadfast love. 
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
In Luke 2:41-51, the author records one episode from Jesus’ boyhood. Jesus’ family takes him to Jerusalem for the sacred festival of Passover. At 12, Jesus is just a year from his bar mitzvah, after which he would be considered a responsible adult. In the courts of the great temple, teachers of the Scriptures gather to discuss, expound and debate the Word of God while others listen. There Jesus realizes his greatest passion: to encounter God through his Word.
From the beginning, Jesus had an extraordinary aptitude for Scripture. I’m sure he loved hearing his rabbi teach every Sabbath. I know Jesus relished the Torah classes held for the boys of his town. But now at the temple, hearing the greatest teachers, spiritual fire blazes in his heart, mind and soul. He yearns to know the LORD more. He knows that his life’s work will be to speak of God from his Word to any who will listen. 
In the temple, where the LORD made his name to dwell, Jesus can barely contain his desire to behold the beauty, the full-of-wonder delightfulness of God to whom he feels so close. How this psalm resounds in his soul! “My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’” (Psalm 27:8). And suddenly this boy dares to interact with the teachers, asking and answering questions. He loses all track of time. This is what he does day after day, even when his family has started back for Nazareth.
When his parents, worried sick, double back to find him, Jesus can only reply, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Jesus realizes that the great God of the glorious Scriptures discussed at the temple is his personal father. He is coming into the truth of his manhood. As close as he has been to his earthly parents, now he knows he must live for his heavenly Father. In this sense, he can pray with David, “My father and mother have forsaken me, but the LORD [my Father!] will take me in.”
Praying with Jesus
Lord Jesus, I thrill to imagine
You at the temple that Passover,
Awakening to your purpose,
Near breathless with deepest desire.
You sought the face of your Father.
Yearning awoke in you to be more and more in his presence. 
In the temple, you tasted the sweetness of the Word.
Your soul blazed with ardor to know your Father intimately,
To shout with joy as you offered yourself to do his will. 
You answered the Spirit’s prompting in you.
You expressed earnestly your greatest fear as you asked
That the Father would never hide his face from you.
You wanted what no human had received before, 
A direct and intimate apprehension of God,
Whom you loved though you had not seen him,
For whom you thirsted, whom you wanted more than anything. 
And today as I pray, I’m astonished
That what you sought, you now give to me.
For you are the face of God in a human face!
You are the Father’s presence in skin and bone.
The glory of God shines in your face
Which is ever turned toward me in love.
Open my eyes that I might see
How what you most desired on earth,
What you fought for, bled for, died for,
Has been freely given to me.


Posted in: Lent

Day 1



John Everett Millais. Christ in the House of His Parents. 1849-50, Tate Gallery, London.

We’re given very little specific information about Jesus’ first thirty years, but those decades formed what Jesus would become in his ministry. We know he was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit. His family fled to Egypt shortly after his birth because jealous King Herod sought his life. His stepfather Joseph worked as a carpenter. Like any good Jewish boy, Jesus would have learned his father’s trade. Jesus learned to relate to his family and neighbors. He studied the Scriptures. He internalized the Jewish forms of worship. He noticed seasons, trees, and animals. Jesus increased in awareness of his heavenly Father and their unique relationship. All this prepared him to burst onto the public scene at his baptism. 
Preparing for this week, we can spend a few moments with John Everett Millais’ 1850 painting With Christ in the House of His Parents. This intimate domestic scene is rich with signs of what is to come. The young Jesus has pierced his hand on a protruding nail in Joseph’s workshop. Mary comforts him even as Joseph tenderly examines the wound. We cannot help but think of the coming cross, especially as we note the larger nail in Joseph’s hand. His cousin John brings a bowl of water foreshadowing his role as the baptizer. Even more symbolism can be discovered in articles about this painting.
The Child Jesus Asks, “Who Am I?”
Imagine standing with Jesus, right next to him, in prayer to his Father. Read this passage of praise aloud. As you do so, consider that you are praying along with Jesus, your two voices becoming one as you bless God.  
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and all that is within me,
   bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
   and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity
   who heals all your diseases, 
who redeems your life from the pit,
   who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
   so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5)
Psalm 139:1-2, 13-18  
O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from afar. . . .
For you formed my inward parts;
   you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
   my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
   when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
     the days that were formed for me,
     when as yet there was none of them.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.
   I awake, and I am still with you.
What Is This Psalm About?
In this psalm, David contemplates the wonder that the LORD of all knows him personally and intimately. God perceives his past and his future. God beholds him inside and out. In the LORD’s awareness, there can be no gap between what David presents and who he really is. God beholds him entirely. He knows him completely.
The heart of this song can be expressed in a simple but profound statement: “I am thought, therefore I am.” Why do I exist? Because God thought of me! And he keeps thinking of me. By his very regard for me, I stay alive. The one whose name is “I Am,” the Triune God who is pure, uncreated being imagined me. Then he created me. He gave me a real existence. So I can joyfully say, “I am! I am me! I live!” But not because I could ever have made myself. Thinking, choosing and doing are all gifts from God. 
This psalm shows me that the more I acknowledge the Creator, the more I appreciate the mystery of being alive. My praise of the Maker opens me to joyful gratitude. I rejoice, without pride, in my very life. For all glory goes to the One who conceived me in eternity and then enabled my mother to bring me into this world. I am thought—by God. Therefore, I exist as the particular person I am. Even now, as I draw the next breath, I realize that God maintains my life by his constant thought and care.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
We know very little of Jesus’ life before his ministry began, and what information we have is precious. We know that in Nazareth “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40). We can well imagine that Psalm 139 was as significant for Jesus as it has ever been for young people.
Jesus did not come out of Mary’s womb as a fully formed little man the way some art shows! Jesus grew up the way we do. That means he had to learn. Like every baby, Jesus learned to distinguish people. He knew the loving embrace of his nursing mother. It was different than the strong embrace of his carpenter father. Jesus could tell the smooth skin of Mary’s cheek from the rough beard of Joseph. 
As Jesus realized more and more that he was his own, separate person, he may have wondered, as many children do, where he was before he was here with his parents. Lying on his bed at night, before he fell asleep, he may have looked at his hands in the dim light wondering at how he could just think of moving his fingers and they moved! Jesus may have tried to see how long he could hold his breath or noticed the dazzling brightness in his closed eyes when he rubbed them with his knuckles. Jesus would have puzzled over where he went when he was asleep. As Jesus encountered the death of animals, neighbors or even relatives, he would have wondered if they still lived somewhere else. And so where would he be one day when he died? 
All the while Jesus learned about the extraordinary ordinariness of being alive, this psalm would have set everything in the context of the God who made him. How  Jesus would have known the fresh joy each morning expressed in this psalm: “I awake, and I am still with you!” Psalm 139 gathered up every thanksgiving at meals, every bedtime prayer, and every song of the synagogue with the reality that Jesus lived because he was created by a God who every moment knew him and related to him. 
Praying with Jesus
Jesus the surge of living flowed through you!
You knew the child’s delight of discovery. 
I can see you laughing
As Mary blew on your tummy,
As Joseph tossed you into the air.
I love to think about how you first spoke.
Did your parents keep using the funny names
You gave to things?
I love to visualize you on your bed in the dark,
Or in the early morning before the house stirred,
Speaking to your toys, making up little stories.
I love to see you walking outside,
Holding a hand, feeling the sun, 
Breathing in the scent of home.
I love to ponder how the awareness 
Of your heavenly Father grew year by year,
To imagine you hearing this psalm and
Realizing, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 
What love of life you surely had,
How precious were those days at home,
Before the weight of the world bore down 
Upon the shoulders of your soul. 
Posted in: Lent


What if we could pray with Jesus, not just to him about our concerns? What would happen if we stood next to Jesus, offering up the same prayers he made to his Father? What if we joined Jesus in the events of his life, then pressed close to him by sharing in his emotions? What if we spent our prayer time being engaged about what mattered in Christ’s life?
I can tell you what happens to me when I do this. I feel his heart forming more inside my heart. I become energized by the urgency of his mission. Most of all, I grow to love Jesus more than ever. And adoring him brings me so much: Peace. Passion. Hope. Wonder. 
As it turns out, getting inside Jesus’ prayer life lights up our prayers. Tucking up close to his heartbeat in the events of his life transforms our hearts. The closer we draw to him, the more Jesus gives life to us.
But how? Is there not an impossible gap between Jesus and me? Aren’t the events of his life lost in the past? We don’t know what he prayed, so how can we join him? I know. It sounds presumptuous and not a little crazy.
But there is a bridge, a reliable, compelling, available bridge built of two interconnected parts: the Psalms and the Gospels. They fit together so we can be joined to Jesus.
The Psalms 
For centuries, the Book of Psalms, also known as the Psalter, has been the heartbeat of Jewish and Christian worship. The people of the LORD have offered up psalms as individuals and as a community of believers. Mostly written by the poet-king David, this collection of 150 poems runs the whole range of human experience. From joy to depression, from guilt to release, from anxiety to peace, from envy to gratitude, psalms express the kaleidoscope of our emotions. Nearly all the psalms are prayers, so when we pray the psalms, our human feelings get processed before the LORD. Through the Psalms, we tell God about our situations and the emotions that arise from these circumstances. We consider the cause of our circumstances, and we ask our Creator for specific help, sometimes urgently. 
Jesus knew the Psalms by heart. He prayed them, taught from them, quoted from them and understood himself to be the key that unlocks their deepest meaning. They are Christ’s prayerbook. And only he could pray them completely. 
The Gospels
Jesus himself withdrew from the earth forty days after his resurrection. But by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he left us the record of what we need to know about what he did and said. The Gospels recount historical events in Jesus’ life, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are not mere reports. Something else happens when we read that record in reliance on the Holy Spirit. These events from two thousand years ago become charged with present power. We meet the Jesus who lived then right now. These stories have immediate potency. 
Building a Bridge
How can we link the Psalms and the Gospels? First of all, the authors of the Gospels give us several concrete instances where particular psalms intersect with the events of Jesus’ life. For example, we already know that Jesus prayed Psalm 22 from the cross. We’re very sure Jesus prayed Psalm 116 at the Last Supper. We know that people shouted lines from Psalm 118 as Jesus entered Jerusalem. We know that Jesus taught how Psalm 110 relates to himself. 
Even without specific references such as these, we can see the bridge being built elsewhere in the Gospels. The Spirit inspired the authors of the Psalms not only in their sacred responses to their immediate circumstances but also in the penning of prayers that Jesus would offer to his Father throughout his life, especially during Passion Week. In effect, the psalmists composed lyrics for Jesus’ life. Making additional links between specific psalms and Jesus’ life events will require some imagination—not wild speculation, but consecrated connection. 
What if we consider which particular psalms fit with particular events of Jesus’ life given in the Gospels and pray specific psalms right into those events? What if we imagine Jesus praying that psalm as expressive of the meaning of that event? We know Jesus knew and prayed all the Psalms, and we know every event recorded in the Gospels happened. So the experiment this Lent is to put the two together in contemplation and prayer. We pray the psalms with Jesus in the context of his experiences because, in effect, the Psalms are the soundtrack of Jesus’ life.
That is what I’m inviting you to try this Lent—to pray prayers Jesus prayed with Jesus as we enter the events of his life. Using consecrated imagination, we can draw close to him to understand more of his inner life and driving passion. We have forty-two events and forty-two psalms to link together. I have found making these connections to be life-changing, and I pray you will too.  
A Note On the Psalms as Songs
Music can lift our spirits or release our sadness. We love the lyrics of songs because they express what we feel but may not have the words to say. The specific situation described by the songwriter doesn’t limit the song’s ability to connect across regions, ages, and even cultures. 
For instance, not many people have actually found themselves “standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.” But millions have connected for half a century to the relational difficulties in the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Also, songs can amplify familiar feelings so we can hear more clearly what we’re experiencing. Bono of U2 sings how he’s got “music to exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” A song in word or tune may be more dramatic than my life in a particular moment. But that very exaggeration helps me understand what I’m experiencing on a smaller scale. We hitch our feelings to the song and feel understood.
Written to be sung by individuals and in corporate worship and celebration, the Psalms are not only a prayerbook, they are a songbook as well.
Curiously, God did not preserve for us any of the tunes to which these psalms were set. Moreover, the Hebrew poetry of the psalms does not use rhyme. However, the lack of melody and rhyme makes the psalms more translatable, relatable and universal. Cultures change constantly, but human emotions and spiritual experiences stay remarkably the same through time and space, and the psalms continue to cross over countries, oceans, and even centuries.
Psalm 103 Every Day: Don’t Skip This!
I invite you to pray aloud every day an excerpt from Psalm 103. Doing this in itself is spiritually formative. But here’s the twist. As you get ready to pray, imagine standing with Jesus. See Jesus make ready to bless his Father through this ancient psalm. Then say it with him. Encourage him in his praise as you say it aloud with Jesus. 
Daily Psalm  
Each day during this Lenten season, we’ll read a selection from a psalm. Take your time. You might want to read it once silently and once aloud. Notice where you identify with the feelings expressed. Listen for the “nibbles” that tug at you. Consider what you like about this selection or even what you don’t like.
What Is This Psalm About?
I will present a couple of paragraphs just to set the context of the day’s psalm. I’ll highlight for you some particular insights that help to unlock its meaning.
What Might This Psalm Have Meant to Jesus?
Here’s where we’ll make a link between a Jesus-event and the psalm. We’ll be moving consecutively through the life of Jesus, from his childhood through his ministry and passion to his ascension. I’ll be bringing in connections to other Scriptures as well. We’ll see how these prayers would have given Jesus lyrics, or content, for praying about the meaning of the event.
Praying with Jesus
This is where we will strive to internalize the link between events of Jesus’ life and psalms he might have prayed. I’ve offered words through which you can press close to Jesus as you encounter him in both the gospel story and the psalm. Of course, I encourage you to add your own prayers! 
So as we pray psalms throughout Lent, we will find connections with our own lives. Moreover, we will find links to Jesus’ inner feelings. We will pray with Jesus and draw close to him in this sacred season.
I’m so thankful to work with Katie Robinson on this our 13th Lenten guide to prayer! She’s the layout master! I’m very grateful to welcome back Dr. Jean Rohloff as editor. She’s great at making clear and smooth what is murky and rough. 
There are many great books on the psalms. I want to acknowledge just a few seminal sources referenced in these pages. (Other sources used will have footnotes in the text.) 
Guite, Malcolm. David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021.
Reardon, Patrick Henry. Christ in the Psalms. Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2000.
Ross, Allen P. Ross. A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1-3. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016.*
*Professor Ross’ work has been more valuable to me than I can say. His scholarship and insights are everywhere in these pages.
And, of course, how can I ever adequately render my joyful gratitude that I have the privilege of pastoring such a congregation as you? Your love for the Word who is Jesus and the Word which is written fills me with energy and a passion to go deeper into Christ with you. This is a book I’ve wanted to write for a decade, and now, at last, we get to pray psalms with Jesus together!
With you in Christ,
Lent, 2024
Posted in: Lent

Praying Alongside Jesus

What if we could pray with Jesus? Not just to him, about our concerns. What would happen if we stood next to Jesus, offering up the same prayers he made to his Father? What if we joined Jesus in the events of his life, then pressed close to him by sharing in his emotions? What if we spent our prayer time being engaged about what mattered in  Christ’s life?  
I can tell you what happened to me. I grew to love Jesus more. And I felt his heart getting formed more inside my heart. I got energized by the urgency of his mission. I came to admire Jesus more than ever. Adoring him creates a profound effect in me. Peace. Passion. Hope. Wonder. 
Could that happen to you? I mean, what if the best way to change us is actually focusing on Jesus? As it turns out, getting inside Jesus’ prayer life lights up our prayers. Tucking up close to his heartbeat in the events of his life transforms our hearts. The closer we draw to him, the more Jesus gives life to us.
But how? Is there not an impossible gap between Jesus and me? Aren’t the events of his life lost in the past? We don’t know what he prayed so how can we join him? I know. It sounds presumptuous and not a little crazy.
But there is a bridge. A reliable, compelling, available bridge. It’s built of two interconnected parts, the Psalms and the Gospels. Jesus knew and prayed the psalms. We can pray those same psalms as we participate spiritually in the events of his life recorded in the Gospels. It could be like nothing you’ve ever done!
That’s the adventure we’ll be on together this Lent. I pray you will be transformed by learning to pray alongside Jesus. 
Five Ways to Participate
1) Lyrics for His Life: Praying the Psalms with Jesus. On February 18, we’ll distribute copies of this beautiful, full color, 238 page book. You’ll find reading and prayers for the 42 days leading to Easter. Yes, you can grab copies for friends, and yes some advance copies will be available February 11.
2) Daily Podcasts. Prefer to listen while you go about your day? Sign up for the daily podcast link. Lauren Honea and Scott Graham join me in bringing you each day’s readings. Subscribe to podcasts.
3) Daily Emails: Prefer to read on your device? Find each day’s reading in your inbox!  It takes 22 seconds to sign up via our website! 
4) Community Groups: Reading, discussing and praying with others always takes us deeper. Join the more than 300 who participated last year meeting in homes, praying together and sharing life going deeper in Christ. Email Kelly Wood for more on joining or leading a Community Group.
5) Weekly Worship: Each week through April, we’ll focus on a particular psalm Jesus prayed and consider what it might have meant to him. We’ll learn to pray alongside our Lord as we press in to the events of his life, death and resurrection. 
6) Wednesday Noon Services. Beginning with Ash Wednesday on February 14, we’ll meet each week for worship and communion, focusing on a psalm Jesus prayed. There will even be opportunities for more experiential prayer times. Further details on Wednesday worship.

Reflecting and Visioning

At the turn of the year, I like to remember and give thanks, then look forward. First of all for you, beloved church. I brag about you to my colleagues all the time. Your sincere faith in Christ Jesus, your passion for his Word, your love for one another, your engagement with our community, your realization that being in Christ empowers and influences every aspect of life. It really is a joy to be your pastor!
In particular, I want to express thanks for our staff team. Nearly all of them are dedicated church members. They are us! And how they love Jesus and his people. We strive to make every experience at church feel seamless and appear effortless, organized and comfortable. When I think of what it takes to host Sundays that invite and elevate, with the literally hundreds of moving pieces, I feel so grateful for a team that serves with such energy and excellence. They strive to include, knit, integrate and bless the whole congregation into one. And they feel your love.
Looking forward, our 200th anniversary is just three years away! I’m excited that the foremost way we will prepare is to start a process of long-range visioning that will lead to a five-year strategic plan. During the first half of this year, you’ll hear about opportunities to provide input into our priorities. Congregational engagement will be essential to the direction our elders give to begin our 3rd century.
More near term, this winter we’ll finish out our series on Ephesians. There are some powerful passages yet to come. Lent comes early, so in mid-February we’ll take up Lyrics for His Life: Praying the Psalms with Jesus. This is a book I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It was quite moving to imagine which psalms Jesus might have prayed during events of his life, and then to join him in prayer. I believe you’ll get closer to Christ as you pray psalms alongside him. In addition to reading the printed book and daily emails, this year you can also listen to the daily content on our Lyrics for His Life podcast! Being part of a community group deepens the whole experience, so I hope we’ll have a record number of participants.
Meanwhile, the wonderful programs and missions of our church kick back into high gear, and there are lots of ways to get involved. It’s good to be on the quest with you, the quest to press deeper into Christ and share his love further into the world.  

Catch Fire!

I have a friend who got to carry the Olympic torch for a few minutes along its journey from Greece to Salt Lake City. Thousands of people, specially selected, take part in this massive relay. The torch catches fire in Olympia, site of the first ancient games, and then passes through thousands of persons to the location of the next Olympics. Sometimes the flame gets passed to an underwater torch; sometimes it flies in four lanterns on a plane. But so far, it has never failed to make it. 
That’s a lot like the story we tell at Christmas. The early believers came to learn what they probably did not know during Jesus’ ministry. How he was born far from home and cradled in a feeding trough. How angels sang before shepherds. How wise men followed a unique star. These accounts caught fire. They became precious to those who have given their lives to Jesus. So the reports have passed across oceans, over mountains, through deserts and hundreds of languages. The true story of a Savior’s birth.
This Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, our theme is light. We hope to catch fire from the birth of the Savior. The twist is that our flame does not begin on earth, not even from a place as cool as Mt. Olympus. This is a heavenly fire. Not from down here. A spiritual flame of life jumped the gap and caught fire in the virgin’s womb. The Spirit enabled Mary to conceive Jesus, the truly human, truly divine redeemer. 
When our hearts catch fire with that miracle, our whole lives light up. I love keeping this season with you and I hope you’ll make it here every 
week as we catch fire from Scriptures full of light and songs that light up the heavens with Christ’s glory. You especially don’t want to miss the Cantata on December 10, featuring our combined choirs, an orchestra and music written and arranged by our own Chris Phillips. We’ll have three services on December 24 and I’ll preach “All Along the Watchtower” at each.
Christmas Offering
Every year, in a very understated way, we make available a special offering to undergird two ministries beloved to our church. Every year, quietly, you shatter giving records and send the ministry leaders soaring into the new year with hope. 
The Christian Outreach Center, led by Brian Sleeth, helps thousands of people through the year with basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and electricity. But more, the COC offers effective programs in job readiness, financial literacy and even re-entry from prison to a contributing life. 
The Gardere Community Christian School, led by Lauren Darden, educates 150 students from preschool to fifth grade. This multi-ethnic Christian school consistently sees dramatic improvement in students’ test scores, outpacing both public and charter schools in its area. Most importantly, Gardere effectively forms these little ones in the love and story of Jesus. Both ministries light many flames of hope, and it’s a joy to support them.

All the Things to Love

"All the Things to Love" is the title of a book we used to read our children. It had beautiful pictures of many ordinary sights in which we can find beauty and joy. Serving God through his church is just like that. There’s so much we can do. Much of it seems obvious and ordinary. Until we think about it. Then realize, “Oh! This is a way I give glory back to God for the grace he has given me!” From arriving ten minutes early to speak to people to singing to teaching little ones to looking over the church finances to joining a mission team to visiting a homebound member to setting up communion . . . there is a cascade of ways we offer ourselves to God by participating in the life of the church. And when we ponder it for just a minute, we realize we love these activities. 
This autumn, we’ve been enjoying the weekly videos in which our members joyfully share the ways they steward God’s grace in our church. We’ve also distributed a catalog on the hundreds of ways we serve—the hundreds of opportunities there are for all of us.  
This has all been preparation for a special day of dedication, Sunday, November 12. By now you will have received a dedication card to fill out. We want everyone (yes, you!) to use these cards to make note of how you’re stewarding God’s grace. That is, to write what you are doing and what you’d like to do. Then we’ll offer that card to God as part of worship. It will be a way of recommitting ourselves to Christ, together, as people united at First Presbyterian.
That card will also include a way to offer our estimates of giving for the coming year. That’s a crucial part of your leadership’s planning process. I love to share that your elders are prudent: we don’t plan to spend more than we can expect. But your elders are also visionary: we put into play all the resources we can expect. That way every gift, all year long, truly counts. 
We know how much God has blessed us in Christ Jesus and through our church. I believe that November 12 will release joy as we intentionally dedicate ourselves, together, in worship at each service. Please make every effort to be there! I eagerly look forward to this day because, as ever, I love being your pastor!

Give Glory! Stewarding God's Grace

Suppose you were down on Bayou Black and saw the sun setting all washed with pinks and reds. What would you do? Maybe speak. “That’s gorgeous!” Maybe take a picture. “I have to show this to everybody!” Or maybe you want a picture so you can paint it. You just want to soak in and give back some of that beauty. Maybe you just take it all in quietly, praying in your heart, “Thank you God.” We encounter beauty and we want to respond.
Here’s news. God himself wants us to reply to the beauty he reveals! He wants us to make a return. To thank him with full hearts in worship. And to share with others the treasure he has revealed to us.
There is nothing more beautiful in all the universe than Jesus. He is the face of God shining on us. He is the heart of God opened to us. When we catch sight of the risen Savior holding out his nail-pierced hands in welcome, our breath catches. This is how you love me? “Come to me,” he beckons. And our hearts leap toward his open arms in full devotion. When we perceive Christ’s beauty, we want to tell him, “You’re beautiful!” We want to declare that beauty. Sing it. Draw it. Guard it. Share it. Serve it. Drink it in and give it out joyfully.
Our triune God eagerly desires us to reply to the beauty of the love he shares. There are a myriad of ways to do that. Peter wrote, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.” God shares his beautiful grace through his people. His glory gets made known through all the ways we offer back from what we have received. This can be service or teaching. Hospitality or administering. Preaching or cleaning. Changing babies or singing. Giving money or spending time. Studying or painting. We give glory to our glorious God as we adorn him through the ways we offer back ourselves.
That’s our focus this fall. We want to celebrate the ways we are stewarding God’s grace through our church. You’ll be amazed to realize all the ways you are already doing this! On November 12, we want to rededicate ourselves as a reply to Christ’s beautiful grace. We’ll make our financial commitments, of course. They’re crucial! We’ll also offer back the places where we are serving and where we might like to serve more in the future.

Who Dat?

If you’re part of “Saints Nation,” you know the chant. “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” For years, it’s been a rallying cry for games. The essence is straight from the playground: “Our guys are better than your guys! If you think your guys will win, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”
I’ve recently been reading about a “Who dat?” moment in Psalm 24. The psalm was written for a worship parade. The people remembered the glorious day when young King David had recovered the sacred Ark of the Covenant from the dreaded Philistines. The Ark contained the Ten Commandments. It’s top was the mercy seat, where atoning blood was offered. In short, the Ark meant the saving presence of the LORD. Through a great victory, the Ark was going back to its holy place in the sanctuary. Symbolically, God was coming home.
This historical moment was so sacred that it got re-enacted year after year. Psalm 24 describes a dialogue between the throng of people and the gatekeepers of the temple. The crowd cries out, “Open up, you gates, that the King of glory may come in!” The gatekeepers reply, “Who is the King of glory?” In other words, “Who dat?” What God is mightier than all gods? Who do you worship? Why should we let that God be in the heart of our sanctuary? Who dat God you got?
The people reply “The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle. He is the King of glory. So let us in to worship the one true God who redeems and saves. 
Open up!”
I can imagine this exchange going back and forth for a while until the people’s voice thunders. The trumpets blow and cymbals clash who dat? “The LORD, the LORD, the LORD, dat’s who!” So the gates open and the people dance to the house of the LORD and enthrone him as King all over again.
I hope you feel that when you come to worship. We proclaim the King of glory clearly and joyfully. I hope people all over will ask, “Who dat? Who dat God dey worship at First?” For we have a glad answer. The Lord Jesus Christ, the King of love, the suffering savior, the reigning Lord, the Lamb who was slain, the Messiah who is coming again to set all things right, the man who is God, he is the King of glory!
One 11 am Service September 3
Members of Abounding Love Ministries will join us for a special combined worship service Sunday, September 3 at 11 am. Pastor Adraine White will deliver the message, their worship team will join ours and we’ll have communion together. Don’t miss it! There will be no Sunday school.

Which Way Is Your Face?

That’s a great question for a church! We head where our faces, well, face! So which direction should a church point its nose? I tend to think the answer is that we are called to be four-faced. The “direction” of a church can never be just one way. A vibrant church faces upwards, outwards, sideways, and, with caution and on occasion, inwards. 
First and always we look upwards to the Triune God. “Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion,” says Amos. “Look upon him and be radiant,” says the Psalmist. “Set your hearts on things above where Christ is,” wrote Paul. We use upwards in relation to God to acknowledge that God is the reality, and he is always more than we are. God is not just an internal spiritual part of us. He is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by whom all things were made. You can tell how a church faces upward by how that congregation admires Jesus, the face of God turned toward us.
We look sideways because Jesus connected loving him to loving one another. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” That’s the truth! We want to be a church full of people who look at each other. In such a way that we see how it is with one another. We regard, listen, respond. Our sideways face radiates love.
The inward look is tricky. Because we can, like Narcissus, get enamored with our own reflection. Or mired in our own needs. Or stuck in our old shames. The proper inward look takes time to a) confess our sins and repent of them, and b) notice all the blessings of God and give thanks for them. We always need to grow in awareness as individuals and a church body. But never to stay stuck looking inward! Our inward look drives us to look up to Jesus, sideways to each other, and . . . 
Outward to the world. A hurting world wants to know, “Do you see me? Do you drive around me or come to visit me? Do you bask in the warmth you have with each other without opening the circle or extending the reach?” I’m always proud of our church, but I especially admire the relentless outward facing. As individuals, you are aware that every day you enter the mission field of your life. You know that your work is part of caring for the world. You look for opportunities to love and serve in every situation. And as a body, we push outwards in mission.
We’ve been blessed with abundance. We have an endowment. But your leaders make sure endowment income from our Foundation faces outwards. Last week the session released $79,000. We’re supporting five seminary students training for either church ministry or Christian counseling. We granted a Russ Stevenson Church Planting scholarship to a pastor beginning an EPC church in Smyrna, GA. We also reached across continents, making a grant to our partner church in Cairo for youth training. And we began what we hope will be a long partnership with EduNations, an evangelistic ministry in Sierra Leone of which Scott Graham is current board president. We’re showing our face in Baton Rouge, across the country and around 
the world. 
You have a beautiful face, dear church, as it points all four directions!

How Can I Find Easter Joy?

That’s a real question. We get excited for the celebration on Palm Sunday and the joyful services and family gatherings on Easter. We get really busy preparing. But sometimes we may wonder why this holiday does not touch us more deeply.  Jesus is risen. Where’s the gladness?
I’d like to suggest a counter-intuitive path to Easter joy.  Push more deeply into the passion! The key to Easter is the cross. The ugly, loud, defeating, disgusting crucifixion of Jesus unlocks the vault of resurrection hope. Too often we have skipped from Palm Sunday to Easter without a stop at Golgotha. That cheapens our celebration. But who really wants to press into the most horrible method of punishment yet devised? Besides, the rest of the world barely acknowledges Easter, so games and matches and deadlines steal our attention from Holy Week. That’s not a judgment, just a diagnosis of why Easter joy eludes us so often. Here are 5 ways to follow Christ more closely this 
Holy Week.
1) Ponder the Passion. Read the accounts of Jesus’ agony in the Garden, his arrest, scourging, trial, crucifixion and burial. Spend ten minutes a day with one of the gospels open to these accounts. Visualize. Feel. Pray with Jesus in his suffering. You might even want to check out my article “Break the Hardness in Me” going live April 4 at
2) Spend Time in Week Six of “Come and See.” Days 36 to 42 will take you to the drama of Jesus’ final day and the release of his rising. Whatever you might have missed along the way, this Holy Week engage week six with your full attention.
3) Attend the Service of Shadows. On Holy Thursday, April 6 at 7 pm, we will move through the passion story with a feast of visual, musical and spoken offerings. We’ll stop along the way to the cross to ponder six magnificent paintings, vividly displayed on our high definition screens. We’ll have communion, extinguish candles and conclude quietly at the garden tomb. Together, we can viscerally experience the passion at a new level. 
4) Curate Your Own Set of Images, Essays, Poems and Reflections on the Meaning of Jesus’ Passion. Google or Bing are amazing tools for mining the treasure of Christian art, literature and theology. The more you try searches such as “the thief on the cross” or “why they gave Jesus vinegar on the cross,” the better you will get at excavating jewels of our faith. 
5) Change Your Rhythm. Skip something during Holy Week. Reduce your schedule. Get up a half hour early. Take a walk with one phrase of Scripture to ponder. Read passages with your family. Watch The Chosen. Fast for a meal. Invite someone to talk about the cross with you.
We have an immense storehouse of grace. But accessing it doesn’t just happen. We press into the passion, with all the emotional, spiritual and intellectual effort it takes. Then, only then, does the release of joy on Easter become ours.
So glad to be on this journey with you,

The Strange Way the Gospels Are Written

How brilliant is our God! The LORD inspired the 150 songs that are the psalms. But God didn’t give us any tunes! Great lyrics. But we get to make up the tunes. So the psalms continue to inspire music across cultures and centuries. 
The Holy Spirit inspired four views of the life of Jesus in the gospels. Each corroborates the other. Each is unique. But have you noticed a quality all the gospel stories share? They never tell us how to feel. They rarely tell us explicitly how Jesus felt. Or how the characters felt. The gospels give us the bare bones of the events. The essential words but not all the words. The borders of the story but not every detail of the occurrence. 
That’s a lot like giving the song lyrics without the tunes. The gospel stories invite. No, actually they demand, that we fill them in. That’s part of what makes them so compelling. They leave room for us. They pull us into the narrative. We get to consider how people felt and when we might feel the same. We get to identify the conflicts, the hopes, the change, the point. There’s nothing quite like the gospels as literature in all the world. 
But then, that’s not surprising, since the triune God himself inspired the many writers of Scripture to speak with unified but unique voices across centuries.
As you read in John this Lent, take some time to think about the literary wonder you’re encountering. Recall just how amazing it is that the Spirit continues to speak through the ancient word a unique and personal word to you—to you!
Volunteer to Bag Food for the Needy
The Christian Outreach Center (1427 Main St.) would love volunteers to help bag food for the needy each Wednesday between 8.30 am and noon. Sign up by using the volunteer form at Please type "bagging" in the notes section before you submit. You will be contacted regarding scheduling and details.
Gardere School Art Gallery Walk 
Please join us Sunday, March 19 for our Gardere School Gallery Walk. Our beloved Gardere students will be sharing over 100 pieces of their finest work. The Gallery Walk will be held in the Reception Room and up for display throughout the day. Light snacks and beverages will be provided that morning. We look forward to having you! Don’t forget to welcome the children and their families in worship!
Spring Cleaning 
Now is a great time to donate furniture, clothing and housewares to the Purple Cow. These thrift stores provide significant funding for the Christian Outreach Center, one of our core ministry partners. The COC assists walk-in visitors, leads job training workshops and teaches financial literacy. The COC offers a hand up, not just a hand out!
It’s joy to be pursuing Jesus together during Lent, and as ever I love being your pastor!

The Power of Together

Do you remember our talk last summer? I know you don’t. Because it occurred inside my head and heart. I spent about three months in a near constant conversation with three partners: you, the people I met in the Gospel of John, and Jesus. I had one ear cocked to listen to what the characters in the stories were experiencing. I had another ear turned toward your lives. I lifted both up to Jesus. Then I considered deeply his replies to the people in the passages, as if they were for you as well. That’s how this year’s Lent book, Come and See, got forged.
Engaging Scripture is always better together. When the Son of God came to us as Jesus, he entered conversation with us. He didn’t just lecture. He asked questions and replied to questions. Christ’s teaching occurs in relationship. In the midst of ordinary daily life. And amidst the yearnings, needs, wounds and wanderings of the human heart that stay constant across the changes of centuries and cultures. 
The wonder of the Bible is that we can enter into these conversations Jesus had and discover how they include us! When we make the heart connection with the characters, the stories go from being weird, distant events, to urgently relevant for us. That’s what we’re after in our 100 days in John, and especially during Lent.
For as we pray and read these stories daily, it makes a huge difference to me to know that many hundreds of fellow believers are engaging at the same time. It motivates me not to skip. It encourages me to pray for my fellow questors for Christ. It gives me warm joy to know we’re all connecting to Jesus together.
That’s why we try to platform Come and See in multiple ways. We’ll be giving out the physical book (with wonderful full color art!) February 19 and the Sundays thereafter. We can also send daily emails (subscribe here). People can find the readings, prayers and art on our website and via our app. Wherever you are in the world, you can stay connected to each and all of us.
And, of course, joining a small group means your individual meditations can be enriched by interaction with others. When we verbalize our response to Scripture and listen to others verbalize their responses, we get threaded into the conversation more deeply.   All of that gives us a wonderful unity on Sundays when we are worshiping through the lens of what Jesus has revealed in these stories. 
I can’t wait for the conversations I had in my head and through my keyboard to become live interactions with you, beloved congregation! Plan now to grab a book (or call us if you’re homebound), sign up for the emails, and get connected to a small group. And do consider with whom you could share a copy of Come and See with an invitation to join us in this quest to know Christ more. 

100 Days in John!

New Year’s Opportunity: Let’s take a plunge into the beautiful, mystical, poignant, Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John. No book explores more fully the identity of Jesus as the God who became man. What fascinated me in preparing this study was how much insight into Christ is conveyed through the conversations he had. Jesus revealed his identity through his real interactions with ordinary people. In many cases, Jesus prompted our questions, enticing us to go deeper. The more we contemplate these conversations, the more intrigued with the Lord we become. 
I hope you’ll read through the Gospel of John as we start the messages January 8 with Christ’s first miracle recorded in John 2 as part of a conversation he had with his mom. When we get to Lent in mid-February, we’ll have a beautiful new guide called Come and See that will take us daily through the questions people asked Jesus.
Stay-Treat February 3-4: Five Mysteries in John
John’s Gospel gives us titles for Jesus found nowhere else. These simple words contain ocean depths of meaning. They are mysteries made known. Secrets that are open. Easily understood on one level, intriguing for a lifetime of exploration at deeper levels. There’s great stuff in John that we can’t get to in the Sunday messages.
So we’re hosting a stay-treat; time set apart for focused study, worship and fellowship where you still get to sleep in your own bed! Friday night includes delicious dinner, presentations and wonderful dessert. Saturday morning includes a light breakfast and three exciting presentations. There’s even a kids track!
The five mysteries include The Word, The Footwasher, The Vine, The Helper and the Triune Gift. Presenters to be revealed. But I can tell you this. They’ll be scintillating! Mark your calendar today!
Ministry Grants
Your elders distributed over $79,000 in grants to seminary students and ministry partners this past fall. Thanks to the generous distributions from our church Foundation, we are able twice a year to fuel mission over and above our usual programs. Seminary student Noah Pourciau received a grant. So did Abounding Love Church. Front Yard bikes teaches at-risk students how to repair bikes as a way to learn work skills and life skills, as the gospel comes wrapped in the work. We’re contributing to a program to support fathers in North Baton Rouge, a mission which brings The Jesus Film by motorcycle into remote parts of Africa, and an EPC church on the Mexican border that is creating a sanctuary. Rejoice in the bounty your church gets to spread around the world!
It’s my abiding pleasure to walk shoulder to shoulder with you through a life spent seeking to know, worship and serve our lovely Savior.

Can You Get Along without Giving?

I think I tried that one summer in my early 20’s. I lived like a tick, consuming goods and services and kindnesses but giving almost nothing back. Like some potentate of old, my attitude was, “I must be amused!” Worst weeks of my life. All take and no give is not a path to abundance but misery. 
Just a few seconds of thought would have led me better. You can’t keep taking in oxygen and not give back any carbon dioxide. You can’t keep eating if your gastro system is not processing. Of course we can’t have relationships that are only one-sided. Not with family, friends, coworkers or the Triune God. We are built for exchange. To receive and to give. In fact, the longer I live, the more I realize that satisfaction—happiness--actually depends on giving more of myself than I am naturally inclined. Holding back, hedging bets, staying safe leads to isolation, fear and loneliness. Sacrifice leads to joy. 
Now, I am a hedonist. I want pleasure. I want the best life. How wild it’s been to learn that such fullness comes from self-emptying. So, because I love you, I have no hesitancy in encouraging generosity in our members. Often, what’s missing in our relationship to Christ is not another Bible study, but another tangible step outwards.
Giving back a significant portion of our income to God is an inescapable part of a robust life in Christ. So I love to see your generosity every stewardship season. I think I could make a good case that your church is busy about Christ’s work in this world. And that means there are always opportunity to give service to Jesus and his little ones:
*VineBR. There’s a desperate need for foster families in our community. On Sunday, October 9, an orientation for people considering fostering will be held at Bethany church at 2 pm.
*Building Up. Already this year, Bethany Centre has begun a second new classroom in Uganda and the ministry in Medellin Columbia is renovating the home for mothers and young children which we purchased. You’re doing that!
*Gardere and Buchanan. Elementary children at Gardere long for mentors to spend an hour a week with them through our KidsHope program. Students who got behind during COVID need adults to read to them at Buchanan. Hearing books read is essential to learning to read!
*Nursery and Childhood. We always welcome loving volunteers to rock babies and chase toddlers during the worship hours.
*Marriages require the gift of attention, listening and processing. There’s no better marriage seminar than Created for Connection. FPC members even get a 50% discount for the October 21 & 22 session. 
*International Friendship Partners welcomes LSU students from around the world; rEcess give families with special needs children a Friday night out; Caring to Love gives hope to those experiencing a crisis pregnancy, and the Christian Outreach Center offers mentors to those learning job and life skills.
We can’t get along without giving and I love to see all the ways you give your hearts to Christ as you serve in your daily lives. No wonder I love being your pastor.


We Meet over This

When I was very new to pastoral ministry, I got to see Ian McKellan perform his one-man play, Acting Shakespeare. Before he was internationally known as Gandalf and Magneto in movies, McKellan performed all the great Shakespearean roles. This show included excerpts from Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear, interspersed with comment. At one point, he picked up a script and walked toward the audience. “What happens in theatre is that you and I meet over this. My job is interpret these lines in a way that you can connect to them.” I realized, “That’s it! That’s what happens at church. We meet over the script that is Scripture. As teacher and participants interact over the passage, it comes alive to us.”
Of course this meeting happens (I hope!) during a sermon.  It’s not just my talking, but your participation with your thoughts and questions and feelings as we work through the text. My job is to anticipate your questions and name them, to realize my own resistance to these truths and consider how those struggles might be yours too. In that way, though you may not be speaking aloud, you are interacting with the Word along with me. If it works, you leave feeling that the Bible story is indeed your story. And the Spirit has moved your life along according to the sacred script. It’s the coolest!
But this meeting happens so many other ways at church as well. We interact with others around, over and through the Bible and the great narrative of our redemption in Christ. This meets our deep need to be introduced to God. 
And also our yearning to be connected to others. Such interaction is the heartbeat of our church. 
Think of that when you gather for a home-group meeting over I Peter. Or when you engage Mark’s gospel in this fall’s women’s studies. When you meet with a fellow church member and talk about the Word together. When you’re in Sunday school or Circle, early morning study or talking about the Bible with a Gardere student. These are the life-giving conversations where God himself is our discussion partner! 
Faith Driven Entrepreneur Conference
We want to highlight the interaction between our faith in Christ and our work in the business world. And we have an exciting, energizing way to do that! The Faith Driven Entrepreneur Conference will stream live in our Sanctuary Wednesday, September 28 from 9.30 to 3.30. In addition to a stunning array of presenters, lunch will be served and there will be break out groups as we consider what it means to belong to Christ and be engaged in business.
The conference is free when you check out following the instructions:
In your Cart at Checkout, you'll see a grey panel on the right. Under “Promotions,” type in your promo code FPCBR and click the gray checkmark button. 
This will be an important day, well worth your time. Contact Hank Mills, Blake Fowler or Darin Travis for more information. 
As ever, please know how much I love being your pastor.

Savor Summer

Does the arrival of June ever remind you of summers past? Can you still feel the excitement of getting out of school? Or getting ready for a trip to the water? Or playing outside until late? The Irish bard, yes Van Morrison, evokes the season: “Take me way back . . . where you could feel the silence at half past eleven on long summer nights as . . . voices echoed across the river . . . sunny summer afternoons picking apples . . . stopping for ice cream . . . conversation and laughter and music and singing . . . as we carried on dreaming in God.” I hope this summer you get to re-collect your life from the busyness of the year and recollect many memories even as you make new ones.
Your church will be here, joyfully celebrating the Lord’s Day each week. I’ll be preaching the Sundays of June, then hand over the reigns for a few Sundays in July. All that month will be single 10.30 Sanctuary services. Barry will give the Independence Day message. And George Gillam will bring us the Word from his perspective ministering to youth in North Baton Rouge. Our own youth will be off at camps; the children will encounter a Jerusalem marketplace at VBS; and we’ll lead a summer soccer camp with Abounding Love Ministries. On the last Sunday of July, we’ll have a special recognition of those who have been members of our church for fifty years or more. Who will take the prize for longest membership? Don’t miss the crowning of a new longevity winner! After General Assembly in Detroit, I’ll be in North Carolina for a few weeks, and hope to get a lot of work done on the sequel to Asking Jesus for next Lent. But do know that every day I give thanks for the joy of being your pastor,
Further into the World
Your elders have approved $78,400 in grants for seminary students, city ministry and global ministry. This includes helping underwrite a fathering program in North Baton Rouge, a facility for the disabled in Romania and a guest house for missionaries in Malaysia. Through your gifts and our foundation, our reach extends through our city to the world!
July Worship: Single 10.30 am Services
First Presbyterian Church invites you to attend its combined 10.30 am services each Sunday in July. These single services replace our typical worship schedule blending the styles of Classic Reformed, Contemporary and Chapel Communion worship. We encourage you to invite a friend. There will be no Sunday school.
Call for Meeting of the Corporation
On behalf of the church trustees, the session calls for a meeting of the Corporation of the First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge during worship at 10.30 July 31, 2022. The purpose of the meeting is to act on the recommendation that Amanda Vincent be elected as a trustee of the Corporation, and to engage any other matters of the Corporation. (Active members of the congregation are active members of the Corporation. Only those physically present may vote).

Take the Walk

Our theme picture for Asking Jesus this Lent has been Liz Swindle’s beautiful painting of the walk to Emmaus. Each day as we take up a question or a request of Jesus, we’ve had this scene in the background.  Would you like to walk with Jesus for a couple of hours talking about the Scriptures? I would!
Every year during Holy Week, Christ’s people try to do just that. We walk closely with him. We retell the epic events asking the Holy Spirit to make them present experiences in our lives. We want to keep watch with Jesus, to let him know our gratitude for all he did to undertake so great a salvation.  
And at FPC, we literally take walks with Jesus! On Palm Sunday we process around North Blvd. with palm branches. The children lead us as we declare, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  We participate in that brief moment when the world recognized its savior. It’s been three years since we’ve been able to close North Blvd. for our procession and the big picnic that follows. To celebrate this return to a great tradition, we’re going to have a massive crawfish boil! Plus, of course, egg hunts, games and hot dogs for the kids and a glorious time as one church. 
On Holy Thursday, we take another walk. From the dramatic reading of the passion, we walk from the Sanctuary to the Terraced Garden where the body of Jesus is laid in the tomb.  We answer the question as we sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” As last year, the music will be richly layered with instruments and voices. We’ll add visuals on our stunning new screens to accompany the readings. And by all means, bring your children. This is a significant opportunity for the drama of the passion to be imprinted on the next generation.
Holy Saturday we don’t walk. We sit. We enter silence. We ponder the meaning of this huge pause, creation’s deep breath, between cross and empty tomb. If Easter joy has become stale to you, the antidote is to push deeper into the darkness of this bleak Sabbath.
Easter Morning we make our way to the Terraced Garden at first light, rejoicing to see the stone rolled away and declaring the news at the heart of the gospel, an announcement that has been reverberating throughout the cosmos: The Lord is risen! Breakfast in the Garden follows sunrise service before two glorious festival services of worship light up our sanctuary. 
Come take the walks with us! Don’t let anything stop you or your family. Not sports, not entertainments, not tiredness, not taxes, not doubt, not fear. There is no more important news in all of human history than what the church proclaims in Holy Week. Compared to this, nothing else matters. Let’s walk with Jesus!
Energizing Marriage Seminar. FPC will host Pete and Dee Adams leading a Created for Connection seminar for married couples, Friday evening, April 29 through Saturday afternoon April 30. Past participants describe the weekend as “enlightening, encouraging, revealing, hopeful, powerful, safe, loving and renewing.” Rhonda and I still reap the benefits from attending two years ago. Sign up at And here’s a little more incentive: for FPC church members, we will cover 50% of the cost! Just email Jaci Gaspard ( to let us know you’re attending.  

Say Whaaaaaat?!

Have you ever thought about what kinds of things people asked Jesus? They made all kinds of requests. They had all kinds of questions. Pharisees, demons, disciples, sick people, rich and poor, seekers and cynics, even Jesus’ own mother and the devil himself made asks. Some tried to deflect him from his mission; some just needed mercy. As a reader, I’ve thought with surprise, “I can’t believe you just asked that!” Many times, of course, there was a question within the question. There was another layer of meaning beneath the surface. Jesus always answered the deeper need. He always addressed the true motive. And his replies always opened a way for transformation.
I had not spent much time thinking about this gospel category of requests and replies. But once I did, I felt like I encountered Jesus in a fresh, compelling way. I’m very excited that you will soon receive Asking Jesus, our 2022 Lent book. You’ll be invited to join me in exploring 42 requests made of Jesus. I predict you will discover that many of these questions are your questions. You’ll realize, as I did, that we make all these same requests today. So Jesus’ replies relate directly to our lives. This Lent, we’ll be able to meet Jesus again, but as if for the first time. All in about 20 minutes a day during the season of Lent.
Once again, your elders and deacons will be hand delivering your books. (Those who live outside the metro area will have their book mailed. If we miss you, please let us know!). There will also be extra copies at the church. Day One is Sunday, March 6, and our sermons will be related to our readings. You can also get connected to a home group to take your explorations even further. And, of course, you can sign up to receive the daily readings sent to you (or 1000 of your friends) by email. Click here to subscribe. 
I love to keep Lent with you by intensifying our focus on our loving, saving Lord. Further up and further in dear flock!
Welcome Emily Viguerie!
On March 7, Emily Petty Viguerie will begin as our Director of Community Life. Emily has been a member of FPC since joining with her family in 2007. She graduated from Dunham and then LSU. Last year she married Russ Viguerie. She has been active in a women’s Bible study for 20-somethings, and brings a love for Christ, for people and for the ministry of our church. We’re thrilled to find someone who knows our church culture and brings fresh energy for welcoming new members and connecting long-time members. 
More about Emily

You Comin'?

Michael Jackson’s first hit was called “I Want You Back.” That’s my heart for 2022. I want to see our Sanctuary filled again on a regular basis. Re-building the church is a key priority.
Across the nation, a Barna survey reported in November that in-person church attendance is down 30% to 50% from pre-COVID numbers. Even with vaccinations and the easing of restrictions. That’s across the nation. Now we’re an exceptional church in many ways, so our attendance is on the good end of that statistic. But we’re still down. And I want you back!
Of course, surges in COVID from breakthrough variants have made all interaction risky; especially for people in groups at a higher risk for dire complications. We get that. Health conditions and age-factors are real concerns. And it never seems to stop: Omicron has swept through the world and it will be another several weeks until it begins to dissipate. 
But virus avoidance has not been the only factor! The most common reason is that we just got used to “watching” at home. Or staying home and not watching. Isolation became comfortable. Getting up, dressed and out became a chore. Discovering all the other things there are to do on a Sunday morning became enjoyable. And we seemed to get along just fine without attending.
For church leadership, two ways to address this loss are open to us. One is to try to win the church by enticing consumers to make a consumer choice. “Come to church. It’s great! It’s a better experience to be in a live audience. We’ve got new screens. We’ve got amazing music. The nursery is clean and safe. Among all your choices, choose us!” Yes, we could go that route. And I think I could make a pretty good pitch for the “product” we offer. 
But the other route seems deeper, more Biblical and ultimately more compelling. We need to work on our ecclesiology. That’s a big word that just means what we think about what the church is. In other words, why does God summon his people to praise him as living stones joined together rather than just as individuals? What makes a church as the body of Christ different than any other voluntary organization? How passionate is Jesus about the faithfulness of his bride, the church? And how interconnected is the gathered worship of the church to the effectiveness of the mission of the church?
We’ll be talking about that in 2022. Not guilt, but challenge. Not advertisement, but inspiration. Not fluff, but substance. I want you back. More importantly, Christ wants you back! You comin’?

O. . . O. . . O. . . Merry Christmas!

Of all the prayers made in all the world, not very many get recorded. And almost all of the prayers written down are buried or lost within a few years. The sift of history is both brutal and clarifying. Only a few prayers survive in use for centuries.
This Advent, we’re looking at seven of those survivors. The “O Prayers” will guide our preparation for Christmas. They’re so named because each starts with “O,” followed by a title for Christ found in the Old Testament. These seven names for Jesus tap into our deepest human longings. We all yearn for the key, wait for the dawn, ache to know the root and source of our life, and desperately hope that God is with us. We’ll be exploring the Scriptures underlying these prayers in preaching, music, visual art and daily readings. You’ll be amazed how relevant prayers from the 6th century are to daily life in the 21st!
So, be sure to pick up a copy of your Advent reading guide. This will lead you through the Scriptures that inspired the “O Prayers,” as well as give you the prayers themselves, poems based on these prayers by our friend Malcolm Guite, and the words to the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Also, mark your calendars for the Christmas cantata December 19. It’s a commissioned work based on—wait for it—the O Prayers! Also, several artists in our church have contributed artwork inspired by these prayers. This will take us to Christmas Eve where I’ll be preaching at 11 am, 4 pm and 6 pm on what it means that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. I love to do Christmas with you, dear congregation, and I’m so thankful we can be fully back in our beloved Sanctuary.
Your response to both the Building Up campaign for mission and the 2022 stewardship has been astounding. You move me deeply with the faith that leads to such generosity. These ties between our church and key mission partners will nourish our faith for years to come. I can’t wait to share the numbers with you once all the pledges are in. Meanwhile, we will surge into the work of the church for 2022, riding on God’s leading and your dedication. Thank you for loving your Lord so well through your church!

Just Return It!

My mother was the queen of returning things. No receipt? No problem! No original packaging? Perfectly fine! My mother loved to shop. The merchants loved my mother. She enjoyed an ongoing relationship with them. Her loyalty and frequency gave her license to make returns as desired. Returning is part of trusted commerce.
We can apply this to our relationship to God! The psalmist asked “What shall I return to the LORD for all his goodness to me (Psalm 116: 12)?" He had been in an exchange with God. Life had turned dire. The psalmist had cried out to the God who made him. The Lord answered with deliverance from death and an abundance of mercy. So the writer wanted to make an offering of thanks. He wanted to return, to reply to God in grateful acknowledgement. So we can say it again, with a spiritual twist: Returning is part of trusted commerce.  
As Christ’s people, we live in the economy of his love. He continues to do miraculous business with us. He trades forgiveness for our sins. He swaps his peace for our anxiety. He exchanges everlasting life for our mortality. This commerce is so miraculous, we joyfully want to respond! To return thanks. To give back. To live as he directs so he will be pleased. 
In this season of thanksgiving, we lift the festive cup in holy communion. We “cheers” the Lord who has given us nothing less than himself. We set aside a special day for gratitude. In days when we lived closer to the land, such a day was set between harvest time and the arrival of winter. Once “all was safely gathered in,” it was time to bless the Giver. 
That’s why I find spiritual significance in making the dedication of our gifts to God in this season. Grateful for his provision in the year that is finishing, we trust his bounty to come in the New Year. We make a thankful return, putting financial gifts to God’s work together with our prayers of gratitude. We mirror our God’s generous overflowing heart. 
Every November we do this as we make commitments to Christ’s work through our church for the following year.
This year, we can step further into that deep joy through the Building Up campaign. To give, over and above our usual pledges, out toward others, when there is no visible return to our church—that will launch us into the wonder of God’s wondrous commerce. The spiritual return we will receive will be full of love, connection, participation and hope. November 14 is Dedication Sunday. I hope we will swell the House for this joyful celebration. Your elders are passionate about making this return. I know that, having made my pledge already, I am only more thankful to be your pastor,  

Click the Link!

I know that I’ve rotted my brain through an overload of internet information. But it’s just so fun to follow one idea to the next! Don’t you love it when there’s a handy link to the next topic you want to know about? I marvel at how interconnected all knowledge is, if you just know how to make the links.
But I really shouldn’t be surprised. The Triune God made all there is. He made the universe with interconnections that hold at the deepest level. The more we know, the more we find there is to explore, and the more we explore, the more beautiful the cosmos is revealed to be. For creation reflects the beauty of the Mind of the Maker.
In Scripture, we see that the Holy Spirit is the great connector. He is the link. By the Holy Spirit, Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. The Spirit linked up the Son of God with our humanity. The Triune God clicked the link at Christmas! By the Spirit, faith is conceived inside someone who hears the gospel. The Spirit links up the Son of God to particular believers. We click the link of faith and get joined to Jesus. By the Spirit, all believers are linked to each other. We share “one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4: 4-5). We click the link of awareness to this Biblical truth and suddenly we are no longer alone. We are in fellowship with believers across continents, cultures and even centuries!
How do we click the link that makes us aware of how linked in all Christians are? 1) We read, trust and contemplate the truth of our communion from Scripture. 2) We pray knowing we join our voices with “the great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12: 1) who praise Jesus. We also pray for these other believers, thanking God for them and asking him to sustain and grow Christian communities wherever they are. 3) We engage in mission with other Christians. That’s the great value in short term mission trips. We begin to see the beautiful reality of the world church. We realize we are part of one great Mission. 
And of course, that’s the spiritual beauty of our Building Up campaign. While none of the money goes directly to our church, the benefits to our community of Christ are manifold! Having made and started to pay our pledge, already Rhonda and I feel like we are closer to Brian Miller in Medellin. The prayer keychain made by the women at Esther’s House just breaks my heart with gratitude for that mission. I feel more connected to the work at Gardere. I feel more joyful over Peter’s school in Uganda. I believe Ben when he says Church of the Resurrection gives regular thanks for us
I know that Building Up: Taking Missions to the Next Level is not about us. But O do we get a great benefit! When we click the link to the pledge tab on our website, we click the link to joyful connection to what God is doing around the world. The one Spirit joins us to all believers engaged in Jesus’ one mission. It’s a powerful joy!   
Kirkin’ Time October 31
Wear your plaids, your kilts and your tweeds as we celebrate the Scottish roots of our Presbyterian faith on Reformation Sunday with one 10 am service October 31. We'll also have our fall congregational meeting to vote on the slate of new elders and deacons presented by the Nominating Committee. After worship, all are invited to enjoy brunch (love offering will be taken). Face painting, a balloon artist and games will be offered for the children. Registration not required. 
Clan Tartans for the Kirkin’
We want your clan’s tartan to be represented in the Sanctuary at the annual Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans. Contact Jaci Gaspard to see about including yours ( or 620.0221). 
I’m so grateful to be in mission with you, and even more so, I love being your pastor, 

Look Out!

As we go to press with the September newsletter, Ida has passed through. Donations can be made to FPC Hurricane Relief using the button below. Call the office to volunteer for clean-up teams. 
Where are we going as a church? That’s always a relevant question. The answer, if we are faithful, is always some form of “in and out.” We’re pressing into the person and events of Jesus. We’re pushing out with his gospel to the world. Same old mission. Always and forever! But every season, if a church has energy and passion, that answer expresses itself in fresh ways.
This fall, we’re pressing in through a worship focus on Paul’s first letter to the young church in the Greek town of Thessalonica. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt message of encouragement. In Sunday school, two of our adult classes are studying Gospels: Mark and John. Our children and parents will be receiving copies of The Gospel Story Bible and their classes will focus on learning the big story of the Triune God’s redeeming work. The women’s studies will take up Esther; youth will study Gospel Foundations in Sunday School and Hebrews in midweek studies. Confirmation students study the Greatest Bible Stories of all time. Do you see a pattern here? We’re questing to meet Christ through Scripture all over the place. Meanwhile we interweave all of that with prayer and care for one another. 
But I think you’ll notice most a ramping up of our looking out.  Every week as part of worship, we will hear from our ministry and mission partners. We’ll hear ways to participate, whether it’s mentoring students, encouraging teachers, hosting international students or working with us on our seventh (!) Habitat House. That’s right, once more our church will work side by side with a new homeowner to construct a dwelling. Terrence Carter is a stroke survivor, the father of two sons, and a man of faith eager to partner with us. That all begins at the end of the month.
We’ll also introduce our first capital campaign in over a decade. Only it’s not to raise funds for us. We will be seeking to raise $1.5 million for building projects for four key mission partners. Imagine a whole over and above campaign to advance the gospel beyond us: an expansion at Gardere Christian School, a cottage for young women rescued from sex trafficking in Medellin, a high school and dorms in Uganda, helping Church of the Resurrection purchase a permanent site in New Orleans. We’ll be hearing lots more about the Building Up campaign in the coming weeks. I’m thrilled we’re daring to dream of investing so significantly in mission beyond our walls.  I love to be on this journey with you, both “in” toward Christ and “out” to the world!

The Deeper Challenge in Cancel Culture

The strife is everywhere. Between friends. Between family members. Between generations. A great divide seems to have opened up. Everything seems political. Everything seems to be about race. Everyone is always offended. We hate the conflict but don’t really even understand it. What’s going on?
The church of Jesus faces particular challenges. We know we are sent to the most difficult and desperate people and places with the gospel of Christ. We know Jesus loved the outcast and challenged the powerful. We resonate with the yearning for equality. Yet we feel that something is amiss in the demands for justice that want to deconstruct the way we’ve always lived. It’s hard to sort out Christian compassion from “woke” compulsion. 
The mission of the church remains the same: to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, to regard everyone in the loving light of Christ. Yet we face increasing hostility. In fact, we face competition. There is a worldview competing with us for adherents. A religion that wants to replace us. It’s a religion of harsh legalism and burning urgency that demands total allegiance. It’s a promise of an earthly utopia that has no blue print except dismantling structures deemed oppressive. It resists being identified and wants everyone to view the world through its lens as the “normal” way of seeing. 
Call it cancel culture, cultural Marxism, woke theology, or simply “justice, equity and diversity.” Whatever the label, it has a source. The technical name is Critical Theory. Christians of all ages need to understand the view of the world that underlies so much of today’s discussions. We need to be able to grasp what’s being said in order to evaluate if it’s really compatible with the gospel.
Our “Stay-Treat” on August 20-21 will feature three dynamic
 presentations by an expert in Critical Theory. Dr. Neil Shenvi brings the rigor of his background in theoretical chemistry along with his unique ability to present complex issues clearly. You can read more about Neil at
Please plan to join us. And bring a car load! We can’t afford not to understand what’s going on in our current cultural conversations.
The Deeper Challenge in Cancel Culture
First Presbyterian Stay-Treat, August 20-21
Talk 1: "Critical Social Justice and Christianity: Are They Compatible?"
Talk 2: "Critical Race Theory: A Deep Dive"
Talk 3: "Christianity and Justice: Cautions and Suggestions"

The Blessing of New Leadership

At the end of last year, the session appointed a search committee to find an Assistant Pastor for Children, Youth and Family Ministry. We wanted to elevate and deepen our ministry to young people. Elder Will Adams led the team, along with Cheryl Broadnax, Ryan Castle, Boyd Greene and Kelly Wood: all of them parents of children and youth. It was a delight to work with them. And we believe the Spirit led us straight to one stellar young man! Colton Underwood is nearing completion of his Master of Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. The last two years he has been working with youth and families in his internship at First Presbyterian Church of Yazoo City. Colton is originally from Indiana. He fell in love with a pastor’s daughter and married Rachel five years ago. A graduate of Purdue University, Colton is an avid runner, adventurer, scholar and foodie. He is a delightful young man and together he and Rachel make a winsome pair. His vibrant faith, graciousness and personal discipline will energize our pastoral team and congregation. Colton and Rachel arrive in early August to begin working with our children and youth and lead those staff teams. We expect his ordination to the EPC to occur this time next year. Please pray for the Underwoods and get ready to give them a great Baton Rouge welcome.
Baton Rouge Christian Counseling Center
In 1991, we asked Dee Adams to be the founding director and first therapist at our new counseling center. Dee has led this ministry for more than thirty years! BRCCC has served thousands of clients and developed a sparkling reputation in our city. This July, Dee will step aside from directing BRCCC, though she will continue to counsel part-time. 
After a careful search, the board of the center was led to choose one of our current counselors to lead our center. You’ll know her! Sherry Kadair has been a counselor at BRCCC since 2011 and a member of our church since 2014. Sherry is currently a deacon and serves in both the media and music ministries. Sherry has been married to Howard since 2007. She holds an MA from Denver Theological Seminary and specializes in trauma care. Sherry also has significant experience in the business world and will bring great administrative skills, a cheery spirit, loving heart, warm comradery and a strong sense of the mission of the center and the church. Please pray for her as she steps into the huge role shaped by our founding director. 
July 4 falls on a Sunday this year and I’m already at work on a message called “American Privilege: Gospel Imperative.” I hope you’ll be there for this important topic as we begin a month of single services at 10.30. We’ll enjoy some great guests this summer as well with Ben Cunningham from our daughter church, Church of the Resurrection, and Albert White from Abounding Love Ministries. I hope you’ll get some refreshment and precious time with family this summer. We’re looking forward to a few weeks in the mountains, but know that you will always be on our minds and hearts. 
I remain delighted to be your pastor,

Do You???

“Do You. . . ?” That’s the question we ask five times to our confirmation students. Just like we do to any new members. They are some heavy questions. Here they are condensed. Do you acknowledge you’re a sinner? Do you believe in Jesus as the Savior of sinners and the Lord of your life? Do you promise to live as a follower of Christ? Do you promise to participate as a member of this church? Do you agree to the oversight of this session? Like I said, big questions about what matters most in life. This Sunday, 30 sixth grade students will answer those questions as the culmination of nine months of study, prayer, discipleship and interaction with elders, pastors and teachers.  We’ve approached these questions on multiple levels. Because this is what matters most. Do you want to be all in with Jesus?  Pray for them this Sunday afternoon as they answer a joyful Yes to all these questions!
And now a five pack of notes for this May.
• Last year, the church received a PPP loan from the government to cover us should COVID cause a drop in our revenues. That loan gave us confidence to keep all our Mother’s Day Out teachers on at full pay and to keep all our staff going. But ultimately, we didn’t need it. Because our dear members came through with stunning giving. So last week, we sent it back, with interest. After much deliberation, the session determined that returning these funds was God’s direction for us, an act of trust and freedom.
• The session approved $59,000 in grants, including support for five seminary students, a girls’ dormitory in Uganda and a vehicle for a professor at African Bible College. This is your Foundation at work reaching the world!
• On Mother’s Day, we give thanks for that most important and difficult of jobs: rearing children in love and wisdom. Through natural birth, adoption, fostering, aunting, teaching and mentoring, women have been giving the gifts of motherhood to our community. How grateful we are!
• This summer, opportunities abound for children and youth to go deeper in Christ and further into the world. Camps, mission trips, Vacation Bible School and fun youth activities. Stay tuned for details.
• On Sunday, May 30, we will have one combined worship service at 10.30. In June we’ll continue with three Sunday services before single services return in July. 
Isn’t it great to be together again?
As ever, I love being your pastor.

What Are We Doing About Masks?

Updated May 14, 2021:
Beginning this Sunday, we are lifting our masking requirement at worship! We trust people to make their own decisions regarding their safety and health in this environment. How grateful we are that the grip of this pandemic is loosening and we can return to worshiping with “unveiled faces.”
April 29, 2021:
Our session has decided to ask worshipers to wear masks through May 23. Why? Well, as Nick Saban might say, it’s about respecting the process.
A significant number of our attendees are still completing the vaccination process. As much as we all want to rip away these annoying coverings and sing out freely, we know that waiting just a bit longer allows anyone who wants to be immunized against COVID to do so. After May 23, we can each make our own personal decisions about attendance and masking.
Hang in there beloved church. Soon, very soon, we’ll be singing with unfettered hearts—and faces! Believe me, I’m longing to see your dear faces when I preach!

Three Great Days . . . Forever!

One event across three days. That’s how Christ’s Church came to understand what happened from the Last Supper to Easter morning. This was the Triduum: the three great and holy days when Jesus made his passage through death into resurrection life. Every moment interlocked in meaning and significance.  
In Jesus’ time, days began at sunset the night before. So when we gather for the Service of Shadows on Thursday, we’re beginning our remembering of Good Friday.  We meditate on his agony in Gethsemane. We retell the story of Jesus’ passion. Then we walk into our terraced garden where the tomb is set up. We sing “Were You There?” as the tomb, along with our hope, is sealed. 
On Saturday morning, we listen quietly to psalms Jesus prayed. We enter the silence of the King’s sleep between death and resurrection, his remaining under the power of death all that lonely day. We take a breath between cross and resurrection.
Then on Sunday we begin to meet at first light to rejoice that the stone is rolled away, the Savior is up—risen--having defeated death and opened eternity to us. 
With the church across the world and through the ages, during the Triduum, we remember in a special way. The past becomes present. We remember so that what happened then can be part of our spiritual experience this moment. These real events are not lost in dusty history. They are the most potent facts in all of life, right now!  
I’ll be preaching Easter morning on “Three Easter Truths You Can’t Live Without!” It’s a great day to bring a neighbor or a friend. At 9 and 11, worship will be live in the Sanctuary and livestreamed to the terrace garden. We’ll have a huge wall of LED screens set up outside with a live worship leader and coming forward for communion. So you can choose, inside or outside! 6.30 sunrise will be just in the garden, with room for over 200, and a light breakfast to follow. I’m so eager to keep Easter in person with you, dear church!
Later this month, we take a pause between sermon series and I will give some topical messages, including “The Questions Graduating Seniors Ask” and “Cultivating Resistant, Resilient and Renovative Christian Community.”  
Beloved Pastor Emeritus 
Our beloved pastor emeritus, Russ Stevenson and his wife Sherill moved this January to a retirement community in Virginia. We will miss their worshiping in our Sanctuary, but his legacy will never be forgotten. If you’d like to get in touch, the church office has their new address. 
August Stay-Treat
I’m truly energized that Christian apologist, Dr. Neil Shenvi has agreed to conduct a stay-treat for us in August. A theoretical chemist by profession and theologian by avocation, Dr. Shenvi contends for our faith with remarkable clarity. He will give three presentations taking us through the current debate on what makes for Biblical justice, exposing the fallacies of critical theory while challenging us to do the work of gospel reconciliation. Take a Google at him and get excited!

Haven't You Missed It????

Palm Sunday. Easter Morning. Service of Shadows. It was so weird to lead those services looking into the lens of an iPhone. But this year we’re back! Palm Sunday is March 28. We plan to use the main parking lot for an outdoor service with palms and a procession of children. 10 am service, followed by egg hunts and a balloon artist for children in the garden areas and light snacks for the rest of us. 
On Easter morning, April 4, we plan to use the terraced garden to its full capacity. First for the Sunrise service at 6.30 am. This will be a complete worship service including communion and then biscuits and coffee to follow.  At 9 am, the festive service will be in the Sanctuary but also livestreamed to the terraced garden!  Same at 11. No tickets or reservations. Come to the Sanctuary for “live” worship, come to the garden for “livestreamed” and overflow.  
Holy Thursday will return April 1 at 7 pm with the Service of Shadows in the Sanctuary followed by a visit to the tomb in the garden. And we will keep the eerie reflection of Holy Saturday on April 3 at 11 am in the Sanctuary. How sweet it will be to be back!
Your elders recently spent a weekend retreat considering what it means to cultivate resistant, resilient and renovative Christian community. We all read Rod Dreher’s book Live Not by Lies in preparation. The book identifies our excessive focus on individualism and personal comfort as well as the rise of cultural Marxism as two key factors diminishing the church. Bouncing from that work, our task was to consider how reclaiming Christ-centered distinction not only protects the church but makes us better at reaching our community. We noted the importance of learning to recognize the worldviews which shape people and what makes the Christian worldview distinct and generative.  Twelve different small groups then met to consider specific ideas for our church in areas such as discipleship, worship, children’s ministry and reaching the business community. I’m looking forward to doing a vision sermon based on this retreat April 18. 
Meanwhile, what a joy it is to be reading these Scriptures about being “in Christ” with you. I’m finding them nourishing and challenging all over again. Best of all, we’re praying and reading together, wherever we are, one body of Christ. No wonder I love being your pastor,

You're Weird!

You're weird! Not like everybody else. Unique in the world. Different than most.
After all, what Muslim says “I live in Mohammed?” What practicing Buddhist says, “I spoke with Siddhartha this morning?” What existentialist says “I am in organic union with Camus?” What atheist says “I have a mystical link to Richard Dawkins?” But you say all those things about Jesus! We Christians are “in Christ.” We speak with the historical founder of our faith personally and presently. His Spirit links us to Jesus and to each other the way parts of a human body are linked to the whole. That’s weird—if you’re on the outside looking in. But such wonder is normal for those who have been joined to Jesus.
This Lent, we’re going to explore what it means that our truest home is Jesus himself. We’re going to pursue the mystery of what Paul meant by being “in Christ.” We’ll see how living in Christ and from Christ lights up everything in our lives. John Calvin called it a “mystical union” and declared it to be of highest importance to our faith. 
Honestly, engaging in this study will change your life. Like discovering priceless treasure you hadn’t known you possessed. Like tapping into an endless supply of energy. Like coming home. Like finally living in Reality. We’ll be drawing from more than 85 Scriptures as well as the writings of experienced spiritual masters such as James Stewart and Andrew Murray. We’re questing for the very heart of Christian experience. We’re going to claim our distinctive faith. Yep, we’re weird. Gloriously, joyfully so!
The week of February 14, your elders, deacons and pastors will be bringing your Lent books to your house! It’s a quick, safe drop off. But we wanted to be sure, in these COVID times, that every member gets a copy before February 21 when the daily readings begin. You can get extra copies at church and also sign up for daily emails. Smaller, well-distanced 6 week home groups will also begin. We hope participating with others will help to reknit our congregation after so long apart.
I’m so eager to join you on this journey deeper into Christ our true home!
Assistant Pastor Search
We have begun the search for a pastor for children, youth and families. Please pray for God to guide us and bring the right person to this crucial position. Also, feel free to refer suggestions to elder Will Adams. The search committee would like to hear from parents about what they think is important in this role and what qualities we should look for in candidates. To that end, we’ll be hosting two Zoom calls. Monday evening, February 8 at 7 pm and Tuesday morning, February 9 at 11 am. We’ll send parents an invitation by email soon.

Looking Upward, Reaching Outward: 2021

We made it! 2020 is no more. If only turning the calendar would automatically restore the world. Change is coming, we know that. We have high hopes that the Covid vaccine will dramatically limit the virus. But will we ever go back to “normal?” A new presidential administration will certainly be different. Will it be good for the people of Christ who hold to our historical values? The tension about race and equality will tighten. Will it resolve in more harmony? It’s a new year and I’m daunted by the challenges already!
Thankfully, the church of Jesus does not retreat when the future seems uncertain. Your leadership certainly hasn’t. We are deeply committed to proclaiming the ancient gospel in a way that addresses the concerns of these times. We believe our highest purpose is public worship of the Triune God in word, song and prayer. We have good tidings to make known, a Lord to glorify and love to share. On January 24, you will hear our new officers take their ordination vows, committing themselves to the Lord Jesus, to his Word and to the work of his church. I’ve read their testimonies and heard their faith: you will be so moved by this upward call!
The session recently made commitments to direct nearly a million dollars over the next three years to fund our mission priorities. We are blessed to have endowment income through the McLaurin Trust and the church Foundation. Our policy is to never use such funds for the general mission, ministry and operation of the church: that’s the joyful job of current members. Rather, we push endowment income outward. So, we intend to support Gardere Community Christian School with $100,000 a year. We purpose to give $100,000 yearly to church planting, including $75,000 annually to the Church of the Resurrection, our thriving daughter church in New Orleans. And we plan on designating $125,000 a year for the Session Income Allocation Committee which makes recommendations for funding future leaders going to seminary as well as supporting other missions in our community. We’re determined to reach outward.
Meanwhile, your faith, participation and funding energizes the daily work of the church. Our partnerships with 30 local ministries continue to flourish (We’ve got a Habitat House to build in 2021!). And our members increasingly enter the mission field of their lives (whatever they are doing) with an awareness that they are Christ’s ambassadors in word and deed. A stellar staff team leads ministry with and to every age as we press into Christ and his Word. In fact, we want to raise the level of our commitment to children, youth and their families. The session recently approved a search for an Associate Pastor to energize and oversee that work.
By God’s grace and in the Spirit’s power, we’re propelling forward, dear church. We know how important it is that we hold tight to one another, sharing life in all its joys and pains as only a community of Christ can. I’m so glad to be traveling with you!

A Christmas to Remember and a Year to Forget!

Ever since I was old enough to understand the concept, I’ve been sad when one year passes to another. But this year, well, I’m ready to be done with 2020! We’ve seen a ridiculous amount of upheavals followed by more upheavals. Fresh start, please!  
Thankfully, Christmas is coming. I’ll be pining for standing room only packed out live nativities and Christmas Eve services. But we can’t do any sardining now! Still, we’ve had our creative caps on trying to figure out how we can get all the people who want to keep Christmas with us attending in a safe way. Details are to follow, but we’re deep into exploring having outdoor services run concurrently with indoor services! Including one with animals! We’re considering implementing a ticket system so we don’t have to turn people away, but can offer folks a seat at that the service they choose in the venue they choose with good distancing. Yes, it’s going to be different. But when I think about being in the terraced garden, with a fire blazing in the fireplace, bundled up and raising our candles in the dark, it sounds pretty Christmassy to me! Pray for your elders ands staff as we make decisions, and watch our website and bulletins for more details.
Our December sermons will be built around Lost Verses of Famous Carols. We had a lot of fun several years ago uncovering seldom sung lyrics in beloved Christmas songs. Well, we’ve found some more little known words from O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. So we not only get to sing these great carols, we get to dive deep into their content.
I’m very excited about the new advent calendar that’s been created for our daily readings during this sacred month. Beautifully designed by Katie Robinson, Katie Forsthoff and Mitzi Barber, the readings are coordinated with our sermons and include lovely breath prayers to take you deeper.
Meanwhile, we look forward to a special Sunday of music on December 13. The worship team and chancel choir will combine with an orchestra to present “Hail the Blessed Morn,” a program highlighting the rich musical tradition we have at our church through Christmas favorites.
Movies You’re Not Supposed to See
Tired of formulaic Christmas movies? Want to think more deeply about what’s going on in our society? I have three movies for you that challenge the status quo. Each is disturbing, provocative and rousing. I believe you can’t not view these films as part of the ongoing dialogue in our culture. Each one makes a well-produced, captivating watch. Unplanned. This is the story of Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who discovered the economics of the abortion industry, the dehumanization of women clients, and the horror of the procedures. Uncle Tom: A Narrative History of Black Conservatism. Prominent African Americans challenge the narrative of dependence.  The Social Dilemma. Former creators and executives from Google, Instagram and Facebook warn of the monster they created through the algorithms of manipulation on our favorite media sites. A chilling warning. I’d love to hear how you respond.
Yes, 2020 may be a year to forget, but it only makes me more eager to keep a joyful Christmas with you dear flock!

Introduction to Psalm 31

Jesus prayed Psalm 31 from the cross. But it contains a lot more than we didn’t hear him quote but is very meaningful to us.

Psalm 31
In you, O LORD, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me;
you take me out of the net they have hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols,
but I trust in the LORD.
I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have known the distress of my soul,
and you have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
and my bones waste away.
Because of all my adversaries I have become a reproach,
especially to my neighbors,
and an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have been forgotten like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror on every side!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors!
Make your face shine on your servant;
save me in your steadfast love!
O LORD, let me not be put to shame,
for I call upon you;
let the wicked be put to shame;
let them go silently to Sheol.
Let the lying lips be mute,
which speak insolently against the righteous
in pride and contempt.
Oh, how abundant is your goodness,
which you have stored up for those who fear you
and worked for those who take refuge in you,
in the sight of the children of mankind!
In the cover of your presence you hide them
from the plots of men;
you store them in your shelter
from the strife of tongues.
Blessed be the LORD,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was in a besieged city.
I had said in my alarm,
“I am cut off from your sight.”
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
when I cried to you for help.
Love the LORD, all you his saints!
The LORD preserves the faithful
but abundantly repays the one who acts in pride.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the LORD!

Introduction to Psalm 30

Make time with the LORD a habit. Meet him at the edge of each day with Psalm 30. Hope comes with the morning, the new light, a new day.

Psalm 30

I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”

By your favor, O LORD,
you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.

To you, O LORD, I cry,
and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?

Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me!
O LORD, be my helper!”

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!


Would I Feel Richer If . . .

Would I feel richer if I gave away less money? I asked myself that recently. Several annual commitments to mission groups had come due. We set up some college funds for the grandchildren. We sent some other people support. And of course we always make our church gift. Wow, we just got paid and it’s almost gone! What happened to the going-out-to-dinner money? And the new fall clothes allowance? I mean, what if we just stopped giving so much away? Would we be happier? Would it feel like my bank account was bigger? 
I thought hard about that. I tried on the possibility that I’d feel fuller if I had more cash staying home. For a second, it thrilled me. Man we could have some big fun! In another second, it scared me. Would I ever risk going back to not tithing? I recalled the weight of being responsible for finances without God. I shuddered remembering when the balance of our spending was weighted toward doing what we wanted to do. Burdened on the outside, thin on the inside. That’s how I felt in those years.
Then I thought about what it means to be invested in our church. To know we’re running in our lane, shoulder to shoulder with the remarkably committed believers here. If we weren’t prioritizing our church, I’d feel like a pretender in front of you. Instead, I know this is our family of faith. I fill up inside thinking of all our church is and does. And suddenly I feel humbled, even thankful that we get to contribute. That’s the word: we get to. And if we didn’t, I’d feel diminished, shut out, longing to find a tangible way to declare, “We’re in! We’re in with you.”
I thought about other ministries we love. And that’s the word: love. Our family loves Gardere, Dunham, Caring to Love, the Magruders and others. If we didn’t give, we’d have more money. But less love. Which means less joy.
I also realized how much I value living in the flow of God’s blessing love. He pours in, and in reply we try to pour out, responsibly but proportionally. If we just kept it, like a dammed up pond, we’d stagnate spiritually, emotionally and even financially. We wouldn’t be as thankful, we wouldn’t feel God’s care as much, and I’m pretty sure, even if we had more dollars for a while, we’d feel not rich but poor. 
Lesson learned for your pastor! I peered over the edge and realized, in my gut, what a joy it is to get to give
Foto Sisters to Join Us for Service of Healing and Hope
As the holidays approach, the sadness of loss also rises. Many of us bear the pain of having lost very young children. Perhaps through miscarriage, through accidents or infant illnesses, through abortion or still birth. The sorrow remains. And our church would like to offer a tender touch. Sunday afternoon, November 8 at 4 pm in the Sanctuary, we will have a memorial service of healing and hope. The Foto Sisters will lead our music. God has used them to bring a unique healing touch to people all over the country. Please free to invite others from outside our church to join us for this quiet, prayerful hour.
Abby Johnson to Speak 
This year’s annual Caring to Love banquet features Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood executive whose views transformed the day she assisted an abortion. Now a Christian and ardent defender of life, Abby’s story was told in the feature film Unplanned and the book by the same name. Tickets are available online at First Presbyterian also has a limited number of deeply discounted tickets available for $20, please email for info. Thursday, November 12, 6.30 pm at the Marriot. 
Perimeter Construction
Pay attention! Over the next two months our church campus will undergo the security and beautification upgrades that your Session approved last spring. As the project progresses, please pay attention to signage that will direct you to available entrances. Your patience is appreciated. You’re going to love the final result!

Introduction to Psalm 25: 1-7

Remember me not according to the sins of my youth but according to the LORD's own character. He is merciful.

Psalm 25: 1–7
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
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 the day long.
Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!

Stitching It Up!

Surely this is one of the strangest years ever! Everything can seem upside down. Just when we need each other, we can’t touch and can’t meet. It seems like we’ve lived in a fog for the last seven months. What happened to 2020?
A lot of things have fallen away. We’ve learned to live without watching sports all the time (OK, so some diehards did watch the bean bag tossing championships. We pray for their souls.). We’ve grown to like having a less frenetic pace. But we’ve missed parties and barbecues and hugs. And church. If you’ve been back in the Sanctuary since the pandemic began, you know how great it feels. To be in the house of the Lord with his people. The soaring ceilings. The beautiful wood. The ascension window. All the memories. To hear the music. To sing, even in a mask. To know that the church is still the church. How very precious our church is to us.
As the fall months come, we’re working hard to re-gather our congregation. On September 13 we will return to two Sanctuary worship services: Contemporary at 9 and Classic Reformed at 11. Sunday school will resume at 10.10 on Sundays. We’re learning to gather in ways that are as safe as we can. But I know it will take an effort. We’ve got to overcome the rhythm of just staying at home. We’ve got to push against the inertia of isolation. We’ve got to put up with the inconvenience of safety measures. We’re taking a gamble that we can fill in two worship services with enough people that it doesn’t feel like we’re in a cavern. I think it’s time! Come to church! Invite others to come. Let’s stitch up the fabric of our fellowship, one returning worshiper at a time.
As the weather cools later in October (Amen, may it be so!), we want to do more outside gatherings. Imagine a huge tent on the terraced garden. And a Kirkin’ celebration outside. What if we could have our Christmas cantata outside on North Blvd. one December Sunday? What if Christmas Eve could accommodate 1,500 people because we made it a Journey to Bethlehem, touring with candlelight in groups through the stages of the Nativity Story, ending in the Sanctuary with communion? There are so many possibilities that can open up with a change in temperature. We will be an adventurous congregation!
Meanwhile, let’s stay tethered through our individual praying of the Psalms. I love reading a psalm knowing that hundreds of you are praying it that morning too. It’s not too late to connect through a Shepherding through Psalms group. Just contact Darin Travis or Kelly Wood.
I’m also happy to report how your generosity reaches into our city and around the world. We received about $75,000 in our Neighbors Fund and have already disbursed half of it to individuals and ministry partners. We continue to keep a watch out for needs related to COVID-19, and thanks to you can act quickly to help. Also, the session approved sending $20,000 to the Philemon Project, an EPC ministry in Beirut that cares for orphaned children. The recent explosion that devastated the city has made the need desperate. We’re grateful to help.
On Sunday evening, September 20, I’d like to host you in the Sanctuary for a workshop entitled Countering Cancel Culture. We’ll take up the ideas we began considering in the message that contrasted the Christian and Marxist worldview.  
Finally, our music department will host a fun night called “A Night of Social Distanc-SING!” on September 17 in the Sanctuary. Our great singers will bring their talents for a delightful evening of celebrating the gift of music.
Onward, beloved congregation. Your faith inspires me. Your faithfulness astounds me. It’s so natural to love being your pastor.

Weekly Psalms Readings

Praying the Psalm of the Week Five Different Ways! 
Monday: As a Personal Prayer 
Read the psalm to get a sense of it. 
Read again, listening for phrases that grab you, then ponder those.
Pray the psalm aloud a third time, as a prayer of your life.
Tuesday: As a Prayer of Jesus 
Read the psalm once. 
Read the psalm aloud, imagining that Jesus is praying it.
Say “My Father” whenever you see LORD or God.
Ponder at what stage in his life this psalm might have fit Jesus.
Pray the psalm a third time joined to Jesus’ prayers.
Wednesday: For Someone You Love
Hold someone you love in mind as you read the psalm aloud. Consider how its words relate to their life. Pray it aloud again as if your loved one were praying it. 
Thursday: As Part of Community
Follow the same pattern, only today pray the psalm imagining that you are surrounded by fellow Christians in a great worship service. Imagine as you pray it aloud twice that everyone is vocalizing it together.
Friday: For Someone Who Is Difficult or Hostile
Follow the same pattern, only today pray the psalm imagining someone you struggle to love: even, especially, if it seems unlikely this person would ever pray a psalm!  

August 10-14     Psalm 23


Restoring Your Soul Through Psalms

This wretched distancing goes on! Yet so does the need to connect to others. And to God. Our hearts are still made to be in communion. So how do we stay connected in isolation? This month we begin a series of interlocking ways to encounter Christ through the Psalms. I’d like to tell you about it in advance of a mailing you’ll receive next week. 
For 3,000 years, the LORD’s people have climbed the stairways of words that are the Psalms. By making these prayers their own prayers, they have ascended through psalms straight into God’s presence. The Psalms were the very prayer book of Jesus himself. We find Christ’s heart for his Father when we pray psalms in communion with Jesus. We get drawn close to each other when we pray psalms together and for one another. We even find words to pray for our enemies when we pray psalms on behalf of those hostile to us! Psalms express our souls; they also transform our souls, taking us deeper than we could ever go on our own.
This fall, for 100 days, we’re going to hone in on the Psalms. Spiritual riches beyond price reside in these songs. So I’ll be inviting you to engage these psalms in a variety of practices. 
Next week, you’ll receive in the actual mail a beautiful bookmark with the schedule of psalms we are studying and five ways—one for each week day—we can pray the psalms with different people in mind. Beginning August 10, each Monday you’ll receive by email a three-minute video introducing the psalm of the week, and then, the following Sunday we’ll use that psalm in worship. And, very exciting to me, for three Sunday evenings at 5 pm, we’ll be launching by livestream special presentations introducing these psalms. Guest speakers include one of my spiritual heroes, Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, and one of Darin’s heroes, Mark Futato from Reformed Theological Seminary. We’re hoping those of you with big TVs and spacious seating areas will host watch parties. And consider joining a Shepherding Through the Psalms group to encourage one another. These groups will consist of 3-6 friends who will weekly connect with each other via a text, phone call, lunch or coffee—whatever works best for you. Spur one another on by discussing what you’re learning from the psalm of the week, how the prayer rhythms are going, and how to intentionally pray for each other. For more information visit To sign up as a group shepherd or member, email Kelly Wood.

Restoring Your Soul Through Psalms

This wretched distancing goes on! Yet so does the need to connect to others. And to God. Our hearts are still made to be in communion. So how do we stay connected in isolation? This month we begin a series of interlocking ways to encounter Christ through the Psalms. I’d like to tell you about it in advance of a mailing you’ll receive next week. 
For 3,000 years, the LORD’s people have climbed the stairways of words that are the Psalms. By making these prayers their own prayers, they have ascended through psalms straight into God’s presence. The Psalms were the very prayer book of Jesus himself. We find Christ’s heart for his Father when we pray psalms in communion with Jesus. We get drawn close to each other when we pray psalms together and for one another. We even find words to pray for our enemies when we pray psalms on behalf of those hostile to us! Psalms express our souls; they also transform our souls, taking us deeper than we could ever go on our own.
This fall, for 100 days, we’re going to hone in on the Psalms. Spiritual riches beyond price reside in these songs. So I’ll be inviting you to engage these psalms in a variety of practices. 
Next week, you’ll receive in the actual mail a beautiful bookmark with the schedule of psalms we are studying and five ways—one for each week day—we can pray the psalms with different people in mind. Beginning August 10, each Monday you’ll receive by email a three-minute video introducing the psalm of the week, and then, the following Sunday we’ll use that psalm in worship. And, very exciting to me, for three Sunday evenings at 5 pm, we’ll be launching by livestream special presentations introducing these psalms. Guest speakers include one of my spiritual heroes, Malcolm Guite from Cambridge, and one of Darin’s heroes, Mark Futato from Reformed Theological Seminary. We’re hoping those of you with big TVs and spacious seating areas will host watch parties. And consider joining a Shepherding Through the Psalms group to encourage one another. These groups will consist of 3-6 friends who will weekly connect with each other via a text, phone call, lunch or coffee—whatever works best for you. Spur one another on by discussing what you’re learning from the psalm of the week, how the prayer rhythms are going, and how to intentionally pray for each other. For more information visit To sign up as a group shepherd or member, email Kelly Wood.
Global Mission Conference
I’m so pleased that our speaker this year is Rev. Brian Miller. Brian and his wife Katherine work with sex trafficked girls in Medellin, Colombia. He is a passionate and eloquent speaker.
LSU Prayer Walk
Saturday morning, August 15 at 8.15 am we will meet at the LSU Student Union to spend an hour walking the campus and praying for our university. In particular we will pray for our international students. Prayer walking is safe, fun, discrete and powerful. Full instructions will be given. Come casual.

American Privilege

Super Shuttle had forgotten me at the Orlando Airport. Only Uber Black (that’s the really nice cars!) was available. My driver was gregarious. Born in Haiti, he had come to America in his teens to play soccer. Now he was a proud U.S. citizen. “I love this country,” he said. “The electricity works all the time. I came here with nothing but soccer skills. Then my knee blew out, but I got great medical care. I worked hard, and now I have my own driving business. My wife became an accountant. We have such a great life here. I love America.”
In troubled times, when we’re straining to do better as a nation, it helps to remember just why so many people from around the world want to be here. To me, any discussion about our nation needs to begin with grateful acknowledgement of American Privilege. It flows across the tapestry of ethnicities that make up our nation of immigrants. As my driver said, the electricity works all day long. So does the in-flow of clean water, and, importantly, the out-flow of sewage. I’m thankful every Tuesday for the infrastructure of sanitation. They actually take my garbage away! (If I make the effort to put it in the bin.)  
All anyone has to do in a crisis is dial 911. Within minutes, fire, ambulance or police come no matter who you are. Emergency rooms treat any and every one who comes with astounding medical care, whether you can pay or not. Education from pre-K to high school is available to every citizen, including free transportation. Our schools provide ten meals a week to those who need them. Public assistance offers vouchers for food; housing for the disabled and disadvantaged; a host of services to the elderly, those fighting cancer, the demented, the physically handicapped; or those with other special needs. 
We have 2.7 million miles of paved roads. Pollution controls have cleaned up the air we breathe. Public libraries are heated and cooled for comfort as they offer both print and electronic resources for free to all. There is land to spread out to. There is natural beauty of such variety and magnitude that it takes your breath away. At the city, state and national level we have beautiful parks. Our nation’s resources have created an overflowing abundance of goods in which everyone can participate. (A Ralph Lauren polo shirt for $2 at the Purple Cow: amazing!) Opportunity for social and economic mobility continues to be the envy of the world. The mightiest military in history protects us. 
We freely elect our government officials. We govern by rule of law, with powers divided between three branches, the model of liberty for the world. We still have remarkable freedom to express our opinions and exercise our religion. Moreover, we have the ability to critique ourselves, to have the conversations that lead to change.  
Are we perfect? Of course not! But this July 4, I want to begin with gratitude for all we have. And respect for those who sacrificed and labored and fought to make it so. Would I prefer the level of religious freedom that’s in Saudi Arabia? Or machine guns on every street corner like in Cairo? Would I prefer the surveillance culture of China? The heritage of ethnic genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda? The dictatorship of Russia? The poverty of the socialist experiment in Venezuela? No, thank you to all of the above.
Even the least among us have great privilege. Even the poor among us have, in the world context, great wealth. American privilege is a precious, priceless privilege that undergirds all our national conversations. We must begin, continue and conclude in gratitude for this nation in which God has seen fit to place us. 
Happy Independence Day!

Masquerading Worship

Feeling a bit like Darth Vader in my mask, I walked through the Sanctuary greeting a number of families who had come to the confirmation service. I found comfort that we were all doing the same. From a safe distance, I said, “It’s like a masquerade ball. Or a Halloween party. You feel ridiculous getting ready. But once you see that everyone else has on a costume, it’s ok.”  Indeed, it was ok. No, I’m not a big fan of breathing back my own breath. But I get it. We’re helping each other. We’re making the best of the situation given to us. And I’m awfully proud that you are making the effort to regather our congregation in the Sanctuary while following the safest recommendations in a spirit of adventure. Of course you are!
Now I don’t mind telling you, leadership in an unchartered crisis is exhausting! Every week, sometimes every other day, we have to pivot. We have to adapt. To plot a new course knowing it might change overnight. I’ve been so impressed with the flexibility and innovation and sheer hard work of our on-the-ground staff. Our team bowls me over with the way they’ve communicated and created worship and ministry for all of us in these strange days.
Lately, I’ve found a place to be peaceful. I think our elders have found that same place. We’re sheltering in the leadership that is above us. We’re thankful for and praying for our freely elected government. As long as what the state asks doesn’t compel us to compromise the gospel or doesn’t egregiously and specifically target people of faith, we are glad to follow. To be part of Team Louisiana.   
This gives us two strong directions. On the one hand, we want to do everything that is permitted to us to do. Our business is gathered worship. We exist to proclaim the gospel in community for the community. So when we can open at 25%, we do. We energetically embrace what we may do, offering the best we can give to the most who can come. On the other hand, we accept what is prescribed for our safety. If sanitizing, distancing and masking is what is asked, we’re happy to do it. It’s not fun. But it’s what is called for. And that makes me peaceful. 
I don’t want to try to think I know better. Nor do I want to live in fear. I want to live boldly within the guidance of what is both permitted and safe. Down this road, lies peace, restoration and love for our community. Just think, no one has ever done this before! We’ll always remember this time. I will always remember your overwhelming love for your church and commitment to our ministry in the heart of Baton Rouge. These days, it’s easy as pie to say I love being your pastor!
Gratitude for Steve Rushing 
The director of our chancel choir ends his tenure with us this month. Dr. Steve Rushing has partnered with me in leading Classic Reformed Worship for the last fifteen years. His outstanding full-time vocal teaching at Southeastern University and then at Baton Rouge International School have meant that Steve’s service to us has always been on a quarter-time basis. With the arrival of our first full-time worship director who is fluent in both classic and contemporary styles, there is too much overlap to continue with two choir directors. So it is with both sadness and gratitude that we bid farewell to Steve in his official capacity. 
But first, we want to celebrate his work among us. Steve raised high the excellence of our choir program. He established the reputation of our music throughout the community and especially amidst the musicians in town. His gracious spirit and love for all kinds of music played a significant role in healing tensions that once existed between our worship styles. Steve has freely offered vocal lessons to many members, taking a personal interest in his choir and enhancing the careers of our student singers. And that voice! Could anyone else have sung the voice of God in Roots and Promises? The annual cantatas with orchestra have become a beloved tradition among us. Seeing and hearing Steve’s great pleasure in getting the most out of his singers and musicians communicates joy to all of us. We will miss his humor, his spiritual insights and his collegiality. 
Though social distancing limits our options, we can still heartily celebrate Steve on Sunday, June 21 at the 11 am service. We all want to express our appreciation for this fine Christian man, musician and vocalist. 

How I Went from Worry to Hope

Anxiety. I had it. When our isolation first began, we had to pivot everything. I worried. Would the congregation hold together or fragment? Would people drift apart? Would people decide they don’t really need a church after all? Personally, I had to wrestle with the question, “What exactly is the point of a pastor anyway?” 
Staying-at-home offered more time. God led me deeper into his Word. I felt his presence more in prayer. When my sense of self and worry for the church started to wash out with the tide of worry, the Spirit of Christ Jesus flowed in through these times of reflective prayer and study. That, after all, is what our beliefs have told us all along: the Spirit is the glue who keeps us joined to Christ and to one another. He is the magnetic force of our communion. He is the skin and sinew of the body of Christ, keeping us whole. 
How wonderful it has been to see the Spirit cohering our church. You didn’t drift away or apart! If the stats are correct, more people, not fewer, are entering the worship we offer. Your beautiful video testimonies have linked us across all ages and stages. Hundreds of you have been checking on hundreds of you! Hundreds of boxes of food have been shared with the community. People continue to meet through Zoom or by phone. Giving continues. The staff pivoted to engage our members and produce our worship and communication, learning more and updating every week. In all, our church has proved herself dedicated, agile and energetic. I’m so thankful, and I’m so proud of you! I’m filled with hope.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
The session has called for a special offering to be collected during May to offer relief to our members and neighbors during the pandemic. The first $10,000 will go to the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, as we’ve tragically seen how hunger is a real need in our city. The second $10,000 will assist the Christian Outreach Center in their work resettling the homeless population (the pandemic led to the clearing of several “tent villages” in the city). Further gifts will go to our church’s Helping Hands fund to assist church members, partner ministries and neighbors affected by this crisis. We know there will be personal needs when the ripple of government support runs out. We will be offering “grace grants” to church members, who can apply discretely through Barry Phillips. We’d love to help our members over a rough patch, trusting that in years to come, as they are able, they will give back to this same Helping Hands fund. You can give online or through checks marked “Neighbors Fund.” 
Emerging: May 17?!
In an unprecedented crisis, everything is always subject to change. But in hope, we plan using the best information we have. Our hope is that limited gathered worship will resume Sunday, May 17. That looks like two Sanctuary services, 9 am and 11 am, with capacity for 150 worshipers. We will have 50 to 60 sections marked off for family groups or singles to sit while maintaining distance. We will offer sign up online or by phone so we hopefully won’t have to turn anyone away. We will still offer “up close” livestreaming for those at home. Other precautions related to sanitizing will be taken. More details to come the week of May 10. This means we will plan now to go ahead with our Confirmation service at 4 pm on May 17. If demand warrants, we may be able to add an afternoon service in the future. We’ll all have to stay nimble and watch for updates.
Staff Changes 
Happy news: welcome Jaime Carnaggio as our new Director of Women’s Ministry. Jaime has served on our staff since 2015 as an assistant in Children’s Ministry and then with our women. She’s full of love for Christ, her family and our people. She’s a deep, energetic and engaging Bible teacher. She connects to women of all ages and has a passion for sharing Jesus through his Word. While Jaime served 6 months as our interim director, it became clear that she was growing with the job, getting more effective as her responsibilities grew. The session has delightedly endorsed her in this new position.
Sad news: the Cato family is moving to Texas in July. Kinch has taken a position as assistant head of a Christian school in Fort Worth. That means we will be losing Audra, who has worked so effectively for a decade. She began leading the renovation of our nursery ministry, turning it into one of our most successful programs. Then we asked her to lead Childhood Ministry, and we’ve seen wonderful growth in the depth of ministry and in numbers of children. We’re going to miss Kinch, Audra, Robert and Helen, but we pray a wonderful new life for them, knowing they will bless many wherever they are. Meanwhile, join us in prayer as we search for a new staff leader in Childhood. 

Lent - Day 42

Day 42  Saturday



That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).


Matthew 28: 16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Luke 24: 36-53
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.


Jesus is really risen. He ate broiled fish before his disciples. One of my favorite images of a real resurrection came through actor Bruce Kuhn. As he recited this episode from Luke, Bruce pretended to pick a fish bone from his teeth. It hit me: this was a real man, risen from the dead. Still Jesus. Of course, he was also transformed, outfitted for an eternal, embodied life, always our brother and advocate.
The protagonist of Passion Week has won, against all odds, his great victory. He has withdrawn now until the time of his return to set all things right. So this is the age of the mission of the church. We tell the story of our hero that all might know he is a worthy and sufficient Savior. So all might bend the knee to his kingship. So that all might raise their voice in saving worship as we declare, “Jesus is Lord!” 
We live now connected to Jesus by his Spirit that he has sent to dwell in our hearts, to inspire our worship, to grow the fruit of love in our lives and empower our witness. We go forth under the blessing hands and shining face of the ascending, still incarnate Jesus Christ.


For centuries, this short message by John Chrysostom, has been read every Easter in churches throughout the world. We will make it our final prayer as we anticipate our Easter worship tomorrow.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below. ”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen.
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).



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Lent - Day 41

Day 41  Friday


That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).


John 21: 15-19
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”


After that wonderful breakfast on the beach, Jesus turned his attention directly on Peter. “Do you love me more than these?” I imagine Peter, full of heart, delighted to be asked to express his ardor for Jesus, “You know I love you!” The second questioning, however, might have baffled him. Peter didn’t mind reassuring Jesus. But his affections were never hidden. Of course he loved Jesus. The third inquiry cut Peter to the quick. How could Jesus keep questioning the deepest, truest part of Peter’s very life? What a moment of understanding it must have been when it dawned on Peter. Three times he had denied Jesus. Three times he would be asked to affirm his love to Jesus and before others. These questions were meant for restoration!
Years before, as Luke 5 tells us, in the first great catch of fish, Peter had dropped to his knees, ashamed of his sinfulness before Jesus of such holy power. Jesus had assured him of forgiveness by giving him a mission: from now on you will be a fisher of people. Here on the beach Jesus restores Peter by re-missioning him. Feed my sheep! 
So, too, we get forgiven and restored, we get opportunity to worship and express our love not just as ends in themselves, but so we can enter the mission Jesus has for us! 
With this episode in mind, we can see how personal was Peter’s praise in the first letter we have from him, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1: 3). Indeed, the resurrection turned the dead despair of Peter’s denial into relief so great it made him new and filled him with living hope.
Peter’s final benediction in that letter also arises from his profound personal experience, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5: 10-11).


Hold this scene of restoration and re-missioning in mind as you pray aloud Peter’s own words of praise and hope:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! 
According to his great mercy, 
he has caused us to be born again 
into a living hope 
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading,
kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power 
are being guarded through faith for a salvation 
ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved with various trials,
So that the tested genuiness of your faith—
More precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—
May be found to result in praise and glory and honor
At the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Though you have not seen him, you love him.
Thought you do not now see him, you believe in him,
And rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,
Obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 
(1 Peter 1: 3-9)
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).


Imagine the joy Peter had after Jesus reinstated him! Jesus demanded that he declare his love, and Peter, tested to his core, declared his love for Jesus passionately. Jesus told him to go and feed his sheep. Peter would fulfill that command. His sermons in Acts skillfully, ardently proclaim the news about Jesus. 
Soren Kierkegaard wrote,
As God created man and woman, so too He fashioned the hero and the poet, or orator. The poet cannot do what that other does, he can only admire, love and rejoice in the hero. Yet he too is happy, and not less so, for the hero is as it were his better nature, with which he is in love, rejoicing in the fact that this after all is not himself, that his love can be admiration. He is the genius of recollection, can do nothing except call to mind what has been done. . . . He follows the option of his heart, but when he has found what he sought, he wanders before everyman’s door with his song and with his oration, that all may admire the hero as he does, be proud of the hero as he is (as quoted in Raniero Cantalamessa, Remember Jesus Christ, 2007, p. 77).
Peter well knew that he was not the hero of our redemption story. Jesus is the one hero. Peter rejoiced to take the part of troubadour. His two letters as well as his testimony in Acts overflow with admiration for his champion, Jesus.  
And so Peter urged all of us to join him as an orator for Christ, whatever the size of audience, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3: 15, NIV).


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Lent - Day 40

Day 40  Thursday



That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).


John 21: 1-14
After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


Jesus was alive. But not always with them. He came and went for those forty days between his resurrection and his ascension. Sometimes he taught them the Scriptures, even ate with them (Acts 1: 3-4). Other times he was gone. They weren’t always sure what to do in between. They had gone to Galilee for a while, as the angel had commanded (Matt. 28: 7). In this episode, a restless Peter decided to do what he knew how to do, what he had done before Jesus called him: fish on the Sea of Galilee (aka the Sea of Tiberias).  
It was a night much like the one recorded in Luke 5. They had caught nothing. At dawn, they were near the shore and saw an early riser on shore with a charcoal fire. Déjà vu washed through them as he ordered them to cast the net again. As it filled miraculously with fish, John knew. It was Jesus! Great-hearted, impetuous Peter couldn’t wait for the boat to get there, so he leapt into the sea and swam for Jesus.  
There’s a great tenderness in the scene that follows. Breakfast on the beach with Jesus. Ordinary fellowship over a basic meal. Extraordinary spiritual communion with the risen Lord. Loaves and fish, so like the feast in the desert that fed five thousand. Broken bread and knowing Jesus, so like the supper at Emmaus. Word and sacrament. Learning and communing. Jesus alive giving them himself.
This is a snapshot of the ordinary Christian life. Week by week, gathered worship over Scripture and the Supper. Day by day, time with Jesus as we read his Word by the illumination of the Holy Spirit and pray to him by the prompting of his Spirit within. Speaking to him of ordinary concerns. Being lifted out of our little story into his big story so that our day to day becomes shot through with greater possibility and deeper meaning. The encounters that inform us over a lifetime.


Imagine this scene of breakfast on the beach with Jesus as you pray (or sing!) the words to this classic hymn by Thomas Chisholm: 
Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided—
Great is thy faithfulness, 
Lord unto me!
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided—
Great is thy faithfulness, 
Lord unto me!
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).


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Lent - Day 39

Day 39  Wednesday



That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).


John 20: 24-30
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 
Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”


We can be thankful for Thomas’ doubts. For he is our man on the scene. Thomas represents all of us who were not there when the risen Jesus appeared. He speaks for us when he voices his concern that these kinds of things just don’t happen. For all of us who feel we missed the one class when the keys to understanding were passed out, Thomas is our man. Others may have been gifted with easy faith, but we have always struggled. We want to know with certainty and there seems little to be had. Go on Thomas, and make your demands for all of us!
Curiously, the account does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched Jesus or not. Rather, right after Jesus’ offer, we hear Thomas declare, “My Lord and my God!” (vs. 28). Perhaps he did touch Jesus, or perhaps none of that made any difference. Jesus had come to him in risen glory and offered himself. He exhorted Thomas to put away his doubt and start believing. That was enough for Thomas. Interestingly, the biggest doubter, the last holdout, ended up being the one who made the strongest declaration of who Jesus is in all the Gospels! “My Lord and my God!” This skeptic became the boldest confessor.
We all need to turn a sharp eye on the doubts we have. Too often we can let our struggles with unanswerable questions provide cover for us so that we do not have to deal with the Christ who comes and calls us to himself. So we each have to ask, “Would I throw my doubts up even if they were all answered? Or am I ready and waiting for Christ to make himself known to me? Am I anxious to join doubting Thomas as the boldest believer and cry out to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”


Oh Jesus, my Lord and my God,
Forgive my doubts.
All I ever wanted was for you to be alive.
They said you were,
But I missed it. As usual.
I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why didn’t you wait til I was there?
I could not release my grief to a dream.
I could not revive hope if you were a fantasy.
How awful that week of waiting was.
They rejoiced; I sulked.
Then there you were!
Inviting me to touch you.
True is the Psalm: 
In your presence is fullness of joy,
In your right hand are pleasures forevermore. 
I did not need to touch after all.
All I ever wanted was not enough.
But you overflowed every expectation.
It was you, alive, everlasting, real.
Oh Jesus, my Lord and my God!
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).


In Thomas, we have a guy who is a big realist, and a big doubter. He demands to verify what the other witnesses saw. And once he did, he gave himself to the truth: Jesus is risen!
The mystical reality of faith in Jesus is that the once and for all event of Jesus’ days among us, of his cross and resurrection, can cross time and come into our immediate experience. Time and space are no obstacles.  The witnesses have passed the story from one generation to the next.  Thomas saw, and he told. Others believed and received the truth of the resurrection in their very bones. The Spirit came within them and brought about a sense of Christ’s presence they had never had before. He brought power for changed lives. He brought forgiveness and peace. He brought power to tell others. And they experienced the truth. And they told others, and they told others, and now these words are being passed to you. Jesus is risen! (Gerrit Dawson, April 28, 2019 sermon).


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Lent - Day 38

Day 38  Tuesday



That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).


Luke 24: 13-35
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.


This is the only mention of Cleopas in the Bible. We do not know if he had been following Jesus for a while or if he had just been drawn to him during the events of Passion Week. Either way, Cleopas was both sad and baffled. Like we do after momentous happenings, these men were going over and over what had happened. Jesus played dumb! Just as he did with Mary, in the after-mirth of his return to life, he seemed to enjoy teasing out the revelation of his rising.  
For the rest of their walk to Emmaus, Jesus explained how the Scriptures pointed to these exact events that happened to the Christ. Their hearts burned with eagerness and anticipation. They urged Jesus to stay with them in the village. Next, Luke tells the story in a way that we cannot miss the connection with the Lord’s Supper. Jesus took bread, blessed God, broke bread and gave it to them. In this second ever enactment of the sacrament, their eyes were opened. They knew this man was their Lord Jesus.


The famous French mathematician Blaise Pascal longed for a deeper connection to Christ, something that would bring Jesus from “head” knowledge to “heart” experience. One evening, it happened. He wrote down this experience and kept the paper in his vest pocket where it was found after his death. I invite you to make it your prayer today for a heartfelt realization that Jesus is risen and real.
The year of grace 1654,
Monday, 23 November . . . 
From about half-past-ten in the evening until half past midnight
‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’
Not of philosophers and scholars,
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
“My God and your God.”
“Thy God shall be my God.”
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
“O righteous Father the world had not known thee, 
But I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. 
I have cut myself off from him.
“They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.”
My God wilt thou forsake me?
Let me be not cut off from him forever!
“And this is life eternal, that they may know thee,
The only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.”
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).


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Lent - Day 37

Day 37  Monday


That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).


John 20: 1a, 11-18
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb…
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him, “Rabonni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.


Hers is the most poignant of all the resurrection stories. John focusses intently and personally on Mary Magdalene. She had come to the tomb to complete the burial anointing of the body of Jesus. She wanted the chance to hold him one more time. After the horror of Friday, she wanted to see him at peace now.  
And so the sight which greeted her was all the more bewildering. The body was gone. Oh, was it not enough to mock him, and then beat him, and finally kill him? Now they had stolen his body as well. Jesus was not allowed to be at rest, and Mary was not allowed the certainty of her grief. This tragedy never ended. They were still doing things to him.
Then a strange man inside the cave asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She says she just wants to see him. The body, the body would be enough for her, if only they had not taken it.  
Then, John tells us, Mary turned around and saw Jesus. She did not recognize him. Oh just tell me where he is and I will go to him!
And then came the turning of the tears. Jesus spoke to her one word, “Mary.”
“Rabboni! My teacher!” She fell at his feet and held on to him hard. He was alive. How could it be? His voice still sounded in her mind, the voice like no other. “Mary.” She knew. Beyond hope. Beyond belief. And the rains fell again, though now she was weeping for joy. The turning of the tears.
We experience the wonder of resurrection when we hear Jesus call our name. It is the great mystery of Christian experience that this unique event in history can become personally accessible to us when we place our full trust in Jesus and open our hearts to him, asking him to call us by name to himself. 


I never thought I would hear your voice again.
The sounds of your agony lingered from Friday.
Barely sounding like the man I had known, 
Your cracked voice cried out your agony and faith.
And then with a great cry, you were silent.
There would be no more.
No more stories, no more laughter, no more prayers.
How I yearned to comfort you!
I wanted to climb up that cross and touch your cheek,
Put my face by yours and tell you it would be all right.
Even after as we took you down I wanted to hold you,
I wanted a moment.
But sunset was coming and we had to get you to Joseph’s tomb.
All Sabbath I waited like a caged lioness,
Waiting for first light of the new week.
I wanted that moment. Even in a burial cave.
To smooth your hair, wipe your brow, 
Wrap you tight against the cold of death.
When you weren’t there, I thought I would come undone.
But you! Oh you, you were playing with me!
All risen, you let me wait to see until you called my name.
I’m not angry. Go ahead and tease.
Just say my name! 
I follow when you call. I worship where you are.
I dance where you walk alive. 
My Rabboni. My Jesus again. 
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).


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Lent - Day 36



Week Six

Fritz von Uhde. Woman, Why Weepest Thou? 1892.
Beyond hope and any expectation, Passion Week ended in triumph. The great reversal occurred when the verdict of “guilty” upon Jesus got reversed by the only true Sovereign Judge. In raising Jesus, the Father vindicated the Son. He answered Pilate’s declaration in presenting a battered and defeated Jesus. Now as the stone popped off the tomb, the Father declared to the world,  “Behold the man!” Jesus emerged rippling with everlasting life in a restored, renewed and eternally resurrected body.
Jesus began to reclaim his disheartened disciples. We see him act almost playfully as he takes his time revealing himself to Mary in the garden and the disciples along the road to Emmaus. 
Poignantly, he shows himself to Thomas who had missed his first appearance. And tenderly he restores Peter from a threefold denial through an opportunity to declare his love three times, and receive his mission, the mission of the church in triplicate.
Artist Fritz von Uhde tenderly depicts Jesus reaching to Mary as he calls her name, turning her dismay to joy. 

Day 36 Sunday


That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).


Matthew 28: 1-10
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”


Mary was a popular name in New Testament times! Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Mary of Bethany who anointed Jesus were not one of the Marys named in this account. These were Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, and Mary the mother of James, Joseph and Salome, about whom we know little.
They had come early on the first day of the week to complete the burial process interrupted by the Sabbath that began Friday evening. They expected to tend the dead. Instead they found the stone rolled back, the guards paralyzed with awe, angels proclaiming resurrection and then Jesus himself alive!
How can we describe their experience? Master storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe for this sudden reversal where something horrible becomes wonderful beyond hope. It’s a “good” catastrophe which changes everything. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son that the eucatastrophe in a story: 
. . . pierces you with a joy that brings tears . . . it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature . . . feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back. It perceives . . . that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our souls were made . . . the Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible . . . and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in love.
We have glimpses of this wonderful, piercing resurrection joy. When you thought you were ruined and a solution came through at the last moment. When you knew you were going to die, then didn’t. When you thought a loved one was lost, for good, but then she came home. When you thought the relationship was broken forever and then you reconciled. But all of these are caught up, raised higher in the great, glorious reversal that the Marys were first to witness. they mocked Jesus breaks my heart. And all the more when I imagine my own participation. 


Come Christian, bring your sacrifice 
Of praise to Jesus Christ, 
Our conquering victim and 
Our Easter king. 
Jesus, the sinless lamb, 
Has saved the sinful flock and 
Reconciled us to the Father. 
Death and life have wrestled
In a wondrous fight,
The leader of the living
Fell to the powers of night
Dead, yet he reigns in power
His strange victory to share.  
Speak, Mary, friend of Christ,
What did you see on sorrow’s road?
Tell us your story.
“I saw the tomb of the living Christ.
I saw his resurrection glory.
I saw the witnessing angels.
I saw the head-cloth and the shroud.
Christ my hope has risen,
And goes before his own to Galilee.”
Trust Mary, believers, for only she has truth to tell,
Unlike the falsifying crowd of rumour-makers and deceivers.
We know that Christ is truly risen,
Defeating death and hell’s dark thrall.
So conquering king, have mercy on us all, Alleluia.
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).



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