Sunday, March 28, 2010

Making a Bucket List

A few years ago, I watched the Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson hit movie The Bucket List. In it, two aging men with terminal illnesses seek to accomplish a laundry list of activities before they "kick the bucket."

If there is any benefit to knowing you're going to die sooner than later, it's that you have time to put your affairs in order. Sure, we're all supposed to live like we could not wake up tomorrow morning, but really? We don't...well, you might, but I know I don't.

One homework assignment of my most recent Bible study required me to read everything in the synoptic gospels that occurred in the last week of Jesus' life.

All I can say is "wow."

Yes, Jesus always lived like He was dying. But as His life and ministry drew to a close, He dialed up His teaching, providing us with a perfect example of how we should live, knowing that the clock is ticking down.

When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem the Sunday prior to Passover, He knew He would be dead and in the tomb before sundown on Friday evening, the start of the Sabbath. And so on Monday through Thursday, He taught in the temple with even more fervor than usual in an attempt to leave His disciples then and now with some "final lessons."

Knowing these were Jesus' last lessons before His death makes them that much more important, for a dying man will not waste words when He knows He has so few remaining.

Consider some of those lessons He gave us during that last week:

Jesus' Curse of the Fig Tree: "Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered" (Matt. 21:19).

One lesson learned: a disciple of Jesus who does not bear fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) is worthless.

The Parable of the Two Sons: Jesus said, "'What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?'" (Matt. 21:28-31).

One lesson learned: Jesus doesn't want mere lip service. He wants our faith in action.

The Greatest Commandment: "'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?' Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments'" (Matt. 22:36-40).

One lesson learned: Serving Jesus means denying myself and putting God and others first.

The Parable of the 10 Virgins: "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'...The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others [who had gone to buy more oil] also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!' But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you'" (Matt. 25:1-6, 10-12).

One lesson learned: Our hearts must be prepared, for when Jesus comes back for us, it will then be too late.

I could literally go on and on, as Jesus' teachings spanned chapter after chapter of the gospels. (If you have time before Easter, consider at least skimming through the last week of our Lord's life: Matt. 21-28; Mark 11-16; Luke 19:28-24; John 12:12-21. I know you will be overwhelmed and blessed.)

But consider: what if we each knew how many days were written for us? What if we knew how quickly the clock was counting down--twenty years, one year, one week?

If you sat down and wrote out your own bucket list, what would it include? Would it, like the movie, list activities like skydiving or visiting the pyramids? Getting a tattoo or driving a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China?

Would it focus on things that wouldn't matter once we left this earth?

Or would it list persons you need to share the gospel with? Family and friends you need to make peace with? Someone whom you just need to say out loud, "I love you and appreciate you."

A list like that is worth starting to complete today.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

An Unusual Marriage Proposal

My marriage proposal was nothing to fill the pages of a romance novel and definitely not worthy of appearing on The Bachelor. There were no roses, no candles, no dressy clothes or special location. Instead, my then boyfriend of four years proposed in his apartment...after I had sat typing for over an hour as he dictated legal briefs to help him study.

And then? He gave no beautiful speech for me to memorize and play back for our children--just the simple words, "Will you marry me?" I've laughingly told him many times that he already knew I wouldn't need much convincing, so that's why his proposal was so unromantic.

Jewish marriage customs in the time of Christ are significantly different from what we experience in modern-day culture (and definitely not focused on romance). Yet, understanding the past gives deep insight into the meaning of the Last Supper Jesus shared with his disciples.

In The True Easter Story, Ray Vander Laan explains how in Jesus' day, the prospective bride and groom's fathers first negotiated a bride price. After an agreement was reached, the prospective groom offered a cup of wine to his bride-to-be as part of the engagement ceremony, symbolically asking her to accept "a new covenant." Interestingly, the bride could reject the cup and, thus, the offer of marriage. Yet, if she chose to drink from the cup, she accepted the marriage proposal.

Knowing this background, imagine you are in the upper room with Jesus. A traditional Passover meal lays before you like every Passover meal you've ever participated in since your childhood--the same number of cups to be consumed, the same selection of foods with all their symbolic meaning to Jewish history, the same memorized prayers and "order of ceremony."

And then in the middle of the ordinary, Vander Laan explains that Jesus inserts something new, something unexpected, yet something the disciples would have picked up on immediately--the verbiage of a marriage proposal: "In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you'" (Lk. 22:20, my Italics).

What must the disciples have thought upon hearing those familiar words--"new covenant"? Surely their heads jerked to attention as Jesus offered them a cup of...marriage?

Unusual? Yes. But oh so beautiful.

The image is an invitation for Jesus' followers--then and now--to enter a covenant with Him. Through those words, He sought to communicate His undying love and devotion for His followers, His "bride," a love that would lead Him to Calvary only mere hours later.

Before the end of the Passover feast, Jesus once again used an image from the marriage customs of the day. Jesus said, "'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am'" (Jn. 14:1-3).

Vander Laan explains that according to custom, after the bride accepted the cup, the groom went back to his father's house for up to 12 months, spending that time adding rooms onto his father's house. Only when the groom's father thought the "new home" was sufficient did he give the son permission to go get his bride.

Do you see the beauty of promise in these marriage images? When we, as believers in Christ, take communion, He symbolically offers us an invitation to be part of His bride. To drink the cup is to accept His new covenant, written in the blood of the cross.

Once we have entered into the new covenant, as part of His beloved bride, you and I should awaken each day in anticipation, as a bride waits for her groom to return, claim her, and take her to a new home.

We must long for the day when God the Father looks to the Son and says, "Go get your bride."

*The True Easter Story, part of the That the World May Know video series, Zondervan 2000.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

When Good Friends Go Bad

Abandoned. In the weeks immediately following my husband's losing his legal career, that's how he and I both felt. Four years' worth of friendships cultivated over basketball games, luncheons, cups of coffee, and even two vacations taken together--all were immediately dissolved by friends who, in our time of hardship, chose to completely cut off all contact with us.

At that time, my husband and I compared our life to the Bible character Job, checking off one thing after another we had in common, including the worthless friends who chose to believe Job was guilty of sin rather than showing compassion on him and believing in his innocence.

Since that time, I haven't spent much time reading that particular book of the Bible, as it serves as a painful reminder of still-too-fresh events. But, a few weeks ago, God drew me there again, focusing my attention on Job's friends.

To my surprise, I read that Job's friends didn't start out all that bad. After his children are killed and all his wealth is destroyed, they come to help:

"Now when Job's three friends heard of all this adversity that had come upon him, they came each one from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite; and they made an appointment together to come to sympathize with him and comfort him. When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great" (Job 2:11-13).

Isn't this the type of friend we'd like to have? A friend who would cry out to heaven and weep with us? Who would tear her clothes and cover herself with dust in mourning with us? And who would just be there in silence with us for seven days and seven nights?

These three friends started out as true Christian friends should--showing love and suffering when a friend suffers.

But after seven days, perhaps they were tired of mourning and crying with a friend when they didn't see the situation changing for the better. Or perhaps they had spent too much time wondering why this happened to Job so that they became a little afraid themselves of the seeming "randomness" of it all and needed to find a reason for the destruction.

Whatever the case, they turned on Job. The first friend, Eliphaz, quietly implied Job wasn't innocent. His words of criticism were tinged with compassion, but they were critical nonetheless: "Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity And those who sow trouble harvest it" (Job 4:7-8).

Perhaps emboldened by the first friend's implications, the second friend, Bildad, more boldly and bluntly told Job he was a hypocrite and that his evil deeds had caused the wrath of God to fall on him: "If you are pure and upright,Surely now He would rouse Himself for you And restore your righteous estate" (Job 8:6).

Finally, the third friend spoke even more bluntly, this time showing a complete lack of compassion as he failed to put himself in Job's place before condemining him: "For you have said, 'My teaching is pure,And I am innocent in your eyes.' But would that God might speak,And open His lips against you, And show you the secrets of wisdom!" (Job 11:4-6).

Not surprisingly, Job expressed brokenness over their treatment of his despair. Their callous behavior is even more sad considering Job called them "My brothers" (6:14). Men he once thought were true friends, as close as brothers, now he referred to as judgmental liars, heartless, cruel, and "Sorry comforters" (16:2).

Three friends--who started out strong, as brothers who suffered together--ended so badly, with God even being angered at their actions (42:7).

So what happened?

Yes, part of the friends' problem was their lack of understanding about God; they truly believed destruction and bad fortune resulted from sin and couldn't fathom what was going on in the heavenlies with God allowing Satan to sift Job, to test him. I believe Christians still suffer from this false belief, even if it's at the far recesses of their minds, the thought, "She must have done something to deserve this."

But more interestingly, I also think the problem was the friends' attention span. Yes, you heard it right--I think they had a short attention span. It's a problem I see myself and other fellow Christians suffer from, too.

It seems people in general don't have much tolerance for long-term suffering, especially when they're not the ones doing the suffering. Honestly, it's depressing to be around someone in pain. And if people mourn longer over a loss than we think they should, we grow critical and want to tell them to just "get over it." I've even heard women make comments about others' situations like, "I know ____ was terrible, but you've got to get on with your life sometime."

Sadly, though, I see our attention spans working against us in another way that harms Christian friendships. Consider when a new name is added to a prayer list. We weep, we mourn, we visit, we bring meals, we pray...but week after week, month after month, the name sits before us on the list. And before long, we find ourselves thinking of that person less and less even though their need is still great.

We have all but forgotten them.

Being a friend in Christ is a difficult task, but it is important that we realize a good friend not only is there when the going gets tough, but continues to pray, cry, visit, and mourn together when it stays tough.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

When Jesus Wept: Two Types of Tears

Young children don't have the market cornered when it comes to shedding tears, but the sheer quantity they produce each day may make one believe otherwise. Between the mouth-wide-open-bawling-so-I-can-see-their-tonsils crocodile tears and the head-buried-in-my-arms "hurt" tears, I could probably fill a bottle per month.

Thankfully, the incessant crying seems to come in spurts. My three year old has just entered another teary phase--he falls down and skins a knee, mommy says "no," there are strangers in the room, supper isn't ready yet and he's "hungury," sister won't share a toy, not enough sleep, the twins are crying--and sometimes, he can't even give me a reason!

Scripture records Jesus shedding tears as well, but with good reason. The prophet Isaiah tells us Jesus was "a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering" (Is. 53:3). Hebrews also reveals Jesus was no stranger to tears: "In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death" (5:7).

And yet, the synoptic gospels only record two specific instances of Jesus crying, both occurring (not coincidentally, I believe) within the week before his death on the cross.

In the first instance, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to see the sisters Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus.

But before the famous verse, "Jesus wept," we see an interesting dialogue between Martha and Jesus. After Martha expresses her belief that Lazarus would not have died had Jesus been there, Jesus says, "Your brother will rise again" (John 11:23).

Martha's response indicates a heart that belongs to Jesus but that doesn't understand the wonder she is about to witness: "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (v. 24).

Jesus then seems to press her, perhaps testing the depth of her faith" "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (v. 25-26).

Martha responds again, this time making clear her transformed heart and faith in Jesus: "Yes, Lord," she told him, 'I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world'" (v. 27).

After this, the conversation ends abruptly as she goes to fetch her sister Mary who falls weeping at Jesus' feet: "When Jesus saw her weeping...he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 'Where have you laid him?' he asked. 'Come and see, Lord,' they replied. Jesus wept" (33-35).

The Greek word here for "wept" means "to shed tears," not to weep loudly.* As a compassionate Savior, Jesus simply felt Mary and Martha's grief, and He silently wept with them.

So how does the dialogue showing Martha as a believer connect to Jesus' empathizing tears? When one places the two together, they seem to reveal that if you are a believer in Christ, Jesus cries with your hurts. How precious should that be to those of us who believe?

Compare these quiet, restrained tears of shared grief with believers to Jesus' tears only days later when He entered Jerusalem as the passover lamb prepared for slaughter: "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, 'If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes'" (Luke 19:41-42).

Unlike the previous text, here, the word for "wept" is much stronger, "implying not only the shedding of tears, but also every external expression of grief"* In other words, Jesus was having what we would call an emotional meltdown as He looked down on an unbelieving city filled with His people who didn't recognize Him or the eternal peace that He wanted to bring to their souls. Instead, they would reject Him as they blindly looked for a military Messiah to come and bring them earthly peace in the form of a political movement.

In this instance, Jesus' uncontrollable weeping is for those who do not know Him as Savior and Lord and for the destruction soon to come: "The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you" (v. 43-44).

Jesus' shedding of tears on earth reflects the tears I believe He still sheds today in heaven. For those who believe and confess Him as Savior and Lord, He cries with us in our sorrows. Yet, for those who do not know Him and who reject His salvation, He weeps loud, bitter tears.

If our hearts are perfectly aligned with Jesus, I believe our tears will fall the same--quietly over the fleshly hurts of fellow believers, but bitterly over the lost souls who do not have the everlasting hope and peace of Jesus in their hearts.

*Definitions from Spiros Zodhiates' The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, 1993.