How I Ended Up Dating Jesus

holding_hands.jpgLet’s just start by saying, it’s not what you think.

It began at an airport, standing awkwardly close to a half dozen strangers, as we all pressed forward toward the door of the airplane.

“We’ve landing and are deboarding,” I texted my boyfriend, resisting the urge to follow it will a string of exclamation points. Just a few more minutes, now.

“Call you in 15?” He texted back.

I frowned at the screen. We have a lot of things in common, Daniel and I, but punctuality isn’t one of them.

Read the rest of my story over at the IndiAnya blog.

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The Penitent Thief (Jesus)

good-thiefThis is the last post in this series. The story comes from Luke 22:39-43:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

It’s very possible both these men believed in Jesus. The books of Matthew and Mark call them rebels and revolutionaries. It’s possible they were some of the men that had hoped in Jesus as their Conquering King, that they were among the crowd that witnessed his miracles or welcomed him triumphant into Jerusalem. What a rude awakening it must have been to see their Savior strung up there beside them.

In this simple scene we have a literal picture of “sharing with Christ in suffering.”

The obvious response to suffering is that of the first thief. Doubt. “Are you really God? Are you really powerful? Why won’t you save me?”

But the second thief gets it. Whatever we suffer, we deserve worse. Jesus suffered undeservedly. He took on our sentence to be with us, though it meant terrible suffering. Knowing that, how can we reject being with him where he leads us, simply because it requires that we suffer?

I used to think that the penitent thief got a pretty sweet deal. All he had to believe was that Jesus was innocent and he gets “in.” I didn’t realize he was professing faith in a God who would not only let him be crucified but let His own Son be crucified. He believed before there was a resurrection. He believed though he thought it wouldn’t save him. He believed in the face of great offense.

In this series I’ve talked a lot about disappointment, buried dreams, suffering and sacrifice. The reason I can be bold despite doubt and open about pain is because I believe at my very core that it will all be worth it.

The thief didn’t know that being crucified would be the best thing that ever happened to him.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 18:17).

I believe God sent Jesus to the cross. I believe he sent the thief to the cross as well. As if, in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the mockery, to remind Jesus what he was doing this for.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save those who are lost” (Luke 19:10). “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2).

And Jesus does what he does best. He snatches the captive from the jaws of death. He pulls him back from the very border of hell and issues him a passport to heaven.

You may have noticed in my other posts I frequently bring the conversation back to Jesus, often using something he said to makes sense of things. Well, I love this story because it makes some sense of him.

THIS is my Jesus. Let me tell you why I love him . . .

Because with the hardest thing any man has ever had to face ahead of him, he still sees the man hanging next to him. Because at the very moment when God does not save him, he is still saving others for God. And because when he walked victorious into glory . . . he did it with a thief walking by his side.

It will all be worth it — not because we will be in paradise, but because we will be with him.

Stay With Me (Peter)

And the Lord turned and looked at Peter

This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Luke 22:54-62:

Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

It had been a long night. The disciples, sick with sadness, had finally collapsed into a restless sleep. They understood their Lord was suffering greatly, but the human heart can only take so much sorrow. So when their friend and brother shows up with a band of soldiers, they are all taken off-guard.

Peter, in confusion and fear, draws his sword and strikes one of them, opening up a gash on the side of the man’s head where his ear used to be.

With a touch of his hand, Jesus gives the man a new ear. “No more!” he says to Peter. “Put it away.”

Bound by the words of his Lord to do nothing, Peter watches his Lord bound and taken away. He still holds the sword limply in his hand. The final rebuke stings in his consciousness. Everyone else scatters. But Peter stays fixed to the spot, as the torches of the mob disappear in the darkness.

Then something rises up within him. That can’t be the last. He somehow knows those will not be the last words Jesus speaks to him. But something equally strong holds him back. He follows, but from a distance. By the time he reaches the gates of the high priests house, they have been locked behind Jesus. So Peter waits, and finally a servant girl is sent to let him in.

“You’re not one of them, are you?” she asks.

“Of course not,” he says. But when they come into the light of the fire and she sees his face, she again questions him.

Another was there when he cut off the man’s ear and he attests to the resemblance. “I saw you with him in the garden.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” he says.

It was a bad idea to speak. They mock him now. “Listen to his accent, he’s a Galilean too! He must be with him!”

“I swear, I don’t know him!” Peter yells. But the crowing of a rooster drowns out his curse. Like a rush of blood to the brain, it comes back to him. Other words spoken by his Lord: Tonight. Deny. Three times.

In shame, Peter runs from the courtyard.

He doesn’t let the darkness of the night dissuade him, or the betrayal of a friend turn him away. He doesn’t let the rebuke of Jesus deter him, or the guard at the gate keep him out. But in the face of his own failure, his faith doesn’t hold up. And when it matters most, he leaves the one he loves most.

An old friend and a long-time pastor once told me that he’d never known anyone who stopped following Jesus without large or persistent sin in their own lives. Either too large for them to take it to God in the first place (so they thought), or instead of going to Jesus again and again to let him pay for it, bit by bit, they let their own shame push them away from him.

Any time we sin we deny Jesus. The question is, will we run from him?

Why are we so quick to attribute omniscient judgment to Jesus’ warning to Peter, “You will deny me three times”? Why do we read condemnation in that last look his direction? What if he wasn’t saying “I told you so”? What if he said it to prepare him? And when the trial comes, he looks to see what Peter will do.

Jesus is facing the suffering death that will save Peter from all his denials, do you think he is holding anything against him in that moment?

Peter is, in the very instant of his failure, fully forgiven.

Jesus is abandoned by all his followers and all disciples but one. He’s about to be mocked, beaten and killed. Peter is his best friend. What would it have meant to Jesus to have Peter with him in his darkest hour? Jesus turns to him and if Peter had looked long enough he would have seen that those eyes did not condemn him, they were saying, “Stay with me.”

I believe Jesus is saying the same to us in the moment of our denials, our sins, our failures. It is only in his presence that we can be washed clean.

We don’t have to follow at a distance any longer. Our sin no longer separates us. Will our shame?

“Stay with me. I’ve taken care of everything. Stay with me.”

Eyes Wide Open (Balaam)

This is a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from Numbers 22-24.

This is a story I often come back to. I pour over it. I angst about it. I just don’t get it. I find preachers and biblical commentators to be widely dismissive of Balaam, but what I read here is the account of someone who had an actual relationship with God. He speaks with God, he hears from God, he believes God, and he obeys God. That’s a lot more than I can say about a lot of Bible characters, and many believers I know.

But most telling of all, I think, is the fact that God honors what he has to say, as Balak testifies, “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” It sounds a little like what Jesus says about the believers in the New Testament. And God doesn’t actually deny this, though I’m sure he’s not intimidated by it. He seems to be operating under the same assumption.

Balaam's Ass

Conversations With Donkeys

Balaam, however, is actually not very interested in God’s honor, though he is intrigued by the prospect of being honored by Balak, which he rightly interprets to be financial honor. So, he says the second time Balak comes for him, maybe God has something else to add. After all, sometimes “You shall not” means, “Sure, go ahead.”‘

The point here is that no, it doesn’t. Ever. But Balaam’s heart is not actually after God’s heart, and he’s interested in finding out what he can get away with. Perhaps he can find a way to cash in without disobeying. God finds this mindset so perverse, he actually tells Balaam he can go and sends an angel to kill him on the way, but his donkey sees the angel and detours.

Yes, you read that right. Balaam, soothsayer, holy-man, prophet for hire, is saved by the spiritual awareness of a donkey. Whether or not donkeys make for good protagonists (Eeyore?), this one seems to be a pretty stand-up character. His anger somewhat abated, God again allows Balaam to go on, and Balaam is good on his word to both God and Balak, he speaks only what he hears from the Lord.

What God is Not

The next bit is a kind of tedious kingly rigmarole. It’s like a case study in “determining” the will of God when you already know the will of God. Balaam and Balak prance around, building altar after alter, sacrificing bull after ram, testing the theory that God will let them curse just a portion of Israel, or perhaps if they get just the right angle . . . In short, testing God. And there is nowhere in the Bible that’s a safe thing to do.

Balaam hits the nail on the head when he says, “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?”

Balaam isn’t dumb, nor is he inexperienced in holy matters. He understands that God has already made himself clear on this one. He spoke with Him, he spoke with a donkey, he spoke with an angel, and unlike Zechariah, he doesn’t need anymore signs. So, different from his first two prophecies, which start with a psalm about God’s constancy and incontrovertibility, he starts the last two with an ode to his own spiritual prowess:

“This is the message of Balaam son of Beor, the message of the man whose eyes see clearly, the message of one who hears the words of God, who sees a vision from the Almighty, who bows down with eyes wide open.”

No, Balaam is no dupe. He makes it clear he’s not a fool for God, but he knows it’s unprofitable to go against Him. So he worships, but never lets his vision be clouded by love. Or so he thinks. The God he loves, Peter tells us, is money. He’s nearly tripping over himself in his mad pursuit of it.

Seeing Clearly

If your vision is bad, Jesus said, it doesn’t matter if your eyes are open. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Balaam knew what was good for him and he never went against God (though he does “let it slip” to Balak that the Israelites have a few areas of weakness, resulting in the death of 24,000 of them). Balaam never speaks anything but what the Lord tells him, yet he’s held up as a standard of a false prophet by Peter, Jude and even Jesus himself. The truth of his prophecies didn’t seem to matter compared to the falseness of his heart, proving the maxim, “If wrong our hearts, our heads are right in vain.”

Faith vs. Encounter

So what’s the rub with Balaam? Why does his story haunt me? What keeps me coming back to this wayward prophet who spoke rightly and loved wrongly?

My heart breaks for Balaam. His relationship with God is, like I said, more than I can say about a lot of believers, but it’s exactly what I can say about a few. They spoke with God, they heard Him, they believed in Him, and it wasn’t enough . . . 

Knowledge failed. Encounter failed. Why?

This is something I’m writing about not because I understand it, but because I don’t. Far from having the answers, I’m still struggling to ascertain exactly what the question is. How could you know God . . . and not know Him? How could you speak with Him . . . and not love Him? Once you’ve seen . . . what else is there?

Last week I talked about the allure of certainty, and how it can never satisfy. Zechariah sought for certainty, but it wasn’t given to him. Balaam had certainty, but it didn’t help him. But there is a kind of certainty that pleases God. It’s called faith. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” Faith is being sure. Faith is certainty without sight.

Loving the Prince of Peace in a World at War

I don’t need to recount the stories, I know you’ve seen them. It’s hard to avoid the barrage these days, it’s hard to take your eyes off it: children shooting each other, men witnessing and participating in gang rapes, women lighting themselves on fire to kill themselves or strapping themselves to bombs to kill others, leaders of countries massacring their own civilians . . . The Bible likens the turmoil of the nations to the raging of many waters, and I for one feel like I’m cowering in the midst of a storm. Historians calculate that in all the history of mankind there have been 13 years of war for every single year of peace.

But Jesus . . . He speaks a word and calms the storm.

Click here to read the rest of my post over at IndiAanya. 

Taking Possession

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon when I was called away from a lunch with friends at a new restaurant in one of the upscale markets, to a shabby one on the backside of town for a Pizza-Hut family council.

The whole fam, plus assorted groupies, gathered around a long table piled with a literal smorgasbord of menu options. My niece kept playing “can you match the plate to the wallpaper” (I kept breaking the rules) and “what animal does my ketchup make?” (my sister-in-law dipped her pizza in it before I could guess), while my oldest nephew boxed his grandfather in the eye and I coaxed and begged and pleadingly-smiled my youngest nephew out of his “wrap” and into my arms.

Those are the perfect moments. Not the pizza-divvying and punishment-dispensing, the moment I walked out of the din and into the sunlight of the patio, with one of the newest of God’s creations blinking blearily up at me. It didn’t matter that it was a broken cement patio where shady men leered at us from the corridors and rats scampered through the rubble by where we were sitting, I was holding a little piece of eternity in my arms.  (Uh . . . don’t worry this is not all going to be a gooey auntie post.)

Half an hour later, I was making my way back home, alone in an auto, when we came to the intersection of two major South Delhi roads. As we pulled up past a backed-up lane of traffic, my driver slowed suddenly and I saw the reason for the delay: a street boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, lay on his side in the road, a pool of his own blood almost surrounding him. His hands were shaking and he was calling out, but in that feeble way one does when they’re in shock. Another boy was standing at his head, and some men were running forward from somewhere in the line of traffic.

Again, there moments when the din of the world dies down, and even the roar of the traffic and the pounding of my heart went silent for that blistering half-minute. And then it was gone. We had driven on past.

Honestly, I don’t know if he was hit by a car two minutes before, or just hit at the right angle in the nose by the boy standing next to him. Often here, if someone wounded approaches you for help, bystanders will shoo them away and say it’s not even real human blood, when all I see is real human pain. A little piece of eternity lying broken out on the street.

I keep asking myself, if it had been someone I know, would I have stopped? The kid of someone I know? Even someone Indian?

Now why does that question come to mind? Because (so I make the excuse) for all I can ask myself how I would handle the situation in America or with Americans, there is just no corollary here. I’m more afraid of my utter, inherent inadequacy, than I’m afraid of the actual situation. I’m the wrong person for the job, unfamiliar with the language, the culture, emergency procedure, local help. I’m the outsider. I’m . . . well, I guess I’m the Samaritan. Except for the choice I made.

And I keep asking myself, what if he had been mine? My nephew? My niece? How quickly would I have leapt from that auto rickshaw?

The parable of the good Samaritan was told to a man who wanted to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” (Really? Who do I have to love?) And in the story the Samaritan distinguishes himself by claiming the broken man on the side of the street as his neighbor.

He claimed him as his.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.  Because whether or not I recognize the kid, I do know his Father. And he is mine.

For everything belongs to you — whether [people],
or the world, or life and death, or the present and the future.
Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
1 Corinthians 3:21-23