The Heart of Jesus’ Courage

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

When I was in college in the mid-90s, I discovered the wonder of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time. It had always been a bit taboo because of some serious doctrinal issues. Regardless, once I began watching the 1973 movie adaptation, I was enthralled. The music is funky, some of the individual vocals are amazing, and the creators’ take on the last week of Jesus’ life was pretty intriguing.

For me, the penultimate moment in Jesus Christ Superstar happens when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. This particular part of the movie incorporates the three elements mentioned above: funky music, incredible vocals (Ted Neeley’s voice, especially when he belts out the “Why?!”… still gives me chills), and “interesting” doctrine. Take a moment and watch the video below:

Jesus Christ Superstar‘s version of Jesus knows he is heading toward suffering and death and he is struggling with this reality. Now, as compelling and emotive as that scene may be, that ain’t the real Jesus. In this scene, the identity crisis Jesus seems to be having throughout the movie comes to a head: “I’m not as sure as when we started.” When pleading with God to change the plan, he leans on how well he has performed in his role: “Could you ask as much from any other man?” But the real Jesus knew he was not just “any other man.” And he was certain of his mission that night in Gethsemane 2000 years ago.

However, the largest divergence between Ted Neeley’s Jesus and the real Jesus is his attitude toward God the Father. Superstar‘s Jesus is defiant, blaming the Father for everything. He sings of finishing what he started and then his attitude noticeably changes and he accusingly alters his statement to “what you started.” This defiant spirit may make for compelling drama, but it is a far cry from how that evening in Gethsemane actually played out.

As Jesus looks ahead to the cross on the night he was betrayed, the Gospel of Mark records the following (Mark 14:32-34):

They went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Sit here while I go and pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

About the only thing doctrinally correct in Superstar‘s “Gethsemane” is the deep emotional struggle Jesus experienced that night. The real Jesus felt that struggle too. He was “deeply troubled and distressed.” The following words from Jesus pierce my heart: “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” I’ve tasted a glimpse of such grief before. It was almost unbearable at times, but nothing compared to what Jesus was experiencing that night. But, in response to that almost debilitating grief, Jesus does not turn to defiance.

Instead of getting angry with his Father, Jesus is honest with him about how he feels. He shares his heart with his Father, asking if there is any other way to accomplish his mission. Is the cross really necessary? The picture I see here is one of intimacy between Son and Father. Theirs is a relationship of deep trust. Jesus knows he can bare his heart. While we don’t know what the Father was thinking or may have said to him in those moments, my guess is that he grieved with his Son. He is not the taskmaster holding “all the cards,” standing back unaffected, pulling puppet strings. He is a loving Father who shares deep intimacy with Jesus.

It’s in the context of this intimacy, this deep love, that Jesus determines: “Not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus knew he would suffer and die, but then he also knew he would take up life once again. But in that moment, with betrayal, humiliation, suffering, and death nipping at his heels, he was feeling through the reality of what was to come. No human being can ever truly stand in his shoes and feel what he was feeling in that moment, but I can imagine it would be hard to see what’s supposed to happen on Sunday when your Friday looked like his would. I think it would be natural for trust to be challenged in that moment. Sheez, my trust has been shaken in the face of much lesser adversity.

But Jesus, standing on the foundation of his intimacy and experience with his Father, acquiesces to his Father’s will. And he doesn’t do so in some kind of backhanded “I guess you can have it your way” manner. No, the Jesus I see in Gethsemane, according to the Gospels, actually wants to do what his Father wants him to do. If his Father wants him to die on our behalf, to take on all of our sinful baggage, then Jesus wants to die on our behalf and take on our sin. Such is the seamlessness between Jesus’ heart and his Father’s heart.

I hope to experience more and more of that seamlessness with God’s heart. When I  consider what Jesus was willing to endure based on his intimacy with his Father, it makes my heart ache for such intimacy. My prayer (for both you and me), is that, no matter what our circumstances are, no matter if we feel great or our souls are being crushed, we will find the closeness with God that lends itself to deep trust in him.

And, as we look forward to Good Friday, I am grateful that the real Jesus was willing to take the penalty for all my sin. His willingness to endure the cross is what affords you and me the opportunity to not only know God, but to experience deep intimacy with him, the kind of intimacy that leads to deep trust.

Being the “Amen” to Jesus’ Prayer

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

I’ve always been an idealist. As a child, I was told  I would grow out of it, but as it turns out, that wasn’t the case (at least not yet). Recently, I took the StrengthsFinder assessment from Gallup, and the results only confirm that orientation… “strategic”, “ideation”, “futurist”… No wonder I get discontent easily. My heart is always longing for things to be better, to be the best they can be.

Even so, like everyone else, my senses can be dulled and my vision of the ideal can be diluted. It’s kind of like how a pitcher in baseball will intentionally throw balls that are high for the batter, just to change the batter’s line of sight. That way, the pitcher can throw a pitch that’s lower in the strike zone to the hitter and the hitter will think it’s too low to hit. The hitter’s perspective on the strike zone has changed and he or she cannot clearly discern when a pitch is a strike or a ball.

This happens to me on a regular basis. Life throws me some high heat and I lose sight of the strike zone. When disappointments come my way consistently enough, if I am not vigilant, I will lose focus on the ideal or the goal. I think this happens to all of us from time to time. When it does, we are in need of calibration. We need our vision reset to the standard. My hope is, as you read this, our vision will become more aligned with Jesus’ vision.

On the night before Jesus was executed, he shared a meal with his disciples. In that context, he prayed for them and for all the disciples who would come after them. Now, before I mention any more about that prayer, let’s be reminded of the context. Jesus is in the middle of a very intense week. He entered Jerusalem to the praise of people who wanted him to be their political liberator and leader, people who would soon be disappointed. He wept over the fickle hearts of those people. He violently confronted the ethnocentric money-changing and animal sales practices in the Temple. More importantly, he knew where the week was taking him. He was about to be betrayed, humiliated, tortured, and executed.

It’s in the context of all these significant and emotive events, surrounded by his closest followers, that Jesus prays about a variety of things. But there is one element of his prayer I specifically want to hone in on in this moment. These words are recorded in the Gospel of John:

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me… May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.

“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one…” Church friends, let’s let that sink in for just a moment. Theologians and pastors will tell you that Jesus and his Father have lived eternally in perfect harmony with each other. Jesus’ words and actions, as described in the Gospels, bolster that claim. He was always about his Father’s business, seeking do only his Father’s will, speaking only what he heard from His Father. That relationship is typified by oneness.

In this moment, as Jesus is looking forward to the cross, one of the most urgent issues on his heart is unity in his church. He longs for his followers to be one, to love each other so fiercely that we would lay down our lives for each other. He longs for us to experience real harmony. And why? Based on my understanding of Jesus, I am sure at least part of that longing is based purely on his love for us. He wants us to experience real deep connection with each other as he has experienced such with his Father. In and of itself, such a connection is rewarding and a worthy end. However, there is another compelling reason: “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me…”

“…that the world will know…” Jesus regards unity among his people as such a big deal that the world will take notice. In fact, such unity would be convincing evidence of who Jesus is to an unbelieving world. It doesn’t take much consideration to recognize why unity within the church would be such a powerful force of conviction. It’s all about those fickle hearts of ours.

Human beings will divide over anything… political persuasion, border walls, ethnic background, denominational background, gender,  sports team allegiances… this list could go on and on. It’s not that we shouldn’t be able to disagree with one another. Certainly, diversity of opinion on non-essential things is good, and frankly, almost everything is non-essential. It’s not about that, it’s about letting our disagreements divide us. It’s about letting such things create “us vs. them” dynamics. Our selfish natures and fickle hearts lead us that way on a regular basis, to our shame.

I think this is why Jesus prays for unity. He knows that “perfect unity” in his church would be unique and miraculous, dare I say even holy. It would be set apart from anything the world has ever experienced. As such, this kind of oneness would be an incredible testimony of who Jesus is to those who don’t yet trust him.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve been considering these things quite a bit. I’ve come to a conclusion, one based on my own very limited human understanding, but I believe it is valid nonetheless. Here it is: Perhaps the largest barrier to people coming to Jesus is the lack of unity in the church. Ouch. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” and yet our lack of oneness hinders the world from experiencing that love. And when it comes right down to it, we don’t have unity because we don’t really love each other very well, at least not enough to disagree without separating from each other. Just like the rest of our human compadres, we divide over any and every little thing that comes between us.

Yes, this is heavy, friends. I’m sorry… It’s heavy for me personally, because the truth is I’m part of the problem. I have let non-essential things come between me and my brothers and sisters. And I believe the reason I’ve done this is because I’ve lost sight of the strike zone. I’ve seen (and contributed to) so many dividing curveballs and sliders over the years that a fastball right down the middle is out of my scope. I haven’t seen things clearly and I’ve lost sight of Jesus’ vision for his people. I need calibration. We need calibration.

My hope for you and me, today, is that we will join with Jesus in his prayer from the night he was betrayed. Let us pray for unity along with him. May we go humbly before the Father and plead with him that we may experience the oneness he experiences with Jesus. And once we have said our “Amen”, let us then become that “Amen”. Let us live out the vision Jesus casted for real unity in his church. Let us learn how to disagree well, and love each other fiercely and self-sacrificially, honoring the One who sacrificed himself for us.

Turning Tables and Attitudes

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

Jesus was on fire. He was downright angry. His anger was directed at the commerce taking place in the Temple during what we call Holy Week. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem just shortly before this moment to great fanfare and excitement. But just moments later, he was weeping as he considered the hard hearts of that city’s inhabitants. He knew they had missed the point of his arrival. And now, he storms the Temple grounds with a whip and ferocious zeal, virtually decimating the currency exchanges and animal markets that had set up camp there.

In the first century, Jewish worship was oriented around the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the hub for prayer, sacrifice, and connection with God. The Jews traditionally saw the Temple as God’s house, meaning, in their minds, God actually resided within the confines of the Temple to some extent. The Temple was “holy ground”.

But, there was something those folks missed about the Temple. Access to God in the Temple was not intended only for Jews. There was a section of the grounds devoted solely to those of non-Jewish descent who desired to worship God. It was known as the Court of the Gentiles. From the very beginning of Temple-centric worship, God carved out a place for all people, regardless of their ethnicity, to connect with him at his Temple. Unfortunately, by the first century, God’s chosen people, the Jews, had forgotten or ignored God’s heart for non-Jews.

We know this because the exchanges and markets Jesus railed against were set up in the Court of the Gentiles. The exchanges were set up for Jews who had made pilgrimage to the Temple from other lands and brought with them foreign currency. The sales were to facilitate animal sacrifices by those same people as well as local Jews. And it is likely those moneychangers and animal salesmen were corrupt. But, aside from any corruption, the fact that they had set up shop in the only space in the Temple grounds which Gentiles could enter seems to be the real issue. As Jesus turned over tables, he proclaimed, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves,” according to the Gospel of Mark.

My guess is that the practice of selling animals for sacrifice and offering currency exchange likely started out from noble intentions. Like most good things, selfishness can get in the way and corrupt. And, sometimes we can be distracted by something seemingly good to the point in which it becomes more important than what is essential. I believe this is what happened to the Jews. And this “missing of the point” is was led them to become the object of Jesus’ righteous anger that day.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story for me is how they responded to his confrontation. Jesus spoke truth to them. He loved the people of Jerusalem enough to confront them with the truth of their egregious behavior. Repentance would have been the appropriate response. However, their hearts just got harder. And it is very likely that this event, Jesus’ confrontation of this offense to God, was a flashpoint moment in the transformation of attitudes toward Jesus that week.

I have compassion for those folks. Certainly, I hate that they were shutting non-Jews out of communion with God in order to conduct business. But, frankly, like them, I am a professional at missing the point. I too can get incredibly distracted by something which seems good, but is only diverting my attention from what matters most. More poignantly for me, I can relate to their hard-hearted response to Jesus. Honestly, I’ve responded in the same way.

Jesus loves you and me enough to point out where we are missing the point (or the mark). He longs for us to embrace his way, so we can experience real peace and a better life. When he tries to correct our courses, he does so from that longing, knowing the more our lives are aligned with the way he built them to be lived, the more we will experience such peace and life. The question for you and me, in this moment, is will we listen to him? Will we trust his heart for us and align ourselves with him? Peace and life await on the other side of that choice.

The Way to Peace for the Troubled Soul

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

When I think of the ways I have sought peace over my 45 years of life, I’m reminded of the old Johnny Lee song, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” I’ve housed a troubled soul in this body of mine more times than I’d like to admit. And for most of my life, my instinct has been to look for peace in a variety of sources that have no lasting peace to offer. For over twenty years, pornography was a regular go-to for me. Emotional eating has certainly been rampant as well. Distracting myself with various kinds of media has also been one of my ineffective salves. These things, and others, may have offered momentary relief, but they never offered any kind of lasting peace. Going to them for peace is like going to an empty well for water.

I know I’m not alone in this. I think we all have our ways of dealing with soul-trouble that are not effective or beneficial. Yes, drugs, alcohol, cutting, or any other variety of self-soothing may offer momentary relief, but such relief does not really address the troubled soul. Such relief is not the same as peace. Again, empty wells.

After Jesus entered the outskirts of Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday,” there a came a moment of quiet. The crowds had thinned out and the shouts of “Hosanna” had stilled. Jesus looked out over the city, and he cried. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.”

This is a heavy statement in the afterglow of his triumphal entry just a few moments before. The thing is, Jesus was not fooled by the joyful celebration that ushered him into Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen there. Various times, according to the Gospels, he shared with his friends that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. He also knew of the peoples’ fickle hearts. He knew they wanted him to take political power and overthrow the Romans. He knew they would turn on him when he did not live up their expectations.

More importantly, Jesus knew that a political messiah and a confrontation with the Romans were not really what the people of Jerusalem needed: “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” They thought peace would come through home rule, through political liberation. But Jesus knew different. He knew that such things would offer only temporary relief and not address the central issue: their troubled souls. And at the end of that week, just as Jesus predicted, they would refuse the way to real peace, reject Jesus, and hang him on a Roman cross.

This moment in Jesus’ journey toward the cross serves as great encouragement for me. First of all, it’s pretty easy to see that I’m not the first person to look for peace “in all the wrong places.” I think it’s a common human foible. God prescribes a way to peace, but we reject it because we think we know better. I’ve got a lot of company in this boat of troubled souls. We look for peace in every place except the one place it can actually be found: trusting God’s way over our own.

The greater encouragement for me, however, is in the picture of deep love I see in this moment in the biblical story. Jesus deeply loves the people of Jerusalem. Not soft, gushy love… but strong, self-sacrificial love. And while he knows they are about to betray him, torture him, and nail him to the cross (with the help of their Roman complicitors), his heart longs for them to experience real peace, the kind of peace only he can provide.

“How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” I’m pretty sure this is Jesus’ heart now for you and me as well. He loves us in the same way he loved the first-century inhabitants of Jerusalem. He longs for us to discover the way to real peace and to find rest for our troubled souls. As we look forward to the events of Holy Week, let’s purpose to seek peace where it can actually be found.