Finding Your Safe Place

You never know what a day may bring.
Six years ago yesterday, most of us were going about our business, before we started hearing the news of a few tornadoes that had passed through our area earlier that morning. As the day unfolded, we would soon realize that Wednesday, April 27, 2011, would turn out to be like few other days in our lifetime.
We watched on live television as a monster tornado made its way through Tuscaloosa, and then tracked that horrific storm right into the Birmingham area. There were even larger twisters–as hard as that was to believe–that devastated entire towns around our state. All told, over 250 people were killed in Alabama that day, and hundreds more across the southeast.
We were warned, that’s for sure. The local weather guys, prone to crying “Wolf!” whenever a few storm clouds would arise and a hook echo showed up on radar, had a different kind of urgency in their voice that day. All their indicators told us that day would be different. And it was.
But in reality, for most of us the day wasn’t much different than any other, except that we watched from the comfort of our living rooms as our neighbors just up the road lost their homes and, in some cases, their lives. Most of  us dodged that bullet–and more than a few tornadoes–and went on with our lives.
In the aftermath, it was great to see how the people of our state, and around the nation–and especially the community of faith–rallied around those in need after that tragic day. Perhaps some did so out of a “survivor’s guilt,” knowing that it just as well could have been them digging out from beneath the rubble, or burying their own family members.
Jesus once told the story–in rather abrupt terms–about a similarly tragic event that had taken place in Jerusalem. That story, recorded in Luke’s gospel (13:4-5), mentioned that eighteen people had died when the tower of Siloam had fallen on them. Jesus asked, “Do you think those people were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  (He answered His own question with an emphatic “No!”)
His point was, it could happen to anyone. You may have survived the last one, but there’s no guarantee you will the next one. As Jesus stated elsewhere, the rain (and towers…and, even tornadoes) fall on the just and the unjust. His bigger application was summed up when He concluded: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
In other words, since we’ll never know the exact forecast about when the storms–or falling towers–will come, then we had better be ready and right with God if and when that time comes.
I’m so grateful that the Shelby Crossings family was able to escape serious harm and injury from last year’s tornadoes–even those who found themselves providentially in the direct path of a deadly twister on that day. But at the risk of sounding fatalistic, that doesn’t mean the next one won’t get us.
I hope, more than anything, that no matter what comes your way, you’ll find your “safe place” in the arms of a God who loves you, and holds you securely in the palm of His nail-scarred hands.
I am praying for you, as I trust you are for me, and I look forward to seeing you Sunday.

The Last Laugh

We are five days and counting since Easter Sunday, and I have some good news for you.  Jesus is still risen!
It’s funny how some get all excited about the resurrected Christ for a single day each year, but forget that He is just as much risen on the Monday morning after Easter as He was on the glorious day we celebrated His coming back to life. The promise of Easter, and the promise of the gospel altogether, is that Jesus has defeated death and the grave once and for all.
As I mentioned last Sunday, many people get real uncomfortable when you start talking about the subject of death. Perhaps it is because of the unknown, or maybe it is because some are uncertain about what will happen to them after they die. But whether you consider it morbid or not, it is a reality we must all face. I was reminded even this week, as Tax Day came, of the words of Benjamin Franklin, that there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes.
The Scriptures say the same thing a little differently: “It is appointed for a man once to die,” the writer of Hebrews told us. Which basically means that we all have an appointment with death. But the good news of Easter, at least for those of us who have a relationship with God through Christ, is that we have nothing to fear in death. In fact, because we have life eternal, we can even laugh in the face of death.
The New Yorker magazine has published more than 80,000 cartoons since its first issue, all intended to induce a laugh or a giggle or a smile. Most of those cartoons find their humor in poking fun at something, or someone, usually by pointing out the irony of a situation. Sometimes a cartoon deals with things we’d rather not talk about, but the joke provides a release from the awkwardness of the subject.
You want to know what character has appeared more than any other in The New Yorker over the years?  The Grip Reaper. In an interview on 60 Minutes, cartoon editor Bob Mankoff said that the feared “bringer of death” has appeared in the magazine’s funny pages more than any other. For example, in one cartoon the Reaper’s latest acquisition is saying: “Thank goodness you are here-I can’t accomplish anything unless I have a deadline.”
Mankoff told 60 Minutes, “Honestly, if it wasn’t for death, I don’t think there would be any humor… The Grim Reaper’s going to get the last laugh. Until then, it’s our turn.”
With all due respect to Mr. Mankoff, for those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus Christ, it’s our turn now, and will continue to be. The Grim Reaper won’t get the last laugh. In fact, the scythe-toting tall, dark and not-so-handsome one will soon be out of work for good.
Hear again our hope, expressed in those familiar words of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who who believes in Me will live, even if he dies.” (John 11:25) I hope you believe in Him today, and that you know the security of eternal life in Christ that takes the sting of death away once and for all. He IS the resurrection, on Easter Sunday and every other day of the year.
What a joy it is to be your pastor, and I look forward to seeing you this Sunday at Shelby Crossings as we once again celebrate our risen Savior.

Go Fly a Kite

Today is Good Friday, as we call it in English. In German, it is Karfreitag, meaning “Friday of Lamentation.” In Armenia it’s called High Friday, and the Russians refer to it as Passion Friday. In China, it’s known as the Day of Christ’s Suffering. Other languages usually refer to it as Holy Friday.
In England, hot cross buns are served on this day, as I wrote about in this space in the ePistle last year on Good Friday, after our small group gave that tradition a try when we gathered earlier that week.But perhaps the most interesting of traditions for this holy day comes in the island nation of Bermuda, where the custom is to fly kites on Good Friday.
Before you assume they have taken another holy day and turned it into a vacation resort recreational activity, there’s a deeper meaning behind their kite-flying. It is said that in Bermuda’s early days a teacher used a kite to illustrate the crucifixion of Christ, and obviously that illustration made its point. A tradition was born, and today all of the kites used in the Bermuda Kite Festival are to be made using wooden frames in the shape of a cross.
The kites humming in the wind are said to represent the moaning of Jesus’ mother Mary, and the sound of the crowd shouting “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  Ultimately, as the kites soar into the sky, they symbolize Christ the crucified one who is now ascended into heaven.
I had never heard of the Bermuda Kite Festival until recently, but I do think I like the tradition.  Admittedly, it is a symbol, and like any symbol it can lose its meaning, as I am sure it has for many of the Bermudans. But it does remind us of the point of Good Friday, and that is that our Lord Jesus shed His blood on the cross for the sins of the world.
I don’t know if you have any Good Friday traditions, or intentional reminders you make use of to point you to the cross, but I would encourage you to at least take time today to reflect on the cross of Christ, and the sacrifice Jesus offered when He gave His life for us. If it helps, go fly a kite. Just remember Jesus when you’re doing it.
I certainly would encourage you to add one more “tradition” to your Good Friday observance. Join us for our special Good Friday service at Shelby Crossings tonight at 6:30, as we commemorate the crucifixion of Christ and “do this in remembrance” by sharing the Lord’s Supper together. I am praying for you, as I hope you are for me, and I’m excited to have the opportunity of celebrating the risen Christ with you this Easter Sunday morning!

Nothing but the Blood

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, signifying the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when His followers laid palm branches on the road to welcome Him as He entered the city like a king.  It was the beginning of a most eventful “passion week,” as it would later be called. Only a few days later, the crowd that cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” would be yelling, “Crucify Him!” And Jesus would innocently go to the cross to die a murderous death on our behalf.
Of course, three days later He arose, conquering death and the grave, and we celebrate the hope of the empty tomb every year in our commemoration of Easter, as we will do on April 16. But there’s something about the events that led up to Easter–most specifically, the cross–that we cannot ignore. Why, we may wonder, did Jesus have to die such a cruel death on the cross?  What was the significance of the blood that He shed?
I read a true story recently that reminded me of the answer to that old question, and brought the truth home with powerful emotion. Several years ago in Ontario, Canada, George and Vera Bajenksi’s lives were changed forever. It was February 16, 1989, a very normal Thursday morning. The phone rang at 9:15 a.m. “There’s been an accident…” It involved their son Ben.
As they approached the scene of the accident, they could see the flashing lights of police cars and ambulance units. When they rounded the corner, Vera saw the largest pool of blood she had ever seen. All she could say was, “George, Ben went home—home to be with His Heavenly Father.” Indeed, her son had perished in the accident.
She later wrote that her first reaction was to jump out of the car, somehow try to collect the blood and put it back into her son’s lifeless body. “That blood, for me, at that moment, became the most precious thing in the world because it was life. It was life-giving blood and it belonged in my son, my only son, the one I loved so much.”
The road was dirty and the blood just didn’t belong there. George noticed that some of the cars that were trying to drive through the intersection were driving right through the blood. He wanted to cover the blood with his coat and cry, “You will not drive over the blood of my son!”
Then Vera understood for the first time in her life one of God’s greatest and most beautiful truths.  Why blood? Why is the blood of Jesus so important in the message of the gospel? Because it was the strongest language God could have used. It was the most precious thing He could give–the highest price He could pay.
It was because of God’s amazing love, and through the precious blood of His Son, Jesus Christ, that we were redeemed. (1 Peter 1:18-19). As the hymn writer Robert Lowry wrote so long ago:

 

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
My prayer for each of us this week is that we would never forget the incredible sacrifice the Father has made, nor carelessly trample upon the blood of God’s Son (Hebrews 10:29).  May your “passion week” ahead remind you of how deeply you are loved, and may you live a life worthy of the gift you have been given.
I look forward to seeing you on Palm Sunday.