Easter Week: Anointing

IMG_4528 edit.jpg“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the hometown of Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. So they hosted a dinner for Jesus there. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Him. Then Mary took about a pint of expensive perfume, made of pure spikenard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (John 12:1-3)

“When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and asked, “Why this waste?  This perfume could have been sold at a high price, and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus asked, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful deed to Me.  The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me. By pouring this perfume on Me, she has prepared My body for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:8-13)

It was a tradition in the time of Jesus to anoint the heads of the rabbis who attended marriage feasts with fragrant oil, and very honored guests in your home were sometimes given the same honor.  What Mary did was not strange to the onlookers.  What really got their attention was the kind of perfume she used.

This was no bottle of artificially scented body spray from Bath and Body Works.  This was pure spikenard, a product of the far-away, remote Himalayas, literally the costliest anointing oil of that day.  It could be afforded by only the very wealthy, and as a gift was generally reserved for royalty.  To put it into perspective, the quantity that the Bible states Mary used would have cost about 300 denarii, which was equivalent at that time to an average year’s wage.  In modern-day USA, according to statistics, this would be around $50,000.

Just like that, $50,000 dollars, poured out, gone.  This was the incredible depth of Mary’s devotion.

This is the same Mary who lay aside household chores to sit at Jesus’ feet, drinking His every word.  This is the same Mary who, distraught with grief for her dead brother, still clung faithfully to her belief in who Jesus was.  Where others struggled, Mary seemed to have always comprehended the significance of who Jesus was—and this last recorded act of her devotion was perhaps the most telling of all.

Did she know that she was pouring perfume considered fit for a king upon the feet of the King of kings?  Did she know, when He spoke of His burial that day, that it would occur in less than a week?  Did she have some premonition that this was likely the last thing she would ever do for Him before His death?  Even if she had some inkling, she could not have fully understood.

What she did understand was that no gift was too costly a sign of love for Jesus, and that nothing given to Jesus is ever wasted.  

We do not always know, either, the significance or long-reaching impact of things we give sacrificially to Jesus, but this is not the important thing.  What is important is that we give freely, like Mary, simply because we love Him.  He is worthy!

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12)

 

Easter Week: Lessons from the Fig Tree

img_4761-edit.jpgOne does not encounter many fig trees in northern Minnesota, let alone fresh figs.  So it’s not surprising that up until a couple years ago, my experience with figs had been severely limited.  A Fig Newton sampled at a church potluck, a handful of dried figs eaten during studies of ancient Egypt in school.  I was unimpressed by either.  It wasn’t until I became an adult and a favorite restaurant paired glazed dried figs with mascarpone and the most delicious almond cake, that my opinion of figs improved dramatically.  But still, I had never even seen a fresh fig.

So when I walked into the grocery store one day and saw a row of little green plastic baskets full of plump deep purple figs, I was so fascinated by this novelty, I bought them on complete impulse.  At home, my husband asked what I was going to do with them as I excitedly showed off my exotic purchase.  “I have no idea,” I said.  What do you do with fresh figs?  It was time for some research.  You can see the results of that research in these pictures.

Recently, however, my ignorance of figs cropped up again.  I was reading through the events of the week leading up to Jesus’ resurrection and came across this fascinating account just after His triumphant entry into Jerusalem:

“The next day, when they had left Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if there was any fruit on it. But when He reached it, He found nothing on it except leaves, since it was not the season for figs. Then He said to the tree, “May no one ever eat of your fruit again.” And His disciples heard this statement.”

“As they were walking back in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from its roots. Peter remembered it and said, “Look, Rabbi! The fig tree You cursed has withered.”

“Have faith in God,” Jesus said to them. “Truly I tell you that if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and has no doubt in his heart but believes that it will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  (Mark 11:12-14, 20-24)

This, upon first glance, is simply a striking lesson on the power of faith.  If you have faith, literally anything is possible.  Lesson over.

But there’s one little line in this story that has always puzzled me: “it was not the season for figs”.  Why would Jesus so severely curse a tree for not bearing fruit when it wasn’t even the season for fruit?  It just seems rather unfair to the poor innocent fig tree and unusually whimsical for Jesus. 

My experience with the Bible, however, is that if you are willing to put in the effort to study, there is always an answer to be found to the even the most puzzling of questions.  It was time for some more fig research.

And sure enough, I learned two enlightening key facts:

1) Fig trees produce two main crops of fruit per year, one in early summer and one in late summer/fall, and sometimes a third in the spring if the tree is in a sheltered area.  Fruit is literally possible during every month of the year except probably January and February.

2) The fruit of the fig tree appears before the leaves.  Therefore if one were to see leaves on a tree, it was natural to conclude that there would also be fruit present.

So though it was the not the time for the main crop, when Jesus saw leaves on this particular fig tree, which are ordinarily a sign of fruit, he was not at all wrong to walk up to it expecting to find some.  What he found instead was a barren tree, full of false pretensions, and this is why He cursed it.IMG_4769 edit.jpgEnd of the fig tree story, right?  Actually, it continues on to become even more fascinating, because this is an object lesson with double significance.

When Jesus cursed the fig tree, he was not only giving us a lesson in the power of faith, he was also making a prophecy strongly linked to his imminent death and resurrection, and the future of Israel.  Throughout the Old Testament, Israel was frequently symbolically referred to as a fig tree, a tradition that Jesus continued in his own teaching:

“Then Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree that was planted in his vineyard. He went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the keeper of the vineyard, ‘Look, for the past three years I have come to search for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Therefore cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone again this year, until I dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine. But if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)

Israel had become a barren fig tree, full of false legalistic and religious pretensions, but void of true spiritual fruit.  In sending Christ to live and walk among them, God (the gardener) had given them that one last epic chance to turn their hearts to Him.  Tragically, they had rejected it.  Spreading the good news of gospel of Christ to the world should have been Israel’s greatest privilege and joy, but instead God would soon be turning over this great honor to the Gentiles.  The cursing of the fig tree was a sad, but fitting picture of what was to come for the nation that had been called God’s people but too long rejected Him in their hearts.

 

Easter Week: House of Prayer

IMG_2799 edit.jpg“Then Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. 

And He declared to them, “It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

It is no coincidence, of course, that one of the only displays of Jesus’ anger ever recorded has to do with corruption in the house of God.  It is also worth noting that the corruption that so angered him was not outright heresy or idol worship, as one might expect.

What was so evil about providing a little convenience for the throngs of temple worshipers streaming into the temple on a daily basis?  Why not make it easy to pick up a pair of doves on your way in to offer a sacrifice or get just the right change for your weekly tithe?

It’s likely that some, if not all, of these sellers and money changers were misusing their prime location, taking advantage of people’s religiosity to over-charge and cheat.  When He called it “a den of robbers”, no doubt He was referring to literal dishonesty, underhanded marketing practices, and the deliberate misuse of religion for personal gain.

But He was also referring to something else.  These merchants were creating a major distraction.  If you know anything of a Middle Eastern marketplace, you know that it is not a quiet place.  It is loud and boisterous, full of the sounds of merchants calling you to look at their wares, of customers chattering and asking questions, of all voices raised in animated bartering.  Add to that the sound of live animals braying, bleating and squawking, and you have a highly stimulating cacophony of sound, let alone sights and smells.  All this had crept right into the house of God.  Colorful and exciting for a shopping trip perhaps, but worshipful?  Reverent?  Peaceful?  Conducive to actual earnest, focused prayer?  Not so much.  In our modern day world, I would compare this to trying to hold a worship service in the electronics department of a store, surrounded by multiple screens flashing and blaring helpful commercials about the newest, glow-in-the-dark Bible cover or portable personal reclining pew you need right now.

Jesus’ passion, instead, was an atmosphere of pure, God-centered worship, free of man-centered worldly distractions.  Jesus Himself went on, that very day even, to model the atmosphere He so desired.  He taught and discussed the Scriptures, performed acts of healing, blessed the innocent shouted praise of children and honored those who gave offerings from a heart of love.  

The sad thing is that a mere forty years later, this magnificent house of God that Jesus so zealously cleansed would be a pile of rubble, “not one stone left upon another”.  Israel had disregarded the words of their own Messiah, persisted in their empty religious ways and reaped the consequence.  That temple has never been rebuilt.

The good news, though, is that because of Jesus’ work on the cross, the temple of God still lives on, in actually a much bigger and more beautiful way.

Jesus once told the Samaritan woman, “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such as these to worship Him.” (John 4:21,23)

Later, Paul states it even more to the point:  “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:  “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (2 Cor. 6:16)

IMG_2814 editHis temple lives on, not in buildings made by man, but in the very hearts of men.  And so, with this in mind, consider this question:

If Jesus walked into your heart today, what would He find and how would He respond?  Would He find a lot of noisy distractions and pressing to-do lists robbing you of your focus on Him?  Would He find a lot of self-centered preoccupation in sad need of being overturned and thrown out?  If so, lay it wide open to Him and ask Him to cleanse it with all the zeal of that long ago day in the Jerusalem temple.

Or would He find a carefully maintained atmosphere of peace, with wide-open spaces and time for worship and prayer?  Would He walk into your heart, the heart upon which He has written His name, and find that it is indeed characterized as a habitation of prayer? 

May this be so, or become so, for each one of us.

Easter Week: Let the Rocks Cry Out

IMG_3031 edit.jpgAs Jesus rode down from the Mount of Olives, through an eastern gate into Jerusalem, it was the closest He would ever come to being recognized by the masses as Messiah.  The significance of the moment was not lost on them.  Astride a donkey, He was fulfilling prophesy and purposefully declaring His kingship.  Their only mistake was that they dreamed too small.

They imagined a crown of gold upon his head.

He saw a crown of thorns.

They imagined him lifted high on a kingly throne.

He saw himself lifted high on a cruel cross.

They imagined Him in kingly robes.

He saw Himself stripped and beaten.

They imagined him valiantly leading them to victory amidst the clash of human-wielded swords.

He saw Himself descending into Hades and conquering death itself.

They imagined freedom from their immediate oppression, life under vexing Roman rule.

He visualized their future freedom from the eternal oppression of sin and curse that had shadowed the earth for centuries.

They imagined Him as king until the day of His death.

He knew that His reign would begin on the day of His death.

They imagined Him as King of the Jews.

He knew His destiny was to be King of all mankind.

He looked tenderly across that massive shouting throng of followers, that sea of jubilantly waving branches, the carpet of their wildly flung cloaks in the dusty road, and knew that they were welcoming a kingdom far grander than their wildest imaginations.  While this crowd would prove fickle, shouting just as loudly for His death in less than a week, their role that day was not wasted because the truth of their words remained. 

He was the son of David. 

He was coming in the name of the Lord. 

He was coming to “save now” (literal meaning of “hosanna”).

This news was so remarkably glorious, that if they hadn’t declared it, Jesus later said that the rocks themselves would have cried out the news for joy.  Why the rocks?  Because rocks are mute.  Animals have voices; plants of earth bend and whisper; water and sky speak in light, color and wind.  But as earth’s very foundation, rock is the epitome of stolid silence, resistance, and expressionless immovability.  This makes it all the more significant that, of all the natural world, the very rocks would not have been able to contain themselves in the face of silence.

Don’t you almost wish the crowds would have been silent for a minute or two, just so we could have heard what rock voices sounded like?  It gives me chills just to imagine it.IMG_3143 edit.jpg“A massive crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of Him and those that followed were shouting: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”

When Jesus had entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds replied, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21:8-11)

“But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!” “I tell you,” He answered, “if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:39-40)

 

Pussy Willow V

IMG_8341 edit.jpgOf course it’s the most appropriate thing in the world that we look forward to the formal celebration of the Resurrection at exactly the same time we are watching the natural world around us spring from dead and dormant to vibrant and alive.

Outside the maroon points of tulips are pushing through the cold, sodden earth within inches of residual snow banks and the pussy willows are making clouds of lace above the thawing murky swamps.  The swans circle in daily, checking the state of the lake ice, and the robins are hopping around, drumming for earthworms.  Inside, I’m writing “buy the biggest ham you can find” on my grocery list, taking stock of white tights and practicing a new arrangement of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” on the piano.  Some of the most wonderful days of the entire year are almost upon us and, to me, the very air is weighty with anticipation.

Considering how I feel about it, I can only imagine how those last few weeks before Easter must have felt to Jesus Himself.  In hopes of catching a tiny glimpse of this, I’m planning to do something a little bit special on here this year.  Starting on Palm Sunday, I’m going to be posting daily for the week leading up to Easter, highlighting the actual Biblical events that led up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Some days I may just share Scripture, which we all know speaks for itself and requires no embellishment.  Some days I may add a few of my own reflections and thoughts.  It will be like an Easter devotional, a countdown to this upcoming highest and holiest of days and a sort of heart-preparation to bring deeper meaning and understanding to the celebration.

I hope you will join me!

“When they gathered together in Galilee, Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised to life.” (Matthew 17:22-23)

 

 

Farewell to Winter

IMG_4065 editIMG_4046 editFarewell to watching the snow banks mount to the window sills and the thermometer drop out of sight,

to pulling elastic snow pants cuffs down over small boots,

to snow caves, snow men, and snow angels,

to a world that sparkles like a thousand diamonds in the sunshine,

to stepping in unexpected snow water puddles in stocking feet.

IMG_3886 editIMG_4176 editIMG_3888 editFarewell to the sometimes exquisite, always relentless work of the winter wind, 

to the battle for an open driveway,

to the endlessly shifting sea of snow dunes,

to snow banners off the shed roof.IMG_3911 editFarewell to rainbow sun dogs,

to silver moonlight on midnight blankets of snow,

to Orion, that great starry hunter,

and to the way he and all the rest of the host of heaven twinkles most splendidly on the bitterest of winter nights.IMG_3868 editIMG_4095 editFarewell to conjuring up baking projects just for the sake of making the kitchen cozy,

to scooping up great bowls of freshly-fallen snow to make snow ice cream,

to in-season citrus in the refrigerator drawer,

to rosy-cold cheeks bent appreciatively over steaming hot drinks.IMG_4056 editIMG_4048 editFarewell to the best and longest ski season in years,

to solo breaking trails through the sunset fields,

to swishing beneath the low-hung golden-green cedars while the swans murmur to each other along the banks of a laughing river,

to laughing with friends through the trials of sticky afternoon snow,

to the great frontier of yet-unexplored trails that must now wait until next season.IMG_2945 editIMG_3497 editFarewell to the long dark of winter evenings,

to dinners made elegant by candlelight,

to laps made warm by quilting projects,

to chapters read aloud by lamplight,

to games played late with old friends, and new.img_4154-edit.jpgFarewell to winter.

Welcome to spring.

“You have established all the boundaries of the earth; You have made summer and winter.” (Psalm 74:17)

 

The Tracks We Leave Behind

IMG_8091I’m standing at the back of a church sanctuary.  The overflow area has been opened, and they’re setting up more chairs.  The front is packed; more people are filing in to fill the back rows.  The stage is overflowing with flowers, plants and one stuffed bobcat.  And I think to myself: this is the picture of a life well lived.

Of course, as everyone says, Arnie was a bit of legend.  I just sit back in awe and listen to the stories of a man who knew the forest for miles around like the back of his hand, who just as intimately knew the ways of the creatures who lived in it.  His was the spirit of the pioneers, rugged and determined, undeterred, even buoyed, by the prospect of challenge or hard work.  He waded the twining maze of ponds and creeks, walked the trails for miles, and worked willingly with his hands, comfortable with the strength of his own arms above the convenience of mechanics.  If anyone has ever lived out that Biblical exhortation—“make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands.” (1 Thess. 4:11)—Arnie certainly did.IMG_9783There will always be a picture in my mind of Arnie, from my frequent viewpoint at the piano, that lean figure over by the east windows in his preferred row at church, denim jacket peppered with Trappers Association patches, big grin spreading from ear to ear.

Considering the sort of man he was, I knew I’d received a high compliment the Sunday he came up to me, shaking his head and grinning from ear to ear, to tell me he was impressed.  Earlier that week, in sheer desperation, I’d used a shotgun for the first time in my life to kill the groundhog menacing my vegetable garden, with a single (lucky) shot, and he’d heard the tale.  I remember thinking that maybe I could be a little proud of myself if I’d managed to impress a man like Arnie Peterson.

I ate a wonderful pie once made entirely of wild berries Arnie picked, made by his wife who shook her head when she described how he just kept “coming in with more”.

I remember Arnie in hip waders at the side of the road, not too engrossed in his labor of hoisting all manner of mysterious trapping gear into the back of his truck to wave jauntily over his back.  He didn’t even know who he was waving at.  He just waved because that’s what Arnie did.

And how could I forget the time Arnie knocked at my back door, grinning from ear to ear again, to tell me I had to come see the beaver he’d just pulled out of the lake in front of our house?  Of course, I walked out to admire the flat-tailed, yellow-toothed giant lying in state in the back of his pickup truck, and listened to the full tale of how he’d finally caught the culprit that had been felling our poplar trees.IMG_9776Yes, Arnie was a legend, and I’m sure that had something to do with the number of people flowing through the church doors on this March afternoon.  But there was something else, too.  There have been other skilled woodsmen who have lived and died as crusty, crabby old men.  For all their amazing practical knowledge, their circle of friends remained small, their influence narrow. 

No, this was more than a circle of mere admirers.  These people were not here based merely on the (staggering) number of ermine, muskrat and bobcat he’d trapped in his lifetime.  They were here because Arnie made tracks in their lives.  Not the hippity-hoppity sort of a rabbit bounding across the snow or the measured tread of a wolf in creek-side mud, but that elusive kind that is not to be found on the forest floor.  It was the kind that sinks in, makes an impression and stays long after the trapping stories fade into folklore-dom.

Because Arnie loved Jesus, and so the love of Jesus filled him and spilled out into the lives of those he came in contact with.

Because Arnie could quote John 3:16, and would use it to preach the simple and beautiful gospel message.

Because Arnie would love to bow his head with you and help you pray the sinner’s prayer.

Because Arnie knew, and let those around him know, that his last breath on earth would be his first in heaven—and he hoped to see you there.IMG_7238 editI’m sad that Arnie will never get to teach my children about the tracks of fisher, bobcat and mink as we’d discussed after church only one week before he went home.  We never suspected that he’d made his last trek through one of those double doors so soon, and as abruptly as a rabbit trail ends in the wing-print of an owl, be off to praise his Maker in person.  But he’s left his own tracks of far greater worth across the landscape of our church and community, that will not be obscured by tomorrow’s snowfall, and will bear fruit into eternity—and for that, we’re all grateful.

“Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in His commandments…his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD…[he] will be remembered forever.” (Psalm 112:1,7,6)

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)