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The Tree that Makes Bitter Things Sweet

Tucked behind the glorious parting of the Red Sea, there’s a Jesus story.

After the exultation of seeing the waters of the Red Sea part, the newly freed nation ran into other issues. A lot of people.  No water.

Isn’t that the way troubles come? As soon as one crisis is averted, another new set of predicaments, equally perplexing, comes-a-knockin’.

This is life.

A friend goes to hear the results of the scans. The three weeks of being cancer free are followed by the fact that it returned with even greater tenacity than the first diagnoses. 

The brother that went into treatment, who’s working the program, going to meetings, and crossing weekly sobriety milestones has a relapse and this time someone else is in the hospitals due to his weekend bender. 

The new job that you were convinced was a promotion, turns into a situation that was not clearly explained to you when you resigned your previous job for an apparently brighter career path. Your new boss is a jerk with impossible expectations. 

The solution was there right in front of them. A place called Marah that had fresh water, enough for this multitude of weary wanderers of the wilderness who, no doubt, were recovering from Egyptian PTSD. But something was wrong.

So Moses brought Israel from the Red Sea; then they went out into the Wilderness of Shur. And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. (Exodus 15:23)

We find a universal experience here. It occurs when the solution appears but instead of a happy ending and the credits rolling, we see that the problem is not better. It just turns bitter.

Each adversity we face has the potential of manifesting bitterness, regret and disbelief. Life can and will turn as bitter as the thorns on the outskirts of Eden.

Bitterness is a pernicious evil that lies beneath the surface. We are deceived by it because we have mechanisms in our fallen state which allow us to look happy and seem content while at the same time never really dealing with the root of bitterness. Bitterness grows best under cover. It seeps into the inner workings of our heart and takes root.

The story finds its rescue hanging on the cruel form of a tree. (Exodus 15:25)

God directs Moses to throw a tree into the bitterness of the water and the water becomes sweet.

Here’s where Jesus comes in. In the same way, God threw a tree in the middle of the bitterness of life. The tree was the cross. And in the middle of mess we can taste and see that the waters of any adversity can become sweet.

The cross is God’s way of releasing us from the heavy weight of resentment and bitterness and escorting us into the peace that we never thought we’d attain. Sweet and everlasting.

The Hope of Us All: Remember Me

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Luke 23:42

The two thieves represent two choices. One thief demands proof. The other pleads for hope. One looks to escape and the other looks to eternity. These choices stand as constant reminders that the cross of Christ demands a response.

Hope is personal. Very personal. Whether through worship, adversity, desperation or pain, we collide into the reality that our only hope is Jesus. We can’t hope eternally in friends. Friends will fail us. We can’t hope in institutions. Institutions over the course of eternity will evaporate like the ephemeral mist of the morning dew. We can’t hope in hidden treasures. All treasures, short of grace, are water through our fingers. We can’t hope in flowery platitudes because there will be a day when they will all wilt upon the parched, unforgiving soil of our brokenness. Our hope is in the One who suffers next to us and says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
This glimpse of the cross reflects the absolute power of grace to snatch anyone from the jaws of destruction.

Was there anything the thief on the cross could do? Absolutely nothing. He couldn’t start a small group, feed the poor, go to the synagogue or study the scriptures. He found himself at the end of his life and the only thing he could do was to confess his sin and cry out to Jesus.

Celebrate this scene of the darkest day! Grace rules even when we have no more time. Grace ruled the day then and now.

Hope is the word which God has written on the brow of every man.
~Victor Hugo

Hope was born on the cross.

Because hope was born we don’t have to be ashamed because he bore our shame.

Because hope was born we don’t have to constantly obsess about whether we could be good enough because He is our righteousness.

Because hope was born we are free.

Because hope was born we have purpose.

Because hope was born we are going to be OK.

And that’s worth celebrating!

I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery and death… I think… peace and tranquillity will return again.
Anne Frank

Today I saw a Friend

Today, I saw a Man walking a path meant for me.

I saw Him bear the burdens of my wayward steps. And as He struggled, I found release and freedom. He was captured, railroaded and sentenced in my place.

He could have called me a traitor.
He could have called me unworthy.
He could have called me a burden.
I am all of these, a thousand times and again.

Instead He called me His friend.

His love, His wisdom, His majesty– all of this climatically appeared on this upward path. Before I drew a breath, grace poured down on me like holy rain cleansing the secret places of my soul.

From beginning to end, He has brought wholeness in the midst of my shattered frame.

He is straining under the weight of it all.

And He is enough.

Enough to live…

Enough to heal…

Enough to die…

And, hallelujah, enough to rise again.

But today I see him walking the lonesome road to undiscovered lands.

The blood of the One who calms the seas is now cleansing my soul.

Scars are giving birth to my salvation.

Yes, He could have called it a waste, a travesty, and an affliction.

But astonishingly, He called me

friend.

It was for Joy!

Sometimes we forget there will be an end to the storm.

Every gathering storm for the believer is an advent to joy.  The tempest of evil rages but bliss is imminent.  When pain has purpose, the crashing waves of chaos lose their power over us. It was for joy that Christ endured the cross. In the midst of our tribulations we learn much from the cross of Christ.


Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2


Jesus offered no resistance as He laid himself on the beam. In the midst of great pain there was hidden joy. This was His place and even in the midst of this nightmare of suffering. Like the blushed strain of a triumphant warrior who sees the finish as He rounds the final turn– oh how joyful the heart of the one who completely surrenders to the will and providence of God!

Jesus teaches us courageous surrender. We see Him running headlong into His own demise for the sake of a greater eternal intention and destiny.

Jesus embraced the pain for joy.

He climbed the tall mount of suffering for bliss.

He met every hostile foe for love.

He challenged every lie for truth

The first warrior of grace…

He approached the unapproachable.

And it was for joy.

The first Artist of redemption endured the pinnacle of human suffering, alienation and shame.  Amidst meaningless chaos, He hewed purpose out of the hard soil of humanity. Jesus’ hands were true to the task as He demonstrated the law of mercy.

In the presence of enemies, rebels, in the pretext of religiosity. God’s Son stepped out of the far reaches of glory, set His eye on the bride–

 And it was for the joy.

“It is grace at the beginning, and grace at the end. So that when you and I come to lie upon our deathbeds, the one thing that should comfort and help and strengthen us there is the thing that helped us in the beginning. Not what we have been, not what we have done, but the Grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Strangely, surrender is the most fulfilling thing you can ever do. Satisfaction and bliss will never be achieved unless you succumb to the sweetness of a divine relinquishment. When this surrender overrides your fear, your pride in the self-made life, the anger you have because of old wounds, joy abounds. You enter into a surrender which leads to death. This is the bliss of a purposeful holy death of your own petty kingdom.

The Cross became the cure.

It was for joy.

It was for love.

It was for us.

How could I hold tightly to my life and miss the joy of reckless worship.

I kneel at the cross and live in joy. I am free to live the life today that I’ve always wanted to live.

Delivered

Accepted

Released

Chosen

Loved

Free!

The same joy that was set before Christ is now before us. We can look to Him and remember what this life is about. It is a race toward a life surrendered totally to Him and His glory.

Jesus was Abandoned

“And they all left Him and fled.”
Mark 14:50

The wheels were in motion, the storm was now organizing, and the war had begun. Jesus knew this. We hear it in His prayers. We see it as the blood and sweat broke the surface of his skin. Who can imagine the visceral pain of complete abandonment?

Alone,

Alone,

Alone… A trillion miles from home.

The wilderness of the isolation devastates us more than any barren landscape seen by human eyes. It penetrates into the depths of our being. It is not good, this aloneness and void of connection. And yet abandonment is fertile ground for transcendence and growth. It is the wilderness called “Abandoned.”

Wildernesses bring us to a place that no oasis can.  The wilderness is where all greatness begins. Jesus went there. Moses went there. Elijah went there.  In fact it’s hard to find any one of any importance that wasn’t at one time or another led into the wilderness. We go through wilderness experiences that aren’t on any map, but they are as real as rain. These are regions with names like depression, loneliness, infertility, divorce, lost children, and bankruptcy.  We can find encouragement in Christ who leads us into His presence as he meets us in the wilderness of our lives.

He will never abandon you.

Never. 

“I am with you always even unto the end of the earth.”

Jesus Christ

It is easy for us to overlook this parting statement of Christ as some kind of “over-and-out” liturgy but it must sink deeply into our bones.

 

Simply stated: God is committed to us more than we will ever (on this side of death) be committed to Him.

I rest in the truth that He will give good things, and we will never, ever, be alone.

When I find a friend with whom I can reveal my deepest wounds and admit my profound flaws, I’m amazed that they stay. Something deep within says, “He’ll never stick around for this messy confession.” But more often than not  I look up and noticed that they stayed. I often underestimate my friends.

Perhaps you are surprised as well. But even if everyone you love deserts you and flees to the ominous horizon of twilight, One still remains.

The abandonment of Christ stands as a monument of the pain, hurt, disappointment and loneliness we feel when we are left alone. Goodbyes are hard enough. But when someone leaves for good the pain can be devastating. We dream about it. We analyze every step we could have taken. We become angry that we allowed ourselves to believe that things would get better. Shame covers us and we are left with the burden of isolation.

One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Proverbs 18:24

There is a mysterious peace when you have been left with only Jesus.

When there is desolation and pain—

When the burden is greater than you thought you could bear—

When the darkness gathers around you—

Even after goodbyes are said—

He is the faithful Friend who is ever beside you when all others forsake you. He is above every present sorrow and every personal struggle. He, too, has walked the paths of brokenness. He, too, has stood beside graves. He, too, was betrayed and conspired against. You share commonality and kinship with the author of the universe.

He placed His mark on you. He claimed you as His own. He looked through the crowd. He found you and said, “This struggling child is mine.” He is enough to fill your empty cup and to calm the storm within. He can be heard if you allow Him into your silence. He can be seen in the sunset of each dying day. Closer, He will be to you—Pulling you closer into His grace… With every struggling moment, when you desire Him more than the fallen world’s rotting junkyard of futile aspirations and empty pleasure— He will be more than what you imagined He could be. And you would have never known the depth of His love so deeply, if you had never suffered so greatly.

 

 

The Glorious Gift No One Wants

I may not know you, but I know something about you. You’ve learned so much more about life through one day of failure, suffering and pain than one thousand days of pleasure and success. Your deep sorrow is intimacy of soul and the people all around you, with smiles and small talk, cannot deepen life to the extent of your sorrow.

It is the gift no one prays to receive. And yet when sorrow comes, it brings clarity, resolve and a desire to change.

You’re not the only one that grieves the injustice found in the shadows. Jesus grieved, wept, and lamented as well. He wept at the tomb of a friend. He mourned a city lost in the crippling legalism of false religion, racism, and injustices decreed on the poor. He wept under the weight of looming sacrifice in the garden.

When I look at my life, I, too, grieve. I grieve the obsessions I embraced that foolishly looked like safety and humility, when in fact they only gave birth to deeper dangers and pride.

Like you, Jesus loved someone with no reciprocation.

Like you, Jesus saw promises and covenants breached in a moment.

Like you, Jesus felt the shame of false accusation.

He showed us how to endure the arrow-paths of a thousand earthly sorrows.

Man of sorrows what a name
for the Son of God, who came.
Phillip Bliss


“Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling the secret of who you are, but more often than not of the mystery of where you have come from and are summoning you to where you should go next.”
Frederick Buechner

 


When we grieve over the right things we find hope in the shadows- seeing through a glass darkly yet face-to-face. The secret is to be able to bury the dead things that must be buried and call upon God to do what only He can do with the rest. We mourn but we do not sorrow as those who have no hope.

Lord, save me from the kind of sorrow that leads to despair and draw me to the sorrow that leads to forgiveness and dancing.


 

The Power of Perseverance

There are falls on the way to Golgotha, but gloriously there is a rising up. Jesus somehow finds strength before his mother and Father to rise up and keep going. He keeps going in the midst of astounding physical, social and spiritual pain. He finds strength. He finds will. This is the capstone moment of perseverance. Everyone falls. But not everyone rises.

Oh Lord, my God– I see you fall. My hero cast to the ground! The Creator of wood and gravity, casts His life on the canvas of my shame. His eyes behold the hill. With exhaustion and thirst, He bears the inheritance of bloodshed ages hence.

Look on the face of Jesus as He falls. He feels the injustice of carrying a burden that is not His own. Men of acquired authority force the one eternal Authority to rise up.

With little human strength remaining within His torn flesh and weary eyes, He rises up.

Lord, teach me to rise.

He bears injustice

(Teach me to bear injustice)

Somehow, He finds strength.

(Lord, Jesus Son of God, show me Your strength.)

Lord, in the rush of days when all seems lost and I grow weary of the battle. Teach me to rise up.

…to rise up even in times of humiliation and exhaustion,

…to rise up in determination

…to rise up in the midst of my own degradation

…to rise up, when mocking voices of the enemy seek my retreat at dawn.

…to rise up, when earthly authority seems to overtake and depose me.

…to rise up, as I look to the Holy Cross of Christ.

Perseverance is the “having done all, to stand” part of your journey. Sometimes all you can do is stand. The Lord must fight for you and that’s what He is doing today on Your behalf. That thing that seems so impossible to overcome is being handled. He’s totally and overwhelmingly capable. Do you trust God enough to let Him do the heavy lifting?

 

Forgiveness: A Bridge Worth Saving

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:34

How important is it to forgive? Eternally important.

Welsh poet of the 1600s, George Hebert writes, “He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.”

Eight things I’ve learned about unforgiveness

  1. Being unwilling to forgive is never helpful.
  2. And revenge just doesn’t work. Never….
  3. Your unwillingness to forgive is a sign of unbelief.
  4. It will ultimately destroy your character.
  5. Unwillingness to forgive poisons joy.
  6. It will set your mind to believing that you are more important than Jesus. He humbled Himself to offer forgiveness and you will not?
  7. It negates the power of the cross in your journey.
  8. When we are unwilling to forgive, the pain becomes an idol.

The pain is consuming to the person who doesn’t forgive. We become stuck. We fantasize vindication. We look at relationships surrounding the offense in a possessive manner. We cling to bitterness as our beverage of choice. We talk about it to people who have no business hearing of it. We dream about going back, doing things differently, saying something more damaging, or avoiding the offense.

My unwillingness to love and forgive makes life about me and NOT the Incarnation of grace-filled Jesus who longs to abide in me.

When we forgive we forfeit our miseries and choose to live in the present. We no longer have the need to marinade in the poison of nurtured malice. We lose our self-important disappointments. We embrace everything that Jesus, on the cross, suffered to apprehend.

Choosing not to forgive is choosing to live backwards. Forgiveness frees up the energy it takes to bear the burden of anger indefinitely. Because God has forgiven all our sins, we should not withhold forgiveness from others.

One other thought about forgiveness-perhaps the most important one. It’s in the form of a question:

Have you forgiven yourself?

Lord, when You were on trial, You would not speak to save Your life. Teach me the art of trust and forgiveness even when I am in the midst of wrongs done to me. Teach me to speak grace and truth, not so much in a desire to be seen as right, but rather to humbly participate in the ministry of reconciliation.

The One who created life became obedient unto death.

Even After the Denial

It doesn’t take much to deny Him. Ask Peter. We see him after the passover meal skulking around a fire,  countering his true identity and affiliation. This is the same man who said before anyone else, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” This is the one who was bold enough to get out of the boat. This is the man of ambition whose words were always three steps ahead of his heart.

But he’s not alone. I, too, deny Him. I am quick to laugh with the crowd.

I, too, am quick to change my tune to match the beat of the clamorous cosmos.

I, too, allow my passions and my ambition to spin wildly out of control. I doubt His judgment regarding my life. I die on the wrong altar.

I, too, curse more vehemently and emphatically to preserve my own shadow mission.

But still He remains.

I don’t understand this kind of grace that covers my wrong thinking and illogical fears. And the struggle continues– my gangly, strutting, dodging, frenetic activity. But it is no match for His dogged pursuit. The Creator of love runs after me with profound determination.

Finally, after running from the truth, breathless, weary, I am mess to behold, And He is there.

This is not a soft-rock, falsetto kind of love, filled with flowery fragile words. This driving anthem of truth echoes wildly into the valleys of my rebellion and sallies forth with light and victory into the abyss of my futility.

Eyes of Compassion

Jesus hangs on the cross bearing the bleak rebellion of every age. Who can measure the weight of such a burden? Who can scan the circumference of this transaction? In our repentance we grieve of what our sin has done to us, but at the cross,  we mourn of what our sin has done to God.

This obelisk of sin that outweighed the mass of Jupiter leveled itself against His weakening limbs. Still his eyes remain compassionate. He speaks to the beloved ones of his life: “Woman behold thy son. Son, behold thy mother.”

This moment of compassion seems insignificant considering that humanity would soon be forever changed. Jesus was a Savior but indeed He was still somebody’s boy. We hear Him tie up the loose ends of His next of kin. These details would not escape the attention of Jesus.
We look back at the compassion of Jesus as He stood at the grave of a close friend. Those around Lazarus tomb that day observed His grief:

Jesus wept. The community said, “See how he loved him!”
John 11:35-36

Jesus knew the end of the story. He would call out and Lazarus would come forth, but He stepped into the moment.

He stepped into the pain.

He stepped into the grief of a broken family.
What are you mourning today? He is mourning with you. He, too, has compassion and is making accommodations on your behalf to get through this. You’ll get through it together.

We often forget that even though there are pressing issues on every continent, He still has a heart for the small. There are kings and presidents and war on every side, but Jesus still has the capacity to know your secret wounds and weep over the tombs of your cloistered dreams. He is a God of compassion.

He took care of the people He loved.

When we fail to remember this, we struggle. Jesus eyes aren’t solely fixed on the White House, the Vatican or the United Nations.

His eyes are in the marriage counselor’s office,

His eyes are on the wounded warrior half a world away,

at the funeral of a grandfather,

and under the bed of an abused child who prays for the gift of peace.

He’s there, too. 

The shape of the cross is the template of compassion. In order to die on the cross your arms must be open.

God of Wonders,

King of Glory,

Grant us the courage to look beyond our own pain and enter into the pain of another.

For in this act we receive a more glorious vision of the cross of our slain Savior, Jesus Christ.

In Whose Name we pray,

Amen