Why doesn’t Easter change us?

A long time ago, a grieving woman went to a garden tomb to pay last respects. Mary had lived a life of torment and despair. Today, we’d probably say she suffered from mental illness; in our day, it seems epidemic. Mary had intended to say farewell to her teacher and friend, the one who had given her hope when everyone had given up on her.

Nothing could have prepared her for what she found. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been removed; the body was gone; and just the burial cloths remained. Mary ran to get her friends. They ran back to the tomb and found things just as she had said.

While the men went off to process what they’d seen, Mary just stood there crying. Then someone called her name, “Mary!” and as she turned to look, the whole world turned with her. There was Jesus, her teacher and friend, risen from the dead.

You can’t make this stuff up: the most important meeting in the history of the world was between God and a mental patient.

In some ways Mary was like a lot of us. She’d lived a life of desperation, possessed by something beyond her control. But from that moment on, her life had purpose. She was the first evangelist of the Good News, her name forever synonymous with resurrection hope.

Why aren’t we changed like Mary?

I’ve become convinced that it’s because we don’t put our beliefs into action. We don’t worship, study, pray, serve, or share our faith as we should. In other words, we don’t make ourselves available to God in ways that allow change to take place.

In a world filled with depression, anxiety, bullying, division, and worse, we should all be running to our friends with the Good News.

Jesus can still change you the way he changed Mary. Could this be the year you let him?

The Palm Sunday route

Three times in my life I’ve had the joy of walking the traditional Palm Sunday route in Jerusalem, down the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley below. Across the valley is the Temple Mount. The temple is no longer there, of course, destroyed in the first century. But the view is still spectacular. You can’t help but be filled with wonder as you imagine what it was like to be in the crowd on the first Palm Sunday.

That day, Jesus was a master of event planning. He orchestrated every detail for maximum effect. He knew that by accepting the crowd’s adoration he was implicitly accepting the title of conquering king. He knew this would force the hand of the religious leaders. They would have to make him king or kill him.

Like he had done many time before, Jesus sent the disciples ahead of him to the places he planned to go. He told them to procure a little colt which didn’t belong to them, and which had never been ridden, and bring it back to him.

His instructions didn’t make sense, yet the disciples obeyed.

This Sunday, we’ll celebrate and wave palm fronds and reenact the triumphal entry, just like some of us have done since we were kids. Yet this isn’t just child’s play. Jesus has called us to be part of his great drama of redemption and transformation.

Walking the Palm Sunday route with Jesus is still a joy, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Sometimes the instructions don’t make sense. Making him king is still a life or death decision. The crowds who cheer you one day may turn on you the next.

Yet Jesus promised to never leave you or forsake you. He still only sends you where he plans to go.

Calculating the odds

One of my favorite Bible stories is in 1st Samuel 14. The Israelites were surrounded by the dreaded Philistines. The Philistines were technologically advanced, while the Israelites had a total of two swords, one belonging to King Saul and the other to his son Jonathan. Saul was paralyzed with fear, but Jonathan came up with an audacious plan: Jonathan said to the young man bearing his armor, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.”

Perhaps the Lord will act?”

Jonathan’s plan was to expose himself and his armor bearer to the enemy. Then, the two of them would climb a steep hill, hand-over-hand, up to the enemy position. Remember, they only had one sword between them, but even that didn’t matter, because they needed both hands just to climb. Unless God fought for them, it was suicide.

If you were the armor bearer, wouldn’t you rather have better odds than “perhaps?” Nevertheless, he told Jonathan, “Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul.”

I don’t know who I admire more, Jonathan, who took the initiative, or the armor bearer who stayed by his side. The odds didn’t matter to them as long as they were fighting for God. The bold plan paid off. The attack threw the entire enemy army into confusion, and Israel was saved.

Most of us say to God, “I’ll follow you if you can prove to me this is going to work.” When the odds seem against us, we’re paralyzed.

Not these guys.

Unless you follow God unconditionally; unless you move forward in faith despite the odds, you’ll never experience the power of God to save you.

Grunts and groans

Watching my wife and her brother care for their dad in the last year of his life made me realize just how much we need God’s love, and how helpless we are to save ourselves. Jana’s dad had owned his own business. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. His faith led him to serve on mission trips around the world. Yet eventually, he could no longer help others or himself.

We live in a culture which celebrates and rewards the ability to get things done. Yet I’m convinced that “getting things done” often separates us from God. One person who realized this was Henri Nouwen, a priest, theologian, and bestselling author who taught at Ivy League schools. He was in demand around the world as a conference speaker.

Nouwen spent the last ten years of his life living in a community for the mentally disabled. He lived in a small room with a single bed, a bookshelf, and few pieces of furniture. The people he lived with didn’t know he was world famous. They couldn’t even read his books. He spent two hours every day helping a young man named Adam who was profoundly disabled, bathing and shaving him and guiding his hand as he tried to eat. Adam could only grunt and groan.

People would ask Nouwen if this was the best use of his time. Couldn’t someone else do these things, and allow Henri to do what world theologians are supposed to do? Nouwen would say, “I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Today, mental illness is in the news nearly every day. At any moment, one in five people experience mental health issues. Over the course of our lives, 45% will experience mental illness. Being a city-center church, many people who are seriously hurting come to us.

My wife loved her dad, even when he could no longer do for her or himself or others. In the same way, we’re called to love those who can’t respond in a way that we’d prefer.

Henri Nouwen came to love Adam. In the process he learned what it must be like for God to love us—spiritually uncoordinated, able to respond only with what must seem to God like grunts and groans.