Category Archives: disciple

A hole in the hand.

It was a Good Wednesday several years ago. That’s the day two days before Good Friday. On Good Wednesday, creatives around churches are looking at their “really cool” concepts for Good Friday services and realizing all the pieces have to be ready in two days. It’s a scary time.

We were going to have a basin and a towel on the platform, remembering the footwashing picture from the last evening Jesus spent with the disciples. I wanted to have something different about the towel, something distinctive, since that’s what creatives around churches have to do. We have to figure out a new spin, something that will make people notice.

We like to believe (we hope) that people will notice the story in a new way. In truth, sometimes we hope people will notice us, will comment on the coolness.

I decided that it would be cool to put red handprints on the white muslin.  I think I wanted a sense of being caught red-handed, of actually seeing what sin might look like. In retrospect, red footprints would have been more appropriate. But sometimes cool creativity isn’t technically accurate. I got some red paint and a couple kids and teachers from our daycare center. One hand in the paint, place it on the cloth. I joined in.

I’m not sure I when noticed the hole in the middle of my hand print. It’s almost as if, well, there were a hole in the middle of my hand. Suddenly the project went from cool to achingly real. After the Good Friday service, I framed the fabric.

It’s been more than a decade since that night. It’s been much longer since Christ died on our behalf. Both of them still are transforming my life. But without the death, the handprint is just an art project.

(First published in 2012)


John the expecter.

(Part one of a three-part reflection from John 1:29-34.)

May I tell you about John the Baptist?

I know that you may know all about him, but I’d like to review.

John lived six months before Jesus. More accurately, he was born about six months before Jesus. Their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, were relatives.

Both of their births were miracles. John’s because Elizabeth was old, well past the time that anyone would expect her to be expecting. Jesus’s because, well, because he was Jesus.

Both of the pregnancies were announced by angels. You know the current partying around baby announcements, with blue or pink smoke or cupcake fillings or t-shirts? John and Jesus were predicted by angels. Take that Pinterest.

And their roles were predicted, too. John was going to “prepare the way for the Lord,” to help people get ready for the person who would save Israel, to point toward the Messiah. Jesus was going to be the messiah. The Christ. The one who would be the King.

John was called to get people ready for Jesus. The older to point toward the younger.

Jesus and John grew up separately.  John in the hill country, and then the wilderness. Jesus close to Jerusalem, then in Egypt, and then way up north in Galilee.

IMG_1458.JPGJohn eventually started preaching. He told people that the Holy one was coming. He told them that they needed to get their lives cleaned up before he came. Repent, he said. Turn your life around. The kingdom of God is close.

Some people laughed or argued. But some people knew that they were messed up, that the way they lived wasn’t what God wanted. So they wanted to change. John told them that one way to show that they were serious was to walk through water, to go down into the river and to come back out. It was called baptism. And John was called the Baptist.

After they were baptized, he told them how to live. Honestly, justly, compassionately. To live in a way that was consistent with their commitment.

But the whole time John was teaching and preaching and washing, he was watching.  Because he knew that the kingdom of God was close.

  • Close in time – soon – so that there was no time to waste.
  • Close in geography – nearby – so that he would see the king.

John had a purpose, a calling, a mission, a job. His whole life was about getting people ready for the kingdom of God. That sense of expectation was so strong that he didn’t waste his time on anything else.

His calling still has openings.

Psalm 1.

(First published July 13, 2011)

When you pick up a book of poetry or a book of song lyrics, you have to work.

You cannot read Gerard Manley Hopkins or W.H. Auden or Bono the same way you read Malcolm Gladwell or Donald Miller. With poems, you have to stop often, read out loud at times, look in your heart for images and understanding.

The book of Psalms is a book of poetry. It takes time to read and reread. But that what keeps people going back.

Here’s a reflection of the first of the psalms.

Psalm 1

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, now, does it

if a person wanting to live a blessed life

gets all his advice from people who are against God

or walks along a path that leads away from God

or sits on the sidelines being snarky all the time.

Instead, think what would happen if she decided

to focus on God’s words

like words from a lover

and day and night reflected on them.

It’d be like a planting a tree right by a river,

roots well watered,

branches bearing great fruit.

The things people like that do, they prosper somehow.

A person who is against God isn’t going to grow this way.

Without the water of life, you end up more like chaff,

the hull on the outside of a grain of wheat,

blowing away in the harvest wind.

At the end of everything, when considering how life was lived,

the ones who chose to be wicked

will find their legs collapsing under them.

And the ones who joyfully wanted “sinner” as their pursuit

will find no room in the “righteous” section.

Those who trail along after God

find protection along the way.

Those who are committed to avoiding that path

will find themselves among the ruins.

Why I quit running.

FullSizeRender (5)I was doing great. As of July 22, I had run at least a mile every day for 425 days. In a row. On July 23, I didn’t run.

I wasn’t injured. I didn’t forget.  I made a choice.  I switched my focus from running every day to training for a marathon.

I asked a friend about coaching me for the marathon, which is just 10 weeks away. I showed him my running history and my current approach. I told him about what works for me with motivation and what doesn’t. I outlined everything I could think of about my physical and mental attitudes and behaviors around running.

And in our first conversation over dinner, my new training coach said, “you are going to have to think about a day off.”

I smiled.  I immediately started thinking about all the people I’ve read about who have maintained running streaks through all levels of marathon training, including people who have run marathons every day.

The next morning while running, I realized that I needed to release the streak. Not because of the rest day, though that is important. Not because of the struggle I have with maintaining two training goals at the same time, though that is real, too. It’s because I have to learn to trust a coach more than I trust myself.

He’s run three dozen marathons. He’s coached young runners for years. I asked for help because I understood that the low standard of running every day wasn’t getting me ready for running 26.2 miles in one day. I couldn’t self-coach.  I needed to start training. 

And to argue with the first thing he suggested would mean that I would question everything he suggested.

So I quit running. For four days. Now I’m training.

And I’m guessing that this isn’t just about running.

Always lead?

always lead on bike shoesMy bike shoes have it all wrong. And the major message we hear today is wrong too: “Being a leader is the only way to succeed.”

Jesus has a different idea. He wants us to follow.

As he was calling people who would spend the most time with him, Jesus didn’t ask what degree they had. He didn’t interview them and ask for their ten-year goals.

He simply said, “Follow me…”

God also has a different idea of who He wants us to be. It was time for Israel to have another king. God chose the family of Jesse, a man who had eight sons. Jesse knew who would be the best candidate – anyone but his youngest, David.

Samuel was the guy God chose to pick the right son. God primed Samuel ahead of time: “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Samuel paraded all his sons before Samuel, but none were right. David was out herding sheep – Jesse did not even consider him. Samuel asked Jesse to send for David. “This is the one.”

Later into his time on this planet, Jesus went on to say, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He did not say, “some of you who want to be my disciple…” or “most of you who want to be my disciple…” but “whoever…”

Then at the end of his time on the earth, as he was about to be killed, Jesus asked Peter, “Follow me…” (Peter was the guy Jesus appointed to head up his followers after he would be gone.)

If we want to learn from Jesus and get closer to him, we must follow.

Paul Merrill writes here every first Friday.