Unlock the Door to Heaven

Back in June I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican unprepared for what I was about to see. 

St. Peter’s Basilica is no ordinary church.  It is one of the largest buildings in the world and certainly the largest church, able to hold up to 60,000 worshippers at one time.  Christians have made pilgrimages there since the original Basilica was constructed in 329…almost 1700 years!  In the 1500s a new basilica, the one that still stands today, was constructed on the same site.

St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

Walking in, I was stunned by the size and grandeur and beauty of the place. If the ancient architects of this place intended to inspire worshipful awe, they succeeded with me. The scale of the place is enormous, like the world’s most ornate airplane hangar, but bigger. Then there’s the opulence. Even those who feel slightly queasy about the accumulated wealth of the church might find themselves inspired by the architecture, the priceless art, the gold, the stained glass, the icons. The beauty and history of the place come together to inspire awe.

Cathedra Petri (“Throne of St. Peter”)

But there is an obvious tension for a Protestant in a place like this. You simply cannot escape the asserted authority of the Catholic church, underlying and hovering over everything. I felt it most with the emphasis on Peter (it’s his basilica, after all). To Catholics, Peter is the first Pope, his authority received directly from Jesus Himself. This same authority has stretched through the centuries and been held by every Pope of the Catholic church. Under the magnificent dome of St. Peter’s, at the intersection of the cross-shaped building, there is an enormous bronze canopy to mark the widely accepted location of St. Peter’s tomb, below the floor.

As I looked up at this canopy representing Peter’s unique place of honor in the church, I was still thinking about a painting I’d just seen in the Sistine Chapel. There, a famous masterpiece by Perugino depicts the moment when Peter received his divine authority: Jesus giving him the keys of the kingdom. Why did Jesus do this? Matthew tells us that when Jesus asked His disciples who they say that He is, Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Peter’s answer revealed an understanding of Jesus as the One God sent to save people. The physical embodiment of deity. The fulfillment of ancient promises now standing right in front of them.

Peter’s answer was divinely inspired.  Peter’s answer was pure worship. 

Jesus’s response: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter [Petros, or “little rock”], and on this rock [petra, or “bedrock”], I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17-18).

As I stood above the tomb of Peter, my neck aching from gazing upward at the dome of the basilica named in his honor, my heart thanked God that He did not choose Peter alone to hold all authority in Jesus’s name. Peter was one of a kind, for sure. He was blessed by God with understanding. He was greatly favored by Jesus, and given the great honor of leading the early church.

However, as others have often pointed out, the meaning of the Greek words “Petros” and “petra,” along with an understanding of the context of Jesus’s words, reveal that Jesus’s wordplay both honors Peter and points to a larger foundation. Peter was a rock, but not the bedrock. The truth in Peter’s words is the bedrock. I like John Piper’s succinct explanation of the rock and the keys here. I was also reminded of the same truth in this recent podcast with Pastor Jim White. We Protestants understand Peter not as the first pope, but as the honored representative of the apostles, and of every witness to the power of Christ.

So what about those keys? What are they, if not a unique symbol of Peter’s authority? The literal depictions of Peter holding these keys are a beautiful symbol of something far greater: the ability every believer has to profess the truth Peter first proclaimed—the truth of Jesus as Savior and Lord. Like Peter, we are all empowered to proclaim the saving grace of Jesus. Jesus is the builder of the church, and the cornerstone. Peter and the other apostles are its foundation (Ephesians 2:19-20). You and I stand on that foundation today.

Jesus goes on to explain that the bedrock of faith in Him as Savior and Lord opens the door to the flourishing of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19-20 and 18:18). When everything in our lives is centered on our faith in Jesus, we “bind” and “loose” things on earth in the same way as they are in heaven. Honoring Jesus as the source and ruler of all unlocks the door to the kingdom of heaven. At the very center of the basilica of our hearts we won’t find a canopy honoring precious Peter; we will find Jesus and only Him.

Two weeks after I visited the Vatican, I found myself at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina.  Hanging in the house are three 500-year old tapestries, and one of them includes a depiction of Peter holding his key.  Except in this case, he appears to be handing the keys to the other apostles. 

Flemish Tapestry at the Biltmore House

I’m not sure if this is the correct interpretation of this image, but I like to think it is. It’s a picture of a simple truth: Jesus has given all of His followers the power to unlock the door to heaven, simply by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Savior!

We all hold the keys.

Blessings!

So, You’re Not Jumping for Joy

Have you ever felt guilty for not feeling joyful enough? You’ve received the message, explicitly or implicitly: “if you’re a true Christian you can’t help but be joyful.” After all, joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. And we are implored to “be joyful always.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

We’ve probably all heard about the difference between happiness and joy—”happiness is based on circumstance,” people often say, “while joy comes from the Lord.” I know this is true, and I’ve found comfort in it. But my comfort has sometimes been paired with an abiding unease, a nervousness that maybe my faith is lacking because I’m not constantly (or even usually) jumping for joy.

One reason is that life is tough. Jesus promised it would be, and it is. Yes, the Bible tells us to be joyful always, but we’re also instructed to lament, mourn, and weep when it’s time for those things. Clearly, being joyful doesn’t mean pretending everything’s fine, smiling through clenched teeth. So how can you be joyful, when things are so stinkin’ hard?

In the Bible, joy is most often paired the idea of hope in salvation. I know this because two years ago God prompted me to choose “joy” as my theme of the year. At the time, I was like, “that’s awesome, I’m finally going to learn the secret of being joyful all the time!” So I spent some time meditating on all the Bible verses dealing with joy. Sadly, I did not learn how to jump for joy all day, every day. I learned that joy isn’t an emotion. It isn’t a physical outburst. It isn’t insisting on being happy even when things are stinky. Being filled with joy isn’t even necessarily visible to other people. 

Biblically speaking, joy is the comfort, peace, security and hope we experience God’s presence and salvation. Consider this verse from the prophet Habakkuk:

“Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

Habakkuk 3:17-18.

Habakkuk was grappling with the oncoming suffering of his people. If all the crops failed and the animals and people were starved and subjugated, Habakkuk says he is still going to be joyful in God our Savior. If you’ve lost your income, your health is suffering, or you’re grieving, the joy you experience won’t look like dancing in the streets. You won’t be jumping for joy, and that’s okay. You can still possess joy in God’s certain salvation of your soul. This kind of joy might look like smiling through tears, not jumping up and down.

Another reason a believer may not be always jumping for joy is simply that God designed her to be a quieter person. Don’t get me wrong, we are called to be joyful, but not all of us are designed for the kind of high-energy, high-octane, million-watt-smile brand of joy that we might have believed was standard for a sister in Christ. As I learned from this insightful article, introverts serve the church in different ways.  And I believe the expressions of joy of an introverted disciple—quiet, contemplative, intimate expressions of joy—look different from the exuberance we often associate with joy. 

One quick caveat here (and maybe this is just me, so feel free to listen in while I talk to myself for a second): Michelle, being introverted is not an excuse for being negative. You still must guard against negativity in your thinking and your words. Introverted joy might be quieter, but when people lean in, it still sounds like joy.

That said, joy for some of us doesn’t include jumping up and down. For the introvert, joy might take the form of a pleasant and peaceful disposition, an ability to point others to the Lord by listening well, or private moments of worshiping the King of Glory.

Maybe for you, joy looks like turning your face to the sunrise in the middle of a depression that seems unbreakable. Maybe joy looks like getting on your knees in prayer again this morning, even when you haven’t felt like it in months. Joy, in some seasons, is a quiet and profound acknowledgment that no matter how I am feeling, Jesus is Lord, and God’s salvation rests on anyone who comes to Him.  

Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. John 15:9-11, emphasis mine.

As sisters to our fellow believers and humans, maybe it’s time to reset our expectations a little bit when it comes to joy. No more pressure to paste on a smile, or stifle the truth about how I’m really doing, or to act like a cheerleader when you’ve always been more comfortable watching from the bleachers. 

Introverted sisters…sisters going through dark days…rest assured that your joy–complete joy–is truly found in God, and that is in fact why you can be joyful always, expressing that joy in many different ways. It might not look like you expected. You don’t even have to jump.

The True Meaning of Emmanuel

It’s hard to believe it, but the aisles are stocked with Christmas, holiday concerts are already being advertised and “Black Friday” seemingly has become “Black November.” It puts me in the mood for hot chocolate and snow days!  Especially around the Christmas season you will hear Jesus referred to by the name Emmanuel, but have you ever wondered why?  Emmanuel means “God with Us.”  Since coming to Jesus fifteen years ago, I have loved that name and its meaning. I love to think of Jesus by my side in all things, “takin’ the wheel,” so to speak.  But a while back God showed me more about this name Emmanuel.  It’s not just a nice name with a cool meaning, but a glimpse of God’s love for you and me, as well as His plan to pursue our hearts.

img_1588

At the time, I’d been reading the stories from the Old Testament with my children, and in the evenings my older son and I were also reading much of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.  At the same time, I was studying the book of Revelation through Bible Study Fellowship.  This is where being in the Word gets so cool.  Reading history and prophecy at the same time will blow your mind!  By having one foot in the history of our faith and the other in our certain future, I was able to catch a tiny glimpse of God’s awesome love story.

Here’s the headline: Since the beginning and until the end, God’s desire is to be with us.  His word reveals time and again that he longs to dwell among us.  In the very beginning he walked with us, and we with him, enjoying an unashamed intimacy and personal relationship.  When we (making poor use of our God-gifted free will) decided to reject God and usurp His role, we introduced all kinds of barriers into this relationship.  It has suffered ever since.

But God’s story didn’t end there.  He still relentlessly pursued us.  God appeared as a pillar of cloud and fire which lead the Israelites through the desert.  He later dwelt among them via the physical temple, but unlike in Eden, His physical presence among the Israelites was limited.  The temple was built in such a way as to ensure God’s innermost chamber (the Holy of Holies) would be inaccessible to all people except to the High Priest (and even then only once a year).  This movable temple traveled with the Israelites everywhere they went, ultimately being replaced by the permanent temple at Jerusalem, built by Kings David and Solomon.  There, again, a curtain blocked God’s holy dwelling-place from public view.

But God’s story didn’t end there, either.  At the right moment in human history Jesus–Emmanuel–was born, fulfilling countless Old Testament prophecies as well as God’s divine plan. God again physically walked among us, no longer restricted to that innermost chamber behind the curtain.  Emmanuel–God with us–had come to once again dwell with His people.  Many people in those times recognized Jesus for who he was, and followed him—can you imagine what that was like?  And since His death, Jesus offers all people everywhere the blessing of God’s Holy Spirit, which is God dwelling in us.  Have you heard that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?  This means it is the physical dwelling-place of God’s spirit the same way that Moses’s temple was a physical dwelling-place for God.

And lest we forget, at Jesus’s death the curtain (or veil, as you may have heard it called) in the temple was torn.  The physical symbol for separation from God was supernaturally destroyed at the moment when God-with-Us fulfilled his purpose of removing all those barriers to relationship with Him.  This is the meat of why Jesus died.  It was to overcome our rejection of God, cleanse us of all those barriers we put up between Him and us, and again dwell with us.  Through Jesus’s sacrifice and this gift of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to walk with God in this life.

Unbelievably, that’s still not even the end of the story.  If you respond to God’s pursuit by turning toward Him, if you believe that Jesus’s death does in fact reconcile you to God and allow Him to dwell with you, there is even more.  God’s response to your commitment of faith is to honor it: to dwell with you in eternity.  This is what we call Heaven.  Revelation teaches us that the final chapter in this love story is a beautiful afterlife characterized by togetherness with our Maker.  Our intimacy with Him will be restored and the beauty of Eden far surpassed.

God’s story, from beginning to end, is the story of His desire to be with us.

When you see the fullness of His pursuit for intimacy with you, across thousands of years and in the face of repeated rejection, does it change the way you respond to Him?  It fills me with overwhelming gratitude. The God of the Universe didn’t just give up on me.  He hasn’t given up on any of us.  From creation…Old Testament History…Jesus’s life and death…to prophecies yet to be fulfilled…they all speak to this singular truth: God’s deepest longing is for relationship with you, me and all of us. The name Emmanuel, God with Us, it means something.  I pray that today you will allow it mean something for you.

Signature

Pain

walk on the greenwayThis post was originally published on That Mommy Blog on March 31, 2013.

It’s been almost a year since I saw a doctor for fatigue, which led me to a diagnosis of chronic migraines and treatment using Topamax, an anti-seizure medication.  For almost a year I have been tracking my pain on a calendar: red for pain, yellow for fatigue, green for “Hallelujah I actually feel good!”  There have been woefully few greens.  Finally I got tired of the side-effects of Topamax (mostly the inability to focus, which was becoming a true impairment), and I am almost completely weaned off and trying to cope with my migraines without medication.  Lifestyle changes, less stress, that sort of thing.

All this to say, I feel pretty intimate with pain.  I have given it a lot of thought in the last year, read a lot about it, and have been trying to understand it.  Why does God allow pain?  Why do some of us suffer a lot—some every day—and other people seem to just coast through?  Really, it’s the same question people have been asking forever: why is there suffering?  The same question Siddhartha wondered about.  The same question non-Christians ask about God.  Why would a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow suffering and pain?

The main argument here is that God loved us so much that he gave us free will; free will leads to choice; choices lead to pain and suffering.  God’s creation, which could have been perfect had we just left well enough alone, is not perfect because we have exercised free will.  We have chosen to exclude God.  We think we can do better without Him.  We have historically and continually pushed Him away, and He has honored that choice, the same way that He also honors the choice to welcome Him with mercy and grace and forgiveness.  We come to Him freely, and He returns love freely to us.  Without this ability to choose, we wouldn’t have been the beings He longed for.  Because God longed for us to love Him freely, He needed to create free will, and therefore the possibility of pain, suffering and evil.  C.S. Lewis says it this way: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

So all sorts of suffering result from free will, out of which both love of God and love of evil are born.

But what about pain not arising out of free will?  What about my migraines?  Childhood illnesses?  Famine?  What about losing a loved one?  What about a healthy man I know who was suddenly struck down with three life-threatening illnesses at the same time?  I struggle with this question, and some of the “pat” answers have always seemed a little empty to me.  But I was totally floored recently when I read this, and I need to share it with you:

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them.  Man is not the centre.  God does not exist for the sake of man.  Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”  Rev. 4:11.  We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased.”  The Problem of Pain, 40-41.  (Emphasis mine).

This was a new perspective for me, and while it doesn’t answer the question of why God allows suffering, it gave me a new perspective on suffering itself.  In our culture which celebrates everything “Me,” including documenting every movement on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and in our evangelical culture which celebrates how I love God, how I need him, how I come to him to worship, the idea of me being beside the point is a little…different.  Yes, I believe how I approach God is important.  But to take me out of it a little, and remember that I am also the object of His love…well, that changes everything.

So what does it mean (when I am on Day Six of a crushing migraine and would sooner drive a pickaxe into my forehead than look at this computer) that I was made for God to love me, and not (primarily) vice versa?  It means that my pain is beside the point.  Or rather, it means that I need to continue to worship him, even when in pain. Continue to allow Him to love me, by inviting Him in.  In the face of His magnificent, overwhelming, tender love for me, I find that my suffering truly pales.  I suspect that response is what He’s after.  When we are at our most physically strained, when we are at our most emotionally drained, when we have been beaten down by a world that is fallen and falling around us, the positioning of my soul toward God as it says, “yes, God, you are holy,” that is the fulfillment of His love for us.

I was praying recently, about coming down off of my medication.  Worried about an onslaught of headaches, I asked, “God, please will you cure me?”  God told me no, that I will still sometimes have pain.  But He asked me, in the infinitely patient way He has with my stubborn self, to keep my eyes on Him anyway.  I don’t know how to always do that, but if I try, and manage it even part of the time, I trust that the effort alone will bear enough fruit to nourish me as I suffer.

On Easter, this glorious holiday celebrating the resurrection of Christ, it’s important to mention that God knows our pain.  He experienced every ounce of it on the cross.  You are not alone, no matter what you suffer, for Christ has already experienced it with you.  In fact, God had to become man in order to experience pain in the first place, and He chose to do so facing the pain not only of whipping and crucifixion but also of every human sin and anguish.  He did it in order to know you, the one He truly loves.  He created you to love you, and then He joined you in your sufferings as well.  He is with you now, loving you and wanting nothing more than your love, freely given, in all circumstances.

Signature