Entering the Story of Jesus

In the last blog, I wrote about four things that typify the story of Jesus: unique, beautiful, heart-centered, and opposite to our fallen stories. It is surely important to know Jesus' story in the Bible, but when He asks us to follow Him, He opens a door and asks us to enter that story. This is how we are transformed, healed, and empowered. But how do we leave our stories and enter His? There are two words that form the core of this critical movement in our lives: surrender and contemplation.

Surrender: Chariots of Fire is the epic film about Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner who took the world by storm when he refused to run the 100m prelims on Sunday in the 1924 Olympics. Instead, he ran the 400m on another day—and in world record time! What you may not know is the rest of the story. He hung up his track spikes after that race, went to China to be a missionary, and was eventually captured by the Japanese as they occupied China. After being put in a POW camp, he ministered to adults and children, inspiring and encouraging them, but died of a brain tumor before the Allies could rescue him. His last recorded words were these: “Surrender, absolute surrender.” This surrender to Jesus' story is what made Eric Liddell so great, a story that would become known around the world through the award-winning movie.

The story of Eric Liddell is so parallel to the story of the disciples. When they chose to follow Jesus, they were choosing to leave their own self-constructed stories and enter a new one. Here they would face many trials and dangers, but they would also find out who they really were and what they were supposed to be doing in this life. By entering the story of Jesus, they both changed the world and were forever changed as well. This is what happens when we surrender to Him, a surrender that happens once when we first come to Him and then must continually happen each day. Here we find out who we are, what we are supposed to do, and end up changing the world in ways we could not have imagined. This is the resurrection power of Jesus working in us and through us. 

Contemplation: This is the second word that helps us enter His story. When I speak about contemplation, I mean the inward motion we experience as we focus on something outside of ourselves, letting it fill our hearts and minds. It is the opposite of self-absorption, something we are all prone to in one way or another. In our fallen modes of being, shame makes us painfully self-conscious, and we easily become narcissistic, constantly brooding about ourselves. LIfe becomes all about us, as reality is warped around our souls, much like light warps around the sucking power of a black hole.

So what is the route out of self-absorption? It is contemplation. This may happen first when we contemplate God’s creation: we are lifted up out of ourselves and into something more lofty and wondrous. But contemplation deepens as we come to know God through Scripture, thinking and praying through verses that change our inner habits of being. We are no longer just thinking about ourselves, but about God's Kingdom, His glory, and the larger story He is writing. But a further step happens when we begin to contemplate how Jesus is already working in our lives each day, trying to pull us further into that story. Each day we can either surrender more fully to Him or resist Him. Each day we can live more deeply in His love or turn away. I have been practicing a simple discipline each morning for some time now: I walk back through the previous day, calling to mind both the moments I experienced His presence and the ones when I forgot Him and went my own way. This simple discipline (called the Examen and first devised by Ignatius in the 1500's) can help anyone enter His story more fully. 

So the door is opened for us today, and we are asked to enter through surrender and contemplation. To choose to walk through is always the beginning of a great adventure.

 

Four Words for the Great Adventure

To follow Jesus is the beginning of the great adventure in life. Here are four words that help us come to grips with Him, sketching out why His story is so compelling and transforming.

Unique: There has never been another person like Jesus in history. He burst all known categories at the time, as everyone was struggling to come to terms with Him. Sympathetic followers thought of Him as a prophet, a rabbi, or perhaps the conquering Messiah that would throw out the Romans. Others thought of Him in darker terms as demonically possessed or even mentally insane. No one got who Jesus was because Jesus was writing His own story. Only after the resurrection did the scales fall off and the disciples begin to understand who He was and what He came to do—to rewrite human history, to undo the effects of the fall, and to restore all of creation back to its original intent and luster. And the more His followers understood who He was, the more they understood who they were. Somehow their identity was now tied to His.

Beautiful: The story of Jesus is compelling for another reason. It’s just so beautiful. To read about how He loved people fiercely and compassionately, how He spoke the truth even when it got Him killed, how He resisted the temptation to use His power for His own good, how He offered everything and asked for nothing for Himself, and how He gave His life in the end—all of this and more casts an aura of wonder over the whole account. It's the same wonder we feel in all the great stories we love. Here the hero fights to overcome incredible odds in order to do something good and noble, sacrificing so much to accomplish his task. When we read stories like this, we find our hearts properly enchanted, taking us out of the mundane and awakening us to wonder. All that we love about these stories is an echo of Jesus, but His story tells us of even grander things: the love of God, the wretchedness of man, and the passion of a King who would die to set His people free. In fact, the reason we love all the heroes in our favorite stories is because they were a little like Jesus. This idea is so pervasive in literature that we even have a term for it—the Christ figure.

Heart: There is something about the way Jesus lived and the words He spoke that connects to our core longings and fears. He spoke into the heart because He knows the heart. Here are just a few examples from the gospels: 

  • The story of the feeding of the 5000 showed Jesus to be the Good Shepherd even in the wilderness of life. It speaks to our ongoing anxiety and worry that plague us.
  • The story of Jesus calming the storm showed Him as the One who had power over everything, inviting us now to quit living out of fear and trusting Him in all things.
  • The story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler surfaces our seemingly intractable addiction to idols. Yet He comes to set our hearts free from the chains in which have put ourselves. 

In all of these stories, Jesus is not just inviting us into a different way of behaving or thinking. He is inviting us into a new way of being.

Opposite: But despite all of this, we have a problem with Jesus. There is a rigidity about Him: He will not be compromised, diluted, or marginalized. He is the stone on which many have stumbled and still do today. His story has an angularity—with jagged, sharpened edges that don’t fit into our self-absorbed lives. All of His offensiveness and all of our corresponding defensiveness is explained by the fact that His story and ours are on completely opposite trajectories. We are consumed with our reputations; Jesus was willing to forfeit His. We are about our daily agendas; Jesus was about His Father’s. We may try to do good, but are swamped with evil motives; Jesus always did the good for His Father’s glory. We are about building our own kingdoms of security, power, and control. Jesus was about building His Father’s kingdom of justice, glory, and love. To enter His story is not just shifting a few priorities or getting rid of a few bad habits. It’s not even seeking to be moral or good. It’s a total wash, a complete transformation. He is asking each of us to become something that we know not now—something that we know not how. 

This is beyond us.

It’s supposed to be. 
 
So how do we enter such a story, such a great adventure? That’s the next blog.

The Unexpected Resurrection

I have always loved Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, especially the scene when the dying Beast finally gets Belle to love him. Then the unexpected happens: he comes back to life, no longer as a beast, but as a man, alive, filled with glory, hope, and love. I am always mesmerized by this scene because it speaks to my own longing for resurrection.

The New Testament repeatedly speaks to this longing, announcing that the resurrection of Jesus opens the door to our resurrection. We are to live knowing that this life is not the end of the story—that a great, great good is coming. But there is more. Paul claims that when God raised Jesus from the dead, He also made us alive with Him. Somehow what happened to Jesus has happened to us: we are now dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:5-11). Somehow once we come to Christ, we have already entered this resurrection story! What could this mean for us and for our hearts?

Life here as we experience it seems to compel us to kill our hearts and then bury them. One of the most predominant forces is shame, the experience of exposure before others leading to mockery and condemnation. We are all enormously shaped by shame in different ways, yet its message is always the same: Run, hide, don’t allow others to see who you really are. If you do, you will only be mocked and degraded again. The only way to survive in this life is to bury your heart and put on a mask. Yes, we learn to survive in life, but at what cost? Our truest selves get buried in the rubble, unavailable to others, unavailable even to ourselves.

The second force is disappointment. Whatever we turn to, whether it’s marriage, career, the next night out, or the next vacation, there is always a letdown. Our longings don’t match our experience, and our dreams get hijacked by reality. The message from all our disappointment is this: Bury your heart. Forget about the ache. It will only hurt too much to keep longing. You must lower expectations. You must simply get on with life. Yet the longing keeps surfacing at unexpected moments, watching a child play with carefree abandon or noticing the beauty of a flower garden. Something or someone keeps calling out to us in these moments: There is more, so much more.

The third force is our wounding. The times when we did live out of our hearts have sometimes led to an even worse result—abuse or abandonment. It seems that others often manipulate our hearts to get what they need or are just oblivious to our own needs. The message we get from our wounding is this: Life is not safe. Others are not safe. Don’t be vulnerable before others, lest they wound you again. Don’t trust others, lest they turn on you. Bury your heart. 

The triple punch of these three forces feels unstoppable and irredeemable, yet there is one unexpected counter force. It is the same force that no one expected when they killed Jesus: the power of the Father to raise Him from the dead when all human hope was gone. This is the same power that can resurrect our hearts as well as our bodies.

What Beauty and the Beast is saying in fairy tale is what the gospel says in history: When Jesus rose from the dead, somehow we were there with Him and are now coming alive in Him. It means that the unexpected is happening: the power of Jesus' love is resurrecting our hearts now.

For only love dispels our shame.

Only love relieves our disappointment.

Only love heals our wounds. 

What is our part in this resurrection story? Ask Jesus to reveal His love to you. Then keep asking until He shows you. 

It will be the resurrection of your heart—and one day the resurrection of your body.

 

 

The Death of Dreams

In the eighth grade. I knew I had to shed my geeky mannerisms and enter the world of sports. I was terrified of football and had miserable experiences with basketball, but I discovered I was good in track, a spring sport. Yet I needed to play a sport one other season (a school rule), so I took up tennis in the fall. The summer before, I took lessons and began to play with a vengeance, spending hours on the backboard, hitting serves over and over. That first season of tennis, I didn’t make the team, but I was determined and kept at it. By my ninth grade year, I worked harder and began to dream of playing professional tennis. The dream seemed to come to fruition as I made the varsity tennis team even though I was at the bottom of the ladder. 

But the season turned out differently. The coach turned out to be a caustic, harsh man who never offered any help, and I kept losing matches I should have won. By my sophomore year, I didn’t even make the team. My dream was crushed. Something inside of me collapsed. Without the encouragement of older men, I had no way to make sense of what happened. All I knew is that I felt incompetent, uncoordinated, and uncoachable. The death of this dream was so painful that I ran and shoved it into a closet, labeling it Do Not Enter. Each of us has stories like this: of athletic pursuits that failed, careers that never materialized, loves that weren’t returned, marriages that failed, and children that rebelled. 

The theme of broken dreams is woven into the gospel story as well. Jesus is tried, sentenced, and condemned to die. During his crucifixion, almost everyone left him. Most of his disciples and the crowds that heard him have all fled out of fear, shock, and grief. They had all pinned their hopes on Jesus. He was a man of such brilliant wisdom and miraculous power, and they came to believe that He was the new Messiah who would throw out the hated Romans and finally restore the glory of Israel as a nation. But it wasn’t just the hope for political restoration. So many of these people had grown to love, honor, and respect Jesus. All of this had been shattered by a cruel crucifixion. The dream of restoration seemed trampled forever. 

But everything Jesus did was either surprising or stunning, and it is no different here. What had never happened in history before now occurs: He rises from the dead. The dream had not died after all because He rose from the dead to do more than His followers could have ever dreamed of. He didn't come to set up a new rule in Israel, but a new kingdom on earth. He didn't come to conquer the Romans, but the Evil One himself. He didn't come just to heal sickness, but sin and death. The death of their small dream yielded the resurrection of a dream no one could have imagined. 

We are to enter the story of Jesus this way with our own dreams. Jesus doesn’t deny or dismiss them, and He knows the losses we have experienced. What He asks of us is this: to give our shattered dreams to Him and let Him resurrect them however He chooses. I cannot tell you what He will do or how He will do it, but I can tell you this: His dreams are always categorically larger than ours. If we will choose to forsake control of our lives, we will find our broken dreams somehow renewed and recast in a way we could have scarcely conceived of before. I can attest to this over and over in my own life. He will come and heal our hearts, giving us our deep hearts’ desire. 

This is the Jesus we serve. He is the Lion on the loose. And when we follow Him, anything can happen. 

Anything.