The Empty Tomb


We are living in dark days– days of death counts, and dire predictions; of fear and grief and chaos. Masks, social distancing, angry outbursts, collapsing economies, job loss, political unrest, disease, plague–we are in the grip of a global pandemic. “Bring out your dead.” It’s a phrase from hundreds of years ago, and the horrors of other plagues and other disasters. Tombs, graveyards, skulls and visions of death abound. And yet, as Christians, we celebrate an empty tomb…

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It’s been over a month since many Christians celebrated Easter (and almost a month for Orthodox Christians). How soon many of us forget the power of the resurrection. Our world is gripped with fear and anger. But we should be gripped with hope and healing. We celebrate an empty tomb– a testament to the victory of life over death, and hope over chaos!

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Even when we use the symbol of the cross, it is not about Christ’s death, but his ultimate victory that we celebrate. Jesus himself even referred to the cross in these terms in John 3:

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

John 3:14-15 NIV via http://www.Biblegateway.com

Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious teacher. He is referring to an historic incident in the wilderness, when the Israelites had rebelled (once again), and the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. Nicodemus would have known about this incident, but Jesus presented it as more than just history– it was a foreshadowing of God’s perfect plan of salvation! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+21%3A4-9&version=NIV God had Moses make a bronze snake to be lifted up on a pole. When the people looked up and saw the bronze snake, they could live. In just such a way, when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, he didn’t just die. He battled death to bring life to anyone who “looks up” and believes.

That ancient symbol of a snake on a pole is used by physicians to represent healing. The ancient symbol of Christ on the cross is used to represent redemption and eternal life. Combined with the reality of an empty tomb, we can celebrate life in the midst of any circumstances.

These are difficult days–even with the hope of eternal life, we still have to face the sadness and grief of death, the confusion and hardship of economic chaos, and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like– socially, politically, economically, and physically. But we need only “look up” and beyond our circumstances to be reminded that this is not the whole story. There is an empty tomb– ours! There is victory–ours! Won for us by the perfect plan of God, and the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.

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Look up– and Live!

Who was Hannah?

The Bible is an amazing book. It is a single narrative, but it is made up of several stories; even several different types of literature. There are stories that seem straightforward; others are clearly meant as parables or metaphors; still others are prophetic visions. Hannah’s story fits the first category. Hannah is to be understood as a real person living in a real time and place in history. She is also representative of a particular situation–she is childless in a society where a woman’s value is measured in her ability to bear children. She is loved by her husband, but taunted and harassed by her husband’s other wife. She is consumed by grief and frustration. In our own time, she would likely be diagnosed as clinically depressed.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a tendency to see Hannah through the rosy lenses of her eventual triumph. I know the end of the story. I indulge her grief, because she “prays her way through it”, and gets the happy ending I think we all long for.

But Hannah’s story isn’t just about the outcome, and it isn’t a parable meant to show that earnest prayer will always result in getting what we desire. Hannah’s happy ending is not a guarantee or a promise for anyone else who suffers from grief or infertility (or both).

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So, I’d like to take a closer look at Hannah– not as one of the “heroines” of the Bible, but as a woman in distress. And I’d like to focus on the others in her story. God doesn’t waste details, even if we don’t always understand why they are included. I think there are several hidden lessons in this story, and they reside in details we often skim or throw aside in the pursuit of the very real truth that God answers prayer.

So, to prepare for this journey, here is the text of Hannah’s tale:


1 Samuel 1 New International Version (NIV)
The Birth of Samuel
There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. 10 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. 11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”
15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
17 Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
18 She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”

Taken from biblegateway.com

Lord, help us to read this story with new eyes. Help us to see how you work even in difficult circumstances and with imperfect people to bring hope and wisdom and salvation to a fallen world.

Next time: Hannah and Her Husband

Broken Prayers

In “Pursuing Prayer”, I want to explore ways to develop my prayers; to become “better” at praying– more confident, more Christlike.  But along the way, I have found that “better” doesn’t always mean what I think it ought to mean.  Sometimes, becoming “better” requires becoming broken.

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I don’t like being broken.  I don’t want to be shattered, ruined, like a broken vase.  I don’t want to pray like a broken record– sending up the same failures, the same weaknesses, the same painful memories.  I don’t want to be pinched, and cracked, and mangled.  I don’t want to be stretched and molded and squeezed.  I want to have comforting chats with God, not drawn-out confessions, or rebukes, or unanswered questions.

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It is tempting to avoid brokenness–cover it up, pretend, deny, ignore its existence.  I don’t want to bring God my questions, my fears, my hurts.  I don’t want to open up the dark places of my soul.  I want to wear a smile and make small talk with God–“How are you today?”  “Just lovely, Father, and how are you?”  “Fine weather we’re having.”  “Yes, thank you for the breezes yesterday.  And could I just put in a plug for my neighbor’s gall bladder surgery?  I told her I would pray for her, so could you just give her a speedy healing?  That’d be great.  Well, gotta run. Talk to you soon…Oh, and I’m sorry for the way I blew up at the kids the other day.  I don’t know WHAT got into me.  You know I’m just not that way, right?  So I’m just asking for grace to kinda cover that up and make it ok again.  Thanks.”

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God is not fooled.  God is not impressed or amused at our shallow righteousness.  He’s not impressed or overcome by our brokenness, either.  But He wants it, anyway.  He wants all of it.  Because He wants to build honesty, intimacy, and most of all, restoration.  God doesn’t want us to wallow in our failures, any more than He wants us to gloat in our false perfection.  He wants to break the bondage they have over us.  He doesn’t get tired of hearing our voices, even in guilt or shame, rage or despair…if they are raised to Him.  He doesn’t want us to stay shattered and ruined.  But He needs us to be redirected, refreshed, rebuilt, rekindled, and renewed.

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There are many things that need to be “broken” to become better– we “break” in shoes, we “break” ground to create a new field or prepare for a new building.  We “break bread” to eat it and share it with others.  We “break” horses in order to prepare them to run or work more effectively.  We “break” bad habits.  We even “break” the ice in a new friendship.  The point is not to stay broken, but to “break through” whatever is keeping us oppressed and held down.

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When I am feeling broken, and I cry out to God, He doesn’t deny my brokenness; He doesn’t turn away in disgust; He doesn’t stick a hasty bandage on my wounds.  God acknowledges my pain, He listens to my questions.  He loves me enough to come and stay with me through the worst moments–even when others have gone; even when I deny His presence and turn my face to the wall–and He begins the process of turning even those scars and cracks and tears into treasures.

Brokenness is inevitable in our fallen and broken world– God is not out to break us; people and time, circumstances, and even our own good intentions will cause us to fall and fail–am I willing to uncover my brokenness and need, and allow God to reshape my shattered dreams?

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The Urgency of Death

The past few weeks have been filled with death for me…last month, we had two family-related funerals in less than three days.  In the past two weeks, I know of three people who were on my prayer list who died of illness or disease, and another who died unexpectedly.  The internet and news has been filled with two recent celebrity deaths by suicide, and there are continuing reverberations from mass shootings earlier this year…auto accidents, homicides, house fires, heart attacks…we are surrounded by the urgent and shocking reminders that life is fragile and uncertain.

Death has an urgency that pushes other concerns away.  Death is final; permanent.  Death is powerful– we can’t cheat it, defeat it, or comprehend it.  Death frightens us, angers us, and mystifies us.  We begin to look at our own life and ask questions–Who am I?  What makes me “me”– individual and uniquely different from everyone else?  Is there a purpose to my being– to my being “me”, “here” and “now”?  How can I find and fulfill that purpose if it exists?  Do I have an eternal destiny after this life?  If so, how can I know what it might be?  Can I change that eternal destiny?

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Some people argue that our origins are accidental; our uniqueness is merely a random generation of genetic code; our purpose non-existent or self-determined; and our destiny no more than dust.  Many of them hear me or read what I write and dismiss me as intellectually lazy, gullible, or crazy.  I’m all right with that, as long as they will be intellectually honest enough to admit to the questions; and open enough to acknowledge that there may be more than a quick denial as an answer.  Crazy– well crazy is as crazy does, I guess…I’ll let my actions answer that one.

Death is powerful and mysterious, but I believe that God is more powerful, and omniscient– he has already crushed the power of death, and invites us to view death from a different perspective.  When we take everything– including death– to the Lord in Prayer, he takes the weight of it, the fear of it, the pain of it off our shoulders and carries it to the cross.  HIS death overshadows even our own, in its power to overcome. The urgency of death is not that it is the end of all things.  The urgency of death is that it signals the end of our opportunity to recognize and live out the purpose of this short life.

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If that isn’t an urgent reason to pray for those you love, I don’t know of a better one…

It’s also an urgent reason to pray for those around you who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one.  And don’t just be a pray-er..be an answer to prayer– reach out with a card, or spend some time with them.  Let them know that a) their loved one is not forgotten, and b) neither are they!

When Sorrows Like Sea-Billows Roll..

My mother and I shared a wonderful morning shopping and enjoying the spring weather.  We both arrived home, only to be greeted with the news that one of our extended family members had died in an accident.  Just the day before, another member of our family had passed on at age 94.  Both of them left a legacy of faith, hope, joy, and kindness that leaves us grateful, but grieving their loss.

And it is a loss– even though both of them were Christians, even though we have the great hope of being reunited with them in Heaven, even though both of them led full lives–they were unique on this earth, and everything that made them special and irreplaceable to friends and family is now absent; a gaping, aching hole, lined with teasing flashes of memories, echoes of laughter, and unanswered questions.

Some days, the hits just keep coming– an unexpected expense, a misunderstanding at work, a fender-bender during the commute, a plumbing nightmare, a migraine, the phone call with bad news.  Each new pain rolls over us, throwing us off balance, and trying to drag us under.

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“Even so, it is well with my soul.”  The story of this favorite hymn has been told many times, but it bears repeating. ( It Is Will With My Soul. wikipedia.org )  The author of these words had lost everything– his only son had died; shortly afterward, he lost almost all his money and property in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  A friend, knowing of his troubles invited him to bring his family to England for an evangelistic campaign.  Mr. Spafford (the above-mentioned author of the hymn) had to stay behind and sent his wife and four daughters ahead.  Their ship, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another vessel and sank.  All four of the daughters were drowned, and only his wife survived to send him news of the tragedy.  As he made the heartbreaking voyage to rejoin his wife, he passed the place where his daughters had most likely gone down.  At that moment, Mr. Spafford felt a welling of peace and hope beyond human understanding, which led him to pen the words that have given comfort to so many in the years since:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Nothing can prepare us for the sorrows that sweep over us at unexpected moments.  Nothing can stop them, and though we know they will come, no one knows how high they will rise, or when they will crest and break around us.  No one except the one who set the boundaries of the sea, the one who has walked on its waters, and the one who can calm the storm.

God doesn’t remove the sorrows or tragedies from our life or prevent them from washing around and over us.  But for those who trust in him, there is a promise that we will not be consumed. We may be in a storm-tossed boat in the middle of a raging sea, but at our faintest cry, Jesus will walk on choppy waves to be by our side and bring comfort.  He will teach us to be in awe of him as he commands the winds and waves to obey him.  He will teach us to trust him in the good times and the bad.  He will teach us to say, “It is well with my soul!”

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