Friday, April 29, 2011

A Short Story: A Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Part Four

I wrote this short story several years ago, but because of the Easter holidays we dug it out again. I am reminded afresh of what this story is all about.

When you hear the passion story do you place yourself into the story some how? Do you identify with someone in it? Do you feel like you are Peter, denying Christ in the heat of inquiry? Are you like Simeon, helping out Jesus by lifting his burden a bit? Are you a mother, weeping for her child dying in the most unjust way imaginable? Are you Mary, the first to the tomb after He rose? Are you like Thomas, who won't believe until he sees the miracle for himself? You could be like Joseph of Arimathea who didn't boldly come out as a follower of Christ but was sympathetic to the cause and in the end invested in it. Maybe you once were one of the enemies who hated Jesus and His people and then saw a great light and now you are one of His strongest advocates like Paul the apostle.

Those are the good guys, but what about some of the bad guys? Are you Pilate, who can't fathom that there is an absolute truth and ends up tragically condemning Christ for us all? Are you one of the people mocking Jesus saying, "If you are the Christ, save yourself?" Are you an opportunistic Roman soldier hoping to win some garment in a game of chance? Perhaps you are like one of the thieves on the cross next to him and you find it easier to vent your hatred against someone else than actually face your own responsibility. Or you could be on the other side of the cross, calling out to the Savior with you last breath regretful for years of rebellion.

When it comes to the passion story, I identify most with Barabbas. His story is found in the following passages: Matt. 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:17-25; John 18:39-40. There is not a lot said about him. We don't even know whether to place him in the "good guys" camp or the other one, do we? Why would I identify with him?

I most identify with Barabbas because it was his cross that Jesus bore. Jesus died in his place. He was actually the one guilty and deserving of the punishment, but he was set free because the Savior took his place. That, my friends, is me. I am Barabbas.

"But God showed His great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since by His blood He did all this for us sinners, how much more shall He do for us now that He has declared us not guilty? Now He will save us from all God's wrath to come." -
Romans 5:8-9 (Living Bible)

"I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
-Galatians 2:20 (Living Bible)

A Short Story: A Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Part Three

"Why? He's done nothing! He is guilty only of unwavering idealism and speaking out against the party line. Why Him?"

It suddenly became clear to me. It was all a political ploy! My freedom was only convenient. Nobody wanted me to live, they only wanted Him to die!

I finally saw it...there was my cross.


My shame was mounting with every step of the procession. His agony was for me. He was not only carrying my cross, He was bearing my guilt. He was being executed in my place.

I couldn't look any more. I started to turn, but then, a gasp--a tiny whisper--thundered in my ears.

"Forgive them?" He said, "Father forgive them!"

"Oh, Lord, where is the justice? Where is the righteousness of this? He shouldn't be there. It should be me!"

Then He turned and looked at me, or should I say through me. His eyes pierced through my soul. He knew! He knew that I was to blame! He knew that it was my cross! He knew that I was the murderer!

But His face still had those words on it. Then He said them again, while He was still reading the headlines of my soul--"Forgive them."

I was wanted! I was loved!

The Jewish religious leaders didn't really want me? They only used me. In those eyes, in those words, I found the acceptance I had always desired; and from the one place I would least expect it.

I followed the group up the hill. I watched as the crosses were raised. I watched the men slowly die. I have seen good men die, but this man was different. He was more than a good man. He was the One, the innocent lamb of God, slaughtered for our sin.

I died that day. I too was crucified on that afternoon. The Barabbas that was full of hatred was put to death with the others. I finally found peace. I finally found justice. I finally found a cause worth living for. I found it there at the cross.

A Short Story: A Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Part Two

"Get out here Jew," the guard grunted, but I just froze. "Why me first?" Was the thought that ran through my mind. Then I said to myself, "No. Lets get this over with. Let's just do it!" I still wouldn't move. "If You want me outta-here pig you're gonna have to drag me out!" I had nothing to lose, but nothing to gain either. There was no thrill in my rebellion now. He grabbed me by my hair and pulled me out of my cell. I could here my brother in the next cell. He was curled up in the corner, weeping like a baby. He used to be so callused and hard.

The hall just wasn't long enough. The soldier was walking too fast. The door opened too easily.

The bright light of the sun was not a welcomed sight to me. I just wanted to hide, to disappear and never be found. Even before my eyes could adjust, I already could hear a mob forming. Their voices were like jackals wining before a kill.


"Well, where is it?" I asked myself.

The guard unlocked my chains, but they were more welcomed to me than the spikes. "Where is it?" I kept thinking. "Where's the cross?"

Then it happened. I still can't believe it! The words are still ringing in my ears. "Get lost Jew." I just stood there. "Is this some kind of a twisted joke? I must have heard wrong." Then he said it again, "Get lost Jew, I don't want to see your ugly face. Go, or I'll make you wish you were crucified!"

That was all I needed, I was gone. I don't remember the streets, the plaza or the gate, I just remember running. I didn't know where I was going, but I was making record time! I just kept thinking that at any moment they would change their mind and come after me.

I would have kept on going but a distant noise stopped me. The approaching mob was an announcement of the spectacle that was about to pass by. I remember telling myself that it was stupid to stick around, but I couldn't move. I had been rehearsing this sight over and over in my mind, and now I had to watch. I was drawn to the scene as though it was the culmination of my life. I hid myself in the crowd.

The first thing I noticed was the angry roar of the audience. Their shouts and jeers passed right through my body. Their hatred was intense. I felt as though it was me they were angry with, but no one even noticed that I was there.

The mocking and cursing then became muffled in my mind, as if someone pushed the mute button. I began to pass through the crowd as if I were in a dream. As the noise of the onlookers became subdued, the grunts and dialogue of the central cast in this drama were amplified.

There was my brother leading the condemned. It was definitely him, but I could hardly recognize him with the strange look of terror on his face. This was a part of him I had never met.

All our lives we had run together. I had always assumed that we would die together, but an unexpected twist of fate intervened. I should be with him. My brother had always followed, and now he is the one to go ahead of me.

We both knew that this was a righteous execution. "Why am I not with him? There is no reason for my pardon!"

"Good bye my companion, perhaps we will be together again...with this pain behind us."

A terrifying shout filled with rage gave me a jolt of adrenaline. My attention was drawn to the next man in this parade of shame. He was my partner. His wrath was a familiar expression to me, only now it was magnified by the helplessness of his lot. He had always been a fighter, and he was still fighting. I used to envy his strength and intensity, but this time it seemed like a pitiful display. This was not just a performance for the crowd. It was obvious that his very soul was turned inside-out for all to see. There was nothing salvageable, nothing innocent or good, only poison and sin. He should die.

A shudder passed through my body as the realization came to me: This was me! As in a mirror, I saw for the first time the wickedness that was within me. I felt a terror run through me that made my previous fear seem insignificant. I am my enemy! I am the reason for my hatred and violence. There is no one else to blame. I have had no cause but sin. I have not run free as I once thought, but had always been a slave to my own evil. There was never any justice in my actions. I had escaped the only justice I ever would have met. I should be executed! I should be crucified!

"What?!? A third cross? Who is this? It can't be! The Nazarene!"

A Short Story: A Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Part One

I always thought of myself as being brave, but when I heard the footsteps of the guard coming toward my cell, fear gripped me in a way that I never imagined. Everything inside me froze from the terror. I couldn't move, or speak. My stomach was in knots, and my breath was gone. I was hoping that my heart would stop so that I wouldn't have to face the inevitable horror outside.

I had been in that cell for almost a week. The cells on death row are always the worst but I hardly even noticed. All I could see was the cross. The chafing of the shackles was a constant reminder of the nails that would soon be pounded into my flesh. Their unrelenting hold on me never let me escape the permanence of my sentence.

I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes there was the cross. I would pace back and forth in my cell like a caged animal. "There's got to be a way out of this! This can't be happening! Is this really the end? Is this all my life is to be?" No matter how fast my mind raced, no matter how many times I walked around that cell--there was no way out! There's no Governor to pardon a Jew in this fascist government, especially one who rubbed out a Roman Centurion.

Before I was caught, I used to run with a group of revolutionaries. I guess you would call us terrorists. We prefer the term freedom fighters. We had a cause and were willing to go to extremes for what we believed. I was a thief and a murderer. There was always a kind of thrill when we would go out on a spree. As I watched the man's life flow from his body, I felt a kind of a high--a buzz that was better than wine. It was a release, as though I had finally gotten rid of the anger and hurt inside me. The next day my hatred was back, but even stronger, as though it fed on the violence.

I used to think that I was doing the noble and courageous thing. Now I see that I was just wasting what little and precious life I had. I knew that someday I would be caught. I knew that someday I would have to pay the ultimate price for my cause. I accepted that. But I always thought that it would be different from this. I thought that I would be brave and strong--a hero! I always hoped that when I checked out people would admire and remember me for my courage. I used to think that when I would die for my cause I would have the greatest rush of my life. The truth is, when I heard the keys jingle, the lock turn, and the door open, I felt only shame for having nothing good or clean to show for my life--only hatred and violence.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

True Leadership Success

The greatest test of a leader’s success is not how many people come to your preaching conferences or buy your books. The real test of your leadership is at the end of your life, your final exam. How you end is perhaps the most important part of your life. The apostle Paul took that test and passed it with flying colors. He became an example to Timothy and to us in the way he ended, and that is what the book Journeys sets out to demonstrate.

He did not end with a large following of people. At the end of his life many turned away from Paul. More than likely he had been arrested one too many times, so they began to doubt his character. There were also many scoundrels who slandered his good name, and after hearing it so often some actually began to believe it. Other leaders were perhaps more popular or demanded greater audiences, but Paul was faithful, fruitful and finished well.

The test of his greatness is demonstrated after his eulogy had long passed. The world that he lived in was changed for his having lived in it. What we know and experience today as Christians has his influence all over it. Even this blog post is the influence of his life well lived.

How many of us can claim greater fruitfulness in our absence than in our presence (see Phil 2:12)? One can even question whether you are a success if it only remains while you are present. All of us need a more long-range view of what success really is. I want my influence to go beyond driving distance to my church and beyond my eulogy. Paul had that kind of success.

It is not how many buy your books in the first month, but how many are still reading it 70 years later that determines your success as an author. It is not how well your child does in school today, but how well they raise their own children decades later that determines your success as a parent. It is not how many people attend your church today that determines your success as a pastor, but how many other pastors are left to lead the churches that remain when you have gone.

Jesus saw greater impact postmortem (and post resurrection) than he did during his days walking on the planet. In fact, he even said that his disciples would do greater works than he (John 14:12). Perhaps we are all too enamored with the signs of immediate success to take the time to take the long view.

The leadership of the previous generation that started all these mega churches is now about to take its greatest test. I wonder how well they will do. The founding leaders are getting older and now thinking about succession. Some are passing the baton to their children but many are not doing so gracefully.

Will your influence survive your own eulogy?