Why Death by Cross?

“There’s another cross!” shouted one of my Spain mission trip team members.

“I see one up there!” added another.

You see, our team decided to meditate all week on one short verse about Jesus:

1 Corinthians 2:2   2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Since meditation is a continuous contemplation on something profoundly meaningful, we challenged each other to share with the group whenever someone sighted a crucifix.

We too wanted to know nothing among the Spaniards except the crucified Messiah.

Now remember, we were on mission in Spain strengthening the Spanish evangelical church. Spain is speckled with churches and colossal cathedrals, and where one finds churches and cathedrals, one finds crosses.

As we spotted crosses all week long, I began to ask myself:

“God, why did Paul write “that even the word of the cross is the power of God for salvation?” (1 Cor. 1:18)

            “God, why did you choose the execution of Jesus by a cross

Have you ever asked yourself that question and felt the spiritual impact of the answer?

I mean, why not death by hanging, starvation or a stampede by Spanish bulls (incidentally, our team was in Spain during the running with the bulls)?

Moreover, why do we all refer to the death of Jesus as “THE Crucifixion?”

John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Marie Antoinette was guillotined. Cleopatra was poisoned. But I’ve never heard anyone refer to their deaths as “The assassination…The guillotining….The poisoning.”

Fleming Rutledge asserts in her book The Crucifixion “There is something in the strange death of the man identified as the Son of God that continues to command special attention…This death, this execution, above and beyond all others, continues to have universal reverberations. Of no other death in human history can this be said” (pgs. 3-4).

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So why death by a cross?

Paul focuses us on the means of death in his short letter to the Philippian Christians: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8)

Why death by a cross? Here are three reasons for you to consider. How about meditating on them so that they aren’t just apprehensions (you have a simple understanding) but deep spiritual impressions (you taste them with your spiritual taste buds and relish the reality so that you experience pleasure and joy)?

First, Jesus died on a cross to express his solidarity with sinners stuck in the slavery of their sin.

The Roman writer Cicero referred to crucifixion as the most extreme form of torture inflicted upon slaves.  The middle and upper classes usually escaped death by crucifixion, but not a powerless slave. The nobodies and the powerless of society died by crucifixion. Jesus chose to die in this way for you. And by his death in your place, you are free from the guilt, condemnation and bondage of sin forever. Oh my!

Second, Galatians 3:13 and Deuteronomy 21:23 explain that death by crucifixion displayed God’s objective curse on a criminal. 

As a law-breaking criminal hung on a tree, everyone that looked on that criminal felt disgust, disrespect, and the reminder that breaking God’s good laws brings God’s deserved justice. Jesus hung on a tree taking the curse the sinner deserves so that the sinner receives the free blessing of approval and life with God forever. Oh my!

Lastly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Christian writer who died by hanging at the hands of Hitler) wrote:  “the meaning of the cross lies not only in physical suffering, but especially in rejection and shame.”

Have you ever considered how utterly degrading, dishonoring and disgraceful it was to die on a cross? In Deuteronomy 25:3 God says that forty lashes can be given to an offender, “but not more lest…your brother be degraded in your sight.” Jesus was dehumanized, shamed and elevated (or lowered?!) on the cross to show that the God-man on the crucifix was not fit for humanity. He was degraded and God-forsaken.

You see, if Jesus was killed by decapitation, an arrow to the heart or stoning, there would be no lengthy humiliation in the eyes of humanity. 

I’m not trying to be morbid, but other quick methods don’t create the depth of suffering and shame. Jesus was raised on a cross, and while alive, had the eyes of the onlookers squint with self-righteous disgust. God the Father finally turned away as darkness descended.

Jesus chose to suffer and experience hours and hours of shame so that you will NEVER be shameful in the eyes of our holy and beautiful God of all grace. Oh my!

I leave you with the striking words of Melito of Sardis, a pastor who understood the meaning of the cross. How about spending a week meditating on 1 Corinthians 2:2 and the words of Melito?

“And so he was raised on a cross, and a title was fixed, indicating who it was who was being executed. Painful it is to say, but more terrible not to say….He who suspended the earth is suspended, he who fixed the heavens is fixed, he who fastened all things is fastened to the wood;  the Master is outraged;  God is murdered.”

                                                                                                Melito of Sardis (d.c. A.D. 180).

Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

How to Survive the Spin Cycle of the Soul

Has suffering ever hit you so hard that you lost all sense of direction?

Maybe someone you love is getting sicker and sicker rather than better and better.

That complicated relationship you’ve poured your heart into for so many years is not just fraying at the edges but severing at the center.

Have you ever heard the term “spin cycle?”  If your mind jumped directly to a washing machine you’re headed the right direction, but if surfing didn’t enter your mind you’ll end up at the wrong destination.

Stay with me…

I grew up a block from the beach in Southern Jersey.  Surfers would swap stories at the end of their day claiming that massive waves hit them so hard that they were “caught in a spin cycle.”

I remember hearing them explain how, after being hit by a set of successive waves and pulled underwater, they couldn’t distinguish up from down or left from right.

But, what scared them the most, was when they were unable to take a breath of air before they were sucked beneath the next pounding wave.

Can you relate to the words of the Psalm writer regarding his soul’s spin cycle?

Psalm 42:7 says “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.”

Psalm 42 (a lifeline when your life enters the spin cycle!) gives three ways to survive the spin cycle:  Admit, Hope and Remember.  

First, to survive the spin cycle of the soul, admit that your soul is thirsty and lost.

The Psalm opens up with the image of a hunted deer, panting with labored breathing, trying desperately to take in a breath.

Ever been there?  The circumstances of life are hitting you so hard that you can’t even inhale before the next wave slaps you under?

The writer has been crying tears of confusion, and from the vantage point of others, it appears that God is nowhere to be found (vs. 3 “where is your God?)

But he admits that even though is soul is thirsty, lost and spinning like a weather vane in a windy storm; his soul is really thirsting for the living God (vs. 2).

Second, when your soul is caught in the spin cycle, direct your heart to hope in God.

Psalm 42:5 5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.

When suffering strikes, your thoughts and emotions might be best compared to a jar full of lightening bugs beeping randomly in the dark.

Open the lid of your heart with prayers of hope to God and send him those erratic concerns.

Hope promises relief at the end of the winding road of waiting.

The heat and intensity of the pain will pass.  

A wave is a wave not an immovable wall.

Finally, when your soul is caught in the spin cycle, remember the times God has been there for you in the past.

Psalm 42:6 My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you…

Don’t look at the next wave of suffering coming your way.  It’s a wave.  Waves come and go like winter giving way to spring.  Like night giving way to day.  Like storms giving way to sunshine. Stop asking “what if?” because you’re trying to be God rather than trusting His next page in the book of your life.

Instead, look into the rear-view mirror of your life story and bring back into your mind (re-member) all the good that God has lavished on you.

Remember when he answered that prayer that only he heard through your sobs?

Remember when he gave you that undeserved grace?

Remember when he showed up that night in the dark when you were pounding your pillow with a fist, feeling pain and betrayal?

Remember when he gave you his only son to remove the guilt and shame of your sin forever?

Remember when he surprised you with his mercy after you ran away from him?

And do you remember when you laughed so hard in the joy of his supply and benefits that you forgot what was up, down, left or right- but you didn’t care- because you knew your heavenly Father was in ultimate control?

Remember, whether it’s the spin cycle on your washing machine,

or the spin cycle for the surfer,

or the spin cycle for your suffering soul,

The waves do finally come to an end, and all is quietly calm in Christ.

Howard Cole
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

What Are You Really INTO?

Do you remember the last time you entered into a new, satisfying relationship?

          Maybe it was a new friend who wasn’t fake or flakey extending unearned love and loyalty to the real you. 

We long for a reciprocal rootedness with and in another.

          Maybe it was when a new child or grandchild entered into your life like a seed initially tossed onto your soul. Their beautiful eyes or smile secretly whispered to that seed to send out roots and plant new life into the soil of your heart.

          Maybe it was a new series on Netflix where the characters and storyline entered into your own story and gave you pure pleasure as it soothed your hidden pain and seemed to make sense of your suffering.

Union with Christ (or being “in Christ” cf Romans 6:11) has been a central description of Christian identity, significance and mission as those who trust Christ enter into the life of His salvation and grace.

Have you ever heard of Union theology?

I grew up thinking that I was supposed to live up to religious expectations in order to gain acceptance by God and always felt like a failure for not measuring up.

One of the greatest hurdles to my faith has not been the things that I know or even don’t know. 

Instead it’s the things I think I know but I’m wrong about.

Union theology (living INTO Christ) challenges us all to stop trying to live up to the high and holy standards of our good God-in our own strength-and instead live into the accomplished life, death, resurrection and mission of Jesus.

We are to live into Jesus.

This is really good news!

It means we can stop living for an identity and live from an identity freely given to us by God in Christ!

A famous pastor from France, John Calvin called Union theology “the sum of the gospel…where the newness of life and free reconciliation are conferred on us by Christ.”

Calvin wrote thousands of pages of theology and yet called union with Christ the sum of the gospel.

How would you sum up the gospel or good news about reality? 

Burk Parsons, pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel, summed up the gospel by calling it

“The good news about what our truine God has graciously accomplished for His people:  The Father’s sending the Son Jesus Christ God incarnate, to live perfectly, fulfill the law, and die sacrificially, atoning for our sins, satisfying God’s wrath against us that we might not face an eternal hell, and raising Him from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the victorious announcement that God saves sinners.”

True and what a mouthful!

The apostle Paul (an early Christian leader and teacher) used the two simple words “in Christ” over and over to expose and explain how a sinner enters into a rich relationship with a good and perfect God.

My favorite words from Paul about union theology are found in a short letter he wrote to some friends: 

Philippians 3:8-9  8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

What if instead of being ultimately into our work, entertainment, relationships, goals, bodies, comforts and causes we lived into the identity, mission and ministry of Christ?

We would finally know who we were, where we were headed, what we were here for and what we should ultimately hope for.

What if the very life of God in Christ and through His Spirit began to swirl, whirl, curl and unfurl in your life?

Wouldn’t we stop seeing others as obstacles to our plots and projects and instead begin to indwell their lives with the love and life of God?

What if being into Christ had the intended consequence of an overflowing other-centeredness where hospitality, invitation, welcome, forgiveness, laughter, and companionship finally found a home in mutual togetherness?

What are you into?

Who are you really into?

Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

Three Ways Lent Accelerates Your Growth in Grace

Did you know that Lent means springtime?

Lush leaves and colorful flowers die in the fall, but bud and live again in the spring.

Christians from all cultures customarily celebrate Lent as a 40 day spiritual season of accelerated growth.

Why 40 days?

Because Lent follows the events of the life of Jesus which began when he was tempted by Satan for 40 days.

But how can this Lenten season accelerate our growth in grace?

During Lent, spiritual growth is accelerated as we

Give up

     Take up

         And show up.

First, why would giving up anything accelerate growth?

I had a friend in high school who gave up eating chocolate and meat during Lent and I thought “what a downer!”

But then I realized that Jesus had to give up food and all the comforts of life when he went into the wilderness.

He learned that good resources like food, friends and fun cannot be relied on as ultimate satisfiers. 

In the wilderness he unfastened his deepest desires from stuff and fastened his heart on the living words of His father.

What about you?  Would you consider giving up a food, beverage, or practice that your heart has become addicted to?

Fasting was a common practice among God’s people. (Exodus 34:38; 2 Sam. 12:16; 1 Kings 19:8; Ps. 35:13; Joel 1:14; Jon. 3:5)

Will it hurt?  Of course! 

When you rely on a good thing that has become an ultimate thing-- and then disconnect from it—ouch!

But during those 40 days, Jesus connected to his father and grew in intimacy like never before.

Secondly, we accelerate our growth by taking up.

How about taking up a new spiritual practice for 40 days? 

During the 40 days leading up to Easter, many Christians have taken up and reflected upon Lenten readers.

These are short meditations, written by brothers and sisters in Christ, to assist you in savoring the events in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Why would Christians write, distribute and then read these meditations together?

Because this was the time of the year when new believers in Christ were learning the basics of the Christian story before their public baptism on Easter Sunday.

As a show of support, everyone in the church family would read along with the new believers preparing for baptism.

Everyone took up the practice of remembering what Jesus had done to save them from their sins.

Give up, take up, and lastly show up if you want to accelerate your growth in grace.

Ever notice that some people at church slowly drift away from worship services and small groups?

Life is crazy busy and all of our hearts are “prone to wander.”

During lent, leaders, along with the whole church family seek out those that have drifted away.

Drifters are warmly welcomed back into the church family with open arms of grace.

The drifters, overwhelmed by mercy, kindness and grace, begin to show up again for worship of the living God.

Remember, it’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance. (Romans 2:4)

Is there a person that you love and have lost touch with in our church family?

How about showing up in their life with a text message, a call, or an in-person visit as you invite them back into the throbbing life of the church?

Or maybe you have drifted during the fall and winter seasons and desire fresh buds of life.  It’s time to remember your vows and reconnect to Christ. 

It’s time to return and show up and soon we’ll all shout “He is risen” on that climactic last day of Lent.

Imagine the growth in grace we’ll experience when we all

          Give up

                    Take up

                              And show up.

Because of the risen Christ,

Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church

How the Cat in the Hat Taught me a Thing or Two about Grace

Do you remember the first time you heard the opening words from Dr. Seuss’ zany “The Cat in the Hat?”

The sun did not shine

It was too wet to play

So we sat in the house

All that cold, cold wet day


I sat there with Sally

We sat there, we two

And I said “How I wish

We had something to do.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel once told Parent magazine “I think [children] have a breadth of understanding but not a depth of understanding. They know more things about what is going on in the world but not what… they’re about.”

As I a Christian, I can’t help but read his stories through grace-colored glasses and notice deeper realities.

Did you know that when Dr. Seuss was working on his doctorate in English at Oxford he made a surprising proposal? 

He asked the Oxford University Press to publish a modern edition of the famous Christian poem Paradise Lost.  He told them that if they would publish it, he would illustrate it.

Sadly, they turned him down. 

My hunch is that he went on to publish his own poems and parables (over 60 books!) to illustrate the Christian story of Grace. 

For instance, I think “The Cat in the Hat” hides a subtext of grace under the silly surface.  See if you agree.

Let’s walk through the whacky, whimsical story and notice a few playful parallels to God’s story of grace: 

The story begins, it has its genesis, with a boy and a girl, who are stuck, alone at home, with “nothing to do” on a rainy day.

Hmmm….   Sound familiar?

The Christian’s origin story of grace begins with Adam and Eve, a boy and a girl, who are stuck in the garden of grace after their distrust of God.

There is nothing they could possibly “do” to change the climate of their wet, sunless, cold, disconnected-from-God condition.

Sure they could sew fig leaves

And try hard to hide blame

But fig leaves soon will wilt

And soon both did feel shame


All they could “do” was to

               Sit

                              Sit

                                             Sit

                                                            Sit (in their sinful condition)

And they did not like it

not one little bit!


And here’s where the story has its first trace of grace.

Unbidden, a cat bumps and barges through the door of their imprisoned condition.

He makes a gracious promise to them before they “do” anything:

“We can have fun that is funny.”

But before the children have a chance to trust the cat, a fearful fish shouts the following:

No No, make that cat go away

Tell that cat in the hat

You do not want to play.

Grace, (says Presbyterian pastor J. Greschem Machen) is the very center and core of the whole Bible-the grace of God which depends not one whit upon anything that is in man, but is absolutely undeserved, resistless and sovereign.

The fish knows full well

if the kids find free favor

they willl have to give up

their self-saving behavior


The cat calmly responds to the fearful fish with the following words:
 

Now! Now! Have no fear

Have no fear said the cat

My tricks are not bad

Said the cat in the hat.


The cat begins to play a game called “up, up, up with a fish” and the fish fearfully replies “put me down, I do not wish to fall.”

But the cat repeats “do not fear” (something Jesus said very often!) again and does something preposterous:

The cat takes many items in the house (a cup, a cake, the fish, books, a rake, a toy ship….) and after balancing on a ball himself takes a fall!


Christ fell in our cold world

full of cakes, rakes, and fish

He fell far from his Father

To serve grace on a dish


The cat refuses to leave the messy house and opens a red, wooden box with two “things” inside.

(Am I the only one who doesn’t think it is coincidental that the box is RED and WOODEN as Seuss illustrated it?  Might it not be pointing to the blood of Christ and the cross?)

Grace teaches us a thing or two.

Thing One:  A common (used over 200 times!) Old Testament word for grace is “Henna.”  It connotes favor from a good king, given freely to an undeserving inferior.

Thing Two:  A second common Old Testament word for grace is “Hesed.”  It pops off the pages 240 times and means God’s one-way, unshakable, loyal love, mercy and compassion toward rebellious sinners (C.f. Ps. 36:7).


When we find God’s free favor

In the midst of our sin

We must open the red box

For two things are within


When those kids allow the two things free reign, the situation gets even messier!

And, as you know, the story climaxes with the mother (mom’s do NOT like messes!) of the children coming home and the children are scared about the mess mom will find.

The law of God exposes our sinful condition.  Just as a mother is good, so too, the law is good.

But the law cannot clean up our condition.


But your mother will come

She will find this big mess!

And this mess is so big and so deep and so tall

We cannot pick it up there is no way at all.


Grace resolves the crisis!


The cat bursts through the door and took upon himself all the mess.

With a favor-filled “tip of the hat” he left the house in a clean condition.

Free from accusation!

The story ends with the mom asking “what did you do?”

Don’t miss this probing question:  “What did you DO?

The children know that they did nothing but play and have fun and receive free grace.

They wonder if they should tell their mom “what went ON there that day.”

They have no report of what they did to deal with their wet, cold, sunless day.

But they do know something went ON.


Someone came ON the scene of their hopeless situation and everything changed.


Now with grace on the scene

Pouring free from God’s vat

Christ comes near to our need

Like the cat in the hat.


Pastor Howard
Senior Pastor
Metro North Church