The View From The Cross

Contemplating the various Good Friday observances—or lack thereof—taking place today, I found myself recalling a conversation I had fifteen years ago while living in Virginia Beach. I had the privilege of performing the role of High Priest in the tenth anniversary season of The Man Called Jesus, a top-shelf passion play that, with changes of name and venue but the same core personnel and message,  is celebrating it’s twenty-fifth season this week.

My remembrance is a conversation with Robert Klein, an outstanding actor who had performed in the role of Jesus for five years at the time (and is performing his twentieth season in the role this week). Working with Robert was a remarkable experience. His grasp of character and focused portrayal was so intense that, as High Priest, it was all I could do to not fall on my face and repent. Talking with him one day during rehearsal, I asked him about his experience developing the character. Preparing the character for the first time changed his life forever, because he had to focus on seeing things as Jesus would see them. After five years, he believed preparing for that role was the greatest spiritual growth exercise in his life.

Think about it. Jesus knew exactly what would happen. He knew the mission he had to accomplish. He knew that every road he traveled led to an agonizing death on a cruel Roman cross. With that knowledge, every photon that entered his eyes took on greater meaning and intensity.  Given his deeper knowledge, what did Jesus see as from his unique vantage point on the Cross?

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The eyes of Jesus’ body had an excellent view of the strange mix of people that had gathered to witness his execution. Beneath his feet, Roman soldiers rolled the dice, dividing His clothing among them. To one side a group of women wept, mourning the one that they had loved and followed. On the other side, Jewish elders hurled insults and challenged His claim to be the Christ, saying: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.”

Jesus’ disciples were there. Scattered. Dazed. Confused by their great leader’s apparent surrender. Jesus’ mother stood among them and wept, releasing thirty-three years of pent-up motherly angst. Before her pregnancy became visible to the gossips and judgmental neighbors who assumed her to be a sinner, she knew the boy in her belly was the Son of God. She had always known this day would come. The sight of the sharp swords of the Roman soldiers must have triggered memories of the day when she dedicated her eight-day old firstborn son to the Lord—the day when Simeon, the old man who prophesied over her baby, looked into her eyes and warned her of the heartache that would accompany her calling, saying: “A sword will pierce your very soul.”

Surrounding all these main players, a sea of spectators gathered at Golgotha because it was the trendy place to be at the moment. The same fickle crowd had hailed Jesus as King of the Jews just a week before. Earlier on that day of execution they had chanted, “Crucify Him!” and demanded the release of a known criminal named Barabbas rather than the one they once praised.

The eyes of Jesus’ soul didn’t see the crowd. He saw each person as a unique individual. He saw their needs, their hurts, their misunderstanding. He saw Mary, his mother, and felt her heartache at watching her son die a slow, miserable death. Jesus commissioned the disciple John to care for Mary, to take her in as he would his own mother, a loving act of compassion that not only served his mother’s needs, but met the unspoken need of John to love and serve his dying Lord.

The clueless mob of bloodthirsty onlookers must have caused Jesus’ tender heart to break. They didn’t even begin to comprehend the redemptive scene they witnessed.  Yet Jesus felt no anger or bitterness, as you or I might. He looked through eyes full of compassion, longing for them to accept the sacrifice he offered on their behalf. He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t even know what they’re doing.”

Jesus’ disciples—the men whom He had walked beside, trained and lived with for three years—had no more insight than the ignorant mob. He saw their confusion, their heartache, their utter cluelessness.  Only one man on that gruesome hilltop understood the events taking place that day, but Jesus knew his disciples’ mourning would soon turn into laughter, their tears into shouts of joy, their discouragement into vision and purpose.

The eyes of Jesus’ Spirit saw what only the Son of God could comprehend. For the first time in all eternity, Jesus experienced isolation from his Father and understood the depth of human depravity and sin. Demons danced around him with delight, celebrating their supposed victory—but with eyes not limited in time and space, Jesus also saw those demons cowering in darkened corners three days later. He saw an eternal bridge, christened with his blood, that would allow mankind the same intimate, personal relationship with God that Adam and Eve enjoyed in Eden before they sinned—the relationship they were meant to have with their maker. When others saw only defeat, Jesus saw the coming victory.

The dying Messiah looked beyond that momentary pain and saw the results of his sacrifice through history. 3000 people received His salvation on the day of Pentecost as cowardly Peter, who had denied Him three times, boldly preached under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus saw Saul of Tarsus, a vicious enemy of the Gospel, accept the free gift of grace and become one of the early church’s greatest leaders. He saw an Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Phillip in a roadside pool taking the good news to his homeland.

Countless generations of mankind passed before Jesus’ eyes, generations for whom His sacrifice made possible salvation by grace through faith. Some accepted, some refused, but all made their choice between the free gift of eternal life and the self-chosen curse of eternal death. Billions made their decisions as he watched, not a massive crowd but solitary individuals making their own personal choice between condemnation and grace, death and life. Al Capone. D.L. Moody. Adolf Hitler. Billy Graham. Each made their own personal, eternal choice.

Then, as He looked down that eternal timeline, Jesus saw you. He saw you in your moment of decision, and He knew your name.

Even then, Jesus could have stopped his suffering. He had the authority to call a legion of angels to set Him free.

Instead, He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.”

Then, He bowed His head—and He died.

Because He thought you were worth it.

Writer Coaster

Life is like a roller coaster–you’ve got your ups, you’ve got your downs, and just when you think you’re on a straight, level stretch, an unexpected curve throws you around a little. We have moments of anticipation as we climb the hill, and moments of either exhilaration or terror on the way back down.

The past couple of weeks have been a fine example of that roller coaster in action. First came the unexpected exhilaration of learning that I’m a finalist in the ACFW Genesis Contest (a national competition for unpublished novelists). The excitement came with a deadline: I had 48 hours to review the comments of the first-round judges and polish my entry before resubmitting for final round judging. Deadlines like this one are always adrenaline-laden thrill rides for me, and I honestly had a blast polishing and fine-tuning my entry.

Then, came a balancing heartbreak. Wookie, my long-time writing partner, creative consultant and quadruped muse, died.

WookieWookie has been a part of my writing life for eleven years. Back when the words “blog” and “Google” were not yet invented and I was sending out a daily email and playing with web site ideas, she provided many moments of inspiration and insight, not to mention stress relief–there’s great relaxation found in the purring of a kitten. She spent hours sitting on the back of my high-backed office chair, providing her creative services. Even in her old age, though terribly weak and frail, she provided consulting and therapeutic services from one of her favorite places of late, curled up on my lap between my belly and laptop.

I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I even knew she was in her final days. What I didn’t know was how it would affect me when I stepped out of the bedroom and found her lifeless, furry form stretched out on the floor in the middle of the upstairs hall. Deep inside, I knew she was gone before I ever went looking for her, when I arose to answer nature’s call and she didn’t come into the bathroom and demand that the water dish be freshened. She hadn’t been snuggled on the bed with us either, though there had always been times when she preferred a bit of space and napped in the hallway. When my bladder awakened me, before I ever climbed out of the bed, I sensed it. When I found her in the hall, a wave of peaceful sadness hit me, but not one of surprise.

What did surprise me is how difficult it’s been to write in the five days since Wookie’s death. I’ve been incredibly busy with day-job projects, which provided a convenient excuse, but even in those moments when I’ve tried with all my might to make the words appear on the pages, what little has come forth has been nothing more than bilge. I’ve had so much that I’ve needed to write–thank you notes to Genesis judges, blog postings, the other 80,000 words of the novel I’m working on currently–and I’ve barely been able to write emails.

I sit here writing this, and I can almost see Wookie’s frail frame climbing up the chair, pushing with gentle authority until I move my left had out of the way and let her through to her destination. I recall the way she took over my lap at will, even in the trembling weakness of her final days, settling gingerly into her spot, struggling against her discomfort, determined to hide it from my notice. The way she purred when she found just the right spot, and looked up at me with as much adoration as a cat could stand to express. We understood each other, and even on the last evening of her life she inspired me as we shared what would be our last such moment of closeness.

Writers often find healing in their craft, and I’ve found healing in writing this little blog entry. I’m sure it’s grammatically imperfect and rife with the wickedness of excessive adverbs and passive voice, not likely to win any contests or impress any publishing power brokers. But as I write these words and contemplate my empty lap, the tears I so desperately needed to shed have come forth. While Wookie would certainly offer critique and editorial input, I believe that she would approve. I know that tomorrow, when I open my laptop to write, the words will come again, and Wookie will join the gallery of faithful felines who’ve taken up residence in my heart over the years and took a sliver of my heart with them when they left.

Wookie, however, took more than a sliver–she took a whole slice.

And Then There Were Three

An incredibly encouraging sign appeared in my kitchen this morning. It was something I haven’t seen in a while, a phenomenon that spoke to me loud and clear about God’s grace and His passion for “healing the broken hearted and bandaging their wounds.” (Psalm 147:2)

As I doctored my coffee, Wookie asked for–in her usual demanding tone–a taste of half-and-half.

Well so what? Your cat asked for cream. Big deal!

Yes, it was a big deal. Wookie hasn’t asked for a drop in nine days. I gave her a little one morning a few days ago, and she didn’t waste it (she’s never met a dairy product that she doesn’t like), but she was rather half-hearted, as though drinking her cream out of obligation rather than desire. This morning’s demanding tone warmed my heart the way the bell on an ice cream truck warms the heart of a child.

BlondieYou see, nine days ago, we lost a dear friend and family member. Blondie, one of Wookie’s feline cohabitants, was sick and went to the kitty doctor for help… and she didn’t come home. Reading what I’ve just written, it strikes me how we humans tend to soften the reality of death with quaint little phrases like “passed away” or “at rest” or the ever-spiritual “gone home to be with Jesus.” But this is one of the ways in which cats are smarter than humans: Wookie knew, the minute I walked in the door (if not before), that her sister Blondie was dead. So did Tingy and Marconi.

Just like the affected humans, each of our three remaining felines grieved in their own way. Tingy paced around the spare room, where Blondie was hiding out when I went to take her to the vet. Marconi, strong man that he is, withdrew to his office (under the bed) and mourned in solitude. Wookie lost her taste for cream. I came home and quietly put the empty cat carrier away, sat in my favorite recliner (where Blondie was fond of joining me for lap-time), and wept in temporary solitude. It wasn’t long before Wookie and Tingy joined me, Wookie in my lap and Tingy on my chest, nose-to-nose.

Blondie was a gentle soul. She was rescued as a kitten by Helping Hands for Little Paws, our favorite animal rescue organization. She was one of only two who survived from a diseased colony of feral cats. She was a beautiful and elegant feline, one that I couldn’t even begin to imagine in the wild, though her instincts were strong. Her personality was quiet; she would sit with us in the same room for hours and could come and go undetected. Every now and then she would crave a little lap time, and climb whatever obstacle stood in her way to have her place in my lap. And then, when she was finished, she was finished, and she moved on.

Blondie spoke infrequently, and of course only when it served her purpose. Most mornings, she would appear in the kitchen as I prepared our morning coffee, and request her morning portion of cream in a gentle and unassuming voice. Being who I am, the only reason she ever had to ask twice was her own impatience. But she was a generous and giving soul, as well. You see, there are times when we don’t give Wookie cream because she… well, let’s just say she seems to have her moments of lactose intolerance. If we set a bowl of cream out for Blondie and not for Wookie, Blondie would have just a taste and leave the rest for her elder sister. I’ve seen days when Blondie didn’t even sniff at the bowl–she just gave Wookie the high sign and walked away.

I miss Blondie tremendously. It took me these nine days to come to the place where I could write this. But when Wookie came to me this morning and asked for cream, I knew this would be the day. Just as Wookie is finding healing from her broken heart, I am finding healing for mine. And yes, writing critics, I used passive voice there on purpose–we are finding, not have found. Because healing isn’t an event, it’s a journey.

See ya later, friend.

It’s a sad day for me, a day of mixed emotions and inner conflict. Today, the remains of one of my dearest friends in the world, Christopher Kota, will be laid to rest here in central Arkansas. I miss my friend, and that in itself is enough reason for sadness. My inner conflict stems from the fact that, as my family, friends, and church are celebrating Christopher’s life, I will be somewhere between Cincinatti and Ashville, North Carolina, my bountiful frame crammed into a far too small airplane seat, and my grieving heart still in Little Rock. I’ll be on my way to the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. The trip has been planned for nearly a year now, and it’s where I need to be . . . but still, I wish I could be with those who will be celebrating Christopher Kota’s life. His is a life worth celebrating.

Christopher KotaI’ve known Christopher for around five years now. Ours has been a wonderfully indefinable relationship; we bonded almost immediately, and even when separated by great distance he’s been close to my heart since the day we met at Parkway Place Baptist Church.

Christopher loved a good debate, and at times, we were nearly polar opposites on the issue of the moment. But, we had the sort of rare and delightful brotherhood where we could disagree in love without harming our friendship. We saw the world through the filter of our own life experience, and the paths that our lives took prior to our meeting were much different. Yet there was always a sense of unity in our diversity. We shared a common passion—the “wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all our sin,” to quote the old hymn.

And now, my friend Christopher, the dearest and best friend I have, is gone. The hole in my heart is so great that it defies description, and if you know me, you understand how very significant it must be to render me speechless.

The mourning of my heart today is overwhelming. Tears come easily, but my tears are not shed for Christopher. They are shed for nine year old David, who has lost his grandfather, his male role model, and his best buddy all at the same time. They are shed for Margaret, who has lost her husband, and for Manju, Sekhar (aka Bobby), and Jen, who have lost a father. Any my tears today are, selfishly, for me, and for all the rest of us who have no choice but to go on living in this world without Christopher Kota.

But I will not weep for Christopher Kota. Today, as we are learning to cope without him, he is dancing and rejoicing before God’s throne, free from all of the limitations of his earthly body, celebrating the one who gave him life, who sustained that life for 66 years, and who brought him safely home to live eternally in the presence of his Lord. How could I begrudge him that wondrous joy?

Proverbs 10:7 says that “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing,” and Christopher’s memory will certainly be a blessing to me. Even from the grave, his passion for the things of God challenges me to grow deeper in my spiritual walk. I will warmly remember his smile and his hearty laugh. But the most precious memory will be the delight of his hugs and his greeting whenever we would see each other. He would wrap his big arms around me in a warm embrace and say, “Oh, my God!” to thank God for our friendship. I will live the rest of my life in anticipation of the day when I will once again feel Christopher’s loving embrace, and hear him speak those words over my shoulder, “Oh, my God.” But on that day, Christopher Kota will be looking over my shoulder and speaking his thanks directly toward God’s throne.

I will not say goodbye, Christopher—I’ll see you later.

 BTW, Christopher’s family has set up a website so that his family and friends both here in the US and in his native land of India can share their thoughts and remembrances. Check it out at http://www.christopherkota.com/ .