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(The following was originally published last year as a monthly column in the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, MS–I’ve made a few minor edits…Happy Thanksgiving to all! LFjr)

At one point in my journey to become a published author, I was introduced to and subsequently retained a literary agent. His job was to help refine my work, find a publisher, and otherwise babysit me through the process of getting a book printed and on the shelves.

We reached an agreement on a Friday mid-day. His last words to me were, “go tell your wife you are a writer with a literary agent.” It was a big deal and I was never so excited and exuberant as I was that day. And of course, I told Becki and we celebrated (or least I danced around the room a lot).

That was Friday.

On Monday, my new literary agent called and said, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to cancel our agreement—I don’t have any publishers that would work with a book like yours.” And since I already knew he worked with religious themed books and authors, that was code for this is awful and I don’t want anything to do with it.

On Friday, I danced. On Monday, I moped. To say I was disappointed is to be greatly understated. Honestly? I was devastated. I felt totally rejected. On that Monday, I particularly saw this specific rejection as a metaphor for my life. It was, to me, just one more example of the universe declaring me unworthy… Yes, I had a pity party, and no, you were not invited.

I don’t need to bore you with the details of my tragic story of heartache and pain. There is more than enough information out there in the public domain—and we both know it was incredibly messy. It has been, in many respects, a long hard row to hoe. I would love to be able to laugh, smile, and say emphatically that it all cleaned up nicely. Kind of like spilt milk—you grab some cleaning supplies and sponge it all up–done, over, nice and tidy.

While that would be good and helpful, the messiness of life rarely ever cleans up so easily. Worse, it often takes far more time and effort than you would hope. In fact, if you’ll allow me to use a different kind of metaphor, most life messes are more like the bowl of instant oatmeal that explodes in the microwave. If you have never experienced it, don’t. Seriously. It becomes a big, nasty, wet, steaming, hot mess. Worse, it gets everywhere (there has to be some arcane scientific principle involved here)—it permeates every nook and cranny and takes considerable time and effort to clean up. Even after expending significant energy and using a copious amount of paper towels, you may still find vestiges of exploded oatmeal in the days and weeks to come.

Some seven years after our family tragedy, we are still cleaning up the mess in one form or another. The pain and heartache has worked its way into every facet of life. I see it in my children and the decisions they make. I see it in the way I approach certain situations. Frankly, there are times when logical, rational thought seems to completely disappear (I still panic when I can’t reach my wife or one of the kids on the phone). I remain a mess to be sure.

But when compared to Jesus, I am not all that different. When you look at his life, ministry, and subsequent rejection and crucifixion, not much has changed. It was and is to human eyes, a mess, even the proverbial hotmess. (Can you imagine being one of Jesus’ first disciples as they watched their whole lives explode in front of them?) And before you object to calling God’s plan a mess, take the time to read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Particularly, you might key in on verse 23: “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”

And then there is the matter of grace. Where we want cause and effect, logic and rationale—where we want to earn what we get by virtue of our own abilities, God meets us instead with the messiness of grace.

God gives grace to messy people who continue to create messes. (How many people do you know who get life right all the time? I rest my case.) All this to say, some messes don’t clean up easily at all. Some messes take a lifetime. Some messes will always be with us on this side of eternity.

So as messy people in our own right who recognize the grace extended to us, it behooves us to not be so critical, to give room to and recognize the Spirit at work in the lives of messy people. As Paul says it in Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose.”

The sin-sick brokenness of a lifetime doesn’t disappear overnight. Not in me. Not in you. I am a work in progress. My life is messy. Giving new meaning to Thanksgiving, I am so thankful for the grace of God working in me.

How about you?

May God bless us in our mess!

Les Ferguson, Jr.

Oxford/ Madison, MS

 

After the double murder that shattered my life and the life of my family, I slowly began to heal. I had a lot of help when I chose to see it. God. Family. Friends. A new wife who is my partner in every way imaginable… I don’t remember it, but Becki tells me years ago when we were so young and dating that I talked an awful lot about being a writer. I do remember two paid stints as a weekly newspaper columnist. I remember liking the idea of writing. In the aftermath of my horror, I did begin to write once more–I blogged. Those early days were full of anger and resentment. Raging against the machine, as it were. Eventually, I settled in on the idea of writing a book. I am still writing. As of today, I see one more chapter and then a conclusion/epilogue to write before the massive job of editing begins. Who knows whether it will ever be edited well enough to get a publisher to look at it. Even so, writing has been good for me, my ministry, my preaching… If nothing ever comes of it than that, well, it won’t be the answer to my dream, but I’ll be grateful none-the-less.

What follows is an unedited excerpt from what I am calling The Weakness of God. I hope you’ll get to read in its entirety one day. I pray it will be a blessing. LEFjr.

When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also  should do just as I have done for you.  “I assure you: A slave is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I’m not speaking about all of you; I know those I have chosen. But the Scripture must be fulfilled: The one who eats My bread has raised his heel against Me.

 “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. I assure you: Whoever receives anyone I send receives Me, and the one who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.”

When Jesus had said this, He was troubled in His spirit and testified, “I assure you: One of you will betray Me!”

 The disciples started looking at one another—uncertain which one He was speaking about. One of His disciples, the one Jesus loved, was reclining close beside Jesus. Simon Peter motioned to him to find out who it was He was talking about. So he leaned back against Jesus and asked Him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus replied, “He’s the one I give the piece of bread to after I have dipped it.”

When He had dipped the bread, He gave it to Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son. After Judas ate the piece of bread, Satan entered him. Therefore Jesus told him, “What you’re doing, do quickly.” (John 13:12–27 HCSB)

As I write this, I am fifty-four years old and less than five months away from my fifty-fifth birthday. I am not ancient and if you listen to the new gurus of our culture, I am still fully ensconced in middle age. On the days when I believed the hype and muscles are sore and legs are stiff, that is small consolation.

The truth is, I am no longer a youngster, but I am not quite yet approaching ancient-of-days status. On the other hand, I am a bit long in the tooth to so easily giggle at the inappropriate.

Have you ever wanted to laugh at a funeral?

Have you ever had to work hard to suppress a snort in the middle of a church service?

Preachers are the worst at this from my experience.  We are trained, educated, and equipped to be solemn when and where we need to be.

But there are certain verses in certain translations that have been known to provoke a struggle in repressing the inappropriate laughter of our inner twelve-year old. Even worse, occasionally someone will read something wrong—out loud in the church—and it will be all a guy can do to hold the laughter in.

I will not share any pre-adolescent examples here save for one that is mostly personal with me—and highly indicative of an excessive silliness factor. If this example isn’t good enough for you ask your own preacher, or better yet, read your Bible–you’ll find something to make you grin.

Save one.  I did promise you one, so here goes nothing.

True confession:  I cannot read, either privately or publicly, the name Judas Iscariot without fighting the inner mental giggle of a third grader.  Every time I see his name I want to call him Judas-is-a-carrot.

Beyond silly I am sure, but you get what you pay for whether reading it in this book or the sermon I developed to try out this material.

 Judas Iscariot.

There are loads of scholarly opinions on the meaning of Iscariot.  While interesting, they are not what I want to consider.

In American History, there have been numerous traitors who have plotted, divided, or otherwise acted in their own self-interests while betraying their country. They are each infamous to some degree, but none so much as Benedict Arnold.

In some respects, Benedict was a pitiful character.  A capable and worthy commander, he accomplished many good things in the quest for American sovereignty.  But disappointment, bitterness, and disillusionment ultimately led to an act of betrayal that has become synonymous with his name.

However, Benedict has nothing on the man Christendom rightly considers the most infamous traitor of all, Judas Iscariot.  And since I can’t restrain myself, let’s just call him Judas.

Judas.  That’s a name often stirring disgust, disrespect, anger, and most any other negative emotion found in our English vocabulary. There’s not much worse than betrayal and Judas says it all.

I have a grandson named Jude, but you don’t hear of many babies being named Judas.

The name Judas, like Hitler, Stalin, or even Osama, evokes little that could be considered pleasant. Some things can be redeemed but I am not sure Judas or his name ever will be.

Betrayal isn’t something we take lightly. American music is full of somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs. Even our lingo and slang is full of ways to describe what betrayal is like.

Stabbed in the back.
Sold down the river.
Taken for a ride.
Double-crossed.
Spit in my face.
Pulled the wool over my eyes

And in the immortal words of William Shakespeare as he had Julius Caesar speak them, Et tu Brute?

Even you, Brutus, even you.

How could you? Those are words we have said to others or maybe had said to us.

How could you?

Nobody likes being thrown under the bus.
Nobody likes being the scapegoat.
Nobody likes the blame being laid at your feet.
And nobody, I mean nobody ever enjoys being betrayed especially by someone we love and trust.

Ask the guy who unknowingly invested his life savings in a Ponzi scheme.

Ask the woman who said yes and moved across the country away from family and friends only to be contemptuously discarded and kicked to the curb for a newer model.

Ask the employees who began to build a company only to learn it was based on deliberately fraudulent information. Have you ever heard the phrase cooked the books?

And since we have already involved a nine year-old, ask the poor kid whose best friend made fun of him on the playground in front of the whole class.

How could you?
Why would you?
Why did you?

Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and He told His disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with Him, and He began to be deeply distressed and horrified. Then He said to them, “My soul is swallowed up in sorrow—to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake.” Then He went a little farther, fell to the ground, and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him. And He said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”

 Then He came and found them sleeping. “Simon, are you sleeping?” He asked Peter. “Couldn’t you stay awake one hour? Stay awake and pray so that you won’t enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

 Once again He went away and prayed, saying the same thing. And He came again and found them sleeping, because they could not keep their eyes open. They did not know what to say to Him. Then He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The time has come. Look, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up; let’s go! See—My betrayer is near.”

While He was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, suddenly arrived. With him was a mob, with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. His betrayer had given them a signal. “The One I kiss,” he said, “He’s the One; arrest Him and take Him away under guard.” So when he came, he went right up to Him and said, “Rabbi!”—and kissed Him. Then they took hold of Him and arrested Him. (Mark 14:32–46 HCSB)

All these centuries later, nothing about Judas’ reputation has been rehabilitated.  There is no commission to overthrow the guilty verdict.  There is no organization intent on seeing him in a fairer light. I would like to be remembered, but not like this.

Not like this.

Judas will go down in history as the worst betrayer of all time. That he did it with the intimacy of a kiss only adds to a higher level of disgust.

If you are like me, you probably can’t even say something as simple as poor old Judas.

Unfortunately, long before this ugly affair, there were problems in his character—and those problems created even more problems, leading to his ultimate betrayal.

John 12 tells the story of Mary, sister to Lazarus and Martha, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pint of pure nard, “an expensive perfume.” (John 12:3 NIV2011) Continuing the story, we then learn of Judas’ strident objection and the true reason behind it.

“Why wasn’t this fragrant oil sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money-bag and would steal part of what was put in it. (John 12:5–6 HCSB)

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, a ministry Judas was fully immersed in, Jesus taught His disciples many wonderfully important, life-affirming things. Maybe you’ll remember these two from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19–21 HCSB)

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24 NIV11)

Do you see where Judas’ heart was?

Do you see the internal/ external conflict he was living with?

I have been a Judas neophyte most of my preaching life. I cannot ever remember preaching a sermon on Judas. I can’t remember ever doing much thinking about him at all. Most of my theology where Judas was concerned could be summed up and communicated quite clearly in six short words or two short phrases: “Judas bad. Don’t be like Judas.”

Suffice it to say I was quite surprised to learn there are other theories or possibilities for why Judas did what he did. I would have assumed that Judas’ betrayal was primarily motivated by greed, especially given what we learned of him in John 12.

However, some believe Judas’ actions were intended to force Jesus to confront the power of Rome. Others believe that Judas betrayed out of disillusionment, out of his own sense of being betrayed by Jesus’ proclamations of impending death.

So, which was it?

Was it greed?
Was it confrontation?
Was it disillusionment?

Yes, it was. Yes, I have no problem saying yes to any of those statements, yes to them individually, or yes to them as one combined answer.

Yes. And it ought to scare us to death.

If the answer is greed, I don’t know anybody who hasn’t struggled with materialism. I don’t know anybody who isn’t tempted to allow the things of this world to become our treasure, to be what we serve.

As far as confrontation is concerned, many of us have bargained with God trying to get Him to work within our own agenda.

And disillusionment? Who hasn’t been disappointed by God? Who hasn’t been tempted to take matters into our hands when God doesn’t do what we expect or want?

Nobody wants to be compared to Judas, but there it is. And like Judas, every single one of us is susceptible to betraying God.

John 13:27 tells us after Judas ate the bread Satan entered him…

In the College Press NIV Commentary on the Gospel of John, the authors make a heart-wrenching statement: “Ironically for Judas the bread of the Last Supper was not ‘Christ’s body broken for him,’ but his commitment to self-serving allegiance and evil actions.”

In Judas’ desire for whatever was not of God, he became the tool of Satan.

In my faith tradition, we partake of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. It is a hallowed, holy moment of reflection, communion, and remembrance. I just wonder how many times we eat of the bread and drink of the cup and then turn right around and betray our Lord.

Suddenly, I don’t feel quite so superior to Judas.

In your struggles for the legal tender, in your wanting God to do a certain thing, in your disappointment when God doesn’t do what you think God should have done, guard your heart.

Don’t become a tool for Satan.

The reality of Judas isn’t very far from any of us!

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