Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
This week is going to be very honest. And I think honesty is what we’re going for these days.
I have a lot of moments where I feel the emptiness right now. Days where the sense of exhaustion is pervasive and creativity feels stunted. I grow weary of the endless sharing of opinions on digital media and I pull inward, knowing that every decision made these days is bound to make a number of people unhappy.
Movement feels hard, and even as a people person, I start to feel like I just want to be alone.
What an excellent attitude for a pastor to have! (Read in sarcastic tone.)
If this is how I’m feeling as extrovert that normally loves being with people and taking initiative, I can’t imagine how a lot of folks in our population are feeling.
Isolation has become normal. Sure, we may interact with people through our jobs, but most everything outside of that has been shaved down to the bare minimum or nothing at all. And even when we interact with people, it can be so complicated on so many levels that it’s just easier to not try. There’s a cyclical nature to isolation. The more removed we are, the harder it is to move toward relationships. Inertia sets in. I’m hearing that from many of you, and believe me, I get it.
Good thing we have facebook, twitter, and instagram for connection! What could possibly go wrong?
Do we even need other people anymore? I’m glad I asked. Let’s talk about it.
Living a reflective life is crucially important. Taking time in the wilderness alone with Jesus is necessary to do the heart work inside of us that needs to be done. But...
But it’s possible to start walking circles in the wilderness. It’s possible to get lost in our heads and in our isolation and in our never-wrong opinions. It’s possible to stew, to spiral, to become so stuck in our internal monologues that we start to think we don’t need other people that much. It’s possible to feel just enough connection through our screened-in lives that we call it adequate. Or maybe we know we need relationships, but beyond family, it just feels too difficult to get motivated to reach out. The problem is that in arriving at that spot, we may just lose the ability to be disciples. Here’s a statement that will be true every day of your life: you can’t become like Jesus if you don’t have people to really practice love with.
The writer of Hebrews tells the young church that they have a calling to motivate each other to love and good works. We need to be in real connection with brothers and sisters in Christ these days, because that’s how we stay motivated to keep acting compassionately and beautifully in the world. The writer also tells them that they need to keep being together so that there is opportunity for encouragement. Something happens with direct human interaction that nothing else can accomplish the same way. It’s infinitely valuable for encouragement. Yes, digital media can be used to encourage each other. And yes, it is complicated in the COVID-19 era to figure out how to have responsible meaningful human interaction. But let’s fight to keep our humanity, friends. It’s getting easier to withdraw emotionally, and miss out on mutual motivation and encouragement.
Today I was working alone in the large school room that our church gathers in. While writing this reflection, my dear friend José, who works down the hallway, dropped in on me to say hi. We spent a few minutes talking (masks and all) about the challenge of leadership and creativity, the calling of Jesus, and the complicated task of creating forward movement. He asked me great questions and reminded me that we are in this thing together. Ten minutes later I was both encouraged and motivated toward acts of love and good works. Hey folks, church actually works. (Also, what a guy!)
This Hebrews passage is not about “going to church” in a traditional way, as some people have narrowly interpreted it. Jesus created the church so that people could grow a movement together of loving God and loving others for God's kingdom. It’s our task to creatively participate in that in new ways right now. It’s our job to keep showing up for each other, however that looks.
So here’s the bold ask. If you’re feeling what I’ve been feeling, make the hard move. Give somebody a call and talk with them on the phone. Or invite someone for a walk and conversation if you feel comfortable. Go beyond complaining about our political system or critiquing how everyone’s dealing with COVID-19. Pray together. Motivate each other toward love and good works, and encourage each other as you do. The current reality is too heavy of a load to bear alone. We need to stop trying.
Jesus, help me make one move toward healthy relationships today.
Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive. //
Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.
-Genesis 11:30, 21:2
But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. //
After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said.
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”--
the things God has prepared for those who love him--
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
-1 Corinthians 2:9-10
The scriptural stories— both the Old Testament narrative of Israel and the New Testament narrative of Jesus— are founded on people unable to conceive. They are also founded on God giving them conception.* What seems impossible becomes the backdrop for God’s extraordinary hope.
The word “conceive” has multiple meanings. It speaks not simply of pregnancy, but of possibility. And so it is with God’s story.
The significance of these starting points— both Sarah (mother of Isaac) and Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptizer) being unable to to conceive— form the contrast to God’s ongoing message of hope. People can’t conceive, but God brings surprising life. People can’t imagine another way, but God reveals what’s possible for the future. People think that the world consists of only dualities, but Jesus brings a third way that fits no earthly category except love.
We’re in a barren time. People are unable to conceive much of anything, it seems. Sometimes we sit in despair, like Sarah. Sometimes we laugh at the thought of a better world, because it seems so unlikely (also like Sarah). And sometimes we are slow to believe that another world is possible, like Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah.
But eventually, consistently, the storyline is one of hope at what God can do. It’s one of surprise at incorrect assumptions about the future. It brings a clear message: you cannot conceive of what’s possible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.
I don’t know where you’re at. I find it hard to conceive a world where people are no longer divided about anything and everything. I find it hard to conceive a reality where all people are treated with dignity and equity. I find it hard to conceive a future where care for others is more important than political allegiance. I find myself unable to conceive a time when thoughtful dialogue, humble national leadership, and shared values are the norm.
And it gets more personal.
Some of us are unable to conceive how our children can grow up well in such a world. Some of us are unable to conceive a situation where we’re not heartbroken, depressed and lifeless. Some of us are unable to conceive how anything will ever be easy or simple once again. Some of us are unable to conceive how we get through this season financially, emotionally, or spiritually.
But then again, it’s hard to wrap our minds around a 90 year old woman giving birth for the first time.
It’s hard to conceive that God entered humanity in order to change the direction of human history.
It’s hard to conceive that a horrible bloody death could reveal the incredible, nonviolent, forgiving love of God.
It was hard for Peter to conceive that the good news of Jesus was truly available for everyone, not just his tribe.
It’s hard to conceive that God will make right one day all the things that are wrong.
It’s hard to conceive that in all of our imperfection, God never grows tired of hanging in there with us.
Paul riffs on this in Corinthians. He paraphrases Isaiah and says that people are unable to conceive of the goodness that God will bring, but the Holy Spirit keeps the spark of imagination alive in us, if we allow it.
Our inability to conceive does not make a hopeful future impossible. But the story of God reminds us not to lose hope, and it teaches us to keep our imagination alive for now and the future, because God’s kingdom inhabits both.
It’s really ok if you’re not able to conceive. Sometimes that’s just where we’re at in this life.
But if you’ve got it in you, pray for God to give you faith. Pray for God to keep the imagination vibrant within you. Pray for the strength to live God’s hopeful future in your daily life, rather than just talking about it wishfully. Love people the way you know God loves you. Listen to people the way you want to be listened to. Join with Jesus in helping a despairing world conceive something they can’t yet imagine. If you can’t conceive right now, I’m praying that God does something miraculous.
Let’s join in the storyline of our spiritual ancestors. They could not conceive, but they did, by God’s grace. This time, though, let’s learn from those stories and not lose hope. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus together, again, for we’ve been given the gift of life.
Jesus, I may not be able to conceive it, but I am trusting you today for hope.
*This Biblical metaphor is in no way meant to trivialize the deep pain of infertility.
Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
-Paul (Philippians 2:4)
I’ve been paying homeowner’s insurance for two houses during the last few months.
No, I do not have a secret getaway in the Hamptons. I have an insurance agent who made a mistake.
We moved across town in February. I had thought we completed all of our transition details, but recently I got a piece of mail from my insurance company, forwarded from our old address. That seemed odd, since the company that insures our new house should probably have our new address on record!
So during a quick phone call to change the address, my agent informed me that he had accidentally forgotten to cancel our old policy. It was an honest mistake, but they’d been charging us for several months. He immediately apologized and told me that they’d refund the money right away.
I have a good relationship with him, and I understood it wasn’t malicious or intentional.
But they still needed to return the money. It wasn’t the intent that was the issue. It was the impact.
I’ve been in many conversations lately about intention and impact. And I’m not convinced that Christians are always good at realizing how much both of those things matter.
I appreciate that my insurance agent’s intention was not to overcharge me. But that didn’t make it ok. The impact was real. The impact was that they took about $200 from our bank account that wasn’t theirs to take. And they needed to make that right.
Life is complicated right now. People are tired and frustrated. Tensions are everywhere we look. Sometimes, it can feel like every conversation is full of landmines. We’re going to make mistakes as we navigate them, even if we are trying our best.
But as we live out the values of God’s kingdom, we need to be aware that shrugging something off as an "honest mistake" has the potential to really minimize the hurt we caused.
One of the intention vs. impact discussions that I was a part of recently pertained to issues of race. In our discussion about honest mistakes, someone said, “while our intentions may be good, that does not change the negative impact we may unknowingly have.”
Our intentions might be good, but we might not have the knowledge, insight, or experience to realize how we hurt others from our words or actions.
If we’re humble enough, learning of our blind spots is an incredible opportunity for growth toward love, rather than growing more defensive. We should be glad when someone is honest enough with us to share their pain and help us grow. Community and understanding can flourish in that environment.
As a white person who is a Jesus follower, I can honestly say that I don’t intend to perpetuate prejudice by my words, my actions, or my assumptions. Yet I cannot deny that there are times when the way I present an idea or make an assumption about another person (regardless of intent) excludes, minimizes, or wounds someone. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I know it is. It’s universally true. When those moments come to light, I want to understand my impact, not just defend my intention. The temptation is to dwell only on my heart, which can actually minimize the fact that another is in pain. But that isn’t putting another’s needs before my own.
This is where Jesus leads me toward wholeness. Jesus teaches that it’s our job to make things right, to apologize, and to initiate restoration if at all possible. Jesus even tells his followers that they need to stop everything (even worship!) if someone has hurt someone else and hasn’t made it right yet. Paul pleads with the church in Rome to work extra hard to keep relationships healthy when he says, “do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” The foundational concept of biblical peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of wholeness. Working for peace means moving beyond, “well you know what I meant” and into, “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend that. I’m going to work to be more sensitive. How can I do better?”
This goes beyond any particular subject matter. It's applicable to how siblings treat each other. It’s bears on how we talk about the impossible task that schools and parents have right now. It’s relevant to our conversations about politics, about racism, and about the pandemic. It’s easy to lack sensitivity. It’s easy to not have all the facts. Let’s be people with a reputation for humble growth over self-defense.
There’s grace in this place. God does not condemn us for our mistakes or our ignorance. But there’s there’s also a responsibility to listen, learn, and make things right. Just like Dan, my insurance agent. Thanks for the refund. We’re good now.
Jesus, keep me gentle, humble, and teachable today.
*Thanks to my friend Jonathan for inspiring this.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Paul (Colossians 2:6-7)
During a message a few weeks ago I highlighted stories in the scriptures where people found themselves under something called a broom tree, a desert shrub that lives in the wastelands. We explored how God meets us through holy moments in our desperation.
But I didn’t talk much about the broom tree itself. And as you’ve seen from reading TFG, I find the natural world to be fantastically filled with spiritual metaphors. So did the scripture writers, by the way, so at least I’m in good company.
Broom trees grow in the Sinai Peninsula and throughout Arabia in ravines, rocky places, hillsides, and even open sand stretches of desert areas. Their roots sink deep to draw up moisture. They grow only 3 to 13 feet high, but because of their denseness they can provide valuable shade. A real broom tree is bushy and rather ugly, but in the desert it grows higher than everything else, so it gets the job done.
The image is simple. In extreme places, the plant that grows and thrives is the plant whose roots keep pushing deeper until it finds water. The deeper the roots grow down, the higher the plant grows up. One one level it’s a paradox; on another, it makes complete sense.
It seems that more and more people are finding themselves trying to grow in a desert wasteland. On of my copastors this week used the phrase “famine of hope” to describe the state of so many attitudes right now. I see that as well.
More than ever, Christians are experiencing the necessity of root tending right now. The mission of the church remains the same and community is still happening in beautiful ways. But for many, the easy church buffet of spiritual nutrition isn’t so readily accessible as before. Add to that the reality of so much brokenness in our world and you’ve got a real struggle for spiritual health. Enter the broom tree. It's drought resistant for one reason: the roots go deep.
If you feel like you aren’t able to grow meaningfully during this time, you may still be expecting to find water just under the surface. But until the roots push down faaaaaar beneath the surface, our leaves and branches won’t be able to provide much shade.
Discouragement. Cynicism. Anger. Judgment. Despair.
These are all things that Jesus addresses head-on in the gospels. These are all things that Jesus addresses head-on in our souls. But we’ve got to be willing to give Jesus real time and real energy if we want to move beyond these heavy realities. We’ve got to send our roots down deeper and deeper til we find living water.
It’s hard when we’re exhausted. But it’s how we find life.
We keep seeking Jesus and his kingdom. Simple. Hard.
It would be nice if discipleship was more complicated than this, so that we could just say we don’t understand. But most of the time we know what is needed, and it just takes too much effort. If we only knew the grace available to us along the journey!
So we genuinely, honestly, painfully, joyfully keep reaching for the source of life. We make the hard choice to be quiet and delve deeper into the desert sand of our spirits until we actually connect with God’s spirit. This is not just fancy metaphor. Friends, we need to learn to sit with Jesus until our perspective shifts. One of the marks of this, according to Paul, was that we are able to overflow with thankfulness.
I’ve experienced this. Not all the time, but I can attest to it. Gratitude doesn’t minimize our pain or make light of how complicated things are. Rooting down with Jesus until we find life and sense gratitude is how we gain strength to be a shade giver to a tired world. And it’s how we ourselves survive in the desert.
Be encouraged today that it’s possible to thrive in the desert. But it’ll take going deeper until the love of God fills us with enough strength to be able to start looking out up and out again.
Jesus, help my attitude today to be rooted in who you are.
"If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
-The fearless three, Daniel 3:17-18
(and today’s secondary passage)
Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
-The Man in Black (The Princess Bride)
Shadrach Meshach, and Abednego lived a story that legends are made out of. Punished during the Babylonian empire for refusing to bow down in worship the king, they are thrown into a furnace to be burned alive as a warning to others. But they love God, and during their “any last words?” moment they decide to tell the king that they think they might be rescued miraculously.
But if they aren’t…. if they are burnt to a crisp, they just want to say that God is still more worthy of worship than he is. [This is when Abednego dropped the microphone, but they didn’t write that part down.]
Their final statement has moved me for two decades because it shows something about the radical faith of these Israelites from 2600 years ago… they believed that being saved from their pain was not the end-all sign of God’s faithfulness (mind-blowing at the time).
We in the United States are fairly pain averse. We use the phrase “comfortable lifestyle” to talk about our goals. Discomfort is something to be avoided at all costs. And our faith often reflects this.
I was recently in a conversation with one of my old seminary professors. We were reflecting on the unique struggle that our country is facing right now during this pandemic. There is so much uncertainty, exhaustion, hurt, and stress on people right now. We all want it to stop. We all want to move on. And understandably, our prayers are consistent to that end.
My professor used to live in Nicaragua, so as we talked he shared this interesting insight:
“You know, Nicaraguan brothers don’t pray for God to save us from pain. They pray for the grace to stand.”
What a difference in perspective. One seeks to avoid pain. The other assumes it as a part of life and asks for grace to endure.
Today, our life goals are all-too-often a spiritually cloaked version of the American dream. “Oh God, help me be healthy, wealthy, and wise….and maybe do good things for others as I get there.”
In light of that, "having faith" is often believing that everything will be fine. But one true tragedy, one major loss, one horrible crisis in your life, and a faith like that comes crumbling down in a rubble pile of disappointment with God. Because the gloves are off, and things are totally not fine.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting God to spare us from the hard parts. It’s natural and understandable.
But if God doesn’t….
Here’s a question. Were these three men showing a lack of faith in their furnace response? Many would say that the answer is yes. Even though God did come and rescue them, they shouldn’t have doubted it at all!!
I think they were showing just how robust a true relationship with God is. It doesn’t rely on the miraculous, because it knows that the deepest promise is really about God walking with us through it.
You know what’s interesting? This story has a New Testament parallel, but with a very different ending. Jesus, in the final hours of his life, prays to the Father in the same attitude as Daniel’s friends. He prays in faith that perhaps God will bring a unique rescue…. followed by an attitude that says, “but if not, Father, I want to surrender my will to line it up with yours.” That sounds a lot like, “but even if he does not [deliver us], we will not serve your gods, king!
We want God to save us from pain, yet we forget that the one we call Lord endured incredible hardship, and called us to carry crosses as we follow in his dusty footsteps. Jesus didn’t simply endure hardship so that we wouldn’t have to deal with pain. He endured in order to show us what faithful living looked like under pressure, and to free us from the ultimate painful ending: separation. But he showed no desire for revenge, no hatred spewing out of him, no complaining about how unfair his pain was. Just love and forgiveness.
I think maybe we miss the point of the story in Daniel when we only notice the rescue at the end. Maybe the point is about a faith that is willing to walk through fire because God’s unyielding love is just so absolute.
Pain is inevitable. Sometimes God rescues us from some types of pain, but other times the pain continues. Each day is a chance to choose if we will trust the promises of God’s grace to stand faithfully through it.
Jesus, help me stand in grace today, no matter what happens.
I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father.
-Jesus (John 14:27)
There's a memory I love. A memory about bedtime with 6 year old twins about 6 years ago. Now, trying to get twin boys ready for bed is like trying to hold a dozen angry lizards in your arms...except lizards can’t throw things at you.
One way that we learned to help our kids calm down when it was time to prepare for bed was through storytelling. We would sit in a circle and I would ask them for a subject idea (it was always an animal), and then begin telling a story. But I’d only talk for 30 seconds. Then I’d stop and look at the little guy next to me and say…
He’d sit there a few seconds thinking, and all of a sudden he’d join in:
Judah: AND THEN….. the bear fell off a cliff! (super proud of himself for killing off the main character)
Me: Well, let’s not end the story too quickly so… AND THEN... the bear landed in a surprise river at the bottom! AND THEN???… (looking to next son)
Kylan: AND THEN…. the river led to a huge waterfall and he fell off that and DIED!! (brothers give each other a high five for thwarting their father yet again)
Me: Ok, let’s regroup and give this another shot tomorrow night.
As the days passed, the boys eventually stopped trying to kill every character in the first scene and started to create some really fun stories with us. We called it progressive storytelling. It was beautiful to watch them envision surprising possibilities and then speak them into action. They had to imagine a world where new things were possible. Where unexpected moments were always around the corner, and where each moment might seem like the end, but could always be redeemed to keep the story moving forward.
We never knew exactly which way the story was going to go, but we each had a role in choosing where it went. And my goodness, the creativity was really fun.
Each of us is a story in progress, as is the world around us. It’s all unfolding in surprising and unexpected directions. Sometimes it’s tragedy, sometimes it’s comedy, but it’s never predictable. Some lines are not written by us, and we have no choice but to take what we’re given.
Yet always, our turn will come around.
And then we have an opportunity to speak into the story that’s unfolding. We have a chance to shape it. To imagine. And to live it.
Do you find yourself losing your imagination these days? I’ve noticed that I have. It’s really easy when you’re tired and discouraged. But Jesus helps us resist the urge to throw our hands up and complain that we don’t have anything good to add.
Jesus was a man full of imagination. Crowds couldn’t hear him so he used hillsides as natural amphitheaters and lakes as a microphones. He responded to problems with solutions that nobody saw coming.
He was God with skin on, doing things no one has ever done before, shocking and surprising the world by adding unexpected chapters to the story.
A revolution, but without weapons?
A show of greatness, but through humble service?
A call to holiness, but motivated by grace and not guilt?
Caring for the oppressed, but without hating the oppressor?
Saving the world, but through being killed unjustly?
Dying but then undying?
Seeing the heartache of the world but promising a vastly different ending?
What profound creativity.
AND THEN, on top of all of it, he tells his disciples that they are going to be the ones progressing the story next. And in fact, the story is just going to get better and better.
Greater things, he said. Greater things than these.
How do we do greater things than Jesus?? That doesn’t even sound appropriate to suggest.
Yet, there are millions of us around the globe. Millions of people who have said that Jesus is their Lord. Millions who profess that they want to live the values of the crucified Christ who overcomes evil with love. That’s a lot of potential for great things.
And Jesus promised that the reason his disciples would do greater things was precisely because he was leaving to join the Father. That way, he could be in millions of us. Working through our hands, our prayers, our words, and our imaginations. What happened?
In times of stress or crisis, it’s easy to forget that we have God’s spirit of love to shape the unfolding story.
What if Christians everywhere were praying for creative ways to include and elevate the overlooked and excluded? What if we treated our money like it belonged to God in the first place? What if we listened to people who tell us they are in pain and actually imagined possibilities to care meaningfully? These things sound obvious. Yet they will aways be radical.
What if we believed, like the Chinese proverb at the bottom of my father’s emails for years, that it is far better to light a candle than curse the darkness? What if we trusted Jesus?
We’d be people that look a little more like Jesus. And we’d make a world that looks a little more like God’s kingdom.
Don’t lose heart. It can happen.
Jesus, restore my imagination in what you can do through me.
Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.
-Paul (Ephesians 4:15)
I come from an educational background. Two of my immediate family members are collegiate professors. I enjoy academic pursuits and what they bring out in me. I finished my masters degree last year, and though I complained a lot, I love being a student. This week alone I cranked out several academic papers for a project that will never even be graded.
In my seminary experience, I noticed a movement that has come to characterize much of contemporary higher education. There is a major focus on the process of improving the final product, rather than simply writing a paper and handing it in. And the way improvement occurs is through "peer-review,” which simply means that your colleagues give feedback to your work as it happens. The goal is that with helpful outside input, original thoughts can become clearer, sharper, and more polished.
Almost universally, graduate professors now invite students to review each other’s work as they are developing it. This benefits both professors and students. Students help to sharpen each other’s work in advance, giving the professor a better product when it’s handed in. And as students learn how to edit and think through each others’ work, they become better at creating good work themselves. This is how my master’s program worked. Each of us gave simple feedback to each others’ writing. We highlighted good things to lean into, and asked questions about concepts that were unclear or potentially misinterpreted.
As we progressed in this environment, we became invested in each other’s work in new ways. Instead of being isolated as individuals doing our own thing and focusing only on ourselves, we were aware of what was happening in each other’s studies as we tried to make each other better. Originally we were forced to do it, but before long we found ourselves genuinely caring about what each other was working on. Additionally, we stopped being so defensive and embarrassed about our work because we were forced to share a product that was clearly still in process. We all knew that sometimes we’d express ourselves well and sometimes we would do it very poorly. There was no way to avoid that, so we stopped getting defensive when someone said, “I don’t think you were very clear about this idea at all.” Instead, we could respond with something like, “Thanks! Any ideas on how to make it better?”
Being open to change is difficult, especially when we have blind spots in our lives.
Transformation is hard work.
And yet, how beautiful of an image this is for community life with Jesus at the center! We are all "rough draft" versions. Let's not live under the illusion that we are final copies, fully ready to be handed in for a perfect grade. The problem is that we are not comfortable presenting our personal drafts to one another for editing. The vulnerability feels too risky. And unfortunately, that’s because Christians have often lacked grace and humility, two things that should be at the core of our identity. We have participated in a culture where we criticize rather than energize (see below), and pile on guilt and shame. But it can be so much different.
Imagine an environment of love where we, as sisters and brothers, are committed to each other enough to listen to the stories of our lives. Through loving peer review, an atmosphere like this can help us refine who we are, what we’re about, and if our lives are clearly communicating it. This need not require full agreement on every topic. Rather, it requires a culture of love, founded on the understanding that we belong to each other and have a responsibility to help each other become more thoughtful, more gentle, more loving, more Christlike versions of ourselves. In seminary I cannot tell you the amount of times that someone brought up a question that I thought had already been answered clearly in my paper. But upon further reflection and feedback, I realized that I was not communicating it well at all. Time to make some changes.
But this type of mutual editing, or mutual “editification” (read Romans 14:19 to fully appreciate my wit just now), takes some serious vulnerability, humility, and intentionality. We have to have the humility to invite this sort of growth in our lives. We must relinquish our defensiveness. And we must choose to actually read each other deeply enough to see the heart, taking the time to encourage one another in a way that truly helps us each become a more complete representation of Jesus.
The cost of community is significant. But that's because it's so valuable. Nothing else will transform and refine us in our journey with Jesus quite like the editing of a friend who truly loves us. Let us not grow weary in allowing others in.
Jesus, keep me humble and open to how others can help me grow.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
(This weeks’ TFG is adapted from the message I gave on Sunday. If this sounds familiar, it’s alright. Sometimes a second coat of paint is what you need to make the color pop.)
Wisteria vines look nice. And they’re horrible.
For two weeks their cascading purple flower clusters hang effortlessly from the limbs of trees, turning a forest into a wash of pastels. And then there’s the rest of the year, where they slowly choke out every single tree that comes into their viney grasp. It’s a horribly invasive plant.
In the woods right behind our fence, wisteria has grown untouched for several decades. It’s climbed 60 feet and nearly killed every tree within view. It blankets the ground with vines so thick that it’s impossible to walk through. I’ve been trying to make a difference with the slow choke of this invasive plant by chopping off the snakelike vine from trees. And more recently, I’ve been trying to clear out the ground brush layer as well.
Weedwacking was my first approach. But after one pass, my string trimmer only could get me part of the way there before getting all wrapped up. I was getting frustrated, not using the right tools at all. I decided (honestly I love feeling justified in buying tools) that it was about time to get a metal brush clearing attachment. As my string wrapped around another thick vine and drove my 2 cycle engine to a lurching stop, I said in my frustration without really thinking, “Gah! This kind only comes out with prayer!!!”
I laughed cleverly to myself (happens a lot) at my biblical wit, which my family has told me is not nearly as entertaining as I think it is. But it got me thinking about our world and a story of Jesus and his disciples and a little boy with a deeply rooted problem.
When a child who has suffered deeply from an evil spirit is brought to the disciples, they try to heal him. But we find out that they can’t, even though they’ve done similar stuff in the past! So Jesus comes and does what Jesus does… he heals, restores, takes a trajedy and turns it into a glimpse of beautiful hope.
But the story isn’t done. Later, removed from the embarrassing earshot of the public, the disciples ask Jesus…. why couldn’t we do it?
Jesus responds simply: “This kind can come out only by prayer."
That’s a powerful statement. Except for one thing.
No one says a prayer in this story.
I hope you’re asking, what’s going on here?
Clearly Jesus was not talking about saying the right words in the right order for 30 seconds. Jesus is talking about something far more pervasive. He’s talking about a way of life where compassion, action, and prayer all work together as parts of one whole.
There’s an unnecessarily complicated relationship of Christ followers between action and prayer. We live in a false duality that is neither Christlike or helpful in bringing the kingdom about.
Both are needed. Our lives must be built on both. The disciples had yet to learn this.
We pray, and then we get to work. And then as we work, we pray more. And then when we’re done working, we pray for God to multiply our efforts of faithful love by the power of his spirit. And we get up and do it again the next day.
I know my stuff only comes out with prayer. My laziness, my self-interest, my greed, my arrogance, my prejudice… these things rarely get solved by pushing harder and harder. But prayer. Prayer changes my mind. Prayer changes how I see the other. Prayer changes how I view God. Prayer changes how much power I have to live righteously in the world.
The Wall Street Journal recently published that Google searches for “prayer” skyrocketed in March as the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on our world. There’s something in all of us that seems drawn to pray in difficult times. And then there’s something else that tells us to quickly move on after a minute or two- as if it’s a task to be done rather than a life to be lived.
Even among Christians, a life of prayer seems to still be a rarity. Do we really believe that there are kinds of things that only come out with prayer? Are you willing to listen to Jesus now? The nastiest stuff, the most ingrown stuff deep within us… in our world… the things that torment and throw people onto the ground… do we believe that prayer is where power lies in overcoming those things?
As much as so many of us want to be people of action, we are not sustainable if we simply act for God without a foundation of being with God. We will have the capacity to love powerfully for the long haul only if we are so deeply grounded in Jesus that we are constantly accessing His spirit to do the work, and not relying on ours.
Honestly, I don’t trust my spirit that much. I can do good things on a good day- kingdomish things even! But then the next day I don’t feel like it anymore. Or I get mad at someone, or I get discouraged at the state of the world. And then I can be like, I’m done.
But I can’t do that if my life is grounded on prayer. There will be too much of God’s love in me. There will be too much hope to live in despair. There will be too much understanding to hate my neighbor. There will be too much motivation to see good prevail in the world.
I look at my wisteria every single day- the vines are too deep to be done in one project. I’ll have to keep after it year after year- much like my own soul. Much like the brokenness of our world.
Jesus challenges us in this story. He calls his disciples “unbelieving” because they’re trying to do everything on their own strength. What do you need to bring to Jesus today? Where is the deep stuff in you and around you that can only come out when prayer is the foundation for action?
Jesus, help us root out the deep things in and around us by taking us deeper with you today.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed— not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence— continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
-Paul (Philippians 2:12)
A former director of the CDC, an epidemiologist who has advised Republican and Democrat presidents, gave a truly remarkable and humble interview last week (I know, another article. I’m sure you haven’t read enough of them during the last 3 months). The focus was clarifying what we really do and really don’t know about COVID-19 and its path forward. He spoke of the various possibilities, from a slow burn of infections for a while, to a dip and then strong resurgence in the fall. He spoke of what the country will need to do in order to navigate the best way forward. There were simply no easy solutions or absolute answers, which was refreshingly honest since everyone knows everything about everything. But that’s not the point here.
I was deeply struck by one comment that he made in passing. He was asked about what people can really do to protect themselves. As he responded about obviously minimizing contact with large groups of people, he said this:
"I categorically reject the concept of social distancing. It’s physical distancing. I hope we never social distance, ever."
Well there’s a statement for disciples of Jesus to chew on.
There are things that work their way into our subconscious without knowing it. Today I’m thinking about what those are, and I wonder if the phrase "social distancing” has become one of those concepts.
Paul makes a little statement while he’s in jail writing to the young church he started in Philippi. He talks about when he was present with them, they obeyed the disciples apostle’s teaching and worked out their own relationship with Jesus together intentionally. But he seems to hint that when he’s not with them, when physical distance is separating them… that it’s going to be doubly important that they lean into their surrender to Jesus and commitment to the gospel. Because everything is harder when you’re apart.
Everything is harder when you’re apart. Faith is harder. Friendship is harder. Understanding is harder. Love is harder.
Over the months, as so many people have physically had larger amounts of separation, I think it’s hard to deny that there has been some serious social distancing as well. Not the kind that keeps us from coronavirus infection, but the kind that threatens the health of our relationships.
Relationships may feel far more optional than they used to. Have you noticed that? And along with that, it has become easier to view each other through a smaller amount of criteria.
Here’s what happens when social (not just physical) distance takes root:
-Screens dominate our interactions and dynamic, technicolor, complicated people become two dimensional.
-Friendships feel like too much work.
-We feel the temptation to become harsher and more critical rather than gentler and more sensitive.
-We are constantly left with our own thoughts, forgetting why we need other people entirely.
The salvation that Paul speaks of to the Philippian church is at the tail end of a statement about humbly learning to love one other and put others first… so yes, it definitely includes the social, relational work that is the Body of Christ. You can’t separate Jesus from his body, so anytime we talk about following Jesus, it means that cultivating loving relationships is always right there with it. And that can bring some serious fear and trembling, because Jesus-centered community takes work.
My hope is that we notice the difference between physical distancing and social distancing, and choose to walk the path of life together. Imagine if….
-In the days to come, the church becomes more vital than ever because we so desperately need each other for support, for mutual learning, and for loving relationships that keep us grounded.
-In the days to come, people make the difficult choice to have face to face conversations even when they feel lazy or tired (like I often do these days) because they know that physical distancing is important, but social distancing could kill us.
-In the days to come our efforts toward compassion, unity, and equality will all be rooted in the repeated truth that we belong to each other in Jesus (Romans 12:5), and nothing can separate us if our eyes are on him every step.
These are the ways that we "work out our salvation"… not only in each other’s presence, but now much more because of each others' absence.
By the way, this is not a thinly veiled message about having hard conversations regarding racial injustice, though it certainly includes that conversation. We just need each other. Period.
We really do. It’s how God made us. And we need holy reminders all the time that if the church is to be the Church, it will always choose to reject social distancing, because love knows no separation.
Jesus, keep me moving toward others even when it’s hard.
*Disclaimer in case you skimmed: I still support keeping 6 feet between people to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Speak strong words to a wise man, and he will love you. Give teaching to a wise man and he will be even wiser. Teach a man who is right and good, and he will grow in learning.
Proverbs 9:9 (NLT)
We are never done learning.
But in certain cases, it’s possible that we never really started.
Two consistent characteristics are shared by the most mature Christians that I know. I’m sure you have these types of people in your life. They are the people that you want to hear from before fully forming your own opinion about something. That's how much you respect them.
Those people in my life share two commonalities across the board: They are very humble, and they are lifelong learners. And that’s important, because to be a disciple is to be a learner. Literally.
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes, which means a pupil or an apprentice. When Jesus is inviting disciples to come follow him in the gospels, he is literally asking them to become learners. And what we find as we read more about these slow learners (Mark is particularly hard on them), is that learning is a time-consuming and painful process. It takes years years. In the gospels, the disciples’ opinions are constantly formed, challenged, stretched, and reformed as the they keep learning about the world through Jesus’ eyes.
There is a real risk in the life of a Christian when they feel like they have learned all they need to know about God, people, and God’s world. When one becomes that certain of everything, they cease to be disciples.
I see that happen sometimes, because learning is a journey, and a hard one.
When I was doing missional community and discipleship training with a movement of Christians that originated out of Sheffield, England, we used a tool to talk about discipleship. It was a square, with each side representing a stage in the learning process that the disciples went through.
The first stage of the learner was simple: You don’t know what you don’t know. We often called it "Unconscious Incompetence." There is a lack of knowledge, but you don’t acknowledge it. You are clueless because you’re either naive, inexperienced, or prideful. But at some point in the learning process you walk off a metaphorical cliff and land in a pit. That’s stage 2: You now know what you don’t know. You begin to realize that you have a long way to go, and that things are not what (or as easy as) you assumed. Now you are "Consciously Incompetent". This is a deeply discouraging phase, and many people give up at this point. Learning a new skill or a new way of being (whether spiritually or otherwise) is often a huge task, and it’s easier to just ignore it and move back to the first phase, where we enthusiastically dwell in the comfort of our unwillingness to be a deeper learner. The third phase is where we work hard to understand and live out new concepts, still failing sometimes but making progress (Conscious Competence). And then the fourth stage is when we have truly learned something new and it is a natural part of our thought/behavior process (Unconscious Competence).
Those first stages have been particularly relevant to me lately as they relate to racial injustice.
We are disciples of Jesus, which means that the posture of a learner must be a part of our identity.
For myself and some others in our community (that are specifically majority culture people), there is a growing sense of realization: There is much that we don’t know or understand about the daily experiences of our brothers and sisters of color.
This is a deeply spiritual issue, because the central tenets of Christian discipleship are love for God and love for our neighbors. People are hurting really badly right now. They have been for a long time. And we can no longer ignore it.
So here’s the choice I'm facing: Will I chose to start to acknowledging that I don’t know what I don’t know? Will I move into the learning process of realizing how much I have yet to understand and learn in order to promote love, care, and justice for one another? Or will I take a few steps backward, thinking that I know enough to not really need to press further into the issue at hand?
For white Christians to move toward neighbor loving in this area will require massive amounts of humility. For many, I'm afraid the humbling journey will be too much. They will choose not to be learners in areas of racial equity because it’s easier not to hear things that make them uncomfortable.
I’m taking the week to admit how much I don’t know. I’m reading about people’s stories. I’m ordering books that use words that I don’t want to talk about- like whiteness. I’m reading history that wasn’t written by dominant culture voices. I’m listening to black preachers preach about the heart of Jesus in beautifully different ways than how I often think about it. I’m learning why it’s so important that I publicly agree that black lives matter. I’m certainly somewhere between stage one and two, but I’m going to keep moving forward and not back. I may not have the courage to do it on my own, but I might if everybody joins me. And I know that Jesus will be there to teach me.
Jesus, give me the humility to learn something new today about someone else’s experience, so that I might love my neighbor.