For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Oh God. Sometimes that sums it up. I have many “Oh God” types of days.
Days when I wake up and read about our world. I read about parents and children being separated. I read about wars and rumors of wars. I read about opioid epidemics destroying a generation and I read social media judgments about others that break my heart because NOBODY IS LISTENING.
And I think, Oh God…
There are days that I look at our church. And I think about the pain that so many have gone through. I think about chronic sickness, unanswered prayers, and difficult family relationships. I think about divorce, I think about mental illness, and I think about so many other things that are heartbreaking to deal with. Sometimes I get sad. Sometimes I get angry.
And I think, Oh God...
Then there are days when I look inside myself, my laziness, my lack of love and compassion, my impatience in ministry and parenting. Days when I’m more selfish than un, days when I’d rather just do something else, days where it’s so easy to critique everyone around me rather than search my own heart.
And I think, Oh God…
And there are days where I look around at people trying to find meaning, people hiding deep hurts and insecurities because they don’t know it’s safe to be honest.
And I pray….
And then there are other days.
Days when I think about the way that Jesus has transformed me. Days when I look around and see good being done- lots of good being done- in the world, and through the beautiful community that I’m a part of. There are days when I notice all the people who have been changed by grace- when love overcomes evil. Days when I see that second chances, miraculous moments, and forgiveness have become normal moments in lives touched by Jesus around me. There are days when I’m in awe at how God’s peace remains available to us even when we are scared, worried, devastated, angry, or confused. There are days when I really believe.
And I marvel…
Sometimes there is joy. Sometimes there is anger. But always, there is God. Peter had it right that day in the book of John when life was getting hard (6:68). He was trying to trust and follow this Nazarene with a vision and figure out what this kingdom was all about. But things weren’t neat and clean. Peter kept failing, and he had big questions theologically that weren’t going to be fully resolved anytime soon. But when Jesus asked Peter if he was going to leave him just like the rest of the crowd, his response still pierces my soul.
Who else would I go to? You have the words of real life, eternal life.
Sometimes we praise. Sometimes we cry out in desperation. Sometimes all we have to offer is anger, confusion, or sorrow. But always, may we bring those things to God. If you are having an Oh God day or an Oh God week, may you know that God hears your cry, joins you in your journey, and loves you in an impossibly beautiful way.
Our prayer today:
Oh God. Thank you for hearing me.
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”
-Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30
See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are!
-1 John 3:1
Jesus Plus. It sounds like a new app for your phone, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s a new devotional book that will help you get more out of your Bible reading! Or better yet, maybe it’s a new supplement directed toward that ever powerful marketing niche, the Christian subculture…. “We all know that Jesus gives us life, but for those days when you need just a little more, have a Jesus+ ® and serve the Lord with vigor!
Actually, when I say Jesus plus I mean this little thought in the mind of a disciple that whispers that peace is accessible only if you trust Jesus AND do all the right things. So we chase after this peace and identity all our lives, and in the process we miss the greatest message of Jesus.
In our recent LifePath talk about the book of Acts, the gang from Jerusalem headed out to Antioch to tell the new non-Jewish Christians that in order to really experience salvation, they had to have Jesus + the law of Moses. Then they’d be set, and they could be confident in their identity as God’s children. Grace? Yes, but also!!! There are so many alsos…..
There is a temptation in the Christian journey to seek out peace by doing enough, rather than acknowledging that by grace, we are enough.
We often deal with these thought patterns in our lives today...
"If I do enough for God, I can rest well tonight.”
"If I work hard enough, God will look on me with a smile and say 'well, done.’”
“God must be so disappointed in me because I make mistakes every day.”
But we’ve got it backwards. That stifles life in God, rather than encourages it. For a deep life, the starting and ending point is not what we do toward God, it’s what God does toward us. THEN, we can spend our lives seeking to know God more deeply and love our neighbors more fully- but all of that is done out of a peace-filled confidence in our identity as recipients of God’s never-ending love.
Until we grasp this, we won’t rest well. We won’t love well. And we won’t live well. Endlessly striving for perfection will not shape the character of Jesus in you. But knowing that the grace of Jesus is available to you right now, in all your imperfect glory- that brings a peace and confidence that might just inspire you to do something amazing. It might just transform you more than any Jesus +program out there.
Trusting a living relationship like that is hard. We prefer rule based approaches. The great 20th century French theologian Jacques Ellul summed it up well. “Saying that God loves us grants us no reassurance. We would prefer it if he gave us fifty things to do, so that when we had done them we could be at peace. We do not want an ongoing relationship with God. We prefer a rule.”
Jesus Plus is a myth. You don’t need to strive in order to be at peace with God. It's been given to you. You are loved.
Maybe today, you could take a walk and dwell on how much you are loved.
Maybe today, you could give yourself the same grace that God gives you.
Maybe today, you could tell someone how loved they are- even when they didn’t do something amazing.
Jesus, help me live out of the grace and love you freely give, not in an effort to earn it.
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. - Jesus, Matthew 10:42
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. - Paul, Colossians 3:17
Recently I got together with my friend Daniel, another pastor whom I deeply enjoy spending time with. We drink tea, talk about struggles and joys of ministry and we pray together.
Daniel has a knack for seeing God at work everywhere and seeing opportunities to live out discipleship everywhere-- no matter how small. I arrived at our meeting spot just after he did, and he didn’t know I was behind him as he walked inside. Every few steps he stopped, bent over, and picked up a small piece of trash. He has a habit of doing this everywhere he goes. He is committed to making God’s world more beautiful. Whether it’s a kind word to a sad person, a simple prayer in his head for a stranger passing by, or a handful of trash picked up to care for the earth we’ve been given…. nothing is too little to be meaningless.
How easy is it for us to do nothing because we convince ourselves that a little isn’t enough to really make a difference?
Last week I wanted to start running again after taking a few weeks off. My schedule was limited on the day I wanted to start, however, and I only had about a 20 minute gap in the afternoon. In my past life of long distance running, I would have scoffed at a 20 minute run, since anything under 5 miles wasn’t even considered legitimate in my mind. Twenty minutes is not enough to even make a difference, I would have told myself. So I almost didn't do it. However, this week, I took the opportunity that was in front of me. It wasn’t a lot. But it made a difference. It got me running again. And it was a glorious 19 minutes of wind in my face and time outside with Jesus.
As we journey with Jesus, we are constantly confronted with the temptation to do nothing because we can't do everything.
I don’t have an hour to sit in silence with God today. So I won’t even pray on my drive to work, because it’s not enough to make a difference.
A text message letting someone know that I care takes so little effort, that it probably would feel meaningless. It’s not enough to make a difference, so I guess I won’t send it.
There’s SO much trash in the world! What difference does it make if I pick up ONE piece of litter?
There are millions of homeless people in our country. I can’t change that. So I won’t do anything.
The Bible is way too intense and confusing to understand it all. So I won’t read any of it, because
I won’t learn enough to make a difference.
Our marriage is so screwed up that it is beyond repair. So I won’t set my pride aside and do the little kind thing that I know I could do, because it probably wouldn’t make a difference anyways.
Every day we are confronted with little invitations to enter into deeper life with Jesus, and little opportunities to build God’s kingdom in our world. And every day we convince ourselves that little isn’t worth our effort. So every day we miss out.
What is the thing today that you think is too small to make a difference in God’s kingdom?
Where do you feel paralyzed by an overwhelming task? Trust God, and just start wiggling a toe.
Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. -Mother Teresa
God, thank you for inviting us into your mustard seed kingdom. Take our small efforts and grow them into something transformative.
I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. -John 17:22-23 (NLV)
Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” -Mark 2:15-16 (NLV)
Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher who lived during the turn of the 19th century. His primary contribution in the early 1900’s to the field of philosophy (other than that amazing beard) was his exploration of the ways in which people exist with others. He proposed that people will adopt a philosophy of dialogue defined in one of two ways. They will either see the world through the lens of “I and It” or “I and Thou.” His book Ich und Du (I and Thou) was published from German to English in 1937.
As relational beings, he argues that “I” is never independent- every person is always relating to the world. But the ways that they do that can look very different.
The I and It attitude sees an object or person as separate- something to be experienced and used.
The I and Thou attitude defies categorization. It acknowledges a living relationship, a connectedness deeper than labels, facts, or information. There are no barriers that inhibit knowing, and no mere information can get in the way of true connection. In other words, this attitude sees every person as a fully human, multifaceted image bearer of God.
Buber notes that God is the ultimate Thou. There are no barriers that hinder us from relating directly to God, who is fully available to us in a living relationship. When we enter into this, we find ourselves speaking to and with God, rather than primarily speaking about God.
The I-Thou relationship with God (and others) is defined by presence, not by performance.
Of course, Buber stumbled onto this idea nearly 2000 years after Jesus displayed it so perfectly in his own life. His own union with God and ability to see others beyond the “it” to the “thou” teaches us what a disciple can live like today.
-In Christ, we are connected to Jesus in a mystical way through the Spirit, where Jesus sees us not as independent objects, but as extensions of himself, and connected to each other.
-And as we engage with other people (who are all a part of God’s creation and bear God’s image), we have an obligation to constantly resist the “othering” and objectification of people. This is not simply relevant in the sexualization of our world, but in any classification of an “other” that keeps people in a clearly defined box that is separate from ours. Race, gender, ethnicity, theology, economic status, family history, and politics are all categories of people that Jesus intends us to humanize, rather than dehumanize. This is countercultural.
Othering happened in Jesus’ time just as it happens now. Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, children, women, widows…. these were not simply descriptors, but means of separating society into groups of value and importance. A person became an it, rather than a thou. But not to Jesus. Jesus showed the I-Thou relationship as he chose to see people. He refused to let people become the objects to be labeled and disregarded.
Somehow, it’s easy to imagine that other people aren’t as fully human as we are. We find it difficult to imagine people who we don’t get along/agree with sitting down to eat three times a day, feeling delighted when the sun shines on their face, or crying when they are sad. It’s easy to forget how similar we are to the rest of humanity, choosing only to focus on the differences and weaknesses of others. But transformative relationships begin with a willingness to see others on the same journey we are on.
Jesus had an ability to see the whole person and treat him/her as a complete being, created in God’s image.
Now it’s our turn.
Jesus, thank you for creating a way to know God without barriers. Help us to find connections with others so that our relationships may mirror your care for us. Amen.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
In her raw book (Option B) about grief after the sudden loss of her husband, current Facebook chief operating officer and bestselling author Sheryl Sandberg writes of the many classic experiments on stress that have been done over the decades. People were asked to do tasks that required concentration (like puzzles) while being blasted with loud sounds at strange intervals. Blood pressure would rise, participants would begin sweating, and their ability to perform these tasks declined. In order to reduce anxiety, researches provided a button in the room that the participants could push that would make the noises stop.
As expected, the button did help them stay calmer, make less mistakes, and become less irritated. Here’s the catch:
None of the participants actually pressed the button.
What made the difference in their distress? Simply knowing that the button was there and they could get relief if needed. Participants were able to handle the stress if they knew that there was another option- even if they didn’t use it. It shocked researchers. The presence of the button made all the difference.
More than we know.
Even when we don’t use it.
It’s like that when we are going through hard times. The stress of a difficult season or the strain of a major loss feels like too much of a weight to bear. The thick fog of depression can leave someone feeling acutely alone. The overwhelming season of child-raising can bring massive exhaustion. The fear of an unknown future can be debilitating. The struggle of work stress can feel hopelessly suffocating.
But we have a button.
The calling of God’s Church is to be a people who literally bear each other’s burdens. We offer buttons for each other in times of pain. No, we cannot take away another’s pain, heartache, or suffering. But we can do something. We can sit with a friend. We can buy a cup of coffee. We can watch the kids. We can write a card. We can let them know they’re not alone and they can call us if they need anything.
And here’s the fascinating thing: Sometimes knowing that the button exists is enough to make a difference. Even if we make ourselves available to lend a hand or hang out and someone doesn’t take us up on it, there is still power in communicating care. There is still impact from knowing that we are not alone. So don’t sit back and say, “well, there’s not much I can do, so I’ll just stay silent.” We may not always know how to reach out to each other, but that doesn’t mean we do nothing. We still find ways to “show up” in our bumbling, imperfect ways.
God has also given us a "button to push” in times of stress and pain: the promise of relational presence and peace, accessed through the simple act of prayer.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
To be clear: That’s a button we should push regularly. The peace of God in the midst of chaotic situations is one of the most beautiful things a person can experience in this life. We've seen this peace in hundreds of ways over the past few years in our community. The beauty of it is that when our hearts become settled with the peace of Jesus’ love, we are in a far better position to practice empathy toward each other. Indeed, it will then flow naturally. A heart formed by Jesus will necessarily be a heart postured toward others.
Maybe today is a good day to ask these questions:
-Am I living deeply enough with God to have empathy for others?
-What buttons can I provide for others around me who might be struggling silently?
-What simple note/text/call can I make that would communicate love and support?
God, grow our hearts of compassion so that we may offer your love and support to our brothers and sisters. Shape us with eyes to see each person, and give us courage to do something.
"He must become greater; I must become less.”
- John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus (Jn 3:30)
God uses all sorts of life experiences to bring insights and growth. Lately, some of mine have come through my recently acquired interest in birding. We have a small marsh within walking distance of our house that I frequently visit to see the various types of birds that make their homes there. Sometimes I snap pictures, sometimes I simply listen. The colorful beauty of birds and the soothing sounds of their songs are reminders of the love and peace of God in an often chaotic world.
An interesting thing happens every time I go. When I arrive at the marsh, I always see very little as I walk in, crunching the leaves, scrambling over logs, and moving all over the place. It’s not until I stop being the center of attention for a few minutes that life really starts to emerge in the marsh. The woodpeckers start to fly. The herons and wading birds start to come out of hiding. Once I become still enough to be rather invisible, I start to see things I hadn’t seen before. I don’t know if it’s because the birds are no longer afraid, or if it’s because I am finally able to notice how alive everything is around me. But either way, I have to learn to become less noticeable. In the moments I learn to be invisible, I see amazing beauty around me.
God has been using this experience of chosen invisibility to bring important questions to mind.
-Where am I more “visible” than I need to be?
-Are there relationships that I dominate that need to be characterized by more listening?
-Am I moving so much that I miss the movement of God around me?
-Where do I need to slow down and become invisible so that new signs of life can emerge?
-Are there things in my life that revolve around me rather than Jesus?
There are times to be visible, certainly. But our world is already saturated with egocentric social media, constant emphases on physical appearance, and larger than life personalities. Life with Jesus also requires learning when to make ourselves less so that we may love God and our neighbors more fully. Jesus frees and equips us to offer the ministry of our presence. We don't need to make a name for ourselves. We don't even need to fix everyone's problems. We simply walk lightly enough to notice where the Spirit is already at work, and humbly join in. Jesus reveals himself in new ways when we make ourselves invisible.
My children have now begun coming with me to the marsh as well. We are trying to learn together how to be still enough to stop stifling the world around us. We are learning how beautiful God’s world is if we only learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
Over 20 years later, I can still easily recall the owl poster that hung in the outhouse of my grandparents’ Chesapeake cottage. Underneath the image read the old proverb:
A wise old owl sat on an oak,
The more he saw, the less he spoke,
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?
God is alive all around you. Have a seat for a bit and take notice.
Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us….” - Hebrews 12:1
I just made my first batch of cold brew coffee to anticipate the warmer season that is coming. Cold brew is made differently than typical hot or iced coffee. Rather than pouring hot water over coffee grounds and getting a cup after a minute or two (or pouring it over ice), cold brew requires the coffee grounds to steep in cool water for 12-14 hours. The process is not nearly as efficient, but the end result is remarkable. After you finish filtering the coffee, you are left with a strong, smooth cup of iced coffee. The most noticeable difference is that because of the slow process, the coffee no longer has any bitterness.
Our world is full of instant gratification and quick, efficient solutions to problems. If we’re honest, we long for the way of Jesus to be formed in us with the same sort of efficiency.
What do we want?
THE GOOD LIFE!!!
When do we want it??
Are we willing to walk patiently-for-months-and-months-while-allowing-God-to-chip-away-at-hard-edges-bitterness-and-self-focus?
Unfortunately, transformation takes time. Patience and perseverance is hard. Choosing to keep walking when you thought you would have reached the destination by now can be disheartening. But do not give up today. Many have gone before us, and many will continue after us. Jesus invites us to follow him. The journey itself is integral to the destination. We need the hours, the days, the months, and the years of shuffling and sprinting with Jesus to experience the remarkable. As the time goes by, we begin to see our bitterness fade. We respond to situations not in anger, but in understanding. We speak words of grace over judgment, and we hear the whispers of God that we were too noisy to notice at the beginning.
Perhaps this week you need to cook something, make something, write something, or build something…. that takes just a little more time than usual. Make popcorn on the stove rather than the microwave. And remember that as we hang in there day by day, Jesus will form something beautiful in us.
A quote for further reflection:
“And yet I decide, every day, to set aside what I can do best and attempt what I do very clumsily--open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.”