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.