Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
- Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30
Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it.
- Hebrews 12:2
It’s all connected. Don’t convince yourself otherwise.
I remember one day several years ago when I heard the findings of an experiment in 1995 that re-introduced wolves into the Yellowstone National Park boundaries after not having a wolf pack there in over 70 years. The whole story is explained above in this beautiful 5 minute video (you really do have 5 available minutes to watch this, regardless of what you tell yourself).
After 20 years, what researchers found was evidence of an amazing “trophic cascade.” A trophic cascade is a change in ecology that begins near the top of a food chain and changes everything beneath it. Ecologists began to see that because wolves were introduced, far more was affected than just the assumed impact of less deer. In fact, the end result of the wolves' presence was more tree growth, a number of new species returning to the national park, and even a shift in the physical landscape of the park! Shockingly, the paths of rivers were altered by the changing growth due to the wolves. One small group of wolves changed the entire ecosystem in more ways than anyone imagined.
We are a people and a culture longing for transformed lives but too exhausted to make all of the massive changes to see growth. Maybe we’ve been thinking about it wrong, however. Maybe, instead of an ever-growing list of areas I want to do better at…. maybe we need to learn what leads to a trophic cascade in our soul- and simply start there.
Perhaps the little things that we think we don’t have time for because we are too tired or overwhelmed are the exact things that open our souls up to the far-reaching transformative power of God’s love. As spiritual and physical beings, our selves are more connected than we admit. It's easy to overlook the reality that the stress or conflicts we are dealing with today may be directly related to a conversation or experience that occurred the week before. Our compartmentalized lives make us feel like everything that happens is independent. But the reality is that it’s all connected. And just as the negative moments can have long-term impact, the positive inputs that we introduce to our spiritual ecology can have far reaching consequences. When we invite simple practices of connection with Jesus into our daily lives, we find that Jesus cascades down to the deepest depths and transforms things we never imagined.
Perhaps those moments of pause in the morning or evening to read scripture, to take a walk with Jesus, or to reflect on your day in light of God’s kingdom— perhaps those small moments are the beginning of a trophic cascade in your life, that will eventually allow Jesus to shift your perspective on everything.
-We begin to pause each day, and we become less susceptible to crippling schedule stress.
-We remember where our worth and value lies and so we have less conflicts with others because we are less easily offended.
-We experience God’s grace enough that we begin to be more patient with our children.
-We train ourselves to see beauty for a few moments every day, until we start to see beauty everywhere we look.
There is indeed a trickle down effect of time with Jesus. It will always affect the ecology of our inner and outer lives in surprising ways. Wolves revitalized the landscape of Yellowstone National Park. Jesus revitalizes the landscape of our hearts, souls, minds, and actions.
Maybe start small today? Just sit simply with Jesus and be delighted.
Jesus, spread your influence to the far-reaching places in me.
I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.
-Jesus (John 16:33)
Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.
-Paul (Romans 12:12)
My kids went swimming in rivers twice this past week. We try to encourage this sort of Man VS. Wild type of entertainment frequently. It keeps them connected to nature, provides infinite opportunities for exploration, and gives us parents some solid reasons to force them to shower at least once a month. On Friday they were out with friends and the day at the swimming hole was gorgeous. The sun was shining, the water was clear, and the setting was idyllic. Good times had by all.
Saturday morning looked like it was going to be a washout because of the passing storm, but in the afternoon the sun came out. Since we had family visiting for the day, my kids were excited to take their cousins back to their favorite river spot. We headed over as my children spoke of how amazing this place was. Clear water, fun rocks to slide off of, and a deep hole to swim over. But there was one thing we hadn’t thought much about. The previous night’s storm had changed the entire makeup of the river. We arrived. Instead of clear water, it was completely murky. Instead of white rapids, they were the color of, um……. brown trout.
Needless to say, my immediate response was NOPE. I was ready to pack up.
So often, things that once shined with beauty and brilliance look completely different after a storm passes though. The basic contour might be the same, but our experience of it is completely different. That worship song about God’s faithfulness feels different when my heart is broken over an unanswered prayer. Celebrating the victorious life on Sunday is hard when someone is drowning in debt. And certainly, the wonderful and radical vision of Jesus can look far less desirable when we’re actually in the middle of a situation that needs forgiveness or dealing with the fallout of a broken relationship. It's almost enough to make us decide to turn back from it all. It looks so different now. It feels less beautiful.
Back to the river. I was ready to head home. But the kids decided it was worth the risk. They had come this far, they weren’t going to let a disappointing appearance destroy everything. So they dove in. (Not really. DON’T EVER DIVE INTO MURKY WATER, KIDS). So they stepped in. And they began to play. And they experienced beauty in a different way, because they chose to move through the disappointment instead of completely rejecting it. And they found joy and meaning on this new side of it, too, as they adjusted. The rapids were still fun, the summer swimming was still refreshing. You could even make the case that certain fears were gone in the cloudy water. Those scary (harmless) 10 inch trout weren’t noticed anymore, so there was a new freedom from previous fears.
The kids taught us a great lesson that day. Muddy water doesn’t mean that swimming is impossible.
Without a doubt, our faith experience is different when the luster of a utopian reality fades. When you’ve been through the grinder, the world looks different. Suffering takes a toll. But we have a choice in those moments. We can choose to turn back, living in rosy memories of naive yesterdays, or we can lean into the adventure ahead, even though things are a bit cloudy. The hope of Jesus is not an idyllic life. It is a life that even though we have trouble, we know He has indeed overcome the world. It is a life of hope and redemption, where things that seem disappointing and disheartening become the setting for the most redeeming works of God in our entire lives.
Today, let’s look on the muddy rivers in our lives with expectation that our adventure with God is far from over. Let us not be afraid to still step in. And if we are prone to think that all the greatest beauty is behind us, let us remember that when the dirt settles, we will have an even deeper ability to recognize the many shapes of beauty.
Jesus, help me to keep faith, especially when hope is hard.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. (Colossians 3:23-24)
Peter and the other apostles replied, "We must obey God rather than human beings."
I’ve spent much of my life attempting to make people happy. I LOVE BEING LOVED. I also don’t like conflict. I’m not alone in this desire, I know, because I’ve encountered hundreds of other people-pleasers along the way. We can make ourselves sick playing to everyone’s whim.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19, Paul writes, "Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible." And at first glance, this statement makes Paul sound like a chronic people pleaser. But the reality is actually quite the opposite. Paul is making this statement to explain why he has rejected financial support from wealthy patrons in Corinth. Corinthian society was founded on patronage. Wealthy members of society would “sponsor” their clients, who could then spend their days making art, giving rhetorical speeches, and getting involved in social society. Though they would not have high status, they would use their voice to publicly affirm how great their patrons were, which would translate into their patrons rising in social and political influence. Paul has chosen to reject patronage from some of the wealthy Corinthian church members, and they aren’t thrilled with him because of it. One scholar even mentioned that rejection of patronage would be akin to rejection of friendship. But Paul knew that if he accepted their financial support, he would be forced to honor them and serve them disproportionately. God had called him to care for all of the young church, not just it’s wealthy members, and so he rejects it. After all, how could he ever bring words of challenge to his patrons, if he knew that doing so might kill his funding? When Paul says he “belongs to no one,” he is stating clearly that his life will be lived according to Jesus alone, and not beholden to any individual’s expectations.
People pleasing comes in many shapes and forms. Sometimes the pressure is from outside, and sometimes it's from within. For some of us it is the chronic need to impress others or look good in front of them. For others, it is the desire to live up to another’s expectations. For some of us it is about feeling important. In every case, at some point, most of us will face the temptation of people-pleasing. But eventually, in the quiet places, we must all ask ourselves this question: Who is directing my life? Is it the people around me? Or is it Jesus?
The great irony, as we see in Paul’s situation, is that moving away from a people-pleasing mindset actually gives us the freedom to love without restraint. Paul was able to love and serve the poorest members of his church equally, because he refused to be beholden to anyone, even if that made his own livelihood more difficult. He was also able to speak things that needed to be spoken, because he didn’t feel the pressure to elevate one person over another.
When we realize that Jesus is the real one we are serving, then we can serve all people in freedom.
Jesus, free me from the need to impress and please, so that I can serve you fully.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.[…] You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.
Paul, 1 Cor. 6:12, 20
I still remember the fateful day that my (then) 8 year-old son looked at me after tanking six Taco Bell tacos on his own. He was so excited to impress me with his growing appetite, as I sat there dumbfounded at how this offspring of mine was so quickly surpassing my own eating limits. But the euphoria was short-lived. The tide had turned and he was now entering into the “regret phase” where gluttony begins to bring its own form of punishment. His eyes locked on mine as he realized that his body was communicating in no uncertain terms that a line had been crossed. He sat there, his face turning a little yellowish, focusing on deep breaths. “What are we learning right now, bud?” I cautiously asked. Without much hesitation, he spoke up slowly....
"Just because you can.... doesn’t mean you should."
We sat there and started laughing together, both at the cleverness of a witty response, and at the important truth that it held.
It’s true, isn’t it? We have a lot of freedom to do a lot of things…. But the reality is that freedom can be used for things that end up hindering life more than bringing it.
Life with Jesus is truly full of grace, and truly full of freedom. We no longer live with a cloud of guilt hanging over us for every mistake we make. We don’t walk around as if we are hopeless failures, because we know we are loved in spite of our mistakes. We are given a new life free of condemnation. Additionally, Jesus sets us free from a life of legalism, and we can experience joy in new ways.
But with that freedom comes a transformed heart, which should lead to transformed actions.
A group of men in Corinth had experienced a taste of that freedom in Christ. Yet they had forgotten that freedom is never given for self-indulgence, but for people to live in peace with God and love others better. They were using a slogan, “I have the right to do anything” in order to take part in the same elite cultural banquets they had been a part of previously, which frequently involved excessive drinking, eating, and even prostitution afterwards. Paul sees that they have misunderstood freedom, and their bodies were being mistreated because of it. Rather than celebrating their freedom to do anything, they should celebrate that they have been set free and act with wisdom, letting nothing control their hearts or minds except Jesus.
We must understand, the body is incredibly important, and how we treat it matters. Paul even reminds his hearers that they will one day be raised again- so don’t throw your bodies around as if they don’t have meaning!
Today our issues may be different than the Corinthians. Maybe you aren’t celebrating freedom by overeating, overdrinking, or prostitution at an idol party. But maybe you work yourself sick. Or maybe you put unhealthy food into your body constantly. Or maybe you starve yourself so that you look good to others. Or maybe you disrespect your body by treating sexuality haphazardly.
No, we are not under condemnation. What good news! But maybe we need to be reminded that what we do with ourselves – how we treat our bodies and others’ bodies-- is of eternal significance. Bodies matter.
I chuckled with my son that day because I knew well his words. I have done things that I could-- never asking if I should. But as we grow with Jesus, we will continue to move into deeper ways of seeing our freedom through a lens of love rather than entitlement.
Jesus, set me free to live well with You and others today with my body, mind, and spirit.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
-Paul, 1 Corinthians 8:1b-3
Many of us remember the iconic moment in the movie The Matrix, when Neo comes to grip with the reality of living in a world that was only an illusion. He meets a monk-child who had special abilities and had learned to understand the system they were living in. The child holds a spoon in his hand, and it melts and bends as he gazes at it. He explains to Neo that there is no spoon, there is only the mind. This scene helps to catapult Neo into a world of discovering this secret knowledge. He had been living in a virtual reality,and nothing around him was real. The only thing that counted for anything was this special knowledge- the knowledge of the mind.
There were a bunch of Christians in Corinth that had a similar mindset. Since having the right knowledge was all that mattered- their actions (toward themselves and others) were secondary. Faith was all about what they knew.
It is to this reality that Paul speaks his words of 1 Corinthians 8. He issues a clear challenge:
Having all the right knowledge, if you’re not careful, simply creates know-it-alls that look nothing like Jesus. But love- that’s the real secret sauce. The one who loves with the love of God because they have encountered God— they’re the ones God recognizes. Lots of knowledge makes you feel important. Love makes others feel important.
When knowledge becomes the highest value, two things can happen.
1) We become arrogant.
2) We lose our focus on simply following Jesus in the physical areas of everyday life.
In a world where the quest for knowledge knows no end, and in a culture that thrives on being able to win arguments, it is no surprise that theological beliefs (or knowledge) tend to be the most significant source of division for Christians. While belief is important, the witness of Jesus is that expressed love and unity are really the ultimate goal of the Church. There is need for agreement on certain issues, but the higher value that covers them is that our practices might ultimately show God’s love to the world. Love > Knowledge.
If our faith is truly founded on Jesus, disagreements of interpretation will be far less important than our ability to love one another as God's Church. Is it ok to disagree? Absolutely. In fact, maybe you need to make friends with some people you disagree with. But let us never for a second begin to think that knowing all the correct beliefs about God is the same as knowing God. Today, lean into the humility that comes from knowing that you are loved by Jesus, and so is that person that has a different interpretation than you.
So yes, friends, there is indeed a spoon. Today might be a good day to analyze it a bit less, and use it to feed someone instead.
Jesus, may my faith in you be founded on simple love.