See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
As they talked and discussed these things, Jesus himself suddenly came and began walking with them.
God moves too slowly. Let’s admit it. It took the people of Israel 40 years in the desert to find the promised land. It (apparently) took Jesus 30 years of living before doing anything noteworthy except being born and then forgetting to head home from a road trip with his parents when he was a kid. Nobody ever talks about what Mary might have been thinking when Jesus was 28 and hadn’t made much of his life yet...
But eventually, the right time came. And it couldn’t have worked any other way. If love is patient, and God is Love, then I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus tends to walk slowly and deliberately in the Scriptures, rarely seeming to be in a hurry.
My whole family loves hiking. But I’ll admit, my natural hiking tendency is to GET PLACES.What’s our destination? Great! I sure hope there’s a view at the end. And what’s the shortest amount of time we can get there in? Let’s haul! That makes it even better.
My wife brings a different mentality into hiking. She is the flower noticer, and the one who always catches the unique shape of trees. I usually like beauty on the go. She likes to ponder a bit more. Over Thanksgiving we were on a chilly hike and my daughter, who apparently takes after her mom, squatted down to notice something that we all missed- frozen mud that had formed "needle ice". Sometimes we need to slow down our pace to notice what’s forming around us.
We are about to enter into the 4 week season of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting and watching. It’s a time of looking around, noticing things we might not normally notice. It’s a time to realize that when God does something, it often takes a while to develop. In fact, we may miss it altogether because we’re either in such a hurry, or we’re only looking for the great view of the angelic choir in the sky.
Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, in his book Three Mile An Hour God, suggests that God moves at the speed of walking, because this is the only speed of love.
"God walks ‘slowly’ because He is love. If He is not love He would have gone much faster. Love has its own speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed…It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, whether we are currently hit by a storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks."
Like every year, the coming month will have many opportunities for joy and celebration with Jesus… but also for busyness and soul-sucking stress.
Our fast paced world needs people moving slowly enough to notice the tears and sit with those who shed them. We need people who can tell stories around a table. We need people who can look around and remain grounded when the earth is shaking. We need people who are willing to walk beside Jesus, not attempt to outsprint him. So whether you have a schedule packed full of to-do’s, or your holiday is quiet and still, take a moment and invite God to help your spirit move at the relaxed pace of His love this month.
Jesus, slow me down to notice the streams forming in the wastelands and your presence with me on the road.
We are careful not to judge people by what they seem to be, though we once judged Christ in that way. Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten, and everything is new.
- Paul (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)
These Together for Good reflections are sent out every single Thursday morning. They help us focus our minds on ways to become like Jesus. So why send this one out on Wednesday night? Well, just a hunch…. Some of you might need an extra night of reflection before this Thursday morning rolls around.
Seven months ago, when we started the TFG project, the hope was that they would strengthen the connection between our relationship with Jesus, and how that impacts our relationships with others. The internal always affects the external.
That’s all well and good when it comes to our churches. After all, isn’t that the whole point of participating in Church?
But when it comes to extended family, there’s this:
ALL BETS ARE OFF.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Seriously though. There is a likelihood that sometime tomorrow (or perhaps already), there will be an element of together that you will experience. Parents, in-laws, aunts, friends, uncles, stepdads, that grandfather with NO filter, and that person that acts like they know you, so you act like you know them, but you have no idea who they are.
And with all that vibrant togetherness, many will experience that wonderful reality of holidays... tension.
-Tension from family issues and fights from a decade ago.
-Tension from acting like everything is perfect because it’s hard to be real.
-Tension from political viewpoints that drastically differ.
-Tension from the presence of alcohol and how it may be used.
-Tension from comparing cooking, families, accomplishments, or whose kids have taken a shower most recently.
It’s hard to deny that times together with family can feel complicated.
For some, the best you are hoping for is that things are uneventful. But your fear is that multiple landmines could explode at any time. You’d like to be thankful, but really, you'll be thankful on Friday morning!
So on Thanksgiving, there may be a real risk that you are expecting a Together for Bad experience.
And yet you will be together… and if it’s family, then there’s a good chance that you’re together…. for good.
Can I give you simple encouragement as you gear up?
God created us for relationship. And in this world, as we walk with Jesus, our relationships with others become a powerful force for good. They don’t always feel that way.
And yet we have been given power. Power to affect the world for good. Power that comes from the Spirit of Jesus in us. Power that can turn ugly things into beautiful things because we are being transformed ourselves.
What would make tomorrow be a Together for Good experience? Take a moment to ask God to make you a partner toward that goal. It will be different for everyone, but it will involve one similarity: You will have to view people in a new way.
Because of Jesus, we now see everyone not for their faults or mistakes, but for their value. We look at every single individual as endowed with unimaginable worth and value. We look with eyes of grace and hope, and we speak with words of gentleness and compassion. Thanks be to God for giving us a spirit that can do such a thing during times of tension!
If there’s a risk that Thanksgiving might feel like a Together for Bad sort of a day, invite Jesus into it and surprise people with love. And if you have very little family tension, you can pray the same prayer, asking God to show you how to truly make your family time a time when others walk away and say, wow, we were really together for good today.
Jesus, give me insight and courage to love others for good as I approach Thanksgiving.
Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
-Paul, second letter to the Corinthians (5:17)
Life sometimes feels like a balancing act, doesn’t it? We are constantly in the thin places between past and future, younger and older, stressed and joyful, old and new. It’s difficult to figure out how to stay rooted.
There’s a pose in yoga called “warrior 2.” You stand with your feet spread apart. One arm extends back. The other arm reaches forward. But the lean and the gaze is important. In warrior 2, the weight is on the front leg, leaning forward, and the eyes look ahead. Yet the hand reaching backwards extends fully and remains open.
I’m not much of a yogi, but let me tell you, the balance is hard. It’s easy to look like like a sleep-deprived surfer rather than an artfully balanced sage.
The posture is intended to be a physical symbol about receiving from one’s past, yet remaining fixed on one's future.
Jesus can teach us some things about discipleship from such a position.
It’s difficult to know what to do with our past-- both recent and distant. Some of us are haunted by pain, difficult experiences, or bad decisions. We’d like to forget about our past altogether. Others of us are ambivalent or nostalgic about our past, and we either don’t think about it much, or we lean longingly back, wishing for the good old days.
That’s the temptation. We want to forget or we want to dwell. Neither helps us become like Jesus. Unfortunately, we rarely seek to reach back with an open hand to receive the gifts of the past.
As God’s people were being formed, wandering through the desert, making new mistakes, and becoming a people— they were constantly encouraged to remember the past. To remember both their own frailty and God’s faithfulness. Making note of those moments would give them strength to keep going, and give them compassion for others who were in the thick of difficulty.
But in the New Testament, Paul is quick to remind young Christians that they can get stuck in the past- and that is not where our focus should be. We have been made new in Jesus. In this new world, there is no place for shame. We leave behind old stories and pick up a new one full of grace and hope for the future.
What if we were more intentional about learning from the past so that we might be formed for the future? God can use everything to help us be formed- including painful events that we’ve walked through. And our past mistakes (the ones that we’d usually like to forget) can even become a cause for celebration.
Because now you see it.
You do realize that, right?
Seeing that it was a mistake….is growth. You have new knowledge now! You are not the same. Grasp that new insight with gratitude, and do something with it as you lean and reach forward with Jesus. Take hold of the overwhelming grace of God that was, is, and will be available to you always.
Do you dwell on the beautiful moments of your past? Be filled with gratitude at those moments and the influence of others in your life who faithfully led you there. Let it be a tool to learn how to press on and faithfully love others. Let it spur you to new depths with Jesus.
As we learn a healthy balance between our past and our future, it may be helpful today to ask these questions:
Do I invite God to teach me from my past, or do I simply dwell on mistakes or glories?
Am I waking up each day seeing myself as a new creation in Jesus and living expectantly, or has the weight of life kept me from leaning into the future with hope?
If you’re looking for a way to prayerfully look back over each day with God and you’re unfamiliar with the prayer of Examen, try it out.
Jesus, help me learn from everything in grace.
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. […]
“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them.
Luke 10:30, 33-34
There are places in nature where two worlds collide. Rivers meet oceans, marshes meet forests. Two ecosystems that are quite different find themselves sharing the same space.
And that’s where the magic happens.
These places of collision are called ecotones. The name literally means a place where “two ecologies are in tension.” What’s so special about them? Ecotones are where the greatest concentrations of life in the natural world are found. They are where living things thrive the most. When the two areas meet, new characteristics emerge that are not found individually in either system, allowing new species to flourish.
The Jesus life is a life of intersecting boundaries. A few weeks ago I walked the borderlands of Mexico and the United States, hearing so many stories of people from a vastly different world than me. But when the opportunity came for our worlds to collide, even briefly, there was beautiful life. Choosing to engage with another culture opened the door to seeing God in new ways.
We live in a world badly in need of cultural ecotones. We like to stay among the people who look, think, act, and talk like us. But that isn’t working. We become isolated from those who are different from us. Even those with whom we disagree would bring forth beautiful life if we learned to serve and engage with one another.
In the famous good samaritan story that Jesus told, the radical part was that the Samaritan who served the Jewish victim was from a neighboring culture that Jews deeply disliked. A Jewish person having compassion on a Jewish person was nice. But a Samaritan showing kindness to a Jewish person? That was where life explodes. We can only imagine what may have happened had the story continued. Maybe they never saw each other again. Today, though, you can imagine that those two would be facebook friends and grab coffee when they were in town and probably FaceTime with their kids. Maybe they would help generations of families and friends break down stereotypes and judgments about Jews and Samaritans.... all because of that one collision, where someone chose to move toward the other (at least, that’s what I hope would happen today).
Perhaps the prophetic witness of our generation will look less like shouting, and more like sitting. Perhaps we will reveal the love of Jesus by listening to people different from us, and loving them. We will find that when we engage with people, cultures, and perspectives that are challenging, new forms of life will emerge. But we have to stay there long enough to let the magic happen. We have to endure the awkwardness. We have to ask good questions. And beyond it all, we have to love with an authenticity that is beyond question. Jesus can give us that if we ask.
What cultural or relational ecosystem will you be willing to enter into this week? Consider starting a conversation with someone vastly different from you, or serving someone you disagree with. Don’t be surprised if Jesus brings surprising new forms of life.
Jesus, help me find the life that comes from kindness and service to those different from me.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
-Paul, Romans 5:3-5
I recently re-watched the delightful and bizarre film Evan Almightywith my kids. The short recap is that God (Morgan Freeman) calls a newly elected politician (Steve Carrell) to leave his high status job to build an ark in the middle of a housing subdivision. Like a modern day Noah. I know. It’s a plot leap. You should probably watch it yourself to understand. That’s not my point. This call from God comes after Evan’s wife prays and asks God for their family to come closer together.
But it doesn’t exactly work. After Evan finally caves in and begins making the ark, acting a little bit nuts, everyone deserts him. He becomes a laughing stock at his job. Television networks mock him on the evening news. Even his own wife leaves with the kids because she can’t handle his delusions.
When Evan’s wife is away, God shows up looking like a waiter to chat with her in her distress at a restaurant (Morgan Freeman is fabulous, by the way).
He listens, and then he asks her a few questions…
(watch it here)
If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience?
Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient?
If he prays for courage does He give them courage, or opportunities to be courageous?
If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings?
Or does he give them opportunities to love each other?
Really good point, God—er, Mr. Freeman.
I'm not suggesting that Evan Almighty is a helpful crash course in theology (though you could do worse). But I was reminded that perhaps we sometimes misunderstand the process of being shaped by God. It’s not random magic. It’s a partnership.
Opportunities are all around us. Life is hard. Things can get discouraging. But as we bow our heads and pray for God to change us- giving us more humility, more patience, more strength, more courage… we need to also lift our heads and look around, so that we see the holy moments that give opportunity to practice what we’ve been praying for. God wants to form us, but it will only happen with our movement too.
Of course, we don’t believe that God is the author of the heartache in our lives, or the source behind our struggles. But the beauty of God’s redemptive character is that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. Even our greatest trials can be transformed by God into opportunities for us to become more like Jesus. In fact, it could be argued that those hard experiences are the most transformative times of all.
After the restaurant scene, Evan’s wife decides to return home, and the family shares quite an adventure building a 300 cubit long ark! Laughter, exhaustion, and bonding ensue. God provided the opportunity. But the response was still up to people. I’ll let you watch the movie on Netflix to see if the flood ever comes.
Today, keep an eye out for holy opportunities for you to become what you’ve been asking for. God’s Spirit will empower you… but you’ll still have to make the move. Thankfully, Jesus will be with you the whole way.
Jesus, help me notice the opportunities you give me today to be formed in your character.