"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.
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
Well, what did you expect would happen?
That’s a comment that I’ve made to my children more times than I can count. Unfortunately, it’s usually in a negative context, where my kids do something less than intellectually sound and then deal with the consequences.
When you stood on that wobbly stool holding your dinner plate, what did you expect would happen???
When you threw the football in the living room right beside the lamp, what did you expect would happen???
Or, for us grown ups:
When you started that heated facebook debate with that person you never talk to in real life, how did you expect it to go?
What exactly did you expect to feel like after binge-watching three shows and drinking a bit too much wine every night for two weeks?
When we ask our kids or our friends or ourselves these questions, we’re not actually asking a question. We’re making a statement:
Maybe you didn’t expect this result, but really, you should have.
So today I’m thinking about about that question: As Christ followers, what should we be expecting right now?
Spending time defining our expectations as disciples of Jesus can bring about both realism and hope in our lives. Realism for the way that the world often works, dominated by greed, power, fear, or self-interest. We shouldn’t be surprised when we see these values elevated.
But our expectations can fill us with hope as well, if we know what it means to be in Christ. Because it means that the very Spirit of Christ is actively at work in us moment by moment, changing who we are and the world around us.
Disciples of Jesus ought to live a life of great expectations. After all, many of us have already seen the amazing things that Jesus has done in our lives, the lives of those around us, and in our faith communities. It should help us expect God to be constantly at work. Can you imagine the disciples waking up the day after Jesus multiplied the loaves of bread to feed thousands? I like to imagine they had expectant eyes, eagerly anticipating how Jesus would meet their needs and send them out in compassion again.
Except, well, that’s not at all what happened. They still hadn't learned what to expect when you’re with Jesus (look up Matthew 16:8-9).
To be a disciple is to expect that God will be shaping and sending us all the time, because that’s what Jesus does. And when we expect something, we look out for it so we don’t miss it (Amazon package analogy, anyone?).
As we follow Jesus, we expect to be changed into something new. As we pray, we expect to hear and sense the presence of God with us. As we look to the living scriptures, we expect to see Jesus come to life in new ways.
I can’t tell you how many people have shared with me that the scriptures have been springing to life in new ways during this season. Why? Because the scriptures were written to a people dealing with complicated, uncomfortable circumstances. There was a need for God. And when there is real need, we look expectantly. And right now people have real needs— emotionally, spiritually, and economically.
It is time to expect God to show up in our lives more these days, not less.
So the question I ask you, my brothers and sisters, is this:
As you lean into prayer, scripture, and compassion each day, what do you expect will happen?
I hope we’re expecting to be changed every single day. Because if we are, I think we will be.
This requires both faith and humility. The humility to suggest that we haven’t arrived, and the humility to admit that we often act out of our own pain, insecurities, and past wounds— but are very short on grace for when other people do the same.
And the faith to believe that Jesus is powerful. The faith to believe that we will be given courage and conviction to make loving decisions. The faith to believe that another world is possible, and that Jesus wants to use us to build it. The faith to believe that pandemics and quarantines and divisive social platforms and technical exhaustion will never be sharp enough to cut apart the Body of Christ.
Most of us are facing hard, complicated choices as we walk forward each day right now. Do we subtly expect that we are alone in this? Or do expect that in our need, Christ illuminates our way and gives us power, love, wisdom, and perseverance? I’m expecting to see that this week. I want to invite you to expect it too- it just might tune your eyes and ears to grasp what’s been available the whole time.
Jesus, I expect you to change me today, and I’m here for it.
My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love.
- Paul, Galatians 5:13
I learned about vortices and movements this week. Every time we move, we create little flows of circular air that follow behind us (I’m not talking about droplets or transmission, here. Not everything is about coronavirus!) Those flows of circular air are moving, creating slight currents that affect other things that we didn’t even touch. Think about running through the woods and having leaves swirl behind you in your wake. That’s a vortex you created.
Point being: Motion creates motion. Movement creates movement.
I’m guessing you’ve felt blah at some point lately. If not, congratulations, you’ve won at life. If you have though, you have been through times where even meaningful practices may have lost their sheen. Especially when it comes to the more intentional practices of actively loving God and loving others, you may just feel like you’re going through the motions. Or you’ve stopped going through the motions altogether because your heart wasn’t in it. I get that.
I have some Jesus-loving Catholic friends who sometimes joke about what they call “Catholic guilt," that deep-seated feeling that one is never doing enough. I've had friends go through hard seasons of being pressured to “go through the motions” of church stuff even though their heart wasn’t in. It can be really damaging, specifically when legalism takes root.
Most of us believe passionately that our faith is founded completely on the grace of God to rescue us. All we do is receive God’s love and respond in faith accordingly with Jesus. We’ve been set free! We don’t have to do anything! There is beautiful truth there.
Except of course, if that truth gives us freedom to stop moving.
Hear me out. I think there might actually be a case for "going through the motions” sometimes even when our hearts aren’t in it. There’s a case to be made that if we keep moving, more movement will be created in our wake, and our hearts will be sucked back into motion.
In our local church, we are doing movements that are intended to keep us healthy. We’re doing simple daily practices with Jesus that involve reflecting on a shared prayer or Scripture. And we get together weekly on zoom to pray and hear the scriptures, though sometimes it’s really annoying, as it was last week. Any of those practices could be tossed out because we just don't feel like going through the motions. And no, God does not love us one bit less if we chose not to do them because they’re exhausting or we’re not motivated. But many times, like a vortex, going through the motions is the only possible way to create movement.
Sometimes when we’re feeling blah, we have to do some motions, even if we don’t want to, so that we can get other things moving in our lives that help push us to the place that (deep down) we desire to be. It can be hard to find the strength to be disciples, and to be God’s Church. It’s easier to simply not do the things that are difficult at the moment. And there’s grace in those moments- God is quick to understand our struggles. And then other times, well, we need to not use our freedom as an excuse to do whatever we feel like (paraphrasing Paul).
Every time we choose to keep turning to Jesus, we create movement that changes the flow of air in our spirit. Every time we choose to continue to gather awkwardly for worship, we create a flow of movement that affects others around us because we know we are doing this together. Every time we continue to reach out and encourage other people, even if we don’t always feel like it, we create a vortex of spiritual energy that God uses to fill ourselves and others with hope and connection.
There are ways to live right now - in fear, annoyance, or isolation- that keep the focus squarely on ourselves. Together, let's be aware that sometimes, if we don’t go through the motions, we forget how to move.
The more I’ve been thinking, the more important I believe this season is in our lives. Life has no pause buttons. One minute is the exact same length today as it was in February. We are becoming something right now, that will deeply affect who we are in the future. Life hasn’t ground to a halt - only our normal plans have. This is a hard and unique and important season of discovery and work, even when we don’t always feel like it.
This isn’t intended to be a kick in the gut… it’s actually a message of good news:
It’s ok if you just feel like you’re going through the motions sometimes right now.
You’re given permission to feel that way. There is grace upon grace upon grace. But, like Paul had to say over and over again- don’t let that grace lead you to selfishness or stagnation. Don’t give up doing good. Don’t give up on pursuing real relationships. Don’t give up on practicing the presence of Jesus every single day. I promise you… even if you have to go through the motions for a bit… Jesus will move you somewhere new and somewhere good.
Jesus, give me motivation to move toward you and your kingdom today, even if it’s hard.
I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
-Jesus (John 17:21)
It’s rare that Saturday Night Live will portray a Christian experience. They seek to connect with the broadest audience they can to make everyone laugh, so they usually focus their sketches on things that the largest amount of people can relate to. And as we know, to talk about a common church experience across the country is about as realistic as trying to swat flies with a fishnet.
That’s why their most recent sketch on "Zoom Church" caught my attention. Other than just being highly entertaining and too relatable, I was struck by the fact that apparently, there is enough of a broad audience experiencing this reality for SNL to deem it skit-worthy.
I had to literally laugh out loud when the pastor of "Mt. Methuselah Baptist Church" (Kenan Thompson) yells, “MAN THIS SUCKS!” at the end of the sketch, while still on the Zoom Service with his congregation. While I have seen much beauty in the past 9 weeks of zoom church, I’m not going to lie that there are plenty of moments that I feel you, Pastor. And that’s the point.
The frustration and limitations of “digital church,” whether it’s a live zoom meeting, a pre-recorded service in an empty building, or a livestream with an invisible audience, are a shared experience right now across the Church in the US. Like, across all churches. Millions of people.
Do you understand how rare that is? Whether we like it or hate it or whatever our opinions are on anything (and we have so many of them), this might be the most unifying Christian experience we’ve had in decades.
Black Gospel churches, charismatics, quakers, mennonites, baptists, catholics, methodists. Liberal churches and conservative churches and house churches and megachurches and everything in between… nearly all experiencing the challenges and joys of the digital adjustment. Specifically, the challenges.
And it's not just the tech. It's the emotions, and the spiritual challenge of it all. We're all stumbling our way through all of this, together.
For a moment, can we embrace the fact that as we all seek to love Jesus faithfully and experience community, there is a uniquely rare shared experience across the Body of Christ right now? (I say this knowing that some of my friends in countries like India and Zambia do not even have the technology right now to be able to gather at all. I pray for them, because being the church is even more difficult for them during this time.)
It’s hard right now. And that doesn’t change in any way whether you’re in favor of or opposed to the current state of things.
Shared struggles help us move toward compassionate attitudes if we direct our eyes to Jesus through them. Jesus transforms our hearts day after day. It’s the only hope we have of living well in God’s kingdom. And the way Jesus transforms our hearts is by meeting us in our suffering with unconditional love, and then reminding us that other people are deserving of the same grace, because other people suffer too. In fact, suffering may be the most universal of all human experiences. If you haven’t suffered, just wait a bit.
I say that not to cause deeper depression, but to remind you that God meeting us in our need is the basis of God’s church and our ability to have compassion. Jesus meets us in our human frailty. ALL OF US. If we let that change us that, we can relate to other people and love them where they are.
Our capacity to love is limited only to our ability to be loved by God.
If we open ourselves up to the fullness and restoration of God’s rescuing love, then our ability to love others will have no limit.
Because it’s not our love we’re giving out. It’s His.
"I work hard and struggle for this goal with his energy, which works in me powerfully”
(Paul, Colossians 1:29. Italics mine).
In the midst of yet another week of stress for many of you, in a country that continues to be divided over everything imaginable, be reminded that God’s people are all trying to figure this out together. And be reminded that Jesus’ prayer for us was a unity of spirit, and Paul’s instruction to the church was for gentleness and compassion.
Every time that we model understanding and love and graciousness in our relationships with other brothers and sisters in Christ, we train ourselves in discipleship and we provide a radical alternative to the onlooking world about how to live. We get to show that a third way is possible beyond the trenches of our constant dualism. Jesus doesn’t play by our rules. Thank God for that.
Yeah, the experiences of this season can be maddening. They can also be hilarious. They can be depressing and they can be beautiful. Sometimes it all happens within the same two minutes. But we’re all experiencing it. Take heart in that, and let it help you have grace for the next person. We’re going to make it. The Spirit has not left the building. God is here for the long haul. We’ll get through this.
Jesus, thank you that my struggles can help me relate to others in their struggles. Make me a person of grace as I remember that today.
And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?
-Jesus (Matthew 16:26 NLT)
TobyMac is a Christian musician whose hip-hop/hybrid music was my jam about 15 years ago. One of his compilations with Kirk Franklin and Mandisa was titled, Lose My Soul.
Go ahead. Get your groove on for 4 minutes.
The main line of the chorus, echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew and Mark is this:
I don’t wanna gain the whole world, and lose my soul.
I’ve been thinking about where we’ve come from and where we’re going, and what the coming months may hold as things keep changing. Certain regulations will remain for a long time, and certain regulations will loosen. And people will have to continue to navigate all the challenging opinions and situations out there. It will feel excruciating at times, and people will continue to have vastly different perspectives. And how we handle that can do a number to our souls.
If TobyMac did a reboot these days, I wonder if he might echo the words of Jesus by adapting the chorus to: I don’t want to live through Covid, yet lose my soul.
Because a soul is a terrible thing to lose. Our sense of who we are and what we are about is a horrible thing be in danger of forfeiting.
When Jesus talks about losing our soul, he’s talking about anything that takes the primary focus in our hearts and minds… anything that doesn’t resemble the self-giving, cross-bearing love of Jesus. He speaks this at the end of a statement about laying down our lives so that we can join Jesus in taking up a better one with him.
And the whole statement begins with this:
If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways….
Oh boy. That’s hard. I love my selfish ways. And you want to know what I really love these days? Knowing I’m right.
A soul is a terrible thing to lose for the sake of needing to be right.
We’re immersed in an armchair expert culture. We can do a quick google search (graciously tailored by google to match our natural bias that it has learned) and then become quite confident that we are right about any given subject or situation in a matter of minutes. That’s not to say that there isn’t objective truth out there. But what I’m wondering about today is the way we hold those opinions about who is right and who isn't.
This week we of LifePath Church are leaning into the profound Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi.
It’s a loaded poetic prayer that speaks of being an instrument of God’s peace. That phrase alone is incredible.
Near the end we pray that God would help us "not so much seek to be understood as to understand." What a desire. Seems like Francis understood that if our highest priority is to convince others why we’re right, we might miss the opportunity to love them by listening well.
That sounds like laying down your life to me. That sounds like “turning from my selfish ways.”
I want to love so boldly that I don’t need to win arguments (I think Paul would even say it's better that way because then we get to practice the character of Christ). I want to care so deeply that I understand all my different friends and their different reasons for pain, even in the moments when I believe their thinking might be flawed.
It comes down to this simple theme of Jesus:
In God’s kingdom, being right is not as important as being loving.
I don’t want a virus or people’s response to it to harden my heart during this time. I don’t want a government to either. I want everything to soften my heart. To make me more able to see people’s stories and their vulnerabilities and say, “what a load you have to bear. I will bear it with you.”
Nothing has changed about how we get there. We submit to Jesus again and again and let ourselves be changed by him. Simple to say, hard to do. Because surrender sometimes feels like death.
But, as St. Francis wrote 800 years ago as he thought about the Jesus way, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Jesus, protect my soul and make me an instrument of your peace.