Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
Remind me that my days are numbered—how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
at best, each of us is but a breath.
I've found myself seeking wide open spaces lately (cue the old Dixie Chicks tune). Something has been drawing me to locations where I am just a speck in the midst of something much bigger. Sometimes it's alone, sometimes with my family. Sometimes while I'm driving, and sometimes it's on a walk or a run. So I've been thinking about how big the world is, and how small I am. And that's not a bad thing.
Have you ever really entered into a news story from another country? Or spoken with someone whose work and sphere of relationships is completely independent of yours? If you do that enough, at one point you will begin to realize that you can live or die, and it will have zero impact on that country. Zero impact on those people. Zero impact on so much of the world. After all, your'e one of about 8 billion people. That's a whopping .000000013% of our world. But don't get depressed...
There's something about stepping back from our current climate of out-of-control stress, anxiety, and hyper-divisive thought patterns that a little insignificance can help with. It can remind us that our role is that of supporting cast and not starring character.
I've often thought David's words above were about asking God to remind him to "seize the day" and make the most of every opportunity. But David was a king, with incredible stress and strain. Maybe his prayer was not simply about asking God to help him make the most of his short life, but about asking God to give him perspective when his stress or self importance got out of control.
My friend Lori has been sensing the same thing as me in her own life, and this week she used the phrase "small in a good way" to talk about how God is keeping her soul intact as she does the incredibly vital work of caring for homeless families day after day. I like that phrase. If we think it all depends on us, we'll miss the good news of Jesus.
We are each the center of our own universes. But we are very much not the center of THE universe. When we acknowledge that we're like a grain of sand, a blade of grass, a vanishing mist... we are invited to live well with Jesus in new ways. We are set free to receive the gift of limits.We are allowed to really rest, trusting that all of reality and the success of the future does not depend on our 24/7 connectedness. The news stories will still be reported tomorrow. And are you really that indispensable that you need to check your email at 11pm?
Embracing our lives as a breath also helps us realize that our cares and stresses and joys and sadnesses are not more significant than our neighbor's. Acknowledging our smallness becomes a way to help us "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves," as Paul encourages in his letter to the Philippian church. We love better when we know that we're not all that.
Life in Christ is a life of walking beyond the dualism that we are presented with. As we mature in faith, we learn to hold things in tension that seem like opposites at first glance.
We are both incredibly insignificant and infinitely valuable as uniquely and personally loved children of God.
Our lives are both a short breath and the prelude to life forever with God.
The things we accomplish are both limited in scale and participating in building the very Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated!
These are paradoxes. And grasping them in a time of stress and turmoil helps remind us that we are small, but in a good way.
So rest. And work. What do you matters so much. And yet the world is bigger than any of us, and God is trustworthy in it all, even without you. Receive the peace of Jesus.
Jesus, help me do what is mine to do today, and rest in being one small part of your glorious creation.
“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me."
-Jesus (John 14:1)
This week, for the first time in our 15+ year marriage, we purchased a television. This one is an upgrade from the decades-old technology of our previous hand-me-downs. I was pleasantly surprised that as a smart TV perk, it came preloaded with a number of free channels (we don't do cable, so you can just imagine the excitement from the kids).
Most of the free channels are rubbish, but after channel surfing for a few minutes we stumbled upon The Bob Ross Channel.
Twenty four hours a day. All Bob Ross. All the time.
For the unaware, Bob Ross was an iconic painter whose gentle spirit and accessible teaching style captured millions of people through his PBS show in the 80s and 90's. I liked him then and I love him now. Thinking it was all nostalgia, I was shocked at how my kids were absolutely spellbound watching this man create paintings of "happy little trees" and quietly reminding people that on the canvas, "we don't make mistakes, we just have happy accidents." For a generation that is overstimulated with ever shortening attention spans, it bordered on miraculous to see them peacefully engrossed in the slow beauty and quiet attitude of this painter. They've continued to go back to that channel whenever they're allowed, and I'm even tempted to get out some paints and practice "happy accidents" myself (to be clear, the entire painting would fall in that category for me).
Bob Ross was in the Air Force for 20 years before becoming a professional painter. In his own words, he was the one who was tasked with "being tough." He was "the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work." When he left the military, he decided that he never wanted to shout or raise his voice again. It appears he succeeded in that goal. I read stories this week of people who put Ross' vintage videos on repeat at night to help them sleep. Such is the value of a non-anxious presence.
Jewish Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman says that any system-- family, church, or otherwise-- will break down unless there is a non-anxious presence there.
More and more I see the need for Christians to let Jesus be our non-anxious presence.
More and more I see the need for Jesus to form us into non-anxious presences for others.
It's hard to read the gospels without finding a disciple freaking out about something. They think they can't heal people, they think they can't enter the kingdom, they think they're going to die in a boat during a storm, and they think they don't have enough resources to feed others or survive themselves. And again and again, Jesus tells them to slow down. He is with them. They will be able to stand firm. They'll be able to do all these things. They'll even be allowed to rest when tasks are still left undone. Jesus is the non-anxious presence in their lives, and he's also the one who teaches them how to think about God so that they become a similar presence for others.
So, I guess in that way, Bob Ross kind of reminds me of Jesus. Is that sacrilege? Both knew of multiple ways to use their influence. Both choose to do so in a way that took the pressure off of people, rather than putting more pressure on them. The result was fresh peace and freedom in making something beautiful.
Religion places burdens and expectations on people to follow the rules and get it all right. But grace invites people into spacious places of delight, where we want nothing more than to build something beautiful with God because the pressure is off and we are already enough.
Christ's non-anxious presence in our lives settles us and then equips us to exude that same presence in our families, our workplaces, and our spheres of influence. So our efforts for compassion, justice, and reconciliation are not categorized by worry and fear, but by love and peace. This is the eternal perspective that God is at work for good all the time.
Julian of Norwich, the medieval mystic, heard God's spirit speak to her with the now famous words: All is well and all will be well. That doesn't always feel true. But having Jesus in our lives allows us to trust this conviction.
So our family is going to keep watching 30 year-old episodes of The Joy of Painting. And I'm going to keep thinking about how Jesus is making a beautiful world and inviting me to participate- but I can be at peace with however my work turns out. Such is the calming power of grace.
Jesus, reframe my thoughts and settle my spirit so that I can join you in creating beauty today.
**If you'd like the next 3 minutes and 26 seconds to become the highlight of your day, click here.You're welcome.
For he himself is our peace...
God, how could this happen? That’s what some of you are thinking right now. Others are exclaiming, “Thank God! What a disaster that would have been!”
I don’t actually know what happened. I decided to write this on Monday before it all went down. Likely, we still don't know who the next leader of our country will be. But those above thoughts are on the way, regardless.
I don’t want to do creative writing today. I don’t want to be witty or eloquent. I want to think about how we keep our souls in this moment.
Nearly every one of you reading this lives in the United States. And I know everyone reading this would like to see our country thrive. But whether you are pleased or discouraged by the outcome, there are things have haven’t changed. Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that it doesn’t matter who is leading. It does. Many lives will be affected by who is in the White House for the next few years. Both policies and leadership attitudes will have real impact on the people of this country and beyond. But. Some. Things. Haven’t. Changed.
America is still not the kingdom of God. It wasn’t in 2012. Or 2016. And it’s not in 2020.
America is still not the hope of the world. That role has already been filled.
President ________________ is not our Lord or Savior in any way, despite any claims that he or anyone else makes about him.
If you think that because the right guy got elected (or will soon), that all is well in the world….. you’re wrong.
If you think that because the wrong guy got elected (or will soon), that there is no hope in the world….. you’re also wrong.
By all means, it's ok to be discouraged or be pleased, for a few minutes.
And then return to your calling.
Our work remains the same as it did in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019…. well, you get it.
Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. (Micah 6:8)
Forgive our enemies. Love our neighbors. (Matt 5:44/22:39)
Practice hospitality. Welcome the stranger. (Romans 12:13)
Keep ourselves from being polluted by the powers of the world. (James 1:27)
Wash each other’s feet. (John 13:14)
Give to those in need. (Acts 2:45)
Do not work for food that spoils, but food that endures to eternal life. (John 6:27)
Grasp that the secret to being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, free or in chains... is the peace of Christ. (Phil 4:12)
Live as citizens of the Kingdom of God and God’s ambassadors in the kingdom of America. (Phil 3:20)
I’m tired. The compounding factors of this season have taken more out of me personally, and many of you, than possibly any other season in our lives. Tears flow pretty regularly these days. And it’s not over, not at all. But our energy comes from God, and our hope remains in God. And that is where the strength continues to come from to live faithfully in a world divided. Empires rise and fall. It happened with Babylon, Persia, and Rome. The US is not exempt from history. Yet we live with the knowledge that we are citizens of an unshakeable kingdom- a kingdom that has given hope and perseverance to generations across history and across the globe with far more difficult experiences than most of us have ever experienced. God is faithful and will continue to work in our world- in and through us, and sometimes in spite of us (thank God).
So I ask you right now- beg you, actually, to be known by the characteristics of Jesus, and not the pseudo-Christian identities of right or left. It's not that good and kingdom-like things can't happen through political action (they can), it's that the third way of Jesus transcends tribalism and protectionism. It moves toward working for love and justice and integrity that speaks truth to all sides. And it rejects the notion that the only way to change things is to have all of the power. We cannot read the temptations of Jesus and somehow believe that “our party" (yuck) in the white house is the main way that the kingdom of God will advance.
Remember, Jesus’ political platform was a wooden cross.
Christians have joined in some unholy alliances, and we must walk carefully. As Tony Campolo said of a Christianity that becomes enmeshed too closely with political allegiance… it’s like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure… but it sure ruins the ice cream.
So friends, neither gloat nor despair as you consider your feelings on how our government ought to function and who our latest Caesar is. Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17). You know what Jesus meant with that, right? Caesar can have his money and power with his image imprinted on it. It will eventually be worthless. But God’s image is imprinted on your very bodies and souls. You belong to God. Never forget that- and give yourselves fully and completely to the work of God in your life. God has placed his image on something far more valuable than anything our government could give or take away. You are sacred to God. So is your neighbor. So is your enemy.
Come, Lord Jesus.
So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy....
-1 Peter 1:13-16
The first frosts are finally coming in during these weeks. Have you noticed? In my twenties, I never really thought much about preparing for the cold season. I wasn’t particularly drawn to advance planning. Living in the moment was more valuable than the cost of time and energy of cleaning up things and considering the season ahead. I thought nothing of leaving the garden hoses outside and connected during the winter freezes and thaws. Inevitably, when spring came, the seal on the nozzle would be cracked and leaking. That wasn’t a very big deal. I could get a new hose and nozzle at Home Depot for less than twenty dollars. But there were more costly oversights as well. A grill left without a cover in the snow and ice would be rusted out when it came to summer grilling. That replacement would cost hundreds! And not closing up or sealing attic and window cracks would mean that we had to deal with freezing drafts and exorbitant heating bills.
I don’t know when it was (probably early thirties?), but I finally began to understand that the time and cost to repair and replace damaged items in my house was much more than physical and mental cost of preparing for the winter. Now my wife and I do a fairly good job of thinking about these things ahead of time. Buckets go over the fragile plants at first frost. Hoses get stored away and water lines get emptied. Patio chairs get stacked. It takes a little intentionality and planning. But we’re fairly ready when the harsh weather hits.
The winter can do a lot of damage if you’re not ready for it.
Winter isn’t just coming. It’s here. We’ve been in it for a while. And another storm is about to hit us hard. It’s only a few days away, but there’s still time to plan.
Is your spirit ready for the week ahead? Our country will once again be in a new surge of uproar. Anger will surface. Gloating will pass across your screens and through your ears. Accusations will be thrown, and people define what is true only in ways that are most convenient to them.
Regardless of your personal hopes for this election, the great divide will intensify and remain across our country in the aftermath. My question to you now is not one of candidate choice. I sincerely hope you honestly and ethically make decisions that reflect care and concern for all people as best you can. But the question I’m asking today is if you're prepared to weather this week as a Christ-follower. We don’t have much time left to get ready.
The Apostle Peter guides the early church toward wisdom for coming storms by reminding his fellow disciples of several things:
-They need to think ahead about how they want to behave as they encounter challenge.
-They need to exercise self-control, even when it’s hard.
-They need to keep their hope rooted in the kingdom of Christ that will one day come in fullness.
-They need to resist the urge to respond to situations using old habits that look nothing like Jesus.
And because they know Jesus, they know what God is like… so there is no excuse for not reflecting God’s character in attitude and action. We are God’s kids.
Sisters and brothers, let’s pray for God to give us grace and hope walking into this week. Our words and attitudes matter so much to those looking on. It’s time for us to clearly be a countercultural example, by using the coming days to act in ways that reflect God’s value of every life and God’s heart for justice, truth, humility, and enemy love.
This election will affect real lives. But we are followers of Jesus today, tomorrow, next week and beyond. This is our identity, this is our calling, and this will not change.
What’s the winterizing that you need to do to make your faith election-proof? What actions do you need to take to keep you compassionate? What do you need to turn off? Who do you need to show love to? Where do you need to keep a reign on your heart, your tongue, or your fingers?
Let me encourage you to prioritize some time this week to prepare. Do whatever is necessary to walk through next week not as others will, but clothed with love and compassion, as God’s beloved children.
Jesus, this is all exhausting and hard. Be my hope and my example today.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two covenant tablets in hand, Moses didn’t realize that the skin of his face shone brightly because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw the skin of Moses’ face shining brightly, they were afraid to come near him.
I just realized that there is a huge untapped market for a Moses’ Face Plug In Night Light ®. It would be a little plastic Moses holding the ten commandments, with a light bulb for a head to help your little one sleep peacefully. First time Christian parents go nuts over that sort of stuff. Patent is pending, so don’t steal my idea.
Can we reflect on the things that others see, but we can’t?
I’ve been talking with people lately about the slow work of transformation, and how we often feel like we take one step forward and two steps back in faith. The more we work on ourselves, or should we say, the more we allow Jesus to work on us, the more we realize just how much we have to learn. It can be discouraging. And it can look to us like we’re not changing at all. But interestingly, we’re not always the ones who have the best view.
This story of Moses is so interesting. He’s been spending serious time with God on a mountain. Over a month straight, in fact. And he comes down and everyone knows that he’s different— his face is literally giving off the radiance of God— but he has no idea that’s the case. He can’t see the glow. Now I get that there weren’t mirrors readily available, but you would think Moses would have had more of a sense of just how much he had been impacted!
A number of people in our community are doing an 8 week journey toward emotional and spiritual health that requires them to pause twice daily and sit with Jesus for several minutes. The goal is to be changed simply by learning to delight in the presence of God. It’s not easy to learn. And some are feeling like it’s not making much of a difference. But when I talk with them, I can see otherwise. Because as we change, we aren’t always able to sense it. The process of discipleship is slow growth. It’s incremental, moving by inches and not by yards as the days go by. And just like it’s hard to sense that a plant is actually growing by sitting in front of it and staring for hours on end, it’s also difficult to notice our own slow growth toward Jesus when we are in our own bodies every minute. We need to trust that change is happening as we lean into God, even it’s hard for us to pinpoint ourselves.
But here’s the lynchpin to the whole idea: we have to actually be present with God to be transformed into something. That doesn’t happen from wishful thinking or good intentions. It happens when we have spent enough time in the presence of Jesus for Jesus to rub off on us a little. We may not always notice the change ourselves, but others will. They’ll notice that we play less by the rules of the world around us and more according to the rules of freedom, grace, and compassion. They’ll notice that we are quicker to think before we speak, that we are slower to pridefully throw stones at another, and that we can handle setbacks and hardship with patience rather than bitterness. They’ll see our glowing faces. But unlike with Moses, they won’t be afraid. They’ll be refreshed. They’ll be surprised. And they'll be invited into a world that is not devoid of goodness as they fear, but full of the grace and beauty and redemption of the living God. The light of God that shines from our faces will illuminate the dark places of despair, injustice, hopelessness, and sorrow.
Luke writes that when James and John are questioned by the Temple priests, that the priests were astonished at how these uneducated guys were able to speak their faith, and they took note that “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). I just love that. I wonder if the disciples felt like transformed people all the time, or if they just felt like normal guys who were trying to do their best to be faithful to Jesus.
Let’s continue to sit with Jesus even when it doesn’t feel like we’re changing, because we are. Let's continue to pursue God and faithfully walk with God even when we can’t tell a difference. If we do so continuously, not out of a sense of obligation, but with a desire to know nothing more than the love of God and be nothing more than an imitator of Christ, then our faces will show God’s light to neighbors and enemies alike. And then we’ll realize that it doesn’t always matter if we see it or not, because it will still be seen by the world we are called to love to and serve.
Jesus, slow me down to patiently receive your transforming love today.
Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.
-Song of Songs 2:15
About once a week, I see a fox. Usually they are on the edges of a field or forest, gliding smoothly as if on wheels rather than legs. To me they are a beautiful sight, with their red coats and fluffy tails. I catch a glimpse of them before they quickly disappear into the nearest thicket. And I thank God for a glimpse of nature’s beauty.
Foxes are not always a delight, however. There’s a reason they are known as crafty. They can sneak into yards and kill chickens and birds. They dig up plants, flower beds, and lawns searching for insects and worms, or to bury their prey. They can really be a pain.
Foxes are also notoriously difficult to catch because they can run and hide so well. If they weren’t, there would have been no adventure for the upper class fox hunts that dominated the English landscape in the 18th and 19th centuries.
All of that leads us to this rarely noticed passage.
Christians never know quite what to do with Songs of Songs because it’s so hot and heavy. I mean, if you can’t read a book of the bible with your grandmother without blushing, maybe you should just avoid it altogether? So we miss out on some of the best imagery the scriptures have to offer. In addition to being a celebration of the wonder of romantic love, Song of Songs has also been interpreted for millennia as an allegory about Gods’ love for us, and book of wisdom about love and intimacy in all sorts of relationships. That’s why this one little sentence is something we all should be familiar with:
Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.
There are these little foxes, and they are running wild. They may look cute, but they’re doing damage to vineyards that took time and work to cultivate. These little foxes are trampling the blooming plants, making it impossible for them to bear the fruit that they were growing toward. They need to be caught before they destroy the entire season’s crop!
Of course, there are no real foxes in this story. The "vineyard" is the relationship that is forming. There is something beautiful possible, but these hard-to-catch little “foxes" are threatening to destroy the relationship. I wonder, what were their foxes?
I wonder, what are yours?
The excruciating season we’re in right now has fox dens popping up everywhere. Little stealthy rascals running around and trampling things that could be blooming.
Arrogance. Disdain. Jealousy. Complaining. Gossip. Tribalism. Judgment. Unspoken hurts. Assumptions.
Little things running around inside us that can wreck relationships.
In the exhaustion and pain that so many of us feel, the opportunity is incredible for supportive and caring relationships to blossom. We need each other. But these things get in the way.
Are we looking for the foxes and catching them before they ruin our relationships? Before they destroy the good that Jesus is always at work to do in us? The way of Jesus is one of self reflection and other-oriented love. Jesus walks with us as we honestly identify the attitudes and actions that pull us away from his kingdom. And then, Jesus empowers us with his spirit and with others in community to catch our foxes before they do permanent damage.
At 9pm nightly, my wife and I both stop and take a few minutes for silence and prayer. That time of quiet has been leading to little spontaneous conversations about catching the foxes in our lives (though we’ve never called them that). It’s no shock that those little minutes of conversation are exceedingly more valuable than simply turning on a show or opening another app on our phones.
And I know this may sound a little sadistic, but catching foxes really can be an adventure. Honesty with others about what we’re feeling, what things could be blooming, and what is getting in the way of growth— those sorts of conversations are what God made us for. It’s what Jesus designed the Church for. We don’t have to go fox hunting alone. And when we do take real steps to help our relationships flourish, God gives us a sense of hope and perseverance that keeps us moving through the tough times. We shouldn’t be afraid of naming the foxes in our lives. How else will we be able to catch them?
And let us heed the advice to catch them while they’re young. The longer a fox stays around, the more damage it will cause. We need to be proactive in getting to the roots of anger, selfishness, pride, and despair before they get a death grip on our souls. Thank God that we're in this thing together.
Jesus, I need your help to identify the things that keep love from flourishing in my life. Lead me to fresh insights and meaningful conversations today.
He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
-Jesus, Luke 10:2
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
I love officiating weddings, and this past weekend I led my first Covid-era ceremony. Congratulations, Keith and Robin! It was beautiful.
And it was no ordinary wedding! The ceremony took place on the deck of a riverboat, just behind a riverside restaurant, with those in attendance standing spread out on the dock so that they could still join the celebration while distancing. As you can imagine based on the rehearsal picture, we had to think creatively about many things. That’s the part of the fun of unique weddings!
On the wedding day the DJ didn't have a chance to connect the sound system until immediately before the ceremony, so we got the speakers set up facing the shore (and the outdoor section of the nearby restaurant) with no time to test anything. The wireless microphone was not working for my first few sentences of my welcome. But right when it came time for the prayer, it connected…..
"FATHER GOD, WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR YOUR GOODNESS” all of a sudden came thundering off my microphone at a volume that could have made it across the Chesapeake. I’m pretty sure every single person at the restaurant 50 yards away turned and looked at us.
I quickly softened my voice and pulled the microphone away a bit, hoping to balance things out and not cause too much of a scene. And in a split second decision, I realized that this could be really rough, or really beautiful. Everyone who came for the wedding was just fine. But those sitting at the restaurant would either be bombarded with a loud wedding ceremony that forced its way into their dinner experience, or subtly invited to share in one of God’s beautiful moments if they leaned in just a bit. It was possible to hit a volume and style that invited but didn’t impose.
I see in our world different ways of how Christians express their faith and lives. Some use any chance they get to loudly insert themselves into the lives of others, whether it has been asked for or not. They are difficult to ignore, talking over others and assuming that the louder they speak the truth, the more faithful and brave they are, regardless of if others have any interest in hearing. Unfortunately, this often coincides with a lack of self awareness or sensitivity to others. As a result, those listening get annoyed, upset, or combative. On the boat I realized that too much volume (to quote the groom later) “might lead to some unwanted (and inebriated) hecklers at our wedding!”
But there is another way to use our voice. If we lessen our power a bit, we can still proclaim what is good and beautiful and worth sharing, and others can decide if it’s worth it to listen in.
I backed off the microphone as we continued on through the wedding, but I decided it was ok if we were still audible enough for outsiders to listen in…. if they chose to. And I have no idea, but I wonder what sort of impact this little wedding had, celebrating the beauty of human love and the wonder of God’s faithful love, on those who were unexpectedly leaning in to hear a bit more.
There are plenty of people in our lives who know who we are and what we’re about. And then there are others a little further out. They are within earshot of us, metaphorically speaking. They see and hear us in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and digital space. What we say and how we say it could either draw them closer or push them away. We do not have ultimate control of that, but we have some control, without question.
So disciples of Jesus ask ourselves:
What kind of message are they hearing?
What is the attitude that they are hearing in it?
Jesus told his disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. According to Jesus, there are many out there longing to move toward this God whose rule embodies grace, hope, forgiveness, justice, compassion, and eternal life. People are ready to be invited in. But that’s far different than imposing our voice on them and drowning them out. And often, the message we're giving doesn't even sound a bit like Jesus.
How can we be humble yet still bold in our invitation? Every one of us has someone on the dock that is within earshot. People are listening in, watching our social media presence, and watching how we respond to the innumerable challenges of this exhausting season. They’re noticing how we parent and how we talk about people who are suffering. They see what we criticize and what we celebrate.
Does the way we present our message make them want to lean in a bit closer to the kingdom of God? Or are they wishing for a mute button?
Jesus, give me wisdom to express your message of hope with gentleness and humility to those who are listening.
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ.
In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other.
-1 Corinthians 12:12, 22-25
My wife had to get some routine blood work done last week. Every time she’s ever had to do this, I’m always eager to hear the story when she gets home. There’s always a story.
You see, when it comes to needles, Bethany is what’s known as “a fainter."
Each time a needle is in play, the blood already starts draining out of her, even before she’s been touched. I think she’s gotten better though the years, but every time is most definitely still an adventure. (I'm allowed to share this!)
Apparently there's a whole group of people who identity with this reality. So many, in fact, that the medical office has spent considerable time and energy to help out all the fainters who walk among us.
When Bethany mentioned to her nurse that she was a fainter, the nurse knew exactly what to do. She ushered her down the hallway to a special designated area, with a sign on the door calling it the “Comfort Room.” As a non-fainter, I had no idea this room existed.
According to her, this place is pretty special. She walked into a peaceful atmosphere, with a comfortable and welcoming massage chair in the center. It was surrounded by other chairs, possibly for the dozens of friends and family members the fainter needs for moral support. The nurse made sure that she had all that she needed, because she was especially vulnerable. Therefore, she had to be treated with special care.
You might be a bit more vulnerable than others? Come to the front of the line. We've got the best place to take care of you.
Let’s compare that to a different experience I had with comfort in January. I was traveling back from a trip to India, and one of my travel partners was a frequent flyer and businessmen. This gave us special access to one of those airline lounges. We had hours to wait before our flight home from Delhi, which we were able to do in a deluxe lounge with couches, soft music, endless complimentary food and drinks, and televisions showing every cricket match you could imagine.
Every one of our needs was attended to beautifully— because we had paid up. Comfort Room to the extreme! Unfortunately, I saw no sign of the most exhausted and vulnerable travelers in that lounge.
Which of these looks more like the way of our world? Which of these looks more like the kingdom of God that Jesus taught about, where the poor and downcast are the guests of honor?
Bethany’s experience in a Comfort Room is a reminder to me of the upside down beauty of God’s kingdom, where those who feel weakest and vulnerable are the ones given special care, honor, and compassion. Most often, the places of comfort in our world are given to the wealthy, the powerful, and the skilled. The ones struggling the most among us are ignored, mocked, or even judged for that very struggle.
Father Gregory Boyle has spent his life creating micro-business opportunities for former gang members in California, many of whom have also been incarcerated. He has lived his life among people who have been surrounded by violence, substance abuse, and relational brokenness. He once wrote that Christians need to seek a compassion "that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” As disciples of Jesus, we do not criticize those carrying burdens. We comfort them. We create places for rest and care. We see them as the honored ones.
Let us continue to learn the truth of this subversive kingdom, where we seek to honor and learn from the poor and the poor in spirit, rather than overlooking them. Let us continue to give voice to the ones drowned out, and be lavish in our inclusion and care.
I cannot recall a time in my life where I was so aware of so many people experiencing pain, need, and weakness. And I cannot recall a time where I was aware of so many people adding to the pain by words of anger and judgment toward those who are vulnerable. What might Jesus be inviting you to do to create spaces of comfort for those at risk of fainting right now? How can you give special honor and rest to the ones who feel weak? We all have a role to play.
By the way, Bethany didn’t faint this time around. I think the Comfort Room did its job.
Jesus, help me be a person of grace and mercy today, creating spaces for those around me to experience your love, value, and comfort.
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
Have you ever entered into a holiday season or an anniversary hoping that the gift you got is at least as nice as the gift someone got you? We never want to be on the end of giving less than we get. It feels embarrassing or irresponsible. Conversely, if we’re on the other end, we can feel like we worked harder or sacrificed more or had greater generosity than someone else, leaving us feeling bitter or irritated.
Though sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, I do believe human beings have a strong sense of fairness as it involves daily relationships and situations. We want to know, "Am I getting as much as I’m giving in this relationship?" And additionally, I hear plenty of Christians ask the humble question, "Am I giving as much as I’m getting?"
Despite how commonplace it is, this sort of scorekeeping isn’t particularly helpful as we walk in faith with Jesus or in authentic relationships with other people.
Life and faith are not zero sum games. But because we are humans, we really want them to be. We especially want things to be balanced so that we never feel indebted to anyone or anything. That feels like weakness.
We need to stop spending all this energy trying to balance life as if it's a checkbook. Consider how this "balanced budget" approach often manifests itself in our faith:
I am living my life to try to repay Jesus for all that he has done for me.
Problem: That’s not living in grace. That’s living as if you hope one day you’ll look at Jesus and say “we’re all square, right?” That’s not how a loving relationship with God works. A healthy faith lives in an ever deepening pool of grace, leading us to rest in God’s goodness and live accordingly, not try to claw our way back out.
That person did something really kind for me, so I need to repay them for it.
Problem: No, You don’t. You need to receive it graciously and allow it to refresh your spirit. That’s it.
Of course, we can selfishly take this in the direction of, “nobody has done anything for me, so I’m not going to serve anyone,” but that’s clearly not a disciple's attitude. The more common challenge, especially these days, is pride in the opposite direction. You may not feel like you have much to give anyone else at this season in life, so you feel bad asking for help or receiving more than you're giving.
Jesus certainly talks about receiving much and giving much, but there’s never a tally. We can’t experience grace or become gracious if we are trying to track this stuff. Jesus simplifies it.
Freely you have received. Freely give.
How freeing is that?? (See what I did there?)
There is no tally. Life is about learning to give and receive because we have learned the power of grace. Sometimes we’re in need— emotionally, or physically— and it brings another person joy to be able to come alongside us in support. We should welcome that. And some times we notice another in need, and because we’ve received grace, we eagerly desire to show love and compassion and service to them. We don’t keep track of how many times this happens. We just do it. Some of you may have the capacity to be givers right now. You’re privileged during this pandemic, and although it's been brutal on everyone, it hasn’t been quite as brutal on you as some. It’s your season to give abundantly, without looking around and feeling like someone owes you something.
And some of you are going through the ringer right now. Crisis after crisis is hitting you. Finances are tight, or medical issues are constant. Maybe you’re breaking down because you’re completely on your own, or trying to parent, or trying to do virtual school, or anything in between. It’s your time to receive willingly…. maybe even ask for help, and not keep score. You just receive because you know that we all are in need of grace sometimes, and this is one of God’s ways of showing it to us.
Or maybe you aren’t even feeling like you’re in need, yet someone wants to serve, to help, to care. Perhaps it’s time to receive that with joy, so that the giver can also experience the joy of giving.
So what’s on tap for today? Giving of yourself in some new way because you can? Receiving love and care from others because they can? Resting in God’s grace?
It could be giving, it could be receiving. Just do it freely.
Jesus, teach me to live in and out of grace today, and experience the complete freedom of life with you.
We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
-Paul, 1 Thessalonians 1:3
I’m missing my cross country team today. When I started coaching 56 middle school cross country runners last fall, something fresh caught fire in my spirit. Perhaps it rekindled my love for teenagers from years of youth ministry before we planted a church. Maybe it was the chance to be outside helping kids discover a passion for running that has defined much of my life. I don’t know, but it was one of those things that just felt right. It’s a remarkable experience to encourage and then witness young people pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do.
But this year, that’s not happening. So many things aren’t happening. We’ve moved well beyond the flash of our crisis. Now most of us are walking in this deep trough of a new reality, knowing that even when things change, it will still be slow. What felt like a quick sprint now feels like a marathon- but the worst type of marathon, because you’re not actually sure how many miles this race is. At times it can feel difficult to do anything more than just try to slog through it.
Last year, at the end of every practice and at the start of every race, I told my team this message:
You are more capable than you realize.
Over and over again, I told them that. Because we need to hear some things over and over again.
As Christ-followers who constantly fall prey to dualistic thinking, there are two extremes that we can move toward. We either think we’re amazing on our own (which usually proves false when crisis hits) or we believe that we are completely weak and live a very defeatist day to day reality when things are hard.
Our biblical identity transcends this duality. Humans are made in the imago dei, the image of God. We are amazing. We're also not God so we are weak. But because God’s image is in us, we are capable of far more good than we realize. And for those who seek to trust God, the Spirit of Christ dwells in us and empowers us in a divine partnership. We are empowered people. This is why we have so many stories during the early centuries of Christianity where disciples were able to joyfully suffer, even facing death with incredible hope, strength, and love.
Jesus’ message to his disciples was consistent throughout the gospels. You might feel weak, but you are more capable than you will ever realize, because you’re not alone.
You give them something to eat.
When you are arrested unjustly, don’t worry, for the Spirit will give you the words.
You will receive power when my holy spirit comes upon you.
I will be with you always.
The prophets often revealed the same message of Jesus:
But those who hope in God will renew their strength….they will run and not grow weary.
Yes, the feeling of weakness and exhaustion is so pervasive right now. But as people of faith, our identity is to live in faith. We are empowered by the breath of the very God of the universe, for whom death isn’t even an equal adversary. And according the scriptures, the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is in us. So it’s on us to decide if we’re going to live in that hope or not.
At the end of last season, one of my girls came up to me after her race, sweaty and exhausted. She was not one of our fastest runners. Near the back of the team in most races, she didn’t improve the way she had hoped most of the season. But this last race, she persevered so incredibly well, and it was her best effort all year.
She walked over to me with a huge smile, still catching her breath.
“Hey Coach….. I’m stronger than I realized.”
Yes. Yes you are.
And in Christ, in this season, WE are too. We are strong enough to keep loving others. We are strong enough to keep listening. We are strong enough to have compassion. We are strong enough to celebrate each other. We are strong enough to keep working for justice. We are strong enough to overcome our own destructive habits of thought and action. We are strong enough to keep walking forward. We are strong enough to resist bitterness and disdain. We are strong enough to be the best versions of ourselves when it hurts, because Jesus was the best version of himself when it hurt…. and he is in us. We are more capable than we realize, because we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. It will take a lifetime to fully grasp that simple truth.
Jesus, bring strength to my muscles and hope to my spirit, for You and I have work to do.