He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
For years I've been interested in the stories of the indigenous tribes of North America, and I often see wisdom in these old stories that points me to the heart of Jesus.
The Onondaga Nation just south of Syracuse have a story they have told for over a thousand years, about the time when the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca people finally ceased warring against each other. The story goes that the great Creator had been watching and saddened by all that the people had become. They had forgotten the ancient ways, and lived violently. So the Creator decided to send a messenger to them, that they might one day learn to live in peace. He was known as the Peacemaker. He was given a special spirit and a special message.
As the Peacemaker began to spread the Creator's message, nations listened and agreed to stop their warring. But the final greatest barrier to working together came from an evil Onondaga man named Tadodaho.
Tadodaho was a sorcerer who loved lawlessness and wars, and the people feared him greatly. He was terrifying to look at, and it was said that his mind and body were both so tangled up that snakes writhed in his hair. Every time the idea of working together in harmony would emerge, he brought those conversations to a halt through power, chaos, and fear.
The Peacemaker gathered the leaders from all the other nations to come together and confront Tadodaho. Again, he used his sorcery to try to hinder them as they traveled toward him, but the message of peace was too strong. However, upon reaching him, the Peacemaker did not condemn or overpower Tadodaho. The Peacemaker stepped forward and told him that he would have a new purpose. Tadodaho would be chosen to watch over the entire confederacy. He was powerful, and he would now be called to use his power to guide the council with thoughts of peace.
In the midst of this, the Peacemaker "combed the snakes out of Tadodaho's hair." Tadodaho agreed to this new offer. He became calmer, now no longer thinking of jealousy, war, or revenge. From now on, his energy would be used for others, not against them.
Beautiful story, isn't it? I find it breathtaking. There are plenty of implications, but it got me thinking about the season of Lent that we're in right now. It's a time to journey into the desert with Jesus. A time to go inward, and feel all the weakness and frailty. It's a time repent and remember that we have to trust Jesus for redemption because we can't get there on our own. Honestly, it's a time to let Jesus comb the snakes out of our hair. It's a chance to let the Peacemaker do his work.
I hate snakes. I'll probably never write about them again. But I know I've always got some on my head, like Tadodaho. There's something in me that wants to pull toward selfishness and twistedness when I'm tired and discouraged. Something in me that would rather not do the work of wholeness, harmony, and connection. A pull that resists working for peace on the most personal and most public levels.
But I love the Peacemaker's way of defeating evil. It is so imaginative. Rather than Tadodaho being thrown in a pit or destroyed, his skills are repurposed for the sake of others.
I can't help but think of Jesus' conversation with Peter on the shoreline, when Peter can hardly look him in the eye after he's lost his way. And Jesus, far from condemnation, invites him to use everything that has happened-- every passion, every struggle, every failure- and use it all to lead with wisdom and love. You are redeemed. Now feed my sheep.
If you've got some snakes in your hair too, take some time to let Jesus finally get to work with a grace-filled comb. He won't exclude you. He'll forgive and surprise you with a fresh purpose. You can breathe deeply in his love, because you've got a role to play in God's ongoing redemption.
Jesus, move me into repentance and grace, so that I can join in your beautiful work.
*Artist Credit: Oren Lyons
Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near.
Acts 17:27 (The Message paraphrase)
Do people say, "Happy Lent?" I don't know. But Lent began yesterday. It’s the 40ish (Sundays don't count) days of preparation before Easter. Some of you may not have even noticed that it’s begun, and some of you have.
Actually, that’s kind of the point.
It’s pretty easy to walk through our lives and not notice. We don’t notice where God might be because we have places to go and people to meet. We don’t notice the non-verbals of those around us who are having a tough time. And the most interesting thing is that we don’t notice what’s happening in the deep places within our own hearts and minds due to distraction.
I’ve come to the conclusion that lent is really about awareness.
If we are unaware of what’s within us, we can’t possibly open those places to Jesus. It's like a moment when you freak out over a seemingly random event, and you don't admit that the real reason is that you've been anxious about something else for a week and it's just surfacing now. That happens a lot. One thing is THE thing, but a lack of awareness projects that struggle into many unrelated areas.
We can walk through our lives unaware of our own internal worlds, or unable to face our struggles head on. We ignore our frailty and live as if we are machines. Or we ignore our capabilities and live as if we are failures.
Lent is when we find the spiritual place within ourselves to identify with the frail and powerful Jesus, and when we openly allow Jesus to identify with our frail and capable humanity. We admit we're in need. But we also learn that we are capable of denying ourselves, of releasing unhealthy habits, and of moving toward new life.
We are broken people in need of a savior.
We are also Spirit-indwelled disciples who are capable of ongoing transformation.
Lent is a chance for honest trust to lead to new hope.
Lent comes from the Latin word for fortieth which is also where we get the word quarantine (apologies for mentioning that word). Centuries ago, people caught in sin would be quarantined from the church - removed for a time of purification in preparation for the major celebration of the year, Easter. That might seem harsh to us, but there was purpose in an intentional time to lean on Jesus in the wilderness. Soon, others in the church began to honestly say, "yo, we're in need of a time of renewal too, for we all sin!" They began walking alongside the quarantined brothers and sisters, and the church eventually adopted a church-wide season of reflection, trust, and transformation. Together, they walked in honesty and frailty with Jesus, so that they were able to fully celebrate the hope and joy of resurrection.
To experience the fullness of life, you must understand the taste of death. We have to become aware of our need, in order to allow Jesus to meet it.
In some circles, lent has become a New Years Resolution: The Sequel for people. People give things up so that they can conquer a vice or become healthier.
Instead, whether you give something up or not, I want to encourage you to embrace these forty days of awareness. Find time to reflect, and find time for meaningful spiritual conversations away from the busyness of the approaching spring. Get away with Jesus and become aware of what is deep within you. Choose to embrace your need for God, but also choose to trust God in new transformative ways. Become aware.
Lent is not a self-improvement project. It’s a journey with Jesus in a fresh way. It will indeed leave us changed, but the goal is more of Jesus, not simply a better version of ourselves.
The pressure is off. You have a companion inviting you to dive a little deeper into the type of life that is possible- where joy and beauty live together with pain and frailty, yet always full of hope.
Embrace lent this year by getting away with Jesus. He’s not remote; he’s near.
It’s worth the effort.
Jesus, open my spirit to new levels of honesty and trust with you today, so that I might reflect your image.
*Artist Credit: Yana Agvanyan
Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him....
A few months ago I read the opening line of a prose piece called "Autumn Night" written in 1924 by a Chinese poet named Lu Xun.
Beyond my garden wall, you can see two trees. The first is a jujube tree. The second is also a jujube tree.
I sat with this unique sentence a bit. Why would the author use such unnecessary wording? Why not just say, "they are both jujube trees?" Are we going for word count here, like in the book reports I used to write in high school? A Tale of Two Cities is a very excellent story about so many different themes and various characters that I find it incredibly exciting and very interesting. (26 words!)
No. Good poets only use extra words when they want us to notice something. And Xun does indeed want us to notice something. Two somethings, actually. And it's an important lesson for us about the way of Jesus.
Each tree has its own twists and turns. It has its own unique shape and growth history. The poet is suggesting that simply saying "they are both jujube trees," may cause the reader to miss seeing them for their unique individuality. There is singular beauty and details to each of those trees. Yes, there may be similarities or shared descriptors. But they are not the same as each other. And should not be seen as such.
One of the most beautiful things about Jesus was his ability to notice people, and to see them beyond labels. He was willing to see each person as unique and worthy of care. He asks different questions of Nicodemus than he asks of other Pharisees. He speaks to Peter differently than to John. He refuses to let Matthew or Zacchaeus simply be seen as tax collectors. Mary and Martha weren't just women, or even sisters. They were unique people with unique needs and unique stories. This is how Jesus worked. He was constantly around crowds, but always noticing the individuals. Jesus had a way of seeing people fully, not just as one of a crowd, but one to be uniquely cared for.
We often do the opposite. The tendency is to see people and try to place them in the appropriate "crowds" to define them more easily and decide how worthy they are of love or agreement. People see two liberals or two conservatives. They see two poor people or two teenagers or two Catholics or two immigrants or two queer folks. And they feel like they know all they need to know. We often do not pause to really notice that they might be different from each other; to understand each unique story; to love well. And when we fail to see people as complex and having their own unique stories, we create a culture that caves in on itself, too. Before we realize it, we find ourselves getting grouped into whatever categories people make up for us, being seen not as having our own unique story, but as just one of an easily labeled group.
For community to flourish, we must see both trees. For relationships to be transformative, we must be eager to hear one another's stories. This the beautiful way of Jesus.
Jesus invites us to look at those around us, gently acknowledging that each one has unique hurts and hopes. Each one has imperfect stories that shaped them. Each one has to eat several meals a day (just like you!) and experiences loss and excitement and regret and joy.
How can you notice and care in a new way this week, in a moment that it would be easier to group and label?
Jesus, give me your vision to notice faces when I'm tempted to only see the crowd.
Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them. For greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.
-1 John 4:4
I saw some grass the other day. I know, this is a gripping start.
And I thought... Every blade of grass that grows, by its very existence, defies the almost overwhelming power of gravity.
We're right in the middle of a fairly depressing time of the year for most people out here. Days are cold, the holidays are long gone, and the commute home is still pretty dark. Even the promise of spring feels untrustworthy when the weather changes every week.
And the political cycle is starting to spin like a broken washer that won't stop, and violence and heartbreak are around us in the news. There's just a whole lot of ugliness. We can feel powerless in the world, and even powerless to deal with our own blah-ness. We can feel that gravitational pull of despair and discouragement.
So today I'm offering just a little reminder of the promise that God's Spirit is up for the task.
In 1 John, John is writing to the early church, who have been struggling with how to handle the overwhelming messages swirling around them that looked very little like Jesus. People were spreading alternative narratives about what was real and true... and none of it looked like the love of Jesus. That is the whole theme of his letter. Everyone was discouraged.
And John challenges them not to let that sense of discouragement take over, because "He that is in you is greater than he that is in the world."
Today, we might take that message and say the Spirit of Jesus in you is stronger than the gravitational pull out there toward despair, sin, and darkness. You may feel flimsy, but God's spirit is moving through your veins, and there is strength available that you don't even realize.
Remember, a tiny blade of grass can defy the entire gravitational pull of the earth, as long as it's rooted.
There’s a lot of power towards darkness, despair, and selfishness. But it’s not an even match to the power of light and love that we have through Jesus. A little light will always be more powerful than the greatest darkness. Christ in us enables us to change our outlook, to stay energized to doing good, and to remember that God is able to bring redemption in every situation and person. Even me. Even you. Even your enemy.
I'm all for being a realist, and reality can feel pretty grim sometimes. But I often wonder if my realism is actually just a half truth of "the world is messed up and so am I" that completely ignores the whole truth, "yet Jesus is in me giving me strength to participate in redemption."
God’s Spirit in you is stronger than any power out there to pull you away from love.
You're allowed to feel weak and tired. You don’t need to be dishonest or gloss over any of it. You're allowed to look around at the world and notice a gravitational pull toward sadness and selfishness and violence.
And yet. There are blades of grass everywhere, rooted in defiance.
So when we find ourselves with the early followers of Jesus exclaiming, this is all too hard and it feels impossible! Then we also hear the merciful words of Jesus proclaiming… with God, all things are possible.
With God... sadness and death and untrue thoughts and massive injustice and feelings of despair won't have the last word.
God’s goodness in you is powerful. It can break through in a moment of kindness to a stranger. Or in a lighthearted moment of laughter in the middle of a sad day. The gravitational force of despair and sorrow can be countered by one prayer, one encouraging text, one extra large tip at dinner, and one moment of forgiveness.
The Spirit will give you the strength you need and the eyes to see. Just stay rooted, and you'll have the strength to grow upward and outward, almost miraculously. God is with you today.
Jesus, bring fresh hope and fresh conviction as I start my day today.
Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.
We actually got snow last week, followed by a legitimate deep freeze day! In Delaware, that combination is about as rare as a three legged unicorn. Many around here reached for sleds, but a few of us actually got to grab our dusty cross country skis from the closet. For 2-3 days, we finally had a chance to gloriously glide through our local park. The nice thing about northern Delaware is that even though there are few cross country skiers, we all pretty much go the same parks when the conditions are right. That creates some wonderfully tracked trails. This is an enormous benefit to nordic skiers. Trails with set ski tracks = better skiing. It was delightful to follow those long lines in the snow for several miles.
Later that day, I saw a cross country skiing related post on social media. Someone had posted a picture on one of the local hiking pages showing snowy trail with ski tracks and hiking tracks. It had a gentle announcement:
Hikers take note! Many of us are loving the chance to get out and cross country ski on our trails. Normally we have to drive really far to find decent conditions. I know many people aren't familiar with these tracks since the conditions are rarely good for skiing. If you happen to see tracks like this, please try to avoid hiking on top of them because that makes it difficult and dangerous to ski when they freeze over. Up north this is a major no-no. Down here many people just don't know about ski etiquette whether it's a hiking or a ski trail. Usually there's plenty of space to walk right alongside them. Thank you!
Underneath the post, a bunch of comments started popping up:
"Good to know. I've never come across ski tracks before."
"Didn't know that. I'm guilty! Won't happen again."
"Great days to be skiing!"
"You learn something new everyday!"
"Might have inadvertently done that!"
There were other comments too. (I mean, it IS social media.... the spawn of satan)
"Well you ARE skiing on a HIKING trail."
"I'm allowed to walk on public land."
"As soon as I see a 'ski only' sign posted I'll be happy to find another trail."
Delightful. But honestly, those comments kept getting eclipsed with other, positive responses. Keep in mind this was a hiking page, not a skiing page. Yet most folks were happy to learn and eager to respond in the same gracious tone as the original poster.
I thought about the way we approach things we feel are inconsiderate or unkind. It made me come back to something I've learned about the way of Jesus.
The method is the message.
The way we address the people and issues we are addressing is as crucial to our integrity (and effectiveness) as the message we plan to offer.
I shared this past Sunday about how Jesus instructs us not to respond to aggression with aggression, but to find other ways to transform evil and ugliness... through the power of suffering love. Paul reiterates the Jesus way during an incredible section in Romans 12. Overcome evil with good. (Note: hiking over ski tracks is not evil. Stop taking my metaphors too far).
But relating to others the Jesus way includes more than just how we respond to conflict. It includes how we initiate things that could lead to conflict.
That guy could have written his post like this:
"What kind of idiot hiker thinks it's cool to destroy our ski tracks? Selfish a%$&#@s! Go find a snow cave to sleep in, you underdeveloped neanderthals! Have some respect."
My hunch is that it wouldn't have landed quite as well, you know?
There is great power in making gracious assumptions. It helps us assume the best about others' intentions as the starting point. It sets the stage for meaningful communication and mutual respect. And it keeps our integrity intact, even if others choose not to rise to that same spirit.
I found it illuminating that in my example, most folks were completely unaware of how their actions impacted others. They just didn’t know. That’s the point. When we assume the worst about people's motives, we shut the door to help each other change. But when we make gracious assumptions and offer the same grace to others as God has offered to us, we may find ourselves with far less adversaries and a few new partners.
Jesus, help me assume the best in others today and walk in kindness.
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Ok, I apologize for the clickbait there. But I did have a brief LSD trip early last week for almost 2 days.
For us Delawareans, LSD is shorthand for the southern part of the state, otherwise known as Lower Slower Delaware. That's where the coastline is, where the wide open spaces exist, and where life moves at a different pace. If I want to get away but stay close by, just an hour south offers wildlife, natural shorelines, and quiet. It's a sacred area for me.
So I headed down to a state park for an overnight prayer retreat alone last week. I spent most of my time in a tiny one room cabin. But I allowed myself a two hour field trip to a nearby beach, because I heard that a few short-eared owls had been hunting over the beach grass at dusk as they migrate. I'd never seen or photographed them before, so I was excited to take in their beauty. I got there about 90 minutes before dusk and settled in. I leaned on the hood of my car beside six other bird photographers with far superior skill and lenses to my own. With the sun at our backs for the perfect shot, we scanned the shoreline grasses as the sun sank lower, our eyes constantly moving across the field they've been hunting at for several weeks.
After over an hour, it felt pretty clear that the trip was going to be a bust. There was no sign of life in this field, but still we stared. Eventually, a little frustrated, I gave up on the field and started looking around. And something happened. The moment I turned around and stopped focusing on the lack of owls was the moment that I realized just how extraordinary other surroundings were. I changed my direction, facing the sun directly. In the distance was a perched Northern Harrier, watching the sunset in a perfect silhouette. And all around me, the ocean grasses sparkled with golden light, enjoying a rare moment of stillness from the constant breeze. I contemplated them. I enjoyed them. I photographed them.
And I realized that this illustrated what God had been speaking to me during these 2 days. Expectations can really get in the way of experience.
It's always been a challenge in my life. Often, my expectations are the very things that limit me from receiving God's many gifts. Is this ever true for you? I’m a big expectations guy. I envision how things are supposed to go, and I can really get thrown when they don’t go according to plan. I become so disappointed when one element of my life doesn’t unfold in the way I think it should. Or if I'm making plans that I'm excited about and they have to change. Or if I'm traveling just to see owls and they aren't showing up when they are supposed to. Stupid birds.
And when my expectations of life are not met, I don't always turn around to notice new moments God might be leading me towards. I struggle to scan beyond my own assumptions about how Jesus will meet me, or about what the good life really is.
The times of my deepest frustration and despair are the times that I have convinced myself that things will only be ok if X Y Z happens.
This is not faith. This is hubris. This is me assuming that I can always perceive how God can and will work. Oh, Keith. When you gonna learn, man?
The good news according to Jesus is that God is always at work, and often in ways that we least expect. God makes oases in the desert. God brings life after what feels like death. God opens doors to hope in the midst of despair, and fulfillment in the midst of disappointment. God brings healing to traumatic wounds, and laughter to the one who thought that that their life could only feel tragic. God brings good news to the poor and peace to the stressed out. But, to put it simply, it often doesn't come where we're looking for it. Often, our plans and expectations don't happen. But the discipleship journey is walking in trust that Jesus is with us, meeting us, shaping us, and caring for us even as we walk through those situations.
During my retreat, I read the stories of Jesus providing for people in ways that they never saw coming, and bringing hope and transformation in the most unexpected of moments. Those stories, and my own history with God's provision, are encouraging me to constantly look around for the love and presence of Jesus. I'm learning that it'll usually happen in unexpected situations, people, and places. But when we turn around to look for Jesus with fresh eyes of faith, it's breathtaking what we encounter.
Jesus, meet me in my unmet expectations.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
Maybe you've moved on, but since we're still very much in the days after the birth of Jesus (do you remember that Christmas was barely 2 weeks ago???), I'm reflecting on an overlooked detail in the book of Luke.
I'm thinking about the week that Jesus didn't have a name. Did you catch that Jesus wasn't named until the 8th day of his life? He was alive and kicking, obviously. But still.... he remained nameless for a week.
In traditional Jewish circles this is still the case. A son's name isn't announced until the circumcision on the eighth day, and a daughter's name isn't revealed until the baby naming ceremony. Usually, no name is even spoken aloud before that time. You can find various reasons for the tradition (some are pretty profound), but no one really knows where it originated from. The oldest source material we have for this specific tradition is in the gospels.
So during this unnamed week, we have a child living, breathing, and being held in the arms of Mary. In a very real sense he was still Jesus, as Mary knew from the angel's revelation to her, even before he was conceived. But he was not identified aloud as Jesus, the one who rescues. For seven days, an unidentified rescuer was in the world.
All this is leading me to think about the moments that Jesus is unnamed in my life.
I'm often struck by my own practical atheism. I may believe in my head that the spirit of Christ is present with me, and the promise that Jesus is with me always, even until the end of the age (Mt. 28:19). But I will go hours on many days- HOURS! without thinking about that presence or naming it. Hours without looking around and noticing God in my midst. I leave Jesus completely unnamed.
I also wonder if there are moments of rescue in my own life: moments of supernatural peace during stress and heartache, moments of divine rest during exhaustion, moments of grace that eclipses guilt or shame-- and I have completely missed naming Jesus as rescuer in those moments.
I'm not trying to guilt trip myself, nor am I the type that wants to just go around spiritualizing everything with high and holy language. But everything is spiritual, and even the scriptures teach me that Jesus is before everything and in him all things hold together (Col 1). So I also don't want to live without naming him, and miss the opportunity to grow in the life-giving awareness of God-with-me.
In Jewish culture, naming a child is a deeply sacred moment. You are giving language to a soul. It should not be treated lightly, and it is deeply beautiful.
I want to name Jesus in my own life more this year. I want to look around the world and name Jesus in the mystical moments of love and compassion that I see. I want to name Jesus in my children when I see them opening up more and more to their identity as God's beloved. I want to name Jesus so that I can give better language to what is happening in my own soul.
I'm thankful that Jesus is still present with us, even when he goes unnamed in my life and yours. But this year, let's eagerly anticipate the moments to look into own lives, sense new opportunities for love and transformation, and say:
I know exactly who that is. That's Jesus.
Lord, help me notice your presence with me and in our world today.
O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water.
Over the holidays, Bethany and the kids and I got a bit obsessed with a show that Bethany's parents introduced us to. It's called Alone, hosted by the History Channel. Ten skilled survivalists are dropped in a certain region of the world (miles from each other) and have to survive, completely alone, for as long as they are able. When only one remains, they are notified that they've won. Each person receives a few supplies, a personal video camera, and a beacon to call for pickup. As the days go by, participants tap out for many reasons. Some of them can't catch or forage for enough food, some can't stay warm, others get injured, and others begin thinking about family and the pull toward home becomes too strong. But others find ways to last, day after day, until months go by.
I am enamored with survivalist stories. I'm interested in what drives humanity, and the incredible resilience of the human body and spirit. Add in the beautiful and rugged backdrop of nature and some amazing shelter building skills, and you've got a perfectly binge-worthy show for someone like me.
One profound moment in the show really moved me. In Patagonia, after several weeks of shelter building, eating barely anything, and dealing with rotten weather, the sky finally clears up for one contestant. How wonderful! But after a second day of good weather, Fowler realizes something horrible. He has built his shelter and made his home on a well protected hillside lake. Yet the spot he had chosen was at was unable to receive sunlight. The sun stayed too low and the hillside was too steep. No sun would touch his skin for weeks. This realization was devastating.
“It just can’t get to me, even though it’s all around.” He stared out at the lake in silence, tears welling up in his eyes. “Some parts of this experience are just...so hard."
The sunlight was close to him, yet never touching his skin.
The next day, when Fowler got up, I expected him to get back to fishing and foraging, to keep himself from starving. Every ounce of energy has to be carefully conserved, every activity deeply purposeful.
Instead, he announced to his camera... "I must find sunlight today."
His body was weakened, and he nearly passed out as he climbed the steep mountain behind his lake, burning precious calories. But he was on a quest, to get direct access to the sun. It was crucial for his survival.
Finally, exhausted and faint, Fowler reached a mountainside where the sun was just peeking over a hill. As it hit his arm and face, he just wept.
It may have been the most profound moment in the show.
Interestingly, he would eventually be the last one remaining that season, winning after 87 days alone in extreme wilderness-- even though he spent a whole day's energy just seeking sunlight.
The beginning of the year is a time to think about what is worth spending our time on during the year ahead. It'll have its share of shaded days, without question.
But if we want to survive, seeking places to receive sunlight are crucial. We will constantly be tempted to prioritize everything else. But the deepest sense of our well-being will only come if we seek direct connection to Jesus. The deepest strength to work for healing and goodness in the world will only happen if we access strength from the Spirit of God.
It'll take some seeking-- real, intentional effort. Places of light and goodness can be hard to find sometimes. So can hearing God's voice. But Jesus will meet us as we seek to meet him. It's mystical. It's unexplainable. But it's every bit as important as a paycheck, a roof, or a meal. Experiencing the light of God is what gives us strength and purpose to persevere.
This year, I want to invite you to truly seek the light. Choose to pursue God's goodness and presence, and see how it revitalizes and renews you. You will find new strength to love, and new opportunities to receive love. And you will know that you are genuinely...... never alone.
Jesus, something changes when I seek to encounter you. Draw me into those moments in new ways this year. Amen.
...and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The messengers lit up the night sky in front of the shepherds, and they proclaimed:
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward humankind.” What a vision for the world! God reigns, and peace and goodness come as a result.
It’s ok if you don’t believe that sometimes. Advent is the season of looking up and looking out again, even if it’s into a dark night sky. It’s a chance to renew our hope in a God who has come to make the world right.
And making the world right is the core concept of this year’s theme. Peace, or Shalom, is a robust word in the Bible. Shalom means that wholeness is present. It means that what has been broken is being healed. It means that things are right. And things desperately need to be made right. In our hearts, our minds, our relationships, and our societies.
The above paragraphs are from my introduction toLifePath's 2023 Advent booklet. Every year we gather submissions from across our church family, as we reflect together on our theme. This year, the theme is Moving Toward Peace. People have written stories, scriptural reflections, poetry, and insights for us all to experience together each day of Advent, which started on Sunday. They are honest and eclectic perspectives on peace, borne out of honest wrestling with Jesus. And every year I pause my Together for Good weekly writings to amplify other voices of encouragement.
If you'd like to join along with us this month and you're not an active part of LifePath Church, you are absolutely invited to share in it. Together for Good reflections will resume in January.
Here's the downloadable link to the PDF version of our booklet.
Jesus is coming. Watch and wait!
Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.
I am fortunate to have a great connection with my Uncle Dan in Indiana. He served as a pastor for many decades, and we've always had a shared heart in the area of shepherding our communities toward Jesus. We get together regularly on zoom to talk about pastoring, church life, stress, family, and anything else that comes up.
A few days ago we were talking about the different elements that churches use during their gatherings. And I mentioned how at LifePath we do "common prayer." During our musical worship space, people can walk to a table and write down prayers on little slips of paper. Then someone reads them later on and everyone says aloud, "Lord, Hear our prayer." We get so many unique voices every week writing prayers. It's inspiring.
It's also a little risky, because you've got a lot of different people and a lot of different life experiences. People's understandings of what is appropriate to pray for (and how!) can differ greatly. Even their very understandings of God can differ! You never know what might pop up on one of those papers (especially from the kids!). And what do you do if what someone writes seems a little....off base?
I told him that over the years, our culture has held up pretty well, but every now and then a prayer comes up that I might not particularly resonate with, and that can be a little awkward.
"Oh, yes," my uncle said, clearly understanding. "Those are the sorts of moments where you just kind of cover your mouth and whisper, "Lord, hear HIS prayer."
We both laughed pretty good. But it got me thinking about something important for true Christian community. Sometimes the best we can do is just be thankful that God is hearing someone's prayer, and that God gets to sort out what to do with it all. We can really confuse what unity means. We mix it up with uniformity. We think our goal is to fix everyone and get them on our side... whatever "our side" happens to be in any given area!
As our church keeps growing with new faces and perspectives, I'm learning that it's both impossible and unnecessary for the goal to be that everyone thinks about everything the same way. We've now got people with Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Mennonite backgrounds. We've got skeptics, "don't-put-me-in-a-box"ers, and more. We've got deeply churched folks and people who are new to this whole Jesus thing. We've got people who come from traditional backgrounds and those who are the opposite of that. And they all look at the world in wonderful, challenging, unique ways.
When Paul encouraged the young church in Ephesus to be "like-minded," he was encouraging them to use their different gifts and stories in a cooperative way rather than a destructive way. He wasn't actually requiring them to have all the same opinions or perspectives. The goal of having "one mind" for them (and for us) was that they were all moving toward having the "mind of Christ" (1 Cor 2). If Jesus is what we're moving toward, that center will be more defining than sharing all the same opinions and approaches to everything. It's an important distinction.
Now of course, if your understanding of following Jesus is in direct opposition to others, then you are probably not going to thrive in that community and it's not a good fit for you. But there are many shades between that, and part of the journey of discipleship is making space for one another. This is radically countercultural, and requires a shared commitment on everyone's part, or else it doesn't work. But it's a beautiful vision.
I want to be able to say with a smile... "Lord, hear his prayer. It may not be mine, Lord, but I know you understand his heart." Because the Lord knows he's probably thinking the exact same thing about me! Love and unity are still possible.
Let's be learners. Let's have healthy and robust conversations in love. But let's absolutely make space for one another's unique faith journeys as we look to Jesus together.
Jesus, be our center.