I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Great news everybody! I know it's Wednesday, but Black Friday started 2 days ago! This is wonderful because now we can pick up a few more things so we will have something to be thankful for when Thanksgiving morning rolls around! And to make things even better, many stores are opening for deals on Thursday night, so we can get right back at it before the gratitude wears off. Because, honestly, one day is NOT enough to contain Black Friday!!!
"Black Friday must become greater, Thanksgiving must become less."
I think John the Baptist might have said something like that? Hmm, I might be mixing it up a little. Look it up in John 28:15 just to be sure.
Friends, we are expanding the wrong things.
Black Friday is getting larger and larger. And our gratitude is shrinking. Our celebration is shrinking. Our margin for joy and peace is shrinking. Our space for spiritual transformation is shrinking. Our contentment and our rest…. it’s all shrinking.
And this should not surprise us, because it’s how humanity works. What we truly value will eventually take up more and more space in our lives.
And what we worship will always expand into other areas and push out everything else.
So the cultural phenomenon before us at the end of every November becomes an opportunity for us to sit up, take notice, and ask ourselves…
What do I value? What’s taking up the most space?
What do I worship? What is creeping into all areas of my life?
The temptation is to join with the movement of the crowd, as consumption slowly eclipses thanksgiving. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The beauty and freedom of being in Christ is that we have the power to make decisions for ourselves because our hearts and minds are being made new. We are not pawns or lemmings. We are little Christs, tiny representations of the one who creates, invites, and makes a way for the good life to be experienced now and forever. At least, that’s what’s available. Whether it expands in us or not is our call.
We've got one day left before the thanksgiving holiday this year. Even so, images of contentment are often linked to how much food is on the table or how stable our family and social circles are. Contentment is one of those luxurious things that we are taught is only attainable with a perfect life and an endless supply of stuff.
So true gratitude, despite how often it's tossed around, is still a radical practice. Paul found that the gift of life in Jesus was so abundant that nothing could infringe on it. It changed him. What would happen if we freshly explored this gratitude with Jesus at the core? Our discipleship bursts with life when gratitude becomes a lifestyle and expands to every area of our lives. It takes about 5 minutes to be still, journal a few words of thanks to God for the gift of life, and shoot a text with a note of thanks to someone in your life. And those 5 minutes change the rest of the day, turning thanksgiving into a year round experience, not a food-centric holiday. Take that, Walmart. We can expand our day too.
The Church is called to live in such a way that wakes people up to the reality that God’s upside-down kingdom is at hand. We get to live with a love, a contentment, and a sense of purpose with Jesus that is always expanding. It expands beyond our worship gatherings and into our workdays. Beyond our meal communities and into our family meals. Beyond our prayer times and into our friendships.
This isn’t about Black Friday. Make your own choices on how to handle all that. It’s about what’s expanding in your own life. Is God's contentment, and love growing in our lives? Jesus Jesus spoke of his kingdom as a mustard seed- an invasive plant that would expand and take over everything around it once it got rooted. I love that image. Together, let’s invite the values of Jesus to get larger and larger and permeate every area of our lives. Let’s remind Walmart that our kingdom can expand even more broadly than theirs.
Jesus, bring your contentment into every area of my life, so that nothing is untouched by your love, grace, and hope.
*Today's TFG is adapted from a previous reflection. And yes, this one came a day earlier than usual. Happy Thanksgiving.
When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.
(then she gets caught...)
We share communion every Sunday at LifePath Church. Weekly communion was not my theological tradition, and it's especially odd since we're a church that doesn't care much for religious rituals... at all.
Yet the desire to remember God's sacrificial love, receive the Spirit of Christ, and keep Jesus at the center of everything we do has turned this into a meaningful weekly practice. However, when Covid-19 came and changed everything, we had to trade in our fresh bread and begin using those shrink wrapped all-in-one deals. These are the ones with the bread (is it though?) wafer on top and the peel off cup of juice below. Years ago I promised that we would never ever use these, but I've learned that my own need for purity can sometimes get in the way of God's flexible grace in our real life moments. So, for the time being, I'm embracing it.
But now that we've got these little cups around, there's a new temptation arising. You see, the youngest disciples in our little community have gotten a taste for this stuff. The other week before we started, I saw little Carolyn* (names have been changed to protect the guilty) looking around and then sneaking a cup just a bit early. She thought it was a clean lift as she stuffed it in her pocket. But God is always watching. And I was too.
BUSTED! She saw me, a little embarrassed, and took a step back.
Then I winked at her.
I'm a bit of a softy, I guess, but I let her go without pressing charges or requiring restitution.
Now why would a sweet little girl steal a snack like this before the right time???
Obvious Answer: she's a kid. This isn't a shock at all.
More important answer: She was hungry, and it tasted good, so she went for a quick swipe.
It made me think of another time that someone tried to steal a little of Jesus outside of the typical ways of doing things. In the story above of a suffering woman grabbing a hold of Jesus' garment, she believed that she could just get enough of Jesus to be healed. She was even willing to cheat a little bit to get there- just drawing a bit of his healing power through a quick, hopefully anonymous touch.
And she gets what she longs for!
Except she also gets caught.
Jesus knows that's it's happening and he calls out that someone touched him "because he realized that power had gone out from him" (what a statement! That's worth unpacking some other time). She comes forth, terrified, thinking she's about to be chastised. Instead, he applauds her faith! And then he even expands her experience of him, speaking complete peace and wholeness to her, and sending her off with a blessing. Undoubtedly, he has won a follower for life. Even as she's healed, she expects the worst, and she receives the best. Such is God's heart to us.
As she pocketed a communion wafer, that little girl at our church may have felt a little guilty about it. But deep down she knew she wouldn't get in trouble because that's not really how we operate here.
But what if I went further. What if I called her out, asked her to come over.... and then told her with a smile that even the sweetness in that juice could never compare to how sweet God's love is for her? What if we told her that she could take a little extra every week and she didn't need to be shy about it at all? What if she eventually equated God's love and forgiveness with so much joy and beauty that not only would she leave all shame behind, but she would gladly approach God in need of grace and sustenance every day?
Many times in our life, we know that we need healing. We need forgiveness. We need grace. We need Jesus. And deep down we know that he will grant it. I mean, saviors gonna save, am I right?
But perhaps we need to be reminded over and over again that it's God's pleasure to share that grace with us. And God desires to loudly and joyfully proclaim peace and wholeness to us as we come toward him. We don't need to be afraid to admit we need a little more of Jesus. We can embrace that need boldly. And when we do, his healing will give us the strength to carry that beautiful message into a world around us longing for good news.
Jesus, thank you for constantly surprising me with your welcoming grace. Heal me again, today. Amen.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain."
Exodus 20:7 (One of the top 10)
Let's reflect for a moment on the high calling of discipleship, and how it's far easier to just make rules that we have to follow instead. WELCOME TO RELIGION!
While Jesus simplified and summed all of God's commands by telling people to love God and love others, I still find value in looking to the famous ten commandments of Exodus regularly. Their specifics continue to help us understand some of the ways that life in God looks.
We won't do a summary here, but the commands are pretty broad and far reaching about how we treat others and maintain healthy rhythms that align with God's kingdom. So isn't it interesting that in the midst of these deep, overarching character commands, we also just have to make sure that we don't say "Oh my gawd" in the wrong attitude as one of the big 10? Have we missed something?
Yeah, we have. And maybe we missed it intentionally, because we've sure made it easier on ourselves.
It doesn't take a ton of sleuthing to realize that the original 4th commandment has little to do with saying any particular phrase. It never did. While you may have learned that taking God's name in vain meant that you weren't allowed to utter a certain set of words, you didn't get the whole story.
In Hebrew, names mean reputation and character. Taking something is about bearing it as a representative. And taking something in vain is about it being devoid of meaning.
So after 5 minutes of Hebrew work by a non-Hebrew scholar, you can get this correct meaning of the commandment:
Don't carry God's reputation with emptiness.
Why do we humans have such a propensity to take things that are about character and turn them into silly rules to check off?
Now, I'm not fond of using the name of Jesus as a curse word (it should be used as a word of blessing!), but we really have kicked the ball in the complete wrong direction with this one.
It's easy to not say "Jesus Christ!" when you step on your kid's lego piece in the middle of the carpet.
It's much harder to respond with love and patience to your child after prying that same lego out of your foot.
And THAT, friends, is what it means to obey the third commandment.
Saying a curse word may be up for debate... but cursing someone isn't. That's breaking God's law.
And when you consider how Jesus responded to those who held religious power and used God's name to condemn, control, and exclude others, you can understand why Exodus says that God gets really angry with the people that do this. (Also, politicians using pseudo-Christian language to win loyalty and promote political agendas fall into this category too.)
Discipleship is not about avoiding taboo phrases. It's about embodying and displaying the character of Jesus at all times.
The literal translation of the word Christian is "little Christ.' This description (whether it was derogatory or not is debated) was given to the first disciples because to onlookers, they seemed to look like little versions of Jesus. Their actions, character, and lifestyle imitated his values.
They were bearing the name of Jesus with integrity. They were not taking the Lord's name in vain.
So integrity becomes our standard. We don't need to be perfect, or we have no need of Christ. But we do need to have character, and we do need to be people of truth, whose lives reflect the same heart of the God we profess.
A good question as you go about today is this:
When I make this choice/say this thing/interact with this person, am I representing Jesus' character with integrity?
By the grace of God, may it be so for both you and me today.
Jesus, bearing your character feels like pressure, but knowing your grace feels like freedom. Help me to do the first, because I have experienced the second.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ...
"How long have been at Kamar Taj, Mister....?"
"...maybe. Who am I to judge?"
That scene has no actual bearing on this reflection. I just found it really funny. Our family has been watching the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe films over the past few months. We recently watched Doctor Strange together, and it was a good time. If you haven't seen it, I won't give any spoilers, but it involves a group of people who harness mystical energy to defeat the power of evil and protect the world, that sort of stuff. Also, they can make sparkly circles and jump through them to other places on the earth.
It's a great movie. So please don't get freaked out about the mention of fictional sorcerers in a reflection about Jesus. It's ok, I promise.
The storyline is fascinating. The ones who are the Masters of the Mystic Arts began as misfits, overcome with anger, heartbreak, or loss. They are people who have suffered deeply or been deeply wounded, and they sought hope and power and healing. Ironically, they seek it from a being known as "The Ancient One." Too good, right?
As Doctor Strange is still seeking to claim the power for his own gain, he hears a Master named Mordo speaking to the Ancient One about why he came:
"I wanted the power to defeat my enemies. You gave me the power to defeat my demons..."
I don't know what happened after that because I was fixated on that quote for the next 5 minutes.
I wanted the power to defeat my enemies. You gave me the power to defeat my demons.
It's easy to pursue all that's wrong in the world without allowing Jesus to pursue all that's wrong in us.
That shouldn't lead us to inaction, guilt, or low self-worth, but rather to honesty about how easy it is to act like the exact things we want to change.
This is a significant part of our growth with Jesus. Often, our attention is life is given to trying to change external things first. Internal work is hard. We can put meetings and service events and rallies and fundraisers on our calendars. But when was the last time that you had Tuesday from 6-8pm marked on your calendar for "inner transformation with Jesus?"
Yet the truth is, our outward actions will never be quite right without our inward spirits being changed. We may mistake which battles are the right ones to fight, and how exactly to fight them.
Mordo was motivated by his desire for judgment against those who had wronged him. But his inward journey made him understand that the darkness within him first needed to be addressed, before going back and using his power out in the world. He was seeking revenge. What he needed was redemption.
If Jesus is our teacher and our master, he will lead us to humbly address our own blind spots. And as we receive grace and love, we emerge ready to act in the world not only with priorities of Jesus, but in the character of Jesus as well. That means will be growing in compassion for even our enemies, eventually longing for restoration and renewal of those who participate in evil, rather than their destruction.
But you can't get to that without going through the inward journey. And before we think that this all just sounds like hard work (IT IS!), can we just delight in the fact that we are in relationship with a God who actually wants to set our hearts right and set us free personally, rather than just demanding a set of external behaviors? What a gift.
We each have elements of fear, anger, hatred, exclusivism, selfishness, and violence within us somewhere. Let's give all of that to Jesus rather than sending it back out into the world. God's redemptive power is going to be far more useful out there than our own power anyways.
Jesus, give me courage to open my heart to you for big and little changes today, so that my actions are grounded in you.
Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?
- Romans 2:4
So there was this real life study conducted by real life psychologists twenty years ago that was published by the American Psychological Association. And it involved adults, cartoon mazes, owls, cheese, and mice. I know. This is off to an amazing start.
Research participants were given pencils and paper mazes, and told to help a cartoon mouse get from one end of the maze to other. The maze was the same for all the participants, but the imagery was different. On some of the papers, the end of the maze had a yummy piece of cheese waiting for the mouse. On the others, an owl looked down from the upper corner, on the hunt until the mouse got through the maze to safety.
And this crazy thing happened. There were different brain responses for the two groups of participants. Those doing the maze with the owl predator had their brains going into "avoidance mode," characteristic of the flight or flight response. Those whose mouse was going for the cheese had their brains go into "approach mode," characteristic of curiosity, desire, and eagerness.
There were two really interesting outcomes of this experiment. First, those whose mice were seeking the tasty cheese finished the same maze consistently faster than those whose mice were trying to avoid being digested.
Secondly, after these easy maze puzzles, participants were asked to do a creativity task. Those who had been chasing the cheese were twice as creative as those who had been avoiding the owl! Twice as creative! And these were just cartoon mazes. Just consider what must happen in our brains when we are motivated by fear, or motivated by goodness.
Many people are taught to believe that taking their faith seriously means needing to live up to God's standards and avoid God's punishment, disappointment, or judgment. God is seen as loving-ish, with a little bit of a dark side, and there's a whole lot of feeling not-good-enough. After all, we're told to be perfect like our heavenly father is perfect, right? (Matthew 5:48). That's a terrifying command!
Yet if we look at the entire arc of scripture, culminating in Jesus, we see a story that is characterized by love and invitation to something exceeding good: freedom, grace, fullness of life, forgiveness of sin, genuine relationship with God and others.
Love is expressed as the motivator over fear. Transformation comes from receiving God's gift of grace more than avoiding God's judgment.
In one approach, the end goal is simply relief. The bad thing didn’t happen.
But in the other, the end goal is fulfillment- a truly good thing happens! Which do you think sounds like abundant life? Turns out Jesus understands psychology.
God made us so that enjoying his presence is more transformative than avoiding his absence. Fear of punishment can only take you so far before the relationship falls apart. Love and connection creates lifelong transformation, and is more true to the character of Jesus we see revealed in the Bible. What incredibly good news that is for us today, when both fear and unmet expectations can have a crushing effect on our souls from all sides.
Do you want to be motivated to follow Jesus? To be more loving? To be a faithful Christian? You could try really hard to do everything right, believing that if you don't, God will be deeply disappointed in you. Or you could learn how beloved you are, and how much God longs to be in real relationship with you and set you free. And that, scientifically speaking, will provide the highest level of motivation you can get for living the Jesus way. Also, it will unleash your creativity to partner in building God's kingdom with freedom and joy.
Pursuing God because we long for more of God's goodness in us and in the world will always be more compelling than any alternative.
Jesus, fix my eyes on you today, so that I can move toward your kingdom life with joy and freedom.
(Details for the study: Friedman, R.S. &Forster J. (2001), "The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity.")
Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.
Gas prices are back up in our area. Though I'm a big proponent of foot traffic, I admit that most of the time I do use my car to get places. The other day when I stopped at the gas station, it was one of those times where the tank is so empty that that it takes a half gallon more than the stated capacity of the entire gas tank before it fills up. I was driving on fumes!
Even for my little hatchback, the cost was nearly $50! Yet I still paid it, barely even thinking about the trips that emptied that tank or the ones that will empty this one. I've gotten into the habit of filling my car when it's out of gas, and just continuing on my way, no matter the cost. Then I continue driving anywhere and everywhere, and repeat it all over again. Do you do the same?
But as the gasoline was pumping, I paused and wondered...
Would I make the same driving choices if I had to get my wallet out and pay for a little gas every time I got into my car?
Driving across town to grab takeout: $2.15
Going to the grocery store in the morning: $1.50
Going again in the afternoon when you forgot Nutella: $1.50
Roundtrip to the gym because you now feel guilty about eating a jar of Nutella: $3.08
How would it change your choices if you had to pay a few dollars every time you got into your car?
The costs add up. And we don't even think about it.
If we did, two things would happen. First, we'd realize how there is a cost to every action. And second, we would notice that they add up really, really quickly.
In life, we have choices about what we will do or not do (to some extent). Yet the average person spends almost no time reflecting on if each choice is worth the cost.
And without this reflection, they miss opportunities to use the unique resources God has given them (time, money, energy, love) to experience God's gift of life and build God's kingdom.
A harshly critical word said about another person costs our spirits a great deal. An hour scrolling mindlessly on a phone costs energy and relational connection with the people around us. Time spent on curating an instagram-worthy life and appearance limits one's ability to be focused on others. Even good things, if they're not the right things, can take a lot out of us and limit our capacity to prioritize what Jesus is leading us toward. We need God's wisdom to make these choices.
We each have a finite amount of energy, a finite amount of mental space, and a finite amount of relational capacity each day. And we have a finite amount of days on this side of eternity.
Everything has a cost. The efforts that move us toward relationships, service, joy, beauty, rest, and redemption are well worth it. The trips that lead us toward anger, frustration, obligation, bitterness, and selfishness will always leave us back at empty.
If you thought carefully about all that, what would you choose to do or not to do today, so that you didn't spend gas money on all the wrong trips?
Jesus, give me wisdom and courage to make the most of my moments today, not wasting the resources you've given me.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Last week I after dinner I was taking care of cleaning some of the bigger pots that don't fit into our dishwasher. Who knew dinner for a family of five would require commercial-sized equipment! But when I went to grab the dish brush that we keep on the counter behind the sink, it wasn't there. I looked in all the usual places, but it was nowhere to be found.
I set that task aside for a moment to unload the clean dishes, and that's when I found it, along with the clean utensils..... inside our dishwasher. On purpose. Apparently my wife put it in the last load.
Stay with me here...
My first thought was, "That's ridiculous. The dish brush is constantly soapy. It never needs washing- it's the one doing the washing, and it gets cleaned as it goes!"
Bethany begs to differ, and actually finds my dish brush neglect appalling, suggesting that it needs to be washed regularly itself, even though it's often covered in soap. This conversation may be marriage in a nutshell.
And, like most of the last 19 years we've been together, I'm realizing she's probably right.
Beyond the kitchen details, I wonder if many of us disciples of Jesus fall prey to "dish brush spirituality." We are out there regularly trying to live out the love of Jesus in tangible ways toward the world. And in the midst of it, we kind of assume that we're constantly connected to it. Therefore, we are less intentional about making space to do nothing but receive the same sorts of things we are trying to express to the around us. It's difficult to receive something you've been taught to give out. Just think about the fact that the ones who love to bring meals to sick families are often the ones least likely to receive a meal offer to them! Similarly, sometimes the longer someone is around Christian faith, the less likely they are to actually encounter the beauty of the good news themselves. They are quick to share it (even with the right motives!), but often overlook how much God wants to speak it over and over to them.
It's an odd reality, but it's true. Even when hearts are in the right place, personal needs are often downplayed. We may deeply desire that everyone know how amazing God's grace is, yet in the very same thought we are feeling like we're not doing enough for God.
Additionally, when we already know something is true, we can breeze past it because of familiarity, without letting God speak it to us in a fresh way once again. As we prayed in one of our LifePath Vision Team meetings this week, one of our team members was stirred to share with us a basic word of encouragement from God: You are enough. I initially nodded in agreement, knowing that this is a great truth that I've spoken to others many times. And because I agreed with it so much, I almost missed letting God speak that good news to me in the moment. That's the temptation. If we know something is true, we often miss the chance for God to use it to transform us all over again.
I find it interesting that the scriptures regularly talk about "renewal" in both the Old and New Testament. God renews our strength, our hearts, and our minds. The very word denotes that something was new once, and it once again needs maintenance. Discipleship is an ongoing experience, not a one time decision. It's humbling to know that even as we tell people of the goodness of God's love and grace, we regularly need to stop and receive it once again. We need to be still to experience the deep love that cleanses and transforms us, even if we feel like it's a normal part of our lives and language.
Are there elements of God's good news that you really want others to experience, but that you yourself haven't rested in lately? Are you wanting to show grace to everyone, yet haven't let God's grace put your heart at rest? Are you wanting to make sure everyone feels loved, yet it's been a while since you truly let God's love wash over you until it fills you completely?
Even scrub brushes need washing. Today, take some time to personally listen for Jesus to speak the same love and grace to you that you know he speaks to everyone else.
Jesus, I want to be available during this moment right now for renewal. Help me receive your love and grace.
People may be right in their own eyes, but the Lord examines their heart.
For those in the world of leadership, you can't escape the industry focus on having a 3-5 year plan all the time. Actually, having a plan figured out seems to be a trademark in all areas of life. People won't get married until they have all financial details worked out. Retirement planning commercials are everywhere on tv. Health plans and weight loss plans are available by the thousands on the internet. It's important to know what you want to do and what direction you want to go! The thing that matters is figuring out what you want to accomplish! And if you don't know where you're going, you'll never get anywhere, right?
There's plenty of good stuff in all that. We all try to know where we're heading and make good plans. Every time I get serious about a race, I follow a specific training plan. Bethany and I talk constantly about the best approaches to raise our kids. We think (hope?) we are doing things correctly (at least some of the time!). Knowing where we're headed and what needs to take place can be very helpful.
But the (often) shameful truth is that we don't always know where we're headed. We don't always have things figured out. We definitely don't always know how to get there. That's called being human, and it's healthy to admit. We are lying if we act like we have the answers for everything or a foolproof plan for the future. Just look at the past two years. Even when we think we know what's ahead, we don't actually know. A job fluctuates, depression hits hard, retirement doesn't bring as much fulfillment as hoped, children require so much of our time that we can't even begin to think about where God is leading us....
Maybe we can have confidence about what to make for tonight's dinner. But beyond that, we have no idea what tomorrow's plan is! Ever feel that way? Whether it's because you're in survival mode or because the last year and a half have left you feeling apathetic about nearly everything, we have seasons of life where direction and inspiration are nonexistent.
Within Christian culture, someone is often seen as spiritually immature if they don't have constant clarity of direction. Yet according to Jesus, what is most prized is not direction, but desire. God is constantly looking to see what is within the human heart. Is it selfishness? Is it arrogance? Or is it love? Is it mercy? Is it a desire to be faithful and to do what's right?
That's what God is concerned with. If our desire is to be faithful, then even when we get things wrong or don't know what to do, our hearts will be humble and true. And because of that, there will always be plenty of grace. We will not have everything figured out... our theology, our life plans, or our approaches to each unique situation. But if our hearts are postured toward Jesus, we can rest, knowing that even without clarity for what's ahead, God sees us and understands.
Here's what we see from Jesus:
Come and follow me.
I have come for those who know they need a doctor.
I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners.
The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.
Seek first the kingdom of God...
Jesus wants us to move toward him and his kingdom, even though we'll do so imperfectly. The pressure is off.
Mature discipleship has honest, humble desire at the center point. Jesus wants to walk with you, not simply leave you alone after you've correctly answered all the questions. So I'm inviting you this morning to sit with this profound prayer from the late Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton. Take your time with it. May it inspire you to align your heart with God, even when the eyes cannot discern what's ahead, and the mind can't figure out every answer.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Jesus, I do desire.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
For 9 weeks in the fall, my evenings are consumed with coaching middle school runners. I didn't know how much I loved it until Covid took it away (how many of us have had similar epiphanies?). It's been great to have a season this year.
Last week we did hill repeats on this truly insane hill on our course that climbs straight up for 150 yards. Even for an experienced runner, it's difficult to run all the way up it. I have our team do a workout on it every year to build their confidence, but I never know how the kids will respond.
At the beginning of the workout, I told them I'd like them to each do at least 6 repeats. But once they got to 6, they could do more if they were up for it. Now, I'd like to say that I'm a brilliant coach, but the reality was that I have runners at so many various levels that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work. So I said, here's your starting point, but it doesn't need to be your ending point. You are probably capable of doing more.... if you choose.
Most of them rolled their eyes. Several asked if I was sure that 4 wasn't enough. But we got into it, and things got rolling. We reached 6, and something very special happened. A few kids started up on their seventh. And then others did too. And they Just. Kept. Going.
I've done 8, coach! I'm going to do another!
I didn't think I would do 10 today!
That's 11! You said 6 to start! Do we still have time for more?
It reached the point where I was literally pulling kids off the hill, telling them that they needed to stop, that their legs wouldn't keep benefiting because they were about to fall over. Some did 13. Some did 10. Some did 8. None did 6. Think about that.
That workout is a glimpse at how discipleship happens. Character is formed when a choice is given, rather than just a requirement. Because in those moments, we actually discover what is worth doing or not. Moving beyond the bare minimum in our lives with Jesus is when growth and development skyrockets. When we acknowledge that yes, there is a choice, and I'm going to keep going even when no one is requiring it... that's when we take ownership of our faith in new ways. And interestingly, the areas of greatest formation in us are often areas that you simply can't measure based on minimums (patience, peace, kindness... see above)
Sometimes people approach Christianity as if the line that matters is the bare minimum. What exactly do they need to believe or do in order to be "in?" How much Bible reading and prayer makes them a good Christian? What bad people can I pass judgment on yet still feel righteous about my own holiness? The temptation is to do what requires the least transformation, love, and sacrifice. But that won't lead to the spirit of Christ being formed in you. It'll just make you a smug card-holding member of the Christian club. And we've got more than enough of those already.
When Jesus invited disciples to be like him, it wasn't about knowing or doing the bare minimum. It was about a life characterized by surrender to God and love for God. So Jesus taught his disciples about starting points, like forgiving others and being generous. But it always opened the door to take it a few steps further, and take some real ownership.
How many times should I forgive others, Jesus? Maybe 7 repeats? (see Matt. 18:21)
Well, let's not even focus on numbers.... and then maybe add a few extra? Oh, and you can be filled with genuine love for them as well.
I'll tithe a tenth of all my money, Jesus! And Jesus replies...
Good starting point. And you are also working for justice, right? Right??? (see Luke 11:42).
And of course the famous, "You give them something to eat!"
What does moving beyond the minimum mean today for you? Maybe it's moving from just saying "thanks" at the end of checkout to expressing gratitude to a grocery store worker for the massive amount of stress they've endured for 18 months. Maybe it's starting a weekly coffee meeting with a friend to offer prayer and support for one another, rather than just a text here and there. Maybe it's reading marginalized Christian voices instead of simply feeling compassion toward people who have overlooked and undervalued because of race or gender. Maybe it's moving beyond basic forgiveness of someone toward a true desire that God would lead them into joy and fullness of life. Or maybe it's giving your spouse your full love and attention by plugging in your phone, not just looking up for a moment (too close to home???).
The crazy thing about grace is that honestly, almost nothing is actually required. Just a willing heart and an acknowledgement that you need Jesus. The workout is ridiculously easy. But how far you take it, and how much your life will be shaped by Jesus.... well, that's your choice.
Oh, and I almost forgot to include the power of having a bunch of teammates around you to inspire and share the experience. You'll never be able to go as far alone as when you have others on the path at the same time, cheering you on. At its best, that's Church.
Jesus, help me take ownership of my faith today by making courageous steps of love.
Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that...
-Galatians 6:4 (MSG)
Man, he needs to get his head out of the sand.
I assume you've heard a saying similar to this at some point. For an unknown reason, it came to my mind this week, and I needed answers.
Many of us have grown up with this phrase, emerging from the strange and unique behavior of the ostrich. When frightened, ostriches instinctively bury their heads in the sand in the hopes that danger will pass them by. At least that's how it's been presented.
Today this head-in-the-sand image is used to suggest that someone has no awareness of what's going on around them, or that they are living in fear of the world. This is a great example of how surface images can be totally misunderstood, because for our ostrich friend, what is actually happening is the complete opposite! The reason ostriches stick their heads in the sand is that they lay their eggs in holes dug in the ground that can get up to several feet deep. While the eggs are incubating, throughout the day they check on them to rotate the eggs with their beaks, ensuring that they are evenly heated. And while they do that, their head disappears from view. And ta-da! They've got their heads in the sand.
So what are they really doing?
THEY ARE LITERALLY ATTENDING TO THE FORMATION OF LIFE.
We humbly apologize for our self-righteous judgment of you for all these years, ostriches.
Just go ahead and sit with that a moment. The head burying has nothing to do with the bird being scared or threatened. It's about nurturing life, and in reality, it's for brief periods of time throughout the day, like 15-20 seconds, and then the ostrich moves on.
Perhaps we need to learn from this whole fiasco.
In a bizarre turn of events, what if we should be more like the ostrich? What if our regular daily habits involved pausing to take our eyes off of everything constantly swirling around us so that we could attend to what's happening under the surface? What if, throughout the day, we turned off cell phones and closed laptops and stopped all the to-do's, and just took notice of what needs our attention for life to thrive?
A life that is formed by Christ is deliberately in touch with what's happening in the internal world. We face a constant push to steamroll through our days, missing moments that God wants to teach us through something around us or something within us. Why did you feel uneasy after that one conversation this week? Was it because you said something prideful or hurtful and you haven't made amends yet? What is making you worry today? Have you taken enough time to identify the root of it so that you can invite Jesus into that space, so that he can helping you reframe it and give you his peace? What was your most meaningful moment today? Could it be that God wants you to make room for doing more of that and less of the other stuff?
We so often become human doings rather than human beings that happen to do things. And therefore, a whole bunch of our doing is not the stuff that brings life or expands God's kingdom in the world. But we don't know that, because we don't ever put our heads in the sand throughout the day. In order to discern those things, we've got to pay attention to what's under the surface.
Interestingly, it feels risky to take our eyes off of our surroundings, even for a second. What if we miss a notification? What if people think we're lazy for taking more time to pray and be still? What if I don't complete all the tasks that I have decided will make me worthy of value today??? What if I am terrified of what will be revealed when I slow down for self-reflection?
Well, it's risky for the ostrich too. It knows that when the head is down, a cheetah could come into view. And yet the ostrich still turns the eggs, trusting that it will have the tools to deal with whatever comes. And it knows that making sure that new life is forming... well, that's always worth the risk.
I'm hitting these themes hard lately because they are too often neglected within Christianity. Though the scriptures are clear about its importance, the slow work of internal transformation is often downplayed compared to acquiring knowledge or doing good deeds (both of those matter, for sure).
But formation takes time. Growing to become more like Jesus in our little moments takes time. Learning how to respond to all situations in love....takes time. And paying attention to the deep places within us, so that we are prepared to live the unique way of God's kingdom when it's time to look up and get moving.... that just might be the best reason to stick your head in the sand.
Jesus, give me the insight today to notice what's happening under the surface of my life, and the grace to offer it to you.