Today, I'm inviting you to use this time for self-reflection. This isn't written in my usual prose style, so give yourself space to read slowly and prayerfully, as we allow God to search us, know our hearts, and lead us in the way everlasting.
This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.
- 2 Timothy 1:6-7
“Fan into flames”, a holy task
a request made that hints at a truth
a truth often ignored for the task it requires.
And the truth is this: the flame isn’t there yet.
Only the spark is given.
An ember, a coal. Hot, yet not fiery.
And the task is this: to hold onto the gift,
and to help it grow
with breath, fan, movement… effort.
How am I at fanning the gift?
What exactly am I fanning?
Is it the gift God gave me?
What flames are the ones beginning to lick the kindling?
I feel the burning, yes.
But what is it that causes the flame?
Because my mind is more captured by the news notifications,
Than by the notification of the Good News.
I love the words of John the Baptist, crying out
‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!’
‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!’
But I admit, I like it more when I say it,
than when it is said to me.
I feel the burning, yes.
But what is it that causes the flame?
Because the gift will not grow through scrolling
it will not grow from smug assumptions
it will not grow from proving how right I am.
Because the gift isn’t whatever I want it to be.
The gift, the spark, the ember
is the Spirit of Christ.
This gift always grows into love. Into self control.
Into power, but not power in the way of empire.
Power in the way of the lamb
who lays down its life to change the world for good.
Power that is not concerned with protecting itself
Nearly as much as caring for the neighbor,
the widow, the orphan, the outsider.
So the flame that will burn for all time in me
Is not a flame that destroys,
but one that softens, even the hardest metal
The kind of metal that the heart can become
If it’s not the Spirit of Christ that is fanned into flame.
I feel the burning, yes.
But what is it that causes the flame?
What is the Church for whom Jesus died?
What is the community that declares ‘Jesus is Lord’
(and Caesar is not)?
What is it if we declare Jesus is on our side,
and yet he must be disguised so well,
for he is unrecognizable.
The holy task is to fan into flame
the gift of Jesus and his calling to be forever changed
so that we see the world through the eyes of the Father.
So that we will be known by our Love.
Will we fan it slowly, carefully, with deep breaths
taken in the Spirit, in humility, in prayer
and blown upon the coals with wisdom and truth in our hearts?
Will we keep finding the breath to give light to this little coal
when all around us
matchbooks and powder kegs are calling
I feel the burning, yes.
But what is it that causes the flame?
Jesus, capture our hearts.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
In February, when we moved into our new place, we saved just a bit of money from the sale of our old house so that we could buy a new couch set. We'd never purchased new couches before, so it felt exciting (I mean, as exciting as a couch purchase gets). Our dilapidated furniture had seen several homes and several decades. We were happy to replace it with a nice, sturdy, middle-of-the-road sort of set.
The cushions were tight, the pillows were full. And we could tell that these would last for a really long time. The kids were excited too.
"Just be gentle on the couches, please. We want them to last."
Five People. Three of them with constantly renewable energy.
Do the math.
Our couches have become forts. They've become beds. They've become trampolines (without permission). And they get no Sabbath rest.
Our couches have aged 10 years in 10 months.
The creases now remain when someone stands up. The back cushions sag a bit. The padding is a little lumpy. And I am starting to feel the structural beams that are embedded in the armrests.
I've been thinking lately that I guess our couches aren't as sturdy as I thought. It's easy to look at something that's worn and decide it just isn't tough enough.
But maybe I'm incorrect? Maybe the wear and tear is simply what you expect in this situation? Maybe that new(ish) couch is doing exactly what is expected, and I need to stop being disappointed and thinking that there is a problem with my kids! Whoops, I mean, myself! Whoops, I mean, my couch...
Sometimes lessons come in strange ways. And today I'm seeing Christ in couch wrinkles. (Maybe folks will pay good money to come and see Christ in my couch wrinkles. Like the Jesus-face-on-grilled-cheese sort of thing?)
Today God is inviting me to sit back in wonder at how the couch is still standing after what it's been through. How it's still holding our family up! I can't believe that bad boy hasn't cracked in half yet, honestly. It's pretty amazing. Praise God!
Maybe today is the time for grace to win. Maybe all the time is the time for grace to win.
So much of the journey with Jesus is becoming a grace-filled person. To let God's grace fill us when our natural inclination is to cast judgment on ourselves because we are worn down these days. And also to let God's grace pour from us toward other people in our lives... most of whom are well intentioned, trying their hardest, and simply worn out, too. This goes for those who think like you and those that don't. Truly, most people are trying their best to survive. They are feeling the creases and wrinkles in their bodies and their spirits. And what we need for each other (and ourselves) is the grace and support that God gives abundantly.
One of my neighbors is a nurse bearing a crushing load... and doing it for months on end! Only by the grace of God! Another neighbor is a widow who lives on her own. She's exhausted by how long this is lasting, and it's had an impact on her.... but she is extraordinary in her perseverance! Do we see each other? Do we look with compassion and wonder at each other's strength, instead of just noticing each other's weaknesses? I know hope feels hard since the new year feels a lot like the old one right now. But inviting God's grace to really invade your life-- it will change the lens that you see reality through.
This image can hit us each in different ways. Maybe you are the couch (please don't be offended), and you need to let God's grace influence how you've been thinking about yourself, because you are loved and valuable and honestly holding up pretty well given the load that you're constantly bearing! You are enough, and unrealistic expectations are killing your ability to see it.
Or maybe you are hung up on the people jumping on couches. You feel the need to blame something, and it's so easy to live in an attitude of criticism these days. And today, God needs to give you a huge dose of grace for them so you don't lose your soul.
Either way is ok. Either way can lead us to a reminder that getting worn down is not failure, it's expected. But God is always in the process of making old things new again. So there's hope for both of us.
Jesus, we're weary and worn. Speak grace to our spirit.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
We have this wonderful pandemic practice that emerged at our church. Every weekday at noon, people can hop into our Zoom room and for 10 minutes we pray together with whoever shows up. That's it. Simple, brief, meaningful connection.
A few weeks ago when we were praying, my friend Ian offered an image that God's spirit was stirring within him. It was a picture of that moment after nearly every winter storm, when there is stillness and the sun eventually comes out and strikes the snow and ice, making it sparkle. It was an image about God's faithfulness.
I've continued to think about that moment, and about God's great faithfulness. My sense is that learning to embrace how God's faithfulness comes to me is a lifelong process that won't end anytime soon.
It would be wonderful if God always worked in the ways we desire, wouldn't it? If every injustice in the world gets fixed in my lifetime.... every marriage facing problems gets restored.... every addiction gets treated... every bout of depression passes quickly...every personal tragedy and heartache gets reversed and quickly forgotten.
But that's not the only way that God meets us. Certainly, sometimes things absolutely do get fixed, overcome, and restored fully-- praise God for that! I'm thankful for the times the sun comes out quickly and melts effects of the storm.
But we all know that many heartbreaking situations don't simply disappear. Many times, the impact of the storm stays right in front of us for many days... and it's in those circumstances that we find hope in the beautiful image of sparkling ice- remembering that God is still with us and creating something beautiful.
During this advent season we've been waiting eagerly for Christ's coming among us. Now, in these 12 days of Christmastide, we fully celebrate that God has come, and we explore the breadth of what that all means! But it's still winter. It's still cold and often dark, and though the light is growing, more storms are likely to come. How do we live in the thin place between the mysterious beauty of heaven and the heart wrenching realities of earth?
The way forward involves embracing God's varied forms of faithfulness. Sometimes we walk with God toward a changed circumstance, but many times it is toward a changed perspective.
When we welcome Jesus into our lives with his presence and grace and rescue, it is always transformative. Yet how we become transformed is anything but formulaic. When our world stays frozen, we trust God to transform the way we see the storm. The snow remains, but God's faithfulness changes our perspective and helps us notice the sun, not simply the ice. Our hearts become changed, rather than our circumstances. We learn to let go of the illusion of the perfect life. We learn to stop holding others to impossible standards. We learn to feel God's love breaking through our bitterness and isolation. We may have complained about the storm and the power outages and the frigid cold, but Jesus now helps us see that there is a newfound beauty on this side of the storm because God has never left us. In fact, we may even notice that the storm brought us to a place of trusting God's presence more than an ideal circumstance would. This is where we see light that dances on the ice crystals and brightens the world. The snow stays, but the sun helps new beauty emerge-- beauty like daily prayer meetings on zoom that didn't happen until the pandemic started! But also beauty like newfound trust, forgiveness, and strength to keep walking in love.
My friend pointed out that the beauty of the snow sparkling in the sun is a unique gift from God. It didn't have to be so beautiful, yet there it is: a "rainbow-esque" reminder that God even brings beauty out of storms.
Will we ever mature if we don't embrace this mystery? Whether our situations or our perspectives are transformed, both are beautiful signs of God's faithfulness, coming to us in love. Both remind us that newness and hope are possible. Both help us have courage to keep walking with Jesus into the new year even when tomorrow feels hard and uncertain.
It's Christmas, friends. God is at work. Jesus is here, amidst the storms. Have faith-- the light will change how we see it all.
Jesus, hear my simple prayer this year: help me walk forward in faith, hope, and love.
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.