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.
"No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us."
-Paul, Philippians 3:13-14
Two weeks ago, hurricane Ida ripped up the gulf coast, bringing tornados and serious amounts of rainfall across the south and east coast. Many spots in Pennsylvania received over 8 inches of rain, and while we didn't get hit that hard in Delaware, there was still more water than anyone knew what to do with. It impacted millions of people in various ways, but around here, most damage was minimal except in the lowest lying areas. Those spots had some real damage.
The Vine Street Expressway runs right through Philly less than an hour from here. It was so deep that kayakers were paddling on it (that's I-676!) after the storm, in 15+ feet of water that simply had no where to go! That's what happens when a big storm hits and you don't have adequate drainage.
Good drainage is simply a system or a position in which water can continue on its way instead of pooling and continuing to damage things. Sometimes people are fortunate to live on top of a hill, but most of the time good drainage requires intentionality. You have to build systems that can divert water away from houses, trails, and streets.
It's common to see huge amounts of manpower put into digging drainage ditches in local parks and streets on the sides of roads. These channels of rocks and stone take tens of thousands of dollars to construct. But I've come to realize that the damage that can happen without adequate drainage is far more than the work required to be ready for the storms.
Healthy spiritual formation requires us to be intentional about having drainage systems in our lives-- ways of helping damaging storms move past us without pooling and creating additional chaos and long term damage in our spirit.
The apostle Paul speaks of the ability to look forward rather than dwelling on the past. This doesn't mean he actually forgot his past. In fact, he frequently brings up his own wounds and struggles and how God's grace met him and transformed him through them. However, there is a sense that healthy movement means moving through pain and heartache and failures, letting them drain off of us so that we can experience wholeness once again.
We are so fortunate that God has given us numerous ways to have healthy drainage systems in our lives so that the storms that come do not destroy us. But it takes intentionality. Paul writes later in Philippians that we are invited to bring our anxieties to God in prayer, and that God promises supernatural peace in our spirits. We are also given the Church, the Body of Christ, as a wonderful gift to bear one anothers' burdens and help us heal. And we are told to practice forgiveness every day, which allows hurt and offense to drain away from our spirits, replaced by God's love and compassion. And we follow Jesus into the quiet places of honesty and stillness, sitting with him long enough to truly become aware of the things that are destroying us so that we can release them and begin to move forward again. These are structures of healthy drainage in our lives.
God has made us resilient people by his spirit, and we are capable of healing even when there is massive flooding in our lives-- things such as family crises, job losses, depression, financial despair, deep hurts, and relational division. But every disciple must decide if we will utilize drainage structures in our daily routines. Times of confession with Jesus, times of deep spiritual encouragement with other disciples, and practices of looking forward and listening to what new things God is speaking, all are a part of real spiritual health.
Most of the time we can't control the storms or how much water gets dumped on us. But we can choose to trust the ways of Jesus in moving forward without allowing those storms to do more damage than they already have. God is a God of restoration and healing; and none of us are outside of that promise. Choose to be courageous today, looking to what lies ahead and moving on from what needs to drain away. Jesus is walking with you as you go.
Jesus, help me create practices in my life that move me toward healing and wholeness, with my eyes on what's ahead.
"And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God."
-Paul's letter to the Church in Ephesus, Ephesians 3:18-19
On Sunday morning, one of our funky little LifePath bands led us toward Jesus with a song called Head to the Heart (though ours looked a bit less hipster). The chorus goes, From the head to the heart, You take me on a journey, of letting go, and getting lost in You. It's hard not to move joyfully with the beat. It's the kind of thing you'd probably experience if a Jesus revival broke out at a Lumineers concert.
There are a lot of lyrics worth contemplating in this song, but I found that I couldn't stop dwelling on the bridge....
More than words // more than big ideas
I found your love in the open fields
For someone like me whose work in life is directly connected to words and big ideas, I laughed at the irony of how deeply true I feel like that lyric is for discipleship.
We need some more open fields in our lives, friends. There is a delight that comes from being connected with Jesus through more than words, and we often miss out on it.
Our world is full of so so many words, and they can often get in the way.
Our faith is full of so so many words, and they can often get in the way.
My head is full of so so many words, and they can often get in the way.
Christianity is an embodied faith. At its most beautiful, it is a complete mix of the heart and mind and soul. No part of our day is separated from the holiness of God's world, and no part of our body is separated from the experience of discipleship. We experience God's goodness through taste, sight, touch, sound, and smell. Even when we believe and trust Jesus (mind and heart), we are baptized (body!) to symbolize it. But the temptation is to minimize the full sensory experience, so we often boil discipleship down to: knowing stuff.
We've prized the mind over all of it, and it can hinder us from experiencing the fullness of God's love.
Yes, our minds are important. Jesus corrected people's beliefs about God constantly, helping them understand God's heart. But at the same time, Jesus called the disciples so that they could "be with him." That was the priority. He wanted them to know and experience what love was, because he knew that would lead humanity to turn toward him and change the world for good.
That's a very different priority than trying to understand everything. As humans, we love to figure stuff out. And yet, sometimes the best thing we could possibly do for our spiritual formation is just go out into an open field alone so that we can simply get loved by Jesus.
I love that Paul begins his blessing to the Ephesians by saying he hopes that they'll be able to "understand" the grandeur of God's love. Then, as if catching what he just said, he almost doubles back and says, actually, it's too great to understand fully, so my real hope is just that you experience it, since you'll never be able to truly figure it out.
More than words, more than big ideas...
I found your love in the open fields.
Open fields are places of freedom. They are expansive. They invite play and exploration and contemplation and curiosity and wonder and all the big feelings that are a little beyond our ability to describe. Open fields are the places around us and inside us where we can simply go out and chase after Jesus so that we come away changed by this profound experience of love. Sure, it can involve the mind, but love is never truly a mental exercise. It's all about the heart.
So our question this morning is this: are you able to move beyond just thinking about faith and into experiencing life with God? It'll look different for you than it will for me. But sometimes we just need to get out of our heads, shut up, and throw ourselves into the mystery of it all in order to start to really grasp how deep and wide and great and wonderful it is that we are loved beyond reason.
Jesus, slow me down enough to discover your love in new ways today.
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This summer my family had the opportunity of a lifetime when we traveled to Alaska to celebrate my father's retirement after over 40 years as a college professor. We traveled up the interior by train, with single day tours and excursions from each location we visited.
A trip highlight was our day in Denali National Park. To preserve the wilderness, only one road runs into the park, and most of that road is only accessible by tour buses. We loaded a bus for a half day trip deep into the middle of the mountains, to see the scenery and the wildlife (yes, we did see moose and bear, but that's a different story!).
The bus turnaround point is a spot where, if the conditions are right, you can have a beautiful view of Denali mountain, with its crags towering at 20,300 feet and covered in snow year round. It's an amazing sight to behold. However, the conditions are rarely just right. We traveled in late July, and we were told by several guides that there are usually only a handful of days in the entire month that Denali is even visible, because the mountain is so large that it makes its own weather. Usually it's shrouded in clouds, and even when it is visible, people often just see the tip of it. Many people have traveled to the park five or six times just to get a glimpse of the mountain, and still have not seen it clearly.
I find this interesting. The entire 6.1 million acre park is named after this mountain- this mysterious, incredible mountain that is often hard to see with absolute clarity. People continue to travel to Denali knowing that there’s a significant chance that they might not actually see the mountain in all its fullness. And yet at the same time, the journey is never a waste. Though there might be some disappointment on a cloudy day, there is so much beauty to behold on the path toward Denali, that it makes the experience worth it every single time, even if you don’t get that ultimate glimpse. You can sense that you’re in the presence of the most majestic point on the continent, even if you can’t see it.
Jesus talked about how some people get to see and people don't. Some got glimpses of the resurrected Jesus with absolute clarity. Others did not, and they had to trust. Today, some people sense the presence of God easily, and faith feels a lot like plain sight. For others, faith is a deep mystery and requires walking through some disappointment, longing for a clear glimpse that doesn't come. And Jesus understands both. And Jesus says a special blessing to those who try to trust him, even when every question isn't answered and every longing isn't satisfied. He blesses those who don’t see and still trust.
From one angle you could suggest that we're all in that second grouping, since we never witnessed Jesus with our own eyes. From another angle we might say that some people simply have the gift of faith and for others it's a real act of faith... to have faith.
But in either category, we can take heart. The journey of faithfulness is a breathtaking one, even when we are having trouble seeing God in direct and majestic ways. The path of love, forgiveness, and compassion as we trust Jesus holds immeasurable beauty, whether or not we see miraculous moments or feel the presence of God every day. The way of discipleship is meaningful as a way of life, and the glimpses of God that we will see, sometimes regularly and sometimes only occasionally (in our perspective) ensure that journey is not worthless.
So resist the temptation to think that your faith is a waste if you don't always feel like you can see and feel God clearly. It isn’t. Jesus, in all his love and grace and majesty, is every bit as present with us when we can't see as when we can. And knowing that we are in the presence of such love and beauty is enough to make us look around with fresh eyes. And when we do, we will notice that along the journey, glimpses of God's kingdom are revealed in so many surprising and beautiful ways.
We did have the fortunate pleasure of seeing Denali in all it's glory during our trip (see that photo??). But Denali would still have been just as glorious, even if we didn't see it that day. So don’t get discouraged if you’re having one of those days where the mountain is shrouded in grey clouds. It’s still there, and there’s much to see as you travel toward it. Keep your eyes open and your heart pure (Mt 5:8), and in the words of Jesus, you will see God.
Jesus, today I'll keep walking in faith toward you, even when it's hard to see you there.
For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.
-2 Timothy 1:9
I haven't yet written about on of my more significant personal experiences of 2021. In early May, I ran my first ultramarathon, a 31 mile trail race through a huge wooded park near Philadelphia. Running is in my blood, my ancestry, and my muscles, and it's been a part of who I am for decades. I wanted to push my limits and I trained for months for this, building up carefully and continually, eating all the right foods, tracking caloric intake, and working out a hydration plan. I was all set to crush this thing.
But about 23 miles in on race day, something went wrong with my legs. My hamstrings uncharacteristically began cramping and I found myself in big trouble. Six times my muscles seized up and forced me to collapse and roll around on the side of the trail, groaning. If I was watching one of my kids do the same thing on the ground, I would have rolled my eyes and sighed, and said, "that's a little dramatic, don't you think? Are you done yet?" (Photo: historical re-enactment)
It was really pitiful. I mean it. Miles of getting up, hobbling around, and ending up on the ground again. Two compassionate women, both 20 years older than me, stopped to help me and give me some salt chews and energy gels.
As they passed me.
Wearing fanny packs.
In a race.
It's not the first time I've experienced being truly pitiful. And it won't be the last. And I'm learning to be thankful for that. Sometimes it's been reaching the limits of my body. Sometimes it's a family situation where I have to apologize for being in a bad mood simply because I wasn't motivated to get out of it. Sometimes it's admitting that I feel empty of vision and inspiration even though part of my job is to be the vision and inspiration guy. There are countless more moments. But the reality is the same for me, and possibly for you. Time and time again, whether we try to hide it or not, we make a lot of mistakes and we need a lot of help. Independence is a myth, and we're not always as capable as we pretend to be. We can be pretty pitiful.
I spend a lot of time on the opposite side of this spectrum, helping people to see just how capable and valuable they are in God's eyes, because outside voices have repeatedly eroded their inherent self-worth. That breaks my heart, because God has made us to partner in his kingdom of love and achieve some pretty great things, for sure. Humans truly are amazing.
And yet, none of us are beyond saving. And understanding that may be the most freeing truth knowable in today's world.
I will never forget a conversation with a mentor when I was in the early stages of launching our church. I was sharing all the ways I was overwhelmed by everything, failing at most of it, while also not really asking anyone for help, and feeling crushed inside. He sat across from me, looked me in the eye, and said "This is ridiculous. Does your church even know that you're saveable? Or do they think that you're above needing to be saved by Jesus?"
(I remember crickets chirping at this point)
It's ok to need to be saved, friends. It's ok to rest in the honesty of the many times that we reach our limits and aren't that impressive. It's ok to throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus for the first or 400th time, admitting that we are rather pitiful sometimes and don't know what to do or where to turn. It's ok to need to be rescued. In fact, it's the starting point for understanding God's kingdom. Ironically, our ability to acknowledge this and trust Jesus over and and over again is actually a movement toward maturity, not immaturity. How's that for an upside down reality?
God is eager to offer compassion to those willing to receive it, not casting judgment to the weak, but coming alongside them to restore them. Come to think of it, God is a little like those fanny pack ladies. They never once resorted to laughter at my pain or ridicule for being a foolish newbie who didn't know how to run an ultra yet. Only compassion, only understanding, only rescue.
Every time I come up against my pitifulness and ask Jesus to rescue me, I become restored again, motivated and empowered to "live a holy life" as Paul worded it. True internal experiences of God's grace will always lead to true external expressions of God's love in the world. What flows in will flow out. And in the end, our lives will reflect Jesus even more beautifully.
So if you're pitiful today, you're not alone. Nor are you beyond saving. God's eager to offer deep compassion. Go ahead and receive it, and live renewed once again.
Jesus, I acknowledge the places that I'm at the end of my rope, feeling pitiful. Bring your rescue, and move me toward your kingdom today.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
At our first house in Delaware, we learned fairly quickly that working in the kitchen was a strategic endeavor. You couldn't do all the things at once. For example, if the dishwasher was on, DON'T start the microwave. If you did, that entire portion of our house would go dark in about 30 seconds. Of course, this happened time and time again, and our kids all learned that when everything shut down, they'd need to run down into the basement and flip the breaker again. The circuit board was older, and it simply couldn't handle too many inputs all at the same time. This rhythm of over-extending the system and then needing to reset it again became an almost daily occurrence. It was hard to remember the limit of only one major energy pull at a time.
Heartbreaking images from Afghanistan. Another season affected by COVID and the exhausting emotions that go with it. The upcoming school year. Forest fires and climate extremes. Earthquakes and helplessness. Fresh debates about immigration. Innocent suffering. The ongoing need for justice in so many areas. Job stress in each unique profession right now. That volunteer position your church is trying to fill. Dealing with loss. Your personal list will undoubtedly have other items added to it.
I want to care about all of these things. And I should care about them as a compassionate disciple of Jesus, shouldn't I?
Maybe the answer is both yes and no.
We live in a very different world than even 50 years ago. Our awareness of suffering and hurt has widened from personal connections by word of mouth, to brief evening news reports, to minute-by-minute live updates from everywhere across the globe, right in our pockets. There was another tragedy today. Just google it and you'll find one, I promise. It's totally overwhelming.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, "The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE."
But today, we know what's happening in every village. And feeling compassion is a completely overwhelming experience (not to mention the pressure to do "performative" compassion because of social media).
The truth is, we aren't made for that kind of energy strain. It will break our circuits to feel the weight of everything, all the time. And that's exactly what happens. We jump from one overwhelming news situation to another, and we end up so horrified and so angry and so exhausted from it all, that we just sit there and feel sad. We feel broken and powerless because we know we can't fix all the brokenness of the world.
But here's the thing. We actually were made to fix the brokenness of the world. We just weren't made to individually fix all of it, and we certainly weren't made to do it alone.
Jesus has called his people to be representatives of his kingdom, known by love and active in offering compassion to the poor, the vulnerable, and the suffering. But this calling was given to the entire church to work at, and it was given with the understanding that the Spirit of Christ is the one doing the heavy lifting, empowering us to join in the kingdom-building process.
When we feel the crushing weight of every single cause, or when we think that the pressure is on us to keep finding the energy to act without really looking to Jesus for strength, we are headed for burnout, paralysis, and apathy. Our bodies can't handle that much energy output. We'll shut down.
So if you just want to ignore everything and turn it all off, it's probably not because you are a heartless monster. It's because no one can bear that kind of load outside of God. So..... stop acting like you're God.
And yet doing nothing is clearly not an option. As disciples of Jesus, we need to be taking time every single day to ask God, "what is mine to do today?" and "how can I celebrate, pray for, or encourage others in the things that aren't mine to do?"
When you learn to identify the areas of compassion and mercy that God is uniquely calling you to focus on, you will have the energy to act in ways that make a real difference, rather than just feeling strongly about everything and doing very little about anything.
It's ok to release some things, friend. Your body wasn't made for this amount of stress.
Now, knowledge is power, and intentional ignorance is irresponsible. So we don't ignore suffering in our world. We pray, we invite God to stir us to do the right thing. And if it's not our main thing, we pray and we applaud the ones for whom it is, and we continue to give our energy to the thing that God is empowering us to do.
It doesn't have to be just one thing. But it's important for your own health to acknowledge that it's not everything. The calling to love is universal, but the areas of active compassion can't be infinite.
Maybe today, you need to pick one thing to do that makes the world a little less broken, and ask Jesus for strength. And then, turn off your screens and minds for once so that you can get enough rest to keep doing it again tomorrow.
Jesus, I need your clarity, your Spirit's power, and your promise of rest.
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.
-Apostle Paul, Philippians 4:12
It's hard to know how to prepare for what's next these days, isn't it? It feels like we can't see very far into the future right now, and it's been that way for a long time. And the truth is, even when we think we're ready, we can never foresee all that life has in store.
The Tour de France is a 21 stage cycling race that takes place every July. It winds through the French mountains for over three weeks. Cyclists and race officials prepare all year for this extraordinary race, knowing that they'll have to deal with injuries, exhaustion, extreme weather, and gear repairs. But a few years ago, despite all their other preparation, no one had considered the possibility of llamas. Llamas in the fog. Fog Llamas.
Apparently some guy had purchased a bunch of llamas and let them roam free around the countryside to graze. But on the foggy morning of stage 8 in 2016, up in the highlands, they all decided to lay down on the road, because the pavement was warm, or because they were protesting how the alpaca sock market had cut into their profit share. I'm not actually sure, for the mind of a llama is impossible to discern.
Reports say the race directors were able to somehow clear the fog llamas off the road just in time right before 150 bikes came careening through them at breakneck pace. So everyone scrambled and it all worked out before any llamas came to harm.
But life is full of "fog llamas", these unforeseen circumstances that we could never have prepared for. And unfortunately, they aren't at all comical. I'm talking with a lot of you lately, who are trying to learn how to handle the unexpected. Some of those unexpected things have been heartbreaking. Some are surprising. Others are perplexing. But it's all hard.
You prepare for what you think the next family stage of life is going to be, the next season, the next school year, and you feel ready. But then something happens that you couldn't see coming. Tragedy hits. The pandemic continues. A job shifts. Depression takes root. A conflict occurs. A sure thing falls through. And you're left reeling.
We see it all the time right now because as a country (and world), things are so volatile. But the truth is, this is a constant in all of life. Things will rarely shake out in the specific ways we envision. So as followers of Jesus, if we want to stay healthy and faithful, our preparation for the future needs to go far deeper than preparing for possible circumstances. It has to include every circumstance.
This is why the path forward is to invite Jesus to transform all of who we are. This is why we fight hard to keep humility and surrender central to our faith, so that we might be prepared for anything and everything that we encounter. The difficult truth of life is that fog llamas are rarely easily cleared away. They are major events that can send us spiraling out of control. And in order to navigate our way through, our souls must be grounded so deeply in Jesus that they cannot be uprooted.
We'd prefer to know and strategize what's next.
But Jesus wants to develop character for what's next.
We'd prefer to envision scenarios to make sure we do the right action.
But Jesus wants us to become the kind of people that will always choose a loving response, even without time to brainstorm.
We want to know how to do well in difficult times.
Jesus wants us to know Him deeply in the difficult times.
If we are consistently slowing down to listen to Jesus, then we'll be able to encounter any number of fog llamas at different stages of our lives, and we'll be able to move with love and perseverance. It's ok if we don't know what's coming. We can walk in faithfulness and contentment because we are trusting that the grace of God is actually deep enough to prepare us for the hardest and unexpected moments we will encounter. The peace comes not from knowing what's next, but from Jesus walking with us through it all.
Like the old song says,
Many things about tomorrow, I don't seem to understand,
But I know who holds the future, and I know who holds my hand...
Jesus, with all the unknowns of life, I need you to give me grace for each moment. Today I trust you with all my coming moments.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen. He gave it the name Ebenezer, saying, “The Lord has helped us this far.”
-1 Samuel 7:12
🎶 Here I raise my... Ebenezer?, [what that means I've never known,]
And I hope by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home... 🎶
Well, those aren't the exact lyrics for the first line of that verse, but it doesn't matter either way, because if you've ever sung "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" in a church gathering, there's a chance your mind started wondering because you have no clue what an Ebenezer is (you are prone to wander, after all!). It's a really beautiful song, but you know I'm right. That second verse gets you every time.
I always imagine some guy powerlifting Scrooge, as like a sacrifice to the gods. But I don't believe that's helpful in my spiritual journey.
Recent versions of the song actually deal with this linguistic challenge by rewriting the lyrics completely: Now it's, "Here I raise my highest praises...."
And that's great and all. But that's not what Ebenezer means! Not fully at least.
Literally in Hebrew, Ebenezer means "stone of help." And that checks out. After a big battle due to a Philistine attack in the book of 1 Samuel, the tide turns and Israel prevails. This happens just after the Israelites choose to turn from idols and trust God once again. It's a big, complicated (and rather bloody) story, but at the end, Samuel the priest wants to mark the moment together with something that could be seen and remembered through the generations. So he puts a big rock in between a couple villages as a reminder of God was their rescuer.
So more metaphorically, ebenezer is really about using something physical to mark moments of God's touch in our lives, so that we don't forget. It's a reminder of our past with God to build faith in our future with God. And this is something that I've been thinking about, especially during this unique season where exhaustion and discouragement have a real hold a lot of people (me included, frequently!). I've been remembering how forgetful we are!
In the world of psychology, it is often said that 5 positive interactions in a relationship are required to counteract 1 single negative interaction. For every insult someone gets, they need 5 compliments to be built back up to neutral. Have you heard that before? That means that for some reason, the negatives have a disproportionate amount of power in our lives. A day of struggle can make for a bad week, even if all the other days are hopeful! We remember the empty moments far more than the beautiful ones. We're forgetful.
That's why disciples of Jesus need to raise ourselves some Ebenezers.
Seriously though. We're no longer nomadic, so we miss out on the way the early people of God marked special places of spiritual encouragement as they passed by them. And we're also becoming less and less tactile, with most of our pictures and memories stored on our phones and our digital media accounts instead of on our actual walls. And so we easily forget them. Stones of help aren't common.
This matters in spiritual formation because so much of our faith is just that.... faith, where we can't see much in the moment, yet we still trust in God's care, rescue, and goodness. So maybe we need more stones around us-- more ebenezers to remind us that God has "helped us this far."
Ebenezers can be journal entries written to look back on in moments of despair, reminding you of the times you saw God's provision and care when you needed it.
Ebenezers can be stories told over meals and mugs about that time when you sensed Jesus's love so close that it was undeniable.
Ebenezers can be like my custom lanyard that says "Coach Miller" that my runners gave me, which reminds me of one way that God has opened a door for me to care for my local community doing something I love.
I don't know what they may be for you. But I think we should probably do a better job of collecting "stones of help" and raising them up by keeping them in our views, keeping them in our minds, and looking for new moments to mark the beauty of where Jesus is working. Because when I see your stones, my faith gets strengthened too.
What ebenezers do you already have? What new ones are you making?
Jesus, help me learn to mark my moments with you, to remember them, and to allow others to see them, so that we will not lose heart.
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
A few months ago during a backyard discipleship circle, the old Amelia Bedelia books came up in our conversation. I think it somehow connected to the idea of offering grace to people, but I can't exactly remember. What I do remember is that I had read these famous books as a child many times, but couldn't recall the actual storyline at all. But it peaked my interest enough to revisit them a bit.
Amelia Bedelia is a somewhat antiquated children's picture book series about a housemaid who repeatedly misunderstands the tasks that her employer gives her, because she takes every word completely literally. So anytime a figure of speech is used, she interprets the words exactly as written. Obviously this leads to some funny situations. Her boss asks her to draw the drapes when the sun is shining, so she breaks out a sketchpad and gets to work. And when she is told to dust the furniture, she gets out the makeup kit and puts dust all over everything... just like he said to do!
It made me think about the complexities of communication and understanding in our world. How many times do we think we are being clear, yet we feel absolutely misunderstood? How many times do we read or hear something and get a very different impression than what the writer, speaker was trying to say? How many movie storylines rely on an overheard, out-of-context statement that gets misinterpreted? Before you know it, a wedding is off, a best friend is angry, or Shrek and Fiona almost ruin their future together!?!
Communication is hard. Especially when our human emotions get involved.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
We assume that people understand exactly what we're saying. And we assume that we know what others are saying. But words are often seen completely differently based on our social location, history, biases, and a number of other factors.
So why is this so important to disciples of Jesus?
Communication breakdowns are often the result of people moving far too fast, or allowing anger to take the place of understanding.
That means we need to learn to slow. down.
Slow down our minds. Slow down our hearts. And ask better questions.
Jesus' brother James watched Jesus closely for much of his life, which gives each of his written statements an added layer of authority. And to be a disciple, he writes, is to be quick to listen rather than to speak. And to not move toward anger or offense quite so fast, because we're seeking understanding.
How often, when you hear something that you don't like, is your first statement or thought a rebuttal rather than a question to try to understand better? Most of us are quick to take a word at its literal value (what we see as literal, anyway), rather than try to listen closer so that we are sure to understand where another is coming from.
Simply put, this requires leading with an attitude of grace. And if we've received grace upon grace in Jesus in our own lives, despite our own shortcomings, surely we can slow down enough to extend grace to others and be eager to listen and more slow to become angry. In fact, you'll find that the world opens up in new ways when your desire is to understand people with the eyes, ears, and heart of Jesus. You'll find that many times, people use vastly different words to communicate similar desires for the world... which then becomes a building block for reconciliation, partnership, and relationship. This can be true in church experiences, in politics, in culturally diverse interactions, and in community development. There is hope!
Amelia Bedelia's employers did extend grace to her once they learned that the real issue was a misunderstanding in communication-- but that was only after she baked an amazing pie for them. As Jesus people, let's go beyond that. Let's be eager to listen, to learn, and to extend grace with nothing else required (though who doesn't love a good pie!).
Jesus, lead me to depth in you that slows me down enough to be a grace-filled listener and understander of my neighbors.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God..
When was the last time you felt really limited in what you could do? Most of us probably don't need to think beyond the past 24 hours.
I'm not particularly skilled in embracing my limitations. Right now I'm typing at an agonizingly slow pace, thanks to a splinted left index finger that braced my fall during a creek hike Tuesday morning. If I don'rrt slow down and retype eveything, rvrty sintece would look like rhis. Dor real. Also, I have to keep my finger elevated to stop it from throbbing, so everyone that sees me right now looks up to the sky to see what I'm pointing at. Joke's on you, buddy.
This is a temporary and relatively minor issue in life. Yet for a little while, almost every single thing that I try to do is impacted by my limitedness. I'm acutely aware of all that I'm incapable of. In fact, I almost convinced myself not to write at all today because it would be slow and annoying and my capacity is less than what I'd prefer. And that's one of the temptations that comes along when we don't have a healthy understanding of our God-given limits: We don't do anything if we can't do everything. And therefore, we never learn one of the core tenets of discipleship: You don't accomplish your way into the kingdom of heaven. We trust the abundant grace of God through Christ, and we live out of that, at peace with what we can accomplish and at peace with what we can't. So when grace is leading us, we're ok with simply doing what we can, even if that doesn't feel like enough.
This frustration with our limits can impact us outwardly as well. Our church got a call from a homeless man experiencing a crisis this morning. I went to meet him and we were able to help him, but he needed far, far more than what we were able to do for him. I couldn't fix everything for this young man. I wanted to rescue him from a whole series of unfortunate circumstances and decisions. But I was limited in what I could offer. And because I sensed those limits right away, I almost decided to not even return the call. There's that temptation again that comes along when we don't have a healthy understanding of our God-given limits. If we can't do something really huge for people that need help, maybe we shouldn't do anything at all.
Maybe bumping up against our limits is how we learn to trust in God's goodness. Maybe when we fail or when we're incapable in some way, we have no option but to trust that God's salvation is available to us in the midst of our very obvious shortcomings. And maybe when we are reminded that we can't be another person's savior, it forces us to trust that Jesus can be... and that God can meet and provide for people in ways that we cannot and will one day make all things whole. This shouldn't discourage us from acts of compassion, but make us all the more willing to be compassionate, in spite of the fact that what we offer others may feel woefully inadequate.
Or maybe these are just random thoughts from a guy who can't type well, slightly hopped up on pain meds, and discouraged that we can't just snap our fingers and make all the pain in the world disappear. Because life can feel like a lot sometimes.
Either way, where do we go from here?
Today we look first at Jesus. We pray. and we do what we can, in love. Then we pray some more and thank God for the gift that it all doesn't depend on us. Then we get up tomorrow, fully aware of our own limits and God's limitless care, and we do it all over again. In faith.
Jesus, help me do what I can today, and trust you with all that I can't.