For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
-2 Corinthians 12:10
This week I was in a prayer meeting with other pastors in our family of churches across the region. We do this digitally once a month, and it's a gift to be a part of a community of women and men that understand the value of praying together. If I'm honest, my attitude can be less than stellar when I notice a meeting like that on my schedule the middle of my work morning. And almost always, I find the Spirit using those moments to restore my heart, and the time is deeply formative.
During our time of stillness and prayer, one of my fellow pastors gave voice to something I could relate to. I can't recite his exact words, but it was along the lines of this:
God, I'm tired. I'm so ready for this thing to be over. Our people are tired too.
And my capacity feels really limited.
But that also feels kind of good, because I believe what you say about weakness, and now I am forced to live in it.
Woof. I mean, Amen...
More and more lately, I'm interested in what makes Christianity truly radical. With the strong influence of Christian nationalism and civil religion right now, Christian faith can start to look identical to American values (independence, strength, power), just using Jesus-ish language to make it sound Christian. But that's not the truth of Jesus at all.
Jesus teaches us that his kingdom flips conventional values upside down. Instead of God blessing the powerful, he gives special favor to the poor. Rather than the religious elite being the ones Jesus favored, he wanted to be among those who openly acknowledged their sinfulness and brokenness. And rather than Jesus just making us strong and capable, he reminds us that when we're weak, we're in one of the best spiritual places to be. So if you feel really weak right now, congratulations!
We can go ahead and be honest that a statement like that kind of stinks. Who likes feeling weak? Seriously? Who? Not me, most of the time.
Until I remember the truth of the gospel. Then I realize that it's easy to state our "belief" in the Lord who says, my grace is sufficient for you. But it's hard to actually lean on God's grace and provision when push comes to shove. It's hard to sit in a place of exhaustion and weakness and say,
Finally! The opportunity has come for me to really be changed, Jesus. To really be used by you! To really learn what your presence is all about. I'm at the end of my rope. Yes.
And yet this part of the truth of eternal life. Faith in Christ is believing that good things, even wonderful things, happen not when we win, but when we're forced to surrender our ego and trust God. That is, of course, if we actually surrender. We'll be tempted to fight our hardest against admitting weakness, and tempted to try to grit our way through it. But when we do that, we miss out on what dependence on God and interdependence on one another does. It does make us strong, but in a new way. It gives strength that is no longer dependent on our circumstances. Strength to rest in the midst of struggle, and to stop hiding our true selves for fear of rejection. Strength to live in real oneness with Jesus because nothing else can sustain us.
I've had so many moments in pastoring, parenting, coaching, and just existing over the past year where I've felt exceedingly limited. And those moments, more than any other moments, have taught me about the beauty of Jesus that can never be taken away from me. It's created in me the capacity for fresh compassion, and the conviction that Jesus is eager to overflow the spaces that our self-sufficiency can't ever fill. And when Jesus fills us, we learn to receive love not by merit, but by grace. Finally, then, we can be disciples once again. Finally, then, we can see the kingdom of God for all the beauty that it is. When we're good and weak.
Jesus, I'm ok with being weak today. Brace my arms, legs, and heart, so that I might keep moving with you.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. [...]
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit...
Luke 4:1-2, 14
Last year, the season of Lent began on February 26th, 2020...
We had no idea, did we?
Lent is the 40 day journey of fasting and self reflection (excluding Sundays, which are always intended to symbolize resurrection) leading up to the Easter celebration. It's a time for stripping away, to join Jesus in his desert experience, and to trust God in new ways.
As such, people often "give up" something for lent, learning to rely on God deeply in the struggle, and find deep contentment in God's provision.
Two weeks into Lent last year, we found ourselves in a season of giving up that was beyond our control on a worldwide scale. It was unlike anything most of us have experienced. We gave up a lot of physical interactions and a lot of our usual church rhythms. We gave up predictability and relaxed moments in public. Many of us gave up health, and we gave up loved ones to this pandemic.
This year has been a living lent.
And today, we walk into into a new season of Lent (the Limited Edition official version). I'm not sure if I'm up for giving up any more. How about you?
Well, maybe we're in luck. Maybe, us silly humans, we miss the point of this whole thing. And maybe we need to give up the giving up.
As disciples of Jesus, "giving up" is never the end goal for its own sake. The giving up of lent is about being freed in new ways to follow Jesus. It's to release what hinders us, or what distracts us from God's goodness and trustworthiness. Fasting, according to Jesus and the full witness of scripture, is to bring our spirits into closer communion with God (Luke 4:4), and our hands into clearer expressions of compassion and justice (Isaiah 58). The purpose is the soul-shaping we receive from God, not what we release.
And although we intentionally practice this through self-initiated fasting, the same truth can apply even in times of a forced "giving up." All that we've experienced this year-- all the stripping down--is still an opportunity to receive deeper formation in Jesus, if we don't give up.
Unfortunately, when we are forced to give up some things, the temptation can be to give up all things. And I see that sort of resignation happen a lot. Sometimes I feel it in me.
A friend of mine has a child in prison. She can't visit him because of COVID. Something precious has been taken away. That could lead to giving up in despair, and doing nothing. But instead, being shaped by Jesus, it has led to writing letters- not just to her child, but to many others who are incarcerated without much encouragement or hope from the outside. Others are joining in. It's starting a compassion movement.
When we have to give something up, we can choose to give up completely, or to let Jesus transform us.
Luke says Jesus emerges from his days in the desert, "in the power of the Holy Spirit." What is power? It's a force that allows you to do things. Jesus wasn't simply full of the Holy Spirit anymore... he was going to be more powerful-- more effective-- than ever.
So this lent, maybe what needs to be released to God is the mentality that this lingering season is meaningless.
I know it feels difficult to lean into. But don't give up. Don't give up what it means to be in the Body of Christ, regardless of the form your church gatherings have right now. And don't give up the faith that Jesus will shape you into an effective ambassador of his kingdom, if you open yourself up to that soul-shaping work daily.
It's still winter. But spring is on the way. The barrenness of lent is the path toward the lushness of resurrection.
Jesus, draw me into a fresh intentionality of prayer, hope and compassion as I walk with you in the desert.
Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.
-1 Peter 3:15
I don't know if you watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. Many didn't, evidenced by the lowest ratings in 13 years. The game wasn't much to write home about, so if you missed it, you didn't miss much (except watching Tom Brady prove again how frustratingly dominant he is).
The one thing you did miss, however, was a bit of marketing genius by Reddit, an online messaging board that hosts conversations about anything you can imagine. A simple 30 second spot during the big game costs over 5 million dollars. Most of those commercials come and go, making people laugh a moment and then get back to their chips and guacamole. But in the middle of what looked like a car commercial, the broadcast fizzed out and for 5 seconds, the Reddit logo and a wordy written message appeared that took just a little too long to read. And then, just like that, it was gone.
It was a strange moment. It came and went so fast. We couldn't read it all. We weren't positive it was even supposed to happen. It felt like the super bowl broadcast had been hacked! So we and all the other viewers sat there, deciding if we'd eat our chips and move on, or if we had to learn more about what just happened. And of course with technology, people could pause, Tivo, rewind, or google their way to answers.
And they did. The conversation took off online, and people needed to know more. They wanted to know the message that was on their screen, and the they wanted to know the story behind the ad. Those five seconds created enough curiosity for millions of people to want to seek answers. And all of a sudden hoards of people were talking about Reddit.
A fraction of the budget of a normal ad, with an exponentially larger impact. Absolute brilliance.
Obviously, this made me think a lot about the way we live our lives and how we represent Jesus...
Our "marketing" has become increasingly irrelevant to many people that encounter Christianity. None of us are perfect, but there's a lot of clear hypocrisy out there when it comes to Christians not exhibiting the sort of priorities Jesus seemed to care about. Simply put, most Christians don't differ much from anyone else. Plenty of days that's true of me too, unfortunately. So people outside of faith simply tune us out.
Yet consider the deep DNA that Christ-followers have been given. We've been made new into something completely surprising, beautiful, and interesting. We've been freed from the need to be impressive, and welcomed into a community of grace, humility, and life. Old identities are gone and the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love (Paul said that). We have faith that Jesus is at work in us and our world... and we love well as a result of it.
Now, that's all just Christian jargon until it's acted on. Then and only then, real love becomes so interesting, so curious, so wonderful, that people cannot help but want to move toward it. If we learn the love that Jesus had-- love that transcends the boundaries that the rest of the world stays inside of-- then we will spark all sorts of wonderful curiosity.
Jesus told us the core expression of discipleship was this: being "known by our love" (Jn 13:35). This is the most low budget, brilliant marketing tool that God could ever come up with. It doesn't require big budgets or fancy programs. It doesn't require expert actors or background soundtracks that stir the emotions. It trusts that if the people of Jesus live the humble values of God's kingdom, others will seek them out and eventually want to buy in to movement. How beautiful is that? And how brilliant?
Showing genuine care for people who are not like you economically, religiously, racially, or nationally.... that makes people curious.
Giving and forgiving... that makes people curious.
Not needing money or perfect circumstances to live with joy and meaning... that makes people curious.
They will want to know more of the story that forms us.
So our role, then, is to pass through each others' lives-- sometimes for years, sometimes only a few seconds-- offering a simple message of genuine love in the name of Jesus. It's not about bringing attention to us. We simply help people find their place with us in God's kingdom. Our words and actions of everyday love make others want to take a closer look.
Because like Reddit, if you make people curious, they'll seek out the whole message. Even a few seconds can make a huge difference. How will you make people curious as you travel with Jesus?
Jesus, open my eyes to the little moments around me today to invite people toward your love.
Come to me, all who are thirsty, come to the waters [...]
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
This week as the snowstorm was fading away, I was out on trails doing a long run, as people do after snowstorms. I was mostly alone out there, but since the clouds were clearing, a few others were starting to emerge on the trails also, walking dogs, taking in the scenery, and getting some fresh air.
On one of the trails I saw a couple on a walk, probably in their mid-to-late seventies. As I approached them, at first I thought that they had lost something. They were both bending down reaching into the snow, about 20 feet from each other. As I passed the woman on the other side of the trail, she looked up at me with a mischievous smile, and an eyebrow slightly raised, without saying a word. And then I saw it. In her hand was a nicely formed snowball. I smiled big and ran on by, looking back over my shoulder just in time to see her whip a snowy fastball right at the back of her husband's head.
They were having a snowball fight! The joy and playfulness of that moment was contagious. I want to be like them when I grow up.
I'm learning more and more that joy is a gift that we can receive at any time. There's a temptation to believe that joy can't coexist with negative emotions. Disappointment, heartache, frustration and sorrow seem to be the opposites of joy, so when one is present, the other is lost. However, the Spirit of God constantly moves us beyond this dualistic experience of a world that is either/or. In fact, the beauty of God's kingdom is that none of our physical circumstances are ultimate barriers to God's love. The pain of this season is real. Nearly a half a million lives have been lost to COVID in our country alone. Depression and financial hardship has touched millions of others. Our church longs to gather physically again in relaxed ways. The need to grieve is real. But even this does not eclipse the opportunity for real joy.
Isaiah 55 is a breathtaking chapter in the Bible. It begins with an invitation to come, extended to travelers who are worn out. They are thirsty, hungry, tired, and penniless. But the invitation is to "seek the Lord" in the midst of it. When they do, they will find that the ways of heaven are higher than the ways of earth (v9) and that God will fill weary travelers with delight. God even wants to give mercy to those who have done wicked things in the past. Nothing and no one is beyond the reach of this gift that God is offering.
This message is so simple that it almost feels like cheating. Despite our circumstances, God invites us to find rest and nourishment in his presence, and then makes this promise as we emerge:
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
What joy, what whimsy! The hope-filled vision, once given to the people of Israel as they traveled toward the promised land, is now made true for all the people of God as they travel toward Jesus' kingdom.
It's supernatural, joy like that. It breaks the rules and expectations that the world has... just like two 75 year-olds having a laughter-filled snowball fight in the middle of the woods.
You are loved wildly, and the life of God within you is more powerful than the circumstances surrounding you. When you receive that gift, there is great joy to be had. Always. It doesn't matter if your body is full of arthritis, or if your kids are draining you of energy, or if your anxiety is heightened by the lingering pandemic, or if your job security is up in the air. Well, those things do matter.... they just can't stop God from bringing hydration and delight to your thirsty, hungry soul.
In heavy times, we need to hear of this sort of lightness. Don't let your hearts be troubled, Jesus told his disciples, believe in God; believe also in me.
Don't be afraid to embrace joy this week however and whenever God brings it. Invite God to give you a vision of the world bursting into song, with the trees applauding the performance. You don't need to earn the gift of joy, you need only receive it. God is for you.
Jesus, I want to come. Break down any barriers in my life that are keeping me from delighting in your faithfulness.
Then he said to Peter, “Follow me!”
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. [...]
When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
-John 21:19b-20a, 21-22
There's this little moment at the end of the Gospel of John that gets overlooked because it comes on the tail end of a major gospel story. Jesus has risen, and he has just had a deep heart-to-heart conversation with Peter, moving toward reconciliation after Peter's denial on the night of the crucifixion. It's raw and honest (and I'm not going to say much more since I'll be teaching on it in a few weeks), and it sets a major trajectory for the story of the early church. It's beautiful.
And then, as Peter is processing this fresh calling that Jesus has just given him (it's not an easy one!), he looks up and sees John walking a little ways behind them. And without thinking too much, he asks Jesus, "what about him???"
Jesus seems a little bit put off by this question. He gives a quick response about the fact that Peter's and John's futures are not going to be the same, and then quickly snaps Peter's focus back, saying: "What is that to you? You must follow me!"
I've been captured by that little exchange. Jesus is working on Peter's heart, but Peter quickly gets sidetracked by becoming overly concerned about someone else's journey. Jesus firmly brings him back. Listen Peter, you needing to figure everyone else out isn't helpful. Your job is to be a faithful disciple, with everything you have. So is his. And his path might look different. Don't get distracted from where I'm leading you.
Disciples of Jesus must learn to hold the balance of personal faith development in the context of shared community. Without personal, daily, honest pursuit of Jesus, we won't ever grow up. And without a community to journey and serve with, we won't learn to mature and be stretched in the complexity and beauty of relationships.
But too often this gets turned around to become spiritual rubbernecking. It's so easy these days to get obsessed with analyzing other people. We might do so out of curiosity, out of critique, as a personal deflection, or out of making sure that other people are getting it "right." But any of those things can make us lose sight of our own faithful discipleship, grounded in the spirit and teachings of Christ.
Is it possible that "concern for others" can sometimes just be an excuse to compare and critique?
In loving community, concern for one another looks like support, encouragement, compassion, and loving connection. Maybe if Peter had sat down with John after dinner and asked him, "brother, I want to hear where Jesus is leading you lately," Jesus would have encouraged him instead of chastising him.
But instead, Peter is just sitting there with Jesus, wondering aloud about the other guy.
Missing the point.
Community gets damaged when our spirits are full of comparing or critiquing other peoples' spiritual journeys. When we obey Jesus' words of "Hey you! Follow me!", that will actually lead us toward deeper love for our neighbors. But if our conversations with Jesus sound more like, "but what about him???", we will never be available to do the internal and external work that God is calling us toward. Each of us has a personal responsibility to faithfully hear and respond to Jesus, not to do it for others.
Of course, this doesn't mean that we never offer critique of anyone or anything. The point is how easy it is for us to lose track of Jesus in those moments. Also, there are those "soul friends" that God brings into our lives to create mutual growth. That's often where really good, really hard questions are asked, and it's an incredible gift. If we find ourselves without anyone like that, it's worth pursuing.
So today, in our conversations with Jesus, maybe these are the questions that we ask:
-Who have I been concerned with in unhelpful ways that I need to release?
-How are you calling me to follow you right now, Jesus?
Lord, release me from my temptation to externalize, so that I can faithfully follow you with all I am today.
Image Credit: Brick Testament
"I lift up my eyes to the mountains--
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth. "
One of the most beautiful things about the Bible is how it shows the ongoing movement of God's people. They understand God's character and God's heart in new ways as the centuries go by. Their faith flexes and changes as they see more and more of God, culminating in Christ.
In some of the Psalms, we see a prevailing image that reflects one of the earliest understanding of deities. Ancient near eastern "gods" were all understood to live on high mountains. Thunder was a sign of their movement and voice, and they were shrouded in mystery. Add that to the many times that God literally met Moses on mountains, and how Jerusalem is built on a giant hill, and you can understand why a lot of Hebrew terminology developed about God living "up there" on the hills and mountains. This view of the gods continued to be pervasive in Greek and Roman culture as well.
But Jesus comes onto the scene to reveal that God isn't somewhere "up there." God doesn't dwell in the temple. God doesn't dwell on top of Samaritan mountains or the high hills of Jerusalem (John 4:21). God is with us everywhere in spirit and in truth, in Jesus. Our language is simply an attempt to describe an indescribable spiritual reality. God's not actually sitting up there in the sky (well, at least not more than everywhere else!).
In light of all this, through all our modern years, have you noticed that this image of "looking up" has continued to persevere? Yes, we may bow our heads in prayer, but have you ever been alone with with God, and just felt drawn to lift up your face, and look "heavenward?"
There's something to that. Now, more than ever, it's time to embrace the practice of "lifting our eyes up to the hills" to remember that our help comes from the Lord. The Psalmist urges his listeners to change their view... to shift their physical and spiritual posture to one that is open.
We are in a world of keeping our heads down- have you noticed that? Bodies are hunched over while eyes and hearts are buried in phones. Eyes are down as people pass one another on the sidewalk and grocery stores (you cannot spread COVID through meaningful eye contact).
But when we look up, our posture changes. After the eyes and head lift, the rest of our body follows. The shoulders roll back, the ribs and heart extend out. Our bodies are less tense, and more open. More open to the world around us, and more open to God's grace over whatever is on our phone or stuck on repeat in our minds. We are also more open to literally notice the hills and mountains around us and delight in God's creative goodness. We are more open to notice the people around us and delight in God's image in them, and act with mercy. And as we keep looking up and up, we are more open to call out to Jesus, so that we can be transformed toward his character of love and compassion to others.
That's not a very common posture these days, is it?
At the end of the day, when we are looking down, our thoughts and attitudes often revolve around the self. We are tempted to be absorbed by things much smaller than God's kingdom. When we look up, we enter into a place to receive and give. There is a newfound vulnerability. There is an opportunity to notice something fresh and new, and to trust God as we step toward it.
Sometimes the simplest practices are the most helpful. Today, I encourage you to pray with your eyes up, arms out, and posture open. Ask God, and no one else, to be your hope and your rescue. Rest in the care of the creator.
And when you encounter others, lift up your eyes. See in them the beauty and complexity of God's image. Be filled with compassion and kindness.
I can't imagine a better descriptor when someone asks what we're like, than being known by this little image of Psalm 121.
"She lifts her eyes up."
Jesus, lift my eyes toward your hope. It's so easy to get distracted.
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.