We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you.
- 2 Corinthians 6:11
Writer Anne Lamott recently wrote about a conversation with a stand up comedian friend of hers. He told her that when people meet him, most of the time they are actually meeting his bodyguard.
I'm thinking about that this morning.
The bodyguard is the self in front of the real self. It's the first layer of defense to the vulnerable soft skin of our humanity. Consider bodyguards for a moment. They travel with celebrities, going ahead of them and behind them and making sure that no harm will come to them. But they can also stick too close, making it difficult for authentic interactions with others. The bodyguard gets in the way of vulnerability and creates a barrier to honest, personal connection.
We all have a bodyguard self that walks along with us and comes to the front in different scenarios. We all have moments where our truest self is held back a bit, for protection or ego or comfort or convenience. There are so many reasons. The bodyguard self sometimes sees things in very black and white terms, because the messy gray areas of life are complicated and require more in-depth connection with others. The bodyguard can offer a quick label of, "good or bad" and immediately direct us to treat people accordingly.
I think times of exhaustion and upheaval can change how much our bodyguard shows up in our interactions. In trauma or pain, our bodyguard can move to front and center. It smiles at people, creates small talk, and moves on. And the vulnerable spirit behind is kept unaffected.
But pain and heartache can also break down our bodyguard, sending it away. Our souls have already been laid bare; keeping up appearances is far too much work. In our pain we learn to be at peace with our vulnerability, imperfection, and losses. We let others in.
What has this year done to your bodyguard? The pandemic, the isolation, the addiction to social and news media, and the added stressors of daily life can build up or break down our walls of protection. Is your bodyguard more or less active on this side?
Let's be clear: vulnerability isn't appropriate for every interaction. Not everyone needs to be invited into our interior lives, and there are times that it is healthy to protect ourselves from emotionally unsafe environments. But if that is the constant default, life will be so very exhausting, and we will live at arm's length from others. Jesus invites us into something better.
The Church (or the Society of Jesus as I like to think of it) should be a place where bodyguards are increasingly unnecessary in our lives. If we believe, as Jesus told Paul, that God's grace is sufficient, then the doors of our true selves should be able to open to one another. Imagine a church gathering where everyone has a bodyguard standing in front and behind them. Imagine attempting to love one another well, listen to one another, and encourage one another... when you can't even really see the one you're speaking with. What an unfortunate picture! And yet, the experience of so many is that church is the place where honesty and vulnerability are more dangerous than anywhere else. What a tragic failure in God's family.
When Paul writes to the Corinthian church, he shares with them that he and his companions "opened wide our hearts to you." I find that phrase to be infinitely beautiful, and something to always aspire to.
The more secure we become in how infinitely loved we are, the more we have the ability to open wide our hearts to others. And my goodness, we are loved so infinitely.
It's possible that traveling behind your bodyguard has become your primary way of life. And perhaps, Jesus is inviting you to step forward with others in a new way. Maybe it's just one person, maybe it's a smaller group, or maybe it's learning to interact with a new layer of authenticity with people as a whole.
But to move toward a culture where we have honest, transformational interactions, we have to be a part of establishing it for others as well. Consider the little statements you make, the small assumptions or labels you might use when talking about things. Do your words make others bring out their bodyguards when interacting with you? Today, let's use words of graciousness with hearts wide open, so that those around us can give their bodyguard some time off.
Jesus, help me live in the freedom of your grace today, while truly opening my heart to others as well.
How many are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures!
You had to know that a cicada post was coming one of these weeks, right?
If you live in the mid-atlantic region like many of us, then chances are you have experienced cicada mania this month. (similar to Beatlemania, but without the great hair). And if you live in a different part of the country, then it's likely you've heard the news stories. Billions of Brood X periodical cicadas have emerged from the ground to take up residence in our... everywheres. They've been underground for nearly two decades, and after 17 years they want to experience all that the above ground world has to offer. And they are getting all up in our business.
They aren't here to hurt you. Some of you are terrified of them (that's ok) and some of you are fascinated by them (that's ok too) and some of you are collecting them in buckets and dying their empty shells blue with berry juice (that's a little excessive, kids). But if you live anywhere near trees or lawns, they're hard to miss. And then there's the sound. A constant humming is always noticeable around the clock right now. Sometimes it's so loud around our house that it sounds like a distant ambulance forgot to turn off its siren. Their music defies labels. It feels like it's always building. There are choruses within the choruses, pulsing in many parts, yet one sound.
They've spent 17 years living underground, just waiting for these 6 weeks of flying, mating, laying eggs.... and singing. If you waited so long to emerge, wouldn't you want to sing around the clock as well?
It's as if the cicadas know that they are fully alive, with a short time to live, and they refuse to live silently.
Socrates was really into cicadas, at least according to the (likely fictionalized) conversations Plato wrote about his former teacher. In Plato's Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates makes a note of the spot that his friend has picked for their conversation: “How lovely and perfectly charming the breeziness of the place is! And it resounds with the shrill summer music of the chorus of cicadas.”
Socrates believed the lore that cicadas were of divine origin. They were once human beings so filled with delight that they sang and sang, neglecting food or water, until they died and returned as these messengers. They continued to sing constantly and bring a report back to the Muses of the most honorable humans who were concerned with divine and noble thoughts and actions. In the above conversation, Socrates is intentional to speak of valuable and honorable things with his partner within earshot of the cicadas so that “perhaps they will be pleased and give us the gift which the gods bestowed on them to give to men.”
That's super weird. I don't believe any of that.
But this idea that the cicadas sang constant praise to (g)od, and bragged about the beauty of other humans... that's interesting to me. What if I heard the cicadas in that spirit? What if it inspired me to do the same?
What if I lived like my time here is brief and valuable and worth making noise in all the right ways?
Though I believe that I will live forever with Jesus at the renewal of all things, I still long for these years of my life, birthed out of the dust and before returning to the dust... to be a resurrection song, much like the cicadas. I want it to be bursting with sound.
I want to be so aware of the fragile gift of life and the sacredness of those around me that I am constantly singing praises to God, and constantly reporting publicly about the beauty that I see in the people as they bear God's image. Why do we have such a tendency to do the opposite of both of those things? Complaints about life and complaints about others can dominate our waking hours.
Far too often, like the story Jesus tells of the seed that fell among thorns, worry and stress rob us of the joy of singing freely. We become distracted and forget the gift of life that we've been given and the gift of salvation we have in Christ. In our stress we become more critical of others instead of more complimentary of the beauty we see in them (there is beauty in everyone). And we remain far too quiet in this brief time we're given, instead of singing our hearts out (note: extroverts and introverts will practice this is vastly different ways).
This may be an odd image for you today. But what would it look like for you to hear the constant hum, or see the cicadas flying around you, or simply notice the abundant sunshine of the approaching summer.... and begin praising God more fully than ever before for the gift of life? How might that transform how you relate to your neighbor, your brother, your child, or your coworker? This week, let's delight that Jesus has given us new life, and let's love accordingly.
Jesus, stir my spirit to rejoice in you and speak in praise of others.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
This past Sunday was Pentecost. And I forgot.
Let me say that again. As a pastor who finds real value in the church calendar, I forgot to even mention that this was Pentecost Sunday and why it's so important! I thought about it several times the week before but it never made it into my notes, and my message wasn't specifically on that theme... and I just outright overlooked it. Maybe it was that I was distracted, or I wasn't feeling overly charismatic, teaching alone in my basement studio (thankfully for the last time!). I don't know. Either way, though, it's horribly embarrassing.
And now it's got me thinking.
Pentecost is the day that the Spirit came down on the early Church. The disciples were all together, trying to figure out what was next, and waiting on Jesus. First came the sound. It was like a blowing wind (contrary to cinematic depictions, Acts 2 never says that there was actually any wind... only a sound like blowing wind). Then a flame-like substance entered the room, separated, and came to rest on each disciple. The Spirit gave them each the gift of unique languages, and they began to speak of God's beauty in the native tongues of the diverse people who were nearby. Those people were astounded at hearing their own native tongue giving praise to a God they didn't even know! And more people trusted Jesus.
A Christian worldview that values the Holy Spirit as a fully equal member of the Trinity (the wildest member, I should add), understands that there's something Pentecost must teach us over and over again. And it's about openness.
The disciples had no idea what to expect when Jesus told them to hang tight and keep alert for his coming gift. But we can assume they didn't expect a flash course in multilingual communication. Yet look at what God did through this surprising moment! And it wasn't just a moment. It's worth noting that we are never told that the Spirit left them afterwards.
That's because the Spirit never left. Ever.
James Smith, in his book Thinking in Tongues, writes about a pentecostal attitude being one that "makes room for the unexpected" with God. It is linked deeply to an attitude of receptivity. If I want to interact with the Holy Spirit, I'm going to need to be receptive to surprise and expect the unexpected. In other words, I have to acknowledge that God might actually work in new ways.
We are slowly emerging from a whole year of unexpectedness. The things we had come to expect changed dramatically in our work, family, and social lives.
Now, as we begin to look up to the year ahead, how open will we be? What unexpected or surprising things did God teach you? What things were revealed in your life? What new directions or priorities are emerging? Where is Jesus challenging your assumptions of what life must consist of?
Every disciple of Jesus would do well to become a little more Pentecostal this season. Our world is being remade right now, and Jesus will want to teach each of us something new as we participate in it. Is your desire to go back to the way things were, or is your desire to listen for the Spirit's sound and receive whatever surprising direction that it may lead you in?
Far too many Christians have lost space for God teaching them something new. They are sure of everything, and as such, miss the sound of the wind when it blows. They have decided what the rest of their lives should look like (which is often just identical to basic American values) and struggle to imagining Jesus teaching or sending them somewhere fresh and new new. It's quite possible to say we follow Jesus, but in reality we've already mapped it all out ourselves.
Today we take a moment to ask ourselves how much room we are willing to make for God's unexpectedness.
What if the Spirit is blowing you toward new caring relationships in you neighborhood?
What if the Spirit is blowing you toward a new career?
Toward a healthier rhythm of life that honors your limits?
Toward adopting a child?
Toward learning about a different culture so that you can love better?
Toward giving a ton of my money away to those in need?
Toward initiating new spiritual friendships?
Toward crossing a cultural boundary that you've never entered into before?
Toward a new deeper experience of God's grace toward you?
Are you open? Are you available?
Or did you forget that the surprising Spirit came down at Pentecost, like I did this week?
Jesus, I commit to making room for whatever surprises your Spirit may have for me. Help me be receptive to your Kingdom today.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Content Warning: Image of really ugly feet.
I run far. And sometimes it takes a toll on my body. I've come to peace with the fact that becoming a foot model is no longer a viable option. I've got a perpetually black toenail, things are a little asymmetrical, and I have been told by those closest to me that they love me more easily when I wear socks.
But my ugly feet tell a story. They tell a story of the adventures that I've been on and the places I've been able to go. And in a very unique way, that makes them sort of beautiful (well, at least to me. My wife remains unmoved).
One of the images that continues to pop up throughout the scriptures is about feet. Multiple times in the Old Testament, and then again in the letter to the Romans, is the phrase "beautiful feet". And what exactly is it that makes feet beautiful? They bring good news. They carry people to proclaim peace and wholeness. They offer the hope of a God who loves them and a Jesus who redeems them.
Beautiful feet are feet that move people to enact God's love in the world.
The legendary story about Mother Teresa has now been confirmed. Many people who spent time with her noticed her deeply deformed feet, but never knew the story behind it. In the leper colony where she served in Kolkata, India, there was always a need for shoes. Boxes of used shoe donations were regularly shipped to the community, but not always enough to go around. Mother Teresa had made it a point to distribute all of the nicest and best fitting shoes to everyone in her care. When those needs had been met, she would wear whatever pair was left over, even if they were too small or broken down. Over the years, her feet began to be misshapen by her radical love for her sick neighbors.
She had beautiful, holy feet that expressed God's love for the poor.
All feet tell a story. Maybe not in some visual way, like the examples above. But they hold the memories of where we've gone and what we've done. And there is a new page that is added to that story daily.
As disciples, it's worth asking ourselves: What story are my feet telling these days? Where are they taking me, and what posture am I holding? What impact is my presence having on others? What story are my hands and heart telling as well? Have I embraced my identity of a beloved child of God, leading my hands and feet and words to be good news and care for others? Is the story my body tells one of good news, or something else?
Of course this image moves beyond the places we walk. Isaiah could have just as easily said, "how beautiful are the mouths of those who use their words to build up," or "how beautiful are the hearts of those who long for every person to have enough," or "how beautiful are the hands that clasp together to pray for one's enemies."
It's been a long year of isolation for many, but we are slowly emerging. Maybe your feet haven't traveled very far. But there are many ways that we can express God's good news of compassion and redemption these days. We can type. We can call. We can give. We can listen. We can walk.
Those things may hurt a little do so, because they often require some sacrifice. It can feel uncomfortable to giving up our comfort or our time for the sake of active love and obedience to Jesus. It feels costly to not participate in the tribalism of our world for the sake of loving each person and being true to Jesus. Sometimes you'll feel the impact, and you'll feel worn down.
But the story being written with each action of Christ-centered love Is the most beautiful, wonderful story ever told. Your feet tell a story. Where have they been? Where are they going? What is the news they bring to others?
Don't despair. You're not alone. Jesus walks with us in our attempts to express his peace and rescue. Our feet are not intended to lead, but to follow. We need only to remain connected, humble, and willing to be people of good news moment by moment.
Your imperfect feet/hands/heart/mind can be used in absolutely beautiful ways. Keep believing.
Jesus, posture my heart and hands today so that my simple actions might help others know Your good news.
...seek, and you will find...
- Jesus, Matthew 7:7
What is The Seeker?
1970s: Hit song by The Who
1990s: Target audience for the Church Growth Movement
2000s: The Quidditch member who tries to catch the Golden Snitch
Always: Someone looking for something.
Let's think about seeking for a minute.
I remember getting started in ministry around 20 years ago on the tails of the "seeker sensitive" church movement. Churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback realized that if they focused their energy on making a really fun and compelling church service every Sunday, then they would attract "seekers." A seeker was someone outside of the church but who was looking for God in some way. The seeker sensitive movement really grew. Churches put massive amounts of money into rock band worship teams and drama ministries. The lights got turned down low, and people showed up by the thousands for the Sunday morning experience. There was a boom in church attendance.
A few years later, there was a dark side that was discovered. While many people loved showing up to church (and even made a commitment to Jesus), few had become changed in any real way as the years passed. Discipleship was not the focus, so people had a great time but didn't look much more like Jesus than when they started.
Another thing happened with the whole "seeker" movement. When Christians decided that they wanted to attract "seekers," their choice of wording created a philosophical line of separation. Those folks out there are seekers. But not us. We've found it, and we're set.
If we want to become more like Jesus, we're going to have to embrace a different mentality about seeking. Perhaps we need to revisit the basics of discipleship in the Bible. It appears that those who met Jesus learned that seeking is a way of life, not a one time journey.
Jesus says to disciples in the book of Matthew,
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Seeking is a way of life.
Jesus says of himself in the book of Luke,
For the son of God came to seek and save the lost.
Seeking is a way of life.
Peter writes to the early church in one of his letters,
For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.
Seeking is a way of life.
A helpful question for every disciple, then, is this:
Do I see myself as a seeker every day? What exactly am I seeking?
I'm trying to learn to be a disciple. I've been working at it for a few decades. And each day, I want to wake up seeking God's heart in all my interactions. Each day, I want to seek out the presence of Jesus so that I don't lose track of what matters. Each day, I want to seek the kingdom of God so that I can participate in real actions of compassion and mercy.
We can't sit on our arrival, because Jesus is still moving. And he has a habit of showing up at unlikely places and among unlikely people.
There is finding along the way, certainly. But there's more to discover of God's kingdom. There is more joy to be had. There is more to learn about how to love our neighbors. There is more healing to receive and offer.
So each day, I want to be a seeker.
Until I die, the seeking will never end.
And each day, I am assured that Jesus is seeking after me too, like a mother whose kid gets distracted and runs all over the place at a carnival. And I know that if God is seeking after me and I am seeking after God, we will find each other frequently, and I will be able to live in grace and with purpose.
This week, let's be a Church of seekers. Let's pursue what is good and true and never think we are done with the pursuit. Let us be known as people who seek what is most beautiful, pure, merciful, and true... every day. And let us do our seeking in grace and freedom, for what we've already found in Jesus changes everything.
Jesus, help me embrace the identity of a seeker today, listening for your spirit and looking for your movement.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The leader of the band is tired
and his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
and his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt
to imitate the man
I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band
I grew up in the eighties, but in many ways I am a cultural child of the sixties and seventies, thanks to my parents' influence. In my adult life, I find myself drawn over and over again to the music of my childhood- James Taylor, CCR, John Denver, Simon and Garfunkel, and countless others. There is a peace about their music that connects with me these days. This weekend I was streaming a station in our living room, introducing my daughter to this genre. But when Dan Fogelberg's single Leader of the Band played, it stopped me in my tracks.
I'd heard it so many times in childhood, but never in the way I did this weekend. It was written as a tribute to the artist's father, reflecting on his father's life and how it continued to impact his own music.
But as happens with good art, I heard the song through a new lens this time. Perhaps it's worth a 4 minute pause to listen to it yourself in a quiet space:
Go ahead and listen in, and then come back to this.
Did you hear it? How it speaks to a life of discipleship?
Sometimes I do wonder if God gets tired. Yes, I know that on the biggest theological level, God does not grow weary. Yet I also see the heaviness in Jesus in the gospels. The spark of passion for the kingdom is often tempered with exhaustion as his disciples struggle to grasp how big and beautiful and transformative it all is. They want to follow, but selfishness, violence, fear, and pride often get in the way. As Jesus says, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Yet Jesus continues to trust the imperfect ones to play the music of his kingdom. That's all of us who are children of God but don't always live up to the family heritage. He breathes his spirit into them, loves them, sends them.
I love the image of Jesus as a master musician, even though my cover version of the songs can't compare to the original. But what I found profound about the song this week was that the artist did not dwell on his feelings of inadequacy nearly as much as the gift the father gave him. Yes, the attempt to imitate was very imperfect, yet he still new his life was a living expression of the legacy he received.
Today's encouragement isn't for the victorious. It's for the ones slogging a bit right now, who feel like they just can't quite live up to Jesus' example even though they try. It's for those who are walking through the grey times of exhaustion and might be at risk of forgetting their identity as the beloved of God. It's for those who have forgotten that the spirit of God flows through us and we have received it to share it with the world. It's for those of us who, as we get older, realize that who we become and how we love is infinitely more valuable than what we accomplish or how we are perceived by others.
I cannot count the many times that my own life has been "a poor attempt to imitate" Jesus. Yet a child of God I continue to be, and so do you. And both of us are invited to continue the mission of Jesus, sharing his love, grace and rescue with the whole world.
His blood runs through my instrument
and his song is in my soul....
I am the living legacy to the leader of the band...
Is there any more beautiful way to see our lives in Christ? I pray that today, the song of Jesus might be in the very depths of your soul. And that you would walk forward full of grace and wonder, knowing that you are a living legacy of the love of God.
Jesus, I trust you to keep giving grace as I try to imitate you. Help me express your kingdom through my life.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
- David, Psalm 51:12
The spring migration is almost here. Our backyard is near a state park forest, giving us wonderful access to wildlife. As the warblers and other song birds move south during the springtime, dozens of species pass directly through our yard. It's exciting to see the new and interesting colors that flutter through our bushes and rest at our feeders. I count them and identify them as best I can, coffee in one hand each morning, binoculars in the other.
Of course, we also have species that are around every day of the year. Common birds like wrens, cardinals, and blue jays.
I keep peanuts out a lot, a favorite of the blue jays, so they are almost constantly in the yard. Oftentimes, I look right past them, focusing on less common birds.
I've been thinking about that this week. Because the blue jay is a spectacular sight, with electric blues and dotted wingbars.... if you don't take it for granted.
I remember several years ago in California when I finished my masters degree, how thrilled I was to catch a glimpse (and photo -->) of a California Scrub Jay. This special, exotic bird was amazing! Do you know where I found it? Perched on the roof of my hotel, and hopping around the parking lot. Why? Because they are all over the place out there. No one else leaving the hotel even noticed them.
Hmm. Both beautiful birds. Both overlooked by those who see them most often. Why?
Why is it that the more common something is in our lives, the less likely we are to notice its beauty?
This is more tragic than one might think, because recognizing beauty is one of the gateways to transformation. The less we notice beauty around us, the less transformed we become as people. Let's move this toward Jesus.
Given this truth, it's not hard to see that the longer we've been around Jesus, the more common the grace and rescue and salvation of Jesus becomes in our lives. And the more common it is, the less we are changed by its breathtaking beauty.
We take it for granted. We cease to be thrilled with how magnificent and freeing the love of God truly is. We hear about it with our church, we sing about it in our songs. It's right in front of us, so what is common actually becomes commonplace.
But being common doesn't mean it isn't breathtaking. And when we miss the beauty of God's rescue, we miss the chance to walk away changed a little more each day.
This is especially likely in times of stress, disappointment, and sadness.
We've grown tired this season. Possibly, we've stopped noticing (or seeking out) the beauty of Jesus in our lives. It can quickly become background noise in the exhausting barrage of current events, family responsibilities, job and school transitions, and pixelated distractions. Jesus invites us to slow down, look up, and be filled with wonder and joy again at God's gift of life. This does not remove us from the pain and struggles of life and our world. Remarkably, it actually equips us to deal with it all in the right spirit, so that anger or despair doesn't take root. You will walk away changed when you linger on the beauty of God's grace for you. Every relationship you have will be healthier. Every situation you encounter will draw your mind toward God's redemptive hope.
King David lost his way many times, and had to cry out to God to restore the joy of his salvation... because he had lost sight of it altogether. He knew he needed God's recalibration.
Years after his own conversion, Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, "thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!" (2 Cor 9:15). He knew that sitting with the beauty and wonder of God's rescue will always take our breath away if we don't overlook it. It will always lead us toward transformation, because we know we are loved that much. It is beyond what words can even describe.
So lately I've been pausing at the wonder and beauty of the blue jay. I think it's even more beautiful than the scrub jay. It's easy to overlook, since it's around every day. But I'm letting it remind me of the joy of my salvation, letting it lead me to be freshly inspired to love God and love others, because God's love for me is beautiful beyond words.
What's your thing? What is both beautiful and commonplace in your life that can remind you of God's beautiful everyday grace? See it fresh today.
Jesus, open my eyes to the joy of your salvation today. Set me free to live out the radical love of your kingdom.
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
The word "conviction" has several meanings. It describes a declaration of guilt by a jury, and it also can describe a deeply held belief. Additionally, if something brings conviction to us as disciples of Jesus, it means that we are struck with an awareness that something in our life needs to change. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings conviction in this way, but the Church community has a responsibility to help each other walk in light of that conviction, so that we live out what we believe.
I rarely write about specific events for several reasons. First, there is injustice and suffering somewhere every single day. How does one even decide which are worthy of increased reflection? They all are. So I tend to write/speak in larger themes and principles, letting people put things together themselves and allow space for the Spirit to clarify. Specifically, I rarely write directly about racial issues because they are complex and tone is difficult to convey. Also, I know that I will likely misstep in my attempts, since I write from my own cultural bias and blindspots. I've sought to take a posture of learning and listening for the past 2 years. And wow, I have a lot to learn. But this post isn't about my journey. It's about how we look at what happened Tuesday evening, and why it's worthy of reflection in a weekly email that is focused on spiritual formation.
I write today because the United States and much of the US Church (in this case, I mean white culture church) have had a lack of convictions, in different ways.
On Tuesday, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. Though many unarmed black people have lost their lives to excessive force in law enforcement, few have been held accountable for their crimes. Conviction is too rare an event. This is a justice and equality issue. This is a compassion issue. This is a human rights issue. Jesus cares deeply about every person who bears the image of God (meaning, every person). When a life is treated with less value because of skin color, or when a death sentence is enacted on the street because of minor or major crimes committed, it is wrong, and our discipleship requires that we do not simply look the other way in our discomfort or privilege.
Predominately white culture churches have struggled with convictions in this area. For centuries, Christian faith was unquestionably used to exploit and justify the abuse of black lives. It's difficult now for us to understand that we still have work to do if personally, we feel we work hard to love the person in front of us as equals. Clearly, we're doing our part, right? But if we dismiss how much more work there is to do, how much pain is still felt on a larger level, we fail in our discipleship to honor the beauty of black Christianity and understand the deep pain that has come from being mistreated and misunderstood. We have to listen and trust how big of a deal this all is.
So just like in our justice system, Christianity in white culture churches have often displayed a lack of conviction over the pain expressed from our brothers and sisters of color. But that pain is truly valid and worthy of attention. We need the conviction that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. We need the conviction that there are systems in play that aren’t fixed simply by individual kindness, but by together working toward solutions to deeply ingrained systems of injustice.
There was a sense of relief and hope, but fresh pain, within the black community when the verdict was announced. If we are one body, then white Christians will seek to understand why this was such an important and excruciating experience for our sisters and brothers of color. You might not grasp it, but are you seeking to learn? Are you seeking to hear the cries of your brothers and sisters, rather than simply hearing the news and moving on?
This is a time for us to reflect on our responses, and invite God to strengthen our convictions of love and empathy.
There is SO. MUCH. PAIN. I was emotional when I heard the verdict. But I was far more emotional when I saw the tears of friends who are personally impacted by such a verdict. That reminds me that the exhaustion is so deep, so long, that I can't understand it. But I can love and advocate.
New convictions can bring healing and hope to a more just country and a more unified church. New convictions can lead to deep changes, in our country and in our faith communities.
I invite you to keep this in mind as you move ahead this week: Jesus calls his disciples (the body of Christ) to be one, and calls us to be known by love. When we put those two concepts together, we must have the humility to learn what love looks like to the rest of the body, rather than simply assuming we get it.
So this week is a chance to reflect on what God can grow in us and in our world during seasons of conviction. I think I'll leave it there for today, with one final universal caveat:
As we think about verdicts or any other issues of judgment and justice, vengeance still has no place in the Christian faith. Desiring vengeance is different than justice, and it is antithetical to the heart of Jesus, even in the face of injustice. Restorative justice looks at repairing the harm done to those mistreated, rather than desiring the suffering of more people, even guilty ones. We release that emotion to God, rather than being poisoned by the need for retributive violence.
Jesus, this all might be really uncomfortable for me to acknowledge. But give me empathy, humility, and the willingness to listen well today.
But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes.
-1 Corinthians 8:1b-3
"You know what thinking is? Thinking is just a fancy word for changing your mind."
"I will not change my mind."
"Then you will die stupid."
-One of my favorite lines from Doctor Who (I have several hundred others as well).
Multiple times throughout his teachings in the gospels, Jesus asked his disciples, "what do you think?". He wanted to invite them to thoughtfully considering what they were hearing. He wasn't particularly asking for their opinion as much as asking them to sit with why a story made them uncomfortable or elated.
Jesus was teaching them to always keep the door open to a new understanding of God and others. This was certainly so that they could understand God's heart. But it was also so that they would learn the value of humility. This has become a real problem in much of the American church.
Over the decades I've heard a lot of messaging about how important it is for Christians to have "strong convictions." I certainly have strong convictions about a number of things regarding my faith and life. But is it possible that this emphasis on holding and defending our convictions can actually make us rigid and unteachable? As if the more confident we are in our knowledge, the less able we are to learn?
As a church, we lean deeply into discipleship. Discipleship means, at its simplest core, apprenticeship. A disciple is someone who is constantly learning from Jesus in new ways. If we can't think in new ways and consider new things, we have a discipleship problem.
Thinking well takes work. Many of us believe that we're thinking when we hear new ideas or stories that challenge how we see reality. But much of that time, rather than actually thinking critically, what we're doing is figuring out the most effective way to reject other ideas, and defend our own. Inside our heads, we subconsciously argue, dismiss, rationalize, or judge. But thinking well somehow gets lost.
What if, instead of linking thinking to winning arguments or defending our correctness, it was linked closely with the concept of love?
Paul warned the Corinthians that if they thought they got it all figured out, they almost certainly had huge blind spots in their lives. The same is true of us. But if our goal is to learn how to love God (and others, as an extension) really well... then that's what is significant in God's eyes. LOVE > KNOWLEDGE. Why? Because our knowledge is always limited, but love will always lead us toward God.
The Christ followers in my life with the greatest wisdom, maturity, and spiritual depth share several things in common. They hold their faith with great humility. They are always open to learning new things and calling their assumptions into question. And they are not afraid of changing their minds as they keep their eyes on Jesus.
When we first love God and approach knowledge through that lens, we will learn to reject those tendencies to argue, dismiss, rationalize, or judge.
Instead, we will:
Wonder what we might be missing.
Evaluate our own resistance.
Ask what God's love and care would look like.
When love leads us, we long to understand. We long to be changed. We long to learn from another's experience.
Personally, my mind has continued to grow and change over the years as I've tried to allow love to become more significant than my supposed knowledge.
I've learned that God is bigger than I previously allowed for. I've learned racial injustice is more widespread and horrific than my personal bias had taught me. I've learned that people who have done terrible things at the worst moment of their lives are capable of more good than I would ever have given them credit for. I've learned that God's faithfulness is not dependent on me figuring out every mysterious detail in the Bible.
When love and humility lead us toward Jesus, Jesus teaches us new things about his kingdom. But even that new knowledge won't ever be the most important part of our formation. The heart that is formed in us during the process will be. We will not have all the answers, and we don't need to. But Jesus is faithful to help us learn the way of love as we seek to be open to all that is real and true, even if it's difficult.
What is Jesus asking you to really think about this week?
Jesus, your presence is a safe place to be. Therefore, let me be unafraid to listen, learn, and think in new compassionate ways today.
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
I'm 4 years older than Jesus ever was.
I've been thinking about that this week. Thinking that he died so very young. Have you ever thought about the tragedy of that truth?
Some may be uncomfortable with that statement because well, Jesus had to die at exactly that place and time, so thinking about Jesus getting old is ridiculous. Maybe that's right. Or maybe, if people had been more receptive of the good news of God's kingdom of forgiveness and wholeness, things could have gone differently... at least for a little while longer.
There is value in looking at things from a new angle.
For many, the cross is primarily about God being angry and us being forgiven, with Jesus hanging in the middle. But that's far too small a picture. When the story is too individualized, it gets disconnected from the circumstances that led to Jesus's death. Jesus becomes stripped of his own humanity and turned into a divine metro card to transport us to heaven free of charge. Of course, if this was the case, then he could have just been killed by King Herod when he was an innocent baby (Mt. 1:13) and that would have taken care of the perfect sacrifice needed. But that's a TFG for another time.
Jesus' death is more multifaceted than that. People got angry. They wanted him dead, though he harmed no one. Each year we have to be willing to be horrified by it all before we can be grateful for it all. We dare not run away from the discomfort of Friday night in our attempt to spring ahead to Sunday morning. Because if there's anything that helps makes sense of the world as we see it, it's the cross.
In a year like we've experienced, leaning into the cross this Holy Week might seem like salt poured onto a wound. We've seen enough death this year. We've watched unjust and unnecessary violence against the BIPOC community and other minorities. We've felt the sting of injustice, cried tears of heartache at the lack of love and care in our world. We've felt despair and exhaustion and isolation, and cried out for God to fix all the broken things out there (and in us!). We've questioned what's true or not, as lines seem to be blurred everywhere. The last thing we need is to call to mind another story about someone's death. If we wanted more of that, we could watch it on the news any day.
So know this, friends: it's allowed to be horrible. You're supposed to be disgusted by people nailing a human being to a cross for any reason, let alone an innocent man who was proclaiming God's love to the world. It's allowed to feel like it doesn't make sense, like it's just more hopelessness. Yet, if we see it through the correct lens, it's also something completely new and wonderful.
Because the story isn't just that the son of God died. It's how he died.
Jesus looks head on at those doing evil, and says a prayer for them. Not only that, he takes all their wrath, all their hatred, all their sin sickness, and receives it willingly, exposing the emptiness of it all. Jesus fighting back or destroying his enemies in like fashion would accomplish nothing. But Jesus loving, forgiving, and refusing to use the same tactics to set things right..... well, that just makes a mockery of evil altogether. It pulls back the charade and shows just how ugly and meaningless sin is.
It's like God is sending a message to the world about what violence, fear, power, and dominance will always lead to, and it cannot be ignored. Jesus exposes the ugliness that humans are capable of, and does the most remarkable thing.
He forgives them while they're at their ugliest.
In Colossians, Paul writes that the cross itself was a triumph. Not the resurrection, mind you! That's a triumph too, but why would the cross be triumphant? Because in one single moment the cross reveals the horrific ugliness of humanity's capabilities, and the breathtaking beauty of God's. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, is another way to put it. Jesus reveals the sickness of evil in the world, and ends the cycle. And now we know how to as well. Forgiveness changes everything. It's a masterclass in God's character.
What a young, horrible, profoundly beautiful death. All at once.
Jesus' death was so much more than personal forgiveness, though that's included in this selfless sin-absorbing act. God suffering innocently is a political statement of love and justice to the corrupt systems of the world. It's solidarity with every human who suffers unjustly. It's a revelation of God's true character. And it reveals a way of living and dying that sparked a global movement of people who have tried to imitate him (very imperfectly) for thousands of years.
So tomorrow, as you reflect on this important weekend, it's appropriate to feel like this should not have happened. And it's appropriate to feel immense gratitude that it did, because nothing could more clearly communicate God's heart, expose the emptiness of sin, and teach us to be people of redemption.
Jesus, help me pause in wonder today at your character displayed on the cross.