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.