We have freedom now, because Christ made us free. So stand strong in that freedom. Don’t go back into slavery again.
-Paul, Galatians 5:1
Yesterday Lent began. If you need a reminder, Lent is the 40 day season of the Christian calendar leading to the Easter celebration. It parallels the very human journey of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days in Luke 4. I used to ignore Lent, but now I see it as one of the best opportunities for growing closer to Jesus.
Hundreds of years ago in the villages of medieval Europe it was a regular practice to begin Lent with a huge bonfire in the middle of town. In fact, in Belgium, France, and Germany, the first Sunday of Lent is still known as "Sunday of the Great Fires." But the old stories go that the fuel was more than trees. It was anything that villagers could find in their houses that wasn't needed. Bonfires were made of old broken wheels, dead bushes, furniture with missing parts, and other useless items left over in everyone’s houses after being cooped up all winter. No doubt disease carrying clothing was also tossed in there, to enact both a literal and symbolic act of purification. The fire was a statement of passion in direct opposition to the drudgery of winter's dirt, disease, and clutter. It was time to clean house and look forward to spring.
Lent is a time for self-reflection and slow transformation. I go back to the imagery of European bonfires every year because most of us north-easterners can relate to the effects of the dreary, cold winter. It’s been dark for too long. We are so ready for a change! And the change is indeed coming with the approaching spring. The earth will become new again, as bare branches give way to green buds and the chill is removed from the air. That will all happen in a few weeks, regardless of what we do.
However, the clutter and numbness that build up in our spirits are a different story. They only get burned off and warmed up if we make a choice. The weeks of Lent are the time to choose what needs to be put in the bonfire. When you think about celebrating the resurrection of Jesus this Easter, what are the distractions and hangups in your life that need to go in order to really party on April 9th?
What needs to be tossed out?
What are the diseased clothes to be burned?
What needs to be forgiven? What needs to be turned from?
How can we prepare ourselves for the beauty of God’s coming season?
What are the things that bring you immense joy to imagine burning away?
(You could go in a really dark direction with that question. Don’t do that.)
Bonfires are a passionate expression of life. In the flicker of the flame there is often laughter and dancing and food and celebration. That’s how it still is around the world. Something gets freed in the letting go of things that have gotten in the way.
When I was a kid I burned stuff in my garage all the time. Most of the time my family didn’t know. Deodorant gave off a dazzling blue dripping flame. Socks weirdly melted and made a lot of smoke. It wasn’t a safe habit, but it sure was fun.
What if you did something a little quirky today? What if you marked the season with a concrete action?
I invite you to choose one specific thing that you're asking Jesus to burn away in your life. Identify some soul clutter that is hindering you from moving around freely with God. Then, find something to actually burn as a symbol of that. Seriously. Don’t do it inside, though. And apparently garages count as "inside."
We lit candles last night at our Lent service for that. You can do that too.
Of course, you could do all this in your mind if it sounds juvenile. But lighting something on fire is so much more fun.
Jesus is nudging us down the path from winter into spring. It’s time to thaw out and come alive in a new way. So, what’s one place to start?
Jesus, help me identify what needs releasing, and give me strength to do it.
"God had formed out of the ground every wild beast and every bird of heaven. He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one, and whatever the man called each living thing was indeed its name.”
I love reflecting on the powerful words of Genesis and why beginnings matter. One of the catchphrases that I've gravitated to over the years has been, “Words Create Worlds.” There is great beauty and mystery of the first story of our Bible. But there’s one part that doesn't get very much air time we talk about the Genesis narrative. It’s about name-calling, and it’s really important.
I’m not a big fan of name calling.
I raise 3 kids and coach another 60, so I’m familiar with the creativity that can be used when calling someone a name (it’s not usually the good kind of creativity). In our house, we frequently talk about avoiding the “you’re so…!” statements that tend to label a person as negative, rather than address a specific action.
In the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical teaching that is passed down through generations, there is an understanding that the name of everything is its life-source. The Hebrew letters carry God’s power in a unique way, and when put together in different formations they give life wherever they are applied.
In other words, according to Hebrew thought, something’s name, or the words they are called, directly affects what or who it actually becomes. Name calling is incredibly powerful. Maybe that’s why God renames Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah by adding the Hebrew letter "he" (ה) from his own name, signifying the new partnership. God renames Jacob after their wrestling match too. Each has become something new. Maybe that’s why Jesus speaks a new name to Peter as he commissions him to lead the first generation of his Church. And maybe that’s why John reveals in his vision that each faithful person will receive a new name as they enter the fullness of the kingdom (Revelation 2:17). Each represents a new start, full of life with God. Wild stuff, huh? Names are a big deal.
That’s why it’s so crazy that in Genesis, the job of naming all of creation is given to a human. Seems like the sort of thing that would best be left in God’s hands, if you ask me. I’ve heard the names that we come up with when we think it’s our job. It’s not pretty, friends.
Many Jewish interpretations hold that even when God formed the animals in Genesis 2:19, they weren’t given the breath of life until their names were spoken by Adam. Then life and purpose began. And taking things a step further in chapter 3, Adam names Eve, reminding us that people have been given the task of even naming one another.
God’s partnership in this way… that’s a lot of responsibility. Words can destroy and maim, or words can build and heal (read James). And that power has been entrusted to us. Let’s not screw this one up.
What if we looked around our world daily with a focus on name calling everything we see in both the natural world and the world of humanity? And what if our name calling is in line with the value and beauty and dignity that Jesus teaches us to model*?
Maybe it starts today by noticing the name badge at the cash register, and thanking Jessica for serving you. Maybe it extends to declaring the good you see in your children and coworkers. Maybe it extends to telling someone that you believe in them...to reminding someone that they are loved and valuable...to noticing the image of God in someone and then calling them that name. And in moments when we see someone that we are unable to find a name for? Maybe those are the times that we, like Jesus with Peter, speak to what could happen when that life becomes more aligned with God's world. Because in God’s world, everything and everyone is created with value.
Jesus, help me give names to the overlooked, forgotten, and mundanely beautiful things and people in my life today. May my words bring your life into each one.
*I’m fully aware that when Jesus named things, not all of them were positive, particularly when speaking to oppressive and religious power structures (brood of vipers, sons of hell, and whitewashed tombs come to mind). There is a place for naming hurtful and unhealthy realities in our world, especially when harm is being done to others. However, Jesus had authority and insight into the heart that we cannot, and Jesus also laid down his life for those people in forgiveness of their wrongdoing. The call to love must always be front and center in our lives, so if those names are the first ones we're drawn to... we need to walk with self-awareness and humility, and see it as an opportunity to pray for them.
Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it?"
I spent this past weekend up in Pennsylvania as the main speaker for the Zeteo student conference. It's a unique event, pointing hundreds of teenagers toward Jesus through a weekend of worship, teaching, and a dramatic performance that unfolds across three days. This year's title was "STORYMAKERS" and the drama followed the fictional lives of a number of young people as they wrestled with their own unique stories, learning how to interact with and embrace connection to the "storymaker" (God). In the end, their stories became intertwined with each other and with the Storymaker. It was provocative and inspiring and beautifully performed.
So my teaching for the weekend kept pointing back to the foundational story of God's redemptive heart for the world, unfolding through each page of scripture. I've come to see "story" as one of the most powerful lenses by which we can see our faith, and the scriptures.
Too often, the Bible is viewed as a series of statements to pull out when they are most helpful for personal inspiration or to argue one's perspective. At best, that can be nice to make us feel better or remember key truths. At worst though, they become weaponized and completely miss the forest for the trees. But when we see the scriptures as telling a grand story, and ourselves as participants in God's story, we begin to interact in a fresh way. Instead of a number of isolated books/verses/teachings, the Bible becomes a comprehensive story, heading toward an ultimate point of revelation: the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Stories involve characters going on a journey and changing. We see people's understanding of God constantly growing throughout the Bible as they eventually encounter Jesus as the full revelation of God. And we ourselves are constantly changing on our journeys as well, as we learn more about ourselves and experience more of life with God as the years go by. Characters walk away different at the end of a story than when they began. We should also be walking differently as we grow and develop in our faith journey.
I began the weekend asking the teenagers this:
If your life was a story, what would be the title of the chapter you're in?
If they saw me between sessions they were supposed to share a three word title that I wrote down in a little notebook. I got all sorts of titles, but most of them were intense.
Very Very Scared.
The Ink Well's Dry.
Crying Every Night.
The Sorrow Gun....
Naming our stories brought uncomfortable honesty to the surface. But as we entered into God's story each session, we leaned into some beautiful truths as well.
In God's story, we are invited. In God's story, we are known....and loved. In God's story, we are redeemed. In God's story, we are sent (even in our brokenness).
The story of God is a constant invitation to join in relationship. It's not about knowledge or complete answers or fixing everybody or even perfecting yourself. It's about receiving grace, embodying love, and entering into the most unlikely partnership imaginable: joining God in the mission to embody a world of wholeness, now and forever.
It was beautiful and inspiring to see what happened after a weekend of diving into the way of Jesus and his love. Before the final session I again asked for chapter titles... but this time I asked what they sensed the title of their next chapter will be as they walk forward with the Storymaker. And there was a shift.
Let's Get Going.
Strength and Perseverance.
My Scars Heal.
Rise of the Fallen.
The Small Steps.
New Beginning Again.
My Next Leap....
This is what happens as we allow our story to be found within God's grand narrative. When we see ourselves as participants in the story of God that continues to unfold, we see things differently. We are able to receive fresh hope for tomorrow. We lean into what actually matters. We stop trying to write overtop of other people's stories. We understand we are not alone. And we see Jesus as our director, author, and co-actor in a story of love for the world.
So slow down for a moment. What's the title of your chapter right now? Be honest. It might be uncomfortable to name it.
But the story isn't over, and it's moving toward redemption. As you move toward Jesus who is lover, healer, friend, brother, savior, and guide...
What chapter title is on the next page that you're co-authoring?
Don't be afraid to let it be hopeful. After all, the story is all about hope restored after it looks like all hope was lost.
Jesus, may our footsteps match yours and may our hearts be open to your storymaking presence in our lives today.
I recall all you have done, O Lord;
I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago.
They are constantly in my thoughts.
I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works.
Most years around this time I'm able to get south for a few days on a silent retreat. My time consists of very few things. I read, journal, and pray. I take my days slowly. I move my body. And I spend time enjoying the natural world. And God renews me and prepares me for the year ahead.
Of my trips over the years, last year might have been my most profound experience of natural beauty (except the 2019 run-in with an angry alligator). I was out birding, sprawled out on the ground with my camera lens along a marsh line. And all of a sudden all these extraordinary birds started approaching me. Wood storks (pictured below), roseate spoonbills, tri-colored herons, and sandhill cranes, all within several feet as I held my breath and clicked the shutter as quietly as I could. I got some beautiful photos. But I also remember feeling the presence of the creator in that moment, God's beauty and peace with such vivid detail that a sense of well-being washed over me. During those minutes, I was able to receive the beauty of God's world, but also capture some small glimpse of it to be shared with others.
The next day I traveled home. And then life got busy. And each time I meant to go back to process those pictures on my camera, something came up. So they just sat there, on a memory card, unprocessed. Spring came, then summer, then fall, then winter.
That experience came back into my head again recently. I've been thinking about this for a few weeks, so I was surprised this morning when I finally plugged the sd card into my laptop and saw that these pictures were taken exactly one year ago to the day that I'm writing this (Wed).
There are so many things that go unprocessed in our lives, aren't there? The pace of society and the never-ending spray of news and social feeds support the myth of constant urgency and zero margin. And because of it, significant moments in our lives come and go, remaining unprocessed.
We often highlight the fact that we have unprocessed trauma and negative experiences which need to be addressed in order to experience healing. So true. But the same can be true about the things that make our hearts sing. These are the moments where we sense the Spirit of God close at hand. They are the times where we notice ourselves being full of peace and joy, the absolute best versions of who we were made to be. All too often, we don’t sit down to remember, to process what brought us to that point, or what God might want to do as a result of it. And as such, a lot of the beauty is left on the table, and it doesn’t result in the transformation and encouragement that it could. Maybe we need to slow down and take the extra time that we don’t feel like we can afford, in order to process what is sitting back there in the memory of our minds.
The scriptures are full of God's people pausing to reflect on stories of God's beauty and God's deliverance in their own lives. The Psalms are a brilliant example of taking time to personally process both pain and beauty. And as the experience is reflected on, the gratitude becomes deeper, the faith becomes richer, and (I would suggest) the eyes become keener for the work of God the next time.
Because I haven't taken time to process those old pictures, the beauty that was captured has been limited. If I would sit with the experience and do a bit of meaningful work, I might be inspired to be even more intentional in seeking out that sort of gratitude-inspiring beauty. I'd also be able to move into the next phase: sizing them right, framing them right, and sharing those moments with others.
When we sense a thin place in our spiritual journey, where God is close at hand, may we learn the practice of pausing and processing. May we pay attention to the moments that we are the most alive, and invite God to teach us why he created us in such a way. And may be able to walk from those moments looking for deeper rhythms of connection with God and love for others.
Jesus, help me make space to process the work you have done in my life.