"You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
A few weeks ago, we hung a bag of clothespins on an outside wall for drying laundry in warm weather. Three days ago, a pair of Carolina wrens took a look at that bag and decided they had a different use for it, and claimed it as their spring home. Now it’s bursting with leaves and moss and I’m actually pretty happy about it. Sometimes things that look like one thing, become another.
The above scripture passage is a profound statement. Joseph is speaking at the end of a life of hardship that came because his brothers were overcome with jealousy. They nearly murdered him and then sold him as a slave and sent him away forever (Now, there’s a very real chance that with the upcoming weeks of having sons and being housebound, I will go back to this passage and write about violence between brothers, but that’s not for today!). Eventually after years of being unjustly imprisoned, Joseph rises to a prominent leadership role and saves many people in Egypt during a horrible famine.
A statement like the one Joseph made can feel a little complicated. On one hand, I love that something so beautiful came out of such a horrible situation. But on the other hand, what does it mean that God “intended” it?? Did God intentionally have Joseph suffer years of alienation and imprisonment for doing nothing wrong? That doesn’t seem like God’s character as revealed in Jesus.
But a quick dive into that phrase reveals a new layer. The Hebrew word Joseph uses here is khasav, and it means more than simply planning for something to happen. Khasav, sometimes translated as “intended,” is often also translated as to imagine, to devise, or invent. It’s a word about creating something new. Something that is surprising and different.
While Joseph’s brother’s were trying to destroy Joseph and imagining ways to do it, God was doing something imaginative as well… something nobody could see coming. God was inventing. God was repurposing the pain and the disruption that Joseph would endure at the hands of his brothers, and opening a door for redemption…. because in the middle of a horrible situation, breathtaking beauty is always possible when God is at work.
In John 8 there’s a woman on the ground in John 8 and she's about to be put to shame and killed for breaking the law. But Jesus is there, and he’s inventing. He’s imagining. Because he knows that the worst the world can hurl at people can also illuminate the best of God’s character. So he turns a horrific event on its head and helps the world see love and grace when they were about to witness death.
Now, this virus might not have a “personality", but it certainly intends to harm us. The pain and loss of health and life intend to harm us. The physical disconnection intends to harm us. The collapse of financial support for so many intends to harm us. And the fear of the unknown intends to harm us.
But God invents. God imagines. God repurposes.
This changes the way we look at what’s ahead. God is not somehow behind this evil, as if the virus is a cosmic judgment on whomever Christians would like to scapegoat in order to make themselves feel righteous (don’t listen to the televangelists, friends!). Nor is God far removed like an absentee father, feeling bad about the situation but not really doing anything to change it.
Rather, God enters the brokenness with a lens of hopeful imagination, like Jesus walking into the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus is breathing his inventive spirit into his Church, opening their eyes to see soil for seeds to grow where others see only concrete ground.
I know we’re early into this coronavirus journey, but it’s already time for us to open our eyes to the holy khasav that is possible with Jesus. Goodness, this week we started an open group for daily noon prayer on Zoom to encourage each other. Why did it take coronavirus for this to start???
Christians have always made homes in surprising places of fear and sorrow and frustration, because darkness needs light and we are light-givers. Throughout history, Christians have creatively lived out God’s imagination. When others despair, Christians keep hoping. When others hoard, we share. When others are afraid, we sit with them in the dark. When others are sick or overlooked, we care for them and call them by name. And when people wonder what the truly good life consists of… we help them meet Jesus. Pain opens up a vacuum that love can fill. Friends, there is incredible good that is possible during these upcoming months.
The wrens repurposed that clothespin bag out back because they saw a place that they could make a home in. We need to be like the wrens. We need to see this space and see what it can be. God’s kingdom is a place where all are loved and valued, where no one is alone or afraid, and where the hurting are cared for. If that’s the case, just think of how we can live out our calling as citizens of that kingdom today.
Let's invite God to repurpose this instead of sinking into despair or boredom. I’ve been tempted to already. I’m tempted to let the sorrow and frustration and newness of this whole thing wash over me and take me under. Our emotions are absolutely natural, and we need to allow for the legitimate mourning that is currently going on. But then we need to move through it and look around, because Jesus is inventing and imagining right now. That’s our identity too.
Jesus, help me notice one place in need of your light, and join You in revealing it today.
(Longer post, but be honest. You've probably got time)
We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life.
- 1 John 1:1
The first rule about coronavirus is: Do NOT touch each other.
The second rule about coronavirus is: You do not talk about coronavirus.
Just kidding about #2. That’s a little Fight Club movie humor there to brighten your day. Literally everyone is constantly talking about coronavirus.
The first rule is true though, so let’s talk about that just a little more. Because I’ve been thinking about touch lately.
I had to go to the store this week. I was careful to keep several feet of airspace between myself and anyone else.
I go on runs in the woods and make sure that as I pass by others on the trail, I’m way over off the edge and I don’t breathe in anyone's direction.
I had a conversation with my neighbor yesterday, where we chatted as we both stood in our own driveways for 20 minutes.
I’ve had multiple meetings lately with people, all staring at a screen.
This is indeed what we need to do right now. But I have to make a confession. I’m a touchy feely person. I greet almost every friend with a hug, a handshake, or a high five. Touch is one of the ways I relate to the world. It’s really important to me. And right now, it’s dirty.
That makes me sad. But it also makes me wonder about something. Why is touch so powerful? And what is at the core of it? Maybe when we discover this, it will help us understand how to move forward loving God and others in a touchless environment.
I think, in many ways, touch is what makes something real. The early church proclaimed with confidence that God had come in the flesh because they had seen, touched, and been touched by Jesus. It couldn’t have been a mirage. They witnessed miracles, and they shared a meal with Jesus afterwards. Amazing.
Jesus almost never healed from afar. He touched blind eyes, leprous hands, and disabled legs. He engaged with people that were considered unclean by breaking bread- touching the same food- as they did. He crossed lines that Rabbi’s didn’t cross, because he knew that God’s love was so plentiful and God’s kingdom was so massive that it had space for all those who had been overlooked. And touching them was what proved Jesus was serious.
Even Thomas the disciple had trouble believing that Jesus had actually resurrected until he touched the risen Lord. As far as he knew, Jesus was just a spirit- or an overactive embodiment of a wishful imagination. Touching his wounds was what made his belief real.
Today, healthy touch still communicates real care (well, today it doesn't… but I’m talking about the normal reality before last week). Yet it goes beyond the physical. When we’re impacted by a kind gesture we say that it was “touching.” Sometimes a movie scene or a piece of music will stir something emotional deep inside of us. Or a sunrise, or a scripture verse, or any number of things. Why do we call those things “touching?” Because they hit on something in us that is real. That is important. That goes beyond the surface. We feel seen, and we feel impacted. Touching.
Right now, we are walking down a necessary but terrifying road. We’re becoming rewired to be careful and suspicious of others. For many of us it has already become a habit in just a few short days. That will help save lives and slow down the spread of COVID-19. I’m so thankful for that and we all need to listen. But it’s also going to do something that we need to be very aware of.
When this is all over, we might be afraid to touch for good.
Unless during our quarantines, we learn what physical contact has always communicated in God’s world, and keep practicing it without actually touching.
Physical contact and presence is important. But it’s not the only thing that makes things real. What makes things real is care. It’s truth. It’s love expressed in action. It’s compassion. In the world of Jesus, touch is about care. It’s about moving beyond the surface. It’s about extending beyond our own isolation into the reality of another and saying, I’m unafraid to love. This is the core heart of a Jesus follower.
No pandemic could ever rob us of that. So it’s our turn to learn to keep ourselves vulnerable, to keep our compassion tangible, and to do our part to create a culture of authentic love that is touching, just without literal contact. Right now there is a growing sense of isolation. Yet the opportunities are also greater than ever before to be a touching presence in each other’s lives. We just have to get creative.
So let us not think that simply because we can’t shake a hand, offer a hug, or give a high five, that our ability to care about one another is gone.
Let us not think that because many are confined to homes, that somehow we have lost the chance at real community.
And let us not think that a virus is the only contagious thing that exists in the world at this moment. For we have been given the Spirit of Christ - a spirit that is powerful enough to break down walls of fear and isolation. And it’s powerful enough to spread from one person to the next over cell phone towers, across driveways, from screen to screen, and through the invisible waves of prayer.
I offer no answers. But let’s ask the right question. How will I express love today to break down our growing isolation?
Jesus, in the uncomfortable empty space of my life right now, fill my mind with creative ways to make your love real to people.
*I wish disclaimers weren’t necessary, but I find it important to clarify this any time I speak of touch. Many lives have been damaged by unwelcome and inappropriate physical touch and outright abuse. Not all touch is good, and it is never our right to invade another’s personal space. But, in safe, loving, and mutual environments, healthy physical contact has great power for good.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
-Jesus (Matthew 9:12-13)
We’re getting deeper and deeper into our 40 day desert experience that moves us toward the renewal of Easter. Part of the ecclesiological significance of Lent being 40 days long is that it reflects Jesus' own 40 days in the desert that began his public ministry. He was driven by prayer out to the desert where he painfully worked out his own identity and oneness with God, dealing with temptations to satisfy himself, to receive recognition, and to compromise his ethics in order to gain authority. But he also just lived in a barren wilderness during those days, acutely aware of he lacked. One fascinating film depiction of this experience is called Last Days in the Desert, where a windstorm blows up against Yeshua and the only response he has left is simply to scream into the sandblast, as if admitting that he nearly was at the end of what he could handle.
Jesus was needy.
That doesn’t sit well with us, does it?
"The neediness of Jesus" doesn’t sound like a book title that would sell as many copies as something like, I don’t know, The Purpose Driven Life. Yet it’s important for us to have this example so that we can reflect on what faithful “neediness” looks like. Because it’s a crucial part of honest faith.
Our self-sufficiency has turned us into people who are not comfortable admitting our own needs. We act as if the ones who have no noticeable needs are the ones who have arrived. And maybe they have arrived. But the important question that we have to ask is, arrived where?
I think Jesus would say that the ones who can't admit their needs have arrived…. at a place far away from where he is.
I spoke earlier this week about a statement Jesus made in Matthew 9. He was eating with outsiders and speaking to disgruntled Pharisees about how they still hadn’t learned that God’s character is more about mercy rather than religious ritual. Around that statement he says this: It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick! Then a moment later he gets even more direct: I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners!
Well gosh, what have I been working so hard on for all these years??? Just kidding. Trying to be live rightly is good if you go at it humbly. The problem is when it leads us to think we don’t need God, or we’re not allowed to admit our weakness. Then it literally becomes anti-christian. Instead, Jesus says that admitting we’re in need is how we access the beauty and power of God’s redemption.
When Jesus is confronted with his own need in the desert, he brings it before the father in honesty and trust. Jesus was showing us, even as he worked it out himself, what faithfulness looks like in raw human life. Honesty and vulnerability always win over self-sufficiency.
Lent might be the most appropriate time of the entire year to say to God, “You know what? This stinks. I’m not even sure I can handle the things going on in my life. I feel weak and frustrated. Honestly, I’m just pretty needy right now, God. Can you meet me in this?"
In the desert, the promise is that God’s strength comes in the midst of weakness.
The promise is that love emerges when the self reaches its limitations.
The promise is that Jesus transforms us into deeply loved and deeply loving disciples when we become a little more needy.
I’m often tempted to think that Jesus’ "healthy and sick" statement was to convince us to be like Jesus the compassionate doctor… but maybe what I need to learn right now is how to actually be the patient. When we can be honest about what's not right in us (without shame!), we can become available for Jesus the healer to do his work.
You will indeed be sustained for life's journey when your limitations drive you toward God and his global body (the church) and not away from them. But stating that doesn't make it easier to actually do.
Arrogance and stoicism have been the mark of too many Christians over the decades. It’s ok to be needy this season.
Jesus, teach me to be honest about my need for you today, so that I can receive your grace and live a renewed life of trust.
“The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful,
a puzzle that no one can figure out.
But I, God, search the heart
and examine the mind.
I get to the heart of the human.
I get to the root of things.
I treat them as they really are,
not as they pretend to be.”
-Jeremiah 17:9-10 (MSG)
The number of times that someone walked into our basement and yelled “oh no!” this week set a record. And it wasn’t just because I placed one of Bethany’s horrifying costume mannequinns at the bottom of the dark stairs to create lasting memories with my children.
No, unfortunately the cries of terror were because water was either gushing onto, or up from, our basement floor. Our new house is a great fit for us, but we discovered that it had a shadow side to it this week when we encountered major plumbing issues that needed emergency intervention. We had a very old pipe that clogged as it ran into our basement cement floor, having become completely blocked with decades of buildup. Water started spilling out of an old overflow valve in the basement all over the floor with no warning. We halted everything, called an emergency plumber and they spent 11 hours hacking into our house, shutting off systems, trying to isolate the problem, and then eventually cutting out a huge section of pipe in the basement and replacing a whole bunch of stuff. You can see I’m very technical when it comes to plumbing.
The plumbing guys dumped a few buckets of water down the sinks to show us all was clear, and left a little after 9pm. We were exhausted and relieved when we finally had the house to ourselves. It was a big job, but at least it was fixed and over for good.
That is, until about an hour later when my wife shouted as she opened the basement door again. “OH NOOO!"
The dishwasher and washing machine were running, since our activity had been paused all day. The replaced pipe was working perfectly. It was just that now, black water was bubbling up from beneath our basement floor (and the depths of Sheol) into our house. The problem had simply moved a few feet over.
We’re a week into lent.
Sometimes I talk about lent as a season of "spring cleaning for the soul.” That sounds cheerful! But I wonder if it’s more like a construction project or an old plumbing job that keeps revealing that more work is needed. As we take time to address something that’s off track in our own lives, the project often gets more invasive than we had planned. If we invite Jesus to address our symptoms, he may work with us on treating them, but he will often point out the systemic problems that are really behind it all. He’ll start excavating the heart so that it can become a new and healthy space. But wow, there are a lot of mysterious twists and turns in the human heart, and often you can’t see what’s in there until you rip a few things open.
I’m finding that season for me right now. I’ve had some pesky areas of self-focus that nag me. But trying to walk through those areas is bringing other, more significant issues bubbling to the surface that are about trust, rest, and identity. The job is going to be bigger than I had planned.
The good news in all this? We have a plumber who knows what he’s doing! (Am I taking this metaphor too far? I think I’m taking this metaphor too far.)
We called a different company to come the next day. They had a lot of experience in our area, and found that a root had grown into one of our main lines underground in front of the house. They cleared it out, cleaned everything up, and made sure to stay while the dishwasher, sink, washing machine, and toilets were all at full power. I’ve never been so delighted to put my face up against a sewer pipe.
Once things got cleared in our house with no further screams from the basement, there was peace in a new way. We had the ability once again to look up from our own stuff and begin focusing on the world around us. Yep, it was costly. And yes, it took time and patience and a few frustrated tears in the family. And maybe we’ll run into more issues in the coming weeks or months that need addressing, because we all know that the work is never finished. But we’re not where we were, and I’m delighting in that today.
As you walk into the mysterious realm of your own human heart with Jesus during these weeks, I want to encourage you to be unafraid to explore the deepest issues. When the thing behind the thing emerges, welcome it as an opportunity to discover God’s grace in a new way, and walk with Jesus in trust and vulnerability like never before.
Jesus, renovate my heart.