Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.
-Romans 8:5b-6 (The Message)
Have you gazed out the window this past week? If you were looking around, you would have seen a slight greenish hue beginning to cover brown bushes in the woods. And the ground is opening up, ever so slightly, for the daffodils to look around and alert us to the impending burst of color.
The other day one of our kids glanced out the window and yelled, "Hey, look!" I thought there was a fox or a deer running past quickly. Turns out, it was a new wildflower that had just opened up that afternoon!
This is the time to pay attention to the natural world. Life is emerging, and if we are looking for it, we will be surprised by beauty over and over again. It's almost resurrection season, when seemingly dead things come to life, reminding us that there is always more going on than what we see or assume. But you have to look around and pay attention.
"Paying attention" to Jesus is, unsurprisingly, central to a vibrant faith. But sometimes we view this attention as simply the means to an end. Author Mark Buchanan recounts a story during his pastoral years when a man in his congregation came to him for counsel. "I know that God is trying to get my attention right now. I just haven't figured out what he wants my attention for. He must want me to do something."
Mark thought a moment. Then he replied, "Well, maybe God.... just wants your attention."
Maybe this is the deepest form of transformation: the giving of our attention. We become more like Jesus by noticing, all the time, God's sacred presence.
Attention like this is what God invites us into. It's restful and indulgent. Quietly sitting on the couch together. Not always accomplishing. Not always discussing. Just delighting in the peace of presence, and noticing that God is with us and among us. That sort of "being" is the foundation for a life of real depth and purpose (the "doing"). But don't move through it too quickly.
Already, as the Covid season begins to recede, many of our lives are picking up pace. In the coming months school commitments, church life, work, and social events will likely provide many opportunities for a fuller schedule. But remember: Busyness can make us stop caring about the things we care about. This is true of a busy schedule, a busy mind, or a busy heart.
No doubt, a full schedule can bring a lot of joy (I can't wait for summer), but in this emerging season of life, let us consistently notice the God who has been with us each moment of the journey. The goal remains: pay attention.
"The Dream of my life," Poet Mary Oliver writes,
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees--
To learn something of being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention.
Jesus is the "rich lens of attention" by which we walk through our lives with a heart of rest, grace, and meaning.*
This is basic discipleship. When we are looking around the world through the lens of Jesus, our busyness will never be more important than God's presence. It will never be more important than hospitality. It will never be more important than interruptions. We will notice those in need around us and in our world, and respond.... because in those moments we're noticing the very face of Jesus himself. Eyes fixed on Jesus will always move us toward eyes of compassion for others.
This week seems to be as appropriate a week as any to start by living expectantly. So look around for Jesus. Rest in those moments of beauty without too quickly needing to do something with it all. Pay attention to the pain around you as well, so that you might not miss Jesus in the face of our sisters and brothers who suffer. Take time to love and be loved. Jesus is nearby. Pay attention today.
Jesus, both positive and negative things can distract me from your heart. Increase my awareness of you, over and over again, today.
*Special thanks to Mark Buchanan, whose ideas helped me pay attention for this week's writing.
Many, Lord my God, are the wonders which You have done, And Your thoughts toward us; There is no one to compare with You.
- Psalm 40:5
“My prayer is not for them [the twelve] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message...
- John 17:20
So an interesting thing has been happening in the Miller household lately. Our kids have discovered a bunch of old photo albums of Bethany and I when we were younger, and they even found a stack of Bethany's childhood journals (like, multiple filled books) written by an opinionated 12 year old girl who was NONE TOO HAPPY that her dad told her to go to bed early so that HE COULD WATCH SEINFELD.
Our kids are fascinated by these images and stories of a time when we existed before they did. It gives them fresh insight and perspective to know us, but see that our lives didn't always revolve around them. We had our own journey, and we had our own relationship. They became a beautiful part of that, yes, but it was a continuation of something that was already there.
But the real moment of the week was when my now twelve year old Judah stumbled upon a special page in one of my wife's preteen journals.
"No one but my child can read this and they have to be twelve! "
Then a bit further down...
"Dear child, I love you so much even though you're not born yet!"
[We need to pause here and acknowledge that this is not normal behavior for the rest of us who never even gave a thought to the possibility of future kids when we were 6th graders. Don't let the overachieving mothers in the bunch bring the rest of us to shame.]
Of course, it went on to complain about bellbottoms and such. But what a fascinating experience for my kids, to know that they were being thought about.... loved, even. Before they existed.
It was one thing for my preteens to learn about Bethany's past and see how they fit into the story. But it was a whole new level to read with their own eyes that she was thinking about them and loving them 25 years ago.
Sometimes I think we forget how much the big picture can shape us as disciples of Jesus. We can get caught up in the nitty gritty of our faith, forgetting the overarching narrative: That God's story is continuing to unfold from the moment of creation until now, and it is motivated by an intensely personal love for all humanity that comes from the very heart of God.
I love noticing how we fit into a story that began before us. We read about God creating his own people through Abraham, faithfully leading them out of slavery, teaching them new ways to live and relate to God. Then Jesus reveals God fully, clearing up any questions about what God's heart is like, and forms the church, founded on the power of love, grace and resurrection.
And we're told that in the middle of this huge story, we are being thought of personally. God gives us thought and attention. Jesus specifically prays for those people who, thousands of years later, would do their best to be faithful to his mission of redemptive love. We, the people who didn't exist yet. He prayed for you. For me. He loved us, before we even came to be. Because that's what God is. That's what Jesus is.
It's big, it's broad. It goes beyond interpreting what this or that one verse means, or figuring out the differences in theology or if you should homeschool your children or not or whether you should give to panhandlers on the street or just support local nonprofit homeless services....
When we know we're loved, when we see the whole story... those other conversations will fit into place. There is a Jewish proverb, “Before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, ‘Behold, the image of God.’"
When we live in that reality of ourselves and others, the things that will emerge from our spirits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Love received helps love to be given.
Today, don't forget the big picture. You've been journaled about, years before you took shape, and loved, even then.
Jesus, help me live in the knowledge of how dearly loved I am, and give the same beautiful worth to my neighbor.
Jesus on adultery/lust:
And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus when confronted with an actual case of adultery:
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
[...] “neither do I condemn you...”
Jesus! Where's your consistency?? You should have at least cut off a hand!
This post is not about adultery. It's about Jesus.
When you read the gospels, it becomes pretty clear that Jesus is willing to speak harshly about things. Jesus speaks openly about things like judgment and morality, and he is unafraid to come down hard on people (especially the religious and the rich) throughout the gospels. And yet, something else also happens. Every single time someone tries to get Jesus on their side against someone, he seems to push back against it. Or the opposite! People like tax collectors, who stood for everything Jesus spoke against (greed, idolatry, mistreatment of the poor), seem to get special attention and kindness when Jesus meets them? What's the deal?
All we want is a little consistency, Jesus. Pick a side.
The problem with the way that we read the gospels, is that we look at Jesus through our own tendency to pick sides based on "issues." Jesus uses a completely different framework most of the time. And as he does so, it can feel inconsistent to us.
This is because the "single issue" that guided Jesus' actions was the value and dignity of every human, each bearing the image of God. So from the outside, it can feel like Jesus was constantly switching sides. But he wasn't. Consider the above example: Jesus knew that adultery and lust brings incredible pain and brokenness, damaging relationships and eventually leaving people feel used and others full of shame. No human should experience that, so he speaks harshly against it. And yet, when someone has actually done what he warned against, Jesus is the first to remind everyone that her life is as precious and valuable to God as everyone else's is, and he offers grace and advocates for her.
Jesus is, and always has been, on the side of humanity. And when that's the case, his radical love may even feel inconsistent. Do we have the courage to live this radical third way in the world?
Christians must have enough bravery and integrity to regularly "switch sides" when faithfulness to Jesus demands it.
Jacques Ellul, French philosopher and anabaptist theologian, wrote about Christians becoming so consistent that they are willing to switch sides at a moment's notice for the sake of love and compassion. He gave the example that in the French Revolution, the most Christlike response would have been working for the freedom and worth of the peasantry. But when the peasants began executing the aristocracy, faithfulness to Jesus would require Christians to immediately switch sides and defend the inherent worth of ruling class. They remained on the side of Jesus' peace, mercy and dignity. But that would look like switching sides, and likely even feel like betrayal to some of the revolutionaries.
So we stand with the oppressed, until the moment the oppressed becomes an oppressor. We seek to live in truth, but never in a way that threatens another's dignity. We defend the inherent worth of every person, even those who may have harmed others. This is a consistent view of the image of God in all people, and the way of nonviolence in Christ.
No worldly systems should ever expect "loyalty" from Christians if they begin to do things that diminish the worth and dignity of anyone, regardless of how good their overall goal may be. God's kingdom is not brought about that way. Jesus showed us that.
So we hold the conviction that every mistreated person is worth caring for and defending.
Hard stop. No qualifications after that.
And we hold the conviction that everyone who seeks to do what's right with their next moment is moving toward God's heart, regardless of what you've already decided about their past or their character.
Hard stop. No one gets to be written off.
And internally it means a tough shift:
It means we've got to stop thinking Jesus is on our side, and slowly and humbly learn what it means to be on the side of Jesus, moment by moment.
This is not simply about "big issues" or ideologies. This is about daily interactions. We can be right in our views and wrong in the way we hold them. We may be true in our statements and wrong in how or when we state them. But if we submit ourselves to Jesus and acknowledge the image of God in each person, we will move toward being consistently inconsistent, the way Jesus was.
Jesus, help us keep our allegiance to you first today, so that we might be able to see the value inherent in every single person we meet.
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts..
-2 Corinthians 2:3
Right now at our church we are journeying through a wonderful six week immersive study called Rediscovering Prayer, developed by two of our pastors and based on Richard Foster's dynamic book on the subject. During our fist session, we did a simple practice to reflect on a prayer by St. Augustine. But rather than just stare at his words, we were told to write them down in our own handwriting first, and then reflect on that.
On the initial slide, Augustine's prayer looked historic and grandiose. But in my journal, it looked very human. My handwriting is really poor, so I'll say the prayer took on a bit of a desperate tone to it. The content remained the same in many ways, but the way that it was experienced was changed when my own hand penned it.
Scripture speaks to us about Jesus being the Word of God become flesh. It's a movement from conceptual to physical. But that's not the complete transition. Then, Jesus makes disciples, and eventually breathes his very spirit into their flesh as they form the Church and continue to express Jesus in the world. Jesus gets transcribed in the lives of his people. That's what I'm thinking about today.
The journey of discipleship is the journey of looking at Jesus, and then writing Jesus with our own hand. Jesus looks one way in the gospels. But Jesus takes on a slightly different texture when he is expressed through each of our lives uniquely. That's beautiful, and that's important. That's one of the things that takes Jesus from a conceptual idea to a living reality in 2021. His breath, our lives.
You see, it's a good thing that I can't write in sans serif font by hand. My writing is choppy and lopsided. Another's handwriting is smooth and artistic. But without these expressions, those words have the potential to remain inaccessible to others. Truth needs to be seen and felt to be believed, even if it is imperfectly expressed. Each of us has a real task, if we are to follow Jesus well and reveal God's heart to the world. We have to take words on a holy page, and write them in our own lives. Chances are that it won't appear quite as incredible as the grand stories of God in the Bible (though maybe it will!). And certainly, some things will look a little different than the original, but only in texture, not in content.
Dallas Willard used to say that Christians spend too much time trying to become who Jesus was, when the real task is to become who Jesus would be if he were you.
Yes, we copy Jesus, but Jesus will take on beautiful, diverse expressions based on whose hand is writing it. Yet the overall message should remain consistent, even as it's written across many lives, if our hearts are focused on Jesus.
When God wrote himself onto humanity through Jesus, it was a movement from the high and holy inaccessible God, to an intimate, accessible experience. Jesus invites us to continue the movement, making him readable to the world around us by writing him with our lives everyday. We sit with the words of Jesus and we sit with the presence of Jesus long enough to begin copying the compassion, mercy, generosity, healing, and humility that we see.
It will look unique in each life. But it will be real. And when people read our lives, they'll walk away just a little more familiar with the hopeful message of God's kingdom.
Jesus, help me to translate your hope into my own unique life and context, so that others may see you through me today.