Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen..."
Have you ever said something to someone and even though they heard you, you could tell they weren't getting it? Or, to take our pride out of the equation, let's flip it. Have you ever heard exactly what someone said, able to recite it word-for-word, yet totally missed the point of it all?
Recent research is showing that bad listening affects more than 70% of all work relationships, resulting in misunderstandings, missed opportunities, arguments, stalled projects and damaged relationships. I'm willing to bet those numbers are fairly consistent in family, church, and friend relationships as well.
In the above passage, a man who has been healed by Jesus is interrogated because the Pharisees are trying to figure out how to discredit Jesus. They continue to ask the man questions, but they have a ready response for everything he says. This proves to the man that they aren't actually wanting to listen. They have made their conclusions, and they're simply looking for bits of evidence to support it. He finally calls them on it (an incredible assertion of dignity from the poor and low to the powerful and mighty), telling them that he's already said everything, but they Aren't. Really. Listening.
The story has many more details... but for now, let's simply say that the Pharisees act really childish for being called out. We'd all prefer to see ourselves in the healed man's character, but the problem is how often we fall on the pharisee side of this story. Parents, for a minute consider the last time you asked, "Why would you do that?!?" to your child. Ya'll know that you have no interest in their answer, right? Admit it. (Yeah, me too.)
We often listen or ask questions with our own agendas and assumptions ready at the wings.
When the Apostle James writes to the collection of churches around Jerusalem, one of the first things he tells them is that they each should be "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry" (1:19). Why is being slow to speak so important in that list? Well, if we are "quick" (eager and willing) to listen to another, then we will be equally eager to understand what they are truly saying. We can't do that with a quick response. Instead it requires a slow, spirit-aware attitude that helps us see and feel what's really going on in another's life.
Doing this, we often become aware of hopes, fears, joys, and hurts that we would completely miss when our own agenda is leading the way, or when we've decided that we already know what someone is trying to say.
This discipleship skill is often lost in our fast paced, answer-driven world. When we really listen to others, we learn to also listen for God. That's what it means to listen up. We move slowly enough to enter into someone's story, inviting God to show us the heart, even beyond the specific words, and help us love well. We leave our agenda and assumptions behind.
This is what Jesus does with us. Jesus relates to what we are feeling with patience and slowness. He seeks to hear our heart. There is no rush as he listens to us, and no agenda beyond the offering of consistent grace and love again and again until it finally sinks into our thick heads. And when we are known and loved, it's then that we can live free.
We can't be Jesus to anyone. But we can imitate Jesus to everyone. And we can do our best to listen up. So as we listen to a friend, we ask for the Holy Spirit to help us see what matters. And as we respond in love, without agenda, we can play a role in helping each other live free as well.
Jesus, as I listen to others today, help me respond in love and understanding, with an ear to your voice.
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
"I've really been using my faith as a crutch lately."
I heard that phrase recently from someone who has been going through a season of loss.
What they meant was: Talking to God and trusting God is about the only way I can get by right now. I'm just too weak and down and desperate to find hope anywhere else.
It was shared sheepishly, almost like a confession of failure. And it brings up an important idea that many wrestle with.
Some have been told by those who are skeptical of religious faith that belief in God is a happy illusion--a way for weak minded people to make the emptiness of life and death more palatable. Now, if faith is self-deception to ignore the challenging complexities of life, then yeah, I understand the critique. That's a misuse of what God invites us into.
But is faith really a crutch? Um...yeah. It sure is. Thank God!
Maybe we should claim that phrase and be at peace with it, rather than being shamed by it or feeling ashamed when that's exactly what it is for us.
I mean, why is it seen as so negative?
The purpose of a crutch is to lighten the weight that broken things have to bear, so that healing can continue to progress.
Yep. That's pretty much a central promise of Jesus. So I'm all for faith as a crutch. I'm nearly always in need of healing and support. "Lean on me, when you're not strong, and I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on!" I know that song isn't about Jesus, but every one of those phrases is virtually straight out of his mouth.
If we acknowledge that weakness is a part of life, then I would argue that it's not really good practice to walk without a crutch when your leg is broken. It's tempting to act strong. But you'll do more damage, make your pain worse, and make healing impossible.
And outside of that, using a crutch isn't particularly cushy or comfortable. It requires you to practice self restraint, and it often leaves you a bit sore, because you are learning a new way of being! SEE THE PARALLELS??
After many years, my "go to" response when I face struggles these days is finally (usually) to bring them to feet of Jesus. I constantly have to learn and relearn how to release the massive temptation to look strong and fix everything all the time on my own strength and wisdom. Jesus is totally a crutch for me, and I think that's what he tells us he wants to be. God is our strength when our flesh and heart fail (Ps. 73:26).
I do think there's one major problem with fully embracing the crutch metaphor. And that is that when we feel healthy, we may begin to act like Jesus has nothing to offer us. If we are not in crisis or pain, our relationship with God can get neglected, and we learn to bear all the weight on our own legs once again. The tragic thing about that is not only that deep connection with God suffers, but that healthy seasons are the time when training is the most effective. It's in healthy seasons when we invite God to prepare us to handle seasons of loss, heartache, and disappointment. We learn trust and connectedness with Jesus when it feels easier, so that we can practice trust and connectedness with Jesus when it's really hard. (Yes, I know the metaphor breaks down a little there. But don't miss the point).
It's wonderful to understand that Jesus is radically present with us in our weakness. It's less wonderful if we assume he's unnecessary in our strength. Pride goes before the fall.
So this week, maybe we claim the phrase that is sometimes meant to be a put down. Maybe we own the crutchiness of our faith in Jesus, and we thank God for something that takes the pressure off.
Jesus, help me trust you with my whatever is breaking me down today. Relieve me of the overwhelming weight of self-sufficiency, and free me to love and be loved by the power of your spirit.
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Yesterday I went for a barefoot walk on the trail behind our house. I've been dealing with something called "plantar fasciitis," where a spot under your foot near your heel becomes really sore. It often comes from excessive running, though how I got it, I have no idea (that's a joke. It's definitely from excessive running).
Anyway, walking barefoot is something that physical therapists say can help. I'm usually not a barefoot guy because I have serious texture issues, and because the bottoms of my feet are like delicate little flowers. But I decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it.
Oh goodness. My little journey was painful and slow. Each of my careful steps had sticks and leaves underneath it, and every now and then I hit a small thorn branch, despite my best efforts. Normally I just crush ahead, but this time I had to be so much more aware of what was under my feet-- and I felt all of it. For that reason, I had to walk slowly and carefully in a new way. I think I only made it a quarter mile! But strangely, it also felt good.
Now I still like shoes and plan to continue to wear them most of the time. But I'm thinking about the tendency we have to protect ourselves from the feelings of life in a way that limits our healing.
Deeper discipleship with Jesus should always lead us to deeper vulnerability. As our experience of God's grace grows, we become more aware of what we are feeling, and more willing to walk through some of the more uncomfortable emotions. We embrace a slower life of awareness, rather than rushing over moments that might be painful. In other words, we learn to be barefoot more often.
Yes, shoes can protect us so that we don't get paralyzed when life feels covered with rocks and thorns. But we can also put on shoes of self protection that do not lead to true movement. Alcohol can become the go-to stress relief. Complaining and analyzing others becomes our way of ignoring the critical spirit that needs to be healed in us. Doing lots of church activities makes us feel good while possibly ignoring a lack of connectedness with the living God. Keeping an overfilled schedule can cover over the chance to have deeper, slow conversations with people. And endless stream of tv shows fills up every opportunity for self -reflection or meaningful connection with others.
Jesus is a safe place to land, and a slow pace to walk alongside. We are able to take off whatever shoes we've been wearing when we are in relationship with him. We are free to feel in deep ways, and it's ok if our pace slows down quite a bit because of it. There is healing in that journey.
So it's a meaningful question to ask ourselves... what shoes are we wearing these days that need to be removed for a bit? Where is Jesus inviting you to slow down and feel things a bit more, so that you don't get injured?
This lent season is as good a time as any to be still and rest in God's love, and slowly work through painful stuff that you've refused to allow yourself to feel. Even if you're not injured, regularly acknowledging what feelings are swirling around inside you will always open the door for Jesus to bring transformation, hope, and maturity.
One more thing. If you go for a barefoot walk, make sure you clean your feet before you re-enter the house. That's not a metaphor. I just got into trouble for it, so I figured I'd pass on the hard-learned wisdom.
Jesus, lead me down the path of righteousness and healing, regardless of how slow or painful it may feel. I know you're walking beside me, no matter the pace.
When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
-Matthew 6:3-4 (MSG)
I was talking with a friend recently who has been going through a difficult time. In the midst of exploring what care looks like, they mentioned how much of a gift it is when someone sends a simple message that doesn't require a response. Sometimes even simple questions can feel like a tough obligation to a mourning friend or someone journeying with depression, tragedy, or stress.
That little comment started me thinking about a connected theme in the lives of those who want to show love and care: We often have a need as care-giving people to have our care validated.
We want to know we're making a difference. We want a response!
As humans, our desire to impact others positively can quickly morph into an unhealthy belief in the law of reciprocity- a psychological principal that states that whenever you give, the recipient is compelled to somehow return the favor. It begins young, when most acts of care are transactional. We do things for others, knowing that they are going to be really grateful to us or reciprocate in some way, and that makes it worthwhile.
It may be as simple as a thank you, but we subtly learn to expect a response to kindness. We can even grow indignant if we don't receive it. It happens in our lives more than we may think.
Jesus wants to take us beyond this transaction as he shapes us into his character. Just like when we learn that Jesus is present with us even when we don't sense his presence, discipleship also teaches us that our outward care and actions are worth doing regardless of if we get a response or validation of the impact.
Consider this example. Some of us may choose to give to humanitarian aid efforts in the Ukraine. Once we fill out an online form and send $100 away, it's unlikely that we'll get a call from someone saying, "thank you so much for providing food for my family after fleeing the bombing in our hometown." We may get a form email marking our contribution, but we simply have to trust that our gift matters, and that we are expressing God's heart by doing the compassionate thing. The point is not for us to feel good about helping. The point is to be a helper. Like my friend, but on the opposite side of the experience, it is a gift when we learn to care for those around us, needing no affirmation whatsoever. This is our way of life now.
So let us serve our neighbors in complete freedom because God loves us, expecting nothing in return. Let us send texts and emails of encouragement with no expectations, written with nothing but the pure and selfless love of Jesus.
Let us serve our spouses, pick up after our kids, give away our money, help our coworkers, and be generous in all areas of material and immaterial-- because we are Jesus people, not because we need to know we are making a difference. It will set us free! (And Jesus says we'll get rewarded for it one day anyways, so if you're all about that payout life, there you go).
Of course, the truth is that yes, we are making a difference. Every act of love carries significance. And many times, we will experience the joy of knowing and feeling that in this life. But there is a far deeper joy when our hearts are at peace, knowing that we are so loved by God that each moment we live is an overflow of it toward others... with no response needed.
Jesus, set me free today as I love for your sake and nothing else, for you have have given me immeasurable worth.
"From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus."
We've begun a spiritual journey that can be rather painful.
I've been reflecting on one of Paul's statements in Galatians, as he warned the church that some around them were pushing a faith that looked very impressive, full of religious activity and gestures to prove its validity, like Jewish law and circumcision. Yet it cost very little. He contrasts that with the way of Jesus, who laid down his life for the sake of others to bring freedom, not more laws.
A he tells them that if they want to see if his faith is legitimate, to take a look at his own "marks." He'd been through a lot following Jesus, and his scars were living proof (2 Cor. 11:24). It wasn't religious gestures (circumcision), but rather the cost of faithful love, that proved his faith's legitimacy.
My family and I did some work in our woods on Saturday afternoon, hacking thorn bushes. Regardless of our attempts to avoid pain, we all got ripped up a bit. If you look at my hands, it's obvious that they bear the marks of a day in the thorns.
The Greek word for "marks" that Paul uses is stigmata. It literally means "scar marks." Stigmata was used in several ways in the ancient world. Runaway slaves who were found were branded on their foreheads. Soldiers of famous commanders had their names tattooed on their faces. And worshippers of a pagan goddess had her name branded on their foreheads as well. So Paul re-envisions the words and says... "my stigmata, my scar marks, are my sign that my life is wrapped up in Jesus."
We are now in the journey of Lent, traveling with Jesus toward the cross. During this time we embrace the frailty of our own human experience, and the need that we have for God's redemption. Some of us found meaning last evening in being "marked" with ashes, symbolizing our own brokenness, and also the willingness to walk with Jesus in the dying in order to walk with Jesus in the living.
As Christians we are are all "marked" people. We are people who follow a scarred savior. And we bear scars ourselves, though often they are not physical. Some of our scars are reminders of the cost of following the countercultural way of Jesus. Some of them are symbols of pain that God is healing and redeeming. But our to one another that God is present in our frailty, and that God is in the business of redeeming our pain. The marks we carry are a reminder that our wounds are not the end of our story, nor are they to be hidden as a source of shame. They are glimpses that we understand the suffering savior, that he understands us, and that we trust him.
I want to be marked this lent.
Marked as one who belongs to The Way.
Marked as one who will lay down my life in humility and love, even when it is costly.
Marked as one who follows the path of peace that my teacher walked, even in a world that celebrates violence.
Marked as one whose compassion extends beyond the thickly drawn lines of our philosophical echo chambers and out toward the isolating confinements of all who suffer.
Marked as one unafraid to give up for the sake of another, or to relinquish things in me that God is asking me to release.
Marked as one who embraces sorrows and limitations and mortality, yet still glimpses a hope that death cannot extinguish.
Marked as one whose scars show that I belong to Jesus.
Lent is a powerful season of being marked, and embracing our scars.
We indeed have a lot of "stigma" about being the people of Jesus. We have lot of stigma about bearing our hurts and being uncomfortable. We can have stigma about belonging to God's Church. And yet there is great beauty when the scars we bear are transformed into symbols and stories of God's redemption and healing. Lean into lent this year, my friends.
Jesus, help me be willing to be marked as I trust and follow you.