Backyard Blue Jays
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
- David, Psalm 51:12
The spring migration is almost here. Our backyard is near a state park forest, giving us wonderful access to wildlife. As the warblers and other song birds move south during the springtime, dozens of species pass directly through our yard. It's exciting to see the new and interesting colors that flutter through our bushes and rest at our feeders. I count them and identify them as best I can, coffee in one hand each morning, binoculars in the other.
Of course, we also have species that are around every day of the year. Common birds like wrens, cardinals, and blue jays.
I keep peanuts out a lot, a favorite of the blue jays, so they are almost constantly in the yard. Oftentimes, I look right past them, focusing on less common birds.
I've been thinking about that this week. Because the blue jay is a spectacular sight, with electric blues and dotted wingbars.... if you don't take it for granted.
I remember several years ago in California when I finished my masters degree, how thrilled I was to catch a glimpse (and photo -->) of a California Scrub Jay. This special, exotic bird was amazing! Do you know where I found it? Perched on the roof of my hotel, and hopping around the parking lot. Why? Because they are all over the place out there. No one else leaving the hotel even noticed them.
Hmm. Both beautiful birds. Both overlooked by those who see them most often. Why?
Why is it that the more common something is in our lives, the less likely we are to notice its beauty?
This is more tragic than one might think, because recognizing beauty is one of the gateways to transformation. The less we notice beauty around us, the less transformed we become as people. Let's move this toward Jesus.
Given this truth, it's not hard to see that the longer we've been around Jesus, the more common the grace and rescue and salvation of Jesus becomes in our lives. And the more common it is, the less we are changed by its breathtaking beauty.
We take it for granted. We cease to be thrilled with how magnificent and freeing the love of God truly is. We hear about it with our church, we sing about it in our songs. It's right in front of us, so what is common actually becomes commonplace.
But being common doesn't mean it isn't breathtaking. And when we miss the beauty of God's rescue, we miss the chance to walk away changed a little more each day.
This is especially likely in times of stress, disappointment, and sadness.
We've grown tired this season. Possibly, we've stopped noticing (or seeking out) the beauty of Jesus in our lives. It can quickly become background noise in the exhausting barrage of current events, family responsibilities, job and school transitions, and pixelated distractions. Jesus invites us to slow down, look up, and be filled with wonder and joy again at God's gift of life. This does not remove us from the pain and struggles of life and our world. Remarkably, it actually equips us to deal with it all in the right spirit, so that anger or despair doesn't take root. You will walk away changed when you linger on the beauty of God's grace for you. Every relationship you have will be healthier. Every situation you encounter will draw your mind toward God's redemptive hope.
King David lost his way many times, and had to cry out to God to restore the joy of his salvation... because he had lost sight of it altogether. He knew he needed God's recalibration.
Years after his own conversion, Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, "thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!" (2 Cor 9:15). He knew that sitting with the beauty and wonder of God's rescue will always take our breath away if we don't overlook it. It will always lead us toward transformation, because we know we are loved that much. It is beyond what words can even describe.
So lately I've been pausing at the wonder and beauty of the blue jay. I think it's even more beautiful than the scrub jay. It's easy to overlook, since it's around every day. But I'm letting it remind me of the joy of my salvation, letting it lead me to be freshly inspired to love God and love others, because God's love for me is beautiful beyond words.
What's your thing? What is both beautiful and commonplace in your life that can remind you of God's beautiful everyday grace? See it fresh today.
Jesus, open my eyes to the joy of your salvation today. Set me free to live out the radical love of your kingdom.
The Need for Conviction
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
The word "conviction" has several meanings. It describes a declaration of guilt by a jury, and it also can describe a deeply held belief. Additionally, if something brings conviction to us as disciples of Jesus, it means that we are struck with an awareness that something in our life needs to change. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings conviction in this way, but the Church community has a responsibility to help each other walk in light of that conviction, so that we live out what we believe.
I rarely write about specific events for several reasons. First, there is injustice and suffering somewhere every single day. How does one even decide which are worthy of increased reflection? They all are. So I tend to write/speak in larger themes and principles, letting people put things together themselves and allow space for the Spirit to clarify. Specifically, I rarely write directly about racial issues because they are complex and tone is difficult to convey. Also, I know that I will likely misstep in my attempts, since I write from my own cultural bias and blindspots. I've sought to take a posture of learning and listening for the past 2 years. And wow, I have a lot to learn. But this post isn't about my journey. It's about how we look at what happened Tuesday evening, and why it's worthy of reflection in a weekly email that is focused on spiritual formation.
I write today because the United States and much of the US Church (in this case, I mean white culture church) have had a lack of convictions, in different ways.
On Tuesday, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. Though many unarmed black people have lost their lives to excessive force in law enforcement, few have been held accountable for their crimes. Conviction is too rare an event. This is a justice and equality issue. This is a compassion issue. This is a human rights issue. Jesus cares deeply about every person who bears the image of God (meaning, every person). When a life is treated with less value because of skin color, or when a death sentence is enacted on the street because of minor or major crimes committed, it is wrong, and our discipleship requires that we do not simply look the other way in our discomfort or privilege.
Predominately white culture churches have struggled with convictions in this area. For centuries, Christian faith was unquestionably used to exploit and justify the abuse of black lives. It's difficult now for us to understand that we still have work to do if personally, we feel we work hard to love the person in front of us as equals. Clearly, we're doing our part, right? But if we dismiss how much more work there is to do, how much pain is still felt on a larger level, we fail in our discipleship to honor the beauty of black Christianity and understand the deep pain that has come from being mistreated and misunderstood. We have to listen and trust how big of a deal this all is.
So just like in our justice system, Christianity in white culture churches have often displayed a lack of conviction over the pain expressed from our brothers and sisters of color. But that pain is truly valid and worthy of attention. We need the conviction that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer. We need the conviction that there are systems in play that aren’t fixed simply by individual kindness, but by together working toward solutions to deeply ingrained systems of injustice.
There was a sense of relief and hope, but fresh pain, within the black community when the verdict was announced. If we are one body, then white Christians will seek to understand why this was such an important and excruciating experience for our sisters and brothers of color. You might not grasp it, but are you seeking to learn? Are you seeking to hear the cries of your brothers and sisters, rather than simply hearing the news and moving on?
This is a time for us to reflect on our responses, and invite God to strengthen our convictions of love and empathy.
There is SO. MUCH. PAIN. I was emotional when I heard the verdict. But I was far more emotional when I saw the tears of friends who are personally impacted by such a verdict. That reminds me that the exhaustion is so deep, so long, that I can't understand it. But I can love and advocate.
New convictions can bring healing and hope to a more just country and a more unified church. New convictions can lead to deep changes, in our country and in our faith communities.
I invite you to keep this in mind as you move ahead this week: Jesus calls his disciples (the body of Christ) to be one, and calls us to be known by love. When we put those two concepts together, we must have the humility to learn what love looks like to the rest of the body, rather than simply assuming we get it.
So this week is a chance to reflect on what God can grow in us and in our world during seasons of conviction. I think I'll leave it there for today, with one final universal caveat:
As we think about verdicts or any other issues of judgment and justice, vengeance still has no place in the Christian faith. Desiring vengeance is different than justice, and it is antithetical to the heart of Jesus, even in the face of injustice. Restorative justice looks at repairing the harm done to those mistreated, rather than desiring the suffering of more people, even guilty ones. We release that emotion to God, rather than being poisoned by the need for retributive violence.
Jesus, this all might be really uncomfortable for me to acknowledge. But give me empathy, humility, and the willingness to listen well today.
Changing Your Mind
But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes.
-1 Corinthians 8:1b-3
"You know what thinking is? Thinking is just a fancy word for changing your mind."
"I will not change my mind."
"Then you will die stupid."
-One of my favorite lines from Doctor Who (I have several hundred others as well).
Multiple times throughout his teachings in the gospels, Jesus asked his disciples, "what do you think?". He wanted to invite them to thoughtfully considering what they were hearing. He wasn't particularly asking for their opinion as much as asking them to sit with why a story made them uncomfortable or elated.
Jesus was teaching them to always keep the door open to a new understanding of God and others. This was certainly so that they could understand God's heart. But it was also so that they would learn the value of humility. This has become a real problem in much of the American church.
Over the decades I've heard a lot of messaging about how important it is for Christians to have "strong convictions." I certainly have strong convictions about a number of things regarding my faith and life. But is it possible that this emphasis on holding and defending our convictions can actually make us rigid and unteachable? As if the more confident we are in our knowledge, the less able we are to learn?
As a church, we lean deeply into discipleship. Discipleship means, at its simplest core, apprenticeship. A disciple is someone who is constantly learning from Jesus in new ways. If we can't think in new ways and consider new things, we have a discipleship problem.
Thinking well takes work. Many of us believe that we're thinking when we hear new ideas or stories that challenge how we see reality. But much of that time, rather than actually thinking critically, what we're doing is figuring out the most effective way to reject other ideas, and defend our own. Inside our heads, we subconsciously argue, dismiss, rationalize, or judge. But thinking well somehow gets lost.
What if, instead of linking thinking to winning arguments or defending our correctness, it was linked closely with the concept of love?
Paul warned the Corinthians that if they thought they got it all figured out, they almost certainly had huge blind spots in their lives. The same is true of us. But if our goal is to learn how to love God (and others, as an extension) really well... then that's what is significant in God's eyes. LOVE > KNOWLEDGE. Why? Because our knowledge is always limited, but love will always lead us toward God.
The Christ followers in my life with the greatest wisdom, maturity, and spiritual depth share several things in common. They hold their faith with great humility. They are always open to learning new things and calling their assumptions into question. And they are not afraid of changing their minds as they keep their eyes on Jesus.
When we first love God and approach knowledge through that lens, we will learn to reject those tendencies to argue, dismiss, rationalize, or judge.
Instead, we will:
Wonder what we might be missing.
Evaluate our own resistance.
Ask what God's love and care would look like.
When love leads us, we long to understand. We long to be changed. We long to learn from another's experience.
Personally, my mind has continued to grow and change over the years as I've tried to allow love to become more significant than my supposed knowledge.
I've learned that God is bigger than I previously allowed for. I've learned racial injustice is more widespread and horrific than my personal bias had taught me. I've learned that people who have done terrible things at the worst moment of their lives are capable of more good than I would ever have given them credit for. I've learned that God's faithfulness is not dependent on me figuring out every mysterious detail in the Bible.
When love and humility lead us toward Jesus, Jesus teaches us new things about his kingdom. But even that new knowledge won't ever be the most important part of our formation. The heart that is formed in us during the process will be. We will not have all the answers, and we don't need to. But Jesus is faithful to help us learn the way of love as we seek to be open to all that is real and true, even if it's difficult.
What is Jesus asking you to really think about this week?
Jesus, your presence is a safe place to be. Therefore, let me be unafraid to listen, learn, and think in new compassionate ways today.
Only the Good Die Young
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
I'm 4 years older than Jesus ever was.
I've been thinking about that this week. Thinking that he died so very young. Have you ever thought about the tragedy of that truth?
Some may be uncomfortable with that statement because well, Jesus had to die at exactly that place and time, so thinking about Jesus getting old is ridiculous. Maybe that's right. Or maybe, if people had been more receptive of the good news of God's kingdom of forgiveness and wholeness, things could have gone differently... at least for a little while longer.
There is value in looking at things from a new angle.
For many, the cross is primarily about God being angry and us being forgiven, with Jesus hanging in the middle. But that's far too small a picture. When the story is too individualized, it gets disconnected from the circumstances that led to Jesus's death. Jesus becomes stripped of his own humanity and turned into a divine metro card to transport us to heaven free of charge. Of course, if this was the case, then he could have just been killed by King Herod when he was an innocent baby (Mt. 1:13) and that would have taken care of the perfect sacrifice needed. But that's a TFG for another time.
Jesus' death is more multifaceted than that. People got angry. They wanted him dead, though he harmed no one. Each year we have to be willing to be horrified by it all before we can be grateful for it all. We dare not run away from the discomfort of Friday night in our attempt to spring ahead to Sunday morning. Because if there's anything that helps makes sense of the world as we see it, it's the cross.
In a year like we've experienced, leaning into the cross this Holy Week might seem like salt poured onto a wound. We've seen enough death this year. We've watched unjust and unnecessary violence against the BIPOC community and other minorities. We've felt the sting of injustice, cried tears of heartache at the lack of love and care in our world. We've felt despair and exhaustion and isolation, and cried out for God to fix all the broken things out there (and in us!). We've questioned what's true or not, as lines seem to be blurred everywhere. The last thing we need is to call to mind another story about someone's death. If we wanted more of that, we could watch it on the news any day.
So know this, friends: it's allowed to be horrible. You're supposed to be disgusted by people nailing a human being to a cross for any reason, let alone an innocent man who was proclaiming God's love to the world. It's allowed to feel like it doesn't make sense, like it's just more hopelessness. Yet, if we see it through the correct lens, it's also something completely new and wonderful.
Because the story isn't just that the son of God died. It's how he died.
Jesus looks head on at those doing evil, and says a prayer for them. Not only that, he takes all their wrath, all their hatred, all their sin sickness, and receives it willingly, exposing the emptiness of it all. Jesus fighting back or destroying his enemies in like fashion would accomplish nothing. But Jesus loving, forgiving, and refusing to use the same tactics to set things right..... well, that just makes a mockery of evil altogether. It pulls back the charade and shows just how ugly and meaningless sin is.
It's like God is sending a message to the world about what violence, fear, power, and dominance will always lead to, and it cannot be ignored. Jesus exposes the ugliness that humans are capable of, and does the most remarkable thing.
He forgives them while they're at their ugliest.
In Colossians, Paul writes that the cross itself was a triumph. Not the resurrection, mind you! That's a triumph too, but why would the cross be triumphant? Because in one single moment the cross reveals the horrific ugliness of humanity's capabilities, and the breathtaking beauty of God's. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us, is another way to put it. Jesus reveals the sickness of evil in the world, and ends the cycle. And now we know how to as well. Forgiveness changes everything. It's a masterclass in God's character.
What a young, horrible, profoundly beautiful death. All at once.
Jesus' death was so much more than personal forgiveness, though that's included in this selfless sin-absorbing act. God suffering innocently is a political statement of love and justice to the corrupt systems of the world. It's solidarity with every human who suffers unjustly. It's a revelation of God's true character. And it reveals a way of living and dying that sparked a global movement of people who have tried to imitate him (very imperfectly) for thousands of years.
So tomorrow, as you reflect on this important weekend, it's appropriate to feel like this should not have happened. And it's appropriate to feel immense gratitude that it did, because nothing could more clearly communicate God's heart, expose the emptiness of sin, and teach us to be people of redemption.
Jesus, help me pause in wonder today at your character displayed on the cross.