The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders;
where morning dawns, where evening fades,
you call forth songs of joy.
Have you ever been in the presence of something that puts you in your place, but in all the right ways? Perhaps you read a biography of someone who overcame insurmountable odds and you realize that your daily complaints are a bit juvenile. Maybe you worked really hard on cultivating a perfect flower garden, but then you take a walk and encounter a meadow that is naturally bursting with more color than you could ever dream of. Or maybe you wandered alone into a grove of the oldest living things in the world and suddenly realized you were on holy ground. That’s what happened to Bethany and I earlier this month.
During our recent trip west, one of my professors tipped us off to a lesser known trail in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. It was far removed from the carefully fenced off Sequoias a few miles away near the welcome center. This was a little harder to get to, but the payoff was amazing. After 6 miles of hiking, the trail dropped us down into the largest single grove of Sequoias in the world. Towering silently and reaching over 200 feet high and as wide as city streets, the trees took our breath away. We were completely captivated in this quiet grove. We were standing among living things that had weathered dozens of forest fires, droughts, and storms. Many were alive when Jesus grew up Galilee on the other side of the earth. Some were alive when Moses came down Mount Sinai. Before America was colonized, they were already 1000 years old. They had seen things beyond me. And I could feel the wonder of it all as we quietly walked alone among them. There were no words.
God’s people have always been encouraged to claim God's beauty around us and stand back in awe. It’s how we stay aware of God’s presence. It’s how we keep our perspective right. And it’s how we fight the disease of flavorless living in a world that’s becoming robotic, stressful, and lifeless. But it’s easy to be amazed at God’s beauty among the Sequoia in California. In daily life, however, we’re awful at being... awe-full.
Life feels mundane most of the time.
Get up. Coffee. Get ready for work/prep the kids/your routine.
Go through your day.
Crash at the end of the day, exhausted.
Do it again.
I fight that temptation all the time. But I’m learning an interesting truth through this. Rather than making the rest of the world seem more mundane, experiences of awe can do the opposite. They can teach us to see God’s beauty and wonder all over the place. Experiences of awe can retrain our brains to see that all of life is a gift from God, even in difficult times— and that we might see something wonderful if we simply are available for it. A smile from a stranger, a kind word, and a beautiful sunset are all opportunities for us to take a moment and be filled with awe. An act of forgiveness toward us or from us is breathtaking. A life transformed by Jesus, even in the smallest way, restores wonder to the freedom and grace God gives each person.
Look someone in the eye.
Explore the color around you in a deeper way. Notice the kindness of someone and think about how they are made in God’s image.
Pick up a leaf and examine it. Watch a child play. And like Wendell Berry writes,
“Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium.
Not to be a stick in the mud, but it will almost certainly require getting off your phone.
Look around and become filled with wonder at God’s beauty all around you this week. And somehow, even with the smallest action, find a way to participate in it.
Jesus, open my eyes to your wonder, so that I might live in light of eternity.
One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?”
“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”
Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”
Remember those Dear Abby columns that used to run in the newspapers? Someone would always share about the issue they were struggling with, but instead of their name, they would sign it with a descriptor of their condition. Help me! Signed, Frustrated in Fargo.Or, more well known, Sleepless In Seattle.
Has it ever struck you how unfortunate it is to think of someone’s problem as synonymous with their very name?
If you were defined by your issues, what would your name be?
Jesus meets a man whose body is no longer working. He can't walk or get up. He’s lying on his mat, like he does every day. But contrary to other healing stories, this man doesn’t cry out for Jesus. In fact, Jesus notices him first and walks over and asks him a question…. and a bit of rude one at that! He looks at this guy on the ground and says,
Do you want to get well?
What kind of a question is that? The disciples are probably standing there thinking, way to add some salt to the wound, Jesus.
Interestingly, rather than answering the question, the man gives the reasons he's been unable to get well. He never gives a direct response to the simple question of Jesus.
Did he hesitate? Maybe. Why?
And why might we pause at that same question?
It’s hard to talk about, but perhaps sitting in our woundedness, in a sad sort of way, is what we've grown accustomed to. We think, I'll always be this way... and the hopelessness sets in. I'll never be at peace...And the bitterness grows...... I'll always be the wounded one... and it defines us. Because if we're really honest, there's validation in using our pain as an identity marker. Holding onto our pain can shield us from the scary journey of growth. A friend betrayed your trust once, so every time an opportunity comes up to go a little deeper with someone, you keep the old wound fresh and remind yourself that you just can’t trust anyone any more. See what I mean?
We all need to be healed of something. We’re all wounded. We’re the lame dude. And though we know that living life defined by woundedness is not in our best interests, we still construct identities around them.
Dear God….. Signed, the selfish one. The divorced one. The weak one.
There's a big difference between being honest about our hurts and our shortcomings and being defined by them. Acknowledging the wounds of your past is not the same thing as letting them direct your attitude for your future.
American poet Carl Sandberg once wrote: There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.
Which one will win?
So Jesus looks at this guy (and honestly, we really don’t know what’s going on in his head), and he says, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” And the man chooses to rise in response. Do we understand that when he stands, he’s embracing a new identity? After 38 years, he’s no longer “the invalid!”
But the mat- the symbol of this man’s woundedness, doesn’t actually get left behind. He’s told to carry it along. The mat that he had laid on for years, defining his condition, is now transformed into a symbol of his redemption. That’s the beauty of what God can do with our deepest wounds. They can be a part of us that points not only to our pain, but to our redemption. They can become a symbol of hope that reminds you of your new identity, if we invite Jesus to transform us daily.
If your identity has been formed by your limp, or your shame, or your hurt… there is such good news. Those wounds are a part of your story, but they are not what needs to define you. You are a child of God.
Jesus, make me willing.
“In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.
-Jesus, Luke 22:25-26
San Francisco’s Pier 39 is famously known for its lively waterfront vibe and restaurants. But it also has a unique natural phenomenon. Only a few feet into the bay, a colony of sea lions has set up permanent residence on a series of floating docs. They moved in after an earthquake in 1989, taking over an entire section of the local marina. After residents were unable to get rid of them, they embraced this new reality, and the Marine Mammal Center helped to create a protected space for their new urban hangout. Now, any time of the year, hundreds of sea lions call Pier 39 home.
Though there are a lot of sea lions, there is also quite a bit of wooden real estate available. There’s enough room for all the blubber to get a little sun. And yet, inevitably, when you visit the marina, you will see that scores of sea lions spend all of their time defending their turf. They bark at each other, stick their chests out, and play a slippery version of “king of the floating dock.” One will leap out of the water and climb up a raft, only to get bull-rushed by whichever sea lion happens to be near the edge. And back and forth they go, until one or both of them just gives up.
When you see the whole dock, it looks a little ridiculous to see this need to push others away. Not to mention that these guys are not made for land, so they just look like idiots throwing their flippers around chasing each other. It looks like a dance-off where the only move allowed is The Worm. But the moment they enter the water, doing what they were made to do, they become magnificent creatures again. They flip and spin, weaving around each other. It’s beautiful.
Every day, we have a choice to make with our lives and our attitudes. We can choose to defend our turf, keeping our attention on making sure that we have enough, while being suspicious of everyone around us. We can see people as a threat to our livelihood, our happiness, or our belief system, and treat them accordingly. Or, we can follow Jesus. Jesus speaks to us of abundance of time, energy, and resources. Jesus teaches us to look at others graciously and with a servant heart, being unafraid to share a bit of space. Jesus teaches us that what we have is God’s anyways, so constantly worrying about our goods is the last thing we need to be doing.
Perhaps you have fallen into the trap lately of looking around at others through the lens of competition. Perhaps you are listening too much to your news station of choice, and you’ve become convinced that everyone is out to get you. Maybe your job constantly tempts you to climb rank among your coworkers. Or perhaps you just find yourself constantly irritated at people around you. Much of the world lives like that. And to be honest, we look ridiculous when we do. It’s not what we are made for. Our version of barking can be critical comments toward others (with them or behind their back), or even a critical spirit when no words are said. It accomplishes nothing. But when we welcome each other into our lives and when we seek to serve, and when we're unafraid to give up our ground and ] swim if that gives rest to someone who needs it... that's beautiful.
There’s room on the dock, friends. Stop jockeying for position.
Take some time this morning to be present enough with Jesus to find identity in being loved by God. As you do, it will transform how you see others and how you respond to them throughout your day. Jesus has come to rescue you. The pressure is off. Extend your flipper to the one in the water.
Jesus, help me to release the worries or competitions that distract me from living fully.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! -Psalm 34:8
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
My wife and I are just heading home after being in California to graduate from my master’s degree program and celebrate by exploring the beauty of the mountains and coastline of California for a few days. I’m sure that there will be many reflections emerging from these experiences in the coming days, but today I want to share about the food.
Because we were always on the go, we did a lot of eating out at restaurants over the past few days. It was fun to be foodies for a week. We went to some small dives and we ate at some fancy restaurants. Each time, we would ask the server about the dishes. At almost every restaurant we tried, each server would raise their eyebrows and tell us about this one great dish that we had to get. "The duck is the chef’s favorite", one would say. Another said, “oh, the caper dressing on the chopped salad is amazing. I know it might sound strange, but you have to experience the whole thing together. The flavor profile is what we’re focusing on.” Another waitress told us that we could not go wrong with the garlic fries.
Each time we could quickly figure out two things. We could tell if the server was connected to the chef, and we could tell if the server had tasted the food. When that was the case, the servers were able to describe so beautifully what the chef was excited about, as if it were the chef herself talking about the food. And when they had tried it, they spoke to us not about information, but about experience. It always made us want to be just a little more adventurous!
That is, except one place. We were in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have a lot of choices. When we asked about the special chicken dish on the menu, the server responded, “Well, we didn’t get the chicken breast in the latest supply shipment, so it’s thighs and wings instead. But chicken is chicken, right?” There was little interest in what he was sharing, and clearly this gentlemen hadn’t tasted what he was describing. And guess what? The food was not great. But we could feel that coming in advance!
As disciples of Jesus, a core part of our life is about bearing witness to the goodness and beauty of God. We are not selling anything, but we are representing Jesus and revealing God’s love to the world. We do this in little ways and big ways. We love selflessly, we pray for others, and we look for places where we can serve and care for the overlooked and forgotten.
But as we do that, and as we share about what motivates our lifestyle, it won’t take long for others to notice if we are simply quoting the right information, or if we know God’s heart for the world and God’s way of redeeming it. Have we spent time with the Great Chef, listening to his voice? Have we tasted the love and grace of God in a real way, so that we speak with depth from our own experience, or are we quoting ideas that we aren’t experiencing?
When I invite people to share with me about their faith, so many default to simply giving a biography of church experiences or thoughts about God. That’s fine, but that’s not what I'm asking for. I want to hear about the complicated and wonderful journey of connecting with God, but we are not used to sharing from such a place of personal experience. How can we grow in this?
Here's an encourage for you this week. Spend some time sitting in the presence of Jesus. Get away for a few moments. Breathe deeply. Delight in being loved. Invite the presence of God to transform you.
And then, don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re experiencing with others. Sometimes we need to hear good news from each other, over and over again, to be inspired to keep tasting and seeing that God is good.
We really don’t have to be impressive, insightful or super-spiritual. We simply have to be with Jesus enough that he starts to rub off on us, and people will notice it in the best way possible.
Jesus, satisfy me with your love, and lead me to share it with others.
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.
Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.
I’ve been traveling all over lately as I wrap up my seminary work. On Monday I had the privilege of walking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I nearly got blown off of it, but it was a good time. Afterwards I went off on my own to explore Golden Gate park for 20 minutes before our bus left. Trails wound around near the base of the bridge. I followed one lone path that led to a fabulous old tunnel. There was only one problem. One side of the tunnel was tall enough that you could walk right in. But 20 yards later, the exit of the tunnel was only four feet tall. It was like there was a modern day Alice-In-Wonderland thing going on, except you didn’t shrink along with the tunnel. You whacked your head instead. Sure, there was a sign outside of the small end that said “CAUTION,” but that wasn’t much help if you entered through the big side on a bike or running along without a warning!
Thankfully, this time I was moving slowly enough to notice. Then I saw someone coming in from the other side who was in a position to see what I couldn’t. It got me thinking.
Some things can only be seen from the side you’re not on. Some things can only be noticed by someone looking at what you’re doing and where you’re going, and you might not see it otherwise.
When I was on the small side of the tunnel, a group quickly came through in the other direction. I said, “watch your head!”, hoping that I could keep them from a bit of pain. I’m sure that some people notice what’s about to happen. But I guarantee you that there have been concussions when the tunnel narrows and people aren’t seeing it. That’s why others can be so helpful. It’s one of the ways God speaks to us.
In the Jesus life, we talk about the importance of relationships all the time. But I think sometimes we lack the courage to take our friendships deeper by humbly inviting insights and cautions from each other. We all have tunnels in our lives that get narrow before we notice. We cruise along, full of stress, busy schedules, and other weights that Jesus didn’t intend us to bear alone. And we don’t always look up enough to notice that the light at the end of the tunnel…. is getting smaller! Look out!!!
We are never as self aware as we like to think we are. Disciples of Jesus need to embrace the practice of asking for help from each other. Recently, as my masters degree has completed, I’ve been required to participate in asking others what they see ahead of me and within me. And whether it is affirming or challenging, what a gift it is to hear someone who loves you share what they see in you! If we learn how to receive, few things can be more transformative in us. Will you join me in committing to this practice more often? Who are you walking with that can help you see what you might not see ahead of you? Perhaps it’s a caution because you’re missing something that could be damaging in your life. Perhaps it’s something that is emerging in your life that may bring some new direction, but you can’t quite see it yet.
Ask someone close to you:
What do you see ahead of me?
Where do you see God at work?
What dangers or beauty might I be missing?
The responses of a loving friend can be a gift, even if it feels a bit scary. Ask a few trusted people those questions. Take time to pray about what they say, and invite Jesus to light the way for the direction to take. It takes humility on all sides, but it’s the way of the beautiful life that Jesus intended for us to experience together.
By the way… the other side of the tunnel, once I was aware of where I was going, was filled with light, refreshing breeze, and a beautiful view of the expanse of San Francisco Bay.
So it is when Jesus gives us people in our lives to help us move together toward God’s redemption and direction.
Don’t be afraid. We need each other.
Jesus, help me welcome opportunities for growth that I may not be able to see on my own.