The one who is high and lifted up,
who lives forever, whose name is holy, says:
I live on high, in holiness,
and also with the crushed and the lowly,
reviving the spirit of the lowly,
reviving the heart of those who have been crushed.
I know a lot of families and meal communities that have a simple way of sharing what’s happening in life. During a meal, each person has a chance to give both a “high” and a “low” for the day/week. What was good, and what was tough?
This little question has the potential to remind us during difficult days that there is also good to grasp. It also gives us perspective that life is full of all sorts of experiences and emotions, reminding us that there is value in identifying both extremes. And it can open our eyes to the way that God meets us in both. But most of the time, depending on the day, we prefer to dwell on only one extreme, and ignore the other.
As I reflected on a passage in Isaiah recently, I began thinking about the highs and lows of God’s presence. I’m not talking about the mountain top experiences with God contrasted with the feelings of absence; I’m referencing the unique way that God is both incredibly big, and profoundly small. And, like the highs and lows of each day, we have a tendency to dwell on one and ignore the other.
Some of us gravitate toward the highs of God. We prefer to think of God as conquering and victorious, above and outside of everything. God is way up there, and immense.
We want the lightning and the thunder (my children would immediately start singing thunder, thun-thun-thunder). We get less comfortable with the image of a God who suffers, who is patient and in the thick of it with his people. It’s hard to embrace the lowness of a God who walks day by day in the slow and painful journey of one with disability, and who sits with care among those living in extreme poverty. This can feel beneath a big God. We don’t prefer to think of God as “living with the lowly.”
Yet our story is that God enters quietly from backstage, in obscurity for 30 years, and then avoids the political and military power offered to him. Instead he chooses to transform the world through relationships and presence with everyday people.
Some of us do gravitate toward that low nature of God. What we struggle with is the high and holy element. This is the God who inspires awe and reverence, who speaks life into motion, and whose name is holy and removed from everything else in all of creation. This is the Jesus before whom people threw themselves on the ground. This is encapsulated in the overwhelming moment that Peter cries to Jesus, “go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” God is overwhelming and mysterious and beautiful and invokes a bit of fright in both the Old and New Testament when glory is revealed (through Jesus, angels, and the prophets!). That seems too high and holy for us.
And yet we read, “I live on high, in holiness…. but also with the crushed.” God is not only Elohim (Creator God/Mighty One) but also Emmanuel (God with us).
This is such good news. It is precisely this high and low nature of God that can fill our spirit like nothing else. In the moments when we are crushed, we are filled with the hope that the one who suffers and walks with us is also the one who is above all. There is mystery, but such hope! And the one who is above all and goes beyond our limits of comprehension is also the one who enters into our mundane and disappointing moments. Nothing is too big or little for our God. If you’re drawn to one of the extremes, I encourage you also embrace the other, and take hope and delight that the loving, living God is beyond our categories.
St Patrick got it right in his prayer 1,600 years ago:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me….
Jesus, thank your for being above me and beyond me so that I can trust you in all things, yet low enough to walk with me and revive my broken heart.
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new."
Isaiah 43:18-19 (MSG)
In the famous Greek poem The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus is swept away for 10 years, fighting a battle that is not his own. Eager to return to his homeland, his journey is disrupted and he spends 10 more adventurous years on the sea, trying to survive shipwrecks and storms and eventually make his way home. He is seeking peace and tranquility in his homeland, but seems unable to reach it. Finally, he receives a mystical message that his homecoming will indeed happen, but he must make one final journey. And it has to do with the ship oar in his hand.
The oar has become a trusty companion over the past decade. It was his tool for survival on the seas, and a reminder of all he's overcome. And now he is told to carry it far inland and plant it into the ground. The land is so far from the sea that the locals won’t know what it is, and they’ll think it’s a farm tool for separating grain and chaff.
What an odd task.
Now, since The Odyssey is an allegory, there are loads of meaning in each element, and we are free to interpret in our own ways as well. But one thing sticks out in this story...
What was critical and meaningful to Odysseus at one time will not always be needed by him in the same way. Odysseus needs to leave behind one of the tools that defined his life, because a new season was at hand. In fact, he would need to intentionally place it behind him in order to move on.*
Jesus is constantly inviting us to do this sort of stuff. Call it pruning. Call it becoming new. Call it working out our salvation. But there are times when what has helped us in one season needs to be left behind in order to live fully into the next as we follow him.
What if the thing that has fueled you for years, helping you to battle through and survive, is the very thing that needs to be released in order to peacefully move with God to the next phase of your life?
What if your need to prove yourself, which has made you a successful businessperson or entrepreneur, is now the thing that is hindering you from being fully present with your children as they grow up?
What if your cynicism about churches, which has kept you vigilant and protected after having your trust betrayed in a previous experience, is now no longer needed as you step into truly meaningful community?
What if your strength and ability to be independent, which propelled you to leave an abusive relationship many years ago, is not what's needed now as opportunities arise for truly loving, deep spiritual friendships?
What if black-and-white understandings of the world, which helped you establish your convictions early in your faith, need to be released so that you can walk with Jesus into the gray and complicated areas of life?
What if your oar has been the self-protection of passivity, which allowed you to be comfortable and quiet, when you know that God is stirring you to take some risks and start using your gifts in a new way?
What’s your oar? What do you need to put in the ground?
Jesus' invitation for the disciples to follow him meant many things, but two of them are obvious. It meant a constant journey, and it meant leaving things behind that they had once relied on. But the future was worth it all. This summer is an amazing time to bury some oars and embrace what’s next.
Jesus, give me clarity on what to release, and give me Your presence for the next journey.
*Thanks to Richard Rohr for his insights on this story.
Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” she said.
And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Sir, do you have any idea how fast you were driving?
There is literally no correct way for me to answer this question. It’s a trap, friends. If I say “no” then I show myself to be negligent and lacking basic awareness of my own actions behind the wheel. If I say “yes” then I am openly admitting that I was completely aware of breaking the law and did it anyways. So I’ve been put in an impossible situation. A sheepish, “um, maybe 30?” seemed like a nice middle ground.
It did not impress.
License and registration, please.
Truth be told, I was going too fast.
Last week I driving to a trailhead for a run and found myself on a small road in the middle of NOWHERE controlled by the DE Fish and Game Commission. Apparently, all Fish and Game Commission roads have a 20mph speed limit. Also apparently, I was driving faster than the prescribed 20mph speed limit. In my defense, I would have gone slower if I had known I’d get in trouble.
It's annoying to be caught and be told that you are doing something wrong, isn’t it? It makes you feel terrible. And awaiting the consequences while the police checked out my “license and registration” was no great way to spend a 5pm on Friday, either.
But when he returned, the officer looked at me and said, “well, we’re going to just give you a verbal warning this time. Please be careful, that’s too fast around here. Have a good day.”
Oh, the sweet nectar of compassion!
Well, this was indeed a very different feeling than I was expecting. I thought I was condemned, but truth be told, I felt a little bit like I had just won the lottery. Woohoo! I’m free!
And I was. There was no condemnation! And yet something in me had changed a little, even though I hadn’t actually been punished.
Without question, I left that parking lot driving a bit more slowly than before. And the next time I come there, I’ll be carefully taking my time on the way in. There was a lesson there, as hard as it was for me to admit. And in the end, I’m glad it happened the way it did. I’m better for it…….
This is the power of conviction in the life of a Jesus follower. This is also very different from guilt or condemnation. We are tempted to live with two competing mentalities. The first tells us that we are constantly condemned. We walk around feeling like we will never live up to anyone’s (including God’s) expectations. We base everything off of the rules we follow or break, and our lives are characterized by both of those things. And that's why many people observe, like my one dear friend did, that “so many Christians are the least free people I’ve ever met.” If that’s the case, we’re not following Jesus so well. He came to set us free.
The other mentality is that, because there is no condemnation from God as we trust Jesus, we no longer need to spend any time on self-development as disciples. We shouldn't really ever feel bad or change our behavior because we are under grace. But that misses the point too. We have been given the Holy Spirit so that we can have assurance that we are not condemned, but also have a little (or big!) nudge that sets us on the correct path when we’re moving in the wrong direction. And because of that amazing two-fold reality, we can rejoice in both the grace and the conviction that comes our way. The Spirit slows us down to ask, “Do you realize how fast you were going there?” Yet consistently comes back and says, "You have another chance. But make the better choice tomorrow. You can do it.”
We need that, friends. What a gift to have a Spirit of both grace and truth in our lives.
Jesus, help me become aware of the areas of life I’m speeding through dangerously. Teach me a better way.
Because the stakes are so high, even though you’re up-to-date on all this truth and practice it inside and out, I’m not going to let up for a minute in calling you to attention before it.
2 Peter 1:12 (MSG)
Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.
2 Samuel 6:14-15 (NIV)
Sandhill Cranes are extraordinary creatures. The way that they move and the distances that they migrate in huge flocks have earned them a special place in a variety of cultures. There’s something even more fascinating about these cranes, however. They are known for their yearly mating dance…. yet they are monogamous and mate for life. So the question we are faced with is this: Why do they keep dancing?
Researchers have been trying to find the answer. They’ve concluded that the passionate yearly dance that cranes participate in is a way of strengthening the bond that they’ve created, as well as teaching their young ones what it means to be a crane. They don’t dance to find a mate… they dance to keep the spark alive.
This image is valuable across many themes. Whether it is our faith or our relationships, there are things that we are committed to that no longer require dancing in the same way. We’re committed to our marriages. We are committed to our families. We are committed to our faith, and hopefully to a local community of people to journey along with it. And because we feel committed, we can sometimes assume that the "extra effort" that was once required no longer feels necessary.
It’s easy to stop dancing. Because God knows we love him and we know God loves us, we no longer feel the need to create as much sacred space in our lives to truly strengthen that bond. Because we’re in a committed marriage for years, we don’t need to keep dating our spouses to get them to marry us again. Our kids and siblings know we love them, so we conclude that we don’t need to directly tell them those words as often anymore. We are committed to our church, so the radical expressions of community can begin to take a backseat to our busy lives. And before we know it, dancing feels silly, frivolous, and unnecessary. You get me?
But what if we learned from the cranes? What if we took those committed relationships in our lives (God, family, faith community…) and put on the dance music again?
Maybe you feel connected with Jesus and steady in your faith. But what if you took a day to get away and just be loved by God, dig into the scriptures, and pray about what new adventure Jesus might be sending you into? What if you extended an invitation to an open friend to explore Jesus in a fresh way with you?
What if you took a fresh look at your faith community and asked how you could strengthen your own role in using your gifts? Maybe you could:
-Help out in a new exciting way
-Make note of some new people and decide to invite them into your lives
-Give a bit more radically of money and time...
And for the married folks out there… What if we made sure that we are unashamedly inviting our spouses to dance with us again, for no reason except the joy of the experience and strength for the future? Everyone will decide what "dancing" may look like (wink, wink), but possibly it looks like this:
-Reinstitute a regular date night
-Do a completely new and unnecessary activity together (take a cooking class!)
-Go on a new adventure you’ve never done before (a hike or a trip?)
-Write poetry for each other (even if it’s terrible!)
-Take a look at your wedding vows and talk together about how to keep accomplishing them
-Tell your kids (in front of your spouse) about how amazing your spouse is and how much you love her/him...
Jesus leads us into a life with him and with others that gets more exciting and beautiful as it progresses, not less. Sometimes we need a bit of a jumpstart to remember that when we’ve gotten into ruts. If you’ve lost the spark in any number of ways in your life, it’s time to dance again. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Dance for God. Dance for the ones you love. Don’t be embarrassed if you feel ridiculous. It's doing more good than you could ever know.
Jesus, inspire me to do the unnecessary things that bring life to my upward and outward relationships.