Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.”
Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.”"
Luke 9:61-62, The Message Paraphrase
Today's image comes to you from my dear friend James, an Indian brother in Christ who spends his life caring for widows and orphans, addressing the physical and spiritual needs of some of the poorest people on earth. I see the heart of Jesus in him.
We were having "virtual chai" the other day (not nearly as good as actual chai) over video chat when he shared a brief story.
He has had extended family living with him for a while, but recently they left, and he had a chance to tidy his house once again. He got everything clean, and all was perfectly peaceful and organized. It was really nice to have a clean house and clean dishes, with perfect control and everything in order. He said he had one of those feelings that you get- wishing that you could have that clean of a house everyday and live in that neatly organized reality. And he was drawn to spend extra time and energy maintaining it.
Earlier he had been reading in Luke 9, where all of these people come up with different excuses of other priorities they have before they can start trusting and following Jesus completely. They state seemingly valid reasons like family cultural customs and daily life obligations. There is this theme of needing to have everything neatly in order before they can get moving with Jesus.
In that moment, James felt Jesus speaking him by saying, "stop wishing for the perfect clean house. That's nice, but that's not life. You need to eat and and make dishes. Life is messy and you'll never have everything in order enough to be ready to follow me and do my work."
What an image for us all. Jesus calls us to come and follow even while dishes remain dirty, clothes remain on the floor, and our lives remain complicated. We can have dozens of excuses for not trusting Jesus and not taking new steps of faith and surrender and love. But Jesus sees those things as they are--excuses-- and calls us to come anyway. In the middle of our heartache, he still wants to give us gifts of joy. In the middle of our deconstruction, he wants to walk with us as we wrestle with hard questions, not remain separate from us. In our struggles, addictions, depression, materialism, unrealistic expectations, guilt-ridden psyches, unmotivated attitudes, easily distracted minds, or constant anxiety.... Jesus calls us to come and follow him first, even before loose ends are tied up. We don't need to make sure that all the dishes in our lives are washed before we can let Jesus into the house.
There's no "But first!" with Jesus. And he brings a strong challenge when we take on that attitude. I don't think it's because he gets angry with us about it. I think it's because Jesus knows that grace can't do its work in us until we throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus and his kingdom, come what may. We can't do the work of the kingdom if deep down we are still subtly playing by the rules and expectations of the world around us. It's a challenging calling, but it's gloriously freeing as well. It makes me uncomfortable and at ease at the exact same time. Such is the paradox of the upside-down kingdom in which we have our citizenship.
Jesus, where is there a "but first" in my spirit today? Help me name it, so I can hear your voice and follow you, right in this moment. Amen.
I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return.
I spent two nights backpacking with my sons late last week on a whirlwind trip to the mountains of western North Carolina. There's something about following a trail for dozens of miles with everything you need on your back (and nothing you don't), that helps you recenter your life. Only a few things matter out there... and they matter greatly. And other things that once seemed important are completely irrelevant.
One of the interesting moments came a few hours into our trek. We realized that the exact time of day was meaningless on the trail. One of my sons asked if we could just take our watches off and keep them in our packs for the rest of the journey, because they didn't matter anymore. We should eat when we were hungry, go to bed when we were tired, and rise when it was light out. Then we could be more in tune with the things that really mattered. Were we keeping up on our water supply? Were we navigating correctly? Did we know where to look for a campsite? Was our gear holding up? And of course- were we noticing all the beauty around us!?!
Paul's prayer for the young church in Philippi was that these first generation disciples would "understand what really matters" (v10) so that their lives would be beautiful and pure expressions of love (v9) until they met Jesus face to face.
That prayer is striking to me. I have a deep desire to understand what really matters. But as a human, as a Christian, and as a middle class American, I can't help but think that my time and energy are often spent on things that just don't matter, while other things may matter greatly that are overlooked.
And as a pastor, I so deeply feel Paul's prayer for my own community. I want them (YOU) to understand what matters, so that they (YOU) can live beautiful lives with Jesus that overflow with love.
I think one step toward "what really matters" is realizing that everything we do matters--meaning that it moves us in some way. Possibly for good, possibly not. Perhaps we need to admit that, and adjust with fresh intentionality.
The buttons on a remote and pixels on a flat screen have no inherent good or evil within them. But after watching an hour of the news, you will always be impacted in some way. It's not neutral. Social media is not inherently moral or amoral... but scrolling for an hour on your phone will take you in a direction. Checking your email, taking a trip, buying a smartwatch, going for a walk, and shopping for a new car... these things will take our minds, our wallets, and our spirits in somewhere.
Everything we do will either move us nearer to the love expressed in Jesus, or further from it. We will either become more in tune with God's heart, or more distracted from it. Each word we speak, each decision on how to spend time, is an opportunity to learn what matters. Without being overly dramatic, that means that even our smallest decisions deserve reflection.
Are we aware? Are we discerning what helps us move toward the things of true value?
So our job becomes discernment, so that we can be the kind of people that Paul is praying towards. And as we learn to discern what really matters as Jesus people, we will get very good at asking next level questions.
Will this move me toward love or away from it?
Will this open me up to meaningful relationships?
Will this choice help me reveal God's love in tangible ways?
Is this bringing life or hindering it?
Is this the right way to have this conversation?
Am I letting the character of Jesus lead me here?
Is this choice contributing to the oppression or minimizing of others?
Am I convincing myself this is neutral, when I know it's not?
Now, we don't need to be so analytical that we can't relax and enjoy ourselves- quite the opposite. If we ask wonderful questions and understand the impact each choice has on our lives, we will be more intentional to do the things that really matter-- to us and to Jesus. And that's the kind of stuff that eternal life really consists of.
Jesus, my life is full of the tension between what matters and things of little value. Today, let me leave behind all that is unhelpful, so that I can live fully present, with an overflow of your love.
I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
-Apostle Paul, on life without grace, Romans 7:10
When I'm driving, I evaluate the form of every runner I see on the street. As a runner and coach, I can't help it. Sometimes as I call out form corrections behind the window, offering unsolicited correction from my steering wheel, my wife thinks I am being judgmental. And sometimes, I admit... I can be (working on it). But the reason I'm really noticing is something altogether different. And it's helping me think about God in a fresh way. Stay with me.
At our church we've been discussing the destructive trappings of legalism and line drawing, exploring how Jesus invites us into a deeper experience that is focused on himself at the center, rather than an obsession with rules and (inevitably) passing judgment.
One of the biggest questions that emerges from this sort of "centered-set" approach is this:
Aren't some of God's "rules" really important to follow???
Are we really supposed to just ignore all rules, and anything goes as long as Jesus is your center?
Well, to some extent yeah, because if Jesus is really your center, then you're not going to be going on a rampage of evil, folks.
But we know that our ethics matter greatly to God. The New Testament offers plenty of rules that Jesus establishes (though he totally prioritizes). But it's the way we think about such commands that creates problems.
Often we practice obedience in our behavior so that we don't make God angry or disappoint God. While that desire to please God may be admirable, such an approach to ethical living is problematic because it assumes that God's posture is looking down on us with his checklist to make sure we're following the rules to pass a test of righteousness (God is always frustrated in this view). And we know we'll never be good enough, which simply creates a cycle of disappointment.
In this view, ethics are God's required rules to be a good Christian.
But what if it was so much better than that?
When I coach young runners as they do interval workouts or tire in a race, I am always giving them new "commands."
Relax your shoulders!
Keep your head up!
Let yourself breathe!
Use your arms up the hill!
Look ahead, not behind you!
Why do I give them things to do and be? It's because I long for them to run efficiently, and with the greatest ease possible. I know how much better they will go through their run if they listen and adjust. It's not because they're not doing good enough, but because I want them to experience the best run they can have. Some of them could be saved a lot of pain if they ran differently (it won't make their experience pain free... just less).
Shifting their form would enable them to do more than they felt they could do, to enjoy their running in new ways. I want that for them. And because they know me, they never think I'm upset- they know that I'm seeking to help them run their best- and that I'll be supporting them whether they end up listening or not!
Viewing ethics in a similar way can transform our discipleship. If Jesus gives us ways of living not as a way to achieve Christian impressiveness, but as a gift to help us navigate the world in life-giving ways, we begin to shift from the pressure and the judgmentalism that a rule-based faith creates.
In a world broken by sin and systems of sin, God gives us ethics as a gift to live more beautifully with God. Loving our neighbors, practicing self control, forgiving others, and speaking words of grace... these are "laws" that Jesus gives us because they lead us to experience life better... not so that we can be good Christians.
God's guidance is to help us thrive. And when we fail, we are not scorned- the pain that selfishness leads to is more than enough to remind us that there's a more beautiful way to live. God's love is not up for grabs as we seek to do our best. It's already been established, free of charge. Thank you Jesus.
So when you feel the tug of God to change our form and adjust what we're doing, know that it is an invitation to experience better life, not a heavy burden full of judgment. And his truth will set you free to live well.
Jesus, make me new and shape my actions through your grace and care today. Lead me to life.
Therefore, I will always remind you about these things—even though you already know them and are standing firm in the truth you have been taught. And it is only right that I should keep on reminding you as long as I live.
2 Peter 1:12-13
The holiday weekend a few days ago changed our neighborhood's trash collection morning from Tuesday to Wednesday. I sometimes have trouble keeping all the moving parts straight in my life, so I'm thankful for technology that allows me to say to my phone: "Remind me to take the trash out on Tuesday at 7pm."
Honestly, I use that reminder every single week even when the schedule isn't different. I know full well that trash goes to the curb every Monday evening. It has for years. Yet, inevitably, I'll get distracted or we'll have a commitment, and I'll completely forget about rolling the bin out- even though I know it. That's why I need reminders. So I use all sorts of reminders in my life, usually things that I write down or program on a phone or a computer. I have our wedding anniversary listed on the calendar with a reminder the week before. I doubt I'll ever forget it, but it's important enough to make sure that I see it right there in front of me every June.
Life with Jesus certainly involves learning new information as we go. We have blind spots and biases and limited understandings of so many things. Yet even with this truth, so much of what will really transform us is what we already know- directly from Jesus himself.
The greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.
You are worth more than many sparrows.
I will be with you always.
Come to me when you are weary, and I will give you rest.
Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
The times we lose sight of what matters are rarely due to a lack of information. We simply forget what we know is true.
I often laugh at the profound truth of that little book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." It's true. Most of our ugly habits are learned later in life. We could all use some reminders of the basics of kindness and respect (and sharing our toys).
We forget that God is love. We forget that all people are created in the image of God, with infinite worth and value. We forget that God's grace is bigger than all our failures. We forget that we are made for relationship. We forget that God promises to walk with us during all seasons of our lives. We forget that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live new lives of compassion, conviction, and justice. We forget that God gives us the gift of rest and the gift of limitations. We forget that our neighbors are fighting their own battles that we know nothing about. We forget that Jesus is Lord of all, and we forget that we are God's beloved children. When we remember... we live differently.
So we need reminders. We need to read the scriptures over and over to remind us of God's good story and God's ultimate character in Jesus. We need to be prayed for by each other to remind us that we're brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to sit with Jesus in stillness to be reminded that we aren't God, and that's a really good thing. We need to worship together as a people- for the same reason I just said. We need to send texts to remind each other of things we already know. In the troughs of depression and crisis, we need to hear again how we are beloved and we are not alone, even if we "already know it" in our heads.
Discipleship is a life of setting up holy reminders for ourselves and one another that Jesus is our leader and that God's kingdom is more beautiful than anything else. It's walking through the day, constantly bringing to mind God's eternal values, so that we don't get pulled into a lesser life of obsession with money, success, control, or status.
I'm not deleting my trash day reminders anytime soon, because I'll never get by without them. Perhaps today, it's worthwhile to pause and set up a daily reminder of one simple truth that Jesus may want to speak to you. What's one thing you know is true, but you need reminding of?
Jesus, remind me of what truly matters today, and help me establish ways to keep your love as my guiding light all day long.