We love because he first loved us.
-1 John 4:19
Friends, I talk and write a lot in my life. I fear I relate too well to the "pagan babbler" Jesus talks about in Matthew 6. They think they will be heard because of their many words. Jesus, please don't single me out like that.
Sometimes it's best to keep things simple. Let's do that today.
Each of our lives are more complicated than than anyone else knows. Our emotions, our energy levels, our work, and our family dynamics make for a lot going on inside us. Even our desire to follow Jesus matched up against the churning power of our own egos can create a whirlwind within. At LifePath we like to joke that we specialize in complicated because that's the reality of life. But sometimes complicated realities can only be brought to peace with simple truths. So today's simple truth is this:
We love because he first loved us.
God's love for you is the starting point of all things.
You did not exist at a time when God did not love you.
You do not earn God's love for you.
You cannot lose God's love for you.
Your mistakes and your shortcomings do not negate God's love for you.
You are allowed to rest in God's love for you.
Even the love you seek to extend emerges from God's love of you.
I so appreciate the words of Richard Rohr in his book, Falling Upward:
“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”
God's love revealed in Jesus is both the most constant thing in the universe, and the most mobilizing force in our lives.
Every time we hit complicated moments, every time we are exhausted or overwhelmed, we remember that our central truth is that God loved us preemptively. God loved us first. And from that love, there is peace.
And from that love, there is joy.
And from that love, there is transformation.
And from that love, there is strength for us to share it with a hurting world.
Jesus, thank you for loving me preemptively.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Recently during a few summer evenings, I've been watching the Jason Bourne films with my teenage boys while the women are out pursuing their acting exploits. There are five action-filled Bourne films, most starring Matt Damon, spanning 14 years. Funny how my kids think a movie made in 2002 is ancient. (Not actually funny.)
Each movie follows the same basic plot line, with big chase scenes, fights, and explosions. That isn't typically my cup of tea, but the story itself is a compelling one. A trained and brainwashed CIA assassin loses all memory of who he is/was and what he has done in his past. And so he begins a journey to put all the pieces together and discover his identity, all while others are trying to hunt him down, because if he finds the truth, he will have the power to bring the program's dark deeds to light. But he simply wants to know the whole truth. He wants to know who he was even before he was indoctrinated. He wants to find out his "born" identity, not simply the one he has "borne" for the last decade under the CIA's control. The name choice itself is great, since Bourne isn't even his true name... just the one he was given by his handlers.
It's a constant internal battle. He snaps into the near superhuman killer he was trained to be every time he gets chased... but he also has moments of choosing kindness, showing compassion, and refusing to take revenge. He wants to seek the truth, start over again, and to apologize to the many people he has wronged. But it's complicated, because of these multiple identities constantly at war within him (that's a New Testament reference... find it yourself). There's this whole person inside of him that he is trying to get free from, to become something new.
It's the unlearning that Bourne does in the movies that I found interesting. It's the moments that he stops and chooses a different way than what he was trained to do.
I frequently use the language of being "formed in Christ." Yet the truth is that like Bourne, most of us are not starting from a blank slate. Our moment-by-moment lives have already been formed by American culture much more than we probably care to know. Many Christian attitudes about society and value are formed more from western capitalism than the words of Jesus. Christians don't tend to use technology or social media any differently than their neighbors. We aren often supportive of violence as long as it is done against whoever we deem is the "bad guy." On too many days, Christians don't exhibit any more kindness, peace, forgiveness, grace, or compassion than their neighbors. In other words, we blend in a little too well.
Most days just by stepping out of our door, turning on the phone, or watching the news-- we are being shaped.
So an identity has been formed in us, all right. But often not the one Jesus would move us toward.
Perhaps we need to understand that a big part of discipleship with Jesus is learning to become de-formed from the cultural values that we swim around in every time we leave our house or look at our phones. Of course, it also means becoming de-formed from our own selfishness too (we don't get to blame society for the moments that we don't act with the heart of Jesus!).
I'm finding this journey with Christ to be a lifelong process of de-forming and re-forming identity. Sometimes it feels like discovering our old, foundational self... and sometimes it feels like something brand new is forming in us. Actually, that was true of Jason Bourne's experience, too. But he's not a great guide. Jesus is. And as we keep waking up to his Spirit, it's going to be a lifelong journey of being born again, again and again, into the love that will shape every little part of who we are.
Today, I encourage you to read a little from the life of Jesus. Invite him to bring to light some part of you that has been shaped more by outside forces than by Christ. Then, trust him with it and walk in grace, with hope of a renewed identity.
Jesus, help me let go today of the false attitudes and identities that do not reflect your kingdom, so I can live into who you made me to be.
*PSA- If you decide to watch these films, don't expect any truly profound themes to emerge. I had to make some serious jumps...
"The assembly was in confusion: some were shouting one thing, some another. Most people did not even know why they were there."
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
I was reading little story from Acts 19 today about the months when the Jesus movement in Ephesus was getting going. What an incredible story, by the way! You should read it.
So after Priscilla and Aquilla do some church planting in this area, their mentor Paul visits for several months and teaches whoever will listen. There are all these miraculous moments as well, and he causes quite a stir. In the midst of it, a local silversmith named Demetrius gets really angry because Paul has made comments that the idols that are being worshipped are simply metal, stone and wood. Paul is absolutely killing this guy's business with the message of a living God. And, as often happens in a moment where someone's money and power is threatened, his angry movement gathers momentum and a riot ensues. All of Paul's coworkers are dragged into the big amphitheater before a city clerk eventually intervenes, likely stopping some murders from occurring.
But it's a little statement in the middle that is striking me today. In the middle of the angry mayhem, Luke writes that most people didn't even know why they were there. They were just caught up in it.
Now, we can look at an account like this and arrogantly focus on those pagans and their evil ways. Yeah, that's really helpful for our formation in Christ.
OR, we can look at an account like this and say....
Wow, we humans can really get swept up in things without a lot of information, can't we?
One of the great challenges of contemporary life is that we are often drawn into the expectation to have a passionate opinion about everything. It's incredibly difficult today to live as people who are "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry" (James 1:19). I'm afraid that frequently, we don't sit with things long enough to gain understanding of what's going on around us. Yes, there are things out there worth getting angry over, that break God's heart. Plenty of them. But there is a breakdown when anger is not linked to a spirit of truth, with understanding as a central component.
We can be quick to make sweeping statements about the Middle East, racism, immigration, abortion, and more. But many times, we do it without a prayerful spirit and without taking the time to read and listen to stories of those affected the most by these issues. There is little nuance and little compassion for how complicated this stuff is. And ironically, the way we often voice our absolute views in the name of caring for people can sometimes communicate a lack of care for other people who are also affected.
I'm not using this to seek to push a specific viewpoint, though a commitment to loving all neighbors, being anti-racist, and valuing life in every way ought to be assumed as Jesus people.
I'm writing toward the pervasive cultural climate that currently thrives on disdain and anger and de-emphasizes listening and understanding. We see and take in so much, yet we learn so very little from it.
Our calling is to trust and believe in the true Jesus, and when that's the focus, even differences, take on a different texture. Truth-seeking will remain central, and love through attitudes and actions will emerge.
I can't help but contrast Jesus heading into the desert alone to wrestle and reflect... with this angry Ephesus crowd that quickly materializes because something gives voice to their aggression, even though they don't know much about the situation.
I'd rather be like Jesus in that scenario. When I see or hear something that brings a response in me, I want to do my work and be as thoughtful as possible, so that I might be a person of truth. And when I open my mouth, I want what I say to have value.
If we are angry, may our anger be deeply rooted in truth and compassion, not leading us to sin.
If we are passionate, may our passion never blind us to the many nuances beyond the headlines where another's humanity is found.
And if we are in a crowd, may we never get caught up in the confusion, losing sight of the suffering servant that leads us.
Our thoughtfulness could end up being our one of our greatest witness opportunities. Our desire to combine justice and understanding, not simply hold passionate stances with bumper sticker ethics, may be the thing that helps people experience the way of Jesus. But we'll need Jesus to help us put off the old self that looks just like the world around us, and put on the new self that looks like his character.
Jesus, lead me toward truth-seeking, understanding and compassion, in all things.
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
-2 Peter 3:18
I've long been impacted by the famous musical Les Miserables, set in French society during the June Rebellion, a few decades after the French Revolution. The fictional story follows both the larger community and the transformed life of a singular character named Jean Valjean, a hardened man who serves 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape.
I was listening to the music a few weeks ago, and the song and role of "the Bishop" moved me once again. A holy man named Bishop Myriel takes in Jean Valjean when he's living on the street and unable to find work. In the middle of the night, Valjean wakes up, steals the Bishop's valuable silver candlesticks, and sneaks out. When he is caught nearby by the police and brought back to the Bishop, the Bishop explains that the candlesticks were a gift, and that Valjean has committed no crime. Perplexed, the police release Valjean. But Valjean himself is even more perplexed by this radical act of grace. He wonders...
Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother...
The subversive act of care and love from the Bishop changes the trajectory of Valjean's life from that point on. Forgiveness leads him to a life of goodness, love and care in the name of God. It's powerful.
And all of us Jesus followers raise our hands and say, "Yeah! I want to be like that Bishop! What an amazing moment. His single action changed that guys life!"
I hear you. The idea that an act of love could have an impact like that is amazing. I want to do that kind of stuff too.
But we should know something about that story. In the musical, that one brief song is the only time we encounter the Bishop. But the musical was written as an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1400 page novel of the same name.
And in Les Miserables, the novel, we don't even meet Jean Valjean until page 50. And that's because the first 50 pages are written about Bishop Myriel.
Hugo spends page after page in the novel to giving the background information of this man's life of learning to care for the poor and broken-hearted. The reader comes to understand that his dramatic act did not simply emerge out of nowhere, but from a lifelong practice of compassion. The bishop simply did what “had become second nature” to him. Mark Baker speaks of discipleship as “a long succession of choices that become habit forming.”
I will never forget that when I was a young youth pastor in Lancaster County in 2006, a man with a gun entered an Amish schoolhouse and killed 6 girls before turning the gun on himself. It shook the entire region, well beyond simply the Amish Community. Yet within hours, grieving Amish elders had gathered at the gunman's home to meet with his wife and child, speaking forgiveness and telling them that they didn't want them to move away. Some accused the Amish of offering forgiveness too quickly. Nobody could be truly sincere with such a response. When asked about it, an Amishman spoke for the community when he said, "we've been training for a moment like this for our entire lives."
A follower of Jesus is a heart that is re-formed over and over again through the love of God. It's not about our big moments as much as the thousands of little moments where we learn the Jesus way over and over again, trusting him. And as we do, we will eventually find that our own hearts start to look like the Bishop's, even as we long to offer love to others.
It will be a heart that sees first a hurting human rather than a hardened criminal.
A heart that longs for goodness even when it means personal sacrifice.
A heart that sees life in all its complexities and still chooses God's grace and kindness.
A heart that remains uncorrupted by hatred and disdain, though the forces around us rage.
So today may we again let Jesus shape us. It adds another page to the backstory of a life formed by compassion. Let's keep practicing, friends, for we never know when the moment will come when God's love through us will change another's destiny.
Jesus, shape me moment-by-moment, until the way of your kingdom becomes second nature.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day...
-2 Corinthians 4:16
I have a ton of respect for people whose professions put them on roofs for many hours every day. It gets really- I mean REALLY- hot up there.
Our house was built in the late 50s, and although we love it, there are times when its age is noticeable. During big storms over the past year, I noticed that water seemed to be flowing directly off our house in all directions. Upon further inspection, small little saplings had begun to grow through the gutter guards that supposedly kept debris out of our gutters. Apparently after a few decades those things need attention?!
So on Saturday morning, I climbed up on the roof and spent 4 hours (mostly sweating, but also) clearing out the gutters.
Step 1: Unscrew the completely rusted screws from the gutter guards.
Step 2: Yank out each gutter guard.
Step 3: Squat on the edge of the house and scoop out the decades-old sludge inside the gutters.
Step 4: Spray out gutter with a hose that attempted to drag me back off the roof.
Step 5: Reinstall rusty screws and gutter guards.
After lots of hours, possibly a gallon of sweat, and about 75 pounds of sludge removal, I climbed down to the sidewalk and admired all the work I'd done.
And as I stared at the house, beaming...
nothing looked any different.
The house looked the same as it always did, despite how much I had done! It was a little annoying, honestly. I couldn't help but wish that I had just powerwashed the house instead. Sure, it wouldn't have impacted the internal stuff that needed work. But it it would have made everything look nicer from the street, it would have been less painful, and it would have been so much cooler (I could have powerwashed my face when I got hot!).
That's the thing about working with the internal stuff. Sometimes you're the only person that knows the work that's been done.
From the outside, folks rarely see the hard work and the effort that personal growth takes. Sure, if they looked really close they may notice that there are less leaves sticking out from the corners of a gutter. And if they had a front row seat during a storm, they'd see that water is flowing correctly for the first time in a long time, and maybe they'd understand how much that will help keep the house foundation healthy. But by and large, this sort of stuff is not flashy.
Are we ok with that? Are we ok with the fact that much of our hard work will just be between us and Jesus? Are we at peace with the fact that God understands how we've struggled, how we've changed, and how we've been changed, even if the growth is mostly outside of public sight?
It's easy to get discouraged today. We look at our world and feel like efforts to do good make little progress. We look at ourselves and growth seems barely noticeable sometimes, despite the work we've put in.
But it's there. As we move toward Jesus, the slow path of discipleship will lead us into a changed life. It may look small, and sometimes it may hardly be noticeable to the untrained eye.
Yet if we let Jesus do his work in us, moment by moment, what's within us will get cleaner and more healthy. And we will function more as the humans God made us to be. And then, though it may go nearly unnoticed in a sea of billions across the world... our little lives will make the world just a little more like God's kingdom.
It won't be flashy or noticeable. But it will be good.
You'll starting seeing others as people and not caricatures. You'll feel deeper compassion, and you'll start to release the need to set everyone straight. You'll walk a few hours more aware of the identity God has given you than the ones you have to earn. You'll care more about the actual lives touched by the debates around you than the debates themselves.
You'll be less afraid.
You'll be kind to strangers.
You'll be kind to yourself.
Who knows what messy, beautiful, internal work God is doing in you. But if people don't see it, remember today that it's ok. And it's still worth it. And you (and the world) will be better for it. So don't neglect what needs to be done. You're not alone.
Jesus, help me trust that you are doing important things in me, even when it doesn't look like much..