For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.
-2 Timothy 1:9
I haven't yet written about on of my more significant personal experiences of 2021. In early May, I ran my first ultramarathon, a 31 mile trail race through a huge wooded park near Philadelphia. Running is in my blood, my ancestry, and my muscles, and it's been a part of who I am for decades. I wanted to push my limits and I trained for months for this, building up carefully and continually, eating all the right foods, tracking caloric intake, and working out a hydration plan. I was all set to crush this thing.
But about 23 miles in on race day, something went wrong with my legs. My hamstrings uncharacteristically began cramping and I found myself in big trouble. Six times my muscles seized up and forced me to collapse and roll around on the side of the trail, groaning. If I was watching one of my kids do the same thing on the ground, I would have rolled my eyes and sighed, and said, "that's a little dramatic, don't you think? Are you done yet?" (Photo: historical re-enactment)
It was really pitiful. I mean it. Miles of getting up, hobbling around, and ending up on the ground again. Two compassionate women, both 20 years older than me, stopped to help me and give me some salt chews and energy gels.
As they passed me.
Wearing fanny packs.
In a race.
It's not the first time I've experienced being truly pitiful. And it won't be the last. And I'm learning to be thankful for that. Sometimes it's been reaching the limits of my body. Sometimes it's a family situation where I have to apologize for being in a bad mood simply because I wasn't motivated to get out of it. Sometimes it's admitting that I feel empty of vision and inspiration even though part of my job is to be the vision and inspiration guy. There are countless more moments. But the reality is the same for me, and possibly for you. Time and time again, whether we try to hide it or not, we make a lot of mistakes and we need a lot of help. Independence is a myth, and we're not always as capable as we pretend to be. We can be pretty pitiful.
I spend a lot of time on the opposite side of this spectrum, helping people to see just how capable and valuable they are in God's eyes, because outside voices have repeatedly eroded their inherent self-worth. That breaks my heart, because God has made us to partner in his kingdom of love and achieve some pretty great things, for sure. Humans truly are amazing.
And yet, none of us are beyond saving. And understanding that may be the most freeing truth knowable in today's world.
I will never forget a conversation with a mentor when I was in the early stages of launching our church. I was sharing all the ways I was overwhelmed by everything, failing at most of it, while also not really asking anyone for help, and feeling crushed inside. He sat across from me, looked me in the eye, and said "This is ridiculous. Does your church even know that you're saveable? Or do they think that you're above needing to be saved by Jesus?"
(I remember crickets chirping at this point)
It's ok to need to be saved, friends. It's ok to rest in the honesty of the many times that we reach our limits and aren't that impressive. It's ok to throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus for the first or 400th time, admitting that we are rather pitiful sometimes and don't know what to do or where to turn. It's ok to need to be rescued. In fact, it's the starting point for understanding God's kingdom. Ironically, our ability to acknowledge this and trust Jesus over and and over again is actually a movement toward maturity, not immaturity. How's that for an upside down reality?
God is eager to offer compassion to those willing to receive it, not casting judgment to the weak, but coming alongside them to restore them. Come to think of it, God is a little like those fanny pack ladies. They never once resorted to laughter at my pain or ridicule for being a foolish newbie who didn't know how to run an ultra yet. Only compassion, only understanding, only rescue.
Every time I come up against my pitifulness and ask Jesus to rescue me, I become restored again, motivated and empowered to "live a holy life" as Paul worded it. True internal experiences of God's grace will always lead to true external expressions of God's love in the world. What flows in will flow out. And in the end, our lives will reflect Jesus even more beautifully.
So if you're pitiful today, you're not alone. Nor are you beyond saving. God's eager to offer deep compassion. Go ahead and receive it, and live renewed once again.
Jesus, I acknowledge the places that I'm at the end of my rope, feeling pitiful. Bring your rescue, and move me toward your kingdom today.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
At our first house in Delaware, we learned fairly quickly that working in the kitchen was a strategic endeavor. You couldn't do all the things at once. For example, if the dishwasher was on, DON'T start the microwave. If you did, that entire portion of our house would go dark in about 30 seconds. Of course, this happened time and time again, and our kids all learned that when everything shut down, they'd need to run down into the basement and flip the breaker again. The circuit board was older, and it simply couldn't handle too many inputs all at the same time. This rhythm of over-extending the system and then needing to reset it again became an almost daily occurrence. It was hard to remember the limit of only one major energy pull at a time.
Heartbreaking images from Afghanistan. Another season affected by COVID and the exhausting emotions that go with it. The upcoming school year. Forest fires and climate extremes. Earthquakes and helplessness. Fresh debates about immigration. Innocent suffering. The ongoing need for justice in so many areas. Job stress in each unique profession right now. That volunteer position your church is trying to fill. Dealing with loss. Your personal list will undoubtedly have other items added to it.
I want to care about all of these things. And I should care about them as a compassionate disciple of Jesus, shouldn't I?
Maybe the answer is both yes and no.
We live in a very different world than even 50 years ago. Our awareness of suffering and hurt has widened from personal connections by word of mouth, to brief evening news reports, to minute-by-minute live updates from everywhere across the globe, right in our pockets. There was another tragedy today. Just google it and you'll find one, I promise. It's totally overwhelming.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, "The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE."
But today, we know what's happening in every village. And feeling compassion is a completely overwhelming experience (not to mention the pressure to do "performative" compassion because of social media).
The truth is, we aren't made for that kind of energy strain. It will break our circuits to feel the weight of everything, all the time. And that's exactly what happens. We jump from one overwhelming news situation to another, and we end up so horrified and so angry and so exhausted from it all, that we just sit there and feel sad. We feel broken and powerless because we know we can't fix all the brokenness of the world.
But here's the thing. We actually were made to fix the brokenness of the world. We just weren't made to individually fix all of it, and we certainly weren't made to do it alone.
Jesus has called his people to be representatives of his kingdom, known by love and active in offering compassion to the poor, the vulnerable, and the suffering. But this calling was given to the entire church to work at, and it was given with the understanding that the Spirit of Christ is the one doing the heavy lifting, empowering us to join in the kingdom-building process.
When we feel the crushing weight of every single cause, or when we think that the pressure is on us to keep finding the energy to act without really looking to Jesus for strength, we are headed for burnout, paralysis, and apathy. Our bodies can't handle that much energy output. We'll shut down.
So if you just want to ignore everything and turn it all off, it's probably not because you are a heartless monster. It's because no one can bear that kind of load outside of God. So..... stop acting like you're God.
And yet doing nothing is clearly not an option. As disciples of Jesus, we need to be taking time every single day to ask God, "what is mine to do today?" and "how can I celebrate, pray for, or encourage others in the things that aren't mine to do?"
When you learn to identify the areas of compassion and mercy that God is uniquely calling you to focus on, you will have the energy to act in ways that make a real difference, rather than just feeling strongly about everything and doing very little about anything.
It's ok to release some things, friend. Your body wasn't made for this amount of stress.
Now, knowledge is power, and intentional ignorance is irresponsible. So we don't ignore suffering in our world. We pray, we invite God to stir us to do the right thing. And if it's not our main thing, we pray and we applaud the ones for whom it is, and we continue to give our energy to the thing that God is empowering us to do.
It doesn't have to be just one thing. But it's important for your own health to acknowledge that it's not everything. The calling to love is universal, but the areas of active compassion can't be infinite.
Maybe today, you need to pick one thing to do that makes the world a little less broken, and ask Jesus for strength. And then, turn off your screens and minds for once so that you can get enough rest to keep doing it again tomorrow.
Jesus, I need your clarity, your Spirit's power, and your promise of rest.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
-Apostle Paul, Philippians 4:12
It's hard to know how to prepare for what's next these days, isn't it? It feels like we can't see very far into the future right now, and it's been that way for a long time. And the truth is, even when we think we're ready, we can never foresee all that life has in store.
The Tour de France is a 21 stage cycling race that takes place every July. It winds through the French mountains for over three weeks. Cyclists and race officials prepare all year for this extraordinary race, knowing that they'll have to deal with injuries, exhaustion, extreme weather, and gear repairs. But a few years ago, despite all their other preparation, no one had considered the possibility of llamas. Llamas in the fog. Fog Llamas.
Apparently some guy had purchased a bunch of llamas and let them roam free around the countryside to graze. But on the foggy morning of stage 8 in 2016, up in the highlands, they all decided to lay down on the road, because the pavement was warm, or because they were protesting how the alpaca sock market had cut into their profit share. I'm not actually sure, for the mind of a llama is impossible to discern.
Reports say the race directors were able to somehow clear the fog llamas off the road just in time right before 150 bikes came careening through them at breakneck pace. So everyone scrambled and it all worked out before any llamas came to harm.
But life is full of "fog llamas", these unforeseen circumstances that we could never have prepared for. And unfortunately, they aren't at all comical. I'm talking with a lot of you lately, who are trying to learn how to handle the unexpected. Some of those unexpected things have been heartbreaking. Some are surprising. Others are perplexing. But it's all hard.
You prepare for what you think the next family stage of life is going to be, the next season, the next school year, and you feel ready. But then something happens that you couldn't see coming. Tragedy hits. The pandemic continues. A job shifts. Depression takes root. A conflict occurs. A sure thing falls through. And you're left reeling.
We see it all the time right now because as a country (and world), things are so volatile. But the truth is, this is a constant in all of life. Things will rarely shake out in the specific ways we envision. So as followers of Jesus, if we want to stay healthy and faithful, our preparation for the future needs to go far deeper than preparing for possible circumstances. It has to include every circumstance.
This is why the path forward is to invite Jesus to transform all of who we are. This is why we fight hard to keep humility and surrender central to our faith, so that we might be prepared for anything and everything that we encounter. The difficult truth of life is that fog llamas are rarely easily cleared away. They are major events that can send us spiraling out of control. And in order to navigate our way through, our souls must be grounded so deeply in Jesus that they cannot be uprooted.
We'd prefer to know and strategize what's next.
But Jesus wants to develop character for what's next.
We'd prefer to envision scenarios to make sure we do the right action.
But Jesus wants us to become the kind of people that will always choose a loving response, even without time to brainstorm.
We want to know how to do well in difficult times.
Jesus wants us to know Him deeply in the difficult times.
If we are consistently slowing down to listen to Jesus, then we'll be able to encounter any number of fog llamas at different stages of our lives, and we'll be able to move with love and perseverance. It's ok if we don't know what's coming. We can walk in faithfulness and contentment because we are trusting that the grace of God is actually deep enough to prepare us for the hardest and unexpected moments we will encounter. The peace comes not from knowing what's next, but from Jesus walking with us through it all.
Like the old song says,
Many things about tomorrow, I don't seem to understand,
But I know who holds the future, and I know who holds my hand...
Jesus, with all the unknowns of life, I need you to give me grace for each moment. Today I trust you with all my coming moments.