But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
-2 Corinthians 3:16-18
It's no secret that I find spiritual value in paying attention to the shifting seasons. When we become disconnected from God's creation, we miss opportunities for growth with Jesus that the natural world illuminates. So although summer can be hard to leave, I'm eager to experience the coming fall. With it will be a crispness the air, a bit more consistency in all of our schedules, and a changing of the greenery around us into many stages of vibrant earth tones.
I was walking downtown recently to a coffee shop meeting (walking to meetings is THE best), when a tree planted just off of main street caught my eye. It was an American sycamore, and it's easily recognizable for one reason: it's constantly shedding layers with each new season. You could see a pile of thin peelings of various colors right at the base of the tree. I grabbed a small chip and put it in my wallet. One could notice the sycamore and suggest that it is in a constant state of "the old being gone, because the new has come." Kind of sounds like something I read somewhere...
The Apostle Paul wrote that when people come toward Jesus, God peels back layers that stand in the way of freedom and true connection with the transformative, living Spirit of God.
So that means that we are probably intended to be layer-shedding people all our lives. And good grief do we ever have layers. Layers upon layers upon layers. The old onion has got nothing on the human heart.
We have layers of self-protection that inhibit us from being authentic with others.
We have layers of pride and layers of prejudice that keep us from compassionately welcoming others in.
We have layers of religious assumptions and obligations that steal the joy and freedom Jesus is constantly trying to offer us.
We have layers of destructive attitudes and actions that we aren't managing very well on our own.
We have layers of American values that push us to view money, comfort, and visible success as the foundations of the good life.
We have layers covering our raw sorrow that has been unable to be expressed.
We have layers. And Jesus is in the business of helping us shed them.
For growth and movement to happen, we need God to lead us into new seasons. We need a divine act of layer peeling. And that will only occur in fullness when our eyes and hearts are directed toward Jesus at our center (are we sounding like a broken record yet, friends?)
I love that when we contemplate Jesus, more and more gets peeled away and we experience more of what our true and free selves are. At the same time, that process also makes us look more and more like Jesus himself. Isn't that beautiful? The peeling back that leads to our truest identity also leads to Jesus. That's what it means to be an image-bearer of the divine.
Perhaps the coming changing of the season is an opportunity for you to acknowledge the peelings that are already lying around at your feet. Where has God been helping you shed layers? Or perhaps the upcoming fall is an opportunity for you discern what God wants to peel away next, helping you see Jesus in all his glory and love, to transform you through that grace.
I'm hoping to remember all this as we approach the cooler weather. Like always, I'll be reminding my kids and my cross country team to remember layers so that they can shed them when they are ready to run freely. Lord, do that for us too.
Jesus, we trust you to remove anything that gets in the way of experiencing you fully, so that we might live transformed.
So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.
Last week I ran a trail marathon race. I do that sort of thing fairly often as one of my quirky hobbies. My goal was to have a good time, to keep a steady relaxed pace throughout, and not let my competitive spirit take over.
I admit that when 70 of us left the starting line and headed into the woods, I kept to my goal, chatting with a bunch of other runners for the first few miles and taking it easy. But then I started to notice a few people who had taken to a faster pace than me, and I realized I wasn’t even sure how many were up ahead. And then the kicker— a runner OLDER than me passed me (we all have our breaking points) and the temptation took over to keep pace with those ahead. But the problem, as I learned later- was that they weren't even running my specific race!
You see, multiple races were happening at the same time that morning. Though we all began at the starting line, some people would soon peel off for a 5 mile loop. Others would continue and do a 10 mile race. Still others were running a half marathon, and finally, some of us would continue on to do the 26 miles.
And we were all running along the same course for quite a while. Almost without thinking, I was trying to match stride with others running a completely different race than mine, which would require a completely different pace.
I do indeed love a good running analogy, and the Apostle Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews, it's a big debate) gives a great one. He challenges his readers to throw off the sins that get in their way of freedom with God, as well as the religious trappings that they are learning to leave behind in the new realm of grace. And it's all so they can run freely.
It's a race that God has "marked out for us." Yet even though we are surrounded by a witness of those who have run before, and even though we are surrounded by the presence of those who are running alongside us, we can only correctly know our course through one single way. And that way is looking steadily at Jesus.
There is clearly a shared experience with other disciples as we run along seeking to faithfully live in God's kingdom. However, just as the calling of each of the disciples was unique (take the exchange between Jesus and Peter about John as an example), there is an individuality about our journey too. The reality is that, even when the start and finish line are similar, the journey each of us takes with Jesus is going to be unique. And if our only approach is just to look comparatively at others rather than fixing our eyes on him, we will not be running the race marked out for us. We'll be caught up in someone else's race.
That doesn't mean that our brothers and sisters don't matter. It's quite the opposite. There is great beauty in the shared experience of faith (like I wrote about last week), but faith community is always the healthiest when together, we are each personally seeking Jesus.
When disciples are at our best, we encourage each other as we seek to follow Jesus, despite knowing that there will be different twists and turns that each of our lives take as we faithfully love God and our neighbors. So we make space for each person to run the race and the pace God has marked out for them, alongside our own.
Where have your eyes not been fully fixed on the loving leadership of Jesus?
Where have you been running a race or a pace that is not yours to run?
Identifying these areas can help us walk in personal faithfulness to Jesus, and in grace-filled love toward each other.
The beautiful thing about my race experience last week was that afterwards, we all enjoyed watermelon and gatorade and snacks together. With laughter (and regret) we shared the good and the bad from our miles out on the trail, and the distances we each ran was almost irrelevant. We had shared a journey, and we had crossed the finish line, and we had done it together, each in our own way. It was worth celebrating.
Jesus, help me fix my eyes on you today and run the race you've marked out for me.
Pointing to his disciples, he [Jesus] said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
This past Sunday, we did one of our biannual "SundayServe" events, where we spent the morning split up into service teams around the school where we meet. We had eight different projects going on like dusting, painting, weeding, making food treats, praying for the staff and students, packing backpacks of school supplies to give to the kindergarteners, and more.
It was pretty much chaos. But chaos of the best kind. People were all over the place, everyone moving and using their hands and hearts to do good. Our kids were going from one project to another, sometimes joining right in, sometimes playing in the gym to let their energy out.
As I was walking across the lobby between teams, one of our littlest LifePathers emerged from the gym. His mom saw him running across the room. "Hunter, where are your shoes?!?" she asked. But this barefoot 4 year old was too busy being a kid to worry with something as trivial as the whereabouts of shoes.
"We're playing FAMILY!" he exclaimed with a big smile. And off he went.
And there it is. I have no clue what happened next. I was on my way to take out a bin of recycling.
But his declaration stuck with me. A little kid at a church gathering, exclaiming boldly that he is playing family with his other young friends.
Yes you are, Hunter. Yes we are.
God's Church is expressed through beautiful images and metaphors throughout the scriptures. The Church is a body, it's a dwelling, and it's a bride. But over and over again, we also see that it's a family. Jesus helps his disciples move from servants to partners to brothers and sisters. Paul uses familial language throughout his writing to emerging churches, mentioning directly in his letter to the Ephesians that all Gentiles (non-Jews) are now members of God's household in Christ (2:19). It appears that the church is supposed to be a fresh take on that old Olive Garden slogan....
When you're here, you're family.
(But also when you're not here).
So every time the church gathers, and in all the moments that it is scattered, we have this opportunity to "play family." We have an opportunity to take people who come from various stories and backgrounds and life experiences, growing up in all sorts of different households-- and treat them as if they are our siblings...our parents...even our children. We're playing family. And Jesus is our older brother, working in unity with our Father to set the family culture.
The problem is that we sometimes live into Hunter's words just a little too well. We simply play family, pretending that we are brothers and sisters, when Jesus actually wants us to stop pretending. He wants us to embrace the crazy and wonderful and difficult world of family-making, teaching us to really love each other in all of our unique and maddening complexities. God's Church isn't a bunch of people pretending that we love each other.
It's a family. Who does.
It's a holy, bold witness to the world that another way is possible in Christ, and that selfless love for others is what defines us as God's family (and, in turn, what defines God's kingdom that Jesus ushered in). It's a family that is excited to adopt new family members all the time, and tell new friends that there's a seat waiting for them at the Thanksgiving table. It's a bunch of people creating a completely new community for the world to take notice of, with wonder and curiosity.
And yeah, sometimes family gets chaotic. And sometimes kids are running all over the place. And sometimes we even forget where our shoes are because we were so caught up in the moment. But no worries. We have a bunch of sisters and brothers around to help us find them.
Jesus, we both know this is much harder to live out than to read about. Give us family love as we constantly look to you as our center.