Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce.
- Jeremiah 29:5
Today I'm thinking about the challenge of holding the promises of God's ultimate redemption with the clear imperfection of each day's realities.
As God formed a people, they began a journey toward the "promised land." That promise was that they would become rooted in a place with peace and freedom and enough for everyone. They would be able to truly settle down and live as God intended. Of course, we know that even when they entered this promised land, human realities got in the way of this goal fully coming about. Selfishness, violence, greed and power led to a lot of brokenness.
Then Jesus came to help people understand that God's ultimate promise was more than arriving at a time and place. It was about learning to experience life in him. Life is not simply a waiting game to reach a certain point before it really starts. Each moment is a chance to live fully with God, even while keeping our eyes on the ultimate hope of God's kingdom coming.
Interestingly, this thread has always been there. So let's go back to the story of Israel.
About 800 years after they entered this promised land, everything fell apart. The Babylonian's invaded and captured them, destroying the temple and much of the Jerusalem. This happened around 600 BCE and the prophet Jeremiah was there for the whole thing. He'd been warning them that they were losing their way and heading for destruction.
Most were taken into exile far away from the promised land. Many of them were forced to walk 500 miles (they did NOT want to walk 500 more) into their captor's region. It was a struggle and a disappointment when the promise of stability and flourishing didn't pan out.
Yet there was always hope. Jeremiah comes to them and reminds them that God had not abandoned them. In a hopeful (but let's be honest, disappointing?) statement, he says that God is continuing to unfold hope and redemption... but it'll be about 70 years before it all comes to pass and they get to go home. Are we supposed to be HAPPY about this, Yahweh? Ima be dead!
Interestingly, that well known verse about future hopes and plans is Jeremiah 29:11. And it's hopeful for sure, as they looked to ultimate restoration. But just a few verses earlier, Jeremiah really gives them (and us) some instruction worth chewing on.
...the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”
They have a long way to go. Their situation is not perfect. And God says to them, don't wait around for perfection to come! Create little Edens right here in the brokenness. And stop thinking you aren't connected to each other. When you help your neighbors thrive, you will too.
We have a temptation to think that we can't do the work of God's kingdom unless everything is perfect. But everything will never be perfect on this side of eternity. We are always going to be in exile in one way or another.
Author Eugene Peters writes,
These experiences of exile, minor and major, continue through changes in society, changes in government, changes in values, changes in our bodies, our emotions, our families and marriages. We barely get used to one set of circumstances and faces when we are forced to deal with another.
Jeremiah does not tell them to just act like everyone else. He challenges them to participate in God's life where ever they find themselves, even in a "normal" that is not what they envisioned.
Real life faithfulness is doing the best with what's in front of you, knowing that God's presence is there, even when situations aren't perfect. Don't wait to plant gardens until you've "arrived." You'll never start loving like Jesus did. It's ok when you feel like you're far from home. God is still inviting you deeper into connection, and broader into creating a culture of his goodness.
What might it look like to plant a garden in whatever circumstance you're in today?
Jesus, thank you for never leaving me, even when the journey is winding.
When he [Christ] came, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far away from God and to those who were near.
I spent a large portion of my day today giving backpacks out at the school that our church inhabits. It's been a priority to build a posture of love and service to the staff and students over the past 9 years. One of the projects we do annually is gather the supplies each kindergartner needs, and give every one of them a fully equipped backpack that they receive during their kindergarten orientation. Every student receives a backpack with all their supplies, regardless of need. This does offer care for struggling families, but also equity because all students receive the same items. The lines aren't drawn between students with brand named glue sticks or the ones who purchased from Save-A-Lot!
It's such a joy to distribute these yearly. But inevitably, as families come through the gym past the various information tables, some parents pull their kids away from the free backpack table. "We don't need one of those," they tell their child. I have to quickly interject and say,
"No, there's one for her! Each student is intended to receive one, and we have enough for eacheveryone. It's our gift, please, take one!"
Most of the time that convinces them, but not always.
I was reminded again today at how difficult it can be to enjoy the gift of God's grace at times when we feel like we aren't truly "desperate." It's not surprising that the times when we seek out God's presence the most are when we are struggling. Yet as I stood there behind a table of backpacks, urging families to receive the good things that had already been prepared for them regardless of felt need, I thought that this must be God's perspective. When we say, "It's ok, I'm doing fine today. Let those who really need it have the grace and peace," we are missing out on receiving the all-the-time available peace of God. And God has a complete abundance of it for all of us, so we don't even need to make sure there's some leftover for others!
We often talk honestly around our church about those moments where things are ROUGH in life and faith. Jesus is always a soft place to land in those moments.
But let's acknowledge the inverse today. If you are in a really good spot right now, don't ignore today's opportunity to draw near to God and receive grace. Don't think that because you're alright, it's not the right time to receive. Don't just walk on by. Jesus died for you when you are at your worst and when you're at your best. The gift of life, the gift of God's presence, the gift of peace-- is always worth receiving, and you will be surprised at the joy and provision it will bring, even if you feel like you're getting along pretty well right now. And it builds in us a humility that flies the face of rugged self-sufficiency.
In fact, in the moments that we lean into our connection with Jesus and we're NOT in crisis, we often find that we have fresh joy and energy and love to pass on to others, because God multiplies our capacity for goodness in those moments. But it only happens as we choose to follow each day, keeping our eyes on Jesus.
Maybe today you're feeling the crunch of life. Or maybe you're feeling like you're really doing well! Both are ok. Both are opportunities to receive the gift of Jesus- love and presence and mercy and peace and wholeness. When we do, life overflows with gratitude. I invite you today to pause long enough to enjoy the unexpected blessing of a God who never steps loving you.
Jesus, I need you when I'm doing well and when I'm not. Break down my self-sufficiency to receive the gift of grace today.
He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
- Micah 6:8
I don't know how to talk about distances.
And that's a problem, because I'm a distance runner and a coach, with kids who are currently obsessed with their track and cross country stats.
When I go out for a run, I think about it in terms of miles. But when it's time to race, the standard distance for high school runners is 5 kilometers. Every track race distance is in meters, but yet every time I golf it's in yards and feet. Sometimes I'll ask the kids to grab something from the kitchen counter. "It's only a few feet to your left," I'll say. But a moment later we're hanging a painting on the wall and, "that left corner needs to go up about 1 centimeter." And don't even get me started about trying to figure out if I'm supposed to talk about liquid in gallons or liters?! AHHHH!
My ways of measuring things are inconsistent at best. I use a whole lot of different metrics. And I'm regularly finding that this is true of life as a whole.
A few years ago, it became more and more clear for those of us in church leadership that the dominant metric system was inconsistent. Ministry effectiveness was measured by church attendance, budget size ("butts and bucks") and one-time decisions for Jesus. But the sad reality was that all of these numbers could be trending upward, and yet people were not necessarily looking more like Jesus, experiencing a deeper sense of wholeness with God, or caring for the poor and marginalized in dynamic ways.
None of those metrics were inherently bad! But they also weren't the measurements that Jesus seemed to emphasize. Jesus seemed to think that the most important metrics for our lives were related to discipleship and compassion. He tells his followers that the goal is to make more disciples, not simply converts (Mt 28:19). Disciples are people who are spending their lives as students of Jesus, growing in both grace and active love. He also says that what will matter is not religious sounding words, but lives that look like care and concern for those in need (Mt. 25:34).
Here's the thing. Those metrics are much less impressive to measure, because they rely on inward posture as the starting point.
Of course, this isn't simply about church. We are constantly feeling this pull in our lives, aren't we? What units should we use to measure success? House sizes? Growing our salaries and portfolios? A neat and tidy family that appears very impressive to the world around us? A lot of extra curricular community and religious activities?
When we use the metrics of our dominant culture (or dominant religion), we find that we will be constantly chasing after impressive exteriors, but still never feeling like we are enough. And we will rarely take the time to be formed in the deeper places by God and live out of that depth. We will not value how the inward becoming is every bit as important as our outward actions in God's eyes.
Jesus' metrics do not correspond with the world's systems. They can be messy, unimpressive, and difficult to measure. What is the state of one's heart? Are we helping people walk toward deep healing? Are we serving on another in humble love? Are we learning to give ourselves away and live more freely and lightly with God? Are justice and compassion flowing from our lives?
But wait-- even these metrics can feel crushing. What good news that they are founded on this truth: God's grace goes before you, and you are loved dearly independent of any of those metrics. So when we move toward them, it's not from obligation, but because we are living with Jesus in freedom.
If you're like me, you may go back and forth between which metrics you focus on even in the course of one day! How very human of you. But let me remind you today that so many of the metrics you are tempted to measure your life with are not from Jesus. Your calling today is simply this: rest in grace and seek to be faithful in each moment, reflecting the love you have already been given. That's worth measuring.
Jesus, move me toward what matters to you today.
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
You probably know that I love a good opportunity to challenge the American ethnocentric lie that our country and its dominant customs are better than everywhere else. Our assumptions of supremacy too often make us miss the ways that God's beauty can be seen through so many cultures, tribes, and priorities. So this week we're hopping continents.
Let's think about greetings for a moment. I know, it's weird. But as far as greetings go, a Hi-how-are-ya without waiting for an answer... is just rather uninspiring. Last week, however, I learned of a beautiful phrase that is one of the most common greetings in South Africa among the Zulu people.
When someone passes a friend on the street or invites someone into their house, a simple word is offered as a greeting: Sawubona.
It's loaded word, but the root image of Sawubona is based on noticing. It translates to "we see you." And while it may be used on the street just like our "what's up?" the understanding that it represents is far richer.
Sawubona is a way of looking at someone and communicating, my attention is with you. I am noticing who you are and welcoming your presence with all your uniqueness, your needs, your imperfections, and your value. We share this space together.
What a way to say hi! And what a reflection of God's heart. I was reminded of the story of Hagar, an enslaved woman who fled while pregnant after being forced to bear the first child of Abram, and then hated by Sarai for exactly what she was forced to do. She is alone and scared when God meets her. God promises her protection and blessing in her suffering. And then she does something no one else in the Bible does. She names God personally. She calls God El Roi. It means, "the God who Sees."
She met God, and what she heard was, "we see you." Sawubona.
Jesus fully embodies the God who Sees. Throughout his ministry, he notices the people no one else notices. And he takes the time to really see them. He desires to know and care about what is happening to them, and about what's going on underneath the surface. His interactions with them communicate his attention and their value. People walked away from those encounters knowing they had been truly seen.
We are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. What if we greeted one another each day by saying "I see you" to those we bumped into?
Or more importantly, what if we really did see them?
It's difficult to shift our focus from ourselves and fully see our neighbors. But when we slow down and recognize their complicated, imperfect, wonderful uniqueness, we learn grace and community. Maybe we'll even start to believe that God sees us this way too-- with full attention, filled with grace, and desiring to enter into our story. Wow.
I'm trying to work at really seeing people. And, when the Spirit leads, I am trying to be willing to share that I see them, and that they are loved and valuable. What a privilege that we are united with the God who sees, and the God who loves! So we, as the people of Jesus, have the power to give that gift to others. A culture marked by sawubona can change how people experience the Body of Christ. Let's be willing to open our eyes.
Jesus, thank you for seeing me. Don't let me overlook others today.
*Painting by artist Kowie Theron, entitled Sawubona
My grace is sufficient for you...
Hey, friends. I completely ran out of time and margin this week. Between the challenging beauty of ministry, family, and unforeseen mishaps, I hit up against my limitations.
A moment ago I considered staying up really late, trying to fulfill my obligations, and cranking out a TFG for you all. I highly doubt it would have been Spirit-infused, and I very much would have been frustrated by night's end.
So, I'm choosing to receive God's gift of my inadequacy.
And let me say, I am at peace with my inadequacy, as Jesus reminds me that his grace fills the gaps.
I hope you can have the gift of delighting in your own inadequacy today. Jesus has you covered. You don't have to be everything, thank God. That would be horrible.
See you next week.
Jesus, my soul finds rest in you.