Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that...
-Galatians 6:4 (MSG)
Man, he needs to get his head out of the sand.
I assume you've heard a saying similar to this at some point. For an unknown reason, it came to my mind this week, and I needed answers.
Many of us have grown up with this phrase, emerging from the strange and unique behavior of the ostrich. When frightened, ostriches instinctively bury their heads in the sand in the hopes that danger will pass them by. At least that's how it's been presented.
Today this head-in-the-sand image is used to suggest that someone has no awareness of what's going on around them, or that they are living in fear of the world. This is a great example of how surface images can be totally misunderstood, because for our ostrich friend, what is actually happening is the complete opposite! The reason ostriches stick their heads in the sand is that they lay their eggs in holes dug in the ground that can get up to several feet deep. While the eggs are incubating, throughout the day they check on them to rotate the eggs with their beaks, ensuring that they are evenly heated. And while they do that, their head disappears from view. And ta-da! They've got their heads in the sand.
So what are they really doing?
THEY ARE LITERALLY ATTENDING TO THE FORMATION OF LIFE.
We humbly apologize for our self-righteous judgment of you for all these years, ostriches.
Just go ahead and sit with that a moment. The head burying has nothing to do with the bird being scared or threatened. It's about nurturing life, and in reality, it's for brief periods of time throughout the day, like 15-20 seconds, and then the ostrich moves on.
Perhaps we need to learn from this whole fiasco.
In a bizarre turn of events, what if we should be more like the ostrich? What if our regular daily habits involved pausing to take our eyes off of everything constantly swirling around us so that we could attend to what's happening under the surface? What if, throughout the day, we turned off cell phones and closed laptops and stopped all the to-do's, and just took notice of what needs our attention for life to thrive?
A life that is formed by Christ is deliberately in touch with what's happening in the internal world. We face a constant push to steamroll through our days, missing moments that God wants to teach us through something around us or something within us. Why did you feel uneasy after that one conversation this week? Was it because you said something prideful or hurtful and you haven't made amends yet? What is making you worry today? Have you taken enough time to identify the root of it so that you can invite Jesus into that space, so that he can helping you reframe it and give you his peace? What was your most meaningful moment today? Could it be that God wants you to make room for doing more of that and less of the other stuff?
We so often become human doings rather than human beings that happen to do things. And therefore, a whole bunch of our doing is not the stuff that brings life or expands God's kingdom in the world. But we don't know that, because we don't ever put our heads in the sand throughout the day. In order to discern those things, we've got to pay attention to what's under the surface.
Interestingly, it feels risky to take our eyes off of our surroundings, even for a second. What if we miss a notification? What if people think we're lazy for taking more time to pray and be still? What if I don't complete all the tasks that I have decided will make me worthy of value today??? What if I am terrified of what will be revealed when I slow down for self-reflection?
Well, it's risky for the ostrich too. It knows that when the head is down, a cheetah could come into view. And yet the ostrich still turns the eggs, trusting that it will have the tools to deal with whatever comes. And it knows that making sure that new life is forming... well, that's always worth the risk.
I'm hitting these themes hard lately because they are too often neglected within Christianity. Though the scriptures are clear about its importance, the slow work of internal transformation is often downplayed compared to acquiring knowledge or doing good deeds (both of those matter, for sure).
But formation takes time. Growing to become more like Jesus in our little moments takes time. Learning how to respond to all situations in love....takes time. And paying attention to the deep places within us, so that we are prepared to live the unique way of God's kingdom when it's time to look up and get moving.... that just might be the best reason to stick your head in the sand.
Jesus, give me the insight today to notice what's happening under the surface of my life, and the grace to offer it to you.
"No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us."
-Paul, Philippians 3:13-14
Two weeks ago, hurricane Ida ripped up the gulf coast, bringing tornados and serious amounts of rainfall across the south and east coast. Many spots in Pennsylvania received over 8 inches of rain, and while we didn't get hit that hard in Delaware, there was still more water than anyone knew what to do with. It impacted millions of people in various ways, but around here, most damage was minimal except in the lowest lying areas. Those spots had some real damage.
The Vine Street Expressway runs right through Philly less than an hour from here. It was so deep that kayakers were paddling on it (that's I-676!) after the storm, in 15+ feet of water that simply had no where to go! That's what happens when a big storm hits and you don't have adequate drainage.
Good drainage is simply a system or a position in which water can continue on its way instead of pooling and continuing to damage things. Sometimes people are fortunate to live on top of a hill, but most of the time good drainage requires intentionality. You have to build systems that can divert water away from houses, trails, and streets.
It's common to see huge amounts of manpower put into digging drainage ditches in local parks and streets on the sides of roads. These channels of rocks and stone take tens of thousands of dollars to construct. But I've come to realize that the damage that can happen without adequate drainage is far more than the work required to be ready for the storms.
Healthy spiritual formation requires us to be intentional about having drainage systems in our lives-- ways of helping damaging storms move past us without pooling and creating additional chaos and long term damage in our spirit.
The apostle Paul speaks of the ability to look forward rather than dwelling on the past. This doesn't mean he actually forgot his past. In fact, he frequently brings up his own wounds and struggles and how God's grace met him and transformed him through them. However, there is a sense that healthy movement means moving through pain and heartache and failures, letting them drain off of us so that we can experience wholeness once again.
We are so fortunate that God has given us numerous ways to have healthy drainage systems in our lives so that the storms that come do not destroy us. But it takes intentionality. Paul writes later in Philippians that we are invited to bring our anxieties to God in prayer, and that God promises supernatural peace in our spirits. We are also given the Church, the Body of Christ, as a wonderful gift to bear one anothers' burdens and help us heal. And we are told to practice forgiveness every day, which allows hurt and offense to drain away from our spirits, replaced by God's love and compassion. And we follow Jesus into the quiet places of honesty and stillness, sitting with him long enough to truly become aware of the things that are destroying us so that we can release them and begin to move forward again. These are structures of healthy drainage in our lives.
God has made us resilient people by his spirit, and we are capable of healing even when there is massive flooding in our lives-- things such as family crises, job losses, depression, financial despair, deep hurts, and relational division. But every disciple must decide if we will utilize drainage structures in our daily routines. Times of confession with Jesus, times of deep spiritual encouragement with other disciples, and practices of looking forward and listening to what new things God is speaking, all are a part of real spiritual health.
Most of the time we can't control the storms or how much water gets dumped on us. But we can choose to trust the ways of Jesus in moving forward without allowing those storms to do more damage than they already have. God is a God of restoration and healing; and none of us are outside of that promise. Choose to be courageous today, looking to what lies ahead and moving on from what needs to drain away. Jesus is walking with you as you go.
Jesus, help me create practices in my life that move me toward healing and wholeness, with my eyes on what's ahead.
"And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God."
-Paul's letter to the Church in Ephesus, Ephesians 3:18-19
On Sunday morning, one of our funky little LifePath bands led us toward Jesus with a song called Head to the Heart (though ours looked a bit less hipster). The chorus goes, From the head to the heart, You take me on a journey, of letting go, and getting lost in You. It's hard not to move joyfully with the beat. It's the kind of thing you'd probably experience if a Jesus revival broke out at a Lumineers concert.
There are a lot of lyrics worth contemplating in this song, but I found that I couldn't stop dwelling on the bridge....
More than words // more than big ideas
I found your love in the open fields
For someone like me whose work in life is directly connected to words and big ideas, I laughed at the irony of how deeply true I feel like that lyric is for discipleship.
We need some more open fields in our lives, friends. There is a delight that comes from being connected with Jesus through more than words, and we often miss out on it.
Our world is full of so so many words, and they can often get in the way.
Our faith is full of so so many words, and they can often get in the way.
My head is full of so so many words, and they can often get in the way.
Christianity is an embodied faith. At its most beautiful, it is a complete mix of the heart and mind and soul. No part of our day is separated from the holiness of God's world, and no part of our body is separated from the experience of discipleship. We experience God's goodness through taste, sight, touch, sound, and smell. Even when we believe and trust Jesus (mind and heart), we are baptized (body!) to symbolize it. But the temptation is to minimize the full sensory experience, so we often boil discipleship down to: knowing stuff.
We've prized the mind over all of it, and it can hinder us from experiencing the fullness of God's love.
Yes, our minds are important. Jesus corrected people's beliefs about God constantly, helping them understand God's heart. But at the same time, Jesus called the disciples so that they could "be with him." That was the priority. He wanted them to know and experience what love was, because he knew that would lead humanity to turn toward him and change the world for good.
That's a very different priority than trying to understand everything. As humans, we love to figure stuff out. And yet, sometimes the best thing we could possibly do for our spiritual formation is just go out into an open field alone so that we can simply get loved by Jesus.
I love that Paul begins his blessing to the Ephesians by saying he hopes that they'll be able to "understand" the grandeur of God's love. Then, as if catching what he just said, he almost doubles back and says, actually, it's too great to understand fully, so my real hope is just that you experience it, since you'll never be able to truly figure it out.
More than words, more than big ideas...
I found your love in the open fields.
Open fields are places of freedom. They are expansive. They invite play and exploration and contemplation and curiosity and wonder and all the big feelings that are a little beyond our ability to describe. Open fields are the places around us and inside us where we can simply go out and chase after Jesus so that we come away changed by this profound experience of love. Sure, it can involve the mind, but love is never truly a mental exercise. It's all about the heart.
So our question this morning is this: are you able to move beyond just thinking about faith and into experiencing life with God? It'll look different for you than it will for me. But sometimes we just need to get out of our heads, shut up, and throw ourselves into the mystery of it all in order to start to really grasp how deep and wide and great and wonderful it is that we are loved beyond reason.
Jesus, slow me down enough to discover your love in new ways today.
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This summer my family had the opportunity of a lifetime when we traveled to Alaska to celebrate my father's retirement after over 40 years as a college professor. We traveled up the interior by train, with single day tours and excursions from each location we visited.
A trip highlight was our day in Denali National Park. To preserve the wilderness, only one road runs into the park, and most of that road is only accessible by tour buses. We loaded a bus for a half day trip deep into the middle of the mountains, to see the scenery and the wildlife (yes, we did see moose and bear, but that's a different story!).
The bus turnaround point is a spot where, if the conditions are right, you can have a beautiful view of Denali mountain, with its crags towering at 20,300 feet and covered in snow year round. It's an amazing sight to behold. However, the conditions are rarely just right. We traveled in late July, and we were told by several guides that there are usually only a handful of days in the entire month that Denali is even visible, because the mountain is so large that it makes its own weather. Usually it's shrouded in clouds, and even when it is visible, people often just see the tip of it. Many people have traveled to the park five or six times just to get a glimpse of the mountain, and still have not seen it clearly.
I find this interesting. The entire 6.1 million acre park is named after this mountain- this mysterious, incredible mountain that is often hard to see with absolute clarity. People continue to travel to Denali knowing that there’s a significant chance that they might not actually see the mountain in all its fullness. And yet at the same time, the journey is never a waste. Though there might be some disappointment on a cloudy day, there is so much beauty to behold on the path toward Denali, that it makes the experience worth it every single time, even if you don’t get that ultimate glimpse. You can sense that you’re in the presence of the most majestic point on the continent, even if you can’t see it.
Jesus talked about how some people get to see and people don't. Some got glimpses of the resurrected Jesus with absolute clarity. Others did not, and they had to trust. Today, some people sense the presence of God easily, and faith feels a lot like plain sight. For others, faith is a deep mystery and requires walking through some disappointment, longing for a clear glimpse that doesn't come. And Jesus understands both. And Jesus says a special blessing to those who try to trust him, even when every question isn't answered and every longing isn't satisfied. He blesses those who don’t see and still trust.
From one angle you could suggest that we're all in that second grouping, since we never witnessed Jesus with our own eyes. From another angle we might say that some people simply have the gift of faith and for others it's a real act of faith... to have faith.
But in either category, we can take heart. The journey of faithfulness is a breathtaking one, even when we are having trouble seeing God in direct and majestic ways. The path of love, forgiveness, and compassion as we trust Jesus holds immeasurable beauty, whether or not we see miraculous moments or feel the presence of God every day. The way of discipleship is meaningful as a way of life, and the glimpses of God that we will see, sometimes regularly and sometimes only occasionally (in our perspective) ensure that journey is not worthless.
So resist the temptation to think that your faith is a waste if you don't always feel like you can see and feel God clearly. It isn’t. Jesus, in all his love and grace and majesty, is every bit as present with us when we can't see as when we can. And knowing that we are in the presence of such love and beauty is enough to make us look around with fresh eyes. And when we do, we will notice that along the journey, glimpses of God's kingdom are revealed in so many surprising and beautiful ways.
We did have the fortunate pleasure of seeing Denali in all it's glory during our trip (see that photo??). But Denali would still have been just as glorious, even if we didn't see it that day. So don’t get discouraged if you’re having one of those days where the mountain is shrouded in grey clouds. It’s still there, and there’s much to see as you travel toward it. Keep your eyes open and your heart pure (Mt 5:8), and in the words of Jesus, you will see God.
Jesus, today I'll keep walking in faith toward you, even when it's hard to see you there.