Lights Out on the Highway
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
- Ps 139:23-24
Last week I had the opportunity to watch my wife perform on opening night of her latest theater production. It was a fun time in the city, and as I drove home late in the night, I was still lost in the bizzare world of Neil Simon’s comedic mind. I worked my way through the city stoplights and zipped onto the I-95 onramp for the short drive home. About a mile down the highway, a car behind me started beeping and flicking their lights at me. I was in the right lane, not swerving, and going the speed limit. What’s up with the annoying driver? Don’t distract me! We’re on the interstate!
It wasn’t until they had sped past me (possibly waving to me with one of their fingers!) that I did a quick examination and realized that I had never turned my headlights on. I rarely drive the city at night, and it was so well lit on those streets that I hadn’t even noticed my headlights were still dark. And when I got to the highway, that really became a problem. Others noticed, but I didn’t. Whoops.
My first thought after the beeping and the flashing was quite clear:
WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM?
That’s what happens when we’re not self-aware. We immediately look at others when an issue arises. And often the result is that we walk around being annoyed and angry at everybody else.
How many of our offenses, our conflicts, and our judgmental moments could be alleviated by a habit of self-examination? I became unnecessarily annoyed, and caused fear (and likely anger) in another driver. All of that could have been avoided earlier by a bit more awareness of what was really happening.
Pete Scazzero is a pastor who helps people become emotionally healthy. He often says that some people who think they are spiritually mature actually have the emotional maturity of a toddler. I think he’s onto something.
Self-awareness is not "pop psychology" or self-help. It’s about being able to notice our blind spots before they hurt someone (ourselves included). So we cultivate a life of asking God and trusted friends for insight, so that we can love Jesus and love our neighbors with our full selves. Where are we at risk from selfishness? Anger? Insensitivity? Ego? Stress? What are we too busy or preoccupied to notice?
We might call this soul-searching. King David had to learn it the hard way. In his immaturity he became so blinded by pride, power, and lust that he stole someone’s wife and committed murder…. and rationalized it all. Later, full of sorrow and heartache, he had to learn to practice the prayer, “Search me, o God, and know my heart…” He needed a regular dose of God’s eye opening insight.
This is serious heart work with God. If we aren’t aware that something is off within us, it’s inevitable that we’re going to end up in an accident with long term consequences. But if we realize that our headlights are off as we’re driving down the highway, we can invite Jesus to help us get things turned back on. And hopefully, next time we can be aware enough to flip on our lights before we endanger those around us.
Take a few moments to breathe with Jesus today. Notice your stresses. Ask him to search your heart and expose anxiety, fear, and pride. And ask a family member or trusted friend if you’re missing anything lately. It’s worth the risk.
Jesus, search my heart. Help me see my blind spots, and lead me toward life.
A Thousand Little Deaths
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit.
-Jesus (John 15:1-2)
Fall is a nice time. As comedian Jim Gaffigan puts it, people just love watching the leaves and celebrating their last moments before they FALL TO THEIR DEATH. Now you’ll never be able think about the October woods the same way again! Don’t worry, it gets worse. The word “fall” sounds more passive than the reality is. When you look into the real world of nature, you find out that the leaves are actually "pushed off” the branches. It's even more brutal than you thought, Gaffigan!
Out here in the mid-atlantic, the cooler weather triggers a hormone in trees that tell each leaf that its time is up. Thick cells quickly form a bumpy line on the place where the stem of the leaf connects with the branch, and the leaf is literally pushed off the tree.
This happens for survival. Trees lose so much water during photosynthesis in the spring and summer that they are spent when winter rolls around. If trees want to survive until the next growing season, they’ve got to cut down on all excess during the intense months.
It’s not passive. It’s intentional. And, surprisingly, it’s breathtaking.
The tree makes a thousand little deaths in itself in order to survive for the long haul. And it does this every season. What can we learn?
I find it interesting that in the same season the trees are downsizing, our schedules are often picking up. Fall can get crazy. Having a full schedule in itself is not a bad thing. But not knowing when or how to push leaves off our branches so that we can keep our spirits alive? That’s a lost art, and it's essential if we want to delight in Jesus and thrive after harsh seasons.
Jesus speaks of the Father as a wise gardener who cuts off things in us that are unnecessary, and trims things that need more time before they are ready to grow. Cutting off excess is a spiritual tool for health.
Sometimes that means wasteful time, toxic habits and relational dynamics, and things that pull us from an awareness of God.
But sometimes our leaves aren’t negative. There is much good to do in the world. There is much that your job and your family requires of you. There are so many fun activities to participate in. Yet if we can’t identify things that need to be pared down, we will find ourselves anxious, distracted, and never ready for a season of personal growth. It’s going to take a few little deaths (and maybe some big ones).
Jesus talks about dying. He says that when we learn to die to our own egos, priorities, and need to impress, we can finally take hold of God’s heart. And that, like a dying seed, brings life many times larger than we can imagine.
It’s beautiful. Like the dying leaves.
Maybe the cooler breezes this week will encourage you to consider what God is desiring to trim in you. That’s between you and God. But rest assured that when we learn how to live with the simple focus of loving Jesus and the people around us, letting other details fall as they need, our lives become a breathtaking glimpse of God’s beauty.
Jesus, help me know what to release today.
I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
-Jesus (John 13:34)
And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.
-Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:18
It’s difficult to become the truest version of ourselves. Every one of us lives with some amount of desire to project ourselves in the best light possible. Sometimes we’re not even sure what our real selves might look like, because we’ve spent so much time sizing up the people around us.
But deep within the soul is a desire to be truly honest. To be known for who we are beneath the surface, even if it’s not always pretty. The scriptures have a word for that. Love.
The Velveteen Rabbit was written 97 years ago by Margery Williams. It is a timeless children’s tale of a stuffed toy bunny who is transformed by love.
When he arrives new in the playroom, the velveteen rabbit hears all the other toys bragging about how real they are, because they have noise makers and wind-ups and mechanical parts. The velveteen rabbit doesn’t have these things, and he thinks that’s what it must mean to be real. So he asks his friend the Skin Horse, who has been made wise by age, and had seen many many mechanical toys come and go when they broke over time. So the velveteen rabbit asks the Skin Horse one day, “What is real? Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
'Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.
But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.“
Go ahead and stop your multitasking and read that last line again.
It’s ok to cry.
When you are loved, you can’t be ugly. And you are, each one of you, dearly loved. Geez, that old skin horse. That brother gets it.
The power of love is the power to make things real. We so often think of being “authentic” as something we choose to do, yet it can more accurately be explained as what Jesus does to us. When we experience the true and honest love of Jesus, day by day, we find that our shiny lacquer of an impressive looking exterior fades away. It can be painful as Jesus wears away areas of selfishness, apathy, and ego from our hearts. And yet because we are being loved in the process, it’s beautiful as well, for we are being freed to be known as we are...and loved anyways. That’s what makes us real.
The gift is that as we become real, we can love others without pretense as well, and aide in their journey of becoming real too. It’s messy, and often painful as we imperfectly figure out how to care for one another. Yet it is far better than rejecting real community. To isolate ourselves is to make becoming real impossible. This is why participating in Christian community is so important.
There are many folks today, Christians and not, with sharp edges, who break easily, who have to be carefully kept. Let us instead become people who have been well loved by Jesus- not easily breakable, and softened over time. Let us become real. Even if we feel worn thin, we can rest assured that we can never be ugly in God’s eyes.
Jesus, make us unafraid of being loved.
Like A Wall of Pay Phones
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to clear us of a guilty conscience….
I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.
-Jesus (John 10:10)
Due to some study-related travel this week, I found myself sitting in an airport terminal in Chicago. As one of the busiest airports in the world, O’Hare is hopping at any hour of the day. A place to sit is hard to find. But when I finally found one, my eyes landed on one particular spot that was definitely not hopping.
As if caught in a frozen moment of time, a payphone wall was directly across from me. These phone stations created a bubble of non-activity, looking like a ghost town in an otherwise vibrant airport. The phones hung there defiantly, covering the wall with blatant disregard of the fact that they no longer served any actual purpose.
I tried to imagine a situation today today where five payphones would be needed side by side. Perhaps in the case of an absolute emergency where every iPhone battery combusts at the same time. Or maybe if a cell phone tower collapsed (but you could always send a message over wifi), or a movie director was making a low budget indie film set in 1997. That’s about it. And let’s be honest, how many phone numbers do you really have memorized? If people ask me what my wife’s phone number is, I tell them it’s #1 my favorites tab.
That wall was completely unnecessary. You know what the airport could really use there? A bench, a charging station, or better yet, some green plants to form an oasis in the middle of a busy airport! Anything purposeful or beautiful would be worth the renovation.
I’ve been thinking about what "payphone walls" exist in our lives these days. Things that just sit there doing nothing but taking up space that could be used in so many better ways. There are endless options, but for many today, guilt over past mistakes has become one payphone wall.
At some point in our lives, the mistakes we make and the gross feeling that comes afterwards has a real purpose. It upsets our equilibrium and reminds us that something is not right. It can move us to repent, to change, and to restore relationships. But as time moves on, if guilt remains, it simply takes up emotional space. It accomplishes nothing for the kingdom of God, and wastes energy that could be used for better purposes.
I’m thankful that the way of Jesus moves us toward a far better “technology” that makes guilt-dependence obsolete.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is, and yet it’s not.
We figure that the best way to do the right thing is to constantly beat ourselves up over the many times we do the wrong things. But the reality is that experiencing forgiveness from God releases the crushing emotional space of ever present guilt, changing us permanently and freeing us to focus again on loving those around us. It’s like the provocative lyrics from a Mumford and Sons song as they allude to the prodigal son image:
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart //
but the welcome I receive with the re-start.
Since you may have been formed by a faith that hinged on a steady dose of guilt, learning to rest in grace means overcoming the mentality that it’s cheating. It’s not. Lean into to the person of Jesus and you will be constantly discovering that a spirit of peace and wholeness is the gift of God for the imperfect many, not the perfect few.
You are loved and given full access to God’s grace. If you’ve got a wall of guilt taking up needless space, then you are missing a better way to become a disciple. Time to invite Jesus to renovate your heart and clear out some space to rest in grace and love accordingly.
Jesus, replace our guilt with grace, so that we may live with more freedom and capacity to love than ever before.