"God had formed out of the ground every wild beast and every bird of heaven. He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one, and whatever the man called each living thing was indeed its name.”
In our church, we’ve been reflecting on the powerful words of Genesis and why beginnings matter. Our catchphrase has been, “Words Create Worlds” and we’ve been diving into the beauty and mystery of the first story of our Bible.
But there’s so much to work through that I can’t possibly cover everything in public teaching. So I want to reflect on one brief statement that hasn’t gotten any airtime on a Sunday morning. It’s about name-calling, and it’s really important.
I’m not a big fan of name calling.
I raise 3 kids and coach another 50 of them right now, so I’m familiar with the creativity that can be used when calling someone a name (it’s not usually the good kind of creativity). In our house, we frequently have to tell our kids to avoid the “you’re so…!” statements that tend to label a person as negative, rather than address a specific action.
In the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical teaching that is passed down through generations, there is an understanding that the name of everything is its life-source. The Hebrew letters carry God’s power in a unique way, and when put together in different formations they give life wherever they are applied.
In other words, according to Hebrew thought, something’s name, or the words they are called, directly affects what or who it actually becomes. Name calling is incredibly powerful. Maybe that’s why God renames Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah when they join his family, and God renames Jacob after their wrestling match. They’ve become something new. Maybe that’s why Jesus speaks a new name to Peter as he commissions him to lead the first generation of his Church. And maybe that’s why John reveals in his vision that each faithful person will receive a new name as they enter the fullness of the kingdom (Revelation 2:17). Each represents a new start, full of life with God. Wild stuff, huh? Names are a big deal.
That’s why it’s so crazy that in Genesis, the job of naming all of creation is given to a human. Seems like the sort of thing that would best be left in God’s hands, if you ask me. I’ve heard the names that we come up with when we think it’s our job. It’s not pretty, friends.
Many Jewish interpretations hold that even when God formed the animals in Genesis 2:19, they weren’t given the breath of life until their names were spoken by Adam. Then life and purpose began. And taking things a step further in chapter 3, Adam names Eve, reminding us that people have been given the task of even naming one another.
God’s partnership in this way… that’s a lot of responsibility. Words can destroy and maim, or words can build and heal (read James). And that power has been entrusted to you. Let’s not screw this one up.
What if we looked around our world daily with a focus on name calling everything we see in both the natural world and the world of humanity? And what if our name calling is in line with the value and beauty and dignity that Jesus teaches us to model*?
Maybe it starts today by noticing the name badge at the cash register, and thanking Jessica for serving you. Maybe it extends to declaring the good you see in your children and coworkers. Maybe it extends to telling someone that you believe in them. To reminding someone that they are loved and valuable. To noticing the image of God in someone and then calling them that name. And maybe it means that when we see someone we are uncomfortable with, scared of, or even disgusted by… that we remember that God has given humans the task of calling things what they are in God’s world. And in God’s world, everything is created valuable.
Jesus, help me give names to the overlooked, forgotten, and mundanely beautiful things and people in my life today. May my words bring your life into each one.
*I’m fully aware that when Jesus named things, not all of them were positive, especially when speaking to oppressive and religious power structures (brood of vipers, sons of hell, and whitewashed tombs come to mind). However, Jesus could see the heart that we can’t, and Jesus also laid down his life for those people in forgiveness of their wrongdoing, so if that's those names are the first ones you're drawn to... might be a good chance to search your heart. ¯\_( シ)_/¯
When the Piano Plays
"You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.”
"Pray like this, […]
'May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
-Jesus (Luke 17:21, Matthew 6:9,10)
The other night I walked into the house and I heard our digital piano being played. This is not an everyday occurrence, though it’s a beautiful one. My wife is the only person who really plays it, though our kids have recently taken an interest in pounding out “Heart and Soul” over and over again. And over. Again.
In our family, when my wife plays the piano, it means one of two things. Most often, it means that shalom is here. Shalom is the Hebrew word for “peace," but it means more than that. It means wholeness and rightness in every facet. It means that things are healthy and at that moment, we are truly well. There is no yelling. Bellies are full and homework is either done or happily occurring. True contentment reigns.
When we have family moments like that, and we are at peace, the piano is a way that Bethany expresses it. The music fills our house almost as a metaphor for the rightness of the moment. Her beautiful voice creates a blanket of comfort that extends through both floors, full of lyrics reminding us of God’s goodness and love.
But there are other times (OBVIOUSLY). Those are the times when she sits down at the piano to sing not because things are right, but because precisely because they aren’t and they need to be made right.
These are the moments when shalom has been broken. There has been too much stress in the house. The kids have been fighting and bugging each other. The week has been heavy. We are exhausted and grumpy. We’re heartbroken about whatever the latest act of hatred on earth has been. Even turning on the tv or looking at our phones is so obviously hollow that it’s unbearable. And so she sits down and sings. And she begins to make us right again.
Sometimes the things that we do to express the beautiful are the same things we need to do when it all seems ugly. We need to sing what is true until it becomes so.
This is the story of the God's already/not-yet kingdom, isn’t it? This is how Jesus can tell us one moment that the kingdom is already here— within us and available— then tell us that it’s somewhere out there, coming in the future, and to pray for it. It’s a paradox until you start to experience it. So Jesus people learn to declare that the kingdom is here in one breath, and then we look around and pray for it to come in the next. Because it all has been made right, and yet nothing is right. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it's the other. And that’s ok to admit.
But if we are being shaped into the image of Jesus, the practices that characterize us will not change based on if things are well or not. If we are overwhelmed by beauty and justice and love and compassion around us, we name it and recognize it as God’s goodness. We declare that the kingdom is here. We lean into it, pray and fix our eyes on the creator and redeemer to find rest in that beauty.
If we are overwhelmed by ugliness and injustice and hatred and selfishness and brokenness around us, we name it and declare what God’s goodness looks like anyways. We pray for the kingdom to come, and we declare our commitment to being a part of that ushering-in process. We fix our eyes on our creator and redeemer and rest in the hope that true life is possible with Jesus, even in these moments, and that goodness will ultimately win out.
And wouldn’t you know that when we do that, the kingdom does come— in one little way— on earth as it is in heaven. We sing it into being, so to speak. And God uses that to change us, and to change those around us. It’s like a street violin piercing through the din of the city bustle. It causes the world to stop and take notice.
When we see God’s goodness around us, let’s declare it fully.
When we are missing God’s goodness around us, let’s declare what’s ultimately true until we see it.
Jesus, give us eyes to see your kingdom today. And give us feet to work with you to bring it tomorrow.
A Good Set
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
-Paul (Colossians 3:2)
In the sport of volleyball, when you “set” the ball, you use your fingers to spring it above the net in the perfect position for a spike. A good set is all about placement so that the best outcome can occur. The set is not the end goal- the end goal is moving the ball across the net and scoring… but this is how you make that happen.
Where you set things affect how well you’ll do.
The apostle Paul had never heard of volleyball. But he certainly understood something about placing things at the right spot. And he understood that for disciples of Jesus to do well in the world— to be transformed into the character of Jesus and extend the good news of Jesus in the most effective ways— the mind had to be set correctly.
So he challenges Christians in the town of Colossae to “set your minds on things above.” Sometimes translators use the phrase “heavenly things.”
Well goodness, that sounds high and holy, doesn’t it? We might even be tempted to think that the perfect Christian's mindset is completely unaware of the real world around her, because she is so caught up in the "heavenly mindset.” I believe those are the people who we frequently say need to “get their heads out of the clouds.”
What if we are missing the point a bit? Both Genesis and Revelation point to the goal where Heaven and Earth meet. And in Jesus, we find the things of heaven are actually pretty earthy. They’re not disconnected from reality, yet they taste a bit like heaven. They are about selfless love, active grace, and complete peace in being united with God. Jesus shows that the “things of heaven” are about servanthood and kind words and forgiveness. The things of heaven are dignity for the broken hearted and healing for the suffering. Heavenly things look like a name and story and value given to every human being.
When we get this right, heavenly thinking becomes much less cloudy than we may have previously thought…
But setting our minds in the right spot for Jesus to work in us is hard these days. And I’m not convinced it’s because of our huge sins and massive selfishness (though those certainly play a role). For the typical Jesus follower, though, it’s about something far less obvious.
We’re just distracted.
In volleyball terms, we’re not looking for the ball, so we miss the set.
Andrew Sullivan writes that the the greatest threat to faith today "is not hedonism, but distraction.” The barrage of technology, news, noise, and connectivity creates a concoction that can leave us stumbling about as we flip from one thing to another. We are spinning, and our minds are never set on much of anything.
The antidote? Well, it’s probably not going to be more volume and moving lights during Sunday worship. Beating bad distractions with good distractions doesn’t really accomplish the end goal.
It’s going to be about getting uncomfortable with silence and stillness with God. And that will take radical intentionality. Fifteen years ago our digital age required us to sit down at a desk if we wanted to to plunge into the rabbit hole of the interwebs. Now we bring the rabbit hole with us wherever we go.
Technology is not evil, but it’s certainly not neutral.
Sometime I wonder if we realize that God gives us permission to just turn things off so that we can set our minds on God’s heart.
You’ve got permission. Use it. Take some moments to place your mind in the right spot. Leave your phone behind. It's ok.
What’s one way that you will open up space today so that your mind can sit still and listen for God? What’s one way you can help make space for someone you love to do the same?
Jesus, set my mind on your beauty today, so that it might change me and change our world.
Thanks to my wonderful wife Bethany for providing this week's thought for reflection together.
Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.
-Apostle Paul (Ephesians 3:20)
Then Jesus shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
In Luke 10, we are introduced to “a certain woman named Martha” who welcomed Jesus into her home. Poor Martha is usually viewed from that point on as nothing more than a cautionary tale of workaholism. She is the one who misses the point. Mary is the good sister; the one who gets it right.
As a result of this bad press, I never found Martha particularly interesting or appealing. That changed a few days ago when I entered into her story and began to connect deeply with her humanity.
By the time we encounter Martha for the second time in John 11, we can deduce that she is a woman who cares deeply about her family and about Jesus. She prioritizes taking care of people and anything else that needs to be taken care of. She is responsible and capable. She tries to do the right thing in every situation.
But one day, her world is shaken.
Her brother dies because Jesus doesn’t come in time to save him. Jesus could have come. He should have come. They sent for him. But he chooses to ignore their message and arrives four days too late.
It suddenly feels like everything around Martha is crumbling down around her. But because she is capable and responsible and trying to do the right thing, when Jesus arrives, Martha pulls herself together and goes out to meet him. She can’t quite put it into words, but she knows deep down that Jesus could have stopped this. She knows there is power there. She knows that he could have healed Lazarus and saved them from all of this pain. If only Jesus had come sooner! She has to say something so she blurts out, “if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She still knows Jesus is good and true and powerful…but why oh why didn’t he choose to come and heal Lazarus when they asked?
Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again.
And she knows that. She knows that hope is promised and her brother will rise again someday. She truly believes it. She verbalizes these things. She wants Jesus to know that she really does trust him. She really does have hope for the future. But the now, that’s where the pain is at.
Then Jesus declares who he is and what is promised and he asks her if she believes.
And she does believe. Of course she believes! She knows Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. In fact, after knowing Jesus for some time, she is absolutely convinced that he is the Son of God. But she still doesn’t know how that’s supposed to help in this moment. Right now. Now that it is too late.
Although Martha knows that Jesus can do remarkable things, raising the dead isn’t even on her radar. It is so far beyond anything she could ask or imagine. She doesn’t even consider the possibility.
But Jesus does. And Jesus does it.
He does the thing she didn’t even know she could ask him to do.
Jesus opens a tomb and brings death to life.
Turns a story around completely.
Brings the ending that nobody saw coming.
Restores someone that was truly beyond hope.
He does infinitely more than she could ask or even imagine.
I think on this and wonder… where is my faith too small? Where is my imagination too limited?
Jesus, sometimes I nod my head in agreement while still not really trusting the ways you can transform my life and our world. Strengthen my faith and sharpen my eyes.