Owls and Cheese
Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?
- Romans 2:4
So there was this real life study conducted by real life psychologists twenty years ago that was published by the American Psychological Association. And it involved adults, cartoon mazes, owls, cheese, and mice. I know. This is off to an amazing start.
Research participants were given pencils and paper mazes, and told to help a cartoon mouse get from one end of the maze to other. The maze was the same for all the participants, but the imagery was different. On some of the papers, the end of the maze had a yummy piece of cheese waiting for the mouse. On the others, an owl looked down from the upper corner, on the hunt until the mouse got through the maze to safety.
And this crazy thing happened. There were different brain responses for the two groups of participants. Those doing the maze with the owl predator had their brains going into "avoidance mode," characteristic of the flight or flight response. Those whose mouse was going for the cheese had their brains go into "approach mode," characteristic of curiosity, desire, and eagerness.
There were two really interesting outcomes of this experiment. First, those whose mice were seeking the tasty cheese finished the same maze consistently faster than those whose mice were trying to avoid being digested.
Secondly, after these easy maze puzzles, participants were asked to do a creativity task. Those who had been chasing the cheese were twice as creative as those who had been avoiding the owl! Twice as creative! And these were just cartoon mazes. Just consider what must happen in our brains when we are motivated by fear, or motivated by goodness.
Many people are taught to believe that taking their faith seriously means needing to live up to God's standards and avoid God's punishment, disappointment, or judgment. God is seen as loving-ish, with a little bit of a dark side, and there's a whole lot of feeling not-good-enough. After all, we're told to be perfect like our heavenly father is perfect, right? (Matthew 5:48). That's a terrifying command!
Yet if we look at the entire arc of scripture, culminating in Jesus, we see a story that is characterized by love and invitation to something exceeding good: freedom, grace, fullness of life, forgiveness of sin, genuine relationship with God and others.
Love is expressed as the motivator over fear. Transformation comes from receiving God's gift of grace more than avoiding God's judgment.
In one approach, the end goal is simply relief. The bad thing didn’t happen.
But in the other, the end goal is fulfillment- a truly good thing happens! Which do you think sounds like abundant life? Turns out Jesus understands psychology.
God made us so that enjoying his presence is more transformative than avoiding his absence. Fear of punishment can only take you so far before the relationship falls apart. Love and connection creates lifelong transformation, and is more true to the character of Jesus we see revealed in the Bible. What incredibly good news that is for us today, when both fear and unmet expectations can have a crushing effect on our souls from all sides.
Do you want to be motivated to follow Jesus? To be more loving? To be a faithful Christian? You could try really hard to do everything right, believing that if you don't, God will be deeply disappointed in you. Or you could learn how beloved you are, and how much God longs to be in real relationship with you and set you free. And that, scientifically speaking, will provide the highest level of motivation you can get for living the Jesus way. Also, it will unleash your creativity to partner in building God's kingdom with freedom and joy.
Pursuing God because we long for more of God's goodness in us and in the world will always be more compelling than any alternative.
Jesus, fix my eyes on you today, so that I can move toward your kingdom life with joy and freedom.
(Details for the study: Friedman, R.S. &Forster J. (2001), "The Effects of Promotion and Prevention Cues on Creativity.")
Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.
Gas prices are back up in our area. Though I'm a big proponent of foot traffic, I admit that most of the time I do use my car to get places. The other day when I stopped at the gas station, it was one of those times where the tank is so empty that that it takes a half gallon more than the stated capacity of the entire gas tank before it fills up. I was driving on fumes!
Even for my little hatchback, the cost was nearly $50! Yet I still paid it, barely even thinking about the trips that emptied that tank or the ones that will empty this one. I've gotten into the habit of filling my car when it's out of gas, and just continuing on my way, no matter the cost. Then I continue driving anywhere and everywhere, and repeat it all over again. Do you do the same?
But as the gasoline was pumping, I paused and wondered...
Would I make the same driving choices if I had to get my wallet out and pay for a little gas every time I got into my car?
Driving across town to grab takeout: $2.15
Going to the grocery store in the morning: $1.50
Going again in the afternoon when you forgot Nutella: $1.50
Roundtrip to the gym because you now feel guilty about eating a jar of Nutella: $3.08
How would it change your choices if you had to pay a few dollars every time you got into your car?
The costs add up. And we don't even think about it.
If we did, two things would happen. First, we'd realize how there is a cost to every action. And second, we would notice that they add up really, really quickly.
In life, we have choices about what we will do or not do (to some extent). Yet the average person spends almost no time reflecting on if each choice is worth the cost.
And without this reflection, they miss opportunities to use the unique resources God has given them (time, money, energy, love) to experience God's gift of life and build God's kingdom.
A harshly critical word said about another person costs our spirits a great deal. An hour scrolling mindlessly on a phone costs energy and relational connection with the people around us. Time spent on curating an instagram-worthy life and appearance limits one's ability to be focused on others. Even good things, if they're not the right things, can take a lot out of us and limit our capacity to prioritize what Jesus is leading us toward. We need God's wisdom to make these choices.
We each have a finite amount of energy, a finite amount of mental space, and a finite amount of relational capacity each day. And we have a finite amount of days on this side of eternity.
Everything has a cost. The efforts that move us toward relationships, service, joy, beauty, rest, and redemption are well worth it. The trips that lead us toward anger, frustration, obligation, bitterness, and selfishness will always leave us back at empty.
If you thought carefully about all that, what would you choose to do or not to do today, so that you didn't spend gas money on all the wrong trips?
Jesus, give me wisdom and courage to make the most of my moments today, not wasting the resources you've given me.
Dish Brush Spirituality
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Last week I after dinner I was taking care of cleaning some of the bigger pots that don't fit into our dishwasher. Who knew dinner for a family of five would require commercial-sized equipment! But when I went to grab the dish brush that we keep on the counter behind the sink, it wasn't there. I looked in all the usual places, but it was nowhere to be found.
I set that task aside for a moment to unload the clean dishes, and that's when I found it, along with the clean utensils..... inside our dishwasher. On purpose. Apparently my wife put it in the last load.
Stay with me here...
My first thought was, "That's ridiculous. The dish brush is constantly soapy. It never needs washing- it's the one doing the washing, and it gets cleaned as it goes!"
Bethany begs to differ, and actually finds my dish brush neglect appalling, suggesting that it needs to be washed regularly itself, even though it's often covered in soap. This conversation may be marriage in a nutshell.
And, like most of the last 19 years we've been together, I'm realizing she's probably right.
Beyond the kitchen details, I wonder if many of us disciples of Jesus fall prey to "dish brush spirituality." We are out there regularly trying to live out the love of Jesus in tangible ways toward the world. And in the midst of it, we kind of assume that we're constantly connected to it. Therefore, we are less intentional about making space to do nothing but receive the same sorts of things we are trying to express to the around us. It's difficult to receive something you've been taught to give out. Just think about the fact that the ones who love to bring meals to sick families are often the ones least likely to receive a meal offer to them! Similarly, sometimes the longer someone is around Christian faith, the less likely they are to actually encounter the beauty of the good news themselves. They are quick to share it (even with the right motives!), but often overlook how much God wants to speak it over and over to them.
It's an odd reality, but it's true. Even when hearts are in the right place, personal needs are often downplayed. We may deeply desire that everyone know how amazing God's grace is, yet in the very same thought we are feeling like we're not doing enough for God.
Additionally, when we already know something is true, we can breeze past it because of familiarity, without letting God speak it to us in a fresh way once again. As we prayed in one of our LifePath Vision Team meetings this week, one of our team members was stirred to share with us a basic word of encouragement from God: You are enough. I initially nodded in agreement, knowing that this is a great truth that I've spoken to others many times. And because I agreed with it so much, I almost missed letting God speak that good news to me in the moment. That's the temptation. If we know something is true, we often miss the chance for God to use it to transform us all over again.
I find it interesting that the scriptures regularly talk about "renewal" in both the Old and New Testament. God renews our strength, our hearts, and our minds. The very word denotes that something was new once, and it once again needs maintenance. Discipleship is an ongoing experience, not a one time decision. It's humbling to know that even as we tell people of the goodness of God's love and grace, we regularly need to stop and receive it once again. We need to be still to experience the deep love that cleanses and transforms us, even if we feel like it's a normal part of our lives and language.
Are there elements of God's good news that you really want others to experience, but that you yourself haven't rested in lately? Are you wanting to show grace to everyone, yet haven't let God's grace put your heart at rest? Are you wanting to make sure everyone feels loved, yet it's been a while since you truly let God's love wash over you until it fills you completely?
Even scrub brushes need washing. Today, take some time to personally listen for Jesus to speak the same love and grace to you that you know he speaks to everyone else.
Jesus, I want to be available during this moment right now for renewal. Help me receive your love and grace.
People may be right in their own eyes, but the Lord examines their heart.
For those in the world of leadership, you can't escape the industry focus on having a 3-5 year plan all the time. Actually, having a plan figured out seems to be a trademark in all areas of life. People won't get married until they have all financial details worked out. Retirement planning commercials are everywhere on tv. Health plans and weight loss plans are available by the thousands on the internet. It's important to know what you want to do and what direction you want to go! The thing that matters is figuring out what you want to accomplish! And if you don't know where you're going, you'll never get anywhere, right?
There's plenty of good stuff in all that. We all try to know where we're heading and make good plans. Every time I get serious about a race, I follow a specific training plan. Bethany and I talk constantly about the best approaches to raise our kids. We think (hope?) we are doing things correctly (at least some of the time!). Knowing where we're headed and what needs to take place can be very helpful.
But the (often) shameful truth is that we don't always know where we're headed. We don't always have things figured out. We definitely don't always know how to get there. That's called being human, and it's healthy to admit. We are lying if we act like we have the answers for everything or a foolproof plan for the future. Just look at the past two years. Even when we think we know what's ahead, we don't actually know. A job fluctuates, depression hits hard, retirement doesn't bring as much fulfillment as hoped, children require so much of our time that we can't even begin to think about where God is leading us....
Maybe we can have confidence about what to make for tonight's dinner. But beyond that, we have no idea what tomorrow's plan is! Ever feel that way? Whether it's because you're in survival mode or because the last year and a half have left you feeling apathetic about nearly everything, we have seasons of life where direction and inspiration are nonexistent.
Within Christian culture, someone is often seen as spiritually immature if they don't have constant clarity of direction. Yet according to Jesus, what is most prized is not direction, but desire. God is constantly looking to see what is within the human heart. Is it selfishness? Is it arrogance? Or is it love? Is it mercy? Is it a desire to be faithful and to do what's right?
That's what God is concerned with. If our desire is to be faithful, then even when we get things wrong or don't know what to do, our hearts will be humble and true. And because of that, there will always be plenty of grace. We will not have everything figured out... our theology, our life plans, or our approaches to each unique situation. But if our hearts are postured toward Jesus, we can rest, knowing that even without clarity for what's ahead, God sees us and understands.
Here's what we see from Jesus:
Come and follow me.
I have come for those who know they need a doctor.
I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners.
The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.
Seek first the kingdom of God...
Jesus wants us to move toward him and his kingdom, even though we'll do so imperfectly. The pressure is off.
Mature discipleship has honest, humble desire at the center point. Jesus wants to walk with you, not simply leave you alone after you've correctly answered all the questions. So I'm inviting you this morning to sit with this profound prayer from the late Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton. Take your time with it. May it inspire you to align your heart with God, even when the eyes cannot discern what's ahead, and the mind can't figure out every answer.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Jesus, I do desire.
More Than The Minimum
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
For 9 weeks in the fall, my evenings are consumed with coaching middle school runners. I didn't know how much I loved it until Covid took it away (how many of us have had similar epiphanies?). It's been great to have a season this year.
Last week we did hill repeats on this truly insane hill on our course that climbs straight up for 150 yards. Even for an experienced runner, it's difficult to run all the way up it. I have our team do a workout on it every year to build their confidence, but I never know how the kids will respond.
At the beginning of the workout, I told them I'd like them to each do at least 6 repeats. But once they got to 6, they could do more if they were up for it. Now, I'd like to say that I'm a brilliant coach, but the reality was that I have runners at so many various levels that a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work. So I said, here's your starting point, but it doesn't need to be your ending point. You are probably capable of doing more.... if you choose.
Most of them rolled their eyes. Several asked if I was sure that 4 wasn't enough. But we got into it, and things got rolling. We reached 6, and something very special happened. A few kids started up on their seventh. And then others did too. And they Just. Kept. Going.
I've done 8, coach! I'm going to do another!
I didn't think I would do 10 today!
That's 11! You said 6 to start! Do we still have time for more?
It reached the point where I was literally pulling kids off the hill, telling them that they needed to stop, that their legs wouldn't keep benefiting because they were about to fall over. Some did 13. Some did 10. Some did 8. None did 6. Think about that.
That workout is a glimpse at how discipleship happens. Character is formed when a choice is given, rather than just a requirement. Because in those moments, we actually discover what is worth doing or not. Moving beyond the bare minimum in our lives with Jesus is when growth and development skyrockets. When we acknowledge that yes, there is a choice, and I'm going to keep going even when no one is requiring it... that's when we take ownership of our faith in new ways. And interestingly, the areas of greatest formation in us are often areas that you simply can't measure based on minimums (patience, peace, kindness... see above)
Sometimes people approach Christianity as if the line that matters is the bare minimum. What exactly do they need to believe or do in order to be "in?" How much Bible reading and prayer makes them a good Christian? What bad people can I pass judgment on yet still feel righteous about my own holiness? The temptation is to do what requires the least transformation, love, and sacrifice. But that won't lead to the spirit of Christ being formed in you. It'll just make you a smug card-holding member of the Christian club. And we've got more than enough of those already.
When Jesus invited disciples to be like him, it wasn't about knowing or doing the bare minimum. It was about a life characterized by surrender to God and love for God. So Jesus taught his disciples about starting points, like forgiving others and being generous. But it always opened the door to take it a few steps further, and take some real ownership.
How many times should I forgive others, Jesus? Maybe 7 repeats? (see Matt. 18:21)
Well, let's not even focus on numbers.... and then maybe add a few extra? Oh, and you can be filled with genuine love for them as well.
I'll tithe a tenth of all my money, Jesus! And Jesus replies...
Good starting point. And you are also working for justice, right? Right??? (see Luke 11:42).
And of course the famous, "You give them something to eat!"
What does moving beyond the minimum mean today for you? Maybe it's moving from just saying "thanks" at the end of checkout to expressing gratitude to a grocery store worker for the massive amount of stress they've endured for 18 months. Maybe it's starting a weekly coffee meeting with a friend to offer prayer and support for one another, rather than just a text here and there. Maybe it's reading marginalized Christian voices instead of simply feeling compassion toward people who have overlooked and undervalued because of race or gender. Maybe it's moving beyond basic forgiveness of someone toward a true desire that God would lead them into joy and fullness of life. Or maybe it's giving your spouse your full love and attention by plugging in your phone, not just looking up for a moment (too close to home???).
The crazy thing about grace is that honestly, almost nothing is actually required. Just a willing heart and an acknowledgement that you need Jesus. The workout is ridiculously easy. But how far you take it, and how much your life will be shaped by Jesus.... well, that's your choice.
Oh, and I almost forgot to include the power of having a bunch of teammates around you to inspire and share the experience. You'll never be able to go as far alone as when you have others on the path at the same time, cheering you on. At its best, that's Church.
Jesus, help me take ownership of my faith today by making courageous steps of love.