You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.
-Jesus, Matthew 7:7
Over the summer my actor wife had the lead role in a local musical. Throughout the two weeks of performances, I loved quietly listening in during intermission to overhear people talk about seeing "Mary Poppins!" Children were starstruck to see her fly, hear her sing, and watch her dance and pull coat racks out of handbags.
Admittedly, my pride was a little too strong to control at certain points, and I couldn't help but lean over and whisper to the kids... "hey, guess what? I know her. I know Mary Poppins!" They looked back at me, wide eyed. Also, more than a couple times I also leaned over to the adult patrons beside me after a particularly wonderful song and whispered, "that's my wife."
It's fun to know special people. It's fun to have encounters with famous people (even if they're only famous in our spheres!). But it's a different thing altogether to look around the world, full of billions of people and full of mystery... and claim that we know God.
This is not to speak of knowing about God. I have lots of knowledge and a couple of degrees that could help me claim to know a lot about God (some might disagree!). But knowing God is something different. It's being able to say that we have relational experience and true encounters with the One who brought all things into existence.
And yet, this is our Christian conviction. That though the God of the universe is mystery, God is also knowable.
As my years of ministry approach two decades, I have learned to be less surprised by the people I meet that I sense truly know God. Sometimes they don't have much knowledge about God or the scriptures- but there is this undeniable mark of an encounter that has taken place. Often it is people who have suffered greatly. Often it is people who do not have their lives all together. But I can tell, without question, that they know God. It goes beyond information.
I am entering a season where knowing God is my deepest desire once again, for myself and those that I pastor. I am quick to look to Jesus and his teachings as a beautiful and radical way to live (it's true!). But far too often my own sermons are heavy on doing good actions, when the greatest thing that sets people free and moves their lives toward those actions is truly knowing God and experiencing the love and grace that come from encountering Christ. When people hear a story about Jesus in the scriptures, I want them to be able to whisper to themselves, under their breath with excitement..... I know him!
I don't always lean into this because when people are in dark seasons and not sensing God, a truth like this can be used to create guilt and shame. I'm not even a good enough Christian to feel God! What's wrong with me??
Friend, there is so much grace from God and so much courage in seasons of honest struggle and silence. But I believe that as we persist, we ultimately will come to sense God and know God's heart intimately.
And yes, language like I'm talking about can also be taken advantage of in the other direction, when people claim to know God and then leverage it to condemn and exclude others while elevating themselves. If that's your position, you may not know God like you claim, friend.
Yet the truth remains that Jesus invites us to be with him. That he says, seek and find. That he calls his disciples friends, not servants. This is "knowing" language. So today, sit with this overwhelmingly beautiful truth:
God is knowable.
God desires to be known by you, so that the love that you experience will set you free to live a radically alternative life in this age, and a life of absolute oneness with God in the age to come.
You can be rich or poor, joyful or grieving, assured or deconstructing, and this remains a remarkable promise. Ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock honestly and you'll see doors to the divine open up.
Jesus, draw near to me, because I want to know you more.
It's fine, he's friendly...
No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
-1 Corinthians 10:24
Last week I was out running as the sun came up in our local state park. After sunrise it's common to see people out walking their dogs on the trail. It's a peaceful and quiet way to start the day. Dogs are required to be leashed on all the trails, for safety and consistency. But nevertheless, I encounter leashless dogs almost daily.
Most of us runners have been bit or snipped at while running. It's a rather intense experience, and it leaves you with a slight lack of trust in any owner's words (I love dogs, by the way).
So as I turned a corner, I was not surprised when I encountered a dog 10 yards in front of its owner. I stopped, as I always do, so that I didn't get mistaken for a fetch toy.
"It's fine, he's friendly!", exclaimed the owner. I stayed put. With a guarded smile, I replied. "I have no doubt that's true. It's just that all of us runners have been bitten by other friendly dogs before."
Once they passed, I continued on. Now let me tell you, that dog was gentle and delightfully well behaved, happily wagging his tail. Even so, I was now on high alert.
It got me thinking about the call of Jesus to truly love our neighbors. One way we can live this out is learning to give up our own comfort for the sake of another's comfort and safety, especially when we are in positions of power.
The owner of the dog knew that there wasn't a real risk there. Yet he also knew that I was uncomfortable. And in the flippant don't worry about it statement, he continued to have all the power, while I continued to be uncomfortable. There was no harm intended, but the message communicated was that "I’m not going to change anything for your sake. You’ll have to trust me and let me have all the power right now, just because I say so." Putting a hand on that collar would have been a small act of selfless care.
As Christ followers who seek not our own good, but the good of others, we are called to move beyond “oh don’t worry,” and into a space of care and extra consideration.
I had a female coworker years ago who had previously experienced trauma from another man. After years of friendship, she finally confided in me that when I dropped by to chat, she always felt anxiety when I stood in the doorway of her office, blocking her only way out.
“But you know me! I would never do anything to harm you!” was my possible response, and it was the first thing that went through my mind, honestly.
Instead (in a rare moment of getting it right), I suggested that maybe when we chatted, which we both enjoyed doing, that she swing by my office. That way she could stand in the doorway instead. It was such a relief to her for me to suggest that.
No, I was not a physical risk. Yet there was a way I could give up the power to make her feel cared for and less powerless. She was so much more relaxed and at ease in my presence after that- even though she already trusted me.
This relates directly to our need to be trauma-informed as a people, but it also speaks to our very basic calling to place others' needs above our own comfort.
Some who grew up in certain types of churches saw the "others above yourself" teachings used to steamroll any form of healthy boundaries and self care, leaving people beaten down without permission to prioritize their own emotional or physical health. That's truly damaging. But let us be careful that we don't omit the beautiful way of Jesus simply becomes we've seen it expressed in unhealthy ways. That also misses the mark of other-oriented love.
We do indeed have a calling to lay our lives down for others in order to show them just how valuable and worthy of dignity they are in God’s world. In little and big ways, we can communicate to one another: your needs matter. Your sensitivities matter. I want to come alongside to help you feel comfortable and to be able to relax in my presence, so that you can also get a glimpse of Jesus through me. Sometimes that means we have to relinquish our power and comfort for the sake of another. But it's the beautiful way of Jesus.
Jesus, help me see where I have opportunities to be truly other-oriented today.
Zero Sum Game
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’
I just got back from our church's mens retreat over the weekend at a camp in the woods of Pennsylvania. We spent a lot of time eating, playing volleyball, and laughing (sometimes at each other's expense, I admit!). But the heart of the retreat was about exploring our inner lives with humility.
We used a lot of concepts from Rich Villodas' book, Good and Beautiful and Kind, exploring the things that fracture God's world and how we can be a part of living a better way. One of the major concepts is learning to shed the false self that we live in, constantly needing to look good and feel capable and impressive, often through comparison to others. We can easily form our identity based on how our opinions, achievements, or competencies are better than "those people" (whoever we want to put in that category that helps us feel better). The end result is a "zero-sum game." It's the mentality that in order for me to win, someone else has to lose. The biggest tragedy may be that we subtly convince ourselves that winning is even the point. Simply put, the whole approach is truly a failure to love...to love ourselves as we are, and to love others as they are.
In the above story that Jesus tells in Luke about a Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus concludes by letting the listeners know that the tax collector was the one who headed home in right relationship with God. He was just plain honest. The Pharisee only continued to build up his false self through an over-spiritualized comparison game. He got nowhere with God.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber recently said that, "as a society, our drug of choice right now is just knowing who we’re better than."
I'll let you sit with that.
It's possible to hold convictions and live them out without seeing everyone else as your enemy to defeat. It's possible to look around and first notice truly good things about others, rather than primarily finding what to critique.
When we learn to receive the love and grace of Jesus and live in honest humility in our own lives we no longer need to protect a false image of ourselves. And therefore, we no longer need to compare ourselves to others to try to feel better or gain external admiration. I am loved. So are you. We are not perfect. And we need not live in denial or shame. And because of that, the door to relationships opens wide. We both win. I can even root for you and acknowledge what God has placed in you that is good and beautiful. That's good news, and that's a glimpse of the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus, teach me to move beyond the comparison and arrogance that forms a false self, so that I can fully receive your grace and pass it on.
The Bees Don't Understand
But Jesus replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.”
-John 5:17 (NLT)
Late last fall, my wife Bethany shared a poem with me that she composed while working out in our garden. She wrote it without requiring a specific interpretive metaphor, but it speaks to me this week. As the weather turns cold for the first time on the east coast, and our flowers start to die, we have no choice but to walk through it on the path to new life in a few months. And so I'm thinking about the work that God longs to do during the many deaths we face in life as seasons change.
I know many who are reading this have been walking through the changing of your own seasons, and the deaths that are a part of all of it. Empty nesting, job transitions, personal losses, deep exhaustion, rebuilding your faith. And I'm thinking about how hard it is to welcome and embrace the work of Jesus in us during those times, as he takes what is dead and brings new life in new ways. It's hard to trust that work in the moment. So perhaps we may find ourselves feeling like the bees. But today, in these simple words, I invite you to rest in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit will continue to make way for new life to occur, as long as we stay connected to God's never-fading hand of love. Perhaps you'll see what I saw, or perhaps these words will whisper something new to you. This is shared with Bethany's permission.
The Bees Don't Understand
The bees don’t understand
As they hover over me
As I hover over their flowers
They watch my hand as it moves amongst the blooms
Disturbing, selecting, removing
The brown shriveled heads
Still giving life
Even in their death
As I extract the seeds
Crushing brittle brown flowers
Between my fingers
The bees don’t understand
What I am doing
They buzz around me
How dare I touch their flowers?
How dare I disturb their life source?
But life is what I am after
Life after death
Life because of death
That will start the cycle over again in the spring
The bees don’t understand
How a dead flower will give life to many
The bees don’t understand
That a feast is being prepared for them
In a few months
Come and dine!
The harvest is plentiful!
The beauty of last year
And the bees will feast
But they still won’t understand
Jesus, may we rest in your gentle care and cultivation as we seek to live faithfully in step with you today.