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.
I was in a meeting recently with some pastors in my network, learning from each other and exploring what it means to be centered on Jesus. One of my Canadian friends was just riffing about his journey of life with God. "There is always more depth, always more to know, always more to discover," he said. "It's like we have a bottomless God."
Since then, I've been thinking about this concept of God being bottomless.
I don't often think in those terms. I believe deeply that Jesus has revealed God in complete fullness (Hebrews 1:3). So I will often talk about how we can truly know God with clarity in a way that was never possible before Jesus. We don't have to wonder what God is like.
But all too often, that can lead to the entirety of my faith being just trying to do the stuff Jesus said. After all, I know what God is about. I figured it out!
Now, don't get me wrong! The personal action component of following Jesus is absolutely central. We cannot read the New Testament without seeing these: Come and follow me, love your enemies, serve one another, etc. Jesus has given us clarity on what God is about and what we are supposed to do, for sure.
But sometimes my tendency is to assume that since I have some clarity, there isn't much new to discover. The problem with this assumption is that our view of God remains very static, and requires zero active faith whatsoever. It's kind of spiritless, honestly. Just a lot of work to do, and that's the extent of it.
When we think that we've gotten to the bottom of our understanding and awareness, knowing exactly how God works or what we're supposed to do, we will (ever so subtly) begin to rely on ourselves and trust God less. If we have God figured out, then we know longer expect God to shape and surprise us in new ways. And we don't seek wisdom and grace on deeper levels.
I've learned that there is a wonderful and mysterious thing that happens to us when we realize that there is always more to discover. It's not that we don't have clarity. It's that clarity and mysterious depth are not mutually exclusive.
I remember almost 30 years ago, staring into the remarkable blue and orange steaming pools of Yellowstone National Park for the first time. It's one of the thin places in the world where the crust of the earth is more narrow, offering glimpses into awe-inspiring geological wonders. But here's the thing. The water is crystal clear. You can see everything with absolute clarity. Yet it also keeps going down and down, much farther beyond anything you could comprehend.
It's clear. And bottomless.
So it is as we walk with Jesus.
This should give us a sense of peace that we can truly know God. It should also give us a nudge to humbly keep diving, even when you think you see clearly. You might be right! But even if you are, there's always more to discover. More wonder, more love, more grace, more understanding, more compassion, and more depth. We are in relationship with a bottomless God. What a beautiful mystery.
Jesus, refresh my faith and curiosity this week. Help me listen for where you are inviting me to grow in receiving your grace and expressing your love.
The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.
Lord, we’ve gotten nowhere.
Again and again, the suffering and brutality of our world becomes too apparent.
And I get this mixture of anger followed by resignation. I pray, I cry out, I even shed tears. And it’s real, believe me, God. But then I go back to loading my dishwasher, or checking my email, or whatever. And my street is pretty peaceful when I look out the window. Yet it’s a mirage. There are mourning Israelis and weeping Palestinians. There are Israelis screaming in anger and Palestinians screaming in anger. Nobody will ever win this. But it’s not just there. It's here too. There are fresh diagnoses of cancer. There are dead-end jobs and failing health and people being mistreated. There are crippling mental health struggles and there are embittered spirits and there are burned out leaders. There is shame and trauma from the past, and it is stopping people from living in the present. It all feels so unfair.
Who can bear it all? Certainly not me, Jesus.
So in all my grand pastoral wisdom, sometimes all I can think is, what the heck, Lord???
The thing is, Jesus, I don’t even hold a theology that expects you to come out of nowhere and stop all the violence, fix all of our problems, or change the laws of physics. I believe you can and have done miracles, but I have learned to trust that those usually take place in ways deeper than we can see. I’ve come to believe that the deepest work you do is not in jamming gun triggers and rocket launch buttons, but in transforming the hearts of those that pull and push them.
I believe that you can bring peace and comfort in a world too full of violence, anxiety, and pain. I believe that you have created a people to reveal to the world a better way, and to bring it into reality. I believe that there’s grace in these waiting moments as we long for wholeness in us and our world. And I believe that there is hope for a forever future free of injustice and sin and suffering.
And then other days, Lord, all that stuff above just sounds like a bunch of religious jargon. And I’m left just needing to send those feelings somewhere and say, “enough is enough, Jesus.”
So it’s not really anger at you, God. It’s generic anger. It’s directed at powers and systems and myths of redemptive violence. It’s directed at sickness and sin and death and their ongoing effect on the world. It’s frustration at a world that didn’t didn’t get it when you wept over Jerusalem and asked them to open their eyes so that they could know the things that bring real peace. It’s frustration at a world that still doesn’t get it. It’s frustration that so many times, I don’t either. The anger is just the lid on top of a complicated pot of bubbling feelings.
But the feelings are real, and I know that if I don’t direct them to you, they’ll get directed elsewhere.
So I figure you’re not fragile.
I figure you can handle my annoyance with how awful people can be and how hard it is to trust that they are still made in your image.
I figure you can handle my guilt that I don’t have answers to fix the problems or strategies to make all of our pain and trauma go away.
I figure you can handle my tied tongue, that when there aren’t the right words (or words at all), you can still comprehend my silent longing for your kingdom to come.
I figure that you might even invite me into these outbursts, because I’m just joining our historic line of holy criers, complainers, and questioners that can't quite swallow the idea that “that’s just the way the world is.”
Because it shouldn’t be. We both know that.
So when I rant and groan and ramble like this, Lord, it’s just my best attempt to be faithful right now, even though I know it may not be helpful.
Perhaps tomorrow has more hope. Or perhaps I’m in a season of trusting that another world is possible, even when I don’t see much to back it up. But I’m not going anywhere. You still have the words of life. You always will.
Thanks for praying with me today, friends.
re to edit.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Demosthenes lived in the 4th Century BC, a few hundred years before Jesus was born. Living in Athens, he was considered one of the greatest speakers of his generation. The great Cicero of Rome once said he was a "perfect orator, lacking nothing." A student of Plato, his speeches served to preserve his city's freedom from outside political forces and promote the beauty of his Athenian culture.
Why bring up a guy like that? Well, he wasn't always able to speak well. In fact, he was almost totally inarticulate because he had a major speech impediment that made it impossible for others to understand him. This is where it gets weird. Demosthenes decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to becoming a speechwriter and speaker. So he built an underground study and got to work. He shaved half of his head (which was shameful) so that he wouldn't be tempted to go out in public and lose his focus. He placed pebbles in his mouth for hours at a time in order to practice his speaking until he spoke with absolute clarity, freedom, and grace. And he stood in the ocean surf building his vocal strength by speaking above the crashing waves.
Weird, yes. But his efforts brought transformation.
We have a tense relationship between grace and effort in Christian discipleship. We tend to swing the pendulum in one direction or the other. Either we talk of all of life being grace and no effort needed, or we act like our very salvation is completely up to us, rather than a gift from God.
The reality is both. Our value, our salvation, and our standing before God is a complete gift of grace. But if we are going to actually follow Jesus in the world, it takes intentional training. We don't just naturally learn to forgive, withhold judgment, and practice generosity. We must train ourselves and ask Jesus to train us.
If I want to become less judgmental, I've got to start learning the stories of the people around me. If I want to experience the freedom of contentment and generosity, I've got to start practicing parting with my possessions. If I want to speak words of life, I've got to start holding my tongue in those snarky little comments that I'm particularly good at.
At LifePath right now, we're encountering a new "spiritual discipline" each week. And honestly, it feels like work. We're asking each other to give intentional effort during the week to learning new practices and postures. But that's because on the other side, we will see Jesus more clearly, and our lives will reflect him more closely.
It takes effort to grow in the skills of love and connection. But on the other side of the effort, there is such a gift.
Dallas Willard says, "Every discipline has its consequence, and that consequence is freedom."
That, to me, sums up why we "press on" in our discipleship. It's not because grace isn't sufficient. It's because new levels of freedom are waiting for us if we do the work.
Demosthenes went through the discipline of the stones and the waves to experience the freedom of the tongue. I'm sure it felt silly at the time. But when he emerged to speak, he was free in a new way.
So it is with us as we intentionally follow Jesus. Our goal really isn't perfection. It's reflection. Reflecting the character and life of Jesus in the most genuine way possible in our lives.
So when you choose to pause in prayer, or when you fast from a meal, or when you practice not having the last word, or tangibly serving someone else when you don't feel like it.... It may feel silly or meaningless. It may feel like you have to overcome your natural inclinations. But on the other side of your labor, there is freedom. So I invite you to embrace a season of fresh discipline, while never forgetting that God's grace is completely sufficient for you. You'll find freedom. And it's even ok if you fail.
Jesus, help me not avoid the work that will lead to growth, freedom, and love in you.
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)
I've been thinking a lot about releasing the need for control this week. The natural world often mimics the spirit, and I find that the autumn season always teaches me something about life with Jesus.
With fall in the mid-atlantic comes the great falling of the leaves. 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 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 science of it, you find out that the leaves are actually "pushed off” the branches. It's even more brutal than Gaffigan suggests! There's a hormone in deciduous trees that tell them it's time to release. 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.
The thing is, leaves are how a tree survives! As the fall occurs, the tree appears to release the exact thing it needs to live. And it enters a season of trusting.
How often do we cling to things that we've told ourselves we need, even if they aren't bringing life anymore? How rarely do we truly trust the spirit of Jesus to bring contentment and healing when all we can see is an empty branch?
But here's what we know. The great release of our trees-- all those little deaths-- actually enable them to survive for the long haul. And it happens time and time again. What can we learn?
The world around is a reminder that we can trust Jesus to continue to bring us cycles of new life, rather than trying to manufacture them on our own. We can trust that in the moments of releasing control.... in the moments of pruning.... even in the moments of death.... that we can walk in peace and trust, because Jesus is here, and Jesus came to bring life. Over and over again.
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. Releasing is a spiritual tool for health.
Sometimes that means wasteful time, toxic habits, relational dynamics, and things that pull us from an awareness of God. But it can also mean releasing our need to control outcomes, and our temptation to cling onto past seasons. Because it's just so hard to feel barren and trust Jesus' promise of future life.
Jesus talks about dying. He says that when we learn to die to our own egos, priorities, and need for control, 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 seasonal leaves.
Maybe the cooler breeze of the next few days will encourage you to consider what God is inviting you to release. 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.