He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
-Jesus (Luke 10:27)
Great news everybody! Black Friday now starts on Wednesday at 10pm online! What’s so wonderful about this is that now, after we buy things, we will finally have something to be thankful for when Thanksgiving morning rolls around! And to make things even better, Walmart has also announced that Thursday night at 6pm the stores will begin their deals as well, so we can get right back at it before the gratitude wears off. Because, honestly, one day is NOT enough to contain Black Friday!!!
"Black Friday must become greater, Thanksgiving must become less."
I think John the Baptist might have said something like that? Hmm, I might be mixing it up a little. You should definitely look it up in John 3:30 just to be sure.
[For those who are less familiar with sarcasm, let me make it clear that I feel the opposite of everything written above.]
Friends, we are expanding the wrong things.
Black Friday is getting larger and larger. And our gratitude is shrinking. Our celebration is shrinking. Our margin for joy and peace is shrinking. Our space for spiritual transformation is shrinking. Our contentment and our rest…. it’s all shrinking.
And this should not surprise us, because it’s how humanity works.
What we truly value will always take up more and more space in our lives.
And what we worship will always expand into other areas and push out everything else.
So the cultural phenomenon before us at the end of every November becomes an opportunity for us to sit up, take notice, and ask ourselves…
What do I value? What’s taking up the most space?
What do I worship? What is creeping into all areas of my life?
The temptation is to join with the movement of the crowd, as consumption slowly eclipses thanksgiving. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The beauty and freedom of being in Christ is that we have the power to make decisions for ourselves because our hearts and minds are being made new. We are not pawns or lemmings. We are little Christs, tiny representations of the one who creates, invites, and makes a way for the good life to be experienced now and forever. At least, that’s what’s available. Whether it expands in us or not is our call.
Lately I’ve decided to re-engage with the practice of gratitude. I’m turning it into a lifestyle, letting it take up more space and expand into other areas of my life. I’m trying to not let a day pass without writing words of gratitude to God, and expressing words of gratitude to others. I’m attempting to let Thanksgiving start early this year. Take that, Walmart! I can do it too.
The Church is called to live in such a way that wakes people up to the reality that God’s upside-down kingdom is at hand. We get to live with a love, a contentment, and a sense of purpose with Jesus that continually takes up more space in our lives. It expands beyond our worship gatherings and into our workdays. Beyond our meal communities and into our family meals. Beyond our prayer times and into our friendships.
This isn’t about Black Friday. Make your own choices on how to handle all that. It’s about what’s expanding in your own life. What is being given room to grow and take over? Jesus spoke of the kingdom as a mustard seed- an invasive plant that would expand and take over everything around it once it got rooted. I love that image. Together, let’s invite the values of Jesus to get larger and larger and permeate every area of our lives. Let’s remind Walmart that our kingdom can expand even more broadly than theirs.
Jesus, expand into every area of my life. Let no moment be untouched by your love, grace, and hope.
After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
-1 Kings 19:12
Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.
Last week I became aware of a glaring error in my parenting. With two 11 year old boys and an 8 year old girl, my children had never been exposed to the classic 1990’s sports movie, Little Giants.
So four dollars later, I took care of that omission. I hadn’t watched the film for years, and if any of you haven’t seen it, it follows the path of a classic underdog story. A small crew of rejected kids get passed over for the new hot shot pewee football team. They form their own squad and challenge the bigger, stronger, and meaner all-stars to a showdown. They are severely outmatched in every way, but they have heart and creativity.
To cap off an unlikely comeback during the defining game, the movie culminates in a last-second trick play called “The Annexation of Puerto Rico.” The kids snap the ball and then put it on the ground and no one notices. Everyone chases after the star running back until they realize that’s not where the ball is… but by then it’s too late. One of the big, slower lineman boys had picked up the ball secretly and run it all the way in to win the game. That was the plan all along.
The play became so infamous that an NFL team even borrowed it a few years later.
What I found most interesting as I watched with my kids was the reasons everyone missed what was going on:
They made an assumptions about where to look, and they never considered the unlikely people who would be involved.
The same thing happened 2,000 years ago, and people totally missed Jesus among them.
I’m learning more and more that following Jesus in my life requires me to check all of my assumptions about where to look. Our conversations and prayer lives are often filled with our own ideas of exactly how and where God should work. And it can lead us to overlook the moments and opportunities that don’t fit into our boxes. Over and over, the gospels use the imagery of having eyes to see. We need eyes to see Jesus, and we need Jesus to give us eyes to see our world. Sometimes that means checking our assumptions at the door and simply asking God to help us see the “on-the-way” opportunities to love God and love others in each of our moments.
Recently that a friend of mine was hit from behind in a fender bender… but his initial frustration quickly gave way to God opening a door for him to offer compassion and kindness rather than anger toward the driver. I wouldn’t be surprised if that interaction becomes a life changing moment that the driver looks back on. If we are keeping our eyes open, God will use unexpected moments to bring his kingdom to come into our world. And he’ll often use unexpected people in the process.
Last week I heard a leader give a helpful perspective on our own formation as disciples. He said that although people make the conscious choice to be formed into the Imago Christo (image of Christ), everyone is born with the Imago Dei (image of God). Therefore, if we are looking, there is something that God wants to teach us about God’s character… through every single person we interact with. Even those who aren’t Christ followers yet.
What does God want to teach you through your neighbor? How will you see God in the face of the next homeless person you interact with? What about in a person with a different gender/race/orientation/economic background from you?
Do we expect that Jesus is just as able to speak to us during a time of morning stillness as during our morning commute? Do we expect that Jesus can use our children to reveal himself to us as much as our pastors? We should. And if we are keeping our eyes open in expectation, we won’t accidentally miss those unexpected moments to be shaped and sent by Jesus.
Jesus, keep me open to the unexpected movement of your Spirit today. I know it may involve people and places that don’t always fit into my boxes.
May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice.
- Romans 15:5-6
I was reading a profound book on spiritual formation recently, and it closed with a prayer of blessing for the reader. One of those lines was this: "I pray that someday you are given the gift of singing the Doxology with people who mean every single word of it.”* I’ve experienced that, and it’s amazing.
That line brought back my memories of growing up in a small country church in Pennsylvania that sang the Doxology together. We sat in narrow wooden pews in a small sanctuary, kind of squashed up against each other. Over 25 years later, I can still remember what the voices of the old men and women sitting near me sounded like. I can picture their faces and the tone of their voice as they belted out old hymns. I would join them with my family, belting out the songs, feeling the sound fill the room. I tried out new harmonies, and whether or not they were on key… they were put out there with everyone else’s.
Like every church, that congregation was very imperfect. But by intent or necessity, we all knew what each others' voices sounded like. We sat close enough that it couldn’t be avoided.
Today, I lead a church that is fortunate to meet in a beautiful school auditorium. There is more than enough seating, and the sound system is complete overkill. But one of the great challenges is that human beings, when given the choice, will always keep just enough space between them to maintain a safe distance. I’ve found lately that when we sing together, it’s not easy to hear the voices of others. We’re not close enough.
And as I journeyed through this memory that became metaphor, it began to dawn on me that this is exactly the challenge that we face in discipleship.
Life tends to be like singing together, but with about 8 seats in between us. Christians agree that singing together is important and beautiful and worthwhile. We just don’t sit close enough to be able to hear one another doing it. Because unless you’re an amazing singer….it’s weird when someone can hear you.
If you’re not tracking with me yet, this isn’t about singing at all.
We’re comfortable with people from a distance.
We’re comfortable talking about vulnerability as a value, until it requires us to get close to enough to people that they actually hear what our voice sounds like, crackling, out of breath, or off-key. We’re a mess. That’s when we get self-conscious. We worry about what they're thinking when they’re that close. So we go back to hiding behind our philosophies of shared life rather than engaging in the actual practices of it.
In the gospel stories, Jesus is presented as the great connector. The divine matchmaker. The one who brings us together with the father, and the one who breaks down barriers between people. The one who has no place in his reality for shame to take root, so he dispels it wherever he goes. He speaks truth to people and loves them for all of their imperfections. He calls disciples so that he can “be with them” (Mk 3:14). He flattens social hierarchies and teaches people that the best possible spot in the kingdom is reserved for the those with the courage to sing out to God that they are desperately insufficient on their own. He nudges people to sit closer.
Jesus dies so that we can walk with God and others with no curtain of separation. And he connects his followers to each other as a way of re-creating his own presence in the world (the Apostle Paul calls this “the Body of Christ”). The pressure is off, but we don’t trust that freedom. When someone is close enough to hear us sing, it’s hard not to think that the only thing they’re doing is evaluating.
So, may change start with us. May we take the first steps to be sent out into the world, singing off key or beautifully, but at least with a full heart, so that people see that Jesus makes it easier to be heard without fear. May you taste the real beauty of people in your life who, like God, are close enough to know you and love you anyways. And may you, as you hear the voices of other people, move from evaluation to embrace, helping them understand that in the presence of God, shame has no place.
Live today as people unafraid to walk in the kingdom of love.
Jesus, bring me nearer to you, so that I would find the courage to get nearer to others.
*Thanks to Sarah Bessey and her insightful book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things.
The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her.
-1 Samuel 11:2-3
Everyday she is filled with the wisdom she wishes she could wash away.
I heard that phrase a few weeks ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. I think it’s shaping me slowly toward Jesus.
Bathsheba lived near King David’s residence, and when he saw her bathing, he decided that he wanted her and took her as if she was his (by the way- David was on the roof, Bathsheba wasn't. Leonard Cohen is responsible for that male-centric misconception). We know little else about that night. We don’t know if she was unaware or aware of his eyes on her from the palace. All we know is that David’s actions led to deceit, a murdered husband, a tragic child, multiple deaths, and long-term heartache. It's horrible. Recently I listened to someone explore the journey of Bathsheba. Little is written about her emotions because she is simply a side character, which is often the case in stories of power, lust and corruption. But as the story was told from her perspective, we imagined another bath, months or years later, as Bathsheba washed away the dirt of the day, unwillingly recalling the similar night that her life changed forever.
“Everyday she is filled with the wisdom she wishes she could wash away.” *
What a statement, full of sorrow and truth. We have all experienced this on some level. We have been through things we wish we could undo. Moments that opened our eyes in a new way- a way we never asked for or desired. Loss and loss of innocence. Pain of body and pain of spirit. Others have done things to us that leave a mark forever. We’ve made major mistakes ourselves. And sometimes we’ve experienced heartache through no one’s fault, because life is difficult and everyone suffers.
This is where wisdom grows, even if we wish it didn’t.** We understand and feel things in a way we didn’t before. In a way, it feels as if the the rose colored glasses have been removed. And it’s ok to acknowledge both the wisdom gained, and the desire to still live in ignorance. But how do we move forward as disciples when we have learned wisdom we wish we could wash away? I think it involves embracing that uncomfortable tension.
Understand that Jesus is in touch with our pain. Jesus knows the human journey, full of complex emotions, joy, sorrow, betrayal, frustration, and confusion. When our heart breaks, so does his. We are not alone. Therefore, our pain can actually be seen as a connection point where we can relate to Jesus and he can relate to us. This brings hope.
Understand that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. Many times we wish we could forget back the most devastating moments in our lives. That’s so understandable. Yet the core of God’s redemptive nature is that the wisdom gained there can change lives. We can choose to push that deep within us and not use it, or we can embrace the things we’ve learned and let them build in us compassion and care for others. Perhaps a low season of your life began to turn when you found that someone else understood what you were walking through. Now, God may open doors for you to change another’s life because you can empathize in a way few others can, and offer encouragement when they are walking through a dark valley. Perhaps your pain has given you a greater appreciation for each day, or a deeper conviction to trust Jesus moment by moment. These are things we can share with each other. God does not bring evil our way… but God does indeed overcome evil with good as we keep on the path of life. You have so much to offer.
We can make a choice of what we will do with wisdom we wish we hadn’t gained. We can forever grip it with shame and defeat. Or we can respond to the invitation of Jesus to keep walking into grace, hope and compassion that can only come through painful wisdom.
Jesus, we are wiser, but wounded. Meet us here today, and shape us into something meaningful for our world.
*Thanks to Laura Buffington for this phrase.
**I’m not suggesting that Bathsheba, nor anyone should be thankful for wrongs done to them. But I am suggesting her pain (or others’) does not disqualify her in any way from being used by God. Quite the opposite.