I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Great news everybody! I know it's Wednesday, but Black Friday started 2 days ago! This is wonderful because now we can pick up a few more things so we will have something to be thankful for when Thanksgiving morning rolls around! And to make things even better, many stores are opening for deals on Thursday night, 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. Look it up in John 28:15 just to be sure.
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 eventually 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.
We've got one day left before the thanksgiving holiday this year. Even so, images of contentment are often linked to how much food is on the table or how stable our family and social circles are. Contentment is one of those luxurious things that we are taught is only attainable with a perfect life and an endless supply of stuff.
So true gratitude, despite how often it's tossed around, is still a radical practice. Paul found that the gift of life in Jesus was so abundant that nothing could infringe on it. It changed him. What would happen if we freshly explored this gratitude with Jesus at the core? Our discipleship bursts with life when gratitude becomes a lifestyle and expands to every area of our lives. It takes about 5 minutes to be still, journal a few words of thanks to God for the gift of life, and shoot a text with a note of thanks to someone in your life. And those 5 minutes change the rest of the day, turning thanksgiving into a year round experience, not a food-centric holiday. Take that, Walmart. We can expand our day 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 is always expanding. 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. Is God's contentment, and love growing in our lives? Jesus Jesus spoke of his 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, bring your contentment into every area of my life, so that nothing is untouched by your love, grace, and hope.
*Today's TFG is adapted from a previous reflection. And yes, this one came a day earlier than usual. Happy Thanksgiving.
When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.
(then she gets caught...)
We share communion every Sunday at LifePath Church. Weekly communion was not my theological tradition, and it's especially odd since we're a church that doesn't care much for religious rituals... at all.
Yet the desire to remember God's sacrificial love, receive the Spirit of Christ, and keep Jesus at the center of everything we do has turned this into a meaningful weekly practice. However, when Covid-19 came and changed everything, we had to trade in our fresh bread and begin using those shrink wrapped all-in-one deals. These are the ones with the bread (is it though?) wafer on top and the peel off cup of juice below. Years ago I promised that we would never ever use these, but I've learned that my own need for purity can sometimes get in the way of God's flexible grace in our real life moments. So, for the time being, I'm embracing it.
But now that we've got these little cups around, there's a new temptation arising. You see, the youngest disciples in our little community have gotten a taste for this stuff. The other week before we started, I saw little Carolyn* (names have been changed to protect the guilty) looking around and then sneaking a cup just a bit early. She thought it was a clean lift as she stuffed it in her pocket. But God is always watching. And I was too.
BUSTED! She saw me, a little embarrassed, and took a step back.
Then I winked at her.
I'm a bit of a softy, I guess, but I let her go without pressing charges or requiring restitution.
Now why would a sweet little girl steal a snack like this before the right time???
Obvious Answer: she's a kid. This isn't a shock at all.
More important answer: She was hungry, and it tasted good, so she went for a quick swipe.
It made me think of another time that someone tried to steal a little of Jesus outside of the typical ways of doing things. In the story above of a suffering woman grabbing a hold of Jesus' garment, she believed that she could just get enough of Jesus to be healed. She was even willing to cheat a little bit to get there- just drawing a bit of his healing power through a quick, hopefully anonymous touch.
And she gets what she longs for!
Except she also gets caught.
Jesus knows that's it's happening and he calls out that someone touched him "because he realized that power had gone out from him" (what a statement! That's worth unpacking some other time). She comes forth, terrified, thinking she's about to be chastised. Instead, he applauds her faith! And then he even expands her experience of him, speaking complete peace and wholeness to her, and sending her off with a blessing. Undoubtedly, he has won a follower for life. Even as she's healed, she expects the worst, and she receives the best. Such is God's heart to us.
As she pocketed a communion wafer, that little girl at our church may have felt a little guilty about it. But deep down she knew she wouldn't get in trouble because that's not really how we operate here.
But what if I went further. What if I called her out, asked her to come over.... and then told her with a smile that even the sweetness in that juice could never compare to how sweet God's love is for her? What if we told her that she could take a little extra every week and she didn't need to be shy about it at all? What if she eventually equated God's love and forgiveness with so much joy and beauty that not only would she leave all shame behind, but she would gladly approach God in need of grace and sustenance every day?
Many times in our life, we know that we need healing. We need forgiveness. We need grace. We need Jesus. And deep down we know that he will grant it. I mean, saviors gonna save, am I right?
But perhaps we need to be reminded over and over again that it's God's pleasure to share that grace with us. And God desires to loudly and joyfully proclaim peace and wholeness to us as we come toward him. We don't need to be afraid to admit we need a little more of Jesus. We can embrace that need boldly. And when we do, his healing will give us the strength to carry that beautiful message into a world around us longing for good news.
Jesus, thank you for constantly surprising me with your welcoming grace. Heal me again, today. Amen.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain."
Exodus 20:7 (One of the top 10)
Let's reflect for a moment on the high calling of discipleship, and how it's far easier to just make rules that we have to follow instead. WELCOME TO RELIGION!
While Jesus simplified and summed all of God's commands by telling people to love God and love others, I still find value in looking to the famous ten commandments of Exodus regularly. Their specifics continue to help us understand some of the ways that life in God looks.
We won't do a summary here, but the commands are pretty broad and far reaching about how we treat others and maintain healthy rhythms that align with God's kingdom. So isn't it interesting that in the midst of these deep, overarching character commands, we also just have to make sure that we don't say "Oh my gawd" in the wrong attitude as one of the big 10? Have we missed something?
Yeah, we have. And maybe we missed it intentionally, because we've sure made it easier on ourselves.
It doesn't take a ton of sleuthing to realize that the original 4th commandment has little to do with saying any particular phrase. It never did. While you may have learned that taking God's name in vain meant that you weren't allowed to utter a certain set of words, you didn't get the whole story.
In Hebrew, names mean reputation and character. Taking something is about bearing it as a representative. And taking something in vain is about it being devoid of meaning.
So after 5 minutes of Hebrew work by a non-Hebrew scholar, you can get this correct meaning of the commandment:
Don't carry God's reputation with emptiness.
Why do we humans have such a propensity to take things that are about character and turn them into silly rules to check off?
Now, I'm not fond of using the name of Jesus as a curse word (it should be used as a word of blessing!), but we really have kicked the ball in the complete wrong direction with this one.
It's easy to not say "Jesus Christ!" when you step on your kid's lego piece in the middle of the carpet.
It's much harder to respond with love and patience to your child after prying that same lego out of your foot.
And THAT, friends, is what it means to obey the third commandment.
Saying a curse word may be up for debate... but cursing someone isn't. That's breaking God's law.
And when you consider how Jesus responded to those who held religious power and used God's name to condemn, control, and exclude others, you can understand why Exodus says that God gets really angry with the people that do this. (Also, politicians using pseudo-Christian language to win loyalty and promote political agendas fall into this category too.)
Discipleship is not about avoiding taboo phrases. It's about embodying and displaying the character of Jesus at all times.
The literal translation of the word Christian is "little Christ.' This description (whether it was derogatory or not is debated) was given to the first disciples because to onlookers, they seemed to look like little versions of Jesus. Their actions, character, and lifestyle imitated his values.
They were bearing the name of Jesus with integrity. They were not taking the Lord's name in vain.
So integrity becomes our standard. We don't need to be perfect, or we have no need of Christ. But we do need to have character, and we do need to be people of truth, whose lives reflect the same heart of the God we profess.
A good question as you go about today is this:
When I make this choice/say this thing/interact with this person, am I representing Jesus' character with integrity?
By the grace of God, may it be so for both you and me today.
Jesus, bearing your character feels like pressure, but knowing your grace feels like freedom. Help me to do the first, because I have experienced the second.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ...
"How long have been at Kamar Taj, Mister....?"
"...maybe. Who am I to judge?"
That scene has no actual bearing on this reflection. I just found it really funny. Our family has been watching the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe films over the past few months. We recently watched Doctor Strange together, and it was a good time. If you haven't seen it, I won't give any spoilers, but it involves a group of people who harness mystical energy to defeat the power of evil and protect the world, that sort of stuff. Also, they can make sparkly circles and jump through them to other places on the earth.
It's a great movie. So please don't get freaked out about the mention of fictional sorcerers in a reflection about Jesus. It's ok, I promise.
The storyline is fascinating. The ones who are the Masters of the Mystic Arts began as misfits, overcome with anger, heartbreak, or loss. They are people who have suffered deeply or been deeply wounded, and they sought hope and power and healing. Ironically, they seek it from a being known as "The Ancient One." Too good, right?
As Doctor Strange is still seeking to claim the power for his own gain, he hears a Master named Mordo speaking to the Ancient One about why he came:
"I wanted the power to defeat my enemies. You gave me the power to defeat my demons..."
I don't know what happened after that because I was fixated on that quote for the next 5 minutes.
I wanted the power to defeat my enemies. You gave me the power to defeat my demons.
It's easy to pursue all that's wrong in the world without allowing Jesus to pursue all that's wrong in us.
That shouldn't lead us to inaction, guilt, or low self-worth, but rather to honesty about how easy it is to act like the exact things we want to change.
This is a significant part of our growth with Jesus. Often, our attention is life is given to trying to change external things first. Internal work is hard. We can put meetings and service events and rallies and fundraisers on our calendars. But when was the last time that you had Tuesday from 6-8pm marked on your calendar for "inner transformation with Jesus?"
Yet the truth is, our outward actions will never be quite right without our inward spirits being changed. We may mistake which battles are the right ones to fight, and how exactly to fight them.
Mordo was motivated by his desire for judgment against those who had wronged him. But his inward journey made him understand that the darkness within him first needed to be addressed, before going back and using his power out in the world. He was seeking revenge. What he needed was redemption.
If Jesus is our teacher and our master, he will lead us to humbly address our own blind spots. And as we receive grace and love, we emerge ready to act in the world not only with priorities of Jesus, but in the character of Jesus as well. That means will be growing in compassion for even our enemies, eventually longing for restoration and renewal of those who participate in evil, rather than their destruction.
But you can't get to that without going through the inward journey. And before we think that this all just sounds like hard work (IT IS!), can we just delight in the fact that we are in relationship with a God who actually wants to set our hearts right and set us free personally, rather than just demanding a set of external behaviors? What a gift.
We each have elements of fear, anger, hatred, exclusivism, selfishness, and violence within us somewhere. Let's give all of that to Jesus rather than sending it back out into the world. God's redemptive power is going to be far more useful out there than our own power anyways.
Jesus, give me courage to open my heart to you for big and little changes today, so that my actions are grounded in you.