For he himself is our peace...
God, how could this happen? That’s what some of you are thinking right now. Others are exclaiming, “Thank God! What a disaster that would have been!”
I don’t actually know what happened. I decided to write this on Monday before it all went down. Likely, we still don't know who the next leader of our country will be. But those above thoughts are on the way, regardless.
I don’t want to do creative writing today. I don’t want to be witty or eloquent. I want to think about how we keep our souls in this moment.
Nearly every one of you reading this lives in the United States. And I know everyone reading this would like to see our country thrive. But whether you are pleased or discouraged by the outcome, there are things have haven’t changed. Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that it doesn’t matter who is leading. It does. Many lives will be affected by who is in the White House for the next few years. Both policies and leadership attitudes will have real impact on the people of this country and beyond. But. Some. Things. Haven’t. Changed.
America is still not the kingdom of God. It wasn’t in 2012. Or 2016. And it’s not in 2020.
America is still not the hope of the world. That role has already been filled.
President ________________ is not our Lord or Savior in any way, despite any claims that he or anyone else makes about him.
If you think that because the right guy got elected (or will soon), that all is well in the world….. you’re wrong.
If you think that because the wrong guy got elected (or will soon), that there is no hope in the world….. you’re also wrong.
By all means, it's ok to be discouraged or be pleased, for a few minutes.
And then return to your calling.
Our work remains the same as it did in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019…. well, you get it.
Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. (Micah 6:8)
Forgive our enemies. Love our neighbors. (Matt 5:44/22:39)
Practice hospitality. Welcome the stranger. (Romans 12:13)
Keep ourselves from being polluted by the powers of the world. (James 1:27)
Wash each other’s feet. (John 13:14)
Give to those in need. (Acts 2:45)
Do not work for food that spoils, but food that endures to eternal life. (John 6:27)
Grasp that the secret to being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, free or in chains... is the peace of Christ. (Phil 4:12)
Live as citizens of the Kingdom of God and God’s ambassadors in the kingdom of America. (Phil 3:20)
I’m tired. The compounding factors of this season have taken more out of me personally, and many of you, than possibly any other season in our lives. Tears flow pretty regularly these days. And it’s not over, not at all. But our energy comes from God, and our hope remains in God. And that is where the strength continues to come from to live faithfully in a world divided. Empires rise and fall. It happened with Babylon, Persia, and Rome. The US is not exempt from history. Yet we live with the knowledge that we are citizens of an unshakeable kingdom- a kingdom that has given hope and perseverance to generations across history and across the globe with far more difficult experiences than most of us have ever experienced. God is faithful and will continue to work in our world- in and through us, and sometimes in spite of us (thank God).
So I ask you right now- beg you, actually, to be known by the characteristics of Jesus, and not the pseudo-Christian identities of right or left. It's not that good and kingdom-like things can't happen through political action (they can), it's that the third way of Jesus transcends tribalism and protectionism. It moves toward working for love and justice and integrity that speaks truth to all sides. And it rejects the notion that the only way to change things is to have all of the power. We cannot read the temptations of Jesus and somehow believe that “our party" (yuck) in the white house is the main way that the kingdom of God will advance.
Remember, Jesus’ political platform was a wooden cross.
Christians have joined in some unholy alliances, and we must walk carefully. As Tony Campolo said of a Christianity that becomes enmeshed too closely with political allegiance… it’s like mixing ice cream and manure. It doesn’t do much to the manure… but it sure ruins the ice cream.
So friends, neither gloat nor despair as you consider your feelings on how our government ought to function and who our latest Caesar is. Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God’s (Mark 12:17). You know what Jesus meant with that, right? Caesar can have his money and power with his image imprinted on it. It will eventually be worthless. But God’s image is imprinted on your very bodies and souls. You belong to God. Never forget that- and give yourselves fully and completely to the work of God in your life. God has placed his image on something far more valuable than anything our government could give or take away. You are sacred to God. So is your neighbor. So is your enemy.
Come, Lord Jesus.
So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Put all your hope in the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world. So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy....
-1 Peter 1:13-16
The first frosts are finally coming in during these weeks. Have you noticed? In my twenties, I never really thought much about preparing for the cold season. I wasn’t particularly drawn to advance planning. Living in the moment was more valuable than the cost of time and energy of cleaning up things and considering the season ahead. I thought nothing of leaving the garden hoses outside and connected during the winter freezes and thaws. Inevitably, when spring came, the seal on the nozzle would be cracked and leaking. That wasn’t a very big deal. I could get a new hose and nozzle at Home Depot for less than twenty dollars. But there were more costly oversights as well. A grill left without a cover in the snow and ice would be rusted out when it came to summer grilling. That replacement would cost hundreds! And not closing up or sealing attic and window cracks would mean that we had to deal with freezing drafts and exorbitant heating bills.
I don’t know when it was (probably early thirties?), but I finally began to understand that the time and cost to repair and replace damaged items in my house was much more than physical and mental cost of preparing for the winter. Now my wife and I do a fairly good job of thinking about these things ahead of time. Buckets go over the fragile plants at first frost. Hoses get stored away and water lines get emptied. Patio chairs get stacked. It takes a little intentionality and planning. But we’re fairly ready when the harsh weather hits.
The winter can do a lot of damage if you’re not ready for it.
Winter isn’t just coming. It’s here. We’ve been in it for a while. And another storm is about to hit us hard. It’s only a few days away, but there’s still time to plan.
Is your spirit ready for the week ahead? Our country will once again be in a new surge of uproar. Anger will surface. Gloating will pass across your screens and through your ears. Accusations will be thrown, and people define what is true only in ways that are most convenient to them.
Regardless of your personal hopes for this election, the great divide will intensify and remain across our country in the aftermath. My question to you now is not one of candidate choice. I sincerely hope you honestly and ethically make decisions that reflect care and concern for all people as best you can. But the question I’m asking today is if you're prepared to weather this week as a Christ-follower. We don’t have much time left to get ready.
The Apostle Peter guides the early church toward wisdom for coming storms by reminding his fellow disciples of several things:
-They need to think ahead about how they want to behave as they encounter challenge.
-They need to exercise self-control, even when it’s hard.
-They need to keep their hope rooted in the kingdom of Christ that will one day come in fullness.
-They need to resist the urge to respond to situations using old habits that look nothing like Jesus.
And because they know Jesus, they know what God is like… so there is no excuse for not reflecting God’s character in attitude and action. We are God’s kids.
Sisters and brothers, let’s pray for God to give us grace and hope walking into this week. Our words and attitudes matter so much to those looking on. It’s time for us to clearly be a countercultural example, by using the coming days to act in ways that reflect God’s value of every life and God’s heart for justice, truth, humility, and enemy love.
This election will affect real lives. But we are followers of Jesus today, tomorrow, next week and beyond. This is our identity, this is our calling, and this will not change.
What’s the winterizing that you need to do to make your faith election-proof? What actions do you need to take to keep you compassionate? What do you need to turn off? Who do you need to show love to? Where do you need to keep a reign on your heart, your tongue, or your fingers?
Let me encourage you to prioritize some time this week to prepare. Do whatever is necessary to walk through next week not as others will, but clothed with love and compassion, as God’s beloved children.
Jesus, this is all exhausting and hard. Be my hope and my example today.
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two covenant tablets in hand, Moses didn’t realize that the skin of his face shone brightly because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw the skin of Moses’ face shining brightly, they were afraid to come near him.
I just realized that there is a huge untapped market for a Moses’ Face Plug In Night Light ®. It would be a little plastic Moses holding the ten commandments, with a light bulb for a head to help your little one sleep peacefully. First time Christian parents go nuts over that sort of stuff. Patent is pending, so don’t steal my idea.
Can we reflect on the things that others see, but we can’t?
I’ve been talking with people lately about the slow work of transformation, and how we often feel like we take one step forward and two steps back in faith. The more we work on ourselves, or should we say, the more we allow Jesus to work on us, the more we realize just how much we have to learn. It can be discouraging. And it can look to us like we’re not changing at all. But interestingly, we’re not always the ones who have the best view.
This story of Moses is so interesting. He’s been spending serious time with God on a mountain. Over a month straight, in fact. And he comes down and everyone knows that he’s different— his face is literally giving off the radiance of God— but he has no idea that’s the case. He can’t see the glow. Now I get that there weren’t mirrors readily available, but you would think Moses would have had more of a sense of just how much he had been impacted!
A number of people in our community are doing an 8 week journey toward emotional and spiritual health that requires them to pause twice daily and sit with Jesus for several minutes. The goal is to be changed simply by learning to delight in the presence of God. It’s not easy to learn. And some are feeling like it’s not making much of a difference. But when I talk with them, I can see otherwise. Because as we change, we aren’t always able to sense it. The process of discipleship is slow growth. It’s incremental, moving by inches and not by yards as the days go by. And just like it’s hard to sense that a plant is actually growing by sitting in front of it and staring for hours on end, it’s also difficult to notice our own slow growth toward Jesus when we are in our own bodies every minute. We need to trust that change is happening as we lean into God, even it’s hard for us to pinpoint ourselves.
But here’s the lynchpin to the whole idea: we have to actually be present with God to be transformed into something. That doesn’t happen from wishful thinking or good intentions. It happens when we have spent enough time in the presence of Jesus for Jesus to rub off on us a little. We may not always notice the change ourselves, but others will. They’ll notice that we play less by the rules of the world around us and more according to the rules of freedom, grace, and compassion. They’ll notice that we are quicker to think before we speak, that we are slower to pridefully throw stones at another, and that we can handle setbacks and hardship with patience rather than bitterness. They’ll see our glowing faces. But unlike with Moses, they won’t be afraid. They’ll be refreshed. They’ll be surprised. And they'll be invited into a world that is not devoid of goodness as they fear, but full of the grace and beauty and redemption of the living God. The light of God that shines from our faces will illuminate the dark places of despair, injustice, hopelessness, and sorrow.
Luke writes that when James and John are questioned by the Temple priests, that the priests were astonished at how these uneducated guys were able to speak their faith, and they took note that “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). I just love that. I wonder if the disciples felt like transformed people all the time, or if they just felt like normal guys who were trying to do their best to be faithful to Jesus.
Let’s continue to sit with Jesus even when it doesn’t feel like we’re changing, because we are. Let's continue to pursue God and faithfully walk with God even when we can’t tell a difference. If we do so continuously, not out of a sense of obligation, but with a desire to know nothing more than the love of God and be nothing more than an imitator of Christ, then our faces will show God’s light to neighbors and enemies alike. And then we’ll realize that it doesn’t always matter if we see it or not, because it will still be seen by the world we are called to love to and serve.
Jesus, slow me down to patiently receive your transforming love today.
Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.
-Song of Songs 2:15
About once a week, I see a fox. Usually they are on the edges of a field or forest, gliding smoothly as if on wheels rather than legs. To me they are a beautiful sight, with their red coats and fluffy tails. I catch a glimpse of them before they quickly disappear into the nearest thicket. And I thank God for a glimpse of nature’s beauty.
Foxes are not always a delight, however. There’s a reason they are known as crafty. They can sneak into yards and kill chickens and birds. They dig up plants, flower beds, and lawns searching for insects and worms, or to bury their prey. They can really be a pain.
Foxes are also notoriously difficult to catch because they can run and hide so well. If they weren’t, there would have been no adventure for the upper class fox hunts that dominated the English landscape in the 18th and 19th centuries.
All of that leads us to this rarely noticed passage.
Christians never know quite what to do with Songs of Songs because it’s so hot and heavy. I mean, if you can’t read a book of the bible with your grandmother without blushing, maybe you should just avoid it altogether? So we miss out on some of the best imagery the scriptures have to offer. In addition to being a celebration of the wonder of romantic love, Song of Songs has also been interpreted for millennia as an allegory about Gods’ love for us, and book of wisdom about love and intimacy in all sorts of relationships. That’s why this one little sentence is something we all should be familiar with:
Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.
There are these little foxes, and they are running wild. They may look cute, but they’re doing damage to vineyards that took time and work to cultivate. These little foxes are trampling the blooming plants, making it impossible for them to bear the fruit that they were growing toward. They need to be caught before they destroy the entire season’s crop!
Of course, there are no real foxes in this story. The "vineyard" is the relationship that is forming. There is something beautiful possible, but these hard-to-catch little “foxes" are threatening to destroy the relationship. I wonder, what were their foxes?
I wonder, what are yours?
The excruciating season we’re in right now has fox dens popping up everywhere. Little stealthy rascals running around and trampling things that could be blooming.
Arrogance. Disdain. Jealousy. Complaining. Gossip. Tribalism. Judgment. Unspoken hurts. Assumptions.
Little things running around inside us that can wreck relationships.
In the exhaustion and pain that so many of us feel, the opportunity is incredible for supportive and caring relationships to blossom. We need each other. But these things get in the way.
Are we looking for the foxes and catching them before they ruin our relationships? Before they destroy the good that Jesus is always at work to do in us? The way of Jesus is one of self reflection and other-oriented love. Jesus walks with us as we honestly identify the attitudes and actions that pull us away from his kingdom. And then, Jesus empowers us with his spirit and with others in community to catch our foxes before they do permanent damage.
At 9pm nightly, my wife and I both stop and take a few minutes for silence and prayer. That time of quiet has been leading to little spontaneous conversations about catching the foxes in our lives (though we’ve never called them that). It’s no shock that those little minutes of conversation are exceedingly more valuable than simply turning on a show or opening another app on our phones.
And I know this may sound a little sadistic, but catching foxes really can be an adventure. Honesty with others about what we’re feeling, what things could be blooming, and what is getting in the way of growth— those sorts of conversations are what God made us for. It’s what Jesus designed the Church for. We don’t have to go fox hunting alone. And when we do take real steps to help our relationships flourish, God gives us a sense of hope and perseverance that keeps us moving through the tough times. We shouldn’t be afraid of naming the foxes in our lives. How else will we be able to catch them?
And let us heed the advice to catch them while they’re young. The longer a fox stays around, the more damage it will cause. We need to be proactive in getting to the roots of anger, selfishness, pride, and despair before they get a death grip on our souls. Thank God that we're in this thing together.
Jesus, I need your help to identify the things that keep love from flourishing in my life. Lead me to fresh insights and meaningful conversations today.
He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.
-Jesus, Luke 10:2
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
I love officiating weddings, and this past weekend I led my first Covid-era ceremony. Congratulations, Keith and Robin! It was beautiful.
And it was no ordinary wedding! The ceremony took place on the deck of a riverboat, just behind a riverside restaurant, with those in attendance standing spread out on the dock so that they could still join the celebration while distancing. As you can imagine based on the rehearsal picture, we had to think creatively about many things. That’s the part of the fun of unique weddings!
On the wedding day the DJ didn't have a chance to connect the sound system until immediately before the ceremony, so we got the speakers set up facing the shore (and the outdoor section of the nearby restaurant) with no time to test anything. The wireless microphone was not working for my first few sentences of my welcome. But right when it came time for the prayer, it connected…..
"FATHER GOD, WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR YOUR GOODNESS” all of a sudden came thundering off my microphone at a volume that could have made it across the Chesapeake. I’m pretty sure every single person at the restaurant 50 yards away turned and looked at us.
I quickly softened my voice and pulled the microphone away a bit, hoping to balance things out and not cause too much of a scene. And in a split second decision, I realized that this could be really rough, or really beautiful. Everyone who came for the wedding was just fine. But those sitting at the restaurant would either be bombarded with a loud wedding ceremony that forced its way into their dinner experience, or subtly invited to share in one of God’s beautiful moments if they leaned in just a bit. It was possible to hit a volume and style that invited but didn’t impose.
I see in our world different ways of how Christians express their faith and lives. Some use any chance they get to loudly insert themselves into the lives of others, whether it has been asked for or not. They are difficult to ignore, talking over others and assuming that the louder they speak the truth, the more faithful and brave they are, regardless of if others have any interest in hearing. Unfortunately, this often coincides with a lack of self awareness or sensitivity to others. As a result, those listening get annoyed, upset, or combative. On the boat I realized that too much volume (to quote the groom later) “might lead to some unwanted (and inebriated) hecklers at our wedding!”
But there is another way to use our voice. If we lessen our power a bit, we can still proclaim what is good and beautiful and worth sharing, and others can decide if it’s worth it to listen in.
I backed off the microphone as we continued on through the wedding, but I decided it was ok if we were still audible enough for outsiders to listen in…. if they chose to. And I have no idea, but I wonder what sort of impact this little wedding had, celebrating the beauty of human love and the wonder of God’s faithful love, on those who were unexpectedly leaning in to hear a bit more.
There are plenty of people in our lives who know who we are and what we’re about. And then there are others a little further out. They are within earshot of us, metaphorically speaking. They see and hear us in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and digital space. What we say and how we say it could either draw them closer or push them away. We do not have ultimate control of that, but we have some control, without question.
So disciples of Jesus ask ourselves:
What kind of message are they hearing?
What is the attitude that they are hearing in it?
Jesus told his disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. According to Jesus, there are many out there longing to move toward this God whose rule embodies grace, hope, forgiveness, justice, compassion, and eternal life. People are ready to be invited in. But that’s far different than imposing our voice on them and drowning them out. And often, the message we're giving doesn't even sound a bit like Jesus.
How can we be humble yet still bold in our invitation? Every one of us has someone on the dock that is within earshot. People are listening in, watching our social media presence, and watching how we respond to the innumerable challenges of this exhausting season. They’re noticing how we parent and how we talk about people who are suffering. They see what we criticize and what we celebrate.
Does the way we present our message make them want to lean in a bit closer to the kingdom of God? Or are they wishing for a mute button?
Jesus, give me wisdom to express your message of hope with gentleness and humility to those who are listening.
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ.
In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. And the parts we regard as less honorable are those we clothe with the greatest care. So we carefully protect those parts that should not be seen, while the more honorable parts do not require this special care. So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other.
-1 Corinthians 12:12, 22-25
My wife had to get some routine blood work done last week. Every time she’s ever had to do this, I’m always eager to hear the story when she gets home. There’s always a story.
You see, when it comes to needles, Bethany is what’s known as “a fainter."
Each time a needle is in play, the blood already starts draining out of her, even before she’s been touched. I think she’s gotten better though the years, but every time is most definitely still an adventure. (I'm allowed to share this!)
Apparently there's a whole group of people who identity with this reality. So many, in fact, that the medical office has spent considerable time and energy to help out all the fainters who walk among us.
When Bethany mentioned to her nurse that she was a fainter, the nurse knew exactly what to do. She ushered her down the hallway to a special designated area, with a sign on the door calling it the “Comfort Room.” As a non-fainter, I had no idea this room existed.
According to her, this place is pretty special. She walked into a peaceful atmosphere, with a comfortable and welcoming massage chair in the center. It was surrounded by other chairs, possibly for the dozens of friends and family members the fainter needs for moral support. The nurse made sure that she had all that she needed, because she was especially vulnerable. Therefore, she had to be treated with special care.
You might be a bit more vulnerable than others? Come to the front of the line. We've got the best place to take care of you.
Let’s compare that to a different experience I had with comfort in January. I was traveling back from a trip to India, and one of my travel partners was a frequent flyer and businessmen. This gave us special access to one of those airline lounges. We had hours to wait before our flight home from Delhi, which we were able to do in a deluxe lounge with couches, soft music, endless complimentary food and drinks, and televisions showing every cricket match you could imagine.
Every one of our needs was attended to beautifully— because we had paid up. Comfort Room to the extreme! Unfortunately, I saw no sign of the most exhausted and vulnerable travelers in that lounge.
Which of these looks more like the way of our world? Which of these looks more like the kingdom of God that Jesus taught about, where the poor and downcast are the guests of honor?
Bethany’s experience in a Comfort Room is a reminder to me of the upside down beauty of God’s kingdom, where those who feel weakest and vulnerable are the ones given special care, honor, and compassion. Most often, the places of comfort in our world are given to the wealthy, the powerful, and the skilled. The ones struggling the most among us are ignored, mocked, or even judged for that very struggle.
Father Gregory Boyle has spent his life creating micro-business opportunities for former gang members in California, many of whom have also been incarcerated. He has lived his life among people who have been surrounded by violence, substance abuse, and relational brokenness. He once wrote that Christians need to seek a compassion "that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” As disciples of Jesus, we do not criticize those carrying burdens. We comfort them. We create places for rest and care. We see them as the honored ones.
Let us continue to learn the truth of this subversive kingdom, where we seek to honor and learn from the poor and the poor in spirit, rather than overlooking them. Let us continue to give voice to the ones drowned out, and be lavish in our inclusion and care.
I cannot recall a time in my life where I was so aware of so many people experiencing pain, need, and weakness. And I cannot recall a time where I was aware of so many people adding to the pain by words of anger and judgment toward those who are vulnerable. What might Jesus be inviting you to do to create spaces of comfort for those at risk of fainting right now? How can you give special honor and rest to the ones who feel weak? We all have a role to play.
By the way, Bethany didn’t faint this time around. I think the Comfort Room did its job.
Jesus, help me be a person of grace and mercy today, creating spaces for those around me to experience your love, value, and comfort.
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
Have you ever entered into a holiday season or an anniversary hoping that the gift you got is at least as nice as the gift someone got you? We never want to be on the end of giving less than we get. It feels embarrassing or irresponsible. Conversely, if we’re on the other end, we can feel like we worked harder or sacrificed more or had greater generosity than someone else, leaving us feeling bitter or irritated.
Though sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, I do believe human beings have a strong sense of fairness as it involves daily relationships and situations. We want to know, "Am I getting as much as I’m giving in this relationship?" And additionally, I hear plenty of Christians ask the humble question, "Am I giving as much as I’m getting?"
Despite how commonplace it is, this sort of scorekeeping isn’t particularly helpful as we walk in faith with Jesus or in authentic relationships with other people.
Life and faith are not zero sum games. But because we are humans, we really want them to be. We especially want things to be balanced so that we never feel indebted to anyone or anything. That feels like weakness.
We need to stop spending all this energy trying to balance life as if it's a checkbook. Consider how this "balanced budget" approach often manifests itself in our faith:
I am living my life to try to repay Jesus for all that he has done for me.
Problem: That’s not living in grace. That’s living as if you hope one day you’ll look at Jesus and say “we’re all square, right?” That’s not how a loving relationship with God works. A healthy faith lives in an ever deepening pool of grace, leading us to rest in God’s goodness and live accordingly, not try to claw our way back out.
That person did something really kind for me, so I need to repay them for it.
Problem: No, You don’t. You need to receive it graciously and allow it to refresh your spirit. That’s it.
Of course, we can selfishly take this in the direction of, “nobody has done anything for me, so I’m not going to serve anyone,” but that’s clearly not a disciple's attitude. The more common challenge, especially these days, is pride in the opposite direction. You may not feel like you have much to give anyone else at this season in life, so you feel bad asking for help or receiving more than you're giving.
Jesus certainly talks about receiving much and giving much, but there’s never a tally. We can’t experience grace or become gracious if we are trying to track this stuff. Jesus simplifies it.
Freely you have received. Freely give.
How freeing is that?? (See what I did there?)
There is no tally. Life is about learning to give and receive because we have learned the power of grace. Sometimes we’re in need— emotionally, or physically— and it brings another person joy to be able to come alongside us in support. We should welcome that. And some times we notice another in need, and because we’ve received grace, we eagerly desire to show love and compassion and service to them. We don’t keep track of how many times this happens. We just do it. Some of you may have the capacity to be givers right now. You’re privileged during this pandemic, and although it's been brutal on everyone, it hasn’t been quite as brutal on you as some. It’s your season to give abundantly, without looking around and feeling like someone owes you something.
And some of you are going through the ringer right now. Crisis after crisis is hitting you. Finances are tight, or medical issues are constant. Maybe you’re breaking down because you’re completely on your own, or trying to parent, or trying to do virtual school, or anything in between. It’s your time to receive willingly…. maybe even ask for help, and not keep score. You just receive because you know that we all are in need of grace sometimes, and this is one of God’s ways of showing it to us.
Or maybe you aren’t even feeling like you’re in need, yet someone wants to serve, to help, to care. Perhaps it’s time to receive that with joy, so that the giver can also experience the joy of giving.
So what’s on tap for today? Giving of yourself in some new way because you can? Receiving love and care from others because they can? Resting in God’s grace?
It could be giving, it could be receiving. Just do it freely.
Jesus, teach me to live in and out of grace today, and experience the complete freedom of life with you.
We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
-Paul, 1 Thessalonians 1:3
I’m missing my cross country team today. When I started coaching 56 middle school cross country runners last fall, something fresh caught fire in my spirit. Perhaps it rekindled my love for teenagers from years of youth ministry before we planted a church. Maybe it was the chance to be outside helping kids discover a passion for running that has defined much of my life. I don’t know, but it was one of those things that just felt right. It’s a remarkable experience to encourage and then witness young people pushing themselves beyond what they thought they could do.
But this year, that’s not happening. So many things aren’t happening. We’ve moved well beyond the flash of our crisis. Now most of us are walking in this deep trough of a new reality, knowing that even when things change, it will still be slow. What felt like a quick sprint now feels like a marathon- but the worst type of marathon, because you’re not actually sure how many miles this race is. At times it can feel difficult to do anything more than just try to slog through it.
Last year, at the end of every practice and at the start of every race, I told my team this message:
You are more capable than you realize.
Over and over again, I told them that. Because we need to hear some things over and over again.
As Christ-followers who constantly fall prey to dualistic thinking, there are two extremes that we can move toward. We either think we’re amazing on our own (which usually proves false when crisis hits) or we believe that we are completely weak and live a very defeatist day to day reality when things are hard.
Our biblical identity transcends this duality. Humans are made in the imago dei, the image of God. We are amazing. We're also not God so we are weak. But because God’s image is in us, we are capable of far more good than we realize. And for those who seek to trust God, the Spirit of Christ dwells in us and empowers us in a divine partnership. We are empowered people. This is why we have so many stories during the early centuries of Christianity where disciples were able to joyfully suffer, even facing death with incredible hope, strength, and love.
Jesus’ message to his disciples was consistent throughout the gospels. You might feel weak, but you are more capable than you will ever realize, because you’re not alone.
You give them something to eat.
When you are arrested unjustly, don’t worry, for the Spirit will give you the words.
You will receive power when my holy spirit comes upon you.
I will be with you always.
The prophets often revealed the same message of Jesus:
But those who hope in God will renew their strength….they will run and not grow weary.
Yes, the feeling of weakness and exhaustion is so pervasive right now. But as people of faith, our identity is to live in faith. We are empowered by the breath of the very God of the universe, for whom death isn’t even an equal adversary. And according the scriptures, the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is in us. So it’s on us to decide if we’re going to live in that hope or not.
At the end of last season, one of my girls came up to me after her race, sweaty and exhausted. She was not one of our fastest runners. Near the back of the team in most races, she didn’t improve the way she had hoped most of the season. But this last race, she persevered so incredibly well, and it was her best effort all year.
She walked over to me with a huge smile, still catching her breath.
“Hey Coach….. I’m stronger than I realized.”
Yes. Yes you are.
And in Christ, in this season, WE are too. We are strong enough to keep loving others. We are strong enough to keep listening. We are strong enough to have compassion. We are strong enough to celebrate each other. We are strong enough to keep working for justice. We are strong enough to overcome our own destructive habits of thought and action. We are strong enough to keep walking forward. We are strong enough to resist bitterness and disdain. We are strong enough to be the best versions of ourselves when it hurts, because Jesus was the best version of himself when it hurt…. and he is in us. We are more capable than we realize, because we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. It will take a lifetime to fully grasp that simple truth.
Jesus, bring strength to my muscles and hope to my spirit, for You and I have work to do.
Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!
-Romans 12:16 (NLT)
Today I’m thinking about harmony. For those that need the definition, harmony is most often used as a musical term where notes are played/sung that are different from the melody of a song. But rather than creating dissonance, they resonate with each other to create a fuller, richer sound.
I miss harmony. When I sing with others, I always choose the harmony lines, because I love creating that full sound- different notes, but moving together. We’re currently being cautious in our church gatherings, so even though we do offer spaced out in-person meetings in a large auditorium, we aren’t doing any singing there yet. We sing a few songs outside beforehand, which I am happy to be able to do, but we’re spread out so we can’t really hear the harmonies very well. One day those things will return, I am absolutely sure! But for now, harmony is rather rare.
So it is in life. Living in harmony with others seems increasingly rare, but it’s one of those challenging callings that is central for brothers and sisters in Christ as we follow Jesus. Most of the time when Paul was writing, he was writing to people inside the church, not outside. Once they learned to treat each other really well, then they’d be equipped to love the rest of the world too. So his simple instructions in the book of Romans to "live in harmony” here are specifically directed to God’s church.
Harmony in Paul's sort of way might be understood as “different types of individuals making space for each other and working toward the same ultimate goal.”
Our prophetic voice of critique has a place in the world. So does the Christian voice that freely notices what is good, beautiful, and valuable. Acknowledging how others add their unique contributions to God’s world is more important than ever. Like Paul said, we’ve got to be careful we don’t start thinking that we know it all!
Here’s one of my dirty little secrets. I have the ability to be pretty critical of people. It’s a real gift of mine, though I hide it well. And equally unsettling, if people know me at all, it’s not hard to notice and name my faults and deficiencies (to use a biblical reference, you might call them Legion, for they are many! Matt. 5:9). But when we look at each other in this moment of history when everyone's default is critique and comparison… the ability to live in harmony is tragically lost.
One of my practices lately has been to see and name the beauty that someone adds to the world. The way that they do that may be really different from me. But I am convinced that people following Jesus are indeed seeking to love God and love others as best they can. And sometimes, when we allow ourselves to look for that and name it, we find that there is newfound joy, partnership, and peace in our relationships. We don’t need to be the same in every way. We don’t need to have all the same specific priorities. But we can still recognize and work together toward the kingdom that Jesus invites us into. The more that I notice the beautiful notes that those around me add to the music, the more inspired I am to add my own.
Even the Church can be seen as a healthy model of unison and harmony. When we gather together (digitally or in person), we think about the same subject, share the same prayers, reflect on the same passages of scripture. But then we head out, breaking from unison and each using our unique gifts and skills to add beauty to the world, work for justice and compassion, pray boldly, and love our families and neighbors. We’ll each do it differently. Rather than seeing that as chaos, we can start to listen for the harmonies of God's people using their gifts in millions of unique ways to express God’s kingdom.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect perfect harmony. That is a fine goal, but the reality is that we’re all a little “pitchy” sometimes and we need to understand that. We all have days where the notes coming out of our mouths are a bit judgy. Our pride makes us less gracious with others, we are prone to complaining, or we just don't feel like singing at all. And sometimes, we'll just disagree and need to allow for that.
But Jesus will always be working in the midst of that, if we slow down enough to hear his voice and not push away. He’ll remind us, as Paul did, that we don’t know it all, and we are fortunate to have a community of different minds loving the same Jesus, practicing unity without demanding uniformity.
Harmony is beautiful. Everyone has something to offer to our world. Notice it and let it inspire you to keep composing alongside them.
Jesus, help me today to be more complimentary than critical as I look around. May it remind me of how broad and beautiful your kingdom is.
“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”
-Exodus 20:7 (NIV)
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…" (the famous King James Version)
I still remember the comic routine from my teen years when a prominent comedian joked that after hearing his dad yell out “Jesus Christ!” over and over again for years, he started to think that was his brother’s given name.
Let’s talk about the way we use God’s name today.
The Ten Commandments still come up from time to time, but they are self-explanatory for the most part. It’s clear that we’re not supposed to steal things, or lie, or murder, or go after someone else’s spouse. And Jesus both simplified and encompassed all the commandments when he said that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love your neighbor like yourself (see Matthew 22). When we do that, it covers everything. This is very true. Yet the heart of the commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai still have profound value for revealing God’s heart, if we explore them.
When I was a kid, I thought that the third commandment, the one about swearing, meant I should never say “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ!” in place of a curse word. Now I’ll admit, I’m still not a fan of those phrases, but it wasn’t until a Hebrew class in college that I started to understand what this was really getting at, and why it’s much more important than simply avoiding a few specific words.
Misusing God’s name isn't about words. It’s about character. In Hebrew, to take one’s name is to take on/bear their character. Much like an ambassador of a country takes the name of their native land and represents its ideals to another land, Christians do the same to the world. We have taken the name of Christ as a part of our identity. In the New Testament, Peter writes that all those who bear the name of Christ are priests… representatives called to proclaim and represent God’s goodness. So taking a name is not about a phrase, but an identity. When we break it down, this commandment is about misrepresenting God’s character with our lives. Literally, this is the command:
Do not carry the reputation of God falsely.
Do not bear God’s name without integrity.
There’s no denying that we are in a season of seeing the misuse of God’s name and the misrepresentation of God’s character. This week the president of the largest Christian college in the country was ousted because of a breaking sex scandal and a host of other major controversies ranging from personal cruelty to racist attitudes to misuse of finances (these came as no surprise to many of us.) He hid behind the Christian label and intentionally did a lot of evil while talking about faith and Christian values all the time. He was bearing the reputation of God falsely.
We’re in campaign season again (are we ever not?) where we are seeing pseudo-Christian language by politicians suggesting that God’s Kingdom is synonymous with America. Friends, it’s not. God's kingdom is bigger, broader, more beautiful, and more peaceable than any country, including ours. When people try to claim that the Bible suggests America is more special than other countries, or link national allegiance and national interests with allegiance to Christ, they are bearing the name of God falsely.
But it’s easy to throw stones. Let’s explore where this touches our own internal lives.
Every time we Christians come across as hateful, uncaring, or arrogant… we are taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Every time we Christians use the Bible to reinforce our own agenda instead of the other way around, we bear the reputation of God falsely.
Every time we Christians act in our own interest while ignoring the fact that many are suffering around us, we are being dishonest about God’s character.
This is the truth, but it need not send us into despair. We’re all hypocrites on some level. My pastor growing up once said that what we should aspire to be, at least, is humble hypocrites. We can be humble about where we haven’t represented Jesus well… and in admitting this, ironically, we actually bear Jesus’ name with integrity once again. It’s not about perfection. It’s about truly doing our best to humbly represent God’s character in our world (for examples of that character, see Galatians 5:22).
Right now, it’s not hard to take the Lord's name in vain and misrepresent Jesus because we’re so upset or so tired or so entrenched in our ideological camp. But the voice of Jesus invites us back to integrity. The voice of Jesus invites us to humble repentance. The voice of Jesus invites us into grace and forgiveness and a Spirit-led life that offers people a glimpse of our infinitely beautiful God.
Friends, let’s together, everyday, commit to hold onto our discipleship. We have such incredible opportunities every day. People are noticing. We can be a breath of life, or another reason for folks to become cynical toward God’s love. Let’s test our words, priorities, and actions against the servant Christ, and keep them aligned. Let’s keep our eyes and heart on Jesus, and know that when we do, bearing his name can actually feel easy and light (Mt. 11:28-30).
Jesus, give me wisdom and maturity to bear your character with integrity today.