Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.
-Romans 8:5b-6 (The Message)
Have you gazed out the window this past week? If you were looking around, you would have seen a slight greenish hue beginning to cover brown bushes in the woods. And the ground is opening up, ever so slightly, for the daffodils to look around and alert us to the impending burst of color.
The other day one of our kids glanced out the window and yelled, "Hey, look!" I thought there was a fox or a deer running past quickly. Turns out, it was a new wildflower that had just opened up that afternoon!
This is the time to pay attention to the natural world. Life is emerging, and if we are looking for it, we will be surprised by beauty over and over again. It's almost resurrection season, when seemingly dead things come to life, reminding us that there is always more going on than what we see or assume. But you have to look around and pay attention.
"Paying attention" to Jesus is, unsurprisingly, central to a vibrant faith. But sometimes we view this attention as simply the means to an end. Author Mark Buchanan recounts a story during his pastoral years when a man in his congregation came to him for counsel. "I know that God is trying to get my attention right now. I just haven't figured out what he wants my attention for. He must want me to do something."
Mark thought a moment. Then he replied, "Well, maybe God.... just wants your attention."
Maybe this is the deepest form of transformation: the giving of our attention. We become more like Jesus by noticing, all the time, God's sacred presence.
Attention like this is what God invites us into. It's restful and indulgent. Quietly sitting on the couch together. Not always accomplishing. Not always discussing. Just delighting in the peace of presence, and noticing that God is with us and among us. That sort of "being" is the foundation for a life of real depth and purpose (the "doing"). But don't move through it too quickly.
Already, as the Covid season begins to recede, many of our lives are picking up pace. In the coming months school commitments, church life, work, and social events will likely provide many opportunities for a fuller schedule. But remember: Busyness can make us stop caring about the things we care about. This is true of a busy schedule, a busy mind, or a busy heart.
No doubt, a full schedule can bring a lot of joy (I can't wait for summer), but in this emerging season of life, let us consistently notice the God who has been with us each moment of the journey. The goal remains: pay attention.
"The Dream of my life," Poet Mary Oliver writes,
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees--
To learn something of being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention.
Jesus is the "rich lens of attention" by which we walk through our lives with a heart of rest, grace, and meaning.*
This is basic discipleship. When we are looking around the world through the lens of Jesus, our busyness will never be more important than God's presence. It will never be more important than hospitality. It will never be more important than interruptions. We will notice those in need around us and in our world, and respond.... because in those moments we're noticing the very face of Jesus himself. Eyes fixed on Jesus will always move us toward eyes of compassion for others.
This week seems to be as appropriate a week as any to start by living expectantly. So look around for Jesus. Rest in those moments of beauty without too quickly needing to do something with it all. Pay attention to the pain around you as well, so that you might not miss Jesus in the face of our sisters and brothers who suffer. Take time to love and be loved. Jesus is nearby. Pay attention today.
Jesus, both positive and negative things can distract me from your heart. Increase my awareness of you, over and over again, today.
*Special thanks to Mark Buchanan, whose ideas helped me pay attention for this week's writing.
Many, Lord my God, are the wonders which You have done, And Your thoughts toward us; There is no one to compare with You.
- Psalm 40:5
“My prayer is not for them [the twelve] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message...
- John 17:20
So an interesting thing has been happening in the Miller household lately. Our kids have discovered a bunch of old photo albums of Bethany and I when we were younger, and they even found a stack of Bethany's childhood journals (like, multiple filled books) written by an opinionated 12 year old girl who was NONE TOO HAPPY that her dad told her to go to bed early so that HE COULD WATCH SEINFELD.
Our kids are fascinated by these images and stories of a time when we existed before they did. It gives them fresh insight and perspective to know us, but see that our lives didn't always revolve around them. We had our own journey, and we had our own relationship. They became a beautiful part of that, yes, but it was a continuation of something that was already there.
But the real moment of the week was when my now twelve year old Judah stumbled upon a special page in one of my wife's preteen journals.
"No one but my child can read this and they have to be twelve! "
Then a bit further down...
"Dear child, I love you so much even though you're not born yet!"
[We need to pause here and acknowledge that this is not normal behavior for the rest of us who never even gave a thought to the possibility of future kids when we were 6th graders. Don't let the overachieving mothers in the bunch bring the rest of us to shame.]
Of course, it went on to complain about bellbottoms and such. But what a fascinating experience for my kids, to know that they were being thought about.... loved, even. Before they existed.
It was one thing for my preteens to learn about Bethany's past and see how they fit into the story. But it was a whole new level to read with their own eyes that she was thinking about them and loving them 25 years ago.
Sometimes I think we forget how much the big picture can shape us as disciples of Jesus. We can get caught up in the nitty gritty of our faith, forgetting the overarching narrative: That God's story is continuing to unfold from the moment of creation until now, and it is motivated by an intensely personal love for all humanity that comes from the very heart of God.
I love noticing how we fit into a story that began before us. We read about God creating his own people through Abraham, faithfully leading them out of slavery, teaching them new ways to live and relate to God. Then Jesus reveals God fully, clearing up any questions about what God's heart is like, and forms the church, founded on the power of love, grace and resurrection.
And we're told that in the middle of this huge story, we are being thought of personally. God gives us thought and attention. Jesus specifically prays for those people who, thousands of years later, would do their best to be faithful to his mission of redemptive love. We, the people who didn't exist yet. He prayed for you. For me. He loved us, before we even came to be. Because that's what God is. That's what Jesus is.
It's big, it's broad. It goes beyond interpreting what this or that one verse means, or figuring out the differences in theology or if you should homeschool your children or not or whether you should give to panhandlers on the street or just support local nonprofit homeless services....
When we know we're loved, when we see the whole story... those other conversations will fit into place. There is a Jewish proverb, “Before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, ‘Behold, the image of God.’"
When we live in that reality of ourselves and others, the things that will emerge from our spirits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Love received helps love to be given.
Today, don't forget the big picture. You've been journaled about, years before you took shape, and loved, even then.
Jesus, help me live in the knowledge of how dearly loved I am, and give the same beautiful worth to my neighbor.
Jesus on adultery/lust:
And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus when confronted with an actual case of adultery:
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
[...] “neither do I condemn you...”
Jesus! Where's your consistency?? You should have at least cut off a hand!
This post is not about adultery. It's about Jesus.
When you read the gospels, it becomes pretty clear that Jesus is willing to speak harshly about things. Jesus speaks openly about things like judgment and morality, and he is unafraid to come down hard on people (especially the religious and the rich) throughout the gospels. And yet, something else also happens. Every single time someone tries to get Jesus on their side against someone, he seems to push back against it. Or the opposite! People like tax collectors, who stood for everything Jesus spoke against (greed, idolatry, mistreatment of the poor), seem to get special attention and kindness when Jesus meets them? What's the deal?
All we want is a little consistency, Jesus. Pick a side.
The problem with the way that we read the gospels, is that we look at Jesus through our own tendency to pick sides based on "issues." Jesus uses a completely different framework most of the time. And as he does so, it can feel inconsistent to us.
This is because the "single issue" that guided Jesus' actions was the value and dignity of every human, each bearing the image of God. So from the outside, it can feel like Jesus was constantly switching sides. But he wasn't. Consider the above example: Jesus knew that adultery and lust brings incredible pain and brokenness, damaging relationships and eventually leaving people feel used and others full of shame. No human should experience that, so he speaks harshly against it. And yet, when someone has actually done what he warned against, Jesus is the first to remind everyone that her life is as precious and valuable to God as everyone else's is, and he offers grace and advocates for her.
Jesus is, and always has been, on the side of humanity. And when that's the case, his radical love may even feel inconsistent. Do we have the courage to live this radical third way in the world?
Christians must have enough bravery and integrity to regularly "switch sides" when faithfulness to Jesus demands it.
Jacques Ellul, French philosopher and anabaptist theologian, wrote about Christians becoming so consistent that they are willing to switch sides at a moment's notice for the sake of love and compassion. He gave the example that in the French Revolution, the most Christlike response would have been working for the freedom and worth of the peasantry. But when the peasants began executing the aristocracy, faithfulness to Jesus would require Christians to immediately switch sides and defend the inherent worth of ruling class. They remained on the side of Jesus' peace, mercy and dignity. But that would look like switching sides, and likely even feel like betrayal to some of the revolutionaries.
So we stand with the oppressed, until the moment the oppressed becomes an oppressor. We seek to live in truth, but never in a way that threatens another's dignity. We defend the inherent worth of every person, even those who may have harmed others. This is a consistent view of the image of God in all people, and the way of nonviolence in Christ.
No worldly systems should ever expect "loyalty" from Christians if they begin to do things that diminish the worth and dignity of anyone, regardless of how good their overall goal may be. God's kingdom is not brought about that way. Jesus showed us that.
So we hold the conviction that every mistreated person is worth caring for and defending.
Hard stop. No qualifications after that.
And we hold the conviction that everyone who seeks to do what's right with their next moment is moving toward God's heart, regardless of what you've already decided about their past or their character.
Hard stop. No one gets to be written off.
And internally it means a tough shift:
It means we've got to stop thinking Jesus is on our side, and slowly and humbly learn what it means to be on the side of Jesus, moment by moment.
This is not simply about "big issues" or ideologies. This is about daily interactions. We can be right in our views and wrong in the way we hold them. We may be true in our statements and wrong in how or when we state them. But if we submit ourselves to Jesus and acknowledge the image of God in each person, we will move toward being consistently inconsistent, the way Jesus was.
Jesus, help us keep our allegiance to you first today, so that we might be able to see the value inherent in every single person we meet.
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts..
-2 Corinthians 2:3
Right now at our church we are journeying through a wonderful six week immersive study called Rediscovering Prayer, developed by two of our pastors and based on Richard Foster's dynamic book on the subject. During our fist session, we did a simple practice to reflect on a prayer by St. Augustine. But rather than just stare at his words, we were told to write them down in our own handwriting first, and then reflect on that.
On the initial slide, Augustine's prayer looked historic and grandiose. But in my journal, it looked very human. My handwriting is really poor, so I'll say the prayer took on a bit of a desperate tone to it. The content remained the same in many ways, but the way that it was experienced was changed when my own hand penned it.
Scripture speaks to us about Jesus being the Word of God become flesh. It's a movement from conceptual to physical. But that's not the complete transition. Then, Jesus makes disciples, and eventually breathes his very spirit into their flesh as they form the Church and continue to express Jesus in the world. Jesus gets transcribed in the lives of his people. That's what I'm thinking about today.
The journey of discipleship is the journey of looking at Jesus, and then writing Jesus with our own hand. Jesus looks one way in the gospels. But Jesus takes on a slightly different texture when he is expressed through each of our lives uniquely. That's beautiful, and that's important. That's one of the things that takes Jesus from a conceptual idea to a living reality in 2021. His breath, our lives.
You see, it's a good thing that I can't write in sans serif font by hand. My writing is choppy and lopsided. Another's handwriting is smooth and artistic. But without these expressions, those words have the potential to remain inaccessible to others. Truth needs to be seen and felt to be believed, even if it is imperfectly expressed. Each of us has a real task, if we are to follow Jesus well and reveal God's heart to the world. We have to take words on a holy page, and write them in our own lives. Chances are that it won't appear quite as incredible as the grand stories of God in the Bible (though maybe it will!). And certainly, some things will look a little different than the original, but only in texture, not in content.
Dallas Willard used to say that Christians spend too much time trying to become who Jesus was, when the real task is to become who Jesus would be if he were you.
Yes, we copy Jesus, but Jesus will take on beautiful, diverse expressions based on whose hand is writing it. Yet the overall message should remain consistent, even as it's written across many lives, if our hearts are focused on Jesus.
When God wrote himself onto humanity through Jesus, it was a movement from the high and holy inaccessible God, to an intimate, accessible experience. Jesus invites us to continue the movement, making him readable to the world around us by writing him with our lives everyday. We sit with the words of Jesus and we sit with the presence of Jesus long enough to begin copying the compassion, mercy, generosity, healing, and humility that we see.
It will look unique in each life. But it will be real. And when people read our lives, they'll walk away just a little more familiar with the hopeful message of God's kingdom.
Jesus, help me to translate your hope into my own unique life and context, so that others may see you through me today.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
-2 Corinthians 12:10
This week I was in a prayer meeting with other pastors in our family of churches across the region. We do this digitally once a month, and it's a gift to be a part of a community of women and men that understand the value of praying together. If I'm honest, my attitude can be less than stellar when I notice a meeting like that on my schedule the middle of my work morning. And almost always, I find the Spirit using those moments to restore my heart, and the time is deeply formative.
During our time of stillness and prayer, one of my fellow pastors gave voice to something I could relate to. I can't recite his exact words, but it was along the lines of this:
God, I'm tired. I'm so ready for this thing to be over. Our people are tired too.
And my capacity feels really limited.
But that also feels kind of good, because I believe what you say about weakness, and now I am forced to live in it.
Woof. I mean, Amen...
More and more lately, I'm interested in what makes Christianity truly radical. With the strong influence of Christian nationalism and civil religion right now, Christian faith can start to look identical to American values (independence, strength, power), just using Jesus-ish language to make it sound Christian. But that's not the truth of Jesus at all.
Jesus teaches us that his kingdom flips conventional values upside down. Instead of God blessing the powerful, he gives special favor to the poor. Rather than the religious elite being the ones Jesus favored, he wanted to be among those who openly acknowledged their sinfulness and brokenness. And rather than Jesus just making us strong and capable, he reminds us that when we're weak, we're in one of the best spiritual places to be. So if you feel really weak right now, congratulations!
We can go ahead and be honest that a statement like that kind of stinks. Who likes feeling weak? Seriously? Who? Not me, most of the time.
Until I remember the truth of the gospel. Then I realize that it's easy to state our "belief" in the Lord who says, my grace is sufficient for you. But it's hard to actually lean on God's grace and provision when push comes to shove. It's hard to sit in a place of exhaustion and weakness and say,
Finally! The opportunity has come for me to really be changed, Jesus. To really be used by you! To really learn what your presence is all about. I'm at the end of my rope. Yes.
And yet this part of the truth of eternal life. Faith in Christ is believing that good things, even wonderful things, happen not when we win, but when we're forced to surrender our ego and trust God. That is, of course, if we actually surrender. We'll be tempted to fight our hardest against admitting weakness, and tempted to try to grit our way through it. But when we do that, we miss out on what dependence on God and interdependence on one another does. It does make us strong, but in a new way. It gives strength that is no longer dependent on our circumstances. Strength to rest in the midst of struggle, and to stop hiding our true selves for fear of rejection. Strength to live in real oneness with Jesus because nothing else can sustain us.
I've had so many moments in pastoring, parenting, coaching, and just existing over the past year where I've felt exceedingly limited. And those moments, more than any other moments, have taught me about the beauty of Jesus that can never be taken away from me. It's created in me the capacity for fresh compassion, and the conviction that Jesus is eager to overflow the spaces that our self-sufficiency can't ever fill. And when Jesus fills us, we learn to receive love not by merit, but by grace. Finally, then, we can be disciples once again. Finally, then, we can see the kingdom of God for all the beauty that it is. When we're good and weak.
Jesus, I'm ok with being weak today. Brace my arms, legs, and heart, so that I might keep moving with you.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. [...]
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit...
Luke 4:1-2, 14
Last year, the season of Lent began on February 26th, 2020...
We had no idea, did we?
Lent is the 40 day journey of fasting and self reflection (excluding Sundays, which are always intended to symbolize resurrection) leading up to the Easter celebration. It's a time for stripping away, to join Jesus in his desert experience, and to trust God in new ways.
As such, people often "give up" something for lent, learning to rely on God deeply in the struggle, and find deep contentment in God's provision.
Two weeks into Lent last year, we found ourselves in a season of giving up that was beyond our control on a worldwide scale. It was unlike anything most of us have experienced. We gave up a lot of physical interactions and a lot of our usual church rhythms. We gave up predictability and relaxed moments in public. Many of us gave up health, and we gave up loved ones to this pandemic.
This year has been a living lent.
And today, we walk into into a new season of Lent (the Limited Edition official version). I'm not sure if I'm up for giving up any more. How about you?
Well, maybe we're in luck. Maybe, us silly humans, we miss the point of this whole thing. And maybe we need to give up the giving up.
As disciples of Jesus, "giving up" is never the end goal for its own sake. The giving up of lent is about being freed in new ways to follow Jesus. It's to release what hinders us, or what distracts us from God's goodness and trustworthiness. Fasting, according to Jesus and the full witness of scripture, is to bring our spirits into closer communion with God (Luke 4:4), and our hands into clearer expressions of compassion and justice (Isaiah 58). The purpose is the soul-shaping we receive from God, not what we release.
And although we intentionally practice this through self-initiated fasting, the same truth can apply even in times of a forced "giving up." All that we've experienced this year-- all the stripping down--is still an opportunity to receive deeper formation in Jesus, if we don't give up.
Unfortunately, when we are forced to give up some things, the temptation can be to give up all things. And I see that sort of resignation happen a lot. Sometimes I feel it in me.
A friend of mine has a child in prison. She can't visit him because of COVID. Something precious has been taken away. That could lead to giving up in despair, and doing nothing. But instead, being shaped by Jesus, it has led to writing letters- not just to her child, but to many others who are incarcerated without much encouragement or hope from the outside. Others are joining in. It's starting a compassion movement.
When we have to give something up, we can choose to give up completely, or to let Jesus transform us.
Luke says Jesus emerges from his days in the desert, "in the power of the Holy Spirit." What is power? It's a force that allows you to do things. Jesus wasn't simply full of the Holy Spirit anymore... he was going to be more powerful-- more effective-- than ever.
So this lent, maybe what needs to be released to God is the mentality that this lingering season is meaningless.
I know it feels difficult to lean into. But don't give up. Don't give up what it means to be in the Body of Christ, regardless of the form your church gatherings have right now. And don't give up the faith that Jesus will shape you into an effective ambassador of his kingdom, if you open yourself up to that soul-shaping work daily.
It's still winter. But spring is on the way. The barrenness of lent is the path toward the lushness of resurrection.
Jesus, draw me into a fresh intentionality of prayer, hope and compassion as I walk with you in the desert.
Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life. Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.
-1 Peter 3:15
I don't know if you watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. Many didn't, evidenced by the lowest ratings in 13 years. The game wasn't much to write home about, so if you missed it, you didn't miss much (except watching Tom Brady prove again how frustratingly dominant he is).
The one thing you did miss, however, was a bit of marketing genius by Reddit, an online messaging board that hosts conversations about anything you can imagine. A simple 30 second spot during the big game costs over 5 million dollars. Most of those commercials come and go, making people laugh a moment and then get back to their chips and guacamole. But in the middle of what looked like a car commercial, the broadcast fizzed out and for 5 seconds, the Reddit logo and a wordy written message appeared that took just a little too long to read. And then, just like that, it was gone.
It was a strange moment. It came and went so fast. We couldn't read it all. We weren't positive it was even supposed to happen. It felt like the super bowl broadcast had been hacked! So we and all the other viewers sat there, deciding if we'd eat our chips and move on, or if we had to learn more about what just happened. And of course with technology, people could pause, Tivo, rewind, or google their way to answers.
And they did. The conversation took off online, and people needed to know more. They wanted to know the message that was on their screen, and the they wanted to know the story behind the ad. Those five seconds created enough curiosity for millions of people to want to seek answers. And all of a sudden hoards of people were talking about Reddit.
A fraction of the budget of a normal ad, with an exponentially larger impact. Absolute brilliance.
Obviously, this made me think a lot about the way we live our lives and how we represent Jesus...
Our "marketing" has become increasingly irrelevant to many people that encounter Christianity. None of us are perfect, but there's a lot of clear hypocrisy out there when it comes to Christians not exhibiting the sort of priorities Jesus seemed to care about. Simply put, most Christians don't differ much from anyone else. Plenty of days that's true of me too, unfortunately. So people outside of faith simply tune us out.
Yet consider the deep DNA that Christ-followers have been given. We've been made new into something completely surprising, beautiful, and interesting. We've been freed from the need to be impressive, and welcomed into a community of grace, humility, and life. Old identities are gone and the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love (Paul said that). We have faith that Jesus is at work in us and our world... and we love well as a result of it.
Now, that's all just Christian jargon until it's acted on. Then and only then, real love becomes so interesting, so curious, so wonderful, that people cannot help but want to move toward it. If we learn the love that Jesus had-- love that transcends the boundaries that the rest of the world stays inside of-- then we will spark all sorts of wonderful curiosity.
Jesus told us the core expression of discipleship was this: being "known by our love" (Jn 13:35). This is the most low budget, brilliant marketing tool that God could ever come up with. It doesn't require big budgets or fancy programs. It doesn't require expert actors or background soundtracks that stir the emotions. It trusts that if the people of Jesus live the humble values of God's kingdom, others will seek them out and eventually want to buy in to movement. How beautiful is that? And how brilliant?
Showing genuine care for people who are not like you economically, religiously, racially, or nationally.... that makes people curious.
Giving and forgiving... that makes people curious.
Not needing money or perfect circumstances to live with joy and meaning... that makes people curious.
They will want to know more of the story that forms us.
So our role, then, is to pass through each others' lives-- sometimes for years, sometimes only a few seconds-- offering a simple message of genuine love in the name of Jesus. It's not about bringing attention to us. We simply help people find their place with us in God's kingdom. Our words and actions of everyday love make others want to take a closer look.
Because like Reddit, if you make people curious, they'll seek out the whole message. Even a few seconds can make a huge difference. How will you make people curious as you travel with Jesus?
Jesus, open my eyes to the little moments around me today to invite people toward your love.
Come to me, all who are thirsty, come to the waters [...]
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
This week as the snowstorm was fading away, I was out on trails doing a long run, as people do after snowstorms. I was mostly alone out there, but since the clouds were clearing, a few others were starting to emerge on the trails also, walking dogs, taking in the scenery, and getting some fresh air.
On one of the trails I saw a couple on a walk, probably in their mid-to-late seventies. As I approached them, at first I thought that they had lost something. They were both bending down reaching into the snow, about 20 feet from each other. As I passed the woman on the other side of the trail, she looked up at me with a mischievous smile, and an eyebrow slightly raised, without saying a word. And then I saw it. In her hand was a nicely formed snowball. I smiled big and ran on by, looking back over my shoulder just in time to see her whip a snowy fastball right at the back of her husband's head.
They were having a snowball fight! The joy and playfulness of that moment was contagious. I want to be like them when I grow up.
I'm learning more and more that joy is a gift that we can receive at any time. There's a temptation to believe that joy can't coexist with negative emotions. Disappointment, heartache, frustration and sorrow seem to be the opposites of joy, so when one is present, the other is lost. However, the Spirit of God constantly moves us beyond this dualistic experience of a world that is either/or. In fact, the beauty of God's kingdom is that none of our physical circumstances are ultimate barriers to God's love. The pain of this season is real. Nearly a half a million lives have been lost to COVID in our country alone. Depression and financial hardship has touched millions of others. Our church longs to gather physically again in relaxed ways. The need to grieve is real. But even this does not eclipse the opportunity for real joy.
Isaiah 55 is a breathtaking chapter in the Bible. It begins with an invitation to come, extended to travelers who are worn out. They are thirsty, hungry, tired, and penniless. But the invitation is to "seek the Lord" in the midst of it. When they do, they will find that the ways of heaven are higher than the ways of earth (v9) and that God will fill weary travelers with delight. God even wants to give mercy to those who have done wicked things in the past. Nothing and no one is beyond the reach of this gift that God is offering.
This message is so simple that it almost feels like cheating. Despite our circumstances, God invites us to find rest and nourishment in his presence, and then makes this promise as we emerge:
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
What joy, what whimsy! The hope-filled vision, once given to the people of Israel as they traveled toward the promised land, is now made true for all the people of God as they travel toward Jesus' kingdom.
It's supernatural, joy like that. It breaks the rules and expectations that the world has... just like two 75 year-olds having a laughter-filled snowball fight in the middle of the woods.
You are loved wildly, and the life of God within you is more powerful than the circumstances surrounding you. When you receive that gift, there is great joy to be had. Always. It doesn't matter if your body is full of arthritis, or if your kids are draining you of energy, or if your anxiety is heightened by the lingering pandemic, or if your job security is up in the air. Well, those things do matter.... they just can't stop God from bringing hydration and delight to your thirsty, hungry soul.
In heavy times, we need to hear of this sort of lightness. Don't let your hearts be troubled, Jesus told his disciples, believe in God; believe also in me.
Don't be afraid to embrace joy this week however and whenever God brings it. Invite God to give you a vision of the world bursting into song, with the trees applauding the performance. You don't need to earn the gift of joy, you need only receive it. God is for you.
Jesus, I want to come. Break down any barriers in my life that are keeping me from delighting in your faithfulness.
Then he said to Peter, “Follow me!”
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. [...]
When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
-John 21:19b-20a, 21-22
There's this little moment at the end of the Gospel of John that gets overlooked because it comes on the tail end of a major gospel story. Jesus has risen, and he has just had a deep heart-to-heart conversation with Peter, moving toward reconciliation after Peter's denial on the night of the crucifixion. It's raw and honest (and I'm not going to say much more since I'll be teaching on it in a few weeks), and it sets a major trajectory for the story of the early church. It's beautiful.
And then, as Peter is processing this fresh calling that Jesus has just given him (it's not an easy one!), he looks up and sees John walking a little ways behind them. And without thinking too much, he asks Jesus, "what about him???"
Jesus seems a little bit put off by this question. He gives a quick response about the fact that Peter's and John's futures are not going to be the same, and then quickly snaps Peter's focus back, saying: "What is that to you? You must follow me!"
I've been captured by that little exchange. Jesus is working on Peter's heart, but Peter quickly gets sidetracked by becoming overly concerned about someone else's journey. Jesus firmly brings him back. Listen Peter, you needing to figure everyone else out isn't helpful. Your job is to be a faithful disciple, with everything you have. So is his. And his path might look different. Don't get distracted from where I'm leading you.
Disciples of Jesus must learn to hold the balance of personal faith development in the context of shared community. Without personal, daily, honest pursuit of Jesus, we won't ever grow up. And without a community to journey and serve with, we won't learn to mature and be stretched in the complexity and beauty of relationships.
But too often this gets turned around to become spiritual rubbernecking. It's so easy these days to get obsessed with analyzing other people. We might do so out of curiosity, out of critique, as a personal deflection, or out of making sure that other people are getting it "right." But any of those things can make us lose sight of our own faithful discipleship, grounded in the spirit and teachings of Christ.
Is it possible that "concern for others" can sometimes just be an excuse to compare and critique?
In loving community, concern for one another looks like support, encouragement, compassion, and loving connection. Maybe if Peter had sat down with John after dinner and asked him, "brother, I want to hear where Jesus is leading you lately," Jesus would have encouraged him instead of chastising him.
But instead, Peter is just sitting there with Jesus, wondering aloud about the other guy.
Missing the point.
Community gets damaged when our spirits are full of comparing or critiquing other peoples' spiritual journeys. When we obey Jesus' words of "Hey you! Follow me!", that will actually lead us toward deeper love for our neighbors. But if our conversations with Jesus sound more like, "but what about him???", we will never be available to do the internal and external work that God is calling us toward. Each of us has a personal responsibility to faithfully hear and respond to Jesus, not to do it for others.
Of course, this doesn't mean that we never offer critique of anyone or anything. The point is how easy it is for us to lose track of Jesus in those moments. Also, there are those "soul friends" that God brings into our lives to create mutual growth. That's often where really good, really hard questions are asked, and it's an incredible gift. If we find ourselves without anyone like that, it's worth pursuing.
So today, in our conversations with Jesus, maybe these are the questions that we ask:
-Who have I been concerned with in unhelpful ways that I need to release?
-How are you calling me to follow you right now, Jesus?
Lord, release me from my temptation to externalize, so that I can faithfully follow you with all I am today.
Image Credit: Brick Testament
"I lift up my eyes to the mountains--
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth. "
One of the most beautiful things about the Bible is how it shows the ongoing movement of God's people. They understand God's character and God's heart in new ways as the centuries go by. Their faith flexes and changes as they see more and more of God, culminating in Christ.
In some of the Psalms, we see a prevailing image that reflects one of the earliest understanding of deities. Ancient near eastern "gods" were all understood to live on high mountains. Thunder was a sign of their movement and voice, and they were shrouded in mystery. Add that to the many times that God literally met Moses on mountains, and how Jerusalem is built on a giant hill, and you can understand why a lot of Hebrew terminology developed about God living "up there" on the hills and mountains. This view of the gods continued to be pervasive in Greek and Roman culture as well.
But Jesus comes onto the scene to reveal that God isn't somewhere "up there." God doesn't dwell in the temple. God doesn't dwell on top of Samaritan mountains or the high hills of Jerusalem (John 4:21). God is with us everywhere in spirit and in truth, in Jesus. Our language is simply an attempt to describe an indescribable spiritual reality. God's not actually sitting up there in the sky (well, at least not more than everywhere else!).
In light of all this, through all our modern years, have you noticed that this image of "looking up" has continued to persevere? Yes, we may bow our heads in prayer, but have you ever been alone with with God, and just felt drawn to lift up your face, and look "heavenward?"
There's something to that. Now, more than ever, it's time to embrace the practice of "lifting our eyes up to the hills" to remember that our help comes from the Lord. The Psalmist urges his listeners to change their view... to shift their physical and spiritual posture to one that is open.
We are in a world of keeping our heads down- have you noticed that? Bodies are hunched over while eyes and hearts are buried in phones. Eyes are down as people pass one another on the sidewalk and grocery stores (you cannot spread COVID through meaningful eye contact).
But when we look up, our posture changes. After the eyes and head lift, the rest of our body follows. The shoulders roll back, the ribs and heart extend out. Our bodies are less tense, and more open. More open to the world around us, and more open to God's grace over whatever is on our phone or stuck on repeat in our minds. We are also more open to literally notice the hills and mountains around us and delight in God's creative goodness. We are more open to notice the people around us and delight in God's image in them, and act with mercy. And as we keep looking up and up, we are more open to call out to Jesus, so that we can be transformed toward his character of love and compassion to others.
That's not a very common posture these days, is it?
At the end of the day, when we are looking down, our thoughts and attitudes often revolve around the self. We are tempted to be absorbed by things much smaller than God's kingdom. When we look up, we enter into a place to receive and give. There is a newfound vulnerability. There is an opportunity to notice something fresh and new, and to trust God as we step toward it.
Sometimes the simplest practices are the most helpful. Today, I encourage you to pray with your eyes up, arms out, and posture open. Ask God, and no one else, to be your hope and your rescue. Rest in the care of the creator.
And when you encounter others, lift up your eyes. See in them the beauty and complexity of God's image. Be filled with compassion and kindness.
I can't imagine a better descriptor when someone asks what we're like, than being known by this little image of Psalm 121.
"She lifts her eyes up."
Jesus, lift my eyes toward your hope. It's so easy to get distracted.