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.
“Tell them, ‘As sure as I am the living God, I take no pleasure from the death of the wicked. I want the wicked to change their ways and live.
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”
"Look who’s laughing now!”
How many times have we heard that phrase near the end of an action-adventure movie as the villain is destroyed and the hero stands above him with a huge smile on his face? This is the moment of victory: order is restored.
It’s amazing how hardwired we are to enjoy a good revenge story, or to see someone get "what’s coming to them.” I’d rather not admit it, but I’ve watched my share of videos where people attempt stupid things and end up flipping on their heads. Or they cannonball into a lake that they don’t realize is actually frozen over (HOW DID SHE NOT NOTICE???). And it makes me laugh. Why is it so enjoyable to watch someone experience bad consequences? That’s sort of, well…. off.
We enjoy watching others suffer, especially if it’s entertaining or if we think they deserve it. Ask my wife and kids. Every single time I stub my toe or slip down the stairs, they think it’s absolutely hilarious. Forgive them, father for they know not what they do!
Ok, maybe that is pretty funny. But at least wait to see if I’m ok first!!!
No, what I’m really talking about is how an attitude of satisfaction at retribution has become normalized in our world, and in our hearts.
Maybe this is why our justice system focuses so much on punishing people more than rehabilitating them. Maybe this is why the talking point is rarely about helping the person that’s been wronged, but rather making sure that the perpetrator “gets what’s coming to them.”
And it goes beyond systems and into our daily interactions as well.
We’re in the midst of yet another season of very strong opinions about what and who is evil. The culture of disdain is palpable, and people eagerly await the chance to celebrate the downfall of their adversaries. I’ve heard people say that they hope that those who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously contract COVID-19 and get hurt. I’ve also heard people say that teachers who are not comfortable teaching in person right now deserve to lose their jobs. And both attitudes seem to gain some sense of enjoyment out of thinking about those realities coming to pass. Yuck.
The pesky and loving voice of Jesus means that we have to learn to ask the question, what might a Christlike response look like instead?
There are a lot of facets to this, but today I’m thinking more about how this affects the interior of our souls. Understanding God’s heart in this area will inevitably affect ours.
Ezekiel prophesied that God is not bent on revenge, contradicting common assumptions of what all the gods were about during his era.
Jesus took it further. He looked at people who were killing him… killing God…..killing the only sinless one to ever live…. and asked the father not to be too harsh on them, because they just didn’t have the whole story.
Paul famously reminded the early church that if it’s got flesh and blood, it’s not your enemy. Nobody is beyond redemption. Everyone is created in God’s image. That means that while we may find people’s behavior wrong or unacceptable (and worth resisting) we still need to understand that the potential for evil is in every human heart, and everyone is worth offering compassion to… even if they don’t offer the same courtesy to others.
That, my friends, is countercultural.
I find it profound to think that God doesn’t delight in bad things happening to “bad people.” We can cherry pick verses out of the Old Testament to rebut this, of course, but the movement in the biblical narrative and its culmination in Jesus tell a different story.
This week, I’m asking Jesus to do good and wonderful things in the lives of those who I think are doing wrong. I’m choosing to remember that Jesus is for people. I’m praying that God changes hearts, for sure. Starting, as usual, with mine.
Jesus, give me eyes of love and compassion to look on everyone today.
But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.
I think I could start every reflection with an anecdote from Doctor Who, my favorite British television series, but that might be gratuitous, so we'll just do one. My wife and I are rewatching some of the early seasons with our boys right now, and it’s fun to see them experience the sci-fi twists and turns for the first time. Last week’s episode was a suspense thriller taking place in an abandoned library. A group of alien organisms called the Vashta Nerada had destroyed all human life, so the Doctor and his companion come to work with archaeologists to save the day. The tricky part? Vashta Nerada are virtually invisible, made up of the stuff of shadows. Stay in the light and you’re fine. but the problem is, even in light, everyone has a shadow. And throughout the episode in the library, various explorers noticed that they had inexplicably gained an extra shadow. And if you had more than one shadow...well, not even a high tech suit can save from becoming a skeleton a few moments later.
Sleep well tonight!
So shadows got me thinking. I've been pondering ego more and more lately. Ego is the part of us that pushes our need for value. It’s not all bad, but until we reach real maturity, the way we pursue significance will usually involve self-promotion, self-protection, and pride.
Richard Rohr describes the ego as "that part of the self that wants to be significant, central, and important by itself, apart from anybody else. It wants to be both separate and superior. It is defended and self-protective by its very nature."
The negative part of our ego lurks just behind us, like a shadow. It is connected to us and looks a bit like us, but doesn’t contain the real substance of our souls. The ego often attempts to hide what is real in order to externally convey something impressive. It is not our truest selves. Like a shadow, it stays small when we remain in the light. But when light gets dim, the ego grows and expands and threatens to destroy who Jesus intends us to be.
In Matthew 23 Jesus speaks of the ego as the actor, often translated "hypocrite”, that lurks within the human soul. Jesus is harsh toward the religious leaders not because of sins of weakness, but precisely because Pharisees presented an air of sinlessness while simultaneously projecting their own sins onto others and judging them for it. Sometimes this is intentional; other times it's simply lack of self awareness. But the refusal to face our shadows is the perfect atmosphere for darkness and evil to grow in us. That’s why Jesus says that those who “exult themselves will be humbled but those who are humble will be exalted” (23:12).
Maybe this is why Jesus’ beef is never really against weakness (think of how compassionate he is to his disciples in the garden when they are weak), but against the ego that drives judgment, manipulation, and control over others. Our egocentricity is where the real evil lies.
Ego has always been one of the most destructive forces on the planet, but it has become more noticeable than ever to me in recent years. Of course, sometimes it’s obvious and easy to spot, but other times it’s elusive, almost imperceptible to the naked eye. It’s in the shadows, lurking behind our actions and attitudes. It pushes us to be arrogant in disagreements, selfish in our decision making, and unreflective during our struggles. And sheesh, when this shadow gets a hold of you, it leaves a path of destruction, and you’re lucky to make it out alive.
Sometimes we work so hard protecting our egos that we can’t receive any difficult truths about ourselves. And when this happens, we can’t be transformed. We also can’t experience the beauty of shadowed things in our lives being exposed to light and becoming redeemed (see the Ephesians passage above).
Ignoring our growing shadows will lead to the destruction of our true selves. We have to notice them there, and keep them well lit.
And that is exactly what Jesus does. He lights things up. He helps us be unafraid of our shadows so that we can name them, talk about them, and take away their power. Jesus is light. When we expose our egos to Jesus, we find in God our truest sense of significance, and learn to be ok living in our own skin without pretense (yet always desiring to keep moving toward holiness). We no longer have to seek out significance in damaging ways. We can simply walk forward as God’s beloved.
Today, don’t be afraid to notice the role your ego plays in your thoughts and interactions. Where are you quickly defensive or easily offended? Talk with a friend about it. Sit with Jesus in prayer about it. Be freed from the need to impress, and enjoy the good news that light casts out darkness.
Jesus, give me courage to be the person you created me to be with you and others today.
If we claim to have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.
-1 John 1:9
I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about confession lately. Maybe it’s because when the ugliness of our world rears its head, the ugliness inside of me swells up too. Can you relate? In our exhaustion and frustration, we are tempted in many ways. We face what the New Testament writers described as struggles of “the flesh.” They're talking about moments when our selfishness takes over. Moments when pride, shame, self-righteousness, sexual temptation, greed, laziness, a critical spirit, and other stuff like that rises up and does some damage in us and others.
This battle is a part of life. In John’s first letter, he says that if anyone says they don’t mess up, they are liars. I’m inclined to believe John from firsthand experience.
The early church regarded confession as the means by which God brings us back onto the path of life. Following the scriptures, they entrusted their mistakes to God, and trusted God’s lavish grace to restore and renew them daily.
Unfortunately, confession today often carries a lot of baggage because 1) we live in a culture where admitting we’re wrong is a sign of weakness and 2) confession has been forced upon people in guilt-tripping, damaging ways.
But it doesn’t need to be like that.
When we confess the areas that we miss the mark, we open ourselves up to the regular reminder of the grace of God available to us. The grace that tastes like honey. The grace that turned the world upside down when Jesus died unjustly but refused to take revenge on humanity. The grace that sets Christian faith apart from any other religious movement. This grace is a pleasure to experience, because grace can only be received as a gift. It cannot be grabbed or stolen out of pride or selfishness. It is only when we acknowledge that pride and selfishness often dominate our thoughts that we actually move beyond guilt and into grace.
To simplify: When we say we’re guilty, we get the pleasure of grace.
Well there’s a paradox to think about when you lie awake at night. Is grace a guilty pleasure?
A few weeks ago during our few minutes of zoom prayer we have every weekday, a brother prayed a prayer of confession, humbly acknowledging how he misses the point regularly. As I prayed along, I had this incredible experience of joy…. odd, right? But his openness to confess brought out this desire in me to say,
Yes, me too, God! I’m in need too!
Why is admitting our weakness so countercultural? Why aren’t we doing this more often as a practice in spiritual, mental, and emotional health? Maybe confession is not a guilty pleasure at all. Guilty pleasures are things that we don’t like to admit to others, like how I binge watched two full seasons of Scream Queens with Bethany during quarantine. The joy of God’s grace intersecting our imperfect lives is not embarrassing, but exhilarating. Maybe we should be shouting it from the mountain tops.
True confession is not the addition of, but the release of the soul-ravaging power of guilt and shame crushing our spirits. We are not made to live in guilt or be guilt-tripped. We are not made for worm theology, of calling ourselves such miserable worthless peons that we can’t possibly imagine God loving us. If we can’t imagine God loving anyone as miserable as us, we have yet to fully understand the character of God.
No, simply by God loving us, we have proof that God has determined that we are indeed worthy of his love. Therefore, living in guilt doesn’t do a thing. For more information, read the New Testament.
But admitting that we are wrong sometimes…. admitting that we need Jesus in our lives? Somehow that is what we’re made for. That changes our outlook. It’s a rejoining of the union we were created for.
I think we need to reclaim the power of confession, and perhaps reframe it. I’m aware that many of my friends, both Catholic and otherwise, have shared that even using the word confession triggers feelings of a faith built on feeling bad about themselves. I get that. But it’s time to allow confessional sorrow to give way to grace-filled pleasure. I can think of nothing more freeing than admitting that I want the God of grace in my life each moment that I mess up. I want the pleasure of walking forward realizing that my past mistakes do not determine my future path. I want the pleasure of remembering that the burdens I carry may be laid down as frequently as I am willing to bring them to Christ, and I want the joy of heading out on a new journey each day to love the world with reckless abandon because I literally have nothing to lose. I’ve already had my soul laid bare with all my shortcomings and been told that I’m still worth dying for. It’s just that I forget that all the time.
Go ahead. Confess your sin. And go ahead, receive grace. You might be amazed at how good it feels.
Jesus, I want to delight in your grace touching my imperfect life today. I receive it.
Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
This week is going to be very honest. And I think honesty is what we’re going for these days.
I have a lot of moments where I feel the emptiness right now. Days where the sense of exhaustion is pervasive and creativity feels stunted. I grow weary of the endless sharing of opinions on digital media and I pull inward, knowing that every decision made these days is bound to make a number of people unhappy.
Movement feels hard, and even as a people person, I start to feel like I just want to be alone.
What an excellent attitude for a pastor to have! (Read in sarcastic tone.)
If this is how I’m feeling as extrovert that normally loves being with people and taking initiative, I can’t imagine how a lot of folks in our population are feeling.
Isolation has become normal. Sure, we may interact with people through our jobs, but most everything outside of that has been shaved down to the bare minimum or nothing at all. And even when we interact with people, it can be so complicated on so many levels that it’s just easier to not try. There’s a cyclical nature to isolation. The more removed we are, the harder it is to move toward relationships. Inertia sets in. I’m hearing that from many of you, and believe me, I get it.
Good thing we have facebook, twitter, and instagram for connection! What could possibly go wrong?
Do we even need other people anymore? I’m glad I asked. Let’s talk about it.
Living a reflective life is crucially important. Taking time in the wilderness alone with Jesus is necessary to do the heart work inside of us that needs to be done. But...
But it’s possible to start walking circles in the wilderness. It’s possible to get lost in our heads and in our isolation and in our never-wrong opinions. It’s possible to stew, to spiral, to become so stuck in our internal monologues that we start to think we don’t need other people that much. It’s possible to feel just enough connection through our screened-in lives that we call it adequate. Or maybe we know we need relationships, but beyond family, it just feels too difficult to get motivated to reach out. The problem is that in arriving at that spot, we may just lose the ability to be disciples. Here’s a statement that will be true every day of your life: you can’t become like Jesus if you don’t have people to really practice love with.
The writer of Hebrews tells the young church that they have a calling to motivate each other to love and good works. We need to be in real connection with brothers and sisters in Christ these days, because that’s how we stay motivated to keep acting compassionately and beautifully in the world. The writer also tells them that they need to keep being together so that there is opportunity for encouragement. Something happens with direct human interaction that nothing else can accomplish the same way. It’s infinitely valuable for encouragement. Yes, digital media can be used to encourage each other. And yes, it is complicated in the COVID-19 era to figure out how to have responsible meaningful human interaction. But let’s fight to keep our humanity, friends. It’s getting easier to withdraw emotionally, and miss out on mutual motivation and encouragement.
Today I was working alone in the large school room that our church gathers in. While writing this reflection, my dear friend José, who works down the hallway, dropped in on me to say hi. We spent a few minutes talking (masks and all) about the challenge of leadership and creativity, the calling of Jesus, and the complicated task of creating forward movement. He asked me great questions and reminded me that we are in this thing together. Ten minutes later I was both encouraged and motivated toward acts of love and good works. Hey folks, church actually works. (Also, what a guy!)
This Hebrews passage is not about “going to church” in a traditional way, as some people have narrowly interpreted it. Jesus created the church so that people could grow a movement together of loving God and loving others for God's kingdom. It’s our task to creatively participate in that in new ways right now. It’s our job to keep showing up for each other, however that looks.
So here’s the bold ask. If you’re feeling what I’ve been feeling, make the hard move. Give somebody a call and talk with them on the phone. Or invite someone for a walk and conversation if you feel comfortable. Go beyond complaining about our political system or critiquing how everyone’s dealing with COVID-19. Pray together. Motivate each other toward love and good works, and encourage each other as you do. The current reality is too heavy of a load to bear alone. We need to stop trying.
Jesus, help me make one move toward healthy relationships today.
Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive. //
Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.
-Genesis 11:30, 21:2
But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. //
After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said.
“What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”--
the things God has prepared for those who love him--
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
-1 Corinthians 2:9-10
The scriptural stories— both the Old Testament narrative of Israel and the New Testament narrative of Jesus— are founded on people unable to conceive. They are also founded on God giving them conception.* What seems impossible becomes the backdrop for God’s extraordinary hope.
The word “conceive” has multiple meanings. It speaks not simply of pregnancy, but of possibility. And so it is with God’s story.
The significance of these starting points— both Sarah (mother of Isaac) and Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptizer) being unable to to conceive— form the contrast to God’s ongoing message of hope. People can’t conceive, but God brings surprising life. People can’t imagine another way, but God reveals what’s possible for the future. People think that the world consists of only dualities, but Jesus brings a third way that fits no earthly category except love.
We’re in a barren time. People are unable to conceive much of anything, it seems. Sometimes we sit in despair, like Sarah. Sometimes we laugh at the thought of a better world, because it seems so unlikely (also like Sarah). And sometimes we are slow to believe that another world is possible, like Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah.
But eventually, consistently, the storyline is one of hope at what God can do. It’s one of surprise at incorrect assumptions about the future. It brings a clear message: you cannot conceive of what’s possible, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible.
I don’t know where you’re at. I find it hard to conceive a world where people are no longer divided about anything and everything. I find it hard to conceive a reality where all people are treated with dignity and equity. I find it hard to conceive a future where care for others is more important than political allegiance. I find myself unable to conceive a time when thoughtful dialogue, humble national leadership, and shared values are the norm.
And it gets more personal.
Some of us are unable to conceive how our children can grow up well in such a world. Some of us are unable to conceive a situation where we’re not heartbroken, depressed and lifeless. Some of us are unable to conceive how anything will ever be easy or simple once again. Some of us are unable to conceive how we get through this season financially, emotionally, or spiritually.
But then again, it’s hard to wrap our minds around a 90 year old woman giving birth for the first time.
It’s hard to conceive that God entered humanity in order to change the direction of human history.
It’s hard to conceive that a horrible bloody death could reveal the incredible, nonviolent, forgiving love of God.
It was hard for Peter to conceive that the good news of Jesus was truly available for everyone, not just his tribe.
It’s hard to conceive that God will make right one day all the things that are wrong.
It’s hard to conceive that in all of our imperfection, God never grows tired of hanging in there with us.
Paul riffs on this in Corinthians. He paraphrases Isaiah and says that people are unable to conceive of the goodness that God will bring, but the Holy Spirit keeps the spark of imagination alive in us, if we allow it.
Our inability to conceive does not make a hopeful future impossible. But the story of God reminds us not to lose hope, and it teaches us to keep our imagination alive for now and the future, because God’s kingdom inhabits both.
It’s really ok if you’re not able to conceive. Sometimes that’s just where we’re at in this life.
But if you’ve got it in you, pray for God to give you faith. Pray for God to keep the imagination vibrant within you. Pray for the strength to live God’s hopeful future in your daily life, rather than just talking about it wishfully. Love people the way you know God loves you. Listen to people the way you want to be listened to. Join with Jesus in helping a despairing world conceive something they can’t yet imagine. If you can’t conceive right now, I’m praying that God does something miraculous.
Let’s join in the storyline of our spiritual ancestors. They could not conceive, but they did, by God’s grace. This time, though, let’s learn from those stories and not lose hope. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus together, again, for we’ve been given the gift of life.
Jesus, I may not be able to conceive it, but I am trusting you today for hope.
*This Biblical metaphor is in no way meant to trivialize the deep pain of infertility.
Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
-Paul (Philippians 2:4)
I’ve been paying homeowner’s insurance for two houses during the last few months.
No, I do not have a secret getaway in the Hamptons. I have an insurance agent who made a mistake.
We moved across town in February. I had thought we completed all of our transition details, but recently I got a piece of mail from my insurance company, forwarded from our old address. That seemed odd, since the company that insures our new house should probably have our new address on record!
So during a quick phone call to change the address, my agent informed me that he had accidentally forgotten to cancel our old policy. It was an honest mistake, but they’d been charging us for several months. He immediately apologized and told me that they’d refund the money right away.
I have a good relationship with him, and I understood it wasn’t malicious or intentional.
But they still needed to return the money. It wasn’t the intent that was the issue. It was the impact.
I’ve been in many conversations lately about intention and impact. And I’m not convinced that Christians are always good at realizing how much both of those things matter.
I appreciate that my insurance agent’s intention was not to overcharge me. But that didn’t make it ok. The impact was real. The impact was that they took about $200 from our bank account that wasn’t theirs to take. And they needed to make that right.
Life is complicated right now. People are tired and frustrated. Tensions are everywhere we look. Sometimes, it can feel like every conversation is full of landmines. We’re going to make mistakes as we navigate them, even if we are trying our best.
But as we live out the values of God’s kingdom, we need to be aware that shrugging something off as an "honest mistake" has the potential to really minimize the hurt we caused.
One of the intention vs. impact discussions that I was a part of recently pertained to issues of race. In our discussion about honest mistakes, someone said, “while our intentions may be good, that does not change the negative impact we may unknowingly have.”
Our intentions might be good, but we might not have the knowledge, insight, or experience to realize how we hurt others from our words or actions.
If we’re humble enough, learning of our blind spots is an incredible opportunity for growth toward love, rather than growing more defensive. We should be glad when someone is honest enough with us to share their pain and help us grow. Community and understanding can flourish in that environment.
As a white person who is a Jesus follower, I can honestly say that I don’t intend to perpetuate prejudice by my words, my actions, or my assumptions. Yet I cannot deny that there are times when the way I present an idea or make an assumption about another person (regardless of intent) excludes, minimizes, or wounds someone. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I know it is. It’s universally true. When those moments come to light, I want to understand my impact, not just defend my intention. The temptation is to dwell only on my heart, which can actually minimize the fact that another is in pain. But that isn’t putting another’s needs before my own.
This is where Jesus leads me toward wholeness. Jesus teaches that it’s our job to make things right, to apologize, and to initiate restoration if at all possible. Jesus even tells his followers that they need to stop everything (even worship!) if someone has hurt someone else and hasn’t made it right yet. Paul pleads with the church in Rome to work extra hard to keep relationships healthy when he says, “do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” The foundational concept of biblical peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of wholeness. Working for peace means moving beyond, “well you know what I meant” and into, “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend that. I’m going to work to be more sensitive. How can I do better?”
This goes beyond any particular subject matter. It's applicable to how siblings treat each other. It’s bears on how we talk about the impossible task that schools and parents have right now. It’s relevant to our conversations about politics, about racism, and about the pandemic. It’s easy to lack sensitivity. It’s easy to not have all the facts. Let’s be people with a reputation for humble growth over self-defense.
There’s grace in this place. God does not condemn us for our mistakes or our ignorance. But there’s there’s also a responsibility to listen, learn, and make things right. Just like Dan, my insurance agent. Thanks for the refund. We’re good now.
Jesus, keep me gentle, humble, and teachable today.
*Thanks to my friend Jonathan for inspiring this.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Paul (Colossians 2:6-7)
During a message a few weeks ago I highlighted stories in the scriptures where people found themselves under something called a broom tree, a desert shrub that lives in the wastelands. We explored how God meets us through holy moments in our desperation.
But I didn’t talk much about the broom tree itself. And as you’ve seen from reading TFG, I find the natural world to be fantastically filled with spiritual metaphors. So did the scripture writers, by the way, so at least I’m in good company.
Broom trees grow in the Sinai Peninsula and throughout Arabia in ravines, rocky places, hillsides, and even open sand stretches of desert areas. Their roots sink deep to draw up moisture. They grow only 3 to 13 feet high, but because of their denseness they can provide valuable shade. A real broom tree is bushy and rather ugly, but in the desert it grows higher than everything else, so it gets the job done.
The image is simple. In extreme places, the plant that grows and thrives is the plant whose roots keep pushing deeper until it finds water. The deeper the roots grow down, the higher the plant grows up. One one level it’s a paradox; on another, it makes complete sense.
It seems that more and more people are finding themselves trying to grow in a desert wasteland. On of my copastors this week used the phrase “famine of hope” to describe the state of so many attitudes right now. I see that as well.
More than ever, Christians are experiencing the necessity of root tending right now. The mission of the church remains the same and community is still happening in beautiful ways. But for many, the easy church buffet of spiritual nutrition isn’t so readily accessible as before. Add to that the reality of so much brokenness in our world and you’ve got a real struggle for spiritual health. Enter the broom tree. It's drought resistant for one reason: the roots go deep.
If you feel like you aren’t able to grow meaningfully during this time, you may still be expecting to find water just under the surface. But until the roots push down faaaaaar beneath the surface, our leaves and branches won’t be able to provide much shade.
Discouragement. Cynicism. Anger. Judgment. Despair.
These are all things that Jesus addresses head-on in the gospels. These are all things that Jesus addresses head-on in our souls. But we’ve got to be willing to give Jesus real time and real energy if we want to move beyond these heavy realities. We’ve got to send our roots down deeper and deeper til we find living water.
It’s hard when we’re exhausted. But it’s how we find life.
We keep seeking Jesus and his kingdom. Simple. Hard.
It would be nice if discipleship was more complicated than this, so that we could just say we don’t understand. But most of the time we know what is needed, and it just takes too much effort. If we only knew the grace available to us along the journey!
So we genuinely, honestly, painfully, joyfully keep reaching for the source of life. We make the hard choice to be quiet and delve deeper into the desert sand of our spirits until we actually connect with God’s spirit. This is not just fancy metaphor. Friends, we need to learn to sit with Jesus until our perspective shifts. One of the marks of this, according to Paul, was that we are able to overflow with thankfulness.
I’ve experienced this. Not all the time, but I can attest to it. Gratitude doesn’t minimize our pain or make light of how complicated things are. Rooting down with Jesus until we find life and sense gratitude is how we gain strength to be a shade giver to a tired world. And it’s how we ourselves survive in the desert.
Be encouraged today that it’s possible to thrive in the desert. But it’ll take going deeper until the love of God fills us with enough strength to be able to start looking out up and out again.
Jesus, help my attitude today to be rooted in who you are.
"If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
-The fearless three, Daniel 3:17-18
(and today’s secondary passage)
Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
-The Man in Black (The Princess Bride)
Shadrach Meshach, and Abednego lived a story that legends are made out of. Punished during the Babylonian empire for refusing to bow down in worship the king, they are thrown into a furnace to be burned alive as a warning to others. But they love God, and during their “any last words?” moment they decide to tell the king that they think they might be rescued miraculously.
But if they aren’t…. if they are burnt to a crisp, they just want to say that God is still more worthy of worship than he is. [This is when Abednego dropped the microphone, but they didn’t write that part down.]
Their final statement has moved me for two decades because it shows something about the radical faith of these Israelites from 2600 years ago… they believed that being saved from their pain was not the end-all sign of God’s faithfulness (mind-blowing at the time).
We in the United States are fairly pain averse. We use the phrase “comfortable lifestyle” to talk about our goals. Discomfort is something to be avoided at all costs. And our faith often reflects this.
I was recently in a conversation with one of my old seminary professors. We were reflecting on the unique struggle that our country is facing right now during this pandemic. There is so much uncertainty, exhaustion, hurt, and stress on people right now. We all want it to stop. We all want to move on. And understandably, our prayers are consistent to that end.
My professor used to live in Nicaragua, so as we talked he shared this interesting insight:
“You know, Nicaraguan brothers don’t pray for God to save us from pain. They pray for the grace to stand.”
What a difference in perspective. One seeks to avoid pain. The other assumes it as a part of life and asks for grace to endure.
Today, our life goals are all-too-often a spiritually cloaked version of the American dream. “Oh God, help me be healthy, wealthy, and wise….and maybe do good things for others as I get there.”
In light of that, "having faith" is often believing that everything will be fine. But one true tragedy, one major loss, one horrible crisis in your life, and a faith like that comes crumbling down in a rubble pile of disappointment with God. Because the gloves are off, and things are totally not fine.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting God to spare us from the hard parts. It’s natural and understandable.
But if God doesn’t….
Here’s a question. Were these three men showing a lack of faith in their furnace response? Many would say that the answer is yes. Even though God did come and rescue them, they shouldn’t have doubted it at all!!
I think they were showing just how robust a true relationship with God is. It doesn’t rely on the miraculous, because it knows that the deepest promise is really about God walking with us through it.
You know what’s interesting? This story has a New Testament parallel, but with a very different ending. Jesus, in the final hours of his life, prays to the Father in the same attitude as Daniel’s friends. He prays in faith that perhaps God will bring a unique rescue…. followed by an attitude that says, “but if not, Father, I want to surrender my will to line it up with yours.” That sounds a lot like, “but even if he does not [deliver us], we will not serve your gods, king!
We want God to save us from pain, yet we forget that the one we call Lord endured incredible hardship, and called us to carry crosses as we follow in his dusty footsteps. Jesus didn’t simply endure hardship so that we wouldn’t have to deal with pain. He endured in order to show us what faithful living looked like under pressure, and to free us from the ultimate painful ending: separation. But he showed no desire for revenge, no hatred spewing out of him, no complaining about how unfair his pain was. Just love and forgiveness.
I think maybe we miss the point of the story in Daniel when we only notice the rescue at the end. Maybe the point is about a faith that is willing to walk through fire because God’s unyielding love is just so absolute.
Pain is inevitable. Sometimes God rescues us from some types of pain, but other times the pain continues. Each day is a chance to choose if we will trust the promises of God’s grace to stand faithfully through it.
Jesus, help me stand in grace today, no matter what happens.