“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.
-Jesus, being a bit harsh (Matthew 15:16-18)
As a pastor, there are moments when I read something in the Bible, and immediately I find myself eager to share it with someone else. I guess it's just my deeply righteous desire to proclaim the gospel with others. This one verse, in particular, has made its way to my mind quite a few times. And it's right in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew from the mouth of Jesus, so you know it's legit.
"Good morning, church! Welcome to our Sunday gathering. Our reading this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 15.
"Are you still so dull?!?"
The word of the Lord (thanks be to God). Amen.
Go in peace.
Forgive me father, for I have sinned.
But some passages are just easier to project on others than ourselves, aren't they?? I mean, that's religion 101 right there. Remind yourself of your spiritual superiority by holding others in your righteous judgment. We are profoundly good at that.
I find this little statement of Jesus to both wonderful and challenging. He's trying to teach his disciples, warning them of the danger of toxic religion that the Pharisees have embraced. They are so focused on correct action, that the heart character underneath it all has lost any value, corrupting them. They are debating which foods are allowed to be consumed on which days. And Jesus tells them that what flows out of their hearts matters a whole lot more than what goes into their stomachs. What we overlook today is how big of a paradigm shift this really is to the disciples, because they were steeped in a religion that relies on rule-following far more than heart posture (cough, cough).
And when the disciples are confused, Jesus gets annoyed with them. It's such a human moment. C'mon guys. Catch up. We're doing something new here. The heart is what matters.
It's wonderful because Jesus is trying to help them understand his new ethic that love is king over all. And it's challenging because even though I know that, I still struggle to trust and live it. I'm still pretty dull.
Eugene Peterson, never one to pull punches in his Bible paraphrase, The Message, translates Jesus this way:
Are you being willfully stupid?
And I think sometimes we are. Sometimes it's easier to act like we don't fully understand, rather than to trust that Jesus truly shut down all of our religious systems and replaced them with the simple command to walk with him and walk in the way of love. That requires massive internal work in the realm of the heart. So we often pick and pull enough one-liners from the Bible to re-form a new religion with all of the same debates as before (just new topics), rather than simply trusting Jesus and humbly doing our best to love God and all people well.
Are we willing to trust the teachings of Jesus when he says that the greatest commands are both about loving well, and nothing more?
That's a statement about what is within our hearts, and how our hearts motivate our actions. But make no mistake- it's truly about the heart. Because real love is willing the good of another. And that begins internally.
Every time that I label someone based on what I see on the outside rather than asking curious questions, I'm being willfully stupid.
Every time that I rationalize my own selfish or harmful behavior and ignore what needs corrected in my own heart, I'm being willfully stupid.
Every time I rely on religious activities to feel good about my status with God, but ignore the lack of love that is flowing out of my life, I am missing the clear point of Jesus.
It's about the heart, friends. If we do the daily work of heart renovation with Jesus, we won't be distracted by constantly obsessing about the rest. What comes out of our lives will flow naturally from that.
Sometimes we need that rebuke from Jesus- Do you still not get it? Don't try so hard to miss the point!
And if you're like me, and you can be more eager to read that passage to others than hear it for yourself, then maybe it's time to sit just a little longer with Jesus. 🙂
Lord, my heart is a complicated place. Come and shape it further today, so that everything that flows out reflects your kingdom.
But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
-2 Corinthians 3:16-18
It's no secret that I find spiritual value in paying attention to the shifting seasons. When we become disconnected from God's creation, we miss opportunities for growth with Jesus that the natural world illuminates. So although summer can be hard to leave, I'm eager to experience the coming fall. With it will be a crispness the air, a bit more consistency in all of our schedules, and a changing of the greenery around us into many stages of vibrant earth tones.
I was walking downtown recently to a coffee shop meeting (walking to meetings is THE best), when a tree planted just off of main street caught my eye. It was an American sycamore, and it's easily recognizable for one reason: it's constantly shedding layers with each new season. You could see a pile of thin peelings of various colors right at the base of the tree. I grabbed a small chip and put it in my wallet. One could notice the sycamore and suggest that it is in a constant state of "the old being gone, because the new has come." Kind of sounds like something I read somewhere...
The Apostle Paul wrote that when people come toward Jesus, God peels back layers that stand in the way of freedom and true connection with the transformative, living Spirit of God.
So that means that we are probably intended to be layer-shedding people all our lives. And good grief do we ever have layers. Layers upon layers upon layers. The old onion has got nothing on the human heart.
We have layers of self-protection that inhibit us from being authentic with others.
We have layers of pride and layers of prejudice that keep us from compassionately welcoming others in.
We have layers of religious assumptions and obligations that steal the joy and freedom Jesus is constantly trying to offer us.
We have layers of destructive attitudes and actions that we aren't managing very well on our own.
We have layers of American values that push us to view money, comfort, and visible success as the foundations of the good life.
We have layers covering our raw sorrow that has been unable to be expressed.
We have layers. And Jesus is in the business of helping us shed them.
For growth and movement to happen, we need God to lead us into new seasons. We need a divine act of layer peeling. And that will only occur in fullness when our eyes and hearts are directed toward Jesus at our center (are we sounding like a broken record yet, friends?)
I love that when we contemplate Jesus, more and more gets peeled away and we experience more of what our true and free selves are. At the same time, that process also makes us look more and more like Jesus himself. Isn't that beautiful? The peeling back that leads to our truest identity also leads to Jesus. That's what it means to be an image-bearer of the divine.
Perhaps the coming changing of the season is an opportunity for you to acknowledge the peelings that are already lying around at your feet. Where has God been helping you shed layers? Or perhaps the upcoming fall is an opportunity for you discern what God wants to peel away next, helping you see Jesus in all his glory and love, to transform you through that grace.
I'm hoping to remember all this as we approach the cooler weather. Like always, I'll be reminding my kids and my cross country team to remember layers so that they can shed them when they are ready to run freely. Lord, do that for us too.
Jesus, we trust you to remove anything that gets in the way of experiencing you fully, so that we might live transformed.
So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.
Last week I ran a trail marathon race. I do that sort of thing fairly often as one of my quirky hobbies. My goal was to have a good time, to keep a steady relaxed pace throughout, and not let my competitive spirit take over.
I admit that when 70 of us left the starting line and headed into the woods, I kept to my goal, chatting with a bunch of other runners for the first few miles and taking it easy. But then I started to notice a few people who had taken to a faster pace than me, and I realized I wasn’t even sure how many were up ahead. And then the kicker— a runner OLDER than me passed me (we all have our breaking points) and the temptation took over to keep pace with those ahead. But the problem, as I learned later- was that they weren't even running my specific race!
You see, multiple races were happening at the same time that morning. Though we all began at the starting line, some people would soon peel off for a 5 mile loop. Others would continue and do a 10 mile race. Still others were running a half marathon, and finally, some of us would continue on to do the 26 miles.
And we were all running along the same course for quite a while. Almost without thinking, I was trying to match stride with others running a completely different race than mine, which would require a completely different pace.
I do indeed love a good running analogy, and the Apostle Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews, it's a big debate) gives a great one. He challenges his readers to throw off the sins that get in their way of freedom with God, as well as the religious trappings that they are learning to leave behind in the new realm of grace. And it's all so they can run freely.
It's a race that God has "marked out for us." Yet even though we are surrounded by a witness of those who have run before, and even though we are surrounded by the presence of those who are running alongside us, we can only correctly know our course through one single way. And that way is looking steadily at Jesus.
There is clearly a shared experience with other disciples as we run along seeking to faithfully live in God's kingdom. However, just as the calling of each of the disciples was unique (take the exchange between Jesus and Peter about John as an example), there is an individuality about our journey too. The reality is that, even when the start and finish line are similar, the journey each of us takes with Jesus is going to be unique. And if our only approach is just to look comparatively at others rather than fixing our eyes on him, we will not be running the race marked out for us. We'll be caught up in someone else's race.
That doesn't mean that our brothers and sisters don't matter. It's quite the opposite. There is great beauty in the shared experience of faith (like I wrote about last week), but faith community is always the healthiest when together, we are each personally seeking Jesus.
When disciples are at our best, we encourage each other as we seek to follow Jesus, despite knowing that there will be different twists and turns that each of our lives take as we faithfully love God and our neighbors. So we make space for each person to run the race and the pace God has marked out for them, alongside our own.
Where have your eyes not been fully fixed on the loving leadership of Jesus?
Where have you been running a race or a pace that is not yours to run?
Identifying these areas can help us walk in personal faithfulness to Jesus, and in grace-filled love toward each other.
The beautiful thing about my race experience last week was that afterwards, we all enjoyed watermelon and gatorade and snacks together. With laughter (and regret) we shared the good and the bad from our miles out on the trail, and the distances we each ran was almost irrelevant. We had shared a journey, and we had crossed the finish line, and we had done it together, each in our own way. It was worth celebrating.
Jesus, help me fix my eyes on you today and run the race you've marked out for me.
Pointing to his disciples, he [Jesus] said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
This past Sunday, we did one of our biannual "SundayServe" events, where we spent the morning split up into service teams around the school where we meet. We had eight different projects going on like dusting, painting, weeding, making food treats, praying for the staff and students, packing backpacks of school supplies to give to the kindergarteners, and more.
It was pretty much chaos. But chaos of the best kind. People were all over the place, everyone moving and using their hands and hearts to do good. Our kids were going from one project to another, sometimes joining right in, sometimes playing in the gym to let their energy out.
As I was walking across the lobby between teams, one of our littlest LifePathers emerged from the gym. His mom saw him running across the room. "Hunter, where are your shoes?!?" she asked. But this barefoot 4 year old was too busy being a kid to worry with something as trivial as the whereabouts of shoes.
"We're playing FAMILY!" he exclaimed with a big smile. And off he went.
And there it is. I have no clue what happened next. I was on my way to take out a bin of recycling.
But his declaration stuck with me. A little kid at a church gathering, exclaiming boldly that he is playing family with his other young friends.
Yes you are, Hunter. Yes we are.
God's Church is expressed through beautiful images and metaphors throughout the scriptures. The Church is a body, it's a dwelling, and it's a bride. But over and over again, we also see that it's a family. Jesus helps his disciples move from servants to partners to brothers and sisters. Paul uses familial language throughout his writing to emerging churches, mentioning directly in his letter to the Ephesians that all Gentiles (non-Jews) are now members of God's household in Christ (2:19). It appears that the church is supposed to be a fresh take on that old Olive Garden slogan....
When you're here, you're family.
(But also when you're not here).
So every time the church gathers, and in all the moments that it is scattered, we have this opportunity to "play family." We have an opportunity to take people who come from various stories and backgrounds and life experiences, growing up in all sorts of different households-- and treat them as if they are our siblings...our parents...even our children. We're playing family. And Jesus is our older brother, working in unity with our Father to set the family culture.
The problem is that we sometimes live into Hunter's words just a little too well. We simply play family, pretending that we are brothers and sisters, when Jesus actually wants us to stop pretending. He wants us to embrace the crazy and wonderful and difficult world of family-making, teaching us to really love each other in all of our unique and maddening complexities. God's Church isn't a bunch of people pretending that we love each other.
It's a family. Who does.
It's a holy, bold witness to the world that another way is possible in Christ, and that selfless love for others is what defines us as God's family (and, in turn, what defines God's kingdom that Jesus ushered in). It's a family that is excited to adopt new family members all the time, and tell new friends that there's a seat waiting for them at the Thanksgiving table. It's a bunch of people creating a completely new community for the world to take notice of, with wonder and curiosity.
And yeah, sometimes family gets chaotic. And sometimes kids are running all over the place. And sometimes we even forget where our shoes are because we were so caught up in the moment. But no worries. We have a bunch of sisters and brothers around to help us find them.
Jesus, we both know this is much harder to live out than to read about. Give us family love as we constantly look to you as our center.
We love because he first loved us.
-1 John 4:19
Friends, I talk and write a lot in my life. I fear I relate too well to the "pagan babbler" Jesus talks about in Matthew 6. They think they will be heard because of their many words. Jesus, please don't single me out like that.
Sometimes it's best to keep things simple. Let's do that today.
Each of our lives are more complicated than than anyone else knows. Our emotions, our energy levels, our work, and our family dynamics make for a lot going on inside us. Even our desire to follow Jesus matched up against the churning power of our own egos can create a whirlwind within. At LifePath we like to joke that we specialize in complicated because that's the reality of life. But sometimes complicated realities can only be brought to peace with simple truths. So today's simple truth is this:
We love because he first loved us.
God's love for you is the starting point of all things.
You did not exist at a time when God did not love you.
You do not earn God's love for you.
You cannot lose God's love for you.
Your mistakes and your shortcomings do not negate God's love for you.
You are allowed to rest in God's love for you.
Even the love you seek to extend emerges from God's love of you.
I so appreciate the words of Richard Rohr in his book, Falling Upward:
“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”
God's love revealed in Jesus is both the most constant thing in the universe, and the most mobilizing force in our lives.
Every time we hit complicated moments, every time we are exhausted or overwhelmed, we remember that our central truth is that God loved us preemptively. God loved us first. And from that love, there is peace.
And from that love, there is joy.
And from that love, there is transformation.
And from that love, there is strength for us to share it with a hurting world.
Jesus, thank you for loving me preemptively.
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Recently during a few summer evenings, I've been watching the Jason Bourne films with my teenage boys while the women are out pursuing their acting exploits. There are five action-filled Bourne films, most starring Matt Damon, spanning 14 years. Funny how my kids think a movie made in 2002 is ancient. (Not actually funny.)
Each movie follows the same basic plot line, with big chase scenes, fights, and explosions. That isn't typically my cup of tea, but the story itself is a compelling one. A trained and brainwashed CIA assassin loses all memory of who he is/was and what he has done in his past. And so he begins a journey to put all the pieces together and discover his identity, all while others are trying to hunt him down, because if he finds the truth, he will have the power to bring the program's dark deeds to light. But he simply wants to know the whole truth. He wants to know who he was even before he was indoctrinated. He wants to find out his "born" identity, not simply the one he has "borne" for the last decade under the CIA's control. The name choice itself is great, since Bourne isn't even his true name... just the one he was given by his handlers.
It's a constant internal battle. He snaps into the near superhuman killer he was trained to be every time he gets chased... but he also has moments of choosing kindness, showing compassion, and refusing to take revenge. He wants to seek the truth, start over again, and to apologize to the many people he has wronged. But it's complicated, because of these multiple identities constantly at war within him (that's a New Testament reference... find it yourself). There's this whole person inside of him that he is trying to get free from, to become something new.
It's the unlearning that Bourne does in the movies that I found interesting. It's the moments that he stops and chooses a different way than what he was trained to do.
I frequently use the language of being "formed in Christ." Yet the truth is that like Bourne, most of us are not starting from a blank slate. Our moment-by-moment lives have already been formed by American culture much more than we probably care to know. Many Christian attitudes about society and value are formed more from western capitalism than the words of Jesus. Christians don't tend to use technology or social media any differently than their neighbors. We aren often supportive of violence as long as it is done against whoever we deem is the "bad guy." On too many days, Christians don't exhibit any more kindness, peace, forgiveness, grace, or compassion than their neighbors. In other words, we blend in a little too well.
Most days just by stepping out of our door, turning on the phone, or watching the news-- we are being shaped.
So an identity has been formed in us, all right. But often not the one Jesus would move us toward.
Perhaps we need to understand that a big part of discipleship with Jesus is learning to become de-formed from the cultural values that we swim around in every time we leave our house or look at our phones. Of course, it also means becoming de-formed from our own selfishness too (we don't get to blame society for the moments that we don't act with the heart of Jesus!).
I'm finding this journey with Christ to be a lifelong process of de-forming and re-forming identity. Sometimes it feels like discovering our old, foundational self... and sometimes it feels like something brand new is forming in us. Actually, that was true of Jason Bourne's experience, too. But he's not a great guide. Jesus is. And as we keep waking up to his Spirit, it's going to be a lifelong journey of being born again, again and again, into the love that will shape every little part of who we are.
Today, I encourage you to read a little from the life of Jesus. Invite him to bring to light some part of you that has been shaped more by outside forces than by Christ. Then, trust him with it and walk in grace, with hope of a renewed identity.
Jesus, help me let go today of the false attitudes and identities that do not reflect your kingdom, so I can live into who you made me to be.
*PSA- If you decide to watch these films, don't expect any truly profound themes to emerge. I had to make some serious jumps...
"The assembly was in confusion: some were shouting one thing, some another. Most people did not even know why they were there."
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
I was reading little story from Acts 19 today about the months when the Jesus movement in Ephesus was getting going. What an incredible story, by the way! You should read it.
So after Priscilla and Aquilla do some church planting in this area, their mentor Paul visits for several months and teaches whoever will listen. There are all these miraculous moments as well, and he causes quite a stir. In the midst of it, a local silversmith named Demetrius gets really angry because Paul has made comments that the idols that are being worshipped are simply metal, stone and wood. Paul is absolutely killing this guy's business with the message of a living God. And, as often happens in a moment where someone's money and power is threatened, his angry movement gathers momentum and a riot ensues. All of Paul's coworkers are dragged into the big amphitheater before a city clerk eventually intervenes, likely stopping some murders from occurring.
But it's a little statement in the middle that is striking me today. In the middle of the angry mayhem, Luke writes that most people didn't even know why they were there. They were just caught up in it.
Now, we can look at an account like this and arrogantly focus on those pagans and their evil ways. Yeah, that's really helpful for our formation in Christ.
OR, we can look at an account like this and say....
Wow, we humans can really get swept up in things without a lot of information, can't we?
One of the great challenges of contemporary life is that we are often drawn into the expectation to have a passionate opinion about everything. It's incredibly difficult today to live as people who are "quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry" (James 1:19). I'm afraid that frequently, we don't sit with things long enough to gain understanding of what's going on around us. Yes, there are things out there worth getting angry over, that break God's heart. Plenty of them. But there is a breakdown when anger is not linked to a spirit of truth, with understanding as a central component.
We can be quick to make sweeping statements about the Middle East, racism, immigration, abortion, and more. But many times, we do it without a prayerful spirit and without taking the time to read and listen to stories of those affected the most by these issues. There is little nuance and little compassion for how complicated this stuff is. And ironically, the way we often voice our absolute views in the name of caring for people can sometimes communicate a lack of care for other people who are also affected.
I'm not using this to seek to push a specific viewpoint, though a commitment to loving all neighbors, being anti-racist, and valuing life in every way ought to be assumed as Jesus people.
I'm writing toward the pervasive cultural climate that currently thrives on disdain and anger and de-emphasizes listening and understanding. We see and take in so much, yet we learn so very little from it.
Our calling is to trust and believe in the true Jesus, and when that's the focus, even differences, take on a different texture. Truth-seeking will remain central, and love through attitudes and actions will emerge.
I can't help but contrast Jesus heading into the desert alone to wrestle and reflect... with this angry Ephesus crowd that quickly materializes because something gives voice to their aggression, even though they don't know much about the situation.
I'd rather be like Jesus in that scenario. When I see or hear something that brings a response in me, I want to do my work and be as thoughtful as possible, so that I might be a person of truth. And when I open my mouth, I want what I say to have value.
If we are angry, may our anger be deeply rooted in truth and compassion, not leading us to sin.
If we are passionate, may our passion never blind us to the many nuances beyond the headlines where another's humanity is found.
And if we are in a crowd, may we never get caught up in the confusion, losing sight of the suffering servant that leads us.
Our thoughtfulness could end up being our one of our greatest witness opportunities. Our desire to combine justice and understanding, not simply hold passionate stances with bumper sticker ethics, may be the thing that helps people experience the way of Jesus. But we'll need Jesus to help us put off the old self that looks just like the world around us, and put on the new self that looks like his character.
Jesus, lead me toward truth-seeking, understanding and compassion, in all things.
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
-2 Peter 3:18
I've long been impacted by the famous musical Les Miserables, set in French society during the June Rebellion, a few decades after the French Revolution. The fictional story follows both the larger community and the transformed life of a singular character named Jean Valjean, a hardened man who serves 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape.
I was listening to the music a few weeks ago, and the song and role of "the Bishop" moved me once again. A holy man named Bishop Myriel takes in Jean Valjean when he's living on the street and unable to find work. In the middle of the night, Valjean wakes up, steals the Bishop's valuable silver candlesticks, and sneaks out. When he is caught nearby by the police and brought back to the Bishop, the Bishop explains that the candlesticks were a gift, and that Valjean has committed no crime. Perplexed, the police release Valjean. But Valjean himself is even more perplexed by this radical act of grace. He wonders...
Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother...
The subversive act of care and love from the Bishop changes the trajectory of Valjean's life from that point on. Forgiveness leads him to a life of goodness, love and care in the name of God. It's powerful.
And all of us Jesus followers raise our hands and say, "Yeah! I want to be like that Bishop! What an amazing moment. His single action changed that guys life!"
I hear you. The idea that an act of love could have an impact like that is amazing. I want to do that kind of stuff too.
But we should know something about that story. In the musical, that one brief song is the only time we encounter the Bishop. But the musical was written as an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1400 page novel of the same name.
And in Les Miserables, the novel, we don't even meet Jean Valjean until page 50. And that's because the first 50 pages are written about Bishop Myriel.
Hugo spends page after page in the novel to giving the background information of this man's life of learning to care for the poor and broken-hearted. The reader comes to understand that his dramatic act did not simply emerge out of nowhere, but from a lifelong practice of compassion. The bishop simply did what “had become second nature” to him. Mark Baker speaks of discipleship as “a long succession of choices that become habit forming.”
I will never forget that when I was a young youth pastor in Lancaster County in 2006, a man with a gun entered an Amish schoolhouse and killed 6 girls before turning the gun on himself. It shook the entire region, well beyond simply the Amish Community. Yet within hours, grieving Amish elders had gathered at the gunman's home to meet with his wife and child, speaking forgiveness and telling them that they didn't want them to move away. Some accused the Amish of offering forgiveness too quickly. Nobody could be truly sincere with such a response. When asked about it, an Amishman spoke for the community when he said, "we've been training for a moment like this for our entire lives."
A follower of Jesus is a heart that is re-formed over and over again through the love of God. It's not about our big moments as much as the thousands of little moments where we learn the Jesus way over and over again, trusting him. And as we do, we will eventually find that our own hearts start to look like the Bishop's, even as we long to offer love to others.
It will be a heart that sees first a hurting human rather than a hardened criminal.
A heart that longs for goodness even when it means personal sacrifice.
A heart that sees life in all its complexities and still chooses God's grace and kindness.
A heart that remains uncorrupted by hatred and disdain, though the forces around us rage.
So today may we again let Jesus shape us. It adds another page to the backstory of a life formed by compassion. Let's keep practicing, friends, for we never know when the moment will come when God's love through us will change another's destiny.
Jesus, shape me moment-by-moment, until the way of your kingdom becomes second nature.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day...
-2 Corinthians 4:16
I have a ton of respect for people whose professions put them on roofs for many hours every day. It gets really- I mean REALLY- hot up there.
Our house was built in the late 50s, and although we love it, there are times when its age is noticeable. During big storms over the past year, I noticed that water seemed to be flowing directly off our house in all directions. Upon further inspection, small little saplings had begun to grow through the gutter guards that supposedly kept debris out of our gutters. Apparently after a few decades those things need attention?!
So on Saturday morning, I climbed up on the roof and spent 4 hours (mostly sweating, but also) clearing out the gutters.
Step 1: Unscrew the completely rusted screws from the gutter guards.
Step 2: Yank out each gutter guard.
Step 3: Squat on the edge of the house and scoop out the decades-old sludge inside the gutters.
Step 4: Spray out gutter with a hose that attempted to drag me back off the roof.
Step 5: Reinstall rusty screws and gutter guards.
After lots of hours, possibly a gallon of sweat, and about 75 pounds of sludge removal, I climbed down to the sidewalk and admired all the work I'd done.
And as I stared at the house, beaming...
nothing looked any different.
The house looked the same as it always did, despite how much I had done! It was a little annoying, honestly. I couldn't help but wish that I had just powerwashed the house instead. Sure, it wouldn't have impacted the internal stuff that needed work. But it it would have made everything look nicer from the street, it would have been less painful, and it would have been so much cooler (I could have powerwashed my face when I got hot!).
That's the thing about working with the internal stuff. Sometimes you're the only person that knows the work that's been done.
From the outside, folks rarely see the hard work and the effort that personal growth takes. Sure, if they looked really close they may notice that there are less leaves sticking out from the corners of a gutter. And if they had a front row seat during a storm, they'd see that water is flowing correctly for the first time in a long time, and maybe they'd understand how much that will help keep the house foundation healthy. But by and large, this sort of stuff is not flashy.
Are we ok with that? Are we ok with the fact that much of our hard work will just be between us and Jesus? Are we at peace with the fact that God understands how we've struggled, how we've changed, and how we've been changed, even if the growth is mostly outside of public sight?
It's easy to get discouraged today. We look at our world and feel like efforts to do good make little progress. We look at ourselves and growth seems barely noticeable sometimes, despite the work we've put in.
But it's there. As we move toward Jesus, the slow path of discipleship will lead us into a changed life. It may look small, and sometimes it may hardly be noticeable to the untrained eye.
Yet if we let Jesus do his work in us, moment by moment, what's within us will get cleaner and more healthy. And we will function more as the humans God made us to be. And then, though it may go nearly unnoticed in a sea of billions across the world... our little lives will make the world just a little more like God's kingdom.
It won't be flashy or noticeable. But it will be good.
You'll starting seeing others as people and not caricatures. You'll feel deeper compassion, and you'll start to release the need to set everyone straight. You'll walk a few hours more aware of the identity God has given you than the ones you have to earn. You'll care more about the actual lives touched by the debates around you than the debates themselves.
You'll be less afraid.
You'll be kind to strangers.
You'll be kind to yourself.
Who knows what messy, beautiful, internal work God is doing in you. But if people don't see it, remember today that it's ok. And it's still worth it. And you (and the world) will be better for it. So don't neglect what needs to be done. You're not alone.
Jesus, help me trust that you are doing important things in me, even when it doesn't look like much..
Then another said, “I’m ready to follow you, Master, but first excuse me while I get things straightened out at home.”
Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day.”"
Luke 9:61-62, The Message Paraphrase
Today's image comes to you from my dear friend James, an Indian brother in Christ who spends his life caring for widows and orphans, addressing the physical and spiritual needs of some of the poorest people on earth. I see the heart of Jesus in him.
We were having "virtual chai" the other day (not nearly as good as actual chai) over video chat when he shared a brief story.
He has had extended family living with him for a while, but recently they left, and he had a chance to tidy his house once again. He got everything clean, and all was perfectly peaceful and organized. It was really nice to have a clean house and clean dishes, with perfect control and everything in order. He said he had one of those feelings that you get- wishing that you could have that clean of a house everyday and live in that neatly organized reality. And he was drawn to spend extra time and energy maintaining it.
Earlier he had been reading in Luke 9, where all of these people come up with different excuses of other priorities they have before they can start trusting and following Jesus completely. They state seemingly valid reasons like family cultural customs and daily life obligations. There is this theme of needing to have everything neatly in order before they can get moving with Jesus.
In that moment, James felt Jesus speaking him by saying, "stop wishing for the perfect clean house. That's nice, but that's not life. You need to eat and and make dishes. Life is messy and you'll never have everything in order enough to be ready to follow me and do my work."
What an image for us all. Jesus calls us to come and follow even while dishes remain dirty, clothes remain on the floor, and our lives remain complicated. We can have dozens of excuses for not trusting Jesus and not taking new steps of faith and surrender and love. But Jesus sees those things as they are--excuses-- and calls us to come anyway. In the middle of our heartache, he still wants to give us gifts of joy. In the middle of our deconstruction, he wants to walk with us as we wrestle with hard questions, not remain separate from us. In our struggles, addictions, depression, materialism, unrealistic expectations, guilt-ridden psyches, unmotivated attitudes, easily distracted minds, or constant anxiety.... Jesus calls us to come and follow him first, even before loose ends are tied up. We don't need to make sure that all the dishes in our lives are washed before we can let Jesus into the house.
There's no "But first!" with Jesus. And he brings a strong challenge when we take on that attitude. I don't think it's because he gets angry with us about it. I think it's because Jesus knows that grace can't do its work in us until we throw ourselves into the arms of Jesus and his kingdom, come what may. We can't do the work of the kingdom if deep down we are still subtly playing by the rules and expectations of the world around us. It's a challenging calling, but it's gloriously freeing as well. It makes me uncomfortable and at ease at the exact same time. Such is the paradox of the upside-down kingdom in which we have our citizenship.
Jesus, where is there a "but first" in my spirit today? Help me name it, so I can hear your voice and follow you, right in this moment. Amen.