There’s a fun little mystery in the Bible. Way back in Genesis, ten brothers are starving and decide to travel down to Egypt because there’s grain for sale there. Little do they know that the man from whom they’ll be buying grain is their little brother, hated as the favored one and sold by them into slavery, over two decades earlier. They show up and he’s changed of course, and speaks a different language now, so they don’t recognize him. They buy grain, but before heading home, the little brother sneaks all the money back into their sacks so that on the way home they discover that they had the grain, but didn’t pay for it. To say there were dismayed would be an understatement, because from the very beginning of time, we’ve all known that “you get what you pay for” and that “there’s no free lunch”. There are a million other ways we get the message too: from demanding parents who shame us when we fail, to performance reviews that populate our employment files with warnings. The best things in life are earned.
This little story of free bread, though, tells us that there’s a different set of rules in God’s economy. God is showing us that the things we need most fundamentally in our lives are not bought, ever. They can only be received as gifts. That’s why later a form of bread will show up on the desert floor when a nation is wandering through it on their way to their new home. Centuries after that, Isaiah will speak of bread that is only available “without cost”, and then Jesus will declare that he is giving us his flesh as “the bread, for the life of the world”.
Give, give, give, means that there can be only one response. Receive, receive, receive. We can’t earn the gift that is Christ. We’ll never be able to repay or reciprocate. We can only receive, like little children. My granddaughter, who just turned one, will be with us this Christmas and I promise you that she’ll have no problem receiving gifts without any guilt. There’ll be no, “Rats! Grandpa gave me some overalls and I’ve nothing for him.” There’ll be a pattern to her Christmas day: receive, enjoy, repeat.
For God’s sake, all of us could stand to become children again vis a vis our relationship with God and Christ: receive; enjoy; repeat.
That requires a radical reorientation from the performance world that is often the rest of our lives, and the way to get there is to recognize that, though we’ve likely earned a bit in our lives through the sweat of our brow, the best gifts that we’ve received are the free ones. We’ve been forgiven, I hope, by a parent, spouse, or friend. We had a flat tire, and someone stopped to help. We were lonely, and a friend dropped by, unannounced. These little reminders put me in the frame of mind to see that the things I need most – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, the capacity to forgive and serve… all these things can’t be bought, can’t even be created through some sort of psychological ‘cross fit’ self improvement program. These things stem from eating the bread of life, and can only be received freely, as the gift it is.
During the days between now and Christmas, I want to share some reflections with you about the many gifts that are part of the One Gift that is Christ. I’m reflecting on these gifts because, more than ever, I see the deep divisions and violence in our world. We who claim to follow Christ are at grave risk of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution if we aren’t careful to maintain what Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”. When he writes about maintaining that, he articulates that it’s eminently easy to be “led astray”. It’s passive language because the reality is that there are strong currents that will simply carry us along unless we’re diligent to recognize the danger of the direction and swim against it.
I’m increasingly convinced that the recognition of dangerous cultural rip-tides isn’t achieved by being a cultural expert. Rather, what’s needed at a foundational level is a commitment to intimacy with Christ, for he alone is the fullness of wisdom. So what better way to prepare for the discernment that all of us will need in the coming year than by considering together the riches of the gift that is Christ. Unwrapping the glories of Christ is a bit like unwrapping a present that has another present inside, and then yet another, on and on, as we discover different facets of the gift that is Christ. Each day I’ll hope to offer a short post about a facet of the gift that is Christ and why each gift matters in 2016. I hope you’ll join me, and find encouragement in the practical value of Christ, today more than ever!
Gift #1 – Christmas means God sees and hears us.
There’s a marvelous little passage in Exodus 3:7 which declares that God heard the cry of the sons of Israel and saw that they were being oppressed, so he “has come down to deliver them”. This was neither the first nor last time God “came down” in response to the suffering of this fallen world because it’s in God’s character to “see and hear” the suffering of humanity.
We may wonder if God is listening these days. When I see the tragedies in Aleppo, the suffering of immigrants around the world, and the rise in fascist and racist ideologies, we wonder if God’s listening at all. We wonder too, in the children’s oncology ward. Who is this God who sees and hears, and why is God not intervening, God’s so good and so powerful?
It’s a fair question, and the answer is found in the name Immanuel, which means “God with Us”. What makes the “good news” good isn’t that we’re offered escapist immunity from the affects of living in a fallen world. Rather, it’s that God has promised to walk with us in the midst of everything – the suffering and the joys, and the sickness and the healing, the living and the dying. We’ve been told that life will run the gamut of experiences, that there’s “a time for everything”.
That God has been “with me” is one of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed in my life. It’s meant that when I lost my dad, I’d eventually come to discover that I wasn’t as alone as I thought. It meant that when I changed majors and loaded my 68 Ford Mustang to drive north to Seattle, though I’d never been north of Sacramento in my life, and knew not a single person in my new city, God was with me. It meant that while riding a midnight train from Northern India to New Delhi, a train on which I found myself because of a riot in the city where I was teaching, I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t alone in my berth when I was alone, and I wasn’t alone when I woke in the middle of the night to see six Indian faces staring at me.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not faced the depths of living in this fallen world in anywhere near the same degree as many others. I’ve tasted enough of it, though, to know that the companionship of Christ is, at one level, all I need in this life. And I’ve known those who’ve walked much deeper, darker valleys than mine. They too, have shared with me that this companionship has been a source of healing, sustenance, peace, and eventually for most, joy.
“God with us” begins with God seeing our suffering and hearing our cry. This is the first gift. God knows. God cares. Rejoice. Immanuel. God IS with us.
Have you ever had this experience? You look back at yourself after some moments on the far side of an argument, or the far side of dipping your toe into the waters of an addiction from which you thought you were free. Not only do you not like what you see, but you think to yourself, “I don’t know who that person is, but it’s not me. I don’t throw things at my spouse, or swear and hit the wall, or gaze at porn, or get drink just because I’m sad…” or whatever it is that you did just 24 hours earlier.
But now here you are, seated and in your right mind, wondering how it happened that you were a different person yesterday.
The answer’s simple: identity theft. You became, for a period, someone other than who you are, or at the very least, who you’re meant to be. When we do this (and all of us do it from time to time, though our failures vary in degrees of both privacy and social acceptability), we step right into Romans 7 in the Bible. Paul the Apostle shares this struggle when he writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He articulates the universal struggle that there’s a gap between our actions and our ideals. We want purity, but struggle with lust; want humility, but are prone to arrogance; want contentment, and yet are driven by insatiable appetites. Paul ends his diatribe about this struggle with the timeless question: “who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s a great question, and unless there’s an answer, we’ll continue to feel ourselves hijacked by ourselves the rest of our lives.
But there is, thank God, an answer. “The Victory” Paul says, “comes through Christ.” Yes friends, life in Christ is that practical. It’s God’s intention that each of us move inexorably toward the life for which we were created, which is a life of joy, peace, wisdom, hope, generosity, justice, and strength. Here’s why identity theft is so damning and thus why identity in Christ is so important.
I. In Christ, you’ve become a new person. – This is what we’re told, and what it means is that Jesus, mysteriously but nonetheless actually, is joined with our human spirits to give us a new essence, a new identity. This changes everything, because it means that Christ now resides in me, so that all of his joy, hope, and power, are available to find expression through me in unique ways. But more than just available – the reality is that I’m called to be the presence of Christ in my daily living. This is my identity: a light bearer, bringing hope, healing, and joy to the world.
II. Though new, the “old files” are still embedded. I still hear ghosts, sitting in the shadows, telling me, not that I’m a light bearer, but a loser – telling me I’m unloved because my parents abused me, or that I’m unworthy, because a past failure caused a life implosion, or that life’s unbearable without a hit from sex, or drugs, or alcohol. All of this is what Paul calls, “the old man” which is a euphemism meaning “this is who you once were” – Once you self comforted via compulsive drinking, or one night stands. Once you dealt with conflict through rage, or seething bitterness. Those “old files” are still there on the computer that is your soul, just waiting to be opened.
III. The Liar’s Specialty – Diverting You from Your Identity. Satan delights in opening the old files. You take a look at them, and if you believe them, you’re stuffed. That’s because your belief empowers them and they rise up and change your behavior. “I’m unloved, or unlovable, or unappreciated” becomes, “so life’s not worth living”, or “so I’ll prove I’m worthy” or “so why not have another drink?” Soon you’re living in ways that contradict your own identity, if only temporarily. Then you wake up and say, “what happened?” and you realize that your identity has been hijacked.
IV. The Way Forward – Looking at Jesus’ temptations at the hands of “the liar” in the wilderness, we can see that Satan’s key strategy has always been to divert us from our truest identity. He says to “the Son of God”…. “IF you are the son of God, make these stones become bread” as a means of getting Jesus to move into a distorted identity. Jesus’ answer? “I’m more than just a material person, so though I’m hungry just now, I’ll not let my life be defined by the pursuit of bread. That’s not my identity.”
Wow! When I’m hungry, it’s overwhelmingly easy to think that my life is about getting bread. When I’m lonely, it’s about companionship. When I’m feeling neglected or overlooked, it’s often about proving myself. When I’m in pain, it’s about self comforting.
It’s easy, in other words, to allow our identity to be hijacked by the whims of various trials that are blowing through. Allow ourselves to be hijacked though, and we’ll “act out”, only to look back, on the far side of our failure, and ask, “Who was that?”
The answer: That was in imposter. Send him/her back to the tombs because though the files are still on the hard drive of your emotions, they’re corrupt, and corrupting. You have a new identity: in Christ. And that changes everything.
Here’s a helpful list of verses about your identity in Christ. When you read something here and it doesn’t seem true, or feel true, you’ve met your battleground.
I’ll be speaking on the Temptation of Christ at Bethany Community Church on Sunday, August 2nd. Tune in for a live stream of our worship here.
After a week of meetings in Germany with Torchbearers Missionary Fellowship, my wife and I made our way to Schladming for a little bit of rest before I head up to England for a week of speaking at Capernwray Hall. The week is a break in the midst of what has been a very busy time, both at home and on the road.
Because I’m here without obligations or responsibilities, I hadn’t anticipated that the Spring Bible School students would still be here, but as it turns out, today is their last day. What this means is that they’ll spend their morning worshiping, praying, and sharing together the things God has taught them during their time here.
Though I don’t know them at all, Donna and I sneak in the back to listen just a bit and it’s there, in that space, that I remember my time here twenty years ago, in spring school 1995. That spring I spent my free time filling out an application for the role of senior pastor at Bethany Community Church in Seattle because, after speaking there for a week earlier in the spring, I’d been asked to apply for the job, a job I wasn’t sure I wanted, but was certain I didn’t want to miss, if it was God’s will. I remember writing answers to questions, printing the whole thing and faxing it to the church office in Seattle, fairly convinced that my lack of large church experience (I was leading a house church at the time) would disqualify me from consideration anyway.
I was wrong, of course, as I often am when I presume to know the ways and mind of God. By the fall of that same year, Donna and I were packing up our things for a move to Seattle where, on December 1st, we began our five year commitment to the big church of 300 in the big city of Seattle. After a year, 300 had grown to 225. After five years though, we said no to some other opportunities, convinced that there was another chapter for us in Seattle and Bethany.
Five years has become twenty. 225 people have become 3500 people. One location has become six. And all of this represents the faithfulness of God in changing one life at a time, one step at a time. The church in Seattle has changed profoundly.
And here in Austria? New facilities. New staff. New leaders. Larger Bible Schools. A sailing ministry in Greece. Yes… God’s been at work here too, and all the outward signs are but the most visible outward displays representing countless changed lives, now scattered throughout the world like so much life giving seed, making Jesus visible. This space has also been a place of change.
All these thoughts are swirling as I run through the mist hanging in the alps this morning. I’m mindful that the church I lead is changing in good ways, as is this school in Austria. New leaders. New locations. Changed lives. It’s good stuff! So I ponder, as the rain falls – “What practices and attitudes help create positive changes?” Though there are many, these ___ seem foundational:
I. Vertical Connection – Jesus said it: “Abide in me and you’ll bear much fruit” Those eight simple words are at the core of the work God wants to do in the world. This is because God’s desire is to express nothing less than the life of Christ through the likes of you and me. When it works, his joy, peace, power, wisdom, love, patience, generosity, forgiveness and hope are poured out through us, watering thirsty souls.
Foundational as this is, it is also the most elusive piece of the puzzle for many. We’re raised to believe that we have what it takes to make a grand difference in the world, and that with enough planning and projects, metrics and media, goals and objectives, we’ll reach the promised land of fulfilled vision, or meaningful work, or perfect children.
Um, no. That’s not going to happen. To the contrary, the story that God will write through any of us will, in the end, declare that it’s those who are mindful of their own thirst and need for the reality of Christ that God will use to express God’s life to the world.
Our thirst for God and for the enjoyment of Christ’s real presence in our lives are the most important realities we can pursue and experience. They’re as vital as air and water, critical resources for the kind of life Jesus invites us to live.
II. Patient Expectation – My techno watch tells me two things while I’m running this morning. First, it confirms the glad news that I’m running at pace that keeps heart happily ticking along between 130 and 140 beats per minutes, sort of a sweet spot for my running. Second, I lean the even better news that I’m travelling faster in this same sweet spot now than I was last summer when I was here. Same heart rate; faster running! How did that happen?
Gradually. In his book about training for alpine adventures, Mark Twight introduces the acronym: TINSTAAFL, which means “There is no such thing as a free lunch” It’s his way of saying that nobody can compress the time it takes to get in shape for a big climb, thinking that a few cross fit sessions where your heart pumps and your muscles ache and you feel like throwing up will never be able to do the job. “Gradualness is the only way aerobic adaptation is gained” is the essence of what he says.
I just focus on staying between 130 and 140. It’s my body, and the magic of health and exercise that make me faster. My own attempt to go faster nearly two years ago resulted in a strained Achilles, the result of which was a total ban on running for about a month. Faster? My attempts at self improvement were in the toilet. It was then that my physical therapist said, “you’re going too fast – keep your pulse under 135” My first days on my urban running path were an exercise in humility. As person after person passed me, I wanted to shout, “I’m faster than this!!” but I kept quiet and kept doing my turtle thing.
Slowly faster. I’m convinced that those who want to look more like Jesus need to find out what it is that Jesus wants us to actually DO, and what he promises to do in response. This is where my II Corinthians 3:16-18 favorite stuff comes in. That’s where I’m told to “behold his glory” and that if I do that, I will be transformed, slowly, yet relentlessly, ‘from glory to glory’ – so that I look more like Jesus. Little by little, hope will evict despair, light will overcome darkness, love will overwhelm hate, and the whole complex thing that is your personality will be infused with a hope, quiet confidence, and joy that I can’t be made in any self improvement program any more than the guys who make potato chips can fabricate, a butterfly.
Our transformation, you see, is divine handiwork. We are his workmanship, we’re told. So we can all just relax bit, drop our program of self-branding and building a following, stop worrying about what the other moms think of our recipes and living rooms, and simply make getting to know Jesus as a friend our chief aim in life. Then he’ll do the changing while we focus on other stuff, just like my body produces whatever it makes so that i run faster now than a year ago, not because I’m trying to run faster, but because I’m showing up more consistently.
No single devotional, or utterance of gratitude to God for a sunrise, or receptivity to what Jesus is saying through that difficult person – none of these things are deal breakers. The sky rarely opens up and pours out fire, or doves. Instead, like mitochondria multiplying in response to the stress of running, little unseen things are happening, just because we keep showing up.
Then one day, we open our eyes and realize that, in spite of ourselves, the years have given us more joy, more contentment, and more grace, than we’d every have hoped, surely more than we deserve. When that happens we’ll not only thank God for the work God has done, we’ll realize it happened in spite of ourselves, while we were living.
O Lord Christ…
You promise to change us, starting with the gift of rest, if we’ll just relax and learn of you. But we’re religionists, busy, striving, making ourselves holy for you, or effective for you, or at least less guilty in hopes you won’t destroy. Forgive us Lord, for the image we’ve made of you is an idol, and our souls are parched because of it. Staring now, we pray, may you be our pursuit, our joy, our companion. Teach us this, so that we’ll keep seeking you… and then we’ll simply thank you that, without a lot of perception on our part, the deepest changes of our soul needs will ripen. We’ll wake up some day, see the changes, and give thanks.
When Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem just before his crucifixion he wept and said regarding the people he loved, “if you knew the things which make for peace…” but they didn’t. And we don’t either much of the time.
We know the Bible, the words on scroll, know it like the back of our hands. But the Bible doesn’t bring peace. Neither does institutional religion, your 401(k), a great alarm system, life insurance, or enough guns in your house or your government to obliterate every enemy. Have these things or don’t have them; that’s your call—but know that they’re not what brings peace.
Peace, we saw last time, is a person. But there’s a bit more to it than that, because we can sit around and read or argue about Jesus all day without enjoying peace. Some of the most religious people I know, in fact, are some of the most anxious, fearful, argumentative people anywhere.
This is because we all have the need to move beyond some disembodied concept of Jesus into the reality of a mind, heart, and body progressively renewed, liberated, healed, and transformed by the actual presence of the living Christ. This is what happened to peace people in the Bible, like the woman at the well, and the other one caught in adultery and then freed from the religious talking heads who were ready to kill her. I don’t need a religious system; I need Christ, the Prince of Peace, changing both the way I view the world and changing me.
Here are more steps forward for those wrestling with anxiety, body image issues, fear of rejection, fear of the future, debilitating anger towards some ‘other’, or a sense of shame with its attendant fear of being discovered:
Believe by faith that Christ is with you. We’re not talking about trying to conjure up mystical feelings here. We’re talking about affirming in prayer (whether written or spoken) your belief, by faith, that Christ is with you, living in you, filling you with all he is, so that you might become all you’re created to be. “Thank you that you live in me” is a great place to start. This gratitude doesn’t answer every question about evolution, sexual morality, or the causes of human suffering in the world, but the good news is that it doesn’t need to. If you think waiting ’til you have the world figured out is a precondition for faith or peace, you’ll wait forever to start living outside your head, and doubts, and questions. If you need help with this, you might consider 02: Breathing New Life into Faith as a resource.
Take comfort in Christ’s presence. When we were climbing a klettersteig in Austria last summer, a good friend became frightened, then she froze up, afraid to take the next move. Not only is fear unpleasant; it consumes energy, and quickly her muscles were weakening, further contributing to anxiety, further weakening her body in a downward spiral. That’s when my mountain guide friend moved to be with her, gave her some encouraging words, and roped her in, tying her directly to himself and assuring her that, even if she fell, she’d be safe.
That, apparently, was all she needed, and soon she was back on the move, confidently climbing the rest of the way to the top. The assurance of someone who knew the ropes and knew the way was enough. It was a beautiful picture of Christ who promised to be “with us always, even to the end of the age”. To the extent that we believe this, the comfort and strength of it become realities. This isn’t magic; it’s the reality that we find comfort in the strength of the other; parent, mountain guide, protector. My hope is that you’d be able to discover this aspect of Christ as real, for without it we live as if we’re on our own, like sheep without a shepherd.
Take comfort in the end of the story – We’re in the middle of the story right now, and there are traffic jams and bad medical news, breakups and our own moral failings. We’re a thick soup of faith and doubt, glory and loss. Bad news breaks in and our fragile peace evaporates. This push and shove of doubt and faith, success and failure, horrific evil presenting itself in the world, with infinite love in the midst; all of it can be a bit much at times. We see both sides, perhaps, but grow tired of evil triumphing o so much of the time. How can we know peace in a world where hell seems to win so often?
Jesus took comfort in the end of story. He spoke of the sufferings of this world as birth pains which would eventually give way to full healing. There are powerful moments in film that capture this well, like reunion scenes in the Lord of the Rings and the Pianist.
God pulls the curtain back on history and shows us a future banquet where there’s great food, peace, and “death swallowed up for all time”. Every disease is healed, both emotional and physical. Every war over. Good food and wine speak of matchless beauty and abundance.
The audacious claim of God is that this is where history is heading. Believe it or don’t, but without a hope along these lines, I’d be finished. My world would shrink into the pursuit of trivial pleasures which I’m sure would eventually become addictions and destroy me. That’s not how everyone would cope, but its how I would. Bold faith in a better story—that’s what keeps me going.
Thank God there’s a different ending saturated with hope and healing, and a companion whose presence brings wisdom, strength, comfort, a new start in the wake of every failure, and bursts of joy and gratitude that seem to come out of nowhere. This whole package, I believe, is called peace—and it’s available for those who are willing to learn the reality of Christ’s presence.
Religion is over-rated. Peace that blossoms out of intimacy with Christ, though, is a different story entirely.
Spoiler alert. If you don’t know what happens to Jesus after his crucifixion, I’m going to share the punchline in this blog.
“Peace be to you” says Jesus, standing in the midst of the disciples, in a room with a locked door where he’s suddenly appeared without it opening! Their stunned silence is understandable. After all, Jesus, the one upon whom they’d pinned their hopes, the one for whom they’d left everything, the one who they’d betrayed and denied, the one from whom they’d just fled as he hung on a cross, was dead. Not, “as good as dead”—actually dead, and with that death, so died their hopes and dreams.
All this makes Jesus’ next line even funnier to me, when he responds to their stunned silence with “why are you troubled?” as if they should have seen this whole narrative coming from day one, since he’d talked about his death and resurrection explicitly a few times and implicitly dozens of times. Still, somehow they missed it, and so Jesus’ words are much needed in the moment there in that room where it was slowly dawning on them that the whole course of history, not to mention their own lives, was about to change.
“Peace” and “Don’t be troubled” are his words to these anxious, troubled people, and they are just as significantly, words for us too, here and now in our troubles and anxieties.
Iran? Isis? Nigeria? Syria? Yemen? Black lives that matter? Policemen that are dead? Denominations that are in turmoil?
State rights? Individual rights? Health care? Your rights? Wall Street’s rights? Workers rights? Your relationships with children, parents, spouse?
“My God, what are we doing to each other?” is the only prayer some people know how to pray these days, and it’s really nothing more than a prayer for peace, because underneath it is the profound realization that things are broken and breaking, falling faster and harder than we’ve seen before.
Jesus, though, doesn’t bust out of tomb riding a white horse, raising hell, killing his enemies, and setting up shop as the newest savior, like Alexander the Great would, or V. Lenin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or even George Washington, or some power hungry pope, or Luther or Calvin. Instead he appears in a room with his closest friends, folk who’ve doubted, denied him, and functioned as largely clueless, fickle devotees, and offers his peace to them.
This revolution, unlike all others in history, unfolds from the inside out, beginning with the transformation of human hearts from anxious, fearful, and angry—to this state of peace. Wow! Are you interested in that offer? Me too.
I’m not able to fix this broken world, but I can become a person of peace in the midst of it all, and that will make a difference, not only in me, but in those I touch. Thankfully there are steps we can take to become people of peace, right here and now. I share the first step here, and next steps this coming weekend:
Step One: Peace is, first of all, a person. “He himself is our peace” is what Paul says, and he goes on to talk about how the reality of Christ in one’s life will lead to the breaking down of dividing walls, because by his very nature, Christ’s heart is for reconciliation and shalom (peace) among people. If Christ lives in me, the tidal movement of my life will be toward unifying not dividing.
“Really?” says the thoughtful person who knows a bit of church history. “What about Rwanda, or the Christian settler’s treatment of American Indians, or slavery, or culture wars that push people to the margins of society, or doctrinal wars that so fracture the church and fill it with hurtful words that people on the outside want nothing to do with her? What about the 30 year war in Europe, or the Protestant’s treatment of the radical reformers, or… I could go on for a thousand words, but you get the point.
To say that God’s people are people of peace is absurd.
Ah, but Jesus knew that there was a profound difference between being religious and being people of peace. The former draw lines and rely heavily on exclusionary and dualistic language: in/out, saved/lost, right/wrong, civilized/savage, black/white and the way this plays out often gets ugly and violent. This was the way the disciples had been brought up. It’s the usual way for most of us, religious or not. That’s why Jesus’ disciples wanted to reign fire down on that village where people weren’t believing. It’s why they were so excited on Palm Sunday, as they believed that finally Jesus was going to exercise his divine right to bear arms, destroy the Roman violence machine by violence, and finally win this simmering war.
It’s also why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying “if only you’d known the things that make for peace” —but they didn’t. They knew dualistic thinking. They knew how to win by making the other guy lose. They knew about the peace of Rome, which was a peace rooted in fear and violence. They wanted the peace of Rome to become the peace of Israel, still rooted in fear, but with the shoe on the other foot.
Jesus would have none of it. He’s into breaking down dividing walls and bringing people together. He’s into serving, even his enemies. He’s into going the second mile, and truth telling, but truth telling bathed in love and a commitment as far as possible, to redeeming the relationship. He’s so into peace, that when his disciple Peter cut a soldier’s ear off, rather than teaching Peter better swordsmanship, he tells him to put the sword away, and heals the guy’s ear. He even makes it clear that overcoming violence with violence is not a great idea.
He wins the peace, breaks down the walls, defeats the forces of evil with the most revolutionary weapon known to humanity—infinite love. “While we were still enemies… Christ died.”
You want peace? It starts by yoking yourself with the Prince of Peace. But be careful, You’ll find yourself going to parties with people you didn’t think you’d like, visiting seniors who are lonely, and sharing a drink with someone whose theology is, by your standards at least, “off”. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to bless those around with little thought of whether they’re ‘worthy’, agree with you, or even like you. Your fear will be melting away like a spring thaw. Love will blossom. And the tomb that held your bitterness, rancor, and pride, especially your religious pride—well you’ll wake up one Sunday spring morning and find it: empty.
Peace. Don’t let your hearts be troubled.
I didn’t even know I’d lost anything. This is a hazard of business maybe. We handle “God stuff” all the time, planning weddings, funerals, details, staffing issues, budgets, parking hassles with neighbors, potentially divisive theological issues bubbling under the surface, meetings, more meetings, and a few more meetings after that. In the midst of all that there are sermons to prepare, preaching to do, young pastors to equip through one-on-one and group meetings. It’s all there, but for any of these elements to have real meaning, they need to be infused with the grace and peace of Christ, as if Christ himself is in the midst of the decision, encounter, transaction, meeting.
Truth be told though, the ocean of details can conspire with my own Type A personality and propensity to get anxious about stuff, and “Poof!”—I’m still doing all the stuff, but Christ and his peace are no longer in my sense of reality, having been displaced by that worst of all things: religious professionalism. The slide into this territory is so subtle you don’t even notice it, because the words don’t change a bit—you still sound as holy as ever to onlookers, and so you actually begin to believe it, approval addict that you are.
Until somebody notices, and calls you out on it.
The Sunday I arrived home from Sabbatical last October, someone in our church approached me and told me I looked “ten years younger” and I hugged her, of course believing that she had the gift of discernment and truth telling! I felt it too, rested, at peace, in love with Christ.
FAST FORWARD to last Sunday.
The same woman approached me and said, “Can I pray for you? You look absolutely spent, and exhausted.” I told her I was fine, but underneath the surface of propriety, the truth was that her words were as accurate then as they were last October, and I knew it; knew that something wasn’t working right; knew that I was running on fumes. In her few pointed but accurate words, she’d ripped the veil off that I’d been wearing so skillfully—that of a religious pro who knows the words, but is, in the moment, experiencing nothing of the reality, knowing instead the companionship of anxiety and hurry, restlessness and frustration. I’d known it, but as long as I could keep all the balls in play in this pinball machine that had become my life, nobody would know how hollow I was. Thank God someone saw, and said, and prayed.
Meditation: After preaching for the 4th time that Sunday, I went home and pulled a book off my shelf I’d not looked at since about 1997. I’d first picked it up when I’d visited a convent for a personal retreat, and poured my heart out to a nun, also the librarian of the convent. She’d recommended it, and I’d read it there, and later bought it. It’s a book about meditation, and I hesitate to share it because so many Christ followers will be afraid of it, in spite of the fact that we’re invited to “pray without ceasing” and “meditate” on God’s word so that it saturates our being.
Anyway, this book recommends sitting quietly and praying The Lord’s Prayer, or the 23rd Psalm, or the Prayer of St. Francis, slowly, over and over again, for a period of time each morning and evening. I started doing that, immediately that night, and then again in the morning and evening ever since.
I can’t even begin to describe the renewed sense of peace, and awareness of the reality that Christ lives in me, with me, loves me, is for me, has called me to shine as light and given me all I need to do that, will never leave me, and (o so marvelous) has called me to peace.
I’ve known these truths in reality, but lately they’d become words for others more than a central reality in my daily experience. Now, once again, having made a high priority of taking time to prayerfully mediate on God’s truth each morning and evening, I’ve begun to enjoy the reality of Christ’s presence in my actual living.
There’s a greater sense of peace, by the way, when driving, speaking, leading meetings. I’m far from ‘at rest’, but utterly confident I’m on the right road, and can only pray and hope for the same for all who suffer from anxiety, fear, emptiness, boredom—in spite of being full of ‘God words’.
Gratitude: In the wake of this new habit, a sense of profound gratitude and appreciation began growing in my moment by moment living. I’ll be listening to some music and it will remind me of days in the past when I wrote books in a log cabin—simpler days, when I led a smaller church. Rather than looking back wistfully though, my heart these days is filled with profound joy for the memories and privileges of the past. Today is today—and God will give us what we need for it; but one of the things we need is a sense of gratitude for the good gifts in our past.
The other peace of gratitude has to do with a fresh sense of seeing creation and being overwhelmed with joy simply by watching the rain fall from the sky, or seeing the clouds change color in the sunset. Yesterday I spent the day splitting and stacking wood with my wife, and we both commented on how delightful it is that we find joy anytime we can be in the midst of God’s beautiful creation. The cathedral of God’s stunning creation is better than anything for both of us, and we like it that way!
Presence: I’m preaching a bit about this tomorrow, but looking back, I can see how easily I slipped into losing the present moment to either past regrets or (especially) future worries. Somehow, renewal brings with it the capacity to live more in this actual moment. One of the highest forms of generosity you can offer another is the gift of your absolute attention. I’m often terrible at this, but am aware that, to the extent that Christ is given freedom to express life through us, it will present, not in scattered attention, listening with one ear, while our other senses are watching our phones, or our brains are elsewhere in the future, or the other room. Rather, we’ll be all there.
Contentment: Finally, as ridiculous as it sounds, this little film of a skier and his dog reminded me that we’re made for fellowship: with God, with God’s creation, with others. People and creation itself aren’t commodities to be used for our pleasure or purposes—rather, they’re gifts to be cherished, loved, and enjoyed.
If you’re in need of renewal, I hope these principles help you forward. May you know the peace of Christ, not as a theory, but as a reality—before this very day is over.
Yesterday I spent some time in what is slowly becoming a sabbath routine for this season of life. My wife and I packed a small lunch and some extra clothes in our backpacks and took off for a day of hiking. In a normal year it would be a ski day, but this is not a normal year. All the snow is over in Boston, and here where we normally get over 400 inches a year, the ski hills are brown brush; so we hike.
As we hike, we talk about life. It’s become maybe the best time of the week for sharing, because we have uninterrupted space for needed dialogue, punctuated by periods of silence for reflection, response, or even just enjoyment of the woods. The conversations always include remembrances of the past and considerations of the future. The two subjects feed each other by this time in our life together. We’ve seen 35 years of God’s faithful provision in our lives; seen many decisions we made with finite information which turned out far better than we’d anticipated, precisely because (we believe) God knew ‘the rest of story’ as only God can.
For example, I was sharing yesterday how profound it was to contemplate that we’d purchased this house in the mountains that had its own apartment, solely with a view of retiring there someday and renting it out as a ski chalet in the meantime, while keeping the small apartment for our own, for skiing, writing, hiking, and such.
Now here we are, living there, with my mom-in-law in the perfect little apartment as life circumstances converged so that it was best for her to move in with us. Her love of mountains and snow, and our purchase converged to meet a need we didn’t even know would exist when we bought the place. But God knew, and has provided space. We tell each other these kinds of stories while we hike, recalling God’s faithfulness in the past.
We speak of the future too; pondering how we can best use the gifts and resources God has given us to live fully into the story God desires to write through us. We ponder options, and they become matters for prayer. We speak of our heart’s desires in ways that we don’t during week because the week’s too full of obligations to spend much time pondering deeper longings. Giving voice to these longings is healthy, appropriate, necessary, if we’re to continue growing.
And of course, we speak of the present—of our own marriage, our children, decisions that need to be made. We speak of money, car brakes, schedules for the coming week, and of trees, waterfalls, lichen, weather, and rocks.
We share a meal at the top. We hike out. We drive home. Then there’s a meal, and peace, and a sense we’ve connected with God and each other. We propose to do it again next time. Sabbath; a gift from God.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. In many circles, Sabbath is nothing more than a legalistic noose tied around the necks of religious people to prevent them from doing anything the religious elite consider work. The list varies from generation to generation and place to place, including soccer, shopping, cooking, mowing the lawn, wearing false teeth, and lifting anything heavier than two dried figs. This is just one of many reasons why people rightly hate religion. Jesus said you could know the worthiness of a person’s teachings and worldview ‘by their fruits’ and if the fruit of Sabbath keep is fear, withdrawal, and judgmentalism, I for one will be at the front of the line to condemn it.
Another group, seeing this legalist nonsense, has done away with the Sabbath completely. It’s either spiritualized (“Every day is a day of rest in Christ”), or bastardized into simply a “day off” which means a time to knock oneself out with shopping, or obligations with the kids, or find some sort of adrenaline hit so that we can maintain our stress levels until Monday, though because it’s chosen, it’s good stress rather than distress.
Either way is an exercise in missing the point. Sabbath, when properly practiced as a spiritual discipline, helps create a soil in which several good things can happen. Here’s what I mean:
A good and consistent Sabbath practice, over time will:
1. Create capacity in our lives – The creation narrative offers a profound revelation that life is intended to be lived in a complimentary manner: day and night; heaven and earth; sea and dry land; male and female; and yes—work and rest. God was the prototype of this rhythm, and those who violate it do so at great risk to their own fruitfulness and well being. This is because we’re made for a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, and if our Sabbath’s neglect withdrawal, we’ll enter our weekly responsibilities of engagement with even diminishing resources. The presenting symptoms will be stress related things like sleep troubles, nervousness, fatigue, and/or high anxiety. When it comes to exercise, we all know that we need to both exercise and rest. The same’s true with the whole of our lives and the Sabbath is God’s gift to provide for this.
2. Create a context for guidance – My wife and I have made many major life decisions in the context of Sabbaths, because that’s where we make the needed space to ponder God’s faithfulness in the past, and prayerfully give voice to our longings and hopes for the future, so that we can hear God speak and show us next steps. The worst thing we can do is be reactionary with our lives, both day to day in our obligations and with respect to major life decisions. It’s far better to be proactive, and this proactivity will come from creating space to pour our hearts out to God and then listen, and then act.
3. Remind you that you’re not the Messiah – One of the practical purposes of Sabbath practice when Israel was in the wilderness was so that they might learn that God will take care of them, all the time, even when they rest. The more and better anyone learns this, the more fully and profoundly they come to believe that God sustains God’s work and will do so even when we step away from it. I’ll be blunt in saying that its our sense of indispensability that often turns us into very ugly people—controlling, demanding, fearful, even manipulative; all in the name of “getting the job done”. The Sabbath, practiced well, will help you get over yourself, and rest in the reality that our participation in whatever work it is to which God has called us, is a privilege, not a necessity.
Make space please! For remembering; for considering; for sharing; for praying; for restoring. If that’s not a habit for you, now’s a good time to begin.
Here’s a resource I’ll recommend to round out and develop this discussion further.
In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening? Really listening?” Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”. Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy. 9/11 did that. Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals. Making love? News of terror attacks? Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours? Yes. Lots of events elicit response. But a football game? Absolutely…
The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city. Literally. The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun. Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city. Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.
I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do. I listened to sports radio. It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption. Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter. He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.
But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful. In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results: three interceptions. The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.
By any definition, his was a terrible day. The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up. He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made. I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.” Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.
Summary: Not just 0-4. Each pass was intercepted!
So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break: “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.” To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?”
No. He’s not kidding at all. He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.
Sound familiar? Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball, the world of performance-based approval.
This, as you may know, is much of our world. We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us. QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else. Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.
And then there’s Jesus with Peter. No, it wasn’t four missed catches. It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ. It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat. In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.
So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing? He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr. Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ. Cowardice to Courage—Failure to Faith. It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe better—and equally true.
“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere. What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories. That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a game—at least for those who know how to pay attention.
It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.
The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players. A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman. A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today. And the results?
Are you kidding me?
Such stories aren’t just for football. They’re the gospel. Illustrated. If we pay attention.
‘O Lord Christ
Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves. Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive. When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’ And we’ll rejoice. Amen.
As the cemetery comes into view on this spectacular January afternoon, I feel as if I’m being transported back in time, because this little piece of geography is so ripe with memories that all the feelings attending those memories flood to the surface, unbidden. I see the canopy where the graveside service will take place, but we’re early; early enough that we’ve time for a little drive. I head out, a bit further from the center of Kingsburg, to the land my grandpa farmed, the place where we’d put grapes on trays to dry in the scorching sun when we were kids. He had grapes and peaches, but now everything’s gone. All the cropland has just recently been stripped of any vestige of tree or vine, so empty soil, ready for a new generation of fruitfulness, surrounds the house. The soil’s the same, more or less, only now empty, which is somehow fitting for the occasion.
Just down the road a bit more, is where my aunt had a peach farm. Her land, too, has changed. Where the farmhouse that felt ancient fifty years ago once stood, there’s a modern ranch home complete with a bevy of solar panels leaning up against the south wall. Beyond the walls of the cemetery, it seems that life goes on; new crops, new houses, new families…new.
Returning to the cemetery though, all that’s new on this day will be an addition: Betty Nadine Dahlstrom, who died just before Christmas, at the age of 95. There are a few family members present and the service is short, a bit understated perhaps. I can say that because I was the officiant. The gold of the day came after the service. I’d wanted my youngest daughter to see some of the other headstones of family members, but they were all covered by the cheap artificial astro-turf that’s placed, temporarily, under the canopy, in order to provide solid footing for guests as the pass by the coffin before it’s lowered into the ground.
“I didn’t come this far to miss showing my daughter her family story” I said to myself, and so asked the landscape guy who would soon be putting mom’s body in the ground if we could peel away the AstroTurf to look at the other stones. A strange request, no doubt, but he accommodated, and soon we were looking at all the names, with their year and month of death:
Oscar Stokes – February 1972
Lillian Stokes – April 1973
Romaine Dahlstrom – October 1973
Esther Dahlstrom – 1975
Dorothy Stokes – April 1976
I’d known the “what” of my own story quite well. Right in the midst of that dark time of losing all my grandparents, I’d graduated from high school. The festival of death that reigned down on our family plunged me into a depression and faith crisis, hidden from most, but nonetheless real to me. At the time of my dad’s untimely death I’d decided that nothing was nailed down, no meaningful relationship secure. The same thing happens, of course, when there’s infidelity, or abandonment, but at least then you can rage at the perpetrator. In my story though, God was the perpetrator (or so it seemed at the time) and I was in a church with precious little space for honest to God grief, as Sundays were filled with praise music that seemed absurd, or dishonest, at least for me in that time and space.
So, instead of getting angry, I got depressed, but determined, at the same time, to leave a mark beyond the brief matchlight of my life by designing cool spaces as an architect. I was running from God, as sure as Jacob, or Jonah, or Moses, or any of the other graybeards of old. We all had different reasons, but the results are the same. It’s my life, and I’ll do what I want with it, so leave me alone.
Ah, but it didn’t work out that way at all, because in my pursuit of autonomous plans, I made my way to a state school, so called secular, and there met Christians robust with joy who drew me into their circle through love. I was doubting, they believed. I had health problems related to my depression. They didn’t care. I was confused about everything. They had a faith that believed God changed lives, swapping out anxiousness and replacing it with peace, or despair with hope. You get the picture.
And then, already drawn to the light, I went to a retreat up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, solely because a cute blonde invited me. Looking back, I can see that the stars were aligned for a mega shift in my life. The Christian students in my dorm had loved me well and I was not only finding my way out of the depression, but was experiencing a strange growing longing to share this same kind of love with others because it was working such magic in healing my own soul.
Yes, but how? I was still angry with God for stealing my dad. Every time I thought about my mom, and the reality that she lost both her parents, her husband, and her beloved mother-in-law in the span of two years, the doubts and anger grew. “No loving God would steal everyone in that short a time, so maybe God doesn’t exist at all” was one line of thinking. I was caught between hope and despair, and honestly, being pulled in both directions.
Then it happened. At that winter camp, in pursuit of that cute blonde, I made my way into the chapel for the evening talk. It was on Jeremiah 9:23ff, about how the only thing in this broken world that’s worth boasting about is that we know God. The word had a ring of truth to it even though the God I thought I knew a bit about might not be worth knowing. Still, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know, and when the preacher pointed directly at me and said, “There are some of you in this room who need to make knowing God the number one priority of your life,” I knew that I knew that I knew God was speaking to me!
I didn’t know what would change by making knowing God a central goal of life. I didn’t even know if I’d like what I found. But I knew I wanted to know God better, and so after the talk I went outside on a starry night, and knelt down in the snow to pray. I told God that I wanted to make knowing Him the central priority of my life. I didn’t know what would happen because I prayed that prayer, but I didn’t think it would be anything dramatic.
I was wrong. Seven months later I was packing my red Ford Mustang with my few possessions and driving north to Seattle. Having never been north of Sacramento in my life, I was heading to Seattle Pacific University to study music, with an eye toward somehow entering ministry. What happened after that retreat was that the big deal in my life became sharing with other people that knowing God was worth the effort. This is because inexplicably, something started immediately inside me. I surely didn’t have all the answers to all the questions; still don’t. At the same time, the gaping void of loneliness in my soul was being filled with God, and more strangely still, a sense of companionship with God.
As a result, I found myself more interested in my role as piano player in the Sunday night bible study my friends were leading than I was in designing apartments for my drafting class. I was sleeping better, more fully engaged with people, less worried about the future. The poisonous introspection that had attended my depression and insecurity was replaced by a quiet confidence that, come what may, God would be my companion in this journey called life, and the reality of that gave me a joy, confidence, and peace that had been missing for about a decade. By the end of the school year, I knew that I needed to share this good news with others as much as possible, and so I changed majors and changed schools with an eye toward some sort of ministry.
The day at the cemetery to bury mom’s body was preceded by a day at the camp in the mountains, a pilgrimage of sorts, to thank the good Lord for the landscape of my life. It was the convergence of these two spots on the planet—Sugar Pine Camp, and Kingsburg Cemetery, that showed me that the life I live is precisely the fruit of new life born out of loss.
And this, dear friends, is the glory of the gospel. It’s not that we’re granted immunity from suffering. Far from it. The grand hope that is ours in Christ is that in this broken world, where loss in a thread woven into the fabric of everyone’s story, God’s wisdom is able to turn every loss into gain. It’s still loss; of that there’s no doubt. We can mourn, must mourn, because loss, and loneliness, and betrayal, is what happens in a fallen world.
But loss needn’t define us, because every loss opens a door for new facets of God’s character to be experienced in our lives. Of course I wish my dad had been at my wedding. Of course I wish he’d known his grandkids, and the fine folk they married. Even more, I wish they’d known him. But no. It’s a fallen world, and numerous bouts of pneumonia as a child meant dad had weak lungs that would catch up to him and steal his life at 55. The loss though, prepared the soil, and the life I’ve known, the wife I’ve married, the places I’ve travelled, the friends of made—all of it has sprouted in the soil stripped bare by loss. Wow. That’s a story a worth telling.
My daughter Holly is bent down, in tears, over my dad’s tombstone. I kneel down with her and cry. “I wish you could have known him,” I said. And yet I wonder—if she’d have had the chance to know him, would I have ever lived in Seattle? Ever met my wife? Would Holly have ever been born? And that’s when it hits me—the glory of the gospel is its profound capacity to turn loss into gain, as evidenced by the cross itself.
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! Romans 11