Thursday, December 31, 2015

Spiritual Hunger

None of this is to say that we don't get hungry, that our spirits don't come to crave something more. But the trouble is that for most of us, our spiritual hunger drives us to so-called spiritual things, rather than drawing us to God.

Take, for example, the Bible. We ought to read the Bible. We ought to read the Bible every day. When we feel an ache in our spirit, the Bible is an excellent place to turn to begin (note: only begin) to satisfy our hunger. But the question we need to ask ourselves is this: what are we looking for?

When many people, even many Christians, open their Bibles, they are hoping, at least in part, to find their story. They are hoping to find some encouragement for the journey they are on. They are hoping to discover some meaningful word or phrase or passage that applies to their current circumstances. They are hoping...for lack of a better term...that the Bible is going to 'speak' to them.

But here's the painful truth, and one we have tragically forgotten in our consumer-spirituality, prosperity gospel generation: the Bible is not your story. 

The Bible is not the story of people, even the people of God. It's not the story of how one holds on in the face of heartache, how one praises God in the midst of a storm. It's not the story of getting back up after you fall down. It's not the story of holding out hope for a better tomorrow. It's not a story about loving your neighbor, about loving yourself, or even about loving your God. 

No matter how much you look to the Bible for "strength for today" or "inspiration for a godly life" or whatever other so-called Christian buzzwords you want to put to it, that's not what the Bible is for. It's just not your story. It never was. And it's never going to be.

The Bible is God's story, plain and simple. It's the story not of the people of God, but of the God of the people. It's the story not of how one holds on in the face of heartache, but how God holds onto you. It's the story not of how one praises God in the midst of the storm, but how God comes walking on the water to get to you. It's the story of the God who helps the fallen to stand back up, the God who promises a better tomorrow. It's a story about the God who loves your neighbor, and the God who loves you.

That's the essential nature of it. It's a story about the way God loves, written and told so that you may one day know how deeply, how richly, how purely, how incredibly God loves you.

Not so that you would know how to love God. Not so that you would know how to please Him. Not so that you would know how to navigate this world of His. Not so that you would fill in the blank. But purely so that you would know how God loves you.

When was the last time you read the Bible hoping to understand that? When was the last time you read the Bible looking for Him, instead of looking for you?

If you're looking for yourself in the Bible, you're not going to find you. But if you're looking for God, you'll find Him. He's right there, on every page. It's why the Bible is called a 'revelation.'

How sad indeed that we've made it no more than a handbook.

As you read through your Bible in the coming days, weeks, year, I encourage you to start reading it looking for God. Read it as though it is His story, not yours. Read it as though it's a revelation, not a handbook. Read it to discover the one mind-blowing, life-changing, radical, meaningful truth it was meant to convey: God. is. love. He is. And He loves you.

Yes, you. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Not Hungry for God

When we treat spiritual distress as though it is spiritual hunger, we do the worst possible thing: we feed it. 

Think about all the spiritual things in our lives that pose as spiritual hunger: exhaustion, boredom, dissatisfaction, depression, despair, restlessness. We're all prone to one or more of these at some time or another. The question is: how do we respond?

For most of us, the answer seems simple. We just do more church-y things. We do more god-ly things. We do more spiritual things. We read the Bible more. We turn on more worship music. We attend more church services. We start attending more parachurch events - quilting clubs and crafting circles and game nights and what have you. We hang up motivational posters. We pull out all the jewelry that has the Cross on it and start wearing it everywhere. We change the wallpaper on our phones and computer screens. We download the Bible app and subscribe to the verse of the day.

All of these are great things, and they are excellent ways to feed our spiritual hunger. 

But what if the problem isn't hunger at all?

Exhaustion isn't hunger. It's an ache, but it isn't hunger. It's a longing for rest - and is there anything in all that spiritual food that looks anything at all like rest? No. It looks like a lot more work, a lot more activity, a lot more on the schedule that we now have to try to juggle. Rest is not achieved by feeding exhaustion. Rest requires quite the opposite - a fast. It requires withholding some activity from yourself and entrusting it to God. 

Boredom isn't hunger. It's an ache, but it isn't hunger. It's a yearning for purpose, for something meaningful. Is there anything in all that spiritual food that infuses meaning into your life? No. It's a thousand more things to do without ever addressing the question of why. Meaning is not achieved by the breadth of your life - by how much you do - but by the depth of your life - the very real, intimate, personal reason why you do it. And this can never be found by simply engaging in more godly things; it is found only in engaging with God Himself.

Dissatisfaction, depression, despair - these aren't hunger. They are aches, but not hunger. They are the echoes of hope that things might some day be different, that life might not always be the way that it seems to be. They are longings for life, and life abundant. Any of those spiritual "disciplines" bringing you life abundant? No. Only Jesus does that. Run to Him, and don't settle for anything less.

See, we're doing ourselves no favors by thinking these spiritual troubles are simple hunger. They rarely are. The more we feed them, the deeper we feel the ache in our lives because food will simply never do it. It can't. The answer to our troubles is so much more than church-y things. It's so much more than spiritual things. It's so much more than god-ly things.

It's God Himself.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Not Hungry

If we think about all the things in our lives that drive us to eat when we're not really hungry, it's fairly simple to see that what we're dealing with is primarily a series of spiritual problems.

Maybe we're overly tired. The later it gets at night, the more likely we are to sneak into the kitchen for a snack, only to realize we are hundreds of calories heavier but no less tired. Not only is it that for whatever reason, we don't want to go to bed; we have forgotten entirely how to rest. We don't know how to turn off, shut down, unplug, unwind, and actually give ourselves the rest that we need.

Rest is a spiritual discipline, from as early as the time of Genesis 1. There's something about creating the space to just relax for awhile, to take the pressure off, to stop creating our world for just one minute and let things be. We've forgotten how to do this, and the more our souls ache for rest, the hungrier we seem to feel when the real issue isn't hunger at all. It's exhaustion. It's weariness. 

Like I said yesterday, any ache of emptiness will do.

Maybe we're bored. The longer we sit around feeling like there's nothing to do, the more likely we are to start wandering around, seeing if there's something to eat. It happens all the time. All of a sudden, we're standing in the kitchen, going through the pantry for the thousandth time this hour, knowing there's nothing new in there, but nibbling just the same and trying to figure out what it is we "want." 

What we "want" here is tricky because with boredom, there are two potential spiritual issues at play. The first is very similar to the former point - it's an issue of rest. We have so much become human doings that we have forgotten how to become human beings, and when forced simply to be, rather than to do, we become human eatings. Human hungerings. It's not that we are actually hungry; we just don't know what to do with ourselves when we're not doing anything. 

On nearly the opposite end of the spectrum, boredom is a sense of a loss of purpose. Either what we're doing doesn't feel worthwhile or we don't have a clear sense at all of what we're doing. This is the proverbial "rut," and it doesn't feel good. So we wander mindlessly, searching for something with meaning, and when we cannot find it, we settle for something with flavor. 

Maybe we're simply dissatisfied with life. That's a rut, too. Maybe things just aren't what we thought they'd be by now. Maybe we're not who we thought we'd be. Maybe we haven't arrived where we thought we were going and life is just one shortcoming after another after another until it just doesn't matter any more whether we have one more cookie or another box of crackers or a whole rotisserie chicken. We eat away at our emptiness, not realizing that each bite leaves merely a bigger hole to fill. 

Dissatisfaction, depression, despair...these are all spiritual problems. Even on the more mild end - restlessness - it's spiritual.

What is, perhaps, most disheartening here is that on some level, we know this truth. We know it's spiritual. How do we know that we know? Because it's not always physical food we're running toward. Sometimes, we're running toward spiritual nourishment just as hard. It's not always peeking in the pantry or rummaging through the fridge; it's just as often flipping through the Bible and humming through a hymn. We know it's spiritual. But we still think it's hunger.

And the truth is, most spiritual problems aren't satisfied with food. We simply can't feed them away. 

More on that tomorrow. 

Monday, December 28, 2015


Have you noticed that we never seem to know when we're actually hungry? It has perhaps always been one of man's greatest struggles.

Hunger is one of our most primal instincts, and it should be. Without the proper nourishment, we simply cannot do the things we need to do. From our very earliest days, we begin to recognize our hunger; it's one of the primary reasons that babies cry. But as we grow older, we seem to satisfy nearly every ache of emptiness with the same resolution: food.

I can't help but wonder if that's not what was happening in the Garden when the serpent tempted Eve.

We're never told that Eve was out foraging. All that the Scripture says is that the serpent was crafty and asked the woman a devious question. Now, if we give the serpent his craftiness, it follows that the woman was not out looking for dinner or even for a snack. She might not have been thinking about fruit at all - forbidden or otherwise. She was probably just out for a walk. Then the serpent says, hey. I have a question about these figs over here. (See my thoughts on the forbidden fig.)

And after the serpent's question, we can probably reasonably assume that Eve still wasn't feeling particularly hungry. But she was likely feeling a whole host of other things. She was probably feeling the weight of her own limitations. Did she remember exactly what God had said? Was there something she needed to know that she did not currently know?  She was probably feeling a bit of curiosity. Was God really telling the truth? What exactly doesn't she know? And just why not? Maybe for the first time in her life, she was feeling deprived. Maybe she really wanted to try one of these figs. 

See, one does not eat of the forbidden fruit simply because one is hungry; one may, however, eat of the forbidden fruit if any of a number of other things is posing as hunger. Any ache of emptiness will do. 

If it was just hunger, that's one thing. Eve knows a thousand amazing places in that Garden to get food. Good food. Great food. Even, we can assume, great figs. But what's so devious about the serpent's plan is that he's created in Eve a false hunger; it is an ache posing as a hunger, and only the forbidden fruit will do. 

The same is true for us. There are a number of different aches in our lives posing as hunger, and it's how we get caught up in all the forbidden things around us. It's not that we have a need for nourishment, or an emptiness that any good food will solve. No. It's that we have an ache that cannot be solved by good food; it's a gnawing pain that demands the forbidden. 

We have any number of names for this ache - boredom, fatigue, restlessness, fear, stress, you name it. But the principle is the same. And so is the whisper. Did God really say....?

It's a whisper that brings us face-to-face with our own limitations. It's a whisper that piques our curiosities. It's a whisper that echoes through our emptiness until we start to feel deprived. And then...that fig starts looking mighty, mighty good.

Friday, December 25, 2015


Shepherds were in the fields near Bethlehem. They were taking turns watching their flock during the night. An angel from the Lord suddenly appeared to them. The glory of the Lord filled the area with light, and they were terrified. The angel said to them, 'Don't be afraid! I have good news for you, a message that will fill everyone with joy. Today your Savior, Christ the Lord, was born in David's city. This is how you will recognize him: You will find an infant wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.' 

Suddenly, a large army of angels appeared with the angel. They were praising God by saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those who have his good will!'

The angels left them and went back to heaven. The shepherds said to each other, 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.'

They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him. Everyone who heard the shepherds' story was amazed.

...As the shepherds returned to their flock, they glorified and praised God for everything they had seen an heard. Everything happened the way the angel had told them.

Luke 2:8-20

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve

There's something special about Christmas Eve. Jesus, as we know, is about to come into the world as a beautiful baby boy, born in a manger in Bethlehem. Which begs the question: what about all the little girls?

Because there was no little girl born in that manger in Bethlehem. There were no wise men bringing dollhouses and easy bake ovens. There were no frilly little dresses and bows in the hair. There were no precious flowers. God came into this world as a little boy; He grew into a man. And not just a man, but a man's man - rough, calloused hands; dirty, dust-laden feet; beard; bridegroom; shepherd; teacher; priest; prophet; king. He's Christ, the so-called "second Adam." 

But what about all the Eves?

I'm not trying to draw some sexist or feminist lines here; that's not what this is about. It is, however, a legitimate question that has been raised time and time again over the last two thousand years. If God came into the world as a male, what does that mean for the females? If God is Son of Man, what about all the women? 

The answer lies in Mary, and traces all the way back to Eve.

Mary was a young virgin when the angel Gabriel came to her and spoke his prophecy. What's interesting to note about her story is that the prophecy was never that God was going to come and plant a baby in her womb. It wasn't that He had this God-child ready to go and was going to supernaturally manifest Him in Mary. No. When Mary asks how it's possible that she, a virgin, is going to have a child, the angel tells her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will become pregnant." (emphasis mine) The Son of God is not implanted; the virgin is impregnated. 

That means that God used the very biological function of the woman to create the Son of Man. It means the woman was not just the vessel of the coming Christ, but was a very real part of His creation. It means that the woman was not assaulted by the Holy Spirit; she received it. We all know it takes both a man and a woman to make a baby, and the story of Jesus is no different. The Son of God required a woman.

And it is, of course, by this woman that the Man came into the world, which means that wrapped up in the very story of the baby boy is the story of the young woman. 

We shouldn't get confused here. This doesn't mean that all of us females in the world are supposed to relate to Mary, to pregnancy, to birth stories, to all of the biological stuff that's necessary and relevant to the Christmas story. To do merely that is to miss the point entirely. It's not about Mary in the manger; it's about Mary, the mother of Jesus. It's about the necessary and relevant nature of woman as essential to life itself. She not only provides the womb; she provides an element of life.

And that leads us back to Eve, to the beginning of the story, to the Garden of Eden. It's interesting to note that Eve did not receive her name until after the fall; before sin, she was simply known as Adam's 'wife.' Adam, at the curse, named her Eve. And Eve...means "life."

That's the woman's role in the fallen world. She is life. She becomes pregnant and life grows within her. And isn't that life none other than Jesus?

He says so. He plainly says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Part of that life is due directly to the woman, to Mary, to the second Eve who is intimately, indisputably, inconceivably (and ironically, by conception) tied to the second Adam. A woman redeemed by the birth of a Redeemer.

This is Christmas Eve. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Mess

As a kid, I barely understood the sorts of things about Christmas that I wrote about yesterday - all the work that goes into making Christmas happen, all the anticipation, all the traditions, all the stories that are shared around the Christmas tree. I vaguely understood that either Santa came or he didn't (and that, in fact, he always did, no matter how good or bad I had actually been during any given year). But much of the stress of this season was wholly lost on me.

That's not so much the case the older I get.

The more I invest my time and energy into making Christmas happen - finding or creating the perfect gifts, setting up and decorating the Christmas tree, making sure there are batteries in the little nativity scene, baking Christmas cookies for my brothers and their kids, wrapping presents, filling stockings, waking up early in the morning to fry bacon and make waffles, positioning the video camera just right, walking repeatedly in front of it so that my backside inadvertently becomes the star of the show, running out to the store for the last-minute this and the oops-I-forgot that....the more I understand just how easy it is to get lost in Christmas.

Or worse yet, to lose Christmas itself.

It's certifiably a mess. It really is. It's scraps of paper here and flour on the floor there and a house that can never be vacuumed enough and kids fighting over who got more green-wrapped Kisses in their stocking when they wanted more red ones (I got to great lengths to make sure all the kids get exactly the same candy in their stockings, right down to the wrappers, because I have been through this one too many times) and brothers ribbing each other and relatives arguing and a few good fights breaking out. Add to that any weather that might be coming in - usually snow; this year, thunderstorms - and whatever that may entail (buckling down the outside decorations, shoveling sidewalks, mud and dirt and snow and ice and all kinds of things being tracked into the house which, as I may have said, cannot possibly be vacuumed enough). For the past three years, I've been trying to get my non-church-going family (and anti-God/anti-religion) family to join me at the Christmas Eve or Christmas Eve Eve service at my church, an idea they've been open to but one that has never panned out. One year, one of the kids choked on his dinner and mildly puked, then nobody wanted to go. Another year, it was icing or sleeting or something and nobody wanted to get out in it. Last year, we were all just plumb too tired to even try, and so it ends up that not even I get to go to Christmas Eve services, which is just one more bit of distance that comes between me and the Christmas season.

Is this story sounding familiar to anyone? Add your own spin to it, put your own characters into the narrative, but isn't this the kind of stuff most of us are putting up with or sorting out or struggling through around this time of year? It's a mess.

And it's a mess because there's not a lot of Christ in it.

Go ahead. Go through your own Christmas story and see how much of Christ is left in all the hubbub. Then take 'Christ' out of 'Christmas' and see what you have left.'s 'mess.' Just a mess.

Sometimes, I wish I knew only as much about Christmas as I knew when I was a kid. Not about Santa Claus, but about Jesus. I wish I knew just that Jesus was coming, that He always does, and that it doesn't matter how good or bad I've been any given year. He's coming anyway. He's just...coming. 

That's all I really need to know. 

No stress. No mess. Just Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Almost Christmas

As I wrote yesterday about this time between the last Sunday of Advent and the coming Christmas morning, this time we spend between the "already" and the "not yet," I was struck by how much of this season sounds almost like Christmas.


Because we talk about groaning with labor pains, and it could be about a little Christ child about to be born. Or it could be about all the labor that goes into making "Christmas" happen - hauling a tree, setting up a tree, decorating a tree, shopping for presents, wrapping the presents, stacking the presents around the tree, baking cookies, baking cakes, carving the ham, frying the bacon, mixing the waffles.... Yes, certainly, Christmas is a time for labor pains. Where's the ibuprofen?

Because we talk about anticipation and hopeful waiting, and it could be about a Promise that's coming true before our very eyes. Or it could be about a wish list a mile long, about quiet prayers whispered in the name of Santa Claus, about figuring out what's in all those packages under the tree, about not being able to wait much longer to play fill in the blank. 

For those of us a little bit older who aren't dreaming of dolls and racecars and the latest this or the coolest that, the anticipation is not so much about presents, but about presence. It's about having all of our loved ones together under one roof, if even for just a short while. It's about having two, three, four, five generations all gathered around one breakfast table. It's about sharing one more Christmas together while at the same time, seeing some of our very traditions passed down to the next generation. Seeing a whole new set of kids, grandkids, great-grandkids getting into the joy of Christmas morning. it's about seeing our families, for one morning, together. 

Oh, so close.

It's because we're talking about a star that lights the way but not bothering any more to look up at the night sky; the only star we need is the one on top of the Christmas tree. When we see it twinkling, we know someone's up and Santa has been here. 

It's because we're talking about gifts, but we're not talking about meaningful, valuable, intimately prophetic gifts like gold, frankincense, and myrrh; we're talking about gizmos and gadgets, toys and games, some assembly required, batteries not included fads that are going to be played with for about three hours, packed into a crowded car, taken home, and promptly forgotten, broken, or misplaced. 

It's because we're not talking about a certain special little boy, born in a manger on a quiet night. No, we're talking about our certain special little boys and girls, who have no concept of what "quiet" even means. Which brings us back to the ibuprofen...and all the pains of putting Christmas together.

When we talk about our Christmas stories, they're often oh so close. They have all the right things...but about all the wrong things. And anyone watching might be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is all about us. 

It's not that our Christmas stories are bad. There's something beautiful about spending this sacred time with our loved ones, gathered together, sharing stories, making memories. But let us not forget that even our best Christmas stories are no match for the original.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Already But Not Yet

Yesterday was the fourth and last Sunday of Advent this year, the time of waiting and expectation and anticipation as all of Creation groans with labor pains for the coming Christ.

But the waiting is not over.

This year, Christmas falls on Friday, which means the faithful have five days from this final Sunday to continue waiting. Five more days of feeling the baby Jesus kick around in the womb. Five more days of figuring out travel plans. Five more days of labor pains. Five more days....

It's kind of nice, really. Because as Christians, we know that the coming of Christ is very much like this. We know that what seems to be the end is only the beginning, and what seems to be the beginning is the promise of the end, and that there's all this time in between that we have to account for, no matter how the story seems to be unfolding.

We know that Christ has come; the newborn babe is fresh in our manger. But we know, too, that He's also still to come. We've spent this Advent season preparing for Him, and we know the day is close...but Advent, at least as the church recognizes it in four Sundays, is over Jesus. Not yet.

Not for another five long days.

It's the "already but not yet" that we constantly live in. It's the world torn between the birth and the coming, between all the hope and the expectation and the anticipation...and finally seeing Jesus come into this world. It's living on the edge of our seats, then taking a deep breath and sinking back into them a little bit because five more days feels like the longest stretch of time in all the world. Because the time between now and that most incredible moment seems to stretch on forever before us. 

It's coming, but it's not coming fast enough. 

And what are we supposed to do with ourselves for five more days? What are we supposed to do while we continue to wait, even though our waiting seems to be over? This is the tension of living between the Cross and the Coming. This is the tension of living between a babe born in Bethlehem and a Savior coming on the clouds. What do we do? 

We do what we're doing anyway. We spend this time relishing our loved ones, celebrating our communities. We spend this time opening our homes and opening our gifts and sharing both this time and these memories with those we love (and those who love us). We spend this time blessed to have it, joyfully anticipating the Christ's return to this world while at the same time celebrating the baby born in the manger.

There's something special about Christmas on Friday this year. It leaves us all this time between the Advent waiting and the babe's first cries to contemplate what it means to live here in the already but not yet. It means....

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Place at the Table

When I was in the sixth grade, I was not what you'd call "popular." Quite the opposite, I was the subject of much ridicule, and even received a good number of beatings from the other girls. Nobody really wanted much to do with me, and I very much felt the weight of being an outsider. 

But there was this boy, this fairly confident, mildly popular boy who, for whatever reason, was able to look past all of that. Or at least, to not let it seem like it bothered him. And this boy did something that changed my life: he made a place for me at his lunch table.

It was clearly his lunch table, although he shared it every day with the same group of friends. It was clearly his choice to make, and I remember that at first, the other boys were confused, offended, unsure of my presence. But he invited me, and he made it seem the most natural thing in the world for me to be sitting there for lunch, even though I always sat three to four seats away.

If you remember anything about middle school, you remember what a big deal this was. I mean, lunch was the thing. And there's nothing worse than standing in the middle of an overcrowded school cafeteria, full tray in hand, trying to figure out where you're going to sit and knowing that nobody wants you to sit with them. 

Except he did.

And I learned so much at that lunch table. It was full, of course, of the standard middle school boy talk - the kind of gross stuff that I'd never repeat in mixed company. But I grew up with two older brothers, so this didn't offend me. Sometimes, I was even able to join right in. There was talk of the latest video games or the up-and-coming fantasy card games, the kinds of things boys were quite interested in. So of course, I bought a deck of my own and dealt into the games. But there were a couple of occasions, too, when that boy would have some friends over for lunch, some grown-up (but not too grown-up) friends that he called "youth ministers," although he also called them by their first names. And they brought Arby's. 

I got my first real introduction to church at that lunch table. Eighteen years later, I am still at that very same church.

This is a story I shared in part with my church family last Sunday, as we gathered around the Lord's table together to celebrate Communion. 

Because Jesus is that boy. He's the one that looks right past our reputation, right past all the things we appear not to be. He's the one that dares to talk to us in the hallways even when everyone else has only a snide, or worse, word. He's the one that invites us to His lunch table, every day, and it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about it. It's clearly His table; He can invite anyone He wants. 

It's because of Jesus that we don't have to stand in an overcrowded lunch room, full tray in hand, and try to figure out where we're going to eat today. We always, always have place. 


And the most amazing things happen around this table. You find, over time, that you're not just welcome; somehow, you actually belong. You find yourself doing things you never thought you'd do in a million years, because those are the kinds of things you do around this table. You find yourself dealing into the whole thing because it's just natural for you to do so. You even find yourself meeting some new people, calling them by name, forming all these incredible new relationships. 

And yes, sometimes, there's even Arby's.

I love my place at the table. It doesn't always seem like it's the most natural place to be, like it's the place I would naturally end up if I was left on my own. But here I am, every day. Because of one boy - one Man - who made a place for me. 

There's a place for you, too.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Birds

Yesterday, I quoted a verse from Jeremiah that says, Even storks know when it's time to return. Mourning doves, swallows, and cranes know when it's time to migrate. But my people don't know.... (8:7) As I typed out those words, something struck me about the story within the story, the meaning within these words that would be all too easy to miss.

It's the kind of thing the Bible does all the time.

In the context of this verse, we're talking about seasons. We're talking about all the subtle little shifts in the wind that tell us when it's time to move. Even the birds, the Bible says, know this; but men, not so much. And it's dangerous to get into the idea of believing that seasons means "big transitional moments" because then we live our lives as one big moment after another and lose sight of the story that's being told.

But look again at the four birds Jeremiah mentions here. 

He mentions the stork, which is often thought of as a messenger of birth. Where do babies come from? Well, the stork delivers them, of course! And every time we think of a stork, we think of a bird with a bundle hanging from his beak. That's just where our minds go. Birth is certainly a big moment; it's certainly the arrival of a new season. Isn't it? It's a season of life, of hope, of anticipation, of promise, of all these incredible things that we just can't ever accurately put into words. 

He mentions the mourning dove, and mourning is the opposite of all the things the stork brings. Mourning is a time of grief, of loss, of emptiness. It's a time of hardship and trial. It's a time of trying to figure things out, trying to piece together how everything is going to work again when one of the pieces is all of a sudden taken away. It's a season of death, of heartache, of agony, of all the heartbreaking things that we just can't ever accurately put into words.

He mentions the swallow, and what is it to swallow? It is to take something in, to embrace it, to pull it into the core of your being. It's that time when something just gets deep down inside of you and maybe for a bit just sort of sits there. It's a season of uncertainty, of steel will (think: swallow hard), of facing whatever's coming at you without either the time or the energy to blink. It's a conscious decision to stand your ground, to look life in the eye, and to take it for what it's worth.

He mentions the crane, and what is the crane? When we talk about the crane, we talk about tall things. We talk about things with long necks, a creature (or an action) that strains to see something beyond what might be in its natural line of sight, or its comfortable line of sight. It's the act of looking forward, of deliberately trying to see beyond the horizon. It's a season of promise, of expectation, of imagination.

And so the Bible, in that quiet little way in which it often does this sort of thing, has once again given us a story within a story or a season within a season. It's not enough to talk about how the birds just know when it's time to move, how they understand the winds and the migration patterns. It's not just about the birds; it's about the seasons themselves. It's about life and death, about determination and hope.

It's no accident that Jeremiah writes about the stork and the mourning dove, the swallow and the crane. He chooses these four birds, these four migratory birds who move with the shifting of the winds, because these birds are our stories. Life and hope. Death and grief. Uncertainty and steel will. Imagination and promise. These are our lives. These are our moments. These are our seasons.

Do you know when to move?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Here's a question to consider: do you know when the seasons change?

Maybe now you're looking at your calendar or performing a quick Google search, and you're thinking, "Yes. Six days from now, it will be winter." And that's true, but only partially true. It's kind of a made-up truth, and one that has severely limited our ability to embrace the seasons in our lives.

See, we're surrounded by these artificial seasons. We're surrounded by these hard and fast lines between one season and the next. Not just in terms of summer, fall, winter, and spring, but in other areas of our lives, as well. The end of the year, for example, as though there's anything special about the transition between one Thursday and Friday (this year) and any other. Or maybe around your birthday - again, a clear but artificial transition between what seems like one thing and what seems like another. 

Sometimes, it's something that doesn't come along on a predictable basis, but feels like something all the same. A transition at work. A promotion. A wedding. A birth. The end of another semester. Graduation. Our list could go on and on as we think about all these days, all these occasions that seem to draw us from one season into another.

But all of these things are times when we're already moving, when it just takes one more step in the same direction to move from one thing to another. The real question of seasons, the question that creation itself asks, is: do you know when to move? I think the value of this question cannot be overstated, and it is a question we've all but lost sight of in favor of the "big moments."

From Jeremiah 8:7 - Even storks know when it's time to return. Mourning doves, swallows, and cranes know when it's time to migrate. But my people don't know....

When I read these words, I'm struck by the contrast between the birds and men. The birds migrate and return, not because the calendar tells them that the seasons are changing. Not because their dream house came on the market at just the right time. Not because they were transferred at work. Not because they graduated college and it's time to move on. No, they migrate and return because they know when it's time. And how does a bird know it's time? 

Because it senses the changes in the wind.

That's it. That's all. The winds start to change in one direction or another, the tiniest, subtlest little change that most of us are too busy to even notice, and they change the entire course of their flight to follow the winds. 

It's something I'm trying to be more intentional about in my life. I'm tired of living from one big moment to the next, always thinking that life is just a series of these defining moments. I'm tired of waiting for the next big thing to happen, of feeling stuck in this season because nothing big has happened to end it.

The truth is, more often than I move, I feel the winds blowing in my life. It's the quietest, subtlest, tiniest little thing, but I feel the winds blowing on me, urging me in another direction. Not because this season has ended, but because it's starting to change. And that doesn't mean I have to give up everything I'm doing now. It doesn't mean I abandon things mid-stream. It just means I adjust my life to go with the holy winds, and that I take the important things along with me.

It means I turn my life in a slightly different direction to go where God is taking me, and some things turn with me. And some things don't. And that's life. That's a season.

So my question for you is this: Do you know when to move?

Even the stork knows when to move. Even the mourning doves, the swallows, and the cranes know when to move. They feel the winds blowing.

Where are the holy winds blowing you?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Accursed Tree

Yesterday, I introduced an idea whereby the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden may have actually been...a fig. And that was all about what we know about the fig and how it would fit into the character of God, in terms of its place in Eden. But there's something else I like about this idea of a fig, and for that, we have to go all the way to Jerusalem in the last days of Jesus.

I've written about this fig tree before, in the context of Jesus cursing a tree before He hangs on one. If, however, we argue that the original fruit in the Garden was a fig, this accursed tree takes on an entirely new significance.

If you don't remember this story off-hand, it takes place in the books of Matthew and Mark. Jesus and His disciples are walking around in the area of Jerusalem, and Jesus walks up to this little fig tree on the side of the road. We're told He's looking for fruit. He finds none. Then He does something that seems rather harsh, especially for a guy who went 40 days without food in the wilderness - He curses the tree. He curses the tree with such forcefulness that it withers up and never produces fruit again.


Which is one thing if it's just a fig tree that happened to be barren when Jesus was hungry for a fig. It's another thing if you think about it in the context I earlier mentioned - one cursed tree on the way to the accursed tree that Jesus would be crucified on. It's yet another thing still if the forbidden fruit was itself a fig.

And here's why: you would think that if Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, if they became like God, knowing everything there is to know under the sun, then you would likely think that this would somehow make it easier for Adam and Eve to choose good. Wouldn't it? If you know what's good and what's evil, if you see clearly the world laid out before you, doesn't it follow that God makes just that much more sense to you? That good seems even better just for the contrast? 

Don't you think that if you know the difference between good and evil, that there would just be something inside of you that would go out and pursue the good? That you'd fight for the good? That you'd invest your whole life in not being part of the problem?

Don't you think that with all knowledge of what is good and what is evil, your very son would not kill his brother? I mean, at the very least! 

Don't you think that if you ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it ought to bear some measurable fruit in your life? 

Yet that's not the story of God's people. Not by a long shot. God's people seem to be driven by evil once they know it. They turn their backs on God. They refuse to believe. They choose idols. They murder one another. They fight. They run. They argue and bicker and pout. The whole world is a mess, and you'd think it wouldn't be if men really had such knowledge. Right? If this knowledge was bearing any fruit at all?

Then Jesus walks down a street in Jerusalem, crosses over, and curses a fig tree. And you think maybe it's a strange scene (and it is). But if that first tree, that famous tree, was also a fig tree, it starts to make sense.

It starts to make sense that Jesus would go out of His way to say something to this fig tree. That He'd make a scene about making an example of it. That He'd offer such a curse for a tree, simply for not bearing fruit in a convenient fashion. Because maybe it's not about a tree that just didn't have fruit on a Tuesday when Jesus was hungry; maybe it's about a tree that hasn't borne fruit in a thousand generations.

All of a sudden, that fig tree takes on incredible significance.

So I don't know whether the forbidden fruit was a fig or not, just as I was never really sure if it was an apple. But I think there are a couple of really strong theological arguments for the fig. At the very least, it's fun to think about. 

Monday, December 14, 2015


A few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts with some for-fun speculation about what the fruit in the Garden might have been. (Apple and Not an Apple) Recently, the question came up again in a class for which I was working this semester, and one of the students really had me thinking. 

He suggested maybe the fruit was a fig.

Now, I have to admit that three years ago when I was first writing about this idea, I hadn't thought much about the lesser-known fruits, the kind of fruits they don't sell in the very limited produce section of my local grocery store. And the student who suggested that this fruit might be a fig did not really have any reason or rationale for suggesting such. But I was instantly struck with a couple of ideas about it.

What I love about the idea of the fig is that it's extremely unexpected, which is just the very sort of thing that God might do.

When I was growing up, we planted a small apple tree out in our backyard. I remember being excited about having our own apples to eat, and I couldn't wait to see the fruit start to ripen on that tree. But for the first few years, nothing. Not one apple grew on that tree. And I remember being told again and again that the tree just wasn't big enough, that it had to grow a little bit more before it would be mature enough to produce some fruit. When it finally did, they were the smallest, most inedible looking apples I'd ever seen in my whole life. By the time the apples were just about getting big enough to eat, we moved out of that house, and after investing so much in that apple tree, I never got to have one single apple off of it.

And I think that's what we think about when we're talking about Eden, about the Garden, and about the tree. We're thinking about a tree that's grown to be this massive thing, this giant, towering, glowing tree in the middle of a fruitful garden, large pieces of fruit just dangling off of it, beautiful and ripe for the taking. As if there must be something special about this tree, if it's big and majestic enough to contain all knowledge of all good and evil.

But the fig...

See, the fig grows on a smaller tree. At least, it can. In fact, the fig is a popular "planter tree" - people keep them in planters in their homes or offices, tend them in small spaces, and still eat their fruit. The fig tree doesn't have to be giant and majestic to bear good fruit; it just has to be well-nurtured.

So when the student suggested that maybe the fruit was a fig, I started thinking about what this might look like in the Garden. I thought about this lush Eden we always envision, this amazing green Garden with every sort of grass and bush and flower and tree imaginable. I thought about Adam and Eve walking around picking apples off these amazing giant trees, pears and oranges, too. I thought about them picking grapes and berries off of the vines. I thought about them walking with God in the cool of the day, and then God looking at them and saying, "Whatever you do, do not eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden."

And I imagined their curiosity getting the best of them, their wondering what was so special about this tree in the middle of the garden. I thought about them coming around the trunk of a mighty cedar and peering into the forbidden zone...and seeing this tiny little fig tree with these odd-shaped little dark fruits hanging off of it.

Not the giant branches of the apple tree. Not the full green bush of the vines. Not the bright, vibrant colors of the other fruits - red apples, orange oranges, pink strawberries, purple and green grapes, yellow pears. No. Just dull, brown, boring figs on a tiny little tree. 

This is the knowledge of good and evil? This is the forbidden fruit?

It's just the kind of thing God would do, don't you think? It's just the kind of unexpected, hilarious, amazing thing that God would do. All the knowledge of the universe tucked into this tiny, unassuming fruit on this tiny, unassuming tree - a tree that maybe Adam and Eve would never have noticed if God hadn't brought it up. A tree that was easily overshadowed by all the other trees in the Garden. A tree that you'd think there was absolutely nothing special about except God had said that there is, and you have no reason to doubt Him.

And there's one other thing that makes me like this idea of a forbidden fig. For that, you'll have to wait until tomorrow. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Poor Man

As I continue to reflect on how we respond to the poor among us (see yesterday's post), I can't help but think about another poor Man: Jesus.

It's not such a stretch around this time of year to think about Jesus as a poor man, or at least as a poor infant. He was, after all, quite famously born in a stable. Fresh out of the womb, He was lain in a feeding trough.

On the eighth day, His parents presented Him at the Temple, the way all good Jewish parents did. But the offering they brought was the poor man's offering - a couple of birds. Had they any more resources, they would have brought an animal with some actual meat on its bones. But no, they brought only birds - which sold two for just a couple of cents. 

Shortly after, we see Jesus and His family take off for refuge in Egypt, where He is raised likely being told not to get too comfortable, not to become too attached. Nothing in Egypt was His, His parents would probably often remind Him. This wasn't really home. This was a borrowed bed in a borrowed shelter in a borrowed country until it was safe to go home. 

In His very early life, the only things of earthly value that Jesus had at all were a little bit of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and the truth is that we don't know whatever became of these gifts. For all we know, they were left behind in the manger (because who has room in a diaper bag for gold, frankincense, and myrrh?). Or maybe they were sold early for the money to make the journey to Egypt, or to buy passage there, or to rent a temporary dwelling. Maybe these extravagant gifts (which I'm going to write a bit more about as we get closer to Christmas), which were essentially useless both for an infant and for a poor family, were quickly transformed into more meaningful provision, then long-forgotten. 

Or maybe Mary tucked them away for Jesus to have "when He gets older." Who knows?

So it's no secret that Jesus was born a poor man. But what we often forget is that He lived as one, too. 

When we see Jesus in the Gospel stories, He's always on foot. Maybe this is a simple preference of His, something He's doing to keep Himself close to the people. But very many around that time would have had at least one camel, right? A lot of people were using animals as transportation, especially across long distances, and especially when they were toting goods. It's far easier for a camel or a donkey to carry the goods from market than to try to tote them all yourself. But Jesus is only ever once spoken of as riding on an animal, and it wasn't even His animal. He sent His disciples to borrow one for Him. He was always talking about a traveling sack, the kind you throw over your own shoulder to go from place to place.

He was often criticized for eating with sinners, and we tend to take these scenes at face value. But there are two underlying truths here about His poverty that cannot be ignored. First, you never once see Jesus eating His own food. He's always eating someone else's food. At Simon's house. In the Upper Room. Even when we see Him at the well, having sent the disciples into town for food, He doesn't even eat what they bring back. On the hillsides, He divides by thousands the lunch pail of a little boy. He's either a cosmic mooch, or He doesn't have many resources. (He does, one time, cook fish for His disciples, but He's standing resurrected on the seashore. He didn't buy that fish; He caught it.) 

Second, you never see anyone eating at Jesus' house. He tells us He doesn't have a house - the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head - but He at least has a family home. His mother and brothers are somewhere; there's a place He could go if He needed a place to go. But we never see Him go there. We never see Him go to any place called home, and so He never entertains, either.

I'm not saying this poverty was forced upon Him, or even that it was necessary. I very much believe His poverty was intentional. But that doesn't make Him any less of a poor man.

And I can't help but wonder what we'd think of such a poor man if He walked among us today. I can't help but shudder to think about how we'd react to Him - dirty feet, traveling bag slung over His shoulder with all the meager possessions He has in all the world. Always eating at someone else's house, always using someone else's resources. No place to call His own, no home to go to at night.

I can't help but wonder what we'd say if we saw Him. Get a job, we might say, snorting derisively. Clean yourself up every once in awhile. Maybe you wouldn't be so poor if you'd stop giving everything you have away. Why don't you find your own food somewhere? Not in my neighborhood; get out of here. 

Or maybe we'd just turn away and spend the rest of our day talking about "that homeless Man" who just "doesn't get it." 

There's something about it when Jesus says, Whenever you have seen someone hungry, and given him food; thirsty, and given him drink; naked, and given him clothes; sick or in prison, and visited him.... because He knew, even when He said, whatever you have have done for me, that in another time, in another place, and indeed, in this very time and place both then and now, it very easily could be Him. 

The poor Man.

Whose life is more abundantly rich that our haughty eyes could ever see. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Poor Among Us

For some reason, my Facebook feed this morning is full of heartbreaking reactions to poverty in our world.

There's the story about a local methadone clinic that wants to move locations, taking up residence in an empty part of a tucked-away strip mall on the opposite side of town. And the residents of the area are venomously against this idea. Don't bring these people into my neighborhood, they say. We don't need a drug problem here. Why can't these people go somewhere else? Someone wrote in to say, There's already a food stamp place right there. What do they need - one stop shopping? And of course, there were others who said, Far too close to home. Forgetting, of course, how blessed they are to have a home at all. (And forgetting, too, that no matter where you put such a clinic, it's very near home for someone.

There are comments starting to crop up on one of the garage sale groups I frequent, people criticizing others for both asking for help this Christmas and making purchases off the group. If you're going to have to ask for help, maybe you should not spend every dime that you have so you can buy your own Christmas. One person noted that a specific person was asking for help on one site and selling items on another, then drew the conclusion (with no evidence) that this person must obviously be selling all the things others give to her out of charity. Another person had to audacity to suggest that if you know money is a struggle, maybe budget and plan ahead and save your tax refund to go toward Christmas instead of blowing it in April when you get it. Forgetting, of course, that sometimes someone needs to buy something in April, too. 

And there's this actually pretty neat story about a homeless man who recently won the lottery. All his friends say it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. His community is rejoicing for him. My community, on the other hand, is asking how a homeless man gets a lottery ticket in the first place, as if every dime that he ever stumbles upon is supposed to go only toward his necessities. As if he's supposed to fully embrace his poverty, give up all luxuries until he gets himself back on his feet, and stop being the same kind of human that the rest of us are. We can buy lottery tickets, we argue; we have an "extra" dollar or two. He, the homeless man, doesn't have that same right.

As I was reading through these things this morning (and full disclosure: it's partly my fault. Comment sections on social media are notoriously vicious and heartbreaking), I...can't fathom how we got this way. I have to say that I don't really know how to respond to a world like this. The first group are the Pharisees praying in the temple, thanking God that they aren't like these drug addicts, standing at a distance to keep the dirtiness from rubbing off on them. Here they stand in this blessed place, and they look derisively on someone else who has dared to search for somewhere blessed himself. As if this temple was made just for them.

But it is the addicts whose prayer is found pleasing to God. It is those willing to step into a methadone clinic and say, My life is a mess. Help me, who are truly in the most blessed place. And God Himself will hear them, even if the rest of you are trying hard not to. God Himself will answer them, while you turn away.

The second group are Judas, a bunch of self-appointed actuaries and accountants, thinking it's their responsibility to keep the books for everyone. They look at the way others manage their resources, and they, of course, have a better way of doing it. A poor woman walks into a crowded home, kneels at the feet of Jesus, and breaks open an alabaster jar that contains more than mere perfume; it's all the wealth she has in the world. And Judas stands there scoffing. What is a poor woman doing with such a valuable gift? She ought to have sold it, he says. She ought to have maximized its potential, exploited its worth, invested its profits. Now, he says, she's poorer still, since she has not used her one tiny measure of wealth wisely.

But it is this poor woman who has just anointed the Lord. Her offering is not just a sacrifice; it is a beautiful gift. She has done what no one else has done, Jesus says. She has given this most incredible thing, and there was no better use of her one precious resource. Yes, she's still poor. Yes, she will still struggle. Yes, she may even require assistance down the road. But blessed is she indeed, for in this moment, she's done the wise and wonderful thing, even though it seems foolish to the man with the books.

The third group are the self-righteous. They are the ones who are interested only in keeping everyone in his place, in making sure that everyone pays the full consequence for where their life is right now. They are the ones dragging the woman out of the adulterer's bed and into the public square, right into the presence of the Teacher and demanding that she be held accountable, demanding that she pay the full penalty for her act (and it must be said, ignoring the man who is just as guilty as she is). They are the ones in the crowd turning away in disgust when they discover that the bleeding (unclean) woman has just pushed her way through. They are the pharisees worried about proper handwashing and dinner company. They are the crowds crying out for Barabbas to be free and condemning the good man standing in front of them. 

But it is this homeless man who is most righteous of them all. It is he who is not depending upon himself, who dares to dream of something better, who believes in more than he can see with his own eyes. It is he who, by accounts of all those who actually know him (and haven't just read his story on the Internet), is the truly good man. And he is most blessed.

All these stories, all these same old stories, continuing to divide our world. It's amazing, isn't it? And all these persons, all these men and women who seem to keep getting the short end of our stick, they are blessed indeed. Blessed without our even knowing it because we're so busy keeping the rules, keeping the books, keeping the status quo that we won't even look their way. Because we refuse to look their way. 

You hypocrite! You Pharisee!

Blessed are these....

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


There's something inherently impossible about Mary. You remember that, don't you? There's something inherently impossible about a young virgin bearing a child, about a scared little girl praising God in the uncertainty, about anything good coming from Nazareth. (And that, by the way, is a comment not just on Jesus, but on His parents, too. He was only from Nazareth because they were, which means this Mary and this Joseph? They couldn't have been good, either.)

It's far too easy for us to get wrapped up in the possible, even in the possible that comes only from the impossible. Jesus has taken on our very flesh and come to earth; do you know what this means? Do you understand all the possibilities that opens up? Of course. That's what most of us spend the Christmas season celebrating. But do we remember that what now seems possible is only so because of the seemingly impossible?

Here's the problem: we live our lives on the brink of possible. Ask any man what he thinks about nearly anything, and he's bound to tell you to some degree what that thing makes possible. What do you love about sports? They make victory possible. What do you love most about your wife? She makes it possible for me to be a better man. Do you think it will rain today? It's possible. We spend our lives talking about what's possible; everything is about its possibilities.

And sadly, we've extended this language to God. With God, all things are possible. I can do all things (all things are possible) through Christ who gives me strength. God makes it possible....Jesus makes it makes it possible. There's no mystery in possible any more. It simply is.

Even if, as we've long forgotten, it never was.

We lose something when we fail to contemplate the impossible, when we forget to remember how unlikely this whole life of ours is. We lose something when all we think about is what's possible, or what must be possible since it actually is. Even in a time such a this, the Christmas season, surrounded by a story that is all kinds of impossible, the story has become so routine, so mundane, that it doesn't feel impossible any more. It doesn't feel impossible because it's clearly happened, it's clearly real. It must be possible because it simply is.

Of course God gets virgins pregnant. Of course they travel long distances in their ninth month. Of course they give birth in barns. Of course there's always that one bright star in the sky pointing toward something incredible. Of course the shepherds would wander into the barn in the middle of the night (when, it must be noted, wolves are most on the prowl and pose the greatest danger to the flocks). Of course three wise men are going to go see what all the hubbub is about (because even as wise men, they haven't the foggiest idea).

Of course God wraps Himself in flesh and comes to dwell among His people. 

Of course it's possible. We hear the story every year. It's possible because it's happened. 

But the danger is that when we start to think this way, especially about something so miraculous, so impossible as the Christmas story, we start to think this way about everything. It's possible if it's happening or if it's happened. It's possible if God is doing it. And though we say that all things are possible with God, we don't really mean that. We only mean they're possible if He's actually done them. 

There are still impossible things. God just doesn't do them. (They are impossible. Duh.) 

Because the impossible became possible, and then it became routine, and then it became nothing at all, and when we fail to remember how impossible this whole thing is, we forget that our God is the God of the impossible. We forget that He is always doing what seems to be undoable. Then when we run up against the impossible in our own lives...we can't. He can't. No one can. It's impossible. Impossible things don't just happen. They can't.

Except they do. All the time. 

God is doing them.

There's something inherently impossible about Christmas. You remember that, don't you? Good. 

Because when you remember that God has always done the impossible, maybe, just maybe, you dare to believe He's still doing it. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mary Did You Know

This past Sunday was our annual children's Christmas pageant, and it was everything you'd expect a children's Christmas pageant to be. But what I'm taking away from this year's pageant is a quieter moment that took place a couple of Sundays ago when, I'm sure, no one even realized I was standing there.

We have a few amazingly talented young girls in our congregation - girls who are dedicated, love Jesus, and sing with absolutely incredible voices. This year, one such young girl was chosen to play the role of Mary. I snuck in at the end of one of the rehearsals, needing to say a few words to one of the adults present, and overheard someone talking to Mary's mother. The gist of the conversation, as best as I could grab it (since I was not really listening, or trying not to listen) was that some sort of potentially major change had been made to something that Mary was expected to do, and one adult was telling the other how disciplined Mary was being, how hard she was working to accommodate the changes, how she was really doing quite the good job of it.

And young Mary, standing there between the two adults with eyes wide open, was totally cool about the whole thing. She looked up at her mother at just the moment her mother looked down at her, and she just slightly shrugged her shoulders and smiled. Everything about her declared, "I got this," but there was not an ounce of arrogance or self anywhere near that little girl. You could almost see the humble grace she had in her eyes, as if all she was thinking about at that moment was the incredible gift God had given her, the young girl that He had made her to be, and how blessed she felt to be doing what she was doing at this very moment. 

It was a quiet confidence that I have to be honest, I don't think I've ever had. 

I never, as a little girl, had that kind of understanding of who I was. As an adult, I'd say that I forget it more often than I remember it, although God is working on that when I'm mindful to pay attention to Him. On the rare occasion when maybe I did know, what I knew was something I never wanted to be true about me. I live a life haunted by my insecurities; I always have. And so it's always been easier for me to think about a Mary who must have been overwhelmed by the whole thing, a Mary who wrestled with what God was asking her to do, a Mary who, even when she knew, continued to be haunted by her insecurities - a young girl, a poor girl, a pregnant virgin, a whole mix of things that never could be or never should be. And trying to figure out how here.

But then I saw Mary's eyes a few weeks ago, the real Mary's eyes. Brimming with confidence. Wide with anticipation. Softened by humility. This whole mix of beautiful things that are said without words. And when she opens her mouth to speak, to sing.... 

It's the magnificat.

I understand now how Mary turned her heart toward God, how she was able to declare My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. There's something about her, something in her heart that says, "This is who I am." Not because she sat around figuring herself to be the kind of poor, young virgin who gets pregnant, but because she dared listen to the words God spoke about her, the words He spoke over her, and believe them. Two thousand years ago in a quiet moment and just a few weeks ago in much the same.

And I can't help but find myself praying that one day, maybe that will be me, too. That one day, my eyes, too, will sparkle with that still, small confidence of knowing who I am. Of having heard God speak and...believed Him.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Heart Trouble

In terms of just what is wrong with this world, I think the only real answer is that we have a heart problem. And I think we always have.

We've never really been good at training our children to take care of their hearts. We've always sort of left them to figure it out for themselves, and this much is true regardless of what the current teaching of the time is. In the days when we weren't afraid to admit that life sometimes isn't fair and that other persons will sometimes hurt you, we taught our children how to repair or at least pursue relationship, and we told them that forgiveness and love would heal their heart. But we all sort of know that's not really true. Forgiveness doesn't just heal a heart; neither does choosing to love someone else. The pain is still there, and even though we all know it, we still don't know what to do with it.

In modern times, when we tell our children to guard their hearts, when we help them build walls between their hearts and the world, when we teach them that the best way to handle their hearts is with aggressive protective care and, at the same time, tender gloves, we still haven't really told them how to deal with the real pain of having a heart in a fallen world. We all sort of understand this, too. No matter how protective you try to be of your heart, something always breaks through and stabs you right at the very core. Life still hurts. It still sucks. There are still bad things happening that we have to deal with. And though we tend to applaud the idea of heartlessness (living heart-free), that's not really working for anybody. We can't just separate ourselves from our hearts.

Nor should we even want to.

I wish I had better answers for this, something more worthwhile to say, but the truth is that I find myself in the same boat as the rest of humanity: I don't really know what to do with my heart. Sometimes, I feel like I'm loving this world well, but the insecurities I have about love are never far away. Do I really love? Do I even know how to love? This feeling that I it love or something less? Sometimes, I wonder if love is even what I think it is, or if I'll ever be capable of loving. 

Sometimes, I experience tremendous, deep joy. But is it joy? Pure joy? There's something haunting about the depraved heart. There's something that always feels a little selfish, or a little self-satisfied, about it. Is this joy or is it mere happiness? And if it is happiness, what stands between self and joy but my own twisted heart?

I've often said, and tend to make no secret, that sometimes, I think I was built to be brokenhearted. This doesn't bother me so much anymore, but it used to just eat at me. What is brokenheartedness? What is the purpose of it? What is it about this world that grieves me, and what am I supposed to do about it? 

It's from here that I began to form my response to all this heart stuff, that I began to understand, just a little bit, what it is we're supposed to do with these hearts of ours. But I admit that the answer isn't always what we might hope it would be.

We have to keep taking our hearts to God. 

It sounds so simple, and yet, it's not, and I think that's what so many find so discouraging about it. Even Christians. Because when you take your heart to God, He doesn't simply soothe it. No, I find that when I honestly take my heart before God, He draws me deeper into it. He draws me deeper into the raw places in it - the grief, the ache, the brokenness, the depravity, the worry, the fear, the trouble. When I take my heart to God, I beg Him - please, God. I don't know what to do with...this. And His answer is usually, "Let me show you what this is."

It doesn't always help, at least not in the way that I hope it will. But it does, strangely, make the whole thing feel more holy. From the depth of my heart, I am drawn into the center of His, and there's something absolutely incredible about that. 

And cooler still, this works for the good stuff, too. It works when I take my heart of love and joy and peace and celebration to Him. When I say, "Lord, I...don't know what to make of this good, good thing." Then He says, first, let me show you how good this is. And even my love, joy, peace, celebration go all the deeper.

I don't think most of us know what to do with our hearts. I don't think we ever really have. Nobody ever taught us, likely because they didn't know themselves. But I think it's past time that we start trying to figure it out. 

For me, that means bringing my heart to God a thousand times a day. Not to ask Him to mend it necessarily, but in full confession and surrender, declaring, "God, I don't know what to do with this. Teach me what to do with this." And He does. 

By drawing me so far into my raw, broken, depraved heart that I can't help but find His in the center of it all. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Caged Animals

We're hearing it again this week: we have a "gun problem" in America. And no matter how many times they say it, it's still not true.

We have a human problem in America.

The problem is that we've stopped teaching persons, encouraging persons, to live in community. What we've taught them instead is to build their own communities, which doesn't quite work. Instead of trying to get two parties to work out their grievances with one another, which was a staple of conflict resolution in the past, we now tell them to just avoid one another. If someone bothers you? Don't be around that person. Just ignore them. 

And so individuals are building a wall between themselves and others. Regardless of how "well" this seems to work, there's a certain pain in it that never goes away. There's a certain feeling of being "trapped." If you're avoiding someone, you think about that person every time you think about doing anything - will you accidentally run into them? Will they be there, too? What if they speak to you? What if they don't know that you're ignoring them? And so on and so on. Pretty soon, you feel even more trapped, and you wonder why they don't seem to be bothered in the same way you are. They seem so free.

Then we tell persons that if someone doesn't agree with them, they can cut that person out, too. There's no point in dialogue, no point in trying to share your point of view. Just cut those who disagree with you out of your life. You don't need them, we say. And so another wall goes up. Because every time you look at someone who disagrees with you, no matter how much you may want to love them, you see only their disagreement. And that's dangerous, so you turn away. 

Then we tell persons that other persons tend to have sinister motives, that you just can never trust who you're dealing with because everyone is just out for himself. Or for some other cause. We tell them that this world is just going to use them up and spit them out and that they'd better be careful about who they associate with and what the ulterior motives might be. So yet another wall goes up, just a little more distance between one person and another, so that nobody ever has to get "hurt."

Meanwhile, everyone's hurting.

All these walls we teach persons to build around themselves, and it's not very long before we start feeling like caged animals. Our world gets smaller and smaller until one day, we realize we're just pacing the length of our cell, our cage, and it doesn't look to us like other persons are in the same imprisonment. (They are. It just never looks that way from inside the cage.) And with each man in his own little cage, that's where we feed him. 

We feed his ego and tell him that he's in the right, that he had to cut himself off from others in this way because they'd just be toxic to him. We feed his ego and tell him that he's better than all of those who are outside his cage. We feed his ego and tell him that he never did have to compromise with any of those other persons, that he was right to demand that they concede to him. We feed his ego and build him up until he's sure that he's the only right individual in all the world. And in his own little world, in his tiny little cage, maybe he is. 

And then, most heinous of all, after we have convinced him to build his cage and we have fed his ego, we bait him to fight. It used to be that we all knew that life simply isn't fair. That's not true any more. Now, when someone complains that life isn't fair, we tell him to go out and make it fair. We tell him to fight for fair, as if fair is anything at all. We tell him that he has every right to every single thing that every single other person in all the world has, and that this is fair. And we tell him that if he wants fair, he has to go after it. Hard. Viciously. Venomously. He has to go out and fight for it. 

For what it's worth, there is no such thing as fair. Equality isn't equal. Each and every one of us is special and unique in our own way, and what is fair for one may not be fair for another. That's just the way it works. We could learn, we could teach other, to rejoice in our differences, to champion those that are different from us. But we don't. We tell them to fight for every little thing they can get, out of the fear that someone may end up with something that you don't have. Regardless, of course, of whether you need it or would even know what to do with it if you had it. 

So we have all these caged animals, all these men that we've taught to build up walls around themselves because teaching them to live in community is just too hard. And we've fed them well. We've kept telling them that they're right about everything, and that this world is just backward and wrong. And then we've baited them to fight, holding out the proverbial carrot of fair and equal, of entitlement to all things. 

And then we're troubled by the bloodshed. Like it's some mysterious thing that we can't possibly understand, like we don't know how it happened. Really? 

There's a reason this is happening more often now than it was fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, we taught persons how to reconcile, how to make up with one another. We made them apologize; we taught them forgiveness. Now, we advise them simply to avoid each other. Fifty years ago, we taught persons how to listen to the other side of the story, how to respectfully disagree, how to have a civil conversation. Now, we tell every man that he's right and that the only voice that matters is his own. Fifty years ago, we weren't afraid to discipline, to correct, to chastise. Now, we comfort, we assuage, we pacify. Fifty years ago, we knew that life wasn't fair. Now, we argue that it has to be, even though we're keenly aware that fair isn't even fair. 

We're caged animals, and humanity is a zoo. Every once in awhile, and more and more these days, someone's going to break his cage and come storming out of it. That's what we're seeing. And that's what's going to continue to happen until we come to our senses and realize that men weren't made for cages. They were made for community.

And that means learning how to live together again.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Echoes of Emptiness

Yesterday, I wrote about the sticky theological problem of there being no mourning in Heaven. But the question goes far beyond even the difficult things I was able to mention in one short post. Most pressingly, it's hard to imagine a Heaven without mourning when it's rather clear that it's been full of mourning since Genesis 3.

God Himself mourns.

God mourns the turning away of His creation. He mourns the loss of His people's hearts. He mourns the brokenness, the destruction, the hate, the poverty in His world. He mourns His tarnished creation. And as heart-breaking, as gut-wrenching, as grief and mourning are, we just don't have a paradigm by which these things ever go away.

We can't imagine that when God restores the creation, when He re-creates the world, that this sting in His heart is just going to go away. That all of a sudden, He's not going to grieve any more about all that His creation has been through, about all we have lost, about all we have given away, about all we have missed, about all we have mistaken. 

It's like when you see someone who's been struggling for so long finally break through. It's like when you see someone finally reach their full potential. It's like when you see someone turn a corner, and for the first time, it feels like things are going to be okay. There's this overwhelming joy, this amazing pride, this awesome sense of peace...but these are only heightened by a deepening sense of grief. In these victorious moments, we feel the pain of struggle all the more. 

Receiving the all-clear from the oncologist only makes us look back on the dozens of rounds of chemo. Hoisting the championship trophy makes us think about all the rebuilding years. Crossing the finish line makes us remember all of the training miles we put in. Landing that steady job makes us reflect on the poverty that's marked the past season. We don't feel "bad" about these things any more, don't feel the immense pain of them. There's almost a certain nostalgia to it. But fullness has a way of emphasizing the emptiness in a way we just can't shake. 

And I think that's the way it's going to be when God looks at His redeemed, restored creation. He's going to be overwhelmed with joy, content with peace, but I don't think He can just shake off all the heartbreak that He's felt over the years at the state of His creation, the condition of His people. I think the fullness of redemption has to be somewhere in the tension between what always was and what finally is.

And I can't imagine that my response will be any different. I can't imagine a world in which I don't look at the recreated, restored, whole people who have been part of my broken journey here, where I finally see them as they were always intended to be...and I'm overcome at once with joy and with the nagging sense of heartbrokenness that this was hiding inside of them the whole time, and they were never able to latch onto it. Mourning is not our primary emotion, but joy is only complete in filling an emptiness. 

Can we ever be whole without feeling our emptiness? I can't imagine that we could. I don't think we ever have.

Yet I'm also aware that we've never lived a Heavenly life. We've never lived in a non-broken world. Maybe things are really that different there. Maybe there's a way. Maybe the way we feel joy in Heaven is so far beyond even the greatest joy that we have here that we can't even imagine what it's going to be like. If that's the case, I can't wait to see it. 

But I'm ready, too, if my heart always stays a little broken, if I always have echoes of this emptiness inside of me. Because at least from what I know here, the emptiness makes the space for the joy to go all the deeper.