Friday, January 30, 2015

Horror Stories

I've had opportunity here lately to think about what it means when we talk redemptively about ourselves, when we tell our stories for meaningfulness above all other things. And, of course, on the flip side of that, what it means when we don't.

I think women are more prone to this than men because we are, by our very nature, talkers. We work things out in words and in groups, and it's easy for us to get caught up in the we, and our girlfriends, are talking. Or maybe it's just easier for me to see this in women because I happen to be one and because, as a woman, I can only really speak to a woman's heart. If any of you guys reading would like to take a shot at this from a male perspective, hit me up. I'll share my space with you if you've got something meaningful to say on the subject.

But it always happens, doesn't it, ladies? We get together, and it's not long before we're talking about all the terrible things. We're sharing stories like war veterans, bonding over the things that "happen to us all." We're talking about how the last time we went shopping, we had to start looking at bigger numbers. We're talking about how when we got dressed for the very dinner we're now sharing, we had to lay flat on our backs and kind of jiggle our ways into our clothes. We're talking about a few extra pounds here, a few extra hormones there, a head of hair that we just can't do anything with, make-up that doesn't flatter our cheekbones, a new nail polish we're just not sure about, kids we can't control, husbands we can't get to talk to us, houses we can't keep clean, and the list goes on and on. 

We make it sound like it's a whole lot of work to be lovely. And the funny thing is, in all our talk, where is the loveliness?

Isn't that what God intended us to be? Lovely? Beautiful? Tender? Strong? We sit around so often and talk like ugly, bitter, weak hags instead of the women of God we were meant to be. Even Christian women, I'm sad to say. And what's most terrible about it is that we do it all with a smile on our faces. We do it all in joy. We feel most in community when we share all of this with one another and find out that we're not alone. It's like this magical, mystical force that's drawing us together.

...and dragging us down.

All this talk we're doing, all these things we think are bonding us to one another, they're all reflections not of grace, but of the curse. They're reflections of the lesser things we've become because of sin. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the stories we tell over pregnancy. Every once in awhile, you will find a woman who will bravely say, "Oh, I loved being pregnant," but for the most part, it's a swapping of horror stories. When we started puking. How often we were puking. How swollen our feet got. How much weight we put on. How much weight we could never get off. The toll of gestational diabetes. The difficulty of labor. The fear of the emergency C-section. The alien that eventually came to be our precious bundle of joy, and how we still can't figure out exactly how that's our kid. 

Never mind, it seems, that we had the incredible opportunity to participate in the miracle of life. We put our hands on pregnant bellies and rejoice over the heartbeat, then talk about the morning sickness and the pain and the problems. What about the heartbeat? What about the life? Why isn't that our bonding point? Why isn't that where we start the conversation?

We're better at talking about pain than we are at talking about life. We're better at talking about trouble than about miracles. And I don't know, I think in an unsuspecting sort of way, it's come to change what we think life even means.

It's easy for any young woman who overhears us to think that this is what it means to be a woman. That it's one misery after another until you die, and I know a lot of women who think this way. It's easy to think that we're meant to have misery, that it's the one thing we all have in common. But what about grace? What about all the things we were meant to be that we also have in common?

What about our loveliness? Do we tell each other how lovely they are? What about our beauty? Does it really come from a bottle and an agonizing routine, or is there something inherent in our beauty? What about our tenderness? Is it really more trouble than it's worth or is it a gift of God we just can't shake? What if we embraced it? What about our strength? We spend so much time living in our seeming disgraces that there's not a lot of room for grace.

It's heartbreaking, really, that we continue to tell our stories in such a way. I want to see us change the way we talk. Not because we don't have trouble fitting into our clothes or struggles when we look in the mirror; we should continue to be honest about such things because we are fallen women. But we're more than fallen; we're also redeemed. And I'd like to see a lot more of this in our language. I'd like to see us talking just as much about our Truths as our troubles. I'd like to see us talking more about what a woman was made to be than what a woman thinks she has to be. 

I'd like to see us talk about laundry and loveliness. About burdens and beauty. About trials and tenderness. About struggles and strength. I'd like to see us bonding over more than our fallen natures; I'd like to see us bonding beyond the curse. I'd like to see us trading our horror stories for narratives of grace, building each other up in all that it means to truly be a woman - fallen, sure, but favored still.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Do You Believe?

What does it take for you to believe?

There are a lot of stories in the Gospels about men declaring what they need to believe in Jesus. First, they come to Him somewhere in the middle of His ministry and tell Him if He would just show them a miracle, they would believe. But the truth is that the miracles are all He's shown them. He's already healed countless sick, given sight to countless blind, told paralyzed men to stand up and walk. What are these, if not miracles? Is one more going to make the difference? Does it take one more for you to believe?

There's a story in Luke 16 about a rich man and a man named Lazarus. Lazarus spends his life begging at the rich man's gate, covered in sores, and miserable; the rich man spends his life inside the gate, partying, and living the life of luxury. Both men die and Lazarus is rewarded while the rich man is sent into suffering. The rich man can see Lazarus and begs for him to be permitted to come and sooth the rich man's pain. The request is denied. The rich man begs again, "Then at least let him go back to my father's house. I have five brothers, and if a man comes back from the dead and warns them, they will believe." Again, the request is denied and Jesus declares, "If they won't listen to Moses' Teachings and the prophets, they won't listen even to a dead man." What about you? You have Moses' Teachings and the prophets. Do you really need a dead man?

And again, when Jesus is on the Cross, a group of witnesses gathers and begins to taunt Him. "He said He would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days," they said. "But if He really is the Son of God, let Him take Himself down from the Cross." C'mon, Jesus. Climb on down. Show us You're tougher than nails, and we'll believe You. That's all it takes - one big, powerful moment. One earth-shattering feat of strength, and You've got us. We're Yours. And He doesn't do it. Did you need Him to? Are you waiting on one big, powerful moment?

We all have an idea what it takes for us to believe. We all think we know what it is that we need to experience from God to be able to put our faith in Him. But the truth is He could give us all we ask for, and we still would not believe. Indeed, that's all His people have ever done.

Those who had seen the miracles were asking for one more. And there is one more. Three days later, there's an empty tomb. 

Those who were looking for a dead man found Him. Jesus appeared to more than 500 people after His resurrection. He came back from the dead and walked the very streets they walked. 

Those who asked for one big, powerful moment - one moment where Jesus was tougher than nails - got it. At the moment Jesus gave up His spirit and died, the earth shook, the curtain tore, and the ground opened up for the dead to walk out (which means those who were waiting for a dead man got even more than they bargained for). 

See, Jesus has given these doubters the very things they thought they needed to believe. He does the same for you and me. Whatever it is you think is the missing piece, it's already out there. It's somewhere in the story of Jesus. He's given you the very thing you've asked for. The question is: is it enough? You have what you thought it takes. You have one more miracle. You have a dead man come back to life. You have one big, powerful moment. 

Do you believe?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Bait

It seems everybody loves a good fight. Even so-called friends.

The world of social media has established this trend of baiting, or some may call it trolling. It's the idea that someone will post a bit of information - a news story, a cartoon, a meme, an opinion, inflammatory words - solely for the sake of eliciting a strong response. They want people to start arguing. They want people to start fighting. They want people to get into their baser selves and start tearing up the Internet. There are people who do this to the very people who "like" photos of their children.

And there are people who take the bait over and over and over again. There are people who spend their lives fighting on the Internet. What are you? Some kind of fish?

Worse than a fish. Ask any fisherman, and he'll tell you that not even the fish take every piece of bait. Sometimes, you dangle a worm out there for hours and watch the fish just swim right by. (And yet, this doesn't take the joy out of fishing. It's a weird, weird sport.)

What's the point of all this, though? The point is this: all this bait is meant for nothing more than to make the little things the big things. It's meant to distract us from the issues and get us arguing about the details. It's meant to take us away from the community and divide us into smaller groups, armies in the ideological war. And it's much older than social media.

This has been happening in the church for thousands of years. It was happening in the early church. It was happening in yesterday's church. It's happening in today's church. People start stirring up trouble, dropping bait to see who will bite, and all of a sudden, here we are fighting about every little thing...forsaking the big things, the things that really matter. 

It's why we're arguing about what baptism means. About how often we should take the Lord's Supper. About what constitutes the Lord's Supper. About what kind of music we worship to. About the role of women in our congregations. About what kind of teaching we should have. About what kind of media we use in our worship services. About what qualifies a man to be an elder. About how much we should be doing in our communities. About what we serve at the potluck next Sunday. About what we wear when we walk in our doors. About thousands of little things that divide us even while we all continue to proclaim the one thing that is true about all of us: we love Jesus.

Do you get that? We all love Jesus. Then we spend our time fighting about how we love Jesus, and the conversation isn't even about love any more. It's about all these little things that don't even matter. 

Where is this love?

Satan is a troll. 

From the very inception of God's church, the enemy of Christ has been getting us all riled up, arguing about the little things. He's been dropping bait in front of us like worms, and we're taking it. What are we? Some kind of fish?

Worse than fish. Not even the fish take every piece of bait that's dropped in front of them.

Jesus never said He'd make us fish; He said we would be fishers of men. Which means it's time for us to start dropping our own bait. It's time for us to start dropping love in the water and letting it hang there, the light catching it just right to start drawing in the fish. 

Because there are plenty of fish out there. Plenty of people just waiting to bite.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Beginning and the End

"I am the Alpha and the Omega," God says. The beginning and the end. And it sounds powerful when He says it like that. (Another translation of the Bible, in an attempt to bring this into more common English, says, "I am the A and the Z," and while this is what Alpha and Omega really means, it somehow packs less of a punch this way. It just sounds...weird.)

But have you stopped to think about what this really says?

It says that everything starts and ends with God. He creates, and He restores. He makes, and He redeems. He builds, and He destroys. Everything begins as a seed of His divine imagination and ends in His harvest. Which sounds encouraging. Which sounds hopeful. Which sounds incredible. 

Were it not for all that stuff in the middle.

See, it's all that stuff in the middle that most of us just don't know what to do with. It's all that stuff between where we came from and where we're going that throws us for a loop. It's all that junk between yesterday and tomorrow that leaves us wondering - who is this God? And where is He? Is He simply the beginning and the end? Is that enough?

It's hard. It's hard to be stuck in a place like this, somewhere between creation and restoration, somewhere between formation and redemption. Somewhere between life abundant. It's hard to be in this place where we, the seed of His imagination, are left struggling to break through the ground of this earth, struggling to grow and reach toward the life-giving light, waiting through the seasons for the chance to bear our fruit. It's hard here. Is really the God who is the first and the last of any comfort in a place like this?

Not much. But the God who is the Alpha and Omega is.

Alpha and Omega has to do with much more than just what's first and what's last. I don't think it's an accident that when God is picking beginnings and ends with which to equate Himself, He chooses the letters of the alphabet. He's an author, after all. He's a bit of a wordsmith. He knows what He's saying. And what He's saying is this:

If you put life in order, God is the first and the last. But life is not so simple. Life is made of this mess in the middle; it is made of the things that come between. Beta, gamma, delta...B, C, D...all the way to Phi, Chi, Psi...W, X, Y...these are the things that life is made of, along with the Alpha and Omega. Along with the A and the Z. The beginning and the end, as represented in the letters, are themes that keep showing up in our lives again and again. That's the nature of language. That's why the author uses letters to show us; He's using those letters to build words. And He's using those words to build a life.

You can't write for very long without coming into contact with at least the Alpha. A is a very common letter. It shows up again and again in our most common vocabulary. It's already shown itself in this paragraph 20 times! And as God is writing your story, you see this, too. The beginning keeps showing up again and again. It keeps coming back to what God intended when He made you. It keeps coming back to creation, formation, the very breath of life God has breathed in you. It keeps reminding you of the Alpha, of the God who comes first and who, from the very beginning, has been a part of this thing.

The Omega, of course, is a bit harder to come by, at least in our alphabet. It's actually a very common letter in the Greek; our Z, not so much. But this, too, is a reminder that as God is writing your story, He keeps dropping hints of the end, too. He keeps introducing the ideas of restoration, redemption, of life abundant. He weaves the end into your middle, as well, to keep you holding out hope for what is to come.

We don't just get this from "the beginning" and "the end." It's easy to lose when we talk about simply "the first" and "the last." But put it in word form, put it in the letters, give us "the Alpha" and "the Omega," and you can't help but see God show up again and again in your story. You can't help but find Him in the mess in the middle. 

Life...and God...are about so much more than where things began and where they are going. Life...and God...are about where things are. They're about life right now, about this mess in the middle. Life...and God...are not just about the Once Upon a Time and the Happily Ever After; they are about everything that gets us from one to the other. They are about the magic unfolding in-between. They're about how the story is being written.

Don't believe me? Look for the A and the Z. You'll find them there in your story. All through it, really. Creation, restoration, formation, redemption, life...and life abundant. Lest you lose sight of the God who is writing your words.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Present

When it comes to telling our stories, we are a people who often get lost in our yesterdays and tomorrows. It's easier to recount the past or to hope for the future than it is to be honest about today. 

Most of us are fairly comfortable talking about our past. We have come to grips with our stories, figured out the way we want to tell them. We have our own spin on things that allows us to speak without necessarily touching our own lives. We can tell our stories in such a way that it gets the response that we want, or that we need. We can tell people how things used to be because we have at least some sense of how that is. And while we may not be proud of who we were, at least we know that it is what it is. 

The same can be said of the future. We have learned to speak in such a way that we can almost see it coming true, even if it doesn't seem possible for us. We can speak freely, drawing people into our hope. It's our way of getting them to see what we want or need them to see in us. It's an affirmation of self before-the-fact, which is why it's so painful when someone does not latch on to our idea of what will be. They aren't affirming our dream, and they aren't affirming us. We speak about the future because we have some sense of how that is. And while it may seem mere fantasy to some, even to ourselves at times, at least we know what that is.

And that's why it's so hard to speak out of the present. We aren't really sure what this is. Is this...the past reconciling? Is this...the future developing? Is this connected at all to where we've been or where we're going or who we are at all? We don't speak so much about the present because we just don't know. And there's a certain part of us that doesn't want to take the risk that someone else might know before we do.

So we speak out of our past and our future, ignoring today. Ignoring this moment because we don't know yet where this moment fits. 

Which is how, by the way, so many of us come to live in our pasts. We forsake this moment until it means something and by the time we figure out what it means, it's gone. It's part of our past, and it becomes just another moment we missed.

We're missing a lot more than just that. 

We are not whatever our past says we are. We are not whatever our future dreams. The only thing you ever are is what you are in the present moment. The only thing that's real about you is this thing - this now thing. The only breath you ever draw is this one. Yeah, maybe your past says something about you and maybe your future sets the stage for something more, but this moment speaks loudest; this moment has the stage.

Living out of the present not only gives you the chance to actually be something, to be something real and not just a shadow of your past or a figment of your future, it also changes the way you talk about all that you have been and all that you will be. Speaking out of this day opens the door of grace for all of your yesterdays. You redeem your story even as you tell it; you start figuring out how all those yesterdays come to this day. You start to see how it's part of the way you're woven together. In the same way, speaking out of this day opens the window of hope for all of your tomorrows. You foreshadow your story even as you tell it, you start figuring out how tomorrow is even possible, how hope happens, how dreams become real. Your present starts to get woven into your future. Your life is coming together.

And somehow, so are you. You're coming together into more than you could ever have been, were it not for this present moment. You're becoming real. People experience you as authentic, as real. You look in the mirror and see a man you can trust because he's firmly grounded in who he is. Not who he was or who he hopes to be, but who he is. Right now. In this moment. In this breath. 

It's this kind of thing we're all looking for in the world. It's this kind of man we're all drawn to - the man who knows who he is and isn't ashamed of it. The man who lives in the present because he knows it is here, and only here, where both grace and hope abound. We're instinctively drawn to this man because he has something we all want:

He's real. 

The past and the future don't have to pull your strings. There is a way to be a real boy. That way is to live now, in the only moment in which you ever truly are, and to know that when you let your life speak from the present, every word is a gift. It's a gift of grace. It's a gift of hope.

It's a gift of God.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Life God Has Given You

If the story of Boaz and my sharing last week of Big Questions teaches us anything, it is this (and I am stealing this phrase from the subheading in a chapter of a book I was recently reading): 

Live faithfully the life God has given you.

Some of you may be saying, "There's no way God gave me this life. It's too messed up." You may be saying, "Whatever I know about God, I know this: that He would never have wanted me to live this life." Maybe you're looking around at the brokenness around you, the wounds within you, and you can't help but think that God must be far off. Or maybe your life is just boring and it feels like no life at all. How are you supposed to live nothingness?

I don't think when we say, "Live the life God has given you," that we're talking about the little details. I don't think we're talking about the day-to-day, although that's what people often construe this as. I don't think we're talking about the little junk that pops up from time to time and "patient endurance" and through-gritted-teeth thanksgiving. I think that's false faithfulness; I don't think that has much to do with God at all. See, we're not saying, "Live the existence God has given you."

No, we're saying, "Live the LIFE." Christ has come that you might have life, and have it abundantly. What we're talking about is not the little details; we're talking about the bigger truths. We're talking about the things that really matter. We're talking about the things that God is intending to shape in you through your existence; these things are life. 

Go back to the story of Boaz for a minute. If Boaz took these words as we often do - hey, Boaz, live faithfully the life God has given you - then he may have resigned himself to being the son of a whore. He might have lived a quiet life (and maybe he actually did), trying not to draw attention to himself because the life he was given, or so it seems, is the life of stigma. Of reputation. Of whispers in the hallway at school. There's Boaz, the son of that whore. Wonder if he even knows who his daddy is. But Boaz knew who his Daddy was, and he didn't live the existence he was given; he lived the life. He lived into the redemption story that was played out in his own family, and he became a redeemer himself. Was it pretty? Probably not. Was it easy? No. Was it sometimes grinding, a heavy weight, a constant wondering why God would put him in a place like this? Likely. But Boaz chose the bigger story, the one that was most true to God in him. And here we are talking about him.

Now, this doesn't mean we deny the troubles in our lives. It doesn't mean we hide from the less-than-pleasant realities that sometimes define our existence. We can't just whitewash our lives with faithfulness and pretend they're somehow holy. It's cheap and shallow faith to pretend that all is simply well and good. It's blindness to say that this existence doesn't matter. Faith was not meant to close your eyes, but to open them. It is meant to help you see clearly the life God offers in the midst of the existence, whatever that existence may be.

So it's choosing the bigger story. It's choosing to learn the lessons this existence can teach you. It's choosing to believe that what you see is not what you get. It's always daring to peek behind the curtain and discover what God is up to. He's up to something. When you live the life He's given you, you live into that thing. You live into what God is doing, even when the world seems to be doing something else entirely. You choose, in the face of scarcity, to go for abundance, to have the deepest things this life has to offer, to pursue God in your story, whether that story is messed up, broken, or boring. No matter what it is, it is something special, too.

In the middle of your day-to-day, the drudgery of your details, the yawn of your boring existence, God is doing life. He's doing it abundantly. Live faithfully into that life. It's the foundation of your ministry.

Just ask the kinsman-redeemer. Just ask the chaplain.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Jesus is not the only character in Scripture to do redeeming work (although His is the most important of the redeeming works). There's another man, one named Boaz, who is called a redeemer, and you have to really stop and look at the story of Boaz to understand how he got this way.

You can't just get Boaz's story from the book of Ruth, although that is where it is told almost in its entirety. Boaz was the closest living male relative of the family of Naomi, who had gone to the land of Moab with her sons, who had died, and returned to her own land with her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who vowed to stay with her. As the closest living male relative, it was Boaz's responsibility to marry the widow Ruth and provide offspring for her for the sake of the family line. It's a beautiful story.

But it gets better.

Where did Boaz get the strength of character to say yes to all this? Certainly, it would have been the Israelite custom, according to the law, for him to do so. When you read the story, though, he admits there is one other male relative who may be better suited for such a commitment and that male relative declines the opportunity. Boaz, however, does not decline. What makes him look at this Moabite woman and say yes to her? What gives him the heart to be the kinsman-redeemer he is called to be?

I think there are a couple of factors at play here, and they both come as a reflection on Boaz's mother. This is the part you're not going to find in the book of Ruth; you have to go to the genealogy of Jesus in the book of Matthew to get this little gem. What's the secret? Boaz's mother is Rahab.

Yes, that Rahab. Rahab the prostitute from the city of Jericho. Rahab the hooker who hid a couple of spies on her roof. Rahab the whore who took a chance on God's people and in turn, God took a chance on her. Rahab with a reputation. This...was her son.

So Boaz certainly learned a few things about redemption from this woman. He had to. He learned it, likely, directly from her as she told the stories about the spies. He learned the strength of his mother, who either believed or hoped more for herself than the life she was currently living. He learned about the bigger things in life, the times when you just have to take a chance and stand for something right even when it doesn't seem like the popular thing to do. Maybe Ruth comes along and Boaz can't help but think about some other foreigners, some once-upon-a-time spies, also in need of hospitality. Also in need of a place to lay their heads. Also in need of someone to protect them. He thinks about the example his mother set, and he just cannot say no. His mother has taught him well what it means to be a refuge.

There's also the other side of this, the lessons he learned being a son of Rahab. The character he developed listening to the whispers about his mother. The brokenness he felt when people talked about Rahab the whore, the hooker, the prostitute. Maybe he spent his life in reflection on his mother's redemption. God has certainly brought her a long way - from a ruined reputation in a fallen city to be, well, his mother. Maybe she was a fantastic mother. Maybe she was gentle and kind, always had something cooking in the kitchen, always greeted him and his friends with a smile. We have no evidence, no testimony that Rahab the prostitute continued to prostitute herself (although we also have no evidence, no testimony that she did not), but maybe Boaz had seen what the presence of a redeemer can do in the life of a woman. And he was already used to the whispers, already accustomed to the rumors. He looks at the Moabite woman and thinks, maybe I can do this for her. Maybe I can give her this second chance she needs.

I'm not really sure which is worse - to have been a prostitute in a foreign city or to have been a Moabite in Israel.

What I'm really thinking when I'm thinking about all of this is just how much we are all a product of our stories. We're a product of our families, the ways in which we grew up, the people who have helped to shape us and the things that have helped to shape them. Boaz is known as a redeemer, but I don't think he just woke up one day and decided to be a better man. I think a lot of it came from growing up with Rahab as his mother - the things she taught him directly and the things he could only glean by being in so close proximity with her. He grows up, and he can't separate himself from the lessons he has learned.

The same is true with us. We're a product of our stories. Some are messier than others, of course, and some seem so hum-drum as to be almost forgettable. But there's nothing forgettable about you. You've learned some things on the road you've traveled. You've been shaped and formed. Your moment is coming, and you can hardly even anticipate right now what that moment might be. But one day, Ruth is going to walk into your barn. Your moment is going to come. The opportunity is going to present itself.

And you'll know what to do only because you'll understand deeply how much it means. You'll know what it means to be a redeemer. Because you've seen it your whole life, and now that it's your moment, you just can't help yourself. You've been made for this. Without even knowing life would bring you here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Redeeming Work

(This post is going to make the most sense if you read yesterday's post. So if you haven't done that already, take a few minutes to go back. It'll be worth it.)

So Christ is doing a redeeming work by dying on the Cross (and the Cross is the redeeming work - it is the atoning sacrifice, the offering that brings man back into good standing with God) and Pilate is too busy cleaning up earthquakes to notice if the Man lives or dies. 

We're not that much different.

You see, God's redeeming work in our lives often takes the same form as it did on the Cross. No, we don't often crucify Him any more, but the truth is that God continues to create in our lives a pleasing sacrifice. His Son continues to die on behalf of us, that we may come unashamed into the presence of God. It's just that while this work is happening, it's far too easy for us to be looking at the administrative nightmare that has just befallen than to notice whether the Man lives or dies.

Darkness falls. All of a sudden, it's like someone turned the lights out. We can't see straight any more. What looked yesterday like sunshine and rainbows all of a sudden looks like thorns and underbrush. We don't know where we're going. We don't know which way to turn. Sometimes, we can't even see our hands in front of our face. Or His hands in front of our face. The moment we start to understand which way to go, there's suddenly nothing. It feels like distraction, and we start doing all we can to turn the lights back on. We start to throw ourselves into Bible and worship and church and community and service and devotion and whatever else we can think of that sounds holy that's supposed to bring us closer to God, just so we can recapture that sense of knowing what's going on. And maybe sometimes, it is distraction. But maybe sometimes, too, it is the work of redemption. Maybe we've been disoriented for a reason, that we might know that truly this is the Son of God.

The earth quakes. Suddenly, it doesn't feel like there's anywhere to put our feet down. There's nothing solid to stand on. The very things on which we have built our lives seem shaky, at best; crumbling, at worst, and we're watching our worlds, and our lives, fall to pieces around us. We're seeing the cracks starting to appear, the places of weakness that have been hiding in plain sight, manifest now only by the rattle. God is opening up our lives, cracking open our hidden places, causing our highest walls to fall. He's letting things crumble that are doing us no good. And we're rushing around looking for plaster and joint compound, doing whatever we can to patch the cracks as quickly as they come. We're sifting through the rubble trying to put our lives back together, or at the very least, to salvage whatever we can. We're busy trying to clean up the mess God is making without considering whether He lives or dies. Maybe our walls need to fall. Maybe our cracks need to show. Maybe that's how we come to know that truly this is the Son of God.

The curtain is torn, and all of a sudden, we're starting to see some of the most sacred things. We're invited into holy space. God has peeled back the covering that has kept Him somewhat removed from us. For the first time, we see and understand exactly what He's doing in our lives. It's an incredible moment - to see God's plan unfold before us. To know who we are and where we're going and what He's doing with us.'s scary. We turn our backs and start shielding ourselves from the holy place. We sense that we're not supposed to look, not supposed to know. We start to sew a new curtain, start to put up a temporary shield until we can push God back into His box. But maybe we are supposed to look, maybe we are supposed to know. Maybe that's how we discover this truly is the Son of God.

And then, most hauntingly, as God's redeeming work is becoming evident in our lives, all our skeletons start to walk out of our closets. Our pasts come back to haunt us. Things that are dead and buried, that have already begun to rot, rear their ugly heads and start terrorizing the streets. Old sins, old habits, old questions. Soldiers from battles we thought we already fought. All the things that were once a part of our story but have been buried in the graveyard of our former self awake. It's a zombie apocalypse! All of a sudden, we're left facing the same enemies we thought we already defeated. And maybe we have. But this is a reminder that God is truly God. They may be walking around, but they still smell like rotting flesh, and let's not forget it. Seeing the decay on the things of our past makes us so keenly aware that this truly is the Son of God.

When Christ died on the Cross, He was performing a redeeming work. He was reconciling man to God, making a way for a man to be holy in the presence of the Creator. In this very moment, darkness fell. The earth quaked. The curtain was torn. And the dead walked out of their graves. Seeing this, the Roman guard declared, "Truly, this is the Son of God."

Let us say no less. Christ is still doing a redeeming work in us. He's doing a redeeming work in you, and in me. And when Christ starts doing this redeeming thing in you, you have to know: darkness is gonna fall. The earth is gonna quake. The curtain is gonna tear. And the dead are going to walk out of their graves. Not so that you will question whether God is doing this good work at all, but so that you will know that He is. 

Truly, this is the Son of God.

Just hang on. It is [almost] finished. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Fallout

Pilate asks one of the most interesting questions I think there is in the New Testament (that is not, of course, a riddle of Jesus), long after we think we're finished with Pilate. It comes in Mark 15:44. Jesus has died, and Joseph from Arimathea requests His body for a proper burial before the Sabbath begins, lest the Lord be left to rot on His own holy day. 

Pilate's answer? Pilate wondered if Jesus had already died. So he summoned the officer to ask him if Jesus was, in fact, dead.

It's a question we read right over more often than not. At least, I usually have. Pilate was a big-time governor in the province of Judea. He had a lot of things going on. And at precisely this time, he had even more things going on. Not long before Joseph shows up, Pilate's territory erupts in what can only be described, from an administrative standpoint, as a nightmare. 

Something's wrong with the sun. It's been dark for hours, and people are starting to worry. They can't understand what's going on, and Pilate is left trying to protect the day in the midst of the darkness.

There's been an earthquake. Buildings, and citizens, are rattled. There's probably damage. This house is crumbling; that building is starting to crack. Persons are concerned about their loved ones. I mean, I'm just assuming that persons in ancient Judea respond in much the same way we do; how many other ways are there to react when the ground you're standing on literally starts to shake? So there's the aftermath of that.

Not only that, but a bunch of the Jews are scrambling about, concerned about the destruction in the Temple. The most sacred curtain in all the world has just been torn. There's no longer anything to keep the unholy out of the holy place. Some are screaming. Some are crying. Some are searching for the rabblerousers who would do such a thing. Still others are trying to find the cloth-workers to see how long it will take to repair it. Others, still, are guarding the entrance to the Most Holy Place, backs turned, trying not to look inside while a faithful who understand the implications are doing all they can to get a glimpse of the Lord's dwelling place among them.

On top of all that, the ground has busted open all over the region and corpses are surfacing everywhere. People even claim the corpses are walking around! 

It's an administrative nightmare. Who has time any more to worry about the criminal on the cross? Who has time to keep tabs on whether the condemned has, in fact, died?

Do you see what I'm getting at? The kingdom is in chaos, and Pilate is likely doing all he can to manage the fallout. He's sending out his grounds crew to light torches in the streets. He's sending out his managers to check on the structure of integral buildings. He's sending out his soldiers to quiet the crowds around the Temple. He's sending out...whoever he's got left to check on these reports coming out of the graves. He's looking out from his balcony over a city in chaos, and he hasn't stopped to consider....

Which is weird because it's not really a hard conclusion to come to. Nobody had understandings of seismic activity back then; an earthquake, as the least of all these signs, would have been considered a sign of the gods. And Pilate himself has already said that there was nothing guilty about this man he condemned. His wife had warned him. He had washed his hands of it. He knew there was something special about this Jesus. If the gods are upset, doesn't it make sense that his mind might be drawn back to Jesus rather quickly? To this condemned man on a Cross just a courtyard or so away?

But such is the trick. It was the trick in the time of Pilate, and it's the trick today: when the power of God is revealed, it's far too easy to pay attention to the power and forget the God. It's too easy to start sifting through the rubble. Too easy to riot in the Temple. Too easy to cower at the graves. It's far harder to look to Calvary. It's far harder to keep your eyes on the condemned, on the criminal on the Cross.

Pilate wondered if Jesus had already died.

Really? REALLY? Pilate wondered about that? Tell me, Pilate...if you don't know whether the Lord has lived or died, then what do you make of the earthquake?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Traveling Companions

The other day, I was reading in the New Testament when I noticed anew the myriad of Paul's traveling companions. One of the most notable, although one we least consider when talking about Paul and his missionary journeys, is Luke. Or, rather, Dr. Luke.

What makes Dr. Luke interesting as a traveling companion is what we read elsewhere in Paul's letters about his own physical condition. Paul refers to a "thorn in the flesh," which many believe to have been a physical ailment. Was Luke's presence, then, primarily as a personal physician to Paul, enabling him to continue to do the mission work to which God had called him?

Interesting question.

And I'm not asking because I have some grand insight into the answer. The truth is: we don't know. We can probably never know. Nothing tells us whether Luke was like Simon and Andrew, James and John and left his profession to follow the way of the Lord or whether, because of his profession, he was a part of enabling Paul's following of the way of the Lord. But it raises an interesting question for you and I. That question is this:

Who do you need traveling with you? 

What is the role of the person or persons who best enable you to do what God has asked you to do in this life? And do you have that person(s)? And are you maximizing the benefit of traveling with him/her?

You see, we can get so distracted by some things in our lives that we put the wrong people around us. We're asking the wrong questions, living out of the wrong insecurities. And we waste our time and our gifts, as well as the gifts of those we ask to come with us, by not paying attention to what the real question is. 

My body is not perfect; it has its quirks about it. It has its things that can stop me dead in my tracks sometimes. There are days when I wonder whether I will be able to meet the demands of the day because I wonder if my body is going to keep up. It would sometimes be easy to say that life, and mission, would be easier with a personal physician attending to my needs. But I don't need a doctor traveling with me; that is not the insecurity that keeps me from doing my best work for God. 

I am a single woman. I often look around at all the married people in ministry and what strength they draw from their spouses, their children, their families. I think about what it might be like to have someone at home to help carry the load of who I am and what I do every day. I think about coming home at night to a husband, a loving, genuine husband, and how that might change the way that I do what I do for God. It would be easy to get married and say that this is my traveling companion. But I don't need a husband; singleness is not my greatest insecurity. (Now, of course, it would be wonderful if I had a husband and he is what I need in a traveling companion, and this is often the case in godly marriages. But it is simply not necessary that my traveling companion, at this juncture, be a husband.)

Going into my retreat class a few weeks ago, one of our tasks was to complete a series of personality, emotional health, and spiritual gift assessments and figure out our strengths and weaknesses. (Spoiler alert: it seems I do have a personality after all.) And sometimes, it's tempting to say that what we most need in a traveling companion is someone who is the complement to who we are - someone with the other personality type or emotional intelligence or spiritual gift. To say that because I am an introvert, I clearly need an extrovert to do my best ministry, for example. But I would say that not even that is true. As an introvert, the ministry I am in needs an extrovert in order for that ministry to do its best work, perhaps, but I, as an introvert, am no better nor no worse as a minister if the person with me is an extrovert. It brings out neither the best nor the worst in me.

See, what we most need in our ministries (and life is a ministry if you're living it for God) is not the person who complements us, but the person who compliments us. We need that encourager, that person who pushes us into the best version of ourselves, that person who gives us what we need to be who God created us to be. And that's different for all of us. 

For Paul, maybe that was Dr. Luke. Maybe his thorn in the flesh was so severe that he needed that personal physician to free him to do what God had asked him to do. For me, I think I'm finding that my best traveling companions are women of grace. One of my greatest insecurities is the grace that I do not have for myself; these women ground me in grace and remind me who I am. They know how to make the big things the big things and the little things fade. They keep things in perspective for me when I'm likely to be crushed by the weight of my own imagination. 

So the question today is this: Who do you need traveling with you?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Distractions and Discouragement

On Wednesday, I told you about a moment that brought me to the edge of my faith. Yesterday, I recounted an insight that brought me to the precipice of grace. It all sounds so beautiful and blessed and, well, simple. 

It is beautiful. It is blessed. But it's not so simple. Any time you get a moment like this in your life, a real God moment, the powers and principalities of this world will do whatever they can to steal it away. When God starts to rock you, this world wants to make sure you topple over. Or at least, that you cannot come back to rest. 

The two primary ways this happens is through distraction and discouragement.

Distraction is the idea that this world can take your big moment and come along with something of its own that feels "bigger." It introduces a bigger question, a bigger emotion, a bigger event. Distraction is that thing that seeks to define your moment in a way other than how God has already defined it, and we often bite at this. Because it does feel like the bigger thing that happened sometimes. I mean, which is the better story - the God I encounter in the quiet of a private room or the raging winds when I step outside those doors? The distraction has more drama. It usually involves more people (because if this world can get someone else telling your story, then you don't get to any more). It usually has elements that everyone can relate to, things that keep them on the edges of their seats rather than the edges of their hearts. That's what distractions do best. They turn incredible stories into suspense thrillers until you're so lost in what happens next that you have almost, if not entirely, forgotten what happened at all

Discouragement is rather the opposite. Rather than making a bigger thing, it just makes your big thing out to be a small thing. It diminishes what happened until it doesn't feel like anything at all, hardly worth remembering, hardly worth sharing. It, too, raises new questions, new emotions, new events. It questions your resolve, your strength, your prospects, your purposes. Because if your big moment was in actuality such a small thing, does anything you do really matter? Are you even going in the right direction? If you can have such a grand experience and just moments later realize what a small drop in a big bucket it is, can you ever fill the bucket? Perhaps your bucket is too big. Maybe you dream too much. Maybe you're going after more than you could ever get. Maybe...maybe you should just quit right now. Discouragement makes you wonder if anything will ever happen, leading you to forget that something already did.

These are the things we run up against. We all do. Especially in moments like these when we've just had what can only be described as God moments. Less than 24 hours after I finally understand how God desires my brokenness and how that comes to make me powerful in my ministry, I run head-on into distraction and discouragement and suddenly don't know that there is, or ought to be, a ministry at all. At least not for me. How stupid is that?

But that's how this works. That's how this world wants that to work. It wants to make sure that when you pick your foot up to take that next step forward in faith, it doesn't feel like there's anywhere to put it down. It wants to leave you perpetually off-balance so that not only do you not feel like you're going anywhere, but you don't feel like you are anywhere, either. If you're not anywhere, you're not anybody. If you're not anybody, you're nothing. If you're nothing, every insecurity you've ever had about yourself comes rushing back. It's pernicious. It really is.

There's an answer, of course, though not an easy one. The answer is this: don't bite. Don't buy it. Recognize distraction and discouragement for what they are. When distraction says you can't, remember that you already have. When distraction makes you wonder what happens next, let that draw you back to what just happened. When discouragement creeps in and tells you you're on the wrong path, take a look at that path. Look at every brick, every stone that has laid it. Remember what you're standing on. When discouragement tells you you're never going to make it, reflect on how far you've already come. 

Another brief word about discouragement, and I shared this on social media last night: don't be discouraged by the things you were not created to do. This is another one of this world's subtle tricks. As soon as you get a grip on God's master plan for your life, the next step is so often something that's not entirely affirming of that. It's something you have to do, but not necessarily something you like to do or something you find enjoyable. That's okay. It's okay to not love everything you have to do, even to not love everything you have to do to get where you're going. Some steps on the path of faith are a little mucky; it happens. It doesn't mean you don't do them. It doesn't mean you turn and try to find a new path to where you're going. It means you hold on tighter to why you take these steps, that you set your eyes more firmly on the dream. And keep going after it. It's out there. 

Be not discouraged. 

Be not distracted. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Boomerang God

It's important sometimes to stop and think about the God you worship and how He is revealing Himself. What you find may be shocking.

Last week, we were talking about the story in the Gospels that takes place next to the pool of Bethesda. (John 5) We were asked which word or phrase stuck out to us in that story, and it was here that I began to understand the falsity of my God. 

Someone said, "Would you like to get well?" and clearly related the question to his own need for healing. Another person said, "Get up, pick up your mat and walk" and again, related the story to his own need. I chimed in and said, "I have no one to put me into the pool" and proceeded to relate this line to the work that God has called me to do, of putting people in the pool. In the seconds that followed, God convicted my heart.

See, this is the kind of thing I always do. I externalize my God. I put Him wholly into the work that He's doing through me, at the cost of not allowing Him to work in me. It goes back to what I have said already this week about brokenness. Why does it seem that I never get any closer to wholeness in my life? Suddenly, I know that it is because I am so busy doing God's work that I have so very little time (deliberately so) leftover to be God's work. It's easier to be His presence in the world than to have His presence in mine.

That afternoon, I declared Him my "boomerang God" - He is the God I worship only as He comes back to me, reflected by the things I am doing for Him. I then worship this incredible God in my life who can do such things (ministry) with so little (me). And I love Him. But it's's not really anything.

It's not anything because it's performance-based; it's not grace. The Bible warns repeatedly about this, and I think it's easy to see when we're getting drawn into this sin in the more obvious ways. When we're trying to earn our way to Heaven. When we're trying to prove our worth. When we're using works to speak for us. It's more subtle, though, when we start using works to speak to us. When we start taking our image of God from what He is doing through us in the world instead of what He is doing in us in grace.

And let me tell you - there is a lot that God needs to do in me.

What is ironic is that there is more God has to do in me because of all He does through me, because of the way that I have been interpreting and worshiping God in my life. You see, when you constantly think of all you do in terms of what God is doing through you, you start to think less of yourself. It's not humility, that you think of yourself less; it's wounding, that you think less of yourself. You start to become less of a man, less of a woman, and more just God's tool. Which sounds like a noble and holy idea, but it's perverted here. You start to think of yourself only in terms of what God is doing through you and...what if God doesn't do anything through you today? What if today, nothing happens? Are you anything? Do you even still exist? These are wounding questions and they start to sink into you and now, God has something more to heal. 

I think there are probably more people reading this who can identify with what I'm saying that perhaps I even realize. There are so many people among us - in ministry or not - who take their identity from what God is doing through them, who look in the mirror hoping to see God reflected back because that's the only way they know how to see Him - by looking at themselves. Ouch. 

When you look in the mirror, you're not supposed to see God. You're supposed to see God's glory. You're supposed to see God's work in you. You're supposed to see grace. That's how you come to know Him - when you look in the mirror and realize you're not who you once were, that you're more of who you were intended to be.

Since that morning, I've been wondering what it might be like to worship the God who comes to me, not just the God who comes through me. What it might be like to give myself over to grace. What it might mean to say, "I have no one to put me in the well" and really be talking about, well, me. Really be talking about the broken me that needs so much of God. 

It's not easy. It's scary. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability. I don't know if I'm strong enough to admit the amount of emptiness, brokenness, and yearning in me that has been looking for too long for the boomerang God to fill it when only the incarnate God can. But I consider also this: how much longer can God continue to show Himself through me without being allowed to show Himself in me? 

For He has oh so much to do in me. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Big Questions

When I first considered the idea of becoming a chaplain, I went, of course, to some of the people in my life who know me best. One guy that I used as a reference on my application said, "I think you'd be great at that. You're not afraid of the big questions." At the time, I took those words as a compliment. I didn't know how, 18 months later, those same words would bring me face-to-face with God.

Prior to attending last week's spiritual retreat/class, I was asked to prepare a case study of my life in reflection on one of the shaping factors in it. I, of course, jumped at the chance to write about conflict; it's something I know well. As I concluded the written portion of my case study, I ended with those words of that friend - not afraid of the big questions. With so much conflict in my life, how could I be afraid of the questions any more? I've literally been asking them for as long as I can remember. 

And I remember when I wrote those words at the end of that paper how I paused for a moment with an interested, "huh," indicating that I'd never really thought about that before. I hadn't. It was a link, a conclusion, that wasn't even on my radar. It was a moment that was...quiet. Affirming. Some sense of okayness washed over me as I considered words I had just written without considering, a conclusion that had somehow just poured out of me. Then I printed the paper, tucked it in my bag, and thought little of it until Wednesday night when it came time for me to present my case study to my peers.

I'm telling this story here, now, because I think this is one of those things we routinely get wrong in our Christian circles. We're far too interested in healing. We're far too concerned with washing over our insecurities, our infirmities, our wounds without being so interested in simply washing them. As I took a few minutes before telling my story, yet again, I thought about how none of this ever changes for me. I never get closer to this "healing" that God's supposed to provide, or at least, not close enough to feel like I'm making any significant movement on it. I thought about what it was going to mean to me to tell a story for the umpteenth time that I'm not afraid of, not ashamed of, but really...really tired of. Was this story going to haunt me forever? How many times do I have to stand on the side of the road before Jesus hears my crying out and has mercy on me? How many times must I play second fiddle to the blind man? To the deaf man? Even to the paralytic who had friends to carry him into the very house where Jesus was speaking? Where were my friends? Where were the people who were supposed to carry me to Jesus in such a way that He couldn't ignore my hurting any more? 

Amid all these frustrated thoughts was a bit of a whisper, that still, small voice that cannot be ignored. It kept saying, Not afraid of the big questions. Not afraid of the big questions. Then in a burst of painful truth, it finished the thought: Be great at that. You'll be great at that.

The truth is: I am. I am a great chaplain. I have heard that again and again since I began this work, an affirmation of my skills, abilities, and calling into this profession. In fact, every time I walk into a patient's sacred space, every insecurity I have about myself disappears. If only for those few minutes. I know this is where I'm supposed to be. 

But it was last week in that private room at that retreat center, clearly late for my presentation as I took this quiet moment with God, that I for the first time drew the lines. Well, I don't think I drew them. Dots were connected; the Spirit did the connecting. For the first time, I knew why. Or maybe how. I understood that my broken life was leading me here. I'd spent the past 18 months thinking that if I could just get past some of this, I would be a better chaplain. That if I could rid myself of these insecurities, these wounds, I would be more free for the use of God. I would truly do my best work. I was buying the lie that it's up to us to come to our brokenness in God for the sake of our healing. 

And that...that's crap. It's not that we come to our brokenness in God; we have to come to God in our brokenness. We have to bring our wounded selves to Him. Not for our healing, but for our redemption. Redemption is grace - we get what we do not deserve. Yesterday I said that mercy is for the man, and it is. But grace...grace is for God. Redemption is allowing ourselves - and our wounds - to be used by Him. Not because they are washed over but because they are washed clean. 

I was about to say these words to my peers - that I am a good chaplain, not afraid of the big questions because of my story, not in spite of it. I was about to say these words, but I hadn't even considered them. I hadn't taken the time to know what they meant to my heart. When they started to form on the tip of my tongue, they brought me to the edge of my faith. I can't even begin to describe what that moment is like. 

There was a knock on my door. One of my peers and a professor, wanting to know if I was okay. I was. I told them I'd be down in a few minutes. I took those few minutes in prayer, in conversation with God, unable to even form words but just aching out of this newly raw place within me that had just changed everything I know about me, about God, about faith, about woundedness, about brokenness, about ministry, about...about everything. Then I walked down the hall, propped myself against a corner of the couch, and started to tell my story in a way I'd never told it before. 

Again, I share this not so much because I want you to know my moment. This isn't about my moment; this is about your moment. This is about that thing inside of you that haunts you, that thing you keep crying out to Jesus about. That thing that He seems to be ignoring; that ache that He won't take away. It's making you great for something. It's making you ready for Him. You just have to give up fantasies of healing for the fantasticness of redemption. You have to be willing to stop coming to your brokenness in God and start coming to God in your brokenness and giving it away, offering it up as an aroma pleasing to Him. 

That doesn't mean God ordains your brokenness. It doesn't mean He likes it. But He's using it. He's using it right now to do big things. For His glory. 

I think that's the incredible gift of the blind man, whose eyes are opened just in time to see God's glory come through him. It's the gift of the deaf man, whose ears hear first the glory of God as revealed through him. It's the gift of the chaplain, who has spent her life asking the big questions and isn't afraid of them, but finds she has yet one more...and asks at just the moment that God's glory is come. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Simple Mercy

One of the things I think we misunderstand about God is just how much He desires our brokenness. 

I'm not saying that God is pleased that we are broken; of course, He is not. But I think, for most of us, when we think about the things that have wounded us in this life, we're far too tempted to run to our brokenness in God instead of the other way around. We come to Him just long enough to grab Him by the hand and lead Him, healing, into our brokenness so that we can be restored. So that we can be His. So that He can wipe away all that once was and make us new.

I've always struggled, I think, with the idea that I can do anything for God, at least do anything God's way for God, as long as I continue to carry my brokenness around with me. As long as I have baggage, I'll always be tied to that and somehow inhibited in my ministry, held back in my service for God. I have spent so many years trying to find that healing God that I read about in the Gospels, the God that responds to the pain-stricken cries of His people, has mercy on them, and heals them. 

There's a bit of a false message in that. (Just a bit?) All of the men and women we see Him healing in the Gospels and the next words are never, "And then the demon-possessed man was finally free to do what God had intended for him to do." Or "And then the blind man finally became the spiritual leader God had created in him." Actually, we hardly see what any of these men or women do after encountering the healing God. We don't know how most of their lives played out. What's weird is that we read about Mary Magdalene and know her life healed, but we don't know her life has been healed through most of our reading. It's only in a way-after-the-fact moment that it's revealed that God ever performed a healing work in her life. 

Which means that God does not set us free for His own benefit; it really is simple mercy. 

It's mercy that in a fallen world, we are not relegated to our brokenness. We are not bound by sin - ours or anyone else's. The effects of living in a fallen world can be washed away in the healing stroke of God. That's a remarkable thing. It's remarkable for the blind man, whose eyes are opened. It's remarkable for the deaf man, whose ears can hear. It's remarkable for the broken man, for the burdened woman, who cannot carry their baggage one more step. It's remarkable but it's not...redemption. Redemption is something else entirely.

See, all this mercy, it's for the man. It's for the man who doesn't want to live with his brokenness any more. It's for the man who can't go one more day with his heavy load. It's for the man who boldly cries out to the Lord who is passing him by and dares to beg for mercy. It is the graciousness of God to heal a man, in mercy, and invite him to be a fuller measure of himself. Yes, mercy is for the man. 

It is not, however, for God, and this is what started to become clear to me over the course of the week of spiritual retreat, from a seed that had been planted a few weeks before in preparation, unbeknownst really to me how it would sprout. I've always wanted healing. I've always longed for this mercy. I've long thought it was the natural next step between me and God, that He was going to step into my story and set me free from it so that I could be a fuller version of myself, be more of what God intended me to be. I've always felt like I was missing something without this mercy. 

And I was. 

On a Wednesday night in a private room at a Franciscan retreat center, I finally discovered just how much. That story tomorrow.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Starting Fires and Planting Seeds

Last week, as part of my seminary education, I attended a spiritual retreat (of sorts) in Springfield, Illinois. Disguised as a class in "Leadership," the professor spent the mornings teaching the spiritual disciplines and recovery of the heart; we spent our afternoons as a huge chunk of downtime to engage in those disciplines; then we spent our evenings talking through sections of our stories with our peers.

And if you had asked me any day last week how things were going, I would have told you, decidedly, "Eh." It's a class. It's happening. God's probably here but who really knows? 

Because I really wasn't having any of those aha moments. I wasn't having the kinds of emotional God encounters that I'm used to on these spiritual trips. I had one powerful encounter on some early morning that I can't even remember, except to say that I remember how fleeting it was, and one powerful encounter on Wednesday night. But at the time, I couldn't have told you whether either of those things really mattered. They didn't "inspire" me to go back home and live a different way like Winterfest or Summer Jam or Quest or whatever would have just a decade ago. 

That's the difference between starting fires and planting seeds.

As a teen, it seems most of these spiritual events are aimed at starting fires. And they do. You come to have these emotional encounters with God that make you ready. They make you ready, right now, to break things off with life as you knew it and start all over. You go home ready, and willing, to burn the chaff and set the fire for Jesus blazing in you. You can't help it. It's all emotion. It's all passion. It's...alright. 

There's nothing wrong with burning a little chaff; we all have plenty to spare. The trouble with starting fires is that they are prone to burn out, and anyone who has been on one of these retreats or weeks or whatever knows this is true. To keep the fire going, you have to keep burning stuff, but for what? At some point, you look around and realize all you've gotten rid of and it's only the emptiness that strikes you. It's not Jesus any more. You realize how empty you've made your life, then you look at the fire and it's just ash. Everything you once had is gone, and you've been feeding the Jesus fire but it's just a fire. Maybe it's warmth, but is warmth enough? Hardly. Maybe it's light, but what's it shining on? Just ash? There's not a lot in fire to get excited about.

And I'm not dissing the fire. It's important. It is. We absolutely must continually start fires and burn chaff; it's an important part of the spiritual process. 

But we cannot neglect the seeds. 

When I got home from Springfield after spending the week in the disciplines, I slowly began to realize how my thoughts had changed. How the way that I thought about things had changed. How this certain kind of quiet had invaded my spirit and started whispering to me all over again. How near God seems, and how easy it seems to be with Him. I suddenly came to understand how much had sunken into me without my even realizing it, how much those few moments I had experienced in that week were not based on emotion but were fueled by something deeper. I came to see what seeds had been planted.

And here's what's cool about seeds: much like our fires, we have to keep feeding them. But with seeds, it's what we pour into our lives that matters and not so much what we get rid of. We have to surround them with warmth, meaning we must keep considering tenderly what God has planted in us. We must fertilize the soil around it, by getting rid of the things that might be toxic to a sprouting seed and by continuing to contemplate what we're trying to grow. We must water it regularly, and there is only one water: Living Water. When we plant seeds, it's about continuing to pour Jesus into our lives so that what the Spirit is growing in us will thrive. It's more...sustainable.

It's hard to believe, back in my "real" life, that I felt like I missed whatever God was doing last week, that I would have had the audacity to say, "Eh. It was okay." There wasn't a lot of emotion, not the kind of emotion that starts fires anyway. But there was an incredible tenderness to the week, and seeds have been planted.

I have some growing to do. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Share a Bite

For all the work that goes into a Spirit tree, one might be tempted to think that the fruit of the Spirit is something you do in your life. That it's something you work for. That it's something you are ultimately responsible for. 

That's only half-true. 

While it is true that there is work for you to do in planting, nurturing, and caring for the Spirit tree in your life, never forget that it is only by God's incredible design that a tree produces fruit at all. It is His work, not ours, that creates the harvest. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is important because only God makes it grow. (1 Corinthians 3:7)

Which means that even though love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control look like things you ought to be doing for God, they are actually things that God is doing for you. And in you. And through you. God's making the fruit; you're only eating it. This means a few things.

First, it means that these fruit of the Spirit nourish you in some way. And if you've experienced them, to any degree, you know that this is true. Love makes you stronger. Joy makes you lighter. Peace makes you quieter. Patience makes you calmer. Kindness makes you sweeter. Goodness makes you breathe easier. Faithfulness makes you trust deeper. Gentleness makes you softer. Self-control makes you wiser. These things feed into you and make you the fullest, most solid version of yourself. They make you more of who you are, who you were created to be. They grow you in themselves until you are, manifest, the glory of God. What God is doing for you nourishes you.

Second, it means that you were created to enjoy the flavor of the fruit of the Spirit. It's supposed to be palatable to you. It's supposed to be desirable to you. It's supposed to be pleasantly refreshing to you. Have you ever met someone who looked like they weren't created to taste the good things in life? It's sad. I met a lady yesterday (in customer service; they always work in customer service) who looked like she hadn't been created to taste joy. She could hardly crack even a fake friendly smile, so firm were the lines of sourness on her face. She's been eating the wrong fruit! That's why her face is so puckered. She was meant for joy, even if she doesn't know it. You were meant for joy. You were meant to have an appetite for joy. For love. For peace. For patience. For all the good things God is doing in you.

And third, since the fruit is God's produce and not yours, it's okay to share it. You're not putting your profits on the line if you give a measure of the harvest away. You're meant to bake pies and arrange baskets and even make edible arrangements and share this fruit with your friends, families, neighbors, communities. Anyone who needs something satisfying to put in their lives, share your fruit with them. Invite them to taste what love, joy, peace...are like. Pop in a straw and let them drink the juices. Show them your Spirit tree if they're interested; show them how to plant their own. God has given you this fruit not just for yourself, but for your world around you. It's what He's doing through you.

So it's important to remember that the fruit of the Spirit isn't yours; it's God. He grew it. It's by His nature that it knows how to grow. It's the fruit of His Spirit wrapped around yours, and He's given you the harvest. Draw nourishment from it. Enjoy it. And give it away. That's what you are called to do.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Spirit Tree

That the fruit of the Spirit is all of the same tree is actually a bit of relief to the one who would be faithful. It means you don't have to worry about figuring out how to nurture love, joy, peace, patience...each on their own; you only have to know how to nurture the Spirit. You only have to plant, grow, protect one tree. You're only responsible for this one thing - to nurture a Spirit tree that produces fruit. 

Of course, as we saw yesterday, you have some obligation to the fruit of that tree, as well, but it all starts with getting fruit to grow.

You start by planting a Spirit seed. The seed of the Spirit is actually your spirit. The Bible reminds us, and science confirms, that it is only by dying that a seed produces life. It is only when you surrender yourself into the fertile soil of God's creation that you make room for the Spirit to grow in your life. The planting of your seed is a commitment to let God do the work of growing, to let His design take its course, to let Him grow what it is He desires to grow in you. So give your spirit to God and make room for His.

Once the seed is planted, it needs water. Psalm 1 tells us that a tree planted near a stream will never be thirsty; it will always have enough to feed its growing appetite. Jesus tells us that He, like a stream, is living water - moving, flowing, carving a new way through the world. Once you have surrendered your spirit, you must give it enough of Jesus to make it grow. You have to keep pouring Jesus into the fertile ground of faith to give the Spirit all that it needs to grow in your life. 

And understand this - that's all you have to do. You only have to provide the water; plants make their own food. The Spirit knows how to feed itself. It turns the Son into the nutrients it needs to thrive. So you provide it the Living Water, and it draws light and heat from the Son, and the rest is the mystical work of God's nature. It's a tree that's beginning to grow. 

As the sapling stretches out of the ground, there may be winds or weather. There may be harsh storms that threaten its tender shoots. You may need to stake it to keep it growing straight and tall. This is where accountability comes in. This is where you search out something to keep you tied to the growing Spirit. Maybe it's a friend. Or a pastor. Or an elder. Maybe it's the guy you talk to at Starbucks every morning. Whoever it is, confide in them about your little tree and ask for their help in cultivating it. Ask for their wisdom in nurturing it. Ask for their accountability in faithfully tending to it. 

You may also find that as this little tree grows, weeds grow up around it, as well. It's one of the sad facts of nature. Whenever anything beautiful is growing, the nutrients of that good plant spread out and fuel the weeds that surround it. You can't just dump a bucket of poison on the ground and trust that to kill it; you will sicken your Spirit tree. Weeds so near the fledgling roots require to be pulled meticulously by hand. Your accountability partner can help. Put on your gloves and make a day of it! (Or more likely, a week or a month or a year or more....) 

Then one day, you'll find something amazing happening: your little Spirit tree will start growing fruit. Little buds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will start to appear. The next season, they'll mature even further. And further still until one day, you find yourself eating of the Spirit and satisfied.

I like to think that one day, when this life is over, maybe God will cut into that Spirit tree. Maybe He'll show you how it's grown. All the rings on the inside will show the years you've nurtured it, some rings fatter than others, some painfully slim, that He's grown of His Spirit around the seed of yours, surrendered into His fertile soil and entrusted to His nature.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Rotten Fruit

Sometimes, no matter how good your intentions about developing the fruit of the Spirit in your life, you get a bite of rotten apple. Your attempts to love are manipulative, your joy is fabricated, your peace is conflicted, your patience tested, your kindness self-serving, your goodness spoiled, your faithfulness questioned, your gentleness harsh, your self-control lacking. It just happens. What's going on?

The Bible says that a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree, bad fruit, which leads a lot of Christians to believe that if the fruit in their life tastes sour for a bite or two, they clearly are picking from the wrong tree. This cannot be the fruit of the Spirit. 

I'm not so sure. I don't have a whole lot of experience with fruit trees, but I understand a few things to be true. 

First, there is such a thing as a pest. Sometimes, this life just bugs us and it gets into our fruit and sort of messes things up. In a perfect world, no, but this is not a perfect world. There are pestery little things in this world that get under the skin of love, joy, peace...and start eating them from the inside. It may have been a good piece of fruit, but it's been invaded. That doesn't mean you're barking up the wrong tree; it means you need a better form of pest control. 

Then, we have to consider that sometimes, by some process of nature we're not entirely sure of, a piece of fruit just goes bad. Sometimes, it hangs on the branch too long. It's been exposed to too many elements. A freeze comes early or a thaw comes late or something happens that interrupts the time, the growth cycle, of a piece of fruit. It's good fruit. Just...nature's had its way with this one, and it's not as sweet as it should be. It's not as ripe as it should be. It's not got quite the right flavor. Again, it doesn't mean you picked from the wrong tree; it means you need to look closer at climate control.

Finally, there's this time-honored truth: sometimes, it's just the way the flavor hits you. Have you ever eaten an orange after brushing your teeth? There's something about the toothpaste that makes the orange unpalatable. It makes it downright nasty. This happens with the spiritual fruit, too. Sometimes, there's something already lingering in your spirit that makes this fruit unpalatable, downright nasty. Sometimes, there's something holding on in you that makes love, joy, peace...hard to swallow. In this case, it's not that you need to go to a new grove; it's that you need to let that taste subside before you try another bite. In spiritual terms, this is often an issue of "forgiveness," but it could be any number of things.

We're fairly quick in our lives to condemn the fruit, to toss it out when it's rotten, to start looking for another tree. But the truth is - any number of things can happen to good fruit that makes it...not so good. And we must be diligent about these things. We must be diligent about weeding out pests, about protecting the fruit of love, joy, peace...from the things of this world that get under its skin. We must be diligent about shielding the fruit from the weather, about giving it the environment it needs to grow and to ripen well. We must be diligent about the tastes in our own mouths when we come to take a bite. 

Maybe you are picking from the wrong tree. If that's the case, by all means find another tree. Keep searching until you find you're truly eating the fruit of the Spirit. But if your tree is right and the fruit is good, ask yourself what in this world is making it rotten. Then do your due diligence to start changing those circumstances. Which may mean you eat the bad fruit anyway, that you eat love when it doesn't taste so sweet, that you pick joy even when it's overripe, that you bite into peace when it's more than a bit sour.

Then turn to the tree. What does it need from you to continue to grow good fruit?