Thursday, December 31, 2020

Becoming a Friend

As we talk about what it means to resolve to become more like Jesus, to step into being the person that He's created you to be and to surround yourself with those who encourage what they see of Him in you, there's one more resolution that we should all be making that both helps us in our primary resolution (of being more like Jesus) and helps others in theirs, as well:

We have to become the kind of friends that we need in our own lives. 

We have to become the persons who are always looking for the signs of life in others. We have to be friends who are figuring out what Jesus is doing in our friends and who encourage that. We have to fill ourselves with affirmation for others, with encouraging words for those on their own journeys. 

This is tough. At the same time that our own insecurities eat away at us when we are face-to-face with the beauty of others created in God's image, we have to understand that 1) others' insecurities are eating away at them and 2) our insecurities can lead us to feed their monsters. 

Did you know that? Did you know that right now, there are others who are looking at your life and wishing they could be more like you? There are some persons, right now, who are making resolutions to become new persons based on what they've seen in you. There are some persons who are right on the verge of derailing their own creation and calling because something about you seems so beautiful that they think that's what they want for themselves, and they're ready to turn their backs on the things they don't understand about God's creation in them in order to chase after God's creation in you. 

And if we're not secure in knowing Who shapes us, if we don't have that solid foundation of faith that understands creation in the image of God, we can end up letting this go to our head, or worse - to our heart - and add fuel to the fire that is literally burning up our friends' souls. We can start to boast about our beautiful things, thinking that they are who we are rather than that they are the gracious gifts of our glorious God, and we can make others feel more guilty or more depraved for not being more like us when, if we want to be more like Jesus, we ought to be encouraging them to be more like them. 

See how that works? When we become the kind of friend that we need in our own life, we fulfill our own resolution of becoming more like Jesus. And we help someone else become more like Him, too - more like the glorious being created in His image that they are. 

That's one of the coolest things about Jesus. (Okay, there are a lot of cool things about Jesus.) But read through the Gospels, and you'll see that Jesus doesn't have just one prescription for how to be a good, beautiful, glorious human being. Every person He encounters gets a plan tailored just for them. Every person He encounters is treated as the unique individual that they are. Every person is known to be knit together in a special way in his or her mother's womb, and Jesus never fails to recognize that in anyone. 

He tells everyone to be like Him, but the details of what that looks like are different for everyone. Every. single. one. The woman from Canaan, the bleeding woman, the woman at the well - they all have a different encounter with Jesus based on the nature of who they are. Blind Bartimaeus, short-statured Zaccheus, and the rich young ruler all have a different path toward who God created them to be. The demonaic in the graveyard and the young boy afflicted with a demon are two totally different persons, and Jesus knows that. Not only does He know it; He speaks into it. He speaks into every life with a tender tongue, knowing that no two beings in the image of God are exactly the same, even if they're fighting the same battles. 

So this year, yes. I resolve to be more like Jesus. And one of the ways that I'm resolving to do that this year is to become the kind of friend that I need in my own life. This year, I'm not going to let my insecurities draw me away from my story, and I'm not going to let them draw you away from yours. I'm going to be looking for Jesus in you, every chance I get. 

And the strange thing is, the more that I see Him in you, the more I will find Him evident in me. And, well, that's the goal. Isn't it?

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Into the Fray

It's true for so many of us that we discover who we are in relative isolation with Jesus. It's when all the voices of the world fade away that we can hear Him most clearly guiding us, teaching us, shaping us toward what He had in mind when He knit us together in our mother's womb. And in seasons of such discovery, it's almost easy to lean into it, to start becoming all of those things that Jesus wants to make us. 

But we can't stay out of the world forever. 

At some point, we have to venture back into our lives. We have to go back out into the world. We have to figure out how to live in the place that Jesus has made for us because one thing is for certain: He hasn't made us to be alone. 

God created us for community. He created us to be together. The very first thing God noticed about His creation that didn't quite sit well with Him was that it was not good for man to be alone. The entire course of history later, it is still not good for man to be alone. We need each other. 

The challenge is that this is where we tend to start losing ourselves. When we start to come into contact with one another, we start to change who we are. We change who we are to meet expectations that others put on us, or we encounter someone who is something good and wonderful that is a blessing to our lives and we think that in order to be a blessing to others, we ought to be more like them. And then one day, we look in the mirror and see someone we don't recognize. Not only are we not who we have tried to become, but we're no longer who Jesus was trying to make us. It seems we've lost everything. 

What we have to do is figure out how to offer ourselves to the world and to others out of a deep place of affirmation that comes from the quiet that we have with Jesus as He shapes us. We have to have our eyes and ears open for the kinds of opportunities He creates for persons just like us, and we have to understand how His design in us is intended to bless the world. Because you know something? It is. You were created to be a blessing, just the way that you are. And it's only when we remember that God wants to bless others through who we actually are that we stop feeling all of this pressure to be anything else at all. 

We have to stop giving the world the authority to censure use and turn us away from what we are so sure of in the depths of our souls - that we are beings created in the image of God for His glory and our (collective) blessing, and that means that we all look different. 

That's not to say, of course, that we should not have friends who push us and challenge us. The Bible itself tells us that iron sharpens iron, which means that our brothers and sisters should encourage and inspire us to be better human beings. But they ought to be pushing us toward being better versions of ourselves, not copycats of some external standard. We should look around at those that God has given us and want to be better. But again, better versions of ourselves. More of who God has created and called us to be.

And good friends are going to do that for us. Good friends are going to recognize what God is doing in us and hop on board with that, always looking for opportunities to affirm and encourage that. Always recognizing moments when we slip away so that they can call us back. Always recognizing where we're prone to fall so that they can strengthen us. 

It's a strange thing - we want to be more like our friends. After all, there's a reason that we love them like we do. But if they are good friends at all, they won't let us do that. They won't let us become more like them; they'll always be pushing us to become more like us. More like that person we are when it's only God's voice that we hear. Good friends will be God's voice in our lives. 

It's just something to think about as we go into a new year with all of these big hopes and wild dreams about who we're going to be - and become - in a new season. It's easy to sit at home and think about all of the beautiful things God is making us, but it's something entirely different to try to hold onto that in a world that's trying to speak a different message. So find yourself some friends, some good friends, who will encourage and inspire you. Find yourself some friends who will keep pushing you into your big hopes and wild dreams and hold you accountable to the image of God that is in you. 

Otherwise, you may find one day that you look in the mirror and don't recognize yourself. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

On Becoming

A strange thing happens when you are cut off from community for awhile: you start to see yourself, and your potential, more clearly. 

Living away from a world that is constantly pressuring you to be one thing or another, where you're always feeling the social pressure of all the ways that you don't measure up, it frees you to listen to the voice of Christ as He reveals all of the things that He's created in you, as you get to just settle into being who you are, with feedback from no one but the Lord Himself. 

You don't even get messed up and muddled in all of the ideas that you get about who you're supposed to be, the ideas that start to creep into your heart when you witness who others are. A few weeks ago, I talked about the encouragers among us and how all of us think we ought to be more like them, particularly once we are on the receiving end of their encouragement. We can spend our whole lives beating ourselves up over not being more like other persons, over not having the good qualities that we see in others. 

But live outside of community for just a short while, and that impulse goes away. Live with just yourself for awhile, and you start to experience things differently. 

This is what happened to me recently in a 40-day battle with Covid. Cut off from having to be anything but 'alive,' from all expectations of others and of myself except that I somehow find a way to beat this thing, I got to experience the joy of discovering all over again who God has made me to be. My thoughts, unfiltered, revealed His beautiful design. My choices got to lean into things that my insecurities would normally keep me from exploring. There was no one to impress, no one to satisfy, no one to prove myself to...and something beautiful just happened in that space. I'm telling you. Something tremendously beautiful. 

It's something that happens without words. We have all these adjectives that we use in the world for the kind of persons we want to be - kind, gracious, generous, intelligent, courteous, helpful, whatever. The list goes on and on, whatever we - or our world - place value on. But living in those days, those days where God simply revealed my own heart, my own personality, my own gifting a little more each day, there aren't words for who I am. I simply am. I simply am as God created me to be. 

There's a potential dark side to this, of course, and that is those moments when you discover what you are that you shouldn't be. When your dark side shows up. For a number of persons, I know, this kind of solitude could be potentially devastating, for they live a certain sort of life in the darkness when they know no one is watching. But maybe that was the gift of Covid - I was so focused on the one thing that I had left to do, so stripped bare of anything and everything that resembled a regular life, a normal life, that for awhile, I didn't have time to even think about who was or wasn't watching. I was so focused on just living that everything else just dropped away, even, strangely, the darkness. 

But also, one of the things that I discovered, and maybe this is just me, but I know that it's not, is that my dark side comes primarily from being in community. My dark side comes from all the pressure I feel to be things that I honestly wasn't in isolation. You turn me loose with Jesus, and I become all of these beautiful things; you put me back into the world, and for some reason, I don't feel beautiful any more. The world does that to us. And then, I lose my beauty because I go off chasing all the things the world says are important or trying to fulfill all the expectations it has for me. 

Yet, in the solitude, I am never more confident in the promise of Jesus and my ability to live it. Take heart, He says. I have overcome the world.

This, this whole idea of who I am when I'm not worried about the feedback, is something I'm thinking a lot about as the new year approaches. As we all start to think about who we are and who we want to become and how we want to live in the new season that God is giving us. For me, it's this. I want to be more of this. I want to be more of who I am when the only voice I hear is His.  

Monday, December 28, 2020

A New Creation

It's that time of year again, when our focus turns from the anticipation of the Christmas season to the hope that we have for a new year. We're starting to think, if we haven't been thinking already, about the changes that we want to make in 2021. 

Most of these changes have to do with an image that we have in our heads of what it means to be somehow better than we are right now. We want to take better care of ourselves. We want to lose weight. We want to eat healthier. These always seem to be the top resolutions that we, as humans, make every year. And the fact that we make them every year should tell us enough about what they really promise us, but here we are, resolving again to take better care of ourselves, lose weight, and eat healthier. So there's that. 

We also make resolutions about our jobs. This is the year that we're going to go back to school and finish that degree. Or start a new one. It's the year we're going to finally demand that promotion at work, or switch jobs entirely and start doing something we've wanted to do for a long time. 

We make resolutions about our relationships. This year, we're going to repair that rift that's gone on for too long. We're going to find our birth parents, or the child that we gave up for adoption so many years ago. We're going to make new friends and actually get out and do things with them. 

We make resolutions about our finances. We're going to get ahead this year, finally pay off those debts we've been owing. We're going to pay down our mortgage and get it under the next $10,000 mark. We're going to pay off the car, maybe get a new one. We're going to start saving for fill-in-the-blank, whether that's a vacation or a car or an education or a move or whatever it is. 

This year, we're going to make it past January 3 before we break our resolutions. (Oh, so close!) 

Every year, we start thinking about all of the changes we want to make in our lives, and every year, it seems like we're thinking about the same changes we want to make in our lives - all the ones that didn't work out last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. Of course, it is common this time of year to say, well, this year, I resolved to lose 20 pounds; only 30 to go! When it comes to our resolutions, we seem to be hopeless failures.

Perhaps, then, it's time to change our resolutions. Perhaps, then, it's time to focus on the things that could really actually change our lives, rather than focusing on the ways that we want our lives to change. 

And that...just takes one resolution. One simple resolution that we can, and should, be making year after year if we really want our lives to be different. One resolution that we can make today, right now, and make again tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that, not because we're going to fail but because every success that we have in it will remind us of how much further we have to go - and why it's so worth it to keep on. 

Ready? Here's the resolution I'm making this year, and the one I want to encourage you to make, too:

This year, I want to be more like Jesus. 

That's it. That's all. A little bit or a lot, this year, I just want to be more like Jesus. I want to have my eyes open every day for a chance to be more like Jesus. I want to see, and seize, the opportunities He puts in front of me to be more like Him. To love better, to be more gracious, to extend more mercy, to be present to the lives of those around me and yes, even to my own life. To be more present to His life. 

You see, Jesus has promised me that in Him, I am a new creation. The old has passed away, and the new has come. And that means that as I think about what it would mean to change my life for the better this year, the only thing I can count on, the only thing that promises a lasting difference, is to lean into that new creation and let Him truly remake me. And the cool thing is that, if it works out - if it works out a little or works out a lot - I can do the same thing next year, and there's the same promise attached to it. God is making me new, all the time. 

I just have to resolve to live like it. 

So this year, I am. This year, I want to be more like Jesus. That's it. That's all.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Merry Christmas

It doesn't quite feel like Christmas today, except perhaps for the dusting of snow on the back patio and the lights twinkling on the tree inside. 

We've been talking for a couple of weeks now about how strange this Christmas is for so many of us, how different it's going to be. How it feels like we're missing something, even as we keep going through the motions. And I confess that so much of that is true for me, too. There's a piece of me that just feels like I wasn't ready this year, like I'm not ready this year, like it can't possibly be Christmas because, well, it just doesn't feel like Christmas. And after missing so many other things this year, I don't want to miss Christmas, too. 

As we've walked through the Christmas story, however, we've seen that Christmas has pretty much always been like this. It's been a story of home, but far away from home. Of anticipation, but muted somehow. Of the greatest scene in the story of God taking place on what we call a silent night, surrounded by familiar faces who didn't even seem to notice. How there are so many fellow travelers on this road, and they missed it, too. How this Christmas, this messed-up, strange, afflicted sort of Christmas might actually be the most biblical of Christmases we'll ever have. 

But that doesn't change the way that so many of us feel this morning, waking up on the other side of the plexiglass, waving through the window, and almost relieved that no one can see us not smiling behind our masks. 

And yet, there's something inside of me that aches a little when I think about this feeling of missing Christmas. Something inside of me that nudges me and says, that's not it at all. The more I've come to give into this ache, the more I have recognized that I think it's right. 

We're not afraid of missing Christmas this year; we're not taken by surprise that it's Christmas already. We're...already grieving that it's almost over. We're already letting go of the first hope that we've had, it seems, all year. That's what's breaking our hearts. 

See, Christmas does something to us, whether we notice it or not. Christmas just stirs up something deep in our souls. There is so much preparation that goes into Christmas, no matter how you celebrate it, so that something just builds inside of you, even on a year when you think it isn't or think it can't or think maybe it shouldn't. Even those who decided this year to pass on Christmas are quietly waiting for the next one, are secretly thinking about the day they can jump back into all of this joy. 

And in a year like this one, we just want to hold onto all of that for as long as we can. We've been afraid to because of how unpredictable the rest of the year has been, and something about this Christmas has felt so fragile that it's been hard for us to grasp at all. But there's something in us that wants to hold onto it anyway because Christmas - even this Christmas - is exactly what we all have needed. And as we close in on just a few hours left of it to share, there's something just desperate in our souls that tries to cling to it all. 

It can't be Christmas already...because I'm not ready for Christmas to be over. 

I need this hope. I need this joy. I need this expectation and this promise. I need these reminders of everything I love, of everything that gives my life meaning and purpose and calling and love. Even if those reminders are the empty echoes of living rooms once filled with laughter, so warm with fellowship that you have to tweak the furnace a bit to keep from breaking out in sweat. Even if those moments are empty this year, something about the emptiness calls me to its fullness, to all the memories I have and all the hope for better days. 

And who can forget, of course, a baby in a manger. A God who loves us so much that He stepped down into this mess just to be with us, and steps down into it again this year - yes, even this year - to be with us anew. 

Christmas - this broken, messed-up, quarantined Christmas - it's exactly what I need right now, no matter what it looks like. And I feel like I'm missing it, but at the same time, I understand that's just because I'm not ready to let go of it. Today just can't be Christmas, not because it doesn't feel like Christmas but because I'm not ready for tomorrow. I'm not ready for tomorrow to not be Christmas. To not have this hope, this joy, this expectation, this small little taste of something finally familiar that just whets my appetite for all that seems to be lost right now. 

I need this Christmas, whatever it is. And I suspect that I am not alone (even if, perchance, I happen to be alone).

Home and yet, not home. Weary and worn out. So near, and yet so far away from, family, friends, and fellow travelers. Settled, somehow, into a silent night that feels anything but, may you hear even the faint cry of a newborn baby and know, in the depths of your soul, God is with us

Merry Christmas, friends. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Christmas Star

A couple of nights ago, many of us had the opportunity to see something we have never seen before and will never see again in our lifetimes - the so-called Star of Bethlehem. This is, as best as science can pin it, the bright and glorious star that arose over Bethlehem and guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. 

One of the things I've always wondered about this star, every time I have read the story, was how the wise men knew to follow this star and how this star seemed to 'come to settle over the place' where Jesus lay His head. I've always been a bit of a star buff and have always enjoyed looking up at the night sky and feeling my smallness, but one of the things I know from doing this my whole life is that all stars move. Usually in a similar direction. And so, I've wondered about this star and how it came to be so dramatically different than all the others, to a point where the wise men knew to follow.

Watching the phenomenon this year, I finally get it. For weeks, the sky has shown us these two stars - these two bodies - getting closer and closer together. And now, on the other side of their conjunction, the sky shows us these two stars getting further and further apart. You can still see them, even tonight, if you go and look outside, but they won't be as close a tandem as they were a few nights ago. 

Which explains, to me, how the wise men knew to follow it. They watched it come together. Night after night, they kept their eyes open and saw the movement of one star toward another. So when we hear about the Star of Bethlehem "coming to settle over the place," we're talking about a bunch of astrologers watching these two bodies come into conjunction. At the place at which they were closest, that was the place at which they would find Jesus. 

Now, science thinks that since it can explain this, since it can show us the trajectories and cycles of Jupiter and Saturn, it's no such thing as a miracle or as a sign from God. It's just, they say, coincidence. Probably. It just happened to happen. And then, they'll point out that the wise men were actually late in coming to see Jesus, that they never made it to the manger but found Him somewhere else when He was perhaps as old as two. 

But does that really make it any less of a miracle? Does it make it any less beautiful?

Because what it says to me is that when God sent His Son to earth as a swaddled baby boy, the universe came to rest in itself. The planets aligned and settled into a single brightness. All of the movement of all of creation, what was breathed from the very first - from in the beginning - found its way to itself. And it was this moment, this precise moment, that it all came to settle...over a place where Jesus lay. 

That's too beautiful to say that God didn't plan it that way. It's too breathtaking to just write it off as happenstance. I mean, that's part of the story of Christmas, isn't it? Not just that Jesus came to live among us as Immanuel, but that all of creation, in that moment, fell in line and came into its rest and settled into a singular brightness. That's Christmas. That is exactly Christmas. 

It was cool to walk out on my back deck and witness the star the led the wise men to Jesus. It was cool to see these two bodies come together and settle over a place, over one place. And it just reminds me of how near Jesus really is. I don't know it works this way, but somehow, I look up into the sky and see the conjunction of two bodies that are billions of light years apart, and I know that God is with me. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Traveling Together

We've been talking about groups of persons who were oh, so close to the Christmas story, but seemed to have missed it entirely. An entire inn full of families, a road packed with travelers, and still - still - there was no room for Mary and Joseph. Not even in a place like Bethlehem, a place that was home and was, somehow, not home - for them, for Jesus, for us. 

And that's important this year. Because this year, especially, there are so many of us prone to miss Christmas. 

We are stuck in a place that feels like home, but isn't. That should be home, but isn't. We are surrounded by family and friends, but we can't hold them close. Whether we like it or not, time is moving us toward Christmas morning, and we're all traveling together, and yet, somehow, we already have the sense that we're going to miss this Christmas. 

We already have the sense that nothing special is happening here, that nothing beautiful is happening this year. We are going through the motions, but it doesn't feel like anything. We're trying, desperately, to make it something, but it still feels hollow somehow. Sales of Christmas decorations have skyrocketed, more homes than ever are decked out in lights and tinsel, and there's still this sense that we're probably just lying to ourselves. It might look like Christmas, but it doesn't feel like Christmas. Not with plexiglass between us. 

Then, what happens is that we look around at all of the decorations and all of the lights and all of the cards and all of the yule logs and egg nogs and cookies, and we think that we're the only ones. We think that we're the only ones who just aren't feeling it this year, who just aren't sure about this Christmas. We think that we're the only ones who aren't in the Christmas spirit, whose holidays have been marred by all the things that they won't be this year, that they can't be this year. 

What I want to say, what we need to say, about that is - it's just not true. You are not the only one. I am no the only one. We are not the only ones. The whole world is feeling the weight of this Christmas that wasn't before it even is. The whole world is feeling this crush of just...missing it. 

Which means...that we are all traveling this road together. 

That doesn't sound like good news, but it is. Because we know the Christmas story. We know the story of so many men and women who were right there - right there - for Christmas and still missed it. We know the story of those who had a place to lay their heads for the night and who didn't even go downstairs when they heard a newborn baby cry. We know the story of those who were traveling along that road and met Joseph and Mary and still didn't make room for them. We know what it's like for our imaginations to run wild with all of the what ifs, and because we know this, we can commit ourselves to not being what ifs this Christmas.

We can commit ourselves to recognizing our fellow travelers, to striking up conversations along this road. We can commit ourselves to coming downstairs, to leaving our own homes to discover what's going on in other places. We can commit ourselves, every time that we hear that something beautiful might be happening, to being a part of it. To throwing ourselves into this Christmas with family, friends, and fellow travelers in a place like home that isn't quite home, to the familiar in a strange land, to the new hope that arises on a wearying journey. We can commit ourselves to all of it because we know the untold stories of Christmas...and we can choose to be part of telling them this year. Wherever we find them. On this road that we're all traveling together. 

And maybe, just maybe, if we can do that - if we can be intentional about meeting those around us in this strange place - we won't miss Christmas this year after all.  

Monday, December 21, 2020

Fellow Travelers

We don't have to wait until we get to the inn to start to think about all of the persons who missed out on the first Christmas.

Because the inn was not the place where Joseph and Mary started; they started in Nazareth, the place that they called home. They traveled a road, a well-worn road, with hundreds, if not thousands of other travelers, all heading in the same direction. We know that when they got to Bethlehem, the inn was full of friends and family and familiar faces, none of whom seemed to bother to come downstairs, even when they heard a baby crying. But the road, too, was crowded with the same - friends, family, and familiar faces, all headed for a common place (that is, a place that they had in common). 

Any one of those persons along the road could have struck up a conversation with this young couple. Any one of them could have asked about Mary's pregnancy or Joseph's betrothal or a thousand of other things. Do we honestly think that a whole throng of men and women traveled together toward a place called home and didn't talk to one another? 

It doesn't seem to matter how weary I am or how stuck in my own little world or how preoccupied with a thousand thoughts about things to come I can get, there always seems to be someone who is eager to chat in the checkout line or talk about an item on the shelf we are both reaching for or whatever. Don't you think that with all of these persons traveling in the same direction for the same purpose - the census, the opportunity to go home - there was someone, at least one, who would have struck up a conversation? 

Hey, Joseph! Brother, I haven't seen you since the homecoming game. How are you, man?

It's human nature. 

Yet somehow, here we are, with a crowded road home and a bunch of friendly faces, and still - and still - Joseph and Mary had to seek room in the inn. Not one of these persons, not one who we know had to have chatted with the young couple, offered them a place to stay. Not one. It's the first question we ask when someone is coming to town: oh, where are you staying? But on the road home, no one seemed to ask it. No one seemed to discover that Joseph and Mary didn't really have a plan, didn't have reservations anywhere, were just sort of winging it when they got to Bethlehem. No one seemed to think about an extra room in their own home, not even for a friend. Not even for a familiar face. Not even for a very pregnant woman who could give birth at any time. 

Which means that not only was the inn full of guests who missed out on Christmas because they couldn't be bothered to go downstairs, but the road, too, was full of travelers who missed the same. 

Think about it for a second. Any one of those fellow travelers along the road could have invited Joseph and Mary to stay with them, could have ensured that this young couple had a place to lay their heads that night, could have offered a warm, cozy place to labor and bring this child into the world. One simple word, one simple invitation, and the story of Jesus could reach much differently. He didn't have to be born in a stable; he could have been born at Zachariah's house. But Zachariah, apparently, couldn't be bothered. 

It's just one of those things to say that the story isn't always the whole story. There are things that aren't part of the story that, actually, are pretty big, too. Every story is just one breath away from changing entirely - even the Christmas story. Even our Christmas story. Even our Christmas story this year. 

Who else is on this road you're traveling?  

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Room at the Inn

We want the story at the inn to center around a silent night, around a weary young man and his very pregnant wife-to-be who straggle in the front door well after dark, looking for somewhere - anywhere - to stay in his hometown. We want it to be about an innkeeper who doesn't have any room, but makes room anyway - a makeshift crib in a manger in a stable, which looks all warm in its golden hues illuminated by the light of an oil lamp. It's quaint, and it's cozy, and it's home, but it's not home, but it'll do and something beautiful happens there. 

But the Christmas story is not so simple. 

Because the stable where Mary and Joseph laid the baby Jesus was not like our modern stables. It was not set off a bit on the property, a little ways removed from the inn itself. It was, from our best understanding, the basement. It was the ground floor of the inn, a place where the animals could just walk in and cozy up under the rooms where their masters slept. Rooms, we must remind ourselves, that were full to the brim, so full that not even one more small little family could be crammed into them. 

That means that there was an entire inn full of persons who heard the baby Jesus cry that night. An entire inn full of persons who heard Mary's labor pains. An entire inn full of persons who, unlike the innkeeper, did not make room for a newborn baby. For them, the manger was good enough. They, in their weariness, could not be disturbed. 

And in Bethlehem, at the time of the census, these were not merely persons; these were family, friends. These were persons that Joseph probably knew and who probably knew Joseph. Friends from high school. The neighbors he had grown up with. Everyone was coming home to this place to be counted, and though there were probably a few who were just traveling through, some were there to stay - settled into a place near home. 

And not one of them even came down to see what the ruckus was. Not one of them stopped by to see the newborn baby.

We can't say that oh, of course it happened. How could it not? Because that seems like the kind of detail that God would have given us in the story if it were true. Doesn't it? It seems like the kind of thing He could make a point about, that would show us something about what it means to be drawn to the baby Jesus at Christmastime. To...push aside stigma and rumors and questionable appearances and forget that you're supposed to be socially shunning this guy whose wife-to-be is pregnant by someone other than him and to go and see the baby Jesus anyway. To...give up a little bit of your comfort to make more room for Him. To...lose a little sleep because you just can't stand to miss something so beautiful that is happening so close to where you lay your head. 

My imagination just runs wild. There are so many good and beautiful and wonderful stories that I want to dream about what it must have been like to be in the inn that night, to be so close to the baby Jesus that all it would take would be to just go downstairs. Make an excuse - say that your donkey needs water or something. Anything. How cool would it have been to be in the inn that night, that night when a real life baby was born, even if you didn't know at the time that it was Jesus?

And yet, not a whisper. Not a word. Not one mention in all of God's story about a single other person who was in that over-full inn that night. Not one mention, from a God who is not the type of God to leave anyone out of His story, no matter how small. 

And so, I just wonder. I do. I wonder about that inn and all those persons in it. All that family, all those friends, all that home that is not home, that familiar that estranges itself. I just wonder.  

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Innkeeper

As we talk about Christmas and coming home and not coming home, can we talk for a second about the innkeeper in Bethlehem? The innkeeper is one of the most complicated, challenging characters in perhaps all of the Christmas story, despite the fact that one of those characters is somehow miraculously God-in-baby-flesh. 

On one hand, we want to be upset with the innkeeper. How could he be so callous, so cold? There is a very pregnant young woman in front of him who is already obviously in labor pains, and he can't change his 'no vacancy' sign for her. He can't find one human place to house her for the night. He can't figure out how to accommodate one more person? Most of us look around our homes and know that if an unexpected relative knocked on our door this Christmas, we'd find a place for them to sleep. We'd figure it out. And it wouldn't include putting a blanket and a pillow in the dogloo. 

It's not like they had the kind of strict regulations regarding businesses back then like we do today. There weren't fire codes and occupancy limits like we have. No one was coming by to check (I don't think) whether the innkeeper had 72 or 74 persons in the inn that night. Almost no one would have noticed two more, except perhaps the person who had to skooch a little bit to make room. But this guy, this innkeeper, has the gall to say, sorry. No more. 

Now, we don't know the whole story. It's entirely possible that the innkeeper had been making room for 'one more' all day. Maybe he'd already let twelve 'one more's in, and there just really was nowhere else to put them. Maybe the innkeeper was having a bad day and desperately needed to get off his feet for a bit. Mary and Joseph obviously showed up pretty late. Maybe he was just worn down. Maybe he had needs of his own family that he needed to tend to. Perhaps he was taking care of a widowed mother and because of the busyness of the day, he hadn't even had time to make her dinner yet. There are all kinds of things that we don't know about the innkeeper, any one of which could change entirely the way that we understand him. 

And yet, the first thing that we remember about him is that he's the one who had no room for Mary and Joseph (and Jesus). 

Neither can we ignore the fact, however, that he made room for them. It wasn't glamorous. It wasn't clean. It wasn't comfortable. Like we said yesterday, it wasn't anything you'd think would be worth remembering, except for the exceptional baby who happened to be born there. But he did, in fact, take time out of the end of his very busy day, when he should have been closing down and going home himself, to somehow make a space where there was no space. 

He somehow made a manger, and who would have thought that the trough from which he fed the traveling animals would become the most famous trough in the all the world, even two thousand years later? When he laid some of that clean-ish hay down to make a little tiny bed, how could he have even known what he was doing? I have a painting of that hay on a little postcard, for crying out loud. Who could have imagined? 

So somehow, while we remember that the innkeeper had no room for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, we remember also that he made room for them anyway. And these things just sort of compete in our hearts and minds. We want to be indignant, upset for some reason - how could he turn them away? But in the same breath, we know that he didn't turn them wholly away. We hate him, and we love him, and there's just something wonderful about this character that it's hard to know what to do with in the Christmas story. 

Because there's something about the innkeeper that is something about all of us. It's the same ambivalence that we deal with in our own lives, in our own hearts. Do we have room for Jesus? Do we make room for Him? What kind of room do we make for Him? What is our legacy if thousands of years from now, someone tells a story about how we put Jesus in a barn? 

These are important questions as we look at our own hearts this Christmas. It's home; it's not home. It's a place that's almost no place at all, except that it becomes a place we can't forget. And what are we doing with it all? 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Something Beautiful

We've been talking for a couple of days about how Christmas is a homecoming - it's a homecoming for Joseph and for Jesus and for us. And at the same time, it's not a great homecoming. No one in his hometown makes room for Joseph, not even at the inn; the world doesn't make a whole lot of room for Jesus, on this night or many others; and we, in the midst of a pandemic, aren't sure what home looks like for us, either. 

And yet....

And yet, there's still Christmas, and we can't ignore that. Especially not this year. 

There is still a silent night and a heavenly chorus. There is still a bright and morning star to guide the way. There are still shepherds in the fields who can't wait to rush in and see the newborn baby boy, still wise men setting out to see Him. There is still this quiet, tender moment between mother and child when new life - really new life - comes into the world and the entire promise of God is wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

There is something beautiful that happens at Christmas, and it can't be stopped. And it can't be ignored. And it can't be neglected. And it can't even be quarantined away. Whether there's room for Joseph in the inn or not. Whether there's a place to lay a newborn baby or not. Whether we're waving at each other through picture windows and leaving presents on porches and mailing stocking stuffers in as festive of packages as we can find...or not. Christmas is coming. And it is beautiful and magical and wonderful and just as full of love as it ever has been. 

Have you ever noticed how many artist renderings we have of that first Christmas? It probably wasn't that clean. It probably wasn't that well-lit. It certainly didn't smell like peppermint in that manger. We know that it was a night that, if it had been any other baby, was a night worth forgetting. It was a night out in the cold, a night separated from friends and family, a night when something big was happening and everyone seemed to miss it, no one seemed to care. It was a night that was hard to find a homecoming, even in a place called home. And if it had not be Jesus Himself, no one would draw that night for us. No one would paint it. No one would labor to make it beautiful. 

But the truth is that it is beautiful, it was beautiful before we ever painted it. Before we ever tried to capture its beauty, it was breathtaking. And we look on those quaint little scenes of a tiny baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a bed of hay...and there's just something about it. We know it was a humble beginning, but somehow, what a moment it was anyway. 

And I think this Christmas is going to be like that. 

I think this Christmas is going to be one where maybe we don't feel like taking a lot of pictures. Where we're so keenly aware of all that is missing this year. We're going to look around at our quiet living rooms and humble abodes and think, gosh, if this were any other day.... But it's not any other day. It's Christmas. And somehow, some way, if we can find it in our hearts to try to capture something, anything, about this day, I think one day, we're going to look back on it and say, What a Christmas. 

It won't be a homecoming, not even in a place called home. It might not be that clean. It might not seem that bright. It might not smell like peppermint (or cinnamon - cinnamon seems to be the Christmas scent these days, I guess). It might seem like a day worth forgetting. But there will be something about it, anyway. There will be something beautiful this Christmas. Just like there always has been. 

And it will be up to us not to miss it. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Far From Home

But wait a minute - maybe it's beautiful to talk about how Christmas is a homecoming, for Joseph and for Jesus and for us, but isn't that just a little cruel in a year like this one, a year in which so many of us cannot go home for Christmas?

This is a year that we know is so much unlike other years. Stockings will be hung by the chimney with care, filled, and then taken down and the contents shipped to their respective recipients. Presents will be delicately wrapped, photographed under the tree, and then dropped off on porches with a wave through the window. Cookies will be baked with love, but the smells will be trapped in festive containers rather than wafting through shared spaces. We all want to go home for Christmas, but this year? This year, 'home' just isn't the same. 

Yet that, too, is a part of this Christmas story. That, too, is part of the story of this Christ. 

Because as much as this little inn in Bethlehem was a homecoming, it also...wasn't. Joseph was going home to a place that knew him, a place that he grew up in. It was a place where he should have had a home, where he should have been welcomed warmly. Especially given his present circumstances - he was a young man, freshly engaged, with a lovely young wife-to-be in tow. She was pregnant, yes, and what a disgrace that was, but still, this young man was one of their own. There should have been a place for him. 

We know, though, that there was no place for Joseph. There was no rejoicing at his return. There was no excitement about his engagement, no buzz (at least, no positive buzz) about his baby. When there was no room at the inn, no friends came out of their homes to offer him a room at their place. No one brought bread or oil or even a little water for him. There was no hospitality in Bethlehem for Joseph. There was no 'home' in his hometown. 

Nor should we lose sight of the fact that although Jesus has a home here with us, this is not home for Him, either. Jesus left the comforts of Heaven, the fellowship of the Father to come and to be here with us. We know that He constantly carries His God-nature with Him, but there's something about being a stranger in a strange land, especially knowing all that is coming for Him here. And it started that night, that lonely night in a stable. That first night when He cried out, and the world...seemed to stay silent. When He wailed the pains of birth from His lungs and...nothing. No one seemed to hear. Where Jesus, who was coming home to us, laid His head on borrowed hay that the animals had no choice but to give Him, that was taken from them for a little manger in a drafty barn. 

It just doesn't feel like 'home,' does it?

And that's why, no, it's not cruel to talk about a homecoming this Christmas, on a Christmas when so many of us simply can't go home. Because as much as they wanted to, as much as they tried, as much as they should have been right there in the midst of love, neither Joseph nor Jesus was truly home, either. Neither had the comfort that night of the place that we find ourselves longing for in our own lives this year. Christmas was a homecoming and at the same time, so far from it. O little town of Bethlehem, yet somehow, still, not quite home. 

Perhaps, then, this Christmas - this two thousandth and something Christmas - is more like that first one than we even realized.  

Monday, December 14, 2020


In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. 

As we turn our eyes and our hearts toward Christmas, let us not forget what was happening here. Christmas was, and is, a homecoming. 

It was a homecoming for Joseph and Mary, who were journeying toward Bethlehem to be counted in the census. They were going to Bethlehem because that was where Joseph's family came from, that was his home. In order for the census to be counted properly, that's where they had to be.

That in itself is interesting enough. It would have been customary in those times for a man to take his wife to his family's home to establish his own family home. He would have built an addition onto his father's house to become his married home, and the two young newlyweds would have had their own space among family. But that's not what happened in Joseph's case. 

We can speculate about why that was. Perhaps it was because of the shame associated with Mary's out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Perhaps it was some dynamic in Joseph's family of origin that we aren't told about. Perhaps Joseph's work as a carpenter had taken him to a new place to set up his own homestead. We just don't know. But what we know is that for some reason, Joseph had taken a different path and was not living in his family's home; he had to travel there. 

He had to travel to the place that he knew as love. He had to travel to the place that he knew as familiar. He had to travel to the place where he was known, truly known, by those around him. He had to make the journey to go back to where he came from, to the place where he remembered every little twist and turn of every road and where the nearest Walmart was. Joseph had to saddle up a donkey, pack a bag, and return to a place he once left to be counted among those whose blood ran through his own veins. 

And we could say, then, that this was a homecoming for his son, too. For the little baby Jesus, who was from the very beginning invested in this earth, who was at the very creation of this place when the very first word was spoken - who was that very Word itself, John tells us. 

When Jesus comes forth from Mary's womb and starts crying in that manger, something in Jesus has come home. Something in Him has come to settle into the creation that, from the very beginning, was His glory. Something...was very good again. 

It's strange to think of it this way. We always think that God created the heavens for Himself and the earth for us, but the earth is just as much a part of His glory as the heavens. Because we are just as much a part of His glory as the earth. We are not somehow other from God, somehow separate from Him; we are created in His very image. And that means that everything that God has created for us, He has created for Him. In His image, we hold the earth, and He holds the earth. There's something about this strange place that is home for Him. 

And all He's doing in that stable that coming home.

He's coming back to the place where He walks among us, just as He did in the Garden of Eden. He's coming back to the place where we can hear His footsteps on our earth. He's coming back to the place where He can reach out a hand and touch us. This is how it was meant to be. This is how it was. This is the original plan, coming back to us in a baby.

Joseph and Mary journeyed home to bring Jesus home to us, back to the place that is Love. Back to the place that is familiar. Back to the place where He can be known, truly known, by us. Back to where we came from, to where He came from, to the place where we know every little twist in the road together...and yes, where the nearest Walmart is. Jesus grew in the womb of a virgin to return to a place He once left to be counted among those whose veins run with His blood. 

Christmas is a homecoming - for Joseph, for Jesus, for us. And what a beautiful story. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

A Strange Advent

We are well into the season of Advent 2020, and we have to confess what a strange and difficult season it is. Advent is that time every year when we, as Christians, wait with anticipation and hope for the coming promise of Christmas, for that moment when we will hear the cry of our Savior rising up from a manger. The first cries of our salvation, the voice of love making a noise that we all can hear. 

And yet, it is a season that depends so much upon both anticipation and hope, and those are two things that this year seems to have taken from us. 

It is so hard to live in expectation when things can change in an instant, when there's this threat of something we still don't full understand hanging over us. When we keep hearing new guidelines and new guesswork and new ideas about what we should or should not be doing and when and where and with whom. We have just eleven days left now until Christmas morning, and there's not one of us who isn't at least mildly aware of how much can change in eleven days in 2020. How are we possibly supposed to make plans?

Not only that, but how are we supposed to let ourselves even think of Christmas morning right now? How are we supposed to have dreams of the whole family gathered around the Christmas tree? How do we know how much bacon or ham to buy, or how much waffle batter to mix up? How do we know whose stockings to fill or whose to pack in the car for a porch drop-off? Between now and Christmas? Anything can happen. 

And the kind of year that we're's just had it hard to anticipate anything. It's made it so hard to hold out a grand idea for anything. It's made it so hard to even think about things being anything like they always have been. Which is weird, I know. We are craving Christmas this year like no other year before us - the decorations are near sold out at the stores, the lights have been up on houses for a long time, those who have never decorated at all have gone all out this year. There's something in us that is just craving Christmas, and at the same time, there's something in us that is so scared to admit that. So scared to say it out loud because we know, we just know, that it's going to be different this year. Somehow. In ways that maybe we haven't even fathomed yet. 

After all, we still have eleven days. 

And hope? What is hope? We have spent the last ten months hoping for a glimpse of normalcy, hoping for our lives to look something like they used to. Hoping for cures and for healing and for opportunities. Hoping for the chance to get something back that we feel like we've lost, and yet, we've been forced to live not just without it, but still losing it every moment. This year has taken so much from us, so much that we don't know if we'll ever get back - in some cases, so much that we know we can never get back. And then, there's Christmas, and we're supposed to just...hope? Where has hope gotten us in the past ten months? How can we believe it's supposed to be somehow different this time, somehow different because two thousand years ago, a virgin gave birth in a stable? 

Precisely because that is the very moment, the very first moment, that hope cried out for us. That's how we can believe it. 

This Advent, it's so different. It's so difficult. It's so hard. This year has given us so many challenges, and it seems to have stripped away everything in us that has always been so good at both anticipation and hope. But we can't let it steal this season from us. We can't let it take this moment, too. Our Christmas is probably going to look different this year. We know that, even if we don't know exactly what that means yet. 

But there's still a Savior in a manger crying out in love. That hasn't changed, and it's not going to. And we simply can't - we can't - let even a year like this one take that away from us. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

A Broken Spout

It doesn't seem like that difficult of a task: pour the water from the pitcher into a designated receptacle. It's a task that I complete several times per day in various forms and without incident. In fact, without even really noticing it at all. It's a task so mundane, so routine that it's something I hardly notice. You probably don't notice it that often, either. 

Except that I have this one pitcher.... 

Very early on when I got this pitcher, I accidentally dropped it in the floor. No big deal, except that the very end of the spout broke off. And now, instead of having a nice, smooth exit point for the water contained therein, it just sort of...ends. Abruptly. The nice, rounded, well-flowing spout is now stubby and short and box-ended, flat. And you wouldn't think it would make a difference, but it does. Every time I fill that pitcher up and start to pour it, the contents just go everywhere. I mean, everywhere. It spills out over the side and dribbles down the front and makes just a glorious mess. Every. Time. 

You might say, then why do I keep that pitcher? Why not just get a new pitcher? But it's not that easy. You see, this pitcher has a specific purpose; it's part of a set. It's the pitcher that came with my iced tea maker, so it's the one that is just the right height and size to fit under the kettle and brew the decaf iced tea that I love so much. That's not a pitcher you can just replace (for some reason - maybe they sell them on their website; I don't know). It's not something where I can just go to the nearest big box store and buy any old pitcher and put it in there. This has to be a specific pitcher, and if I want to replace this pitcher (in any way that is convenient), I have to buy a whole new tea maker. (And trust me, I know - because I saved the pitcher from my old iced tea maker when it finally bit the dust, but the old pitcher doesn't fit under the new maker, even though they are the same brand. That's how they get you.) 

So every morning, I go into the kitchen, and I fill this broken pitcher and I think to myself, this time. This time, I am going to pour this water into the reservoir without spilling it everywhere. That's yet to happen. Not once. And the first cup of tea that I pour usually goes everywhere, too. 

See, this pitcher only doesn't pour correctly when it's full. But because of the nature of its use, it's always full when I start to pour it. 

It just baffles my mind every time. It really does. How it is that a few tiny millimeters of chipped curve off the end of a spout, and this pitcher just refuses to pour neatly? How is it that a little tiny imperfection, a little tiny bit of brokenness in just, apparently, the wrong place and this pitcher can no longer do the one thing it was designed to do - pour? I keep telling myself it shouldn't be this difficult. I keep telling myself it shouldn't be so hard. 

Oh, and for the record? A member of my family asked me how it is that I can't pour this pitcher without making a mess, and I explained the broken spout and was told, That shouldn't make a difference. But then, this family member attempted to pour the pitcher and...made a mess. 

It makes a difference.

A simple, little broken spout makes a big difference. It's incredible. Give me any other pitcher in the world, and I'm a pouring pro. Give me the broken pitcher, and I can't do it. 

It just makes me think about all the good and beautiful things that I want to pour out into the world and all the times I mess it up (which is a lot). It makes me think about the times I even tried really hard, knowing the places I was prone to fail, and it didn't matter - I failed anyway. It makes me think about all the moments that I wish I had back, all the chances I want to do it all over again. 

It makes me think about my own broken spout and how sometimes, that's the whole reason I just seem to make a mess of things. And it makes me think about what it would mean to fix my broken spout, to have God round out the flat places in me and restore them. To have Him heal what is broken, even what seems just a few tiny millimeters off. 

It's easy to convince ourselves that such little things shouldn't matter, that we should somehow just be able to love right through them. But the testimony of our lives is's not that easy. We try to love right through them, but we fall short. We try really hard, but we still mess up. We know what we're going for, but we still spill out over the sides or dribble down the front and make a mess. It's easy to tell ourselves that such little things shouldn't matter, but they make a real difference. 

They really do.

So let us be a people who take our little things to God. Yes, even those little things. Because we just never know what kind of big difference they're making. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020


Sometimes, when I'm reading the Bible, I have questions. One of those questions (right now) is: what was up with the church in Laodicea?

Paul wrote letters. Paul wrote a lot of letters. Some of them made it into our Bible; many more did not. The truth is that we don't know how many letters Paul wrote, and it's hard to say why we have chosen the particular ones we've chosen to include in the New Testament - aside from the obvious fact that we have them. Others may have been lost to history. 

That may be what happened to his letter to Laodicea. 

Paul references this letter in his letter to the Colossians. Apparently, these two groups of believers spent a lot of time together or had a significant overlap between them. Because right near the end of his letter to the Colossians, he says this: After you have read this letter, read it in the church at Laodicea. Make sure that you also read the letter from Laodicea. - Colossians 4:16

After you read this letter, share it with your brothers and sisters in Laodicea - because they need to hear it, too. And after you've shared your letter with them, have them share their letter with you - because you need to hear it, too. 

This is another one of those encouragement things like we were talking about last week. It has to be. Because we know that the easiest way to get a message to a group of persons is to write that message in the letter you're sending to them. Travel wasn't easy in those days, and it took a long time to get from one place to another - even places that were relatively close to one another (Colossae and Laodicea were about 15 km apart, or about 10 miles.) Still, if you already have a messenger going to deliver a letter in each place, it's easier to just write in the letter everything you want the recipients to hear. 

Unless what you want is for the recipients to have to fellowship over it. And that's precisely, I think, what Laodicea needed. 

When we read later in Revelation about the church in Laodicea, it is the church that is lukewarm. It can't decide what it's doing; it doesn't know how to truly take hold of the faith and make it anything meaningful for themselves. John urges them to do something, anything - invest in something, put some kind of clothes on. Paul's encouragement to the Colossians is to hold onto what they know and not let anyone try to teach them something different. On one hand, you might think that the Colossians were then fellowshipping a bit too much with the church in Laodicea (all their bad habits were rubbing off), but even if that's the case, the only real answer to fellowship more, under the guidance of Paul's teaching. 

That's what reading the letters together is going to do. It's going to give the church in Laodicea the encouragement that Paul has written to the church at Colossae, an encouragement that will help the Laodiceans to focus in on what the Colossians are getting right. And, if the church at Laodicea is anything like John describes it, the letter that Paul has written this church is going to let the Colossians hear his rebuke of their lukewarmness. The Colossians, who can't figure out which teaching to hold to, are going to hear Paul re-assert his teaching in his letter to a struggling church, and it's going to help the Colossians to know what is right. 

Two churches like this, who have so much realistic contact with one another, need that kind of mutual engagement. They need those words that cross over between witnesses, to encourage and to rebuke, to affirm and to correct. They need not only to hear them, but they need to be there when they are heard. They need to be connected in this way, and the truth is - these two churches are going to grow together. Just by the nature of who they are. 

I would like to read that letter to Laodicea. I would like to know what Paul had to say to them. I would like to know from his take what was really going on there, what problems they were facing, what encouragement and correction they needed. I would like to see that letter, too, because I think it would help us to understand Colossians better, as well. Paul meant the letters to be read together, but we get only one of them. 

Sometimes, the Bible raises questions for me, and this is one of them. What was up with the church at Laodicea? And what might I learn - about Paul, about Colossae, about faith, about God - if I knew the answer to that question? 


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Praying to See

If the trouble is not that we are wicked in our hearts (and it's not), and if the trouble is not that God is somehow not good (He is good), that still leaves us with a rather large disconnect in prayer - where we pray for something that we believe is good and God-pleasing and God still doesn't give it to us. As we saw on Monday, the first step toward the good things of God is that we have to prepare the soil. We have to be at least preparing a place for the things we want to harvest; God isn't just going to plop some magical goodness right down in the middle of our depravity. 

But something else that's important - and I've said it before, but I'll say it again - is the way that we are praying. We have to be praying not for what we can see, but to see the way that God sees. We need to pray to have His eyes for the situation that is on our hearts. 

We know, at least we say that we know, that there are things at work in this world that we can't see. We know that there are powers at work in this world that we don't understand. We know that God is not the only force we have to reckon with, even if He is the greatest one. We know that for everything that we know, there are ten things that we don't know. And honestly, we don't even know that we know what we think we know because, well, we know that our own perspective is limited. 

With all of this knowing, doesn't it just make sense that our first prayer ought to always be for the things we don't yet know? Our first prayer ought to be for greater knowing, for greater understanding. Our first prayer ought to be to see the things that we don't see right now, to have the kind of vision for our situation that God has for it. 

If we don't, then of course we are not going to know what to pray. How could we? 

The greatest challenge that we face in prayer is that we too rarely start with asking for a bigger vision. We too rarely start with asking God how He sees things. We don't defer to God's wisdom, but rather, we try to put our wisdom on His heart. We try to tell Him what we see. We try to tell Him how we've worked out the math on this one. 

The greatest challenge that we face in prayer is that we too often talk too often and don't listen. We don't even ask God to speak; we just ask Him to move. We ask Him to heal us, love us, reward us, secure us, protect us, justify us, sanctify us, and promote us but we don't ask Him to teach us. We don't ask Him to expand our minds or our hearts, only to satisfy them. 

And then we blame God when He does something bigger than our small minds can fathom. We can't understand why He didn't see it our way, but we haven't asked to see it His. Though, we should. That should be the first thing we ask for. 

God, grant me the vision to see my life the way that You see it. Only then will my heart ever possibly understand all that You're doing in it. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

When We Pray

One of the challenges of being persons of prayer is, of course, that God doesn't always give us what we ask for. Yesterday, we saw how that idea is misguided; it would make a fool out of God if He just gave us things that we asked for, if He let us harvest what we haven't planted. But this, too, raises some sticky theological questions. 

One of those sticky theological questions is whether or not we even know how to pray at all. 

This is hard because most of the time when we pray as mature believers, we are praying for something that we think is good. We are praying for something that we think God Himself would want. We are praying for something that He has perhaps even promised us - like healing or peace or forgiveness. If we are praying for good things, then shouldn't our good God want to give them to us? Shouldn't the fact that we want these good things be evidence of the faith that we have in the Giver of Good Things? Isn't that the 'magic formula' for prayer? 

When it doesn't work out that way, we say that there is a problem with our hearts. Something is wrong with the depth of our being, and we just don't understand what we're really asking for. Or Who we're really asking. Or whatever it is. There is something wrong with our wicked hearts, which are so depraved that they can't even pray correctly. Then, we spend so much of our Christian journey questioning our hearts. We question whether we are actually good persons, whether there's anything redeemable in us. We question whether we are as good, as loving, as kind, as joyous, as faithful, as righteous, as insert-the-adjective as we think we are. We question whether God is as good, as loving, as kind, as joyous, as faithful, as righteous, as insert-the-adjective as He says He is. It just raises all kinds of questions, and the truth is - we often don't know how to get past them. 

But what if our problem in prayer is not a heart problem? What if our hearts...are okay?

The problem we have in prayer is often not a heart problem; it's usually more a vision problem. 

An illustration might be helpful here. Imagine that you are in a grocery store with your young child, and she sees a candy bar that she simply must have. She asks you for the candy bar. To her, the candy bar is good. It tastes good. It makes her feel good. You promised to always take care of her and feed her. The candy bar is food. You have told her she is beautiful and that she deserves beautiful things; the wrapper on the candy bar is very beautiful. But you do not buy her the candy bar. She cries. She stomps and screams. She throws a fit and threatens to run away. 

The first question is: when your child desires a candy bar and understands this candy bar to be good, is her heart wicked? Is there something fundamentally wrong with your toddler because she wants this candy bar? No parent would say there is. Rather, we know that the child doesn't understand the complexities of the candy bar the way that we do - its processed sugars, its nutitional deficits, its tricky marketing, its cost inflation. We understand the candy bar, and even though it checks every box for 'good' in her book, we know that it is not as good as it seems because we have a better vision of what a candy bar truly is. 

The second question is: are we terrible parents for not giving her the candy bar? Have we broken our promise to be good to her because we do not buy the candy bar? Again, of course not. And the truth is that of all of the thousands of things we're going to do and not do for our child over the course of her life, virtually no grown child is going to come back to a parent and say, "Yes, but remember when you didn't buy me that candy bar when I was 3 and really wanted it?" Because we fill our children's lives with so many good things, the candy bar becomes null (eventually). 

This is the way that it is in prayer. It's not that our hearts are wicked, and it's not that our God is somehow not good. It's that we and God have a different vision of things; we're able to see different aspects of what it is that we're asking for. Our asking doesn't make us wicked, and God's 'no' doesn't make Him unfaithful. And He will fill our lives with so many good and beautiful things that we'd be foolish to walk away over lack of receiving something we want. 

So then, what's next? Stay tuned. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

God the Genie

One of the questions we always seem to have about the Christian faith is: why doesn't God just answer my prayer? We pray fervently, we pray earnestly, we pray without ceasing, and we don't always get what we want. Some would say we don't even often get what we want. 

The standard Christian answer to this is...difficult. We say something like, "Well, you don't understand what you really need and God does, so God's answer is always better than what you wanted anyway." There are two primary problems with this. First, God's answer doesn't always seem better, so it can cause us to question whether God understands us (or cares about us) at all. Second, if we don't even want what we think we want and if what we think is good isn't really good, then how can we know anything about our own hearts at all? Like I said, it's just difficult. 

Galatians offers a little insight into this question, and it's important to look at what Paul is saying in context in order to understand it. Paul says, 

Make no mistake about this: You can never make a fool out of God. Whatever you plant is what you'll harvest. - Galatians 6:7

A lot of us try to do this very thing - make a fool out of God. We live our lives the way that we want to and then, when we need something, we start telling Him how much we love Him and how special He is in our lives. We're the kid whose mom says 'no' at the store, so we give her the big puppy dog eyes and say, "Please? But I love you. And you said you love me." We're always trying to pull on God's heartstrings in the same way. But I love You, God. And You said that You love me. Well, if You love me....

Like God's gonna fall for that. If He did, He'd be a fool. You know it, and I know it. And the truth is that neither one of us wants a God who can be so easily played. We don't want a God who is a sentimental sucker for His own feelings of goodwill. We don't want a God who can be bowled over by puppy dog eyes or by our 'really, really, really wants.' We need, and we want, a God who's got some strength of character. 

And the strength of character comes in in the last part of this verse: God isn't going to give you anything you haven't been cultivating. Plain and simple. God won't harvest in your life what you haven't planted. God is not going to magically cure your diabetes if you always have cake on the shelf. God is not going to give you peace if you're constantly stirring up strife. If you're not making the move toward the good thing you're praying for, God's not just going to magically drop it in front of you. It can't just be something you pray for and ask your genie-God-in-a-bottle to do; you have to be disciplining yourself toward it. 

Now, that raises another sticky theological point, and I don't want you to misread me here. I am not saying that our faith or God's blessings are works-based. I am not saying that God wants us to go out and do for ourselves what we want Him to do for us. I am not saying that God is somehow keeping tabs on our efforts and will only reward us when we put in so much elbow grease of our own. And that's not what this verse is saying, either. 

What I'm saying - and what Paul is saying - is that you don't receive blessings from God that you didn't make room for in your life. Planting is a work of planning. It's a work of making the space and preparing the soil and setting aside the season so that the fruit of what you're planting is possible. And that's what we have to do when we start praying for something - we have to make the space in our lives for the answer. We have to create a little nook where the God-seed goes so that it can grow. We have to start living a life that accommodates the fruit that we're hoping for. This is the 'work' that we put in - it's a work of planning and preparation. Only then comes the harvest. 

Sometimes, of course, we don't know what to do for ourselves. And sometimes, we'll do the wrong things. But too often, we do nothing at all and just throw prayers up toward heaven and hope that God will magically manifest whatever it is we're wanting. And God just doesn't work like that. 

If He did, He'd be a fool. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

The Art of Encouragement

So now, we circle back to where we began: to the encouragers. I wasn't planning on having the sort of revelations about my own necessity that I had this week, but it worked out quite well in terms of rounding out this discussion a bit. 

Some among us are just natural encouragers. They think about others all the time. Random persons they love just pop into their heads. They can hear the cashier at the grocery store talk about something and know just what to say. Encouragement just seems to roll off their tongues...and through their hands. Their hearts are just wired for this and because of that, their lives are filled with it. 

Some of us...have to work a lot harder at it. It doesn't come naturally for us. The things that occur to encouragers a thousand times a day might never occur to us at all. Sometimes, we'll think that we want to do something, but we won't know what to do. So we end up doing nothing, which only discourages us more from trying to encourage. We're just no good at it. 

But I think we're better at it than we think we are. We have more potential than we think we do. 

Encouragement can seem tough, but it's really just awareness. It's figuring out the splashes of color that the threads of others weave into your story and thanking them for it. It's recognizing the way they catch the light and reflect it back to you and letting them know that. It's being mindful of the ways that others are tied into you and make you stronger and just taking a moment to say something about that. And it's choosing others for all the beautiful things that they are and telling them that you're choosing them. 

And, I should add, when someone is having a moment like I had this week, when they are feeling their own fragility and wondering what it is that they bring to the world, the greatest encouragement possible is the encouragement of simply reminding them that you choose them, that you want them in your life, that your life is better because of them, that your life is more beautiful because of them, that your life is stronger because of them. 

And we're better at recognizing this sort of stuff than we think we are. Really. Christmas is the perfect example of that. 

This time of year, we're all out trying to figure out what to gift to those that we love. We want to make this season special for them and really demonstrate our love and care for them. Somehow, we can walk through a store eleven months out of the year and not notice a lot of things. Just walk right past them without a second thought...or even a first thought. But this month, it's like our eyes are just open wider. We see everything. Something catches the corner of our eye. And we turn, and we think, instinctively, "Oh, so-and-so would love that" or "That's perfect for you-know-who." And it is. 

Wanna know a secret? That's the foundation of encouragement. That's it, right there. Encouragement starts with having others so much on the forefront of your mind that the world is full of little reminders of them. After that, it's just a matter of following through and telling them that you're thinking of them. That's it. 

We can do that. Can't we?

Find someone today to encourage. Tell them how you've noticed their colors in your tapestry. Tell them you feel the strength of their thread woven into your story. Tell them the way the light bounced off their life and caught your eye. Thank them for being here. It's that easy. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Woven In

Yesterday, we looked at the hard truth that...this world doesn't need you. It's a truth that I am discovering after two weeks in isolation with Covid, as I have re-entered the world and discovered that not only did it move on without me, but it's closed up the holes that I used to fill. And if I want to have a place in this world again, it seems like I'm going to have to make it. 

After I wallowed in my own self-pity for awhile (it's a tough pill to swallow when you discover that you're not as non-essential as you think), I discovered this is actually a beautiful opportunity. It's an amazing gift. This crushing weight of realizing how very little the world needs me is precisely the revelation that sets my love free.

You see, it's tempting, at the moment when you discover that the world doesn't need you, to just give up. It's tempting to give in. It's tempting to decide, then, that nothing you do matters and no one cares anyway and so you don't even have to try any more. Non-essential can quickly become non-existent if you're not careful. What's the point of being if no one seems to notice, if your being doesn't seem to change anything?

And yet, your being changes everything. At least, it does if you're doing it right.

When you're not holding the whole weight of the world on your shoulders, when you're not busy making yourself indispensable, when you're not working to make sure that you cannot be replaced, you can just worry about loving others. You can just concern yourself with doing all the little things that make you a blessing in a broken world. When you're not holding the world together, you're free to fill in the gaps. And that's beautiful. 

It's the difference between being the fragile string that the whole world hangs on and being a vibrant thread in the tapestry of this life. It's the difference between being the one thing holding on between life and death and being just something beautiful. Take the world's most intricate design and pull just one thread out of it, just one, and you can see what I mean. 

You pull out one thread, and one whole strip of color disappears. One whole nuance of shading is gone. One whole shade of being just...vanishes. And that place, though it may not unravel right away, becomes weaker. You are the thread that makes God's story stronger in the place in which He's woven you in. 

That's not non-essential. That's not nothing. That is something. It's something beautiful. 

I said yesterday that the balance to all of the despair is knowing that the God who created the entire universe looked at His creation and decided that it needed one of you. He made you on purpose, just the way you are, at just the time and place that you inhabit. You're here for a reason, and that doesn't change even if the world doesn't need you. That doesn't change even if the world moves on without you. That doesn't change if you have to keep finding your place over and over and over again. 

In fact, I think it's better this way. I think it's better to be reminded that this whole world doesn't live and die by you. That the world doesn't spin on your axis. It puts you back in your place and frees you from the burden of trying to keep this whole thing in motion by yourself. Instead of being the thing by which all things move, you get to just move with them. And truth be told, you've got a lot more to offer in this capacity than in any other. I don't want you holding up my world. 

But I do want you to make it more beautiful. 

I want you to be the thread that complements my colors. I want you to be the string that weaves through my story again and again. I want you to be that little strand of glitter that makes things sparkle when the light catches it just right. I want to be those things for you. 

The truth is that we spend so much of our time - I spend so much of my time - trying to convince ourselves how necessary we are, trying to convince ourselves how needed we are, trying to convince ourselves that this world just doesn't function without us. And in doing so, we miss out on what we're really called to - which is not to make this world turn, but to make this world love. Not one of us is here to make this world work; we're here to make it beautiful. And so, as I try to make my way back into my life after being a bit out of it for awhile, this is where my focus is. This is where my heart is. 

I want to make your life more beautiful. I want to be the little bit of glitter that...maybe doesn't seem necessary, but it catches the light in just a certain sort of way and makes everything sparkle. I want to be the thread that maybe doesn't seem like much, but it makes this place - this story, this community, this love, this life - stronger. 


We've been hearing a lot in the past several months about essential and non-essential workers. (And yes, I'll be tying this back into encouragers later, but hang with me for awhile.) But here's the truth, and this is going to be hard for a lot of us (myself included) to hear: we're all non-essential. 

Every one of us. We fill a specific role in the universe, but if we aren't in that role for some reason, it will get filled back up with something else. That's just the nature of the world, I guess. 

I'm on day 21 of a Covid infection. For two weeks, I was isolated in my home. For two weeks, I was unplugged from my life. For two weeks, the world had to go on without me. And guess what - it did. In fact, the world found a way to settle into its own new rhythm without me, picking up the slack on all the things I would have done but couldn't and all the places I would have been but wasn't. And now, as I'm starting to venture back out into the world, still fighting the effects of the virus but no longer contagious or required to isolate, I'm finding a hard reality staring back at me: 

The world doesn't need me as much as I thought they did. 

It's the greatest lie that we tell ourselves, right? If I wasn't here right now, this whole thing would fall apart. All of it. The whole world would just crumble and fall if I weren't holding it up and doing my part. Others cannot get along without me. What I do is so essential to the operation, a vital cog in the machinery, and if I weren't here to do it, it simply wouldn't get done. And then we have a whole domino effect of other things that can't or won't happen if we don't do our thing and essentially, we convince ourselves that if we were gone, the whole world is done for. 

It's not true, of course, but what a slap in the face (and a dart to the heart) that it is to actually find that out. To discover, after weeks of not being in the world, that the world just up and moved on without you and doesn't actually need you to do anything. Not even the things that you used to do. 

In fact, I've found that the world has gotten so good at taking over the things that I used to do for it that even when I try to pick them back up and start again, there's no need for me to. Things are already done before I even get to them. Things are already in motion before I've even thought about them. In my absence, the world upped its game and the cold, hard reality is...this world doesn't need me. 

The conflict of heart (once we get past ego, which is an entirely different thing) is that in the same breath that I understand this world doesn't need me, in the same sight in which I see this world carrying on without me without so much as a hiccup, I also know that the God of the Universe, who spoke all things into being, specifically created me. He made me. He made me just the way that I am because He looked at everything He created and decided that the world could use one of me. And that seems important. Doesn't it? Doesn't that matter?

I think it matters.

This truth pierced my heart like an arrow. It was a shock to my total system. The way that I walked back into my life thinking that it was waiting for me only to find out wasn't. It moved on without me. The world kept turning, and it's not so much that I have been replaced as much as the little hole that I thought that I filled has just sort of...sucked close. It just sort of vanished. And now, it seems like I have to make a new place for myself somehow, like I have to figure it all out all over again. 

This probably sounds like a downer. It certainly can be. But there's a silver lining here, too. There's something else at work, and it comes out of that little truth that I just can't ignore, that little knowledge I have that God Himself created me for a reason. 

To be continued, tomorrow.