Well yes, I do chase waterfalls. Scrambling over wet rocks, climbing higher in spray, jumping down them to solid ground below—that was my perfect road trip afternoon for most of my life.
These days, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome exacts a painful price if I try that. Every step on uneven terrain has potential for a turned ankle or a fall. I climb and descend—but slowly, carefully, watching every single foot placement and evaluating the next one for security. Recovery for a mistake takes far longer now than it did when I could jump up and dust off the skid marks from my backside.
It’s slow. It’s not the joyful abandon of earlier days. I sometimes can’t appreciate the vista around me for the attention to detail below me. But it’s reality, and ignoring reality isn’t wise for anyone, regardless of natural ability.
On our September trip to five national parks out west, I learned this again and again. Watch where you’re going. Calculate where your steps will lead. Be ready if the footing shifts.
I don’t like it. It’s not my personality. I think, though, it’s a good lesson.
It’s Not Just Hiking
This process describes most of my life as a church leader, too. I used to have no worries about scurrying down the hill, quickly sidestepping roadblocks, creating plans B and C on the way.
“Throw is at the wall and see what sticks.”
“Don’t be afraid to fail.”
“Just do it.”
I’m not suggesting these outlooks are wrong. They served me well. One of the things I wish young people believed more was that failing is not fatal. Having the courage to let go of control would benefit more church leaders and their people.
It’s just that perhaps, some of us are in a different time now as leaders—whether of churches, families, organizations, or volunteer brigades. Maybe those of us who have been up and down the waterfall a few times have a different job. Maybe it’s our calling now to proceed with more caution.
Experience Teaches Something about Jumping
A jump is a commitment. I tended to make those commitments before. Now, I’m more cautious, knowing there are perils I can’t see until I’m balancing on the rock. Perhaps in lieu of jumping higher right now, It’s my call to look down.
I have the experience to yell back to others—
“Hey, that rock has some solid spots, but don’t put both feet there. Stay aware of its weaknesses. Be ready for when it lets you down.”
“You can choose that route, but you won’t recover from a fall from that path. You’ll wash out at the bottom. Stronger than you have tried.”
“You’re in the weeds. I know it looks like there isn’t a path because pain or confusion has covered what you thought you knew. But there are footholds there that will hold you. I know this. I’ve been held.”
“You can do this. The reward is worth it. Keep going!”
The trail has been blazed for those coming behind me with leaps and skids, with triumphant sprays of joy and frightening slides. Now could be my time to create a different path. One that makes clear where the footing is solid and won’t fail beneath. A path that shows where and wh
A call from my place of experience that says, yes, there are dozens of ways to get up and down these rocks, but don’t put all your faith in one outcropping, and don’t forget there is solid footing to which you can always return.
Now I’m looking ahead enough before every step to instinctively know when recovery will be too difficult if I choose one direction, when one path will get me to the goal albeit slower, and what my limits are either way.
It’s my turn to travel slowly, deliberately, and wisely, knowing the leapers and jumpers behind me may choose other routes, but they will know, from what I’ve laid out, where sure footing lies. They can return to it. It will hold.
I am not a party person. I am so far on the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs scale I nearly fall off it. I love being a pastor, and I love my people, but socializing with a roomful of acquaintances on a surface level feels like I imagine purgatory would feel, if I believed in it.
Nevertheless, I enjoy a well crafted party with people I love. We’ve had our share this year, with the youngest’s wedding right in the middle of 2019. A shower. A wedding. A reception back home. All of it. And all of it we crafted carefully, with their tastes and our budget in mind.
We planned themes, grew and arranged flowers, drilled holes in centerpieces and hand-letters signs that told people exactly where to put their cards and how to play the date night game. While we did much of the work ourselves, we had a dress, a caterer, and a photographer that knocked it out of the park.
We missed nothing. It was a wonderful day.
Time to Party
As we’ve been walking through Hebrews, off and on, these last few months, we come to a passage that also knocks it out of the park. So far, Hebrews has been shopping, setting the table, making menus, crafting decorations, and sending invites. The writer has missed nothing.
Now—in chapter ten—it’s time to party.
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.
Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10.19-25, NLT)
Verse 22 is the party—“Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him.”
The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.
We are not simply to come to the party either but to come boldly. “Go right in” is the phrase people use when they know the person invited belongs. It’s what we say to friends—come on in, and use the side door (the one for friends). You know you can walk in anytime. We don’t offer that privilege to strangers. Only those whohave our complete love and trust get the “come on in.”
Other translations use the words “confidently,” “with full assurance,” or “boldly.” Literally, it’s “free and fearless.” It means the same—go toward God as you would anyone who invited you in like you belonged there. Because you do.
For many, boldness is not our default. When it comes to any relationships, fear predominates. Fear that we will not be accepted. Fear that we can never be good enough. Fear that we don’t deserve forgiveness. Fear that our love will not be reciprocated.
Fear drives so much, and has since Eden.
God puts that fear to rest here. If we’re told to come boldly to the one who made us, who knows us best, whom we’ve actually offended the most, but who loves us everlastingly and unconditionally, then where is the place for any fear at all? If that relationship is restored, what is there to fear in any other?
What would it be like to live free and fearless?
Trust is hard. Fear is easy.
Relationships fail us.
Spouses leave, or don’t fulfilled their vows to honor us, protect us.
Friends betray us to move up social ladder.
Relatives abuse you in ways no one talks about.
Coworkers throw you under the bus to cover their butts.
Your child screams swear words at you, and you believe growing up means breaking apart.
Trust is fragile.
Trust is hard. Fear is easy.
If the only metric we have to measure relationships is human ones, and we are human so it is, then we project all that on God.
God becomes the girl who wouldn’t let us sit with her.
The kid who bullied you.
The spouse who betrayed you.
The relative who abused you.
The father you could never please.
Trust is hard. Fear is easy.
Two years ago, I went to a friend’s home in London for a writing retreat (I know, rough), and two of the other women voiced their life’s dream to got to Paris. They begged me to go, too, since I’d been a few times and could be a guide. So we made a day trip, and our first stop (OK, after Laduree and Berthillon) was Notre Dame. Notre Dame was my first love of buildings, and I couldn’t wait to see my old friend.
We saw a long line near one door. Very long. One of the other women nosed around and found another door on the other side. No one was lined up there. So, maybe the other line was for the tower? Because my friend is bold, and because she has an auto-immune disease that makes standing for a long time difficult, she decided to use the door with no line. Boldly, we walked right in.
We gaped round the altar, stood in awe at the familiar rose windows, and walked the checkered floor I love so well. Yes, we cut the line, we realized later. But the door was open. And we decided to walk through it without hesitation.
That was the last time I saw my favorite place in one piece. I’m so glad we chose to go through the door.
This is the exuberant, joyful, excited boldness God wants for us when he talks about us coming near to him. Without fear, with excitement, believing this is the best dream of our lives. Because the door was opened, and all we have to do is walk in.
We do not have to measure God by the instability of human relationships. God invites us—and he invites us as He would a friend.
Maybe when trust is hard is the time we most need this party. Not a fake it, put up a front, false happiness party—a party that says what matters will stand.
A party that defies death, decay, rising smoke and tells it all—you do not win.
Because it is finished.
Death—you have no victory.
Despair—you have no home here.
Fire and smoke—you cannot take away what matters.
Restoration is beginning. Reclamation is here. New beginnings are ready—don’t despair—come to the party.
When I went off to college, they (whoever they is) told us to expect an earthquake anytime. The New Madrid fault hadn’t gone in well over a hundred years. It was due. “They” had all of us midwesterners ready to build quake proof shelters all over campus, except being from Illinois, we had no idea what that even was. Tornadoes we know. Earthquakes, not so much.
Needless to say, we never experienced an earthquake. Missourians haven’t since that time, either. St. Louis remains safe from teetering into the abyss in the foreseeable future, though it remains an active fault.
On a family trip to San Francisco, we stood in an earthquake simulator, however, to see what it would be like. Dizzying, confusing, and yes, terrifying had it been real.
In doing some research on the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, I discovered an interesting detail. The quake measured an (assumed) 7.9 on the Richter scale and the maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). Shock waves traveled at a rate of 8300 miles per hour. Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire.The event displaced over 75% of the population and killed between 700-3000 people. It permanently removed San Francisco as the leading city of the west, replacing it with Los Angeles.
We assume the most destructive element of that quake was the fire or the falling buildings. Nope.
Most earthquake damage results from strong shaking. Damage caused by landslides, ground failure, or fire account for a small portion of the total. We remember the 1906 earthquake mainly for the fire damage, yet in most places, it was the shaking on already shaky ground that caused the trouble.
You know what area sustained the worst damage? The Bay Area where ground had been reclaimed from the water. Already soft and easily malleable because of its water and sand content, the ground beneath the bay dissolved during the shaking. Bedrock areas held fast. Unstable ground rocked the buildings above it with ferocity.
In other words, bedrock holds. Shifting ground, soft foundations, things humans created and didn’t use for their intended purpose—all these fall away in an intense shaking. What survived the earthquake? Steel buildings on solid ground.
“You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’
No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.
When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”
God tells the Hebrews—I’m going to shake things up. In fact, I’m going to shake all of creation until it’s shaken back into order. I’ll shake until all the unintended, soft shifting mess is taken away and only the solid, perfect rock remains.
I remember the giant braided rugs my mom used to have in our living room. Occasionally, we had to take the behemoths outside and give them a good shaking. It took two of us. Dirt had gotten in all the crevices of the braid, and it had to be shaken and beat until the seams released all the mess that shouldn’t have been there. It was a job.
Sometimes things need to be shaken into order. They’ve lost their function. Impurities have gotten in the cracks. They need a good clothesline moment with a broom and a strong arm.
In one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs he suggests that:
“The Lord takes by its corners this old world
And shakes us forward and shakes us free
To run wild with the hope.”
I love that image. One day, the entire world will be set right. Shaken free of its evil and freed with wild hope. I can’t wait for that day.
But here’s the thing—sometimes He will do the same to you and me, here and now. What needs to be shaken free in our lives so we can run wild with hope?
God’s shaking in our lives signals his desire for us to be what we were meant to be, unencumbered by dust and dirt.
We don’t often perceive a good shaking up in as joyful freedom and hope. We see it through a lens of fear, assuming the worst of anything that upsets our comfortable status quo.
But the Hebrews writer sets us straight on that. S/he explains that we have come to Mount Zion—not Mount Sinai. We’ve come to a joyful gathering. We’ve come as God’s own heirs. We “have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people.”
We have come to hope. To no more fear. To the one who is love and casts out fear. To joy, to the community of his people, to Jesus’ himself speaking for you.
“At the centre of the contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, in fact, is the contrast between a holiness which is terrifying and unapproachable and a holiness which is welcoming, cleansing and healing.” NT Wright
If we think of God’s shaking as scary, we’re thinking in the wrong covenant, living in the wrong testament. We need to reframe the shaking up as a restoration of what was lost. It’s more like panning for gold than tearing us apart.
Holiness on the new mountain no longer a terrifying thing. It’s a new way, a better way, a healing, restoring activity. We should welcome it, be excited about it, work toward it not as if we were afraid but as if we rejoice to belong in that city.
The lesson we learn from San Francisco is that shaking doesn’t harm things that are built on bedrock. It destroys only thing that are built where they shouldn’t have been. Only foundations that are unsound. It’s Jesus’ parable about the house on the rock all over again.
The warning of Hebrews 12 and the warning of 1906 are the same—be mindful of your foundation. What are you building on? What is the bedrock of your faith? What will happen to that faith when the shaking starts?
Many people who have lost their faith in recent years have stated that it happened because a celebrity pastor, worship leader, or other person whom they trusted turned out to be unworthy of that trust. Their faith rested on a person, and that person wasn’t Jesus. When holiness shook it out, it crumbled.
Others build their foundation on God blessing them—giving them the abundant life He promised. When circumstances reverse and they don’t feel blessed, they no longer feel God, either.
Some build on doctrine, certain that if their answers are right, their faith is solid. Ditto “right behavior.” They go over their mental checklist daily, ensuring that they haven’t missed or compromised anything. Like Javert, their life becomes undone when someone suggests that grace and mercy matter more to a human soul.
Shaking terrifies those who live on foundations they have built themselves with unsteady hands and insufficient knowledge. It doesn’t faze those who know a master craftsman built their foundation, and it will hold.
“You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.”
That’s it. That’s enough. That will hold.
When God shakes up our world, he wants us to know that only unshakable things will remain. Our response, so difficult and against the human grain, is “so let us be thankful.”
Baby oil is the secret ingredient to homemade modeling dough. Unlike the store-bought variety, it smells soft and fresh, and when I had three small girls, it lasted longer too. I’d cook up a batch every few months, and our daughters spent hours “making cookies,” stamping their plastic cookie cutters into the dough and giggling with satisfaction when the exact replica of their cutter—be it a unicorn or a dragon—looked back at them.
When I don’t understand something about God the Father, I think about this verse, Hebrews 1:3: “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command” (NLT).
How does that help when I question God? Jump over to The Glorious Table and read the rest of the devotional.
This post first appeared here on The Glorious Table.
When I was eight years old, I sat out a tornado warning with my parents in a pickup truck on the side of the road. The truck swayed side to side as rain pelted its windshield, and thunder sounded as close as the back seat. The wind threatened to toss us into the ditch as the green sky darkened.
Outside, chaos raged. Inside, my parents’ arms wrapped around me, keeping me calm. Their presence assured me that even if the world out there was not all right, there with them, I could find peace.
Summer storms often light up the sky here in the Midwest. They can be sudden, just as my study of Scripture tells me that storms on the Sea of Galilee also came on quickly, giving little warning to fishermen in their boats. The workers usually stayed closer to the shore for that reason. Fishing boats were small and the lake large. Matthew records one such storm:
“Then Jesus got into the boat and started across the lake with his disciples.Suddenly, a fierce storm struck the lake, with waves breaking into the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, ‘Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!’ Jesus responded, ‘Why are you afraid? You have so little faith!’ Then he got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. The disciples were amazed. ‘Who is this man?’ they asked. ‘Even the winds and waves obey him!’” (Matthew 8:23-27 NLT)
Imagine the howling wind, crashing waves, and harsh sea spray hitting you in the face and filling the boat. Envision the lightning flashes around you, knowing your mast is the highest point for miles. Can you feel the fear?
They’ve got Jesus, so it’s all OK, right?
“But Jesus was sleeping.” Curled up at the back of the boat, Jesus hadn’t a concern in the world.
These seasoned fishermen know this sea. Right now, uncharacteristically, they are terrified of it. They do not interpret Jesus’ untroubled sleep as great faith to be imitated. They see it as abandonment in their hour of need.
These professional watermen wake him, shout at him, blame him, and otherwise act like scared kids. What do they yell? “Rescue us!” Their words reflect faith or perhaps desperation, probably a mix of both.
Jesus responds in a way they clearly don’t expect. He raises his hand and tells the weather who’s boss.
The clouds break up. The water calms. The disciples’ jaws drop.
I think we forget that they didn’t know who he was. To the disciples, Jesus was a rabbi—a man who happened onto the scene and chose them. They didn’t know what we know. The transition that had to take place between, “Hey he’s a great guy! Smart, good, a little odd, but we’re lucky he picked us,” to “He is straight-up God” was not a day’s work.
It took scenes like this, when they saw a storm rendered powerless and realized the Lord of the wind and waves was standing two feet away. That probably seemed more terrifying than the storm.
Sometimes, even though we do know who he is, we can’t see the end of our story. We don’t know how it plays out. We only know the scene being shot, and that scene contains wind and rain and fear.
We know he’s God in those times, too, but we think he should have kept us out of the storm, and we’re still not sure he can get us through it.
Sometimes we’re all eight-year-olds sitting in the front of the pickup hollering and praying that it stops.
Here’s what the disciples had to learn: It isn’t trust to expect Jesus to keep us out of the storm. Trust is believing he will keep us through it.
We often look at this story as an example what God will do for us. But the true point of story is not that he will calm all our storms. The point is that we find our peace in the midst of the storm in the one with the power to control it.
It tells us who he is and who is in charge.
God, I know I look at the storms too much and at who’s in my boat too little. I let fear overtake me, and I forget who is steering. Please help me to trust you to guide me through the storms and not demand you stop them. Help me trust you as the one who created the seas. Amen.
Scripture for Reflection
“Who kept the sea inside its boundaries as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and wrapped it in thick darkness? For I locked it behind barred gates, limiting its shores. I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come. Here your proud waves must stop!’” (Job 38:8-11 NLT)
What storm are you going through right now? It can be big, but it can also be the everyday grind of busyness and the struggle of time management.
Imagine, right now, turning around in that storm and seeing Jesus behind you. Is he holding the rudder, or are you? Who is steering the course, who is bailing water, who knows the way to shore? Write down your fears and, at your pace, hand them to him. Allow him to wrap his arms around you and calm your anxiousness. Find a picture of a shoreline and look at it to remind you he knows where he’s going.
They had me at the Tolkien quote on the front page.
Faith for Exiles
I’m a long time fan of David Kinnaman’s work and a newbie to Mark Matlock’s, having read, and incorporated into my doctoral thesis, pretty much all of Kinnaman’s titles. (You Lost Me, unChristian, Good Faith, Churchless).
So I might have been the first person to fill out the application to be on the launch team for Faith for Exiles: Five Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon.
It did not disappoint.
The Exodus Is Real
While many of us in church leadership wring our hands over the exodus of young people from the church, documented so well in the books mentioned above, the authors offer here a portrait of the kind of young believer who stays—thus affording us a chance to change the equation, if we pay attention.
This is good news for both church leaders and parents. Parents of littles—don’t believe you have to wait for this information. Discipleship begins young, very young, and having a front-row seat to learn all you can now about how kids stay faithful matters. It matters very, very much.
Kinnaman and Matlock begin with the premise I’ve believed and talked about for a long time—we no longer live in the Promised Land. We are exiles in Babylon who must look to the prophets for our wisdom more than the Exodus. Our culture is not Christian, but God wants us to be Christians in our culture. Like Daniel and his famous furnace friends, we must develop the faith required to hold onto the essentials of what we know about God while caring deeply for the place in which we find ourselves. Our stance should take it’s wisdom from one of my most oft-quotes Jeremiah lines (and I quote Jeremiah a lot):
“This is what the Lord says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: ‘Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce.Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Our young people deeply feel this truth—that the welfare of those around them—all those around them—will determine their welfare. Yet they struggle with the information overload, the plethora of options and “truths” ricocheted toward them like they’re living in a particle accelerator with no off switch. The older generation needs their understanding of and compassion for Babylon. They need our experience in how not to allow its noise to drown us and mold us into its design.
Digital Babylon, as the title explains, is not a concrete place but an interwoven haze of electronic environment that overhangs and fogs us all. The younger generation are both more aware of its potential andmore susceptible to its siren call.
“Through screens’ ubiquitous presence, Babylon’s pride, power, prestige, and pleasure colonize our hearts and minds. Pop culture is a reality filter. Websites, apps, movies, TV, video games, music, social media, YouTube channels, and so on increasingly provide the grid against which we test what is true and what is real. The media and the messages blur the boundary between truth and falsehood. What is real is up for grabs.”
The authors first make the case for the dangers ( as well as the potential) of digital Babylon, and they make it well. Those of us who did not come of age surrounded by electronics, available 24/7, conscious of our pubic image at all times, do not understand this, no matter how much we research it. We need to hear our young people on it, without making assumptions or declarations.
The focus of the book, however, is not on the problem but on the solution. How do we raise what they refer to as “resilient Christians”—young people who remain in church, retain their active faith, and recharge their world while in Babylon?
Five things stood out as they interviewed the ones who stay. Resilient Christians, those whose faith remains strong and active, have five characteristic practices:
Practice 1: To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus.
Practice 2: In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment.
Practice 3: When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships.
Practice 4: To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.
Practice 5: Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.
The book outlines all of the five with illustrations, ideas, and examples of how these practices are given life in both young people and their churches. The churches, of course, are the target for this information. If church leaders do not look at the data and pay attention to what effective discipleship looks like, it won’t matter that we know the right answers. The church has to make the move to change the way we disciple our young people. Parents, it’s never too early to look at our church practices and help be the change. (That’s one reason I have two talks–“Unplugged” and “Families on Mission,” on my speaking page!)
Just One Practice
For example, practice one—experience intimacy with Jesus.
“It is easy to call oneself a Christian but much less common to find deep joy in Jesus. That conclusion is where our first practice begins. The first practice of resilient discipleship in digital Babylon is clearing religious clutter to experience intimacy with Jesus.”
We learn how to identify that clutter (things like idolizing our own image, for example) and how to focus, as a church, on helping young people find their center in Christ, not personal brand or knowledge about God. It’s this deep, personal experience with God that gives them the resilience toknow, despite culture’s barrage to the contrary, that their identity is secure in Christ and He knows exactly what it’s like to live in their shoes.
One of the errors the authors point out is that the church, rather than pursuing this deep relationship, has pursued the branding of Jesus themselves.
“The church has responded to the identity pressures of our culture by offering young people a Jesus ‘brand experience’ rather than facilitating a transformational experience to find their identity in the person and work of Jesus.”
Once the brand wears off, as they all do, there is no resilient faith left.
The Other Four
The other four practices are equally interesting and informative. I already used some of the material in the chapter on vocation to foster a lively discussion during my sermon on calling a couple weeks ago. The young people there definitely resonated with the realities Kinnaman and Matlock present, and they had much to say about their frustrations regarding jobs, careers, and calling in today’s world. The church can step in with so much wisdom in this area, if we try.
The chapter on intergenerational discipleship drives home the absolute need for older people to be involved. Another finding I’ve read is that the “magic number” of adults actively involved in a young person’s life is five. That means five older Christians to take an interest, have a conversation (where you listen!), take a young person out to coffee or for a walk, teach someone how to cook or sew or handle a bank account, text a caring message, can make all the difference in a person’s continued faith.
In conversations and writing with my own twenty-somethings and others, many of the truths in this books have come alive.
These aren’t difficult practices. But they are deliberate and intentional, and they require a sacrifice of that elusive commodity–time. They do insist we changing our framework from entertaining and evangelizing to discipling and serving. I’ll close with this, one of the greatest truths of discipleship, yet one we forgo time and again when it comes to young people. Please, don’t let it go in your child’s life.
“In digital Babylon, faithful, resilient disciples are handcrafted one life at a time.”
Two weeks ago, I talked about stories. I’ve been feeling a pull, a call, to write down some stories. To remember, revisit, and reclaim some of my own. This is the first. I have no idea why it came to me first. I don’t question those things much anymore. I hope you like it.
Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance
The beige rental carpet itched my legs, bare on a rare warm Montana afternoon. Who knew what those fibers were made of or what had made contact with them over years of rental to college students. A newlywed, I figured I had immunity to all of life’s hardship, including infection from dubious rental carpet. Still, I moved to the couch to open my stack of mailbox-warmed envelopes.
I had a new last name and a new home, and the fact that said home sat in the landlady’s basement and had a kitchen so small I couldn’t open the oven and the refrigerator at the same time mattered little to my self-satisfied first months as a bride.
The landlady’s only real intrusion came on random Saturday mornings when the live-in boyfriend decided to practice his elk horn at 4 am. Directly above our bedroom. I don’t know how well he could bow hunt, but his elk horn skills were enthusiastic.
Said new name and home made opening even junk mail in the basement an exciting daily event. Neither age nor experience had yet jaded me to seeing my name and address on an envelope half-way across the country from where I’d grown up and feeling the special adultness of it all.
The couch’s combo of white polyester and black vinyl squares didn’t treat my thighs much better than the carpet had. My new in-laws had given us the couch when we moved from St. Louis to Bozeman for the first year of medical school, with them ten miles away. I didn’t look gift furniture in . . . what pat of a couch passes for a mouth? Point being, with a recession in Montana and no one hiring an English teacher with one year of experience and only one year of commitment to offer, gratitude seemed the sensible option.
I opened Concerned Women for America’s red, white, and blue envelope third. On our meager income, I’d agreed to send a few dollars when I could. We were in a fight after all, we Christians and “them.” Even then, I wasn’t quite clear on who “them” was. But I knew it was true. I listened to conservative Christian radio and focused on my family every day even though we had no children and wouldn’t until we lived on a lot more than a part-time after school program facilitator’ssalary with generous outstanding student loans.
Currently, “we” were fighting allowing gays in the military. The slippery slope warnings in the letter, appropriately capitalized, italicized, and red in all the right places, made sense. They had to be true. They came from people that people I trustedsaid people they trusted said were to be trusted—so how could they not be?
“They” would cause morale to drop. Trust would fail among the brethren. Real men would flee the military. Troops would decline, we’d embarrass ourselves in every war, America wold lose its status as world leader, and western civilization would end as we know it.
I’d never get those 2.5 children. All because real men didn’t want to shower with not real ones.
Obviously, I had to do my part.
I don’t think it was that day I began to read a bit between the lines, began to see what hadn’t been explicitly written but what surely had. It took time. A few red, white, and blue envelopes opened. A number of appeals that decried “them” as despicable minorities intent on shoving their agenda into my well-ordered, clearly Christian-Right manicured life.
A few more adjectives that made me pause. It happened one day that year on my scratchy black and white couch. I saw the words and I wondered if Jesus would use them. I wondered whom he would call despicable. Disgusting. Militant. I wondered why I read a lot of words about America and protection and rights and not any at all about Jesus even though all these words in the red, white, and blue envelopes supposedly came straight from his heart.
The discomfort had been trickling in, but I’d ignored it because of all those trusted people. If I couldn’t believe these words, what would happen to my well-ordered, promising future? Who would defend me against “them”? Being young and in love did not protect me from the weary woes of the world—bad carpet or bad policy. I knew this. Who didn’t need a buffer between us and them, me and those who would come for my one-day children, if I didn’t send in my duly-appointed ten dollars?
That day, I didn’t.
Another couch, another day. Many years between, and three children, one of whom sat beside me, sixteen and lovely, but mad as righteous indignation can make an almost-woman.
We could afford a better couch by this time, and I’d bought this one to match my perfect plans for the living room—navy blue plaid, intermingled with forest green and cranberry, shards of gold shot between. The precise colors I’d wanted. Still, perfection is a beast of a slave master, because Pippin the black cat used that couch regularly to sharpen his mouse-catchers on, and all the shouts, claps, and sprays of water in our arsenal had never convinced him to desist.
I can’t protect my couch, let alone my neat world.
I apologized to the girl-woman, she uncertain if tears or spitting anger fit her mood best, so she alternated the two in amazing synchronicity. I unsure of the words to admit I’d been wrong, because words of apology had always hung somewhere between my heart and my mouth, like a breech baby wanting to come out but not willing, and in the meanwhile showing its worst side to the world.
I’d tried to protect her, really to protect me and the perfect world I’d created as a pastor and a mother. She wanted to support her lesbian friends on the Day of Silence, and I’d refused to let her buy the commemorative T-shirt to wear at school that day. I made up some excuses as to why I didn’t want her wearing it, that kids were cruel and crazy and sometimes even allies got attacked, but we both knew they were flimsy at best. She had friends, and she wanted to love them well, and it seemed an easy choice to her.
But not to me.
All those us’s and them’s came pouring back over me, and I understood as I held her I’d messed up not just in my edict but in showing courage to a girl learning to step into her skin and her world. Though I’d refused that agenda twenty-some years before, I lacked the nerve to do it out loud, at least, to allow her to do it out loud and accept whatever ripple effect it had on me.
I had such potential as a right-wing political activist. Nearly went to law school. Could write a potent protest letter when the need presented itself. Knew all the right causes and defenses.
Until I didn’t.
Until I realized that agendas go both ways. We all have them. That we don’t see our own only creates a wider chasm between us and them.
I don’t know if I’ve put my agendas down, but I know now that safe isn’t on any of them. I know that if I can’t imagine my words coming out of the Prince of Peace’s mouth, I’d probably better rethink them. I see his agenda, and I see how we, I, have wanted to use it to create my own.
The exercise should frustrate me. The backwardness of it astounds me.
They’re still around, CWA. The website, nonexistent in those days of red, white, and blue envelopes, still touts defense of family, religious liberty, and national sovereignty. I clicked on the “gays in the military” fact card, but I got a 404 message. No more facts to be had, I suppose, and now I understand that there never really were.
Still, the fact card decrying “hate crime” legislation, the quotation marks intentionally delegitimizing the pain and fear of those who don’t find themselves in the beautiful white straight majority, perches unapologetically on the resources page, daring me to argue with its logic and new veneer of grace.
So what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak? (Hebrews 2:3 NLT)
I first saw the dress on a mannequin in the shop’s window. Its skirt shimmered despite the February gloom outside, and the subdued sparkles on its lace top matched perfectly as the lace descended, imperceptibly tapering off into the skirt. It had a gorgeous open back with just enough detail to suit my daughter’s classic taste.
A few minutes later, she saw it, too, and asked the bridal shop attendant to add it to her growing pile. We were on a whirlwind one-day quest, my youngest child and I, to find her wedding dress. We rarely had the same day off from work, and with a four-hour drive separating us, we chose to seize our day.
To discover the result of our quest, and what on earth Hebrews has to do with a wedding dress, pop over the The Glorious Table, where I’m featured here!
(Wish I could show you a picture of the actual dress, but . . . . spoilers.)
She got me at the beginning with the sheer beauty of that sentence and never let go.
I had the privilege and blessing to be on the launch team for two of Rachel Held Evans’ books. The one with the quote above, Searching for Sunday, grabbed me all the way through with it’s honest appraisal and experience of church in all its beauty and warts. Rachel’s language, a mixture of word-smithing poetry and flat-out sarcasm, resonated with me just a little bit.
My author page is riddled with quotes from her.
I cannot process that I will not be on another launch team, and that we will not hear any more of her wise words, both the beautiful and the sarcastic ones. When in future days people discuss her work, if I am asked which of her books meant the most to me, I will say this one I reviewed as a launch team member. If you want to read those words yourself, I’d advise starting here. Here is the review I wrote then.
Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, calls the church to regain its sacredness, passion, and yes, even its weirdness. As an evangelical who dearly loves my tradition and (usually) its people but has her eyes wide open to its harmful aspects, I breathed this book in. I live her frustrations and her passions about the church.
I don’t always agree with Ms. Evans. But I always love her humor, her willingness to “go there” on tough issues, and her heart for God. This book is no exception.
This book is above all a call to listen to, respect, forgive, and love beyond all of our abilities and even preferences for the greater reason that there is a Kingdom at stake, and we are spending too much of our time arguing over who should be in it and far too little making it look like Jesus.
We spend a lot of energy, time, and research in pinpointing why younger generations are leaving the evangelical church. I know I do. It’s a topic dear to me as the mother of three in that generation and a former high school teacher with an unaccountable enjoyment of young adults. It’s also the topic of much of my writing (see the banner above) and my doctoral thesis.
Yet the church tends to get defensive whenever someone actually tells them the truth about they ‘whys’ we wring our hands over.
Ms. Evans tells the truth. Her voice speaks for thousands who are feeling the same doubts, concerns, and fears but who simply leave without voicing them. Of course, “simply” is a poor word choice, because that decision is often anguished, never simple.
An excerpt of that truth in her own words:
“I was recently asked to explain to three thousand evangelical youth workers gathered together for a conference in Nashville, Tennessee, why millennials like me are leaving the church.
I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known for what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff—biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice—but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.
Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”
To flesh this out, she discerns our sacred need through themes such as baptism, communion, confession, and marriage. In each section, she poetically, theologically, and compassionately examines why we find these sacraments meaningful. What attracts Christians through the millennia to these same rites, these same words, these marks of Christ in life?
And how can we come to them trying to bring reconciliation and renewal to a church that desperately needs to see and hear those who don’t feel welcome in its doors?
In the chapters on baptism, for example, I love the bottom line truth of what it stands for that we can and should all agree on, whether or not we agree on dunking, sprinkling, or just about anything else.
“Baptism declares that God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if you want in on God’s business, you better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world–including those in your own heart–because that’s where God gardens.”
The book is a cry to the church to stop trying to fix people or give them checklists to make them ‘OK’ before God (and more importantly, before us). It’s a call to come beside people and hear their faith cries. It’s a passionate request to be with God being with people, not over them.
Searching for Sunday should be read by anyone in ministry, and there are many definitions of that, whether or not the reader is an Evans fan. In fact, I’d say especially if not. If a person truly wants to be a minister, he or she needs to delve into the truths of how the next generation (and many above it) are feeling about church and all its baggage. We dare not ignore the warnings that people are giving up on the institutional church (and their faith). We cannot pretend the reasons behind it have no basis – not if we say we are people of the Word who speak and believe the Word. We need to have the courage to listen.
Searching for Sunday is an informative and beautiful step in doing that. If you’ve never read any RHE, start now. I’m so sorry it’s too late for any more words.
Our parents dutifully sent my sister (8) and me off to Sunday school every week (well, semi-dutifully) with a quarter in our right fist and shiny shoes on our feet to see what we could learn. We didn’t go to the church service afterward, and no one came with us. I have only hazy memories of a blue flannel Jesus and some woman telling me he was good.
One afternoon, my sister and I rode our bicycles in circles around the garage, and she told me all about the things she had learned—how Jesus loved her and died for her and rose again.
I told her it was all baloney.
I didn’t believe a word of it. I have no idea how I was so certain of that at six, but I suspect that I figured my parents must not really have believed or they would have gone with us. Also, blue flannel Jesus was terribly boring. Also, I probably didn’t like that my big sister knew more than I did.
It all seemed pretty clear at six.
Who knew that, long after I’d quit walking up the street to that little Presbyterian church, God had plans to capture me with his love anyway? Little atheists don’t know as much as they think.
Last year, we explored herea series of questions God asks. Today, because Easter and all. we’re going to look at a seemingly straightforward one:
Do you believe this?
Backstory: Jesus receives a message that his dear friend, Lazarus, is deathly ill. His sisters Martha and Mary, also his dear friends, are looking for him to come set things right. They trust him to show up big for them—but he doesn’t. In fact, Jesus chooses to wait a few days before setting off to see his friend—days he knows are precious.
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. Bethany was only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, and many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss. When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house.Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” (John 11.17-27)
I’ve always loved this story, because it displays raw emotion mixed with real faith. Martha grieves—real grief, real tears. Real terror, because with her brother gone, who was going to take care of her and her sister? She knew what happened to two young women alone in that world. Her emotions ran out of her like spring rain swelling a waterfall. She is hurt, scared, grief-stricken, and confused.
Confused that the one she knew could help her didn’t come. She knew it—look at her words.
“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
She is too painfully aware that Jesus could have chosen to come, and she might not be in this despair. She is aware of something too many of the disciples don’t seem to be. Jesus is Lord of life and death itself.
She knows this.
This is why her response is so incredible to me. She knows he could have, she knows he didn’t, but she still chooses to believe.
Jesus’ response is perfect.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”
Do you believe this?
Jesus could not ask this question at a worse time. This is not a philosophical question for Martha. Everything is in her heart and her eyes. Her world is shattered. If there is a resurrection and a life, and if this man is in charge of it, it has to mean more in this moment than an “I’ll fly away” Hallmark special effect someday in the clouds.
It has to mean something now.
Why? Because he asks her this question before he does anything.
Her brother has not yet been raised from the dead. Jesus has shown no hurry to do so, or apparent interest. Yet he’s asking her if she believes right now, in her grief, in her heartache and horror, before she ever sees her brother unwind those graveclothes from around his face.
She’s known him for years. This family has the ease of old friends. The question is, does she really know him? Does she know him well enough? Has she studied his life, looked at his heart, listened to his words enough to really believe, even in this impossible moment?
That’s what he asks all of us, isn’t it? Have you studied me? Not about me, but me? Have you learned my heartbeat? Do you know what makes me joyful and what gives me sorrow? Do you understand what I am capable of? If you do, do you believe I am the resurrection and the life?
Now. Before I do anything in your life to prove it.
He’s asking her for a personal trust. He wants a relationship that can weather the storms ahead. He needs Martha to believe him no matter what happens, not for him, but for her.
If Lazarus had remained dead—if Jesus had chosen not to raise hm back to life—would Martha’s answer have been the same?
“Yes, Lord. I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”
Blessed is she who has not seen and yet believes.
Even when we don’t see, do we know enough of who he is to believe?
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the raising up.
I am the Not Dead.
I am death you don’t win.
I am the death where is your sting?
I am the “no one can stop me from raising myself or you.” Raising you to and from all manner of things. If you believe before you see.
That’s been hard for some of us in this season. With news of people murdered while worshiping, children slaughtered while learning, white supremacists marching, and babies stolen from their terrified parents, it’s just hard some days to remind myself that I follow a God who proved there is no situation he cannot resurrect.
But I do believe this.
In fact, in light of the insanity that surrounds us, believing he is in control of all things not being dead is the only theology that makes any sense at all. (And my friend, we all have theology. It doesn’t matter if we believe Jesus is baloney—we still have one.)
Unlike my six-year-old self, I do believe this. It’s all there is to believe in a world that needs hope. It’s the only thing that can bring our deaths out of the grave and unwrap them before our eyes.