Trusting the Driver

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Photo by William Bout on Unsplash

I’d just successfully navigated spaghetti junction on I35 through Minneapolis and pointed the minivan north. Heavy snow blew on the roadside, two feet deep. The highway, however, had been plowed well from the previous night’s storm, so I cruised home from church doing 60mph, still slow in the right lane compared to everyone else, with our two little babies in the backseat, one fast asleep.

We cruised until, without warning, the right lane wasn’t plowed. Our Caravan hit the hard snow full speed and began a terrifying, uncontrollable dance. We careened across all five lanes of the road, seesawing back and forth from right to left shoulder a half dozen times. Each time we veered toward the ditch I was certain the van was going to hit it and roll. Then we shot back onto the road, and I had equal certainty we would be hit by three or four other cars. It was I35 in the city, and it was always busy.

I remember hearing myself shriek “Jesus” over and over. It wasn’t a cuss—it was a prayer from that place of panic where you know no one else can help you. It was a plea to save my babies.

Eventually, the car stopped on the right shoulder, pointing a 180 degree turn from the direction I had been driving. I looked up, and a wall of cars drove toward me—cars that had not been there when we’d been sashaying across the lanes. I sat, shaking, muttering “Thank you, Jesus,” unable to move.

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Photo by Filip Bunkens on Unsplash

Then I heard a call from the back seat. “Mommy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Can we do that again?”

I looked back. The baby still slept, oblivious to her near miss with disaster. Becca, two, looked at me from her car seat with her crooked grin. “That was fun! Can we do it again?”

It Means No Worries

I’ve pondered her reaction so many times since, when the road I’ve been on seemed slippery or dangerous, if not physically, at least emotionally.

Not for one moment did Becca feel frightened or even concerned. She went along for the ride, letting it take her wherever it would. She never thought her mama wouldn’t do what her mama had always done—get her home safely. The roller coaster ride was just a perq.

She didn’t worry because she trusted the driver completely.

I wish I had the faith in my Father that my child had in her mama.

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Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’” (Romans 8:15, The Message)

Resurrection Life

Or perhaps it greets God with a childlike, “Can we do that again?” This resurrection life recognizes that the forecast for our days can dump serious snow and ice. Yet our resurrection response remains expectant—“What do you have for me next? Where are we going from here?” We do this even on the days when we fear what might, in fact, be next.

“Fear not” is the most common command in the Bible, but fear is also perhaps the most common human emotion. It began in the Garden when we ran from our Maker. It wraps us in its unyielding cords when we dare to hope for change. It drives much of our individual relationships and our national conversation, too.

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I don’t know why it feels sometimes like my life hits hard-packed snow, or hydroplanes out of control, or (yes) rolls over a skunk that makes everything stink all the way home. I do know that when those things terrify me, it means I’ve grabbed the wheel and accepted the illusion that I’m driving the car, I’m in control, and it all depends on me.

The strange thing is, while control makes us feel like we should be less afraid, it really makes us more so. We know that if we’re in control, the only option is to grip the wheel harder and power through. We naturally grasps for more control when it starts to slip and fear begins to whisper in our ear.

Yet we’re more afraid when we think we’re in control because we know—if it all depends on us, we’re sunk! Grabbing for more isn’t the answer. Giving over control is the only way we can embrace the peace that it is not all up to us. In a paradox only Jesus could initiate, giving over control gives us peace while grabbing the wheel offers nothing but more fear.

What if I chose the expectation that God knew what he was doing and I could, if not enjoy the ride, at least buckle up in trust that he would bring it to a stop at the right place and the right time?

  • When anxiety hits over hurtful relatives: “I can’t control a thing they say or do. God, please control the things I say and do as a result. I expect you will guard  my heart from any darts aimed at it.”
  • When a child leaves home, for an evening, a week, or a lifetime: “God, I can’t control what happens to her today. Please control my imagination over it. I expect your love that is greater than mine to cover her.”
  • When money doesn’t look like it will last until the next paycheck: “God, I can’t control taxes or wages. Please control my dissatisfaction. I expect you will carry me through as you always have.”

A lot has happened in my life that I know I will never ask God, “Can we do it again?” about. Yet the good he has created out of those circumstances also compels me to say—“What’s next, Papa? I’m buckled in.”

This post originally appeared at The Glorious Table.

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Mother’s Day

He was the first black teacher I had ever had–the first the seminary had ever hired. In his class, we read about various groups of people often misunderstood– and tried to formulate a Christian response to their experiences.

The Black Experience?

I read first all the material on the black experience. I didn’t get it. Anger jumped off the pages, and I couldn’t understand why. What made these people so angry? Why couldn’t they address their own issues? Why could they not address them in a kind, thoughtful, appropriate way?

The way I would address them. The way a white, middle class, mother of two felt things should be done.

The Experience of Women

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Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash

Then we began the section on women. I read of abuse, rape, assault, and oppression. Lack of job opportunities and lack of respect. And I got angry, Real, real angry. I knew sexual abuse. I knew cat calling and male “ownership,” demeaning social expectations, and even Christian pressure to shove myself into a mold I didn’t fit. I knew all this personally, not statistically.

I knew the fear of going out too early or staying out too late simply because of my gender. I knew the worry about looking in my back seat and carrying my keys to hurt an assailant. I knew about women who were blamed for their own assault because of what they were wearing–I knew some of them personally. I knew these things, and I knew men did not have any idea of them.

I did not feel kind or thoughtful about it all. I felt angry. Angry that I had to live with the background noise of fear because I was born a woman, and no other reason.

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And then, as God does, He lit the 500 watt lightbulb above my head that I had completely missed. Was this the way those black men and women felt? That was my first moment of grasping the tiniest bit of what my sisters and brothers of color feel. I will never forget it.

I have not watched the video. You know the one I mean. The one where a black man, on a jog, is murdered by vigilante men who still believe, apparently, that they live in the wild west and they are required to enforce laws themselves, with shotguns, or we will all devolve into some lawless dystopia.

Side Note: We live in one of the safest countries in the world. We have precious little need to be the good guy with the gun. Statistically speaking, the odds of a robbery in your home are approximately twice as likely as getting struck by lightning in your lifetime. “So proportionally speaking, you should prepare for a home invasion twice as much as you prepare for being hit by lightning.” 

Further, more than half of all armed robberies are drug related. So, steer clear of doing or dealing drugs, and your lifetime need for concern is miniscule. Good news, right?

But Ahmaud Arbery wasn’t breaking into anyone’s home. He was running. He was guilty of running while black. And that earned him the death penalty.

Happy Mother’s Day

Today, as I write this, his mama is having to live through Mother’s Day without her child. This is not a thing we would ever, ever wish on anyone. Yet this is both the common nightmare and experience of black mamas around our country.

I know some of them. I also know a number of white mamas with black sons. They know this fear in ways that we can never know. Ways that I can understand, because I’m the mother of three daughters. I have taught them from an early age that this world is not safe for them, either. It makes me angry that I have to do so. No one has ever had to explain to a white son that this world is not made for or safe for them. So I do understand these mamas fear and anger.

No one has ever had to explain to a straight, white son that this world is not made for or safe for them.

The deep need for a certain segment of men in this country to play vigilante self-appointed sheriff, living out their fantasy of chasing down the bad guys and making the collar, a mixture of all the John Wayne and Die Hard movies and cop shows they’ve digested, collides with something even more insidious to create the state we find ourselves in.

The belief, still, among some of those men that black bodies are theirs to do with what they like. The need to fly giant confederate flags is a symptom of this deeply embedded national sickness—some white men believe they should still have the right to be the masters over black men. They have not let this go. This is uncomfortable truth.

White Women–Listen Up, Please

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Photo by Jake Melara on Unsplash

White women, I’m going to talk to you. You are a large portion of my audience. And you are powerful. Demographically, you are said to be one of the most potentially strong groups to swing elections. Here is what I need to say to you.

  • It should not be deadly to run.
  • It should not be deadly to sit in your living room.
  • It should not be deadly to drive down a residential street.
  • It should not be deadly to fit any description that only includes “black.”
  • Existing while black is not a crime. It does not deserve death.
  • No mama should have celebrated Mother’s Day yesterday without her child because he was born black and that got him killed. None.
  • We can change this.
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Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

 

White women:

  • We cannot continue to vote for candidates who mouth the words “pro life” yet remain unconcerned about the death, demeaning, and destruction of people of color.
  • We cannot continue to rationalize and excuse and say “but not all” anyone. We need to see the truth that some, not all, need desperately to be talked about and dealt with.
  • We cannot continue to be silent. We cannot continue to not know. We cannot continue to offer thoughts and prayers alone.We have to show up.

Go deep into your experience and tell me you don’t know what it’s like to fear simply because of your genetics, and then look at your black and Latinx brothers and sisters. Look, and listen. We are more alike than you believe.

It is the opposite of pro life to accept them as collateral damage in order to gain some semblance of “rights” we think we need. This will not end in gaining our rights but in losing our integrity and our humanity. What does it mean to gain the world and lose your soul, women? This is that intersection.

This will not end in gaining our rights but in losing our integrity and our humanity.

Here are some resources I’m learning from. Please offer some you know of. We can lean in, learn, and act together.

I’m Still Here: Austin Channing Brown

Just Mercy: Bryan Stevenson

White Fragility: Robin Diangelo

Missing the Blessing

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“Jesus leads the way to a new vocation. Instead of the frantic pressure to defend the identity of people, land, and the temple, Jesus followers are, to the renewal of hearts and lives, to recover the initial vision of being a royal priesthood for the whole world, which is the Messiah’s inheritance and now will become theirs as well.”       NT Wright

That initial vision is what we’ve been talking about so far–from creation up until now. The “new vocation” is really an old vocation, as old as the garden of Eden. It really comes down to one word, that vocation. God called it going out and working the earth, creating community and beauty throughout the new world.

But basically, it’s one word. BLESS.

And I do not mean that the way a good Southern woman means it

Make me a BLESSING

 

The vision comes in the beginning, and it comes again clearer in God’s plan to create a people of his own when he speaks to Abraham. Because, by this time, humans needed it clearer. They had already lost touch with what God said in the garden and required a little Creation 101. So God speaks clearly:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12.1-3 

Abraham’s call—his work and meaningful purpose in life (remember that fundamental blessing of Genesis 1?) is to bless the nations.

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Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

The Nations Are Right Here, Abram

Yet when given the chance, he fails. repeatedly, before he succeeds. Nowhere more clearly than in the story of Hagar, one of my favorites. Hagar is a slave, a foreigner, and a woman. Talk about a triple whammy. She “belongs” to Abraham, more specifically to his wife. In some transaction, they took her with them when they left Egypt. Given those circumstances, he has a perfect opportunity to bless her—and thus fulfill his call.

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

Spoilers

Instead, when his wife Sarah says, “Hey, here’s my slave Hagar. Sleep with her so I can have a child through her,” he does.

I think we can assume consent was not part of the deal.

Hagar had no agency. No ability to choose. The power differential was completely on his side, and it was his call to choose blessing or harm. Abraham chose harm.

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Later, when Sarah again complains, this time that a pregnant Hagar is triumphing over her mistress, Abraham again has the choice to bless or to harm. He could choose to protect this woman and her son, to treat them as family, to apologize, to tell his wife that her jealousy has reached unhealthy epic proportions and she needs counseling, stat.

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

He allows her, the mother of his son, to be treated so terribly that she runs into the desert, preferring its certain death to her current situation.

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God’s Magic Is the Best

And that is when the magic happens. God’s magic, that is.

‘The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (No, this is not the appropriate time to break into “Cotton Eyed Joe!)

“I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied. . . .

Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.” She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” So that well was named Beer-lahai-roi (which means “well of the Living One who sees me”). (Genesis16)

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Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

God meets Hagar on the road. He sees her. She sees him. She, the foreign slave who one would suppose doesn’t even know Abraham’s God, is so overwhelmed by this that she worships and calls God by a new name. El roi. The God who sees.

Hagar—the foreign female slave—is the first person in Scripture to give God a name. Sit with that for a while.

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The God Who Sees

And what a name. She recognizes God as personal, invested, caring and compassionate toward her. Not simply in general but toward her, personally. She never expected that. She comprehends what it means. She does the only reasonable thing—bows in worship, speaks the truth, and allows that personal love toward her to strengthen her as she returns to whatever will come.

In the desert, Hagar is blessed beyond belief by feeling and knowing herself seen.

But notice who does the blessing and who does not.

God comes to her and blesses her.

Abraham, the one whose job it is to bless, does not.

As a result, he also doesn’t take part in God’s great action toward Hagar here in her desert struggle. Abraham never experiences this great blessing that God gives to his slave.

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Fear is counterproductive to blessing others.

Abraham has been so busy being afraid. He fears his wife and his neighbors. He fears rocking the boat of his marriage so much that he allows his own in utero son to be sent out to die. He is so afraid of disturbing the peace that he loses his peace.

Hagar finds it.

The one he refused to bless finds his blessing.

Isn’t God funny?

It makes me wonder about myself.

Wonderings

It makes me wonder about myself.

How often do I fail to bless others, and that backfires on me?

How many times is the person I failed to bless still seen by God, but I miss the whole thing?

Why would I ever risk missing such a great wonder of God?

It makes me wonder about our society.

It makes me wonder if God will bless those we refuse to bless, as a nation. If the foreigner, the abused women, the enslaved or encaged around us will see God while we stare uneasily at our clumsily manufactured peace and wonder why he seems distant.

It makes me wonder if we as a society are missing the very great blessing we could receive if we chose to fulfill our job to bless the nations. It makes me wonder if being great really means that greatness should give out the most blessings the most freely.

Hagar would say so. She knows what it is to be seen.

The Freedom of Blessing

While we wallow in fear, fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and now fear of everything (we truly all finally have pantophobia, Charlie Brown!), I wonder if it’s a mud pit of our own creation.

I wonder if we could be free of it if we chose the simple act of blessing.

As we allow this season of remembering sacrifice to envelop us, be flooded with the meaning of the body and the blood. See it before you, and remember.

  • Remember the slavery—Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the unquenchable image of God. Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the new and abundant life his death purchased. Hagar’s. Yours. Your neighbor’s. The foreigner’s. Everyone’s.

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It makes me wonder if God will bless those we refuse to bless, as a nation. If the foreigner, the abused women, the enslaved or encaged around us will see God while we stare uneasily at our clumsily manufactured peace and wonder why he seems distant.

It makes me wonder if we as a society are missing the very great blessing we could receive if we chose to fulfill our job to bless the nations. It makes me wonder if being great really means being the one to bless the most.

Hagar would say so. She knows what it is to be seen.

The Freedom of Blessing

While we wallow in fear, fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and now fear of everything (we truly all finally have pantophobia, Charlie Brown!), I wonder if it’s a mud pit of our own creation.

I wonder if we could be free of it if we chose the simple act of blessing.

As we allow this season of remembering sacrifice to envelop us, be flooded with the meaning of the body and the blood. See it before you, and remember.

  • Remember the slavery—Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the unquenchable image of God. Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the new and abundant life his death purchased. Hagar’s. Yours. Your neighbor’s. The foreigner’s. Everyone’s.

“The Good News of the kingdom of God directly counters the Empire mentality by saying two important truths: 1. Every human has intrinsic value imprinted by God; 2. There is enough. The Eucharist shows us there is overflow at the banqueting table while simultaneously reminding us that the intrinsic value of human beings is worth dying for.”– Gena Thomas

Bless. Receive the blessing. And do not allow fear to rob you of it.

Be Transformed

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Photo by Johan Van Wambeke on Unsplash

The airplane winging us back home after a dream trip in Nova Scotia had barely left Boston when our middle child casually said, “I’ve decided I don’t want to go back to school this year.” It was August. Exactly one week before school would start. Did I mention she was entering her senior year of high school?

Obviously, I probed that statement a bit. It turned out she hadn’t gotten into the classes she wanted and had instead been placed in courses in which she had no interest. She couldn’t participate in the elite choir. She only needed one and a half credits to graduate. To her very logical mind, why sit in six hours of classes she didn’t want when she could take one at home and be done?

Logical perhaps, but quite a wild pitch when tossed at your parents at thirty thousand feet.

Fortunately, I had navigated several tricky back-to-school plans by this time, so the ball didn’t fall completely foul on us.

When the Path Doesn’t Fit

When we started the education odyssey, we expected our kids to do as we had: propel forward through thirteen years of public school, graduate, and go on to college. Simple. Clear. A normal path that worked.

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Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash

But it didn’t. The reasons are not my story to tell, but in some seasons that path layered too much pain and pressure on one child or another, and in other seasons being at home proved a struggle. Between our two oldest girls, we went through years of public school, private school, homeschooling, and back again.

The funny thing is, until we had to explore other options, I didn’t know we had them. I assumed one path was the only path. I believed we had to conform to that “normal,” or we were the problem. It never occurred to me that there were a myriad of options out there, and maybe we weren’t the ones who didn’t fit. Maybe our kids’ needs in different seasons required different solutions. Maybe our kids fit just fine, and it was the mold that didn’t.

This realization freed me to take each new situation as it came and act according to our reality then, not our reality when the girls were five. What worked for the giggling kindergartner boarding her first bus no longer felt right for a high school senior, who would be embarking soon on a new season life.

I find this epiphany comforting in much of my life. I don’t have to be the person I once was any more than my girls had to be the students they once were. (Glory hallelujah, when I look back on the person I was at seventeen. Or thirty-seven.) In fact, God promises this: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul tells us that our old, ill-fitting labels, assumptions, and beliefs can disappear. We have a new life to begin, a new creation to live into. God wants to re-create us without the hindrances we allow to pull us back into old molds that don’t fit.

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I need not continue the bad habit I had last year. My responses to hurtful things can change—they are not static. Past choices define nothing but the past—and a new mold awaits me if I choose to step toward it. This goes deeper than a bad habit or a new school, too. As a childhood sexual abuse victim, I know the damage from remaining a victim and the freedom of moving into healing release. For some of us, painful memories try to lock us into molds that will break us if we don’t break them.

Perhaps a new year is a time to break a few molds.

Be Transformed

Again, Paul has something to say to this possibility: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) Literally, “pattern” here is mold. Another translation says, “Don’t let the world shape you into its mold.” Our culture would love to tell us we will always be victims, we will never change those things about us we don’t like, we will always have to tread the same path we’ve been on until we don’t care anymore that it’s chafing and biting at the parts of us that no longer fit.

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God has better plans for me and you.

Just as my daughter wasn’t the same as a kindergartner and as a seventeen-year-old, so I need not accept a label from my past at any age. I’m free to make a different choice, and those choices will change over the long haul. Like my kids’ schooling, some combination of options will finally be my best road. The mold of Jesus’ likeness calls me—and the road there will curve, wind, and climb in different ways I don’t even know yet, but it will always lead true.

Our middle daughter did not go back to school that fall. She took ballet and went rock climbing to fulfill a year of physical education. I taught her English (my own area of expertise) for the other half credit. She went to the local community college and got a jump start on university courses. Finishing her last year in public school, even though it sounded like the normal thing to do for a high school senior, turned out to be a wrong option for her. She has a master’s degree now. Seems her wild pitch turned out pretty fair after all.

Notice the wording of Romans 12? Be transformed. Paul doesn’t say “work your way into change.” He knows only the Holy Spirit can create lasting change. He understands that we need to walk toward it, opening our hands and hearts, not striving to recreate ourselves but allowing and desiring God to break us out. Change isn’t our job—it’s our release.

(This post originally appeared in The Glorious Table, a great site for all kinds of writing voices!)

The Angels’ Song (Don’t Be Afraid)

“Don_t be afraid!” the angel said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” Luke 2.10

Perhaps you’ve read that “Don’t be afraid” is in the Bible 365 times—once for every day of the year.

Don’t be afraid

It isn’t true. It’s a nice Hallmark-worthy sentiment, but it isn’t Scripture. However, it is true that “Do not be afraid” occurs a hefty 70 times in Scripture—indeed more than any other command. That doesn’t include variations close to it—have courage, don’t be discouraged, fear not, don’t worry, etc. Simply—

Do not be afraid.

For people who tend to think of God’s commands as cumbersome, restricting, or difficult, this might come as a revelation. God’s most common commands are positive ones.

Praise him. Be thankful. Rejoice. Remember.

Not exactly cumbersome.

We might recall the words of the long-winded Psalmist who told us:

“The commands of the Lord are radiant.” (Psalm 19.8)

Where have we gotten this notion that they’re a burden?

Why be afraid?

Since God went a-calling in the garden asking Adam and Eve where they were hiding, we’ve been afraid. To be fair, there is reason.

We have failed him.

We have disappointed him.

We have chosen to run away from him.

We have caused his creation—of other humans and earth—utter destruction.

Yet his most common command is—“Don’t be afraid.”

What does it mean?
What doesn’t it mean?

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Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

It doesn’t mean “There is nothing scary out there. No worries. Hakuna Matata.” Let’s tell the truth—life is scary.

It doesn’t mean if you have enough faith, all is rosy and cheery.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have enough faith if you worry.

It doesn’t mean that if you have fears you’re a terrible Christian.

Let’s look at a few places God says it.

Exodus 14.13  But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today.” (Just as the Egyptian army descends, and God prepares to part the Red Sea. No worries, people. Just sit and chill. That raging army is not scary. It’s fine. Everything is fine.)

Joshua 1.6 Be strong and courageous—Do not be afraid or discouraged. (Just before he is to lead the Hebrews into the promised land)

John 14.27 I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. (Just before he goes to the cross and leaves them)

Luke 5.10 Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” (As he begins to gather his disciples into a life-changing adventure)

Luke 1.30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!” (As she is asked to be part of the most dangerous undertaking ever imagined)

Luke 1.13 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.” (John the Baptist, that is)

Matthew 28.5-6 Then the angel spoke to the women. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead.” (As the world is about to be turned upside down)

Can you see a pattern here?

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Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

God is about to do something . . .

God doesn’t tell people “fear not” when there is nothing to fear. He often says it when there is a great deal to fear! In fact, a lot of the time, ‘fear not’ is followed by something God is going to do in the person’s life that’s kind of terrifying.

Fear not really means–do you trust me?

Thus we come to another song of Christmas. This time, it’s a very familiar song. It’s a song quoted by the great theologian Linus VanPelt as the most important song ever. Let’s look at the angels’ song.

Luke2.8-15 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 

And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

OK, we don’t know they sang those words. That’s tradition. But we’re going with it.

They have one job

Angels’ one job is to be messengers of God almighty—used when he wants to tell humans something important. They possess all the glory and holiness and terror that entails.

The universal human reaction is fear, and justifiably so. Yet—the angels always say—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is

—don’t be afraid.

What a first message. So many things he could have told us to prepare us for his coming. Yet he chose those three words—don’t be afraid. It’s as if he knows humans well.

  • He knows he holds all the cards.
  • He knows his perfection, his holiness, is scary to us.
  • He knows people are afraid of what might happen when he shows up—in their lives and in the world.

Something usually does happen!

So his first words are so often—don’t be afraid.

God’s first message when he plans to enter the world is—

The angels herald his entrance into this world with loving concern for his people. They speak to the shepherds of peace. They tell them not to be afraid of the God who comes with lovingkindness  and mercy. With a grace that knows we are deservedly scared and assures us his coming to us face-to-face is good news.

He comes with peace on earth and mercy mild. God and sinners, reconciled.

Oh, those angels know.

The angels sing the finale.

They sing the song to end, or begin, all songs.

They sing the last words before the Word is revealed.

They sing the good news to end, or begin, all good news.

But it’s old news to us

We are so used to this angels’ song.

It’s on our Christmas cards and our playlists.

But what does it tell us about the savior, and about us?

If the angels are sent to tell us the Savior is born—in a humble place, to humble people, for all people—that the God of the universe has put his life in the hands of a girl who just grew up quickly herself—what does that mean?

It means He wants to be with us.

He wants to be with you.

He didn’t send a telegram or tweet his love out to the universe.

He came.

God with us.

That tells everything.

Remember what we learned in Hebrews a while back?

“The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (Hebrews 1.3)

It meant that Jesus is the exact image of God—the precise imprint of his character here on earth, like a coin given from the emperor.

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Photo by Virgil Cayasa on unsplash.com

This sacrificial, humble, giving baby who only wanted to be with his creation to show it the way out of darkness and craziness and enveloping confusion is the very expression of God’s heart.

It’s who God is.

Don’t accept substitutes.

Don’t accept people telling you who or what God is or does or feels if it isn’t what you see in Jesus. Jesus, above all, shows us a God who wants to be with his people. It doesn’t matter what those people have done or believed or lived or are. None of those things matter about the person next to us, or far from us in anther country, either.

If that’s not what other people’s God looks like, their God is suspect, according to Hebrews 1. He should look exactly like the One born as Emmanuel, God with us, humbled into a tiny baby’s body to bring peace and good news.

The angels tell the shepherds “don’t be afraid.” God is on the move. He is about to do something scary–and so incredibly, beautifully merciful you will not comprehend it as long as you live. Don’t be afraid. Trust him.

Go and see. Don’t fear to see what God is doing. Don’t  be afraid to take part. Go and see. You will never be the same. That’s both scary and beautiful. Take in both. Don’t shy away from one and choose to embrace only the other. You’ll come away with neither. The angels’ message is the same to us as it was to the shepherds.

Don’t be afraid. Go and see what God is doing.

Mary, Mother, Meek (Not) Mild

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“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.

    How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!

For he took notice of his lowly servant girl,
and from now on all generations will call me blessed.

For the Mighty One is holy,
and he has done great things for me.

He shows mercy from generation to generation
to all who fear him.

His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.

He has brought down princes from their thrones
and exalted the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away with empty hands.

He has helped his servant Israel
and remembered to be merciful.

For he made this promise to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children forever.

(Luke1.46-55)

A 15th century English carol begins, “Mary, Mother, meek and mild.” Yeah, not really.

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This Advent, I’ve been studying the songs that begin the New Testament. I’ve thought about how songs burrow their way into our souls. This is how I’ve delved into some deep Christmas theology. This is also how I’ve ended up binge listening to John Denver on YouTube. Because music.

I can’t remember my kids’ phone numbers, but I can recall every lyric of Evita. Even those a pastor should probably not quote in public. I can still sing every Denver tune of my childhood.

Music can give you an ear worm; it can lift you to the face of God; and it can break your heart. We have this sign on our kitchen wall now, because none of us will ever forget singing it together this spring as we knew we were saying goodbye to mom, and it will never again be just a hymn to us.

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Music goes deep.

Mary. Her song is the first of Luke’s gospel, and what a song.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Mary’s Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

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He’s not wrong.

Her song gives us some kind of “fly on the wall” experience of why God might have chosen Mary to bring Life and Light into the world.

There’s that first word.

Magnificat.

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Magnify. “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

See the picture first. Her cousin Elizabeth has just opened her door on Mary, the tired, pregnant traveler, and covered Mary with a rainstorm of words that praise and glorify her—Mary. 

She could not utter enough good words about how great her little cousin was and would be.

Mary might have responded—“Why yes, yes I am. Now that you mention it, I’m a pretty big deal.” She is. Elizabeth speaks truth.

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She doesn’t. The first word our of her mouth is “magnify.” Magnify whom? God.

Elizabeth—I want to make God bigger! Let’s not talk about me—let’s talk about what an amazing God we share! Mary wants nothing of the temptation to magnify herself, and it must have been real given all the adulation she receives before even stepping foot in the door. Her deepest desire is to make God bigger—that’s what magnification does, right? It enlarges our view of one important thing. Magnification focuses us, allowing us to see something in its most important, valuable detail.

Cousin Beth, I want to enlarge everyone’s view of God.

And she does.

Mary’s first impulse is echoed later by the baby in Elizabeth’s own womb. Years afterward, her son, John, replies similarly to those who ask him—aren’t you just a tad jealous of you cousin Jesus’ success?

Nope.

“He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”

(John 3.30)

Mary and John are on to something.

The world is desperate for humble people. On a recent twitter thread asking about leadership qualities, one person wrote, “Honestly, I only look for humility now. It’s the number one requirement for me.” Why? I suspect because we’re so, so tired of the opposite.

Me Culture

Our world feels so crowded with people whose goal is to stick their heads up the highest. Take a picture of me. Hire me. Choose me. Like my tweet. Buy my book. Love me.

For writers and speakers like me, self-promotion matters as much as writing, but it feels exhausting and inescapable some days. Some days, I get so tired of me. In my head, I assume others do, too.

We have men defending one another at all costs in the pulpit. Christians taking one another apart on social media over points that seem less about God and more about power. Bullies in the White House and other high places.

Our current culture’s obsession with being the strongest, best, and greatest defies what we see played out in these first words of Luke.

Oh, how my soul magnifies the Lord.

Mary displays the greatest quality necessary in all ambassadors for Christ—humility. A quiet knowledge of who God is and who she is, and a clear recognition that the two positions should never be interchanged or leveraged against one another.

This by no means makes Mary weak, meek, or mild. Indeed, it makes her a force of nature. Would any of us dare to sing the song she sings?

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Think for a moment about the society in which Mary sings out her words of joy. Mary is:

  • An unwed, pregnant young woman, in a society where that could be a death sentence.
  • Among the 98% of people who live poor, day-to-day subsistence lives.
  • A minority in a Roman society that despises her ethnicity and a religious culture that even despises her descent (can anything good come out of Nazareth?)
  • A young woman living under foreign oppression. A foreign power that, if it heard the words of her song, could lock up this girl on grounds of rebellion.

He has brought down princes? Sent the rich away? Scattered the proud?

Make no mistake. Mary proclaims a new order. A world where a new King comes and returns the world to its original authorial intent. She’s singing in Genesis 1—the earth as God made it and intends to remake it. The child kicking around in her womb will ensure that renovation.

Mary isn’t making some pie in the sky reference to hopes and dreams.

She is declaring here and now that kingdoms of humans have no chance.

She is uprooting the order of things.

She is calling out injustice as not being of God.

She is challenging the powerful of her day—just as her son would.

She is singing a song of deep rebellion.

She is doing it as a teenage girl.

Mary is kind of amazing.

We’ve lived in a world that is upside down for so long, we don’t even recognize it. Mary sings about the One who will turn it all right side up again.

And she sings as if it has already occurred.

This is no meek and mild teenaged submissive Mary. She is not what we’ve been taught.

She is smart—a theologically sharp young woman who knows her scriptures.

A humble young woman, yet one willing to question an angel.

A young woman willing to be embarrassed, mocked, cast off, misunderstood, and pregnant for the sake of the kingdom.

I love that she sings this in the past tense. It is as good as done for her. She hasn’t even finished three months of morning sickness, yet she speaks as if this unborn child has accomplished it all quite completely. God has promised these things—and that means they are DONE.

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In some sense, this gives Mary power as well.

She doesn’t have to fear the powers of the world, and they are real to her people. She does not have to give heed to the proud who would tell her who she was and wasn’t. She doesn’t have to fear lack or scarcity.

She doesn’t have to fear at all.

She has the fulfillment of everything  in her womb.

And so Mary sings out, because she knows she can.

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Being humble does not equal being weak. It means we’ve placed ourselves, our demands, our dreams, our futures and our fears at the feet of the One who is all powerful. We’ve taken ourselves out of the power equation. Because of that posture, we have every confidence in the rightful owner of the power.

There is no greater strength. There is no greater confidence. There is no greater assurance. Because of that, we can fear nothing.

That appears to be Mary’s conclusion, as she sings loud and strong about human pride and self-assurance crashing into oblivion.

One is coming.

One has already come.

I will magnify him, oh my soul.

Where’s the Party?

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.

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.

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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.

Bold Faith

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 who  have 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Come boldly.