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.
The principal called me into the office to “talk.” No, I wasn’t a student in trouble. I was one of the teachers. She folded her hands across the desk, looked at me and informed me that I had a “couple” in my homeroom that I needed to do something about. They were displaying “poor judgment.”
Couples in high school and poor judgment are rarely mutually exclusive, but I didn’t see how that was something requiring my intervention. As delicately as possible, she informed me that the girl in my junior homeroom and her senior boyfriend would struggle because they came from different backgrounds. Their minds and future plans were unequal. Their family expectations completely at odds. It wouldn’t be healthy. I needed to talk to the young lady and explain to her why this relationship could not be pursued.
I may have recently graduated with honors from one of the nation’s best universities, but it took several minutes for young, naive me to grasp the clear subtext hanging above both our heads. My student was white. Her boyfriend was black.
I played innocent and wondered aloud why the students should be broken up and not allowed to come to this conclusion themselves. I defended the young man as a very nice boy that could be good for a scattered, confused, and conflicted girl. I explained that surely this job fell to her parents if they felt concern, not to me.
I did not confront what I knew I heard. I hoped that if it appeared I couldn’t imagine race as a consideration for the relationship’s demise, maybe she would realize that it shouldn’t be.
A few months later, when choosing ideas for argument in the debate class I taught, the topic of mixed race marriages came up. I let them debate it. I didn’t get called in again, but the grapevine told me of her deep displeasure. I still did not understand. It was a Christian school, right? So everyone would be considered equal in a Christian school, right? Isn’t that what Jesus taught?
I had no clue, at 22, the depths of what I was dealing with.
When the Ferguson protests erupted several years ago, I couldn’t make sense of all the things I heard. I had taught school right in the middle of the Ferguson-Florissant area. It wasn’t like that. Our black and white students got along fine. Everyone was happy. Had things changed so much in the ensuing decades?
In the last few months, I’ve revisited those days. I have thought about those black students. I’ve put on new lenses and discovered a few things I missed.
One thing I missed was that there were exactly two black students in each high school class. I’m pretty sure this is accurate, looking back. I didn’t notice it at the time. Did we have a quota? Did we have a number of students “like that” we allowed in each year to show how benevolent we were?
Now, I remember they were usually the students with the lowest grades. The young man in the dating scenario above could barely read and write above a grade school level, though he was a senior in high school. At the time, it angered me that he had come so far and no one had done anything about that. How was I supposed to catch that up as his senior English teacher? I assumed, though, it was part of his background, not part of his education.
In fact, I went along with all the assumptions about our black students—that these were underprivileged children from whom not much more could be expected and, though no one ever said it, wasn’t it good of the school to provide them with a place to be for six hours that was Christian? God knew what happened when they went home.
How is it that no one ever said these things yet no one questioned them, either? How is it that kids I remember as smart, capable students still got marked down for their “attitude” while their white peers’ equal attitude got indulgent smiles and assumptions that they would someday make good leaders?
I wonder now what happened to that very gentle, kind young man whom we failed. It never occurred to me that teaching the token students wasn’t really a priority.
The black students were also often the ones most in trouble. Not in my classes. My most troublesome students were generally sons of the church elders. Yet several black students whom I found engaging and lively in my classes told me tales of detention and punishment because they mouthed off or talked too much class. Those detentions happened a lot. They interfered a lot with my speech and theater groups. It didn’t occur to me that my white talkative, sassy students—whom I also enjoyed—didn’t view the inside of those detention rooms with such regularity.
I never noticed.
One of those church elder’s sons vandalized my car his senior year. The same principle asked me to forgive and forget. She didn’t want the boy to have a record. She didn’t want his future to be in jeopardy. Bringing in police would harm our reputation. More to the point, she didn’t want his parents to stop contributing. I conceded, not because I agreed but because his co-conspirator was already 18, and I didn’t want that young man to have a permanent police record.
I wonder now what would’ve happened if one of the black students had vandalized my car.
I wonder now if the black and white students really did get along so well. I wonder how many black students were invited to the white students’ parties or on a Friday night drive around town. I wonder what the lunch room looked like that I don’t remember ever visiting. I never heard or saw racial intimidation between students. I never noted any animosity between them. Yet I rarely saw intentional inclusion, either. I wonder now how much code-switching those kids had to endure at a young age in order to fit in.
I just never noticed.
I didn’t see that I was teaching in a refuge of whiteness more than a refuge of faith.
I’ve learned a few other things since then as well. I’ve learned how many Christian schools were founded not so that students could be kept safe in a Christian bubble but so that they could be kept safe in a white bubble. Given the location of the school, I feel certain of this heritage. Ferguson-Florissant has changed in the ensuing decades, but not that much. I simply didn’t see what was around the edges of the bubble. I didn’t see that I was teaching in a refuge of whiteness more than a refuge of faith. Or that some there conflated the two.
I couldn’t have known any of that, commuting as I did from a surprisingly more diverse area a half an hour south of it. I didn’t know it fresh out of my own university bubble where the only minority students I ever really interacted with were the Jewish ones, because at Wash U, they weren’t a minority.
I am processing all of this now. Realizing much of it just now. I haven’t thought about those years in a long time. I’m processing that the curriculum we taught has long been considered an extremely white-centered curriculum. It’s also extremely popular among Christian home and private schoolers. I knew none of this, because I knew nothing about racism other than that it was something that happened on the south side of Chicago and the north side of St. Louis. I didn’t grow up around it, so it didn’t exist.
Our school books contained such gems as a poem about Robert E Lee being a kind and gentle person who would never hurt a bunny, much less a slave. At least, that last was the implication. Our history books taught my students that most slaves were happy, cared for, and lucky that they came to America so they could hear about Jesus.
I wonder what our eight black students thought about that. I bet they never said.
I kept those books for decades, because I enjoy having anthologies of literature around. Now that I’d like to look at them again, to examine the specificities of what I taught and whether I ever saw the bias inherent in them, I finally tossed them into the recycling last fall. One of those few times decluttering has bitten me in the butt.
I taught those things. I thought them to impressionable teenagers. I want to say that my material couldn’t have covered such dubious revisionist history since I was their literature teacher. But literature has power. Words build up or tear down. Ideas in literature have fomented revolutions, brokered peace, and empowered abolitionists. Words matter, and when we choose which words and whose words to include in our children’s education, we choose the ideas they will believe. I suspect I know what words I would find in those old books.
I think about all these things now because I must. I didn’t think about any of them then because I didn’t have to. This, I suppose, is my point. As a young English teacher, grateful to have a job, any job, teaching I never saw what I didn’t see. I never knew what I didn’t know. Yet, I did participate in racism.
I rebelled at it when I saw it in school administration. I embraced the challenge of debating racial issues in class, thus knowingly thumbing my nose at said administration.
But I didn’t question the underlying assumptions of the entire school philosophy. I believed in the subtle superiority they taught me. Because of that, I know now that whatever racism those eight students in the high school experienced, I played a part in it. It wasn’t intentional. It didn’t have to be.
One of the things I’ve learned in my dive into racial inequity is the chasm between intent and effect. White people like myself usually focus on intent. Since we “don’t have a racist bone in our bodies”—since we can’t imagine intentionally inflicting racism on someone—we assume we’ve built up a kind of immunity when it comes to causing racial harm.
I had the best of intentions.
If I didn’t mean it, it didn’t happen.
Problem is, what people of color experience are the effects, not the intentions. If I didn’t mean to leave the cabinet door open and my husband cracks his head on it, he’s still got a throbbing bruise.
It’s helped me a lot to realize that the excuse of “good intentions” feels good to me because it lets me off the hook, but it doesn’t feel good at all to the person who has been hurt. When the ambulance gets called, no one cares if the injury was intentional. They care if the patient will live.
Another thing I’ve learned is that it does me no injury to say I’m sorry. I lose no ground. I lose no face. I lose nothing in the act of apologizing for harm that has been inflicted, intentional or not. It is purely pride that refuses such humility, and pride has no place in the kingdom of Jesus.
So students, wherever you are, I am sorry. I didn’t know. But now I know better.
I admit to being born in the era when teaching history was pretty much a gloss over of the major American wars and little else. (We entirely missed WWI, too. No idea.) World history? What was that? Who cared about the rest of the world? And don’t even get me started on grammar. We learned none of that. I have no idea what went on in the 70s. Pretty sure I spent that decade in the corner reading books.
All this to say, while I quickly became one of Hamilton‘s many adoring fans last weekend, I know virtually nothing of the actual man or of the history surrounding our earliest politics. But I know what I saw. So, so much to digest. I could write blog posts all year.
Yeah, We Got Trouble
One of the most troublesome things I saw is also not uncommon. in fact, it’s becoming more and more popular in the American church.
No, not duels. We haven’t gotten that bad. Unless you count Facebook.
The thing that led up to those duels, however, runs rampant in modern Christianity. Bravado.Macho posturing disguised as a new wave of “muscular Christianity.” Hamilton is well known as a man who could not back down, and it led to his death. (Or worse—expelled! From politics.)
Spend a little time with me on Christian Twitter, and you will see this in all it’s inglorious glory. Christian men who insist that Jesus was a masculine manly man and anyone less is questionable. They define the terms of masculinity quite narrowly, and the terms always consist of some sort of physical prowess but not necessarily mental. God wants them to be protectors, they insist, and somehow this always entails standing in front of the camera and showing us their rifles. I’m not clear why.
Christian men who strut and preen (yes, I’m pretty sure they do that in front of their computer screens even though we can’t see it) and proclaim how right they are about everything based solely on their possession of certain anatomy. Men who actually use #ToxicMasculinity as a badge go honor. Men who insult other brothers who prefer quieter pursuits and less brandishing as “soft” and “weak.”
We’re Manly Men
Honestly, I have met the nicest and best of Christian men on Twitter but also have encountered the most toxic, self-centered persons who call themselves Christian you can imagine. Yes, I know they’re on Facebook, too. Those I actually know and might be related to. So I stay on Twitter. Fortunately, I enjoy the interaction with the kind people very much and I limit it with the others. It makes me realize, though, that these things are out there, and they aren’t that uncommon.
I’m not talking about Christian men who go hunting and enjoy the outdoors and also enjoy being good citizens and family members. I know some of those men, and they are also awesome people, but they do not insist that every man be like them in order to be Christian. They are multi-faceted men who know you can’t pin someone down based on their extracurricular activities or the breadth of their shoulders.
They are fantastic men capable of admitting that they are sometimes wrong. There are fine men in the Christian church and I know a lot of them personally. They are men whose integrity and humility I trust implicitly. Yet they are not the loud ones.
And No One Knows How Far It Goes
(Why yes, I am having fun with the. musical subtitles. thank you.)
Needless to say, this sense of required bravado has leaked onto the national stage as well. It stains our politics, our families, our communities, and our churches. We have become an entire culture that values puffed out chests and clenched fists far more than bowed heads and bent knees.
Bravado: “A show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.”
By its nature it’s not real. It’s a shell, with an agenda to bully but not to offer substance. We’re told “bravado” comes from French and Italian words that mean bragging and boasting – words that the apostle Paul pleads with Christians never to use in association with themselves. (“If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.” 2 Corinthians 11.30). Yet the church is in serious danger of putting on that show without substance, and it’s purpose is not to boast about Christ.
Bravado is toxic.
I Am not Throwin’ Away My . . .
Let’s just stay with Hamilton for the moment and take a look at how this played out. Bravado killed Alexander Hamilton and his son in the show and in real life. What might have happened if, instead of teaching his son how to duel, Hamilton taught his son how to back down from a conflict? What if, instead of telling him how to save face, he asked him “Hey, did the man say anything about me that wasn’t true? Then what do we need to fight for?” What lives and futures might have been spared?
That is not the way we teach our men to do things. We teach them, even in our doctrine, that concession and compromise are weak. We toss such words around in our church dialogue with a sneer, as if daring to compromise on anything equals giving up the faith and turning to satan worship.
If this is our default, when others with differing viewpoints come before us, what’s the the natural response? “I can’t hear or consider what you’re saying. If I do, I am compromising. And compromise is of the devil.” We eventually come to equate that person with satan himself, tempting us toward the demon trap of compromise or concession.
This is why so many Christians cannot participate in a healthy debate on difficult issues. We’re too afraid to lose and what that might mean. We’ve been taught that any slight deviation or concession is failure and a fall into the unknown.
And if I Heard You, Which I Don’t
We can’t listen because our requisite bravado is screaming in our ears—“Never stand down!” As if that’s a quality Jesus ever espoused.
What if we chose the way of humility instead? What if our national conversation was steeped in the kind of selfless giving we see in Jesus rather than the “me first” mentality that bravado requires?
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges. (Philippians 2.3-6)
What if the church led the way?
Brene Brown, in Braving the Wilderness, says that in order to have the difficult healing conversations, we have to be willing to look our fears in the eye and be vulnerable. Bravado cannot do this. Bravado by its nature and definition cannot be real.
Do we want a church that is not real?
Humans need to be real in order to have a future together.
Bravado killed Hamilton. It is killing the church today.
Coming to the end of Hebrews, one might expect the writer of such a epic letter of hope and instruction to wrap up with a flourish. To say something so profound, so inspirational, that generations to come will walk boldly forward in their faith with the words ringing in their ears.
But the writer does not. Strangely, s/he ends rather anti-climactically, with an encouragement and an admonishment to live together well.
“Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.” (Hebrews 12.14-17, NLT)
So, that’s the punch line? The final word? After all this?
Don’t Try This Alone
It is. See, the writer knows something Western Christians forget. The final truth is—we can’t do any of the amazing things in chapters 1-11 alone.
Bold Living prioritizes healthy relationships and cares for them with integrity.
The writer knows what looms ahead for these poeple.
Things are going to be hard.
Stress will threaten to fracture them.
Persecution will tempt them to betray one another.
Complacency will suck them back into their old life.
Some will want to pull up anchor and go.
Some will lose their hope and vision.
So this ending. This is how you hang together. Because to paraphrase Ben Franklin, you’ll hang separately otherwise.
This is maintenance for how to keep the fractures, cracks, and small roots from breaking it all apart. It’s not a sexy ending. But it’s a necessary one.
It’s still true, isn’t it? In marriages, friendships, and churches? If we let the small roots get in, they will crack it wide open.
Lots of stresses from outside still pressures us. Time, competing values, money, other relationships, envy—it all gets in the cracks.
That’s how earthquakes destroy—they don’t break open bedrock. They follow where the weaknesses already are. Where the cracks already exist. Then they widen them and wreak havoc.
Ephesians 4.23 warns us—“Don’t let the devil get a foothold.” I know from experience with rock climbing that a foothold need not be a large thing. It can be a tiny crack. Anything the accuser can leverage and widen to climb into our lives.
What are those little cracks?
“Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”
The first sign of trouble in a relationship is always bitterness. Disagreement happens. Disagreements are healthy.Churches that never disagree are unhealthy places where everyone has to fall in line and no one feels safe.
Marriage that never disagree mean someone isn’t being heard.
If any relationship has no disagreement, there’s a balance of power difference and it’s not a real relationship. We are free, and that means to not be alike.
In every dystopian novel or sci fi movie I’ve ever known, it’s the ones that are all the same we have to be scared of.
But bitterness isn’t healthy disagreement. It’s unhealthy resentment. It’s poison in the cracks. When we see that root, we know trouble is on the way.
He should know.
I always do all the work in this friendship/church/marriage.
How could they not invite me to do that?
I’m not appreciated, valued, heard.
All our problems are her/his fault.
We tell ourselves these stories until we believe them ourselves.
And then the relationship falls apart, and we blame the other party.
Bitternesstakes hostages, too.
Bitterness becomes gossip as the words in our head become words on our lips. We start to believe our thoughts, and then we tell others. It does as the writer relays—it “corrupts many” as the infection of bitterness spread throughout the body.
Please pray for my spouse. You wouldn’t believe what she/he did.
I’m not real sure of their parenting skills. How could we help?
Do you think the pastor really is doing the best things for us?
The only cure for infection is to get it out. Someone has to go first in honest discussion of what’s happening. Someone has to be willing to lance the wound. Talk about your hurt. Be honest with your needs.
Someone has to pick up the trowel and start patching the cracks.
If Christ has forgiven us, recreated us, made us witnesses, why not let it be us?
“So stop telling lies (to yourself as well as others). Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” (Ephesians 4.25)
Then, choose to speak words of life.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4.8)
Perhaps an even bigger tree root, however, is the final one.
“Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau.”
We are our brothers and sisters keepers.
Work together. Watch one another. It’s our part in the body to live like a body, helping one another toward holiness. Watching out that no one is left out.
Work at peace and holiness. They don’t just happen. We’re not supposed to be only friendly and fun. We’re supposed to help one another be holy. It’s our deep calling to help one anther cross the finish line. We are given the job of making sure we all are living in God’s grace. It’s a holy calling, this depending on one another.
It requires time and intention to be in one another’s lives—not intrusively like a Pharisee, but completely, like a brother or sister. We in the Western culture are not so good at this. We value our privacy. We idolize our time. We live in our bubbles. Yet I believe that one of the biggest dangers to living in Christ is simply being apathetic toward checking in on one another’s faith.
My older brother ran cross country in high school. I idolized him, and when he ran, I tried to run along, as far as the track coincided with the observers. I ran, though I couldn’t come close to keeping up, until the finish line. I loved my brother. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to be there when he crossed that line (often first).
I want to be there when my brothers and sisters cross the line. I want to cheer them on. I want to run beside them, pacing them, letting them know I’m there for the whole race, if need be.
That’s the kind of church the writer of Hebrews imagined. That’s what s/he wrote to hold on to. Those were the final instructions, and they were better and more important than we think.
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.”
I’ve been working on my 60 Before 60 List this summer. Considering 60 is a LOT of things, and considering I front loaded that list with way more travel items than I can humanly manage without a TARDIS, I need to be working on it.
While at school in Santa Barbara in June (going to Cali was rough, but it was all in the name of education), I knocked off the “go sailing” item. That was #1. A few weeks later, our youngest and I went on a #motherdaughtertrip to Charlevoix, Michigan, a lovely little town snug between a giant lake and a large lake. It was glorious, and it was good. I completely forgot all responsibility, which is not normally a thing for me, so I suspect my brain needed a break.
On July 6th, we tackled another thing on my list. We rented a stand up paddleboard. Our daughter has done this once before. She also has ten years of gymnastics behind her. A girl who can do back flips on 4 inches of wood four feet in the air can balance on a paddle board, even in the wake of a number of pleasure cruisers going by.
She looked like Moana out there, hand raised over her eyes toward the open water, paddle at the ready. She was awesome.
I, on the other hand, am still recovering from a back injury, which leaves me with a still-weak right leg and, shall we say, not the mountain goat sense of balance I once had. I mourn that reality. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about my body—the ability to climb up boulders and straddle a teetering log like a gecko.
I learned it early, as the youngest of seven and growing to only 5’2”. I’m not strong, and my endurance level is like my old AMC Hornet that desperately needed a gas filter, but I’m fast and sure-footed. Except not anymore.
My daughter said it was easy, so we pulled up to the half a foot of sand a few feet away from the “No Tresspassing” sign and traded her SUP for my kayak.
It went well. My legs shook, and I am grateful for no vidoegraphic evidence of my ungraceful stance, but I paddled. Back and forth, a few times in that small channel between the giant lake and the big lake. I could do this.
Until I couldn’t.
Making one last pass to the end, I went farther than I had before and tried to steer the board back toward the channel. Away from the steel (iron?) pier that marked the end of the channel and also the coast guard station. I tried. Really tried. That board had no intention of turning.
I hit the pier. Hard. My daughter heard it from twenty feet away. I leaned forward to grasp the bar on the pier, and the board slid out from under me. There I was, legs flailing, dangling from the pier and about to become a contestant in a very wet clothing contest. So glad at that moment I had decided to ditch the leggings and just go in the long tunic.
I let go, splashed into the surprisingly warm water, and grabbed the board to swim it back to the rocks on shore. This, of course, is when she started taking pictures.
On the Rocks
It was while I sat on the rocks trying to figure out how to get back on the board that another woman came alone, going the same direction. Either she realized that she also could not avoid the pier or, clearly experienced, she intentionally chose to use it as her bouncing off point to redirect her down the narrow side stream. Whichever, as she approached the pier, she dropped to her knees, struck the pier, and pushed off with her right hand in the direction she wanted to go.
“Wham!” She yelled it as she slapped that metal surface. It sounded like a cry of triumph. I knew she knew what she was doing. It felt like maybe she even did it to show me how it was done. Not in a “look at me and how great I am at this thing you totally failed at” sort of way. It felt more like “I’ve done what you just did and I want to help you get past it.” Don’t we love women like that?
I watched as she took a quick hop back to her feet, one smooth motion. She knew that was my next question, and she looked at me as she did it. I think she nodded in encouragement. As she went on her way down the stream, I got back on that board.
Obstacles Can Sink You
There are so many obstacles in the way of our dreams and goals. So many iron piers loom ahead, and we desperately try to steer away from them. We think that hitting them will be the end. We believe that we will never survive that roadblock.
Maybe we should take a lesson from that anonymous paddleboarder. Maybe, avoiding the obstacles isn’t the goal. If we can’t avoid it, maybe we ought to be thinking about using it.
She dropped to her knees.
She knew the impact would send her flying off the board if she tried to take it standing up. Dropping down, lowering her center of gravity, working with the impact instead of against it—those things kept her on the board.
It’s not a bad idea to drop to our knees, too, when we see the obstacles coming. The impact could be destabilizing. But it won’t be if we’re on our knees, in prayer to our Daddy who holds us in the palm of his hand, so that we will not be shaken. Dropping to my knees could have kept me on the board. Dropping to our knees before God will keep us facing our goals and dreams and making certain that they are still aligned with his purpose for us. It will keep us centered, balanced, and sure.
She used that problem to redirect.
She didn’t let it redirect her—she used it to change course in the way she wanted to go. I had allowed it to redirect me right into the water. I saw that pier only as a huge obstacle, a scary problem, a thing I did not want to run into or deal with.
She saw it as a chance to point her board where she wanted it to go. When she yelled “Wham!” she shoved off the pier into a hard left turn, allowing the impact to turn her course.
Do we do that with roadblocks in our path? Can we use them as course correctors, things that make us look more clearly at the place we want to go? Do we push off of our problems, rather than let them envelop and sink us? Take in their force and use it to send us further and faster?
I learned more than how to stand up on a paddleboard that morning. The dunking was worth the education.
How fast can I get back to my feet after hitting the pier? It doesn’t matter. If we need some time to sit on the rocks and refocus, that’s time well spent. But I want to learn from paddleboard wonder woman.