So what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak? (Hebrews 2:3 NLT)
I first saw the dress on a mannequin in the shop’s window. Its skirt shimmered despite the February gloom outside, and the subdued sparkles on its lace top matched perfectly as the lace descended, imperceptibly tapering off into the skirt. It had a gorgeous open back with just enough detail to suit my daughter’s classic taste.
A few minutes later, she saw it, too, and asked the bridal shop attendant to add it to her growing pile. We were on a whirlwind one-day quest, my youngest child and I, to find her wedding dress. We rarely had the same day off from work, and with a four-hour drive separating us, we chose to seize our day.
To discover the result of our quest, and what on earth Hebrews has to do with a wedding dress, pop over the The Glorious Table, where I’m featured here!
(Wish I could show you a picture of the actual dress, but . . . . spoilers.)
While we anticipate the restoration of living things outside our windows, we revel in the reality that Jesus restored all things that were broken, winter-bound, and frozen in the icy grip of sin and separation. His resurrection accomplished in one breathtaking stroke a restoration of all that God originally called good.
Though it’s April when you’re reading this, and hopefully turning to spring where you are, I’m writing during the last days of winter. This morning, I got stuck in my driveway three times trying to get my daughter to her train. We have two feet of snow out there (more or less), and I’m longing for the beach I sat on last week in Puerto Rico, doing nothing but listening to the waves and wading out in them to snorkel for yellow-striped fish and elusive sea turtles.
I unashamedly admit I need that kind of restoration in the middle of winter. Winter in Chicago is not for the weak.
Lately, I’ve been seeking restoration more often.
I loved being back at The Glorious Table this month and sharing this message of restoration and encouragement when Easter time isn’t all the joy we expect it to be. Please jump over there to read the rest.
There is an ongoing struggle in our house. My husband sincerely believes that the garbage needs to go out on Thursday night, the night before the garbage truck comes. This is logical to him. He likes logic and, more than logic, he likes to know when things are going to happen. He is a total creature of habit.
I, on the other hand, have a different viewpoint on when the garbage needs to head outside. When it’s full. Or, worse, when it stinks.
Some times of year, it can really stink.
I like my schedules, but if something stinks, it needs to go, regardless of whether the city has scheduled its demise that day or not.
He has habits; I have reactions.
So there is another part of the story we started last week that piques my interest. And my nose.
After Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb, the conversation between him and Martha that we began last week continues.
When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.”Then Jesus wept.The people who were standing nearby said, “See how much he loved him!”But some said, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb, a cave with a stone rolled across its entrance.“Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them.
But Martha, the dead man’s sister, protested, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.”
Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.”
Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” (John 11.33-44)
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. That means that there is nothing in our lives that is so dead Jesus cannot resurrect it. Not any big deaths in our lives, and not the small deaths either.
Nothing is too dead for resurrection.
Not financial issues
Not child issues
Not job issues
Not relationship issues
Not sin issues
Not medical issues
—Nothing is too dead for resurrection.
But here’s the thing. Sometimes, we have to bury those things before Jesus can resurrect them. And sometimes? They will stink.
Jesus asks Martha if she believes who he is—the resurrection and the life. His real question, though, is this—Do you trust me? No matter what happens, do you trust me with your brother’s life—and yours?
We cling to those things that need resurrection, don’t we?
We know the marriage needs intervention, but we’re comfortable, at least, in our dysfunction. We don’t want to give our inch. What if he takes a mile? What if the immense work of changing the way we interact doesn’t change anything? What if we open up something that vomits all over us and never, ever goes back into its safe can?
Letting Jesus roll the stones out from in front of our messy marriage will stink, and we know it. But if we don’t bury what’s comfortable, we’ll never know the resurrection to what’s beautiful.
We know our relationship with our kids is tenuous, but listening and learning is hard. Believing the worst of them is impossible. Believing the worst of ourselves is uncomfortable. Learning boundaries and giving freedom threaten to break us in shards.
It stinks when we struggle with those we love most. But if we don’t bury what we have, he can’t raise it to what it could be.
We know we need to change some things for our health, or we need to accept that parts of the way we’d like to look or be are not going to happen this side of resurrection bodies. (I do not want to accept that.) Learning to live with physical limitations (not to mention saggy boobs) stinks.
But if I don’t bury my need to look and feel 35, how is he going to resurrect what is and make it what it can be? (Also, if I don’t bury my need to binge eat macarons and chocolate.)
We know He’s calling us to something more, higher, deeper—in faith, in work, in calling, in hope. But taking the steps toward that means burying what is for the dream of what might be.
It takes courage to let Jesus roll away the stones we’ve carefully placed in front of the smelly messes of our lives.
Oh, but look what can come walking out of the tomb if we let him.
Resurrection. Life. Renewal. Restoration.
All the fullness of life.
Do you know why “This Is Me” became the runaway hit song from Greatest Showman? Because we all know the feeling of hiding our mess. We know what it’s like to be afraid of revealing all that we are, the good, bad, and ugly, to a critical world.
We all long for the resurrection and life, not just in the future, but now, right now, in our mess today. It’s just that sometimes, we don’t long for it enough. At least, not enough to bury what is and let Jesus handle the smell.
Martha looks him in the eye. She knows it’s going to stink. She’s never experienced an actual resurrection before. It’s got to be frightening. She buckles in, nods her head, and says, “Yes, Lord. I believe.”
Our parents dutifully sent my sister (8) and me off to Sunday school every week (well, semi-dutifully) with a quarter in our right fist and shiny shoes on our feet to see what we could learn. We didn’t go to the church service afterward, and no one came with us. I have only hazy memories of a blue flannel Jesus and some woman telling me he was good.
One afternoon, my sister and I rode our bicycles in circles around the garage, and she told me all about the things she had learned—how Jesus loved her and died for her and rose again.
I told her it was all baloney.
I didn’t believe a word of it. I have no idea how I was so certain of that at six, but I suspect that I figured my parents must not really have believed or they would have gone with us. Also, blue flannel Jesus was terribly boring. Also, I probably didn’t like that my big sister knew more than I did.
It all seemed pretty clear at six.
Who knew that, long after I’d quit walking up the street to that little Presbyterian church, God had plans to capture me with his love anyway? Little atheists don’t know as much as they think.
Last year, we explored herea series of questions God asks. Today, because Easter and all. we’re going to look at a seemingly straightforward one:
Do you believe this?
Backstory: Jesus receives a message that his dear friend, Lazarus, is deathly ill. His sisters Martha and Mary, also his dear friends, are looking for him to come set things right. They trust him to show up big for them—but he doesn’t. In fact, Jesus chooses to wait a few days before setting off to see his friend—days he knows are precious.
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. Bethany was only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, and many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss. When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house.Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” (John 11.17-27)
I’ve always loved this story, because it displays raw emotion mixed with real faith. Martha grieves—real grief, real tears. Real terror, because with her brother gone, who was going to take care of her and her sister? She knew what happened to two young women alone in that world. Her emotions ran out of her like spring rain swelling a waterfall. She is hurt, scared, grief-stricken, and confused.
Confused that the one she knew could help her didn’t come. She knew it—look at her words.
“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
She is too painfully aware that Jesus could have chosen to come, and she might not be in this despair. She is aware of something too many of the disciples don’t seem to be. Jesus is Lord of life and death itself.
She knows this.
This is why her response is so incredible to me. She knows he could have, she knows he didn’t, but she still chooses to believe.
Jesus’ response is perfect.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”
Do you believe this?
Jesus could not ask this question at a worse time. This is not a philosophical question for Martha. Everything is in her heart and her eyes. Her world is shattered. If there is a resurrection and a life, and if this man is in charge of it, it has to mean more in this moment than an “I’ll fly away” Hallmark special effect someday in the clouds.
It has to mean something now.
Why? Because he asks her this question before he does anything.
Her brother has not yet been raised from the dead. Jesus has shown no hurry to do so, or apparent interest. Yet he’s asking her if she believes right now, in her grief, in her heartache and horror, before she ever sees her brother unwind those graveclothes from around his face.
She’s known him for years. This family has the ease of old friends. The question is, does she really know him? Does she know him well enough? Has she studied his life, looked at his heart, listened to his words enough to really believe, even in this impossible moment?
That’s what he asks all of us, isn’t it? Have you studied me? Not about me, but me? Have you learned my heartbeat? Do you know what makes me joyful and what gives me sorrow? Do you understand what I am capable of? If you do, do you believe I am the resurrection and the life?
Now. Before I do anything in your life to prove it.
He’s asking her for a personal trust. He wants a relationship that can weather the storms ahead. He needs Martha to believe him no matter what happens, not for him, but for her.
If Lazarus had remained dead—if Jesus had chosen not to raise hm back to life—would Martha’s answer have been the same?
“Yes, Lord. I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”
Blessed is she who has not seen and yet believes.
Even when we don’t see, do we know enough of who he is to believe?
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the raising up.
I am the Not Dead.
I am death you don’t win.
I am the death where is your sting?
I am the “no one can stop me from raising myself or you.” Raising you to and from all manner of things. If you believe before you see.
That’s been hard for some of us in this season. With news of people murdered while worshiping, children slaughtered while learning, white supremacists marching, and babies stolen from their terrified parents, it’s just hard some days to remind myself that I follow a God who proved there is no situation he cannot resurrect.
But I do believe this.
In fact, in light of the insanity that surrounds us, believing he is in control of all things not being dead is the only theology that makes any sense at all. (And my friend, we all have theology. It doesn’t matter if we believe Jesus is baloney—we still have one.)
Unlike my six-year-old self, I do believe this. It’s all there is to believe in a world that needs hope. It’s the only thing that can bring our deaths out of the grave and unwrap them before our eyes.
As a pastor, I am “in a relationship” with the Fuller Youth Institute. I’m not even shy about it. In a culture that makes it challenging for our kids’ faith to thrive, I have found abundant resources for both parents and church leaders in their publications. I’m even using a number of them for my thesis project.
That’s why, when my email magically notified me they were looking for a book launch team for their next resource–– Growing With––that was one of the few emails I didn’t scroll past or trash with abandon. I applied immediately.
I mean, my tagline you can read above is” Reframed: Picturing faith with the next generation.” It’s kind of important to me.
Growing With’s subtitle– –Every Parent’s Guide To Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future––captures the thing well. The authors, Kara Powell and Steven Argue,use three verbs to help parents during the three stages of their children’s growth.
Withing––how do we relearn to actually be with our children, not simply around them?
Faithing—how do we help our kids navigate the changes in their faith with patience and optimism, realizing that our faith, too, is or should be ever-changing?
Adulting– –what tools do our kids in need to thrive in their own new life, and what is our role in supplying and them?
I won’t lie ––Growing With can be a tough read if your kids are already in their 20s, as mine are. You can’t help but notice the many things you could have done better. Yet Powell and Argue lace Growing With with grace. They are parents, too. They have made their own mistakes and are not afraid to let the readers know it. The message comes through––
We’re all imperfect humans raising imperfect humans.
We all need some help. Both generations need grace to understand that the other is still growing, learning, and making mistakes. That understanding alone it is worth the price of admission for this book.
The authors talk about the cultural changes that have made growing up in this generation far different than the world their parents knew at their age. They lay down some of the stark facts that might depress us about our children’s faith, but they also debunk some of the myths about the Millennial generation and iGen that keep parents awake at night in fear.
The clear, well-informed, and fact checked understanding of the next generations’ hopes, worries, and beliefs is invaluable to parents, grandparents, and church leaders who wants to understand what is going on in the heads and hearts of these generations.
Teachers, Guides, Resourcers
I love how the authors explain the different roles parents need to take on as their children change. Parents need to evolve from teachers to guides to resources. We can’t hope to parent a 25 -year-old the same way we did a 14-year-old. At least, we can’t hope to do it and retain a good relationship. And genuine relationships are what it’s all about for the next generation.
We need to be, as one story puts it, ”A wall they can swim back to”—a firm and sturdy place that will always support them after their forays toward and into adulthood. The writers don’t just leave us with that pithy picture, however. They give readers wonderful ways to be that wall.
The important words are verbs
I love that the writers, like our scripture writers, know that the important words are verbs. Parents don’t simply ”be with” their kids. They are withing, together. It’s a verb because it is active. We need to intentionally practice withing.
Likewise, faith isn’t a static thing we can hand off to our kids when we think they’re ready. It’s a verb we practice more than we preach. It can’t be given––it can only be lived together. This flows perfectly with the biblical view of faith. Faith is never a thing in scripture––it is always an active, living way of life.
If you’re intrigued, or if you know someone who could benefit from “every parent’s guide to helping teenagers and young adults thrive,” check out Growing With––and preorder yours now (before March 5th) to receive some very special extras as well. I know I’m going to.
Apologetics was fashionable in the 80’s, and I was nothing if not fashionable. OK, I was never fashionable. Not one day of my college career, most likely. But when you’re surrounded by Izods and boat shoes, and you’re a Laura Ashley kind of girl, it’s just never going to happen.
Trained as a high school debater, I found my psychological home in apologetics. I soaked in the books handed to me by InterVarsity leaders like Know What You Believe and it’s younger brother, Know Why You Believe.
But One Remained
The one that caught and kept me, though, could only have come from the pen of CS Lewis. Mere Christianity.
Two years ago, I bought a copy of it, older than the one I still had from college, at an Antiquarian Book Sale. It’s eggshell cover, sheathed in plastic so that it did not become as brittle as shell, bore no modern photoshop or multi-color printing, only blue pin-striping and a title. It was austere. Plain. Speaking to me of a faith that Lewis didn’t embellish either but embraced for its straightforward truth to him, not its smoke and mirrors.
I didn’t know what I had subscribed to when I walked that church aisle two years prior. Lewis told me. Logically. Honestly. The way I liked to be told things that mattered.
My new faith could coexist with my intellect. One of the greatest minds of the century knew this, so why should I doubt it? I devoured Lewis’ arguments for belief, digesting them like the meat Paul says our souls were made to crave.
You Can Be Smart and Still Believe
Lewis confronted me with the honest reality of my willfulness and the stunning equal reality of God’s intent for me.
“..fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”
He wrestled with me over the ways my culture told me the horrible truth about humans could be “fixed.”
“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”
He explained Jesus in a way that appeared utterly sensible to my logic-craving mind.
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”
He told me of the yearning I thought only I knew, the ache to belong somewhere I had never known.
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
And There Were Others
It wouldn’t be the only time Lewis challenged my assumptions. The Great Divorce forced new thoughts on hell and heaven and all that might fall in the grey space in between. If God’s time isn’t linear, perhaps Lewis’ notions of busses and second chances between the afterlife zones wasn’t so far-fetched.
Of course it was story, meant to convince us to make the right decision, get on the right bus so to speak, now. Yet his imaginary exploration did something for me that would be invaluable later in life. It made me understand that sometimes, I could be wrong.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a book I didn’t open until after college, eclipsed the other Chronicles for me. I know, the first book is the favorite. But the story of Eustace, with its greatest of first lines in literature, taught me the value of perseverance and the beauty of a King who would adore me so much he would come tear off my dragon scales.
I may have been young, but I knew there were many dragon scales. Those layers of defensive, self-protecting coarse skin don’t slough off easily. They’re still coming, I think.
The Screwtape Letters would give me one of my favorite quotes of all time:
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
In my darkest of days, and there have been some, I would turn back to Wormwood and declare that his master would never win, no matter the lonely universe.
Years later, I stand around on Sunday and Tuesday nights, directing a cast of twenty in an assuredly non-professional version of The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. The other night, one of the children pondered Aslan’s death and coming back to life as we worried about how to create a stone table that would hold a grown man on a tiny stage and a tinier budget.
“It’s like Jesus!” he exclaimed in a moment of relative quiet.
Another generation finds the great lion, and a great author, still unfolding the Author of All, in ways only he can.
In the beginning, the baby bird’s cries sounded not so much plaintive as curious. “Are you my mother?” He didn’t know, as he ran from one being to the next, dog, cow, boat, plane, asking his question. Nearer the end, I’d hear the increasingly frightened baby, fearful of being alone in a giant world of snorting cranes and belching barges.
The turquoise cover with the sparsely-drawn little hatchling always closed on a happy ending, and I didn’t know if it was his safe return to his mother or his adventures in the great wide world I loved the best as a little girl.
I can still see my favorite book covers that I pulled open over and over as a tiny girl. Are You My Mother? sat on the shelf near the white polka-dotted Put Me in the Zoo and the Old World deep red ofFerdinand the Bull. They all fell open easily, their bindings creased with jelly-butter hands and little girl adoration.
Now that I review the past, it shouldn’t amaze me that all three have a protagonist who feels mismatched with the world he experiences.
Those are the stories that spoke to a little girl, the last of seven, the one no one in that family of nine quite understood, except perhaps my sister Marilyn who stayed home with me all day, because her wheelchair didn’t allow her the freedom to explore the world as she would have liked. My smallness didn’t, either.
More Old Friends
By eight, I rode my hand-me-down teal green bike to the McHenry Library once a week. We lived outside of town, over the one-lane metal Old Bridge, so it felt like riding to the next county. My mother told me it was only a mile—google maps now tells me two. Mom didn’t have google.
At least a couple times a year, I strained high and took a blue book off the shelves in the “big people” section. I knew exactly where it resided on that shelf, a biography of Helen Keller the name of which I don’t remember but the content I don’t forget.
The cover felt worn, partially because I had worn it but mostly because it was old, the blue fabric wearing into strands rough on my small fingers rather than a smooth linen.
Helen, too, felt alone. Helen, too, had dreams of leaving her confined world. Helen, too, was, as my mother described her last offspring, “stubborn as a mule.” I liked Helen. I loved that she won. I struggled with her every time I read her story, and I read it a lot.
I didn’t know as a little one that my firm standing as an INFJ and a female Enneagram 5 would always ensure I felt not quite “in” anything. Such knowledge comes much later, if at all, and we’re left to navigate the whys of feeling in this world but not of it on our own when we’re small.
I only knew books helped.
It wasn’t even hard to feel countercultural when I became a Christian near the end of high school. I already was.
The hard part was taking “me” out of the center of it all, a struggle I continue every morning when the alarm wails at me.
Books have continued to help.
When I stood beneath the venerable tan archway of Wash U as a new student, looking alternately up at the looming arch and down at the bronzed, scuffed circle beneath me that honored our equally venerable founder, William Greenleaf Eliot, I knew the next four years would involve a lot of books.
I planned a major in political science. Economics stood in the second-place slot, at least until I discovered how much calculus it involved. Third, in what the horses races call “show,” was English. Somehow, by the beginning of sophomore year, that third horse pulled around the outside corner to become the winner, surprising no one but me.
Four years later, with a black flat cap, gold cords, and a three-hundred degree graduation ceremony out in the quad (English majors know the proper use of hyperbole), I held a degree that led me to teach high school literature, not sit at a table learning of amicus curiae, habeas corpus, torts, and writs.
Thank you, Jesus.
Books saved me as a child. They told me there were others out there like me. No one could be completely alone if stories brought into my bedroom nearly-orphaned little birds, not-quite-dogs whose spots led them to seek acceptance in a zoo, or bulls who sniffed flowers and imagined a world in which they didn’t have to be who they weren’t.
Books opened my confined world as a teenager. Sometimes, the discovery left scars, because the world I didn’t know could be brutal, even more than the one I did. That was Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. Darn Steinbeck.
Sometimes, they left yearning, like half-breaths I didn’t know I was breathing, catching in my throat. That was Anne of Green Gables, Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time—books I didn’t even read until I was twenty-two, but that doesn’t matter.
Books have formed me as an adult. I’ve turned from fiction to theology, sociology, biography, history. Non-fiction, well done, still drives the imagination, and that it drives mine toward a better me, a better church, and a better world resonates with me more than fiction these years.
With the tribute to Eugene Peterson last week, I thought perhaps I would continue in a series of books that changed me, in some way, spiritually. In a positive way, that is. We’ve got way too much negative swimming around already.
What works have stuck with me, making me a better version of the small child who wondered if anyone else out there understood what life felt like, real life, the kind that feels everything and wants to know the limits and go beyond them. That child is still there. I hope, believe, she’s less her, more Jesus by now.
I didn’t want to run with the horses. A neighbor’s horse had once run under a tree branch in our back field, with me on his back, full intending to knock me off. I’d hit the branch. I had not fallen.
Another horse, a supposedly docile being on a trail ride, had been bitten by the beast behind him and reared up, again, with me on his back. The height of it is probably greatly exaggerated in my ten-year-old memory, but I remember the fear.
Our cousins’ ponies tried to bite me. Leaders of Girl Scout rides believed, erroneously, that we would all love to gallop. My best friend inducted me into typical elementary-schoolgirl horse fever, and I created an elaborate ranch on my bedroom wall of paper horses, all different, with names and histories. I loved my horses. I just didn’t love real ones.
My history with the equine family is sketchy.
But Eugene Peterson said that Jeremiah said that God said—I had to run with the horses. At that point in my life, I trusted all three, although I remained a little unclear on who Jeremiah was.
Halls of Fame
An author rarely makes it into my mental Hall of Literary Fame. It takes excellence of storytelling, language, argument, depth, and truth to attain that level. Like a preacher who sits in the pews and can’t listen for unintentionallycritiquing (that is who I am), I admit only authors who take hold of my literary imagination. Pushing me theologically earns bonus points.
To paraphrase Jane Austen, who is certainly well-ensconced near the apex of my Hall, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished writers. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”
We lost Eugene Peterson in October. We lost—he gained. He is said to have passed with joy in his heart and greeting on his lips for the One he was going to meet but already knew well.
I met Peterson (through his work) at a crucial time in my development, literarily and theologically. A new freshman at Washington University, I was also a new Christian, stumbling and uncertain exactly what I had signed up for and if it had been the great idea I believed at the time.
As a new believer in a highly unbelieving university, it seemed the thing to join InterVarsity, and there I learned of an entire publishing house devoted to making me a smarter Christian. You can assume by the alma mater that I enjoyed being smarter. This has not changed.
A Long Obedience
Peterson stayed with me while others faded. He taught me early in my faith about a long obedience in the same direction and how to run with horses. He taught me what most nineteen-year-olds need to learn yet rarely can—how to allow for failure, to expect slowness rather than instant effectiveness. He taught me that discipleship was a hard road that required perseverance, not five-point plans.
Of course, I didn’t know I needed to know all that.
You can see how old the book is by the photo. I no longer go by that name. Haven’t for decades. I no longer mark my belongings with unicorn stamps either, although given the magic of books, it’s not amiss.
There are arrows and asterisks and a few underlines in the text of A Long Obedience. Not many. I was still at an age where I believed books were not to be written in, sacred pages that should remain virgin white because someone in a library had told me that probably.
I didn’t know that a book is made more sacred by its highlighting, underlining, exclamation points, and creases. I bet Peterson could have taught me that, too.
The chapter that contains most all the underlining is called “Joy: Our Mouth Was Filled with Laughter.” I clearly felt the need for joy at that point. Not surprising, since my college years were flooded with grief at my mother’s passing a few weeks before high school graduation, my dad’s descent into alcoholism, and a close friend’s suicide. Peterson met me when I needed joy, and I didn’t know how to acquire it on my own.
“One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find. We come to God because none of us has it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. We try to get it through entertainment. Society is a bored, gluttonous king, employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal.
But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing.”
Did Peterson pave the way in my soul to be one of those who would not rest without excavating what God was doing? Did he play a role in my decision not to pursue law school but ministry instead?
I know, from my note-taking, that he offered me a way to find the joy that had evaporated from my heart. Choosing joy is a decision I would have to make over and over, given my propensity to be more negative than the average bear. Somewhere in that long obedience, the joy stuck, and the negativity is what evaporated, though it’s always a beast that requires patrolling of the borders.
Peterson found me when I needed a wise pastor, and that he was. I hope he helped make me a wise pastor in return. Thank you, good brother, for being who you were and for speaking words that will not die with you.
Since we’re running a few gardening-related posts (of course we are), I thought I’d bring back some of my favorites as well. Anytime I talk about an encounter with Jesus it’s a favorite, because that’s the best possible things to have happen. Even when, as this person finds out, it leaves you a little scared, and a lot wet.
I am a gardener, but a haphazard one at best. I forget where I plant things and what I already bought. I dig up seeds my husband has planted that I didn’t know about. I plant and replant the same spots, with little patience to ensure success.
Last year, I threw some cutting flower seeds in a circular patch that had been a dumping ground for weeds, cardboard, and old stalks. I didn’t expect much. I hadn’t put much into it.
The ensuing display of orange zinnias, blue cornflowers, and yellow marigolds lit up the side yard for months. Their exorbitance only exacerbated my lack of effort.
I received a huge bonus for minimal exertion, and I felt the joy of it. So I get Peter a little bit in today’s encounter with Jesus.
When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Now go out where it is deeper, and let down your nets to catch some fish.”
“Master,” Simon replied, “we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so, I’ll let the nets down again.” And this time their nets were so full of fish they began to tear! A shout for help brought their partners in the other boat, and soon both boats were filled with fish and on the verge of sinking.
When Simon Peter realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Oh, Lord, please leave me—I’m too much of a sinner to be around you.” For he was awestruck by the number of fish they had caught, as were the others with him.
Jesus replied to Simon, “Don’t be afraid! From now on you’ll be fishing for people!” And as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus. (Luke 5.4-11)
I know exactly how Peter felt. He had blown it. He knew he had. He knew his attitude hadn’t been grateful or trusting or anything approximating appropriate about the whole re-fishing gig. He knew Jesus blessed him anyway. And he fell on his face in a stunned mix of amazement and repentance.
This Jesus in this encounter takes our little obedience and lavishes boatloads (literally) of goodness on us.
And just look at how he does it.
He does it despite the probability that it is not possible
There were no fish out there. The experts had certified it. Who would doubt the fishermen’s word that fish were not biting? I wouldn’t. The only fish I’ve ever caught in my life was a tiny sunfish at Girl Scout camp that I caught with an old hook and a bread dough ball. Both my father and my husband attest that fishing and my ability to sit in one spot doing nothing but staring at water do not comingle.
But Jesus blatantly ignores the experts and sends them out anyway. Go fish. Because I said so. Because I believe you can find fish if you follow my voice and do what I say. I believe that crazy thing you dream about can happen if you’re in the boat with me.
He does it despite the attitude of the givee
Jesus: Go out and put the nets down for fish again.
Peter: OK, Jesus, we already tried that, but WhatEVER, dude.
Because you know that was exactly the tone of his voice.
And how often has that been my tone when dealing with that hard thing Jesus tells me to do that I just Do. Not. Want. To. Do? OK God, whatever. I’ll do it. But I won’t be Cheery-Dearie while I do. And then . . . the boats are swamped with goodness anyway.
Because he is good.
He does not, as many armchair theologians would imply, give to us after we have attained a certain grade for righteousness. He does not keep score of how often we have a bad attitude toward obedience. He surprises the churlish among us with kindness. It’s his kindness, after all, that leads to repentance (Romans 2.4). True here with Peter, no? So true.
He does it with an eye toward something more
Along with the fish he offers what is certainly more important and harder to offer unsparingly. He offers forgiveness, patience, and a new purpose.
He wants to call these fishermen, and us, toward something greater than fish. The lavish generosity is about His love and character, to be sure. He gives good gifts simply because He is good. Period.
But it is also about His kingdom and His plans for it. For us. He calls us to head out into the waters of his kingdom, fishing for people’s hearts. Fishing for justice. Fishing for forgiveness. Fishing for sacrifice and healing and love.
He demonstrates in this one act of generosity that the returns will be mind-boggling.
What does this encounter mean for us?
Can’t we love a Jesus who gives because it’s in his nature to give, not because he’s keeping a chart of what we deserve?
Can’t we love a Jesus who believes in the seemingly impossible for us?
Can’t we love a Jesus who cares so much more about our real calling, what our hearts beat for and our souls ache for, than he does our nine-to-five job? Who gives us free rein to pursue that with all our hearts because that is what defines who we are, not our title or position? (Although yes, we still need a job, because food.)
While I was spending my time sailing, sunning, and writing pages and pages of thesis proposals that would get rejected and repurposed EVERY OTHER MINUTE in California this June, our front yard got a makeover.
Out with the Old
We called the city because one of the venerable old elm trees in the front yard looked ready to tumble onto our also old (if not equally venerable) house. The trees are technically on city property.
They came. They saw. They said that all three trees were bad and would be meeting the saw blade. (Insert sob emoji here.) A fourth elm sat just inside the property line, and it was in worse shape, so we struck a deal with the contractor to take it down for cheap while he was there.
Upshot—the entire front yard went from shade to full sun in a few hours. I returned home to a driveway I didn’t even recognize.
In with the . . . What?
I do love light, but unfortunately, my front garden does not. We had planted it as a shade garden and filled it with hostas, coral bells, ferns, and the like. Now, they are baking. Turning yellow and crusty. They are not happy. It’s too hot out there to move them, and so they sit in the sun, as I hope and pray they survive long enough to be set somewheremore understanding of their needs.
Meanwhile, an interesting thing is occurring in the back yard. There, the trees are growing. The spruce that was as tall as I am (and that’s not very tall) when we moved in now towers over its surroundings. If I wanted to get all mathematical, I’d go out there and measure the hypotenuse and the shadow and tell you exactly how tall it is. But, did I mention it’s hot? And I am not all mathematical as a general rule.
The ornamental pear tree we planted that was supposed to be remain small isn’t. Upshot—things that were planted in full sun, like our rose garden, no longer are. They’re also unhappy about the turn of events.
What is my point in all this?
My own back yard tells me that seasons change. Things never remain as planned. What we once thought would be forever isn’t, and what we thought would never be sometimes is. What worked once for us doesn’t work anymore. Usually, we keep trying it anyway, desperately hoping that we will not have to adjust to a new reality.
Our bodies change or get injured. What was once easy isn’t.
Our kids leave home and our marriages turn in toward themselves and find hollow cores where communication and commitment once filled the space.
Our kids leave home period, and that’s enough change for any of us who love having their laughter and surprise and support floating through our days.
We move from single to two people, from two kids to three, and every addition is a glorious gift but still one we have to adjust to and whose learning curve may be steeper than we think we can climb.
We move to a new home, and its exciting and terrifying, adventurous and lonely, all at once.
Our faith turns into doubt nibbling away at the corners of our hearts and minds. What were once easy answers don’t come quite so quickly anymore.
Change doesn’t have to be bad to discombobulate our lives. (I love that word.) It just has to be what it is.
Different. New. Unknown.
It can scorch our days like a July sun or it can shade our nights with extra darkness. It doesn’t matter. It just messes with what we thought we had stable and safe.
If I refuse to adjust to the new normal of our yard, the plants out front will die. They will shrivel and thirst and scorch and wither. They weren’t made for the sun. The plants out back will languish without the light they crave. They, too, will die. They weren’t made for the shade.
If I accept that normal isn’t coming back and I move them? I can create an entire new design out there. I have a chance to start over. I can make beautiful out of a new situation.
We can spend our time resisting whatever our new normal is, or we can embrace it. Now, I’m not advocating giving up on something that matters. I wouldn’t hang up my marriage if it changed. I can ( and might) plant a new tree in the front yard. I can opt to fight for those plants and that arrangement, because they’re important. Fighting is an option. It’s one I’d always take if change threatened something that truly mattered.
But, some things have just run their season. It’s time for a new one. Some things are better off for a new season.
What if, for instance, I embrace this new empty nest that threatens? What if I stop seeing it as a threat? I can sit in my home and mourn the emptiness. (I will, some days.) I can guilt them into not ever moving farther than five miles away. (I have tried.) I can Snapchat my children incessantly until they block me. (I don’t recommend this.)
I can learn new ways to love them like crazy from a distance, pour my heart into other young people here who need someone, and renew career aspirations that have been put aside. I think that may be the better option.
On a larger scale, what if we accepted that “A Christian America” isn’t going to happen? The season of churchgoing as normal is over, and we pastors (and all Christians) have an uphill climb to be relevant or wanted. People aren’t going to beat the door down of my church.
I could demand things go back to the way they were. I could throw up my hands and gnash my teeth about the current state. I could toss blame all over the place and find scapegoats to label and denounce.
I could embrace a different culture and find my way to create God’s image of beauty within it. I know which is the ultimately more productive choice.
What if a new normal has brought something into your life that also brings worry, fear, anxiety, or sadness? How can you grow into that today? How can you look at your new season and find the beauty in it? What do you need to embrace in order to grow in this season rather than wither?
I hope and pray you find it. If I can help, let me know.