Drop 4 Anchors

I wrote this blog post in 2018. I went looking for it this morning, because I believe there are definitely some of you who are not coming to Thanksgiving this year with joy in your hearts and thanks on your lips. How could you, given the dumpster fire of 2020? But maybe it’s affected you personally in a deeply painful way. Unemployment. Death. Long illness. Financial distress. Racial tension. Fear for your black sons and daughters. A society that refuses to hear your pain and fear.

I don’t know what it is for you this year, but I know this. The anchor holds. So here is a repeat post from 2018.

I approached Thanksgiving two years ago feeling less than thankful. With a body dematerializing before everyone’s eyes for reasons no one could diagnose, I entered the season sick, exhausted, and scared. I could barely get up most days, and when I did, it seemed everyone was posting their “What I’m thankful for” on Facebook.

It had been six months since I got sick. It would be almost another year before we discovered why. How do you lead people in thanksgiving when you spend your days begging the Lord to heal you, to help you find out what’s wrong, or at least to allow you to get a meal down and feel good for five minutes a day?

I reached for a little-known line in Scripture for answers: “. . . they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the back of the ship and prayed for daylight” (Acts 27:29 NLT).

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Back story: Paul is in danger of being shipwrecked here. The men with him are terrified. They aren’t thankfully posting pictures of their holiday at sea; they’re crying out for mercy. “All hope was gone,” Scripture says (Acts 21:20 NLT).

All hope was gone.

I knew the feeling.

The last line of the tale shone like a beacon in my own storm. Sometimes, I realized, we can’t see through the storm, and the best thing we can do is toss our anchors and pray for daylight. Anchors keep a ship stable. When they dig into the seabed below, they hold. It may be chaos up above, but when the anchor is dropped, the ship won’t drift.

There are likely many of you who feel guilty because you are harboring less-than-thankful feelings this thanksgiving. Sadly, guilt drives us farther from the God who is the only hope when all hope is gone. Guilt isn’t an anchor—guilt is a gale blowing us off course. We may not see ahead, but we can know what’s written on our anchors.

Anchor #1—God is good

We toss around “good” all the time. It’s all good. I’m good. She’s being good. But in Scripture, the word “good” means something more. “Good” is a mix of just, holy, gentle, kind, patient, and merciful. Biblical goodness is an anchor because it can never change. God cannot stop being good. He will always be unfailing love, faithfulness, and compassion.

“Good” is also a verb. God doesn’t just have good feelings toward us—He makes good happen. So saying that God’s goodness is an anchor is knowing his power is bent on kindness toward us. Maybe we can’t see it, but we can feel it hold us in chaos.

Photo by Nias Nyalada on Unsplash

Anchor #2—God is love

When the doctor asked my husband nine years ago if he would donate his kidney to me, I knew the answer. He would say yes. His character was to love me as he had promised—in sickness and health. It did not hinge on me deserving it; it was who he was.

How do I know God’s love is an anchor I can trust in darkness? It’s his character, proved by his actions. Do I doubt his love? If I do, I have only to look at the cross where he died alone in agony. There is no greater proof of love.

Maybe you don’t feel it right now, but God’s love is an anchor that will not let go of the bottom of the sea. It will be there until the light of morning.

Anchor #3—God is able

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand” (Isa. 41.10 NLT).

I gave birth three times, each time willing to battle the world and all its forces to keep safe the little life in my womb and later in my arms. God is no different when it comes to his children—he is only infinitely more capable.

Imagine this: you are surrounded by the hands that formed the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon, and every atom of the human body. God is able. No matter how badly the sea shakes, that anchor holds.

Anchor #4—God is enough

The summer before I turned nineteen was rough. Having lost my mom, I returned home from school to a suicidal, alcoholic father. One of my best friends killed himself. I was in a terrible car accident. All the while I sang in a group that praised God in the evenings while I questioned him during the day.

One of those evenings, I realized I had a choice. I could walk away forever, or I could believe that no matter what else happened, God would be enough. Even if I ended up like Job, losing everything, I would not let go if he was all I had. It was a hard anchor to toss, but it held. It’s held through worse crises than that, and I expect it will continue.

I didn’t feel like praising God that Thanksgiving. Maybe you don’t right now. Don’t feel guilty for not being able to dredge up feelings of thanks. Drop your anchors. You don’t have to feel them to know they’re there. Pray for daylight. I’ll pray alongside you.

Be the Innovative Ones

yousef-espanioly-cD2KzhohMQc-unsplash
Photo by Yousef Espanioly on Unsplash

So many headlines have the ability lately to make us all curl up in our fetal positions and sob until Jesus comes back. It doesn’t take much anymore, even. We’re tired. We’re done. This one did it for me the last couple weeks, though.

“ICE guards ‘systematically’ sexually assault detainees in an El Paso detention center.”

You know by now I have a heart for immigrants and refugees. You also know, probably, that I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor. I’m seeing red that we can allow this to happen within our borders. This is’t the only facility for which compelling evidence is available, either.

I’m also seeing a tale as old as time.

Exodus and ICE

We’ve been walking through the Bible, slowly. We’ve already dived into Exodus a bit, but now, we’re going to back up. I know, I’m going about all this a bit haphazardly.

Pandemic.

This is the excuse for everything for the foreseeable future. Every single thing that doesn’t line up as it should have is because pandemic. We get a free pass. It’s just truth.

So, Exodus out of order. There is something here we must see.

We ended Genesis with Joseph triumphant, but we open Exodus with an entirely different history. Joseph is dead. Nobody cares. There’s a new ruler in town, and history is not his strong suit.

Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done. He said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.” 

So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labor. (Exodus 1.8-11)

Pharaoh is an insecure human and ruler. He looks around one day and sees the number and strength of the foreigners in “his” land. It frightens him. Rather than see the advantages they bring to his country, he gives unfettered reign to unfounded fear. Remember what we learned in Genesis? Israel was created to bless others, but too often, they allowed fear to drive rather than blessing.

163DF99F-5A55-4F75-8276-1E759D57BEAE

The Israelites have done nothing to cause fear. They’ve lived peacefully in the land. Their numbers have added to the tax roles, however those existed in Egypt (I’m not exactly an expert there). They’ve undoubtedly added heft to the Egyptian economy. One hopes their faith values have given them extra care toward their neighbors. (It appears they persuaded the midwives to become believers at any rate.)

Fear Is a Bad Driver

Yet Pharaoh sees only their presence and his fear that one day, they might shift the balance of power away from people like him.

So Pharaoh’s solution is to dehumanize them. He tries to crush their spirits, their hope, and even their bodies. He forces on them the work no one else wants for slave wages. He calls them names like lazy and worthless. He attempts to assimilate them into his people by murdering their boys so that the girls will eventually intermarry, or worse, and dilute any Hebrew blood or loyalties.

Tyrants and insecure kings do this. It’s common throughout history. His playbook is not new or original, and it’s been borrowed over the millennia.

Ex1-17

What Pharaoh does to the “other” in his land is nothing that hadn’t been done and isn’t being done in human history. Fear drives humans to evil things. There is always someone to put down.

Are you catching on that I think this might have some relevance to the present?

Earlier this year, I heard Jennifer Guerra Aldana speak these powerful words about this very story that I’ve found so invaluable over the lat year:

“Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.”

We know what evil will do. It doesn’t change.

It will always try to destroy and dehumanize. It will always seek to instill fear where love should be. Evil will consistently demonize others in order to feel more secure itself. History is littered with the strategies of evil, and they are always the same.

Make someone else the scapegoat for created fears, and whip up those fears so that people will do whatever it takes to relieve them.

Evil doesn’t have One Creative Idea. It’s so very, sadly, predictable. I loved hearing Jennifer point this truth out so clearly.

jude-beck-b6HbBUjDyUc-unsplash

Love Is Innovative

Love will always find a way around that. Love is creative. It’s smart. It’s determined and persevering. Love is one of the three things Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 will last forever. He also says it’s is the greatest of those three.

And God is always on the side of love.

He proves it in the most ingenious ways possible. When Pharaoh seeks to destroy the Hebrew baby boys, God saves Moses out of that mess. Pharaoh’s own daughter finds him and brings him home as her son. So what is the inevitable result of that? Moses gets raised in the courts of power. He is educated with the best of the best and taught to be a leader. He knows all the ins and outs of the royal world. And eventually, he will use that knowledge and education to bring about the next Pharaoh’s destruction.

It’s an Inside Job

God uses the tyrant’s own strategies to bring him down. Without his murder of the boys, Moses would have grown up to be just another Hebrew slave. But he didn’t. Talk about just desserts.

Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.

Quite a lot of evidence exists to prove that thoughts like Pharaoh’s are wrong. Check out the charts below if you want to know some of the advantages immigrants bring to a culture.

IMG_8661

Yet it was that shifting of the balance of power that really got him riled up. I believe that’s still true because, remember, evil is predictable. We know statistics tell us that in a couple decades, whites will be the minority in this country. That makes some feel insecure, just like Pharaoh did. It makes some worried. In fact, a large percentage of people who call themselves believers are on record as saying this is a bad thing.

According to 2018 polls,

“Fifty-four percent (of white evangelicals) say the U.S. becoming a majority-non-white nation will be mostly negative and 44 percent say it will be mostly positive.

White evangelicals are the only major religious group to express such worry over the demographic realignment.

Those concerns among white evangelicals also extend to immigrants, refugees, and other international visitors to the U.S.

More than half of white evangelicals (57 percent) say immigrants threaten traditional American custom and values, while 43 percent say immigrants strengthen our society.

Again, white evangelicals are the only religious group in which a majority feel this way.” 

Why? We fear the shift. Like Pharaoh, we don’t have facts to back up this fear. But facts matter little when we can stoke fears until no one really knows where they originated and on what they were based. The feeling takes over. The backdrop was lost long ago.

This, by the way, is what makes it easy to repost those negative stories about black or latino men. It helps us to believe our own fear.

We are still living the lies of Pharaoh. And we haven’t remembered things did not end well for him. God was not on his side.

God moved on the side of the immigrant baby, Moses. God moved on the side of the lower-class midwives, Shiprah and Puah. God moved on the side of a princess who dared to defy a xenophobic decree. God moved on the side of an entire nation that was delivered through the deadly water of the Red Sea by the same immigrant baby, all grown up and ready to do as God called.

Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.

We have the history in front of us in the book of Exodus. Let’s learn from it and be the innovative ones.

More than Enough

yujia-tang-FonWAEN-H-U-unsplash
Photo by Yujia Tang on Unsplash

There’s a story that Captain Cook met aborigine people when he came to Australia and asked what that odd, large grey jumping animal was. He’d never seen anything like it. The story goes that they replied—”kangaroo.” The translator on board ship told them this meant “I don’t know,” and a legend was born. Generations of people have been told that “kangaroo” means “I don’t know.”

This is not, in fact true. But it’s a fun story, and we use it at our house whenever we want to mess with one another, which is fairly often.

There’s a similar Bible story that, unlike this one, is true.

helena-yankovska-QXSvbDkiJmY-unsplash
Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash

What is It?

God and Moses lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and toward the promised land. The process is slow. The story itself is fascinating—far more interesting and nuanced than I have been led to believe by Bible teaching I’ve heard—and it will be a blog post for another day. (Meantime, there’s a five-minute conversation on it here.)

When the people complain that Moses is leading them into starvation and they will all die there in the terrible wilds (the Israelites knew how to do drama), God does something amazing.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Look, I’m going to rain down food from heaven for you. Each day the people can go out and pick up as much food as they need for that day. I will test them in this to see whether or not they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they will gather food, and when they prepare it, there will be twice as much as usual.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the Israelites’ complaints. Now tell them, ‘In the evening you will have meat to eat, and in the morning you will have all the bread you want. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’”

The next morning the area around the camp was wet with dew. When the dew evaporated, a flaky substance as fine as frost blanketed the ground. The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. “What is it?” they asked each other. And Moses told them, “It is the food the Lord has given you to eat. These are the Lord’s instructions: Each household should gather as much as it needs.

So the people of Israel did as they were told. Some gathered a lot, some only a little. But when they measured it out, everyone had just enough. Each family had just what it needed.

Then Moses told them, “Do not keep any of it until morning.” But some of them didn’t listen and kept some of it until morning. But by then it was full of maggots and had a terrible smell. Moses was very angry with them.

After this the people gathered the food morning by morning, each family according to its need. On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much as usual—four quarts for each person instead of two.

(On the Sabbath) They put some aside until morning, just as Moses had commanded. And in the morning the leftover food was wholesome and good, without maggots or odor. 

The Israelites called the food manna. It was white like coriander seed, and it tasted like honey wafers. Exodus 16.4-31

They called it manna—roughly translated—“What is it?”

The thing we need to see right now is something God makes sure we see several times.

Enough Is Enough

Each family had exactly enough.

When they tried to gather more than they needed, it got stinky. When they didn’t believe God would give them all they needed, they chose to gather more, to hoard the manna for themselves, and the results were a mess.

Not only are flies and mold gross, but they could spread disease in the camp. Taking more than one needed was dangerous for everyone.

Look at how beautifully God exceeded their expectations—

  • Food “rained down”
  • There was enough“bread to satisfy,” not just enough
  • He gave “all the bread you want”
  • He “blanketed” the ground with food

These aren’t words of scarcity. They’re words of abundant, gracious, abandoned love that gives for the fun of it, more than we actually need. Yet, I know I distrust, too.

I know I hoard things, Maybe not bread, but certainly other things. Knowledge. Career goals. Time. Plans. As a certified enneagram 5, I believe in my soul that there will never be enough for me to do and try and know all that I want. So I, too, gather more and more, unaware or unbelieving that God has rained goodness down on me, and all I need is to take what I need.

Taking too much leads to an inability to filter, sort, and make use of it all anyway. I feel paralyzed by the choices and can’t see a clear path forward. The things I want get moldy, old, tired, and icky.

This feels particularly relevant at a time when we can’t even find toilet paper on our grocery shelves because some people were certain they wouldn’t have enough if they didn’t take all they could pick up.

Fear and Distrust

What drove the Israelites to gather more than they were told? To not trust God when he said he had enough for all?

Fear. Fear from their days as slaves. Fear that “enough” had never been true and never would be true, unless they looked out for themselves. Fear that couldn’t believe the God who created them and parted the Red Sea but somehow could trust in their own ability to stock the shelves with all the things they didn’t really need in the moment but wanted to make sure no one else had more of.

163DF99F-5A55-4F75-8276-1E759D57BEAE

God sent enough manna for everyone to have what they needed-but some believed they had to have more than they needed, and thus, other had to have less.

God wanted to establish a community of his people who would care more for the community than for themselves. If not, he knew they wouldn’t make it in the difficult challenge of settling the promised land. If they did create a community where each looked out for the other, nothing could stop them.

God Created Community on/for Purpose

That old Garden mandate—forge relationships, be your brother and sister’s keeper—comes back again. It’s almost as if God really meant that.

It’s what God has wanted from the beginning. A people who look at the needs of others as everyone’s needs.

This season of pandemic is proving what happens when fear talks louder than the Word of God. We hoard. We take from others. We choose ourselves and our rights over the vulnerable. Unfortunately, we see people who bear the name of Jesus doing these very things.

We’re all human. We all bear the marks of trauma, especially in this time of rampant fear. God knows that. Yet God offers to rain down on us what we need. Not more than that—but why should we want more than that?

8D91F513-711E-4520-A669-D011FE175219

Take what we need. Leave the extra for another. Give up rights for the sake of a sister in need of protection. These are the building blocks of God’s kingdom people. We might be a people who fear at times—but we are not a people ruled by fear. We are a people beloved by a generous God. And it is enough.

Trusting the Driver

william-bout-Vsf30J-DCm8-unsplash
Photo by William Bout on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

filip-bunkens-R5SrmZPoO40-unsplash
Photo by Filip Bunkens on Unsplash

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

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Can we do that again?”

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

It Means No Worries

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

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

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

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

david-charles-schuett-363769-unsplash
Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

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

Resurrection Life

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

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

A68BA5BA-63FB-421A-8040-F1FE9FDB5409

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared at The Glorious Table.

Missing the Blessing

18671AF3-BB0F-459F-B1B5-D33668E28C5F_1_105_c

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

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

But basically, it’s one word. BLESS.

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

Make me a BLESSING

 

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

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

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

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

Genesis 12.1-3 

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

andrew-stutesman-643239-unsplash
Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

The Nations Are Right Here, Abram

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

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

Spoilers

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

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

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

timothy-eberly-515801-unsplash
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

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

steve-halama-L-Bl7GuDG-w-unsplash

God’s Magic Is the Best

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

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

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

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

anastasia-taioglou-CTivHyiTbFw-unsplash
Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 4.23.23 PM

The God Who Sees

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

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

But notice who does the blessing and who does not.

God comes to her and blesses her.

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

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

163DF99F-5A55-4F75-8276-1E759D57BEAE

Fear is counterproductive to blessing others.

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

Hagar finds it.

The one he refused to bless finds his blessing.

Isn’t God funny?

It makes me wonder about myself.

Wonderings

It makes me wonder about myself.

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

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

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

It makes me wonder about our society.

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

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

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

The Freedom of Blessing

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

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

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

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

IMG_2690

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

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

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

The Freedom of Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mark of Cain

IMG_0181

It’s the end of February, which to me means spring is imminent. OK, I know it isn’t. This is Chicago, after all. I know, in a way no one south of Highway 70 can possibly know, that spring is never imminent and always capricious.

But I’m a gardener, so waiting and hope intermingle here.

Gardening and theology go together like Frodo and Sam, and some of my best theological moments have happened out there amid the snap peas and sunflowers.

We’ve been talking about the Garden and its theology, and how it still matters in our lives today. No story proves that better than the one we’ll explore today.

But first—Recap time:

God gave blessings/commissions in the garden—two important ones that explain and define us in ways we probably don’t realize.

  • The first blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—Live in relationships. It’s not good to be alone. Care for one another. Be responsible for one another. Create community on this earth I’ve made for you.
  • The second blessing/commission God gave in the Garden—work, have purpose, live in partnership of doing good and spreading good on this earth I’ve made for you.

Then, of course, it goes all so wrong. Within one generation, we see the setup for generations to come, including our own. We see it in five angry, dismissive words that haunt us to this day.

mike-castro-demaria-hq0klnwdGFo-unsplash
Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

“Am I my brother’s guardian?”

We know those words. They come from Cain, the first son of Eden. Here’s the story:

Genesis 4.2-16 When they grew up, Abel became a shepherd, while Cain cultivated the ground. When it was time for the harvest, Cain presented some of his crops as a gift to the Lord. Abel also brought a gift—the best portions of the firstborn lambs from his flock. The Lord accepted Abel and his gift, but he did not accept Cain and his gift. This made Cain very angry, and he looked dejected.

“Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain. “Why do you look so dejected? You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master.”

One day Cain suggested to his brother, “Let’s go out into the fields.” And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother, Abel, and killed him.

Afterward the Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother? Where is Abel?”

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”

But the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! Now you are cursed and banished from the ground, which has swallowed your brother’s blood. No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work! From now on you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”

Cain replied to the Lord, “My punishment is too great for me to bear! You have banished me from the land and from your presence; you have made me a homeless wanderer.

You had one job

We don’t know why Cain’s offering fell short. We have no evidence, so any speculation is just that. All we know is that it did, and that God in his kindness gave him a chance to make it right. A chance to choose blessing rather than consequences.

He does not make the right choice.

matt-hardy-55NI4yEAas4-unsplash
Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

Cain kills his brother, and like his father before him, when questioned by God, he deflects. What? I didn’t do anything. Wasn’t my fault, whatever you think happened.

How am I responsible for that other person you put on this planet?

Cain violates the first blessing/commission we are ever given. He denies his blessing of relationship. He refuses to be accountable for the community he’s been given. As a result, he loses all his relationships. He is driven from the land and forced to wander as a landless, rootless nomad. He has no community, when such a rich one had been his to keep.

But he chose to turn away.

What’s a guardian?

The word for guardian, shawmar, means to keep, to guard, to protect, even to save life. It’s a  term of responsibility—the same one God gave Cain’s parents earlier—

Genesis 2.15—The Lord God placed humans in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.

So in answer to your question, Cain, Why yes, it is your one job to guard your brother. To protect and care for, to nurture life. It’s literally the first thing you had to do.

IMG_3448 (2)

He loses family as a result.

About that second blessing . . .

The second blessing, meaningful work, take a huge hit as well. It’s difficult to farm the land when you’re going to roam it constantly. It’s a challenge to produce enough to feed yourself especially when, “No longer will the ground yield good crops for you, no matter how hard you work!”

Work will be too impossible to even hope for meaningful. The scarcity mindset Cain already had—there isn’t enough of God’s blessing to go around—my brother is getting more than I get!—will worsen.

Hasn’t it?

Maybe the actual mark of Cain was a symbol on his forehead, but I think the real mark of Cain can be found in all of us when we’re certain we need to compete with our brother rather than care for him.

The real mark f Cain is in all of us when we're certain we have to compete with our sisters and brothers rather than care for them.

Mommy wars.

  • At least I work/stay at home. I breast feed. I use organic. I co-sleep. I babywear. (Is that a word?) I won’t put my child in a nursery/will have my child to church from day one.*

Where does it end? This is not a competition. But it is. Because Cain taught us all that there’s only so much “good on you” to go around, and we must have our share. “Our share” is always more than hers/his.

No, we don’t. There is enough to go around. There’s more when we decide to be our sister’s guardian rather than her competition.

Popularity wars.

You know it never ended. It’s just escalated to Instagram rather than 7th grade locker notes.

  • Her kids are dressed better than mine.
  • Her vacation is more exciting than mine.
  • Her house is definitely cleaner than mine.
  • Her Bible study habits are even better than mine.

Cain taught us all that someone has to be better—there isn’t any room for both their life and mine to be satisfying.

According to research, girls from a young age already isolate other girls who seem to be too powerful, courageous, or self-assured. They don’t want other girls to have that edge, so they “cut them down to size.” Adult women—have you seen it? I have. Sometimes, we’re the worst at holding back other women.

Cain taught us that if someone else gets ahead, we’er automatically behind.

We’ve been carrying the mark of Cain ever since.

B8A658C1-A614-4492-A7CB-19B53C73B7AB_1_105_c

Think about all that Cain lost in that transaction. We lose it, too. We lose relationships when we decide to compete rather than encourage. We lose the opportunity to work together when we push someone else back in order to move ahead. We lose all the things Cain lost—community and meaningful, cooperative work—when we choose scarcity and competition over being our brother or sister’s guardian.

What would change in our lives if we instead chose the role of shawmar? Keeper, guardian, protector, lifesaver?

It would be so good for us all to leave behind the mark of Cain.

 

*(PSA Insert: The only place this argument is acceptable is “I vaccinate my kid.” For the love of all that’s holy and ALL your brothers and sisters—vaccinate your child. The end.)

Be Transformed

E4B88438-A5C7-4EEE-89D9-65DF16F06F91
Photo by Johan Van Wambeke on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

When the Path Doesn’t Fit

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

80589F63-48FF-45B0-BA02-D62537E92D33
Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

AEA74E8F-F16B-4AF0-A6A6-160E714FAFAD_1_105_c

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

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

Be Transformed

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

AAFB67DE-6610-4913-946F-D4EED7207A7A

God has better plans for me and you.

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

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

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

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

The Angels’ Song (Don’t Be Afraid)

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

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

Don’t be afraid

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

Do not be afraid.

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

Praise him. Be thankful. Rejoice. Remember.

Not exactly cumbersome.

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

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

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

Why be afraid?

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

We have failed him.

We have disappointed him.

We have chosen to run away from him.

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

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

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

nikolas-noonan-fQM8cbGY6iQ-unsplash
Photo by Nikolas Noonan on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you see a pattern here?

david-charles-schuett-363769-unsplash
Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

God is about to do something . . .

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

Fear not really means–do you trust me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have one job

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

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

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

—don’t be afraid.

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

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

Something usually does happen!

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

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

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

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

Oh, those angels know.

The angels sing the finale.

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

They sing the last words before the Word is revealed.

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

But it’s old news to us

We are so used to this angels’ song.

It’s on our Christmas cards and our playlists.

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

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

It means He wants to be with us.

He wants to be with you.

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

He came.

God with us.

That tells everything.

Remember what we learned in Hebrews a while back?

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

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

virgil-cayasa-UWn64Nvnotk-unsplash
Photo by Virgil Cayasa on unsplash.com

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

It’s who God is.

Don’t accept substitutes.

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

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

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

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

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

Five Images of God

Because we’re just returning from a thankful Thanksgiving together, and because chapter three of my thesis is of the devil and allowed me no time to be prepared, today is a rerun of an old favorite, May you feel God in these images.

Images Speak

Words enthrall me. This is not news. I am a lover of words, and words that paint pictures draw me into their world. They may say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my experience, the best words are worth far more than a picture. The best words let us feel them and imagine them on our own.

Words and images intertwine for me. As a lover of the imagery words can create, I get excited about images of God. What images does the Bible give us, what pictures does it paint with its words to show us God in ways that sing to our souls?

And–in keeping with the Live Free Thursday prompt–how does pondering images of God offer rest to our souls? It does to mine, when I think of God as these five things.

Father of lights

43160-533652_4624500284437_1219894898_nOr more literally, Father of the heavenly lights. The maker of the sun, stars, and moon. The creator of mist, fog, and filter that never, ever completely block the light of the sun but only amplify its raw power. The one who said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1.5)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.(James 1.17)

I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8.12)

The Lord is my light and my salvation, so why should I be afraid? (Psalm 27.1)

IMG_9266I love light so much that none of my windows has curtains. To know that the Father of lights has called me into His light that, yes, shows all my flaws and errors for what they are, but does so with the healing precision of a laser surgeon? That’s what it feels like to laugh freely in sunshine and turn my face to its warmth. That’s God.

A hen with her chicks

I watch birds all the time outside my window. I see them, tucking their heads inside their wings to fend off the unholy Chicago winter winds. I worry for them, as I notice a hawk sitting in the tree eying my feeder, waiting for one to stray. I hear the tiny peeps of baby robins when spring nest-building inevitably ends up in the eaves of our porch, and I watch the new parents feeding their young. I know how hens shelter their chicks for protection beneath their own bodies, willing anything to harm them before it reaches their helpless, dependent offspring.

I know how I still would if need be for mine, who are by no means helpless and dependent.

IMG_5296God wills so much more than that for us to run to his protection. He loves so much more strongly. The image of Him folding himself around me, keeping me from myself and my own tendency to stray too far from the safety of his words, brings gratitude. The realization that He did, in fact, put His own body between me and death brings awe.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. (Matthew23.37)

An eagle

IMG_2514

At first, this might look like the same thing as a hen. Both are birds. Both care for their young in these images. But the eagle does something different than the hen. She fights. He soars. An eagle will not simply protect her young passively, but she will take on any enemy that comes near. Also, he will not leave those eaglets in the nest but will force them into fearful, vertigo-inducing flying. Eventually, soaring.

The image of God fighting for me I cannot even fathom. The knowledge that I have no knowledge of all the times he has kept harm from me is humbling. The idea of him then ensuring that I can go out and fight my own battles, that I have been equipped to soar and dive and live freely because he takes me on his wings and lets me feel what it is to fly? It makes me brave, because what other response can I make?

As an eagle that stirs up her nest, that flutters over her young, He spread abroad His wings and He took them, He bore them on His pinions. (Deuteronomy 32.11)

A Teaching Parent

Have you ever taught a child to walk? This image is so potent if you have. You watch them getting ready. They pull themselves up, and you hover near, ready to catch their faltering little bodies. They venture one step, fear and excitement both in their tiny eyes. You watch. You wait. You want to jump up and keep them from crashing down. Sometimes you do, but not always. They know your hands are always there, but they also want to try on their own; you have to let them. And when their sense of adventure wins out and they toddle across the floor, you cheer them on. You encourage, you clap, and you envelop them in a hug at the finish line of their first steps across the room. You know this story if you’ve done it. You will always feel it.

IMG_3200Can you imagine God at that finish line for you? Cheering? Clapping? Screaming, “You’ve got this!” God proves in his story of the prodigal son that he is perfectly willing to be undignified for us when he runs to his son, robes flapping in the breeze. So yes, he screams.

He grieves when we walk the other way. He beams the joy of a parent when we take our steps in the direction he sees best laid out for us, however faltering they may be. God as a teaching parent makes me want to try.

I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. I led Israel along, with my ropes of kindness and love.” (Hosea 11.3-4)

It’s difficult to choose just one more . . . Rock, bread, shepherd, but I will settle on . . .

Potter

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter. We are all formed by your hand. (Isaiah64.8)

He is creating masterpieces. Some of them are more difficult to mold than others. (Oh, don’t I know that.) There are streaks of darkness in the clay where hard things happened, layers of color where dreams interwove. Each creation is different, each one handcrafted perfectly. I cannot begin to grasp the significance of God sitting at a potter’s wheel caring enough about the final testament of my life that he folds in the beautiful and out the muck. Individually. By hand. Again, I am awed, humbled, and grateful.

IMG_6897What images of God speak to you? Which one do you need today to know how much he loves you and is surrounding you right now? I’d love to hear.

Final Instructions

melissa-askew-642466-unsplash
Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Bold Living—Together

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

rawpixel-1054659-unsplash
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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.

Tiny Cracks

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.

tommy-lisbin-223879-unsplash
Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

What are those little cracks?

Bitterness

“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.

toxic

Bitterness  takes hostages, too.

Gossip

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.

IMG_0302

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.

Apathy

“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.

nicolas-hoizey-671418-unsplash

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.