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Pushing Grace

Jill1Hi. I’m Jill–writer, speaker, pastor, editor, and what my business card euphemistically refers to as a “grace pusher.” We all push something, and that’s my favorite thing.

I talk about a lot of things on my blog and in my books and articles. But usually, they focus on a few main topics. Breaking through fear (and using it). Doing faith with the next generation (and loving it!). Women as half the church. Kindness in the midst of an unkind world. Using the Bible for wisdom not warfare.  Justice. Freedom. Grace. Always grace.

I’m the kids who refused to step too far into the back yard after dark. The woman who slept with a nightlight when I was twenty. The person who would still rather face a rabid bobcat than walk up to a stranger and begin a conversation. Fear has been a close acquaintance of mine. After a few very rough years, however, I decided it wasn’t the boss of me. Fear has only the power you give it–and I wasn’t giving it anymore.

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_”

Yes–there is God, telling me to live “adventurously expectant.” To look at each day and ask, “What’s next?” Even on the days when I fear what might, in fact, be next.

“Fear not” may be the most common command in the Bible, but fear is also perhaps the most common human emotion. It’s certainly been driving a lot of our national conversation, too.

I don’t want to live life as a grave-tender, so wrapped in fear of what might be that I lose the time in between. Grave tenders may live safely–there isn’t much to fear when you’re keeping up a nice, neat backdrop for dead things. They don’t demand a lot of change. But living among dead things isn’t living at all. The abundant life Jesus promised isn’t safe, but it is an adventure, if we’re willing to leave dead things behind.

I want to live an adventure for God’s kingdom, and I want to do it with you. I want to know who I am, and I want you to know who you are, because of who He is.

I want us both to know the identity God planted in us when he chose to give humans his image. That imago dei, straight outta the garden, is still there. He hasn’t rescinded the deal. He made you and me his ambassadors–shining his image in difficult, dark places. Just like my scary old back yard, only sometimes darker.

I want to see you and hear you and know you–and I want you to know He already sees and hears and knows you. If you’re tending a grave, he wants to pull you out of there into life.

So, let’s join one another. I can’t wait to see what happens here.

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PS– I’d love it if you want to hit the button to subscribe or be put on my mailing list!

*I also write occasionally for Christianity Today publications, MOPS, (in)courage, A Fine Parent, and others, as well as blog regularly for Theology Mix and The Glorious Table. If you would like to view recent articles, go to my Media page.

Missing the Blessing

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

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

But basically, it’s one word. BLESS.

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

Make me a BLESSING

 

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

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

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

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

Genesis 12.1-3 

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

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Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

The Nations Are Right Here, Abram

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

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

Spoilers

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

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

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

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

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

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God’s Magic Is the Best

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

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

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

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The God Who Sees

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

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

But notice who does the blessing and who does not.

God comes to her and blesses her.

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

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

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Fear is counterproductive to blessing others.

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

Hagar finds it.

The one he refused to bless finds his blessing.

Isn’t God funny?

It makes me wonder about myself.

Wonderings

It makes me wonder about myself.

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

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

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

It makes me wonder about our society.

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

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

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

The Freedom of Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Freedom of Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mark of Cain

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

Changes

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

My dear subscribers, supporters, and otherwise wonderful people who accost me in public places and tell me how much you love this blog (and I love that—don’t stop):

I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing and other goals, what’s being accomplished through this blog, and how God wants me to serve him. On the tail end of finally, I hope, completing my doctorate, I’m having to think about why I did this degree and where I’m going from here. I’m seeing the need to tetris my time and life in ways that I know are going to be more useful going forward.

See, despite folks who believe this:

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pastors are not paid well. (At least most of them—I know there are exceptions, and I’m surprised by them as well.) Writers, in an age of free everything, are not either. This is particularly true in the Christian world, where many people honestly believe that we should give away our thoughts and words for free “because Jesus.” (I’ve not seen them giving away their plumbing skills or surgeries or braces or carpentry for free “because Jesus,” but apparently I am missing something.)

The “because Jesus” appropriation of intellectual or artistic property is astounding, really. It’s just not OK. I love my subscribers, and I love writing for you for free, and I hope you love it, too. That’s not going to change. However, I have to make some adjustments to make this a viable gig.

Many writers are going the route of paid subscriptions. I’ve just decided to go a different way—I’m going to blog less and write for pay more. It’s simple bookkeeping, and this is reality. Still the same blog, still the same free content, just not every week.

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Having spent the better part of four years working on a doctorate and writing a dissertation, I haven’t had much time to write articles or books. I’d like to change that now that I’m seeing the degree tunnel coming to an end. But—I still need to free up more time and not sacrifice the church God has called me to serve. 

So here’s the plan going forward—twice a month rather than every week, you will still see me in your inbox at 8am on Mondays. I hope it’s a good way to start the week. During the other times, I hope to be writing pieces that I will share links to on my blog as they are published.

So since time and space will be more limited, I’d like to ask you to help me plan this in the future. Can you tell me what you like best? What topics do you really want to read about? What kinds of ideas would make you say—hey I not only want to read that but I want to share it? Some of the topics I’ve covered:

Bible explanations and study

Parenting

Social justice issues

Memoir/personal experience

Personal/spiritual development

Leadership

Women’s issues

Theology

I know there are more. I’m a bit eclectic. Can you help me out by choosing the topics you most appreciate, or making suggestions? Maybe there have been particular posts that you’ve loved, and you realize you want more of that. I want to know I’m hitting the mark for you loyal folks before anything else.

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Photo by Ricardo Arce on Unsplash

You can comment below or email me directly by replying to this blog.

Another way you could really help me trying to move toward writing more is to follow my social media accounts and share what you like. As you can see on this page, I have an author Facebook page, as well as twitter and instagram accounts. (Even LinkedIn, though, let’s be real, I never monitor that, particularly since I’ve got an inbox there right now filled with people who are certain they can help me with whatever my business needs are or who are certain I can help with theirs, again, for free.) Also, if you’re really into clicking buttons, Goodreads and Pinterest.

Thanks for your patience, and I’m truly looking forward to your feedback.

Jill

Redeeming Our Work

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Swinging open the kitchen door, I almost swung back out again. A skillet flew past my nose, and an answering saucepan flew a few feet farther in, lower and slower. The older brother had worse aim.

The two sons of the resort owner were fighting in the kitchen. Again. My first thought was to turn around; my second was that I had to get through this to pick up my order and get it out to the table warm. I ducked and ran. I was small and fast, and I needed the tip.

Though the volatile kitchen at the resort scared me, it was better than the summer I spent working at Long John Silver. Tips were good, when the diners were sober. At least there were no fryer burns involved.

Working my way thorough high school and then college meant restaurant work every summer—the only option in our small blue collar town.

I hated restaurant work.

Why don’t we like our jobs?

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Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

Less than fifty percent of Americans like their job. In our continuing discussion about the Garden, the Fall, and other words important enough to merit capitalization for theological purposes, work matters from the very beginning. Like relationships, it inherits one of the greatest consequences of sin. The two things we most often find our identity in—family and career—are dealt the greatest post-Eden blows. Funny that, huh?

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3)

Humans not only don’t like their work, they appear to be destined to that dislike. Most of us are far removed from a life of sweating and digging for our food, but the reality remains—if you want to eat, you need to work. And work, according to over fifty percent of us, is disappointing.

Why?

Work sometimes merits this dislike

There are, to be sure, rotten aspects of he current state of work in America. Young people, even with college educations, often cannot find jobs that offer them longevity, health care, or a fit with their actual area of study. The gig economy hits them the hardest, and not surprisingly, they more often consider their jobs to be bad ones than older workers do.

Racial and gender bias cause minority and female populations to be more dissatisfied as well, given that they do the same work for less pay and are hired less often based on their skin color or gender.

Dead end jobs haunt us more than they used to when people could expect to climb the corporate ladder and move steadily upward.

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Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

More people want and expect their work to mean something, not just put in time. That’s not a bad thing for a Kingdom-minded person to want and expect.

These are valid reasons to hate a job. I will not discount them with condescending statements like, “When I was your age,” “Just pay your dues,” or “Be happy you’ve got a job.”

We all long for our work to mean something, and there’s a reason for that.

Work as blessing

The first work was part of the first blessing, just as family and community were.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis1.28-31)

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Work for the first humans meant joy. God created the Garden as a temple of sorts, sacred space where we could live with him and do what fulfilled our purpose. Work served as an extension of our being, a way of living in God’s likeness. Take this land. Reign over it as I would. Tame the animals. Spread this good garden over the earth. Be as I would be in this place, and it will give you meaning.

Ruining that first relationship ruined our work, too. It’s been a battle since to find that meaning again.

Work redeemed

Yet if Christ came, as mentioned last week, to renew all things, work, the first thing humans were set to do, must be among those things. Renewal and restoration of our work life must also be part of the promise. But how?

I think it goes back to looking at that original and doing some detective work. What about it can we take away to find the blessing in our work?

The original blessing of work

First, God meant work to be a a partnership. Adam and Eve both received the commission to reign. They both heard the word to create a people who would work together to form the garden in the world.

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Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Yet so much of our work today is done in solitude, or at least in self-imposed loneliness. We’re stuck in our cubicles, not considering that work could be more of a blessing if it was more of a community. But those boogeymen we talked about last week—fear and shame and pride and power—stick their noses up in the workplace as well.

  • We’re afraid to cooperate with others because they might steal our promotion.
  • We’re worried our ideas might get shot down and we’ll be ashamed, so we don’t offer them.
  • We’re intent on consolidating our own power and position and leverage so much that we miss the opportunities to listen and learn from others.
  • We’re fearful that there won’t be enough room at the table for us, too, if others succeed, and that scarcity mindset sends us into a spiral of self-fulfilling insecurity.

Second, work was done in the garden for the fellowship with God. That we could relate to God while we’re working seems foreign to most of our thoughts. Even more foreign, maybe, is the idea of bussing the table, typing the memo, or changing the diaper for His glory.

We’ve divorced God’s original intent and linked work to success, money, power, dreams—with the result that our identity is linked to our success and happiness and not our relationship with God.

Third, God intended work to spread blessing in the beginning. Does our work do that? How could we make it so?

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Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Now what?

Some of our jobs truly do stink. I can’t deny that. Yet in the middle of them, it seems we could still look at these three parts of the original plan and find a way to redeem them. Even as we plan and hope and pray for better.

  • If the work seems meaningless, maybe the purpose is to bless rather than be blessed.
  • If the work is boring, maybe the plan is to ask God into it, practicing his presence, as Brother Lawrence would say.
  • If the work feels lonely, maybe God meant for us to focus on supporting others’ work, refusing to believe the lie of scarcity, partnering with others outside of our tiny workspace.

It’s like evil to aim at the things most dear to our hearts and minds—family and work. It’s like Jesus to take them back for us and give us back the garden offer.

He can make work very good again.

God’s Good Plan for Relationships

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Photo by Arjun Kapoor on Unsplash

If you’ve heard me speak, you know one of my “things” when I talk to parents is natural consequences. Not that I was too great at this as a parent. I’m a 5w4 Enneagram, and that 4 kicked in pretty tight when one of my kids wanted empathy for a situation she had gotten her own self into.

I enabled just a little more than I ought to have. Because that’s what happens when you feel every feeling your kid does. It’s kind of a handicap in this parenting gig.

Some of us teach from what we’re brilliant at—some of us teach from our mistakes. At least I learned from them and I’m willing to share that knowledge bountifully.

You can be like God–How’s that working for you?

As we talked about creation a couple weeks ago, we all know “the rest of the story.” The world didn’t remain a place of wonder and joy. It still is—we just have to look harder and be intentional about finding it.

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The gloriously created humans chose being god rather than being like God. The serpent offered the latter—a cruel twist of the reality that this was precisely what we already were—images of God like him. (Read the story here.)

But humans understood the real offer on the table—we could be the ones in charge. We could make the rules. We didn’t want to settle for being like God—we wanted his job description.

It’s the consequences of that choice that I’ve been delving into lately, connecting all the dots of what happened in the Garden and why it matters so deeply to us even now.

Because it really, really does matter. Just hold tight to see why.

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The first consequence: Relationships

To the woman he said,“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3.16)

The first consequence of sin is that our most precious relationships—spouse and children—will suffer rupture and pain. It’s no coincidence that the first blessing and commission God gave also revolved around our most important relationships.

“Be fruitful and increase in number.”

As soon as God created humans, he gave them their first job—create community. Glory in your relationships. Fill this world with fellow images who will all be partners in this great task of caretaking creation.

Have beautiful, fulfilling, supportive relationships.

That was the first thing to go after sin showed its colors.

Pain and Love

Family is one of the strongest ways in which we gain our identity—and ever since the Fall we’ve been craving that identity and looking for it again—sadly, often in wrong places. As God predicted (NOT mandated as some think), women in particular look for it in relationships.

The pain happens not only in childbirth—the Hebrew is greater than that tiny translation. It means the pain we feel in all aspects of this relationship—childbirth and all it entails, fear of losing a child (before or after birth), grief at not being able to conceive a child, nagging worry over that child when she is out of your sight, the eventual realization that she will not be yours forever and will have her own separate life where you are not number one.

It’s all there in that small phrase—sin entwined in our relationships makes them painful sometimes, even the best ones.

Love before the Fall meant perfect partnership and joy in one another’s presence, untainted by fear or shame. In this new world outside the garden, to love anything is to discover pain beyond anything a person has ever known, and that is both good and bad. If we know God and trust him, we embrace the pain, knowing that the love is worth it every time.

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Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Power Struggles and Love

The same pain enters relationships between men and women, where women inevitably lose the power match that ensues when pride becomes our go to. We desire a relationship—but it is that strong desire, that need we see in women too often to recreate themselves in order to meet a man’s approval—that results in his power over her.

As a a pastor, I’ve seen it so many times. A woman who will do anything, make herself whatever she has to, sacrifice her own identity and calling, even submit to abuse, so that a man will say he loves her. It’s crushing, and it starts here in the aftermath of sin.

God did not declare this good. Remember his pronouncement after he created humans in Genesis 1? For the first time, he called creation very good, not simply good. Humans, created equal partners in their new world, merited the label—very good.

This other thing—this inequality and ruling over by men or husbands—this is NOT what God planned or wanted. It’s still not what he wants. Creation clearly offers a picture of very good partnership—and unequal relationships are a result of a prideful attempt to be God, not God’s chosen order.

Pride and power—and their twin siblings shame and fear—have been a part of human existence since the first sin, and they are potent drugs.

Re-Creation

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Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Thankfully, that is not the end of our story. Christ came to make all things new. ALL things. The original blessing of God—create community and form healthy relationships—may have been horribly distorted by sin, but sin is no match for the risen Lord. He came to restore our original blessing.

The relevant question for us, then, is—

how are we doing at working out God’s original desire for human relationships?

Are we allowing Christ to work in our lives so that what God intended shines out of our most important relationships? We don’t have to be married or have children to have important relationships. That is not the point.

Pride and power—and their twin siblings shame and fear—have been a part of human existence since the first sin, and they are potent drugs.

In our marriages, parenting, friendships, sibling relationships, work relationships, etc., where are we quashing pride and power? Where are re refusing to surrender to shame and fear?

  • Fear breeds manipulation, as we tighten our control of a relationship in order to feel secure. Are we repenting of manipulation and sending it packing? Women, do we embrace the joke that tells us, “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck and she can turn the head any way she wants”? I know, it was funny in the movie, but that’s manipulation, and it has no place in a healthy relationship. Let’s be better than that.
  • Are we learning to tell the truth about our needs and wants, not allowing fear to get its foot in the already-fragile cracks in our souls? Do we tell the shaming words, “you’re not worth it” to get lost, knowing we are worth it if God created an entire cosmos for our enjoyment?
  • In marriage, do we refuse to separate our possessions, our money, our time, and our priorities into “yours” and “mine,” realizing that God’s plan was complete partnership, oneness, not fearful hoarding of “mine”?
  • Partnership means support of one another’s dreams, callings, highs and lows. That could be a spouse, a child, a co-worker, a friend. How are we doing at eliminating the fear and pride that tempts us to envy another’s success rather than cheer it? At pushing out the shame that keeps us from fully supporting someone else, even when we feel like failures? At honestly talking those things through?
  • How are we doing at smashing the patriarchy that harms both women and men through its power and shame? Oh, that’s another very long post . . .

God’s “very good” proclamation came only for humans created to partner with one another to fill this world with relationships that copied his way of relating—without fear, pride, shame, or power struggles. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if Christians chose to live in his image on those terms in this wildly selfish world?

It would be very good, once again.

Because They Promised

I know this post ran for the first time not quite a year ago. But as we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I think it needs to run again.  Because my friends, this is love. Don’t believe all the Hallmark-moment stuff. Especially don’t believe all the Insta posts and viral videos  trying to convince you that love means a flashy proposal, a giant diamond, or a wedding that costs the average GNP of a small European country.

That is NOT love. That’s branding your relationship. A marriage is not a brand.

A marriage is this. The inevitable happened since this first ran–we did lose this wonderful woman. We will not recover.

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This woman. She was my mom for over thirty years. Nearly twice as long as my actual mother was. I’ve called her mom since the day I married her son. Easier, I suppose, since I no longer had one. We’ve been very different people for those thirty-some years, except in our mutual fierce love of our children. I know she didn’t understand me in the beginning or, really, for quite a while.

But she loved me. It didn’t matter. Honestly, when your son marries a 23-year-old who knows a lot about Shakespeare but not about life, you can assume she won’t even understand herself for a good many years.

Kneeling by her bed and crying last week, I listened to her soft voice, almost inaudible from dehydration, tell me those things we seem to only tell when we know we have limited time to speak them. I heard, “You’re one of my girls. You’re my daughter.” And I will treasure those words for as long as I have my own breath.

She deserves her loved ones around her, fiercely protecting her this time, and she has them. Children and grandchildren, being the loving humans she taught them to be. I see her nearest granddaughter drop by regularly, her grandson sitting at her side whispering kind words. I watch my own daughters paint her toenails, hold her hands, and caress her hair.

I am undone by this.

It’s the hard work of 85 years to have family like that. There is a legacy that will remain a thing of beauty long after breaths are taken and heartbeats cease.

I’ve never walked with someone at the end of life. I’ve lost a lot of people. Both parents and two sisters. But they all were there one moment and gone the next. No preparation. No ability to say all the things that need to be said and hear all the things that need to be heard. No time to process all the feelings that come with this downhill walk, and no choice in whether you want to make it.

I do want to.

I had this discussion with my daughter recently about our two cats that passed. One quickly and with no warning, the other with a diagnosis a few months before. Which was worse, saying a sudden, unwanted goodbye, or dragging through the daily hurt of watching it happen and being helpless? We mourned out kitties—we loved them so, and two in quick succession was too much. We both knew we were talking about more than the cats. We both agreed warning was better.

Yet we don’t know how to take this slow walk down the hill, a quicker walk than we had hoped, really. We don’t know when to laugh, when to cry, and we’re figuring out that both are OK, and they happen when they happen. We hate the tug-of-war between our lives here, jobs that demand us, lives that need living, and our longing to be there, sharing every minute we can. We don’t how to dance that choreography, and we realize no one does.

And what of this man? He’s walked beside her for over sixty years. When I tell him he’s a good man and a great husband, he merely says, “Well, it was all in those vows.” Indeed it was, but I’ve seldom seen anyone live his promises so well. He knows that a man’s promise is where his character is determined. But I don’t think he’s thought that—he’s simply done it.

I know this is supposed to be a series on young peoples’ voices. But these words needed to be said. Maybe these words need to be said to young people, not by them. I know marriage isn’t so popular anymore. I know suspicion of institutions leave the next generation wondering if it’s worth the risk. Commitment is frightening, and there are no guarantees. If there’s anything we have taught the next generation, it’s that they should always demand guarantees. Never try anything that isn’t sure to succeed.

Silly us. Why? That was such a foolish lesson. These are the lessons we needed to teach. The lessons of time. Long-haul belief in the family you’ve created. Faith that others will cling to after you’re gone. Love regardless of comprehension. Commitment to people who change, hurt, and confuse you, because they’re your people, and we keep hold of our peoples’ hands. Even, especially, when they have no idea where they’re going.

I’m glad she knows well where’s she’s going.

Men who delicately wipe their spouse’s forehead and hold her hand and walk with her through the pain of loss. Because they promised to. 

If only we had taught you that, rather than “success.” Because that right there is what success looks like. Like my mom and dad.

The Wonder of Creating

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Photo by Sabine Ojeil on Unsplash

On a side street in Seattle, one of those streets filled with artsy shops and lined with glass sculptures that look like Willy Wonka has been there, in other words, a street made just for me, we watched artisans create miracles out of blobs of molten amber glass.

The Fascination of Creation

They shoved the golden blobs into the furnace on the end of poles, waited for just the right temperature, and pulled them out. Quickly, before the glass could cool, they pulled and trimmed and twisted it, until we could see four legs and a neck begin to form. A long nose appeared out of nowhere, then a mane and a tail, flowing wildly in the imagined wind. Finally, we saw the horse the artist intended from the beginning, though all we could see at first was a lump of glass.

Sometimes they broke a leg pulling it too far, or the mane didn’t flow the way they wanted it to, or it wouldn’t balance on those magnificent back two legs, pawing into the air. They would thrust it back into the flame, beginning again, intent on making that horse exactly as they had planned it.

We were fascinated. 

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Photo by eddie howell on Unsplash

Creation is fascinating. Creation out of nothing is miraculous. Creation with an intentional plan is . . . it’s an act of God.

At church, we’ve started working all the way through the Bible. The Creation story is familiar to us. Like Goodnight Moon, we could recite it with little effort. If not word for word, we know the idea, and we imagine there is little more to glean from it than what we know—God created everything. The Garden of Eden was awesome. The end.

There is so much more.

Look at some of the first few words.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1.3)

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Photo by Dmitry Bayer on Unsplash

“God said.” We never see God forming anything until humans. Always, God simply speaks, and whatever he wants to happen does.

I wish I had that power over, say, making dinner.

God’s word is enough to accomplish his intentions. This was true at creation. It was true when Jesus spoke to the Roman centurion about healing his servant. It’s equally true now. Nothing stands in the way of a God intent in creating blessing and beauty.

“The Spirit of God was moving over the waters.”

God moved. You know when you hear the words God’s Spirit moved, something is going to happen. This, too, is true today; it’s not a nice little fact of creation alone. When God moves, something is going to happen. Something big.

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Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

“In the beginning.” 

These first three words of Scripture, according to Old Testament expert John Walton, have a rich meaning we don’t get from knowing the meaning of those three words individually. It’s a phrase used to talk about plays and orchestras and the reign of kings. It’s a prelude—the time leading up to the big deal that’s coming.

In this case, it leads to the reign of kings indeed—the kings God is planning to create as the crown to his work. All of creation leads up to this—it’s the soliloquy before the play starts, the overture before the curtain opens, the bridesmaids walking down the aisle before the music swells and the bride steps out.

Why Order?

We see God creating morning and evening, concepts of time he doesn’t require in eternity. He fashions sun and moon, the ebb and flow of tides, the barriers between sky and sea and land. He forms flowers and trees and hyenas and platypuses and walking sticks—all, it says, reproducing “according to its own kind.”

What does all this mean? It means God knows how to craft a blown glass horse. He doesn’t need time in his eternity—but we do. He doesn’t need wheat that reliably reproduces wheat, not marigolds,  and cows that systematically reproduce cows, not jackals. But we do. It doesn’t matter to him if the ocean overtakes the land, but it matters to us.

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Photo by Vadim L on Unsplash

God, like the craftspersons in Seattle, knew exactly what he wanted the end to look like, and he would not settle for less. He may have begun with a blob, but he always had in his mind what that blob would become.

What blows my mind is that what was in his mind was to create a universe perfectly suited to us. We were the finale he had in mind. We were the denouement of the play. We were the kings meant to begin our reign.

He was pulling and twisting and turning a chaotic, empty universe into a masterpiece—with giving it to us in mind.

The intentionality of the creation astounds me. The beneficiaries of it outright slay me. Yes, we could get proud at the notion that the creation is for us—and we could abuse it and use it selfishly and carelessly. We could think we must be something else if God put in so much effort to bless us.

Or we could fall on our faces in wonder and humble awe that he would do such a thing for beings who would never deserve that gift.

God still creates order out of the chaos of our universe. God still speaks; God still moves; and God still fashions order in our lives, if we choose it. Often, like Adam and Eve, we opt to be our own god, but this leads to a chaotic, formless existence, as it did before God gave us order.

Rich Mullins had a song called With the Wonder, and I wish I could quote it all for you here, but copyright. (Which I deeply respect, given I live off it.) He sings about a God who filled with world with sights and sounds and concludes—“you filled this world with wonders, and I’m filled with the wonder your world.”

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Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

I’m filled with it, too. I’m filled with the wonder that its intentionality, its craftsmanship, came out from a master craftsman because he wanted to gift us with Swiss railroad-like precision, where every created thing has its purpose and plan. That we threw a spike in that perfect cog of order doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it and work with him to re-create it.

Read Genesis 1 today. Marvel in its craft. Stand, or kneel, in awe of its intentionality. Then thank God for his wonder-filled gift.

Amen.