Hi. 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.
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 He hasn’t rescinded the deal.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.
PS– I’d love it if you want to hit the button to subscribe or be put on my mailing list!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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)
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
I’ve got a pop quiz for you. Take out a paper and number it one to ten. No phones. Go.
What is the capital of Alaska?
What year did WW1 end?
What was the official language of Vietnam until 1954?
Who was the 19th president of the US?
When was the Louisiana Purchase made?
What two countries make up the former Rhodesia?
What was the currency of Germany before the European Union?
What countries held the 1956 Olympics?
What state was Custer’s Last Stand in?
When did the War of 1812 begin?
How do you think you did? In case you want to answers, here they are.
Rutherford B Hayes
Zambia and Zimbabwe
Italy and Australia
Making It Stick
The thing is, most of us probably learned many of those answers at some point in our lives. But most of it didn’t stick. We might know the capital of Alaska if we know someone who lives there, or we’re deep into the study of the tundra fox, or we really, really like Jack London. (I don’t. The dog always dies.) Or if you, like me, memorized all the capitals in grade school and strangely retained ALL of that information while still unable to recall what day your spouse said he needed an airport ride.
I don’t know most Olympic cities, but I’ll never forget Kerri Strug or seeing Jesse Owens Allee in Berlin mere weeks after its naming and knowing the stories of courage that went with those names.
Those things stick. Those stories strike something in us when their courage speaks to our hearts.
As anyone who really knows me knows, my New Year’s Eve tradition is watching the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, extended editions, every year. (That’s my idea of a party.) One of the most moving parts in the entire twelve hours or so is Sam’s speech on the ramparts of Osgiliath, explaining why he suddenly comprehends the power of stories.
“Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why . . . But I think I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something…”
It’s those stories that matter—the ones that show us the best, and worst, of ourselves. The ones that point us toward the values we know matter but forget in our daily busyness, where knowing things like the capital of Alaska, or the balance in our bank account and exactly where that $4.19 was spent, appear larger than they ought to.
It’s the big themes, interweaving, becoming complex, challenging my assumptions, and coming out strong that attract me, especially because of, or in spite of, the daily minutiae that clogs our spiritual arteries.
Bible Pop Quiz
I think we often approach the Bible too much like it’s a pop quiz of facts. We believe we’re supposed to know instinctively who begat whom, which gospel harbors the story of Zacchaeus, and what order the minor prophets are in, or that a thing called “minor prophets” exists.
Yet this ends up with a “forest for the trees” form of discipleship—a knowledge of Scripture that might be thorough in its ability to quote chapter and verse but shallow indeed in its ability to sustain faith and life in a windy world.
Scot McKnight believes that, “God did not give us the Bible so we could master him or it but so we could be mastered by it,” and I wonder if that is not closer to what God intended with his word to us. Perhaps the idea of scripture is not so much to know it in minute detail as to know God by and through it, and therefore to know ourselves and our world.
Some research into our discipleship shows a depressing link between our attitudes toward knowing the Bible and our actual ability to grasp it.
Because they know they’ll be told what is important each week, many Christians feel little need to explore the Bible on their own . . . Many Christians believe they are incapable of taking much from the Bible. At the same time, the same Christians tend to believe they know and understand Scripture because they have heard it presented so many times. So these people leave church after a really good speech feeling like their faith has been strengthened. But when they try to put those same ideas into play in the real world, they can’t quite figure out how to do it. They begin to think they are the problem.
The more we hear the Bible, the more we think we know it. The more we realize we don’t know it, the worse we feel about that. The worse we feel, the less we read and know. The cycle continues. People who think they’re the problem don’t tend to have a lot of motivation to overcome the problem. Doug Pagitt, Preaching Reimagined
Maybe we’re reading the room, and the Scriptures, wrong.
A second issue with this focus on learning chapter and verse, and thinking we’ve learned the Bible because we listen to people talk about it, is the tendency for so many of us to choose our doctrines based on those verses we’ve learned or heard. We haven’t learned to read for overarching themes, to search for the big picture ideas, and so we manufacture our beliefs over a twenty-minute span on one or two verses—and subsequently defend them aggressively over coffee and Twitter.
This seems backward.
If we read God’s word ultimately to know God, why do we spend so much more of our time formulating our ideas of what God wants and what we must do and so much less discerning what he’s telling us about who he is?
Learning who he is inevitably leads us to what he wants us to be and do. We cannot see his passion for justice and not do something. We can’t hear his heart for his people and not act. Wecan’t taste and see that he is good without wanting to be good ourselves.
But getting that the other way around never works. Diving into God’s words to come out with a recipe for behavior or doctrine works as well as diving into the ocean and hoping to surface with a fully cooked lobster dinner.
This is my Scripture goal for 2020, and my preaching goal as well. I want to see the forest. I want to walk beneath its shade and experience the whole of it, while certainly looking at the trees themselves. I think it will enhance the enjoyment of and appreciation for their individuality to focus on their common purpose. What are the great themes that hold all of Scripture together? How do they help me to know God by and through them, and therefore to know myself and my world? I’m looking forward to diving in.
In elementary school I had a trick I used to impress friends and others whom I desperately wanted to impress. I would jump into the air and land, on the sidewalk, on my bum, with knees together sideways and feet turned out. It sounds confusing, but it was impressive, trust me. Especially with the sidewalk element—kind of like tightrope walking without a net. I had the shock and awe factor down back in third grade.
In junior high, I won a toe-sucking contest at my best friend’s sleepover. You read that right. I managed to put my big toe in my mouth and keep it there longer than anyone else. Way longer. It wasn’t even difficult.
Do not ask me why we did this. I do not know whose idea it was or why we all complied, like the lemmings most junior high girls are. I only know I won an event that has very few bragging rights, since no one really wants to admit they excelled at a toe-sucking contest. Except, apparently, me. In my defense, it was junior high, and 1) Junior high humans do very, very strange things, plus 2) This was a pretty tame strange thing as far as junior high humans go.
In high school I wanted to be a cheerleader, and I had the required flexibility, obviously, but I lacked the voice. They told me I couldn’t yell loudly enough or project enough energy, and I bristled at that judgment then. Now, I know it was spot on. Who has the energy to yell over trivial things? Not this INFJ/Enneagram 5. Extraverts and 7’s, this is your territory. Be you.
My body told me decades before doctors did that it had some unusual qualities; I just thought they were normal.
Learning I have EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) this past year has been one of the biggest jourenys-you-don’t-want-to-go-on of my life. I love traveling—but not this time. Sure, I’ve had it all my life and didn’t know it. Yes, I’ve been quite fortunate that the symptoms have only forced themselves into my life in the past couple years. Definitely, many, many people have it far worse. Nevertheless, those symptoms are a pain. Literally.
For those unfamiliar, I try to describe it this way. It’s like your joints don’t have brakes. When other peoples’ bodies tell them, “Whoa there, elbow, pull back a little. You’re going too far too fast,” mine don’t. They sit back and think, “Hey, can’t wait to see how far this will go without disaster. Hand me the popcorn.”
Everything goes too far; everything stretches too much; everything hurts. Yoga teachers are impressed. My physical therapist is not.
Most days I fight it. Some days I’m too tired. This is OK.
Often, I struggle because slow is not my groove. I walk fast, work fast, pack my calendar because fast works for me. Except now, walking fast could get my splayed on the ground with an injury, and I walk slowly, watching every sidewalk irregularity and holding on to every stair rail. I have to leave spaces in that datebook, empty whites places where blue ink used to fill, because feet up time is now at least as important as feet on the ground.
It irks me, because it’s not me.
I try to find the grace in the trade-off. And it’s there. This morning, the pink sunrise filtered through the treetops on my way home from dropping my offspring at the train station for work. I got home and wrote a haiku about it. I don’t write poetry. I’m pretty bad at it. Something in the morning told me I could, though, and that something, I think is the time I’ve lost being fast.
It seems antithetical, losing time by being fast. But I have. I‘ve lost the present. I’ve lost the ability to sit with the now and not make plans for the not yet. I’ve squandererthe moments in favor of the days. I’ve said “I don’t have time” so much that I believe it, even though who doesn’t have time for loved ones and silent hugs and sparkling eyes that want to tell you everything going on in their universe?
I’ve lived in the “going to” so much I’ve lost touch with the “is”—the pink of sunrise being combed out by tree fingers in the sky. I’m finding that I like the “is,” and perhaps that’s a gift of this inherited disease. It’s certainly a grace.
That’s one of the reasons my word for 2020 is “Listen.” Followed closely by “Observe.” I loathe passivity, in grammar and in life, but perhaps it’s time to embrace a bit of it. To sit, to watch, to hear, to be present.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 lovingkindnessand 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.
“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.
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.