Going Deep

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Last week, we began talking about Jesus’ story of the soils. It’s part of a series on Jesus’ stories and how to be good storytellers with out lives. You can read the intro here.

The basic idea is this:

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

More than anything, it seems, people want to tell good stories with their lives. So shouldn’t we want to hear the stories of the one who most people agree was the best at that? I do.

Jesus told his listeners about a farmer who tossed seed around—some on a hard path, some on rocky soil, some amid weeds, and some on good, fertile soil. This week, let’s talk a little about those rocks.

“Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock.”

You can guess what’s going to happen here, right?

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We have a bare spot in our garden, right along the driveway. Every so often, I decide to put a plant there. I shove the transplant spade into the dirt. And it stops, abruptly. Under that bare spot is a slab of rock, not an inch and a half down. I always forget it’s there. But the shovel reminds me with its jolt, and I know I cannot plant anything in that place. It’s roots will never grow deep enough to survive, especially in the dry, tree-root ridden soil along our driveway.

Rocks are not usually conducive for growth. The only things that grow among rocks are small plants that don’t have much for roots. (I know—things with giant taproots do as well—but that’s another theological truism.)

The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. (Matthew 13.20-21)

Shallow Soil Produces a Shallow Story

I have known so many of these people. They react immediately to hearing inspirational messages. They are all in. The emotional high grabs them, and they want to spring up and sign up as God’s right hand, right now.

Then life happens. The heat gets turned up. The high is gone, and life returns to so very . . . normal. I start to hear things like,“That’s not what I signed up for.” “I didn’t expect this.” “Well, God’s not working for me anymore.”

God ends up like a fire alarm in the hallway of their lives—pull in case of emergency, but otherwise, he stays behind the glass.

The ones whose faith lands on rocky soil never develop deep roots.

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Is your heart shallow or deep?

To tell a good story with our lives, we need deep hearts.

A story without depth is boring. If a plotline never gets beyond small demands and low risk, who really wants to read it? Who’s going to option the movie rights on the tale that never embroils its hero in anything interesting?

If Frodo just FedExed the ring to Mordor, no one would care.

The story happens in the difficult moments. Characters are created in the hot sun. When drought hits, we know which people we want to watch until the end.

The ones who have shown depth of heart.

The kingdom of God thrums a heartbeat of deep, messy, thoughtful life. The ones who see the demands, the depth, and then opt out have forfeited the opportunity to grow deep hearts.

I know that choice. It’s tempting to look at the heartbeat of the kingdom and think, “That’s too much. That passion would ask more than I can give. Feeling the things that break Jesus’ heart could break mine. Pull back. Pull back.”

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I made that choice long enough, settling for rocky soil and a heart that went to a certain level and no farther. Then, Jesus forced me to see with his eyes.

What do you see when you get eye to eye with a lonely elderly person? When you visit an addict in the hospital? When you listen to an immigrant or refugee tell her story? When you really get a look at hurricane devastation on an island unable to recover for itself? I know what you see.

You see Jesus looking back. You see yourself in a way you’ve never seen you. And you like it.

Because here’s the thing—we’re created to be more than skin deep. There’s a cost to skating the surface. It seems easier — we’re too busy. Too overwhelmed. Remaining shallow-hearted is survival, that’s all.

But the cost is our soul. Deep hearts are real hearts. Broken hearts are alive.

We need to deepen our hearts with involvement to tell a good story.

What will you risk this week to grow deep?

Telling Great Stories

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What was your favorite story as a child? Mine was Ferdinand the Bull. I didn’t think most people knew about Ferdinand, but he was special to me. Something clicked  between me and a bull who didn’t want to fight—just wanted to smell the flowers. I just wanted to sit under a tree and read a book. Or on the couch. Or in bed, under the blankets late at night. Or anywhere, really.

Leave me alone, and let me live peacefully. Ferdinand found that difficult as a bull intended for the bullring. I found it difficult as the youngest of seven kids.

I knew what it felt like to be different. Can another INFJ raise a hand, here?

As an adult, the stories that have shaped me, not surprisingly, revolve around second chances and grace and the least among us doing great thing. Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Pride and Prejudice. (Also, stories about women who aren’t afraid to say what they mean. And then sometimes have to apologize.)

Stories Change Us

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I will never forget the gut-punch feeling while sitting in a dark theater in December, 2001. My family watched The Fellowship of the Ring roll out on the big screen in Bozeman, Montana. (There was only one big screen in Bozeman.) We were only a couple months out of 9/11. The horror was still raw, the fear still tangible. And then Gandalf said the words I have never been able to shake.

To Frodo’s exhausted, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replied, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

It meant something. It still means something to me—enough to make me write a book and speak to young adults everywhere I can about the wondrous ability of Tolkien’s stories to change us.

Stories mean something. We read them, watch them, are changed by them. From the beginning of humanity, people told stories to connect and to reflect who they were and who they wanted to be.

I’ve been taking some time to preach through Jesus’ stories lately. Because if any stories are going to change us, those ought to.

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Jesus’ Stories Change Everything

Often when we read Jesus’ parables, we read them to extract a moral. What does he want us to do? How should we act? In the words of the rich young man, “What must I do for the kingdom of God?”

What if Jesus wants us to live the story—plot, character, climax, and conflict? What if he wants us to read it like he meant it—like a story, not a morality play? In fact, as a writer, I know the latter is a terrible way to write a story. We dare not tack on a moral at the end or we make it cliche, a trite tale that bashes the reader over the head with our Bible. (It’s kind of the way Christians tend to make movies . . . )

That’s not Jesus’ way.

Jesus drops a story in the listeners’ ears. The he lets them figure it out. He makes them figure it out. Jesus is not a bash-them-over-the-head sort of guy. (Although he has no trouble being a turn-the-tables-over sort of guy. That’s different.)

So what is the purpose of Jesus’ stories? They paint us a picture of life as it should be. His tales hold up a portrait, a landscape really, of the kingdom of God. This is what it looks like, guys. And he asks— Is this the story you want to tell as your own?

Jesus tells stories to help us imagine a world that aligns with how its supposed to be–to help us create our own story and tell it out. We study parables not for the moral of the story but for our story within them. What do they contribute to our tale? And how does out tale fit in God’s great kingdom, of which we are a tiny, tiny part yet still a meaningful one?

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

In Jesus’ “introduction” to his parables, he gives another reason for telling them. To sort out who is truly listening.

That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend.

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. (Matthew 13)

Jesus returns to the ancient shema—the call of God to truly hear and listen. From its beginning in Deuteronomy, the shema asks more of God’s people. They are to listen to his words with open ears and hearts, willing and wanting to respond to God’s words at all times. That’s the meaning behind “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus means don’t simply hear—DO.

So the parables are stories to help us find our place in God’s great story. They are also sifters to see who is really listening. Jesus is preparing to leave his followers, and he needs to know who is in and who is a hanger-on. Not that the hangers-on aren’t welcome, but they aren’t where he’s going to get his team for building the church when he is gone. He’s looking for hearers and doers. And the stories separate the ones who want to work at it from those who want the fireworks and free fish.

Just think about all the people who were Cubs fans last year but not this. That’s the difference, my friends.

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When do we listen, really listen, to stories, as I did in that dark theater sixteen years ago?

We listen to stories when we appreciate our need for them.

I mean, if we’re prepping for a test, and we think we’ve got all the time in the world, or we know more than anyone else, we’re not likely to really listen when the teacher is reviewing. We’re going to be in the corner on Facebook, or doodling in the notebook, or catching a nap. We don’t feel our need for the information.

Jesus didn’t force morals or tell his point straight out because he wanted people to realize their need. We usually only realize that when we’re made to work for it. If it comes easily, we don’t know how much we really need it. When we do realize it, we are really to change. He wanted to force that work. Because—

Good stories change us for the better.

and then—

People who are changed tell good stories.

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That’s the point of the parables. To get us to tell good stories with our lives. We will never do that until we have ears to hear Jesus’ stories and know that they aren’t intended to give us a new law or some behavior to check off but a completely new story arc.

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

We do that when we let the stories sink through our ears and change our very hearts.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

Next week, we will begin looking into some of those stories. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear some of yours.

Also–what was your favorite story as a child? What’s your favorite now?

the Bible in 14 words


Having someone challenge you to think about something you take for granted is annoying. You know this is true. You get asked something like, “Why do you always have the same drink order at Starbucks?” or “Why do you love your spouse?” (two questions of an admittedly different scope), and you just mumble something about “Because it is what it is, and I just do. Why do you have to be so annoying, especially before I’ve had that second caffeine boost?”

Recently, our church leadership and staff have been asked to consider the question– “What is the gospel?” We assume we know. We’ve listened to Billy Graham. We got the bracelet with the colored beads. We know the Romans Road and can traverse it with the best of them. But think about this. 

What do you know? What would you say? Cut away what you assume and take for granted and answer the question like you’ve never heard it. Maybe you haven’t.

What. Is. The. Gospel?

It’s a question I’ve pondered since seminary days, when I told my theology professor I thought salvation had to be toward something good rather than simply away from something bad. He agreed. 

My fellow students looked at me funny. Wasn’t the first or last time. I didn’t know I was thinking outside of the box of orthodox evangelicalism. I had no box for reference—I hadn’t grown up in one like most of these guys had. I only knew they looked at me funny, which, if you know me, you know felt a little bit like a badge of honor.

Yes, it’s broken. My favorite plate. Because people do this.
Break things. We’re good at it.
Now, twenty- and thirty-somethings are daring to say those things I said when I was twenty-something, only now people are listening. Story of my life.

But preach it, sisters and brothers, because we need to go back and ask that question. 

Ask it again and again until we know we’ve left behind our assumptions and boxes and easy three-step answers and are left naked with nothing but the Word of God and open ears.

What is the gospel? Twenty-five words of fewer?(Yeah, “less” is grammatically incorrect. You’ve been lied to your whole life.)

I’m giving it a shot.

God created. Everything. He had a plan for perfect balance and a relationship with humans—His image-bearers. We messed it up by trying to be more than image-bearers–trying for the image itself. We wanted to run the show. We forgot we didn’t create it and didn’t know how to run it. Dumb. Fyi—We still do this.

God sent His image again—Jesus—perfect man and God in one piece. I don’t quite get how either. But he did. Jesus said “I know your lives are broken, and your relationships are broken, and your everything is pretty much broken because that first relationship that all good things come from is broken. I’ll fix it. You didn’t keep your agreement with your Creator, but Ill keep it for you; I’ll die to keep it.

And when I come back (which will blow away ALL your assumptions), I’ll start really shaking things up. I’ll start planning for and expecting the Kingdom that God meant to happen here will happen. Here. Now. And I’ll start giving you the power to help me make it happen, if you believe me.

OK, that was way more than 25 words. Still, three paragraphs is not too bad, when you consider my theology book i school was about four inches wide. So 25 words? How about:

God created. We broke. God loved. He fixed. We love back—we help fix.

Fourteen words. Boom.

I’d love to know your words. How would you explain the gospel? If you are not a believer, how would you explain it? What have you heard people tell you it is? What do or don’t you like of what you’ve heard? I would really love to have that conversation.

(don’t) just do it

It’s risk time again. And as often happens while doing this listening-to-God-life thing, what I thought I’d write about today isn’t what’s hitting the page. The original plan will be here next month, I promise. And it’s a BIG BOOTS adventure, so do stay tuned!

(“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.” AA Milne)

But today, I have to face this Lent thing. I do, because it’s here, and I don’t feel I can ignore it, which is usually the way I handle Lent. And yes, facing Lent is a risk. Because what I’m going to say risks making people mad, which I hate more than waiting in line at the DMV, which you KNOW is serious not-liking.

Thinking about anything that 1—messes with peoples’ traditions, 2—potentially questions their motives, and 3—asks serious questions about God and the crucifixion is going to get real scary real fast.

What I’m going to say is, I don’t get it. I’ve never done it. Never seen any reason to.

Maybe I’m too much of a legalist for Lent observance. If I gave up desserts for Lent for instance, you know the first thing that would follow. Hmmm, if I eat this snickerdoodle at 3:00, is it a dessert or an afternoon snack? If I give up social media—hey, checking my Facebook while sitting in the car waiting to pick up a kid is totally a good use of time. Plus it’s purely for professional purposes.

You get the idea. Give me a rule, and I’ll find the loophole. Make me draw lines in my life of what is OK and what is not OK, and I become a line drawer. I will focus on where those lines are and what the precise definitions are, and it will become all about those lines. Those rules. Those loopholes. Where is Jesus in there?

I’m not seeing it all bringing me closer to Christ during Lent.

What it could manage is dragging me closer to that all-too-human bent toward legalism. Checking off the rules on my wall of what I can and cannot get away with and still be OK with God.

Which is what God begs his people to get away from several times. It’s what I definitely need to stay away from, since I’m good at finding my worth–dare I say salvation?–in my achievements and things checked off on a list. I’ve clawed my way out of legalism, thank you very much. Don’t intend to be hauled back without a fight.

God so does not want me to go there. So why would he want me to observe Lent?

And, here’s the other thing. I see people giving stuff up for Lent, and I usually note one of a few motivations:

1—I’m giving up ________ because it’s tradition. My church does it. I’ve always done it. It would be weird not to do it. To which I think, it’s my Swedish tradition to eat blood sausage and fish balls, but some traditions are meant to die. Quickly.

2—I want to lose weight, and giving up chocolate or ice cream or sugar is a sure-fire way to get rid of ten pounds AND sound really holy doing so. It’s a win-win.

3—When I give up something, I can talk about it on Facebook, so other people can see how holy I am. Unless I’m actually giving up Facebook, which means you’ll have to see how holy I am by my absence. Which does work, in a strange negative-energy sort of way.

And—do I really need to say this?

These are not good reasons.

If I’m giving up, say, chai tea lattes for forty days out of ignorance, personal gain, or pride, not only am I going to be cranky for forty days, but I suspect I will be no closer to Jesus than I was on Fat Tuesday.

The other reason I’ve never practiced Lent is that it’s not supposed to be a one-shot deal. I rebel at the idea that I can think about being like Jesus for only one season. Being like Jesus is supposed to consume my everyday will. Isn’t it flirting with apathy just a little to say I’ll work on this God thing seriously until Easter, and then, well, we’ll see after that?

So help me out here. Why would I do this?

Sigh. I have many friends whom I deeply respect giving up some of these things for Lent. They are not people of apathy or loose motivations. They have reasons. They love God with all their mind and hands and heart and will. I want to figure out those reasons.

So I decided to look into the original purposes of these forty days. There, maybe, I’d find answers for all my whys. The original purpose, apparently, was to prepare the believer–through prayer, repentance, giving, and self-denial. It never says what the believer is being prepared for. And that bothers me, since it look very much like what I have problems with. We don’t know why, but it’s got to be good for us. Like a religious edict to eat your brussels sprouts.

Just do it” is a motto I can get behind when I’m sitting in committee meetings for a couple hours. But in matters of faith practice? Not so much.

But another thing I read catches my attention. “The forty days of Lent was meant to remind us of the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert to prepare for his ministry.” That word ‘prepare’–it comes again. But this time, there’s a reason. A preparation for something. A purpose behind the denial. And here it is—

so Jesus can go out and do what he came to do, with laser-focus on why he’s doing it.

Would that change the way we do Lent?

I doubt that leaving chocolate behind is going to prepare me for loving the world. I don’t believe, in my heart of hearts, that giving up caffeine will give me focus on what matters going forward. What I need, if I’m going to understand and do this Lent thing, is to know what will bring me to a place where I’m more prepared to focus on what God put me here to do and, yes, just do it.

I need a practice toward something rather than a push away.

So, as I think about coming to terms with this Lent, I realize there is something I can do. I can move toward being more like him. I can practice something that will prepare me to love the world. I can focus on his humility and make it as much mine for forty days as I can, hoping it will take hold and last.

That’s the risk I’d ask you to take this Lent. Find your motivation. Be honest about it. Whether or not you’ve ever given up so much as a quarter of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, figure out why or why not. It is risky. You may not like the answer. (Im’ not sure I like mine. But i’m going to do it.) 

It’s always risky to look at Jesus and ask him if you know him well enough to be walking with him through life. It’s scary because–He’ll answer.

What are you moving toward this Lent? What is He preparing you for? Just do that.

Jumping on the Bar

I watched my daughter do something courageous this weekend. Let me explain first–she is a gymnast. Right there, most of you are now saying, “Duh, she did something courageous. She does things on a daily basis I have no intention of ever doing.” Which is true. The only sane adult I’ve ever seen attempt these kinds of moves was my Uncle Jim. But it was the 4th of July, and he was verydrunk, and it was NOT a good idea.

One year ago at her high school championships, she jumped on the uneven parallel bars to do a routine that should have been fairly, well, routine. But it wasn’t. It ended in a fall and a concussion that left her disoriented, weepy, and in pain for two weeks.

She’s been haunted by that fall ever since. She’s relived the feeling every time she even thought about performing that dismount. She hasn’t been able to mentally get past the fear of trying it again.

Fast forward to this weekend. Same competition, same apparatus, even harder dismount. I watch her chalking up, and I know she’s afraid. I know she’s remembering. I know she’s thinking, “What if?” And I watch her unhesitatingly jump anyway.

At that point, her score didn’t matter. Whether or not she stuck the routine didn’t matter. The most important thing she accomplished all day was simply jumping on the bar.

How many of us have fallen on our face off the bar and are terrified to try again? You got fired, or had a business fail. Your marriage fell apart. You alienated yourself from a parent or a friend because you behaved like kind of a jerk. You sent out a manuscript you’d poured your heart into and had it rejected 26 times. Ouch. And now you feel like it’s too late or too scary to try again.

Maybe you can relate to this guy. Remember Peter, the guy who promised to stand by Jesus until the end and then, when the soldiers came, decided that was end enough? Um, yeah, Jesus. That’s far enough; we’re done here; you’re on your own now. He swore on a stack of Bibles he didn’t know his Teacher. Afterward, he was terrified, with good reason, to go back and face the resurrected Jesus. His was a pretty big time failure. So Jesus specifically tells his friends, “Hey, tell Peter I really want to see him.” I want him to try again.

Was the hardest thing Peter ever did to walk on water, start the church, or face martyrdom? No. The hardest thing Peter ever did was go back to Jesus and face down his fear of rejection and failure. It was to resist the temptation to crawl into a box of anonymity and never try that scary thing again.

What’s the scary thing in your life you don’t want to jump back into? Take a few steps toward it today:

  • Live in the present. Whatever happened last year or yesterday is old news. It doesn’t define you today. It can’t hold you.
  • Pinpoint the problem. Exactly what scares you about trying again? Isolate the real source of the fear.
  • Objectively decide how realistic that is. What’s the worst that could happen? Not that you imagine could happen but what could really happen? Will it kill you?
  • Do it anyway. Unless it’s, say, a fear of jumping off a building and you realize that is extremely realistic and a bad idea. But chances are it’s not, and you should just jump onto that bar.


Let me know how it turns out. I’d love to cheer you on in trying again. Just leave a comment about it here.

And yes, that’s my kid. Second place, uneven parallel bars.