Final Instructions

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Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

Bold Living—Together

Coming to the end of Hebrews, one might expect the writer of such a epic letter of hope and instruction to wrap up with a flourish. To say something so profound, so inspirational, that generations to come will walk boldly forward in their faith with the words ringing in their ears.

But the writer does not. Strangely, s/he ends rather anti-climactically, with an encouragement and an admonishment to live together well.

“Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.” (Hebrews 12.14-17, NLT)

So, that’s the punch line? The final word? After all this?

Don’t Try This Alone

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

It is. See, the writer knows something Western Christians forget. The final truth is—we can’t do any of the amazing things in chapters 1-11 alone.

Bold Living prioritizes healthy relationships and cares for them with integrity.

The writer knows what looms ahead for these poeple.

  • Things are going to be hard.
  • Stress will threaten to fracture them.
  • Persecution will tempt them to betray one another.
  • Complacency will suck them back into their old life.
  • Some will want to pull up anchor and go.
  • Some will lose their hope and vision.

So this ending. This is how you hang together. Because to paraphrase Ben Franklin, you’ll hang separately otherwise.

This is maintenance for how to keep the fractures, cracks, and small roots from breaking it all apart. It’s not a sexy ending. But it’s a necessary one.

It’s still true, isn’t it? In marriages, friendships, and churches? If we let the small roots get in, they will crack it wide open.

Tiny Cracks

Lots of stresses from outside still pressures us. Time, competing values, money, other relationships, envy—it all gets in the cracks.

That’s how earthquakes destroy—they don’t break open bedrock. They follow where the weaknesses already are. Where the cracks already exist. Then they widen them and wreak havoc.

Ephesians 4.23 warns us—“Don’t let the devil get a foothold.” I know from experience with rock climbing that a foothold need not be a large thing. It can be a tiny crack. Anything the accuser can leverage and widen to climb into our lives.

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Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

What are those little cracks?

Bitterness

“Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.”

The first sign of trouble in a relationship is always bitterness. Disagreement happens. Disagreements are healthy.  Churches that never disagree are unhealthy places where everyone has to fall in line and no one feels safe.

Marriage that never disagree mean someone isn’t being heard.

If any relationship has no disagreement, there’s a balance of power difference and it’s not a real relationship. We are free, and that means to not be alike.

In every dystopian novel or sci fi movie I’ve ever known, it’s the ones that are all the same we have to be scared of.

But bitterness isn’t healthy disagreement. It’s unhealthy resentment. It’s poison in the cracks. When we see that root, we know trouble is on the way.

  • He should know.
  • I always do all the work in this friendship/church/marriage.
  • How could they not invite me to do that?
  • I’m not appreciated, valued, heard.
  • All our problems are her/his fault.

We tell ourselves these stories until we believe them ourselves.

And then the relationship falls apart, and we blame the other party.

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Bitterness  takes hostages, too.

Gossip

Bitterness becomes gossip as the words in our head become words on our lips. We start to believe our thoughts, and then we tell others. It does as the writer relays—it “corrupts many” as the infection of bitterness spread throughout the body.

  • Please pray for my spouse. You wouldn’t believe what she/he did.
  • I’m not real sure of their parenting skills. How could we help?
  • Do you think the pastor really is doing the best things for us?

The only cure for infection is to get it out. Someone has to go first in honest discussion of what’s happening. Someone has to be willing to lance the wound. Talk about your hurt. Be honest with your needs.

Someone has to pick up the trowel and start patching the cracks.

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If Christ has forgiven us, recreated us, made us witnesses, why not let it be us?

“So stop telling lies (to yourself as well as others). Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.” (Ephesians 4.25)

Then, choose to speak words of life.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4.8)

Perhaps an even bigger tree root, however, is the final one.

Apathy

“Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau.”

We are our brothers and sisters keepers.

Work together. Watch one another. It’s our part in the body to live like a body, helping one another toward holiness. Watching out that no one is left out.

Work at peace and holiness. They don’t just happen. We’re not supposed to be only friendly and fun. We’re supposed to help one another be holy. It’s our deep calling to help one anther cross the finish line. We are given the job of making sure we all are living in God’s grace. It’s a holy calling, this depending on one another.

It requires time and intention to be in one another’s lives—not intrusively like a Pharisee, but completely, like a brother or sister. We in the Western culture are not so good at this. We value our privacy. We idolize our time. We live in our bubbles. Yet I believe that one of the biggest dangers to living in Christ is simply being apathetic toward checking in on one another’s faith.

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My older brother ran cross country in high school. I idolized him, and when he ran, I tried to run along, as far as the track coincided with the observers. I ran, though I couldn’t come close to keeping up, until the finish line. I loved my brother. I wanted to follow him. I wanted to be there when he crossed that line (often first).

I want to be there when my brothers and sisters cross the line. I want to cheer them on. I want to run beside them, pacing them, letting them know I’m there for the whole race, if need be.

That’s the kind of church the writer of Hebrews imagined. That’s what s/he wrote to hold on to. Those were the final instructions, and they were better and more important than we think.

Shaking Things Up

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When I went off to college, they (whoever they is) told us to expect an earthquake anytime. The New Madrid fault hadn’t gone in well over a hundred years. It was due. “They” had all of us midwesterners ready to build quake proof shelters all over campus, except being from Illinois, we had no idea what that even was. Tornadoes we know. Earthquakes, not so much.

Needless to say, we never experienced an earthquake. Missourians haven’t since that time, either. St. Louis remains safe from teetering into the abyss in the foreseeable future, though it remains an active fault.

On a family trip to San Francisco, we stood in an earthquake simulator, however, to see what it would be like. Dizzying, confusing, and yes, terrifying had it been real.

In doing some research on the Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, I discovered an interesting detail. The quake measured an (assumed) 7.9 on the Richter scale and the maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). Shock waves traveled at a rate of 8300 miles per hour.  Over 80% of the city was destroyed by the earthquake and fire.The event displaced over 75% of the population and killed between 700-3000 people. It permanently removed San Francisco as the leading city of the west, replacing it with Los Angeles.

We assume the most destructive element of that quake was the fire or the falling buildings. Nope.

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Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

Most earthquake damage results from strong shaking. Damage caused by landslides, ground failure, or fire account for a small portion of the total. We remember the 1906 earthquake mainly for the fire damage, yet in most places, it was the shaking on already shaky ground that caused the trouble.

You know what area sustained the worst damage? The Bay Area where ground had been reclaimed from the water. Already soft and easily malleable because of its water and sand content, the ground beneath the bay dissolved during the shaking. Bedrock areas held fast. Unstable ground rocked the buildings above it with ferocity.

In other words, bedrock holds. Shifting ground, soft foundations, things humans created and didn’t use for their intended purpose—all these fall away in an intense shaking. What survived the earthquake? Steel buildings on solid ground.

And that is the message of Hebrews 12.

“You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’

No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.

When God spoke from Mount Sinai his voice shook the earth, but now he makes another promise: ‘Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.’ This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe.”

God tells the Hebrews—I’m going to shake things up. In fact, I’m going to shake all of creation until it’s shaken back into order. I’ll shake until all the unintended, soft shifting mess is taken away and only the solid, perfect rock remains.

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Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

I remember the giant braided rugs my mom used to have in our living room. Occasionally, we had to take the behemoths outside and give them a good shaking. It took two of us. Dirt had gotten in all the crevices of the braid, and it had to be shaken and beat until the seams released all the mess that shouldn’t have been there. It was a job.

Sometimes things need to be shaken into order. They’ve lost their function. Impurities have gotten in the cracks. They need a good clothesline moment with a broom and a strong arm.

In one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs he suggests that:

“The Lord takes by its corners this old world

And shakes us forward and shakes us free

To run wild with the hope.”

I love that image. One day, the entire world will be set right. Shaken free of its evil and freed with wild hope. I can’t wait for that day.

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But here’s the thing—sometimes He will do the same to you and me, here and now. What needs to be shaken free in our lives so we can run wild with hope?

God’s shaking in our lives signals his desire for us to be what we were meant to be, unencumbered by dust and dirt.

We don’t often perceive a good shaking up in as joyful freedom and hope. We see it through a lens of fear, assuming the worst of anything that upsets our comfortable status quo.

But the Hebrews writer sets us straight on that. S/he explains that we have come to Mount Zion—not Mount Sinai. We’ve come to a joyful gathering. We’ve come as God’s own heirs. We “have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people.”

We have come to hope. To no more fear. To the one who is love and casts out fear. To joy, to the community of his people, to Jesus’ himself speaking for you.

“At the centre of the contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Sion, in fact, is the contrast between a holiness which is terrifying and unapproachable and a holiness which is welcoming, cleansing and healing.” NT Wright

If we think of God’s shaking as scary, we’re thinking in the wrong covenant, living in the wrong testament. We need to reframe the shaking up as a restoration of what was lost. It’s more like panning for gold than tearing us apart.

Holiness on the new mountain no longer a terrifying thing. It’s a new way, a better way, a healing, restoring activity. We should welcome it, be excited about it, work toward it not as if we were afraid but as if we rejoice to belong in that city.

The lesson we learn from San Francisco is that shaking doesn’t harm things that are built on bedrock. It destroys only thing that are built where they shouldn’t have been. Only foundations that are unsound. It’s Jesus’ parable about the house on the rock all over again.

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The warning of Hebrews 12 and the warning of 1906 are the same—be mindful of your foundation. What are you building on? What is the bedrock of your faith? What will happen to that faith when the shaking starts?

Many people who have lost their faith in recent years have stated that it happened because a celebrity pastor, worship leader, or other person whom they trusted turned out to be unworthy of that trust. Their faith rested on a person, and that person wasn’t Jesus. When holiness shook it out, it crumbled.

Others build their foundation on God blessing them—giving them the abundant life He promised. When circumstances reverse and they don’t feel blessed, they no longer feel God, either.

Some build on doctrine, certain that if their answers are right, their faith is solid. Ditto “right behavior.” They go over their mental checklist daily, ensuring that they haven’t missed or compromised anything. Like Javert, their life becomes undone when someone suggests that grace and mercy matter more to a human soul.

Shaking terrifies those who live on foundations they have built themselves with unsteady hands and insufficient knowledge. It doesn’t faze those who know a master craftsman built their foundation, and it will hold.

Our foundation?

“You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness.”

That’s it. That’s enough. That will hold.

When God shakes up our world, he wants us to know that only unshakable things will remain. Our response, so difficult and against the human grain, is “so let us be thankful.”

Because They Promised

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This woman. She’s been my mom for over thirty years. 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.

Ode To the Middle-Aged Mama

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We meet her first when she sends a scathing letter to her son—what JK Rowling terms a “howler.” Ron Weasley’s embarrassment makes us roll our eyes at the overbearing mother who scolds her son for all the world to hear.

Whoa, mama. take a step back.

She sends her youngest son and his best friend Christmas sweaters—enormous seeming wastes of yarn that swathe her children in embarrassment, again. (Let’s not even talk about the Yule robes.) We silently (or not so silently) laugh at the middle-aged woman who would create such things and believe they’re beautiful.

Then, we discover–we don’t know Molly Weasley at all.

Favorite Books and Favorite Heroes

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

While discussing books that have meant something to me, I thought a post on one of my favorite heroines might be fun. Mrs. Weasley. The quintessential mother hen. The character we instantly stereotype—a caring but essentially nonessential woman. What many teenage boys think of their mothers, we suppose. But we agree with that teenage boy, Ron. She’s a good heart, wrapped in mom jeans and irrelevant conversation.

Shows what we know.

Many years after reading Harry Potter, and after a dozen or more movie viewings, I’ve learned why Harry and Hermione don’t, after all, end up together. I’ve come to understand what it is about the Weasleys that draws them both into the family orbit.

It all centers on Molly. It always did.

Molly’s sweaters and letters show us something, if we’re really looking. We see in them, and their creator, a fierce loyalty and love for family that doesn’t care about embarrassment or anything else on its quest for insuring her offspring are safe and good people. Her love and loyalty drive everything—and they know nothing on earth that will intimidate them.

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Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

Harry is drawn to something he’s never known. Hermione Is drawn to what she intentionally gave up (in my vote for saddest scene in all eight movies). There’s something about fierce love and loyalty that cannot help but pull in whatever circles it. It’s a black hole of sorts, but in a positive way.

Love and Loyalty for the Win

“Mrs Weasley threw off her cloak as she ran, freeing her arms. Bellatrix spun on the spot, roaring with laughter at the sight of her new challenger.”

Bellatrix never imagined this middle-aged mama could bring her down. To be fair to Bellatrix, neither did anyone else. We deeply underestimated the lady. We simply never saw what drove her to knit. To bake. To open her home to anyone in need. To risk everything when those “bonus kids” she loved were in deep danger. To bolster her husband’s work in defying evil.

We didn’t see that it was a great work of its own in the fight against evil, those clacking knitting needles and that open guest policy. We didn’t realize that what she really knit together was a web so strong it held and protected so many of the “good guys” we lost count.

I’m pretty sure I whooped too loudly in the theater when she made her heroic stand to protect her daughter. I saw, in that moment, what I should have seen before it. Molly Weasley had been saying, “Not my loved one, bitch” to evil for a very, very long time. And her loved ones were many.

We simply hadn’t noticed.

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Our Story, Too

Isn’t this the story of many middle-aged mamas? Isn’t this why we love her? We feel sometimes so mundane, so overlooked and pointless. Then we see someone who feels as we do about it all—and she doesn’t hold back.

She won’t be irrelevant, and maybe, in that moment, we recognize that we refuse to be as well. We realize we never were.

Women, we are knitting those webs, aren’t we? We’re holding the forces of evil at bay, too, but often in an unnoticed way, and the glory goes to the Harrys and not to the Mollys. It always does.

Yet we keep on knitting

Maybe not literally. I can’t knit to save my life. Yarn skills evade me. But without us, women, where would the fight be?

  • What children would not have been raised who are now the good people we imagined and fought for?
  • What injustices would still be occurring if we hadn’t written that letter or volunteered those hours?
  • Who would still be in despair if we hadn’t opened our ears, our hearts, our homes?
  • What life wouldn’t have been redirected if we hadn’t spoken those words, even in a howler, if the need decreed it?
  • What need wouldn’t have been met without our constant watch at the city gates—bringing casseroles, knitting scarves, cleaning toilets, and yes, protesting on the street corners, telling the truth about sexual abuse, and loving the other?

We underestimated women have known this since Shifra and Puah, since Abigail and Ruth. Too often, we don’t believe in our own power, but God affirms it.

God credits them with the saving of lives, these middle-ages mamas of the Hebrew world. He writes boldly what others overlook. Fierce loyalty and love know no force they fear. They are the specialty of the middle-aged mama.

We’ve been saying, “not my loved one, bitch” to evil for a long time. And the older I get, the more loved ones I accumulate. They come in all colors and languages and creeds, nowadays. Maybe I can’t knit a stitch, but I can expand my reach to hold these new loved ones, too, in a fierce, protecting love. It’s our superpower, women.

God continues to affirm when we women use that superpower, that gift of grace, of love and loyalty to continue the quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) fight.

It all centers on the Molly Weasleys. It always has.

 

Who is one of your favorite heroes? I’d love to hear!

What Do You Want?

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“What do you want?”

It can be a loaded question. Depending on the day and the questioner, we can answer it in a number of ways.

On an average day, my answer would be something like, “a fireplace, lasik surgery, and a trip to the Galápagos Islands.” Minimal needs, really.

What about you?

“What do you want?“ happens to be the first question Jesus asks. What would you say if Jesus asked you that question?

 The following day John was again standing with two of his disciples. As Jesus walked by, John looked at him and declared, “Look! There is the Lamb of God!” When John’s two disciples heard this, they followed Jesus. Jesus looked around and saw them following. “What do you want?” he asked them.

They replied, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” “Come and see,” he said. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon when they went with him to the place where he was staying, and they remained with him the rest of the day. (John 1.36-39)

 

What do you want? It’s such a wide open question for these guys. Literally, he asks, “What are you seeking?” He has good reason to ask. People sought out Jesus for a lot of reasons. Some reasons were better than others. If these two were going to present themselves as disciples (which was essentially what their actions said to Jesus), he wants to know from the outset what motivates them.

Imagine if he asked all of us that before we could follow him.

  • The rich young man’s reasons were all about how he could manipulate the system to be accepted. Jesus tried to get him to reconsider.
  • Simon wanted Israel’s kingdom to come by force. Jesus confronts that interest as limited at best.
  • Nicodemus comes in fear and fascination. Jesus prods him to consider carefully exactly why he’s there.
  • Zaccheus needed salvation—and he got it.
  • Many longed for healing—and they got it, too.
  • Others craved signs and wonders, miracles and circuses. He told them to go look for someone else. He didn’t come to be their sideshow.

All the time his question lingers in the air for all of them—what do you want?

What do we want?

If we’re honest, sometimes our motivations for following Jesus are more about us than about him.

What would you say if he turned around to you and asked—What do you want? What are you looking for?

Andrew and, we guess John, answered with another question. (They caught on quickly.)

“Where are you staying?”

The question was their way of saying, “Where you are, we want to be there also.”

Good answer, gentlemen.

Jesus gives us all the verbs we need when confronted with his question—what do you want?

We want to come, see, and follow.

Come

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“Come” is an invitation to His life. Join me. Walk beside me. Journey with me through this thing called the kingdom of God. Let’s be companions and ultimately friends and brothers and sisters on this trip. Come.

See

When I was eight, the school told my parents I needed glasses. I didn’t think so. I could see just fine. Until the doctor put that first pair of blue cat eye glasses on my face. Then, I could SEE. There were so many beautiful things that had been so hazy for so long I didn’t even realize it.

Come and SEE, for the first time. Look around you and find out what it’s like to have a ringside seat to God’s victory over sin and remaking of the world. It’s way better than the miracle sideshows you want to be content with. CS Lewis said,

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (The Weight of Glory)

Jesus’ invitation is to see what he’s up to—and come along with.

Follow

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I love that just before this in John 1 we hear that Jesus is the word of God in human form. We can study God’s word in his book. And we should. But not to exclusion of studying the Word of God. To follow Jesus is to study God’s word in the flesh.

What are you looking for? Sometimes, honestly, we’re more often looking for rules to follow and laws to memorize than the living Word. We want the newest version of how to live and be good, Phariseeism 2.0, rather than to face the persistent questions of a visible God.

Jesus says, “I’m not your guy for that. I am The Word. Study me.”

Dig in deep. Get your hands dirty. Live with me and live like me. Gospel with me. You’ll see that it’s a verb the more you do it. Jesus didn’t spread good news, he was good news. Following him means we are, too.

Nichole Nordeman sings (in a song that could be my autobiography):

“And you cannot imagine all the places you’ll see Jesus–You’ll find Him everywhere you thought He wasn’t supposed to go. So go!” (Dear Me)

Go. Be the follower ofd the wild, untamed, unreligious, homeless, challenging, demanding, healing, reconciling capital W word of God.

WHAT DO YOU want? If he asked that, what would you say?

It’s the most important answer you might ever make.

It’s Complicated

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Relationships are complicated. My husband and I were friends for a year before we started to date. Before he finally asked, however, we danced around each other for a few weeks in a confused waltz of unclear intentions.

Does he? Does she? Is this happening? Who’s going to go first?

I lost patience before he did. That has not changed in 32 years.

Love Is Complicated

One of the most complicated relationships in the Bible has to be Peter and Jesus.

Peter. oh, dear, crazy, too-much-like-me Peter. He is the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Also, he’s the first one (the only one) Jesus calls Satan.

He’s the first out of the boat when Jesus gives the invitation to walk on water. He’s also the first to say he never knew Jesus. One moment he’ll die for his friend; the next he wants to get on with his life as if Jesus never happened. The Rock of the church starts as a quivering, frightened boy in the upper room.

Peter is a contradictory mess. Like us.

The question Jesus asks him—the last question Jesus asks anyone—matters. It matters perhaps more than any other question Jesus levels at anyone. He levels it at us, all the time.

Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee. This is how it happened. Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples.

Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.”

“We’ll come, too,” they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.

At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. He called out, “Friends, have you caught any fish?”

“No,” they replied.

Then he said, “Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!” So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it.

Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread. (John 21.1-9)

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Once again, Peter is the first in the water. His friends will have to pull in the catch, land the ship, and everything else. He’s gone.

Peter is excited to see Jesus. Then, I imagine that sometime in that water, he begins to remember what he’s repressed. It all comes back. He relives every moment of his denial. The smell of the fire. The particular voice of the woman who asked if he knew Jesus. The sound of Jesus’ being hit and the sight of his face looking back at Peter.

He’s remembering as he swims, and I’m guessing he swims slower and slower, wishing he’d stayed in the boat. That long swim in cold water woke the memory of a complicated relationship.

“Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,” Jesus said. So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn.

“Now come and have some breakfast!” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead.

After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him. (John 21.10-15)

My idea of a perfect day is a beautiful morning on the beach with a breakfast that someone else cooks. But there’s a nagging issue. Peter may have avoided being alone with Jesus the first two times he appeared to the disciples. Now, because of his impulsiveness, he can’t.

Jesus takes him aside. Have you ever been in that situation? A boss, teacher, parent, takes you aside? You know it can’t be good?

Peter has disobeyed and disowned Jesus. He definitely expected a different question. A talking to. A pink slip. To be voted off the island.

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Do you love me?

It’s not what he thinks is coming.

He dodges at first. He plays the bold face he has used before, the unique Peter bravado.

Of course, you know I love you. I’m here, right? Do I love you more than these other guys? Hey, I’m the one standing here soaking wet, aren’t I?

Except Jesus isn’t speaking Peter’s language. Jesus’ word for love is agape—a word that means sacrificial love. It’s the highest form of love—one that will give of itself for someone else. It’s Good Samaritan love. It’s Christ’s love for us. It only gives.

But Peter chooses phileo love, not agape. Brotherly, friendly, approving love. It’s like giving Jesus a fist bump rather than an embrace.

Jesus, you’re just alright with me.

Yeah Jesus, I love you. Like a brother, man. Just not one I’ll take a bullet for.

Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

Comparison

The second time, Jesus drops the comparison. That’s an easy dodge.

It’s easy for Peter to compare himself to the rest and feel good.

It’s easy for all of us to find someone who will end up farther down the scale. Someone who gives less, obeys less, messes up more, sins worse.

“Someone else” is an easy place to hide.

Do you love me? I imagine Peter’s assurance came a little slower the second time.

A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”

Fist Bump Love

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The third time, Peter is genuinely hurt. He’s hurt that Jesus comes down to his level of love—he asks only for phileo this time.

Finally, Peter is broken. The third time, he doesn’t give an easy “you know.” He uses words that imply “you have come to know.” Like, you have come to know the real truth about me, Jesus. I’m still the same sinful man you met in a boat once before, catching fish. 

This time, there is no bravado. He simply looks at Jesus, acknowledging what they both know—that his love is weak, and his passions sometimes overtake him.

And that’s where Jesus can begin. Peter thought he was at end—but his admission signals a beginning.

Do you love me? Then follow me. Start over. Grab a new beginning. Take a second chance. Get out of jail free.

Peter loved Jesus in glorious times of walking on water and feeding 5000 and cutting off ears like a hero—but he didn’t love him in the hard, scary, unknown. Agape love is needed there, and it’s much, much harder. It can’t be done alone.

Do you love me? Love is sacrificial. It goes second. Or last.

We are not supposed to ask if we can afford  it or if it fits our calendar or if we like its political  statement before we ask, do I love him?

Love is not comfortable. It’s hard sometimes. Love goes beyond waving palm branches in glory and sometimes has to march to the cross.

Love goes beyond sending cards to crying with others.

Love goes beyond thoughts and prayers to sacrificing for others.

It’s the difference between fist bumping and footwashing.

Do you love me?

Our answer isn’t always an exuberant agape yes. It’s usually “you know, Lord.” I do love you. But you know my weakness. I’ll need your help. I thought I could do this on my own. I thought I had what it takes. But I don’t. You know, Lord. You know.

That, says Jesus to Peter and to us, is where we can finally begin.

The Good Stuff

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My husband has worms in the basement. (He also has bees in the backyard and frogs in the dining room. He’s a odd duck, but he’s my odd duck.)

We faithfully save our table scraps and those items in the crisper drawers that have been there ever so slightly too long. (As in, I really can’t identify that green slime, but I believe it was once related to lettuce. Or parsley. It’s a tough call.)

We toss them in the compost bucket by the sink, and he feeds it to the worms. Worms do what worms do, which is basically absorb and poop, and lo and behold, we have beautiful, fine soil to add to our garden beds in the spring.

It’s a strange process, but it works.

Jesus’ story of the soils. We’ve covered the hard soil that refuses to be vulnerable and so never allows others to affect their lives.

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We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

We’ve covered the rocky soil that refuses to commit and so stays shallow, never allowing Jesus to get in and make changes.

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

We’ve covered the weedy soil that refuses to prioritize and cut out some of the clutter.

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

Now, the good stuff. The fertile soil.

“Other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”

Someone had worked to clear that soil! The weeds were cut down and their roots pulled. The rocks were thrown to the side. The soil was tilled and turned and dug deep just waiting for the seed.

That heart was ready for God to get to work.

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Fertile soil is rich and deep. It’s filled with nutrients. It’s been carefully worked so that it’s not too sandy, not too much clay. In our yard, fertile soil doesn’t just happen. We’ve got solid Midwestern clay. Hence, the worms.

It takes buckets of compost, faithfully saved. A watering system that maintains a careful balance in our seasons of drought and regular gullywashers. (If you don’t live in the Midwest, perhaps you don’t know what a gullywasher is. But it is a rainstorm to behold, let me tell you.) It takes weeding and prepping and care—but when it’s ready?

You should see the crops of beans and peppers.

“The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Matthew 13)

A heart that is ready for God to work is a heart filled with life. Is that who we are?

Fertile soil just aches to grow things. It’s its only reason for being. Fertile soil has no interest in hanging out with nothing to show. Fertile hearts have heard and paid attention to Jesus’ story. They respond. They know you have to make growing good things a priority for it to happen. They’ve done the hard work of softening their hearts in vulnerability, deepening their hearts with commitment, and decluttering their hearts for focus. They’re ready for that seed.

But How Much Fruit?

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A funny thing happens at this point in the story. The seed sown on good soil yielded different amounts. That’s the way it works when we open our hearts to God. He knows the maximum we are created to produce, and he asks only that we grow to our own best. It’s pretty great that God isn’t standing there in the field saying, “Hey, you grew way more than that other guy. But you—you are such a failure. You only returned ten times what I gave you. Loser.”

Nope. He doesn’t do that. He rejoices over everyone’s return, no matter how much. He knows what we are designed to do, and his only desire is that we bear the fruit we were made for and make it good. We don’t need to worry about how much. We just need to make that fruit so good people will want to taste it.

In fact, when we start to compare our fruit to the person next to us who had a hundred times return on the seed, you know what happens? Those weeds start coming into our plot of land. The rocks end up back under the soil. All the worries we weeded out come right back in, because we took our focus off of producing good fruit and started to compare how much other people were doing to what we were managing.

God is overjoyed at our return. Not the size of it—the fact of it. He celebrates the people who returned ten times as much exactly the same as he celebrates the ones who returned 100 times. He says the same thing to both—the same thing he says to the servants in another of Jesus’ stories.

“Well done good and faithful servant. Come celebrate with me!” (Matthew 25.23)

The hard soil doesn’t get to celebrate. The rocky soil doesn’t get to celebrate. The weedy soil doesn’t get to celebrate.

The fertile soil celebrates like crazy—all together, all celebrating one another’s return. Because that’s how it works in God’s crazy kingdom. He loves when we rejoice over one another’s wins. He rejoices, too.

So here’s the question, after all this.

Will we take the risk to cultivate our soil, digging deep and plowing up? Will we make the sacrifice to change priorities and seek the kingdom first of all? Will we make the commitment to put those roots deep, coming to God in the every day rather than saving him for emotional highs and lows? Will we rejoice over others’ successes?

Will we love him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind? Will we tell a good story with our life?

Then we’ll bear fruit worth getting excited about.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

How do we tell a good story?

We need to soften our hearts with vulnerability to tell a good story.

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

We need to declutter our hearts with focus to tell a good story.

We need to fill our hearts with life to tell a good story.

Are you ready, in this season of the greatest story of all? We’re celebrating the most epic sacrifice ever, God’s willingness—no, his utmost joy— to put our needs first and come to earth. He’s already told the story. What part in it are we going to play?