Learning to Believe

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Apologetics was fashionable in the 80’s, and I was nothing if not fashionable. OK, I was never fashionable. Not one day of my college career, most likely. But when you’re surrounded by Izods and boat shoes, and you’re a Laura Ashley kind of girl, it’s just never going to happen.

Trained as a high school debater, I found my psychological home in apologetics. I soaked in the books handed to me by InterVarsity leaders like Know What You Believe and it’s younger brother, Know Why You Believe.

But One Remained

The one that caught and kept me, though, could only have come from the pen of CS Lewis. Mere Christianity.

Two years ago, I bought a copy of it, older than the one I still had from college, at an Antiquarian Book Sale. It’s eggshell cover, sheathed in plastic so that it did not become as brittle as shell, bore no modern photoshop or multi-color printing, only blue pin-striping and a title. It was austere. Plain. Speaking to me of a faith that Lewis didn’t embellish either but embraced for its straightforward truth to him, not its smoke and mirrors.

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Magdalen College, Oxford

I didn’t know what I had subscribed to when I walked that church aisle two years prior. Lewis told me. Logically. Honestly. The way I liked to be told things that mattered.

My new faith could coexist with my intellect. One of the greatest minds of the century knew this, so why should I doubt it? I devoured Lewis’ arguments for belief, digesting them like the meat Paul says our souls were made to crave.

You Can Be Smart and Still Believe

Lewis confronted me with the honest reality of my willfulness and the stunning equal reality of God’s intent for me.

“..fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”

“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.”

He wrestled with me over the ways my culture told me the horrible truth about humans could be “fixed.”

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

He explained Jesus in a way that appeared utterly sensible to my logic-craving mind.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

He told me of the yearning I thought only I knew, the ache to belong somewhere I had never known.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

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The pulpit from which Lewis preached “The Weight of Glory” in Oxford.

And There Were Others

It wouldn’t be the only time Lewis challenged my assumptions. The Great Divorce forced new thoughts on hell and heaven and all that might fall in the grey space in between. If God’s time isn’t linear, perhaps Lewis’ notions of busses and second chances between the afterlife zones wasn’t so far-fetched.

Of course it was story, meant to convince us to make the right decision, get on the right bus so to speak, now. Yet his imaginary exploration did something for me that would be invaluable later in life. It made me understand that sometimes, I could be wrong.

_There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it._

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a book I didn’t open until after college, eclipsed the other Chronicles for me. I know, the first book is the favorite. But the story of Eustace, with its greatest of first lines in literature, taught me the value of perseverance and the beauty of a King who would adore me so much he would come tear off my dragon scales.

I may have been young, but I knew there were many dragon scales. Those layers of defensive, self-protecting coarse skin don’t slough off easily. They’re still coming, I think.

The Screwtape Letters would give me one of my favorite quotes of all time:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

In my darkest of days, and there have been some, I would turn back to Wormwood and declare that his master would never win, no matter the lonely universe.

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And Now

Years later, I stand around on Sunday and Tuesday nights, directing a cast of twenty in an assuredly non-professional version of The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. The other night, one of the children pondered Aslan’s death and coming back to life as we worried about how to create a stone table that would hold a grown man on a tiny stage and a tinier budget.

“It’s like Jesus!” he exclaimed in a moment of relative quiet.

Another generation finds the great lion, and a great author, still unfolding the Author of All, in ways only he can.

A Long Obedience, and Other Lessons Learned at Nineteen

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Photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash

Running, Galloping, or Anything with Horses

I didn’t want to run with the horses. A neighbor’s horse had once run under a tree branch in our back field, with me on his back, full intending to knock me off. I’d hit the branch. I had not fallen.

Another horse, a supposedly docile being on a trail ride, had been bitten by the beast behind him and reared up, again, with me on his back. The height of it is probably greatly exaggerated in my ten-year-old memory, but I remember the fear.

Our cousins’ ponies tried to bite me. Leaders of Girl Scout rides believed, erroneously, that we would all love to gallop. My best friend inducted me into typical elementary-schoolgirl horse fever, and I created an elaborate ranch on my bedroom wall of paper horses, all different, with names and histories. I loved my horses. I just didn’t love real ones.

My history with the equine family is sketchy.

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Photo by Florin-Alin Beudean on Unsplash

But Eugene Peterson said that Jeremiah said that God said—I had to run with the horses. At that point in my life, I trusted all three, although I remained a little unclear on who Jeremiah was.

Halls of Fame

An author rarely makes it into my mental Hall of Literary Fame. It takes excellence of storytelling, language, argument, depth, and truth to attain that level. Like a preacher who sits in the pews and can’t listen for unintentionally  critiquing (that is who I am), I admit only authors who take hold of my literary imagination. Pushing me theologically earns bonus points.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, who is certainly well-ensconced near the apex of my Hall, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished writers. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” 

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We lost Eugene Peterson in October. We lost—he gained. He is said to have passed with joy in his heart and greeting on his lips for the One he was going to meet but already knew well.

I met Peterson (through his work) at a crucial time in my development, literarily and theologically. A new freshman at Washington University, I was also a new Christian, stumbling and uncertain exactly what I had signed up for and if it had been the great idea I believed at the time.

As a new believer in a highly unbelieving university, it seemed the thing to join InterVarsity, and there I learned of an entire publishing house devoted to making me a smarter Christian. You can assume by the alma mater that I enjoyed being smarter. This has not changed.

A Long Obedience

Peterson stayed with me while others faded. He taught me early in my faith about a long obedience in the same direction and how to run with horses. He taught me what most nineteen-year-olds need to learn yet rarely can—how to allow for failure, to expect slowness rather than instant effectiveness. He taught me that discipleship was a hard road that required perseverance, not five-point plans.

Of course, I didn’t know I needed to know all that.

You can see how old the book is by the photo. I no longer go by that name. Haven’t for decades. I no longer mark my belongings with unicorn stamps either, although given the magic of books, it’s not amiss.

There are arrows and asterisks and a few underlines in the text of A Long Obedience. Not many. I was still at an age where I believed books were not to be written in, sacred pages that should remain virgin white because someone in a library had told me that probably.

I didn’t know that a book is made more sacred by its highlighting, underlining, exclamation points, and creases. I bet Peterson could have taught me that, too.

The chapter that contains most all the underlining is called “Joy: Our Mouth Was Filled with Laughter.” I clearly felt the need for joy at that point. Not surprising, since my college years were flooded with grief at my mother’s passing a few weeks before high school graduation, my dad’s descent into alcoholism, and a close friend’s suicide. Peterson met me when I needed joy, and I didn’t know how to acquire it on my own.

“One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find. We come to God because none of us has it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. We try to get it through entertainment. Society is a bored, gluttonous king, employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal.

But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing.”

Did Peterson pave the way in my soul to be one of those who would not rest without excavating what God was doing? Did he play a role in my decision not to pursue law school but ministry instead?

I know, from my note-taking, that he offered me a way to find the joy that had evaporated from my heart. Choosing joy is a decision I would have to make over and over, given my propensity to be more negative than the average bear. Somewhere in that long obedience, the joy stuck, and the negativity is what evaporated, though it’s always a beast that requires patrolling of the borders.

Peterson found me when I needed a wise pastor, and that he was. I hope he helped make me a wise pastor in return. Thank you, good brother, for being who you were and for speaking words that will not die with you.

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.

Everybody, Always: A Litany on Bob Goff’s New Book

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You may have noticed, if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, that I have opinions. Opinions about a lot of things. Many of them could be classified as “political,” although I prefer to classify them as following Jesus. I believe them to be well researched, thought out opinions.

Opinions and Other People

But the stunning surprise every time for me is—not everyone agrees with me. I don’t even know what to do with that. Shouldn’t everyone see things the way I do?

Not only is that divergence disturbing to me, but it has brought out parts of me that could not be classified as following Jesus. Anger. I do know that not all anger is wrong—anger over injustice is not wrong at all. How many of us, though, stray away from anger over injustice toward anger at people, rather than problems? (Insert raised hand here.)

Frustration. Doubt. Mostly, lack of genuine love for sisters and brothers who are completely on the other side of the issue. I devoutly believe they are wrong—but lack of love is not following Jesus. I don’t like that. Fix it, Jesus.

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Enter Everybody Always

That’s why I wanted to be on the launch team for Bob Goff’s new book, highly anticipated after a couple year’s hiatus from Love Does. He promised that he would tell me how to love Everybody, Always. The subtitle said it all: Becoming Love in a World of Setbacks and Difficult People. I needed that book.

Fortunately, I made it on the team and got to pre-read the first part of the book. When it came out in April, I ordered the whole thing on my iPad, because I needed the rest of the story–now, not in two day Amazon prime shipping. So here is your reason to get the book—if you haven’t already.

I wanted to preview this book because Bob raises the question I am struggling with—how do we really love people who try their hardest to be unlovable in today’s political and religious climate? Bob manages to open eyes to not only how we do that but, of course, how we sometimes are those unlovable people to someone else. His striking humility and hands-on personal testimony about how this works are enough to sell his authority.

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Resisting the Offer

One of my favorite quotes right off was: “I’m trying to resist the bait that darkness offers me every day to trade kindness for rightness.” Knowing it’s many of our struggle, not just mine, was a great start. It’s a daily thing, not a one and done. We have to resist that bait every single day it’s offered. And believe me, it’s offered a lot. Every time we turn on social media. To realize that it’s darkness trying to get me to click, swallow, and react helps make the right choice.

It doesn’t mean I have warm, bubbly feelings for everyone whose posts make me cringe and scream quietly into my Earl Grey. It does mean that sometimes the better part of love is to scroll past them, know what’s being offered, and refuse to take it. Say a prayer for the person and move on. Nothing to see here. Nothing to trade my peace and kindness in for. The people aren’t dark, but the temptation is.

A few of my favorite sections:

What I’ve been doing with my faith is this: instead of saying I’m going to believe in Jesus for my whole life, I’ve been trying to actually obey Jesus for thirty seconds at a time. Here’s how it works: When I meet someone who is hard to get along with, I think, Can I love that person for the next thirty seconds? them. I try to love the person in front of me the way Jesus did for the next thirty seconds rather than merely agree with Jesus and avoid them entirely, which I’m sad to say comes easier to me. I try to see difficult people in front of me for who they could become someday, and I keep reminding myself about this possibility for thirty seconds at a time. It’s easy to agree with what Jesus said. What’s hard is actually doing what Jesus did.

Right???

I love this. What can’t we do for thirty seconds? If we love for thirty seconds, I suspect it gets easier to love for thirty more, because for at least that much time, we’ve listened, heard, and looked at someone with new eyes. It’s hard to go back to anger and hate and dissension after we choose to love for thirty seconds.

Whether we want to or not, we end up memorizing what we do repeatedly. It’s the way we were wired from the factory. Because this is how we’re made, it’s a great idea to pick actions worth repeating. People who are turning into love do this. They adopt beautiful patterns and surrounding imagery for their lives. They fill their lives with songs, practices, and habits that communicate love, acceptance, grace, generosity, whimsy, and forgiveness. People who are becoming love repeat these actions so often they don’t even realize they’re doing it anymore. It’s just finger memory to them. They don’t need anyone to clap for them. They don’t need validation for things they know are inherently right and true and beautiful. They don’t need all the accolades that come with recognition. They also don’t feel a need to criticize people who have gotten a couple of things wrong or hit a couple of sour chords in their lives.

I want this. I want to practice grace. All the time. Until it’s the song that flows from my heart, fingers, and mouth every moment. Thirty seconds at a time.

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OK, this might be my very favorite quote. 🙂

Each day I start with the things I’m certain about and try to land my weight on those things. It always starts with a loving, caring God who is tremendously interested in me and the world I live in. I’m picky about what else I add after that.

That sounds like fantastic advice to me. It sounds like Jesus advice. What do we continually add to the basic facts that God loves me, God loves all the other people as much as me, and he cares what we do with it all? I want to land my weight on what matters and know that it’s going to hold. All the requirements we add are what makes us bounce off the runway, overweight and unbalanced. I want to travel light with what matters as my baggage, pilot, and landing gear.

There’s much more, told in his storytelling style that makes you want to go out and do half of what he does. (Except the skydiving part. I still have zero desire to skydive.)

I’m not sure how this introvert will manage to be such an active inspiration in peoples’ ives as he is, but at least I know how to start. Thirty seconds at a time.

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Where Is Your Brother?

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Siblings . . . 

Sibling rivalry was real in my house. We didn’t have arguments; we had wars. I remember frying pans to the face, doorknobs to the teeth, and golf balls to the head as things that actually happened between my siblings and me.

Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I met a Christian family who behaved very differently, I wanted to know what this Jesus thing was all about. I didn’t know people could act that way with their brothers and sisters.

I’m very grateful to say our kids never engaged in fisticuffs. (Grateful because they didn’t and also because I got to use that wonderful word.) Jesus made quite a difference in my outlook on appropriate sibling behavior.

God’s children do not, however, always follow this pattern. Almost the second question in the Bible, after God asks the leaf-clad Adam and Eve where they are and why they’re hiding, comes the question he addresses to their oldest offspring.

It’s a pretty serious question.

Where is your brother?

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know,” Cain responded. “Am I my brother’s guardian?” (Genesis 4. 2-9)

Spoiler: God knows the answer.

Cain must know God knows, so why he gives this patently flippant answer is anyone’s guess. Although, I suspect we know too well why all of us give God absurd answers to things we don’t want to look at too closely.

I don’t know. Am I supposed to be looking out for my brother?

Apparently, we were still pondering it in Jesus’ time, because someone had to ask Jesus exactly who his neighbor was, and Jesus had to tell another story that asked the same question God starts the whole human race with here—Where is your brother/neighbor?

Everywhere.

That was Jesus’ reply. Are you your brother’s guardian, Cain? Why yes. Yes, you are. I’m surprised you didn’t know that. It’s the way I made people to be.

In his new book Everybody, Always, Bob Goff suggests that God created us as one big neighborhood on this earth–all made for one another no matter where or how.

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God decided it wasn’t good for people to be alone, so he made us for one another. Then he made it clear right after the first sin that we were going to have to take that very seriously, because the world was going to get a lot harder. We would need to be one another’s guardians, or no one would make it out alive.

That’s one of the scariest parts of our current obsession with tribalism. When we start to form our groups, deciding who’s in and who’s not, denying brotherhood to those who are outside our boundaries, we become cadres of Cains, denying to God that we have any responsibility in the welfare of anyone beyond what we’ve declared are our lines.

Even when our brothers’ blood cries out from the ground.

To make this easier, we find reasons they don’t deserve our attention. That’s why Cains find it easy to believe sensational news stories with questionable data. If we can make it Abel’s fault, our hands are clean. Humans, and by humans I mean me, will do just about anything to avoid guilt.

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

I think we’re helped in our answer by the words just before this story. Eve gives birth, and she also gives thanks to God. Remember, the birth process was going to be rough, and Eve not only accepts this part of the curse but gives gratitude to God for bringing her through it and giving her a child.

Gratitude

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Eve’s approach too life oozes gratitude. She chooses to live, after her first unfortunate choice, with constant thanks to God for his provision of everything she needs.

Cain, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have inherited this attitude. We don’t know why God chose to accept his brother’s offering and not his, but he responds with anger. He feels cheated. He wants what he thinks he deserves. He chooses resentment rather than gratitude.

Interesting studies into the attitudes that have created our tribalism in the US point to the same conclusion. Those who choose resentment also choose to close themselves off to their brothers. One study reported by the Washington Post reveals that, 

 Economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety. Racial resentment is the biggest predictor of white vulnerability among white millennials. Economic variables like education, income  and employment made a negligible difference. When white millennials scored high on racial resentment they were 42 percentage points more likely to indicate feelings of vulnerability than those who scored low.

People who would prefer to blame and resent rather than open their arms and hearts in gratitude for their lives are the people who refuse to see “brother” in the refugee, immigrant, person of color, or sister.

Interestingly, this is true regardless of the person’s actual economic or physical circumstances. The well off are just as likely to shut out their nonwhite, non-American-born brothers as the poor if they are already inclined to resent others for what they think they don’t have.

It’s as old as Cain. And as devastating.

The answer isn’t anything complicated. It’s gratitude. Choosing to be thankful for everything God provides to children of Adam and Eve who don’t really deserve anything at all but who are granted so much.

It’s utterly impossible to take the attitude of Eve and have the heart of Cain. We can’t revel in the undeserved graciousness of the Lord and refuse to invite your brother into the circle.

If we live consistently grateful, humble lives, we will always know exactly where our brother is. He’s all around us. He’s everyone. And we are his keeper.

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*I’ve signed up for the Human Race again, raising money for World Relief and refugee resettlement. These wonderful people I have come to know and love as I work with them more and more are certainly those God calls our brothers and sisters. With God’s help, I’m going to walk it and meet my fundraising goal! If you’d like to donate to my walk, please follow the link. I and the amazing refugee population I know and love would appreciate it greatly!

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?