Weeping with Rachel

BB1DA202-E7B9-44F9-9D14-98D5F4FCDD1C“A cry was heard in Ramah—

weeping and great mourning.

Rachel weeps for her children,

refusing to be comforted,

for they are dead.” (Matthew 2:18 NLT)

This is not everyone’s favorite Christmas verse. We’re unlikely to read it during Advent worship on Sunday morning. Yet it’s there, in the text, solidly a part of Jesus’ birth story. Jesus’ birth so upset the human king that, in an attempt to stifle the real kingdom, Herod murdered all the boy babies in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. He would ensure no mere Messiah could ever challenge his power. Power and fear, easily seduce those who live by their call.

For the women of Ramah, the birth of the Christ only reminded them of death. I think of this part of the story when I think of women who have lost children, particularly around Christmastime.

Seven years ago, Connecticut mamas sent their children to school on a cold day in December, and their babies never came home. Three years later, Christmas felt like Ramah for fourteen sets of parents and loved ones in San Bernardino, as they mourned family who would not sit around a table listening to dad jokes, eating ham and turkey, or arguing about the superiority of pumpkin versus apple pie.

Mothers at our southern border weep for the children they have had torn from their arms who will not be with them this Christmas, and the pain intensified at not knowing where their babies have been taken.

Perhaps you, my friend, have lost a child near December—to death, estrangement, miscarriage, nullified adoption, or some other cause. You know the weeping of the women of Ramah for their children. The old KJV says their children “are no more,” but the NTL tells it straight—“for they are dead.” Women who know like it told straight.

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Most of us are blessed not to know the weeping of the women of Ramah, but some have felt its gut-punch in December, and their stories, too, make up what it means to welcome Jesus into our world.

The women of Ramah know easy assurances don’t come in the face of horror. They know what we forget—that this world needs not a baby Jesus but a Savior, because it’s an all-out mess. The women of Ramah understand that the world is terribly broken, not just sprained. They grasp the seasonal words that we, in a land of comparative ease, sing along with the radio but don’t really comprehend. So often, sin and sorrow do reign, and the curse is found right at our front door. Joy doesn’t need to come to the world unless the world already profoundly mourns.

Weeping with Rachel at Christmas

If assurance came easily, the Son of God would not have had to be born on this earth with the intention of dying. “Easy” doesn’t begin in a virgin’s uterus and a trough with wood that stinks of the barnyard. “Easy” doesn’t end up on a cross. There’s nothing easy about innocence giving its life for evil. It’s complicated and messy, and the women of Ramah know.

We won’t recognize its meaning, or its greatness, unless we’re willing to sit with the women of Ramah, whoever and wherever they are, and listen to the wailing, weeping with those who weep. So long as we cocoon ourselves in warmly tinted colored lights and snow scenes (and I do love Christmas lights and scenery), we won’t see what Christmas actually means.

N.T. Wright tells us, “Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place. . . Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight.”

Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place. . . Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that

You want a surprise? Christmas isn’t really for children. It never was. It’s not for the meek and mild at all. It’s for hardy souls who are willing to admit that the world needs a healer and mender. It’s for those who weep—those who know, more deeply than we want to know, that evil is real and that Jesus willingly waded through it in order to break its power. It’s for those courageous enough to take that redemption into our lives in ways that matter.

Rachel and her children form part of our Christmas story, and God meant for that story to be told. God meant for us to see that breaking the power of evil comes at a price, and Jesus came to break that power. That, my friends, is joy to the world.

Scriptures for Reflection

“Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15 NLT)

“You must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.” (1 Peter 3:15-16 NLT)

“Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5 NLT)

Reach for More

Do you know one of the “women of Ramah”? What tangible thing can you do for her this month to show Jesus’ incarnated love? I once spent every day of December dropping a small gift at the house of a friend going through a painful time. It wasn’t big or difficult—yet it meant more than I imagined. Pray and write down some ideas you can use to bring her joy.

This post originally appeared at The Glorious Table. Check them out for a great mix of thoughts and ideas from Christian women.

Five Images of God

Because we’re just returning from a thankful Thanksgiving together, and because chapter three of my thesis is of the devil and allowed me no time to be prepared, today is a rerun of an old favorite, May you feel God in these images.

Images Speak

Words enthrall me. This is not news. I am a lover of words, and words that paint pictures draw me into their world. They may say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my experience, the best words are worth far more than a picture. The best words let us feel them and imagine them on our own.

Words and images intertwine for me. As a lover of the imagery words can create, I get excited about images of God. What images does the Bible give us, what pictures does it paint with its words to show us God in ways that sing to our souls?

And–in keeping with the Live Free Thursday prompt–how does pondering images of God offer rest to our souls? It does to mine, when I think of God as these five things.

Father of lights

43160-533652_4624500284437_1219894898_nOr more literally, Father of the heavenly lights. The maker of the sun, stars, and moon. The creator of mist, fog, and filter that never, ever completely block the light of the sun but only amplify its raw power. The one who said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1.5)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.(James 1.17)

I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8.12)

The Lord is my light and my salvation, so why should I be afraid? (Psalm 27.1)

IMG_9266I love light so much that none of my windows has curtains. To know that the Father of lights has called me into His light that, yes, shows all my flaws and errors for what they are, but does so with the healing precision of a laser surgeon? That’s what it feels like to laugh freely in sunshine and turn my face to its warmth. That’s God.

A hen with her chicks

I watch birds all the time outside my window. I see them, tucking their heads inside their wings to fend off the unholy Chicago winter winds. I worry for them, as I notice a hawk sitting in the tree eying my feeder, waiting for one to stray. I hear the tiny peeps of baby robins when spring nest-building inevitably ends up in the eaves of our porch, and I watch the new parents feeding their young. I know how hens shelter their chicks for protection beneath their own bodies, willing anything to harm them before it reaches their helpless, dependent offspring.

I know how I still would if need be for mine, who are by no means helpless and dependent.

IMG_5296God wills so much more than that for us to run to his protection. He loves so much more strongly. The image of Him folding himself around me, keeping me from myself and my own tendency to stray too far from the safety of his words, brings gratitude. The realization that He did, in fact, put His own body between me and death brings awe.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. (Matthew23.37)

An eagle

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At first, this might look like the same thing as a hen. Both are birds. Both care for their young in these images. But the eagle does something different than the hen. She fights. He soars. An eagle will not simply protect her young passively, but she will take on any enemy that comes near. Also, he will not leave those eaglets in the nest but will force them into fearful, vertigo-inducing flying. Eventually, soaring.

The image of God fighting for me I cannot even fathom. The knowledge that I have no knowledge of all the times he has kept harm from me is humbling. The idea of him then ensuring that I can go out and fight my own battles, that I have been equipped to soar and dive and live freely because he takes me on his wings and lets me feel what it is to fly? It makes me brave, because what other response can I make?

As an eagle that stirs up her nest, that flutters over her young, He spread abroad His wings and He took them, He bore them on His pinions. (Deuteronomy 32.11)

A Teaching Parent

Have you ever taught a child to walk? This image is so potent if you have. You watch them getting ready. They pull themselves up, and you hover near, ready to catch their faltering little bodies. They venture one step, fear and excitement both in their tiny eyes. You watch. You wait. You want to jump up and keep them from crashing down. Sometimes you do, but not always. They know your hands are always there, but they also want to try on their own; you have to let them. And when their sense of adventure wins out and they toddle across the floor, you cheer them on. You encourage, you clap, and you envelop them in a hug at the finish line of their first steps across the room. You know this story if you’ve done it. You will always feel it.

IMG_3200Can you imagine God at that finish line for you? Cheering? Clapping? Screaming, “You’ve got this!” God proves in his story of the prodigal son that he is perfectly willing to be undignified for us when he runs to his son, robes flapping in the breeze. So yes, he screams.

He grieves when we walk the other way. He beams the joy of a parent when we take our steps in the direction he sees best laid out for us, however faltering they may be. God as a teaching parent makes me want to try.

I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. I led Israel along, with my ropes of kindness and love.” (Hosea 11.3-4)

It’s difficult to choose just one more . . . Rock, bread, shepherd, but I will settle on . . .

Potter

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter. We are all formed by your hand. (Isaiah64.8)

He is creating masterpieces. Some of them are more difficult to mold than others. (Oh, don’t I know that.) There are streaks of darkness in the clay where hard things happened, layers of color where dreams interwove. Each creation is different, each one handcrafted perfectly. I cannot begin to grasp the significance of God sitting at a potter’s wheel caring enough about the final testament of my life that he folds in the beautiful and out the muck. Individually. By hand. Again, I am awed, humbled, and grateful.

IMG_6897What images of God speak to you? Which one do you need today to know how much he loves you and is surrounding you right now? I’d love to hear.

Thanks-Giving, 2019

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Thanksgiving this year will present some challenges. A couple weeks ago, our youngest snapchatted me and queried, earnestly as only an enneagram 6 can query—“Is there not an oven in our Thanksgiving Airbnb?”

She had checked the photos. More closely than I had, it turns out, a feat difficult to manage since I check rental apartment photos quite carefully after the no shower debacle of Europe 2010. No oven. Only an electric cooktop and a microwave to create our epic annual dinner.

This was not sufficient for youngest daughter. Enneagram 6’s love tradition. They live and breathe it. It comforts them. It cuddles them in a tender fleece blanket of certainty that life will always carry on as it does when the mashed potatoes and spatchcocked turkey are on the table.

Only one of those can happen in the absence of an oven. Ken Haedrick‘s Caramel apple pie (our Thanksgiving go-to) is also pretty unlikely.

The Long Tables

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Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Thanksgiving dinners of my childhood resembled an assembly line at Ford Motors more than a warm family gathering. Extended family gathered at our house, and tables I hadn’t known existed appeared, stretched out through the living and dining areas and into the front porch. I still don’t know where those tables came from. I’m fairly certain my parents didn’t have a stash of them squirreled away in the basement, ready to emerge once or twice a year. My own family’s usual appeal for such things—the church storage room—was not an option for my pagan relatives.

Cousins, uncles, aunts, questionable significant others—all arrived. Mismatched tablecloths spread out, pies passed, and on cue, the men fell asleep in front of football while the women did the dishes after the feast. Siblings fought. Cousins generated drama. When my brother happened in, he snapped towels at any sisters who dared to venture near. I adored him, so I ventured, but I was also very fast.

I ate at the kids’ table, of course. The youngest of our seven, and near the tail end of the entire cousin factory, I always sat at the kids’ table and would until I married and had my own kids, I guessed. Even then, I remained skeptical over my odds of leaving it.

Kids’ Table

At the kids’ table we practiced all the things kids do when the elders aren’t paying attention. We dared one another to snort cranberry sauce up our noses. You know the stuff—the awful crimson, jiggly mass that retained the imprint of its can when my mother slid it onto the plate. We fed the dog whatever parents forced on our plates so we would eat healthy, or at least they could retain the illusion that we ate right, while they engaged in conversation about Nixon or the Bears or whatever mattered that year. 

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Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

Almost everything on my plate went dogward—I only liked turkey and gravy and eating the filling of the lemon meringue pie. I left the crust for confused dishwashers to wonder if the insides had been stolen by aliens or, in another household more conversant with evangelicalism, raptured.

We poked one another and whispered secrets to one another and assumed what my daughter assumes—that life would always carry on as it did so long as the mashed potatoes and overdone turkey sat on our table every year.

Leaving the Table

My aunt Norma was the first to leave the table. I remember my mom crying, and all of us stuffing ourselves into the car to travel to Valparaiso, a place I thought was a million miles away across the scariest bridge known to humankind but now realize was barely an hour and a half across what must have been the Chicago Skyway.

I didn’t get to go to the funeral. Kids were deemed too young to understand. We stayed behind in the house and struggled to figure out what to say to our cousin Johnny, the one closest in age to me, both of us ten and blinking into a future without his mother, a bewildering concept neither of us had considered could be the next page turn in the choose-your-own-adventure real-life version. If I said anything, I’m sure it was foolish.

My sister was next. You’re not supposed to have a sister die when you’re only fourteen and totally self-absorbed, as are all fourteen-year-olds ever—and it isn’t their fault—it’s biology.  Being wheelchair bound, she’d never left the table of her own volition—someone always had to cut her turkey and wheel her out of the crowded room. But she had left, without assistance, and if not of her own volition at least prepared for the death doctors had said was coming for ten years. Given its tardiness, I could have been excused for not believing in its inevitability.

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Photo by Jaelynn Castillo on Unsplash

Four years after that, we lost the matriarch of the giant extended family table. My mother would have hated being called a matriarch. Vanity figured into her sins, and from her dyed-blonde hair to the girdle my sister and I laughed at when we sneaked into her dresser drawers, mom denied that age could touch her. Of course, it didn’t. Given that she only made it to fifty, age had never sunk any claws into her at all by the time she died.

Nevertheless, she glued the family together, and after she departed, no long tables stretched through our rooms ever again. Thanksgiving became a small affair, with only the kids and spouses and grandkids that lived nearby coming in and out, faintly accepting that we were to be there but not truly feeling the tether that held us anymore.

When I moved across the country, I barely noticed anything was missing.

All this to say, I have a complicated relationship with Thanksgiving.

I am glad my daughter does not.

I Am Thankful

If I chose the one thing I am most grateful for at the Thanksgiving table, it would be this. My daughters have not grown up with the door slamming, drama-filled holiday dinners of my childhood. They have only recently lost the first important person in their lives—their beloved grandma. This is a good record by my standards, given the baby is 23.

Their table will continue to stretch out, enveloping new family members for years to come, and I am grateful. It will not dissolve into silence and confusion, even if I or their father should leave it prematurely. They have the stability, love, and faith to carry on.

This Thanksgiving, I am so grateful for this trio of girls who genuinely love one another. Who stand up for one another. Who root for one another, pray for one another, and snapchat one another on the regular. This is a gift not to be taken lightly. It is a gift I didn’t have.

There may not be the usual turkey on the table this year. (It will still be better than the Thanksgiving dinner we had at Hard Rock Cafe Orlando, however.) But despite my child’s protestations, I know she knows this is not the part that holds us together. I know she knows the glue isn’t the stuffing (although my stuffing might be close to glue) or the Christmas music or the heaping bowl of her favorite thing on the planet—mashed potatoes. I know she knows it isn’t even me, the new matriarch.

It’s Jesus. It’s faith. It’s hope and love. These things I will never take for granted. I wish you all these things this Thanksgiving (belated, my Canadian friends). Blessings.

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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.

Where’s the Party?

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

I am not a party person. I am so far on the “I” side of the Myers-Briggs scale I nearly fall off it. I love being a pastor, and I love my people, but socializing with a roomful of acquaintances on a surface level feels like I imagine purgatory would feel, if I believed in it.

Nevertheless, I enjoy a well crafted party with people I love. We’ve had our share this year, with the youngest’s wedding right in the middle of 2019. A shower. A wedding. A reception back home. All of it. And all of it we crafted carefully, with their tastes and our budget in mind.

We planned themes, grew and arranged flowers, drilled holes in centerpieces and hand-letters signs that told people exactly where to put their cards and how to play the date night game. While we did much of the work ourselves, we had a dress, a caterer, and a photographer that knocked it out of the park.

We missed nothing. It was a wonderful day.

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Time to Party

As we’ve been walking through Hebrews, off and on, these last few months, we come to a passage that also knocks it out of the park. So far, Hebrews has been shopping, setting the table, making menus, crafting decorations, and sending invites. The writer has missed nothing.

Now—in chapter ten—it’s time to party.

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Hebrews 10.19-25, NLT)

Verse 22 is the party—“Let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him.”

The theme of the party is restoration. The venue is an empty tomb. The decorations are a cross and crown. The invitation is to everyone.

Bold Faith

We are not simply to come to the party either but to come boldly. “Go right in” is the phrase people use when they know the person invited belongs. It’s what we say to friends—come on in, and use the side door (the one for friends). You know you can walk in anytime. We don’t offer that privilege to strangers. Only those who  have our complete love and trust get the “come on in.”

Other translations use the words “confidently,” “with full assurance,” or “boldly.” Literally, it’s “free and fearless.” It means the same—go toward God as you would anyone who invited you in like you belonged there. Because you do.

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For many, boldness is not our default. When it comes to any relationships, fear predominates. Fear that we will not be accepted. Fear that we can never be good enough. Fear that we don’t deserve forgiveness. Fear that our love will not be reciprocated.

Fear drives so much, and has since Eden.

God puts that fear to rest here. If we’re told to come boldly to the one who made us, who knows us best, whom we’ve actually offended the most, but who loves us everlastingly and unconditionally, then where is the place for any fear at all? If that relationship is restored, what is there to fear in any other?

What would it be like to live free and fearless?

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

  • Relationships fail us.
  • Spouses leave, or don’t fulfilled their vows to honor us, protect us.
  • Friends betray us to move up social ladder.
  • Relatives abuse you in ways no one talks about.
  • Coworkers throw you under the bus to cover their butts.
  • Your child screams swear words at you, and you believe growing up means breaking apart.

Trust is fragile.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

If the only metric we have to measure relationships is human ones, and we are human so it is, then we project all that on God.

  • God becomes the girl who wouldn’t let us sit with her.
  • The kid who bullied you.
  • The spouse who betrayed you.
  • The relative who abused you.
  • The father you could never please.

Trust is hard. Fear is easy.

Two years ago, I went to a friend’s home in London for a writing retreat (I know, rough), and two of the other women voiced their life’s dream to got to Paris. They begged me to go, too, since I’d been a few times and could be a guide. So we made a day trip, and our first stop (OK, after Laduree and Berthillon) was Notre Dame. Notre Dame was my first love of buildings, and I couldn’t wait to see my old friend.

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We saw a long line near one door. Very long. One of the other women nosed around and found another door on the other side. No one was lined up there. So, maybe the other line was for the tower? Because my friend is bold, and because she has an auto-immune disease that makes standing for a long time difficult, she decided to use the door with no line. Boldly, we walked right in.

We gaped round the altar, stood in awe at the familiar rose windows, and walked the checkered floor I love so well. Yes, we cut the line, we realized later. But the door was open. And we decided to walk through it without hesitation.

That was the last time I saw my favorite place in one piece. I’m so glad we chose to go through the door.

This is the exuberant, joyful, excited boldness God wants for us when he talks about us coming near to him. Without fear, with excitement, believing this is the best dream of our lives. Because the door was opened, and all we have to do is walk in.

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We do not have to measure God by the instability of human relationships. God invites us—and he invites us as He would a friend.

Maybe when trust is hard is the time we most need this party. Not a fake it, put up a front, false happiness party—a party that says what matters will stand.

A party that defies death, decay, rising smoke and tells it all—you do not win.

Because it is finished.

Death—you have no victory.

Despair—you have no home here.

Fire and smoke—you cannot take away what matters.

Restoration is beginning. Reclamation is here. New beginnings are ready—don’t despair—come to the party.

Come boldly.

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.”

The Kids’ Table

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Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Sounding out the Words

At four, my daughter begged me to teach her to read. Anticipating her enjoying all the books I had as a little girl, knowing her imagination already conjured scenarios far beyond the ordinary scope of preschool, I was delighted to do as she asked. Soon, I found a book that promised to make her a reader in 100 easy lessons.

She took the alphabet she already knew and began sounding out words, from lesson one. True to the book’s promise, Becca was reading by the time she completed it. She entered school the following year reading at a sixth grade level, which in hindsight might have been a mistake, considering how much it annoyed her teachers when she sat and read during their lessons.

Becca never had to go back and recite her abc’s before beginning the lessons. She already knew those. After the original lessons, she didn’t require review of each letter sound before she took off reading and learning the next ones. Once she had the foundational tools, she knew what to do with them.

At some point, she even began to be the teacher to her two little sisters.

The writer of Hebrews seems to want such a book.

“There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen. You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. 

You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. 

You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.” (Hebrews 5.11-6.3)

How difficult would it be to read anything if you had to go back over your abc’s every time? How impossible would it be to move forward and read more difficult works if you had to sound out every letter every time?

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Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

That’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews is trying to get her/his hearers to comprehend. How can you hope to grow in your faith if you have to be reminded all the time about the basics? If you spend your days relying on the pastor to feed you, how will you ever learn to feed yourself?

If you’re twenty years old and still reading One Fish Two Fish, how will you ever comprehend the glories of Les Miserables or Jane Austen?

The Kids’ Table

I remember what it was like to sit at the kids’ table every holiday when our extended family came to visit. I felt small, unnecessary to the gathering, set aside while the adults talked about important things. I longed to graduate (and as the youngest of seven, and almost the youngest of all the cousins, that didn’t happen for a long, long time).

Like my daughter, I longed for the world to be open to me that only older people seemed to know, understand, and enjoy. I wanted the JRR Tolkien of Thanksgiving conversation, and I had to settle for Twilight.

Who wants to eat rice cereal and formula when there is prime rib on the table?

According to this Scripture, I guess we do sometimes.

“You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. . . . So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again.”

That last line implies that the people reading this letter have, in fact, been instructed. They are not ignorant of the  basics of belonging to Christ, They simply have no interest in taking the initiative to go further. They are not babies, but they still love their pacifiers.

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They did get it. They just don’t want to take the energy to apply it.

They lack motivation to go deeper with God.

This problem has lasted through the millennia. One of the biggest issues of the American church, at least, is its emphasis on showmanship and “bigger is better.” As a result, the average churchgoer feels no need to feed himself—that’s what the pastor is for. The better the entertainment, the more inspirational the sermon, the more complacent we can become to making the effort to chew that steak rather than suck on a bottle of milk.

Sadly, according to Barna research, over half of churchgoers also say they do not experience God in their worship hour. Coincidence?

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Skye Jethani in his book Divine Commodity explains the dangers of this mentality:

“We create experiences that entertain, give us emotional highs, make us feel good, and then wonder why we can’t sustain faith in hard times over the long haul. This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies — Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade.” 

(And beware, pastors, if we learned anything from Little Shop of Horrors, it’s that “feed me Seymour” can bite us back. Once we start down the road of giving people (or man-eating plants) what they want, they usually want more.)

“Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”

Run

The writer hits on a key concept here to discipleship. Training. The person who has trained becomes mature in whatever he or she trains at. If you want to run a marathon, you don’t sit and watch videos of people running while eating cherry-frosted poptarts. You run.

You run every day, a little farther, a little faster each time. You run until you become a mature runner—knowing how to read the road, the weather, and your body to intuit what to do next.

If you want to be like Jesus, you don’t watch a preacher or a worship leader once a week and hope the high will last you through the week when those tough right and wrong choices come up at work, school, or home.

You learn yourself. You feed yourself the word of God. You keep in step with the Spirit. Every day. And every day, you go a little farther, until you know how to read the times, the Scripture, and your own soul well enough to intuit what to do next. You learn “the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.”

What is this wright and wrong we’re supposed to be becoming mature enough (whole, purposeful) to learn how to discern and create?

“The purposes of God in the gospel are focused on God’s longing to put the world to rights, and to put people to rights as part of that work. What the writer here longs for is that people should become proficient in understanding and using the entire message of God’s healing, restoring, saving justice. He wants them to know their way around the whole message of scripture and of the gospel, to be able to handle this message in relation to their own lives, their communities and the wider world, and to see how all the different parts of God’s revelation fit together, apply to different situations and have the power to transform lives and situations.” N.T. Wright

Like the readers of Hebrews, we also can be guilty of wanting only a watered down gospel, a small bit of God—a bite-sized salvation that we can consume quickly and neatly. We don’t necessarily want a gospel that demands we learn to discern justice, healing, shalom truth.

Is it possible much of our current discord in the Christian world stems from an unwillingness to push toward maturity? Could our desire to maintain our first understanding of God, no matter how immature, create the disharmony we see around us, as Christians tear into one another over complicated issues they are nevertheless certain they understand accurately?

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Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

We love our personal savior and personal relationship with Jesus. It’s warm and comfy. We don’t really want the gospel to encompass a whole lot more of the kingdom than we ever dreamed. We don’t want to have to rethink when presented with an idea or a person that seems to contradict what we have determined.

We like milk. Of course, warm milk has one property I use often at night. It puts you to sleep.

My daughter went on to read all the books she could find. Those little sisters she helped teach did the same. They competed on teams that read books and challenged one another to read more, learn more, become more because of what they read.

Like those teammates, “let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. . . God willing, we will move forward to further understanding.”