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.

Morning Glories Aren’t Glorious (Or: Hindsight Is Hard To Clean up After)

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I have not planted a morning glory seed in my garden for at least twelve years.

You would assume, by that statement, that there are no morning glories in our yard.

You would assume wrong.

They’re Here (said in best Frodo voice)

In fact, every year, morning glories pop up. In the front yard, in the back yard, in the side yard, in all the garden beds. The thing about morning glory vines is, they can be nonexistent one one day and three feet long the next. These things have the growing capacity of mold in an untreated hot tub.

Why? Because we were enticed by the heavenly blue blooms on the seed packets and the ubiquitous Pinterest photos of innocent, stunning morning glories climbing (slithering) up peoples’ mailboxes as if they had no evil intent whatsoever.

I know better now. 

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Enticements come in all kinds of packages. Stunning flowers. Easier money. Better reputation. Upgraded resume. Beautiful bodies.

Those things look so small (like a morning glory seed) in the beginning. They looks so beautiful, helpful, needed even to our unsuspecting (or, let’s be honest, intentionally blinded) hearts and minds. Then one gets it vines into our hearts and souls and minds, and it won’t let go of its grip.

  • Marriages dashed sideways by porn.
  • Careers wrecked by a little embellishment on the job history.
  • Kids in high anxiety because parents padded their abilities in an attempt to make them more competitive.
  • Women devastated because they pursued that relationship, ignoring the red flags, only to learn their intuition was right and they had traded their identity for attention.
  • The remembrance too late that someone did tell us so.
  • Christians offering up their souls for the sham promises of power and security.

Morning glories are everywhere, aren’t they?

I don’t have a deep, profound message today. “Nothing under the sun is truly new,”  right? (Ecclesiastes 1.9) Our task, as I read just last night, isn’t so much to create some brilliant, unique concept that amazes the world as it is to remind the world of what it already knows but has let the quicksand of the world bury for too long.

“A remembrancer is a servant who brings things from the storehouse, a farmer who helps the listener harvest memories previously planted. If you have been shamed into believing that every sermon has to include novel ideas—No. Telling the old, old story stands in the front rank of the preacher’s calling. It is the work of soul-watchers. Our people need reminders of the great truths of the faith. We are like the hobbits who ‘liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions.’” (Preaching as Reminding, Jeffrey Arthurs)

So with today’s reminder—

It’s easier to make the decision not to plant the seeds than it is to root out the weeds.

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Every year, I feel like I may be winning the war against the morning glory seeds, and every year, more come up. I’m sure that’s exactly how my dad felt after he took that first drink to cover his sadness when my mom passed. So many times he thought he had won over it, but it just emerged somewhere else, attacking from another front, and he lost himself again.

The good news is, we can win. With dedication, determination, and a lot of RoundUp, we will eventually eradicate the morning glories. There are fewer every summer. Don’t lose hope if the battle seems impossible. It absolutely IS NOT. We are children of a God who knows how to do resurrection.

Still, it would have been better for us not to have ever entertained the temptation. We could have used our energies in so many other places. We don’t know what could have been had we never succumbed to those tempting photos.

It’s easier never to have planted the seeds.

Men Prefer Women Who Love Jesus (but that’s not our goal, anyway)

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A blog post went viral this week. Not one of mine—I could wish. It was another one. Perhaps you saw it.

Men Prefer Debt Free Virgins without Tattoos.”

“Do you know how much more attractive debt-free virgins (without tattoos) are to young men?”

Well no, I don’t, because you never actually proved that point with any research at all. But I digress . . .

Perhaps it made you angry, or perhaps it made you feel shamed. I know it had me all up in my “smash the patriarchy” righteousness.

The premise of the blogger was simple: If young women want to be married, they should make themselves into the kind of woman Christian men want to marry. Presumably, debt-free virgins. But more importantly, according to The Transformed Wife, a young woman who has rejected an education while she waits for her man to supply her the thoughts, beliefs, and ideas she is supposed to have.

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(“The husband will need to take years teaching his wife the correct way to act, think, and live since college taught them every possible way that is wrong.”)

I used the barf emoji. Five times.

Because I know the Bible pretty well, I took issue with her theology.

Because I raised three daughters, I took issue with her philosophy.

Because I know my husband, I laughed uncontrollably at the idea that he was really looking for a woman with no ideas of her own when he accidentally fell in love with me instead.

If you were bewildered, enraged, or hurt by that post, please know that, while I have no objections to debt-free virgins (tattooed or not), being a transformed wife is not your goal. Here’s what I know.

God didn’t create you for the sole purpose of finding a man.

You are complete. You are whole. You are not waiting. Your life is now, not when someone else comes along to fulfill you and tell you what you need to know. You are fearfully and wonderfully made in his image, and there is nothing incomplete about that.  (Psalm 139.14, Genesis 1.27) )Nowhere in all of scripture does God tell women to wait for a man so that they can fulfill their purpose, except to wait for Jesus himself, who gives us all purpose with no exceptions and no hierarchies.

Whatever you do in this life–marriage, children, or not–do not sit around waiting for a day when you are good enough or complete enough to be used by God. That day is now.

God chooses women.

You are part of a long heritage of women of faith who stood on their own beliefs and their own ideas and used them to act. Esther. Ruth. Mary. Hannah. Deborah. Priscilla. Lydia. Miriam. The Hebrew midwives. Joanna. Abigail. The women at the tomb. The woman at the well. The unnamed hundreds who inhabited that world and never got “credit” this side of eternity but served God anyway with all they possessed. Not one of these women was passive. They were great actors in God’s story, with or without a man, and you are, too.

(I mean seriously, Abigail, you should be ashamed of your lack of submission to your man. Shouldn’t you? I guess God didn’t think so.  Don’t know the story? You really should read it.)

They were all born “for such a time as this,” (Esther 4.14) and so were you. They all defied the ethos of their culture, not because men would not or because they were unique or someone gave them their beliefs and ideals. They did it because God gave them his fire. He’s given it to you, too.

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God created you to uniquely further his kingdom as you, not as your husband’s helper.

God created women because he knew that humans need one another. It wasn’t good for one to be alone. God called woman “strong warriors” and “corresponding partners” in the task of making this world into his kingdom. We were created as equals—see the real translation of Genesis 2.

He put us beside men to do the work as a team, not as solo practitioners. It’s true—we cannot do this kingdom business alone. It’s not true that we can only be sidekicks to the real work. If you’re married, your husband’s calling is amazing—support it. Your calling is amazing, too. Find it. We need every person to use her gifts in the kingdom of God. It’s a travesty and downright blasphemy that so many things that could have been for the kingdom are not, because women have been hindered from changing the world in their way.

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There is no one between you and your Father.

No one. Jesus came and brought freedom and access. The curtain in the temple was torn in two. He did not do that and then tell the women standing around the cross, “Oh, hey, now go find a man who will explain all of this to you. I just broke down the barriers–but not for you. It wasn’t quite good enough for you.”

How insulting to our Savior. His sacrifice was not enough to break all the barriers of access to God and his word? Women still need a man to tell them what the Bible means? Nonsense. (I could use a stronger term, but . . . ) He has gifted you with his holy word to learn, treasure, keep in your heart, and obey. He says this is not too hard for anyone, and surely that includes all the women ever created.

Yes, Paul told women–uneducated, curious women–to ask their husbands what some things meant. To satisfy their craving to learn, not to quench it. To strengthen the bond of marital love and compatible faith, not to create a subservient, childish dependence.

More than that, he has gifted you with his Holy Word–the Word made flesh, to know, love, and obey. No gender requirements. You have access. Know and love your Savior, with all your heart, soul, strength, and glorious mind.

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God didn’t create you to be ashamed of who you are.

(Unless, of course, who you are is really a jerk.)

It doesn’t matter if you’re married or unmarried. College educated or GED. Childless or house filled. Loud or shy. Assertive or conflict avoidant. Old or young. Strong or slow to speak at all. God wants to use the woman he made for his purpose.

He didn’t give you a mind to only have it be filled with other peoples’ thoughts. He didn’t give you a heart to have its passion reined in by someone else’s ideas of where you should spend your time. He didn’t give you a desire for purpose in order to limit it to the sphere someone else tells you is the only one you can inhabit. God gave you dreams, and a big heart, and a curious mind. He likes you that way. Don’t ever let someone else tell you he can’t.

 

God loves you. He loves you so stinkin’ much he died for you. I truly believe that love is lost on people like this blogger. People who don’t experience the great, full love of Christ try to make up their acceptance by creating rules. They believe that if they make enough rules, and get enough people to follow them, they will find that acceptance they’re looking for.

It’s not different than the Romans or the Canaanites who tried so hard to appease their gods that they would do anything, even sacrifice their children, to be accepted.

I refuse to sacrifice my children. Or the young women who already teeter tenuously on the belief that maybe they’re not enough wherever they are. I won’t give up the women He has equipped to march headlong into his kingdom, ready to use themselves up for his cause, because someone told them they can’t on account of their gender.

I won’t make the sacrifice.

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Marriage and children are great gifts–but they are not destinies. And men? You are too wise and good to believe you are so shallow as to be intimidated by a smart woman pursuing her calling. We know better. We know this is insulting to you, too, and you are better people than that. We love you for it.

I pray that today you will find yourself drowning so deeply in the love of God that the only rule you need as a woman is to love him back. Oh, the places you’ll go.

What Do You Want?

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“What do you want?”

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

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

What about you?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

What do we want?

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

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

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

“Where are you staying?”

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

Good answer, gentlemen.

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

We want to come, see, and follow.

Come

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

See

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

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

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

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

Follow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Complicated

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

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

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

Love Is Complicated

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

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

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

Peter is a contradictory mess. Like us.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” they replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Do you love me?

It’s not what he thinks is coming.

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

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

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

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

Jesus, you’re just alright with me.

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

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

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

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

Comparison

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

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

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

“Someone else” is an easy place to hide.

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

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

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

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

Fist Bump Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love goes beyond sending cards to crying with others.

Love goes beyond thoughts and prayers to sacrificing for others.

It’s the difference between fist bumping and footwashing.

Do you love me?

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

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

The Good Stuff

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

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

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

It’s a strange process, but it works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, the good stuff. The fertile soil.

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

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

That heart was ready for God to get to work.

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

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

You should see the crops of beans and peppers.

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

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

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

But How Much Fruit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s the question, after all this.

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

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

Then we’ll bear fruit worth getting excited about.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

How do we tell a good story?

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

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

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

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

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

Cleaning Up the Clutter

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The area around our fire pit is a bit of a mess. Like, you could lose a small child in there mess. The logs and kindling are semi-stacked/falling to one side. A picnic table sits at one end, its boards crumbling with age. The patio is, well–a little uneven would be a charitable way to put it. We put the stone down ourselves, and straight and flat are not our strong suits.

We’re creatives here, not engineers. Don’t judge.

Last year, I worked hard to pull all the weeds that grow up between the logs and around the table. They were big. Thistles, pokeberries, bindweed—all of it went into the compost.

Then we went on vacation. And after two weeks, we returned to weeds so high they were over my head.

I am not even joking. Jesus please help if we ever forget to weed for over a month. They may never find us.

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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.

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.

Now, the weedy soil.

“Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants.”

I’m preaching an entire Advent series on distractions. Clutter. Those things in our lives that do exactly what these weeds do—crowd out the tender, beautiful things of God that are supposed to grow in our lives.

“The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced.” (Matthew 13)

Is your heart distracted or focused?

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Sometimes, I fear I have a thorny heart. There are so many other options. So many things get the resources that the seeds God plants in my heart need. He offers me the abundant resources of time, money, gifts, talents, people, things, and feelings. (Yes, they are abundant. Whether we believe it or not.) Too often, I squander those wonderful gifts on the things that should be lower on the priorities list.

Time? Booked.

Money? Budgeted.

Talents? Overextended.

Feelings? Already overloaded.

We get so distracted by competing priorities we don’t even notice the tiny plants God has sown into our lives struggling for their share of sun and rain. We’re too busy.

These priorities aren’t always bad, of course. Kids sports are good for them. Grades matter. Work requires our best. Entertainment is needed after a tough day of work, and paying bills, well, things can get a little dicey if we don’t.

The problem isn’t that we are committed to bad things. The problem is that we aren’t committed to the best thing first. When priorities compete, the biggest, loudest, strongest get the most attention. The weeds win. If I didn’t weed my garden, the weeds would always win. The same is true in our lives.

We’re always attracted to the shiny, the attention-seekers. The thing is, God’s kingdom isn’t usually shiny and loud. It’s usually quiet. It’s everyday. it’s about showing up and keeping on, and that can’t compete with the things that promise us all we’ve ever wanted.

The promise is:

We’ll be good parents if our kids are busy and get to do all the things other kids do.

We’ll be secure if we work enough to have a cushion in the bank.

We’ll be liked if we know all the shows and all the music and all the Facebook news everyone else does.

We’ll be important if we look busy.

We need to do a prairie burn of our lives so that good things get first crack at the sunshine.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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If we seek everything else first and then hope there will be room for the kingdom in our lives? We’re going to harvest thorns. We won’t even be able to find God in all the clutter. But if we seek the kingdom first? Jesus says he will add all the important things we truly need.

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6.33)

Everything. That we need.

Do you know what the tragic result is from all of our busyness and distraction? Did you notice that last line of the story?

“No fruit is produced.”

Fruit is the good story we tell with our lives. It’s all about the fruit. That’s the reason God left us here instead of winging us up out of this craziness the moment we got saved. We’re here to produce fruit. And distracted people don’t. It’s so clear in Jesus’ words that it’s tragic.

I think this may be the most common soil of all of them, which means I may be guilty. The world is so distracting and the kingdom so quiet.

Maybe these questions sounds familiar to you:

Why aren’t I joyful?

Why don’t I feel content?

Why are my finances always a mess?

Why is my schedule always nuts?

Why is life so hard?

It could be the answer to all of them is the same—we’ve let the weeds choke out the goodness and simplicity of the kingdom. We’ve made God’s good seeds compete, and they are losing.

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

Seek first the kingdom of God.

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What do you need to weed out of your life? What do you need to focus on? Christmas and a new year are good times to get quiet, look at or priorities, and ask ourselves—am I seeking first the kingdom of God? Does it look like I am when I look at my list of activities? What seeds Is God trying to plant in my heart, and what is it going to take to give them some air and sunshine?

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

We can’t tell a good story with a cluttered life. Decluttering our hearts brings out our best story.