Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Let Jesus Have It

A few weeks ago, one of my Facebook friends shared the included meme about bitterness, hurt, and holding grudges, with the concluding advice that when it comes to these ideas, we need to simply ‘Let Jesus have it.” The argument is that we aren’t meant to carry these burdens, so we should let them go and give them over to God. When it comes to our bitterness, hurt, and grudges, we should let Jesus have it.

It’s a nice sentiment and I appreciated the reminder to place my ultimate concerns in Jesus’ hands and let him deal with my troubles.

But, like I so often do, in the hours and days to come, I found myself overanalyzing the expression “Let Jesus have it.” This phrase is interesting because it can be used in a number of ways—with one being sweet and kind, and the other angrier and more upset. 

Like we’ve already addressed, one way of ‘letting Jesus have it’ is a lovely act of trust and surrender. We acknowledge that the heavy weights we too often bear were never meant to be borne alone, so we offload them onto to the strong shoulders of our Messiah, Jesus. 

But the phrase could also be read differently. In our common lexicon, to ‘let someone have it’ is to unload the full range of our emotions in a verbal or physical tirade. We tell that person what we actually think; we give that person what they have coming to them; we spew out our anger and frustration; we don’t hold back. And while this ‘letting them have it’ outburst might feel a bit relieving and personally cathartic, when this action is directed at another person, it almost always comes out in sinful and relationally harmful ways.

But what if the object of our ‘let them have it’ emotional explosion was God—the way King David expresses his anger and frustration in the book of Psalms? Would this still be considered sinful and relationally harmful? Or does scripture make it clear that God has broad enough shoulders to bear the brute force of our indignation? I would say that the Bible gives us adequate justification for venting our frustrations with God. And in fact, even encourages this sort lament.

So, to return to our original phrase, “Let Jesus have it,” what if both ways of thinking about this expression were faithful responses to our bitterness, hurt, and grudges? Obviously, ‘letting Jesus have it’ through surrendering our worries and struggles to him would be a faithful way of dealing with our emotions. But I would also argue that ‘letting Jesus have it’ through angry, frustrated, vocalized lament is also a health and faithful way of dealing with our problems. We certainly don’t want to stay angry and frustrated forever, but naming our irritations—our bitterness, pain, and relational problems—and voicing our true emotions to God is not an act of weakness or sin; it’s healthy and sometimes necessary.

So, whatever struggles you are dealing with right now, the invitation is to find a way to ‘let Jesus have it.’ Maybe you can do that in a calm, collected, and peaceful manner; or maybe you need to scream out your frustrations to the Lord. I think either way of dealing with our difficulties can be helpful and healthy, but the main point is that our struggles—our pain, suffering, heartache, loneliness, and interpersonal challenges—must be dealt with, one way or another. 

So let Jesus have it.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Two Favorite Parts of the Day

There are two parts of my day that I’ve grown to really love—one in the morning and one in the evening. Each morning at 8:10, we open the front door and head out, as a family, on our daily walk to school. We’re only three blocks away, so it’s a relatively short time together, but I love the opportunity to spend a few minutes in conversation and connection as a family. 

There are no distractions or disruptions, just pure, unadulterated presence. We talk and walk, holding hands and playing with the dog—and when we reach the playground, we hug our kids goodbye, wish them a great day, and then lovingly and watch them all the way to the door of the school. On most days I find myself praying them to the door—asking God’s protection over them; praying they will be kids of compassion toward others; powerlessly placing them in the hands of their teachers, while inviting God’s presence over the whole process. It’s sweet and innocent and I fear for the day when our kids are “too old” for such behavior.

The other moment of my day that I’ve grown to love is walking with Annie, our dog, a few nights a week after the girls have gone to sleep. If Annie hasn’t had enough time to run and play during the day, it feels important to get her out to burn off a little energy before bed. And I find these short, half-mile walks to be incredibly peaceful and relaxing at the end of the day. It’s dark and quiet, the stars are out, the wind blowing lightly through the trees—and I often find myself in prayer and gratitude for the day. My mind and breathing slows, my heart and soul are at peace, and the stresses of the day melt away. It’s a beautifully sacred part of my day.

And I say all of this to encourage you and myself to find these moments of serenity, quietness, and prayer more often. Maybe this evening ritual of walking in the dark needs to become daily, for me, rather than just occasional. Especially in our current cultural context, we need to find peacefulness and connection, with God and one another, during this season of chaos and disunity.

So, what are the places and practices of peacefulness for you. What settles your soul at the end of a grueling day? What brings you peacefulness amid a world of pandemic and social unrest? What rhythms always invite you into a posture of prayer? And are you doing those things with regularity and consistency? Are you committed to these practices, even when busyness appears and stresses arrive?

Let’s make sure we are caring for our entire selves during this time where we could easily neglect our health.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Hope from the Stars

For many of you this won’t be news, but for those who haven’t heard, we’re in store for an exciting astronomical event this month. If you’ve been watching the night sky recently, you have probably noticed two large celestial bodies to the southwest—Jupiter and Saturn (our solar system’s two largest planets)—have been drawing increasingly closer to one another each night. And they’re drawing so near that we’re in pretty rarified air. Jupiter and Saturn get pretty close to each other once every 20 years or so, but on December 21, they will appear closer than they have since the year 1623. They'll be so close, in fact, that the two planets will essentially look like one.

This is extremely uncommon and I’m excited to witness it. But, in my opinion, that’s not nearly the coolest part of this story. There are a few other incredible aspects of this event.

First, this rare occasion where two planets appear (to the naked eye) as one, has a few names: the ‘Christmas Star’ or the ‘Star of Bethlehem.’ And then the second oddity of this story is that this celestial occurrence is just happening to take place on the longest and darkest night of the year—December 21—the Winter Solstice.

So, let’s recap what we know about this story:

On the darkest, longest, most-bleak night of the year…in the darkest, longest, most-bleak year in recent history…the Star of Bethlehem is about to show up in a way that it hasn’t in nearly 400 years.

I mean, come on! There’s no way that’s all true, is there?! Talk about a reason for hope!

I don’t really think and am not necessarily saying that God is purposefully and intentionally sending us this Christmas Star, the Star of Bethlehem, but it sure seems like perfect timing. We need to be reminded that no matter how dark and bleak life seems, God came before, He’s coming again, and, in fact, He’s already here in our presence.

As you stare to the sky in the coming weeks and then witness this astronomical phenomenon on December 21, may you be reminded that our God is still at work, is still showing up in our lives and our world, and can be hoped on during this long, bleak season of intense darkness. Watch and wait for Him. Hope and dream for Him. Longingly, yet patiently, search for Him. The Hope of the World is coming again—watch and see.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

A Lesson in the Lights

Those of you who know me well, know that I LOVE decorating for Christmas. And I especially love decorating the outside of my house. I generally add some new element to my Christmas adornments each year, so after 7 years of home ownership, the decorations are getting a little excessive.

I love pulling up to the house and seeing the lights on. I love sitting on the couch and talking as a family or reading a book, while the Christmas tree glows, the Nativity shines, and the outside lights fill the block with festivity. It’s peaceful. It’s special. It’s magical. And it truly fills my heart with joy.

But perhaps the better way to talk about this experience is that I love having my home decorated for Christmas—because I don’t always love the work it takes to get the house adorned. There are ladders to set up and constantly move. There are decorations to retrieve from hard-to-reach shelving. It’s always cold and usually snowy. You run out of daylight to work in since it’s dark by 5:00. And worst of all: the burnt-out bulbs, sections, and strands. Without fail, there is always the headache of fixing or replacing strands of lights…sometimes even after working while on the ground but mysteriously failing after installation. It can be maddening!

The process can be long, grueling, and frustrating, but the result leaves me with peace and joy, and allows my home to shine forth to our community as a beacon of light and hope.

Which is a pretty good way of thinking about spiritual formation. 

I don’t always enjoy the process of spiritual formation—the rigors of discipline, the early mornings in the Word when I’d rather be in bed, or the choosing of kind words over my preference for snark; loving my enemies when I’d rather seek vengeance or being intentionally attentive for God’s presence in our word when I’m tempted to tune out. Spiritual formation is really hard work and sometimes I’m not up to the challenge.

And yet I love the outcome of discipleship; of striving to follow Jesus more closely; of working out my salvation with fear and trembling. I love the peace and joy that come with a life devoted to Jesus. I love the courage and conviction that mysteriously emerges in my moments of doubt and despair. And I love the work that God is doing in me to help me shine forth into my community as a beacon of light and hope, just like my Christmas lights.

So, in this dark season of Advent waiting—especially in this uncertain time of global pandemic—where it would be easy to lose hope, get spiritually lethargic, and stop growing and progressing as followers of Jesus, let’s remember that the work is always worth it. Let’s commit to the hard work of spiritual formation—constantly striving to love God more deeply, love our neighbors more fully, and develop spiritual rhythms that help us to do each of those more beautifully. And may this be the best Advent ever, since we’ve practically perfected the art of waiting.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What is the Gospel?

I’ve been thinking about this question for the last 24 hours or so. I was chatting with a few students from Montana Bible College last night after basketball and asking them what classes they are currently taking. One student said he was enjoying his evangelism class because, even though he grew up as a pastor’s kid, he wasn’t sure he could have articulated the ‘gospel’ until taking this course.

And it really is a good question, because our answer to that question—what is the gospel?—will drastically impact how we think about God, the world, and our calling as followers of Jesus.

If the gospel is primarily that we are royal screwups who had distanced ourselves from God through our sin and Jesus had to come cover for our mistakes, then God’s going to seem angry, Jesus’ death is going to seem transactional, and our role as Christians is going to be about keeping people out of hell.

If the gospel is primarily about Jesus being a nice person who helped a bunch of people, taught some great messages, and showed us how to live, then God’s going to seem powerless, Jesus’ death and resurrection are going to seem metaphorical, and our role as Christians will be about morality.

If the gospel gets reduced to only talking about what happened on the cross and what will happen when we die, then we lose the historical and cosmic rootedness of our faith and can slip into thinking faith is only about me and my relationship with Jesus.

There are many more examples than this, but the point is that what we believe matters. It plays out in how we live and move and have our being in this world. It affects the way we worship, grow as followers of Jesus, and treat the people around us.

So, I’ve been pondering how I would respond to this question: what is the gospel? What’s the good news that encapsulates who God is, what Jesus did, and how we should respond?

For me, the gospel must tell the whole story of God’s work in the world, must not leave out the problem we’ve caused, must emphasize the love of God that led Jesus to the cross, and must capture the proper response to God’s gift of grace. So, here are a few lines I’ve been mulling over, which I anticipate continuing to work on in the years to come.

The gospel is the good news that, while we have made a mess of God’s perfect plan for creation, God loves us so much that He would come to earth to live, die, and rise again to make things right with the whole world and offer us an abundant life of holistic peace in Christ. Our response to this gracious gift is to partner with God in redeeming the world through loving God, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and helping others start walking in the way of Jesus.

How about you? How would you answer this question, “What is the gospel?”

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Little Acts of Love

The primary Christian calling has always been, still is, and will always be the invitation to love our neighbors. It’s one of the two fundamental things Jesus asks of us and is central to a life of faith.

Now, there are lots of ways to think and talk about who our ‘neighbors’ are. But it seems clear to me that, while we are certainly called to love everyone, this neighborly invitation from Jesus should absolutely be applied to those within our geographical proximity. Yes, we are metaphorical neighbors with our brothers and sisters around the globe, but mostly we’re neighbors with those we rub shoulders with on a regular basis. Maybe it’s the house, apartment, cubicle, or desk next door; or local grocery teller or barista; or the person that always begs at the intersection near our home. The people around us are our neighbors.

But loving our actual, proximal neighbors has become increasingly difficult during this time. Our global pandemic has meant masks and physical distancing, which doesn’t help in our quest for neighborly connection. Plus, this time has meant a plethora of extra responsibilities for so many of us—resulting in an existential exhaustion—where we have little time and energy left to give to others. We’re just trying to survive, without the pressure of reaching out and connecting with new people. 

I get it. I’m there too. It’s easy (and almost justifiable) to abandon this fundamental Christian calling during this time. 

But what if we’re making it too hard? What if we’re putting too much pressure on ourselves and psyching ourselves out of something that shouldn’t be so daunting? What if there were ways we could be sneaky or efficient in how we love our neighbors? 

I’m suggesting that, especially now in this time of pandemic exhaustion, we find ways to love and serve others through things we’re already doing. Where are you already going? What are you already spending your time on? What people are you guaranteed to see each day? And are there little, simple ways that you could love the people you are proximate with in your normal day? 

I was thinking about this as I ate lunch with Larry Baker recently—where he was telling me about baking bread for his neighbors. He likes to bake and he’s already doing it, so he’s chosen to just bake a little extra as a way to bless the people he lives near. Or I was thinking of this as I recently stood in my neighbor’s entryway for the first time ever—drawn together by the fact that my children adore animals and they have a brand new Pug puppy. So we used the opportunity as a chance to get to know our neighbors a little better than we did before.

It doesn’t have to be huge or complicated. Maybe it’s a smile to a stranger or shoveling a little further down the sidewalk or checking in on the elderly woman on the block or a little bigger tip to the waiter than usual. Trust me, I understand the utter exhaustion and desire to withdraw during this time, but let’s look for little, simple ways to know, love, and bless the people God has placed in our lives.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Sustenance of Community

Moment of confession: I’m not doing as well as I wish I were. Now, I am sure I’m no different than most, but just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean I can’t be honest and vulnerable about the fact that this seemingly-unending season of Covid has taken a massive toll on my body, mind, and Spirit. 

It’s exhausting. It’s confusing. It’s saddening. It’s different. It’s disorienting. And it just won’t stop.

And the fact that there’s no definitive line on the horizon and we don’t really know how long before things will return to “normal” has just added to my struggle during this time. There’s indecision and doubt personally—tough decisions about school and work and family and vacations and holidays—but there’s also indecision and doubt professionally and pastorally—tough decisions about what we should be doing and how to keep people safe and how much we should be moving forward into new dreams and ideas.

And when you combine the existential exhaustion with the potentially-crippling indecision and disorientation, that makes for a nasty concoction. I covet your prayers.

But as I’ve processed why, despite all that we currently face, my spirit hasn’t ultimately been broken, I think it all boils down to the blessed community in my life. What has sustained me amidst this earth-shaking season? I think it ultimately comes down to having people in my life that can help shoulder the burden and lighten the load during this weird time. My family. Our church family. Our dear friends. All a blessing and encouragement to me during this rough moment.

Community is what sustains. We need each other. We can’t do this alone. And I’m so grateful to have a support system with which to weather this storm. 

So, let’s start by giving thanks for the beautiful network that is gathered around us during this time. But let’s also not neglect the power and strength of our community right now. Let’s be vulnerable with one another. Let’s be willing to tell each other our struggles. Let’s not put on a brave face and just grin and bear this rough patch. Let’s commit to helping and being helped. On your good days, find someone else to encourage and assist. But on your bad days, be willing to own the struggle and ask for help. Because we’re all fighting a great battle right now and we could really use one another, more than ever. Let your community sustain you through this time.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Unknown Enemy

“An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard.”

The origin of that quote is slightly ambiguous*, but I’ve been thinking about those words a lot recently. I don’t think of myself as someone who has enemies, but I certainly don’t struggle to find people I disagree with, am annoyed by, or dislike. I don’t (usually) treat them badly, but I also don’t always engage them with love, hospitality, and a desire for relationship. It’s a character flaw that I constantly work on.

And this unhelpful attitude resurfaced a few weeks ago. 

Many of you know that I play basketball a few times a week and we have a pretty set group of regulars that normally attend. But, being a college town, with each new school year we often see a few new players arrive at the gym. And one of those newcomers has been driving me crazy. 

He’s good—don’t get me wrong—but he’s not as good as he thinks he is. He rarely passes the ball, he shoots way too much, and he’s generally not fun to have on your team. When on his team, I often find myself checking out of any possession that ends up in his hands, knowing that any effort at getting open will be an exercise in futility. And (moment of confession) it even got so frustrating one day that I found myself subconsciously shouting out, “Pass the ball!” 

That’s not good. That’s not kind. That’s not pastoral. And something needed to change.

But that’s where this original quote comes back into play. I realized that the one thing I could change in this scenario was not the other guy, but myself. I had made him an enemy, but I didn’t even know him. I hadn’t taken the time to ask him questions, hear about his life, and make him feel welcomed into our little community of amateur hoopers.

And now that I have, it’s a whole lot harder to treat him as an enemy. I know where he’s from and what his family did for a living. I know what’s he’s studying at MSU and what he wants to do with his life. And while there’s still plenty of relationship-building to be done, just the little amount of time I have invested in hearing his story and starting to know him as a person has diffused my anger and turned him from an enemy to a potential friend. At the very least, he’s no longer a monster and finally a person.

I fervently believe this idea: that ‘an enemy is a person whose story we haven’t heard.’ So, in our quest to live and love more like Jesus, who constantly taught and consistently lived an ethic of enemy love, let’s start our enemy-loving-endeavors by simply getting to know them and hearing their stories. It’s a radical posture in a world that loves to create enemies out of one another, but let’s welcome this radical invitation to hear, know, and love our enemies.

*some call this quote an old Jewish saying, while others contribute it to Gene Knudson Hoffman (a Quaker Peace Activist)