Monday, September 13, 2021

The Always-Relevant Gospel of Jesus

In a world that is increasingly post-Christian or secular, where fewer and fewer people are involved in organized religion, it's sometimes tempting to believe the lie that Jesus and his gospel are no longer relevant or intriguing. And it's one thing to wonder what the future of the church looks like. It's realistic to question whether our religious practices, as we currently know them, will be sustainable moving forward or will require a massive overhaul. But every so often I'll have a beautiful encounter with someone that snaps me back to reality and reminds that the good news of Jesus is, in fact, still good news. And that happened for me recently.

After a recent worship gathering, a man entered our church and inquired about whether he could play the piano in the basement for a little while. And since we were still busy cleaning up and closing down the church, that was no problem. But while he was in the church basement, he stumbled upon some notes from Bob Snyder's recent Bible study on donkeys and found himself intrigued.

So, as he was leaving the building for the day, he noticed Austin Beard and I hanging out on the fronts steps of the church and stopped to ask us a few questions about the Bible study notes. Which, everyone knows if you ask a preacher a question about the Bible, you risk getting a sermon. And as I unpacked a few ideas from Bob's notes, connecting an Old Testament prophecy to the coming of Jesus, you could see this man's eyes light up with wonder. He was amazed and awestruck by the idea that the Messiah would come not as a conquering warrior atop a mighty steed, but as a humble servant, perched atop a lowly donkey, ready to save the world through peace, not the sword. Jesus came to die, not kill; serve, not dominate; save others, not himself. And despite this being the most simple and truthful way I can imagine to talk about the gospel, you could tell this narrative about Jesus was different than he was used to hearing, and he was caught up in the beauty of the story. So when I informed him that Bob was converting his Bible study into a sermon for the next Sunday, he happily and definitively declared that he'd be back to hear it (and he was).

Austin and I stood there with this man, witnessing the power of the gospel at work, and I was reminded that the good news of Jesus is still as beautiful, profound, overwhelming, and delightful as ever. The form and function of how we do church has changed a myriad of times in the last 2000 years, and will need to take on different formats in the future. But just as God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so the good news of God remains relevant, profound, and life-altering at all times and in all places. So as the winds of cultural change rock the boat of organized religion, may we not lose heart, because Jesus' upside-down message of grace, peace, and love will never go out of style.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Counter-Intuitive and Otherworldly Invitation to Peace

In my devotional time this morning, I found myself reading and praying through Psalm 46, where the psalmist writes, “Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.” Or as the devotional author suggested this be rewritten in today’s language: “He breaks the assault rifles and shatters the drones; he burns weapons of mass destruction with fire.”

Which feels like such a helpful reminder for my soul, at a time where our world is embroiled in conflict – with the most current and personal happening right now in Afghanistan. As you all know, our country suffered a great tragedy this week as 13 of our military service members were killed in a terrorist attack outside the airport in Kabul. And while the immediate response of violent retribution against the perpetrators, terrorist group ISIS-K, might have been justified in a worldly sense, President Biden’s use of the book of Isaiah to justify this violent reaction was extremely troubling. He’s not the first American leader to do this and won’t be the last, but it was still vastly misguided and needs to be called out.


Psalm 46, amongst so many other places in scripture, reminds us that the way of God is always one of peace. What we come to understand most clearly through Jesus’ depiction of God, is that God is a creator of life, not a taker of one. God has always sought to bring about shalom in our world, a right ordering of all that is so we can properly live in harmony with God, each other, ourselves, and creation.


And it shouldn’t surprise us then, that the very next line after this anti-violent section of Psalm 46 is one of the most well-known verses in all of the Bible: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Because the proper response to violence isn’t the clamor of more violence, but a peaceful silence in the presence of God. When we are riled by the din of destruction, we must untangle our unsettled hearts and remember what is ultimately true about our God-soaked world. 


Which, I understand that peaceful non-violence is counter-intuitive and easy to doubt its potential effectiveness. But, to be honest, violence and retribution aren’t exactly solving our world’s problems either, are they? So what do we have to lose in giving peace a shot? Or, as John Lennon so beautifully articulated: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”


The psalmist’s invitation is to trust the God of peace enough to calm our warring hearts and choose a better way forward. When we’re confronted with conflict and tempted toward retaliation, the only godly response is one of quiet humility, where we still our hearts and mouths, remember the shalomic calling of God, and intentionally choose peace and forgiveness over anger and revenge.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

On High Alert with God

Have you ever found yourself alone in the woods--hiking, biking, camping, or backpacking--and suddenly remembered that you're trudging through bear country? Have you ever had that sneaky suspicion something was nearby? You try to ignore the fear, you try to put the thought behind you, but you suddenly can't stop thinking about the fact that you're not alone in these woods after all.


You notice every sound. You're aware of every rodent scurrying through the brush. You're attuned to each gust of wind whistling through the trees. And with each noise, you find yourself wondering which large, ferocious animal is approaching to devour you.


I had this very sensation on Monday morning in Helena. I had dropped our kids off for a few, fun days with their grandparents, but decided to catch a quick mountain bike ride on the ridge of Mt. Helena before heading back home. And I'm not exaggerating about the noticing of noises and the fear of the ferocious that settles in when I'm alone in the wilderness. I hear everything. I constantly scour the area searching for predators. I process whether I'd be able to turn around and outrun a bear on my bike, whether I'd pick the bike up and use it to fight off the bear, or whether I'd just lay down and play dead. And I even find myself talking aloud to myself to warn any animals of my impending arrival.


In short, our senses are on high alert in the wild. We watch and wait and wonder. We see and hear and sense. Nothing goes unnoticed. Because we stand in awe of the power and majesty of God's creation.


But what if we saw our journeys with God as wilderness experiences as well? What if we also approached the Creator with fear and trembling, in awe of God's power and majesty? What if we were on high alert spiritually as well--listening for the sound of God’s spirit moving in our midst; beautifully and appropriately terrified of God’s presence all around; constantly aware of what he’s up to and how he might move in our lives?


So may we be on high alert with God, constantly attuned to his movement and presence around us. May our senses be heightened to where God is actively working in our community. And may we notice these actions and return to tell others of our encounters with the living God.

Monday, May 24, 2021

I Can't Lose You

I came across this phrase recently—I can't lose you—written about someone's relationship with God, and instantly found myself wondering about its multiplicity of meaning. 

My mind works in strange ways. I love rhyme and alliteration. I love puns and cleverly constructed language. I see words, phrases, or ideas and often find myself toying with them, stretching them, and massaging them to squeeze out significance.
 
And I find this specific phrase—I can't lose you—interesting because it can be read multiple ways and have (seemingly) opposite meanings. On the one hand, it conjures thoughts of desperately longing to hold on to God; to not have Him slip from our grasp or our life. And that's a beautiful sentiment, where someone feels their faith slipping from their grasp but remains committed to keeping it as a foundational part of their life. But the phrase “I can't lose you” could also be read as trying to get away from God, but being unable to do so. It could mean trying to get Him out of our lives—trying to run—and just not being able to get away.
 
Now, of course, at first glance the former understanding of the phrase seems more apparently faithful than the latter. What person of faith would want to run away God, desperate to lose Him but unable to do so?
 
But what if those two meanings of this simple phrase are really just two sides of the same coin? What if our faith is a pretty even mixture of desperately longing for God AND simultaneously running from God, ducking and dodging his presence, hoping he never finds us?
 
Because, as I further ponder the dual-meaning of the phrase, that’s actually a more honest description of my life of faith—equal parts saint and sinner; full of both wonder and doubt; faithful one minute and faithless the next. I tend to be a pretty even amalgamation of desperately longing for deeper relationship with God while also resisting God and His presence in my life.
 
But what if naming that reality is actually the path forward in discipleship? What if the refusal to play perfect and hide our doubts and pretend all is well is actually an essential part of our growth? What if honesty and vulnerability are actually vital pieces in our formation?
 
Pretending all is flawless doesn’t pave the way for it to be so. Hiding our imperfections doesn’t perfect them. But owning our struggles, admitting our failures, and illuminating the dark places of our faith...now that makes space for real growth.
 
Am I proud that I’m equal parts desperately trying to maintain relationship with God and desperately trying to lose Him? Well, no. But I’m also not filled with shame over this fact, because knowing and owning this reality is what makes space for growth, spiritual formation, and a more faithful walk with Jesus.
 
So, God, I admit it...I can’t lose You.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

You Can’t Do Everything for Everyone

I just recently finished a short sermon series call “Life After New Life,” exploring the things Jesus does and doesn’t do after his resurrection and what they have to tell us about living as resurrection people. But there were enough ideas to explore that they didn't all fit within the timeframe of this series, so I thought I would tackle one of my thoughts in this format.

One thing Jesus doesn’t do after he rises from the dead…is everything. He doesn’t walk out of the tomb with a massive to-do list. He doesn’t embark on a 40-day campaign to heal every sick person he can. He’s not hurried or harried, frantically trying to get as much done as possible. Simply put, he doesn’t try to accomplish everything for everyone.

He didn’t behave that way before the crucifixion. And he doesn’t behave that way after the resurrection.


Which again, like all the ideas we explored in this series, is surprising and alarming. Anytime I take a few days off from work (like Jesus’ three days in the grave), upon my return I feel anxious and eager to get caught up. Or anytime I have an impending deadline (like Jesus’ 40 days left on earth), I desperately and hectically rush from task to task, trying to get as much accomplished as I possibly can.


I felt this anxiety just a few weeks ago, as I wrestled with whether to attend my uncle’s funeral. There had been miscommunication about whether the memorial would just be for the siblings or for extended family and friends, so I hadn’t received a verbal invitation until just a few days prior to the service. Which also meant I hadn’t adequately prepared to be gone for a few days that week. So, to attend the funeral would have meant neglecting some necessary parts of my job, putting my family in a bind, preaching a lousy sermon that coming Sunday, and doing all of that in a perpetual state of stress. But to stay home and not attend would have meant not seeing my family, not being able to properly grieve the loss of my uncle, and not being able to comfort my dad in the midst of his grief.


I wanted to do everything. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. But there was no way around it: I was going to let someone down. I couldn’t do it all. I couldn’t make everyone happy. I couldn’t help but disappoint. And at one point in that decision making process, I literally found myself laying on the steps in our home, tears welling from my eyes, groaning with paralysis and indecision.


But Jesus doesn’t appear to feel this same level of anxiety, shame, and desperation. He doesn’t fret over unfulfilled expectations or unsatisfied people. He’s not frantically ticking things off his to-do list. Instead, he moves slowly and deliberately—living in peace, sharing meals with friends, offering reconciliation to the guilty and ashamed, and intentionally encouraging and mentoring his disciples.


Living a resurrection life involves learning to live with a shame-and-anxiety-free posture, cutting ourselves slack and not feeling the need to be all things to all people. We don’t have to save the world. It’s okay to not meet people’s expectations. We literally cannot do everything for everyone. Resurrected people don’t live with a savior’s complex, because apparently, neither did our Savior. 

Finding God on the Trail

For those who don’t know, my family spent our spring break this year in St. George, Utah. We spent two days in the car, going and returning, but the six days in between were loaded with activities like hiking, rock climbing, and swimming. But the thing I was most excited for on this trip was the mountain biking. St. George is surrounded with incredible trails, and some of the best we encountered were about 3 blocks from our condo.

Mountain biking has become, over the last decade, one of my favorite activities in the world. I love the thrill of the descent, the speed of each turn, the wind rushing past my face, and my heart stopping for just a moment as I launch from a jump and await my return to earth. It’s always a time of physical exhaustion, yet emotional rejuvenation. I find peace and joy, community and friendship, and relief from the burdens of life.


But as I rode the trails in St. George—and especially the Zen Trail—I also found God. I found myself in a spiritual experience, sensing God’s presence and giving Him praise. And it happened in a number of ways.


First, God was most-certainly apparent in the beautiful, grandiose setting in which I was riding. The trail flanked the cliff of a giant mesa, with stunning views of the desert below and the mountains on the horizon. With the sun beginning to set and the sky as blue and cloudless as possible, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the Creator. I was utterly amazed that God had created all this magnificence. I was caught up in God’s power and goodness and was nearly brought to tears with each pedal stroke through the beauty of creation.


But I also found myself engrossed in worship through contemplation of the minutia of God’s handiwork. As I quickly careened down the trail, narrowly avoiding a myriad of potential pitfalls in the form of rocks and dirt, drops and jumps, rollers and climbs, I found myself thinking about the wonder of the human body. How in the world were my eyes and brain able to absorb the countless bits of information that was necessary to dodge and turn, slow down and speed up, narrowly avoiding disaster a thousand times over?! I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic or inaccurate in calling it a miracle. 


God has designed our bodies to function in ways that vastly surpass my understanding. He doesn’t just create the mountains and deserts, rocks and dirt, sunsets and blue skies. His creative work is also intricate and delicate, down to the tiniest detail of the human body. So, once again, I found myself worshiping our great God. I was grateful for both his monstrous power and the intricate detail of his interaction with our world.


So, while perched atop my carbon steed, meandering through the Utah desert, I was reminded of the ability to worship God everywhere and for everything. And I’m committed to doing that very thing in all the normal moments of my day, and not just while on vacation from reality.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Cultivating the Right Spirit

On my drive up to Bridger Bowl this Monday, I found myself in the midst of a simple miscommunication that sadly resulted in a very angry man hanging his head and his middle finger out his window and shouting in a violent tirade. Fortunately, I wasn’t able to hear the specifics of his outcry, but while I’m not a professional lip-reader, I’m assuming the words he was screaming would not be appropriate for me to share with you all. 

It was about 9:15am on Monday morning, so I found myself in the long line of skiers making their way to the mountain. I wasn’t in a hurry (like some people often are) and had no desire to pass the cars in front of me (like some people often do). But suddenly I noticed that the car in front of me had drastically slowed down and the driver had extended his hand from window and appeared to be waving me on to pass. I checked to make sure it was safe and then quickly skirted around him. 


But I quickly realized that he hadn’t been waving to me, but was signaling to a plow truck that was waiting to merge into the long line of traffic. I tucked in behind the plow to contentedly and patiently continue my journey to the ski hill, but not before being presented with a barrage of angry words and actions from the man I had passed. And I mean a vein-popping, red-faced sort of ANGRY. This guy was SO MAD. And he offered the same furious gestures to the two vehicles behind me that misunderstood what was happening and passed him as well.


The thing that shocked me most about this encounter, however, wasn’t the content of his tirade, but how quickly and instinctively it emerged. He didn’t have to mindfully and intentionally conjure up his response. He didn’t take a moment to process his emotions and then react accordingly or appropriately. He just erupted, without hesitation.


Which means that this man’s life has cultivated a spirit of frustration and anger, emotions that sit bubbling, just below the surface, ready to explode at any given moment. And I’m really not trying to judge him, because I do the same thing at times. I’ve never found myself screaming obscenities out my car window (or using my middle finger in that sort of way), but I certainly react poorly and regrettably at times. Maybe he had a really bad morning. Maybe he has a family member who is sick or struggling. Maybe he’s suffering from relational or vocational stress. I totally get it. But for whatever reason, he hasn’t cultivated a peaceful and generous spirit that will emerge as kindness and love in his moments of anxiety, pain, and struggle.


We all foster a certain lifestyle that will naturally rise to the surface in our moments of crises or uncertainty, for better or worse. Jesus says it this way:


“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)


Whatever we’re nurturing—whether grace, peace, generosity, and love; or judgment, anger, greed, and hatred—will dictate how we react and respond to the onslaught of encounters we experience each day. So, let’s make sure we’re doing the hard work, up front, of cultivating a righteous spirit that will subconsciously emerge as forgiveness, generosity, peacefulness, and love when we’re faced with trying situations. Let’s make sure that what we’re storing in our hearts is the sort of thing we’d want bubbling to the surface—because it surely will.

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.