Casting Bread Upon the Water

This past week was Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holiday that kicks off ten days of naming and releasing our sins – both those that we have done and those that have been done to us. I love that there is an entire community worldwide that is pausing to take inventory of their lives, to name their sins and hurts, and to thrust them out of their lives. It is an annual way of cleaning out, of repenting and clearing the slate of our souls before God. I think my favorite parts of this holiday are the embodied practices like the blowing of the shofar and casting bread upon the water to symbolically cast away our sins. So, this week, I told my kids that Jesus was Jewish and we were going to celebrate and practice Rosh Hashanah together. We stood together by our little backyard swimming pool and Russell blew the shofar horn, and we held some bread in our hands. Then we paused to take inventory of things we had done and things we had left undone, ways we have not loved God or our neighbor as ourselves. Then we took our bread crumbs and with a big motion, we threw that bread into the pool. The next day, Tim and I stood alone together by a river in the mountains, and we once again threw our sins symbolically into that flowing river.

It is not any act of my own that brings about repentance and forgiveness, it is only by grace through faith in Christ that these realities become mine. And yet still there is something so very powerful about embodying these internal realities alongside others in visible and earthy ways. I imagine I will keep throwing my bread – that is to say my sins – upon the water in the days to come because those places of unforgiveness keep creeping back up in me and I find I need to name them and release them repeatedly before I am free of them on the inside. Which is why it is especially powerful to me to actually do something with my body rather than only with my mind and heart. Of course I can just do this all silently in prayer, but it is not the same, and this year especially I needed a way to get those impossible feelings out of my body through bodily action. Embodied spiritual practices make what is invisible visible and memorable — this is the value of rituals. To light a candle. To taste the bread and wine. To take myself to a body of water, hold the bread in my hand, throw it, and watch it go away from me. This is a picture of what God is doing for us in Jesus, and it feels good and true to embody it. 

Love big. Be well.

You are the light of the world

Imagine you have just arrived in New York City. You are looking forward to a few days of museums and shows and dining out at some of the world’s best restaurants. You land at the airport, hop an Uber to your hotel, but just as you are pulling up to your hotel something strange happens — the lights go out. You come to find out that the entire city has lost power. It’s not the first time this has happened, you remember reading about the NYC blackout of 1977 and 2003 and 2019 … but you didn’t expect it while you were visiting. So you go into the hotel and they hand you a candle and a flashlight, and you fill out your information on a piece of paper because all the computers are down. And you make your way up the stairs to your room because the elevator isn’t working. It feels a little hot with no AC, so you decide to crack the window.  When you open the window shades you are shocked to see that there is a hotel across the street that is all lit up. You open the window and you hear music! There is a whole lot of joy across the street and you are in a whole lot of darkness. You are baffled, you are wondering, how in the world can there be this much light in the middle of this much darkness? So you decide to make your way downstairs because obviously you’re in the wrong hotel. So you grab your candle and flashlight and make your way back downstairs and across the street in the city that has gone dark. The streetlights are not lit, the houses are not lit, the storefronts are not lit, your hotel is not lit – but this place is all lit up. You walk across the street into an air-conditioned space, and there are TVs all along the walls of the foyer with CNN talking about how dark NY is. You get into a line that is serving food because none of the other places in town can serve food without power. Eventually, you find the manager and you say to her, “I don’t understand, please help me understand, how can there be this much light in the midst of this much darkness?” and she says, “I’ve been getting that question a lot and it’s fairly simple: when we built this hotel we built it with a gas generator. So we are not dependent on what is happening out there to determine what is going on here. We’ve got something in here that because it is not dependent on what is going on out there, gives us in here what out there does not possess. We have something built-in that gives us the ability to transcend the darkness in which we find ourselves.” 

Jesus said to his followers,

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” — Matthew 5:14

Jesus is saying: you have something built-in that gives you the ability to transcend the darkness, you’ve got something in here (in your soul and in the community I have given you called the church) that is not dependent on what is happening “out there” in the world. Jesus is talking about how his followers will show up in a society when it is dark, how they will be light, how they will be IN the dark world but not OF the dark world. It is this idea of Christians and culture – how do you follow Jesus when the world has gone mad? How can you let your light shine? 

May you access your God-given resources to shine the light of the world in your corner of the world today. 

Living into community

Have you ever received a phone call that changed the trajectory of your life? 

I bet everybody could tell of a time when a phone call came that changed your world – at least a little bit. Sometimes it is good news, you get a job offer, or receive the news of the birth of a child. But often it’s a crisis. The doctor’s office calls and the news is not good. Or, there was an accident. Or you get a call from the principal’s office or the police station -and it is something that involves your child. Or there is the loss of somebody you love. 

Sometimes a phone call comes that splits your world in two – there is the life you lived before the phone call and the life you lived after the phone call. 

I am sorry to say this but it is true, one day news will rock your world. And when that phone call comes it will find you living in one of two conditions. It will either find you living in mostly isolation, mostly disconnected from other people, largely on your own emotionally, relationally and spiritually. In this condition, you are not sure if there is anybody you can reach out to. Or, it will find you living into community. In this condition, you will be surrounded by some people who know you and love you because you will have eaten together and laughed together and talked together and prayed together and have done life together. And those people, they will hold you up, and strengthen you and support you. They will not be able to make it all better, but they will keep you together as if by an invisible force. That is what community is. Community is like an invisible source of strength, and God says you will not grow without it, you cannot thrive without it. It will not be the words or advice of these people or their ability to fix the situation that will strengthen you. Like you, they will be powerless to change what is real and true. But the source of strength will come nonetheless through connection, through the witness of one soul to another. When a friend can listen without judgment, see the good and call it forth, especially when you can see nothing but confusion and despair – it can change your life. 

May you be found living into community when the phone call comes. 

What steps can you take today to be living into community?

Take a moment now to thank God for the loving relationships you already have and ask God how you might take steps to further live into community today.

Paying attention

When we first adopted our daughter Lyla from China, my son Russell was 3 years old. He was adjusting to having to share his parents with a new sibling. Sometimes he would do this funny thing where I would be reading books with Lyla, and Russell would say, “Can I get some care?” It was his little way of saying “Pay attention to me, Mommy.” And then later, Lyla started doing this thing where if I was on my phone and she wanted my attention she would actually take my face in her hands and move my face until I was looking into her eyes. Again, saying, “Pay attention to me, Mommy!” 

If we had to sum up every parable Jesus told about the kingdom of God perhaps we could simply say this:

these are stories calling us to pay attention.

Jesus says the kingdom of God is like many things: a farmer sowing seed, a man hunting treasure, a woman kneading dough, fishermen casting a net, a landowner being generous. The kingdom is like seed, yeast, pearl, fish, a banquet, a vineyard, a wineskin. It’s so many different things, it’s hard to say it’s any one thing.

It’s seemingly random. It’s hidden. It’s surprising. It’s disruptive. It’s unexpected. It begins small. It’s something you desperately need or passionately want, but it comes mixed with things that you very much dislike and yet can’t seem to rid yourself of until God says so. It’s something you receive and cultivate. It’s something you seek. It’s something you await and stay ready for. It’s something you’re invited to and come prepared for. It’s something of great value and you need to discover it. It’s something that reverses values and expectations, and you need to adjust yourself to it. It’s something an enemy seeks to destroy. 

But this one thing unites all the parables: pay attention. See, the kingdom is always present but often we are absent. So over and over again Jesus says “pay attention.”

May you have eyes to see the kingdom around you and within you today. 

With Anguish

I read a book a few years ago about a woman who served as a police officer. Her job was to visit the home of someone whose loved one had tragically died and deliver that sudden, terrible news to a stranger. She talked about how there was one consistent thing that always happened when a person received devastating news. She said that their bodies would collapse. They could not stand up. They would fall to the ground, or fall into her, or collapse against a wall. When anguish arrives, our bodies cannot stand up to it. We literally crumple.

There is a painting called, “Anguish” at the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia. Anguish is an 1878 oil painting by August Friedrich Schenck. It depicts an anguished mother sheep standing over the dead body of its lamb, surrounded by a multitude of crows. This is often the image that appears in my mind when I witness anguish. 
Christ experienced the brokenness of our world, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV)

One hymn writer took to this theme with these words:
Man of sorrows what a name
for the Son of God, who came
ruined sinners to reclaim:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
in my place condemned he stood,
sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Guilty, helpless, lost were we;
blameless Lamb of God was he,
sacrificed to set us free:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

He was lifted up to die;
“It is finished” was his cry;
now in heaven exalted high:
Hallelujah, what a Savior!

When he comes, our glorious King,
all his ransomed home to bring,
then anew this song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah, what a Savior! 

I wish for you to never know anguish, but when you do, I pray you might be held when your body cannot stand. 

Learning from the turtle

I was kayaking along when I noticed a turtle basking in the sun. He had his little neck cranked out as far as possible. His greenish-brown face was pointed right towards the warmth of the sun. I stopped paddling to admire him. When I got a little too close he retracted his scared self right back inside his protective shell. I love how God gives us little pictures like this throughout nature. When the turtle is feeling safe and secure he most naturally delights to lift his head towards the sun, but when he feels afraid he retreats back within himself and away from the warm light. 

I wish for you to be like the turtle. I pray that you might find those safe places of dependent trust in the goodness of God’s love and care for you this summer, and to bask in those spots. I hope you can have moments where you freely lift the entirety of your beloved countenance towards the light and warmth of the sun that is God’s eternal love. 

“The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.” ’

— Numbers 6:24-26 NKJV

When the heart breaks

Someone I love is going through a crazy difficult time. Several of us have gathered around her to try to show our love and support. Honestly, before this crisis, none of us were all that close. We used to be, and then over the last few years, so many things came in between us. Something about the pain of this situation though, the sheer desperation in her voice, the feeling of survival-mode kicking in has made us all drop our opinions and differences, and just move towards each other in love, support, and compassion.

On Easter, I shared the story of a wise teacher and his student studying the Hebrew scriptures together. They were discussing the passage that says, “put these words upon your hearts.” The student asked the teacher, why does it say to place these words UPON our hearts and not IN our hearts. The wise teacher said, “All we can do is place these words upon our hearts, and there they stay, until one day when the heart breaks, and these words fall in.” 

When our hearts are breaking, everything changes – with ourselves, with God, with each other. When I am in a comfortable place of confidence and pride, it is easy to be a know-it-all, a fixer, a person who vilifies my perceived enemy. It is easy to see “Us versus Them,” and to get on my high horse about how right I am. But when our hearts break – for ourselves, for each other, for the world – all of that tribe-making, division-seeking seems silly. 

Hearing scripture from the brokenness of your heart changes everything. 

It is no longer about mastering information. 

It is no longer about justifying a battle with a perceived enemy.

It is no longer about winning a culture war.

It is no longer about seeking proof. 

It is more like desperation. 

It is more like survival. 

It is more like thirsting for water in a desert. 

Hearing the stories of scripture with a broken heart humanizes everything. 

It is much more about desperately throwing ourselves upon this grace, this mercy, this way of self-sacrificing love. 

It is much more about transformation than just information.

It is much more about receiving mercy, grace, and love than fighting an enemy or proving a point. 

It is much more about spreading love and seeking the common good than seeking a proof text or researching the evidence that demands a verdict. 

So we place these words upon our hearts — because our hearts are often closed — and there these words stay, until one day when the heart breaks and these words fall in. These are words of life, they are words of resurrection life. These are words of self-sacrificing love. These are words of reality. These are words of nondiscriminatory, revolutionary love. This is what faith expressing itself in love looks like. 

This is resurrection. 

When St. John of the Cross talked about the “dark night of the soul,” that’s in part what he was trying to teach us. There are these moments in life of inconsolable despair, of hitting rock bottom, where we must give up our ego’s plan AND where we must give up even our images of God, give up our illusion of being “better than” another, give up the pursuit of holiness, and then, with those stripped away, God appears. 

That’s what happened with Jesus on the cross. His last words were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, we know that God had not forsaken him, but Jesus calling out shows us that in that moment of surrender, God became known to Jesus beyond even his own imagination. The God of Resurrection broke through. Jesus’ surrender of his limiting view granted an entirely new inbreaking of the Father’s love. 

So, if your heart is breaking today, may you know the breaking heart of God alongside you, and may you emerge more like Jesus from this pain. 

The Gardener

As we read the gospels, we see that when the early followers encounter the resurrection of Christ they are filled with a new vision and they begin to practice resurrection. They begin to live in a way that does not compute. It is bold and without fear. And the same is still true today. When we meet the risen Christ, we are filled with a new vision to make the world a better place, wage peace in this world with God, and break down dividing walls of hostility.

Mary, when she sees the man in the garden, assumes he is the gardener. Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?” She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Sir, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.” Jesus said, “Mary.” Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” meaning “Teacher!”….Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: “I saw the Master!” And she told them everything he said to her.

It is so fascinating that Mary mistakes Jesus to be the gardener. On one level, she was obviously wrong, but on another level — as one commentator NT Wright points out — she was right, because Jesus Christ was a gardener, ushering in a new creation in our world.

In the opening pages of the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, we read of Adam the first gardener in our world, in the paradise of Eden. But then Paradise was overcome with thorns and thistles and hard ground. On Easter, we meet Christ as the new gardener, who comes into the world to remove the thorns and the thistles, to break up the hard ground, and replace it with trees, with flowers, with the harvest.

See, in a mysterious way, when Christ died on the cross and rose again, he was breaking the power of death and evil and unleashing the greatest life-giving force the universe has ever known. It is the force of revolutionary love. It is a self-sacrificing, non-discriminatory, revolutionary love. 

May we follow this gardener Jesus today.

What do I do with my anxiety?

Growing up I memorized 1 Peter 5:7, which says, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Sounds so simple right? Just throw it on God; let God take your anxiety. 

But let’s be honest, sometimes that wisdom feels like it needs some “feet to the street” as preachers sometimes say. What does that really mean? How do I actually cast my anxiety on God? 

I don’t know about you, but anxiety has been my friend my whole life. It ebbs and flows, but it is a constant companion. 

Over the years I have come to realize that it is not just about getting rid of anxiety. In fact, sometimes when I really resist anxiety and too harshly judge it, not only does it grow stronger in me but I also miss the gift it is trying to give. Anxiety can be a reminder to my mind, body, and soul that there are limits to being human. I, in fact, am not God and cannot do it all. 

So, rather than asking, “What is wrong with me!? Why can I not just deal with this?! Just suck it up, buttercup?!” and going down that spiral of shame and self-condemnation, what if instead we were more gentle with ourselves and simply asked, “what do I do with my anxiety?” What if you created for yourself your very own anxiety toolbox. A box that you open up when you feel anxious or afraid, and inside are your tools for responding to anxiety?

Inside this toolbox you might keep some tools like I do, things like: 

  • Deep breathing – I know everyone says this, but seriously it is the first place for me to start. Every. Single. Time. 
  • Meaningful mantras such as, “I am safe and I belong, right here, right now, with these people, in this place, at this time.” or, “I live in the strong and unshakable kingdom of God, that kingdom is not in trouble and neither am I.” or, “Be still and know that I am God.”
  • The Dwell Bible App: lately this one has been such a gift to me at night! If I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back to sleep, I will put this speaker headband over my ears (so as not to wake up Tim), and sync up to the Dwell Bible app which reads scripture to me. Having the words of scripture read to me has been like a washing over of peace, and it helps me stop ruminating about whatever my mind is ruminating over at 3AM!

What is in your toolbox? These are the practical ways in which you cast all your anxiety upon God, knowing that God cares for you. 

A single qualification

I remember years ago, sitting in a therapist’s office, feeling broken, ashamed, and discouraged when I was asked this question, “Is it ok for Susie to get a C-? Is it ok for you to be a mere mortal like everyone else?” It was the right question at the right time. Oh, the power of the right question, posed in love, from a safe space, at the right time! That question really did shift something in me. It was a turning point inside. Sometimes it is hard to explain or put language to moments like this. It was like repentance. It was like making amends with my own heart and with God. It was like penance. 

There really is just one single qualification for people to experience God. Jesus only calls sinners. Good people are out of luck. Perfect people are out of luck. Posturing, posing people are out of luck. God will not meet us in our false selves. God does not even recognize that self. We do not come to God by doing it right, we come to God by doing it wrong. The only qualification is our sin, our shame, our need. When we bring the truth of who we are to God, there is more than enough mercy, grace, and forgiveness every single time. The only thing standing in the way is usually my willingness to lay down my false self with all its performing and posing and posturing. 

Isaiah was a prophet, and he was granted a magnificent vision of God. Yet Isaiah feels disqualified; he is broken, he does not feel worthy. Then an angel takes a hot coal from a fire and touches it to Isaiah’s lips. After that moment of confession, repentance, and the hot coal of healing, we read this, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Only after Isaiah admits his sin, receives the touch of fire, can he experience this call. 

It has always been this way. God only works through sinners. Jesus only calls sinners. Sin — your sin — is the gateway to God. Shame — your shame — is the front door to mercy and the welcome of the Father. The moment we turn towards God, God runs towards us. 

May we be ever more eager to admit our sin and shame so that we might have more and more of God’s mercy and grace made manifest in our lives.