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. 

Blessed is the one

Blessed is the one

    who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

    or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

    and who meditates on his law day and night.

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,

    which yields its fruit in season

and whose leaf does not wither—

    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!

    They are like chaff

    that the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,

    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

— Psalm 1

In this passage, we are struck by the either/or nature of the text. It seems to be saying, blessed are these people, and wicked are these other people. I don’t know about you, but that sort of either/or-ness rubs me wrong. I like to think of myself as a both/and thinker. I like to think that I try to see nuance and try not to get stuck in black and white thinking.

But here is the thing, if we read this text moralistically we would interpret the first 3 verses as talking about the “good people,” and the last 3 verses as talking about the “bad people.” And if we do that, we miss the point of the passage and the point of the gospel altogether.

Jesus came to show there is only one who is good – and that is God. We don’t come to God by doing everything right; that is moralism; that is religion. We come to God by doing things all wrong and then falling upon His mercy, grace, and forgiveness available in Christ Jesus over and over again.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. There is perishing and there is life. These are dichotomies. There is the person who is planted by the spring of water and there is the chaff who gets blown away. But the difference does not have to do with anything we have done – the difference has to do with the grace we have received.

Best Places to Live

I am always drawn to those articles online that announce “Best Places to Live.” I like to click on those links and read those articles. I like to look at the pictures of small towns and big cities and read about why folks think those are great places to live. Every year, the UN asks this question about countries. In 2021 Norway was number 1, Ireland was number 2, and Switzerland was number 3. Every year, Money Magazine also asks the same question about cities and towns in the US. This past year they ranked Chanhassen, Minnesota number 1, Carmel, Indiana number 2, and Franklin, Tennessee number 3. Forbes does a similar assessment, and each group has its own set of criteria for determining the place that wins. 

The ancient wisdom of scripture says the best place to live is in love. You can move to the best place to live according to Forbes, but if you do not live in love there, then you gain nothing. On the flip side, you might be called to live in the slums — the worst place on earth from Money magazine’s point of view — but if you live in the house of love there, you will be rich. 

Love has some enemies. Of course, there is hate — which is an obvious enemy of love — but perhaps more common enemies of love are fear and control. 

Imagine if one day you are driving down Colorado Boulevard (as our children’s church director was!) and you see some people holding signs outside of King Soopers, and you sense God’s spirit whisper to you to go talk with one who seems especially down…but then you think to yourself “what if they don’t want to talk to me, what if they reject me, what if they blow me off?” Do you notice what happened? Fear just became the enemy of love. 

Imagine if you and your partner begin to sense God is leading you to grow your family through adoption, but then you start to realize just how much will be outside of your control. You start to realize that the child you will call your own will have been outside of your care for a certain amount of time before coming home to you; that there will likely be some hurdles in attachment that will need to be addressed and overcome, perhaps over a lifetime. What if you not having control of that journey causes you to back away from God’s call? Control just became the enemy of love. 

May we live in the house of love, no matter where we live today.

The Power of Money

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

— Matthew 6, The Message

When I was in junior high, my mom and I started having what we coined, “special time” each week. Every Thursday night, it would be just my mom and I doing something fun together. It was our “special time.” Usually, that meant going to the mall and walking around. I remember one time we were at the mall, and my mom did something surprising. She bought me a pair of designer jeans! My parents are frugal people and do not spend money flippantly. But on this particular night in the middle of my junior high years, I was really wanting some “Guess” jeans. Yes, my friends, this was the late 80’s. Typically, my mom would say ‘no’ to such an extravagant purchase, or she would tell me to save my money for them. But to my surprise, she splurged and said, “oh, let’s just buy them!” It sticks in my mind because it was out of the norm; a spontaneous act of generosity. 

There was an energy released that night through money.

When we first launched Platt Park Church, I remember we did a year-end Christmas offering. Just after the email went out with the fundraising goal, there was a person in the church who emailed me back immediately and said, “I am sitting at the computer crying as I type this note to you. I feel God is asking me to give this amount to the year-end giving goal.” 

There was an energy released in our church through the gift of money that day. 

I can remember looking longingly at mountain houses, and then having the opportunity to go to a lovely mountain home with another family. My dream was their reality. The picture-perfect house looked like a scene I had studied in Mountain Living magazine. They had what I wanted. Yet ironically, they were unhappy. I watched as they were busy thinking and talking and scheming for something different, better, more. Despite living in what was a dream home to me, there was an unhappiness in them: a tension, discontent, and strife in that house. 

There was an energy released through the money used to buy that home. 

Half of the parables Jesus told are about money. Jesus spoke more about money than almost any other topic except the kingdom of God. Money has power. It has the power to reveal our hearts. This is why Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” There are, of course, all the facts and figures of money: what you can afford, where you invest, how much you have or do not have. There is wisdom in considering our patterns of giving, saving, and spending. But, beyond the logistics of the facts and figures, there is another aspect to money. It is the spiritual dimension of money — the animating story you tell about money. The things you believe about money. The desires you have with money. Money has the power to tell you something about what you treasure most. 

For example, when you say, “I will never be able to afford that!” you are speaking from an animating story. Perhaps it is a story of scarcity, or a story of fear, or an assumption that you know what the future holds. “I will never be able to afford that…” speaks to your belief that you know the future is not going to be good for you. Or, when you see some kind of goodness come into someone else’s life, and you say to yourself sarcastically, “Must be nice for them” you are speaking from an animating story. Perhaps it is a story that is more about you than it is about them; more about your heart believing goodness comes to others more than it comes to you, or not noticing how the goodness of God has come to you. Or, when you run the numbers over and over to determine the exact day when you can stop working and retire, you are rehearsing a story. Perhaps it is a story about security, or freedom, or control. 

Sometimes pastors will say, “God doesn’t care about your money, He just cares about your heart.” That is absolutely not true. God cares about your money and God cares about your heart. In fact, the two are linked. Often it is our desires, stories, and beliefs about money that give us the greatest insight into the actual state of our hearts.