A season of discontentment

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Phil 4:11-13

What are you thankful for this year? We are entering a season in which our whole country will gather around the idea of giving thanks, but thankful hearts quickly fade as thankful Thursday turns to Black Friday. Thankfulness is recognizing the good in your life and being rightfully grateful for it. Health, a delicious meal, a day of rest, a job that pays the bills. While keeping the tradition may seem strained for many of us after a grueling year, perhaps we should take a step past thankfulness and ask ourselves, what is going to make me content in this holiday season? 

Contentment is similar to thankfulness but says I need nothing added, I need nothing more, what I have and what I am is enough. I can be thankful for many things, but still find myself discontent; I want more. More date nights, more vacation, more clothing, more cookies. And this hunger for more is insatiable. We will even feel it as we sit around the dinner table discussing thankfulness while wondering if we might have one more piece of pie and filling out a Black Friday shopping list. Our natural disposition is to want more; our natural disposition is discontentment. We are never satisfied. Thankfulness and contentment share a corner, but they are very different things. 

While thankfulness is a popular concept, our culture doesn’t celebrate contentment. Contentment can sound boring, unambitious even. Beyond the consumeristic impulse towards more, there is a whole movement around the idea that we deserve more or better in our lives. Don’t settle, always pursue more for yourself and your life. More is not only a consumeristic tool, it is a spiritual practice for the religion of self. Pursue more of everything that will make me better, whole, complete. Don’t you want more in your life? More is the foundation of our culture. And in this coming holiday season that can easily be about acquiring things, what could possibly make us content? There is so much we desire. From wanting to be with family that we cannot see due to Covid, to wishing we had nicer things or someone to share a New Years’ kiss with. How can believers pursue contentment in a season that more often produces discontentment?

Paul says he has learned in whatever situation, in every and any circumstance how to be content: I can do all things through him who strengthens me (13). While Paul doesn’t give us a nicely packaged guide to become contented people, it is Jesus who is the source. To understand what this means, we must walk with Paul and learn his heart. Now more than ever, we need to learn what Paul calls the secret to contentment. 

Finding joy in people and relationships, not things

Throughout Philippians, Paul celebrates people. They are his pride and treasure. He rejoices in the Philippian church for their partnership with him in the gospel saying that he yearns for them all with the affection of Jesus (1:7-8). He boasts in Timothy and Epaphroditus because they are just as interested in others as they are in themselves (2:19-29). Though Epaphroditus had grown ill and almost died, he was most distressed to hear that the Philippian church was worried about him. He was equally interested in their welfare as his own. Paul loves these people and rejoices in seeing them thrive in their love for the gospel. Paul prizes people, not things, and it is the first key to his secret of contentment.

Holiday application: Make this season about other people. Imitate Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus by being just as interested in the lives of your family and friends as you are in yourself. 

Placing our hope in the Gospel

When we are in a consumer mindset always pursuing more, our hope is in what we have. We begin to believe the subtle lie that if I have the right things, then I will be happy. Though this may seem insignificant, anytime we place our hope in something other than the gospel, we are crossing into idolatry— a discontented, hungry heart. But Paul shows us another way. 

Paul is arrested and thrown in prison for preaching the gospel but says it is good to be there because he can preach the gospel and win more to Christ (1:12-14). He says that it does not matter if he lives or dies because to live means preaching Christ more and dying means he gets to be with Jesus (1:19-26). He says that though he was once regarded as an important thinker and teacher, he considers it to be worthless in comparison to knowing Jesus (3:4-11). Paul’s hope is not in his freedom or social status, it is exclusively in Jesus and his promises. In Colossians, another book Paul wrote, he says when Christ who is your life appears (3:14). Christ is Paul’s life. All of it. What an incredible thing.  

Holiday application: Daily ask yourself where your hope is today. What are you trusting or hoping in that is not Jesus? Imitate Paul and actively choose to put your hope in Jesus today, not in things or circumstances. 

The possessions we need

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content… I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Paul’s contentment is found in Jesus who strengthens him. Here are three possessions that every Christian needs. 

  1. Knowing Jesus. I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him (3:8). Christians should pursue knowledge and intimacy with Christ before all else. Knowing Jesus is the source of all contentment and we must know his words, his character, and his voice. 
  2. Humility. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (2:3-4). When we are humble and consider others more significant than ourselves, we start to look like our servant King Jesus. Humility breeds contentment because we are no longer the most important person in the room. Chase after it.
  3. Peace. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (4:4-7). As we lay aside anxiety, seek the Lord in prayer and practice thankfulness, the peace of God fills our hearts and minds. A peaceful heart that has stopped hungering after other things is a heart that is content.

Holiday application: Address your contentment equation. Fill in the blanks _____+______+______= contentment. Then reframe it to Paul’s equation. Joy in people + Hope in the gospel + Pursuing the things of Christ = contentment.

5 Reasons we skip time in the Word (and 5 ways forward)

The Christian life is full of tension. But no concept must be held in tension more tightly than grace and works. The conversation I have more often than any other with other believers is, “YOU NEED TO SPEND TIME IN GOD’S WORD! But remember that you are saved by grace and having quiet time does not earn your salvation. But because God loves you so much, spend time in your Bible and get to know him!” There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, but there is much we can do to get to know him better, to walk in His ways, and be transformed into his likeness. One of these ways is reading the Bible.

I’ve heard many reasons for not reading scripture—I don’t get much from reading the Bible, I don’t have time to read scripture, it’s boring. While these sentiments are common, we cannot let them go unchecked. The Bible is the primary way we get to know God, so if we are going to follow him well, knowing God’s word is critical for our spiritual growth and health. Though everyone has different reasons and difficulties with reading scripture, here are five reasons that I have personally found spending time in God’s word can be challenging, and how to work through them. 

The Bible about God, not you. I always trend towards self-centeredness, so it is no surprise that when I open my Bible, I often want it to be about me. But the Bible is primarily about God, not a tool for my own self-discovery. Something that campus ministry taught me was the importance of other-centeredness. Though I could happily talk about myself in one-on-one meetings with students, I was there for them and to get to know their story. The same goes for our relationship with God. We are his creation and he has made us to know him

The way forward: humility. When you open God’s word, focus on learning more about him, his character, what delights and angers him, and the way he has made us. Ask the Spirit to teach you about who you are in the context of your relationship with the one who made you and knows you. 

Misplaced expectations. What do you expect when you open your Bible? An emotional experience? To hear an audible voice from heaven? That scripture will always speak perfectly to your circumstances? The most important thing I learned from pre-marital counseling was that expectations dictate relationships. We must identify our expectations of reading scripture and then determine if they are biblical expectations. It is not wrong to expect God to show up when you read the Bible, in fact, God promises that he will—that his spirit will give us understanding and insight into his word as we read it. But in order to remove disappointment or frustration from time in the word, we must identify what exactly we expect.

The way forward: expecting the Spirit to do what he promises. The Holy Spirit’s job is to bear witness to who Jesus is by teaching us his words, reminding us of what he did (Jn 14:26), and expanding our hearts to love him more (1 Jn 3:20). He also helps us see our sin, leads us to repentance (Jn 16:7-8), and sanctifies us to make us look more like Jesus (2 Cor 3:8). But what this looks like day to day is really simple things: a verse that comforts us, a story that challenges us, seeing something beautiful in the person of Jesus, a heart that repents of sin. These are the everyday works of God; we need to sharpen our vision to see them.

I haven’t addressed my psychology. If I’m honest, I often operate as if God is a little bit annoyed with me. He wishes I was less sinful, holier, more prayerful—he wants me to get my act together. I know that this is not what God thinks about me, but this lie seeps into how I approach God in my quiet time and changes my posture. I find myself edgy, trying to do more or be better, and quickly walking away from the gospel of grace that the Bible sings over me. If we allow our emotions to tell us what God thinks about us, we will hate spending time with him.

The way forward: believing the truth. Answer this question: what does God think about you? Does he like you? Our emotions are important and powerful, but we cannot give them the privilege of telling us who God is. We must rely on God’s own words for that, and he says that he delights in us (Ps 70:4), adopted us as his children (Gal 4:5), forgiven us (1 Jn 1:19), promises to show us grace every single day (Lam 3:22-23), and does not hold a grudge against us (Ps 103:12). We must choose to measure our emotions against the truth, and believe what God says about us.

I don’t feel like reading scripture. The question of authenticity is primary for our generation. If I don’t feel like doing something, I shouldn’t because it wouldn’t be authentic. But this is a short-sighted way of living life. If I only ever did what I felt like doing, I wouldn’t get up in the middle of the night to comfort a screaming child, I would probably lose my job because I don’t feel like working very often, and my wallet would be hurting because I don’t always feel like cooking dinner and would rather eat out. The reality is that much of life is comprised of doing things that we don’t always feel like doing, but we do them anyway because they are valuable, good for us, or make us better. If you are a Christian, your life belongs to God and we must do what he asks of us, whether we feel like it or not. 

The way forward: showing up. Showing up before the Lord, reading his word, spending time in prayer even when we don’t feel like it sows the seeds of a big harvest. The biggest lesson I have learned about spending time with God is consistency. I won’t always have an amazing quiet time, but I have come to love my 30 minutes of time before Jesus. Showing up when it’s hard paves the way for enjoyment and delight in God’s word. 

I’m in a hurry. The easiest reason to neglect time in scripture is because I am busy. But the reality is, I will always be busy, and if I wait to prioritize time in scripture for the day I am not busy, I will never start. In spite of busyness, everyone makes time for the things that they love. I love hiking and running and being outdoors and I will get up early, postpone lunch, and do anything I can to get that time outside. We prioritize and pursue the things we value. So the real question is, why don’t you value time in scripture? This is the much bigger question hiding underneath our claims of busyness and it is the question with which we must wrestle. If you find yourself not making space for God, his word, or prayer in your day, you need to ask yourself why.

The way forward: an honest look at your relationship with Jesus. Being honest with yourself and the Lord is essential and there are reasons for why you don’t make time for God in your day. We each need to identify what those reasons are. Maybe you find scripture confusing, or you are afraid that if you read the Bible you will hear things you don’t like. Whatever your reason might be, you need to identify it, bring it before the Lord, and ask him to help you work through it. We must learn to prioritize Christ in our lives because he is much better and more valuable than anything else we might put first.

Eat the book

A few years ago a friend of mine who is not a Christian criticized Christians for not embodying their faith. Their faith was mostly about knowing a set of rules, but they didn’t seem very joyful or alive. While this critique was harsh, it also felt true. It is all to easy for Christians to know things about God without ever digesting that knowledge, getting the teaching of Christ into our bellies where it might course through our bodies and make us different. When we settle for training our minds and neglect bringing our whole bodies into alignment with the knowledge we profess, we find ourselves living an undernourished faith. But this is not the way it is supposed to be.

In Revelation 10, John listens to an angel in heaven read about the mysteries of God from a scroll. His voice is like a lion’s roar, thundering across the land. Intuitively, John moves to write down what he hears, but the angel forbids him from writing down the words and rather invites him to eat the scroll. Though Revelation may seem to be full of bizarre snippets such as this, Revelation is all about worship. Here, John is being instructed about what true worship is—it is not simply knowledge, writing down information so our minds might absorb it, worship is about our bodies. 

In response to this passage, Eugene Peterson says, Why, that [writing the words down] would be like taking the wind or breath out of the words and flattening them soundless on paper…It’s as if the heavenly voice said, “No, I want those words out there, creating sound waves, entering ears, entering lives. I want those words preached, sung, taught, prayed—lived. Get this book into your gut; get the words of this book moving through your bloodstream; chew on these words and swallow them so they can be turned into muscle and gristle and bone.” And John did it; he ate the book.

Most of us are in danger of living a life flattened on soundless paper. Christians can fall into a way of life that exists primarily in the mind, the place of knowing and thinking, but fail to fully digest our knowledge. This has always been a religious person’s problem; Jesus criticized the relgious people of his day for this very thing because knowing and believing something that does not produce congruent actions is called hypocrisy. Those pharisees knew the law and the traditions, but their religion was like a fine table set at a party at which no one feasted; they were missing the point of all that knowledge. Their concepts never nourished their heart; they hadn’t eaten the book. And unfortunately, this is the modern churches’ problem too. We are an undernourished people, hungry for intimacy with Christ and settling for knowledge of him. We need to be people who eat the book. 

An undernourished people

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them. -Ezekiel 3:1-5

The prophet Ezekiel receives his call from God to be a prophet to Israel, but rather than filling Ezekiel’s mind with perfect theology or knowledge of God’s law, God goes for his gut. He wants to fill Ezekiel, get his word inside his body, coursing through his bloodstream and sustaining his muscles for the task ahead of him. 

His task to is prophesy to Israel, God’s own people. These people knew God. They had the law to instruct them and their story of God freeing them from Egypt so that they might dwell in his presence and worship him. And yet, Israel had not gotten the law into their hearts, they had not come to hunger for the ways of God. Later God and Ezekiel would have a conversation about Israel in which God calls them dry bones, dead and wasted away. The question of the conversation is can they come alive again? Is God able to raise them back to life, to put muscle on their bones, give them breath and empower them to walk in the ways of God?  

The same question goes for us. When our faith is predominately an intellectual faith or a faith situated in our minds, we are on the path to becoming dry bones, bodies that are unnourished and wasting away. It is not because our minds are unimportant—- on the contrary, they are critical to our faith and we are commanded to used them (Mt 22:37)— but a faith that is only about knowledge will always trend towards hypocrisy. We must put what we know into action, we must be people who don’t just read the book but eat it. We need to hunger for more than knowledge about Jesus, we must hunger for him—his presence, love, and peace in our lives. And fortunately, this is exactly what God wants for us. 

The nourishment we need

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. – John 6:53, 55 

Though Ezekiel and John were invited to eat the written word of God, we are invited to something much stranger—to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ. It is no coincidence that Jesus chooses food to be the way his people remember him and participate in his covenant. He knows that humans trend towards anemic lives that lack the fullness we were made for. So he chooses food. 

My sister is a naturopathic doctor who says that food is the fastest way to teach people to connect with their bodies. When we eat wholesome, nourishing foods, our bodies are fueled and empowered to do what they are made to do. Food changes us from the inside out, repairing our cells, giving us energy, and teaching us to hunger after the right things. Just as the word of God nourished Ezekiel to fulfill his calling as a prophet to Israel, to speak against their ways and call them to repentance, Jesus, the incarnated word of God, offers himself as our spiritual nourishment so that we might live sacrificial lives and fulfill our calling as Christians to follow him. God is not interested in only teaching our minds, he is first and foremost interested in getting into our hearts and guts. As we feast on Jesus, the true word of God, he softens our hearts, strengthens our limbs for his work, and empowers our bodies to move through the world like he did. 

How to eat the book

Prioritize intimacy with Christ over knowledge about him. It is much easier to learn things about God than to get to know him. We need to know him, and knowing God comes from spending time in his presence, listening to him, and loving him for who he is rather than what he can do for us. He is more than worthy of our time, let’s give it to him.

Don’t be a hypocrite. Be hearers and doers of the word (Jas 1:22-25). Ask yourself where and why you aren’t taking God’s word seriously. Repent and ask the Spirit to make you hungry. Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt 6). Make this your prayer: that you would hunger after the ways of God, not your ways, not the ways that are comfortable, but the ways of God. 

Remember that our God wants to nourish us. In Christ, the incarnated word, God has revealed himself to us and given us the same spirit that gave breath and put sinew and muscle back on those dry bones. He is able and he wants to nourish us. Let’s ask him to do so.

The Sin of Growing Up

Theology for the Pandemic

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. – GK Chesterton

Again has been the theme of the pandemic for me. Another day dawns and I do it all again. Get to work, take the girls to the park, squeeze a run in during lunch, cook meals, clean the house, work some more. Again, and again, and again. Time is trudging along, but each morning I wake up and hear the word, again. Do it all again today. 

But this again hasn’t been the delighted shriek that my girls emit on the swingset as they ask to “go to the moon” again, it has been an exhausted sigh. A friend of mine was lamenting how mundane life feels right now; it’s enough to make one feel depressed, or at least apathetic. I often dread the morning again as I wake to my daughters crying and know that today will be tight with work meetings and cleaning up crushed goldfish and wondering “is that pee or water?”

But again is a fundamental reality of being human and the pandemic has only heightened our experience of repetition. We will eat meals, brush our teeth, clean the house, buy groceries, get in fights, and go to sleep again and again until the day we die. We are creatures of again, we are made for again. So why does again feel like a curse instead of a blessing?

GK Chesterton chastises adults in their inability to withstand monotony, arguing that children understand the heart of God, and the heart of being human, in a more thorough way than adults. He calls our weariness of repetition weakness, a diminished capacity that ought to draw us closer to our creator God who delights in each sunrise and sunset, every single daisy. 

The Christian faith is built around repetition, agains that produce meaning as we faithfully run the course. Like practicing a free throw or scales on the piano, Christian formation occurs as we accumulate agains. Time in scripture slowly accrues a breadth of knowledge. The habit of prayer tends to draw our eyes off of ourselves. Christian life celebrates agains because to do it again is to be human. God has made us to need agains so that we might know ourselves and know him better. 

But as Chesterton points out, the beauty of again can become warped in adulthood. Not unlike the curse over humanity as Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden, again will rule over us, making us bitter and unfeeling, darkening our eyes, and stealing our joy rather than giving it.  Even giving again a spiritual dimension does not exempt our lives from monotony or suffering in repetition. I have struggled more than ever with my current list of agains, as a mother to young children in the midst of a really difficult year. And yet this is my life, and my life is happening in the agains. We must be willing to accept and celebrate that we are made for repetition and look to our Father, and our children, to rediscover the beauty of again

Recovering a fierce and free spirit 

One of the reasons children are fierce and free is because they are unencumbered by the cares of the world. Though part of growing up and reaching maturity is navigating the brokenness and suffering of our world, Jesus exhorts us to retain a childlike heart; a heart that trusts completely in the goodness and provision of the Father. Just like my children trust me to care for them and give them what they need, we must take seriously Jesus’s words to not worry about tomorrow because our Father in Heaven loves us and promises to provide for us (Mt 6:34). It is easy to read Jesus’ words about caring for the birds of the air or asking us to lay our burdens at his feet and only consider them to be a nice sentiment (Mt 11:28). Jesus wasn’t kidding, and there is no virtue in bitterness or cynicism when it comes to the words of our Savior. If we ever hope to recover a childlike heart, a fierce and free spirit, we must learn to trust our Father like our children trust us. We must learn to have a childlike faith without closing our eyes to the world around us. 

The cure for monotony

Creativity kills monotony. Though I will likely be doing my current routine of again for many more months, it does not need to be monotonous. Each morning, we can choose to reflect our creator as creative people. Though many people do not consider themselves to be creative, they are wrong. Every person is creative. Every person has the capacity for imagination. It is part of what it means to be created in the image of our creator God. Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist when he grows up.” Picasso and Chesterton are in agreement that maturing into adulthood most often strips us of something that we were meant to be. We must recover our ability to be creative in the ways we approach our children, our work, and our tasks with new eyes. We must ask our Father to enliven our imaginations to see our world bursting with life and full of hope.

Being the child

Perhaps the best way for adults to recover childlikeness is to remember that we are God’s children. Though my husband and I grow weary of our daughters cries of again, our Father does not. He is not annoyed when we confess the same sins and pray the same prayers. Our Heavenly Father says, “Again!” He wants us to come to him again, to delight in his goodness again, to cry out for help again, and to have our imaginations set ablaze with the hope of the gospel again. As children of God may we learn to exult in the Again of the Father, finding joy in our repetition just like our Father does. Again and again.

Running the Paths of the Lord

Theology for the Pandemic

Like many people, I haven’t set foot in a gym for seven months. I had gotten into the habit of going to the gym rather than running outside largely because pushing a double stroller on a run is miserable. But where Covid has taken away, it has also given. Leaving the blaring TVs and machines at the gym behind, running outdoors has reawakened a love for the Lord that going to the gym had dulled.

At some point in college I stumbled across Psalm 119:32; “I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.” Running the bluffs in Iowa, this verse became a mantra that would come to mind when my breath got short and legs wore out. 

I run the path of your commands for you have set me free. With a literal path unfolding before my feet, running became a place of worship and prayer, a time to be quiet in the woods, soaking in the beauty of trees and streams and limestone bluffs. Running felt like freedom for me, and the Lord was meeting me on those trails, reminding me of his presence and promises, and becoming a faithful friend as I poured out my heart to him. Two years into raising twins, I was beginning to forget the joy of running and opportunity for intimacy with Christ that time on a trail produced. 

But as I have gotten back into running, these words have challenged me in a new way. A literal translation is, Whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran.”   What does a widened or free heart look like? What does it mean to run in the path of God’s commandments? Though running makes me feel free, obeying commandments can often feel like the opposite of freedom. Our culture tells us that to be a free individual, perfectly authentic to your true self, we must cast off any rules that might inhibit us. But on the other hand, most Christians will find themselves at some point thinking that their freedom comes from how good they are or how well they keep the rules. But this verse rings in my ears asking me to consider more deeply the widened heart that God gives and the freedom that God gives his people as they run the path of his commandments.

A Widened Heart 

The concept of a widened or expanded heart occurs in a few other places that help us to understand what it means. Isaiah says that Israel’s hearts will be widened when they see God’s glory revealed and every nation proclaims Yahweh as Lord (Is 60:5). When Solomon became King of Israel he asked God for wisdom and God gave Solomon “wisdom and very great insight and a breadth of understanding (the same language as a widened-heart)” so that he could rule Israel in a godly way (1 Kgs 4:29). Paul says that his heart is wide open because of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in him, and he desires that the Lord would widen the hearts of the Corinthian church as well (2 Cor 6:1-13). God opens our hearts so that we can love him more and do his will.

One of my favorite things about running is being outdoors and seeing the splendor of God’s creation: vast skies, mountain vistas, dense woods. Running provides the quickest entry point for me to stand in awe of God’s glory. But running and spending time in prayer while I run also propels me back into my day with a deeper resolve to follow the Lord. I find myself back at home, stretching and thanking the Lord for his goodness and also that he has once again reoriented my heart to desire him and know him. This is what it means to have a widened heart; a heart that God has broadened to love him more and compelled to act in his ways (run in his commandments). But God does not widen our hearts just once, he widens it again and again. This is why the literal translation is whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran. Our God desires to widen our love for him whenever we need it, sending us out to be people who bear the image of Christ to our nieghbors.

Running with purpose

Whenever you widened my heart, the way of your commandments I ran. Running in God’s commandments is the response to a widened heart. In 1 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the church to run with purpose. 

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly…But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. – 1 Cor 9:24-27

Just as a serious athlete trains with the goal of winning their race, Paul argues that Christians must purposely pursue the ways of God. Jesus says that if we love him we will keep his commandments (Jn 14:15). With hearts widened to love God, we should run in the way that God says is good. Our running should be disciplined and self-controlled as we take his commands to heart, earnestly desiring to make his ways our ways.

But command-keeping can become a religion in itself. God gives us commandments so that we might know what a holy God is like, and so that we might begin to look like him as we obey his commands. But all too often, we can interpret commands and obedience as the ways that we earn God’s love. Though Paul charges us to run, to not sit back in our faith, but to pursue the things of God with discipline and zeal, our running is always in response to the widened heart that our God has given us. And more than that, we run in response to our running Father.

A Running Father

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. – Luke 15:20

In the story of the prodigal son, after the son has abandoned his father, spent his inheritance, and insulted him in the worst possible way, the son returns home hoping he might become a servant in his father’s house. But rather than shaming his son because of his disobedience, instead of being disappointed by his failures, the father ran. The father of a disobedient, small-hearted son, ran towards his child extending him the grace and forgiveness he did not deserve. In this action, this running father widened his son’s heart; he showed him love and grace. This is the heart of our Heavenly Father. A gracious God who runs towards us so that we might run the path of his commands, hearts free, knowing that we are loved. 

The Joyful Loss of Covid Weddings

Theology for the Pandemic

Covid has reduced our lives to their simplest terms, but this reduction has allowed us to recover the beauty of a simplified life. Home cooked meals. Uneventful weekends. Sweatpants. Lots of family time. Most of our life has been simplified, including weddings. 

I’ve attended three Zoom weddings in the past few months, and they have been striking. Any fairy tale sentimentality is stripped back by a full dose of reality. The world has not stopped turning for this couple, and they are fully aware of it. People are missing–siblings, grandparents, best friends. Masks remind everyone second by second that something is amiss that even love does not overcome. But in spite of the harsh reality that there is a raging pandemic unlike anything we have seen in the past century, there is something profoundly beautiful happening during zoom weddings.

The reality check: grief and joy

Life exists in a tension between beauty and grief, hope and suffering. But Covid weddings have captured this dynamic in an elevated way as they allow grief to show up like an uninvited guest. Weddings are supposed to be the best day of your life precisely because it is a day without grief or loneliness or sadness, a day that is meant to offer supreme happiness–bliss. But Covid has knocked this idea off of it’s pedestal, and its actually a good thing. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4

Just after John’s vision in Revelation of the marriage supper of the Lamb, he sees the new Jerusalem, the city where God will dwell with his people in perfect wedded bliss. At this wedding death shall be no more and every tear will be wiped away. 

Weddings often feature crying; I cried when as my dad walked me down the aisle, Andrew cried when he first saw me in my dress. But these are the tears of hopeful expectation or joyful remembrance. At the Covid wedding, there are tears of joy, but also tears grief over loved ones that aren’t there, the brokenness of our world, and a day that did not go according to plan. 

But in spite of sorrow that tinges this wedding day, Covid weddings are more in tune with reality. They embody the truth that the days ahead of you will not all be easy. Your life will be marred with loss and sadness just as much as it is blessed with joy. And that is ok. 

As Christians, we don’t need to pretend that the brokenness of our world isn’t there, to sterilize a day from sadness in an attempt to imagine a world without pain. We have this perfect wedding day as our hope that we look forward to. At the marriage supper of the Lamb there truly will be no more tears or pain or grief. The beauty that we so long to create in earthly weddings will be realized and the tears will be of remembrance for the broken world that our savior has restored and redeemed once and for all. Whether we like it or not Covid weddings remind us that we are not there yet and force us focus center our attention to the purpose of the wedding ceremony: the covenant. 

The Beautiful Covenant

A covenant is a promise; two people promising to stick it out for better or for worse. Covid weddings offer an embodied experience of “for worse” in a live fashion. At my wedding, our pastor pointed out that we will probably never look this good again. We were getting married at a “for better” moment in our lives. It was easy to marry Andrew when I wasn’t exhausted all the time, when I felt like our world was stable albeit broken. But when the world is falling apart before your eyes, protests threaten your second wedding venue, or you may be deported because you are an international PhD student, you are getting married in a “for worse” time (all real examples). 

The Bible begins and ends with a wedding, and all through the middle God chooses to describe how he relates to his people as a husband loving his wife. Biblical marriage is sacramental because it points to the greater spiritual reality of the church’s ulitmate and forever marriage to Christ. In Ephesians 5 Paul says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Paul quotes Genesis 2, anticipates Revelation 21, and says that human marriage is actually about Jesus and his bride, the church. 

This is what weddings are about, and this is why people are getting married in the middle of a pandemic. I have heard about weddings being indefinitely postponed, a couple opting to wait it out. But when a wedding is about this beautiful covenant, a promise that embraces suffering with joy, it is a celebration that can’t wait. Covenant chooses to enter into a broken and beautiful relationship because it is a physical reminder of God’s promises to his people. These small weddings in a broken world are acts of faith that one day Jesus, our true groom, will make all things new. 

The Perfect Wedding

The marriage supper of the Lamb is the ultimate wedding and what every wedding on earth is testifying towards: perfect union with Christ and the redemption and restoration of all things. At this wedding grief is wiped away with joy, once and for all. 

But this hope is also something we participate in today. Jesus, the beautiful one, our savior who is acquainted with grief (Is 53:3) stands by us in our longing and sorrow. He enables us to face brokenness and despair knowing that our joy is in him rather than our circumstances. When we are disappointed or grieving he stands firm in his covenant to us, promising that he will never leave us nor forsake us.

Today, he stands beside you promising for better or for worse.

Surviving vs. Beholding

Theology for the Pandemic

If I’m not careful, I can get through a whole day without really looking at my kids. Sure, I see them running down the hall and throwing blueberries at one another, but I can be so busy and preoccupied with whatever else I am doing, that I don’t really see them. I don’t gaze upon them. I don’t enjoy their triumph of climbing the rock wall or notice the deep empathy of one comforting the other. Especially in this season, I can approach motherhood with a survival mindset, just trying to make it through another day.

This same phenomenon happens with God. I can go a whole day, a whole week even, without gazing upon the beauty of Christ, being struck by his majesty or humbled by his power and grace. I can get through another day, doing the things that need to be done but drifting on the surface of a relationship that wants to shake me awake, pull my eyes upward and command my heart’s attention.

In the Bible, this kind of attention is called beholding. “And behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). “Behold, the kindness and the severity of the Lord” (Rom 11:22). “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5). 

Behold means to look and learn; to pay close attention to; to gaze upon. God has created us to be beholders, but we often find ourselves keeping our heads down just trying to get through. This past year has caused unique stress and suffering and it might seem like the easiest way to cope is to merely survive until the pandemic is history.

But this bucks against the very fabric of how we are created. We are created to be present in our lives and the lives of others especially when it is painful and uncomfortable. We are created to stand at attention to our God in every season of our lives, so now more than ever we need to learn how to lift our heads and behold.  

Made to behold

When our daughters were first born older mothers kept telling me, “Enjoy every second; it goes so fast.” Though it became so familiar that I barely even registered the advice, after a few months of sleepless nights and spending all day feeding two newborns, this advice started to bother me.

Am I truly supposed to enjoy this? All of this? Not every second of motherhood is enjoyable. Not every second of life is enjoyable. Enjoy was the wrong word, what the mothers were trying to say was, “Behold every second with them, it goes so fast.” Behold. Pay attention, gaze upon the beauty of your child, watch them closely, this season will turn before you know it. 

But we are not simply made to behold our children, we are first and foremost made to behold our God. As the church we should be like older mothers whispering to one another, “Behold the goodness of the Lord this week. Behold his power and his grace. Behold your risen King who loves you. This day, this week, this year will go quickly. Pay attention to what the Lord wants to show you.” Our God reveals himself to us and we must remember that he has made us to see him, gaze upon him, and as we do so, to love him.

Beholding takes discipline  

When was the last time you were surprised or caught off guard by something beautiful? Awe and wonder strike without warning–the way a sunset lights up the clouds, a perfect fall day, a child exuberantly shouting, “I did it, Mama!” Though awe has an element of surprise in its nature, beholding is something we must cultivate, and learning to behold begins with deciding what is important. 

My husband and I clean the house on Thursdays and I love to get a jump-start on the process. I wipe down counters while the girls eat lunch, do dishes while they play in the living room, and even vacuum in spite of knowing their sheer terror of the machine. Calls of “Mama, come look” and “Mama, NOOO” (regarding the vacuum) produce an uncomfortable tension in my mind–what is most important right now? I may want to sit down at 6:30 pm with a clean home and be done for the week, but right now my daughters want my attention, want to show me the chalk drawings they made and how fast they can run. I must choose what I will do: vacuum that floor, or turn my gaze upon them and pay attention. 

Likewise, each day the creator of the universe wants to catch and hold your attention. He wants to draw your eyes to his majesty, his goodness, his mercy, and his grace. Maybe it is less obvious than a child crying out for attention, but all of creation witnesses to the love and greatness of our God. We must train our ears to hear the invitation of the Lord to come and look and train our our eyes to see glimpses of God’s glory in the midst of dailiness. We must learn how to walk away from distractions and behold the everlasting God today. 

The lifter of our heads

But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me. – Psalm 3:3-5

Our god is the lifter of our heads. We don’t have to live these days in survival mode or just keep our heads down. He lifts our heads, he hears our cries, and he sustains us so that we might behold him. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might behold his glory. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might behold his sovereignty and love. Today, allow the Lord to lift your head so that you might gaze upon the beauty of Jesus. 

Getting Disney+ and entering the Frozen story

Theology for the Pandemic

Three months into shelter-at-home, Andrew and I got Disney+. The first movie our daughter’s watched was Frozen, which turned out to be more than a hit as they cried, “SISTERS!” Each of our girls identified more with one of the sisters–Abigail insisting on being Anna, Evangeline only talking about Elsa. AnnaElsa or ElsaAnna (depending on who you are hearing from) quickly became one of the phrases emerging from our daughters mouths as they attempted to tell us what happened in the movie, who was singing in their favorite song, or explain why one was upset. 

On a rainy day, I ventured to Target with them and was immediately overtaken by shouts of AnnaElsa! AnnaElsa pajamas, water bottles, hats, dolls, toys. They were everywhere. Every turn brought a shriek of joy as one discovered sheets featuring Anna and Olaf or a figurine of Elsa. 

Our world has become saturated with the Frozen story. Our daughters want to watch it every single night. Their whole world is being shaped by Frozen and everything connects back to the story. The horses at the farm are Svens (the name of the reindeer), girls with brown hair are Anna, and girls with blonde hair are Elsa. They want to listen to the music in the car, during meals and are learning all the words. They ask for AnnaElsa tattoos. Truly, Anna and Elsa are a way of life. 

Andrew and I were laughing about how crazed they are, but then it hit me–seeing the story everywhere, in everything, and wanting to talk about someone all the time is the same kind of transformation that should happen in the life of a Christian after discovering the beauty of the gospel. I can laugh at their profound commitment to Frozen, but perhaps they understand something that I do not–our lives should be saturated and overwhelmed by the story we love. For Christians, this is the story of God. And if you find yourself underwhelmed by the story of the gospel, the promises of Jesus, and the ongoing work of the Spirit, we must ask ourselves what story are we living in most. 

Not living in the story of our circumstances. This year has provided a unique set of circumstances. We moved in early March. January and February were filled with lots of goodbyes and lots of packing. Within two weeks of moving, we received the shelter at home orders. No exploring a new city, no childcare while we transitioned into two new jobs, no getting to know new people, just hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. Our lives have probably never been more dictated by outside forces than this year and it is easy to find myself thinking my moments of hopelessness or anger or despair are simply because of our circumstances. 

It is easy to live in a narrative that is based on our circumstances. But the story of God supercedes circumstances. Take Paul. Though his circumstances were grim during imprisonment, he chose to live in the story of the gospel and give thanks, encourage his brothers and sisters, share the gospel in the prison, and fully believe that to live was Christ and to die was gain (Phil 1). This is a man whose joy and hope was not dictated by his circumstances. His hope was in the gospel, which is unwavering, unchanging, and unfailing. 

Not living in the story of our emotions. Every single day of the pandemic has been a rollercoaster. I have cycled through enjoying sweet time with family, raging over having to vaccuum again, missing family, feeling isolated. I can be completely run by how I feel on any given day, and it is a dangerous way to live. 

The story of God not only allows for our emotions but validates them as part of our human existence. Our emotions are God-given. They are road signs to how we are actually doing and part of our spiritual maturity is learning how to interpret them. The Psalms are devoted to faithful followers crying out to God, asking for help, questioning what he is doing, or how long they might feel a certain way. The story of God accounts for our emotions but warns us not to live by them. So join in the story of the saints by bringing your joy, sorrow, grief, and despair to your Father who hears and desires to comfort you.

Not living in the story of our culture. When Andrew and I were watching Frozen 2 for the first time, we were struck by one of the songs that sounded like a worship song. In it Elsa sings, 

“Show yourself, I’m no longer trembling. Here I am, I’ve come so far. You are the answer I’ve waited for all of my life. Oh, show yourself, let me see who you are. Show yourself, step into the power, grow yourself into something new. You are the one you’ve been waiting for all of your life.”

In her journey of self-discovery, Elsa finds that she is in fact the one she has been waiting for all of her life. She is the one who will uncover her power, who will transform herself, and who will bring herself into full self-actualization. Though I might find myself singing along unquestioningly, the story Elsa is telling is the story of our culture. But more than that, it is not the story of God. 

The story of God is better than any story culture can tell us. Do you believe this? Largely, I get the sense (and sometimes believe myself) that Christians are mildly ashamed of the story they inhabit. Though Elsa’s story might seem innocuous enough, the narrative of individuality and self-discovery apart from our loving creator who made us to worship him leads us into a never-ending trail of self-centered living. The Christian life is a life that is distinctly not about me; it is about God. And this is good news. I get to uncover my identity in Christ— he promises to sanctify and grow me. He tells me I am made with purpose, for good works, and to bring him glory. My story is wrapped up first and foremost in the story God tells about me. And this is the good story I want to choose to walk in each day. 

What story are you living in today? Ask the Lord to move in your heart in such a way that you would delight in His story, the story of your salvation, and the promise of your imperishable inheritance in heaven. 

Reading the news and knowing vs. believing

Theology for the Pandemic

Reading the news has become a torturous practice. I ride the fire tornado of the struggling economy and the presidential race, get swept into the hurricane of COVID numbers, and dragged through protests and police brutality all in a few flicks of a finger. These are anxious times. But undergirding the troubling events of this year is the challenge of questioning what I know and what I believe. 

We find ourselves in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Each day brings new knowledge, understanding, and questions. But how are we supposed to sift and sort through the competing truths? Who am I supposed to believe? And what do I really know? 

In Jesus’ day, people wrestled with the same questions of knowledge and belief. But the controversy was not over protests or the environment, it was over the identity and teaching of this man from Galilee, Jesus, the son of Joseph. One day he is a carpenter, the next he is performing miracles and claiming God as his Father. Who is he? And should I believe him? 

Centuries later the question is still alive in the hearts and minds of Christians and non-Christians alike, but knowing facts about Jesus does not mean we believe. In a cosmic Venn diagram, Christians must find themselves in the overlapping edge of knowing and believing in Jesus. You may have heard about Jesus, but do you believe him? The answer to this question is the most important thing about us.

And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And they told him, John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” -Mark 8:27-29

Who do you say that I am? Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ requires knowledge. Though knowledge and belief will always be connected– one rarely says they know something without putting some trust in that knowledge–Peter’s knowledge of Jesus’ identity is based on what he has seen. The disciples have seen Jesus casting out demons, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf– all actions that hearken back to the promised and prophesied Messiah (Isaiah 35:5, 42:7). Peter and the disciples knew these prophecies, held tightly to them with expectation, and now before their very eyes, they watch Jesus fulfilling them. Though opinions are tossed around, Peter knew something; he knew that Jesus was the Christ. 

But knowledge and belief form a complicated relationship. I might say I know that God loves me, but do I believe it? For most Christians, there is a gap between what we know and what we believe. This distance between knowing and believing is the distance between abundant life in Christ and faithlessness. We are, after all, believers. So what are we if we claim to know Jesus but do not believe the things he says? 

To know in Greek (ginōskō) means to gain knowledge of or to become acquainted with. To believe in Greek (pisteuō) means to think to be true, to be persuaded of, or to place confidence in. I may be acquainted with the person of Jesus, familiar with some of his sayings and the miracles he performed. But knowing the facts about him does not mean that I am persuaded that what he says is true. I often find myself living in ways that reveal my belief to be less than full confidence and trust. I know in my head the teachings of scripture– my sins are forgiven, I am reconciled to God, I am loved, and yet my heart fails to believe and internalize them. This is the place of discipleship. This is the place that God wants to work in my (and your) life to bring the truths I know about God into alignment with the truths I believe.

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:66-69

Knowing and believing. We have believed and have come to know. When Jesus starts saying some weird things about being the bread of life and that people will need to feast on his body and drink his blood, he starts to lose some of his followers. But Peter demonstrates his belief through his words (you are the Holy One of Israel- a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah), but also through his actions: he stays. He keeps following Jesus. He continues to walk by his side because he knows the character of Jesus and he believes that only Jesus can bring them into eternal life and true fellowship with God. When we believe Jesus is who he says he is, we start acting like it. James says that faith without works (action) is dead (Jas 2:17)–it is no faith at all. So if our faith does not lead us into actions that reflect what we believe, we need to ask ourselves why. 

Closing the gap. What is it you need to know and believe about Jesus today? Peter’s life is a rollercoaster of knowing and confusion, doubt and belief, and this ought to encourage us. Life is not a linear line of continuous growth, but a rolling path with unexpected valleys and turns. But as we walk with Jesus, we accumulate experience with God and his promises. The longer we walk with him, the more experience and trust we build. This trust shapes what we expect from him in the future, and it is this faith that we must put into action.

Today, what is it you need to know and believe about Jesus? Where are you not believing in the work of Christ or the promised and ongoing work of his Spirit? Has your hope faded? Have your prayers stopped? Today, ask yourself how and why are you living like you don’t believe. Ask the Lord to “strengthen you with the power of his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – Ephesians 3:16-19

Daily discipleship

Theology for the Pandemic

Six months ago when the stay at home orders began my social media feeds exploded with two modes of thinking. The first was the kind of person (probably type A personalities) who immediately programmed an indefinite self-improvement plan including exercise, diet, reading one thousand books, and starting a blog. The second was those (probably worn out moms) who declared that they were quitting—a burn my jeans and bra, double-down on sweatpants, take-out, and streaming services because this is just too much to handle right now response. But six months later, both of these tactics feel foolish. Maybe there have been self-improvements, and maybe chasing comfort was a warm place to start, but neither the voracious appetite for self-bettering nor an exhausted denial of reality can be the way of the Christian. No, the way of Christ is daily discipleship. 

The thing that caught my attention about how people respond to unusual circumstances was their desire to speed up growth or to cease altogether. Scripture presents a very different way. Following Christ as a lifestyle, not a fad. Choosing the good, not the easy. Slow growth that does not depend on external circumstances. Trees, not weeds. It is easy to see why this is unattractive. I can barely wait for cookies to fully cook in the oven. I want them now. We as humans want things now. Eugene Peterson said 40 years ago, “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” Discipleship is “patient acquisition of virtue,” and “a long apprenticeship” in following Christ. And it is exactly what we see in Psalm 1. 

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so but are like chaff that the wind blows away. -Psalm 1:1-3

Blessed is the one who finds contentment in God’s law and nourishment in being rooted in Him.  Blessed here means happy. Happy is the person who positions themselves quietly abiding in the word and law of God rather than placing their body in the path of sinners, scoffers, or the wicked. This posture is quiet and slow, a humble lifestyle bereft of flashing lights and trendy posts. But all else is worthless. This way of thinking is at the heart of discipleship– it is a blessing to become more like Christ in his holiness, mercy, and righteousness. A slow digestion of the word and law of God that leads to a happy fullness. 

When I first married my husband, who is a pastor, I felt an internal pressure to not be a dull pastor’s wife. Even though most women married to pastors are anything but dull, it was a trope in my mind that should be avoided. I wanted to be a “cool” pastor’s wife (cue the mom in Mean Girls). Silly, I know, but seven years in, I have firmly accepted that coolness is never worth pursuing. Coolness does not last. If I want anything I want to pursue the beauty of Christ. I want to be known for knowing and loving his word. I want to be a holy wife. That is a work of God. And it is the path of discipleship. Trading cool for holy. Delighting in the ways of God rather than the ways of the world.

The second image provides my favorite image of Christian discipleship: a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit, fully alive. This is in contrast to the chaff that is blown away by the wind, dead, dry and gone. Yielding fruit is an image we see throughout scripture, most notably when Jesus speaks about good trees bearing good fruit and being known for what they produce (Luke 6:43-45). People will be known for the fruit they produce. It will either be good fruit — the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, self-control, kindness, gentleness, goodness), or bad fruit– the fruit that comes from sin and wickedness. The tree planted in the rivers of God will always bear good fruit. 

My favorite trees are usually large trees. Old trees. My parents backyard is lined with ancient cottonwoods that have been there since before I existed. They grow out of the bank of a small irrigation ditch that only flows for a handful of months a year. But they have grown and grown, towering over our yard, providing shade for our swing set and sandbox, a home for owls and branches for our cats to climb. It’s hard to imagine, but one day they were small and meager. But today they are a testament to decades of slow growth, decades of being shaped by their environment and depending upon their water source. 

This is the way of Christian growth. Bearing good fruit that blesses others, remaining connected to the source of life, confident even in the winter months, sure of a new season ahead. Most days seem small, but as Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is, of course, the way we spend our lives.” 

Friend of God, when you question your growth, if you look at all different than you did last season, only ask yourself if you remain rooted in the word of God. If you do, your discipleship–your becoming like Christ, is happening. Quiet as the tree grows, you will become more like your savior.