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.
Though Zoom has become a necessary evil during the pandemic, it has also provided an unsolicited view into one’s home life. Perhaps you take the Zoom mullet approach– business on top and party (pajamas) on bottom like my husband, or you embrace jumping on a video call after a lunchtime run (not me), Zoom has created a virtual gateway from your work life into your home life.
While the videos of little kids crashing their dad’s meeting are entertaining, they are also exposing. I feel exposed when I have two kids fighting over who gets to wear the box on their head outside of my office door. I feel exposed when their antics reveal my impatience and lack of graciousness. We tend to keep certain parts of ourselves tucked away, hidden from the view of our coworkers, friends, even a spouse. But now, a portal into your real self has been opened and everyone is peeking through. We find ourselves exposed; you are not always who you present yourself to be. A dual identity, no matter how slight, has emerged, and maybe you aren’t quite who you thought you were.
If you are a Christian, you have probably felt this tension before. Being a Christian affords a unique kind of identity paradox, a particular kind of exposure. I claim to be a saint, a new creation, holy, imitator of God. And yet, at the same time, neatly disguised, I am sinful, selfish, unloving, driven by desires, hard-hearted. The paradoxical identity of wholly redeemed crashes against the rocks of sinner-in-need-of-grace every single day. Who am I to call myself holy when I sin? Who am I to declare myself accepted by God? Am I really who God says I am?
Paul presents and explores the Christian identity in Romans 6 and says some drastic things about who we are. We are dead to sin (11). Our old self was crucified and we walk in newness of life (6). We are no longer slaves to sin but have been set free to be slaves to righteousness (16). We live in obedience to God from the heart (17).
Is this how you describe yourself? After teaching Romans to college students a few times, the response I heard most was, absolutely not. I think most of us vacillate between overconfidence in our holiness and self-condemnation in our sin. But Romans is a direct challenge to this kind of living, an ode to the depths of Christ’s righteousness and grace that supersedes all else. It is here, in the righteousness of Jesus, that we must understand our identity.
Changing the Zoom background. One of the strange things we do on Zoom is to change the background. I’ve met with people in massive libraries, on sunny beaches, even in Times Square. Changing the background is the easiest way to pretend we are somewhere or someone we are not, but in Christ, we don’t have to. Romans 6 (and 7 and 8) are all about our relationship with Jesus (union with Christ) and how this relationship allows us to stop pretending.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into ChristJesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:3-5, 8, 11 (emphasis added)
Christians don’t need to pretend to be righteous because our righteousness comes from our union with Christ. Union with Christ means that we participate in Jesus’ death by dying to our sin, and are resurrected–made alive– to God in Christ Jesus. In Christ, we are presented before the Father as accepted, forgiven, and righteous children of God. Union is a legal status change that allows us to be adopted as children of God because of Christ.
Paul goes on in chapter 7 to compare the death of our sin and new life in Christ to a woman whose husband died (sin) and she married a new person (Jesus and his righteousness). She was once legally bound to sin, but now she is now freed from that relationship and legally united to Christ. The illustration of marriage also reminds us that marriage is not dependent upon the bride’s perfection, only her willingness to love her husband (Jesus) and to remain in their union. If you ask my husband if I am perfect in our marriage, he will laugh and say no. But perfection is not the groundwork of Biblical marriage–covenant is. A promise between husband and wife to be faithful and to love one another. It is founded on promise and grace, and this is the relationship we enter into with Jesus.
Seeing the whole picture, embracing imperfection. On the other side of being exposed is finding out you are loved in the midst of imperfection and mess. Though exposure is uncomfortable, it forces us to develop an integrated view of ourselves–the view that God already has of us. Romans 8 tells us that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. John reiterates the same concept when he says in 1 John 3:20, “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” There is no condemnation for those who abide in Christ’s righteousness, and when we feel condemned by our hearts, God is greater than that feeling. God knows us perfectly and seeseverything. He sees the impatience and anger and greed in my heart, and he still loves me. He remains faithful to his covenant with me.
It is in this reality that we are freed to embrace the paradoxical identity of being both sinful and righteous. We don’t have to pretend we are one or the other. We don’t have to hide our sin or put on false righteousness. Our sin and our righteousness are not opposing forces, we are both. I am both righteous on the basis of Christ as I am united to Him, and I am sinful as an imperfect human. And as I live in this relationship day by day, he promises grace and forgiveness, but also that he himself will undertake my sanctification. Our gracious Savior provides everything we need to be reconciled to God and to grow into people who look more like him. So the next time you feel like a fraud, exposed, or like your sin defines you, remember that your identity is not founded on your actions; it is rooted in the righteousness of Christ and his grace is without end.
Yesterday was the day. We pulled out the metal folding chair, broom and dustpan, clippers, and comb, and I got to work cutting my husband’s hair. From our back deck, I have witnessed the neighbors on both sides of us nervously trimming, husbands walking away with slightly flat cuts, uneven sideburns. It is one of the new rhythms that many have adopted during the pandemic. A quiet marker that another six to eight weeks have passed. A sure sign that we are not living in groundhog day. A small reminder that we too have grown a little bit. But not all growth is simple and expected like my husband’s hair. The most important growth usually involves the uncomfortable but perfect pruning of a loving God.
Perhaps the pandemic has presented an opportunity for you to examine yourself in new ways. Once the enthusiasm for self-improvement wore off a few months into staying at home, it seems like a lot of people are on a path of self-discovery that is less than flattering. The pandemic has exposed unhealthy habits, coping mechanisms, and sins that were easy to ignore in the busyness of everyday life. But this exposing of our hearts is actually a work of God. As unpleasant as it is to realize that you are not as effective or kind or disciplined or patient as you thought you were, whatever is being uncovered holds the promise of sanctification–the quiet and guaranteed work of the Holy Spirit.
To be sanctified is to be set apart for holy service to God. It is a work that the Holy Spirit begins after one confesses faith in Jesus and is justified (made right) by his life, death, and resurrection (Heb 10:10, Rom 5:1, 1 Cor 6:11). Sanctification is a lifelong process of being changed to look like Christ. When we believe in Jesus we are not just affirming that he is good and holy and God (2 Cor 3:18). When we believe we are also adopted by God to be brothers and sisters with Christ, co-heirs to his kingdom and participants (co-laborers) in his work (Rom 8:17, Gal 3:29). God does not call Jesus to one mission and the church to another.The call and the life of Christ become the call and the work of the church (2 Pet 1:2-4). The Christian life is full participation with Christ in his work, his suffering, his ministry and mission, and ultimately, his glory.
But how is this sinful mess ever supposed to do the work of God? I still sin and I will sin for the rest of my life. Behold, the promise and work of sanctification; God indwelling his people with his spirit and promising to grow us in holiness. Promising to grow us into people who sound like Jesus, show grace like Jesus, forgive like Jesus. Promising to change us from one degree of glory to another.
When I think about the past six months, it is easy to think of the ways I have struggled. But perhaps these struggles are also the trail markers of God’s sanctifying work. When God exposes things in us, we can find hope in knowing we are on the right path. We don’t know how far we have to go, we’ve never walked this particular trail before, but the revealing of our sin is always a work of the Spirit–the first work of the spirit. The second is to redeem and sanctify–make holy–those lost parts of ourselves. And as the Spirit sanctifies us, we can be sure that we will grow in humility and grace empowered obedience.
Sanctification is the way of humility. JI Packer says, “Real spiritual growth is always growth downward, so to speak, into profounder humility, which in healthy souls will become more and more apparent as they age.” As we grow in our sanctification, we grow in humility. The more that God reveals my true nature to myself and his perfect splendor, the more humble I become. There is nothing more humbling than standing in the presence of a perfectly holy God. Paul in Philippians says that Jesus was the truly humble one–he was fully God and yet he humbled himself to the point of death (2:8). As God reveals unhealth and sin in your life, remember that the promise of sanctification is to make you more like Christ–to make you humble.
Sanctification leads us to grace-filled obedience. As the spirit grows us in humility, he also grows us in obedience (2 Cor 7:1). Obedience can be a weighty word that for many sounds like trying to prove your holiness through your actions. And yet this is not biblical obedience. Jesus was the obedient one. He perfectly obeyed the will of the Father at all times in his life, even when it meant denying himself. Being transformed into the likeness of Jesus means growing in obedience to the word and commands of God. As sanctification leads us first into a life of humility, knowing ourselves rightly before a perfect God, it also reveals greater depths of God’s perfect love and grace for us in spite of our sinfulness. Grace. He extends love, mercy, and compassion to us while we are still sinners (Rom 5:8). Grace is the fuel of obedience. As the Spirit sanctifies me, knowing that I don’t have to perform perfectly enables joy-filled obedience to Christ.
So the next time you cut your hair, take a moment to consider the slow, uneventful, quiet growth that has occurred and remember God’s promises to grow you. Today, if the Lord is revealing your weakness, trust that his Spirit is bringing to completion the good work he has started (Phil 1:6), transforming you into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18).
Almost every morning for the past twelve years has started the same way. Wake up, make coffee, sit down in my designated spot, and spend time reading the Bible and journaling. Maybe it was walking past my Dad every morning on my way to the kitchen and seeing him with his hands folded in his lap and eyes closed in prayer, or the fact that I love rhythm and routine, but having a quiet time in the morning has been a sacred space for me for almost half of my life.
But in the past few months, this time has been a battleground. Blame the pandemic, the small house, or the two two-year-olds shrieking as they chase one another down the hall, but “time with God” has mostly ended with me feeling angry at my children (or husband for not making them be quieter human beings), frustrated that I wasn’t more focused, and bitter that I couldn’t start the day exactly how I wanted. Ah, the hypocrisy of spending time in God’s word and emerging as an angry and impatient mother.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you should have done without neglecting the others.” -Matthew 23:23
Jesus condemns the religious leaders of Israel for doing certain religious tasks (tithing fancy spices) but neglecting the most important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Though the things we do certainly matter, when they are devoid of love they are worthless. The Pharisees performed religious tasks thinking that would delight the Lord, but they missed the most important matters of the law. Jesus calls them the weightier matters, which basically means the burdensome matters. It is much easier to tithe than it is to pursue justice or have compassion. But more than that, their reason for performative religion was all about them. They wanted to be seen as people who were righteous and holy, they wanted to justify themselves with their actions.
Just like the Pharisees, I need to examine my spiritual activity. Quiet time should be a place of communing with God, remembering his promises, and being encouraged by his word. Time with God is supposed to train you to act more like him. So if the fruit I bear is selfishness and irritability– not mercy and faithfulness and justice, I must ask myself if this discipline of having quiet time is really about God or about me? Do I come to the word each morning to be in his presence or am I simply trying to justify myself by spiritual productivity?
The Lord wants to grow us out of me-centered time with him and teach us anew what it means to pursue him, what it means to worship, and what communing with him really looks like.
Put to death the idol of spiritual productivity. Time with God is good and necessary for all believers, but spiritual performances are not something God desires. Awesome quiet times do not make us righteous, and really nice prayers do not justify us before God. So when we treat quiet time as a stamp in our spiritual passport to heaven, we are trying to prove our righteousness through what we are able to do rather than depending on the salvation of Christ. We need to let the idol of spiritual productivity die. Notice, however, that Jesus says the Pharisees should have done these (tithing spices) without neglecting the others (loving people). We need to hear Jesus’ rebuke of prioritizing religious tasks over love of God and neighbor and then pursue a life animated by the gospel in both my pursuit of him and love of our family.
Broaden your scope of what it means to worship. Because quiet time can become a primary place of worship, we can ignore how the Lord might be inviting us into worship throughout the day. Anything we do unto the Lord can be worship. We can worship him through folding the laundry with a cheerful heart, through reading and re-reading our kids favorite book, by listening attentively to a friend, by cooking dinner. God cares about our hearts more than our tasks. So when our heart is desiring to honor and serve the Lord, any task can become a place of worship. When we relegate worship to the confines of our designated God-time, we fail to see the Kingdom of God that breaking in all around us.
The weightier matters of God start with loving those around you. Though I have long seen quiet time as a place of communing with God, it is only part of the puzzle. Communion is relationship language, so perhaps communion with God really looks like sacrificially loving my family. We commune with God by participating in Him. To think that participation with God is something we can achieve in solitude is to disregard the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. Communion with God happens by loving and serving other people in addition to growing in devotion to him through scripture and prayer. May our pursuit of Jesus be abundant as we pursue justice, show mercy and live faithfully with others.
Have you ever heard the news about something good happening to a friend of yours– an engagement, a new job or promotion, an exciting vacation, a pregnancy–and rather than being excited and celebrating with her, you found yourself comparing successes, counting personal victories, saddened that you weren’t in the same position, or generally wanting what she has? It seems pretty common, and unfortunately, it was my mindset this week. It is an ugly place to be. Comparison, competition, envy, self-condemnation. Not much love for a sister. Not much willingness to be for her. Not much thinking about anyone but myself.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Ironically, this has been a verse that I have championed throughout my time in ministry and in my friendships. I love this verse because it captures the nature of true Christian community. Christian friendships should be marked by the fullness of life– climbing into the pit of despair with one another and delighting together when there is good news. These relationships are for-each-other relationships. When my sister hurts, I hurt. When she rejoices, my heart is gladdened. Christian friendships bear the beauty mark of other-centeredness, and this other-centeredness is always the result of finding an identity that is not in what you have or accomplish or do.
The context of this command to weep and rejoice together in Romans 12 is worship, and Paul is arguing that worship is always a communal act. The place you present your body as a sacrifice is in relationships with real people in everyday life, this is the rational response to the gospel. Paul exhorts believers to celebrate their different giftings (12:3-8), to love one another genuinely and full with affection (12:9-10), to outdo one another in showing honor (12:10), to care for the needy, to show hospitality (12:13), and to live in harmony (12:16). Paul is nailing down that Christian worship happens in community, not just in personal time with God. So when you find yourself in my situation of not wanting to love your sister or brother genuinely and with affection (12:9-10) and celebrate their God-given gifts (12:4), you, and I, first and foremost have a worship problem.
Rejoicing with those who rejoice, worshipping the Lord together
When a good friend of mine got engaged, I was ecstatic. It was such an exciting time. But I remember after eating dinner together, talking through all the details of how he proposed and dreaming about a wedding, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for being excited with me.”
Rejoicing is an act of worship. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). True rejoicing is always about God because every good and perfect thing comes from him (James 1:17). Rejoicing is worship because even when it’s about an engagement, we can praise God that he brought the couple together, we can praise him for his gift of marriage, we can praise him for the joy that he is giving. When my friend got engaged I didn’t pat her on the back and tell her good job for her accomplishment. No, we celebrated what God had done and was doing.
But imagine my friend hadn’t told me about her engagement (which would be weird). She would actually be preventing her friend from worshipping with her. She would be withholding the joy that God has given her and withholding an opportunity for her friend to see what God was doing. Sometimes we withhold because we think that another person won’t be able to see beyond themselves and rejoice on behalf of what God is doing. Sometimes we withhold because we feel like it is selfish to ask people to celebrate with us. But perhaps what is selfish is thinking that our successes are our own, and forgetting that God wants to bring himself glory through the good things he gives us. In gospel communities, we are able to rejoice with one another because our accomplishments, our good news, our victories are never really about us. They are always about what God is doing.
Suffering with those who suffer, being Christ to them
Just like rejoicing bears witness to what God is doing, sharing our suffering and weeping together is also a critical element of community and worship. My default for difficult things is to not talk about them. I would much rather walk around smiling like everything is fine than share about my pains and struggles. Fortunately, my husband is the exact opposite, and he is slowly breaking me of my bad habit. When something hard happens he reaches out to family, friends, and co-workers asking for prayer, asking for meals, asking for people to be in this with us. He understands gospel community better than I do.
Several years ago I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. My husband at the time was leading a mission trip in Ethiopia, so I found out the news alone with no way to contact him and it forced me to depend on my community. A friend drove me to the ER, sat with me while I decided on emergency surgery, or another method of terminating my non-viable pregnancy, stayed up all night while I got injections. Another drove me to follow-up appointments, another brought me food, another sat with me while I was sick in the aftermath of medications, another checked in every single day. I was weeping and my community showed up to weep with me.
When we don’t share our hardships we prevent the body from serving us, from being able to be Christ to us, and from being able to worship by cooking meals and being present. Furthermore, not letting community into the deep furrows of sorrow and despair prevents them from ever rejoicing with you when the Lord uses your pain in ways only he can. It refuses the chance for others to see how God has provided for you, grown you, healed you, and even blessed you. God wants all his work and his glory to be on full display. Eugene Peterson says that all prayers end in praise. All prayers, all weeping, all sorrow, will one day be turned into praise. So when we don’t let other people join us in our sorrow, we will keep them from ever praising God for the work he has chosen to do through it.
Those months of recovery after my ectopic were painful and dark, but they were the months I have felt the most loved and cared for by my church community. And more than that, they taught me how to suffer with others. I know most of us fear that we will burden people with our problems or pain. The reality is, we are also called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). It is part of our practical worship of God. Jesus bore our burdens for us, and bearing others burdens is one way we grow in imitating Him. The beautiful thing is that when we love someone in their pain and suffering, they get a taste of gospel community and will want to extend it to others. When we weep with those who weep, we participate in the work of Christ, our suffering King who wept with his friends.
Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy set before him that Christ endured the suffering of the cross. It was the joy of knowing that his people would be freed to love others more deeply than themselves that led Jesus to suffer. It was the joy of knowing that his Spirit would empower his people to worship him rightly that led Jesus to the cross. And it was the joy of knowing that one day He would wipe every tear and rejoice with his people in perfect worship at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 21:4). But until then, it is for the joy set before us, that we might be conformed into his image, that we might weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice for the glory and worship of our good king.
The pandemic has changed my understanding of home and rest. For a long time, I would anticipate being able to come home from work, take off my shoes, change into comfy clothes, and rest knowing that my day was done. I longed to go home to visit family, to change my routine, to rest in my childhood home with my parents nearby. Home and rest have always been connected. Until now.
The pandemic has made home my workplace, my gym, our kid’s playground, our date night. When we don’t leave home, we never can long for home. Intimately connected, the rhythm of work, energy, effort, and return, rest, recovery has been shattered. But the change in routine has been teaching me that home itself is not the source of rest. Home isn’t even a specific place. I am home all day long and yet I am experiencing exhaustion and longing to be somewhere else. I am at home and yet I feel restless, hungry for something else, wanting to rest but not knowing how.
James KA Smith, in his book On the Road with Saint Augustine, examines all of life through the lens of travelers looking for their home. Smith suggests that we are all travelers, every person is pursuing something, every person is on their way somewhere. The non-Christian is traveling with an ever-changing destination. Much like Augustine’s early life, the non-Christian travels looking for home, desiring to belong and find meaning, and ultimately discovering disappointment in every place that promises this home-ness.
The Christian, on the other hand, knows where their home is. Christians know that their home is not a place, or a job, or a relationship, or money, or fame. The Christian makes their home in God and places their hope in someday arriving at their ultimate Home in His presence. But perhaps more important than knowing where our home is, both the already-home in union with Christ and our not-yet home of seeing Jesus face to face, the Christian is able to find rest.
Rest. Who does not long for rest! Rest and home are intimately connected. As we find our home in Christ today, we are able to rest from the pursuit of worthless things and know who we are. The promise of heaven is both a coming-home to the Lord as well as entering into perfect rest. As Augustine famously said, Our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Perhaps he also would have agreed that our hearts are homeless unless they are at home in Christ. After all, it is the restless heart that finds itself on the road again looking for a home, hoping to find rest in something else out there, but never being satisfied.
In scripture, the concepts of home and rest are interwoven in the story of Israel. The people of God travel as exiled immigrants out of Egypt so that they might worship God in the wilderness and find rest from their ever-increasing labor as slaves. Israel travels towards the promised land, their promised home. A land flowing with milk and honey, a place where God’s presence would dwell in their midst, a home where they are known and loved, the home where they would enter the rest of God.
But if you get through Exodus and into Deuteronomy, you find that the journey home did not go smoothly. In fact, it went so poorly that God barred his own people from entering the promised land and entering into his rest for 40 years. God’s people relegated to be immigrant wanderers for a lifetime. A lifetime of tents. A lifetime of moving. A lifetime of knowing that you have a home waiting for you, a place where you will finally be able to lay your head down and stay, but not being there yet. Already knowing where you are going, not yet there.
The more I read scripture, and the longer I have been a Christian, the more I realize that Israel’s story is my story. Israel’s story is the story of the church. Yes, the terms have changed– instead of the cloud of God’s presence leading them, we have His Spirit inside of us. Instead of the sacrificial system, we have the perfect, finished work of Christ.
But just like Israel, I know where my home is and I will spend my lifetime journeying towards it. Becoming a Christian is not an endpoint, conversion gives you a map and compass and tells you what land you seek.
Like Israel, I will be tempted by different cultures, customs, idols, and ways of life that seem to offer a bit of rest for a weary sojourner. On my way, I will be “tempted to camp out in alcoves of creation as if they were home” out of my weariness (Smith, 17).
Just like Israel, I will have to depend on God for his daily provision, for manna from heaven. And yet, this is precisely the call of the Christian. To be travelers led out in faith, walking daily toward a home promised for them by the Lord. Abiding in his guiding presence. Surviving on his perfect provision. Refreshed each day by his rest and his presence. But always traveling. Smith says, “Conversion doesn’t pluck you off the road; it just changes how you travel” (Smith, 15).
For whatever reason, these words have been a deep comfort for me in this season. I need to be reminded that knowing where your home is does not mean you stop traveling. Traveling is hard, it is tiring, and I will be doing it for my whole life.
Knowing where your home is does not mean you stop traveling. I had forgotten this. I had also forgotten what kind of traveler I am. Christians are not tourists, visiting beautiful Instagram-worthy places in their daily lives, enjoying fancy meals, resting in nice hotels. Christians are immigrants. We have left a homeland of life apart from Christ, life living solely for ourselves, and we are immigrating, and being sanctified on the way, to the home he has called us to. And that is uncomfortable. But knowing our identity as immigrants does not mean that we do not find rest. Rather, we know that we will always be led and transformed by our good savior AND he will give us the rest we need to keep moving every day, to keep walking towards him and our ultimate home in his presence.
Jesus said, Come to me (come be at home in my presence) all you who are weary and heavy-laden (all you travelers who are worn-out), and I will give you rest…I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 11). Humans are made to rest. It is a commandment from God. It is a reflection of God’s own nature as he rested after his work was done. He enjoyed it. He relished his effort and enjoyed the beauty of his work. We need this kind of rest. Rest given from our maker after we have followed him along the rocky pathways and steep climbs of everyday life. And Jesus promises it for us. But we have to come to him. We have to show up. And this is often my biggest challenge. It is so simple, and yet so difficult. I hear my loving Father invite me into his presence, his Word, into prayer, and I choose something else. Sometimes when I don’t want to work out I tell myself to just put on my shoes and walk out the door. Just show up and see what happens. I never have regretted showing up for a workout. Maybe it wasn’t my best one, maybe I was really tired, but I showed up. We need to put on our shoes and show up with God. Sit in your chair, open your bible, quiet your heart. Show up and he will meet you. Maybe it isn’t an earth-shaking time in scripture or your most inspired time of prayer, but it will never be wasted. Our God graciously meets us every single time. We need to be at home with Him, we need true rest for our souls.
What have you been looking at lately? Where have your eyes been? For me, my eyes have been fixed on screens more than ever before. This is in part because I left a campus ministry job that involved mostly people time to start a writing and editing job that is mostly done on a laptop. But my eyes have also been on Pinterest and Instagram a lot. On real estate websites browsing homes I cannot afford. Doomscrolling on my phone as my eyes take in bad news, frightening news, anxious news. Maybe the opposite question is just as important. Where have my eyes not been? My children? My husband? The Lord?
What we look at tells us a lot about our hearts. It shows us what matters to us, what has our attention, and what we think is important. But more than just being revealing, what we look at actually shapes us. The things we consume visually narrate the stories we live in, the things we believe, and the desires of our hearts. When you start to look at scripture through the theme of vision–what you are looking at, where your gaze is fixed, sight vs. blindness, seeing vs believing–the theme appears everywhere. Our eyes can lead us into sin, they reveal the spiritual health of a person, they can be fixed on God, and they can be brought from blindness to sight.
But scripture portrays a dual layer to sight. It can represent a literal dimension– Jesus literally gives sight to the blind, our eyes can literally lead us into sin– but it also represents a spiritual or heart dimension–the eyes of our heart can be opened to see God. When the eyes of our hearts are open, we have eyes to see his kingdom coming today. We see the gospel at work in the world, God’s renewing Spirit sanctifying his saints, his ongoing lordship as the head of the church. When the eyes of our hearts are opened, we see the world through the lens of faith, but what we look at with our physical eyes directly influences how we see the world around us. Both physical and spiritual sight matter, and we must choose with wisdom where we fix our gaze and what we allow to shape our hearts.
Looking at scripture
Spending time in scripture is essential for shaping the Christian’s heart. When I consider how much time I spend on social media, on work, or watching movies, it can be embarrassing to think about how little time I spend with my eyes on the word of God. Humans are narratival beings who are moved, led, taught, and encouraged by stories we hear and believe. Our world is made of stories. Not just books and movies, but also stories about what beauty is, stories about how we are supposed to use our bodies, stories about what dating relationships should look like and how we should eat. Stories construct far more of our daily lives and our meaning than we realize and they also dictate how we respond to the world around us. If I believe the story that money will make me happy, then I will act in ways that align with that narrative. will work and hustle so that I can have a nice home, fancy vacations, beautiful clothing, and ultimately, happiness. As Christians, the story we exist in is God’s story, and if our eyes are not fixed on scripture, where God’s story is revealed to us, they will be fixed on other stories.
Psalm 119 repeatedly refers to our eyes being on God’s commandments and word.
“I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (119:15). “Open my eyes that I may behold the wondrous things out of your law” (119:18). “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise” (119:148).
The psalmist’s eyes look at God’s ways, his wondrous laws, and stay awake looking at his promises. Christians must know the ways of God– his character, what he says, what he does. We must know his law– his commandments, what he says is good and lovely, and what he opposes. And we must know his promises–his covenantal promises of nearness, comfort, grace and provision. Though fixing our eyes on God’s word is not a guarantee that our hearts will be engaged, we must choose to actively meditate, behold and stay awake to God’s word his story of who we are.
Gazing at Jesus
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2
Look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. But what does it mean to look to Jesus? These verses tell us that seeing Jesus requires looking back to the cross, looking around at the body of Christ today (our cloud of witnesses), and looking toward the reigning and ruling Jesus seated on the throne.
Though we do not see Jesus in the flesh today, we need to look to his cross, remember that he is seated on his throne and ruling today, and fix our eyes on Christ by participating in His body. The main place we will see God at work today is in other believers bearing God’s image and being conformed into his likeness. We see Jesus in a friend showing compassion to us, we see him in forgiveness being extended, we see him in lives being transformed by the good news of the gospel. The body of Christ is just that– the arms and hands and feet that are at work bringing God’s kingdom to bear on earth as it is in heaven. If you want to see God today, you must participate in his body. And as you do, others will see God in you.
What we look at shapes us. Today, consider your gaze. Fix your eyes on God’s word and look to Jesus, you just might see his kingdom on earth.
I recently read a New York Times article about how the economy of the pandemic does not allow for Americans to have both a job and kids and survive. My husband and I have twin 2-year-olds. He is a pastor and I work from home. My friend asked, “Why are people not screaming about this?”
We aren’t screaming because we don’t have the energy. Or the time. Or mental space to do anything else in our day. For almost 5 months my husband and I have gotten up early, broken work time into two-hour shifts where we work like there is no tomorrow. But there is tomorrow. And tomorrow starts at 6 am with two crying toddlers. And tomorrow holds what today held: maximized hours, exhaustion, and trying to do three full-time jobs between two people. We are screaming, but mostly on the inside.
As a seminarian, I used to be particularly interested in rest. Sabbath. What a wonderful God-ordained word. I read books, I practiced, I didn’t study on a single Saturday for 3 years. My church did two sermon series in two years on the concept of rest. My husband preached at least one sermon on rest in that time, and I remember him attempting to address rest for parents as someone who did not yet have children. I think his acknowledgment went something like, “For parents, I know this is different for you, but it is still important…” A few years and two kids later and all I can say is, yes, it’s different. Yes, it is more important than ever. But sweetheart, we had no idea the train that would hit us when we had twins, and then drag us through a pandemic and almost no childcare support.
We happened to move on March 1, 2020, to a new city. Two new jobs, a new church, leaving two ministries, and a decade of an established community. On March 16, we got the shelter in home orders. We had one Sunday at our new church. I met a handful of people. Our daughters attended children’s church for the first time which meant that I worshipped without kids for the first time in 1.75 years. And then it all happened. Shelter at home. Quarantine. Social distance.
I’m writing this because if you are a parent who feels like their insides are withering, there is no hope, no timeline, no rest, no difference between weekend and weekday because they are equally exhausting, you, and I, need to cling to someone as tightly as our children cling to us. We need a God who mothers us.
Lately, I find myself struggling with hopelessness as I trudge through never-ending dailiness. I know this is the place of God patiently molding me into His image but right now it feels more like a place of despair. I remember having my second of four knee surgeries and telling myself, at some point you will be done with surgery, off crutches, through the six months of physical therapy, and this will just be a memory. Because you know that, be kind to your mom, expect the pain, get through knowing it will get better soon. Hopefulness. I had something to hope towards, an object of hope. Having such a clear object as well as a clear timeline gave me the hope I needed to persevere in painful circumstances and the perspective to take the bumps that would inevitably come. But that is exactly why this season feels like a free-fall. How many months (years?) will this go on for? Who will I be when I come out on the inevitable other side? How do I stop the spinning to fix my eyes on an object, a direction to hope towards?
The concept of fixing your hope on an outcome or goal is actually deeply biblical. It is central to any understanding of discipleship– we live in a way that might challenge us or make us uncomfortable, but we sacrifice because we have a goal fixed in our minds–salvation and God’s Kingdom coming today as it is in heaven. The Apostle Peter describes this very thing in the first chapter of his first letter when he drops the loaded therefore. Therefore, because you have a hope laid up for you in heaven, a treasure imperishable and undefiled, be holy as I am holy, walk in my ways, conduct yourself with fear and reverence knowing that you will one day stand before the Lord Almighty. If you have a goal worth living for, an object worth attaining, then, as Paul says, run the race in order to win the prize. What we anticipate on the other side of trials shapes how we live today. I know this to be true. It makes sense intellectually, but my heart still fails.
Appealing to eternity creates a few practical challenges in my heart. Eugene Peterson’s voice rings in my ears as he writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction that believers today want fast discipleship, they want formation now! Most do not want a daily obedience in the same direction for a lifetime. But that is exactly where disciples are made. In the long haul.
Largely, I feel like I have emerged from life challenges as some kind of victor. A phoenix rising from my own ashes, I view my story as a success story– as most millennials do. But as a working mother, what does “success” look like right now when all you have is pasta on the floor, everyone wanting mommy, and another day of working while your children cry outside your door while your husband tries to calm them down? Where is my commitment to Sabbath? Has my joy in God’s refinement evaporated? I feel as though I used to believe in something and now I am just surviving.
When the pandemic began, I reached for Isaiah. I figured, hey, might as well live in scripture that reflects our current reality. The prophets have become a strange comfort for me– both harsh and exacting, and yet offering the crystal clear view of restoration that only comes from suffering and being humbled. When I taught Bible studies at Harvard and we spent a summer in Isaiah, I signed up to teach chapters 23-26, and the image I remember is that of a woman giving birth to a gust of wind. I remember chuckling at the silliness of that phrase. Israel’s hopes becoming a gust of empty wind, not a new life, not a crying infant bringing salvation. The uttermost of disappointment. Their object of hope seemingly drifting away in a breeze. I read it as a metaphor, which it is, but I read it not as a mother.
As I finished the book in this season, it was the final chapter that caught me. I think about reading God’s word like winding a ball of yarn. The yarn remains the same, the same thickness and width. But it is the habitual, daily wrapping that creates something solid and of value. Growing every wrap. Gaining volume and mass quietly, invisibly. You wind and wind and all of a sudden it’s the size of a grapefruit. Slow and steady. That’s how it is reading God’s word regularly. So while the gust-of-air-birth is somewhere in the middle of my yarn-ball, another image was added this time around.
At the end of this massive prophecy spanning two centuries of the story of God’s chosen people, their daily struggles, the promises of how they will be turn out on the other side, all of it is wrapped up with the image of a mother. God as a mother. Consoling her beloved child. Holding it. Nursing it. Tenderness. Hope. Our Father, like a mother.
“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?” (Isa 66:7-8). A mother does not give birth before labor. A mother does not give birth before finding out she is pregnant. No child comes before a mother is scared, before she waits, before she grows and expands, before she suffers, before she loses sleep, before she loses herself to another.
Motherhood, like God’s formation of his people, is a slow maturing, an uncomfortable forming, a losing, a preparing. A long obedience towards literally bearing new life. And God, like a mother to his people, is the refresher and nourisher, the one who delivers that which is promised. He gives birth to a nation, a royal priesthood as Peter calls us. He sustains and feeds and consoles his growing-pained people on his abundant chest (Isa 66:11). This is our God. A God who extends peace like a river when our bones our weary, who hold his children close and feeds them with tenderness, who carries His children on his hip when they need to be held and bounces them upon his knee out of sheer delight (Isa 66:12-13). This is our mothering God.
The thing that has struck me time and again in my brief two years as a mother is how slowly we grow. How slowly our children grow. People see me with my young girls and say, “Oh, enjoy every moment! They go so fast!” I think what they are really saying is pay attention. I will not enjoy every moment. But I do need to be present because someday they will be grown. But today, they are not. Today they are two and still in diapers and stringing some nonsense words together and smearing yogurt in their hair. Growing up takes time. Just like being pregnant, growth takes time–there is no way to speed it up and keep it real. Isaiah is getting at this in the final chapter. You can’t give birth before you have labor pains. And God actually planned it this way. He likes watching us grow. He made us to be slow movers. The long days are where we actually choose him. Our lives and our children testify to this. We are simply not designed for fast discipleship. We are designed for slow days of choosing the good.
Somewhere in the middle of my reading of Isaiah, a young woman I know was questioning this “comfort” God gives. The imagery of Isaiah is tender to be sure—“As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (66:13), but what do we do when we don’t seem to be experiencing it? I comfort my daughters on my chest. I hold them close after they wake from a nap. I rock them when they cry. I comfort them. And this is true enough comfort, but it is not the whole biblical picture. Reading The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, my husband came to dinner one night astounded with the new knowledge that when God talks about comfort, he isn’t talking about a warm blanket for nap time. He is talking about spurring weary soldiers into battle. As our comforter, God calls us into battle to fight for His Kingdom to come in the daily work of being his saints. God calls us to action. Comfort is both the tender faithfulness of a mother holding a crying child and the battle cry to fight alongside our God.
Mothers lead into battle. Mothers summon courage and strength. Mothers speak wisdom, truth, and life into their children. And this is only a reflection of our God. Right now, I need that mother. I need that mother so badly to carry me on her chest. To tell me the tides can change quickly, but she will remain the same. As I mother my own daughters and bear this image to them, I need someone to bear it to me. I need my Father in Heaven to mother me. To bounce me on his knee and also summon the courage I need to keep fighting.
Today, if you find yourself weary of mothering, weary of fighting on behalf of others, weary of the slow dailiness of being a Christian, remind yourself that your God chooses to identify with you, your motherhood. He deems it infinitely valuable. He holds your unique burdens and pains in such esteem that He chooses to wear the spaghetti-sauce-stained clothes of motherhood so that we might understand him more. And he does not grow weary. When your arms and patience fail, His will not. He will not grumble as he holds you, he will not resent your neediness. Today, find rest leaning on the chest of your mothering God.
This morning I called my mom for a quick chat and she reminded me that this week was “a bit of an important week…do you remember what happened this week?” Although this kind of conversation is rather typical, I responded that, no, I could not recall the importance of the dates ahead of me, and she proceeded to remind me of two wedding anniversaries, two birthdays and, most importantly, 7/11 day (where you get free Slurpees from 7/11 gas stations). My mother has a steel-trap of a memory; things go in and they never come out. She remembers events with such specific details that sometimes I feel like she must be making it all up. “Anne, do you remember what we were doing 9 years ago today?! We were driving through Utah on our way to Moab! We stopped at that little coffee shop in Grand Junction—oh, you must remember the one!?”
My mom’s remarkable ability has always challenged me to remember. Not in a nostalgic way, but in an informational, you need to know this, kind of way. The kind of remembering that reminds you of your story, where you came from, and events in your life. She has written several accounts of our ancestors immigrating from Norway and Sweden to settle in the mid-west. Her most recent research was dedicated to me, my siblings, and her five grandchildren. Although it is not uncommon to check my email and find the full known story of a Hans or Lars somewhere back in our family tree, reading my daughter’s names in this dedication made this story feel more important, connecting another link in a small, typical family and whispering, you are part of this story. These are your people. This is where you came from. Remember.
Christians have a memory problem. The whole story of Israel can be boiled down to forgetfulness. When we open Exodus we find a people who had forgotten God calling out to a God who had not forgotten them. Much like the cycle of the judges, Israel repeatedly forgets God’s faithfulness and character, and consequently forget who they are. Moses is gone on Mt Sinai for a few days and they forget Yahweh and make a new god. They forgot the plagues, the Red Sea opening before them, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, the manna, meat, and water that God provided. They forgot who God was, and because they forgot, they acted like he didn’t exist. Sometimes when I read Exodus it feels ridiculous. How can you forget the pillar of fire that led you each night? Or the mysterious manna that gathered like dew in the desert? How could you forget what God had done?
But the reality is, we are exactly the same. Remembering is difficult in the midst of our busy days and future plans. But if Christians hope to live faithful, joyful, and Jesus-centered lives, we cannot afford to forget. We must practice the discipline of remembering. Remembering God’s story– for the Christian, our story, is a fundamental Christian practice. Humans are narratival beings. We live in and embody all kinds of stories that shape us, give us meaning, tell us how to live, what to buy, who to associate with–all of our choices and actions demonstrate a story we believe. To be in Christ means you are embodying (or living in) the story of God– that is what it means to be a Christian. Christians believe that God’s story is true–His account of what humans are for, our purpose, how we are supposed to treat one another, how we use our bodies and our money, how we should speak–all of our actions and choices should align with the story God tells about himself and his people. When we forget God’s story we inevitably start living in another story. These stories rarely reinforce the Biblical narrative, but rather begin to recast where we put our hope and what we look to for identity.
Practicing the discipline of remembering pulls us out of false stories and back into God’s story. The Bible is God’s story for us, so that is the story we must abide in. Scripture is the primary way God ingrains his story into our hearts, minds and actions. If we don’t know the story of God, we cannot live it. The Old Testament is full of reminders about the forgetfulness of God’s people. “But take care, lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deut 6:2). “Remember how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness (Deut 9:7). Remember the Sabbath day” (Ex 20:8), “Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he has uttered” (1 Chron 16:12). Again and again, remember! We must remember what God has done and who he is. His character is always revealed in his actions, so to remember his actions is to remember who he is.
When I was pregnant with twins the hardest part was abiding in God’s story, and church was often where God’s story was most difficult to remember. When people found out I was having twins a few things would happen– a wide-eyed look of surprise, then the mental math criss-crossing their faces—I have one toddler and I am barely surviving, how are you going to do it with two?, and finally a closing statement that ranged from “I hope you feel really supported,” to “you must be getting a full-time nanny,” to “I’m so glad you are quitting your job,” (I didn’t, I wasn’t and I wasn’t). One transparent 23-year-old said what most people communicated to me when he exclaimed, “OH NO! I am SO sorry!”
How people responded to the good news of having two kids at the same time revealed the stories they lived in. You aren’t going to be able to do this. Mothers should stay home. Children are so much work. I am barely surviving. And these stories were coming from God’s people. Where were the reminders of the Christian story that God is sovereign and he gave you twins? That he will sustain you even though this will certainly be difficult? I wasn’t looking for false comfort, I was looking for Biblical comfort–the comfort of firm faith and a loving Father. I wasn’t hearing that story very often. We must be people who remember the story of God and abide in it, not forgetting who we are or abiding in an alternative story.
When we remember rightly, we are able to hope accurately. The power of remembering is not about nostalgia, it is about the right orientation before our eternal and good God. When our hearts and minds are dwelling in His story, promises, and salvation, we are living in a story of hope. John’s Revelation paints the glorious picture of the new heavens and the new earth. Paul exhorts us to remember the hope we have in heaven and live accordingly. Hope is kind of like future remembering. It is looking at the past, taking account of how God has acted in real time with real people in real circumstances, and applying what we have learned to the future. If we do not know the story and character of God in the past, we cannot envision what he might do in the future.
Attending a women’s bible study last week, this very question came up. How do we respond to God when it feels like he isn’t here or doesn’t care? Or in other words, what keeps us hopeful when life gets hard? The answer is the story of God. When life is hard, we need the psalms proclaiming the provision of God and accounts of his works. We need the prophets revealing a God who remains faithful. We need the Gospels showing us Jesus who brings life to broken, weary and hopeless people. The story of God is a story that brings life out of death, that sets captives free, that promises (and demonstrates) the authority of the one true God as he acts throughout history. When we feel hopeless, we must practice the discipline of remembering and allow it to recast our vision of what God might do in the future.
Remembering what God has done, and rightly hoping in what He will do, gives us what we need to abide in Christ today. Today, you and I need to participate with God in his story. Here are three ways we can practice communion with God so that we remember his story.
Read the story every day. One of the easiest ways to abide in God’s story is to read it regularly and allow the words of God to dwell within you, reshaping your hopes, teaching you your history, and revealing more of God’s character. Reading scripture helps give us eyes to see God’s provision and presence because it centers us daily upon Him.
Communion is an act of remembering as a church. “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) At this supper, Jesus is inaugurating the new covenant. His body and His blood will be the sacrifice poured out for the atonement of others. Do this in remembrance of me. Jesus is calling all who are in Him to physically and spiritually participate in a meal that will commemorate all that he has done. This humble meal might feel mysterious or mundane, but it points to a greater spiritual reality and reminds us of the work of Jesus.
Rely on the Spirit. “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit…he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:26) One of the Holy Spirit’s jobs is to bring to remembrance everything Jesus said: the Holy Reminder. Before the Spirit came, Moses tells Israel to wear the laws of God around their necks and to put them on their doorpost so that they wouldn’t forget them (Deut 6). But the prophets promise a new covenant in which God will write his laws on our hearts. The law will no longer be external but will become internal by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we participate in Christ by his Holy Spirit we are given supernatural power to remember the Lord in our days.
The semester winds down, celebrations, endings, farewells, and fatigue sweep us into the early summer days. June always felt like a surprise. The summer had arrived. But the flash flood of the semester left me cleaned out, leaves and branches in my hair, and trying to reorient myself to where I had landed.
June always felt like a surprise. Surprise! The turning of a season. Surprise! You are another year older. Surprise! You have neglected your spiritual life. Surprise! You don’t actually know how to slow down.
I worked in college ministry for almost 6 years, and the first few summers were unbelievably challenging. I found myself showing up for our annual staff conference feeling apathetic, undisciplined, and certainly unprepared to lead younger women in their faith. But it turned out that I was rarely the only one. Colleagues struggled too, but students also rarely came back to campus exclaiming about their summer filled with rich community, deepened love of the Word or fuller joy in Christ. No, summers were a desolate place through which students, and I, staggered.
As my second summer approached, I found myself dreading the downtime, the lack of rigorous structure, and the relational solitude, but also knowing I couldn’t continue at the sprinter’s pace of the semester. A classic catch-22. I needed rest. I needed solitude. I needed to take a spiritual inventory. But I was afraid of what and who I would find apart from my identity-giving tasks of preparing Bible studies and having discipleship meetings. The cycle of weeknights out teaching on campus, mornings in the office, and ongoing emotional care was taxing. And yet it gave me tangible meaning. Who was I when I wasn’t doing those things? And for my students, who were they when their google calendars were empty, they moved home to mom and dad and felt their student rhythm screech to a halt. Though I said it regularly to them, we were not so different.
It wasn’t until the third summer that I got serious about figuring out why I dragged through the off-season. Sure, there were the obvious snares of my identity being too closely-knit to my work, the challenge of actually slowing the train down (objects in motion tend to say in motion, after all), and struggling to know how to practically use my time with so little structure. But those were only the lid to the box. As I started to pray, think, and ask the Lord about why this should be so tough, He answered by helping me see unhealthy habits that land me with my annual June surprise.
Calvin famously began his Institutes with, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Though this might sound like a welcome dive into self-discovery or the spiritual validation that our Enneagram number really is critical information, Calvin is suggesting that to know God, we must know the depravity and desperate state of our fallen nature. We need to know our sinfulness to know God’s righteousness. But the fast pace of the academic calendar invited me to ignore stillness and solitude thinking I could slow down later. It is all too easy to be too busy to come face to face with the reality of our sinfulness.
Solitude is a faithful friend. It is something Christians must pursue regularly, not just when it is forced on them by a season change. Solitude forced me to watch myself wrestle with sinful patterns that had become so ingrained in my daily rhythm that I stopped questioning them. It was, and is, uncomfortable. It was painful to see myself. And yet, as Calvin reminds us, it is essential for our salvation to see our ugliness so we might see the splendor of Christ, and the staggering gift of grace. The author of Hebrews exhorts us, “to lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” Heb 12:1-2. But how can we run the race God has set for us when we are too busy running our own course? We must be people who actively slow down (stop even) to fix our eyes on Jesus who both created and will complete our faith. When we are still enough to catch a glimpse of the splendor of Christ and our need for him, we find the hope and desire to strip off the extra weight that clings to us.
Postponing emotional pain
Each semester brought emotional bumps. From bearing burdens with another sister to being wounded by them myself, knowing and being known will inevitably cause some pain. When I am hurt or upset or sad, I know I have a tendency to postpone my emotions simply because I have other stuff to do; another meeting to attend, another lesson to prepare– I am the queen of compartmentalizing. But this is not wise. Ignoring emotional pain does not make it go away. It buries it and makes it more difficult to dig up and understand when you finally return to it. It is easy to pretend to be ok, it is hard to allow yourself to feel grief, betrayal, loneliness, or anger.
Rather than letting a few months worth of emotional processing surprise you, commit to creating space to be honest with how you feel, to bring your hurts to the Lord, and to pursue reconciliation quickly. As 2 Corinthians 5 reminds us, God reconciled himself to us so that we would take up the ministry of reconciliation. When we ignore emotional pain, we deny ourselves and our community the gift and practice of reconciliation and choose to harbor anger, resentment, and bitterness. We create a home for disunity. And it will eventually catch up with us. Summers were hard because I found myself trying to unravel a bundle of emotions that seemed indecipherable. I needed to unlearn the habit of compartmentalizing my emotions, and pursue a faith that was presently embodied–a faith that didn’t deny the necessity of communication, honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If we are in Christ, we have infinite hope for reconciliation, but we must choose to show up for it.
A few years ago a friend of mine said to me at a coffee date that she really wanted to be my friend–wanted to see me more, talk about difficult things, deepen our love for one another. Maybe that sounds like a strange proposition–friendship in our culture is often nothing more than surface-level shared interest, but friendship should (and can) be so much more. Our relationship did grow. It flourished actually. In the busyness of life I knew she was someone I could call on, be honest with, and who would show up for me. I think about that conversation a lot. Her intentionality in wanting to pursue friendship with me made me want to be a better friend, made me want to check in with her, follow up on how a hard week had been, pray for her—all trappings of genuine Christian friendship.
One of the most disorienting realities of the summertime was the dramatic fall-off in social and relational connection. Despite what student’s often thought, being in their lives was an incredible blessing to me, not just to them. Hearing about challenges small and large, being in scripture together, talking about theological doubts, laughing about how far they had come–all the makings of friendship wrapped up in a mentoring relationship. What I realized over summer was how much I preached the gospel and the word of God to myself simply by reminding others of who Jesus was. Encouraging them encouraged me. I got to live in the story of the Bible day in and day out. I might be feeling discouraged in my own faith, but I found that caring for others, be interested in their lives, and pointing them to God inevitably deepened my own faith.
I have heard the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” when it comes to friendship. But when you enter a few months of being away from your primary community, that is a time to be intentional, tell them you want to know them over the summer, hear how they are doing and deepen your spiritual friendship even in a season of being apart. Talk to a friend, ask them to pray, ask how they are growing in their faith, ask how they are struggling. Let the word of Christ dwell in your friendships richly.
Remember who you are and hold fast
Author Paul Tripp coined the phrase “functional atheist” to describe Christians who find themselves living as if God doesn’t exist when something trivial happens. Especially when I am moving quickly and my schedule is full, minor frustrations can turn into day-ruiners. But why? When I am living a “my kingdom come, and my will be done” lifestyle, my identity is primarily defined by either what I do or how I feel, and not by who God says I am. This is dangerous turf. When the busyness stops, I feel down and unproductive, suddenly I am wondering if God even loves me. If He did, why would he let me feel this way? Another dangerous step. When my identity is driven by my performance and emotions, I naturally start to relate to God based on how I feel or perform.
I need to remember who I am and hold fast to the truth. I love the refrain in Hebrews– let us hold fast to the profession of our faith, for he who promised is faithful (10:23). If you are a Christian, your identity is in Christ. You are who He says you are. You are a chosen person, a saint, forgiven, loved, made holy. I once heard a sermon on just the word benediction. It means “a good word.” God speaks a good word over you. But, as I heard almost weekly in college ministry, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel like I am loved or forgiven. What then? We need to actively choose to live in the story of the gospel rather than one that is about me. We might know God loves us, but we need to whisper it to our hearts, we need to massage the love of Christ into our uncertain chests. We need to decenter the story off of us, recenter it on Christ, and choose to agree with what our God says about us.