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. 

Zoom calls and identity exposure

Theology for the Pandemic

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 Christ Jesus 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 sees everything. 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. 

Cutting my husband’s hair– proof of sanctification

Theology for the Pandemic

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).

(Un)quiet Time

Theology for the pandemic

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.