This morning I practiced lectio divina before I took the dogs out for a walk. From John 21, I heard “Do you love me more than these?” and “Follow me.”
It was the phrase “more than these” that really caught me.
The resurrected Jesus has appeared to his disciples on the beach after a long night of fishing. They caught nothing until he called out to them, offering instructions to switch their nets to the other side of the boat. That might have seemed crazy to experienced fishermen after so many fruitless (fishless) hours. Still, it worked. Of course it worked.
So what is Jesus asking Peter? Do you love me more than the other disciples love me? Peter couldn’t have answered that. Do you love me more than you love the other disciples? Unlikely he would stir up rivalry … the disciples have mastered that game so well they need Jesus’ help unlearning it. Do you love me more than fishing? Bingo! Because following Jesus will be harder, more challenging, more rewarding, and will cost Peter way more than fishing.
Like Peter, I’m certain Jesus knows that I love him. Like Peter, I repeat: I love you, I love you, I love you. I have followed Jesus since childhood.
But “more than these?” Hmm. What is my version of fishing, the things I could offer as excuses to not follow Jesus, or not follow as closely? What excuses do I put before him?
Anxiety. A hard day. Stress. Comfort. So many big emotions, all my drama. Other responsibilities on the To-Do list. Hobbies. Fatigue. Occasionally, even boredom. I have been around God’s house forever, have seen and done and heard it all, and sometimes it feels too familiar. Lackluster.
I can offer lots of excuses, but the real issue is this: what am I willing to put aside to demonstrate my love for Jesus more than anything else? Because nothing else measures up.
I cling to his promise: Jesus came to give life, abundant life at that. I want complete joy, overflowing love, a full life that only following him can offer.
I’m gonna make myself a note and tack it up as a reminder: More Than These.
What excuses do you make, and how do you remind yourself to put Jesus first?
Over the last few years I’ve been learning to develop healthy boundaries around the voices I listen to.
I stopped listening to the news and read carefully instead. I implemented care in my use of media and social media. I made the difficult choice to walk away from relationships that had become crusty, toxic, bullying. I also tuned out the voices that lingered in my head, refusing to have conversations with people who weren’t physically present.
And I’ve done some serious relationship work with my inner critic. I call her Grumpamonk, sometimes Grumpamonkey, because either name makes me laugh and helps me take her less seriously.
So those are the voices I’ve tuned out. I’ve also tuned in to other voices, voices that speak encouragement, motivation, justice, and love. I’ve allowed myself to feel uncomfortable when necessary for the sake of learning and growth. Even my Grumpamonk’s voice has changed her tune, surrounded as she has been by a choir of voices singing in harmony.
The most important voice I’ve been listening to? The voice of the One who sings love over me.
Since Holy Week, I’ve been using the free version of the Ritual phone app to practice lectio divina several times a week. Lectio is a way of listening to the Spirit through the reading of a short Bible passage. You listen for a word or phrase that stands out, and then invite the Spirit to tell you what that particular word might mean to you. You listen to the passage three times (it’s short, so it doesn’t take long) while having a quiet conversation with God. I’ve done lectio with groups, but I’m thrilled to have this simple tool guiding me regularly at home.
During Holy Week, as I listened to the passages from Isaiah commonly called the Suffering Servant passages, I anticipated challenging words related to my sin for which Jesus died. Instead, I heard that God is pleased with me.
Other times I have heard words such as: have life, come to me, see the Son, become, and complete joy. All encouraging, all relational invitations.
This has led to a significant realization: as much as I believe that God is love and God is good and God has good plans for me, I have also expected to hear judgment. I have expected to hear that I’m not measuring up, doing my best, or living as fully as God intends. Each time I’ve been surprised to hear God’s gentle voice loving me and calling me forward because somehow I’ve been anticipating rebuke. I know God doesn’t weigh our sins on a balancing scale, but if sins could be weighed, I’m sure my bad attitudes and inactions could get heavy.
Where did my presupposition come from? How had I internalized the voice of an angry, at least annoyed, God? I don’t know, though I can guess. All the voices of spiritual leaders who have emphasized personal sin without challenging the fallen systems within which we commit those sins, wagging fingers generally and sometimes pointing directly, combined to make my humanness seem a bigger deal than God’s love. It shouldn’t need a spoiler alert: God’s love is way bigger than any word or action on my part. Or yours.
Talk about spiritual seismic activity! I’ve been following Jesus since childhood. I have degrees from a Christian liberal arts college and a theological seminary. I can teach and preach and write about God’s love from here to Jesus’ return.
Yet I’m learning anew to hear God’s voice, the voice of love, a voice I want to hear again and again. Thanks be to God.
Years ago I stopped using the words “sinful” or “sinner” to describe myself and others. While they are biblical terms to describe a spiritual reality, I realized those words only played nice on the church grounds. Those across the street couldn’t hear the good news of a loving God because as they walked by some well-intentioned soul slapped them with a label. Maybe those words don’t play nice on church grounds, either.
I substituted the term “broken.” Most people know they’ve made mistakes, whether intentionally or not. They might begrudgingly admit that they aren’t living their best life, that they – and the world in which they live – are capable of so much more.
Lately, I’ve noticed myself moving away from “broken.” I prefer “human.”
Human includes every last one of us, wherever we are in the journey of life. Humans are imperfect and make mistakes. Humans sabotage and self-sabotage. Humans also have the capacity to grow and change. Humans can learn better patterns for living well. We can develop healthier habits that nurture our lives and foster loving relationships.
Broken is disparaging. It’s objectifying, as if we are toys that got played with too roughly and no longer pop – eliciting a heart-thumping shriek of laughter – when the timer goes off. Broken doesn’t work. It requires fixing. If broken can’t be fixed, it might as well get tossed with the trash. If humans are broken, has our capacity to learn and grow cracked? Maybe we’re hopeless. Maybe we’re beyond love.
Psalm 51:17 says, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” A broken spirit recognizes our need for God and leads us to worship. I argue that a broken spirit is actually whole, a whole-hearted gift of our whole self offered to a God who receives and loves every atom of our being and moment of our lives.
A cursory examination of broken in scripture: We’ve broken covenant with God and each other. Broken faith, commands, and treaties. In the purity laws, broken skin was unclean. First Samuel 2:10 says “…those who oppose the Lord will be broken,” but that refers to judgment against those who reject God, not to God’s people who struggle to do right.
There are broken vessels and walls, broken necks and arms, broken wheels and sandals, broken cisterns and gates, broken branches and horns. Broken empires and idols. Another reference to a broken spirit depicts grief and brokenheartedness. A cord of three strands will not be quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12) so braid God into your human relationships. God will deliver his people from their enemies by breaking “the rod of the wicked” (Isaiah 14:5). The prophets often use the word broken as judgment against God’s enemies. Jesus also broke bread and fish to sustain the multitudes.
When we celebrate the sacrament of communion, we remember that Jesus’ body was broken for us. His body was broken, but not the whole of his being. His body wasn’t broken for broken people. His body was broken for love of the precious human beings he created, those he loves and sustains and longs to be with in relationship from now until forever.
A ministry leader once told me that I was broken and it was his job to fix me. I cried in recognition of the sad truth that I had been harshly judged, evaluated and found wanting, kicked to the curb as something unloved and unlovable.
He was wrong, friends. You and I are not broken in need of fixing, but beloved human beings. Learning, growing, living. Becoming. Human.
Jesus died for love of us. Jesus beat death for love of us.
He is risen, He is risen indeed.
Easter is over … yet your season of grief may continue. I’m sorry. Life is hard, and there are so many occasions for grief.
Jesus longs to turn our wailing into dancing, to swap our mourning clothes for radiant joy. But he doesn’t wave his hands over us and zap the grief like a bug in an electric trap. Sometimes we have to move slowly through the sorrow.
The good news? He is in the sorrow with you.
We are Easter people, but sometimes we walk through the valley of shadows. Still, he doesn’t leave us alone in the dark.
Jesus is sad with you.
That simple sentence was an earth-shaking revelation for me when I found myself in a season of sorrow. Jesus wasn’t just sad about what I had gone through, what I was feeling and experiencing as a result of the mess. He wasn’t just sad for me.
He was sad *with* me. He held me and wept with me. He walked with me and listened to me. We sat silently together. We walked and talked some more. It was healing. He walked me back into joy, though we put a lot of miles on a few pairs of shoes before we arrived.
Something I learned along the way: it’s okay to find, or create, a small bright spot of joy in the midst of pain. It doesn’t betray your experience, and it might be just the thing you need.
Sit outside. Look at pictures that remind you of joy. Listen to music. Pet your dog. Wash your face. Write or draw or paint. Read a book. Eat chocolate. Do one small joyful act every day. It will help. It will remind you that you’re not alone and that this season will pass. Because it will.
When was the last time you experienced God’s pleasure?
Yesterday I slipped outside to enjoy a few minutes of late afternoon solitude before dinner. I parked myself under the trees that shade our deck and opened the Ritual phone app I downloaded months ago but hadn’t yet explored. I was delighted to find a short lectio divina meditation specifically for Monday of Holy Week.
Lectio divina is a form of listening to and meditating on the Bible. If you’ve used a Headspace or Calm story meditation, it’s similar, but with God’s Word at its focus. You listen for a word or phrase that jumps out at you, something to chew on over time.
The leader read from Isaiah 42:1-7 while I gazed at the tall, strong trees. The phrase that offered itself to me: “I am pleased…” [note: other translations substitute delight for pleased]
I’ve been pondering Holy Week and Jesus’ decision to walk toward Jerusalem, as he must have known full well the painful events ahead. The betrayal and torturous execution awaiting him. He walked toward Jerusalem anyway … for love of us.
This week is hard, sad, painful. We know Easter is coming, but it’s not here yet. We can’t skip the grief for want of glory.
So God’s message of pleasure in me, his pleasure to be with me, surprised me. It wasn’t a message of suffering, for which I had been primed by the choice of a passage commonly referred to as “The Suffering Servant.” It wasn’t a message of conviction for the wrongs I’ve committed or the rights I haven’t. To the contrary, I received a message of delight in who I am and in our time together.
As the leader read the passage again, and again, I alternately watched the sunlight weave its way between the branches and closed my eyes to experience it dancing on my eyelids. I felt its warmth mingled with just a touch of breeze. I heard birdsong. I inhaled and exhaled deep, contented breaths. I replied, “Yes, Lord, I am pleased, too. Thank you.”
I experienced God’s pleasure in my mind, heart, and body. Later, the family gathered around the table for a satisfying meal. We migrated to the couches to watch a movie that had the young people laughing uproariously as I again slipped away, this time to read a book. I slept fully, not a given these days, and had pleasant dreams of waking dreams fulfilled. I awoke with a smile on my face, aware that all of this mundane and wonderful life is wrapped up in God’s pleasure.
I pray that experience of God’s pleasure for you, too.
As a child in church I sang, “I surrender all … all to Jesus, I surrender.” A current Hillsong chorus intones, “I surrender…”, giving God all of who we are and ever hope to be. It’s such familiar Christian-ese that it must be biblical. Right?
I’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection lately, always informed by my faith. As such, I had been leaning into an awareness that surrendering my life to God doesn’t mean giving up who I am. God made me. God loves me, has plans for me, is delighted to be with me right here, right now. I am not broken in need of fixing, but a beloved human being. Learning, growing, following the lead of the Spirit in this moment, this season. Becoming.
If I’m convinced that God is God and I am absolutely not God, it makes spiritual sense that I should give up my pride. I should throw over my belief that I am in control, a lesson this pandemic year has made abundantly clear. I should confess and repent of my sins. But I had a gut reaction to any suggestion that I surrender myself. It stopped me short.
Curious, I looked up surrendering to God in the Bible and … it’s not there (I checked several respectable translations though clearly not every translation). Where the Bible includes the word surrender, it consistently appears in a military context and never in reference to God. Nowhere in scripture does it demand that we surrender ourselves to God. I was stunned.
From the Bible I turned to the dictionary. Surrender came into English in the mid-15th century from Old French, meaning “to give up, deliver over,” though by 1580, it was primarily used as a reflexive verb: “to give oneself up,” specifically as a prisoner. As a noun, surrender means “a giving up,” as in property or land grant. And the Oxford Languages definition of the verb “to surrender” is to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.
Read that last sentence again. I’ll wait.
The idea that we surrender our lives to God, all of who we are and hope to be, pictures God as an enemy or opponent. It makes God the bad guy. It imagines God in a military uniform, wielding a bloody sword, righteously intent on wiping out his foes. Maybe this time Goliath beats David?
We must be careful about the words we use.
God is love (1Jn 4:8). That three-word sentence is God’s self-definition. Love. That’s it, astounding good news.
I am not property, land to be annexed to God’s Kingdom; I am God’s beloved daughter. Further, casting God in the role of either prison warden or military enemy couldn’t be further from what we see in Jesus. The Son of God, God Incarnate, humbled himself to serve us in ways we could never serve ourselves. He sacrificed himself to make peace.
Paul talks in several places (Rom 6, Gal 2 and 5) about “dying to self,” a whole different matter. Dying to self in order to take up the life of Jesus is self-sacrifice, a choice made for love rather than a battlefield demand. Also, dying to self is not about cutting off pieces of my personality and the identifying traits that make me me; it has nothing to do with how we understand self through the lens of modern psychology. Instead it’s about giving up my strong-headed insistence to choose sinful patterns rather than living freely in God’s grace.
In her book of Lenten meditations, Where the Eye Alights, Marilyn McEntyre reminds me that “…God’s way is to invite, not compel.” Think of a time when someone tried to compel you to action. How did that go? I had a recent encounter with someone who entered the room with an agenda so loud he couldn’t listen, nor could I hear myself think. A posture of humility, a hand extended with grace, a gentle invitation, that I might have chosen to receive. A crowbar of weighted words moves me, sadly, in the opposite direction. I guess he hasn’t learned that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar, although I’d like to imagine myself more butterfly than fly.
God does not compel. He graciously invites. God does not wait to arrest us and slam shut the iron bars. He longs to free us from the prisons we’ve built for ourselves. God does not force our surrender. Instead, Jesus modeled humility. God does not want me to give up myself. It bears repeating: God made me, loves me, and delights in me.
God wants us to give up sin. God wants to redeem the bad and bring forth beauty. God wants me to live this one precious life he’s given me with purpose. With joy and creative imaginings. With love, in love, for love.
Christ be with me Christ before me Christ behind me
Christ with me when I sleep and when I rise Christ with me when I work and when I play Christ surround me with love, grace, and goodness Christ hold me close
Christ with those who can’t sleep and with those who suffer Christ with the unemployed and with those who work two jobs Christ with those who feel unloved, judged harshly, and unworthy Christ, hold them closer still
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
Christ in everyone I know Christ, lead them to loving thoughts Christ, lead them to peaceful words Christ, may I remind them of you
Christ in everyone Christ in those I’ve thoughtlessly injured Christ in those who speak from their pain Christ, make peace
Christ in every eye that sees me Christ in every ear that hears me.
Christ in everyone I encounter Christ, may I look like you Christ, may I sound like you Christ, may I introduce you?
Christ in every human face Christ, may I see you Christ, may I hear you Christ, may I love like you.
“…Lent is a speed bump in the church year, inviting us into reflection, confession, and prayer as we approach Holy Week and Easter, a time when we remember the profound costliness of God’s abundant love for us.” –Susan Phillips, PhD, Executive Director of New College Berkeley
I love the image of Lent, the 40 days before Easter (Sundays not included), as a speed bump. Even in this strange pandemic time when I go nowhere to do nothing and see no one, apparently I’ve still managed to speed my life along and oh wow here comes Lent and – wham – I’ve hit it too fast. I need to slow down. Lent will help.
Often Lent involves giving something up (chocolate) or taking something on (acts of service) as a way of identifying with Jesus as he journeyed toward his crucifixion in Jerusalem. Yet I’m already daily working my habit tracker, and let’s be honest, this has been an unusual year to say the least. Which calls for an unusual response.
Last week when I encountered a list of words related to purpose in writing, three leaped off the page: Explore. Play. Practice. They get along well together, and I believe I will enjoy watching them frolic in the long green grass of this Lenten season.
I want to Explore. To strike out on an expedition. To take twisty-turning side roads and unexpected paths in the deep forest. At one time I might have felt afraid, but I’m leaving timidity behind. I have confidence that my soul will guide me with yes or no responses along the way. I welcome everything, everyone, every occasion I encounter today, because I trust it will be for my healing.
I’d like to say I’m packing light, but that’s not true. Even if my backpack contains little more than snacks, a sweatshirt, and a flashlight, my head and heart are overstuffed. That’s part of the point, of course: I need to get lost to be found. To empty myself and create space for what may come.
Exploration will tuck new tools into my backpack I didn’t know I’d need. It will fill my eyes with breathtaking sights I could only extrapolate from travel books, imagination, and dreams. It will fill my heart with experiences that amplify my joy. I will encounter prophets and teachers, leaders and fellow pilgrims who swell my love to overflow. I may come home weary and changed. I expect to come home grateful.
I want to Play, and I’ve traveled enough to know that exploration can be hard work and playful, too. In my tendency toward contemplation, I naturally find myself alone, deep in thought, immersed in words – mine or others as I move between writing and reading. It can get a little heavy, and my mental muscles grow weary as my physical muscles grow itchy from sitting too long in our overstuffed recliner.
I need playful movement. I want to skip along new trails, and also to crouch low and watch the fascinating tiny creatures I’d miss otherwise. Maybe I’ll pull out the crayons and draw as I observe them. Maybe I’ll journal with colored pencils. Maybe we’ll find a deck of cards and play together, right there in the woods.
After all, I am walking toward Good Friday, not racing. There’s no rush. I need to move slow enough to remember Jesus, my companion. To walk hand-in-hand, noticing what he points out about this lovely world he made, about my life in this time, about his love for me. What’s coming will be devastating, though not paralyzing: Sunday always comes after Friday; Easter always follows Good Friday. Joy in the morning means I can play joyfully now.
I want to Practice. When I first read Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline in the early 1990s, it was life-changing. Foster advocates for ordinary followers of Jesus, not just spiritual giants, to engage everyday disciplines that help them connect with Jesus and add joy to life in the midst of laundry and lawn-mowing. Disciplines such as meditation and study, simplicity and solitude, confession and celebration. I became something of a spiritual discipline junky, and as I type those words I’m not sure how to feel about being addicted to paths that connect me to God… Is that healthy addiction, or inappropriate metaphor?
Yet these days I find myself substituting “practice” for “discipline.” Discipline feels exacting, harsh, rigid. When I practice yoga, I listen to what my body needs. Some days parts of me feel strong or wobbly, and tomorrow will be different. Some days, certain poses require modification because I can’t bend that way; it hurts, I need props, gentleness, maybe a slight wiggle to ease into place. It’s a practice, not a perfection. And it’s my practice, not up for comparison with others. It’s communal and personal, imperfect and improving. As with physical practice, so goes spiritual practice. Even the wobbles find acceptance so long as I keep at it. The practice itself imparts grace.
I can’t tell you today, on this Ash Wednesday as Lent begins, what this season will hold. I will read and write for sure. I will engage solitude and time with others. It may look a lot like life in any other season. I can tell you, however, that I will listen for whispers of invitation to Explore Playful Practice and follow where they lead.
Read: God loves the world so much that He wrapped up in swaddling clothes the best gift we will ever receive: His Son Jesus, who lived and died and rose again to save us from our sins. As we exchange gifts on Christmas, and on every day the whole year through, we remember that we love because He first loved us. We walk by faith because He shines His radiant light over the whole world and straight into our lives.
Pray: Everlasting God, we receive the gift of your Son who lights up the world. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
Read: On an ordinary dark night at work, the shepherds huddled around a fire for warmth while the sheep clustered together, some bleating and shuffling their hooves to kick up nibbles of grass, others leaning in for support as they slept on their feet. Into this ordinary every night darkness, angels burst forth to explode the inky-black sky, heralding the light of extraordinary joy: the long-awaited Messiah’s birth.
Pray: With the angels we sing–Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. Messiah Jesus, in your name we joyfully wait and pray. Amen.
Monday1 John 1:5-7 What do you do to keep walking forward in the light? Tuesday1 John 2:9-10 How are light and love, darkness and hate, parallel? Who do you need to forgive so that you can walk in the light of love? WednesdayRevelation 22:5 How do you imagine eternity with God in heaven?
“…God dances amidst the common…. The angel came in the night because that is when lights are best seen and that is when they are most needed. God comes into the common for the same reason.” –Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven