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And I Will Give You Rest

“Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  ~Jesus (Matthew 11:28ff)

Rest is not something I do very naturally. Even during those times when I am not actively pursuing a goal, my mind is on to the next step – dreaming, planning, worrying. It’s usually only when a physical ailment hits, that I shut myself off in my bedroom and let myself just be quiet. My Type A personality doesn’t like taking time off very often.

But I am learning to rest. More specifically, I am learning to rest in Jesus’ loving embrace; to sit with him and listen to his tender speech, to feel his arms wrapped ever so gently around me in embrace that is both secure and empowering.

Rest that is empowering? Seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? But the more I allow myself to just sit with Jesus, the more I find that I am buoyed by Him. Paul’s words,  “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” become so much more true as I learn to bring my troubles to Jesus and rest in Him. I can handle so much more when I am pulling my strength from Jesus, instead trying to do it by myself.

I am even finding that, in the midst of all the busy-ness and chaos of life, I can still rest in Jesus. I can find those moments to breathe in His fragrance, to hand over the anxieties and pressures that this life brings.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

I’ve had this Scripture pinned on the bulletin board above my computer for about a month now. And I am learning to live freely and lightly – even in the midst of manic days and restless nights that seem par for the course in this phase of life.

There are still days when the anxiety creeps in, when I am more focused on what needs to be done than on bringing myself to Jesus and learning from Him. But the more focused I become on following Jesus, the easier it becomes to be less worried about “all that stuff” as I am focusing on the God-stuff (and “all that stuff” still gets done!).

So, if I may paraphrase broadly:

“Come to me, and I will give you rest that will empower and strengthen you for all is yet to be done.” 

Amen and amen.

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Even When

There seems to be this common thread that is sewing together the scraps of reading that I’ve been doing lately. It is a thread that frequently gets lost in the fabric of life. My fabric is highly colored and patterned, with darks and lights playing against each other in a yin and yang that dances through the pinks, greens, reds, and blues. Some parts of my fabric are highly textured, and some are smooth. But this thread weaves its way throughout, quietly bringing the themes of my fabric together to a unified wholeness.

The thread is thankfulness.

It’s easy to be thankful when you are experiencing the bright pinks and reds and yellows of life. When your fabric is smooth and silky, it is easy to recognize God’s blessing that has created a beautiful pattern in its weave.

But when the world is dark blues, purples, or even black – it is often hard to distinguish the pattern, to see how the colors gently weave in and out of one another to paint a picture. When the fabric seems rough to the touch, or scratchy, finding that thread becomes vital.

Don Postema, in Space for God, says, “Gratitude is an attitude of receptivity and response.” How frequently we lose that thread in our fabric because we close down our ability to see it. It’s so easy to stare at the blackness with eyes that are unfocused. We don’t see the pattern, the subtle changes in shade or depth, or feel how the scratchy surface covers an ultra-soft down underneath. We blindly sit with our fabric tossed to the side, hoping that by ignoring the pain, it will go away. And we rage at God – or ignore God altogether – feeling rejected and alone when we are the ones who have thrown God aside.

Gratitude is an attitude of receptivity and response. When I can begin to look closely at those dark areas of my fabric is when I can begin to see the beauty in the pattern, and I can find that thread of thankfulness. I might enjoy the brightly-patterned portions of my fabric more, but the subtlety and depth that comes alive in the darkness can engage us in a new pattern altogether.

I look for that thread and sense that, if I were to pull it out, the whole fabric would lose its integrity. And so I begin a process of studying my patterns – my “consolations and desolations” (Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Linn and Linn). I look for opportunities to be thankful, even when my heart is sad. And in my receiving and responding, I find that I can see the pattern in my fabric as it richer and grows in beauty.

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The Great Initiator

As a lifetime Christian, it is so easy to get stuck in “my way” of doing things. I talk to God, I read the Bible, I worship, I do good things and help people whenever I can (even sometimes when it’s not convenient). I use my spiritual gifts because I believe that “to whom much has been given, much is expected.”

Does that make me a “good” Christian? Perhaps I can justify everything I do with a Bible verse that supports my actions and my non-actions. Look, I just did that with the reference to Luke 12:48. But does all of what I do come out of a passionate love for my Creator? Do I teach, write, preach, read, worship, pray – are these things reflections of love? Or things I do because I think I should?

In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson says that “prayer is initiated by God.” God is the Great Initiator. God is always the one who reaches out to me to take me into loving embrace when all I want to do is hide in shame because I know I’m not worthy of that depth of love. But once God has me wrapped up in His great arms, I am flooded with warmth that is grace, love, and peace, and I long to stay right there. Forever.

Indeed, that is prayer. It is a communication between my Creator and my heart. Anything that I do that doesn’t come from that place is just busy-work. It may be terrific, it may be good and helpful, but it’s not God’s work. God’s work changes lives – and mine first.

Perhaps that sounds harsh. After all, it’s the do-ers that get stuff done in our churches. I’m not saying that all that people do is worthless – much of it has great worth and value. Our churches are full of people who are running wonderful programs, leading fantastic worship experiences, teaching and preaching that touches hearts. But our churches are slowly dying.

Luke 5 tells the story of Jesus stepping out onto a fishing boat in order to teach. When he was done, he told the owner of the boat, Simon (Peter), to take his boat to deeper water and throw the net over the other side of the boat. Simon said, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets. (NIV)” Simon followed Jesus’ instruction, and he (and his friends) pulled up nets that were full to bursting.

As a church, we have been working hard all night. And perhaps we’ve made a few catches along the way, but we’re not catching fish enough that our boats begin to sink. The boats BEGAN TO SINK! Can you imagine if our churches were so full that we were on the verge of being overwhelmed? Instead, we have a few little fishes flopping around the decks and we spend our time mending our nets.

This is what I mean when I say that whatever we do that is not a result of our relationship with our Lord is not God’s work. We may be earnest in our fishing, but the catch is waiting elsewhere. We need that connection with the Creator to direct us.

One other thing to note from the Luke story – Jesus was the initiator from first to last. HE took over Simon’s boat as his dais. HE turned to Simon and told him where to throw his nets. HE promised Simon, James and John that they would become fishers of mankind. They didn’t ask for any of it, but they responded because they had an inkling that this guy knew something.

The challenge is this: if what you are doing isn’t coming from Jesus’ initiative working itself through you, stop. Sit and listen for a bit, enjoy God’s holy embrace. See if Jesus isn’t suggesting where to go into deeper water. Fish there, and be ready for a catch that will blow your socks off!

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Who are you wearing?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on spiritual formation lately. If you are not familiar with the concept, it is the area of study that typically focuses on the traditional Christian disciplines, a focus on the inner, rather than the outer, workings of faith. It is focus on one’s relationship with God, rather than the exterior sharing of it through good works. It is the interior life that feeds the external expression of faith and love.

I think it was Robert Mulholland, in his book, Shaped by the Word, that said that spiritual formation is elemental to human existence. We are all in the process of formation always. But we have a choice to make, whether our forming will take us closer to God, or further away.

Woah. It is so easy to be casual about our relationship with God. It is so easy to assume that we are doing enough by weekly church attendance or picking up the Bible every so often. Isn’t it enough to be a good person and follow what we believe God wants from us?

I won’t presume to answer those questions for anyone else, but I can answer for myself – no, those things are not enough. They aren’t sufficient to keep me growing closer to my Creator. They aren’t forming me into closer likeness of Jesus. They might be good, they may even keep me from being formed away from my Savior. But I need to be more intentional about relating to God directly, so that I can begin to reflect God, and God alone, in my forming.

Recently I preached a sermon on Galatians 3:26-29. In it, I talked about what it means to “put on Christ.” What you wear becomes who you are. If you dress in all black, dye your hair ebony, pierce you eyebrows and nose, and wear chains – soon your outlook will reflect a Goth outlook even if it never did before. If you dress as a professional, your demeanor will begin to reflect the clothes you wear. Your attire changes how you feel about yourself, and how people see you.

How wonderful to wear Christ, then! To have Christ changing your perspective, and to have others look at you and see Christ. That is the goal of Christian formation and the Christian life.

Who are you wearing?

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A Promise and Doing the Right Thing

18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. (Galatians 3:18, NIV)

The apostle Paul spends a lot of time, in many of his letters, arguing the case for having faith, rather than trying to do all the right stuff. He should know – he’d spent most of his life following the rigorous Jewish system of Law and was quite familiar with how challenging it was to follow it as keenly as his fellow Jewish leaders demanded. He spent a significant amount of time, after his conversion to Christ, defending his perspective that the good news of Jesus was for everyone, and the law – which was formerly the key to the inheritance – was fulfilled by Jesus and didn’t need to be followed any more. This opened up the good news to be for everyone, not just a chosen few. All it takes is faith. Right?

In the midst of one such argument in Galatians, we get this verse in 3:18 (quoted above). I love this verse, because it so succinctly sets down the basis that Paul is usually spending paragraphs to explain. The inheritance (the very thing that set the Israelites apart, that Jewish leaders were counting on) was given as a promise to Abraham. So, Paul argues, by saying that a believer must follow the Jewish Law, one denies the initiative of God. God gave a promise – all on his very own (and if you read the text from Genesis 15, you’ll notice that God played both parts in the making of the covenant, while Abram slept – the promise was made 100% by God). So, make your choice – is it God’s promise, or is it the Law? And if it’s the Law, then we all lose.

You might be ready to surf somewhere else by now – this has all been covered before, right? Yeah, we know that we’re saved by faith, not by works; the law no longer controls us. We know this – so why do I write it yet again?

Because, as a group of Christ-followers, we’ve forgotten. Or gotten distracted. Or we’ve gotten so wrapped up in earnestly doing things right that we’ve turned into the very people Jesus preached against – the scribes and Pharisees. And Paul – the Judaizers. Were these bad people? Are we bad people? I’m sure most of them (and we) were earnestly trying to follow God the best they could. They were using the tools that had been handed down to them for generations. And we are using tools that have been handed down to us for generations – we’ve been more and more turning into people who put “right” and “wrong” on actions instead of focusing on loving God.

And that’s my point. When someone does something really nice for you, does that make you feel good about that person? What if someone gives their life for you, will that encourage you to love them? What if someone promises you eternal life, will that convince you that they’re serious? What if someone says they’ve got the hairs of your head counted and knows you better than you know yourself, since before you were born?

And if you’ve received so much from someone – given freely out of love – won’t you want to love them back?

Doing good things isn’t bad. But I fear that we have forgotten that it’s a promise given freely by God. We’re wrapped back up in doing all the right things that we forget to love God back.

Of Monsters and Men has a song, entitled, “Love Love Love,” in which the refrain goes like this:

‘Cause you love, love, love
When you know I can’t love
You love, love, love
When you know I can’t love
You love, love, love
When you know I can’t love you

It’s not a Christian song. It’s not even about God. But I think that so accurately describes how one-sided our relationship with God is.

It’s what Jesus said. It’s what Paul said. It’s how God interacts with his people throughout the time of the old covenant. Love God, love your neighbor. “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).

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Why I have a love/hate relationship with religion

God is my favorite subject.

I love talking about God, and I will engage in dialogue about God with pretty much anyone.* I will talk with you if you believe in God, or if you don’t. I will talk with you if you believe God is called something different, or if you believe in multiple gods. It’s a simple fact that I believe that God is bigger than all of our questions, and I really enjoy diving deep into those questions with earnest questioners. Most of the time I don’t have answers – but I enjoy asking the questions.

And on a very academic level, I really like religion, too. I find it fascinating to study the differences between religions – to see how culture engages with religion (and vice versa), and find the similarities and differences between the myriad of religions that cover our globe. One of my favorite sermons was about how we Christians can learn lessons in loving God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength – through the other major world religions (in that case, we looked at Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam – the biggies).

But for me personally, religion is, in many ways, dead. I think we have gotten so lost – like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day – in thinking that religion is the same as loving God. It’s not. Not even close. God is not human-made, religion is. I’m not saying that religion is bad (although those who profess it have certainly been guilty of some horrific crimes). What I’m saying is that religion was created by humans as our way of understanding the incomprehensible. We needed a framework in which we could begin the task of learning about God. So we set up all these complex rites and rituals which we called “worship” and rules which we called “love.” And then we decided that the rites, rituals, and rules were more important than the God for whom they were created.

Since when does love look like a list of “don’ts?” Since when does adoring our Creator follow a tightly proscribed series of events?

This is why I’m frustrated with religion on a personal level. I’m frustrated that we have turned into the hypocrites who want to ascribe rules to every aspect of faith. I don’t want to be someone who goes to church just because I’m supposed to. I want to enter into worship – into true adoration of the God who has pursued me even to death.

I invite you to join me as I seek out true love.

 

*As long as the conversation is an open and honest dialogue.