The past two weeks have been such a great time with family -especially with my sister Britt, who is back in the States for a month. Excited for 2015! Happy New Year, friends!
This week of advent is focused on JOY. I love this week. However you celebrate advent, generally everyone celebrates the third week the same way. It’s party week! The wait is almost over, we’ve stepped out of solemn expectancy and quiet peace, and this week we get to cut loose and remember that Christ is on his way, he is our good news of great joy for all people! I hope you can take some time this week to sing out your favorite Christmas song, help someone in need, maybe read the gospel of John, buy someone’s coffee, smile at your cashier, just find a way to express your joy.
Any time I thought about what I wanted to say about the joy of Christmas, all I could think about was this oldie. So instead of trying to replicate, I thought I would just share it here.
“And then there was a party” – Happy Advent friends!
Yesterday I left my office around noon and walked the four blocks to the capital to welcome the NAACP on their 120 mile march from Ferguson to Jefferson City and to stand with them, pray, and listen as they called for change, accountability, and justice in policing and racial equality. My heart has been unbearably heavy the past 120 days since the killing of Michael Brown, as it’s torn a part a community I love and have served in several weeks over the last five years, as it’s highlighted the pain and injustice that has gone on since the foundation of this country, and as bias, discrimination, and the lack of love and understanding has been expressed in very impersonal and insensitive ways by many in the body of Christ and abroad that seem to negate the truth that Michael Brown’s mother reiterated yesterday that “all lives matter”. I sat in the bottom floor rotunda waiting among several high school students and teachers from East Saint Louis. And then we heard it. They were here. A roar outside above us that echoed through the corridors, into the dome and suffused every floor. “No justice, no peace” they cried over and over. When the doors opened protestors entered quietly and after several minutes NAACP chairman Roslyn Brock began with prayer, pleading, “O God of justice, hear our cries.” next to a hallway with an inscription above it that read, “Lord God of hosts be with us yet, lest we forget.”
No justice, no peace. I’ve heard and seen this phrase thousands of times since August 9th and I can’t shake it, nor should I. The truth is always clear and it always compels us into change that feels impossible. and thus, you cannot have absolute peace without justice, and you cannot have full justice without peace. Both hang in balance and anything short of complete peace and justice is momentary, insatiable, or counterfeit.
I’ve been reading a little book that’s rocking my world that was published a few years ago called Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang, a director of Biblical Justice at International Justice Mission (an organization you must check out, if anything). As I finished it this afternoon in a puddle of convicted and passionate tears, I remembered this coming week of advent was focused on celebrating Christ birth in the posture of peace. And while the book centralizes over the issue of justice, God has quickened my spirit to share with you some of Hoang’s thoughts, as it speaks indirectly of His peace. We wait on both and we cannot focus solely on peace in the coming week without the truth of God’s justice pressing in behind it. So in this season of finding peace in the second week of advent we must worship wholly in His peace and not dismiss His justice as they are connected; strung together at the ribs, tugging at one, beckoning the other.
Hoang writes on Transforming Justice:
“Seeking justice doesn’t begin at the door of a brothel. Seeking justice begins with seeking the God of justice.
For most followers of Jesus, the difference between a pursuit of justice that brings transformation for real people suffering real violence and a pursuit of justice that amounts to little more than good intentions is simple – perhaps even simpler than we want it to be. The difference is found at our starting point, every single day. It begins with the choices we make, large or small, all day long.
Fighting injustice – the abuse of power that oppresses the vulnerable through violence and lies- can be excruciatingly hard work. It can be exhausting. It is relentless. But Jesus offers to make our burdens light, even the burden of fighting injustice.
And so, seeking justice -bringing right order and exerting life-giving power to protect the vulnerable- does not begin at the threshold of abuse. Seeking justice begins with seeking God: our God who longs to bring justice; our God who longs to use us, every one of his children, to bring justice; our God who offers us the yoke of Jesus in exchange for things that otherwise leave us defeated.”
In contrast, if we want true peace to rule in our hearts as exhorted in Colossians 3:15, we must first seek the God of peace. Are you scrambling to be the fixer of your family’s problems or allowing fear and pain to reign in a place in your life Christ has clearly stamped, covered, and taken care of? If your life is lacking peace, seek first the God of peace; He promises to dwell in us richly.
“Prayer is the work of being still before the God who knows more of the reality of injustice than we will ever know, the God who alone can move and act through us to bring about greater levels of transformation than we could ever begin to dream on our own. … Praying through the calendar of meetings and projects for the day ahead. Praying through and releasing to God all that weighs us down as we enter and try to engage this work. We release and in so doing, we receive.
Contrary to what might seem logical, sabbath stopping is not meant primarily to help us “rest up” so we are ready for the next challenge; it is not meant to be pragmatic toward another end. The resting and stopping of sabbath are intended as being good in and of themselves – complete. They are a declaration of all that has come before as belonging to God, and a declaration that all that is left undone and all that lies ahead also belongs to God. All is from God and for God and by God. Sabbath is a declaration that it is God alone who reigns supreme in this day.
… Foolish as it seemed, it became clear to me that this command to “stop”, to “rest”, to “cease” and to be still is a command that pervades scripture. Nearly every issue that the Israelites faced – idolatry, murder, coveting, grumbling, lying – could be linked to their root disobedience of not keeping the sabbath and therefore not trusting God above all else. Exile, captivity by foreign rulers, even their oppression and enslavement of their own kin and neighbors had some link back to their unwillingness to obey God’s fourth commandment to honor the sabbath and keep it holy. Disobedience of the sabbath was, at root, a manifestation of both idolatry and injustice in the life of God’s people.
… Prayer in many moments can all too easily feel like an interruption. It feels inefficient and ineffective. Sometimes it might even feel irresponsible in the face of truly urgent matters. And that is exactly why the sabbath rhythm exists. When we least feel that we have time to stop is likely when we most need to do precisely that – stop. Without moments and days of intentional sabbath, I am bound again to the treadmill of prayerless striving.
… In Psalm 62 David exhort is to “trust in the Lord at all times … pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” It would seem David makes a fundamental connection between choosing to trust in the Lord and pouring out our hearts. On the one hand, we cannot pour out our hearts to God if we do not trust God. On the other hand, we cannot learn to trust God unless we pour out our hearts to him. We cannot pour out our hearts to God until we have stopped what we are doing and intentionally rest in God’s presence. And we cannot rest in God’s presence -stopping from our busyness and efforts to make a difference and seeking to know God and God’s power above all- if we do not trust that God goes before and behind us, making a way, doing his work of justice through us, able to accomplish more than all we could ever ask or imagine. And we cannot trust God’s presence and power at work in our midst unless we actually stop and rest with God, allowing God to speak to us and even to show us his hand at work beyond us.”
In order to see and receive God’s peace, carve out true rest to lean into the Lord in prayer, not only to be heard, but to also hear. I love her line, “we release and in so doing, we receive.” Prayer is a spiritual practice that can easily be left undisturbed and can easily strip the clarity of your calling down to doubt and despair. How often have we hurriedly prayed, asking for something specific, and we miss the moment of sweet communion, the peaceful refuge of his presence? Prayer is perhaps the greatest and most effective way to receive peace.
I discovered that God gives us a great gift when we simply allow ourselves to open his Word and sit with it. The gift is not marked solely by new insights, promises and proverbs, though the scriptures are full of each. In sitting with God’s word, God gives us himself. And in giving us himself, God enables us to see more of what God sees, and in the ways God sees. We don’t need to come with anything other than a willingness to let the Holy Spirit teach us and open our eyes as we read. God meets us in these small moments and draws us further into the riches of knowing him and his word.
… Above all, cultivating a love for God’s word is one of the most important daily practices we can engage as we pursue justice. It is also a way we can engage with others, growing through a community committed to deepening the spiritual roots of desire to do justice. The pursuit of justice is never meant to be done alone, nor is the pursuit of God. Even when I think I already know what a certain passage has to say, when I sit down with a good friend or group of people and we open God’s Word together, even the most read and reread passages of Scripture take on fresh life. And when we begin to read and see Scripture -whether alone or with others- through the lens of grappling with the overwhelming reality of pain and injustice in our world today, God’s Word pierces through murky waters and seemingly impossible darkness with blazing clarity.
When you don’t know what to do about injustice, when you don’t know how to press on, when you’d rather shrink back or even -perhaps especially- when you’re ready to charge forward, open God’s Word. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you – this will draw you nearer to understanding justice first in the hear of God and next in our own lives. And the questions we bring to God with his Word will form each of us to reflect more and more of God’s heart for all people.”
This is so straightforward: peace is found in his Word, God reveals himself to us through his Word. I struggle with daily routine and this is reflected in my spiritual life as well, so it is always a conscious choice to spend time in the word for me. And in seasons where I am doing this daily, are seasons my soul has ceased less and less. In this season of advent, let’s be determined to examine His word more closely, more preciously, in the truth that this is the well our souls need to drink deeply and find refuge.
“God is greatly concerned with injustice that he continually invites his children to face darkness for the purpose of sending us in to scatter it. As we choose to face grave darkness in our broken world, one of the best ways to combat our own pendulum swings between apathy on the one hand and despair on the other is to also intentionally choose hope. Hope can be impotently naive and moorless when pursued as nothing more than a sentimental wish. But when hope is grounded in the reality of who God is and the reality of how God works in our world, it becomes a source of great power in the face of even the darkest circumstances.
Put simply, we are never first on the scene of anything in our world today, be it our personal lives or the lives of people across the globe. when we encounter injustice, whether in story or face-to-face, we are encountering a reality that God knows to its deepest depths. And when God invites us to act in the face of injustice, God is inviting us to join the work he is already doing. Our God is always first on the scene, but he chooses to draw us in and use us as his vessels. We serve a God who has already seen, already heard; God who is ready to send us. Above all, we serve a God whose glory cannot be quenched. Hope in our God’s glory will never disappoint (Romans 5:1-5).
… The choice to pray, to ask of God, to listen for his voice, leads up to encounter hope that trumps our temptation to despair. In prayer we are reminded that decades and even centuries of injustice sometimes take great time and persevering work to reverse. And so we wait in prayer with hope. We keep asking God and listen with great expectation. We bring God our hope for little girls locked in darkness. Hope for the slave trapped by viciously brutal owners. Hope for the unjustly accused. We pray with hope as Paul instructs, without ceasing.
… Choose to face darkness. Choose to cast despair to the wayside. Choose to let God lead you above all else. Choose hope.
When we look at the state of the world, especially these days it seems, it can look devastating and the idea for peace on a global scale looks impossible. When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, justice will be served, fully and completely. Peace will be restored, fully and completely. The Kingdom is here and also not yet. And so these afflictions, wars, natural disasters are “the beginning of birth pains” for Christ’s return (Matthew 24:8). Our task is clear: to share a Gospel of peace, a Gospel of justice, a Gospel of reconciliation. It is hard to bear witness and take action against sin in the word, but we must not despair. We must choose hope and the truth that total peace is in store.
“Mark Labberton writes, “Christian worship corporate and individual can and should be one of the most profound and relevant responses to power abuse in the world. In worship we cast our lives upon the faithful and just power of God When we do so, we oppose all acts of unjust power.” This kind of worship is not easy. It is rarely comfortable and barely rational and yet it is the way the church has been called to move.
… Worship in the pursuit of justice roots us in truth, which is essential to our spiritual sustenance. Seeking justice without worship leaves attending to the second greatest commandment by bypassing the first. This pathway risks the unveiling of a new kind of legalism in our hearts. This new legalism is expressed in a ruthless pursuit of justice that stems from a heart that has not itself been examined for its own injustice.
… Worship in the pursuit of justice also has the power to connect us to one another. history is full of stories of justice heroes whose lives serve as a benchmark for the hopes of this generation. Heroes like William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr. are each rightly remembered for their leadership and inspiring voices. But what and whom -worship of the true God of justice- stands behind these leaders is often what gets missed.
In worship, our individual doubts seem less dramatic and lose power. When we look and listen and join with community around us, we will realize that we are not alone. The justice journey is corporate. Worship in the pursuit of justice not only connects us to one another. Perhaps most important, worship connects us -all of us, regardless of our particular gifts and skills and role in the fight- to the oppressed.
Worship is our well of peace and justice and we are meant to drink of it together. Whatever is unfolding in your life this week that is unbearable, I pray that you find his peace in his presence and that you would be both blessed by and a blessing to God as you worship with other believers this advent season.
“Every year that passes I become more and more aware of my need to be committed to practices that help me remember and in turn live in the reality of God’s promises. If we are going to persevere in telling stories of God’s faithfulness, we must ourselves remember God’s faithfulness. God’s abundant grace. The hope of God’s glory that will never disappoint. If we are going to persevere in bringing and end to injustice, we must continually remember the reality of injustice and the overriding reality of our God who loves justice.
When and if we open ourselves up to see inhumanity and injustice around the globe, “man’s inhumanity to man” can all too easily become crushing. Unbearable. Paralyzing. Even numbing. It can evoke utter despair. And yet God asks us, as those would take up our cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha, to allow ourselves to be drawn into the pain of suffering and violence.
Let it break our hearts. Even to lead other to these places of pain.
Yes, we are called to “bear witness” but our witness must not end with observation or with unbearable pain as the final word. We are called to live as those who, in the midst of the unbearable, in the midst of pain, do not shrink back but rather rise up.
We are called to rise up, engage injustice, take “the pain of man’s inhumanity to man” and bring it to the foot of the cross. At the cross we meet the God who drew near to us without fear. We meet the God who moved toward the oppressed. We meet the God who joyfully submitted to bearing all our sin, all our shame, all our burdens; the God who offers us his yoke, who makes our burdens light. At the cross we can proclaim with boldness the call of the psalms and the prophets, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord” (Psalm 77:11)
May we make choices every day that move us toward the God who alone can deepen the passion and conviction of his calling on our lives, the God who alone can sustain us; our God who will cleanse us from broken-hearted fear and despair; our God who, when we simply ask, will surely make us people who are marked and moved by great hope, courage and, above all, love.
May we move forward with deep roots, filled with the Holy Spirit, sustained by knowing the only hope that never disappoints -the hope of God’s glory, the hope of God’s healing, the hope of God’s kingdom, now and to come.
You are invited.”
Simply put: if that doesn’t make your heart want to explode with passion, I can’t think of a single thing in Christendom that will. This is the good stuff, people. The hard, good, beautiful stuff. It is at the foot of the cross that peace and justice meet in perfect harmony.
When I left the capital, my heart heavy, wondering how my country will ever be able to have a space for clear and respectful dialog about race, I wanted to despair. I wanted to give up caring about things I don’t know how to fix. I wanted to fold my arms around Michael Brown’s momma and tell her that if I could carry a little bit of her sorrow to ease the unbearable weight of loss, I would. But I couldn’t. Because two thousand years ago a whole nation waited to see an end to all the injustice, for a ruler to rise up and lead their people out of a season of silence and oppression. And yet one day, their answer came as a tiny baby, where nothing good came out of his home town, who grew steadily in wisdom in stature, who at the right time, proclaimed peace and justice, and proclaimed a Gospel that never overthrew a government, or eradicated disease, or ended suffering in the way Israel thought it would look like. But through obedience and self-sacrifice, he conquered death and gave his Spirit to guide those who would believe in Him. He is our salvation, he is our hope, he is our righteousness, he is our peace.
“Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.” Romans 5:1
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Romans 15:13
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Corinthians 4:16-18
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
I pray that where injustices arise, that the body of Christ would rise up and be the Gospel reconcilers of our day, that we would also be the blessed peacemakers of Matthew 5 and comfort and restore our brothers. May we understand in word and action that we cannot have justice without peace, and peace without justice. May we long for Christ’s righteousness and truth to reign in our hearts and in our communities this Christmas. I pray that every day we would stop, see, choose, proclaim, and remember the justice and peace the Lord has for his creatures that Hoang has so beautifully pointed out.
If you are going through the unbearable this Christmas, if you are grieving, or alone, sick, oppressed, or waiting on something that seems out of your reach, I pray that you cling to these truths and that you will not succumb to despair. Christ is our peace and he longs to give you unlimited access to himself, if you are willing.
In the face of great darkness, let us worship with great might.
All is well, all is well
Angels and men rejoice
For tonight darkness fell
Into the dawn of love’s light
Sing A-le, sing Alleluia
All is well, all is well
Let there be peace on Earth
Christ has come go and tell
That He is in the manger
Sing A-le, sing Alleluia
All is well, all is well
Lift up your voice and sing
Born is now Emmanuel
Born is our Lord and Savior
Sing Alleluia, sing Alleluia, all is well
I’m celebrating Advent this year which I haven’t done in three years, and I’m so excited! It’s been three years too long. I admit, it feels a little strange and lonely to read aloud in the corner of my room but I believe it’s right to feel this way. Celebration and reflection are always better when shared and although I have a remote group of Believers I’m observing Advent with, it’s being done so in a private, individualistic way. I read my friend Matthias’ advent thoughts yesterday and loved the way I was able to connect with him and worship and it prompted me to share my advent reflections as well.
The first week of advent is a week set aside to HOPE in Christ’s coming. Just as Israel hoped and waited in total silence for over four hundred years for the birth of Christ, so we hope and wait for His promised second coming. Just as Abraham hoped for a son, just as Moses hoped in deliverance for Israel, just as Joshua hoped in a promised land, just as Ruth hoped in the goodness of Boaz, just as Mary hoped in the message of the angel, just as Simeon hoped that he would see the Christ child with his own eyes, so we hope with great expectation that Christ will come.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. - Isaiah 11:1-9
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. – Micah 5:2
When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 6:13-20
It’s hard to hope sometimes. I can imagine there were many a seasons of doubt that the Messiah would ever come. I’ve noticed lately that it’s hard for me to hope when my life is ‘fine’. it’s interesting how desperately I hope when my life and circumstances are uncertain, how it drives my faith to flame and returns purified and longing in holiness for Christ to return. My prayer is that through this celebration of Advent, slowly but surely, my circumstances would affect very little my level of faith, hope, and anticipation in what Christ will do. I love the Puritan prayers and read them often. In the posture of waiting and hope in the coming of Christ I compiled two Puritan prayers of resurrection and second coming to pray this week:
LORD, You left your heavenly habitation to be born of men and suffered and died for my sake, and rose and ascended to Your Father and ours. O my soul, the departure of the Holy One was not a token of separation, but a pledge of return. O Jesus, Your Word, Your promises, Your sacraments show your death to your people and will do so until You come again.
O blessed day of hope fulfilled and gladness—now for the dear Son’s sake has no terrors for me. Your death has redeemed me; your Spirit fills me; your love quickens, moves and animates me, and by your Word I am governed.
O my soul, Trust in the Lord who can never betray that confidence he calls for. Lord, I have trusted you, and waited for you and I have not waited in vain. “I know that my redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh will I see God: Whom I will see for myself, and my eyes will behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.” You will come to raise up my body from the dust and re-unite it to my soul by a wonderful work of infinite power and love. O my soul, the hour comes! I triumph, O Jesus, in all your precious promises as I will one day do in all their performances. After judgment comes peace and rest, life and service, employment and everlasting enjoyment, which is the heritage of the redeemed. O my God, keep me in this faith, and ever looking for Christ’s return.
Adorable Redeemer, You who were lifted up upon a cross have ascended to highest heaven. You, who as Man of sorrows was crowned with thrones are now Lord of life wreathed with glory. Once, no shame more deep than thin, no agony more bitter, no death more cruel. Now, no exaltation more high, no life more glorious, no advocate more effective. You Lord, and Victor, Conqueror—You lead captivity captive and your enemies behind You. What more could be done than you have done! Your death is my life, your resurrection my peace, your ascension my hope, your prayers and intercessions my sole comfort in life and in death.
This week let’s remember the silence Israel endured as it waited and hoped for the Messiah and look at areas in our own faith that we maybe have grown weary of holding out hope. Do we long for His return? Do we hope in His word? Do we trust His plan and timing? O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! I love this song and as I’ve sung it this past week, I’ve worshipped to that specific line for the first time. I love the thought of His people gathering together mindfully joyful and triumphant because of what Christ has and will accomplished in and through us. Sometimes I can barely sing out at Church because I feel I’m wearing God’s patience thin and because I’m aware of my sin in the sort of prideful way that tends to push me further from Him when that reality could not be further from the truth. My eyes brim at that line. As I wait for and as I hope in Christ, may I draw near to the throne in joy and in triumph. I want to make that line a reality in my life this Christmas.
O come, let us adore Him!
If you celebrate Advent, is there anything extra special you do during this time? What does hoping in Christ look like to you? If you’re willing, I would love to hear what God is teaching you about hope this Christmas.
Growing up is complicated business. This is not a new discovery for myself as I’ve jammed ear buds filled with angst-y music or woken up in the middle of the night with searing growing pains in my legs, or sat on the lawnmower controlling what felt like the only thing in my life: several million subservient blades of grass, wondering if I will ever get to experience the big world out there, away from Greenbrier. I remember days of feeling like I couldn’t fit in my skin the way everyone else seemed to be doing so well, and sensing that the greatest mystery in life was how to blend in but also stand out. Growing up for me was like watching Lawrence of Arabia, a dull and overrated narrative that never ended. Then one day I woke up and realized that you can’t call yourself a kid anymore when you’re twenty-five and I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry over my youth. Take. Me. Back.
But it’s complicated. You can’t always know what you don’t have. And so growing up feels hard. But it’s not. But it is. And so much of what you deal with as a kid is just what’s been handed you. And before you can decide what it is, it’s over. The Bible tells us to number our days but I’ve found that hard to do, as most days look a lot like the yesterdays in my adult years, not recognizing that they do slowly change in ways that are harder to see. It’s hard to see when there are no more last days of school or drivers exams and graduations, or first jobs or first crushes or weekends at grandma and grandpa’s. Or summer nights when your friend comes over for the sole purpose of getting the radio flyer out and pushing each other off the driveway down the hill donning bike helmets and glow sticks just because it will make us laugh. Just because.
But I just realized I’ve actually found a very practical way to number my days, “that I may gain a heart of wisdom” like the Bible says. And it’s simple: Befriend someone young and watch them grow. It’s crazy how much kids change physically, but also as they discover more about the world and who they are. Watching someone else change quickly reminds me how fast time is passing and how little of it I actually get. Enjoying that process and that person provides a sort of reflection and friendship that is both fleeting and terribly wonderful. There will come a day when days like today can’t happen but I’m grateful for Maggie and Hannah and the fun, passion, authenticity, and uniqueness they bring to the table that remind me how short and privileged it is to befriend a human in the earlier stages of life. In ten years that age gap will close and I’ll lose those conversations on the first impressions on new experiences in life and we’ll talk about things in calculated ways, which isn’t bad just somehow less precious.
One day we won’t have the chance to talk over each other ninety miles a minute, or listen to Christmas songs before Thanksgiving, or tell stories about almost breaking noses (Maggie), breaking noses (Hannah), or breaking other people’s noses (Me -Jesalyn if you’re reading this, I’m still so sorry all these years later). We won’t get to knowingly agonize over if Katniss and Peeta will ever truly be together, or get to marvel over Maggie’s Texas Longhorn socks and “Jandals” (Jesus sandals)
The hardest part of growing up is grasping the impermanence of the present situation and today I got to remember that. And I’m glad. Girls, please try to never be fully grown up. You’re both so lovely as teenagers, and I don’t feel most people make lovely teenagers. If you ever find yourself struggling with feeling like time is not passing quickly enough like I once did, then just take it on faith from your on-the-fringes-barely-hanging-on-somewhat-culturally-relevant-to-your-people friend Bri: it will be over before you know it and you might even miss it. Love you. Let’s be friends for a long time.
Everyone loves an out of focus picture, right?
While I was working in St. Louis a little over a week ago, I was formatting old SD cards and came across a day pretty close to a year ago where I took one of my best friend’s girls to the park. The footage totally shocked me at how much the girls have grown and of course, I wanted to keep the memory of that day alive and thus, Ella + Avery Go To The Park happened.
If we’re friends on Facebook or Instagram, these little faces will be no strangers to you (they even have their own hashtag! #carsonkiddos). The Carsons are near and dear to my heart as they’ve opened their home and showed me so much love and hospitality and walked through several difficult times with me over the last two and a half years. I’ve had Valentine’s Day brunches, Christmas gift exchanges, movie nights, birthday dinners, pool days, and everything in between with them and even in the craziness of moving and living in Jefferson City, I know without a shred of doubt God has used my little Jeff City family (which also includes my Stonebridge family) to heal, love, and bring so much joy to my life. Anytime I’ve ever visited Jeff City before moving here over the last five years I always left in my car crying from the overwhelming love and security I’ve felt and it’s been the greatest joy to live here and learn how to love on others that well in my own life. But I digress.
Just enjoy the cuteness while I watch with you and tear up with how quickly the time is passing and how much I love those crazy girls!
Have you forgotten why we gather today in our sanctuaries, auditoriums, strip malls, college campuses, in homes, or satellite campuses? Sometimes I wonder if we’ve gotten in the habit of gathering to meet with friends, or have an hour with your spouse kid-free, or have a place to dress up, or dress down, because maybe it gets you up and out of bed, or it’s a place to grab some free coffee, or get to sing in a place that doesn’t require you to have skill, or think about the Bible in a way that’s focused and intellectual, or a place to pray quietly about that thing that’s been hindering you, or maybe it’s a place to have some quiet for the first time all weekend. Or maybe, to be blunt, we go because we feel it’s our obligation as a Christian. Is it because your church balks at the ‘norm’ and does things differently? Is it because it is the family you never had? Is it because you can escape your problems and just be for an hour or two? Is it because it’s a simple and predictable time when you live in chaos?
Think long and hard: What do you love about it and what do you wish were different? Is it your best use of time or could it be better spent? Do you love church? Why do you love church and if you don’t, then why are you going?
I have sat in far too many churches that have tried to woo me with their music, atmosphere, expository teaching, activity based community groups, men and women’s luncheons, open forums, and promises that it is not like the others. Most people my age are not in church and have no plans to return. To be honest, I was a little worn out myself in college, struggling to find an answer as to why I should go when I was involved in Bible studies on campus and serving my community through campus ministries. But all those ministries would say, “we aren’t the church, you need to be in the church” and so when I went, and I sat alone and the pastor spent weeks preaching on raising children, I was confused why God commanded that I be there. How the heck did this fit my context? And why was the church so adamant about young adults needing to be fostered in the church, yet when one was there, no one had the guts or will to step out of their Sunday service routine to let me know they were ‘glad’ I was there.
Routine. How many of us go to church because it is a part of the routine?
We are dying off in the west, it cannot be ignored anymore, nor can it afford to be attractional. Don’t be mistaken, God is building His church but He is also trimming away the fluff and yet we are scrambling to keep our multi-site locations and budget for conference decorations, and figuring out ways to make people want to come to us. Stop it. Our culture will never return to the thought that it is bettered when they engage in Christianity, or any faith for that matter. The church has and always will be “painfully uncool” as so poetically described by Switchfoot. Stop trying to make church a glamorous part of your life. Your community sees straight through you. You can no better love your neighbor than your neighbor can just because you’re reminded to do so once a week. The world does not need our church services. It needs God. We need God.
Church, do you recognize your need for God? Do you realize we gather every week to fall on our faces in desperation for His grace and guidance as we struggle to live as Christ exemplified for us? Does your soul crave to take the Lord’s supper to be reminded together how utterly helpless we are without His spirit and power in our lives? Are we going to church to worship Him in our conversations, in our greetings, in our songs, over our meals, and in our acts of service? Are you sacrificing your will to His each time we meet? Are we gathering together has a haven from a week full of sharing the Gospel and humbling ourselves to whatever the Lord impresses upon us to do in our work settings, family situations, and chance encounters throughout the week? Do we scramble to come together so that we can be painfully uncool and worship unashamed to the One our soul is desperate for?
If not, do you love Him enough to be real with Him one-on-one instead of hiding from him at a church service, sitting between your two pals or by your spouse? Do you come to church in the hopes of having a nice relationship with God in the comfort of your routine and the assumption that He will not ask anything too radical of you? If so, you are damaging our beautiful community, a community that needs to be a beacon of brokenness, redemption, and reconciliation of both God and his people. Can we stop being a social club and start waving our freak flag a little higher? Can we cut back on programming and step out to be one that explains who God is to our coworkers and friends and stop leaning on our church services to do that? Really. Let’s worship together because we NEED Him and each other as we struggle through life. And if you are a part of a church that tells you that God desires that you not struggle, or that He will make you healthy and wealthy, stop going there. That is a false Gospel and Christ never taught that.
I’m sorry that I’m flustered and frustrated. Two of my friends who are not Christians have expressed an interest in understanding the teachings of Christ and attending an evangelical church. So we went together for the first time. In short, This morning was a total abomination. My new friends leaned over and whispered,”So it’s kind of like a social hang out?” and then later, “How come no one is singing?”, and the worst, “When will the pastor start talking about God?”
I could have shed tears I was so frustrated. We slipped out early so we could have a little debrief after, most of which I spent explaining what we had just sat through was not God’s design for his church. You guys, there ARE young people who are conflicted, struggling, questioning, and curious about faith, but they don’t know anyone or any church who is open enough to reach out and walk with them through it. It is a human thing to not wish to be stereotyped or to crave authenticity. So let’s stop imitating the world and start worshipping the Lord whole heartedly in our gatherings and in our actions throughout the week; anything less makes God look cheap. And yet, he is worthy of all our affections and our worship.
O come, let us adore Him!
Ps: I love you. I really do. I promise I’m not throwing the towel in.
Being a photographer over the last six years has allowed me to meet and interact with people in a way I never would. Most of the time I’m the first person to smile and hug a bride and groom after they’re married and congratulate them, I’m the one who gets to witness the raw emotion of a couple’s first look before they are married. Sometimes I’m one of the first to hold a newborn, or laugh with a nine month pregnant woman as we try to get her in a comfortable pose. Sometimes newborns pee on me, sometimes they give me that smile their momma’s been dying to see for weeks. Sometimes I see senior boys roll their eyes at their mom but then carry her purse and props unprompted back to the car. Sometimes I see girls anxious to be beautiful in a way they already are and are totally unaware of. Sometimes I see dad’s nervous to interact with their grown daughters, and are encouraged by a reassuring squeeze or giggle. Sometimes when I’m shooting public events, a stranger grants my request for their image by shrinking themselves in discomfort, jumping into my space, or flipping me off. Sometimes I get yelled at. Sometimes I just stop what I’m doing and crack up with a total stranger. Sometimes I’ll hear him whisper to her “if you don’t loosen up and smile, I’m going to grab your butt in front of her.” Oh the laughter. I laugh so much with these people who are like weird, distant relatives, who were once strangers. I remember the first time I reached out to two strangers -a brother and sister- at a motorcycle festival and asked for their picture. I was so nervous I was sure I’d puke. They could tell I was shy and set me at ease immediately and began asking about my work and how they should pose for me. In hindsight after several years of doing this, they were the perfect subjects. No one’s ever obliged me in that way since. I’ve been scared, joyful, overwhelmed, excited, disappointed, uncomfortable, but I’ve never really been sad or torn. Most of the time people want to remember the good moments and so most of my experience in photography have been happy mile markers: Weddings, graduation, community festivals, concerts, job promotions or book deals, engagements, births.
So when I took pictures of a foster baby with her birth mom for fifteen minutes of their allotted hour during their weekly meetings, that changed for me. I witnessed the joy of unification and apparent brokenness. I saw love trying. I saw addiction burrowing in. I saw kisses and snuggles. I saw relational gaps that will take much time to heal. I saw hope and despair. It’s weird to just be the recorder sometimes. Sometimes I wish I was the fixer -the case worker, or the support group, or part of the solution. But in that moment, my part is to play is the rememberer. Sometimes it’s a heavy thing to have images burned in your brain like witnessing a beautiful woman struggling between her love for her daughter being pulled apart by her addiction.
I hope these images can do more than be a nice picture for this sweet baby that I’m totally nuts about and her birth mother. I hope they can draw them together, piece together a story that’s had a broken start, and remind her that she has a daughter that is worth fighting herself for. I hope.
Would you pray for this family, for this baby’s foster family, or for the foster family you might know? It’s hard to not take sides, it’s hard to love people wholly and it’s hard to let things change. It’s hard to love. The foster community is in a war for restoration. There are little hearts all over tonight that need peace. Would you pray with me for peace in our foster care community?
This season in my life has been really taxing on my heart. There are some days as soon as I’m conscious enough to turn off my alarm, this immediate sadness seeps deep into my bones. While we’re resilient creatures hardwired for struggle, I’m not exempt from that small corner of my heart, that if I slow my life down enough, it feels like I can’t get enough oxygen to it. It’s hard to accept that you’ll never always be perfectly happy and that all your relationships, however wonderful, are still pretty broken. One of the oldest stories told goes like this: the Creator dwelled on earth with all the beasts of the earth and sky, among beautiful, untainted nature and he was pleased. But it pleased him even more to draw out from dust Adam, and from Adam’s rib, Eve. And the Creator loved them above all his other works. He lived with them and gave them responsibility over the land. The Creator who could choose to dwell among the galaxies, among his angels, in the depths of the sea, or seated in the grandest of palaces, desired to walk in the cool of the evening among his creation. Mankind lacked nothing. And yet Eve doubted, when she was alone with the serpent, that the Creator withheld a single good thing from her. In that moment, the world became broken.
This story is as old as time and as a kid that grew up hearing this story before I could even comprehend it’s meanings for my humanness and the necessity for redemption, it’s still easy to allow this story become a fanciful child’s introductory to God. As a highly educated society, this story gets put on the back burner because maybe we believe faith and science cannot intersect or maybe we do but are too nervous to explore. I don’t know how exactly it all shook out, but reading this book several times over the last couple of weeks, one thing that stands out as particularly true in my life is this: When Eve began to doubt that the Creator withheld a good thing from her, she chose sin to try to prove him a liar, and instead her whole existence became broken beyond self-repair and her life was just a shadow of what once was. Oh, how I see this pattern in my life! And it hurts to realize that I see my choices are no different from Eve’s. My greatest struggle in my humanness is that I believe deeply that I know what is best for me better than my Creator. And that when He asks me to cease striving, planning, fixing, dreaming, that I dig my heels deep in the ground below and keep him at arm’s length, expecting harsh words and terrible fallout. And yet, as I see through the fabric of His story, all He is waiting for in the perfection of his time, it to hold me tightly, binding up all my sadness and pain and we will be taken up to be with Him while he restores Earth. It’s always been his plan for us to return together, to work among a perfected land with our hands, all of my relationships restored to a common desire to walk again with God in the cool of the evening, laughing because there’s no reason not to, and worshipping a Creator who has and always will desire to be in close proximity with his children.
In the wake of all the persecution and executions of so many Christians in northern Syria, it serves to remind me of the magnitude of suffering millions of Christians withstand worldwide to give me perspective on struggle. I’m baffled and yet grateful for the promise of Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, or that Christ bids us to follow him, to come and die. Everything in the Creator’s kingdom is upside-down as it seeks to reconcile God to man. And yet, even in the midst of others’ extreme suffering, the Lord cares and is working out the detail in my struggle! So when my white, middle class culture around me says that if I just got that better job or simplified my life or invest in my community, and I do and it’s good, safe, and yet unsatisfying, I have to remember that sometimes obeying God means he leads us into unemployment, or relational chaos, or seasons of solitude, and yet, if He is there, where else have we to go but to Him? Sometimes he calls us like Peter in John 21 “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to Peter, “Follow me!” and Peter did! I am beginning to grasp that when He leads you where you do not wish to go, that is where healing takes place and my communion with him is sweetest –rawest, but sweetest. And when I let go of my desires, my flesh, the things I was never promised, I stand in solidarity with those who would lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel in oppressed countries and bear witness that their love is not misplaced, that their hope is indeed “built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” When we become the woman in Hosea 2 that Christ allures, leads into the wilderness and speaks tenderly to, He makes our valley a door of hope. Oh, that our church would let go of the notions that we will get it right this side of heaven, that suffering should not be a part of our lives, and that our spiritual dispositions be sterile and self-righteous! I pray that we would wake up every day willing to go where we do not wish to, that our affections be only for the Creator and that our trust be so sure that rain or shine, blessing or hardship, weak or strong, satisfied or in need, in oppressed third world countries or suburbia USA, we can lay our heads down every night and say “Hallelujah, our God reigns!”
So when I wake up in the morning, unable to reach for the thing the Creator has taken from me, I choose to remember that I have “God in my soul and Christ in my flesh” and commune with One my humanness tries to suffocate in the expanses of my soul. Last night I sat on a worn dorm couch with three women of varying ages, education, backgrounds, and paths to faith in Christ, my heart was so heavy I didn’t even want to show up. I didn’t want to talk about Genesis because it would remind me why my day was horrible –that I am sinful and that my world is not is as it should. Instead I was reminded over and over that God is working all things to be reunited with us, that He desires our closeness as much as I desire His, and that which He has taken from me does not prove Him to be a liar, but rather that His thoughts are not my thoughts nor His ways my ways. My friend Tamika, a married woman of two adorable kids, confessed to the girls at Lincoln yesterday, “I’m more aware at thirty-three than I was in my twenties of God’s presence in my life. And when I don’t feel his presence I choose to, otherwise I will succumb to loneliness.”
The Creator withholds no good thing from his children. My flesh bites back at this but in the quiet, in the tears, the Spirit replies, “my grace is enough for you–my power is perfected in weakness”. May we all choose to trust in His presence and work in our lives, even when our flesh rises up and squelches the truths we learned from the beginning. May we not succumb to a loneliness that lies to us that our struggle is for naught. He works all things to our reconciliation and reunion to himself, which is far better than anything we could ever ask for or imagine.
“I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” -Hosea 2:23