Do you ever get nervous about what is to come? Do you ever find yourself fearful of the next moment? Do you watch the news at all? It’s crazy to think that our culture has become dependent on fear and worry. It’s almost as if we as people of faith have to struggle more than ever not to give into “the rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world”. The crazy thing is that this isn’t a new struggle. We as humans have been quick to cling to fear or dread or worry…even in the good times. I’m reminded of the story in scripture recorded in the book of Nehemiah. The people of Israel had come home from exile, had begun to rebuild, and had even rediscovered the law. They gathered as one to hear the law read and explained to them and their response is recorded here, “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.” – Nehemiah 8:9 What should have been this beautiful moment of reclaimed identity became a moment of weeping. Why? Because we’re not very good at joy.
In her book Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown addresses this a bit when she speaks to fear, dread and joy. “We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”* The people of Israel wept in the face of the law because they worried once again that the other shoe was about to fall. They had experienced loss and exile and in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy, they wept…they were still fearful. As Brown puts it, joy is scary because it’s vulnerable. It opens us up to the possibility that we could be hurt or let down. But if we never fully experience joy we actually become more hollow, more shallow, more fearful and even weaker in the face of tragedy.
The great thing about that passage in Nehemiah is that it doesn’t stop at verse nine. “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’.” – Nehemiah 8:10 Did you see that? The joy of the Lord is our strength. Being able to be grateful and joyous in the good things that God gives us actually becomes that which makes us stronger. I often hear Christians quote or paraphrase German philosopher Nietzsche when it comes to tragedy and pain; “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” (Sometimes they just sing Kelly Clarkson) But this isn’t entirely true. Our go-to after facing tragedy and hurt and pain, can be worry or dread over whatever is coming next…and this is not strength. True strength can be found in the gratitude and joy for those surreal life moments when we experience God in a new way and truly come to realize that the joy of God becomes our strength.
* Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2012. Print.
I’m not sure if your household works this way but for some reason ours always has. There are certain odd jobs or tasks that by default get assigned to someone. For instance, my wife is the comforter. If someone gets hurt or upset daddy just will not do. It’s up to mom to make the situation better…although it never stops me from trying. One of the default roles that has come to me is that of seeker. And although I am not chasing down a golden snitch, I am the one who finds lost things. If someone has misplaced something or lost a toy or can’t find their car keys (ahem, my wife), then it is up to the seeker to find them. And I am usually pretty good at my job…unless I misplace/lose something. You see, I am usually very systematic in the way I take care of my things. But a few weeks ago we couldn’t find one of our remote controls. And although we suspected our youngest, as he has a habit of carrying these around, we could not locate it. And then one day I walked into the bedroom and there it was…on my side of the bed. A place I was sure I looked many times.
And now we find ourselves in a New Year. I don’t know about you, but whenever I am faced with newness or unknown I get a little unsettled. What is tomorrow going to look like? What will next month look like? What is this New Year going to bring with it? As I reflect on looking ahead I hear the words of Christ come rushing in from the Sermon on the Mount, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” – Matthew 6:33-34 And I often wonder what that means to ‘seek first His kingdom’. Is it something I have to go looking for? Is it something I have to find? In another passage in the gospels we read this, “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” – Luke 17:20-21 Another translation says that the Kingdom of God is ‘within you’. But if it’s already here or in my midst or at hand then how do I access it, find it, seek it, participate in it?
Even though at times they may loose remotes, my kids often times help me see the Kingdom of God in ways I wouldn’t ordinarily see. I love to get their takes on church or relationships or events or even just sit down and watch a movie with them. They see Jesus in literally everything. Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 18:3 If the Kingdom of Heaven is all around us then maybe it just takes the eyes and faith of a child to enter into it. Maybe seeking after the kingdom has less to do with us searching and looking and more to do with us realizing we are already a part of it and living as if that were the case. I think children help us out here as well. If you’ve ever been part of imaginative play with children then you know what I am about to say is true. In imagination there is no other world outside of play. Maybe that is what it means to seek first His kingdom. There is no other reality but the Kingdom of God. All of the powers and systems and authorities and politics and economies that vie for our attention aren’t the real. The real is what we are called to see not with our grown up eyes, but with our childlike faith. And maybe if we start to believe in that, we really will see the Kingdom of God at hand.
Last night I was awakened suddenly after only being asleep for about an hour. And as most parents can testify, when your kid wakes up in the middle of their night it usually means one of two things…nightmare or stomach bug. Unfortunately for our five-year-old and for us, it was the latter. All of a sudden it’s five alarm status as the washing machine gets going, the sprite starts flowing, the Lysol cloud envelops the house and you find yourself as parents staring down the barrel of a gun. Because let’s face it; we hate for our kids to get sick, but we really hate for our kids to get sick and then pass it on to us. So now my wife and I spend the next 24 hours wondering where it will strike next, if it does at all.
The sad thing for many people is that something like this isn’t just a 24 hour reality, but life itself. Life has shown itself to them to be unfair at some point and so now they live the rest of their life waiting for the other shoe to fall. This kind of anxiety is not only unhealthy, but it’s ultimately not what God intended. In the Sermon on the Mount (you know the most famous sermon ever given by Jesus) we find these words, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” – Matthew 6:27. Jesus asks us a very pointed question and one that is bent towards us understanding how worry doesn’t add another hour to our life and it ultimately robs us of the time we find ourselves currently in.
Before you think this is me lobbing missiles at those of you who are worriers from a distance in my worry free life let me assure, you that the reason I write this today is that I are one as well. There are times that I have lost sleep worrying over situations or individuals I can’t control and God time and time again has come to remind me that I’m not making the situation better by my actions. Worrying about the future does nothing but rob you of the possible joy of the present. In that same sermon Jesus goes on the share with us, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:33. So if you find yourself waiting on the other shoe to fall, staring down the proverbial barrel of a gun or just worrying about something you can’t control, then maybe it’s time to actively pursue His Kingdom and His Righteousness. And how does this happen? By getting outside of ourselves. By loving the least, ministering to the poor, praying for our enemies, washing the feet of our fellow servants and embracing the call of Christ. So may you today find that you cannot add an hour to your life by worrying, but you may add joy and contentment through serving.
I enjoy riding my bike. When I say that I need you to understand this is a bicycle and not a motorcycle (evidently those terms can be synonymous). The tricky part about my bike riding habits was that for the most part this was an early morning activity. That being said, as it began to get darker earlier (roughly around late June) my riding started to be come a bit more difficult. In fact, roughly around mid-August I gave up my riding so that I wouldn’t injure myself or any number of early morning walkers around the UTPB trail. However, about a week ago I purchased a bike light and all of a sudden my world changed. Welcome back early morning bike rides.
I set out on Monday morning of this week around 5:30 AM for what was sure to be an amazing ride. And I thought that this would be about as easy as driving a car with headlights…boy was I in for a shock. Imagine driving a car with a single headlight that lights up about as much as the width of your car only. Sounds tricky, right? It took me quite a while to get used to this. I am sure it greatly improved others being able to see me, but I really had to focus on being able to see the things in front of me (especially when there were no street lights). In fact, any time I took my focus away from that point of light it made it that much more difficult to get adjusted again. I found though, as I was able to maintain my focus ahead I enjoyed the bike ride all the more and was free to ride once again in the early morning hours.
This past week for me has kind of been a bit like an early morning bike ride. In life, I think that for many of us, it is easy to get overwhelmed by our to-do lists. Whether it is job related, family related, ambition or future plan related, etc. life can be quite a lot to deal with at times. Even in ministry one can get overwhelmed by the to-do’s of running a church or para-church program. And I will let you in on a secret…pastors struggle with stress just as much as non-pastors do. But in the midst of the heaviness of this particular week I was reminded of my bike ride. As long as I was able to focus on that point of light, I was enjoying the ride. Sure there were other things about the ride to worry about, like hitting a rabbit or a pedestrian. But as long as I was focused on that light those other things became part of the background. I was reminded of the verse from Matthew 6:33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” The “all that” Jesus is referring to? The stuff of life. The to-do lists. The stuff that if we are not careful can rob us of our true focus; God’s Kingdom. So if you find yourself overwhelmed with the to-do’s of life today…stop. Take a breath and ask yourself, ‘Am I following after God’s Kingdom first?’ If you are, then I think you will start to see the other things fall into place behind your true focus.
It’s time for some honesty. Not that this blog hasn’t been about that since day one, but certain events in my life have brought me to a different place…a more raw place. I have always loved the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and I particularly loved the passage on worry. I even finding myself quoting the famous verse from Matthew 6:34 quite often, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” But recent events in my family’s situation have had me doubting whether or not it is quite so easy to live this out.
The preceding text in this passage seems easy enough for me and my family. We have never been too consumed by things and if you know me you know I am probably not too consumed by what I wear (with the exception of the occasional Converse purchase). Our eating needs have never been too particular either…after all, we are a youth ministry family. But recently it seems as if all of the events around us were spinning out of control. It seemed that almost every circumstance that came barreling down on us crippled us in a different fashion. Our family dynamic, shelter, health and even financial security were all threatened within a matter of two weeks and honestly…it was too much.
I’m not saying I lost faith or anything, but I also wasn’t in the best place. Loss of appetite, inability to sleep and troubled thinking were just a few of the symptoms that characterized my demeanor for the last week. And all the while the words of Christ to “not worry” kept coming back to me. How in the midst of physical impairment induced by anxiety am I supposed to “not worry”? To tell you the truth, I was at a loss. In and of myself I felt like I was drowning. But that’s when I came to a certain realization…I wasn’t alone. I had never been alone. Outside of the presence of the Holy Spirit, God has granted us each other as ambassadors of His peace. The words that we speak and the presence we impart to each other are sometimes the way in which God imparts himself to us more fully.
A passage that is often quoted out of context in order to present a household of inequality is Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” We often forget the verse that immediately precedes it, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The anxiety and worry that had been crippling me was also hurting those around me…and I knew it. The hard part for me was giving voice to my inadequacy and allowing myself to admit my shortcoming, even to my best friend: my wife. But through humbly admitting and giving voice to how the anxiety was affecting me, my bride was able to speak peace into my life where I saw none.
And maybe this is where healing comes…in confession, in submission. We are made after all in the image of our Maker who in and of Himself is characterized by humble community (a Triune God who chooses to suffer). Maybe as we live out lives of submission and confession to one another we find ourselves surrounded by God’s peace and free to live outside of the worries that characterize life absent of the presence of God. May you find yourself in need of community this week if only to understand the presence of God all the more.
Grace and Peace