What if you had what you need?

Parents encourage a child to learn to walk like God encouraged us to follow him.

Parents encourage a child to learn to walk like God encouraged us to follow him.

This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach. It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, NLT)

Sometimes those of us who want to encourage people towards a deep, vibrant faith complicate matters. Pray all the time! (OK, that one’s on Paul.) Pray this way! Pray the Psalms! Pray this other way! Read your Bible every day! Using bullet journaling! Here’s a great devotional! You have to go through this devotional! Do this spiritual practice! And this one! And this other one! Read this book! This book will change your life! Join a small group! And another one! Talk to people about your faith! Listen to people about their faith! Be quiet with God! Be loud for God! Be a leader at home! At school! At work! At church! Tell everyone you know about Jesus! Tithe to your church! Give to this good cause! And this one! And this one! Work for justice in this area! And this one! And this other one! These Christians are in trouble! And these! Help the poor! And the downtrodden! Don’t even think bad thoughts! No swearing! Be generous! Be grateful all the time!

And that’s without the cultural pressures your brand of Christianity puts on you to look, talk, act, and be a certain way.

Complicated. Exhausting. Confusing.

Which is why I always appreciate it when the Bible itself strips all that away. What God wants

  • isn’t too hard for you.
  • is close at hand.
  • is on your lips already.
  • is in your heart already.

This makes me smile a little, because God recognizes that what God asks of us will be hard at times — but not so hard that we can’t do it.

Imagine a parent with an almost-toddler who is learning to walk: the parent’s wide-open encouraging smile, the “you can do it”s; the child’s drive to learn this new thing, to get to the enticing object, drawn towards those open arms (ready to catch them if they fall). That’s what I see here. God is smiling at us saying, “You can do it. It’s hard, but not too hard. It’s even something you already want to do. I will help you.”

What is the it? The command?

Oh nothing but “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him” (Deut. 30:20).

I see the middle flowing out of the other two–loving and being committed to the Lord makes us want to obey him, puts the desire to obey him on our lips and in our hearts. Don’t forget: God’s grace covers all our failures of obedience. Many heroes of the faith committed 10 Commandment-level failures to obey, but their commitment to the Lord was firm, their love of the Lord sustained them. And God stayed in relationship (in covenant) with them.

This  passage doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit, but it’s also the Spirit’s job to tell us about the love of God, to put the desire to obey God on our lips and in our hearts. So we have an additional helper.

You have what you need to follow God.

So when you feel the complicating pressure of all those voices that tell you what you should do and how you should be, take a breath and remember:

What God wants

  • isn’t too hard for you.
  • is close at hand.
  • is on your lips already.
  • is in your heart already.

The Beauty of Lent: Art and Bible Pairings

For Lent this year I’m doing a new thing: the devotional, Vincent Van Gogh and the Beauty of Lent. I feel so worn down by the state of the world, by constant flux and big changes at my church, by my car being in the shop for over a month after a small fender-bender, that I couldn’t bear to give anything up for Lent. Instead, I’m adding a practice that involves looking at light and color and the gorgeous art of Van Gogh.

One of the most intriguing questions so far is:

If you were to depict the idea that the Holy Spirit moves through both Scripture and the arts, how would you compose the picture? To what page would the Bible be opened? And what work of art would you place beside it?

The Van Gogh painting that week was Still Life with Bible (above). The Van Gogh family Bible is open to Isaiah 53, which talks about salvation coming through a suffering servant. The book near the Bible (Vincent’s own copy of Emile Zola’s Joie de Vivre) is about a woman who was orphaned and undergoes adversity and harm–a modern-day suffering servant. While some see this painting as Van Gogh contrasting the heavy religion of his father with his own faith. Others (including the devotional writers) as Van Gogh pointing out two strains of the same idea: the raising up of a suffering servant.

This activity captured my imagination. Here are a couple of pairings of artwork and the Bible passage I’ve thought of (note, these will not be beautiful, and probably not even visually interesting, I am a word person, not a visual artist).


I’d pair Colossians 2:6 with Fire Keeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley. The main character, Daunis, is the most striking fictional practitioner of the spiritual discipline of gratitude I’ve ever read. She has a Native American father and a white mother, and while she grapples with her sense of belonging in both communities, she embraces and lives out the Anishinaabe spirituality she has learned. She is grounded by her practices and she overflows with gratitude, even while facing traumatic events.

Colossians 2:7 NLT

Let your roots grow down into [Christ Jesus, your Lord], and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.


In February, my father turned 80. After his cancer diagnosis last year, right as they were moving and downsizing from their house of 20 years, and the subsequent removal of his bladder, we would’ve done anything he wanted for his birthday — including watching a 2-hour-38 minute-long serious movie. So he finally got us to watch the 2012 film of Les Miserables. As the last gorgeous strains of the music played, he said, “That film sums up my theology.” In the line: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes. It is beautiful theology. And the songs are still running through my head, over two weeks later.

I’ve paired it here with 1 John 4:12, 16-17:

No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us…. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. 


I’m thinking about this pairing, but I don’t have anything solid yet.

Last month, I asked God to strengthen my hope muscle. It had gone flabby due to disuse. He’s done it by throwing article after article, meme after meme, poem after poem, photo after photo at me, all about hope. It’s starting to work.

Your turn. Are there any Bible verses and art expressions you’d pair as expressing the same spirit? Do you have something to share that could strengthen my hope muscle?

God knows you need a friend

An image of hands from two different women, one lighter-skinned, one darker-skinned, their pinkies are clasped.

I’ve read and taught the story of Jesus’ birth SO many times, but noticed something new this week. I noticed what Mary did after the angel Gabriel called her favored, told her the Lord was with her, and dropped the big news about Jesus:

A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth.

Luke 1:39-40

She hurried. To the one person who would know how she felt.

Think about Mary. She was between 13 and 16 and a shining light-being had just told her that not only was the Holy Spirit going to get her pregnant, but also that the resulting child would be holy, be called the Son of God, and would reign over Israel forever in an unending kingdom. Some of the words used for her reaction are:

  • confused
  • disturbed
  • troubled
  • greatly troubled
  • perplexed
  • thoroughly shaken.

One of the kids in my Zoom Sunday school this week used the phrase freaked out. I like that because news can be good and still freak you out. Although she wound up telling the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true,” I’d guess that those feelings remained. But Gabriel also told her that her relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant despite decades of being unable to conceive, “for nothing is impossible with God.”

So Mary does what teenage girls have always done: she ran to someone who knew how she felt. Did Mary even tell her mother about this astonishing news? Could she bring herself to say the words out loud to a sister? It’s an enormous thing that will be happening to her, and siblings are not always known for being agreeable when one of their number is suddenly elevated. But Elizabeth’s pregnancy was miraculous, too, so Mary hurried to her.

What a normal reaction from this girl. And so wise. She’s about to go through some serious changes, physical and spiritual, and Elizabeth can help her. When we’re facing change, isn’t that what we often do, too? Seek out someone who’s been there before, someone who can give us the benefit of their experience, or can at least tell us we’re not nuts for feeling the way we do.

When my marriage exploded I sought out other divorced women and was grateful when people who’d had a family member arrested for a sex crime reached out to me. I needed to see that it was possible to get through what my kids and I were going through. And I needed to talk openly about what I was thinking and feeling without trying to protect anyone–people who’d gone through something similar were the only ones I could do that with. So I appreciate Mary’s instinct in hurrying to the hill country of Judea.

Immediately, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and encourages Mary:

Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed. Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”

Luke 1:42-45

It’s after this that we get Mary’s great song of praise, her Magnificat, where she praises God for what he’s done not only for her, but also for the hungry and the humble, and for keeping his promises. I think that’s significant. Mary needed that encouragement from Elizabeth, that confirmation of the angel’s words, and she needed the presence of the Holy Spirit to tip the scales to the “Wow” side of her reaction to the angel’s news. I’d never noticed before that the visit to Elizabeth came so quickly and comes before the Magnificat.

God knows we need friends. We need people we can reach out to when we’re going through something big. We need those holy encouragers. I love that God had the angel tell Mary about Elizabeth. He didn’t leave her alone with this giant news; he pointed her to a friend. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months.

I wonder about that time. Did Elizabeth tell Mary what it was like being an object of extra attention during an unusual pregnancy? Because you know people are not always kind about their comments. Did they pray for their children and for the job the Lord had in store for each of them? Did they pray for each other, that they’d have the strength to raise these sons with important futures? Did they go long days not talking about it, relaxed because there were no secrets between them? Did they joke about it?

We are all going through something big right now. The pandemic has changed how we work, how we learn, who we can see, whether we can gather, how we go about in the world. Maintaining physical distancing has meant we are more isolated at a time when we need each other more than ever. And in cold climates, winter means outdoor gatherings are becoming rarer.

So what is your version of running to the hill country of Judea? Zoom calls? Texts? Private Facebook groups? Facetime? Among Us? Walks? Driving to a parking lot and sitting in side-by-side running cars with the windows open so you can talk? Whatever it is, don’t neglect it. And don’t stop looking for new ways to be there for each other. Reach out to people you can be your full self with. It might tip the scales away from full freak-out, and maybe even all the way to hope.

Spiritual math is weird

a math equation, written by a doctor of physics, that I cannot understand

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT)

Read the passage again.

Did you notice Jesus saying that all we who are weary would get to put down our heavy burdens and carry his light one instead?

I didn’t either.

Which makes this an odd passage, but also right. Because his listeners had many burdens they couldn’t put down:

  • scraping out a subsistence living
  • paying ever-increasing taxes
  • being subjects of Rome
  • if a slave or a woman, being unable to make choices to determine your fate
  • miscarriage and infertility
  • social stigma
  • illness
  • injury
  • physical disability.

As do we:

  • poverty and job insecurity
  • paying ever-increasing taxes
  • many people live in dangerous and violent situations
  • racism
  • slaves (aka victims of human trafficking) unable to make choices to determine their fate
  • miscarriage and infertility
  • social stigma
  • addiction
  • mental illness
  • although we’ve made astonishing advances in medicine, people must still live with chronic illnesses, and with the side-affects of surgeries and medicines.

Although there were and are miraculous healings, and people being cured of addictions and illnesses, and injuries disappearing, and relationships being restored, and wombs opening — not everyone who asks gets healed; justice does not always come.

And Jesus tells us to add his yoke to the burdens we already carry.

our burdens + Jesus’s yoke = rest for our souls

That’s some weird spiritual math (weirder than the actual equation in the post image). But it’s true.

Somehow, the love and comfort and strength of God makes a difference. Our burdens may still be heavy, but we can bear them, or we can bear them differently, because we can share them with Jesus and with others who also love Jesus. We can experience deep rest during prayer, or worship, or communing with God in whatever way he reaches us. And somehow we can go on, and even thrive, with our burdens.

I cannot explain it, but I’ve found it to be true. I’ve had a year of horrible and crushing burdens that I never imagined carrying and didn’t have the choice to put down, but the love of God and of those who also love God sustained me. And those burdens lightened. They are still there, but a year later, they don’t weigh me down like they did.

Happily, we don’t need to explain this weird spiritual math to trust that it’s true, and to keep choosing to add Jesus’s yoke to our burdens and thereby find rest for our souls.* 



* This passage is often interpreted as being about the heavy burdens of religious rigamarole, but Jesus usually spoke on a number of levels, so I think this works, too.


Not really about doing

An image of a person standing alone before an impressive night sky. Not really about doing, a devotional about Philippians 4, verses 11-14.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty. (Philippians 4:11-14, NLT)

Paul here is thanking the Philippian church for sending him material help of some kind, most likely while he was in jail (as to which time he was in jail, there is no agreement). Essentially, he’s saying, “I’ve got Jesus, so I’m not in a panic about how things are right now, even though they’re not going well, but you are fine and generous people to want to take care of me.”

This is the context of a triumphal verse also translated as, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,” often quoted as a push to overcome obstacles, to do great things, to become a high achiever. But seen within Paul’s story, it isn’t about overcoming or achieving or greatness. It may not even really be about doing.

  • endure I can endure all things…
  • thrive I can thrive despite anything…
  • bear I can bear anything…

It’s tough to come up with an alternate word, because the tone of the passage implies neither soaring success, nor white-knuckled, teeth-gritted survival. Paul is content.

This verse is less about what he can do, and more about who he is.

No matter what his circumstances, he is the adopted brother of Jesus and son of the God who created the universe. No matter what, he is resting in that grace. So he doesn’t rely on his circumstances to tell him what his worth is. He is content whether he’s staying with friends who take care of him, confined to a dungeon jail, surviving a shipwreck, fleeing an angry mob, or speaking to fellow believers. He is content enough to, after receiving a beating, sing while in jail, and when an earthquake destroys the building, stay put so the jailer doesn’t suffer because all his prisoners have escaped.

So how does Christ give him strength to be content like that?
It’s a mystery that can only be solved by asking for strength yourself.



(Thank you to Steve Austin for his insights: I don’t want to do all things.)

Whether they listen or not

Jim Carrey with his fingers in his ears while Jeff Daniels talks: from Dumb and Dumber.

I am sending you to say to them, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says!” And whether they listen or refuse to listen — for remember, they are rebels — at least they will know they have had a prophet among them. “Son of man, do not fear them or their words…You must give them my messages whether they listen or not.”
(Ezekiel 2:4b-7, excerpted, NLT)

Reading that weird, prophetic book, Ezekiel, prompted me to write a piece called Sometimes I want to break up with the Bible, but it also busted me out of a spiral of disappointment and bitterness about my writing.

More precisely: about the success of my writing, and my obsession with others’ reaction to it.

I’d been writing with the goal of publication for close to ten years. I was blogging and using social media and going to writers’ conferences and retreats and reading craft books and following the advice and participating in online writing communities. I’d written a novel that I believed God had led me to and prepared me for. The story was strong. The research was energizing. The beta readers’ reactions told me I was on the right track. People were moved by my readings. It was the best thing I’d ever written.

Surely this time I’d find a publisher or agent.


This time, I was unable to be philosophical about the rejections. My disappointment poisoned all my other writing. I became fixated on blog numbers, comments, shares, on why the people whose blogs I read never read mine. Worst of all, I stopped writing.

Then I read this section of Ezekiel: “You must give them my messages whether they listen or not.” God did not measure Ezekiel’s success as a prophet by whether the people listened to him, but by whether he said what the Lord wanted him to say.

It set me free.

The Lord has called and equipped me to be a writer so, when I have written, I have succeeded in my calling. My success can be measured by one thing: whether I wrote.

It’s complicated, because I want to make a living as an author, and for that I need readers. Lots of them. But I sure wasn’t attracting them when I was stopped up by disappointment.

When I redefined success in line with the Ezekiel verse, I could do all the blogging and online relationship building and deep manuscript editing with a sense of freedom, because I was released from the fear that my calling required measurable results in order to be deemed a success in God’s eyes.

So when I’m tempted to get down on myself, I can ask: Did I give the people the words God gave me (whether silly or serious, inspirational or incisive, fictional or factual)? Did I write?

If yes, I’ve successfully lived out my calling.

Thanks be to God.

Our first job was to rest

Siesta Now In Progress, by quicksandala, from morguefile.com
Siesta Now In Progress, by quicksandala, from morguefile.com

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…. And evening passed, and morning came, marking the sixth day. So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had completed his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. (Genesis 1:27, 31, 2:1-2)

Whether we believe in a literal seven 24-hour days of creation or not, we can agree that the story of the Creation tells us important things about ourselves and about God. Typically, these verses are an argument for us to take a day of rest after we’ve completed our work.

But here’s the thing: we are not God.

God is God and we are part of the Creation.

God worked for six days and then rested. We were created, and then our first day was a blessed day of rest. Humanity’s first task was to enjoy this new creation. To explore. Perhaps to stroll with the Lord in the Garden. To commune with our Creator. Our first experience was of community, of people together who are together with God.

Our first job was to rest.

He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength. (Psalm 23:2-3)

God repeatedly promises rest (and its good friend, peace).

The Lord replied, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest… (Exodus 33:14)

Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” (Mark 6:31)

You will live in joy and peace.
    The mountains and hills will burst into song,
    and the trees of the field will clap their hands! (Isaiah 55:12)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

So let’s put a pause on all our striving and rest, enjoy, commune, connect — with each other, and with the Lord. Rest was, after all, our first job.

Sometimes we all need a little tenderness

cheek to cheek

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
Hosea 11:4 (NRSV)

Not everyone is a baby person. But for those who are, there’s something about a baby cheek. You want to stroke it. You want to plump it with a fingertip to see whether you can prompt a smile. You want to go cheek to cheek with it.

Those sweet interactions are tender and lovely, and totally unnecessary.

You can take excellent care of a baby’s needs without ever lifting them to your cheek. You can protect, feed, clothe, diaper, rock, walk, read, and talk with a baby, all with great love, without ever going cheek to cheek. You can enjoy a baby’s cuteness, exclaim over its chubbiness or its little elfin face without craving the feel of that velvety new skin against yours.

But a baby person can’t.

And here’s the thing: in this verse, God reveals himself as a baby person.

The Bible is full of the giant, impressive deeds of God, and they are awesome. When the Bible speaks of the love God has for us, it’s most often in terms of how he saves his children, how he protects them, feeds them, gives them good things.

All those things are true, but God-the-baby-person also craves those moments of tender connection with us, his babies, of celebrating our sweet neediness, of soothing our fussiness by bringing us right up to his face and cooing to us.

If you, like me, could use a little tenderness these days, imagine yourself as that baby that God just can’t wait to go cheek to cheek with. Because that’s who you are: a baby who doesn’t have to do anything to inspire this except for exist. And the creator of the universe can’t wait to bring you to his face and delight in you.


Image found here: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/167368

The Parable of the Black Sand

The waves come. There will always be waves.

waves on Lake Michigan

Sometimes the waves bring lovely gifts.

a small Petoskey stone

Sometimes the waves are large, and pounding, and they carve away at what’s there, revealing the layers that were underneath the surface.

layers of sand revealed by waves

They reveal the black sand.

patterns of black sand and regular sand

The black sand has its own beauty, but it also clings thickly, clumping in a heavy mass on my feet as I walk through it.

black sand clumped on my foot

I can’t avoid it. Sure, I could try to hike up the ledge, but even if I managed it, I’d have to walk in the sharp dune grass that is full of ticks. I could fight the waves, but I’m not dressed for getting soaked.

So I walk through the black sand (revealing the regular sand with every step).

walking in black sand and waves

Here’s the thing about the waves: they exposed the black sand, but they also wash my feet clean.

feet washed clean

And the regular sand is right in front of me. Yes, it’s gritty. Yes, there are bits of black sand mixed in. But it is the sand I love to walk in, to play in. Dare I say, it gives my soul, and my soles, rest.

clean sand on my feet

The waves will come. Sometimes they will reveal darkness, and I will have to walk through it. But, even so, with every step, the light is revealed, and I trust that I will walk in the light again.

What if you’re the one in the ditch?

 One day an expert in religious law … wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. [A priest and a Temple assistant crossed the road to avoid the man.] Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him….
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:25-37)

The Good Samaritan. We often read this famous story as a call for religious people not to be so self-important that they refuse to help those in need, even when it’s inconvenient.

But that’s only one way to read it.

* * * *

Our expert in the law understands the use of stories in making a theological point, so as he’s listening, he’s figuring out:

  • Who is the hero of this story?
  • Who am I in this story?

Although Jesus’s first two examples (the priest and the temple assistant who pass by the man in the ditch) are the ones most culturally allied to our expert, they are definitely not the heroes. The hero is clearly the Samaritan — the despised one, the one our legal expert crosses to the other side of the road to avoid even being near. This might make our expert uncomfortable enough.

But “Who is my neighbor?” is the question that started the story.

Who is the neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

“The one who showed him mercy.”

Which makes the answer to the original question: “Your neighbor is the Samaritan.”

Our expert is the man in the ditch, broken, bruised, in need of help. He is not the hero, but the one who needs saving. That is probably not who he was expecting to be.

That’s not who many of us expect to be in the story, either. But what if we are?

What if you are the one who is hurt and broken and needy? 

A painting of The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall
The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall

Then your neighbor is the one you think is gross, the one you think you are morally superior to, the one who is the butt of your jokes. That neighbor is the one who will help you, the who will show you mercy and make it possible for you to receive the healing you need.

Which makes the story of The Good Samaritan a whole lot more uncomfortable to live out — but then, Jesus doesn’t tell these stories to help us justify our actions. He tells them to challenge our self-justifications.