Stop, look, listen: redeeming each moment

In the last two posts, we’ve been talking about Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to redeem the time. We looked firstly at the challenge of making the most of each kairos moment, and secondly at how the past and the future can distract us from the present.

If we’re going to redeem the time, then the only time we have the power to do that for is the present – by being ready to make the most of each individual moment. By being aware, and noticing those kairos moments.

So when we realise the past or the future are rushing in and overtaking our thoughts, let’s try and get in the habit of slowing down, and being more aware of what’s going on here and now.

Stop, look, listen.

It might sound cheesy, but let’s give it a go.

Stop.

Be present; be observant. Notice what’s going on inside you. Let go of judging your own thoughts and feelings. Just let yourself experience them, and bring them before God. Maybe it’s a positive feeling – gratitude, or joy. If so, acknowledge that feeling! Sit with it and let yourself enjoy it. Give thanks and rejoice with God.

Or it might not be a good feeling. Maybe instead it’s pain, or fear, or anxiety that you’re experiencing. It’s OK – you can be honest, and notice that too. Show it to God. Take the time you need to work through and name each emotion.

When we’re too distracted to stop and be in the present moment, we get in the habit of hiding who we are from God, and from ourselves as well. And as a result, we don’t get to truly know ourselves the way God made us.

Look.

What can you see happening around you? If you’re on your own, then stop and really notice your surroundings – where are you? What’s around you? What can you see, hear, touch, taste, smell? We so often rush through our days just getting from one thing to the next, one place to the next, one appointment to the next, but the journey and the in-between is part of God’s gift to us as well.

Be present and notice your surroundings. Every part of creation is a gift from God, so let’s start to become more attuned to it and able to give thanks for it. The wind blowing, the warmth of the sun shining on our skin. A rainbow lorikeet flying out in front of you. A flower growing on the side of the road. All these gifts given to us in a day, in a single moment.

Listen.

What can you hear going on around you? If you’re in conversation with someone, are you really hearing what they’re saying?

Let’s all learn to stop doing that thing where we spend the whole time the other person is talking thinking about what we’re going to say next, instead of actually listening to them. Notice the person you’re talking to. What’s showing on their face? What are they really saying, what are they really asking for? How can you serve them in that moment – what do you have to give to them?

Or – what do you have to receive from them? It’s not always about trying to be the one who gives, trying to be the one in control. Sometimes God calls us to be vulnerable and receive. Sometimes God brings us into connection with another person so we can learn from them, other times so we can teach them, and other times… so we can just be with one another. But we need to be present and listen to know which is which.

Let’s try and retrain ourselves not to be distracted, but to be people that stop, look, and listen. To be people that are in the habit of noticing what’s happening right here, right now.

This is how we “pray without ceasing.”

So often we’re afraid of being in the present moment – but it’s only in the present moment that God speaks. What is God saying to you right now?

Walking with God one step at a time

What does the Lord require of you?

Micah 6:8 (NKJV)

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (NKJV)

Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. It’s not complicated… and yet it’s everything.

From one perspective, it can seem too big. To spend a lifetime always being just and merciful and humble sounds impossible – none of us are that virtuous all the time. But it’s something we can choose to do in each moment. So forget about it being something you should have done yesterday, or will do tomorrow. We can’t redeem all of eternity. It’s just one action, now, this moment. You can manage that! Don’t worry about what follows. That will just be one action, one moment, too – when you get there. But right now, your presence in this moment is all that matters.

Maybe though that feels too small. Maybe you feel like, “what’s the point?” Is my one little moment of doing justice, or of being merciful, really going to make a difference to the world?

You know what? It doesn’t matter. Do it any way. Because changing the world isn’t the point. Leaving your legacy, impressing people, setting world records – it all sounds great, and it’s tempting to make it all about that, all about how doing one tiny thing now will benefit us and make us look good in the long term – but that isn’t the point.

Redeeming each moment

Responding to God in this moment is the point. If we do that, then the rest may well follow, but let’s leave eternity to God. Our job is just to choose to redeem this moment.

If you give it a go now – if you stop, look, listen – then what does a redemption of this moment look like for you? What does doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God look like right now?

Maybe it’s asking someone to come and have lunch with you. Or maybe it’s taking time out for yourself, observing the Sabbath, making sure you get the rest you need. Maybe God wants you to go to bed early for once! Or spend time with your family. Or get some exercise, or call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or finish that really difficult unpleasant job you’ve been putting off for days on end.

I don’t know what God’s speaking to you in this moment. But God does, and you do. We just have to stop, look, listen. Take a breath. Let ourselves be here, now, however that feels. Let the Spirit guide us in redeeming this moment. And then the next one. And then the one after that.

Then, moment by moment, all our tiny, seemingly insignificant little moments of choosing to be with God add up to become a whole way of life. A life that looks like following Jesus, our very own Redeemer. A life that looks like walking with God one small, humble step at a time.

Be present: finding peace with the past and the future

In the previous post, we looked at the difficulties of being present in the moment, of redeeming the time, as Paul says, and making the most of each kairos moment. When we sit quietly and try to be present with God, so often distractions come flooding in. Sometimes it’s memories from the past that distract us, and sometimes it’s worries about the future.

When the past keeps us from the present

Sometimes we don’t want to be fully present in the moment, because our mind floods us with thoughts of the past. Things we’d rather not think about.

Maybe when you try to sit quietly, ugly emotions like pain and anger come flooding in. Maybe it’s because you’re remembering a time you’ve been hurt by someone else.

Or maybe you start thinking about something you wish you hadn’t done, and instead emotions like shame and regret come creeping in. You remember something you said to someone that you really wish you hadn’t. Humiliating moments replay on a loop in your head.

When we try and sit in the stillness, the things our minds throw at us aren’t always much fun.

I think the psalmist who wrote Psalm 32 had a similar experience of wanting to block out thoughts of the past. It sounds like there was something that weighed heavily on him, and he was resolutely avoiding bringing it to mind. But he acknowledges here how that avoidance made him feel; the anxiety it brings him:

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV)

Sometimes we do keep silent, even in our own heads, about the things that are affecting us from the past. Maybe we avoid talking to God because we think we need to get in some kind of ‘right’ frame of mind before praying to him. Maybe we’re angry, at a particular person or situation, or even at God, and we feel we shouldn’t be, so we just don’t say anything at all. Or maybe we feel like all we have to offer God is something that God won’t be happy with. So we just stay silent, like the psalmist. We try and avoid being alone with God until we can “get right in our heart” first. Until we feel like what we have to offer is worthy of him.

Honesty is the best policy

But as I’ve said before, God doesn’t care if our prayers aren’t perfect. God doesn’t mind if we come to him with ‘offensive’ emotions. Shocking though it may sound, I remain a firm believer that God prefers us getting angry at him than not speaking to him at all. The important thing is just to be present with God. Be honest about the ugly stuff that’s going on inside. Even if it means getting angry, or confronting feelings that you’d rather avoid and pretend aren’t there.

Whatever tough thing from the past is affecting you in the present, there’s no way out but through. If we feel ashamed, if we feel regret, we need to let ourselves acknowledge that. Just feel the awkwardness. Let yourself sit in it, name it for what it is. Bring it to God. Then you can move towards repentance, and receiving God’s grace.

And if you feel angry or hurt, don’t shove it down and pretend it’s not there. Acknowledge it. The vulnerability involved in admitting you’ve been hurt or sinned against can be difficult sometimes, but honesty with ourselves and with God about these things is key to moving on, towards forgiveness and freedom.

So when we’re struggling with the past, and with the feelings that it brings about… let’s stop choosing avoidance. Don’t be afraid to sit with those feelings, to name them, to bring them before God, to let yourself feel them. There’s nothing right or wrong about feelings, they’re just feelings. God isn’t going to judge you or turn you away for having them. But the only way to move beyond them, to stop the past keeping you from the present, is not to ignore them, but to be honest with yourself and with God.

Not letting the future overwhelm us in the present

Maybe it’s not the past that’s the problem. Maybe you’re one of those people who, when you sit quietly for a moment, worries about the future come rushing in. What needs to be done today? Tomorrow? Next week? What’s left on the to-do list? Have I even written a to-do list? What time is that appointment again? How on earth will I fit that in along with everything else? What if I fail? Embarrass myself? Forget something important? What if I don’t have enough – time, money, food, ability, people who care – fill in the gap in whatever way fits you best.

And it all piles up, and it all comes rushing in, and it all seems too much. What’s the point of sitting still and doing nothing when there’s all this stuff left to be done? How will it ever all get done?

Jesus had a reminder for us that’s relevant here:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? … Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:25-26, 34 (NIV)

Don’t worry about tomorrow – each day has enough worries of its own. Wise words, often quoted. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” might be how some of you remember it.

It can be easier said than done, though, can’t it?

Leave eternity to God

Look – let’s not mistake Jesus’ words for saying “don’t plan for the future”, as I think some people would like to interpret them. Because saying “don’t be anxious about tomorrow” is not the same thing as saying “don’t be prepared for tomorrow”. Planning and making to-do lists can in fact be helpful tools in stopping us from worrying about the future, because preparing, learning, and doing the best we can now is a concrete thing we can do in the present.

But what it does mean is that we let go of the outcome. We let go of trying to hold eternity in our own hands, of trying to figure out all possible endings ourselves. And we trust that our preparation now will help us be where God wants us to be then. We trust that, as the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and so we trust that whatever small step we’re taking now will set us in the right direction on that journey.

So let’s stop being ruled by regrets over the past, and anxiety over the future, and instead focus on right now. Because what we do have, what God gives us as gift right now and for all eternity, is this present moment.

In the next post I’ll talk about a habit I’m trying to adopt, to help me stay present when I feel the past or the future rushing in to take over my thoughts.

Redeem the time: Kairos moments

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Ephesians 5:15-17 (NKJV)

Time keeps passing

I’m finding it hard to believe nearly two months of the year have disappeared already. In my mind it still feels like early January, like we’ve only just had Christmas and New Years, and honestly, I’m still kind of in holiday mode.

But in reality, the year is well and truly in swing, and time is getting away from me.

Sometimes, time feels like our enemy. The days slip past and we’re not quite sure where they go, but before we know it, one month, two months, ten months of the year have gone by and suddenly people are telling you how many days it is until Christmas again and when did that happen? What about all those things I was going to achieve this year?

And so then I say, oh well, I guess there’s always next year, and then the whole process starts all over again… and before I know it a decade or two has gone by and I seem to be no better at using my time well.

I still keep talking about the 90’s like they were only ten years ago. Where does the time go – and how do we get it back again?

How do we redeem our time?

Time management: a problem throughout the ages

It can’t be just me that has this problem. Time management has become a whole industry now. My iPhone now pops up with a little notification every Sunday morning to inform me just how many minutes I’ve wasted looking at Instagram during the week, or playing Solitaire, or checking my mail, and how many minutes more or less than last week it was. Honestly, I’m not sure I really want to know. It’s an interesting insight into my own behaviour I guess, but I’m not entirely convinced it actually helps me use my time any better.

But these kind of apps, techniques, tricks – they’re everywhere now. Countless ways to try and keep ourselves accountable for every minute, every second that slips by. We devote so much energy towards looking for an answer to that one question:

How do we use our time better?

And we say it’s a modern problem, but you know, I think humans have always struggled with this question. It seems like it was an issue back in Paul’s day, when he was writing to the Ephesians.

“See then that you walk circumspectly,” he writes, “not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

Redeem the time, he says. Rescue it, recover it, get it back again, because the days are evil. Get it back from all those competing demands, all those unseen forces that just seem to siphon it away from us, make it seem like we never have enough of it. If you look at that verse in some other translations (like NIV or NLT), you’ll find it’s sometimes translated as “making the most of every opportunity”.

Making the most of our time. It’s a familiar ambition, isn’t it? And they didn’t even have smartphones in the first century.

Kairos time – redeeming the moment

There are two words for “time” in the ancient Greek of the New Testament. You might have heard of them: there’s chronos, and there’s kairos.

The first one, chronos, is where our word chronological comes from. This is talking about sequential, measurable time – days, hours, minutes, seconds. I think most of us have a tendency to interpret time in a chronos kind of a way. It’s fairly natural to mentally break up our days into 24-hour chunks, and our weeks into seven days. We have lists of things to do, and only so many hours to get each job done. We mark out time on our calendars and daily planners, keeping track of it, measuring it, and basically trying to exert as much control over it as we can.

The second word used for time in the Bible is kairos. Kairos time isn’t measured chronologically, the way we usually think of time. You might say that kairos is measured the way God sees time – not marked by the number of hours or minutes or seconds, but marked in moments that have eternal significance. Kairos means an appointed time, or a due season. A kairos moment is the right moment.

A kairos moment is one of those moments when time, as we know it, almost seems to stop.

And this is the word for time that Paul uses in Ephesians 5:16. When he says “redeem the time,” he’s really saying “redeem the kairos.”

Redeem the moment.

Not hours, minutes, and seconds, but moments.

Does that put a different spin on things?

Being present in the kairos moment

Time is just a series of individual moments, isn’t it? Right now I can’t use yesterday’s time better, or tomorrow’s time better. All I can do in this moment is use now better. To redeem my time, I just need to be more present, here in this moment. That should be simple enough.

But sitting in that kairos moment, when it happens, can be tough. If you’re like me, you have the experience that when you’re busy, you long for free time, away from obligations, time to just be, relax, enjoy. But then when that time actually comes, we don’t always know how to make the most of it. We’re so used to urgency, to the hustle and bustle of everyday life, that those rare moments of stillness can be hard to handle. Confronting, even. Often we look around for some distraction until the moment passes by.

Being fully present, here and now, is a challenge. Maybe we’re distracted by the past, or maybe we’re distracted by the future – either way, we’re pulled away from this current moment. And then, before we know it, it’s gone.

What happens when you just sit, quietly, just you and God, with no distractions? Where does your mind go? How long before you’re itching to get up and check your messages, call a friend, turn the TV on for background noise, even do housework… anything to get away from the unrelenting stillness of this moment?

Next post we’ll look into this in more detail, but in the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How do you redeem your time? What distracts you from being present? What techniques do you have to bring back your focus?

(This is Part 1 of a series of posts adapted from a sermon delivered on 23 February 2020.)

Today’s Good Samaritan: who is your neighbor?

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

Luke 10:30-34 (NIV) (read verses 25-37)

We all know the parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps we even know it so well that it’s lost its punch a little bit. I’m sure you could recite it roughly, if asked! Some guy gets hurt, two people pass by and ignore him, the third stops to help. Person number three was the one who acted like a “neighbor” – and, so the moral goes, so should we.

The title of this famous parable has become part of our lexicon. “What a Good Samaritan!” we say. Shortened even to, “oh, she’s such a Samaritan!” The word has ceased to refer to a people group, as it once did. Now it often just means “a good guy”, someone charitable and helpful.

But who were these Samaritans, really?

Who were the Samaritans?

The Samaritans were ancestrally closely related to the Jews. They followed a religion that was similar to Judaism in many respects, but still different enough for Jews to see them as heathens. Their main disagreement was about location – the location of the Holy Place of Israel. Samaritans had built their own temple at Mount Gerizim, roughly 25 miles north of Jerusalem, and they believed this was the true Holy Place, not the temple in Jerusalem.1

About a century before the birth of Jesus, the Jews supposedly destroyed the Samaritan temple and the surrounding territory. Years later, closer to the time of Jesus’ birth, a group of Samaritans took their own revenge for this destruction. They desecrated the Jerusalem Temple by scattering the bones of dead people around the sanctuary.2

To put it simply, the Jews and Samaritans had very little respect for each other. There was ongoing violence and enmity between the two groups. The low opinion that the Jewish people had for the Samaritans during this time was the background of this parable.

“Holy” and “righteous” – but not necessarily loving

When we go back and read the story with fresh eyes, now we can see some surprising implications for these first-century listeners. In describing what it means to do the work of God, surely we would expect Jesus to choose one of the first two passers-by as the neighborly character in this story – the priest, or the Levite. These first two men, after all, were the “holy people” of Jewish culture. They were righteous and well-respected; the kind of people you expected to do the right thing. People that you counted on to do the right thing.

But in fact, by virtue of who they were, showing kindness in this situation actually put them at greater risk of doing wrong in the eyes of the Law. You see, priests and Levites weren’t meant to come into contact with dead bodies. This made them ritually unclean, something they had to avoid at all costs. If the injured man were to die while they were helping him, they would have to go through a strict ritual of purification before resuming their duties.

Being holy made it all too difficult – it got in the way of them actually being loving.

Who might these two respected, “righteous” people be, do you think, if the story were rewritten for today’s audiences?

Can you think of situations today where religion gets in the way of loving? Or can you think of situations when you might have turned away from someone who was in need of help, because you were concerned with the appearance of righteousness?

Meeting Christ in the outsider

It’s after the priest and Levite have passed by that we get the real shock of the story.

Jesus tells his listeners that it’s someone outside of their religion – someone who believes all the wrong things about God! – who is actually the one doing God’s will.

What? Scandal! Outrage!

The Samaritan – the one classed by this first-century Jewish audience as outsider, heathen, impure, barbaric. This is the person is doing good, demonstrating love, acting like a neighbor. Against all expectations, and in spite of their background and beliefs, this is the person that Jesus holds up and praises as an example.

This would have been a hard message to swallow for these people who had been taught to hate the Samaritans, to believe they had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and to see themselves as unquestionably superior.

Who is the Samaritan today – and who are you?

Think again about how this story might sound if Jesus were telling it today. Who would this third character be, do you think? Who are today’s ‘Samaritans’ to those who count themselves as insiders to the Christian church?

Let’s bring it even closer to home. Let’s do the tough work of examining our own hearts, here. What kind of people are ‘Samaritans’ to you, personally?

Are there people whose good deeds you have ignored, or rejected, or belittled, or simply felt uncomfortable acknowledging – because they didn’t come from the ‘right’ sort of person?

How often do we say things like, “it doesn’t matter so much what people do, it’s their heart that matters” – when what we really judge as “heart” is whether they look right, or dress right, or worship in the right way?

But actions are what really reveal someone’s heart, aren’t they? Jesus knew that. So do we, deep down, but sometimes maybe we don’t want to admit it. Sometimes we’d rather believe the easy, comfortable lie that the state of our heart is justified by the tribe we’ve aligned ourselves with.

The truth is tougher to swallow. But it’s the truth that will set us free.

Are there individuals or people groups that you’ve dismissed in your life, that Jesus is calling you either to be a neighbor to, or to acknowledge that they have been a neighbor to you?

Good News: what does it mean to share the Gospel?

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.

Mark 16:15 (NLT)

How often have you heard pastors preach on the Great Commission? Or heard other people in church speak about the importance of effective evangelism? Of not being ashamed of the gospel, and being ready to share your testimony?

Go out and make disciples of all nations, they cry! Tell everyone you meet about this Good News, about what Christ has done for them and for you! Take every opportunity to tell the world, tell someone, tell anyone, how good it is to be a Christian!

But what does it really mean to “share the Good News”? What was Christ really asking of his disciples, and what is he really asking of us?

The “Three Minute Sales Pitch Testimony”

Have you come across this idea in evangelical circles of having a prepared, practised, “three minute testimony”? Something you can spout out and recite on command whenever required, whenever an opening presents itself?

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that preparing such an account is without merit. It’s a great exercise for our own spiritual growth to think about and write down an honest, concise description of why you’re a Christian. It’s helpful to clarify what your spirituality actually means to you, and what experiences have led you to hold your current set of beliefs.

The problem arises not with giving an authentic account of our faith, but with transforming it into some kind of marketing spiel. Such speeches tend to fall on deaf ears. Worse, they do harm, because it becomes apparent in the delivery that the speaker doesn’t actually care about their audience. They only see them as a potential sale for this “gospel” they’re advertising.

A better testimony: Listen and love

By all means, share honestly and vulnerably what Christ has done for you. But be careful your testimony doesn’t come across as a weapon, designed to manipulate or to shame. That was never the intention of the Great Commission.

In our last post, we saw how instead of jumping into trying to “fix things”, the example set by Christ is to love first. And just as Jesus grieved with Mary and Martha before raising Lazarus, so too we should sit with a person and love them before trying to “sell” them our idea of salvation.

How can we know what “salvation” is for a person, if we haven’t taken the time to find out what they need saving from? How can we preach the “good news” to someone, if we haven’t listened to them enough to know their needs? Reducing the Gospel to a one-size-fits-all marketing message is dehumanising. It dehumanises those we deliver it to, who are individuals with their own unique hurts and desires, worthy of being known and heard. It dehumanises us, too! You’re worth more to Jesus than the slickness of your three minute testimony and your ability to market it well. And it cheapens the actual good news of Christ, which says that each one of us is loved and valued for who we are.

Remember that good news looks different to each person. So let’s not be blind to someone’s unique situation in the rush to tell our practised story. If you really want to bring someone good news, first love them enough to know what “good news” means to them.

“Jesus wept” – God prioritises loving over fixing things

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

John 11:32-37 (NIV)

It’s famously the shortest verse in the Bible – the verse that lazy Sunday School kids trot out when tasked with memorising Scripture.

Jesus wept.

It may be brief, but boy, do those two words pack a punch.

The setting: One of Jesus’ close friends in Bethany, Lazarus, has tragically fallen ill and died. And worse, Jesus wasn’t even there for him during his final days. Visiting a neighbouring town, Jesus received word of Lazarus’ illness, but chose not to return to Bethany sooner.

When he does arrive back, Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary, also dear friends of Jesus, cry out to him in anguish. Why weren’t you there? Why couldn’t you save him? They are desperately grieving for the loss of their brother, and wanting to understand how it all went wrong. They can’t understand why their friend – and the one they called Savior – seemed to leave them all alone in their darkest hour.

Now, we know how this story ends. We know that only a few verses later, Jesus gives the triumphal cry of “Lazarus, come out!” – and miraculously, Lazarus rises from the dead.

But before we get to that extraordinary finale, we have this curious moment, where Jesus…

weeps.

Jesus grieves alongside Mary and Martha, even knowing what will happen next.

Jesus doesn’t diminish Mary and Martha for their grief. He doesn’t tell them that their sadness comes from a lack of faith. He reminds Martha of her faith, yes, and asks her to reassert her belief in him (see earlier verses 21–27), but there is no reprimand there, just comfort and reassurance; a gentle but powerful declaration of hope in the midst of her despair.

Nor is he aloof from or unaffected by their emotion. No, he shares in their sadness, and this is perhaps the most confounding thing, because we see from earlier verses that he knows Lazarus will be raised. It seems reasonable to expect that Jesus would stride in, say, don’t worry! I’ve got it all under control! and simply cut straight to the resurrection part. Isn’t that what we would do, given the ability? If we’ve got the power to fix things, then surely we should just get on with the fixing! Why waste time crying, grieving, over something that’s going to get better soon?

Jesus shows us by example here what it is to be fully present in each moment. In this particular moment, there was pain and grief that needed acknowledgment. In the moment that followed, there would be miraculous healing and joy – but they weren’t there yet. And so Jesus demonstrates his love for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha by sitting in this present moment of grief for Lazarus’ death – even though doing so means experiencing the same pain and heartbreak that his friends are suffering.

Christ doesn’t consider himself above grieving alongside his friends. Christ does not separate himself from this painful emotion; no, he walks through it with Mary and Martha, feeling every bit of distress that they are at the loss of Lazarus. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, he is “deeply moved and troubled”, writes John. God is with us in our pain and grief.

We’re told that many saw the raising of Lazarus, and believed in Jesus as a result. No doubt they were amazed and in awe of such a miracle.

But those who witnessed the moment just beforehand, when Jesus wept, said this: “See how he loved him!”

And that, right there, reveals to us so much about the character of God. Christ responds to us in each moment by choosing love, even if it’s painful. God doesn’t rush to smooth things over, diminishing us in the process. God sits and weeps with us first, letting us know that we truly are not alone. That demonstration of love takes precedence over any miracles, any demonstration of power.

Blessed are we when our impulse is to love first, before trying to fix things, even if we are derided as weak and ineffective for doing so. Blessed are we when we understand that this is as much a part of any healing as the ‘fixing’ itself.

New Year decluttering… for the soul

It’s January, less than a week into a new year – a new decade, in fact. A time of year traditionally filled with dieting and exercising, wardrobe clear-outs, trips to the op-shop… decluttering and downsizing in every way imaginable.

We all relate to this urge to “start afresh” with each new year, to embark on a decluttering frenzy that lets us shed ourselves of everything unnecessary in our lives. To rid ourselves of all those things we accumulated over the past twelve months, things that we thought would bring us happiness, but which only ended up taking up space and weighing us down (sometimes quite literally, hence the dieting and exercising). So we sign up to programs that promise a better way – a lighter, less encumbered way. We try and Marie Kondo our way into “sparking joy” in our heart, in a way that all those possessions and all that decadent living never quite seemed to achieve.

The man who couldn’t declutter

In the Gospel of Mark, we hear a similar kind of story about a man who had it all, but was searching for something deeper. He came to Jesus and asked him what he could do. He already did all the right things, he said, he’d followed the Ten Commandments ever since he was a boy! But even though this man insists he’s done all that’s required of him, his questioning of Jesus seems to indicate that there’s still some burden weighing him down; some feeling that he’s not quite getting it.

Jesus’ response to him confirms his suspicion – but not in the way he’d hoped:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Mark 10:21-22 (NIV)

Sell everything you have. Wow.

I hate to say it, but I think I would have “gone away sad”, too.

It’s hard to let go of our attachment to the things of this world. Whether it’s too much food or drink, or buying possessions we don’t really need – we’ve become addicts to consumerism, to being able to have what we want, when we want it.

And when the voice of Christ whispers in our ears gently saying – give this away! Come, follow me! – we become sad, and afraid, because letting go of our creature comforts can honestly be very, very scary. Even when we know they are weighing us down; even when we know they are simply taking up space in our lives, or sometimes even harming us.

Letting go of our attachment

Better one handful with tranquillity
    than two handfuls with toil
    and chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:6

Let’s use this opportunity of the New Year for a decluttering of our cupboards, firstly, but also a decluttering that goes right down into our souls.

Let’s give away those belongings we don’t need, yes, but let’s also let go of our attachment to such things.

Instead of making space in our homes only to spend the next twelve months filling it up again with more of the same, let’s make an effort to turn to Christ for that sense of comfort, of fulfilment, of peace and purpose that we’re all searching for so desperately.

Whatever it is that you’ve filled your cupboards and your heart with that’s weighing you down and keeping you from following Jesus, give yourself permission to set it aside. It’s scary, I know… but it will be worth it.

Eternity in the human heart: sitting with the mystery

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

This verse from Ecclesiastes is my favorite verse in the Bible. I remember the first time I read it, feeling stunned at the truth that seemed to ring in my soul at those words.

God has set eternity in the human heart. A longing, a yearning for something greater than this. A sense there is something beyond ourselves.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian family, but still I always had this sense – this odd feeling that there was something bigger, more meaningful, more important out there than what I could perceive around me with my senses. Some purpose behind it all, some intention holding it all together.

Even before I had the language to describe this feeling as God, God had set eternity in my heart.

I think we all have inside us this unexplainable sense of infiniteness. But at the same time, no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever fully comprehend it. We cannot fathom what he has done from beginning to end.

We do try, though, don’t we? It’s so tempting to want to explain eternity, to conquer it, to squeeze it and mold it into our own created paradigms. Sometimes it even works, to some extent, for a little while. Sometimes we come up with an explanation that seems to help, to give us a little glimpse of what it all means. But then it all falls down again, and we realise just how great and vast eternity really is, how infinite God is, how impossible it is for our small, finite minds to grasp any kind of complete understanding of it all.

At some point we have to accept the mystery; to wonder at it; to worship.

The image of God needs no Instagram filter

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Our complex identities

Who do you define yourself as? When someone first meets you at a party and says, ‘tell me about yourself,’ what’s the first thing you say to them?

Maybe you define yourself by:

  • Your job: are you a teacher, doctor, lawyer, accountant, pastor?
  • Family: are you a daughter, brother, son, mother, father, wife, husband?
  • Your nationality, your religion, or your cultural background?
  • Pets, passions, hobbies, volunteer work, musical preferences, favorite films… maybe there’s even a favourite meal you love to eat, or love to cook, so much that it’s become a part of you, so much that you’d even introduce yourself at a party by mentioning it.

These different roles we play in our lives all combine together to make up who we are, and how we view ourselves. All these things intertwine to help form our purpose, our worth, our callings, even.

Our ‘tidied up’ images: filtered for public consumption

We spend so much of our lives forming and trying to understand our identities, “curating” our identities, even — deciding how we present them to the world. Of course, social media has pushed this concept to the forefront of many people’s lives. We all have our own ‘brand’, now. It’s become a whole art form: we reveal just enough of ourselves to the world to give an image that we think represents some kind of ideal.

Maybe you post a picture on Instagram of that favourite meal you like to cook — but you only show that one time it turned out perfectly. You don’t post the pictures of the burnt ones, or the undercooked ones, or the ones that came out a bit lopsided.

Embracing the beauty of complexity

The truth is, though, those messed-up meals are a part of your identity too. The so-called ‘failures’ you went through were necessary to get to that final product. So this ‘curated identity’ we present to the world doesn’t really reflect the depth of who we are. It doesn’t show all the shades of light and dark, all of the good and bad parts, all of the growth we’ve been through to get to where we are now.

Our identities are often a whole lot more complex than we’d like to admit.

So let’s instead learn to embrace our identities in all of their fullness, in all of their depth. Let’s acknowledge our complexity and our uniqueness. Look at what it says in Psalm 139:

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14

Each one of us has been made in God’s image — we’ve been knitted together, fearfully and wonderfully. Every single human bears a different part of the image of the infinite God. Every single one of us carries our own unique reflection of the wondrous, perfect creativity of our Creator.

That means we can stop worrying about presenting our lives through soft-focus filters with carefully constructed angles and air-brushing. We can stop trying to strip away our complexities and our complications, and allow ourselves to just be ourselves. Because who we are is who we were made to be, and that means there’s a place and a purpose for us, just as we are.

Go out there and show the world the image of God in you.

Where do I belong? The search for purpose and place

I’ve written a few times in earlier posts about the importance of understanding our identity. Today’s post looks at how that fits into our quest to find our place and purpose in the world. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out not just who we are, but where we belong.

Identity crisis: when we lose sense of where we belong in the world

Sometimes, a thing we might have seen as central to our identity and purpose gets taken away from us.

When I was a young child learning piano, I had a bad habit of carelessly dropping the heavy lid of our upright piano so that it made a loud bang, and all the strings in the piano vibrated and echoed with the impact. After a few too many loud crashes, my dad told me a story about a young girl who was training to be a concert pianist. One day, this unfortunate girl carelessly allowed the piano lid to drop on to her hands — and she lost all her fingers! Her carelessness ended up destroying her bright future.

In retrospect, I’m not so sure this story was entirely true… but at the time, it had the desired effect on me. “What if that happened to me?” I wondered. “What if I lost all my fingers? Would I still be me, if I couldn’t play piano anymore?” Even at that young age, music-lover that I was, I’d learned to associate my passion for playing piano with my identity, and with my sense of purpose in the world.

And this is a fear many of us have, I think. What if tragedy strikes, and we’re no longer ‘useful’ in the things we’ve become valued for? No doubt you can think of examples that would be powerful for you.

  • What if I lose my job, and can’t support my family?
  • What if my marriage breaks up, and I end up on my own?
  • What if my health fails, and I can’t look after myself anymore?

Holding life with a looser hand

Often, things like this happening might cause a kind of ‘crisis of identity’. Not only do we grieve the loss of whatever has gone, but we grieve the death of who we were. We fear our identity has gone, along with the job, relationship, skill, whatever it was. We end up unsure of who we’re supposed to be, and of what we’re supposed to be doing.

I think we all have this awareness that on some level, our lives are very fragile. And all the blessings, the gifts we have are fragile. We’re not in control, not really, even though we like to think we are.

That might leave us feeling uncertain of our ‘place’, our purpose, and our identity. It might make us fearful. It might cause us to cling on to things too tightly — jobs, for instance: making sure no one else knows how to do your job so they can’t replace you. Or relationships: trying to find your meaning and purpose in the other person, to fit them into a particular mold of some ‘ideal’ in your mind which isn’t really them.

When we’re not confident of our identity and our purpose, we take these things in our lives that are meant to be gifts and blessings, and we try and squeeze all the meaning we can out of them.

We try and force them to provide the meaning and the purpose that we’re craving.

But the truth is, as Christians, we don’t need to operate out of that kind of fear. Instead, we can afford to hold the blessings in our life with a looser hand.

Belonging in God’s house

Because, as I’ve written elsewhere, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ (Gal 2:20) and that we are beloved children of God (1 John 3:1).

When we know this, when we remember this deep truth about ourselves, it changes us. It has far-reaching implications for how we live our lives, because it means that no matter what happens to us, we can lean on this sense of belonging.

Jesus describes beautifully to his disciples this knowledge of belonging somewhere:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

Notice how he doesn’t just say that God has “left a place vacant for you”, or that there’s “space for you to fit in God’s house”. He goes much further than that. There’s a room prepared, just for you. And we know the difference, don’t we? Between someone that just ‘makes space’, and someone that goes the extra mile to make sure you belong somewhere. God is doing the latter. God is excited about your uniqueness, your distinct personality that you’re bringing to the Kingdom, and God is making his house ready for that.

A resetting of priorities and purpose

Now, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t pursue passions and gain satisfaction from them. None of this means we won’t have things we love, experiences we learn and grow from, pastimes we find meaning in. Nor does it mean that we can’t look for motivation and fulfilment from our jobs, our marriages, our families, or our hobbies.

But it does mean that we don’t need to be fearful if those things don’t give us that deep purpose we desire. Because the truth is that they’ll never fulfil us completely. They’ll never provide you with that ultimate understanding of who you are, where you belong, and what you’re doing here. Because none of these things are the most fundamental aspect of your being, which is this: You’re a beloved son or daughter of the Most High, and there’s a place prepared for you in God’s house.

You belong — if you’ve never quite felt that before, then know it now. And if you’ve been searching for that feeling of belonging in certain groups, certain labels — maybe even within the church! — then as of now, you can let it go. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing can take away that place He’s prepared for you.

Prayer: Lord, thank you that you call us your children. Thank you that we can rest knowing that you’ve prepared a place for us in Your house. Help us to live in the certainty of these truths: that we belong, and that we’re loved. Help us to live our lives grounded in this knowledge, and willing to love fearlessly and freely, just the way you did.

(Note: This, along with the post Who am I? The quest to understand our identity, is adapted from a sermon I delivered on 12 May 2019.)