A Complete Joy Bomb

He seems to always work like this in my life. I’m walking along, doing my thing, and out of nowhere he shows up laughing.

Our God is so playful.

I’ll keep this story brief. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a deep, unabashed, almost hungry love for my second home: Co. Kerry, Ireland. I love anything connected with that glorious piece of earth. On a whim, I queried large Irish tourism site that was advertising a freelance writing position. I submitted a trial article in their fashion and found out early morning Irish time today…it’s been accepted for publication. And I hear God’s laughter in this loud and clear.

I wanted to post the link to my article for anyone that has an interest in checking it out:

Seven Jaw-dropping Romantic Things to Experience Along the Dingle Way

Thanks for reading. And thanks for laughing along with me and the Father.

100 Holy Questions

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One hundred questions. One hundred days. God has been very, very good.

I was sharing with a friend last night that throughout the last 100 days, I feel like I have gone through the Gospels with a fine-toothed comb. I have been invited to park in the conversations of Jesus. I have studied the ways that Jesus responded to others, or the manner in which he initiated dialogue.

And I have fallen in love with him all over again.

Questions and Stories. Jesus is the God of Questions and Stories. He is the God Who Asks. Rarely does he point his finger in someone’s face and tell them something. He never provides a three or seven step formula for spiritual growth. Jesus is not an imperative person. Instead of telling, he asks. In pursuit of our fearful heart, Jesus gently sneaks past our natural defenses and probes into our depths. He invites us to him rather than forces us to listen. He is not the God of the monologue. He begins conversations with us, eager to hear what we communicate to him from our hearts.

“Answers before questions,” writes Henri Nouwen, “do damage to the soul.” Jesus knows this. Forcing or giving answers does not help us. We need the soul-space to ponder. As the Lover of our souls, he wishes to bring wholeness, not harm — and so he asks questions.

Questions aren’t tidy. They expose the tangled lines of our hearts. When asked from a genuine space, questions don’t assume knowledge. Questions are the posture of the humble, and our omniscient Jesus, who already knows everything about us, asks us questions anyway. It’s so rare to be in the presence of one who doesn’t tell us things but asks us questions, drawing out our hearts like water from a deep well.

What other god would do this? What other god humbles himself to ask questions? What other god invites conversational intimacy with the ones he created?

There is none like Him. This is why I love Him. This is why I want to devote the rest of my life to hearing his questions. This is why I want to become like him, biting my imperative tongue and learning to ask questions of others. As Jesus said, he’ll teach us. He loves to show us how.

I want to thank Jimmy, Macy and Josephine — my fellow Irish adventurers — for their amazing blessing on this invitation from God. This has been an intense family affair. They’ve allowed me to share our secret stories. They’ve helped me endlessly in the listening and writing of each post. They’ve pondered with me what Jesus could possibly mean with many of his questions. Macy and Jo have shared me daily with the Wild Goose and his peculiar wanderings. Jimmy has faithfully picked my question every day from the list, knowing it would have been too overwhelming for me otherwise. I love you three, and I thank you from the depths of my heart.

And I want to thank you, reader,  for journeying with us these last 100 days. It’s been an honor and privilege. I can only pray that God would cover over anything I’ve written that is not of him and his truth.

As we close, I sense him saying we’re just beginning. He has questions for us still today. And tomorrow. His pursuit of our hearts is eternal, and his love is without end.

After the fashion of our Good God, I end by asking questions of my own:

What question is he whispering to you today? Where is the Wild Goose leading?

Godspeed on our journey.

Was It Not Necessary that the Messiah Should Suffer These Things and Then Enter His Glory?

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Luke 24:26

Their hearts were heavy with grief.

No, not just grief.

Their hearts were heavy with grief and bitter disappointment.

They rebuked themselves as they walked along, condemning their lapse of judgment. They wondered how they let themselves get involved with such a plan — such a Man — that was doomed to fail. It was never going to work. He was never going to be King.

But, hoping against all hope, there was a maybe.

Maybe He would change everything. Maybe for a brief glimpse they would see Heaven had indeed come down and touched this scorched earth. Maybe they’d have their land flow with milk and honey once again. Maybe all would be set right, and they would be regents under a great Sovereign.

Maybe He really was God-With-Us.

But no. He turned out to be like everyone else.

Mortal. Temporary. Extinguishable.

Hadn’t they seen it with their own eyes? His tendons and muscles pierced by cruel spikes. The flesh ripped from his bones in torturous strokes. The blood and sweat in mingled rivulets, dripping off his bared knee caps onto his toes, pattering the dust from whence He came.

Even until the last moment, they held on to hope. Hope that angels would rescue the Son of God. Hope that God would open the jaws of the earth and swallow the merciless villains. Hope that Jesus himself would do as they jeered, come down from the Cross and save himself and his followers. But hope dwindled, finally snuffed out as they watched in horror as He surrendered his breath.

He was not who they thought He was. He couldn’t be now, already decaying in his tomb.

All this they said to one another as they walked with heavy steps the road to Emmaus. Why stay in Jerusalem? There was nothing there for them any longer.

They rounded a bend in the road and saw another Traveler on the road ahead. He was watching them, waiting for them, it seemed. As they drew nearer, he called out “Shalom.” They responded with half-hearted mutters. There was something familiar about the way he spoke the words of peace over them, but they did not know his face. He fell into step with them.

“What are you talking about, so serious as you walk?” he asked.

They were in no mood for some local yokel who knew nothing about their troubles. They stopped walking and stared at him, “long-faced, like they had lost their best friend” (Luke 24:18). “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened during the last few days?

In other words, Are you kidding me?

The Traveler stopped walking too. He shook his head, dared to smile and asked, “What happened?” without a care in the world.

In disbelief, the two men exploded their story, talking over each other. They all started walking again, and they walked faster and faster, their gait matching the pace of their racing hearts. The Man said nothing, just listened. The young men talked and talked until there was nothing left to say, out of breath with their emotion and exertion.

The Traveler was quiet. He let their frustration and despair hang in the space between them as they slowed their stride. When he finally did speak, it was the last thing they expected this kindly but ignorant Stranger to say.

So thick-headed!”

What?

So slow-hearted!

Huh?

Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?

They stared at him, mouths hanging open. Who was this guy?

Then he started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him” (24:27).

Of course, it was Jesus all along. They were about to discover that the Man they left dead was God-Alive.

This narrative clearly displays one of the things I love most about Jesus. He has this uncanny ability to just show up as we walk along in our lives, most of us dragging heavy hearts behind us like over-stuffed luggage. We come around a corner and SURPRISE! There he is, with a smile and a wave, asking, “Whatcha doing?” His lightheartedness seems inappropriate in the wake of our disappointment with him, but it’s not. He knows we’re disappointed. He knows we’re confused about what he’s doing or not doing in our lives.

And that’s when he begins to teach us, the thick-headed, slow-hearted people of a Risen God that we still think is dead.

Was it not necessary?” he asks us.  Whatever it is, it’s necessary. Whatever the thing is in our lives that has disrupted us, frustrated us, disappointed us — it was necessary. It was important. It was meaningful. It still is. We have a God that doesn’t always meet our expectations. He allows setbacks and disappointments into our lives.

What we see as death circumstances, Jesus will make alive, green with growth and fruit. What we see as failure, Jesus has already secured the victory. What we see as God letting us down, forgetting us, leaving us behind, God has in hand. He’s right there with you and the “it.” He makes it beautiful and purposeful and an asset to the Kingdom. We, as children of a loving Father, can rest in the knowledge that whatever we walk through will be transformed into goodness.

He knows us far better than we know ourselves,” Paul writes, “knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good” (Romans 8:28).

Every detail. Nothing gets missed, nothing gets lost. Nothing goes unredeemed and unrestored in God-With-Us. Not our past. Not our sin. Not our terrible circumstances. Not even our disappointment with God.

We can’t always see what’s necessary and what’s not. If we were the two on Emmaus, would we have seen it as necessary for Jesus to die? To be tortured and buried? Or would we have viewed it all as a gigantic waste? Would we have seen any of the events of Good Friday as necessary?

Most likely not. But it was. It was the most necessary event in the history of the world. Our sin made it necessary. The Love of God made it necessary.

And we can be guaranteed that whatever thing we carry in our lives that seems unnecessary is actually quite necessary for our growth in God.

His work is always necessary, and in the pain, we find that Jesus is still with us as we walk along.

You Are a Teacher in Israel and You Do Not Understand This?

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John 3:10

I sense I am to stand aside today and let the context speak for itself. Jesus wants the room to begin. John 3 commences with a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, where Nicodemus tries but says little because Jesus does most of the talking.

“You’re not listening.

Let me say it again.

Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.

When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit. So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak.

You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”

Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”

Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?

Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay.

Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions.”

John 3:5-11

Poor Nicodemus. You almost feel sorry for the guy. Jesus ends with such a hard statement for him to swallow: “…Instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions.” Apparently, Jesus wants Nicodemus and us to know that not all questions are good.

According to Jesus, the Great Questioner, there is such a thing as a foolish question. Jesus exposes this in Nicodemus.

He’s come to Jesus as a lover would to an affair: at night, under the cover of darkness, secretly. He’s afraid of being caught by his demanding and unyielding spouse, who for all practical purposes, is the Jewish religion. He doesn’t want to face the fury of this angry woman, and so he hides what he does, sneaking off to see the forbidden Jesus.

Jesus, of course, knows this. He receives Nicodemus, not because he is a Pharisee, not because Nicodemus has a sincere heart. Jesus receives him because Jesus wants words with this man whose heart is pledged to the wrong god and who influences others toward the same.

Nicodemus, seeking to show Jesus deference, comes with a list of questions. Every time Jesus speaks, Nicodemus has a follow-up question. And if this study on the questions of Jesus has taught us anything, it’s shown that Jesus is okay with questions. He loves them. He welcomes them. He uses them himself.

What Jesus doesn’t welcome is when questions take the place of obedience.

We are all guilty of this tactic. I think of my daughters, and how they are skilled in the art of stalling questions. This happens particularly at bedtime. They will have had their reading time. They have a cup of water by their beds. The lights will be dimmed and nightlights lit. I will have sung. Jimmy has prayed. They are as snug as could be under their tucked-tight covers. We’ve kissed their foreheads and both cheeks. We say, “I love you, Macy. I love you, Josephine,” and are backing slowly out of the room when we hear this — “Mom, I just have one question.”

And there it is, the mother of all procrastination strategies.

The Stalling Question.

“No more questions, girls.”

“But it’s just one little question.”

“No more.”

“But I’ll forget it if I don’t ask it now.”

“No.”

“PLEASE!”

By this time, either Jimmy or I will try to escape and leave the other to deal with our disobedient daughter and her one little question. And also by this time, we are tired and getting a little frustrated.

That’s when we go back over to the bunk beds, and confront the tiny questioner. At this point, they’ve gotten us, because one of us is still in the room, and that is what they wanted all along. And I must say that the questions are hilarious. It’s almost worth it just to see what random inquiry they’ve been able to come up with to prevent bedtime from actually happening.

Mock questions our children may have asked:

“What would happen if a horse ate a pickle?”

“How come gum is sticky?”

“Why do I have to go to bed? I’m not tired.”

Whatever the question is, even if it’s a fascinating one, we realize why its being asked. This “one little question” is being asked from the motive of delaying obedience. And as my mother made me write 100 times on paper as punishments during childhood, “Delayed obedience is disobedience.” See, Mom — I’ll never forget it now. Thank you very much.

We cannot pull the wool over the eyes of Jesus. He’s the world’s most attuned Parent. He sees when our questions overflow from a sincere heart. He also sees when our questions are nothing but a way to procrastinate actually listening to and doing what he says. He sees The Stalling Question from miles away, before it’s even on the tip of our tongues or conceived in our minds. Jesus sees it, and just like with Nicodemus, he exposes it for what it is. Sometimes, asking a question is inappropriate when receiving God is what is invited:

Are you my disciple and you do not understand what I am saying to you? Instead of receiving what I am saying and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. 

We cannot fool Jesus with our questions. He sees right into our hearts like a shallow pond on a sunlit day. He can even see the things dwelling there that we can’t see.

We are much like Nicodemus, holding so much weight of responsibility as a child of God and an heir to the Kingdom. We, too, hold influence with others, able to show those that watch how to walk in the Kingdom Among Us. As Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus, we have been “born from above by the Wind of God.”

Unless a person submits,” Jesus tells us,”to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.” 

But we feel more comfortable on the fringes, straddling God’s Kingdom and our own. We stall our obedience, and we delay the decisions that would be in alignment with his will. We seek shelter from the mysterious and unpredictable Wind of God, the Wild Goose.

Jesus says enough. It’s time for bed.

Will we obey?

He invites us to lay down our questions that we use as a wall to keep him out. There’s a time we are just to say yes, to listen, to receive. Jesus is suggesting the time is now.

 

 

 

 

Why Do You Ask Me About What Is Good?

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Matthew 19:16

What if we’d never gone to Ireland? Jimmy and I think about that often.

At the time we were considering leaving, we knew that things needed to change — for our marriage, for our family, for our calling. We had this deep sense of urgency that something needed to give way to make more room for God in our too-full lives. We were getting glimpses and tastes of his Kingdom goodness, and small bits of him were just not enough for us any longer. So we asked. We asked him for more. We asked him what we were supposed to do. We asked him to speak what he had for us.

Basically, we asked him what would be good for us.

In hindsight, we should have asked with a little more fear and trembling. But we didn’t know what was coming. When we asked, we didn’t know the clear call into which he’d invite us. And because we were ignorant of the great risk and the enormous cost, we asked with a child-like giddiness. We echoed the Psalmist, “You’re blessed when you follow his directions, doing your best to find him…I’m going to do what you tell me to do” (Psalm 119:2,8).

Father, whatever it is, wherever it is, would you tell us what is good for our family?

And he answered. With unavoidable clarity, he answered the question we asked him together. He, in a crazy, unpredictable, only-God-sort-of-way, invited us to make everything we had available to him and join him for a pilgrimage sabbatical, or what He  likes to call,  a “pilgrimatical.” A pilgrimatical to West Coast Ireland, to be specific. Luke 5:1-11 was given to us as the signposts for his call:

Come be with me.

Push off from land.

Launch out into the deep.

I give you your calling.

Follow me.

We were overwhelmed at the invitation. We were thinking that perhaps he’d call us to Colorado to work with a ministry called Ransomed Heart. Or perhaps he would keep us in Lynchburg, living our lives but seeing him differently. We didn’t know what he would say, but we certainly didn’t expect his answer. That’s part of how we knew it was from him, I suppose, and not from us.

I was thrilled. I was all in. I was ready to say yes right away, but my wise husband suggested a time of prayer and fasting. As we were confirmed that yes, we had heard God correctly, and yes, he was asking us to come away with him — the thrill of the call was joined by a cold fear that settled into the pits of our stomachs.

We started counting the cost. The most obvious cost was financial, of course, but the cost of accepting his answer and his invitation seemed to have no end in it’s impact on our future life. The more we thought about the outcome, the what ifs, the ways it could all go wrong, the thrill lessened into sober clarity. It was going to be the hardest decision we’d ever made, and it would affect our lives and the lives of our children in ways we couldn’t foresee. That was scary.

But then again, so was saying no.

We had asked. He heard our asking, and he answered. He had told us what was good for our family. And now he wanted to know, Will you follow Me into what I’ve told you is good?

Isn’t that what Jesus is really asking us today? When he asks, “Why do you ask Me what is good?” there is more implied in the asking.

Why do you ask Me what is good — and then do not do it?

We love to ask others to pray for us. We sense the peace of God as we go to him and ask for wisdom, clarity, guidance. But we do not always appreciate his answer. Sometimes, we pretend we didn’t hear what he said that’s not to our liking. Sometimes, we explain it away as fatigue or bad tacos or hormonal imbalance. Sometimes, we keep our lives so loud that his quietness goes unheard.

But Jesus is faithful to tell us what is good. His word affirms this over and over. He is not the God of confusion but of clarity. He is the God Who Speaks — through his word, through our circumstances, through others, and most especially, through the Spirit of Christ that dwells richly in our beings. He speaks, but are we prepared to hear and do what he says?

In Matthew 19, this question of Jesus is prompted by an eager young man, wealthy in youth, strength, future and money. He wants affirmation from Jesus that his life is as it should be, so he asks Jesus his own question about what is good for him. We, like this man, want Jesus to look upon the lives we’ve created for ourself and bless it. We don’t really need him to disrupt too much, and we’d like a few lingering problems fixed, but other than that, we simply want the divine stamp of approval. But we must know that like this eager youth, when we ask, Jesus will truly answer, and it may be an answer that startles.

If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus told him,”go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow Me.

Matthew’s words haunt us, because he describes our own response to Jesus:

That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crest-fallen, he walked away. He was holding tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go” (19:22).

We ask God what we should do, but our hearts are rarely prepared for the cost his answer will bring. And although the answer comes specifically and individually to each heart, the answer remains unchanged at it’s core:

Come follow Me. 

There is no other answer, only unique variations. Jesus has chosen us to be his disciples, his intimate friends. He wants to be our Teacher. He wants to be our Everything. What is good for us is that we would live the costly life of complete abandonment to him, whether that is in Ireland or Africa or the United States. He wants us to truly decide that discipleship to him is a worthy and lifelong pursuit, one that will not allow for distractions or compromise.

He speaks clearly. He has answered our question, whether asked or unasked.

What is good? 

He is. And he wants to give us himself. Let us never “walk away crestfallen, holding on tight to a lot of things we can’t bear to let go.”

He is worth it all, and we will never regret letting go and following Him.

So what if we had never gone to Ireland? I guess I don’t know all that would mean for us now. But what I do know is this: By God’s grace, we said yes with much fear. We went; He returned us. And the cost is nothing compared to Him. 

He’s the Pearl.

Dallas Willard article: “Discipleship: For Super-Christians Only?”

Did You Never Read the Scriptures?

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Matthew 21:42

Jesus asks a hard question today. 

It’s a question asked that expects the answer no but hopes for a yes. It’s a question that demands ruthless honesty. It’s a question from One that is disheartened.

“Did you never read the scriptures?”

The context in which he asks is not to the religious illiterate. He’s not talking to the pagan Romans or to the poverty-stricken who’ve not been afforded the luxury of scripture study. Jesus, with a firm stance and confrontational expression, asks this question in the Temple, and he asks it of what Matthew records as “the High Priest and leaders of the people” (Matthew 21:23).

He’s certainly poked those Pharisees right where it hurts.

From what we’ve seen of Jesus, this isn’t surprising. Jesus could never be accused of pandering to the elite. He seems to create opportunities to do just the opposite.

He prefaces this question by telling the crowds gathered in the Temple a short story. This story is about a vineyard, a long-suffering owner, and a handful of presumptuous and short-sighted farmhands, thinking they can usurp the owner and seize the fruits of the vineyard for themselves. The Master hears how they’ve treated his emissaries, how they’ve beaten and stripped the Master’s personal assistants and threw them off his own property. Finally, the Master decides to send his son to reason with these ruffians, but the thugs could care less when the son arrives. They not only mock and beat him — they murder him in calculating deviancy, uncaring that they’ve just taken the life of the heir. They are ignorant to the consequences of this action.

Ignorance is the key word here, and Jesus is directing this mini-lesson right at the heart of it.

As Jesus gets further into his story, we can practically hear the Pharisees’ fury seething from the pages. Matthew writes, “When the Pharisees heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them. They wanted to arrest Jesus and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinions, they held back” (21:45). They are burning up with rage.

What does Jesus do?

“Jesus responded,” Matthew writes, with more than just a whiff of irony, “by telling still more stories” (22:1).

Questions and stories. Strategically-offensive questions and stories. This is our Jesus, the One Who Loves both Pharisee and orphan.

Just after he asks his question, Jesus blasts the hypocrisy of those that think themselves followers of God: “This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life” (21:43).

He will never force himself on anyone, but neither will he hold back. In the lives of the Pharisees and in our lives, Jesus asserts himself as the biggest stumbling block to our selfish will and ignorance of him. He’s the hulking obstacle in our path of self-determination, the One on which we will stub our toes every day we demand to live on our own. I can’t help but hear his question in my own context, and it is right that I do so.

I hear his question, and I think of my wrestling with The Divine Conspiracy our summer in Kerry. One of the books we took to Ireland was Dallas Willard’s treatise on discipleship, and it was as much a gift of God to us as the Irish countryside and the beauty of the sea. 

I went to undregrad and graduate school to study the Word of God. I am trained to read and translate scripture in its original language. I can research and do word studies and exegesis of the biblical text. I have experience in all this, and yet, through a combination of Ireland, Dallas Willard, and the Wild Goose, I felt like I’d never read the scriptures.

It may be worth considering making the study of this book, alongside your study of scripture, a daily habit.

I see this book as the primary text (beyond scripture) for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. In it, Dallas Willard goes through the Sermon on the Mount, a passage of scripture I’ve read all my life, relating it to Jesus’ coherent message that the Kingdom Among Us is now made available to us right now. Most of what I read about Jesus’ teachings were brand-new, as though I’d never heard them before or cracked the Bible open. All throughout my reading of this book, Jesus’ question haunted me again and again: Did you never read the scriptures? 

It seemed I really hadn’t.

How had I missed the Kingdom of God and my place in it? The scriptures are clear. The Gospel of Jesus is clear. Jesus himself is unequivocally clear. And yet, it was as if I’d never read the scriptures with Jesus as my teacher.

I was a child of God that did not recognize the Home in which I was being brought up.

I still don’t, not fully, but because of the gracious and dismantling work of Jesus, and the brilliancy of his teaching, I’m beginning to see. The scriptures are opened, and the Wild Goose is walking me through the meaning of true discipleship. I am a stumbler, but he is the Upholder.

He wants me to know the scriptures. Not just read them, but know them as he teaches them to me. As Jesus said, he is handing himself over “to a people who will live out a kingdom life.” Jesus desires to startle us out of a perfunctory, surface knowledge, one that doesn’t actually transform who we are and how we live. He has a place for us in his Kingdom now, not just when we exit this world. It’s real, and it’s the most important thing that exists. But so many of us, including myself, tend to read God’s word and miss the Kingdom in it. We miss the impact of walking with Jesus.

I go back often to the primary call of discipleship, found in Matthew 11:

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

When we follow Jesus, we are reading the Living Word. We are walking with him and working with him, watching exactly how he’d live our life. We are learning the unforced rhythms, an intimate knowing of God and his word that changes our entire lives, both inside and out.

Jesus is questioning our knowledge-base. Is our reading of scripture primarily mental, or is it being woven into the core of our being? Is it being lived out with an eye for the Kingdom Among Us, at work and present all around? Is it being taught to us by the Word Himself?

If not, then perhaps we’ve never read the scriptures.

 

Are You Saying This On Your Own, Or Did Others Tell You About Me?

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Our first time to Ireland, the one thing we wanted to do was climb Skellig Michael. Before we left the States, we’d researched it and spent an embarrassing number of hours reading about it on the internet. Once we arrived to Ireland, we talked to everybody we could, listening to legends about it in various pubs. Not many of the Irish we talked to had been, but they — like us– had heard tales of Skellig Michael, and they had a yarn or two to add.

The more we heard, the more it felt like this place, this other-worldly mountain, seemed to embody all the danger and mystical adventure that is Ireland.

It was early in the season, and the government hadn’t officially opened the site for the very few visitors allowed there each summer. However, we found a rogue boat captain named (ironically) Captain Murphy –I will withhold the good man’s full name– who was willing to take us on a clandestine mission to Skellig. He made no guarantees, but he was willing to see if we could dock and then make the climb without a guide. It was a rough, frigid April day, and even the harbor of Portmagee was rocking wildly in the wake.

I’ll mention here that this was a short two days after we climbed (and almost died on) Mount Brandon. My nerves were still frayed, and although I wanted to trek Skellig Michael, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to almost die again twice in one week. If you read about Skellig, you’ll see that many would-be monks have lost their lives on this pilgrimage.

It seemed way worse than Mount Brandon.

Our boat set out, and it was rough sailing. The closer we got to Skellig, the more Captain Murphy’s vessel was battered like a beach ball in a public pool. The spray was so great from the wind and waves that although we wore gigantic rubber ponchos, we were soaked to the skin within five minutes. It was a turbulent, harrowing ride. We finally reached the mountain, and the surf was slamming against the small pier that allowed one boat at a time to pull along side and passengers to step off onto wet, slippery stone steps.

We quickly saw that the sea would never allow us to dock.

We heard the captain and his mate discussing how they’d have to take the boat around the island and reattempt docking in an hour. We drove around awhile, looking at the sun-bathing sea lions, the dolphins, the gannets. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I was freezing cold and terrified we’d actually be able to get on the island when he pulled around again. The captain started telling us stories of how wild it was up there, at the top. I was getting queasy. After seeing the narrow, winding path that led to the mountain’s summit, completely exposed to the cliff side and the wind, I no longer wanted to climb.

I wanted to go home.

The ending to this story is that after three different attempts, we were never able to dock. Jimmy was crushed. I appeared to be but was secretly thanking God over and over under my breath.

“Well, that’s that,” Jimmy said as the island faded into the west behind our tiny vessel. “We’ll never be back here again.”

Never say never to God.

Almost exactly twelve months later, we were back, and were once again on Captain Murphy’s boat. This time, we did get on the island. This time, we did climb. This time, I was ready, and it was everything I had imagined it would be. Dangerous. Thrilling. Mystical.

Holy. More than anything else, I would describe it as holy.

But as I try to relate this to those who haven’t been there, it falls flat. The power of this place just can’t be described, just as I couldn’t conceive of its danger and glory from simply hearing other’s talk about it. It remains unknown to those who’ve never been. No picture can show the full scale of it’s breathtaking beauty. No story-telling can translate the rawness of walking straight up a mountain that rises from the wild Atlantic. To know it, to understand it, it must be experienced. You must wet your face in the salty wind and climb hand-over-hand to understand Skellig Michael.

We all have our own Skellig, places and days that are indescribable. We all have our own adventures that cannot be understood by others without a deep, experiential knowing. We all have relationships of which strangers cannot partake without talking to and knowing our beloved.

This kind of knowing is exactly what Jesus is talking about today.

He asks us, “Do you say [what you say about Me] on your own or have others been telling you about Me?” Is what we say about Jesus based on an authentic experience of him, or are we mimicking the words and stories and relationship that have been taught us by others? It’s so easy to say the right things about Jesus without knowing them for ourselves.

Jesus wants to be experienced for himself. He must be experienced for himself.

He’s fatigued by the hear-say religion that permeates our culture. He has shown up, in all his glory, in all his beauty, in greater raw power than any sea-birthed mountain, and he has invited us to know him, intimately. The God who made Skellig Michael has opened up himself to us, to be known, to be climbed, to be experienced. We can no longer be comfortable with relying on the the God of others, even the God of good and godly people. He must be our God. Like the Israelites, we want someone else to bear the weight of God’s glorious presence, translating what we need to know and only that. We find God-With-Us to be terrifying in his unpredictability, so we prefer to get him second-hand.

But Jesus tells us that this is counterfeit knowing. No one else can experience God for us. It’s between him and us. The only intermediary allowed is the Son of God. By his mediation, he has cleared the impassable debris that kept us from the Father. But the way is now clear, and God is about dismantling all false knowing. He wants the real thing with us, and nothing else will do.

We have to ask ourselves if we’ve really encountered the living God, or if we’re simply content to take others at their word. We need to sit with Jesus’ question with courage and honesty. We may not like the answer, but we need not be ashamed. At any moment, we can come back to God. We can have him for our self.

He has made himself completely available.

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Do You Not Yet Understand or Comprehend? Are Your Hearts Hardened? Do You Have Eyes and Still Not See? Ears and Not Hear?

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Mark 8:18

Jimmy Murphy has gone back to banking.

Almost two months ago, God provided a job for him at First National Bank, a local bank in our region. He needed good work, we prayed for good work, and God has given from his abundance. It’s a great fit. It’s a great job. It’s a great opportunity. This is God’s best for us, for here is where he’s clearly led. We are grateful.

From all appearances, our lives are looking “back to normal,” eerily similar to our pre-Ireland lives.

Same town.

Same house.

Same jobs.

Same Murphy’s? I very much hope not, but some days I forget. I look around me and lose sight that anything’s really changed at all. It’s like the picture of the girls above, trekking up Killelan. In our new normal, it feels as though we are climbing a steep stone wall up the mountain, fog shrouding the top, wondering how far we have left to go.  Although we have more clarity in our circumstances, it seems as if we have less clarity with our desires.

With Jimmy transitioning into full-time work, I find my heart wrestling with returning to this life. It’s been two wonderful years of having us all together, learning, working, playing, adventuring. The feast of quality and quantity time has transformed our paradigms, our family, our relationship with God. Having Jimmy home has been an undeserved gift. Jimmy has the unique spiritual capacity to bring the felt presence of God to whatever environment he enters. His quiet, bridled strength fills the room, and there’s no question to me that it is the strong presence of the Good Father.

But when Jimmy leaves for work every day, a part of me wonders if God has left, too. I know that this is irrational. I know that God never leaves me. And yet, this returning to routine and stability and separation causes me to go over my own questions with God.

Where are You in normal, day-to-day life?

What does adventure with You look like in the routine?

Are You closer in Ireland than You are here?

Where is the Kingdom Among Us in the midst of mundane details and chores?

When I hand Jimmy his lunch, kiss him good-bye, and send him off for nine hours, I can’t hold my breath until he returns. He’s not taking God with him. I can’t plunge into the details of the day, playing with my girls, doing chores, grading papers, writing blogs — and put God off until 5:30 pm. Somehow, I need to find the unforced rhythms all over again, every day. It’s a daily call to enter into them. The unforced rhythms are not transferable from yesterday’s intimacy with God.

I think about Ireland every day. I think about the beauty and wildness, and my heart aches. I think about my conversations with God and Jimmy there, and how God felt so close. I could reach out and touch him, and he let me. A part of me longs to stay there, always, walking with God in our green, coastal pastures. I feel a kinship with the Pevensie children, who wish to stay in the magic of Narnia but must return to the dreary rain of England. We ache to stay in the places where the Kingdom of God feels more tangible to us.

But in that ache, he reminds me that what I’m really aching for is Home. Where I really belong is the Kingdom that is present in each moment. What I’m really wanting is Him.

And He’s right here.

The Kingdom Among Us is present in our midst, right here, right now. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we are invited to see beyond the veil into the greater Reality of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus, addressing his disciples’ unwillingness to see the Kingdom of God as it truly exists among us, asks four rapid-fire questions:

Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and still not see? Ears and not hear?

These questions are for me today. I wonder if they might be for you, too. I get so frustrated with how easy it is to live a whole day in the dark, spiritually blind to what is alive and pulsing with the energy of God around me. The child and heir becomes the orphan too quickly. I find myself hunkering, head down, plowing through another day, forgetting myself and my God and his Kingdom.

I love Jesus with all my heart, and yet I am the one for whom these hard questions are asked. I do not understand or comprehend. My heart can grow hard toward the things of God. My eyes do not see his Kingdom Among Us. My ears do not hear the voice of my Beloved.

This is me.

But at the same time, I sense Jesus asks these questions not to shame me but to awaken what’s once again fallen asleep. I sense him in the quiet, saying,

Yes, things look normal. There is a routine. It’s not what you imagined the outcome would be. 

And Jimmy is gone, and I know that hurts. I know you’re grieving. I know you’re a little scared, too. 

I know this. 

But I AM still here. I am God-With-You. My Kingdom is just as present and available to you here and now in the “normal” as it ever was in any other place you’ve lived.

The journey isn’t done. The adventuring with Me isn’t over.

I AM still here. 

Jesus loves me enough to wake me up. He loves me enough to ask me challenging questions, questions that require vulnerability and a humbling on my part. He loves you enough, too.

I thank you God,” the Psalmist writes, “that you speak right from your heart. I learn the pattern of your righteous ways” (Psalm 119:7).

God’s questions come from God’s heart, from a place of depth and intimacy. His Kingdom ways and patterns are clearly set before us. We have to be willfully ignoring them not to see them. The way things work, the Kingdom Among Us, is all around us. While it is mysterious, it is not secretive. God has clearly revealed to us how we get to live in his unforced rhythms.

And when we forget, he reminds us.  I love how he does that.

 

 

 

 

 

How Are You To Avoid Being Sentenced to Hell?

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Matthew 23:33

An unfortunate stereotype around Ireland is that it is not known for its cuisine.

If you want a culinary adventure, go to France. If you want boiled beef, cabbage or potatoes — that’s all Irish reputation has produced.

But we were pleasantly surprised to find that the stereotype was wrong, at least on the western coast. The waters off County Kerry provided the best seafood we’ve ever tasted. I say this with some authority, having moved from Ireland to Atlantic Beach, Florida, where seafood-lovers go to eat happy. The fish, clams, and mussels of Kerry were incredible, all caught fresh that day. We were spoiled to have a seafood dock directly across the street from our house. Most days, we’d walk over and ask Mr. Daly what he recommended for dinner that evening. Everything he offered was fantastic.

I think it must have something to do with how cold the water is — it keeps the sea creatures and the people lively.

However, it wasn’t the seafood alone that we enjoyed. Kerry has another local delicacy that can’t be matched anywhere else in the world, and we became intimately acquainted with this homegrown delicacy.

Lamb. Plump, juicy, butterball lamb, grazing just off our front door on sweet onion grass. I was forever trying to keep the girls from naming their little, white sweeties, knowing the inevitable end for many of them.

One of the best meals we ate in Ireland was Guinness lamb stew, locally-raised — and by local, I mean very local, backyard local. Likewise, our hosts and friends, the O’Connors, invited us over for an evening of traditional Irish fare, which included braised lamb from the farm. It was delicious. As boys will do, the three O’Connor lads enjoyed teasing our girls, trying to get them to guess which of the lambs from the backyard they were serving that night.  The oldest of them said, “I’m afraid Trevor may not be in the field tomorrow,” a wicked grin on his face. The girls got wide-eyed for a minute and protested, but later asked for seconds of everything.

This was not long after the O’Connors did something with their sheep that we didn’t understand until a few days later, after they’d explained what had happened and why.

One evening, when we returned home from another day of adventuring, we noticed something different about the fields below our house. First, we saw that where once ewes and lambs grazed peacefully side-by-side, there was now only lambs. And the second and more obvious change we didn’t see but instead heard. We drove up to the overwhelming cacophony of motherless babies, wailing and baaing and mewling like cats. Over the hill, we could hear the cries of the mothers, ears straining for their lost lambs.

Sometime that afternoon, the shepherd had deemed it necessary to separate the ewes and lambs. It was time for the babies to graze, not nurse, and they would never do this on their own. They needed to graze in order to be ready for some of them to be sold and turned out at market. The mothers were driven to the backfields, fenced in and beyond the sight of their lambs. But they were not beyond earshot. While the mothers and babies could not see each other, they were calling to one another in distress. Macy and Jo ran to the lambs, trying to comfort and mother them. Of course, this didn’t work. The lambs had been separated from the warmth and comfort of mother’s milk and mother’s scent. They were now to live alone until either grown or sold, cut off from the nurture on which they’d been raised.

This had to be done, but it was still difficult to bear. We listened to the babies cry intermittently through the night, wishing there was some other way to achieve lamb stew.

I do not write this to be morbid or even funny. While I’m no vegetarian, I don’t like to see any creature suffer. The shepherd was never cruel to his sheep. This was the way of the farm, something that took some getting used to for suburb-dwellers. It was his livelihood,  and an honorable one: to raise healthy lambs that graced the tables of Ireland. This he does, and he does it well.

I write about this because as I hear Jesus’ question today, it reminds me of the frightened creatures: of their separation from their parent, of their duress, of their fate that would end for many in death.

Jesus asks today’s questionwith great concern and feeling, yearning we would avoid this pain for ourselves.

Like the lambs, we have been raised on the nurture and constancy of a Good Father. He has been there always, right at our side. He has walked with us, he has eaten with us, he has curled his warmth around us on bitter cold nights. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve never known a moment without the presence of the Father Who Loves.

And hell is the absence of all this. Hell is being separated forever from a loving Father.

But if we don’t trust him now, if we don’t give him the rights to our whole heart, then we will be get what we want — an existence on our own. It is not his cruelty that does this. It is our rebellion. If there is somewhere in us telling him a clear and firm NO, then God honors this. If we ask him to let us direct our own small lives, he will. He will always pursue us, but He will never force his Love on anyone who does not wish to have it.

He will always, ALWAYS love. He simply cannot not love. The love of God does not end, but the love of God honors the request to back off, remain at a distance. In the end, if this is what we’ve done during our very brief, very lamb-like lifetime on this earth, then this is what we will receive for all eternity. Dallas Willard, my favorite author, is asked in an interview about hell. He says this:

“Heaven and Hell are God’s provisions for who we choose to be. It is a natural extension of the way we live…You can get in a lot of arguments about the details, but the basic fact is that there are some people who just can’t stand God. That’s the way they are in this life, so he doesn’t force his presence on them in the next. I don’t think we should regard God as happy that anyone goes to Hell. Scripture tells us that “it is not his will that any should perish.” But he does permit it. That is a testimony to the great value that God places on human personality. He values it enough that he is prepared for people to be eternally lost if that is what they want. I would be very happy if Hell were not an aspect of it; Hell is a terrible thought” (Dallas Williard article).

My stomach cringes just thinking about it. I don’t pretend to know the mysteries surrounding what it would be like, but I can’t help but wonder. Will those separated from God still hear the Voice of Love that whispers throughout the universe and beyond? Separated forever from sight but not from hearing?

Like the lambs, will those in hell cry out for the mothering Love they always had but took for granted?

It’s impossible to stomach, too terrible to dwell on for more than a minute. I would not wish that end on anyone.

Neither does God.

He knows what hell is, truly. He experienced it on the Cross. He knows that hell is the separation of the children from the Father, just as he would be separated from his Father not long after he asks this question in Matthew 23. He took our place, our separation, so that we would never need experience this horror.

He wants us with him.

Let me say it again: He wants us with him. 

Let this sink into the soil of our hearts, drench and seep until it reaches the softest part that can receive it. God, more than anything else, wants us with him. He wants us now, and he wants us forever. He would not be parted with any of his lambs, each holding his whole heart in a unique, mysterious way. He wants us with him so much that he sent his most beloved Son to the slaughter-house, forever securing our place in his pasture, right by his side.

He wants us with him, and he asks, “Do you want this, too?” He knows what it requires. He knows what we must do to avoid this hellish isolation from him.

We begin living with him, in each moment, right now. We invite him into everything, and we look to him for everything.

It’s the Covenant of Everything. He’s the God of the All or Nothing.

We cannot live as a lamb, sometimes nursing from God and sometimes nursing from any other source that is available. He is either the God of all of us, everything we have, or he is not our God at all.

He asks for everything, and we must be willing to give it in this life now.

 

Are You Not Worth Much More Than They?

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Matthew 6:26

The terrible beauty of Ireland dwells in every living creature inhabiting its shores. Even the birds of Ireland live a wild, dangerous existence.

Take, for example, the puffin.

These little penguin-esque birds spend their summers on top of Skellig Michel, carving out hollows in the cliffs. To leave their nest for any reason, they are facing a 715-foot drop into the blue darkness of the Atlantic. They waddle to the edge of their holes, standing there watching the horizon like some wise, ancient keeper of the earth’s secrets. Then, in the moment it takes to blink, they dive off the edge in what looks like a tragic Kamikaze mission.

The first time I saw it, I had forgotten that unlike penguins, puffins can fly.

I saw this tiny, tuxedoed bird hurtle itself into the air and careen hundreds of feet to sea level, madly swooping up at the last possible moment. The puffin became a black speck and flew about its business, unconcerned that it had taken my breath away. These puffins have babies, nurse their young, and forage for food in the midst of the most harrowing of locations. They face the unpredictable elements, the howling wind that hurls itself at the mountain peak, the constant threat of storm and sea spray. All the while, they maintain this endearing look of calm knowing on their bright-orange faces. Once the summer is spent, they leave noiselessly for their autumn trek to Canada, a distance of 3,583 miles.

These mini-penguins are marvels of nature.

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And then you have the gannets.

These birds occupy the neighboring island, appropriately named Little Skellig. This island, once gray and green, now shines brilliant white in the light of the sun or moon from copious amounts of bird droppings. The jagged peaks bursting from the Atlantic are home to over 70,000 of these seabirds. With a swatch of yellow on their heads, coal-black wingtips, and a wing span well over six feet, these majestic birds are incredible to behold. One Irish website states, “Gannets can dive from a height of 30 m, achieving speeds of 100 km/h as they strike the water, enabling them to catch fish much deeper than most airborne birds” (see Birds of Skellig Michael).

That’s a 100-foot dive at over 60 mph. That’s a dive that would make a plane load of people squeal and start praying.

They, like the puffins, seem to live life on the edge. Everything about them is extreme. Three times we’ve been on the boats to the Skelligs, and every time, these birds absolutely amaze. They come raining down like snow and enter the water at break-neck speeds and a belly-smacker splash. When they finally surface, fish half in gullet, half dangling from beak, they look at you with satisfaction, asking, “Did you just see that?”

The puffins and gannets live these fierce, untameable moments every day. On the edge of great dangers, they live carefree, untroubled. They don’t seem to be worried about falling off the cliff or forgetting how to fly or getting their next meal. Their stoic calm is a paradox when viewed in their natural habitat, fraught with peril by any human standard. They are birds of flight, undaunted by long journeys, crashing surf, or gale-force winds. They are beautiful creatures of exquisite design and detail.

And yet, Jesus asks, amazed that we still don’t know:

Are you not worth much more than they?”

We forget, unnumbered times a day, that we are worth a very great deal to our Creator. We are worth an infinite number of gannets and puffins to the God Who Loves Us. He made us, he breathed the Breath of Life into our well-formed bodies, and he loves us fiercely. Nothing can ever take us out of that Love. Nothing can ever diminish our worth in his eyes.

Not our sin.

Not our shame.

Not our past or present.

Not our Accuser.

Nothing, absolutely nothing has the power to diminish our worth in the eyes of God-With-Us.

Do you think,” Paul asks, “anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! (Romans 8:34). And yet, somehow deep down inside, we believe there may be a way. One tiny contractual loophole that God forgot to shore up. Maybe, just maybe, we’re right to be afraid. We’re right to think that there’s something that can take our value and assign to the garbage dump where we belong.

If we do believe that somewhere inside, we’d be wrong.

The Love of God is a power like no other. Simply being loved, and loved perfectly, by the God of all gods bestows on us unfathomable worth. When he created us, he gave us his face. When he redeemed us, he gave us his heart. Our worth is iron-clad, and it cannot be taken.

We forget that we, too, like puffins and gannets, are beautiful creatures, marked with exquisite design and detail.

“Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
    you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
    Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
    I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
    you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
    how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
    all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared
    before I’d even lived one day.”

The beauty and dignity of God are gifts he has bestowed to each one of us. We were each wrought in secret with the glory of God. We were crafted, intimately, with the ability to carry our unique image of God to the waiting world.

We are image-bearers, and the image we bear is the image of Great Love.

If we doubt our worth, then it follows we must doubt God’s worthas well. He made us, and He made us like him. We can’t forget our worth and at the same time ascribe worth to God. It’s not rational.

Jesus uses these tranquil birds as an object lesson, wanting to teach us the vital truth of who we are. “Look at the birds,” he tells us, “free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds” (Matthew 6:26).

Look at these Irish birds, made by God but not in his image. These birds have never sinned, and they don’t require atonement. And yet, they are at peace with him. They are careless in the care of God. They know inherently that they are valued by the One that created them. They also know that the One who created is also the One who sustains. They do not fret or worry — they simply dive off the cliff, knowing that because they’re worth much in his sight, the wings he gave to them will simply unfold and catch the weight of their fall.

Are you not worth much more than they? If this is true, then we, too can be completely at peace in our surroundings, no matter how scary. The danger, the perceived lack, the isolation — none of these things need trouble us. Our God, the God Who Loves Us, asks us to be careless in the care of God.

He’s got us. He won’t let us fall. He won’t let us starve.

We are worth far too much.

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