Truth on the Scaffold

Last Friday I woke at 5:00am and followed a silent procession through the empty, narrow streets of the Old City of Jerusalem. We worked our way toward the Lion Gate until we arrived under the Roman numeral “I” which marks the first station along the Via Dolorosa. 

Some people think this phrase means the way of the rose, but actually it’s built on the word dolor, which means suffering or sorrow. The Via Dolorosa means the painful way, or the way of sorrow. It’s the traditional pathway that Jesus walked as He carried the cross from the place of His trial before Roman authorities all the way to Calvary.

We moved through each of the 14 stations with a pause, scripture reading, and prayer. Some wept as we considered Him being scourged, how He fell along the path, and what it must have been like to bear such shame. 

At the church that now covers the likely rock of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, I had an experience that was almost mystical. I could see in my mind’s eye Jesus on the cross, between two thieves, a knowing, loving face directed towards me. It felt like I was transported back 2000 years to the time when He was crucified. 

The cross is a picture of conflict, the world at cross-purposes. On the cross Jesus stood condemned by both religious leaders and government authorities. The anger and judgment He experienced offer a picture of all of the rage and pain and vengeance we demand from others. He is an image of the way that we hate ourselves, the deep shame we feel, and He bears it all silently. 

He is a picture of the thousand ways that we crucify one another, demanding perfection or blame or sacrifice or suffering or God knows what else. That which we should love, we kill. 

He is the nakedness of humanity on full display. Our vulnerability can be witnessed in His helpless attachment to the cross.

Yet from the cross He forgives. He does not become what is being dealt to Him. He refuses to crucify in return. He offers His life so that we can stop scourging and scapegoating others. 

As I walked the Via Dolorosa and then stood before Calvary, I could not help but think: here is everything that is wrong with the world. The injustice, the gratuitous violence, the crushing of innocence, the mocking voices — all of it here. But also, here is everything that redeems the world. Here is unconditional love. Here is courage. Here is the kind of suffering that redeems. 

James Russell Lowell looked over the scourge of slavery in the 19th century and wrote a poem called This Present Crisis. Lowell saw that in spite of America’s claim of equality for all, many men and women lived without freedom. But a new way was opening before America, a moment of decision.

Once to every man and nation, 

comes the moment to decide, 

In the strife of truth with falsehood, 

for the good or evil side; 

Some great cause, some great decision, 

offering each the bloom or blight, 

And the choice goes by forever, 

’twixt that darkness and that light. 

Slavery was unjust and wrong because at its heart, it was a lie. All men and women are not created equal, slavery suggests, and therefore some may be treated with harshness, oppression, and even cruelty. The quest for freedom involves the struggle between truth and falsehood.

I wonder if we’re in that kind of moment of “great decision” in our struggle between truth and falsehood. Our politics are marked by brash egoism and power-grabbing from both sides. We’re trying to crucify the opposition, whether we recognize it or not, to place all of the blame and wrongness of the world on the crossbeam where our enemies must suffer. 

What is true and what is false? 

True: All men and women are equal. The outstretched arms envelope all. All are worthy of love and dignity. All have God-given potential. All suffer. All stand vulnerable and naked. 

False: Some matter more than others. Some are deserving, some undeserving. The only way to overcome the struggle of the world is through redemptive violence. Some must suffer so others can be saved. The strong will always crush the weak. Some are powerful, others are powerless. Only the strong survive.

In Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a little boy asks an old man, ”What is the world's greatest lie?" The old man replies, "It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie.”

Now is the time to discern truth from falsehood, to work for justice, to assume agency over what happens in our world. Now is the time to decide: will we choose the way of continuing to harm and make others suffer, or will we take up the cross? Will we walk in the broad way of redemptive violence, or choose the narrow path of redemptive suffering?

Lowell’s poem continues:

Truth forever on the scaffold, 

Wrong forever on the throne,—

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, 

behind the dim unknown, 

Standeth God within the shadow, 

keeping watch above his own. 

What I believe he means is that truth is always going to be challenged by evil men and women — the truth of justice, the truth of right. And truth seems to be crucified on the scaffold again and again.

But as Martin Luther King Jr. often said. “No lie can stand forever. Truth crushed to earth will rise again and again.”

It’s been two thousand years since the man from Nazareth walked the Via Dolorosa, carrying His cross. 

His promise remains: the truth will set you free.

His call is the same.

Follow me.

The Sycamore's Sermon

We sat under a sycamore tree for my daughter’s “convocation,” an entry ceremony into her college. It was a sweet moment on the quad of the University of Southern California, hopefully to be mirrored with a “commencement” exercise four years later in the very same spot. 

There were about fifteen speakers, all saying very nice, bland statements about what students can expect during the next four years and how they need to take advantage of all that the college had to offer. It was mostly for my daughter and the other first year students. 

So my mind wandered and then settled on the thick trunk and broad leaves of the sycamore tree. I thought about the strength and protective canopy of that tree that mostly goes unnoticed each day by thousands of passing students, professors, and university staff. 

We have a similar tree in our front yard in Dallas, Texas. It’s massive. I’ll admit I don’t notice it most days. Occasionally a huge branch drops in a storm. The tree seems to lose no volume with each detachment. It’s steady, solid, and serene. 

I thought about all of the times my daughter had passed that tree on the way to school, out with friends, hurrying to work or to a theater performance. I thought about the constancy of incremental growth and the wisdom that tree could share, having seen so much change over the years. I thought about the roots of that tree going deep into earth, and how it’s connected to the sycamore in California, if not by a shared root system as in an aspen grove, by soil and rock through the wholeness of the good earth.

And I found myself comforted to know that a sycamore now watches over my daughter in a different home.

It reminded me that the Christ that has watched over her and stayed with her for 18 years still watches over her and stays with her today.

A silent sermon. 

Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as the holy man passed by. For that reason, the sycamore in some religious thinking has become a symbol of sight. It represents a place of clarity. A new perception of reality. A big spiritual insight that transforms little people like Zacchaeus. 

For the last few weeks I have be meditating in the thought of “the Christ-soaked world.” Colossians says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth….all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17) 

Later the writer says, “…Christ is all, and in all.” (3:11) 


Christ in all things, His essence flung far and deep in leaves, woods, birds, bees, every human on the planet.

The doctrine or theory of immanence posits that the divine encompasses or is manifested in the material world.

Contemplating the Christ-soaked world has been something of a sycamore-moment for me. 

If Christ is already in all things (not such that we would worship things, but instead recognize the Christ that infuses and transcends all things), then Christ is at work redeeming, re-creating, blessing, and holding together all of life as we know it. 

The immanence of Christ isn’t merely contemplative. It leads to several practical applications. 

It means that we don’t have to figure out life, control life, or be afraid of life. Instead, the main task is to join life and to live in a world where Christ’s presence fills all in all. The challenge is to seek to recognize the Christ in each person, animal, and thing, and that all of life — suffering, joy, pain, and peace — remains deeply rooted to the suffering, joy, pain, and peace of God.

It means that when we lack clarity, sometimes we need to sit under or even climb a tree. Life is full of confusion. Darkness contrasts light. It’s easy to get lost in this world. Sometimes we need to take a walk, get up in the middle of the night to pray, get out of town, or even climb an actual tree to seek to catch a fresh glimpse of Christ. 

“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all of your heart,” God said through Jeremiah (29:13).

It means that everything belongs. No one would ever say of the sycamores in California and Texas, “They don’t belong in the world.” Of course they do. But so many people feel like they don’t belong anywhere. A Christ-soaked world means that everything and everyone is included.

Finally, it means that all of life is profoundly connected. “The same thing that’s scrawled across the stars is written under our skin,” the Irish singer David Gray wrote. We live in a whole world, not a divided one. If we stay divided, it’s because we choose to. God’s wholeness pervades even the broken parts. 

Christian Wiman says this so well in his poem Every Riven Thing. The word riven means broken, shattered, unhealed. 

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made

sing his being simply by being

the thing it is:

stone and tree and sky,

man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,

means a storm of peace.

Think of the atoms inside the stone.

Think of the man who sits alone

trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made

there is given one shade

shaped exactly to the thing itself:

under the tree a darker tree;

under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made

the things that bring him near, 

made the mind that makes him go.

A part of what man knows,

apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

I pray you find a place of clarity today. I pray that in disorder you glimpse the order of God’s wholeness, God’s presence in all things.

I pray that in chaos you find peace. I pray that the broken parts of your life will be cracks through which the light can shine.

I pray that across the miles you see just how close and already connected you really are — to others, the world, and Christ.

I pray that you’ll sit under a sycamore soon and remember that you belong in this world. 

The Land That Never Has Been Yet

After a week of listening to the responses of religious leaders to the El Paso and Dayton shootings, I’m sad to say that religious voices haven’t had much to offer. 

I don’t hear any good news. 

What’s given are the typical feeling expressions (“Broken. Sad. I don’t have words.”), calls for prayer (which I believe matter, if Jesus’ teaching on prayer is to be believed), laments (“How long, O Lord?”— an unanswerable and unhelpful question), and appeals to the common good (which require no sacrifice).

We can expect these same responses when the next shooting occurs.

I don’t want to sound like they’re not important. It’s just that I believe that as bearers of the gospel, we should have more to contribute. 

What does the gospel — the good news — say that has the latent power to heal our land, today and moving forward?

Ultimately, the gospel is rooted in a different reality. It audaciously points to an alternate vision for how society operates, one grounded in the benevolence of God as the foundation of being, with tangible outcomes to make life better. Redemption isn’t just personal; it’s corporate.

It’s a big vision for a bigger way of being.

The prophet Isaiah spoke a bold vision to a people who could only see bleakness. In exile, they could see no way forward, no way home.

In Isaiah 58, God says that if the people returned to justice — when bread is shared with the hungry, shelter given to the wanderer — then, “your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear.” (58:8)

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,

with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry 

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed…

your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

and will raise up the age-old foundations;

you will be called Repairers of Broken Walls,

Restorer of Streets and Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:9-10, 12)

Isaiah speaks of restoration, safe lands, support for the weak, and overall shalom for the world.

That’s good news for a world that seems really, really stuck.  

Jesus’ furtherance of that vision went well beyond a call to serve the common good, which Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island said is noble but still passive, “too vague and too tame to put our passions to death within us.” Additionally, a vision of the common good “gives us no strength, teaches nothing either about life or about God.”

Jesus, conversely, gave his life — made a sacrifice — so that men and women could be free, reconciled to God. Then He poured out his Spirit into the hearts of those who believe.

This Spirit is far from passive. It protests, urges, insists, cries out. It moves the will.

Too many responses to mass violence only present baptized versions of calls for the common good, or worse, religiously-couched entrenched partisan answers. But Jesus never got mixed up on a political side. He pointed to the sacred value of souls, the need for grace, and the surrendering of self.

So I believe that one way that Christians can be true to Christ in this crisis is to return to and point to a broader, trans-partisan vision, one centered in Biblical justice. 

Without clear vision we won’t know how to act. 

Don’t hear me say that action doesn’t matter. It’s just that as a country, we have lost a vision for the value of life and on the psychological impact this continued violence has on our children and grandchildren.

This is where the church needs to be the church. Not preachy, not partisan, and not passive. In spite of our own failures of racism, sexism, and mimicking consumeristic culture, we need to reclaim our sacred role of lifting the vision for humanity. Or perhaps give voice to it for the first time.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) wrote Let America Be America Again as a call to reclaim vision while admitting inherent failures and contradictions.

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

He points to the vision of what America can be, a kind of promise it holds, founded on freedom. But then he acknowledges:

(America never was America to me.)

It has never lived up to the high hopes that bring people to America in the first place. Still, he cries out:

O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

So let the good news ring out. Let the church be the church, for the healing of the land — for the land that never has been yet. 

Why Everyone (And the Church) Needs to Climb a Second Mountain

Chances are you want to have a life of significance.

A lasting legacy. A life well-lived.

But how do you get there? What does that life even look like?

I’ve been reading David Brooks’ The Second Mountain

The first mountain of life, Brooks argues, is about self. Climbing this mountain involves the pursuit of normal goals of finding success in work, getting into social circles, to be well thought of, have a nice home, nice family, good food, and so on. 

But then something happens where the person climbing that mountain realizes that it’s not as satisfying as she or he thought it might be. The person wonders, “Is this all there is?” Maybe something happens to raise this question. Maybe the person has a business, moral, or relationship failure, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction. The person must face their shadow self, now broken open, the inner life exposed and often proven bankrupt.

Some people get bitter and resentful when this happens. They complain a lot. 

But others find something different in the suffering. They peer deeper into themselves, and perhaps discover something more fundamental about the True Self. They hopefully identify with a part of themselves that cares for others. They’re ready to be a whole person, inside and out.

Thus begins the journey up the second mountain. The first mountain is about building up self and ego; the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing oneself. The first mountain involves more and more acquisition, while the second mountain is about contribution.

Climbing the second mountain means leaving a consumer mindset in order to be consumed by a greater cause. It’s about relationship and participation instead of narcissism and individualism. Brooks writes:

“You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer your first mountain. You identify the summit, and you claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate and relentless.”

When Jesus was nearing the end of his ministry — the cross — he took his disciples up on the mountain. There he was “transfigured” before them, giving them a glimpse of who he really was. He shone with glory, and a voice from heaven affirmed Jesus as God’s beloved son. 

The disciples must have felt both humbled and privileged. They must have felt good at being part of Jesus’ inner circle.

Up to that point the disciples had been serving with Jesus, often thinking that his kingdom was something they would share in worldly power and authority. They focused on their own success — their place in the kingdom. They had zeal and bravado and even offered to call down fire on those who rejected Jesus. 

But after the resurrection, the bravado was gone. They had abandoned Jesus, tucked tail in his great moment of suffering. They were humiliated and broken and ashamed. 

Even so, Jesus forgave them. Before he ascended into heaven, he led the disciples to Bethany, on another mountain (the Mount of Olives), and told them not to leave Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit. Then they would be his witnesses to the end of the earth.

Jesus’s first summons was to follow him. His second summons was to go into all the world and preach the gospel. There was a second, bigger mountain to climb. And now they were different, ready for the second journey.

Maybe God is calling you up another, bigger, more challenging, more joy-filled mountain as well. Maybe it means a career change. Or a time investment. Or staying put and just living more for others.

The starting question is: what is the summons?

The next question is: what is the first, or next, faithful step in following the summons?

It’s a question for individuals, but churches need to ask it as well.

What does a second mountain church look like?

A first mountain church remains distant from one another, lacking vulnerability and passion. A second mountain church dwells in thick relationships, intimate and united in common work. 

A first mountain church focuses only on helping people achieve personal success. A second mountain church embarks on a collective mission of discipleship and community impact that can only succeed with God’s help.

A first mountain church obsesses over buildings, budgets, and attendance. A second mountain church sets its sights higher, to transformation, transfiguration.  

A first mountain church gives lip service to prayer. A second mountain church immerses in prayer, in all things.

A first mountain church creates an ethos of success not much different from that of the world. A second mountain church creates an ethos where people can both thrive and fail, support and be supported, through the unexpected and often unwanted challenges of life. 

That’s the kind of church — and the kind of people — that leave a lasting impact.

Children of Light

Jen and I have been Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for nearly two years. We serve volunteer with children in foster care, making sure that they have basic necessities. We also check each month to see if there’s any need for counseling, relationship help, or other resources to navigate life’s challenges. 

One thing I have learned through CASA is that it really does take a “village” to raise a child. Parents need the support of teachers, counselors, neighbors, doctors, and a host of other adults to help a child thrive. Nobody raises a child alone.

Parenting in America has become even more challenging with the pace of endless activities, materialism, fear of violence, screen attraction, and fame-seeking. Our children are exposed to constant marketing and entertainment options. But they don’t yet have the neural patterns or a strong “container” of beliefs and identity to discern what’s good and not-so-good for them. 

There’s no magic bullet to deal with this dynamic.

But these two things I believe: 1) we all share in the crucial task of raising the next generation, and 2) one of our primary responsibilities is helping children develop a moral frame for life that will guide decisions and community engagement. 

Jesus taught, ”The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

How one sees the world determines how much light lives in that person.

If one's eye is constantly set on distraction, seeking the next big thing, or getting ahead of others, the darkness is going to grow.

For an increasing number of children, there isn’t a “frame” in which to understand life. Instead it’s just one thing to the next, stumbling through life. The top pursuits default to money, fame, and power. 

Each person ultimately becomes what that person beholds. 

That’s why a moral lens is essential to help children understand what matters and how to treat other human beings. This vision develops through the influence of parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, and other leaders. 

The central question, then, is, how do we teach morals? 

We tell stories to our children. Jesus taught and challenged people through stories. He painted verbal pictures of persistent widows, faithful stewards, and patient farmers. 

We encourage an interior life in our children. Early on we need to model how to have a time of quiet, reading scriptures and other spiritual devotions, reflecting, and praying. 

We invest time in our children. Jesus “discipled” others to model for them a moral, kind, and fruitful life. He did all of this with a centered belief in God’s love and grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We teach our children to serve. Serving on a regular basis develops empathy and compassion. 

Honor. Courage. Loyalty. Respect. Compassion. Humility. These are taught person-to-person, by spending time with children, by telling stories that lift up the vision of a moral life. If we don’t teach such virtues, the “container” of a child’s life won’t be strong enough to hold the bigger questions of meaning, suffering, and vocation.

It takes courage on our part as well. It takes a risk to say “Let’s spend some time together.” It also requires humility to say, “I know I make a lot of mistakes, but I want you to know the path I’m trying to follow.” It takes a strong person to admit their own addiction to technology, or how they have abdicated their responsibility to raise a moral child.

Apart from keeping a child safe and providing food and shelter, there’s nothing more important we can do than help a child “grow up” to be a moral person, one with “good eye” with a heart full of light. 

So here’s a prayer to illuminate the path:

God, help us not to raise a new generation of children

With high intellectual quotients and low caring and compassion quotients 

With sharp competitive edges but dull cooperative instincts

With highly developed computer skills but poorly developed consciences

With a gigantic commitment to the big “I” but little sense of responsibility to the bigger “we”

With mounds of disconnected and unsynthesized information without a moral context to determine its worth

With more and more knowledge and less and less imagination and appreciation for the magic of life that cannot be quantified or computerized

With more and more worldliness and less and less wonder and awe for the sacred and everyday miracles of life.

God, help us raise children who care.

Marian Wright Edelman, from The Sea is So Wide and My Boat is So Small

Let There Be Light (In You!)

Did you know that even in the darkness, there is light?

Scientists now know that light exists even in what we call darkness, through neuronic photons. Darkness is infused with invisible light.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In Genesis 1, in an often overlooked element of the creation story, we read:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:1-4)

Before the sun and moon were created (the “greater” and “lesser” lights in the sky, which happens on the “fourth day,”), there was light in the universe.

God infused the universe with light — in everything, everywhere, and everyone, even if we can’t see it. And the Apostle John adds this truth:

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)

So God is in everything, everywhere and everyone, if we have eyes to see. 

Additionally, scripture says that we have been made to walk in the light.

If God is light, and if Jesus said of himself, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12), then those who follow Jesus will seek to “walk in the light as he is the light” (1 John 1:7) day by day.

Unfortunately, our lives aren’t often filled with light. We tend to walk in light and darkness. Some even feel surrounded by darkness and unable to claim the truth of John’s prologue (“the light [Jesus] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5)).

I believe that living in the light requires intentionality. But intentionality in just about everything is not easy.

Why is that, and how can we live with intentionality in the light?

First, living intentionally is hard because life intrudes. Life has a way of filling up. Like a vacuum, our understanding of life, or the way that most humans live, abhors empty space and time wasted. 

So life fills up with tasks to fulfill, problems to solve, and distractions. Something breaks; something calls for our immediate attention; something shiny attracts us. We build systems of our lives around busyness — actually avoiding intentionally, which requires sticking to values and goals and making sacrifices. Changing a system is painful. 

The key here is to develop a set of goals and then craft a schedule to achieve those goals and then stick with it. From now until next summer, I have chosen a “word of the year” that defines what I believe God is calling me to be and do. I’ve developed some goals to live into that intention. But I know it isn’t going to be easy to stay with it. 

As you seek to live with intentionality, you may stumble — you may even fail — and you’ll certainly be pulled off course from time to time. But if you keep pursuing an intentional life, one that seeks God’s best purpose for you and one that values living in the light and resisting the darkness, you’ll begin to build a system that helps you be your best, truest self. 

One goal I have as the summer continues is to practice contemplative prayer. It’s a form of prayer that lets go of ideas and even words, simply to be in God’s presence. I set a goal of 20 minutes a day to complement my regular scripture and devotional reading with this type of prayer.

Inevitably, life has intruded. I’ve gotten distracted and missed my goal sometimes. But what I have seen is that 5 minutes of contemplation is better than none at all. And maybe in the coming months, I’ll be able to sustain 20 minutes of contemplation a day, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Second, living intentionally is hard because my will is weak. The Bible calls this “the flesh.” Generally it relates to all of the impulses we have to experience pleasure, comfort, and safety. 

But “flesh” is more than the desires we pursue related to our bodies. “Flesh” is my will, trying to do things in my own strength. 

For too long, bad theology has focused on the idea of “flesh” to make people think that their bodies are dirty. The problem is that this is the only body we have to move through this life, work out our purpose, and experience the divine! Jesus “took on flesh” to demonstrate that we can live holy, light-filled lives in the very flesh God has given us.

But let’s acknowledge that there is a spiritual battle within us. Without intentionality, we generally drift toward the darkness, toward laziness, toward negativity.

The biggest help in battling the flesh is the presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself said that of the things of God, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” (John 6:63)

Then he says something even more miraculous: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life!” His words are filled with the Holy Spirit. If we will learn them, chew on them, and allow them to guide our lives, light will come.

To be filled, first you must empty yourself every day of ego, ambitions, and desires for the false fulfillment of popularity and possessions. Then you’re ready to ask for the Holy Spirit (already planted in you) to come in more power and peace. Jesus said that God will give to those who ask. (See Luke 11:13)

Finally, living intentionally is hard because discouragement comes. When we fail, it’s hard to begin again. We live one day with greater intention, but then the next day falls apart. We try to get back on track the next day, but maybe that day, too, doesn’t go to plan. And we start to think “What’s the point?” The pull of the darkness is too strong. 

Incremental change doesn’t pay off like the small wins of doing what we usually do. So we tend to fall back into familiar ruts. 

They’re called ruts for a reason. They are the well-worn grooves of our lives, ones that dictate how we move through each day, how we respond during conflict, and how we avoid challenges and risks. We carve out ruts to increase predictability and decrease stress. 

If we stay in ruts too long, however, we’ll develop low-level discouragement, malaise, and cynicism. 

The life of the Spirit is dynamic, filled with movement and surprises. God’s light often leads us down unfamiliar paths so that we’ll learn to live in and depend on the light.

One tool to quickly overcome discouragement is authentic confession. No matter how discouraged you become, you can say, “God, this is where I am. I feel lost and unable to help myself.” Maybe you confess your shame at having failed, or how broken you feel. That’s a turn toward the light.

Remember, John says that the light always overcomes the darkness. In God, there is no darkness (1 John 1:5); but the darkness is full of light!

Here’s the thing: when you seek to intentionally walk in the light, at first it’s hard, but then it becomes easy. It becomes the new way of living. It taps into the light already infused in everything within and around you.

The command “let there be light” is spoken over you today.

Let there be light within, around, and through you! 

Expect a Harvest

By Pastor Brent McDougal

Jen’s garden is starting to come in with summer vegetables: tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, cucumbers. The rabbits ate all the strawberries, but we can’t complain much. After several years of not having a garden, Jen didn’t miss a beat. Everything is growing strong in that mysterious and beautiful little ecosystem where most of the work goes on unseen.

As John Denver sang, “Only two things that money can’t buy, that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” 

In addition to enjoying the produce, my part was to help plant the seeds. 

We pulled up roots and rocks and then spread some fresh soil. Then came the careful spacing around the garden of many types of seeds. We dug the little holes and placed the seeds like tiny treasures, then replaced the dirt and watered the ground and sat back and just looked at it all and hoped for the best.

Not long ago I read a verse about hope from Romans 5. There’s a kind of hope, Paul says, that doesn’t disappoint us. Even if we can’t always see what is happening, or wonder how we’ll make it through, God gives us a hope that does not let us down.

“….hope does not make ashamed, because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

Shed abroad suggests a farmer who generously plants seeds. The Holy Spirit is generous, and the seeds are seeds of love. This is how you know that the Holy Spirit is filling up your life: when God’s love comes in like a bumper crop for you and for the benefit of others. 

Our hope is confirmed not by some pie-in-the-sky future, but in the reality of love within our hearts, today. 

Other translations state that God’s love has been poured out into our hearts. So here’s the question that we need to ask: how many Christians have had the experience not just of God’s love and of conversion, but of God’s love being poured out generously into their hearts?

Could it be said of your heart that the love of God has been “shed abroad” — lavishly — comprehensively — within you?

I’m asking this question for myself as well because so often I don’t have peace. I don’t take advantage of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, whose first gift — the first fruit — is love. When I suffer, I complain too much and start thinking that God doesn’t love me. So I wonder how much God’s love has really infected all of my heart. 

And because that’s true, there isn’t much unleashing of the power of love from my life into the world.

The little garden in our backyard is full of power. The power of the sun; the latent power of a seedling; the power of warmth in soil; the power of creation.

The church is like a garden that has been planted with the most powerful force on the planet. We’re full of power, full of peace with God and access to our Heavenly Father. But it’s like we’re afraid to give ourselves to this kind of power that can change the world.

If you haven’t experienced the overwhelming, reckless, never-ending, never-let-you-go love of God, that’s my prayer for you today. 

Or maybe it’s just been a while since you experienced the richness of God’s love. Here’s what can help: 

Take a walk. 

Be still.

Pause to breathe. 

Meditate on a scripture, treating it like a little seed in your heart.

Ask for the Holy Spirit.

Eat a homegrown tomato.

Count your blessings.

Have a good cry.

Sit on the porch.

Plant a seed. 

Just do your part. You can’t make it grow. Remember that you have a place and a purpose in this earthly garden, just like the seed. You, too, were made to grow into something good.

You Are the Salt of the Earth

By Pastor Brent McDougal

One of the greatest Christians of last century was a man named Martin Niemoller. He lived during Hitler’s Germany when Hitler tried to radically alter the gospel by telling Christian pastors they could no longer preach a Jewish Christ. 

You can no longer preach the Sermon on the Mount, he said, with Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. 

You can’t preach a weak Christ suffering and dying on the cross. 

Instead, you must preach an Aryan Christ with a whip in his hands, driving out the money changers from the Temple. That is the kind of God who changes the world, not a sacrificing God of peace who pours love into our hearts to change the world.

So in 1938, Niemoller stood in his pulpit and preached and sermon called “God is my Fuhrer.” He began by reading the names of 83 fellow pastors and other Christians who had been arrested by Hitler and were now in concentration camps. The church prayed for these leaders for five minutes of intercessory prayer, and then Niemoller preached:

“We must resist — we cannot let all of us be thrown into the pot with the world — for you are the salt of the earth. You must remain and not lose your savour. Do not yield, do not bend, for salt must retain its savour. We must resist the ungodly force of Naziism.”

And he concluded:

“The gospel must remain the gospel — the church must remain the church — evangelical Christians must remain evangelical Christians. We cannot, for heaven’s sake, allow a Germain gospel for Christ’s gospel. We cannot, for God’s sake, allow a Germain church for Christ’s church. We cannot, for Christ’s sake, allow a German Christianity for evangelical Christianity. We must be salt! We must retain our savor to save the world!”

Days later, storm troopers seized him in the middle of the night and threw him in prison. For seven long years they tried to break him, but every time he said with fire in his spirit, “I will not yield! I will not yield!”

Then came the day in 1945 when the Allies marched in and took over the prison where he was and set him free. He came marching out a free man to preach the gospel around the world.

While Hitler and the 3rd Reich faded into history, Hitler himself taking his own life in a bunker, the gospel of Jesus Christ and the salt of the earth kept going to change the world. 

Jesus declared, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salt again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

We can’t concede our role of being salt in the world. 

Salt preserves; salt flavors; salt even heals.

But we forfeit our crucial role when we get overwhelmed by the busyness of American life, fretting here and there, never satisfied to be still and show the world a different way of living.

We lose our saltiness when we embrace an identity as consumers, not souls. If we’re nothing more than the consumers of goods and services, pampering ourselves and serving our own pleasures as life’s main purpose, we’re good for nothing and no one. 

We can also lose our saltiness when we put false hope in political solutions, drawing hard lines between ourselves and our neighbors. When we forget that the state is there to help facilitate real life — families having enough, friends gathering at the local pub, safety in our neighborhoods — we have lost sight of Jesus’ sacrificial way of remaking the world. 

Have you lost your saltiness? 

There’s an interesting footnote to Niemoller’s story. He didn’t speak out for the first four years of Hitler’s tyranny. He deeply regretted not having the courage sooner to be the salt of the earth, with his position of influence. 

“First they came for the socialists,” he would later write, “and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.”

“Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist." 

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.”

“Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

However God has called you to be salt — with a voice of advocacy, through acts of kindness, through time given to those who are lonely, to serve alongside the mentally ill — don’t miss your opportunity to be one who preserves, flavors, and heals the world.

You are the salt of the earth. Today, now, here.