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What Owning a Dog Taught Me About God’s Love

What Owning a Dog Taught Me About God’s Love

One summer Friday afternoon my wife decided she really wanted a dog, so we spent four hours scrolling through dog listings on PetFinder till we found Milo, a Corgi-Australian Shepherd mix. He was a rescue who previously lived on a farm with over a dozen other dogs that were breaking out and killing the neighbors goats and chickens (Yikes! I know). We applied to adopt him and the next Monday morning we drove him home. Little did I know how much that good boy would change my life.

I would have never described myself as a dog person before Milo. Growing up in East Africa, my family always had dogs, but they were outside-only dogs whose job was to guard our house. My parents got an inside dog after I had moved out, but I did not care for it too much. It always jumped on me, tried to lick me, and always needed to be entertained, no matter how much I tried to ignore it.

Despite my indifference to dogs, I was still open to getting one because my wife wanted one so much. However, as soon as Milo became ours, my whole personality changed. Although originally it was my wife’s idea to get him, she would now say that I am the one who loves that dog a little too much. Not only do I love this one dog a lot, but also I’ve learned to love other dogs as well, even my parents’ dog!

Beyond becoming an embarrassingly stereotypical “dog-dad”, what has surprised me most about this experience is how certain truths about God have become more real in a different way.

Dogs and the Image of God

Pet ownership is really strange if you think about it. What other animal, besides humans, domesticates other animals? The only thing close is how some ants have developed a symbiotic relationship with other insects, but the scale and intentionality is much less than the human domestication of other animals. Not only have humans reared livestock as a source of food, clothing, and labor-saving, but humans also have pets just for companionship and the intrinsic pleasure of taking care of another creature.

In this way, pet ownership is one of the clearest examples of how humans are in the image of God. Being God’s image-bearers means that humans are to represent God to creation. After declaring his intention to make humanity according to his image and likeness, God says, among other things, “They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth” (Genesis 1:26).

Domestication of animals is one of the ways humans demonstrate our roles as divine image-bearers by bringing God’s rule over these creatures. That’s why animal cruelty deeply disturbs us. It’s not because animals have an intrinsic worth comparable to humans, but because our rule over the animal kingdom is meant to be a picture of God’s gracious and loving rule over us. Abuse of pets offends us, but witnessing a loving bond between human and pet can be a signpost of God’s love for us.

What Owning a Dog Teaches Me About God’s Love

Recently, I was reflecting on the weirdness of dog ownership in general and my unique strong attachment to Milo in particular. How can I love something that is so utterly dependent on me? Milo, like other dogs and pets, can’t survive without their owners. He needs me to feed him twice a day, take him on walks to go “potty” and get exercise, pet and snuggle him for emotional comfort, and work a “9-5” to put a roof over his head while he is sprawled out on the couch napping all day. While he does love me in return by being loyal and seeking to protect me from thunderstorms and imaginary intruders, the relationship is by no means symmetrical. Even when he doesn’t act like a good boy by herding other dogs at the park, demanding walks when it’s not time yet, and devouring any garbage he can get his jaws on while we do walk, I still love him and am committed to what’s good for him. How can I love something so much that needs me so much?

Sound familiar? This is precisely how it is between God and us, only on a much greater scale and to a much deeper extent. God loves us not because of anything in us or anything we could give him, but just because he loves us. He created us just so we could experience this good world he made, he died to save us even while we were still his sinful enemies, and no matter how many times we fail, he is eager to forgive and renew us. This is a love that is almost impossible to get our heads around, which is exactly why God made a number of relationships in our world that should, at their best, offer us a glimpse of what God’s love must be like.

Having the opportunity to care and provide for a pet is one such relationship. The love a parent has for their child is another great example of this, and one I imagine can embody this love to an even greater degree. Loving someone who is not your equal and who can’t immediately repay you for that love (like a pet or young child) is the closest experience to what it’s like for God to love us how he does. If I, as a sinful and broken human, can love Milo this much, who did not do anything to earn it, then how much more must God love me?

Today, whether you have a dog, cat, betta fish, parakeet, horse or hamster, or only admire pets from afar, I encourage you to reflect on the love and care you have for that animal, and how that might be a small reflection of God’s even bigger love for us.

Finding the Voice of God

Finding the Voice of God

Language is beautiful, and powerful. We use our words to communicate in all sorts of different ways: story telling, songs, poetry, text messaging, even in our work emails! But what happens when you cannot communicate in those traditional ways? Does that mean we lose connection to those around us?

During my ten years as a teacher in special education, I saw how communication extends beyond simply speaking and listening. Teaching the deaf and hard of hearing, I had students whose communication style did not match my own. They relied on their capabilities and strengths to communicate and connect with those around them. Here are a few examples:

  • “A” was completely deaf. She was born into a family that communicated through American Sign Language (ASL) and utilized interpreters, when they were available, to communicate with others who did not know ASL. 
  • “B” had a body that was severely limited by disability, and was able to communicate when utilizing a cochlear implant to hear and used his eyes to look between two choices.
  • “C” was impacted by multiple disabilities including hearing loss, autism, and Down syndrome. This meant utilizing multiple forms of communication including picture pointing and a picture-based speech generating device. 

These are just a few examples of the many different communication modalities my students would use. A modality is the specific method, procedure, or way something is expressed or experienced. No two people communicate exactly alike and there are so many different modalities of communication. My world of communication was broadened and deepened so much by the students I worked with each and every day. I was challenged to learn new ways of connection, meeting my students through their choice of expression. Regardless of the modality my students used, each one had genuine rich connections with family, friends, and school staff. Communication extends beyond the words we speak or the messages we send, and leads to the beautiful connections and relationships these students so boldly displayed. 

 

The Word of God

My students broadened my experience of communication and it had an unusual side effect. I began thinking about my communication with God, wondering if I was limiting my experience and connection with him because I was trying to use my modalities and not his. What modality does God use to communicate? 

2 Timothy 3: 14-16 (ESV) But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (emphasis mine).

Scripture itself tells us that Scripture is how God communicates with us. 2 Timothy says the sacred writings, the Bible, is “breathed out by God” for us. God spoke, and others wrote down his words. God wrote me a book. He breathed out all of Scripture to talk to me. As a teacher and book lover, this thought stopped me in my tracks. God, the Creator, wrote me a book. It is like having a dedication line at the beginning of the book that says: 

“For Allison, My beloved daughter, this is for you.”

I love to peruse top book lists, see what others are reading, and maybe choose a few to put on my own reading list. The most sold book in the world is the Holy Bible, but it is shocking to hear that we cannot even pinpoint the exact number of units sold. The current best estimate from research that was done by the British and Foreign Bible Society in 2021 says that number is between 5 to 7 billion copies. There is a reason there are so many units sold, and that is because the book isn’t just dedicated to me. Open your Bible and you won’t find my name in it, but yours. God wrote you a book too, with a dedication just for you.

 

The Voice of God

I have never audibly heard the voice of God. I believe people have, and will audibly hear the voice of God, but at this point in my life, I am not one of them. I do not get to sit at a coffee shop and talk with Jesus like I might with a friend or colleague. I don’t even get to use another communication modality like ASL, pictures, or eye gaze to directly form that connection. Communication with God looks different from my day to day form of communication. But I have experienced Jesus through the Scriptures, and Jesus will bless us for our faith without sight. 

John 20:29 Jesus said, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ 

No longer do I have to wonder where God’s voice is. I know where to find it every time I need it. He wrote it down for me in the Bible, which I am so blessed to have. It is a challenge reframing my view of the Bible as more than just a book to be read, to be viewed rightly as God’s voice being transcribed for me. This is not a one and done learning moment. It is constant training of my brain, each time I am searching for God’s voice, to remind myself I know exactly where it is and how to find it. 

 

Into the Word Together

Journey into God’s word written down for us in the Bible. This is not a natural or easy thing to do alone, but once you are a part of God’s family, you not only have a book dedicated to you, but brothers and sisters who will walk beside you on the journey toward Christlikeness. So join me and others from Christ Community and engage with theFormed.life to daily equip ourselves to be formed by God’s word and God’s ways with God’s people. We study and wait together, in anticipation of the day Jesus returns. One day we will be in the physical presence of God. No more will we have the barriers or lack of sight, sound, and touch. To that I say, come Lord Jesus, come. Until that day, join me in seeking God’s voice, through the Bible, the book he wrote for us. 

Thank You: Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day

Thank You: Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day

“Thank you so much.”

Was that my 12-year-old son who just said that? Without being told? Did he really just spontaneously say thank you to some random person who only indirectly served our family? “Thank you so much.” I’ve since caught him doing that just about everywhere. Weird, right?

Now, like most parents, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked with our kids over the years to say their “please and thank yous.” Sure, that matters, keep doing that. But that is less about gratitude, and more about following socially acceptable manners. Again, that can be a good thing, and there’s overlap, but it’s slightly different.

This wasn’t about manners. It wasn’t about what was expected of him. My son was genuinely thanking someone he had no social obligation to thank. He was just grateful and he wanted to express it.

How did that happen? In a culture that pushes extreme individualism, even to the point of entitlement, where did my son learn gratitude? Well, from his perfect parents, of course! Especially his dad, right? No! I struggle with entitlement and self-interest just as much as the next person, and possibly more. My default is a thankless heart. So how?

The Other Side of “Work Matters”

A couple years ago our church preached a series on how our work is the primary way we love our neighbors. We don’t just love our neighbors by bringing them soup when they’re sick, we also love them by serving them in our vocation. You love your neighbors on Monday by designing or manufacturing helpful products or offering valuable services. You love your little neighbors by serving them at home. My work loves my neighbor. That makes sense to me.

As I reflected, I remember marveling over the other side of this reality. This means someone loved me today enough to toast my bagel at Panera (and to bake it, grow and deliver all the ingredients, and even design and build the structure I sat in). People at the power company loved me enough today to keep my electricity running. The people at the car shop loved me enough to change my oil and rotate my tires, not to mention the people who built the roads to get there. Just start listing it out—all of it. That’s a lot of love!

Sure, I’m paying for those things, but that doesn’t take away the genuine benefit I receive from so many. A truly countless number of people tirelessly work every day to make my life better. 

Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day

So I decided then to add a new discipline to my life, or at least to try it out. To the best of my ability, I’m going to try to thank everyone, everywhere, every day—anyone I see serving me. 

Seriously. Why not? It costs me nothing. It takes literally zero time because I’m there anyway. It requires nothing of me but eyes to see it, a heart to appreciate it, and a mouth willing to express it. And if they’re wearing a name tag, I’m going to try to do it by name and look them in the eyes.  “So-and-so, thank you so much for serving me.”

Sounds great, right, but so much harder than I thought! Once I started trying, not only did I begin to realize how many people love me every day, but I also had to constantly fight the entitlement and pride that lives within me. Thoughts like: Well, it’s their job to serve me. Besides, I’m paying for thisI thank them with my money. Or even just being blind to it or taking for granted the innumerable amount of people serving. This can be especially true of those who work in positions our culture has little respect for.

But once you start… I remember thanking the man cleaning the men’s restroom at a Royals game. Yuck. “Thank you, so-and-so, for serving.” He stopped, returned eye contact, and with delighted surprise in his voice said, “Thanks for noticing.” It cost me nothing. It made his day. When is the last time someone thanked him? 

Once you see the difference it makes, the way it brightens someone’s day to be seen and appreciated, the way it gives dignity to their work no matter what they do, and the way it increases your own sense of gratitude and joy, it’s pretty hard now not to do it.

Besides, the Bible not only commands gratitude, the gospel motivates us, and the Holy Spirit enables us to have truly thankful hearts. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In ALL circumstances. For this is God’s will for ME. For YOU.

So I thank the person holding the door, the person sweeping the floor, the TSA agent violating my personal space (yes, even there). I thank the restaurant server, UPS driver, mechanic, and truly just about everyone I can. I wave to construction workers, garbage truck drivers, post office carriers, and police officers.

Now, please don’t miss this. I am not patting myself on the back. I still struggle with being an ungrateful, entitled, self-centered piece of work. Even years after I started doing this, I still forget or get lazy, lose my nerve, or just don’t notice. I’m a mess, people. I don’t do this nearly as much as I wish I did.

See How Much You Are Served

Yet we talk a lot about gratitude, don’t we? We know it’s good for us. We know it makes our lives better. We know it breaks the cycle of entitlement and selfishness. We all want more of it, don’t we? In so many ways, it begins by simply seeing the many people who serve you, and therefore love you, every day. Do you see them?

There are the obvious ones—grocery clerks, baristas, teachers—start there, with the people you inevitably interact with. Then begin to look wider. Who keeps this place clean, safe, efficient—janitors, door greeters, security guards, store managers. If you see them, thank them. 

And although it’s much harder to thank the ones you don’t see, even just acknowledging them makes me more grateful. For example, I just made myself a life-saving cup of coffee. It was amazing. Farmers grew those beans for me in Costa Rica. For me. Someone harvested them, someone roasted them, someone packaged them, and someone thought to import them. For me. They put them on a boat, then a train, then a semi (and someone built the boats, trains, semis, and roads, by the way). For me.

They ended up in a store that required engineers, architects, and construction workers just to build it (not to mention where all the materials came from), executives and managers to run it, and clerks, shelf-stockers, and janitors to maintain it. Then, of course, there are the people who keep our water clean and make sure it gets to my home, who give me power to heat it up, and who designed the coffee pot. Somebody even made me a nice mug to drink out of. For me.

How many people served me so that I could have that cup of coffee? That’s a lot of love! Do you have eyes to see it?

Say Thank You All the Time

So thank them. At least the ones you can, whenever you can, as often as you can, for your sake and theirs. Not because you have to in order to obey social norms, but because you are truly grateful for the love you receive from so many. Say thank you.

Imagine if we all made this simple goal—to thank everyone you see serving you (directly or indirectly) every time you see them serving you. By name, if at all possible. It’s such a small thing, but imagine what that would do, the dignity it would give, the hearts inside us that would grow, and the joy that would be shared.

It won’t cost you a dime. It requires nothing but eyes to see it, a heart to appreciate it, and a mouth willing to express it. Try it for a week and just see what happens.

I can tell you for me, this discipline of saying thank you is changing my life. Sure, I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s actually made me more grateful, more aware, and more sensitive to the world around me. I see people differently. I empathize more with those who work jobs society has little respect for. In return, I receive greater joy and purpose, and even greater delight in my own work (the way I love and serve my neighbors), even in the thankless parts. I feel their love, and I delight to give love in return.

Apparently my kids have noticed. I never meant to teach this to them. It was just a habit I wanted to try for a while, and for their sake and mine, I’m so grateful I did.

Colossians 3:15–17 says: 

“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Stories That Feel Foreign

Stories That Feel Foreign

When I returned to Christ Community after pursuing additional education, I was a year removed from even thinking about preaching. Let me just state the obvious: research papers and sermons are very different kinds of projects. Pretty quickly the reality hit that I better get back on my sermon-writing game. 

We were in a sermon series studying 1 & 2 Samuel; essentially, we were following the life of David. When I read my Bible for the purposes of preaching on a passage, there’s a very particular type of intentionality that exists for me. Sometimes it even looks like desperation: “God, I have T-minus (however many hours) to have a finished sermon…please show me the way to get there.” 

So as I stepped back into my sermon preparation habits, I flipped open my Bible and turned to 1 Samuel. I began to read. Suddenly, I felt confronted by a writing style, turns of phrases, names, and cities that seemed to represent in small ways a larger reality that lay behind these stories. Here is that reality: these stories are foreign. Even though I’ve been trained in biblical studies and I’ve read them many times before, they were difficult to understand. Not only did I have the desperation of needing a sermon to preach, but first I needed a fresh understanding of all these characters, places, story arcs, and all the rest.

It’s true that even for the seminary-trained, the Bible can be hard to parse; its stories can be challenging to navigate. I confess that when I approach my Bible, whether in devotional time or sermon preparation, many times I’m hoping for it (and God, for that matter) to immediately dispense grand nuggets of truth and wisdom into my brain. But understanding the Bible is not that easy, and reading 1 & 2 Samuel reminded me of that reality. 

I was confronted again by the fact that grasping the meaning and translating the Bible for our time, is not always clear cut. That process is not a type of slot machine that if we happen upon it at the right time, God will reward us with something holy or profound. To get at what God is saying, to get to the good stuff, we have to submit ourselves to the stories. We have to really surrender to them. In fact, we have to be immersed in them so we find ourselves in them.  

 

Closer to Home Than We Think

Here’s what happened to me in the weeks leading up to that first sermon for Christ Community (that sermon, by the way, was on David and Bathsheba. Yep.). As I kept reading and staring into these stories, I began to live into them a bit. What I mean is that at some point I realized I had passed a threshold: these historical accounts with strange names, strange places, and different cultures and customs were no longer stories I felt the urgency to extract some quick meaning from. No, actually, these stories were way more than that…they were my story. Our story. 

No longer was I just reading these stories…these stories were reading me. More importantly, I realized they were reading us—God’s people. Suddenly, I wasn’t just peering through a lens to hear about a distant story in a faraway place with confusing names and places. Instead, I was reading stories that I found myself in… stories that the people of God find themselves in. In fact, they are stories the people of God need to hear because God himself left them to us. He gave these ancient stories as a way of revealing himself to us and us revealing ourselves to him and each other. 

 

1 & 2 Kings Aren’t Just Stories

For our sermon series this summer we are heading back to the Old Testament. Deep in the heart of the Old Testament lie the books of 1 & 2 Kings. And these two books are, in fact, the ones right after 1 & 2 Samuel. 

In the Hebrew Bible, 1 & 2 Kings were originally just one book called Kings.Together, these books tell the story of all the kings that came after King David. Over the course of some four centuries and forty rulers, not one of these kings lived up to the promised King that God’s people needed. You’d think that God’s people would have gotten the hint that what they needed was something different, perhaps someone different…a true and better King: the Messiah. But they didn’t realize that…yet. So 1 & 2 Kings is one story of many stories: lots of kings and two kingdoms, rivalry and competition, good and bad leadership, and in the end, God’s people are left crying out more than ever before for their promised King.

We are returning to stories with foreign names: Asa, Ahab, Rehoboam, Jeroboam, Joash…just to name a few. These stories are from a time, era, age, and point of view that is so different that you might not completely understand the context. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Why? Because our job is just to stick with the stories. To stick with them long enough that we pass the threshold, where we are no longer reading a story but we find ourselves in the story. 

We do all of this because 1 & 2 Kings doesn’t just tell random stories of kings of old. They are stories that show how God remains faithful to those who aren’t faithful to him. They are stories that reveal the type of leaders God wants and is actually after. They are stories of God’s people being drawn back to the God who has adopted them and who loves them. These are the stories God left to us in his word because these are the ones we need to hear. This is God revealing himself to us so we can learn to reveal ourselves to him and each other, becoming the people he can use for his story told through our lives. 

We live on the side of history where we know that the King did come, and his name is Jesus. Even still, none of our kings and rulers have lived up to King Jesus since then. He is the King our world has always needed and needs now. It’s our hope that this series gives you reason to put your hope in the true and better King. Come find yourself in the stories. 

Pray More, Worry Less

Pray More, Worry Less

“Pray More; Worry Less”. In our kitchen we have a spoon rest that sits to the right of our stovetop with this simple phrase printed on it. I see it when I cook,  wipe the counters, or whenever I am in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s the first thing I read in the morning. It was a gift from a friend that I didn’t like at first but has become one of my favorite items in our house. It reminds me throughout the day what I often forget: we have God’s listening ear at every moment.  We have God’s presence every moment, and his vast and unsearchable knowledge includes knowing about every moment of our lives. 

I am definitely prone to doing the opposite of the spoon rest. When something is troubling me, I almost automatically worry more and pray less! If you’re like me, you might  worry about upcoming dates, deadlines, people’s opinions, letting people down (again), and what might happen if loose ends are not tied up. You might worry about how your friends are doing, how your kids are doing, how your parents are doing, your siblings, or your spouse. You might worry a lot of the time; maybe even more than anything else you do.  

You might also worry about things that are gut-wrenching and impossible to solve. Those worries lurk and cling to the insides of our hearts: divorce, sudden tragedy, a child’s future, illnesses and diagnoses, a job we need but don’t have, a spouse’s death, someone else’s traumatic hardship, or underlying guilt or shame.

Probably the hardest thing for me about these kinds of thoughts and feelings is that they demand an answer. I feel the need to get to the bottom of them, quickly, or things will not be alright.  In this sense, at least for me, they are powerful. When I worry, my thoughts line up and follow their favorite leaders: it’s up to me and it will not be ok. My tone of voice, my actions, my interactions with others follow suit. And when a larger group of people is worried about something, it is a strong environment indeed. You can feel it. 

But an even more powerful, truer and better way of living is praying, as the spoon rest so humbly states. Here are some words from the Bible that I believe connect to this: 

 “Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life….Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they?  Can any of you add one moment to his life span by worrying?”  Matthew 6:25-27  

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6 

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  Colossians 3:2

For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust.  Psalm 103:14 

…the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds. We demolish arguments and every proud thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:4–5 

When I read these verses, I am reminded that the truths we stand on are not our own ability to find solutions and solve problems, or threats that things may not be ok. The truth is that things will be more than ok; they will be blessedly, amazingly, and overwhelmingly GOOD. An almighty God reigns and knows about our concerns. We live in God’s universe, and because of Jesus, with God’s own presence. God’s own presence. We have something besides ourselves to count on. 

Even so, it sometimes just seems too hard to pray when I’m worried. I think this is in part because I try to clear my mind of burdens first before I start to pray, which is impossible for me! Another challenge when I am anxious, concerned, or worried is not feeling strong enough to “take every thought captive to obey Christ”.  I have so many thoughts, and so many are often out of line with who God is. So many are “raised up against the knowledge of God”!  I question the truth of his sovereignty and assert my own control and my own agenda over my life.

So, I’m practicing stopping for at least a moment to acknowledge God’s presence as my mind races or when it is fixated on something unsolvable. I let the worries come but think of them moving toward him instead of toward myself. I ask for clarity for what needs to be addressed and what doesn’t, even with the concerns that I feel are most pressing. Sometimes I write them down or talk out loud like I would to a friend. What is God’s agenda for these items? What is his vantage point? 

After driving away from a time of prayer with a family facing a heartbreaking situation, I was amazed that the feeling of our prayer time together was the same as when I pray for smaller things with my spouse, or my friends, or community group.  It was a feeling of rest that our worries had been given to the one who can actually carry them. Maybe, God really is worthy of our trust. Maybe you and I actually can believe that we are dust, but he is King.

The Forgetful Prophet

The Forgetful Prophet

One of my favorite things to do in Kansas City is visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Every time I visit I am drawn to a particular painting that depicts God sending an angel to encourage the prophet Elijah. This is one of my favorite stories in Scripture and the more I have studied the passage, the more I realize that I identify with Elijah. But that identification is not with the positive aspects of Elijah’s character but rather the unfortunate deformation that is taking place in his ministry.  

 

Elijah’s Encounter with God

Before God sends his angel to Elijah in 1 Kings 19, the wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel have led Israel into apostasy through the worship of false gods. In the chapter just prior to the encouragement of Elijah, God had shown his glory through the defeat of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In that scene both Elijah and the prophets of Baal had prepared a sacrifice for their respective god and they were going to see whose responded. Listen to the prayer of Elijah at that moment:

 Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that at your word I have done all these things. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” 

There are three things to notice about this prayer. First, notice Elijah’s remembrance. He calls on God’s personal name, Yahweh (anytime you see the name translated Lord, it is referring to God’s covenant name), and refers to him as the God of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (or Jacob). This title brings all sorts of images and memories of the prior work of God to mind in the story of the Torah. Second, notice his humility. His desire is that people would know Yahweh is Lord and that Elijah is his servant. There is no self-commendation, there is a servant who has only done as his God has commanded. And finally, his ultimate desire is to see the glory of God displayed and have it recognized as such. 

God answers this prayer and sends a fire to consume the sacrifice and the prophets of Baal are defeated and destroyed and there seems to be a glimmer of hope for a nation that had abandoned its God. Keep this prayer in mind as we fast forward one chapter and we see a very different interaction between God and his servant Elijah.  

 

Elijah’s Spiritual Amnesia

In chapter 19 we are told that Jezebel, after hearing about the defeat of the prophets at Mount Carmel, orders the death of Elijah. We are told that the prophet “became afraid and immediately ran for his life.” Our prophet who just watched Yahweh show his power at Mount Carmel is now asking that the Lord would take his life (1 Kings 19:4). In Elijah’s next words to God note the change of tone from his last prayer: 

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God of armies, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life” (1 Kings 19:10). 

God responds by asking him to stand on Mount Sinai so that God might speak with him in a soft whisper (19:12) but when Elijah hears the voice it says “he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” 

Did you notice the changes? Instead of remembering the character of Yahweh when Jezebel threatens him, he gives into fear and despair. Instead of humbly submitting himself to God, he questions why God has not honored his zeal. Instead of seeking the glory of God, he covers his face to keep from seeing it. What happened? How could there be such deformation in such a short time frame? 

 

Deformative Forgetfulness 

Since Genesis 3, the serpent has sought to lead God’s image bearers into deforming forgetfulness. Curt Thompson says in his book Anatomy of the Soul that “being tricked always involves the subtle or blatant manipulation of fear, memory, and shame.” I believe this is what we see taking place in Elijah’s life. The deformation of fear has allowed him to see Jezebel as a threat beyond God’s control. The deformation of his memory has led him to forget the superiority of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, demonstrated on Mount Carmel. The deformation of shame has led him to cover himself from the glorious presence of God, much the way Adam and Eve covered themselves in the garden. But similar to the garden, the Lord responds in surprising grace toward this deformed prophet. 

The Lord responds to Elijah in several ways. After the prophet put himself under a tree to die we are told the angel tells him to eat and sleep (twice!). Then God calls him to Mount Sinai, the mountain where Yahweh made his covenant with Israel. God brought him to a physical location where he would feel secure and would encourage him to remember the God who cared for the likes of Abarahm and Moses would also take care of him. Once Elijah arrives at the mountain, the Lord asks him two times: “What are you doing here, Elijah? It reminds me of God asking Adam and Eve in the garden after they ate the fruit, “Where are you?” God is gently inviting his weak servant to see the waywardness of his ways. God does not lash out at his prophet, but instead speaks to him in a whisper and he reminds him he is not alone. There are in fact seven thousand prophets who have not bowed to Baal and God’s plans have not been thwarted. Even so, we see a disturbed prophet who, until the Lord takes him to heaven in a chariot of fire, seems to only reluctantly and begrudgingly listen to his God (2 Kings 2). 

 

Grace to Remember 

So why do I identify with this prophet? Perhaps you can relate: I often allow my circumstances to be much larger than my God. This leads to a forgetfulness of God’s prior work and a “woe is me” mentality. My fear leads to a forgetfulness that I am ashamed to admit. So how can we combat such deformation? 

What is your pace in life? Do you ever find it fascinating that the first thing God has this weary prophet do is eat and sleep? I know that my greatest vulnerability to deforming practices is when I am tired, hungry, and alone. God treats each of these in his interaction with Elijah. Reflect on the rhythms you are setting. Are they for your flourishing? 

Who or what are you paying attention to? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The devil doesn’t fill us with hatred for God, but with forgetfulness of God.” Are there ways you live like God is absent? What are some practical reminders and rhythms to keep you mindful of God?  

I believe that today the prophet Elijah is able to look upon the face of his Savior despite his previous desire to cover his face before the glory of God. What a patient God we worship! I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my spiritual amnesia, that even the prophets of old had moments of weakness. But I take even greater comfort in knowing that we worship a God who beckons us back to himself. Even in a soft whisper. 

Equally Revering Work and Rest

Equally Revering Work and Rest

A Kaleidoscope of Personality Assessments

I’m a big fan of personality assessment tools. DISC, StrengthsFinder, Working Genius, Myers Briggs. You name it, I’ve done it. I’ve found them to be a helpful tool on the journey to discovering who God made me to be. I’ve also found them to each have various strengths and weaknesses, which means they become exponentially more helpful when viewed as part of a whole. DISC helps me communicate more effectively with others. Working Genius helps me see where I fit on the team and within the project life cycle. 

And the Enneagram? Well…that one sort of feels as though it sees into my very soul. 

And before you get nervous, don’t worry. I’m not here as an Enneagram evangelist. I promise. More than enough of those exist in the world. No, what I actually want to promote is the musical project Sleeping At Last, led by singer-songwriter Ryan O’Neal. Ryan got his start in the early 2000’s about 45 minutes from where I grew up, so he’s been a part of my life for the better part of two decades. Over the years, Ryan has undertaken a number of ambitious and innovative projects, including Atlas: Enneagram, his album that contains songs he wrote for each of the nine personality types within the Enneagram framework. 

When it comes to determining which Enneagram number you are, it’s preferable to take a “narrative” approach (as opposed to an assessment-based approach), to map your life and carefully discern your type. I’ll never forget the moment I first heard the Enneagram 3 song from Ryan’s Atlas: Enneagram album

From the opening line, Maybe I’ve done enough… all the way to the final stanza, I only want what’s real / I set aside the highlight reel / And leave my greatest failures on display with an asterisk / Worthy of love anyway.  Virtually every word connected viscerally with my heart and soul. 

But there’s one stanza in particular that recently I’ve been unable to shake.

 

The Gift of Sabbatical

I have been the recipient of a sabbatical. Our church’s commitment to this spiritual discipline is extraordinary and unique, and a great gift to the pastoral staff. The time away was an incredible blessing of renewal, restoration, refreshment, and rest.

And it’s that last word, “rest,” that connects back in with the Enneagram 3 song. Famously, Enneagram 3 personality types (known as “The Achievers”) are really good at working hard, and really bad at resting well. 

Now, it’s good to work hard! God is the first worker, and he created us to image him in that way. Jesus, too, knew how to work hard and engage with fullness. But look closely at Scripture and you’ll also see not just divine work, but also divine rest

In six days God created the world, and then on the seventh day, God rested. Jesus worked hard all day, serving, healing, helping. And then, Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] got up, went out, and made his way to a deserted place; and there he was praying (Mark 1:35). Or later, after the disciples have had their own busy day of working and serving: [Jesus] said to [the disciples], “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while.” For many people were coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat (Mark 6:31).

Or how about what can brilliantly be called “The Great Invitation” from Jesus at the end of Matthew 11: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The witness of Scripture is clear: In the eyes of God, both work and rest are “equally revered.” Now, that phrase, “equally revered,” is a direct quote from the Enneagram 3 song that so deeply impacted me. Here’s the whole stanza:

I only want what’s real
To let my heart feel what it feels
Gold, silver, or bronze hold no value here
Where work and rest are equally revered

To “revere” something is to have deep respect and admiration for it. To value it. To uphold it.

And I can honestly say that until my sabbatical, while I conceptually agreed with the idea of work and rest being equally revered, I had never fully lived into it. Which is why those days of rest  were such a gift. And why I’m attempting to re-order some priorities.

Because while work matters, so does rest.

 

Rest as Silence & Solitude with Jesus

Now, soul-level rest can (and should!) take many forms. I’m not going to prescribe my rest-discovery journey to you. Part of the joy is the journey! But there are a few universal forms of soul-level rest that faithful apprentices of Jesus have engaged in for generations. 

One such example is “coming away” (Mark 6:31 again) for times of silence and solitude with Jesus. John Mark Comer’s chapter on this in The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry makes an incredibly compelling case for the vital universal need for this. The whole chapter (and whole book, honestly) is worth a read, but here’s a quote from the final section of the chapter:

In our ears we sense his voice cut through the cacophony of all the other voices, which slowly fade to the deafening roar of silence. In that silence we hear God speak his love over us. Speak our identities and callings into being. We get his perspective on life and our humble, good places in it. And we come to a place of freedom. Our failures slowly lose their power over us. As do our successes. We get out from under the tyranny of other people’s opinions — their disapproval or approval of us. Free to just be us, the mixed bag we are. Nothing more than children with our Father. Adopted into love. Free to be in process, yet to arrive, and that’s okay. In silence and solitude our souls finally come home. That’s what Jesus meant by “abide,” the verb of abode or home. The place of rest. We come back to our places of soul rest. To what Thomas Kelly called “the unhurried [center of] peace and power.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds like something to revere doesn’t it? I’m certainly on that journey. Will you join me?

Intertwined Identities, Hospitality, and Belonging

Intertwined Identities, Hospitality, and Belonging

Something I’ve been wrestling with in the last few years is the complexity of being a perpetual stranger in the country that has been my home away from home. I have lived in the United States for 17 years! Yet I still feel like a stranger in the place where I have forged most of my adult life. I have attended graduate school here, I work, pay taxes, and vote here, I serve the church here. But somehow, that feeling of otherness, of never belonging, does not go away. Why is that? 

 

The perils of navigating intertwined identities in a culture that loves labels

I am Puerto Rican. That means that my body tells the story of colonization and slavery, that through my veins runs the blood of our native Taínos, Spaniards, and African slaves. It also tells the story of a resilient people who have lived through hurricanes, earthquakes, neglect, and disenfranchisement, but are still standing and working for a better future. My body narrates the story of the Puerto Rican diaspora scattered throughout the U.S.A. while fiercely fighting to hold on to our roots. My body speaks of teachers, engineers, nurses, doctors, and many other professionals who train in Puerto Rico, but feel the need to move to the U.S.A. to find employment opportunities. My body speaks of people en la lucha (in the fight) who would rather die than give up.

Somehow, all of that has to fit in neat categories and boxes upon arrival to the U.S.A. How does one box a story? I loath filling out government forms that ask me to identify as Native American, Alaska Native, Hawaiian, Asian, African American or White. Since I don’t fit any boxes, I often leave it blank. Whenever I find a box that says Puerto Rican, I often breathe a sigh of relief albeit tainted by the sadness that comes with the realization that someone finally managed to make me check a box. With every box I check (whenever I do check them) that feeling of otherness, of not belonging, floods my soul.

Navigating through the labels people assign to us is a confusing and exhausting endeavor. Those of us who walk through that on a daily basis, often feel the need to add many footnotes to each label in order to capture the nuance of who we are. How do we navigate this constant sense of otherness? How do we figure out how to be in spaces where we are perpetual strangers? How do we manage this tension? 

 

The solidarity of Jesus with those who do not belong

The Four Chapter Gallery hosted an exhibit titled, Altars of Reconciliation. In these works of art, indigenous Christian artists wrestle through the tensions of being Native American while professing the faith of the people who invaded their land. One day while on a break, I decided to spend a few minutes studying the art. One work titled Protect Us From Ruin by artist Erin Shaw (Chickasaw-Choctaw) caught my attention. Erin pasted the pictures of three family matriarchs on three individual wooden frames. On each frame there were also other pictures and prints of family documents that spoke of their identity as Native American Christians. Each frame was wrapped in colorful rope, which I interpreted to symbolize the family’s intertwined identities. As I looked through the rope, I noticed that among the documents on the wooden frame Erin had included the words of Jesus, specifically his question to the disciples, “But you, who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)

People were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, this prophet or that prophet, the Nazarene, the Galilean, a blasphemer. Boxes, labels, desperate but failed attempts at explaining the unexplainable. But Jesus wanted to be known for who he truly was by those who walked closely with him. He was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). He was and still is both man and God. The church fought fierce battles in the fourth century against false teachers who questioned either Jesus’ divinity or his humanity. Both are true and essential for God’s salvation plan for humankind. The very salvation of the world rested on the true nature and identity of Jesus Christ! Hence, throughout the centuries, believers around the world have affirmed and recited what the Nicene Creed (A.D. 381) declared about Jesus’ identity. We believe in “…one Lord, Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made…” Jesus cannot be put in boxes or Enneagram numbers; he cannot be explained away. Likewise, humans who are fashioned in his image cannot be easily boxed or explained away. 

Contemplating Erin’s artwork I realized that the God-Man, Jesus, who lived among us and navigated the liminal spaces of intertwined identities, stands in solidarity with those of us who are far away from home, striving to belong and seeking to be known in the complexity of who we are. No labels, no boxes!  

 

Toward hospitality and belonging 

What can the church do to welcome those who look and sound different from the majority culture? How can we practice hospitality toward people from different nationalities and ethnicities that walk through our doors? 

Hospitality is an ancient spiritual discipline and Christian practice that may be summarized as welcoming others in the name of Jesus. Since Jesus came to die for people of “every nation, tribe, and tongue,” differences are implicit in the practice of genuine hospitality. Therefore, expecting others to assimilate to our way of doing things for the sake of our own comfort and uniformity is not hospitality. Hospitality is not comfortable! It demands mutual sharing and vulnerability in both good and hard times, joy and suffering, the extraordinary and the mundane, parties and funerals. What does this practically look like?

 I offer some examples of acts of hospitality to foster belonging in our church communities:

 

1. Learn to spell and pronounce given names correctly 

Names are a key part of someone’s identity. Parents name their children with purpose. Thus, we should make every effort to know someone’s name and address them as such. Whenever we hear someone’s name and immediately ask them if they have a nickname, we are communicating that we have no intention of learning to address them by their proper, given name. If someone doesn’t want to learn your name, do you think they will truly want to know you? Do you think you will truly belong?

At Christ Community we strive to live into our cultural habit, “We remember names.” That includes learning to spell and pronounce people’s names correctly regardless of how unfamiliar and complicated they may sound to us.  

 

2. Avoid commenting on how well someone speaks English

Whenever we hear a non-native speaker eloquently expressing himself or herself in English and comment, “You speak English so well!” We are communicating our surprise that that person can properly express himself or herself in English and reinforcing the sense of otherness and outsiderness that our sibling in Christ may already be experiencing when walking into a new space.

 

3. Know that you are not entitled to another person’s story

People that walk into a new space, particularly those of a different ethnicity and background, are often asked to share their stories, all the time, as if we were entitled to them. The constant explaining of oneself is exhausting and repeatedly reinforces the notion that “I am not from here. I do not belong.” Curiosity and inquisitiveness about a new person is understandable, but we must realize that entering into a person’s story is a privilege, not a right. Thus, instead of asking a person, “What’s your story?” or “Where are you from?” say something like this, “I’d love to get to know you better and share my story with you. Would you be able to join me and my family for coffee or dinner?” Vulnerability ought to be a two-way street!     

 

4. Learn to receive hospitality    

Embrace the truth that we have much to learn from people who are different from us. This includes us entering into their space, sitting at their table, and eating their food. Of course, this will take time and effort to build the relationship to the point you are invited to their home. You will likely need to take the first step in welcoming people into your home. But when they extend the invitation for you and your family to sit at their table, do not reject it, make space for it, and assume a posture of learning. You will be blessed! 

When we learn to welcome people in the name of Jesus, especially those who are wrestling through intertwined identities and a sense of otherness, we grow more and more into what Jesus intended his church to be, namely his family, a place where his children belong.

God’s Presence in Suffering

God’s Presence in Suffering

By Natasha Layman 

The call came on a rainy, chilly afternoon when I was preparing for oral surgery the following day. A woman who had mothered me as a young adult and continued to love me generously and steadfastly collapsed suddenly and was on life support. I took a deep breath and turned my attention to Jesus, placing myself in his loving presence. Another phone call came a few hours later. She had passed away. In this loss, I experienced as I never have before the safe, strong, and deep tender love of God as he held me close and invited me to run to him and feel. God invites us to experience his presence tenderly and powerfully in our suffering, grief, and loss. 

This was not my first experience losing a loved one. My dad passed away in my mid-twenties after a short-lived battle with cancer. I was there when he died, feeling the last pulse that went through his body. My relationship with my dad was tenuous at best, and I had no framework for how to sit with a mixed bag of emotions and grieve the losses. I detached and dissociated because that is what I knew, and it felt safer than sitting in the grief. I frequently asked God, “Why?” Why did my dad die? Why did we have such a distant and rocky relationship? I felt alone, angry, and bitter toward God as I tried to make sense of my suffering. A friend graciously recommended a counselor who listened and taught me how to engage with my feelings, my history with my dad, and all the wounds that were part of that story. But something was missing in this process. 

Fast forward a decade and a half to the moment I learned of my friend’s death. How was this time so different? How did I experience God’s presence and comfort in my suffering now? Because of my relationship with my dad, I’d envisioned God as distant, uninviting, and rather cold. I invite you into my past year’s journey, as God has rooted out my flawed views of him to form a deeper, more beautiful relationship between us.  

About a year ago, after years of longing to experience God, and not simply more head knowledge or good theology, I started leaning into habits to create space to meet God. I began sitting on my couch each morning for 5–10 minutes and imagining God sitting next to me, his face lighting up with joy at me. This was hard work—I was easily distracted, my mind prone to wandering. Yet God met me there, gently bringing me back to his presence when I wandered. He began to lay a foundation of joy, delight, and trust. In my daily prayer time, I experienced God’s presence. God fully knows me, my limitations, my wounds, and wholly loves me. In this time, God brought healing to deep wounds as well as freedom, laying the groundwork for deeper trust in him. 

As I prayed during the weeks leading up to my friend’s death, God brought me from a beautiful image in prayer of a safe, secure garden, walking with him, resting with him, and knowing his loving arms that held me, to an image of Jesus inviting me to follow him into the wilderness. The wilderness? When this shift happened I didn’t know what the wilderness held, but I knew God was trustworthy, and I could follow him. Days before my friend died, while in prayer, God gave me an image. I was scared and weeping on the side of a trail, with Jesus sitting next to me, arms around me, comforting me. He comforted me with his presence, not words. This image was at the forefront of my mind the day the call came that my friend had collapsed. God’s immediate invitation was to come, lament, and grieve with him

My journey of grief and lament began immediately. I wept tears that felt like they would never stop. The following day, I sat with God in prayer through the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. The verse that the Holy Spirit highlighted for me was verse 4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus was gently telling me that he didn’t say we will not mourn, but we will be comforted. I wept more, with the image of Jesus weeping with me. I grieved that there would be no more hugs from my friend, no more sitting with her and hearing her stories. Most of the time I spent lamenting and grieving, there weren’t words, simply God’s presence; the intimacy of being fully loved by the God who knew my human experiences and limitations and loved me just the same. Jesus didn’t distance himself from me but held me in my woundedness with his scarred hands. The same hands that knew the pain of death were tending me, holding me with gentleness. 

God invited me to sit and lament with him several times in the week and a half following my friend’s death. I knew healing, wholeness, and knowing Jesus more deeply would only flow from continuing to come when he invited me, even when it was hard. In a podcast I heard author Tish Harrison Warren describe a concept from St. Thomas Aquinas as an “arduous good”. The word arduous means requiring great exertion; laborious; difficult. Lament is an arduous good. Lament requires that we be present to our pain and be present to God. Like so much else that God calls us to, lament is a process

My grief over my friend’s death will not disappear this side of eternity. Every room of my house has reminders, large or small, of her influence on my life. Yet, as Curt Thompson so wisely said during his time at Christ Community, “We discover joy finds us in suffering because community is sitting with us in the midst of it.” That journey starts by being present with the community of the Holy Trinity in my suffering and in Christ’s body, the Church. 

As I grieve, I have the hope that Jesus will return and set to right all that sin has broken. But there is a more pressing hope for this life right now. Our loving Lord Jesus, whose face lights up with joy and delight at us, is also sitting next to us, arms around us, holding us in all the storms of our suffering, grief, and loss. He invites us to grieve with him, just as he did with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus—death is not how it ought to be. He will not leave us in our suffering because he is “Love Loving,” in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He is inviting us to come to him and abide, even in our sorrows. 

Before my friend died, as I was processing the news of her collapse, I was interrupted by an image. My friend was running with joy and delight into the arms of her Savior. She no longer bore the frailties of her body in this life but was whole, healed, and at peace. The wounded hands of Jesus held her as a beloved daughter. We are his beloved, and he is inviting you and me to experience his presence in our suffering. 

 

Additional Resource:

Comer, John Mark, host. “Luminary Interview: Tish Harrison Warren.:” The Rule of Life Podcast, Sabbath season, episode 5, Practicing the Way, 2022. 

Comer, John Mark. Practicing the Way. Waterbrook, 2024,