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Bread for Jews, Bread for Gentiles

Bread for Jews, Bread for Gentiles

In Matthew chapter 15, Jesus performs a miracle. He feeds 4000 people from seven loaves of bread and “a few small fish” (Matthew 15:34). 

And yet, somehow, if you’ve been reading through Matthew, the miracle seems almost unimpressive. After all, just one chapter earlier, Jesus fed a crowd of 5000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish! (Matthew 14:13-21). As a reader, I’m thinking, Jesus, I’ve seen this miracle already, and it was better last time.

I’m only kidding that the feeding of the 4000 is unimpressive. But it does make me wonder: why did Matthew include these two miracle stories when they’re so similar? 

It’s not like Matthew recorded everything Jesus ever did. Producing a book in the ancient world was very expensive, and with scroll space at a premium, an author had to be selective about which material to include. Why include two such similar stories when one story was sufficient to make the point that Jesus can turn a little bread and a few fish into a banquet for thousands?

I was fortunate to sit under the teaching of New Testament scholar Steve Bryan during my years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and also read a portion of his book Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God:  A Biblical Theology of Ethnicity, Nationality and Race. His insights have helped me consider these two events in a new light.

I think the answer for Matthew’s writing about two seemingly similar miracles comes when we compare the setting of the two stories. The first miracle, in chapter 14, seems to occur near Jesus’ hometown—Jewish territory. If you follow the geographical movements of Jesus in chapter 15, the second miracle occurs in Gentile territory. These recipients of Jesus’ second banquet were outsiders, people who didn’t previously believe in “the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31).

 

Bread for Jews, Bread for Gentiles

During a lecture, Dr. Bryan pointed out that there is a broader theme that links most of chapters 14-16 in Matthew: bread. Jesus feeds bread to the 5000, which is followed shortly thereafter by a dispute with the Pharisees about food traditions, and Jesus reminds them that it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out (Matthew 15:1-20). These stories are balanced by the feeding of the 4000, and a warning from Jesus, after the disciples realized they had forgotten to bring bread on their journey,  to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:5-6). 

In his book, Bryan notes that right in the center of these stories is an interaction between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. In the Old Testament, Canaanites were the classic enemies of the Israelites, and the epitome of wickedness and rebellion against God’s design for the world.

This Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and he initially refuses, saying, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). There’s that word again: bread. The question that’s hanging in the balance at this point in Matthew is: Is Jesus’ ministry (his bread) only for Israel, or for everyone?

The Canaanite woman persists: “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). Her point: isn’t there enough bread for us too, even if it’s just the crumbs?

Jesus commends her faith, and her daughter is healed. A crowd of Gentiles gathers around Jesus, and he heals them, too (Matthew 15:29-31), followed by the repetition of his crowd feeding miracle, this time for a Gentile crowd. 

Jesus’ answer to the Canaanite woman’s question back in verse 27 is a definitive YES. There’s plenty of bread. Bread enough for Jews. Bread enough for Gentiles. Bread enough for all. Jesus’ ministry is for everyone, and it’s the faithful persistence of a most unlikely person, a Canaanite woman, that stands out at the center of these stories about bread.

 

Cultivating an Abundance Mindset

It’s a human impulse this side of the fall to fear that somehow there won’t be enough. We fear and we hoard and we hold others at arm’s length because we want to protect what is ours. But these narratives from the Gospel of Matthew remind us that a kingdom mindset knows that there’s more than enough bread

We don’t have to be afraid that we won’t have enough, because our God can take a meal meant for a small family and feed an army. We can live with abundant generosity. We can share from the bounty that God has given us. Because God is not limited by our resources.

And our abundance mindset shouldn’t just be focused on those we consider to be “our people.” After all, Jesus fed Jews and Gentiles alike. And he also said, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, because they might invite you back, and you would be repaid. On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).

It’s easy for us to share with our friends and our families. But Jesus challenges us to share with those who can’t pay us back. And, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to share even with those we might consider our enemies (Luke 10:25-37).

How can we cultivate more of an abundance mindset? Who is the equivalent of the Canaanite woman in your life— the person or people group that God also loves deeply, for whom his Son also died and was raised to life, for whom, God may be reminding you, there’s more than enough bread?

 

Additional Resource:

Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God by Steven M. Bryan

More Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

More Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Some time ago I had the opportunity for extended time away and was able to read extensively from the library of my favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien. I wrote a blog on failure and perfectionism that emerged from a careful reading of Tolkien’s work. Here are further reflections on creative work and joyful hope that were generated as a result of my reading. 

As both a meticulous philologist and a devout Catholic, Tolkien’s stories, characters, and phrases drip with the beauty and power of the language by which they are expressed and the gospel in which they are soaked. I have found Tolkien’s faith to be deeply reflected in his vocation as a storyteller.

 

A Reflection on Creative Work

The entire framework that Tolkien held around creative work was conditioned on an idea he cared about deeply called “subcreation.” Because of his Christian faith, Tolkien maintained that part of the invitation to those who bear God’s image is the invitation to join God’s creative work as “sub-creators.” The value he found in his vocation as a writer of myth and legend was contingent on this very theological reality. In Tolkien’s view, fantasy was one valid form among many arts and sciences for discovering and conveying truth, even the greatest truth of all—the gospel of Jesus.

For a while, his close friend C.S. Lewis saw things differently. Lewis once called myths “lies breathed through silver,” to which Tolkien responded with a poem he wrote called “Mythopoeia.” If you are interested in poetry, I encourage you to find it and spend some time with it. A few lines are worth quoting, as they are poignant reflection on the eternal significance of our creative, Monday work:

 

The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact.
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which were made.

I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.

What beautiful poetic language this is to express deep theological realities! Though we have fallen, we are not wholly lost nor wholly changed. The right we were given in Genesis 2 indeed has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we are made. As little makers, imperfect though we are, we still have part in the Maker’s art. 

And one day, we will see all as it is but made free in the new creation. Gardener and garden, child and toy, architect and architecture, musician and music, engineer and engineered—all will endure and be made free, perfect, reflecting the only True God and free from all works of evil. We will continue working creatively on into eternity, making anew as we reign together with the One who is making all things new. 

What a flawless reminder of just how much our work matters to the grand mission of God and just how much it will endure when his kingdom comes in full. As long as our right has not decayed, let us exercise it with the help of the Spirit and the hope of the gospel. We should all be thankful that Tolkien did just that, or we would be missing out on some of the greatest stories ever written.

 

A Reflection on Joyful Hope

On the subject of hope, the word of God and the writings of the Professor both have much to say. It would not be too far off to describe The Lord of the Rings as a story that is ultimately about hope in the face of overwhelming opportunities for despair. 

There is a reason we get this sense as readers and movie-watchers. In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien laid out his groundbreaking defense of the importance of modern fantasy stories for the adult imagination. This alone merits a reflection on childlike faith for followers of Jesus, but I want to focus on one particular theme Tolkien explores in “On Fairy Stories.” 

The essay closes with a discussion of what Tolkien calls “the Eucatastrophe,” which he considers to be the greatest element of any fairy tale. Listen to his explanation of this essential storytelling feature:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

I wonder if, as you heard Tolkien describe this “unexpected happy turn,” any examples from some of your favorite stories came to mind. In every good tale, as in our everyday, ordinary life, there are infinite opportunities to either give into despair or lean into hope. 

In The Lord of the Rings, we might consider the despair we find in the character Denethor. After losing his oldest son and believing his other son dead, he stares in the face of what he believes to be a losing battle against the Enemy. Denethor is thrown into a fey fit of madness and attempts to light both himself and his youngest son—who is still alive—on fire. It is a scene that captures the essence of giving into despair, and at times it is even possible to sympathize with Denethor. We, too, when life seems to be a losing battle, can be tempted to throw our hands in the air and simply give up.

Yet in the face of the same circumstances, one also must consider the consistent character of eucatastrophic hope: Gandalf. Gandalf, who showed up at the edge of the hill at “the battle of Helm’s Deep unlooked for”, when all hope seemed lost. Gandalf, “The great mover of deeds,” whose role more than anything was to stir up hope in others. Gandalf, who would say things like this: “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

And in the end, it was the hope Gandalf stirred up in characters like Aragorn, Theoden, Frodo, Sam, and the army on whom Denethor had given up, that anticipated the great eucatastrophe of The Lord of the Rings—the ability to hold off the efforts of the Enemy just long enough for the ring to be destroyed and the Eagles to arrive.

For Tolkien, this unexpected happy ending, filled with joy and triumph, is only a small taste of what he considered to be the greatest eucatastrophe of all—the gospel of Jesus. Eucatastrophe, because who would have expected that God himself would become a human being, taking on suffering and embracing death “at just the right time,” only to rise again and overthrow the power of death for good? The greatest because, well, it is real. The truest fairy story of all is the one that we most wish would be true. “Legend and History have met and fused.”

What this should instill in us as Christians more than anything is durable, joyful hope. In many ways we do not see all ends, but dare to imagine that we at least know the end of the story. For those joined to Jesus in life and death, triumph awaits. As surely and suddenly as he came to disarm the power of evil, he will surely and suddenly return to eliminate evil once and for all, establishing an unending reign of good. As Samwise mused, everything sad will become untrue. 

This is real, biblical hope. Biblical hope is not wishful thinking to escape unthinkable suffering. Biblical hope embraces suffering because it does not have the final say. Biblical hope looks ahead to a future that is secure. A former pastor once gave me the best definition of biblical hope that I have heard yet: Hope is a confident expectation in a future reality that we lean into to give us energy to live today.

When summer break from school is on the horizon, we can lean into that future to give us energy to face finals week. When we know we get to see our family at the end of the day, we can lean into that future to give us energy to endure a weary workday. When we know the performance is coming up, we can lean into that future to do the hard work of practicing in the present. 

The same is true of biblical hope. Our future is secure when we are with Jesus. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:18, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That glory will be revealed—that much is certain—and in the meantime, when every earthly voice would tell us it is better to give into despair, we are energized by a hope beyond this world. The hope of the truest, best, and most beautiful eucatastrophe ever desired. 

With this reality in mind, may we be emboldened by these words from Professor Tolkien himself, who writes of an alloy of creative work and joyful hope that can stand the test of time:

The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Grumble Grumble

Grumble Grumble

“That’s not fair.” 

“But I should get to go.” 

“How come she gets to do that but I don’t?”

I hear statements like these from my kids frequently. I often get to play referee between two siblings both demanding that their way or desire is better. Or sometimes the complaint is directed at me and what I am, or am not, letting them do. It can be exhausting.

But when I think about it, these statements are not just ones I hear from my children. I hear them from adults around me. I hear it in movies, from celebrities, and even sometimes from believers I look up to.

And then, when I look deeper, I realize that I, too, am guilty of complaining. Maybe not always out loud, but definitely in my heart and mind. I also still have some growing up to do in the area of grumbling.  

 

Learning from the Past

In a women’s Bible study I studied salvation stories from the Old Testament. It was so good! The story that stood out to me the most is the serpent on the pole from Numbers 21. Are you familiar with this one? It’s not a typical Old Testament story that we learned in Sunday School, but it holds a very important lesson for us today.

The Israelites are in their last years of wilderness wandering before entering the Promised Land. They often grumbled about God and Moses through these 40 years. But amazingly, God always answered and provided for their needs. He gave them water from a rock and provided manna and quail. He led them through the desert. 

But once again, the people are unhappy. They are hot. They are tired. They are impatient. They are thirsty and probably want more to eat than manna. Instead of crying out to God and asking him to provide, what do they do? They grumble and complain. 

The Israelites accuse God and Moses of leading them to the desert to die. They also complain about the food that’s provided. As a parent, I know it does not feel good when my kids complain about the food I’ve made for them. 

God has been so patient with his people who frequently grumbled about his plans. This time, however, he sends poisonous snakes among the people and many die. Whoa! 

Why did he do this? Why did it have to be snakes? There are many amazing theological possibilities for this specific question of “why snakes” and I’d encourage you to dig into it if you’re curious…but I want to consider what could have been a better response for the Israelites.

 

An Alternative to Grumbling

Were the Israelites wrong to be grumpy and impatient? I think I would have felt very similar if I’d been living in tents as a nomad in the wilderness for 40 years eating the same thing every day. The emotions they were feeling were not sin. They sinned by choosing to grumble. So what could have been a better way for them to respond?

When we are sad, impatient, frustrated with circumstances, lonely, or scared, the Bible teaches us that we can go to the Lord with lament. We do not need to grumble or complain, we can take our worries and cares to the One who cares the most and lay it all out before him.

What is the difference between lamenting and grumbling? That is the question I’ve been wrestling with since studying this story from Numbers 21. 

Grumbling is talking to others about your disappointment with God. Lament is talking with God about your disappointment. 

Grumbling goes to others. Lament goes to God.

Grumbling is talking about God. Lament is talking to God.

So many times in the psalms we read the words “How long, Oh Lord?” The authors are crying out to God for relief. For help and rescue from whatever circumstances they were in. If we take our sadness and impatience to the Lord and cry out to him, we are inviting him into the situation. We are opening our hearts to him to work in us. We are crying out to the only One who can help us and change us. 

 

Not Always the Answer We Want

Lamenting is not a magical prayer that makes God give us what we want. The Israelites ended up confessing their sin in Numbers 21, and pleaded for the snakes to be taken away. But God did not take the snakes away. Instead he provided a way for the people to be healed if they chose to look up at a brass snake mounted on a pole. God did not answer their prayers like they asked, but he did give them a way out. A way to be saved.

When we spend time in lament, we are inviting God in and crying out to him for help. We are choosing to look to Jesus, who was mounted up on a cross and died for us. He knows pain and sorrow. He wants to walk alongside us in our grief and disappointment. When we look up to him, he offers us rescue. It might not be in the way we expect, but he is faithful to be with us in whatever comes.

 

Praising God Even in Times of Lament 

At the end of Lamentations 3, after many verses of lament and crying out to God, the author says Yet I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s faithful love we do not perish, for his mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness! I say, “The Lord is my portion, therefore I will put my hope in him.”

What if the Israelites had chosen to lament instead of grumble? They could have said “How long, oh Lord, will we wander in this wilderness? How long, oh Lord, will we have only manna to eat? Lord deliver us to the promised land you promised to us. You are faithful, God Almighty, and you will be faithful to your promises.” Even when we are in despair, and crying out to God, we can end our laments by claiming the faithfulness of God. 

1 Corinthians 10 encourages us to learn from the sin of the grumbling Israelites. It says, Let us not test Christ as some of them did and were destroyed by snakes. And don’t grumble as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come.

Let’s be a people who learn from the Israelites and not grumble and test Christ. Let’s take our grief to the Lord in prayers of lament and with open hands. He is faithful and hears our prayers. He is worthy of our trust. He is worthy of it all.

Under His Wings

Under His Wings

Our family enjoys watching nature shows. Imagine you’re watching a mother bird in her nest with her babies. I picture the nest on the ground, with tall grass all around it, and the babies scurrying every which way. The chicks are completely dependent on their mother for food and protection. Their very survival is dependent on her.

Now picture a hungry lion creeping through the tall grass. He is hungry, powerful, ready to eat, and he’s headed directly toward this mother bird and her babies. Who do you think is going to win? The mom might be able to fly away, but those babies are going to be delicious.

 

What lions are you facing?

Sometimes I feel a bit like those babies, with hungry lions prowling all around me. Lately I’ve been waking up at 2:00 AM, with the opening lines of of Wendall Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things rattling in my imagination:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be….

Those words get me every time, and it almost feels as if the lions are ready to pounce. What chance does a little bird like me possibly have?

 

Lions vs. Birds: what would the psalmist say?

If you were to ask the psalmist that question, you might find a different answer. There’s a handful of psalms that describe God’s people finding refuge in God, as a baby bird finds refuge under its mother’s wings (Psalm 17, 36, 57, 61, 63, 91). Of those six psalms, three of them (17, 57, 91) all contrast a lion attacking the psalmist and a mother bird protecting him. Psalm 91 includes a cobra and serpent joining with the lions and in Psalm 63, it is the jackals who are attacking us.

In each place, the contrast is similar. The baby birds stand no chance on their own, yet they are safe under their mother’s wings. The psalmist is up against excessively powerful enemies, is completely outmatched, but they are unable to touch him.

In Psalm 57, the literal enemy is the powerful and vindictive King Saul. David is hiding in a cave, and he writes these words:

 

Be gracious to me, God, be gracious to me,
for I take refuge in you.
I will seek refuge in the shadow of your wings
until danger passes.
I call to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He reaches down from heaven and saves me,
challenging the one who tramples me.
God sends his faithful love and truth. 

It’s such a picture of trust, but then, David describes his enemies. As you read his words, imagine the lions in your own life:

I am surrounded by lions;
I lie down among devouring lions—
people whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.
God, be exalted above the heavens;
let your glory be over the whole earth.
They prepared a net for my steps;
I was despondent.
They dug a pit ahead of me,
but they fell into it! 

David is being trampled. He’s surrounded. Even their tongues are like deadly weapons. He’s despondent. It’s a bad place, and I know some of us have been there. When despair for the world grows in me…in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be… .Yet even so, David builds to praise:

My heart is confident, God, my heart is confident.
I will sing; I will sing praises.
Wake up, my soul!
Wake up, harp and lyre!
I will wake up the dawn.
I will praise you, Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your faithful love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches the clouds.
God, be exalted above the heavens;
let your glory be over the whole earth. 

 

Good for David—but what about me?

Read that first verse again, slowly: Be gracious to me, God, be gracious to me, for I take refuge in you. I will seek refuge in the shadow of your wings until danger passes. 

I’ve always been a pretty independent person. It’s difficult for me to ask for help or admit that I need something. I want to fix my own problems and keep myself safe. At the same time, When despair for the world grows in me…I recognize how much I need his wings.

When I imagine what God is inviting me into, I want it. Take just a minute to look closely at these pictures.

 

 

Don’t just glance at them, think about what you see; think about how it makes you feel. Imagine yourself as the baby bird and our good God as the mother hen. Don’t rush this.

This is our home as God’s people—always safe, hidden under his wings. It looks pretty good, doesn’t it? That’s where I want to live. So how do we do it? What does it look like to live under God’s wings? Let me suggest three things to remember.

 

The storms and the lions

First, we have to remember, the storms will still come and the lions will still attack. This isn’t protection from the storms. It’s protection through the storms. David still feels trampled, and in each of these psalms, the threat is very real and very scary.

None of us knows what the future holds, and the lions are out there. There are nights I will still wake up at 2 AM. Where does worry tend to creep into your life? What are some of the scary things you’re anticipating? Close your eyes and picture those things for a moment. Now look again at these pictures and remind yourself, as one of God’s people, this is where we live—under his wings.

 

Our Mother Hen

Second, our Mother Hen will be with us through it all. While God most often refers to himself as our Father, I love that he also compares himself to a mom. I grew up with a good relationship with both my parents, but when I was hurt or afraid or sick, who did I call out for? My mom. God offers us the same gentle, nurturing presence.

Curt Thompson, in his book, The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hope, makes the case that our brains can handle a great deal of suffering…as long as we know we don’t have to do it alone. And we are never alone! Not only do we have each other, we have our Mother Hen—our good and gracious God—always with us.

But we forget, don’t we? This is a major reason why we need the daily spiritual disciplines of solitude, prayer, and Bible reading. Perhaps when you engage in those disciplines, begin by taking just thirty seconds to imagine God holding you close, like a mother hen with her chicks. And the next time you rush toward worry or self-defense or self-protection, do the same. Let Jesus gather you under his wings.

 

Gratitude and praise

Third, let this confidence lead to gratitude and praise. Confidence shouldn’t lead us to arrogance or triumphalism, or even a further bitterness toward the lions. Rather, like the psalmist, let it lead to gratitude and praise. As you thank God and praise him for always being with you, reflect on this old hymn by William Cushing.

 

Under His Wings

Under His wings I am safely abiding;
Though the night deepens and tempests are wild,
Still I can trust Him–I know He will keep me,
He has redeemed me and I am His child.

Under His wings, what a refuge in sorrow!
How the heart yearningly turns to His rest!
Often when earth has no balm for my healing,
There I find comfort, and there I am blessed.


Under His wings, oh, what precious enjoyment!
There will I hide till life’s trials are o’er;
Sheltered, protected, no evil can harm me,
Resting in Je­sus, I’m safe ev­er­more.

Refrain:

Under His wings, under His wings,
Who from His love can sever?
Under His wings my soul shall abide,
Safely abide forever.

Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

Reflections on Time Spent with My Favorite Author J.R.R. Tolkien

An earnest reader for most of my life, I knew that reading would occupy a significant portion of any time spent away from work. During the extended time of rest and slowed-down pace my wife and I planned, my hope was to select a few “literary guides” to be my paper-and-ink companions. 

I wanted to stretch my mind in areas of philosophy and theology—enter Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I also wanted to return to an author who has shaped my formation as an apprentice of Jesus more than any other—enter the robust library of Dallas Willard. And I wanted to mine the depths of Scripture in an unhurried manner—enter Robert Alter’s translation of the minor prophets. 

Yet before any of those had been selected, I knew who the most comfortable companion would be over the course of the entire journey, like an anchor to my spirit and a buoy to my imagination. Anyone who knows me even moderately well will of course know I am talking about the erudite and clever master of fantasy, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.

I devoured his work anew, returning to the well-worn pages of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, engaging essays, letters, and short stories like “On Fairy Stories” and “Farmer Giles of Ham,” and also embarking on the formidable and uncharted territory of the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth

Needless to say, I was reminded of what I loved about this faithful Christian, brilliant thinker, masterful worldbuilder, and majestic writer. In particular, a few key reflections emerged at the intersection of Tolkien’s work and the normal Christian life as shaped by the gospel he and I share across time and place. 

Indulge me as I share reflections on how the Spirit of Christ used my favorite author to move my heart, stimulate my intellect, and slowly and subliminally rekindle my hope in God and man. May it also provide insight into the mystery of your own life and faith.

 

A reflection on victorious failure

 

There is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring that invariably brings tears to my eyes. Boromir, a member of the company accompanying Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring, is a valiant and noble man troubled by the potential that his home city might fall at the hands of Sauron. Through the entire book he wrestles with the thought that the ring might be better used against Sauron than destroyed. 

In a moment of weakness at the climax of the book, he corners Frodo and attempts to take the ring from him. Frodo runs away, and immediately Boromir realizes his mistake. He breaks down weeping at what he has done. And that is when he hears fighting break out—orcs have arrived to assail the company. 

He runs to the aid of the young hobbits Merry and Pippin, determined to make good on his failure. While he slays many orcs in the process, he himself is filled with many arrows and the orcs run away with the hobbits. Aragorn, their leader, arrives at the scene too late, finding Boromir leaning against a tree and drawing his final breath. That is when we read this exchange:

“Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!”

Even as I type these words, tears fill my eyes as they did when I was listening on the drive up to Canada for a time of solitude. During that time alone I realized that I am more afraid than I would care to admit. I wrestled deeply with fears that were unearthed in my soul: fear of death, fear of letting others down, fear of being unloved, unwanted, alone. Fears, in other words, of failure. Of dying in failure. Of not being enough or having what it takes at the end of the day.

Jesus, my dear Shepherd, spoke to those fears with the words of Aragorn. Here is what I wrote in my journal:

Did Boromir fail? Unequivocally! But not irrevocably. And so do I. Did death have the final say? No, for he conquered, and even more do I through the valiance of Christ, whose own death and subsequent resurrection formed the storytellers quoted above who are so near to my heart. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Indeed, we are guaranteed both failure and death in this life. But the remarkable reality of life with Jesus is that power can be perfected in weakness, victory can emerge from failure, and life can triumph through death. For on the cross, it appeared to all that death had won and Christ had failed. Yet it is precisely in that moment of failure that victory was secured and precisely in that moment of death that death itself died forever. 

So as you are confronted by the fears that assail your own soul—as you come face-to-face with your own failures or the prospect of death—take heart. Feel Jesus take your hand, kiss your brow, and hear him whisper strength to your spirit: “You have conquered.”

 

A reflection on perfectionism

 

One of Tolkien’s lesser known works might also be my favorite. The short story, “Leaf by Niggle,” tells the story of a painter who has an unavoidable journey to make. Though he encounters many people and things that distract him, vying for the increasingly short time before the journey, Niggle spends every chance he gets in front of the canvas he is painting. The painting is a tree, which might not seem like much except it is his life’s work and greatest passion project. 

The problem is, because he cares so deeply about the painting, he becomes obsessive over every small detail. He wants every leaf to be perfect and unique. He is engrossed in getting every feature exactly how it should be for the painting to be complete. So he works thoroughly and meticulously, never quite satisfied and at the same time fearing that he will not be able to finish the painting before he has to leave for his journey. 

It becomes clearer over the course of the story that however much he wants to blame the interruptions of his neighbors, sicknesses, and unrelated work, the primary reason the painting is never complete is his own all-consuming “niggling” and perfectionism. 

Niggle is clearly a stand-in for Tolkien himself. The “mysterious journey” is a metaphor for death, and the painting of the majestic tree with each detailed leaf is analogous to Tolkien’s own life work. A noted perfectionist, Tolkien would spend countless hours working and reworking even the smallest phrase or moment or feature of the world he built. 

Rarely satisfied, his niggling is part of why his books took so long to produce, and why so much of his writing was published posthumously. It is also why Middle Earth is one of the most robust and consistent worlds ever built, and his writings among the greatest achievements in human history.

As I wrestled with my own fears and hopes and dreams, I discovered just how much my own personality resembles that of my favorite author. I have so many ideas that I am afraid I will never get around to seeing most of them come to fruition in this life. I want things to be so perfectly consistent that I spend hours working and reworking sermons, writings, conversations, and yes, even this blog. 

I don’t want to miss a nuance, an inconsistency, an opportunity to say something better or differently, or more helpfully. And as is so often the case, perfectionism is the breeding ground of procrastination. I’m worried I won’t have what it takes to do something up to my standards, so I put that thing off until some unknown time in the future, distracting myself with something else at hand that doesn’t take as much of my thought or heart. 

And thus so much of what I aspire to seems to whittle away before my eyes, and the aforementioned fears of death take the form of fears that I will die without accomplishing all that I hoped or dreamed.

Niggle ends up taking the journey in the end. He has no choice. His painting is used to patch a roof, and the only thing that remains is the one perfect leaf he spent all his time on. His journey leads him in the end to a place “for a little gentle treatment” that is evidently representative of some sort of heaven. 

What Niggle discovers is that this world is the fully realized vision of his painting, featuring the tree and a magnificent forest surrounding it. He is able to explore mountains and forest areas that were only glimpsed from a distance in his original, imperfect painting, working to make it more beautiful with the newfound time afforded him.

My realization was this: We are free in Christ to labor earnestly for the good of the world, using all the raw material God has placed at our disposal to realize the dreams he has stirred in our heart. We need not procrastinate in fear that it will never be perfect, because nothing will be as it should be until the end of days. And we need not fret that we will never accomplish all we set out to do, because of course we won’t, that much is sure. But just as sure is the reality that something of our work in this life will be reflected in the next, and perhaps we will even be given a glimpse of the majestic vision to which it all pointed in the end.

Move and Dig

Move and Dig

Change is not the enemy but an opportunity

“Change is not the enemy but an opportunity.” My parents often shared these words when our family handled seasons of change. To be honest, those words often annoyed me. I don’t love change. I like stability. I like predictability. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that much of life involves change whether we want it or not. We age, we move, we change jobs, we change schools. There are all sorts of changes we must undergo. 

Despite my lack of love for change, it has still been a theme of the last 15 years of my life. In the last decade and a half, I have lived in 6 different cities, 4 different states, and I am pretty sure I have had to change which room I live in about 15 times. I have had to get used to adapting because this has been a season of constant transition. Though I hope the next decade brings more stability, I do believe that change is one of God’s favorite classrooms. 

 

Change in the life of Isaac

In Scripture, we are shown several characters who had to adapt to changes, foreseen and unforeseen. I will never forget a Dallas Seminary chapel message from Genesis 26 on the patriarch Isaac’s encounter with undesired change. Isaac was the son given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age as the beginning of God’s promised fulfillment to give Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars. God promised to bless these descendants with a great land and to use them to bless the nations. But in this passage we see obstacles that seemingly threaten the fulfillment of such promises. 

At this stage in Isaac’s life, he had been living in the town of Gerar because of a famine. Because of God’s blessing upon Isaac, he was becoming too powerful for the comfort of those around him, therefore, Abimelech, king of the Philistines, asked Isaac to leave Gerar and find safety somewhere else. So Isaac agrees to this unexpected transition. See what transpires next: 

Then Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found a well of spring water there. But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek because they argued with him. Then they dug another well and quarreled over that one also, so he named it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug another, and they did not quarrel over it. He named it Rehoboth and said, “For now the Lord has made space for us, and we will be fruitful in the land” (Genesis 26:19-22).

At first glance this is not exactly what I would call a gripping narrative, but our chapel speaker opened my eyes to the beauty of this passage. In the passage prior, God confirmed with Isaac the oath he made with his father Abraham and said “Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land as an alien, and I will be with you and bless you. For I will give all these lands to you and your offspring…I will give your offspring all these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring” (26:2-4). If I was Isaac and had just received this promise from God and now these herdsmen are telling me I cannot use the wells my family dug, I would probably give some pushback, both to the herdsmen and to God. But what do we see Isaac do? “He moves and digs, he moves and digs, he moves and digs.” This was the refrain our chapel speaker repeated again and again during that chapel message. “He moves and digs.” Isaac did not wallow in self-pity. He didn’t attack these herdsmen, he kept moving and he kept digging. 

 

Stewarding change

Amid all of my own transitions I have done a lot of moving, but I have not always done a lot of digging. I have seen change more as an enemy than an opportunity for further obedience. I have thought, “Lord, until you bring me to a place where I can settle, I am not going to make an effort to establish relationships or seek the flourishing of this temporary pit stop.” I have often seen change as something to resent, not steward. 

Did you note that the passage referred to the well Isaac dug as a “spring of water”? Springs of water were often a rare find in the valleys. In the time before running water, wells did not just mean refreshment, they meant life. Even though Isaac did not partake for long of the life which that well produced, I imagine those wells led to the flourishing of many who came after. 

Eventually God allows Isaac to settle at the well of Rehoboth, which is the Hebrew word for “open spaces.” I love that! And isn’t that what we all want? A place to live, rest, and thrive. If only that was our common reality in this fallen world. Instead, life more often reflects the name of the other two wells: “argument” and “hostility.” 

Change in my life has often included arguing with God. I think I know what I need better than he does, so I dig my heels in and refuse to move, fighting for control. In other seasons, I have faced hostility from those around me and could not move fast enough, but the Lord has called me to keep digging and serving those who made life difficult. I wouldn’t mind changing so much if I could have the exact timing, outcomes, and environments I want. But change does not often work that way. I cannot control every aspect of life, but I can steward the change he allows. 

 

Move and dig

I don’t know where God has you right now. I don’t know what seasons of change you are presently experiencing. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe a new marriage, or a new child. Perhaps your change involves loss; the loss of a job, a dream, a loved one. Now you are adjusting to a life that comes with a great void. There may be “hostility” at work or in your neighborhood that is forcing a change like it did for Isaac. 

Whatever the source of your change, I admonish you to keep moving and keep digging.  I challenge you to think about what your digging might mean for those around you. Maybe you are about to leave your job, but you have some final responsibilities to conclude. Instead of coasting to the finish line, consider how your good work might lead to the flourishing of the one who will take your place. 

Maybe you are a college student and you only plan to live where you are for a few years until you graduate. What are ways you can bless your neighborhood or apartment complex in ways that will shape it years after you are gone? Who knows what life-giving qualities could stem from your faithfulness in that season of stewardship! I have learned that if my contentment in life is dependent upon seeing the fruit of all of my hard work, I will end up living a life of discontentment. But I pray that on that day when God brings us to the land of “open spaces” God will allow us to look back and see the springs of water that came from all our hard digging. 

Brother and sister, keep moving and keep digging. 

The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The Voice for a Generation Defined by Their Longing: The 1975

The 1975 is an indie pop band from Manchester, England. It’s possible that you’ve never heard of them before and you might have zero interest in their music, but what if I told you the person Taylor Swift dated before Travis Kelce is the frontman for and lyrical genius of the band, Matty Healy? If Taylor Swift was that interested in him, are you maybe a little more interested now?

 

Generational Voices: Taylor Swift and…The 1975?

The 1975 have released five albums, each to critical acclaim over the past ten years or so. Their most recent album was released in 2022, entitled Being Funny in Foreign Language. Matty Healy is a controversial and complex figure, but in the midst of his reputation for being rockstar in every sense of the word, if you listen to him speak it’s clear that under the surface is an artist dutifully keeping himself in tune with both his own proclivities, musical notes, and our time.

Let me tell you why I’m writing about them. As a person trying to orient myself as a Christian in the zeitgeist of our postmodern culture and society, I am constantly looking for resources in the humanities (visual or musical art, literature and poetry, philosophy and religion) that help me name my own complex desires, my own experiences in modern life, and offer a commentary on our postmodern world. The more I listen to The 1975, the more I’m convinced that they are the undersold voice of my generation (the “sold” voice being the new queen of Kansas City herself, Taylor Swift). The 1975 aren’t a Christian band at all but Christian aesthetics and symbols saturate their songs. Even more, their songs, not only in their lyrical play but in their musical play, offer a depth of human emotion and experience that create space for us to be concerned about what ultimately concerns us: God.

I’m convinced that The 1975 is one of many cultural markers that demonstrate that my generation is growing in articulating the spiritual need they know they have. Even more, they are at the forefront of a movement making room for the growing awareness that the postmodern and digitally modern society does not meet the depth needed to answer the desires of their soul. This is explicitly called out in the cry for help in the song “Love It If We Made It,” with the lyrics: “Jesus save us, modernity has failed us. I’d love it if we made it” (note that if you listen to this song, there is explicit language). The longing for something more, even if it is ironic, is directed where? To Jesus.

 

Faith and the Chaos of our Age

We are bombarded with a hairball of complex realities from secularism, political agendas and war, to relational hardships, new Netflix shows that are therapy, and children encountering new realities. Every day our age of anxiety gnaws at us: it might be our own anxiety and it might be the anxiety of our world. From staring at a screen for eight hours plus, news programs firing off information that might be misinformation, the steadiness of information overload, dating apps, social media trends, and mind-numbing scrolling to get some peace. Digitally we find no relief, only more concerns to compound our own, and just a facade of connection to match our loneliness. In all of this, we feel something tugging at us. Longing. A longing for more.

The 1975 gets at this complexity in their album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. In their song “I Like America & America Likes Me” they capture the nature of the generation left longing for more in the midst of their digital isolation, their wrestling with the nature of life, and their apathy as a way to cope with their lack of answers. All of this is grasped by sporadic and punchy lyrics: “Is that designer? / Is that on fire? / Am I a liar? / Oh, will this help me lay down? / I’m scared of dying / It’s fine / Being young in the city / Belief and saying something.”

Did you notice how the lyrics jump from one thing to another, almost like scrolling through your TikTok feed? One question rings out through the song, and it’s existentially louder than the loudness of the beat of the bass. “Oh, will this help me lay down.” What kind of laying down is Matty Healy after? A good night’s sleep? A way to numb when the apathy doesn’t work any longer? Or maybe something deeper? Perhaps what Matty dares to mention is that he needs some real rest from the anxiety of being tangled in the complex hairball of a world.

He decides to venture into the explicitly faith-based conversation in the song, “If I Believe You.” The song, with noticeably gospel undertones demonstrating that Matty Healy is a student of music itself, wrestles with not just existential realities of modern existence but with the epistemological reality of Jesus being actually real: “And if I believe you / will you make it stop? / If I told you I need you / is that what you want? / And I’m broken and bleeding / And I’m begging for help / And I’m asking you, Jesus, show yourself / If I’m lost then how can I find myself?”

 

Relationships in a Lonely World

The 1975 songs run the topical gamut, but like any good band, there’s no shortage of relational heartbreak in their songs, which is in and of itself a direct parallel to our world. “Somebody Else” is their most famous hit, and the song captures the rawness of heartbreak at the end of a relationship. Matty cries: “I’m looking through you, while you’re looking through your phone, and then leaving with somebody else.” He continues, “Our love has grown cold / You’re intertwining your soul with somebody else.”

Notice that the language here is not only about bodies…it’s about souls. There’s a veiled recognition, if only metaphorically, that there’s something more at play than just bodies intertwining in relational intimacy. Instead, it’s the heartbreak of a relationship not only ending with only a separation of bodies but with pain that can only be explained by the ripping apart of souls. And the torture when that body moves onto someone else’s body is that their soul is now intertwined with someone else. One only writes and sings these lyrics out of a profound sense of loneliness.

To a thoughtful listener, these lyrics suggest there is perhaps a better strategy for relational intimacy other than using our bodies as an immediate answer to our felt loneliness and our beautiful need for intimacy. In my mind, this lyric suggests that our other needs for security, safety, acceptance, and commitment, must also be cared for. Our souls need to be cared for beyond our need for intimacy. The Christian faith has something to say about this. Intimacy is designed to be experienced only after entering into a covenant relationship of safety, acceptance, commitment, and security.

 

Longing in a Postmodern Age

The 1975 puts language to a generation that if they know anything, they know great longing. Longing for more than mind-numbing screen scrolling. Longing for more than lackluster online relationships. Longing for more purpose than collecting material items. Longing for more than a warm body to lie next to at night. Longing for more than political agendas and political theater. Longing for systems that care and value instead of control and oppress.

Secularism and postmodernism leaves us with a longing. Some have said that in the loss of faith in this age, all we have to long for is longing itself. Is longing all we have? Well, the 1975 gives me a different perspective. Matty Healy, the rebellious figure he is, sees the Christian faith and Jesus as a concrete reality that could potentially offer a healing balm to the open wound of longing. And this means that with this type of longing, the longing can lead to real hope.

 

A Real Hope for Real Longing

As Christians, we need to continue to demonstrate, in our lives and with our words, how Jesus is the hope that meets a generation defined by their longing. This is nothing new…it has been done throughout the history of the church. Augustine once talked about his longings and how Jesus meets them:

“What do I love when I love my God?…
It’s not physical beauty or temporal glory or the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, or the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, or the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, or manna or honey, or limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God.
Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

Augustine says our longings reveal that we are concerned by (and longing for) that which concerns us (and we long for) most: God. And he also says more directly: Jesus is the one answer to all our longings. Indeed, may our longings lead us to him, and may a generation defined by their longing become a generation defined by their longings met in Jesus Christ.

The Perks of Being a Bible Quizzer: The Case For Setting Your Mind On Scripture

The Perks of Being a Bible Quizzer: The Case For Setting Your Mind On Scripture

When I was growing up, my dad helped lead a Bible quizzing program at our church and his energy and enthusiasm about it was contagious. Though I sometimes gave my parents a hard time about it, and even tried to quit once or twice, I was a highly engaged Bible quizzer from 3rd–12th grade.  

Looking back, I must confess that Bible quizzing is one of the best things that ever happened to me. Every year we would study a different book (or books) of the New Testament, and we had to be very familiar with the material, even memorizing particular verses and passages, to be successful in the competition.

Despite all of that Scripture in my mind, even as a Bible quizzer, I still found a way to be a rascal in many of my interpersonal relationships, but that was no fault of the Scripture. My life contains many mistakes, but my involvement in Bible quizzing, which led me to ingest large amounts of the New Testament into my long term memory, and eventually into my heart, is not one of them. 

I backed my way into immersing my mind in Scripture as a child, but now in adulthood, I have found it to be extremely helpful for the learning involved in discipleship to Jesus. 

 

The Why

If we have accepted the status of disciple (a student or apprentice) of Jesus Christ, then, as good students, what we fill our minds with will have important ramifications on our learning. As disciples of Jesus, our course of study is to learn how to live our lives within the reign and action of God, just like Jesus would if he were us. Such a way is outlined for us in Scripture.

In Psalm 1:1–3, we find a picture of the kind of person whose delight is in God’s law or word, and meditates on it day and night: he or she is like a tree planted by streams of water. Their fruit yields in season, their leaf does not wither, and whatever they do prospers. This kind of  student or disciple has their mind on the material, and will be successful in learning kingdom living.

How could we expect to grow in Christlikeness, if we don’t recognize our obligation to set our minds on the material of the course? If we set our mind on “whatever,” then “whatever” will be our result. The lesson of garbage in, garbage out, is completely accurate.   

Can you imagine failing a course, and then complaining to your teacher, “Oh… you actually expected me to study?” 

If our goal is to learn to live in cooperation with God’s action, then, as students, there is material available for us to set our minds upon to aid us in that pursuit. 

We can do this, and we can start afresh today. 

 

The How

With the right “why” in hand,  we are motivated and prepared to ask how we might immerse our minds in Scripture. 

To this end, Dallas Willard offers 3 keys for setting our minds on Scripture: 

 

  1. Concentration: We have to actually set our attention on the Scripture.
  2. Repetition: We have to go over the same material multiple times to become familiar with it.
  3. Understanding: We must understand it for it to be profitable to our hearts.  Sometimes looking at multiple Bible translations or resources like commentaries, BibleProject podcast and videos, and audio Bible recordings can help. 

If you are ready to concentrate, repeat, and understand Scripture, here are a few passages to start with. I know you will find many more to add to the list!

Psalm 23
Proverbs 3:5–8
Isaiah 40:27–31
Philippians 4:4–9
Colossians 3:1-17

In Psalm 119:11, we read, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

May this be true of each one of us this year, and for the rest of our earthly sojourn. 

We Were Meant to Live for so Much More

We Were Meant to Live for so Much More

Fumbling his confidence
And wondering why the world has passed him by
Hoping that he’s bent for more than arguments
And failed attempts to fly, fly

We were meant to live for so much more
Have we lost ourselves?
Somewhere we live inside

I was a high school junior when Switchfoot’s iconic song Meant to Live came out. I remember driving to work and school with this song on repeat. As someone who has always dreamed big dreams fueled by a wild imagination, I never really wanted a “quiet life.” While I didn’t know what living a quiet life actually meant in high school, I made myself a promise to never be stuck in a Secret Life of Walter Mitty existence. I had seen friends, family, and leaders waste away in the acceptance of just going with the flow, and it looked more like death than life. 

It had been years since I’d heard that song, and then in 2023, I heard not Jon Foreman but Jon Bellion singing Meant to Live as if it was a new hit single. Switchfoot, no doubt following in the footsteps of Taylor Swift, had re-released their “own versions” of their hits and even went one step further, inviting well-known artists to remake their hits. Instantly it was as if I was in high school again. Now, to be clear, I wasn’t hit with midlife regret. I’ve persistently said “yes” to what many said was crazy, and I have had an expanded imagination around the goodness of quiet living. But the song’s re-release did raise a question that will be raised until Jesus returns: What more is God rescuing me for today

Throughout history, Christians have spoken at length concerning the dangers of discontentment. The Apostle Paul reminds us that with Jesus, we truly have enough no matter our circumstances (Philippians 4:11). What a gift of the Christian life! But for as long as we are on this side of eternity, I also hold fast to how Paul modeled a holy discontent. 

Why? Deep within the infrastructure of salvation are dual, dynamically concurrent movements. God has magnificently rescued you and me through his Son Jesus through his life, death, burial, and resurrection “from” sin. Hallelujah! But that’s not the only movement. God is not just a “from” God. God is also a “for” God. God came not just to rescue us “from” sin and its consequence: death. God came to rescue us “for” life, although looking at some sectors of Christianity, you’d have no idea. Sometimes Christians can get so focused on the “from” that we no longer embody the “for.” 

This is why the Apostle Paul astounds me. He seemingly had everything this world had to offer before Jesus saved him. He was the best in his class. He had good pedigree, past experiences of God, and top-level leadership as a Pharisee in Jerusalem, the holy city! Then he gets a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus on a work trip, and he is confronted with life. 

The atrocity of Paul’s own sin was revealed to himself, along with the beauty of salvation from sin through Jesus’ sufficient death. Simultaneously, Paul saw life in the resurrected Jesus, and nothing compares to that resurrection life. Paul saw Jesus bringing a whole new way to live.

Not a kind of life where self-destructive habits continue to dominate and shame us while we tell ourselves our hope is just a promise on a piece of paper that when we die, it will be different. Not a kind of life that leaves us lonely without purpose. Not a kind of life that is contained to a few quiet times in Scripture and Sunday mornings. 

No. We were meant to live for so much more, but we’ve lost ourselves, partly because we’ve lost sight of salvation.

God wants us to live with him and thus find ourselves. A life that says “yes” to his healing. A life that grows our capacity to love him, others, and ourselves. A life that knows no end and knows higher bounds. A life that exists on more than the weekends. A life no one can take away. The life we were meant “for.” 

But resurrection life is not always the life we recognize. Paul himself didn’t recognize it at first. This is what Paul is writing about in Romans 6-8. He’s laying out how God has rescued us for real life, a life that looks and dwells with Jesus now

One way Christians have sought to open themselves up to this life they read about in Scripture is through contemplation. Contemplation is rich with spiritual practices and postures that Christians throughout history have engaged with to more fully experience and rest in their union with the Author of Life. Contemplation is sometimes still and sometimes not. It’s as rich as resurrection life when we lean in.

Take time to walk through a passage like Romans 6-8. Spend time in contemplation, considering what God might be saying to you. Join your church family in theFormed.life, which continues our daily journey through Scripture and building habits, such as the discipline of contemplation, as we grow into the life God has for us. 

We were meant for more, and he’s waiting.