My son ripped open the present with all the glee that a child can muster early on Christmas morning. His Apaw (Grandpa) sent him something special: a telescope from National Geographic.
My son is a big science kid, and is especially interested in the stars and planets. That night, we set the telescope up on the back deck. The waning moon beamed down on the yard, so bright we saw shadows. Wrapped in jackets over pajamas, and boots over wool socks, he peered into a lens that peered into a lens that peered into a lens that magnified what no human eye could see. His breath caught as he stood stock-still. “Dad, I can see craters!” When he finally let me have a turn, I saw them, too. The sun’s light on the moon’s surface illuminated countless craters, scoops from rock and dirt thousands of miles away. Each one was thousands of years old and exactly as it appeared when it was young, a living photograph. There was a tug on my sleeve. “Dad?” As I pulled away from the telescope, my eyes came back to earth. “Can we do a star next?”
When the ancients considered the heavens, they were often afraid. It’s hard to blame them. The size and scope of it all, the blackness of the night sky, and the endless blue of the day, were no doubt hard to fathom without our modern instrumentation. It must have felt like standing at the edge of an endless cliff, right in front of you, without explanation, seemingly without beginning or end.
Humanity now stands on another such edge. We have launched the Webb telescope, factors of thousands more powerful than its predecessors, and by its mirrored eyes we see things hidden from the foundations of the world with razor sharp clarity. Beautiful, yes, but vast, seemingly infinite, and on its surface, empty and void of life.
The Scriptures admonish us that when we consider the heavens and the works of God’s hands, our response should not be fear. The heavens declare his glory, says Psalm 19, and we should worship God for his wonderful design. But I saw something in my son that day that made me wonder if we are missing something; something hidden between the whirring galaxies overhead.
It’s something G.K. Chesteron once quipped about Jesus., who pointed not only to the heavens, but to the lilies, the sparrows, and the details of our lives, reminding us that they said something profound about his Father. And yet, there was something Jesus could not tell us, something we were not ready for. Chesterton put it this way:
“There was something that [Jesus] hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his [joy].”
The heavens declare his glory, no doubt, but I have also begun to wonder if they shout his joy, too. The universe, as it always has, will continue to befuddle us. Every new mystery unlocked leads to hundreds more. The more we see of it, the less we understand. The Scriptures, for their part, never tell us precisely what the heavens are, but they do tell us something of what they mean.
And I think they mean, in part, to give us a hint at God’s capacity for joy. Through this lens, we might begin to understand that the mind-bending size and scope of a galaxy so large it would take hundreds of millions of years for any human to traverse, simply means the galaxy was made for Someone else’s delight.
It may mean that the trillions of stars, nebulae, quasars, and black holes together represent a power, a design, and a joy that we simply are not yet ready for. It may even mean that when the apostle reminds us that there is a weight of glory to be revealed in each one of God’s children, that if we were to see it now, we would not believe he meant it. How could we believe it, when we can barely understand the stars themselves?
There are times, unlike my son, when I look in that telescope and recoil at what I see. The universe, we know, does not go on forever, but it might as well. The earth, this small rock in a small galaxy in a tiny corner of it all, seems pretty insignificant in comparison. It can make you feel lonely, isolated, and meaningless.
Life can do this, too. We may feel small compared to the news, our problems, our fears, and anxieties. Perhaps you find yourself discouraged today. Afraid. Out of control. Unseen or unknown. Remember with me that the heavens declare the glory of God, the joy and delight of God, which he promises one day to fully share. This life is preparing you for it. So keep waiting. Keep watching. Keep looking up.
“Did you know we have ancestors from France?”
Before I could say anything in response, my family member was on Google earth exploring the countryside of France pondering what this means for her and our family.
She was searching, but for what?
Searching for who we are
Maybe you or a relative has gone through this process. In a world filled with uncertainty, we long for rootedness. We long for history. We long to belong. This is partly why DNA and ancestry services are exploding. Our anxious world is seeking to know who we are.
But like a mirage, when facts and figures land in our hands, it still doesn’t fulfill that deep thirst. This is because we don’t just want to know our history and get the nuts and bolts of the where/when/what. We want to hear stories about our people and find out something specific about why we are who we are today.
We want to learn, grow and not feel so alone. But to do that, we need to go further back than a few centuries. We need to go back a few millennia to the stories of our faith family in Scripture.
As Christians, we come to the Scriptures with the belief that God is telling a story that is true and relevant to life today although it is anchored in history. This informs why we come to Scripture looking for answers. We come seeking guidance, but what we may miss is that it is here that we also find belonging.
The role of storied memory
Imagine an oral culture, which is the primary context when Scripture was recorded, and the primary mode of communication is story. In a collective society, it is these stories of God’s people that shaped not only their understanding but also their identity. Under the stars around the fire Grandma or Grandpa, the keeper of the stories, would tell of Joseph and his envious brothers, Moses parting the Red Sea, or David being anointed by Samuel.
In these stories, generation upon generation not only learned about their ancestors, but they learned about who they were. They would understand “this is how we do things as God’s people,” and simultaneously embody hatred of practices that went against “who they were.” The stories of God working through their ancestors helped them make sense of what God was doing among them as His people in the present.
Remembering is NOT an option
This is why the most common command in all of scripture is NOT: “fear not” or “love your neighbor.” While both are crucial, the most common command is to “remember,” because in these stories recorded and passed down for generations, we find belonging and behavior that is in accordance with being God’s people.
Since all of Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for our growth and maturity (2 Timothy 3:16-17), that means when we forget our family — or when the stories of God’s people throughout Scripture escape our imagination — we forget a portion of ourselves. We forget who we are supposed to be today.
Therefore what we need on our journey toward wholeness is less akin to a baby shower or a birthday where both celebrations have their eyes set forward. Rather we need something more akin to Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday, that looks back and remembers our ancestors of the faith to see how their stories continue to speak into who we are, and connect with us today.
Rewards of remembering
In our Forgotten Family series, we’ll explore overlooked stories in Scripture. But this isn’t just for Bible knowledge. Studying some of the forgotten stories of our faith family will provide at least three assurances:
- We’re not the first. When we hear stories of our faith family who have gone before us, we rest assured that we aren’t the “first” of God’s people to face challenges in our faith (1 Corinthians 10:11). The Christian life is a path worn by many who have walked before us.
- We’re not alone. As we remember stories of forgotten family, it’s a reminder that we are not “alone” in our battles. There is a beautiful mystery of those who have lived, died and are with Christ, who also make up this great cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our faith (Hebrews 12:1). We aren’t the first to walk this way, and we aren’t alone.
- We’re not without guidance. By listening to stories of our faith family with God’s commentary in Scripture, we gain clarity in understanding “who we are” and thus greater understanding of how we as “God’s people live out who we are in various circumstances.”
The more we learn about those who went before us, the more we understand how our family history is a window into who we are today. When we forget our roots, we are less equipped to bring our whole selves to the opportunities and challenges of our lives.
We long to have a more secure identity in our good God, and for that we need to remember who we are as God’s people on a deeper level. Our hope is that you don’t just join us as we remember what God has done before, but that in remembering, we better understand together who we are and join in how He is continuing to work through us today!
I am ready for joy. I am hungry for it. After a year of pandemic, characterized for many of us by disappointment, loneliness, and fear, our appetite for joy has only increased. Spring has arrived and the vaccine is becoming available. “Normal” doesn’t feel too far away. Will we return to joy?
We were created for joy. It is the root of every longing, and we spend the majority of our lives searching for it. Joy is both a command and a promise, but we’re often not very good at understanding it or finding it. Every one of us wants more of it, so how do we do it? Where do we get it? How do we sustain it? How do we return to joy?
The Most Joyful Book of the Bible
To answer these questions, I often turn to Philippians in the New Testament. Philippians is sometimes referred to as the most joyful book in the Bible, which means for me, it’s pages are well-worn. I even memorized all 104 verses of it back in college (please don’t quiz me!).
Now before you think that’s me bragging — look how spiritual I am, I memorized a whole book of the Bible —I only share that to show you my desperation. That’s how hungry I am for joy! You see, I am not very good at it. As someone who is definitely a bit on the melancholy side, joy often feels out of reach.
As a result, I can easily gravitate to the many pseudo joys around me. Maybe the next meal, or the next drink, or the next vacation, or the next purchase, or the next show, or the next accomplishment, or the next whatever will finally do it. Have you been there? Even though these are often good things, it can be a vicious cycle of escalating disappointment and discontent.
Paul shows us a better way. And what always amazes me about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that he wrote it from prison! From prison, suffering for preaching the good news of Jesus, Paul writes one of the most joy-filled books of the Bible. At the very least, this should remind us that joy is not based on circumstance. But if it’s not circumstance, where do we get it?
I know you’ve heard the phrase or seen it on some home decor or motivational poster: Choose Joy. I have a love/hate relationship with that phrase. On the one hand, I do love it. Joy is a command from God and therefore we all have an active role in pursuing it. Joy is not an option for Christians. Choose Joy!
On the other hand, as someone who has struggled with mild depression for most of my life, I also sort of want to punch that phrase in the face. Believe me, I’ve tried to choose joy! It’s not that easy, is it? I don’t think we can just “choose joy” and have it magically appear.
Choose Habits of Joy
But we can choose habits of joy, and I think this is where Philippians encourages us. We may not be able to simply choose to have joyful feelings but we can choose to pursue the practices that are most likely to build joy into our lives. Paul shows us some of these practices, and while there are many lessons on joy here, let me focus on three primary habits of joy: prayer, people, and presence.
Habit of Joy #1: Prayer
Perhaps the most obvious habit of joy from Philippians is the habit of prayer. According to Paul, prayer is not simply a means of getting stuff from God, but a means of receiving the kind of peace that leads to rejoicing.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. …do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4, 6-7
It’s interesting to me that more and more is being written today from a variety of worldviews about the importance of mindfulness and gratitude when it comes to joy. People from several disciplines (neurology, psychology, theology) all agree on how important this is to joy, even if they disagree on other foundational principles.
The practice of quieting ourselves mentally, articulating our feelings, and focusing most on the things we’re grateful for is good for your brain, and more importantly, it’s good for your soul! The people of God have been doing this work for millenia. We are actually invited to express those things to the God who made us.
If you want more joy in your life, but are not growing in prayer, you are going to be disappointed. For me, I try to start each day with prayer, and I try to spend about half my time thanking God for those ways in which I’ve recently experienced His love. All joy is relational (more on that below) and when I pray with gratitude, my joy increases. I think yours will as well.
Habit of Joy #2: People
The second habit of joy that stands out to me from Philippians is people. This letter is deeply relational, deeply personal, and highly communal. Paul addresses conflict among Christians, he encourages the relationships within the church, and he demonstrates that there is no real joy apart from others.
There is no real joy apart from others. That may be a shocking statement, but the older I get and the more I read on this subject, the more convinced I am of this truth. Although I’m an introvert, need a lot of alone time, and occasionally just don’t like people, I am convinced that the majority of our joy is found in the context of relationships.
I recently read that one definition of joy is knowing that someone else is glad to be with me. Simply being with that person and knowing that you are loved and respected — that they want to be with you — is the place of deepest joy.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.… Philippians 2:1-5
What will make Paul’s joy complete? The same thing that increases our own joy — a community of people shaped by the love of Jesus.
Sadly, we often think joy will come by doing what we want, expressing ourselves, possessing unrestricted freedom, and essentially getting our own way. Which means, if you think about it, many of our faulty definitions of joy actually hinder community, and therefore hinders our joy! True community isn’t possible if I’m always getting my way. True community demands a sacrifice of some of my rights, preferences, and desires, yet even with these sacrifices, this kind of community is the place of deepest joy.
This is why Paul can tell us to put others first, to serve relentlessly, and to give generously. He can tell us all that and keep a smile on his face, because he knows: if you want joy, you need people, and the best relationships are characterized by the way of Jesus.
This has shaped my priorities. For example, even though I often think I’d rather stay home and watch Netflix (which only rarely satisfies), I’ve forced myself to schedule greater time with the people I love (which almost always satisfies). The church is a great place to do this, even though it certainly takes work. Prioritize these relationships, and when you see that people are glad to be with you, and they see that you are glad to be with them, there will be joy.
Habit of Joy #3: Presence
This also applies to God. God is happy to be with you. His face lights up when you enter the room. He delights in spending time with you, and in His “presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).
The presence of God is always available to His people. In the third chapter of Philippians Paul lists many of the things we run to in order to give us joy. He mentions his heritage, his national and ethnic background, his accomplishments and good works. But that is not Paul’s joy.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… Philippians 3:7-9
Knowing Christ and being found in Him — this is Paul’s joy. And we also can know Him and be found in Him. We can spend time consciously in His presence. We can get to know Him through prayer and people, spending time with Him and spending time with His community. We also get to know Him through His Word and through His Spirit.
And for Paul, that is a joy greater than personal self-expression or unlimited freedom. It is a joy greater than power or accomplishment or feeling like a good person. It is a joy that is greater than any circumstance and it is a joy that is available to us.
Prayer, people, and presence…I’m not going to say just choose joy. But I can encourage you to choose the habits of joy. They take time and they take work but it is a lifelong path worth taking. And together, we can return to joy.
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Philippians — Read it, study it, meditate on it, and perhaps even memorize it. You can also engage in our sermon series: Return to Joy: Studies in Philippians.
The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder & Michel Hendricks. (While not perfect, this book does a fascinating job in bringing many of these things together. It’s a pretty short read but very worth it. I’m still chewing on a lot of it.)
Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday, culminating with our celebration of the Greatest Day, the day death died and hope triumphed, our Resurrection Sunday.
I didn’t grow up in a tradition that thought much about Lent, but in seminary I discovered that Lent is a path walked by countless Christians for centuries, to prepare themselves for the joys of Easter. It is a season of reflection, confession, and anticipation, as we enter the sufferings of Christ.
Can I celebrate Easter without Lent?
But Lent seems like a lot of work! Is it really necessary? Why can’t I just celebrate the resurrection? Why take this longer, more arduous path when I know that, either way, Easter is coming?
That’s a fair question, and that option is certainly available. But I think of engaging in Lent a bit like one of my favorite hikes from this past year.
Alaska and Lent
Our family was in Juneau, Alaska, and we wanted to do the same thing the majority of visitors do when they’re in Juneau—visit Mendenhall Glacier.
When most people visit this massive glacier, they do so by taking a tour bus to the visitor center on the east side of the glacier, go for a short walk on a paved path, and then fight through the crowds for a quick selfie with this spectacular ice—all from nearly a mile away.
But I thought to myself, “Not good enough! I didn’t come all the way to Alaska to stare at this thing from 4,800 feet away on an over-crowded sidewalk! I could have just stayed home and googled it. No! I want to touch it! Smell it. I want to feel the cold breeze blowing off it. I want it to drip on me, and I want to taste the water of this ancient snow.
In essence, I wanted to experience that glacier as intensely and completely as humanly possible.
So much work
But it wasn’t going to be easy. After a ton of research (and convincing my family: “trust me, this way will be better”), we took a taxi to the opposite side of the glacier, a place with almost no tourists. Because of its increased isolation, we had to convince the taxi driver to return later to pick us up. And all we could see when we arrived was one tiny glimpse of the glacier from an even farther distance. Just a bunch of trees, a narrow, poorly-marked trail, and the potential for bears. Did we just make a huge mistake?
It was too late for those thoughts, so off we went! We are fairly experienced hikers, but it was a difficult seven-mile round trip. Three out of four of us fell and got hurt. There were places where we lost the trail, spots we trudged through the mud, and other areas the brush was so thick we could only barely squeeze through. We had to scramble up steep and dangerous cliffs and gain about 1,200 feet in total elevation. We were hungry, tired, and becoming more ticked at each other with every seemingly pointless step.
And we still hadn’t really even seen it! I’m pretty sure our kids, ages 9 and 11, were contemplating emancipation. I could see from Kelly’s face that she was questioning her life choices. Even I was beginning to feel more than a bit of regret. Stupid hike! We could have taken the bus, clicked our selfie, and been done with it by now!
Then we saw it
And then we got above the cliff, and instantly, we forgot about all the work. Oh. I’d never seen anything like it.
I had never even imagined ice so blue or so massive or so gorgeous. It literally took our breath away (of course, we may have still been winded from scaling the rocks). It was still about a half-mile away, but we could FEEL the ice in the air and had to put on our coats.
Our pace slowed as we soaked it in. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, each of them a failure to capture it. Closer and closer we inched, in awe of the beauty God invented.
We walked beside it. We walked on top of it. Eventually, we found an ice cave and walked under it. We felt it and tasted it. We lingered. We explored. We played. We couldn’t leave, for our hearts were overwhelmed, and we will never forget it.
And we could have missed it! Sure, the other way would have been so much easier, but this path? Not only were we able to get closer to it, but the work to get there actually heightened our joy. The anticipation (and sometimes doubt) of what was ahead, the pain and even continual questioning if we’d made the right choice, and the exhaustion of the experience actually made it better when we got there. The work became our delight.
Lent and Easter
And similarly, we can try to celebrate the resurrection without feeling the weight of the cross, we can try to rejoice in our forgiveness without reflecting on our brokenness and sin, we can try to delight in the hope of life without carrying the burden of suffering. You can absolutely celebrate Easter without Lent. But, you will rob yourself of a greater joy.
For it is in the arduous path of Lent that we get to stand in the presence of our Resurrected King. Not merely from a distance, as if we were a bunch of selfie-stick-carrying, religious tourists, but up close and personal. Through our increased engagement with the disciplines, such as Bible reading, prayer, reflection, solitude, confession, fasting, worship, community, etc., we get to experience our God not just from far off, but all around us. And the work will be worth it.
Our hike toward Easter
We invite you to take this hike with us. The trail began this week on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.
Along the path, you might consider giving up something for a season to participate even a tiny bit in Christ’s sufferings and to create space in your life for these kinds of disciplines. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Some Christians might give up meat or dessert, Netflix or shopping or social media. We give these up not because we have to, but as way to heighten our joy when we get there.
Each day on this journey of Lent, we encourage you to take additional time for focused meditation on God’s Word and reflection on our need for a Savior. Think about your sin, turn from it, and remember what it took for God to save you from it. We don’t do these things to earn favor from God or make Him like us more, but simply to create space in our lives for Him to do His greatest work.
To help us each day, we’re also recommending an incredible online devotional from 2019 that the Center of Christianity, Culture, and the Arts of Biola University posted. Each devotional (from Ash Wednesday through Easter) includes Scripture, poetry, art, music, and a written reflection. Take a look at their website, and sign up to have them email you these brief readings each day through Lent.
If you haven’t signed up already, now is a good time to join us on theFormed.life. This resource is a great foundation for daily study, focusing on spiritual disciplines and habits. During the four weeks leading up to Easter, theFormed.life will be focused on discussing elements of Holy Week.
With each step along the way, our anticipation builds.
And what’s our destination? My favorite church services of the entire year! Our Good Friday services at all of our campuses are a powerful time to enter the story of Jesus’ death. And then, of course, Easter Sunday, when we get to celebrate afresh that sin has been vanquished, suffering and evil has met its match, and death will be no more!
Yes, you can enjoy Easter without Lent, just as we could have glimpsed Mendenhall Glacier without that painful hike. But why would you? Greater joy is being offered. So which way will you go?
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Originally published February 20, 2019
2019 ONLINE LENTEN DEVOTIONAL FROM BIOLA UNIVERSITY
“Every human being is involved in a desperate
attempt to narrate himself into a safe place.”
– Richard Powers.
I do not know who Richard Powers is or why he wrote this, but he is right about me. If I get to be in charge of things, especially my life, I will most certainly narrate my story away from conflict. Away from risk. Away from pain. Away from suffering. Toward comfort. Toward ease. Toward safety.
This creates a significant problem for me, especially if I want to have anything to do with God. Spend about two seconds reading the Bible or looking at the world, and it is painfully obvious: God is investing very little energy into narrating anyone’s story toward safety.
Think about the implications of this. God wants something for you, for me, other than safety. This means that all of the energy I am spending trying to get somewhere safe is a waste. God is narrating the direction of my life away from safety, away from comfort, and toward somewhere else.
Where? Where is God taking me? Where does God want to take you?
That question is why Jeremiah has become the prophet guiding me in my current life. God forced Jeremiah into a life he didn’t want; a hard life, a life of suffering and persecution. A life where the primary thing Jeremiah had to do was tell his city—including his friends and his family—that one day they were going to be destroyed. They had abandoned God, so God was abandoning them.
Not surprisingly, Jeremiah offers to quit the vision of life God has for him many times. Fortunately for us, God told Jeremiah to write down these moments, to record his life and his prayers so that we could listen in on what happens between Jeremiah and God when Jeremiah tries to grab control of his life and narrate his story into a place of safety.
My favorite moment is in Jeremiah 12:5. Jeremiah is ready to quit the hard, painful, difficult life God has put in front of him. So God asks Jeremiah a question:
So Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men,
What makes you think you can race against horses?
It’s such a God question.
Jeremiah is just trying to keep it together. His life is hard—people want to kill him. The people he lives with hate him. His hometown is embarrassed by him. And on top of all this, he knows the city he loves—Jerusalem—will be destroyed one day. War and violence are coming. Jeremiah is limping along, struggling to walk, to stay on his feet. And so God asks Jeremiah another simple question—one question that is simple, but which we rarely ask ourselves:
Jeremiah…what do you want? Do you want it easy? Do you want it safe? Do you just want to limp along in life, like everybody else? Do you want to embrace mediocrity?
Or do you want salvation? Do you want to run with horses?
Again, I come back to Richard Powers’ statement: “Every human being is involved in a desperate attempt to narrate himself into a safe place.” And all the human beings said, “Amen.”
That is my problem. Because salvation, in the Christian sense, is not about becoming a moderately improved human being. It is not about sinning slightly less than I used to sin. God calls us to something impossible. Not to struggle along, limping in life. Rather, He calls us to a life that runs with horses.
Most days, I don’t want that. When I think about the life ahead of me, a life filled with challenges I never asked for and don’t want, I want to quit. I want out.
Then I hear God’s question to Jeremiah turn to me. Tim, if you are ready to give up in this footrace with men, how are you ever going to live the life I have for you? How are you going to become the person I am going to make you into—a person who will run with horses?
Don’t you want to be someone who can run with horses? I really hope your life’s ambition is not to be like everybody else, to find a safe and easy life and never put anything on the line. I hope you want to grow and become the kind of person only God could make you.
The place to start is to understand where God is taking us, and it is not to safety. God is not creating in us a slightly improved human being. He is not making us slightly less judgmental or prideful. No, God has a far more significant vision in mind for us. C.S. Lewis laid out God’s vision for who we are to become:
God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature…
And apparently, a way God produces that in us—in me, in you, in Jeremiah—is by narrating our lives into danger. Into suffering. Into pain. It is in the places where we would never narrate our stories that we get our wings. It is in those places God teaches us to not just run a little faster but to begin to run with the speed of horses.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]