Spiritual math is weird

a math equation, written by a doctor of physics, that I cannot understand

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT)

Read the passage again.

Did you notice Jesus saying that all we who are weary would get to put down our heavy burdens and carry his light one instead?

I didn’t either.

Which makes this an odd passage, but also right. Because his listeners had many burdens they couldn’t put down:

  • scraping out a subsistence living
  • paying ever-increasing taxes
  • being subjects of Rome
  • if a slave or a woman, being unable to make choices to determine your fate
  • miscarriage and infertility
  • social stigma
  • illness
  • injury
  • physical disability.

As do we:

  • poverty and job insecurity
  • paying ever-increasing taxes
  • many people live in dangerous and violent situations
  • racism
  • slaves (aka victims of human trafficking) unable to make choices to determine their fate
  • miscarriage and infertility
  • social stigma
  • addiction
  • mental illness
  • although we’ve made astonishing advances in medicine, people must still live with chronic illnesses, and with the side-affects of surgeries and medicines.

Although there were and are miraculous healings, and people being cured of addictions and illnesses, and injuries disappearing, and relationships being restored, and wombs opening — not everyone who asks gets healed; justice does not always come.

And Jesus tells us to add his yoke to the burdens we already carry.

our burdens + Jesus’s yoke = rest for our souls

That’s some weird spiritual math (weirder than the actual equation in the post image). But it’s true.

Somehow, the love and comfort and strength of God makes a difference. Our burdens may still be heavy, but we can bear them, or we can bear them differently, because we can share them with Jesus and with others who also love Jesus. We can experience deep rest during prayer, or worship, or communing with God in whatever way he reaches us. And somehow we can go on, and even thrive, with our burdens.

I cannot explain it, but I’ve found it to be true. I’ve had a year of horrible and crushing burdens that I never imagined carrying and didn’t have the choice to put down, but the love of God and of those who also love God sustained me. And those burdens lightened. They are still there, but a year later, they don’t weigh me down like they did.

Happily, we don’t need to explain this weird spiritual math to trust that it’s true, and to keep choosing to add Jesus’s yoke to our burdens and thereby find rest for our souls.* 



* This passage is often interpreted as being about the heavy burdens of religious rigamarole, but Jesus usually spoke on a number of levels, so I think this works, too.


Not really about doing

An image of a person standing alone before an impressive night sky. Not really about doing, a devotional about Philippians 4, verses 11-14.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty. (Philippians 4:11-14, NLT)

Paul here is thanking the Philippian church for sending him material help of some kind, most likely while he was in jail (as to which time he was in jail, there is no agreement). Essentially, he’s saying, “I’ve got Jesus, so I’m not in a panic about how things are right now, even though they’re not going well, but you are fine and generous people to want to take care of me.”

This is the context of a triumphal verse also translated as, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,” often quoted as a push to overcome obstacles, to do great things, to become a high achiever. But seen within Paul’s story, it isn’t about overcoming or achieving or greatness. It may not even really be about doing.

  • endure I can endure all things…
  • thrive I can thrive despite anything…
  • bear I can bear anything…

It’s tough to come up with an alternate word, because the tone of the passage implies neither soaring success, nor white-knuckled, teeth-gritted survival. Paul is content.

This verse is less about what he can do, and more about who he is.

No matter what his circumstances, he is the adopted brother of Jesus and son of the God who created the universe. No matter what, he is resting in that grace. So he doesn’t rely on his circumstances to tell him what his worth is. He is content whether he’s staying with friends who take care of him, confined to a dungeon jail, surviving a shipwreck, fleeing an angry mob, or speaking to fellow believers. He is content enough to, after receiving a beating, sing while in jail, and when an earthquake destroys the building, stay put so the jailer doesn’t suffer because all his prisoners have escaped.

So how does Christ give him strength to be content like that?
It’s a mystery that can only be solved by asking for strength yourself.



(Thank you to Steve Austin for his insights: I don’t want to do all things.)

Whether they listen or not

Jim Carrey with his fingers in his ears while Jeff Daniels talks: from Dumb and Dumber.

I am sending you to say to them, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says!” And whether they listen or refuse to listen — for remember, they are rebels — at least they will know they have had a prophet among them. “Son of man, do not fear them or their words…You must give them my messages whether they listen or not.”
(Ezekiel 2:4b-7, excerpted, NLT)

Reading that weird, prophetic book, Ezekiel, prompted me to write a piece called Sometimes I want to break up with the Bible, but it also busted me out of a spiral of disappointment and bitterness about my writing.

More precisely: about the success of my writing, and my obsession with others’ reaction to it.

I’d been writing with the goal of publication for close to ten years. I was blogging and using social media and going to writers’ conferences and retreats and reading craft books and following the advice and participating in online writing communities. I’d written a novel that I believed God had led me to and prepared me for. The story was strong. The research was energizing. The beta readers’ reactions told me I was on the right track. People were moved by my readings. It was the best thing I’d ever written.

Surely this time I’d find a publisher or agent.


This time, I was unable to be philosophical about the rejections. My disappointment poisoned all my other writing. I became fixated on blog numbers, comments, shares, on why the people whose blogs I read never read mine. Worst of all, I stopped writing.

Then I read this section of Ezekiel: “You must give them my messages whether they listen or not.” God did not measure Ezekiel’s success as a prophet by whether the people listened to him, but by whether he said what the Lord wanted him to say.

It set me free.

The Lord has called and equipped me to be a writer so, when I have written, I have succeeded in my calling. My success can be measured by one thing: whether I wrote.

It’s complicated, because I want to make a living as an author, and for that I need readers. Lots of them. But I sure wasn’t attracting them when I was stopped up by disappointment.

When I redefined success in line with the Ezekiel verse, I could do all the blogging and online relationship building and deep manuscript editing with a sense of freedom, because I was released from the fear that my calling required measurable results in order to be deemed a success in God’s eyes.

So when I’m tempted to get down on myself, I can ask: Did I give the people the words God gave me (whether silly or serious, inspirational or incisive, fictional or factual)? Did I write?

If yes, I’ve successfully lived out my calling.

Thanks be to God.

Our first job was to rest

Siesta Now In Progress, by quicksandala, from morguefile.com
Siesta Now In Progress, by quicksandala, from morguefile.com

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…. And evening passed, and morning came, marking the sixth day. So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had completed his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. (Genesis 1:27, 31, 2:1-2)

Whether we believe in a literal seven 24-hour days of creation or not, we can agree that the story of the Creation tells us important things about ourselves and about God. Typically, these verses are an argument for us to take a day of rest after we’ve completed our work.

But here’s the thing: we are not God.

God is God and we are part of the Creation.

God worked for six days and then rested. We were created, and then our first day was a blessed day of rest. Humanity’s first task was to enjoy this new creation. To explore. Perhaps to stroll with the Lord in the Garden. To commune with our Creator. Our first experience was of community, of people together who are together with God.

Our first job was to rest.

He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength. (Psalm 23:2-3)

God repeatedly promises rest (and its good friend, peace).

The Lord replied, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest… (Exodus 33:14)

Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” (Mark 6:31)

You will live in joy and peace.
    The mountains and hills will burst into song,
    and the trees of the field will clap their hands! (Isaiah 55:12)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

So let’s put a pause on all our striving and rest, enjoy, commune, connect — with each other, and with the Lord. Rest was, after all, our first job.

Sometimes we all need a little tenderness

cheek to cheek

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
Hosea 11:4 (NRSV)

Not everyone is a baby person. But for those who are, there’s something about a baby cheek. You want to stroke it. You want to plump it with a fingertip to see whether you can prompt a smile. You want to go cheek to cheek with it.

Those sweet interactions are tender and lovely, and totally unnecessary.

You can take excellent care of a baby’s needs without ever lifting them to your cheek. You can protect, feed, clothe, diaper, rock, walk, read, and talk with a baby, all with great love, without ever going cheek to cheek. You can enjoy a baby’s cuteness, exclaim over its chubbiness or its little elfin face without craving the feel of that velvety new skin against yours.

But a baby person can’t.

And here’s the thing: in this verse, God reveals himself as a baby person.

The Bible is full of the giant, impressive deeds of God, and they are awesome. When the Bible speaks of the love God has for us, it’s most often in terms of how he saves his children, how he protects them, feeds them, gives them good things.

All those things are true, but God-the-baby-person also craves those moments of tender connection with us, his babies, of celebrating our sweet neediness, of soothing our fussiness by bringing us right up to his face and cooing to us.

If you, like me, could use a little tenderness these days, imagine yourself as that baby that God just can’t wait to go cheek to cheek with. Because that’s who you are: a baby who doesn’t have to do anything to inspire this except for exist. And the creator of the universe can’t wait to bring you to his face and delight in you.


Image found here: http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/167368

The Parable of the Black Sand

The waves come. There will always be waves.

waves on Lake Michigan

Sometimes the waves bring lovely gifts.

a small Petoskey stone

Sometimes the waves are large, and pounding, and they carve away at what’s there, revealing the layers that were underneath the surface.

layers of sand revealed by waves

They reveal the black sand.

patterns of black sand and regular sand

The black sand has its own beauty, but it also clings thickly, clumping in a heavy mass on my feet as I walk through it.

black sand clumped on my foot

I can’t avoid it. Sure, I could try to hike up the ledge, but even if I managed it, I’d have to walk in the sharp dune grass that is full of ticks. I could fight the waves, but I’m not dressed for getting soaked.

So I walk through the black sand (revealing the regular sand with every step).

walking in black sand and waves

Here’s the thing about the waves: they exposed the black sand, but they also wash my feet clean.

feet washed clean

And the regular sand is right in front of me. Yes, it’s gritty. Yes, there are bits of black sand mixed in. But it is the sand I love to walk in, to play in. Dare I say, it gives my soul, and my soles, rest.

clean sand on my feet

The waves will come. Sometimes they will reveal darkness, and I will have to walk through it. But, even so, with every step, the light is revealed, and I trust that I will walk in the light again.

What if you’re the one in the ditch?

 One day an expert in religious law … wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road. [A priest and a Temple assistant crossed the road to avoid the man.] Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him….
“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.
The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:25-37)

The Good Samaritan. We often read this famous story as a call for religious people not to be so self-important that they refuse to help those in need, even when it’s inconvenient.

But that’s only one way to read it.

* * * *

Our expert in the law understands the use of stories in making a theological point, so as he’s listening, he’s figuring out:

  • Who is the hero of this story?
  • Who am I in this story?

Although Jesus’s first two examples (the priest and the temple assistant who pass by the man in the ditch) are the ones most culturally allied to our expert, they are definitely not the heroes. The hero is clearly the Samaritan — the despised one, the one our legal expert crosses to the other side of the road to avoid even being near. This might make our expert uncomfortable enough.

But “Who is my neighbor?” is the question that started the story.

Who is the neighbor to the man attacked by bandits?”

“The one who showed him mercy.”

Which makes the answer to the original question: “Your neighbor is the Samaritan.”

Our expert is the man in the ditch, broken, bruised, in need of help. He is not the hero, but the one who needs saving. That is probably not who he was expecting to be.

That’s not who many of us expect to be in the story, either. But what if we are?

What if you are the one who is hurt and broken and needy? 

A painting of The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall
The Good Samaritan by Dinah Roe Kendall

Then your neighbor is the one you think is gross, the one you think you are morally superior to, the one who is the butt of your jokes. That neighbor is the one who will help you, the who will show you mercy and make it possible for you to receive the healing you need.

Which makes the story of The Good Samaritan a whole lot more uncomfortable to live out — but then, Jesus doesn’t tell these stories to help us justify our actions. He tells them to challenge our self-justifications.


First Things First

You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself….I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. (Exodus 19:4, 20:2, NLT)

These are some of God’s words to Moses and the people, right before God gives them the Ten Commandments.


God does not give the people the Ten Commandments as a standard to help Him decide whether or not He will save them. God does not tell His people that they will only be worthy of being rescued if they perfectly follow the Ten Commandments.

No, God rescues them first.

They were slaves, and God sets them free. He takes care of their physical needs, leading them to safety and feeding them. He lets them put His care for them on trial, and gives them water gushing out of a stone. He empowers this ragtag group so they can beat the trained army of the Amaleks.

First, God demonstrates, in ways both practical and astonishing, how much He loves them. And then, God details how rescued people live. He shows them how grateful people respond.

This order is important. You do not have to prove that you are worthy of being rescued. In fact, you cannot prove your worthiness — both because you will never behave or think or feel or be perfectly enough, and because God has already declared you worthy of being rescued by rescuing you. Your own worthiness is beside the point. You’ve already been set free. Which is something to be grateful for.

Gratitude to God is the bedrock of all the Commandments. It has the power to push back against the bitterness, rage, self-righteousness, obsession with our own worthiness, laziness, greed, and fear that are the kindling that fuel the infernos of murder, adultery, idolatry, stealing, covetousness, fraud.

So live as a rescued person, with gratitude. Bitterness, rage, self-righteousness, obsession with your own worthiness, laziness, greed, fear  — they’re going to happen. Don’t let them ride unchecked. Fight back with gratitude that you don’t have to prove a thing: God has already carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Himself, just as you are.



Still, they stood there doubting: a Devotional

tangled mass

“Why are you frightened?” [Jesus] asked. “Why do you doubt who I am? Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me.” . . . Still they stood there doubting, filled with joy and wonder. (Luke 24: 38-39,41, NLT)

Doubt is often viewed as an enemy, as something to be afraid of, as a sign that one’s faith is almost finished.

Here, the disciples were sure their faith was finished. Jesus was dead. Judas, one of their own, had betrayed them all. They’d been in the middle of the torch-carrying mob that came to take him away. They’d seen the veins popping on people’s faces as they screamed for him to be killed. So they huddled together in a locked room, terrified the Jewish leaders would go after them next.

And, given their history, probably arguing about the things Jesus had said that they didn’t get at the time, and understood even less now that he was dead.

When the verses above occur, the disciples had already heard from Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus was alive, “but the story sounded like nonsense, so they didn’t believe it” (Luke 24:11, NLT). Peter and John had rushed to the tomb and seen the empty linen wrappings, but didn’t know what to make of it. They were in the middle of hearing from the two men from Emmaus about Jesus walking and talking and eating with them, when Jesus appeared.

In the locked room.

Yet he wasn’t a ghost.

Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do! (Luke 24:39, NLT)

This was beyond what they could have imagined, even after spending three years with Jesus and watching him do the unimaginable. So they doubted that it was really him, that he was really alive — even while they knew it was really him, so they were filled with joy and wonder.

Doubt. Disbelief. Joy. Wonder.

All mixed up in one tangled mess.

These people knew Jesus best. They had the advantage of having him with them, answering their questions, explaining his stories. They were often confused. They got it wrong all the time. But Jesus blessed them, loved them, empowered them. So why do we beat ourselves (or others) up for having the same experiences?



Spiritual Leprosy: A Devotional

St. Francis and the leper

The person who has the leprous disease shall . . . remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.          Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)

Skin diseases were serious business for the ancient Israelites, but what could it have to do with us today? We’ve conquered most ailments that plagued them, including Hansen’s disease, aka leprosy.

Beyond offering thanks, we can take it to a spiritual level.

Leprosy is an infectious disease that, besides causing skin sores, also causes nerve damage in the sufferer’s arms and legs. This nerve damage means that people with leprosy do not feel pain in those areas. People with leprosy often lose fingers, ears, even feet because of serious injuries they couldn’t prevent because the pain didn’t register.

What, then, is spiritual leprosy?

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ . . . we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.     2 Corinthians 12:12-13 (NLT)

We have spiritual leprosy when we do not feel or acknowledge the pain in (what we see as) our body-of-Christ extremities: fellow believers who are different from us (whoever the majority “us” is in your part of the kingdom), either in looks, upbringing, worship style, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, developmental ability, country of origin.

Spiritual leprosy looks like dismissing a fellow believer’s experience out of hand. It looks like turning a blind eye to injustice. It looks like self-justification for our lack of compassion or action. It looks like blaming the victim. It looks like glee at the downfall of Christian leaders. It looks like that favorite term of the prophets: hardheartedness.

It’s dangerous for the same reason physical leprosy was so harshly dealt with in ancient times: because it spreads. And the more it spreads, the more disfigured our Christian communities become: less hospitable to the widow, the orphan, the stranger at our gate, not to mention the hungry, the jailed, the immigrant, the broken.

Plow up the hard soil of our hearts. Help us to listen wholeheartedly. Help us to not see our part of the body of believers as more important than another part. And thank you, Lord, for Jesus. He was not afraid of lepers. He touched them. He healed them. May he heal us, too.