John the Baptist is one of the most colorful characters in the New Testament. The story of John is about a man who prepared people for the coming of Jesus. It is important to point out that long before John showed up, the Old Testament prophets of Malachi and Isaiah told of a time when a person would arrive on the scene proclaiming that the Messiah was on his way.
In Malachi we find, “A messenger of God will go ahead of you.” And from Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the Baptist was the fulfillment of these prophecies. John had a clear purpose in life. To tell people about Jesus, to prepare folks for his arrival, and to encourage them to repent or to turn their lives back to God. He passionately encouraged people to open up their hearts and their lives to God and for what God was about to do through Jesus.
John profoundly affected people around him. He shook people up by what he said, by how he acted, and in fact by how he looked. When people were around John they paid attention.
As a result of John, folks thought about their lives and what was important. They thought about God and what it means to have a God that is fully present. They thought about how they had fallen short and what they needed to do to set things right in their lives and relationships. They spent time thinking about their passions, affections, and attachments as well as their purpose in life.
As I think about John and who he was and the impact he had, I am compelled to offer some questions for each one of us to think about this Advent season.
John’s life proclaimed Jesus. Who or what do our lives proclaim? Who or what do our lives point to? What principles and values do our lives represent? What do people take away from us after an encounter with us? What rubs off of you and of me onto others?
Whether or not we know it or intend it, people are affected by being around us. And what rubs off of us can run the gamut from things that are debilitating to destructive to life changing to healing to leading people to Jesus. So the question is, what do you want to rub off on others as a result of people being around you? What do you want people to take away from being with you?
I know I have fallen short in many ways throughout my life. I have done and said things I regret. Not all of whom I have been has reflected my true values. And sadly, some of what has rubbed off of me onto to others is not what I really would have wanted. Perhaps you have had some of these feelings too.
But I also know that you and I are on a journey. That we can ask God to help us. We can repent and turn back to God. We can take the time to stop and think about the questions I’ve posed and what rubs off of us.
While you and I are not like John the Baptist, there is no doubt that we can have a massive impact on those we encounter. I invite you over the Advent days ahead to take some time to pray, think about, and dig deep within your heart, about what it is that rubs off of you onto others. And my prayer for each of us is that what we exude most of all to everyone we encounter is the love of God, a love so desperately needed at this time in our land.
We now are moving into our second week of Advent. It is a season in which, we as Christians, continue to ready ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birth and prepare and ponder His Second Coming. These themes of the Advent Season cause me to ask another question. Am I prepared for Jesus to come into my life right now?
Perhaps God wants us not just to think about what He did and what He will do, but what He is doing this moment. Frankly, if we spend too much time thinking about what was or what will be, we might not be paying enough attention to what the possibilities are right now.
Long ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote, in effect, “Lord God, we are the clay and you are the potter.”
While Isaiah’s words were to a people who lived and suffered a long time ago, in many ways, his words have a lot to do with us who live in a vastly different place and time. Isaiah said, in essence, “Through it all, the good and the bad, live like a piece of clay and let God be the one who shapes you.”
I think this is great counsel for us this Advent season. We don’t need to wait for His second coming for transformation, healing, or peace within our lives to begin. Jesus wants to come into our lives, come into the changes we are going through, come into the center of our identities and ways of doing things, and have His way with us right this moment.
Are we ready for Christ to come into our lives right now in ways that may change us at our core? Are we ready for that kind of change? Are we truly willing to expand what it is that we are building our lives upon?
Are we willing to finally build our lives around Christ? Not kind of. Not partially. Not sort of. But completely.
So this Advent, over the next days and weeks, I invite you to do a few things.
Have some straight talk with God. Talk to God about your life and especially those places you resist changing the most. Talk to God about those spots you are afraid to let go of. Tell God how you feel.
Ask God to help you build your life around Him. And it you already feel you have done that, ask Him again. Ask God to help you build your life around Him, not stuff, places, relationships, ways of living or a whole litany of other possibilities. Ask God to help you develop a relationship with God in which you are the clay and God is the potter.
My soul is at home in the Mountain and Desert Western United States. It may very well be this way because I was born along the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. It could also be due to the fact that many of my best childhood memories happened in a place where the air is dry, the sky is blue, and humidity is a foreign concept. But perhaps the West is my spiritual ally because of the wide open spaces.
There is something unique about driving along a dusty back road where mountain peaks 90 miles away are visible. And for me, there is nothing like standing on one of those peaks looking out over miles and miles and miles of creation. When you get down to it, I feel the way I do about the mountain and desert West because of the space. The scenery is just so vast.
Space enables perspective. Space facilitates inspiration. Space creates awe, renders silence, enhances the sense of how small we are, and allows us to see things in ways we otherwise would not be able to perceive.
It is only on a mountain top we gain a sense of what a valley is and it is by standing on a desert floor we begin to understand height. Space highlights opposites and exposes differences. Beauty happens because of space.
As I reflect upon geographical space, it occurs to me that space is something that happens within human relationships as well. While space can mean a relationship is strained or that people within a relationship are unhappy, space can also represent a basic truth that all human beings are different from one another. And perhaps rather that seeing such differences as a negative, we should view others who are vastly different from who we are in the same way we view the space of the West.
People from whom we differ offer us perspective, a different way of viewing things, and hopefully enables us to see things in new and varying ways. Topographical space offers us vistas and propels us to ponder and wonder. Wouldn’t a similar reaction to those with whom we differ be just as wonderful and impactful?
If everyone around us thought, believed, and expressed themselves as we do, if would be like living in a cave, a cave in which all people would be the same and life’s beauty and spectacular nuances would disappear. Imagine if the West was flat. Do we want life to be like that?
- A teacher (either your teacher or one of your children’s teachers)
- Your pastor or spiritual mentor
- A service industry worker (Servers, Nurses, Mechanics, Check-out Clerks, Firefighters, Policemen, Military, etc.)
- A family member (Spouse, Child, Parent, Sibling, etc.)
- Somebody who has inspired you through their example or by something they said
- A coworker
- Somebody who you haven’t spoken with in years
- A person with whom you have had a difficult relationship
- A random person who you meet in public
- An animal that you love
Recently someone sent me a fascinating article based on some research that has been done at Northwestern University. Apparently, the people we choose to spend time with affects us dramatically. The article notes that “choosing the right friends is important because it causes our brain waves to resemble those of the people we spend the most time with. This means we start becoming alike, and pick up their desirable behaviors and ways of seeing the world without being conscious of it.”
The research suggests that choosing people is more important than choosing what to eat, what to wear, where to go, what to do, or what to order. One person states, “the more important decision we have when going to a restaurant, for example, is who to go with. That is far more important and impactful than the choices on the menu.”
The same person says, “we get on the same wavelength with those we spend the most time with. If people want to make life improvements, such as reading more or getting better at something, then they should spend their time with someone who has those desirable traits and they will naturally pick them up.”
While I find this research fascinating and valid, what if we become more and more like, more and more in alignment with, not just those we spend the most time with, but with whom or what we choose to serve as well.
And the choices of whom or what we serve each day are limitless, both good and bad. We can choose to serve God, assets, an identity, family, our egos, an image, a profession, a political party, or a specific role we have in life, just to name a few. And whom or what we choose to serve impacts everything.
All of this causes me to wonder what might happen if you and I choose moment to moment to serve Christ. What if by choosing to serve Christ our minds get on the same wavelength with Jesus. What if by choosing to serve Christ, our days begin to reflect who God is.
And how might we see the challenges, joys, heartaches, struggles, fears, hopes, dreams, and let downs imbedded within each day if our minds were on the same wavelength as God’s? What might happen if during discussions, meetings, meals, random happenings, and events that occur
I have come to understand that if we want to change our lives for the better, the best place to start is not on the outside, but on the inside. The more we spend time with God, the more we make serving Christ our priority, the more we will find changes happening on the outside. The important thing about all of this is to make daily conscious choices, not only about the people we spend the most time with, but whom or what we are serving. Such decisions will dramatically affect the course of each moment.
The events of last Sunday afternoon have sent a shock wave around communities of faith. It is an event whose horror and resultant despair is beyond description. As news outlets and others write and speak about the event, words from the 2nd Chapter of the Book of Job came to mind.
11 When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him. Their names were Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.12 When they saw Job from a distance, they scarcely recognized him. Wailing loudly, they tore their robes and threw dust into the air over their heads to show their grief. 13 Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.
As I reflect upon the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, like Job’s friends, few if any words come to my mind, just silence. I remain speechless and at the moment I find the suffering there too great for words. Instead of words entering my mind, I have been overwhelmed with two images.
The first is of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. The second, which I gain only glimpses of, has to do with what Jesus must have seen as he gazed out upon the crowds as he hung dying. And for the moment I am simply sitting in silence with both images.
Rather than offer empty words this week, I invite you to spend some time in quiet prayer with God, knowing that in the months ahead, another story like this one will be repeated, but in another setting. So I prayerfully ask, “How does God want me to respond?” And as we journey following Jesus, I invite you to do the same.
Words are powerful stuff as we all know. And I’ve learned a helpful new bit of information — sometimes they don’t scrub off.
Last weekend at our Fall Family Retreat we had all the participants write a word on their right hand that describes how they show up in the world; one word that best sums them up. On the left hand, participants were then asked to write a word that describes who they want to be, or a characteristic they want to improve upon. As one of the facilitators, I joined in and wrote “Caring” on one of my hands, and “Bold” on the other (I’ll leave you to guess which word went with which hand!).
Later that night, I noticed the red Sharpie ink was difficult to get off my skin but it was late on a Sunday evening and I wasn’t about to argue with the pillow, so I headed to bed. Imagine my surprise when I looked in the mirror the next morning and had the words “Caring” and “Bold” tattooed on my CHEEKS! Apparently I have a habit of sleeping on my side, one hand under my cheek. Precious, I know.
What isn’t always precious is the words we use to describe ourselves. How many of us would actually want to broadcast to the world the way we think of ourselves sometimes? Today, for instance, my words might be “Old” and “Insecure.” Not sure I’d want to wake up to THAT in the mirror tomorrow morning!
Nevertheless, I kind of like the idea of people walking around with their words emblazoned on their cheeks this way. “Strong,” “Disciplined,” “Centered,” “Zany,” “Laid-Back,” “Reliable,” “Hot Mess.” Ok, that last one was two words, but imagine the instant camaraderie, favor, and grace that it would elicit from others if you just owned it: You’d be like, “My left cheek says I am rockin’ the chaos in my life right now, but not to worry, my right cheek says Imma be centered soon.” It’s a beautiful balance that is honest, raw, and real. Just like life. One word speaks the truth about the way we show up in the world. The other offers hope for transformation and change.
Words have power. Words create worlds. When we focus on what we want more of, we begin to create more of that thing. Keeping our words positive and grounded in hope becomes imperative, lest we bind ourselves up in negativity and despair. Proverbs 16:34 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
Be gracious with the words you place on yourselves and others, my friends. They can be very hard to scrub off.
To the outside observer, it made no sense. The thirteen-year intimate friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, flew in the face of all social convention. It caused controversy so deep that all traces of the relationship, in England, were burned at her death. Yet “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) In Queen Victoria’s heart, this warm and spontaneous relationship made perfect sense.
The year was 1888. Great Britain was nearing the height of its empire. Victoria ruled more than eighteen countries. She managed a staff of three thousand at her five estates. Known as “the Grandmother of Europe” her descendants ruled eleven countries. She seemingly wanted for nothing. However, history shows there was something sorely lacking – in her heart. Victoria was profoundly lonely, bored and needed someone who would relate to her as a person rather than a Queen. She had grown up without a father. She was not allowed to associate with childhood peers. She endured six assassination attempts. Her husband died unexpectedly at age 42. Millions of her subjects resented her. She was quite isolated.
Enter Abdul Karim, aged 24, given as a gift to the Queen in honor of her Golden Jubilee. He dared to look her in the eye. He responded to her as a person who needed companionship and kindness. He saw her need for joy and thrilled her with tales and teachings of India. In return, she respected his heritage and treated him as equal to any white man. Ahead of her time, she defended him against the racism of her court and country. She honored him with the highest decorations of her country. All this because he met a need – her need for a confidante.
Still today as scientists have repeatedly shown, everybody needs a confidante. People who have at least one confidante recover more quickly from illness, may enjoy lower blood pressure, outlive loners and sleep better. One of Jesus’s first actions in His ministry was to choose a team of friends to walk His journey with Him and to be trained to continue His work. After the disciples’ failure to stay awake in Gethsemane, with the weight of the world on His shoulders, He pointedly asked His disciples, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40) If Jesus did not “go it alone,” why should we?
We who have lived know all too well that the years we have are all about the ups and downs, twists and turns, good and bad, the pretty with the ugly. Sources of joy and coexisting sorrow are just part of the deal. Said another way. Life is a mixed bag, isn’t it, of great things along with all that is quite the opposite.
In the midst of what is occurring lately, I have found that for many people, including those for whom life is generally good at the moment, a lot of what is happening is creating some fear. Fear over where the world might be headed. Fear over shootings. Fear over massive natural disasters piling up on top of one another. Fear in response to lack of leadership at many levels and within all political persuasions.
Fear over the fact that our children are relating to devices, e.g. cell phones, seemingly more than they are to people. Fear over what our children and children’s children are going to have to live with. Maybe some of us feel not only some fear, but some hopelessness that there is not much we can do about any of these challenges.
Fear is normal, healthy, God given and human. Fear can help us and it is appropriate. That said, sustained fear, fear that goes on and on and on well past the events that triggered it, might, very well, be an invitation from God to go deep inside and explore where it is coming from. “What does this fear tell me about me. What does it tell me about where I am with God? What does it tell me about my faith?” And as an important aside, fear may helpfully prompt us to ask, “is this fear telling me also that I may need some help with it?”
What many have pointed out long before me is that God says, “Fear Not” more than any other command in the Bible. Obviously fear is a challenge for many of us since God has so much to say about it.
Max Lucado, the Christian writer says the following about fear. He said, “Feed your fears and your faith will starve. Feed your faith and your fears will starve.” In other words, the more we focus on trusting God, the less fear we feel. The more we focus on fear and not God, the more we will fear and the less trust in God we will have.
I know this is easier said than done. I get that sometimes things are overwhelming and it can be a challenge to work through fear and to trust God. I understand it takes practice. It took Paul who wrote the letter to the Philippians practice. In fact in the letter he said he had to learn how to be ok regardless of the circumstances he was in, through learning and practice.
And so I invite you to join me in practicing something. Practicing something that will have a direct impact on us as we ride the roller coaster of life with all of its amazing and joyful ups and despairing, freaks me out downs.
I invite us every in the days ahead, to simply say something to God like, “God in the midst of joy. In the midst of sorrow. In the the midst of goodness and pain. With all that is happening. Above all else, help me trust you. Please give me the gift of trusting you. I can’t get trust in you on my own, I know it comes from you. Help me trust you. Life is a roller coaster and sometimes the good and the bad happen at the same time. Yet help me trust you and help me not be afraid. Help me feed faith and not my fears.”
Paul, who repeatedly was in prison in dismal conditions, practiced and learned such a way of being by doing it over and over and over again. And it led him to trust and to know, believe and act upon the truth, that “We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
Way back in the 1960’s, I was a citizen of El Paso, Texas. A citizen of Mesita Elementary School. A citizen of far west Texas and southern New Mexico. A citizen of the United States. I was a citizen of all of those places and my citizenship shaped, influenced, and affected everything about me from the inside out. I was who I was and I did what I did all in response to my citizenship.
That said, how each of us defines our primary citizenship impacts how we go through the joyous, horrible, and boring times of life.
To help us drill down on what I am talking about, let us look at the life of Paul. As we learn in scripture, Paul spent a number of years in prison in various places. And yet, in the midst of this terrible time and others like it, these are just a few things Paul wrote from prison.
“I pray with joy. I am confident. I press on and I do not give up. Rejoice. Rejoice always. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Paul wrote at least four letters from a prison cell we know of and in each of them he says things one would not expect to hear in a letter written from such a place.
So how is it, that when Paul was enduring horrible experiences, he was able to express the kinds of things I just shared. Like, “Rejoice. Rejoice always. I am confident. Etc.” I believe Paul answers this question in his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes, “Above all, live as citizens of heaven.” In another place he states, “We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus lives.”
With this in mind, let’s explore what heavenly citizenship actually means. What is it all about? How do we claim our heavenly citizenship? What does it mean to say we are a citizen of heaven?
First and foremost, when we say we are citizens of heaven, it means we know down deep that we are people that belong to God regardless of what is happening. Here are some verses from scripture to help us unfold this.
“Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. We belong to God. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. We are all children of God. We are a chosen people. We are adopted through Jesus Christ.” And there are many other verses like these all making the same point that we belong to God.
Being a citizen of heaven is all about claiming that our fundamental identity is grounded in God. It is about claiming that we are God’s possession. It is about embracing the truth that whatever we might look like on the outside, regardless of what we do in and with our lives, no matter where we might live, despite job titles and all the other ways we define ourselves, at our core, we are God’s.
You and I belong to God as we were made by God. When we see our primary identity as beloved children of God above all other potential sources, our sense of primary citizenship shifts. We no longer are ultimately defined by things that are temporary, which is everything on earth, things like careers, nationality, status, assets, heritage, and place to name a few, but by God who is eternal.
Through it all, God invites us to claim our heavenly citizenship by embracing that we are each made by God and are God’s beloved children.
What is interesting is that the more we see ourselves as God’s possession, the more we will begin to feel like we are In this temporary world but not ultimately Of this world, because we are not from here, we are from God. This is why Jesus one day, in the midst of prayer said, “My disciples do not belong to this world just as I do not belong to this world.”
Paul says that when we know we are God’s, when our identity is grounded in God, when we take our heavenly citizenship seriously, we begin to live for Christ and our actions begin to reflect our citizenship.
When we see ourselves as a citizen of heaven it means we know where we came from, we know where we are headed, we know to whom we belong, our identity is clear, it becomes evident to us who is in charge regardless of circumstance, our actions and behavior reflect Jesus despite it all, we have the peace of God within us, and we understand that our fundamental purpose in life is to love God and love people until we die and are with Jesus. And when we see ourselves as citizens of heaven we learn to live for Christ knowing we are headed to Christ.