Tortoise formation

As I may have mentioned, I’m not much for war metaphors.

Thanks to my formative college years, I am more or less a pacifist (which, I know, makes me “less of a pacifist” by definition).

And I spent a season hearing too many sermons about demons under every rock.

To the point where I nearly threw the Holy Spirit out with the bathwater.

Alas.

Here we are again, talking about the armor of God.

And this time it’s the shield that catches my attention.

Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  (Eph. 6:16)

I hear it described, so I do a little more research.

Apparently, in Paul’s day, a shield was a gigantic monstrosity of a thing.

Wood and metal covered in water-soaked leather.  To literally extinguish flaming arrows.

It was huge.  And heavy.

And it was meant not just for personal protection, but for communal protection too.

I read about the “tortoise formation” where soldiers stand strong together, shields raised in front and above.  They are completely protected.  Enemy arrows have no way in.

I love this.

Friends, this is what God wants for his people.

For us.

I’ve been around long enough to know that church can be a messy place.

It’s full of people and we are inherently, perpetually messy.

Can I be honest for a second?

There have been seasons when I wondered whether I could ever trust church people again.  Seasons where I prayed for God to help me love his bride and wondered if he heard me.

But, friends.  He did.

Because I have also known seasons of Jesus, I believe.  Help my unbelief.

And in those long nights, in those hard days, my own little community of Jesus-people went all tortoise formation on me.

They hoisted their heavy shields of faith and covered me.

They whispered faith-filled words into my ears.  Texted them to my phone.  Wrote them down in cards and sent them in snail mail (you guys—snail mail is my love language!).  They believed miracles for me when my own faith felt too small, too tired to believe them for myself.

Looking back from the shores of this more-settled season, grateful seems too small a word for those shields of faith wielded on my behalf.  The only appropriate response is to look around with Jesus-eyes and hoist my own shield of faith ready to snap into tortoise formation myself when a dear one needs it.

This is how church is supposed to work.

And I’m here to tell you that sometimes, in spite of our messiness, we Jesus-people get it just right.

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Wrap up in your true identity

We’re talking about the armor of God this morning.

And I’m stuck on the breastplate.

I’ve never spent much time thinking about it, I guess.

But the piece of armor that protects your heart is crucial.

Righteousness.

It’s imparted sinlessness.

Conformity to the claims of a higher authority.

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  (Romans 3:22)

Righteousness is what God says about you, friends.

That because of an undeserved sacrifice, your debt has been paid.

You are clean.

Your enemy is no fool.

He will go after your heart.

You’ll never be good enough, he’ll lie.

No one could ever love you after what you’ve done.

You better keep quiet.  Work harder.  Run faster.  Prove yourself.

You’re a fraud.  A hypocrite.

Even after growing into my Jesus-identity for a lot of years, these fiery arrows still catch my attention.

But, dear one, they are lies.

All lies.

I want to look into your eyes tonight and tell you this.

I really, really do.

But since you aren’t here, dear one, please, please, please…

Wrap up in your true identity.

Lock eyes with your Father.

Hear his gentle words spoken over you…

Words of forever-truth that can’t be shaken.

That because of an undeserved sacrifice, your debt has been paid.

You are clean.

There is no condemnation here.

You don’t have to be enough… he already was.

You are not alone.

And you are desperately, passionately, forever loved.

Simple truth

I’ve been a Christian for a long time.

I’ve heard all the sermons.  Sung all the songs.  Read all the verses (yep, even those obscure ones).

And still…

The simple truth of the gospel gets me every time.

I never tire of the rescue story.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3)

Even as I close my eyes to speak grateful words for the body broken, I feel my heart being pulled in fourteen different directions.

So much clamors for my attention.

You’d think after so many years, I might be better at this undivided heart thing.

Because, really and truly, I mean it when I sing

And the heartbeat of my life is to worship in your light

But the older I get, the more I know what it means to fall short.

And to be rescued.

Once for all.  And again and again.

And (we—these sinners, these fallen ones) are justified freely by his grace

I love all the metaphors for this.

From orphan to beloved.

From ashes to beauty.

From mourning to dancing.

From captivity to freedom.

From death to everlasting, abundant life.

I know all this

In my head and in my heart one thousand times over.

But to hear it again, to speak it again, to sing again of Jesus arising, conquering the grave with my freedom in hand

Makes my heart want to explode.

Whether you’ve been a Christian for a long time or not, feel free to settle down here.

To linger here.

With the simple truth that you’ve fallen short (and you will again).

And you are justified freely because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on your behalf.

Because of Love.

When Faith Isn’t Tidy

Not long ago, I sat grieving the loss and celebrating the life of a sister gone too soon.

We weren’t close, really.  But she loved Jesus in a straightforward way that I admire.

I didn’t know how to feel, at all.  I am so not good at feelings.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about how faith isn’t always tidy.

How it can share space with hard questions and big feelings and all the loose ends of life that we wish Jesus would tie up already.

Maybe you’re hanging out in that middle place tonight too.

It’s ok.

We’re in good company.

When the story of David’s life is told, the line that resonates is this:

He was a man after God’s own heart.  (Acts 13:22)

But this father of the faith was also a mess.

A lying, emotive, vengeful, overconfident, many-times-rescued, not-as-many-times faithful mess.

When he finds that the town where he left his family has been burned to the ground and they are nowhere to be found, he settles down to weep until he literally has no more strength, no more tears left in him. (1 Samuel 30)

And then, once again afraid for his life, he finds strength in the Lord his God.

The word means to grasp, to seize.

I feel like this sometimes.

Like my only option is to cling for dear life to the One who has proven himself faithful.

Sometimes faith looks like this.

Like being reduced to a weeping puddle on the floor.

Like running for your life and grasping wildly for a strength bigger than your own.

Like falling again, surrendering again to the rescue, the Rescuer you so desperately need.

This part of his story, too, has a happy ending.

Pursue, God said, and David brought everyone back.  Every last one.

Wailing into dancing.

Itchy sackcloth into unbridled joy.  (Psalm 30:11)

And so.

If you are in the middle place tonight.

Holding space for feelings and questions and general untidiness right alongside stubborn (or maybe threadbare) belief.

Know this.

It doesn’t mean you are unfaithful.

It doesn’t mean you need to try harder.  Or pretend better that everything is ok.

It just means that the story of your life isn’t finished yet, dear one.

You too can find strength in the author of the best stories.

The one who can speak over your many-times-rescued, not-as-many-times faithful life:

This one, too, had a heart that beat like mine.

Radiant

Our unlikely hero has fallen from grace.

Lies piled on lies, feigning madness to escape with his life, he finds himself in a cave. (1 Samuel 22)

And it’s there… dark, damp, a million miles from the adulation he once knew, that he pens these words.

Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered in shame.  (Psalm 34:5)

If there ever were a time for shame, it’s now.

And yet.

David, our great, flawed hero knew God not just in the cheers and songs of giants defeated.

He knew him here too.

Here in this lonely place of his own making.

Here in this honest place, no one left to impress.

Do you want to know a secret?  I don’t always understand the God of the Old Testament.

But here, in the cave, he feels familiar,

This redeemer that David knew, this radiance-maker, this shame-defeater.

I know him on the cross, this redeemer.  Taking the punishment that I deserved.

I’ve known him too, in the fog of darkness when all is not well, in the ugly cries and the ache too big, when only the prayers of the righteous dragged me off the floor.

I don’t know where you are this week, friends.

But this I know…

If you’re basking in the glow of defeated giants, look to him.  You are radiant.  Your face is not covered in shame.

If you’re cowering in a cave, feeling like you’ve fallen from grace, look to him.  You too are radiant.  Maybe in a tear-stained, wild-eyed sort of way, but radiant nonetheless.  Your face is not covered in shame.

If you’re in a lonely place of your own making or an honest place with no one left to impress,

Shame will yell loud.

It will fight to define you.

But, friends, shame is lying.

If you know the Redeemer that David knew, your face is not covered in shame.

Look to him.  Fall on him.  Cling to him.

Embrace your true identity, beloved.

Be radiant.

On Giants and Unlikely Heroes

He was as unlikely a hero as one could imagine.

The would-be king overlooked even by his own father…

Aren’t there any more sons? the prophet asked. (1 Samuel 16:10)

Only the littlest one.

The one out tending the sheep.

The one bringing snacks to the soldiers on the front lines.

The one naïve enough to think he could face a giant with a slingshot.

Too small.

Too inexperienced.

Too naïve.

Except.

Called by his Creator, anointed by the prophet, the Spirit of the Lord came upon this unlikely hero in power.

Forcefully.

Propelling him hard in the direction of God’s own heart.

Drawing him into unwinnable battles with confidence that his God would deliver.

We know the rest of the story, right?

Just like he does time and again with his unlikely heroes, God shows up.

I don’t know what giant you are facing this week.

Maybe you feel like this too.

Too small.

Too inexperienced.

Too naïve.

Know this, friends…

You too are called by your Creator and anointed by Messiah.

The same Spirit that propelled this unlikely hero toward God’s heart is available for you.  For us.

Let’s not be too quick to shrug off that calling, or to let someone else dress us up in ill-fitting armor.

Let’s give our God a chance to show up forcefully in the battles that we’ve written off as unwinnable.

Let’s give him a chance to knock out some giants.

Joy

Scars and struggles on the way, but with joy our hearts can say…

You are faithful, God you are faithful.

I told a dear one this morning that as I light the joy candle this year,

I feel like I am on the “other side” of joy.

The side where I can pump my victory fist to this song.

My life isn’t perfect.

In fact, as I write this, I am weathering a bedtime meltdown—

How’s that for multi-tasking?

But it’s a meltdown that I’d never trade for the silence of three years ago.

That was the year that I lit the joy candle choking on my own breath,

Cursing the silence and the system and my own heart for loving too hard, for holding too closely.

That was the year that I lit the joy candle in defiance.

In response to a gift promised but not yet given.

Not the promise that Little One would be mine.

That’s not the foster parent’s promise.

But the promise of good news.  The promise of redemption.  The promise of God wrapped in flesh and then a Comforter, a Counselor, and Advocate.

Do not be afraid

The angels said

I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. (Luke 2:10)

Not just the ones who have seen the gift, the promise, delivered.

Not just the ones who can pump their victory fist.

But for the ones working their program and beating addiction day after hard-fought day.

For the ones still choking on their own breath, facing Christmas with giant, gaping soul-wounds.

For the ones lighting the joy candle in defiance.

This good news is for you too.

This great joy is for you too.

This is the promise.

And he is faithful.