The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

New Year
Image Credit: Brooke Lark


Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

–Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)


The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions


According to one study only 9% of people in the U.S. succeed in achieving their New Year’s resolutions. 9 per cent.

More than 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but 91% of people who make them admitted to failing to meet their goals. Only 9% were successful with their resolutions.

There are myriad reasons for such bad odds, many ways that New Year’s resolutions are problematic: We set resolutions that are not specific enough or are too hard to measure. We may make resolutions that are not realistic, or resolutions that work against other deeply embedded values we hold. We don’t have the patience to develop new habits. Etc.

One church worker writes of his experience of Christians at the turn of a year. He says:

Church people—our people—don’t just resolve to go to the gym or call their moms more often. They ramp it up. They resolve to get up at 6 a.m. for quiet time, to read the whole Bible through in a year, to have family devotions every night. They resolve to boycott ungodly [companies] and write their congressmen more often. They volunteer at soup kitchens and take up tutoring. I can’t keep up with them!

A week in to this new year it strikes me there is something even more problematic about New Year’s resolutions, besides our inability to keep them.

It’s this: if we’re not careful yearly resolutions—that we set— have power to shift our focus from Jesus, too much onto ourselves. Aggressive resolutions for self-improvement run the risk of overdoing effort and undergoing grace.

Wherever there is discipline, there must always also be grace. When discipline, then also grace—God’s grace, to be specific. Otherwise we risk leaving Jesus in the dust, running to what a priest I know once called “life-enhancement spirituality.”


Who really sets direction?


It’s a good time to remember the Proverb (16:9): “The heart of a man plans his course [the heart of a woman plans her course], but the LORD directs their steps.”

Better than just about any New Year’s resolution is an openness to let God direct my steps. To let the LORD direct my steps in this coming year.

It is Jesus, after all, who sets the direction of our faith.

John the Baptist learned this first-hand.

Our text says, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.”

One commentator says, “Christ did not wait for John to complete his career before he arrived on the scene, but, while John was still teaching, he appeared.” Jesus just shows up at the Jordan River.

Matthew should be able to go right on, “So John baptized Jesus.” But instead verse 14 gives us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Or in another translation, “John tried to deter him.”

Jewish understandings of relating to God seem to leave more room for push-back than Christian tradition does.

Even so, John campaigns for his own agenda. Wait, Jesus, I’m the one doing the baptizing here. Like Peter on Maundy Thursday: Wait, Jesus, you’re not going to wash my feet, are you? That’s not how this goes. Or like probably all of his disciples: Jesus, wait, you don’t really have to die, do you?

That’s how I find myself relating to Jesus more often than I’d like: Okay, God, this is what 2018 will be like. I’m going to do this, stop doing that, do a little bit more of this other thing, our congregation is going to take on this… NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, O LORD, and you may resolve with me if you like….

Jesus says to John: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” John tries to deter Jesus and Jesus says, “Dude, chill. Let it be so.” This is how it will be. Same thing to Peter with the skittish feet: Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And to us who would chart a new and improved course for ourselves, to us who might invite Jesus to walk after us or maybe alongside us, to us Jesus says, “You. Come, follow me.”

Who is really setting the direction for how it will be?


“Seeing what is actually there”:
God who knows and loves


John follows Jesus’s lead. John abandons his own agenda for Jesus, and follows Jesus’s agenda for Jesus, and Jesus’s agenda for John. Verse 15 says John “consented.” He said yes to Jesus, even though it wasn’t in his original plan.

Many followers of Jesus have said yes, have consented to Jesus, even when he called us to something we hadn’t anticipated. And at any given time there are a lot of us who have an unexpected opportunity to say yes to God, when God shows up not-in-the-way-we-wanted! We may plan our way, but the Lord directs our steps. Will we follow?

A whole new reality is open to John, when he gives Jesus his, “I do.” He has left behind the world of how Jesus can be part of my plan and is in the realm of how I can get in on what Christ is doing.

And he hears something! He baptizes Jesus, Jesus comes out of the water and sees the Holy Spirit like a dove. And then, a voice from heaven comes. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

John is privy to this, because he has consented to following Jesus. He has said yes to letting Jesus chart the course. He hears,  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When was the last time you experienced writer’s block?

Michael McGregor, an author and professor of writing, talks about how writing teachers sometimes tell their students to lower their sights when they get stuck with a blank page. “Lower your sights.” But McGregor says, “A better thing to say might be, ‘Forget about the writing and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.’” He says, “Viewed in this way, writing is not a craft or even a talent but a way of understanding the world, others and ourselves. The focus isn’t on writing beautiful sentences or telling a compelling story but on seeing and understanding what is really in us and around us….”

Isn’t this more than great writing advice? Isn’t this the kind of re-focusing John had to do with his agenda? “Forget about the [baptizing] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”

And isn’t this how we want to follow Jesus, too? “Forget about the [doing and the striving] and concentrate on listening more carefully, probing more deeply, seeing what is actually there.”

“What [was] actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who intimately knew Jesus (“My Son”). “What was actually there” for John, when he listened, was a Father who deeply loved the Son (“whom I love, with whom I am well pleased”).

“What is actually there” for us, when we stop and listen carefully, is that same God, who has adopted us into his family with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This same God says to you, “You are my son, whom I love.” “You are my daughter, whom I love.” I know you as well as a good parent knows their children. And I love you so much I delight in you. I smile when I think of you, and I take great joy in calling you daughter, son. “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

As 2 Timothy says, “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’” You are God’s, and he knows you and loves you. He demonstrates his love for us—shows us what it is—in a million ways, but especially through the act of self-giving sacrifice at the cross.


“Before we lift a finger”


Matthew tells the story of Jesus’s baptism before he’s narrated any of Jesus’s actions. Jesus hasn’t done anything in the Gospel at this point, in Matthew 3. But still, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s as if Matthew wants us to see that God doesn’t love Jesus because of his miracles or because of the great sacrifice he will make or because of who his mother is or because of anything else….

God the Father just… loves… his child. God’s daughters and sons are loved just… because… God wants to love.

Adopted into the family of God, you and I, too, are God’s beloved children. It’s not due to anything we have done. It’s not because of who we think we already are. God’s love doesn’t come to us as a result of our contributions to humanity… God doesn’t shower his love on us because we have set out to have the best year yet. God loves us not because of who we are, but because of who GOD is. And then God’s abiding love for us makes us who we are. When we follow the trail blazed by God’s love, then we find out how to live and what to do.

We may still try to shape our identity around what we contribute, the service we can render to another, the brilliant solutions we can offer in a murky situation.

But to borrow a line from a book I never finished two Januarys ago, God’s love is about “how God views us before we lift a finger.” It’s about “how God views us before we lift a finger.”

So, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

And, sure—look back to 2017, look ahead to 2018, but let’s first look up with John the Baptist to see a God who knows and loves those who are his.



The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this past Sunday.

Monday Morning Preacher Podcast



I’ve really been enjoying the Monday Morning Preacher podcast from

  • The length is perfect (I listen while I do the dishes)
  • The focus on a single concept (introductions, ladder of abstraction, finding your voice) makes it memorable and easy to apply
  • The specificity of the content (e.g., come down the ladder of abstraction every 3-4 minutes) means that without a ton of effort I can put the stuff to use right away the next Sunday
  • I also enjoy hearing real, live preachers with the analysis after a sermon clip

Check out the Monday Morning Preacher podcast here.

Donald Trump, the Church, and Jesus: The Long View

This is the sermon I preached to my congregation last Sunday, after the U.S. Presidential Election. If you prefer audio, that is here, with a downloadable podcast version here. (It’s the sermon at the top, “The Long View.”) The text follows.


“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain….”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


What I share this morning comes from one of about four possible outlines I struggled through this week. I’m still not sure if this is the right one. You may find it too weak, you may find it too strong, but I hope you will at least find it to be true… that these words will bear witness faithfully to the truth and love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. That has been my prayer.

If you’ve been on social media or tuned in to the news this week you’ve had no shortage of people telling you how to feel and what to do.

How can there be so many words, so many possible responses, so many angles to consider… and yet a feeling of uncertainty remains? Who are we? How did we get here? What will the next four years look like? What should we do now?

I’ve found myself seeking to console and encourage and maybe even challenge this congregation, even as I’ve been consoled and encouraged and challenged by members of this congregation. I’ve watched YouTube clips of preachers uttering “Jesus is Lord” and, though I fully agree, have told them to go preach to somebody else right now.

I’ve found myself troubled by the new access to power of someone I’m deeply concerned may not stand up for the dignity and needs of all citizens, someone who has bragged about sexual assault and unapologetically mocked his female accusers, and who has repeatedly spoken disparagingly about African Americans and other minority groups.

I’ve wished for a direct hotline to the President-elect—even just one phone call—to implore him to speak out against the anti-Semitic and race-related attacks committed already after the election in his name. That Donald Trump and that we would condemn such hatred–both in the name of America and in the name of Jesus–should be a given. Ours is the message of Christ’s love and hope, fellowship across lines of difference. We followers of Jesus in our prophetic voice need to hold even the leaders of a secular state to certain standards, and hope and pray they will measure up.

I acknowledge and bless the political diversity in this sanctuary. I affirm that we are a church and not a political party. You came to a worship service, not a rally. Mapping Christian virtues onto political candidates and platforms is difficult and messy, and can be—at least for me—deeply unsatisfying. We know that some in the Church in the U.S. are rejoicing that their candidate won (or that the other candidate lost), some are reluctantly at ease with the results, others voted third party or didn’t vote, and still others remain in a state of shock and anger and mourning at the election results. We need to own this reality.

I have not always felt like my best self this week. Maybe you haven’t, either. I think that’s okay.

We were getting out of the van to go into a friend’s house this week, and my four-year-old said, “Carry me.” I didn’t have that good of a grip on her, so she said, “Carry me harder!” I said, that’s a good prayer.

Lament takes time, and we’ve had our eyes opened this election to places where there is no shalom, hurt that calls for lament. It is not true that everything is okay. We need Jesus to carry us harder. Like the prophet Jeremiah, we cannot and should not say “Shalom, shalom” where there is no shalom. Our God is a God of truth, of bringing deeds of darkness out of hiding, and into the light of Christ. What we see may need transforming.

Since Tuesday I’ve second-guessed myself for not being charitable toward our President-Elect, and then the next second I’ve third-guessed myself for second-guessing myself, and wished I had more courage to be a strongly prophetic voice. At least my ongoing uncertainty in how to move forward has led to a renewed impulse to pray fervently for our country’s President-Elect, and for other elected officials.

After today we have plenty more worship services and Scripture readings and hymns and Bible studies… lots of chances to gather in small groups and prayer times and conversations over coffee, where we can keep exploring what it means to be faithful to Jesus in a time of national tension.

This week in the midst of my exasperation and uncertainty about how we best move ahead, in the midst of the divisions in our country and in the Church, in the midst of the cries of people who fear for their safety in what should be a secure home for them… in the midst of it all, I am certain of a few things. Even if we woke up to a new world on Wednesday, some things have not changed since then. I offer four such convictions this morning.


1. “The Church is the Conscience of the State”


One conviction is that the church is the conscience of the state. Martin Luther King gave us this. I know Israel was a theocracy and we live in a non-theocratic democracy, but I think we’ve inherited something of the prophetic task we see in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Micah and all the other prophets came alongside kings and people, and said, “Exhibit A: how things are. Exhibit B: how things should be.” They held before the people visions of shalom, the world as God would re-create it one day, and a world in-between the times that could move more faithfully toward wholeness.

As prophets challenged kings, as Jesus pushed the local ruling religious establishment of his day, so we Christians have the responsibility to speak the truth even to positions of power. It’s a scary task, but it’s our task.

We just can’t normalize race-based dismissiveness, the devaluing of women’s bodies, xenophobia, inflammatory rhetoric, nor any other sinful behavior. We must not explain it away or look past it as if it’s not there, or as if we could somehow just “make the best of it,” leaving it as it is.

And we ought to have a sincere desire for the repentance of any perpetrator. We’re called to speak the truth, not spitefully but in love, not vindictively but with the hope for repentance. We hold ourselves to Gospel standards, too, looking for ways we need to repent. As ones who have received the outpouring of Holy Spirit, as the prophet Joel says, we all–men and women, young and old–have a prophetic task. We can be a conscience for power brokers and systems that are so easily corrupted by power.

We tell the truth about who we know God to be, and what we see in the world–for better or for worse. Having drunk deeply of the well of the Scriptures, which any prophet must do, we speak up for ones who have been marginalized, taken advantage of, for the fatherless and the widow that Scripture speaks so frequently about. We say, “These are God’s dearly loved children. Let justice for them and for everyone roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” And we proclaim that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” to bring a vision of shalom to reality.

There’s freedom in knowing that the church is not the state, and this country is not all we have. It’s not that the two should never be integrated in how we think about positive social action. But there is freedom in remembering that our ability to effect change is not limited by what we can do through the power structures of an election, legislation, and the Supreme Court. We can discharge our duty as citizens of the United States by being active as citizens of the Kingdom of God, who bring conscience to bear on politics.

“The church is the conscience of the state.” Among those who call Jesus Christ Lord, there should be no bystanders.


2. “The Local Church is the Hope of the World”


Bill Hybels, long-time pastor at Willow Creek in Illinois, loves to say that “the local church is the hope of the world.” “The local church is the hope of the world.” That’s been a second bedrock certainty for me this week.

Why? He says:

There’s only one power on planet earth that can turn a hate-filled heart to a loving heart, a greedy heart to a generous heart, a selfish heart to a selfless or serving heart. There is only one power in the universe that can do that. It’s the power of the transforming love of Jesus Christ, which has been given to the church to steward.

“The local church is the hope of the world.” Not just “the Church.” But the local church. Bill Hybels’s church: Willow Creek Community Church. Our church: Union Congregational Church in Magnolia. Other local churches in and beyond the North Shore.

We need to pray that we would steward well the “transforming love of Jesus Christ,” and even look inward and repent for ways in which we have not taken that role seriously. I hold fast to that truth: “the local church is the hope of the world,” because we have the message of Jesus.


3. Come What May, Jesus is Stronger


A third truth I cling to: come what may, Jesus is stronger.

Some months ago we were in Ephesians. Paul prays in the first chapter that his churches would have the “eyes of [their] heart enlightened” so that they would know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.”

Nothing compares to this power, the power that raised Jesus from the dead and is at work in us now–as a local church and as individuals, as contemplatives and as Christian activists.

Paul says, Jesus is “far above every ruler and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named”, not only in this age, but also in the age to come! (1:21)

Come what may, Jesus is stronger! Come who may, Jesus rules over them! In a world giving ground to idolatry and fear-mongering and greed and apathy and hatred and a distaste for holiness… Jesus will still prevail. Every “rule and authority, power and dominion” must submit to the name of Jesus.

Christ is in a position of authority that cannot be breached by any other power. All other names, all other titles, all governors and Senators and Representatives and Supreme Court Justices and President and Cabinet—these God has placed at the feet of Jesus.

Every authority that would dare to set itself up against the ways of God finds its proper place as a footstool where Jesus Christ stretches out his feet from his throne.


CREDIT: Micah Jones (


This is what we pastors mean when we say, “Jesus is still Lord.” I know it may sound like a platitude in a time of distress, but boy do I believe it with every inch and every pound of my body. And the truth that “Jesus is Lord” matters for how we live our lives, for how we work as ambassadors for shalom, for how we share with others the great news of the love of Jesus.

Come what may, Jesus is stronger.


4. All Things Made New


Finally, I am quite certain that we will one morning wake up into another new world:

Behold, I will create

new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever

in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.

I will rejoice over Jerusalem

and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

will be heard in it no more.

Can you see this vision, even now? “Never again,” Isaiah says, “will there be in [this world] an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years.” Doesn’t your heart burn within you? “They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune.” Don’t you want to live there now? “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will heart.”

I’m not always so convinced that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Maybe it scatters toward entropy. But we at least can look ahead to justice, a day of total shalom, where God will be perfectly present to his people. There will be no more injury and pain and animosity. Jesus himself will be our light, and we will bask in his love.


The Best Campaign


We live for those times when this vision of tomorrow breaks in to today.

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, can he not also, create a new United States?

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, can he not also, renew his church? Can he not embolden us to co-create a more just and peaceable world with him?

If God can create a new heavens and a new earth, if God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead, can he not also, raise your heart to new life?

The road ahead might be long. So we need to take the long view, and Isaiah 65 is it.

So, my good friends, you who are some of my favorite people on earth: may we be renewed, deep in our souls, by God’s vision of a perfect future. May we be faithful in our prophetic call to be both conscience and hope of the world in this present moment. May we remember that at all times, come what may, Jesus is stronger.

May we walk freely and joyfully in the truth that tomorrow will be another sunrise. And more than that–may we affirm that with every sunrise comes the ruling Son of God: “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun // does its successive journeys run, // his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, // till moons shall wax and wane no more.”

In the meantime…

God give us courage

to suit up and work together

on that perfect campaign,

the campaign that will one day end

with no ruler but Jesus.

The Joy of Analogue: Outlining the Book of Joel for Preaching

One essential step in my sermon preparation process is reading the book of which the preaching passage is a part. I find it a discipline to hold off on reading commentaries and sit with the text itself. This is easier with a short book like Joel, from which this Sunday’s Old Testament lectionary reading comes.

I find myself more focused to read through and outline the book in analogue fashion. Here’s what it looked like for me yesterday morning:




(Having fine writing implements like a fountain pen and nice paper helps!) I have since transferred my book outline to MindNode, from which I’ll continue my sermon planning. Starting device-free is important (and really enjoyable) for me.

Here’s my two-page provisional outline of the book of Joel, complete with a misspelling of “devastation”:





After Philando Castile: The Christian’s Calling

This is the text of the sermon I preached the Sunday after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot to death.


Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)
Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)


Michael Brown’s homicide in Ferguson, Missouri was almost two years ago. His encounter with a police officer set off a wave of protests and brought a conversation about institutionalized racism once again into the public square.

This week Michael Brown’s mother expressed the numbness and wordlessness that often comes after unjust killing:

When their children are killed, mothers are expected to say something. To help keep the peace. To help make change. But what can I possibly say? I just know we need to do something. We are taught to be peaceful, but we aren’t at peace. I have to wake up and go to sleep with this pain everyday. Ain’t no peace. If we mothers can’t change where this is heading for these families — to public hearings, protests, un-asked-for martyrdom, or worse, to nothing at all — what can we do?

We can at least remember the names of the deceased as we are gathered in the presence of God.

37-year-old Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

32-year-old Philando Castile of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

And then five police officers killed while they were protecting the people’s right to protest police brutality: Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson.

Let us remember their names and their faces and their families. They were and are loved deeply by God. May the Lord receive them into his loving arms, into his eternal care.

In one sense it would be missing the point for white folks to dwell on our cluelessness in what to say after another spate of gun violence. Though the thought keeps crossing my mind, I would be selfish to complain about having to find words for this pulpit after yet another week of killing in the United States.

Because as much as we may struggle in figuring out what to think and how to pray, there is an entire segment of our population that is worrying about how—worrying about if—they can live under these conditions.

Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, expressed it this way:

I understand; it’s exhausting. Social change asks a lot of us, but most of all our attention. To process all that incoming outrage, we have to become stronger in heart and clearer of head, and we have to decide when it’s time to stop watching the slipstream and dive into it instead.

If you hadn’t already, a week like this one all but demands that we followers of Christ dive in.

But… “what can [we] possibly say?” And “what can we do?”

Well, I don’t know. But I sure have read Ephesians 4 in a different light. And, so help me, God, may I not be shaken in my faith that Scripture always—always—will have something to say to us, even in our darkest hours.

With that conviction, hear again the first three verses of Ephesians 4:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1 is the pivot point of the whole letter. Paul moves from the theologically rich prayers and beautiful expression of Christian identity—chapters 1 through 3—to what we should do about it—in chapters 4 through 6.

“Therefore,” he says, “I—a prisoner of the Lord!—urge you strongly to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called.”

Paul lays a nice guilt trip on his listeners: Look, I’m in chains here! I’m a prisoner! The least you could do is live up to your calling as a Christian, like your poor Paul is urging you to do.

If you’ve been thinking about memorizing part or all of Ephesians recently, you could at least memorize 4:1, since it summarizes the whole book. Paul’s told them what their calling is in the first half of the letter.

He’s said: you Christians have been chosen by God, God delights in you, and you are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He’s encouraged the church by saying: we are a people called to hope. We are God’s riches. And God’s power for us who believe—even for those who feel powerless—God’s power for us is immense. Nothing compares to it, and we who believe have the power of God.

Paul has also written: we were dead in sin, but God was rich in mercy, and God intervened. He made as alive with Christ, he raised us with Christ, and he seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms.

When he says, “Therefore,” or “Live a life, then,”—he’s got all of that in mind, everything in the first three chapters.

From here on out he’s going to get specific about how to live a life worthy of that calling. You are this, this, and this… so here’s how you can live like it.

“Live a life”—or as Paul first put it in his letter: “walk” in a worthy way.

It was a Jewish metaphor to talk about life as a walk. A sort of ongoing journey: active, with movement. “Walk the walk,” your “Christian walk”—that didn’t come from your evangelical youth pastor, it came from the Hebrew Bible!

Paul starts in right away with some of the ways Christians should walk.




He says in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Completely humble. Gentle. Patient.

As I studied the passage this week, I was surprised to learn that the particular word for humility in this verse was not really in Greek literature before the Bible. And then finally there was a Greek writer outside of the New Testament, Epictetus, who mentioned “humility” in the first century. He said it was the first character trait to avoid.

That could help explain why a humble and even humiliated Jesus was mocked on the cross. God had said, through Isaiah, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (66:2). But humility is a counter-cultural value; it always has been.




“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” Be gentle.

Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Those who live by the sword, he said, will die by the sword. Or as I’ve heard it paraphrased, “When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns down.”

Micah prophesies about a day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

There will be a day, when what happened this last week, and all the evils leading up to it (that still exist!)—will not happen anymore. Nations will not go to war with other nations. Nations will not even feel like they are engaging civil war within their own borders.

This is what it means to be gentle. Loretta Lynch said, “After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, uncertainty and fear … but the answer must not be violence.” Paul would agree: the answer must not be violence, but the answer must be gentleness.

Yeah, gentleness.

I know… I almost picked another passage and didn’t preach on this one today because after Alton and Philando and five officers died, a gentle response felt like a cop-out.

I might as well have been reading, “Be tepid. Let it go. Don’t do anything about it. Just watch.”

Turns out, that’s not what Paul is saying. Harold Hoehner, who taught at Dallas Seminary for many years, says, “The word [gentleness] never connotes the idea of weakness. Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of self-control, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the use of power for the purpose of retaliation.” Self-control, not retaliation.

Aristotle talks about gentleness as coming between two extremes: “never being angry with anything” on the one hand and “excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions” on the other. Gentleness is somewhere in the middle. As another interpreter put it, if you’re gentle as Paul urges, you are “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

Our model again is Jesus, the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

When Jesus saw oppression, hatred, and racial injustice—he got angry. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle.

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” That gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, a piece of evidence that we Christians are living lives worthy of the calling we have received.



Then to humility and gentleness, Paul adds this one more: patience.

The Old Testament talks about patience as long-suffering. Being patient doesn’t mean letting injustice go unprotested, but it does mean persistence… holding out hope… slowing down to wait and listen to the voice of another.

Those of us who have not been racially profiled and probably never will be, would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters who have. We need to exercise patience to hear the stories and pain of others… even to let it transform our own view of the world.

And now Paul gets into church territory—he says one mark of patience is “bearing with one another in love.”

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

“Put up with each other,” he’s saying! This is the same word Jesus uses when he is exasperated by his faithless disciples: “How long shall I put up with you?”

Well… how long did Jesus put up with his disciples? He’s still doing it, right? He is still, even right now, interceding for us while we worship.

Patience—putting up with each other’s differences and even annoying habits—is required if the church is going to be a bastion of unity… a witness of one love to a divided world.

Eager to Keep Peace


Paul says, then, ”Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He tells them to be eager to keep the peace.

But here’s a nice twist—he’s calling on them to be peacekeepers. The peace has already been made. Paul had said earlier, Jesus himself is peace. Jesus is the one who made peace—it’s the work he did when he broke down the dividing wall between so-called races—Jew and Gentile in the first century, a work that extends to black and white America in the 21st century.

“Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Paul calls for Christians to be humble, gentle, patience, and eager to keep the peace that Christ himself established. Even as Jesus made peace, others try to snuff it out. But we’ve got to guard and protect the peace of unity—and for Paul that starts in the church and then emanates outward.

Paul reminds the church that the reason we can be practice a peaceful witness of unity is that God is not divided. God is one. And God is everywhere. God is, Paul says, “Over all and through all and in all.”

In other words, he’s still on this throne, though evil powers try unsuccessfully to unseat him. He’s still working through his church and his followers. And he’s still making his home with us. He walks alongside us, even as Paul calls us to walk faithfully in the world. It’s because of the strength of the God who is over all, through all, and in all that we can be faithful to our calling. God is with us. He walks with us to enable us to walk strong in our call.

God Speaks in Falcon Heights


I heard an echo of this promise in the horrific video of the Falcon Heights shooting.

A four-year-old girl saw what no child should ever have to see. Afterwards she says to her grieving mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” That little girl had to have been full of the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to say that.

She was the mouthpiece of God: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

There’s a scene in Hoosiers, the greatest basketball movie, greatest sports movie, and—yea, verily—greatest movie in human history. The assistant coach, Shooter, stumbles out onto the court in the middle of a game, totally inebriated.

One of the players is Shooter’s son, who’s utterly embarrassed by his dad.

Coach Norman Dale pulls his player aside and says, “Hey, you keep your head in the game. I need you out there.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends: we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. God chooses to need us. God calls us to witness with humility to a world filled with the arrogant who are still getting their way. God urges us to witness with gentleness to a world where violence continues to make headlines. God needs us to show patience with each other, to work together as one body to witness to a hurting world.

So let’s keep our head in the game. As a classic lament Psalm says, “none of us knows how long this will be.” But as best as I can tell, God encourages us to wait it out anyway, to walk out our call every day.

And we don’t walk alone. Our generous God gives us each other, and even himself. He’s like that precious little girl telling us, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

The one who calls us is faithful—he will freely give us his power so we can live out the humility, gentleness, and patience that seem at first blush too weak to us. But those virtues are, in fact, our strong and powerful witness. Humility, gentleness, patience, and peacekeeping—they’re all an expression of the calling we’ve received.

And we need to live it out now more than ever before.

How My 2-Year-Old Helped Me Practice What I Preach (or, Saying Psalm 23 Through Gritted Teeth)

My two-year-old gave me an unexpected opportunity yesterday to practice what I just preached Sunday. I noted in my sermon that I had been understanding Psalm 23 as a “counter-circumstantial prayer of defiance,” a “subversive prayer when you compare it to what you see around you.”

I mentioned some potential circumstances which make us feel far from the idyllic pastoral imagery of the Psalm, and then suggested that those are some of the best times to (defiantly) pray Psalm 23:

When you hear about wars and rumors of wars, say this Psalm.

When your best friend gets sick, say this Psalm.

When someone in your family grieves you by their seeming lack of care for you, say this Psalm.

When you don’t know what the next year of your life holds, say this Psalm.

An instance I didn’t think to include was:

When your two-year-old daughter draws with permanent marker all over the brand-new cork floor that the church graciously put in last year in the parsonage kitchen… say this Psalm.

When I noticed the damage, this image is about the opposite of how I was feeling:

Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission
Image Credit: (Todd Bolen), used with permission

I was feeling more like this:

The Scream

For at least 10 minutes as I frantically scrubbed, I didn’t even remember there was a Psalm 23, let alone think to say it.

But then I took a step back (by God’s grace) and began to quietly say–through gritted teeth:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul….

And when my gracious and patient wife came home, she gently reminded me of the “magic sponge” we have under the sink that takes permanent marker off of everything. Within minutes, the green marker drawing on the floor was gone. Gone. The cork floor is good as new.

True, there are much darker valleys in life to walk through, but I think sometimes in parenting those little mini-valleys of frustration and exasperation can add up pretty quickly. And for us parents, they can be the regular “stuff” of our everyday existence. We need good Psalms to pray for the big valleys, and good Psalms to pray for the little valleys.

For those moments–should my two-year-old again somehow elude my watch like she has been so eager to do lately–I will try again (and again) to remember to “say this Psalm.”