the kingdom of God

A New Year and a Forever God

This is my first post as regular contributor for Women Encouraged. I’m delighted and honored to partner with them in the intention to put worthwhile words out there that point to the best ones. Wrote this piece desiring to remind us of the timeless hope we have!

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There is a sense of wonder that comes with the new year. The first days of January show up filled with daring hope. A fresh, new page on your wall calendar feels inviting and pregnant with possibility. Plans beg to spring forth. This is the time when we declare New Year’s resolutions, before the rhythms of our everyday life trample over them.

 

These coming days will witness changes in ourselves and those around us. Children will grow a few inches. Students will finish another year, and some will graduate and go on to the next phase in their lives. For some of us, there will be a few more grey hairs, and each of us will celebrate another trip around the sun on one of those calendar pages.

 

There will also be unforeseen events: an endeavor that didn’t flourish as we’d hoped, a diagnosis we didn’t expect, a move we didn’t plan, or even good news that forces change. These will feel like an unwelcome invitation to walk down a path we don’t know - one that isn’t marked ahead of time on the calendar.

 

Yet this unknown is as much a gift as the wonder we feel on January 1st. It will hold an opportunity to walk by faith on ground we don’t know and can’t see, made possible because we are known by the God who knows and sees everything, holding all the days of our lives in the palm of His hand.

 

For a few days, the newness of the year takes our breath away before it quickly becomes old to us. And in the midst, there is a different new that is out of the ordinary. It happens within us,

Why wash feet?

In a matter of time, the soldiers would come for Jesus. And in less than 24 hours he’d be crucified. This is where the 13th chapter of the gospel of John situates the reader.

Being truly God, he knew what would come. Because he was truly human, such knowledge would be agonizing as we would see in Gethsemane. But, at present, with hours still ahead of him, what Jesus does during the last gathering he shared with those closest to him -the men he’d be teaching for three years, calls for attention. He washed their feet.

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I did not grow up in the church nor in a Christian home. Although my grandmother became a believer late in life and she shared her faith with me as a child, it wouldn’t be until many years later, during my freshman year in college that I would come to faith in Jesus.

At the end of that first year in university, a group of friends travelled to Florida for a week-long Inter-Varsity retreat, where we joined several other university chapters from the south-east region. We studied from the gospel of John while learning to pray for and serve our campuses.

Each day we’d attend expository preaching in the main hall. The study was on John 13-15. Later in the day, we would gather in smaller groups to share and pray about what we’d learned.

One afternoon, arriving to the smaller room assigned to my campus group, I noticed on the carpet a bucket with water and some towels next to it. I thought perhaps the cleaning crew had left it there to clean after we were done with the room.  

Soon after the rest of our group arrived, we opened in prayer, and our Inter-Varsity leader explained we were going to do something different. She took the bucket and said we were going to take turns washing the feet of the person to our right and pray over them and tell them what we were grateful for in their lives. Silence took over the room as we glanced over one another feeling a little awkward.

The experience is forever seared in my memory. It was Scripture in action. It brought home in a most personal way what we’d been studying just a few hours before.

There is a certain vulnerability to the act. Even in warm sunny Florida where the retreat took place, there was a level of discomfort in taking off our sandals and tennis shoes. Feet are not particularly attractive. They are a functional body part which supports the whole, enabling us to stand and to enjoy walking and running. While they are also a body part that gets dirty, smelly, and tired, they accurately embody the limitations of our design. We are wonderfully made, and we are also breakable.

We recoil feeling exposed at the thought of showing them and having someone touch them and wash them unless you are paying for a pedicure or a foot massage. But as an act of intentional affection, it’s awkward. We don’t naturally feel inclined to do it nor welcome it with ease.

In the time of Jesus, washing feet was customary. In a culture that moved mostly on foot, where there were dirt roads, it was a hygienic necessity. For higher class families, it was common to have a slave perform that service for guests. For more modest homes, the host would provide the water and guests would wash their own feet. It was considered the lowliest task. Jesus takes the place of a lowly servant.

Situating ourselves in the chronology of the text, there are only five chapters before Jesus is taken before Pilate, questioned, beaten, and crucified. It’s tempting to interpret that time is running out, and thus imprint a sense of haste to the next actions and words of Jesus. Yet, nothing of the sort is revealed in the text. On the contrary, the passage begins with a sense of completion, a right tempo, to the timing that brings Jesus to this seemingly awkward action:

 “…when Jesus knew the hour had come to depart out of this world, he loved them to the end. (…) knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God (…) he laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13: 1-5 ESV).

This is a man who knew the timing of what would come, and in complete tranquillity of mind and spirit chose his next action with intention: to perform the task reserved for the lowliest servant. As he began to undress that he may have more mobility and not get his outer garments wet, it’s not hard to imagine their shock. To watch him kneel before each man and proceed to wash their dusty, tired feet, as was customary, before eating supper – what was he doing?!

 

Indeed, what was Jesus doing?

Washing feet is getting into the messiness of someone; it’s literally coming into contact with dirt from someone else and rolling up our sleeves to love them. In this passage we behold this extraordinary man, embrace the humblest ordinariness of the human condition. Consistent with his life thus far, he forgoes his rightful place, his glory, and becoming lower than all, takes on the task beneath everyone present. What an accurate prequel to what he will do on the cross a few hours later.

Before John transitions into the next part of the narrative, we read what Jesus said after washing his disciples’ feet. It’s a compelling statement that humbles the soul and calls to action:

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them,

“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” (John 13:12-17 ESV)

That last line, verse 17, grabs me by the heart. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” That double conditional invites the believer to share in a promise. You are blessed if knowing what He’s done; you do likewise. It implies action. It’s not contingent on our feelings, but rather a deliberate decision on our part to humble ourselves to love others, in ways which will not be comfortable or natural for us. To do what we’ve seen modelled.

What might this mean for each one of us? A personal example for me was my mentor telling me things that were hard to hear, because she saw my need for Truth greater than her fear of my reaction. It’s not charity work. It’s costly and selfless and otherworldly; like the cross.

It might be doing something we consider beneath our station, because God is more interested in our character and obedience, than He is in our position.

Who has washed your feet by embracing your mess though costly to them? What’s been the result in your life? Whose feet is God asking you to wash? Pray and ask Him to show you.

Why wash feet? Because we want to be imitators of Christ, that we may know him, and others may see him. And because there is blessing in obedience.

Canadian Thanksgiving and the Kingdom of God

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I always say I’m Canadian through the gift of immigration. It’s funny how that small stamp in our passports back in 2012, gives us a freedom we did nothing to defend, earn, or build. Immigration has taught my husband and me so much about the kingdom of God.

Though we were not born here, we get to call this nation our home and enjoy the same stability, peace, and prosperity as any other Canadian. This paints a picture of the kingdom of God, by which we face each day covered in grace and acceptance, just like the Son.

The hard things that bring shame, the hurts we carry, the ones we carelessly inflict, all – forgiven. Every day we get to face 24 hours worth of mercies. Grafted into a family, we enjoy a membership we didn’t work for, or pay. Through no doing of our own, we belong.

Yet membership is not always easy. Adaptation is the hallmark of being an immigrant. From your new home address, which will take more than a year to feel like home, to grasping social cues and looking awkward because you haven’t grasped them yet. You are frequently settling in and thus feel unsettled often. You feel your life uprooted, and taking root elsewhere is challenging.

Isn’t that like the kingdom of God? We are placed in it because we are in dire need of saving. The very process is painful. Being saved often will mean having to confront things we considered familiar, normal, and even comforting. After all, having our way feels like that. So, letting go feels contrary to our intuition.

Grafting connotes pain and certainly discomfort, for it includes cutting from somewhere to place elsewhere. But it also means new life will stem from the graft.  I googled the definition to shed some light. Graft: noun - a shoot or twig inserted into a slit on the trunk or stem of a living plant, from which it receives sap. The very purpose of grafting is so that the inserted piece may feed from the living organism where it’s been placed.

In this, our sixth Canadian Thanksgiving, celebrating with our small group, I got to see this so clearly. Looking around the room, I saw twelve very different people. From early twenties to mid-forties, some students, some working full time, some married, others single, a few born and raised in Canada, while several grafted from as far as the Middle East and Asia, all under one roof, filling the space with laughter that has no accent, while skin colors of every tone.

We come with a specific history, a set of beliefs, and our own ideas and preferences. And it is in the body of Christ that we sharpen one another’s edges by the work of the Holy Spirit, using imperfect, flawed vessels placed together under His grace. Jesus is the living water who feeds us new life.

I think belonging is one of the deepest needs we feel as humans. We long to be part of a clan, to have a community and say, “these are my people,” because it means we are known, seen, and heard.

But I think belonging is also one of the hardest things for us. We need it to survive and thrive because belonging creates an opportunity for needs to be seen and met. We end up undressing our hearts and letting our messy parts spill out. Whether we need fellowship, a plate of food, or clarity for a moral dilemma, belonging to His family calls to wash feet and raise our hands when our own feet need washing. It’s hard and beautiful.

He is building a new kingdom where every tongue, tribe and nation is represented. The colliding of all those accents, histories, and colours, makes for a beautiful tapestry, more unique in the sum of its parts, than any one of them all by itself. It makes for a messy picture this side of heaven but a glorious one in the life to come.

The transformation from a life lived according to me, to one lived according to Him, is nothing short of a miracle. That is the result of cutting and replanting us; the miracle is less of me and more of Jesus because all of me is being moulded into His likeness.

On this Thanksgiving, as I ponder on His active work of cutting and replanting my life, I want to invite you to look for His work in your life. A prayer for us both-

Lord thank you for saving us, that we may have new Life.

Give us eyes to see the present circumstances of our season in light of your plan. Help us remember you are building a Kingdom to make your name famous, through the miracle of changed redeemed lives,

and that redeeming and changing is what you are doing in our lives every day through cutting and grafting.

Lord reveal our heart to us. Where are we refusing to be grafted and take root with you? Show us and give us teachable hearts, willing to yield to you Lord.

Grafting is painful Lord, you know because you were willing to be cut from heaven and grafted into humanity, renouncing your power and glory, for death on a cross. Thank you, Jesus!

Please help us to trust you with our broken pieces, as you cut and graft them to renew us.

Fill our hearts with joy we pray,

That strange joy that coexists with more questions than answers, because we know the One who holds all answers. Lord we pray for blooms, a fruitful life in the things that matter to you.

We love you, and we need you, for everything.

In Jesus’ name we pray- amen!

Small life, Big God

A few years ago, I heard a podcast interview with Ann Voskamp. The podcast was hosted by hope*writers, a writing community I had just joined. I had recently read One Thousand Gifts, so I eagerly listened in to learn more about her. Unexpectedly, about 35 minutes in, the episode found me weeping like a child on my couch.

As she talked about a book tour, her take on celebrity gripped me. Ann expressed, “I want to stay small,” and shared that while in New York City, “I was on a book tour and all I wanted to do was be home and do the dishes.” Her words winded me. They punched the hunger for large right out of me. The hot tears rolled down my face faster than I was able to process the reason why. That word, small, confronted me.

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We don’t like to be small. Small feels so not enough, so insignificant. Small is so close to nothing. Small is not a lot and is not strong. It often goes unnoticed. We will go to great lengths to enlarge, hide, and dress up what is small. Yet being small is our most natural state.

Small is how we came into the world. Our smallness puts us in the right context with God. His magnificence and all-sufficiency become visible when I’m not in the way. Less of me, more of Jesus, my soul whispers.

His size overwhelms and comforts all at once. It is a frightening thing to be in the presence of His Might, and at the same time, also utterly comforting to find yourself covered and protected by it. This is why I wept.  

Kingdom logic is not at all consistent with our own. Because the Kingdom we belong to is not of this world. Scripture shows the small favoured in ways that prove foreign to our way of thinking. For years I walked the halls of corporate culture where the cult to the powerful was the rule of the day.

God’s Word puts the lowliest at the level of Jesus, His Son, when it says “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-40 ESV).

Achieving status that sets above the rest is of the utmost importance today. It certainly was for me. Again, the Bible’s standards stand opposite to this saying “The last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:6 ESV).

After wanting so much to have a big life, full of accolades I could show as shiny trophies for my strength and smarts, my current life feels very simple. It is small, slow, and lived one moment and prayer at a time. The empty space left after removing the busy from my calendar and the relentless pursuit is now filled with a deep awareness of my need for Him who loved me enough to give up His throne to wash feet and die on a cross. The smallness I so badly want to cover, even now, is safely held by Him who holds all things together. My life is small, and my God is big. That’s eternal perspective I cling to.

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A prayer for you and me, dear reader:

Jesus would you teach us how to measure our lives the way heaven does? Where small is the way, great is the price, and greater still the joy and reward? Would you open our eyes that we might see others as You do?

Remind our hearts, Lord, that the least and the last ought to be our first concern and standard. Show them to us, in our churches, in our office, in our communities. In our mirrors as well. That we might see ourselves in Light of Your Son, of His life -

Lord Jesus thank you, that having held the sun and the moon in your fingers, you came as a baby and experienced our smallness. Lord thank you for showing us with your life how things are measured in heaven.

 Thank you for showing a King kneeling on the floor to wash dirty feet, that we might learn the beauty of small and lowly.  Thank you for living a small life at huge incalculable cost. Thank you that it was five loaves that fed thousands because kingdom economics multiplies and completes the small, not the grandiose.

Thank you, Lord, for speaking of the small mustard seed as the size of faith strong enough to move mountains, showing small is all we need to get started, to follow, to believe. Give us a heart for your things Lord, eyes for the small, and a life where large is our desire for obedience; for You.

We love you Lord, and we need you. In Jesus’ name

Amen!

 

 

 

 

What is Home?

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What is home? A specific geography, a city, a neighbourhood?  Perhaps it’s the smell of your grandmother’s cooking invading every room of a place, that makes it home. Is it the culture we are familiar with and part of? I let the question sit in for a moment, while I ponder answers.

It goes deeper than a zip code, and even the aroma of familiarity. Home is where our history is carefully housed. Our personhood is known, our roots contained. Home is where our belongings belong. Is wherever we are welcomed to spend that safe, restful series of moments when we most need them. Home is a familiar, effortless, sense of acceptance. Whatever gives us this, is the closest to home we have.

For me, being a child of divorce at a very early age, the idea was fragmented from the beginning. Soon after I was sent abroad to live and study. It would define my formative years. While it was a blessing no doubt, I was no closer to having a sense of home among various geographies and accents.

I’ve observed others with a more cohesive upbringing for whom home is clearly defined in terms of geography and family. Rooted in clear and coherent memories that thread an entire personal history. For me, this has always been the experience of an outsider looking in. I understand it but am unable to relate to it.

Sharing this as a 20 something, I remember my mentor -at the time in her 40’s- gently mentioning that Jesus did not have a place to lay his head. The Son of God, God made man, did not have a home while he walked the earth. In my heart, I ask why? Part of the answer, I think, is because He already had a home. It’s simplistic and I am sure there is much more to it. I see that it models something for us. Most of us know more physical comforts in this life than Jesus ever did. The simple often taken for granted gift of a permanent address and a bed were things he did not have, here.

The fact that most of us have an address and a bed is a blessing and evidence of God’s grace in our lives. The fact that He didn’t models for us a vision and intention of His time here. It was a trajectory to a final destination. Earth was not His home, but a temporary dwelling to accomplish the Father’s purpose. As Scripture says, He didn’t come to be served but to serve. No Jesus didn’t come to be comfortable, but to be broken for the broken.

So, how did He live out the concept of home? The safety, acceptance, and assurance that home represents, Jesus found in the Father. His utter dependence on God the Father was his home while here. It kept him anchored to the Truth of Who He was and Where his permanent address was; in heaven at the right hand of the Father. This was his source and point of reference, on how to live in the temporary place where he didn’t have a place to lay his head.

He didn’t have a home here, because he came to build a kingdom. A kingdom for which he was the cornerstone. He came to give his life as a ransom for many. Obedience to that purpose, and dependence on his Father to carry it out, is where he rested. That intimacy shared with the Father was the source of his actions while he was on earth. Actions that included washing feet, feeding crowds, healing the sick, confronting the proud, speaking Truth, and forgiving sins. In doing so Jesus was modelling the kind of home he came from and what kind of kingdom he came to build.

Everything changes when you become a believer and follower of Jesus. Everything inside of you that is. So much on the outside remains the same. Life’s hard things, people, and situations may never change. My background is still my background. Becoming a believer didn’t change how my life began and the weight thereof. But it did change me. From within. Deeply. And forever. Including what home, I look for.

For me, the ache of not having is an invitation to wait for the kingdom. It’s an active waiting. I wait for it as I learn to depend on God more than on myself. I anticipate it and feel I am getting small glimpses of it when I share with others joyful moments that feel otherworldly. It is a welcomed blessing in that way. It’s a good hunger to have, that says this is not the main course. The feast is yet to come.

Over the years, so many close friends have shown me with their love, a foretaste of that feast. They have taught me so well by example what it means to wash someone’s feet. They’ve made, quite literally, an eternal difference in my life.

Whether home is a well-defined place of comfort, one lost due to life’s circumstances, or an elusive concept altogether; the offer is the same. Let Him hold you and all your personal history. Learn to rest and lay down your head in the safety of the Father. Let yourself belong to Him. That’s what Jesus did while here. And what he came to do; make a way for us to have our home with Him.

When Need is what You Need most.

When you follow Jesus the logic of things is often, well, missing. While reading the other day I was struck by these words of his: “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Mark 10:23.

This statement makes no sense when seen through the eyes of everyday life. Affluence is something associated with power. The wealthy have influence. A person with financial means will have access to better education, a nicer home, newer cars, etc. And yet, in these words not only is having wealth not useful, but it is also a hindrance. The one thing worth having above all else – the Kingdom of God, is hard to attain for those who have an abundance of resources. Why?

It’s interesting that Jesus never says having wealth is wrong. He says for those who are wealthy, to enter the kingdom of God is hard.

We tend to think having means reduces our needs. And of course, in the here and now, it is true. Having financial resources helps meet many of our basic needs like food or shelter, as well as our recreational ones, such as travelling. The danger is when we believe that having financial means takes care of all needs. Or that the only needs we have are those met with resources we can produce.

I was raised in a comfortable environment. I was blessed to receive a great education and did not have to worry about how it would all be covered. Somewhere along the way from youth to adulthood, not needing (help, money, etc.) became an important marker for success. Yet need is our most primal basic state before the cross. We are needy. In every way. We need salvation, discernment. We need healing. We need community. We need. Period. But, how hard indeed it is for those who have much and think it enough, to understand their need for God and His kingdom.

So hard, that Jesus then adds, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). I think the mindset that comes with resources is where the rubber meets the road. Whether we are rich or not, our goal is to become like a rich person. Perhaps not all of us will have the goal of amassed wealth in the form of a trust fund or overseas accounts, but in the end, we are all seeking to have enough means that lead to worry-free self-sufficiency.

Still digesting his comment about a camel going through the eye of a needle with more ease than a rich person entering the kingdom of God, the disciples grapple among themselves “Then who can be saved?”. The answer is a verse often quoted, that I did not know this was the actual conversation where it occurred:

Looking at them, Jesus said, “With man it is impossible,
but not with God, because all things are possible with God.”
— Mark 10:27

When it comes to the Lord, there will always be this upside down/ right side up kingdom logic. I think for me it boils down to being made poor in order to be made rich in the right things. In 2014 I had a severe burnout that came crashing down with depression and a meaningful life decision to quit my job at the time and the career I’d been building for years. For the next few years, I became “poor” in the things that I thought mattered so much. I went from having a fattened bank account, so to speak, to a very slim one. I went from having a nice title in my LinkedIn profile to answering the “What do you do?” question with “I stay at home. I mentor younger women from my church. And, I write.” While thinking to myself, “all the while earning zero."

I remember the first time my husband did our taxes after I had quit my job. I felt shame. There was a big, fat ZERO where my full name appeared under the heading of “contributor.” That is exactly how I felt. And ashamed I told my husband as much; “My contribution to our household budget, there is it, ZERO!” To which he replied warmly that wasn’t true at all, and that this season was most important for my well-being. That it was God, who was supplying all our needs, like always.

Funny how it’s the kind of truth I would have said earlier in my life, but not entirely grasped or lived out. But now, at that moment, it went straight into my heart like a fresh and needed wound. Yes, a wound to my ego, to my self-sufficiency.

I want to be clear. While I was a believer back then, there was a thick layer between what I believed and how I lived it out. It impeded me from needing Him enough to delight in Him also.  

Stripped of what was my go-to for security, feeling inadequate and not at all self-reliant, I turned to Jesus with new eyes. Having zero as my contribution to my household economy in that tax form provided a realistic picture of how we are vis-à-vis the cross. We bring nothing to the kingdom. We can’t. It does not need anything we complete, and has everything we need to be whole.

I am learning to appreciate becoming "impoverished" in worldly measures, to take in the wealth of the kingdom we are called to. It was God’s mercy that circumstances are helping me become poor in the things I held dear and upon which I relied for my needs; that I may see and taste the sufficiency and abundance of Christ.

Going back to where I began, remember this whole conversation is taking place between Jesus and the disciples. So why then does he say that it’s hard for a wealthy man to enter the kingdom of God, to a group of men who aren’t? If their position in life isn’t directly related to the example provided, why use that wording? I think Jesus is deliberate and intentional in these words. He meant them for a group of fishermen and middle-class men. And He says them for us, 21st-century readers.

In talking about the person who is wealthy, He is talking to the person who regardless of financial standing, thinks that having resources is the goal and answer. And he is talking to the one who while being deprived thinks if only he had wealth then he would have no needs. Essentially, He is talking to all of us.  

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