What Jesus Made Holy Week About

More than any other Gospel writer, Matthew records how Jesus spent the last week before his Crucifixion. From the city-snarling Triumphal Entry, through the public scandal of clearing the Temple, through the Star Chamber councils of the public religious leaders, Matthew gives a historically rare, almost day-by-day record of how Jesus spent the last week of his public ministry.

As I’ve read through the chapters, a theme has emerged that threads through almost everything Jesus said and did in what we call the first Holy Week:

Readiness for the coming of the Lord.

The managers of the Temple, with their perverse preoccupation with commerce, aren’t ready to worship God or love his people.

The fig tree, with leaves but no fruit, is not ready to be harvested by the master of nature.

The wicked tenants aren’t ready to receive their master.

The scribes and Pharisees, who should of all people be most ready to welcome Yahweh into the world, are too obsessed with their own glory to see him.

If it shows up in modern Christian thought at all, the language of “readiness” has been co-opted by dispensationalists pointing at their Rapture calendars. To adapt Chesterton’s language, the worst possible fate has struck it: it’s been associated with the unfashionable.

But if Jesus made it the theme – in teaching, action, and story – of his last big, public week, then maybe we could take a breath and ask what it might mean.

What are we making ready for?

First, what are we supposed to be ready for?

Jesus builds the expectation around a few key images / metaphors:

1. A harvest

The Temple, the fig tree, the tenant parable, and the prophecy of the final judgment show God (represented by Jesus) collecting the “fruit” of his people’s work.

Many Old Testament offerings came after major “harvests,” either of vegetables or of animals in breeding season. The firstfruits of Israel’s produce were offered to God, showing Israel’s dependence on his provision, before the remaining bounty was enjoyed in fellowship with God and with one another. It was a physical reminder that Israel, like all humanity, were stewards of God’s creation.

Jesus’ parables do address the use of physical “fruit;” but, as his indictment of the Temple managers and religious leaders makes clear, God also expects a “spiritual harvest” in the worship, well-being, and care of his people’s souls. We’re to be prepared to offer fruit to God.

2. An evaluation

Related to the image of the harvest, Jesus tells us that the Master – God – will examine and evaluate the work of his people. All through this section, people are judged “prepared” or “not prepared” for God’s coming kingdom:

  • The fruitless fig tree
  • The “fruitless” Temple
  • The sons who do (or do not do) the Father’s will
  • The man not dressed for the wedding feast
  • The sheep versus the goats

The combined force of teaching after teaching drives it home: we are to be ready to be evaluated by God. The next question leads us to what he’s looking for, but he’s looking.

3. A wedding feast

This may come as a surprise after the intensity of the second idea, but Jesus uses the language unmistakably often: there’s a party coming. In some ways, the end of history is going to look like a wedding feast thrown by God himself. There’s a joyful end coming, and everyone ready is going to be invited.

The rest of the Scriptures flesh out these pictures of the end of time: the moment when God blows the whistle on this season, and says it’s time to collect instead of work. When God judges the world, sorting the just and the unjust from one another. And when God throws a better-than-the-end-of-a-Harry Potter-movie feast for his people, swallowing up the shroud of death itself and celebrating the marriage of his Son to the Church, the Bride.

What does readiness mean?

So if this what we’re called to be ready for, who is and isn’t ready?

The God-glorifying versus the self-glorifying

One bright line is drawn between those who build their lives around God’s glory, and those who build around their own.

The parable of the tenants and the condemnation of the religious leaders makes this clear. Stewards, who didn’t own the property they worked and should have gladly offered it back to the owner, schemed instead to keep all the good for themselves. Leaders who should have been concerned first with God’s glory drew others’ praise to themselves instead.

A classical Christian definition of sinful man was incurvatus in se, “incurved on the self.” Those obsessed with their own praise or popularity literally cannot see God, because their eyes are too full of themselves.

By contrast, even the son who at first says “no” to his father, then changes his mind and does what he was asked, is declared obedient. The “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Matthew 21:31) receive the kingdom of God, if they turn from themselves and look to him instead. To be ready for the coming of the Lord is to be living for God’s glory rather than our own.

The others-serving versus the self-serving

Another bright line – maybe the starkest, in Jesus’ prophecy of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) is between those who serve others and those who serve themselves.

The cursed in this prophecy aren’t cursed because of active sin: Jesus doesn’t say, “you starved me, imprisoned me,” etc. They’re cursed because they failed to care for others, because they did not take opportunities to do good that they could have.

By contrast, those welcomed into the kingdom – shocked as they are by Jesus’ words – are those who made time to serve the needy. Those who cared for the hungry, the poor, the stranger. Readiness for the coming of God is not a “heavenly-mindedness” that makes us step over the needs of others; heavenly-mindedness is giving our attention and our time to serve others.

The faithful versus the forgetful

This one may seem stranger than the others, but Jesus also draws a line between those who are simply willing to respond to God’s call, and those who get distracted. The parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14) contrasts people too preoccupied with their business to answer the king’s invitation, with the random people off the streets who accept it. A faithful servant keeps to his duties, even when his master is delayed; a faithless one abandons his post (24:25-51). The faithful bridesmaids prepared themselves to wait longer at their posts than they expected (25:1-13).

God has not told us when this coming will happen: Jesus himself said that even he didn’t (24:36). We’ve waited for 2000 years so far; it could happen tomorrow, or could happen ten or a hundred thousand years from now. It’s tempting as we get older to abandon our waiting: to start looking after concerns like our retirement, or those countries in Europe we haven’t visited, instead of God’s kingdom. But very clearly, God has said he wants to find his people waiting when he comes.

Waiting on this side of Easter

I was more sobered by this study than I thought I would be. The intensity of Jesus’ warnings feels more like a burden than a liberation. And maybe it should: Jesus had come into the city to die, and he’s told his followers they should expect the same. As we’ve studied in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has more often personalized and intensified the claims of God’s law than lightened them. We’re still called to readiness.

But Jesus’ death and resurrection give us two (they give us so many, but two big ones) tools to strengthen us in making ready for the coming of the Lord.

The assurance of God’s grace

The first tool is the assurance that God has buried all our sins, all our failures, and left them in the dirt. That anyone who turns their watchfulness – their faithful waiting – to Jesus receives a once-for-all victory over self-glory, self-serving, and existential distraction. That when we find ourselves in those things, we can confess them, grieve them, and know that they too were crucified with Christ.

The assurance of hope

We may wait our entire lives without seeing God return. Even in the few decades after all this happened, people were asking why God seemed so slow (2 Peter 3). With such a long delay, we can be tempted to give up hope.

But Jesus’ resurrection – his rising from the dead, into the seed-life of the new creation (1 Corinthians 15:42-45) – shows us that there is a new creation coming. There is a beautiful finish on the way. And as we make ready, we can know that the king is alive, and the king is coming again.

image: He Qi, “Women at the Tomb”

 

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The Close-Quarters Ministry of Salt

When Jesus came down from the mountain and defined his new people in the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t pick the obvious comparable language from Exodus 19. Rather than “kingdom of priests” or “holy nation,” he took the everyday metaphors of salt and light.

Light is easier, ironically, to get our hands around. Public proclamation, public demonstration of God’s grace and holiness, truth and power and beauty for all to see – light, we work with. All the money in my wallet says “light” shows up in church and ministry names at least 10 times more than “salt.”

But if we have an idea of what a “ministry of light” looks like, what do we do with the “ministry of salt?” What is this other calling Jesus has for us?

The mission: preserve and seal

We use light now for what they used it for then: to give a signal (like a beacon or lighthouse) and to show things as they are. We primarily use salt for flavoring now; but in antiquity, salt’s chief use was to preserve against decay. Salt was mined like coal and cut into blocks for use; the block of salt (halite, which we still use to de-ice our sidewalks but don’t eat) would be rubbed into meat, grinding the salt inside, to stop the growth of bacteria.

The “ministry of salt,” then, is a world-preserving ministry. Christians dig ourselves into families, communities, and institutions, and fight back the corrupting effects of sin. We have grand historical examples: the rescue of infants exposed to die unwanted; the preservation of learning in the collapse of antiquity; the breaking of the slave trade in modern Britain.

But, as Jesus said of a cup of cold water, the ministry of salt happens on smaller scales too. Just in my church, I’ve seen people help friends fight to keep their marriages alive; care for families under loss; tutor, mentor, even take in children in critical home circumstances; join the boards of struggling neighborhoods. The ministry of salt seeks ways to preserve individual and social lives.

To go further, salt shows up in some significant relationships in the Old Testament:

You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. (Leviticus 2:13)

God’s covenant to provide food for the Aaronic priests (Numbers 18:19) and his covenant to keep the Davidic line (2 Chronicles 13:5) are both described as “covenants of salt.” In Ezra, those opposed to the rebuilding of the temple told Artaxerxes they were bound to his honor because “we eat the salt of the palace.” Perhaps because of salt’s preserving nature, and definitely due to its being precious in the day, sharing salt with another was a way of sealing oneself to them.

If Jesus’ followers are the salt, then, part of our mission is to “seal” our little corners of the world to God: not just to fight decay, but to consecrate. We are here to see as many other individuals, communities, and institutions sealed to God as we can.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.
– Philippians 2:17

If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband.
– 1 Corinthians 7:13-14a

Whatever context we find ourselves in – a family, a church, a nation – we are called to see as many dimensions of it submitted to God as we can.

The method: self-sacrificial contact

Salt does not work from a distance. To do its preserving and consecrating work, it must be rubbed right into the contours or “hidden” into the object it works on.

In the same way, the “ministry of salt” requires folding ourselves into the lives or the institutions we want to see changed. Like Daniel, Nehemiah, or Esther, we redeem from the inside by knowing and in a sense “belonging” to parts of an unbelieving world. We work to maintain relationships with friends and family members; we participate in our neighborhoods, work culture, and social institutions.

And just as a block of salt must be diminished to fulfill its purpose, we too will have to “spend ourselves” to be present to others and work for their good. This quote from ND Wilson always gives me shivers:

“Lay your life down. Your heartbeats cannot be hoarded. Your reservoir of breaths is draining away. You have hands, blister them while you can. You have bones, make them strain—they can carry nothing in the grave. You have lungs, let them spill with laughter. …  I can be giving my fingers, my back, my mind, my words, my breaths, to my wife and my children and my neighbors, or I can grasp after the vapor and the vanity for myself, dragging my feet, afraid to die and therefore afraid to live.” – ND Wilson, Death by Living

If we are worn down anyway by time and chance, how better a way to go than enriching the lives of others? The ministry of salt is a self-spending rather than self-preserving life.

The power: a different kind of life

It could be objected that the life described above – disappearing into the world -is just as likely to deconvert Christians as convert non-Christians. Or, to drape pious language around mere worldliness and spiritual cowardice.

The first objection isn’t without merit, and the second happens. But Jesus’ cryptic warning points us toward how a ministry of salt can be sustained:

But if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
– Matthew 5:13b

This is about more than taste. A block of halite (“salt” to them) was a mix of useful salt crystals and useless other minerals. Once the actual salt had been ground out, the grains of other stuff in the “salt” were of no more use than sand. The Greek word rendered “lost its taste” here in other contexts means “become foolish” or “become useless.” A block of “salt” with no more salt crystals is worthless.

Jesus is telling his followers that they have something special inside them, that makes them different from others, that can give preserving and sanctifying life to the world. In another use of the image, recorded in Mark, Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (9:50). What is the real salt that keeps the block of salt salty?

Jesus is talking about the life of the Holy Spirit.

As Pentecost and the rest of the New Testament story show, the animating, empowering, convicting, converting life that pulls Jew, Greek, and barbarian, rich and poor, slave and free into a multicultural kingdom of priests is the life of Jesus, mediated by the Holy Spirit. The transformative power that withers sin and blooms godliness is the life of the Holy Spirit. The stink of death to the idolatrous and proud, the savor of life to the humble and meek, is the life of the Spirit in individual Christians and in the Church.

Salt dies as it lives well. Paul twice compared his life’s work to being “poured out like a drink offering” over the congregations he was used to found. Anyone who’s given themselves into the need of another knows the drain, whether pastors or social workers or stay-at-home moms.

We must be filled with a life outside our own to salt our little corner of Creation. We must be re-salted as we go. However we interpret the warning, the call is clear: salt, and be salted again.

The ministry of salt requires that we be filled and renewed by the Holy Spirit. We must have his life worked into our hearts as thoroughly as we work ourselves into the world. We need him to plant and grow the Word in our hearts; to satiate our souls with God’s presence in prayer; to cut away our idols and set our worship on God.

This passage from George Muller’s Narrative shows how the life of the Spirit makes a life of service possible:

According to my judgement the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord’s work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life … the secret of all true effectual service is joy in God, having experimental acquaintance and fellowship with God Himself.

It’s possible for a well-intentioned Christian to serve and serve, knowing how great the needs of the world are, and neglect the need to be re-salted by the Spirit. But we are finite, dependent beings, and were designed to be filled as we give. Let yourself be mortal and dependent. Serve, give, be poured out; but let yourself be enlivened by the Spirit as you do. Let yourself rest in the grace of God; let yourself be sanctified as you sanctify; that you may have decades to see the glory of God fill your little corner of Creation.

 

Longing for the Kingdom: An Advent Devotional

I hadn’t planned on posting this to my blog, but it’s just too good.

For Advent this year, we had members of Soma’s congregations write meditations on themes related to four of Jesus’ Beatitudes, and compiled it into this devotional:

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God

(we’re preaching through those Beatitudes this month)

In addition to the original meditations, we also have original artwork (for external and internal covers) by Abby Nelson and Jingo de la Rosa. And it’s all just so good.

If you’re interested in an Advent devotional this season, this one starts December 4; and you can go through it either on its own, or after listening to each Sunday’s sermon on our sermons page. Just reading through the content to get it ready for print was great for me, and I’m really excited to go through it day by day through this month!

Thoughts on becoming a father again

I wrote this from the hospital, where on Friday night my wife delivered our baby daughter Vale (Valerie) Elizabeth Rhea. Everyone is healthy; cuteness is off the scale.

This delivery and recovery have been so easy that I’ve had more time to think than when we were in hospital with Gwyn and Max. (And because she isn’t fully awake, I’m better rested than usual too). This season of work has had random fixings stewing in the gumbo pot, and three thoughts in particular have been impressed on my mind:

1. We co-write our children’s stories.

If our lives are a play, our parents write Act I. (And, to press the metaphor, give very strong character notes for the rest). I’ve been studying family systems theory, which says we cannot really understand someone until we know who they were in their families of origin. The story we give our children of who we are and who they are – both what we tell them, and also how we treat them – shapes them into adulthood.

Accepting that reality feels heavy, and I think it’s supposed to. With Vale, I now have three little dramas that my words and my actions will shape. I will become part of the self-definition of my children.

For one, this drives me to my knees. I have fantastic parents, who made my early story a great one, and that is a gift that feels more valuable the older I get. But wielding a pen in three new stories is a responsibility of eternal significance, and I want to drink deeply of God’s power and wisdom so I can give them the best story I know how to write.

With that in mind, I’ve also consecrated each of my children with a promise or an image from the Bible that I feel like God wants to make real for them. I take it from the parent-child blessings in the early stories of the Bible, which again reflect that idea that we shape our children’s stories, even in mysterious ways. These passages influence how I pray for my children and what I think they’ll grow up to be like; time will tell how the themes are stitched through.

2. Presence matters.

“Presence” means way more than “being physically there” or “being physically not there.”

One of the most meaningful “factors” in all three of Allison’s births has been Jennie Rader. We met Jennie when we hired her to be doula for Gwyn, but she’s become a friend to our family and to Allison in particular, and it’s hard to imagine having another baby without her there.

Beyond Jennie’s training (years as an OB nurse) and expertise, she brings something into the labor and delivery room that only the washy word “presence” describes well. Her years of training, her who-knows-how-many sessions as a doula, and her Christian hope and charity have given her a something that we can feel when she’s there with us, and even our medical staff pick up.

Several things I’ve been reading reflect this idea that a lot of how we perceive others happens on an intuitive, sub-rational level. All the words to describe it are spooky, but when it comes to our actual relationships with people, we perceive in them a shape that can be calming or exciting, peaceful or uncomfortable. And if that includes conscious actions like words and gestures, it also seems to go beyond it.

We’re watching through Band of Brothers for the who-knows-what time, and you can see presence in action in leaders like Winters and Lipton. Competence is part of why they’re respected by the men; but as both the miniseries and the interviews with the soldiers shows, great leaders have much more than just competence.

My wife has an incredible life-giving presence, which I can see the power of in the relationships she has with women in our church community. It’s grown over time – she definitely had it when I first met her, but maturing has made it even richer and sweeter.

3. People take priority.

I wrote about this when my son Max was born, but each new child impresses it on me again. I make things, I like to make things, I want to make things that endure: but my children will outlast them all. The Babylonian peasants gabbing about the Enuma Elish 4,000 years ago will outlive it, no matter how many times it gets reprinted. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. – from “The Weight of Glory”

I’ve read somewhere that creators can view their works like their children; but in this hospital, I’m reminded that these lives are the most enduring works my name will ever be on. They do and always will deserve the best time I have to give.

The Good Gift of the Will

In Reformed circles, we get skittish when people talk warmly about human will. The “gospel-centered” movement – which aspires to follow the example of the Reformation – sees itself as recovering the purity of grace from the chaff of self-centered Western religion. Part of our self-definition is the rejection of the primacy of human will in salvation or sanctification. That instinct has truth behind it: we are saved, sanctified, and glorified by the gracious will of God.

That being said, what if we’ve been so quick to reject any hint of self-salvation that we’ve lost the beauty and power of the sanctified will?

As a reaction to sermons structured something like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. Therefore, go do X.

The “gospel-centered” movement has shifted toward sermons that look more like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.

That shifts our focus from ourselves to God’s substitutionary grace – all to the good. But that isn’t complete. A sermon – a gospel-saturated, God-oriented, Christ-exalting sermon – isn’t complete until it brings the grace of God to bear on our actions in our present life. In other words, on the will.

Here’s a complete picture, that matches New Testament examples like Paul (Romans 12:1ff) and Peter (Acts 2:28ff):

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.
  4. By the grace of God, pursue X with all your heart.

In other words, gospel truth hasn’t saturated us until it compels us to use our wills to act on it.

The will is biblical.

If the word “will” makes you feel icky, pick another. But whatever word you use to define “a person’s ability to weigh choices, pick one, and follow it through,” a plain-sense reading of Scripture shows God treating us as if we have it.

  • “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live …” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
  • “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
  • If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)

Yes, our will is corrupted by the Fall. Yes, it’s in bondage against God’s glory until God sets it free. But all caveats caveated, the stubborn fact remains: God treats us like we can (and should) make meaningful choices.

The will is commonsensical.

Even the staunchest will-averse Calvinist treats himself and others as if we have the real ability to make real choices. We choose the restaurant where we want to eat dinner. We debate our friend’s choice of restaurant, in the hope that we’ll persuade her to choose ours instead. We ask our growing children to make wise choices about their habits or their friends.

Ministry in chronically poor areas highlights the beauty of a will used well. We can counteract many of the systemic and circumstantial factors that trap someone in poverty; but ultimately, a person must also learn to make and maintain wise decisions to move out of poverty into financial health. It doesn’t happen – or at least doesn’t stick – without the will.

The will is a gift.

Early Church fathers recognized that our ability to weigh and make choices was part of what made us more like God than like the animals. When Psalm 8 describes us as “made … a little lower than the heavenly beings” (v. 5), Eastern and Western thinkers alike saw our decision-making power as part of that special image. Here’s Gregory of Nyssa:

… for the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will; for to whom else does this belong than to a king? (“On the Making of Man”)

The fallen or poorly-used will gives us nothing; but once made truly alive and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the will becomes a means by which we glorify God and become more like Christ. Here’s Paul:

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” – 1 Timothy 4:7-8

And what is “training” but the exercise of the will?

If we’re willing to accept that the will is real and that it might, when redeemed and empowered by grace, be a gift that can be used for God’s glory, how can we work that into our teaching? Some quick suggestions:

  1. Talk about the will.

As you teach the beauty of God’s saving and sanctifying grace, teach how that grace liberates and empowers us to choose more of God’s glory and more of our neighbors’ good. Uphold the goodness and beauty of choices that honor God.

  1. Appeal to the will.

We tend to think we can’t get excited about God’s grace unless we simultaneously diminish human choice. But though the Bible affirms that God’s choice is more important (e.g., John 15:16), it never shies from appealing to the will of its readers. The speakers and writers of the Bible give commands, make appeals, issue warnings, all with the assumption that people might hear them and make different choices on the basis of them.

  1. Cultivate the will.

Our ability to make choices and act on them is like any other ability: it needs to be practiced. Is it possible to have a highly disciplined sinner? Absolutely. But the Bible equally affirms the beauty of a highly disciplined saint. We should challenge ourselves and challenge one another to practice godliness, and celebrate when we see our wills made stronger.

Image: “The Education of the Children of Clovis,” by Alma Tadema

 

“Better Than:” The Spirit of Fasting

If, like me, you didn’t grow up marking Lent, the whole practice of fasting may seem strange to you. I want to love God more, so, I don’t eat? Or maybe I do that juice cleanse I’ve been thinking about, because hey why not? It was kind of a New Year’s resolution and I bombed it in January, so I can try it now.

A few years ago, I came across a psalm that transformed my understanding of what fasting is supposed to accomplish.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1-8)

David wrote this psalm “in the wilderness of Judah” – during one of the times he was on the run for his life. The “wilderness diet,” so to speak, would have been pretty lean: scarce water, scrubby plants, no fruit, maybe the occasional lean and gamey deer if you’re lucky. David is likely spending his days with the hollow feeling of not having enough to eat.

That makes the visceral imagery he uses to describe his longing for God all the more powerful. Instead of asking for a no-longer-dry tongue, “my soul thirsts for you.” Instead of asking for a full belly, “My soul will be satisfied [in you] as with fat and rich food.” He’s letting his hunger turn his heart to long for God more.

The emotional crescendo is verse 4:

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

That’s where the light came on. The spirit of fasting – what we’re supposed to understand when we give things up for God – is captured in the phrase “better than.” God’s love is better than life. God’s spirit is better than a spring of water. The memory of God is better than a steak dinner.

Fasting is giving up a good thing to remind ourselves that God is better than that. It’s temporarily depriving ourselves, not to practice self-control or feel like dirt, but to try to direct that longing to the ultimate good. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

That means that instead of just depriving ourselves, fasting accomplishes its fullest purpose when we replace that lack with something of God. We replace a meal with time meditating on the Bible. We spend time in prayer instead of with Netflix. We practice silence and solitude one evening instead of time with friends.

The good things in life are good; but God is better. If you’ve never practiced fasting before, consider these questions:

1. What is one “good thing” in my life that I think I need more than I do? (that I’m afraid to give up for a time)

2. How can I let go of that thing and “replace” it with God, to remind myself that God is better than that?

Image: “San Gerolamo,” by Caravaggio

The Punctuated Life

I wrote this piece for my wife’s excellent blog, Less, Please! – enjoy!

Early in 2015, we got together with some of our friends and did something I’d never done before. We reflected back on 2014 and shared the “monuments” that we would set up to remember the year. Mine were:

  • The birth of our daughter Gwyn
  • The sense of feeling settled in the community we’d developed
  • Celebrating three years of marriage to Allison

And afterwards, we shared a few goals we had for the coming year.

(I didn’t keep any of mine, because I wasn’t yet making goals intelligently or seriously.)

In one sense, New Year’s is totally arbitrary: we’re smack in the middle of a season that’s as depressingly dark and cold on one side of the calendar as the other. But the fact that we close down one year, retire one wall calendar, and make a hoopla about opening a new year is a cultural gift: it’s a chance for us to make our life into more than one day after another after another after another.

It’s a punctuation mark.

Punctuation divides a set of words into meaningful units. While we can communicate in a breathless rush with no pauses and just the spew of whatever comes to mind in the moment and still get some points across I guess … punctuation gives order, clarity, and sense to our thoughts.

In the same way, punctuating time can give clarity and sense to our lives. Each New Year feels like a chance for a fresh start, even if we rarely keep our resolutions. Each birthday or anniversary feels like the right time to reflect on where we’ve been. Punctuating time feels natural to us; it feels right that our lives have something like chapters.

Here’s what punctuating time looks like:

  1. Stop.

It starts with stopping – taking a deliberate break from the normal rush of your life. I love the image of a swimmer throwing her head out of the water to breathe, because I can live my life that way: pounding from one urgency to another. I like it also because stopping well feels like moving from one level of existence to another, even if only for a moment.

Whatever stretch of time you’re punctuating, stop your normal activity and step out of it into somewhere you can breathe. Leave the phone at home. Go to a library, or just a quiet room.

  1. Reflect.

One point of punctuating life is to reflect on where we’ve come since the last mark (a day, a week, a month, whatever). What did I learn? What can I celebrate? What can I try again tomorrow, or try to do better?

The New Year practice we did for the first time in 2015 (which we’ve done every year since) gave me a time to re-experience, in a sense, the high points of my year. To look for the hand of Providence, which was invisible in the moment; or even to see ways I repeated failures of 2013, which can be a gift if I’m willing to learn from it.

Reflecting helps us recapture meaningful experiences we’ve lived through, and can be a way to find patterns or causes for thankfulness in things we were too underwater to notice.

  1. Envision.

Finally, punctuating time gives the opportunity to look ahead and dream about what the next chapter could look like. Again, I had tended to do this sloppily and halfheartedly around New Year’s; but with a more deliberate goal-setting system in my life, I’ve already seen more progress on my goals through dreaming and (wisely) planning ahead.

The free headspace of a punctuation mark – even if it’s a just a liberated hour at a coffee shop – lets me draft out a little of my future. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll get there, but it makes it a heck of a lot more likely.

In practice

Right now, the one punctuation mark we’ve worked into our family’s week is an hour on Saturdays. We take our kids to the child care at the Y, walk to a coffee shop (don’t tell the Y), and look at the past week and the coming week. We talk over what went well, what didn’t, and how we can work more wisely on the week to come.

Because I’m using Pace & Pattern, I have a bigger punctuation mark coming at the end of March: the end of Quarter 1, and the goals I’ve set for it. (And we’re, you know, having a baby.) Knowing that I have to put a whole season to rest has me feeling the pressure, in a healthy way, to work at these goals now so I can go on to something else in the next chapter.

And we just recently had our reflection on 2016 with our friends, which was a fantastic way to remember the great things we’ve experienced in the last year.

Happy punctuating!

Image: “Saint Jerome,” by Leonello Spalla