The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

July 26, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

So you’ve got all the latest. Now what?

I’ve always been afraid to admit this, even to myself, because I feel like it reveals some sort of horrible truth about me.  I hate the book The Giving Tree.  I know the “right” reaction to this children’s classic picture book is to be deeply touched and inspired by the unconditionally loving and generous actions of the tree.  But I always end the book feeling kind of sick to my stomach and pretty much just really sad.  This huge, beautiful, thriving tree gets slowly hacked to pieces by the boy-turning-into-man whom she loves.  At the end of the book the tree is nothing but a nearly dead stump because he kept asking and she just kept giving.  I mean, tell me that doesn’t sound kind of like the plot to some demented horror story or psychological thriller!   Except for children?

But honestly, it is sort of an apt description for motherhood.  At least in the early years of being a mom and especially in this era where parenting has become both an art and a science.  I mean, what mother doesn’t want to give all of the best parts of herself to her children?  It’s practically instinctual.  I know many moms feel deeply satisfied by the calling of motherhood, but there’s also pain inherent in sacrifice.  Especially for those of us who have a hard time letting go of an impossibly unrealistic vision for our  life in which we think we’ll be able to give the best parts of ourselves to our families (and our jobs and our communities and our churches and our husbands) and yet somehow not be left as a virtually unrecognizable, hacked-up, stumpy remnant of our former selves.  And yes, hopefully most of us have slightly better boundaries than the Giving Tree.  But even though I try, there’s still something deep down inside of me that feels wrong every time I choose to put my own oxygen mask on first.

People tell me that there will be life beyond these years.  I only sort of believe them.  Mostly, I just feel like by time I’m done raising my children, I’ll be much, much more tired and my skills and experiences will be much, much less relevant.

We live in a time in which “irrelevant” becomes reality at an alarming rate.  I noticed awhile back that a certain trendy retailer was selling the jeans I would have worn in high school as “vintage denim” for $175.  To be honest, though I like to think I’m not someone who cares much about such things, it took my breath away realizing how quickly my prime time had come. and passed. and was already being recycled as vintage!  I’m still years from my 20th high school reunion and had assumed, judging from previous generations’ rather predictably regular fashion cycles, that I had 30 years before that fashion would come back again.  But it seems as if we’ve reached an age when most things in life cycle through at an almost panic-inducing pace.

It’s not just trends that become outdated quickly, it’s everything: Technology, information, best practices, best friends.  Almost everything is available at our fingertips in a flash and, with a push of a button, being sent to our homes for our instant gratification.  News becomes irrelevant in the time it would have previously taken us to read the paper, let alone investigate, write and print a new one.  No sooner have I figured out the best way to parent (bye-bye Tiger Mom and Helicopter Mom, hello Free Range mom?), eat healthfully (my flax seed supply from Costco expired before I moved on to chia seeds. What’s in today’s smoothie?) or even tie my shoes before it’s the wrong way again.  Our constant, easy access to information and social media compels us to sit spellbound in front of a screen all day as relationship statuses and the states of nations and the latest superfoods scroll past us, literally changing by the minute!

The downfall of our generation is that we’re spending so much time and energy trying to figure out how to keep up with the best that life has to offer that we’re missing out on most of it.  Stepping away from that constantly streaming source of information to be present in whatever moment we’re actually living leaves us with itchy thumbs and restless sensory input systems, anxious that we’re not online to ingest whatever we think it is that might make us most relevant in the conference room or cocktail party.  We’re so scared of missing out on the latest things, that we’re missing out on the greatest things.

So back to that Giving Tree.  I don’t think that this children’s book is about unconditional love.  Something else is at play there—a desperate scrambling to give and to get whatever each could in order to have value in a world that is passing away.  They were both operating in a finite system.  This story is tragic because there is no sense of eternity.  Neither character is giving a second thought to investing in things that might actually last beyond the passing of a few short years here on earth.

I’m trying to remind myself that what the world tells me makes my life significant is almost always a lie.  Spending all of our time trying to remain relevant can be easily-justified but far too often becomes an all-consuming distraction from that which gives our lives and our existence the greatest meaning: relating to an eternal God whose love for us and plan for us transcends all that is passing away.  Our kids don’t need all the best, they need to know that even when they don’t have everything they can still have eternity.  Our significance to this world has nothing to do with things on which the world places tremendous value such as our weight, age, our job, twitter follower count or the correct adaptation of whichever “best practice” or philosophy is en vogue.  In fact, it has everything to do with convincing them the exact opposite.

“People are like grass;
their beauty is like a flower in the field.
The grass withers and the flower fades.
But the word of the Lord remains forever.

And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.

1 Peter 1:24-25

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

John 17:3


July 14, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

When you find yourself in THAT place. Again. Still. (Or: It’s ok if everything’s not ok)

In the same way any word transforms itself into a virtually indistinguishable collection of lines and curves after having been written over and over again, I’ve begun to wonder what exactly is the meaning of that phrase so often dispensed as a mantra during times of suffering: It’s all going to be okay.  I’m not trying to disparage those who have used it (and I admit, I’ve probably used it myself) but I’m asking because I genuinely don’t think I understand anymore: What do people mean when they say it?  I think mostly our intentions are good.  Perhaps it is a hope or a wish or a prayer because it certainly can’t be a promise or a statement of fact.

What is ok?  When does everything turn out that way?  Because maybe some things get better, but some things only get worse.  And for each of us, surely there are some things that never will be ok.  I don’t know about you, but I know for me there are days when people saying everything is going to be okay just feels like an accusation, as if everything doesn’t seem that way for me because there’s something wrong with me.  Maybe who I am or what I do or at least with my way of perceiving the world somehow prevents me from arriving at this promised state of OK-ness and staying there.

It’s not that I’m unaware of the beauty and mystery of life here on Earth. I am awed by it.  But it seems you’d have to be willfully ignorant or blind to not also be aware of the persistence with which death and decay lays its claim on everything and everyone who dares to pass another day here.  Yes, there is beauty in the mess of it.  But there IS the mess of it.

Psalm 84:5-7

How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion!
Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring;
The early rain also covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength,
Every one of them appears before God in Zion.

In these days of the old covenant, the presence of God was in a particular and specific place and could only be accessed fully through prescribed and meticulously enacted rites and rituals.  Three times a year the men were called to make a spiritual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to encounter God in a special way.  The Psalmist for some reason was not able to make the journey to have this divine encounter.  He is envying those who are on their way there.

BUT He is also cognizant that going there inevitably takes pilgrims through this particular valley known as Baca, which is a predictably difficult passage.  In other translations, it’s called the Valley of Weeping. In these present days of the new covenant we know that the Psalmist’s verses serve as an allegory for our pilgrimage to our forever home in heaven, commonly referred to in scripture as Zion.

I love the word picture created in Psalm 84.  I can strongly identify with the deep yearning the writer expresses.  Fueled by both desperation and devotion for the One he loves, the traveler has become intimately acquainted with the path he must take, going over it again and again; tracing it, carving it even, into his soul.  He has done more than just carry a map around, He has made his heart a place where the Way and His ways have become etched into the fiber of his being.  Almost as if they’re tattooed there.

But the Psalmist is not glossing over the difficulty of the journey. He speaks matter-of-factly about the suffering.  There’s no way around it, we must go through it.  He doesn’t just say that it’ll all be ok, he outlines what others have done to make it survivable, even to find refreshment there.

The Psalmist calls the sojourner blessed who, going through the Valley of Weeping, makes it a spring.  At first, I wondered if the writer was referring to a traveler so cheerful and with such capacity for optimism that even the Valley of Weeping would have been for him like a beautiful oasis.  But then I came across some notes that clarified that the way through this valley was so perilous that some of the pilgrims would actually take time as they traveled to create places of respite and refreshment.  They’d dig a well to collect the rains when they fell or perhaps even lay stones to bolster the path from eroding.

I think of all the times when we wonder why we’ve found ourselves in a particularly difficult place.  Again. Or still.  Shouldering a shovel and bending low under the weight of another day.  It feels like a punishment.  Or like we’ve lost our way.  But what if, instead, we’ve been called to remain here awhile so that we can be the one who makes the valley of weeping into a place of refreshment.  Who finds her only way to survive is to dig deeply to gather the Living Water.  Her only way through is to pick-up rocks, clinging to His promises, and lay them into stepping stones to make the path less treacherous as she goes. And to, perhaps most importantly of all, transform the landscape of a valley of weeping so that it’s more navigable for others who come after or maybe even for ourselves next time around.

Psalm 84:5 starts out using a singular subject: the man whose strength is in God.  But by verse 6, the writer has already begun speaking of plural subjects; many people passing through the valley and going from strength to strength. How profoundly the pilgrimage changed for those that followed the first one who began the tradition of spring-building and path-laying!

Is it strange that I am comforted by the acknowledgement that difficulty, weeping even, is a predictable part of our passage?  Life here feels hard because it is hard!  And that doesn’t mean we’re going the wrong way or that God has forsaken us or even that we’re somehow failing as people if we experience and actually acknowledge the difficulty. Instead, blessed is the person who, knowing with equal certainty that there will be difficulty AND that God will provide the rains to we need to refresh us, makes the valley of weeping into a place of springs!  We are a people who offer, through Jesus, profound hope and practical help.  We do not need to rely on tired platitudes.  We have much, much more in Christ.

This work of re-landscaping a valley of weeping is holy work and it is excruciatingly difficult work. It is part of what we are called to as co-laborers with Christ.  It’s practically the family business: transforming barren wastelands into verdant oases.

July 2, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson
1 Comment

Four things you need to know about Hobby Lobby before you panic (or let your friends panic)


  1. The decision of the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case does not mean that Americans or even Hobby Lobby employees will no longer have access to all of the same contraceptives to which they currently have access.  In fact, Hobby Lobby offered employees coverage for 16 of the 20 FDA approved contraceptives mandated by the Affordable Care Act.  Additionally, employees could/can still work for Hobby Lobby and use any legal contraceptives they wished to use.  Though the owners of Hobby Lobby felt that paying  for employees’ use of a particular few contraceptives violated their deeply-held religious convictions, employees could/can still access them, often at little or no cost through other existing venues (including many funded by the federal government.)  In fact, the Federal government had already designed and implemented one program for employees to have access to insurance coverage for contraceptives if they can’t access them through their (religious non-profit corporation) employers.  A similar program could be and probably will be designed.     
  2. This Supreme Court did not decide that all businesses should be afforded the same rights as individuals.  An important distinction of this case was that Hobby Lobby is a closely-held corporation which a very small group of people own and operate.  The courts upheld the rights of individuals who have deeply-held religious convictions and happen to own corporations.  This decision allows the owners of Hobby Lobby to not have to violate their religious beliefs in order to continue to operate their business in the United States. 
  3. This Supreme Court decision does not create any new laws related to human rights or reproductive freedoms.  The decision relates to one single mandate within the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and was heavily based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which is a 1993 law signed into law by President Clinton designed to prevent laws that substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.  Congress makes laws.  The Supreme Court decides whether these laws (or the Constitution) are being violated.  Citizens can decide whether to re-elect their representatives to Congress and we all can continue to lobby for legal and policy reforms.
  4. This case does not provide a wide open door through which every single other owner of every single other company would be able to deny access to health care for their employees.  The Supreme Court made it clear that this decision was based on the case’s ability to meet the criteria of RFRA and was limited to this particular mandate within the ACA and only applies to closely-held corporations.   Any other companies that wish to bring forward a suit will have to comply with existing laws and make their own case if they wish to challenge the application or Constitutionality of a law. As Justice Alito pointed out, “Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”

June 24, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

When they say you’re a new creation and you just don’t really feel that way

This week my kids and I threw ourselves and some lunch into the car to gather with a friend and her kids.  As happens often to the conversations between mothers at home with their young children, our words were both limited and guided by the presence of 6 sets of little ears and mouths in very close proximity.  She was preparing for news of a possible miscarriage and I shared with her how we suffered the miscarriage of my daughter’s twin in my first pregnancy.  My 5 year-old asked what was the name of that baby.  I told her that we had not named her since we never got to meet her but that I thought we would know her in heaven and that Jesus would have given her a name.

We pondered that idea for awhile: What it would be like to meet the children we carried but never saw and to learn their names. How Jesus would give the best names; perfectly fitting. How they’d be called by names of wholeness because in their forever homes they would be both whole and wholly known.

I wondered if in heaven we all might receive a new name.  I recalled reading a Bible verse that said something like that, but I wasn’t sure of the details.   We remembered the times when God renamed people as an indication of their new identities in Him: Sarah, Abraham, Paul.  As happens when little ones are present, our conversation remained inconclusive.   Thoughts and words floated in the air around us, ungathered and unspoken, eventually dispersed by the more persistent stream of needs and requests from our children.

Then a few days later, I received an email from another friend.  We are planning a woman’s event and she mentioned an activity that she wanted to do that involved sharing in a very succinct way, just a few words, our stories and our identities.  And for some reason I didn’t quite immediately understand, I had a strong, visceral reaction against the idea. Suddenly overcome by an  itchy and hot rash of emotions, so uncomfortable was I with the thought of this activity, that I immediately called her.  My friend said something like “Naming can be powerful”  and then I understood why my feelings against the idea had been so intense.

I realized that the reaction I was having to the idea was, in fact, shame.  I hadn’t yet consciously thought about which few words would tell the story of how I’d become a new creation.  I hadn’t yet considered the positive identity, words of redemption and restoration,  that were the actual intention of the activity.  My knee jerk impulse had been based on the as-of-yet unrecognized assumption that the activity would reveal me as I saw myself, not as God sees me.  My brain had automatically associated the activity with the names I still sometimes hold on the placard over my heart; the old fallback identity.  The words that I too easily believe about myself when I’m experiencing despair or loneliness or exhaustion or failure: Forsaken. Worthless. Damaged. Deserted. Unlovely.

My reaction to that activity made me realize the extent to which I still hold in my own mind and heart a core identity, a name,  that is not one of wholeness or new life.  Sometimes, to be honest probably most of the time, I feel buried in that broken and weak identity.  In an everyday life that is chaotic and messy and that I can’t seem to transcend to live as a completely new creation.  Some days it seems impossible to reconcile the reality of the person that I am, here and now, with the truth of the identity that I have in Christ  And then I begin to doubt: Can I feel this way and really and truly be that new person?  How can I be so broken and still be in Christ?

It comes down to this: I cannot trust in the way I feel about myself as an indication of my identity or worth to Him.  I cannot trust in my emotions or attitudes (surface or buried ones, those we label “good” or “bad”) to earn or claim my identity in Him.  I can trust Jesus and Jesus alone.

By placing my trust in Him, He has taken on my brokenness, my pain, my sorrow, my damage, my sickness, my sins and died with them at the cross. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength (2 Corinthians 13:14).

This promise of glory and strength will not be fully realized until we are in heaven.  But in the meantime, I am hidden with Christ in God.  The weak and broken person that I am is there, held perfectly together in Him.  Healed by Him.  Made perfect in Him.  Strengthened in Him.  Whole in Him.  While I am living this side of heaven, I am none of those things in myself. But (and this is the most important but still apparently incomprehensible part to me) in Him I am seen that way by God and am counted as such.

Most days, I feel so far from whole or holy that I am not sure I would even be able to recognize a complete and healed version of myself were I to get a glimpse of my eternal identity.  But after my conversations this week, I started to wonder:  By what name might I be called when I get to my forever home?

I went into scripture and looked for those  passages that referred to our new heavenly name.  I found the verse of which I’d been thinking and there are a few other verses that refer to a new name as well.  But what gets interesting is trying to discern whether there will be a new name for each believer or whether the new name will be Jesus’ and will refer to  the completed work of Christ over all Christians.

At first I was admittedly a bit disappointed by  the interpretation of the “new name” passages which took the emphasis off of a unique and individual new name that each of us might receive.  But the more I think about it, the more I realize that being so wholly and permanently identified with Christ and as Christ’s own is really the important thing.  After all,  His is the name above all other names.  The name at which every knee shall bow and tongue confess that He is Lord.  The name that accomplishes the healing, cleansing, sanctifying, justifying and  saving work for which we all yearn.  All power and all authority and all glory are His and are imparted through THAT name.

Whether or not I’ll actually be called something besides Rachel, the promise is that I will be whole, once and for all, in my forever home.  All of us in Him will be.  And this IS our eternal and irrevocable identity in the eyes of the only One who matters:

Isaiah 62:2-5

English Standard Version (ESV)

The nations shall see your righteousness,  all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name  that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. 5… and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,  so shall your God rejoice over you.


June 2, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

On having faith, being disappointed and how it all just kind of sucks sometimes

When I hear a statement like “It was even better than I could have possibly imagined,” I find myself suspecting it likely has more to do with a lack of imagination than the quality of the actual experience.  More often than not, I have the opposite issue: I imagined something far better than it could possibly be.  I wonder if it’s true of many of the world’s skeptics;  that they started as vividly imaginative children who found themselves, at first, startled by the way reality so often turned out to be a disturbingly dulled or distorted version of whatever they’d carried in their heads. But after enough repetition of that theme, perhaps they found it easier to simply not expect the best from life in order to avoid being wracked over and over again by the jarring pain of disappointed hope.

I want to be able to whole-heartedly encourage the dreamer in my own children but sometimes I wince before I can get the words out, “God wants to give you the desires of your heart,” because I can’t help but cushion the statement in several layers of theological stipulations until the sentiment is virtually unrecognizable as something you’d ever want to impart to preschoolers.

As a parent, I want to protect my children from pain.  I start to wonder if I should warn them:  Don’t let your dreams get too big.  You’ll too often be disappointed if you attempt to drag those gangly creatures through life, trying to push and pull larger-than-life things through the standardized doorways of the real world.

I was reading this week about John the Baptist’s future parents.  A lifetime’s worth of at least monthly disappointments and suddenly an angel appears to an elderly Zechariah and delivers the incredible news that not only will they have a child in their old age, but that “he will be great in the eyes of the Lord… He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth.  And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God.”

Those are some pretty spectacular promises!  There’s no soft-pedaling. No attempts to provide plenty of caveats to ensure nobody is disappointed if something goes wrong.  So I wonder, as he grew, what Zechariah and Elizabeth told John about his future prospects and then how they felt when the child of that promise turned out to be a wilderness-dwelling semi-recluse who eats bugs and honey and clothes himself in malodorous camel’s hair.

The ministry to which John is appointed is not an easy one.  John’s message is often harsh and he’s so unabashedly critical of wrong-living that he dares to confront King Herod about marrying his brother’s wife and is thrown in prison as a result.  Then, he sits there.  For months.  And months.  And at this point, John himself must have begun to wonder if something went wrong.  Had he gone out of favor with God?  Had Jesus forgotten him?  Or maybe Jesus himself was not who John originally thought he was?

So John sends his disciples to question Jesus, “Are you the expected One or do we look for someone else?”  I’m projecting a bit but it almost sounds like John is saying: “If I’m so important to you and you’re so fully able to save, then why haven’t you delivered me from this lonely, dark place so that I can continue your work freely?”

But Jesus doesn’t even come in person to reassure John.  Instead he sends a message back that basically says, “I’m fulfilling prophesy and working miracles every place I go, of course I am the One!”  But Jesus doesn’t deliver one of those miracles to John.  Jesus leaves John in prison until he eventually dies there, beheaded on the whim of a manipulative woman and her adolescent daughter.

How could one not be disappointed when promises of favor manifest themselves this way?  Again, I’m projecting here but do you think John ever wondered: Doesn’t it seem cruel sometimes that God’s promises to us are so unequivocally majestic when His plans for us so often have us inhabiting a barren wasteland or feeling forgotten in prison?

Like the feelings I have towards my own children, it seems reasonable to think that a loving God might wanted to spare us from suffering.  Yet He did not even spare His own firstborn Son from pain, but gave him up for us all.  That verse continues on to say, “how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”  What an amazing love!  But part of me keeps wondering, can I trust a God who wraps some of His best gifts swaddled in rags or burial clothes drenched in the blood of a sacrificial Lamb?

Receiving the gifts of God as good gifts, even when they’re not at all how I expected good gifts to come, is an act of faith. And honestly, living out faith kind of sucks sometimes.  Disappointment after disappointment, and He just keeps saying, “Trust me!  You can trust me!”  He reminds me.  I remind myself.  I remind others.  Others remind me.  But saying those words, even doing those words, doesn’t end the suffering or give closure to a difficult situation.  In some ways, faith is inherently unsatisfying.  At least for now.  It is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.  We don’t yet have the fulfillment of it.

I wonder about John the Baptist in those last moments as he’s summoned from his prison cell and greeted, not by a Savior to rescue him from pain, but instead by the gleaming glint of the blade that would sever his head.

Sure, I’d like to believe that John felt nothing but faith-fueled serenity in that moment.  But even Jesus felt forsaken by God as he faced death and it wouldn’t surprise me if John experienced deep sorrow as well.  (In fact, his whole life- the angel’s glorious promises to parents all the way through the gruesome death- was a forerunner to Christ’s.)  And I bet that after a lifetime of dealing in the twisting, rising and falling inclinations of the human heart, it would not have surprised John that they were  each present there- the sorrow and the disappointment and the faith.  So as it seems many of us must perpetually do,  he may have had to bring his heart before the Lord and ask Him that the one might overcome the others.  The the One might overcome the others.

This prayer from Ephesians comes to mind.  If you find yourself now in a place of disappointment, sorrow or suffering I pray this for you as I’m praying it for myself:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.




May 27, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

What if the best thing we have going for us isn’t that we’re special but simply that we’re available?

The last couple of weeks I’ve had a series of panic-inducing dreams, waking regularly gasping for breath.  Some nights I have been trapped in our house, unable to get out. Others, I have an opportunity to pursue something amazing outside of my current life only to find that impediment after impediment presents itself in my path.  Every corridor of escape is impossibly narrow and infinitely twisting, pressing in on my flesh as I squeeze through.  My progress is blocked by people with artificial smiles pulled tight on their faces trying to appear benign.

My subconscious is not subtle.  I feel stuck.

You’ve probably noticed by now that my favorite characters in the Bible are often the most obscure ones.  I  identify best with them.  My life isn’t a Queen Esther life or a Mary, mother of Jesus, life.  My life is mostly filled with just a whole lot of ordinary.

I know it sounds just a wee bit melodramatic but sometimes “ordinary” feels like a soul-sucking, sensory-grinding, brain-numbing experience that drains all of the meaning out of existence.

So, you can probably guess who caught my attention when I read this a few days ago in Mark:

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go to prepare the Passover meal for you?”

So Jesus sent two of them into Jerusalem with these instructions: “As you go into the city, a man carrying a pitcher of water will meet you. Follow him. At the house he enters, say to the owner, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’  He will take you upstairs to a large room that is already set up. That is where you should prepare our meal.”

It was the guy with the water jug that stood out.   Just some man carrying a pitcher of water who appears to have no other purpose in the story than to serve as a vector, practically a human arrow or a road sign, to direct the disciples to the house where the Last Supper will be held.  And really, it’s hard to understand how the limited description that Jesus gives his disciples about this man will even lead them to the right place.  I mean, what’s so special about a guy carrying some water?

The notes on my Bible offer some clarification on this question by pointing out that it was unusual for a man to be carrying a jug of water.  It was considered woman’s work.  So then what brought this man to be doing it on that day?  Was he a particularly progressive individual who wished to challenge the cultural assumptions of his day?  Maybe.  I considered that option.  I also imagined other possible motives and pondered what his attitude may or may not have been about the work.  The Bible doesn’t focus on any of that.  All we know was that he was doing it because he was available to do it.

Honestly, I didn’t want to write about the guy with the jug because I couldn’t really decide what I thought.  I mean, did it make his life more meaningful that he got to be the one Jesus used to direct the disciples to the upper room?  Was his rather small place in this momentous event one that elevated his life to something extraordinary, one worthy of being noted by Jesus?  Was it yet another example of God using the least of us to be part of some larger cosmic plan?  But I just couldn’t quite get there with the text.

I just kept wondering, would that be enough for me?  Could I come to the end of my life and say, “It was all worth it.  I was that guy with the jug, that human road sign, that one time.” And all the inevitable pain and boredom and drudgery and despair of human existence on Earth would be made meaningful because of that singular instance? Would his small place in this big story have been enough for me?

The Bible is actually a relatively sparse narrative of what were ultimately universe-altering events and I don’t believe any single word is an accidental inclusion.  I really do believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training.  So what specifically are we supposed to glean from the mention of this man with the jug?

What occurs to me is that this guy with the jug is really just a lot like most other people that God uses.  They hadn’t necessarily spent every moment of their lives specifically preparing for this moment and this opportunity.  They didn’t have their bags packed with all the best gear or their nets carefully folded away or their dead buried or confirmation that their field or their oxen or their marriage were in just exactly the right condition when they followed his call.  They simply made themselves instantaneously available to do whatever God called them to.  

I wonder if this man with the jug had just made it a habit to live his life that way.  Maybe this one day was exactly like every other day for him and that is why God used him.  Maybe he was that guy that when someone said, “We need someone to muck the stalls,”  who would shout out,  “I  can do that!” or  “We need someone to go fetch the water.”  “I’m available!”  And because he was that type of person, Jesus knew that he could be counted on to be in that particular place at that particular time to be used by Him.  Probably the best thing he had going for him was not that he was extraordinary or special but that he had shown himself to be available to Him.

I’m not suggesting that we should be the type of person that compulsively and thoughtlessly says “Yes!” to every single person and every single request that comes our way.  But I am realizing how different things might be if I actually lived as if all that I am and everything I have is available to be used by God at any given time.  Even if nothing I have is extraordinarily special, what if it were just extraordinarily available?  

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10


May 20, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

When the improper approach to Jesus is entirely proper

We all have certain distinguishing identities, labels that make it easier for the world to make sense of who we are and how we fit into it.  A mother.  A student.  A businessman.  Our life takes on the trappings of these identities.  A style of clothing, the things we carry, what we use to get from here to there.  These items begin to shape us. They hold places for us.  Our things hold us in our places.

Certain items become so synonymous with a particular identity that when we see someone who wears that specific hat and carries that specific bag and rides that specific vehicle, we barely need to think about who they are- our brain uses those social signals to place them into context almost automatically.  In fact, it can become such a reflex to place the label that we forget to actually see the person.  And I think we mostly prefer it that way.  It makes us all less naked.  More presentable.  Proper.  Our things tell others where we and where they belong so that we don’t have to. I heard someone say once that walking around with a clipboard could get them almost anywhere.  It feels more comfortable to wander around with stuff in our hands by which people can define us than to walk around empty-handed.  Walking around empty-handed might leave us to be defined by our need rather than defined by our stuff. And we all know which is the least desirable of those two options.

Scanning through the book of Mark recently, something caught my eye in a new way.  Bartimaeus is a man who boldly pursued mercy from Jesus.  We are told he is a blind beggar.  His life is marked by the trappings of that identity.  When Jesus comes by, He is sitting by the side of a busy road, cloak draped around himself.

It was the cloak that stood out to me.  Skimming through the gospels, I had just recently read Jesus’ instructions to the disciples he sends out.  He tells them not to take two cloaks.  The commentary in my Bible suggests that this may be because an outer cloak would have been a covering that a traveler took to shelter himself from the elements.  Jesus’ admonition to leave this behind was perhaps an insinuation that He would provide shelter to them as necessary as they traveled.

When I thought of Bartimaeus cloak, I thought of all that it would have meant to a blind beggar in that particular social context.

Like a second skin he’d hold it tightly to himself to stay dry or warm. Use it for shelter or shade. A barrier upon which to sit on the dusty, rocky ground.  A place where passersby might throw their coins. And more than something that covered him physically, I imagine that cloak sometimes covered him emotionally, serving as a shield under which he could find anonymity from those seeking to shame or pity (Then, blindness would have been understood as an external sign of sin).  Or maybe some days his cloak was like an old t-shirt that one can’t quite bring oneself to throw out, a source of comfort and familiarity. An adult version of a safety blanket.

As people walked down that road, the shape of a cloak draped around the hunch of a man seated on the side probably signaled them to reach into their pockets and purses for change.  He was known by that cloak and so were his needs.

I wonder what purpose that cloak was serving that day that Jesus passed Bartimaeus?  We are told the first words that flew from his heart when he heard He was approaching were (in Mark 10:46-52), “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

48 “Be quiet!” many of the people yelled at him.

But he only shouted louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

49 When Jesus heard him, he stopped and said, “Tell him to come here.”

At Jesus’ invitation, Bartimaeus threw aside his cloak, jumped up, and came.

Not only is he enthusiastic to drop that cloak, he almost aggressively sheds the only thing that he carries.  Here’s this object that’s served as a source of shelter, a marker of his identity, something in which he found comfort or covering for his shame, and he literally leaves it in the dust when Jesus invites him to come.

The invitation from Jesus was a simple one, containing no promises.  Jesus didn’t say, “Come and I will give you sight.”  But somehow Bartimaeus knew he could trust Jesus and his invitation.  He believed that whatever Jesus had in store for him must be good.  His instantaneous abandonment of that which he had clung to was an act of faith.  So there he stands before Jesus and sure enough:

51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked.

“My rabbi,” the blind man said, “I want to see!”

That beggar and I are so different. He’s free in many ways I’m most trapped.  I’m not sure I would have so boldly called out the first time, willing to be defined in that crowd by my need.  And what about that second time?  That even louder shout for mercy? And then coming to Jesus totally empty-handed?

I’ve been the type that hears “Be quiet” from the crowd and it echoes the self-shushing from my own shame and doubts.  I’ve been the type that, when I finally do dare to come, has that cloak balled up tightly in my fists, clutched against my chest between me and Jesus, just in case.

I’ve been the type who might not dare ask for the true desire of my heart because what if?  What if I’m not good enough?  What if He’s not?  What if I’m not lovable enough? What if He doesn’t?

And I’ve been the type that, even if He did, would keep that old, grimy cloak tucked away in a closet somewhere, “just in case.”  You never know, I might have to go back to my old place on the side of the road if this doesn’t go just the way I hope it will.  I’ve been the type that trusts in the healing to be the way I’m delivered, but doesn’t trust in Jesus if healing isn’t His way of delivering me.

Other words for “cloak” include mantle, habit, shroud.  I have them too.  A mantle of shame.  Old habits I cling to because I trust my way more than Jesus’ way.  The shroud with which I cover things in my life I have given up for dead rather than risk disappointed hope.  I don’t throw my old garments away because in this place and in this time where I live it seems more proper to have a never-ending supply of cloaks.  It feels more comfortable to come wrapped neatly and covered completely than to arrive just me, empty-handed.  But this beggar, he doesn’t give any of that a thought. He hears who is coming down the road and he knows Who is better than anything else to which he could cling.  Bartimaeus does what we all should do:  He throws his cloak far from him and goes to Jesus.

52 And Jesus said to him, “Go, for your faith has healed you.” Instantly the man could see,

But verse 52 doesn’t stop there and neither does Bartimaeus.  He just keeps on walking with Jesus.  Just like all the other disciples, without a second cloak and without a second thought, we’re told

he followed Jesus down the road. 

Dear reader, I’m asking myself and I’m asking you today: Where’s your cloak?

May 16, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

When you’re not the “good” Christian

I have a very difficult time shutting off my brain.  I analyze.  I ponder. I percolate. I ruminate. I wonder as I wander. It just never stops.  And I’m an introvert so without some space and time to organize thoughts and feelings- catalogue, tuck them away, express them in prayer, writing or on a walk with a friend-I begin to feel like I’m tending an overloaded ox cart. Feelings slosh over the sides, messily splashing passers-by and thoughts pile precariously high so that even just the flick of a cat’s tail across my wheels is liable to upset the whole thing.

That’s the state in which I’ve been living this week.  There are some big issues filling our ox cart, but it’s the small things that make me feel as if I might lose it. I sat in the pew on Sunday with three restless children and their limbs and crayons and papers strewn slipshod on our laps and the floor, our chaos filling up almost every inch of the box of space we inhabited.  My husband nudged me to slide down closer to the young, still-unruffled couple that was sitting nearest us so that another family might sandwich us from the other side of the pew in case they entered late.  I was dumbfounded that he actually saw room to be made.  That few inches of space felt to me like the difference between survival and death by asphyxiation.  I pointedly glanced at him then at all the other empty spaces where someone might choose to sit.  I resisted the urge to get up and walk to one of them myself.  And on an empty back-page from the bulletin, I most certainly scrawled my husband nearly a full page of notes detailing my objections.  And then I loathed myself for all of it.

But the life I have chosen involves a nearly constant stream of invasions into my mental, emotional and physical space.  I’m ridiculously jealous of those freshly-planted patches of grass that are roped off from pedestrian use, signs placed protectively around the outer limits politely but firmly warning passersby not to tread there.  “Please do not dig, pick, mow or trample” I saw one read.  My jealousy is not so much directed at the fact that they have boundaries, but at how park users actually seem to respect them and what they protect.

So basically I’ve been a walking/talking storm cloud this week, dark and tempestuous; at best an inconvenience and at worst frightful to everyone else around me.  And trust me, I like myself no better than they do when I’m this way.

So as I was reading in Mark about Jesus recruiting the apostles, I almost literally choked with the surge of joy that rose from my soul when I read in parenthesis some words I’d never noticed before:

And He appointed the twelve…and James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, “Sons of Thunder “)

I know that all of the disciples had their faults.  But what this little parenthesized statement in Mark revealed to me was how fond Jesus was of these men, not just despite who they were but because of who they were!  We don’t give nicknames to our friends based on traits that we can’t stand.  We give pet names out of affection.  It’s not that Jesus took the stormy temperaments of James and John lightly.  When appropriate, he chastised them for letting them get the best of them.  But Jesus clearly loved them for who they were.  In fact John experienced and accepted the love of Jesus for him with such confidence that in his writing John repeatedly- I mean almost annoyingly so- refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved.”

Most of the time, I feel like this intensity of mine is the thing that gets in the way of me being one of those “good” Christians.  Some part of me is convinced that if I could just control my feelings better or have a more child-like faith then God would be nearer to me.  If I could sit still, quietly and calmly like a good girl then maybe, like some majestic stag in the woods, I’d more often see Him gracing me with His presence.  But then again, there are those Sons of Thunder proving my assumptions wrong.  It was those guys, of all the disciples, that Jesus chose to bring up to the mountain to reveal Himself in transfiguration.  It was their eyes that beheld the radiance and beauty of Jesus the Son of God, human nature meeting God, as only a handful of people have ever seen Him on this side of eternity.  Then later, Jesus touchingly depicts deep feelings of affection and trust for John when He chooses him to care for His mother, Mary, as He’s dying on the cross.  Soon after, John gets to be one of the first witnesses to the empty tomb.  Later God chooses him to receive a mysterious vision of future glory which he captures in Revelations.

I do not write this post because I take too lightly my weaknesses, but because I do not want to take too lightly the love of Christ for me.  He is not some skittish beast I can scare away with my noise.  He is not remotely small and even my largest emotions could never overwhelm Him.  And when will I ever learn that His love for me does not depend on my behavior?  My prayer this week, for myself and all that may happen to read this is that we be like John: Astoundingly certain, even annoyingly so, that we each are the one whom Jesus loves.

May 7, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

Is it strange that fear of God can draw us closer to Him?

Awaking from a bad dream is a different kind of waking.  It is not the gradual, sun-dappled arousal of a slow Sunday morning.  It is the sensation of a reverse drowning–being pulled from shadowy, deep, moving river into the drier air of a cool, still night.  Senses sputtering in electric arousal.  Awareness of time and place confounded.  Thrown through dreamy dimensions to arrive awake in a singular, vivid instant.

I find myself bolt upright in a cold sweat, throat strained with the sensation of a scream recently pulled from my lips.  I’m never sure whether the noise of that utterance has been left in dreamland or joined me in the waking world.  Or maybe it has been misplaced somewhere between the two, like a scarf fallen on a deserted, snowy landscape.

There have been times the scream remains lodged in my throat, uncertain how to cry.  All I know is that fear was the swift and sure arrow that shot me towards consciousness.  But in those initial moments of waking I’m not always certain where or who I am, let alone for what and from whom I should seek help.

Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.  I think that in the past I have understood that proverb to mean that fear of the consequences of not knowing God (hell, for example) might be the impetus which spurs a person towards Him and His ways. But something about that just didn’t seem exactly right to me.  It feels wrong somehow that fear of a person would draw me towards him? Is it?

In Judges a woman referred to simply as the wife of Manoah from Zorah receives a visit from the angel of God.  Biblical scholars understand this as an encounter with Jesus before His human incarnation.  Different translations offer slightly varying interpretations of how she described Him.  Her words for His appearance, depending on translation, are “frightful,” “very terrifying,” “awe-inspiring,” “awesome,” “very terrible” or even “terror laced with glory.”

But despite an interaction that might be described as terrifying, when the angel of the Lord comes back later, Manoah dares to ask Him for a name.  He responds, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?”  Other translations:

…it is beyond understanding.

…it is too wonderful for you to understand.

 …seeing it is secret.

…because you cannot comprehend it.

It’s very, very similar to the conversation Jacob had when he wrestled with God (also as an angel of the Lord).  Jacob asks Him for a name and God simply responds, “Why do you ask for a name?”

Fear can shock us, leaving us painfully immobilized when we know that we do not have the right resources at our disposal. Or it can be the recognition of our need that jars us to cry out for help. When Help comes- frightful, terrifying, awesome, wonderful and incomprehensible as He is- fear can find us shrinking back from that which stands looming before us unless we have become desperate enough in our own limitations to know that this One who is bigger than us is, in fact, our only hope. Similarly, recognizing what we do not know and cannot do is the very thing which causes us to ask the necessary questions of the unfathomable God.  When we rightfully fear God, we do not presume to be able to control Him or remake Him or build Him into the image we prefer. In the dark, in our place of weakness and smallness, we squeak out, “Who’s there?  Will you help me?” And, glory!, we will find that He will answer!

As with Manoah and also with Jacob, God’s response is not always the one that we might think we want. His answer, “Why do you ask for a name?” might seem cold and even give Him the appearance of being inhospitable.  But actually it is an answer that is infinitely more reassuring than a more descriptive one. It is a response that lets us know that He is approachable and that He will answer us, but one that leaves no question that we most definitely are not in the same league.  Not only will any words He could utter or we could understand with human languages fail to capture Him, but our minds simply cannot comprehend the fullness of Him.  Still, He has told us enough.  Enough to know that He is the mystery, you are known He is the Unfathomable, you are understoodHe has power, though you are weak.

Fear of the Lord is the swift and sure arrow that shoots you towards consciousness. It is the kind of fear which drives us to jump into or allow ourselves to be held by One larger than ourselves.  Fear of the Lord has made it all too clear who I am (small) and for what (everything) and from whom (Him) I need help.  Fear has been the beginning of knowledge.  The impetus for knowing.  The invitation into intimacy with someone who magnificently bigger than us but whose love defines Him.  The details of who He is may yet be incomprehensible but the scope of Him is undeniable and is, perhaps, the most important aspect of our relationship.  For if our help came from someone we could so easily encompass with our words or with our minds, someone who fit so easily into our ways of being and understanding, could we dare to have a hope so great?

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

April 30, 2014
by Rachel Gustafson

Hitting publish on this one, hoping that somehow cements it in my soul.

There is a creature endemic to darkness, one that can make itself appear innocuous, ingratiating itself to us with false piety but whose entire purpose it is to keep us there.  In shadowy places, Shame makes itself our close and manipulative companion.  Shame tells us not that we feel or that we did dark things, but that we ARE dark things.

Today it’s raining again.  It is one rainy day in a series of many rainy days.  Just day after day of the grey, windy, cold-to-the bones kind of downpour.  It’s the type of weather that douses my hope.  The clouds begin to gather and I feel my brows draw together as well.  Shoulders hunch self-protectively.  Muscles tense reflexively, almost desperate to pull any bit of warmth to themselves.  The exterior environment lays hold of my interior landscape and my demeanor, my disposition, my posture even, all feel captive to the darkness of the day.

We haven’t seen the sun for awhile and after a long winter the last place I want to be is stuck inside with my (similarly irritated and discouraged) kids all week.  The physical, mental and spiritual aspects of darkness get all tangled up and something in me breaks and I yell at one of my girls.  I immediately and legitimately feel guilty.  And, taking advantage of the darkness it loves so much, shame creeps its way into my presence on the underbelly of a more legitimate thought. Shame parasites itself right onto the moment, clinging tentacles wrapping tighter, “You ARE a bad mother and you’re never going to change.”  And I find myself thinking, “That’s right.  I AM that way.  Look, I just proved it.”

And you know the last place I want to go?  To God to tell Him all about how I’m feeling.  Because somehow I see Him being at least as exasperated as I am about me and waiting with a long list of other reasons why I’m never going to measure up.  Looking at me like I have no right to be in His presence when I’m like this.  Confirming my suspicions that I AM dark and belong in the dark.  And after I’ve wallowed there for awhile, I don’t even want to look at myself let alone present myself in the glaring light of His truth.  When self-loathing sets in, I assume that in all of His holiness He must despise me even more.

And the place I least want to go is, of course, where I need to be the most.  To go to stand in the light and hear the truth that He does not despise me, He loves me! That He went to great lengths, while I was an enemy to Him still, to call me to Him and establish me as His beloved.  When I’m standing in front of God, He isn’t waiting there with a condemning look in His face, scrutinizing and withholding and waiting to pronounce judgment. On the contrary, because of what Jesus did on the cross, He sees me as spotless child of the light.  When I strayed He went out searching for me to bring me back to where I belong with Him.  And when I make any movement towards Him, He runs out to meet me to take me in His arms.  He removes my shame and croons over me with joyful songs.  On His face is nothing but love for me and in His arms is nothing but acceptance of me and in His words there is delight such as I’ll find from no other source.

Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.

Shame, that favorite pet of the enemy of our soul, loses its battle as soon as we begin to turn towards the Light.  With our faces looking to Him we can see in His face the truth of who we are to Him.  At the same moment we are basking in His acceptance and love for us we are being transformed because (and this really gets me) we’re told in 1 John 3:2 that seeing Jesus, actually seeing Him as He is, is the thing that changes us to be like Him.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:2

Presenting ourselves before Him not only confirms but establishes our identity, not only puts to death any ideas that we belong in the dark but actually lays hold of our identity as children of the Light.

Is there something keeping you from going to Him?  You can name it.  Point at it.  Shine every light you’ve got on it.  It doesn’t belong with you.  Chances are He’s laid down His life to remove whatever is the barrier between you.  It has no right to be there anymore.  Push it to the side like the dead weight that it is and run freely to Him.