Whole: Embodied Salvation

Last week, Rev. Raphael Warnock became the first Black Senator in Georgia, thanks to the tireless efforts of Black women like Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown fighting against voter suppression. On the same day, the U.S. Capitol was stormed by white supremacists. I’ve been reflecting on the contrast. Some are building a world where “82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton (can go) to the polls and pick her youngest son to be a United States senator.” Others are waving “Jesus is my Savior” flags alongside nooses while violently trying to hang onto power.* I see in them the fruits of two different gospels. The latter has no idea what Jesus’ salvation really means. This is a strong statement, so let me explain.

One of the Bible’s primary images of salvation is this word “shalom.” Shalom is often translated “peace,” but it means more than what our English word connotes. A better translation is “a thriving whole.” The Bible starts with depictions of shalom in Genesis 1 and 2: the flourishing world that God created where every part of creation lives together in harmonious, mutually beneficial relationships. The prophecies of Jesus proclaim that Jesus will be a “Prince of Peace (shalom).” Jesus elaborates on this with his inaugural address in Luke 4:18-19, quoting a picture of shalom in Isaiah 61, where the poor, prisoners, and oppressed are set free. Peter also paints this picture of salvation, “But we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which justice and righteousness will be at home” and he urges us to live at peace (shalom) with him (2 Peter 3:13-14).

This picture of salvation is different from the Sunday-school version of salvation, where we say the “sinner’s prayer” and try to be nice to each other so that our souls can float to Heaven someday. Jesus is not interested in saving disembodied souls. Jesus is concerned with whole people — people who need to eat and have a home and know their families will be safe. Jesus doesn’t just want us to be nice to each other and get along. He wants a flourishing world where Black people don’t have to worry about dying young, where immigrant families stay together, where the powerful get on their knees and serve with joy.

The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of wholeness, of “shalom,” that actively fights for the well-being of the vulnerable. Anything short of that has dangerous consequences. We cannot preach a gospel that cares about saving souls but has no regard for the beaten down bodies and minds of the oppressed.

How has Jesus been expanding your picture of salvation? How does that picture affect the way you live?

In my next post I will share a personal story of experiencing wholeness from Jesus.


This post was written in collaboration with Jon Ball, ministry coordinator for theological formation in InterVarsity. See his website at: jonball.net.

*Rev. Raphael Warnock quoted in the Washington Post: Timothy Bella and Tim Elfrink, “Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, honors mother and ‘the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton’”, Washington Post, Jan 6, 2021.

*Gina Ciliberto, “They invaded the capitol saying ‘Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President’“, Sojourners, Jan 6, 2021.

Vision you can Taste

“I pray you can eat chocolate brownies with your husband someday.” My sister said this to me when I was 30, single, and on a strict diet in order to starve four different parasites in my intestines. Her words had power over me. Chocolate brownies and a husband felt so far from my current reality and also summarized my deeper desires so tangibly. My sister’s image became the catalyst to my prayers. When my husband made me chocolate brownies for my 35th birthday last week, I paused in amazement.

God’s vision of liberation for the Israelites was “a land flowing with milk and honey” (found in the Bible twenty times, starting in Exodus 3:8). God gave them a vision that made them salivate. And to an enslaved people, with stability and abundance so far from their line of sight, a stirring of all the senses was required for vision to survive. They needed a vision sticky enough to hold onto through an increase of oppression, forty years of waiting, and several wars with their neighbors.

When I first came on staff with InterVarsity, my leaders were asking God to give us a vision that would make us salivate. We wanted God to revive the lives of students and faculty and all of Los Angeles, but that was not a vision. There was no sign for us as to when revival would have occurred. So we waited on God for many years. And he gave us the vision of the 70: To see a witnessing community on all 70 college campuses in Greater Los Angeles. We will know it when it happens and we are committed to seeking God for it until it does, because the thought of it captivates all of our senses and imaginations.

As you think about the coming new year, what vision is God giving you and your community?

Maybe you want to become a better person. But don’t let your vision stop there. What will be the tangible sign that you’ve taken steps of growth? How will you know when that vision is realized?

Maybe you’re praying for systemic change. What versions of “milk and honey” have you already heard expressed from those who are suffering? What is it that you and your community are longing to see God do that would taste so so good?

Maybe you have a personal desire — for a relationship, a family, a job, or physical healing. What is the vision of hope that God wants to give you to fuel your prayers this year?

If you’re unsure of a vision, don’t be discouraged. Sometimes it takes a while for it to come. But start by asking the questions and don’t settle until you’re salivating.

“I’m Proud of You”

I recently received a score of 100% in a ten-week seminary class, with a really nice note from my professor about my writing. My husband’s proud response to my perfect score was, “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.” We chuckled for a moment and then I moved on to the next thing on my to-do list. Don’t get big-headed about this. My prof. must be an easy grader. My “humble” self-talk turned critical quickly: Writing is one thing, but doing is another. I’ll bet you can’t practice what you preach. Some theologian you are…

Christians can have a strange way of interacting with accomplishment. Our attempt to live out the virtue of humility often leads us down a rabbit trail of self-criticism and, ironically, unhelpful self-focus. We don’t want to become prideful so we spend all our energy shaming ourselves instead. We starve ourselves of affirmation and then strive harder to obtain what we will never allow ourselves to receive. A merciless cycle.

But there is a more effective way of quieting that voice that longs so badly for affirmation. That is, to give it what it wants. The need to hear those four powerful words, “I’m proud of you” is not just some temptation to lure us into the trap of becoming prideful. It is an innate desire, given to us by our Creator, to foster intimacy between us and our God who loves to get googly-eyed with delight over his children.

As I found myself trying to shove away my desire to acknowledge my grades, I felt God inviting me to pause. Kelly, I am so proud of you. Celebrate! Be encouraged! Then I texted my mom and a father-like-figure and shared with them the note from my professor. My inner-child smiled real big. That’s all she needed. Content on the inside, my focus shifted back to caring for other people, this time with less striving and more child-like courage.

How do you need to allow yourself to receive words of affirmation? How might God want to tell you he is proud of you? This may be hard, but make a list of thirty ways God is proud of you. Yes, I said thirty. Don’t dwell too hard on whether or not it is from God. God has more thoughts towards you than sand on a seashore so there’s a high chance your tiny list overlaps with his vast delight for you (Psalm 139:18). How did that make you feel to write it down? How can you make that a regular rhythm in your life?

Two Types of Nurture

“Nurture” and “fix” are often synonyms in my dictionary. Something hurts? Go to the doctor. Have a problem? Find a solution. Strategy, responsibility, and practicality are my default ways of expressing care. It is part of what makes me love coaching. I believe people can move forward and make progress and I love helping them get past their hurdles and reach their goals.

But there is another type of nurture. It has nothing to do with fixing. It’s a type of nurture that is not interested in outcome, but is more concerned with presence. It’s the type of nurture a mother gives her child when he skins his knees. A gentle touch. A loving kiss. A cuddle. Sometimes what we need as much as a solution, is acknowledgment of our pain and an assurance of loving presence.

Both types of nurture are necessary in helping someone feel whole. And often, the second type is what catalyzes the first. Being seen and loved is often the pre-requisite for all kinds of creative problem-solving.

I struggle with recurring sinus and throat pain. Recently, my spiritual director asked me how much I have paid attention to the escalating pain from the past couple months. I confessed I had been attempting to ignore it. She told me to gently put my hand on my throat and just stay with the pain for a while. I began to speak to myself as if I were a child, I’m so sorry, Kel. I know it hurts so badly. It’s been hurting for a long time. I know. I am here. And then I just stayed there a while, listening to what else my body might be wanting to tell me.

This whole exercise took all of ten minutes, but I could feel something changing in my soul. I had been craving nurture, as much as, if not more than, I had been craving relief. And I wasn’t even aware of it until I took some space to just be present to myself.

Soon after, I continued my journey of looking for help. I reached out to a few doctors and to friends and am not giving up trying to find solutions. That part of care is crucial as well. But too often I underestimate the healing power of attentiveness and acknowledgment.

Take a few minutes right now and practice being attentive to yourself. What is your body trying to say to you? Are there parts of you that have been craving nurture? Ask Jesus to show you how to speak lovingly to those parts of yourself. Practice just staying there for a bit without needing to fix anything.

For more on this type of prayer, look up BioSpiritual Focusing, a practice that was developed by two Jesuits: www.biospiritual.org.

6 Discernment Questions for Responsible People

In my last post, I shared a parable and made the point that we are not meant to do everything. But how do we discern when to say yes or no to opportunities for doing good? Jesus was frequently surrounded by hurting people, but he had only a few short years of ministry to activate systemic change. In order to focus and be effective, he regularly interacted with the Father to receive clarity of vision and direction (Mark 1:35-38).

We can follow Jesus’ example by discerning with God what responsibilities he is asking us to hold and what we need to release. Here are some questions to aid in that conversation:

  1. What is motivating my need to be responsible?
    Before taking on an added responsibility, ask yourself what is motivating you. Is it a need to feel…in control? secure? loved? worthy? Might there be something lurking underneath what appears honorable? Check those things and bring them to Jesus.
  2. What is God up to and how can I partner with him?
    Young leaders often want to know God’s ten year vision for their lives and how they will become world-changers. That is a lot of pressure! Jesus is the one changing the world. Our job is to partner with him. Ask yourself: What story has Jesus already been writing? Who is the main character?
  3. Who might I be overlooking in my immediate proximity?
    Jesus was aware of where he was headed, but he also was present to who was right in front of him (Mark 5:25-34). My church small group spent a night discerning ways we could serve our city. But it soon became clear that we didn’t need to go searching for service projects because a couple members of our small group were really suffering. Sometimes the people Jesus is calling us to be responsible to are already in our midst.
  4. How can I get some coaching to discern my vocational call?
    In that last couple years I have had a coach who has helped me to succinctly articulate my vocational call: My call is to teach, train, and coach so that young leaders thrive in their lives with Jesus. That vision statement now serves as a filter for everything I do. Is it an opportunity to teach, train, and coach young leaders? Then I will say yes. If not, I need to think twice. If you’ve never had a coach to help you discern your vocational call, I highly recommend it!
  5. What is in my job description?
    Whether or not you’re convinced of your vocational call, get very clear on your current job description. So many young leaders burn out because they feel responsible for things no one is asking them to do. Be on the same page with your supervisor about what is and is not your responsibility and it will save you a lot of pain. If you hate your job description, are their opportunities to change it? Obviously that is not always possible, but it is worth asking the question.
  6. Who can partner with me/ who else can do this?
    Before you commit to every invitation to serve, pause and ask: Would someone else be better at this? Who can share the load with me? As you partner with Jesus, you are partnering with the whole body of Christ! Remember that you are not alone!

Which of these questions is helpful for you? What else helps you in your own discernment?

Too Much to Carry

There’s a funny video of me as a kid on a serious mission to collect all the rocks on a trail in Oregon. I stuffed so many rocks in the pockets of my overalls that I eventually fell over. In my shock, I started to cry and my mom picked me up to comfort me.

In many ways, I am still that same kid. Once I get it in my head that there is something I ought to do, I do it with such intense focus, while pushing the limits of my own capacity, and then I surprise myself when I suddenly collapse. Why couldn’t I pick up every rock off of the trail? Surely I should’ve been able to.

Although I can chuckle at my stubborn determination and my self-imposed sense of responsibility, I am still needing to be discipled to learn that some rocks were not meant for me to carry. With so many people hurting right now, I want to be available to everyone. I want to respond to every request on social media to do what is right and good. I want to be a straight-A student and excel at my work. I want to suffer with those who suffer and hold their pain close to my heart.

But I will never be able to hold all that responsibility in my tiny little pockets. And Jesus has never asked me to. Instead, I hear him saying “Kelly, let’s pick out a few rocks together for you to hold onto, but let me be the one to hold you and this entire mountain.” And like a comforting mother, he reminds me that I am going to be ok. My determination will not be what saves me. I can trust Jesus when he says it is ok to say “no.”

What rocks have you picked up in this season? Which of them has Jesus asked you to carry and which of them have you picked up by your own determination? How do you sense Jesus comforting you when you realize it’s too much to carry by yourself?

In my next post, I will write more about how to discern what invitations and opportunities are from Jesus.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30, NLT

If the worst happens…

A common symptom for people like me with fibromyalgia is something called costochondritis — inflammation between the upper rib cage and breast bone that causes chest pain. I have had this before and know now not to be too alarmed, but, given my family history of heart failure and breast cancer, my doctors take chest pain really seriously.

This week the chest pain came back, and the doctor quickly ordered some tests.** Even though I knew there was a high chance it was just a muscle strain, I still had a moment of panic. What if it is something more serious? What if I catch or spread COVID by going into a medical clinic? All the worst case scenarios began to creep in.

But as Mike looked into my eyes and began to see me spiraling, he said something that I will never forget: “Kelly, even if the worst happens, you know what will happen? I will love you, and I will love you, and I will love you.”

Is this not God’s heart for us?

The Psalmist writes in Psalm 136: “God’s faithful love lasts forever.” And they repeat that line twenty-six times! There is something about those words that we need to hear over and over again.

This season has so many unknowns and many of us are filled with fear. In the U.S., we just had a traumatic moment (the culmination of the last several years) watching the debate when the president refused to condemn white supremacy, and only a few days later we got news that he is in the hospital with COVID, a horrible disease that we still aren’t sure is being taken seriously. For worst-case-scenario thinkers like myself, and especially for the most vulnerable in society, the future does not seem bright.

The Psalmist writes of God’s faithful love in the context of oppression (Psalm 136). God’s faithful love is longer lasting than oppressive rulers and empires. God’s faithful love is longer lasting than economic downfall and starvation. God’s faithful love is longer lasting than earth itself (and pandemics and fires and hurricanes). God’s faithful love — his liberating and holistic healing of humanity — gets the final say.

One of the hardest parts of facing the unknown, is believing that our current circumstances will last forever. But the only thing that is forever is God’s faithful love.

Take a moment and think about your fears. And then imagine Jesus looking into your eyes and telling you, “Even if the worst happens, I will love you, and I will love you, and I will love you.”

Now think about a people group that is especially vulnerable to suffering right now. How might Jesus be inviting you to join him as he speaks — and lives out — those same words for them?

**All my tests results came back normal! 🙂

Worth More than the Perfect Honeymoon

One of my most romantic memories was on our honeymoon in Kauai. Mike had planned a road trip to a certain spot on the island that was filled with waterfalls. He was giddy about it. But a couple hours into our drive, pain escalated for me. (I later found out I had a decayed wisdom tooth mixed with nerve pain from Fibromyalgia). Mike took one look at the pain in my face and, without a word of complaint, turned the car back around and said gently, “I think that’s enough for today.” He gave up his biggest adventure on the most expensive vacation of his life, in order to care for me.

As I reflect back on that time, part of me feels so sad. What a waste! Why did we spend all that money when pain prevented us from enjoying the island? But my spiritual director helped me to realize that the memory of that car ride, when I became more aware of the selfless presence of my life-partner, was priceless.

In Matthew 26:6-16, there is a woman who gives up a years’ wages by pouring expensive perfume over Jesus. Jesus’ disciples respond by saying, “Why this waste?” But the woman is willing to give up everything because she is aware of whose presence she is in. For the woman, getting to be in the presence of Jesus is more important than her life savings.

Becoming aware of the presence of Jesus is the key to selfless love. In the 1600s, Brother Lawrence served as a cook and a sandal maker in a monastery. He spent his whole life serving others with joy by “practicing the presence of God“. He believed that every moment is an enjoyable moment when you become aware of God’s presence, even if you’re doing something as mundane as doing the dishes.

I’ve recently been listening to this song from InterVarsity Live! called “In your presence” every time I cook dinner or work on a tedious homework assignment. When I start to feel my energy depleting or my grumpiness creeping in, I listen to it to remind myself that I can enjoy the presence of my Creator no matter where I am or what I am doing. There are also some excellent print outs of liturgies called “Every Moment Holy” that I hang on my wall to make even the most ordinary of tasks feel sacred.

When was the last time you experienced the presence of Jesus? What was that experience like? What’s one way you want to actively remember he is with you?

Photo by Kevin Doran on Unsplash

Whose Side is God on?

I remember as a kid watching USC football games with my parents and praying for our team to win, and then wondering: What if the other team is praying too? Whose side will God choose? I know now that God is always on the side of the Bruins, but I still sometimes find myself theologically perplexed. I know God cares about all people, but doesn’t only one team get to win?

Professor Robert Chao Romero, in his book Brown Church* writes, “Jesus clearly articulates a preferential option for immigrants, the poor, and all who are disregarded by society. Jesus takes their side. Not only that, but he identifies so closely with the struggles of the poor that he sees himself in them.” (See Matthew 25 and the Beatitudes.)

Although most Christians can get behind the idea that Jesus loves the poor, it is not so easy to get behind the idea that God takes sides. Doesn’t God care about all his kids? Don’t we need to see every angle before making a verdict?

But when God chooses a side, he is not choosing between rival football teams. He is choosing between the powerful and the powerless. And he sides with the powerless every single time, no questions asked.

I frequently work with students who’ve experienced bullying or abuse. Sometimes I know the person doing the bullying. But I can never take sides with the bully, no matter how much I see their woundedness or their youth. My first priority is to the one being bullied. And as Christians, if our first response to appeals for justice is to defend the powerful or the status quo rather than the disregarded, then something within us is not fully aligned with the heart of Christ.

In order to realign, we need to first recognize our feelings of disorientation. If you come from a place of privilege or have benefited from the status quo, then the world has told you that the rules of the game are fair and you’re on the winning team. And when you study the Scripture and realize that Jesus has sided with people whose experience is nothing like yours, it can cause you to doubt the most foundational truth you ever learned: that Jesus loves you. We have to take that traumatic feeling back to Jesus and talk to him about it.

The second thing we can do is to ask Jesus to expand our view of the gospel: How is it good news that Jesus sides with the disregarded? How might your thriving be wrapped up in the thriving of the most vulnerable? How might Jesus be loving you by exposing your sin and inviting you to join him in siding with the oppressed?

* I highly recommend reading this book. Dr. Chao Romero weaves the history of the Latin American church, theology, and current day events in a way that will make you love Jesus so much more.

Friendships in Conflict

We are not our best selves right now. We are navigating a pandemic, anticipating an election, living in isolation, learning to do everything online…anxiety is skyrocketing. If you find yourself a little more short-tempered, annoyed, defensive, avoidant, or paranoid in your friendships, it’s not surprising. Conflict is to be expected.

We are experts in conflict resolution: forgive, put yourself in their shoes, ask open-ended questions, etc. But even when we know exactly what we need to do to repair our friendships, there is a part of us that stubbornly resists taking that next step. Perhaps you can relate to Paul when he says, “I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Mending our friendships is not just about knowing the right thing to do. Rather, it’s about getting the most stubborn parts of ourselves to agree to do what is right. And there lies the greatest challenge.

When a roommate gets annoyed with you for failing to take out the trash, the answer is simple: apologize and go take out the trash. But why, then, does this tiff lead to an eroding friendship? It’s because there’s an inner part of you who doesn’t just hear, “take out the trash.” It hears, “you’re a failure” or “you’re not allowed to be tired…you are not as important to me as a clean house.” And that part of you that feels it must protect itself from all the wounds of childhood, shuts down in paralysis or lashes out in anger at your roommate…who just wanted you to take out the trash.

One of the most mature things you can do in conflict is to access that deeper part of yourself and nurture it. Listen to your soul to discover what part of you is hurting, and speak back to it: “No, you’re not a failure. Of course you’re tired (you’re in a pandemic!)” And only from that place of compassion, will you find the courage to do what is needed to mend the relationship.

Think about your most recent conflict with a friend. What part of you was offended? How might that offense have opened up old wounds? How can you speak with compassion to that part of yourself and validate your pain? What does that part need from you or from Jesus before it will have courage to do what is right?