Hot and dusty, Bob dismounted from the bus he had ridden to Pasadena, California. He was tired from a long day of travel and grateful that he would be able to have dinner with friends of friends who lived in the area. They welcomed him in, and he immediately felt a sense of peace. He felt at home, comfortable, safe, and valued.
Later, wondering why he had felt such peace in an unfamiliar place, Bob found an answer in 2 Corinthians. The apostle Paul describes people who follow God as having the “pleasing aroma of Christ.” “That’s exactly it!” Bob said to himself. His hosts had “smelled like” Christ.
When Paul says that God leads His people in Christ’s “triumphal procession” spreading the fragrance of His truth, he’s referring to a practice in the ancient world. Victorious armies would burn incense as they processed through the streets. For their supporters, the smell brought joy. In the same way, Paul says the people of God carry a pleasing fragrance to those who believe. It isn’t something we create on our own but something God gives as He leads us in spreading the knowledge of Him.
Bob is my dad, and that trip to Pasadena took place more than forty years ago, but he’s never forgotten it. He’s still telling the story of the people who smelled like Christ.
To visit Clifton Heritage National Park in Nassau, Bahamas, is to revisit a tragic era in history. Where the land meets the water, stone steps lead up a cliff. Slaves brought to the Bahamas by ship in the eighteenth century would ascend these steps, often leaving family behind and entering a life of inhumane treatment. At the top, there is a memorial to those slaves. Cedar trees have been carved into the shapes of women looking out to sea toward the homeland and family members they’ve lost. Each sculpture is scarred with marks of the slave captain’s whip.
These sculptures of women mourning what they’ve lost remind me of the importance of recognizing the injustices and broken systems in the world, and lamenting them. Lamenting does not mean that we are without hope; rather, it’s a way of being honest with God. It should be a familiar posture for Christians; about 40 percent of the Psalms are psalms of lament, and in the book of Lamentations, God’s people cry out to Him after their city has been destroyed by invaders (3:55).
Lament is a legitimate response to the reality of suffering, and it engages God in the context of pain and trouble. Ultimately, lament is hopeful: when we lament what is not right, we call ourselves and others to be active in seeking change.
And that’s why the sculpture garden in Nassau has been named “Genesis”—the place of lament is recognized as the place of new beginnings.
When my husband and I moved to Seattle to be near his sister, we didn’t know where we would live or work. A local church helped us find a place: a rental house with many bedrooms. We could live in one bedroom, and rent the others to international students. For the next three years, we were strangers welcoming strangers: sharing our home and meals with people from all over the world. We and our housemates welcomed dozens of international students in our home every Friday night for Bible study, too.
God’s people know what it means to be far from home. For several hundred years, the Israelites were literal foreigners—and slaves—in Egypt. In Leviticus 19, alongside familiar instructions like “Respect your father and mother” and “Do not steal” (vv. 3, 11), God reminded His people to empathetically care for foreigners, because they knew what it was like to be a foreigner and afraid (vv. 33–34).
While not all of us as followers of God today have experienced literal exile, we all know how it feels to be “foreigners” on earth (1 Peter 2:11)—people who feel like outsiders because our ultimate allegiance is to a heavenly kingdom. We are called to create a community of hospitality—strangers welcoming strangers into God’s family. The hospitable welcome my husband and I experienced in Seattle taught us to extend welcome to others—and this is at the heart of being the family of God (Romans 12:13).
My children and I have started a new daily practice. Every night at bedtime, we gather colored pencils and light a candle. Asking God to light our way, we get out our journals and draw or write answers to two questions: When did I show love today? and When did I withhold love today?
Loving our neighbors has been an important part of the Christian life “from the beginning” (2 John 1:5). That’s what John writes in his second letter to his congregation, asking them to love one another in obedience to God (2 John 1:5–6). Love is one of John’s favorite topics throughout his letters. He says that practicing real love is one way to know that we “belong to the truth,” that we’re living in God’s presence (1 John 3:18–19). When my kids and I reflect, we find that in our lives love takes shape in simple actions: sharing an umbrella, encouraging someone who is sad, or cooking a favorite meal. The moments when we’re withholding love are equally practical: we gossip, refuse to share, or satisfy our own desires without thinking of others’ needs.
Paying attention each night helps us be more aware each day, more tuned in to what the Spirit might be showing us as we walk through our lives. With the Spirit’s help, we’re learning to walk in love (2 John 1:6).
My husband left for a month-long trip, and almost immediately I was overwhelmed by the needs of my job, our house, and our children. A writing deadline loomed. The lawn mower broke. My children were on school break and bored. How would I take care of all of these things on my own?
I soon realized I wasn’t on my own. Friends from church showed up to help. Josh came over to fix my lawn mower. John brought me lunch. Cassidy helped with the laundry. Abi invited my kids over to play with hers so I could get my work done. God worked through each of these friends to provide for me. They were a living picture of the kind of community Paul describes in Romans 12. They loved sincerely (v. 9), considered the needs of others rather than just their own (v. 10), shared with me when I was in need, and showed hospitality (v. 13).
Because of the love my friends showed to me, I remained “joyful in hope” and “patient in affliction” (v. 12), even the mild affliction of solo parenting for a month. My brothers and sisters in Christ became what one friend calls “God with skin on” for me. They showed me the kind of sincere love we ought to show to everyone, especially those in our community of faith (Galatians 6:10). I hope to be more like them.
“But if God has no beginning and no end, and has always existed, what was He doing before He created us? How did He spend His time?” Some precocious Sunday school student always asks this question when we talk about God’s eternal nature. I used to respond that this was a bit of a mystery. But recently I learned that the Bible gives us an answer to this question.
When Jesus prays to His Father in John 17, He says “Father, . . . you loved me before the creation of the world” (v. 24). This is God as revealed to us by Jesus: before He ever created the earth or ruled over it, God was a Father loving His Son through the Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, God sent His Spirit in the form of a dove and said, “This is my Son, whom I love” (Matthew 3:17). The most foundational aspect of God’s identity is this outgoing, life-giving love.
What a lovely and encouraging truth this is about our God! The mutual, outgoing love expressed by each member of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is key to understanding the nature of God. What was God the Father doing before the beginning of time? Loving His Son through the Spirit. God is love (1 John 4:8), and this picture helps us begin to understand what that means.
During Holy Week, we remember the final days before Jesus’s crucifixion. The road Jesus traveled to the cross through the streets of Jerusalem is known today as the Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows.
But the writer of Hebrews viewed the path Jesus took as more than just a path of sorrows. The way of suffering that Jesus willingly walked to Golgotha made a “new and living way” into the presence of God for us (Hebrews 10:20).
For centuries the Jewish people had sought to come into God’s presence through animal sacrifices and by seeking to keep the law. But the law was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming,” for “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (vv. 1, 4).
Jesus’s journey down the Via Dolorosa led to His death and resurrection. Because of His sacrifice, we can be made holy when we trust in Him for the forgiveness of our sins. Even though we aren’t able to keep the law perfectly, we can draw near to God without fear, fully confident that we are welcomed and loved (vv. 10, 22).
Christ’s way of sorrow opened for us a new and living way to God.
Some mornings when I go online, Facebook shows me “memories”—things I’ve posted on that day in previous years. These memories, such as photos from my brother’s wedding or a video of my daughter playing with my grandmother, usually make me smile. But sometimes they have a more profound emotional effect. When I see a note about a visit to my brother-in-law during his chemo or a picture of the staples across my mother’s scalp after her brain surgery three years ago, I am reminded of God’s faithful presence during difficult circumstances. These Facebook memories nudge me towards prayer and gratitude.
All of us are prone to forget the things God has done for us. We need reminders. When Joshua led God’s people towards their new home, they had to cross the Jordan River (Joshua 3:15). God parted the waters, and his people walked through on dry land (3:17). To create a memorial of this miracle, they took twelve stones from the middle of the riverbed and stacked them on the other side (4:3, 6–7). When others asked what the stones meant, God’s people would tell the story of what God had done that day.
Physical reminders of God’s faithfulness in the past can remind us to trust Him in the present—and with the future.
Reginald Fessenden had been working for years to achieve wireless radio communication. Other scientists found his ideas radical and unorthodox, and doubted he would succeed. But he claims that on December 24, 1906, he became the first person to ever play music over the radio.
Fessenden held a contract with a fruit company which had installed wireless systems on roughly a dozen boats to communicate about the harvesting and marketing of bananas. That Christmas Eve, Fessenden said that he told the wireless operators on board all ships to pay attention. At 9 o'clock they heard his voice.
He reportedly played a record of an operatic aria, and then he pulled out his violin, playing “O Holy Night,” and singing the words to the last verse as he played. Finally, he offered Christmas greetings and read from Luke 2 the story of angels announcing the birth of a Savior to shepherds in Bethlehem.
Both the shepherds in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago and the sailors on board the United Fruit Company ships in 1906 heard an unexpected, surprising message of hope on a dark night. And God still speaks that same message of hope to us today. A Savior has been born for us - Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11)! We can join the choir of angels and believers through the ages who respond with “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).