Maggie H. Johnson

Writer • Speaker

Category: Faith (page 1 of 19)

A Ministry of Presence

He sat at the table answering a barrage of emails while I meticulously fit another load of dishes into the dishwasher. Standing over a sink full of dirty dishes has always been a sacred act for me. I scrub away the grime as God kneads my heart. It’s my secret place – the spot where He and I wrestle through my most tender hurts and most stubborn sins. This particular day was no different.

I was soul-weary and pretty sure I’d found the one mountain God couldn’t move. I turned on the faucet, pushed up my sleeves and waited for the water to warm. With both hands gripping the counter, I closed my eyes to pray. No words came but tears began to run, and that’s when I opened my eyes to see my sweet husband looking at me. He had never observed my sacred, dish-washing, worship session, and his confusion quickly turned to concern.

“What’s wrong, honey? Are you okay?” With those two simple questions, my husband inserted himself into my pain.

I’ve found that many people are willing to sit with you in pain, but only temporarily. After a moment the anguish becomes too uncomfortable, and it makes much more sense to add our own two cents to the situation. There’s a story in the bible of a man who lost everything. His kids died, his livelihood was destroyed, and his house collapsed. At the end of Job 2, his friends show up. Verse 11 says, “When three of Job’s friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they got together and traveled from their homes to comfort and console him.” Friends who come running are invaluable! Verse 13 continues, “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.”

A ministry of presence is one of the greatest things we have to offer others. Not solutions, not money, not opinions, and not even food (although I do like food). As followers of Jesus – the ones who embody the Spirit of God in our ordinary, walking-around selves – nothing is better than being present. Community can heal. Colossians 3:15 in The Message version reads, “Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness.”

Life with Christ isn’t about picking yourself up by your bootstraps. It’s about letting others enter into the messiest parts of your life and walking with you toward healing. It’s about being present, even in silence. Pursuit of community has been one of the most humbling parts of my journey with Jesus because it doesn’t matter what I have to give. It only matters that I show up. This is hard for me because I like to contribute. Who wants to enter with empty hands? We all want to feel useful…worthy.  But Jesus modeled emptiness so we wouldn’t have to obsess over ranks and worthiness. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to come with empty hands because that’s exactly what Jesus did.

He showed us how to love by being present. He healed us with his very body. When rules and regulations and theories couldn’t set us free, Jesus knew that only his flesh and blood would be enough. Maybe our flesh-and-blood presence can heal the world too.

Long Miles & Loud Lies

I woke up before the sun, still wrapped in a cocoon of warmth and coaxing my own mind into submission. Darkness does not give way to reason, and this has always been my fight. My feet obediently hit the floor as I prepared to do that which I do not want to do – run four miles at seven o’clock in the morning.

I laced up my trusty sneakers, stretched my limbs, and started down the asphalt path. Step by step, the familiar lies began to bombard my mind, just as I knew they would – just as I hoped they would.

“You’re not good enough.”

“Who do you think you are?”

“You don’t have what it takes.”

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The longer the miles, the louder the lies. I need them to show their faces at this point in the day so that I can prove their falsehood at first light. I need them to rare their ugly heads when I’m most vulnerable, because if I can believe the truth when I’m tired and sweaty, then I can believe the truth all day long.

Lies are both elusive and visceral in nature, which is why they thrive in darkness. They can’t necessarily be pinned down with logic and intellect – my preferred weapons of choice. The only other approach at my disposal at seven in the morning is brute force. So I run, but not without intention. I run to train my mind to believe the truth, to pound out the inconsistencies that have dug their way into the crevices of my mind.

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But there are days when I lose. There are times when the lies start to sound a lot more like truth, and I forget how to untangle the web.

Then I remember that Jesus came for the losers. He shines a light for the ones who can’t reason their way through the dark. He sorts through the mess and leads us back home. When lies grow louder, he speaks up on our behalf. He draws close to the losers, and that makes all the difference.

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I grinned victoriously through labored breaths and said, “You made me from scratch.”

That’s all it took to silence the shouts. Suddenly accusations were exchanged for peace. Instead of seeing a litany of weaknesses, my eyes shifted to the reality of my origin. He made me good.

I rounded the corner to our house just after sunrise and knew what had been true all along: Lies can’t survive in the light of day.

Recovering Pharisee

My mama always used to say, “Given the right circumstances, anyone is capable of doing anything.” This was her way of trying to curb the pharisaical tendencies that had already begun to form in my childhood heart.

I wonder if there are other mamas like mine –  compassionate women who never give up on their babies, even when their hearts grow hardened to the gospel of grace. I wonder if these women pray incessantly – just like my mama did – that their children would encounter Jesus in a life-wrecking way. I wonder if they listen patiently to the self-righteous soap box of their offspring while simultaneously trusting that God’s love can level the most legalistic heart.

I wonder about these kinds of things, because I have to believe that there are people out there who pray for the recovering pharisees just as much as they pray for the recovering alcoholics.  We all have our addictions, my vice just wears different clothing.

Addiction is addiction is addiction. And I’m addicted to rules, to guidelines, to laws that convince me I’m better than you.

That’s why Jesus knocks the wind out of my sails when he says to Nicodemus (and to me): “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, ” (John 3:17). I got so caught up with doing right and being better that I missed the point: Grace.

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Being a pharisee might make me feel awesome for a period of time, but like most addictions, the high won’t last. I need the grace of Jesus to sober me up, to shock me back into the reality of my position before God. In his book Wild Grace, Max Lucado says, “God dispenses his goodness not with an eye dropper but with a fire hydrant. Your heart is a Dixie cup, and his grace is the Mediterranean Sea. You simply cannot contain it all. So let it bubble over. Spill out. Pour forth. And enjoy the flood.” That’s the effect of grace – unhindered, overflowing, untainted love.

When my mama cautioned, “Given the right circumstances, anyone is capable of doing anything,” what she was really saying is this: The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

This recovering pharisee is learning the bigness of God. He was too small to me before – only powerful enough to save the hard-working types, those who could pick themselves up by their bootstraps. I ignored the fact that he is also the God of the forgotten. He is God over the tired, the nothing-left-to-give types, those who can’t see a way out. He is God over the ones who just can’t catch a break, and even for those who keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again.

The ground is level at the foot of the cross, even for this recovering pharisee.

Our Communion Calling

Dusk began to settle and the streets grew quiet. A holy calm engulfed the night as God’s people took their familiar places at their familiar tables. The hustle and bustle of business was stilled – if only for a night – to remember.

We remember when Yahweh rescued us from Egypt.

We remember how the blood of the lamb covered our doorposts.

We remember how that lamb saved our lives.

But on this night, Jesus was going to start a new thing. This should come as no surprise to us now. Jesus is in the business of new. In Matthew 5, he gives a fresh perspective on the law when he references different ways to think about murder, adultery, divorce, and loving our enemies. He even tells us in Revelation 21, “See, I make all things new.”

But this was going to be more than fresh perspective. Jesus was about to provide a radical calling for the people of God. Luke 22:19 says, “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” After they had eaten the bread, Jesus did the same with the cup of wine, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

The Passover meal that once stood as a reminder of God’s provision in Egypt would now be a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice.

We remember when God rescued us from death.

We remember how the blood of Jesus covered our sin.

We remember how that Lamb saved our lives.

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We take this bread and remember his body that was broken for us. We drink from this cup and remember his blood that was poured out for us. But it’s more than just remembrance, isn’t it? Jesus had a knack for object lessons. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 or the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15, for example. I think the same thing is happening here.

This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. // 1 Cor. 11:24

Now you are the body of Christ. // 1 Cor 12:27

This is my body, which is broken for you. Now you are the body of Christ. Do this in remembrance of me – taking this bread and drinking from this cup. But also pour yourself out for the world in the same way I have done for you, because now you are my body.

Jesus was using communion as an object lesson. He was showing us how to live as his followers. He was calling us to a life of brokenness that’s poured out for others. We remember him by taking the sacred meal, yes, but also by replicating his actions in our ordinary, everyday lives.

We are the broken and poured out body of Christ. 

Communion is our calling.

My Soap Box

Several years ago, I began praying a very specific prayer: God, make me love the things you love. That short, seemingly insignificant request quickly became a defining moment. I was prepared to love things like systematic theology, trendy worship music, and evangelism. But I was not prepared to love the poor, the victim of domestic violence, the immigrant, the orphan, or the underprivileged.

One thing is clear to me now: God cares about justice (Micah 6:8; James 1:27; Isaiah 61:8; Isaiah 1:17; Psalm 140:12; Amos 5:24; Zechariah 7:9; Deuteronomy 16:20). Apart from the underlying tenor of redemption through Jesus Christ, God’s most prevalent concern, which is repeated from Genesis to Revelation, is justice. And because God cares about justice, that means I should too (Proverbs 29:7).

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As citizens of Heaven, we operate under different standards – those of grace, compassion, and forgiveness. We are governed by principles of the Kingdom, not of culture. And we like to talk about that when it comes to alcohol, premarital sex, marriage, and other hot-button topics. But there is an unsettling silence when it comes to doing justice. In his book Generous Justice, Pastor Tim Keller says,

If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice. If he doesn’t live justly, then he may say with his lips that he is grateful for God’s grace, but in his heart he is far from him. If he doesn’t care about the poor, it reveals that at best he doesn’t understand the grace he has experienced, and at worst he has not really encountered the saving mercy of God. Grace should make you just.

Doing justice is the natural consequence of falling in love with Jesus. 

Not long ago some friends of ours were approached by a single mom at their church. She and her two kids could no longer afford to live in their apartment and they needed a place to stay…indefinitely. She offered to pay as much as she could in rent, but the couple wouldn’t take her money. Our friends let this family move in and live in their house free of charge.

Much to our shock and disappointment, our friends were chastised by other Christians. You’re enabling her, they would say. What if they take advantage of your generosity, they warned. They should at least have to pay your increased water bill, they protested. Our friends came to us – distraught and confused – asking for advice. Had they done the wrong thing? Were they being foolish by letting this family stay with them for free?

My response was swift: “You did the right thing. You’re showing all of us what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus.”

Then I pointed them to Isaiah 58, a passage that often feels like it was written specifically for the American church. God says, “Day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God” (v. 2). Ouch, God. As if we were a nation that does what’s right. As if we were obedient followers. The Israelites were doing the thing they thought would make God happy: Fasting. But while engrossed in their religious pursuits, they were simultaneously neglecting and mistreating the poor. So God calls them out: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (v. 5-7; emphasis mine)?

In Isaiah 58:10, God says to spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. Our friends were doing just that. They were spending themselves on behalf of this sister. They were letting her stay for free so she could get back on her feet. Letting this woman live with them was not going to make them go into debt or compromise their checking account, so they chose generosity over greed. They chose faith over fear.

Doing justice is the natural consequence of falling in love with Jesus. 

Doing justice is the response to a God who rescued us when we were spiritually impoverished. We act justly because we know what it means to be in need. We pour ourselves out for those in need because Jesus poured himself out for us.

We can go to church every week as if we were devout Christians. The taste of alcohol may never cross our lips as if we wanted to do what’s right. But loving Jesus looks like doing justice.

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