In the weeks leading up to my second trip to the Holy Land, I had several people encourage me to focus not only on the dead stones, all the holy sites, but to look upon the living stones, the people who live there, as well. Knowing this trip would be different than my first because we would spend a lot of time in Bethlehem with people who needed our help and our love, I prayed for eyes to see and courage to talk with the living stones I met.
It ended up being much easier than I’d expected. Whether our group spent our evenings at Manger Square sipping mint lemonade and talking with shopkeepers or touring various ministry sites throughout the city, I encountered people who were more than eager to share their stories.
My eyes and heart opened wider with each startling and courageous story. My safe, suburban-America bubble burst as I saw with my own eyes the plight of a people so different from me. Years later, I continue to pray for my response to what I witnessed and heard, but mostly I pray for my friends an ocean away.
The Joy of People
That trip changed the way I travel. Even when I vacation for pleasure now, my eyes are drawn to the people around me. I more freely engage people in conversation even if I’m a bit nervous to do so, and I’ve been so blessed when I have. In fact, I can say when I’ve been brave to talk with people, my joy increases exponentially compared to those moments when I’m focused on myself.
Paul knew that kind of joy, as we can see in our word of joy this week, which is from Paul to the church of Thessalonica in Greece:
Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again. We wanted very much to come to you, and I, Paul, tried again and again, but Satan prevented us. After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what will be our proud reward and crown as we stand before our Lord Jesus when he returns? It is you! Yes, you are our pride and joy.2 Thessalonians 2:17-20, NLT
The people bring Paul joy! Not what job they hold. Not what great sermons they give. Not their biology or ideology. Just them, the people. Paul’s love for these people oozes all over the page.
Jesus explained this kind of love to His disciples:
“I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”John 15:9-13, NLT
Jesus’ kind of love — the kind He commands and gives — is sacrificial, selfless, and without exception. Yet we often fail to love each other in such a way because we create our own criteria for who we “follow,” who we “like,” and who we love. We easily justify who not to love because they don’t think, act, look, or believe the way we do.
But that’s not what Jesus envisioned for His people, as we can hear in this incredible prayer for His disciples:
“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”John 17:20-23, NLT
One thing that I greatly value in this passage is Jesus’ qualifier — this mandate wasn’t just for the great twelve, but for all who will ever believe in Jesus. That’s us! We cannot exclude ourselves from these teachings of Jesus. We’re meant to love one another to the point of being one in Christ.
Yet, in a culture where so much of our identity is derived from what we do, who we spend time with, and which “camp” we prefer, it’s difficult for us to wrap our minds around the kind of love Jesus prescribes. Our culture is often at odds with what Jesus and Paul desired for the church.
And, just in case we think these commands are only for loving other Christians, Jesus defined this love He preached — love God, love your neighbor — with a parable about a Samaritan who stopped and showed love to a hated enemy.
Paul tells us that what brings him the most joy are people and their love for one another. Jesus teaches that our joy will be made complete when we follow His commands to love one another and prays that our love will keep us unified. To live by these biblical, gospel teachings means we cannot pick and choose who to love. We aren’t meant to soli vagrant because we’re at our best when we unite with our brothers and sisters so that together we can love all the people around us.
Friends, whether we’ve realized it before or not, people are the point.
Here’s what I didn’t say about that trip to the Holy Land — the people we hung out with were Palestinian. And I didn’t say that up front because saying the word “Palestinian” is immediately polarizing. Everyone has an opinion, an assumption, or a “side.” But, I’m not on a side. I’m for Jesus. I’m for His love. I’m for people — people on both sides of the wall (and ocean and aisle and fill-in-the-blank).
But because of the politically charged environment we live in, I’ve not spoken up much for the people I met. I’ve let fear limit my love for them.
So today’s post is a step in the direction toward love. As I sit here in my comfy chair on a rainy day in small town Texas, I’m choosing to put myself out there and share my story, knowing some will disagree. But if I’m going to live rooted in God’s love, then I must choose to be uprooted out of fear.
[I’m not actually going to write much about my trip to Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Hebron in this post. But if you’re interested, I did a blog series after the trip. The series starts with this one.]
The living stones I met behind the walls evoked in me a range of emotions that both overwhelmed and ignited me. Their resilience in the middle of unthinkable oppression moved me. Their hope in Jesus inspired me. Their desperate pleas for help continue to haunt me. And the remarkable work of a small army of passionate believers made me want to stand alongside them, helping however I am able.
Because people are the point.
On This Journey
As we seek joy on this journey of ours, we’re learning there’s more to joy than a feeling based on the moment. We’re discovering that joy is often the result of choices we make, and today the choice we’re given to love one another converges with the joy we desire. Joy doesn’t happens without effort. One the most difficult things we’ll ever do is lay down our pride, our belief that we’re right, in order to choose love.
I like how Aimee Walker pulls all this together:
“When Jesus taught the disciples that a life of obedient surrender is key to a life of joy, He then commanded them to love one another as He had loved them, reminding them and us that the greatest expression of love is to lay down our life for our friends. Jesus loves us with a sacrificial self-denying love and He not only invites us to love like Him, He commands it. As we allow the Holy Spirit to minister the love and grace of Jesus to us, we will not only learn how to love those around us, we will overflow with what we have received. And then we, like Paul, will know the joy of making Christ known through our love for one another.”Count It All Joy, 28
So, on this Journey of Joy, we’ll want to ask the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to all the ways we live without love. We’ll need the Holy Spirit’s teaching to help us live counter-culturally. We’ll need the Holy Spirit’s love to overflow in us so it can splash onto the people we’re called to love.
While sometimes the command to love others requires a lot from us, other times loving someone simply requires us to notice them. We want to apply what we learned last week about being present in the moment to today’s lesson about meeting people — if we put down our phones, maps, TV remotes, lists, and plans long enough to look up, we’ll see right into the eyes of the people we’ll meet along the way.
Think of all the trips we take and how many opportunities we have to meet people:
A trip to the grocery store
A trip across town
A trip down the road
A trip to the local food pantry
A trip to the doctor
A trip to the area crisis center
A trip across the state or river or ocean
Jesus will always be at work around us, putting people in our path so we can offer His love and grace and hope. But before we can give any of that, we must first notice them. Then we have to take a step toward them, without condescension or arrogance or even reluctance, and extend a hand of fellowship — because people are the point.
Shaped by People
Here’s a bonus for you today — not only will your love for others bless them and bring you joy, but you will be shaped by your encounters with them.
One of the mothers I got to meet in Bethlehem told story after story of the challenges of living behind a wall. With every story, the woman’s arms would churn in tight, circular movements to demonstrate how hard they pushed and pushed to live their lives each day. At every turn, they’d meet intentional road blocks, thrown in their paths of getting water, finding jobs, keeping their house, traveling — anywhere. All of it seems so unfair, but the story that still pulls hardest on my heart is the risk she took with her own life to get her dying daughter to a better hospital on the other side of the wall.
Her stories have shaped me. I now live with a greater awareness everyday of all I take for granted. I can hop in my car any time of any day and drive anywhere I want to go. I have access to medicine and fresh food and water — everyday. I can travel to other countries without fear that I’ll not be allowed back into my home country. I live with more gratitude for what I have, and I have a deeper desire to serve others.
Your turn: In your journal, read back over today’s passages of Scripture to find a word or phrase that stands out to you. Take a few minutes to write about what you think that word or phrase can teach you about love, unity, or joy. How does it challenge you? How does it encourage you?
Then, take some time to think about the people in your life:
- Who is difficult to love? How can you show love to them — without trying to convince or guilt them — yet still hold to boundaries that keep you safe?
- What are some beliefs or opinions you hold about a person or group of people that might need to shift from antagonistic to grace-filled — which doesn’t mean having to agree with them, just offering Jesus’ brand of love and kindness?
- Finally, think of one person who has shaped your life for the better. How did you meet that person? How have you been shaped by them?
These are not simple questions that can necessarily be answered in one journal entry, but they can be great first steps toward living as one who loves her neighbor as Jesus loves her.
When we invited the people of Bethlehem to share their stories with us, they did so with great joy — not because their stories were happy ones but because we asked. They could tell we genuinely wanted to hear about their lives. Our interactions taught me that most people want to be seen and heard. They also taught me that the joy from such encounters outweighs the risk.
As Paul has demonstrated, people will be our greatest joy, so let’s be sure to look up and lock eyes with them as we meet. Our experiences with them will stretch us and bless them. Their stories will reshape the way we’ve thought and perceived, and the love we offer will begin to break down all sorts of walls that we’ve erected for all sorts of reasons. As the walls come down, we’ll be more able to live in that holy unity God so greatly desires for us. And our joy will overflow.
- Today I mentioned the study, Counting It All Joy.* The Joyful Life* offers Bible studies in print or as a digital download. I chose digital and paid $10 for instant access to this study on joy. It’s worth checking out! In general, The Joyful Life is worth looking into. Their spring issue of the magazine recently released — called, Create* — it will inspire you to make heartfelt connections with your family and friends as well as practical changes in your home that will make 2021 a year of great joy!
- My second trip to the Holy Land really was extra special because of the people I met. I tried to capture our experiences and reactions to all we heard and saw on that trip. I’d love for you to read about it. Here’s the first of the series.
- This week’s journaling prompt asks us to dig a little deeper into our motives and biases, namely in the way we look at and respond to people. I pray this exercise will challenge each of us to lay down anything that separates us from each other and see that Jesus binds us all together. Also, don’t forget our daily practice of writing three things we’re grateful for. I’d love to hear what you’re seeing and learning through these practices, so comment below.
- Just for fun — find the “Easter egg” in this week’s post! It’s a travel word.
- Last week’s travel word was trouvaille, which is very French, meaning something lovely discovered by chance.
- Our Journey of Joy playlist on Spotify follows this journey — music is an incredible conduit for entering into God’s presence. I’d love to hear what songs have moved or challenged you.
*This is an affiliate link, so I’ll receive compensation for any purchases made.
Featured image by me! 🙂