I set out in January of this year to write a weekly reflection on the Red Letters of Jesus, hoping it would inspire others and myself to “Think Red!” Namely, to find the courage and the imagination to create whimsical expressions of community that look like Jesus.
It is my dream for the Church—a dream that has carried me along for a long time. It is a vision for the future that finds it's roots in the heart of Jesus, who said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
I dream of a new world, flavored with micro communities of people who are so crazy in love with Jesus that they overflow with the Spirit of Christ and honor him by doing the things he taught us to do: to love the unlovable, to pardon the unpardonable, to believe the unbelievable, to work relentlessly for justice, and to be a voice of hope when everything seems hopeless.
As this year comes to a close and I write my final blog for 2021, I want to make a Red Letter Toast to my friends and to my brothers and sisters who have their heart set on following the way Jesus.
Looking back at 2021, may we celebrate our successes and learn from our failures!
Looking forward, may we follow Jesus together, thinking red every step of the way! In 2022 may we live by faith, be known for our Christ–like love, and be the voice of hope
What goes on the top of your Christmas tree? An angel? A bow? A star?
When our children were young they created an angel out of a disposable Styrofoam cup. The angel had a Styrofoam ball head, cotton hair, big blue sequin eyes, silver wings made from a repurposed Christmas bow, and a halo of plastic flowers poked into the angel’s head. The kids named her Gloria. In my opinion, Gloria was the prettiest ornament on the tree.
I’m sad to say, since the children have grown and moved out of the house, Gloria no longer has a place on the family Christmas tree. I bring her out every year, along with the other decorations, and suggest she be returned to her favored position on top of the tree—every year Kathie overrules the suggestion. At which point, I return Gloria to the crumpled pasteboard box that bears her name.
The angel appears to be nothing more than an old disposable cup that should have been tossed in the trash years ago; but to me, it is a cup filled with Christmas treasures—sacred memories that I will value for eternity.
The Styrofoam angel in the bottom of our Christmas decorations reminds me of God’s upside down kingdom. Jesus said, those who are last will be first; the meek will inherit the earth, and those who are humble will be exalted. People, places, and things, that are devalued and overlooked in this world are lifted up and deeply appreciated in the Father’s heart.
If this Christmas season you feel worn-out and under-appreciated; if you believe the lie that joy was meant for everyone else but you; if you are holding your breath, waiting for the holidays to pass because they only serve to remind you that you are alone and unhappy, may I share some good news with you . . . there is a good Father in heaven who deeply treasures who you are.
I read a prayer this morning that inspired me to sing with the Christmas Angels—proclaiming joy to world and peace on earth—in spite of the violence, trauma, and grief that is so prevalent in our world. It was a prayer written by the Dominican Sisters of Peace.
Jesus said: In this world you will have trouble but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world. His words are true and his promise is secure! These are not cheap words that tell us to fake it until we make it. Jesus does not expect us to sing songs of triumphalism as a sign of faith when faced with the agony of defeat. Instead, Jesus invites us to be honest when the storms of this world wreck our lives and to find comfort and peace for our troubled souls in the powerful love of God.
One way to resist all that is wrong in the world is to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters whose faith and hope have been shattered. We can lament and mourn with them, and in so doing, help bare their burden.
When our brother’s faith grows weak, we can have faith on his behalf. When our sister’s hope withers into despair, we can proclaim hope on her behalf. Therefore, let us join the angel’s chorus and sing on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are simply trying to survive this Christmas season:
I bring you good news of great joy; for today a savior has been born for you—whose goodness is stronger than evil; whose love is stronger than hate; whose light is stronger than darkness; whose hope is stronger than despair—Christ the Lord!
I remember the anticipation I felt as a child snooping around my grandmothers Christmas tree, inspecting the packages, waiting for the adults in the house to say it’s time to open the presents. I would search for the biggest package under the tree and look to see whose name was written on the tag. I have to admit, if the tag had my cousin’s name on it, or my brother’s, I felt a tinge of disappointment. As a kid I believed the best gift would be the biggest gift. I was a child with childish values but some of us never outgrow the bigger is better myth.
In my book Think Red, I take a look at the values of the typical North American church and compare them to the values of Jesus. More often than not, an honest comparison will reveal a disparity between the two. One of the values I reflect on is the value we place on BIG verses small.
Our world values big things, like big TVs, big trucks, big houses, big stores, and mega churches with big TVs. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to value small things. Things like cups of cold water given to little children and small coins given to God by poor widows. When he told the disciples about his vision to usher in God’s kingdom on earth and his plan to build a church at the gates of hell, I don’t think he thumped his chest and said to Peter, “Go big or go home!” Instead, he said, God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which would eventually grow and provide shelter for all types of characters. He also compared his vision of the kingdom to a small pinch of yeast that a woman worked into a lump of meal; in secret this invisible kingdom would change the entire culture around it. Eventually the meal would have the same properties as the yeast.
If you have set your heart on following Jesus and want to be a part of his scheme to make earth look more like heaven, it will help to remember his strategy of small beginnings. You don’t have to be . . . or give . . . or own . . . the biggest and the best to make an eternal impact in your neighborhood; you simple have to follow the advice of Mother Teresa who said, We can all do small things with great love.
What small thing can you do today to express God's love to someone in your neighborhood who might be feeling unloved?
Thanksgiving has come and gone. Looking back, I think I forgot to say grace before I devoured the turkey. I hurried my way thru “Giving Tuesday without giving a second thought to any of the organizations that popped up in my in box. Christmas is on the horizon and I’ve spent most of my free time this week decorating the house and thinking about me. To add even more “humble pie” to my “Holiday Confessions,” I was looking over my journal this morning and re–read the New Year’s resolutions I made eleven months ago. It said, “I want to be more grateful and more generous in 2021!”
Jesus said, we will be far happier giving than receiving. Jesus valued radical generosity. Like the generous widow--who gave all she had to live on—Jesus gave everything he had, including his very life, so others would know the super–abundant love of God. I want to follow the way of Jesus but the truth is, it’s difficult to emulate his radical generosity in a consumer–based culture that’s hyped–up and driven by what Walter Brueggemann calls the myth of scarcity—the false narrative that says there’s simple not enough to go around so we better hoard all we can for ourselves.
In my book, Think Red, I reflect on the radical generosity of Jesus and highlight a few things to consider if we want to resist the myth of scarcity and free ourselves to be more generous.
First: realize generosity is on a continuum. At any time we can decide to take intentional steps towards the generous way of Jesus. Those steps begin with trusting in God’s super-abundant grace and being grateful for God’s good gifts.
Second: affirm the Imago Dei. All humanity is created in the image of a generous, self–giving God, which means our true nature is to give. I believe that’s why Jesus said we are far happier giving than receiving.
Third: be inspired by the generosity of others. Generosity is contagious. When we spend time with others who give abundantly and freely we will discover there is always more. More joy, more freedom, more grace is added to the one who gives with a cheerful heart.
Fourth: specific and simple plans for giving are always more effective than grandiose and general resolutions. “This year I’m going to be more generous!” is not as effective as saying, “Today I’m going to give the guy living under the viaduct a bottle of water and learn his name!”
Finally: praying and asking for God’s help is always a good idea. The Spirit of God will help us cultivate a generous heart if we ask. Here’s a helpful prayer I discovered in Brueggemann’s book, Celebrating Abundance.
God, whose giving knows no end, make us glad recipients of your generosity. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to remember your abundance, that we might share it with the world.
How do you express praise on Thanksgiving Day if you’re the turkey?
It’s easy to give thanks when your table is filled with an abundance of flavors and the seats around your table are occupied with family and friends; but when life unravels and you identify more with the turkey in the center of the table than the happy guest around the table, it’s a different matter.
This year I approached Thanksgiving Day with a chip on my shoulder. Three days before Thanksgiving someone smashed the windshield of my truck and stole something of great value to me. Instead of being thankful I was angry and depressed; resentment overshadowed feelings of praise.
I checked my attitude when I read a Facebook post from one of my neighbors. Amanda was expressing praise in spite of the fact that someone stole an Amazon package from her front porch. Her security camera captured the whole episode. Minutes after the delivery guy dropped off her son’s Christmas present a familiar face showed up and made off with the package—a real live Grinch, caught in the act of stealing Christmas on her Ring Camera.
Instead of holding resentments, pressing charges, or getting even, Amanda fixed a Thanksgiving dinner, boxed it up and went looking for the person who stole her son’s Christmas present. Under the viaduct, a few blocks from Amanda’s house, she served her homeless neighbor a homemade dinner and offered him her forgiveness. She empathized with his desperation and thanked God for the way Jesus had made a difference in her life.
Here’s what I learned from Amanda’s story and the smashed window on my truck. Sometimes life sucks. When circumstances beyond our control try to steal our joy we still have a choice on how we respond. We can become consumed with bitterness and resentment. We can try to deny the grief and pretend to be happy campers, offering cheap words of praise from a sulking heart. Or, we can offer a Thanksgiving Lament. Here’s what I mean:
Third, if someone has offended you, pray for the willingness to forgive. Sometimes, we’re just not ready or able to forgive someone who hurt us or harmed people we love. Praying for a willing heart and asking for God’s help may be the first step to offering real forgiveness and finding freedom for your own soul.
When we practice an authentic lament, by processing these five steps, it creates a pathway in our heart to reaffirm the hope we have in Christ; it frees us to offer genuine words of praise and thanksgiving . . . praise that is honest and real.
If you faked your way through Thanksgiving and feel bummed by the whole holiday scene, it might be helpful to practice a Thanksgiving Lament.
Every year around this time, when the gold and red and brown leaves begin to sing, I hear an invitation: Come with me by yourself, to a quiet place and get some rest. These are the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after they spent a long season of serving food to hungry people, teaching them about the kingdom of heaven, meeting their needs, and healing their broken lives.
When I pause and savor the beauty of autumn, I usually begin humming the song Appalachian Melody, written by the late Mark Herd.
If you ran through the summer, on a mad dash of work and service; spending your energy meeting the needs of others, trying to make things that are wrong in the world go right, organizing people, striving for justice, chasing after a grand vision God planted in your heart, it may be time to pause and rest. Let the music of the autumn leaves invite you into a quite place. The beauty of creation will sing a song of restoration. Listen to the music with your eyes and let God’s rhythm of grace restore your soul.
What is better, old or new?
When it comes to wine people say old is better. For me, a bottle of two–dollar wine from Trader Joe’s is good enough. But it wasn’t for Jesus. When he changed water to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee the “wedding planner” said the wine Jesus made was far better than the wine the groom served.
Later in the story, Jesus makes the case that you can’t have “good old wine” without first putting new wine into new wine skins. If you use worn out wine skins the stitches tear and you lose the wine. If our goal is to enjoy something that gets better with age we must favor the new in order to get the old. Which Jesus says is worth the effort: No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, the old is better.
It’s the same way with friendship; you can’t have “good old friends” if you don’t make “new friends” from time to time.
How about memories? You will never have fond memories of the past if you’re not willing to make new memories in the present.
Spiritual maturity is no different. If we want a vibrant spiritual life that flavors our community with righteousness, joy, and peace, we must leave behind old patterns of discipleship that hinder spiritual growth. When we discern false narratives that are used to justify self-serving idolatry and consumer-based religion we must expose and dismantle the old paradigm and create new models of beloved community.
In my book, Think Red, I look at the values of Jesus and compare his ways with the prominent values of the evangelical church. When I compare the two it becomes obvious that we need to rethink the way we do church in the twenty-first century. If we want to grow vibrant spiritual leaders who love justice, seek mercy and walk humbly with God we must re-evaluate how we do church, why we do it, and what narratives drive our efforts.
Or to say it metaphorically: If we want good old wine like Jesus made we need some new wine skins!
Who needs to read Think Red?
I believe everyone who follows Jesus and shares his passion for the Church will enjoy reading Think Red. However, when I wrote the book I kept thinking about Christians, like myself, who are frustrated and bored with the status quo of consumer–based religion. There are a lot of church leaders, young and old alike, who are looking for a way to break down the old restrictive paradigms of church growth and create new expressions of Christ–like community.
Think Red has a variety of anecdotal stories . . . is there one story you enjoy telling more than others?
The context of our story is Louisville, Kentucky—the home of horse races and bourbon. I heard a news reporter ask our Mayor once which bourbon he liked best. (In our town that is a politically loaded question.) He responded like a good politician, “My favorite bourbon is the one in my hand.” That’s the way I feel about the stories I tell—The one I’m telling at the moment is always my favorite! But if I were forced to choose one story over all the others, it’s the story I tell in the introduction about the rose I discovered at the corner of 18th and Baird Street. That story sets the tone for the rest of the book.
I hope people enjoy reading the stories in Think Red as much as I enjoy telling them. But more importantly, I hope the stories inspire others to create whimsical Jesus stories of their own.
Think Red is an intriguing title; can you tell me what it means to you and why you chose it as the title of your book?
In some Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red font. I wanted a title that invited the reader—or better yet, dared the reader—to dream and reimagine what Church might look like if we made the “red letters” of Jesus the primary organizing principle for our communities of faith. The subtitle of the book explains what “thinking red” means to me: Imagine Your Community Living and Loving Like Jesus.
Here’s a snippet from the back cover that invites the reader to Think Red:
Have you ever wondered what the Church would look like if Christians began to take the words of Jesus seriously—the words some Bibles print in red? What if Jesus actually meant for us to do the things he said? What if those who “believe in Jesus” really did value the things he valued? Would the Church look different? Would your neighborhood stay the same?
In Think Red, Larry Stoess takes a close look at the values, the vision, and the mission of Jesus, and then holds up a mirror for us to see if our communities look anything like Jesus. If we dare look in the mirror we may be inspired to leave behind our obsession with consumer–based religion and follow the way of Jesus. Those who do will be set free to imagine creative and whimsical expressions of community.
Larry Stoess is an author, public speaker, and urban church planter. He loves telling stories about how dreaming with God will empower people to make old and broken things new again. Larry and a band of friends founded the Church of the Promise in Louisville's Portland neighborhood; The Table, a pay-what-you-can community café; and Promise Housing Plus, a non-profit construction company. He has written about their experience of dreaming with God in his new book: Think Red.