All posts by Jon Swanson

About Jon Swanson

Social media chaplain. Author of "Lent For Non-Lent People" and "A Great Work: A Conversation With Nehemiah For People (Who Want To Be) Doing Great Works." Writer of I help people understand. Understand some of the Bible. Understand what Lent can be about. Understand what it means to follow.

Not as bad as you think.

The second truth on what feels like the worst day of your life is this: You aren’t really the worst failure in the world.

wavesAfter the feeding of the 15,000 and Jesus spending time on the mountain while the disciples rowed into the wind, Jesus came walking to the disciples. When Jesus identified himself, Peter said, “If it’s you, command me to come to you.” Jesus said, “come” and Peter was walking on the water toward Jesus. He realized how strong the wind was. And Peter went down.

Many people have talked about that moment and have turned this into a story about not doubting, about continuing to look at Jesus.

And it is likely that Peter may have lost faith for a moment.

But he was walking on the water when it happened. Seriously. He.Was.Walking.On.The.Water. He was out of the boat. He was looking at Jesus. He was moving.

You know, it’s possible to describe Peter as the second biggest failure in the Bible. Paul is the first one, of course. Paul was killing Christians.

But Peter argued with Jesus. Peter questioned Jesus. Peter denied knowing Jesus. Peter fell into the water. Peter could have been viewed as the worst failure among the disciples.

And Jesus loved him, forgave him, rescued him.

On the days that feel like they must be the worst day of your life, even if you’ve done those things, even if you feel like God must be forgetting you because you are such a mess-up, relax. Peter, at the time, was at least as distracted as you. And Jesus grabbed Peter’s hand over and over and over.

So please listen to this. (And remind me of it) You aren’t as bad as you are afraid you are. And God’s not as mad at you as you think he is.


Tomorrow is the last of the things to remember on what feels like the worst day of your life, but isn’t.

You only feel alone.

I mentioned that Elijah had been polishing a speech for God. Here’s what happened for the six weeks before he talked at God on a mountain after hearing a soft wind.

For the previous 39 mornings, Elijah awakened in the wilderness. He was on a cross-country hike to this place, this mountain. He’s been preparing this speech for that whole trip, planning exactly what he was going to say to God, to complain to God.

He was alone in the wilderness, not eating, just trekking.

Two mornings before that, Elijah was on another mountain, praying for rain.

There hadn’t been any rain for years, not since Elijah had told King Ahab that the rain would stop. Ahab and his wife Jezebel had led the country into disobedience. God was ignored completely. And the rains stopped.

tea-mountainsAnd 42 days before this day before God, Elijah challenged the prophets hired by Ahab and Jezebel to a divine duel. There were altars with gallons of water poured on top,soaking the wood. There was fire from heaven, consuming the altar, in one of the comparatively few examples of fire from heaven.

God won. The rains came. And then Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah.

And Elijah started running for his life toward God. He laid down and begged to die.

When he woke up, there was an angel. Elijah felt alone but God assured him that he wasn’t God also provided supper, and then, after another nap, breakfast before this 40 day journey. And God even provided a safe place to sleep.

We’re never alone. We always have God. But often, as God told Elijah, there are faithful people that we can’t see. But God can.

Just because that person says they want to kill you doesn’t mean that they will or can or should.

So on what feels like one of the worst days of your life, you aren’t as alone as you feel.

Feels like a bad day.

I don’t very often title the messages I give on Sunday mornings. There’s nowhere to put the title, really, and there is no need. But I wrote a title when I wrote these words, because it seemed like the thing to do.

Three things to remember when it feels like it must be the worst day of your life.

We know that feeling. Sometimes we say, “This was the worst day.”  And we know in our heads that for all the times we feel it, it’s only true once. I mean, you can’t have a hundred worst days. There can only be one. And so most of the times that we feel that this must be the worst, we are wrong.

chevy and andrewAnd on that one worst day, I’m not going to be reminding you of anything. If I’m with you, I’m going to be sitting with you, saying “I’m sorry” and being more present than preachy. So this isn’t for that day. This is for all the other days we think feel like the worst day.

And the first thing to remember on that day is this: You aren’t as alone as you feel.  

One morning, Elijah stood on a mountain. God asked him why he’s there. And Elijah replies in a way that we often feel:

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of Armies, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life.”

It’s a message that feels like it’s been written and rehearsed and polished and revised. It’s the kind of message that, when we are working on it, is prefaced by, “If I ever get a chance to talk to God, I’m going to tell him what I think.”

Which is, of course, exactly what Elijah had been doing for the previous 40 days.


I’ll tell you more about Elijah and the other things to remember on what feels like the worst day of your life this week. But for now, I’d like you to go read that story for yourself. 1 Kings 19:9-18


Sarah gets an assignment.

“So what does the Samaritan do for the beat up man?” Sarah asked.

“Apparently he doesn’t check on his religious affiliation,” Carol said. “The Samaritan stops by the man, cleans him up, anoints him with oil, (which was like putting salve on his wounds) loads him on a donkey to carry him to safety, and then covers the cost of his recovery. He gets the man ready for travelling again.”

Sarah looked at her watch. “I hate to say this, but I have to get travelling, too. Can we keep going next week?”

Carol nodded. “A couple more minutes, and then I have an assignment for you. Because you wanted to do something amazing, remember?”

Sarah laughed. “You always remember those kinds of statements. Go ahead.”

“What James and Jesus are doing with this interplay around the royal law is drawing a deep connection between what we say and what we do,” Carol said. “If we say we keep the law, we have to love our neighbor, or we’re lying. If we say love our neighbor, we have to be very open to uncomfortable definitions of the neighborhood. If we say we love our neighbor, we have to do something, or we’re lying. And doing something can be costly.”

“But it is significant, right?” Sarah said. “Rescuing people beat up by the side of the road is part of the royal law? But I’ve never seen a beat-up person.”

“Have you ever looked?” Sarah squirmed.

“Here’s a project for this week,” Carol said. “It won’t be hard. As you are going about your business, as you are on your normal route to work or travel or coffee, look along the edges. Look for someone who is too bruised to act. And then act. It could be someone in the food line who is counting their money too carefully. It could be noticing that the yard that was always so carefully tended by that old lady is not as nice as it was last year. It could be noticing the vacant look in the eyes of the receptionist just before she comes back to the present and smiles.”

Carol looked over Sarah’s shoulder. “It could be noticing that couple trying not to cry at that table in the corner.”

“How long has that been happening?” Sarah whispered.

“Not long after we walked in, she got a call,” Carol said.  “They whispered a bit and then have been sitting very still.”

“So what does a Samaritan do?” Sarah asked.

Carol was brief. “Walks over and says, ‘Are you okay?'”

“But that feels invasive.” Sarah was uncertain.

“But isn’t it the royal law?” Carol said. “And it’s closer than building an orphanage.”


A prayer from this weekend.

“God, we need your forgiveness for anger and for the ways that we provoke it. We need your forgiveness for hatred, which has been part of our lives almost as long as there have been humans. And which has been wrong that whole time. We need your forgiveness for racism of all kinds, but particularly the kind that denies we are each made in your likeness and are loved by you. People are dying because of anger and hatred and racism. We ask for your courage and your compassion and your conviction to bring to the places we live and work and think.”

Sarah, Jesus, and James.

Carol kept explaining the parable of the beaten man. “The first two people to walk past the man were people who would have known what the law said about helping your neighbor. They were a priest and a Levite, both employed in the temple, both aware of the commands to love. But both were also aware of the risk in touching someone sick. They would have been ceremonially unclean if they had helped him. They would have been kept from their work for God for several days.”

“But how do you resolve that?” Sara asked. “If making God happy means going to church all the time, but when I go to church all the time I don’t have time for doing what might make God happy, what do I do?”

“That states the question that James raises very well.” Carol said, referring back to the beginning of their conversation. “James was looking at the tension between saying that you believe God and then acting as if you don’t. He’s already given the principle by talking about the royal law. If we love our neighbor, we are doing right. If we are favoring the rich and ignoring the poor, we are not.”

Carol sipped her coffee. “Then James tells a story, like his brother Jesus had. Imagine that you know a person from your church that is hungry and cold. You are both people who follow God, who know the spiritual things to say. And imagine you say to the person, ‘be warm and well-fed.’ And then you turn back to your life without given them a sandwich or a coat.”

“Imagine you are like the priest or the Levite,” Sarah said.

“Exactly.” Carol nodded. “Which takes us back to the story Jesus told. Jesus offered another alternative. He creates a third person in the story, a Samaritan. A person separated from the Jews by culture and by religion. There is no one we hate more than someone we think has a warped practice of our religion.”

“It’s in every newscast from every part of the world.” Sarah sighed.


[to be continued]