A Balanced Life: Debt

Sunday, we had our third installment in the series A Balanced Life in which we are tackling difficult financial concepts and learning that how we handle our finances is intricately connected to our spiritual lives. God has much to say about money in His Word. Sunday’s sermon was an “ouch” sermon, as Pastor John talked about debt.

John told us that there are four negatives to debt:

1. Debt curses us. God chose Israel and established them as a people in order to make His name known throughout the world. He wanted them to live in total dependence upon Him, and He let them know what He wanted that dependence to look like. In the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy He says things to this like this: If you fully obey…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth…ALL these blessings will come on you…you will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country…The fruit of your womb will be blessed, the crops of your land, the young of your livestock…Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed….the Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to…He will bless you in the land He is giving you…The Lord will establish you as His holy people if you walk in obedience to Him…The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of His bounty…You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.  

Being in a position to be a lender is the position of someone who is blessed. The borrower is in the opposite position. Borrowing indicates that things are going poorly, and borrowing brings more baggage than we want to acknowledge.

2. Debt enslaves us. Proverbs 22:7 states that “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”

That’s pretty clear. For the last three years, I have attended the International Justice System’s (IJM) Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D.C.  IJM works on behalf of the poor who are subjected to violence through human trafficking, land-grabbing, and bonded labor slavery throughout the world. Learning about those issues, hearing the stories of, seeing the scars of and meeting people who used to belong to someone else is sobering—life changing. In the case of bonded labor slavery, a person in need is often “loaned” an amount of money ( i.e. for a daughter’s wedding, or the children’s education, etc.) and the “generous” lender “hires” the person, promising wages to make it possible for the borrower to pay the debt and promising a paying job once the debt is paid. What the borrower doesn’t know is that the  business owner will charge them exorbitant interest on their “loan”, or high prices for the equipment that they will need for their work, or charge them for the food they eat while they work, making it impossible to pay the loan. (The unjust share-cropping system after the abolishment of slavery in the US that went on well into the 20th century followed similar heinous practices.) The borrowers work constantly under threat of violence. They don’t get to go back home. They become slaves. Some of the people we’ve met at IJM are second and third generation slaves. They were born in the brick factory, or whichever business, and have never tasted freedom. This is a very real example of the borrower becoming slave to the lender. And it is the reality of the principle of borrowing for all of us. What we borrow does not belong to us. What we borrow belongs to our lender.  We work to pay it off over time, but as long as we owe, we are indebted to the real owner of the property, and ultimately at their mercy (or lack thereof).

3. Debt controls us. Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control. (Pr. 25:28)

For many of us, the debt that we accrue is not an issue of need or desperate circumstances. For many of us, the reason that we have debt is because we lack self-control. We live in a world of glossy advertisements, shopping at the click of a button, delivery right to our homes, making it easier than ever to give in to the temptation of “I’ve got to have that now.” “That’s just what I need to make my life better.” Out of control spending can become addictive. And again, we place ourselves in vulnerable situations—like that of an unprotected city—when we choose to spend rather than save, when we choose to buy on impulse rather than pray and wait—when we choose discontentment because we don’t have that thing and we convince ourselves that we won’t be content until we do. Our personal greed feeds the greed of the lender—and greed—lack of self control—leads us nowhere good.

4. Debt robs us. The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down. (Pr. 21:20)

Debt robs us of the ability to be generous. In order to be generous we must have enough to give. We must live with margins—not spending all we have, not borrowing what we don’t have—if we want to be able to give money away. Giving away money when we owe money to someone else, means that we give away money that really isn’t ours to give.

Ouch, right?!

As I was praying through all of this, God brought Galatians 5:1 to mind…It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort, including monetary debt, becomes a yoke of slavery.  God wants us to depend upon Him, to lean into Him, to let Him be our provider, and to live with wisdom and self-control. He has given us self-control through His Holy Spirit (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Gal. 5:22). We don’t do this journey alone. We don’t do it in our own strength. He is with us.

Pastor John didn’t leave us hanging after the four negatives. He also gave us tools on how to get ourselves out of debt.

1. Get a plan. Without a plan, nothing will get better.

2. Get on your knees. Surrender your life, your spending, your debt to God. Ultimately, debt is a spiritual issue. It is the result of trying to meet our own needs, or fulfill our own desires.

3. Get connected. Bring your situation into the light. We don’t like to talk about it. That truth right there is an indication that debt creates shame (not from God), causes us to feel like we must hide, that we’re stupid, or hopeless. None of that is true. Bringing the situation into the light, facing it head on, creating accountability with another person or in a group brings freedom and community as you work together to turn your situation around. Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.

God’s word teaches us that we all fall short of the mark of His holiness. Not being able to attain our own righteousness, we become slaves to sin and owe a debt to God that we will never be able to pay. God sent Jesus to pay our debt. Jesus, the sinless perfect Son of God, took our debt upon Himself and paid it in full. That price has been paid for everyone, but in order to receive the gift of that freedom, we must acknowledge our need. We must surrender our lives to Him. He desires that we become part of a community—that we do life together. And to grow in godliness, to be transformed into the image of Jesus, we must have a plan that includes spending time with Him, and making fellowship with Him priority.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness… (2 Peter 1:3)

God desires our freedom in all ways. We have a tendency to want this freedom to come automatically. We pray, “Lord, make me like Christ.”, or “Lord, help me get out of debt.”, and want an immediate transformation. However, both situations take time and require depending upon Him.  He has provided all that we need to live generous lives. He desires that we live for His kingdom and not be slaves to the systems of this world. He has graciously done His part. Will we depend on the divine power of His Spirit, line up our hearts and minds with His desires, choose to live counter-culturally and take the actions necessary to do ours?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 

The freedom has been provided. The choice to live in it is ours.

—Luanne

Luanne wrote, “Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort…becomes a yoke of slavery.” 

There is one-and only one-yoke that we put on after entering into relationship with Christ-His yoke. The easy yoke and light burden that He offers. (Matthew 11:30) I emphasized the word “offers”, because He never makes us submit to His yoke. He could–He bought us at the highest price. But after He purchased us with His own life,  He did the craziest thing… he set us free. We sing words like “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe…”, but we often live like we owe Him nothing. How quickly we forget what we used to be…

John used the words “curse”, “enslave”, “control”, and “rob” to illustrate the impact debt has on our lives, as Luanne highlighted above. Interestingly, those are the very same words I would use to describe our condition before we encountered Christ. Before our spiritual debt was paid, we were cursed-bound for death and eternal separation from God. We were slaves to sin before our chains were broken. We were completely controlled by our sinful, human nature-invaded and taken over by our flesh. Spiritual debt had robbed us, too-it robbed us of our ability to give love–we can only love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Until we knew Christ, we didn’t know love.

BUT, Jesus… When Jesus comes into our lives, when we acknowledge Him as our Lord, He changes ALL of that. When we come into relationship with Him, we surrender all that we are to all that He is. We give our whole lives back to God–our rightful owner who could have replaced our enslavement to sin with slavery to Him, but instead gives us the freedom to choose. That alone blows my mind and could be a whole other post in itself, so for now, I’ll leave that there. But when we accept the gift of life and salvation that He has provided for us, we are essentially saying, “I am yours. I belong to you. You are my Lord, my Master.” And He gives us a new name. He renames us as he takes the weight of our curse, breaks the chains of our slavery, frees us from bondage to our flesh, and enables us to love and live given. From that point on, we are known by our good name that He’s given-a name that includes words like children, co-heirs, friend, Beloved, bride, and so many more. This new name He gives us cannot be taken away.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Debt targets your good name”. And that sent my mind spinning… We have an enemy who does the same. He targets our good name. He can’t take it away, but he can sure try to cover it with blemishes. If we resist the yoke that Jesus offers, resist fully submitting to Him as our Lord (which means Master), our resistance, our desire for control over our own lives, can open a door for us to be drawn into the form of slavery named Debt. If we allow ourselves to become indebted to anything other than Jesus, we are choosing to walk back into the slavery that He freed us from–not spiritually, but in our physical lives. Our enemy cannot drag us back to our fallen spiritual condition. We are sealed in Christ.  Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-22) But, if we allow him to, he can influence our physical lives, marking our outward lives with the same bondage and slavery that defined our spiritual selves prior to encountering Jesus. 

I think that the most sinister piece of being indebted-whether it be spiritual or financial-is that it robs us of our ability to live given. Living given is what most identifies us as followers of Christ. Whether it be love, forgiveness, grace, time or finances, followers of Jesus ought to be the best givers–because we are to model our lives after the Greatest Giver who has withheld from us no good thing-even His very own Son. Living given is an outpouring of all that we are in every area of life, every situation we encounter. In Ann Voskamp’s stunning book, The Broken Way, she writes these words:

Live given… Here is my brokenness… Here is my battered life, here is my bruised control, here are my fractured dreams, here is my open hand, here is all that I have, here is my fragile, surrendered heart, here I am, a living sacrifice. Broken. Given. Living given means breaking down all the thickened walls and barriers around your heart with this hammer of humility and trusting the expansiveness of the broken-wide-open spaces of grace and communion.

Could it be that our debt reveals our fear?

Perhaps our fear of losing control… or our fear of living out the broken vulnerability we are called to in Christ? Is our acquiring-all of our getting, needing, hoarding-simply our attempt to escape living broken and given? In the same book I referenced above, Ann writes this:

When I’m no longer afraid of brokenness, I don’t have to control or possess anything–dreams or plans or people or their perceptions. I can live surrendered. Cruciform. Given. This feels like freedom.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…

Our God desires that we live given lives–grateful for the freedom that was bought for us–that testify to the extravagant, generous nature of our good Father.

So how do we get there? How do we get to the place where our physical lives mirror the freedom and victory we’ve been given spiritually?

Luanne wrote about the tools John presented us with on Sunday, and I’m going to reiterate them here. We have to get a plan and we have to get on our knees. These two go hand in hand in my mind. I think the first place to go with our shortcomings is always to our gracious Father who will lead us through His Spirit. And I know that any plan I make might not line up with His–Many plans are in a man’s mind, But it is the Lord’s purpose for him that will stand (be carried out). Proverbs 19:21 AMP--so I don’t want to make any plan without first getting on my knees before Him. And after that, we get connected. Not superficially, either. Deeply, authentically connected to others. Like Luanne said, “Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.” We have to own what we owe. Even when we are in debt up to our eyeballs and don’t actually own anything we have, we can own our sin and our mistakes. And it’s great to do this with our God, but He doesn’t desire that we stop there. James 5:16 in the Amplified Bible reads like this:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another [your false steps, your offenses], and pray for one another, that you may be healed and restored. The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power].

These are the steps to freedom, friends. The steps toward living the abundant, overflowing, generous lives God wants us to live. Can we let go of our sense of control (we’re clearly out of control anyway-our lives and bank accounts are the evidence of this), find the courage to face our fears, and take these steps toward living fully free, given lives? Jesus didn’t only die to give us eternity with Him. He died that we might live in the fullness of His life in the here and now, lives that point to His way, His kingdom.

Jesus paid it all-all to Him I owe.

–Laura

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A Balanced Life

Are you longing for balance in your life? I know I am. Even before this series started, I began taking inventory of my life, asking God to show me what to lean into and what to back away from during this next season. We can sense when we’re out of balance–there is a tension, an instability that keeps us on edge, divided hearts within us. We may not be able to articulate that we’re feeling that way as a result of being unbalanced, but we feel the repercussions of living this way. The consequences of an unbalanced life are the things that leave us longing to find our way back, out of the chaotic mess our lives have become.

What is it, though? What does balance even mean? Pastor John hasn’t directly defined balance in his messages. The dictionaries I’ve consulted don’t really define it either. In nearly every definition I read, the word balance was used to define itself. I thought that was a no-no, defining a word by itself… But apparently even Merriam-Webster is a little stumped by this one. To get any grasp at all on what balance actually is, I had to consult a Thesaurus. The synonyms for balance include harmony, evenness, equity. Its antonyms include disproportion, instability and inequality.

I want harmony, equity and evenness to mark my life. How about you? How do we get there from where we are?

Pastor John explained to us three laws of balance. To acquire and cultivate balance, we must first have a reference point, engage in constant correction, and maintain a clear objective. Living this way-much like standing on one foot for an extended amount of time-is simple. The directives are not difficult to understand. The list is not long. It’s simple. But it’s not easy… What is easy, though, is to look back and see where we’ve been in or out of balance in the past. It’s very easy to see how our yesterdays have impacted our todays-for better or worse. We remember the seasons our lives that were marked with instability and disharmony… because we have felt the consequences of living that way. Looking back is easy. Maintaining an awareness of how today’s decisions will affect our tomorrows, though, is harder-if we don’t hold onto the three laws of balance.

While finding a solid definition of balance is a challenge, there are principles that we can grab onto. We heard in this week’s message that “Balance allows us to be all God has created us to be”. It’s not possible to live our lives to the fullest, to fulfill the purposes God designed us for, if we’re living out of balance.

King David understood this. We know from his well-documented story that he didn’t always live a life of balance. But he evidenced over and over again that he did know how to find it. He understood that:

Everything belongs to God. Everything. Scripture drives home this truth many times. Here are just a few examples:

The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all that is in it, You have founded and established them. (Psalm 89:11 AMP)

Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine. (Job 41:11 NLT)

 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:8 NIV)

David penned these verses in one of his own psalms:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24:1-2 NIV)

And these verses record David’s words from the chapter Sunday’s message came out of:

Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power
    and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
    for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, Lord, is the kingdom;
    you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
    you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
    to exalt and give strength to all. (1 Chronicles 29:11-12 NIV)

Every single thing-and every single human being-belongs to God, the Creator of all. And everything we have? It all comes from God.

We can easily identify that David truly believed-and lived by-this truth in the story that John put before us on Sunday.  The verses above, from 1 Chronicles 29, are a portion of a prayer of praise that David lifted after he had given absolutely everything he had, along with the leaders around him, to provide what was needed to build the Temple. He continues his acknowledgment of God as the Giver in verse 14, the verse that Pastor John focused on in his message:

 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

David worshiped, in awe of how generous God had been with him and his people that they could now give so generously. By any standards, David gave extravagantly-today’s equivalent would be somewhere around $14 billion. But he didn’t credit himself as being a selfless guy, some generous temple sugar daddy. He didn’t take one tiny bit of credit. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the extravagance of God that allowed him to then give so much.

When I heard verse 14, I immediately remembered a similar prayer from earlier in David’s story. In 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, in response to God’s declaration that He would build a house for David-not the other way around-and would establish the throne of David’s son Solomon forever, David said these words:

“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?  And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.”

In this instance, David is awed by all that God promised to do for him and for his family. He understands that it is not man who establishes himself, but rather God who holds the plans and the future of each one He has created. He worships, humbled and grateful for the God who gives identity, purpose, position, in addition to providing for physical needs. In the story in chapter 29 that we discussed earlier, he is humbled again as he sees how much he was able to give-because it was a reminder of just how much he had been given.

So what are the takeaways for us? There are many, and I won’t cover all of them here. I encourage you to dig in and seek God’s heart for what He has to say to you through His word. I do want to highlight a few, though.

Our ability to give is not dependent on how much we have, but rather the condition of our hearts. I don’t have $14 billion to give to God’s house. Not even close. And I may have a little more or a little less than you have. God doesn’t give out resources equally-but if we see the whole picture, we’ll see that He always gives extravagantly. Our bank accounts will look different, as will the size of our homes, the year of our vehicles, the vacations we take. But we have all been given the greatest Gift in equal measure. The Gift of Jesus, given for each of us so that all of us could be grafted into the best family-the forever family of God. And within that identity in the family of Jesus, we are given everything.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ(Ephesians 1:3 NIV)

For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6 NLT)

Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. And that should motivate our hearts to give our raised-from-the-dead lives right back to Him. If we understand how much we’ve been given, we won’t want to hold anything back when it comes to giving to Him-because all that we have was first given to us.

Delighting in God above all else changes our “have to” into a “get to”. I don’t believe that David was just an extra-generous guy. And I don’t believe that any part of him struggled to let go of his wealth or himself in surrender to His God. I think we can see pretty clearly that he was a cheerful, grateful, humble giver. I believe this is because he delighted in God. Not as one of many things he found delight in, but as Source of all of his delight and joy. He didn’t have to choose in the moment whether or not to honor God with his life and his giving-the matter had already been settled in his heart. He delighted in his God, and his choices flowed from that place.

I recently listened to a message from a conference that asked the question: Is delighting in God your highest aim, your priority? My current answer? Sometimes. Less than sometimes, probably. But I want it to be my priority. Because if we are absorbed in who God is, in enjoying being with Him and delighting in Him, our focus is on God-not on the gifts that He gives. And if our delight is truly in Him and not in what He can do for us or in us, or in what He gives, then living a generous, open-handed, surrendered life that honors Him is easy. Because it ceases to be about us. 

John asked us to enter into these 21 days of prayer asking God this question:

How can I honor You with everything I am and everything I have?

I’ll be digging into this question in the coming days and hopefully you will, too. I don’t know the full answer yet. But I do believe that honoring God with my life includes these things that David modeled in his life: delight in God above all else, understand that everything belongs to God, and because it all belongs to Him, acknowledge that everything comes from God. 

If we start here, I believe we’ll be well on our way to living lives that honor God.

–Laura

Like Laura, I tried to find a good definition of the word “balance”, and then sought out the etymology of the word. In the midst of that search I found an interesting rabbit trail to follow; I came across the question on stackexchange.com,  Why is a bank balance called a bank balance? This is a portion of the answer that was given:

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

This is not rocket science to anyone who has a bank account; however, it got me thinking about balance in the spiritual realm.

Laura wrote above: Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. 

Jesus cried out “tetelestai” on the cross right before he died. That Greek word has two meanings. One is literally “It is finished.” The other meaning is a banking term meaning “Paid in full.” So when Laura writes “the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for.” It is settled. Done. Complete.  That debt that we owed, that negative balance is wiped out, paid for, finished.

However, in other ways God gives unequally, and He is very purposeful in that. He is a diversity loving God, and He has a plan, using that diversity, to bless the world.

When God called Abraham He told him… I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen. 12:2)  Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to be blessings. Whatever God has given to you doesn’t stop with you; it is part of God’s bigger plan to bless the world, for His glory,  through you.

Saturday, John and I were preparing for our 21 days of fasting, and we were going through the refrigerator, the freezer, and the cabinets cleaning out old food, expired food, etc.  I was mortified that we had some things that expired years ago. I felt the Lord speak to me, and He said, the more you have, the more you waste.  I felt the prick of that statement, but began to ponder it, process it, and face it. It’s not just food that I waste. I have a fully furnished living room that no one ever uses. It just sits there. Wasted sofas, wasted space. I have clothes and shoes in my closet that don’t get worn. Wasted garments. I am fasting from social media, but when I’m not fasting and have a minute I’ll often pop onto Facebook or Twitter and before I know it I’ve lost thirty minutes or more. Wasted time. The more we have, the more we waste.  And I believe that oftentimes the more we have, the greedier we are. When John and I lived in Brazil, we were very aware that when we worked with the poorest of the poor, they were the most generous, AND the most joy-filled. They gave us fruit from their trees, things they had made with their hands, they gave their laughter, their love, their embrace, their time, accepted us with open arms into their community–it was beautiful. A few years ago on a mission trip to Romania, I tried to bless a family of 13 children by purchasing some of their beautiful flowers. They would not take payment. I tried and tried, but they wanted to give the flowers to me as a blessing. That was a costly gift for them, part of a days wages. It was not what I was seeking, but it was what I received–their costly generosity, their beautiful joy, their gorgeous flowers. If I’m being truthful, I feel the paradox of beautiful pain in my heart when I think about it. I received much more than flowers that day.

Jesus tells us a sobering story in Luke chapter 12, beginning in verse 14. He says: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

What does it mean to be rich toward God? Tim Maas writes: Being rich toward God means remembering that God is the ultimate source of time, abilities, and financial or material means that have been placed at our disposal in this life, and using those gifts not purely for our own ease or pleasure, but to express our thanks to God for His grace and generosity toward us… and (for) benefiting those who have not been equally blessed.

Going back to the rabbit trail that I chased earlier…

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

What has God blessed you with? Has he blessed you financially? Has he blessed you materially? Has he blessed you with wisdom? With artistic skill? With the gifts of craftsmanship? With the gift of hospitality? Encouragement? Teaching? Time? Cooking? Mechanics? Computer skills? Music? Writing? Compassion? Organizing? Decorating? The list goes on and on…

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

Sit for a bit and think about all that God has lavished upon you. Think about how many incoming transactions you have received and continue to receive from Him. He is over-abundantly generous! We will never ever out give Him. When you look at the outgoing side, does it balance out with what you’ve received? Do the gifts and talents and personality and love and fruits of the Spirit that He has deposited into you get spent?

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

The reason that the Dead Sea is dead is because water flows into it, but no water flows out. That’s a negative balance.  Receiving and not giving leads to a dead, joyless life. All humankind is made in the the image of God (we all equally bear His image), and He is a generous giver. He blesses and blesses and blesses. To be like Him, to reflect His image indicates generous living. And to be rich toward Him, by living generously, honors Him.

The three things required for balance:

  1. A reference point, a focal point–I recommend Jesus.
  2. Constant correction–I recommend balancing your life and choices against His Word and His actions, and readjusting as needed.
  3. Clear objective–I recommend a life goal of honoring God and leveraging your life on this earth for the sake of His kingdom.

Will there be wrestling? Yes. We all want control over what we perceive to be our own lives and our own stuff. But truly, none of it is ours. It all came from God.  Will it cost us something? Yes. Will it stretch us? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes. Jesus tells us If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Mt 10:39)  May we have the wisdom to find the balanced lives we were meant for by completely giving our lives to the one who completely gave His for us.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…(Col 3:17)

–Luanne

 

 

 

A Peace That Rules

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

Prince of Peace, the fourth title of Jesus in a Hebrew list which indicates importance, emphasis, weight. Prince of Peace—Prince of Shalom. Even as I type that word, my heart rate increases a bit. If we, the followers of Jesus, can come to understand the significance of this particular name of Jesus, if we can come to understand what shalom means and how shalom is what our lives are to be about it will change the way we live, and it will have a ripple effect in the world.

Reading on from Isaiah 9:6 we learn that Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness. from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (verse 7)

The word Shalom, translated as peace is used more than 250 times in the Old Testament and 91 times in the New Testament. It encompasses all that Christ does, all of who Christ is. It is about God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5) and the restoration all things. It’s about us being in right relationship with God through Christ, in right relationship with others, it’s about taking care of the created world—in the words of NT Wright it’s about uprooting everything from the existing creation that causes evil, corruption, and decay…it’s what love looks like when it’s facing the problems that its neighbor is dealing with, it’s about engage, engage, engage, leveraging what you have for the benefit of others, working toward wholeness, completeness, soundness, success, flourishing, and peace for everyone. It’s an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) and  God wants it for everyone—for you and through you, for me and through me for everyone.

When we think of the word Prince we typically associate that term with someone who has a territory or a kingdom to rule. Our Prince of Peace has a Kingdom. If we take the time to pay attention, we see that over and over in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)  Jesus’ primary ministry was to teach about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.

For too long many of us have lived with the mindset that His kingdom is a place we go after we depart from this world, but that’s not what scripture indicates. Even in the book of Acts, after Jesus resurrection, right before he ascends to heaven, right before he tells the apostles to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, he is teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven (1:3). And in the Lord’s Prayer he teaches us to pray, he asks us to pray that His kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

  Shalom is the fulfillment of that prayer.

When Isaiah tells us that Jesus reign of peace will be upheld by justice and righteousness, he is giving us a clue as to what we followers are to be about. Justice in this sense is about tackling systems and structures that oppress people, that favor some over others, that lead to inequity and injustice. Righteousness means that we are rightly related to God, to others, and to ourselves. Shalom is about everyone everywhere flourishing in every way—spiritually, emotionally, relationally—everyone having what they need, no hunger, no poverty, everyone having a sense of their God-given dignity and worth. (Check out the  early church in Acts 2:42-47)

Jesus teaches us, in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7) how to live by the principles of his kingdom, and tells us in Matthew 6:33 that if we seek His kingdom first, he will take care of everything else. (Spend some time as we head into the new year prayerfully and slowly reading this sermon as you converse with God. Read it over and over, dig in–it’s key to life as a Christ follower.)

In Jesus’ earthly ministry, he modeled Shalom (restoration of all things) constantly. He valued people over rules, over propriety, (he healed on the Sabbath constantly—a no no according to the Pharisees), he valued women in a culture that treated them like property, he forgave sins, he gave time to the marginalized, he cast out demons, he fed crowds of people, he loved tax collectors and the rich young ruler, he loved the invisible like the woman who touched the hem of his robe, he called the most unlikely to be his disciples, he raised the dead, and he himself died so that through his death and resurrection (the means to the forgiveness of our sins and the indwelling power of the Spirit so we can live shalom offering lives)  we can experience true shalom with God and others. I know that if we choose to live for His kingdom according to the principles of His kingdom, being consumed with His heart for the flourishing of everyone, we will see change. We won’t see the complete fulfillment of  Shalom until Jesus comes again, but we can certainly be loving Him well by loving others well and joining Him in His ministry of reconciliation today and every day of our lives. Will we get push back? Yes, because this is counter-cultural and counter-church tradition, but it is the heart of God.

Where do you live? Where do you see injustice? Who do you see being marginalized? Who do you know that is broken? How can you bring Jesus, His kingdom and His love, His shalom to your world?

Oh, day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.

May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
Nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze,
A little child shall lead them all.

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.


Josh Garrels from The Light Came Down, released November 24, 2016

–Luanne

Wonder of a Counselor, God of Might, A Father that Lasts… Power-packed names, full of meaning, that lead us to this culmination of the list: A Peace that Rules.

There is always talk of the longing for Peace on Earth-never more than at Christmastime. But I wonder… what kind of peace are we after?

Pastor John described the peace of Jesus as “peace that never ends”. It is the Shalom peace that Luanne defined so well above–not the Christmas-card-quiet-night-with-no-conflict kind. No, the peace of Jesus, the peace that rules, is not passive. It is the process of destroying the authority of whatever is creating the chaos. John reminded us that Shalom is so much more than silencing the noise; it cuts through the surface chaos and penetrates the depths to bring restoration, healing.

Our Jesus, our Savior, He came to bring His Kingdom into the darkness of fallen humanity…

Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:7)

This peace that rules, this power and Presence that brings restoration, it was never meant for us to simply find calmness in our own personal, individual lives. The justice and righteousness that both establish and uphold the Kingdom of Jesus? They are not about personal piety. This way of Jesus, the peace that lasts, it is about setting all things right for all people, and being rightly related to everyone.

Is this the peace that we are after? John told us on Sunday, “It’s not about you finding calmness. It’s about the world being set right.”

It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about our Savior of Shalom, whose desire is for the world He came to save to be set right in every way. For each one, everywhere, to be rightly related to Him and to one another. For equity to be pursued and found by all. This absolutely includes us and our individual stories-but it’s not about us. 

This way of Jesus, this chaos-destroying, restoration-centered way–it is the only way to the peace our souls long for. There can be no personal peace that makes our lives calm and tidy and safe if our brothers and sisters around the world are living in war-torn, starving, dying chaos. The way of Jesus overlooks no one. It values everyone. The story of His coming reminds us of that…

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

The “them” the angel told? Lowly shepherds.

The shepherds got angels…Everyone else that night got shepherds, heard the news from kindled, heart-burning shepherds who went and ‘told everyone’.” (The Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp)

So I’ll ask us one more time–What kind of peace are we after? This Christmas, as we ponder all that Jesus is to us, do we understand that He is also all of these things for all people? Can we look up from our personal story and embrace the Kingdom He came to bring? A kingdom established and sustained by making all things right for all people in all situations? This is the peace that rules. Jesus came so that His peace can rule in our hearts, yes–but also in our interactions with others.  Also in the way that we see and engage the world He loves so much that He squished all of His deity, all of His glory, into the body of a newborn baby who would grow up to be a man that would give His life so all could be rightly related to Him forever. Are we willing to do our parts to carry this peace, this restoration beyond ourselves and into the world around us?

–Laura

Jehovah-Shalom

A Father That Lasts

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

As we’ve explored the names of Jesus in this familiar passage, we have encountered Him as our “Wonder of a Counselor” and our “God of Might”. This week, John introduced Jesus to us as “A Father that lasts”. As I read through this list in Isaiah, it’s not difficult to attribute the names “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace” to Jesus. Those make sense to my heart-they always have to some degree. I think that, because this is a very familiar passage-especially this time of year, I’ve skimmed over the two words “Everlasting Father”. I have understood it as a name that establishes His oneness with God, as we tend to refer to God as our Father more than we do the Son, Jesus. But I have stopped there and not stepped deeper into the concept of Jesus as my Everlasting Father. Until last Sunday…

John presented Jesus our Savior as a Father that lasts… a Father who is for us, who loves us, who is Emmanuel-God with us. What do you think of when you read the words A Father that lasts?

John recounted his recent experience of the loss of his own earthly father-an experience I know many of us can identify with.

This name of Jesus strikes me in two different places, one I’ll mention briefly and the other I’ll dig into…

Thinking of Jesus as a Father who is for me-One who watches over me, protects me, walks with me-pricks my heart for what I longed for as a child, what I didn’t receive when I needed it most. It stirs murky waters deep in my soul that cause me to ache a bit for the loss of what I didn’t believe I had. I’m only recently beginning to understand that in those moments when my earthly father fell short of what I needed, I had a Father that was there in the dark with me, One who never left me, One who has always been for me in every way, loving me from before my earliest memories.

Understanding Jesus as a Father that lasts is especially difficult because we live on this side of eternity, and we experience loss. In The Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp writes “We all lose every single person we love. There is never another way”. These losses rock us, challenge our faith and our trust, and cause deep pain and grief. Christmastime can amplify the grief in our hearts. No human being in our lives-including ourselves-will last. Not in the physical sense. So wrapping our heads and hearts around the concept of an Everlasting Father can prove challenging.

I haven’t lost my earthly father, as many of you have, and as John spoke of. But I have lost my mother-and I know I’m not alone. Many of you have buried your mamas as well. I want to remind us here that our God is neither male nor female, but embodies the fullness of both sets of attributes. Isaiah 66:13 tells us, As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted…” . If you, like me, have lost your mama, our Everlasting Father also promises the comfort of a mother, and can fill that emptiness with all of His fullness-His Everlasting mothering-as well. 

John mentioned to us that when we experience loss, what remains is a memory reel. Pictures, moments, words that are captured in our minds and hearts–once fresh and vibrant, but fading with time. This has been both a beautiful and painful part of my own grief journey. I have found myself deeply grateful that God created us with the capacity to remember-to put the pieces of our stories, our lives, back together over and over again so that we can stay connected to the beauty of the past, to the love of those we have lost. But it’s getting harder to see, to hear, to relive those moments with clarity. Time dims the memories, layers of dust make it difficult to go back easily. And I hate it. I hate that remembering the distinct tone of my mom’s voice as she called my name is getting harder and harder. That her features, once chiseled into my mind’s eye, have begun to blur with the passing of time. It makes me ache that the remembering doesn’t come as easily as it did at first… It reinforces the finality of death, the reality of our earthly experience.

But it also makes space for this thought, this understanding to grow and expand into my consciousness:

We will never have to rely on a memory reel to experience the love of Jesus, our Everlasting Father.

He is never dead to us-and we’re never dead to Him. This one relationship will never ever taste the sting of death, because our Everlasting Father became the Son of Man to endure the soul-crushing sting of everything that could have separated us from His love. And now we can be grafted into the love story that will take us from life to life. There’s no painful goodbye to dread between us and Jesus. He was always with us, He’s with us now and He will be with us forever. And in that withness, He is always for us, always loving us. The truth of that is what we find when we look at the memory reel of our lives. In the midst of every heartache, every disappointment, every failure; in our darkest, grief-filled moments and in our brightest joys, Emmanuel was with us. And this memory reel of Jesus–rather than fading with time, it explodes into our consciousness the reality of His constancy with us, His faithfulness to us, and it stirs our eyes and our hearts to see Him where we didn’t think He could be. Because we realize in the looking back that there has never been a place we were where He wasn’t also there. As a Father that lasts-for us, loving us, with us.

–Laura

Laura wrote: We will never have to rely on a memory reel to experience the love of Jesus, our Everlasting Father.

How grateful I am for that truth! Like Laura, my mom is with Jesus. She has been with him for 44 years, and the sting of that loss can still sometimes sneak up and surprise me with its intensity. I cannot remember her voice; however, I can remember her smile, her kindness, her essence and am grateful that I have never doubted her love for me.

As far as dads go, I am one of the most blessed people on the planet, and I am fully aware of that. My dad celebrated his 88th birthday last month. He is in excellent health, we have wonderful conversations, he sends me books and articles that he knows would interest me, and we talk about real things, deep things. I learn so much from him– the way he relates to God, the way he still volunteers and ministers to those less fortunate, the way he navigates the difficult seasons of life, the way he continues to read, to grow, to learn, the way he wrestles with things that he doesn’t understand, and of course, his gentle, patient, grace-filled, shepherding nature has profoundly impacted my life. He still goes to the gym three times a week, eats healthily.  He is a fantastic example of one who nurtures his soul and spirit and takes care of the physical tent that houses that soul and spirit. He is not perfect, but he’s pretty darn close! I remember asking him when I was a teenager if he ever sinned. His face contorted in pain and he said, “Oh yes! I battle my pride!” Who knew? Knowing full well that he will not last on this planet forever, I have kept a voicemail from him on my phone. It’s not “meaningful”. He is basically asking me to call him when I get a chance; however, it’s his voice that I don’t want to be without. And just like with my mom–I have never doubted my dad’s love–never. 

So, when John was making his points about our Father who lasts–that He is for us  that He is with us, and that He loves us, my mind stopped on the love portion. I know many people who struggle with the concept that God loves them. Many friends have different “dad” experiences than I have.

John reminded us that we often relate to our heavenly Father as if He were our earthly father. He’s not. He is our one of a kind, all loving, all gracious, always on our side Father.

There was a season in my life, when I was pretty convinced that I had sinned myself out of God’s love. I hadn’t, and neither have you. We can’t. His love for us is not dependent upon us, it is not conditional.  He chooses to love us, and He chooses it always. (It’s His very nature—“God is love” (1st John 4:8).

He delights to show us His love in millions of ways. Yes, millions, if we are willing to open our eyes, our minds, our hearts to see His gifts. Ann Voskamp’s book “One Thousand Gifts”  encourages us to begin writing down three things a day that we are grateful for. It’s life-changing, and it is an exercise in beginning to recognize the God-given gifts all around us, all of the time.  Big things like sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations, other natural things like yellow butterflies, wild flowers, heart shaped rocks, spring blooms, fall colors, sparkling snow–fragrances like brownies in the oven, sea salt laden beach air, honeysuckle–delightful things like puppies, kittens, giggling toddlers–things of wonder like the birth of babies, the stars in the heavens, the Grand Canyon–personal things like our five senses through which we experience the world–man made things like electricity, running water, automobiles-so many other things like the ability to read, the ability to think, the ability to converse. And relationships-being able to love and to be loved. So many things all the time–all gifts from a loving Father.

And if all of that doesn’t convince you of His love, let me throw another couple of thoughts out there. John’s mom gave him a couple of things that had belonged to his dad. She gave him his dad’s wedding ring, which he now wears on his right hand, and she gave him his dad’s long wool coat. A ring and a “robe”.

A ring and a robe. In the story of the prodigal son, after he has made a total wreck of his life and has returned home hoping to be a servant in his father’s house, the father unexpectedly embraces him and gives to him a ring and a robe (Luke 15:22) These are not meaningless gifts. In the Old Testament, Joseph receives Pharaoh’s ring indicating acceptance, authority, position and the honor of representing the king. Mordecai receives King Xerxes ring indicating acceptance, authority, position and the honor of representing the king. And the high priest, Joshua, in Zechariah 3 is being accused by Satan before the Lord. The Lord rebukes Satan and in verse 3 of that chapter we learn that “Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes’.  Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.’  God clothes Joshua in new garments to indicate that his sins are forgiven. The ring and robe received by the prodigal son is the father’s message of complete restoration, of full acceptance, of new beginning.

So, this God who loved the whole world so much that He gave His one and only son (sit with that phrase for a minute–do you love anyone so much that you’d allow one of your own children to be tortured and put to death so that you could be in a relationship with that other person? When we think about God’s love and what it cost him–why do we doubt it?)

So, this God who loved the whole world so much gives us opportunity to enter into relationship with Him through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the scripture tells us in Galatians 3, that when we are baptized into Christ then we are clothed with Christ–full restoration, full acceptance, new identity–and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) meaning that we get the honor of representing Him to the world. Our ring, our robe, gifts from our loving Father who lasts.

Do you know the love of our Father who lasts– the love of the Father who thinks highly of you, the love of the Father who is for you, who is with you, who restores you, who uses you, who gifts you with blessings, but most of all who gifts us with Himself? His love is real, is life changing, and can be experienced right now. Ask Him to let you see His love gifts. They are all around, loudly proclaiming “You, yes you,  are forever loved!”

–Luanne

 

He Will Be Called God of Might

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

He will be called…his reputation will be this…he will be known by these things…

Isaiah 9:6. What a beautiful scripture; one that is so familiar that we sometimes skim over it, but sitting with it for awhile, letting each “name”, each title, sink in with the full implications of what each one means takes us on a beautiful journey of hope. Hope that was needed in the days of Isaiah the prophet, and hope that is needed today.

If we back up to chapter 8, beginning in verse 11 Isaiah fills us in on the context of what is going on in his community during this time, what God says to him, how he responds, and his message for the people; things like:

”Don’t call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy. Don’t fear what they fear, don’t be in dread.” Honor the Lord as holy. Wait for the Lord. Hope in the Lord. Don’t consult mediums and spiritists, instead, inquire of God who is living. Those who choose not to consult God have no light. “Distressed and hungry they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”  (v 21-22)

Sounds awful. Sounds like today. However, chapter 9 begins with the hopeful message that there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress, because in the future their story will be “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have…increased their joy…you have shattered the yoke that burdened them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” (2-5) And all of their battle gear can be burned —there is no need for it anymore!  Because…to us a child is born…(9:6)

Do we even know how blessed we are to live in the period of time where the prophecy of the child has been fulfilled?

Without a doubt, there is still much darkness in our world, much gloom. Many consult fortune tellers, mediums, spiritists, horoscopes, and the like as they try to find wisdom and direction for their lives. And the countless millions who, in the United States alone, believe conspiracy theories spread by media sources that lead to fear, dread, and suspicion is mind boggling. Many walk in darkness. Many are hopeless. Many are lost. And even some who know Jesus have forgotten that he is the source of life, the fountain of wisdom, and they too have starved themselves of his sustenance by relying on the wisdom of the world, which according to Isaiah leads to rage, and to blaming power sources such as the government, and to blaming God, which leads to even further darkness. But we live in the day in which The Light has come.

There are Isaiahs in this day who say to God: “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty…” (8:18)

It’s the call for all of us who know Jesus. We are called to be signs and symbols in the world from the Lord Almighty.

Mt. 5:14, You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

Ph. 2:14-15 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life…

1 Pet. 2:9 You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

I could type out many, many, many other scriptures that say the same thing. We, the people of God, we, who are called by His Name, are to be different from the world. We, who are called by His Name are to humble ourselves, pray, seek His face, turn from our wicked ways…do as He has done for us, love as he has loved us, do good to all people, love our enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, care for the prisoner, and be filled with His Spirit who fills us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  (2 Chron 7:14, John 13:15, 35, Gal 6:10, Mt. 5:44, Mt. 25: 34-36, Gal. 5:22)

Will we respond to the call with a yes? If so, how do we, who know ourselves so well, manage to do this? We don’t. He does. He does it through us as we draw close to Him, as we get to know Him, and as we surrender to Him. The power of our mighty God, our God of Might, works in us.

Ph. 2:13 (NLT) For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases Him.

Eph. 1: 18-19  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know…his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…

2 Pet 1:3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

So, returning to Matthew 5:14, that states you are the light of the world- a city set on a hill which cannot be hidden, implying that you, yes, you, are the light of the world. A city… A city is called a city because it is made up of citizens. The “cit” in both words comes from the same Latin root. A city of citizens who belong to a Kingdom of light. Each citizen in a city makes a difference. Each citizen in the Kingdom has a role to play. We are to shine like stars in the midst of the darkness, pointing the way to the wonderful Counselor, the almighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace.

So why does our experience so often not line up with a “shining star” powerful life? I have a couple of thoughts on that. One, I think that we allow ourselves to be influenced by the world. We seek lots of other voices without checking to see if they line up with God’s kingdom. Some of those voices come from churches, and ministry leaders. Please be wary if the message a church or leader is putting out there is fear based, political, or “us versus them”. None of those are the message of Christ. And two, I think we sometimes choose a famine of God’s words.  In the book of Amos, the Lord told the people that as a consequence for self absorbed, disobedient living  I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” (8:11). That prophecy came to fruition in the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the people did not hear the voice of God for 400 years.

Isaiah lays out the fruit of that kind of famine in chapter 8 when he writes,  Distressed and hungry they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” (v 21-22)

That is our world today; gloom, doom, hopeless, angry, blaming God, blaming others, yet, we have access to the WORD of God at all times. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:1, 14)

The Word of God, who is Jesus, the Spirit of God dwelling in us: the power of God operating in our lives, the written word brought to life by the Spirit, it’s all available to us all the time. Do we know how blessed we are to live in this time? 

The Mighty God, for whom nothing is impossible is here, but He won’t force Himself upon us. He lets us come to Him. Will we be like Isaiah and say, Here I am, send me? Here I am. I’m willing to be a sign and a symbol of Your glory and light to those walking in darkness. Here I am, I belong to You, my life is Yours, You are my heart, my priority, my joy; I will earnestly seek You, and live counter-culturally as a citizen of Your Kingdom. Here I am, God of Might, I am Yours.

—Luanne

“Many walk in darkness. Many are hopeless. Many are lost. And even some who know Jesus have forgotten that he is the source of life, the fountain of wisdom, and they too have starved themselves of his sustenance by relying on the wisdom of the world… But we live in the day in which The Light has come.” 

I am so deeply grateful to live in the day in which the light has come. But I don’t always live with that reality in focus. Sometimes, the darkness overwhelms. Sometimes hopelessness encroaches. Sometimes I am the one who starves myself of His sustenance.  I have experienced the Light of Life shattering my own darkness. I have seen the Holy glow of Him in my darkest nights–and still, when tempests rage, I can forget what I know to be true:

There is mighty power contained within the Light.

In Genesis chapter 1, we read that there was light on the first day. But the sun, moon and stars weren’t created until the fourth day. The Light of Life, the Word that created everything was Himself the incarnation of light the first day. The Hebrew word for “light” on the first day and the word for “lights” on the fourth day, referring to the sun, moon and stars, carry completely different connotations. Light strong enough to give light to the whole earth was poured forth from Him who is The Light. That is a powerful thought-my mind can’t even begin to imagine a picture of a glow that strong.

His power, though, is even stronger than the light that pours from His being…

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.”

The root word for “government” in this part of Isaiah 9:6 is the Hebrew sarah–which is translated “power”, “to prevail as a prince”.

Prevailing, princely power is what is upon the shoulders of Jesus. Not government in the way that we understand it . This is altogether different than earthly governments. And it’s so huge to get this. Not only is Jesus our Prince of Peace-He is also our Prince of Power. We’ll talk about Jesus as Prince of Peace at the conclusion of this series, so I won’t take us too far ahead. But in recent days, I’ve come to embrace the original Hebrew definition of peace, Shalom, as meaning “to destroy the authority of the one making the chaos”. As the Prince of Power, He himself is the power that destroys the chaos. And that power is inextricably connected to His light.

Isaiah 9:2: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…” 

The light of Jesus contains all the power to prevail over all things–over every scheme of darkness, over political systems… His Kingdom was ushered in and with it came the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5).

Pastor and author Brian Zahnd says this about the kingdom of Jesus:

The kingdom of Christ is the most revolutionary politics–perhaps the only true revolutionary politics–the world has ever seen. Unlike all other political agendas, the supreme value of the politics of Jesus is not power, but love. Jesus rejects the politics of power for the politics of love.

The power Brian writes of here is the power that we, fallen humanity, aspire to attain. The power of Jesus, though, is the supreme power of love. The inexplicable power of a love that moved the Author of Creation to come to us as a baby in a dirty feed trough. The power of a love that would lead that baby into manhood and ministry and ultimately to the excruciating pain and humiliation of crucifixion on a cross. The power of a love that chose this way of humility, service, grace and forgiveness in order to forever defeat the darkness, forever scatter the chaos, forever establish His Kingdom His way.

Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness, from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:7)

“Of the greatness of his government (yep, its root word is power here, too) and peace…” 

Prince of power. Prince of peace. Both are the outflowing of the deeper river, which is love.

And that surging Love, Jesus Himself, is quoted in Hebrews 2:13 as the One who was speaking to Isaiah in chapter 8:17-18,  the One who said,

Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty…” (8:18) 

If Hebrews is accurate in its representation of Jesus, then the Messiah Himself was speaking these words to Isaiah long before He came to be born as the Messiah that Isaiah and his people were waiting for. I’m not going to get into the logistics of all of this, the discussion of old testament apparitions of Jesus, the Trinity, and God is Jesus/Jesus is God conversations here. The point that stirs my heart to worship in awe and wonder is this:

Emmanuel, God With Us, was with Isaiah in this moment. And He invokes the collective “we” here: “We are signs and symbols…” He identified Himself as one with us long before the time came for Him to enter humanity. The Word that was God in the very beginning spoke words that attest to the depths of His love for those He created. In this verse, His words include us, invite us, and recreate us. He spoke then to the coming reality that is now our reality–that He would be seen in us, felt through us, because He has always been God With Us-even before He was with us in the flesh.

There are times when my mind and my heart reach capacity and I cannot go further into a thought because the weight of it makes me feel like I might explode. This is one of those times. There aren’t words to encapsulate the wonder, the questions, the awe of my Jesus as I understand Emmanuel in a completely different way. I can’t better communicate what is swirling through my thoughts, because I don’t understand it myself.

Fullness of power, light, peace and love can have that effect on a person. To experience Jesus this way is to transcend human comprehension, to defy logic. It can only be fully experienced in the Spirit-our mortal selves can’t bear the weight of all that He is. And all that He is is available to us. Paul says in Ephesians 6:10, “…be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power”. And we can. Because He is Emmanuel. God in us, God for us, God with us. 

I pray that you experience Messiah, Emmanuel in a way that leaves you breathless with wonder this season. That our Mighty God, our prevailing Prince of power overwhelms your soul and carries you far beyond the realms of your impossible into all that is possible with Him.

–Laura

light of life (2)

Wonder of a Counselor

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

-Isaiah 9:6-

Have you ever needed Jesus as a “Wonderful Counselor”? I have. But I didn’t come to Him calling Him by that name, not initially. I came to Jesus because I needed His counsel. The “wonderful” part comes into the picture because He comes and meets us in that space.

He comes…

That alone is enough to inspire wonder in my soul. Our Jesus comes to us…

“While other creeds endeavor to get us out of the world and into heaven, in Christianity, heaven comes down and Christ comes into this world to get us…And your God, He’s coming now, everywhere, for you. In all humanity’s religions, man reaches after God. But in all His relationships, God reaches for man.” (Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift)

He chooses to stop by our wells and offer the living water we’re desperate for. Jesus comes to us and He asks for our honesty. He lifts our faces up, out of the dirt of our messy lives, and lets us see the kindness in His eyes, the twinkle that beckons us to follow Him. He invites us to remove our masks-He’s looking straight through them anyway–and gives us the space to tell Him our whole truth. Space to lay our burdens and confessions at His feet. He listens as we ask our many questions.

And then… He speaks. He speaks to us with thoughts that are higher than our thoughts. And he moves and acts in ways that are higher than ours. (Isaiah 55:8-9) The Word that spoke light and life and you and me into being speaks directly to our hearts in His perfect, infinite wisdom. And it is wonderfully disarming… As He speaks, His words reveal anything we’ve tried to hide. His words are precise and invasive and we are exposed. And the way He does it-it’s beyond our understanding. It leaves us in awe, full of wonder that he would come. That He keeps coming… 

It is in these moments that we come to know Him by the name, “Wonderful Counselor”. It is during these moments when we are overwhelmed by His coming, by His knowing of us, by His Word so precise and sharp that it divides soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Hebrews 4:12). He becomes our Wonderful Counselor when we’re filled with wonder at His entering into our stories. That wonder explodes into awestruck worship when we realize Jesus is calling us to be a part of His story…

In order to know Him as our Wonderful Counselor, though, we must first be a sheep. In the animal world, there are many animals I would choose to be before I would pick a sheep…But Jesus calls us sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27) The reason Jesus calls us sheep is that sheep listen. They listen to the voice of their shepherd. They do what he says and they follow him. We aren’t His sheep if we don’t know His voice. Matthew 25:31-36 comes to mind. It is painfully clear in these verses how vital it is to be known as one of His sheep…

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

When Jesus comes again, He will call His sheep to Himself. Those who have heard Him, who know His voice, who have listened to His counsel and done what He says to do. Those whom He knows. Those who know Him. There will be a separating in that moment… I want to be a sheep.

But what if we know Him, we’ve heard Him, we know His voice–and He’s just not speaking? What if we’re in a season of waiting and we’re tempted to just give up because the silence seems more than we can bear? We have asked and pleaded and sought the wonderful counsel of our Savior and what we’ve heard is… nothing. What then?

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16 NLT)

We are reminded in these verses that our Savior identifies with us in our struggles. He is sympathetic to our pain, our questions, our frustrations-because He’s faced weakness and pain Himself. He offers us mercy and grace and He encourages us to press on, to persevere. Because He knows what that perseverance will accomplish… Perseverance produces character and character produces hope-a hope that never disappoints. (Romans 5:4-5)

It struck me that today’s advent candle is the candle of hope. It symbolizes the hope we have in the next advent, the second coming of Jesus. That hope is not only for the day of His returning. It is a hope we can carry every moment between now and that day. When we feel hopeless in the midst of the seemingly impossible, Jesus whispers to us, His sheep, “I am your hope”. When the waiting seems endless, He reminds us his first coming seemed slow to so many. Hundreds of years of waiting, of silence…and then, the baby was born in Bethlehem. Hope came to us that night, wearing the skin of a baby boy. And now, we can experience a daily advent of our Savior, because He was born as Emmanuel-God with us. We can live His daily advent, His continual coming to us, this adventure He invites us to be swept up in. And we can live it holding fast to hope-hope that is closer than we know-breathless with wonder. I love the way Frederick Buechner writes of advent:

In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

I pray that in this season of Advent, we will come to know, to really know Jesus as our Wonderful Counselor. That we’ll so long to hear His voice, we’ll hold our breath so we don’t miss Him. I pray that as He comes-and He always comes-we will be left breathless, awestruck by the wonder of Him. And I pray that we’ll persevere and hold onto the hope that is found in Jesus alone.

–Laura

Jesus, our Wonderful Counselor.

Wonderful—full of wonder—awe inspiring.

Counselor—one who gives guidance, who gives advice.

Pondering this description of Jesus makes my heart swell with love and with longing. There is so much packed into these two words, and no one else, throughout all of time could live up to this description.

Laura wrote about wanting to be a sheep in the fold of Christ—one who listens to His voice and does what He says. I do too.  I want Him to be my Wonderful Counselor, not just as a title that He holds, but in my daily life on a practical and real level.

John shared with us the very practical pieces of how to benefit from counseling. I, like John,  have had the benefit of having a human counselor join me on a healing journey and I agree wholeheartedly with John’s advice.

In order to reap the full benefits of good counseling…

1. We must be willing to be brutally honest with our counselor. We have to be willing to let our “ugly” parts show. If we don’t expose those places in ourselves, we won’t find healing. Masks and/or self-deception will not serve us well.

2. We must be willing to listen to what our counselor has to say. Have you ever noticed that the words listen and silent are composed of the same six letters? In order to listen, I must be willing to be silent. Listening is more than hearing. A quick Google search of listen versus hear brings up this statement: “Hearing is the physical activity of sound falling on the ears and the biological processes involved in its perception. Listening is the ability to pay attention to what the sound means and understand it.” Pay attention—understand—listen.

3. We must be willing to do what our counselor says. We must recognize that our counselor is for us, not against us. Our counselor is working with us to help us find healing. Sometimes our counselors will give us hard things to do. My counselor, when she suggested something that I wanted  to push back against, would say:  “If it makes you feel like you want to throw up, it probably indicates that you need to do it.” Ugh! I hated that! But,  when I followed her counsel, her guidance, she was right every time, and I grew.

One other thing I’d add—I had to make time to see my counselor, and seeing her cost me. I can say, without a doubt, that it was worth every moment of time and every bit of the cost.

John juxtaposed a couple of different stories as illustrations in his sermon. He reminded us of the Samaritan woman that Jesus talked to at Jacob’s well in John 4. When she asked Him for the water that He offered, He asked her a seemingly unrelated question. He asked her to go get her husband and return with him. She had a choice in this moment. She had no idea that Jesus already knew all about her life. She could have lied, she could have acted like she was going to get someone and not returned, but she chose the brutal honesty: “I have no husband,” she replied. Her honesty in that moment, and Jesus’ further revelation about what he already knew led not only to her own salvation, but to the whole town hearing the message of Jesus and many became believers. She was honest, she listened, she obeyed, and her life was changed.

John also brought up the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Mark 10.  I have always found this to be one of the saddest stories in scripture. The young man comes to Jesus feeling pretty good about himself. He asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life, and Jesus reminds him of the 10 commandments. (Let me throw out the reminder that no one could keep the law…all have fallen short), this young man says he has kept all of these. Hmmm. Maybe he’s genuinely self-deceived, or maybe he’s trying to impress Jesus. Either way,  he’s not being honest with himself or with Jesus.  Verse 21 tells us that “Jesus felt love for him”. (I love that Mark includes that detail—just like the Samaritan woman, Jesus knew all about this young man, and still loved him).  Jesus counsels him to go and sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow Him.  The very first of the 10 Commandments is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” I believe, that in this moment, Jesus was giving the young man the opportunity to see that his true god was his money, and in this moment, he could trade his false god for a relationship with the one true God; however,  the false god’s hold on him would have to go.   The young man chose to walk away. He was unable to be honest, to see his own area of weakness, he did not take the life-giving counsel of Jesus, so he left empty and unchanged.

Jesus was willing to be the Wonderful Counselor for a woman who knew she was a mess, and a young man who had no idea that he was a mess. Notice that Jesus does not coerce obedience in either story. He just lays His love and His truth out there and lets us choose.

So this first week of advent, the “hope” week, I pray that we recognize that  we have a Wonderful Counselor who holds all that we need for healing, for growth, for wholeness, for transformation. I pray that we will make time for Him.  His heart is for us. He loves us. He sympathizes with us in our weaknesses. He knows us better than we know ourselves.  He gives us His attention whether we come with our authentic messy selves, or our masked selves. He speaks, and we get to choose whether to be hearers only or to listen to His heart of love leading us into true life. He guides us, counsels us, shows us what to do,  and we get to decide whether or not to do it. Taking His counsel, doing it His way will absolutely cost us something. Not doing it His way will absolutely cost us something as well. Only one choice will be worth the cost.  This Wonderful Counselor will never force himself on us. He will gently guide us, and He promises to be with us every step of the way. Are we willing to go where He leads?

—Luanne

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Coming Together

1st Peter 5:8-11 “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers through the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To Him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

We have an enemy. He is real. He is mean. He hates God. He hates us. And His entire goal is our destruction.  Sometimes he’s subtle, sometimes he’s overt. He’s good at what he does.

So what does he do?  When we look at Isaiah 14: 12-14 we see that Satan wants to exalt himself, he wants to be like God, he wants to be worshiped. He even tried to tempt Jesus by promising to fast track Jesus to greatness if Jesus would bow down and worship him. (Mt. 4: 8-9) Basically, he wants us to worship anything but God. If he can’t get us to worship him, he wants us to worship ourselves, to make self the center of our universe. He’s fine if we worship other people, sports teams, food, created things, cars, clothes, political parties, political figures, ideologies, etc. And his main methodology is to lie.

Jesus tells us in John 8 that Satan is a liar, he’s been a liar since the beginning, and he’s the father of lies. I have fallen for his lies more than once. Some of the lies I’ve believed are that I’m invisible, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’ll never amount to anything, I’m friendless, I’m alone, I’m unlovable, I’m a bad mom, I’m a bad wife, I have to take care of myself, I’m unforgivable, God can’t use me because of my past— my list could go on and on. Many of the lies in this list have plagued me for years and can rear their ugly heads at any time.   So, I must be sober and alert and recognize them as the attacks they are when they come. And here’s the subtle thing, if I choose to believe the lies, not only am I cooperating with Satan in my own destruction, I am also focused on myself.  Absorption with self, whether negative or positive is self-worship. Ugh!

John told us in his sermon that the word devour means to consume in order to replenish strength. That caught my attention. So if Satan is seeking someone to devour, he is looking for someone to consume so that he can replenish his strength. Put in those terms, I am absolutely certain that I do not want to feed him or participate in strengthening his destructive mission.

Satan, the liar, has also convinced many that he is the “good guy” the “fun one”, and God is the stern mean one. How many cartoon drawings have we seen where Satan is portrayed as mischievous, but not evil, and God is portrayed as ready to throw lightning bolts?  I’ve heard people blame God for all of the world’s evils and decide they’d rather spend eternity in hell with Satan than in heaven with a God who, in their minds, sends people to hell. They have believed a lie- a dangerous distortion- rather than embracing the truth that God loves us so much that He provided the only solution to hell in the death of His son.

So, how do we overcome? Or, as the title of this sermon in the “Coming Apart” series is, how do we “come together” after things have fallen apart?

We focus on the One who came to set us free. In Revelation 1:17, the apostle John has just described the image of Jesus that he is seeing, the one where Jesus has on a priestly robe, blazing eyes, white hair, and a sword coming out of  his mouth. When John sees him like this, he falls down as if dead. He faints. Think about how interesting that is. This is John, the beloved disciple, the dear friend of Jesus. John who writes prolifically about the love of God, the grace of God, the nearness of God. But in this scene, John sees his friend in an entirely new way. He sees Him as majestic in power, as mighty, and even as scary—enough so that he ended up unconscious on the ground. And this resurrected, ascended, scary Jesus reached out his right hand, touched John and told him not to be afraid.

I love that.  The resurrected, ascended, all-powerful Jesus is still gentle and kind.

Going back to 1st Peter 5, Peter tells us to resist the enemy who wants to destroy us by standing firm in the faith. He tells us that believers all over the world are suffering, and that we too will suffer.  But in the middle of all of that he says that the God of all grace—stop for a moment and think about that phrase—the God of all grace. (Doesn’t sound like a lightning bolt God to me.)— this God of all grace has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. Stop. Think about that phrase too. He has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. Peter continues by telling us that God himself will restore us, and make us strong, firm, and steadfast.

Pastor John taught us this morning that restore means to mend—completely and thoroughly mend us—put us back together, full restoration. He reminded us that healed broken bones become stronger at the point of the break once they are healed. God will heal our broken places and make us strong, he will establish us by setting a new direction for us that realigns us to him. He joins us where we are and takes us someplace new. He will make us firm and steadfast meaning that he will hold us up, he will shore us up, he will put all of our broken pieces back together. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, to walk with Him, to spend time with Him, to believe Him, to trust Him, to follow His lead, and he will mend us along the way.

The apostle John saw the glorified, all powerful Jesus, and it was so awesomely terrifying that he fainted. There is no doubt that scripture teaches about the almighty power of God. But guess what. His power is not against us, it is for us because He is for us. We must recognize the lies of the enemy that seek to destroy us and distance us from God, and replace them with God’s truth backed up by His word and the life of His son, and live from that place.

One more thought—1st Peter 5 tells us that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, but Revelation 5:5 tells us that Jesus is the Lion. The counterfeit lion leads the whole world astray (Rev 12:9); the real Lion leads us into relationship with the God of all grace. Be sober, be alert, know that there is one who wants to devour you, but never forget that he has been defeated by the One who came to save you. Hold on to Truth. He is holding on to you.

To him be the power forever and ever. Amen!”

—Luanne

Luanne wrote that “Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, but Revelation 5:5 tells us that Jesus is the Lion. The counterfeit lion leads the whole world astray…”                     The counterfeit nature of our enemy is not creative. Ingenuity is not his strength. He comes after us the same way every time: as a fake, a fraud, an imitation of the real thing. He is desperately grasping at what he once had-what he can never have again. In 2 Corinthians 11:14, we’re told that he “masquerades as an angel of light”. Oftentimes, he comes to us not in all his evil, hateful nastiness, but as something that looks almost good. He is not a creator-but he is masterful in the art of imitating. If we’re not careful, if we’re not deeply connected to Jesus and focused on Him, we can mistake Satan’s lies as the voice of our Savior. He’s that good at lying, friends.

And he’s not only a liar-he is hateful and he is mean. So mean. If we begin to listen to his voice, we can begin to believe awful things about ourselves, about others and even about God. It made me cry to read my beautiful friend’s list of the lies she’s believed about herself. And I know Luanne’s list is not unique to her. I have a similar list-I’m fairly certain you do, too. The details of our lists are different, but the devil’s purpose is the same: To steal our God-given identities; to kill our purpose, our dreams, our hope, our faith; and to completely and utterly destroy us from the inside out.

So what do we do? How do we defend ourselves against a liar who has perfected his craft? I thought a lot about the first words of the first verse John read to us in his sermon, out of 1 Peter 5:8. The translation Luanne used above tells us to “be alert and of sober mind”. The translation John read used the words “self-controlled and alert”. I rolled the words around in my mind several times as I listened.

To defend against our very real enemy, we must be self-controlled and alert…so how do we do that?

WE don’t. Thankfully, our gracious, loving God didn’t leave us to figure it out on our own. Not only is the incomparably great power that raised Jesus from the dead for us (Ephesians 1:19-20); that very power lives in us (Romans 8:11) in the person of the Holy Spirit. And the self-control we need to have to combat the devils’s scheming in our lives? It is a fruit of that Spirit living within us. We cannot muster up the self-control on our own. Our humanity will fail us if we try to beat our enemy in the flesh. But as vessels that carry the very Spirit of God Himself, we have all of the power of our Risen Savior to draw on, to lean into, to rely on.

Luanne wrote these words above: “If I choose to believe the lies, not only am I cooperating with Satan in my own destruction, I am also focused on myself.  Absorption with self, whether negative or positive is self-worship.” 

Absorption with self can also show itself in our attempts to fight our enemy on our own. Choosing not to draw from the endless well of power that we have access to through the Holy Spirit alive in us, choosing to wage war on our own, is not strength or courage. It is pride and foolishness and a win for our enemy as our focus is, once again, on ourselves.

It is only when we are connected to Jesus through His Spirit that we can even discern the object of our worship. Because it can be disguised so well… We can truly believe we are worshiping God, serving Him, loving Him-but in reality we are worshiping ourselves, serving ourselves and loving ourselves. The evidence that proves the real object of our worship is found on the inside, in the depths of our hearts. Sometimes, we can’t even discern the truth on our own. And so we have to regularly check ourselves. We have to not only stay alert to our enemy’s tactics, but also to the rhythms of our own hearts. How do we do that? We admit that we can’t do it alone and we ask, as the psalmist did:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.                     (Psalm 139:23-24)

The Spirit will reveal truth to our hearts-if we let Him. I am so grateful that we aren’t left alone to defend ourselves against our enemy. I’m grateful that baby Jesus grew up and that the Jesus I worship today is so powerful that His name alone makes demons scatter and flee. I love the tender, kind, gentle Savior He is to me–and–I love being reminded that His power is unmatchable, and totally FOR me and you.

I want to leave you with some words that speak beautifully to the power of our Jesus. We sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” on Sunday. The words to this hymn were penned sometime before 800 AD by an unknown monk. Somewhere in a monastery, during what we refer to as “The Dark Ages”-a time when Scripture was inaccessible to most-someone got it. Someone understood the light, the power, the supremacy of our Jesus and the words had a profound impact on me today:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds and bring us light.

O come, Desire of nations, bind                                                                                                        All peoples in one heart and mind.                                                                                                 Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease                                                                                                      Fill all the world with heaven’s peace.
I pray that Jesus, who ransoms captives, who frees us from Satan’s tyranny and saves us from the depths of hell; Jesus, who gives us victory over the grave, who cheers our spirits, who drives away the dark of night; Jesus, who binds his people as one and destroys the quarreling and chaos and fills us with the peace of His heavenly kingdom–I pray that this Jesus will leave you in awe as you marvel at His power that is for you and alive in you. He is mighty to save us from the schemes of our enemy. Will we give Him the worship He is so worthy of? Will we lift our eyes from the chaos of our enemy and gaze into the face of the conquering lion? Our enemy has already been defeated. Let’s start living like we believe that’s true!

-Laura

Image result for 1 peter 5:10

 

Coming Apart

How do we see Jesus? More specifically, how do we see Jesus when things feel like they’re falling apart? Do we see Him as He desires for us to see Him, or do we create distortions of who He is in light of what we’re going through?

John spoke to us on Sunday about how the apostle John saw Jesus in our series passage out of Revelation:

 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,  and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.     (Revelation 1:12-14)

We learned about the lampstands last week, that they represent seven churches that Jesus had specific messages for. We learned this week that the description of the robe identifies it as a priestly garment. We’ll talk more about that in just a moment. I want to first address the “eyes like blazing fire”.

John emphasized to us that the passage doesn’t say that Jesus had fire in his eyes, just that they were like blazing fire. His eyes were like  whirling, flickering, dancing flames that held the apostle John’s gaze. Just as flames are mesmerizing and captivating, these eyes that John had seen many times before held his attention in a whole new way.

To mesmerize means “to hold the attention of someone to the exclusion of all else or so as to transfix them”.

To captivate is “to seize, capture, influence & dominate by some special charm, art or trait and with an irresistable appeal”.

So, a question for us  is, does Jesus hold our attention to the exclusion of all else? Are we transfixed by gazing into His dancing eyes? Are we captured within His gaze and do we see Him as He is, absolutely irresistable? Or do we see something else? It matters how we see our Jesus…   

Let’s go back to the robe for a bit… John talked about what we picture when we hear the word “priest”. And then he brought up Hebrews 4:14-16:

So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.  So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (NLT)

This passage humanizes Jesus and allows us to think of the word “priest” a little differently. As I listened to this passage, I thought of another-1 Peter 2:9:

“…you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. (NLT)

This passage is talking about us, the family of believers. We are called “priests” in this verse. And when I did a little word study, I found the word translated “priest” in both the Hebrews and 1 Peter passages are linked to the same root word. As Jesus is a priest that understands and sympathizes with our weaknesses and offers mercy, grace and help in our times of need, we are also called priests and we get to offer those same things to the world around us and to one another.

John spoke about the kind of help Jesus offers us through His Holy Spirit. It is not stepping aside and asking Him to simply fix what’s wrong. It is a partnership, working together to take hold of the problem and move it out of the way. Jesus cares about proximity, intimacy. He doesn’t need our help-He could fix all of our problems without us. But He, our High Priest, invites us to partner with Him so that we-the priesthood of believers-can learn from Him and carry Him to others.

Jesus has always been about “withness” and He still is. He didn’t need the twelve disciples in order to carry out His ministry and perform His miracles. He brought them close to Himself to love them, to teach them, to impart Himself to them. So that when the time came for Him to go the Father, He could leave knowing that He could be seen, felt, touched in those He left behind-a priesthood that would carry out the work He started.

Jesus isn’t a High Priest who intercedes from a distance. He doesn’t sit on the outside and judge us when our lives come apart. He doesn’t tell us what we should do to find our own way out. He always, always, always comes down into our mess and works with us until we can get out together. Just as He came down from Heaven to be born as a baby in a dirty manger, He comes to each of us when things are falling apart, when we find ourselves in a mess we can’t see through, a pit we can’t climb out of-and he offers His help. He sets the example of what kind of a priesthood we are to be. Will we follow His lead and get into the mess with those around us, those who need help? Will we let the mesmerizing, captivating, irresistable gaze of Jesus pour through our own eyes as we interact with the world He’s called us to love the way He loves us? What we see in Jesus is reflected in us–how do you see Him?

–Laura

Laura asked us how we see Jesus. There are times that we get wrong impressions of Him. We struggle to fully understand His love, His grace, His compassion, and His “withness”. But when we sit with scripture, take it slowly, soak it in, we come to see that Jesus is truly for us. He became our high priest, not in an aloof, detached, judgemental way, but in a beautiful “I am with you” way. Hebrews 4:15-16, highlighted above, tells us that He is with us, He is for us. We don’t have to hide anything from him. We don’t have to carry anything alone. We don’t have to try to fix ourselves. We don’t have to pretend to be strong. Jesus is in our midst. Jesus is with us. Jesus has tethered himself to us and has told us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. (Mt. 11:30) He has come to help us. And He has given us His Spirit to help us as well. Romans 8:26 words it this way: In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness…

When John pointed out that the word “help” in the Hebrew verse and the Romans verse, is the same “help” used to describe a wife, my mind went to marriage. A husband and a wife are in partnership together. In order for their marriage to work, there has to be “withness”, a belief that they are in this together working toward the same mission is to be with the same goal. The “yoke” will be easy and the burden light if they are headed the same direction, keeping in step with each other, loving each other, and communicating along the way. Laura stated it this way: John spoke about the kind of help Jesus offers us through His Holy Spirit. It is not stepping aside and asking Him to simply fix what’s wrong. It is a partnership, working together to take hold of the problem and move it out of the way. Jesus cares about proximity, intimacy…

Stay with me here for a moment. The church is the bride of Christ. So if “help” in this context means “withness”, do we see ourselves in partnership with Jesus? Think about what it implies that the apostle John saw Jesus, with eyes like blazing fire, among the seven golden lampstands—the seven churches. The groom was in the midst of the bride. Intimate partnership.

Sometimes I get a visual that’s a little hard to put into words, but I’m going to try. Jesus, with His eyes like blazing fire—the dancing, mesmerizing, captivating, drawing us in kind of eyes, is among-he is with-the seven golden lampstands. What I saw in my mind was the reflection of Jesus in the gold of the lampstands, and the reflection of the lampstands in Jesus’ eyes. There is a lot of light happening in this scene, and a lot of reflection. I was reminded that in John 8:12 Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” And in Matthew 5:14 He tell us that we are the light of the world. He tells us that if we walk with Him, we won’t walk in darkness. (Jn 8:12) And our light? It’s Him. It comes through intimacy with Him, proximity to Him, and His light reflects off of us to the world.

Laura pointed out that Jesus is our High Priest, and we, too, are priests in His kingdom, so that we can show others the goodness of God, for he called us out of the darkness into his wonderful light….so that we can let our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven. (1 Pt 2:9, Jn 5:16). No matter what season of life we are in, He is with us, he has called us out of darkness so that we can bring glory to the Father. He can use our coming apart seasons to give others hope and bring glory to God. The question is, will we choose proximity and intimacy with Jesus when things are coming apart? It truly does come down to how we see Him.

So how do we see Him? Is he hard to see? Do we see Him like one who wants to come alongside us, or do we see Him as distant? Do we filter Him through what we’re going through, or do we filter what we’re going through, through Him?

Look at Him. Can you see your reflection in His eyes? Do you see Him clearly? He is with you. Walk with Him and you will not walk in darkness. Yoke yourself to Him and your burden will be light. He is with you, He is holding all things together. (Cl 1:17) He is Emmanuel—the with us God, and He has got you, no matter what you’re going through.

-Luanne

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Overcoming

A number of years ago, my family and I were on a road trip which took us across the state of Kansas. I was driving, everyone else was sleeping, and I was trying to find something to listen to on the radio. As I was scanning through the stations, I caught part of a sermon in which the pastor made the statement: “Jesus is not only Lord and Savior, He is also Treasure.” I was intrigued and interested, and lost the station.  Thirty minutes or so later, I was still scanning through stations and came upon the same message at the same point: “Jesus is not only Lord and Savior, He is also Treasure.” Then I lost that station, but the Lord had my attention.  I began to ponder what it meant to have Jesus as my treasure.

In Revelation chapter 1, the apostle John heard a voice, and when he turned he saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man… Upon reading the passage, we learn that the seven lampstands represent seven churches, and the son of man is Jesus who has positioned himself among, in the midst of, the churches.

Jesus has a message of encouragement for each church, and also a challenge for each one to overcome.

These churches are known for their love, their perseverance in the midst of persecution, their faithful deeds,  their faithfulness in the midst of hardship, their faithfulness in the midst of poverty, their refusal to deny his name, yet each church also has areas of weakness. Ephesus has forsaken Jesus as their first love—their treasure. Smyrna is encouraged to remain faithful even though it’s going to get harder and the persecution is going to increase. Pergamum has allowed some false teaching to infiltrate their church, as has Thyatira. Sardis is asleep, they have let their guard down and stopped doing what they used to. Philadelphia has little strength, and Laodicea is lukewarm, apathetic.

John reminded us in his sermon that this message of the churches can be taken very personally. Each of us who call Jesus our Lord have a lamp to keep lit. Then together, with other lamps we make up our local churches and the capital “C” church that brings light to the darkness all over the world.

Jesus isn’t mad at us, and doesn’t point out these challenges in order to make us feel bad about ourselves. He is encouraging us to hold fast to Him, to love Him first, to let Him be the primary influence in our lives, to get our hearts and our thoughts in line with his heart and his thoughts, to remove influences, even pastoral influences that lead us astray, to test every teaching with His word, to renew our passion, to let go of apathy and live with purpose. And when we do this, the things that He promises to overcomers are beautiful.

John told us that the word “overcome” in this context is an ongoing action and has both athletic and military significance. In the athletic significance, it means to prepare yourself for the bigger challenge—train, and train, and train—engage in such a way as to get stronger.  I think we all recoginize that in the world of athletics, doing nothing makes us weaker and ill-prepared. So taking the personal responsibility as one person to be in the best shape we can be in through daily preparation and training is part of what “overcome” means.

In the military context it means rising up as a group and going after the common enemy. We work together as a team. We don’t face the enemy alone—we are after the enemy together—all of us together after the same enemy.

So as we each prepare ourselves individually to be in the best spiritual shape we can be in, we will collectively be prepared as the body of Christ to be the church that the gates of hell will not prevail against.

I think if we stop and ponder Jesus’ message to the churches, we’ll see things there for us to address, to recognize, to repent of.

Have we as individuals and as a body forsaken Jesus as our first love?  In this world of incredible uncertainty, are we choosing to be faithful to Him, place our hope in Him, even though the days ahead may be even more challenging than they are now? Do we live in media driven fear, or Jesus based hope?

Have we allowed false teaching to infiltrate our churches?  I think this is a big one for us to wrestle with and ask the Holy Spirit to help us see. One easy way to recognize false teaching is figuring out if the message we are hearing would be true in every country in the world. If it elevates any one country, one political party, one race, one ideology, get out your Bible and test to see if it’s true. The message of Jesus transcends country and culture, and it does not pit groups of people against one another. The message of Jesus values all people. Watchman Nee, a Chinese pastor was asked during the Chinese/Japanese war how he should pray. He responded by saying that he would pray in a way that if he were praying with a Japanese believer, they could both say “amen” at the end of the prayer. I am afraid that there is a lot of false teaching that we tolerate in our churches. Jesus is asking us to recognize it, remove it from our midst, and repent.

Are we asleep? Do we just go through the motions, attend church rather than being the church? Are we weak because we choose not to spend time with the Lord? Are we weak because we choose not to allow Him to use our gifts, to stretch us? Are we satisfied with second hand faith that is regurgitated through someone else’s walk with Christ?

Are we apathetic? Not hot, not cold…just nominal—not engaged in community, no passion for the Lord, no passion for His call, no desire to live out our purpose because it might interfere with our personal plans and goals?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus walks among us, among our churches. He is encouraging us as individuals and as church bodies to remove anything that doesn’t belong in our midst—to rid ourselves of influences that pull us away from Him. He gives us opportunity to repent, and promises us incredible things if we choose to do this His way. Jesus and his unadulterated message of love and salvation, his transformational power, and his mission to bring others into the Kingdom  is what church is about. I am the church, you are the church. My light joins with your light and together we push back the darkness. We live to please Him and Him alone. We adopt his heart for the world. We recognize the false teaching of our day by testing it against scripture, we choose to be more influenced by Jesus than by our news sources, our political affiliation, our social media accounts. And how can we do this authentically in a way that is not mere behavior modification (which won’t be lasting)? We ask the Holy Spirit to help us return to our first love, Jesus our savior, Jesus our Lord, Jesus our treasure. Then we discover that He truly is worth giving everything else up for. It’s an “all hands on deck” kind of life. Are you in?

–Luanne

Overcoming is the process of preparation for what’s next—which inevitably includes more overcoming. It’s a stretching that brings growth and change in our lives. With every challenge we overcome, we look a little more like our overcoming Savior who has overcome even death. Every time we overcome, more of His light shines through us and draws a desperate and hurting world one step closer to Jesus’ embrace. This is how we are the light of the world. By living life Jesus’ way-letting go of the rules and religious activity and coming into the presence of Jesus so that we’ll reflect His light, His heart to the world. But it only really works when we do it together. Luanne wrote:

“Each of us who call Jesus our Lord have a lamp to keep lit. Then together, with other lamps we make up our local churches and the capital “C” church that brings light to the darkness all over the world.”

One lamp will scatter the darkness. Darkness has to scatter in the presence of light. But it will only scatter the darkness that’s near it. When we put our lamps together with millions of other lamps around the world, though… we might just find that darkness would cease to exist altogether. I wholeheartedly believe that this has always been Jesus’ desire for His Church. The challenge is: Will we put our lamps together and advance our collective light against the very present darkness of our enemy?

Luanne wrote, “The message of Jesus transcends country and culture, and it does not pit groups of people against one another”. So why do we see, time and time again, people using the “message of Jesus” to do just that, pit us against one another?

John said he can tell what news source people tune into based on the way they talk. The same can be said about what denomination or branch of Christianity we associate with-if we don’t understand and practice Jesus’ way of community. We can find ourselves judging our brothers and sisters who worship differently than we do, making critical statements about other denominations, joking about the displays of faith that we don’t really understand or that make us uncomfortable. We don’t realize that we are biting the bait and ingesting the hook of a critical, proud spirit, and playing right into our enemy’s hands when we do this. We are willingly destroying our family members—and the saddest part may be that we often believe we are doing the right thing, and we begin to see our extended family as enemies. Luanne identified that part of overcoming looks like this:

“We don’t face the enemy alone—we are after the enemy together—all of us together after the same enemy.”

Ephesians 6:12 tells us that, “…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”

Our battles have never been against flesh and blood. But we have taken up weapons against one another instead of facing the real enemy together. What if we understood that the only way to truly overcome, to advance against our common enemy-our only real enemy-is to rise up together? What if we understood that victory never happens in isolation? What if our words didn’t identify us with a particular denomination, but rather with all of our brothers and sisters, all of us members of the big “C” church? That’s the kind of unity Jesus asked for in John 17:21: ”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”.

One of my new favorite authors, Carlos Rodriguez, says it this way:

“We need our Orthodox family. We need our brothers and sisters in the megachurches. We need the underground church in China as well as our Reformed relatives in America. We need one billion Catholics to join hands together with us in solidarity, in prayer, and in service…because I believe that not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together. To learn from each other. To grow with each other. And to stop calling each other the Antichrist.”

This would be a game-changer, friends. If we understood how to overcome as individuals by getting rid of the pollutants from within ourselves and from the outside so that Jesus is what fills us and pours out of us, and then came together as one army-prepared yet always in process-battling the same enemy, we would see the world change. I am certain of it. We have to stop seeing people as the enemy. So that we can take on the real enemy together. And in the process, I bet we would find that all of our different churches have more in common with one another than we think we do. And we would find that with Jesus in our midst, we can overcome our fears of the other, our preferences, our pride, our critical spirits—and actually come to love one another.

Once again, we are faced with a choice. Are we happy living apathetic, lukewarm, burnt out lives that are being influenced by false teaching? Or will we throw off all that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and run with perseverance the race marked out for us? Will we make a stand and set our course to follow Jesus wherever He leads, understanding that continually overcoming is part of the process that creates His likeness in us? And will we have the courage to do it together? To use the light of Him who connects us all to advance against our real enemy and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to our waiting world? I’m in. Are you?

–Laura

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What About Me?

“The gospel isn’t just for abortionists, prostitutes, homosexuals; but for porn-addicted pastors, unconverted elders and self-righteous churchgoers.” -Burk Parsons

“Grace is not just ridiculous, it’s unfair–but somehow the Righteous Judge makes it work. Like the Bible says, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people‘ (Titus 2:11). For you. For me. For them. So (beautifully) unfair.”                                                   -Carlos Rodriguez, Drop the Stones

Michael reminded us this Sunday that the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is actually the story of two sons. Two very different sons who needed the very same grace. They were both consumed with self, as Michael pointed out. The younger with self-discovery, the older with self-salvation.

Michael spent the majority of the message on the older, less talked about son, and how resentment actually kept him from sharing in the heart of the father and the joy of the celebration.

What we don’t often talk about when we discuss this story is how the father had, in essence, lost both sons. One took his inheritance (which the father was under no obligation to give him, by the way, but gave him anyway…) and physically left. The other stayed, but relied upon his own obedience and righteousness, and served from a place of obligation rather than love.

And yet… the heart of the father runs after both sons. He breaks all cultural standards by literally running out to embrace his unclean, broken younger son; and again when he leaves his own party to go out and plead with his angry, entitled older son to come join the celebration. He chooses to go against the acceptable standards of his time and culture in order to display the wild, ridiculousness of grace and the extravagant love of a father toward all of his kids.

Michael said, “We can identify with both brothers at certain points, but we can develop the heart of the father. I think for many of us, we come to Jesus understanding our own “prodigalness”. We come hoping to be accepted-at least accepted enough to be saved-but what we receive is more than simply acceptance-it’s exactly what the younger brother received: sonship. We find ourselves welcomed into the family, as honored, beloved sons and daughters. Sometimes, we are met with the cold shoulder of older brothers among us. And sometimes, once we’re part of the family, we become the older brother. We can become defenders of fairness and righteousness, forgetting that it was the perfect justice–the setting-things-right heart–of our Father, not our own righteousness, that saved us in the first place. We grab onto self-righteousness and forget the extravagant grace that drew us into our Father’s arms. We begin to scream for fairness, forgetting that the grace that bought our salvation was anything but fair. That it was the ultimate unfairness that our perfect, sinless Jesus was murdered so that his murderers could have life.

I think maybe we waffle between identifying with the younger and older sons because we don’t quite understand what we’ve been invited into…

Once we’ve been given sonship, once extravagant grace has drawn us into the family, we no longer have to identify with either brother. Once we’re part of the family, the Father invites us to help Him host the party. To become vessels that carry the same love and grace we’ve received to the lost ones around us and among us. Our identity no longer has to come from which brother we most see ourselves in-it can now be rooted in the Father Himself.

So we get to choose. We get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace. We can choose to celebrate, to enter into Kingdom-minded, grateful, humble service-in the way of Jesus. Or, we can choose to hoard what we’ve received, to buy the deception that we’ve somehow earned our “place”. That we’re somehow entitled to grace. The decision we make matters more than we know. What are we modeling to those who feel unworthy of sonship? To those who have wasted time and money on wild, sinful living? To those who have been deceived by the lie that they can be good enough on their own and have no need for grace? The Father’s heart runs after ALL of His lost sons and daughters. Will we?

–Laura

Laura wrote, we get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace.

I think we all want to respond well, but it doesn’t take too much scrolling through comments on social media or news articles to realize that as a corporate society, we have real problems with grace, and a good bit of that comes from the Christian community.

I love that Michael pointed out that the biblical heading “The Prodigal Son” was a manmade construct. Jesus doesn’t use the word prodigal in the parable, and like Laura pointed out, Jesus begins the story by saying in Luke 15:11 “There was a man who had two sons…”  Going back to the beginning of chapter 15, we see that Jesus is speaking to tax collectors and sinners who were gathering around to hear him, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v2) It is in response to their muttering that Jesus begins to tell the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two sons.

The tax collectors and sinners are drawn to Jesus. They sense his acceptance of them, his embrace, his love.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law are annoyed with Jesus. They can’t stand the fact that he fellowships with tax collectors and sinners, and they constantly criticize him. So in the context of these two groups, Jesus tells the story.

I have been both sons. I was the child who wandered far away, made self-destructive choices, knew that I deserved absolutely nothing, came crawling back to Jesus and he offered me his unfair grace. Where would I be without it! I’m so grateful!

However, knowing that I didn’t deserve that grace, I became performance driven. I was trying to make up for all the years that I’d messed up; therefore,  I wanted to be the perfect Christian.  Things got out of whack on the other end of the spectrum. I was doing a lot of comparing and was judging myself quite harshly. I couldn’t live up to my own standards, was upset with others who couldn’t live up to my standards, and I was pretty darn miserable.

God met me there as well. I was doing a Bible study called “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby, and came to a point in that study where God revealed to me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him on a barter system. “God, I’ll do such and such for you if you’ll guarantee me some things…”. Some of those things  were not dying while my children were young (like my mom did), not getting cancer, always having John to take care of me, that nothing bad would happen to my kids, financial security, and the like. God was very gentle, but very direct and said to me, “Suffering is part of living in a fallen world, but I am with you, I will always be with you, and I love you. You have to surrender and trust me if you’re not going to stay stuck.”

Can I just say, ugh!!  I knew He was right, and I didn’t like it. Michael said in his sermon that the older brother tried to control the father through his obedience and righteousness. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to control God. I wouldn’t have worded it that way, but that was it exactly.  I wish I could tell you that I surrendered in that moment, but it took about ten days of wrestling, not sleeping, not eating, and not wanting to do life God’s way with no guarantees other than He loves me, and He is with me. I really wanted Him to do it my way, but was finally exhausted and gave in. And when I gave in, the peace that flooded my life and the joy were indescribable. The burden of obligation was lifted and my relationship with Him has been real, and relevant, and growing, and powerful since that time. Some life crushing events have happened since that Bible study 25 years ago, and He has shown me over and over that He is God and He is enough.

Like the older son, I learned that obedience out of obligation and moral conformity leads to resentment. I feel like that’s where a lot of society lands right now, and resentment makes us mean.  So while we’re refusing to join the celebration, the Father comes to us and says, “will you surrender wanting to do this your way?”  He invites us to the feast.

When we live in the mindset of the older brother, our relationship with the Father becomes about us. He says to his father in verse 29…”all these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!” The emphasis is all on himself, what he thinks he deserves, what he thinks he’s entitled to,  and what he thinks his brother is not entitled to.

And the father gently reminds him that he has always been with him, that everything he owns is shared with his son, and then says, “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.” (31)

In John 10:10, Jesus tells us that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but that He has come to give us life to the full. And in Luke 19:10, Jesus tells us that He has come to seek and save the lost.

Both sons have lived on the thief side of John 10:10. The youngest son has returned and is experiencing the Jesus side of that verse.  And the Father has demonstrated Luke 19:10 to both sons. He ran to the youngest, and has gone out to the oldest.

He is offering his oldest son grace. Grace to come in, to participate in the celebration, to be part of the rejoicing in heaven because a sinner has repented and come home.  He is offering his oldest the chance to also repent and come home. Jesus leaves us hanging at the end of the story. We don’t know what the oldest son decides. The Pharisees and teachers of the law have heard the story with their ears. Have they heard it with their hearts? Have we?

The Father stands in the middle between both sides, the broken, fallen, destitute son, and the self-righteous son and says “come”.  May we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as He works to develop  the heart of the Father in us, so that we can set aside “fair” and fully embrace the world with His unfair grace and love.

—Luanne

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