The Lord’s Prayer #1

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name, 
thy kingdom come, 
thy will be done, 
on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those
who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, 
and the power, and the glory, 
for ever and ever. Amen.
I assume that most of us, regardless of our various upbringings, are familiar with some version of the prayer known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The above rendition is probably the most common. What is your experience with this famous prayer? Is it part of your prayer life? Did you memorize it as a child? What does it mean to you? We will spend three weeks diving deeply into this prayer that Jesus gave his followers as he taught them how to pray–it will form and teach us, if we let it.
On Sunday, Pastor John shared that this prayer defines and explains what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount. We find it in Matthew 6:9-13, right after Jesus talks about what not to do when we pray. Here is that section again, to refresh our memories:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:5-8)
After talking through prayer practices that he does not endorse, Jesus says,

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-10)

These twenty-two words are the focus of this week’s message. The rest of the prayer will be covered over the next two weeks. I am grateful we’re taking it slowly through this section of the sermon on the mount. There is so much to explore, to discuss, to thoughtfully consider within these words. We have an opportunity to look more deeply into what might be very familiar to us, an opportunity to hear the words in a new way. If we lean in with open hearts and minds, seeking to learn and be transformed, we will not be disappointed with what we discover. It is my favorite thing about scripture, the way the Spirit comes into the words and brings them to life in fresh, new ways, revealing more than we had seen before.

On a personal note, this prayer has been a key part of my own prayer life for several years. Ever since the concept of “the kingdom” became a focal point of my journey with Jesus, praying “Your kingdom come…” has become an important part of my life. I don’t know that I thought much about it or what it meant when I was younger. It was actually Luanne who brought it to my attention. As she was captivated by this kingdom Jesus brought to earth, and began to share what she was learning, I was captivated also. If you read this blog often, it’s not news to you that both of us are still quite captivated by the kingdom and what kingdom living looks like for Jesus’ followers today–we write about it probably more than any other topic we cover.

Here’s the thing about what I just shared… Though this prayer has become a key daily component of my own prayer life, there is still more for me to discover in these five verses. There is more treasure to mine in these twenty-two words that Pastor John walked us through on Sunday. I love that. I never want any part of scripture to become stale or commonplace to me. I want to keep digging in, to continue to learn and ask for Holy Spirit revelation to breathe fresh, new life into ancient words. There is always more. As evidence to my point, I have wrestled with what to focus on in my portion of this week’s post. There are so many directions to go! One thing Pastor John highlighted stood out to me above the rest, though, so that’s where I’ll spend my time here.

Something I’ve been learning a lot about for the last couple of years is dualistic versus non-dualistic thinking. It’s especially intriguing to me when I look at the ways that dualism has slithered into western, evangelical Christianity, specifically here in the United States. I understand dualism to be either/or, black and white, this or that ways of thinking. It can lead to an us versus them mindset and often divides rather than unites.

Non-dualism, on the other hand, embraces the both/and, and that way of thinking and relating allows us to be comfortable living in the tension of the and. It allows us to think more broadly, more collectively. It connects rather than divides. But non-dualism leaves things a little undefined. To embrace non-dualistic ways of thinking, we have to learn to embrace mystery, to get comfortable with not having all the answers, to allow ourselves to be led beyond our comfort zones. Non-dualism asks us to consider ways of thinking that challenge our previous understanding. I believe breaking free of dualistic thinking is an essential part of growing in our walks with Jesus.

Pastor John introduced two concepts in this week’s passage where, in his words, “Jesus breaks the dualism.” 

The first is in our understanding of how prayer is meant to be handled. Jesus has just finished talking about prayer being something that ought to be done in private, between us and God, not for show… But this prayer focuses on “us”, right? So it’s not an individual prayer? But it’s meant to prayed as a private, individual prayer?

For those of us who have been raised in some version of westernized Christianity, it’s likely we have a very individualized approach to our faith and our prayers. Much of the teaching we grew up with probably focused on our personal relationships with God and our prayer lives probably reflect that.

What Jesus is teaching us in this passage is how to pray individually and collectively simultaneously. We can pray privately, but our focus is not on ourselves. We’ve written a lot about how early Christianity was communal in nature. We have moved so far away from that in our individualism that even praying the way Jesus teaches may not naturally make sense to us. Other cultures who embrace a more community-focused way of life probably aren’t challenged the same way some of us are when reading Jesus’ instructions. It’s so important that we notice and pay attention to the ways our either/or thinking invades even our study of scripture.

Jesus invites us–by beginning this “personal” prayer with the word “our”–to move away from dualism. He does so again in the way he presents God in his opening words. He says, “Our Father,” including all of us in his own father/son relationship with the God of the heavens,”the universe, the world, the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it” (Strong’s Greek Lexicon). He continues, “…hallowed is your name.” Hallowed means set apart, most holy, above all. 

So in the opening line of the prayer, Jesus identifies God as our collective, personal father, that we–along with Jesus–are in intimate relationship with, and identifies him also as entirely set apart, above all, distinctly holy. So, in which way do we relate to our God? The answer is: both. Right away, Jesus invites his listeners to enter into a new understanding of how to relate with God. Is he our father that we are intimately connected to, or is he altogether set apart, holy, different from all others? Yes. The answer is not an or, but an and.

It matters that Jesus addresses these things right away. It will serve us well to pay attention to what he is revealing. Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The entire sermon on the mount up to this point has been teaching us what it looks like to be kingdom-people, beginning with our hearts. In this prayer, Jesus moves our understanding further–beyond heart change and into a community-focused space, where our prayers are transformed as our hearts come into alignment with the kingdom he is introducing.

Where do the opening lines of this famous prayer find us? Where do Jesus’ words land in our minds and hearts? Have we prayed individually with a collective focus? What might Jesus be wanting to transform in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to praying? I look forward to following where Jesus is leading us together, as we continue to explore his words.

–Laura

As Laura wrote above,  I have been captivated by the kingdom of heaven coming to earth for years now. She and I were trying to remember how many years ago my obsession with The Kingdom here and now began–at least eight or nine. I can’t remember what sparked that flame, but even as I write about it now, my heart burns within me and my fingers tingle as I type. I believe that understanding God’s desire to establish his kingdom on earth, right here and right now, is the key to understanding what Christianity is all about.

Laura set us up beautifully for the Kingdom words Jesus taught us when she wrote: Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into.

A both/and understanding is imperative. Pastor John pointed out that we waffle back and forth between God as our Abba–our daddy, our father and God as the Holy One, the Almighty who is powerful and therefore, (in our minds) sometimes scary. Jesus combines the two…God is close– intimacy with God is possible, and God is Almighty and Holy and completely “other”.
Once we have this understanding, the rest of the prayer makes more sense to us. So here we go. The next fourteen words say: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Full stop. Read it again. Pray it again. This is God’s desire for earth. 
I don’t know how we miss this, and I missed it for a lot of years; however, a close reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God on earth more than any other subject. It was his priority, and he embodied what it looked like in the flesh. In the Sermon on the Mount he is teaching those willing to hear, what Kingdom people look like.
Quick recap: He saw the crowds, went up the mountain, sat down and began to teach.
He started with the beatitudes–this is what my people will look like: Compare the beatitudes to Philippians chapter 2…have this mind (attitude) in you which was also in Christ Jesus…) 
Next: My followers will be salt and light in the world.
Then a reinterpretation of the law that focuses on our hearts and our treatment of others: You’ve heard it said…but I say…  
And then the three when you statements: When you give… when you pray… when you fast…
Right in the middle of those statements, this private prayer, prayed from the position that “I” am part of the “we”, that focuses on God’s will for the entire earth, is taught.
What are we praying when we pray Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
I was introduced to an expanded version of The Lord’s Prayer through Word of Life church in St. Joseph, Missouri, that clears it up. In that expanded version, this portion of The Lord’s Prayer says:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy government come, thy politics be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy reign and rule come, thy plans and purposes be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
May we be an anticipation of the age to come.
May we embody the reign of Christ here and now.
This is the deep cry of my heart. God’s kingdom, not ours. God’s will, not ours. God’s government, not ours. God’s politics, not ours. God’s reign and rule, not ours. God’s plans and purposes, not ours. God is the only One who can establish God’s kingdom, yet it has everything to do with us and our understanding of God’s sovereignty and desire for intimacy with us.
God’s kingdom comes through us–through our relationship with God. God is here. Your will be done is what God’s kingdom coming looks like–it comes as we do God’s will.
This is where we struggle. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts as we ask ourselves am I aligning my life with God’s will?  In our individualistic thinking we ask God, what is your will for my life? That’s the wrong question. The right question is God, what is your will?  Period. And then we align ourselves with God’s will.
Jesus is the best example of this. How does Jesus relate to God? He models constant intimacy. Jesus never goes rogue…he does only what he sees the Father doing. (John 5:19). And he tells us to stay connected to him: I am the vine, you (all) are the branches, if you (all) remain in me and I in you (all); you (all) will bear much fruit. (John 15:5). All of those pronouns in the Greek are plural.
What fruit will we bear? The fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)
We are a people who are to be known for those characteristics.
you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation (a kingdom), 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.
 Where is the kingdom? (Jesus) was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he gave them this reply: “The kingdom of God never comes by watching for it. Men cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’, or ‘there it is’, for the kingdom of God is inside you. (Luke 17:20-21 J.B. Phillips)
And to quote Jesus from this very sermon:  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  (Mt. 5:14-15)
The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. 
To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected to the vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. In the New Testament we see that the Romans prioritized Rome, the Jews prioritized Israel, the Samaritans prioritized Samaria, etc. I’m a citizen of the USA, and I lived in Brazil for a decade. Should I prioritize those countries? If so, which one? No to all of this. When we follow Jesus, we become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Earthly kingdoms have to take a back seat to this.
The Apostle Paul understood this and he wrote:
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.  In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us...Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. (Col. 3: 10,11-13 NLT)

What categories do you suppose Paul might highlight if he were writing today? Think about it and repent where you need to. (I’m doing the same.)

Citizens of the kingdom of heaven, during the reign and rule of Rome, were beaten, imprisoned, persecuted, falsely accused, killed. They sang in prison, counted it joy to be persecuted for following Jesus, were scattered to other countries as a result of persecution and took the love of Jesus with them, they died in such a way (sometimes in arenas in front of crowds) that they created a holy curiosity about who Jesus was. Their priority was God’s kingdom, and sometimes they paid a high (earthly) price for living that way. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

N. T. Wright in his book “God and the Pandemic” writes: ...the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’…it’s about mission….God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort….When people look out on the world and its disasters…they ask…why doesn’t he send a thunderbolt…and put things right?…God does send thunderbolts–human ones.  He sends in the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people…They will use their initiative; they will see where the real needs are, and go to meet them. They will weep at the tombs of their friends. At the tombs of their enemies. Some of them will get hurt. Some may be killed. That is the story of Acts, all through. There will be problems…but God’s purpose will come through. These people, prayerful, humble, faithful, will be the answer…

Where, you may be asking, does personal salvation fit into all of this? Rich Villoda’s, in his soon to be published book The Deeply-Formed Life writes:

Eldon Ladd, in his short but seminal book on the gospel of the kingdom, wrote, “The gospel must not only offer a personal salvation in the future life to those who believe; it must also transform all of the relationship of life here and now and thus cause the Kingdom of God to prevail in all the world.” At the core of the gospel, then, is the “making right” of all things through Jesus. In Jesus’s death and resurrection, the world is set on a trajectory of renewal, but God graciously invites us to work toward this future. However, this work is not an individual enterprise; it is one orchestrated by the collected efforts of a new family…” (Emphasis mine)

A new family.

Our Father…Abba’s Kingdom…Abba’s will…on Earth…through us.

–Luanne

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When You Fast…

When you fast, don’t look like those who pretend to be spiritual. They want everyone to know they’re fasting, so they appear in public looking miserable, gloomy, and disheveled. Believe me, they’ve already received their reward in full. When you fast, don’t let it be obvious, but instead, wash your face and groom yourself and realize that your Father in the secret place is the one who is watching all that you do in secret and will continue to reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:16-18 TPT)

When you give to the needy…

When you pray

When you fast

Giving, praying, fasting–three pillars–equal weight–each necessary for Kingdom people–each to be done privately; not for show–each delightful to God’s heart.

This week, in our Sermon on the Mount series, fasting is the subject. I don’t know about you, but in my church upbringing, there was not a great emphasis placed on fasting. I’d heard of it but it was not part of my faith practice. Interestingly though, it was part of my dad’s faith practice and he was my pastor. Maybe I just checked out when the subject came up because I didn’t understand what fasting was about and I didn’t really want to fast. Who knows? However, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is part of following. Fasting is part of being formed into the image of Christ. Fasting is being an imitator of Christ.

As we’ve pointed out, all of the “when you” statements of Jesus, (giving, praying and fasting) were practices in the early church.

In the Antioch church we learn that while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13: 2-3). 

In Acts 14 we learn Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Throughout the history of God’s people, we see that fasting was a given.

In the Old Testament:

The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement as they humbled themselves, repented of their sins, and sought God’s forgiveness. (Lev. 23: 27-28)

Moses fasted (twice) for forty days on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving divine revelation from God. (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9-10:10)

Daniel fasted for twenty-one days and at the end of that time received a revelation from God regarding Israel’s future. (Dan. 10)

Hannah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, King Jehosaphat, David, and others are said to have fasted personally and/or led the nation in a fast.

In the New Testament:

The Prophet Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  She recognized the infant Jesus and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:37-38)

Jesus fasted forty days before he entered public ministry (Mt 4: 1-11).

The early church fasted.

And, it’s clear in this week’s passage, that Jesus is not asking us to fast, but is giving us guidelines to follow when we fast.

So what happened? Where did fasting go?

According to the C. S. Lewis Institute:  In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works-oriented. 

Centuries after the reign of Constantine,  we find ourselves rather anemic when it comes to fasting. We don’t understand it and it’s not part of our regular spiritual practice, and I’m afraid that many times when we do enter a fast, it’s because we want God’s attention and want him to do something for us–in other words, the fast becomes “me” focused rather than God-focused.

What if we were able to shift our focus a bit and come to see fasting as one of the ways that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Pastor John reminded us that fasting is removing anything from our lives that has shifted our focus away from God, and making God our priority. Fasting is maybe the greatest way to realign our lives and remind ourselves that God is our priority.

So what do we do? How do we recalibrate?  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things… (Ph. 3: 18-19)

First, we must recognize what earthly things have captured our attention. Is it food, social media, the news, binge-watching TV shows, exercise, energy-boosting substances, addictive substances? What do we seek for comfort? What is it that we think we can’t live without? What habits have captured our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Are any of these things providing deep soul satisfaction? Are any of them leading to spiritual growth and a deep spiritual life–a deep connection with God?

If we look at the result of many biblical fasts, vision for leadership, for ministry, hearing the voice of God, recognizing God, connecting with God, returning to God, missionary vision, church leadership vision, intimacy with God, unity, and God’s desires being fulfilled were the result of God-focused fasts. Do we want that?

In the C. S. Lewis Institute quote above, we learn that part of what happened to the spiritual discipline of fasting is that worldliness and institutionalism entered the church. They’ve never left and have been detrimental. Another thing that I believe has been detrimental to the church is the emphasis on individualism. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

 You are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world. (1 Pt. 2:9 TPT)

Each of the three pillars Jesus addresses has to do with kingdom building and our heart attitude, (as does the entire Sermon on the Mount). Intimacy with God matters. A “secret” life with God matters. It is in the secret place that God can do his deepest work in us. We are transformed in the secret place. It is in making God our priority that we learn to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s in the secret place that we become more than church-attenders, we become kingdom-people. It’s not about legalism. It’s not about trying to manipulate God to conform to our will. It’s not about looking spiritual to others. It’s not about going through the motions. It’s about our hearts; it’s about us; it’s about others; it’s about God’s heart and God’s desire for all humankind–and yes, our Father, who sees in secret will reward us.

As I close, let’s check our hearts as we ponder excerpts from Isaiah 58. Let’s allow the Lord to mess in our business a little bit. Even when it’s uncomfortable, His desire is for our good.

Daily they seem to seek me, pretending that they delight to know my ways, as though they were a nation that does what is right and had not rejected the law of their God. They ask me to show them the right way, acting as though they are eager to be close to me. They say, ‘Why is it that when we fasted, you did not see it? We starved ourselves and you didn’t seem to notice.’

“Because on the day you fasted you were seeking only your own desires, and you continue to exploit your workers. During your fasts, you quarrel and fight with others…

Do you think I’m impressed with that kind of fast? Is it just a day to starve your bodies, make others think you’re humble, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

“This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Remove the heavy chains of oppression!
Stop exploiting your workers!
Set free the crushed and mistreated!
Break off every yoke of bondage!
Share your food with the hungry!
Provide for the homeless
and bring them into your home!
Clothe the naked!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
Then my favor will bathe you in sunlight until you are like the dawn bursting through a dark night.

 

Let’s give. Let’s pray. Let’s fast. Let’s recalibrate and let go of earthly things by making God our focus and priority. Let’s meet God in the secret place and allow God to love the world through us as he changes us in that place.

–Luanne

Vision for leadership

Vision for ministry

Hearing the voice of God

Recognizing God

Connecting with God

Returning to God

Missionary vision

Church leadership vision

Intimacy with God,

Unity

God’s desires being fulfilled

These are what Luanne listed as the results of God-focused fasts in scripture. Then she asked us a simple question,

“Do we want that?”

Our answers will reveal the condition of our hearts, and whether we actually want to live according to kingdom values… or whether we just like saying that we do.

What is it that you want? What do I want? What do we, collectively, want? What do we think we need? What do we believe we can’t live without? Can we answer these questions honestly? If we can’t answer honestly with our words, the way we live our lives will answer for us. The way we pray… What we give our money to… If, how, and why we fast… these will reveal our hearts and our priorities. Period. Even if we try to appear holy in these areas, our motives will be found out. God knows, of course, but the people around us will find us out, too, if they haven’t already.

If we give begrudgingly, or out of a place of obligation; if our giving is not a passionate response to Jesus’ life within us, an embodiment of his kingdom in our day-to-day lives, it will be evident. If we pray in showy ways with a goal of being seen and applauded for our holiness, and we don’t connect with God in a personal way, our own extravagant but empty prayers will betray us. And if we fast to be seen and acknowledged, to barter with or coerce God to do what we want, if we make it about ourselves rather that prioritizing God’s place in our lives, our fasting is nothing more than an attempt at a transaction, an exchange of services.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is filling my mind as I type. I wasn’t planning to go there, but I think I see where this is heading, so please come along with me…

 If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value…

This passage speaks to getting it all right on the outside. Speaking in the tongues of angels, having access to supernatural knowledge and the very secrets of God, living with mountain-moving faith, giving everything for those in need, dying as a martyr–even these extreme displays of faithfulness and commitment are utterly meaningless if our heart motives are not grounded in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

I don’t know how that hits you, but for me, this passage is hard. It’s humbling. It’s a serious heart-check.

I think it’s exactly why fasting–the kind that Jesus desires–is an essential part of our journey with God.

If I had access to the stores of God’s supernatural knowledge, if I were granted understanding of spiritual profundities, if I gave everything I have for the poor–I would probably think my priorities were in order. But here’s the thing… Even the very best things can fill God’s place in our hearts and lives. And it can happen in subtle ways, ways we aren’t even aware of until we set aside some time to get honest with ourselves and choose to take a step back from whatever has been distracting us.

The distractions can be so hard to identify when they seem like good things, when they look like good fruit. But good fruit grows when our roots are planted in the soil of the kingdom and when our branches are both nourished and pruned by the Gardener. Then and only then can we live out the kind of fast that Isaiah 58 outlines. Chains are loosed, injustice is reversed, the hungry are fed, the broken are restored, the lonely are loved, the world is set right only when we ourselves become an outpouring of the kingdom life that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount. There is no other way for Shalom, for restoration, for wholeness to come.

Fasting, in our most basic understanding is abstaining from food. In the Greek, that is the definition. The earliest definition I found in the Hebrew for the word “fast”, the primitive root, means to cover over, or shut the mouth. Working with that definition, ponder something with me…

When we fast, we are abstaining from food, our source of nourishment. We do this to prioritize God. What if we took it even more literally? What if we look at fasting as abstaining from food in order to feast on the flesh of Jesus? Not in some gross, cannibalistic way. But so that his flesh, his being, his way of being in the world, becomes our flesh as we feed on him and all that he is?

Oswald Chambers said,

“God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ; He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (emphasis mine)

From Henri Nouwen,

“. . . We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.”

And Mother Teresa spoke these words:

“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.'”

Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus as our primary source of nourishment–this is how we, as kingdom-people, embody the One we follow.

What if when we fast, we ask Jesus to do this? To come into our very flesh, that he might be made manifest within us? What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth.

I’ll ask Luanne’s question one more time…

Do we want that?

–Laura

Hungering For God (Matthew 6:16-18) — Saraland Christians

Sermon on the Mount: When You Pray

We are in the second week of a mini-series within our series–the three “When you…” statements Jesus made in the sermon he taught on the mount. Luanne introduced us to all three last week before she expanded on giving, the first topic Jesus addressed. Here is a snippet of what she wrote to refresh our memories:

“Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… (Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting. So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.”

Pastor John spent a few minutes on Sunday articulating that while Jesus spoke first about giving, then praying, then fasting, the order doesn’t indicate priority. All three pillars are important. If we leave one out, we cannot fully understand the other two. I think in pictures a lot, so as he spoke to us, I pictured a triangular platform balanced on three pillars. If one pillar is removed, the whole structure tumbles. That’s a pretty obvious conclusion to draw. But what if one is beefed up, reinforced, well taken care of, while one (or both) of the others is neglected? The corner supported by the maintained pillar may be strong and for a while the whole structure may appear to be in good shape. But, eventually, the weaker supports will begin to sag and give way, collapsing the whole thing–including the part that felt strong. An equal emphasis is necessary in our application of these three principles if we want to live a healthy, fruitful, kingdom-driven life. In order to apply them effectively, we have to first understand them.

Luanne explained beautifully Jesus’ instructions about giving last week. That post is linked in the first paragraph above if you missed it. This week, our focus is prayer. Our passage is Matthew 6:5-8:

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” (The Message)

Pastor John shared with us about the prominence of prayer in ancient Judaism. There are prayers that were (and still are, for some devout Jews) prayed at specific times throughout the day, and many shorter prayers that were integrated into their daily lives. History tells us that, in ancient Judaism, followers were committed to prayer. When we think about religions that emphasize prayer today, we might think of Islam and the way that many Muslims integrate times of prayer into their daily lives.

But what will history say about prayer as it relates to Christianity? John asked us.

Hmm. Good question, right? Jesus modeled prayer many times during his earthly ministry. And as Luanne’s words from last week reminded us, the early church was committed to prayer. But what about now? What about us, today? What does our prayer life look like–individually as well as in our homes, our churches, our communities?

Pastor John identified that many of us pray three times each day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If we’re not too uncomfortable to do so… If we’re honest, how many of us can say that we have a prayer life that goes deeper than that?

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may recall that my history with the Church and with God is a bit complicated. My home life was also challenging in many ways. However, my Mom’s unwavering faith set an example for me that still impacts my walk with Jesus today. Her example, especially in the area of prayer, is a gift that I am deeply grateful for.

I was not always a fan of her prayer life, though. I found it a bit embarrassing and idealistic, even a little silly at times. She prayed about everything. Literally. Everything. A break in traffic to make a left turn… A parking spot at the mall on a rainy day… A good clearance find at the store when money was tight… A short line when the schedule was tight… She would pray short, conversational prayers–out loud, of course–about all of these things. And I would roll my eyes and hide a little–especially if my friends were with us. She simply talked to God. All throughout her day. It was as natural as breathing to her. I may have been annoyed in my adolescence… but I heard her. I heard other prayers, too, spoken in the same conversational way, every day that I spent with her. Prayers like:

I need a miracle to pay this bill this month, when she was working three jobs and raising my brother and I alone.

Please let me live long enough to see my kids graduate, when she was wrestling with the terminal illness she’d been diagnosed with.

Give me your grace to forgive…again, as she grieved the betrayal and rejection of her husband.

Will you give me the gift of a friend? And a husband who will love me? I’m so lonely…, as she dealt with feeling isolated and alone.

Draw my kids’ hearts to you, heal their hurts, be their Father, she prayed for us repeatedly, especially as we grew into adulthood.

I want to live for Your Glory, whether here or in heaven, as she wrestled with her failing health.

In addition to prayers like these, she prayed for other people constantly. Her name was Constance–everyone called her Connie–and she lived out the meaning of her name. She was constant, consistent, committed. I was recently reminiscing about her with Luanne, and remarking about how great she was at connecting with others, how she was the best at being a good friend. If she said she would pray for someone, she meant it. She’d usually do it right there, wherever “there” happened to be, and however uncomfortable it made my brother and I in our younger years. She would also write their names in her prayer journal. I don’t think she missed one day of prayers over those names until her last couple of days on this earth with us. On her most pain-filled days, when breath was most elusive, I’d often catch her praying more, spending hours with her journal, loving so many people through her conversations with her God.

I didn’t know it at the time, but her example was forming the woman I would become. Somewhere along the way, I started talking to Jesus about everything, too. Even the “silly” things that used to make me roll my eyes at my mom. We have a running conversation, he is part of my days, my hours, minutes–because I had an example to follow that was real. Not showy, not performative. Authentic, continuous, even quirky and quaint at times–but it wasn’t for anyone else. Mom’s ongoing conversation with God was both evidence of the deep relationship she had with him and the way that she remained connected to him. She was aware of her deep need for his presence in every area of her life, so she made talking with and listening to him a priority.

I didn’t know how formative her example would be. Here are some of the ways I pray throughout my days now…

Exclamations of gratitude when I’m in nature and the beauty fills me with wonder and delight.

In my car, imagining Jesus in the seat next me, conversing about whatever is going on that day.

Silent pleas for wisdom as I navigate hard conversations with my kids–or friends in crisis–and don’t know what to say.

In the middle of worship, between song lyrics, whispering prayers for the Spirit to bubble and flow all around.

Requests for patience and a facial expression that doesn’t betray my frustration when dealing with other imperfect and sometimes impossible humans like myself…

Prayers that I will have a tender, listening heart, and be present in the moments ahead while I’m on my way to meet a friend. 

Requests for wisdom around how to help in some way as I drive through town and see people in hard situations.

Do I also pray about breaks in traffic, good deals, and other “silly” things, like my mom did?

Yes. Yes I do.

Because when talking with Jesus is woven into every aspect of your life, there’s no area you don’t invite him into. It’s like finding that friend that becomes your person–the one you feel safe enough with to be silly, speak the truth, express deep emotion, share everything. My mom had that kind of friendship with God. And it was evident in her prayers.

It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk with God in these ways. I referred to my Mom’s example as formational in my life. And it was, and is. But there is so much more to prayer than the friendly, conversational way we can engage in it. There is a depth that comes with more structured prayers, and I want to touch on that briefly before I wrap up…

I am still fairly new in my experience with using a liturgy for prayer. But, friends, it is transforming my prayer life. I virtually attended a prayer conference led by Pastor Brian Zahnd in May, and I’ve been using portions of the morning prayer liturgy he shared with us these last couple of months. It is powerful to pray some of those prayers day after day and see the ways God moves through them. The prayers prepare my heart to encounter my God in a deeper way. And I am being formed as I lean into prayers that have been around for a long, long time. There was a time I thought of these prayers as rigid, outdated, void of life. Not anymore.

Pastor Brian said, regarding this liturgical way of praying, “Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. It’s true or false. What’s alive or dead is the person praying.”

He shared with attendees that the word liturgy comes from the Greek liturgeo, which means “worship, the work of the people.” I love that. Liturgy is the work of the people, it’s worship. It was such a shift of perspective for me.

Zahnd also said, “Prayer is like a trellis for a vine to ascend–a structure so that which is alive can ascend. . . We must surrender ourselves to prayers that are wiser than we are.”

Prayer forms us. However shallow or deep our prayer life, it is forming us. What is our goal as we pray? Do we want to be seen, applauded, rewarded for our devout ways? Or are we content to be seen by God in the secret places, and to experience the reward of seeing–and being satisfied in–him? My mom’s prayer in the secret place spilled into her daily life. I was blessed that her conversations with God splashed into my consciousness. But she was never praying to be seen by me. She was unknowingly modeling a consistent relationship with God. I don’t walk around town proclaiming the liturgy I am adapting into my prayer life, but it is forming me as well, it is changing me. An honest, consistent prayer life will do that. Once again, as we’ve discussed throughout this whole series, Jesus’ focus is on what is happening within our hearts. What is happening in our hearts as we pray? What changes might we need to make in our prayer lives?

–Laura

I love Laura’s testimony of prayer–how her mother modeled a vibrant, ongoing prayer life, and how Laura (despite her adolescent embarrassment), has adopted a similar approach. I also like her move toward a more liturgical practice as part of her prayer life. I attended the same online prayer seminar, and am experiencing a deeper, richer more profound prayer experience than at any other time in my life through that practice.

We’ll revisit that in a bit, but for a moment, let’s return to this week’s scripture. Laura used The Message paraphrase above…I love it–especially this portion: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

Peri Zahnd, during the prayer seminar, shared these words: “Our work is bringing more of ourselves, not more of our words.” Think about that. What would it look like to bring more of ourselves to our prayer time–to be in God’s presence as simply and honestly as we can be?

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus, in this portion of his sermon, was actually pushing back against what had become a fairly common practice. The NIV translation of Matthew 6:5 words it like this: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… 

As Laura pointed out, in the Jewish faith, praying three times a day was a normal practice. Three times a day they were called to prayer. Their lives revolved around prayer. However, some of the leaders in Jesus’ day had lost the heart of the matter and were more concerned about being “seen” as devout than about actually being devout. Jesus addressed this issue more directly in Matthew 15:8 when he said to the Pharisees,You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'”

Or this parable from Luke 18:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus was pushing back against this practice of self-righteous, look at how holy I am, praying.

Has anyone besides me done anything for show? True confession time: I went to a Christian college. For many students, going to church on Sunday was a given. I was still doing a fairly decent job of getting away with my double-life living, and rarely went to church on Sunday. However, I lived in the dorm and ate in the dining hall, so on Sundays I would sleep in, but would get up in time to dress in my Sunday best as though I had been to church before I heading to the dining hall. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a heathen. Good grief! That’s pretty much the definition of a hypocrite–a role player–an actor.

Back to The Message: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.

Such beautiful, simple, inviting instructions.

My own prayer journey has been complicated. Being the pastor’s daughter as I was growing up, meant that I was often called on to pray in Sunday School, or youth group. I hated it. When God didn’t heal my mother of cancer, I was pretty convinced prayer didn’t work, so I’d go through seasons where I didn’t pray at all until I wanted God to get me out of whatever crisis I was in–the messes I’d gotten myself into.  Or, I wanted him to change someone else.

As I got older, my prayer life still went through cycles. I wanted to be more consistent, to pray more deeply, to hear from God, but I just wasn’t getting there. I read numerous books about how to pray. I tried various formulas. But it seemed like my prayers always cycled back into being very “me” focused.

During the prayer seminar, Pastor Zahnd said that we typically pray out of our own pathology. To be pathological means (of a person) unreasonable, or unable to control part of his or her own behavior. (dictionary.cambridge.org) That has been true of my prayer life; but at the seminar we learned “The primary purpose of prayer is not to try to get God to do what we think God ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed.”

When the idea of adding liturgy to my prayer time was brought up, I pushed back. It felt impersonal to me, until Zahnd pointed out that Jesus had a prayer book–the Psalms. Hmmmm. Good point. I’m sure that in addition to the Psalms, Jesus also prayed the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions…the title given to the central prayer which is said three times a day by all observant Jews. It is also known as the Shemoneh Esreh (‘Eighteen‘), the Tephillah (‘Prayer‘), or the ‘Ami. dah (‘standing’) because one stands to say this prayer. (The Journal of Theological Studies)

Jesus prayed written prayers. Hmm. As Laura wrote above, liturgy is not dead (as I had assumed). It’s neutral. The life in the liturgy comes from the heart, mind, and soul attitude of the one praying the liturgy.

So, for the last couple of months I’ve been praying liturgically. The structure I am praying includes prayers that have been around for a long time, scripture including The Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the Beatitudes, a short gospel passage and a Psalm.  There are moments of intercession, prayer for family, a prayer of confession, and sitting quietly with Jesus. The famous prayer of St. Francis (Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace…) is part of it. Many of the written prayers address each person of the Trinity. Most of them are communal and global in nature. In truth, it felt clunky at first, but as I returned morning after morning; as I began memorizing; I found the prayers being planted deeper and deeper within–their content becoming part of me.

I’m finding that when I wake up in the morning, I’m hungry for this time with God. I’m bringing more of myself, not more of my words, and I am coming as simply and honestly as I can. I’m no longer praying out of my own life cycles–or my own selfish desires. I can bring my requests to God, and I do…but somehow, it’s different now. It’s been a beautiful experience–one that I will continue.

It’s common in Christian circles to tell people–just pray, talk to God. However, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them words to pray. We’ll study that prayer in a couple of weeks, but it’s important to note that he didn’t send them off to figure it out on their own.

If you’re curious about liturgy–there are many liturgical prayers that can be found online. The Shema and “Eighteen” can also be found online. It might feel weird at first, but dedicate a set amount of time to stick with it. We were encouraged to stick with it for 40 days. I’m glad we did. It’s changed our prayer lives, and is deepening our relationships with God.

I’ll close this post with two of my daily prayers: “Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.” 

“Save me from the slavery of my own reasonings.” 

–Luanne

Prayer Life | Prince of Peace Church

Sermon on the Mount: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…(Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting.

So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

Thy Kingdom Come on Twitter: ""You can give without loving, but ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Have Heard It Said: Hate

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said.  Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?

When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.

The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…

Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught.  Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.

Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) . 

The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (27)

Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)

The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.

Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world. 

Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?

It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess?  Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
  2.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch!  He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?

Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?

If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!! 

And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!

Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

–Luanne

I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “

Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read: 

“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)

Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,

“The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”

This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.

Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:

He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:

For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.

(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)

Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.

Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse.  The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.

Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:

“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.

I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:

“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?

These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.

–Laura

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What Did He Say?

Right & wrong. Black & white. Open & closed. Good & bad. 

We have all been conditioned to think in such dualisms. Some of us are more prone to investigate the gray while others of us hold more tightly to these either/or narratives, but all of us are affected by this way of thinking more than we realize. It is dangerous when all of life is filtered through these dualisms because this kind of thinking inevitably leads to a superior/inferior, “us versus them” kind of mindset. Dualisms limit growth, keep us stuck, and are not compatible with kingdom living.

Pastor Beau began his sermon on Sunday by acknowledging his own tendency to see life in a black and white, dualistic way. He admitted he struggles to see all the gray, all the nuance that lives between the two fixed points, and shared with us that his journey to see beyond those dualities is a difficult one. His message was not part of Pastor John’s Sermon on the Mount series, but it was connected. He took us back to Matthew 5:17 and reminded us that Jesus said he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets. He explained more about what that meant culturally and historically–it was fascinating! I’m going to move into some of his other points, but if you want to hear more about that part, you can watch the full sermon here.

Beau shared that the “You have heard it said… but I say…” statements from Jesus that Pastor John has highlighted these past few weeks have really stuck with him. He told us that he sees these statements as an invitation to repentance. Before expanding on that, he reminded us what it actually means to repent. The three words in the Bible that are translated “repent” in English mean a strong desire to change; a change of mind, purpose, and action. He went on to emphasize the importance of changing our minds, the way we think, over defaulting to the behavior modification that our westernized understanding of repentance often implies. He told us that if we change how we think, our actions will follow–it doesn’t work the other way around.

Beau reminded us that Jesus had strong words for those who were all about behavior modification but not advocates for deep, real change. In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says to the teachers of the law,

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.” (NLT)

Cleaning up what people see on the outside is not enough. Jesus cares about what’s inside. And, as Pastor Beau shared, that begins by changing how we think. Are we willing to see things differently? To take a hard look at ourselves and say to God,

“…I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through;
find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on, and lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.”

(Psalm 139:23-24, TPT)

Beau told us that he doesn’t see repentance as a one-time prerequisite to salvation. He sees it as a lifelong journey, a part of our daily walk with Jesus. I agree. Luanne and I have written many times about regularly praying the words above out of Psalm 139 and about the importance of asking Jesus to search our hearts because there are things within all of us that we can’t always see on our own.

What does repentance actually require? Beau highlighted a few things:

Honesty. 

Humility.

Critical evaluation of our beliefs and behaviors.

If we are willing to be honest with others and with ourselves about what we know and what we don’t, we will realize how much we still have to learn. Honestly admitting that we don’t know everything is the first step to changing how we think. Humility flows from this place. When we acknowledge that there is much we don’t know and that we have areas where we need to grow, it puts us into a posture to learn. It also allows us to lower our defenses as we engage in honest critiques about ourselves, which we must do with Jesus as our guide. This part is not about burning everything down. It is simply being willing to empty our knapsack, lay everything we’ve packed in there out on the table, and ask why we’re carrying those things. Why do we see things a certain way? Why do we believe what we do? Why do we engage in the behaviors we engage in, and what habits do we have that are shaping how we live and interact with God and others?

Pastor Beau identified that critically evaluating these things is different than criticism. We all tend to push back when we feel criticized. Sometimes, we are so critical of ourselves that no one else has to say anything at all–we beat ourselves down and put up our defenses all on our own. Deconstructing parts of our lives that need to be taken apart and rebuilt can feel this way. That’s why it is so important that we do so with Jesus as our filter and our companion. We ask him as we investigate what we’ve been carrying, “Does this serve you, me, the kingdom well? Does this belief line up with your ways? Do these behaviors line up with your way of love or do they further separate and divide us as brothers and sisters in the kingdom?” 

And then?

We listen.

We learn.

We remember that Jesus is our teacher and we are his disciples. Which means that we place ourselves under his authority and learn from him. Then we share with others–by how we live, not what we say--what we have learned. We disciple others by loving them the way that we experience being loved by Jesus.

What God desires most from his children is our hearts. He longs that we be his from the inside out. He couldn’t care less about “good” behavior or “right” living that isn’t rooted in  love and knowledge of him. He cares plenty about us bearing good fruit, but he sees right through the fake fruit that we try to pass off as authentic. Here’s some of what the Bible tells us he has to say about this…

“I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.
I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”

(Hosea 6:6 NLT)

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

(Amos 5:21-24, MSG)

“Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
    Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
    Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
    Go to bat for the defenseless.”

(Isaiah 1:13-17)

The prophets wrote down God’s words to his people in these Hebrew Scriptures. Beau emphasized that God was saying to his people, as he says to us today,

It’s not about doing all the things! Don’t simply do things! Bring me your heart, your love. Come. To. Me.

Jesus says in Matthew 12:33,

“A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” (NLT)

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. As Pastor Beau identified, this is a reorientation of our whole person. We have to get more comfortable with saying things like,

“I don’t know.”

“I’m still learning.”

“I was wrong.”

“We were wrong.”

One of the prayers I pray nearly every morning contains these words:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent... (emphasis mine)

We humbly repent. Change how we think. Daily. Moment by moment. As we listen to and learn from and become more committed disciples of Jesus, our Teacher. This is not a one-time action, or a project to perfect. It is a lifelong journey of becoming more and more like Jesus.

May we have the courage to be honest, to humbly evaluate our inmost being with the Holy Spirit as our guide, and to reorient our whole being toward our God. Jesus is calling us to radical repentance, especially in these days of deadly dualism. How, Church, will we respond?

–Laura

Richard Rohr Quote: “I think most human beings are dualistic ...

You Have Heard it Said: Oaths

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne;  or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 5:33-37, NIV (emphasis mine)

“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.” 

Matthew 5:33-37, The Message

What do you think of when you hear the word “oath?” The most common usage of the word these days is likely in reference to testifying under oath in a courtroom. But what does it mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary, an oath is “a solemn promise, often invoking a divine witness, regarding one’s future action or behavior.” It is similar to a vow and stronger than a promise.

When we look at the Hebrew scriptures (what we often refer to as the Old Testament), we see that honesty was held in high regard. Pastor John shared that their communities were built on three pillars: justice, truth, and peace. Oaths back then acted as a guarantee of one’s word. But they had become more than that, and the use of them had created a toxic climate for the people. Enter: Jesus.

As we have seen over the last several weeks, Jesus had a lot to say about the traditions and teachings that had become lists of laws for the people to keep. Each time that he has said the words “You have heard it said…” in the sermon on the mount, his “…but I say…” has been seemingly more demanding than the original. But as we look deeper into his words, we find a common thread:

It’s all about the heart.

The way of the kingdom, the way of love, will always take us farther than the limits of the law. We have discussed this at length during this series. This week’s subject does not deviate from that course.

Pastor John shared a lot of information in his message about the history of oaths and their severity in the community of the people of God. He shared that oaths are frivolous and evasive and that they add nothing to who we are–in fact, they diminish us and the person(s) we’re giving the oath to. He said, “Who we are strengthens what we say.” It’s our character, consistency, integrity that back up our word. Again, he took us back to the heart.

John encouraged us to look at our hearts and identify what’s inside; to be pure in heart–living lives of connectedness within, undivided, whole–so we can see God; and to then reflect the heart of Jesus–to understand him, look at him, see him and mirror his life to others.

Psalm 24:3-6 in The Passion Translation says this:

Who, then, ascends into the presence of the Lord? And who has the privilege of entering into God’s Holy Place? Those who are clean–whose works and ways are pure, whose hearts are true and sealed by the truth, those who never deceive, whose words are sure. They will receive the Lord’s blessing and righteousness given by the Savior-God. They will stand before God, for they seek the pleasure of God’s face, the God of Jacob.   (emphasis mine)

Jesus is saying this same thing in the sermon on the mount. If truth lives within us, truth will come out of us, out of undivided hearts committed to Jesus, hearts that are becoming more and more like him. Pure, whole hearts, unclouded by the burden of being divided among many gods, can see God. And what we see and gaze at, what we take in, is what will be reflected out to others as the kingdom comes first to us and then through us. I love the way Psalm 24:7 calls to us:

So wake up, you living gateways! Lift up your heads, you ageless doors of destiny! Welcome the King of Glory, for he is about to come through you! (TPT, emphasis mine)

Throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus unveils what his kingdom looks like, what it demands, and how we are to be--from the inside out–if we choose to follow him. Every bit of it comes back to our hearts, to who we are and how we love. I don’t want to get too far ahead here, but a little later in our series, we’ll hear Jesus say,

“In everything you do, be careful to treat others in the same way you’d want them to treat you…” (Matthew 7:12)

I want to be able to take others at their word. If someone tells me they love me, I don’t want them to have to add, “by the moon, and the stars, and the sky,” or any other frivolity to convince me that it’s true. I would like to be able to trust that the people in my life mean what they say, period. Yes or no. Full stop. That said, there are people in my life I can’t trust because they have proven that their lives–who they are from the inside out–don’t match their words. They are also those who use oath-like language to try to convince me that I can believe them. This is hard. It’s hurtful. And there’s nothing I can do about it. If they choose to be dishonest and deceiving with their words, that is their choice.

What I can do, though, is choose my way of being in the world. I can listen to Jesus–invite him to search me and know me and plumb the depths of my heart–and allow him to cultivate the kingdom within me as I look to him as my model.

Jesus didn’t make oaths. He didn’t exaggerate or embellish the truth. He simply told it. Wouldn’t it be a better world if those around us did the same? Isn’t that how we would like to be treated by others? If so, Jesus says, “Then do that. Be that way. Let your life be changed first, and treat them in the ways you’d like to be treated.” We cannot change others, but we can be willing to be changed. It all begins in our hearts–they are the “living gateways” for the kingdom to flow through into the world.

I want my heart to be “true and sealed by the truth.” I don’t want to deceive. I want my words to be sure. I want my yes to be yes, and my no to be no. I want those around me to know they can trust me because my life speaks louder than my words, because who I am strengthens what I say. This is my work to enter into with Jesus. He is the Master Gardener, the one who sows the seeds of truth in my heart and grows them up to bear fruit that is solid, honest, and good. I can’t produce that fruit on my own–none of us can. But we can all fix our eyes on Jesus, let our gaze linger on the beauty of who he is long enough to let the vision of him change us, and then reflect what we have seen out to a world in need of truth, beauty, and goodness.

–Laura

Laura wrote above, and I want to reiterate Pastor John’s information that in Judaism, the three pillars on which a healthy community can be built are justice, truth, and peace. If one of those three is missing, the community suffers. This can be family community, church community, work community, national community, or global community. Based on what Jesus has been teaching, I believe he would say those pillars are foundational…period. Oaths weaken those pillars.

Laura did a beautiful job of expressing that our inner character is what determines whether or not our word is good, whether or not we are people of integrity, and whether or not we can be trusted because the fruit of our lives proves our character. Our word and our actions match.

I work with at-risk students in a public high school and I can’t tell you how many times a student will say to me about an assignment, “I swear that it’s almost done. I’m going to turn it in tonight.”  I will follow up with something like, “Fabulous! I’ll check with your teacher in the morning to make sure they got it.”  Sometimes students will go ahead and confess that they truthfully haven’t started the assignment and need help. That truthfulness gets us somewhere positive. Other times students will  give me a thumbs up and not be concerned at all. When I follow through with the teacher the following day, I learn whether or not the student was truthful. If they got their work turned in, it’s kudos all the way, and I know that student does what he/she says. If they didn’t get the assignment in, the next time they tell me that their assignment is almost done, I ask to see it. If they don’t happen to have it available, I ask them why I should believe them this time? Then we talk about why character matters.

It does matter.

When we say “I guarantee what I’m saying is true because of this oath I’m making”, we basically say…you can’t really trust just me, so I’m going to add extra weight to this promise. That way you’ll know I’m truthful.

The Jewish people had developed quite an elaborate “oath” system by the time Jesus preached his sermon on the mount. They had binding oaths and non-binding oaths. A binding oath invoked the name of God and could not be broken. A non-binding oath could be broken (what?!!).

So, not only could an oath reflect the wishy-washy character of the one making it, it could also be a poor reflection on the character of God. There is an Old Testament story that has always bothered me; Pastor John’s sermon helped clear it up. In Judges 11 we learn about Jepthah who is getting ready to lead a charge against the Ammonites. In verses 30 and 31 we read:

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,  whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Notice that the Lord did not ask Jephtah to make a vow–he did that to himself, but because he invoked the name of the Lord, it was a binding oath according to their tradition.  And I’m sorry, but what a really poorly chosen vow to make…good grief!

So, Jephthah is successful in battle, he comes home in triumph and the first thing to come out of the door of his house is his daughter, his only child. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”  (v. 35)

She agrees that he can’t break his vow to the Lord, asks for two months to visit her friends and mourn the fact that she’ll never marry, and after the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. (v. 39)

Jephthah made a careless vow and used the Lord’s name as part of it. He carried his vow through, but do we think more highly of Jephthah as a result? I don’t.  There is also a danger in this type of vow because it could suggest that God somehow approved of this behavior–yet what could be further from the heart of God?

We must be so careful with our words! We must be so careful with our hearts. Jesus tells us that out of the overflow of our hearts our mouths speak. (Mt. 12:34) If we feel like we need to back up our words with oaths and other things, we need to check our hearts.

Jesus ends the oath section of the sermon of the mount by saying, let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.  Many English translations say anything more comes from the evil one; however, in the Greek it is translated more often as just evil, or wicked. 

Jesus isn’t condemning anyone in his sermon, but he is saying let’s get this figured out…if you can’t just say yes or no, it’s evil, it’s wicked.

Author Greg McKeown makes this point really clear. He writes “Remember that a clear no is more generous than a vague or non-commital yes. The medium yes or maybe is the worst. Stringing people along or delaying the inevitable decline is a thousand times worse than a polite but clear no on the front end. People know when they are getting a lukewarm placeholder. Further, they know when they are receiving wild, made-up excuses. We must stop doing this. We are fooling no one. It is actually better, easier, and more mature to say what you mean right out of the gate.” 

That’s true, isn’t it? Haven’t we all experienced it–that non-commital stringing along where we hang in limbo and our relationships get awkward as a result? And I imagine most of us have done it to others at some point.

Being a person of integrity is brave and worthwhile. Letting our yes’s be yes, and our no’s be no creates stronger relationships; the kingdom of heaven is all about relationships. Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word...Jesus Christ himself.

–Luanne

Let your yes be yes. Quote | Quotes, Wise words, Let it be

You Have Heard it Said: Part 3

Today’s passage is a doozy. It’s a common “clobber” passage used to judge others and exclude them from full fellowship in some churches. Even before you read this blog, please know that we are not a shaming church; we believe that God loves us all and shuns no one. Pastor John shared that these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount almost kept him from doing the entire series. Yet, like the rest of Jesus’ sermon, we are  looking at the full context, looking at the heart of Christ, and exploring the deeper meaning of his words.

Here we go:  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32 ESV).

The Passion Translation words it like this: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her legal divorce papers.’  However, I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife for any reason, except for infidelity, he causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

And the NIV like this: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I believe God’s original intent for marriage is that it lasts, is fulfilling for both husband and wife, and a healthy reflection of God’s relationship with us.  However, all the way back in the Old Testament we see that marriage didn’t look like this. And, in these two verses, Jesus is addressing the men. Why? Because in that culture they had power, and they abused their power.

Culturally, in that day, a woman had no rights. She was considered property and horribly undervalued. It was rare for a woman to be able to make it on her own; her chances for gainful employment were slim to none. Yet, a man could decide at any time to dismiss his wife, and send her out to fend for herself. His reason could be as simple as she over-salted his food. She had no value, and a hard-hearted man would not have a whit of care about what happened to her.

Let’s briefly recap what we’ve learned up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes–the inner character that drives the outward behavior of Jesus’ followers. Then he says his followers will be like salt and light in the world–our depth of character and our presence making a positive, kingdom of heaven difference in the here and now. After this, Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. We’ve studied how Jesus spoke of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery, yet jumped right over the action words and focused on the heart of the matter–anger and lust. Now we’re on these verses about divorce. Jesus has not changed direction; he is still concerned about the heart of the matter.

In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind, God said:

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:26-27)

In God’s original design, male and female each reflect who God is, each bears his image, and each was given the same task–to steward well his created world. Nowhere in the creation story does God create a hierarchy. Yet, all throughout the Old Testament we see men marrying multiple wives, sleeping with servants, dismissing and mistreating women–even among the patriarchs and kings.

Jesus enters the scene and models something completely different. Even before Jesus’ birth, we see God highly esteeming women. There are five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Tamar who was wronged by her husband and had to trick her father-in-law in order to bear a child; Rahab, the woman from Jericho who resorted to prostitution in order to survive and hid the Jewish spies on their way to the promised land— she married into the Jewish faith and gave birth to Boaz; Ruth, the widowed foreigner who honored her mother in law and later married Boaz. Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) is the next woman mentioned. She was taken advantage of and then became one of the wives of King David who was the grandson of Ruth. A few generations later the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first–not Joseph.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he gives women his full attention. He encouraged Lazarus’ sister Mary’s behavior when she chose to sit at his feet and learn, just like male disciples did.

When the teachers of the law tried to trick Jesus and brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?), Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he caused each man present at the scene to search his own heart.

Jesus interrupted his trip to the home of Jairus, the powerful synagogue leader, and gave his full attention to a woman who had been a bleeding outcast for twelve years. He gave her time to share with him her full story.

The account of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet shows us that he was not about to allow her to be condemned or poorly thought of.

The women present at Jesus’ crucifixion are named in scripture. The women are the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to share the news that he is alive.

The women are present with the men on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. They receive the very same power of the Holy Spirit, and together with the men share the news of Jesus in foreign languages to those within their hearing.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is probably my favorite encounter. Jesus was speaking to a woman who was from a people group considered inferior to his. Both of those things were taboo. Scripture even tells us that when the disciples returned from getting food, they wondered why he was talking to her. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. (Let me remind you–she couldn’t divorce a man, so she had been dismissed and abandoned five times). Jesus doesn’t condemn her, instead, she is the first person to whom he reveals his identity as the Messiah. Their conversation changed her life. She shared her story and his identity with those in her town, and they came to know Jesus as well. 

Back to this week’s verses…Jesus is addressing the men. The man divorces, he is supposed to give her a certificate of divorce, his actions cause her to choose someone else so she can survive, and his actions defile her next husband. It all begins with the man, his abuse of power, a power over her that was never God’s intent in the first place, and the ripple effect of his choices.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote that says the Greek word for divorce (apolyo) can also mean “to loose,” “to dismiss,” “to send away.”By serving her divorce papers, a husband was required to return his wife’s dowry. The divorced woman would then leave his house and receive back her dowry.  Think about that, he could dismiss her without papers and not be obligated to return her dowry, leaving her without means. 

I have a Lebanese Muslim friend whose marriage was arranged for her. Her family provided a dowry to the groom’s family. When we lived near one another, we asked each other questions about our lives and cultures, so I asked her about that. She told me that the dowry wasn’t a “bride price”, but that it was like an insurance policy. She said if anything happened to her marriage or her husband, the dowry was what she would use to live on. I’d never heard that before, but The Passion Translation footnote indicates the same thing. In other words–“Fellas, if you’re going to be hard-hearted and dismiss your wives, at least be honorable. Give her what is rightfully hers so she has something to live on.”  Jesus is addressing their hearts.

God shows us throughout scripture that he sees his relationship with us like a marriage. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was to be a model of his faithfulness and love to the nations around them. In the New Testament, the relationship between Jesus and the global church is supposed to show the world his love for us, our love for him, and our love for them as a result.

If you are divorced and have been hurt by the church, I’m sorry. Jesus’ words on divorce were never intended to be used as clobber verses, nor were we ever told to exclude anyone from fellowship with Jesus and his church. If you are divorced you are fully embraced and fully accepted by God. There is no condemnation in Jesus.

In the 1970s, my dad’s best friend was leading a weekend ministry event at a church in another town. He shared his testimony with the group, and part of his story is that he is divorced and remarried. A man came up to him afterward and asked: “What’s it feel like to be living in sin?” Pete responded: “I don’t know. You tell me.” It still makes me chuckle.

We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us. 

–Luanne

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

This is the question, the heart of the matter. It is what Jesus is getting at with every point he makes. You have heard it said… but what does Love require? This week’s passage applies the question to marriage and divorce. It might be the clearest, most straightforward distortion of God’s heart toward his children, because it addresses the stripping away of the inherent value of a woman–her identity as an equal image-bearer–and the reduction of a human being to property that can be used and disposed of at will. Can you think of other examples throughout history and even presently when the value of a human being was reduced to property? I can. Too many to list.

I think that’s part of the ache of these two verses. What Jesus was doing in his brilliant way, was lifting up the “leasts,” as he always did. In this case, the leasts are women. His words honor the value of a woman and, if followed, offer protection from systems that left so many displaced and destitute. Yet, somehow, these exact verses have been used to further abuse and devalue women and abdicate men from their responsibilities, at the hands of the Church. How did that happen?? It happened because, even as Jesus was reorienting the Law around the way of Love, those in power chose to make it about the words rather than the heart behind the words. It became about a list of dos and don’ts, and this short passage has been used against the very people it was meant to protect and left devastation in its wake.

Running the rules through the filter of Love makes all the difference. In regard to marriage and divorce, I’ve seen that difference firsthand. I’ve watched friends and family I love dearly choose the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love when they had every right to leave and never look back. I’ve seen people devalued and devastated choose to honor their vows even when their spouse has shattered theirs. I’ve watched, awestruck, as God moved through open channels of love to restore what was lost, as the pile of torn and tattered threads was woven into a tapestry more beautiful than should even be possible after such devastation.

I’ve also seen and experienced what can happen when a lesser love captures a heart. I watched my mom be discarded three times by the same husband, abandoned for other women and a brand new life, left with nothing but the bills and the children and her failing health. I watched her struggle to put food on the table as she worked long hours in multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. I watched as our church turned its back on our family while my dad was still allowed to attend with his girlfriend and her family. I saw my mom’s new church embrace her partially, but warn her that if she remarried, an adulteress she would be. I saw her ache for a community that didn’t really have room for a poor, divorced woman and her kids–one that certainly wouldn’t invite her to use the gifts she’d been given as a full participant in the kingdom within their walls. At best, she was a project, a charity case. She was marked.

Jesus didn’t want that for her. What happened to her was the exact opposite of what he called for in this week’s passage. What happened to her is what happens when we miss the heart of the matter, when we don’t process the law through the higher law of Love. And somehow, we all know there’s a better way. There’s a song that keeps running through my head as I write. Not some spiritual, worship song, but the chorus of a song I didn’t even know all the words to until I looked it up a moment ago. The song is Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released in 1986. Here are some of the lyrics…

Think about it, there must be a higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
Worlds are turnin’, and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear, and standin’ out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love (oh my Lord)
Bring me a higher love, oh (oh)
Bring me a higher love (my Lord)
It’s that higher love I keep thinking of…
We all know intuitively that there is a better way, a higher way. We crave that higher love  whether we know and believe in Jesus or not. We know, “there must be a higher love, down in the heart or hidden in the stars above…” And yet, we run after lesser loves. In our fear and desire for control and order, we forsake the way of love for the inferior substitute of a list of rules. That list of rules has served an insidious purpose. The Church that is the bride of Christ, meant to birth the fruit of that union–the kingdom on earth, has clung not to her groom but to the list, and abdicated her responsibility to the way of Love. It is heart-wrenching to see the results of our idolatry. Rather than embrace the extravagant way of love that Jesus modeled, we have too often looked to satisfy the minimum requirements.
Imagine what the world would look like if we processed everything through Jesus’s filter? If we looked for ways to exhibit the maximum amount of love rather than the minimum? It should change everything, friends! Because the love Jesus spoke about and modeled–self-emptying, humble, generous, gracious, compassionate, real love–is inexhaustible. There is actually not a maximum, because love never ends (See 1 Corinthians 13). The more we pour it out, the more there is available. It expands, enlightens, restores, and remakes everything it touches. Its power is in the laying down of oneself on behalf of another, the way that Jesus did for every single human being. What if we followed his lead and lived accordingly? We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because there would be reciprocity and mutuality and thriving for all. Love like this doesn’t need additional rules and regulations. It covers absolutely everything.
I believe with my whole heart that this is Jesus’s whole point. Everything he says in the sermon on the mount, all of the exhortations and insights he gives are expressions of love in action. This week’s passage is about divorce, but not only divorce. It applies to the way we are to embrace, cherish, and care for one another as we live out the love we share with our Abba. It was perhaps the clearest example Jesus could give in that day of what happens when the way of higher love is replaced by lesser things. When we refuse to live in the light of love, we reduce one another, treat each other as problems and projects, see each other as means to an end, expendable. We NEVER see Jesus objectify anyone in this way. 
The story that I held in my heart as I listened to Pastor John preach on Sunday is the same one Luanne emphasized above, the woman at the well. Jesus had every reason–and the teachers of the law may have said an obligation–to avoid her, ignore her, and condemn her according to the law. But love…
The law said not to associate with “those” people. The Samaritans were outsiders, people the Jews were not to mingle with. The law didn’t allow them to be alone together at the well–she was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. Forget about a conversation–that went way too far. It was against the rules. And Jesus knew more still about this woman he engaged at the well. She had been married five times, and was now living with a sixth man. The law gave him so many reasons to not only walk away from her, but to outright condemn her!
But love…
Pondering this passage in different seasons, I’ve cried many times over the tenderness of the moment. The story, much like our verses this week, has been used and preached in unkind ways. But the Jesus I know is always kind. Always good. Always loving. He knows the backstory to every story. When I read and ponder this particular story, specifically the part where Jesus lets her know that he knows what she’s been through, I hear his voice as gentle, quiet, empathizing with her plight. I see tears pool and fall from his eyes as he feels how brutally and repeatedly she’s been rejected by those charged to cherish and protect her. I have exactly zero doubts that in that moment, she experienced the love she’d searched for all of her life, love that saw to her core and called her beloved despite the labels she’d been given by the world. How am I so sure? First, because my Jesus has done the same for me. But also,  her reaction tells us everything we need to know. Hope overflowed as joy exploded in her. She left her jar and ran back to the village to tell everyone about this man who had set her free from her shame. His words to her did not condemn her. His words communicated that she was seen and known… and fully loved. 
The words Luanne ended her portion with seem appropriate to repeat here…
“We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us.”
Can you imagine what the world would look like if we loved like this?
–Laura

 

 

Love Never Ends | Christian Bible Verse" Poster by ChristianLife ...

 

 

You’ve Heard it Said… (Part 2)

After a couple of weeks elsewhere, we are back into our Sermon on the Mount series. We picked up where we left off, in the middle of Jesus’ “You have heard it said…” statements. This week’s passage is Matthew 5:27-30:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

These are strong verses that we’ve likely all heard before in one way or another. The words of Jesus in this passage (and all throughout scripture) are often taken out of context and misunderstood. As we have been discussing for weeks now, what Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is inviting his followers to go deeper, beyond surface-level, law-abiding living that stops short of transforming hearts. A few weeks ago, I wrote,

“He came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.”

And in our first “You’ve Heard it Said…” post, Luanne wrote,

“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”

It’s important that we keep these things in mind as we continue to explore passages that are sometimes difficult to understand.

Pastor John led us on a word journey through these verses on Sunday, explaining what they meant in the original language and expanding their meanings within the context of this passage. We looked at the words adultery, lustfully, hell, and stumble. I learned a few things… Let’s look at each word before we talk about the passage as a whole.

Adultery, John told us, is something we commit. It is a form of idolatry. When we commit adultery, we are satisfying ourselves; it is self-serving. It is something we first allow, and then give ourselves to. It is not simply about sexual misconduct–our lusts can lead us to be unfaithful and to sin against God, others, and ourselves in a multitude of ways.

Lustfully is a compound word that means to turn upon a thing. It relates to something we long for on the outside of us. It is passion or anger, heat or hate, that boils up and moves us toward what we eventually give ourselves to in the acts of adultery. Pastor John said, “The lust grows from within you, looking to find something to satisfy your heart.”

The word translated hell in this passage is the word Gehenna. Gehenna was a literal place, a garbage dump outside of the city that was always burning the waste and dead animals deposited there. There was no life or fruitfulness in that place of waste.

Stumble comes from the Greek skandalon (where our English word scandal comes from), meaning to trap or ensnare, to cause to offend.

With these definitions in mind, Pastor John read the verse back to us in reverse order, in his own words, that we might hear it from a different perspective:

“From out of your heart comes the action of committing adultery, because you are lusting, longing, desiring, placing all that is within you towards something outside of you. This is what I’m telling you,” says Jesus.

The people Jesus was speaking to knew what the law said. And their teachers had made clear to them what actions to avoid and what the consequences would be should they choose to break those laws. They lived disciplined on the outside, but Jesus implored them–as he implores us today–to look deeper. As we’ve discussed before, surface-level behavior modification is not what Jesus is after. He wants our hearts.

John told us about Saint Anthony of the Desert, also known as Saint Anthony the Great. He is revered for his disciplined life, as he spent 35 years in isolation, many of them living in a tomb. He sought to live away from any distractions, any exterior things that could draw his thoughts away from God. He desired that Jesus be his teacher and influence, and he lived in solitude on purpose. He found that, even while living such a disciplined life, he could not escape the temptations and bad thoughts–because they existed in his own mind. Even in isolation, he took himself with him.

Even without outside influences, the work of cultivating the soil of our hearts in the ways of Jesus takes commitment and a willingness to look deeper… 

So what do we make of how Jesus says to handle our adulterous thoughts and actions? Are we to take him at his word and gouge out our eyes, cut off our hands? Of course not. Jesus was speaking in hyperbole. We can look at the eye as the symbol of our thoughts that result from what we take in. The hand symbolizes the actions we take that flow out of the desires within us. Together, Pastor John said, they were thought as a pathway toward sin. The emphasis on the “right” hand and eye refers to what they saw as their “stronger” side. So Jesus may have been telling them to take the things they thought were their strength, and if those things led them to sin, remove them from their lives. What that means for each of us will look different, as adultery plays out in a myriad of ways.

Unfortunately, many of us have heard these verses taught this way,

“If you don’t cut off your hand or gouge out your eye, you’re going to hell.” 

Of course, most of us have never been advised to actually take these extreme physical measures. But there are other ways we brutalize ourselves and allow ourselves to be abused by others out of fear of eternal damnation.

Let’s look at Jesus’ words again:

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Taking the context and original words into consideration, here is another way to look at these verses:

If the way you’re seeing things, how you choose to look at them, is setting a trap for your mind and leading you toward sin, let that part of you go so you can see a new way. And if the things you choose to do are manifestations of the heated passions and hateful anger boiling up and spewing out from within you, causing you to turn upon something or someone for self-serving purposes, that part of you needs to be cut away from the fabric of your heart so you don’t lose all of yourself to your idolatry. It is better to change the way you see and to turn away from the things you think you want to do than to end up in the wasteland where nothing lives. 

Jesus wants his followers to live in such a way that brings his kingdom to bear on earth. That’s his whole point in the sermon he gave on the mount. Behavior modification wasn’t changing the world then, and it isn’t changing it now. Fear of judgement didn’t change hearts then, and it doesn’t change hearts now. Outward expressions of worship disconnected from the heart are not what he desired then, and he’s not impressed with them now. He wants us to know his heart for people, for the world, and to follow him so closely that his heart becomes our own. He wants undivided hearts that worship from the inside out, and undivided lives given fully to him and not split between other desires. He doesn’t want us to waste our lives on what will never satisfy, but to live in a way that makes a difference for his kingdom. It begins in our hearts and moves outward. It never works when we try to do that backwards.

How can your words be good and trustworthy if you are rotten within? For what has been stored up in your hearts will be heard in the overflow of your words!

(Matthew 12:34b, TPT)

As water reflects the face,
so one’s life reflects the heart.

(Proverbs 27:19)

You will find living within an impure heart evil ideas, murderous thoughts, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lies, and slander.

(Matthew 15:19)

So above all, guard the affections of your heart,
for they affect all that you are.
Pay attention to the welfare of your innermost being,
for from there flows the wellspring of life.

(Proverbs 4:23)

–Laura

You have heard it said…but I say…

I think it’s wise to sit with that phrase for a while. Jesus, in this sermon, doesn’t change what’s been said or what’s been written; what he makes clear, however, is his people– his followers, have misunderstood the intent of those words. He is taking them deeper and teaching the correct interpretation of the law. As Laura highlighted above, it’s not about behavior modification. It’s about the condition of our hearts. It always was, and still is about being rightly related to God and to others–loving God and others authentically, creating a world filled with God’s shalom in which all people can flourish and become all God made them to be.

Jesus began the sermon on the mount with the beatitudes–the heart condition and way of being of his kingdom people, leading to such a radically different way of living that they will be salt and light in the world. We mustn’t “chunk” up the sermon on the mount into verses that come under subheadings; the entire sermon is connected and built on the foundation of the beatitudes.

This week, just like in the previous “you have heard it said” sermon that Pastor John preached, Jesus again moves through the action word (murder, adultery) and goes to the deeper heart issue (anger, lust). Outward actions, outward words are indicators of our heart’s condition and our thought lives. Too often our way of being in the world is more a reflection of our own thoughts than the Spirit-filled beatitude way of being.

Adultery, the action of being unfaithful, begins within. We can be unfaithful to God and others in a myriad of ways, and each way is an indicator that our heart center has gotten off course.

The words that define the inner workings of lust are strong words: Passion. Anger. Heat. Hate. Without a doubt, if left unchecked these inner experiences and inner emotions lead to Gehenna where we burn up our own lives.

I can think of a few biblical examples of this right off the bat. I referred to Cain a couple of weeks ago, and will refer to him again…

God said to Cain “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4:6-7)

Cain did not rule over sin, murdered his brother, and was banished from his land and people. He lived in Gehenna and murderous violence became part of his lineage.  (See Gn 4:23-24)

King David (who was home when he shouldn’t have been) lusted over Bathsheba which led to sexually abusing her; she became pregnant, he tried to cover it up and eventually killed her husband. (2nd Sam 11-12). In Psalm 32 David recalls what it felt like to live in Gehenna when he wrote: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. (Ps. 32: 3-4)

Judas had an issue with money. Chapter 12 of John’s gospel informs us that after a female worshipper poured expensive perfume on Jesus,  Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (Jn 12:4-6) . As we know, he later betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (was it the money that he lusted after, anger at Jesus, or something else?). After Jesus’ arrest, Judas, in Gehenna, took his own life (Mt. 27:3-5)

When Stephen was stoned, Saul (Paul)–a defender of the Jewish faith approved of their killing him… Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8: 1 & 3). Paul does not give us much insight into his Gehenna; however, in 1st Corinthians 15:9 he says  I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Cain and Judas suffered hard consequences, King David and Paul acknowledged their sin, experienced God’s grace, left Gehenna and went on to live in the presence of God.

We learn from Paul, that staying out of Gehenna involves a thought battle and how to fight that thought battle so that our hearts and beings can be formed by the Holy Spirit. He writes:  So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2 The Message)

Written another way: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (NLT)

Paul also tells us: Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.  The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (Romans 8:5-7)

Our actions follow our thoughts; our thoughts reflect our hearts. We have heard it said don’t “do” certain things. Jesus says look deeper- it begins in your being, in your heart.

Jesus tells us A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (Luke 6:45 NLT)

God is the creator of new hearts. Every moment of every day he is willing to give us one. If our own thoughts, our own actions, our own words are showing us that we are headed to Gehenna, let’s look deeper. What have we given ourselves to? What are we lusting after, and why? If we’re currently in Gehenna, let’s repent, let’s change the way we think and let God restore us. If our way of being looks like our culture rather than God’s kingdom, let’s explore that.  If we are not seeing God, let’s investigate what it is we are seeking instead–what has our hearts? Let’s take the time to go deeper.

Heavenly Father, Create a new, clean heart within [us]. Fill [us] with pure thoughts and holy desires, ready to please you. (Ps. 51:10 TPT)

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God… 

God, we want to see you.

-Luanne

Account of the Soul - Girls' Brigade Australia

 

How Long, Oh Lord?

As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.

Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far.  In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of referenceRacism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.  

Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”.  My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.

In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.  

And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like:  I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. 

The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)

In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15) 

In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.

The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing? 

A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)

He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)

Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)

The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)

So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…

I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.

My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.

I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.

Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities.  These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.

A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong.  Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.

Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.

While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.

The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car. 

We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways.  It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.  

Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.

And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.

We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:

Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…

…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…

What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.

And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).

Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:

“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.” 
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into  action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard.  Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.
–Laura
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