Overcoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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What About Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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Stories: Ashley & Allyson

Ashley, Allyson, their birth children, and Jase—it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story, the only one that matters.

Ashley shared that he was raised in a Jewish home, his parents divorced right around the time of his Bar Mitzvah, and he spiraled down, down, down. After a few years of living in the pit, an African American family invited him to a prayer service. They explained through the scriptures about God’s love and who Jesus is. Ashley met Jesus that night, and his life was forever changed. Then, the African American family took Ashley under their wing. They discipled him for six months and he became part of their family. I love that so much! The picture of the Kingdom of God, the reaching out across ethnic groups, the spiritual adoption of Ashley by God, and the spiritual adoption of Ashley by a beautiful family that loved God and loved Ashley is what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.

Allyson shared that she was raised in an atheist home with 14 kids, 11 of whom were adopted. There was a lot of dysfunction in her home, and much pain. She did not think too highly of the whole adoption thing. She came into a relationship with Christ when she was 18, shortly after she met Ashley.

Fast forward a few years, Ashley and Allyson have three daughters and a son. Life is good. They are happy. And boom! At a high school soccer game, a friend of one of their daughters asks the daughters if their family would be interested in hosting a little boy from China for a few weeks. She gives them the information she has, they take it home and show it to their parents. Because the little boy’s initial paperwork had been lost, it was crunch time, so a decision needed to be made in about 24 hours. Can you imagine?  Well, Ashley and Allyson and the kids prayed about it, and decided to say yes to hosting Li.

Six year old Li arrives, he speaks no English, he has no idea what is going on, and he’s a little wild. They keep calling him Li but he doesn’t answer.  Eventually they discover that he’s not answering because that’s not his name. His Chinese name is difficult to pronounce, and thus the hosting begins.

While they are hosting Li, Ashley sends a letter to some of their friends asking them to pray about a forever family for Li; they are praying at home too. Each evening after they put Li to bed, they ask their kids what God is saying to them and showing them in scripture. The two girls who still live at home are absolutely sure that Li needs to be part of their family, the 13 year old son, who is sharing his bedroom with Li, wants to send him back to China.

Ashley begins to get confirmation through scripture that God wants them to adopt Li. He is pondering verses like Psalm 68:5 “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”  Psalm 146: 9 “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow…”. Luke 14: 21b “…go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Matthew 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”  And James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. “  He is beginning to believe that they are the “forever family” that they are praying for.

Allyson is in her own wrestling match. Her family of origin adoption story left her feeling less than warm and fuzzy about it all, and as she wrestled through her reasons, she realized that any reason she had for saying no was basically selfish. God reminded her that adoption is his idea and asked her if she’d be willing to let him do a new thing, but she didn’t get to her “yes” until they were on a trip to Yellowstone and Li jumped out of the car and almost got hit by another car. The whole family was shaken up. Allyson said that she was struck by the fact that if he’d been hit by a car, he could have died, or been hospitalized and would not have been able to return to China at the expected time. Then it dawned on her…no one cared if he returned. There was no one in China wondering about him, no one who cared if he was getting enough to eat, or getting enough sleep, or if he was learning anything. There was no one for him to return to in China. She realized that she loved him, she cared about all of those things, and she was ready to say yes.

There was still the hurdle of the youngest son. He and Li struggled. Li broke his toys, blamed him for everything, and had changed his world. One particularly difficult day, the son accidentally shut Li’s fingers in the door while trying to get away from him. He felt horrible. That night, as the family convened to see where they were, both Ashley and Allyson were convinced that their son would again say “send him back”, especially after the difficult day. But instead, with tears streaming down his face, he said, “We need to adopt him. He needs a daddy to love him, he needs a family, we need to bring him home.”

Fourteen months later, they went to China and brought him home. They changed his name to Jase (which means healing) Jackson (God is gracious).  And anyone who has come into contact with Jase, knows what a special young man he is.

Ashley and Allyson each have their own story of past brokenness. They came into relationship with Christ because other people reached across perceived barriers and loved them into the Kingdom. As they walk closely with their Heavenly Father, they listen to Him, seek Him, and step out in faith to follow in obedience, without having to know all of the details. Through this relationship, they became the physical manifestation of the love of God to Jase. The friend of their daughters who spoke up about the need reminds me of something that Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission says. He says that raising awareness is doing the work of justice. She shared a need that she knew of, and God used her sharing that need to change a little boy’s life, and a family’s life. The daughters were enthusiastically ready to embrace Jase from the moment they knew that he existed. They joyfully embraced the idea, and welcomed Jase with open arms. The youngest son, who wasn’t  too excited about the idea, who  resisted the change and closed his heart for a season, let God do a work in him, and finally opened his heart to receive and embrace his younger brother.

This is a living illustration of the church. We have a loving Father who wants everyone to come into His family. His arms are open wide. Are ours?  The entire Bright family had to make adjustments when Jase joined them. Allyson says that he was wild when he first came. Ashley says that he resisted being touched, but would allow Ashley to carry him because he was weak and couldn’t walk well. Allyson said he wasn’t wanted in China because of a birth defect, so he was considered damaged goods, and she reminded us that we are all damaged goods.  Allyson also learned that in the orphanages, often times the names they were called  were merely descriptions for their physical disablilties or identified what orphanage they were in…labels, not names.  And now? Jase has a beautiful new name with a new meaning, he has a family who loves him, siblings who love him, and God is using his story to reach many many others.

If we think about Jase as the representative of the lost people around us, are we willing to make room at the table for them? Are we willing to love them as they are in all their “wildness”? Are we willing to carry them until they gain health and strength? Are we willing to patiently teach them a new language, the language of grace, of love? Are we willing to look past their labels, see them as beloved, chosen, children of God and call them by that new name? Are we willing to embrace them with joy? If we are still honestly struggling with reluctance because embracing someone new will change the “family” dynamics, are we willing to wrestle it through because we know that the world needs a Daddy who loves them? Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?

—Luanne

I will start where Luanne finished:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Adoption stories, redemption stories, they stir our hearts. They make us feel. The sniffles and tears were not isolated to a few of us as the Brights shared their story. Many boxes of tissues were depleted as we listened. I think part of the reason for the emotion is exactly what Luanne shared above, “…it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story…”. We see ourselves in these stories-because it’s our story, too.

I am concerned, though, that many of us stop there. We hear the beautiful story, shed a few tears, and go on about our lives. We stop short of embracing our call-the call that God has given ALL of us…

Ashley identified that throughout his spiritual journey, the Word of God built the foundation for his eventual willingness to adopt Jase into his family. He learned that God is a Father to the fatherless and that He calls us to take care of widows and orphans, that how we treat “the least of these” and the “lasts” among us matters to Him. That caring for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized is actually the “pure and faultless religion” that our God requires.

This call that Ashley sensed through Scripture is not unique to him. It is the call for all of us as the family of God. It won’t look the same for each one of us, but it does apply to all of us.

This is where it gets hard, friends. Here is Luanne’s question again:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Making sacrifices is difficult, because, well, they’re sacrifices. One of the definitions of the word is “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else“. 

Ashley said that bringing Jase into their family required learning new steps in the dance that they were accustomed to. Taylor, Jase’s big sister, added, “We didn’t just have to learn new steps-we received a whole new sheet of music”. Not only did the natural rhythm of the Bright family have to adapt to include another member–their entire soundtrack was replaced with songs that were completely new to them. Their taste in music had to change in order to fully embrace this precious, newest member of the family. They had to surrender their old soundtrack, for the sake of someone else.

Are we, as a family of believers, willing to let go of our old familiar steps and learn a new dance in order to welcome in those who need a family? Are we willing to be flexible with our song sheets and make adjustments when necessary? Is bringing someone home more important to us than clinging to what has become routine, normal, “just the way it’s always been”?

If we desire to see the family grow, we have to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of those we long to bring home. What those sacrifices are will vary person to person, but here are some things that we can apply from the Bright’s story…

We will have to be willing to sacrifice our time and our energy on behalf of others. Allyson shared that the first month that Jase was with them, family members had to physically hang onto him to keep him alive. He wasn’t aware of all the ways he could be in danger, and when he was aware, he wasn’t afraid to put himself in harm’s way. He needed their physical presence to protect him, to teach him how to stay out of dangerous situations. The same can be true for new believers. If we are going to embrace the broken, addicted, damaged sinner (…this is all of us at different points in our journeys…), we have to be willing to be proximate. To commit to the process, the long-haul, the discipling that we are all called to do when bringing others into the family.

But what if they push us away? We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Jase stayed “an arm’s length away” for a while. He wouldn’t allow himself to be embraced. He had never before known what being chosen felt like and he needed time to learn to trust his new family. Can we give new family members the grace and time they need to learn to trust us? Can we love them well from as close as they’ll allow us to get to them and be patient with their broken hearts? Or do we have an agenda that we will demand adherence to before we will accept someone new?

Ashley said that they asked their kids, “Are you willing to give up the house if we have to?”. That question hit me pretty hard. A family’s home is their sacred space, a reflection of who they are, a refuge. But the Bright’s house isn’t what gives their family its identity. Rather, its their family that differentiates their house from any other grouping of walls and rooms. If they had to, they would have left their house and made a new home elsewhere in order to bring Jase home. He was the priority. He needed a family, not a house. They were willing to do whatever they had to do, to surrender whatever they had to for the sake of one. For their son, their brother, the missing piece of their family.

So how far are we willing to go? Is our goal to bring more people into the house? Or to set the lonely in families, to provide a home for widows and orphans? Will we sacrifice everything for the one? Will we have the courage to set aside the “house rules” and welcome the foreigner, the brother or sister that doesn’t look like us, talk like us or dance like us? And could we not only welcome them into our family, but allow them to change us for the better? To learn new notes and new steps from them and their experiences and add them to our own? If we are willing to do whatever it takes to bring our family home, we will find ourselves dancing to a song that sounds a whole lot like what Revelation 7:9-10 describes:

“I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:

Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb!” (MSG)

So I’ll ask what Luanne asked, one last time:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

 

–Laura

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Stories-Angela

I can’t help but smile hugely when I think back over Angela’s incredible story. As I watched her giggle with what I can only describe as a free and innocent giddyness, I marveled again at the goodness of our God… The way He redeems our stories and leads us into freedom and then shows us how to lead others to freedom through our own stories. Angela said so many profound things, full of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. He moved through her today-a broken vessel willing to shine for His Glory.

She wasn’t always a broken vessel, though… She said at one point, “I had my walls and nobody was breaking in.” 

John said later on, “When we try to hide and protect ourselves, we actually build a prison around ourselves.”

When we live with fortified walls that can’t be penetrated, nothing bad gets in–but nothing, good or bad, can get out.

John referred to the story, from Mark 14, of the woman that anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. This alabaster jar of hers, full of perfume, could have been sold for more than a year’s wages. It was quite possibly the most valuable thing she had.

And she chose to break the jar and pour it all on the head of Jesus.

She was criticized by many who were present for her waste of what was so valuable. But she was accepted and affirmed by Jesus in response to her lavish and abundant gift.

Brokenness always leads to abundance… It is only through the breaking that new life is born.

The woman who (unknowingly) anointed Jesus for His burial had no idea that her gift would prepare Him for what He would soon experience. She had no idea that she would be remembered throughout the ages for her extravagant gift of love. She was simply willing to break the outer wall so that what was so valuable could pour out. 

Friends, Angela was the alabaster jar with the hard shell. And her story is the valuable contents it held inside. And the same is true for you and for me… 

Living broken-leading with our brokenness-is not popular. It is often seen as weakness. It is anything but. When Angela’s walls came tumbling down, when her outer shell was broken into pieces, the Glory of God was free to flow into and out of her. He flowed into her and healed her heart. And healing–experiencing healing–unleashes you to really live. Now, Angela can lead with her whole truth. She has been set free. In the breaking, she discovered the reality that her story, it holds so much value. It may be the most valuable thing she has, short of Jesus Himself. John said at one point, “Others need us to acknowledge and own our own stories”. He is absolutely right. It is through shared stories that we can identify with others and find the acceptance and healing we so desperately need…

But we live in a world that throws away broken things-and broken people.

So what do we do? We tend to hide, minimize and suppress our stories. We wear the masks and fortify the walls. And prevent by our fortified walls not only our own healing, but also the healing of others who Jesus wants to reach through our stories.

John shared a passage from Bryan Stevenson’s (AMAZING) book Just Mercy (seriously-go buy it!), and it speaks beautifully about our shared brokenness:

“I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”

We have a choice. Angela made hers. She let her walls fall and let the priceless story that was hidden behind them flood out-onto and into the lives around her. She chose freedom from her self-imposed prison, and now she helps open the cells of others and leads them into the life she has found. The life of abundance that only comes on the other side of the breaking.

What will we choose? Will we have the courage to acknowledge our brokenness and move toward freedom together? Or will we hide what is most valuable about ourselves-the story that is unique to each one of us-behind fortified walls?

I pray we have the guts and grit-and grace-to step out and let our jars be broken in the presence of Jesus, so that we can see our brokenness be transformed into abundance and freedom, too.

–Laura

Angela—a name that means “messenger”, “one who has a message”. I love that! I remember when Angela showed up to our women’s class eight years ago, and when she says that she cried through the whole thing, she truly cried through the whole thing—for weeks. She barely spoke at all, and she left quickly when we were through. It’s hard to believe that the woman I just described is now the vibrant, joy-filled, message bearing woman who shared her story with us today. But that’s the beauty of the transforming power of Jesus.

There are so many things that I love about Angela’s story. Life had been hard, she was broken. As Laura wrote above, Angela had walls of self-protection that she lived within, yet she knew she was searching for something—searching for value, self-worth, love, acceptance, healthy community, purpose…

She had tried to figure out who she was, but somewhere along the way had lost touch with herself. She had tried becoming who she thought others wanted her to be in order to earn their love, and further lost herself. She had lost her voice, was unable to speak up for herself. She tried to find her sense of worth through someone else, and it all fell flat.

And then, God used a scrapbooking friend to begin having real conversations with Angela. That friend invited her to church. At church Angela was accepted exactly as she was. She didn’t have to explain her tears, she didn’t have to say anything. She was allowed to be exactly where she was, and women began to gently reach out to her. One of the women coaxed Angela into staying for the church service and promised to sit with her. After a little while, a couple of other women became Angela’s safe people in the pew. As the mask began to come off, and the walls began to come down, Angela began to experience love and acceptance. God’s healing work had begun.

Angela decided to move out of her comfort zone a bit and signed up for the church softball team. That ended up being a great choice, since she went on to marry the coach!

The softball team provided new people to get to know. From there she signed up for a small group, she volunteered in the nursery, she helped with Awana’s, signed up for a LIFE group where God set her free from past shame, in her words she broke free. Her past no longer shapes her present, she is living in the now with Jesus. From the LIFE group she went on to lead a LIFE group, and now she leads the women’s ministry in our church.  Amazing!!!

So, what do I love about this? I love that God used scrapbooking and softball in Angela’s story of redemption. It’s a reminder that God can use whatever we love to do as a means to reach people for His kingdom.

I love that I am part of a church body that refuses to “play” church—we want to be real, and Angela experienced love and acceptance when she came in. No one asked her to clean up her act or get it together because we are a body that admits we all have a story, we all have brokenness, and we all need Jesus.  We’ve learned that when we take our masks off it gives others permission to do the same, and in that environment healing is found.

I love that Angela pushed herself beyond her comfort zone, and in pushing past that fear, she found life.

When John asked Angela to share a word with us she said: We all have a story. We may be affected by choices done by others to us or choices we made ourselves—but know that Jesus loves you no matter what. You are worthy of love, of friendship.  Come out of your comfort zone. What He’s done in me is amazing, and he can do it in you too. Let go of your pride and let the walls come down. You have to learn to feel. God has so much in store for us. God has changed me, and He can change you too. You can’t be worried about what people think about you; it’s all about your relationship with God—you have to let it all go.

John reminded us that in the midst of our hiding we create a prison for ourselves—Angela experienced that—but God sees the real us hiding behind those self-made walls. He knows who we are behind the masks. He draws us out, and when we finally take our masks off and become real, we recognize others whose masks are coming off and we run to them full of compassion. It’s one of the most exhilarating parts of being a Christ follower! We truly are the fellowship of the broken, and it’s in brokenness that communion is found.

Here’s what’s true—we know the One who loves, who restores, who heals, who forgives—the world needs to know Him, and in order for Him (Jesus) to be made known we need to be the maskless. And what Jesus can do through the maskless who aren’t afraid to share their stories of brokenness and redemption is beyond our wildest dreams.

Thanks, Angela, for being maskless and showing us the beauty of Christ in you!

—Luanne

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Stories—Dave H.

Around two months ago I was praying over the state of the church in America (which I do often), I was lamenting  the fact that the Jesus portrayed by many doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the Bible; I was asking God how on earth we got so sidetracked—so mean, and asking Him to open our eyes, open our hearts, lead us to corporate repentance, and draw us back to the simplicity of the gospel message.

As I was praying, God led me to ponder one of the verses that is often used to “lead people to the Lord”—Romans 10:9  “…If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” As I thought about that verse, it dawned on me that we typically emphasize confess with your mouth  and believe in your heart, but the heart of that verse is Jesus is LORD. I believe some of us have missed that  along the way.

The word “Lord” is Kyrios in the Greek. and according to Strong’s Concordance, Lord means: He to whom a person or thing belongs…the owner; one who has control of the person; the master. 

When we surrender our lives to the lordship of Christ—we are saying, You own me. You are my master. You get to decide what my life is going to be about. I choose to obey you. That’s a concept that sounds scary and unpleasant, and would be if another human were our Lord—but belonging to Jesus and letting him lead us is where real life is found.

So, Sunday morning in our stories series, as Dave shared his story, my mind went right to this place. Dave shared with us that he was raised in church. When he was 7 or 8 years old he decided that he probably ought to be baptized, because he knew it was the right thing to do. So he went forward, said all the right things, got baptized, and left the church that morning unchanged. In his words, he went in dry and came out wet.

I can relate to that part of Dave’s story; When I was a child, our church showed a Billy Graham film during the Sunday evening service and many of my eight year old friends and I went forward at the end of that film. It seemed like the right thing to do, and I was not going to be left out! Many of my friends went on to be baptized shortly after that, but my pastor—who just so happened to be my dad—said that he wanted me to wait. I was really frustrated with him. I thought it was unfair that my friends were being baptized, but not me. In retrospect,  I am deeply grateful for my dad’s wisdom and discernment. He knew that I hadn’t had a real encounter with Jesus—I was just doing the right thing so I could be part of the group. The following summer, the real Jesus made His presence known to me in my bedroom. Can’t explain that, but He was there. I felt His love and I knew I would never be the same. I made my decision to follow Him public in my church, and was baptized a short time later. (Interestingly, even though I had a very real encounter with Jesus, when life got hard a few years later, I chose to try to be Lord of my own life (which was disastrous), but the Holy Spirit never left me alone and even though there were very real consequences to my choices, God never left me; he wooed me constantly.)

Dave confessed that he had been a pretender for a lot of years. He went to church, he even went to Bible College, but he knew that He didn’t have a relationship with God. He also knew that God was pursuing him, but he ignored God’s pursuit, tried to push it to the back of his mind. (I love that God pursues us when we don’t know Him, and he pursues us when we’ve wandered away from Him.) In Dave’s story, it took his life falling apart, bringing him to the end of himself and his perceived self-sufficiency to finally realize that his only hope was Jesus alone. He cried out—he says he literally cried, bawled his eyes out, and cried out to God. He knew, just like I did in my bedroom, that Jesus saved him in that moment and the Holy Spirit entered his life. He immediately felt peace, joy, relief, loved—all the beautiful inexplicable things that come with surrender. His life has never been the same.

That’s what happens when we come into a real relationship with Jesus. We know that something beautiful and supernatural has taken place in our lives, and we know that we will never be the same. We want Him to be Lord, to be our Master, to take control of our lives and lead us. We want to do life His way. It’s not a burden, it’s a joy.

Dave closed first service by saying these words: Some of you may be able to relate to my story. Some of you may be pretenders, running from God. If you are in that place, I would beg and urge you to get out of that place and give your life to Jesus Christ. It matters not what anyone else thinks—the only thing that matters is your personal relationship with Christ. What matters most at the end of the day is a personal relationship with Jesus. 

Dave is no longer a pretender. He says that when God became real to him, he himself became real. Many of us, who have known Dave for the last six or so years have been honored to watch him transform from the inside out. He was gruff, argumentative, and a little scary when he first came around. Now, it’s hard to describe what a gentle man he is. Joy flows out of him. His worship is uninhibited, he is full of generosity and encouragement… I love that. Nothing is better than submitting to the only true Lord, becoming the real people we were made to be, living out the purpose for which we were created. When we live that way, the fruit of that relationship spills out and over onto those around us, and it’s that love, and the kindness of the Lord that draws people to Him.

It used to be that church was part of Dave’s life, but Christ wasn’t. That is no longer the truth in Dave’s life, and the evidence of Christ in his life is real.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that ˆnot everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” 

Dave admits that in the past he went through the Christian motions, he looked okay on the outside, but his life was filled with inner turmoil, until he came into a real relationship with a very real, very loving God through Jesus. Now when he calls Jesus his Lord, it’s not just a phrase, it’s his life.

What about you? Do you really know Him? Has your life been changed because of Him? Have you done more than said words with your mouth, have you surrendered your life to Him as your Lord in the truest sense of that word? I hope so. Everything in your life hinges on this one choice. He is so worth it! Nothing compares to His love.

—Luanne

Dave said he was a “pretender” most of his life. So was I. Our stories are different, but that word and its synonyms still prick my heart a little when I hear them. Maybe that’s because a little bit of the old me still fights for life deep down in my heart. Occasionally, she surfaces. And as much as I would rather hide, God is nudging me to share a little more about my own story here. The tears welling up as I write are evidence of the resistance in my heart. This is a vulnerable, tender space… But I know that to grow, we have to be willing to risk. To risk vulnerability, to risk being misunderstood-the way Dave risked this weekend.

Like Dave, I gave my life to Jesus as a young child. I was eight years old. Soon after, I was baptized. Also like Dave, I looked like a “Christian” on the outside. But this is where our stories begin to look different. I bought my own act…

Did you know that you can get so good at pretending that you eventually believe it yourself?

I didn’t know that. I didn’t know I was pretending. I didn’t know that having a relationship with Jesus actually meant freedom from pretending and permission to be real. That wasn’t my experience. As I understood it, living for Jesus-doing it “right”-took work. A lot of work. So I waded deeper and deeper into the pool of perfectionism. I was great at it. So great at it, in fact, that it would take years before I began to see it for what it was.

I will say right here that I believe my relationship with Jesus began the day my eight-year-old little girl heart chose to accept His gift of salvation. I sensed Him, and in ways I couldn’t understand, I loved Him and longed for Him. And He accepted me right where I was, with whatever faith I had then. He pursued me throughout my childhood, He pursued me through all of my pretending, and He pursues me today. I don’t believe my salvation was in question. But I had no idea what it meant to live real.

I was in elementary school the first time someone called me “fake”. My feelings were hurt for reasons I couldn’t yet articulate. But mostly, I just didn’t understand. I was a model student, teacher’s pet, obedient daughter, nice to everyone. I read my bible and I told my friends about Jesus. I was exactly who I was expected to be. If those expectations changed, so did I. I thought that’s what good girls did

That wouldn’t be the last time the word “fake” was used to describe me. It kept happening as I grew up. I still didn’t understand, and I grew more and more defensive at the accusation. It felt mean, like an attack on my very identity. It would still be years before I began to discover what my real identity is…

Fast forward to my early twenties… As an adult, married woman with children, things looked good on the outside. I had made awful decisions as a teenager, when the perfectionism couldn’t be maintained and rebellion took over. But now, I was faithful in church, serving in multiple areas, growing in my relationship with God.

And I was exhausted. So tired of the upkeep this inner perfectionist demanded. But by now, the “fake” was so much a part of me, it was the realest thing I knew. The verse “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) became my favorite in that season of my life-I wanted that so badly. But I had no idea how to be still. There was too much to be done, too many people to perform for.

We started attending FBC in May 2010. And God, in His goodness, began to deconstruct everything I believed about Him-and about myself.

The journey has been unbelievably painful. And unexpectedly beautiful…

As I entered into life and serving at FBC, I began to hear familiar things from people who didn’t know me well. They wanted me to be real, authentic, to stop performing. And I took offense. I got defensive. The little girl who always felt like a victim was hyper-aware of how unsafe this felt. But something was different this time… These people called me out for the fraud I was-AND, they were willing to help me out of the pit. I hadn’t experienced this before. I had been accused of much in the past. I had gotten used to hearing hurtful things. But I wasn’t used to people coming alongside me in my pain and offering me the help I didn’t know I needed. The journey to becoming real-there aren’t really words to adequately capture how painful it can be. But like Dave, I found myself tired of running and desperate for Jesus. And God, in His constant, perfect pursuit of me, used people who were real to teach me what I was missing in my relationship with Him. I was never going to live into the purpose and calling He had for me until I learned who “me” really was. You know what? I found out that I actually like me. And other people do, too. God loved me at every stage of my growth, in His perfect way. But He wanted me to love me, too. To find myself within His love, as His Beloved. He knew of course, that everything flows out of the knowledge that I am fully known and fully loved by Him. And freedom would come when I was willing to be fully known and fully loved by others. And, it was only then that I was truly free to love my neighbor. All of my neighbors.

I wish I could tell you that one day I woke up and the “pretender” I’d been was completely gone, never to be seen again. But that wouldn’t be true…

I still struggle. There are times I find myself performing as I sing, rather than worshiping. Other times I gauge my gift as a writer by how many likes a blog post gets. Sometimes, I hide my hurt feelings from my friends, and ignore my own convictions in order to keep the peace. I say I’m fine when I need to reach out. I hide behind others because I’m afraid of my own calling. I don’t step out for fear that I’m still a fraud. There’s so much more to this story, so many reasons for the pretending, so many examples of how that played (and sometimes still plays) out in my life… I’ll save that for another day. For now, what’s important is what Dave said at the end of what he shared. Luanne wrote it above, and I’m writing it again because it’s just that important:

“It matters not what anybody else thinks. The only thing that matters is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. We can say the prayer, get dunked in the water, and still not submit our lives to the Lordship of Jesus. We can even think we’re doing it right, and so deceive ourselves. But when things get hard, when we find ourselves in pits of our own digging, that’s where the truth comes out. Is Jesus really ALL to us? Have we become who He knit us to be in our mother’s wombs before one of our days came to be? (Psalm 139:13-16) Or have we chosen a counterfeit version of His original creation? Have we become pretenders even in our pursuit of Him? I lived so much of my life as a pretender. I hated myself and other people weren’t too fond of me either… But what matters now is what mattered then-Jesus thought I was worth pursuing. He had more for me, like He had more for Dave. Like He has more for you. I never want to go backwards-and I pray that by His grace and constant pursuit of me, I won’t. Freedom, realness, knowing the real God-there’s nothing on earth that compares. Are you pretending? Will you let Him love you past all the striving and bravely lay down the masks so you can experience living real, too?

–Laura

brennan manning

Stories… “Arise, My God”

When a person survives a life-threatening situation, we tend to focus on the miracle. We rejoice and give thanks for God’s goodness. And that is good and beautiful and absolutely appropriate. But it’s only a glimpse of the story, an incomplete picture at best.

This weekend, we were blessed to hear the other side of a miraculous story. The parts that we don’t usually ask about, the pieces that–while they’re not often celebrated–may actually contain the greater miracles. Kent’s story is a powerful one. It is a story of a dire diagnosis-Acute Myeloid Leukemia-that took him immediately away from home and into the throes of chemotherapy and hospital living. He endured infections, septic shock and at least one night at death’s door. We have seen God show up and do the impossible time after time in Kent’s life since the day he was diagnosed. From the perspective of someone who battled in prayer for him, it seemed that God was so near, so close–that He never left Kent’s side.

And He didn’t.

But what we learned as Kent shared so transparently with us, is that he wasn’t so sure. And after hearing about the less than glamorous side of this walking miracle, I am convinced that the greater miracle is what God did in the dark…

Kent shared with us that in the beginning of this journey, he sensed God telling him, “I’m going to teach you something more”. He said that when he heard this, he expected God to take him to new heights. Instead He took him to new depths. In this unfamiliar place, God seemed different than He had before. Kent was unsure of who He was. It was a dark, fearful, lonely place, and God seemed to have a harshness to Him that Kent hadn’t known before. Have you ever been in a season like that? A dark night of the soul, when God seemed cold and distant and out of reach? I imagine you have. To varying degrees, we all have probably experienced what Kent expressed.

It is in these places, these seasons marked with confusion and the threat of chaos, that we have a choice to make. Do we succumb to the fear, the loneliness, the lack of understanding and sink into the shadows of despair? Or do we lean in, trusting in what we know to be true of our God-even when we can’t feel Him near? There is a word for the honest, grief-filled cries of the soul that rise from our depths when we choose to lean in. That word is lament. The Psalms are full of laments. There is a whole book in the Bible dedicated to them. Choosing to lament before our Father requires a willing vulnerability. To lament is to bring your tattered, worn, aching heart before God without holding anything back. To lament is to implore God to listen, to act on behalf of our grief. It is bringing our hardest questions and asking our Father. It is ugly crying. It often includes shouts and wailing and indecipherable groans. It can look and sound different for each one of us. But it is always brutally honest. And it happens during dark, uncertain times, when we’re not sure God’s even listening.

What we rarely see in the moment are the treasures that are found in the darkness.

Isaiah 45:3, in the Amplified Bible, says this:

And I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.

In a book I keep coming back to, the author talks about these “treasures”. She writes, “We do not go through dark nights of the soul for nothing. We enter into these regions to find treasures that they alone hold. Jewels and precious metals are rarely found on the surface but rather are mined deep underground. Likewise, God’s treasures are unearthed when we enter, willingly or unwillingly, into dark regions and dig deep within ourselves and within the caverns of who God really is.” (This Beloved Road, Amy Layne Litzelman)

This same author writes elsewhere, “…a season of transition always stands between where we are and where He wants to take us. Something must be left behind and something gained in order to go on… We don’t understand how we can do what He has asked of us. And yet, know this: the moment we say with Jesus, “I want Your will, not mine”, mighty and glorious grace is released for the journey ahead.” 

During Kent’s dark night of the soul, he chose to lean in, to lament. He refused to let his journey be wasted, whatever the outcome. I believe the “outcome” is multi-faceted. There are pieces of his miracle left to unfold, as is true in all of our stories. But however the rest of his story unfolds, he found treasures in his darkness. As he placed his life in the hands of a God he couldn’t even feel in the moment, glorious grace was released for his journey. He saw God differently, he found unexpected beauty in unlikely places. His story speaks to the miracle of a healed body–and it testifies to an even greater miracle: A heart renewed in the truth of who his God really is. A God who never leaves us in our loneliest moments. A God who leads us into the darkness where we would never choose to go–because He wants to give us treasures that we can find no other way.

Are you living through a season where God feels far away? May Kent’s story encourage you to lean in, lament, and hold on-there are treasures to be found…

-Laura

I cried this morning while Kent spoke. I didn’t anticipate crying, but there was such beauty in the rawness of his season in the dark that it brought me to tears. He shared with us treasures, the type of treasures that Laura wrote about above, that if we are willing, they can be gems for us as well.

John asked Kent “What’s changed?”  Kent told us that upon receiving the life altering, possibly life ending diagnosis he asked himself, “What am I living for? What is truly important?” All of a sudden the treasures of this world didn’t matter anymore, and Kent had to wrestle, even in the spiritual realm with whether he wanted the things that Jesus offers—comfort, peace, presence—or if it was Jesus himself that Kent desired.  That’s a powerful question for us to wrestle with. Is Jesus alone our treasure? Kent pointed out in first service that there were only three, out of all the people who followed Jesus, only three that went to the cross. Are we willing to go the distance with him, to the hard places with him, the dangerous places with him, because he alone is who we desire? Or do we only “follow” him to get the benefits?

Kent talked about how alone he felt. For a portion of his lengthy hospital stay, after his closest call with death when he had to be intubated and coded, he couldn’t feel the presence of God, he couldnt’ feel the power or the warmth of the Holy Spirit. He wasn’t sure in that moment who God was,  the experience felt harsh, and it didn’t feel like something a loving God would do. In addition to that spiritual isolation, anyone who entered his room had to wear a mask, gloves, a gown, booties—no one could touch him. So not only was there no sense of God’s touch, there was no human touch either. There was fear, there was confusion. Isolation.

As Laura wrote above, Kent turned to lament. He reminded us that many of the Psalms are laments, that it’s okay, it’s healthy to lament; yet in the lamenting hang on to God’s truth.

And then the unanticipated beauty—Kent asked for someone to bring him his guitar. He sat in his hospital room at night and played songs of worship and sang. He did not know it at the time, but outside his door nurses would gather and listen, some patients would gather and listen. As Kent reached through the darkness for God, God was using him to minister to others in the hospital. That’s not why he did it. Kent was honestly seeking, searching, reaching, lamenting, praising, and God was using Kent’s raw honesty to reach others on that floor. Eugene Peterson once said that the people who made the greatest difference in his life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference. Kent wasn’t trying to make a difference. He was merely being his authentic raw self—no masks, no pretense, no knowledge that God was using him—yet God was using him. What a beautiful reminder that when we walk humbly with our God, the world is impacted.

John asked Kent, “What would you say to someone who is battling today—who sees God as distant?” Kent emphatically replied that God is not distant, that He is here when we can’t feel or touch him. And then he said what may have been my favorite part of his sharing—he said that even though he couldn’t feel Jesus he got to see Jesus through the church, the body of Christ. Jesus touched Kent through our prayers, cards, text messages, visits, and Kent reminded us that this is what we are about. This is what the church is to be about. He encouraged those who may want to isolate, to stay connected because the Church truly is the hands and feet of Jesus—we are how the hurting get touched. Kent shared with us other major events from his own life, he called them “possible soul destroying” events, but his soul wasn’t destroyed because Jesus showed his love in each of those hard seasons through the body of Christ.

Then he reminded us that the church has a choice.  He said, “We can bless or we can curse and both go a long way. Be a blessing to those around you; love, pray, reach out, touch—it’s not about condemnation, it’s about calling people to a higher place…We know Jesus redeems but it’s the body that puts the touch to Jesus’ redemption…we point people to Jesus by being him.” 

I don’t know what those words do to you. I know that they fan the flame in me. My passion for Jesus’ prayer “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is really this simple. Know the Jesus of the gospels well enough to be Jesus to those around you. All others.  Bless, lift up, love, touch, reach out, listen to,  pray with, pray for, don’t condemn, don’t curse…we point people to Jesus by being him.  Can you imagine if the entire capital “C” Church made this our mission? That’s what I want my life to be about. How about you?

—Luanne

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Stories

 

 

Communion: derived from com “with”, and  unus “oneness, union”

When Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it, he was making a grand statement. The word thanks in this passage (Luke 22:19)  is the Greek word eucharisteo which literally means thanks and grace. If you’ve read Ann Voskamp’s beautiful book One Thousand Gifts you know that she breaks down that word by telling us that

-the root word of eucharisteo is charis– the Greek word for grace;

-the root word of charis is chara, the Greek word for joy.

So grace, giving thanks, and joy are all tied up in this one word. Jesus gave thanks—this incredible grace recognizing, rooted in joy thanks–right before he broke the bread. Right before he said “This is my body broken for you.” less than 24 hours before he would be hanging broken on a cross offering himself for us in a very literal, grace filled way.

John shared his personal story with us, told us about the Sunday morning a little over six years ago when he had to confess his sin before the church, and the beautiful way that Jesus came to him in a vision later that day, offering John communion–the bread, the cup–and John said that Jesus was not mad at him, but offered communion with grace, with warmth, with compassion. Jesus came to John in his brokenness.

We were in a dark season, John and I. He was beginning to find freedom and healing once his sin was brought out into the light. I, on the other hand, entered the darkest season of my adult life. Twice I contemplated suicide. When I realized that I could not end my own life, I begged God to kill me. I begged Him for weeks. He said no. Then I begged Him to release me from my vows. He again said no. So I yelled at Him, then do not waste this pain!!  I did not know how I was going to make it through that season of my life. I couldn’t imagine ever experiencing joy again.  But just like Jesus met John in his brokenness, he met me too.

It was winter, the days were short. After work I would go to my room, turn off the lights, turn on the electric fireplace, lay on the floor in the dark with worship music on and cry, and pray, and listen. I can’t describe what happened, but Jesus was there. I was not alone. He ministered to me in my brokenness. He met me where I was. He didn’t condemn me for being broken, for being devastated. For about a month he just sat with me. Then, one night, the song “Dance With Me oh Lover of My Soul” came on, and just like John’s vision of Jesus offering him communion, I had a vision of Jesus with his hand stretched out to me asking me to dance. I got up off the floor and danced with Jesus. I can’t explain that, but I can tell you that it was a holy moment, and the first moment that light began to enter my darkness.

Brokenness. None of us desire it. But Jesus, in His brokenness invited us into real life. His broken body, his poured out blood are an invitation to take off our masks, enter in just as we are, accept his extended hand, see this communion for what it is–Jesus’ marriage proposal to us. And we get to respond by eating the bread and drinking the cup as a way of saying “Jesus, I accept  your life and I give you mine in return.”

His extended hand offering a broken man communion. His extended hand offering a broken woman a dance to the song of all songs. His extended hand offered to you, asking you to remove your mask, and enter into the most beautiful relationship ever. Grace. Thanksgiving. Joy. Will you accept? Will you offer yourself in return? Will you enter in?

–Luanne

In January 2012, I read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts, that Luanne referenced. It changed my life. For real. I had never heard the word “eucharisteo” before–now I wear a bracelet almost every day that bears the inscription. Because I don’t ever want to forget. I don’t want to forget that gratitude and grace and joy-they all come together at the Eucharist, the table of our Lord’s Supper. I don’t want to forget that gratitude precedes the miracle every. single. time. I don’t want to forget that naming everyday graces as gifts-the daily practice of thanksgiving-reorients my heart toward the Giver of everything, of every breath I take… It became part of the fabric of my heart, the rhythm of my life. And then, life got really hard. Really, really hard. As I thought through what I would write this week, I remembered a piece I wrote three years ago, called “The Dance of Grief and Gratitude”.  Interestingly, I even used the same scripture in it that John used in his sermon this week. So, I thought I would share some excerpts from that piece here-a window into my heart during a time when I was violently wrestling with brokenness and gratitude and how in the world they went together. God had asked me during that season, more than once, if I would thank Him now, when my world was broken-when I was desperately broken, too. I was vehemently opposed. This is a glimpse into my process through my dark night of the soul…

“I forgot. As time passed, I started to forget. This practice of gratitude, of counting gifts, remembering His goodness, it became a “sometimes” practice. And by the time my life began to turn a corner and loss started to come into view, my vision was cloudy and I had soul-amnesia. I didn’t hold fast to the truth of who God is and all He has done. I didn’t take hold of the truth of His goodness in everything.

So when I grieved the loss of a perceived calling, when I grieved the recurrence of a monster disease and eventually the early death of my precious mother, the last thing I wanted to do was thank this God who had allowed the pain that tore my heart and soul into a million tattered pieces…but…

True gratitude requires death. Death to myself, to my own will, to the way I would do things if it were up to me. True gratitude recognizes that each moment we are given, full of things we perceive as good or full of what we would call bad, is a gift from the hands of our Father. Not one breath is guaranteed. Every second is grace.

Every second? Did I really believe that?

As I tried to come to grips with the freshly re-surfaced question, I re-read words that I had forgotten…

‘ “On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread and gave thanks to God for it…” (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Jesus, on the night before the driving hammer and iron piercing through ligament and sinew, receives what God offers as grace…? Oh. Facing the abandonment of God Himself, Jesus offers thanksgiving for even that which will break Him and crush Him and wound Him and yield a bounty of joy.’ (One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp)

Jesus gave thanks with the cross in view. With death creeping ever closer. With the knowledge of all that he would face in a matter of hours. He opened His hands, and not only did He receive the bitter, the hard that God had given, but He did so with a heart full of thanks.

On the next page of Ann’s book, she writes, “The Eucharist invites us to give thanks for the dying. To participate in His death with our own daily dying and give thanks for it… I lay the torn bread on the tongue and I remember and press it to the roof of my mouth and the bread melts and I give thanks for the dying”.

I give thanks for the dying…

How, Lord? How do I give thanks for the dying? How do I say thank you for pain, disease and death? For facing the rest of my life without my Mom? How do I do that?

Ephesians 5:20 says ‘…always giving thanks to God the Father for all things…’. All things. Even this.

The tears fall raw and wild as I remember words I read in my Mom’s journal not long after she died. ‘Thank you, God, for the RA and the Pulmonary Fibrosis.’ I remembered her last few days with us, her understanding and acceptance of what was ahead. She said, more times than I could possibly count, ‘Glory to God for the life that I’ve lived. I choose to live for Him-whether it’s here or in Heaven’. And she meant it. She understood that we all have an expiration date, that death is guaranteed as a result of life. And she thanked God for it all. Even for the murderous disease that took her life…

To respond to every moment that flows from the hands of God with gratitude is the hardest thing of all. To see every moment as grace-every single second-is anything but easy. Because it is an opening of my hands to receive whatever God chooses to give, whether bitter or sweet to my tongue. It says, ‘You alone are God. I am not. I trust you enough to take you at your Word. That you are a good God. Purely good. And the things in life that don’t feel good now, you can make good out of those, too’. When I respond to God with gratitude, I lower myself. I remember that I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve another breath…but He gives it. I don’t deserve any grace… “But He gives more grace” (James 4:6a) I am reminded that I was bought with a price by a God-man who gave thanks for all things, even in death, and how could I ever be anything but grateful when I’ve been given a gift like that?”

I wish I could say that in the three years since I wrote that, I haven’t forgotten. But I have. I do. Sometimes, I forget the power of eucharisteo, forget to live grateful and aware of the gifts that God gives. Sometimes, I pick up a mask and slap it on-covering the image of Jesus that’s being forged in me as I learn to live fully alive in Him. I had to lay one down today, in fact. Before I came to the table, I came to the feet of my Jesus and confessed again my brokenness, this mask I had picked up. I laid my heart before Him and do you know what happened? He met me in that space. He was there drawing me long before I made the decision to come. It’s what He always does. He is always inviting, always beckoning us to come to the table…

When we are most broken, Jesus offers us His broken body and spilled blood to fill in and repair our most shattered places. He comes to us, the ever-faithful groom, and He lifts the veil of all of our masks, and extends the invitation again: “Will you take all that I am and let it invade and cover and complete all that you are not? Will you give me your broken, depleted, sin-stained life so that I can give you my abundant, whole, forever life? Will you embrace dying to yourself so that you can wake to your real, unmasked life in me? Will you? I choose you-in all of your brokenness-to be my beloved bride-do you take me to be your groom?”

What response can our broken, tattered hearts give but a humbled and grateful, “I do”?

–Laura

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Why Is It…?

Why is it so hard to love others?

Ron opened this week’s message with this question. Scripture is full of the Jesus’ mandate to love each other. In Mark 12:31, He tells us that after loving God, there is only one other commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself”. In John 13:34-35, He tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another“. And in Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. And in John 15:12, Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we get the idea. Jesus was pretty clear. We are to love one another.

So, why is it so hard? Ron gave us four reasons why it is challenging to love others:

We have to become vulnerable. 

We risk being rejected

It requires removing conditional barriers.

Some have never experienced authentic love.

When we choose vulnerability, we put our well-being in someone else’s hands. Becoming vulnerable not only requires lowering our defenses–it requires us to completely lay them aside, to open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded. One way we can be wounded in our vulnerability comes in the form of rejection. I don’t know about you, but there is little else that has wounded me as deeply as being rejected for who I am. The pain is deep, and when we’ve experienced it once, we become wary of putting ourselves in any position where it could happen again.

But this is what love requires of us…

Choosing to love the way that Jesus calls us to love requires a willing vulnerability. A vulnerability that is keenly aware of the potential for rejection–but chooses to love anyway.

What does this Jesus way look like? Ron gave us some examples. Jesus love looks like…

…reaching out to touch the leper that society-and the law-had deemed “unclean”. (Matthew 8)

…choosing mercy over judgement when the law of the land required stoning the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:2-11)

Jesus stood in the gap for these two–and so many others that we meet on the pages of Scripture. He put Himself in vulnerable positions over and over and over again to align Himself with those who were even more vulnerable in society. He willingly stepped into situations where He would find Himself accused, mocked, rejected, hated. And He tells us to love others in the very same way. He asks us to lay down our defenses and stand in the gap in the name of loving one another,  loving our neighbor. And our neighbor is everyone. Everyone that bears the image of God.

As I listened to the message, I remembered a story from scripture that we don’t talk about all that often. But it is quite possibly the key moment in our even having most of the New Testament available to us today…

Not long after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem. Here is the account from Acts 9:26-29, out of the Message:

Back in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name. After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name.

Saul had arrested, persecuted and sanctioned the murder of countless Jesus followers. He had a past. People were afraid of him-so much so, that many were unwilling to give him a chance. This is what he faced when he came to Jerusalem. His reputation preceded him.

But someone stood in the gap… 

What would have happened if Barnabas had been unwilling to be vulnerable, unwilling to risk his own reputation to vouch for Saul? Thankfully, we’ll never know. Because after Barnabas spoke up and stood in the gap for Saul (who would become Paul), Saul was “accepted as one of them” and he went on to plant churches and preach the Kingdom of Heaven and write a massive portion of our New Testament. All because someone was willing to oppose popular opinion.

Are we willing to do the same? Are we willing to vouch for the humanity of another when it means we may be criticized, rejected, even hated? To push back against the labels society has given–the way that Jesus did over and over again? So that someone who is even more vulnerable than we are might be given a chance, a fresh start? Will we choose to love by looking beyond the dirty exterior into the Image of God that all of humanity bears–the way that God looks beyond our own dirtiness to see His own image in each of us? I hope that we can say yes. Yes, we will choose to love the way that Jesus loved us-by laying our lives down for one another. By choosing vulnerability and risking rejection because we know that God’s love is the only thing that ever changes anyone. May we be vessels that His life-changing love can flow through to change the world…

–Laura

Ron’s question–Why is it so hard to love?  My answer–Because it’s stinking hard!

Loving God’s way is impossible apart from the Spirit of God. God’s very essence is love, so in order to be able to have godly love, His essence, His character must dwell in me, and in order for His character to dwell in me, I must be filled with Him. How I would love to say that I  live this way consistently–but I can’t.

I love that Laura brought up Barnabas and his vulnerability in being obedient to God by befriending Saul of Tarsus.   Acts 4:36 tells us that his given name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him the nickname Barnabas which means ‘son of encouragement’. In Acts 11:24 we learn that Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith

I sometimes ponder, if my life was summed up in a couple of phrases–would full of the Holy Spirit be one of them?  Full of the Holy Spirit indicates full of love.

None of the verses Ron used in his sermon were unfamiliar, none of the verses Laura references above are unfamiliar, “God is love” is not unfamiliar. We know this in our heads, but living it out in our lives becomes intrinsically more difficult. When Ron talked about the way Jesus loved Judas, even knowing that Judas was going to betray him, it pierced my heart.  I pray for God’s love to reach members of ISIS, of world leaders, of human traffickers, but Jesus shared life with Judas, shared bread with Judas, didn’t talk negatively about him to the other disciples. He loved him. And I feel sure, if Judas hadn’t taken his own life, that Jesus would have gone to him after his resurrection and loved him then too–just like He did with Peter. It’s the close proximity people who challenge my loving well. If I think someone might hurt me, my self-protective barrier goes up, my wall goes up–and that’s not loving the Jesus way.

I think there’s an important nugget for us in the story of Judas.  Luke 22:3 makes it clear that “Satan entered Judas”, but what made Judas susceptible to that attack?  Was it a love of money? Was it frustration that Jesus was not setting up an earthly kingdom? Was he mad about not being part of the inner circle of Peter, James, and John? We don’t know. What we do know is that he separated himself from the rest of the disciples for a time. What were the disciples doing that day? Preparing for the Passover. What was Judas doing? Visiting with the Chief Priest and coming up with a betrayal plan, which ultimately destroyed his own life.

Here’s the nugget. We have got to guard our hearts fiercely! We have to stay connected to the body of Christ. We must be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to search us daily, and confess those areas that don’t line up with God’s desire, and we have to choose to love.  We have an enemy who is seeking people to devour (1 Peter 5:8), and the moment we let our guard down, we are susceptible to all kinds of destructive things.  Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience.

So, how do we choose love? How do we truly love God and love others–even our enemies?

I once sat across the table from a man who was going to lead a student conference for us in Brazil. While we were discussing things, he said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that we are not capable of loving God the way God wants to be loved, so we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God well–to love Himself through us. Think about that for a second. Have you ever asked God to love Himself through you? I never had, but I think this man is right. God makes it clear that He loves us. Responding to that love with love is where it all begins–and it’s a Spirit thing…the fruit of the Spirit is love….(Gal 5:22) . 

So how does it happen? No doubt, there is mystery involved, but God tells us that we receive the Spirit of Christ when we receive Christ (Romans 8:9). We learn that the Spirit can be quenched (1st Th. 5;19) that He can be grieved (Eph 4:30),  that we can ask for Him (Luke 11:13), and that being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) is what we are to be about.   And the evidence that we are filled goes back to Galatians 5:22–His fruit will be evident in our lives, it will be the natural outflow–and Jesus tells his followers in Luke 6:43-45 and Matthew 7:15-19 that we will be recognized as His followers, or not,  by our fruit.

Paul tells us, in the famous “love” chapter (1st Corinthians 13) that it is possible for us to do all kinds of things, like speak in tongues, prophesy, fathom mysteries and knowledge, have faith that moves mountains, give everything we have to the poor, allow ourselves to go through hardship  but if we have not love…we are nothing. 

Then Paul describes what love in action looks like–patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered,  keeps no record of wrongs, doesn’t delight in evil, rejoices with truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,  – love never fails.  

Do we believe this to be true? Are we willing to step out of the self-righteous, hate spewing, grudge bearing culture that we live in–humble ourselves, choose the Jesus way, and let Him love through us, even if it costs us dearly?

Holy Spirit, we need your help! In this day of division, labels, hate, vitriolic  comments, may we, Your people, choose a different way by choosing to allow you to fill us and choosing to allow You to love others through us–all others. Your love is the only thing that will change this world. May we allow you to change us, and use us to love others well.

–Luanne

God’s Guidance

I had a delightful friend in college who was born blind. She was very independent, lived in the dorm, used a cane, and got around remarkably well. One evening I was looking out the window of my dorm room and saw her heading toward the normal sidewalk that would take her to the commons; however, this particular evening someone had parked their car on the striped “no parking” lines and had blocked the sidewalk. Jana tapped her way along her normal route, but the car in that spot threw her off and she became disoriented. I didn’t even take the time to put on shoes, and ran as quickly as I could down the stairs and out of the dorm to offer her assistance. I explained to her what had happened, offered her my arm, and we headed to the commons together, having great conversation as we went.

It has been a long time since I’ve thought about that incident, but it popped right into my head when John read Isaiah 42:16: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them: I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.”

God’s guidance–what a gift!

I don’t know if we post-resurrection Jesus followers truly understand the incredible gift we have. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God wasn’t in common people. Some people were anointed by the Spirit and they gave God’s message to others. Sometimes God sent angelic beings to speak to people, but the majority of the people had no intimate connection with God, so seeking His guidance was difficult. If there was no “anointed” person around, the people floundered. In the book of Judges, verses 17:6 and 21:25  tell us that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”,  which led them into bondage and misery.

But God had a plan. Through the prophet Ezekiel God told us, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (36:26-27) 

Jesus reiterates the same promise in John 14:16-17 when he tells his disciples “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever–the Spirit of truth…you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  

Back to my story with Jana–I could have watched Jana in her confusion hoping that she’d get it figured out on her own, or I could have opened the window and hollered instructions to her, but indifference or instruction from a distance wouldn’t have sufficed. Presence, proximity, and physical contact were what was needed, and it was a joy to be able to assist her in that way.

If we look closely at the Ezekiel and John verses, they imply incredible intimacy. The word “put” implies a hands on action, and His Spirit in us…it’s mind blowing–deeply personal, deeply intimate. Words will never be able to express the awe-inspiring greatness of that reality.

Guidance implies proximity and movement. I went to Jana, got near her.  She took my arm, and I led her to her destination. It would have been silly for us to just stand there. The same is true in our relationship with Christ.

The Holy Spirit is in those who have submitted their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and one of His roles is to guide us, not from afar, but in “within us” nearness. The Holy Spirit is very much alive, very much active; He knows where we are headed and He knows how to get us there.  He works in tandem with the word of God to lead us where He wants us to go. Hunting guides, fishing guides, trail guides etc. are all present in their guiding. They teach, they lead, they guide. The role of the follower is to listen, to imitate, to follow. Independence will not serve the follower well.

The Holy Spirit is present and longing to be our guide. Do we take time to seek Him? Do we make time to be still and listen?  Independence will not serve us well. God has a mission for us. Will we take His arm and let Him lead?

–Luanne

Luanne articulated that it would have been silly for her and Jana to just stand there, not moving, and that the same is true in our relationships with Christ. And yet… is that not exactly what we do much of the time? John took it one step further Sunday when he said that not moving when God is trying to lead us is actually disobedience. I don’t think we are often deliberately disobedient in our walks with Christ, (although, admittedly, there are times I have told Him no when I knew he required my yes–so grateful for grace!) but it’s easier than we may readily realize to find ourselves in a stance of disobedience.

John articulated one of the reasons we can find ourselves standing still as fear of doing it wrong. This is a huge part of my story. I spent most of my life drowning in seas of insecurity, feeling incapable and worthless and just plain not enough. So when God began to ask me to step out and let Him lead me deeper into the waves, my first instinct was to dig in my heels and rattle off all of the reasons why I couldn’t. Honestly? Sometimes that’s still my first instinct. The fear of doing it wrong–whatever “it” is in any given season–is a formidable obstacle. If we don’t understand the heart of our God.

I was there. I was living out of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than the tree of life. The tree of striving and performing even while knowing it’s never going to be good enough, instead of the tree that reminds us that Jesus is the good enough we can never be. He offers His more than enough through the power of His Spirit to equip us to follow where He leads. But if we don’t understand the tender heart of the Shepherd toward His sheep, it’s easy to stand still out of fear rather than respond to His voice. So what is His heart toward us as He leads us? Here are just a few examples…

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40:11

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soulHe guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Psalm 23:2-3

The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frameYou will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:11

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26

In these four verses, we read that God tends to us, gathers and carries and gently leads us, makes us lie down and refreshes our souls. He satisfies our needs and strengthens our frames. And His Spirit helps us in our weakness and even intercedes for us when we can’t find the words to pray. This is Who we follow. And when we see Him, when we begin to grasp the extravagant gift of His Spirit residing IN us, fear of doing it wrong fades as we realize that we never had the ability to do it right on our own and we never will. It is only through the power of His Spirit and the living guidance of His word that we can follow where He leads. And that frees us up to take the next step. Because it was never meant to be done in our own power. In fact, “taking the next step” isn’t all our own doing either…

If Jesus is truly our Lord, if we have submitted our lives to Him, then His Spirit lives within us. In the Ezekiel 36 passage Luanne included, God says “…I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow…”. There are two actions mentioned here–“put” and “move”. God puts His Spirit in us in a holy transaction that brings our dead souls to life. AND, He moves us to follow. So our “next step” is never taken in our own strength. God moves us to follow Him, “For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 Amplified).

What a good Father He is… He sent Jesus to die so we could live. He gave us His Spirit so we will never walk alone. He gives us the longing and the ability to do what He is calling us to do so we never have to muster up the “want to” or strive beyond our capabilities… He works within us and moves us–even when we feel paralyzed by fear. And even when we try to run the other way, far from Him, He never leaves us. Because we serve a God who is with us. A God who makes His home inside of us. This is the God who leads us. Will we surrender our fearful hearts to the One who is already holding them in His tender, loving hands?

–Laura

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Divine Delays

I imagine we can all relate to the frustration of seemingly unanswered prayers. Prayers that we have been praying for a LONG time… Prayers we have gotten tired of praying… John spoke to us this weekend about these delays–the time between our prayers and God’s answers. John told us that in the delays, God desires to increase our faith, vision, testimony and compassion. He highlighted many accounts of Jesus responding to various requests in different ways in Matthew 8 & 9.

Have you ever thought about what life would be like without these delays? If we received what we asked for when we asked for it? This thought crossed my mind as I listened to the message:

Without delays, our requests become demands, our prayers become a formula and we never mature into all that God created us to be.

Not only would we miss out on the increase of our faith, vision, testimony and compassion that John spoke about–we would also miss out on the extravagant, intentional plans of “…Him who is able to [carry out His purpose and] do superabundantly more than all that we dare ask or think [infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes, or dreams], according to His power that is at work within us…” (Ephesians 3:20 Amplified Bible) I’m not an expert, but to me the words “infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes or dreams” tell me that I can’t possibly begin to fathom the answers God is preparing in response to my prayers.

But that’s hard to remember when life is crashing down on us, isn’t it? When we feel like the caterpillar in the cocoon–bound, squeezed, uncomfortable and in the dark–it’s hard to live into the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today. We know that there is a day coming when all will be set right. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” But we forget that the Kingdom of Heaven, eternity, exists in the reality of today. If we are willing to live into the tension–to stay put in the cocoon of today until our wings are ready for the tomorrow that God is preparing for us.

John began his message with the story of the leper in Matthew 8:2-3:

A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

The word “willing” appears twice in these two verses and it caught my attention, as is always the case when it comes to this particular word. In these verses, it’s the willingness of Jesus we read about. But I believe there is an implied willingness on the part of the leper as well… He–an “unclean”, marginalized leper–came to Jesus, knelt at His feet and identified Him as “Lord”. He then proceeded to say “IF you are willing…”. He came to Jesus with faith that He could heal him. But he humbled himself before Him and placed his future in His hands. He did not demand. He was willing to receive whatever Jesus deemed appropriate, with a faith that believed and trusted regardless of the outcome.

Do we present our requests, our prayers to Jesus with a heart that is willing to receive whatever He deems appropriate? In His time?

Interestingly, one of my devotions this morning was titled “Willing to be Filled”. It highlighted the seasons of life when we feel like empty, unfilled vessels. The point was that during seasons of transition–seasons when we haven’t received the direction, the answers, the purpose we’ve been asking for–we can choose to be vessels that are empty but available. WillingThe author challenges readers to ask ourselves four questions:

Am I willing to be used in ways I’ve never thought of?

Am I willing to fulfill a destiny I don’t yet know?

Am I available to His plans and purposes?

Am I available for more of God, Himself?

She concludes with these words… “At the perfect moment, God will fill you with Himself yet more, making you complete in new ways.” 

Without the delays, there is no completion. Without time in the cocoon, the wings don’t develop. And if we’re not willing to receive whatever God chooses to give, we are likely missing out on an answer that is exceedingly, abundantly beyond what we could ever ask Him for or even imagine. May we be willing to live in the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today.

–Laura

May we be willing to live in the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today.  The tension…

I was seeing a wonderful Christian counselor a few years ago, and all over her office were ampersands (&). She taught me that life is lived in the tension of the “and”. Our lives are not lived in black and white, but in gray. Two simultaneously opposing things can both be true, and both be happening at the same time.  One does not invalidate the other.

I love God deeply and desire to live for Him, and I make selfish decisions that put me at the center of my life.  Both are true.  All of us have great capacity for good, and great capacity for evil. So the fact that Laura highlighted the tension between the promise of tomorrow and the delays of today struck me, because this is where life is lived–in the tension.  The question then becomes, what do we do in that space, how do we live?

John highlighted the story of Jesus sleeping in the boat while the disciples assumed that He didn’t care about them and was going to let them drown. (Mt. 8:23-26).  I’ve been there.  I’ve been so disillusioned by God that I’ve tried to walk away. I’ve been so disillusioned by God that I chose the path of self-destruction for ten years of my life. The battle raging within over trying to reconcile my personal suffering and grief with a loving, good God was fierce. I was stuck in polarized thinking–God had to either be good and loving, or mean and evil, and I chose the latter during that season.

I was almost thirty before God and I had a wrestling match of colossal proportions, and I finally fully surrendered to the truth that God is good; He is not just loving, but His very essence is love AND suffering is a very real component of life on a fallen planet.

I don’t like the suffering piece of that statement. I don’t imagine any of us do. Yet, the truth that we never suffer alone, that God will not only minister to us in our seasons of suffering, but will transform us more into the likeness of Christ through our suffering, if we are willing, is huge. He is the God who makes beauty out of ashes. He is the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.  He is the God of the promise of never will I leave you or forsake you. AND He is the God who knows the beginning from the end, He is the God who is sovereign, and He is the God working in the delays for His glory and our good. He is the God who is ever present in the tension.

As much as I long to see Jesus face to face, I am very very grateful that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”   (2 Peter 3:9)  

I am deeply grateful for the people who were praying for me during my season of self-destruction. I was the subject of their divine delay.  I have people now in my life who are the subjects of divine delays. I long to see them come into fellowship with Christ, to experience His embrace, His grace, His freedom, His forgiveness, and discover the purpose that He has for them in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through their unique gifts and talents. Yet, for this season, I love, I pray, I wait, AND I hold on to His promises even though I can’t see what He’s doing behind the scenes.

John read a beautiful quote by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that spoke volumes to me. It begins with the phrase: Above all, trust in the slow work of God, and ends with: Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.  Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. 

Give our Lord the benefit of believing. Give our Lord the benefit.

Benefit—an act of kindness. (Merriam Webster)

Are we willing to be kind and patient toward the Lord as He does His slow work? It all comes down to trust. To willingness. To surrender. May we live patiently in the tension of the “and”,  as we walk with Him.

–Luanne

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