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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