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

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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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