This I Know: A Parent’s Priority

Any of us who have raised or are raising children figure out pretty quickly that they don’t come with an instruction manual. If we have more than one child, we figure out that each one is unique, that what works with one doesn’t necessarily work with another one, and that parenting is hard, can be confusing, and many times we are just trying to make it through the day without losing our minds. It’s hard to keep a greater goal or purpose in mind. If you are a parent, and I were to ask you what you want for your children, how would you respond? Many times I hear the response, “I just want my children to be happy.” While I don’t think any of us would say that we want our children to be unhappy, is that the best we can give them?

Pastor John shared that a parent’s priority is to gradually transfer a child’s dependence away from them until it rests solely on God He encouraged us to love intently and lead intentionally. He gleaned those truths from Deuteronomy 6:5-9.

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NLT)

This I know–God loves us and desires that we respond by loving Him in return. Loving God is also at the heart of transformative parenting. Loving God with all that we are, living that relationship out in front our children, and having God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times helps us in the process of transferring our children’s dependence from ourselves God. Talking about God with our kids doesn’t have to be weird or stilted. Look for opportunities that fit naturally with what is going on in the moment. There are moments in everyday life that lend themselves very easily to conversations about God. For example, spring has finally come to Wyoming; our trees have green leaves on them, as a matter of fact, between trees, grass, border plants, and my herb garden, there are multiple shades of green on display. It’s not hard to talk about God’s creativity just by pointing out the multiple shades of green. We also have lilacs and tulips in bloom. The colors are gorgeous. We are surrounded by beauty that God created for God’s glory and for our delight. Get close to a tree, study the leaves and notice that while each one is similar, no two are alike. Neither are two of us alike. Nature gives us incredible opportunity to discuss God’s love and character.  Ask God to show you how to naturally share God’s attributes and character with your children throughout the day. The ways are endless. Then as they grow, and they begin to have questions about God, listen, converse; if they ask you things that you don’t have answers for, tell them that’s a great question and seek answers together. If the questions are unanswerable because we’re human and God is God, teach about what it means to have faith. If dark seasons come, wrestle openly, let your children see that sometimes life is hard and we adults have questions too. Pray with them. Intercede for others with them. Share with them insights from your personal time with God. Let them see your dependence on God and your relationship with God lived out in real time.

You may be saying to yourself–yes, those are good tips, but the verses above don’t talk about that, they talk about God’s commands. That would be correct, so let’s look at those commands for a moment.

In our modern existence, the concrete display of the ten commandments in public places has become a thing over which people have lawsuits. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind. Others use them as a behavioral litmus test and permission to point fingers at others who “break” a commandment. I’m pretty sure that’s not what God had in mind either. I heard a sermon once that reshaped my thoughts around the commandments and made a lot of sense to me which I’ll share below. First,  I’m going to paraphrase the commandments, but feel free to look up them up in Deuteronomy 5 or Exodus 20.

First, God tells us to love Him with all we are (heart, soul and mind) and not to worship any other gods. I think we worship other gods all the time, but don’t recognize it for what it is. We live in a consumeristic society and we worship possessions, wealth, comfort, famous people, politicians, ideologies, sports teams, our own nation, our children, and ourselves.  The things that we pursue often show what we worship. What would our children say we worship based on our priorities and pursuits?

God tells us not to misuse his name. Again, that can happen in many different ways. Obviously, there is cursing which involves the name of God, but God’s name can also be misused by imposing our interpretations of God (which don’t line up with God as revealed in Christ) on others. We can misuse God’s name by misusing scripture to manipulate situations. We can misuse God’s name by portraying images of Him that aren’t accurate such as the man upstairs, the lightening bolt god who’s just waiting to punish every wrong deed, the Santa Claus god who exists to give us everything we ask for, or any other man-made portrayal. How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children? Loving? Cruel? Distant? Near? Caring? Harsh? Authoritarian? Permissive? Uninvolved? Kind? Angry? Punitive? Forgiving? Scripture tells us that God’s nature and character is love, and that God’s boundaries and guidelines are for our good. Would our children know that based on how we parent and how we portray God to be?

God tells us to rest. We’re lousy at this. In the Deuteronomy account of the 10 commandments, God reminds the people that they used to be slaves, but they were brought into freedom; as a reminder of their freedom they can rest. We are free in Christ.  We can rest. We can take a day off. The revolution of the earth is not on our shoulders. Life will continue after we are gone. The world won’t fall apart if we take a day off. Resting, ceasing for awhile, even while there is work still to be done,  is a beautiful declaration of dependence on God. It’s also a reminder of His love for us–it’s good for us physically, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. We are commanded to rest and spend time with those we love.

God tells us to honor our parents. None of us had perfect parents, and that’s not the point. To honor them means to value their role, to have respect toward them in our attitudes and actions, and to respect their position. We can do that even if we have difficult parents. I’m certainly not a perfect parent, and I remember telling my children that we could discuss anything as long as we did so respectfully; if they disagreed with one of my decisions, they could certainly let me know; however, they needed to approach the situation with respect. Parents, it also helps if we are willing to apologize when we need to, to change our minds when we need to, to treat our children with respect and to honor them as image bearers of God.

In the remaining commandments God tells us not to murder people, not to commit adultery, not to steal from others, not to lie about others, and not to want what others have–their spouses or their stuff.

If we take the time to reflect on the theme that runs throughout these commandments, they are all about valuing relationships. Value your relationship with God first and foremost, and then value your relationships with other people. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40)

The commandments are all about relationships. So, when we are encouraged in Deuteronomy 6 to repeat them again and again to our children, to talk about them at home and on the road, to tie them on our heads and hands as reminders (could heads be a reminder about our thoughts and hands a reminder about our actions?), to have them on our doorposts and our gates (reminders at our entrances and exits into our homes and into our communities) what is it that we are to repeat again and again? Is it a list of dos and don’ts– or how to love God and others?

If we believe it’s about teaching our children how to love God and others, then we must ask ourselves how we are doing with that in our personal lives?  A long time ago, my husband and I were having a beautiful conversation with a friend, Jeff,  who shared with us, that in our flesh we are incapable of loving God the way he desires, so he prayed that God would love himself through him (Jeff) and love others through him. Try praying that, if you are struggling to love God. If you grew up in an environment where love was manipulative, or withheld, ask God to teach you about His love–Jesus, and the ways that he interacted with people, is a great place to start. If your heritage and lineage is not full of stellar parenting examples, choose to be the one who changes it for the generations that come after you. I’ve learned a lot from other parents along the way. It’s okay to seek help. We need one another. 

My children are all young adults, and John and I did the best we could, but we know that we didn’t parent perfectly. Gratefully, our kids have felt secure in our love despite the times we didn’t measure up. I’ve told all of my children that we know we didn’t do it perfectly and that if they ever need to seek counseling for wounds we may have caused, we won’t feel threatened by that at all. Our desire for them is that they be healthy and whole in all ways, spiritually, physically, and emotionally.   My prayer for each of my children is, and has been, that they fall deeply in love with Jesus and go wherever he leads them. I trust God to meet them where they are, and pray that they discover that God is their source for everything.  God is the best parent of all so teaching our children to love and depend on Him is the best priority we can have as parents–this I know.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “This I know–God loves us and desires that we love Him in return.  I also know that the heart of transformative parenting is for parents to love God with all that we are, to live that relationship out in front our children, and to have God’s presence and goodness before our children at all times.” She also asked us this question:

“How do we see God and what type of god do we portray to our children…?

How we see God matters. It matters in every area of our lives. The way we view ourselves hinges on how we see God. The way we view the current issues in our world is deeply connected to how we see God. Our understanding of God has been built by those who “parented” us when we were young–for better or for worse. Many of us grew up with mixed messaging about who God is and what he wants for/from us. Some of us grew up with a beautiful picture of a loving God, full of grace. Others grew up under the weight of a punitive, angry, and critical God. All of us are, at least in part, products of the various “parents” in our lives. And we are raising, or have raised, children who are products of our parenting, for better, for worse–and probably a mix of both.

We model and mirror what we believe. The way we understand God, our picture of who he is, is transferred to our kids as they watch us parent them. Our perception of God becomes their truth. Our influence, especially in their younger years, is foundational. Their belief system will, at least initially, mirror what they see in us. What we model to them about the character of God is what they will hold as true about him. Children don’t have another point of reference when they’re young. We are their introduction to authority figures, their first picture of what parents look like. Their picture of God is constructed with the material we give them–what we model and mirror.

Our influence as parents (and simply as adults who “mother” and “father” those around us) is strong. That’s why it is so important that we have an authentic relationship with the God we say we believe in. Going to church every Sunday so we can check it off of our list is not the same as having a living, breathing relationship with our God. If we go for show, we mirror to our children a God who wants our performance rather than our hearts. If we attend a service one day a week but don’t wrestle with or put into practice what we’re learning, and don’t let it make a difference in how we live day-to-day, we model to our kids a God who is uninvolved and doesn’t really care how we live. As I thought through the importance of modeling an authentic relationship with God for our kids, my mind drifted to verses I have been studying in Matthew 23. The language is strong, but the concept is important:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15, NIV)

“I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God’s kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won’t let anyone else in either.” (Matthew 23:13, MSG, emphasis mine)

Throughout the chapter that these verses come from, Jesus is speaking to the religious leaders, the Pharisees, and pointing out the ways in which they make it difficult for people to come to God. All of us act like Pharisees at some point. We don’t mean to, and honestly, I don’t think the Pharisees meant to most of the time, either. They had been taught the laws and missed the love. They kept the rules, but had no relationship, at least not one that was authentic and growing. And this is what Jesus is talking to them about in the verses above. In the first verse I referenced, he’s talking about the lengths to which they’ll go to win others to their side. When they do, because they model what has been mirrored to them, the new “converts” are even worse off than the Pharisee that brought them in, because they’re one layer further removed from the God they think they’re serving. In the second verse, the Message paraphrase calls these scholars “roadblocks to God’s kingdom”. Regardless of which translation you read, Jesus doesn’t tell them they’re not allowed to enter the kingdom. He doesn’t say they won’t eventually enter. He talks to them about their choice not to come in, their refusal to enter, and how that prevents others from entering into the kingdom that is already present among them.

In the past, I’ve read these verses in a detached way, a little taken aback by the language Jesus used to talk to these guys. In more recent years, my understanding has grown and I have heard it differently as I’ve been overwhelmed by the heart and love of God. When the verses came to mind as I listened to this message about parenting, I was a little surprised at first, but I believe there’s much we can glean and apply to our understanding of our influence.

These Pharisees were spiritual “fathers” in their communities. They were the most educated in the ancient scriptures and they were the ones trusted to hand down to the people the truths about God and what he expected of them. What they mirrored and labeled “godly”painted a picture of who God was to those they presided over. But they weren’t living out an authentic, living relationship with God. They believed in a punitive, authoritarian God, and so that is what they showed the people. And beyond that, they performed their “faith” in showy ways that didn’t match their inner lives. They had the same access to the kingdom as everyone else, but they chose not to enter. And because they held those beneath them to the same standards they followed, they didn’t allow them to live according to kingdom ways either.

We have the capacity to live this same way… And to teach our kids to do the same.

If our church attendance is stellar, but our Monday thru Saturday lives don’t match up, if we say the right things, but don’t step into the flow of loving God and others–the kingdom way Jesus modeled, we’re modeling this way of living to our kids. And because their truths are built around what we model, if we do this, we raise kids who are one generation further removed from the truth of who God really is.

But the alternative is also true… If God is our first priority, if we love him and seek him, and continue growing in our relationship with him; if we enter into the kingdom that is here all around us and live with self-emptying love, the way Jesus did, our kids see a very different picture. And rather than being a roadblock that prevents them from entering the kingdom, we become a doorway that introduces them to the reckless, overwhelming love of God–and they get to see that he is the best parent of all.

In order for them to see God in this way, he must be our priority. Is he?

Luanne asked us above what our children would say is our priority. Far too many children grow up in homes where work, substances, media, or prominent social lives are their parents’ dominant priority. But I see another trend as well…

I wonder how many of our kids would say that they are our first priority? I see it all over right now, how so many parents build their schedules and lives around their kids and their activities and desires, how mom’s life or dad’s life-or both-revolve entirely around their kids. It’s tempting to hold on too tightly in this fast-paced world we’re living in, to cling to the moments that are gone all too soon. In these families, it’s clear that the kids come first. God, the parents’ marriage, and everything else comes after. In this model, kids tend to feel very secure in their parents love. They have their full attention. They feel connected and protected and provided for. They don’t want for anything, because they’ve never known a longing that mom or dad hasn’t satisfied. Church and God may be a part of their world, as long as that doesn’t interfere with vacations, activities, sports–and of course, that’s only if the kids want to go. These families often appear to be overflowing with love and joy. It looks like it works. It can feel like it works… Until the day comes when that child experiences a longing mom and dad can’t satisfy. And that day will come. For everyone. Because we were all created in the image of our Creator and there is a bit of the eternal, the divine, in each of our hearts that longs for our true home. There is a craving to discover our ultimate identity, and that is found in our God–not in our parents.

This is why it’s so essential that our priority is to gradually transfer our child’s dependence away from us until it rests solely on God. 

This is impossible to do if our kids are our first priority. We have to learn to let go, so that we’re able to point our kids to the One who can truly meet their every need, reveal to them their true identity, love them perfectly, and hold them securely. When we hold on too tightly and our children depend solely on us to provide for their needs, we assume the role of God–and we cannot love them the way he can, regardless of how hard we try. If we try to fill all of their holes and answer all of their questions, we rob them of the chance to experience their own flourishing as sons and daughters of God. We become roadblocks to God’s kingdom–we don’t enter and we don’t let them in either.

Perhaps we’re tempted to prioritize our kids because our dependence was never transferred to God. Maybe we haven’t experienced the flourishing I described above ourselves. Maybe what was mirrored to us was an authoritarian god who required our performance, and we hopped onto the Pharisee train without even knowing it. The good news is, the story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. God can rewrite all of our old narratives and show us what healthy love looks and feels like. There is always hope for a new day–in our parenting and in everything. May the question “What is your priority?” be the beginning of a brand new chapter for all of us.

–Laura

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This I Know…PG-13

On Sunday, Youth Pastor Beau Gamble interviewed Luanne Marshall about today’s youth culture. Luanne is the Academic Facilitator at Kelly Walsh High School here in Casper. According to her, her job is to build relationships with kids who are “at-risk”. She said that academics are her door into their world, the first step to gaining their trust so that she can build relationships with them and love them. Beau talked to her about what she encounters while working with these kids on a daily basis.

There is no way I’ll cover everything Beau and Luanne talked about–even in what they shared, they only had time to scratch the surface of what our teenagers are dealing with. I do want to highlight some of what stood out most to me.

The conversation began with Luanne challenging the narrative about what an “at-risk” kid is. What do you think about when you hear that label? Chances are, you don’t think of church kids with good grades and a modest appearance, from good neighborhoods with good parents. The picture in your mind most likely looks nothing like that. Yet, there are countless kids who fit my description who are, in fact, at-risk. Sometimes at-risk relates to academics. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Beau asked Luanne, “What is an “at-risk” kid?” Luanne responded, “I was at risk.” She shared with us that she lost her mom when she was eleven years old. Her dad remarried a year later. His new wife was a widow. Between them, they had seven children. All of them were carrying the burden of loss and grief. And now they lived together under one roof–on the other side of town from where Luanne had gone to elementary school. She told us, “I was never at risk academically, but I was emotionally. I did not know how to articulate my pain. I was self-destructive, and others-destructive, because we don’t self-destruct all alone. People had no idea. It was not rebellion against my parents. I was trying to take care of my own pain the only way I knew how.” She also shared with us that she never wanted to reflect poorly on her dad, who was a pastor. She loves him dearly and was aware then of how her behavior could impact him. So she kept up appearances at church.

I was at-risk, too, but like Luanne, most of the people around me would never have known. My grades were near-perfect, I excelled in music, I wore a happy face–especially at church. But I spent my earliest years in an environment that was spiritually, verbally, and physically abusive. Not only was I not taught how to articulate my pain, I was punished if I tried. So I stuffed. And conformed. When I was eleven, two major events occurred in my life. My mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and my parents divorced. We moved four times that year, and I attended three different middle schools. I continued to stuff and conform for a few more years. I was both of my parents’ shoulder to cry on, my mom’s right-hand while she was sick, and I kept the peace in our family as well as I could. I maintained my grades and activities, while my emotional and psychological well-being continued in a downward spiral. By late high-school, I was self-medicating with alcohol and sex, living to be loved and accepted, and to be seen–even if it was for the wrong reasons. My parents, along with most of the adults in my life, never knew the extent of my self-destruction. I still maintained near-perfect grades and excelled in music and at my job. Mercifully, I survived that season of my life. There were many opportunities for me not to. I was at-risk, too.

As I ponder my experiences, along with Luanne’s, I wonder how many of you are nodding along as you read. How many of you were at risk, too, in one way or another. I bet the numbers are staggering… In Beau’s closing prayer, he said these words, “We’re all kids–some of us are just older than others.” Hearing those words instantly brought tears to my eyes. I’m still trying to discern why I felt it so deeply, but I think it was mostly because it’s so true. Most of us grew up not knowing how to articulate our pain, and for most of us, it came out sideways along the way. We all have different stories and experiences, but regardless of how wonderful our parents may have been, it’s unlikely that any of us made it into adulthood without experiencing some level of trauma. I grew up with parents who did the best they knew how to do, but no one had taught them how to deal with their own pain, so how could they teach me how to deal with mine?

Luanne told us that there were adults who loved her well throughout her self-destructive years. These people modeled the ways of Jesus to her. She said that they, “…loved me unconditionally, always,” and that there was, “no judgement, ever.” She said later on, “People aren’t shamed and judged into the kingdom of God. They’re loved into the kingdom.” These precious people saw beneath the image Luanne was projecting. They saw that she was isolating and in pain, and rather that grilling her about it, they simply loved her right where she was. It was clear as she spoke that she still feels the impact of these people in her life today.

These nameless people (they are not nameless to Luanne, of course, but they are to the rest of us) were a drop of love in the pool of her pain. That one drop created the first ripple in the wave of love that is now impacting hundreds of students each year. There’s no way to measure how many lives have been touched and changed because they took the time to see and love one hurting, at risk girl. That girl grew up to model the Christ-like love that was modeled to her, and now she’s the one who sees and loves the hurting kids around her. And she teaches others to do the same. She learned how to process her pain. She took the necessary steps to get help. She took the time to heal. She was willing to own her own stuff, and chooses to be honest about her own brokenness. She doesn’t try to change the world alone, because she’s learned that this life is a journey that we take together.

We can do that, too. We can learn how to articulate our own pain, how to own our own stuff, how to be honest about our brokenness. And we can do it in front of our kids, so that they can learn what we never did–how to process the pain of life rather than walk the road of self–and others–destruction. We can lead by laying down our pride and our walls, so that our kids can see that, while they are dealing with different things than we did, we’re not that different at all. We’re kids who are learning how to navigate the journey, too–we’re just a little older. We aren’t great at articulating our pain, either. And we need them as much as they need us. We can become aware, and we can be willing to learn about what we don’t know. We can choose to love people–not as projects, but as the individuals they are.

The things our youth are facing are daunting… They are growing up in a culture where suicides are commonplace, where constant standardized testing tells them they’re never good enough, where social media has replaced relationship, and sexting is an accepted part of conversations. They are a community of misfits who haven’t seen acceptance of diversity modeled. They are struggling with their sexual identities, their ethnicities, and the policies and systems that affect their lives in a world that is angrier than ever before. They are angry. They are scared. They deal with unprecedented anxiety levels. They learn active shooter procedures in P.E. They are addicted, and so are their parents. They are taking care of sick parents and mourning the loss of parents who chose suicide as their answer. They are a generation well-acquainted with abuse in all of its forms. They don’t have “safe spaces” to process all of this. They don’t know how to find the love, care, compassion, and wisdom they’re craving, so they look to their peers or to themselves for answers. Many of them see churches as judgmental and exclusive, some because they’ve experienced shunning from Christians. The Christian witness they hear often sounds angry and uninviting…

They don’t know how to dream of a better tomorrow–many of them have no dreams at all. It is dark, and it is daunting.

But friends, this I know… There is hope for a new day. Carolyn shared with us last week that “We are a people of hope,” and that God can restore and reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” That includes the lives of our youth, this next generation to whom  we will hand off the baton. We can all be one small drop that creates a ripple effect in the lives of our youth, the way that those adults who saw and loved Luanne created the first ripple in her life. Tomorrow is a new day, and it really can be differentIt will take courage. And honesty. And time. And it will start small. But, remember,

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10a, NLT)

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6, NLT)

We don’t do the work alone. In our own lives, as well as in the lives of the kids around us, our friend Jesus is the source. The starting point. Our model for how to love. He begins the work, if we’re willing, within us. And as we live out our journey of brokenness and healing in front of our kids, as we honestly own our stuff and make space for theirs, the love of Jesus will flow out of us and become drops that create ripples that make a difference in the lives of our kids… The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Laura

There is always hope. As the people of God choose to put people first, to love them well, to meet them right where they are, things begin to change. God’s plan for salvation, for saving lives is through relationships. Salvation is not for the after life, it is for the here and now. As Laura wrote above, my life was saved because people who loved Jesus loved me right where I was. And yes, I am very honest with students about my own brokenness, I share with them nuggets that I learned in my therapy, and in so doing, I give them permission to be real. Sometimes it takes years to build a relationship, sometimes months, sometimes it happens almost instantaneously, and some students resist relationships altogether, but I still greet them by name when I see them. Nothing that I do is hard. I greet students by name. I smile. I make every effort not to talk down to them, I try to always treat them with respect. I “see” them, as do many other adults in our building.

Even still, I was part of a suicide intervention today. What Beau and I talked about Sunday is real. Our kids are hurting. Our kids are anxious. Our kids are afraid. Our kids are angry. Our kids don’t know how to express how overwhelmed they are. They don’t know what to do with their pain.

So I write to those of us who would qualify as older kids– are we in touch with ourselves enough to know our own brokenness? Our own anger? Our own fear? Our own hurt?Have we sought healing? Are we on the healing journey? Have we found healing? Are we sharing our journeys with others so that we have support, and so others know they are not alone?  Would we be considered safe people for others? Are we able to hold their hearts, their pain, and their stories with the awareness that we have been entrusted with a precious gift–the gift of vulnerability, of confidentiality? Do we know how to do conflict well? Do we listen well? Are we pouring love, grace, and wisdom into the generation that is coming behind us?

We come together through the love of Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven on earth to experience and to share in one another’s sufferings and joys. Yes it’s messy. No, we won’t do it perfectly, yet through the messy of our shared humanity God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth. It’s slow, but it’s powerful enough to change the world.

As Laura wrote above: The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Luanne

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THIS I Know… Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day started on Saturday for me this year. I went to the store to buy flowers. Some for my kids, to congratulate them at their upcoming last concert of the year, and some to take to the cemetery. It’s my fifth year of saying “Happy Mother’s Day” while kneeling in green grass beside a small headstone. I was tender, but not overwhelmed.

I realized my kids needed thank you cards for their section leaders, so I made my way through masses of last minute shoppers to the card aisle. I perused the section marked “Thank You”, and was on my way out of the aisle when my eyes landed on a beautiful card. Almost instinctually, I picked it up and began to read it. It was a Mother’s Day card for a daughter from her mother. And the words could have been written by my mama, to me. Each phrase read like words from her heart to mine, and by the end, I could hardly breathe. Tears spilled as I made my way to a check stand, avoiding eye contact with everyone on the way. I held it together long enough to pay and get out of the store, but I unraveled as I got into my car. I drove to the cemetery through tears, keenly aware of how lonely I felt… I stood in the quiet sunshine after I laid the rose on the black granite, whispering through tears to the woman who gave me life, how much I love and miss her.

Two days prior, I had learned that a good portion of my family, the one I was born into, would be together over the weekend, celebrating my nephew’s first birthday as well as my Dad’s. Over Mother’s Day weekend. There was no conspiracy to leave me out–we live far away and logistics prevent us from being together as much as we’d like to be. But, nonetheless, I hadn’t known about this plan. This feels a little too vulnerable (and selfish…and ugly…) to admit here, but one of my initial response (internally) went something like this: “Oh, wonderful. You all enjoy celebrating together–I’ll be here taking flowers to our dead Mom by myself.” The ache of loneliness settled deep into my heart.

Sunday morning brought a flood of conflicting thoughts and emotions. I’ve come to expect that on this particular day. My sweet husband and kids showered me with the gifts of heartfelt words written inside beautiful cards, gorgeous roses, and other thoughtful gifts. The tears started early…

As I got ready for church, my mind drifted to a daddy in Tennessee and his two precious babies–ages 1 & 3–who lost their beloved mama at age 37 just one week ago. I thought of another mom who is in the hospital now, recovering from extensive injuries, and of her children–and how, once she recovers, she will begin a new chapter of her life as a widow. I thought of a mother in the faith, and the firestorm she has been in lately, how she is modeling Christlike love in the midst of hateful attacks and criticism. I thought of those who long to be moms, and aren’t yet. Those who have buried children. Other children, like me, who have buried their mamas. I thought of broken families, of kids who don’t see this day as a celebration because their moms failed them in catastrophic ways. I thought of tense family situations–the ones that look okay from the outside but are wrought with strife behind closed doors and closed hearts. I thought of mothers who are estranged from their children through no fault of their own, and how they ache to hold their babies–even if they’re grown–in their arms once more…

To say that Mother’s Day is a day of mixed emotions is an understatement. 

That is how I walked into church on Sunday–full of mixed emotions. I had some idea of what to expect. I knew Pastor John would be interviewing Carolyn Smolij and Sumer Hansen about their experience as mothers and with their mothers. I had no idea what they would be sharing about, specifically.

If I had known, I may have stayed home–and missed all that my broken heart needed to hear…

A book could be written about the many wise, grace-filled things these two beautiful sisters shared–I definitely don’t have the space to cover all of it here. Instead, I invite you to join me on the journey their words brought me into.

Sumer began by sharing that, “My mom gave me Jesus.” I nodded, as the first teardrop formed. Me too… She shared that It was her grandma that gave Jesus to her mom, and then her mom passed him along to her. We sang a song before the message that contains this line, “The father’s love came pouring down for us…” I thought of those words as Sumer began to share about her mom. I think sometimes we most feel the love of God pour down to us through the vessel of our mothers. Our first experience of God often comes through the selfless, tender nurturing of women who love us well. More on that in a bit…

Sumer went on to say, “My mom is my champion.” Without my permission, my body slumped into the shoulder of my husband next to me as the first tear multiplied. He didn’t have to ask why. He’s heard me use that exact phrase to describe my mom–the only difference is the verb. I’ve said many times over the past almost five years, “My mom was my champion.” My biggest fan. My encourager. My cheerleader. The one who believed in me more than anyone–and told me so, often.

Then she said, “I see Jesus in the way she champions me.” Did I? Did I recognize Jesus in Mom’s big love for me? Did I see that it was his life in her that spoke life into me? I want to say yes… but if I’m honest, I think I have to say that often, I just see her. The beautiful woman with the larger-than-life ability to love. And I miss her voice, her texts, her cards full of encouragement. She believed in me when I couldn’t dream of believing in myself…

Our final song on Sunday was “Breathe”. It was my grandma’s favorite song, the one we played at her funeral, and my mom loved it, too. I couldn’t sing a word of it during the first service. But as the music swelled and the words washed over my hurting heart, the chorus stood out to me…

“And I…I’m desperate for you. And I…I’m lost without you…”

I tried to push away the question knocking at the door of my heart; tried to will myself into a different frame of mind. But it wouldn’t leave. As I listened to those words of longing, who was I longing for? Jesus? That’s who we were singing to, who I’m “supposed” to long for. And part of me could say yes, it’s Jesus I long for–any moment of any given day, this wouldn’t be a lie. I love him, need him, long for him.

But… in this particular moment, that wouldn’t have been the whole truth. Because, while I always want Jesus, the one I longed for as I wept was the woman who first showed me Jesus. I was desperate for my Mom. And in so many ways since her death, I’ve felt lost without her.

I knew what was coming as I settled in to take notes through the second service. And by the time we got to the last song, I was able to sing along a little bit. At the end of the song, the worship team added this tag:

Oh, Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… friend forever…

I sat down on the pew, and wrote these words in my notebook:

“You’re the only thing we can hang onto that will remain…”

I was reminded of John 20:17, after the resurrection, when Jesus says to Mary, “Don’t cling to me…” He was telling her she couldn’t hold onto the Jesus she had known, for his physical form was about to leave them. But the risen Christ, present all around us, among us, within us? We can hold onto that reality. When we face loss, pain, rejection, heartbreak, loneliness–there is One we can be sure will never leave. One who sees us in the moments that are hidden from even those who are closest to us. One who delights in us and champions us in a million little ways.

I’ve held up the way my Mom loved me as the gold standard of how to love well. But what I’m seeing now, in new ways, is that she was mirroring to me the supreme love of God. She was my first experience of the unconditional love of God. I love that, because it reminds me that God created both male and female in his image. He is both father and mother. Scripture speaks of him in maternal language many times. One of my favorite instances of this is found in Isaiah 66:13,

“As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you…” (Isaiah 66:13a, AMPC)

Just as our “Good Father” God can fill the gaps left by earthly fathers who may have been absent, abusive, or taken from us too soon, so can he fill our mama gaps. Whether we have never felt the love of a mother, or we’ve been loved by the best of moms; whether we have time left to grow our relationships, or we’ve had to say goodbye too soon–God loves us with a love that is as matriarchal as it is patriarchal. He is big enough to be both. 

This is really good news, friends… It means that, whether we are mothers or fathers or children–wherever we are in our journeys–we can take a deep breath. It is Jesus who is our forever friend. The outcome of our lives and our children’s lives doesn’t depend on our parents or on us. The story hinges on a power that shines through our weaknesses, and on the One who calls our weakness good, because it makes space for God, as Sumer shared with us. Whether we have been hurt or we’ve done some of the hurting–or both–the story isn’t over yet. As Carolyn bravely shared about, there is “healing hurt” that may need to be done, but that as we commit these things to God, “he will bring life to it.” Carolyn also reminded us that we are “a people of hope”, and that God can redeem and restore in ways that might reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” She encouraged us to create the space so that healing can take place.

What space might you need to create? This conversation will land differently with each of us, depending on our experiences. For me? After Sunday’s message, I am realizing that I need to create space by letting go… It hurts to write those words. When you’ve experienced loss, the words “letting go” can feel insensitive, harsh, and like an unnecessary blow. I am wrestling with all of that… But I believe that Jesus is trying to impress upon my heart that he has been my champion all along. That the love I felt from my mom was a beautiful expression of his love that poured out through her. I think he wants me to really know that, just as he is “Papa God” in the moments when I need him to be, he is also “Mama God” when my heart aches to be held by the nurturing love of my mom. I’ve believed this about him for a while, but I’m not sure it made it beneath my surface level understanding until now…

I’ve been “clinging” to my mom, and her absence has left me feeling alone, living with the belief that no one could love me like she did. In human terms, that’s probably true. No one will ever take her place in my heart. No human being will love me with that same mama love that formed me into who I am today. But the God that birthed all of creation and continues to bring new life into being every day wants to birth new life in me. My “This I Know” has included that feeling alone is just part of my story now. It doesn’t have to be. I can miss my mom, honor her beautiful life and legacy, and be grateful for everything she taught me. Mother’s Day will never be easy or uncomplicated for me, and it’s okay and good if I cry when grief visits again. But I can choose to focus on the greatest gift that she gave me rather than on the loneliness that has been a constant companion.

Just as Sumer shared about her mom, my mom gave me Jesus. She wasn’t perfect, but she pointed me to the one who is perfect love. And I get to offer my kids that same gift, knowing that the gaps in my love will be filled by a greater Love, and that my weakness is good, because God’s power can shine through. The story isn’t finished yet.

What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?

–Laura

Laura asks What is it that God wants you to know moving forward?  This is a good question to sit with. Pastor John reminded us at the beginning of his message of the song “Jesus loves me, this I know”, and then he asked us what has clouded our “this”.   Maybe, God wants us to know (or to remember) that we are loved and that His love is enough.

Mother’s Day can be so hard. Some of us have lost our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our moms, some of us don’t have good relationships with our children, some of us have not been able to be moms for whatever reason, some of us have just become moms and are filled with excitement and insecurity–we carry all of this with us. We carry our incomplete dreams, our grief, our self blame, our comparison, our longing, our love, our happiness, our joy right into church with us on Mother’s day and there we are–a mixed bag of everything coming together in that place. It’s hard on Mother’s Day to keep our eyes on Jesus and not on our own lack. So there we are.

As Laura mentioned, we heard from two beautiful mothers on Sunday morning, and both of them were honest about their own weaknesses and pointed us to God. One comes from a line of Jesus following women, one did not become a Jesus follower until her daughter was two.  Both recognize that we can’t do this perfectly, and that we must trust our Savior with ourselves and with our children.

Carolyn, who admitted that she had no idea how to be a mother and acknowledged that we’re all just thrown into it, knew enough to pray “God, protect her” over her daughter,  because she knew that God is faithful and trustworthy, and that God is in our midst even when it feels to us “like it’s all going off the rails.” She went on to say, “It’s all about trusting God. We don’t have to worry about the final outcome or try to control it.” She reminded us to offer grace to ourselves because we don’t know what we don’t know. She reminded us not to have regrets, because regrets will kill us, but to make space for one another today with lots of grace.  She reminded us to learn to walk in forgiveness because life is all about relationships. She reminded us to own the things that we need to own–and again, to offer grace to ourselves and to others.  And she reminded us that the story is not over, and not to ever give up hope.

Sumer showed us a clip of a video from when she was a beginning violin student and was playing for her mom. The music wasn’t beautiful, Sumer was still just learning, but her mother’s voice of encouragement, of absolute delight, of edification would make one think that Sumer had just played like a virtuoso. Sumer wanted us to remember that this is how God sees us. He delights in us. He encourages us on.  He is not pointing out our flaws or how we don’t measure up. He is loving us into becoming our real selves.

Maybe what God wants us to know, whether or not we fall into the motherhood category, is that in all of our relationships, in all of our life situations, His grace is sufficient, that forgiveness is a beautiful thing, and that He delights in us.

No matter what your  “this”  has become, the absolute truth is that Jesus loves. Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you, Jesus loves all of us, this I know–and that’s a great place to start.  The love we receive from others, the love we offer to others is a gift and a reflection of who Jesus is. None of us will receive or give love perfectly– that’s where grace comes in. Let’s choose to be gentle with ourselves and our own stories, and be gentle with others who have stories that we may know nothing about. His love is sufficient, His grace is sufficient, He is sufficient.

–Luanne

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Next Steps: One Vision

Last week we learned that Nehemiah’s heart was broken when he learned of the devastation in Jerusalem. He wept, he prayed, and came away with a vision of restoration. He asked for, and was granted permission from the King of Susa to go to Jerusalem. When the time was right, Nehemiah went to the Jewish leaders and said to them, ‘“You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.” (Neh. 2:17-18).  The leaders immediately agreed, and joined Nehemiah in his vision.

Before I move on, I want to back up to verse 10 of chapter 2. When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he appeared to the governors of that area with his letters from the king. Their response– When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.  We need to pay attention to this point. The people in power were not very happy that someone had come to help those who were oppressed and downtrodden. They didn’t make things easy for Nehemiah, but he was a person with a vision and he was not going to be distracted.

Vision. One vision. And as the people worked together under the leadership of Nehemiah, the things that were broken were restored.

One vision. We can trace God-ordained leaders all throughout scripture who were given a vision from God, but I want to focus on the one vision that was given to us.

When Jesus asked his disciples who they said he was, Peter responded with the words: You are the Messiah; the son of the living God. (Mt 16:16). Jesus responded by letting Peter know that it was God who had revealed that truth to him, and Jesus went on to say …on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (16:18). 

That’s a familiar verse and we brush over it pretty quickly, however, there is more to that verse than meets the eye.

The word translated “build” can mean to actually construct something, but it can also mean to embolden.

The word translated “church” is the Greek word “ekklesia” which has nothing to do with a building. It literally means “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly”. 

Ekklesia is a compound word made up of two words, one which means “from” or “out of” and the other means  “to call” “to invite” “to give a name to”.  

The word translated “Hades” means “the realm of the dead”, “the grave”“the place of departed souls”.  

And the word “it” actually means “her, it(-self), one, the other, (mine) own, said, (self-), the) same, ((him-, my-, thy- )self, (your-)selves, she, that, their(-s), them(-selves)”  The word is not speaking of an inanimate object, but of people.                                                                 (All translations from Strong’s Concordance; http://www.blueletterbible.org)

What if we read Matthew 16:18 like this: On this testimony, this foundation that I am the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ, I will embolden my invited, called out ones–the ones I will give my name to, the ones who will be my citizens in the public arena, and death, the place of the dead, the grave will not prevail against them.

If we read that verse in that way, the vision of Jesus for his people, the citizens of his Kingdom, the Kingdom that he talks about throughout his entire earthly ministry all of a sudden makes sense in light of “the church”.  The vision includes all of us who call Jesus our Lord. It doesn’t highlight a specific denomination, a specific type of church, or a specific type of people.  Anyone who recognizes the lordship of Jesus and lives his/her life from that place shares in the one vision.

What is the one vision? Laura and I have written about it over and over and I’ll write about it again. The one vision is the combination of “the great commandment” and “the great commission”.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (Mt. 22:37-39)
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:18-20)
One more translation–the phrase “make disciples of” is actually the word “teach” and means to be the disciple of one; to follow his precepts and instruction.
Jesus gave this commission to his disciples, so basically he is saying–you who follow my precepts and instructions, go to everyone, full of love for them and immerse them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit–model what this looks like (teach), so that they too can learn to follow my precepts and instructions.
Nehemiah shared his vision with the people and they worked together for restoration.
Jesus has shared his vision with us. Will we work together with him for the restoration of people? His vision is not program based, it’s people based. It’s a living vision. Can you imagine if every Christ follower across the face of the planet decided that loving people right where they are, and teaching them, modeling for them, Jesus as he presents himself in the gospels was the goal of their lives? It starts with each one of us deciding individually that we want to live that way.
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;  one Lord, one faith, one baptism;  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4: 1-6)
One vision–the Kingdom of Heaven expanding on earth. Are you in?
–Luanne
“Jesus has shared his vision with us.Will we work together with him for the restoration of people? His vision is not program based, it’s people based. It’s a living vision…”
A living vision…
I’ve been rolling these words that Luanne wrote around in my head. A living vision… How would you define that?
I looked up the definition of “life” and “alive” in a few different dictionaries, as well as the characteristics of living things according to biology curriculum from several different sources.These traits were listed in every source I read as characteristics of a living organism:
capacity for growth, ability to reproduce, functional activity, continual change, responsiveness, breath
The vision Jesus gave to his followers that Luanne described above contains all of these signs of life. It is–indisputably–a living vision.
So what, then, would we call a vision that lacks these traits? A vision that centers on inanimate objects like buildings or furnishings; one that resists change; one that has no capacity to grow or reproduce; one without functional activity or the fluid elasticity to breathe? If what I defined above is a living vision, then a vision without those traits can only be considered, by contrast, dead--or, at best, dying
How is our vision? Are we joining Jesus in his living vision, understanding that his ways revolve around people, not programs? Do we follow his lead to engage with people like he did, allowing the spirit to breathe kingdom life through us into those we encounter? Or are we clinging to a vision that’s barely hanging on, one that is on life support, one that depends on the machine of systems, programs, and power to live? Are we carrying the mantle of a dying vision?
If we find that we are, in fact, operating with a dying vision, we can take heart… Luanne mentioned above that we can work with Jesus for the restoration of people. And sometimes the people that need restoration are the ones staring back at us in the mirror. Restoration is synonymous with revival. To revive something is to restore life or to bring something back from the edge of death. Restoration breathes new life into the dying. Restoration is a kingdom value, one that Jesus demonstrated over and over again during his ministry–and one that he employs today in big and small ways in all of our lives.
I experienced this on Sunday morning. It had been a whirlwind of a week, and I felt pretty depleted. The knowledge that the coming week would pile even more on top of my already overflowing plate left me feeling weak in the knees, like they might buckle beneath the weight. And then, in the middle of a gorgeous song about communion, this line washed over me:
I am the bread, given for every man… I sustain you.
It was as if Jesus himself spoke the words into my core through the beautiful voice of my friend… Something came alive in me that had been dying… My eyes filled as my heart swelled and I knew that my restorative Savior had come to revive me, to pull me back from the edge of depletion and frustration and exhaustion to remind me that all the things I have to do, all of the deadlines and demands I must meet–I don’t have to rely on my own reserves. He sustains me. He fills me up. He leads me beside still waters and restores my soul (Psalm 23) in the middle of the battlefield. He brought life to back to the vision that was dying in me. And while this week has already been exhausting and frustrating in many ways, I have remembered those words, “I sustain you”, over and over. And even when it’s hard to say, much less believe, leaning into those words really does bring new life. A deep breath. Every single time.
This is only one example of how Jesus brings restoration and revival, how he breathes his living vision into us. The vision, it’s not ours. We didn’t come up with it. The vision, this living vision for all of humanity, for our world–it is Jesus’ vision. We carry it because we carry his breath in our lungs, and when we start to run out, he breathes it fresh into us again. If we are carrying a vision that doesn’t line up with the kingdom Jesus brought to earth, we are bearing the weight of a dead or dying vision. One with no power to bring restoration or new life. One that causes brokenness rather than bring restoration. One that cannot unite but only divides. If we find that’s what we are carrying, we are free to take it off and put it down. And when we do, we can pick up the living vision of Jesus. It will first restore our own souls. But we’ll find that is a living, breathing, changing, growing organism that will move us out toward those at the edge, those who also need new life to rescue them from the dying.
Luanne ended her writing with this: One vision–the Kingdom of Heaven expanding on earth. Are you in? 
What if we all said yes…?
–Laura
world-map-in-black-and-white-marlene-watson

Next Steps: Brokenness

Brokenness. It’s all around us. It’s in us. None of us will escape it, yet it doesn’t have to be our forever. We can seek personal healing, and we can help others find healing–which may just be the mission of our church.

Pastor John began on Sunday by showing us a series of paintings, painted by his mother, that hang in his office. Each one has a path as the central element. One path leads to a house, two lead into the woods, one of those is heading toward a sunset, one path leads through the snow. Each one looks different, yet each path beckons the viewer to take a step. It’s hard to look at those paintings and not feel some sense of longing–some sense of yearning to move down one of the paths.  I suppose one could casually observe the paintings and move on; however, when one takes a moment to “see” the paintings, the desire to move, to take a step, overtakes the viewer.

The paintings serve as a metaphor. Are we casual observers of what’s going on around us, or are we seeing? If we are seeing, what steps are we taking to enter in?

In the Old Testament account of Nehemiah, he asked one of his brothers about the condition of Jerusalem and those who lived there. His brother replied: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:3). 

In this moment, Nehemiah has a path before him. He had asked about the Jerusalem and learned that it was in a desperate state. He could have responded with something like, “Well that’s too bad, I’m sorry to hear that”,  and moved on. That’s not what he did. Instead, scripture records his response: When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.(Neh 1:4). The broken condition of the city that was the heart of his nation and the despair of his people mattered deeply to him. He cried out to God, confessing his sins and the sins of his nation, reminding God of his promises, and asking God to grant him the possibility to head straight toward the brokenness–broken walls, vulnerable people, despair.

Pastor John highlighted three categories of brokenness that are all around us: broken lives, a broken nation, and broken churches. Are we “seeing”? If so, how are we responding?

Last weekend, there was another synagogue shooting by a man with white supremacist ideology. Another place of sanctuary invaded by violence. In the school where I work, anxiety is off the charts–each lockdown drill, each real lockdown, each active shooter training, each incidence of a school shooting in another town rocks the core of our students. I grew up in another generation and never considered the thought that I might die just by going to school. Our society is broken. Are we seeing?

Brokenness takes many forms, and comparing one person’s brokenness to someone else’s is not beneficial. We get hurt by what others have done to us, we get hurt by choices we’ve made, we hurt others by being insensitive or even cruel, sometimes tragedy strikes, illness strikes, relationships end, and on and on I could go. I don’t imagine anyone reading these words responds with the notion that you have no idea what I’m talking about. Are we “seeing” each other?

Our nation is a mess. Our politicians are a mess. Pastor John said that if our government leaders would remember the rules we learned in kindergarten about how to get along and be kind, we might actually get somewhere. I agree with him. The lack of civility, the name calling, the power mongering and position protecting, the lack of listening or cooperating is off the charts, and it is being publicly modeled for our children to see.

The “ethos” of our nation–the cultural spirit that oozes out of us as citizens–is primarily “it’s all about me”.  We are people who value the individual. Our American dream ideology has swung too far, and instead of becoming anything we want to be for the sake of community, we’ve become anything we want to be for the sake of self and at the expense of others.

Where are many churches in all of this? Sadly, many are just as broken. Speaking in generalizations, there are two primary mindsets. One is the mindset that “our church will survive”, and many of this type of church tries to survive by holding on to what they’ve always done. It worked in the past, it will work in the future.  They cling to tradition and hunker down. The other generalization are the churches that have become so intertwined with the principality of nationalism that they believe worshiping country is synonymous with worshiping God and they will protect country and leaders over and above the real message of Jesus which is about love, about unity, about healing. The sad fact is that 100-200 churches close their doors for the last time in this nation every week. 6000-10,000 churches dying each year.

Are we “seeing”? And if so, how are we responding? Are we pointing fingers at others placing the blame on them? Or are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us? (Just for the record, I’m writing to myself too.)

The mission of the church is to advance the kingdom of God, the reign of God, the love of God, the awareness of the nearness of God, to those we encounter. It is to build a community that “sees” the oppressed, the broken, the hurting, the sick, the outsiders and to bring them into the family. It is to be part of the family, using the gifts and talents we’ve been given to serve God and one another. It is to forgive offenses, to live a counter-cultural type of life that is about the greater good and not about self. Jesus models this type of life.

Here’s the part where we (I) struggle. Nehemiah was the cup-bearer for the king in the citadel of Susa. He was a servant, possibly even a slave– he was in a position to be able to insulate himself from the despair of his people. When he learned about the condition of Jerusalem, it would have been easy for him to excuse himself from doing anything because he had a “job” in Susa. But that’s not what he did. He was willing to give some things up, to do some things differently, in order to make a difference. It was going to cost him something–and he was willing.

Are we willing to “see”? Are we willing to sacrifice some things for others? Are we willing to reach beyond ourselves, our families, our friends, our comfort, our traditions, and begin to engage the brokenness of the world? Do God’s image bearers who live in brokenness know how precious they are? Are we willing to see them, to love them, to embrace them? Will we head toward the devastation and let Jesus live His life through us as we encounter the world?

–Luanne

Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:3).

Those who survived are in trouble. Disgraced. Their walls are broken down and their gates have been burned…

Luanne asked us a couple of questions that I want to reiterate here:

“Are we seeing each other?”

“…are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us?”

When we ask ourselves if we’re seeing one another, we have to evaluate what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing. Our “ethos” of individuality, for those of us who live in the United States, clouds our vision and blinds us to the actual realities of those around us. We have a tendency to play the victim–and to get defensive when someone calls out that tendency in us. (Like Luanne said, we are talking about ourselves and the things we struggle with, too.) It’s why, when we read the bible, we tend to see ourselves in the stories of the Israelites, and not the Canaanites, Babylonians, Romans, etc… But most of us have never been the oppressed. Most of our lives are marked with privilege. Power. Wealth (at least relative wealth, compared to the rest of the world). Opportunity. Most of us look a lot more like those who, historically, played the role of the oppressor. It’s so important that we take an honest look at who we are in the story.

Why am I bringing this up? I bring it up because it’s easy to look at the verse I opened with and think about what I have survived. What my trouble and disgrace feels like. Where my walls are broken and where my gates have burned. And these thoughts are valid and they are where our minds naturally go when we’ve grown up in a culture that glorifies individuality. Having these thoughts doesn’t make us bad people. It’s the way most of us read scripture–until we learn to see each other rightly.

Do we all have brokenness? Yes. Absolutely. No one gets out of this life unscathed. But can we look beyond ourselves and ask: Who’s really in trouble? Whose walls and gates have been demolished to the point that they are now utterly defenseless? Who is trying to survive an involuntary vulnerability? Can we see them? It may take some time, a change in focus, a new perspective, an honest assessment of ourselves before we can see those around us–and then, it matters how we see them and what we do with what we’ve seen. Again, here is Luanne’s question for all of us to consider:

“…are we, like Nehemiah, weeping before God, recognizing that we too have been complicit, confessing our part in the mess, and rising with the heart to make a positive difference in the brokenness around us?”

Once we see, what do we do about it? Do we move toward the brokenness in our world with humility, hearts that are willing to listen–to be a safe place for the vulnerable? John said on Sunday, “You make a difference when you do something different.” What do we do differently when we encounter broken things, broken people? Maybe it begins with looking again. Not just seeing once and moving on, but choosing to look, to see until we feel something. None of us like to feel pain. It’s so tempting to look away. But what if we choose to lock our gaze on what’s broken until the walls around our own hearts break? We just might find that entering into the brokenness around us is what frees us from ourselves and invites us to adopt the ethos of the Kingdom of God…

What oozes from kingdom-minded people? Rather than individuality, the spirit of the kingdom is grounded in community. It looks like self-emptying love for the sake of the other–all others. In the kingdom, brokenness is transformed into blessing. This modern take on the Beatitudes captures Jesus’ heart toward the broken:

Blessed are the ones who do not bury all the broken pieces of their heart

Blessed are the tears of all the weary, pouring like a sky of falling stars

Blessed are the wounded ones in mourning, brave enough to show the Lord their scars

Blessed are the hurts that are not hidden, open to the healing touch of God

Blessed are the ones who walk in kindness even in the face of great abuse

Blessed are the deeds that go unnoticed, serving with unguarded gratitude

Blessed are the ones who fight for justice, longing for the coming day of peace

Blessed is the soul that thirsts for righteousness, welcoming the last, the lost, the least

Blessed are the ones who suffer violence and still have strength to love their enemies

Blessed is the faith of those who persevere–though they fall, they’ll never know defeat

The kingdom is yours, the kingdom is yours

Hold on a little more, this is not the end

Hope is in the Lord, keep your eyes on him…

(“The Kingdom is Yours”, Common Hymnal)

The words of this beautiful song call us to see differently. To become people who honor the brokenness in others rather than hiding from it, belittling it, exposing it, and exploiting it. When we look long enough to really see those around us, a path appears. This path is an invitation, a beckoning toward change. And that change will cost us something–change always comes with a cost–but choosing to take the step will impact lives.

And among those impacted by the steps we take together in community, the steps we take in the direction of the brokenness around us, we will find ourselves. Working together for the healing, the restoration of the faces around us is where we often find the healing our own hearts are desperate for. It’s not the reason to move toward brokenness–but it is a byproduct of entering into the lives of others. It is cyclical. We engage brokenness as a community, and as one finds healing, it leads to the healing of another… and then another… and so on. It is contagious. And it is beautiful. It stands in opposition to the way of self, the way of the individual. It is a path that beckons us to take another step, to keep going, because brokenness abounds. Will we take the next step? Will we keep moving down the path without knowing where it will take us, trusting that when Jesus called all the “broken” things “blessed”, he actually meant it?

This week, as we encounter brokenness around us, I pray we will slow down enough to look. To really see. To feel deeply the pain of another, and take a step toward that pain. I pray we’ll lay aside the ethos of our nation for the ethos of the kingdom, and take that path–wherever it may lead.

–Laura

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