He Will Be Called God of Might

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

He will be called…his reputation will be this…he will be known by these things…

Isaiah 9:6. What a beautiful scripture; one that is so familiar that we sometimes skim over it, but sitting with it for awhile, letting each “name”, each title, sink in with the full implications of what each one means takes us on a beautiful journey of hope. Hope that was needed in the days of Isaiah the prophet, and hope that is needed today.

If we back up to chapter 8, beginning in verse 11 Isaiah fills us in on the context of what is going on in his community during this time, what God says to him, how he responds, and his message for the people; things like:

”Don’t call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy. Don’t fear what they fear, don’t be in dread.” Honor the Lord as holy. Wait for the Lord. Hope in the Lord. Don’t consult mediums and spiritists, instead, inquire of God who is living. Those who choose not to consult God have no light. “Distressed and hungry they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.”  (v 21-22)

Sounds awful. Sounds like today. However, chapter 9 begins with the hopeful message that there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress, because in the future their story will be “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have…increased their joy…you have shattered the yoke that burdened them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” (2-5) And all of their battle gear can be burned —there is no need for it anymore!  Because…to us a child is born…(9:6)

Do we even know how blessed we are to live in the period of time where the prophecy of the child has been fulfilled?

Without a doubt, there is still much darkness in our world, much gloom. Many consult fortune tellers, mediums, spiritists, horoscopes, and the like as they try to find wisdom and direction for their lives. And the countless millions who, in the United States alone, believe conspiracy theories spread by media sources that lead to fear, dread, and suspicion is mind boggling. Many walk in darkness. Many are hopeless. Many are lost. And even some who know Jesus have forgotten that he is the source of life, the fountain of wisdom, and they too have starved themselves of his sustenance by relying on the wisdom of the world, which according to Isaiah leads to rage, and to blaming power sources such as the government, and to blaming God, which leads to even further darkness. But we live in the day in which The Light has come.

There are Isaiahs in this day who say to God: “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty…” (8:18)

It’s the call for all of us who know Jesus. We are called to be signs and symbols in the world from the Lord Almighty.

Mt. 5:14, You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

Ph. 2:14-15 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life…

1 Pet. 2:9 You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

I could type out many, many, many other scriptures that say the same thing. We, the people of God, we, who are called by His Name, are to be different from the world. We, who are called by His Name are to humble ourselves, pray, seek His face, turn from our wicked ways…do as He has done for us, love as he has loved us, do good to all people, love our enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, take care of the sick, care for the prisoner, and be filled with His Spirit who fills us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  (2 Chron 7:14, John 13:15, 35, Gal 6:10, Mt. 5:44, Mt. 25: 34-36, Gal. 5:22)

Will we respond to the call with a yes? If so, how do we, who know ourselves so well, manage to do this? We don’t. He does. He does it through us as we draw close to Him, as we get to know Him, and as we surrender to Him. The power of our mighty God, our God of Might, works in us.

Ph. 2:13 (NLT) For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases Him.

Eph. 1: 18-19  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know…his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead…

2 Pet 1:3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

So, returning to Matthew 5:14, that states you are the light of the world- a city set on a hill which cannot be hidden, implying that you, yes, you, are the light of the world. A city… A city is called a city because it is made up of citizens. The “cit” in both words comes from the same Latin root. A city of citizens who belong to a Kingdom of light. Each citizen in a city makes a difference. Each citizen in the Kingdom has a role to play. We are to shine like stars in the midst of the darkness, pointing the way to the wonderful Counselor, the almighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of peace.

So why does our experience so often not line up with a “shining star” powerful life? I have a couple of thoughts on that. One, I think that we allow ourselves to be influenced by the world. We seek lots of other voices without checking to see if they line up with God’s kingdom. Some of those voices come from churches, and ministry leaders. Please be wary if the message a church or leader is putting out there is fear based, political, or “us versus them”. None of those are the message of Christ. And two, I think we sometimes choose a famine of God’s words.  In the book of Amos, the Lord told the people that as a consequence for self absorbed, disobedient living  I will send a famine through the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” (8:11). That prophecy came to fruition in the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and the people did not hear the voice of God for 400 years.

Isaiah lays out the fruit of that kind of famine in chapter 8 when he writes,  Distressed and hungry they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness.” (v 21-22)

That is our world today; gloom, doom, hopeless, angry, blaming God, blaming others, yet, we have access to the WORD of God at all times. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:1, 14)

The Word of God, who is Jesus, the Spirit of God dwelling in us: the power of God operating in our lives, the written word brought to life by the Spirit, it’s all available to us all the time. Do we know how blessed we are to live in this time? 

The Mighty God, for whom nothing is impossible is here, but He won’t force Himself upon us. He lets us come to Him. Will we be like Isaiah and say, Here I am, send me? Here I am. I’m willing to be a sign and a symbol of Your glory and light to those walking in darkness. Here I am, I belong to You, my life is Yours, You are my heart, my priority, my joy; I will earnestly seek You, and live counter-culturally as a citizen of Your Kingdom. Here I am, God of Might, I am Yours.

—Luanne

“Many walk in darkness. Many are hopeless. Many are lost. And even some who know Jesus have forgotten that he is the source of life, the fountain of wisdom, and they too have starved themselves of his sustenance by relying on the wisdom of the world… But we live in the day in which The Light has come.” 

I am so deeply grateful to live in the day in which the light has come. But I don’t always live with that reality in focus. Sometimes, the darkness overwhelms. Sometimes hopelessness encroaches. Sometimes I am the one who starves myself of His sustenance.  I have experienced the Light of Life shattering my own darkness. I have seen the Holy glow of Him in my darkest nights–and still, when tempests rage, I can forget what I know to be true:

There is mighty power contained within the Light.

In Genesis chapter 1, we read that there was light on the first day. But the sun, moon and stars weren’t created until the fourth day. The Light of Life, the Word that created everything was Himself the incarnation of light the first day. The Hebrew word for “light” on the first day and the word for “lights” on the fourth day, referring to the sun, moon and stars, carry completely different connotations. Light strong enough to give light to the whole earth was poured forth from Him who is The Light. That is a powerful thought-my mind can’t even begin to imagine a picture of a glow that strong.

His power, though, is even stronger than the light that pours from His being…

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.”

The root word for “government” in this part of Isaiah 9:6 is the Hebrew sarah–which is translated “power”, “to prevail as a prince”.

Prevailing, princely power is what is upon the shoulders of Jesus. Not government in the way that we understand it . This is altogether different than earthly governments. And it’s so huge to get this. Not only is Jesus our Prince of Peace-He is also our Prince of Power. We’ll talk about Jesus as Prince of Peace at the conclusion of this series, so I won’t take us too far ahead. But in recent days, I’ve come to embrace the original Hebrew definition of peace, Shalom, as meaning “to destroy the authority of the one making the chaos”. As the Prince of Power, He himself is the power that destroys the chaos. And that power is inextricably connected to His light.

Isaiah 9:2: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…” 

The light of Jesus contains all the power to prevail over all things–over every scheme of darkness, over political systems… His Kingdom was ushered in and with it came the light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5).

Pastor and author Brian Zahnd says this about the kingdom of Jesus:

The kingdom of Christ is the most revolutionary politics–perhaps the only true revolutionary politics–the world has ever seen. Unlike all other political agendas, the supreme value of the politics of Jesus is not power, but love. Jesus rejects the politics of power for the politics of love.

The power Brian writes of here is the power that we, fallen humanity, aspire to attain. The power of Jesus, though, is the supreme power of love. The inexplicable power of a love that moved the Author of Creation to come to us as a baby in a dirty feed trough. The power of a love that would lead that baby into manhood and ministry and ultimately to the excruciating pain and humiliation of crucifixion on a cross. The power of a love that chose this way of humility, service, grace and forgiveness in order to forever defeat the darkness, forever scatter the chaos, forever establish His Kingdom His way.

Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness, from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:7)

“Of the greatness of his government (yep, its root word is power here, too) and peace…” 

Prince of power. Prince of peace. Both are the outflowing of the deeper river, which is love.

And that surging Love, Jesus Himself, is quoted in Hebrews 2:13 as the One who was speaking to Isaiah in chapter 8:17-18,  the One who said,

Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty…” (8:18) 

If Hebrews is accurate in its representation of Jesus, then the Messiah Himself was speaking these words to Isaiah long before He came to be born as the Messiah that Isaiah and his people were waiting for. I’m not going to get into the logistics of all of this, the discussion of old testament apparitions of Jesus, the Trinity, and God is Jesus/Jesus is God conversations here. The point that stirs my heart to worship in awe and wonder is this:

Emmanuel, God With Us, was with Isaiah in this moment. And He invokes the collective “we” here: “We are signs and symbols…” He identified Himself as one with us long before the time came for Him to enter humanity. The Word that was God in the very beginning spoke words that attest to the depths of His love for those He created. In this verse, His words include us, invite us, and recreate us. He spoke then to the coming reality that is now our reality–that He would be seen in us, felt through us, because He has always been God With Us-even before He was with us in the flesh.

There are times when my mind and my heart reach capacity and I cannot go further into a thought because the weight of it makes me feel like I might explode. This is one of those times. There aren’t words to encapsulate the wonder, the questions, the awe of my Jesus as I understand Emmanuel in a completely different way. I can’t better communicate what is swirling through my thoughts, because I don’t understand it myself.

Fullness of power, light, peace and love can have that effect on a person. To experience Jesus this way is to transcend human comprehension, to defy logic. It can only be fully experienced in the Spirit-our mortal selves can’t bear the weight of all that He is. And all that He is is available to us. Paul says in Ephesians 6:10, “…be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power”. And we can. Because He is Emmanuel. God in us, God for us, God with us. 

I pray that you experience Messiah, Emmanuel in a way that leaves you breathless with wonder this season. That our Mighty God, our prevailing Prince of power overwhelms your soul and carries you far beyond the realms of your impossible into all that is possible with Him.

–Laura

light of life (2)

Wonder of a Counselor

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

-Isaiah 9:6-

Have you ever needed Jesus as a “Wonderful Counselor”? I have. But I didn’t come to Him calling Him by that name, not initially. I came to Jesus because I needed His counsel. The “wonderful” part comes into the picture because He comes and meets us in that space.

He comes…

That alone is enough to inspire wonder in my soul. Our Jesus comes to us…

“While other creeds endeavor to get us out of the world and into heaven, in Christianity, heaven comes down and Christ comes into this world to get us…And your God, He’s coming now, everywhere, for you. In all humanity’s religions, man reaches after God. But in all His relationships, God reaches for man.” (Ann Voskamp, The Greatest Gift)

He chooses to stop by our wells and offer the living water we’re desperate for. Jesus comes to us and He asks for our honesty. He lifts our faces up, out of the dirt of our messy lives, and lets us see the kindness in His eyes, the twinkle that beckons us to follow Him. He invites us to remove our masks-He’s looking straight through them anyway–and gives us the space to tell Him our whole truth. Space to lay our burdens and confessions at His feet. He listens as we ask our many questions.

And then… He speaks. He speaks to us with thoughts that are higher than our thoughts. And he moves and acts in ways that are higher than ours. (Isaiah 55:8-9) The Word that spoke light and life and you and me into being speaks directly to our hearts in His perfect, infinite wisdom. And it is wonderfully disarming… As He speaks, His words reveal anything we’ve tried to hide. His words are precise and invasive and we are exposed. And the way He does it-it’s beyond our understanding. It leaves us in awe, full of wonder that he would come. That He keeps coming… 

It is in these moments that we come to know Him by the name, “Wonderful Counselor”. It is during these moments when we are overwhelmed by His coming, by His knowing of us, by His Word so precise and sharp that it divides soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Hebrews 4:12). He becomes our Wonderful Counselor when we’re filled with wonder at His entering into our stories. That wonder explodes into awestruck worship when we realize Jesus is calling us to be a part of His story…

In order to know Him as our Wonderful Counselor, though, we must first be a sheep. In the animal world, there are many animals I would choose to be before I would pick a sheep…But Jesus calls us sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27) The reason Jesus calls us sheep is that sheep listen. They listen to the voice of their shepherd. They do what he says and they follow him. We aren’t His sheep if we don’t know His voice. Matthew 25:31-36 comes to mind. It is painfully clear in these verses how vital it is to be known as one of His sheep…

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

When Jesus comes again, He will call His sheep to Himself. Those who have heard Him, who know His voice, who have listened to His counsel and done what He says to do. Those whom He knows. Those who know Him. There will be a separating in that moment… I want to be a sheep.

But what if we know Him, we’ve heard Him, we know His voice–and He’s just not speaking? What if we’re in a season of waiting and we’re tempted to just give up because the silence seems more than we can bear? We have asked and pleaded and sought the wonderful counsel of our Savior and what we’ve heard is… nothing. What then?

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16 NLT)

We are reminded in these verses that our Savior identifies with us in our struggles. He is sympathetic to our pain, our questions, our frustrations-because He’s faced weakness and pain Himself. He offers us mercy and grace and He encourages us to press on, to persevere. Because He knows what that perseverance will accomplish… Perseverance produces character and character produces hope-a hope that never disappoints. (Romans 5:4-5)

It struck me that today’s advent candle is the candle of hope. It symbolizes the hope we have in the next advent, the second coming of Jesus. That hope is not only for the day of His returning. It is a hope we can carry every moment between now and that day. When we feel hopeless in the midst of the seemingly impossible, Jesus whispers to us, His sheep, “I am your hope”. When the waiting seems endless, He reminds us his first coming seemed slow to so many. Hundreds of years of waiting, of silence…and then, the baby was born in Bethlehem. Hope came to us that night, wearing the skin of a baby boy. And now, we can experience a daily advent of our Savior, because He was born as Emmanuel-God with us. We can live His daily advent, His continual coming to us, this adventure He invites us to be swept up in. And we can live it holding fast to hope-hope that is closer than we know-breathless with wonder. I love the way Frederick Buechner writes of advent:

In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing. For a second you catch a whiff in the air of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

I pray that in this season of Advent, we will come to know, to really know Jesus as our Wonderful Counselor. That we’ll so long to hear His voice, we’ll hold our breath so we don’t miss Him. I pray that as He comes-and He always comes-we will be left breathless, awestruck by the wonder of Him. And I pray that we’ll persevere and hold onto the hope that is found in Jesus alone.

–Laura

Jesus, our Wonderful Counselor.

Wonderful—full of wonder—awe inspiring.

Counselor—one who gives guidance, who gives advice.

Pondering this description of Jesus makes my heart swell with love and with longing. There is so much packed into these two words, and no one else, throughout all of time could live up to this description.

Laura wrote about wanting to be a sheep in the fold of Christ—one who listens to His voice and does what He says. I do too.  I want Him to be my Wonderful Counselor, not just as a title that He holds, but in my daily life on a practical and real level.

John shared with us the very practical pieces of how to benefit from counseling. I, like John,  have had the benefit of having a human counselor join me on a healing journey and I agree wholeheartedly with John’s advice.

In order to reap the full benefits of good counseling…

1. We must be willing to be brutally honest with our counselor. We have to be willing to let our “ugly” parts show. If we don’t expose those places in ourselves, we won’t find healing. Masks and/or self-deception will not serve us well.

2. We must be willing to listen to what our counselor has to say. Have you ever noticed that the words listen and silent are composed of the same six letters? In order to listen, I must be willing to be silent. Listening is more than hearing. A quick Google search of listen versus hear brings up this statement: “Hearing is the physical activity of sound falling on the ears and the biological processes involved in its perception. Listening is the ability to pay attention to what the sound means and understand it.” Pay attention—understand—listen.

3. We must be willing to do what our counselor says. We must recognize that our counselor is for us, not against us. Our counselor is working with us to help us find healing. Sometimes our counselors will give us hard things to do. My counselor, when she suggested something that I wanted  to push back against, would say:  “If it makes you feel like you want to throw up, it probably indicates that you need to do it.” Ugh! I hated that! But,  when I followed her counsel, her guidance, she was right every time, and I grew.

One other thing I’d add—I had to make time to see my counselor, and seeing her cost me. I can say, without a doubt, that it was worth every moment of time and every bit of the cost.

John juxtaposed a couple of different stories as illustrations in his sermon. He reminded us of the Samaritan woman that Jesus talked to at Jacob’s well in John 4. When she asked Him for the water that He offered, He asked her a seemingly unrelated question. He asked her to go get her husband and return with him. She had a choice in this moment. She had no idea that Jesus already knew all about her life. She could have lied, she could have acted like she was going to get someone and not returned, but she chose the brutal honesty: “I have no husband,” she replied. Her honesty in that moment, and Jesus’ further revelation about what he already knew led not only to her own salvation, but to the whole town hearing the message of Jesus and many became believers. She was honest, she listened, she obeyed, and her life was changed.

John also brought up the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Mark 10.  I have always found this to be one of the saddest stories in scripture. The young man comes to Jesus feeling pretty good about himself. He asks Jesus what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life, and Jesus reminds him of the 10 commandments. (Let me throw out the reminder that no one could keep the law…all have fallen short), this young man says he has kept all of these. Hmmm. Maybe he’s genuinely self-deceived, or maybe he’s trying to impress Jesus. Either way,  he’s not being honest with himself or with Jesus.  Verse 21 tells us that “Jesus felt love for him”. (I love that Mark includes that detail—just like the Samaritan woman, Jesus knew all about this young man, and still loved him).  Jesus counsels him to go and sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow Him.  The very first of the 10 Commandments is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” I believe, that in this moment, Jesus was giving the young man the opportunity to see that his true god was his money, and in this moment, he could trade his false god for a relationship with the one true God; however,  the false god’s hold on him would have to go.   The young man chose to walk away. He was unable to be honest, to see his own area of weakness, he did not take the life-giving counsel of Jesus, so he left empty and unchanged.

Jesus was willing to be the Wonderful Counselor for a woman who knew she was a mess, and a young man who had no idea that he was a mess. Notice that Jesus does not coerce obedience in either story. He just lays His love and His truth out there and lets us choose.

So this first week of advent, the “hope” week, I pray that we recognize that  we have a Wonderful Counselor who holds all that we need for healing, for growth, for wholeness, for transformation. I pray that we will make time for Him.  His heart is for us. He loves us. He sympathizes with us in our weaknesses. He knows us better than we know ourselves.  He gives us His attention whether we come with our authentic messy selves, or our masked selves. He speaks, and we get to choose whether to be hearers only or to listen to His heart of love leading us into true life. He guides us, counsels us, shows us what to do,  and we get to decide whether or not to do it. Taking His counsel, doing it His way will absolutely cost us something. Not doing it His way will absolutely cost us something as well. Only one choice will be worth the cost.  This Wonderful Counselor will never force himself on us. He will gently guide us, and He promises to be with us every step of the way. Are we willing to go where He leads?

—Luanne

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Coming Together

1st Peter 5:8-11 “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers through the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast. To Him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

We have an enemy. He is real. He is mean. He hates God. He hates us. And His entire goal is our destruction.  Sometimes he’s subtle, sometimes he’s overt. He’s good at what he does.

So what does he do?  When we look at Isaiah 14: 12-14 we see that Satan wants to exalt himself, he wants to be like God, he wants to be worshiped. He even tried to tempt Jesus by promising to fast track Jesus to greatness if Jesus would bow down and worship him. (Mt. 4: 8-9) Basically, he wants us to worship anything but God. If he can’t get us to worship him, he wants us to worship ourselves, to make self the center of our universe. He’s fine if we worship other people, sports teams, food, created things, cars, clothes, political parties, political figures, ideologies, etc. And his main methodology is to lie.

Jesus tells us in John 8 that Satan is a liar, he’s been a liar since the beginning, and he’s the father of lies. I have fallen for his lies more than once. Some of the lies I’ve believed are that I’m invisible, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’ll never amount to anything, I’m friendless, I’m alone, I’m unlovable, I’m a bad mom, I’m a bad wife, I have to take care of myself, I’m unforgivable, God can’t use me because of my past— my list could go on and on. Many of the lies in this list have plagued me for years and can rear their ugly heads at any time.   So, I must be sober and alert and recognize them as the attacks they are when they come. And here’s the subtle thing, if I choose to believe the lies, not only am I cooperating with Satan in my own destruction, I am also focused on myself.  Absorption with self, whether negative or positive is self-worship. Ugh!

John told us in his sermon that the word devour means to consume in order to replenish strength. That caught my attention. So if Satan is seeking someone to devour, he is looking for someone to consume so that he can replenish his strength. Put in those terms, I am absolutely certain that I do not want to feed him or participate in strengthening his destructive mission.

Satan, the liar, has also convinced many that he is the “good guy” the “fun one”, and God is the stern mean one. How many cartoon drawings have we seen where Satan is portrayed as mischievous, but not evil, and God is portrayed as ready to throw lightning bolts?  I’ve heard people blame God for all of the world’s evils and decide they’d rather spend eternity in hell with Satan than in heaven with a God who, in their minds, sends people to hell. They have believed a lie- a dangerous distortion- rather than embracing the truth that God loves us so much that He provided the only solution to hell in the death of His son.

So, how do we overcome? Or, as the title of this sermon in the “Coming Apart” series is, how do we “come together” after things have fallen apart?

We focus on the One who came to set us free. In Revelation 1:17, the apostle John has just described the image of Jesus that he is seeing, the one where Jesus has on a priestly robe, blazing eyes, white hair, and a sword coming out of  his mouth. When John sees him like this, he falls down as if dead. He faints. Think about how interesting that is. This is John, the beloved disciple, the dear friend of Jesus. John who writes prolifically about the love of God, the grace of God, the nearness of God. But in this scene, John sees his friend in an entirely new way. He sees Him as majestic in power, as mighty, and even as scary—enough so that he ended up unconscious on the ground. And this resurrected, ascended, scary Jesus reached out his right hand, touched John and told him not to be afraid.

I love that.  The resurrected, ascended, all-powerful Jesus is still gentle and kind.

Going back to 1st Peter 5, Peter tells us to resist the enemy who wants to destroy us by standing firm in the faith. He tells us that believers all over the world are suffering, and that we too will suffer.  But in the middle of all of that he says that the God of all grace—stop for a moment and think about that phrase—the God of all grace. (Doesn’t sound like a lightning bolt God to me.)— this God of all grace has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. Stop. Think about that phrase too. He has called us to his eternal glory in Christ. Peter continues by telling us that God himself will restore us, and make us strong, firm, and steadfast.

Pastor John taught us this morning that restore means to mend—completely and thoroughly mend us—put us back together, full restoration. He reminded us that healed broken bones become stronger at the point of the break once they are healed. God will heal our broken places and make us strong, he will establish us by setting a new direction for us that realigns us to him. He joins us where we are and takes us someplace new. He will make us firm and steadfast meaning that he will hold us up, he will shore us up, he will put all of our broken pieces back together. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, to walk with Him, to spend time with Him, to believe Him, to trust Him, to follow His lead, and he will mend us along the way.

The apostle John saw the glorified, all powerful Jesus, and it was so awesomely terrifying that he fainted. There is no doubt that scripture teaches about the almighty power of God. But guess what. His power is not against us, it is for us because He is for us. We must recognize the lies of the enemy that seek to destroy us and distance us from God, and replace them with God’s truth backed up by His word and the life of His son, and live from that place.

One more thought—1st Peter 5 tells us that Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, but Revelation 5:5 tells us that Jesus is the Lion. The counterfeit lion leads the whole world astray (Rev 12:9); the real Lion leads us into relationship with the God of all grace. Be sober, be alert, know that there is one who wants to devour you, but never forget that he has been defeated by the One who came to save you. Hold on to Truth. He is holding on to you.

To him be the power forever and ever. Amen!”

—Luanne

Luanne wrote that “Satan prowls around like a roaring lion, but Revelation 5:5 tells us that Jesus is the Lion. The counterfeit lion leads the whole world astray…”                     The counterfeit nature of our enemy is not creative. Ingenuity is not his strength. He comes after us the same way every time: as a fake, a fraud, an imitation of the real thing. He is desperately grasping at what he once had-what he can never have again. In 2 Corinthians 11:14, we’re told that he “masquerades as an angel of light”. Oftentimes, he comes to us not in all his evil, hateful nastiness, but as something that looks almost good. He is not a creator-but he is masterful in the art of imitating. If we’re not careful, if we’re not deeply connected to Jesus and focused on Him, we can mistake Satan’s lies as the voice of our Savior. He’s that good at lying, friends.

And he’s not only a liar-he is hateful and he is mean. So mean. If we begin to listen to his voice, we can begin to believe awful things about ourselves, about others and even about God. It made me cry to read my beautiful friend’s list of the lies she’s believed about herself. And I know Luanne’s list is not unique to her. I have a similar list-I’m fairly certain you do, too. The details of our lists are different, but the devil’s purpose is the same: To steal our God-given identities; to kill our purpose, our dreams, our hope, our faith; and to completely and utterly destroy us from the inside out.

So what do we do? How do we defend ourselves against a liar who has perfected his craft? I thought a lot about the first words of the first verse John read to us in his sermon, out of 1 Peter 5:8. The translation Luanne used above tells us to “be alert and of sober mind”. The translation John read used the words “self-controlled and alert”. I rolled the words around in my mind several times as I listened.

To defend against our very real enemy, we must be self-controlled and alert…so how do we do that?

WE don’t. Thankfully, our gracious, loving God didn’t leave us to figure it out on our own. Not only is the incomparably great power that raised Jesus from the dead for us (Ephesians 1:19-20); that very power lives in us (Romans 8:11) in the person of the Holy Spirit. And the self-control we need to have to combat the devils’s scheming in our lives? It is a fruit of that Spirit living within us. We cannot muster up the self-control on our own. Our humanity will fail us if we try to beat our enemy in the flesh. But as vessels that carry the very Spirit of God Himself, we have all of the power of our Risen Savior to draw on, to lean into, to rely on.

Luanne wrote these words above: “If I choose to believe the lies, not only am I cooperating with Satan in my own destruction, I am also focused on myself.  Absorption with self, whether negative or positive is self-worship.” 

Absorption with self can also show itself in our attempts to fight our enemy on our own. Choosing not to draw from the endless well of power that we have access to through the Holy Spirit alive in us, choosing to wage war on our own, is not strength or courage. It is pride and foolishness and a win for our enemy as our focus is, once again, on ourselves.

It is only when we are connected to Jesus through His Spirit that we can even discern the object of our worship. Because it can be disguised so well… We can truly believe we are worshiping God, serving Him, loving Him-but in reality we are worshiping ourselves, serving ourselves and loving ourselves. The evidence that proves the real object of our worship is found on the inside, in the depths of our hearts. Sometimes, we can’t even discern the truth on our own. And so we have to regularly check ourselves. We have to not only stay alert to our enemy’s tactics, but also to the rhythms of our own hearts. How do we do that? We admit that we can’t do it alone and we ask, as the psalmist did:

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.                     (Psalm 139:23-24)

The Spirit will reveal truth to our hearts-if we let Him. I am so grateful that we aren’t left alone to defend ourselves against our enemy. I’m grateful that baby Jesus grew up and that the Jesus I worship today is so powerful that His name alone makes demons scatter and flee. I love the tender, kind, gentle Savior He is to me–and–I love being reminded that His power is unmatchable, and totally FOR me and you.

I want to leave you with some words that speak beautifully to the power of our Jesus. We sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” on Sunday. The words to this hymn were penned sometime before 800 AD by an unknown monk. Somewhere in a monastery, during what we refer to as “The Dark Ages”-a time when Scripture was inaccessible to most-someone got it. Someone understood the light, the power, the supremacy of our Jesus and the words had a profound impact on me today:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
And drive away the shades of night,
And pierce the clouds and bring us light.

O come, Desire of nations, bind                                                                                                        All peoples in one heart and mind.                                                                                                 Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease                                                                                                      Fill all the world with heaven’s peace.
I pray that Jesus, who ransoms captives, who frees us from Satan’s tyranny and saves us from the depths of hell; Jesus, who gives us victory over the grave, who cheers our spirits, who drives away the dark of night; Jesus, who binds his people as one and destroys the quarreling and chaos and fills us with the peace of His heavenly kingdom–I pray that this Jesus will leave you in awe as you marvel at His power that is for you and alive in you. He is mighty to save us from the schemes of our enemy. Will we give Him the worship He is so worthy of? Will we lift our eyes from the chaos of our enemy and gaze into the face of the conquering lion? Our enemy has already been defeated. Let’s start living like we believe that’s true!

-Laura

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Coming Apart

How do we see Jesus? More specifically, how do we see Jesus when things feel like they’re falling apart? Do we see Him as He desires for us to see Him, or do we create distortions of who He is in light of what we’re going through?

John spoke to us on Sunday about how the apostle John saw Jesus in our series passage out of Revelation:

 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands,  and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.     (Revelation 1:12-14)

We learned about the lampstands last week, that they represent seven churches that Jesus had specific messages for. We learned this week that the description of the robe identifies it as a priestly garment. We’ll talk more about that in just a moment. I want to first address the “eyes like blazing fire”.

John emphasized to us that the passage doesn’t say that Jesus had fire in his eyes, just that they were like blazing fire. His eyes were like  whirling, flickering, dancing flames that held the apostle John’s gaze. Just as flames are mesmerizing and captivating, these eyes that John had seen many times before held his attention in a whole new way.

To mesmerize means “to hold the attention of someone to the exclusion of all else or so as to transfix them”.

To captivate is “to seize, capture, influence & dominate by some special charm, art or trait and with an irresistable appeal”.

So, a question for us  is, does Jesus hold our attention to the exclusion of all else? Are we transfixed by gazing into His dancing eyes? Are we captured within His gaze and do we see Him as He is, absolutely irresistable? Or do we see something else? It matters how we see our Jesus…   

Let’s go back to the robe for a bit… John talked about what we picture when we hear the word “priest”. And then he brought up Hebrews 4:14-16:

So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.  So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (NLT)

This passage humanizes Jesus and allows us to think of the word “priest” a little differently. As I listened to this passage, I thought of another-1 Peter 2:9:

“…you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. (NLT)

This passage is talking about us, the family of believers. We are called “priests” in this verse. And when I did a little word study, I found the word translated “priest” in both the Hebrews and 1 Peter passages are linked to the same root word. As Jesus is a priest that understands and sympathizes with our weaknesses and offers mercy, grace and help in our times of need, we are also called priests and we get to offer those same things to the world around us and to one another.

John spoke about the kind of help Jesus offers us through His Holy Spirit. It is not stepping aside and asking Him to simply fix what’s wrong. It is a partnership, working together to take hold of the problem and move it out of the way. Jesus cares about proximity, intimacy. He doesn’t need our help-He could fix all of our problems without us. But He, our High Priest, invites us to partner with Him so that we-the priesthood of believers-can learn from Him and carry Him to others.

Jesus has always been about “withness” and He still is. He didn’t need the twelve disciples in order to carry out His ministry and perform His miracles. He brought them close to Himself to love them, to teach them, to impart Himself to them. So that when the time came for Him to go the Father, He could leave knowing that He could be seen, felt, touched in those He left behind-a priesthood that would carry out the work He started.

Jesus isn’t a High Priest who intercedes from a distance. He doesn’t sit on the outside and judge us when our lives come apart. He doesn’t tell us what we should do to find our own way out. He always, always, always comes down into our mess and works with us until we can get out together. Just as He came down from Heaven to be born as a baby in a dirty manger, He comes to each of us when things are falling apart, when we find ourselves in a mess we can’t see through, a pit we can’t climb out of-and he offers His help. He sets the example of what kind of a priesthood we are to be. Will we follow His lead and get into the mess with those around us, those who need help? Will we let the mesmerizing, captivating, irresistable gaze of Jesus pour through our own eyes as we interact with the world He’s called us to love the way He loves us? What we see in Jesus is reflected in us–how do you see Him?

–Laura

Laura asked us how we see Jesus. There are times that we get wrong impressions of Him. We struggle to fully understand His love, His grace, His compassion, and His “withness”. But when we sit with scripture, take it slowly, soak it in, we come to see that Jesus is truly for us. He became our high priest, not in an aloof, detached, judgemental way, but in a beautiful “I am with you” way. Hebrews 4:15-16, highlighted above, tells us that He is with us, He is for us. We don’t have to hide anything from him. We don’t have to carry anything alone. We don’t have to try to fix ourselves. We don’t have to pretend to be strong. Jesus is in our midst. Jesus is with us. Jesus has tethered himself to us and has told us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. (Mt. 11:30) He has come to help us. And He has given us His Spirit to help us as well. Romans 8:26 words it this way: In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness…

When John pointed out that the word “help” in the Hebrew verse and the Romans verse, is the same “help” used to describe a wife, my mind went to marriage. A husband and a wife are in partnership together. In order for their marriage to work, there has to be “withness”, a belief that they are in this together working toward the same mission is to be with the same goal. The “yoke” will be easy and the burden light if they are headed the same direction, keeping in step with each other, loving each other, and communicating along the way. Laura stated it this way: John spoke about the kind of help Jesus offers us through His Holy Spirit. It is not stepping aside and asking Him to simply fix what’s wrong. It is a partnership, working together to take hold of the problem and move it out of the way. Jesus cares about proximity, intimacy…

Stay with me here for a moment. The church is the bride of Christ. So if “help” in this context means “withness”, do we see ourselves in partnership with Jesus? Think about what it implies that the apostle John saw Jesus, with eyes like blazing fire, among the seven golden lampstands—the seven churches. The groom was in the midst of the bride. Intimate partnership.

Sometimes I get a visual that’s a little hard to put into words, but I’m going to try. Jesus, with His eyes like blazing fire—the dancing, mesmerizing, captivating, drawing us in kind of eyes, is among-he is with-the seven golden lampstands. What I saw in my mind was the reflection of Jesus in the gold of the lampstands, and the reflection of the lampstands in Jesus’ eyes. There is a lot of light happening in this scene, and a lot of reflection. I was reminded that in John 8:12 Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” And in Matthew 5:14 He tell us that we are the light of the world. He tells us that if we walk with Him, we won’t walk in darkness. (Jn 8:12) And our light? It’s Him. It comes through intimacy with Him, proximity to Him, and His light reflects off of us to the world.

Laura pointed out that Jesus is our High Priest, and we, too, are priests in His kingdom, so that we can show others the goodness of God, for he called us out of the darkness into his wonderful light….so that we can let our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven. (1 Pt 2:9, Jn 5:16). No matter what season of life we are in, He is with us, he has called us out of darkness so that we can bring glory to the Father. He can use our coming apart seasons to give others hope and bring glory to God. The question is, will we choose proximity and intimacy with Jesus when things are coming apart? It truly does come down to how we see Him.

So how do we see Him? Is he hard to see? Do we see Him like one who wants to come alongside us, or do we see Him as distant? Do we filter Him through what we’re going through, or do we filter what we’re going through, through Him?

Look at Him. Can you see your reflection in His eyes? Do you see Him clearly? He is with you. Walk with Him and you will not walk in darkness. Yoke yourself to Him and your burden will be light. He is with you, He is holding all things together. (Cl 1:17) He is Emmanuel—the with us God, and He has got you, no matter what you’re going through.

-Luanne

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Overcoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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What About Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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Stories: Ashley & Allyson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

I will start where Luanne finished:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

–Laura

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Stories-Angela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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Stories—Dave H.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The journey has been unbelievably painful. And unexpectedly beautiful…

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

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

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

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

–Laura

brennan manning

Stories… “Arise, My God”

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

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

And He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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