Hold On: Habakkuk 1

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

We began a series through the book of Habakkuk on Sunday. What an incredibly relevant book it is for our day and time. The entire book is a prayer-a dialogue- between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk is not afraid to ask God hard questions. He is not afraid to wrestle, but he wrestles with God and not against.

Habakkuk reveals some things about himself in this prayer;

*He reveals that he is deeply connected to God and seeks intimate connection with Him.

*He reveals that God speaks to him as a result of this intimate connection and that he listens to God.

*He reveals that he cares about and feels responsibility for his community.

*He reveals that no matter what happens in this life, he trusts God, and knows that God is in control.

When Habakkuk writes his prayer, the world around him is in chaos. Israel has divided into two nations; the larger northern kingdom called Israel, and the smaller southern kingdom called Judah. Habakkuk lives in Judah. Not only do Israel and Judah fight against one another, not only do they each have their own king, they also have infighting in their own kingdoms. All of this fighting, all of their quarreling, all of their divisiveness weakens them and makes them susceptible to attack from powerful enemies. They live in constant fear and unrest. It is into this reality that Habakkuk cries out to God.  This is how he begins:

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” But you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me, there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. (1: 1-3)

Doesn’t that sound like today?

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  there are 65.6 million displaced people people who have had to flee their homes because of violence.   Breaking that down into a number that is easier for us to understand—nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution. 20 people per minute.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have plenty of violence in the United States: School shootings, mall shootings, church shootings, concert shootings, civilians shooting police, police shooting civilians, men violating women, child abuse,  and thousands of  other violences that don’t make headlines.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have laws that favor some and are oppressive to others. Gary Haugen of The International Justice Mission taught me that historically, law systems, police and governing systems were put in place to protect the privileged class.  During the days when Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, and other countries were colonizing other nations, their law systems were set up to protect them- the colonizers, the conquerors-  from the people whose country they were taking over.   Even though that happened a few hundred years ago, many justice systems never evolved into serving and protecting all people equally. Habakkuk cries out… the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have division—deep division in our nation. It feels as if we have made certain political ideologies our gods; we are an angry people, we attack one another viciously, we quarrel constantly, our favored media sources “disciple” us and have created mob mentality—an inability to think as individuals, only to think as a group, and we defend our groups and fight for our groups no matter what. We refuse to see anything amiss in our own groups. Habakkuk cries out…there is strife, and conflict abounds. It bother him. Does it bother us?

As I write this, like Habakkuk, my heart is deeply troubled. I sense, like he did, that we are headed for disaster.  Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:25 Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  Not only are we a divided nation, we are divided as Christians. We are in trouble. We are holding on to the wrong things.

God responds to Habakkuk’s concerns about the state of their kingdom, and His response is a hard one to fathom. It begins with what sounds like an amazingly  powerful word:

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed.  For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

And then God lays out how the Babylonians are going to come and totally wipe them out.  Yikes! What are we supposed to do with that? In the theology of many of us, there is no space for a response like this from God. So what does Habakkuk do?

He responds with: Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. (v12) 

We’ll pick up at this point in the text next week, but wow! What a response! Pastor John pointed out that Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words. He acknowledges God’s sovereignty. He still has questions, but at the end of the day, he trusts God. He is holding on.

Many of us do not have a theology that includes suffering and hardship. Many of us only have a theology of prosperity and blessing. That leads us to being very shallow, and in danger of abandoning our faith, of letting go rather than holding on when life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We forget that Jesus was crucified, we forget that most of his disciples were martyred. We forget that all across the face of the globe there are Jesus followers being put to death for their faith today.

We forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 24: 4-12

“See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”

We forget that Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy:

 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.….Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.  (2nd Timothy 3: 1-5, 12-14)

We forget that Jesus said

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives-in exile- and God had just let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. (Jer. 29:4-5)

We forget that God tells us For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55:8-9)

We forget the faith of Joseph who said: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen. 50:20)

The faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who said: If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18)

The faith of Job who said: Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

We forget that we’ve been challenged to trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…(Pr 3:5)

So what do we do, how do we hold on?  We  throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And… run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Heb. 12:1-2)

We hold on by surrendering our lives to Jesus, to His ways, to the principles of His kingdom, and no matter what this earthly kingdom has going on, we represent Him, we love Him, we love others, we leverage our lives for His kingdom, we join Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit in His call which He laid out when He said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18)

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

May we live like the born again who see the kingdom of God. May we hold on to who we are as His ambassadors, His ministers of reconciliation,  and may we hold on to the King of the Kingdom who matters for eternity, trusting that God is sovereign, that He is at work, that He has a plan, and that we can reflect His love and glory in this fallen world no matter what is going on.

–Luanne

As we embark on this journey into Habakkuk, we see a justice theme permeating almost every verse of the first chapter. It’s clear that this book has a lot to do with justice. I love that it does, because God’s heart for justice beats strong in my own heart, too. Luanne articulated this theme beautifully above. I would love to tag on to what she wrote because justice, equity, seeing the image of God in all people-it is something I am passionate about. But He is leading me a different direction this time…

Pastor John said on Sunday that contained within God’s seemingly harsh, confusing words is a simple message of hope: Hold on…

Luanne wrote:

“We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives and God let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time.”

In captivity, with no sign of their situation changing anytime soon, God told His people that He saw the big picture, that He had plans-good plans-for them, and that He would give them hope and a future. We read that verse, share it, put it on bookmarks and graduation cards… and forget the context.

Habakkuk knew the context of the story he was in. He remembered even as he heard hard words from God that there was a larger story being written. The current circumstances that he and his people found themselves in was one chapter in the larger narrative of the story of God. He heard the “Hold on” cut through the message of impending destruction and the noise of the violence around him.

Pastor John explained the charge to “hold on” as an exhortation to embrace the gray area in the meantime. We, as people, have a natural tendency to think we know best. And we have an almost desperate desire to know what’s coming up ahead of us. Embracing the gray area is not fun. It can be terrifying, because we feel completely out of control. And we are. 

We can see from the way Habakkuk related to God that he got this. He understood that God was the One in control. He had, at some point, settled in his heart the matter of God’s sovereignty. And he chose to trust him. We can see this in the way he questioned and prayed-honestly, pouring his heart out, and also in the way that he listened–not with the ultimate goal of understanding, but rather with a heart that remembered who was speaking.

Luanne wrote above, “Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words.” 

That is the challenge to all of us as we move into this series… Do we come to God with our questions and chaotic circumstances, in a time when our world is in what appears to be a terminal tailspin, and choose to hold on to Him no matter what He might say-or might not say-about it all? Or will we let go of Him and get swept away by the craziness of our situations?

I think that sometimes we want to stay where we are until we can see clearly what’s up ahead. When what we can see looks like a gray area, it’s easy to feel stuck and grasp at control. But what if God is actually calling us to take a step into the gray before we can see what’s on the other side? What if what we are seeing with our eyes looks like clouds and fog and impending doom, but God is calling us to take a step through it, because the light-the hope-is seen only when we step into the storm? He wants us to fix our eyes on Him and take a step-even when our natural eyes can’t see Him through everything that’s swirling around us.

I can’t help but think of the story from Matthew 14, when Jesus walked out onto the sea while his fearful disciples rowed futilely against a storm. When Jesus told them it was He who was coming toward them, Peter requested that He tell him to come to Him on the water, so he would know it was Him. Jesus obliged Peter’s request and said, “Come”. Peter stepped out and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. All was well until, as the NIV words verse 30, “he saw the wind”. I’m not even going to go into how one sees the wind-that’s a different conversation entirely. But when Peter noticed the wind–however that happened–the Word tells us that he became afraid and began to sink. Peter had Jesus in the flesh, right in front him, but his eyes weren’t fixed on Him in this moment. He knew who Jesus was, he believed, he was experiencing the miracle of walking on water-and the swirling storm around him was enough to divert his attention and change his situation.

We can do the very same thing. We don’t have the physical embodiment of Jesus in front of us, as Peter did. No, we who know Jesus have the Holy Spirit living within us, teaching and guiding us in the way of the Kingdom, moment by moment… and we still get caught up in the storm rather than holding onto the hope that we have that there is a bigger story being written than what our eyes can see. Even with Kingdom vision, with spiritual eyes that see the Imago Dei in all people, with hearts that beat in rhythm with God’s own heart, our circumstances can loom large and cast doubt into our hope–if our eyes aren’t fixed on Him. What does that mean, “fixing our eyes”? In the Hebrews 12:2 verse that Luanne previously referenced, “fixing our eyes” literally means in the original Greek, “to turn the eyes away from other things and fix them on something”. It also means “to turn one’s mind to” something. The definition necessitates a choice. We have to choose what we’re going to look at. Habakkuk chose to see the God who reigned above the chaos, outside of and apart from the storms around him. He chose to acknowledge His control and His higher thoughts and ways. He set his mind on what he knew to be true in the midst of a situation that could have imparted terror and panic into his head and heart.

We have the same choice. Luanne explained in her portion just how crazy the world around us has become. She identified the parallels between what Habakkuk and his people faced and what we are currently facing in our world today. We can’t not see what is happening. And we should feel bothered by and sense a responsibility toward the violence, the injustice, the chaos that’s all around us. But we get to choose what we fix our eyes on. And if we listen, we’ll hear God whispering the same message of hope to us that comes through in the story of Habakkuk: “Hold on. I’m at work. I know you see this… but I want you to fix your eyes on Me. I am here. I’m involved. And I’ll never walk away…”

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 15:13

–Laura

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A Balanced Life: Re-prioritize

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,”says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  (Malachi 3:7-10)

On Sunday, we heard the final installment of our series, A Balanced Life. It was a summation of all that we’ve learned over these last six weeks as well as a charge to check our priorities. Pastor John put before us five ways we spend our money and the order in which we often do so. The list is: Spend. Pay debt. Pay taxes. Save. Give. This list may shuffle around a bit for each of us, but let’s assume the first and last priorities listed match for the majority of us. If that’s the case, our priorities indicate a “me first” mentality rather than a “God first” mentality.

Many of us live this way. The people God was speaking to in the Malachi passage above were living this way. They hoarded their best, took care of themselves, and gave God their leftovers.

We have a tendency to do the very same thing.

It may start small–the utility bills were high one month, and the paycheck was only big enough to cover them, the rent and a few groceries. So we didn’t give that month. We didn’t even save. We just did our best to take care of the most pressing needs. We had every intention of getting back on track the following month. But the next month presented with unexpected medical bills and the kids needed new shoes. So giving took a back seat once again. Before too long, budgeting for giving kind of fell off the spreadsheet… and even when income increased, our priorities didn’t change. We faintly  heard God calling us to come back, to return to His way, but we found ourselves saying, as God’s people said in the verses above, “How are we to return?”

This is a hypothetical story, but I have to own that my own life has mirrored the story more than once. The needs seem so pressing… What will happen if we don’t take care of those necessities first? God knows our struggle with trust and our inclination toward controlling our own lives. So He challenges us to take Him at His word… He says, “Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

Jesus issues a similar challenge hundreds of years later, saying, So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. (Matthew 6:31-33)

God is asking us to take Him at His word–to try it His way. And see what happens. The God of Creation–Maker of our every cell, Giver of our every breath–tells us to put Him to the test. His grace and patience with our selfish, stubborn, wandering hearts leaves me without words… Once again, as we’ve seen so many times, He gives us a choice. Try it His way–because He has so much more for each of us. Not only financially but in everything, His plan is to prosper us, to provide for us, to expand our territory… for His Kingdom’s sake. And this is where our hearts betray us… We say our hearts belong to God… We’ve “given our hearts to Jesus”. We sing the words “You have my heart” during worship services.

But does He, really? Does God have our hearts?

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Whatever has our hearts, we resource. We invest in and value those things”.

If we say that God has our hearts, but we don’t resource or invest in His Kingdom, we deceive ourselves.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25) 

If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between. It can’t be both. We serve, feed, and invest in one or the other. Period. This is about so much more than money-but it has to include our finances. If it were only about our time, our gifts, our talents, I would feel a little better about saying that my life evidences that God has my heart. For me, those things are easier, although, I still find myself utterly selfish much of the time. But when it comes to my finances? I fall well short of trusting God with my finances the way that He asks us to. This series has held up a mirror that has revealed, in my life, a need to re-prioritize.

I want to order my life the way that John laid out for us at the end of his message, the way our Savior modeled perfectly for us: Give. Save. Live. Jesus gave up Heaven and put on skin to come to us. And then He gave His life in order to save us. He saved us so that we could live-not only in eternity with Him someday, but here and now. And His desire for us in the here and now is to live His way. He wants to have our hearts so that we will willingly give all that we have and all that we are and leverage it all to bring His Kingdom to earth. So that in our giving of ourselves, souls will be saved and people will live. This is the way to honor God with our whole lives. May He find us faithful to live His way. May we not simply say that He has our hearts-may our lives bear fruit that proves it.

–Laura

Laura wrote above: If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between.

There is no in between.

We have the choice with every decision we make to choose the principles of the kingdom of heaven, or the principles of the kingdom of earth.  The principles of the kingdom of heaven will always be God first and others focused. The kingdom of earth will always be me first and self focused. God has clearly shown us in His word what “God first” living looks like, and also what “me first” living looks like.  “Me first” living always indicates a lack of trusting God to know what’s best.

“Me first” led to Eve’s taking Satan’s bait in the garden–When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen. 3:6) She wanted what looked good to her, and what she thought God was withholding from her.

“Me first” led to King David not going out to war in the season that kings went to war, and during that leisure time when he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof, he used his power to take advantage of her which led to pregnancy, which led to the murder of her husband, and the child did not survive. (2 Sam. 11)  King David was thinking “me first” from the moment he chose not to go to war with his men, and all the way through that tragic story.

“Me first” was the attitude of “the rich fool” as he built bigger barns to store all the stuff that he planned to use for himself–and then he died. (Luke 12: 16-21).

“Me first” always has hard consequences, yet “me first” is the fallen condition of all of us. How do we fight it?

Author Daniel Hill, in his book White Awake writes of the one-degree rule. He says: In aviation there’s a principle called the one-degree rule: a tiny error in direction can make a major difference in the final destination of a flight…(Hill transitions the one-degree principle into the story of the prodigal son and says this about the older brother) though he dutifully followed the house rules, his obedience wasn’t flowing from a grateful heart. Instead he was driven by his own selfish agenda. Though this distinction was difficult to detect from the outside, it eventually showed itself in the cumulative toll that it took on his soul. By the time it bubbled to the surface, the elder brother was marked by a combination of anger, joylessness, judgement, and most sadly, an inability to internalize the love of the Father.”

Sarah Young’s January 30th entry in her beautiful devotional book Jesus Calling begins with this phrase: Worship Me only. Whatever occupies your mind the most becomes your god.

I believe both Hill and Young give us clues as to how to fight “me first” mentality. In order to internalize the love of the Father, in order to worship Him only, in order to stay on track, there are things we must pay attention to.

First, we must know that we are loved by God. As we spend time with Him and experience His love, we grow to love Him in return–just like babies grow to love their parents in response to the love they receive. Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind‘; (Luke 10:27).  Truly, we are not capable of loving God this way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God the way God desires to be loved–it’s a prayer He loves to answer! When we love Him this way, the temptation to worship lesser gods fades.

Loving God with our minds means that we allow Him to search us in order to help us recognize those one-degree thoughts and choices that lead us astray.

I’ve always found the apostle Paul’s wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4 interesting when he says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers….”  

I truly believe that part of living a balanced life is praying Psalm 139:23-24 every single day: Search me, O 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.  Then we need to sit with Him and let Him bring things up so that we can deal with them–repent of them.

The word translated “repent” in our Bibles is the Greek word “metanoia”, which literally means “changed mind”. To live in harmony with God, we must allow our minds to be in tune with His heart, His ways.

Romans 12:2 makes this so clear: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  

Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  Again, interesting phrasing. When someone is taken captive, they are typically interrogated as the captor seeks to discover things about the enemy’s tactics.

I believe that even those of us who are saved can have our minds blinded when we choose to live in unbelief or in the kingdom of earth with its priorities. We must allow the Holy Spirit to show us those areas where we are going astray. When He brings things up, we must interrogate our thought process–what is it revealing about what we believe? Is it a “me first” thought that is revealing an area in our lives where we don’t trust God, or don’t want to live according to the principles of His kingdom? I would say that most often the answer to that question is “yes”. So then, we have a choice. Do we continue with our one-degree deviations which will get us to the place the Israelites were when they asked Malachi  “How are we to return?”, or do we repent–change our minds–renew our minds–and line up our minds, our lives- with the kingdom of heaven?

God asks for our entire lives–everything we are, everything we have. He tells us to seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness, and tells us that He will take care of all the rest.  Do we believe Him?  He told the Israelites through the prophet Malachi: Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

He wants to bless us, but He wants to bless us for the sake of His glory, His kingdom, and His renown. He wants us to come after Him because of love, not because we are trying to manipulate Him into giving us stuff–if we want Him for the blessings, that is still “me first”, but if we want Him because He is the love of our lives, it’s about Him.

Everything we have is from Him and for Him. That includes our finances. Do we live like that’s true?  Do we trust Him to be a God of His word? Do we trust Him to take care of us if we seek His kingdom first–if we give to Him first? Are we willing to test Him and see if the floodgates will open when we do life His way?  What if those floodgates of blessing aren’t material possessions at all, but they are lives of people saved for eternity because God’s people chose to live and give God’s way? What blessing could be better?

“Me first” or “God first”? The choice is ours.

–Luanne

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A Balanced Life: Discontent

So do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ Or what shall we drink?’ Or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.   (Mt 6:31-33)

Familiar verses, yet how often do we think about what they truly mean? What does it mean not to worry about worldly possessions? What does it mean to seek the kingdom of God before seeking anything else?

This week, Pastor John talked to us about discontentment and what leads to it. Greed is the fruit of discontentment. Our insatiable desire to be rich (or at least comfortable with a good retirement), to have the newest, the best,  the latest and greatest drives our discontent, leads us into debt, and will never ultimately satisfy. I think deep down we know that, yet, if we choose to be really honest with ourselves, what is it that we seek? What is it that we spend the precious moments of our lives in pursuit of?

One of the pictures used as a backdrop for the sermon this week was of a dollar bill positioned so that the words “In God We Trust” were front and center. What irony to have that phrase emblazoned on our currency. Jesus says in Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.  And here, in this nation, the physical manifestation of the tussle between a false god and the one true God are married on our currency. Which do we really trust? Which do we really pursue? Which do we depend upon to meet our needs, to take care of us?

I don’t like asking these questions. They are hard! They force us to face our imbalance. And, I can tell you, a few years ago in my own life, I was confronted face to face with my imbalance, my idolatry in this area.

My family was in a season of crisis; as a result my husband stepped away from his job for a season. I work full time and have great benefits, but don’t bring home enough money to even cover our mortgage payment. I was in a total panic over our situation. We have always had good credit, we have been responsible bill payers, and here we were in a season of great financial difficulty. We cut out all frivolous spending—no paper towels, no paper napkins, nothing extra, no new anything, we ate bare minimum inexpensive food such as beans and rice. We did not go shopping, not out to eat, no gifts at Christmas, cut out everything. Even with all these cuts, I knew that we did not have the means to pay our mortgage or our bills. I came face to face with how much I depended on money. In my panic, I cried out to God. (Wish I had gone to Him first without panic—it’s easy to say we trust Him until we have no other choice.) Gratefully, He showed up. There is no logical explanation for the fact that we made it for a little over a year with not enough income to pay our bills, and never once got behind. We went through our savings, and God showed up. People at church would sneak money into my purse. One friend felt God asking her to give us a portion of her paycheck every month. We got a couple of large unexpected financial gifts that kept us going for a couple of months. And, each week as I’d sit down to pay bills and balance our books (still in a state of panic), they never worked out right. The bank always said that there was more in our account than there could have been. I would try and try to get it figured out, and would eventually give up. One Saturday morning, I was paying bills and expressing frustration as I tried to reconcile the books, and I felt God speak to me saying, “Stop it! Don’t try to make sense of it. I am taking care of you.”

Even as I typed that sentence I exhaled loudly. That’s exactly what I did that morning. I exhaled and fell into the loving arms of the only One who is dependable. The only One for whom resources are never an issue. God met our needs all year long. Often times He waited until the final, final, final moment before showing up. And yes, I would panic and then apologize when He came through once again. He was growing my faith, and my total dependence upon Him. It was emotionally excruciating at times, but He was stripping me of the false god I was trusting, and giving me no choice but to lean solely on Him.  Now, several years on the other side of that scary, faith-building year, I still thank God for provision when we pay our bills, when we eat our food, when we can give gifts, sponsor children, etc.—and I have no doubt who my provider is.  Every penny comes from His hand.

I wish that I could say that I learned to be content in that season. My discontentment was fierce. It wasn’t about having material things. I was totally okay with the financial cutbacks. I was not okay with the lack of inner peace caused by my lack of faith that we had no nest egg—no money to fall back on. And what that discontent came down to was a lack of trust in God. I was totally living in crippling fear because we couldn’t provide for ourselves. I don’t like admitting that, but it’s true. Money was my idol, and my dependence upon it was great.

Paul, when writing to Timothy, gave him this counsel about money: Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (Such great words of warning about pursuing riches—it’s the LOVE of money that gets us in trouble, the pursuit of money—the dependence on money–Paul continues…) But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness… (1st Tim 6:6-11)

Imbalance happens when dependence on money removes us from total dependence on God. Are we going to use our time and energy to pursue money and the things of this world, or the kingdom of God and the fruit of His Spirit?  Have we lost our ability to be content? Do we let our discontentment drive us?  What are we pouring our lives into? What are we pursuing first?

There is only one Prince of Peace and he is the one who says to us: So do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ Or what shall we drink?’ Or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt 6:31-33)

Do we believe these words? Do we trust God to be true to His word, to His promises? Do we want Him more than anything else? Is He enough for us? Are we satisfied in Him? Are we willing to pursue His Kingdom first and let Him handle all the rest? Will we be content in Him? Will we let Him be our peace?

Godliness with contentment is great gain. (1st Timothy 6:6)  Do we believe it?

—Luanne

“Do we let our discontentment drive us?”

Luanne’s question struck me. I think no matter who we are, the answer is unequivocally, “yes”–discontentment drives us. Which leads us to more questions…

Why are we discontent? 

And, more importantly,

What does our discontentment drive us toward? 

I believe that we all experience a “holy dissatisfaction” within ourselves that is part of how God designed us. It’s what produces restlessness and discontentment. I believe that this discontentment is meant to drive us toward what we were made for. It’s meant to be a catalyst that launches us toward God. In Paul’s prayer for the believers in Ephesus, he says these words:

May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith. And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love]; and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]. (Ephesians 3:16-19 Amplified)

We were created to experience the fullness of God. The fullness of God… Let that sink in, if you can… God desires that we be completely filled with Him, satisfied in Him. He tells us over and over again in His word that He is our sustainer, our provider. He longs that we want Him most, more than anything else–because He knows that there is nothing on earth that will satisfy the longing in our souls.

So… why then–if God has offered us the fullness of Himself to fill the holes inside of us–do we allow our discontentment to drive us toward other things? Toward the bigger, better, newer stuff that this world has to offer?

I think maybe it’s because we don’t actually believe that He is good. If we turn tail and run in the opposite direction we’ve been running, if we run to him and let the rest go and actually take Him at His word–we’re afraid it won’t be enough. To leave our stuff behind, to stop numbing the pain with things that bring temporary pleasure & security, means that we have to trust Him enough to hope for something better… And sometimes? We’re just not sure. We can’t quite imagine being “filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself”. 

We can’t imagine it–until we experience it. Luanne wrote this about her own wrestling in trusting God to provide for her and her family:

“I exhaled and fell into the loving arms of the only One who is dependable”.

Sometimes an exhale is a wordless surrender. In that moment, Luanne chose to trust in the goodness of the One who had proven Himself faithful to her. We all have to choose… Discontentment is an insufferable companion. It will move us. It will drive us. That’s by design. But God doesn’t force us toward Himself. He is, as we’ve said many times before, a gentleman. But what He offers… He longs that we taste it. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.” (Psalm 34:8 NIV) But we can’t taste His goodness or be filled with His fullness if we’re running the other direction.

We must flee one to pursue the other. Discontentment will either drive us to flee the things of this world and pursue God… or, to flee from God and pursue the things of this world. This is not a both/and situation. We have one heart. That heart has one throne. It will not be shared. We have to choose.

Paul uses both words-flee and pursue-in his charge to Timothy. Their meanings in this passage are compelling…

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11 NIV) 

Flee in this verse means to “seek safety by flight; to be saved by flight”. Pursue means “to make to flee; put to flight; to run swiftly in order to catch something”. Did you catch the similarities? Which one sounds easier? To fly away to safety? Or to make ourselves fly swiftly in order to catch something? Maybe the answer depends on what we’re fleeing from and what we then pursue… But I believe it takes more effort, more commitment, to pursue something than it does to run away from something. And we have to be convinced that what we are pursuing is worth the effort it takes to go after it…

If you look up the root words in the verse, 1 Timothy 6:11 reads like this:

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue equity, the Gospel-scheme of reverence and worship–godliness, reliance on Christ–the persuasion of Gospel truth, agape love, patient endurance that remains present, and painful, passionate humility/meekness”.

Are those easy to pursue? No. Is that a compelling option when choosing between the things of this world and God? That depends. It depends on whether or not we understand what we have, what we’ve been entrusted with. I included this verse in its entirety last week, and it’s applicable again here…

“…your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32 NASB)

We. Have. The. Kingdom. God has given us the Kingdom and desires to fill us with the fullness of Himself. He longs for our discontentment to incite a “holy dissatisfaction” that drives us to pursue Him and let the things of world grow dim and lose their hold on us in light of His goodness.

Luanne asked us, “What does it mean to seek the Kingdom of God before seeking anything else?” 

I’m not going to attempt to answer that for all of us here. But I believe that to seek the Kingdom above all else is to take God at His word. It is, in part, an exhale that instigates a free-fall into His arms. It is choosing to take the time to taste and see His goodness and letting the fullness of all that He is propel us to “…pursue equity, the Gospel-scheme of reverence and worship–godliness, reliance on Christ–the persuasion of Gospel truth, agape love, patient endurance that remains present, and painful, passionate humility/meekness”. 

What does it mean to you to seek the Kingdom before seeking anything else? Have you ever exhaled into a free-fall and found yourself safe in the arms of the dependable One? We would love you hear your thoughts…

–Laura

This is a song by Audrey Assad and it speaks of tasting of God’s goodness. Enjoy! “I Shall Not Want”

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A Balanced Life: Extra

In last week’s message, Pastor John tackled the hard-hitting subject of debt. This week, he talked about our extra. Whew…a lighter subject, right? Wrong. This may have been one of the most convicting messages I’ve ever heard. And I am grateful for it.

We all have extra. We may not have as much extra as someone else, but we all have it. We all have things that go beyond our basic needs–oftentimes, way beyond. John illustrated this through a series of questions, like:

Do you go out to eat even when you have food at home? Do you have a car? More than one? Cell phone? Seasonal wardrobes? More than one closet full of clothes? Extra freezers? Have you ever traded something in for an upgraded version, even if it wasn’t broken?

Our answers to these questions reveal that what we have goes way beyond “our daily bread” that we ask for in The Lord’s Prayer… And our extra is not limited to the “stuff” we possess-but we’ll get into that a little bit later…

John asserted that the answer to the question, “Why do I have so much?” is found in one word: Greed. The constant quest for more. We want more so that we can be more. He also said that when that “more” comes into our lives, we assume it’s for us. We feel entitled, like we deserve what we get…

The word deserve grabbed my attention… It’s a word we use all the time, but in this context, what does it mean? To feel like we deserve the extra we receive? Initially, my mind went to the prefix de-, indicating negation or separation. “Decompose” or “dethrone” are examples of using the prefix in this way. This was a compelling thought as I considered the implications of using de- in front of the word “serve”… If this application of the prefix is correct, then “deserve” would mean “to not serve”. It would imply that if we think we are “deserving” of something, we are actually choosing to not serve. But in this instance, “de” is not used as a prefix… and its actual meaning may be even more indicting…

“De” is a Latin word meaning down to the bottom, or completely. So the word “deserve” means to serve oneself completely. It doesn’t negate serving altogether, it just means that the only one we’re serving is ourselves.

Ouch.

We looked at the parable Jesus told about the rich fool in Luke 12. The ground of the rich man had produced a massive crop. There was so much extra, he had no place to store it all. He mistakenly assumed that the surplus was because of him and for him and he intended to hoard it all and spend the rest of his life eating, drinking and being merry (vs. 19). He took the posture of one who believed he deserved all that he had-and he aimed to serve himself completely with his extra for the remainder of his days. There was just one problem with his plan-he died that very night. And he went down in history as a fool. That became his legacy.

In the case of the rich fool, his surplus was given to someone else after he died. He just wasn’t around to be part of it–but it wasn’t because of his generosity that others benefited from his extra. This is the case with possessions-we only have them until we’re gone. Then someone else becomes the beneficiary of all of it. But what about everything else? What about all of the extra we’ve been given that isn’t stuff? What about our time, gifts, position, privilege, status? What about our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Is all of this not also extra? Do our hearts hoard these things? Do we serve ourselves completely with all that God has given us? These things don’t remain once we take our last breath, like our possessions do. When we die, if we’ve chosen to hoard this kind of extra, it all dies with us. That is a tragedy. We have to begin to see these things as part of our “extra” so that we don’t waste all that we have been given.

We wrongly assume that if we have more, we can do more for God. John reminded us on Sunday that it’s not what we have, but who we have that allows us to “do” anything for God.

He who did not spare [even] His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? ( Romans 8:32 Amplified Bible)

God has withheld no good thing from those who love Him. He gave us Jesus-He gave Himself. And He didn’t stop there. he also gave us His Kingdom. In the same chapter that we read about the rich fool, Jesus also speaks these words:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32 NASB)

God has given Himself fully to us. He gave us life-twice; He gave us physical life-the breath in our lungs-and He gave us eternal life through the gift of His Son. He put His Spirit within us, providing fruit in our lives as well as gifts and talents and strengths that are unique to each one of His followers. He provides for our daily needs and exceeds them, giving us more than we know what to do with. And He has chosen gladly to give us the kingdom.

Pastor John said to us, “If the kingdom matters to you, you’ll leverage everything in your life for the kingdom”. 

Jesus said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT)

Above all else… As John asserted in his message, we don’t have the capability to “balance” multiple priorities. Balance only comes when we have only one priority. The right priority. His Kingdom. If we want to find balance, we must prioritize His Kingdom. And just as He has given Himself fully to us, we must give ourselves fully to Him in return, knowing that our lives are not about what we have, but who we have.

What has God given you? What has He given you in abundance? What gifts and abilities are being hoarded in your heart with no outlet, no place to go? God gives us more than we need, more than we can hold, so that we will open our hearts and our hands and share our abundance. So we can serve-because we actually don’t deserve any of what we’ve been given. If we are willing to give ourselves fully back to Him, then all the good that we have, everything we have been given, becomes a vehicle for spreading Kingdom seed. Will we choose to surrender everything into the hands that have so graciously given everything to us? Will we leave a legacy that resembles that of the rich fool or one  of someone willing to be scattered throughout the world as seed that will grow and impact the Kingdom of God for generations to come?

–Laura

I echo Laura’s “ouch!” Like Laura, I was deeply convicted during Pastor John’s message. Given the silence in the sanctuary, I think many of us were. Our cultural mindset, and our flesh nature lead us to believe that our lives are all about us, and that we have to look out for “#1”. The definition that Laura shared with us about “deserve” is sobering. Our self-serving gets us no-where good, and it is absolutely contrary to the heart of God, yet we try to make our greed work for us somehow.

In 1992, Christian singer Babbie Mason recorded a tongue in cheek song entitled “Shopping List”. The chorus went like this:

Gimme this, I want that,
Bless me Lord I pray.
Grant me what I think I need to make another day.
Make me wealthy. Keep me healthy.
Fill in what I miss
On my never-ending shopping list.

It’s a funny song, and it’s not. It’s not, because it is the Christianity of many of us. “Me, me, me, me, me.”  Yet God says, lift up your eyes, look outward with a heart of love– live for my Kingdom and I will supply all you need.  He makes it clear what we are to do with our “extra”.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19: 9-10)

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.”  (Dt 24:19-21)

That’s a pretty clear directive from God.

Ruth, the Moabite benefitted from this practice. It’s how she provided food for her mother in law, Naomi, and herself. In Ruth 2:2 she asks Naomi “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”  The last phrase of her request is interesting. It indicates that some of the land owners followed God’s directive, and some did not. Boaz did. Boaz’s generosity toward this foreigner led to their marriage, and led to Ruth being one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Christ.

In the New Testament we see a beautiful example of generosity in the life of Tabitha.

There was a believer in Joppa named Tabitha (which in Greek is Dorcas). She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor.  About this time she became ill and died. Her body was washed for burial and laid in an upstairs room.  But the believers had heard that Peter was nearby at Lydda, so they sent two men to beg him, “Please come as soon as possible!”  So Peter returned with them; and as soon as he arrived, they took him to the upstairs room. The room was filled with widows who were weeping and showing him the coats and other clothes Dorcas had made for them.  But Peter asked them all to leave the room; then he knelt and prayed. Turning to the body he said, “Get up, Tabitha.” And she opened her eyes! When she saw Peter, she sat up! He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then he called in the widows and all the believers, and he presented her to them alive. (Acts 9:36-43 NLT)

Tabitha was a woman who used her “extra” to bless the poor and the widows, and God esteemed her ministry so much that he used Peter to raise her from the dead!

God’s word has much to tell us about living with a generous heart:

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. (Dt 15:7-8)

Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; (Ps. 41:1-3)

Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor. (Pr. 22:9)

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share… (1 Tim. 6:17-19)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

I could go on and on. There are also scriptures that are pretty clear about  greed.

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6: 9-10)

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)

The greedy bring ruin to their households. (Pr. 15:27a)

The greedy stir up conflict, but those who trust in the Lord will prosper. (Pr 28:25)

Again, I could go on and on.

For those of us who don’t consider ourselves rich and don’t want to give what we have, God’s word speaks to that as well. In Mark 12:41-44 we read this account:

Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.

Jesus loves generosity. Generosity is a beautiful reflection of God’s heart, God who gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Everything we have comes from Him. Not only our material possessions, but all the food we eat, because he supplies dirt, sun, water, and causes things to grow–all of our modern conveniences because He supplies wind, sun rays, electric currents, etc. He has provided our personalities, our gifts, our brains. He provides the air that we breathe, the hearts that pump life blood through our bodies. It is all His.

Are we willing to acknowledge all that we have is His?  Are we willing to pray this prayer with King Solomon  “..don’t make me either rich or poor; just give me enough food for each day.  If I have too much, I might reject you and say, ‘I don’t know the Lord…(Pr 30:8-9)  Or like the Apostle Paul say… I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.  For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. (Ph 4:12-13)  Can we choose to give sacrificially like the widow, or even have the mindset of wealthy King David who said: I will not take what is yours and give it to the Lord. I will not present burnt offerings that have cost me nothing!” (1 Chron. 21:24)

True God-like generosity is something that we will all wrestle with. I look at my possessions, some of which stay in closets, and think about the money that was spent on those things. It would be easy for me to beat myself up over how many “extras” I have, but the better idea is to acknowledge my greed as sin, confess it, embrace God’s forgiveness, and move forward making different choices from this point on. Holy Spirit, help me to remember!

The heart and actions of the early church show us how a community of believers can truly leverage their lives for the Kingdom of heaven: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

People were more important than things. Community was more important than individualism. God was praised. People came to know Jesus as Savior and were reconciled back to God. Can we, the capital “C” church get back to this?  Only if we choose to leverage our lives for the Kingdom of God, seek His Kingdom first, and live generously.

Lord, help us to recognize our idols for what they are, help us to have the courage to destroy them, help us to have the courage to fully submit to You, and help us not to wait for someone else to go first. May we be a people who love You well by loving others well–in action and deed.

–Luanne

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A Balanced Life: Debt

Sunday, we had our third installment in the series A Balanced Life in which we are tackling difficult financial concepts and learning that how we handle our finances is intricately connected to our spiritual lives. God has much to say about money in His Word. Sunday’s sermon was an “ouch” sermon, as Pastor John talked about debt.

John told us that there are four negatives to debt:

1. Debt curses us. God chose Israel and established them as a people in order to make His name known throughout the world. He wanted them to live in total dependence upon Him, and He let them know what He wanted that dependence to look like. In the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy He says things to this like this: If you fully obey…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth…ALL these blessings will come on you…you will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country…The fruit of your womb will be blessed, the crops of your land, the young of your livestock…Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed….the Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to…He will bless you in the land He is giving you…The Lord will establish you as His holy people if you walk in obedience to Him…The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of His bounty…You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.  

Being in a position to be a lender is the position of someone who is blessed. The borrower is in the opposite position. Borrowing indicates that things are going poorly, and borrowing brings more baggage than we want to acknowledge.

2. Debt enslaves us. Proverbs 22:7 states that “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”

That’s pretty clear. For the last three years, I have attended the International Justice System’s (IJM) Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D.C.  IJM works on behalf of the poor who are subjected to violence through human trafficking, land-grabbing, and bonded labor slavery throughout the world. Learning about those issues, hearing the stories of, seeing the scars of and meeting people who used to belong to someone else is sobering—life changing. In the case of bonded labor slavery, a person in need is often “loaned” an amount of money ( i.e. for a daughter’s wedding, or the children’s education, etc.) and the “generous” lender “hires” the person, promising wages to make it possible for the borrower to pay the debt and promising a paying job once the debt is paid. What the borrower doesn’t know is that the  business owner will charge them exorbitant interest on their “loan”, or high prices for the equipment that they will need for their work, or charge them for the food they eat while they work, making it impossible to pay the loan. (The unjust share-cropping system after the abolishment of slavery in the US that went on well into the 20th century followed similar heinous practices.) The borrowers work constantly under threat of violence. They don’t get to go back home. They become slaves. Some of the people we’ve met at IJM are second and third generation slaves. They were born in the brick factory, or whichever business, and have never tasted freedom. This is a very real example of the borrower becoming slave to the lender. And it is the reality of the principle of borrowing for all of us. What we borrow does not belong to us. What we borrow belongs to our lender.  We work to pay it off over time, but as long as we owe, we are indebted to the real owner of the property, and ultimately at their mercy (or lack thereof).

3. Debt controls us. Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control. (Pr. 25:28)

For many of us, the debt that we accrue is not an issue of need or desperate circumstances. For many of us, the reason that we have debt is because we lack self-control. We live in a world of glossy advertisements, shopping at the click of a button, delivery right to our homes, making it easier than ever to give in to the temptation of “I’ve got to have that now.” “That’s just what I need to make my life better.” Out of control spending can become addictive. And again, we place ourselves in vulnerable situations—like that of an unprotected city—when we choose to spend rather than save, when we choose to buy on impulse rather than pray and wait—when we choose discontentment because we don’t have that thing and we convince ourselves that we won’t be content until we do. Our personal greed feeds the greed of the lender—and greed—lack of self control—leads us nowhere good.

4. Debt robs us. The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down. (Pr. 21:20)

Debt robs us of the ability to be generous. In order to be generous we must have enough to give. We must live with margins—not spending all we have, not borrowing what we don’t have—if we want to be able to give money away. Giving away money when we owe money to someone else, means that we give away money that really isn’t ours to give.

Ouch, right?!

As I was praying through all of this, God brought Galatians 5:1 to mind…It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort, including monetary debt, becomes a yoke of slavery.  God wants us to depend upon Him, to lean into Him, to let Him be our provider, and to live with wisdom and self-control. He has given us self-control through His Holy Spirit (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Gal. 5:22). We don’t do this journey alone. We don’t do it in our own strength. He is with us.

Pastor John didn’t leave us hanging after the four negatives. He also gave us tools on how to get ourselves out of debt.

1. Get a plan. Without a plan, nothing will get better.

2. Get on your knees. Surrender your life, your spending, your debt to God. Ultimately, debt is a spiritual issue. It is the result of trying to meet our own needs, or fulfill our own desires.

3. Get connected. Bring your situation into the light. We don’t like to talk about it. That truth right there is an indication that debt creates shame (not from God), causes us to feel like we must hide, that we’re stupid, or hopeless. None of that is true. Bringing the situation into the light, facing it head on, creating accountability with another person or in a group brings freedom and community as you work together to turn your situation around. Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.

God’s word teaches us that we all fall short of the mark of His holiness. Not being able to attain our own righteousness, we become slaves to sin and owe a debt to God that we will never be able to pay. God sent Jesus to pay our debt. Jesus, the sinless perfect Son of God, took our debt upon Himself and paid it in full. That price has been paid for everyone, but in order to receive the gift of that freedom, we must acknowledge our need. We must surrender our lives to Him. He desires that we become part of a community—that we do life together. And to grow in godliness, to be transformed into the image of Jesus, we must have a plan that includes spending time with Him, and making fellowship with Him priority.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness… (2 Peter 1:3)

God desires our freedom in all ways. We have a tendency to want this freedom to come automatically. We pray, “Lord, make me like Christ.”, or “Lord, help me get out of debt.”, and want an immediate transformation. However, both situations take time and require depending upon Him.  He has provided all that we need to live generous lives. He desires that we live for His kingdom and not be slaves to the systems of this world. He has graciously done His part. Will we depend on the divine power of His Spirit, line up our hearts and minds with His desires, choose to live counter-culturally and take the actions necessary to do ours?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 

The freedom has been provided. The choice to live in it is ours.

—Luanne

Luanne wrote, “Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort…becomes a yoke of slavery.” 

There is one-and only one-yoke that we put on after entering into relationship with Christ-His yoke. The easy yoke and light burden that He offers. (Matthew 11:30) I emphasized the word “offers”, because He never makes us submit to His yoke. He could–He bought us at the highest price. But after He purchased us with His own life,  He did the craziest thing… he set us free. We sing words like “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe…”, but we often live like we owe Him nothing. How quickly we forget what we used to be…

John used the words “curse”, “enslave”, “control”, and “rob” to illustrate the impact debt has on our lives, as Luanne highlighted above. Interestingly, those are the very same words I would use to describe our condition before we encountered Christ. Before our spiritual debt was paid, we were cursed-bound for death and eternal separation from God. We were slaves to sin before our chains were broken. We were completely controlled by our sinful, human nature-invaded and taken over by our flesh. Spiritual debt had robbed us, too-it robbed us of our ability to give love–we can only love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Until we knew Christ, we didn’t know love.

BUT, Jesus… When Jesus comes into our lives, when we acknowledge Him as our Lord, He changes ALL of that. When we come into relationship with Him, we surrender all that we are to all that He is. We give our whole lives back to God–our rightful owner who could have replaced our enslavement to sin with slavery to Him, but instead gives us the freedom to choose. That alone blows my mind and could be a whole other post in itself, so for now, I’ll leave that there. But when we accept the gift of life and salvation that He has provided for us, we are essentially saying, “I am yours. I belong to you. You are my Lord, my Master.” And He gives us a new name. He renames us as he takes the weight of our curse, breaks the chains of our slavery, frees us from bondage to our flesh, and enables us to love and live given. From that point on, we are known by our good name that He’s given-a name that includes words like children, co-heirs, friend, Beloved, bride, and so many more. This new name He gives us cannot be taken away.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Debt targets your good name”. And that sent my mind spinning… We have an enemy who does the same. He targets our good name. He can’t take it away, but he can sure try to cover it with blemishes. If we resist the yoke that Jesus offers, resist fully submitting to Him as our Lord (which means Master), our resistance, our desire for control over our own lives, can open a door for us to be drawn into the form of slavery named Debt. If we allow ourselves to become indebted to anything other than Jesus, we are choosing to walk back into the slavery that He freed us from–not spiritually, but in our physical lives. Our enemy cannot drag us back to our fallen spiritual condition. We are sealed in Christ.  Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-22) But, if we allow him to, he can influence our physical lives, marking our outward lives with the same bondage and slavery that defined our spiritual selves prior to encountering Jesus. 

I think that the most sinister piece of being indebted-whether it be spiritual or financial-is that it robs us of our ability to live given. Living given is what most identifies us as followers of Christ. Whether it be love, forgiveness, grace, time or finances, followers of Jesus ought to be the best givers–because we are to model our lives after the Greatest Giver who has withheld from us no good thing-even His very own Son. Living given is an outpouring of all that we are in every area of life, every situation we encounter. In Ann Voskamp’s stunning book, The Broken Way, she writes these words:

Live given… Here is my brokenness… Here is my battered life, here is my bruised control, here are my fractured dreams, here is my open hand, here is all that I have, here is my fragile, surrendered heart, here I am, a living sacrifice. Broken. Given. Living given means breaking down all the thickened walls and barriers around your heart with this hammer of humility and trusting the expansiveness of the broken-wide-open spaces of grace and communion.

Could it be that our debt reveals our fear?

Perhaps our fear of losing control… or our fear of living out the broken vulnerability we are called to in Christ? Is our acquiring-all of our getting, needing, hoarding-simply our attempt to escape living broken and given? In the same book I referenced above, Ann writes this:

When I’m no longer afraid of brokenness, I don’t have to control or possess anything–dreams or plans or people or their perceptions. I can live surrendered. Cruciform. Given. This feels like freedom.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…

Our God desires that we live given lives–grateful for the freedom that was bought for us–that testify to the extravagant, generous nature of our good Father.

So how do we get there? How do we get to the place where our physical lives mirror the freedom and victory we’ve been given spiritually?

Luanne wrote about the tools John presented us with on Sunday, and I’m going to reiterate them here. We have to get a plan and we have to get on our knees. These two go hand in hand in my mind. I think the first place to go with our shortcomings is always to our gracious Father who will lead us through His Spirit. And I know that any plan I make might not line up with His–Many plans are in a man’s mind, But it is the Lord’s purpose for him that will stand (be carried out). Proverbs 19:21 AMP--so I don’t want to make any plan without first getting on my knees before Him. And after that, we get connected. Not superficially, either. Deeply, authentically connected to others. Like Luanne said, “Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.” We have to own what we owe. Even when we are in debt up to our eyeballs and don’t actually own anything we have, we can own our sin and our mistakes. And it’s great to do this with our God, but He doesn’t desire that we stop there. James 5:16 in the Amplified Bible reads like this:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another [your false steps, your offenses], and pray for one another, that you may be healed and restored. The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power].

These are the steps to freedom, friends. The steps toward living the abundant, overflowing, generous lives God wants us to live. Can we let go of our sense of control (we’re clearly out of control anyway-our lives and bank accounts are the evidence of this), find the courage to face our fears, and take these steps toward living fully free, given lives? Jesus didn’t only die to give us eternity with Him. He died that we might live in the fullness of His life in the here and now, lives that point to His way, His kingdom.

Jesus paid it all-all to Him I owe.

–Laura

Image result for choose freedom

A Balanced Life

Are you longing for balance in your life? I know I am. Even before this series started, I began taking inventory of my life, asking God to show me what to lean into and what to back away from during this next season. We can sense when we’re out of balance–there is a tension, an instability that keeps us on edge, divided hearts within us. We may not be able to articulate that we’re feeling that way as a result of being unbalanced, but we feel the repercussions of living this way. The consequences of an unbalanced life are the things that leave us longing to find our way back, out of the chaotic mess our lives have become.

What is it, though? What does balance even mean? Pastor John hasn’t directly defined balance in his messages. The dictionaries I’ve consulted don’t really define it either. In nearly every definition I read, the word balance was used to define itself. I thought that was a no-no, defining a word by itself… But apparently even Merriam-Webster is a little stumped by this one. To get any grasp at all on what balance actually is, I had to consult a Thesaurus. The synonyms for balance include harmony, evenness, equity. Its antonyms include disproportion, instability and inequality.

I want harmony, equity and evenness to mark my life. How about you? How do we get there from where we are?

Pastor John explained to us three laws of balance. To acquire and cultivate balance, we must first have a reference point, engage in constant correction, and maintain a clear objective. Living this way-much like standing on one foot for an extended amount of time-is simple. The directives are not difficult to understand. The list is not long. It’s simple. But it’s not easy… What is easy, though, is to look back and see where we’ve been in or out of balance in the past. It’s very easy to see how our yesterdays have impacted our todays-for better or worse. We remember the seasons our lives that were marked with instability and disharmony… because we have felt the consequences of living that way. Looking back is easy. Maintaining an awareness of how today’s decisions will affect our tomorrows, though, is harder-if we don’t hold onto the three laws of balance.

While finding a solid definition of balance is a challenge, there are principles that we can grab onto. We heard in this week’s message that “Balance allows us to be all God has created us to be”. It’s not possible to live our lives to the fullest, to fulfill the purposes God designed us for, if we’re living out of balance.

King David understood this. We know from his well-documented story that he didn’t always live a life of balance. But he evidenced over and over again that he did know how to find it. He understood that:

Everything belongs to God. Everything. Scripture drives home this truth many times. Here are just a few examples:

The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all that is in it, You have founded and established them. (Psalm 89:11 AMP)

Who has given me anything that I need to pay back? Everything under heaven is mine. (Job 41:11 NLT)

 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. (Haggai 2:8 NIV)

David penned these verses in one of his own psalms:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24:1-2 NIV)

And these verses record David’s words from the chapter Sunday’s message came out of:

Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power
    and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
    for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, Lord, is the kingdom;
    you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
    you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
    to exalt and give strength to all. (1 Chronicles 29:11-12 NIV)

Every single thing-and every single human being-belongs to God, the Creator of all. And everything we have? It all comes from God.

We can easily identify that David truly believed-and lived by-this truth in the story that John put before us on Sunday.  The verses above, from 1 Chronicles 29, are a portion of a prayer of praise that David lifted after he had given absolutely everything he had, along with the leaders around him, to provide what was needed to build the Temple. He continues his acknowledgment of God as the Giver in verse 14, the verse that Pastor John focused on in his message:

 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

David worshiped, in awe of how generous God had been with him and his people that they could now give so generously. By any standards, David gave extravagantly-today’s equivalent would be somewhere around $14 billion. But he didn’t credit himself as being a selfless guy, some generous temple sugar daddy. He didn’t take one tiny bit of credit. Instead, he was overwhelmed by the extravagance of God that allowed him to then give so much.

When I heard verse 14, I immediately remembered a similar prayer from earlier in David’s story. In 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, in response to God’s declaration that He would build a house for David-not the other way around-and would establish the throne of David’s son Solomon forever, David said these words:

“Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?  And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.”

In this instance, David is awed by all that God promised to do for him and for his family. He understands that it is not man who establishes himself, but rather God who holds the plans and the future of each one He has created. He worships, humbled and grateful for the God who gives identity, purpose, position, in addition to providing for physical needs. In the story in chapter 29 that we discussed earlier, he is humbled again as he sees how much he was able to give-because it was a reminder of just how much he had been given.

So what are the takeaways for us? There are many, and I won’t cover all of them here. I encourage you to dig in and seek God’s heart for what He has to say to you through His word. I do want to highlight a few, though.

Our ability to give is not dependent on how much we have, but rather the condition of our hearts. I don’t have $14 billion to give to God’s house. Not even close. And I may have a little more or a little less than you have. God doesn’t give out resources equally-but if we see the whole picture, we’ll see that He always gives extravagantly. Our bank accounts will look different, as will the size of our homes, the year of our vehicles, the vacations we take. But we have all been given the greatest Gift in equal measure. The Gift of Jesus, given for each of us so that all of us could be grafted into the best family-the forever family of God. And within that identity in the family of Jesus, we are given everything.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ(Ephesians 1:3 NIV)

For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6 NLT)

Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. And that should motivate our hearts to give our raised-from-the-dead lives right back to Him. If we understand how much we’ve been given, we won’t want to hold anything back when it comes to giving to Him-because all that we have was first given to us.

Delighting in God above all else changes our “have to” into a “get to”. I don’t believe that David was just an extra-generous guy. And I don’t believe that any part of him struggled to let go of his wealth or himself in surrender to His God. I think we can see pretty clearly that he was a cheerful, grateful, humble giver. I believe this is because he delighted in God. Not as one of many things he found delight in, but as Source of all of his delight and joy. He didn’t have to choose in the moment whether or not to honor God with his life and his giving-the matter had already been settled in his heart. He delighted in his God, and his choices flowed from that place.

I recently listened to a message from a conference that asked the question: Is delighting in God your highest aim, your priority? My current answer? Sometimes. Less than sometimes, probably. But I want it to be my priority. Because if we are absorbed in who God is, in enjoying being with Him and delighting in Him, our focus is on God-not on the gifts that He gives. And if our delight is truly in Him and not in what He can do for us or in us, or in what He gives, then living a generous, open-handed, surrendered life that honors Him is easy. Because it ceases to be about us. 

John asked us to enter into these 21 days of prayer asking God this question:

How can I honor You with everything I am and everything I have?

I’ll be digging into this question in the coming days and hopefully you will, too. I don’t know the full answer yet. But I do believe that honoring God with my life includes these things that David modeled in his life: delight in God above all else, understand that everything belongs to God, and because it all belongs to Him, acknowledge that everything comes from God. 

If we start here, I believe we’ll be well on our way to living lives that honor God.

–Laura

Like Laura, I tried to find a good definition of the word “balance”, and then sought out the etymology of the word. In the midst of that search I found an interesting rabbit trail to follow; I came across the question on stackexchange.com,  Why is a bank balance called a bank balance? This is a portion of the answer that was given:

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

This is not rocket science to anyone who has a bank account; however, it got me thinking about balance in the spiritual realm.

Laura wrote above: Our material wealth is given in unequal measure, according to God’s plans and purposes. Our spiritual gifts will be different among each one as well. But the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for. 

Jesus cried out “tetelestai” on the cross right before he died. That Greek word has two meanings. One is literally “It is finished.” The other meaning is a banking term meaning “Paid in full.” So when Laura writes “the gift of Jesus’s blood shed for us? We get that equally. In full. Covered and paid for.” It is settled. Done. Complete.  That debt that we owed, that negative balance is wiped out, paid for, finished.

However, in other ways God gives unequally, and He is very purposeful in that. He is a diversity loving God, and He has a plan, using that diversity, to bless the world.

When God called Abraham He told him… I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen. 12:2)  Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to be blessings. Whatever God has given to you doesn’t stop with you; it is part of God’s bigger plan to bless the world, for His glory,  through you.

Saturday, John and I were preparing for our 21 days of fasting, and we were going through the refrigerator, the freezer, and the cabinets cleaning out old food, expired food, etc.  I was mortified that we had some things that expired years ago. I felt the Lord speak to me, and He said, the more you have, the more you waste.  I felt the prick of that statement, but began to ponder it, process it, and face it. It’s not just food that I waste. I have a fully furnished living room that no one ever uses. It just sits there. Wasted sofas, wasted space. I have clothes and shoes in my closet that don’t get worn. Wasted garments. I am fasting from social media, but when I’m not fasting and have a minute I’ll often pop onto Facebook or Twitter and before I know it I’ve lost thirty minutes or more. Wasted time. The more we have, the more we waste.  And I believe that oftentimes the more we have, the greedier we are. When John and I lived in Brazil, we were very aware that when we worked with the poorest of the poor, they were the most generous, AND the most joy-filled. They gave us fruit from their trees, things they had made with their hands, they gave their laughter, their love, their embrace, their time, accepted us with open arms into their community–it was beautiful. A few years ago on a mission trip to Romania, I tried to bless a family of 13 children by purchasing some of their beautiful flowers. They would not take payment. I tried and tried, but they wanted to give the flowers to me as a blessing. That was a costly gift for them, part of a days wages. It was not what I was seeking, but it was what I received–their costly generosity, their beautiful joy, their gorgeous flowers. If I’m being truthful, I feel the paradox of beautiful pain in my heart when I think about it. I received much more than flowers that day.

Jesus tells us a sobering story in Luke chapter 12, beginning in verse 14. He says: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’  “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

What does it mean to be rich toward God? Tim Maas writes: Being rich toward God means remembering that God is the ultimate source of time, abilities, and financial or material means that have been placed at our disposal in this life, and using those gifts not purely for our own ease or pleasure, but to express our thanks to God for His grace and generosity toward us… and (for) benefiting those who have not been equally blessed.

Going back to the rabbit trail that I chased earlier…

Balance does not only mean that two sides are equal, but it can be the result of “balancing”, meaning to compare all the items on one side to those on the other side.

What has God blessed you with? Has he blessed you financially? Has he blessed you materially? Has he blessed you with wisdom? With artistic skill? With the gifts of craftsmanship? With the gift of hospitality? Encouragement? Teaching? Time? Cooking? Mechanics? Computer skills? Music? Writing? Compassion? Organizing? Decorating? The list goes on and on…

In this case, your bank balance is the result of adding up all the incoming transactions, and deducting all the outgoing transactions.

Sit for a bit and think about all that God has lavished upon you. Think about how many incoming transactions you have received and continue to receive from Him. He is over-abundantly generous! We will never ever out give Him. When you look at the outgoing side, does it balance out with what you’ve received? Do the gifts and talents and personality and love and fruits of the Spirit that He has deposited into you get spent?

The resulting balance may be positive or negative.

The reason that the Dead Sea is dead is because water flows into it, but no water flows out. That’s a negative balance.  Receiving and not giving leads to a dead, joyless life. All humankind is made in the the image of God (we all equally bear His image), and He is a generous giver. He blesses and blesses and blesses. To be like Him, to reflect His image indicates generous living. And to be rich toward Him, by living generously, honors Him.

The three things required for balance:

  1. A reference point, a focal point–I recommend Jesus.
  2. Constant correction–I recommend balancing your life and choices against His Word and His actions, and readjusting as needed.
  3. Clear objective–I recommend a life goal of honoring God and leveraging your life on this earth for the sake of His kingdom.

Will there be wrestling? Yes. We all want control over what we perceive to be our own lives and our own stuff. But truly, none of it is ours. It all came from God.  Will it cost us something? Yes. Will it stretch us? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes. Jesus tells us If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Mt 10:39)  May we have the wisdom to find the balanced lives we were meant for by completely giving our lives to the one who completely gave His for us.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…(Col 3:17)

–Luanne

 

 

 

A Peace That Rules

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

Prince of Peace, the fourth title of Jesus in a Hebrew list which indicates importance, emphasis, weight. Prince of Peace—Prince of Shalom. Even as I type that word, my heart rate increases a bit. If we, the followers of Jesus, can come to understand the significance of this particular name of Jesus, if we can come to understand what shalom means and how shalom is what our lives are to be about it will change the way we live, and it will have a ripple effect in the world.

Reading on from Isaiah 9:6 we learn that 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. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (verse 7)

The word Shalom, translated as peace is used more than 250 times in the Old Testament and 91 times in the New Testament. It encompasses all that Christ does, all of who Christ is. It is about God’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5) and the restoration all things. It’s about us being in right relationship with God through Christ, in right relationship with others, it’s about taking care of the created world—in the words of NT Wright it’s about uprooting everything from the existing creation that causes evil, corruption, and decay…it’s what love looks like when it’s facing the problems that its neighbor is dealing with, it’s about engage, engage, engage, leveraging what you have for the benefit of others, working toward wholeness, completeness, soundness, success, flourishing, and peace for everyone. It’s an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) and  God wants it for everyone—for you and through you, for me and through me for everyone.

When we think of the word Prince we typically associate that term with someone who has a territory or a kingdom to rule. Our Prince of Peace has a Kingdom. If we take the time to pay attention, we see that over and over in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)  Jesus’ primary ministry was to teach about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.

For too long many of us have lived with the mindset that His kingdom is a place we go after we depart from this world, but that’s not what scripture indicates. Even in the book of Acts, after Jesus resurrection, right before he ascends to heaven, right before he tells the apostles to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, he is teaching them about the Kingdom of Heaven (1:3). And in the Lord’s Prayer he teaches us to pray, he asks us to pray that His kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

  Shalom is the fulfillment of that prayer.

When Isaiah tells us that Jesus reign of peace will be upheld by justice and righteousness, he is giving us a clue as to what we followers are to be about. Justice in this sense is about tackling systems and structures that oppress people, that favor some over others, that lead to inequity and injustice. Righteousness means that we are rightly related to God, to others, and to ourselves. Shalom is about everyone everywhere flourishing in every way—spiritually, emotionally, relationally—everyone having what they need, no hunger, no poverty, everyone having a sense of their God-given dignity and worth. (Check out the  early church in Acts 2:42-47)

Jesus teaches us, in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5, 6, and 7) how to live by the principles of his kingdom, and tells us in Matthew 6:33 that if we seek His kingdom first, he will take care of everything else. (Spend some time as we head into the new year prayerfully and slowly reading this sermon as you converse with God. Read it over and over, dig in–it’s key to life as a Christ follower.)

In Jesus’ earthly ministry, he modeled Shalom (restoration of all things) constantly. He valued people over rules, over propriety, (he healed on the Sabbath constantly—a no no according to the Pharisees), he valued women in a culture that treated them like property, he forgave sins, he gave time to the marginalized, he cast out demons, he fed crowds of people, he loved tax collectors and the rich young ruler, he loved the invisible like the woman who touched the hem of his robe, he called the most unlikely to be his disciples, he raised the dead, and he himself died so that through his death and resurrection (the means to the forgiveness of our sins and the indwelling power of the Spirit so we can live shalom offering lives)  we can experience true shalom with God and others. I know that if we choose to live for His kingdom according to the principles of His kingdom, being consumed with His heart for the flourishing of everyone, we will see change. We won’t see the complete fulfillment of  Shalom until Jesus comes again, but we can certainly be loving Him well by loving others well and joining Him in His ministry of reconciliation today and every day of our lives. Will we get push back? Yes, because this is counter-cultural and counter-church tradition, but it is the heart of God.

Where do you live? Where do you see injustice? Who do you see being marginalized? Who do you know that is broken? How can you bring Jesus, His kingdom and His love, His shalom to your world?

Oh, day of peace that dimly shines
Through all our hopes and prayers and dreams,
Guide us to justice, truth, and love,
Delivered from our selfish schemes.

May the swords of hate fall from our hands,
Our hearts from envy find release,
Till by God’s grace our warring world
Shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.

Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb,
Nor shall the fierce devour the small;
As beasts and cattle calmly graze,
A little child shall lead them all.

Then enemies shall learn to love,
All creatures find their true accord;
The hope of peace shall be fulfilled,
For all the earth shall know the Lord.


Josh Garrels from The Light Came Down, released November 24, 2016

–Luanne

Wonder of a Counselor, God of Might, A Father that Lasts… Power-packed names, full of meaning, that lead us to this culmination of the list: A Peace that Rules.

There is always talk of the longing for Peace on Earth-never more than at Christmastime. But I wonder… what kind of peace are we after?

Pastor John described the peace of Jesus as “peace that never ends”. It is the Shalom peace that Luanne defined so well above–not the Christmas-card-quiet-night-with-no-conflict kind. No, the peace of Jesus, the peace that rules, is not passive. It is the process of destroying the authority of whatever is creating the chaos. John reminded us that Shalom is so much more than silencing the noise; it cuts through the surface chaos and penetrates the depths to bring restoration, healing.

Our Jesus, our Savior, He came to bring His Kingdom into the darkness of fallen humanity…

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.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:7)

This peace that rules, this power and Presence that brings restoration, it was never meant for us to simply find calmness in our own personal, individual lives. The justice and righteousness that both establish and uphold the Kingdom of Jesus? They are not about personal piety. This way of Jesus, the peace that lasts, it is about setting all things right for all people, and being rightly related to everyone.

Is this the peace that we are after? John told us on Sunday, “It’s not about you finding calmness. It’s about the world being set right.”

It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about our Savior of Shalom, whose desire is for the world He came to save to be set right in every way. For each one, everywhere, to be rightly related to Him and to one another. For equity to be pursued and found by all. This absolutely includes us and our individual stories-but it’s not about us. 

This way of Jesus, this chaos-destroying, restoration-centered way–it is the only way to the peace our souls long for. There can be no personal peace that makes our lives calm and tidy and safe if our brothers and sisters around the world are living in war-torn, starving, dying chaos. The way of Jesus overlooks no one. It values everyone. The story of His coming reminds us of that…

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

The “them” the angel told? Lowly shepherds.

The shepherds got angels…Everyone else that night got shepherds, heard the news from kindled, heart-burning shepherds who went and ‘told everyone’.” (The Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp)

So I’ll ask us one more time–What kind of peace are we after? This Christmas, as we ponder all that Jesus is to us, do we understand that He is also all of these things for all people? Can we look up from our personal story and embrace the Kingdom He came to bring? A kingdom established and sustained by making all things right for all people in all situations? This is the peace that rules. Jesus came so that His peace can rule in our hearts, yes–but also in our interactions with others.  Also in the way that we see and engage the world He loves so much that He squished all of His deity, all of His glory, into the body of a newborn baby who would grow up to be a man that would give His life so all could be rightly related to Him forever. Are we willing to do our parts to carry this peace, this restoration beyond ourselves and into the world around us?

–Laura

Jehovah-Shalom

A Father That Lasts

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)

As we’ve explored the names of Jesus in this familiar passage, we have encountered Him as our “Wonder of a Counselor” and our “God of Might”. This week, John introduced Jesus to us as “A Father that lasts”. As I read through this list in Isaiah, it’s not difficult to attribute the names “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace” to Jesus. Those make sense to my heart-they always have to some degree. I think that, because this is a very familiar passage-especially this time of year, I’ve skimmed over the two words “Everlasting Father”. I have understood it as a name that establishes His oneness with God, as we tend to refer to God as our Father more than we do the Son, Jesus. But I have stopped there and not stepped deeper into the concept of Jesus as my Everlasting Father. Until last Sunday…

John presented Jesus our Savior as a Father that lasts… a Father who is for us, who loves us, who is Emmanuel-God with us. What do you think of when you read the words A Father that lasts?

John recounted his recent experience of the loss of his own earthly father-an experience I know many of us can identify with.

This name of Jesus strikes me in two different places, one I’ll mention briefly and the other I’ll dig into…

Thinking of Jesus as a Father who is for me-One who watches over me, protects me, walks with me-pricks my heart for what I longed for as a child, what I didn’t receive when I needed it most. It stirs murky waters deep in my soul that cause me to ache a bit for the loss of what I didn’t believe I had. I’m only recently beginning to understand that in those moments when my earthly father fell short of what I needed, I had a Father that was there in the dark with me, One who never left me, One who has always been for me in every way, loving me from before my earliest memories.

Understanding Jesus as a Father that lasts is especially difficult because we live on this side of eternity, and we experience loss. In The Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp writes “We all lose every single person we love. There is never another way”. These losses rock us, challenge our faith and our trust, and cause deep pain and grief. Christmastime can amplify the grief in our hearts. No human being in our lives-including ourselves-will last. Not in the physical sense. So wrapping our heads and hearts around the concept of an Everlasting Father can prove challenging.

I haven’t lost my earthly father, as many of you have, and as John spoke of. But I have lost my mother-and I know I’m not alone. Many of you have buried your mamas as well. I want to remind us here that our God is neither male nor female, but embodies the fullness of both sets of attributes. Isaiah 66:13 tells us, As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted…” . If you, like me, have lost your mama, our Everlasting Father also promises the comfort of a mother, and can fill that emptiness with all of His fullness-His Everlasting mothering-as well. 

John mentioned to us that when we experience loss, what remains is a memory reel. Pictures, moments, words that are captured in our minds and hearts–once fresh and vibrant, but fading with time. This has been both a beautiful and painful part of my own grief journey. I have found myself deeply grateful that God created us with the capacity to remember-to put the pieces of our stories, our lives, back together over and over again so that we can stay connected to the beauty of the past, to the love of those we have lost. But it’s getting harder to see, to hear, to relive those moments with clarity. Time dims the memories, layers of dust make it difficult to go back easily. And I hate it. I hate that remembering the distinct tone of my mom’s voice as she called my name is getting harder and harder. That her features, once chiseled into my mind’s eye, have begun to blur with the passing of time. It makes me ache that the remembering doesn’t come as easily as it did at first… It reinforces the finality of death, the reality of our earthly experience.

But it also makes space for this thought, this understanding to grow and expand into my consciousness:

We will never have to rely on a memory reel to experience the love of Jesus, our Everlasting Father.

He is never dead to us-and we’re never dead to Him. This one relationship will never ever taste the sting of death, because our Everlasting Father became the Son of Man to endure the soul-crushing sting of everything that could have separated us from His love. And now we can be grafted into the love story that will take us from life to life. There’s no painful goodbye to dread between us and Jesus. He was always with us, He’s with us now and He will be with us forever. And in that withness, He is always for us, always loving us. The truth of that is what we find when we look at the memory reel of our lives. In the midst of every heartache, every disappointment, every failure; in our darkest, grief-filled moments and in our brightest joys, Emmanuel was with us. And this memory reel of Jesus–rather than fading with time, it explodes into our consciousness the reality of His constancy with us, His faithfulness to us, and it stirs our eyes and our hearts to see Him where we didn’t think He could be. Because we realize in the looking back that there has never been a place we were where He wasn’t also there. As a Father that lasts-for us, loving us, with us.

–Laura

Laura wrote: We will never have to rely on a memory reel to experience the love of Jesus, our Everlasting Father.

How grateful I am for that truth! Like Laura, my mom is with Jesus. She has been with him for 44 years, and the sting of that loss can still sometimes sneak up and surprise me with its intensity. I cannot remember her voice; however, I can remember her smile, her kindness, her essence and am grateful that I have never doubted her love for me.

As far as dads go, I am one of the most blessed people on the planet, and I am fully aware of that. My dad celebrated his 88th birthday last month. He is in excellent health, we have wonderful conversations, he sends me books and articles that he knows would interest me, and we talk about real things, deep things. I learn so much from him– the way he relates to God, the way he still volunteers and ministers to those less fortunate, the way he navigates the difficult seasons of life, the way he continues to read, to grow, to learn, the way he wrestles with things that he doesn’t understand, and of course, his gentle, patient, grace-filled, shepherding nature has profoundly impacted my life. He still goes to the gym three times a week, eats healthily.  He is a fantastic example of one who nurtures his soul and spirit and takes care of the physical tent that houses that soul and spirit. He is not perfect, but he’s pretty darn close! I remember asking him when I was a teenager if he ever sinned. His face contorted in pain and he said, “Oh yes! I battle my pride!” Who knew? Knowing full well that he will not last on this planet forever, I have kept a voicemail from him on my phone. It’s not “meaningful”. He is basically asking me to call him when I get a chance; however, it’s his voice that I don’t want to be without. And just like with my mom–I have never doubted my dad’s love–never. 

So, when John was making his points about our Father who lasts–that He is for us  that He is with us, and that He loves us, my mind stopped on the love portion. I know many people who struggle with the concept that God loves them. Many friends have different “dad” experiences than I have.

John reminded us that we often relate to our heavenly Father as if He were our earthly father. He’s not. He is our one of a kind, all loving, all gracious, always on our side Father.

There was a season in my life, when I was pretty convinced that I had sinned myself out of God’s love. I hadn’t, and neither have you. We can’t. His love for us is not dependent upon us, it is not conditional.  He chooses to love us, and He chooses it always. (It’s His very nature—“God is love” (1st John 4:8).

He delights to show us His love in millions of ways. Yes, millions, if we are willing to open our eyes, our minds, our hearts to see His gifts. Ann Voskamp’s book “One Thousand Gifts”  encourages us to begin writing down three things a day that we are grateful for. It’s life-changing, and it is an exercise in beginning to recognize the God-given gifts all around us, all of the time.  Big things like sunrises, sunsets, cloud formations, other natural things like yellow butterflies, wild flowers, heart shaped rocks, spring blooms, fall colors, sparkling snow–fragrances like brownies in the oven, sea salt laden beach air, honeysuckle–delightful things like puppies, kittens, giggling toddlers–things of wonder like the birth of babies, the stars in the heavens, the Grand Canyon–personal things like our five senses through which we experience the world–man made things like electricity, running water, automobiles-so many other things like the ability to read, the ability to think, the ability to converse. And relationships-being able to love and to be loved. So many things all the time–all gifts from a loving Father.

And if all of that doesn’t convince you of His love, let me throw another couple of thoughts out there. John’s mom gave him a couple of things that had belonged to his dad. She gave him his dad’s wedding ring, which he now wears on his right hand, and she gave him his dad’s long wool coat. A ring and a “robe”.

A ring and a robe. In the story of the prodigal son, after he has made a total wreck of his life and has returned home hoping to be a servant in his father’s house, the father unexpectedly embraces him and gives to him a ring and a robe (Luke 15:22) These are not meaningless gifts. In the Old Testament, Joseph receives Pharaoh’s ring indicating acceptance, authority, position and the honor of representing the king. Mordecai receives King Xerxes ring indicating acceptance, authority, position and the honor of representing the king. And the high priest, Joshua, in Zechariah 3 is being accused by Satan before the Lord. The Lord rebukes Satan and in verse 3 of that chapter we learn that “Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes’.  Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.’  God clothes Joshua in new garments to indicate that his sins are forgiven. The ring and robe received by the prodigal son is the father’s message of complete restoration, of full acceptance, of new beginning.

So, this God who loved the whole world so much that He gave His one and only son (sit with that phrase for a minute–do you love anyone so much that you’d allow one of your own children to be tortured and put to death so that you could be in a relationship with that other person? When we think about God’s love and what it cost him–why do we doubt it?)

So, this God who loved the whole world so much gives us opportunity to enter into relationship with Him through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the scripture tells us in Galatians 3, that when we are baptized into Christ then we are clothed with Christ–full restoration, full acceptance, new identity–and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20) meaning that we get the honor of representing Him to the world. Our ring, our robe, gifts from our loving Father who lasts.

Do you know the love of our Father who lasts– the love of the Father who thinks highly of you, the love of the Father who is for you, who is with you, who restores you, who uses you, who gifts you with blessings, but most of all who gifts us with Himself? His love is real, is life changing, and can be experienced right now. Ask Him to let you see His love gifts. They are all around, loudly proclaiming “You, yes you,  are forever loved!”

–Luanne

 

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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