Answered Prayer

What happens in us after we pray? What is our heart attitude? What is our mental attitude? What about those things that still hover in our periphery but we no longer pray about? What do we do with seemingly unanswered prayer? What do we do with answered prayer, especially when it’s not answered the way we expected? What do we really believe about prayer? What do we really believe about God?

Put yourself in this scene: Zechariah has just learned from a heavenly messenger that after years and years of praying, his deep desire to have a son will happen, and not only that, his son is going to be appointed by God to prepare the way for the messiah. How did Zechariah respond to this news? Did he jump for joy? Nope. Quite the opposite in fact:

 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

 When his time of service was completed, he returned home.  (Luke 1:18-23)

As Pastor John was preaching on this passage, and as I was pondering Zechariah’s response,  I thought of researcher Brene Brown’s thoughts on joy. She says:

 

“If you ask me what’s the most terrifying, difficult emotion we feel as humans…I would say joy. (We fear) something bad’s going to happen’… we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…’  we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

I’ve been there. Have you? Zechariah most certainly was. He was not in a mental position or heart position to get his hopes up again. He knew the odds were stacked against him, that he and Elizabeth were too old to have a child, and he had experienced too much pain over their barrenness to let this angel, this messenger from God, erode the protective wall he’d built around his heart over this particular subject.

Since an angel appearing in the holiest place of the temple wasn’t proof enough that God was about to do the impossible, Zechariah asks “how can I be sure?” He then speaks his “I am” statement; his rational argument as to why the angel’s words can’t be true…”I am old; my wife is old…”

The messenger responds with his own “I am” statement: “I am Gabriel”.  Gabriel’s name would not have been unfamiliar to Zechariah the priest. Gabriel was the angel who visited Daniel in the Old Testament. Gabriel goes on to say: “I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to tell you this good news…”

What on earth went through Zechariah’s heart and mind at this revelation? I feel fairly certain that, had it been me, I would no longer be standing. Despite the fact that Gabriel’s first words to Zechariah were “Don’t be afraid”, I think at this point in the encounter I would have been terrified.

What follows for Zechariah’s doubt is the consequence of silence until John the Baptist’s birth; however, God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Yes, there was a consequence for Zechariah, but God’s kindness, God’s miracle, and God’s purpose were not thwarted by his doubt. Zechariah and Elizabeth were still going to have the son who would be the forerunner of the messiah.

What about us? What is our posture around prayer–especially over those things that come from the deepest parts of us? According to Sunday’s sermon:

  1. We can lose hope.
  2. We can hang on to a glimmer of hope.

I have definitely experienced both. I have lost hope on dark journeys. Hopelessness leads to despair, and in those dark places of despair, faith dies. Our perception of God’s character gets warped to the point that God seems cruel, distant, not worth pursuing. I’ve been there. What those seasons in my life have led to is self-destruction which spills over into others-destruction. None of us is an island.

Hanging on to a glimmer of hope is a better option. Henry Blackaby, in his classic Bible study “Experiencing God” reminds us that Truth is a person. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that he is the way, the truth, and the life. What does it mean for truth to be a person? The way I understand it is that no matter what we see–what seems obvious to our physical beings and our limited understanding–God always has the final word. In the gospels, when Jesus showed up, humanly impossible situations changed in an instant.  The incurable were cured. The dead were raised. The outcasts were embraced. God always has the final word, and in this case, an old barren husband and wife were going to bear a son.

Zechariah had lost hope in this dream. It would appear that he believed God listened to the prayers of the people, but had given up hope that God listened to his personal prayer…after all, years had passed.

What about you? Are you full of faith when you pray for others but when it comes to yourself do you struggle to believe that God even cares? Do you struggle to believe that some of the huge things you are praying about can change? Do you believe that you (and the deep desires of your heart) matter to God?

I’m not going to say that any of this is easy. We certainly don’t always get our prayers answered in the ways we desire; God is not Santa Clause, but what we do get is deep connection with God, the assurance of God’s “withness” even in the hard seasons. Is that enough for us? If so, no matter the outcome of our prayers, we can experience joy, and there is a secret to that joy…

Brene Brown states: “I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”

Can we muster up gratitude even in the dark? Can we thank God for being with us in the dark? Can we thank God for hearing us? Can we thank God because we know He himself is Truth, and therefore, there is always a glimmer of hope?

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9:2)

Zechariah’s son was the forerunner to that light who shone into our deep darkness . Zechariah’s son was impossible in human terms…but he was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth anyway, for nothing is impossible with God. Do we believe that?

Do we believe that The Light clothed himself in flesh and showed us what God really looks like? Is there enough of a glimmer of hope that we believe the message of the angels who said that Jesus’ birth brought peace and good will for all of us? Do we believe?

Practice gratitude. Hold on to hope. Your prayers have been heard, and our loving God, in His time and His way will respond.

–Luanne

On Sunday, as I listened to Pastor John talk about losing hope, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ephesians 2:14. The verse begins with the words, “For he himself is our peace…” (NIV) Paul is referring to Jesus here. In 1 Timothy 1:1, Paul writes about Jesus as “our hope”. Luanne wrote about God himself being truth. She referenced John 14:6, where Jesus (the visible image of the invisible God) states, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” These verses don’t say that Jesus gives us peace, or that he offers hope, or leads us to truth. They state that he IS our peace, our hope, the truth.

This is so significant to me. It has been years–going on a decade now–since I first discovered Ephesians 2:14. I remember how it felt to my heart to let those words wash over me. I had been married five or six years, was mommy to four littles (all born within five years), and life was chaos. We had just experienced a season in our marriage that wreaked havoc on my heart, we were adjusting to a new church family, and we were struggling with jobs, finances, and our own obvious lack. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was starving for a real, authentic relationship with God. Despite my lack of time, the chaos around and within me, and the exhaustion of mothering a baby and three toddlers largely on my own in that season, I was chasing after God. I got up early and stayed up late because I was desperate for him. I was trying so hard to be everything I thought I needed to be, and my mind was a land mine. Peace was seemingly out of reach. And then…

“For he himself is our peace…” 

This changed everything for me. I began to see Jesus differently, and I began to find freedom from trying to force a peace I craved, but couldn’t seem to muster up. The recognition that Jesus is our peace led me to understand that he is the embodiment of all that we are not. He is our joy when we are grieving, our hope when we are hopeless, our truth when lies spin our minds crazy, our way when we’re lost in the dark, our life when we feel dead inside. He is not simply the giver of these good things–he IS these things. And if we know him, regardless of the desperate state we may find ourselves in, we have access to all of it at all times. The glimmer of hope that Luanne wrote about that can keep us from despair, it doesn’t come from us. That hope that shines in the darkness is Jesus himself. 

Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet. I feel a lot of compassion for this man in his doubt… God had been silent for 400 years. For all we know, Elizabeth could have been all the way through menopause, making it physiologically impossible for her womb to be open and able to carry a baby. Perhaps they had prayed fervently for decades, maybe long after her body went through changes that rendered child-bearing an impossibility. It’s possible that for them, to stop praying for a child felt like a hard-fought surrender, like the death of a dream that they had to grieve. Maybe they thought that laying it down was their way of trusting God’s will for them in the wake of their despair. We don’t know the details. We do know from Luke’s account of this couple that they were righteous and blameless and followed all of God’s commandments. We know they, in their old age, continued to seek God, despite their disappointment and the presumed curse of barrenness that marked them culturally. And we know that, like Luanne wrote about, Zechariah faithfully lifted prayers for his people.

I can’t imagine what 400 years without a word from God felt like to the priests who continued to pray. That’s almost twice as long as our country has existed. The United States of America is 243 years old. Let that sink in. When I really pause and think about it, Zechariah’s doubt makes so much sense to me. I’d like to think that a visit from an angel would be more than enough to resurrect any lost hope in me… but I probably would have reacted in a similar way.

I’ll mention again here that Zechariah didn’t have Jesus yet–not in the way that we do. He hadn’t yet come on the scene, and the people didn’t have the access to him that we have now.

But I can still doubt like he did… Even on the other side of the resurrection, with the Holy Spirit living within me, I can find it hard to access the glimmer of hope that is Jesus alive in me.

I’m so grateful that doubting doesn’t cause God to remove his good gifts from us. Luanne wrote, “God did not remove the gift of a son from Zechariah and Elizabeth. Their prayer for a son was still answered with a holy yes. Zechariah’s doubt did not cause God to withdraw his hand. “ I wrote similar words in my notes on Sunday. Zechariah’s doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving from God. It did cost him the ability to speak for a while. Which was probably not a lot of fun. But you know what? I’m so thankful that scripture has this record of his humanity… his failure of faith, his doubting. And I’m even more thankful for the record of God’s faithfulness. I’m glad the story doesn’t record a perfect man reacting perfectly in a moment of shock and fear and disbelief. It makes the story relatable, believable, and it speaks to the heart of a good and loving God.

Because we all doubt. We all experience moments where hope seems out of reach, and the heaviness of despair settles in and stays a while. I wasn’t sure if I’d write about this or not, but I can’t seem to shake it (even though I’d like to)… So, I’ll tell you a bit about my own crisis of hope.

When my mom was dying, so many people prayed for her to be healed. Including her. She prayed with hope and expectation and she believed her God would answer. She never wavered, and there were many alongside us who lived out that same unshakable faith.

I wasn’t one of those people. I prayed faithfully for healing early on. But as her disease progressed–somewhere along the way–I stopped asking. I lost sight of any glimmer of hope.

It still grieves my heart to write those words, more than five years after losing her. I couldn’t pray for her healing because I couldn’t grab onto enough hope to say the words. What I was seeing with my eyes told me that we were approaching the end of her days with us. I had also experienced dreams and conversations with God during which I believed he was preparing my heart for the coming loss, but I still wish I could have prayed with hope and faith and believed for her healing. I believe that God can do the impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles in the lives of many–including myself. But I couldn’t find hope enough to believe it for my mom. I tried, but my heart couldn’t rise to pray. I prayed for mercy, for relief from her pain, for so many other things–but as she got sicker and sicker, I stopped praying with hope for her miracle.

There were those who, in the wake of her death, had the audacity to suggest that we didn’t have enough faith, and that’s why she died. Even though I know God doesn’t work that way, you can imagine the way that hit my heart. The questions that swirled… The what-ifs… I struggled with feeling responsible for her death–for so many reasons. One of those reasons was my own lack of hope, my failure to ask for a miracle I didn’t have the courage to believe God for.

I’m so grateful that I know we don’t have a transactional God. This is what the story of Zechariah reminds me of, and why I’m so grateful it’s recorded with all of the messy included. His doubt didn’t disqualify him from receiving the gift of his son, just like my doubt didn’t cause my mom’s death. Our God is not an “if this/then that” God. He is a good Father and he gives good gifts. There is so much we’ll never understand about why things happen the way they do, but we can trust that our God, as he was revealed in Jesus, is good. He is our truth, our peace, our hope, our life. He is all that we are not, and we have access to all that he is--even when we can only see a glimmer. Even when we can’t see at all. He never ceases to be all of this and more, so we are never truly hopeless. Because he is always with us. 

As we approach Christmas Day and the celebration of the arrival of our God in human flesh, I pray that we’ll each be able to see the glimmer of light that is Jesus. I pray that as his light dawns, we’ll find the hope that we need to hold on and keep believing–even on the darkest nights–and that we’ll be assured by the gracious love of our Father that he does hear and answer our prayers, even when we doubt.

–Laura

Image result for jesus is our hope

An Unexpected Interruption

On Sunday we sang the words “Hark, the herald angels sing…” As is the case with many Christmas carols, we oftentimes sing the lyrics without taking time to think about what we’re singing.

The word “Hark” means listen; “herald” means an official messenger bringing news, and “angel” is a spiritual being who acts as an agent or messenger of God. 

So we sing, “Listen! Official messengers of God are bringing news to us…”

And that’s exactly what happened to Zechariah in this week’s sermon. What was the message that the angel brought? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John… (Luke 1:13)

The angelic message continues, but this is as far as we took it on Sunday because in these few words there are things we need to see.

Last week we learned that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both from priestly lines, they lived blamelessly and faithfully before God, they were old–beyond childbearing years– and they had never been able to have children. On this particular day, Zechariah was chosen by the casting of lots to enter the holy place to offer incense to the Lord as the people prayed outside. This was an honor, a once in a lifetime experience, and one that not every priest would have.

Zechariah entered the holy place; he assumed he would be alone. He lit the incense, he prayed, and then realized that he was not alone after all. No wonder he was startled. I think we all would have been. Luke’s attention to detail is always packed with more than meets the eye, so Luke’s inclusion of the angel’s location needs to be taken into account…verse 11 tells us that the angel was standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When I was digging into these verses I learned that this meant that the angel was standing between the golden lampstand and the altar of incense. The symbolism of the golden lampstand is often equated with the foreshadowing of Jesus, the light of the world…so the fact that the angel was standing between the prayers of the people and the coming Messiah while bringing Zechariah a message from God, and not just any message, but the message that Zechariah’s not yet conceived son would be the forerunner to the Messiah is pretty incredible. Pretty awe-inspiring when we stop to think about it.

There had been 400 years of silence from God when this angel showed up. The people, to their credit, were still seeking God. They had not given up. What might have been some of the things they were praying for that day? They were living under Roman oppression. They were a minority people group. The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation. There had been no fresh word from God in a very long time. Life could not have been easy. How would you have prayed? What would have been on your heart?

What might Zechariah have been praying for? How might he have been interceding for his people?  Was he praying for their deliverance from Rome? For the Messiah to come? For God to show up on their behalf as he had in their history? Might he have even whispered a personal prayer about having a son…or would he have given up that idea by now?

As he was praying in the solitude of the holy place,  an angel appeared, addressed Zechariah by name and told him not to be afraid. I wonder if that worked? I think I would have been shaking in my shoes. But the next words…your prayer has been heard… would have certainly gotten my attention, and I’m sure it got Zechariah’s. Which prayer?

The angel reveals that it’s the prayer that Zechariah had probably prayed over and over for year upon year–the prayer for a son. The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in verse 13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.”  Sit with that for a moment. Was Zechariah still praying that prayer? He and Elizabeth were beyond childbearing age…would he have still prayed for a son? We don’t know the answer to that question–what we do know is that God heard his prayer, and on this particular day, God ordained that Zechariah would be in the holy place to receive the gift of the message that Elizabeth would bear him a son and the son’s name would be John. John means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (Strong’s Concordance). Can you even begin to imagine what that moment was like for him? Wow.

Prayer. It’s such a mysterious thing–this opportunity to enter the heavenly realm, converse with Almighty God- and be part of the unleashing of God’s power right here on earth. Many of us pray daily–even multiple times a day.  I won’t even try to tell you that I’m patient when I don’t sense a response from God. We live in the day of the immediate…we think microwave ovens take too long, and if someone doesn’t respond to a text message in what we think is a timely manner, we get frustrated. We want God to answer our prayers, with the answers we want, right now. Sometimes it works that way. Most of the time it doesn’t.

As Pastor John was preaching about Zechariah, I was reminded of Daniel. In Chapter 10 of the book of Daniel, we learn that Daniel had received a troubling vision from the Lord, which led him to fast, to mourn and to pray. 21 days into his fasting, mourning and praying, an angel visited him with these words “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.  Both Zechariah and Daniel were told not to be afraid and that their words had been heard. 

What about us–our prayers?  Are our words heard? What happens when we pray?

In Revelation 8 there is an interesting passage regarding prayer which reads:

Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.  Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (3-5). 

What are we to make of these verses in regards to prayer?

In 2015 at the International Justice Mission’s Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D. C.,  IJM’s founder, Gary Haugen started the conference by saying “Prayer matters.”  Haugen then quoted Blaise Pascal: “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” and went on to say God has always used secondary means – human means – to accomplish His sovereign purposes.  God’s primary means is moving His people to pray, then answering their prayers…   

Putting Haugen’s statements, Pascal’s quote, and the Revelation’s passage together, do we realize the magnitude of the gift that God has given us in prayer? Do we realize that our prayers really do affect what happens on planet earth? Even as I type these words, I am awestruck once again at the fact that God not only allows, but invites us to join Him in accomplishing His purpose through prayer. He invites us to pray for our world, our nation, our neighbors, our churches, our places of business, our politics, our relationships, our children, our ability to see and understand the things of His kingdom, the courage to carry out his mission with love, for His kingdom to come and His will to be done on earth, for ourselves, our needs, our desires, our heart cries–everything. And He. Hears. Us. Do we believe he does, even when we can’t see any evidence? Even when, from our perspective, answers don’t come?

Sometimes the answers don’t come the way we envisioned. I prayed for my marriage over and over…prayed for it to be healthy and strong. The answer to that prayer led to a one-year separation, individual therapy for both my husband and me, and then couple’s therapy–but through that incredibly difficult season, God was answering my prayer.

I prayed over and over for God to work in my children’s lives in the ways I wanted him to work. Instead, God gave me opportunities to learn more about unconditional love, about grace, and about embracing friends and loving them well. We had the opportunity to see one friend come into a relationship with Jesus. We’ve also been surprised at what we (at the time) considered an unlikely friend bringing another of my children closer to the Lord. Through my prayers for my children, God changed me.

There are some prayers that I’ve prayed for years, and as of yet have not seen a response. There are some…like the desire to see my mother healed and losing her instead… that I’ve been quite angry about. There are some regarding very current situations that as of yet I can’t tell what God is doing, and some days are really hard in this season. And then there are beautiful moments where God offers encouragement through a friend, a breakthrough with an at-risk student at school, a song lyric that takes me to my knees, a friend healed, a marriage saved, a beautiful sunset, a moment of holy stillness, a moment of laughter, a granddaughter climbing in my lap for “snuggles”, a fresh revelation from scripture– evidence that even though I can’t see with my eyes what I want to–God is here, he is good, and he has heard my prayer.

My husband’s great-grandmother prayed diligently for one of her sons to become a minister. None of them did, but two generations later, there’s an unusual number of her descendants who are ministers or married to ministers. She didn’t see any evidence of the fruit of her prayer on this side of heaven, but God heard her and responded in his time.

Pastor John brought up Psalms 77 and 18 in his sermon–if you are struggling with God and/or prayer–spend some time in those Psalms. Look at the honesty of those psalmists–the wrestling, the frustration. and also the reminders, in the midst of the pain and the hard, of who God is and how faithful he’s been.

Life on planet earth is not easy, but we can take comfort in the fact that God has heard our prayers. My prayers, your prayers, and all the prayers of God’s people are before the throne of God, they will have effect…He hears them, and in his time and in his way, he responds.

–Luanne

I cannot (and don’t ever want to) get over the ways that God shows up in the small, in the details, in moments far too connected to be mere coincidence.

I read Luanne’s words early this morning. I wanted to see how the Holy Spirit had led her to write this week so that I could pray into it and hold her words in mind as I moved into my own personal prayer time. What she wrote is rich–packed with truth, authenticity, and hope. My soul was noticeably lighter by the time I read her last sentence. When we hear testimonies of God’s goodness, his withness, his faithful response to our prayers, they have that effect on us.

I reread a few paragraphs, thoughts already forming about where I might go in my writing. I then set it aside, breathed in the air around me—air now thick with hope and expectation—and settled in with a steaming mug of coffee to read and pray and listen to the God who is, indeed, always responding to our prayers.

The first book I picked up was an Advent devotional. This year is the seventh in a row that I’ve pulled out this beautiful book, and I look forward to it as much now as I did the first day I opened it. One of my favorite things about it is that at the end of each day’s reading, there are three questions posed, with space to journal my answers.

This morning’s questions asked specifically about answered prayers—things that were torn but God turned them into gifts, places of unraveling that now bear the marks of God’s touch—as well as areas that still feel torn—the, seemingly, unanswered prayers. Of course that would be today’s devotion. I read through my answers from years past…

In 2013, I was praising God for bringing the gift of restoration out of Luanne’s torn marriage that she wrote about above. In 2016, I wrote a prayer of thanks for a friendship that was developing—a friendship that, to put it gently, had some rocky beginnings. This year, I added a prayer of gratitude for the priceless gift that same friend has become, for how often she has been the embodiment of Jesus’ love to me, for the ways God has knit our hearts together, for the depth of the sisterhood we share. In 2013, I was asking God to heal my mom’s illness. A year later, I wrote about my grief over losing her, and my anger with God for not healing her the way I wanted. There are prayers written there for my kids, prayers over ministries, over friends, and finances. There are prayers over complicated relationships & situations—some have been resolved, and some are no longer a part of my life.

The small page contains evidence of my gratitude, joy, anger, pain, hope, disappointment, fear, grief, surprise, delight, and resentment. Recorded on this page, in many different colors of ink, are milestones that cover seven years of my journey with Jesus. There are highs and lows, and there is much change—in my prayers, my understanding, and in me. There are prayers that have been answered over the years—many, in fact—and there are those that remain unanswered to this day. I added some new ones this morning. I needed that pause this morning, the reminder of a deep and growing relationship with a God who answers—and sometimes doesn’t. I noticed something as I read over my own words…

Luanne shared with us earlier that, “The Passion Translation offers a footnote right after the word “prayer” in Luke 1:13 that says: “The Greek verb allows for a possible translation of “prayer you don’t even pray anymore.” She then encouraged us to, “Sit with that for a moment.” I did. It kind of took my breath away. And as I read through my journaling, I noticed that there are prayers written there that I don’t even pray anymore. Why? When did I stop? I know that I need to spend some time pondering the prayers I’ve given up on, and why. Are there prayers you don’t even pray anymore? When did you stop? As you read the portion of Psalm 77 below, consider times when you’ve felt similar things…

 I poured out my complaint to you, God. I lifted up my voice, shouting out for your help. When I was in deep distress, in my day of trouble, I reached out for you with hands stretched out to heaven. Over and over I kept looking for you, God,
but your comforting grace was nowhere to be found.
(Perhaps we stopped praying certain prayers because we got tired of looking and not finding him…) As I thought of you I moaned, “God, where are you?” I’m overwhelmed with despair as I wait for your help to arrive. I can’t get a wink of sleep until you come and comfort me. Now I’m too burdened to even pray! (Maybe the hurt became too heavy, and the continual burden has rendered us silent…) My mind wandered, thinking of days gone by—the years long since passed. Then I remembered the worship songs I used to sing in the night seasons, and my heart began to fill again with thoughts of you. So my spirit went out once more in search of you. Would you really walk off and leave me forever, my Lord God? (Is it possible we’ve felt abandoned, waiting on answers that never come?) Won’t you show me your kind favor, delighting in me again? Has your well of sweet mercy dried up? Will your promises never come true? Have you somehow forgotten to show me love? Are you so angry that you’ve closed your heart of compassion toward me? Lord, what wounds me most is that it’s somehow my fault that you’ve changed your heart toward me and I no longer see the years of the Mighty One and your right hand of power. (Maybe we think we’ve done something wrong, and that God’s heart is no longer inclined to listen to our cries?)

 (Psalm 77:1-10, TPT)

The psalmist’s cries hold some clues as to why we sometimes find it futile to keep praying. But Psalm 77 doesn’t end at verse 10. Here are the next five verses:

Yet (such a powerful little word!) I could never forget all your miracles, my God, as I remember all your wonders of old. I ponder all you’ve done, Lord, musing on all your miracles. It’s here in your presence, in your sanctuary, where I learn more of your ways. For holiness is revealed in everything you do. Lord, you’re the one and only, the great and glorious God! Your display of wonders, miracles, and power makes the nations acknowledge you. By your glory-bursts you’ve rescued us over and over. (11-15, emphasis mine)

Asaph doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. He expresses his anguish clearly and with much emotion. AND—he takes time to remember what he knows to be true of his God, to ponder the ways he’d shown up in days gone by. Lament & remembrance—these are good practices. And they’re modeled for us all over the Psalms. There are also Psalms that are filled with much rejoicing, exuberant celebration even, over the goodness of God. We looked at one such Psalm on Sunday, and I’ve included a large chunk of it below:

Lord, I passionately love you and I’m bonded to you, for now you’ve become my power! You’re as real to me as bedrock beneath my feet, like a castle on a cliff, my forever firm fortress, my mountain of hiding, my pathway of escape, my tower of rescue where none can reach me. My secret strength and shield around me, you are salvation’s ray of brightness shining on the hillside, always the champion of my cause. All I need to do is to call to you, singing to you, the praiseworthy God. When I do, I’m safe and sound in you. For when the ropes of death wrapped around me and terrifying torrents of destruction overwhelmed me, taking me to death’s door, to doom’s domain, I cried out to you in my distress, the delivering God, and from your temple-throne you heard my troubled cry. My sobs came right into your heart and you turned your face to rescue me. The earth itself shivered and shook. It reeled and rocked before him. As the mountains trembled, they melted away! For his anger was kindled, burning on my behalf. Fierce flames leapt from his mouth, erupting with blazing, burning coals as smoke and fire encircled him. He stretched heaven’s curtain open and came to my defense. Swiftly he rode to earth as the stormy sky was lowered. He rode a chariot of thunderclouds amidst thick darkness, a cherub his steed as he swooped down, soaring on the wings of Spirit-wind. Wrapped and hidden in the thick-cloud darkness, his thunder-tabernacle surrounded him. He hid himself in mystery-darkness; the dense rain clouds were his garments. Suddenly the brilliance of his presence broke through with lightning bolts and with a mighty storm from heaven—like a tempest dropping coals of fire. The Lord thundered, the great God above every god spoke with his thunder-voice from the skies. What fearsome hailstones and flashes of fire were before him! He then reached down from heaven, all the way from the sky to the sea. He reached down into my darkness to rescue me! He took me out of my calamity and chaos and drew me to himself, taking me from the depths of my despair! Even though I was helpless in the hands of my hateful, strong enemy, you were good to deliver me. When I was at my weakest, my enemies attacked—
but the Lord held on to me. His love broke open the way and he brought me into a beautiful broad place. He rescued me—because his delight is in me! God, all at once you turned on a floodlight for me! You are the revelation-light in my darkness, and in your brightness I can see the path ahead. With you as my strength I can crush an enemy horde, advancing through every stronghold that stands in front of me. What a God you are! Your path for me has been perfect! All your promises have proven true. What a secure shelter for all those who turn to hide themselves in you! You are the wrap-around God giving grace to me.  Could there be any other god like you? You are the only God to be worshiped, for there is not a more secure foundation to build my life upon than you. You have wrapped me in power, and now you’ve shared with me your perfection. Through you I ascend to the highest peaks of your glory to stand in the heavenly places, strong and secure in you. You’ve trained me with the weapons of warfare-worship; now I’ll descend into battle with power to chase and conquer my foes. You empower me for victory with your wrap-around presence. Your power within makes me strong to subdue, and by stooping down in gentleness you strengthened me and made me great! The Almighty is alive and conquers all! Praise is lifted high to the unshakable God! Towering over all, my Savior-God is worthy to be praised! This is why I thank God with high praises! I will sing my song to the highest God, so all among the nations will hear me.

 (Psalm 18:1-13, 16-19, 28-35, 46, 49 TPT)

This Psalm is all about the power of prayer—both the power in our crying out and in God’s answers. It highlights truths about God’s goodness, his power, and his response to hearing the cries of his children. I read the words aloud a moment ago, and it stirred my soul to worship. I am carrying heavy burdens this season, tears have been my companions more days than not—yet, I will praise the God who hears my cries.

I needed this message, this reminder to pour out—in screams and sobs if necessary—all my many prayers to my God who hears and responds. I needed the reminder to remember, to look back. Tears fill my eyes now, as I think back over the words I read this morning, in my own handwriting from years past. I needed the reminder that grief & gratitude, joy & pain, praise & lament—these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, in order for them to be experienced fully, they must co-exist. This is simply the way that our God has wired us.

I would be lying if I tried to tell you that I have answers or resolution to the things that are breaking my heart. The weight of these days feels like more than I can bear more often than not. My soul is lighter than it was yesterday—but that doesn’t mean I’m done feeling sad or sorrowful. It doesn’t have to. I can choose to be heartbroken and hopeful at the same time. I can cry and smile in the same moment. There will always be pain in this life. Some prayers will remain seemingly unanswered forever. We will never understand why some things happen the way that they do. But our God is good, and he shows up in the unexpected to let us know he sees, he hears, he loves—more than we could ever comprehend. He showed up in more ways this morning than I have time to write about here. There were many unexpected “coincidences” throughout my prayer time. For me, small as they may have been, these things were unmissable.

I pray that we will all find ourselves in the midst of unexpected moments with our good God in the days and weeks to come. And I pray that those moments will reassure our wandering hearts that he does listen, he does hear, he cares deeply for each of us, and he does respond. May we keep praying, friends, with unshakeable faith that it matters.

–Laura

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See the Signs: The Sign of Sight

Since Laura and I took last week off, I’m going to touch briefly on last week’s scripture passage because it is relevant to this week’s message. Pastor John’s passage was Mark 8: 13-21. To sum it up, the disciples were concerned because, with the exception of one loaf, they had forgotten to bring bread on their journey. While they were thinking about their lack of bread Jesus warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples were confused and thought Jesus was mad because they hadn’t brought bread. Jesus, who knew what they were thinking said:“Why all this fussing over forgetting to bring bread? Do you still not see or understand what I say to you? Are your hearts still hard? You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” (Mark 8:17-18 TPT) Jesus asked them to remember when he fed the crowds of 5000+ and 4000+, asked them to remember how many leftovers there were and then asked them “…how is it that you still don’t get it?” (8:21) . 

The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod that Jesus mentions represent two oppressive systems. Yeast changes the composition of whatever it is introduced to. In the fermentation process, whether it be the making of bread or the making of beer, once yeast is introduced it works its way through the entire substance and changes its chemical structure. The disciples and Jesus had experienced quite a few unpleasant encounters with the Pharisees who continued to question Jesus’ authority and sow seeds of doubt, believing (and teaching) that their oppressive behavior-based system was the way of God. Their yeast represents man-made religious systems that have detoured from God’s loving heart and desire that his followers join him in his mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Man-made religious systems create hierarchies where some are in power and lord it over everyone else. Man-made religious systems oppress people. Man-made religious systems forget that God desires that we each use our gifts to introduce His ways and work toward the restoration and flourishing of all. Man-made religious systems portray a mean God. Man-made religious systems lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, judgment and “othering”.

The yeast of Herod represents the political realm and worldly power. One needs only to read the headlines to see how divisive, destructive and polarizing it can be when we align our hearts with political structures. The hate, the “othering”, the inability to see human beings without attaching labels and preconceived notions in regards to them, the mistreatment of some for the benefit of others…it’s toxic yeast changing our very nature.  Both religion and politics can have a tremendous influence on us. We are steeped in these systems and many times don’t recognize it, so we must be wise, allow the Holy Spirit to show us what we need to see, and separate ourselves from man-made systems that seek to oppress. The ways of the Kingdom of Heaven run counter to the kingdoms of this world. It is very easy to be infected by the yeast of the systems we grew up in. Do we see that? Are we willing to let Jesus open things up and show us something new–or–like the disciples, are we too hard-hearted to get it?

This week our passages are Mark 7:31-37, and Mark 8:22-26.  In Mark 7, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.  In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man. The way Mark lays out the timeline, Jesus heals the deaf man, feeds the crowd of 4000+, has an unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees which leads to the above conversation in the boat, and then he heals the blind man. There are interesting parallels in these two healings that bookend this segment of scripture,

  1. Both men were brought to Jesus by others.
  2. Both men were brought to Jesus because they had physical limitations.
  3. Both men were brought to be touched and blessed by Jesus.
  4. Jesus pulls both men aside, away from the crowd, and gets one on one with each of them.
  5. Jesus uses his own saliva in both of these healings.

One man was deaf/mute, the other was blind. Isaiah prophesied centuries before that blind eyes will be open and deaf ears will hear… (35:5). These healings were more than just healings…

After Jesus healed the deaf/mute man, and right before he healed the blind man, he said to his disciples  “You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” 

Would Jesus say the same to us? Everything that Jesus does is nuanced and multi-layered. Yes, two men were miraculously healed by Jesus, but is that all there is to the story? Could it be that as Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, he is using these men as signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here and that he is the Messiah? He is giving his followers the opportunity to recognize that his ways are different from the ways of the Pharisees and of Herod; his ways are the ways of the Kingdom of God. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I find it beautiful that in both of these accounts Jesus pulls the men away from the crowd to be with them one on one.  If we look at Jesus’ miracles, they were never for the purpose of showing off–they were always on behalf of people who were in need–and he responded with compassion to the situation at hand. When the Pharisees wanted Jesus to show off for them to “prove” that he had authority to perform miracles, Jesus sighed deeply and walked away (Mark 8:12). Yes, his power was a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, but his demonstrations of power were driven by his compassion, his love, his concern for all of us who are like sheep without a shepherd. Compassion, kindness, unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, all the fruit of the Holy Spirit are signs of His Kingdom on earth. Our Savior is powerful and pointed and gentle and kind. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I wonder, in the case of the deaf/mute man, if the voice of Jesus was the first voice he ever heard?  Mark 7:34 tells us that Jesus “gazed into heaven, sighed deeply, and spoke to the man’s ears and tongue, “Ethpathakh,” which is Aramaic for “Open up, now!

In The Passion Translation of the Bible, the footnote from Mark 7:34 says: “The phrase “open up” is the same wording used in the Hebrew of Isa. 61:1 “Open the prison doors.” It furthermore refers to the opening of the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.  

Hmmm. Does this remind anyone else of Luke 4:18 when Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue: “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…”  Jesus opens prison doors, sets captives free, restores sight to the blind… He opens things up. He changes things. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

In the healing of the blind man, “Jesus led him, as his sighted guide, outside the village. He placed his saliva on the man’s eyes and covered them with his hands”  (Mark 8:23 TPT). Again, the footnotes from The Passion Translation give us deeper insight into what is happening here. It says of verse 23, that the word “eyes’is not the common word for “eyes.” The Greek word omma can refer to both physical and spiritual sight”. And of the actual healing process itself “The Aramaic can be translated “Jesus placed his hands over his eyes and brought light.”

This healing account is different from any other in scripture because it happened in phases. The first time Jesus touched the man’s eyes, he only received partial sight. Jesus touched him a second time and he was able to see clearly, which according to Strong’s concordance literally means he could see “at a distance, and clearly”. Sometimes we get partial sight; the Apostle Paul said that’ “For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (1st Cor. 13:12 The Voice) Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers? Are we willing to examine the lenses we grew up with and test them to see if they hold up to Truth? Are we willing to see through another’s eyes, and wrestle with his/her understanding of God, of salvation, of Jesus–removing our lenses and studying the gospels to see what is gold and what is stubble–recognizing traditions taught by man, versus what is actually there? Are we willing to soften our hard hearts and see, hear, remember? Jesus, the light of the world, is willing to touch us as many times as we allow so that we can see his light and his ways clearly.

In both of these healing encounters, Jesus opened things up. In putting these three accounts together, Jesus warns us to be careful about being influenced by human power structures, whether they are religious systems or political. He desires to pull us aside, to open our ears to hear his voice, open our eyes (both physical and spiritual) to see what he sees. He is our sighted guide. He brings us light. He leads us gently. He shows us who he is and what his Kingdom is about. He desires that we be like him, setting the oppressed free, and serving the people of the world with a heart of love, of compassion, of humility (“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” John 13:35).

Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

–Luanne

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I chose these words as my Senior quote. This line sits beside my picture in the yearbook that marked both an ending and a new beginning. The words came to my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and again this morning as I prayed through what direction to go in my writing. I don’t remember exactly why I chose this quote as a conflicted yet wide-eyed-with-wonder 17-year-old; I just know that it resonated deeply with my heart. I didn’t know that I would come back to it again and again as I grew from childhood into adulthood. It has reminded me that things are often not what they appear to be on the surface, that there are depths and nuance and mystery undetectable with our physical eyes. In moments where I’ve been tempted to pass judgment based on what is visible, these words have challenged me to consult the eyes of my heart first–the view is often different from there.

As I ponder the quote now, I find myself adding a few words that spring from what I’ve found to be true as I’ve grown in my own ability to see. I would say something like, “It is only with a heart whose eyes have been enlightened by the Spirit that one can see rightly; what is essential can be seen no other way.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote the following:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit… If we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible.

The eyes of our hearts… It would be great if, when we each meet Jesus for the first time, a one-and-done opening of our heart-eyes was part of the deal. Can you imagine being able to see clearly and completely from that point forward? It would change everything!

But that’s not how it works. This seeing, this opening, it’s a gradual process. That’s what makes the two-part healing of the blind man at Betheseda so relatable. Luanne reminded us of 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (The Voice)

What we know and see is only a sliver of the whole. In light of this truth, Luanne asked us some questions:

Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers?

Are we willing? Willing to, first, come to Jesus? Even if we have to be brought to him in the arms of someone else? And then, are we willing to let him touch our blind spots? Those places where we haven’t yet been enlightened by the Spirit? Luanne also asked if we are humble. Humility and willingness go hand in hand. It takes humility to admit that we have a limited field of sight and that our understanding is incomplete. And in that place of humility, we can choose to be willing to be led by “our sighted guide”, as Luanne called him.

Willingness and humility are not difficult–if our motivation is the same thing that moved Jesus. That motivator is love. If love is what drives us, being humble and willing are natural fruits of our endeavors. Luanne and I have both referenced 1 Corinthians 13:12. I was drawn to go back and read all of chapter 13, the chapter often called the “love chapter”. I’ve included it in its entirety below, to remind us what love actually looks like. Pastor John said on Sunday that to be “godly”, to be like God, is to be loving. Because God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). No other attribute more fully captures his nature. And Jesus says the world will know us by this same love…

If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value. Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten. Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways. For now we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.

 (1 Corinthians 13, TPT)

This kind of love is what motivated Jesus. If it’s what motivates us, we will have to continue to go to Jesus, to ask him to touch our blind spots and teach us to see the way that he sees. We’ll have to let him open us up–our eyes, our ears, our hearts. Luanne and I both used variations of the words “open up” many times in this post. We both know how hard it can be to open up. It can feel so much easier to live closed off, withdrawn, with eyes and ears closed to the world around us. It can feel safer. To open up is to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable feels scary. But there is no way to embody the kind of love we just read about above if we’re not willing to be opened up by Jesus. Because love can’t be poured out of a closed vessel.

May we each have the courage to ask Jesus to heal our vision–layer by layer–so that we can see the world through his eyes–eyes that see what could be and what will be when wholeness and restoration come to set all things right. May we embrace the humble willingness that leads to a love that spills from our open hearts. And may we remember that for now, we only see in part, but our sighted guide sees the whole–and he’ll be faithful to keep bringing sight to us until the day we also see in full.

–Laura

The Sign of Heaven

Immediately after this, he got into a boat with his disciples and crossed over to the region of Dalmanutha. When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” So he got back into the boat and left them, and he crossed to the other side of the lake. (Mark 8:10-13, NLT)

This week’s passage begins with the words, “Immediately after this…” Immediately after what? The feeding of the 4,000. As soon as that meal was over, Jesus and his disciples left for a different region. When they arrived, the Pharisees showed up once again, as they’d done before, to test him. Different translations use the words question, tempt, argue, dispute, demand, trap, and try to describe the interaction. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.

Pastor John articulated that they were questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ power, the trustworthiness of his character, and the authority behind his acts. They were acting on a story in their heads that they had come to believe as truth. In order to uphold their own rightness, their power, and the systems they controlled–systems that benefited them, they needed to attack and demonize Jesus. They intended to erode his reputation, and to gain control over him by demanding that he bend to their whims.

I have not spent much time studying these verses until now. Honestly, I’ve often read over them to get to the next part, because this part of the story seems so ridiculous. Jesus had just fed 4,000+ people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Not long before that, he had multiplied a small lunch into food for 5,000+. In the midst of these enormous miracles, he had healed the sick, brought mobility to the lame, raised the dead; he’d brought sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, seen-ness to the invisible, honor to the dishonored; he had driven out demons, walked on water, and calmed the sea…

…And the Pharisees demanded to see a sign from heaven so he could prove himself to them.

Seriously???

I’ve always read this exchange with a slight shake of my head and an eye-roll. What else did they need to see? Even if they hadn’t seen the miracles themselves, there were thousands of accounts of the things he had done. These verses simply depict more annoying noise from the same squeaky wheels. Until this week, I’ve mostly sighed along with Jesus and moved on to the next story. But there is much to learn if we pause and look a little deeper into what was really going on in this short conversation.

The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus because they had questions that they hoped he could answer. They came to question him, to make a mockery of who he was and what he did. They came to him believing the stories in their own heads, with a desire to prove their own rightness and assert their power. They had a perception of Jesus, and that perception informed their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. They also had a perception of themselves. In their eyes, they were right. What they did was right. And if Jesus wouldn’t do things–especially the religious things–the way they did things, he must be wrong, and collaborating with evil. They came to him full of accusations, ready to attack his character, power, trustworthiness, and authority.

And Jesus sighed. Said no to their demands. And walked away.

I want us to take a really honest look at what happened here, myself included. I hope we can ask some hard questions, and then tell the truth. And hopefully as we dig into this, we can learn from how Jesus handled himself and move toward the freedom that can only be found in modeling our lives after him.

Have you ever felt attacked, or been blindsided by the lies you’ve heard about yourself? Have you been insulted? Has someone spread rumors about you? Has your character been questioned? What about your trustworthiness, your loyalty, your motives, your beliefs? Have people accused you or demanded that you prove yourself to them in some way? Has anyone ever made assumptions about you, and acted on their perceptions of who you are–perceptions based on lies and not truth? Have you been blasted because of your beliefs, or because of your commitment to Jesus–especially if that looks different than the power structures say it “should” look?

My guess is that all of you can answer yes to most–if not all–of these questions. I know that I can. And it hurts. As Pastor John said, when character and trustworthiness are questioned, it causes division and a breakdown in relationships. It’s difficult to move forward in relationship when you find out the stories that others have been believing–and spreading–about you. When it’s specifically because of our beliefs about Jesus, and the way that he’s calling us to follow him, it can be hard to know what to do.

To all of us who have experienced something like this, Pastor John reminded us of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m going to share the Message paraphrase and The Passion Translation, and I encourage us all to read it slowly and let it sink into our hearts.

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:10-12, Message)

“How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So leap for joy–since your heavenly reward is great. For you are being rejected the same way the prophets were before you.” (TPT)

It never feels good when we feel like we’re being persecuted.  It doesn’t feel like blessing, and it doesn’t make us feel glad or ecstatic. But the thought that persecution for doing what’s right can drive us deeper into the kingdom, that God is pleased by our commitment to him, and that many before us–including Jesus–endured rejection, can be a comfort to our hearts in the midst of the pain.

We also have to be willing to look at the other side and ask more hard questions…

Have we been the ones entertaining stories in our heads? Have we believed those stories, questioning people in our hearts without ever asking them the questions we have? Have we entertained our own assumptions and listened to the rumors others have spread to the point that we believe them as truth? Have we become the rumor spreaders, the ones doing the attacking and discrediting?

Read that again, and ask the Holy Spirit to shine a light on anything you carry as “truth” that began as a story in your head. And then listen. I am pausing to do the same, asking Jesus to give us all soft, willing hearts of flesh so that we can see ourselves rightly. It’s easy to see how we’ve been attacked. It’s much harder to admit when we have been the ones doing the attacking…

Welcome back. Whatever Jesus may have highlighted for each of us, we would be wise to move toward owning our stuff, no matter how hard that might be. As Pastor John shared with us on Sunday, there is no freedom in the stories in our heads. The more we feed those stories, the more true they feel to us. But in actuality, they only lead us further away from the truth. It’s in holding on to the ways of Jesus and to his teachings that we come to know the truth that sets us free. (John 8:31-32)

I want to take us back to our story to look at how Jesus handled his questioners so that we can learn from him. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to perform on their terms rather than let his life and actions speak to who he was. They wanted to have power and control over him. They didn’t understand what his ministry was about. It was never about showy theatrics to Jesus. It was about bringing his upside-down kingdom to bear in the lives of real people–all people. It wasn’t about making himself known–what he did, he did out of love, not ego. They wanted Jesus to bow to their whims–he would not. Why? Because he knew who he was. His identity came from his father. And he knew why he was here. They wanted to show the world that this guy wasn’t who they thought he was. But Jesus didn’t have anything to prove or anything to defend. The text tells us that he sighed, told them no, and walked away. He didn’t get defensive and argue.

Ultimately, the words, ways, and miracles of Jesus portrayed a picture of God that didn’t look like the picture the Pharisees held and taught. Jesus came as the perfect image of the previously invisible God, and the things he did, the way he loved–who he was–didn’t line up with the stories in the Pharisees heads about what God should and shouldn’t be like. They held to the belief that they had it all right. So Jesus, then, must be wrong. And they were out to prove it. The stories in their heads were so loud, so fixed, so pervasive, that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

How often is that true of us when it comes to Jesus, and to others? Where do we need to set aside our own “rightness” and look instead to the righteousness of the one we say we follow? Where is our “asking for a sign” actually more like demanding that God show up in the way we want him to? Where are we clinging to power and control at the cost of those around us?

Wherever we each find ourselves today, we can–and need to–hold on to what is true. The truth is that Jesus is real and he is good. He sees us, he is for us, and we can trust him, even when it doesn’t make sense. His character is unshakable. His trustworthiness is unmatched. His love is unconditional and overflowing. He is the clearest picture of God we’ll ever see. And he has done so much, given us so many signs that prove to us that this is who he is. May we look to him as our guide and our example. May we trust him, even in the dark. And may we model our lives after him and his ways, as partners with him in his kingdom work.

–Laura

When I read that Jesus’ response to this group’s questioning was a sigh, I feel for Jesus. This deep sigh occurs one time in the New Testament, and this is the place. It literally means to draw up deep sighs from the bottom of the breast, (Strongs). In my own life, this type of sigh usually accompanies an ache in my chest and a desire to cry. I don’t know if it was the same for Jesus, but it could have been. Jesus loves all people, this group of Pharisees included, but Jesus will not force himself on anyone. I believe Jesus desired to minister to people in this region, to set people free from bondage, yet right away there was a roadblock in the hearts of the religious authorities, so Jesus sighed deeply and left the region. How many people in Dalmanutha didn’t have a personal encounter with Jesus because the religious system created a wall?

As we look back over portions of the book of Mark that we’ve studied this year, we can recall that in chapter 1, Jesus healed and taught and the people were amazed because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law (1:21). 

In chapter 2, Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and the teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:6-7).  Jesus read their thoughts and responded,  “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?  But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (2:8-11) 

We could continue going through the book of Mark and read account after account of questioning and accusation coming from the religious leaders questioning the authority of Jesus. It happened in region after region, city after city, synagogue after synagogue… Jesus was a threat to their power. Jesus was a threat to their understanding of how the religious system worked. Jesus was a threat to the way they thought about God. They didn’t understand Jesus and the way he did things, and for the most part, they didn’t seek to.

But there were a few along the way who sought deeper understanding. In John 3 we learn that there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2). It is in this conversation with Nicodemus that we learn that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17). The entire conversation is beautiful.  

Nicodemus is mentioned two other times in the gospel of John. In chapter 7, when the Pharisees wanted the temple guards to seize Jesus and they didn’t, the Pharisees accused the guards (and Nicodemus) of being deceived by Jesus, and of being ignorant by saying:“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7: 48-52) In other words, “we know and you don’t–don’t question us.”

The last time Nicodemus is mentioned is at the burial of Jesus: Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. (John 19: 38-40)

There is something so stirring about the account of these two powerful men caring for the body of Jesus. I wish we could know more about them and what happened in their lives after the resurrection of Christ. What I do know, and why I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that he had questions too–but his questions came from a desire to know more, to go deeper, to seek further understanding. The group of Pharisees in Dalmanutha’s questions came from a place of arrogance; they thought they knew more and already had full understanding, so Jesus needed to be proved wrong. Another reason that I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that we can develop stories in our heads about the Pharisees, and Nicodemus reminds us that not all of them resisted Jesus. We can develop stories in our heads about all kinds of groups. It’s good to remind ourselves that every group is full of individuals, and each individual is unique.

When I was in counseling a few years back, my counselor taught me how to ask for clarification in a way that led to conversation rather than to conflict. She said that I could begin by saying “I have a story in my head that may or may not be true. Can I share it with you to get clarification?” (Of course, I am going to the source, not to other people). “I have a story in my head” is a completely different type of question than “Where were you? Who were you with?” etc.  One leads to conflict, one leads to conversation and clarification.

Pastor John reminded us that questions only find answers when they’re asked and if we let them spin in our heads we create stories. If we then share those stories (based on our perceptions) with others, it can erode relationships, create division, and cause a great deal of harm. It would appear that the vast majority of Pharisees were involved in murmuring and grumbling behind the scenes about Jesus, drinking the poison of their own thoughts, letting that poison affect those around them, and leading to death rather than life, bondage rather than freedom, hopelessness rather than hope. Jesus, the life-bringer, desired to set them free, but the hardness of their hearts would not allow it.

Jesus will not show off to prove our accusations wrong. Jesus’ displays of power and his miracles were always for the benefit of those to whom he was ministering. They were demonstrations of love, and pointed to God the Father, the God of love who had been misunderstood and misinterpreted.  Jesus was showing us who God really is.

In investigating our own internal stories, sometimes we don’t know the state of our own hearts, so it’s wise to pray, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24) And then let him show us. We are all works in progress, as long as we don’t resist what God desires to do in us and in our midst.

What are your questions? What are the stories in your head? Are you seeking truth, or seeking to be right? Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you are faithful to what I have said, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:31-32). Let’s seek to know what Jesus said, live what he modeled, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Yes, ask questions…but questions that lead to life, not death.

–Luanne

Image result for pharisees ask for a sign

 

This I Know: Love the Story

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory
                                         to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.                                              Author Kate Hankey

Pastor Diane, our children’s pastor, began her sermon on Sunday with the words of this old hymn. The message she brought reminded us to fall in love with God’s story and teach it to our children. She used the same scripture from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 that we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, so I will not expound on them again, but as a reminder those verses say:

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

Pastor Diane reminded us that the Israelites didn’t do this right all the time, and by the time we get to the book of Judges, chapter 2, an entire generation of Israelites were born who did not know the Lord and the mighty things he had done on behalf of Israel.  Somehow, the story didn’t get passed to the next generation.

We have written before about the importance of loving God and living out His love in front of others. So let’s talk story. God is writing a story–the theme is his love for all of us. Each of us are written into the story. Whether we accept him or reject him, his love for us remains constant. He is the author of the story. His love never fails.

When God put on flesh and came to earth as Jesus, the method he used to teach us about God’s kingdom and God’s ways were through story. Those stories were included in the stories written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Story is a powerful method of communication. A good story is hard to forget. A good parable, or a good analogy that connects one thing to another is hard to forget.

The old hymn above says I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? Is it personal? Is it dynamic? Do we bring our full, vulnerable, broken, forgiven, loved selves to the story? Is our story bathed in love?

The “old, old story of Jesus and his love” is not stale. Nothing about the living God ever grows stagnant. The old, old story is flowing fresh today–new stories, new encounters, all of which remind us of Jesus and his love, and they are happening in and around us all the time.

In the summer of 2011, my life was in crisis. At that time, I was unaware of how deep the crisis was–I only knew that something felt off in my being. I couldn’t put my finger on it–I just knew that something was horribly wrong. I was sitting in my backyard praying when a swallowtail butterfly flew straight to me–it could have landed on my nose–and as the butterfly came-so did these words “I see you. You are not alone.”  For the rest of that summer, every swallowtail sighting-and there were some significant ones–came with the message, “I see you. You are not alone.”  

When my life as I knew it exploded in November of that same year, the message of the butterfly kept me going. Because I had shared my butterfly story beforehand with my sister, she reminded me in my storm of Hagar who was in a desperate situation, and God showed up. Genesis 16:13 tells us, She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”  

The Message version of the Bible writes that verse like this:

She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, “You’re the God who sees me!  “Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!”

I have shared that butterfly encounter with many people. It is part of my story. Last Friday I was sitting in the backyard with my daughter and her little ones. A swallowtail flew into the backyard (the second one I’ve seen this season), and landed on a lilac blossom right in front of us. As I always do with swallowtail sightings, I got excited. My three year old granddaughter studied the butterfly, but also studied me. My daughter explained to her that sometimes God speaks to us through his creation, and that God had spoken to me through a swallowtail, so they always remind me of God.  My granddaughter is too young to need to know the details of that story and the circumstances surrounding it–but what she knows today is that God spoke to her “Lulu” through that butterfly. She knows that God reminds Lulu of his presence and promise every time a swallowtail appears, and that’s enough for today.  As she grows older, the story can become more complete, and my hope is that as long as she lives, when she sees a swallowtail she will remember that God speaks, and that he reminds us that he sees us, he loves us, and he is with us.

My current God story is not even all settled in my heart and mind yet–I’m still very much in it–but what I know is that God has been teaching me a great deal these last few months through a marginalized people group. Because of a life event, I ended up immersed in this culture by accident and prayed often about what God’s purpose in that was. His answer was–love people. Love them sincerely. Be present and love What I didn’t expect was the incredible love that was offered to me. I also didn’t expect the beautiful, caring, loving, genuine community that I got to be part of–a community that looks a lot like church, but in whom many have been rejected by church. I had deep conversations about faith, life, heartache, love, rejection, belonging, and yes, God.  And you know what? He is fully there in a marginalized people who the mainstream church wants to reject. God has not rejected them. Just a few days ago I had the opportunity to again be immersed in that culture, but this time in my hometown. The experience was beautiful. I’m still processing this new story, which is the old story of Jesus and his love–I’m not sure where God is taking me, but my heart is open. My moments in this culture feel very holy. That was unexpected.

Story.

People can dispute Bible verses all day long. They can’t dispute our personal encounters with a living, loving God who is writing us into his story so that our stories can write into the lives of those around us.

I know stories about both of my grandmothers and their Jesus love lived out in action. I know the stories of my parents and their Jesus love lived out in action. I share those stories–shared one about my dad last week.  A new generation is hearing those stories.

What is your current story? If your story, your testimony is about a one time event that happened years ago, it is time to pay attention. The God who sees us also speaks to us. My butterfly encounter is about Jesus and his love. My time with marginalized people is about Jesus and his love. My heritage of faithful Christ followers is about Jesus and his love. There are countless ways that Jesus tells his story through our lives, so that we will, in turn, tell those stories through our lives. How has he showed you he loves you today? What current journey are you on with him? Are we paying attention? Are we sharing with others? Do we love to tell the stories, of Jesus and his love?

–Luanne

“The “old, old story of Jesus and his love” is not stale. Nothing about the living God ever grows stagnant. The old, old story is flowing fresh today…” 

The old, old story of Jesus cannot be contained within the story of his death and resurrection–and yet, it can…because every God story, every encounter with the risen Christ is, at its core, one of death and resurrection. That old story is the story of God’s self-emptying love that most clearly shows us his heart toward all of humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And he keeps showing up with that same love, infusing all of our stories with that one story. But if we don’t let it come to life within our personal stories, if we don’t have eyes to see the cycle of death and resurrection in our own lives, it can become–to us–stale and stagnant words on a page that we say we believe, but that stop short of affecting our actual lives. But, if we pay attention, we’ll see that what Luanne said is true: “The old, old story is flowing fresh today…’

Luanne also wrote, “The old hymn above says I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? And later, she asked us, “What is your current story?” 

Her questions seemed easy enough to answer at first glance. But as I let those questions sink deeper, past the surface of things, I got a little squirmy. The kind of squirmy that let me know what direction my writing would take today… (ugh.)

I wrote above that every encounter with the risen Christ is one of death and resurrection. I really do believe that. It’s the way of the upside-down kingdom we’ve written so much about. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to talk about the resurrection parts. The thing is, though, you don’t have resurrection without death. And death can make us uncomfortable and afraid. Even though it’s a part of life… As Jesus followers, we are seed people, resurrection people–people who embrace death as part of the cycle of life. The late Rachel Held Evans, in her beautiful book Searching for Sunday, wrote:

“Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.”

And yet, we hate the death parts, don’t we? It’s what makes Luanne’s questions complicated for me to answer…

Do I love to tell the story? That depends on which parts I’m telling… I’ve made peace with a lot of the chapters in my past, seen them through new eyes, and–by God’s good grace– I have found a way to love even the hardest parts of my God story. If this were her only question, I might have been able to say, yes, I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love in my life. On occasion. When I feel safe enough to go there…

But then she asked, “What is your current story?”

I don’t really want to answer that…because I don’t love my current story very much yet. The chapter that is in process is difficult to embrace most days. This chapter, so far, includes questions about the faith I’ve always known and loved, finding irreconcilable differences in the God I grew up with and the God I’m learning he actually is, and a growing awareness of the barriers the Church has built that have contributed to–and even caused–systemic and societal issues that are keeping people from seeing Jesus. I’ve never been lonelier, despite the many dear companions God has gifted me with. I’ve never felt more conflicted over speaking up versus staying quiet, never questioned so deeply who I can actually trust. The pages of this chapter are full of unknowns and an instability that often leaves me breathless. The stress level is unprecedented. Fear–especially of the future–visits often, an uninvited companion on this shadowy journey. The tears flow daily. It is a chapter wrought with betrayals and cutting words from unlikely places, but also from familiar places where it has become the norm. If I had to title this chapter in progress, I might call it “The Cloak of Invisibility”, because I’ve never felt less seen and less known.

Do I love my current story? Um…no. Are there days I want to run away from all the things that feel like pressure and conflict and chaos all around me? Almost every day. There are moments that I have to remind myself to breathe, moments when I literally feel paralyzed and unable to move forward. This is the first time I’m telling this much of this chapter’s story, and believe me, I don’t love telling one bit of it. I’m currently pondering deleting every word and starting from scratch in an entirely different direction.

Do you know what’s stopping me from doing just that? Jesus, and his love…

This isn’t the first chapter of my story that has felt unlovable. It won’t be the last. And if I’m honest, my God-story contains more chapters that are hard than are easy, more ugly than beautiful. But do you know what every single chapter contains? The thread of Jesus and his love woven into the tapestry of me. In every chapter, you’ll find death and resurrection, in equal amounts. Every part of my story is overlaid with the story of Jesus and his self-emptying, always pursuing love. Including this one. I may not see it yet, but I can trust that as long as my story is being written, it is inseparably woven together with the thread of Jesus and his love. His love redeems the ugly parts and renames them beautiful. He takes the unlovable chapters and renames them Beloved. Every season, no matter how devastating, contains death and resurrection.

Luanne wrote about a season that left her world in shambles. It was a season during which some things died–a long winter of sorts. The deaths that occurred, though, cleared the way for resurrection, renewal. And throughout that season of dying, God gave her Swallowtails. A butterfly. A symbol of spring. Possibly the best illustration we have of death and resurrection in our created world. A caterpillar is hidden within the cloak of its cocoon. And while it’s in there, it literally dies. Its organs disintegrate, and from that soup of cells, a butterfly is born. When the time is right, the cloak of the cocoon falls away, and the beautiful butterfly is free to fly. Death and resurrection. For Luanne, loving her whole God story means embracing every part of it, as each chapter led her to today. Swallowtail sightings, while still breathtaking and beautiful, wouldn’t carry the same weight in her story had it not been an icon of God’s love for her that carried her through a season of death and into resurrection.

The same is true for all of us. To love our stories means to embrace every chapter, and to learn to hold death and resurrection as equally necessary parts of the narrative. Once we can do that, we can learn to love telling our stories as well.

Diane spoke about sharing our stories with our kids as an act of worship to God. I agree that anytime we share our stories with anyone, it is an act of worship. 1 Peter 3:15 exhorts us,

But have reverence for Christ in your hearts, and honor him as Lord. Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you (GNT)

I believe that our answer for our hope goes beyond quoting verses that we have memorized. Of course sharing scripture is good, and sometimes appropriate, but if that’s all we do, we run the risk of handing people a stale, stagnant story… Our answer for our hope has to include our one, unique, vulnerable story of our personal experience encountering the love of Jesus. When we share in this way, we pull up a chair to the ever-expanding communion table of Christ and enter into authentic community with one another.

Sometimes it takes sharing the chapters we love the least to move toward embracing our whole stories.

It takes courage, but when we share, we might be surprised at the results…

When I wrote above that I might title my current chapter “The Cloak of Invisibility”, I had no idea I would be writing about the cloak of the cocoon in relation to Luanne’s story. As I wrote about it though, I started to experience my own cloak differently, as I wondered,

Could this cloak be a cocoon that is enshrouding me while the necessary deaths take place for new life to grow once again? Is the invisibility I feel maybe a protection while God rearranges me piece by piece, guarding me from the intrusion of predators that would attempt to thwart the process? 

In the pondering, I can feel myself already beginning to embrace my current story. Hope is sprouting from seeds of discouragement that fell into the soil of Jesus’ love. Why? Because Luanne shared her story. And even though it’s a story I know well, it fell fresh on my heart today and impacted my own. Perhaps my current story will impact one of yours and maybe then you’ll share with someone else. And as we continue in this way, we’ll keep making space at the table for all of our stories.

So, to wrap things up, I’ll ask Luanne’s questions again–will you answer them?

“The old hymn above says: I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? What is your current story?” 

–Laura

When the Enemy Comes: Revelation

The last few weeks Pastor John has been teaching us how to navigate seasons of devastation by leading us through a series from the book of Joel.

We have read verses in Joel that tell us about the hoards of locusts that wiped out the land and the crops. We’ve read about the drought and the fire. We’ve read the verses in which the Lord encourages the people to return to Him with all their hearts (2:13). We’ve read about His compassion and love (v.13). We’ve read Joel’s words as he begins to remember who the Lord is and exclaims “Surely He has done great things!” (v. 20 and 21). We’ve read God’s promise to restore the land with the result being that His people will praise His name and know that He is their God, that there is no other, and they will never be shamed again. (vs. 25-27)  Joel teaches us to:

  1. Return–cry out to God.
  2. Remember-recall who God is and all that He has done.
  3. Restore-regain perspective that God is good, that He is for us, that He loves us, and this week:
  4. Revelation-God’s invitation to be part of what He is doing through His Spirit.

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (2:28-29)

The Hebrew word “prophesy” means to speak or sing under the influence of divine spirit. It can mean to “pour forth words”, to declare, to speak by divine power, sometimes it rebukes the wicked, sometimes it declares events to come, sometimes it means to sing holy songs as led by the Spirit of God, it can mean to teach, to declare God’s truth.  The Greek word expounds a little further, it can mean to impulsively burst forth in praise or discourse, it can mean to comfort someone, to declare a thing which can only be known by divine revelation.  Basically, it is to be open to whatever the Spirit of God wants to communicate from God or about God in whatever way He chooses. God is, after all, God.

Joel’s prophecy was written at a time when the Holy Spirit only came upon certain people empowering them to accomplish God’s purpose in that season. They were typically empowered with great strength, or powerful speech, as in Samson, David, the prophets, some kings, some priests, some judges. They carried out the work of the Lord. One man who sometimes gets overlooked in all of this was Bezalel, so I want to give him a mention here. In Exodus 31, God told Moses: See, I have chosen Bezalel…and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of crafts…(Ex. 31:1-4). Even a craftsman/artist can be filled with the Spirit of God to accomplish God’s purpose and point us to God through his/her art. I love that!

The people of Joel’s day did not see the fulfillment of that particular prophecy.  As a matter of fact, another prophet, Amos, prophesied that God would send a famine of hearing the words of the Lord, (Amos 8:11) The Old Testament ends with the book of Malachi and God’s plea for His people to return to Him. They don’t, which leads to 400 years of silence from God.  I can’t begin to imagine!

After those 400 years, Jesus is born.

God, right here.

Visible, touchable, relatable.

God, showing us who He is and what He is about in the person of Jesus. God showing us His loving heart. God showing us His power. God showing us His kindness. God showing us that there is no life in religious ritual.  God showing us His righteous indignation at injustice. God showing us that there is no “us and them” in His kingdom. God lifting the marginalized, the oppressed, the invisible. God showing us that we are all precious to Him. God showing us His sacrificial nature.  And God making a way for us to become part of His family and His mission to restore all things as His kingdom begins to expand across the world.

Before He was crucified, Jesus told his closest friends that the gift of the Holy Spirit was going to come to them (John 14). After his resurrection, right before he ascended, he told his closest friends that they would receive power to be His witnesses when the Holy Spirit came upon them. (Acts 1:8) After he ascended, his friends returned to Jerusalem, went upstairs to the room where they were staying, and spent time in prayer. Luke makes sure we know that Mary and the women were with them in that room. (Acts 1:14).

And then, in Acts 2 it happens. The Holy Spirit came upon them–all of them. They were filled with the Spirit and the Spirit enabled them to speak in other tongues. They went outside and began to speak to people from every nation. Those people were bewildered because they each heard their own language being spoken–and what were they hearing? The wonders of God being declared!

However, as is often the case when the Spirit is on the move, there were naysayers in the crowd who were making fun of them and accusing them of being drunk. And then Peter, who in his fear had denied Jesus just a few weeks before

Stood up

Raised his voice

And explained the mystery of what was happening to the crowd.

He began with Joel’s prophecy:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below….and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  (Acts 2:17-21).

Then Peter, with the other apostles standing with him, went on to explain who Jesus is. He reminded the people that they rejected Him, but that they were being given a new opportunity to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. He encouraged them to repent–to change their minds about the way they thought about Jesus–to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, to receive the Holy Spirit–and about three thousand people became followers of Jesus on that day. Wow!

The rest of the book of Acts records the amazing things that the Holy Spirit did through the apostles, through Paul, through the followers of Christ and the early church as they were filled with the Spirit. The same Spirit is still available to all of us today–available to women and men, to rich and poor, to educated and uneducated, to every tribe, every tongue, every nation, every individual–all of us. 

So, the question for us is–do we give the Spirit free reign in our lives or are we afraid to allow that? There were naysayers in Peter’s audience, and there were those who were open to Peter’s pretty hard and pointed message. Those who were open felt their hearts being “pricked” which led them to ask “What shall we do?”  Then Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit shared with them how to come into a relationship with Jesus and how to receive the Holy Spirit.

Where do you find yourself? Are you a naysayer? Are you open to the conviction of the Holy Spirit? Are you open to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit? Are you open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in your life, producing the fruit of the Spirit in your thoughts and actions? Are you open to giving the Spirit full reign to use your talents, your gifts, your personality, your all to bring glory to God and draw others into His presence and kingdom? Are you open to things you don’t understand and can’t explain? Are you willing to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit even if it feels a little weird and uncomfortable to your flesh? Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit stretch you and teach you new things? Are you willing to let the Holy Spirit “mess in your business”? The fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy is still happening today. The purpose of the prophecy remains the same–that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

I truly believe that without the presence, empowerment, and ministry of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives, we cannot have unity in the Church, loving relationships, compelling lives, and be part of the fulfillment of God’s heart desire for all people to know Him. It’s a big deal. Where do you stand?

…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:13. 

For the sake of His kingdom and glory–are we asking?

–Luanne

I am going to pick up exactly where Luanne left off…

“For the sake of His kingdom and glory–are we asking?”

Our individual answers to this question will be more nuanced than a simple yes or no. To answer honestly, we have to consider the role that the Spirit played in our original theological framework. What we have heard, seen, and been taught about the Holy Spirit drives our thoughts, expectations, and fears related to this mysterious entity that cannot be fully explained or understood.

If our answer to this question is yes, there are some follow-up questions…  Why are we asking? Are we asking because we want to prove our superiority or spirituality? Have we been told we should? How are we asking? Are we asking with open hands and hearts, willing to receive whatever God chooses to give? Or are we asking with conditions and specific expectations?

If our answer is no, there is one follow-up question: Why not?

When Luanne wrote about Pentecost–when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples and friends like a rushing wind, with flames of fire–she mentioned that those who heard them speaking after this pouring out, under the empowerment of the Spirit, were bewildered...

Bewildered: deeply or utterly confused or perplexed (Merriam-Webster.com)

I read about this very thing recently in a book titled How to Survive a Shipwreck, by Jonathan Martin. He writes:

“When the Spirit blows in, the first sign of the divine presence is not order, but confusion. When the early disciples were filled with the Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, the world around them was bewildered. It is the first and most neglected sign that God is up to something extraordinary–bewilderment… Only the people who don’t know what they are doing or where their lives are headed are open to the Spirit in the wind. The trademark of the Spirit is to first bewilder, not clarify. The fog that comes doesn’t always obscure the Spirit–sometimes it is the Spirit. To welcome Pentecost is to open ourselves to the possibility that God may be working in that which at first only appears to be confusion.”

I’m going to go ahead and say here that we do not like this. We tend, as followers of Jesus from many different backgrounds, to pray for clarity, for peace that calms the chaos, for answers-not more questions.

But if our God is really God, then part of what differentiates Him from us is our inability to grasp Him.

And yet, we try…

Since the beginning of recorded history (and probably before that…) we, as humanity, have been attempting to box God in. To simplify all that He is into terms we can understand and explain. We long for a sense of order and control, and we have tried to control God. We have convinced ourselves (and sadly, many others along with us…) that God can be managed, manipulated, and controlled if we follow certain sets of rules and color within the lines. Religiosity replaces relationship and we think that neat and tidy looking lives are evidence of our right standing with the Creator of all things.

My heart aches as I type, because this understanding of “faith” that so many have adapted and then taught, reduces our beautiful, mysterious and incomprehensible Creator to a list of dos and donts. This is a tragedy. No wonder the world around us wants nothing to do with our “God”. People aren’t really rejecting us and our “God” because of declining morality, or even an aversion to our “Christian” intolerance.

They just don’t want the picture we have painted of our God.

There’s little that is appealing about how modern “Christianity” displays our Leader. The depravity in the world is deepening because followers of Jesus have picked up artificial light that is powerless to pierce the darkness, and set aside the true Light that has the power to draw ALL men to Himself…

We have largely rejected the mysteries of God, because of our inability to control what we don’t understand. And the greatest mystery of God, or at least one of the greatest mysteries, is His Spirit.

Luanne wrote, “So, the question for us is–do we give the Spirit free reign in our lives or are we afraid to allow that?”

If our core desire is to maintain a sense of control and order in our lives, then I think we have to own that–when it comes to the uncontrollable, bewildering Spirit of God–we are, in fact, afraid.

Luanne asked a series of follow-up questions, one of which was, “Are you open to giving the Spirit full reign to use your talents, your gifts, your personality, your all to bring glory to God and draw others into His presence and kingdom?”

If we can get past the fear in the previous question, and begin to embrace the “free reign” of the Spirit in our hearts and lives, this next question contains components we MUST wrestle with…

If we give the Spirit full, unmediated access to our talents, gifts, and personalities–the very make-up of who we are–that means we are saying God gets to determine the how, when, where, and why about what we are and what we have. He gets to decide move us and move through us His way. If we thought we were losing control before, this part can pretty well undo us… We have ideas about what we can and can’t do. We know what we would like to do with the gifts we have been given, and where we like to use them. We know what we’re comfortable doing and saying within the scope of our own personalities, and what is well beyond our comfort zones.

But the thing is… the Spirit of God can move within us and empower us with talents and gifts we didn’t know we had. The Spirit, at times, even unleashes gifting within us that we’ve never had and couldn’t dream of having. But in order to experience this kind of empowerment, we must let go of our preconceived notions, our expectations, our assumptions, and all of our conditions. We have to assume a posture of receiving with humility, expectant that God will show up, but without presumption of how He will choose to do that.

Peter knew something about this. He, along with the others, had been told to wait for the Spirit to come. Jesus didn’t really give them more detail than that. Wait for the Spirit to come upon you. So, together, they waited. Expectant, but wholly unprepared for what was about to happen. And when the Spirit showed up with the force of a mighty wind and with fire, they received the empowerment. But it went further than that. They didn’t simply receive… they also moved. They moved out among the people with a boldness not their own.

Both John, in his message, and Luanne in her portion of this post, referred to Peter’s first sermon. They both reminded us that Peter stood up with the others and spoke to the crowds–and about 3,000 were added to their number that day. He spoke bold words, for sure. But the more baffling mystery here is that he spoke at all

This is Peter… Peter, who famously had denied Jesus not long before this day, in front of those he was now speaking to, yes. But beyond that, this was Peter, who, up to this point was known for being anything but eloquent… We have evidence throughout the gospels of the trainwreck that often occurred whenever Peter would open his mouth. He was always saying the wrong thing. He was most definitely not a natural, gifted speaker. Obviously. This was not a talent he had been born with. It was was a gift that he was empowered with when he chose to give the Spirit full access to all of himself

What we also know about Peter is that what he lacked throughout the four gospels in eloquence, he made up for with his inexhaustible trust in Jesus. In fact, it was his bubbling trust and belief that led him into some of the verbal blunders that we have recorded in our Bible.

I believe it was this same trust, belief, faith, reliance on Jesus that freed Peter to stand up and speak, empowered with a gift he didn’t know he possessed.

The same is available to us. If we can overcome our fear and lean hard into the mystery of our God and the freedom of His Spirit, we can be empowered with gifts we’ve never had before, too. We won’t all speak, or sing, or prophecy in the very same way. That would negate the very mystery we’re attempting to embrace. The empowerment can take innumerable forms, because we follow an uncontainable, unexplalinable God. If we are willing to receive the mystery, to be empowered by what we cannot understand, and to move within that empowerment, we will begin to see and experience what Jesus was talking about when He said these things:

I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. (John 14:12, NLT)

It’s better for you that I leave. If I don’t leave, the Friend won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you. (John 16:7, Message)

How do we do the “greater works” Jesus prophesied we would do? Under the empowerment of the friend that was given to us, that Jesus said was better for us than even His physical Presence among us.

Jesus told us the indwelling power of His Spirit was better for us than Him remaining here would be… That is huge. Jesus wouldn’t have said it if it were not true. If we believe him, friends, we had better be asking for this “better” that has been already been given. Whatever we may or may not have been taught about the Spirit in our upbringings or faith traditions–however impactful those words and ideas may have been–if we’re followers of Jesus, His words have to carry the most weight. He says we need the Spirit. And He says we get to have as much of this gift as we want. The question is, do we want it?

“…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

–Laura

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