Fan the Flame

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control  (2nd Timothy 1:6-7).

Pastor Beau took us to this portion of Paul’s second letter to Timothy on Sunday. It’s important to know that Paul and Timothy shared a special relationship–Paul loved Timothy like a son, and Paul saw things in Timothy that Timothy struggled to see in himself. Been there! I’m grateful for those whom God has placed in my life who have seen things in me that I struggle to see in myself and have encouraged me to step out in faith. I pray that you have those people around you as well.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy was the last one that he wrote before he was executed. He knew that his time was running out, so he is once again encouraging his young friend to grasp who he is in Jesus. He encourages Timothy to boldly take hold of the call on his life.  Paul had left young Timothy in charge of the church in Ephesus–a big deal for a young man. There were a lot of people in Ephesus, a lot of different life philosophies; there were people trying to distort the simplicity of the message of Jesus–and for all Christians who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire in that day–there was a lot of danger as evidenced by Paul’s arrest, and the martyrdom of many, including-eventually- Paul.

Timothy’s fear made sense. Paul, in his love for Timothy (and his love for Christ), gently reminded him that the Spirit who lived in him was not a spirit of fear but one of power and love and self-control (or a sound mind).

Over the next few Sundays, we will be exploring different fears. Pastor Beau’s topic this week was the fear of rejection.

Rejection means to refuse, dismiss, desert, abandon someone. The Urban Dictionary says this about rejection: “It makes you feel depressed, lonely and like a worthless reject who will never amount to anything or find someone worthy to love or love you in return for who you are because you are not good enough.” 

Even reading that definition causes emotion to swell up inside me. Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced rejection at some point in our lives, and because of the worthless way it makes us feel, we then live with the fear of it happening again which affects our lives in more ways than we could ever imagine.

Pastor Beau worded it like this: “The fear of rejection is the product of lies we believe based on previous life experience.”

Those lies can include thoughts such as:

My value lies in what I do.

I’ll never be good enough.

My presence doesn’t matter.

I can’t depend on anyone.

If I don’t go along, they won’t like me,

and so many other things.

I really hate that rejection is part of life–it absolutely makes sense that we’re afraid of it. It feels horrible. It’s easy to identify past rejection. It’s more difficult to recognize how the fear of rejection, based on that past rejection, affects our lives on a daily basis. In order to do that, we must have some self-awareness.

Pastor Beau pointed out that the fear of rejection can cause us to reject others.  It keeps us from connecting. It keeps us locked up in our own prison. It keeps us from deep relationships. It keeps us from loving with all that we are. It keeps us from blessing others with our gifts. It holds us back from receiving the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness, and it keeps us from connecting deeply with ourselves and our God given purpose. When we find ourselves pulling back from others and building invisible walls, we must learn to do some personal inventory to try to figure out what past experience our current reaction is connected to. What fear is driving our behavior? Is it the fear of rejection?

Fear is powerless–until we give it power. 

So, the Apostle Paul, who wrote: Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10),  Paul, who experienced constant rejection in his ministry, and was imprisoned again because the message that he carried was once again rejected in violent ways, reminds Timothy–God did not give you a spirit of fear. Paul reminds Timothy that The Spirit that God gave to Timothy is

The Spirit of power,                                                                                                                               

               The Spirit of love,  

                              The Spirit of self-control. 

I believe that Paul’s word order was very, very intentional. I believe that Paul was remembering the words of Jesus, who told his disciples: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Paul was reminding Timothy that The Power within him was the One who would empower him to carry the message of Jesus and His Kingdom to those around him.

Paul also penned the words: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I posses to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:1-3.)  Paul was reminding Timothy that the Holy Spirit would empower him to carry out his call with courageous agape love.

In addition, Paul wrote of self-discipline and a sound mind when he wrote the words: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2 NLT) And, take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

So, Paul is saying to Timothy–remember who you are in Jesus. Don’t fall into the enemy’s trap of feeling inferior or ill-equipped to be who God has made you to be. Instead, fan into flame the gift of God which is in you.

Clarence Jordan translated that verse like this: “I’m reminding you to shake the ashes off the God-given fire that’s in you.”

I. Love. That!

There is a God-given fire within us. Have you stoked it, or quenched it? Paul implores us in 1st Thessalonians 5:19 not to quench the Spirit.

Pastor Beau brought to mind a campfire and what’s involved in keeping the fire going. If the fire is not tended, it will grow cold; however, if it is stirred, if new fuel is added, if ashes are gently blown on, the fire will continue to burn.  And sometimes, it looks as though it is out–gray ash covers the coals, and no visible smoke rises, but if you throw water on what appears to be dead,  a sizzle is heard and steam rises from the buried coals that are still burning–it can be fanned into flame again.

Paul wrote these words to Timothy centuries before electricity was a reality. The weight of Paul’s encouragement for Timothy to fan into flame the gift of God was huge. Fire provided warmth, light, fuel for preparing food–fire sustained their lives. A household in ancient times would not have allowed their fire to go out. And if it did…neighbors shared live coals with one another, so that the fire could be rekindled. Lack of fire could be deadly. I’m sure that Timothy understood the life-giving importance of what Paul was implying. Do we?

We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit–the power of the Spirit that we’ve been given to carry the message of Jesus. We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them, who will never abandon them, who will never treat them as worthless, who has proved by the death and resurrection of His Son that they have more value and worth than they can imagine, and who invites them to His table which is open to all.

You have within you the Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. Fan it into flame. Renew your mind. Reject the enemy’s fear mongering, and use your gifts to embrace the world with the warmth of the Spirit’s fire. Use the power within you to light the world with the love of God.

–Luanne

“We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit… We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them… and who invites them to His table which is open to all…”

His table. Pastor Beau talked about the table, too. He said, “Ultimately, we overcome rejection by coming to the table.” What table are they talking about? The table of communion. The Eucharist. The tradition that, sadly, has become an emotionless part of a church service for so many–but offers to us a solution for our brokenness, even the brokenness of rejection.

The solution to all our brokenness is found in more brokenness…

During the meal, Jesus took and blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples:

Take, eat.
This is my body.

Taking the cup and thanking God, he gave it to them:

Drink this, all of you.
This is my blood,
God’s new covenant poured out for many people
for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28, Message)

Jesus, knowing the men with Him in that upper room, knowing their hearts and how they would reject and betray Him in the next hours and days, offered Himself to them. His brokenness, to absorb all of theirs–and all of ours. His brokenness, so they–and we–could be made whole. He invited them into His new covenant in all of their brokenness, just as they were. They didn’t understand the gravity of His words–not yet. But they soon would.

Similarly, many of us don’t understand the implications of the invitation to come to the table. I didn’t understand. There is still some mystery around the way Jesus communes with us at His table, and I like it that way… But my understanding has certainly grown. I read in Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way that Jesus’ words in that upper room are the same words spoken in a Jewish marriage proposal. That the last supper was actually a marriage covenant. Ann writes, quoting the pastor who told her about it,

“In other words, Jesus says to you with this cup, ‘I love you. I want you. I covenant Myself to you. I commit to you. This cup is the new covenant in My blood which I offer to you. Do you love me? Will you covenant yourself to Me?‘” She goes on to write, “Every abandonment ever experienced could be abandoned in this sacramental act… How can it be? When we’re naked and ashamed and alone in our brokenness, Christ envelops us with His intimate grace. When we’re rejected and abandoned and feel beyond wanting, Jesus cups our face: “Come close, my Beloved.”

This is the invitation. This is how we can begin to overcome rejection. By saying yes to His invitation. Pastor Beau emphasized that each of us has a standing invitation. Those words I wrote above? Jesus speaks them to all of us, over and over again. He asks us to come and be united with Him, to take Him in, so that He becomes part of our very being.

“All our brokenness is only healed by union–

With-ness breaks brokenness.” (Voskamp)

With-ness breaks brokenness… I love that so much. But that statement, while true of our being “with” Christ, means more than that. Because we don’t come to the table alone. We can, and should, commune with Jesus daily in our personal lives. But the picture is incomplete without one another. There is a with-ness that represents the Kingdom of God, the kingdom Jesus brought with Him when He came to us with skin on. It is the with-ness that Beau was talking about when he said that rekindling our fire happens individually AND in community. It’s not an either/or. And this is the part that a lot of us are afraid of…

Pastor Beau said, and Luanne highlighted above, that “the fear of rejection keeps us from connecting.” Ann, again from The Broken Way, writes:

We all long for the belonging of communion and yet there is this fear of the closeness of the fellowship. Love is our deepest longing–and what we most deeply fear. Love breaks us vulnerably open–and then can break us with rejection.

The fear of rejection can keep us from coming to the table. Even if we hear Jesus’ personal invitation to us, and believe that He wants us there, we’re not always sure we’re welcome to come. Because “they” may not want us there… As Pastor Beau said, we may feel that way because of a past church experience, or because someone put certain parameters or requirements around being “allowed” to come. We may have been wounded and felt rejection at the table, from those who wanted to control it.

But the thing about it is… the table belongs to Jesus. It’s His. He gets to do the inviting. And he makes it clear–over and over again, in the words He said, in the people He associated with, in the way He conducted Himself–that His invitation is open to all of us. Male, female, Republican, Democrat, divorcee, adulterer, addict, young, old, rich, poor, homosexual, healthy, ill, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, evangelical, transgender, immigrant, homeless, celebrity, veteran, felon, Black Lives Matter proponent, and MAGA proponent–all. are. welcome. at. the. table. ALL. Every ethnicity. Every nationality. The table levels the playing field. Because none of us is “worthy” of the body and blood of Christ. Not one of us. And if anyone is excluded from the table, then we all are.

John 7:37(MSG): On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink!”

If anyone is thirsty… come to the table. Come commune with Jesus. It is meant to be a place of welcome. A place of renewal. A place to bring our brokenness and share in the ministry of the breaking–together. No matter how many times we’ve rejected Jesus, He will never reject us. He keeps inviting us into His healing embrace. And He gives us the opportunity to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:15-18), rather than wielders of rejection. He invites us into His own brokenness, to experience the breaking of our own brokenness by the power of with-ness. And then He invites us to offer our brokenness and with-ness to others as part of the beautiful, upside-down Kingdom He brought to us. And in the middle of all the shared brokenness, as we sit together around His table, the power of fear–even the fear of rejection–is broken. Fires are stirred and kindled, lies replaced with truth, and the breaking births new life.

But we have to be willing to come. To respond to the invitation. To believe that there is a place where we are wanted and welcomed, a place where acceptance–not rejection–is bestowed on all. Jesus is waiting there. Will we come? Will we take the first step and trust that He’ll be there? If we have been the rejected one, if we are afraid, will we come? And if we have rejected others, will we hear the invitation as a call to lay down our pride and selfishness and let Jesus change our minds about some things? Will we come alongside those we see as “others”? Will we walk to the table hand-in-hand with those we disagree with? Will we take a seat next to someone we once vilified–or maybe still vilify?There’s no room at the table for arrogance or religiosity. It’s not a place to argue opinions or policies. We can’t judge each other at the table, because none of us belong there on our own merit. None of us. It is by the grace of God that we come. And we’re invited to come together, to see the image of God in each face around the table. We don’t have to agree on everything to come. We don’t have to believe exactly the same way. The invitation isn’t ours to give or withhold. It belongs to the One whose body and blood was given for all. It belongs to Him alone. He says, “Come”. Let your fear of rejection be broken by the embrace of the One waiting at the table with a place set for you…in the midst of the places set for all.

–Laura

Image result for campfire in the woods

Stories: Jonathan & Jeaneece

As I reflect on the story we heard on Sunday morning, my eyes fill with salty pools again. We were given a gift that few are courageous enough to give another: raw, undiluted vulnerability. Truth, spilled from weary, hurting hearts. I am so grateful for the words that Jonathan and Jeaneece shared with us, and it is a terrifying honor to be sharing and expanding upon some of those words here.

The Schmidts married young. Their journey together began in New Mexico. While working at a youth camp in the mountains, Jonathan heard a call into ministry. He heard these words: “I want you to be my watchtower.”

Jonathan had never aspired to be a pastor. In fact, he shared that, “A pastor is the one thing I never wanted to be.” Much like Jonathan, Jeaneece had never seen herself as a pastor’s wife. Yet, here they were. Jonathan said that this call started a season of  bargaining with God, and laying fleeces out–fleeces that God responded to as He, over and over again, provided a way.

They remained in New Mexico, serving at a church there, for three years. During these years, Jonathan recalls rubbing elbows with the higher-ups and not liking what he saw. He said that his thoughts at that time were basically, “If this is what ministry is, I’m out of here.” 

A friend told Jonathan, “Run. If you’re called, you won’t be able to hide.”   

And so they left. They ran. All the way to Bellingham, Washington. They both worked outside of the church world. But they didn’t stay away from church. They began to serve with the youth at their new church–strictly on a volunteer, unpaid basis though–at their request. They loved their students deeply and, eventually, Jonathan found himself on staff again. Turns out his friend had been correct–he couldn’t hide.

At some point along the way, they had two daughters and then two sons. They landed back in New Mexico–Albuquerque this time–for a season, and eventually they ended up back in Washington. As they described the many transitions and changes, Jeaneece said, “All of a sudden…life happened.” 

Jonathan and Jeaneece spent 32 years in ministry. And then, in December 2014, they realized they’d had enough. They needed to be done. They had nothing left. The environment they were in was toxic. That transitional time in their lives is what eventually brought them to Casper.

What had they had enough of? What did they need to be done with? In a word: church. Their experiences in ministry left them empty and needing to be done. Jonathan, in describing some of these experiences, said, “I didn’t think I signed up for what I saw.”

What was it that he saw? When Pastor John asked him how he saw the church, he said, “They seemed to be about building their little kingdoms.” He shared that his relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. He had witnessed power plays, been stabbed in the back by his head pastor, and had seen leaders conspiring against pastors. He saw “self-righteous, religious, church garbage”, and he witnessed fighting over music, buildings, and what would be taught. At a particularly raw moment, he spoke these words…

“I trust no one… I’m having to re-learn how to trust God.”

Of the current season they are in, Jonathan said, “We don’t know what this story looks like tomorrow…” 

Yeah. I feel that, too. You probably do as well… We don’t know what the story will look like tomorrow. A different line in our series introduction video stood out to me this week:

“Is the Writer trustworthy to get the middle right? To surprise us with His love one more time?”

It seems to me that this line captures where Jonathan and Jeaneece are right now. They left the ministry after 32 years, but in many ways, where they are now is in the middle. Not the end. Not by any means. And they know that…  They articulated that they know God’s not done yet–but they don’t know what it looks like.

They have been hurt deeply by the church… and yet they are still a part of ours. What a gift we have been given in who they are and the story they carry into our midst. The reminder they give us to be on our guard against the temptation to build our own comfortable kingdom–not simply because that isn’t the Kingdom Jesus came to bring, but because when we forget why we exist, we hurt people.

Jonathan said to the faces that dotted the sanctuary, “Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

His words gutted me.

He was thanking us for allowing them to come in as far as they could bear, without asking them to dive in further. For letting them be exactly where they are on their journey without making them feel like that wasn’t enough. But the way he put the words together…

Thank you for giving us the space to exist on the edges.”

Thank you for giving us the space to exist…”

I wanted to respond, “Thank you for gracing our edges with your existence, for choosing to exist among us.”

How did we get where we are, Church? As the big “C” church of Jesus? That someone’s experience could be so damaging, so painful, that us simply giving them space to exist on the edges would be such a gift? Why are we so bad at simply letting one another exist? Exactly as we are, where we are? How did we get so far from loving God and loving others, from carrying Jesus’ kingdom of love to those around us?

A pastor and his wife who deeply love Jesus, and wanted nothing more than to extend that love to so many who were desperate for what they had, left the ministry after 32 painstaking years–depleted, disillusioned, with nothing left to give. It breaks my heart. And as I sat, shaken to my core by their honesty and their pain, the Spirit implored me to search my own heart. To see where I’ve fallen into the “business” of church life and forgotten to make space for those around me to exist in whatever way they need to. I am grateful for the reminder of how ugly we, as human beings, can be. How selfish and cruel we can be, the ways we tear each other down in pursuit of our own comfort and greatness.

How Jonathan and Jeaneece got here, to Casper, to our church, is a heartbreaking story. But I am so, so glad they are here. Whether they realize it or not, they are still ministering to those around them. They carry the Jesus that they love faithfully, even especially in their brokenness. They’re not afraid to ask questions, to wrestle with God about the hard. And their realness invites us to be real, too. They say they are “making it” right now by taking it day by day, trusting that God has enough for that day. Jeaneece said, “Day by day, you have to make the choice to reach for joy. It’s a deliberate search for things to be thankful for, an intentionality of looking for the good.” 

They are in process, as we all are. They’re in the murky middle, wondering, hoping and somehow knowing that the Writer is trustworthy to get it right–to surprise them with His love one more time…

Let’s give each other space to exist friends, to be the Church that loves like Jesus and lives for His Kingdom-not our own.

–Laura

I wish you all could know Jonathan and Jeaneece. They are beautiful, tender-hearted people. Their vulnerability as they shared drew us in. There were a lot of tears, I could hear gentle weeping all around me, and I cried too. Theirs is a story of deep love, and of deep grief. There is much we can learn from them.

Jonathan shared with us that when he met the real Jesus as a teenager,  he was overwhelmed by an intense love like he’d never known. Jonathan has experienced the deep love of Jesus, and he loves Jesus deeply–which is why his grief is so deep. Any of us who have been loved deeply, and love deeply in return are grief-stricken when the object of our love is misrepresented and abused. Jonathan shared with us that being a loyal defender has been hard-wired into him since he was a child. What he has experienced on church staffs cut him to the core, because Jesus-the one who loves him deeply, and the one he loves in return-has been misrepresented. Jonathan’s heart is to be lovingly and deeply loyal to Jesus and His mission.

Laura wrote above that both Jonathan’s grandfather and his dad were pastors. Jonathan didn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus, and certainly didn’t want to be a pastor. He said that what he had observed led him to believe that “it” doesn’t work.  So, when he was overwhelmed by the love of Jesus, it was a huge moment in his life.

Jeaneece had never aspired to be a pastor’s wife. It’s a hard thing–both to be in ministry (which she was), and to be married to a “professional” minister.

I am the daughter of a pastor–and the wife of a pastor. I did not want to marry anyone in the ministry either. Unlike Jonathan’s experience, my dad modeled Jesus in a beautiful way. My dad is a gentle, wise, shepherd who drinks from a deep fountain and ministers from that place. I did not realize how rare that was until I left home. But even gentle, loving pastors can come under attack from factions in their church, so after pastoring the same church from the time I was six years old until I was pregnant with my third child at the age of thirty, my dad retired early because he didn’t want the church he loved and had poured his life into to split. It was ugly, hateful, satanic. The man who started the ugly went on to be a denominational leader in my home state, and in that state the denomination has been in lawsuits and power plays that have been very public. It makes my heart sick.

Even when the “hard” isn’t that public, life for ministers and their families is challenging.

There is tremendous pressure placed upon pastors and their families. We live in a fishbowl, and many people live as if they have permission to make commentary on how they think we’re doing. The children of the pastor have expectations placed upon them to be perfect, and if they’re not, it’s a reflection on their parent. I hated running into an adult from church when I was with my friends as a teenager. I would be introduced as their pastor’s daughter, and all of a sudden there was an expectation to be a certain way. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that my teen years were wrought with self-destruction and pain–however, I never wanted that to reflect on my dad.

The pressure put on pastor’s children leads either to “performing” as perfect models, or running the other direction and giving up completely. One day, just a couple of years ago, a nationwide Christian radio station was discussing pastor’s kids on the air. The phone calls “joking” or complaining about the kids almost made me want scream. I wrote a letter to the station and expressed how deeply hurtful that was.

I wanted my own children to have permission to cultivate and navigate their own relationships with Jesus. I didn’t want them pretending in order to “look the part”. That didn’t stop the outside pressure, but I have defended them more than once by pointing out that doctors’ kids still get sick, dentists’ kids still get cavities, and neither the kid or their parents are judged for it. What a gift it would be to let pastors’ kids be kids without judgment or unrealistic expectations. I’m in my mid-fifties and still recovering from being a PK.

As for being a pastor’s wife–my friends know never to introduce me that way to anyone. As soon as that “title” is shared, authentic conversation goes out the window. It’s a weird and uncomfortable thing. I want to be introduced as “my friend, Luanne.”

At church, when I am introduced as the pastor’s wife, I ask people not to hold that against me and to let go of any pre-conceived notions that they might have, because I’m not any of those things. I would rather get to know real people and let people get to know the real me–then if they learn that I’m the pastor’s wife, it’s not so weird because they already know that I’m normal. And one other thing–I don’t serve in my church because I’m the pastor’s wife. I serve because I love Jesus, and like any other lay person, I am using my gifts in the body because I love Him.

Unrealistic expectations and pressures put on pastors and their families was one of the things that was difficult for Jonathan and Jeaneece. Expectations that pastors/leaders are somehow supposed to have all the gifts, do all the things, and if they are not perfect or doing it well, the large target on their back is shot at ferociously.

On the flip side of the issue of unrealistic expectations, there are pastors who use their role to exert power and influence, and who sometimes abuse that power and harm many in the process.

Jonathan, with incredible passion and pain shared about his experiences on church staffs by stating: “My relationship with Jesus got dumped on over and over again. This is supposed to be the place where we come share that love–not about stupid arguments. I didn’t get into this to run a church. I didn’t want it.” During the second service he said  he had seen too much “self-righteous, religious garbage–fighting over ridiculous things and the church huddled together to try to make ourselves more comfortable while there are thousands on the outside in need of what we have.”

His righteous indignation is spot on. He loves Jesus deeply. He made attempts to redirect elders and pastors who were sidetracked. He was told to “shut up”. The stress caused symptoms that mimicked heart attacks. Jeaneece, finally said to him, “Jonathan, we’ve had enough. We need to be done.” and then she looked at us and stated, “It was toxic.”

It was toxic. The church was toxic.

Jeaneece, in talking about that season,  reminded us of the time when the prophet Elijah ran and hid.

He begged the Lord, “I’ve had enough. Just let me die! I’m no better off than my ancestors.”  Then he lay down in the shade and fell asleep.  Suddenly an angel woke him up and said, “Get up and eat.”  Elijah looked around, and by his head was a jar of water and some baked bread. He sat up, ate and drank, then lay down and went back to sleep. Soon the Lord’s angel woke him again and said, “Get up and eat, or else you’ll get too tired to travel.”  So Elijah sat up and ate and drank. The food and water made him strong enough to walk forty more days. At last, he reached Mount Sinai,  the mountain of God,  and he spent the night there in a cave.  (1 Kings 19:4-9)

The Lord sent an angel to minister to Elijah. He was gentle with Elijah. He met Elijah in his despair. And a few verses later the Lord spoke to Elijah in a still small voice, refreshed Elijah, encouraged Elijah, and gently called him back.

Elijah wasn’t the only person in scripture who wanted to die in the middle of a ministry career. The Apostle Paul did too.  In his second letter to the Corinthians he wrote:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  (1:8)

Paul had mean, religious people stirring up trouble everywhere he went in his ministry.  Jesus did too–mean religious people who had an agenda, were willing to buddy up to the Roman government to get their way, were willing to lie and listen to false testimony (read about the night time, unlawful “trial” of Jesus), in order to kill him and retain their power.

And dear ones, it is still happening today. Like Jonathan and Jeaneece, it grieves me deeply.

Religion makes people mean. The Holy Spirit transforms people into the likeness of Jesus.

Religion is issues focused. Jesus is people focused.

Religion follows agendas. The Holy Spirit leads lovers of Jesus to follow His ways.

Religion has no heart. Being a new creation in Christ means that the heart of Jesus is in us–the heart that beats with the intent that all people experience His love through our love.

Speaking in generalities, the corporate church is not introducing the real Jesus to the world. We are loud about political parties. We are loud about concrete commandments being posted in public spaces. We are loud about who is in and who is out.  We are loud as we shame people who have made decisions we disagree with. We are loud, and we are mean.

Inside our walls we argue about music styles, carpet colors, who gets to use which tables, ridiculous temporal things, while-as Jonathan noted, thousands of people are desperate for what we have.

We are toxic.

It hurts my heart to write those words. Over the centuries, we have lost our way. We are having affairs with many things, while forgetting that we are the bride of Jesus.

The Lord is faithful in every generation to have prophetic voices that call us back to single-hearted devotion to Him. Jonathan and Jeaneece have that voice. It’s been costly. The religious resist the prophets, and the prophets pay a high price.

In Matthew 23 Jesus lamented over the hypocrisy of  the religious. He finished his lament with these words:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.

Will we listen to the voices that He is sending us in this generation? Will we let go of religion, of agendas, of issues? Our real mission is clear. Jesus made it clear.  Love God. Love people. Model His life. Proclaim good news to the poor. Proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. Set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). Go everywhere and teach people to love God and love people–do this, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In doing this, God’s Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And if you are a prophet who’s had enough,  Jesus says to you:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message.

Thank you Jonathan and Jeaneece. God will not waste your pain.

–Luanne

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When the Enemy Comes…Rise Up

Return to Me. Remember. Restoration. Revelation. 

These are the themes we have explored as we’ve journeyed through the book of Joel. Our fifth and final point of exploration in this final message of our series is “Rise Up”.

I imagine that when you read those words, it conjures an image in your mind. Let that image develop for a minute. What does it mean to you to rise up? What picture do you see?

Undoubtedly, the pictures we see have been formed by what we’ve been taught, what we understand of both our God and the world around us, and our own personal beliefs. Our cultural understanding informs the images we see. Our theological understanding does as well. What we have to discuss today–whether you agree or disagree–is vital to our understanding of God, to the way we follow Jesus within our faith communities, and to our own personal journeys with Christ.

These are the passages Pastor John highlighted in Sunday’s message:

Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swordsand your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say,“I am strong!”Come quickly, all you nations from every side, and assemble there. Bring down your warriors, Lord! (Joel 3:9-11, NIV)

The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine.The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.
But the Lord will be a refuge for his people,a stronghold for the people of Israel.“Then you will know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy hill. Jerusalem will be holy; never again will foreigners invade her. (Joel 3:15-17, NIV)

When we read these verses and think about the phrase “Rise up!”, it immediately appears that the exhortation is one of standing strong as warriors against our enemy.

And it is… as long as we know who that enemy is…and as long as the weapon we carry is the one He has sanctioned.

It would also appear that God is calling for and advocating violence as a means of protection from our enemy.

This is where it gets messy, friends… As Pastor John explained in his message, we can take many different passages of scripture–these verses included–to make a case for retributive righteousness: a moral vindication for all that’s been done wrong, a “getting even” and beyond. Many within the Church, especially here in the United States, buy into this understanding, teach it, and proclaim it as biblical truth. If you’ve any doubt of the truth of that statement, take a quick peek at the social media accounts of many prominent voices who identify as Christian. It’s impossible to miss the connection between many of these voices and the anthem of retribution–this perceived “right” of Christians to treat others the way we’ve been treated, and the subsequent rejoicing in the failings and eventual demise of our “enemies”.

But wait… If I’m remembering correctly…

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

Our “enemies” aren’t other people… We don’t fight against fellow flesh and blood. But somehow, we have come to understand that there are those who are “enemies” of us and of our God. And we assume that God does, in fact, enact retributive righteousness–or justice–upon them.

How did we come to this understanding? Perhaps the most obvious reason is that we forget to connect individual verses to the rest of the story. We cannot grasp at certain verses and build a case without first looking at those verses through the lens of all of scripture, and through the filter of the character of our invisible God revealed in the person of Jesus. We have discussed this here before, the importance of seeing, thinking, and understanding through a “Jesus filter”. Verses are taken out of context all the time, and perhaps the most grotesque misapplications of scripture are those that would distort the image of God into an angry, vengeful warrior that looks a lot like the “enemy” we want for Him to conquer on our behalf…

But, thankfully, our God doesn’t look like that. And He doesn’t act like us. He sees judgement and justice differently than we do… How do I know? Because,

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation…(Col. 1:15, NLT)

When it comes to Jesus’ beliefs regarding violence, His position is clear. He believed in–and taught his followers the way of–nonviolence. Somehow, His church has moved away from this understanding, but His early followers got it, and lived it.

And it led many of them to their death.

Which is why, I believe, we’ve adapted a new belief system about violence. One that advocates, at the very least, self-defense; and one that–at it’s most heinous–has been used to enact “sanctioned” genocide.

We forget that our real enemy is actually a liar–and the father of lies–and he would love nothing more than for us to buy into a distortion of the heart of our God. A distortion that whispers to our hurting, offended hearts that while God goes to great lengths to rescue and pour out His love on us, He will not do the same for them. No, they will get what they deserve. And we love this lie. Because it makes us feel justified in our anger and disdain, in our thirst for revenge… We don’t like the thought of turning the other cheek, of following in the footsteps of our Savior–because, unlike the saints referenced in Revelation 12:11 who, “…did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die...”, we do love our lives. And our comfort. And our power. And our sense of control. And our “rights”.

I stated above that Jesus believed in nonviolence. I don’t want to make that kind of assertion without telling you how I got there… I have not investigated every verse recorded in the gospels that could be (mis)used to show Jesus as an advocate of violence. I did look at several of them today, though, in the context in which they were recorded. And I have read commentary from people much smarter than me who have put hours and hours of study into this subject.

One of the most compelling articulations I’ve come across is from pastor & author Brian Zahnd, who spoke on Jesus’ stance on violence at the Simply Jesus gathering that I attended in July. Brian spoke about the encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with the mob and the soldiers that came for him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (You can read his full message here.) Brain asserts that the Bible is a violent book, not because God is violent, but because we are. He reminded us that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, should we fight?”, immediately followed by Peter cutting off the high priest’s ear. Jesus’ response? “No more of this!”, immediately followed by Jesus healing (we could use the word “restoring”) the man’s ear.

Tertullian (160-220 AD), a second century church father, said:

“In disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians.” 

Zahnd also spoke about the most quoted verses by early church fathers during the first three centuries. From the Hebrew scriptures, it was Isaiah 2:4,

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

And from the New Testament, the most quoted verse of the early church was Matthew 5:44, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”

The verse that directly precedes this one is, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” (Matt. 5:43)

“But I say…”

What is our faith built upon? What is your final authority? My answer? Jesus. He has the final authority. He fulfills and extends the Law. His way of love, so often made to look like an easy way out of religious requirements, is actually much more difficult than the old way of the law. At one point, “an eye for an eye” was law.

But Jesus says… “love your enemies.”

He knew we would get caught up in the constraints of religion and self-serving theology. He tried to make the truth clear to those who looked at scripture as the final authority when he said, in John 5:39,

You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (NLT)

Brian said in his message, “Violence belongs to the old age that [passed] away with the arrival of the kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom. It’s the radical alternative to the violence that lives within us. It is the answer to the broken systems that are based in retributive justice. Because the Kingdom of Jesus, the way of love, is all about restorative justice. This is the kind of justice that makes all things right. This is–and always has been–the heart of God for every person He has ever created… To reconcile each heart to Himself.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “God will make all things right consistent with how He has treated me.” And, “The heart of God beats for you… and that heart is the same for each of His children.”

Even those we would like to regard as our enemies.

You see, there is one kind of violence advocated by Jesus under His new covenant… It is that of our putting to death our old selves, with our self-serving, vengeful desires, that we might live as children of light in His Kingdom–here and now–to show others the self-sacrificial way of love. This altogether “other” way that was evidenced by Paul and the disciples and the early church–those who never fought back, but willingly gave their lives to show the world the way of the One who modeled for us what it really means to “Rise up”. Which is to take up the weapon of God’s love, and live for the sake of His Kingdom, as Image Bearers, by the power of His Spirit… Rising up God’s way looks an awful lot like laying down… His is an upside-down Kingdom. And we’re invited to participate in His story–the whole story–not of retribution, but of restoration.

–Laura

Whenever we find ourselves thinking in binary ways that pit us against other image bearers, it’s wise for us to pause and remember all that Laura wrote above. As both she and Pastor John pointed out, we must take the context of all of scripture rather than picking and choosing verses to meet our own mindsets. We can justify a lot of ungodly behaviors by using scripture to back up our own meanness–but it’s hard to read His word through the lens of Jesus–the image of the invisible God– and treat other people poorly.

All the way back in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose themselves and their desires over God’s desire for them, God–in His goodness– clothed them with garments and covered their nakedness. There were consequences to their actions, but God still cared for them.  They didn’t deserve God’s kindness, yet he gave it to them anyway.

The first act of violence recorded in scripture occurs in Genesis chapter 4 when Cain attacks and kills his brother Abel. When God speaks with Cain, he tells him that Abel’s blood is crying out to him from the ground. In an “eye for an eye” kind of world, Cain deserves to be killed, yet God places a protective mark on Cain so that he won’t be killed.  Cain didn’t deserve God’s kindness, but God gave it to him anyway.

The writer of the book of Hebrews references Abel’s blood crying out from the grave, and says that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, speaks a better word. (12:24) The blood of Jesus speaks “It is finished.” the blood of Jesus speaks “Behold, I am making all things new.” The blood of Jesus speaks life and love and peace and reconciliation. It is new wine in a new wine skin–a whole new way of doing things.

We are called to be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for (you), an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Eph. 5:1-2)

We’ve been called to a new way of life: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-19)

Romans 2:4 Tells us that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance meaning that if Christ is in us, and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, our kindness may lead people to God.

Yet, as Laura wrote above, many people only know of Christians as mean spirited therefore they want nothing to do with God. The anger that is spewed in His name these days is alarming, and heartbreaking. I’m afraid we’re advancing the wrong kingdom.

Jesus was pretty forthright about anger and contempt in his sermon on the mount when he said But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.  (Mt. 5:22)

Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy writes that anger is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life.  Anger first arises spontaneously. But we can actively receive it and decide to indulge it. Anger and contempt are the twin scourges of the earth. The constant stream of human disasters that history and life bring before us (are) the natural outcome of choice of people choosing to be angry and contemptuous. To cut the root of anger is to wither the tree of human evil. There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.

The Jesus way is absolutely contrary to the way of our flesh. That’s why He sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit. The only way to live the Kingdom life on earth is to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. The Spirit can help us to not fly off the handle, to not be reactionary people, but to be people who live by a different standard.

Haim Ginott, a twentieth century teacher and child psychologist wrote:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

I believe Ginott’s thoughts go well beyond that of a classroom. We have tremendous power to affect the world by the way we handle ourselves, and the way we treat others. As a matter of fact–us treating others the way God has treated us is the plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth–but it’s not about our moral behavior. It’s about the transformation of our very beings into the likeness of Christ.

And you know what? The world still takes notice of those who live differently.  Last week the Coptic Christians of Egypt were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for refusing to retaliate in violence against their persecutors. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are under constant threat. You may remember a few years ago when ISIS beheaded some of them. They refuse to fight back, and the world is noticing–just like centuries ago when Christians were led into arenas in Rome. They did not fight back. They created curiosity by singing songs of worship and/or praying as lions were sent into the arena to kill them for sport. The way they chose to honor Jesus and his ways as they died pointed people to Him.

The world still doesn’t understand this. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his followers (us included) that we’ll be hated by the world, but not hated because we’re mean, hated because we do not belong to the world’s systems. (John 15:18) We don’t choose the weapons of this world. We don’t choose flesh and blood enemies. We refuse to take sides. We are for all people because God is for all people. We choose the third way, the way of reconciliation.

In Matthew 24, when Jesus is talking about the signs of the end he says that things are going to get tough for his followers, that many will turn away from the faith and betray and hate each other–and then the phrase that haunts me the love of most will grow cold (v. 12).  I pray often that my love will not grow cold. I see it happening all around–may it not be true of us. May we remember that:

Kindness is powerful. Grace is powerful. Love is powerful.

I’ve eluded before to the fact that my late childhood and early adolescent years were chaotic. During that time, my grief and confusion sometimes spilled over in rage. One particular evening, I was raging at my dad and ended my tirade by yelling that I hated him and wanted him to put me in foster care. I did not want to be part of our family any longer. He did not yell back. He stood there as I stormed off. A few moments later he came to find me and asked me to get my sweater. I got my sweater and got into the car. I didn’t say a word and neither did he. He took me to play miniature golf, and then to Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait. We barely spoke–I didn’t need words. I needed presence, and that’s what he gave me. While we were at DQ, he finally used words. He said, “I know that life is tough right now and that you’re hurting.  I want you to know that I love you, and that I will always love you.”  No lecture, no removal of privileges, no harsh words–just presence and love. My self-destructive season lasted for another 9 years or so, but there were no more fits of rage and I never doubted the love of my father–and when I was finally ready to come home– my earthly father’s example helped me to embrace the fact that my loving Heavenly Father was not mad at me, but was rejoicing that I was coming home. Neither father gave me what I deserved, and my life is forever changed as a result.

Psalm 103:10 says God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  

Aren’t you grateful?

Let’s choose to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and treat others the way God has treated us. Doing life His way, the counter cultural way,  is the only thing that has the power to change the world.

Lord, may Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth…

-Luanne

 

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Dear Church #12: Philippians 4:10-13

This week, we looked at a short passage in Philippians that contains one of the most frequently quoted verses in our Bible. I bet that if I gave you the first few words, you could complete the sentence without even having to think about it.

“I can do all things…”

You know what comes next, right?

“…through Christ who gives me strength.”

You have probably seen this verse on coffee mugs, greeting cards, calendars, bumper stickers, and beyond. It’s what we say and pray when “all things” includes something overwhelming that we don’t feel equipped to handle. This verse, though, like the rest of the Bible, was not written as a stand-alone thought. There is context around it. And that context is important.

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:10-13, NIV)

The verse we quote so often actually comes at the end of our passage, and apart from the verses that preceed it, we have a tendency to make it into a personal, individual promise. We have to read it in context, without skipping over the familiar things, if we want to understand what Paul is telling the Church.

At the beginning of Sunday’s message, Pastor John asked us what we think “content” means. The assumed definition is “happy, peaceful, satisfied”, or something along those lines. And then he shared with us that, in this passage, it actually means a barrier/shelter against the wind. When we understand this definition and connect it to “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, we find that the secret Paul is talking about here-the secret of contentment-is that we become the wind that pushes back the barriers.

If your Bible is anything like mine, you probably have notes at the bottom of the pages that add insight to the verses. My note for verse 12 says this:

“Union with the living, exalted Christ is the secret of being content and the source of Paul’s abiding strength.”

Upon first glance, the “secret” that Pastor John identified doesn’t line up with what the Bible translators came up with. But if we look beyond the words, I believe we’ll find that they actually are saying the same thing…

As individuals who have come to know Jesus under the banner of Western (and especially American) Christianity, we love the idea of Jesus being our refuge. We highlight verses that support that claim. So many of our worship songs reference Him as our shelter, fortress, refuge, hiding place, etc…

And He is. He is our shelter. 2 Corinthians 12:9 in the Amplified Bible, Classic Edition says this:

But He said to me, My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness. Therefore, I will all the more gladly glory in my weaknesses and infirmities, that the strength and power of Christ (the Messiah) may rest (yes, may pitch a tent over and dwell) upon me!

Clearly, Jesus is our covering, and we can absolutely take refuge in Him.

BUT… When we stay inside the tent too long, it becomes a prison that keeps us from becoming His “Kingdom come”. We get focused on ourselves, and on our blessings–so much so that blessing–which means a special or undeserved favor or gift–becomes our expectation, rather than something we are humbled by and grateful for. We crave the happy, peaceful definition of content, and all that matters to us is our own satisfaction. Staying locked inside the shelter may keep us safe… but it also keeps us selfish, silent, and still. We may think we’re satisfied in this space, but if we stay there, we will never experience the God of the impossible in our midst. We won’t see the bread multiplied. We can’t walk on the water. We can’t hear the Kingdom singing. We won’t taste the water-made-wine.And we’ll never know the thrill of sharing the gift we’ve been given with others. Hiding in the shelter makes us apathetic and unaware of the world around us.

We all experience seasons when we need the shelter of Jesus. Sometimes, we need Him to “pitch a tent over us” so we can hide in Him. Here’s the thing, though… this is why Pastor John & the Bible translators are both right in their interpretation of what the secret to contentment is:

We can be “hidden” in Christ, in the shelter that is Him, and simultaneously be (through  Him, by His power) the wind that pushes back the barriers. In fact, we MUST be hidden in Christ, in our union with Him, to successfully push against the strongholds of this world.

The Message words verse 13 this way: I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. (emphasis mine)

Remember, the Bible notes say, “Union with the living, exalted Christ is the secret of being content…” Union is an intimate word. And I love that the Message uses the words “in the One”. We must be in Him, and He in us, to be content. I agree with the notes.

But, what does us being in Christ and He in us really mean? I don’t think it means we get to live a quiet, happy, little (and it would be little…) life with our safe and protective personal Jesus. Nope. Pretty sure that’s not it.

I believe it means our life will be joined with His. That we die to self and are raised to life in Him. That His life begins to manifest itself through us as we live and move and have our being through Him. I think it means our perspective on what blessing means changes and we begin to believe that the “blessed” are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. It means we are given a heart of flesh that, like the Jesus living within us, sees and moves toward the marginalized and the oppressed, the overlooked and impoverished, and loves them with the love we’ve received. A love that touches, comes alongside, listens, and leverages the abundance we’ve received on behalf of those who have not.

Union with Jesus means that we have the opportunity to experience the love and protection of being in the shelter of Him and at the same time extend that love and protection to those around us. Living this way means challenging the systems and structures that create barriers that keep some people from flourishing. Jesus pushed back against the systems and structures, the stereotypes and supposed roles of His time for the sake of people He loves who bear the Image of God–and He has entrusted us with the same mission. Part of His Kingdom coming on earth as it is in Heaven is absolutely becoming the wind that pushes back the barriers. We can’t be united with our Jesus and moving with Him, through His power alive in us, without joining Him in pushing back the strongholds that are keeping people in prison.

So I agree with John, too. I believe both statements ring true, and we can’t really have one without the other. We cannot become the wind that pushes back the barriers without the life of Jesus living within us. And we can’t be united, one, with Jesus and not move with Him. If we are one, we go where He goes. He goes where we go. The wind moves, and it knocks down strongholds.

Maybe the first stronghold we need to join Him in knocking down is the one we’re hiding in. So that we can carry the Jesus that is living in us and through us to the world He loves that needs what we’ve been hoarding for ourselves…

–Laura

Laura wrote: We cannot become the wind that pushes back the barriers without the life of Jesus living within us. And we can’t be united, one, with Jesus and not move with Him. If we are one, we go where He goes. He goes where we go. The wind moves, and it knocks down strongholds.

So, my question is, are we living like this? Are we seeing the power of God move in and around us? Are we experiencing His power moving through The Church (that’s us) that Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against? Which kingdom do we believe is stronger? The kingdom of this world-or the Kingdom of God? What we believe is what we live. Therefore, the way that Paul ends this paragraph is hugely important.

Different translations of the Bible highlight different elements from the Greek, so I’ve written out a few versions of Philippians 4:13  for you to ponder the various nuances (bold print mine):

I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” NIV.

 “I can do all things through Him who gives me power.” Complete Jewish Bible ”

…for I can do everything God asks me to with the help of Christ who gives me the strength and power.” Living Bible

I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me.” New American Standard

I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.” J.B. Phillips.

I can do all thing [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose–I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency; I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace.] Amplified.

The secret that Paul has learned begins with a mindset of belief. I can is a mindset; do implies action; through takes us from one place to another, and all of this implies that Paul is part of, (and that we are part of) the ongoing, moving, active, advancing Kingdom of heaven coming on earth–not in our own strength, but in His.

Many of us in this western American culture were taught that our relationship with Jesus is all about us-personal, private. Like Laura wrote above–I don’t believe we can come to that conclusion if we take off our cultural lenses and ask the Holy Spirit to give us fresh perspective as we read scripture. When we come into a relationship with Jesus, it is extremely personal. We fall in love with this precious Savior who gave everything and suffered much so that we can live in Him and He in us–so that we can know the love of God the Father, and so we can experience the power to carry out the will of God because of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

I can do…through Him…who empowers is all about His Kingdom. Pastor John highlighted the story of the the rich young man who came to Jesus (Mark 10:17-27) who wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The young man told Jesus that he had kept all of the commandments. Mark tells us that Jesus felt love for him, so He told him that He lacked one thing—Jesus told him to go and sell all he possessed, give it away to the poor, gain treasure in heaven by doing this, and follow Jesus. The young man went away sad–the New American Standard Version says that he felt grief–and he walked away, because he had much wealth. He responded to the extreme invitation of Jesus with an “I can’t” mindset.

The grieved young man wanted his religion to be about himself and his behavior. Jesus was teaching him that in His kingdom his religion was to be about others. Jesus own brother writes in his book “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James 1:27 NLT  (Religion is the outward actions that reflect the inner work of Christ in you.). We think of being corrupted by the world as wild partying and sex, however, the rich young man shows us that being corrupted by the world can include being a “good” person, but holding wealth too tightly.

Paul writes that even when he is well fed, even when he has plenty he relies on the power of Jesus who empowers him to carry out the will of God.  Our stuff can become our prison. We must hold all worldly possessions loosely and acknowledge that it is all God’s and He can do with it whatever He wants. It’s not easy, given the way our culture has discipled us, but Jesus, when talking to His disciples about His encounter with the rich young man acknowledges that His way of life is hard, but that nothing is impossible with God. If we believe that nothing is impossible with God, then we believe I can do all things through Christ….because they are the same thought.

And our I can do is all about being the answer to “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done right here on earth as it is being done in heaven.  God’s Kingdom comes when we are living in the power of the Holy Spirit and carrying out the will of God. (Just a hint…His will has nothing to do with us being mean or hateful to anyone, it has nothing to do with placing inscribed Bible passages in public places, it has nothing to do with political parties–it has everything to do with loving others, with sharing our lives, and with pushing back the kingdom of this world with kindness, grace and Christlike love.)

So, where does this power come from?  Jesus ends the Lord’s Prayer  with “Yours is the Kingdom, Yours is the power, Yours is the glory forever. Amen”. 

The Kingdom…God’s life, God’s presence, God’s rule, God’s ways, God’s will, God’s love,  God’s power right here, right now- (This is eternal life, that they know you the one true God, and Jesus who you have sent. John 17:3).

The Power…the energy, the strength for all of this to happen belongs to God–and He shares it with us through the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us in Romans 8:11 that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in us. He prays in Ephesians 1:19 for us to understand the incredible power that is available to us who believe. Peter tells us that God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3). You all, we have more than we need to carry out the mission of Christ. Do we believe it?

Last week I was preparing for a devotion and was digging into kingdom, power, and glory. Believing what the New Testament says about Jesus making all things, that without Him nothing was made, that in Him all things hold together, and that the visible world points to the invisible reality of His kingdom, I read some science journals and textbooks.  I learned way too much to write about it all here, but I was fascinated by a couple of things.

One: The air (in us/around us) is made up of gasses one of which is oxygen.  Humans need oxygen to live. We breathe it into our lungs where it gets in our bloodstream and goes to every part of our body. Oxygen infuses our muscles with the ability to exert the energy they need to carry out every movement we make. Every blink of the eye, every pump of the heart, every intentional movement…all oxygen in the blood infused.  We don’t exhale oxygen, we exhale carbon dioxide that the plants need to take in so that they can produce the oxygen that we need. Nothing is static, everything is dynamic–there is a whole lot going on all the time that we take for granted. There is no such thing as an “empty glass”. It’s full of moving gasses that are keeping us alive individually and are shared by all of us. If you are like me, you don’t pay much attention to the miracle that is happening in and around us all the time, but this all the time miracle is the physical world pointing to the realities of the very real spiritual world that is dynamic in and around us all the time.

Two: Our earth is able to sustain life because of energy that comes from the sun. Without the sun, everything dies. We don’t produce the energy that comes from the sun…as a matter of fact, I read in two different science books/articles that energy can’t be created and it can’t be destroyed, but it can be lost. If we don’t eat for a few days, we lose energy, but the potential to regain that lost energy is always available as soon as we fuel our bodies with food. Our cars don’t go anywhere if they have no fuel. The potential for the car to go is still available as soon as it gets the fuel it needs. God has given us the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God working in us. Power, strength, energy—these are all synonyms. So, the power, the energy, the strength of God is available to us at all times. We can’t create it, we can’t destroy it, but we can lose it. Paul warns us not to quench the Holy Spirit. He encourages us to “be filled” with the Holy  Spirit, which implies action. We must spend time in the presence of God to have the Holy Spirit fuel that we need to carry the heart of God, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control), the message of Jesus, to the world, so that His kingdom of life, light, and love will advance one person at a time across the face of the globe.

Air, energy from the sun–in us, around us all the time giving us what we need for life. God–Father, Son, Spirit–in us, around us, all the time giving us what we need for His life to be lived through us.

In Him, you have all you need to carry this out. Do you believe it?

I can do all thing [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose…I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace. Phil. 4:13 (Amp).

-Luanne

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Dear Church–Philippians 4:8-9

Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart], and the God [who is the source] of peace and well-being will be with you.  (Phil. 4:8-9 Amplified)

As I typed out the scripture above, I could feel within myself a deep longing to do better about living with the mindset that Paul is encouraging in those verses, and a deep desire to see the followers of Christ, the Church,  live like that. Our actions flow from our minds.  Taking our thoughts captive, renewing our minds, having the mind of Christ–these are all concepts that we are encouraged to put into practice, and we have the Holy Spirit living in us who truly does give us the power (the energy) that we need to live godly lives. But man–the mind is a battlefield!

In preparing for his sermon, Pastor John did a Google search and typed in the words: “Why are Christians so…”  The responses that come up are: mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…, yet Jesus said that his followers will be known by our love. What has happened? How did we get so off track-and what can we do to get back?

I think it’s super important that we each pay close attention to the voices that we are allowing to “disciple” us. To be discipled means to be taught. To be a disciple of someone means that you learn from them, that you model what they do. I’m afraid that in this culture of constant chatter, constant noise, constant opinions, choosing sides, etc….we are quickly digressing.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to be discipled by him when he writes: The things which you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things [in daily life], and he tells us that the result will be the peace of God in our lives. When the peace of God rules in our lives, our mindset–our heartset becomes about the flourishing of others, and, as Jesus said in his sermon on the mount–the peacemakers will be blessed by being called–or recognized as children of God. (Mt. 5:9)

Pastor John pointed out something that has frustrated me for quite some time which I believe has led to our meanness, our misery, our judgmental attitudes and our intolerance. Somehow in our individualistic western mindset we have made Christianity about “self” rather than about building God’s kingdom. We’ve made personal salvation the main point–when personal salvation, or entering into a relationship with Jesus is the beginning point–the new birth that leads to a new way of life that is completely others focused. It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…and we’re the plan.

Yes–it all starts at the cross. Without the cross, we have no hope for a relationship with God. But there is a cross, and it not only reminds us of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is also a reminder of how we are to live in complete and total surrender to God.

Pastor John gave us three very practical ways to look at the cross:

  1. As a plus sign. In mathematical equations, the plus sign indicates things that are added. There is tremendous personal benefit in coming into a relationship with Jesus–no doubt about that. Jesus adds incomparably more to our lives than I think we can even fully recognize.  But the plus sign also serves as a reminder that we are to be about the business of bringing God’s peace, love, and message of His grace to those around us. His heart is for everyone to know about the life that He offers through Christ.
  2. As a minus sign.  Picture the crossbar as a minus sign (a takeaway), and the vertical  bar as the letter “I”.  If I take myself and my will out of the equation so that God’s will can be done in me and through me, I am much more inclined to be the light of the world and salt of the earth that Jesus said I would be. When I’m not worried about or focused on myself, I am much more inclined to lift Him up, and He said that when we lift Him up, He will draw all people to Himself.
  3. Picture the vertical bar as the symbol that God has raised us up to a place we could never be on our own, and the crossbar as the reminder to reach out beyond ourselves to others.

Pastor John shared with us the results of a study put out by the Center for Attitudinal Healing that stated all conflict begins with a mindset of “lack”; focusing on what we don’t have and allowing our thoughts to be obsessed over how to get what we don’t have. As I began to ponder that thought I saw a great deal of truth in it. Becoming aware can help a great deal. When we begin to feel angsty inside, rather than lashing out and reacting, can we begin to sit in that angst and get to the bottom of what it is that we think we lack?  Is it God’s love? Is it honor? Is it respect? Is it material goods? Is it a certain talent?  Is it political power and persuasion? Is it fairness? Is it inner peace? Is it not getting our way? What is it?  If we don’t figure this out, it will lead us to anger, bitterness, and conflict. Every war ever fought–whether a personal internal war, a domestic war, a cultural war, or war on a global scale is about someone trying to gain what they “lack”–whether lands, or power, or the obliteration or oppression of an entire people group so that the “conqueror” can have dominion and supremacy, or (on a much smaller scale) control over the remote control, a mindset of lack has led to it. Think about it…

This same Center for Attitudinal Healing said that the solution to conflict-the pathway to peace- is to learn to love others well, and to receive the love that is extended to you.   The Center for Attitudinal Healing is not a Christian Center–they are secular, yet their approach sounds just like Jesus.

Does it work? This week I read an article on nbcnews.com about a former white supremacist, former grand dragon in the KKK, former Nazi,  who was part of the Unite the Right Charlottesville march last year, but whose life has changed completely because of a woman of color who offered kindness to him as he was struggling from heat exhaustion at that rally. Her kindness began to change the narrative in his head, which led to him begin having conversations with an African-American neighbor, who just so happened to be a pastor–resulting in this former white supremacist coming into a relationship with Christ in an African American church. He was baptized in that church, he belongs to that church, and is now telling those who he used to recruit to get out of the business of hate–that it will ruin their lives. (Ex-KKK member denounces hate groups one year after rallying in Charlottesville  nbcnews.com). Love works–just like Jesus said that it would.

So, what does all of this have to do with this week’s verses? Everything.

In every situation, are we (am I/are you)  willing to have the mind of Christ? Are we willing to renew our minds and think with the mind of the Spirit rather than the mind of the flesh? Are we willing to pause, get our thoughts under control, examine what’s going on under the surface, surrender our wills to God’s greater will and purpose, and “be the change that we want to see in the world”? Are we willing to keep our minds focused on the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy?  Are we willing to put into practice the things that Paul is encouraging the Church to put into practice in his letter? If so, the peace–the shalom of God– will be with us and will naturally spill out to all of those around us-leading to their flourishing in all ways, and we will be known as Jesus’ followers by our love. His way is always the better way, and to know His way means to know Him- our true, noble, righteous, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy Savior.

–Luanne

We’ve said it over and over again since we began this series in Philippians: It is all about Jesus. And this week is no exception. Paul is writing to the church and exhorting them (and us) to think rightly so that God and His peace would be with them. Our passage, these two short verses, do not directly reference Jesus. But marinating in the words reveals what we have seen repeatedly in this letter–it all revolves around Jesus. Let’s look at the words Paul uses to tell the Church what to think on:

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…”

True. Honorable. Worthy of respect. Right. Confirmed by God’s word. Pure. Wholesome. Lovely. Peace-bringing. Admirable. Of good repute. Excellent. Worthy of praise.

What do these words describe? I could use the word honorable to describe my husband. I might say the fresh snow is pure white, or use it in reference to the water in a mountain lake. I could call food or old T.V. shows wholesome. There are MANY things I call lovely–skyscapes, butterflies, flowers, birds, my dear friend who wrote the first half of this post… peace is used frequently and in a variety of contexts. We can call hard work admirable, and use the descriptor of good repute in reference to candidates we are backing. Excellent is used often in the world of academia as well as in athletics. Worthy of praise is less often used than the others, but we could find areas where it, too, could apply.

But can you think of one thing that all of these words together describe? One thing that fully embodies the meanings of each adjective?

I can. In fact, I can think of two…

Jesus.

And us, the Church, when we’re living in the fullness of His life in us.

These words do describe the things I mentioned above. But none of those things, on their own, fully embody the meaning of the word used to describe them. At least not when held up to the standard of Jesus himself.

So, without overreaching or hypothesizing too much, I think it’s fairly safe to say that when Paul told the Church to “think on these things”, he was encouraging them to keep their minds trained on the life, ways, and person of Jesus. Pastor John mentioned that Paul didn’t go into the meanings of the words he chose. He didn’t explain what he meant.  He wrote the words and moved on. Maybe that’s because if we know the real Jesus, we already have the most complete picture of what these words mean. Maybe his readers knew that. Because he goes on to say  “Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” (vs. 9a, NLT) What did the church at Philippi (and what do we…) learn, receive from, hear and see Paul doing? Ultimately, what Paul modeled was what being a disciple looks and sounds like. He taught and gave what he learned and received from the person and ways of Jesus. The words he wrote in his letters are sometimes difficult to understand and to swallow, and we read things in them that appear to contradict each other–he was human, after all, and his work is most likely not without its flaws. He knew this about himself–he understood his own humanity, his own brokenness. And so he did two distinct things: He pointed his readers always to Jesus himself as the authority and standard. And–and it’s a big and–he had the audacity to imply that we, the Church, could actually live up to the standards of Christ, by the power of the Spirit at work within us. NOT by striving or trying harder to achieve all that we aren’t. But by accessing the power (energy) of the Spirit.

I also believe that “these things” include one another, when we’re operating out of the mind of Christ. We don’t think of one another this way if we’re operating out of our self-focused mindsets of lack. But if we understand the ways of the Kingdom, the life and character of Jesus, his way of abundant love that is available to us, then what we see when we look at each other is the Imago Dei. The image of God in each one, our shared humanity, made beautiful in the Agape love of Christ.

Luanne wrote above, “It is impossible to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the book of Acts and come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self. The ministry of Jesus is about God’s kingdom coming and His will being done on earth as it is in heaven…”

None of us could refute that statement. It truly is impossible to come to the conclusion that the ministry of Jesus is about self if we actually read these accounts of his life. Nothing that Jesus said, did, or taught is responsible for the self-absorbed, I want more, individualistic “faith” many of us find ourselves trapped in today. In fact, it is precisely because we have ignored (if we’ve read them at all) the words and life of Jesus that we find the Church in the condition she is in today… full of people the world around us identify as “mean, judgmental, miserable, intolerant…”

We wonder why our lives are filled with conflict and chaos and we long for the peace we hear preached from the pulpit, the peace that Paul writes about at the end of our passage. He tells us to think on “these things”, to put into practice what we’ve heard and seen. And, “Then the God of peace will be with you.” (vs. 9b, NLT)

Remember when I said that the whole passage points us to Jesus? These final words are no different. If we read these verses and don’t pause to ponder their deeper meaning, we can read these two verses through an “If this, then that” filter. It sounds like cause and effect. Do this, think on these things, act this way–and then you’ll have the peace of God with you. I believe it’s a bit more nuanced than that…

In Ephesians, Paul writes these words:

For he himself is our peace… (Eph. 2:14a)

This verse has been a favorite of mine for many years because it always reminds me that peace isn’t a thing, or even a state of being. Peace is a person–the person of Jesus. He, Jesus, is our peace. He doesn’t give us peace. He IS peace. If we have Him (and He is accessible to any and all who desire to know Him–this has nothing to do with church and everything to do with relationship), then we have peace. Period.

So what does this verse mean then? And what about all the times we feel like peace is beyond our reach, even though we know Jesus?

I think, like many things we write about, this has a lot to do with choice. I can have a refrigerator full of food, but if I never open the door and take out food to eat, I’m going to feel hungry despite the fullness that is available. In regard to peace though, the study that John presented to us, that Luanne referred to, better shows us why we often find ourselves peace-less.

It is all about the mindset we choose. Do we choose lack? Or love? Is there never enough? Or is there abundance? Jesus, if we know Him, is always with us. His life lives in us. We always have Him–and He IS our peace. But the thing about the life of Jesus within us is that it’s like a faucet. The supply of water is no less present in a faucet that is turned off versus one that is on. But the water only flows when the faucet is open. And do you know the quickest way to turn off the water of Jesus’ life within you? Get focused on yourself. Because self-focused living is completely contrary to Kingdom living. It is impossible to experience the peace, the Shalom, the setting-all-things-right life of Jesus while focused on self. When the secular study declared that giving and receiving love is the pathway to peace, they hit on the central principle of the Kingdom, the only standard that mattered to Jesus and His ministry because everything else flows from it: Love God (which is impossible without learning to receive the love He has for you); Love your neighbor (Everyone. ALL people, everywhere–including yourself)Giving and receiving love is the opposite of living a life focused on self. And it is the only way to access the peace of Jesus that is always living within us. The well of peace does not run dry because it’s full of the eternal, unending, forever-flowing living water that is Jesus himself.

I don’t mean to diminish or minimize the letter to the Philippians by repeatedly stating that it’s all about Jesus. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus is everywhere, if we’ll only look. And He is the authority, the rock, the foundation, that the Bible and every other created thing is built upon. Seeing how every word Paul wrote is made complete in the person of Jesus expands my heart and my mind, as well as my view of scripture–because I’m finding Him there. I hope it does the same for you, as we continue to dive into the depths together.

This week, think on “these things”: Jesus—in all of His beautifully simple complexity, and those all around you who bear His image and inhale and exhale His Life. As you do, love will replace the mindset of lack, and Peace will overflow…

–Laura

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What Is Your Standard? (“Dear Church” #8)

What is the standard of your life?

This is the question Pastor John opened with on Sunday morning. He reminded us that we all have standards that dictate our thinking, behavior, work ethic, hygiene, relationships. They define us and how we live.

We each have a measurable “standard of living” as well. This refers to  “the level of wealth, comfort, material goods, and necessities available to a certain socioeconomic class in a certain geographic area, usually a country…closely related to quality of life.” (Wikipedia)

But neither of these explanations is the “standard” that Pastor John spoke to us about.

He explained to us that, originally, a “standard” was defined as a conspicuous object on a pole, a banner, something that calls people to action. It was a rallying point in battle, an emblem that represented the people. A standard, by definition, is not a set of rules, not a benchmark. It is not striving to live up to the “shoulds” that have been spoken over us, or meeting a set of expectations. It is not reaching in order to obtain something we don’t yet have. It is, rather, something we have already attained. 

 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

The “standard” that was presented to us this week comes out of verse 16 in our passage: Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”  Our standard is what we already have. 

What do we already have?

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferingsbecoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead(Philippians 3:7-11)

What we already have is Christ. We are found in Him, invited to participate in His sufferings and raised from death into His life. And we have a conspicuous object, a standard, that calls us to action.

Our standard is the cross of Christ. It represents what we have already attained–Jesus Himself. Paul exhorts his readers to live up to what they’ve already attained, and then says that they can follow his example. What example is he referring to? He is referring to the verses we covered last week, verses 12-14:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

His example is one of vulnerable humility, transparency regarding his lack, and an unrelenting focus on the One whose example he is following–that of Jesus himself. Paul’s standard was most definitely the cross of Christ. But not as it related to him and his personal salvation. He saw the standard of the cross as the rallying point, the invitation, to follow our Savior into His example of suffering on behalf of others. The rally cry of the cross is the message of humility and self-sacrifice. It is an invitation to lay down everything we utilize for our own power and authority, to set it aside on behalf of others. What does this look like, practically? If we’re white, it could be our whiteness. For men, their maleness. It could be our family tree, our bloodline, who our parents are. It could be our level of education, or our economic status. It could be the nation we were born in, or a particular group that we belong to. It could be our religion, and the way we view “others”. Whatever grants us power and authority, we are invited to lay these “standards” down at the feet of the only standard that matters.

Most of us aren’t willing to truly follow the standard of the cross, however. We have set standards about what we want to obtain rather than what we have already attained. We have set our sights on earthly things and have chosen a personal salvation that revolves around us as individuals. Pastor John had some strong words regarding this form of “Christianity”:

“When the cross is about you, you render it useless.”

When we refuse to follow the example of Paul, which was modeled after the example of our suffering Savior, our standard, the cross, becomes useless. Not only that, we set ourselves up as enemies of the cross of Christ (verse 18). In this verse, we read that Paul is telling his readers this “with tears”. This particular translation does not quite convey Paul’s heart the way he wrote in the original Greek. The word he used is klaiō, and it means to mourn, weep, lament, wail aloud. This exemplifies Paul’s focus on others, rather than himself. He was lamenting that there are some who set themselves in opposition to the way of the cross, who refuse to accept the cross as their standard and who live focused on themselves–those who render the cross useless. Being an enemy of the cross is scorning the way of selflessness. When we choose self, we set ourselves up against the message of the cross.

Interestingly, when Paul writes in this verse of the “cross of Christ”, the word translated “cross” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it means… The root word for cross in this verse means “stand”. The definitions that follow include “establish, be kept intact (as in a family or kingdom), make firm.” No joke. When I was looking up definitions in the Greek, I almost didn’t check it for the word “cross”. Because, surely it means exactly what we think it means. Except that it doesn’t. I am so glad I looked it up. Using the definitions and root words, this is what we can piece together:

Paul was weeping and lamenting the fact that some are hostile, hateful and opposed in their minds to that which stands and establishes, that which keeps the family and kingdom intact and makes firm. Our standard is the stand that is the cross. It is what establishes us and keeps us-as a family-intact. Those that stand in opposition to the message of the cross may appear to be strong in number–there are in fact (sadly…) entire congregations that subscribe to this other variety of “Christianity–but in reality, they each stand alone, focused on their personal standards for their individual lives.

Paul-and Pastor John-put before us a better way. The example of Jesus. The way of humility. The way of laying down the things that grant us power and privilege on behalf of others. This is the example we have been  given. This is the Jesus we have already attained.

Dear Church, will we follow in this way of humility? Or will Paul’s wailing be joined by the desperate weeping of the “others” around us that we cannot see or hear for the sound of our own selfish standards ringing in our ears? Will we roar for our own power, for our rights? Or will we adhere to the roar of the rugged cross, that bids us to come and die so that we may truly live? Church, what is our standard?

–Laura

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Dear Church #6: Philippians 3:1-11

Paul begins this week’s passage with another exhortation to the church to rejoice in the Lord. He says that he repeats this in order to safeguard their faith. To rejoice is to protect oneself from a counterfeit religion, one marked by rules and legalism rather than by the joy of the Lord, which is our strength. (Psalm 28:7)

In the following verse, he cautions them (and us) to, “Look out for the dogs [the Judaizers, the legalists], look out for the troublemakers, look out for the false circumcision [those who claim circumcision is necessary for salvation]…” (Philippians 3:2 AMP).

In verse 1, he reminds the readers to rejoice, because it is a safeguard against the very legalism that he writes about in verse 2. There were people, the Judaizers, who were distorting the message of Jesus. They believed Jesus was the Savior of Israel, and preached that Gentiles could only come in through the door of Judaism if they wanted to be saved. This teaching included that Gentiles must be circumcised if they wished to be counted among them. Paul counters their false teaching with these words:

“For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…”      (Philippians 3:3 NLT)

And in these words, we find reason to rejoice in the Lord. Paul begins to lay out in verse three that it’s not about us. We hang our faith on one peg–and it’s not the peg of works and legalism. It is Christ risen. As Pastor John said on Sunday, this is what changed everything. He told us that churches spend a lot of time focusing on how to get saved. There is a strong focus on the cross and Jesus dying for our sins, but we often leave out the rest of the story. The cross is where the story begins. Resurrection takes it the rest of the way. Without the resurrection, our faith is utterly futile. In 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, Paul says it this way:

“And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.”

So we rejoice because of what Jesus has done, because He has made a way for us to become alive as we join in His resurrection life. And we rejoice because we don’t have to rely on ourselves, on our merit and effort in order to be counted among His faithful followers. Anyone else grateful for that? I’d say it’s absolutely cause for rejoicing!!

Paul continues to make his case in the verses that follow. He already stated that it’s only through what Christ has done that we are saved. But, he says, if anyone could place confidence in their own efforts, it would be him. Remember, those who are distorting the message are Jews who are hanging their hats on their credentials and merits. Paul says that his credentials are more impressive. Pastor John laid out for us what these credentials were:

-He was born to Jewish parents who followed the customs and laws as they pertained to him since his infancy. John described them as loyalists, committed to their tradition.

-His ethnicity set him apart as the “best of the best” in Jewish culture. He could trace his lineage all the way back to the tribe of Benjamin.

-He was highly educated. He had studied under a great priest until he himself joined the ranks of the Pharisees, who demanded the strictest obedience to Jewish law, which he claims to have kept faultlessly.

Paul identifies his birth, ethnicity, upbringing, education, and his own moral uprightness. The things that granted him immediate access to privilege, power, and authority. He identifies that these things set him apart, and that if anyone has room to boast in who and what they are, it’s him. He is setting his readers up for the bombshell he’s about to drop. He doesn’t ignore who he is, the privilege he was endowed with at birth, and the power it has afforded him. He identifies it and owns it as true. And then…

…he lays it all down.

He says, I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (verses 7-8a NLT, emphasis mine)

What matters to Paul is not where he came from, what his ethnicity is, who his parents are, what nation he belonged to, or how well he followed the rules and the laws. The only thing that matters to Paul at this point is knowing Jesus as Lord. 

He takes us a little deeper into what it means to know Jesus as Lord. He expresses that he wants to be fully found in him–to know the power of His resurrection, to join in the fellowship of His suffering, to be crucified with Him, and to attain resurrection from the dead.

To know Jesus as Lord, we must exchange our kingdoms for His Kingdom. Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, writes,

“Every last one of us has a “kingdom”–a realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens… Our “kingdom” is simply the range of our effective will. Whatever we genuinely have the say over is our kingdom.”

We like to control our kingdoms. We like to compare our kingdoms. We do not like stepping down from the throne at the middle of our kingdoms, and we certainly do not like the thought of anyone else taking that place of authority in our lives. Some of our kingdoms are naturally larger and more prominent, like Paul’s was. Where we are born, the color of our skin, the economic position of our parents, the nation we are raised in–all of these things determine the power of our individual kingdoms-the things we genuinely get to have say over. But we all have one. However meek or mighty, we have one. And we get to choose who sits on the throne.

Pastor John asked us on Sunday, “Who do you say yes to? Who and what do you lay down your life for?

Paul’s answer to these questions isn’t hard to discern. There was One who had his yes. One who was worth laying down his life–his privilege, power, his own kingdom, absolutely everything–for.

JESUS. 

To Paul, the surpassing greatness of calling Jesus his Lord was worth everything he once held dear. None of it mattered anymore. Knowing Christ and being raised to life with Him, for the benefit of everyone else, became his only focus. There was no system or structure, no rules or regulations, no position of power or privilege that could offer him the new life and purpose that he found in Christ. Knowing Him, living for His Kingdom, leveraging his life and all he once held dear for others–that’s what mattered to Paul. And it was cause for rejoicing. The old way was all about laws and the past. Jesus showed Paul the new way–hope for the future. For everyone.

Dear Church, who and what do we lay down our lives for? Who and what do we say yes to? Do we live for Christ… or do we live for ourselves? Are we known as people who lay down our pedigree and privilege? Or are we known as those who lord it over others as a means to impose our will? Do we align ourselves with the marginalized and oppressed as we enter into the fellowship of the suffering, like Jesus did? Or are we responsible for further oppressing and marginalizing others either by our words and actions or lack thereof?

These are hard questions, Church. But we must answer them. Because if we profess Jesus as our Lord, we profess that His Kingdom is superior to our own and we lay down our own lives so that His resurrection life can be born in us. If we aren’t willing to lay ourselves down in order to be found in Christ, then we had better stop professing Him as our Lord. If He is really our Lord, we will joyfully accept His invitation to die so that we can truly live. Not for ourselves-we don’t leverage our lives so that we get more in return. Jesus didn’t die for Himself, and neither do we. We lay ourselves down in the way of our Lord, for others. And this is the hope for the future. That we know Him-truly know Him-in His death, suffering, and resurrection, and that we leverage our lives so that others can know Him, too.

–Laura

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Dear Church #5: Philippians 2:12-30

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Philippians 2:12 NIV, 13 NLT)

Salvation.

What came to your mind when you read that word? Sit there for a minute. Turn it over in your mind.

When I type “salvation definition” into Google, these are the first results that pop up:

a source or means of being saved from harm, ruin, or loss.

deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ.

synonyms: redemption, deliverancereclamation
antonyms: damnation

How do these Google results line up with what first came to your mind? If your thoughts about salvation are similar to these words, I have some beautiful news for you: It is so much bigger-and better-than that!

Pastor John told us on Sunday that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute.

The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal.

So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this:

That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.  

Is salvation deliverance from sin? Yes. I believe that Scripture teaches us that it is. But what Paul is identifying here is not that definition. The church he was writing to was made up of people who had experienced the salvation moment. That moment that happens when we see the sacrifice of Jesus, believe that His sacrifice offers forgiveness for our sins, and declare that He is the Lord of our lives. The Philippians had experienced this. They knew Jesus and were living out of the relationship they already had with Him. We do ourselves-and everyone else-a disservice when we read this verse with only the salvation moment in mind.

The reason I’m camping out here is that we (the Church) have adapted a smaller, incomplete understanding of what salvation is. In many cases, it’s boiled down to exactly what Google said it is: deliverance from sin. The opposite of damnation. Our “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Friends, if that’s our understanding, we are missing out. And if that’s what we’re offering the world-in those terms-it’s no wonder people see that offer as resistable.

The word salvation is not the only part of this verse that gets misinterpreted… Let’s look at the words that precede “salvation” in this verse:

…work out your salvation…

Sometimes this verse is used to support works-based theology and to say that salvation (the way many have understood it, as our pass to Heaven) must be earned. This interpretation keeps us striving, fearful, and living lives that lack joy, as well as the other fruits that life in the Spirit brings. If you’re living under the oppression of works-based theology, I’m so sorry… I lived that way for years–a victim of spiritual abuse who grew into a striving perfectionist before the real Jesus set me free. If you’re feeling the weight of trying to earn your way into God’s good graces, I invite you to take a deep breath and move toward the One who says to all of us:

 Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.          (Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30 Message)

Back to Philippians 2:12… This verse wasn’t written to keep its readers in bondage to fear and works. The words translated “work out” actually mean to accomplish, to fashion into existence what wasn’t there before. Pastor John summed it up as “the ongoing process of growing up in our faith.”

Salvation is a process. 

Our terminology has messed with us, so much so that even typing those words felt hard. Because that can sound exactly like what I’m trying to dispel here. Salvation, the way that Paul writes about it in our passage this week, is a process. And that, dear Church, is freeing! We don’t have to be fully matured believers on day one. Our sweet Savior, who takes up residence in our hearts, gives us time to grow into the fullness of His life in us. We get to grow up in our faith.

So how do we do that? How do we grow up in our faith? Philippians 2:13 is one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible:

“For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”

This fashioning into existence what wasn’t there before, this growing up into the life of our Savior, this journey to wholeness–we don’t have to figure it out for ourselves. Not only does our good Father show us the way through His example lived out in the person of Jesus, He (through His Spirit) gives us the desire and the power to grow…

This is where the “fear and trembling” piece comes in for me. This particular kind of fear is not the anxious kind. It’s the mouth-wide-open, Holy ground, awed speechless kind. And that’s how I feel when I read verse 13. How beautiful and beyond comprehension is our God? He knows our weakness, our smallness, our inability to move toward health and wholeness on our own. And rather than ridicule our frailty, He gives us a salve that promotes healing, His very life to bring us to completion in Him, and even the desire and ability to keep going.

But… as beautiful as this is, it’s not the end. This process, this growing up in our faith, is not simply a means to get closer to Jesus. That is a natural result, but it’s not the end.

Pastor John identified that there are ingredients that come together to create growth in us. God gives us the desire and the power to recognize and do them. They are obedience, abandonment, and rejoicing.

The root word of “obedience” in the Greek is “listen”. We are invited to take the posture of an active listener, and to keep listening. To hear well. Before we do anything, we have to stop talking, stop trying to take (or maintain) control, and listen for the voice of the One who leads us.

Abandonment, the way that John spoke about it, is best defined as the act of pouring oneself out. (Phil. 2:17) This is a picture of releasing control, a picture first modeled by our suffering Savior, as He poured out His life for us. We are invited, as we grow up in Him, to do for others what Jesus did for us. We are invited to die to ourselves, to be poured out like a drink offering for somebody other than ourselves.

Sometimes, this feels like drowning. But as Jonathan Martin writes in his book, How to Survive a Shipwreck, “The waters that drown are the waters that save… The bad news is that this shipwreck feels like death, because you really may be dying. The bad news is that old and familiar things you loved and that made you what you were are slowly passing away. The good news is that you’re being born, and this drowning makes possible the moment when all things become new–most of all, you.”

It seems to me we’ve written about this every week for a while now… Our relationship with Jesus is not just for us. The result of His life in us, His love for us is that our lives become about sharing that love with others. It’s not about us. The invitation is not to “health and wealth”. The invitation is to die to ourselves so that we can come up out of the water living for others…

Rejoicing is the last ingredient we heard about on Sunday. This rejoicing is a shared joy, a mature joy that is for others. As we grow up in our faith, this joy in being with one another, is a fruit that is produced. Do you share in the ecstatic joy Paul writes about (vs. 17-18), even while he’s in prison? This joy cannot be produced in a life lived for only itself. It’s the product of a life shared, poured out. It’s sharing in the joy that was set before Jesus when He willingly gave His life for us. (Hebrews 12:2)

True salvation, freedom, and healing are found as we let the Spirit work in us to give us the desire and the power to listen and obey, to abandon our rights to ourselves, and to rejoice in the midst of any and every circumstance. Working out our salvation is the process of growing up into this kind of faith. We are invited into this process. What is our response, dear Church?

–Laura

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Dear Church #2- Philippians 1:12-18

There are some messages that I believe are of such dire importance that my heart burns within me and I want to burst into tears over the gravity and importance of us–the people who belong to Jesus and His Kingdom– really getting it. This is one of those messages.

Jesus prayed in John 17:14 …I have given them your word and the world has hated them…,

and in John 15:18 he tells his disciples …if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first…

Paul wrote the book of Philippians while he was in prison. Prisons were not unfamiliar territory to Paul. Beatings, floggings, stoning–these were not unfamiliar to Paul. They were not unfamiliar to Jesus and many of Jesus’ early followers, including the apostles who walked with Him. The world and its system hated them.

Why?

Paul himself hated them before he came to know Jesus.  The followers of Jesus threatened the status quo of the religious community, and they threatened the status quo of the Roman government. Their message of love, of inclusion, of grace, of dignity for all people, of Jesus as Lord was threatening to those who held power–they might have to relinquish some of that power to do life Jesus’ way.

Paul, after his encounter with Jesus, was radically transformed. Once he met  Jesus his life became all about other people meeting  Jesus, and as a result, he became one of the hated. But he didn’t hate in return. Instead he used every opportunity given him to share Jesus. In Philippians 1:12 he writes: …what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 

…in chains for Christ. For Christ. FOR.

Speaking of the modern American, primarily white evangelical church…what are we known for? What does the world hate us for?  Is it because we look too much like Jesus? Or is it because we look too little like Jesus? Are we hated for the right reasons?

I once read that today’s Christians are discipled more by Fox News, CNN, or other media outlets than by Jesus. It’s important for each of us to ask ourselves who we are giving permission to shape our minds, our thought processes, our hearts, our “fors” and “againsts”.

Each of us needs to know who Jesus is and what the whole context of the word of God says. In Acts 17:11 Luke writes, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Let’s choose to be of noble character, ask the Holy Spirit to teach us,  and each take responsibility for searching the scriptures, beginning with the four gospels and then reading and studying the rest of the Bible through the lens of Jesus and the new covenant established in His blood.

John wrote in John 3:16 that…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Many of us know this verse by heart and it is precious to us. But how many of us know the verse that comes directly after? John 3:17 says…for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  We personalize verse 16- thank you God for loving me and giving Jesus for me and giving me eternal life–and ignore verse 17. We go about condemning and “othering” those different from us forgetting that God so loved the world means everyone.

Author Anne Lamott writes: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Ouch!

Let’s do some holy squirming and look more closely at who God loves and who He wants to have a relationship with. (Just know–I’m squirming too.)

God loves every tribe, nation, and people group across the face of the globe.

God loves men. God loves women.

God loves Muslims. God loves Buddhists. God loves Atheists.

God loves Fundamentalists. God loves Conservatives. God loves Liberals.

God loves Democrats. God loves Republicans.

God loves Donald Trump, God loves Barack Obama, God loves Hilary Clinton, God loves Bernie Sanders, God loves Vladimir Putin, God loves Kim Jong Un and every other government leader past, present, future.

God loves unborn babies, God loves doctors who perform abortions, God loves women who have had abortions. (14 or so years ago, the Focus on the Family statistic of Christian women who have had abortions was one out of three. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves victims of human trafficking. God loves human traffickers.

God loves porn actors and actresses. God loves the people who exploit them, God loves the people who support the industry by watching, spending their money, and gratifying the flesh.  (According to Barna research 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves those who have been betrayed. God loves those who have committed adultery.

God loves those who have been divorced. (Before and including the 1970’s, divorced people were excluded from many churches, barred from being in church leadership including lay leadership, and could not serve as pastors. Some churches still hold to this today. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, + person. (Many churches exclude and send messages of hate to the LGBTQ+ community. If this is you, know that God loves you.)

God loves every person who adamantly opposes the LGBTQ+ community. God loves every person who wholly affirms the LGBTQ+ community.

God loves every unarmed black man/boy/woman shot by a police officer. God loves every police officer who shot an unarmed black man/boy/woman.

God loves every police officer shot by an angry anti-police protester. God loves every angry anti-police protester who shot a police officer.

God loves every person who peacefully protests inequality and police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem. God loves every person who believes kneeling is disrespectful to the military and the flag.

God loves every immigrant–documented or not. God loves every refugee seeking asylum at the border.

God loves each member of every family being separated by the government at the border. God loves every ICE officer, every border patrol officer, every policy maker whether those policies are good or harmful.

God loves those who believe the right to bear arms includes all arms. God loves those who believe gun control needs to be legislated.

God loves all those on death row. God loves the professional executioners.

God loves victims of abuse. God loves abusers.

No matter who you come across, or what story you read or hear–God loves all parties involved and He is for each of them.

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will 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)   

And Jesus says to us: Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, so also I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  “As” means in the same way.

We have some things to wrestle with, don’t we? Here’s further food for thought:

Do we agree that “Jesus wasn’t rejected by the hurting, he was rejected by the religious.” (Pastor John Marshall)

Do we agree that “those who follow Jesus should attract the same people Jesus attracted and frustrate the same people Jesus frustrated.”? (Shane Claiborne)

Do we agree that “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.”? (Thomas Merton)

Do we agree to, “Be like Jesus: Spend enough time with sinners to ruin your reputation with religious people.”? (Josh Harris)

And do we agree that, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”? (C. S. Lewis)

Do we sit in judgment like Simon the Pharisee who didn’t understand Jesus and judged Jesus by saying, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is–that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39)?

Would we allow Jesus to teach us about love through the sinner as Jesus wanted to do with Simon when he said, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears an wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little…(44-48)?

Have we been forgiven much? Do we love much? Does our love reflect our gratitude? Does our love reflect God’s heart for the world? Does our love recognize God’s image in everyone? Does our love compel us to love others well, no matter who they are?

Some of you may be thinking that Paul reminds us in Ephesians and Colossians to speak the truth in love, and you are correct. The love he is talking about is agape–the undeserved, all encompassing, unconditional love of God that we wrote about last week. The love that Paul prayed in Philippians 1:9 would grow and grow and grow in us. The love we give others that then opens the door for the truth to be spoken in a non-threatening manner. The love that continues, no matter what choices are made. The love that continues no matter what consequences result. The love that agrees to disagree for the sake of relationship. The love that unifies around the person of Jesus, not side issues.

Jesus came full of grace and truth. We are sent in the same way–full of grace and truth remembering that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)  We don’t have the power to transform any life, including our own. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our role is to share our own stories of how Jesus loves us, how we love Him, how He has made a difference in our lives, and how He loves them. So like the early church leaders concluded in Acts…“we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are…it is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles (or anyone) who are turning to God.” (Acts 15: 11 & 19) 

Our lives have to be bathed in agape. Jesus modeled sharing God’s love through personal relationships. I believe it still works best that way. Who does God have in your life? Who do you see on a regular basis?

Paul, who was hated enough for the sake of Jesus to be in prison, used that opportunity to share Christ with those he was in relationship with–the Palace Guard and his fellow prisoners. Paul continues his letter to the Philippians by acknowledging that his imprisonment for the cause of Christ has resulted in others being more bold in sharing Jesus fearlessly. He goes on to say, it is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Ph. 1: 15-18)

Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all? Do we rejoice, even when those we don’t agree with are sharing Him, because the ultimate desire of our hearts is that Jesus be made known? Do we need to spend some time in the presence of God recognizing who we “other”,  repenting and allowing God to reorder our lives and priorities?

For God so loved the world…do we?

–Luanne

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Dear Church… (Philippians 1:1-11)

Pastor John began a twelve week series on the book of Philippians that will take us through the summer.  Without a doubt, Paul loved this body of believers. They held an incredibly special place in his heart, and he is not shy in telling them so. As is wise with all Bible study, knowing the context of the situation is always a good idea, so it’s important to know how this church began. Why were they so special to Paul?

Acts chapter 16 gives us the background story on Paul’s relationship with the people in Philippi. Paul had tried to go to a couple of different locations, but in Luke’s words the “Spirit of Jesus” kept him from following through with those plans. During this time, Paul received a vision asking him to come to Macedonia–so they went. Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia and that became the destination.

Typically when Paul went to a new city he started his ministry in the synagogue. Not in Philippi. He and his companions headed to the river to pray and came upon a group of women, one of whom was Lydia, a business woman and worshiper of God. Paul shared the love of Jesus with these ladies, God opened Lydia’s heart to receive the message, she and the members of her household were baptized and she invited Paul and his companions to stay in her home.

I don’t know how long Paul was in Philippi, but it was the city where he and Silas got in trouble with some wealthy folks for casting a demon out of their slave girl because the demon gave her the ability to make a lot of money for them.

Because Paul and Silas messed with the wealthy folks, they were arrested, flogged and thrown in jail. Instead of complaining about their situation, they prayed and sang, and the other prisoners listened. An earthquake came, all the prisoners chains came off and the doors opened. The jailer was sure they had all escaped and was ready to kill himself, but Paul called out and let him know that they were all still there. This encounter led to the jailer and his family coming into a relationship with Jesus. After Paul and Silas were released they went to Lydia’s house, met with the church and then left the area. He visited Philippi two more times. (Acts 20)

I wonder if the freed slave girl and the jailer were part of the group that met in Lydia’s home and received Paul’s letter? I wonder if the church in Philippi was different from the other churches Paul began, so many of whom were riddled with conflict, because he wasn’t battling a spirit of religion that sometimes accompanied those coming out of the synagogues, and sometimes plagues our churches today. Paul himself had come out of that rule following system–and he knew that trading one set of rules for another was not what following Jesus is about. Following Jesus is all about relationship, and the Philippian church was rich in relationship with Jesus, with Paul, and with one another. Lydia was a kind and gracious woman, the church in Philippi began with her. There’s a lot to be said for all the implications of that.

Paul wrote this letter about ten years after he had originally been in Philippi, and he writes to them from prison. He begins by greeting all of them and offers them grace and peace (Shalom) from God.  Paul moves into assuring them of his prayers for them and tells them that his prayers are full of thanksgiving and joy for them because from the first day he met them they partnered with him in sharing the good news of the love, forgiveness and new life available in Jesus–and they were still doing it. He encouraged them with these words: …being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (v.6) 

That’s a verse many of us know extremely well, it gives us hope in the transforming work of Christ, but I think it’s important to note that the “you” in this verse is plural. He is writing to the church referring to  the good work that God began in and through His church in Philippi. Yes, the work He’s doing individually in each of us is important, the mission of the church will not happen without each of us growing in Christ, but like we’ve mentioned before, our individual relationships with Jesus are not just about us. When we surrender our lives to Him, we become part of His kingdom–His body, and together we work to bring others into relationship with Him. So, He who began a good work in you by giving you a place to belong and a purpose in His kingdom/body will be faithful to complete the mission He’s begun.

Paul goes on to express how this precious group of people are always in his heart and how he longs for all of them with the affection of Jesus. Then he tells them what he is praying:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. (vs. 9-11)

The love Paul is writing about is agape–the unconditional, all encompassing, never ending, totally undeserved and complete love of God, and he is praying that this godly love will flow in abundance , that it will abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight….

What does it mean for our agape to abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight?

Knowledge means just what you think it does, and it comes from the root word meaning to know thoroughly, to know accurately, to understand and perceive.

Depth of insight is a little more unusual. The word  translated into that phrase is used one time in all of scripture, and Paul is trying to convey something important in using this word. It means perception not only by the senses but also by the intellect, discernment, moral discernment, the understanding of ethical matters.

It’s intellect coupled with a deeper sense, a deep intuition, a knowing something beyond intellectual knowing, a sixth sense if you will. The phrase in the definition-the understanding of ethical matters– really catches my attention and my heart.

Agape love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit; we can only have it when we surrender to the work of the Spirit in our lives. As we allow the Spirit to do His work in us, our ability to know and discern–especially in moral ethical matters, becomes clearer.

Pastor John pointed out that love is not blind–God’s love is not blind. God’s love sees all and loves us despite our shortcomings. God’s love runs to embrace the returning prodigal, God’s love shows compassion and forgiveness to a woman caught in the act of adultery, God’s love hangs out with the marginalized, the ones rejected by the religious elite, the outcasts, God’s love reinstates Peter after his denial, God’s love makes a way through the costly death and powerful resurrection of Jesus for us to be in relationship with Him, God’s love knocks the terrorist Saul/Paul off a horse, blinds him, and then transforms his life in such a radical way that Paul gave his entire life to introduce others to Jesus.  God’s love doesn’t look like human love, and God wants His love to be what the world experiences when they experience us–His people.  His love—ever growing, wise, discerning, kind, undeserved, overflowing so that…

Right after the words knowledge and depth of insight is a “so that”.   It reads like this:

…so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God.  

The J.B. Phillips translation reads like this:

I want you to be able always to recognize the highest and the best, and to live sincere and blameless lives until the day of Jesus Christ. I want to see your lives full of true goodness, produced by the power that Jesus Christ gives you to the praise and glory of God.  

The Message translation puts it this way: 

Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.

Our Spirit given agape love produces in us the ability to see, know and discern the truth of a situation on a deep level. Then, being led by God’s indwelling, ever abundant unconditional agape love figure out what the God-like best response is. It may look nothing like the world’s response, because God is all about bringing people into relationship with Him, not about ostracizing and punishing them. If that were His heart, we’d all be hopelessly lost.

Acting on what the Spirit leads us to do keeps us blameless and pure before God because the fruit of righteousness means that we are rightly related with God and rightly related with others. Righteousness in this sense comes from the root word meaning equity which indicates that we are working to make things right for all people everywhere–that type of righteousness comes through Jesus Christ.  When we live and love and see and restore and forgive and esteem and build up like Jesus does, the work that God has begun in us, His people, moves toward completion and God gets the glory for it all.

The implications of Paul’s prayer are huge for us. He is praying that we, His church,  will be bathed and growing in agape love, choosing the best as revealed by the Spirit, working in and through agape love to make this world a better place for everyone, carrying out the mission of Jesus so that God’s kingdom may come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven for the glory of God.

I will be meditating on and praying this prayer all week. I desperately want to be part of the body that is making Jesus Christ attractive to all…Will you join me?

—Luanne

As Luanne wrote, it is so important to understand the context of what we read in our bibles. The more I study scripture and the deeper I go in my walk with Jesus, the more I realize just how vital this is. It is important because it gives us a more complete picture of what we’re reading, but also because it brings the story of Jesus and His Kingdom alive to us in a whole new way. I found some interesting facts when I looked into the history of the city of Philippi…

Corneliu Constantineanu, a Romanian theologian and university professor, has this to say in his introduction to the book of Philippians in the God’s Justice Bible:

“The Great Roman Caesar Octavian Augustus established the city of Philippi as a Roman colony after a great victory in the battle against Brutus in 42 BC. After another victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC, he named the city after himself, Colonia lulia Augusta Philippensis. This was in order to announce the good news of his great victory and, at the same time, to honor the great Roman Empire’s accomplishment of justice, peace and security! The Pax Romana, together with Roman law and justice, is the great news that the Roman imperial ideology proclaimed–as the dawn of a new era for humanity, as the greatest good news ever heard! But like the establishment of the city of Philippi, the good news of Roman peace and justice was brought about through violence and war and maintained by force and the subjugation of people.

In stark contrast, the apostle Paul announces the real good news, the gospel--God’s action to put the world right, to bring his peace and justice to this beautiful yet fallen and corrupted world. He has accomplished this not through violence and war but through the self-giving life of Jesus Christ. This is the astonishing story we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians–the significant and wonderful yet costly journey of God’s redeeming the world and bringing his peace and justice for the entire creation… This is the good news of the gospel that we read in Philippians.

As is always the case, the Kingdom of Jesus stands in complete opposition to the kingdoms of this world. A city that was established through war and violence was transformed by the gospel of peace and the power of Agape love.

Agape love is where the journey begins for each of us. Encountering the unconditional, complete love of God for us is the beginning of our relationship with Him. His real love draws us to Himself and, as Pastor John said on Sunday, plants that seed of Agape love inside of us. It’s the beginning of our journey… but we can’t let it be the end. If Jesus loves me is where we stop, we starve the seed that God planted in our hearts. God is the one that plants the seed, and He also tends it, by the power of His Spirit. I don’t want to jump too far ahead in this series, but we’ll see when we get into chapter 2 of Philippians that,

“…it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure”. (Philippians 2:13 AMP)

He is at work in us, and it is He who creates within us the longing and the ability to live His way. But–as we discussed in our last series–it is possible for us to resist and to quench the work of the Holy Spirit inside of us. For a seed to grow, it must be watered, fed, exposed to light; as it begins to grow, it has to be pruned in order to bear the best fruit. If we are willing to submit to the process and understand that this seed of love was never meant to stay buried in the soil of our hearts but, rather, to grow and bear fruit to feed the world around us, then we’ll experience what Pastor John described on Sunday. Our love, gifted to us by our Heavenly Father, will grow. It will grow real. And that real love will change the reality of the world around us. Facts exist all around us. But truth always supersedes fact. Jesus is truth. He is love. And the truth of His love has the power to change any reality. Mine. Yours. And the world around us.

In his introduction to Philippians, Corneliu Constantineanu also writes, “Despite our tendency to limit redemption to our personal salvation and morality, redemption in the biblical narrative implies the entire creation, with the ultimate purpose of human flourishing and well-being for all”. I can’t help but connect his words to what Luanne wrote about the “fruits of righteousness” above:  “Righteousness in this sense comes from the root word meaning equity, which indicates that we are working to make things right for all people everywhere“.

It’s not about “me”. It must be about “us”. The proof that our love is real is that we don’t keep it to ourselves. Just as Paul shared in the joys of community, even from afar, we also are created to be in community, sharing in the goodness of God together, and working to bring the kingdom of our King to every corner of this world. It is the gospel–the gospel Paul brought to Philippi–the only good news with the power to change the world.

“Jesus is the gospel. Just as God brought the good news of justice and righteousness through Jesus, Christians will spread justice around them by following Christ’s example. As they are Christlike, they will be agents of God’s justice in this world. Only as they manifest their heavenly citizenship will they be responsible earthly citizens.” (Corneliu Constantineanu)

The church in Philippi understood what it meant to manifest their heavenly citizenship. It stood in stark contrast to the kingdom of the Romans, and it led them to live out their faith in the way of real love that changed the reality of their region. No earthly ideology has the power to connect all people and bring lasting peace. Only the good news of Jesus and His love for all of us can do that. He has planted the seed of His love in our hearts if we know Him–and left a perfect space for it if we haven’t met Him yet–and He stands ready to tend and grow that seed into flourishing plants that bear fruit to feed the nations. All He asks us to do is open ourselves to His careful hands and let Him. If we’ll lean into His words and His ways, we will begin to see the ways of His kingdom–that it’s never just for us individually. And as that knowledge and depth of insight grows, we’ll see transformed lives become transformed churches that God will use to transform the world. Because the Agape love of God lived out through the followers of Jesus will create the kind of body that Luanne said she desires to be a part of: a body that makes Jesus Christ attractive to ALL. I desire this, too. What about you? Will you join us?

–Laura