Sermon on the Mount: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…(Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting.

So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

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You Have Heard it Said: Part 3

Today’s passage is a doozy. It’s a common “clobber” passage used to judge others and exclude them from full fellowship in some churches. Even before you read this blog, please know that we are not a shaming church; we believe that God loves us all and shuns no one. Pastor John shared that these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount almost kept him from doing the entire series. Yet, like the rest of Jesus’ sermon, we are  looking at the full context, looking at the heart of Christ, and exploring the deeper meaning of his words.

Here we go:  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32 ESV).

The Passion Translation words it like this: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her legal divorce papers.’  However, I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife for any reason, except for infidelity, he causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

And the NIV like this: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I believe God’s original intent for marriage is that it lasts, is fulfilling for both husband and wife, and a healthy reflection of God’s relationship with us.  However, all the way back in the Old Testament we see that marriage didn’t look like this. And, in these two verses, Jesus is addressing the men. Why? Because in that culture they had power, and they abused their power.

Culturally, in that day, a woman had no rights. She was considered property and horribly undervalued. It was rare for a woman to be able to make it on her own; her chances for gainful employment were slim to none. Yet, a man could decide at any time to dismiss his wife, and send her out to fend for herself. His reason could be as simple as she over-salted his food. She had no value, and a hard-hearted man would not have a whit of care about what happened to her.

Let’s briefly recap what we’ve learned up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes–the inner character that drives the outward behavior of Jesus’ followers. Then he says his followers will be like salt and light in the world–our depth of character and our presence making a positive, kingdom of heaven difference in the here and now. After this, Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. We’ve studied how Jesus spoke of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery, yet jumped right over the action words and focused on the heart of the matter–anger and lust. Now we’re on these verses about divorce. Jesus has not changed direction; he is still concerned about the heart of the matter.

In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind, God said:

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:26-27)

In God’s original design, male and female each reflect who God is, each bears his image, and each was given the same task–to steward well his created world. Nowhere in the creation story does God create a hierarchy. Yet, all throughout the Old Testament we see men marrying multiple wives, sleeping with servants, dismissing and mistreating women–even among the patriarchs and kings.

Jesus enters the scene and models something completely different. Even before Jesus’ birth, we see God highly esteeming women. There are five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Tamar who was wronged by her husband and had to trick her father-in-law in order to bear a child; Rahab, the woman from Jericho who resorted to prostitution in order to survive and hid the Jewish spies on their way to the promised land— she married into the Jewish faith and gave birth to Boaz; Ruth, the widowed foreigner who honored her mother in law and later married Boaz. Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) is the next woman mentioned. She was taken advantage of and then became one of the wives of King David who was the grandson of Ruth. A few generations later the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first–not Joseph.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he gives women his full attention. He encouraged Lazarus’ sister Mary’s behavior when she chose to sit at his feet and learn, just like male disciples did.

When the teachers of the law tried to trick Jesus and brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?), Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he caused each man present at the scene to search his own heart.

Jesus interrupted his trip to the home of Jairus, the powerful synagogue leader, and gave his full attention to a woman who had been a bleeding outcast for twelve years. He gave her time to share with him her full story.

The account of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet shows us that he was not about to allow her to be condemned or poorly thought of.

The women present at Jesus’ crucifixion are named in scripture. The women are the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to share the news that he is alive.

The women are present with the men on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. They receive the very same power of the Holy Spirit, and together with the men share the news of Jesus in foreign languages to those within their hearing.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is probably my favorite encounter. Jesus was speaking to a woman who was from a people group considered inferior to his. Both of those things were taboo. Scripture even tells us that when the disciples returned from getting food, they wondered why he was talking to her. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. (Let me remind you–she couldn’t divorce a man, so she had been dismissed and abandoned five times). Jesus doesn’t condemn her, instead, she is the first person to whom he reveals his identity as the Messiah. Their conversation changed her life. She shared her story and his identity with those in her town, and they came to know Jesus as well. 

Back to this week’s verses…Jesus is addressing the men. The man divorces, he is supposed to give her a certificate of divorce, his actions cause her to choose someone else so she can survive, and his actions defile her next husband. It all begins with the man, his abuse of power, a power over her that was never God’s intent in the first place, and the ripple effect of his choices.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote that says the Greek word for divorce (apolyo) can also mean “to loose,” “to dismiss,” “to send away.”By serving her divorce papers, a husband was required to return his wife’s dowry. The divorced woman would then leave his house and receive back her dowry.  Think about that, he could dismiss her without papers and not be obligated to return her dowry, leaving her without means. 

I have a Lebanese Muslim friend whose marriage was arranged for her. Her family provided a dowry to the groom’s family. When we lived near one another, we asked each other questions about our lives and cultures, so I asked her about that. She told me that the dowry wasn’t a “bride price”, but that it was like an insurance policy. She said if anything happened to her marriage or her husband, the dowry was what she would use to live on. I’d never heard that before, but The Passion Translation footnote indicates the same thing. In other words–“Fellas, if you’re going to be hard-hearted and dismiss your wives, at least be honorable. Give her what is rightfully hers so she has something to live on.”  Jesus is addressing their hearts.

God shows us throughout scripture that he sees his relationship with us like a marriage. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was to be a model of his faithfulness and love to the nations around them. In the New Testament, the relationship between Jesus and the global church is supposed to show the world his love for us, our love for him, and our love for them as a result.

If you are divorced and have been hurt by the church, I’m sorry. Jesus’ words on divorce were never intended to be used as clobber verses, nor were we ever told to exclude anyone from fellowship with Jesus and his church. If you are divorced you are fully embraced and fully accepted by God. There is no condemnation in Jesus.

In the 1970s, my dad’s best friend was leading a weekend ministry event at a church in another town. He shared his testimony with the group, and part of his story is that he is divorced and remarried. A man came up to him afterward and asked: “What’s it feel like to be living in sin?” Pete responded: “I don’t know. You tell me.” It still makes me chuckle.

We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us. 

–Luanne

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

This is the question, the heart of the matter. It is what Jesus is getting at with every point he makes. You have heard it said… but what does Love require? This week’s passage applies the question to marriage and divorce. It might be the clearest, most straightforward distortion of God’s heart toward his children, because it addresses the stripping away of the inherent value of a woman–her identity as an equal image-bearer–and the reduction of a human being to property that can be used and disposed of at will. Can you think of other examples throughout history and even presently when the value of a human being was reduced to property? I can. Too many to list.

I think that’s part of the ache of these two verses. What Jesus was doing in his brilliant way, was lifting up the “leasts,” as he always did. In this case, the leasts are women. His words honor the value of a woman and, if followed, offer protection from systems that left so many displaced and destitute. Yet, somehow, these exact verses have been used to further abuse and devalue women and abdicate men from their responsibilities, at the hands of the Church. How did that happen?? It happened because, even as Jesus was reorienting the Law around the way of Love, those in power chose to make it about the words rather than the heart behind the words. It became about a list of dos and don’ts, and this short passage has been used against the very people it was meant to protect and left devastation in its wake.

Running the rules through the filter of Love makes all the difference. In regard to marriage and divorce, I’ve seen that difference firsthand. I’ve watched friends and family I love dearly choose the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love when they had every right to leave and never look back. I’ve seen people devalued and devastated choose to honor their vows even when their spouse has shattered theirs. I’ve watched, awestruck, as God moved through open channels of love to restore what was lost, as the pile of torn and tattered threads was woven into a tapestry more beautiful than should even be possible after such devastation.

I’ve also seen and experienced what can happen when a lesser love captures a heart. I watched my mom be discarded three times by the same husband, abandoned for other women and a brand new life, left with nothing but the bills and the children and her failing health. I watched her struggle to put food on the table as she worked long hours in multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. I watched as our church turned its back on our family while my dad was still allowed to attend with his girlfriend and her family. I saw my mom’s new church embrace her partially, but warn her that if she remarried, an adulteress she would be. I saw her ache for a community that didn’t really have room for a poor, divorced woman and her kids–one that certainly wouldn’t invite her to use the gifts she’d been given as a full participant in the kingdom within their walls. At best, she was a project, a charity case. She was marked.

Jesus didn’t want that for her. What happened to her was the exact opposite of what he called for in this week’s passage. What happened to her is what happens when we miss the heart of the matter, when we don’t process the law through the higher law of Love. And somehow, we all know there’s a better way. There’s a song that keeps running through my head as I write. Not some spiritual, worship song, but the chorus of a song I didn’t even know all the words to until I looked it up a moment ago. The song is Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released in 1986. Here are some of the lyrics…

Think about it, there must be a higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
Worlds are turnin’, and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear, and standin’ out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love (oh my Lord)
Bring me a higher love, oh (oh)
Bring me a higher love (my Lord)
It’s that higher love I keep thinking of…
We all know intuitively that there is a better way, a higher way. We crave that higher love  whether we know and believe in Jesus or not. We know, “there must be a higher love, down in the heart or hidden in the stars above…” And yet, we run after lesser loves. In our fear and desire for control and order, we forsake the way of love for the inferior substitute of a list of rules. That list of rules has served an insidious purpose. The Church that is the bride of Christ, meant to birth the fruit of that union–the kingdom on earth, has clung not to her groom but to the list, and abdicated her responsibility to the way of Love. It is heart-wrenching to see the results of our idolatry. Rather than embrace the extravagant way of love that Jesus modeled, we have too often looked to satisfy the minimum requirements.
Imagine what the world would look like if we processed everything through Jesus’s filter? If we looked for ways to exhibit the maximum amount of love rather than the minimum? It should change everything, friends! Because the love Jesus spoke about and modeled–self-emptying, humble, generous, gracious, compassionate, real love–is inexhaustible. There is actually not a maximum, because love never ends (See 1 Corinthians 13). The more we pour it out, the more there is available. It expands, enlightens, restores, and remakes everything it touches. Its power is in the laying down of oneself on behalf of another, the way that Jesus did for every single human being. What if we followed his lead and lived accordingly? We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because there would be reciprocity and mutuality and thriving for all. Love like this doesn’t need additional rules and regulations. It covers absolutely everything.
I believe with my whole heart that this is Jesus’s whole point. Everything he says in the sermon on the mount, all of the exhortations and insights he gives are expressions of love in action. This week’s passage is about divorce, but not only divorce. It applies to the way we are to embrace, cherish, and care for one another as we live out the love we share with our Abba. It was perhaps the clearest example Jesus could give in that day of what happens when the way of higher love is replaced by lesser things. When we refuse to live in the light of love, we reduce one another, treat each other as problems and projects, see each other as means to an end, expendable. We NEVER see Jesus objectify anyone in this way. 
The story that I held in my heart as I listened to Pastor John preach on Sunday is the same one Luanne emphasized above, the woman at the well. Jesus had every reason–and the teachers of the law may have said an obligation–to avoid her, ignore her, and condemn her according to the law. But love…
The law said not to associate with “those” people. The Samaritans were outsiders, people the Jews were not to mingle with. The law didn’t allow them to be alone together at the well–she was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. Forget about a conversation–that went way too far. It was against the rules. And Jesus knew more still about this woman he engaged at the well. She had been married five times, and was now living with a sixth man. The law gave him so many reasons to not only walk away from her, but to outright condemn her!
But love…
Pondering this passage in different seasons, I’ve cried many times over the tenderness of the moment. The story, much like our verses this week, has been used and preached in unkind ways. But the Jesus I know is always kind. Always good. Always loving. He knows the backstory to every story. When I read and ponder this particular story, specifically the part where Jesus lets her know that he knows what she’s been through, I hear his voice as gentle, quiet, empathizing with her plight. I see tears pool and fall from his eyes as he feels how brutally and repeatedly she’s been rejected by those charged to cherish and protect her. I have exactly zero doubts that in that moment, she experienced the love she’d searched for all of her life, love that saw to her core and called her beloved despite the labels she’d been given by the world. How am I so sure? First, because my Jesus has done the same for me. But also,  her reaction tells us everything we need to know. Hope overflowed as joy exploded in her. She left her jar and ran back to the village to tell everyone about this man who had set her free from her shame. His words to her did not condemn her. His words communicated that she was seen and known… and fully loved. 
The words Luanne ended her portion with seem appropriate to repeat here…
“We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us.”
Can you imagine what the world would look like if we loved like this?
–Laura

 

 

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How Long, Oh Lord?

As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.

Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far.  In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of referenceRacism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.  

Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”.  My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.

In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.  

And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like:  I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. 

The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)

In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15) 

In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.

The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing? 

A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)

He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)

Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)

The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)

So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…

I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.

My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.

I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.

Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities.  These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.

A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong.  Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.

Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.

While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.

The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car. 

We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways.  It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.  

Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.

And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.

We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:

Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…

…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…

What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.

And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).

Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:

“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.” 
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into  action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard.  Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.
–Laura
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Rescue: The Thief and The Garden

If you’ve been reading our blog for the last few weeks, you know that Pastor John has been moving through a series on rescue. We’ve looked at personal rescue, such as Abram rescuing Lot, Boaz rescuing Ruth (and Ruth rescuing Naomi), The reckless love of the father running to his homeward-bound destitute younger son, and going out to his indignant older son, and we’ve looked at God’s rescuing of an entire nation when he led the Israelites out of slavery under the leadership of Moses.

Today’s story of rescue, found in Luke 23:32-43 happens as Jesus is hanging on the cross, gasping for every breath; he is dying. He is hanging between two men who are in the same situation. I imagine neither of them was wearing a crown of thorns, and I don’t know if they’d been beaten almost to death by Roman soldiers prior to their crucifixions, but they were definitely suffering on their crosses. These three men were that day’s example of Rome’s cruelty and violent means to ensure their power–many people were crucified during Rome’s reign.

Before I move on from here, I want to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of people are dying. Most everyone has had life disrupted. Many have lost jobs. In times like these, it is not unusual for people to blame God or ask God where he is and why he has abandoned us, or why he is so cruel. While I certainly don’t understand the ways of God, I do know, because the cross is evidence, that God is in this with us. He loves us. He joins us in our suffering. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus writes:

Jesus doesn’t die as a lone sufferer, but as Immanuel among the sufferers…To see Jesus Christ hung upon a cross wearing a crown of thorns, with victims on either side, is perhaps, the most powerful single image of the gospel. Incarnation, forgiveness, and kingdom are all present.  

Immanuel, God with us–even in this. We are not alone.

As Jesus is nailed to the cross he speaks words that many of us are familiar with: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)  

There’s a footnote in The Passion Translation regarding this phrase that says: The Greek text implies a repetitive action… As the centurion crushed him to the ground and tied his arms to the crossbeam, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When the spikes tore through each quivering palm, he prayed again, “Father, forgive them.” And when the soldiers parted his garments and gambled for the seamless robe, again Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Only heaven knows how many times that prayer was spoken.  

Let that sink in. This is the heart of God. No one was asking for forgiveness, yet God the Son was requesting undeserved forgiveness for his violent perpetrators, as his fully human body was being tortured beyond anything we can imagine. I’m reminded of John 3:17:  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  It’s mind-blowing. God’s unconditional love is mind-blowing.

It makes me wonder, as Jesus intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34),  is he still praying “Father, forgive them.”?  Or was his overarching forgiveness fully accomplished on the cross, and now we live in unconditional forgiveness? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness and embrace. Not even the two men who were crucified with Jesus.

The King James version calls the two men “malefactors”. I like that word–I think it captures the essence of their misdeeds. The word basically means “evil-doer”. Etymonline.com says it’s “one who does evil or injury to another” (the opposite of benefactor). There are some commentaries that suggest these two men were partners in crime with Barabbas (the insurrectionist who Pilate set free in exchange for Jesus).  If they were part of an insurrection to overthrow Rome, Rome’s leaders would certainly perceive that as evil. If they had killed Romans while pursuing revolutionary acts, Rome would certainly have perceived that as injury to another. No matter what their actual crimes were, according to the power and structure of Rome, they were malefactors, and therefore worthy of public humiliation, torture and execution. I think it’s important to pause for a moment and remember that like all human beings, these two were more than the descriptive labels placed upon them. They had names, families, friends, personalities, and life stories that led them to this point–real people, not just dehumanizing labels.

And it is here, in the chaos of this moment that one of these men mocks Jesus and the other reaches out to Jesus. Luke describes the moment like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23: 39-43)

We (I) can be either one of these men at any given moment. Sometimes I am asking God to fix a situation, I get frustrated when he doesn’t seem to listen, and doesn’t come through the way I want him to. I can frame it in really lofty language, but the heart is often–come on, God…do this according to my desires. That’s what one of the men was doing—“Come on, Jesus, save yourself and us.” His understanding of salvation was – get me off this cross so I can continue with life as normal.

The other man had eyes to see something different. He recognized Jesus’ innocence;  he knew, that despite what every earthly thing looked like, Jesus had a kingdom and he wanted to be part of it.  His understanding of salvation was union with Jesus.

Jesus said to him…TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.

Paradise–it means “garden”–as in the Garden of Eden before the fall kind of garden. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states: According to the opinion of many of the church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on earth nor in the heavens, but above and beyond the world.

This same word  paradise is used in Revelation 2:7 where the resurrected Jesus says: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious, I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”

Jesus says to the man, labeled malefactor, I will rescue you, and today we’ll be together in the perfect Garden of God.

I’m mIn the Genesis account of the garden, there are trees. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the one tree that they were told not to eat from–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  There was another tree in the garden–the tree of life. They could have chosen to eat from that tree.

God, for whatever reason, allows us to make choices. Some of our choices have devastating consequences. He allows us to experience the consequences of our choices, and he rescues us. Once Adam and Eve see good and evil, everything changes. Blame is almost immediate–I’m good; he/she is bad. That shift is the beginning of all the world’s chaos.

God, in what some see as punishment, didn’t want them to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their “good and evil” state, so he removed them from the garden in order to protect them. It was an act of love.

In the ultimate demonstration of God’s love, Jesus died on a tree and paved the way to garden of Eden life.

Revelation 22: 1-2 tells us:

He showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

This Jesus’ life is available now. Our personal rescue is available now. The healing of the nations is available now. We get to choose which tree to eat from–“good and evil” or “life”. They both bear fruit. One harms, one heals.

Today–Jesus rescues us, remembers us and reminds us his kingdom is here. Paradise begins here…

–Luanne

I have read and re-read Luanne’s words, praying for direction, asking what I might add to this week’s post. She reminds us of the hope that we have, the truths that still stand in the midst of the chaos we see and feel pressing in around us:

Jesus’ life is available now.

Our personal rescue is available now.

The healing of the nations is available now

Jesus rescues us.

Jesus remembers us.

Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is here.

Paradise begins here

All true. All beautiful. Even now.

As I typed those last words, I found myself asking, “Really? Do you believe that? Here? Now?” 

I want to. But if I’m honest, there are moments in this present turmoil we’re all facing when it all feels too lofty for my reach.

And yet, I know

I know the truth in those words because over and over, Jesus has come in the beautiful way that only he can to bear witness to my pain. He has come to me in moments of despair and doubt and refused to look away, because his love is the co-suffering kind. He endured our wrath and violence, and chose to love, forgive and welcome the very ones who mocked and maligned him as he hung, murdered unjustly to satisfy the bloodthirsty brood who didn’t have eyes to see the kingdom of peace–the paradise he brought with him when he entered into the story of humanity as one of us. And he comes still today to minister to our soul-amnesia, to stand in solidarity with us as our co-suffering savior, to bear witness to the realities of our lives when we don’t have eyes to see him standing there.

To bear witness is no small thing. It’s more than being willing to look at the hard, to not look away, though it includes that. It means to share, as one’s own, another’s testimony, to enter into pain. It is the embodiment of empathy, support, and love that lightens the load by upholding from below and covering from above.

It hurts to bear witness to another’s agony… It’s much easier to look away, to erect a wall of protection around our hearts that keeps us from feeling the weight of another’s suffering. We can look at pain so long that we become desensitized to it. We “see” it, but it never penetrates our hearts.

When Jesus walked the earth, he did so wholeheartedly. It’s a dangerous way to live because it robs one of the luxury of remaining uninvolved.  Jesus modeled what it means to bear witness to the hard and the ugly, the trauma, the grief, the losses of this life. He didn’t merely look upon pain, he entered into each story. He did not ridicule fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Rather, he acknowledged them and offered himself as the answer. He invited the weary to exchange heavy, ill-fitting yokes for a shared yoke, for his yoke. A yoke that he doesn’t place on anyone, but that he carries with everyone.

Jesus bore witness to the pain of the malefactors on either side of him while his own pain was excruciating. He bore witness to the pain he saw beneath the surface in the executors, the ugliness that lived in the hearts of those shouting, “Crucify him!” as he breathed words of pardon, of forgiveness. The men on either side of him bore witness to his pain as well, as they experienced the dying with him.

Many witnessed the events of that day with their eyes. Few bore witness to the pain Jesus endured. Among those that did were a few women including Jesus’ mother, Mary, and one of his dearest friends and followers, John.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was standing next to his cross, along with Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. So when Jesus looked down and saw the disciple he loved standing with her, he said, “Mother, look–John will be a son to you.” Then he said, “John, look–she will be a mother to you!” (John 19:25-27a)

Can you imagine the grief of these women, the grief of John? What about the grief Jesus felt as he witnessed the sorrow, the anguish his mother and friends experienced as they watched him die?

None of them turned away. Not Jesus. Not his mom. Not his dear friend. They entered into the suffering of one another in the midst of their own pain.

I think that is an important point to note, to remember…

The other night, my husband and I were cooking and doing dishes. I told him that I was sorry for how back and forth, how up and down I had been lately. I told him that my emotions were swinging like crazy, and even I didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next.

He told me that it was okay, and then he quietly added, “I’ve seen it before…”

What did he mean?

“After we lost your mom.”

He was identifying grief. And he was right. The volatility many of us are experiencing in these days has a name. It is grief. It comes and goes as it will, it offers neither warning nor greeting. It is the heavy blanket that wraps us head to toe and overtakes our senses. It can dampen hope and set joy just out of reach. It is grief that can make it hard to cling to the beautiful truths Luanne wrote above.

We may not all be able to identify our feelings as grief, but we are all experiencing it–individually and collectively. Losses are mounting. They look different to each of us, some stories seem more worthy of grief than others. But as I heard earlier this week, no good comes from comparing losses. The worst loss, I heard it said, is your loss. Whatever you are facing right now. We’re all experiencing loss. And loss brings grief–with or without our permission.

Usually when we face loss, there are people on the outside who can bear witness to our pain, empathize with us in our grief, offer strength to uphold us in our weakness. But right now…

None of us are on the outside. 

Each one of us, everywhere, are part of this unfolding drama. Willing or not, we are members of this cast. None of us are unaffected. This is why the example of Jesus is so important. Just as was modeled by Jesus, the women, and John, we must have the courage to look up, to behold one another even while our own grief sits heavy.

Pastor John said Sunday, “My shoulders are not big enough to carry this.”

He is absolutely right. Neither are mine. Or yours. We are all in this moment in history together, even while we’re apart. The story of Jesus teaches us many things, but one of the most vital is that it shows us our connectedness.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . . I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. (John 15:5, 9-13)

We are all branches on the vine. The vine is Jesus. We grow connected to his life, his love, the nutrients we need for survival. We grow together on this vine. He invites us to make a home inside his love, to stay there, to find that attached to the source, we have all we need. He is the vine that bears the weight of each branch and all the branches. He is the source and the witness to the growth of each one and the fruit they produce. He is the channel through which our lives are nourished, sustained, upheld.
“Love one another the way I love you.”
He invites us to learn from him, and then to do likewise with and for one another. We are connected. Whether we want to be or not. None of us can walk through these days alone. Not one of us is strong enough to carry the burdens of the others. Only the vine can bear the weight of the collective branches… But each branch can bear witness to the branches around it. 
This Easter Sunday will look different. Church buildings will be empty. Family get togethers will be cancelled. Neighborhood egg hunts for the littles won’t be held. Our arms will ache to embrace another, and lonely tears will fall. Unknowns will abound–but don’t they always, anyway? Fear may bubble to the surface, grief may steal our breath.
And–
Our Jesus, who conquered death and holds its keys, is with us in this place. He sees. He knows. He chooses to bear witness to our pain, to suffer alongside us, to grieve our losses as his own– and, as he models the kingdom value of co-suffering love, he invites us to do the same. To lift our eyes and see. To enter in with those around us and allow them to enter in with us. Because he knows what we sometimes forget–
As we lift our eyes to bear witness to the pain, we can’t help but also see the beauty of the kingdom all around. He knows that paradise exists where love presides. He shows us the way–will we follow?
–Laura

 

Wild flowers in lush bright colorful plants

 

 

Dedication

Psalm 30

A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David.

I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.

Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people; praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.”
Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm;
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.

To you, Lord, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy:
“What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you?
 Will it proclaim your faithfulness? Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me; Lord, be my help.”

You turned my wailing into dancing;you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

The words above are those that David prayed to dedicate the temple. The psalm is a song of praise; Pastor John began his message on Sunday by reading these words. It was fitting on this special day–a day that marked the beginning of a new season for our church as we moved into our new building under our new name, City Park Church. It was a day to dedicate our new space to God and the work of his kingdom, but more than that, it was a time to remember that we–not the building itself–are the temple of God.

The psalm above holds within it difficult and beautiful reminders of what it is to be an imperfect temple where the perfect Spirit of God resides, and as we moved through the lines, we found an opportunity to not only dedicate our new space in this new season, but to re-dedicate the spaces within our own hearts to the work and purposes of our God. 

“I will exalt YOU, Lord, for YOU lifted me out of the depths… Lord my God, I called to YOU for help, and YOU healed me… YOU brought me up… YOU spared me…” 

These words are some of the first that David speaks to God, and they are telling. He is among the congregation, dedicating the new temple, and the first cries of his heart are not words focused on the building or the community, but rather a personal remembrance of the merciful hand of God that has been ever-present in his own life. Did you catch the words? God lifted, healed, brought him up. God’s hand, his touch, is what David acknowledges here. Hold onto that; we will come back to it…

The first words of the psalm are God-focused, and the rest of the song follows that same pattern. Though the pit and needs are mentioned, they are not the focus of the song. David speaks not of the work that was done by human hands, nor of the strength of his faith to see the work completed. The focus is on what God has done, on his unstoppable mercy and constant presence. He does mention once feeling secure and unshakable, only to find himself shaken and pleading for help and mercy, desperate for the presence of his God. We know that feeling, don’t we?

Times of transition are never as smooth as we would like them to be. Change can be hard, unsettling. It can cause us to feel like our world is shaking and insecure. We certainly felt that from time to time as a community throughout this long season of transition. There was loss and hurt, doubt and fear visited often, relationships were tested–as was our faith. Mourning and weeping accompanied some of these changes.

And… there was God’s presence.Every step of the way. The God that David encountered in every high and every low, the constant hand that reached toward him and lifted him from every pit is the same God who has upheld each of us and invites us to follow him as he leads us forward into a new place.

Our mourning is turned into dancing and our weeping into songs of joy when we realize our longing for God’s presence, and recognize the constancy of his love, his mercy, his arms ever-reaching to embrace us and pull us back in–regardless of how many times we’ve turned away.

Dancing and rejoicing are not simply the exuberant responses to hardships being removed and brokenness being healed… they are the front-line battle cry that moves a community forward into new territory. They remind us who goes before us and with us and upholds us on every side. They are silencers of fear and doubt and they cause us to remember whose we are and who we are in Him.

Sunday morning, our community remembered who our God is and all that he has done. We also remembered who we are and why we are here as we came together in worship so sweet there are no words sufficient to describe the experience. Pastor John reminded us that God is present everywhere and he is the one who invites us to come in, to show up, in the places where he already is. We were reminded that where we sit is meant to be a place we move out from. We can find ourselves tempted to insulate ourselves inside strong, beautiful walls, to get comfortable and “just be us” in our own small spaces. But this has never been the way of Jesus, and it is not who God is calling us, our community, to be now.

Rather, we come into the “temple” to be reminded of the story we came from, the story where each of our own stories find their origin–and one day their completion, as well. Our new building offers the most beautiful picture of this old, old story. Stunning stained glass enfolds the worship center on three of the four sides. It beckons us to enter in to the story of Jesus and reminds us of his life and ministry. It extends an invitation to continue his ministry as carriers of the kingdom of God. This is the story the windows tell…

Jesus was born as a human baby, in a manger. He grew and learned in the temple. He was baptized in the full power of the Spirit and under the blessing of his father and propelled into his kingdom-bearing ministry. He called his disciples, performed miracles, offered his presence. Jesus healed. Jesus restored. He encountered every kind of person. He ate and broke bread at his last supper, he prayed in Gethsemane. Peter denied him, Pilate washed his hands of him, and Jesus died on the cross. Then he was resurrected and restored all that was broken.

Throughout each scene, we witness Jesus’ withness, and Jesus’ touch. Just as we saw the hand of God reaching to David throughout our Psalm, in these windows we see the hand of Jesus ever-reaching, ever-embracing…

Who is he embracing in these pictures? “Sinners” and “saints”… the old and the young… the rich and the poor… men and women… those who denied him… the seen and the unseen… the sick and the well… followers and doubters… those whom he sought, and those who sought him. The pictures on both sides reveal the Kingdom-heart of Jesus, the Jesus who extended his hand to touch every life. The picture in the back, nudging us forward, is stamped with these words, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” What gospel? The story that the windows walk us through, the story of Jesus. The story that we are reminded of not only as we look side to side, but as we look forward to the fourth wall. On that wall there is a window–but it doesn’t hold stained glass. It holds a wooden cross, built from pieces of our yesterdays as a community, carried into today, and propelling us into our tomorrows. The cross hangs in that window, a reminder of the self-emptying, cruciform, outstretched love that leads us to live and love in-kind. And it hangs there empty, because Jesus rose from his grave, holding in his hands the keys to death and hell. The empty cross reminds us, also, that he lives among and within us. We are living temples, invited to carry this power that frees us from the prison of death into all the world.

This new “temple” our community has moved into is a reminder that following Jesus is not ever about getting comfortable, sitting in one place, and insulating ourselves from the rest of the world. To follow Jesus is to move with Jesus, to be filled with his presence and his love and to extend our hands–as he did–to touch every life we encounter with an embrace of welcome, of mercy, of belonging. We have the opportunity to dedicate ourselves each day to the ministry Jesus invites us into… May we accept this holy call and move in the ways of our God…

–Laura

In addition to reading David’s dedication psalm, Pastor John also read excerpts of Solomon’s dedication prayer from 1st King’s chapter 8.

Solomon begins with these words of praise: Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.”

A few verses later Solomon’s own mind is blown and he asks: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”

Solomon expresses his desire: “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.”

He asks God to be their judge, to forgive their sins, to restore them and bring them back when they stray.

And later in the prayer he includes these words: “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—  for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple,  then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

That may be my favorite part of the prayer. Solomon knows that God desires to use Israel to make God’s name known to all the people of the earth- not just some. Solomon is praying in a way that shows his openness to those from distant lands. He even asks God to honor the prayers of the foreigner.

After the prayer, Solomon blesses the people and says:  May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us.  May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in obedience to him and keep the commands, decrees and laws he gave our ancestors.  And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day’s need, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other.  And may your hearts be fully committed to the Lord our God…”

Solomon, the king of the chosen people, chose inclusivity. He understood the heart of God.

There is much in Solomon’s prayer and blessing that we could dig into, but I’m going to go a different direction.

Pastor John reminded us that we are not “the temple”–we are the church. Jesus founded the ekklesia (translated “church”)  which means the “called-out assembly. We are part of His kingdom–his called out ones–along with all those who follow Jesus from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. We are one church. Each of us individually is a temple that serves as a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit (1st Corinthians 6:19) and together we are part of a holy global work.

Peter helps us understand this concept when he writes: As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual temple to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light…(1 Peter 2:4-5,9)

This is our task, our mission, our purpose. We get to carry the wonderful light of Jesus into the darkness of the world. We get to be part of establishing his kingdom and his ways right here. What a beautiful, mind-blowing, blessing!

Solomon asked “But will God really dwell on earth?” and requested “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’” 

Do you think Solomon could even begin to fathom that God would indeed come to dwell on earth in human form? Could he fathom that God, in the person of Jesus, would start a movement that will continue for eternity? Could he fathom that God’s very Spirit would dwell inside his followers–that God would place his seal on us in the Spirit and give us His name? That God would give us the honor to be His living, organic, growing temple—the inclusive temple of the inclusive King?

Can we fathom it?

Laura finished her section with these words:

We are living temples, invited to carry this power that frees us from the prison of death into all the world.  This new “temple” … is a reminder that following Jesus is not ever about getting comfortable, sitting in one place, and insulating ourselves from the rest of the world. To follow Jesus is to move with Jesus, to be filled with his presence and his love and to extend our hands–as he did–to touch every life we encounter with an embrace of welcome, of mercy, of belonging. We have the opportunity to dedicate ourselves each day to the ministry Jesus invites us into… May we accept this holy call and move in the ways of our God…

–Luanne

fire for the world

Giving Shapes Our Love

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)

Wrestling. Desperation. Wanting to be close to God, yet not knowing how. Have you wrestled with questions like these? Have you ever asked “God, what do you want from me? How can I come before you? How can I draw near to you? How can I live in a close relationship with you? What tasks can I perform to please you? I’m willing to do anything…even sacrifice my own child to pay for my sin. What, God, do you want?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

 …do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…(NASB)

do what is right, to love mercy,  and to walk humbly with your God…(NLT)

What do these requirements look like in practice? Jesus showed us in the way he lived and interacted with people. He also showed us through a story that would have been shocking to his listeners. To set up the context in which Jesus told his story, Luke 10 tells us that…

Just then a religious scholar stood before Jesus in order to test his doctrines. He posed this question: “Teacher, what requirement must I fulfill if I want to live forever in heaven?” (TPT)

It’s important to note a couple of things about this question. The scholar (or lawyer as he is called in some translations) is not asking about how to have a relationship with Jesus. He’s not asking to be transformed. He is testing Jesus. He’s trying to show his superiority over Jesus. There was a time, earlier in the book of Luke that Jesus responded to Satan by saying: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Lk. 4:12). Same word. So Jesus answers the scholar’s question with a question:

 “What is written in the Law?… How do you read it?” 

The scholar replies: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus affirms that he got it right. And tells him do this and you will live“.  (Remember the scholar’s original question- what must I do to inherit eternal life (future). Jesus says…love like this, right here, right now and you will live). 

So the scholar wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story:

There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when bandits robbed him along the way. They beat him severely, stripped him naked, and left him half dead.

Soon, a Jewish priest walking down the same road came upon the wounded man. Seeing him from a distance, the priest crossed to the other side of the road and walked right past him, not turning to help him one bit.

Later, a religious man, a Levite, came walking down the same road and likewise crossed to the other side to pass by the wounded man without stopping to help him.

Finally, another man, a Samaritan, came upon the bleeding man and was moved with tender compassion for him. He stooped down and gave him first aid, pouring olive oil on his wounds, disinfecting them with wine, and bandaging them to stop the bleeding. Lifting him up, he placed him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. Then he took him from his donkey and carried him to a room for the night. The next morning he took his own money from his wallet and gave it to the innkeeper with these words: ‘Take care of him until I come back from my journey. If it costs more than this, I will repay you when I return. 

Then Jesus asks this question: Which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?” 

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

Most of us are very familiar with this story. It’s a great deal more straightforward than many of Jesus’ parables. He wants us to get it. However, I’m not sure that we get the full impact of the story because we don’t fully grasp the relationship that Jews and Samaritans had with each other in those days. The Jews considered the Samaritans “less than”. They did not associate with them. They despised them. If the story were told to religious Americans today, I wonder who Jesus would highlight as the example? Maybe a Muslim, someone from the Middle East, maybe someone from the LGBTQ community, maybe an immigrant whose legal status has expired, maybe an immigrant who never had legal status…without a doubt, it would have been someone unexpected and someone who would cause us to bristle.

So Jesus, after telling his shocking story asks the question: tell me, which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

(What does the Lord require? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

The scholar, in testing Jesus, wants to know how he can have a good inheritance in his afterlife. Jesus responds if you want to live, see people and act; care for people; share what you have; make sure their needs are met; show tender compassion to others. 

If we pause to ponder all that the Samaritan man gave, it’s staggering. He was on his way somewhere;  he gave up his agenda, his time, his possessions (olive oil, wine, and whatever he used for bandages). He used his physical strength to place the injured, man onto his own donkey. With the injured man on his donkey, he most likely walked. He took the man to an inn, carried him into the inn.  The. Next. Morning. He gave the innkeeper money (the NIV tells us it was two silver coins—a hefty amount), and asked him to take care of the man until he could return.

I have a question…did he spend the entire night caring for this man who he didn’t know, most likely a Jewish man? Did he get a separate room and sleep? My gut tells me that he cared for the man the entire night, but I can’t know that for sure. Either way, he did not abandon the man.

Jesus is clear that the “religious” had no time to actually minister to someone in deep need. Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.

Pastor John gave us some excellent illustrations to help us see more clearly some ways in which we don’t love our neighbor well (most having to do with a sense of entitlement–my place in line, my seat at the movie theater, my appointment time, as if any of those things truly belong to us) and some ways in which we love ourselves more than we love others. For the sake of time, I won’t go into all of them, but one stuck with me.

If you (or I) injure ourselves in some way, maybe cut a finger, sprain an ankle, etc., do we pause to determine if we need to take care of that injury? Do we question whether or not we’re worthy or if we deserve to be taken care of? Do we question whether or not we have time? Or do we immediately stop what we’re doing, hold the injured portion of ourselves, and begin to figure out how to care for our wound? Do we see and love others in this same way? It’s worth thinking about.

The teacher of the law, the scholar, wanted to know how to have a good eternal life. I thought about how Jesus qualifies eternal life.

In John 17:3, Jesus says:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

And I thought of John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I thought of Jesus’ emphasis on teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like–it’s what he taught about more than any other thing.

And I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife–when Jesus teaches Do this my way, the way of my Kingdom–here, now–and you will live abundantly–right now. I came to show you how. Follow my example. Get to know me, get to know the one true God. Your life in me isn’t just about heaven in the future, it’s about bringing heaven to earth today. “May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is his will? It’s the lawyer’s reply to Jesus first question:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

I write it often because I believe it so strongly: when we draw near to God, when we allow the Holy Spirit to have access to the deepest parts of our beings, the beautiful fruit of the Spirit becomes the natural outflow of our lives-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We no longer live with the mindset of us and them, or I’m taking care of myself and my people because no one else matters as much, or I don’t like those people. All of humanity becomes our loved ones. All. Of. Humanity.

As I write this today, I am very aware that it is Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was a good Samaritan and paid for it with his life. He confronted unjust systems, he highlighted injustice, and he did so using peaceful means. His letter from a Birmingham jail is a pointed statement to the religious community who refused to see. It’s well worth a read. He said many things that I love, but maybe my favorite quote of his is:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”  Love God. Love others…

…do justice..love kindness, and…walk humbly with your God…

–Luanne

Pastor John began his message with the reminder that God loves us. Each of us. Equally. I immediately thought of William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, and how “Papa”–the Father God part of the Trinity–expressed love for all people. Papa didn’t say the words, “I love you,” in the story. Rather, the God character said “I am especially fond of you.” This was Papa’s sentiment regardless of who the subject of the conversation was. I love this subtlety in the story, because it challenges the narrative many of us learned along the way that God has to love us because he’s God and he is love. Young’s interpretation of God’s love is personal, intimate, and lavished equally over all of God’s children.

I don’t think I would be wrong in supposing that most of us struggle to believe, much less understand, that this really is how God feels about all of us. Sometimes our disbelief is rooted in our own sense of unworthiness–“There’s no way God could love me as much as (fill in the blank),” and sometimes it’s our own arrogance–“There’s no way God could love that murderer, rapist, heretic, immigrant, porn star, absent parent, school shooter, politician, transgender youth, etc… as much as he loves good Christian people like me.”

Whatever our thoughts, questions, and hangups might be, the scriptures we’re looking at this week confirm the lavish, relational, available-to-all love of God. In the Micah passage, the prophet asks, “What should we bring to the Lord?” The list of considerations includes thousands of animal offerings, ten thousand rivers of oil (which they didn’t actually have to give–the writer is emphasizing the point by listing such an impossible, extravagant gift), and even their firstborn children. If God were the transactional Being many of us grew up believing he is, superfluous sacrifices would matter to him. There would be a hierarchy of preference based on what we could offer to him. He would be especially fond of those who could give the most.

Sometimes I think we would prefer a transactional God. I think the religious scholar who asked Jesus what he needed to do to maintain his standard of living forever wanted a list. If we’re honest, sometimes we do, too. Luanne wrote above,

“…I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife…”

Is it possible that Christianity has, in many circles, morphed into this one-time transaction because the way of Jesus actually feels much harder to accomplish? Could it be that checklists, commandments, and a quid pro quo approach to God makes us feel like we have some measure of control and say in our destinies? We’re terrible at getting it all right, of course, but if the bottom line is one transactional, salvation moment, then we feel safe. We’ve done the important part.

Micah 6:8 challenges this way of thinking, and it was penned long before Jesus arrived on the pages of history. What is the important part according to God? Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. How do we formulate a checklist for those commands? We can’t. These values are cultivated within a living, growing relationship with our God. If I were asked to teach a how-to class on loving mercy, I think I’d run quickly in the other direction. There’s no step-by-step process for learning how to love mercy. This is only learned by walking in step with the one from whom all mercy flows.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that in Micah 6:8, we don’t find God saying, “Don’t do___________.” It doesn’t say, “What does the Lord require of you? Stay away from people who don’t think like you, don’t go to that part of town, don’t befriend those disgusting pagans…” or anything like that. No part of the verse tells us what not to do. It simply tells us to do. Act, love, walk… these are action words. But what motivates these actions?

Let’s look again at the story of the Good Samaritan. Luanne wrote,

“Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.” 

Tender compassion. This automatic response–from someone who, according to the church crowd of that day, was an outsider at best–had to flow from somewhere. Compassion is a gut-level response of co-suffering love. It is a response that first sees and then identifies with the plight of the one suffering, feels it as if it were our own, and moves us to respond. It doesn’t “just happen” unless we’ve been conditioned to see beyond ourselves and our own individual needs.

All three men highlighted in the story saw something. But only one of them felt something–tender compassion–and was moved to do something. What stopped the first two men from doing something wasn’t that they didn’t see the need. They saw him… and they moved away from him rather than toward. Why? Because they didn’t feel anything. The man’s condition didn’t penetrate the walls of their hearts. Their preoccupation with themselves didn’t blind their physical eyes from seeing the needs around them. But the eyes of their hearts were blindfolded. By what? Perhaps by the same thing that consumed the religious scholar whose questioning of Jesus led to this story being told? A desire to maintain their lives as they were, to go about their days white-knuckling what belonged to them, to sustain their current quality of life on into eternity? Yeah… these things will absolutely tie a blindfold around a heart.

As Luanne pointed out, tending to the injured man cost the Samaritan. When we walk in the way of Jesus, with our eyes and hearts wide open to all of the others around us, we surrender our ability to maintain our lives as they are. Moving toward others, choosing to really see each one, will break us wide open. Loving like Jesus includes feeling like Jesus. This requires us to embrace vulnerability, to soften, to be woundable. Loving like Jesus means giving in the ways that he modeled, the ways that set his kingdom apart from every other kingdom that has ever existed. The Samaritan modeled kingdom values. It is costly to live this way. But it is what loving our neighbor looks like.

See something. Feel something. Do something. 

Where do we find ourselves as we ponder what God requires of us? Are we attempting to maintain a certain standard of living? Are we consumed with what is ours, with our positions and what we’ve earned? Are we simply trying to secure a spot in heaven? Do we arrogantly look down on certain others; do we cross the street when we see them? When we see a need, do we feel anything? Or do we, with hardened hearts, look the other way?

These are hard questions. They probe the depths of our priorities and they challenge our “me first”, individualistic mindsets. But we need to ask them. And we need to answer them honestly. We cannot say that we are people who love if we are not also people who give. Love motivates the heart to give, to break open, to embrace all others. Loving like Jesus means that, as Luanne wrote, all of humanity becomes our loved ones. No exceptions. God is especially fond of each one. All of us. Becoming like Jesus means that we will become especially fond of them, too.

–Laura

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See the Signs

One of the greatest things about following Jesus is there is always more to discover. Every account in scripture has deeper meaning than a one time reading could ever convey. Everything Jesus did was intentional, multi-faceted, complex, loving, purposeful, wise, and a myriad of other things. Since Jesus is the full revelation of God and “all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in him” (Col. 1:19), it makes sense to reason that the thoughts of Jesus are not our thoughts, the ways of Jesus are not our ways–that his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9) In order for us to have the mind and attitude of Christ (Ph. 2:5) we must be willing to dig in– to seek, to see, to be changed. Jesus tells us that if we seek we will find (Mt. 7:7), but this is not a one time a week Sunday morning encounter; this is a lifelong journey with Jesus, one in which we discover new things and receive fresh revelations, as we allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and teach us.

Many of the things that Jesus did point to other things. Signs were part of his ministry. Signs are still part of his ministry. Pastor John defined signs as indicators of something greater–of there being more to an event than the event–he also cautioned us not to seek the signs, not to worship the signs, but to worship the One who gives the signs. Each sign is one piece of a much bigger picture. I like to think of signs as something that can give us holy wonder and curiosity. We can interpret signs in many ways–we may be right, partially right, or we may be wrong in our interpretations–so hold all of that loosely; however, pay attention. God is not silent and there are still plenty of signs to be seen.

Sign is the root word of signature and significance; therefore, can we say that God-given signs carry significance and bear His signature? I’ve shared many times about the summer I was in a difficult season and was praying in my backyard when a swallowtail butterfly flew right to me accompanied by the words “I see you, you are not alone.” For the next couple of months, every time I was deeply troubled a swallowtail would appear and my heart would hear the same message.  It was a few months later, long after the swallowtails had disappeared for that season,  that the power of the sign of the swallowtail and the message it carried literally kept me alive. I recalled it all through a long hard winter, even receiving a drawing of a yellow butterfly from a child in the month of January that year. It’s been eight years since that season, but every swallowtail I see reminds me of God’s faithfulness and his care for me during that time. Each one is significant–a sign to remind me that God sees me–I am not alone, and whoever happens to be with me when I see a swallowtail hears that message from my mouth–God sees, we are not alone. A sign. A message of significance. God’s signature.

This week our passage had us in Mark 8: 1-9 the feeding of the four thousand. A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the feeding of the five thousand. The feeding of the four thousand often seems to take a back seat to the first miracle, but it has much to offer, especially when compared to the feeding of the five thousand. What signs can we see in these miracles?

Jesus had compassion on both crowds, but the compassion had a different root. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). He took them under his wing, taught them many things, and provided guidance and leadership. He was concerned about their spiritual hunger.  In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus was moved to compassion by their physical hunger. He said of them  “My heart goes out to this crowd, for they’ve already been here with me for three days with nothing to eat.  I’m concerned that if I send them home hungry, they’ll be exhausted along the way, for some of them have come a long, long way just to be with me.” (Mark 8:2-3 TPT)

Could we take from these two similar but different stories the sign that Jesus is concerned about spiritual and physical needs? He ministered to both of those needs, and he led his followers to do the same. Is it a sign that his Church today, his followers, you and me, should be addressing both the spiritual and physical needs of the world?

In the feeding of the five thousand, we learn right away that there is both bread and fish to be multiplied. In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus asks the disciples how many loaves they have and learns that they have seven loaves. Jesus takes the seven loaves, gives thanks, breaks them, and has the disciples distribute the bread. Then we find out that there were a few small fish as well. The emphasis seems to be on the bread. Why? Is it a sign?

In the gospel of John, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). In John 6:51 Jesus says I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. In Matthew 26:26 we learn that at the last supper with his disciples before he was arrested he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Is the multiplied bread a sign that Jesus is here for the whole world, that when we come to him we find ultimate satisfaction?  Is it a sign that whatever we offer to Jesus becomes more in his hands–that our seven loaves can feed the masses and there will still be plenty leftover? Is it a sign that in God’s kingdom everyone counts, there is no shortage, that when those who have share with those who don’t have there is more enough for all?

Speaking of signs Pastor John encouraged us:

  1. To open our eyes and see signs as something Jesus used to help us see him in his fullness.
  2. To keep our eyes open and try to see all Jesus is trying to show us–not to see the sign as any type of conclusion–but as an indicator pointing to a bigger picture, a deeper truth, something significant.
  3. To stay focused on the Giver of the signs, not on the signs themselves.
  4. To blink. If we stare too intently for too long our eyes begin to burn, then they begin to tear and we lose clarity. Blinking helps us to see clearly.

In both miracles, there is great need in the midst of humanly impossible circumstances. There was no human way that 5000+ people or 4000+ people could be fed with the resources provided. I think this point is where many modern churches get stuck. We forget that nothing is impossible for God. We become skeptical (sometimes we call it logical). Often times the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds. Did he give us these biblical loaves and fish accounts as signs to help us remember that he can multiply anything we give to him in order to meet the needs of those around us?

Let’s be honest–the needs of the world, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. The needs right here in our city, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. Will our response be, “I’d love to get involved but I don’t have enough (fill in the blank) to make a difference? Or, I don’t really get what’s going on and am not sure I like it, so I’ll hang out on the sidelines and wait. Or will our response be “Father, how can I be part of what you’re doing?” and offer whatever we have. There’s more to offer than just money; we can offer our experience, our time, our homes, our hearts, our tables, our expertise, our love, our kindness, our encouragement, our prayers, our fellowship, our presence, our willingness to make space for whoever we encounter, our Jesus who loves all people, our Jesus who is moved with compassion over all the need, our Jesus who gives us purpose and includes us in his mission and ministry, our Jesus who takes what we offer, multiplying it beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

He chooses all of us to be part of his work on earth. He gives us personal signs to encourage us along, he gives us corporate signs to encourage us along, he gives us scriptural signs to encourage us along– all of these are indicators of something significant. Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.

–Luanne

“Oftentimes the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds…”

I’m not usually prone to skepticism. I tend to be an optimist–even, sometimes, an idealist. But there are situations and people that bring the skeptic out in me. The wrestling match Luanne described above is a real thing, especially when a situation that has felt daunting gets more daunting, and it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a time when it will be anything but daunting. It is in these situations, and in our interactions with these people– when we feel the skeptic in us rising up–that paying attention to the signs we are given is so very important.

I can’t help but think back to the end of chapter 6 in Mark when Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat with his disciples. In verse 52, we read that, “…they failed to learn the lesson of the miracle of the loaves, and their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson. (The Passion Translation)

Luanne ended her post with this exhortation:

“Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.” 

Both the story of the disciples I referenced and Luanne’s exhortation highlight a crucial component of sign-seeing. Our hearts.

The disciples saw the sign with their eyes. They were part of the miracle of feeding the 5,000 from beginning to end. But there was a disconnect somewhere. Mark 6:52 tells us exactly where that disconnect stemmed from. “Their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson.” Would it be fair to say that they were being skeptics about what they’d seen?

Maybe defining what a skeptic is would be helpful.

Skeptic: a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others. a person who doubts the truth of a religion, especially Christianity, or of important elements of it. (Dictionary.com) 

I don’t know if the disciples were being skeptics. But I know that I can be. I also know that when I take things at face value, without engaging my heart, skepticism leads to more skepticism and I end up in an ugly web of my own spinning…

If we’re only seeing with our eyes and not also with our hearts, we will find ourselves skeptical of everything we think we see. 

There are situations where a bit of skepticism is merited. But when it comes to journeying with Jesus, skepticism will not serve us well. Being skeptical of the mystery and wonder of the kingdom will keep us from seeing the kingdom come. Skeptics can see with their eyes, but skepticism will place scales over the eyes of our hearts.

The apostle Paul prayed this prayer over the Ephesisans:

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

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit. Why is this important? So that we will know and cherish the hope that is ours in Jesus, and so we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of his active power in us!

Hope and skepticism don’t go together. And if we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible. The “small” signs and wonders we see when we live with eyes and hearts wide open add up. And over time, we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of the One we follow.

Some of the most precious gifts I’ve received from God would be completely meaningless to someone else. But to me, these “signs” are significant and bear God’s signature. Like Luanne’s butterfly, these signs from God’s heart to mine convey that I am seen, valued, and loved by him. I may not interpret each one correctly, and that’s okay. The goal is that the signs point us to God. They give us a glimpse of our own beautiful smallness in light of his inexhaustible greatness and remind us that there is always hope. Living with our eyes and hearts wide open to the signs along the way keeps us awake to the wonder and mystery of Jesus. The signs offer us glimpses of depths we wouldn’t otherwise see, and remind us that our God is alive, active, and right here with us, in the thick of everyday life.

May we resist the lazy, limiting way of skepticism and embrace the hope that comes with choosing to live with our eyes–and our hearts–wide open to the signs of God all around us.

–Laura

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His Kindness for the Hurting

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus.  They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.              (Mark 6: 53-56)

Picking up where we left off last week– Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat by themselves while he stayed behind and prayed. A mighty wind arose and the disciples fought it for hours. Finally, Jesus came to them.  It’s interesting to note that Jesus had sent them to Bethsaida, but they landed in Gennesaret.  If you look at a map of the region, Gennesaret is nowhere near their original destination; the storm had taken them way off course. It’s also interesting to note that when Jesus walked out to them on the water, he went to where they were, not to where he had sent them. In his kindness, he will always meet us where we are, no matter how far off course we may find ourselves.

Once Jesus climbed into the boat with them and calmed the storm, they didn’t head for Bethsaida; they anchored in Gennesaret. Gennesaret is the region where Jesus freed the man who was possessed by a legion of demons. That man, after he was freed, wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus had him stay in Gennesaret  and said to him: “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 5:19-20) The man was faithful to what Jesus had asked him to do, so when Jesus and the disciples anchored in that region, they were recognized, and people came to Jesus; they knew he could do miraculous things–one of their own had experienced it and shared his story. 

I wish we could have a timeline–it would appear that Jesus stayed in this region for awhile–he went to villages, to towns, and the countryside and people brought their sick to the marketplaces, the “hub” of town so they could get near Jesus.

Pastor John highlighted three words as he shared this story: all; touched; healed.

All:  It’s important to note that Gennesaret was primarily a Gentile region, so once again, Jesus is breaking proper protocol and ministering to people who aren’t Jewish. Jesus is making himself available to “all”–to those who were “other”.  There is no one who is excluded from the love of God–no one. No person on planet earth who has ever lived, who lives now, or who will ever live is “other” in God’s eyes. We have got to understand this. Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?  Romans 2:4 reminds us that God’s kindness leads people to change their minds (repent) and come into a relationship with him, so it would make sense that the kindness of his followers would draw people to God’s unconditional love. ALL. All includes me. All includes you. All includes all.

Touched: It’s interesting in this passage that those in need of healing reached out to touch Jesus. I don’t know how many people were in these marketplaces, but the way Mark relays the story makes it sound like there were a lot. There are a couple of really interesting details to note: One, people who weren’t sick brought people who were sick to Jesus. Those who were well weren’t off doing their own thing. They were concerned about getting those who weren’t well close to Jesus. Two, those who were sick, once they were close to Jesus, had the opportunity to reach out and touch him. The well couldn’t take that step for the sick, but they could get the sick close to Jesus. Three, this is all happening in the center of town. Our relationship with Jesus is not a private matter or a church matter. Are we living in such a way that those around us can sense the nearness of Jesus? Do they know that he is close enough to touch?

Healed: Sometimes our English translations of scripture don’t do us any favors, and this is one of those times. In the book of Luke, chapter 17, there is a story of ten lepers who drew near to Jesus and asked him to heal them. Jesus “cleansed” them all. One of the 10–a Samaritan “other” — saw that he was “healed” and came back to thank Jesus. Jesus said to him, “Rise and go, your faith has made you well”.  Why the difference between cleansed, healed, and well? What do you think of when you think of the word “well”? You were sick, diseased, and now you are “well”? All the lepers were healed from leprosy–were they not all “well”? In this passage, the word “well” is the Greek word “sozo”.

In the passage in Mark we are looking at today,  healed is the word “sozo”–a verb; it means “to make whole, to keep safe and sound, to rescue from destruction, to save, to heal, to deliver or protect…”

We have a tendency to think of “healing” as only about the physical body. Jesus is concerned with our entire beings, and his “sozo” is about restoring us to wholeness, restoring us to flourishing…

It’s used 118 times in the New Testament:

In Matthew 1:21 we learn that Jesus shall “sozo” people from their sins.

When Peter was walking on the water and began to sink, he cried out for Jesus to “sozo” him.

The Son of Man came to “sozo” that which was lost.

And in John 3:17 we learn that Jesus did not come to the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, might be “sozo”.

October is the anniversary month of my mother’s death. I was only a child when I lost her, so when I became an adult I asked a close friend of hers to share what my mom was like as a friend. Marie shared many things with me but one story, in particular, stood out. Many people were praying for my mom to be healed from cancer. Marie went to visit my mom in the hospital right as an awkward fellow from our church was wrapping up his visit. Marie asked my mom if it had been hard for her to be trapped and not able to get away from what could have been an uncomfortable visit. My mom shared with Marie–I don’t believe that God is going to cure me, but he is healing me…healing me to see people the way he sees them and love them the way he loves them; today he gave me love for G.

That’s “sozo”. My mother was not cured of her cancer, but she was healed to love well even while she was sick, even while the awkward difficult to be around person was in her room. She experienced, in the “marketplace” of her hospital room, a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.  As her daughter, I will always lament that she wasn’t physically healed. As her sister in Christ, I can rejoice that she experienced Jesus in such a beautiful way even when she was sick. In “sozo” our earthly focus shifts from the things that matter to us, to the things that matter to the heart of God.

In some Christian traditions, the primary focus of faith is getting “saved”. Getting “saved” is often defined as a one-time transaction that gives people a ticket to heaven. Once they have their “ticket”, they can live any way they want to, because their after-life is secure. Sozo does not mean that. It is not static. It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.

I read an account a few months ago that challenged the static definition of salvation. The account used the illustration of the sinking Titanic–lifeboats were available for some, and the people who got into the lifeboats were “saved”.  What would the story have been like if the rescued stayed in the lifeboats and bobbed around in the ocean until they died? They weren’t “saved” to bob around in the ocean. Their salvation led them to new life. They were “saved” from something for something.  So are we.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of his global family. You can be made whole;  you can carry others into his presence so they can be made whole. This is what it means to advance God’s kingdom on earth. We are The Church–the gates of hell will not prevail against us–if we understand our mission. 

We are to experience God’s love and respond by loving God–heart, soul, mind, and strength (entire being). We are to love others. We are to share our stories with those around us–like the man who was set free from demons did. We are to be inclusive, (Samaritans, Romans, lepers, demon-possessed, women, sinners, tax collectors, Jews, Pharisees, poor, rich…everyone). We are to be Spirit-filled vessels who are bringing God’s kingdom to earth (the way Jesus modeled it), so that God’s will, will be done on earth as in heaven. And what is that will?

God wants everyone to know:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, would be “sozo”, made whole, healed.

God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit whose fruit is evident in our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. He has asked us to go everywhere and share that God is love and God is near. The ripple effect of God’s sozo can transform the world.

Our challenge: Experience God’s kindness. Reach out, touch him, let him mess in our business and make us whole, then, even while we’re still in process, carry others into his presence so that they too can reach out, touch him and be made whole…this is how it works. Are you in?

–Luanne

In her book, Searching for Sunday, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around, no matter the outcome.”

I wonder if Rachel and Luanne’s mom are now friends on the other side… It seems the two of them held very similar beliefs about healing—what it is, and what it’s not. Luanne wrote that her mom experienced “…a healing that was transforming her into more Christlikeness. She was becoming more whole even as her physical body failed.” I witnessed this kind of phenomenon as my own mom bravely fought a battle that ultimately led her, too, out of our physical world and into the arms of Jesus. I watched as she made peace inwardly with her failing flesh and bones; I stood baffled by her overriding concern for the rest of us, even as she struggled for her own breath. She wanted nothing more than to live for God’s glory—whether here on earth, or with him. She repeated that like a mantra, and she meant it. She knew she’d be healed—one way or the other. But her heart was never more whole than when the rest of her was falling into a million broken pieces. She understood “sozo”, though I doubt she was familiar with the word.

Maybe it’s not until we face our own mortality that we can fully embrace and adapt Jesus’ vision for healing. But I have to believe—because Jesus said over and over again that the Kingdom is here, now—that we can move toward a deeper understanding of this healing, this wholeness now. I love what Luanne wrote about “sozo.” She said, “It is dynamic. It is a verb. It is for right here, right now.” We can grow in our ability to experience and extend healing and wholeness right now.

Sarah Bessey, in her gorgeous book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, writes:

“I believe with all of my being that Jesus’ resurrection means that God’s heart is for our wholeness and our healing, for our belovedness and for our salvation, for goodness and mercy to chase after us and shape us. So I pray in that direction and trust that it is enough, that we will be shaped into Christ’s own, that our feet will find the path of peace, that our hearts will be tuned to cocreation and abundance and joy and love.”

But sometimes we get a picture in our minds of what our healing will look like. We tell ourselves, “When God fixes this, then ____________” We fill in that blank with our ideas of what the outcome will look like and why it will happen just that way—all to the glory of God, of course. To that, our friend Sarah adds,

“When we try to script our own resurrections, we miss the places where God wants to surprise us with a more full, more whole expression of healing than we could ever imagine.”

There’s something else that happens when we try to script our own resurrections… We become so focused on our own brokenness, our own pain, that we shut ourselves off from being those who extend wholeness and healing to others.

And sometimes we prefer it that way…

I heard someone say recently that we avoid the grief of others so that we’re not infected with it. It’s hard to enter into the pain of others in a real, present way. Compassion hurts. When we hear throughout the New Testament that Jesus was “moved with compassion”, it literally means that he felt it in his bowels. His insides lurched at the sight of those in need of healing. He suffered with them, so much that he felt it deep within his body. Is this how we respond when we see people in need of healing? Broken people desperate for wholeness? Maybe we need to back up and ask ourselves, Is this how we respond to our own desperate need for healing and wholeness? Do we regard ourselves with compassion? Shauna Niequist said recently, on The Eternal Current podcast, “I wanted to be part of building his kingdom on earth. But at a certain point I started realizing, I’m a part of that kingdom, too. So, if one little corner of the kingdom is suffering… take care of the whole kingdom, right? In a garden, you would never expect one plant to starve for all the rest. It’s not the right way to think about who we are and what we’ve been created for.”

Maybe we’ve never opened up our whole hearts to the “sozo” we need from Jesus. At a conference I attended recently, one speaker said that we have a God who makes “…redemption out of remnants; wholeness out of scraps.” But we have to choose to open up our broken hearts, to hold with our trembling hand our remnants and scraps, our fears and our scripts of how it’s supposed to be, and trust Jesus to bring the “sozo” we’re most in need of.

Then, as we are in the process of becoming whole, we bring others in. All others. Everyone.

I looked up the definition to “everyone”, just to make extra sure we understand. It does, in fact, mean, “every person.” Period. As Pastor John and Luanne both said, Jesus came for ALL. He made himself available to everyone. No one is excluded from encountering the love of God. No one is denied the experience of being made whole. Jesus’ healing is truly for all. Luanne asked us some probing questions, regarding this, that might make us squirm a little. And they should. She asked,

“Do we, his followers, live as if this is true? Do we love all others so they can be drawn to the love of God–or do we judge them, exclude them, rationalize why they are “other”, and huddle up together trying to keep ourselves and our churches “clean”?”

Can we answer these questions honestly? Whose presence in our sanctuaries would make us feel uncomfortable? Until we can truly answer, “No one would make us uncomfortable—there is no one who is seen as ‘other’ among us,” there is healing to be done within us. As we allow Jesus to save us his way, to cultivate his heart and his eyes within each of us and in all of us collectively, we will find that there is no need for our barriers, our rules, our exclusionary practices. Because seeing with his eyes destroys the dividing walls between “us” and “them”. And we are saved from ourselves and healed into wholeness, for the sake of the kingdom coming in all of its fullness. Here. Now. How beautiful is that picture?

Jesus’ kindness, his compassion for the hurting, the broken—all of us—is extravagant. It’s life-changing. He longs that we all experience it, and then extend it to everyone. Kindness… it’s so much bigger than a nice word we talk about with our toddlers. His kindness changes the world.

–Laura

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Next Steps: One Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

“Are we seeing each other?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kingdom is yours, the kingdom is yours

Hold on a little more, this is not the end

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

(“The Kingdom is Yours”, Common Hymnal)

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

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

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

–Laura

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