Dear Church #6: Philippians 3:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…he lays it all down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JESUS. 

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for all about jesus

Dear Church #5: Philippians 2:12-30

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

Salvation.

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

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

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

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

synonyms: redemption, deliverancereclamation
antonyms: damnation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…work out your salvation…

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

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

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

Salvation is a process. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for poured out

Dear Church #2- Philippians 1:12-18

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

…in chains for Christ. For Christ. FOR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God loves men. God loves women.

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

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

God loves Democrats. God loves Republicans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God loves victims of abuse. God loves abusers.

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

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. (John 3:16-17)   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For God so loved the world…do we?

–Luanne

3730232-Mother-Teresa-Quote-God-loves-the-world-through-us

Dear Church… (Philippians 1:1-11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The J.B. Phillips translation reads like this:

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

The Message translation puts it this way: 

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

 

The Battle: Enemy

I’m sure that you’ve seen the caricatures of the devil, like the one where he is red all over, has a tail, carries a pitchfork, etc. I wish he was that obvious because then his schemes would be easier to recognize and it would be easier not to cooperate with him. Frustratingly, he is crafty and subtle. Some of the names he is given in the New Testament include Satan, devil, tempter, evil one, deceiver, liar, father of lies, thief, accuser, enemy, prince of demons, prince of the power of the air,  and the most frightening to me…he masquerades as an angel of light. (2 Cor. 11:14)  We must be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves. (Mt. 10:16)

Isaiah 14: 12-14 tells us that Satan was a beautiful angel in heaven, but he wanted to elevate himself to the place of being worshipped–he wanted to be enthroned, he wanted to be God, so in an instant, as fast as a lightning strike, he was cast out of heaven to earth.  He still wants our worship.

In Luke 10:18 Jesus tells us that he was a witness to that event, he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. No doubt, Satan is powerful, but we must always remember that he is not most powerful. God is the almighty One, the all powerful One, and He is who we worship. However, all good warriors know the tactics of their enemy, and Satan most assuredly has a battle plan that we must be aware of.

Pastor John pointed out five pieces of the enemy’s plan for us to look for.

  1. The enemy wants to blind your mind. (2 Cor. 4:4) The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers…  I’ve said this before, and will say it again–I believe followers of Christ can fall into this category. I know there have been times when I’ve doubted God; times that I’ve lost sight of who He is. More than once I have found myself praying the prayer of the father in Mark 9:24 I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief! When we choose doubt, when we choose unbelief, we allow our minds to be blinded, and we cooperate with the scheme of the enemy. Our minds are powerful–it is incredibly important to pay attention to what is going on in that arena. AND it is incredibly important to realize that people who don’t yet know Jesus are blinded. They cannot see. Jesus said that he came to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recover sight for the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19) We who know Him are the ones carrying out His ministry today. We must recognize that people are blind, pray for their sight, refuse to judge them for acting lost, and enter into their lives with love, compassion, action, and words.

2. The enemy wants to steal God’s word from you (Mt. 13:19) When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. The enemy is actively working against us to make the truths of God’s kingdom hard to remember. That’s why we must invest time and energy into studying, memorizing, and reading God’s word. All scripture is important, but as Christ’s followers I think it’s incredibly important to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John over and over and over again–we have to know our Savior–and the rest of it is then read through the lens of Jesus.  We must take time daily to get God’s word into our livesThe enemy wants it out of our lives…let’s refuse to cooperate.

3. The enemy sets traps. (2 Tim. 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance…that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.  I hate acknowledging how many times I’ve fallen for his traps. Any time I take on an us/them mentality or a me/you mentality or an I’m all alone mentality, or a poor pitiful me mentality, I have fallen for the trap. Any time I give in to a temptation, I have fallen for the trap. James 1:14 explains very vividly, using conception and birth language, how this happens: …each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

  1. Satan tempts us according to our own evil desires. It’s personal. What might be tempting for me may not be tempting for you and vice versa.
  2. We follow the temptation, join ourselves–our heart, our soul, our thoughts, our flesh–with it.
  3. We carry the action through to giving birth to sin–doing what we were tempted to do.
  4. If we continue along this path, it leads to death. ( Can be death of relationships, death of purpose, death of dreams, death of unity, many things can die…)

We are never at the mercy of Satan. We can stop the process at any point, we can repent at any point, we can run to Jesus at any point–but we must be aware of the process in order to recognize it when it’s happening.

4. The enemy fights to stop you. (1 Thess. 2:18) For we wanted to come to you—but Satan blocked our way.  We must be aware that when we are on mission with God, the enemy will not make that easy for us. Paul circumvented what the enemy was doing by writing letters…he still got his message to the Thessalonians even though he was unable to get there in person. Roadblocks must not stop us. We have one purpose on this planet, and that is to populate the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth….deliver us from evil….. If His kingdom is to come on earth, it will come through those of us who call Jesus our Lord and are being transformed to His likeness.  We must recognize the “stop” tactics for what they are and persevere in our mission to love people into the arms of Jesus.

5. The enemy plans to destroy you. (1 Peter 5:8) Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour(John 10:10a) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy… We are the deeply loved image bearers of God. Satan hates God. Satan hates us. He wants to keep those who don’t yet know the love of the Father from ever knowing it. He wants to keep those of us who do know the love of the Father from being all that God made us to be in Christ therefore rendering us ineffective in kingdom work.

What is our response to his scheme?  James 4:7-8a  Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you…

A couple of things to note in that verse–

  1. Submit means to place yourself under the control of, be subordinate to–So we must place ourselves under the control of God and do life His way.
  2. Every use of the word “you” in these verses is the plural form.
  3. Resist is a military term which indicates that all of the forces on one side are working together to go after the one common enemy–Satan– not against one another. It means every believer in every denomination, in every country, all across the face of the globe– The Church– recognizing that we are on the same team to advance the Kingdom and principles of Jesus and to keep the enemy from gaining any territory. None of us fight the battle alone. When the capital “C” church gets this figured out, it will change the world.

Any time we fall into the trap that our battle is against flesh and blood rather than against our one enemy, we are headed for trouble. Jesus tells us over and over in Matthew 24 that it is possible for his followers to be deceived:

verses 4-5 Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.

10-11 …many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,  and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people

24–false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect

We, His children, must pray constantly for the Holy Spirit to reveal to us our blindspots, the areas where we are deceived, the ideologies that we take as “gospel” truth, We must be careful about elevating people and blindly following. We must be careful about following tradition or culture over Truth. Satan masquerades as an angel of light. Not everything that appears good is good. We must be careful about worshiping things other than God–whether it be political figures, nations, policies, news stations, sports teams, celebrities, money, pastors, teachers, authors, spouses, children, work, self, etc. and ask the Lord to open our blind minds to see clearly. We must ask Him to show us who we’ve “othered” and ask Him to help us love them well and remember that we are all on the same team. Our fight is for each other against the one enemy. His word is clear. His kingdom looks like the Sermon on the Mount–(Mt. 5, 6, 7) Do our kingdoms look like that?  Let’s not be afraid to repent, let’s not be afraid to step out of our comfort zones for His name and His glory. Let’s fight the good fight and do this His way. Are you in?

–Luanne

  Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you… (James 4:7-8a)

I love that Luanne broke down James 4:7 and defined the imperatives “submit” and “resist”. I am grateful for the reminder that submission isn’t forced–it’s a choice. We choose what we place ourselves under. And we all place ourselves under something… If that something is anything other than God, we are playing right into our enemy’s hand. It is also vitally important that we know and remember that resist is a plural word. It’s not something we do all alone. And who we resist is never one another–it is always our enemy. His ways, his lying words, his plans… When we stand together in resistance, he flees from us. The Greek word for “flee” in this verse is “pheugo”, which means “to seek safety by flight, escape safely out of danger, to vanish“.

There is one more imperative in these verses out of James: “Come near to God…” And the promise: “…and he will come near to you…” When Pastor John read these verses on Sunday, I knew I wanted to spend some time digging in here. When I looked up root words and definitions for the phrase “come near”, I found some things I didn’t expect. [I love it so much when that happens–it’s another great reason to really spend time in the Word, to dig into this gift of Scripture that we’ve been given and really chew on it–not just the words themselves, but also definitions, connections, and applications for our lives. The Holy Spirit will illuminate the words and enlighten us if we’ll give Him the chance…] 

When I followed the words back to their roots, one definition of the phrase stood out above the others: “to join one thing to another“. One of the examples given was the arms of the oceans… They are joined together so seamlessly that we can’t distinguish where one ends and another begins.

This is our invitation… 

Place ourselves under the control of God. Work together to send our enemy fleeing for safety. And be joined to God. And He will join Himself to us. Seamlessly, intimately–so close that lines of separation are indistinguishable.

This same phrase with the same root words is used by Jesus in Matthew 4:17:

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Through Jesus, the kingdom that He talked at length about in Matthew 5,6,7 which Luanne mentioned above, the kingdom of heaven, has been joined together our earthly experience. It’s not something we wait for on the other side, something that exists once our time on earth is through. The kingdom of heaven is here. Now. Inextricably connected to us and living within those of us who know Jesus.

The usage of “you” in James 4:8 (“…and he will come near to you…”) is the same word used in verse 7. Again, it is not talking to us as individuals. It is plural and it is a call to all of us who follow Jesus as Lord. Verse 7 tells us to collectively place ourselves (as one Church) under the authority of God and to come together to resist our enemy. And verse 8 begins by telling us to then be joined together with our God. It is not a me and my God concept. It is us and our God. All of us who, collectively, make up the bride of Christ.

WE. HAVE. TO. GET. THIS. RIGHT.

We have to stop separating ourselves from each other and living judgmental, critical, individualized lives. We have to stop fighting with each other and understand that the body of Christ is so beautiful because of our differences, not in spite of them. We need each other. If every soldier on the battlefield thought exactly the same way and had the same gifts and set of skills, that army would never be successful. It is necessary that armies engage their battles from all sides, with many different strategies, and from different positions in the field. The same is true fro us. I’ll say it again–we need each other.

Carlos Rodriguez, in his book Drop the Stones, writes these words…

“I am one in heart with every Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, and all others in our family who celebrate the name (and the ways) of Jesus Christ… Through us the prayer of Jesus will be answered, ‘That they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.’ [John 17:23] We need our Orthodox family. We need our brothers and sisters in the megachurches. We need the underground church in China as well as our Reformed relatives in America. We need one billion Catholics to join hands together with us in solidarity, in prayer, and in service… I believe that not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together. To learn from each other. To grow with each other. And to stop calling each other the Antichrist.”

What do you say, Church? What will we choose? Will we continue to see our enemy in other flesh and blood? Or will we embrace that our earthly lives have been joined together with the kingdom of heaven and move together as the collective Church of Jesus against our real enemy? The enemy has a battle plan. He knows it inside and out. James gives us our battle plan, the one that will send our enemy fleeing. Let’s make it our goal to know it, to remember it, and to put it into practice. Together.

–Laura

Image result for masquerades as an angel of light

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

I’ve been in a bit of a funk for a few days. Maybe for longer than I care to admit. I’ve been distracted by many things, and I can easily focus on the distractions–the areas in my life where I am discontent, the long winter season in Wyoming and how I long for spring, the distance that I live from my children and grandchild, relationships that seem difficult in this season, and a wall (self-constructed) between God and me, so Jonathan’s sermon was just what my thirsty soul needed.

On Sunday, Jonathan Schmidt shared his own journey with us beginning with his call into the ministry 32 years ago, through his seasons of running and God’s continuing pursuit, and then the season of pastoring a church and losing sight of his First Love while maintaining what he referred to as Church Incorporated. He was not blaming the church; he recognized that he had become entrenched in the “doing”. He had let other things come in and take his focus and had forgotten the call to love God first.

He reminded us that we can be in the church and lose our way, because we forget to love God first. He reminded us that it is easy to walk away from the simplicity of “Jesus loves me” and get lost in Bible Study, ministry activities, maintaining programs, and doing.

Bible study, ministry activities and the like are good things, but they are no substitute for living from the place of knowing that God loves us first, and that because of His great love we can love Him in return with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we can love our neighbors as ourselves. He reminded us that all of the Old Testament, the law and the prophets, are fulfilled by loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as ourselves. ALL of the Old Testament, ALL of the message of Christ fulfilled in those two things. (1st John 4:19, Mt 22:37-40, Luke 10:30)

Why do we complicate it so much when it’s really this simple:

  1. God loves us. He proved it in Christ. Believe it, embrace it, let the Holy Spirit have access to your life.
  2. When we know that God loves us, we live from a new place, a new identity, and we can love ourselves in a healthy way because we are loved.
  3. That love spills over to those around us, they take notice, they desire to know this love, we teach them what we have learned from Christ (making disciples Mt. 28:19-20), and they come into relationship with Christ continuing the beautiful cycle.

Simple–and it all starts with love.

A number of years ago I was driving across rural Kansas trying to find something to listen to on the radio (that’s all I had access to back in the day). I came upon a sermon that sounded intriguing , and heard the pastor say that it’s not enough for Jesus to be Lord and Savior–He must also be our treasure–and then I lost the station. Some miles later I was still trying to find a radio station and I came upon the same sermon at the same moment, heard the same line and then lost the station.

All of a sudden I wasn’t interested in finding a radio station. I knew that God was speaking to me, and I asked Him to teach me what it means for Jesus to truly be my treasure.

What I treasure I love, I think about, I tend to, I enjoy.

Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. (Mt. 6:21)  Did my relationship with Jesus indicate that he is my treasure? That I love him, live for him, and enjoy him above all else? Hmmm. I had some work to do. I had been in love with Jesus before, and I recognized that I needed to return to Him again as my first love. (Rev 2:4). It took a brief moment of confession and expressing my desire to love Him deeply asking Him to meet me where I was. He did–the funk lifted and I experienced beautiful closeness with Him again.

Fast forward to my recent funk. I had begun the current “funk-lifting” process on Saturday morning, and Jonathan’s sermon led me to the next step, so confession and expression is what I did again after his message.

Jonathan shared with us that he had a mentor who asked him: Do you think people really want to spend eternity with Jesus?  We’ll be with Him for eternity–if we don’t want to be with Him now, why would we want to be with Him for eternity?  Hmmm.

That question reminded me of something I heard in another sermon a few years ago:

“The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—
is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the
friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and
all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties
you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no
human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with
heaven, if Christ were not there? ” (John Piper)

That’s quite a question and quickly reveals where our hearts and priorities are.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in our hearts. John 17:3 tells us that “this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  John 13:35 tells us that by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

 We cannot love one another if we don’t know God’s love for us and respond to His love by loving Him heart, soul, mind, and strength  It feels pretty important, pretty foundational that we know those things.

There is a tremendous difference between the type of relationship described above and being religious. Jonathan’s Church Incorporated dilemma which led him to leave his church and begin the journey back to his First Love was the result of religious activity.

Religion kills. There is no joy, no life in religious activities. Religion leaves folks burned out, frustrated, and angry at the world and all the people who don’t see things the way they do.  Love, on the other hand, gives life, embraces beauty, draws people in, stays with people in their mess, learns from others, and chooses relationship.

Religion turns people into projects and Christianity into a list of dos and don’ts. Love sees the value, the image of God, in all people, and sees Christianity as being in a real and vibrant relationship with Jesus. A relationship of fellowship, enjoyment, trust, honesty, authenticity, transparency, transformation, wrestling–no rules, no boxes to check off, just Someone to love and be loved by. Someone to get to know on a deep and intimate level.

The Apostle Paul is a great example of this. When he was religious he had position, authority, power. He was important in the eyes of the religious community. He was outspoken, and he was mean–so much so that he was totally sold out to destroying the lives of Jesus’ followers. (His story is found in the book of Acts).

Then he met Jesus. He was humbled, blinded for a few days, (a physical manifestation of the spiritual condition he had been in) and changed forever. Changed to the degree that this man of position, authority, power, “the good life”, tells us in 2nd Corinthians 11  that he has been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches…

Yet, in spite of all of those things in Chapter 4 tells us his perspective on the suffering (which we are promised as Christ followers) when he writes: our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

And in Philippians 3: 7-9 He tells us why: But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…

Paul knew that Jesus was his treasure. He knew what Jesus meant to Him, who Jesus was to Him, and He wanted everyone else to know Jesus too.  Everything in his life, after his encounter with Jesus, flowed from the treasure of Paul’s heart, and the world was changed as a result.

Where do you find yourself today? Do you know that God loves you? It all starts there. Do you respond to His love with love? Have you wandered a bit from the simplicity of the relationship and gotten distracted by many things? Are you in a funk?

The solution? Sit in His love, let it wash over you. Talk to Him about where you’ve been and respond to His love with love for Him. You will be changed and the world will be changed. The things that matter to His heart will matter to yours, and the world will know we are His followers by our love.

–Luanne

Jonathan talked about our being “living sacrifices” in his message. He then asked us if we were trying to crawl off the altar. I immediately thought about a verse that I have on a notecard in my bathroom. I read it every day and pray it regularly. It is Psalm 5:3. I have the Message version on my notecard. It reads this way:

 “Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on your altar and watch for fire to descend.”

I put this verse up about a year ago. It’s not one I could have prayed honestly many years ago. Luanne mentioned above what Jonathan said so beautifully in his message. He said that we have to learn to “sit in the love of God”. I love this thought for a lot of reasons, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to take the liberty to expand it a bit…

See, I think we continue to crawl off of the altar—we move away from offering ourselves daily as living sacrifices—until we’ve braved sitting in the fire of God’s love. We climb up on the altar and with faltering voices say, “He-he-here, I am God… waiting for you…”  But as He approaches with His white-hot love, the heat of His presence causes us to slink off the altar and crawl to a… safer distance. Until we brave the heat for the first time. It’s not until we let the fire of His love engulf us that we realize-like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did in the furnace-that we won’t be consumed. That Jesus meets us within the fire and it’s while we sit there with Him that we become unbound. Once we experience Him in this way, our fear of the fire is replaced by the assurance of His goodness and our hearts begin to burn white-hot in response to His blazing love for us. Only then does the altar become a place we long to go and meet with Him, offer our lives to Him, daily.

I remember when I began to get comfortable with laying every piece of my life on the altar, offering all of me as a living sacrifice…  It was during one of the most painful seasons of my life. The trouble (that Jonathan reminded us is a guarantee, part of the deal when we give our lives to following Jesus…) surrounded me. My heart was broken for so many different reasons—rejection, betrayal, problems in my marriage, family tensions, financial tension, a ridiculous amount of fear; among other things… I have never felt more alone, more unsure of who I was. I didn’t understand God’s love for me. The shame of my past was suffocating me. It was during that season that I resolved to wait. To lay my life out before God and wait for Him to come, fire and all. I was afraid. But the brokenness and the loneliness outweighed the fear. And I asked Him to come to me. To show me He loved me. To make me believe it. I told Him I would do whatever He asked—I just wanted to be free. To know who He was, really, and who I was in Him…

I didn’t have some grand vision… but I felt Him come close. I physically sensed His presence. He engineered playlists and laid open the pages of my bible as He directed me to things He wanted me to know. I felt the heat of His love surround me… and it was tempting to retreat. I couldn’t control this reckless love that ran toward me. And I knew that if I stayed there, if the fire fully surrounded me, everything would change. Everything needed to change… But I knew that change meant surrender. It meant pain. And while the storms of my heart couldn’t get much worse, I wasn’t sure I was ready for what His fire may burn away in my life. I was afraid. But I was desperate. And so I stayed put. I listened. And for a season, He called me His beautiful beloved. I doubted what I heard the first time, but it kept happening and I knew what I heard. I began to believe it…

As I sat in the fire of His love, he refined my heart. He rebuilt me. He spoke sweetly, intimately to me. I remember feeling so exposed, completely vulnerable-and completely, totally, known and loved. It was disarming, disorienting and freeing.

I couldn’t have prayed Psalm 5:3 until I experienced the love of Jesus this way. I wish I could say that every day when I see that verse on my cupboard door, I am willing and ready to pray it with all of my heart. But that wouldn’t be true. See, the reason that verse is taped up in my bathroom where I’ll see it every day is because I need the reminder. Even though I’ve experienced the white-hot love of Jesus that changed me-that changes everything-it’s still not natural to offer up every bit of me, every single day, and release my hold on control over myself and my life. Because I know what it can mean… When you offer all that you are and invite the fire of God to descend, you give up every right to yourself. It’s a daily dying. And it hurts…

Because sometimes, when He meets me on the altar of daily sacrifice, He tells me to do things I don’t want to do…

Stay… Go… Love her… Embrace him… Give… Speak… Start… Stop… Forgive… Let go…

He always invites me to remember that this world is not my home. That in this world I will have trouble-but I can take heart because He has overcome the world. He gives me an opportunity to say, every day, “Not my will, but yours be done…”, and I find that I rarely would choose on my own to do His will, His way.

Jonathan called himself a “reluctant prophet”, always running from the thing God was calling him to do. I think we all can be reluctant prophets. We can all at least identify with the “reluctant” part. And often, in our reluctance, we build barriers. Barriers between us and the altar we’re invited to offer ourselves on daily. Barriers that keep us from loving God with our hearts, souls, minds and strength and from loving our neighbors with that same love. We build these barriers because we want to stay safe from the trouble Jesus told us we would have in this world. Because the trouble hurts. And we don’t like pain. We do all kinds of things to try to escape it. But we can’t. Ann Voskamp writes, in her book Be the Gift,

“There isn’t a barrier in the world that can block out pain. There isn’t a wall you can build that protects you from pain. Addiction, escapism, materialism, anger, indifference—none of these can stop pain—and each one creates a pain all its own. There is no way to avoid pain. There is no way to avoid brokenness. There is absolutely no way but a broken way. Barriers that falsely advertise self-protection are guaranteed ways of self-imprisonment. Barriers that supposedly will protect your heart so it won’t break are guaranteed to break your heart anyway. Yet being brave enough to lay your heart out there to be broken, to be rejected in a thousand little ways, this may hurt like a kind of hell—but it will be holy. The only way in the whole universe to find connection… is to let your heart be broken.”

Jesus modeled this for us. He laid out His heart-knowing we would break it-that we would break Him-but it was the only way for us to be connected to Him. And He invites us to lay our hearts out, too. To follow His lead. He will never break our hearts or reject us—but He will call us to die to ourselves for the sake of others who will. And this is something we are incapable of doing if we haven’t first sat in the fire of His love. But if we know His wild, relentless, crazy love for us, if we’ve let Him break open the seed of our hearts so that we can love Him in return, it gets easier to embrace the trouble, the pain of this life. Because when we sit in His love, He becomes our treasure, as Luanne so beautifully wrote about above. And if He’s our treasure, we realize that yes, we do want to spend eternity with this Jesus that has loved us back to life and that, truly, He is what makes eternity appealing to our hearts at all. And we can exclaim with the psalmist, A single day in your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else!” (Psalm 84:10a, NLT)

–Laura

Image result for Love God love others

Overcoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for quotes about overcomingImage result for scripture about shining our light

 

 

Stories-Angela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

Related image

Stories… “Arise, My God”

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

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

And He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

3AF2A84A-3EC8-40B7-B8AA-461ECC8B5298

Final Greetings (Colossians 4:7-18)

Paul’s final greetings–I had no idea I would get so much out of this sermon! John highlighted different names in this passage; names that mean “one who hits the mark”, “useful”, “a great ruler”, “lovely”, “light giver”, “bridegroom”, and “one who began something powerful”.   Adjectives and phrases used to describe them include “dear brother”, “faithful minister”, “fellow servant”, “fellow prisoner”, “co-workers for the kingdom of God”, “comfort to me”, “always wrestling in prayer”, “working hard for you”…. And John reminded us to follow their lead using these phrases:

  1. Fulfill your destiny.
  2. Be useful.
  3. Lead well.
  4. Keep praying.
  5. Share the story.
  6. Be ready.
  7. Don’t give up.

Can you imagine if today’s church, and by church I mean you and me, as in each individual that makes up the church, really grasped these seven things? When I think about Jesus saying to Peter “upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Mt. 16:18)  I hear Him saying “there is a plan for you, Church.  You have a destiny to fulfill.  Are you willing to enter in and do this My way?” 

As Paul describes these men and women, we see how they were united in one purpose–to make Christ known. They each had a role to play, and they were doing it. As a collective whole each individual role became part of something so huge that we are still beneficiaries of their obedience today.  We can live this way too! Today’s church can still impact the world;  however, we must acknowledge that as a whole we have become sidetracked. We are married to things other than Christ. We must humble ourselves, confess our infidelity, and renew our vows to Him and Him alone.

There are three statements that I came across on Twitter last week that I have been pondering:

  1. “A 30-minute sermon won’t teach people to love neighbors. Their cable news teaches them all week to fear/hate. They’ve already been discipled.”
  2. “People may hate me because of Jesus, he told us to expect that, but if they hate Jesus because of me there’s a problem.”
  3. “Choose the third way.”

Paul and his companions chose the third way; the Jesus way, which is all about beautiful, diverse community working in unity to make Jesus known. In his “final greetings” group there are Jews and Gentiles, there is a woman, there is a run-away slave (a dear brother) returning to his master, there are those who aren’t chained in prison and those who are, and they each understand that they have purpose and that they are living for something much bigger than themselves; something colossal. They have understood the call of Jesus to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your souls and with all your mind…and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:37;39). And to express this love by going “to 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).  

And do you know what happens when we obey Christ (the way he asks us to), love God, love others, bring them into relationship with Christ and teach them to obey Him? The Kingdom of heaven comes on earth. It really is that simple.

Oh, Lord Jesus, take us back to the simplicity of your original call. All that the church has become that doesn’t line up with your Word–expose it for the idol that it is. Shatter the idols, the false gods, the false doctrines, the twisted scriptures, the cultural interpretations of scripture, the narrow lenses, the hate, the meanness, the judging, the racism, the pride. Refine your bride. May we be discipled by you, not our culture. Breathe new life into us as we pursue the third way; your way. May we be about love, peace and reconciliation, the way you’ve asked us to. May we heed the words that Paul spoke to Archippus when he wrote: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord” (v18), and may we chain ourselves to you, the real you, forever.

–Luanne

Luanne wrote:

“And do you know what happens when we obey Christ (the way he asks us to), love God, love others, bring them into relationship with Christ and teach them to obey Him? The Kingdom of heaven comes on earth. It really is that simple.”

I think she beautifully summed up what we’ve learned through our study of Colossians. It has been a call to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, to align our lives with His, to love Him and others God’s way and to usher in the Kingdom-on earth as it is in heaven.

On the last day of our 21 Days of Prayer, some of our children led our corporate prayer time by opening with the Lord’s prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13)

It brought tears to my eyes to see the next generation leading us–and it was evidence of the Kingdom advancing as their young hearts learned to connect with God’s in prayer.

I looked back through every blog we’ve written during this series and in 12 of the 13, one or both of us wrote at least a little bit about the Kingdom. And in the one that didn’t include the word “kingdom”, the concept was still there. I don’t think that’s an accident at all. I believe that Jesus desires his bride, the Church, to really get this, to grab hold of the idea that the Kingdom really can come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus talked about it all the time during His ministry. And Paul, in his letters-especially in Colossians, tells us how.

John mentioned the Kingdom in this week’s sermon. He said this:

“Don’t sit back and watch the Kingdom of God expand without you being on the front line.” 

And that is the challenge. This week’s sermon hit me hard. Like Luanne, I didn’t expect to get so much out of Paul’s final greetings. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears more than once. I didn’t expect to feel the fire of the Holy Spirit engulfing my heart as I listened. But that’s what happened to me. I’m still processing all that God spoke and is speaking to me. But here’s what I know–

I don’t want to sit back and watch the Kingdom of God expand with me sitting on the sidelines.

Except when I do.

I think we all long to be a part of ushering in the Kingdom-to play our parts in the great symphony that is the Church. We were born with a God-given desire to realize our purpose and live our lives for something, Someone, bigger than ourselves. John laid out in his sermon seven ways we can follow the early church’s lead in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth. Luanne listed them above and I’m going to repeat them here:

  • Fulfill your destiny.
  • Be useful.
  • Lead well.
  • Keep praying.
  • Share the story.
  • Be ready.
  • Don’t give up.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Where our expressed desire to make a difference translates into leveraging our lives-all that we have and all that we are-to make that difference. The one that we were each uniquely created to make.

Which one of the seven holds you back? Keeps you from assuming your position on the front line? Is there more than one? For me, there are two. Lead well & Don’t give up. I’ve never seen myself as a leader, yet God has appointed me to lead in several different areas. I didn’t even realize it until today–I still haven’t fully embraced it. But I know that if I don’t embrace God’s call to lead in the areas He’s asked me to, I will be choosing the sideline rather than the front line. And, friends, the sideline is easier. But it doesn’t usher in the Kingdom. 

There are other things I know God has called me to do, but I’ve gotten scared… I’ve gotten lost in the how and the when and even the why at times–so I’ve given up rather than pressing in and pressing on.

In Colossians 4:17, Paul instructs Archippus:

“See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord”.

I’m not fully aware of the extent of the “ministry” I have received in the Lord. But I know that those words pierced my heart as John read them, and God spoke them directly to me in that moment.

So I will take what I have learned, what I’m still learning, from this beautiful book of Colossians, and I will use the tools I’ve been given to step into my position on the front line. Because Jesus is Lord of my life and my desire truly is to see His Kingdom come on earth. It takes all of us doing our part. We can do it, church. We can do it together. Will you join us on the front line?

–Laura

Image result for quotes about the kingdom of god