Teach Me to Serve

What comes to mind when you hear the word serve? What about when you hear it at church? What if it is coming out of your pastor’s mouth from the pulpit? We heard the word come out of Pastor John’s mouth more than a few times on Sunday, as our second installment in our “Teach Me” series centered on serving. What does it really mean to serve, and what does it require of us? Pastor John began by telling us that this is not about shaming or “should-ing”; it is not a manipulative tactic to get any of us to do more or be better or give extra. This is about understanding what serving really is, as well as what it is not.

The text we looked at in this week’s message was Joshua 24:1-24. I’ve included verses 14-18 from that passage below:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

The people responded to Joshua, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord and to serve other gods!” We know, as Joshua did, that it is not far from any of us to reach for, follow and, ultimately, worship (give our attention, focus, devotion and love to) other gods. We will all serve someone or something. Our hearts are wired to worship and if our hearts are not set on our God, they will be set on something—or someone–else.

Pastor John told us that serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others—sometimes by churches. God doesn’t place expectations on us, though. God invites.

What exactly does God invite us into? Wholehearted, focused kingdom living. Pastor John pointed out that we cannot serve if we are divided and distracted, if our attention is split between God and our other gods. We can look like we’re serving, but our hearts will give us away every time…

Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (NIV)

And Matthew 6:24 reminds us, “How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other…” (TPT)

Pastor John referred to the story of Nehemiah that we touched on last week to give us an example of what it looks like to serve with undivided focus, with hearts set on a call—however unreasonable and impossible that call might seem at the time. We don’t know if Nehemiah had the skills needed to rebuild the walls, but we do know that he was determined to do what God placed on his heart to do. He faced opposition and distraction, but he remained focused on the task at hand. And because he was focused, he was able to see deception when it came his direction. He was wholeheartedly devoted–and it protected him from a multitude of attacks and schemes.

This is an important point. Nehemiah saw the deception because he was focused. We cannot see what is in front of us if we’re not focused. Just as our unfocused eyes cannot clearly see even what is right in front of us, unfocused hearts cannot discern with any clarity what is coming our way. If our attention is split in different directions, the eyes of our hearts will be blurred by the whiplash caused by being pulled this way and that. Nehemiah’s heart was whole, set on his God, and so he was wholly focused on the work he needed to do. He made a choice, and he was committed to seeing it through.

Ultimately, serving is a choice. As I wrote earlier, God invites us to serve. Then he leaves it up to us. In our passage, Joshua says to the people, ”…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (from Joshua 24:16). Where will we place our focus, attention, worship, and love? Whatever and whoever our hearts love, we will serve. God wants our whole hearts, he wants us to live fruitful lives in service to his kingdom, and he wants to infuse our serving with impact and growth that will bear good fruit, but he won’t make us do it his way. We are the wielders of our own willingness. God won’t force us into submission. But he wants so much for us to grow into our healthiest, most whole selves.

Beth Moore, in the introduction to her latest book, Chasing Vines, writes:

“God wants you to flourish in Him. Every last thing He plants in your life is intended for that purpose. If we give ourselves fully to His faithful ways, mysterious and painful though they may be at times, we will find that it’s all part of the process that enables us to grow and bear fruit… And so we find ourselves at a crossroads. If we have guts enough to believe that we were created by God to flourish in Christ, we have a choice to make. Will we sit idly by and wait for it to happen, as if our cooperation isn’t part of the process? Or will we set out, light on our feet, with hearts ablaze, and give chase to this call to flourish?”

How is serving connected to flourishing? When we are filled with gratitude for all that God has done and we have learned to trust him with our lives, that gratitude produces joy, and joy inspires us to share, to give, and to serve. Serving from a place of deep love and joy creates new life and bears good fruit.

And we already know the model friends…

When Jesus called out to his disciples, “Come, follow me,” what was he inviting them into? What example did he give them to follow? He was inviting them—and us—to follow him into a life of self-giving love in service of the kingdom of God, to follow him into places that are unsafe among people who are sometimes unlovely. This is one of Jesus’ invitations to learn from him:

 “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.” (Matthew 11:28-30, TPT)

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

All that he requires of us will not be hard for us to bear...

This passage is not saying that everything that happens to us will be pleasant and easy, that our lives will be carefree. But it does tell us that Jesus is our life-giver and he wants to teach us his kingdom ways. We’ll find in him no sense of obligation or expectations; he won’t ever manipulate our affections. He will be our place of refuge and will teach us how to live refreshed in him. What is required?

That we come to him. That we follow him and seek to learn.

This takes willingness, vulnerability, flexibility in our “plans.” It may mean that we relinquish our vision of how things ought to be in order to adapt his vision—and we may have to do that over and over again as we journey with him. It will definitely require that we recall what we have learned about how to trust.

If we come to Jesus in this way, we won’t have to try to cultivate wholehearted focus. If we watch him, learn from him, follow him, we will be completely captivated by this One who came to serve–not to be served–that we won’t be able to stop ourselves from falling in love. He is that good, and his ways are that compelling. We will find these things for ourselves if we’ll simply make the choice to come. We all get to choose this day who we will serve, dear friends. May we choose well…

–Laura

Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

Joshua 24: 15 is written on plaques and hung on walls, written on garden stones and placed in yards, even stuck to the back of cars. We make declarations, buy reminders, and then forget what we’ve pledged to do. As Joshua was reminding the people of God’s incredible faithfulness, as he was making his declaration that he and his household would serve the Lord, he implored the Israelites to make a choice. As Laura reminded us above, the people responded that they would choose the Lord. They said emphatically: We will serve the Lord. However, just a few verses later, Joshua says to them: “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (24:23)

That struck me as I listened to Pastor John’s sermon. The people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years with the Lord providing for all their needs. They had faced opposition. They had experienced the Lord’s deliverance time and time again. Yet, after all this time, with their feet finally in the land that was promised to them, and with, what I believe was sincerity of heart, they expressed a desire to serve the Lord, so Joshua reality checked them and reminded them that they still had foreign gods in their possession. They’d carried them for years.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Israelites; it’s more difficult to self-reflect and see what false gods we carry with us.

Laura wrote above: …serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others… God doesn’t place expectations on us… God invites.

We are invited into a beautiful life of Christ-likeness, of service, of gratitude. Yet, we sometimes get this confused. We place expectations on God. We misunderstand who God is, how gentle God is, how inviting God is. We forget that God loves us fully, completely, unconditionally. We try to earn God’s pleasure (or stuff) by striving, or by bartering. My relationship with God functioned like that for a very long time–and then God pointedly, but lovingly showed me the system I had created. He brought me face to face with my incredibly mixed motives in serving Him.

I was in my late twenties. Two of my three children were born. My husband had completed seminary and had been called to serve as youth pastor in a church in the Atlanta area. I wanted to begin establishing relationships with people in the church, so I joined a small group study of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. A few weeks into that study, I was at home lying on the sofa and God met me there. He showed me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him as a barter system. He revealed that my mindset (heart-set), was…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die while my children are young (like my mom did). Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that John will not die and he’ll be able to provide for us and take care of us. Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you, if you promise me that my children will be healthy and I won’t lose any of them…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if…

Ugh. When God showed me this, I knew he was right…and I also knew that I wanted guarantees from him. I knew God was asking me to surrender it all, but I wanted God to do this my way. I wanted safety. I wanted my children safe, I wanted my husband safe, my provision safe, I wanted me safe. I was carrying the false god of safety and security and had been bowing to it for a lot of years. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So, I wrestled, I cried, I begged God to promise me the things I wanted. He was not cooperating. I knew that he wanted me to surrender it all to him, including my kids, without any guarantees of safety and security…nope!

When our group met the following week, the leader asked if any of us had anything to share. I had no intention of talking about the wrestling match I was in. I was a new “staff wife” and needed to have it all together (or so I thought). Much to my dismay, I burst into tears. Next thing I knew, I was sharing, through sobs, with these people I’d basically just met about all that God was showing me–and that he wanted me to surrender everything–including my kids into His hands, and that I couldn’t do it. This beautiful group of people circled around me, laid hands on me, and prayed for me. I’d love to tell you that I surrendered at that moment, but I didn’t.

For the next few nights, I stayed on the sofa–I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I just wrestled. I knew that my system was keeping me stuck and that I wasn’t going any further with God than I was at that point. God was inviting me into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship–but I didn’t see it that way. In my wrestling match, God reminded me that suffering is part of life on this planet, but that nothing would separate me from His love. I didn’t like that. I really wanted God to bow to me–that’s honestly what it boiled down to.

Finally, out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to get some sleep, I said–okay, God. I’ll give it all to you–I surrender. It’s hard to describe what happened next–I was filled with incredible peace; I felt love for God that I didn’t even know was possible, and I experienced the beauty of God’s all-encompassing love in a new way. The fountain of living water was turned on and has never gone off. I fell in love with God. That moment of surrender happened a lot of years ago, yet the fresh fruit of that moment is still being born in my life. It was the turning point in my adult relationship with God.

So, when we talk about serving as an invitation rather than an obligation–I’ve experienced it from both sides, and I don’t ever want to go back to obligation. Obligation leads to burn out, resentment, “shoulding” on ourselves and others, comparison, etc. It’s not life-giving.

Teach me to serve.

To serve means to give. If we are served dinner, if we are served papers, something is given to us. God serves us–He gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, showed us what a life of service looks like.  A life of service genuinely cares about others. A life of service shares wisdom, gifts, stories, moments. A life of service pulls away and allows God to restore, refresh, renew, guide, direct. A life of service is open to being served by others. A life of service washes the feet of those who would be considered less than in the world’s hierarchical system. A life of service acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8). A life of service is filled with and fueled by supernatural love. A life of service is not agenda based. A life of service gives it all.

When we are taught that the greatest commandment boils down to loving God with all we are and all we have, loving others the way God loves us, and loving ourselves with godly love, that’s the living root from which a life of service flows. It’s not service that strives. It’s service that is the natural outflow of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Eugene Peterson once wrote: “The people who have made the greatest difference in my life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference.” I think about that quote often. True serving makes a difference without striving to make a difference.

We all know when we are someone’s project. or when we’ve made someone our project. It doesn’t feel genuine, because it isn’t genuine. I believe the real key to serving is to fall in love with God, to walk with God, to accept God’s invitation to life in the Spirit, and to be absolutely bathed in and convinced of God’s unconditional love for ourselves and all of humanity.

We have the ongoing opportunity to choose this day who we will serve–to choose this day who we will love…to choose this day to be loved…to choose God’s beautiful, life-giving, logic-defying, self-sacrificing, love-saturated way this day…

–Luanne

Image result for choose this day who you will serve

 

Giving Reverses Greed

Our text this week is quite long, so I’ll do my best to sum it up before we really jump in. In Luke 12:13-34, Jesus is standing before a crowd and a man calls out to him. The man demands that Jesus act as judge in the case of the family inheritance his big brother is hoarding. Jesus says no, he will not make a judgement. He exhorts the listening crowd, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” (from verse 15, AMP) In this one line, we see an indication that more than one form of greed is present in this family feud.

He proceeds to tell all who are listening a story about a rich farmer. The word “rich” is truly insufficient for the level of wealth this one man possesses. His storehouses are full to the brim and his fertile land is still producing an abundance of crops. So the farmer thinks to himself… (Note that he does not consult anyone about any of his decisions–he makes these choices unilaterally.) He thinks, “Soul, you have many good things stored up, [enough] for many years; rest and relax, eat, drink and be merry (celebrate continually).” (verse 19, AMP) In the story, God responds directly to the man, saying, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you…” Jesus finishes the story by telling his listeners that this is how it will be for anyone who hoards what they have and is not rich toward God.

Jesus then turns to his disciples and continues teaching them about the dangers of greed. He cautions them against cultivating a mindset of scarcity and makes it clear that, as citizens of God’s kingdom, we already live from a place of abundance. He tells them not to worry about anything–worry itself is futile–and reminds them of how even the most insignificant flower is clothed in dazzling beauty. Jesus exhorts his closest followers to live generously and completes the monologue with a statement that is very familiar to many of us: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verse 34)

There is much to unpack in this rich passage. First, Jesus encounters two brothers. As Pastor John pointed out in his message, both displayed a different form of greed. This is likely why Jesus said, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” Greed doesn’t always look the same. It is insidious and it can wear many different masks. One brother was hoarding his father’s wealth, wealth that wasn’t his to begin with. He had received abundance, and was unwilling to share any of it–even with his own family. The other brother felt entitled to what was his by birthright–simply because he was a son. He didn’t work for it, but he wanted what he felt what his. He was longing for more, discontent with what he had.

Can we identify with either brother? 

Perhaps both?

Do we find ourselves hoarding and protecting what is “ours”, withholding from others when we have plenty to offer? Do we constantly grope and grab for more, longing for what is just out of our reach? Ponder these questions with me as we continue…

Jesus refused to settle the dispute between the brothers, and as was common for him, chose to instead tell a story. In the story of the rich farmer, we saw a man who was already very rich. He had more than he needed. When he saw that even more was coming his way, he consulted his soul–his mind, will, and emotions–and no one else, about what he should do. He decided that all of his excess, everything he had been blessed with, should be kept in massive storehouses, hoarded for his own private enjoyment. He had prepared for himself an extravagant retirement. He decided to take it easy, live the good life, relax and be happy.

How are we like the farmer? 

What do we do when we run out of space to store all of our abundance? What have we prepared for ourselves without counsel, without thought of anyone else? Is there something we have that we’re holding onto for our own enjoyment? What have we become enslaved to? What has possessed us and stolen our souls, our attention, our love?

When Jesus addressed his disciples, he said, “For this reason I tell you, do not worry about your life…” (verse 22) For what reason? To protect them against the power of greed that can rob us of our souls. Jesus went on to remind them that they need not worry about earthly wealth, what they’ll eat, what they’ll wear. Why? Because they have already been given the kingdom, if only they will access what is already there:

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.” (vs. 31-32)

This entire passage may appear to be dealing with material wealth. It is–but there is more to it than that. What we have goes beyond our finances. It includes our gifts, abilities, talents, skills, time, and energy. Being “rich toward God” as Jesus instructed in our passage indicates being rich in relationship toward him, being rich in the ways of the kingdom. This would then include the fruits of the spirit produced in us and offered to others; it would include willingness, passion, and courage. Being rich toward God naturally makes us rich toward others, as we are living out of the abundance of the kingdom where God meets our needs with his presence.

Trevor, one of our elders, read a couple of passages of scripture before Pastor John’s message in our second service. As far as I am aware, he did not know what the message was about. Both passages he read struck me:

I thank you, Lord, and with all the passion of my heart
I worship you in the presence of angels!
Heaven’s mighty ones will hear my voice
as I sing my loving praise to you.
I bow down before your divine presence
and bring you my deepest worship
as I experience your tender love and your living truth.
For the promises of your word and the fame of your name
have been magnified above all else!
At the very moment I called out to you, you answered me!
You strengthened me deep within my soul
and breathed fresh courage into me.

(Psalm 138:1-3, TPT–emphasis mine)

Ask, and the gift is yours. Seek, and you’ll discover. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. (Matthew 7:7, TPT)

In the Psalm, we read David’s words of worship to God. He thanks God with all the passion of his heart, sings loving praise, and brings his deepest worship. Why? Because he called out, he asked God to show up, and being the good Father that he is, God did just that. He showed up and strengthened David deep within his soul. He breathed fresh courage into his mind, will and emotions, and this empowered David to respond with overflowing richness toward God.

We have constant access to this same overflow. Jesus told us in Matthew 7, Ask–you’ll receive; Seek–you’ll find; Knock–the door will be opened. What door? The door to the kingdom, and all of the abundance therein! We have nothing but ourselves to offer to our God. Everything else that we regard as “ours” was given to us. We can only be rich toward him when we’ve opened ourselves to receive the abundance of his kingdom and allowed it to change us. He has given us everything. He has been pleased to give us the kingdom. That line leaves me flabbergasted every. single. time.

What are we doing with all that he has given? 

When the father of the two brothers died, the mantle of “patriarch” fell to the older brother. It was his duty and honor to provide for and care for his family. But his heart and soul had been captured by greed instead.

We have been given the kingdom. The whole thing. An all-access pass to the presence of God and the gifts of the spirit. We who know Jesus are patriarchs and matriarchs–fathers and mothers–of our faith. How are we stewarding the abundance that we have been given? What are we doing with the abundant, generous, overwhelming love of Jesus that has been lavished upon us? Are we hoarding it for ourselves, cushioning our lives with it, using it as a barrier to keep others out rather than inviting them to the table to share in it alongside us? Are we using our gifts in a way that mirrors the self-emptying love of the one we say we follow, or are we using them to fill our own storehouses to overflowing? Are our hearts set on the kingdom? Are we passionate about sharing the abundance that has been poured out for all the world? Or are we attempting to contain it in a box that we’ve designed, a box that we can lock and hide and keep just for ourselves? What kinds of fathers and mothers are we–do we hold what we have just out of reach of those who need it most, or do we intentionally swing the doors wide and set a table of welcome to the bottomless feast of the kingdom?

Whatever our answers to these questions might be, take heart friends. If greed has possessed our souls, it’s not too late. There is an antidote. We can choose to give, and when we do we’ll find that giving reverses our greed. We can learn the mindset of abundance as we breathe in the fresh, healing air of the kingdom and clear the cobwebs of scarcity from our souls. But first, we have to get honest. And we must recognize our Source, and ask for what we need so we can change. We’ll find that our Father is pleased to give us access to all that he is and all that he has. He is pleased to entrust us with his kingdom. What will we do with it?

–Laura

This is a challenging message for those of us who live in a consumeristic, capitalistic nation. Having stuff we don’t need is our normal. Our culture’s definition of success absolutely lies in the abundance of our possessions, yet Jesus tells us: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions. (Luke 12:15 NASB)

Our lives do not consist of our possessions. It’s interesting to note that in this verse, the Greek word for life is zoe which is what we normally think of as life–living, breathing, full of vitality…  However, farther down in the passage, when Jesus tells the story of the greedy rich man, some translations say “your very life will be demanded of you”, which makes it sound as if it’s the same word used in verse 15. It’s not. The word translated life in verse 20 is the Greek word psyche. Psyche indicates our inner selves, the way we think, the emotions we feel or suppress, our convictions and passions…those are all part of the psyche. The King James Version translates this verse in a way that is closer to the original meaning when it says:

I will say to my soul (psyche), Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul (psyche) shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? (19,20)
God’s response sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Why? Because greed, living for self, accumulating, hoarding, coveting, having a sense of entitlement is the anti-thesis of the Kingdom of Heaven, in addition, it leads to bondage, to worshiping other things, to chasing the kingdoms of this world, and to losing our psyches to worldly pursuits. God loves us and wants us free. Jesus came that we may have life and experience it in overflowing abundance (John 10:10).
What does that abundant, overflowing life look like?
Jesus tells us over and over and over that it looks like living by the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven where love for God and love for others is the highest priority. Jesus tells us that if we seek the Kingdom of God as our top priority, every other need we have will be taken care of.  Jesus teaches us to pray for the kingdom of God and for God’s will to be a reality on earth.
What does this kingdom look like?  Full and total inclusion. Jesus excludes no one. He gets frustrated with those who live with a religiously superior attitude, but he doesn’t exclude them. Not only does Jesus not exclude, he elevates the least likely…women, foreigners, tax collectors, sinners, the poor, the sick, the Samaritan; he ministers to the Roman Centurian, the Pharisee, the thief on the cross, the demon-possessed…  Is this what today’s Jesus’ followers look like? Is this what our churches look like? Is this what I look like?
Laura walked us through Sunday’s passage above, so I won’t go into it much here, but Jesus tells us to consider how God cares for the created world, he tells us not to worry about our clothes or our food and he goes on to say:

For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (30-34)

Even typing that out, I keep reading and rereading those verses. I need to do a constant heart check here. How am I doing in living generously? How many items do I have in my closets (yes, plural) that I rarely wear? How many extra dishes in my kitchen? Do I mindlessly spend money on myself? Yes. I do. I run after the things of the world and they add zero value to my life, my inner being, my essence. And as Laura mentioned above, these verses aren’t only about material things, although they certainly include that, and include caring for those less materially fortunate. What else has God generously blessed us with that we can use to bless others? What about grace, unconditional love, forgiveness, talents, gifts, wisdom, time, and on and on we could go. I’m not suggesting that we be doormats– Jesus is our example for how to do this. He had solitary moments where he pulled away from people and allowed God to restore his soul. He spent time alone time with his close friends. And, he ministered to the world.

In verse 21 Jesus tells us that whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God loses themselves along the way. We can become slaves to what we own or what we covet and self-destruct in the process.

What does it mean to be rich toward God?  Maybe being rich toward God means that we learn to pay attention to whether we are living in “I will…” rather than “Your will”.  The rich man who lost his soul to his riches said over and over again, I will tear down my barns, I will build bigger ones, I will store all my extra stuff, I will take it easy, I will eat, drink, and be merry, I, I, I, I,…  Maybe the opposite of being rich toward God is “I did it my way”. Maybe being rich toward God is what the apostle Paul encourages in Philippians 2: 1-5

Look at how much encouragement you’ve found in your relationship with the Anointed One! You are filled to overflowing with his comforting love. You have experienced a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit and have felt his tender affection and mercy.  So I’m asking you, my friends, that you be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. Walk together with one harmonious purpose and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy. Be free from pride-filled opinions, for they will only harm your cherished unity. Don’t allow self-promotion to hide in your hearts, but in authentic humility put others first and view others as more important than yourselves.  Abandon every display of selfishness. Possess a greater concern for what matters to others instead of your own interests.  And consider the example that Jesus, the Anointed One, has set before us. Let his mindset become your motivation. (The Passion Translation)

You may be thinking–I can’t live like that. It’s too hard, I’m too human, yet God, who has been pleased to give us the kingdom, has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to live this kind of life, to love God’s way, to know His abundance, to share all that we have and all that we are for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom, and he gives us new beginnings over and over and over again.

 Jesus, who loves us and wants us to experience life his way spoke a pointed message to a New Testament church and then offered a beautiful invitation:

I know that you are neither frozen in apathy nor fervent with passion. How I wish you were either one or the other…For you claim, “I’m rich and getting richer—I don’t need a thing.” Yet you are clueless that you’re miserable, poor, blind, barren, and naked…. Behold, I’m standing at the door, knocking. If your heart is open to hear my voice and you open the door within, I will come in to you and feast with you, and you will feast with me…           (Rev. 3:15,17,20)

His table is open to all. His feast is abundant. He is generous. His way is life.

Will we give it all and enter in?

Luanne

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Giving Shapes Our Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus responds with a story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In John 17:3, Jesus says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See something. Feel something. Do something. 

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

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

–Laura

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Giving Goes Beyond You

I spent hours yesterday reading blogs, book excerpts, theological debates, and theories written by a variety of theologians, faith leaders, and other authors that all attempted to offer insight into our main scripture passage from Sunday’s message. I also spent a good bit of time thumbing through the chapters preceding and following the passage and looking up words in the original Greek.

I felt like I needed a nap before lunchtime.

I tell you that as a framework for where I’m actually going to go in my writing this week. Our passage is one that will probably be familiar to you, whether you have a religious background or not. There are plenty of voices who would offer us the “right” interpretation of these words–and most of them disagree with each other. That said, what follows is what I personally believe to be at the heart of the message, the way that I see Jesus representing his heart in this sometimes controversial parable, and where I see the application of it mattering in my life and in the way I love others. I could cite several sources that would back me up, several more who would disagree, and others still who would see it from another angle entirely. My goal is not to prove a point, or to explain away with ease what is a complex and nuanced cluster of scripture. I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

The passage is from a parable found in Matthew 25:31-40, the parable of the sheep and the goats. It’s one parable, set among several others, that Jesus used to describe the kingdom–what it was to look like and how his hearers’ lives would shift if they learned to follow his ways. It is the second message in our series about giving, and what we are invited to do is to look at giving differently. We are invited to move beyond a rules-based, transactional framework and begin to look at giving as an overflow of the self-emptying life of Jesus living within us and guiding us to deliver this kingdom to a waiting world. Whether you’re not at all familiar with this parable you have it memorized word for word, or you find yourself somewhere in the middle, I invite us all to read it again with a heart that’s willing to see it with fresh eyes as we dig into what it might mean for our lives today:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

(Matthew 25:31-40, NIV)

Last week Pastor John spoke about the importance of being “for” all others, and how God calls us to give others our “for” before we give to him. Let’s look at this week’s passage through that lens. When we read the passage about the sheep and the goats, we naturally want to identify with the sheep, which pits us against the goats, those outside of our assumed camps. But if we can remember that the word “brother” in last week’s passage means anyone from a womb, then the sheep and the goats are our kin—regardless of which side we’re on.

Choosing to give all others our “for” can protect us against the temptation to try to identify who the sheep and the goats are, which really is not the point of the teaching at all. If we identify with one side, we set ourselves up against the other side, creating the us/them mentality that Jesus is continually trying to free us from. If we see one side as good and one as bad, one saved and one damned, one righteous and one depraved, we’re missing the point. We cannot give all others our “for” if we categorize people and only identify with one side. If we are for all others, we won’t stop to assess which camp they belong to or to judge the “why” behind their needs before coming alongside them as our brothers and sisters.

It is also important to note that, on any given day, we move from goat to sheep and back again a multitude of times. Sometimes we respond to the need in front of us, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we do the right thing because we want the gold star, other times we are moved by the love of Jesus living within us and, like the sheep in his story, we don’t even realize we did anything worth noting at all. The two sides aren’t set in stone. No one gets caring for the least of these right every single time. This is a fluid picture, designed to teach Jesus’ followers what the kingdom is meant to look like. We would be wise to follow the example of Franciscan Father Richard Rohr in praying this prayer,

“Loving God, allow me to be a sheep at least once in a while, and never let me forget that most of my life I have been a goat.”

We mentioned last week that paying attention to the context of what we read in scripture is vitally important. It bears repeating this week. This parable Jesus tells is set among several other parables in which he tells his hearers more than once, “This is what the kingdom of God is like…” Jesus preached about the kingdom more than 80 times in the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. It was one of his favorite things to talk about. Our passage is set apart by chapter and verse in our bibles, but it is not a stand-alone teaching; it is a continuation of the stories that precede it, stories all about what the kingdom is like.

Jesus was (and is) a master communicator. He knew his audience, knew that they had been trained up in dualistic, transactional thinking (as many of us have been), and so he begins with what they know. He outlines an either/or, in/out scenario. He gets their attention and uses the opportunity to tell them again how important it is that self-emptying love be what sets them apart as his followers. He’s about to demonstrate what that kind of radical love looks like by willingly submitting to the murderous violence of the humans he created, but he’s telling them in this parable what that looks like in practical, day-to-day ways. And then, after describing the sheep and the goats and the fates of both sides, Jesus chooses to identify not as a sheep or as a goat—he doesn’t pick a side. He identifies himself, instead, with the needy as he states, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Jesus continually challenged the religious, works-based teachings of his day. He often called the Pharisees out for paying lip-service to God while their hearts were far from him. This week’s passage is another example of the difference between behavior modification—works-based religion–and the kingdom of God. The interesting part is, Jesus is teaching his hearers to do good works. This is clearly not a passage that encourages us to say a prayer and so secure a ticket to eternal life. This passage encourages listeners to do good things, to serve, to act–but more importantly, it deals with the heart behind the works.

There were many in his day, some of them likely in attendance as he spoke, who were good at checking boxes. Behavior modification, keeping all the rules, was a common practice for the religious leaders at that time, and it was what they had been teaching the people for hundreds of years.

But the kingdom would never come by way of behavior modification.

For the kingdom of the God of love to come in its fullness, there had to be a different way, a new way, a way that wasn’t about us versus them. This is what Jesus continually taught about.

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I love this quote. It is absolutely true. When the love of Jesus reigns within us, we live like the sheep–unaware of our “good works”, living in the flow of the spirit, letting his kingdom be cultivated and grown within us, and then freely giving the fruit to all those around us.

The early church understood and modeled this is the way they lived with one another. Pastor John actually began his message with these verses:

All the believers were one in mind and heart. Selfishness was not a part of their community, for they shared everything they had with one another. The apostles gave powerful testimonies about the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great measures of grace rested upon them all. Some who owned houses or land sold them and brought the proceeds before the apostles to distribute to those without. Not a single person among them was needy.

(Acts 4:32-35, TPT)

Not a single person among them was needy. Selfishness was not a part of their community. They were one in heart and mind. Is it possible that this is what Jesus was pointing to in this story that he told? Fr. Richard Rohr asserts that it is. In a blog post about the sheep and the goats, he wrote,

“The real message of the parable is a call to a transformed mind and heart.”

In the story, Jesus is calling his hearers into transformation. He is telling them, You can choose an either/or way of living, or you can join me on the margins, where I identify not only with the needy, but as the needy. The early church listened to his teachings, they understood what he meant, and they lived in unity with each other, having—as a community—the heart and mind of Jesus living within them. Self-giving love modeled after the givenness of Jesus replaced selfishness and they gave what they had for the good of all. It wasn’t about them, and what served them best. It was about understanding that self-giving love is the way of the kingdom, and as they were permeated with the love of Jesus, giving flowed from them as the natural expression of his life within them.

May it be so with us, as we each leverage what we have graciously been given for the sake of those who need what we have. What we give, we give to Jesus…

–Laura

Laura wrote above: I don’t think scripture as a whole gives us easy answers, especially as we study the teachings of Jesus. I think his use of parables (stories) and the way he spoke in layers actually invites us to look deeper, beyond the surface of things, to see what the heart of the matter really is. I believe this is the space that Pastor John was inviting us all into as he preached on familiar verses from a fresh angle.

And she included this beautiful quote:

“Jesus does not call us to do what he did but to be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him.” (Dallas Willard)

I am taking a “grace” week in the midst of what is a super busy season, so instead of writing, I would ask that you read Laura’s beautiful words again. We are invited into the deeper…

–Luanne

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Giving: Forgive Before You Give

“Giving” is the theme of our new series. It’s a risky endeavor…when a church begins to talk about giving, there can be some strong reactions from those hearing the message. Some take on an “I knew all they wanted was my money” mindset, some take on the mindset of “It’s my money and no one can tell me what to do with it”. For some, it reveals priorities, the things we’re willing to spend on or give to generally are things that matter to us, and some of us find safety and security in holding on to our money because, despite the fact that on it is written “In God We Trust” when it comes down to it, we ultimately trust money to take care of us.

If it’s so risky, why talk about it? And when we talk about giving, are we referring only to money–or is the subject of giving a reminder that we give our lives to God, every bit of them–our talents, our gifts, our time, our resources, our minds, our beings?  And what is the heart that God desires in our giving?

One thing is for sure, Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 5:21-24 that he wants our hearts toward others to be in the right place before we give at the altar.

In Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. He is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like. When he gets to this portion he says:

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.  Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

There is much to glean from these few verses. One is that Jesus is shaking up a traditional understanding of what it means to be godly. He affirms that it was said long ago and passed through the generations that people should not murder other people. I think that we would all agree with that statement; however, in kingdom living, refraining from murder is not enough. There are plenty of other ways to devalue a life.

Jesus goes on to say anyone who is angry with a brother, or anyone who says to a brother or sister “Raca”, or anyone who calls someone “fool” is in danger of judgment. Pastor John took us deeper into this, pointing out that even if we don’t physically murder someone, we can murder them in our minds and demean them in our treatment.  To call someone “Raca” or  “fool” or anything else derogatory demeans that person’s value. To harbor anger against another is to set an internal fire ablaze which spills out in unkind or demeaning words and sometimes in violent actions.

So Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others, and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.

It’s interesting to consider that the word translated “brothers” in this passage means someone “from out of the womb”; therefore, Jesus is asking us to consider how we think of and how we treat all humankind.

This is a challenge. Being human, we classify, divide, label, separate, and draw lines between us. Many of the ways we divide are generational, so Jesus says to us, you’ve heard it said… , but I say to you don’t demean anyone, don’t think negatively about anyone, don’t talk negatively about anyone, don’t call others derogatory names, don’t place human beings in categories.

Jesus reminds us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 & Luke 6:45). Are we asking God regularly to search us, and know our hearts: try us, and know our thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting? (Psalm 138:23-24 KJV) If not, it’s a good practice to put into place.

Jesus tells us in his sermon that to treat others with contempt is on par with murder. This is where it gets hard. We treat others in our family, our communities, our workplaces, our churches with contempt if they don’t see things like we do.  We live in a great nation, and many here believe God loves us more than he loves people in other nations; therefore, we can treat other nations with contempt. Do we look down on others who don’t share our same citizenship? Do we stereotype? Do we lump entire people groups into “less than” categories? Do we ever see Jesus teaching that people of one nation are his favorites or are superior to those of another? If Jesus favored anyone, it was the poor, the sick, the oppressed.

And here, inside our borders, how are we treating one another? Are we labeling people? We’ve got the liberal left, the radical right, the Fox followers, the CNN followers, the Republicans, the Democrats, the rich, the poor, the white-collar, the blue-collar,  the African-Americans, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans, and white, there are Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, etc.,  those who are for war, those who are against, and many, many other ideologies that have strong proponents on each side. To top it off, we are headed into an election year that’s going to be brutal as far as name-calling and divisive language go.  What are we, the followers of Jesus, to do?

Jesus says to us: “You have heard it said…but I say…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First, go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Wow. That’s a tall order. What does it even look like?

Paul, in Colossians 3:12-14 urges us toward this when he writes: As, therefore, God’s picked representatives of the new humanity, purified and beloved of God himself, be merciful in action, kindly in heart, humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another, always ready to forgive if you have a difference with anyone. Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues. (J.B. Phillips)

We are representatives of the new humanity–those who have God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him. (Philippians 2:13 NLT)

We are loved by God and are to share that love with every other image-bearer of God on the planet. It looks like merciful actions, kindness, humility (not thinking of oneself as superior in any way), tolerance, patience, and living with an attitude of forgiveness.

We are asked to forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven us. And here’s an important thought…God forgave us freely, but it cost him greatly. To forgive doesn’t mean to stuff emotion and pretend as though conflict doesn’t exist. To forgive means to wrestle it through, it means to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, it means to have hard conversations, bathed in love, with hope for reconciliation. In my own life, I’ve had to ask for God’s help, confess when I’m not ready to forgive, express the desire that I want to do this His way and offer my willingness to Him.  He then leads me through the process. Sometimes it’s a matter of hours, sometimes it’s months, sometimes years. It helps a great deal to pray blessing for those with whom I’m in conflict. Praying good things for them helps to get my heart and thoughts in a better place. And, yes, sometimes I’m praying blessing while at the same time acknowledging that my heart isn’t completely there yet, again, asking God to help me get there. 

Paul goes on to say, and Jesus would agree, that above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues.

So, before we give to God, we are asked to give our “for” to others, and seek reconciliation. It’s not always possible to reconcile. There are times when the other party does not want to, or the situation is so toxic that to converse with that person would not be wise. In those instances, Paul tells us if possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18). If physical reconciliation does not happen, strive for peace in your heart and thoughts toward others, knowing that you’ve done all that you can to reconcile.

So giving the way God wants us to begins with recognizing that God is for us, and he wants us to be for others.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting 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)

Pastor John combined and paraphrased the Matthew and Colossians scriptures to help us see it more clearly:

“Do not reduce the value of the life of another, but raise the value and worth of all others. If you have not done that and you are coming to give your gift to the Lord, your gift that declares you are for the Lord, go to the one that you are against; go to that one and establish your “for”. Reconcile with them, then come back and give your gift to the Lord. Give your “for” as freely as the Lord has given his “for you”. 

Before you give, forgive.”

–Luanne

Luanne wrote, “In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered on the side of a hill in what has come to be known as The Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he is teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.” It is vitally important that we pay attention as we read scripture. Context matters. Audience matters. The culture of the day matters. It matters that our passage is but a few verses connected to three entire chapters of teaching from Jesus. These aren’t standalone verses in a sermon focused solely on money, or even just about forgiveness. They are part of the whole that, as Luanne identified, is teaching about the kingdom of heaven, and what it looks like to live as kingdom-minded people here on earth. The sermon in its entirety establishes the ways of the kingdom and emphasizes kingdom values, namely the value of people over religion. The context is so important, because this is one “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” among several others, set within a teaching given to show the people that religiosity will only take us so far—it’s love that takes us all the way.

Jesus is editing the script on religion. He’s not discarding what they’ve previously been taught, he’s reminding them—and us—about God’s original intention, and then expanding their understanding. The laws God gave through Moses were designed to teach the people how to live lives of love, focused on Him, following his lead. The laws describe how love acts, what it does and doesn’t do. They outline the basics of how to treat all others, how to live in such a way that love for God and love for others would direct their entire lives, everything they did and did not do. The laws had become something else, though, in the hands of humans who may have started out with good intentions, but who eventually overcomplicated God’s words, added rules and requirements designed to maintain control, and to box God in, to make him small enough to control by checking boxes. In the hands of those who stood to benefit from systems, what was intended to lead us into love for God and one another became something that did the opposite. It became a hierarchical system built on impossible expectations that divided the people rather than connect them.

Jesus comes onto the scene to press the reset button. But he doesn’t simply reset the system—he takes it several steps further. He connects everything to love of God and one another and tells his hearers more than once that everything hinges on this one command. The command to love. Sometimes this can be interpreted as watering down our faith, this emphasis on love. But there is nothing more demanding than following Jesus’ example of self-emptying love. He’s not lowering any standards by refocusing the people in this way. As Luanne wrote,

“Jesus is raising the bar. Jesus is telling us to consider how we treat others, to consider how we think of others, to consider how we esteem others, how we talk to or about others and is asking us to reconcile before we give our gifts at the altar.”

Jesus places a high value on giving. He instructs us many times in scripture to give generously, to give to the poor, and to give our lives to follow him. He modeled this value by giving everything, even his very life. Giving was not the greatest commandment, though. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is love. Giving without loving is meaningless. The giving must flow out of the loving. Giving every material belonging, and even our very lives matters not if not done from a place of love, as 1 Corinthians 13:3 tells us:

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (MSG)

Bankrupt.

We are bankrupt without love. Our English word “bankrupt” comes from the Italian banca rotta, which literally means “a broken bench”. The root of the Italian is from the Latin rupta, which is “to break or be defeated.” Without love, we are completely broken, and we can offer nothing—not even a safe place to sit—to another. The good news is that recognizing our brokenness–seeing how empty, how bankrupt we are when we’re not connected to and operating from a place of love—can reconnect us to the One who creates beauty from brokenness, the one who scatters the fears that break us down with his perfect love that restores and rebuilds. Before we can be put back together his way, though, we have to acknowledge how we’ve been operating, where we’ve been rule-following and calling it love, where we’ve been “letting it go” by hiding our hurts deep inside and shutting the door rather than moving toward honesty, vulnerability, and forgiveness.

Pastor John said, “Before you come to God, stop pretending.” Offering anything from a loveless place is just playing church and practicing religion. It’s pretending. It’s what the people Jesus was speaking to were used to seeing and practicing. Ritualized giving. Giving because the rules said what and how and how often giving was required. Giving because of the fear of the consequences of not giving. They didn’t understand God’s heart, his love, until he came to them in the form of Jesus. He came to set all things right, to restore what had been so broken by religion. And what had been most broken by the religious systems and structures of that day were their hearts. They weren’t connected to a God of love. They were going through the motions of following rules and avoiding negative consequences. Jesus came to reclaim their hearts, just as he comes to us to reclaim ours.

Our motivation to give and forgive has to be love. We can’t be truly for others—or for God—if we aren’t connected to and dependent upon his love alive in us. We only love because he loved us first. And it is his love that leads us. What does this love look like? 1 Corinthians 13 tells us:

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. (verses 4-7, TPT)

”[Love] never stops believing the best for others…” Love God’s way values others, and never gives up. Which others? All of them, I’m pretty sure… I have some work to do here. Sometimes–often really–giving up can feel easier. Walking away from what feels like conflict, drama, and moving away from the pain can feel like self-protection, and often feels necessary. Sometimes it is. Sometimes there are toxic, abusive relationships that we really do need to physically move away from. In those cases, we still need to do the inner work with Jesus, asking him to search us and heal us and help us to forgive when we’ve been wounded. We are still called to forgive—regardless of the nature of the offense. And that is still moving toward, not walking away. We’re moving toward that person as we pray for the willingness to forgive them, as we pray that God would bless them and as we ask him to show them his love for them. Our spirits—the Christ-in-us part of us–can still move toward others even when we physically have to move away. Because, as we saw throughout Jesus’ ministry, he always pursues. Always moves toward. Always. Because love is what drives him. And if he lives within us, then his love is what drives us, too—if we don’t stand let fear stand in the way. 1 John 4 exhorts us:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. (verses 7-12, NLT) There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (verses 18-21, NIV)

If we are living from a place of love—not some appearance of love that we are trying to manufacture on our own but the love that comes from “…God working in us giving us the desire and power to do what pleases Him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT)—then we will be led to both forgive and to give. Fear will prevent us from giving and forgiving. Love will lead us to do both, generously and extravagantly. This is what Jesus came to teach us all. He came to show us what the love of God looks like with skin on. He came to show us—in dramatic fashion—just how far real love will go, and how it really is at the core of every other commandment.

It will demand our all to live this way, to live as kingdom-minded disciples who choose to see and value and honor the image of God in every single one who comes from a womb. But we never have to do it alone. Learning how to forgive and how to give from a place of love isn’t easy. But because God loved and forgave and gave to us first, we can lean into all that he is for all that we’re not and he will enable us to do what we could never do on our own. We need only to come to him with our willing yes, with a heart open to receive his great love, and surrender to the changes his love will make within us. The rest will come as a result of being completely overcome and captivated by this extravagant love that wins our hearts. Are we willing to say yes to his love? Are we willing to let that love search us and change us, and lead us to forgive and to give without fear?

–Laura

Image result for reconciliation forgiveness

 

 

 

Heart Condition

Last week, we followed Jesus into Gennesaret and the surrounding villages. We found him in the marketplaces, healing the masses who flocked to him. This week, we saw that the sick and needy weren’t the only ones who followed Jesus.

Chapter 7 begins by telling us that the Pharisees–we don’t know how many of them there were–and teachers of the law came down from Jerusalem, a sixty-mile trip. The text says they “gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled...” (vs.2).

We’ll get to the agendas and motives of these guys in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the word “defiled”. The Greek word for “defiled” is “koinos”. It means “common; not set apart.”

Pastor Beau reminded us that these religious leaders always had an agenda, and we see Jesus call that out throughout the gospels. They had a way of honoring God with their words while their hearts were far from him. Jesus told them as much in this story.  They weren’t upset about dirty hands being unwashed as much as they were identifying that those hands had just been in the marketplaces, in the presence of those “others” that they kept themselves separate from. Many of their “laws” and traditions were put in place to keep them from being identified as common, from getting too close to those on the “outside” of their group. Their traditions communicated to those who weren’t set apart like them, “You don’t belong.”

These laws and traditions took up all their heart space. They didn’t have room within their many observances to love God or neighbor and, worse, they often twisted their laws in order to get out of showing love to their neighbors–even, at times, their own families. They used the “God card” to justify their intentions, decisions, and actions.

Can we admit that sometimes we do the same things?

Pastor Beau exhorted us to own our motives. He asked us if we are willing to look deeply into our own hearts and own what is behind our thoughts, intentions, actions. Jesus told the Pharisees plainly that it is not what goes into the body that makes one unclean, but what comes out. All forms of “uncleanness” proceed from our hearts.

Later, when his disciples asked for clarification, Jesus said, For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.” Pastor Beau emphasized that this entire list can be done within our hearts–without us ever acting out any of them physically. These things can be kept hidden while, on the outside, we look good, holy, and godly. Jesus had some strong words related to this very thing in Matthew 23:25-26:

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.”

Jesus’ motives always centered around love and the kingdom he was introducing. It was a brand new way of relating to God and to one another–one not dependent on the observance of tradition and entirely uninterested in separateness. Because community is such a prominent value in the kingdom, Jesus flipped the script on religious exclusivity. He saw through the shiny, put-together outsides and focused on the inner motivations. His emphasis was always on loving our neighbors. He had no interest in lip service from those who sought to remain set apart from the commoners.

Pastor Beau invited us to examine, and then own, our motives. He then exhorted us to surrender our judgments. We can pass judgment as individuals, and as a community. Our judgement, as Beau pointed out, can be internal or external, and can be directed at others or ourselves. Regardless of what or who we’re judging, judgement leads to division. It separates–even if only in the depths of our hearts. What we believe and perceive about someone else–or ourselves–often leads to arrogance, an us/them mentality, and often, condemnation. We don’t have to look very far in stories that include the Pharisees to find this to be true. In this story, we can see that they held perceptions about, and judged, the “others”, the disciples, and Jesus. They traveled sixty miles to do it.

But the temptation toward judgment can be as close as our own skin. It takes work to lay down the things we hold onto to make us feel better about ourselves. Ultimately, that’s what passing judgement does. It diminishes one to elevate another. This gets tricky when the one we judge is ourselves. Thankfully, “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17, NLT) Through him, we can learn how to lay our judgements down.

In Mark 7, Jesus models his kingdom way of interacting with the “other” when a Gentile woman came to him pleading for him to heal her daughter. As Pastor Beau pointed out, Jesus–exhausted and depleted as he was–engaged the woman in conversation. He acknowledged her presence, and listened–without judgment, with the intention of hearing her. At the cost of his own time away. We see Jesus do this over and over again in Mark. He was driven by love and compassion. Always. If we want to be like Jesus, if Christ-likeness is our goal, we must follow his example, and lay down our judgments, too.

Finally, Pastor Beau invited us all to embrace the process, and further, to embrace that we’re in process. The entire message touched me deeply, but this last point hit me in my core. Beau spoke about the way Jesus did things, how he moved in the world. He often did things that his followers–and critics–were surprised by. The ways he healed, how he engaged others, the tangible ways that he entered into the lives of those around him were often different than how people thought he should do things. We were reminded that even though Jesus performed instantaneous healing–miracles in a moment–these were a point in the longer stories of the lives of those he touched. The miracles were part of the process–they didn’t replace the process.

Beau encouraged us to not rush the process. He compared it to a construction site. He said that construction sites are generally unattractive. They are loud and messy. The work is difficult and dangerous. And, I would add the obvious, incomplete. If the project is finished, there is no construction zone. Beau asserted that most of us do not enjoy living in the middle of a construction zone. But, is there any other way of living as we journey with Jesus? 

This analogy hit me hard. I am constantly frustrated by construction zones, especially if the construction is of the road variety. These zones are inconvenient, slow, and often difficult to navigate. They re-route us around old, familiar ways. We cannot navigate road construction zones on autopilot. because the detours require that we pay attention.

If I apply the same principles to the construction zone that is my life, I am no less frustrated. The work seems never-ending. And that’s because it is. Life is a process. Healing is a process. Becoming whole, and living into the example of the one we follow is a process. The only way to circumvent it is to halt construction. To put away all the equipment, put up a decent exterior to hide the busted up inside and send the contractor away. This is one way we can fall into traditions and “laws” that keep the garbage hidden in our hearts. It’s how we end up passing judgement–we condemn the out-in-the-open messiness of another because we’re working so hard to conceal our own. These motives and judgements hinder the process–and often halt it altogether.

I don’t like being messy. I don’t love danger. Risk is hard for me. I have a tendency to agree with the things that have been spoken to me throughout my life and so, passing judgment on myself is pretty easy. I carry a lot of fear. And while vulnerability is a value I hold dear, one I try to embrace as much as I know how, there is a big temptation sometimes to erect walls around the construction zone of my life and hide safely inside.

Some people’s broken somehow looks fairly neat and tidy–that’s never been the case for me. The “house” of my life is constantly under construction. Sometimes, it takes the form of deconstruction, sometimes it’s reconstruction–which can often feel so much harder–but it’s a perpetual conglomeration of incomplete projects. Sometimes, the construction process gets even more tricky to navigate when an under-qualified sub-contractor (me) acts on impulse and tries to do the work that only the general contractor (His name is Jesus) is qualified to do.

Have I mentioned that I don’t love construction zones??

I’m going to have to learn how to do just that. We all are, if we want to continue our journeys with Jesus. Whether we like it or not, each of our lives is a construction zone. Some days, a project that was in shambles becomes whole, but we are still in process. Some days, there should be caution tape wrapped around every inch of us, but we are still in process.

And Jesus wants to guide the process. He’s the only one who can repair what’s broken without inflicting further damage. He doesn’t ever belittle our brokenness. He doesn’t shame us or condemn us on the caution-tape days. His way is always gentle, kind, full of grace and mercy and real, unconditional love. And he takes care to create beauty out of what’s broken. If we let him. 

Embracing the process means that we have to get comfortable with being real. And real can be messy. Earlier I mentioned that the Greek word for defiled actually means “common, not set apart.” There is a beauty in embracing our commonness, and that of everyone we encounter. The word itself, “koinos” is where the word “koinonia” comes from. This word shows up 20 times in the new testament, from Acts to Revelation. It means “fellowship, communion, intimacy.” 

I can’t express how much I love this. What the Pharisees wanted to avoid by maintaining their separateness becomes something the early church held dear. I think it is one of the clearest ways to see the difference Jesus’ way made in the hearts of those who chose to listen to and follow him. What was a dirty word, one that let people know how unwelcome they were, gave birth to a word that invited all into community. The community of the common. Because it’s never the traditions we keep, the judgement we pass, or the things we try to build on our own that make the common magnificent. Jesus is the magnificence in our commonness. Because he showed us that what was truly magnificent was living fully human and fully alive while in process. And when we do that together, the common turns into communion…

–Laura

The lifelong process of being transformed into the image of Christ is messy. Beau mentioned, and Laura expounded on the thought that construction zones are messy–they sometimes feel chaotic. For a gal who likes inner peace, the process can sometimes feel excruciating.

Laura, when writing about the Pharisees asked if we act like them sometimes. The answer for me is yes.  Yes, I do. I would rather not admit that; however, if I’m being honest, I know that it’s true. When Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” he is using the word “actor” or “pretender”.  An actor plays a role. Am I alone in sometimes portraying an outward self that is not congruent with my inward self?

Jesus doesn’t think too highly of the Pharisee’s acting. Beau reminded us they had lost connection with the God they served, and were merely going through religious motions–acting religious, yet creating self serving loopholes to benefit themselves. They had lost touch with their hearts.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him for clarification regarding his conversation with the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus told them:  

“What comes out of a person is what defiles them.  For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (7:21-23). 

The heart–out of the heart–out of the center of our being comes all kinds of things. In Proverbs 4:23 we are told to “Watch over your heart with all diligenceFor from it flow the springs of life.” (NASB) Another translation says Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (NIV)

The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).

But we are not hopeless–the Prophet Ezequiel reminds us God said: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezequiel 36:26)

The heart and the mind are where much of the battle lies. Sometimes it feels easier to live with a heart of stone. A heart of flesh feels things.  A heart of flesh is pliable. Sometimes we just don’t want that. We convince ourselves that hearts of stone are stronger, that they protect us–but truthfully, they don’t lead us anywhere good.

Jesus tells us that out of the heart flows evil thoughts, and then he lists what some of those evil thoughts can lead to. To give us a fresh perspective, I’m going to write the list backwards.

Evil thoughts lead to:

Folly, Arrogance, Slander, Envy, Lewdness, Deceit, Malice, Greed, Adultery, Murder, Theft, Sexual Immorality

I don’t think Jesus’ list leaves any of us out. It seems to cover the gamut. Sometimes in our arrogance, we pick a few things out of this list to judge more harshly, but Jesus doesn’t make any distinctions. These are the things that flow out of the heart when we allow evil thoughts to reign. Yet, as mentioned above, if we care for our hearts, if we watch over them carefully, from them can flow springs of life.

Paying attention to the state of our hearts is crucial to growing more like Jesus. I sometimes want to self-protect and when I’m living in that place, it doesn’t take long for my thoughts to turn “evil”, and a critical spirit to take over. My heart begins to turn to stone. Part of construction is the breaking down of stone. I like to think of the Ezequiel verse as God gently removing the heart of stone and gently replacing it with a heart of flesh–and sometimes he does. Other times it feels more like the stone is being chipped away with a pickax as I resist his work in my life, and other times a full-on stick of dynamite is needed. Some days I go back and forth between flesh and stone. Grace helps me to remember that we are all in process, myself included.

Since the thoughts and heart are intricately connected, it’s wise to remember we are encouraged to ask the Lord to create a new heart  in us (Ps. 51:10), we are encouraged to renew our minds  (Romans 12:2), we are encouraged to think on things that are  true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable–excellent or praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8) and we are encouraged to have the same mind in us which was in Jesus. (Phil 2:5). None of this flows from our natural selves–we need the help of the Holy Spirit and a willingness to surrender to the process of becoming whole.

After all; we are all in process. We are all a construction zone. Laura wrote above:

“Have I mentioned that I don’t love construction zones??

I’m going to have to learn how to do just that. We all are, if we want to continue our journeys with Jesus. Whether we like it or not, each of our lives is a construction zone. Some days, a project that was in shambles becomes whole, but we are still in process. Some days, there should be caution tape wrapped around every inch of us, but we are still in process.”

Let’s learn to be gentle with ourselves in the process. Let’s learn to be gentle with others in the process. Let’s remember that when Jesus points out — “hey there beloved one–you’ve lost touch with yourself; you’re acting” it’s because he loves us and desires that we live from the authentic, unique, set free, place that we were created for.

Just like the Velveteen Rabbit in the old children’s story, becoming “real” can be really hard—maybe some of the “fuzz” gets worn off the outside of us in the process, we might not look as impressive as we once did, we might even feel discarded for a season…but for the rabbit, and for us, being made real opens us up to experience and to give real love–the kind that transforms us and everyone around us.

Are we willing to do a little excavation work and own our motives, surrender our judgments, and embrace the process? It may feel painful at times, are we willing to continue even when it feels hard?  Are we willing to do what it takes to remove our masks and get to authentic living and “real” love?

–Luanne

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Limits

God has limits.

What?

Our God is limitless, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful… but we have a unique capacity to limit our limitless God.

How does that statement hit you?

I think before we get into this too much further, it would be helpful to define what a “limit” is. The Oxford Dictionary defines a limit as: a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass; a restriction on the size or amount of something permissible or possible.

Keep that definition in mind as we continue…

So far in Mark we have seen Jesus talk about the kingdom being here, now; teach about the kingdom–what it is and how it grows; and show those around him his authority as he enacts the values of the kingdom in the lives of those around him. The passage we looked at on Sunday shows us that we have the ability to put limits on what God can do based on our willingness or unwillingness to participate in the values of kingdom living. Living in the flow of the kingdom includes a posture of belief, trust, and ultimately hope in the one we believe in.

This is not the posture Jesus encountered in this week’s passage. Mark chapter 6 begins by telling us that Jesus left there (where he had just raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead), and went to his hometown.

Pastor John talked about coming home, and about what “home” means. He said that there is an expectation that home is where we get to be ourselves–a safe place, a place of grace. It’s a place where we can be honest about our successes (and failures) openly, a place where our wins can be celebrated in a different way. It’s a place where we can expect to be known and seen, and there’s a measure of vulnerability allowed without condemnation.

I’m going to pause here… Because I know that description of “home” might be painful to read for some. It was painful for me to hear, and painful to write out. Home isn’t always a safe, welcoming place, and sometimes it can feel like the last place we can be our real selves. Sometimes, home is where we feel the least seen and the most overlooked. I have felt this deep pain, as I’m sure many of you have. And you know what? Jesus did, too.

When Jesus went home following a series of mind-blowing miracles, he went with a new reputation, and with quite the following. Perhaps he thought that his community would accept him now, in a way they hadn’t before.

He wasn’t given a warm welcome.

He walked into a place that had been permeated by a posture of unbelief–it only takes one or two negative, unbelieving hearts to change the atmosphere of a place–and he was met with doubts, presumptions, and criticism. Let’s look at the story:

Jesus left that part of the country and returned with his disciples to Nazareth, his hometown. The next Sabbath he began teaching in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. They asked, “Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?” Then they scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.” They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his relatives and his own family.” And because of their unbelief, he couldn’t do any miracles among them except to place his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1-6, NLT, emphasis mine)

Jesus went home and began to teach. And the text tells us that the people were “amazed”. The same word was used to describe the reaction of people when they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons in his right mind again, as well as to describe their reaction to Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead. People were “amazed” or, in some of our translations, “astonished”. I decided to look up these occurrences of the word “amazed”, to see if they were all the same word in the original language. Here is what I found…

In the story of the man called “Legion” (Mark 5:20), amazed is translated from the Greek “thaumazo”. It means “to wonder at, to marvel” and its root means “to look closely at, to behold.”

In the story of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:42), the original word is “existemi”. This word means “to amaze, astonish, throw into wonderment“, and can also mean “to be out of one’s mind.”

In this week’s story (Mark 6:2), “amazed” is translated from the word “ekplesso”. It means “to strike out, drive out, expel by a blow; to strike with panic, shock”. In the first two stories, “amaze” means similar things. Not so with this story. The people’s amazement at Jesus here is the kind that is passive. They were struck by the things Jesus taught, in a way that caused shock and panic among them, in a way that felt like a blow. A blow to what? We’re not told. But it could have been to their own egos, to their understanding, to their idea of Jesus… Whatever “blow” they were struck by, we’re told that they scoffed and were deeply offended. The word translated “offense” comes from the Greek word “skandalizo”. It looks a lot our English “scandalized”, doesn’t it? (Our English word is, in fact, derived from this original Greek term.) It means “to cause a person to distrust or desert; to put a stumbling block in the way, to cause one to unjustly judge another.”

Their unbelief caused them to scandalize Jesus in their own minds. They were leaning on their own understanding, and what they thought they knew placed limits on what Jesus could have done in their midst… This is why the exhortation of Proverbs 3:5-6 is so important to listen to. I love the way the Message paraphrase puts it:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.

Jesus’s community assumed that they knew everything about him. They knew whose kid he was, they had meals with his siblings. They knew his trade and they knew his place in society.

But they didn’t leave room in their hearts to get to know him. The real Jesus. They had a story in their heads and it took up all the space where kingdom values could have been heard and understood. They chose to doubt, rather than believe. And so, Jesus couldn’t do any miracles among them because of their unbelief.

This in no way means that he didn’t have the power to do the same miracles there that he had done elsewhere. In fact, the text tells us that he did perform some healing miracles while he was there. He could do them, and he did do them. It’s right there in the passage. But it wouldn’t have mattered how grand the miracles were or how many he performed–their hearts were set up against him. Their posture of unbelief discounted every truth about him in their minds, and the culture in that town was hostile to the kingdom.

Jesus brought the kingdom into that town, the same way he carried it everywhere he went. But it wasn’t received. And without a place for kingdom seeds to grow, any work he did among them would have been futile. He could not force the kingdom to grow and expand in a place where it was not welcomed. There was no posture of belief, no willingness to join Jesus in his kingdom work, no trust–there was only contempt and doubt and unbelief. And so, because we have a good God who chooses to move through us–imperfect and, sometimes unwilling, vessels–Jesus faced limits in his hometown.

This story stands in stark contrast to the story of the woman that Jesus named “Daughter” and commended for her faith just days before, and to the story of Jairus coming to Jesus in faith on behalf of his dying daughter. In these stories, we saw great faith, and we saw Jesus respond to it with miracles of healing.

Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not. And I don’t believe that’s what Pastor John was saying either. We know that sometimes faith is strong, and thousands believe together for a miracle that doesn’t come. We see examples of this when we hear about miscarriages, cancer, chronic illness and pain, depression, despair so deep it leads to suicide–despite fervent prayers and belief that God could change those stories–but for some reason he doesn’t. I would never say that any of these losses, any of this pain is a result of a lack of faith. I’ve watched faithful followers of Jesus battle bravely and hang onto every last shred of hope for their miracle–some of them are still with us, healed; some are no longer here.

I know there’s not a formula to faith and miracles. But choosing to live in the ways of the kingdom–holding onto hope, choosing to trust, believing that God always CAN–even if he doesn’t always show up the way we’re hoping he will, keeps our hearts and minds open to the movement of God in and around us. If we live this way, we live in a way that allows us to see and experience all that he is able to do–if we’re willing to bring his kingdom to bear alongside him…

There is one more occurrence of “amazed” I want to touch on… Mark 6:6 tells us that Jesus was amazed at their unbelief. Which “amazed” do you think he was?

It’s “thaumazo”, the same one used in the story of the man who was possessed. It’s the one that means “to wonder at, to marvel; to look closely, behold.” It would have made sense for Jesus’s amazement to be like that of his community–like he’d been struck by a blow. But it touches my heart in a deep place that this wasn’t Jesus’s response. He looked closely, beheld these people who were his family, his community–these ones who scoffed at and rejected him–and he chose not to take the same posture. He didn’t scandalize them in his mind. He beheld them with his kingdom eyes. I think maybe in that moment he saw beyond, into the days that were yet to come, days when many from his community–including his brother James–would not only change their posture to one of belief, but would become leaders of the early church.

Kingdom vision never wears lenses of hopelessness or disbelief. In the kingdom, there is no lost cause, no situation that can’t be changed. And here, even on a day when his heart must have ached from the pain of rejection, we see our Jesus choose an unexpected way, a kingdom way, of seeing those around him. What if we chose a posture that always believes, always hopes, always perseveres, always trusts, always loves? How would that kind of posture change the way we see the world–and the way the world sees us?

–Laura

A dozen or so years ago, Bible study author and teacher Beth Moore offered her first on-line study. I lived in Brazil at the time and was excited to be able to participate in the study from my home there. The title of the study was “Believing God”. It rocked my world. I have gone on to do/lead that study five more times. The thing making that study so profound for me was a seemingly small shift in a common phrase, which made all the difference in the world. Rather than “I believe in God”,  the phrase became I believe God. The study was built on these tenets:

God is who he says he is.

God can do what he says he can do.

I am who God says I am.

I can do all things through Christ.

I’m believing God. (Beth Moore)

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do, but it does provide an open channel for God’s activity to flow–or as Laura wrote–for God to bring the kingdom here.

Last night a storm passed through our city. The power went out at my house for 2 1/2 hours. The power source was still available, many houses in town still had power, but something had happened in my part of town that caused the flow of that power to be interrupted. Unbelief is like that. It doesn’t diminish the power of God in any way. However, it can block the flow of that power.

I can’t pretend to understand this mystery, but God in his great love has allowed us to be partners with him in bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. As in any relationship, if one of the partners chooses to disengage, the effectiveness of the partnership suffers.

Our belief that God is who he says he is and can do what he says he can do is vitally important in kingdom work. In the Old Testament book of Numbers, as God was getting ready to lead his people into the land he was giving them,  Moses and Aaron sent twelve men on a scouting mission to bring back a report. They came back with amazing produce and a confirmation that yes, this was a good land; however, ten of the twelve said but we can’t. There are too many obstacles, too many people who are stronger than we are, it’s impossible. The result of their unbelief–their negative report:

That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.  All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!  Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  Numbers 14:1

Joshua and Caleb, who believed God could do what he said he could do, said:

If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us.  Only do not rebel against the Lord.  (Numbers 14:8)

God was giving them a gift. Instead, one bad report led an entire community into despair and worst-case scenario thinking. The consequence of their unbelief was that they did not get to see the land God was giving to them. They wandered for forty years until all of them but Joshua and Caleb had died, and the two who believed–who also suffered the consequences of the unbelief of their comrades–were able to move into the promised land.

When speaking of those who Moses led out of Egypt, Hebrews 3:19 tells us, they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

I think it’s important to point out that while the Israelites were in the wilderness, God was still with them. He led them, he fed them, he provided water, he miraculously made their clothes and shoes last the entire time (Deuteronomy 29:5), he taught them, he did miracles on their behalf; he continued to love them, to speak to them through Moses,  to care for them. He was still the God who is love.

It’s also important to note what Laura wrote above: Am I saying that if we have enough faith, we’ll get our miracle every time? No. I’m not.  

Our belief doesn’t manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. God is God. His ways are higher than ours, his thoughts are higher than ours; unfortunately, suffering, sickness, violence, and death are part of life on this planet–and none of us escapes those things. Neither did Jesus.

However, our unbelief can keep us from fully experiencing all that God has for us, and can keep us from living in such a way that God’s supernatural activity in and around us is impeded.

Going back to the verses that Laura quoted above: Proverbs 3:5 in the NLT version reads like this:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding.

The word “trust” can be a noun or a verb. In its noun form it means: assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; one in which confidence is placed.  In its verb form, it means: “to rely on–to believe, to place confidence in,  to commit or place in one’s care or keeping… (merriam-webster.com)

The people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him. They made assumptions. They created a culture of unbelief that permeated the whole town. They depended on their own understanding, their own knowledge, and from that place stood in a defensive posture and shut off the valve that could have changed their lives. They were not willing to place themselves in the care or keeping of Jesus. They were not willing to experience something new.

I’ll say it again–I don’t pretend to understand this mystery, but I believe it’s true. Our belief–the active verb kind of belief that allows God to move and work and meet us where we are, opens up the activity of heaven right here, right now. Our openness to God allows him to work through us without limits.

In the hard seasons, do I trust the character of God? When I don’t get my miracle do I trust the character of God? When everything feels dark and confusing do I trust the character of God? Do I believe God?

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

They had no doubt that God is who he says he is, and they trusted him no matter the outcome. They refused to bow to any false god–the god of disappointment, the god of my own way, the god of discontent, the god of “I’ve served you faithfully and you let this happen to me?” or any other thing that we may find ourselves serving when we lean on our own understanding.

Of Beth Moore’s principles, the one where I’ve limited God the most is “I am who God says I am”. He has invited me into things that I feel incapable of–that I am incapable of apart from him. Sometimes I close the door and don’t move into those spaces because I’m afraid–I’m relying on my own understanding. Sometimes I take a deep breath and go for it–and Every. Single. Time. come away amazed at who God is.

There have been many times when God has asked me to stay in places that are hard– physical places, relational places, emotional places. I don’t like those places, yet when I believe God, I can have the faith to believe that he will redeem the pain and work it all toward his good purpose both in and through me.

There have been times that I’ve lost people I love to disease, to car accidents, or to friendships that changed over time. If I believe God, I can have the faith that even in these hard things, he is working. I can choose to trust, to commit myself to his care and keeping–even in seasons of grief, believing that he is God and he is love even as I beat my fists against his chest.

There have been times that I have seen God perform miracles, heal, save, transform, redeem, restore, come through when all hope seemed lost, and at those times it’s easy to see him, to believe him, to glorify him.  I believe that’s one of the reasons he asks us to keep our minds focused on lovely and excellent things, and to remember what he’s done for us. It helps us keep believing, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing.

When I’m in hard seasons, I oftentimes reflect on the disciples at the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. What was going through their minds? When it looked like all hope was lost, God the Son was carrying out a victorious mission. He died, passed through death, now holds the keys of death and hades, and rose again from the dead utterly defeating death.  Colossians 2:15 words it like this: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.  What looked like total darkness and chaos, became our freedom–the verses right before 2:15 state: He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And then he made a public spectacle of the powers and authorities, disarming them forever!

What looked like the end was the new beginning…

Therefore:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart–don’t lean on your own knowledge or understanding. Believe God…

God is who he says he is. He can do what he says he can do. We are who he says we are. We can do all things through him. Let’s not limit what He can do by our unbelief; instead, let’s choose to believe our limitless God and watch him be amazing in our midst.

–Luanne

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A Matter of Principle: The Mustard Seed

I’ve loved every week of this series. Seeds, sowing generously, kingdom growth… Every week has been enlightening and captivating in its own way. Sunday’s, though, our final message in this series, is my favorite.

We looked at Mark 4:30-34:

 Jesus asked, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story shall I use to illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed! Though this is one of the smallest of seeds, yet it grows to become one of the largest of plants, with long branches where birds can build their nests and be sheltered.” He used many such illustrations to teach the people as much as they were ready to understand.  In fact, he taught only by illustrations in his public teaching, but afterwards, when he was alone with his disciples, he would explain his meaning to them. (The Living Bible)

Seeds don’t grow until they’re planted.

A seed in a packet won’t sprout. Growth can’t happen until the seed is planted, until the conditions are right.

We wrote last week about mystery, and how seeds are a bit of a mystery, too. I leaned into that mystery and read a little bit about seeds today. I knew that seeds, in order to grow, need water and oxygen, and—in most cases—light. I learned that the temperature has to be right for seeds to sprout, too. When a seed is exposed to the right conditions, it begins to take in water and oxygen through the seed coat, or the shell. The cells, when fed properly in the right conditions, start to get bigger. Once they get big enough, roots break down through the shell, followed by a shoot that contains the stem and leaves that grows upward.

Some shells are harder than others though, and have to be broken down before the water and oxygen can get through them to the seed inside. These seeds have to be soaked in the water and sometimes scratched before the outer shell will break down enough to let the air and water inside.

I also learned how seeds know which way is up, where to send the shoots. I’ve heard it said that plants are reaching for the light, and that’s why they grow upward. This is scientifically true after the shoot breaks the surface of the soil. But while the seed is buried in the soil, something else calls it upward. The seed senses the gravitational field and orients itself accordingly. (I have no idea how a seed senses anything, but science says this is how it happens, and I’ll chalk it up to the awesome mystery of how God created everything!) Reading about that made me curious about gravity and how in the world this whole process happens. I found this definition for “gravity”:

“Gravity is a force which tries to pull two objects toward each other. Anything which has mass also has a gravitational pull. The more massive an object is, the stronger its gravitational pull is.” (coolcosmos.ipac.caltech.edu)

We’ll try to unpack that a little more in a minute, but for now, back to the mustard seed…

Jesus finishes talking about the kingdom being like a farmer who scatters seeds generously and moves into these few verses about a tiny seed that grows into a very large plant. It seems a little odd, doesn’t it? It kind of feels like he’s shrinking back from a big, powerful concept into a more individual approach.

And he is…

And he’s not…

Pastor John broke his message down into three points:

  1. What is hidden is opened. He encouraged us to think back to when we first fell in love with Jesus, when that first kingdom seed was planted, when everything changed. He told us that Jesus planted that seed and he asked us, did we hide it? Or did we let it grow?

I can’t help but think about the conditions that have to be met before a seed opens up, breaks through its shell, and begins to grow. Seeds might be hidden within our hearts for a long time before conditions are right for them to sprout and grow. Storms may come and shake us, and seeds may lie dormant for a very long time. But the Grower, our God who constantly pursues us, is forever working in us, cultivating the soil that we give him access to. Some of the seeds in us might have really hard shells and may take extra care before they can absorb what they need to grow. That leads us to the next point…

  1. What is natural is supernatural. We see growth as a natural, organic process, but it’s so much bigger than we can grasp. When we think of growth as something that is natural, we get lost thinking about what we can do to grow the seeds. This kind of thinking is completely unproductive because the growth comes from the Grower. It’s the supernatural that brings the potential out of the small seed. The beautiful mystery is that natural people do supernatural things because the Grower imbues us with the ability to do so. Growth is not a product of our doing anything right. Our part is simply saying yes to the cultivation process. For some of us, that means being soaked in the living water a little longer before our hard shells can crack. Some of us may have a hard exterior that takes extra care to break down. And the Grower is here for that. For as long as it takes. The massive gravitational pull of the Grower connects to the gravitational pull contained in the seed and draws it out, toward himself, until that shoot breaks the surface and recognizes its own ability to grow toward the light.
  2. What is small is great. This point is my favorite because it so highlights the Jesus I know, the Jesus we meet all over the pages of scripture. All the way back in Zechariah 4:10, we read, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (NLT) And throughout the gospels, we see Jesus taking time to honor the small, the humble, the meek, the unseen, the child, the outcast—and he calls them blessed.

The first two points carry an individual message—the work has to be done within each of us before we can spread it to the world around us. The third point is where it all comes together, where we see why Jesus talked about the tiny mustard seed here. Highlighting the smallness of the seed made it clear to his hearers that size and quantity aren’t important factors when it comes to growth in his kingdom. The mustard seed illustrates that the small, disregarded things, the parts of us and our stories that we would label unimportant, dismissable, insignificant—even invisible—have kingdom potential when they’re exposed to the proper conditions and tended by the Grower. And it even goes beyond that—not only do the tiny things have potential; they are THE way he has chosen to bring his kingdom into our human reality!

The tiny mustard seed not only grows—it grows into the largest plant in the garden, because it’s the small things, the humble things, that become great. Jesus goes on to say that birds (plural) find shade and shelter within its branches. He doesn’t say which type of birds, he simply says that the tiny seed grows into a huge plant and that its branches provide shade and shelter for birds. This is what, according to Jesus, the kingdom is like.

Is this what the kingdom looks like in us? Has the seed that was sown into the soil of our hearts by Jesus grown beyond its tiny beginning? Have we allowed the Grower to cultivate it, and draw it up and out into the light? If we have, when it broke the surface, did we let it keep reaching toward the light, where it could grow big enough to provide shelter for many, or did we hold it back in the shadows of our preferences and prejudices where we could be selective about which birds could come perch on our branches?

Church!!! We. Have. To. Pay. Attention! The kingdom, Jesus’s way, is open to ALL. Period. There are no conditions to being welcomed into the kingdom. Everyone is invited, everyone is accepted, everyone is embraced. Everyone. If we disagree with that, we are being discipled by someone other than Jesus. Because he makes it abundantly clear. He invites anyone who is thirsty to come to him and drink of the water of life! He invites ALL who are weary and burdened to come and find their rest in him. He chose a bunch of misfits and social outcasts to be his closest companions. He saw beyond the outward behaviors to the systemic and cultural roots of people’s problems. He got close to the sick, the smelly, the unclean, the women, the children, the conservative and the liberal, the hypocrites, the faithful, the rule-keepers and the rule-breakers. There was no one he excluded! And in his goodness to us, in his desire for us to experience the fullness of his love and his kingdom, he invites us to see the small and BE the small, so that we can embrace the small and see him make all the small, forgotten things into the greatest in his kingdom. This is why he talked about the mustard seed. Because we have a tendency to not only overlook the small, insignificant things but to trample and discard them entirely. Jesus says no! These things–the small, humble, meek, insignificant things–carry unlimited kingdom potential. But in order to see the exponential growth these seeds are capable of, we must relinquish our control of how we’d like it to look, and which seeds we deem appropriate to throw into whichever areas we sanction as “good enough”, and yield to the Grower.

I want Jesus to produce such a supernatural growth in my, my church, my community, that we see a revolution occur. Can you imagine if tiny seeds planted in the place where you live grew into a tree with branches large enough to hold birds of every nation, tribe, and tongue without exception? Can you imagine?

This is what the kingdom of God looks like…

–Laura

A quick culmination of the main kingdom themes that Jesus taught in Mark 4 reminds us that we are to sow generously, let the kingdom be seen like a lit lamp, trust the mystery of growth to God and the last,  the parable of the mustard seed, teaches that the smallest sown seed becomes the largest, most hospitable plant in the garden.

Laura asked us these questions: Is this what the kingdom looks like in us? Has the seed that was sown into the soil of our hearts by Jesus grown beyond its tiny beginning? Have we allowed the Grower to cultivate it, and draw it up and out into the light? If we have, when it broke the surface, did we let it keep reaching toward the light…

Pastor John reminded us that kingdom growth is not about our effort, our own “good enough” is not sustainable nor does the credit for the growth go to us. We are all in this together, all seed sowers, all with the potential to bear fruit, no one is greater, no one is lesser, and all the growth belongs to God.

I will ask again the question that I asked last week. What type of seeds are we sowing? What does the fruit of our lives look like? Like Laura, I desire that my life, my church, my community bear supernatural fruit that leads to supernatural growth that leads to a supernatural revolution that changes the world.

I’ll admit that sometimes I get frustrated at God’s pace. I want him to change things more quickly than it appears to me that they are being changed. I want the polarization in our nation to be resolved now. I want the mean-spiritedness in our nation to be gone now. I want news stations to get rid of their opinion-based angry panels now. I want ongoing, systemic issues of inequity to be abolished now. I want pastors who publicly elevate country over the kingdom of God to have heart change now. I want all people treated and cared for humanely as if they have value and worth now. I want to see churches of all different types sowing seeds of the real, welcoming, no-condemnation, unconditional loving, kingdom of God now. I want all people everywhere to know the Savior Jesus now. I want to be consistently Christ-like now. But that’s not the way it works. It works relationally, one God-saturated person at a time loving one person at a time into the kingdom. This is how things will change–over time.

Pastor John asked us to remember when we first fell in love with Jesus. That’s a good question. I remember being in my bedroom; I was nine. I felt the supernatural presence of Jesus in my room, I felt his love, I knew that I wanted to love him in return and give my life to him.  I can’t explain that moment logically, but as I type out the words, my heart still fills with warmth at the sweetness of it. I made my decision to give my life to Jesus public in my church and was baptized shortly after. I’ve shared many times about the storms that came into my life after that moment and how angry I was at God for a number of years. I’ve shared about my self-destruction, the hurt I caused others, and I’ve also shared about running back to Jesus over and over during that season of chaos. And Every. Single. Time. He welcomed me with open arms. He doesn’t shut his gates. He doesn’t hold grudges. He even uses those seasons to help grow our seeds into beautiful fruit that we can sow into others who are in similar circumstances. Mind-blowing!

Pastor John reminded us of Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a zealot for traditional Judaism. He was a Roman citizen and a Jew who studied under one of the leading rabbis of the day. Saul believed, and would have told you, he was a zealot for God, but truly he was a zealot for the religion of his fathers. Christianity, in all its messiness and wild growth in those early days, was a threat to his neat, packaged, traditional understanding of God. (My daughter defines tradition as peer pressure from dead people–hmmm.)

Saul, full of fervor, anger, and zeal, convinced that he was right was on his way to Damascus to persecute, murder, and incarcerate Christians. On that journey, he met Jesus in a rather dramatic fashion. Leaving his encounter with Jesus physically blind but spiritually sighted, he was directed to the home of Ananias–a disciple of Jesus whom the Lord had spoken to about receiving Saul into his home. Ananias was understandably concerned since he knew Saul’s reputation and how much damage Saul had done to Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. But God let Ananias know that Saul was going to be his chosen instrument to take the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. Ananias was willing–willing to believe God and sow kingdom seeds of kindness and care into Saul (his enemy).  That’s a big piece in Saul’s story. Ananias was willing to minister to him in kindness.  (Saul’s story is found in Acts 9.)

Saul’s name eventually changed to Paul–the apostle Paul. Do you know what Paul means?  It’s a Latin nickname that means “small”.  When Paul was Saul, he had power, authority, prestige, and he thought he was pretty great. His life was about violently and hatefully making Judaism great again. When he met Jesus, when he became Paul, he lost all of that but gained something much more valuable; he became a huge seed sower for the Kingdom of God. Paul did not consider himself great–he considered Jesus great. He chose to go by the nickname “small” so that he could elevate Christ.

Paul teaches us that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

And in another letter: Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all, Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col 3:11-14). 

Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23), 

This Paul, whom we humans so highly esteem tells us that he is the least among the apostles (1st Cor. 15:9) and that Christ is the visible image of the invisible GodHe existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation...(Col 1:15). 

This Paul, who calls himself small so that he can sow seeds of God’s beautiful kingdom into the rest of us, must be grieved when we elevate him above Christ and use just a few of his words taken out of context to justify exclusion and unkindness. Paul’s overall message is one of inclusion and grace–the type that he himself received when he encountered Jesus. Paul, who gave up all position and power and suffered persecution at the hands of those who previously empowered him in order to sow Jesus, teaches us that Christ is supreme, and his writing encourages us to be full of the Holy Spirit, growing/maturing in Christ and lovingly sowing kingdom seeds for the glory of God all the days of our lives.

In these days of chaos, in these days of vitriol, in these days of unhealthy nationalism, of scary ideologies, of extremism, of inhumane treatment of others, who will we choose to be? It’s easy for all of us, myself included, to get caught up in it all. Paul wrote don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone (2 Timothy 2:23-24a). It’s kindness that introduces people to the kingdom of God–kindness toward everyone

So, what seeds will we choose to sow? What kingdom are we seeking to make great?

The kingdom that begins with a mustard seed grows to become the largest plant in the garden–birds come and not only rest there, but the original language tells us that the word actually means to pitch one’s tent, to fix one’s abode, to dwell (Strong’s Concordance),  the birds come and find a home.  Are people finding a place to belong here on earth, and a home in the here and now kingdom of God through our God-grown life seeds that continue to reach for and shine the light of Jesus, sowing and bearing Holy Spirit fruit everywhere we go?  Lord Jesus, help us!

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground…” (Mark 4:26)

–Luanne

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This I Know…PG-13

On Sunday, Youth Pastor Beau Gamble interviewed Luanne Marshall about today’s youth culture. Luanne is the Academic Facilitator at Kelly Walsh High School here in Casper. According to her, her job is to build relationships with kids who are “at-risk”. She said that academics are her door into their world, the first step to gaining their trust so that she can build relationships with them and love them. Beau talked to her about what she encounters while working with these kids on a daily basis.

There is no way I’ll cover everything Beau and Luanne talked about–even in what they shared, they only had time to scratch the surface of what our teenagers are dealing with. I do want to highlight some of what stood out most to me.

The conversation began with Luanne challenging the narrative about what an “at-risk” kid is. What do you think about when you hear that label? Chances are, you don’t think of church kids with good grades and a modest appearance, from good neighborhoods with good parents. The picture in your mind most likely looks nothing like that. Yet, there are countless kids who fit my description who are, in fact, at-risk. Sometimes at-risk relates to academics. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Beau asked Luanne, “What is an “at-risk” kid?” Luanne responded, “I was at risk.” She shared with us that she lost her mom when she was eleven years old. Her dad remarried a year later. His new wife was a widow. Between them, they had seven children. All of them were carrying the burden of loss and grief. And now they lived together under one roof–on the other side of town from where Luanne had gone to elementary school. She told us, “I was never at risk academically, but I was emotionally. I did not know how to articulate my pain. I was self-destructive, and others-destructive, because we don’t self-destruct all alone. People had no idea. It was not rebellion against my parents. I was trying to take care of my own pain the only way I knew how.” She also shared with us that she never wanted to reflect poorly on her dad, who was a pastor. She loves him dearly and was aware then of how her behavior could impact him. So she kept up appearances at church.

I was at-risk, too, but like Luanne, most of the people around me would never have known. My grades were near-perfect, I excelled in music, I wore a happy face–especially at church. But I spent my earliest years in an environment that was spiritually, verbally, and physically abusive. Not only was I not taught how to articulate my pain, I was punished if I tried. So I stuffed. And conformed. When I was eleven, two major events occurred in my life. My mom was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and my parents divorced. We moved four times that year, and I attended three different middle schools. I continued to stuff and conform for a few more years. I was both of my parents’ shoulder to cry on, my mom’s right-hand while she was sick, and I kept the peace in our family as well as I could. I maintained my grades and activities, while my emotional and psychological well-being continued in a downward spiral. By late high-school, I was self-medicating with alcohol and sex, living to be loved and accepted, and to be seen–even if it was for the wrong reasons. My parents, along with most of the adults in my life, never knew the extent of my self-destruction. I still maintained near-perfect grades and excelled in music and at my job. Mercifully, I survived that season of my life. There were many opportunities for me not to. I was at-risk, too.

As I ponder my experiences, along with Luanne’s, I wonder how many of you are nodding along as you read. How many of you were at risk, too, in one way or another. I bet the numbers are staggering… In Beau’s closing prayer, he said these words, “We’re all kids–some of us are just older than others.” Hearing those words instantly brought tears to my eyes. I’m still trying to discern why I felt it so deeply, but I think it was mostly because it’s so true. Most of us grew up not knowing how to articulate our pain, and for most of us, it came out sideways along the way. We all have different stories and experiences, but regardless of how wonderful our parents may have been, it’s unlikely that any of us made it into adulthood without experiencing some level of trauma. I grew up with parents who did the best they knew how to do, but no one had taught them how to deal with their own pain, so how could they teach me how to deal with mine?

Luanne told us that there were adults who loved her well throughout her self-destructive years. These people modeled the ways of Jesus to her. She said that they, “…loved me unconditionally, always,” and that there was, “no judgement, ever.” She said later on, “People aren’t shamed and judged into the kingdom of God. They’re loved into the kingdom.” These precious people saw beneath the image Luanne was projecting. They saw that she was isolating and in pain, and rather that grilling her about it, they simply loved her right where she was. It was clear as she spoke that she still feels the impact of these people in her life today.

These nameless people (they are not nameless to Luanne, of course, but they are to the rest of us) were a drop of love in the pool of her pain. That one drop created the first ripple in the wave of love that is now impacting hundreds of students each year. There’s no way to measure how many lives have been touched and changed because they took the time to see and love one hurting, at risk girl. That girl grew up to model the Christ-like love that was modeled to her, and now she’s the one who sees and loves the hurting kids around her. And she teaches others to do the same. She learned how to process her pain. She took the necessary steps to get help. She took the time to heal. She was willing to own her own stuff, and chooses to be honest about her own brokenness. She doesn’t try to change the world alone, because she’s learned that this life is a journey that we take together.

We can do that, too. We can learn how to articulate our own pain, how to own our own stuff, how to be honest about our brokenness. And we can do it in front of our kids, so that they can learn what we never did–how to process the pain of life rather than walk the road of self–and others–destruction. We can lead by laying down our pride and our walls, so that our kids can see that, while they are dealing with different things than we did, we’re not that different at all. We’re kids who are learning how to navigate the journey, too–we’re just a little older. We aren’t great at articulating our pain, either. And we need them as much as they need us. We can become aware, and we can be willing to learn about what we don’t know. We can choose to love people–not as projects, but as the individuals they are.

The things our youth are facing are daunting… They are growing up in a culture where suicides are commonplace, where constant standardized testing tells them they’re never good enough, where social media has replaced relationship, and sexting is an accepted part of conversations. They are a community of misfits who haven’t seen acceptance of diversity modeled. They are struggling with their sexual identities, their ethnicities, and the policies and systems that affect their lives in a world that is angrier than ever before. They are angry. They are scared. They deal with unprecedented anxiety levels. They learn active shooter procedures in P.E. They are addicted, and so are their parents. They are taking care of sick parents and mourning the loss of parents who chose suicide as their answer. They are a generation well-acquainted with abuse in all of its forms. They don’t have “safe spaces” to process all of this. They don’t know how to find the love, care, compassion, and wisdom they’re craving, so they look to their peers or to themselves for answers. Many of them see churches as judgmental and exclusive, some because they’ve experienced shunning from Christians. The Christian witness they hear often sounds angry and uninviting…

They don’t know how to dream of a better tomorrow–many of them have no dreams at all. It is dark, and it is daunting.

But friends, this I know… There is hope for a new day. Carolyn shared with us last week that “We are a people of hope,” and that God can restore and reach “far out to places you’d never imagine.” That includes the lives of our youth, this next generation to whom  we will hand off the baton. We can all be one small drop that creates a ripple effect in the lives of our youth, the way that those adults who saw and loved Luanne created the first ripple in her life. Tomorrow is a new day, and it really can be differentIt will take courage. And honesty. And time. And it will start small. But, remember,

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10a, NLT)

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.” (Philippians 1:6, NLT)

We don’t do the work alone. In our own lives, as well as in the lives of the kids around us, our friend Jesus is the source. The starting point. Our model for how to love. He begins the work, if we’re willing, within us. And as we live out our journey of brokenness and healing in front of our kids, as we honestly own our stuff and make space for theirs, the love of Jesus will flow out of us and become drops that create ripples that make a difference in the lives of our kids… The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Laura

There is always hope. As the people of God choose to put people first, to love them well, to meet them right where they are, things begin to change. God’s plan for salvation, for saving lives is through relationships. Salvation is not for the after life, it is for the here and now. As Laura wrote above, my life was saved because people who loved Jesus loved me right where I was. And yes, I am very honest with students about my own brokenness, I share with them nuggets that I learned in my therapy, and in so doing, I give them permission to be real. Sometimes it takes years to build a relationship, sometimes months, sometimes it happens almost instantaneously, and some students resist relationships altogether, but I still greet them by name when I see them. Nothing that I do is hard. I greet students by name. I smile. I make every effort not to talk down to them, I try to always treat them with respect. I “see” them, as do many other adults in our building.

Even still, I was part of a suicide intervention today. What Beau and I talked about Sunday is real. Our kids are hurting. Our kids are anxious. Our kids are afraid. Our kids are angry. Our kids don’t know how to express how overwhelmed they are. They don’t know what to do with their pain.

So I write to those of us who would qualify as older kids– are we in touch with ourselves enough to know our own brokenness? Our own anger? Our own fear? Our own hurt?Have we sought healing? Are we on the healing journey? Have we found healing? Are we sharing our journeys with others so that we have support, and so others know they are not alone?  Would we be considered safe people for others? Are we able to hold their hearts, their pain, and their stories with the awareness that we have been entrusted with a precious gift–the gift of vulnerability, of confidentiality? Do we know how to do conflict well? Do we listen well? Are we pouring love, grace, and wisdom into the generation that is coming behind us?

We come together through the love of Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven on earth to experience and to share in one another’s sufferings and joys. Yes it’s messy. No, we won’t do it perfectly, yet through the messy of our shared humanity God’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth. It’s slow, but it’s powerful enough to change the world.

As Laura wrote above: The story isn’t over. There are chapters yet to write. We can work toward a better tomorrow. There is hope. This I know…

–Luanne

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Next Steps: One Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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