Fan the Flame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those lies can include thoughts such as:

My value lies in what I do.

I’ll never be good enough.

My presence doesn’t matter.

I can’t depend on anyone.

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

and so many other things.

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

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

Fear is powerless–until we give it power. 

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

The Spirit of power,                                                                                                                               

               The Spirit of love,  

                              The Spirit of self-control. 

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

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

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

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

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

I. Love. That!

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

Take, eat.
This is my body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All our brokenness is only healed by union–

With-ness breaks brokenness.” (Voskamp)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for campfire in the woods

Dear Church #4 – Philippians 2:1-11

Last summer I attended a conference; one of the speakers there encouraged us to begin reading scripture with a new lens. (We all have a tendency to read scripture through our own cultural lens/bias and miss out on deeper revelation.)  She encouraged us to start in the gospels, to read slowly, to pay attention to who the people are in each passage, to consider their station in life–would they have been considered the privileged or oppressed? Are they “firsts” or “lasts”? How does Jesus respond to each group? How does He challenge societal norms? How does He flip the culture of the day on its head? Who does He esteem? Who does He correct?

It’s been one of the most powerful and life giving suggestions I’ve ever received at a conference. It has breathed new life into my relationship with God. I’m not reading scripture to get my nugget for the day; I’m reading to get to know Him and His ways, and He is speaking to me in deep places. Slowing way, way down, not being in a hurry to move through chapters and verses has allowed me to sit with Jesus, to learn from the Holy Spirit, and be awed by the love of God for all people in a new, fresh, and compelling way. So, in this post, we are going to slow down a familiar passage of scripture, chew on it, sit with it, and let it read us-rather than us reading it.

In Philippians 2 the Apostle Paul continues building on what he started in chapter one. He begins this portion of his letter with an “if”/”then” thought process:

Verse 1:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ

If you have any comfort from His love

If you have any common sharing in the Spirit

If any tenderness

If any compassion

Verses 2-4:

Then make my joy complete:

Then be like-minded,

Then have the same love

Then be one in spirit and mind

Then do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit

Then humbly value others above yourselves

Then don’t look to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others…

Let’s pause here and consider the “ifs”.

Are you united with Christ? Are you in a relationship with Him? Have you connected yourself to Him and His ways? Have you allowed Him to minister to you, to work in you, to change you?  Have you received encouragement from Him?

Encouragement is an interesting word. The word courage–means “heart”. “En” means “make, put in”. The definition includes words such as consolation, comfort, solace, that which affords comfort or refreshment, encouragement.

The definition of encourage is to make strong, hearten. (The opposite-discourage-weakens, deflates, disheartens).

Has Jesus strengthened you? Has He comforted you? Has He refreshed you? Has He come alongside you? Is He with you?  Does He encourage you?

Do you have comfort from His agape? Do you have absolute assurance of His love? Do you know that He will always love you? You don’t earn it, or deserve it, or lose it. He just loves you, totally and completely forever and always, and you can rest assured that His love is never going away. Perfect agape casts out fear (1 John 4:18), and God’s love is perfect. Does that comfort you?

Do you have common sharing, fellowship with others? Our English translation can’t get to the depth of what this means. The Greek word is koinonia and it is so much deeper than just hanging out together. It is a deep connection, a Spirit connection with others. It is being part of a spiritual community, of sharing everything, of joint participation, of shared mission and purpose, of unity.

Have you received tenderness from Jesus? Has his kindness, his love, his mercy ministered to you?  One of the phrases in the Strong’s definition is “a heart in which mercy resides”.  Has his merciful heart ministered to you?

Have you received compassion from Jesus? Another incredibly interesting word which implies mercy, but also  has this component in it: to feel sympathy with the misery of another–such sympathy as manifests itself in act, less frequently in word. Compassion means to suffer with…

IF you have experienced any of this from Jesus. THEN…  Scroll back up and read through the “thens”. Once you’ve done that, we’ll continue on and see what the “thens” looked like  in the person of Jesus.

Verses 5-8

(Then) Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.  The word attitude, and the word like-minded in verse two are the same Greek word. So, your mind should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.  The “thens” start with the mind of Christ in us. There is much New Testament scripture about having a new mind in Christ…do not be conformed anymore to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…(Rom 12:2); The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the spirit is life and peace. (Rom. 8:6)  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27) and many others! The mind of Christ–what does that look like in this passage?

Before the incarnation, Jesus was in the form of God, but he did not grasp that form tightly. Instead, he laid aside that form and put on the form of our humanity, and not just of our humanity–he made himself the lowest. Again, our English translation cleans this up for us a bit, but the actual word “servant” is the word doulos – bond-servant. It means a person bound in service without wages. It could be voluntary or forced, but a bondservant was subservient to and entirely at the disposal of his master–essentially a slave.

Going back to my new scripture lens –this passage blows me away, and we’re not even through it yet. Jesus laid aside all of his privilege, everything He had in heaven, and made himself one of the least of these.  He could have come as a privileged man, but that was not the way it happened. He was born into an oppressed ethnic group during Roman rule.  His family was homeless when he was born,  he was poor during his childhood, he was a manual laborer before he began his ministry, and he was homeless again as an adult.  Luke 8 tells us that he was financially supported by women–extremely counter cultural.  Let all of that sink in for a minute.

So in this human form, Jesus humbled himself completely.  We don’t always understand the meaning of that word either. Humble means to make low, to level-reduce to a plain, a lower rank, devoid of all haughtiness.

And he became obedient to death—even death on a cross.   Did you know that obedient means giving ear? To obey means to listen attentively and follow through.  The implications of that are huge. If we are going to obey God, and think like Jesus, we must draw close to Him, be silent, and create space for Him to speak.

And the height of humiliation? Public death on a cross.

However, because Jesus lived from this humble, obedient, bond-servant mindset, this form…

God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (9-11)

This is where it all begins. Does your tongue, does my tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Do our knees (individually and collectively)  bow to Him in subservience and submission? If Jesus is Lord, the only response we can give Him is “yes”. Otherwise we exalt ourselves and our wills above His, and we become our own lords.

I find it interesting that in Strong’s Concordance the word confess (admit, agree fully) also means profess-to acknowledge openly and joyfully, to celebrate, give praise to. 

Pastor John pointed out in his sermon that we sometimes use verses 9-11 as a weapon from a place of arrogance–“One day, dude, you’re gonna be forced to admit that Jesus is Lord–you won’t have any choice and you’re going to be made to bow down. Then you’ll see that we Christians were right all along. Nanny-nanny-boo-boo!”

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Paul is trying to say here. Paul has been telling us that he prays for our agape to abound more and more for other people. He has told us that to live is Christ–the mission, heart, passion of Jesus. And here he says–be like Him. Be like Christ in the way you think, in the way you live, in the way you relate with the world. I believe, dear Church, if we can get this figured out, that people will be hungry for a relationship with Jesus, they will confess and profess that He is Lord because coming into relationship with Him brings joy, purpose, freedom, celebration…

Dear Church, are we living the “thens”  for the glory of God? Are we living the “thens” and drawing people to Jesus? Or are we sending a hostile, haughty message to the world?

Jesus himself told his disciples when they were having a little dispute over greatness You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28). 

He said that to His disciples then. He says that to His disciples (students, learners, apprentices) today.

Dear Church, when people see us, do they see Him? Are we bearing fruit that looks like Jesus? Are we lowering ourselves or exalting ourselves? Are we grasping-holding tightly-  to our privilege or laying it aside for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven? Are we oppressing people or helping people? Are we listening attentively and bringing peace or running our mouths and creating chaos? Do we look like Jesus? Do we think like Jesus? Do we love like Jesus? Do we reflect Jesus? Do we know the real Jesus?

Dear Church–if He is Lord, we will look like Him, act like Him, love like Him, be humble like Him, align ourselves with the oppressed and marginalized- the sick, the lost, the foreigner, the poor, the despised, the powerless, those discriminated against, like He did, and not be afraid of the cost. He came for us, and in His name and His way, He sends us out so that the world He loves can know Him and confess Him as Lord.

–Luanne

I love that Luanne began with an invitation to slow down. It’s an exercise that is vital to going deeper, to gaining understanding, to getting to know the real Jesus and his heart for real people.

If you’ve been around church at all, you’ve probably heard this week’s passage, in part or in whole. Even if you’ve never stepped inside a church, you’ve likely heard some of it quoted-and perhaps not kindly, as Luanne eluded to. We do a disservice to ourselves and to the world around us when we don’t take the time to learn from the Holy Spirit, time to sit at the Teacher’s feet and glean from these ancient words the messages they carry. In our fast-paced culture, this approach to reading scripture can feel like a luxury—but it is a luxury we need to indulge in, one that Jesus invites us into, a place of rest for the burdened, the hurried, the spiritually-depleted.

We’re all spiritually depleted—especially when we think we’re not. The riches of the Word are inexhaustible. When we forget that, when we think we understand the meaning of a text (as though there is only one possible explanation and application of the words) we take an arrogant position as one who has been taught rather than one who is continually being taught by the Spirit. I don’t think that most of us intentionally assume this position. But it is the position we take when we cling to our ideas of what these words mean more than we cling to the One who said them.

During my quiet time on Sunday morning, I read a devotional written by Richard Rohr, adapted from Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom). It began this way:

“One of the great themes of the Bible, beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures and continued by Jesus and Paul, is “the preferential option for the poor.” I call it “the bias toward the bottom.”

He later goes on to say, “There is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a different way.”

As I turned these words over and over in my mind, I wrote this in my journal:

“If my experience with God is just for “me” and doesn’t lead me more deeply into the heart of Jesus for the “other”, into that “bias toward the bottom”, is my experience God at all? Or simply an emotional, feel-good moment that may touch my heart—but may not actually be from God…?”

I have had many experiences, encounters if you will, with God. Encounters that have left me changed, rearranged, and with fresh vision. I believe He comes to each one of us personally and intimately and graces us with moments created for us as individuals. I know that’s true because I could write an entire book full of nothing but the times He has loved me that way. I don’t take Richard’s statement to mean that personal, one-on-one experiences with God are not authentic. I think his point, and certainly mine, is that these experiences are designed for a purpose that is two-fold. I believe God wants us to feel His Papa-love for ourselves—to know it, get familiar with it, so that we can build a relationship with our Father that we can rely on and trust regardless of our circumstances. AND, I believe these experiences are also meant to take us further than ourselves. Meant to teach us to see beyond our own desires and needs. Meant to teach us what agape love looks and feels like so that it can be cultivated within us and carried into the world. Meant to do exactly what Richard wrote: situate us in the world in a different way.

So… to the assertion that there is NO authentic God experience that doesn’t have this effect, we must assume that it is up to us whether we experience Him authentically or not. God is never inauthentic. And He continually comes to us. When we meet His authenticity with our minds and hearts focused on ourselves, we are choosing to only take part of what He offers, which renders the moment inauthentic. To experience anything authentically is to experience it in totality, in its fullness.

I had all of this reverberating in my heart when I arrived at church on Sunday. I had no idea what Pastor John was going to preach about…

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.(Philippians 2:1-2)

If we have experienced Christ in this way for ourselves, then we are called to relate to others in the very same way. As Luanne wrote, If Jesus is Lord, the only response we can give Him is “yes”. Otherwise we exalt ourselves and our wills above His, and we become our own lords.When we follow Jesus and lay down our own lives in exchange for His life in us, the only response to anything He asks of us is yes. But for today’s purposes, let’s narrow down what we’re saying “yes” to. We are saying yes to relating to others–every single other Image-bearer, no exceptions—the way that Jesus relates to us. Luanne explained in detail what that meant for Jesus. Have we given our “yes” to loving others in that same way?

Before I take that thought further, I want to take us back a bit… Luanne spent some time sitting with these verses, time digging in to really absorb what they mean. I’m going to take us back into verse two to dissect the meaning of the original Greek words because I think what they have to say to us is profound—and profoundly simple.

If you look up the Greek for every word in verse 2 (highlighted above), you’ll find that Paul repeats a couple of words a few times. Almost as if he really wanted his readers to get the point he was trying to make. Our English translations have prettied it up and gone outside of some of the more common meanings of the words, probably for flow and readability’s sake. Here’s how it would read if we literally translated every Greek word:

“…then fulfill my joy to fulfillment by same thinking, having the same love, of one accord, thinking one thought.”

Same thinking. Same love. Of one accord. Thinking one thought. Well, that pretty much does away with any of our notions toward individualism, doesn’t it? I think we hate that part, because we love our independence, and we love feeling like we’re in control. We assume that thinking in the way Paul suggests means we have to agree on everything, vote the same way, come to the same conclusions about every hot-button issue, and that we have to interpret every word of scripture exactly the same way. Is that what I’m suggesting this verse means?

No…and yes.

Luanne talked to us about the way we read scripture through our own lenses & personal biases. We run the bible through a variety of filters—tradition, upbringing, political leanings, privilege, cultural identity, education, etc…–and we can end up on completely different ends of the spectrum from one another.

I’m not suggesting “sameness” as a theological framework because I believe, like author & pastor Carlos Rodriguez does, that “…not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together.” (Drop the Stones, C. Rodriguez)

What I am suggesting is that we are to have one filter. Jesus. His life, his example and His overarching command that, according to Him, supersedes all the others:

“And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31, NLT)

Dear Church… this is our filter. Are we loving God (which we can only do because He first loved us) and is that same love He fills us with pouring out to others?

So… Same thinking. Same love. Of one accord. Thinking one thought. Is this possible? Yes. If our only filter is Jesus, we will land on the side of unconditional love. Every. Single. Time. If we run everything through the filter of loving God & loving others, then we will, in fact, have the mind of Christ, because that’s what He did. Luanne and I have talked about love being the bottom line over and over again since we began this blog. That’s not in an effort to avoid the hard way—often times, love is the hardest way. It’s not because we are looking for an easy, pretty, feel-good answer. No. We keep saying it because we really believe it. That the way of Jesus is the way of self-sacrificing love. That justice and shalom are by-products of this love that changes everything. Because real love chooses to be last so someone else can be first. That’s why we drive this point home over and over again.

I think we are free to disagree, to think for ourselves, and to believe differently from one another. And because we are human, and we are on our own journeys toward the completeness God is bringing us into, we won’t ever do this “same thinking” perfectly. There is plenty of grace for that. 

AND… Paul still exhorts us to be unified in our thinking. Pastor John asserted that there should be no contention, no division in the Church if we take this teaching seriously, because we’ll be of one purpose. Does that mean we don’t speak up for justice, have discussions about politics, and hold to traditional values that devalue other human beings? Because these types of conversations are creating plenty of division and contention lately.

What about things like the immigration crisis, refugees, mass incarceration, poverty, LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, women in leadership, religion and politics, kneeling for the anthem, police brutality, racism, nationalism, allocation of wealth, prayer in schools, abortion, sexual addiction, human trafficking, mass shootings, gun control, left vs. right, and so many other topics that daily flood the headlines? How do we get to a place of unity around all of that?

Remember our filter? If we are loving like Jesus, if we have a “bias toward the bottom” like He did (and does), if we are putting people above agendas, if we are humbling ourselves and choosing to bow our knees to the ways of Christ and His Kingdom, I believe we will come to a place of unity. We tend to look at situations as having one right way and one wrong way. But Jesus is continually bringing us into a different way. His way. A third way. A way that is always counter-cultural and unexpected. A way that got him into plenty of trouble when He walked the earth. Dallas Willard wrote, in the introduction to his book The Divine Conspiracy, “Jesus and his words…are essentially subversive of established arrangements and ways of thinking.” He calls His followers to imitate His ways. And Paul reminds us in Philippians what that way looks like. I wish we had time to dig into the Sermon on the Mount and, specifically, the Beatitudes, but it’s time to wrap this one up.

Dear Church… if we can do this, if we can be the example of love in action and be the first to bend the knee to our Lord and say yes to His ways rather than arrogantly shouting our “rightness” in the face of others’ “wrongness”, then verses 3-5 are a natural result…

We won’t do anything out of selfish ambition or conceit. We will value others above ourselves and put their interests first. We will relate with one another with the mindset of Christ. The Christ who comes alongside of us, connects & unites us in His love-and invites us to do the same.

–Laura

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Dear Church #2- Philippians 1:12-18

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

…in chains for Christ. For Christ. FOR.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God loves men. God loves women.

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

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

God loves Democrats. God loves Republicans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God loves victims of abuse. God loves abusers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For God so loved the world…do we?

–Luanne

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Dear Church… (Philippians 1:1-11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The J.B. Phillips translation reads like this:

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

The Message translation puts it this way: 

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

 

Contingency Plan

On Sunday in the absence of our pastor, one of our elders brought the message. Jim spoke about the importance of a contingency plan and used an illustration from his work to highlight his point. Jim is the manager of the air traffic control tower in our city, and one Friday evening he received a call, which is unusual. He was told that the tower had lost its radar, phone capabilities, computer screens– basically everything that was needed in order to carry out their duties and keep passengers and crews safe. Jim asked them if they had carried out the contingency plan, which they had. He asked if they needed anything from him. They did not. They were able to function using the contingency plan, and calling Jim was part of that plan.

I looked up the definition of “contingency plan”–  according to dictionary.com this is what one is:

1. A course of action to be followed if a preferred plan fails or an existing situation changes.
2.  A plan or procedure that will take effect if an emergency occurs; emergency plan

In Jim’s example, I can’t imagine the panic that would have set in had the air traffic control tower not had a contingency plan, but because of the plan, when the unexpected happened, they were prepared, knew what to do, and were able to continue carrying out their mission of keeping planes and people safely where they needed to be.

A contingency plan is in place before the unexpected happens. Spiritually speaking, it’s good for us to have a contingency plan. Life on this fallen planet is full of the unexpected. When the unexpected happens, do you have a plan in place?

Jim’s spiritual contingency plan consisted of four parts:

1. Keep your eyes on Jesus: Jim read to us the account of the incarcerated John the Baptist sending his followers to find out from Jesus if Jesus was truly the Messiah. John was in a crisis. He was confused. He was hurting. God wasn’t doing what he had expected, and he had some questions. (Notice that he took his questions to Jesus—always a good idea in a tough season.) Jesus didn’t get angry with John or his disciples—nor did he explain John’s situation or tell him what the outcome would be—instead, he told John’s disciples: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

Jesus was reminding them of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold about the Messiah, and that even though John’s personal situation was unexpected, He, Jesus, was indeed the Messiah and His Kingdom work—God’s plan— was being done.

Ravi Zacharias says “In its essence, faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in His power, so that even when His power does not serve my end, my confidence in Him remains because of who He is.”

Does our contingency plan include choosing to hang on to Jesus, to trust Him, to have unwavering faith, even when the bottom drops out?

2. Pray for each other.  Jim illustrated this point by reading us the account of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel with 450 prophets of Baal (fabulous account found in 1st Kings 18).  King Ahab was a terrible king and Elijah wanted him to know the one true God  so 3 1/2 years earlier he had prayed for no rain to fall. This encounter on Mount Carmel was the tipping point in that 3 1/2 year drought coming to an end.

In the New Testament, in order to remind us of the power of prayer,  James writes this about Elijah: The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. (James 5:16-18 NLT)

Blaise Pascal wrote one of my favorite quotes about prayer when he stated that “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.” 

 Things happen when we pray.

And things happen when we don’t.

God told Ezekiel “I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” (Ezekiel 22:30)  

Our intercession for each other and for the world is huge.

I read the following in my devotion this morning:

“Prayer (and fasting depending on the translation) is part of Jesus’ casting out of unclean spirits (Mark 9:29, Matthew 17:21). Why prayer? These verses about prayer and fasting are not about our holiness such that if we are worthy we can wield them to use God’s power…. No, prayer is conversation with God. Prayer helps us to attune our hearts toward God as well. It is in the midst of this form of communion with God that we hear from God and also make intercessions for the world around us. We pray for strength, insight, forgiveness, healing. We pray for the transformation of situations and for the needs and welfare of others. We pray for darkness to be lifted and for people to become free.  I absolutely believe in Holy Spirit driven calls to action. I also believe in the powerful activity of prayer that moves in ways that I don’t always see… If prayer is the method that Jesus uses to cast out the darkest forces that invade and misdirect our physical world, let us also choose prayer as a form of resistance to the powers and principalities of this world.”  Justin Coleman

Pray, pray, pray, pray, pray…if we want darkness conquered we must be people of prayer. Paul tells us that our battles are not against flesh and blood, he tells us to put on the armor of God, and he tells us when we have done that to PRAY.  (Eph. 6)  He tells us in 1st Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Jesus reminds us  “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,'”  (Mt 21:13a). 

 We are the temple of God (1st Corinthians 3:16) and we are living stones being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 5:8).  WE are His houseWould our houses, our temples be recognized as houses of prayer? Is prayer part of our plan?

3. Continue in community.  Jim used the story of Lydia in the book of Acts (chapter 16)  to highlight this part of the contingency plan. He pointed out that Paul normally went to the synagogue when he entered a new city; however, on this sabbath he went to the river to pray.  While there, he visited with a group of women, and encountered Lydia, who was a worshiper of God but did not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus. She responded to Paul’s message and was baptized. So many things about this encounter are beautiful–Paul went where the Holy Spirit led him. On this occasion the Holy Spirit led him to a group of women.  Women were little more than property to the men of that day.  But to God, each woman was His image bearer. Jesus highly esteemed women when he walked the earth, and Paul was following in the footsteps of his Savior. The result of this encounter with Lydia is that not only did she come into a relationship with Christ, she came into the kingdom of his people–community. The church in Philippi was birthed out of this encounter.

Paul was already part of the kingdom of God, and he leveraged his life to bring others in. He noticed the marginalized. This is our call. All of us. Who are the marginalized in our day, and what is Christ’s desire for them? We do not have His permission to despise anyone.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3:17), and we–his people– are the ones who carry this message to those who don’t yet know Him.

One caution–when we go through hard times our tendency is to want to withdraw from community, to isolate. We are not meant to go through life alone.  Seek a community that allows you be exactly who you are, exactly where you are–one that doesn’t require pretending. Seek a community that will love you into the arms of Jesus.

Is your contingency plan to stay connected to kingdom people, and bring others in?

4. Love each other.  Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this, instead, he gives us godly ways to handle conflict (Mt. 5:23).

Paul encourages us to speak the truth in love. (Eph 5:14)   James reminds us that we all stumble in many ways. (James 3:2)  Peter tells us “You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart.” (1st Peter 1:22).

Does your plan include choosing to love?

Jim’s air traffic controllers had a contingency plan in place. When the bottom fell out and their normal system failed they followed the contingency plan.

My hope is that each piece of our spiritual contingency plan is part of our daily lives–focusing on Jesus, prayer, healthy spiritual community, and loving well–so that it is as natural to us as breathing. Then, when life falls apart, systems fail, and the bottom drops out-we hold on to Jesus, to His people and weather the storm with eyes fixed on Him.

–Luanne

As I think back over the four parts of the contingency plan that Jim laid out for us, I believe that the first and the last are paramount for us to really grab hold of. Keep our eyes on Jesus and love each other. When I put these two side by side, it reminds me of some words that Jesus spoke when He was asked which commandment is the most important. He answered:

“…You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 NLT)

During Jesus’ ministry, He never wavered about what had to come first. He called out sin, of course, and He spoke and taught about many things. But He maintained that our primary focus as His followers was to 1. Love God, and 2. Love (all) people. This is what we’re called to. It’s always been the way to bring His Kingdom on earth. I know that Jim’s first point was to keep our eyes on Jesus, not to love Him–but I think they are one and the same. If we fix our eyes on Him, if we see Him for who He really is, we will love Him.

So the two most important commandments, according to Jesus, are the bookends to Jim’s contingency plan. I’m going to focus only on these two points here, because I believe that loving God and loving each other are what spur us on to pray for each other and to continue in community. They are part of the natural outflow of prioritizing the other two, and cannot exist without them.

Okay… Love God. Love people. 

So simple… and so hard.

One of the reasons this simple command is so hard has to do with something Jim brought up on Sunday. He used the term “expectation bias“, and I believe it can get in the way of fulfilling the call we were given (Sidenote: It is a call and it applies to all of us…) to love both God and people.

So, what is it? What is expectation bias?

Expectation is defined as: A strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; an attitude of expectancy or hope. 

Bias is: A particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned. 

Expectation bias is explained a lot of different ways by a lot of people who are much smarter than me. One article I read defined it this way:

Having a strong belief or mindset towards a particular outcome that influences perceptions of one’s own, or others’, behavior.

If we look at the three different definitions above, it’s easy to see that expectation bias can be a slippery slope. None of it is grounded in truth. Our expectations may be grounded in truth at first; they may spring up from the hope that we have, hope that comes from our knowledge of God and His love for us as well as from Scripture. But it doesn’t take much for our expectations to move away from truth and toward a focus on self. And when expectation is paired with bias, which is often preconceived or unreasoned, based on incomplete stories or isolated experiences, it’s a dangerous combination.

So let’s look at Jim’s first point: Keep your eyes on Jesus. How could expectation bias complicate this simple concept? In the story Jim referenced about John the Baptist, John asked this question of Jesus:

 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NLT)

John (and many others over the course of Jesus’ ministry) suffered from expectation bias. They expected a conquering King, not a suffering Savior. Nothing Jesus did or said lined up with their expectations of Him, even though-as Luanne wrote about above-He was fulfilling every prophecy that had been written about the coming Messiah. John’s expectations began with the prophecies from Scripture that he had learned about since childhood. His expectations started out grounded in truth. But as he grew, bits of his own ideas, his own bias, infiltrated what began as pure, hopeful expectation, and as the story unfolded and he found himself in very unfavorable circumstances, his expectation bias kept him from seeing Jesus. He had, at some point, lost sight of the real Jesus, the prophecy-fulfilling Jesus he’d grown up with, and he’d fixed his eyes on a counterfeit. He had fixed his eyes on a self-serving image of the Messiah somewhere along the journey. And we are in constant danger of doing the same thing. 

If we are going to fulfill the first and greatest commandment, we have to have our eyes fixed on the real Jesus-not the self-made version that suits us best. We can’t say we love Him if we’re not looking at the real thing. The real Jesus is found in Scripture. The real Jesus can be seen in the faces around us. The real Jesus is revealed to us in everyday moments through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The real Jesus won’t always keep us from or get us out of crises–but He is always by our side in the midst of our suffering. We have to fix our eyes on that Jesus. If we can do that, if we can look up into the face of love Himself-all filters and expectations aside-we will love Him with all of ourselves. We just will.

When it comes to Jim’s last point, Love each other, we see expectation bias affect things a little differently. Luanne wrote this above:

“Jim highlighted Jesus’  words in John 13 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This may be one of the trickiest parts of the contingency plan. When we are hurt, when we are disillusioned, we want to pull away from people. Jesus doesn’t give us permission to do this…”

When it comes to people, our expectations can reach all-out crazy levels. And we have so many different biases, we are probably unaware of most them. All of our expectations, in regard to other people, are rooted in selfishness. 

Um… all of them? I think so. Yes. I am sitting here trying to think of one single expectation I have of another human being that isn’t somehow linked back to me and my well-being… and I can’t find one. If you disagree, feel free to comment–I would love to be wrong about this!! But I don’t think I am. I could write example after example and dig into the roots of all of them, but I won’t do that here. I would challenge you to think about it though, and to pray through what God might be saying to you on the subject.

I’ve been studying the life of Joseph the last few weeks. Not Mary’s Joseph. The Joseph who was daddy’s favorite-the one with the beautiful coat of many colors… the dreamer. That Joseph. He went through some stuff. We could definitely say that he experienced a crisis or two… His circumstances were beyond unfavorable from the time his brothers sold him into slavery until the dream God had given him was realized in his life a couple of decades later. He was betrayed by those closest to him. He was sold into slavery. Falsely accused. Imprisoned. Forgotten. Alone. And yet… We never see expectation bias play out in the way Joseph interacted with those around him. And years later, when his brothers repented of their sin against him, Joseph’s response was:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. No, don’t be afraid. I will continue to take care of you and your children.” So he reassured them by speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:20-21 NLT)

When we’ve been hurt, mistreated, let down-and we all have-our expectation bias will grow out of control if we let it. If we don’t keep our eyes on Jesus, attach our hearts to His word, His truth, our minds and hearts will run wild with fear, conspiracies, stories we’ve created out of our pain. Joseph could have found himself in the midst of a bitter, resentful web of expectation bias. But he didn’t. I think it might be because he had a contingency plan. He knew His God and he kept his eyes, his heart, his mind, his strength firmly fixed on Him. And because He did this, because He loved God most, he also loved others. And he made accommodation for their shortcomings. He chose to love anyway, to move toward people anyway, to draw those who had betrayed him back to himself anyway… I see such a picture of Jesus in Joseph’s story. It’s what Jesus does for us. It’s what he asks us to do for others. Ann Voskamp writes this in her book Be the Gift,

I am what I love and I will love you like Jesus, because of Jesus, through the strength of Jesus. I will love when I’m not loved back. I will love when I’m hurt and disappointed and betrayed and inconvenienced and rejected. I simply will love, no expectations, no conditions, no demands. Love is not always agreement with someone, but it is always sacrifice for someone.

Loving each other means laying aside our expectation bias and moving toward people anyway. We can only love each other if we fix our eyes on the Jesus who loves us perfectly first. And if we fix our eyes on Him and love others, we will pray for each other and we will continue in community.

Contingency plans exist for the crisis. They’re in place for when the unexpected happens. When we find ourselves in crisis, we have to hang onto, “…but God intended it all for good…” He knows what we’re going through. He has a plan. Do we?

–Laura

Image result for fix our eyes

A Balanced Life: Extra

In last week’s message, Pastor John tackled the hard-hitting subject of debt. This week, he talked about our extra. Whew…a lighter subject, right? Wrong. This may have been one of the most convicting messages I’ve ever heard. And I am grateful for it.

We all have extra. We may not have as much extra as someone else, but we all have it. We all have things that go beyond our basic needs–oftentimes, way beyond. John illustrated this through a series of questions, like:

Do you go out to eat even when you have food at home? Do you have a car? More than one? Cell phone? Seasonal wardrobes? More than one closet full of clothes? Extra freezers? Have you ever traded something in for an upgraded version, even if it wasn’t broken?

Our answers to these questions reveal that what we have goes way beyond “our daily bread” that we ask for in The Lord’s Prayer… And our extra is not limited to the “stuff” we possess-but we’ll get into that a little bit later…

John asserted that the answer to the question, “Why do I have so much?” is found in one word: Greed. The constant quest for more. We want more so that we can be more. He also said that when that “more” comes into our lives, we assume it’s for us. We feel entitled, like we deserve what we get…

The word deserve grabbed my attention… It’s a word we use all the time, but in this context, what does it mean? To feel like we deserve the extra we receive? Initially, my mind went to the prefix de-, indicating negation or separation. “Decompose” or “dethrone” are examples of using the prefix in this way. This was a compelling thought as I considered the implications of using de- in front of the word “serve”… If this application of the prefix is correct, then “deserve” would mean “to not serve”. It would imply that if we think we are “deserving” of something, we are actually choosing to not serve. But in this instance, “de” is not used as a prefix… and its actual meaning may be even more indicting…

“De” is a Latin word meaning down to the bottom, or completely. So the word “deserve” means to serve oneself completely. It doesn’t negate serving altogether, it just means that the only one we’re serving is ourselves.

Ouch.

We looked at the parable Jesus told about the rich fool in Luke 12. The ground of the rich man had produced a massive crop. There was so much extra, he had no place to store it all. He mistakenly assumed that the surplus was because of him and for him and he intended to hoard it all and spend the rest of his life eating, drinking and being merry (vs. 19). He took the posture of one who believed he deserved all that he had-and he aimed to serve himself completely with his extra for the remainder of his days. There was just one problem with his plan-he died that very night. And he went down in history as a fool. That became his legacy.

In the case of the rich fool, his surplus was given to someone else after he died. He just wasn’t around to be part of it–but it wasn’t because of his generosity that others benefited from his extra. This is the case with possessions-we only have them until we’re gone. Then someone else becomes the beneficiary of all of it. But what about everything else? What about all of the extra we’ve been given that isn’t stuff? What about our time, gifts, position, privilege, status? What about our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Is all of this not also extra? Do our hearts hoard these things? Do we serve ourselves completely with all that God has given us? These things don’t remain once we take our last breath, like our possessions do. When we die, if we’ve chosen to hoard this kind of extra, it all dies with us. That is a tragedy. We have to begin to see these things as part of our “extra” so that we don’t waste all that we have been given.

We wrongly assume that if we have more, we can do more for God. John reminded us on Sunday that it’s not what we have, but who we have that allows us to “do” anything for God.

He who did not spare [even] His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? ( Romans 8:32 Amplified Bible)

God has withheld no good thing from those who love Him. He gave us Jesus-He gave Himself. And He didn’t stop there. he also gave us His Kingdom. In the same chapter that we read about the rich fool, Jesus also speaks these words:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32 NASB)

God has given Himself fully to us. He gave us life-twice; He gave us physical life-the breath in our lungs-and He gave us eternal life through the gift of His Son. He put His Spirit within us, providing fruit in our lives as well as gifts and talents and strengths that are unique to each one of His followers. He provides for our daily needs and exceeds them, giving us more than we know what to do with. And He has chosen gladly to give us the kingdom.

Pastor John said to us, “If the kingdom matters to you, you’ll leverage everything in your life for the kingdom”. 

Jesus said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT)

Above all else… As John asserted in his message, we don’t have the capability to “balance” multiple priorities. Balance only comes when we have only one priority. The right priority. His Kingdom. If we want to find balance, we must prioritize His Kingdom. And just as He has given Himself fully to us, we must give ourselves fully to Him in return, knowing that our lives are not about what we have, but who we have.

What has God given you? What has He given you in abundance? What gifts and abilities are being hoarded in your heart with no outlet, no place to go? God gives us more than we need, more than we can hold, so that we will open our hearts and our hands and share our abundance. So we can serve-because we actually don’t deserve any of what we’ve been given. If we are willing to give ourselves fully back to Him, then all the good that we have, everything we have been given, becomes a vehicle for spreading Kingdom seed. Will we choose to surrender everything into the hands that have so graciously given everything to us? Will we leave a legacy that resembles that of the rich fool or one  of someone willing to be scattered throughout the world as seed that will grow and impact the Kingdom of God for generations to come?

–Laura

I echo Laura’s “ouch!” Like Laura, I was deeply convicted during Pastor John’s message. Given the silence in the sanctuary, I think many of us were. Our cultural mindset, and our flesh nature lead us to believe that our lives are all about us, and that we have to look out for “#1”. The definition that Laura shared with us about “deserve” is sobering. Our self-serving gets us no-where good, and it is absolutely contrary to the heart of God, yet we try to make our greed work for us somehow.

In 1992, Christian singer Babbie Mason recorded a tongue in cheek song entitled “Shopping List”. The chorus went like this:

Gimme this, I want that,
Bless me Lord I pray.
Grant me what I think I need to make another day.
Make me wealthy. Keep me healthy.
Fill in what I miss
On my never-ending shopping list.

It’s a funny song, and it’s not. It’s not, because it is the Christianity of many of us. “Me, me, me, me, me.”  Yet God says, lift up your eyes, look outward with a heart of love– live for my Kingdom and I will supply all you need.  He makes it clear what we are to do with our “extra”.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19: 9-10)

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.”  (Dt 24:19-21)

That’s a pretty clear directive from God.

Ruth, the Moabite benefitted from this practice. It’s how she provided food for her mother in law, Naomi, and herself. In Ruth 2:2 she asks Naomi “Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”  The last phrase of her request is interesting. It indicates that some of the land owners followed God’s directive, and some did not. Boaz did. Boaz’s generosity toward this foreigner led to their marriage, and led to Ruth being one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Christ.

In the New Testament we see a beautiful example of generosity in the life of Tabitha.

There was a believer in Joppa named Tabitha (which in Greek is Dorcas). She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor.  About this time she became ill and died. Her body was washed for burial and laid in an upstairs room.  But the believers had heard that Peter was nearby at Lydda, so they sent two men to beg him, “Please come as soon as possible!”  So Peter returned with them; and as soon as he arrived, they took him to the upstairs room. The room was filled with widows who were weeping and showing him the coats and other clothes Dorcas had made for them.  But Peter asked them all to leave the room; then he knelt and prayed. Turning to the body he said, “Get up, Tabitha.” And she opened her eyes! When she saw Peter, she sat up! He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then he called in the widows and all the believers, and he presented her to them alive. (Acts 9:36-43 NLT)

Tabitha was a woman who used her “extra” to bless the poor and the widows, and God esteemed her ministry so much that he used Peter to raise her from the dead!

God’s word has much to tell us about living with a generous heart:

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. (Dt 15:7-8)

Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
the Lord protects him and keeps him alive; he is called blessed in the land; (Ps. 41:1-3)

Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor. (Pr. 22:9)

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share… (1 Tim. 6:17-19)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)

I could go on and on. There are also scriptures that are pretty clear about  greed.

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Tim. 6: 9-10)

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)

The greedy bring ruin to their households. (Pr. 15:27a)

The greedy stir up conflict, but those who trust in the Lord will prosper. (Pr 28:25)

Again, I could go on and on.

For those of us who don’t consider ourselves rich and don’t want to give what we have, God’s word speaks to that as well. In Mark 12:41-44 we read this account:

Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.

Jesus loves generosity. Generosity is a beautiful reflection of God’s heart, God who gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Everything we have comes from Him. Not only our material possessions, but all the food we eat, because he supplies dirt, sun, water, and causes things to grow–all of our modern conveniences because He supplies wind, sun rays, electric currents, etc. He has provided our personalities, our gifts, our brains. He provides the air that we breathe, the hearts that pump life blood through our bodies. It is all His.

Are we willing to acknowledge all that we have is His?  Are we willing to pray this prayer with King Solomon  “..don’t make me either rich or poor; just give me enough food for each day.  If I have too much, I might reject you and say, ‘I don’t know the Lord…(Pr 30:8-9)  Or like the Apostle Paul say… I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of being content in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.  For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. (Ph 4:12-13)  Can we choose to give sacrificially like the widow, or even have the mindset of wealthy King David who said: I will not take what is yours and give it to the Lord. I will not present burnt offerings that have cost me nothing!” (1 Chron. 21:24)

True God-like generosity is something that we will all wrestle with. I look at my possessions, some of which stay in closets, and think about the money that was spent on those things. It would be easy for me to beat myself up over how many “extras” I have, but the better idea is to acknowledge my greed as sin, confess it, embrace God’s forgiveness, and move forward making different choices from this point on. Holy Spirit, help me to remember!

The heart and actions of the early church show us how a community of believers can truly leverage their lives for the Kingdom of heaven: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

People were more important than things. Community was more important than individualism. God was praised. People came to know Jesus as Savior and were reconciled back to God. Can we, the capital “C” church get back to this?  Only if we choose to leverage our lives for the Kingdom of God, seek His Kingdom first, and live generously.

Lord, help us to recognize our idols for what they are, help us to have the courage to destroy them, help us to have the courage to fully submit to You, and help us not to wait for someone else to go first. May we be a people who love You well by loving others well–in action and deed.

–Luanne

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What About Me?

“The gospel isn’t just for abortionists, prostitutes, homosexuals; but for porn-addicted pastors, unconverted elders and self-righteous churchgoers.” -Burk Parsons

“Grace is not just ridiculous, it’s unfair–but somehow the Righteous Judge makes it work. Like the Bible says, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people‘ (Titus 2:11). For you. For me. For them. So (beautifully) unfair.”                                                   -Carlos Rodriguez, Drop the Stones

Michael reminded us this Sunday that the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is actually the story of two sons. Two very different sons who needed the very same grace. They were both consumed with self, as Michael pointed out. The younger with self-discovery, the older with self-salvation.

Michael spent the majority of the message on the older, less talked about son, and how resentment actually kept him from sharing in the heart of the father and the joy of the celebration.

What we don’t often talk about when we discuss this story is how the father had, in essence, lost both sons. One took his inheritance (which the father was under no obligation to give him, by the way, but gave him anyway…) and physically left. The other stayed, but relied upon his own obedience and righteousness, and served from a place of obligation rather than love.

And yet… the heart of the father runs after both sons. He breaks all cultural standards by literally running out to embrace his unclean, broken younger son; and again when he leaves his own party to go out and plead with his angry, entitled older son to come join the celebration. He chooses to go against the acceptable standards of his time and culture in order to display the wild, ridiculousness of grace and the extravagant love of a father toward all of his kids.

Michael said, “We can identify with both brothers at certain points, but we can develop the heart of the father. I think for many of us, we come to Jesus understanding our own “prodigalness”. We come hoping to be accepted-at least accepted enough to be saved-but what we receive is more than simply acceptance-it’s exactly what the younger brother received: sonship. We find ourselves welcomed into the family, as honored, beloved sons and daughters. Sometimes, we are met with the cold shoulder of older brothers among us. And sometimes, once we’re part of the family, we become the older brother. We can become defenders of fairness and righteousness, forgetting that it was the perfect justice–the setting-things-right heart–of our Father, not our own righteousness, that saved us in the first place. We grab onto self-righteousness and forget the extravagant grace that drew us into our Father’s arms. We begin to scream for fairness, forgetting that the grace that bought our salvation was anything but fair. That it was the ultimate unfairness that our perfect, sinless Jesus was murdered so that his murderers could have life.

I think maybe we waffle between identifying with the younger and older sons because we don’t quite understand what we’ve been invited into…

Once we’ve been given sonship, once extravagant grace has drawn us into the family, we no longer have to identify with either brother. Once we’re part of the family, the Father invites us to help Him host the party. To become vessels that carry the same love and grace we’ve received to the lost ones around us and among us. Our identity no longer has to come from which brother we most see ourselves in-it can now be rooted in the Father Himself.

So we get to choose. We get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace. We can choose to celebrate, to enter into Kingdom-minded, grateful, humble service-in the way of Jesus. Or, we can choose to hoard what we’ve received, to buy the deception that we’ve somehow earned our “place”. That we’re somehow entitled to grace. The decision we make matters more than we know. What are we modeling to those who feel unworthy of sonship? To those who have wasted time and money on wild, sinful living? To those who have been deceived by the lie that they can be good enough on their own and have no need for grace? The Father’s heart runs after ALL of His lost sons and daughters. Will we?

–Laura

Laura wrote, we get to choose how we respond to the beautiful unfairness of God’s grace.

I think we all want to respond well, but it doesn’t take too much scrolling through comments on social media or news articles to realize that as a corporate society, we have real problems with grace, and a good bit of that comes from the Christian community.

I love that Michael pointed out that the biblical heading “The Prodigal Son” was a manmade construct. Jesus doesn’t use the word prodigal in the parable, and like Laura pointed out, Jesus begins the story by saying in Luke 15:11 “There was a man who had two sons…”  Going back to the beginning of chapter 15, we see that Jesus is speaking to tax collectors and sinners who were gathering around to hear him, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v2) It is in response to their muttering that Jesus begins to tell the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two sons.

The tax collectors and sinners are drawn to Jesus. They sense his acceptance of them, his embrace, his love.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law are annoyed with Jesus. They can’t stand the fact that he fellowships with tax collectors and sinners, and they constantly criticize him. So in the context of these two groups, Jesus tells the story.

I have been both sons. I was the child who wandered far away, made self-destructive choices, knew that I deserved absolutely nothing, came crawling back to Jesus and he offered me his unfair grace. Where would I be without it! I’m so grateful!

However, knowing that I didn’t deserve that grace, I became performance driven. I was trying to make up for all the years that I’d messed up; therefore,  I wanted to be the perfect Christian.  Things got out of whack on the other end of the spectrum. I was doing a lot of comparing and was judging myself quite harshly. I couldn’t live up to my own standards, was upset with others who couldn’t live up to my standards, and I was pretty darn miserable.

God met me there as well. I was doing a Bible study called “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby, and came to a point in that study where God revealed to me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him on a barter system. “God, I’ll do such and such for you if you’ll guarantee me some things…”. Some of those things  were not dying while my children were young (like my mom did), not getting cancer, always having John to take care of me, that nothing bad would happen to my kids, financial security, and the like. God was very gentle, but very direct and said to me, “Suffering is part of living in a fallen world, but I am with you, I will always be with you, and I love you. You have to surrender and trust me if you’re not going to stay stuck.”

Can I just say, ugh!!  I knew He was right, and I didn’t like it. Michael said in his sermon that the older brother tried to control the father through his obedience and righteousness. That’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to control God. I wouldn’t have worded it that way, but that was it exactly.  I wish I could tell you that I surrendered in that moment, but it took about ten days of wrestling, not sleeping, not eating, and not wanting to do life God’s way with no guarantees other than He loves me, and He is with me. I really wanted Him to do it my way, but was finally exhausted and gave in. And when I gave in, the peace that flooded my life and the joy were indescribable. The burden of obligation was lifted and my relationship with Him has been real, and relevant, and growing, and powerful since that time. Some life crushing events have happened since that Bible study 25 years ago, and He has shown me over and over that He is God and He is enough.

Like the older son, I learned that obedience out of obligation and moral conformity leads to resentment. I feel like that’s where a lot of society lands right now, and resentment makes us mean.  So while we’re refusing to join the celebration, the Father comes to us and says, “will you surrender wanting to do this your way?”  He invites us to the feast.

When we live in the mindset of the older brother, our relationship with the Father becomes about us. He says to his father in verse 29…”all these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends!” The emphasis is all on himself, what he thinks he deserves, what he thinks he’s entitled to,  and what he thinks his brother is not entitled to.

And the father gently reminds him that he has always been with him, that everything he owns is shared with his son, and then says, “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.” (31)

In John 10:10, Jesus tells us that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but that He has come to give us life to the full. And in Luke 19:10, Jesus tells us that He has come to seek and save the lost.

Both sons have lived on the thief side of John 10:10. The youngest son has returned and is experiencing the Jesus side of that verse.  And the Father has demonstrated Luke 19:10 to both sons. He ran to the youngest, and has gone out to the oldest.

He is offering his oldest son grace. Grace to come in, to participate in the celebration, to be part of the rejoicing in heaven because a sinner has repented and come home.  He is offering his oldest the chance to also repent and come home. Jesus leaves us hanging at the end of the story. We don’t know what the oldest son decides. The Pharisees and teachers of the law have heard the story with their ears. Have they heard it with their hearts? Have we?

The Father stands in the middle between both sides, the broken, fallen, destitute son, and the self-righteous son and says “come”.  May we surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as He works to develop  the heart of the Father in us, so that we can set aside “fair” and fully embrace the world with His unfair grace and love.

—Luanne

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Stories: Ashley & Allyson

Ashley, Allyson, their birth children, and Jase—it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story, the only one that matters.

Ashley shared that he was raised in a Jewish home, his parents divorced right around the time of his Bar Mitzvah, and he spiraled down, down, down. After a few years of living in the pit, an African American family invited him to a prayer service. They explained through the scriptures about God’s love and who Jesus is. Ashley met Jesus that night, and his life was forever changed. Then, the African American family took Ashley under their wing. They discipled him for six months and he became part of their family. I love that so much! The picture of the Kingdom of God, the reaching out across ethnic groups, the spiritual adoption of Ashley by God, and the spiritual adoption of Ashley by a beautiful family that loved God and loved Ashley is what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like.

Allyson shared that she was raised in an atheist home with 14 kids, 11 of whom were adopted. There was a lot of dysfunction in her home, and much pain. She did not think too highly of the whole adoption thing. She came into a relationship with Christ when she was 18, shortly after she met Ashley.

Fast forward a few years, Ashley and Allyson have three daughters and a son. Life is good. They are happy. And boom! At a high school soccer game, a friend of one of their daughters asks the daughters if their family would be interested in hosting a little boy from China for a few weeks. She gives them the information she has, they take it home and show it to their parents. Because the little boy’s initial paperwork had been lost, it was crunch time, so a decision needed to be made in about 24 hours. Can you imagine?  Well, Ashley and Allyson and the kids prayed about it, and decided to say yes to hosting Li.

Six year old Li arrives, he speaks no English, he has no idea what is going on, and he’s a little wild. They keep calling him Li but he doesn’t answer.  Eventually they discover that he’s not answering because that’s not his name. His Chinese name is difficult to pronounce, and thus the hosting begins.

While they are hosting Li, Ashley sends a letter to some of their friends asking them to pray about a forever family for Li; they are praying at home too. Each evening after they put Li to bed, they ask their kids what God is saying to them and showing them in scripture. The two girls who still live at home are absolutely sure that Li needs to be part of their family, the 13 year old son, who is sharing his bedroom with Li, wants to send him back to China.

Ashley begins to get confirmation through scripture that God wants them to adopt Li. He is pondering verses like Psalm 68:5 “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”  Psalm 146: 9 “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow…”. Luke 14: 21b “…go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Matthew 25:40 “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.’”  And James 1:27 “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. “  He is beginning to believe that they are the “forever family” that they are praying for.

Allyson is in her own wrestling match. Her family of origin adoption story left her feeling less than warm and fuzzy about it all, and as she wrestled through her reasons, she realized that any reason she had for saying no was basically selfish. God reminded her that adoption is his idea and asked her if she’d be willing to let him do a new thing, but she didn’t get to her “yes” until they were on a trip to Yellowstone and Li jumped out of the car and almost got hit by another car. The whole family was shaken up. Allyson said that she was struck by the fact that if he’d been hit by a car, he could have died, or been hospitalized and would not have been able to return to China at the expected time. Then it dawned on her…no one cared if he returned. There was no one in China wondering about him, no one who cared if he was getting enough to eat, or getting enough sleep, or if he was learning anything. There was no one for him to return to in China. She realized that she loved him, she cared about all of those things, and she was ready to say yes.

There was still the hurdle of the youngest son. He and Li struggled. Li broke his toys, blamed him for everything, and had changed his world. One particularly difficult day, the son accidentally shut Li’s fingers in the door while trying to get away from him. He felt horrible. That night, as the family convened to see where they were, both Ashley and Allyson were convinced that their son would again say “send him back”, especially after the difficult day. But instead, with tears streaming down his face, he said, “We need to adopt him. He needs a daddy to love him, he needs a family, we need to bring him home.”

Fourteen months later, they went to China and brought him home. They changed his name to Jase (which means healing) Jackson (God is gracious).  And anyone who has come into contact with Jase, knows what a special young man he is.

Ashley and Allyson each have their own story of past brokenness. They came into relationship with Christ because other people reached across perceived barriers and loved them into the Kingdom. As they walk closely with their Heavenly Father, they listen to Him, seek Him, and step out in faith to follow in obedience, without having to know all of the details. Through this relationship, they became the physical manifestation of the love of God to Jase. The friend of their daughters who spoke up about the need reminds me of something that Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission says. He says that raising awareness is doing the work of justice. She shared a need that she knew of, and God used her sharing that need to change a little boy’s life, and a family’s life. The daughters were enthusiastically ready to embrace Jase from the moment they knew that he existed. They joyfully embraced the idea, and welcomed Jase with open arms. The youngest son, who wasn’t  too excited about the idea, who  resisted the change and closed his heart for a season, let God do a work in him, and finally opened his heart to receive and embrace his younger brother.

This is a living illustration of the church. We have a loving Father who wants everyone to come into His family. His arms are open wide. Are ours?  The entire Bright family had to make adjustments when Jase joined them. Allyson says that he was wild when he first came. Ashley says that he resisted being touched, but would allow Ashley to carry him because he was weak and couldn’t walk well. Allyson said he wasn’t wanted in China because of a birth defect, so he was considered damaged goods, and she reminded us that we are all damaged goods.  Allyson also learned that in the orphanages, often times the names they were called  were merely descriptions for their physical disablilties or identified what orphanage they were in…labels, not names.  And now? Jase has a beautiful new name with a new meaning, he has a family who loves him, siblings who love him, and God is using his story to reach many many others.

If we think about Jase as the representative of the lost people around us, are we willing to make room at the table for them? Are we willing to love them as they are in all their “wildness”? Are we willing to carry them until they gain health and strength? Are we willing to patiently teach them a new language, the language of grace, of love? Are we willing to look past their labels, see them as beloved, chosen, children of God and call them by that new name? Are we willing to embrace them with joy? If we are still honestly struggling with reluctance because embracing someone new will change the “family” dynamics, are we willing to wrestle it through because we know that the world needs a Daddy who loves them? Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?

—Luanne

I will start where Luanne finished:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Adoption stories, redemption stories, they stir our hearts. They make us feel. The sniffles and tears were not isolated to a few of us as the Brights shared their story. Many boxes of tissues were depleted as we listened. I think part of the reason for the emotion is exactly what Luanne shared above, “…it’s the story of God. It’s the story of all of us. It’s THE story…”. We see ourselves in these stories-because it’s our story, too.

I am concerned, though, that many of us stop there. We hear the beautiful story, shed a few tears, and go on about our lives. We stop short of embracing our call-the call that God has given ALL of us…

Ashley identified that throughout his spiritual journey, the Word of God built the foundation for his eventual willingness to adopt Jase into his family. He learned that God is a Father to the fatherless and that He calls us to take care of widows and orphans, that how we treat “the least of these” and the “lasts” among us matters to Him. That caring for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized is actually the “pure and faultless religion” that our God requires.

This call that Ashley sensed through Scripture is not unique to him. It is the call for all of us as the family of God. It won’t look the same for each one of us, but it does apply to all of us.

This is where it gets hard, friends. Here is Luanne’s question again:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

Making sacrifices is difficult, because, well, they’re sacrifices. One of the definitions of the word is “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else“. 

Ashley said that bringing Jase into their family required learning new steps in the dance that they were accustomed to. Taylor, Jase’s big sister, added, “We didn’t just have to learn new steps-we received a whole new sheet of music”. Not only did the natural rhythm of the Bright family have to adapt to include another member–their entire soundtrack was replaced with songs that were completely new to them. Their taste in music had to change in order to fully embrace this precious, newest member of the family. They had to surrender their old soundtrack, for the sake of someone else.

Are we, as a family of believers, willing to let go of our old familiar steps and learn a new dance in order to welcome in those who need a family? Are we willing to be flexible with our song sheets and make adjustments when necessary? Is bringing someone home more important to us than clinging to what has become routine, normal, “just the way it’s always been”?

If we desire to see the family grow, we have to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of those we long to bring home. What those sacrifices are will vary person to person, but here are some things that we can apply from the Bright’s story…

We will have to be willing to sacrifice our time and our energy on behalf of others. Allyson shared that the first month that Jase was with them, family members had to physically hang onto him to keep him alive. He wasn’t aware of all the ways he could be in danger, and when he was aware, he wasn’t afraid to put himself in harm’s way. He needed their physical presence to protect him, to teach him how to stay out of dangerous situations. The same can be true for new believers. If we are going to embrace the broken, addicted, damaged sinner (…this is all of us at different points in our journeys…), we have to be willing to be proximate. To commit to the process, the long-haul, the discipling that we are all called to do when bringing others into the family.

But what if they push us away? We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Jase stayed “an arm’s length away” for a while. He wouldn’t allow himself to be embraced. He had never before known what being chosen felt like and he needed time to learn to trust his new family. Can we give new family members the grace and time they need to learn to trust us? Can we love them well from as close as they’ll allow us to get to them and be patient with their broken hearts? Or do we have an agenda that we will demand adherence to before we will accept someone new?

Ashley said that they asked their kids, “Are you willing to give up the house if we have to?”. That question hit me pretty hard. A family’s home is their sacred space, a reflection of who they are, a refuge. But the Bright’s house isn’t what gives their family its identity. Rather, its their family that differentiates their house from any other grouping of walls and rooms. If they had to, they would have left their house and made a new home elsewhere in order to bring Jase home. He was the priority. He needed a family, not a house. They were willing to do whatever they had to do, to surrender whatever they had to for the sake of one. For their son, their brother, the missing piece of their family.

So how far are we willing to go? Is our goal to bring more people into the house? Or to set the lonely in families, to provide a home for widows and orphans? Will we sacrifice everything for the one? Will we have the courage to set aside the “house rules” and welcome the foreigner, the brother or sister that doesn’t look like us, talk like us or dance like us? And could we not only welcome them into our family, but allow them to change us for the better? To learn new notes and new steps from them and their experiences and add them to our own? If we are willing to do whatever it takes to bring our family home, we will find ourselves dancing to a song that sounds a whole lot like what Revelation 7:9-10 describes:

“I looked again. I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:

Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb!” (MSG)

So I’ll ask what Luanne asked, one last time:

“Are we willing to make some sacrifices and bring them home?”

 

–Laura

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Stories-Angela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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Stories… “Arise, My God”

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

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

And He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Luanne

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