Heart Condition

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

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

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

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

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

Can we admit that sometimes we do the same things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evil thoughts lead to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Limits

God has limits.

What?

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

How does that statement hit you?

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

Keep that definition in mind as we continue…

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t given a warm welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

God is who he says he is.

God can do what he says he can do.

I am who God says I am.

I can do all things through Christ.

I’m believing God. (Beth Moore)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What looked like the end was the new beginning…

Therefore:

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

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

–Luanne

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A Matter of Principle: The Mustard Seed

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

We looked at Mark 4:30-34:

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

Seeds don’t grow until they’re planted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he is…

And he’s not…

Pastor John broke his message down into three points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the kingdom of God looks like…

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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This I Know…PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Next Steps: One Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

“Are we seeing each other?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kingdom is yours, the kingdom is yours

Hold on a little more, this is not the end

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

(“The Kingdom is Yours”, Common Hymnal)

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

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

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

–Laura

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Grace (Like Never Before)

This week, we jumped back into Mark to continue exploring the stories of Jesus and how, when he showed up, he began to do things differently–like they had never been done before. We’ve taken a long look at joy, compassion, forgiveness, and hope. This week, we turned our attention to grace. This concept may have been the most shocking one of all, because it stood as an affront to everything they’d been taught–their entire way of life under the law. In the gospel of John, John writes it this way:

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”     (John 1:17)

But the people around Jesus, especially those who had built their lives upon the law, struggled to see this beautiful new way of being that Jesus brought into the world. The story we looked at on Sunday highlights the Pharisees’ focus on the law, and their lack of understanding about grace…

One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat. But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”  Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:23-28)

We find this story immediately following the one in which the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why his disciples weren’t fasting. Do you recall how that story ended, the words that Jesus said? He said, in verse 22,

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We have already seen, in the first two chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduce a whole new way of thinking and a whole new way of being in the world. He calls it the kingdom–and he takes his listeners one step further with every encounter they witness. The stories build upon each other (Jesus is a brilliant teacher!), but few were able to listen and learn in such a way that they could follow the plot line. In the verse above, Jesus eluded to the new that he brought into the world not being able to fit within the old containers they were accustomed to. John 1:17, the verse I started with, highlights the tension. The old way was the law of Moses. The new way, the way of the kingdom, included the perfect balance of grace and truth–grace that is only possible through Jesus, outside of the constraints of religious laws and rituals.

The Pharisees, though, weren’t interested in the new wine Jesus was offering…

…And sometimes we aren’t, either.

It’s not fun to look for ourselves in the personalities we’ve come to disdain on the pages of scripture. We’d much rather see ourselves in the faces of those Jesus healed, in his disciples who (albeit, imperfectly a lot of the time) followed him, and sometimes, in Jesus, himself. But if we’re honest, we might look a little more like the religious elite of the day–those who were considered expert and accurate expositors of the law. Those who followed Jesus and his disciples around looking for one misstep, pointing out each failure, and highlighting all the places the less-informed were falling short–

Those who really did not understand the power and the gift of grace.

This is the fourth story found in the second chapter of Mark. In each story we’ve seen the Pharisees in close proximity to Jesus and his followers, and repeatedly questioning them. First, they questioned Jesus’ authority in their minds when Jesus forgave the paralytic. Then, they questioned Jesus’ followers about why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners after the calling of Levi. Notice that they asked his followers about him, rather than asking Jesus himself. After that, they questioned Jesus about why his followers weren’t fasting in the way others were. Again, they didn’t go to the ones their questions were about–this time they went to Jesus regarding his followers. And here, in the final story in this chapter, they question Jesus about his followers again, this time making sure he sees what they see:

“…the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

They begin their accusation with the word ‘Look’, alerting Jesus to what they are finding fault with, in case he is somehow unaware of the lawbreakers in his midst…

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Why were the Pharisees watching?” It’s an interesting question, especially as we look deeper into the story. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the teachers of Mosaic law as well as other traditional laws not found in the scriptures. Their strict adherence to laws regarding fasting, purity of food, and the observance of the Sabbath set them apart. Their focus was on the rules and the traditions–especially in regard to the holiness of the Sabbath. The one original law, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8, NLT), had become 39 individual laws. In the disciples grain-picking actions, they had broken four of the 39 laws.

The really sad part of this is, the Sabbath was given to humanity by God as a gift–not as a burden or a ritual. It was intended to be a day of rest, a day with no work, for the purpose of resetting our focus and connecting with our Creator. We see in this story that it had become something very different to the religious elite of that day. It had become a day of duty, ritual, rules, and control. The Pharisees may have been resting from their regular jobs that they held in society, but they were in full-blown work mode when it came to their religious duties. They weren’t resting and focusing on God. They were focused instead on the rules, and on critiquing and judging the followers of Jesus (and probably everyone else, too), pointing out the ways in which others were falling short of the law.

Sometimes, our attention to the law is the very thing that causes us to break it…

Jesus responded to their question. He responded a few different ways… He reminded them of a story that they certainly knew, about David, one of their hero-Kings. And then he said this:

 “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

He reminded them of the original intention behind the Sabbath commandment–rest from work and time to connect, refocus. He flipped what had become their script regarding the rules about this holy day. And then he tells them plainly that he has authority–even over the laws that they held so dear. Because he brought into our world new wine–the wine of the kingdom, wine that could not be held within the containers of the law–especially the impossible laws that had been added by the religious to God’s original instructions for his people. And this kingdom ushered in an era where grace would take over where the law had failed; where grace would make up for shortcomings and failures, and all the ways we could never get it right.

How sad that their focus on the traditions they held as sacred and holy prevented the Pharisees from seeing the Holy one standing among them…

How heartbreaking that religious duty and rule-following had so consumed their hearts and minds that their vision had become clouded with judgement and accusation, and they could not experience–much less offer–the extravagant beauty of grace…

Can we see ourselves making the same kinds of mistakes? Can we identify where church obligations and rule-following have become our focus, and ripped our vision away from the One we say we’re serving? Can we be honest about our judgement and critiques of other followers of Jesus who practice their faith differently than we do? Rigid respect of rituals will replace relationship–every time. Relationship with others–those we are to love–and relationship with Jesus–the One who calls us to that higher love and empowers us to live it.

We may not readily identify as those who hold fast to rituals and traditions, but many of us are consumed and controlled by our understanding of how things should be done–or how they’ve always been done before. We’ve talked since the first week of this series about the importance of being willing to “repent”–to change our minds. And this week, we have the same opportunity. To set aside our incomplete understanding and align our thinking with the mind of Christ. To allow his Holy Spirit to renew our minds. To accept that growing things change–and if we’re willing to embrace that, we’ll be changed day by day into those who look more and more like the One we follow.

Are we brave enough to take an honest look at ourselves, friends? To see where we look more like the ones focused on the law than like the One who offers grace? I pray that we can do this. I believe we have to do this–for the sake of the Church of Jesus everywhere, and for the sake of our witness to the world around us…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote. Every word. We so easily forget how powerful grace is. We appoint ourselves as judge and ruler forgetting that in the new wineskin there is no place for that. Many in our church family have been through a study that begins by reminding us that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil leads to death. Jesus came to bring life, and in His life there is no room for judgement. That’s not our role in His Kingdom. Our role is to love God, to love ourselves with godly love, and to love all others as we carry this message of love everywhere we go. We get to choose which tree to live from, and sometimes we (I) swing back and forth between those trees multiple times in a quick minute. However, I’m probably not alone in being able to recognize that there is different fruit both in and around me based on which tree I choose to eat from.

What does that have to do with the message of grace?  Everything. I think that we all have a tendency to want the 39 rules that make everything black and white–do this, don’t do that. It feels easier to us that way. But it requires zero faith. We can follow rules without having any real relationship with God; however, life doesn’t happen in black and white–there’s a whole lot of gray, a whole lot that we don’t understand and will never understand. We’ve tried to systemize theology and tie it up in a nice neat explainable plan. I don’t think it’s that simple…

I was having a conversation with someone that my son was dating who said we have to learn to offer grace in the gray.  That phrase has stuck with me. Grace in the gray. God’s grace allows us connection with Him, the grace I extend towards others allows for connection with them. I feel fairly confident that picket lines, hateful comments, and feelings of superiority have not drawn people toward the love of God. Love extended, no matter the circumstance, has. We’ve got to do better.

A few days ago, a man with white supremacist ideology entered a mosque in New Zealand during prayer time and killed (as of this moment) 50 people.  That’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at it’s worst. The shooter thought that he and his ideology were good, that those who were praying in the mosque were evil, and that to kill them was a good thing to do. Last night I watched a video of Jews in New York lining the sidewalk outside of a mosque holding signs letting their Muslim neighbors know that they stood with them, that they love them, that they care. It’s easy for me to see which action will change the world for the better. It’s easy for me to see which action looks more like Jesus. Grace is love in action, and it showed up on that sidewalk between two faith groups that the world would like for us to believe hate one another. A few months ago when someone with white supremacist ideology shot Jewish people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, their Muslim neighbors showed up with signs, and support, and love. Grace is love in action. A year and a half ago, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a white supremacist’s life was changed because, as he spewed hate toward black clergy people, they responded by telling him that they loved him, that God loved him, and they attended to his injuries. A few days after the rally he sought out an African-American neighbor for a conversation, which eventually led to a friendship and a relationship with Christ. He is now trying to share the message of love with other people enslaved to white supremacy. Grace is when love shows up with feet, and hands, and heart, and tears, and joy, and solidarity, without judging, full of forgiveness, full of grace and truth. And what is truth? Jesus. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s truth looks like Jesus. It doesn’t look like anger. It doesn’t look like condemnation. It looks like Jesus.

Sabbath is a gift of grace. Sabbath is a gift of life. Our culture doesn’t receive this gift well. In 2010 I attended an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality conference in Queens, New York, and one of the sessions was on the beauty and the importance of Sabbath. I found myself longing for it and purchased a book about it. For a season, I very intentionally set aside time on Saturday from noon on to “Sabbath”.  I loved it. The author of the book that I read (I’m not home so I can’t reference the book or author), was in Israel with her husband and talked about how beautiful the Sabbath day was there. No commercial businesses were open but parks were full of families having picnics, couples strolling by lakes, groups of friends fellowshipping and communing with one another. It was a day of community and connection. Sabbath begins on Friday evening and goes until Saturday evening, so on Friday evening they would have had their time to light candles and connect with God. There is a lot of beauty in that rhythm.

One of the things that I learned is that our work is never done. Sabbath doesn’t begin when all of our projects are neatly wrapped up. Sabbath is an awareness that the world will not stop turning if I don’t get my work finished. Sabbath is a surrender of my “to do” list, an acknowledgement that it is God who is sovereign and in control, and it’s okay for me to stop. It’s life giving to stop and enjoy God and those He has placed in my life. I believe that if we figure out how to have a few hours of Sabbath for rest, connection, and enjoyment, that we will become more grace-filled people.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God makes us to lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our souls. Grace comes from people whose souls have been restored by resting with (and enjoying ) God.

The ways of Jesus, those beautiful, gray, incomprehensible, grace-filled, faith requiring,  life-giving ways that we will never fully understand, will change the world for the better. Are we willing to let go of all of the “rules”—except for the rule of love—and move forward in the rhythm of grace?

–Luanne

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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

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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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