Over All: Over Evil

…”deliver us from evil…”  (Mt 6:13)

“I do not ask that Thou mayest take them out of the world, but that Thou mayest keep them out of the evil.”  John 17:15 (Young’s Literal Translation)

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)

…but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. (James 1:14)

Pastor John defined evil as anything that takes our eyes off of Jesus.  He wasn’t talking about being some kind of weirdo that doesn’t live life in reality, but rather he was communicating that if anything keeps us from thinking, speaking, and acting in the ways of Jesus, the ways of the Kingdom of heaven, it’s evil.  Evil includes putting our hope, our energy, our support into systems and structures that have policies that run contrary to the ways of the Kingdom.  It includes thinking poorly of others; it includes acting poorly toward others. And yes, it also includes the realm of the personification of evil: the devil, the father of lies, the accuser, the one who poses as an angel of light; Satan.

Mark 5:1-20 relays an incredibly interesting encounter between Jesus and a demon-possessed man. Right before this encounter, Mark chapter 4 tells us that Jesus had been teaching from a boat and then said to his disciples- let’s go across to the other side–they took off; other boats joined them.  Jesus fell asleep and while he was sleeping a storm arose on the water. The disciples woke him up and accused him of not caring if they drowned. Jesus calmed the storm and then asked them why they were afraid and had so little faith. At that point, they became afraid because he had authority over the weather. As they were trying to figure out who Jesus truly was and what had just happened, Jesus took them to Mark 5…

…he took his Jewish disciples and others to a Gentile region, where they were met by a terrifying demon-possessed man–a naked man who lived among the tombs, who screamed out night and day, who cut himself, who had broken man-made constraints over and over, and who was impossible to subdue.

I did a little research on the region of Gerasenes and learned that it is a hilly place with many tombs built into the rocks.  The slopes descend swiftly, almost into the sea, so Jesus and his followers weren’t on a beach, they weren’t in a western culture cemetery, they had probably climbed a steep hill and were then confronted by this scary man.  Put yourself in the scene. Just a few hours before you thought you were going to die on the sea, and now this! Are you retreating–heading back down the hill to the boats? Are you stunned into inaction and silence? Are you talking to your peers about the terrifying man and coming up with a strategy to take him out? Are you talking about Jesus and wondering why he takes you to the kinds of places that he takes you?  Is your fear causing you to blame Jesus for getting you into this predicament?

And Jesus–what is he doing? He is seeing a man worthy of dignity and respect, worthy of love who is suffering tremendously. The biblical account doesn’t tell us how the man came to be possessed by demons, and I love that. How the man got into his suffering state is irrelevant. Jesus isn’t there to give him a lecture, to scold him, or to tell him he should have known better. Jesus is there to set him free.

Mark tells us that when the man saw Jesus he ran to him. Was the human being running toward help, or were the demons, knowing that they were in the presence of almighty God and recognizing his authority running to bow before him?

At some point, while the man was running toward Jesus, he said: “Come out of this man, you impure spirit.” (5:8) The way this is written doesn’t imply that Jesus was shouting. Jesus simply said…”come out”…

The man was shouting at the top of his lungs “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” (5:7) . He lived in total chaos. Can you imagine?

Jesus, who sees this man as a beloved image-bearer of God, speaks gently to him and asks his name. The man replies “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  (A Roman legion of soldiers consisted of 600 to many thousand men–so there were a lot of demons in this man) . He begged Jesus again and again not to send him out of the area. (5:10) . Then in verse 12 “the demons” beg Jesus to send them into the pigs that were nearby. I believe the man, not the demons, was begging Jesus not to send him away from his home–as out of control as his life was, he was still home. The demons, on the other hand, knew that Jesus wasn’t going to let them stay around.

Jesus granted permission for the demons to enter the pigs that were nearby–a herd of nearly 2,000. (v. 13). That’s a LOT of pigs. The pigs rushed down the steep hill into the sea and drowned. In the economy of Jesus, the man and his freedom from oppression had a whole lot more value than 2000 pigs. We can learn from that. We can also learn from Jesus that he did not attack the man in any way, shape, or form. He only went after what it was that was oppressing the man, and he did so calmly.

The people who were tending the pigs went into town to report what had happened.  When the townspeople ran out to see for themselves, they saw the formerly possessed man in his right mind, dressed, sitting with Jesus, they were afraid.  Jesus had done a mighty and miraculous thing–way beyond the scope of typical human understanding and it created fear. The townspeople in their fear asked Jesus to leave their region. Jesus did.

The man begged to go with Jesus–the man who just a little while ago had been begging Jesus not to send him away was now begging to go with Jesus.  Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. (v. 19-20)

Don’t you wish you could know what Jesus and the man talked about while news of his healing was spreading through the town? How long did they sit there before others came? Were there hugs, tears of relief, laughter, joy? Did they talk about the coming of the Kingdom of heaven on earth?  Did Jesus give the man a new name?

Jesus teaches us much about addressing evil in the way he handles the demon-possessed man.

Number one is that he has absolute authority over the realm of evil. Jesus spoke and a legion of demons did exactly what he told them to. He lives in us, and his power in us carries that same authority.

Two: In Jesus’ addressing of this particular evil, he did not demonize the man. Rather he had compassion for him–he saw his suffering and desperation and moved toward him with love.  Jesus remained calm and didn’t escalate the situation by yelling or bragging about who was strongest. He simply acted in his authority and everything changed. Do we recognize suffering and desperation when we see it–or does behavior we don’t understand or don’t approve of cause us to judge and point fingers?

This account is a tremendous reminder that our battle is not against flesh and blood.  I wish I could recognize that as easily as Jesus does.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a heart for the oppressed, for the outcast, for those fleeing violence, for those treated as “other” or “less than” because of their faith tradition, their ethnicity, their country of origin or the color of their skin. I remember, even on the playground in grade school, standing up for my classmates who were being treated poorly.  My heart breaks over that type of injustice.

My difficulty in the “not against flesh and blood” battle comes in my perceptions of those doing the oppressing, who create policies that harm others, who worship money over people, who worship nation over people, who believe violence solves issues, who use the name of God to promote the mistreatment of others. That’s where I struggle. But if Pastor John’s definition of evil is “anything that takes my eyes off of Jesus”, then I need to be very aware of where my heart is, where my eyes are. Am I demonizing people? The answer is more often than I want to admit, yes.

Recognizing this doesn’t mean silence on my part, but it does mean my heart needs to want to see oppressors and their followers set free from whatever is holding them in bondage. There are principalities and powers at work in the world’s systems: power, supremacy, pride, wealth, nationalism, racism, and a host of others. The battle is against those things, not the human beings that have fallen prey to the principalities and powers. It’s so hard for me to remember that.

On my better days, I ask the Lord to remove blinders from minds, to reveal himself and his ways to those in power, to help me address issues calmly and to ask the Holy Spirit to guide me in what to say and how to say it. On my other days–ugh–it’s not pretty.  I recently learned from a friend to pray for leaders by asking that the Lord help them to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8). I am praying that for myself too–

Martin Luther King Junior reminds us that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that, and hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can to that”.  Jesus has shown us how to love. He has shown us that his love is powerful and has authority over evil.  He has shown us that he will not force us into his peace, but we can walk in his peace and be instruments of his peace, driving out darkness in his authority and with his love as we choose the ways of his Kingdom over the ways of the kingdom of this world. Are you in?

–Luanne

“To learn to look with compassion on everything that is; to see past the terrifying demons outside to the bawling hearts within; to make the first move toward the other, however many times it takes to get close; to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be; to surrender the justice of your own cause for mercy; to surrender the priority of your own safety for love—this is to land at God’s breast.” (An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor)

I recently read the quote above, and it rocked me. It is tucked away in a chapter about pronouncing blessings over all that is–in the current state that it is in. Be it people, situations, the land itself, choosing to speak blessing and not cursing is not to ignore or negate the pain and suffering, but to simply choose not to judge it. Luanne wrote, “Do we recognize suffering and desperation when we see it–or does behavior we don’t understand or don’t approve of cause us to judge and point fingers?” She also wrote, “How the man got into his suffering state is irrelevant… Jesus is there to set him free.”

Jesus didn’t judge this man’s pain. He didn’t stand there with his arms crossed, determining whether or not he was worthy to be healed. He saw past the terrifying outside to the bawling heart within, and he looked upon him the same way he looked at everyone we see him encounter in the gospels–with compassion. With that co-suffering love that was no stranger to pain. In the same book I quoted above, the author writes about pain being that which “secures our communion” with one another. We all know pain. And if we can remember that, then it really doesn’t matter what sets us apart from each other. We can come to the table of compassion around our shared suffering, because pain is a great equalizer–if we allow it to be. Jesus understood pain. He moved toward suffering image-bearers over and over and over again. Whether it was the pain of spiritual oppression, like the man in the tombs experienced, or the more disguised pain of spiritual pride, like that of the usually oblivious Pharisees; the pain of sickness, paralysis, and death, or the pain of isolation and loneliness; the pain of the wrongly accused, or the pain of systemic injustice–Jesus moved toward those in pain, and he did so with compassion.

Jesus also wasn’t afraid.

Scripture tells us that Jesus experienced the fullness of our humanity, so we have to assume that he experienced fear at some point along the way. But that fear didn’t consume him. Presumably, because he knew who he was and he knew the authority that resided within him. The power that would eventually raise him from the dead was the power he walked in every single day. And Scripture tells us that the same power that raised him from the dead lives in us.

We don’t often live as if that’s true. We don’t move with the confidence that Jesus’s power lives within us. We let fear come in and make its home in our depths. It creates stories in our heads that turn into “truths” in our lives. We forget that we have any power over it at all, and it begins to have its way with us. Remember that Pastor John defined evil as “anything that takes our eyes off of Jesus.” Fear most certainly does that…

Fear is insidious. 

It often begins small… A doubt here, a whisper there… We don’t really notice when we walk to the other side of the street to avoid the “other” that we believe to be less than well-intentioned. It begins to pull a veil of skepticism and criticism over our eyes–eyes that perhaps used to look on others with compassion–and then it dehumanizes those that it has conditioned us to fear. At first, fear feels powerless. In time, as our fears are echoed by other voices, as we see that whole groups are afraid of the same things we are–the same people we are–fear begins to change. It begins to look powerful, it gets loud, and then it starts lashing out. After a while, it’s hard to see the original fear at all, because we have become the monster that terrifies to cover our own bawling hearts within. Now we’re the ones who need the compassionate gaze of Jesus to fall on us, calm our wild, and silence our fears.

Luanne shared so honestly about how she struggles with her perceptions of those who are doing the oppressing and the dehumanizing. I feel that struggle within myself, too… I think we also have to bravely and honestly own the places where we have become the oppressors… Where fear, along with individualizing our own pain, has led us away from compassion, away from the ways of Jesus and his kingdom. We are often unaware of what we’ve become, and we need Jesus to come set us free, just as the man who became known as Legion needed to be set free, needed to be released from the false identity that had laid claim to him.

I said before that Jesus wasn’t afraid because he knew who he was. That’s the key. The answer to our fear is the knowledge of our true identity… We are children of God, image-bearers, carriers of the divine–and as his children, we are wholly and completely loved. Fear has no claim on us. Fear may have visited Jesus, but he knew his true identity, so it couldn’t make a home in his heart. It had no power to change the way he saw all others, no power to distort his vision, no power to overshadow his love and his compassion.

Likewise, if we really understand who we are and the power that lives within us, we too can look upon all that is with the lenses of his compassion. If we can abide within the perfect love that calls us Beloved and allow that love to overcome our fears, we will see beyond the monsters outside to the bawling hearts within. If we know who we are, and the power of he who lives within us and loves as us, we can overcome the darkness of fear and evil with the kingdom light of compassion, in the authority of the one who’s always showing us how to engage his way. His way is never the easiest way, but if we’re willing, we’ll see the power of the kingdom change lives–starting with our own.

–Laura

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When the Enemy Comes…Rise Up

Return to Me. Remember. Restoration. Revelation. 

These are the themes we have explored as we’ve journeyed through the book of Joel. Our fifth and final point of exploration in this final message of our series is “Rise Up”.

I imagine that when you read those words, it conjures an image in your mind. Let that image develop for a minute. What does it mean to you to rise up? What picture do you see?

Undoubtedly, the pictures we see have been formed by what we’ve been taught, what we understand of both our God and the world around us, and our own personal beliefs. Our cultural understanding informs the images we see. Our theological understanding does as well. What we have to discuss today–whether you agree or disagree–is vital to our understanding of God, to the way we follow Jesus within our faith communities, and to our own personal journeys with Christ.

These are the passages Pastor John highlighted in Sunday’s message:

Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swordsand your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say,“I am strong!”Come quickly, all you nations from every side, and assemble there. Bring down your warriors, Lord! (Joel 3:9-11, NIV)

The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine.The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.
But the Lord will be a refuge for his people,a stronghold for the people of Israel.“Then you will know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy hill. Jerusalem will be holy; never again will foreigners invade her. (Joel 3:15-17, NIV)

When we read these verses and think about the phrase “Rise up!”, it immediately appears that the exhortation is one of standing strong as warriors against our enemy.

And it is… as long as we know who that enemy is…and as long as the weapon we carry is the one He has sanctioned.

It would also appear that God is calling for and advocating violence as a means of protection from our enemy.

This is where it gets messy, friends… As Pastor John explained in his message, we can take many different passages of scripture–these verses included–to make a case for retributive righteousness: a moral vindication for all that’s been done wrong, a “getting even” and beyond. Many within the Church, especially here in the United States, buy into this understanding, teach it, and proclaim it as biblical truth. If you’ve any doubt of the truth of that statement, take a quick peek at the social media accounts of many prominent voices who identify as Christian. It’s impossible to miss the connection between many of these voices and the anthem of retribution–this perceived “right” of Christians to treat others the way we’ve been treated, and the subsequent rejoicing in the failings and eventual demise of our “enemies”.

But wait… If I’m remembering correctly…

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

Our “enemies” aren’t other people… We don’t fight against fellow flesh and blood. But somehow, we have come to understand that there are those who are “enemies” of us and of our God. And we assume that God does, in fact, enact retributive righteousness–or justice–upon them.

How did we come to this understanding? Perhaps the most obvious reason is that we forget to connect individual verses to the rest of the story. We cannot grasp at certain verses and build a case without first looking at those verses through the lens of all of scripture, and through the filter of the character of our invisible God revealed in the person of Jesus. We have discussed this here before, the importance of seeing, thinking, and understanding through a “Jesus filter”. Verses are taken out of context all the time, and perhaps the most grotesque misapplications of scripture are those that would distort the image of God into an angry, vengeful warrior that looks a lot like the “enemy” we want for Him to conquer on our behalf…

But, thankfully, our God doesn’t look like that. And He doesn’t act like us. He sees judgement and justice differently than we do… How do I know? Because,

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation…(Col. 1:15, NLT)

When it comes to Jesus’ beliefs regarding violence, His position is clear. He believed in–and taught his followers the way of–nonviolence. Somehow, His church has moved away from this understanding, but His early followers got it, and lived it.

And it led many of them to their death.

Which is why, I believe, we’ve adapted a new belief system about violence. One that advocates, at the very least, self-defense; and one that–at it’s most heinous–has been used to enact “sanctioned” genocide.

We forget that our real enemy is actually a liar–and the father of lies–and he would love nothing more than for us to buy into a distortion of the heart of our God. A distortion that whispers to our hurting, offended hearts that while God goes to great lengths to rescue and pour out His love on us, He will not do the same for them. No, they will get what they deserve. And we love this lie. Because it makes us feel justified in our anger and disdain, in our thirst for revenge… We don’t like the thought of turning the other cheek, of following in the footsteps of our Savior–because, unlike the saints referenced in Revelation 12:11 who, “…did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die...”, we do love our lives. And our comfort. And our power. And our sense of control. And our “rights”.

I stated above that Jesus believed in nonviolence. I don’t want to make that kind of assertion without telling you how I got there… I have not investigated every verse recorded in the gospels that could be (mis)used to show Jesus as an advocate of violence. I did look at several of them today, though, in the context in which they were recorded. And I have read commentary from people much smarter than me who have put hours and hours of study into this subject.

One of the most compelling articulations I’ve come across is from pastor & author Brian Zahnd, who spoke on Jesus’ stance on violence at the Simply Jesus gathering that I attended in July. Brian spoke about the encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with the mob and the soldiers that came for him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (You can read his full message here.) Brain asserts that the Bible is a violent book, not because God is violent, but because we are. He reminded us that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, should we fight?”, immediately followed by Peter cutting off the high priest’s ear. Jesus’ response? “No more of this!”, immediately followed by Jesus healing (we could use the word “restoring”) the man’s ear.

Tertullian (160-220 AD), a second century church father, said:

“In disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians.” 

Zahnd also spoke about the most quoted verses by early church fathers during the first three centuries. From the Hebrew scriptures, it was Isaiah 2:4,

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

And from the New Testament, the most quoted verse of the early church was Matthew 5:44, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”

The verse that directly precedes this one is, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” (Matt. 5:43)

“But I say…”

What is our faith built upon? What is your final authority? My answer? Jesus. He has the final authority. He fulfills and extends the Law. His way of love, so often made to look like an easy way out of religious requirements, is actually much more difficult than the old way of the law. At one point, “an eye for an eye” was law.

But Jesus says… “love your enemies.”

He knew we would get caught up in the constraints of religion and self-serving theology. He tried to make the truth clear to those who looked at scripture as the final authority when he said, in John 5:39,

You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (NLT)

Brian said in his message, “Violence belongs to the old age that [passed] away with the arrival of the kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom. It’s the radical alternative to the violence that lives within us. It is the answer to the broken systems that are based in retributive justice. Because the Kingdom of Jesus, the way of love, is all about restorative justice. This is the kind of justice that makes all things right. This is–and always has been–the heart of God for every person He has ever created… To reconcile each heart to Himself.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “God will make all things right consistent with how He has treated me.” And, “The heart of God beats for you… and that heart is the same for each of His children.”

Even those we would like to regard as our enemies.

You see, there is one kind of violence advocated by Jesus under His new covenant… It is that of our putting to death our old selves, with our self-serving, vengeful desires, that we might live as children of light in His Kingdom–here and now–to show others the self-sacrificial way of love. This altogether “other” way that was evidenced by Paul and the disciples and the early church–those who never fought back, but willingly gave their lives to show the world the way of the One who modeled for us what it really means to “Rise up”. Which is to take up the weapon of God’s love, and live for the sake of His Kingdom, as Image Bearers, by the power of His Spirit… Rising up God’s way looks an awful lot like laying down… His is an upside-down Kingdom. And we’re invited to participate in His story–the whole story–not of retribution, but of restoration.

–Laura

Whenever we find ourselves thinking in binary ways that pit us against other image bearers, it’s wise for us to pause and remember all that Laura wrote above. As both she and Pastor John pointed out, we must take the context of all of scripture rather than picking and choosing verses to meet our own mindsets. We can justify a lot of ungodly behaviors by using scripture to back up our own meanness–but it’s hard to read His word through the lens of Jesus–the image of the invisible God– and treat other people poorly.

All the way back in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose themselves and their desires over God’s desire for them, God–in His goodness– clothed them with garments and covered their nakedness. There were consequences to their actions, but God still cared for them.  They didn’t deserve God’s kindness, yet he gave it to them anyway.

The first act of violence recorded in scripture occurs in Genesis chapter 4 when Cain attacks and kills his brother Abel. When God speaks with Cain, he tells him that Abel’s blood is crying out to him from the ground. In an “eye for an eye” kind of world, Cain deserves to be killed, yet God places a protective mark on Cain so that he won’t be killed.  Cain didn’t deserve God’s kindness, but God gave it to him anyway.

The writer of the book of Hebrews references Abel’s blood crying out from the grave, and says that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, speaks a better word. (12:24) The blood of Jesus speaks “It is finished.” the blood of Jesus speaks “Behold, I am making all things new.” The blood of Jesus speaks life and love and peace and reconciliation. It is new wine in a new wine skin–a whole new way of doing things.

We are called to be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for (you), an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Eph. 5:1-2)

We’ve been called to a new way of life: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-19)

Romans 2:4 Tells us that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance meaning that if Christ is in us, and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, our kindness may lead people to God.

Yet, as Laura wrote above, many people only know of Christians as mean spirited therefore they want nothing to do with God. The anger that is spewed in His name these days is alarming, and heartbreaking. I’m afraid we’re advancing the wrong kingdom.

Jesus was pretty forthright about anger and contempt in his sermon on the mount when he said But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.  (Mt. 5:22)

Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy writes that anger is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life.  Anger first arises spontaneously. But we can actively receive it and decide to indulge it. Anger and contempt are the twin scourges of the earth. The constant stream of human disasters that history and life bring before us (are) the natural outcome of choice of people choosing to be angry and contemptuous. To cut the root of anger is to wither the tree of human evil. There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.

The Jesus way is absolutely contrary to the way of our flesh. That’s why He sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit. The only way to live the Kingdom life on earth is to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. The Spirit can help us to not fly off the handle, to not be reactionary people, but to be people who live by a different standard.

Haim Ginott, a twentieth century teacher and child psychologist wrote:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

I believe Ginott’s thoughts go well beyond that of a classroom. We have tremendous power to affect the world by the way we handle ourselves, and the way we treat others. As a matter of fact–us treating others the way God has treated us is the plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth–but it’s not about our moral behavior. It’s about the transformation of our very beings into the likeness of Christ.

And you know what? The world still takes notice of those who live differently.  Last week the Coptic Christians of Egypt were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for refusing to retaliate in violence against their persecutors. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are under constant threat. You may remember a few years ago when ISIS beheaded some of them. They refuse to fight back, and the world is noticing–just like centuries ago when Christians were led into arenas in Rome. They did not fight back. They created curiosity by singing songs of worship and/or praying as lions were sent into the arena to kill them for sport. The way they chose to honor Jesus and his ways as they died pointed people to Him.

The world still doesn’t understand this. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his followers (us included) that we’ll be hated by the world, but not hated because we’re mean, hated because we do not belong to the world’s systems. (John 15:18) We don’t choose the weapons of this world. We don’t choose flesh and blood enemies. We refuse to take sides. We are for all people because God is for all people. We choose the third way, the way of reconciliation.

In Matthew 24, when Jesus is talking about the signs of the end he says that things are going to get tough for his followers, that many will turn away from the faith and betray and hate each other–and then the phrase that haunts me the love of most will grow cold (v. 12).  I pray often that my love will not grow cold. I see it happening all around–may it not be true of us. May we remember that:

Kindness is powerful. Grace is powerful. Love is powerful.

I’ve eluded before to the fact that my late childhood and early adolescent years were chaotic. During that time, my grief and confusion sometimes spilled over in rage. One particular evening, I was raging at my dad and ended my tirade by yelling that I hated him and wanted him to put me in foster care. I did not want to be part of our family any longer. He did not yell back. He stood there as I stormed off. A few moments later he came to find me and asked me to get my sweater. I got my sweater and got into the car. I didn’t say a word and neither did he. He took me to play miniature golf, and then to Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait. We barely spoke–I didn’t need words. I needed presence, and that’s what he gave me. While we were at DQ, he finally used words. He said, “I know that life is tough right now and that you’re hurting.  I want you to know that I love you, and that I will always love you.”  No lecture, no removal of privileges, no harsh words–just presence and love. My self-destructive season lasted for another 9 years or so, but there were no more fits of rage and I never doubted the love of my father–and when I was finally ready to come home– my earthly father’s example helped me to embrace the fact that my loving Heavenly Father was not mad at me, but was rejoicing that I was coming home. Neither father gave me what I deserved, and my life is forever changed as a result.

Psalm 103:10 says God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  

Aren’t you grateful?

Let’s choose to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and treat others the way God has treated us. Doing life His way, the counter cultural way,  is the only thing that has the power to change the world.

Lord, may Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth…

-Luanne

 

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When the Enemy Comes: Return to Me

Have you ever experienced a season of devastation? A season so seemingly hopeless that you wonder if God is even there–and if He is, why won’t He intervene?

My guess is that most of us have been there. Times when our lives have felt attacked and invaded… Times of loss and crisis…

Our new series comes out of the book of Joel, when the people of God were facing such a time. Locusts had invaded their land, and they didn’t only come once. Swarms of them came upon the land, over and over again, until absolutely everything was devastated. All of the crops were gone. They had nothing. And then, after all seemed lost, a fire and a drought came…

I can’t relate to this on an agricultural level. I’ve never farmed or relied on my own land to provide for myself and my family. But I know what devastation and loss feel like. I have experienced attacks and invasions in my own life–and it’s probably safe to assume that you have, too.

In this new series, Pastor John will give us five things we can do when the enemy shows up on our doorsteps, adapted from the book of Joel. We’ll look at how God, through the prophet Joel, invited His people to respond to the calamities they faced. And we will see that His invitation to them is the same one He extends to us today.

It’s important to note that the “enemy” can show up in a few different ways… It can be in the form of Satan, who is always aiming to steal, kill and destroy. But we can’t blame every storm we face on Satan. Our enemy can also be seen in the things that have been done to us, people coming against us in one way or another. It could be circumstances outside of our control, devastation that–like the locusts–appears and invades every corner of our lives. And sometimes, what is wreaking havoc in our lives is ourselves, our own choices. All of these are “enemies” that can land us in seasons of crisis.

Before I write any further, I want to acknowledge that this is hard. Devastation, hopelessness, loss–these aren’t easy or fun things to think about, much less talk about. If you, like me, have experienced seasons of trauma and loss, I know that the last thing you may want to do is remember and relive those times. You may be in a season like what I’m describing right now. Your world may be in a state of utter chaos and despair. Wherever you find yourself as you read our words, I hope that you’ll hang on. Keep reading–there is hope to be found. I don’t say that lightly. I know that when we’re in the midst of the pain and the struggle, the last thing we want to hear is a sunny platitude that seems beyond our reach. This is not that. What Joel offered to his people–what Pastor John presented to us, and what we’re now presenting to you–is a lifeline that will keep us above water even as it churns and slams against us.

So…what do we do? When our lives are invaded and devastated, whether by our own choices or not, where do we turn?

Chapter one in Joel details what the people were experiencing. And then in the beginning of verse 19, Joel cries, “To you, Lord, I call…”  Step one: Cry out to God. Even if you’re not sure He’s listening. Even when you’re doubting His goodness. Even when it’s your own choices that have led you to a place of devastation and you feel too ashamed and unworthy to even speak His name…. Cry out to Him.

In Joel 2:12, God responds: “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now… no matter whose fault it is, no matter how far away you might be… return. The word return is an interesting one. It means to turn back, like we assume it does. But there is an undercurrent to the word in this context that I find so beautiful–and so telling of the heart of our God. It carries an implied meaning of being brought back, or being restored. Those aren’t things we do for ourselves. This changes the way I understand the call to return. Because sometimes, crying out takes all I have left. The energy required to turn back and move toward God is more than I can muster. And He knows that. He knows that He’s the one that does the moving. We see it throughout the whole of scripture–this God that runs. This father that gets to where we’re going before we do and meets us there–wherever “there” might be. We see it in the stories of Gomer & Hosea and the prodigal son & his father that John referenced on Sunday. Both Hosea and the father went after–ran toward–the one they loved that had wandered from them. Both represent the heart of our God, though He goes even further. These stories paint a picture of love, forgiveness and restoration. A love that says “Return to me”, and doesn’t wait until they find their way back, but goes after them and actually brings them back home. 

God does the same for us… and more. I can’t help but think of the psalmist, David, and the words he penned that we find in Psalm 139…

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

(Psalm 139:7-10)

There is nowhere we can go, no place we can run to, where God isn’t already there waiting. There is a song that was penned recently, based on the words from this Psalm. This is part of it:

“You meet me there, Spirit you meet me there. You go before me, Your love surrounds me, Spirit you meet me there…

You don’t give up, even when I do. You don’t walk out when I threaten to. You are steady when I can’t be still, Your love finds me, and it always will.”

Returning to God is not an intimidating, tedious process. It doesn’t begin with a long, lonely walk of shame. it begins with simply realizing that He is already there–wherever our “there” is. He’s there, and He’s waiting for us to open our eyes and look up and find His love staring back at us. His face doesn’t hold judgement or condemnation. He’s not ready to scold our lack of faith or belittle our weakness. He is, as Joel 2:13 describes,

“…kind and merciful. He takes a deep breath, puts up with a lot, This most patient God, extravagant in love, always ready to cancel catastrophe.” (Joel 2:13b, Message) 

Kind. Merciful. Patient. Extravagant in His love… The God described in Joel is the same God David wrote about in the Psalms. The same God whose character and heart were made visible in the person of Jesus when He came and walked the earth as the exact physical manifestation of God the Father. (Colossians 1:15) That’s who we see when we open our eyes and find Him already there looking back at us. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be a long road to walk–but it does mean that we never have to walk it alone.

But what about the “…always ready to cancel catastrophe…” part? This line slammed into my heart like a wrecking ball on Sunday. I found myself asking, “Then why didn’t you, God? If you’re always ready to cancel catastrophe, why haven’t you done that? Why have so many of my pleas for you to do exactly that gone unanswered?”

The very next line of Joel goes on to say this: Who knows? Perhaps he will give you a reprieve, sending you a blessing instead of this curse. (Joel 2:14a, NLT)

Perhaps. Maybe. Who knows? I don’t like this part. We have a God who is always ready and able to “cancel catastrophe”… but sometimes He doesn’t. Why?

I don’t know.

I hate typing those words. For myself and for you. Because I told you to hang on, that there was hope coming. And I want to be able to say that your reprieve is coming. That circumstances are about to change and it’s all going to get better. You and I both know I can’t say that, though.

But here is what I can say… The “enemy” has come and taken a lot from my life. I wouldn’t choose to relive the storms that left me devastated and barely hanging onto hope–except for the part where I discovered the truth that I wrote about above…

God, my good, gracious Father, was with me in every moment. He met me in every hell I found myself in. There was nowhere too far, nowhere too dark, that He wasn’t already there waiting for me. I used to say that all of my life, Jesus has pursued me and gone after me when I’ve run from Him. But it’s even better than that… As I’ve grown and changed and looked back, I’ve realized that yes, He’s always pursued me. But not from behind me, like an animal chasing it’s prey. No. He’s pursued me from the places I’ve run into-He was there waiting, loving me back to Him, before I could even get there… In the deep darkness of the cult I was born into, in the fear of my very heavy-handed earthly father… In the rooms of my teenage promiscuity, and the hangovers from nights of being used… In the real possibility of burying my baby-more than once… In the weeks my marriage felt hopeless and in the loss of my presumed identity… In the room where my mama took her last breath, and in the terror at the thought that maybe her death was my fault… In unemployment and moves that knocked the wind out of me and in callings that seem far beyond my reach… In betrayal and accusation… In my own webs of lies and unforgiveness… He has been there. There is nowhere I’ve been that I haven’t been in His presence. No choice I’ve made that is so ugly He’s turned his face away. No moment that I’ve ever been alone.

Would I have loved for God to cancel some (or all…) of these catastrophes? Of course. Some of them left me reeling and believing I would never recover. I wouldn’t choose to walk these roads. But it’s been on these roads that I encountered the power of the love that didn’t look away. Didn’t walk away. Didn’t accuse me. Didn’t use me. But brought me back home to the arms that have never stopped holding me…

These seasons have taught me to cry out, and to turn my eyes to the One who can restore everything. The One who can re-story my story–and has, in so many ways. He’s the same One who can re-story yours… fix your eyes on the eyes that have never looked away from you, cry out to Him, and let His love bring you home…

–Laura

 

I looked out my window early today

I saw a big gray blanket

When I walked into it, it opened so that I could pass through

Then closed again behind me

Leaving me surrounded

In a cold, gray world

I wrote those words in my 8th grade English class. It was a poetry assignment that unbeknownst to me would be entered in a city wide poetry contest. I won the contest. My poem was published in the newspaper, my dad used it in one of his sermons, but I didn’t care. I didn’t make the poem up out of thin air– I was describing my life at the time. I was three years into ongoing “locust” devastation and could not see an end in sight. My mother had died from cancer when I was in the fifth grade-eleven years old. In the midst of that storm, just a year later, sixth grade, my dad married a widow with four children of her own. I finished out my sixth grade year with all of the kids I’d been in school with since first grade, but we had moved to a larger house to accommodate our larger family, so seventh grade I began junior high in a school with no friends. I was sharing a bedroom with a step-sister who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, and I never felt safe at home. I discovered the hard truth in my new school that “good” kids who’ve been together for a long time don’t embrace new kids very well. I was accepted into the group of other hurting kids; we were all trying to numb our pain without knowing that’s what we were doing–we called it “partying” but there was no joy. I would continue making increasingly self destructive and others destructive choices until I was in my early twenties. Many times during those years, I would sense the voice of God drawing me back, and sometimes I would come, but I’d never stay long.

Laura wrote above that sometimes our “locust” seasons are the result of a direct attack from Satan, sometimes they are because of something done to us by someone else, sometimes they are the consequence of our own choices. In my above season, I felt like God had done something to me. I was so, so, so angry with Him. In my understanding, a God of love would not have allowed my mother to die, and certainly wouldn’t have allowed life to have stayed so hard for so long afterward. In my anger, I turned my back on Him with an “I’ll show you that I don’t need you” attitude, and then reaped the consequences of my own poor choices. It brings up a great deal of emotion just writing about it.

How did I get back?  Joel 2:12– “Even now,” declares the Lord“return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 

Even now. Right now. Today.

I was twenty-two years old and was with a friend leaving a night club at closing. We were held up at gunpoint as we headed to her car. She managed to get in the car–I didn’t. The gun was held to my stomach. In the end, my purse was taken and I was not physically harmed. There were police close by who caught the young man with my purse. My friend and I went to night court to positively identify him, and then I went home and got in bed. While lying in bed, I heard God ask me “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?”  His voice wasn’t angry or scary, but it was very direct. My answer was “No. This is not the legacy I want to leave.”

Even now, return to me…Like Joel, I cried out and asked God what I needed to do. I was living in Nashville, TN at the time, it was summer so I wasn’t in school. I asked my manager at work if I could take a leave of absence, and he said yes, so I moved home to Missouri for a couple of months. I didn’t know it then, but I was doing Joel 2:12–fasting, weeping, mourning…

I was welcomed home with love and given lots of space and time to process what I needed to.

I was “fasting” without knowing that’s what I was doing. Pastor John defines fasting as giving something up so that our focus can be on God–not trying to get His attention, but giving Him ours.  I sought Him for those two months. I didn’t do anything with friends. I stayed home, spent a lot of time on the back patio with my Bible and a study on how to forgive yourself (I’d made some horrific choices), and dug in with God.

There was a great deal of “weeping”, which Pastor John defined as the outward evidence that something is going on inwardly.

And mourning…acknowledging loss. There were so many things lost that needed to be acknowledged, brought into the light and mourned.

The hard thing for me to grasp, is that God’s embrace happened instantaneously. I kept acknowledging that I didn’t deserve anything from Him, and felt as though I should be  “lesser than” in His kingdom work. I felt that way for a long time.

Grace is powerful, and so difficult for us to understand, but what’s true, is just like Hosea’s wife, just like the prodigal son, God met me when I chose to rend my heart and not my garments”and I  returned to the Lord my God and found Him to be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. (Joel 2:13). I was fully restored, even though I didn’t “feel” it.  Over time (years) I began to “believe” it.

I won’t say that I was completely healed in my two months home, but I was deeply in love with God and knew that my life was much better in His hands. When I returned to college, I moved out of the house I’d been living in, moved back into the dorm, began attending a small group Bible study and was fully embraced there, which  led to attending a church where I learned how to worship in a new way. I left my old “friend” group behind and found new friends, one of whom became my husband.

I don’t know what season of life you are in. If locusts have come to devastate you, even now,  in this very moment, God is with you. His grace, His compassion, His love will meet you right where you are. Cry out, return to Him with all your heart–He will meet you there.

The “locust” season may not come to an immediate end, it might still be really hard-but you won’t face it alone, and in the words of an old Steven Curtis Chapman song:

His strength is perfect when our strength is gone.                                                                           He’ll carry us when we can’t carry on.                                                                                         Raised in His power, the weak become strong.                                                                                His strength is perfect. His strength is perfect. 

He is a good God. Life on a fallen planet is not always good, but God is always good–always full of love, always for us. Turn your attention to Him, take your questions, your mourning, your weeping to Him,  and let Him meet you where you are.

–Luanne

 

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