Teach Me to Serve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we already know the model friends…

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

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

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach me to serve.

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Image result for choose this day who you will serve

 

Giving Shapes Our Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus responds with a story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In John 17:3, Jesus says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See something. Feel something. Do something. 

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

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

–Laura

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Giving Goes Beyond You

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

I felt like I needed a nap before lunchtime.

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

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

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

(Matthew 25:31-40, NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Acts 4:32-35, TPT)

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

And she included this beautiful quote:

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

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

–Luanne

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The Sign of Heaven

Immediately after this, he got into a boat with his disciples and crossed over to the region of Dalmanutha. When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” So he got back into the boat and left them, and he crossed to the other side of the lake. (Mark 8:10-13, NLT)

This week’s passage begins with the words, “Immediately after this…” Immediately after what? The feeding of the 4,000. As soon as that meal was over, Jesus and his disciples left for a different region. When they arrived, the Pharisees showed up once again, as they’d done before, to test him. Different translations use the words question, tempt, argue, dispute, demand, trap, and try to describe the interaction. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.

Pastor John articulated that they were questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ power, the trustworthiness of his character, and the authority behind his acts. They were acting on a story in their heads that they had come to believe as truth. In order to uphold their own rightness, their power, and the systems they controlled–systems that benefited them, they needed to attack and demonize Jesus. They intended to erode his reputation, and to gain control over him by demanding that he bend to their whims.

I have not spent much time studying these verses until now. Honestly, I’ve often read over them to get to the next part, because this part of the story seems so ridiculous. Jesus had just fed 4,000+ people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Not long before that, he had multiplied a small lunch into food for 5,000+. In the midst of these enormous miracles, he had healed the sick, brought mobility to the lame, raised the dead; he’d brought sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, seen-ness to the invisible, honor to the dishonored; he had driven out demons, walked on water, and calmed the sea…

…And the Pharisees demanded to see a sign from heaven so he could prove himself to them.

Seriously???

I’ve always read this exchange with a slight shake of my head and an eye-roll. What else did they need to see? Even if they hadn’t seen the miracles themselves, there were thousands of accounts of the things he had done. These verses simply depict more annoying noise from the same squeaky wheels. Until this week, I’ve mostly sighed along with Jesus and moved on to the next story. But there is much to learn if we pause and look a little deeper into what was really going on in this short conversation.

The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus because they had questions that they hoped he could answer. They came to question him, to make a mockery of who he was and what he did. They came to him believing the stories in their own heads, with a desire to prove their own rightness and assert their power. They had a perception of Jesus, and that perception informed their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. They also had a perception of themselves. In their eyes, they were right. What they did was right. And if Jesus wouldn’t do things–especially the religious things–the way they did things, he must be wrong, and collaborating with evil. They came to him full of accusations, ready to attack his character, power, trustworthiness, and authority.

And Jesus sighed. Said no to their demands. And walked away.

I want us to take a really honest look at what happened here, myself included. I hope we can ask some hard questions, and then tell the truth. And hopefully as we dig into this, we can learn from how Jesus handled himself and move toward the freedom that can only be found in modeling our lives after him.

Have you ever felt attacked, or been blindsided by the lies you’ve heard about yourself? Have you been insulted? Has someone spread rumors about you? Has your character been questioned? What about your trustworthiness, your loyalty, your motives, your beliefs? Have people accused you or demanded that you prove yourself to them in some way? Has anyone ever made assumptions about you, and acted on their perceptions of who you are–perceptions based on lies and not truth? Have you been blasted because of your beliefs, or because of your commitment to Jesus–especially if that looks different than the power structures say it “should” look?

My guess is that all of you can answer yes to most–if not all–of these questions. I know that I can. And it hurts. As Pastor John said, when character and trustworthiness are questioned, it causes division and a breakdown in relationships. It’s difficult to move forward in relationship when you find out the stories that others have been believing–and spreading–about you. When it’s specifically because of our beliefs about Jesus, and the way that he’s calling us to follow him, it can be hard to know what to do.

To all of us who have experienced something like this, Pastor John reminded us of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m going to share the Message paraphrase and The Passion Translation, and I encourage us all to read it slowly and let it sink into our hearts.

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:10-12, Message)

“How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So leap for joy–since your heavenly reward is great. For you are being rejected the same way the prophets were before you.” (TPT)

It never feels good when we feel like we’re being persecuted.  It doesn’t feel like blessing, and it doesn’t make us feel glad or ecstatic. But the thought that persecution for doing what’s right can drive us deeper into the kingdom, that God is pleased by our commitment to him, and that many before us–including Jesus–endured rejection, can be a comfort to our hearts in the midst of the pain.

We also have to be willing to look at the other side and ask more hard questions…

Have we been the ones entertaining stories in our heads? Have we believed those stories, questioning people in our hearts without ever asking them the questions we have? Have we entertained our own assumptions and listened to the rumors others have spread to the point that we believe them as truth? Have we become the rumor spreaders, the ones doing the attacking and discrediting?

Read that again, and ask the Holy Spirit to shine a light on anything you carry as “truth” that began as a story in your head. And then listen. I am pausing to do the same, asking Jesus to give us all soft, willing hearts of flesh so that we can see ourselves rightly. It’s easy to see how we’ve been attacked. It’s much harder to admit when we have been the ones doing the attacking…

Welcome back. Whatever Jesus may have highlighted for each of us, we would be wise to move toward owning our stuff, no matter how hard that might be. As Pastor John shared with us on Sunday, there is no freedom in the stories in our heads. The more we feed those stories, the more true they feel to us. But in actuality, they only lead us further away from the truth. It’s in holding on to the ways of Jesus and to his teachings that we come to know the truth that sets us free. (John 8:31-32)

I want to take us back to our story to look at how Jesus handled his questioners so that we can learn from him. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to perform on their terms rather than let his life and actions speak to who he was. They wanted to have power and control over him. They didn’t understand what his ministry was about. It was never about showy theatrics to Jesus. It was about bringing his upside-down kingdom to bear in the lives of real people–all people. It wasn’t about making himself known–what he did, he did out of love, not ego. They wanted Jesus to bow to their whims–he would not. Why? Because he knew who he was. His identity came from his father. And he knew why he was here. They wanted to show the world that this guy wasn’t who they thought he was. But Jesus didn’t have anything to prove or anything to defend. The text tells us that he sighed, told them no, and walked away. He didn’t get defensive and argue.

Ultimately, the words, ways, and miracles of Jesus portrayed a picture of God that didn’t look like the picture the Pharisees held and taught. Jesus came as the perfect image of the previously invisible God, and the things he did, the way he loved–who he was–didn’t line up with the stories in the Pharisees heads about what God should and shouldn’t be like. They held to the belief that they had it all right. So Jesus, then, must be wrong. And they were out to prove it. The stories in their heads were so loud, so fixed, so pervasive, that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

How often is that true of us when it comes to Jesus, and to others? Where do we need to set aside our own “rightness” and look instead to the righteousness of the one we say we follow? Where is our “asking for a sign” actually more like demanding that God show up in the way we want him to? Where are we clinging to power and control at the cost of those around us?

Wherever we each find ourselves today, we can–and need to–hold on to what is true. The truth is that Jesus is real and he is good. He sees us, he is for us, and we can trust him, even when it doesn’t make sense. His character is unshakable. His trustworthiness is unmatched. His love is unconditional and overflowing. He is the clearest picture of God we’ll ever see. And he has done so much, given us so many signs that prove to us that this is who he is. May we look to him as our guide and our example. May we trust him, even in the dark. And may we model our lives after him and his ways, as partners with him in his kingdom work.

–Laura

When I read that Jesus’ response to this group’s questioning was a sigh, I feel for Jesus. This deep sigh occurs one time in the New Testament, and this is the place. It literally means to draw up deep sighs from the bottom of the breast, (Strongs). In my own life, this type of sigh usually accompanies an ache in my chest and a desire to cry. I don’t know if it was the same for Jesus, but it could have been. Jesus loves all people, this group of Pharisees included, but Jesus will not force himself on anyone. I believe Jesus desired to minister to people in this region, to set people free from bondage, yet right away there was a roadblock in the hearts of the religious authorities, so Jesus sighed deeply and left the region. How many people in Dalmanutha didn’t have a personal encounter with Jesus because the religious system created a wall?

As we look back over portions of the book of Mark that we’ve studied this year, we can recall that in chapter 1, Jesus healed and taught and the people were amazed because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law (1:21). 

In chapter 2, Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and the teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:6-7).  Jesus read their thoughts and responded,  “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?  But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (2:8-11) 

We could continue going through the book of Mark and read account after account of questioning and accusation coming from the religious leaders questioning the authority of Jesus. It happened in region after region, city after city, synagogue after synagogue… Jesus was a threat to their power. Jesus was a threat to their understanding of how the religious system worked. Jesus was a threat to the way they thought about God. They didn’t understand Jesus and the way he did things, and for the most part, they didn’t seek to.

But there were a few along the way who sought deeper understanding. In John 3 we learn that there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2). It is in this conversation with Nicodemus that we learn that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall 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). The entire conversation is beautiful.  

Nicodemus is mentioned two other times in the gospel of John. In chapter 7, when the Pharisees wanted the temple guards to seize Jesus and they didn’t, the Pharisees accused the guards (and Nicodemus) of being deceived by Jesus, and of being ignorant by saying:“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7: 48-52) In other words, “we know and you don’t–don’t question us.”

The last time Nicodemus is mentioned is at the burial of Jesus: Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. (John 19: 38-40)

There is something so stirring about the account of these two powerful men caring for the body of Jesus. I wish we could know more about them and what happened in their lives after the resurrection of Christ. What I do know, and why I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that he had questions too–but his questions came from a desire to know more, to go deeper, to seek further understanding. The group of Pharisees in Dalmanutha’s questions came from a place of arrogance; they thought they knew more and already had full understanding, so Jesus needed to be proved wrong. Another reason that I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that we can develop stories in our heads about the Pharisees, and Nicodemus reminds us that not all of them resisted Jesus. We can develop stories in our heads about all kinds of groups. It’s good to remind ourselves that every group is full of individuals, and each individual is unique.

When I was in counseling a few years back, my counselor taught me how to ask for clarification in a way that led to conversation rather than to conflict. She said that I could begin by saying “I have a story in my head that may or may not be true. Can I share it with you to get clarification?” (Of course, I am going to the source, not to other people). “I have a story in my head” is a completely different type of question than “Where were you? Who were you with?” etc.  One leads to conflict, one leads to conversation and clarification.

Pastor John reminded us that questions only find answers when they’re asked and if we let them spin in our heads we create stories. If we then share those stories (based on our perceptions) with others, it can erode relationships, create division, and cause a great deal of harm. It would appear that the vast majority of Pharisees were involved in murmuring and grumbling behind the scenes about Jesus, drinking the poison of their own thoughts, letting that poison affect those around them, and leading to death rather than life, bondage rather than freedom, hopelessness rather than hope. Jesus, the life-bringer, desired to set them free, but the hardness of their hearts would not allow it.

Jesus will not show off to prove our accusations wrong. Jesus’ displays of power and his miracles were always for the benefit of those to whom he was ministering. They were demonstrations of love, and pointed to God the Father, the God of love who had been misunderstood and misinterpreted.  Jesus was showing us who God really is.

In investigating our own internal stories, sometimes we don’t know the state of our own hearts, so it’s wise to pray, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24) And then let him show us. We are all works in progress, as long as we don’t resist what God desires to do in us and in our midst.

What are your questions? What are the stories in your head? Are you seeking truth, or seeking to be right? Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you are faithful to what I have said, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:31-32). Let’s seek to know what Jesus said, live what he modeled, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Yes, ask questions…but questions that lead to life, not death.

–Luanne

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See the Signs

One of the greatest things about following Jesus is there is always more to discover. Every account in scripture has deeper meaning than a one time reading could ever convey. Everything Jesus did was intentional, multi-faceted, complex, loving, purposeful, wise, and a myriad of other things. Since Jesus is the full revelation of God and “all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in him” (Col. 1:19), it makes sense to reason that the thoughts of Jesus are not our thoughts, the ways of Jesus are not our ways–that his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9) In order for us to have the mind and attitude of Christ (Ph. 2:5) we must be willing to dig in– to seek, to see, to be changed. Jesus tells us that if we seek we will find (Mt. 7:7), but this is not a one time a week Sunday morning encounter; this is a lifelong journey with Jesus, one in which we discover new things and receive fresh revelations, as we allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and teach us.

Many of the things that Jesus did point to other things. Signs were part of his ministry. Signs are still part of his ministry. Pastor John defined signs as indicators of something greater–of there being more to an event than the event–he also cautioned us not to seek the signs, not to worship the signs, but to worship the One who gives the signs. Each sign is one piece of a much bigger picture. I like to think of signs as something that can give us holy wonder and curiosity. We can interpret signs in many ways–we may be right, partially right, or we may be wrong in our interpretations–so hold all of that loosely; however, pay attention. God is not silent and there are still plenty of signs to be seen.

Sign is the root word of signature and significance; therefore, can we say that God-given signs carry significance and bear His signature? I’ve shared many times about the summer I was in a difficult season and was praying in my backyard when a swallowtail butterfly flew right to me accompanied by the words “I see you, you are not alone.” For the next couple of months, every time I was deeply troubled a swallowtail would appear and my heart would hear the same message.  It was a few months later, long after the swallowtails had disappeared for that season,  that the power of the sign of the swallowtail and the message it carried literally kept me alive. I recalled it all through a long hard winter, even receiving a drawing of a yellow butterfly from a child in the month of January that year. It’s been eight years since that season, but every swallowtail I see reminds me of God’s faithfulness and his care for me during that time. Each one is significant–a sign to remind me that God sees me–I am not alone, and whoever happens to be with me when I see a swallowtail hears that message from my mouth–God sees, we are not alone. A sign. A message of significance. God’s signature.

This week our passage had us in Mark 8: 1-9 the feeding of the four thousand. A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the feeding of the five thousand. The feeding of the four thousand often seems to take a back seat to the first miracle, but it has much to offer, especially when compared to the feeding of the five thousand. What signs can we see in these miracles?

Jesus had compassion on both crowds, but the compassion had a different root. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). He took them under his wing, taught them many things, and provided guidance and leadership. He was concerned about their spiritual hunger.  In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus was moved to compassion by their physical hunger. He said of them  “My heart goes out to this crowd, for they’ve already been here with me for three days with nothing to eat.  I’m concerned that if I send them home hungry, they’ll be exhausted along the way, for some of them have come a long, long way just to be with me.” (Mark 8:2-3 TPT)

Could we take from these two similar but different stories the sign that Jesus is concerned about spiritual and physical needs? He ministered to both of those needs, and he led his followers to do the same. Is it a sign that his Church today, his followers, you and me, should be addressing both the spiritual and physical needs of the world?

In the feeding of the five thousand, we learn right away that there is both bread and fish to be multiplied. In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus asks the disciples how many loaves they have and learns that they have seven loaves. Jesus takes the seven loaves, gives thanks, breaks them, and has the disciples distribute the bread. Then we find out that there were a few small fish as well. The emphasis seems to be on the bread. Why? Is it a sign?

In the gospel of John, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). In John 6:51 Jesus says I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. In Matthew 26:26 we learn that at the last supper with his disciples before he was arrested he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Is the multiplied bread a sign that Jesus is here for the whole world, that when we come to him we find ultimate satisfaction?  Is it a sign that whatever we offer to Jesus becomes more in his hands–that our seven loaves can feed the masses and there will still be plenty leftover? Is it a sign that in God’s kingdom everyone counts, there is no shortage, that when those who have share with those who don’t have there is more enough for all?

Speaking of signs Pastor John encouraged us:

  1. To open our eyes and see signs as something Jesus used to help us see him in his fullness.
  2. To keep our eyes open and try to see all Jesus is trying to show us–not to see the sign as any type of conclusion–but as an indicator pointing to a bigger picture, a deeper truth, something significant.
  3. To stay focused on the Giver of the signs, not on the signs themselves.
  4. To blink. If we stare too intently for too long our eyes begin to burn, then they begin to tear and we lose clarity. Blinking helps us to see clearly.

In both miracles, there is great need in the midst of humanly impossible circumstances. There was no human way that 5000+ people or 4000+ people could be fed with the resources provided. I think this point is where many modern churches get stuck. We forget that nothing is impossible for God. We become skeptical (sometimes we call it logical). Often times the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds. Did he give us these biblical loaves and fish accounts as signs to help us remember that he can multiply anything we give to him in order to meet the needs of those around us?

Let’s be honest–the needs of the world, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. The needs right here in our city, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. Will our response be, “I’d love to get involved but I don’t have enough (fill in the blank) to make a difference? Or, I don’t really get what’s going on and am not sure I like it, so I’ll hang out on the sidelines and wait. Or will our response be “Father, how can I be part of what you’re doing?” and offer whatever we have. There’s more to offer than just money; we can offer our experience, our time, our homes, our hearts, our tables, our expertise, our love, our kindness, our encouragement, our prayers, our fellowship, our presence, our willingness to make space for whoever we encounter, our Jesus who loves all people, our Jesus who is moved with compassion over all the need, our Jesus who gives us purpose and includes us in his mission and ministry, our Jesus who takes what we offer, multiplying it beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

He chooses all of us to be part of his work on earth. He gives us personal signs to encourage us along, he gives us corporate signs to encourage us along, he gives us scriptural signs to encourage us along– all of these are indicators of something significant. Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.

–Luanne

“Oftentimes the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds…”

I’m not usually prone to skepticism. I tend to be an optimist–even, sometimes, an idealist. But there are situations and people that bring the skeptic out in me. The wrestling match Luanne described above is a real thing, especially when a situation that has felt daunting gets more daunting, and it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a time when it will be anything but daunting. It is in these situations, and in our interactions with these people– when we feel the skeptic in us rising up–that paying attention to the signs we are given is so very important.

I can’t help but think back to the end of chapter 6 in Mark when Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat with his disciples. In verse 52, we read that, “…they failed to learn the lesson of the miracle of the loaves, and their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson. (The Passion Translation)

Luanne ended her post with this exhortation:

“Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.” 

Both the story of the disciples I referenced and Luanne’s exhortation highlight a crucial component of sign-seeing. Our hearts.

The disciples saw the sign with their eyes. They were part of the miracle of feeding the 5,000 from beginning to end. But there was a disconnect somewhere. Mark 6:52 tells us exactly where that disconnect stemmed from. “Their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson.” Would it be fair to say that they were being skeptics about what they’d seen?

Maybe defining what a skeptic is would be helpful.

Skeptic: a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others. a person who doubts the truth of a religion, especially Christianity, or of important elements of it. (Dictionary.com) 

I don’t know if the disciples were being skeptics. But I know that I can be. I also know that when I take things at face value, without engaging my heart, skepticism leads to more skepticism and I end up in an ugly web of my own spinning…

If we’re only seeing with our eyes and not also with our hearts, we will find ourselves skeptical of everything we think we see. 

There are situations where a bit of skepticism is merited. But when it comes to journeying with Jesus, skepticism will not serve us well. Being skeptical of the mystery and wonder of the kingdom will keep us from seeing the kingdom come. Skeptics can see with their eyes, but skepticism will place scales over the eyes of our hearts.

The apostle Paul prayed this prayer over the Ephesisans:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit. Why is this important? So that we will know and cherish the hope that is ours in Jesus, and so we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of his active power in us!

Hope and skepticism don’t go together. And if we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible. The “small” signs and wonders we see when we live with eyes and hearts wide open add up. And over time, we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of the One we follow.

Some of the most precious gifts I’ve received from God would be completely meaningless to someone else. But to me, these “signs” are significant and bear God’s signature. Like Luanne’s butterfly, these signs from God’s heart to mine convey that I am seen, valued, and loved by him. I may not interpret each one correctly, and that’s okay. The goal is that the signs point us to God. They give us a glimpse of our own beautiful smallness in light of his inexhaustible greatness and remind us that there is always hope. Living with our eyes and hearts wide open to the signs along the way keeps us awake to the wonder and mystery of Jesus. The signs offer us glimpses of depths we wouldn’t otherwise see, and remind us that our God is alive, active, and right here with us, in the thick of everyday life.

May we resist the lazy, limiting way of skepticism and embrace the hope that comes with choosing to live with our eyes–and our hearts–wide open to the signs of God all around us.

–Laura

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His Kindness: Mark 6:30-44

Two weeks ago we looked at how Jesus sent his disciples out in groups of two to minister to surrounding towns in his name. Today, we pick up at their return– they were excited and ready to share with Jesus all that happened during their time. Scripture tells us, that in this moment, so many people were coming and going that Jesus and his disciples were being constantly interrupted and didn’t even have a chance to eat. They were hungry. They were tired. They were excited. They wanted to be alone with Jesus, so Jesus said to them:

 “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.” (Mark 6: 31-32). 

That would have been lovely if it had worked. Unfortunately for them, they had achieved a degree of fame in the region and they were recognized. By this time, the disciples themselves had performed some miracles in the authority and power of Jesus, and Jesus’ reputation been spreading for a while. So, a group of people began to run along the shore. People from other towns joined the first runners, and by the time Jesus and his disciples landed,  there was a crowd of 5,000 or more people waiting for them. I don’t imagine that the scene was calm. Large crowds usually aren’t.

Jesus looked at the crowd, and rather than being perturbed that they were interrupting time with his disciples, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Setting his own needs and the needs of his disciples aside, he began to teach them “many things” (v. 34).  I wonder what he taught them? I’m sure that part of it had to do with the kingdom of Heaven and the nearness of God. I wish Mark would have written some of the things Jesus said. Without a doubt, it was tailored to what that group of people needed to hear. I wonder if the disciples were perturbed by the crowd. Honestly, if it had been me, I probably would have been.

As the day began to come to an end, the disciples came to Jesus and asked him to send the people away. They recognized that they were in the middle of nowhere (a remote place that was supposed to have been their solitary place) and that the people needed to eat.  They suggested that Jesus dismiss the crowd and send them away to some nearby towns to find something to eat.

Jesus looked at his followers and said to them: “You give them something to eat”. Hmmm. What on earth were they to do? They were in front of a huge crowd. They themselves were hungry. They were tired. They were concerned about how all of those people were going to eat. They obviously didn’t have provisions. And Jesus wouldn’t let them dismiss the need, instead, he asked them to engage the need. (We can learn something here.)

They reminded Jesus that to feed all of those people would cost more than a year’s wages and questioned if he really wanted them to spend their money that way. (We can logically and rationally come up with reasons not to minister to people, lack of resources is a big one.)

Jesus began to teach them a lesson–he asked how many loaves they had and told them to “go and see” (v.38)–to look for the resources right in their midst, in the crowd.  They came back with five loaves of bread and two fish.

Jesus, who was shepherding all of them, asked the disciples to get the people to sit down in the green grass. I love that Mark includes that detail. The grass was green. I think that’s important.

The disciples split the crowd into groups of 50s or 100s–the chaos of the crowd became organized groups in which every individual person’s need could be met. Then Jesus took the very little they had at their disposal and thanked God for it. He broke the bread.  The disciples distributed the food to the people. Everyone ate. Everyone was satisfied. The disciples picked up the leftovers–twelve baskets full of broken pieces of bread and fish.

There are so many things to glean from this passage–but one of the things that came to my mind while Pastor John was preaching, was Psalm 23, which was penned before Jesus walked the earth; however, it is easy to see similarities in the 23rd Psalm and in Jesus’ actions. Jesus was showing what Yahweh as our kind shepherd looks like.

Jesus saw the crowd– they were like sheep without a shepherd, so he had compassion on them (v 34).

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”.

Jesus had them sit down in the green grass (v 39).

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul”

He taught them (v 34).

“He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake”

He shepherded them:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

He fed them (v. 41).

“You prepare a table before me “

He esteemed them as worthy of his time and his care.

“You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.”

He took care of them–of all of them. He is the good shepherd and he was caring for his sheep–including his disciples.

I don’t know what his hungry, tired disciples were thinking, as they served. They may have thought they had nothing left to give, and here was Jesus asking them to serve this huge crowd. They may have wondered when they were going to get a chance to rest, or to eat, or to be alone with Jesus. Jesus closest followers were in “the first shall be last” category during this account. Were they serving with grateful hearts or begrudgingly? We don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus provided for their hunger above and beyond what they could have asked or imagined. After the disciples served food to the entire crowd– which probably took a while, 12 baskets full of bread and fish were left over –a full basket for each one of them. Can’t you see the twinkle in Jesus’ eye.  He may have even laughed. He had not forgotten them.

Do you ever think about the person in the crowd who was generous enough to share his loaves and fish? Can you imagine what he was thinking as his little offering multiplied into abundance in the hands of Jesus and fed everyone? Do we have this mindset? Even if we recognize that we can’t bring much to the table, do we bring it anyway because we are generous in spirit and trust Jesus with what we have?

And what of the crowd–the frenzied rush along the seashore so that they wouldn’t lose sight of Jesus. They hungered for him. He saw them. He had compassion on them. He taught them. He organized them. He fed them. He loved them–each one of them. In the midst of the masses, Jesus meets individual needs. He will meet your needs, whether you are in the role of serving, or the role of receiving, Jesus knows what you need.

The Lord who is Shepherd met their needs. Their cups ran over. They were satisfied.

–Luanne

The ways of Jesus amaze me… As I listened to Sunday’s sermon, I found myself thinking a lot about the disciples and what they might have been thinking. Luanne explained that they had just returned from ministering in surrounding towns, that they were tired and they were hungry. And Jesus says to them in Mark 6:31, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they left, and went by boat to a solitary place. I find it interesting that none of the disciples asked Jesus about food before they got into the boat to leave. Scripture tells us that they were hungry. Jesus knew they were hungry. Yet they were headed to a solitary place where, as the story confirms later, there wouldn’t be any food. And we can assume, also based on how the story plays out, that they had no food stored in the boat either.

So, the disciples were hungry and tired. Jesus says, “Come with me… and get some rest.” No one (that we’re aware of) asked about food.

As I pondered this today, I couldn’t stop thinking about the similarity between Jesus’ words in verse 31 and what he says in Matthew 11:28:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Maybe the reason they got into the boat without food is that they assumed they’d fish for their dinner? Maybe they were just too exhausted, and didn’t have the presence of mind to think to ask?

Or maybe it was because of one little word…

“Come with me…”

Jesus didn’t send them off in the boats to go find their own place to rest. He was going with them. To a quiet place. To get some rest. By themselves. Apparently that sounded pretty good to them. I get that. Sometimes I get “peopled” out. Getting away with Jesus alone, finding rest with him–yeah, that’s pretty appealing most days! I imagine the disciples thought so, too. Time with their teacher whom they admired, their friend who loved them and whom they adored, their leader who had proven to be trustworthy and able to provide for so many needs? Without interruption? I bet they got into the boat pretty quickly! His “withness” may have been all they wanted–they’d figure out dinner plans when they got to wherever they were going. The fact is, his withness was, whether they knew it yet or not, all they (and the 5,000+ who would soon join them) needed.

They were going with Jesus. And they were looking forward to getting some rest.

The thing is… sometimes the “rest” Jesus offers doesn’t look like we imagine it will. I can’t get away from Matthew 11:28-30 lately, and what I’ve been learning in these words seems to fit well with what the disciples experienced in this story. The NIV translation that I referenced above reads, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The way that The Message phrases these words of Jesus has captured my attention for some time now:

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

I was struck a couple of months ago by how many verbs are in this passage… Come. Recover. Walk. Work. Watch. Learn. And Jesus calls this “a real rest.” Or, as other translations put it, “rest for your souls.”

The Greek word translated “rest” in the Mark and Matthew verses is the same word. Jesus is extending an invitation in both passages. It almost appears to me like the story in Mark of what happens when they get to shore is what the Matthew passage looks like in real time.

The hungry, exhausted group gets to shore. Only, their quiet, solitary place is neither quiet, nor solitary…

They got to shore and saw the crowd. Jesus, their consistently kind leader, is moved with compassion, and begins to teach them. I wonder what the disciples were doing while he was teaching? We know they weren’t beside him, because the next verse tells us they “…came to him” (vs.35) to address the time as well as the food problem. Maybe they had been napping in the boat. Maybe they sat off to the side in their own little circle, commiserating with one another about why Jesus always seemed to allow these kinds of interruptions.Wherever they were, they approached Jesus at this point. They wanted to send the crowd away to get food in nearby towns. I wonder if their suggestion was layered… Maybe they thought that if Jesus agreed with their idea, they could actually get some rest and some time alone with him? We aren’t told. Jesus’ response? I’ll borrow Luanne’s description here:

Jesus looked at his followers and said to them: “You give them something to eat”. Hmmm. What on earth were they to do? They were in front of a huge crowd. They themselves were hungry. They were tired. They were concerned about how all of those people were going to eat. They obviously didn’t have provisions…

And then Jesus tells them to see what food they had among them. They did. He told them to organize the people into smaller groups, and to have them sit down in the green grass. The disciples do as Jesus says. He takes the food they were given, gives thanks, and has them distribute it among the crowd. Can you imagine how long this whole process took? Walking among the crowd to find out if any of them had food. Arranging them all into groups. Going from group to group distributing food. I wonder what their conversations with the people were like… What did they learn about those they engaged and served? What did they feel as they heard their stories?  

Whatever the answers to those questions may be, what they experienced clearly wasn’t rest. Or was it?

The disciples had expectations. They thought they were going with Jesus to a quiet place to get some rest. If we take another look at the Matthew verses, it appears they did just that…

They got away with Jesus. They watched him. Learned from him. Worked with him. In Matthew, Jesus says that in doing those things, in learning his ways, we learn the unforced rhythms of grace, and how to live freely and lightly, how to take a real rest. I have a hunch that at the end of the evening, the disciples–though physically tired–felt free, light, held in the grace and kindness of Jesus, captivated by the one who provided for all of them.

Jesus said in Mark 6:31,

“Come with me…” They did.

“…to a quiet place…” He himself was the quiet place. His presence brought the calm, the quiet they longed for, the peace they needed.

“…and get some rest.” His rest. His way. Rest for their souls. And a full basket of food left over for each one of them. Because Jesus cared about their physical needs, too, as he cares about ours.

Interesting that there were twelve baskets of food leftover. Not thirteen. We don’t know if Jesus ate anything that night. What we are told is that he, the picture of a servant-leader, took care of the crowd, took care of his own disciples–with extravagant abundance–and as far as we know, wasn’t concerned about his own hunger.

I am undone all over again by his unfailing kindness and extraordinary compassion, his inexhaustible grace and limitless love… There is simply no one like him–and yet he invites us to become like him, to learn from him, to move with him and as him in this world…  May we learn well his rhythms of grace. May our souls find in him the quiet place–the rest–that we long for. And may those we encounter along the way find his kindness alive in us.

–Laura

Image result for baskets of bread and fish

Limits: Going

“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:16).

This was the call. This was the mission. This was the journey. When Jesus called his first disciples, this was his invitation. As we’ve followed their journey through the book of Mark, we have seen Jesus teach them; we have seen Jesus demonstrate his authority over nature, demons, sickness, and death; we have seen Jesus love the least of these; we have seen how Jesus handles rejection and how unbelief limits his ability to perform miracles. And, we have seen that right after rejection, Jesus moved on and continued teaching.

Shortly after modeling that…

 He called the Twelve to him. Then he sent them out two by two. He gave them authority to drive out evil spirits.
 Here were his orders.”Take only a walking stick for your trip. Do not take bread or a bag. Take no money in your belts. 
 Wear sandals. But do not take extra clothes. 
 When you are invited into a house, stay there until you leave town. 
 Some places may not welcome you or listen to you. If they don’t, shake the dust off your feet when you leave. That will be a witness against the people living there.” 
 They went out. And they preached that people should turn away from their sins.
 They drove out many demons. They poured oil on many sick people and healed them.  (Mark 6: 7-13 NIRV)
The time had come for the fishermen to fish. Jesus was beginning to transfer the ministry to them. They were no longer going to just be his companions who sat at his feet and got a front seat to his miracles. It was time for them to begin to carry Jesus’ love and his ways to others.
I wonder if they were nervous? I wonder if they felt like they weren’t ready? What if they refused to go? Therein lies the limit--we can choose whether or not to go. Gratefully, these twelve chose to go.
Jesus encouraged them to pack light–it would not be necessary for them to take a lot with them. They could take a walking stick (staff), no food, no bag, no money. They could wear sandals, but they were not to take an extra tunic. They were to keep it very simple, and they were to accept and embrace the hospitality of others.
And Jesus equipped them with authority over evil spirits. 
That’s what they took. A walking stick, one set of clothes, and Jesus’ authority over evil spirits. I think it’s incredibly important to note that Jesus didn’t give them authority over people. He gave them authority over the dominion that oppresses people. All the way back in the first chapter of Genesis, we see that God made male and female in his image and likeness, and gave them dominion over the rest of the created world; to care for it. He didn’t give them authority over one another. And in this Mark 6 passage, he is still not giving people authority over other people. Any time one group assumes authority over another it leads to superiority and oppression–that is not the way of Jesus. So–the authority is over evil spirits.
The disciples went. They preached that people should “repent”, which literally means to change their minds. What were they changing their minds about? I would imagine since Jesus taught about the Kingdom and how near it is, that they were teaching the same thing. Jesus had not yet faced his crucifixion, so the disciples were carrying the news that God is here, he is close, his kingdom is here, he cares about you, his power is here, he meets you where you are, he sees you, he has sent us to you to show you his love and his power, and to set you free from the things that oppress you. His power–not our power. That’s important to note as well.
And then there’s that weird section that seems so contrary to the character of Jesus. He tells them that if they are rejected, they should shake the dust off their feet when they leave as a testimony against the people. Is he telling them to hold a grudge? That doesn’t seem to be congruent with the rest of Jesus’ overall message.
Thing number three that’s important to note: Jesus had just recently been rejected in his own home town. Remember how he marveled at the unbelief of the people there? Remember how he wasn’t able to perform many miracles? When he left that place, he moved on to other places and continued his mission, continued his teaching. The rejection of one place didn’t taint his heart as he moved on. And the witness “against” the people, is that they are remembered for their unbelief. Their own actions are the witness against them.
Pastor John taught us that the shaking of the dust off their feet was a cultural thing, and then he gave us a new way to think about that passage. Jesus calls each of us to go, to share, to be his witnesses in the world. Sometimes we will be met with an open door, sometimes we won’t. When we aren’t welcomed, when we experience rejection, we need to “shake off the dust” so that it doesn’t remain with us providing an opportunity to let a root of bitterness grow. We need to head into each new situation without being tainted by previously hard situations. That’s not always easy. Sometimes hard situations can cause us to want to give up, to isolate, to quit. We have not been given permission to do that. However, Jesus modeled, and taught his disciples–if an environment is rejecting your message, you don’t have to stay there. Move on. Don’t carry the dust of that situation with you–but move on. Sometimes it’s not a physical move, but an emotional one–let go.
Sometimes in our human stubbornness, we stick around because we want to change things in our own power. On the flip side, there are times when hardship comes our way and we leave too quickly. How do we know when to stay or when to go? The Holy Spirit will let us know. When my husband and I were preparing to move to Brazil, we were told that there would be hard times (and there were), but to remember our call–that it would be our call that would keep us there when times got hard. That was excellent encouragement.  In our ministry today, we remember our call when times get hard. The Lord has not moved us. Instead, he has taught us, grown us, shaped us, and held us through the hard stuff. Sometimes the hard is exactly what he uses to make us more like him, to teach us what it looks like to walk with a posture of forgiveness, to love unconditionally, and to remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood. Sometimes the hard stuff reveals things within us that need to be brought into the light and healed. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that going through hard seasons with Jesus (sometimes kicking and screaming), has led to some of my deepest seasons of growth with him. I don’t understand why it has to be that way, but many times it is. So move on when the Holy Spirit says to; stay when the Holy Spirit says to.
The line in Hillsong’s song “Oceans” that says “let me walk upon the waters wherever you would call me“…is a reminder that sometimes “wherever” means right where you are, right now. If that’s you, take a deep breath and give God your willingness to be where he wants you to be.
One other thing to keep in mind as we go: The protestant reformation happened in Christianity around 500 years ago, and the Latin phrase “sola scriptura” came out of that reformation. That phrase means “only scripture”.  There are four other phrases that were part of that movement as well:
Soli Deo gloria– to God alone be the glory.
Sola fide–only faith
Sola gratia–only grace
Solus Christus–only Christ
There is not an “only love”.

I find it interesting, given that Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God and love others,  that “only love” is not part of the reformation theology. Maybe that’s why Christianity has gotten so mean. We’ve forgotten our call to love. Remember when Jesus said to the Pharisees:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life…(John 5:39-40).
This is what “sola scriptura” can lead to; disconnect from the life, the heartbeat, the ways of Jesus, and make us mean.

Yes, use the precious words of scripture to get to know Jesus, but don’t elevate scripture above Christ. Don’t go with an air of authority.  Don’t take a bunch of theological jargon. Don’t beat people up with Bible verses.

Carry the person of Jesus, the very life of Jesus whose Spirit dwells within you, to those around you. Jesus wants us to keep it simple. Share how he’s loved you, how he’s changed you, how he doesn’t condemn you, and demonstrate all of that by how you love others. It’s his love that changes things. It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his authority that pushes back the darkness. It’s his light that shines through us. The only way we can limit him is if we choose not to go…

 …we are all called to simply go.
–Luanne
Luanne wrote above, in regard to going wherever we are called, “… sometimes “wherever” means right where you are, right now. If that’s you, take a deep breath and give God your willingness to be where he wants you to be.”
I think we who have been around church or church-y things for any time at all have heard mixed messages around the idea of our “callings.” We see the pastor and we’ll say he or she has a call on their lives to preach. We support missionaries as they are called to faraway places to live their lives making disciples.
Sometimes, we are desperate to hear a “call” to anything other than our current lives so that we can feel justified in escaping whatever we don’t want to endure in that season. In times like that, it’s easy to over-spiritualize everything and believe we’ve heard a specific call, because our desperation is what’s driving us.
Sometimes, our lives are so dull, so boring, so seemingly inconsequential, that we beg God to call us to something that matters.
Some of us have been groomed for a “calling” that everyone around us is sure we were made for, so we move forward in their collective confidence in the will of God for our lives.
Oh, how we over-complicate the ways of our God…
What if our calling is more about our way of being in the world than it is about a role or a vocation…? 
I’m not suggesting that God doesn’t call us to specific things in specific seasons of our lives. I know that he does that. He’s done that in my life. But the things he has called me to have changed. The overarching call behind all that he has asked me to do, though? That has remained the same…
Luanne mentioned above that when Jesus sent his disciples out this particular time, the crucifixion hadn’t happened yet. The cross wasn’t yet in view for the twelve. She wrote,
“…the disciples were carrying the news that God is here, he is close, his kingdom is here, he cares about you, his power is here, he meets you where you are, he sees you, he has sent us to you to show you his love and his power, and to set you free from the things that oppress you.”
We know that Jesus summed up all of his teachings and all of the commandments in what he called the greatest commandment: love God and love others. And we know that his invitation was to follow him, learn from him, become like him, and bring others into his beautiful kingdom of love.
When you look at the message the disciples were carrying that Luanne described above, and couple that with the paragraph I wrote under it, it doesn’t sound like a vocation in the way that we typically understand that word. But it is a calling. It is the calling that we all share. But it will look different for each one of us.
Pastor John asked on Sunday, “How has God invited you to impact the kingdom with your one life?”
For some, that will play out on stages. For others, in hospitals. Some will travel to faraway lands. Others will teach in classrooms. Some will only ever hold the title of “Mom”. Some will run for public office. Whatever we do in our day-to-day will be the place we live out our calling. But our calling is not the roles we hold. Wherever we are– right here, right now–is where we are invited to live out our calling.
Our way of being in the world will either speak to the work of Jesus in our lives, or it won’t. It will either bring a piece of the kingdom to bear in the world around us, or it won’t. I think for all of us, it will be mixed. Sometimes we are mindful of “going” into our days, mindful of the call we carry to be ambassadors for Christ in the world around us. And sometimes we choose not to go, not to bring the fullness of the kingdom with us wherever we go. Sometimes, this is because our trust gives way to fear, and we drop the baton we carry. When that happens, as Pastor John reminded us, there is grace. It only takes one voice to pass on a message. When one voice falters, another rises up. We aren’t powerful enough to thwart the growth of the kingdom–fortunately, it doesn’t depend on you or on me. The whole thing hinges on the center, the source of the power, the giver of the message… It hinges on the creator of the imperfect vessels who are invited to be part of the greatest restoration the world has ever seen.
We won’t carry our collective calling perfectly. But if we’re willing to say yes to whatever our one journey looks like in the here and now, our willingness will make space for our limitless God to change the world through us. I want to be a part of that–even on the days when I wish my “calling” looked different than being a faithful follower in the right here, right now of today…
–Laura
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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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A Matter of Principle: Growth is a Mystery

 Here is what the kingdom of God is like: a man who throws seeds onto the earth. Day and night, as he works and as he sleeps, the seeds sprout and climb out into the light, even though he doesn’t understand how it works. 28 It’s as though the soil itself produced the grain somehow—from a sprouted stalk to ripened fruit. 29 But however it happens, when he sees that the grain has grown and ripened, he gets his sickle and begins to cut it because the harvest has come.   (Mark 4:26-29 The Voice)

Jesus so desires that we understand what the kingdom of God is like, that he uses metaphor after metaphor after metaphor, parable after parable after parable in the hopes that we’ll listen, understand, and align our lives with the principles of God’s kingdom– the subject that Jesus spoke about more than any other–even after his resurrection.  Acts 1:3 tells us:  After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.  

No matter what theological teaching we’ve grown up under, it is imperative that we understand the importance of the right here, right now kingdom of God. Jesus taught us to pray “may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. (Mt. 6:10).  And in parables, he tells us over and over what that kingdom is like.

The parable in Mark 4:26-29 (above), follows the parables of Jesus teaching about seeds scattered everywhere and about not hiding our lamps, (which we wrote about in our last two blog posts). Today we focus on kingdom growth.

Pastor John continues to remind us that our role in Kingdom work is to sow generously. This parable is no exception as Jesus begins it by saying the farmer scatters, throws his seeds onto the earth.  Verse 26 doesn’t tell us that he planted in carefully tilled rows…no, he scattered seeds, lots of them. Once the seeds were scattered, he, the farmer, went on about his life, working during the day, sleeping at night, while underground–hidden from the human eye–seed began to bear life. The new plant pushed itself up through the dirt and continued to grow until it bore fully ripened grain. That fully ripened grain was harvested–some for life-giving food, some for seed to be scattered. The process never ends–and yet,  no one really can explain how it happens. I love that. I love that God invites us to participate in His plan of reconciling the world to Himself and making all things new–and at the same time shrouds much of it in mystery.

The most brilliant minds in the world spend millions of dollars and much energy trying to solve the mystery of life’s origins. In a NASA article written in 2017, the author wrote: One of the biggest questions about the origin of life and its subsequent evolution is how random molecules managed to organize themselves into complex living organisms. What prompted them to form complex molecular chains that became the basis of life, and what are the underlying principles that govern which molecules became the important cogs in the system? With so many permutations of how molecules can combine, on the face it would seem extremely unlikely that nature would just stumble onto the right combination of molecules to form self-replicating life.        (https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/news/computing-the-origin-of-life/)

Mystery–only God knows, and yet, he gives us the dignity to partner with him in this mystery.  Two things that we can be sure of as we join Jesus in scattering seeds, we will be stretched, and we can’t control the outcome.

Pastor John used a beautiful metaphor to help us understand the metaphor that Jesus used in this parable. Pastor John asked us to see Jesus offering his hand, inviting us to join him in a dance.  If we choose to take his hand, he leads. It may be awkward at first–we may not know the steps–but as we catch on, the dance becomes more graceful, more fluid. He chooses the music, he chooses the tempo. The song may change, the dance may change, the steps may change–it may become awkward again as the dance becomes more complex–but if we continue to look into the face of Jesus, allowing him to gently hold us and lead us, we’ll grow in our ability to partner with Jesus in the dance.

Notice that in this metaphor, Jesus doesn’t ask us to dance for him as he sits on the sidelines. He doesn’t leave us on our own to figure it out–behaving our way into growth, and comparing ourselves to others on the dance floor.

Jesus also doesn’t force us to dance with him, which could lead to appropriate outward behavior without the heart–the forced, coerced heart often harbors resentment.

Kingdom growth happens organically as we allow the seeds sown in us to be entrusted to the care of the seed creator, the author of life, who does his work in us as we accept his invitation and spend time with him–and if we do that, the seeds sown in us will bear fruit, that fruit will bear seeds and we’ll get to scatter those seeds generously in the world entrusting them to the care of the seed creator, the author of life…

It’s important to keep in mind that we sow seeds all the time, and our work of sowing seeds generously also includes the element of being mindful of which type of seed we’re sowing. The supernatural-natural laws of nature that God implemented from the beginning mean that each seed bears the fruit of the type of seed sown. Scripture is full of analogies in both the Old and New Testaments about sowing and harvesting:

Proverbs 22:8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity...

James 3:17-18 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of justice.

Hosea 10:12-13 Sow for yourselves righteousness and reap the fruit of loving devotion; break up your unplowed ground. For it is time to seek the LORD until He comes and sends righteousness upon you like rain. You have plowed wickedness and reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies…you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your mighty men. 

Galatians 6:7-10  A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people...

Through our lives, are we sowing seeds of peace or seeds of calamity? Are we reaping unfailing love, justice, and righteousness, or calamity, injustice, and destruction? Are we sowing seeds of love or seeds of division? Are we eating the fruit of lies, or eating good fruit (peace-loving, compassionate, merciful, considerate, impartial)? Our headlines would certainly suggest that not much Kingdom seed is being sown–but there is always some evidence somewhere in some story that the quiet, powerful work of the Kingdom has not ceased. Kingdom seeds are still being sown and are bearing good fruit.

I am aware that I need to examine the seeds I’m sowing–are they kingdom of God seeds or not? The fruit of my relationships, my encounters with people, my thought life, my public life, my private life will all indicate whether or not the kingdom of God is growing in me and being sown through me. If the kingdom of heaven is to come on earth, the Kingdom farmers (us), must plant kingdom of heaven seeds, which means that we must partner with God in allowing him to do what he wants to in our lives–he grows us as we surrender to his lead.

We’ve been sown into, we sow, God grows it all—a mystery that belongs to God alone. What he wants to grow is his kingdom through kingdom fruit which looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, because loving God and loving others is our highest call, and it’s the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance. That type of fruit grows in us as we spend time with Jesus, letting him lead our steps, our lives. He honors us with the dignity of a partnership with him in scattering seeds– Spirit born, Kingdom of God seeds–everywhere we go. And as we follow his lead, he does his beautiful, mysterious Kingdom growth work in us and through us. Thanks be to God!

–Luanne

Mystery… So much mystery. It can be a frustrating thing, especially when we want concrete answers and formulas to help make life easier. But God’s design for growing the kingdom can’t be carried out through formulas and answers. Growth in the kingdom is relational–just like our journey with Jesus is relational. Because it is so, I think that God’s mysteries are a kindness to us. Father Richard Rohr has said many times,

“Mystery is not something you can’t know. Mystery is endless knowability.

Endless knowability… I love that two-word phrase. We’ll never reach the bottom in the ocean of God’s mystery–there will always be more to discover. And that is what keeps us seeking, learning, growing. We grow in our knowledge of him and his ways, and that new knowing changes us, and plants and cultivates new seeds, and when those are scattered, the process begins again. If we could fully grasp in our human knowledge the mysteries of God, there would be nothing left to discover, and the model of relationship that keeps us engaged with one another would fall by the wayside. Knowledge can lead us to a desire to control, which then leads to rigid formulas that grow our egos and strip us of our compassion, our humanity.

Mystery keeps us curious. It keeps us humble. 

Learning to live with mystery is about more than how we see and understand God. It is also about how we engage with others–including ourselves. More from Father Richard:

“The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality, to trust our divine image and grow in God’s likeness. It is simply a matter of becoming who we already are.”

Becoming who we already are… allowing the seeds that have been planted within us to grow beyond us and into the world around us. Naturally, this would mean making space for others to become who they are, too… Luanne wrote,

“Kingdom growth happens organically as we allow the seeds sown in us to be entrusted to the care of the seed creator, the author of life, who does his work in us as we accept his invitation…”

And Pastor John said on Sunday, “The God who created you is still creating in you.”

When we take Jesus’ hand, when we say yes to the dance, we have no idea where we’ll end up. We also have no idea what the seeds planted in us will grow up to be. As Lu was describing the story of the farmer and the seed, she wrote,

“Once the seeds were scattered, he, the farmer, went on about his life, working during the day, sleeping at night, while underground–hidden from the human eye–seed began to bear life.

We can’t see all of the seeds that have been planted in us. We don’t know how long certain seeds take to germinate and sprout. And once seeds do begin to sprout and make their way into our awareness, we don’t know how large that fruit will grow or where it will lead us. We have no idea how the fruit produced in our lives might somehow be the catalyst for change in others and in the world around us. As John said Sunday,

“The seed doesn’t have the capacity to know the potential of its growth.”

Seeds don’t control their own growth. They have no idea what they might become. They are cultivated by the grower. A wildflower doesn’t stand over a glassy pond in the morning perfecting her appearance and wondering how she’ll measure up next to the other wildflowers. That would be absurd. Wildflowers grow into a beauty unique to each one of them. Each one is exquisite. Each adds color and life and dimension to the landscape in which it is growing. They don’t attempt to outdo one another, or to steal each other’s sunshine. They simply grow. And release more seeds that will grow, and so on…

As I’m writing this, two of my kids are with their dear friends. Friends who wouldn’t be friends if it weren’t for seeds generously sown years ago. Eight or nine years ago, I told my mom about a woman who had started coming to the Sunday morning bible study I attended. I told her that I just had a feeling the two of them would be great friends if they met and got to know each other. At this point, my mom wasn’t even going to the same church I was, though she started coming soon after. I remember mentioning my thoughts to my mom more than once, but it would be a while before that seed I’d planted in her ear began to grow…

Two or three years later, she began to pursue a friendship with this woman. She planted seed after seed after seed in attempts to cultivate a friendship. It was slow, but over time, they connected deeply, and this woman became my mom’s best friend. They shared the gift of that friendship, planting seeds in one another’s lives, for one short year before my mom left this earth. But the seeds planted during that year began to grow… and they are still growing today.

The two of them scattered seeds in many different ways, but one way they did so was in their commitment to prayer. They prayed for each other constantly, and they prayed for one another’s children and grandchildren more than anything else. Because of my mom’s encouragement and the friendship they built, my kids and my mom’s friend’s grandkids met each other. She and her husband get to have two of their grandkids with them every summer, and the summer we lost my mom, her grandkids and my kids began spending time together. And they began to build their own friendships. During that season, the tears of my mom’s friend–along with my own–watered the dry ground of grief. In that soil there were seeds planted by prayer, seeds sown generously in friendship. And during that summer, those seeds began to grow. The children became fast friends. And my mom’s friend and I, who didn’t know each other well previously, also developed a beautiful friendship.

It’s been five years since that summer, and today, my kids are having another sleepover with two of their very best friends. They are growing up together, building community together, learning how to stay close and pray each other through hard days as they navigate long-distance friendships. They are asking hard questions, and learning how to grow in their own walks with God and plant seeds of their own. The seeds planted years ago are bearing good fruit in their young hearts today. There’s no way to know how much more fruit will be produced or how many more seeds will be flung into the world as a product of seeds that were planted by two precious grandmas.

Luanne wrote last week about planting tomato seeds with her young granddaughter. Tomato seeds aren’t all she’s planting, though… I’ve watched and listened to the way she interacts with her. I’ve noticed her intentionality, the attention she gives to the precious girl who calls her Lulu. She listens to her, and lets her know that she matters deeply to her. She is planting seeds in her granddaughter’s little heart and mind, seeds that will grow as God works in her, seeds that will likely bear the fruit of patience, compassion, kindness, empathy, honesty, and love, among other beautiful things. These fruits are evident in Luanne’s life, and that fruit produces seeds that she then sows generously into the lives of those around her, including the life of one precious three year old whose potential only God knows.

Pastor John told us on Sunday that his job  on Sunday mornings is to sow generously, to scatter the seeds of whatever God leads him to share with the congregation. And that is what he does. He generously sows into a few hundred hearts every Sunday morning, and more throughout the week. He doesn’t know how many are listening, and he knows it’s not his job to make the seeds grow. His job, like ours, is to sow generously. God is the grower of the seeds that are sown.

There is no way for us to measure which of these examples of sowing will yield the greatest return. That’s part of the mystery–a part we don’t need to know. We’re not in control of the results, thankfully. That responsibility isn’t ours to carry. We are to carry seeds and to sow them generously, trusting that God knows the potential hidden in every tiny seed. Are we willing to scatter seed like the farmer in the story did? Are we willing to throw it everywhere? That is our call. It’s how the kingdom grows. Our big, mysterious, awe-inspiring God has made this part fairly simple and straightforward: Sow seeds of the kingdom, sow generously, and the kingdom will grow. We can all do this. The question is, will we?

–Laura

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Like Never Before: Hope

What comes to mind when you think of the word “hope”? When you use the word in a phrase, what types of phrases come out of your mouth? Do you say/think things like “I don’t want to get my hopes up”–or “I hope that ___________ happens”, or “I was hoping for ___________”?  Do most of your thoughts around hope have to do with your own desires? Could words like “wish” or “longing” be substituted for “hope” in some of your sentences?  Do we really know what hope means, especially in the Biblical sense?

Let’s explore hope as we continue our journey through the book of Mark in our Like Never Before series. In this passage we find Jesus teaching by the lake with large crowds still seeking him out. Mark 2:14 tells us “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.”

That one verse is packed with implication. Verse 13 let us know that there were crowds following Jesus, but he saw Levi and singled him out. Levi–whose father’s name was Alphaeus. Levi–a Hebrew name, the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel–the priestly tribe; the tribe set apart for ministry in the temple, the tribe that did not receive their own inheritance of land but who were sustained by the offerings of the other tribes. The tribe set apart for God’s holy purpose. Levi. When Alphaeus gave him that name, I wonder what his dreams for his son were? I don’t imagine those dreams included being in cahoots with Roman power and ripping off his own people. How did Levi come to be a tax collector? We don’t know. What we do know, is that in order to be a tax collector, he was willing to take advantage of others in order to be financially well off. Tax collectors, as we will learn in a few verses, were not well thought of. They were thieves, extortionists, receivers of bribes, etc. They could charge what they wanted by whatever means they chose. They could make up false charges and blackmail people. They could charge double or triple what the Roman government required and pocket the overage.

Again, I don’t know how Levi came to be a tax collector, but would assume that greed had to be part of it. It’s interesting to think that he was in cahoots with Rome, but had no actual power. He was still at the mercy of Roman soldiers and Roman authority. Had he sold his soul for money and the perception of power? Did he feel trapped by his choices? We don’t know, but we do know that it didn’t satisfy the deep longings of his heart.

Jesus “told” him, follow me. And Levi got up, left his booth, and followed.  Levi’s Greek name is Matthew and he became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He left money and comfort to follow Jesus. The call of Jesus was more compelling than anything material wealth could offer-and Levi knew it the moment Jesus singled him out.

Levi, who already sensed that nothing in his life would ever be the same,  invited Jesus and his followers to have dinner in his home. In addition to Jesus, Levi invited his group of friends to dine with them as well. I love this. He met Jesus, and knew immediately that he wanted all of his friends to meet him as well.

As we’ve already seen in the book of Mark, the teachers of the law were never too far away from Jesus, and certainly didn’t approve of the way Jesus did things. However, they did not confront Jesus directly at this point, so they tried to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of his disciples by asking, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 16)

But–just like he did when he knew their thoughts in the home where the paralytic man was dropped through the ceiling–Jesus responded to them, and what he said was, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (v. 17)

Tax collectors and sinners. In the minds of the religious elite, tax collectors and sinners were in the same category as lepers. They were outcasts.  They were hopeless. They had messed up their lives by making bad choices, they had excluded themselves from the promises of God, from the religious community, and there was no forgiveness available to them in that system.

This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.

Jesus, when he responded to the Pharisees and used the word call was being very intentional–and I love this about him. The word call means to invite. It can also mean to name, to give a name to…

I have not come to invite the righteous, but sinners.

 “I have not come to name the righteous, but sinners.” 

“I have not come to give a name to the righteous, but sinners.

He is telling the religious leaders, and I believe giving them an invitation as well, saying I am here to invite those who know that they are hopeless, who know they fall short, to take my name, to be healed by my name, to walk with me and carry my name, to follow me, to trust me. The “sick”  know they have a need. They were hopeless, and now they have hope.

Jesus offers hope, becomes our hope by connecting himself to sinners and outcasts. It’s risky business. He offers hope in the form of an invitation–a call. It’s inclusive. Sometimes in the language of “christianese” we use the phrase, so and so has a call on his/her life.” as if that’s not true of all of us. He has called, he has invited, he has given us his name, and we get to be bearers of hope–not hope as a wish, but hope that is grounded in Jesus, that leans into Him and all that he offers. Hope that is inclusive toward all those who we might consider outcasts; who we might consider “sick”.

Returning to Levi’s father Alphaeus–Alphaeus means “change” or “exchange”.  Levi had exchanged the meaning and implications of his name by choosing to serve self instead of serving God. Jesus gave him the opportunity to change again–to find his purpose, his calling, his hope. We, too are offered this same invitation, an invitation of hope–but we must understand that:

Hope is not about the preservation of my life, but about the elevation of His. 

Hope is grounded in our confident relationship with Jesus. Hebrews 6 exhorts us to grow up in our faith, to move beyond immaturity which makes us susceptible to every fear, every doubt, every storm. Being mature in Jesus means that there is a confidence, a steadfastness in him–no matter what life throws at us. The chapter ends with verse 19 telling us that We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and steadfast. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus our forerunner has entered on our behalf. 

Our hope, in Him, is anchored in the inner sanctuary–the very presence of God. Our hope is in the presence of God. Ponder that thought for a moment.

Romans 15:13, one of my favorite verses of all time says: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hope. It comes from God. It can overflow in us by the Spirit’s power. As we trust God, we are filled with joy and peace, which gives us the ability to overflow with hope. Hope that His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hope that he calls previously hopeless people like me to walk with him and become one that carries his inclusive message of hope to the world–like never before.

–Luanne

It seems Jesus was bent on staying “unclean” during his years of ministry. Seriously. A few weeks ago, we looked at his encounter with the leper and how touching that man moved Jesus into isolated places for the remainder of his time on earth. But that was only the beginning…

Eating with Levi (Matthew) and his group of sinful friends was considered unclean, too. Later, he would be touched by a woman whose issue with blood made her, and him by contact, unclean. He would touch the hands of a dead girl as he raised her to life. He would associate with prostitutes and Gentiles and a Samaritan woman–groups that would further tarnish him and his reputation as a devout Jew. One disreputable woman would anoint him with perfume, and wash his feet with her tears and her hair, as well as kiss his feet. Over and over and over again, Jesus chose to identify with the outsiders. And his invitation to them to come close to him was an invitation to those who disapproved to repent–to change their thinking–so they could come near to him, and to them, too.

In reference to this week’s story, Luanne wrote:

“This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.”

The religious leaders thought they had it figured out. We see throughout the gospels that even Jesus’ disciples, at times, had the same proclivity toward pride that separates “us” and “them”. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples were surprised because the Samaritans were “half-breeds”, second-class citizens. They didn’t question Jesus outright, but they certainly had questions. There were other times that they questioned his judgement, because they, like the religious leaders, had biases and precious prejudices that they weren’t aware needed to change. I include this as a reminder to myself and all of us to not read ourselves into the role of the outcasts that Jesus chose to dine with and forget that we often identify more with the role of the Pharisee.

See, the Pharisees had this idea that everyone else needed to look like them, the ones who were keeping the rules and doing the “right” thing. Later, in the account of the early church in the book of Acts, we see the apostles and church leaders struggling with the same thing, as they argued among themselves about what the requirements for new Gentile believers should be. How “Jewish” did they have to become to be included? There was an assumption made by some that the only acceptable way to come to Jesus was to become Jewish first, to look like them, and then they could come and be part of them.

The example of Jesus responds to these scenarios with an emphatic, “NO!” He says, essentially, through both his words and his actions, “You think THEY need to look like YOU. But  I want YOU and THEM to look like ME.”

And what did Jesus look like?

Well, the majority of his ministry, he looked unclean. Because there was no one he wouldn’t touch, or allow to touch him. No one so low they escaped his gaze. No one so high that he couldn’t reach them. No one he didn’t want to connect with.

To the leper, to the Samaritans, to the woman caught in adultery, to those who set up and accused her, to the high priests, to Roman officials, to little children and women, to traitors and tax collectors, to prostitutes, to Pharisees, to the demon-possessed and all in need of healing–including those who didn’t think they needed healing at all; to all of these, Jesus brought the hope of himself.

We hear that Jesus spent time engaging the sick, the hopeless, the least–and we have our own ideas about what that means, a picture of who those words describe. But let me ask you this–

Who is sicker? The one who recognizes the depth of their own need, or the one who denies having any need at all? The one whose heart is open and willing to be changed, or the one with a heart made of self-righteous, immovable stone? The one who knows every letter of the ancient scriptures and keeps the law perfectly, or the one who doesn’t know a single verse but soaks in the presence of this one they call Jesus?

I am not a theologian. I have no authority to decipher the original intent and meaning of the verses we study each week. What I know, and what I’m coming to know more and more as I grow in Jesus, is that he is good. And kind. And completely loving. And brilliant.

And he is all of these things for all of us all of the time. I don’t write a single word of this to make light of the impact of the stories we are studying. On the contrary, my heart has been so gripped by the unconditional love of Jesus that it compels me to read every story I thought I knew differently.

I want to identify with the ones Jesus hung out with and look at the Pharisees with arrogant eyes. But my growing understanding of the ways of Jesus won’t allow me to do that. Not only because I’ve more often been the Pharisee than the outcast, though that is probably very true, but because, as we continue to see, Jesus never did something for one group without there being application for all groups present. Luanne brought up a verse in recent weeks that I’m going to reference again here. In Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says this:

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus knew that the Pharisees regarded themselves as clean, whole, healthy, righteous. That they would hear the words “sick” and “sinner” and immediately think of others, definitely not themselves. So he gives them an opportunity to share in the hope that the “others” had already readily received. He gives them an invitation too, just like we saw him do when we studied the story of the paralytic–when he responded to their thoughts with an opportunity to change their minds. He brings up an ancient scripture (Hosea 6:6), one they had “learned”, one they certainly “knew”, and he says: Go and learn what this means… 

I imagine they were pretty offended. I bet they felt… Indignant? Defensive? Furious?

…The way we feel when we’re told we’re wrong about something we’ve “known” as truth?

I’m pretty sure they weren’t happy. I think it’s safe to make that assertion, because they continue to plot against him and slander his character to all who will listen.

But… 

Because we know the rest of the story, we know that many among the Pharisees and teachers of the law eventually did recognize their need, their “sickness” if you will, and not only followed him, but became leaders in the early church.

I love that so much. Jesus came to bring hope–to bring himself–to ALL. Some were more starving and ran to the feast he offered. Some couldn’t recognize their hunger pangs and were slower coming to the table. Some still haven’t come, and continue to mock the Hope-bringer. And he continues to go to them. And asks us who have tasted and seen the hope he offers to embody it and carry it to ALL the ones who need it. The “obvious” “sinners” don’t have the corner market on hopelessness–sometimes the most hopeless are sitting in church, completely unaware of our need to encounter the “God of all hope” who longs for all of us to “overflow with hope”.

May we ask ourselves hard questions, and give honest answers, about who we see as “sick”. May we think long and hard about whether we want to look like Jesus, live like Jesus, love like Jesus–because doing that his way will lead us to places we may not want to go… Sometimes, as the ones carrying hope to the sick… And sometimes as those receiving hope from those we consider “sick” and “sinful” because, often, they’re the first to respond to Jesus’ invitation–and we have much yet to learn.

–Laura

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