Stories: Michael

Distress…sorrow…grief…anguish…groaning…affliction…weak…forgotten…

King David wrote the above words in Psalm 31; Pastor John read a portion that Psalm as he talked with Michael, and as Michael bravely shared his story with us.

Michael was born into a Christian family. He went to church every Sunday; however there was little freedom in his home. His grandparents were very strict German Baptists. They punished with a rod. Mike’s dad had learned from his parents. Mike said that his dad was less severe, and Mike acknowledged that his parents were doing the best they knew how; even so, it was a strict rule-based environment. In spite of all of that Mike believed in God and believed that Jesus died for his sins.

During Mike’s later childhood, his family vacationed in Montana. His parents felt like Montana would be a safer place to raise their children and keep them out of trouble, so when Mike was nine, they moved from California to Montana.

In Montana, Mike did not make friends easily. He was not allowed to attend social events like basketball games and dances, so friendships were hard to come by.  All of us desire to be accepted, so when Mike went to high school at the age of 15, he began to smoke cigarettes in order to find acceptance. That led to smoking pot, drinking alcohol, and addiction.

As Mike went through his teen years and his twenties, he added cocaine and meth to the mix. He began every day with drugs. He held a decent job for awhile, but eventually quit his job in order to become a drug dealer to support his own habit. He told us that he became a “tweaker”. When Pastor John asked him what that was, he said tweakers are like rats in a hole, they hide out and do meth all the time.

The acceptance that Mike was looking for, and that contributed to the start of his addiction, failed him. He told us that he became a criminal, and as a result was not trustworthy, so he went through friends pretty quickly.

He shared that addiction grows–you don’t see it taking hold of you until you’re addicted. He also shared with us that he had numbed all of his emotions but two. He was either happy and laughing, or angry–nothing in between. He didn’t cry, he wouldn’t let himself feel. People were afraid of him, and he liked it that way.

Because of his inability to maintain friends, and because he didn’t want to “party” alone, he began partying with a younger generation of kids, one of whom was a 16 year old girl. They partied together, they also slept together. One night, when they were doing meth, she stopped breathing. He took her to the hospital, then he went and got her sister and her parents. The medical staff was able to get the young lady’s heart started, but her lungs were not working on their own. Mike said her parents and sister did not blame him, and told him this wasn’t his fault. But then the police came.

Mike was very forthcoming with what had happened, and told the police everything. What he didn’t know was that the young lady was sixteen. He was arrested for distribution of drugs, for indecent liberties with a minor, and a few days later, when the breathing machine was turned off, for manslaughter.

While Mike was in jail and awaiting sentencing, his mom called her pastor. Her pastor called a pastor in the town where Mike was incarcerated, and that pastor went to visit Mike. They didn’t have to talk through a glass partition,  or through a jail cell door–they were able to sit face to face.

That pastor told Mike “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or will ever do–Jesus loves you.” 

Mike said that in that moment, it felt like someone put his arms around him. He could feel God’s embrace. When he went back to his cell, he fell to his knees, confessed everything he could remember, and asked God not to get him out of his situation (because he knew he deserved it), but to get him through it.

Mike began to pray regularly and to reconnect with God. He said God answered prayer after prayer–even things that might seem insignificant in jail, like a better toothbrush.

Originally, Mike was looking at a possible sentence of 35-65 years. He was willing to plead guilty to two of the charges, but not the manslaughter charge. He was offered a 15-25 year deal in exchange for pleading guilty to the first two charges, and he accepted that deal. When he showed up for his sentencing, the judge agreed to accept his guilty plea, but stated that he did not agree with the terms of the deal. Mike’s heart sank, thinking that the judge was going to impose the 35-65 year sentence; however, the judge said that he did detect any malice or intent in Michael, so he sentenced him to 8-15 years. Mike served 7.

Mike acknowledges that God rescued him while he was incarcerated. God rescued him from addiction, God rescued him from a criminal lifestyle, and God rescued him from the grip that satan had on his life. Incarceration was a strangely wrapped gift.

He was able to share his faith with other inmates. He attended Bible studies, and was even allowed to leave the facility to attend church. Jesus met him right where he was, in the middle of the darkness and chaos, and changed his life.

Mike’s been in  our church for eleven years. I can’t even fathom the old, angry, addicted Mike. When Pastor John asked Mike how Jesus had changed him, Mike responded that instead of living full of anger and wanting others to fear him, he is now full of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. His desire is to be gentle and kind, to love. He desires to serve in the church.  That’s the Mike I know. His softness, his gentleness, his tender heart are a testimony of the change Jesus makes when He is invited to have His way with us.

And, Mike is not afraid to feel or to cry.

As a matter of fact, he cried while he was sharing his story. He cried as he recalled the pastor’s words: “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or will ever do–Jesus loves you.”   That’s the message that changed him. That’s the message that will change the world. Words spoken without condemnation. Just the simple truth–Jesus loves you.

The Japanese have a centuries old method of restoring broken pottery called Kintsugi–beautiful brokenness. Instead of trying to fix broken pottery, they put the pieces together with gold, silver, or another precious metal, leaving the cracks visible–not just visible, but precious, adding beauty to the restored piece that wasn’t there before.

That’s Mike’s story. His restored life shines with the beauty of Christ. His life is a living picture of one who has been forgiven much, so he loves much.  Sometimes he still battles the darts of the enemy who would like for him to believe that he is not worthy of love or acceptance–but he doesn’t live in that place of doubt.

When John asked him what he believes about himself now, with many tears he said  “I am worthy of being loved and accepted, and of loving others.” And we who know him do love him.   Psalm 31: 9-16 describes his before and after:

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;  my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.  My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction,  and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,  I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me.  I am forgotten as though I were dead;  I have become like broken pottery…

 But I trust in you, LordI say, “You are my God.”  My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies,  from those who pursue me.
 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.

 

God has saved Mike in his unfailing love. Mike lives in freedom. His broken life has been restored with the beauty of Jesus, and Jesus brilliantly shines in the cracks.

The words Jesus loves you saved his life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes 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)

Have you experienced His love? I hope so. It’s available to you right now.

If you already have experienced his great love, are you making it known to those around you?  The world needs to know that no matter what they’ve done or ever will do that Jesus loves them. No one’s life is too big of a mess for it to be transformed by Jesus, and lives transformed one precious person at a time will change the world. Military might won’t change the world. Political power won’t change the world. Only Jesus, living through us, has that power, and He uses our own stories of restoration to show His beauty.

–Luanne

 

 

God’s Answer to Our Deepest Needs (Colossians 2:10-19)

Beau articulated this weekend that we all share four core needs that are met in the cross of Christ. Those needs are: love, forgiveness, community, and a cause worth living and dying for.

In this passage of Colossians, Paul deconstructs the tradition of circumcision as the people to whom he was writing understood it, and replaced it with a fresh view on the subject–that the new circumcision was of a spiritual nature. It was a cutting away of the old sinful nature in order that we might be raised to new life in Christ.

Circumcision under the law proved that they belonged in their community. But this new circumcision, the circumcision of Christ, did away with the separation-inducing effect of its predecessor. This new way extended an invitation, one we can both respond to and extend today–the invitation into Christ’s community, the community of Heaven. This invitation is for everyone. The ground at the foot of the cross is level. The invitation is for each and every person of every tribe and tongue. There are no lines of division at the foot of the cross-only unity under the Head, which is Christ Himself.

When we understand the gift of community that this new circumcision provides–community Jesus’s way, community that places each of us on equal ground where we believe in the chosen-ness of every single human being–when this clicks in our hearts, we find a cause worth living and dying for. And we become willing to embrace it.

Seeing all of humanity as chosen by Christ seems simple enough in concept… but in reality, we all have inherited some beliefs and narratives that can make this difficult to put into practice. I could list many examples, but there is one that is especially striking this weekend. We, as Americans, are about to celebrate the 4th of July, our nation’s Independence Day. Like me, you have probably seen displays of American pride on social media, billboards, television, etc… I don’t believe there is anything wrong with celebrating the freedoms that are ours because of where we happened to be born, or being grateful for the blessings that are ours. I do think, however, that this particular holiday can reveal heart attitudes that, knowingly or not, equate nationalism with Christianity. The danger of this, outside of the propensity for idol worship, is that a narrative can form in our minds. One that says that we, as American Christians, have it right. That our way is the best way. That we have the answers. This kind of heart attitude separates us from other believers–and from Christ Himself.

Remember, the ground at the foot of the cross is level. There is no elevating of self in this place. No way to earn the chosenness that Christ extends to all people. Any sense of elevation or separation is not Jesus’s way. Colossians 2:16-19 makes this clear:

So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

Regardless of what it is–be it false humility, pride, legalism, nationalism–anything that seeks to separate and divide rather that connect and unify is something that is not connected to Christ.

Jesus saw all of humanity-each and every one of us-as a cause worth living and dying for. And when we truly grasp the community that is offered at the foot of the cross, we will want to carry the open invitation to absolutely everyone. It will become a cause we are willing to live and die for as well, because the cause is not an “it”. It’s a “who”. And that “who” is everyone. When we grasp the love, forgiveness and community we receive at the cross, we become willing to imitate the love that we could never duplicate–a love that chose death so that we could have life. I want to carry that invitation to the ends of the earth until the day that we see …a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9a)

Have you found your deepest needs met at the foot of the cross of Jesus? Does your heart desire to grab onto a cause worth living and dying for? What stands in the way of living out community Jesus’s way? I would love to hear your thoughts…

–Laura

(Luanne will be back and contributing in a couple of weeks!)

foot of the cross

Give to God

“What can you give to God that He didn’t create and He wants from you?”

The answer to this question that John put before us on Sunday is our sin.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about giving God a gift–especially at Christmastime, when every gift is beautifully wrapped and tied with shiny ribbon–I don’t envision the box containing the ugliest thing I have. I think of things like time, gratitude, worship, love… Those are all things I want to give to my God.

But He already has those things. He created all of them. All of time-past, present and future-He holds in His hands. He has eternity at His disposal. And thanks and praise? He doesn’t need that from me either. I know He desires our praise, and loves a grateful heart but, if I don’t praise Him, the rocks will cry out. His created objects will praise Him if we don’t. He is the author of worship, too. And love? Well, God is love in its fullest form. We only love because He first loved us. He created love, He is love… so He doesn’t need that either.

But there is that one thing God didn’t create. That’s our sin. And while He doesn’t need it, I absolutely agree that He wants it.

Why in the world would God want our nasty, ugly sin? Our hidden addictions? Our monumental failures?

Because He wants to have a relationship with us. With me. With you. And that sin? It separates us from Him. It hinders our relationship. And I believe that it grieves the heart of God when there’s junk between us. Jesus already died for all the junk. If we are followers of Jesus, God has already removed that sin from us–as far as the east is from the west. (Psalm 103:12)

But sometimes we hang on, don’t we? We white-knuckle that sin and refuse to let. it. go.

Why? There are a lot of reasons…

Guilt. Shame. Fear. Unbelief that all of our sin really has been forgiven. It can be one of these things or a variety of others. We all have our reasons why we “can’t” let it go. But when we refuse to give God our sin, we are hurting ourselves and erecting a barrier between our hearts and the heart of the One who desires that we live abundant, fruitful lives in relationship with Him.

I read a quote a couple of weeks ago that came to mind while I listened to yesterday’s sermon. It’s from Martin Luther and it hasn’t left my mind since I read it:

“If you try to deal with your sin in your conscience, let it remain there, and continue to look at it in your heart, your sins will become too strong for you. They will seem to live forever. But when you think of your sins as being on Christ and boldly believe that he conquered them through his resurrection, then they are dead and gone. Sin can’t remain on Christ. His resurrection swallowed sin up.”

These words shook my world up a bit. More than a bit. If our sin was swallowed up in the grave when Jesus was raised from the dead, then hanging onto it is like trying to excavate 2,000 years of dirt and rock on our own, dig through the dust of sin that is long gone and attempt to find our particles and piece them back together. It’s not just a daunting task, it’s impossible. Our sins died with Jesus and stayed buried deep in the earth when he rose again. If we’re in Him, our sins are gone. But if we don’t hand over our guilty consciences and believe that that’s true, we’re building a wall between us and God. A wall that can’t be penetrated by any of the other gifts that we could bring Him. We can’t worship our way through our sin wall. No amount of thanks or praise will break it down. Our attempts at loving God won’t destroy it.

The only way to break our sin wall is to let the blood of Jesus be the gift wrapping that covers it. That’s the only way to give our sin to God anyway-wrapped in the blood of His Son who already paid for the gift with the only acceptable form of payment. His life. And when we boldly believe that our sin has been wrapped in the blood of Jesus, given to God and permanently removed from us, we receive a gift in return. The gift we want as much as God wants it for us, even if we don’t realize we do-a free, unhindered, everlasting relationship with our Creator.

Have you given God your sin? Your guilt? Your shame? Have I? What keeps us hanging on to what’s been buried in the grave? I hope and pray that, as this year comes to a close and a new one begins, we can all give God those things that keep us from Him.

–Laura

Like Laura, when I think about the answer to John’s question from Sunday–that God wants my sin, it causes me to want to push back. I, too, want to give Him my gratitude, my worship, my love, my life, and I believe that He is pleased with those offerings; however, if I don’t start at the cross, bringing my sin and allowing it to be wrapped up in the blood of Christ and offered to God, then the barrier between God and me because of my sin keeps me from being able to bring all of the other things that I want to bring. If I think about it even further, my gratitude, my worship, my love, my life are all responses to the fact that I can take my sin to Him, that He doesn’t turn me away, but he receives the “gift” of my sin, and makes me clean and whole in His sight.

2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that “God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Think about that for a moment. What kind of beautiful craziness is this? Jesus takes my sin, he receives my gift, and I get to be made right, no longer guilty in the eyes of God.

Romans 8:1 tells us that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  God doesn’t require penance for our sin, He doesn’t disqualify us from His kingdom or His service because of our sin, instead He embraces our sin, lays it upon Jesus and stamps it “paid in full”. In other words, it is taken care of and we don’t have to live with guilt. What kind of love is this??!!

My part is to bring it to Him, to confess my sin, and to trust that what His word says about me is true. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1st John 1:9). There it is again, we confess, we bring it to Him, and He purifies us. The original word “confess” in the Greek is omologomen, which actually means “to speak the same, to agree”, and it is important to note that the original verb form of the word “confess” is a continuing action. I love that definition. It means that I can bring my sin to God, acknowledging it and agreeing with Him that my actions, my thoughts, my words, whatever it was, were not in line with what He desires. It is not an action of self-loathing or of self-shaming, but of agreement that brings me back into fellowship with the God I love and who loves me more than I will ever be able to comprehend, AND it is ongoing. Daily confession is a great practice. Sitting in the presence of God, asking His Holy Spirit to search our hearts and show us areas that we need to confess keeps us in close fellowship with God.  I don’t know about you, but I have a running dialogue with God that goes on all day long-and there are many moments of confession that happen during the course of the day.

I could go on and on about this, because when we “get it” freedom in Christ becomes a reality, and life is never the same. Bringing the gift of my sin to God is actually the most beautiful gift I could give to Him. He paid a high price for that gift. Why? Because He loves us. That’s it. Let that sink in deep. You are loved. You can approach God with the “gift” of your sin, without fear of condemnation, because it has already been paid for in full. It is no longer yours to carry. Give it to Him, and receive fellowship with God in return.

“My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul!” (It is Well With My Soul; Horatio Spafford)

Thoughts?

-Luanne

 

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